Pick O' The Year 2011

First published on MySpace and LiveJournal blogs - 04/12/11

Best new albums of the last twelvemonth...
In any other year, that "King Crimson ProjeKCt" by JAKKO, FRIPP & COLLINS (AND Levin AND Harrison...) would surely have zoomed straight to the top of the list. That's probably as close as we're EVER going to get to a NEW KING CRIMSON ALBUM from hereon. Indeed, any one of those 'also rans' listed below might have been contenders. But not this time around. This has been a jamboree year for surprising new discoveries and the return of some old favourites... so in no particular order 'THE FOUR TOPS' are:-

Matt Berry - "Witchazel" - (Acid Jazz)

I have Stuart Maconie's BBC 6Music show "THE FREAK ZONE" for drawing my attention to THIS little gem (as well as much else). It transpires that not only is MATT BERRY a fine comedy actor, he just also happens to be a multi-talented musician of excellent taste. Makes yer sick, don't it?

Like THE BEES' albums of previous years, I instantly loved this album PRECISELY because it contains all the music of my misspelt youth rolled into one delicious package! This is a gentleman who has STUDIED and ABSORBED the nineteen-seventies. There is a goodly dollop of PASTORAL PROG - I particularly hear shades of CARAVAN, SUPERSISTER and a couple of Italian bands of note, plus the kind of orchestral arrangements to be found on some of KEVIN AYERS' early work. He surely has a working knowledge of the music of STACKRIDGE and PETER SINFIELD's "Still" album. Add a dash of "Psychedelic Folk" (Mr Berry has himself name-checked the band FOREST, although I'm not personally familiar with their particular oeuvre). Stir in a lot of TODD RUNDGREN-inspired one-man-band multi-track wizardry and... you end up with an album that has elements of ALL THE ABOVE and yet, strangely, sounds like NONE OF THEM (or indeed much like anything else really!). Oh, and there's also a PAUL McCARTNEY impersonation thrown in for good measure.

Someone else called him an English SUFJAN STEVENS...?

I'm not sure how an album like this ended up on ACID JAZZ records though. That's probably the biggest mystery of all. JTQ or SNOWBOY it ain't!

Listen to tracks here

Minus Points: While I can't fault this album in any way MUSICALLY, my one gripe must be with the lamentable state of MUSIC RETAIL in this country, or at least in this part of it. I would like to be able to say that I've been enjoying this in the super-hi-fi quality edition it so richly deserves... but, no... until that chance encounter in a far flung record emporium somewhere, I had to buy this as a download from iTunes. Nearby branches of HMV, the nearest thing we now have to a proper "music" shop on any High Street, don't stock it. Not Good Enough. The fact that this album makes the top of my list DESPITE these audio shortcomings probably speaks volumes about just what a quality piece of work it is. I still have one eye open for a PROPER shiny round copy. I'll happily pay money for it a second time...

Addendum: Now that I've found my very own shiny shiny copy of this little gem (Hoorah!), with proper sleeve notes and everything, I've now found out that it is in fact the REAL Paul McCartney and not an impersonation! The CD packaging is hilarious, by the way.

Steven Wilson - "Grace For Drowning" - (K-Scope)

...now THIS is an object lesson in how to produce (and present) MUSIC FOR HI-FI... Porcupine Tree's albums are always such LOVELY THINGS, with Lasse Hoile's artwork carried through the whole package like a corporate identity. A reminder of things as they once were, when buying a 'record' meant you looked forward to lovingly fondling an actual TACTILE OBJECT in your hands. And that's BEFORE you get to the music inside... Downloads might be convenient, but they make you feel cheap!

Steven's first 'solo' release "INSURGENTES" (which I also bought recently in a deluxe box) still to these ears had 'the Porcupine Tree sound'. In between then and now, Mr Wilson has spent an awful lot of his time delving DEEP into seventies prog, having overseen the superdooper surround sound remastering of all the earlier KING CRIMSON albums.

It sounds like he picked up a trick or two. There was always that 'influence' in his work, but this is a "SOUNDS OF THE SEVENTIES" album. From the very opening bars - which are sonically reminiscent of "Lizard" or "Islands" or maybe something off a PFM album - we are plunged headlong into a sort of PROG FUN PARK; those little filigrees of real (rather than synthetic) orchestral instruments; the use of SPACE in the mix (here's a man who hears everything in 3D!); the incredible DYNAMIC range (the loud bits are really loud, the quiet bits are really quiet); vintage instruments (or at least REALLY good digital facsimiles thereof) and the touches of JAZZ (that sounds like a real Fender Rhodes... ooh, there goes THEO TRAVIS)... and BIG BIG ANTHEMIC THEMES.

Some thanks for this must be due to the involvement of DAVE STEWART (the Canterbury one, not the Eurythmic) who helped out with some of the arrangements. REAL choirs, REAL strings... Only the Floyd themselves lavished this kind of sonic care and attention on their work. It just SOUNDS so good.

Lovers of Porcupine Tree will lap this up, but this album shows signs that his "solo" work deserves to be heard by others. At least K-Scope have done a good job of getting their stuff into the High Street HMVs, so this is readily available! With a Blackberry full of stellar names he can call on, and with three or more side projects always on the go, you never know what he'll come up with next.

Minus Points: It seems to be over FAR too quickly! Ah well, I suppose I can always put it back on again!

Yes - "Fly From Here" - (Frontier)

Hoorah! The return of the YEGGLES! I would like to think I've stuck with YES through thick and thin, but they HAVE tried my patience once or twice in the last forty years! I mean, have you EVER listened all the way through "Union" or "Open Your Eyes" in one sitting? Do you ever listen to "Talk" AT ALL?

All those years of glossy West-Coast AOR and embarrassingly substandard and twee Andersongs, until they were finally left coasting along in the role of THEIR OWN TRIBUTE BAND, left me convinced that they would never again make a LISTENABLE album, let alone a good one.

But now they have reunited with the best studio boffin they ever had (sorry, Eddy Offord) and the best keyboard player they ever had (sorry, Rick Wakeman) and it's 1980 all over again!

One could question whether this is a "new" album, since so much of it was written thirty-odd years ago ("We Can Fly From Here" was performed live on the "Drama" tour; other themes appeared on The Buggles' "Adventures In Modern Recording" album of similar vintage) - but that is A GOOD THING in this Mintiverse. Who wants to hear MODERN music on a Yes album anyway?

And I am going to stick my neck out and alienate an entire population of Yes fans by saying that BENOÎT DAVID's voice is much easier on the ear than JON ANDERSON's ever was (in fact, he sounds a lot like TREVOR HORN ...hmm, funny that...).

The Horn magic is still there; the lyrics - and who ever listens to THOSE on a Yes album? - make some sort of sense for once; Geoff Downes comes up with some of his best work since before Asia; old hands Alan White and Chris Squire actually sound like they're enjoying it all; Steve Howe sounds astonishingly like his youthful self, even if he doesn't look it. In short, the first EMBARRASSMENT-FREE Yes album for over thirty years!

Listen to tracks here

Minus Points: The VIDEO for "We Can Fly From Here" itself is absolute pants. But who's ever going to watch that? Judging by the band photos in the booklet, their dress sense hasn't improved much over the years either. Remember, these are men for whom corduroy slacks, kaftans with furry boots or the dreaded socks 'n' sandals combination are considered acceptable stage-wear, so they are probably beyond redemption :-)

Anoushka Shankar - "Traveller" - (Deutsche Grammophon)

In which the divine Ms Shankar explores the musical connections between the classical tradition of the Indian subcontinent and the Flamenco stylings of the Iberian peninsular.

You'd think, on paper, that it shouldn't work, until you actually hear the flamenco dancers trade intricate patterns with the ghatam, and the vocal-like sitar melodies soaring over the Spanish guitars... and then it seems THE MOST NATURAL THING and you wonder why nobody had thought of it before (apart from maybe John McLaughlin...). Above all, it has lots of toe-tapping riddims and heart-wrenching melodies to win you over!

It's a truly delightful piece of 'World Music' 'fusion' that doesn't sound at all CONTRIVED, as these things so VERY often do. I speak as one who has endured years of hearing Swedish fiddle players trying to blend with Senegalese koras, while the Chinese flute plays an Irish jig over the sampled tabla coming out of the laptop. With rapping. 'CONTRIVED', I tells ya!

But Anoushka has her father's innate GOOD TASTE and she never fails to surprise. When she signed for the classical label Deutsche Grammophon, who'd have thought she'd come up with something like this? It's as far from her 'classical' repertoire as it is from her 'pop' album with Karsh Kale or the Shakti-like jazz fusion of her album "Rise" (each, in their own way, full of EQUALLY wonderful moments, it goes without saying!)

Listen to tracks here

Minus Points: None that I can think of... Gorgeous!

Also worth mentioning:
Jakko, Fripp & Collins - "A Scarcity of Miracles" - (DGM)
Michael Bernier - "Leviathan" - (Bandcamp download)
Syntony - "White Fly" - (Bandcamp download)

Reissues & Back-catalogue

King Crimson - "Starless & Bible Black" - (DGM)

This year's release in the increasingly inaccurately entitled "40th ANNIVERSARY SERIES" is this classic from 1974, another personal favourite (let's see now... how many times have I bought this one?).

There was speculation about how good a job STEVEN WILSON would be ABLE to do with the masters, given that a large portion of this album was originally gleaned from live tapes, but I for one was not disappointed. Even in PCM Stereo (I don't have the magical 5.1 surround sound) it's as if they are there in the room with you - a pretty scary prospect, if you've ever heard the 1973 KCrims in full-on live thrak'n'werrrn action! Best appreciated with the lights off. Bill Bruford's crisp drums (he was always the best SOUNDING drummer on record) and John Wetton's seismic Fender bass especially sound awesome in this edition.

I would once again single out "THE NIGHT WATCH" as a personal favourite - Robert Fripp's small but perfectly formed solo never fails to make the hairs on the back of my neck do handstands. But I also find myself listening to the improv-derived pieces (the real meat of the album) with fresh ears. The extra sensory perception at play when these guys stood on stage (or rather, in certain cases, sat on a stool!) and MADE IT ALL UP ON THE SPOT was never less than astounding. No wonder audiences hearing them for the first time thought they were playing COMPOSED music.

Only HENRY COW came close to doing anything like this in ROCK (as opposed to 'jazz' or 'jazz-rock' or 'fusion' or what have you). A bit of CONTEXT: this was a time when "improvisation" in rock usually meant jamming on a twelve-bar blues riff for fifteen minutes. There's certainly none of THAT here.

What David Cross does on mellotron or electric piano (when he's not playing that gorgeous violin) is always so RIGHT for the moment. I am reminded of Fripp's suggestion that the sound he was after in King Crimson was "Bela Bartok Played By Jimi Hendrix". This is ELECTRIC CHAMBER MUSIC.

Minus Points: A tiny quibbelette, but none of the 'bonus' material is previously unheard - it has all appeared on earlier DGM Club releases (CD and/or download) or in "The Great Deceiver" box set and retains a b***leg audio quality even in this edition. Nice to have a decent copy of that Central Park video though!

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