Split Pediment

The musings of a Brighton-based architecture dweeb and town planner in training.

Category: Pop

This year’s listening

I don’t frequently write here about music, although it’s very important to me. Prompted partially by a tweet from a pal (more on whom anon) I thought I’d give you a taste of my year’s listening. (As I don’t keep notes, this will be a partial and skewed list, bending towards what I can remember and what I’m generally listening to now).

Walk the moon

Still my current favourite band, I saw them twice this year in London and will probably do so again in February. They provide a distilled, electro-tinged version of guitar pop, the sort that so many bands attempt to do. What sets these guys apart is their seeming wide-eyed incredulity with the whole business, a genuine joie de vivre and some almightily wondrous songs. This is casual but heartfelt pop music that never fails to lift my mood.

Or this for schmaltz:

Luke Sital Singh

Luke I’ve seen twice, both times at The Hope in Brighton. Again, he’s not reinventing any wheels: he sings, he plays guitar, he looks slightly awkward. We’ve all seen this before. Again, though, it’s the quality of the songwriting that comes through. And live, the raw edge to his voice provides a depth to the tonal range that hasn’t yet been captured on record (his studio work, I think produced largely by the excellent Paul Steel, uses lush harmonies that are equally as compelling). There’s a spiritual dimension to his work, and at both gigs a quasi-reverential silence was present – rare for a Brighton crowd.

Owen Pallett

Earlier this year I went to the Barbican to see Owen Pallett’s violin concerto and Nico Muhly’s cello concerto. Both were excellent, adventurous works for these composers. But it’s Owen’s work writing pop music that I’ve got to know, both his Hearland album and his earlier works under the Final Fantasy moniker. Whilst I first started listening to these last year, they’ve remained firm favourites throughout 2012. Owen’s complex songs utilise an imaginative tonal spectrum, frequently dragging the mournful pastoral colours of the orchestra into the sweltering Arizona sun.

Stuart Warwick

Stuart hates two things most of all in life: being compared vocally to Thom Yorke and the fact that John Barrowman (surely an alien life form) continues to refuse to be mawled to death by a billion howling sea monkeys. Whilst not a close personal friend of mine, we did once stop to talk to each other on North Street whilst my left foot was bleeding into my shoe. His new album – The Butcher’s Voice – is excellent; eschewing the bombastic layering that most loop-based songwriters collapse into, his are genuine songs with an unrivalled poignancy. He’s also one of the few queer (as opposed to mainstream gay) artists living in Brighton, by which I mean that he is political and grossly ignored.

Ben Folds Five

The reformation of all three of the Five was something I consider a near-personal favour. Little did I realise, upon attending their gig in Birmingham earlier this year, that a thousand thirty five year old women and their boyfriends also know every word of The Unauthorized Biography of Reinhold Messner. Still, that didn’t stop me from singing as loud as possible all the complex harmonic improvements that fifteen years of listening to these songs has gifted me. Their new album is (let’s be kind) a grower, with a couple of stand-out tracks. But just hearing them play live was a treat. It’s like what people who love metal say – you go for the mosh pit, but it’s the musicianship that blows you away. OK, there was no moshpit, but hot smokin dang these guys can PLAY.

The John Wilson Orchestra

The year has not been a particularly fruitful one for “classical” music for me. I singularly failed to see any of the proper proms – from whence I get my usual fix – but I did manage to make the campest of the Albert Hall’s offerings over the summer: John Wilson’s orchestra’s Broadway sounds prom. It did indeed sound fantastic (even allowing for the cavernous are-you-sure-the-orchestra-are-in-the-same-room acoustics), and the highlights included Seth MacFarlane’s exuberant glee, the ballet from On the Town [which I think really stands up to repeated listenings. Concert programmers could consider swapping the rather over-used Candide overture for arrangements of the On The Town ballet sequences] and this monster reprise performed by the wonderful Anna-Jane Casey:

Parade

Whilst we’re on the musicals theme, the best show I saw this year was the Rose Bruford school’s performance of Jason Robert Brown’s Parade. This is a cheery little show concerning the apparently wrongful conviction of Leo Frank for the murder of Mary Phagan, using this sorry episode as a study of wider anti-semitism and notions of Southern identity in early 20th century America. Through song. The show is a tour de force. For those of you unfamiliar with Jason Robert Brown’s work, he is the pre-eminent composer of musical theatre (let’s admit that Sondheim’s finest hour is past. And that JRB might – *might* – actually be better). Mark Newnham – the aforementioned pal of mine – played the lead (brilliantly, but I would say that) and the whole cast, who were on stage throughout, forming the orchestra as well as singing and acting, were astounding. I’ve listened to the Donmar cast recording (Rose Bruford weren’t recorded, though they were better) on so many train journeys that I’m convinced there’s a clipped-voiced lady announcing the imminent arrival at Haywards Heath half way through the second act.

Retro Stefson

This year’s standout act from the Great Escape festival, Retro Stefson are a samba-tinged Icelandic septet of what appear to be the bounciest teenagers known to trampolines. Their tambourine player/lead dancer is one enthustiastic fellow, who instantly whipped the sullen Brighton crowd into a morass of embarrassed near-frenzy.

Joshua James, Admiral Fallow

Whilst these haven’t been at the top of my year’s listening, they have recently acquired a place on the “investigate further” list – Joshua James through giving away a download of his Build Me This 2009 album; Admiral Fallow through an excellent set at the Green Door Store recently (as well as the lead singer’s solo slot at the same venue as part of a previous Great Escape).

So, I hope that gives you a flavour of my year’s listening. I’m off to investigate Mark’s recommendation of the Syd Arthur Band. 

Do send me any musical recommendations you may have, and if you’ve been to any decent gigs with me that I was too inebriated to remember, send me a little reminder.

Entertainment

I make no apologies for once again speaking of Mr Michael Chabon and quoting him at length. It turns out that I hadn’t actually read everything he’s written and published (although I believe I soon will have. Get me) and, whilst moseying about in The Strand bookstore I found a paperback copy of some collected essays of his. The first essay, “Trickster in a Suit of Lights”, begins as follows:

Entertainment has a bad name. Serious people learn to mistrust and even to revile it. The word wears spandex, pasties, a leisure suit studded with blinking lights. It gives off a whiff of Coppertone and dripping Creamsickle, the fake-butter miasma of a movie-house lobby, of karaoke and Jägermeister, Jerry Bruckheimer movies, a Street Fighter machine grunting solipsistically in a corner of an ice-rink arcade. Entertainment trades in cliché and product placement. It engages regions of the brain far from the centers of discernment, critical thinking, ontological speculation.

Naturally MC goes on to debunk this and argues for a restoration of entertainment – specifically in the form of the short story – to what he sees as its hallowed place.

This morning I read an interesting piece in the Graun, following the Royal Ballet‘s tour of Cuba (Carlos Acosta‘s fine presence in said company playing no doubt some part in said arrangement). You should read it too, if you have an interest in ballet or Cuba (“Aw, shucks. Tap and Bolivia – that’s all I care about. What a gosh darned shame”). These sorts of pieces, I find, tend to end with some concluding thought – like Jerry Springer – and usually it’s some platitude masquerading as profundity. Not this time:

Sitting above Havana, gazing over a city slowly being rebuilt, [Edward] Watson [one of the RB’s principle dancers] suggests that back in Britain the link between dance and reality has become tragically worn, that in our wealth we’ve lost the understanding of what a tour like this should mean. “Here, people come to be entertained,” he tells me. “In London, too many come to criticise, to form their opinions, but here they just come for a good time.”

To form their opinions… There’s a phrase. The challenge, then: to allow oneself to be entertained, to revel in and celebrate art; to admit and incorporate one’s ignorance; to shrink from the quick opinion; to forgo the easy lament of one’s own inadequacies and to cheer the fine, hard work of the creator and the performer and the stagehand.

Saw these guys yesterday doing this. They were brilliant.

The rude health of popular music

It’s often claimed that popular music has died a death, never again to be resurrected; that the masses will abandon all sense of communality and that the long-reigning pop sensibility will collapse upon itself into its disparate component parts. At least by me it has. So I found myself curiously aroused (not like that, you dirty trollops) upon watching the latest top forty run-down through the tellybox.

Yes, alright – not every one of the songs currently featured are decent or tuneful or reasonably-crafted, but a significant number more than usual seem to be. Or I’m getting weak. Let me tweeze out the highlights.

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This week I have been mainly listening to…

The fine musical stylings of Mr Paul Steel who knows a thing or two about a decent chord progression.