Top Ten Albums of 2014: 7 – 5
Top Ten Albums of 2014: 7 – 5
More Than Any Other Day (Constellation)
The cover image adorning Ought’s début album is cribbed from a postcard that one band member found on top of a dumpster in the group’s native Montreal. The picture they stumbled on – and eventually selected to serve as the band’s emblem during their LP’s promotion – depicts a cluster of hands, held together in unison. As per the laws for and against interpretation, the context of this image, its discovery, and its latent content may or may not feed into More Than Any Other Day in any significant fashion, but in purely subjective terms, it resembles a gang of chums during one of those hands-in-the-air, “go, team!” rituals that precedes a group undertaking. (Very rock & roll / Scooby-Doo.)
In More Than Any Other Day, said undertaking is the everyday routine heralded by crashlanding into responsible adulthood. Buying groceries, commuting to work, alleviating the boredom of a “nonspecific party” by consuming some dubious powder or another. All those staples of living which are repeated to the point of drudgery; a numbing sensation which eventually cements into a permanent stupor. Life can be so dull. But the way that these four Canadians combat this truth is through the excitable solidarity promulgated on the album sleeve: making the most infinitesimal decisions a cause for hysterical euphoria. Getting hung up on making the choice between types of milk is fucking stupid, but let’s have fun with it anyway. What Ought are trying to say, in a nutshell, is let’s make today – more than any other day – awesome.
This idea is championed during the quasi-title track; a song which begins at a crawl before steadily accelerating into a heart-pounding mess, until by its end it has completely derailed itself in a breathless rush of Tim Beeler gasping “we’re all the fucking same!” Befitting this statement, Ought do not deliver anything particularly new or sharp in terms of musical conquest. This is itchy, riff-heavy garage rock, as straightforward and heady as advertised on the tin. But though their influences shine through more than occasionally, Ought are a tightly-wound unit, with Beeler’s slurs ready to snap into sharp focus at any given moment. This creates a tension that results in some truly walloping moments of genius. ‘The Weather Song’ – the album’s most accessible cut – rattles along on a two-tone riff as it buries itself inside the mind of a shut-in, and you can practically hear the gears crunching as the band suddenly spring into the chorus.
Jolts such as these are registered like kicks against complacency; the band’s sly approach refusing to let the listener escape passively. Songs which have dusty, subdued beginnings quickly wriggle into furious, endlessly repeated mantras. And this repetition becomes a routine in of itself (never more apparent than on the indefatiguable ‘Gemini’), but it’s a more conscious form of living than sleepwalking through these situations. While Ought may not have all the answers, they possess a hypnotic quality when performing at their best, and these eight tracks barely waste a second. Fun, progressive, and enticing, these tirelessly repeated refrains are hammered into the mind and can be hard to shake off; constant reminders that there’s often something interesting to be found – even in patterns which have become familiar.
Today, more than any other day, I am prepared to make the decision between two percent and whole milk.
Present Tense (Domino)
I absolutely adore Wild Beasts. For my money, they are the most captivating British group working today, composed of four wholly gifted musicians and forward-thinkers; the combined talents of whom have produced music to be cherished and marvelled at in equal measure. Theirs is an intimacy and beauty which is polished enough to dazzle, while leavened with earthy, tangible foundations which keep them consistently grounded and three-dimensional.
With each subsequent album, Wild Beasts seem a little more complete, which may seem odd considering that they had such a distinctive identity from the get-go, having stood apart in sound and vision since 2008’s Limbo, Panto. With the arrival of each new release, the band never sounds less than exactly how they’ve always strived to be: a strong and full-bodied unit, ornate and immaculate, at the peak of their powers. It’s only when their latest material is pored over that a whole new side to them is introduced, one which – and here’s the genius of it all – never felt lacking beforehand. As fully-formed as they may sound each time, they’ve never stopped growing, their evolution a quiet linearity which I can only hope lasts throughout their career.
When Present Tense arrived in February, I was very impressed, if unconvinced that this record was in the same league as the band’s two previous LPs. Ultimately, I still believe that Two Dancers and Smother edge out this offering, due to their coherence. But my goodness, what a work of beauty Present Tense is – and what unshowy, rewarding beauty at that. After almost a year of listening to this album regularly, its many details have blossomed at last, revealing the magnificent craftsmanship at the record’s core. The band’s diversion this time is into synthesisers: a tried-and-tested shift of course, but one which the Beasts have mastered by burying secrets in every corner. There is so much to say about it, and if you fancy a more in-depth summary, check out my full review from February, in which I’ve already touched upon many of the album’s individual treasures.
Here, I’ll simply draw attention to one key attribute for which I most admire Present Tense: Wild Beasts’ masterful balancing of light and shade. More than on any previous album, the band sound diverse and more finely textured, their range still restrained but with a greater spectrum of colour than ever before. Present Tense contains some of the band’s poppiest work thus far, sat alongside some of their most ominous and unsettling compositions. As a prime example, ‘Palace’ is all the more heavenly in the wake of the tension which precedes it. As it goes throughout Present Tense, blissful moments of light accentuate those of darkness, and vice versa. While the resultant listen isn’t as streamlined as, say, Two Dancers, each individual song rings clearer and feels more vividly detailed, with its features all the more deftly defined.
There’s so much to say about Wild Beasts, and so much to find in their music. When it comes to Present Tense, its imperfections only render it more humane, more tantalising, more fascinating to behold. And when the Beasts really, really get it right – as they so often do – they make magic that defies adjective.
We may be savage and raw, but at the core, we’ve higher needs.
Sharon Van Etten
Are We There (Jagjaguwar)
Sharon Van Etten’s third album – 2012’s Tramp – was a firm and decisive step onto a larger playing field. With Aaron Dessner working as producer and counsellor, and a host of indie tentpole names lending their emotional and technical support, the word-of-mouth buzz surrounding Van Etten ballooned, and by the year’s end, she found herself nestled in the upper echelons of alternative singer-songwriters, with her heart-on-sleeve confessionals at last finding the reach to connect with a broad audience.
Are We There goes further still in allowing Van Etten to bare her soul, and this album feels much more the product of a singular consciousness than its predecessor. Though she has remained congruent thematically, in musical terms, Van Etten’s arrangements sound highly personal, inhabiting an intimate, delicate atmosphere that feels drawn from a single conscience. It’s telling that – for the most part – she produced these songs herself, and what has emerged is an even greater clarity. Sonically, Are We There twinkles wonderfully, its flutterings of piano and strings occasionally scarred by shards of distorted guitars. Messy eruptions break forth like bruises or opening wounds; a perfect reflection of Van Etten’s subject matter.
The bewildering and unexpected workings of the heart have been addressed by many before her, but Van Etten details the psychological toll wrought by love affairs with a dexterity that few of her peers are bold enough to match. Eschewing high drama for more commonplace fears and insecurities, Van Etten hooks into the subtleties of turbulent relationships, and manages to make even the most horrifying domestic situations sound relatable. Although not everybody can claim to have been trapped in an abusive relationship, her plight becomes something so malleable, chiefly because she never seems blind to it even as she addresses its hopelessness. Titles such as ‘Your Love is Killing Me’ seem a tad on-the-nose at first, but they perfectly encapsulate the headspace behind desperate, destructive love.
Even as happiness steadily crumples and is ravaged by absence and violence, deep-seated devotion remains: an inexpressible attachment which defies reason, but cannot be ignored or amputated. On ‘Afraid of Nothing’, Van Etten recites “I can’t wait until we hide from nothing”, and the multiple layers of this sentiment are unnerving. There are several other lyrics peppering Are We There which are absolutely brutal in this regard; none more so than the trembling cry at the core of ‘Break Me’: “he can break me with one hand to my head.”
Yet although this sounds awfully traumatic on the page, Van Etten works her troubles into a record of sublime beauty and catharsis. Never once is Are We There anything less than spellbinding; as wrenching as it is humane, and imbued with Van Etten’s own gentle, good-natured spirit. Yes, she has been through some real shit. But, as that little giggle at the end of the album indicates, she’s still able to laugh, and exude a truly comforting warmth with her music. She’s a wonderful person, who also happens to be a very gifted songwriter, and the owner of a breathtaking voice which speaks for many others besides herself.
I sing about my fear and love and what it brings.
Posted on January 12, 2015, in End-of-Year Lists, The Music World and tagged Afraid of Nothing, Albums of the Year, Are We There, Habit, More Than Any Other Day, Ought, Present Tense, Sharon Van Etten, Wanderlust, Wild Beasts. Bookmark the permalink. 2 Comments.