Friday, February 24, 2006

Pers: Music that surprised me

I’ve been alternating between trying to keep up with new music and mining some historical veins.

Metacritic polls a number of other sources to come up with the top rated albums of the year. Top of the list was Sufjan Stevens’ Illinois, described variously as beautiful, quirky pop. Stevens intends an album for every US state; so far he’s only done Michigan and this (diverting for Seven Swans). Let’s run a sweep on how many states he will actually manage. I’ll go for... Four.
Why am I talking about the man rather than the music? Try as I might, I couldn’t get much from the music. Certainly competent, sometimes interesting. But there’s just nothing beautiful like a Brian Wilson melody; nothing enjoyably quirky like a Pere Ubu album. Lots of critics must like it, but when you consider Metacritic’s role, it can’t possibly pick the standouts, just the consensus albums that enough "critics" can agree on. Democracy can be rather a leveller.

They also listed in a previous collation a US band called Explosions In The Sky - The Earth Is Not A Cold Dead Place. I'd already read a review that gave impressions of... downbeat guitar symphonies. Purple prose aside, it should be my sort of music (viz My Bloody Valentine, Sonic Youth, Durutti Column). But having finally tracked it down (thanks, Redeye), I find it competent yet somewhat... pedestrian.

On the other hand, I’ve found some good surprises. Amongst the new, try The Arcade Fire. Old music is particularly fraught: memories and enduring taste often clash. Also, knowing just a handful of tracks is no guide to whether it will turn out like Uriah Heep (smelly) or Melanie (some real gems). Price is no guide either: picking up T Rex and Melanie for $5 each, I got more from just a few tracks than the whole of Stevens, fullpriced.

So, here’s some more the surprises, compilations unless otherwise noted:

  • Belle & Sebastian - Dear Catastrophe Waitress (the album before latest)
  • David Crosby - If Only I Could Remember My Name: First album, c1971. Completely revised my opinion of him
  • Temptations - Cloud Nine: quite pleasant genre music c1970; for me it avoids the tired-old-hits syndrome
  • Various - John Peel's Festive 15 (Uncut magazine): Lots of marvels, including Felt, Sugarcubes, Bhundu Boys, Wah (oh, for the glorious Better Scream), House of Love. Just as I was ready to trash the 80s as just another silly haircut.


  • Badfinger: bar the wonderful trilogy No Matter What, Day After Day, and Baby Blue, everything was weak
  • Todd Rundgren - Excepting Hello It's Me, rather weak; he'll be better remembered as producer.

  • T Rex - excellent when Bolan was in the swing
  • New Seekers - surprisingly good for what it was

Lately I've been drawn to Physical Graffiti; I'm looking forward to giving it a decent play. Right now, I’m listening to Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan: lengthy, repetitious, meditative, groovy.

The message: forget the baggage, listen to it for what it is. Trying something different will give you surprises.

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