Upcoming Music Releases – September 2012

September looks like a great month for new music, with several well-regarded acts releasing new albums.  Despite persistent rumours to the contrary, the album format isn’t dead just yet.

4-Sep-2012:

Experimental rock outfit Animal Collective releases Centipede Hz, their first album since 2009’s critically acclaimed Merriweather Post PavilionMPP perfected the tricky balancing act of combining unusual sounds and challenging songwriting with bouncy, digestible production techniques.  Early word is that the new album is yet another shift in the group’s fearlessly evolving sound, this time ramping up the sonic density to new levels.

Fresh off an appearance at the London 2012 closing ceremonies, UK rock act Elbow release a b-sides collection.  Dead in the Boot collects various odds ‘n’ sods from the past decade, songs that for whatever reason did not find their way onto one of Elbow’s five excellent studio albums.  Recommended for fans of brooding, quietly anthemic (and that’s not meant to be a contradiction), unquestionably British rock music.

11-Sep-2012:

North Carolina’s Avett Brothers return with new album The Carpenter, the follow-up to 2009’s breakthrough I And Love And You.  Their unique brand of rocked-up, punked-out folk resonates well with satellite radio listeners and music festival attendees, many of whom seem to become instant fans.  Über-producer Rick Rubin is once again on hand to twiddle the knobs and push the sliders, which should give The Carpenter the same kind of uncluttered, widescreen space to sprawl out and engage listeners as its predecessor.

Despite occasional dalliances with other styles, Calexico’s music has usually been grounded in the American southwest.  Tucson-based Calexico have elected to switch things up this time, recording new album Algiers not in northern Africa but in the lovely and musical city of New Orleans.  Expect Calexico’s trademark sounds (warm vocals, acoustic guitars and mariachi horns) to still feature prominently in the mix, just in an entirely new musical context.

One of the best albums of 2009 was the debut recording from tricky-to-Google group The XX.  Its combination of beguiling beats, boy/girl vocals and crystalline sonic textures earned the UK band the Mercury Music Prize.  New album Coexist aims to build on the momentum of the debut, the group’s greatest strength being their ability to infuse the spaces between the notes with just as much beauty as the notes themselves.

18-Sep-2012:

Alt-something (alt-rock? alt-folk? alt-country?) group Band of Horses are back with new album Mirage Rock.  The strong songwriting on their previous album, 2010’s Infinite Arms, opened a lot of doors, securing Band of Horses appearances on national TV and a prime slot at seemingly every major music festival.  This time out, the band elected to work with legendary producer Glyn Johns, best known for being behind the boards for five-star classics like Sticky Fingers and Exile on Main Street by the Stones, and Who’s Next and Quadrophenia by The Who.  At the very least, Mirage Rock should sound fantastic.  If Band of Horses can once again deliver on the songwriting and performing front, this album should appear on many Best of 2012 lists.

The rumours are true.  Ben Folds Five are back together, and their reunion album The Sound of the Life of the Mind is set to drop.  A lot of water has passed under the bridge since 1999’s brilliant The Unauthorized Biography of Reinhold Messner.  Ben Folds’ songwriting has grown in a multitude of new directions over several solo records.  It will be interesting to see what getting back together with drummer Darren Jessee and bassist Robert Sledge does to Ben’s muse.  Will the presence of his old pals spark a return of the angst-ridden smart-ass piano slammer we knew and loved?

Studio album #4 from The Killers is called Battle Born.  The presence of A-list producers like Daniel Lanois, Steve Lillywhite, and Brendan O’Brien suggests that the Las Vegas band is once again setting their sights on Joshua Tree epic greatness.   Brandon Flowers’ recent solo projects seem to have given him more confidence and a better ability to exploit his limited vocal range – we shall see how this translates to a full-blown Killers album.

25-Sep-2012:

Rootsy UK folk-rockers Mumford & Sons finally release the follow-up to 2009’s Sigh No MoreBabel seeks to build on the ubiquitous airplay of earlier tracks like “Little Lion Man”.  Early reports suggest that Babel will not reinvent wheels – if you liked the punk-rock banjo stylings and harmony vocals of the debut, you won’t be disappointed by these twelve new songs.

A Symphony of British Music

Some random observations on the closing ceremonies of the 2012 London Olympic Games:

It was previously noted in these pages that the opening and closing ceremonies of the 2012 Games would enjoy the luxury of cherry-picking from amongst the greatest acts the popular music world has ever known.  This was evident during tonight’s ceremony.  In February 2010, Vancouver shut off their Olympic lights to the tortured strains of Simple Plan, Nickelback, and Avril Lavigne.  Canadians have been apologizing to the world for noise pollution ever since.  The British, in contrast, have nothing to apologize for.  Their gifts to the world of music are undeniably great.  The UK charts have been an embarrassment of riches for five decades.

Ray Davies emerged from a London taxi and, from a perch maybe a scant ten kilometres from his original muse, sang his Kinks masterwork “Waterloo Sunset”.  The perpetually stylish Pet Shop Boys vamped their way around Olympic Stadium to the immediately recognizable synthesized strains of “West End Girls”.  Even dancehall-pop group Madness were resurrected for a madcap version of their worldwide hit “Our House”.

For some unfathomable reason, David Bowie was not on hand to sing Olympian favourite “Heroes” – instead, we got Memorex Bowie and recordings like “Fashion”.  Larger-than-life actor Russell Brand filled in for John Lennon on a surreal take on The Beatles’ “I Am The Walrus”.  Goo goo ga-joob!

There may be no more haunting, glorious sound on the planet than the sound of a Welsh men’s choir.  Something about that sound resonates in the ancestral lobes of my brain.

The Canadian television feed of the ceremony helpfully identified most of the performers, and even managed to show most of the performances, unlike a certain American network (earning the now-ubiquitous label #NBCfail).  But for whatever reason, CTV/TSN left out the name of one important act.  In case you were wondering which fantastic band played while the athletes were entering the stadium – that was Northern England’s own Elbow.  The two songs they performed, “Open Arms” and “One Day Like This”, are big favourites of the Craven Hermit.  If you would like to hear more of this band’s epic melodic genius, check out their 2011 album Build a Rocket Boys! or 2008’s The Seldom Seen Kid.

Annie Lennox could sing page 417 of the phone book and still sound amazing.

2009 saw the acrimonious split of Oasis, with Noel and Liam Gallagher pledging to never work together again (at least not until some concert promoter backs up a truck filled with a couple tons of gold bullion).  In the meantime, Noel continues to refuse to participate in all public spectacles on the principle that ‘they are all completely shite’.  On this night, it was left to Liam’s new project Beady Eye to perform “Wonderwall” for the masses.  If you think the symphonic strings on stage and on your television screen were actually part of the live music mix, then perhaps you’d be interested in some ocean-front property we’re selling.  In Saskatchewan.

Fatboy Slim emerged from an inflatable octopus at mid-field (drugs were taken) to ‘play’ “Right Here Right Now” and “The Rockafeller Skank”.  Although any half-way talented twelve-year-old with an iPad and a 99-cent app could have ‘performed’ it just as well.

Jessie J is basically the UK’s answer to Katy Perry except with bigger, err, lungs.  Her manager somehow talked the organizers into putting her into four (yes, FOUR) songs, which was at least 75% more Jessie J than anyone really needed.

Comedy legend Eric Idle appeared mid-ceremony to lead the assembled masses through a rendition of Monty Python’s “Always Look On The Bright Side Of Life”, complete with gorgeous angels, roller-blading nuns, a Bollywood interlude, and a man fired across the stadium from a cannon.  Of course.

More than two decades after his untimely death, Freddie Mercury can still capture the imagination of a crowd of 80,000 punters with the immortal music of Queen.  Footage of Freddie singing at Queen’s 1986 triumphant gig at old Wembley Stadium inspired the audience to raise their voices in unison.  Despite a lack of critical acclaim throughout their career, Queen truly are the UK’s ‘People’s Band’.  Too bad they couldn’t rustle up someone more exciting to sing “We Will Rock You” with Brian May and Roger Taylor than Jessie J.  Hell, if George Michael was so insistent on doing a second song tonight, he could have sung the hell out of this one.

The Craven Hermit is a huge Muse fan, but the song they wrote for the Olympics is pretty much the definition of ‘meh’.  ‘Bombastic’ is not synonymous with ‘great’ or even ‘interesting’.  As their ancestral countryman might have said – Muse’s “Survival” is full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.  Hopefully this isn’t a sign of things to come on the next Muse record, which will be released in early October.

Once again, the ceremony made a point of covering up the crippling unpopularity of IOC chairman Jacques Rogge.  Much like the way that all pro hockey functions are obligated to trot out NHL commissioner Gary Bettman in the company of a one-legged Nobel laureate orphan with an incurable disease, the Olympic organizers made sure that Rogge was always paired up with popular characters like indefatigable British sporting legend Sebastian Coe.  One imagines that if Rogge ever took to a stage alone, he would either be met with silent indifference or, worse, several dozen bottles of pee hurled at his head.  (Incidentally, bottled-pee-hurling would not be the most ridiculous of Olympic events, and British music festival attendees would take the gold medal in a walk).  But on this night, Coe did his best to inspire the crowd and keep everything civil.  Note to the IOC – if your chairman is so unpopular that you have to pair him up with the human equivalent of a baby kitten for all of his public appearances, maybe it’s time for a new chairman.  Just saying.

One could quibble with the ceremony organizers’ inability to feature Radiohead or Coldplay or Kasabian or Manic Street Preachers or Blur or the Stone Roses or New Order on this night (though New Order and Blur did appear at the Hyde Park after-party).  Even the petrified remains of the Rolling Stones and Led Zeppelin were AWOL.  Imagine the goosebumps if Peter Gabriel had come out to do “In Your Eyes”, or even Robbie Williams for “Angels”.  And no offence to gifted up-and-comer Ed Sheeran, but it would have been nice to see either David Gilmour or Roger Waters amble on stage to join Pink Floyd’s Nick Mason for “Wish You Were Here”.  That said, surely there was enough musical talent on hand to reach a British quorum anyway.

As expected, Roger Daltrey and Pete Townshend closed out the ceremony, charged with reinvigorating the crowd after the extinguishing of the Olympic flame.  Meanwhile The Who’s original combustible drummer Keith Moon did not appear, despite rumours to the contrary, on account of still being quite dead.

And we here at the Craven Hermit blog don’t care what anyone says.  She might have left the group years ago.  She might not be the world’s greatest singer.  She’s not even a red-head anymore.  But Geri Halliwell, aka Ginger Spice, can still brighten anyone’s day.  There should be a gold medal awarded for singing from the roof of a moving taxi while wearing 4″ heels.

Last word goes to Bruce Arthur of the National Post, who tweeted this contrast between Vancouver and London:

No inflatable beavers in the Closing Ceremony.  Britain wins.

Fond But Not In Love (part two)

Good practice, kids. Now it’s time for the easiest part of any coach’s job.  The cuts.  Although I wasn’t able to cut everyone I wanted to, I have cut a lot of you. Wendell is cut. Rudy is cut. Janey, you’re gone. Steven, I like your hustle. That’s why it was so hard to cut you. Congratulations, the rest of you made the team! Except you, you and you.

– Homer Simpson, pre-eminent football coach (“Bart Star” episode 5F03).

Here’s a few more albums that I really liked in 2011 but didn’t make the final cut:

Elbow – Build A Rocket Boys!

The band Elbow has become a UK rock institution.  Their previous album, The Seldom Seen Kid, won the Mercury Prize as critic’s choice for album of the year in Britain.  This year, Build A Rocket Boys! was released to similar levels of acclaim.  Elbow has leveraged their talent for crafting ‘everyman’ anthems to maximum effect.  Lead-off track “The Birds” chugs along with electronic precision, while “Lippy Kids” wistfully gives the album its title.  “With Love” is the most engaging single here, using multi-layered vocals to carry the gorgeous melody.  The only problem with Build A Rocket Boys! is that it never quite captures the epic widescreen grandeur of previous works like The Seldom Seen Kid or Cast of Thousands. One or two more memorable tunes would have helped.

Fountains of Wayne – Sky Full of Holes

New England band Fountains of Wayne (the normally reliable power-popsters who creepily brought you the “Stacy’s Mom” video in which 12-year-old boys wanted to get busy with MILF Rachel Hunter) returned in 2011 with a new album of modern life pastiches.  The songs are enjoyable enough, particularly on the first half of the record.  “Richie and Ruben” is a clever mini-documentary about a duo of entrepreneurs without a clue, while “Action Hero” is a wonderful pencil sketch of a prototypical suburban father that’s come face-to-face with the inevitable before his time.  Unfortunately, Sky Full of Holes runs out of steam on Side ‘B’ and the songs become a little too power-pop-by-numbers.

Peter Gabriel – New Blood

The only thing keeping this album off of my Top 10 list was the caveat that the songs had to be new.  New Blood is a contemporary reworking of classic Peter Gabriel songs; this time instead of relying on traditional instrumentation (bass, guitars, keyboards and drum kit) the presentation is symphonic.  Recast in this new environment, “San Jacinto” feels re-inspired, and the lost classic “Wallflower” is injected with new life.  “Mercy Street”, already a tender ballad in its original form, fares well with the orchestral treatment, as does “Red Rain” and Gabriel’s biggest hit, “Solsbury Hill”.  The best re-working here is “In Your Eyes”, which cleverly substitutes cellos for guitar and bass to carry the melody and rhythm.  This album is yet more evidence that great songs will always be great songs regardless of sonic presentation.

M83 – Hurry Up, We’re Dreaming

This album re-interprets all the best bits of 1980’s synth rock in a modern alternative rock context.  Hurry Up, We’re Dreaming is chock full of musical ideas, splashed over two discs.  Thankfully the album is more about looking forward than reveling in nostalgia, and the tunes have more hooks than a tackle box.  Singles like “Midnight City” and “Steve McQueen” are synth-pop masterpieces.  The only thing holding it back is its length; one gets the sense that it would have made a brilliant seventy-minute single album, rather than an overly optimistic double-album.  Mind you, that’s what cranky critics always say about double albums.

My Morning Jacket – Circuital

After going over-the-top urban with previous release Evil Urges, Jim James and co. return with a more groove-oriented album.  Circuital features epic, widescreen rock songs (notably the title track), balanced by pretty acoustic ballads like “Wonderful (The Way I Feel)”“Victory Dance” gamely balances the constraints of modern alternative music with the conventions of 20th century Neil Young inspired country rock.  But overall, Circuital seems like a step back from the deliberate, tightly-wound claustrophobia of Evil Urges and the brilliant melodicism of Z.  But at least we were spared the indignity of another song like “Highly Suspicious”.