Music of 2014, part 3

7th September 2014 – 3.54 pm

What a corker of a selection I've managed to make for my third collection of music this year. I like to think it's because I've got impeccable taste in music, but it's rather obvious that I've just got a bit lucky with my selections this time. Even so, it's fabulous when I get this lucky, as it gives me some amazing music to enjoy.

There's no chance of my passing over the latest album by White Hinterland, given that previous album Kairos is perhaps one of my most-played CDs. Baby is another change in direction for Casey Dienel, albeit not as major as between the first two albums. Her focus remains on keyboards, samplers, and Casey's strong vocals, but this time without the backdrops created by Shawn Creedon. It's a tentative first listen for me, as the feel of the music is definitely not within my normal range of genre, but perseverance pays off. Curiously, it is the vocals that engage me first, despite their somewhat operatic feel being more out of my normal range than the predominantly electronic music they power over, but Casey's voice will do that to a person. Once locked in to the vocals, the electronic music is freed to take shape, adding further contours to the songs that imbue each other them with a keen identity. Baby is another fine album by White Hinterland.

Another slow burner comes from Coves with their album Soft Friday. Most of my favourite albums creep up on me, but it's difficult to tell which are slow burners, which just aren't clicking, and which are simply poor efforts. Fuzzy guitars and dreamy vocals make me think Soft Friday will at least keep me mildly entertained until another album comes along, but, again with repeated listens, it's when I find myself idly humming a refrain that I initially can't place and then realise it's from the album that I realise Coves have their hooks in me. For that, I am glad. Rather than letting the music wash over me as a pleasant distraction, I can really listen to it and appreciate the nuances within the songs. It's still fuzzy guitars and dreamy vocals at its heart, but Coves has some really good fuzzy guitars and some really dreamy vocals, and is becoming a firm favourite album of this year.

The minimalist electronica of Psychic 9–5 Club by HTRK is relaxing, calming. In its way. There is an undercurrent of difficulty within the music and vocals, adding corners to the smooth landscape. It's immediately gripping, even feeling like it would have some obvious mainstream appeal, and there is a flow to the album, although it's perhaps less floating in a sensory deprivation tank and more a feeling of sinking. But still in a good way. The muted, low-frequency blips play with the electronic rhythm section, often contrasting with and against each other, vocals adding highlights just where they are needed. The only aspect of Psychic 9–5 Club that works against it is the time of year I buy it. Although starting strong within the playlist, delving deeper in to Coves and Fear of Men makes me want to listen to HTRK less. That isn't an issue with the album itself, though, more a reflection of how strong the rest of the albums in this collection are.

Bo Ningen's third album, unashamedly named III, could be summed up as more of the same psychedelic rock as their previous two albums. That would be underplaying the level of commitment Bo Ningen have. Yes, it's more of the same, but the same pumping bass-lines, energetic drumming, and wailing, squealing, screaming guitars that coalesce in to a well-defined polyhedron that's so sharp on every one of its myriad corners that you're going to get cut. The apparent production difficulties that had the sound levels so muddled on second album Line the Wall have been left behind, with every instrument and vocal clear and piercing. There is also the first song where the London-based Japanese band sing in English, and a collaboration with Jenny Beth of Savages. The low point is the slow and long Mukaeni Ikenai, which when not impressed by it live I hoped it would translate better to recording, but it doesn't. But that's small fry when the rest of III is a pulsating, pounding aural violation that keeps Bo Ningen rising.

I have a curious relationship with Fujiya & Miyagi. I really like their music, I find their lyrics to be uninspiring. First album Transparent Things kept me very much entertained, and the lyrics felt quirky. Second album Lightbulbs unfortunately emphasised the lyrics and turned me off the band. I came back for Ventriloquizzing and worked out that it is best to consider the vocals as foreign language. That's the method I continue to use for fourth offering Artificial Sweeteners, where the lyrics once again rely on saying one line, normally rather nonsensical to start with, then repeat it with a different cadence, normally more than once. The soft, soothing vocals help ignore what is spoken and allow the lyrics to be heard more as another instrument, adding to the stripped down guitar and excellent keyboards and sampling. Perhaps unsurprisingly, Fujiya & Miyagi's strength remains in their instrumental works, another two songs being instrumentals on Artificial Sweeteners, where the music is unencumbered and can flow freely. The music is great, the vocals are great, the lyrics work when not parsed, and it all adds up to another good album.

What a great find in Fear of Men. An almost unbearably sweet voice opens with the simplest of tracks in Alta, which ramps up to segue in to Waterfall, where the vocals remain pure and the music swells and declines around them. There is a touch of GLaDOS in the vocals, but with a whole load of fragility in place of the menace, and you can't help but feel touched by the lyrics because of this. It's not just the sublime quality of the voice that draws you in to the lyrics, but the lyrics themselves, ripe with metaphor that I wouldn't be able to explain but still enjoy trying to read meaning in to. For this, it is worth reading the lyric book, thankfully included in the CD case. The landscape of the songs is perhaps defined by the drums, and although the machine gun-like bursts seem perhaps overused at first, they become an expected and welcome motif of the album, and there is plenty of texture added by excellent use of the cymbals and off-beats. The jangly guitar further adds to making this as close to a perfect album for me as there can be, and are perhaps suitably put to best use in the final song, Inside, before a refrain for the opening track closes the album. Fear of Men have created an album that has been played more than any other in my collection in the past two years, and Loom continues to be the album I want to listen to more than any other. It's a rare find indeed.

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