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   Wednesday, December 31, 2003  
And so, just before the annual champagne-fuelled orgy of excess obliterates the senses, it's the year-end list. Hardly any surprises since they've all been flagged up here across the year, but of those discs which through a random combination of prejudice, predisposition and instinct managed to gain a hearing, these are reallyrather's favourites of 2003...

Everything mentioned below has and still receives serious attention but it's a Top Ten so reasons have been found to eliminate the following:
Joss Stone / The soul sessions - totally recommended for the first 3 cuts alone. Great debut effort from the blonde kid from Devon but they're all cover versions. [See/hear her in session recently courtesy of KCRW]
Richard Hawley / Lowedges - standards maintained but rr still prefers the previous two albums
The Long Winters / When I pretend to fall - great step up from their debut; bold pop strokes but this blog plays only 7 of the 12 and actively avoids the rest, unlike the Top Tenners which all have an at least 90% hit rate hereabouts
Haley Bonar / The size of planets - even less (6 out of 13 tracks) do the business here but those half-dozen hit a spot found by no-one else this year. Unfussy singer-songwriting with spare leftfield arrangements and brooding restraint
Broken Social Scene / You forgot it in people - plays like the eclectic rock radio station of your dreams but strictly speaking an '02 release
Limbeck / Hi, everything's great - More accurately, everything's really good; uncomplicated, solidly enjoyable driving jangle but a bit one-paced over the distance

And so...

10. Oranger / Shutdown the sun
Hey, how can Oranger be here and not Grandaddy and not The Shins and not the FoW?, you cry. Guess it's that hard-to-pin-down affection factor which makes the individual warm to one and not the other. 'A concise, surprisingly strong, nearly flawless album,' declared Splendid a few days ago. Steady on, chaps. What we have here is the SF band's most collected effort to date, reining in the overt (and expert) 'B' band references of yore to produce an album of comtemporary pysch-pop with no weak moments. Vocally a bit indistinct but the stiff-with-pop-treats 34-track 'rare+unreleased' bonus disc pushes this album into the list

9. Centro-matic / Love you just the same
A great record, the band's 6th(-ish) and best yet so why on earth is it only no.9? Maybe because it's so familiar-sounding. It's a tidier refinement of a sound we already know, rusted indie rock which remains as deeply pleasing as ever and never more consistently realised.

8. The Tyde / Twice
"I have nothing but good things to say about this disc..Every track is golden and the musicianship is fantastic." Not this blog's words but another's; track down this little baby and you, like reallyrather will be powerless to demur. Opening up with a reminder of the hazy, spacey jangle of their debut the band then goes up through the gears and never looks back. The (so-called) Thrills be gone, this is the sound of our SoCal dreams. Sparkling, acidic pop which could easily have placed higher but, hey, the ink's now dry.

7. James William Hindle / Prospect Park
Pleasantest surprise of the year. Choice folk-pop tunes deftly fleshed out by friends of the Yorkshire singer-songwriter. The whole thing's pitched just right, soft-but-definite vocals with an occasional instrumental hint at beefiness. The last song still shouts 'Homeward bound' every time but can't detract from the constistent pleasures which precede it.

6. Norfolk & Western / Dusk in cold parlours
Only properly released in November but reallyrather is confident this one has legs. Don't know about you but reallyrather does a lot of music-listening late in the evening, headphones on and glass of red not uncommonly to hand. It could be argued that that time of day at this time of year is the optimal moment to appreciate the delights of Norfolk & Western. It's certainly dark brown but light of touch. Spacious 'hand-made' arrangements and organic(?) instrumentation render tunes which, tho' generally sombre-sounding, are regularly infused with sweetness and occasionally with crashes of electricity. Could easily place higher.

5. Kings of Leon / Youth & young manhood
Ignore all that 'southern boogie rock revisted' drivel trotted out by jaded music hacks, crank up the volume and - technical term - shake yo' ass to this snappy, sharply honed debut from the Followill family. Yes, it's a little bit Strokes, it's a little bit Dr Feelgood, it's a little bit Creedence - but who cares? Certainly not reallyrather. Get yourself a tambourine and bash along with this whip-smart set marshalled with superb economy and immediacy by Ethan John.

4. Wheat / Per second, per second, per second..every second
Oh, controversial! Do a quick search and you'll find this long-overdue third album from the Massachusetts trio has received some fearful kickings due to it's perceived sell-out / money-shot glossiness. Well, not from reallyrather it didn't (nor, interestingly, from big-hitters like Pitchfork and Allmusic). Closer to the mark is this from The Stranger: "Why more bands can't sell out like Wheat does on Per Second... is beyond me. When it comes to cashing in your indie cred for major-label chips and then betting the whole damn farm on a slick Dave Fridmann-produced record, Wheat has made the right call." This is gleaming pop-rock with just enough Wheat to aid digestion. Not quite direct and neatly-packaged enough for pan-global mainstream saturation but way too direct and neatly-packaged for indieville cult success, it falls down the cracks in between, ending up in places like, well, this.

3. M. Ward / Transfiguration of Vincent
Why on earth isn't this no.1?, reallyrather is still asking and still not really coming up with a reasonable answer. Folky, croaky and luminously melodic, Matt Ward does pretty well everything right on this third album. At any one time over the months at least eight of these tracks have been this blog's favourite. Stuffed to the gills with beautiful tunes in a hatful of styles, Ward draws from all the best wells of 20th century American music to fashion a warm, cracked contemporary classic. If you haven't already, do buy it (and copies for you friends).

2. Sufjan Stevens / Greetings from Michigan..
"Not another art-folk concept album from a guy given to performing in Boy Scout's uniform," we cried as we stumbled across this wonder back in the summer. A minor sonic miracle, this suite of songs+sounds inspired by Stevens' home state is as fine a piece of music-making as you could surely wish for. Like a visit to a choicely curated gallery show or a walk in the hills, Greetings.. is by turns arresting, contemplative, bracing. Writing, arranging and performing most of it himself, this is an astounding sounding record, a Steely Dan aesthetic for the DIY indie-folk generation. Ranging from the sparse and moving to sprawling, multilayered impressionistic opuses, at comfortably over an hour long it stetches this listener's attention span into alien territory with ease. It misses out on the No.1 spot only be because ultimately half of it's appeal is to the head not the heart, unlike...[cue fanfare]

1. Nadine / Strange seasons
An album which fits this listener like a glove. After months gently chiding the St. Louis band over their tardiness in getting this recording out, it only turns out to be a near-perfectly realised set of heartfelt pop-rock. Comfort music, maybe? reallyrather cares not. Sure, no barriers are being broken; in its assembly, all envelopes remained resolutely unpushed. Which is absolutely fine because this is a band which knows (or sounds like it knows) precisely what it's about. Almost every note here, every chord change, every word punches it's weight, satisfies. The mellow, vaguely rootsy, vaguely Beatle-y songs are judged to a tee, never outstaying their welcome, all (save the final afterthought-sounding rocker which rr never plays) delivering in some way. And Adam Reichmann gets to apply his affectingly yearning vocals to plenty of the finely judged, unshowily expressive lyrics we've come to expect. Their choice of friends is telling, too (Centro-matic's Matt Pence produces, Will J. guests); if you haven't already, you should make Nadine one of yours...
   posted by SMc at 4:52 AM |

   Sunday, December 21, 2003  
Just lists and a bit of news...

Exemplary alt-folk-pop double-bill for Feb - Damien Jurado & Denison Witmer tour the UK:

Feb 23 London 12 Bar
Feb 24 Dublin Whelans
Feb 25 Belfast Aunties Annies
Feb 26 Glasgow Nice and Sleazy
Feb 27 Manchester Tmesis
Feb 28 Leicester Leicester Arts Center
Feb 29 Brighton Hanbury Ballroom
Mar 1 London Water Rats

And, as if that wasn't enough, this from The Mendoza Line's site:
''The new ML album, Fortune, is complete and ready to be released in the early months of 2004. In the UK and Europe, the album should be showing up sometime in March, and the ML should be making a trip over there shortly after..'

So, you know what the records of the year are and reallyrather sure as hell knows what the records of the year are, so why should we bother listening to these guys? Well, because they're closer than most to being right...

At no.11 of 25, oftherecord cites M. Ward's Transfiguration.. as being 'Possibly the best sounding album of the year'..

....and which crops up in the wishlist at the foot of another sound personal music site, Poshlost's list..

No explanations but neat graphics over at chromewaves top 10

They're not exactly alone but it's all a bit Shins-a-go-go over at Sponic

A couple of the big hitters drop their detailed Top 50s: PopMatters and Pitchfork which notes wisely that Sufjan Stevens 'has made a record that's damn near crucial'..

..a theme that's picked up by Matt Wellins over at Dusted: 'How many albums in pop music feel like an honest-to-god gift to the listener?' And you'll also want to check out his comrade Nathan's list while you're there.

There may be more...

Highlight of week/month/year(?), finally getting to see Steve Tagliere & Seth Rothchild aka Gingersol in the flesh for the first time since their music came this blog's way some three years ago. Though it was a scaled down, unplugged set on borrowed kit at the 12Bar, the guys conjured the essence of their superior brand of raspy guitar pop. Interspersed with older numbers were several songs from upcoming third album, Eastern (due March) and the fact they sounded instantly familiar is, in this case, most certainly A Good Thing. Luckily, reallyrather was slipped a copy of the new album and will report back in the new year. Thanks again, guys...
   posted by SMc at 11:46 AM |

   Wednesday, December 10, 2003  
The sleevenotes give the instrumentation as:
hammond b3
pedal steel and..
..most excellently, tambourine.

Now, if you're anything like reallyrather you'll be halfway to buying it already without even knowing who it is. Add in the words 'Recorded and mixed at Type Foundry in Portland' and the deal's as good as done, right? Released Nov 4 but thus far largely (and criminally) unnoticed, leave a space in your year-end 'Best of..' list for the new album from Norfolk & Western. Dusk in cold parlors sees Adam Selzer & co. harness their dusky atmospherics to Selzer's best set of tunes yet. Fans of Iron&Wine, M.Ward, Tracker, The Mendoza Line, Richard Hawley even, your Christmas wish-list most definitely begins here.
While the banjo over soft, brisk brushes of opener A marriage proposal puts you immediately at ease, the occasional sprinkle of fuzzy electric guitar keeps you guessing. And, by their own standards, the band positively rocks out on a number called Disappear but that's just about as strident as it gets. Everywhere else it's pretty low-key but consistently lovely. Lambent, that's probably the word.
The sweet, sad-sounding pop of Letters opened in the bar is decorated with bells as is Oslo in which Selzer's husky vocal comes on like a wrecked 'n' repentant Conor Oberst. Matt Ward would be proud of Nowhere else he can go (nuff said) whilst Terrified is similar to sounds to be found on James William Hindle's excellent Prospect Park (which at last gets a UK release via Track&Field on 1 March). Like many of the songs here, the quiet pickin' 'n' strummin' of Jealousy, it's true is enhanced by the harmonies of Rachel Blumberg. rr was about to say 'lifted by' but that wouldn't be quite right since the tunes here are bouyant enough in themselves. And ultimately, choice instrumentation and sonics aside, it's this consistent melodic focus which makes Dusk in cold parlors an unreserved recommended Buy!

With such agreeable sensibilities, reallyrather sometimes wonders if Messrs. Ward, Selzer & co. couldn't record, ooh, something like the entire soundtrack of Willy Wonka and the chocolate factory and make it sound wonderful. But lo! - [theatrical double-take] - what's this?!: "We have also been commissioned by Fractured Discs to cover the Willy Wonka soundtrack in its entirety. No release date on that as of yet." Well, if anyone can do it/the Foundry man can/cause he mixes it with love/and makes the world taste good...

'Weezer's "The Sweater Song" reimagined by Gaudi ... Scott Levesque's wistful voice hanging over it all like Damocles' lesser-known flannel sheets ... Euclidian' -- Glenn MacDonald get his teeth well and truly into the new Wheat album, oh yes (translation: fairly fantastic)...

Having hesistated awhile over this, rr brings Hi, everything's great by Cali quartet Limbeck to the table. Hesitated for no other reason than there's very little to say about this collection - some things are just too straight-forward for their own good. What we have here is (mostly) driving guitar music, an uncomplicated amalgam of the likes of The Replacements and The Smithereens, with a dash of alt-rock in it's (few) slower paces. You know, the type of stuff played by amiable guys with tousled hair, checked shirts and, as they say, sneakers. Hey! Clean-sounding yet not antiseptic, rousing but not ragged. With it's soft hoarseness, singer Robb MacLean has a great voice for this kind of stuff. And what's he singing about? Of course, you've guessed it: cars & girls. Charting the ups & downs of spending weeks driving miles and miles across the States' great highways, the songs are literally mini-postcards from the road (lyrics coming on the back of a neat set of 12 included in the sleeve), with an over-arching and honest-sounding 'memories-are-made-of-this' theme.
The remarkable thing about it is that they're able to revisit this distinctly well-charted territory with such engaging freshness. And there's strength in depth here: if you like track 1 you'll like the rest at least as much. Drumming on the steering wheel and shouting out the choruses, this is definitely one for the road even if it is only the M6 just north of Coventry...
   posted by SMc at 12:04 PM |