Listening post: 21st May 2012 Albums of the week The best records of this week, featuring our take on the Laurel Halo record (spoiler: it’s wonderful).
‘Quarantine’, the debut full-length album from Laurel Halo, is an enigmatic thing. It’s made up of 12 beguilingly off-kilter songs that gently tug at the fringes of pop music, moulding it into new and enticing shapes. It’s an album that constantly surprises. From the organic, nursery-rhyme quality of opener Airsick, to the contrast between the grandiose voices and sparse synth squiggles on MK Ultra, Laurel Halo is clearly an artist overflowing with restless creativity.
Her vocals are mostly at the forefront. Her voice naively lilts on a Thaw, complimenting the fluttering, bittersweet, electronic landscape beneath perfectly. There’s a distinctive balance achieved between her dissonant vocals and the softly rattling percussion subsumed in dense layers of ambience on Carcass. ‘Quarantine’ has personality. Not of the loud, brash kind, but of the quietly exploratory sort, and it makes for a record the curious grace of which is unmatched this year.
Laurel Halo has created an album that is its own entire world away from anything else. The fact that it stands so apart means it’s may take some time to settle into, but once you’re there, it’s almost impossible to let ‘Quarantine’ go. [TEE]
Cold Specks – ‘I Predict A Graceful Explosion’ [Mute]
Al Spx, the concisely monikered leader of Canadian ‘doom soul’ purveyors Cold Specks, is all too aware of the crowded pigeonhole awaiting any woman possessed of a smoky blues voice that’s one part Etta James, one part Janis Joplin and three parts cement mixer. “I work really hard on my songs,” she says. “I hope people don’t just put me in a group with Adele and Amy Winehouse.” Ignoring the claim that those two artistes didn’t “work really hard” on their music, Spx needn’t fear comparisons – the funereal grace of her sparse, gospel-tinged gloominess has more in common with Tom Waits or the bare bones blues of Leadbelly than any of today’s retro-soul chart-botherers. [CR]
Stream Cold Specks – ‘I Predict A Graceful Explosion’ [Mute] at The Guardian
Meek Mill – ‘Dream Chasers 2’ [Maybach Music Group]
Okay, so this came out last week, but we need to point out how good this mixtape is. The high quality rap mixtape has become a major rival to the album format, and Meek Mill latest release is a seriously strong effort. It may well be a contender for ‘mixtape of the year’ when 2012 is through. After signing to the Rick Ross-led MMG the hype around Meek Mill has been unusually high. There’s always a worry that crew rappers can’t carry a full-length release on their own, and end up sinking back into the group and to their old feature slots. Yet Dreamchasers 2 is pretty great. The vast majority of the production is h-a-r-d, and also manages to avoid sounding like half a dozen re-hashes of the B.M.F. beat that other MMG tapes can fall victim to. The hood anthems are nicely broken up with a well-executed Fugees sample, the piano ballad ‘Use To Be’ and a Drake feature, but it’s generally straight, sing-along club fire. I could barely sit still listening to this. I’m almost dreading listening to it in public in case my appreciative screw-face empties the dancefloor. [LM]
Download Meek Mill – ‘Dream Chasers 2’ [Maybach Music Group]
Saint Etienne – ‘Words And Music By Saint Etienne’ [Heavenly Recordings/Universal]
‘Words And Music By Saint Etienne’ is probably their most sincere album, because it’s a love-letter written to pop music. There are some really lovely, simple songs here like Heading For The Fair and Tonight. Some catty musician once said that music journalists like Elvis Costello because he dressed like them. Saint Etienne, now in their 22nd year, are adored by music journalists because they think like them, cleverly selecting a rosy but cerebral vision of a vision. This record, finally embracing a life spent poring over 7“s, is not that adventurous or likely to pick up new fans. But that’s not really its aim. “I’m growing older, “ goes one lovely line of many, “love is here to stay.”
Stream Saint Etienne – ‘Words And Music By Saint Etienne’ [Heavenly Recordings/Universal]
Stream Beach House – ‘Bloom’ [Sub Pop/Bella Union] at The Independent
Cards on the table – my love for Beach House is all down to the timing of 2010’s ‘Teen Dream’, an album of misty-eyed grandeur that soundtracked my summer of upheaval, reflection and Chinese beer. ‘Bloom’ is cut from the same cloth as that record, but the blurred edges have been brought into focus, vocals sparkle upfront and the ‘dream pop’ tag usually attributed to the Baltimore duo seems less apt as they move into daylight. Operating by the ‘if it ain’t broke’ philosophy, Beach House now fully occupy the radiant, stately sound they’ve carved out for themselves over four albums, and Victoria Legrand’s incredible voice, muscular yet vulnerable, is still exactly the thing to nurse a wounded and hungover soul – although it won’t be me who needs it this time round. [CR]
Stream Beach House – ‘Bloom’ [Subpop/Bella Union] at The Independent