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The Year In Music (Jon Dale)

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Jon Dale looks up from down under at the past year in music.

The Year In Music (Jon Dale)

2003: Not A Bad Year All Round. Seems a bit hard to map out the year though. Australian music seemed to go through a miniature renaissance, which was lovely, with great recordings by Will Guthrie, Stasis Duo, Stern/Guerra, Snawklor, Julian Williams, Minimum Chips, Hit the Jackpot, Leighton Craig and Eugene Carchesio, and amazing live performances from Oren Ambarchi, Arek Gulbenkoglu, and Rob Cooper. Out there in the rest of the world it seemed messy as all hell. The avant-folk/free-folk/"New Weird America" started to feel a bit played-out by the end of 2003, although I sense this is more to do with certain of the best acts - Matt Valentine, Charalambides, Double Leopards - stepping up to the plate and offering out stone cold classic recordings that’d compete with any year’s output, thus showing up the scene’s lesser talents as a bit single-minded. Regardless of a slight lag and lull in my interest, though, this still feels like one of the best things to happen to the underground music diaspora for years. Big up David Keenan and his evangelising energies.

R&B was caught floundering, flustered and flummoxed, with Timbaland asleep at the wheel, Neptunes a bit too everywhere to be anywhere, and the general sense of being left wondering ‘is that really it?’ I’m still waiting for the new producer-auteur to shove a firecracker up R&B’s ass. In the whole house-not-house-but-house zone microhouse started to stumble, but there were great individual titles, and I’m so enamoured of that muted, steadied boom-tick and the softly beautiful burr of texturology that I can’t really complain: Villalobos, Luomo, Matthew Dear, ya get me?

The hugest thing for me was a series of recordings by artists as disparate as Dean Roberts, Diamada Galás, Keiji Haino, the Charalambides crew, David Sylvian, Matt Valentine, that re-energised the song, took it to new places, reminded me that the song was never going to die, that it had endless resonance, that its soul was forever bustling, a mutant creature.

Personal highlights: writing for Dusted, Signal to Noise, Rip It Up, Onion, Careless Talk. The blogging community (big up y’all). Interviewing Neil Hagerty for STN (and listening to his two utterly fantastic albums.) More work, however sporadic, on the PhD. Receiving a grant to stage an improvised music festival in Adelaide in Feb 2004. The joy of friendships both close by and far away. The warmth of the sun (and, conversely, autumn fades to winter.) Australia’s fire-brand music fanatics: love to Mark Harwood, Oren Ambarchi, Arek Gulbenkoglu, Jason Steffen, Patrick O’Brien, Lou Conroy (missing you), Leighton and the Lost Domain crew, Lee Tran Lam, James, Kami - blood brothers and sisters all. Bottles of Queen Adelaide Chardonnay from the local for $7. Who knows what 2004 will bring? Well, wine, men and song, we hope.

This is, by and large, an abbreviated version of the best-of-year list I posted at Worlds of Possibility (www.worldsofpossibility.blogspot.com). Go there for the full scoop.

Dean Roberts - Be Mine Tonight
Be Mine Tonight is also Dean's first set of "songs", although these are slow, ached, bloodied documents. It's the long-awaited final record in the trilogy begun by Talk Talk's Laughing Stock and followed through by Bark Psychosis' Hex. If Laughing Stock made emotion rich and resonant, and Hex stripped away some of Laughing Stock's crescendos to reveal a burnt-out grotto, a map of urban decay and sonority that ultimately trades its surface dissent for a complete view of the compassion of the human spirit, Be Mine Tonight adumbrates a position somewhere between loss and stress, a skeletal remnant of Hex's helix. Be Mine Tonight attempts to both refine and resolve the implicit tension between structure and freedom; it turns songs into spectral and sepulchral things, and reinvests the song with a heart both unsteady and brave. Be Mine Tonight is rock music, caught somewhere between twilit world and everyday processional, drawn like curtain fabric so most of the cracks and tears in the cloth show.

Diamanda Galás - La Serpenta Canta
La Serpenta Canta shows up almost all song as the weakened, light, abased candy it truly is. In Galas’ hands, songs have never scoured you so hard, never been subjected to so thorough an autopsy, and then brought back to life with both their dark heart and their benign spirit illuminated. Most devastating performance this year: Diamanda does “Dark End of the Street”.

Keiji Haino - Mazu Wa Iro O Nakuso Ka
Wherein the black prince trades his suit for a musty grey and buckles down to some intimate four-track soul evisceration. This is Haino at his absolute finest: his guitar blowouts may be more hair-raising, the Fushitsusha albums more excoriating, the percussion pieces more ritualistic, but Mazu Wa Iro O Nakuso Ka is the first recording I’ve heard from Haino to have scaled the intimate, desolate-terrain peaks of track four from Double Live, the amazing wailing threnody that’s Haino’s finest moment.

Christina Carter - Bastard Wing
Charalambides - Unknown Spin
Scorces - Vivre Avec La Bete
Perfection from the Charalambides camp. Tom, Christina and Heather are three of the most individual, beautiful, and dedicated artists I’ve had the honour of knowing and listening to, and that their work is still moving, building, transcending every time, is simply incredible.

Matt ‘MV’ Valentine - Space Chanteys
Matt ‘MV’ Valentine - Glorious Group Therapy
Unfairly thrown into the avant-folk pot (by myself included) Valentine is really the next node in the true continuum of American misfits and renegades. Particularly on Space Chanteys where Valentine collected his friends - Tim Barnes, P.G. Six, Samara Lubelski (of Hall of Fame), Dean Roberts (Thela and solo work), and Erika Elder - as a backing band for his arcing song forms. They take flight in a way that recalls the entwining spirit of Tim Buckley, and although Valentine’s voice may soar with less authority, he really takes the songs someplace else: this is not ‘influence’ so much as a shared aspiration to attain that moment where a song inverts itself and illuminates a space previously darkened.

Double Leopards - Halve Maen
The best Double Leopards yet, the slowly unspooling four sides captured by Halve Maen is Kosmiche music in its original, gravity-melting form. Thick as mud and molasses and a hundred times more thrilling to immerse yourself in.

Villalobos - Alcachofa
Almost, almost, record of the year, Villalobos’ Alcachofa is an album so vital and prickly and bittersweet that it’s like cakes drowned in sour lemon spirit, like peeling away layers of durian spindle to get at the sweet centre. Or, indeed, the leaves of the artichoke (which this album is named after) giving way to the vital heart.

What Villalobos does on Alcachofa is shape ‘microhouse’ into a pan-riot of globular, sticky, heat-moist textures, all annexed to rhythms that up-and-leave when you least expect, that are made up of tiny prickles, fractals of cactus spines. Alcachofa is so endlessly woozy that it feels like you’re suspended, like a pendulum, hanging over an ocean of slowly metastasising viscous fluids. The opener, “Easy Lee”, sets a shivering, frozen-over vocal doing breast-stroke through muggy space, dense air, before cheek-popping counter-rhythms spill forth, drenched in reverb. “I Try to Live (Can I Live)” is a bruised fog of creaky, cranky surfaces, the grain of the voice all distended and stressed, buckling under strain. And “Dexter” plots a series of unlikely tonal shifts like an endessly variable event horizon.

Alcachofa is an unending puzzle, a moebius strip of pleasure and plenitude that’s so divinely microscopic you’re seeing air particles shot through with the golden gild of sunlight, or a rainbow mottled and bouncing off rapids. And parts of the album are so blissfully stripped-back that it is almost Can-like in its embrace of the ‘restriction as the mother of invention’ trope.

Luomo - The Present Lover
Not ‘aspirational’ in any cloying sense. Although The Present Lover can seem a bit chintzy, or preening, or precious, it’s much more pertinent to read it as Vladislav Delay’s closest step yet to where he wants to be - in the heartland of the mainstream. If you’re not seduced by “Body Speaking”, not left swooning and fainting by “Could Be like This”, “The Present Lover” and “Talk in Danger”, you are a much harder/stronger person than I.

Maher Shalal Hash Baz - Blues du Jour
Maher Shalal Hash Baz are one of the most enigmatic bands of the Japanese underground. Band leader Tori Kudo crops up all over the place - in documentation of the Japanese underground of the late 70s and early 80s, where he played in bands like Snickers and Rotting Telepathies alongside Michio Kadotani and Asahito Nanjo (who later formed the motorpsycho rock outfit High Rise), releasing a duo document under the pseudonym of Noise, and developing his ‘theory of error’ in acts like Guys’n’Dolls, before forming Maher Shalal Hash Baz in 1985.

Blues du Jour is the collective’s first album since 1996’s monumental triple-LP set Return Visit to Rock Mass and it’s a warm and beautiful document of outsider pop thought. Kudo’s songs are at their most affecting, and the first half of the album feels like an emotional travelogue, as softly chimed guitar and the cheeky blurt of Nakazaki’s euphonium score the pieces with a weighty sense of not-of-this-world-ness. The record peaks with “Your Business Here, Elijah?”, which resembles a school band covering Dylan’s Infidels album.

There are so few parallels for this music - Kudo’s been influenced by The Red Krayola and Syd Barrett, and the charming idiosyncrasy of the song writing shares space with other outsider presences such as Vashti Bunyan, Tea and Symphony, The Puddle, or The Curtains. Ultimately, though, Blues du Jour is a record with a truly unique energy, an absolutely benign presence; the perfect pop record.

The Blithe Sons - Green Mansions
The Blithe Sons - We Walk The Young Earth
Thuja - All Strange Beasts of the Past
Of The Infant Path
Hala Strana - Fielding
Hala Strana - Hala Strana
The Jewelled Antler Collective... The Godlike Genius of San Francisco. I’m totally out of the loop w/most of what they’ve been releasing recently (some killer titles I’ve probably missed out on) but this is where it’s at.

Matthew Dear - Leave Luck to Heaven
Michael Mayer - Fabric 13
Various - Schaffelfeiber 2
Here’s some more goodness from the microhouse think-tank, although, as many observe, the term means both everything and nothing. These records particularly thrilling for the way they posit avenues out of microhouse’s probable soon-come impasse: Dear pointillises the rhythms and textures even more while annexing the tracks to footsy skips drawn from techno and from two-step, Mayer makes it all rapturously pop, and the Kompakt shuffle crew gives everything a strangely glam rock makeover. Shuffle monsters: Wighnomy Bros & Robag Wruhme’s “Bodyrock”, International Pony vs Losoul’s “Intern_Snootleg”, the T.Raumschmiere remix of Komeit’s “Three Hours”. Shuffle monster mix: the Michael Mayer Peel Session. Shuffle monster of all time evah: Superpitcher’s mix of Quarks’ “I Walk”. More micro-and-beyond: everything the Areal label did, esp. the Bis Neun mixdisc. And Mathew Jonson, I mean, woah.

1. Luomo “Waltz for Your Eyes”
2. Hecker “Pandämonium 9 Playlist/Stocha Acid Vlook”
3. Jabberjaw “Girlfriend”
4. Quarks “I Walk (Superpitcher Shuffle mix)”
5. Junior Boys “Birthday/Last Exit”
6. Jon E Cash feat Capleton “Clear Conscience”
7. Missy Elliott “Pass That Dutch”
8. Undo/Redo Gleit/zeit
9. Dizzee Rascal “I Luv U/Vexed”
10. M. Mayer “Privat/Amabile”
11. Beyoncé feat Jay-Z “Crazy in Love”
12. Busta Rhymes feat Pharrell “Light Your Ass on Fire”
13. Snoop Doggy Dogg feat the ubiquitous fucking Pharrell “Beautiful”
14. Harco Pront Skifo EP
15. Funky Transport Bedford Files EP
16/17/18. Sean Paul “Get Busy”, “Gimme the Light (Pass the Dro-Voisier Mix)”, “Like Glue”
19. Lil’ Kim “The Jump Off”
20. Isoleé “Can’t Sleep All Night”
21. Kylie Minogue “Slow”

1. Kevin Shields “City Girl” - So nice to have him back.

More musings by Jon can be found at his fabulous blog by clicking here.

By Jon Dale

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