Ezra Furman – Perpetual Motion People

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It’s not often you encounter a record that gets in your head and stays there, and despite repeated listens, remains fresh and and interesting. Perpetual Motion People is a collage of styles, from doo wop backing vocals, to Beach Boys-esque melodies (without the paedophilic undertones), punk rawness, to pop pep. Ezra Furman adds just the right amount of each to create an album or remarkable variety, while remaining cohesive.

Perpetual Motion People is overflowing with the infectious (‘Lousy Connection’ and ‘Haunted Head’), the poignant and affecting (‘Ordinary Life’ and ‘Can I Sleep in Your Brain’), and the downright raucous (‘Wobbly’ and ‘Hark! To The Music’). This creates an exhausting listening experience that feels complete and satisfying, with elements of every era of Bowie, and some T-Rex thrown in for good measure.

Furman has a knack for writing kooky lyrics that feel meaningful and connect on a deeper level than their surface wittiness, such as the Trayvon Martin trial themed:

So I’ve been working on this letter to congress
Regarding some things that I think they should address
Showed up in court wearing an Indian headdress
Somehow I think maybe the message was lost

Alongside Wilco’s Star Wars and Gaz Coombes’s Matador, this might be my favourite record of the year.

Recommendation: Mandatory

Helsinki – A Guide for the Perplexed

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A Guide for the Perplexed harks back to the late 90s, early 00s, but without ever sounding derivative. It brings together melodies and ivory tickling reminiscent of Badly Drawn Boy, with some frantic moments that remind me of Space.

Opener, and lead single, Rising Heights begins as a fairly straight-forward piece of post-Britpop strumming, before the chorus and middle 8 open into a more driven and powerful soundscape. This sets the tone for the whole record. It is comforting and familiar, but confounds expectations, without losing its sense of breeziness, even in the darker moments.

The stand out tracks are “Keys” with Emma Gillespie, the Combat Rock era Clash-esque “Choices” with Pete Doherty, and “The Batteries Weren’t Dead” with Albert Hammond Jr. The rest of the tracks are strong, but these three, as well as the lead track, give the album a unique texture that takes Babyshambles’s Drew McConnell’s solo project beyond the usual singer-songwriter fare.

Recommendation: Mandatory

Wilco – Star Wars

So, Wilco has released a new record and it was a secret and they are currently giving it away for free on their website.

I remember Star Wars differently
I remember Star Wars differently

The most notable aspect of this record is its energy and it harks back to their days of making more cohesive records like Yankee Hotel Foxtrot. Their current line-up has been settled for a decade, yet it has lead to some of their least evocative records and they were in danger of becoming a Grateful Dead-esque jam band. This record wipes that fear away and is easily the best thing they have done since Sky Blue Sky. 

Star Wars is just 34 minutes long and this slight runtime means that each song is vital to the album’s overall feel, without the unnecessary or overlong songs that bloated their last record. The stand-out tracks are the fuzzy guitar’d and upbeat ‘Random Name Generator’, the chugging and churning ‘Pickled Ginger’ and the driving ‘King of You’. The whole thing is bookended by two of the strongest tracks ‘EKG’ and ‘Magnetized’. The former is a short, sharp shock of an opener, while the latter is Wilco’s classic combination of Jeff Tweedy’s stumbling vocals over soaring music. It’s the perfect conclusion to a record that has an immediacy not normally found on a Wilco record. Their best ones have traditionally taken their time and many listens to fully reveal themselves yet this is one I want to listen to again as soon as it finishes.

Mandatory.

Gaz Coombes – Matador

I was never a huge Supergrass fan. I appreciated their ability to write a catchy tune, but found their kookiness off-putting. Having revisited some of their earlier records while writing this review, that was probably an unfair criticism that I based solely on their first record I Should Coco. Matador changed my perception of Gaz Coombes from being simply a Britpop casualty, to something more legitimate.

On Matador, Coombes’ voice has a soulful quality I never heard in his Supergrass output. It floats effortlessly over the arrangements and veers from a Freddy Mercury croon, to David Bowie solemnity, without ever sounding forced or affected. The album opener, Buffalo, showcases the beauty of his voice, and is a sign of intent for how complex and solid the rest of the album will be. It establishes the optimistic but slyly dark tone of the record, and includes embellishments and shifts that prevent it from becoming a power ballad.

These ornate touches are found throughout all the songs, with little headphone tweaking details that give the record different textures to keep your ears interested.

The album is jammed with engaging songs, from 20/20 to The English Ruse, while the straight-ahead and hooky tracks like Detroit and The Girl Who Fell Earth make the record feel like a complete experience. The album gathers pace in the second half and from Needles’ Eye onwards it feels as compelling as a good film or book and keeps the listener invested in how it ends. Seven Walls is grand and epic and sounds huge, with vocals that soar, an eratic and persistent synth riff, crashing drums and a fuzz drenched guitar, all combined to create one of 2015’s most enjoyable cacophonies so far. Seven Walls is followed by the intricate and unsettlingly beautiful Oscillate, the slow-burning, aching To The Wire, and the abruptly ending, closing title track Matador, which left me wishing there was another song to come.

At 38 minutes, the record feels tight and succinct, and never allows the listener to drift off with superfluous tracks or over-long indulgences. I am of the opinion that 40 minutes is the sweet spot for a record – Harvest. Rust Never Sleeps. Marquee Moon. Born to Run. John Wesley Harding.  Some artists can get away with more,  but not many. Of course, as soon as I make such a declaration I immediately think of records that break this rule (Hail to the Thief, Blood on the Tracks, Blur, Enter the Wu Tang (36 Chambers)) but it really takes something special to maintain a complete hold over a listener for an extended period of time.

Recommendation: Mandatory – possibly the best record of 2015 so far.

Aphex Twin – Computer Controlled Acoustic

Richard D James, also known as Aphex Twin, has the most amazing dexterity for turning the darkest, most disparate elements of beeps and clicks into songs of emotional resonance. For his latest release, Computer Controlled Acoustic, he dispatches with the electronic sounds and instead creates collages of pianos, guitars, strings and drums, each coming together in remarkable and unexpected ways.

While his previous record, Syro, was a classic set of Aphex Twin weirdness, Computer Controlled Acoustic manages to be both more accessible and more disconcerting. Intertwining lines of melody crash together, forming unexpectedly beautiful yet discordant songs that are satisfying and terrifying and immersive all at once.

The penultimate track, piano un10 it happened, is surprising for its conventionality, but offers a lull before the gentle storm of the closing track, hat5c 0001 rec-4, a disquietingly muted cacophony of bass and drums that builds to a hum, then cuts abruptly. Taken on their own, the tracks seem like song parts, unformed and left-over from a recording session. Over the course the EP’s 27 minutes however, they create a complete and complex listener experience, despite the short length.

While too brief to be considered a follow-up to the similar veined Drukqs, Computer Controlled Acoustic is yet more evidence of why Aphex Twin is considered the eminent pioneer of electronic music. Never concerned with trends or genres, his eclecticism shines through on this and every record he creates.

Recommendation: Mandatory.

Viet Cong – Viet Cong

A clatter of shadows and drones, twisting against the scattered vocals and ambient sounds.

I had to listen to this record twice before it started to make sense and I could explore it. But once inside, I keep discovering new nooks and crannies, unexpected doors, walls and windows with each listen. Vast rooms of delightfully challenging sonic pleasures, exactly the type of listening experience I look forward to when I try a new record.

In my recent hankering for a new Graham Coxon album, I found this to be something equally as jagged and visceral as A+E, with added spark from the Joy Division-esque vocal lines, the John Cale drones, and some surprisingly poppy melodies beneath it all.

It opens with the rumbling apocalypse of Newspaper Spoons, complete with accompanying drill-in-your-ears guitars, fading into an ethereal sequencer loop. It’s a striking way to start the record and it only gets better.

The finest track on Viet Cong , March of Progress, begins noisily then breaks into an insistent, driving rhythm with a Beatles reminiscent vocal melody over the top. It then evolves again into fast paced pop weirdness. It’s a long journey over a breathlessly short running time for a song so ambitious, which makes it an exhilarating experience.

While at face value it sounds harsh and inaccessible, beneath the surface it exhibits an eclecticism that makes it more rewarding with every listen.

Recommendation: Mandatory