New Soundbites: August 09 (album reviews) – Part I


A month in these ears.

And you run and you run to catch up with the sun, but its sinking…
Pink Floyd: Time
It is true, what they say. As you get older, time really does grow shorter.
And with that in mind, the question of where and when you do your listening is an intriguing one.
As discussed, the computer’s becoming an ever more integral part of everyday listening, but actually enjoying, letting music soak into the senses and consume your every being, most of this, for me, takes place either in the bedroom or in the club.
Of course commuting, train journeys in particular, is another headspace for lapping up – a time for switching off, allowing the void to take over – but of late the senses have been dulled by fatigue and days merging into another. And the regular Northern Line circuit has been more akin to a carriage-shaped sleeping bag with my headphones a poor headrest substitute.
To some extent over recent weeks I’ve almost become one of those people I share no common listening ground with. You spot them everywhere, but they’re more prevalent on the commuter belt. Ipods are lifestyle accessories; musik scratchy and blasting, clearly not listening, let alone enjoying, what’s being pumped into their ears. Phone out, texting with a hard-on, munching on Haribo while yabbering to their bro, all the while one ear bud sits in place while the other swings feebly like a donkey’s cock. Sometimes they pick chewing gum from the soles of their chucks. Then pick their nose. Then pick their teeth.
But that’s not to say these ears haven’t been busy. They have. While the last summer of the noughties has seen a relative drought of decent live performances, the records have kept flowing. It’s just been a continual ‘battle’ both returning to new records, and furthermore allowing them to seep into the consciousness. This should be a natural process but somewhere along the line events took a turn for the strange.
Allowing sounds to stack up, allowing them to announce their arrival on my welcome mat, yell their unique personalities down the lughole so that my cochlea wakes up screaming with joy. This hasn’t been that summer.
Neither was last summer. A quick swing through the Getintothis archives and the drought is all too familiar. Maybe it’s cyclical. Maybe it’s because I’m edging towards being one of those men who pops down the pub regardless of what’s going down. Maybe it’s the fact I’ve taken to playing badminton (you really did read that right – moving swiftly on). Or maybe it is simply seasonal timing…
Either way, with all this counter-production and ear vexation, it’s testament to just how incredible two records are that they’ve been spun at least once a day for the last six weeks, surviving such capricious listening and varying mindsets. A good record should demand to be listened to whatever the weather; whether that be an early rise, late night wind-down or prior to flexing one’s limbs while twatting a shuttlecock.
The eponymous, debut records by Fever Ray and The xx are two such records. Wildly different – the former is very much the searing vision of one person: The Knife‘s Karin Dreijer Andersson, the latter the collective work of a quartet of 19-year-old Londoners flexing and feeding off each other’s emotions – yet each exist inside a unique, darkly cocooned wilderness which is disturbing and confrontational yet juxtaposed with sparse, horny instrumentation and deeply sexual lyrical content.
Andersson’s Fever Ray is a myriad of contrasting dream-thoughts and fantastical sounds encased in a world of fluctuating, highly distorted vocals conjuring up pictures of raw landscapes, forbidding woodland and hostile environs while lyrically rooted in childhood innocence. There’s an inescapable naivety at work (‘I’ve got a friend, who I’ve known since I was seven, we talk about love, we talk about dishwasher tablets, illness and we dream about heaven…,’ gurgles Andersson’s elven pitch on Seven) which is inviting yet the innate friction and suggested violence is at once threatening creating a world which you’re eager to enter, but know you probably shouldn’t.
Central to the success of Fever Ray is the fluidity of the record, while the beats roll and tumble – and there are many; beautifully restrained, undulating fiercely to the fore before retreating to the shadowy abyss – Andersson’s treated cries hop from stomach-rumbling fridge-buzzes to sprightly faery squeals, naughty promiscuity (‘When I grow up, I want to be a forester and run through the moss in high heels‘) and multi-pitched animal-like howls. Indeed, as on Triangle Walks, the vocal tones are so integral to the shape of Fever Ray, they are the instrumentation, driving the rhythm and pace with the slamming bamboo flute and distant keys acting as backing texture.
This effect is captured best on When I Grow Up and penultimate track Keep The Streets Empty For Me, as lulling beats rain down in light droplets Andersson weaves a narrative which gradually pulls you deeper, sucking and immersing, before the miniature shower grows into a thudding of minimalistic thunder.
Similarly, The xx thrive on minimalism. In fact, at times the space and desolation is akin to that of Pinter where tension is built to absolute breaking point you wonder were these tunes crafted through love or a hostile intensity and a sheer need to force them out? If Fever Ray carries an aura of gothic wilderness, xx is a lesson in tortured urban bedroom breakdown. Albeit, David Lynch‘s bedroom.
Almost all the action revolves round the axis of singer-guitarist Romy Madley Croft‘s ‘dialogue’ with bassist Oliver Sim as they pour over each other’s (suggested) affections, dilemmas and inner-most desires. Much of which makes for uncomfortable yet riveting listening. It’s as if you’ve stumbled across an MSN convo during the bust-up from hell or a wall-to-wall thread on Facebook detailing the disastrous consequences of a lover’s gigantic tiff.
Take Infinity, as the duo lay bare their devotion, yet seemingly fight for a solitary, separate existence. Sim – inheriting Tricky‘s mantle as the finest stoned-out slurrer in the business – asks ‘Had you seen me with someone new, hanging so high for your return,’ with Croft responding ‘I can’t give it up to someone else’s touch.’ Before they sing in unison, ‘Wish the best for you, wish the best for me. I just can’t give it up.’
Referencing several lines is to do The xx an injustice as the entire 39 minutes unravel into a harrowing train wreck of one complete body of emotional apocalypse. Undergraduate psychology students would have a field day with the interplay at work between the protagonists.
What makes the record such a success, is that the band realise the lyrical force at work and temper this with a backdrop of sparse, calculated sounds much of which is provided by Jamie Smith and Baria Qureshi. Nothing, not one note, on xx is overplayed or used without exact reason. Crystalised finds Croft and Sim playing hushed warfare, agonising about their lack of intensity and the distance which grows ever more between them and yet all the while the staccato guitars stab, drum pads rattle and rise and the bass hums ominously before everything collapses into a sticky heaping mess as the pair pant, ‘Go slow, go slow…
Elsewhere, a mere lick of slide guitar or dink of xylophone is all that’s needed to ramp up the edge of the seat intensity, check Night Time‘s liquid-like, spine-chilling delivery or VCR‘s childlike patter set to the words of a relationship ready to implode.
The core is of xx is where events truly heat up>. The paranoiac tremor of Fantasy melds seamlessly into Croft’s beautifully lipped heartbreaker Shelter before the ultimate relationship nightmare is spelt out in Basic Space. This latter brace serve, perhaps, as xx‘s only notable ‘singles‘ but it’s a testament to its power as a whole, that to remove one track or play in isolation is to shatter the mini magnificence of the finest British debut record in many a year.

Fever Ray: Fever RayAn Album of the Week for July
For fans of: Celestial matters, gardening at night, IKEA kitchenware.

Fever Ray: When I Grow Up

The xx: xxAn Album of the Week for August
Young Turks/XL
For fans of: Massive Attack, Blue Velvet, early 90s console games.

The xx: Crystalised
Also spinning:

YACHT: See Mystery Lights
So while talk of James Murphy‘s ‘white album’ via a holed-up commune in LA is dominating blogville, this DFA Portland duo have spunked out the feel-good hit of 09 straight from the LCD template.
With more wrist-chug than a $15 hooker, See Mystery Lights employs heavy build and release strategies best employed on the punk-funk 8-minuter It’s Boring which mutates into You Can Live Anywhere You Want the finest disco tune since Get Innocuous.
Central to the sunny pleasure is Claire L. Evans‘ just-woke-up slur perfectly aligned to Jona Bechtolt‘s playful, incessant bounce.
Cynics will scoff at the lack of originality on show, but they’re the type of suckers you find glued to the wall of a club while the place erupts with glee. Sometimes you wonder why they leave their bedrooms.
For fans of: Play dough, chocolate coins, bouncing on the bed.

YACHT: Summer Song