David Bowie - Blackstar

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I'm sure the timing was coincidental (honest) but the very same day that one of the current biggest singers in the world shared their third album, a record that basically sounds identical to their previous two records and to these ears sounds like someone going through the motions to make a shed load of cash, David Bowie shared the title track to his 25th LP Blackstar, a track that is anything but...

A ten minute opus with more ideas than most artists manage in a lifetime "Blackstar" sees David Bowie at his expansive, experimental best. There's too much going on to describe in depth, pretty much everything you could think of through its dark, dense, layered journey, from ambient, skittering percussion, to bellowing horns and ritualistic chanting. My favourite part? Probably the section at around five minutes which sounds like it could be a lost track on Young Americans.

Blackstar (☆) is scheduled to be released on January 8, 2016, the date of Bowie's 69th birthday.

The Christians on Youtube don't seem to agree with the supporting, incredible, video however...

My Favourite 25 Albums of 2013: Part Six - 5-2

My Favourite 25 Albums of 2013: Part Six - 5-2

Direct Links to Albums (updated as they become live) : 25 - 22 // 21 - 18 // 17 - 14 // 13 - 10 // 9 - 6 // 5 - 2 // 1

5. David Bowie - The Next Day

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It's fair to say that David Bowie wins the award for best music surprise of the year (and possibly worst album cover art too). I think even the most optimistic of fans were probably thinking to themselves that perhaps finally David had quietly retired then wham, out of nowhere on his 66th Birthday (I know) we get not just a new track but news of a new album The Next Day too. That teaser track was better than it had any right to be, "Where Are We Now?" is a reflective and philosophical beauty full of brooding mood and a whispered vocal that reminds me of some Heathen work, full of experience, depth and a genuine beauty, it introduced a Bowie who'd seemingly gained much during his ten years of 'retirement'.

The Next Day kicks off with the stomping title track, one of the years most punchy, spiky and dirty rock song full of driving rhythms and with lyrics seemingly full of self mockery/observation (the repeated cries of "here I am, not quite dying..."). It's an album that sounds warm and is full of character and soon it imposes itself on you in its own right rather than for the initial shock value of its existence. "Dirty Boys" is another great track full of funky horns and a superb chorus while "The Stars Are Out Tonight" is probably the most accessible and perfectly formed tracks on the album (and was followed by a similarly glittery video), shimmering instrumentation and bright, beautiful vocals, it's timeless Bowie through and through.

"Valentine's Day" is another winner, combining vulnerable lyrics with timeless instrumentation and possibly the albums best melody and vocal delivery, "How Does The Grass Grow" contains more ideas in its four minute length than some bands come up with in their entire existence and I absolutely love the last track "Heat" too, as haunting and reflective moment as The Next Day offers, a defiant and emotive stunner that hits right at your guts.

Now then David, how about announcing a couple of UK shows for your 67th Birthday?!



4. Caitlin Rose - The Stand-In

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I've long documented my love of Caitlin Rose and her debut album Own Side Now (my album of 2010). I've seen her live well into the high teens (not bad for a non-UK artist) and I think her voice is the most soulful and flawless of our generation. To say my expectation for her second album The Stand-In was high would be an understatement, thankfully Caitlin has delivered above and beyond what I could possibly have hoped for.

The album highlights that of a maturing, progressive artist and the addition of a full band is a natural one, the result is stylishly crafted and full of velvety polish with a much stronger, defiant sound after Own Side Now's introspective melancholy. It kicks off with its biggest moment of all, the fantastic "No One to Call", immediately highlighting that grander scope with a kicking, percussive heart and fantastic hooks, there's a real sense of fun throughout which was previously only touched on the live version of "Shanghai Cigarettes". Caitlin's voice is at the top of its game too, smooth, expressive and when combined with the masterful arrangements it gives the track a timeless, classic feel.

As well as being a classy affair, The Stand-In is also a varied one "I Was Cruel" (a cover of The Deep Vibration) is a beautiful, aching ballad which highlights Caitlin's exceptional vocal range amongst rich, warming pedal steel and slide guitar and "Waitin'" finds Caitlin in defiant mood, delivering a wounded, country-tinged song with the ballsy edge of a rock band - the ringing melody sees heavy drums and deep bass rhythms propel Caitlin's ever impeccable vocal which soars some pretty dark emotion with such effortless ease.

The highlight is perhaps "Only a Clown", a bright, smooth pop song that sounds gorgeous stirring around chiming guitars and a luscious vocal delivery before "Pink Champagne" delivers the most lonesome and beautiful moment on the record, a faultless emotive vocal and guitars that pluck at your heart-strings. It gives the perfect reminder of why I fell so hard for Caitlin.

I could easily write about every track on the album, the heart-breaker "Golden Boy" or another of my favourites, the shining, sweetly romantic "Silver Sings So Well" and there's even time for a smoky jazzy club track "Old Numbers" but you've probably got lunch to eat or something so I'll just tell you to go and by The Stand-In now, I've even included a handy link above.



3. The National - Trouble Will Find Me

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You'll no doubt be aware of The National by now, their success may have been a relatively long time coming (my first live experience of the band was May 2005 on the Alligator tour - at the 100 Club, slightly different to two nights at Ally Pally!) but now onto their sixth full album Trouble Will Find Me the New York quintet have firmly established themselves as the masters of sincere tales of broken hearts and bruised souls. It's no different this time around.

The album is immediately distinguishable as The National of course, from the maudlin guitar strums of "I Should Live in Salt" you are wrapped in Matt Berninger's deep, baritone vocal awash with a reflective sound that creates beautifully vivid landscapes around rich, plaintive melodies. The National are confident in their craft by now and Trouble Will Find Me is the most self-assured record they've produced yet. "Demons" is another tour-de-force of storytelling, a dark, brooding ballad that builds amongst luscious instrumentation and feeds off a drip of emotive power and lyrical beauty.

Both "Graceless" and "Don't Swallow The Cap" are the next installments to the bands sing-along anthems, thrilling with wall-of-sound exciting as robust percussive beat and glistening keys drive their melodies towards climaxes of outpouring emotion and mood while "Sea of Love" is another exhilarating track which bursts straight out of the gates with a heavy percussive heart around jagged guitar hooks and it keeps getting better as the tempo increases like an out of control steam train.

Their ballads have never sounded more mournful, haunting and subtle than on the exquisite "Pink Rabbits" and "Heavenfaced" is another perfect example of the bands maturing versatility and substance, melancholy has never been so brilliant than with The National in its control.

Rich and deeply layered Trouble Will Find Me grows and grows and rewards with each repeated listens, I'm pretty sure I've said something like this before but this is easily the most complete album The National have produced over an immaculate career.



2. Arcade Fire - Reflektor

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Arcade Fire's reinvention of themselves as The Reflektors and a hype-laden release build-up shrouded in mysterious messages and online videos worked as well as any PR this year (aside from the bang of the aforementioned return of Bowie) and the Canadian mega-group's fourth album Reflektor stands up to every possibly line of scrutiny that can be thrown at it (and as anyone lucky enough to see them on their recent bout of UK shows will testify, it translates perfect to the stage).

An undoubted curve ball, Reflektor takes the bands Haiti roots to heart with more influences coming from dub and disco, it could have ended in disaster (and probably has according to some) but it is an album I keep finding myself listening to and on repeated listens it unveils another layer, that's the mark of an album of the year in my eyes.

You've got to start with the title-track, "Reflektor" doesn't immediately strike you as Arcade Fire, indeed the funk-laden bass-line and shuffling percussion sound more Prince or LCD Soundsystem (James Murphy produced the album after all) but as the track progresses and builds around its wonderful groove, Win Butler's distinctive vocals (equally Régine Chassagne's too) start to shine through (with David Bowie also providing a couple of backing vocals). At almost eight minutes in length the track is the very definition of "epic" and announces itself as the most wonderful of openers.

The dance-floor mood is maintained by the deliciously offbeat groove of "We Exist" with beautiful harmonies and bright multi-layered instruments, it remains an absorbing listen. The carnival atmosphere reaches its peak on the celebratory "Here Comes The Night Time" with deep bass-lines combining with Haitian drums and twinkling piano and on a similar theme "You Already Know" will have you shuffling around in your chair.

It's not all disco grooves, rock heads will be pleased by the crunching riffs on the outstanding  "Normal Person" while "Porno" sounds exactly as dirty as the title suggest, thick 80's inspired chords repeat around Win's seductive vocals. Another highlight is the New Order inspired "Afterlife" which bristles with unadulterated joy that personifies what the album achieves to me. What we have (in my opinion) is a band free to express their own freedom and ideas and Reflektor might just be revered to in the same breathe as Funeral in years to come. I can't pay it a much higher compliment than that.



January 2013 - A Month in Music

A new feature (although I previously tried something similar) that may or may not continue with time dependent. Basically the idea is a summation post where I give all of or some of my favourite things from the month. It could be an EP, an album, a gig or a discovery made. It doesn't have to be from this month either, just when I happen to come across it. Then it wouldn't be me without adding a bit of waffling praise. It all sounds utterly self-pleasing but hopefully you might find something which you agree with. As ever these sort of things are highly liable to change. Let's give it a try anyway...

Gig(s) of the month.

Daughter - St Mary's Church, Brighton - January 17th
Serafina Steer - St Leonards Church, Shoreditch - January 24th

January was quieter than normal for me, in fact I only went to five gigs, probably less than half my normal monthly return. It was quality other quantity though with my favourite of the month so close between Serafina Steer's majestic album launch at St Leonard's Church in Shoreditch last week and Daughter's set at St Mary's in Brighton that I've decided not to attempt to split them.

Both were impeccable sets delivered by incredible singer/songwriters, Daughter's spine-tingling show highlighted everything you've already read about her/them. Elena's haunting vocals and bruised, intimate song-writing alongside subdued percussion and shimmering textures. It had St Mary's completely silent, half in awe, half just enjoying the moment.

Serafina Steer's show was equally wonderful. For this, her album release gig, her delicate harp patterns are joined by a string quartet and a whole host of other musicians, one of which was none other than Jarvis Cocker (he produced the album too - more on that below). He joined Serafina for three tracks, one on guitar, one on tambourine and vocals and another on a wind-up air machine. Incredible.

So was the show, serenely beautiful at times and other eccentric and fun, "Disco Complitation" and the Jarvis duet "The Removal Man" especially, the highlight though Serafina's gorgeous, dream voice, it pulls you and sends you off to a better place. Much like the album, head to the next paragraph for that!

Album(s) of the month. 
Serafina Steer - The Moths are Real

I try and avoid album reviews for the reason simple reason that I'm not very good at them so I'll try and avoid that trap here (too much). I first came across Serafina Steer on her Bloody Hell EP a couple of years back and it's a track re-worked from that EP that blows you away first...

"Night Before Mutiny" is arguably too good to be an opening track, it completely blows you away and leaves the rest of the album an almost impossible task of competing with it. Something The Moths are Real generally manages to achieve through with a striking collection of brilliant folk-ish tracks (it's not really an album you can define to any particular genre) and Serafina's inventive, story-telling lyrics.

The emphasis throughout is on Serafina's voice with fluttering harp often leading beautiful melodies, with the odd bit of quirky instrumentation thrown in for good measure, never better than on the funk-laden "Disco Compilation" and "The Removal Man", a track so witty and good that I'm sure co-vocalist Jarvis Cocker would love to snap it up for a (forthcoming? please!) Pulp album. "Ballad of Brick Lane" is softer and gentle ballad and after an amusing start "Skinny Dripping" turns to a pastoral, tender beauty. 2013, you might only be one month old but you've started off alright to me.



Runner up. The Joy Formidable - Wolf's Law.

I'm finding it really hard to review Wolf's Law, if you know me and this blog at all you may know my love affair with The Joy Formidable goes back a good three years now and in that time I've seen them forty-odd times with a handful more to come over the next month. That makes being subjective quite difficult...

I'm going to serve a review here too, I'll possibly do one when I'm happy with it. Wolf's Law is definitely more of a grower than TJF's earlier work and it's the softer, tender moments that are my early highlights. "Silent Treatment" and "Wolf's Law" I already knew from live airing but it's the string-laden "The Turnaround" that strikes me most, woozy and gorgeous, it highlights the power of Ritzy's voice, restrained and beautiful perfectly. "Forest Serenade" is perhaps the closest to the bands earliest work, energetic and powerful with a killer, joyful (pun intended) chorus. Anyway, I promised I wouldn't do a review and this is in danger of turning into one.

I love this band, buy their album and more importantly see them live, you won't regret it.




Single / track(s) of the month.
Can't split these two I am afraid.

David Bowie - Where Are We Now?

Ask anybody one month ago if we'd have a new Bowie album due in the first quarter of 2013 and I'm sure they'd have laughed at you. Everybody would have been wrong too because we do.

The first preview from it "Where Are We Now?" is instantly Bowie, reflective and philosophical from the get-go, a moody track with a brooding whisper to his vocals that reminds me of some Heathen work, vulnerable and beautiful, Bowie has kept us all guessing and returns from apparent exodus to blow our minds. The album apparently contains a couple of heavier tracks that will do more than that - I can't find the link to the article on that on just now, sorry.

If you've been on Mars, head to Bowie's website to find out more about The Next Day, due March 11th - I cannot wait.



Prince - Screwdriver

After Rock & Roll Love Affair towards the end of last year I got excited thinking that Prince was back, it sounded like the Prince we all love (well not all), like a lost song from The Revolution and better than much of his post The Rainbow Children output (which in my opinion is a criminally underrated record). Sure Prince has turned in a few good tracks in those years, Guitar, F.U.N.K., Dance 4 Me, Black Sweat all jump straight to mind but his albums have lacked any consistency. Now though, perhaps, the signs are looking good...

Latest single "Screwdriver" makes it two for two, after an incredible short live cut of the track was released via the 3rdEyeGirl youtube channel a few weeks ago highlighting a raw, guitar led jam. The actual single came last week via the video embedded below. Whilst not as raw, a Chaos & Disorder esque version would be amazing, the single still rocks out and is nothing short of great, with a female trio making up his new backing band (3rd Eye Girl?) "Screwdriver" is full of playful and suggestive exuberance, characteristics nobody does better than Prince. The Guardian say everything better than me so I'll keep that short and sweet.

His new website looks cool too, but that said I'm still feeling bitter about however much money I wasted on Prince's Lotusflow3r website a few years and shall not be early-adopting to any potentially new pay-for-play sites just yet...



EP of the Month.
Sea of Love - So Loud

I gave this one a glowing review already on my Introducing feature so I'll keep it brief and just tell you to go and buy the limited to 300 10" vinyl.

So Loud is an affecting EP that leaves you longing for more... stark soundscapes and spine-tingling intimacy, displaying heart-wrenching fragility of love lost around a haunted wall of sound and delicate guitar nuances.

Below is the video which introduced Sea of Love to me, make sure you've seen it too...





Runner Up
La Luz - Damp Face

Another EP I've reviewed this month so I'll keep this short and rely on copy and paste (head to the original post for a better write-up). Actually from 2012 but I didn't discover La Luz until a earlier this month. Their debut EP Damp Face is ace...

A Ennio Morricone homage is the hazy "Clear Night Sky" with spidery guitar patterns that jangle and twang around an infectious, creepy melody while the closing track is another stunner, "Easy Baby" slows things down with a languid, lazy day melody and brings those Spector girl groups straight back to the fore with gorgeous backing harmonies, super, super sweet.



Discovery of the Month.

Plaid Dragon

There's been some good discoveries this month so this was a tough one, good have easily picked Waterbaby or Dog in the Snow or Torres but I'm going to go with Plaid Dragon, "Dog Physics" is just an incredible track.

The highlight of the EP though is the title track and closure, which spends three minutes of its duration as a blissful folk-ish tune, with languid instrumentation and mellow vocals before exploding in a cacophony of noise. A wonderful signal of intent with the five piece from Missouri due to release a follow up early this year.