As Of Now And Now Only (Hopefully)

As of now and now only, hopefully - I do hope so. The idea is that, one year from now, I'll look back on this and say - what was I thinking? It takes time for things to settle in. It always does. Inevitably, some things will take longer than others. More often than not, though, it will happen eventually. And, believe me - I really, really, really hope that it does happen. You never know, do you? Six months down the line, for want of something else - anything else - pop on that which didn't quite make sense last time and - suddenly - it makes perfect sense. It has to happen.

See, these are albums about which I was really excited. They're albums I tried and tried and tried and tried - listen after listen after listen - albums with whom I've burned that midnight oil in a vain attempt to find something - anything - to love. Hoping against hope time and time again that this time - this time - only now will I truly hear what they wanted me to hear.

And yet, I never did. Albums I wanted so badly to love but didn't. I'm not writing them off. It's just that, I've put so much in already and got very little so far in return. One year from now I fully expect to feel completely differently. Right now though - there are slow burners, and there are albums with which - oh I can't bring myself to say it - albums which - just - might not actually be - any good.

Here, then, are my three biggest disappointments of 2009. Painful stuff.

1. Super Furry Animals - Dark Days/Light Years

I abjectly refuse to even toy with the notion that their time has come. Hey Venus was an album of short, colourful pop songs - ludicrously accessible - and yet I never succeeded in penetrating its glossy surfaces. After 2/3 of the first three tracks invoked the dreaded Truck Driver's Gear Change, I simply had difficulty in continuing. Even now, two or three years later, I am hard pushed to recall any moments over than the chirpy chorus of "Show Your Hand".

It was perhaps with trepidation, then, that I approached Dark Days/Light Years. The early signs were promising. "Inaugural Trams" refused to leave my head for days after the inaugural listen, and it was nice to see a return for Pete Fowler's unmistakable artwork. I found Keiichi Tanaami's efforts for Hey Venus to be far too cold and clinical for such a soulful band - they left a sour taste in the mouth. Granted, his mark is also upon this release, but Fowler's input ensured that this at least looked like an SFA album.

Then came the first listen. "Crazy Naked Girls" was an excellent start. "Cardiff In The Sun" immediately stood out and remains to this day one of the album's few saving graces. Apart from that though...

It's not as if the music is in any way inferior. Far from it. They remain one of the most consistently innovative and downright interesting bands operating in the world today. I know that these are dense masterpieces of freaked out genius, the likes of which no other band could ever dream of creating. The thing is, it's now been part of my life for well over six months and it still feels as if I'm missing something. Usually with this band, by this point I'm well and truly in and I find the music gently lilting through my dreams. Of course, with any music of any substance it's to be expected that multiple listens will be a prerequisite. But I look to Hey Venus and I shudder. What if I never break through?

What the album lacks, I think, is consistency. Everything they've ever put out has been a diverse affair, but there's usually a subtle overarching theme - barely perceptible but impossible to ignore - which serves to achieve cohesion overall. Here there are tracks that drift aimlessly and blissfully, tracks that threaten to tear apart the very grooves on which they rest and tracks seemingly culled from hypercharged late-night jamming sessions - all bustling for room over variously light and bouncy/dark and menacing pristine electronic pop. I repeat, it's all good. But having come to expect from these guys albums that stand out as more than mere sums of their parts, it can't help but disappoint. Rings Around The World, Phantom Power, Radiator - three listening experiences. Dark Days/Light Years, though, has never felt like anything other than a collection of songs. Bloody good songs, granted. But from this band, I expect much, much better.

By no means am I writing off either the band or the album. There's every chance that, someday soon, it'll click. As of now and now only (hopefully) - here we are, and I'm left feeling cold. There'll be further new material from them next year. It promises to be orchestral. I hope, by then, I'll either have come round to these psychotic jams or that the new release is so good that all - by which I mean, their preceding two albums - will be forgiven. Dark days indeed. We all have them. They can be forgiven. There's still hope.

2. Athlete - Black Swan

This one I'll admit took me quite by surprise. Casually browsing the net was I one day when I happened - happened! - upon it - happened to come across it, on Amazon - there it was - and, suddenly, "gracious!" A new Athlete album!

So, no, I hadn't been waiting for this one with baited breath. Be that as it may, I love Athlete. There was once a point at which Vehicles and Animals was a big part of my life. If prompted I probably would have identified it as one of my favourite albums, ever. Of course, my ears were younger back then, and granted I'd heard comparatively few albums overall. But that said, it would still have represented quite a plaudit.

I knew, however, that I could truly describe myself as "dedicated" when, upon hearing their sophomorphic Tourist for the first time, I was already excited as to where they were going to go next. I remember thinking there and then as to how unfair it was that I should have to wait up to three years for the follow up. And when it did arrive in the shape of Beyond the Neighbourhood, the wait felt very much worth it. Some gorgeous, gorgeous, gorgeous songs on that album. "The Athlete Sound" - as tasty, affecting, reliable and warming as a cup of tea. It was love.

Then came Black Swan, and, yes, I was unprepared. It was easy to write off that dismayed first listen as "unprepared". The second listen, too. But the third? The fourth? The fifth? What happened to them? Where was absolutely everything I'd grown to love for the past six years? Where had it all gone? Was I listening to the same band? Undoubtedly. But - what was missing?

The sad thing is, I've still no idea. These are low-key, understated and deeply troubled songs sung, as it sounds, very much from the bottom of the heart. They soar alright, but in doing so serve to sail right over my head - a head, mind you, which is very, very keen to listen. And yet, listen as I might - I never did, never could - connect. The connection is key. Always is.

A disgusted passer-by, scowling with offence at the syrupy drones emanating from the room, wrote it off as "too American". And he's absolutely right. That's just it. Athlete's sound was always crisp and radio-friendly, but never has it been so lacking in essential feeling. Before, it sounded reasurring. This time, it simply sounded as if it was desperate to be of no trouble to anyone. As if - as if it were meticulously groomed to inspire nothing but apathy.

The big kiss off is, as usual, that right now, even having listened countless times, I cannot recall a single note from any of the seventeen tracks (I had the two disc special edition and everything). The saddest part is that with the baffling announcement of a greatest hits collection to be released early next year coupled with the none-too-subtle hint in the album's title (Black Swan - SWAN - SWAN SONG) - well, all signs are indicating that this might be the last we ever hear from good old Athlete. I care not what anybody says, it will truly be a great loss.

3. Jason Lytle - Yours Truly, The Commuter

This one perhaps stung worst of all. When Grandaddy suddenly and unceremoniously disbanded after 2006's Just Like The Fambly Cat, a part of me died. Shut up. It did.

It felt great to have him back. Finally. Pretty much wholly responsible for most everything on the aforementioned album, I was confident that the first Jason Lytle solo album would sound like - well, a Grandaddy album. And it did. It felt like listening to a new Grandaddy album. On that first listen it was easy to forgive even that which must be the worst album cover of the year. Look at it.

So I was happy. On repeat listens, though, it suffered, and suffered very badly indeed. The lifeless drums, listless synths, weary vocals and defeated lyrics - this was a very depressing listen. Parts of it sounded awful - cheap, tacky - I love home recording, but from a songwriter as so obviously talented as Lytle I expected so much more than the amateur synth string washes which dominate the proceedings here.

Then came the worst part. I relistened to ...Fambly Cat. "Jeez Louise", "Rearview Mirror" - some of it was excellent, verily. Most of it, though, sounded just as flat and plastic as that which would follow. Then it occurred to me. The blandness of ...Fambly Cat I could forgive because the album was presented as a dignified death. I clung to it like one would cling to a dying relative. You forgive such horrible cusses when one is on their death bed. It's to be expected when they're in so much pain. With ...Commuter, though - well, it was supposed to be a glorious return. And with a sound as overall limp as that of ....Fambly Cat - my reaction was, unfortunately, one of "Is that it?"

I REPEAT - I hope against hope that each of these albums will, in time, endear themselves to me. As of now and now only, though - disappointed. Very, very disappointed. Must try harder.

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