12 Plays of Christmas – Kevin Morby

The scene sways and shifts, my vision staggering across the half-lit room. Behind the bar an endless row of half-full liquor bottles shimmer in the cathode ray haze. The barman, silent and as tall as two men, pours me another shot. I taste the angry burn on the back of my neck and light another cigarette. In the corner a middle-aged couple rive in slow motion, snaking across the tiny wooden space you may as well call the dance floor. The only other person is an old man paring his nails with a penknife, the yellowing scraps piling up on the floor around him. A wurlitzer jukebox plays the music of Kevin Morby.

There is something simultaneously unsettling and soothing about Singing Saw, an album of beautiful, weary vocals and soft, ghostly instrumentation. His music comes from another place, yet speaks of this one.

I Have Been To The Mountain is a gospel-infused roar, built on a piston engine of guitars and keys that touches on the politics of race and poverty. It’s potency is in it’s precipitous control, always on the edge but never quite falling:

Dorothy conjures the ghosts of music and love past. Crunching, Velvet Undergound-like guitars, a driving Sprinsteenish piano are the background to a story of needs that just won’t quit:

And lets go hit the town
And we could fill a room up with smoke
y’know I got the first round
As we tell all those stories told
And I would pretend you were new
Like I was just introduced to you
And all the music in my ears

Black Flowers is a folk idyll with a hand-picked guitar of beautiful simplicity and a ripple of rickety old piano. It’s a dream of a place to call home, hurriedly scratched out on the back of a cigarette packet in the last moments of a drunken night that is then long forgotten. One day you will find it down the back of the sofa and smile.

In the last few years Americana has had something of a renaissance yet Kevin Morby remains on the periphery , scribbling ideas in the fog of a half-smoked cigarette and wondering whether someone will ask him to dance tonight. You can purchase Singing Saw from Dead Ocean Records.

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12 Plays of Christmas – Whitney

The breeze rises as the sun falls, dipping down until only its corona casts a lazy, hazy orange across the horizon. You make your way up the winding, half-trodden trail, the never-cut grass brushing against your thighs, the wildflowers arcing towards the last light, stopping only when you reach the very edge of the promontory so that as you sway forward it feels as if you are floating in the air. You wrap your arms around your chest, the overlong sleeves of your jumper covering all but the tips of your fingers and take a deep breath. Your eyes flit across the water, chasing the diamond glitter of light as it ripples across the surface, and you realise that you’re smiling. This is the sound of Whitney.

Light Upon The Lake is a wandering wisp of an album, as slight as a fading shadow, as brief as a passing thought, yet warm and comforting like a meal prepared by your mother.  It stands at barely 30 minutes and stands tall.

It begins with a sleepy stir of organ and a triumphant blur of soulful horns. No Woman dawdles across the landscape, a steam train on its last journey, held together by fuzzy threads of guitar and close harmonies:

Golden Days is a sauntering swish of nostalgia, its guitar work synthesised wholly and beautifully from Neil Young’s back catalogue. At their best Whitney sound effortless, like they’re not even trying to break your heart:

It may be a debut record but there are break-away moments in this record. The promise of new ground to be explored. Red Moon is Americana breaking into jazz, road music that doesn’t quite last to the end of the road:

Whitney’s music has presence. As if it has always been here, a graceful simplicity just waiting for a listener. Close you eyes and feel the fading warmth of the sun. You can buy Light Upon The Lake here.

12 Plays Of Christmas – The Frightnrs

Seasons greetings, fellow slackers. It’s that fallow period of the day, somewhere between the exorbitant ambition of a full english and the celebratory salvo of crackers cracking and corks popping that signal the start of even more feasting. Christmas here is mainly about the eating. We only have the 12 different varieties of cheese in the fridge (yes, I have counted).

Anyway, I’m going to utilise this moment to share something splendid. The Frightner’s first and, unfortunately, last record is a soulful spin on 70’s reggae. Released on the legendary Daptones label, this labour of love should be wallowed in during that brief but necessary carbocoma that will hit this afternoon.

I’m not going to overload you with my usual pompous, pretentious stream of consciousness shtick. Consider that my gift to you. Here’s the highlights:

Have a glorious day and then buy this record here.

 

12 Plays of Christmas – ANONHI

If, like me, you’re English the next few days of your life will probably be filled with wrapping paper, an unhealthy  quantity of carbohydrates and enough mulled wine to wash away the last memories of your working life. You’ll wake on boxing day with a well-earned headache and covered in a thin veneer of glitter. This is the way things should be. At this point, you should not listen to this fantastic record. Save it for the time of resolutions.

There are two albums that sum up 2016 for me and this is the first of them. It is sharp, bitter and discordant. It looks at the world, it’s horror and it’s tragedy, and refuses to run. It screams we must do better. Welcome folks, to my seasonal cheer.

ANONHI is the project of 3 outstanding musicians, Hudson Mohawke, Oneohtrix Point Never and Anonhi, who have made a habit out of being unpredictable. 3 people who are happy in just being themselves and have nothing to prove to anyone. Hopelessness is the sound of anger and despair, oily and translucent, filtered to a pure, transparent glass of rage and sadness.

Drone Bomb Me is a song about guilt. Our guilt, as we read the papers and watch the news. Our guilt as we see how arbitrarily, how distantly, the world seems to pick who lives and dies. From behind a wall of ice-cold, spiky electronica it screams: choose me tonight

Given that one of the world’s leading super powers has just elected a climate change denier. Given that it will be hotter in the UK this Christmas than last year, the previous hottest  – despite me having to de-ice my car yesterday morning. Given that somewhere between 90 and 100% of experts agree that humans are responsible for climate change. Is there really a more apt, or important, pop song from the last year than 4 degrees? It is the sound of someone who cannot quite believe we’re not listening:

I wanna burn the sky, I wanna burn the breeze
I wanna see the animals die in the trees

Still with us? Having a lovely time? Excellent. The album closes with Marrow, a song of fragile and harrowing beauty. It knees globalisation in the balls and manages to look classy while doing it. We are all Americans now:

So, yes, it is a record of sadness and rage but also of beauty and necessity . Anonhi’s voice and words retain that thrilling and mesmeric quality that first made her stand out. The music, at first a background scribble to her immediacy, is slowly unveiled as an ornate monument of ice and fire. It is quite unlike anything else you’ll hear yet never sounds manufactured. It has soul.

You can buy Hopelessness from all sorts of places including ANONHI’s bandcamp page.

12 Plays of Christmas – Car Seat Headrest

2016 has been a shitty year and that, for better or for worse, is reflected in it’s music. It also means that this last is sad and angry and full of songs of social conscience. Which is fine, because, sometimes, sad and angry is what you need. Before we plunge headlong into the darkness though let’s pause for some frolics.

Car Seat Headrest are ferocious and wild and -I can honestly report – damaging to hearing if played too loud for too long in a small car. They are also smart and funny and throw gorgeous, chunky riffs at you at about the same speed and frequency as Donald Trump throws billionaires at cabinet positions.

If the previous records on this list were music to drift away on, happily lost in a hushed reverie, then this is a record to be thrown around by , to share indecent deeds with, to wake battered and bruised from. It is called Teens of Denial for a reason.

The tracks are long but the moments race by, fluid traces of ideas barely sink in before you’re catapulted in a new direction fingers grasping at the disappearing landscape, but there is wit and warmth in these teenage streams of consciousness and occasional laugh-out loud poignancy:

I’ve been waiting all my life
I’ve been waiting for some real good porn
Something with meaning, something fulfilling
I’d like to make my shame count for something

But in the end, this is not music to be chatted about or to be discussed amongst peers over a few light ales. It is music to be ferocious and  stupid with. Just turn the amps up to eleven and let go:

Teens of Denial is available from Matador Records.

12 Plays Of Christmas – Star Parks

I spent most of the summer in my car racing – well, pootling – across the country, mainly because I actually could. Throughout those journeys I was accompanied by the music of Star Parks, a band who sound like they escaped from a theme park co-designed by Brian Wilson and Chris Bell. Their debut album, Don’t Dwell, is the breeze in your hair, the smell of engine oil and candy floss, the hazy lights of arcades bursting into technicolor as the sun sets. It feels like my childhood, with its half-forgotten nostalgia and half-imagined glory.

Fresh out of Austin Texas and signed to the excellent Dublin-based Paper Trail Records (also the home of Beach Moon/Peach Moon) Star Parks make 60’s style chamber pop with a nod to modern americana and a lyrical wit that sneaks up on you. Egotist is a typical example. On the surface a standard ditty about liking a girl that turns out to be much more evil than that:

I can’t help it, I like your girlfriend

I’m gonna do what I can to make her mine

Loose Ends is a wistful piano-driven paean that careens into a wall at the end of each verse, twisting and contorting into a maddening, majestic dreamscape of sound. It sucks you in and then stomps across your reverie. It is a mind finding peace, but only ever briefly, intoxicated as it is by it’s own failings. It wants to go but can’t let go:

The highlight of this album, and a song that I fell in love with at first listen, is Theoretical Girl. It sounds like it accidentally escaped from Jason Pierce’s mind, laying dormant, eternally patient, waiting for a new host to come along. It’s a song about daydreams, about falling in love with someone you’ve never spoken to, about the joy and horror of this daily, obsessive pretence.  It also has the greatest horns on any song I’ve heard this year:

Thanks to modern production techniques, first albums are increasingly slick so it’s no surprise that this is a brilliant engineered album. Where it stands above its peers is in its authority. It’s hard to make pop music that sounds likes it’s from another era without sounding like you want to be from that era.  But Star Parks aren’t trying to sound like anyone else, they’re just true to themselves and that shines through.

You can buy Don’t Dwell from Paper Trail’s bandcamp page. I highly recommend the baby blue vinyl – though not for listening to in the car.

12 Plays of Christmas – Ben Walker and Josienne Clarke

I promised myself I’d start earlier this year so in late October Quiff packed up it’s tiny hipster record deck and retired to its cell for some heavy-duty meditation. Six weeks – and some impressive hair growth – later and here we are one day ahead of last year’s schedule. Congratulations are due all round I’m sure you’d agree. Especially since, at the last count only 9 of the 12 records required for this list had been chosen.

The idea is simple, one terrific album for each of the next 12 days taking us up to the probable, or improbable, birth date of that terribly nice, or terribly rebellious, bloke who may, or may not, be the son of a god that may, or may not, exist. All clear? Good, because what’s likely to happen is that I will continue to mask my laziness with a blend of forgetfulness and displacement activity and we’ll finish some time in early January. Still, the records will be very, very good.

We begin with an album which was one of the few whose impending release I was truly excited about.  Ben Walker and Josienne Clarke’s previous record was a thing of joy and wonderment. A quiet folk opus drawing together the myriad threads of a thousand musical ideas into a warm and cosy blanket of beauty.

This is not a band that lack for ambition or the talent which is required to steer a record away from the rocky outcrops of pretension. Overnight is, like the best things, both seemingly obvious and unfathomably deep. It is the story of a single person on a single night , rising at dusk and setting just after dawn, lost in contemplation, dreams a mere whisper in the leaves.

Something Familiar is eloquent and melancholy, the gossamer-light flicker of a flame going out:

I wouldn’t say I was lonely
But I know we’re alone
My mind clings to memory
Like a heart to a home

There is the sense of a truth unfurling here, a darkness embraced by their dawdling, jazz-tinged cover of Gillian Welch’s Dark Turn Of Mind, the crystalline purity of the original turned imperceptibly to reflect the light from a new angle:

And so the record turns, skewering down into the night, drifting in to a listless sleep before rising to the warm caress of the sun. The truth, before so insubstantial, is now absolute and unavoidable. Her relationship is over and it is time to begin anew:

Overnight is a record of death and rebirth told through the most cunningly obvious of allegories. It is the darkness at the end of something and the lightness of the start. It tells the story of the terrible thoughts we have when relationships end, of guilt and anger and relief and reminds us that we rise again, the glory of a summer’s day ahead.

Overnight is available on Rough Trade Records.

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