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Death and loss aren’t necessarily new or ground-breaking themes within music. Death has been something that’s been sang about since the dawn of vocal music and the idea of loss is a recurring narrative within genres such as the Blues. They’re also two concepts that human beings encounter over several points of their lives and, death specifically, is something that we can all agree is something that carries significant heartache and sorrow to each of us when we come across it in our lifetimes.

Sufjan Stevens is a bit of a musical chameleon; he has released everything from Folk to Hip-Hop to impenetrable Electronic albums to Orchestral tributes to a train route in New York to Christmas albums. Despite his unwillingness to stand still in a genre for more than one album at a time, he has retained the reputation of being one of the truly great songwriters of his generation. His last major release was the schizophrenic and deeply intriguing “Age of Adz” which was, to put it mildly, a bombastic anxiety-ridden journey into the mind of Sufjan (who had just recovered from a mysterious debilitating illness). After a few sporadic releases, a new album was announced at the start of this year which was to serve as a tribute to his mother and step-father; Carrie and Lowell.

The story of Carrie Stevens is one of tragedy. She left the family when Sufjan was just a year old and lived a life that was marred by depression, schizophrenia and alcoholism, reappearing sporadically at random points in time before disappearing again. According to Sufjan’s recent interview with Pitchfork, she also spent several years on the street, homeless and alone. On the flip side, he also notes that she was funny, caring and loving according to relatives and from his distant memories. Carrie died in 2012 and before her passing, she and Sufjan spent time together. As a result of enduring the experience of witnessing the death of his mother, who was effectively a stranger to him, the concept of this album came into fruition.

Carrie and Lowell is the polar opposite of Age of Adz as it’s considerably more minimal in its sound. There is less emphasis on experimentation with sounds and more focus on gorgeous acoustic orchestrations to provide the genuinely heartbreaking lyrics with centre stage. It’s a platform for Sufjan to relay some of his finest and most personal songs of his career with the album serving as his grieving process (which isn’t specifically embedded in just sadness).

The opening track “Death With Dignity” is so beautifully arranged, with finger picked guitar and simple piano. It feels somewhat sparse, with its lyrics centred around the feeling of emptiness we can feel when someone dies and that lack of knowing where things will get better. It’s a taste of what’s to come with complex and gut-wrenching verses.

I forgive you, mother, I can hear you
And I long to be near you
But every road leads to an end

That feeling of emptiness and regret are further conveyed on “Should’ve Known Better”. Sufjan divulges further into the relationship (or lack thereof) with his mother and the inescapable feeling of wishing you had done more for a person before it’s too late. Whilst it’s possible to dwell on these feelings of regret forevermore, we can’t change what has been done and must live with our prior decisions.

I should have known better
Nothing can be changed
The past is still the past
The bridge to nowhere
I should have wrote a letter
Explaining what I feel, that empty feeling

A key theme throughout Sufjan Stevens albums and songs is faith and religion, most overtly in his stunning folk album “Seven Swans” (which, by the way, shows that it is possible to make Christian music that’s popular with the masses). On “Drawn to the Blood“, Sufjan questions just why such a personal tragedy could happen to him despite his strong faith in a higher power (“For my prayer has always been love, What did I do to deserve this now? How did this happen?”). It’s a really effective track where the sense of betrayal is evident and that temporary questioning of his faith feels so real. This is also something that isn’t something we’d typically see in his earlier works and is a sign that this is a far more personal and “real” album in comparison to his earlier releases.

The one song that truly broke my heart on the album is “The Fourth of July” which documents a conversation with someone in their final moments of life. Having lost family members, it’s in some ways that final conversation I would’ve wanted as it offers at least some form of comforting or closure during such a tragic moment. One of the more crushing lyrics is when Sufjan’s mother (who is essentially our narrator on the track) is apologetic for leaving her son at such an early age.

Did you get enough love, my little dove
Why do you cry?
And I’m sorry I left, but it was for the best
Though it never felt right
My little Versailles

This song in particular resonated with me mainly because of just of lines like that. It’s simple and effective lyricism over such sparse instrumentation that convey the utter emptiness of the situation that make it just that little bit touching. It’s probably his most emotional song since “Casimir Pulaski Day

Considering how frantic his previous album was, the minimal soundscapes and prolonged instrumental outros that appear on a few songs are really effective. Take for example “Drawn to the Blood” which has over a minute of melancholic synths and string arrangements which allows the power of the lyrics to sink in. The same can be said of the title track which has a minute long solemn outro. It’s something you rarely see in a lot of music which is a real shame as it certainly adds depth if used.

There’s little resolution or hope provided on the climactic song “Blue Bucket of Gold” as it raises more questions than answers. Nobody fills that void following the loss of his mother and there’s no sign of anything good coming in the future. This understated track is the complete opposite of the 25 minute grandiose “Impossible Soul” which concluded The Age of Adz. The lyrics drift away in a sea of instrumentals and we’re left pondering our own thoughts and feelings on loss with no conclusion really being given to us.

I’ve been listening to this album for a few weeks and whilst it touched a nerve with me from the first listen, it struck me a little harder recently. I awoke last weekend to hear some particularly horrible news that had happened to a friend of mine from way back when. When I revisited this album again after hearing this, the songs hit me like a punch to the stomach as they perfectly encapsulate those cycle of emotions you go through when you lose someone you love.

Carrie & Lowell is a remarkable album. You very rarely get such an insight into an individual’s personal life that you get on this album and even when you do, it’s rarely as beautiful and tragic as this. Whilst the themes of death and loss aren’t new, such a well documented and crafted journey into the concept of death and the grieving process is worthy of praise. As a result of such a personal tragedy, Sufjan Stevens has released the finest album of his career to date, and has immortalised his mother with such a touching tribute.

crystal-castles

Tuesday was, unlike Ice Cube’s, a lousy day. I woke up late for work, forgot to take the rubbish out to be collected, I left my keys at home, I got shat on by the rain and had one of the blandest lunch time meals of my life. I almost wept.

This poor day was topped off by the moderately sad news that Crystal Castles’ vocalist Alice Glass was leaving due to various reasons, some of which personal. It [potentially] marks the end of a band that I was particularly fond of and who always produced interesting music over three very different albums. Here’s a quick look back and a few choice songs from each release.

I

Crystal Castles (or “I“) is an album very much embedded within the sound that was evident in 2008; it’s chiptune mixed with synthpunk and has a DIY feel to it (which was the in thing at that point of the decade). There were brief allusions of the darker sound they would later develop but on the whole, it was very much a glitchy chiptune riddled album. Whilst others like MSTRKRFT sound pretty horrid in 6 years later, the debut CC album is still a really good listen. I think notable standouts so many years later are “Alice Practice“, “Vanished” and “Tell Me What to Swallow” which is an oddly sombre number.

(II)

Where the band began to truly become something special was their second album known as “II“. The Chiptune sound was gone and the electronics became more polished and the music more aggressive at points. This was certainly the point where the band’s sound got progressively darker with Ethan Kath producing some really interesting music like “Celestica”, “Birds” and “Empathy“. The version of “Not In Love” is also probably the best thing relating to Crystal Castles.

It was at this point that I also went to go see them (twice) on their fairly extensive UK tour. As polished as they were on record, their live sets were fairly shambolic with Alice essentially screaming into the microphone and drinking straight out of a Jack Daniels bottle. The undeniable beauty of a song like “Celestica” was very much lost in a live environment which was a tough pill for me to swallow when I saw them on both occasions and it definitely dampened me on the band for some time. To this day, I will never forget that show I saw at the Leeds Metropolitan mainly because of the 45 minutes of screaming and feedback I witnessed and the amount of alcohol I consumed that rivalled Alice. The second time was just as chaotic and less audible when I saw them as part of the NME Shockwaves tour in 2011.

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After the disappointment of seeing them live both times, I was very much pleasantly surprised when their third album (III) was their best. Everything about “III” is dark. The horrifically depressing cover art of a Yemeni woman holding her tear gassed son, the names of the songs and the general mood of impending doom that looms over the tracks. Hell, what would you expect from an album where the key theme is oppression in it’s various forms?

I think a lot of people slept on this album and didn’t give it the credit it deserved, mainly because it didn’t have the crossover appeal single that the second album had with “Not In Love”. Instead, it was far more gothic with the bleak “Plague” “Wrath of God” and “Sad Eyes” as the choices for singles, which all sound glum from their names alone.

I loved “III” and thought it was their finest hour as a group. It’s a gloomy and an intoxicating listen that showed the progression the group had made. This was the point where the band’s music was the best it had ever been and for once, their lyrics were quite excellent behind the veils of distortion. With the band now seemingly a distant memory, I’m glad to say they left when they were creatively at their best. The album’s last song “Child I Will Hurt” you is probably the best thing they ever recorded. It’s hauntingly beautiful and is one of the few moments in the history of the group where you can almost see can somewhat glimpse at the vulnerability of Alice Glass.

Whether this is the end of Crystal Castles or merely the end of the band in it’s current form, we’ll have to see. Here are a few of my personal favourites from the 3 albums.

We live in troubled times. There’s a threat within music that it’s being rapidly hollowed out by artists seeking commercial gain moreso than creating something of substance out of one’s love of music. Unfortunately, the music we hear on the radio becomes increasingly more saturated and devoid of any creativity as time goes by.

It’s at such low points in Hollywood blockbusters that we would call on our heroes. In the Batman series for example, the bat symbol would be beamed into the sky signalling for the hero to swoop in and save the day.

Aphex Blimp

This Sunday just gone, a blimp was spotted around London sporting the above logo on one side and “2014” on the other. Symbols were being printed around New York with the same logo. I began going into meltdown the minute images started cropping online and was utterly intrigued; would it be new music? Re-releases? Live shows? Whilst a lot of questions emerged, one thing was a definite fact; Aphex Twin was returning and he was going old school, promoting stuff via messages in the sky.

I became enamoured with Aphex Twin a few years ago when I started to delve into the Warp Records back catalogue extensively. His compilation album “Selected Ambient Works 85-92” is still one of the more beautiful Electronic albums I’ve ever encountered. It takes the ambient soundscapes that a pioneer such as Brian Eno created and brings them into a more contemporary environment, creating thought provoking yet danceable music. I also enjoyed his completely menacing and relentless releases “I Care Because You Do” and “Richard D James Album” which really reinforced the IDM feel of his music.

It’s been 13 years since his last and most complex album “Drukqs” in which James recording hauntingly beautiful songs on incredibly hard to programme sequencers and sythesisers. Since that time, he’s DJ’d here and there and done the odd live show but there’s been no new album under the Aphex or AFX banner. Well, now he’s back with “SYRO” which features some truly excellent album artwork.

FINAL MASTER SYRO DIGIPAK.indd

Anyway, for the unitiated or simply to whet the appetite in anticipation for the album due out on 23 September 2014, here’s some of my favourite Aphex Twin songs for your listening pleasure.

The concept of a close up shot music video isn’t anything new.

One of the more famous examples of a close up take video is Sinead O’Connor’s “Nothing Compares 2 U” which could arguably be one of the more famous videos of all time. In that video, the shot everyone remembers is when O’Connor sings a line that alludes her troubled relationship with her mother (trivia note: it was a slight change from Prince’s original version) and a single tear rolls down from her eye to her cheek. Whatever your opinions on O’Connor are, it’s still a powerful image born out of simplicity and emotion. It’s an often parodied and replicated shot.

Whilst Miley Cyrus’ video for “Wrecking Ball” replicated the O’Connor video (interspersed with Cyrus looking like a spectacular goof naked on a fucking wrecking ball), the intensity and humanising aspects of the video were pretty much lost. Probably a better example of how to use the close up shot effectively in this day and age can be found in the video for Janelle Monae’s “Cold War”.

For the uninitiated, Janelle Monae is a unique musician who seems to have inherited the dancing ability and stage presence of James Brown. She’s a rarity in modern music; a female musician who wholly rejects sexualisation and who has a clear desire to be respected as a musician above all else. She stepped into prominence with “The ArchAndroid” which was a concept album about an android who falls in love with a human in a futuristic world. It’s an album that knows no boundaries when it comes to genre; one minute it’s soul, the next it’s classical then it’s full blown 60s psychedelia. Her live performances are also genuinely worth going out of your way to see, too.

“Cold War” was one of the highlights from that veritable feast of an album as it featured pure musical jubilation and some incredibly thought-provoking lyrics. The drum pattern has a real “B.O.B” feel to it which makes it and meshes well with Monae’s powerful performance.

Shot in one take, the video is an intimate experience. We follow Monae on an up-close and emotional performance. We see her singing in jubilation, grimacing, laughing before eventually becoming overcome with emotion. The moment when she begins to break down and cry is startling to behold due to the sense of realism it holds. It’s seemingly out of nowhere and is one of those rare instances where you see a musician show raw human emotion in a video. Whilst O’Connor had two tears roll down her face, she continued to sing; Monae stops and momentarily struggles to regain her compose.

“I remember crying during ‘Cold War’ [on the] first take. I didn’t know how that happened but it just did. I was very moved by that. It was really a special moment; then everybody else started to cry.”

 

The emotion on show and the one take video make Cold War. for my money at least, one of the superior close up shot videos. It may not have the ‘iconic’ image from O’Connor’s or the so-called sex appeal from Cyrus’ but it certainly strikes more of a nerve with you. It’s also a great and memorable introduction to one of the more brilliant and ingenious performers of this generation.

One the flip side, there’s the joyous and equally as eye-catching video for the other tremendous single from The ArchAndroid for “Tightrope”. I genuinely hope this fashion sense and dancing style makes a rapid return. I challenge you to not smile at least once when watching it.

A part of me would like to remember listening to Daft Punk’s debut album “Homework” when it first came out in 1997, but deep down I know that that did not happen for many years to come. Looking back on the album and time in which it came out, it can in some ways be considered one of the more influential Electronic albums of all time and the album that really sparked interest in the developing French House scene of the late 90s/early 2000s. However, all of that would’ve eluded me at that point in time as I was probably more interested in the Backstreet Boys and other such dross to pay attention.

What did grab me however was the entrancing video for probably the most famous song from the album “Around the World” that was directed by excellent music video and film (when he wants to be good) directer Michel Gondry. Featuring several groups of characters moving in cyclical motions and nothing more, the video was oddly engrossing to a 7/8 year old version of myself. If my gin-soaked memory serves me well, I believe the first time I saw it was on the long defunct Saturday kid’s TV programme “Live & Kicking” when I was in the twilight of my life. What appealed to me was the absolutely simplicity on the face of what the video is; people moving ‘around the world’ dressed in various costumes.

What I failed to notice at 7 years old was what each group of people represented a different aspect of the song itself. One group will represent the bassline, another the drum pattern, another will only move when the high pitched synth is heard and another will only move when the vocals are playing. It makes the hypnotic nature of the video itself even more engrossing and ingenious and really speaks to the ability of Gondry as a music video director.

From a more technical standpoint, the intrinsic choreography required to make the video a success is stunning to comprehend. The intricacies entailed to make it succeed were something that Gondry strove for, as he had found that choreography was a mistreated factor and utilised as filler in music videos at the time it was released. He and his crew succeeded in making an incredibly influential video that simply used organised dance in a unique fashion.

Daft Punk would have many more great videos that would feature Anthropomorphic Canines, Manga space cartoons and of course, robots. They’ve also now become the renaissance men of 70s Funk music, jamming with Pharrell and Nile Rodgers in glittery outfits . Whilst the music is still great and the videos enjoyable, I’m still mesmerised by this wonder.

I woke up this morning and found out that legendary Soul singer Bobby Womack had died aged 70. I knew Womack had several health issues over recent years (colon cancer, alzheimer’s and diabetes) but the news still came as a bit of a shock. The main reason for that was the sudden resurgence that his career had over the past 4 years or so.

Like most people, I knew of Bobby Womack from his excellent song “Across 110th Street”. Combining some brilliant string arrangements, sublime soul guitar riffs and oddly hard hitting lyrics about the troubles that could be found in ghetto life, it’s a song worthy of the praise it receives. Above all of that was Womack’s voice, especially the crooning “woo” that he does at the start of the song. The song was actually a part of Womack’s score for a Blaxploitation film the song takes it name from and has also become a popular choice for other films looking to capture the spirit of Blaxploitation.

Along with 110th Street, he’s also known for probably having one of the best covers of Mama’s and Papa’s classic “California Dreamin”. Coincidently, I think the first time I came across it was when I watched the utterly bleak “Fish Tank” a few years ago. He performed an incredibly sparse version on Jools Holland a few years ago that’s worthy of your attention.

His return to music over the past 4 years was remarkable. He had grown older and his voice was a little gruffer, but he hadn’t lost his soul spirit and ferocity. He provided vocals on the Gorillaz songs “Stylo” and “Cloud of Unknowing” from their guest heavy album “Plastic Beach”. His live performances with the band on the tour were some of the highlights as he put so much passion behind his parts. The fact he was such an established and well regarded musician singing his heart out put some of the other guests to shame.

He signed with XL Records and released “The Bravest Man in the Universe” in 2012, his first album of new material in 18 years. The album features Womack’s gruff and world weary voice combined with more contemporary instrumentals and production, much akin to the Gil Scott-Heron album “I’m New Here”. Unlike many of his contemporaries of his time, Bobby Womack strove to remain relevant and didn’t become a pastiche of Soul music, doing the occasional greatest hits tour. He moved with the times and had interesting new music to offer to the masses.

 

Bobby Womack 

1944 – 2014

There is something to be said about having a great music video for a song. Especially evident when MTV was more prominent and today where YouTube is an everyday task for some, a creative or engrossing music video creates a buzz around a song or musician and it can become something that everybody talks about for a period of time. An example of this is the video for Michael Jackson’s “Thriller” that was a television event (like a lot of Jackson’s big budget videos) and essentially is more iconic than the song itself. Even in the modern day, Miley Cyrus’ video for “Wrecking Ball” was more (in)famous than the song which for the life of me I cannot recollect. 

This series will look at some of the more intriguing and interest music videos that have been released over the years. It’ll be a mix of really well known ones and others that are less mainstream and a little more left field. 

Metallica – One

From one of the band’s best and more experimental albums “…And Justice For All“, One is a particularly bleak song that’s lyrics are directly inspired by Dalton Trumbo anti-war novel “Johnny Got His Gun“. It’s one of my personal favourite Metallica songs due to the absolutely ferocity of Lars’ drumming and the fact that, lyrically, it’s probably one of the stronger songs they’ve written.

To accompany the song, the music video uses a slew of scenes from the film version of Trumbo’s novel and effectively tells the story of the novel within 7 minutes. The film scenes add an even more disturbing and unsettling feeling to an already downbeat song, especially with Johnny’s monologue playing throughout. The ending with Johnny finally coming to terms with his fate and weakly repeating the line “S.O.S. Help. Me” is difficult to forget.

Metallica had a few other really good videos, in particular the nightmarish video for “Enter Sandman” which may be a little more of an iconic and broader televised Metallica music video. In my opinion, their best video was their first and most haunting.