Hoping against hope: the soft, exquisite sorrow of Daisy Chapman

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What is it, i’ve often wondered, that makes melancholy such rich, fertile inspiration for art? Perhaps because in its impossibly deep, dark furrows—in the troughs of our experience—there simply is nothing else an artist can do, but (in whatever guise) sing. Art, after all, captures what words alone cannot; it goes beyond them and taps into something more honest, that must be expressed; E. E. Cummings alludes to this idea in one his poems, powerfully distancing it from mere speech: “wild (at our first) beasts uttered human words | —our second coming made stones sing like birds—”. Yet there is also, i would venture, something essentially optimistic, something hopeful in the very act of turning such black honesty into art: the fact that an artist sings, rather than—like most—simply curling up or lashing out, betrays more at the heart of it all; Cummings again, in the final two lines from his finest poem, says it best: “where everything’s nothing | —arise, my soul;and sing”. And from just such a place, doing just that is Daisy Chapman. Read more


Frail, impassioned and allusive: Polly Scattergood

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Of late, i’ve been revelling in new releases from a number of British female singers, all of whom deserve much wider appreciation. First up is the superbly-named Polly Scattergood, whose self-titled debut album was released early last month. Scattergood—her real name—is an alumnus of the BRIT School, an inconsistent institution that has churned out numerous successful musicians, from the talented (Imogen Heap) to the banal (Katie Melua/Adele) to the disturbingly talentless (Amy Winehouse). Thankfully, Scattergood is very much at the Imogen Heap end of the spectrum, her songs often very unconventional, her voice capable of both aching fragility and disconcerting caprice.

Despite being a debut, the naïveté suggested by Polly Scattergood’s voice isn’t particularly noticeable throughout the album’s 10 tracks; it’s a confident, assured debut. On the other hand, lack of experience has its own kind of freedom, and this is perhaps best demonstrated on the surprisingly lengthy opener, “I Hate The Way”. Beginning with great delicacy, Scattergood’s voice extremely close-miced, it treads a path that worryingly suggests a ghastly emo track is to ensue: “I hate the way I bleed each time you kiss me”. Yet what follows is nothing of the kind, an increasingly fraught and insistent elegy, one that follows a nicely unconventional structure; at the middle 8, the song opens out into beatless gurgles beneath an angelic countermelody, while the coda abruptly descends into a surly, obsessive and deeply insecure monologue about wanting to gain the beloved’s attention away from “all those other girls”. It’s an impressive, deeply honest track, and also something of a statement of intent: baring the soul in an unconventional manner is to be expected. Read more


Peter Maxwell Davies – The Wells Service (first broadcast)

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Yesterday’s Choral Evensong came from one of our most beautiful cathedrals, Wells Cathedral, celebrating the feast of the Annunciation to the Blessed Virgin Mary.

The canticles came in the form of Peter Maxwell-DaviesWells Service, the first time they have been broadcast. The Magnificat is a dense and stodgy affair, briefly aerated with a treble solo; it’s a pensive, even an introspective setting, opting for restrained technicolour (the harmonies are sumptuously rich) rather than ebullience. This is taken much further in the Nunc dimittis, that begins disarmingly simply before its phrases begin to become stretched out in deliciously poignant fashion, particularly in the doxology where, at “world without end”, the music halts as if to reflect at length on the closing words; it concludes with one of the most sublime settings of the word “amen” that i’ve ever heard. Read more


Playing around in digital detritus: Venetian Snares – Filth

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Is it me or is Aaron Funk’s output beginning to slow? Nine months on from last year’s Detrimentalist, Funk is back with a new Venetian Snares album, Filth, released in late April.

Opening track “Deep Dicking” is a paradigm for the whole album, hyperactively squelching around in digital detritus; sounds, flurries, gestures, beats and burps passing by at breakneck speed. Underpinned by a relentless, almost happy-hardcore beat, it has a potent manic quality, suggesting Venetian Snares at its best, breaking apart familiar beat elements, scrutinising them, reassembling them, creating disturbing collages from the fragments. It ends as it began, playing around in the dirt of the album’s title, after which “Crashing The Yogurt Truck” continues in such similar fashion that it could almost be a ‘part 2’. The Speak and Spell is brought out of retirement (last heard 5 years ago on Huge Chrome Cylinder Box Unfolding) and folded into the mix, along with increasingly retro twangs redolent of the TB-303 and TR-606. This is taken further in “Labia”, ploughing a distinct faux-analogue furrow, at times bringing to mind Aphex’s Analord series, before abruptly cutting off. There’s only time for a snatched breath before being plunged back in, with “Mongoloid Alien”, where the cyclic intensity assumes fever pitch, obsessively repeating the title ad nauseam. “Chainsaw Fellatio” (no, i don’t know either) is the first to reduce the frenetic pace, although the slower, swaggering tempo has the effect of making all the surrounding ephemera seem, if anything, faster at times than before. Read more


New free EP from Nine Inch Nails et al.

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Almost a year on from their last tour EP, there’s now a new 6-track EP from Nine Inch Nails, together with their tour buddies, Jane’s Addiction and Streetsweeper (the new project from Rage Against The Machine’s Tom Morello). Titled the NINJA 2009 Tour Sampler EP, it features two tracks from each artist and, considering the quite different styles of each act, hangs together surprisingly well.

Jane’s Addiction contribute first, with “Chip Away”, a wild, pounding, tribalesque track that never lets up for a second, even during a momentary shift to hand-claps and rim shots. They pick up their instruments for “Whores”, a fairly formulaic rock number that is, nonetheless, pretty compelling.

NIN’s “Not So Pretty Now” clearly comes from the sonically anæmic With Teeth era; despite being an exciting track, it’s predictable and not one of Trent’s finest achievements (which of course means it’s in keeping with With Teeth). “Non Entity”, on the other hand, is superb; the tempo is sluggish but somehow driving, and as the textures develop, the song seems to be a perfect synthesis of ideas from numerous NIN releases, including Ghosts. It’s the best track on the EP. Read more


A shining example of synth-ballad: Röyksopp – Junior

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There was a time, not so very long ago, when adverts seemed to be full to bursting with music by, first, Moby (Play), then Goldfrapp (Felt Mountain) and then Röyksopp (Melody A.M.). Such exposure does little to help these or any other albums, at best distracting from, at worst suffocating, their genuine achievements. It’s good, therefore, to hear Röyksopp’s new album, Junior (released on 23 March), before it’s made its way into the wider world; i’m hopeful that the band will resist the advertising community this time, as it’s a release well worth hearing on its own terms. Read more


Mix Tape #10 : Melancholia

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Lent—’tis the season to be dolorous, and so the tenth 5:4 mix tape has melancholia as its theme. Both songs and instrumental music are included, taken from a diverse selection of artists and composers.

It begins with the opening of one of the best of William Basinski‘s Disintegration Loops, “d|p 3”. While as a whole these albums constitute a thoroughly over-egged pudding, this track conjures up a rather wistful sort of atmosphere, like a sad sunset. The Kilimanjaro Darkjazz Ensemble create fabulous nocturnal music, stylishly flecked with jazz mannerisms. All of Burial‘s work is shaded by melancholy; “Night Bus” is one of his shortest tracks, bereft of beats, its melody etching out the contours of a furrowed brow. Biosphere seems to capture remoteness in his work better than most, and “Poa Alpina” (from the remarkable Substrata album) is infused with this, underpinned by a deep bass that makes the music sound, literally, heavy. Fellow Norwegian Deathprod ploughs even darker troughs, and “Dead People’s Things” is like music from the end of time, postdiluvian, exhausted, its haunting melody falteringly singing surrounded by ruins. Perennial favourite of mine, Andrew Liles, has produced nothing so strikingly unusual as his “Concerto for Piano and Reverberation”; i included part of the opening in my Piano mix tape, but felt compelled to include it here as it creates such a black, velvety atmosphere, laden with gravitas. Franz Liszt‘s large-scale sacred work Via Crucis is modelled on the Stations of the Cross; two excerpts from the twelfth are featured here. It explores the moment of Christ’s death, beginning with his desperate cry, “Eli, Eli, lama sabacthani” and concluding with a gorgeous setting of the chorale, “O Traurigkeit, O Herzeleid” (which inspired my own setting). Thomas Adès‘ early string quartet, Arcadiana, has “O Albion” as its penultimate movement, and is a poignant comment on a lost world; Adès once described this movement to me as having two “chest pains”, the moments where the harmony shifts so painfully. Read more

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