Five of the Best: #5: Ally Brown

Ally writes for The Skinny, Drowned in Sound, Clash, Popmatters, Chordstrike and Blogcritics. Before it ceased to exist, he was a writer for the excellent Stylus. So I am delighted and surprised that he’s found the time to contribute the fifth selection of albums to mark the passing of the decade.

Portishead – Third (2008)

When I first heard it

I almost never download leaks, but for some reason I wanted to hear this one ASAP. I wasn’t particularly a Portishead fan and of course no-one had much hope for this because it was 11 years since the album before. I remember sitting at my desk in my office — which is unfortunately where I hear most music for the first time now — and being totally struck, from the first listen, with a sense of terror. Most albums need a couple listens to sink in, I tend to take two or three passive listens before I actively listen out for bits or lines or sections or moods that emerge. But this hit me straight away. As the booming sirens faded at the end of the final song, I banged my head down on my desk. I was utterly stunned.

Why I love it

I think it very subtly — but very clearly — conveys a sense of fear and horror that’s really overwhelming. I mean, it doesn’t take any easy routes, it doesn’t use any gimmicks to achieve this, and some of the songs or sections don’t seem to follow this theme. But that’s how it is in a film: an expert horror film doesn’t need to use gimmicks or gore, and it isn’t constantly trying to scare you; it needs periods of apparent normality for the scary bits to really hit hard. People always say that OK Computer is about the fear of where technology is taking us, and I think of Third as OK Computer taken to its apocalyptic conclusion.

What it reminds me of

Reading “The Day Of The Triffids” at school. I hope I never forget seeing them at Coachella in 2008, particularly when they unleashed “Machine Gun” and I wanted to duck.

Standout track

I could quite easily say “Machine Gun” but I’ll go for… “The Rip”. And I’ll change my mind if you ask me again.

The Twilight Sad – Fourteen Autumns & Fifteen Winters (2007)



When I first heard it

Don’t remember. It didn’t strike me immediately. But I remember after I’d already submitted a 4-star review to The Skinny feeling compelled to play it again. Usually when I’ve reviewed an album that’s it sown up, so to speak, I put it away and don’t go back to it for months. But I played this again and again and again and had to phone Dave (my editor) up to tell him to change it to a 5 before we went to print.

Why I love it

This is harder to pin down. I love the way it flows. It seems to have perfect pacing and balance, rising and falling in volume and size and energy all the way through. I love James Graham’s vocals — when he loses it you know he’s really losing it — and his lyrics just need a few vivid images here and there to let you know what’s going on. We can fill in the rest ourselves. And I love the guitar textures. The critic in me knows it’s just a well-executed anthemic indie-rock record, and that perhaps I should prioritise other albums, more innovative or ground-breaking albums say. But I think Mirrored is a load of wank (“Atlas” apart). This record is totally invigorating to me every time I play it, and the blogger in me says “best” is really just a fancy word for “favourite”.

What it reminds me of

Ha, this is an odd one. I was going in for an operation, so I remember lying on a hospital bed waiting for them to wheel me downstairs, listening to this on headphones, thinking “fucking brilliant!” Wasn’t scared about the op at all. Then they gave me two valiums and I listened to Sam Cooke singing “Cupid”, I was in heaven!

Standout track

“And She Would Darken The Memory”

Burial – Untrue (2007)

When I first heard it

I remember first hearing it thinking – wtf is this? I didn’t get it at all. I didn’t know any dubstep and this was totally alien to me. I later found out that this isn’t really what most dubstep sounds like.

Why I love it

Because it’s so unique – or it is to me, at least. The atmosphere it creates is so stark. I think the snatches of disembodied vocals are what do it – walking home in headphones you’re looking around, down alleys and between bushes, thinking “where did that come from?” But, it’s also pretty funky. It’s a dance record which keeps you on your toes because your senses are heightened by fear.

What it reminds you of:

People always say it’s evocative of walking through the East End of London at night but I live in Edinburgh so that’s meaningless to me! But walking along King Stables Road, under the bridge on a freezing cold night; right, I get it now.

Standout track

“Archangel” perhaps? But I don’t really think any track is a standout, it’s a real album in the old-fashioned, rockist sense.

Primal Scream – XTRMNTR (2000)

When I first heard it

Four or five years after it came out. All I knew of Primal Scream was Screamadelica, and I heard this and was stunned.

Why I love it

It’s very close to being an archetypal album for my own tastes when it comes to rock. The rhythms are all-important, the propulsion, the energy, the aggression. It’s much more like a dance record than a traditional indie-rock record, it’s closer to the Chemical Brothers than something like Blur (and there is a Chems mix on it too). It’s also sequenced brilliantly. The anarchistic themes are a little silly, some of the lyrics sound like they were written by the wee boy who introduces the whole thing. But I can get past that fault when the energy is just so damn exciting. I want to start making my own music now and I want it to have rhythm like this.

What it reminds me of

I was going through a musical dry spell having listened to a lot and had nothing grab me, for ages, and I was starting to worry that I was growing out of it (a day I hope never arrives). This knocked me dead. It was a huge relief.

Standout track

Could easily go for “Swastika Eyes” or but I LOVE the drumming of “Blood Money”, that song pretty much encapsulates why I love this album.

Joanna Newsom – Ys (2006)

When I first heard it

I’d walked into Paisley town centre, to the only decent music shop in town (now closed of course), and plunked a tenner on it without first hearing it because all the contrasting reviews had intrigued me so much. I got home and put it on loud on my big speakers, my Dad came home and looked at me and said “Ally, what is this?”, with a troubled look on his face. I was all “I know, huh!”, furrowed brow, what a riddy. I’d have been less embarrassed to be caught wanking.

Why I love it

I still have a look like that on my face when I play it, but now it’s because I’m stopping myself from welling up.

What it reminds me of

Every so often a record challenges your tastes so much you have to redefine them. It’s like: the first time I tasted beer I thought it was minging; and I still don’t like red wine. My first reaction to this wasn’t just apathy, it was antipathy. But with each subsequent listen my stance softened until I became an awe-struck, whimpering mess. I can understand why some people hate it, and my 15 year old self is frankly disgusted that I have any time for this at all. But I broke through that wall of machismo. It also made me think about: how many listens does an album deserve if you hate it first time? Well, you can think about why you hate it. Some albums are within your normal taste range but seem somehow incompetent, while others are a little outside the kind of thing you usually listen to, and so need a bit of getting used to. Those ones are worth persisting with; case in point.

Standout track

“Emily” I think, but it’s close between all five.

Choice Cut Video: The Twilight Sad – And She Would Darken The Memory

http://www.youtube.com/v/QBHnESrmmM0&hl=en_US&fs=1&

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