Favourite albums of 2014, 10-1

  1. British Sea Power – From the Sea to the Land Beyond OST

I’ve been a massive BSP fan since their wonderful debut 11 years ago, but have taken a special interest in their more leftfield projects since watching them perform a live soundtrack to Man Of Aran, a silent, black and white movie, in the Caves, Edinburgh in 2009. I firmly believe that this latest soundtrack is one of the band’s finest work. The film itself is a spellbinding work depicting a century around Britain’s coastline, using archived footage from the BFI. Having emerged as a spiky, angular indie band, BSP have almost reinvented themselves in recent years as purveyors of grand and sweeping soundscapes. Their live shows have long since been influenced by natural themes: stages decked out in foliage, giant animals dancing alongside them. And for this soundtrack, the band delved into their back catalogue to reimagine some of their finest tracks with this theme in mind. Some of the original works are breathtaking too.

Highlight: Melancholy of the Boot

File:R.E.M. - Unplugged - The Complete 1991 and 2001 Sessions.jpg

  1. REM – Unplugged: The Complete 1991 and 2001 Sessions

OK: this should probably be in some other list somewhere, given it’s: a) a compilation and b) a live album. But fuck it, I really love this record. I’ve collected almost every REM anthology there is and this is one of my favourites. Some of the earlier tracks featured are superb (Disturbance at the Heron House from Document and Cuyahoga from Life’s Rich Pageant stand out in particular). One gripe: I’ll never forgive whoever it was that put the tracklist together for sandwiching a horrible cover of Love is all Around between fantastic versions of Belong (Out Of Time) and It’s the End of the World as We Know It. But I guess that is what the skip button is for…

Highlight: It’s the End of the World as We Know It (And I Feel Fine) [the definitive version of one of their most famous songs]

  1. The War on Drugs – Lost in the Dream

“It’s hard to reconcile the enthusiastic voice on the phone with his own admissions of depression, loneliness and paranoia. Equally, while the War on Drugs’ records are moody, they’re never maudlin. Some of the themes are dark, but they’re delivered in a way that suggests light at the end of whatever tunnel their creator may have been facing into, be it in the form of a joyous whoop, the crack of a snare or the exhilarating key change on a synth. Bill Callahan once sung, in his inimitable deadpan drawl: “Dress sexy at my funeral.” The same sentiment exists on Lost in the Dream. It would be impossible to avoid the dark clouds, but why not skewer them with rainbows?”

[From my interview with Adam Granduciel in The Skinny]

Highlight: Eyes to the Wind

  1. Marissa Nadler – July

For all the beauty inherent in Marissa Nadler’s voice, the thing that gets me every time is its spookiness. The words ‘haunting’ and ‘ethereal’ are pretty much stock when it comes to describing female singers: but Nadler’s voice has the power to scare the shit out of you. It’s, at times, as though she’s singing at you from some post-existential state. It’s something I couldn’t escape on the superb Little Hells from 2009 and while I enjoyed the intervening eponymous record and The Sister, that seminal outing now has a worthy successor. In the press, she has talked up her love of Townes Van Zandt, probably my favourite songwriter. And there are real comparisons to be drawn here. They share a definite gothic air to their songwriting. It can be morose and sullen, but also humorous and lovely. In a fine year for singer-songwriters, this album was, for me, the finest.

Highlight: Drive (fade into)

  1. Twilight Sad – Nobody Wants to be Here and Nobody Wants to Leave

On the cusp of this record’s release, I watched lead singer James Graham perform songs from the band’s debut album, 2007’s Fourteen Summers and Fifteen Autumns, in the warm-up for an Owl John show. I wondered whether the Twilight Sad would ever match that first record, and this is as close as they’ve come. In some ways, this is the superior album. It’s dark and paranoid – as is every Twilight Sad release. But this is a more confident work, more fully-formed. The two previous albums, I’d enjoyed, but felt the band had swapped melody for mood. On number four, they’ve shown that there’s no need to sacrifice one for the other. The tunes are here are fantastic, the ambience positively acrid.

Highlight: Last January

5. Ought – More Than Any Other Day

This one came quite late in the year for me. I started playing it towards the beginning of December and have played it right through ever since. The antithesis of what has come to define the Montreal music scene: Ought’s music is punkish, salubrious and edgy. You can hear echoes of Television, Talking Heads and early Modest Mouse in the music, while lead singer Tim Beeler’s voice recalls, at various points, Lou Reed at his most nasal and David Byrne. First and foremost though, this music is exciting. It’s sexy and it is thrilling and once you listen to it, makes you wonder why you need to listen to anything else.

Highlight: Habit

  1. The Phantom Band – Strange Friend

Three and a half years is a long time to wait for a Phantom Band record. The Wants, a dark, brooding beast, was unleashed on listeners still punch-drunk from the sextet’s barnstorming debut Checkmate Savage just a year earlier. But the gestation period has done the Phantoms good: Strange Friend is their most refined and coherent album to date. It’s lighter and poppier than its predecessor and more musically akin to the debut, but their penchant to experiment remains.

Shimmering, pulsating opener The Wind that Cried the World, with its squelching electro intro and wordless chorus sets the tone. There are synth splashes all over this, with the band happy to court the sort of hooks they may have tossed away for being too simple before. The gorgeous, folky Atacama and soaring (Invisible) Friends steal the show on a record that has sound potential to soundtrack the summer ahead.

[From my review in the Skinny]

[Interview with Rick and Anthony here]

Highlight: The Wind that Cried the World

  1. A Winged Victory for the Sullen – Atomos

My adventures in ambient over the past few years were largely sparked by Stars of the Lid, an act I fell in love with while living in Edinburgh a few years ago. Similarly, my love of contemporary classical music came in part through hearing the Dustin O’Halloran album Lumiere in 2011 (along with the work of Max Richter, Sylvain Chaveaux, Nils Frahm, etc). A Winged Victory… is O’Halloran along with Adam Wiltzie of Stars of the Lid. This, their second album, is as beautiful as anything either man has been involved with before. The pair are in no hurry here: tracks stretching towards 10 minutes are de rigeur. But that’s the point. This is an album to get lost in. One to stick on quality speakers or headphones and forget the world around you. It’s surprisingly intense – parts of Atomos are dense and heady; but mainly it’s sheer beauty. That so much can be accomplished with so little is a remarkable thing, and this is a remarkable record.

Highlight – Atomos VI

  1. Withered Hand – New Gods

“And while the takeaway from the debut was the one-liners, New Gods is all about the music. The sound has more depth, yes, but nothing is over-egged. There are more hooks than a pirates’ convention, and subime melodies throughout. A few reference points fly past your ears more than once. Darren Hayman has frequently performed with Withered Hand, and Hefner’s influence on tracks such as “Between Love and Ruin” is marked. The classic power pop of Big Star and The Byrds can be heard in the arpeggios and jangles of “Black Tambourine”, while “Fall Apart” and “Horseshoe” have a surprising hint of 90s indie pop about them.

New Gods is an unusually good album, and is best encapsulated by the title track, the kind of song R.E.M. lived in the shadow of for a quarter of a century. “Now tell me we are not all the same,” goes Willson’s stargazing philosophy, slotting beautifully between the dreamy rolls of mandolin and bass. It’s one of the loveliest songs you could ever expect to hear; a lucid moment of perfection from a songwriter whose creativity continues to feed off his own imperfections.”

[From my review of New Gods on The Line of Best Fit]

Highlight: New Gods

  1. Sun Kil Moon – Benji

I went to see Sun Kil Moon in St John’s of Hackney in December and subsequently, revisited this record to remind myself why I loved it so much. The show was shambolic. The sound was abysmal and Mark Kozelek spent most of the performance dissing the War on Drugs, continuing a feud which he has fabricated with increasing vindictiveness over the course of the year. I’ve heard people talk about the need to separate an artist from their work, to be able to enjoy their creations in spite of themselves, and wondered whether this was at all possible with Kozelek. After all, the most defining characteristic of his work is that it’s about him. His songs are some of the most honest and autobiographical you’ll ever here. They delve into his family life, talking about death, love and loss, with frankness which is, at times, uncomfortable. Is it possible to make that separation in this case?

So here’s the thing: I’ve just had to realise that while, yes, Kozelek can be a real prick and that, yes, he may well have overshadowed what should have been his greatest year as an artist by picking phony fights with unwitting indie acts, the man is a genius. I’ve spent the past few hours listening to some of his back catalogue. I’ve always been a fan, but found parts of it patchy, inconsistent (perhaps understandably, given the sheer volume). But there are moments of sheer brilliance throughout – and Benji is as good as anything he’s ever done, perhaps even better than the seminal Ghosts of the Great Highway. This is a record that will stop you in your tracks. It’s musically simple, but the stories are challenging and beautiful. It deals with family tragedy, high school shootings and euthanasia in a way that is almost childishly simple and earnest, but in a way which has resonated more with me this year than anything else.

Highlight: Jim Wise

Favourite albums of 2014, 25-11

  1. East India Youth – Total Strife Forever

Pop, psychedelia, prog and electronica all meet here, on an album which sounds more interesting the more I play it – there’s just so much going on. I was intrigued to see William Doyle perform his material live and wasn’t disappointed when he proved to be one of the highlights of Body and Soul Festival in Ireland last summer.

Highlight: Dripping Down

  1. Alvvays – Alvvays

Having eschewed music radio for talk a few years back, I was delighted to spend 2014 falling back in love with BBC 6 Music. Few of the acts on this list will be strangers to those playlists, but I wasn’t turned onto any by the station, in the same manner I was with Alvvays. Their tracks Archie, Marry Me and Next of Kin seemed never to be far from the airwaves. This is pure, infectious pop from Canada, in which I hear fragments of the New Pornographers, Camera Obscura and the Concretes.

Highlight: Archie, Marry Me

  1. Tweedy – Sukierae

It wasn’t until I’d seen Jeff Tweedy and his son Spencer play the songs from their debut album live that I properly warmed to the record. Over 20 tracks, it works through the most complimentary adjectives used to describe Wilco’s oeuvre, without ever excelling into the superlatives that define their finest.

Highlight: Fake Fur Coat

  1. Nick Mulvey – First Mind

This was a year loaded with impressive singer-songwriter albums. Mulvey’s is perhaps the most “coffee shop” of those I loved, but packs a number of surprising twists and diversions. The bouncy, single Cucurucu has rarely been far from my stereo through 2014, one of many strong points on a really beautiful album.

Highlight: Fever To The Form

  1. Owl John – Owl John

Scott Hutchison, aka Owl John, claims that this record, fun as it was to make, is more about cleansing his palate and exercising a few underworked songwriting muscles before the next Frightened Rabbit album proper. If that’s the case, we’d best start getting very excited about that record already, because the warm-up is a beauty. Recorded between Mull and Los Angeles, there are clear themes of loneliness here: Hutchison is a fish out of water.

Most will already know, though, that it’s under such conditions that he produces some of his best work. The scintillating Ten Tons of Silence, the reverberating Sounds About Roses and the excellent single Hate Music are some of his most enjoyable compositions yet. There’s a welcome sense of adventure; Owl John shows that Hutchison is continuing to expand his creative arc, which is getting broader and more daring with each successive record.

[From my review in the Skinny]

Highlight: Red Hand

  1. The Hotelier – Home, Like Noplace There Is

I was 16 when Blink 182 released Enema of the State, and I hated it. By right, I should’ve been prime fodder for that wave of… pop punk, EMO, call it what you like, but it completely passed me by. Which is why I was so astounded by how much I enjoyed this record from the Hotelier, which has been lumped into the aforementioned category by taxonomy enthusiasts. Personally, I hear a lot of Meadowlands-era the Wrens and the Dismemberment Plan circa-Emergency & I in this, an intelligent album full of well-crafted songs.

Highlight: Dendron

  1. James Vincent McMorrow – Post Tropical

The leap Waterford’s McMorrow made between his debut album Early in the Morning and this, his follow-up, reminds me of Justin Vernon’s debut one-two under the Bon Iver guise. The debut was promising, perhaps more commercially-friendly, but nowhere near as interesting as number two. On Post Tropical, McMorrow is more adventurous and experimental. And yet, there is no escaping the voice that lies at the centre of the album: rasping, soulful and glorious.

Highlight: Gold

  1. Woman’s Hour – Conversations

Austere, clean and polished, the long-mooted debut album from Woman’s Hour was worth the wait. The minimalism and simplicity is striking: there are few bells and whistles here, with the band cruising along on the quality of their melodies and the pristineness of Fiona Jane Burgess’ vocals. The record is beautifully self-contained and stylised and one of the most impressive debuts of 2014.

Highlight: In Stillness We Remain

  1. Marianne Faithfull – Give My Love to London

The list of names that appear alongside Faithfull on album number 20 is dazzling (Nick Cave, Warren Ellis, Brian Eno, Anna Calvi, etc). Despite this, it’s indisputable who the star of the show is. Her voice has acquired a level of husky mystique – gravelly and enigmatic, perfectly tailored for the gothic songcraft on display on this wonderful LP. She sounds at times weary and resigned, others threatening and vengeful, but carries a wonderful sense of theatre throughout.

Highlight: Late Victorian Holocaust

  1. Toumani & Sidiki Diabaté – Toumani & Sidiki

Only one song gets any introduction, as Toumani encourages us to close our eyes and listen to “Lampedusa”, a song written and recorded in the wake of the tragedy off the coast of the Italian island of the same name. 360 Africans, many of whom had been raped and tortured by traffickers, died as their boat sank as they made their way to Europe for what they thought would be a better life. “People in Africa think only good things happen in Europe”, says Toumani.

Two notes chime throughout “Lampedusa”, forming the core of the melody. Life and death. Joy and pain. Hope and despair. Over the course of five minutes, Toumani and Sidiki capture essence of tragedy, the maddening futility of death, the infuriating disposability of life, better than a thousand editorials. It’s impossible not to shed a tear through closed eyes, and as the last note chimes out, it hangs in the air for what feels like a lifetime. Tonight was special; a performance never to be forgotten – a performance to make you tear up everything you thought you knew about what live music should be.

[From my live review for the Line of Best Fit]

Highlight: Lampedusa

  1. Adrian Crowley – Some Blue Morning

The world through the eyes of Adrian Crowley is a wonderful, textural place. His deep, sonorous voice seems at first almost portentous, but carries a quiet and patient sense of wonder, one that meditates on everything it describes. From the leaves on a railway track, to the tusks of a hog and the guile of a magpie, Some Blue Morning repaints the everyday hues of nature in marvellous splendour.

The record’s heart is The Wild Boar, a spoken word masterpiece; a short story, really, told over a soundtrack of minimalist post rock, that will stop you dead in your tracks. There are more ornate and orchestral moments here – lush and earthy strings, like the seasons they evoke, return naturally throughout. But at its very core, this is a simple album; one which toasts the small things on this planet in lovely style. It’s a fine record from a talented songwriter.

[From my review in The Skinny]

Highlight: The Wild Boar

  1. Caribou – Our Love

I’ve always been fascinated by the work of Dan Snaith, be it as Caribou, Manitoba or Daphni. Swim was one of my favourite records of 2010, but I knew that given past form, he wouldn’t be resting on his laurels with the follow up (particularly given that there were four years between records). Having dallied with psych-pop, house and techno, this was Snaith turning his hand to more R&B and dub influences, with great success. Also one of the live acts of the year, having caught a magnificent set in Ireland in July.

Highlight: Can’t Do Without You (if only for the memories of Summer!)

  1. WIFE – What’s Between

This one seems to have sneaked in under many people’s radars. James Kelly’s debut as WIFE has been one of my surprise highlights of 2014. He was previously frontman of blackest of metal bands Altar of Plagues – an experimental and extraordinarily doomy outfit from Cork. When I met him in France recently, he explained that WIFE was the product of moving into a small flat in London and having neighbours who weren’t too enamoured with him thrashing out tunes, full-blast on his guitar. What’s resulted is a wonderful and heady blend of dubstep, soul and grime. For me it recalls James Blake and some of the less industrial work of Trent Reznor (who Kelly himself told me is a huge influence). Full interview to come in the new year.

Highlight: Heart is a Far Light

  1. Damien Jurado – Brothers and Sisters of the Eternal Sun

“Do not disturb me, let me be,” Damien Jurado sings in quiet resignation over a gently-plucked guitar on penultimate track Silver Joy. It’s these pit-stops of brilliant clarity scattered through the existential fugue which have defined his past three albums – records of transient beauty. With each Richard Swift-produced release, Jurado climbs further into the rabbit hole, becoming bolder with his musical choices, more attached to his themes and detached from his past.

Album opener Magic Number, with its smoky, jazz-club drum brushes and the playful bass and spaghetti-western gongs on Silver Donna continue the jammier motifs of Maraqopa, while the effortless, simple-to-the-core melodies on Silver Timothy and Metallic Loud remind us what a wonderful songwriter Jurado’s always been. These past three records have found him chasing himself around his own head, musically and thematically. And on Brothers and Sisters… the textured production, layers of echo and oases of ethereal beauty frame Jurado the dreamer, the paranoiac and the stray in glorious Technicolor.

[From my review in the Skinny]

Highlight: Metallic Cloud

  1. The Gloaming – The Gloaming

Having spent a childhood indoctrinated and an adolescence eschewing it, Irish folk and traditional music has begun to play a much more welcome and active role in my musical taste. But even at that, this fantastic record from the Gloaming – a super group including Martin Hayes, Doveman and Iarla Ó Líonard – came like a bolt from the blue. I remember listening to it on loop in a hotel room in Moscow in February. I’d had too much to drink and was supposed to be up at the crack of dawn, but couldn’t leave it be. It made me sentimental, emotional and homesick – surely the three adjectives most widely attributed to more traditional strands of Irish folk. But there is a huge sense of adventure on this record that separates it from most of its peers of from much of what went before it. This was a real breath of fresh air.

Highlight: Sailor’s Bonnet

Trans Musicales 2014, Rennes 4-7 December

Photo: Kate Tempest

The clock is approaching midnight on Friday. Cosmo Sheldrake, a 24 year-old Londoner, is playing a blinder of a set to a few thousand people in an aircraft hangar outside Rennes in the northwest of France. It’s not a name familiar to most people’s ears and, admittedly, not one we had encountered before we saw it on the roster for Trans Musicales. On reflection though, it’s arguable that this skinny multi-instrumentalist is the very personification of the festival itself.

Sheldrake professes to play 30 instruments and is an adept Mongolian throat singer. His lyrics are obscure and fun, his tunes poppy and full of hooks. One wonders whether he could ever have performed to more than a few hundred people before and yet, here he is, with thousands of tipsy French revellers as putty in his hand.

This is the beauty of Trans Musicales and what makes it such a wonderfully enjoyable occasion. Festival founder Jean-Louis Brossard has said it’s about “discovering artists who nobody knows.” To take it a step further, it’s about pushing the envelope on the perceived norms of a large festival. The location, the line-up and the artists all combine to make you feel that you’ve been somewhere and seen something utterly unique.

The music may not always be to your liking: there are very few “safe” acts or big hitters on the billing. But it will challenge you and, if you buy into the philosophy, you’re almost guaranteed to come away appreciating what they’re trying to do. Would Cosmo Sheldrake have found himself in such a prominent slot at many other music festivals? It’s unlikely. But he took his chance with aplomb and turned in one of the performances of the weekend.

THE NAMES                                 

And while the festival is best considered as a whole, there were some very obvious highlights – two of which came in the opening exchanges, in the form of Courtney Barnett and Kate Tempest. Both acts appear to be on the cusp of something big and from their respective performances, it’s not hard to see why.

There is something wonderfully matter of fact about how just about everything Courtney Barnett does. Her lyrics are off the cuff and deadpan. “Thank you for cooking for me, I had a really nice evening, just you and me,” she sings on Anonymous Club, her voice cracking as she hits the high notes. The live show throws up an element of juxtaposition: the stoic nature of the lyrics is matched by some top class musicianship. This “slacker” can play and she and her band are clearly having fun. It’s a masterful performance from something of an anti-performer, with highlights coming in the form of new track Pedestal and the superb History Eraser.

This is the biggest crowd Kate Tempest has ever played to, the South Londoner says as she takes the stage. Playwright, author, poet, rapper and singer: her performance combines fragments of each, resulting in a display of pure theatre that will live long in the memory. The world is not short of socially conscious hip hop artists, but few have done it as well as Tempest. Her cadence is magnificent, eschewing rhymes for flow, equally comfortable at 100 miles per hour or at a canter. 2014 has belonged to her and as she gazes, flabbergasted, upon the thousands gathered to laud her, you get the impression that she is just about as surprised as anyone else.

From a tempest to a hurricane: Detroit-born rapper Lizzo ripped through the festival on Saturday night, nearly blowing the doors of the vast hangar branded ‘Hall 8’. The crowd was often polite over the course of the weekend, gentle applause greeting many of the acts. Lizzo sent them ape-shit. Her stage presence is almost as entrancing as the music: she pogoes along the front of the stage, invites one delighted Frenchman on stage to twerk with her and inciting the crowd throughout to “make some motherfuckin’ noise”. Reworking the infectious Paris for the Rennes crowd went down a treat – the highlight of what was a truly electric performance.


Mainly publicly funded, one of the cornerstones of Trans Musicales is the promotion of French music. Understandably, then, you could see and hear it everywhere. It was slightly fortuitous that one of the best local acts we saw came while supping our very first slightly bitter, watery blonde beer.

Gandi Lake is a five-piece from Caen in Normandy. The lead singer’s vocals initially recall Billy Corgan, if his nasal passage was slightly widened, but the overarching likeness is with Everything Must Go era Manic Street Preachers. Their political grandstanding may always have captured the headlines, but there was an unescapable poppiness to the Manics’ late-90s output – and it’s these hooky indie numbers that Gandi Lake seem to do so well.

Those slightly better versed in French music had earmarked Grand Blanc as a potential highlight. Obliged at the tip, we went along to their Friday night show to find, alas, a significant deal more style than substance. A feature of the whole festival, the production was phenomenal: a striking light show and top quality sound. The band themselves – clad in black and singing in beautiful, guttural French – couldn’t quite provide the hooks to match. Their sound was somewhere between the electro dirge of Depeche Mode and Scando-pop of Roxette – sinister and menacing in nature, and while pleasant enough, it was ever so slightly dull in practice.

As the nights turned into morning, the pace of the music intensified. The French have long been exporters of house and techno music and the rosters of the wee hours were saturated with the stuff. Efforts to see electro outfit Rone were frustrated when they closed the doors of Hall 9, such was the demand. But the Avener we did see and he was, again, accompanied by a spectacular light show. A fairly standard, but enjoyable hour of electro-clash ensued, one that played heavily on France’s pedigree in the genre. Daft Punk (Technologique) got a workout, as did their offspring Stardust (Music Sounds Better With You). All in, it was a relatively simple playback set, but one which was greeted emphatically by the French crowd.

Alongside Transmusicales runs Bar en Trans – an independent festival spread out among the bars of Rennes’ old town. In Le Backstage, a poky wooden tavern off La rue de la soif (Thirsty Street), we caught an interesting set from C.A.R., the solo vehicle of Chloé Raunet, formerly of the band Battant.

Raunet, accompanied by the marvellously monikered electro-whizz Thor, is an intriguing performer. The first couple of tracks are quite tame electro-pop, but it’s when the pair explore more avant-garde tangents that things get interesting, with the best tracks bearing some likeness to the Knife. A bouncy cover of French singer Christophe’s La Petite ‘Fille Du Troisième’ goes down well and Idolize, which has reportedly been doing the rounds on the French blogosphere, is greeted warmly, before being interrupted by technical problems. The pair recover to round things off on the aptly named Glitch. There’s promise in this project, for sure.


The Bretons pride themselves on their hospitality and warmth. This is palpable throughout a trip to Rennes and to its dual festivals. The location – the Park Expo – is spectacular. Shuttle buses courier excited (and mostly pissed) revellers to and fro throughout the weekend, to bars well-stocked with decently priced beers. Given the size of the halls – all converted aircraft hangars – it’s unusual that you find one completely rammed. Mostly it’s comfortable and spacious. If you get a chance, a dander in the Saint Anne area is recommended. Its wooden, medieval style buildings lean towards you like an old-time film set.

This one Scrooge can think of few better ways to escape the early Christmas rush than a weekend immersing yourself in new and interesting sounds in the west of France. Transmusicales comes highly recommended.


WIFE: Dark, exciting and banging, the Irish former metal artist produced one of 2014’s most underrated records.

Chipsy Islam: Egyptian electronic music à la Syrian counterpart Omar Souleyman.

Too Many Zooz: Big, bold New York brass music, over a thumping beat.

Withered Hand & Darren Hayman & The Long Parliament – The Scala, London 15/10/14

One of the most palpable influences on tonight’s headliner’s work is Darren Hayman and the various musical vehicles he’s occupied over the years. It’s a treat, then, to see Hayman and his Long Parliament support tonight. Hayman himself, decked out in oversized blazer and scholarly specs could have been cryogenically awakened from his 90s heyday, and the music itself, old and new, sounds timeless – a reminder of what a wealth of fine material he’s put out over the years.

The harmonies on “Out Of My League”, a Darren Hayman and the Secretary Modern cut, are gorgeous and so elongated, the frontman requires a quick puff on his inhaler when they finish. The “electricity pylons” on ”Calling Out Your Name” sound positively poetic. But it’s an oldie that steals the show; “The Hymn for the Alcohol” from the seminal 1999 Hefner record The Fidelity Wars has them swaying at the front.

“Isn’t grey hair just a sign of a new dawn?” sings Dan Willson, half a dozen songs deep, before a busy Scala this evening. And right enough, the couple of years since these eyes last clocked him on a London stage have been kind to the man who goes under the moniker Withered Hand. Haircut, less battered guitar and a stronger, more potent armoury of songs. He’s a few years older than the “wastrel” that producedGood News and, while he’s hardly a Renaissance Man, long-term fans will notice a more confident performer and one who is, tonight, bang on form.

New Gods, Edinburgh-based Withered Hand’s second album, was released earlier this year, but the skeleton of the record was given a stripped back couple of outings at Union Chapel and Islington Assembly Hall a couple of years ago. Tonight, he brings fully formed, booming renditions. Compared to Good News, the songs are fuller and more musically ambitious. The humour is still there and, while they don’t pack the same immediate hook as some of the debut set, the record has proven its strength in the months since its release and has grown into one of the finest the year has seen.

Some of the best elements of New Gods that are audible through the stereo are brought sharply into focus when played live. There’s a real rollicking feel to tracks such as “Heart Heart” and “Horseshoe”, which is reciprocated in full by the London crowd. On the likes of “Black Tambourine”, dedicated to Pam Berry (the singer in the band of the same name, who has become a regular fixture in the Withered Hand line-up) and the lovely New Gods, which is played out as an encore, the jangly arpeggios which sound so subtle on record seem to permeate through the foundations of the Scala, to nestle stubbornly in your ear for the rest of the evening.

This is certainly the tightest Withered Hand performance I’ve seen. Of the older material, “Religious Songs” and “Love in the Time of Ecstasy” were always going to be received most warmly. They’re delivered with the expected aplomb, and there’s a real sense of cohesion and musicianship among the band – perhaps more obvious than before – that adds an exciting new element. The crashing percussion escalates as they build up to the emphatic chorus of “Religious Songs” (“how does he really expect to be happy, when he listens to death metal bands?”), which is bellowed back at the band with oxymoronical triumph.

It’s this odd sense of paradox that makes Withered Hand such a rewarding listen. The songs are often aural flagellations, but are delivered in a key of hope and tonight, with real vigour. This was an excellent performance, punctuated with the customary self-deprecating jokes and awkward humour, from a man and a band who, you suspect, will always be warmly received in this part of the world.


Tweedy – The Palladium, London 04/11/14

Credit: Jason Williamson / Line of Best Fit


For an 18-year old drummer on his way to university, Spencer Tweedy has already generated plenty of column inches. But the most interesting words to be found about his fledgling musical career come from Spencer himself. “I am in a boy band called Tweedy,” he wrote on his Tumblr blog in April, heralding the eponymous band he’s started with is celebrated father Jeff.

Other comments are more gushing. “Dave Itzkoff wrote a really nice piece aboutSukierae in the New York Times (!!!),”wrote a clearly delighted Spencer upon the album’s release. “My dad and I did a Tiny Desk concert at NPR Music!” was an excited comment from October. The archive helps paint a picture of a humble and honoured kid who is, unsurprisingly, ecstatic to be on the road with Jeff Tweedy – even if Jeff so happens to be his father.

And so, as father and son take the stage in the grand surrounds of the Palladium tonight it’s interesting to see the dynamic. Spencer has big shoes to fill, given his father’s dalliances with sticks-men extraordinaire Jim O’Rourke and Glenn Kotche over the years. His drumming style is loose and simple. A couple of nice solos (which raise a cheer) on “Summer Noon” aside, he seems happy to play it straight and provide support to his father’s more prominent and (tonight at least) engaging stage presence.

Jeff, for his part, tries to play the part of embarrassing father on a number of occasions: asking the boy of his views on a woman in the crowd who is determined to take Tweedy Snr home with her, and threatening to burst out a cover from theLion King soundtrack, holding Spencer in the air – Simba style. But the pair coalesce well, adding to a familial atmosphere as they chug through their debut album over the first half of the show.

As a record, Sukierae is pleasant and bears most of the hallmarks of a Wilco release, without ever really scaling their loftiest heights. “World Away”, with its stuttering drumbeat and psych guitar riff outro, could have been lifted from the Whole Love (as could the excellent “Fake Fur Coat”, which recalls the marauding “Art of Almost”).

Miller Tweedy, Jeff’s wife and Spencer’s mother, has suffered in recent months from lymphoma and the illness has clearly been borne out in some of the band’s lyrics. Some are defiant (see opening number “Nobody Dies Anymore”) while others are more maudlin. “One day I’ll be your burden and you’ll be my wife,” sings Jeff on “New Moon”. But having both men on stage adds a sense of poignancy to the joviality that permeates the rest of the show.

The band – Spencer plus three – depart, with father embracing son, at the halfway mark to make way for an album’s worth of solo acoustic stuff from Jeff. And it’s over the guts of an hour that the Wilco frontman reminds us that he is one of the finest (and perhaps most underrated) songwriters of the past couple of generations. Tweedy is a hopeless romantic, a jealous lover, a scorned ex and a weary world-watcher.

Goosebumps set in as the lights go down and the first chord of “I Am Trying to Break Your Heart” reverberate around the theatre. They remain until the last bars of “Shot in the Arm” – from the incredible Summerteeth – ring out to an audience that has just been treated to 12 performances of exceptional quality. There are moments of sublime poetry. You get the sense that nobody waves goodbye quite like Jeff Tweedy, when he sings on “One Wing”, from Wilco’s underrated self-titled album: “One Wing will never fly/Neither yours nor mine/I fear we can only wave goodbye.”

Wilco long outgrew the alt-country moniker, but on Please Tell My Brother (originally by the Midwest super group Golden Smog that Tweedy was in with members of The Replacements, Big Star and the Jayhawks) and Uncle Tupelo’s New Madrid there are nods to the indelible mark the genre has left on Tweedy’s musical palate.

The band return for the encore, which includes a couple of Mavis Staples numbers, written by Jeff Tweedy, and “California Stars”, the Woody Guthrie track brought to life by Billy Bragg and Wilco on Mermaid Avenue all those years ago. During the latter, Tweedy takes a step back and smiles as he watches his lead guitarist and drummer trade solos, beaming with what seems to be a mixture of pride and satisfaction. There have been many stages in Jeff Tweedy’s life and innumerate strands to his complex character. But tonight we’ve been treated to him at his best: the father and the tastemaker. The man who creates the kind of music most of the world can only ever aspire to. And it was a joy to behold.

Video: Inside the Great British Beer Festival 2014

Another video I worked on! Great fun, great beer.

Video: Exploring London’s craft brewing sector

A video I made with the producers at the International Business Times.

Owl John – Oslo, London – 06/08/14



Try as he might, Scott Hutchison just can’t dampen the excitement around his solo dalliances. In the press he’s done in the run up to the release of the eponymous MP he’s recorded under the name Owl John, he’s spoken of the project in the same tones one might discuss a mid-course palate cleanser. It’s something to warm him up for the next Frightened Rabbit album, to clear any unpleasant memories lingering from the last. The trouble is: it’s bloody good. And while most of the legions gathered in the paradoxically sweltering Oslo tonight won’t yet have heard said record, they’ve come in anticipation of hearing a songwriter at the top of his craft. As they filter out into the Hackney night, the warm glow surrounding them suggests they’ve not been disappointed.

Hutchison and Frightened Rabbit burst onto what was a thrilling Scottish music scene nigh on a decade ago. Seeing Hutchison play his first London solo show on the same bill as a slimmed-down Twilight Sad seems fitting. The Twilight Sad were Frightened Rabbit’s closest contemporaries when they emerged. The fellow FatCat alum have ploughed an arguably more experimental furrow than their pals and that path has been thrilling at every juncture. But it’s a treat to hear the barrel-lunged James Graham, accompanied by only an electric guitarist, sing some of the finest cuts from that most haunting of debut records, Fourteen Autumns and Fifteen Winters. Sonically, they’ve explored darker and moodier angles since then, but few albums have encapsulated the angst of the journey to adulthood more noirishly than this. “Cold Days From The Birdhouse” is as immaculate as ever, while the bellowed chorus line of “And She Would Darken The Memory” (“Head up dear the rabbit might die”) sounds oddly appropriate given Hutchison’s recent admission that his band’s future has been up in the air.

On tonight’s evidence though, Owl John has yet to tire of his day job. He will, on another night, have been cursing his decision to open the floor to requests so early in the show. No sooner has he delivered the opening one-two of new track “Hate Music” and Midnight Organ Fight‘s opening gambit “The Modern Leper” than he announces the order of the evening: “I’ll choose a new song, then you can choose an old one.” Those that buy him a drink have more chance of succeeding in their requests… queue a smorgasbord of whiskeys, rums and Jaeger-bombs making their way to the stage, amid a barrage of badgering and demands. But the mood is playful, and as a model, it works as well as any and adds a real levity to the occasion.

Most of the new set gets a run through, while Hutchison only half keeps his pledge to ‘play the hits’, as it were. For the other half he cherry-picks some of the rougher diamonds from his band’s oeuvre, including the superb “Fuck This Place”, which originally featured Traceyanne Campbell of Camera Obscura on vocals, and the rousing “Scottish Winds”, plucked from the same EP. Other highlights are the sublime and loquacious “State Hospital” and “The Wrestle” from the Winter of Mixed Drinks, an album which goes up in my estimation every time I hear its tracks played live.

Some of the new material fits seamlessly. The gorgeous “Ten Tons of Silence” and “Los Angeles Be Kind” could really have been lifted from a Frightened Rabbit record. But it’s great to see Hutchison hammer out the slightly more discordant “Red Hands” and aforementioned “Hate Music” with such aplomb, for these are the two most interesting and tangential of the Owl John tracks.

Ultimately though, the sense that Hutchison is blowing off some steam prevails and helps make this such an enjoyable performance. “I can’t normally hear the crowd singing when I’ve got a band behind me,” is his response to a few rancorous crows at the front after “The Wrestle”. “”Poke” is gonna suck…” And right enough, the squawks return, missing both tune and time through the obligatory finale, but they fail to put the dampeners on a night which reflects the material it’s designed to promote: tuneful and scruffy, but full of unmistakable quality.

Lost Map’s Howlin’ Fling



It was bookended with a pair of boats, some seals, a few dolphins and what seemed like a sea-load of jellyfish. In between, scattered among the woods and the hills, the streams and the rocky, volcanic residue, were hikes and days without rain. There were cobweb-annihilating dips in the Sea of the Hebrides and dawn choruses from the sheep, cows and birds – all full-time residents of the Isle of Eigg, welcoming the pilgrims from the mainland.

A pilgrimage: that’s what, looking back, a trip to Eigg feels like. Those who made it were seeking fresh air and good music. They left with their lungs full and their ears singing, the smell of campfire lingering on their hair and clothing, a place reserved in every heart for the wonderful Isle of Eigg.

Lost Map could have booked anyone for the debut Howlin’ Fling. The tickets were bought before a band was announced. But they didn’t: they put together three days of the highest quality sounds. This was a weekend loaded with moments that will live long in the memory.

Even before an official note had been played, the spectacle of Sam Amidon with his banjo, joined in the Friday afternoon sunshine outside the tearooms by uilleann piper Griogair Labhruidh and fiddler Gave McVarish, set a weekend-long tone which reflected the ethos of the island: laid back, collaborative and bloody good craic.

Amidon returned for a set in the Marquee on Friday evening and, naturally, was joined by his wife Beth Orton. The pair had been holidaying with their young children on Eigg for the week and, when the time came to perform, seemed as smitten with the place as the rest of us.

He is something of a musical archivist, Amidon. He sings songs plucked from the annals of Americana and writes pastoral folk nuggets of his own. In these eyes, his catalogue thus far has peaked with the sublime I See The Sign (2010) and from that, we heard delicious renditions of the breezy Johanna The Row-di and the austere Way Go Lily. When he didn’t have us blubbing with his funereal dirges, we were snickering at his endearingly goofy humour, including a “Bruno Mars-inspired” tribute to the recently-passed Charlie Haden.

When Orton arrived, accompanied by Amidon of course, she played a set mainly plucked from her magnum opus: Central Reservation, which she’s recently toured to mark its 15th anniversary. The title track in particular stirred memories of Orton’s late-90s breakthrough. The songs are simple, and Orton seemed nervous, but the quality was unmistakable.

Having Steve Mason and his full band on the island was something of a coup for Lost Map. The lot of them could be seen wandering around the island for the day and a half before their show and Mason clearly had time to explore. “I’ve played some crazy places in my time, but this place takes the biscuit!” he quips, before taking a select few cuts from last year’s Monkey Minds in the Devil’s Time. His patter is as politically-charged as the tunes: “This one’s about Tony Blair, the slimy Middle East envoy… cunt…” he snarls before launching into the soaring Fire, which, along with A Lot of Love, was the highlight of a fine set.

The anthropomorphic trilogy of WOLF, Woodpigeon and eagleowl got Saturday going in fine style, with the latter displaying a previously unknown acrobatic bent by rounding their set off with a human pyramid. Seamus Fogarty’s been working on a more electronic live show, as befits his debut album, and it sounded splendid in the Marquee: he’s got a rare talent for sticking peculiar field recordings in the right place. Few would find any place for the horse racing commentary. Fogarty did, and it sounded great.

Leeds four-piece Adult Jazz impressed with an exciting, busy taster of their debut record (out this week). The singer has a touch of Dave Longstreth (Dirty Projectors) about him, but the music is less simple to pinpoint. Swedish raconteur Jens Lekman is a man who has appeared on few bills in recent years, so to see him on the roster at Howlin’ Fling was a surprise and pleasure. In inimitable style, he conjured up songs on just about anything, including a couple of cuts from the still-excellent Night Falls on Kortedala from 2007, before offering to serenade anyone in the crowd who saw him wandering on the island with his guitar.

Boxed In, led by Steve Mason’s keys player Oli Bayston, provided some late night krauty, synth pop par excellence, to make sure there wasn’t an idle toe in the Ceilidh Hall. And despite arriving on Eigg after a weekend of calamity, the Phantom Band were in sparkling form.

They’d had their guitars nicked prior to playing Latitude Festival, before making their way to the island, and then their band broke down on the way up. Hats off to Redbeard and co then, for tearing up the stage and keeping the spirits high. Special mention should be reserved for The Howling from debut set Checkmate Savage which, even for non-nomenclatural reasons, stole the show on Howlin’ Fling’s Saturday night.

Eigg is a broad church and somewhat fittingly, Sunday brought the most varied line-up of the weekend. None were more idiosyncratic than Japanese performance artist-slash-one-man-band Ichi. “This song is about kumquat,” he goes, delicately, before launching, even more delicately, into a song about the aforementioned fruit. A set ornamented with ping pong balls, steel drums and xylophone was just the tonic for the fragile heads of the Marquee. Certainly the most fascinating performance of the weekend.

Having seen them in impromptu sunshine session at the beginning of the weekend with Sam Amidon and enjoyed numerous campfire songs after dark, the appetite was well whetted for Griogair Labhruidh and Gave McVarish’s set in the Ceilidh Hall (obviously). Each of the pair is equally dextrous on their respective pipes and fiddle, with Labhruidh’s emotive and enduring voice telling tales in Gaelic that even those without a word could fathom. Along with fellow traditionalists, the more fleshed-out local band Metta, they brought the house down – a welcome addition to Sunday’s bill.

By the time he took to the stage as the Pictish Trail, Johnny Lynch – he behind the Lost Map record label and, by extension, Howlin’ Fling – had already dazzled with his mad skills in programme-writing ability, compering and wolf howling. Hearing him perform tracks from the brilliant Secret Soundz Volume 2 on the island in which they were recorded was a treat. Also poignant was the opportunity to see one of the last Meursault live shows, after Neil Pennycook announced that he was to hang up the moniker and move on to pastures new. They’ve kept us on our toes for the guts of a decade and a rollicking show in the Marquee ensured that Pennycook went out as Meursault pretty much the same way as he came in: screaming.

That was supposed to conclude the weekend’s festivities, but having missed an earlier ferry, the honour was bestowed on the irrepressible RM Hubbert. He’s produced a couple of the most beautiful Scottish albums in recent years: contouring his battles with depression through gorgeous guitar instrumentals. And why he doesn’t shy away from these themes while playing live, his patter is droll and warm. Culminating in a solo take on his modern classic Car Song, originally recorded with Aidan Moffat, Hubby’s set was the perfect way to round off the weekend.

It would be fairly easy to hammer out another 5,000 words on how fantastic this weekend, these people and this island were, but it would probably be in vain. Suffice to say, it’s hard to think of a better place to spend your time than on Eigg. That there happened to be such a feast of amazing sounds to enjoy at the same time was a wonderful bonus.

Toumani and Sidiki Diabaté – The Barbican, London, 30/05/14

Toumani and Sidiki Diabaté


I guess since you’ve landed here you’re expecting to read some sort of review of Toumani and Sidiki Diabaté’s show at the Barbican tonight. The thing is, I’m kind of struggling. For while the Oxford English Dictionary helpfully provides 464 meanings for the word ‘set’, 396 for ‘run’ and 250 for ‘strike’, I’ve been through it with a fine-toothed comb, and there isn’t a superlative in there that even begins to capture how glorious this performance was.

I guess I could start with some basic observations. Toumani and Sidiki: father and son. Both play the kora, which is “a West African instrument with twenty-one strings, combining features of the harp and the lute”. (OED, all is forgiven). It looks like a bulbous cross between a banjo and a miniature double bass, and the different styles in which the men hold their instrument may or may not be a generational thing, but it certainly fits the narrative, so here goes.

Sidiki – Diabaté junior – holds the kora closer to the body, youthful and casual. Toumani, the master, leans in close, hunched over his instrument in concentration, carefully eeking every last note from its body.

And then there’s the Barbican. As ever, the venue is majestic. The sound is crystalline and full. While the comparisons to the lute and harp are technically valid, the depth of sound the instrument provides is unlike anything I’ve ever heard. There can be no better arena in which to hear it. Closing your eyes, it’s possible to imagine a full orchestra on the stage. Alas, it’s only father and son, perched on simple stools in flowing Malian boubous, playfully and dextrously riffing on a three note melody.

The show starts with Sidiki on the stage alone. He opens with a high, pressing sound, working different layers of texture through the piece, before finally allowing the fullest, loveliest melody you’ve ever heard to burst into bloom. Even on his own, he makes the noise of ten men. When he helps his father – walking with a visible limp – onto the stage, the pair repeat the trick for what seems like a heavenly eternity.

The dynamic is marvellous to watch. Father and son know each other’s musicianship inside out and a game of cat and mouse ensues over another three note melody. Toumani takes it one place, sends it back to Sidiki who plays it out in another key, at another speed, repeat until, surely, all the possible combinations have been executed.

“Sidiki is a pop star in Mali,” says father, chiding jokingly but clearly proud that his son has joined him on this tour (and on the fantastic album Toumani and Sidiki). Few words are spared over the course of the night, with the music allowed to speak for the both of them. But those that are shared carry a poignance that help crystallise the beauty of the evening. Toumani explains that the music isn’t just the product of a generation, but of hundreds of years of the Diabaté clan.

Only one song gets any introduction, as Toumani encourages us to close our eyes and listen to “Lampedusa”, a song written and recorded in the wake of the tragedy off the coast of the Italian island of the same name. 360 Africans, many of whom had been raped and tortured by traffickers, died as their boat sank as they made their way to Europe for what they thought would be a better life. “People in Africa think only good things happen in Europe”, says Toumani.

Two notes chime throughout “Lampedusa”, forming the core of the melody. Life and death. Joy and pain. Hope and despair. Over the course of five minutes, Toumani and Sidiki capture essence of tragedy, the maddening futility of death, the infuriating disposability of life, better than a thousand editorials. It’s impossible not to shed a tear through closed eyes, and as the last note chimes out, it hangs in the air for what feels like a lifetime. Tonight was special; a performance never to be forgotten – a performance to make you tear up everything you thought you knew about what live music should be.


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