Continuing The Spiralling Descent Into Misery

Part Two of my list of my favourite albums of 2010 which, I repeat, is in no particular order.

Roky Erickson & Okkervil River – True Love Cast Out All Evil

So intensely personal that things, at some points, become more than a little disquieting. Nowhere is this more true than on the opening “Devotional Number One”. Recorded on equipment so lo-fi as to be outstripped by a wax cylinder, it features a scratchy backing band culled from Roky's inmates during his stints in care. Amongst their ranks, it is reckoned, is a serial rapist and some guy who threw a woman off a bridge. It sounds like an illict transmission from the darkest corner of the world – and yet, undeniably there's plaintive hope in his voice – before all becomes swallowed by overpowering feedback – as openings go, this one leaves me feeling cold, perturbed and uncomfortable.

The following “Ain't Blues Too Sad”, however, is a short but sweet hand on the shoulder which has an identical impact as a warm cup of tea after a walk through a storm. Roky's voice ages some thirty years between these two tracks. As it sounds today it's rich, cracked and heartbreaking.

This album is devastating, but that's not to say that it's to be avoided should you find yourself in a fragile state of mind. In Roky's poignant, plaintive laments you'll find very real comfort, for never is hope far from the equation; not even when he's desperately pleading, presumably on his knees, before the dock in the stirring and affecting “Please Judge”.

Okkervil River act more as curators than as collaborators. I've not heard much of their music, but their polite, unobtrusive and simple backing tracks (and brilliantly insightful liner notes) act as something of a dusty canvas on which Roky can daub enough of himself to ensure that this is his story, nobody else's. Though occasionally they allow for feedback and white noise to interfere with the prevailing beauty, rather than ruining affairs this merely acts as something of a reminder that these are the thoughts of a most troubled mind indeed. In no way can we even begin to relate to that which Roky's endured, but the turmoil is there and impossible to ignore. That it's all but overcome by hope and positivity is miraculous, life-affirming stuff.

Gil Scott-Heron – I'm New Here

The liner notes request that you listen all the way through, without distractions. It would be rude not to. In doing so, you're treated to a listening experience which might be short (just shy of even thirty minutes), but is nevertheless brutally honest, stirringly intimate, uncomfortably claustrophobic yet ultimately redemptive. Its brevity merely ensures that immediate repeat listens are something of a necessity.

I picture our esteemed orator sat on a stool before a microphone in some back-alley jazz club lit only by neon cast in a blue haze on account of the chain of cigarettes through which he's ploughing. His face is a deep frown as he reads aloud from crinkled papers yellowed from his prison stints. It's possible to read in his gravelly voice such experiences only otherwise betrayed by such deep crags as can be found in the faces of those who have seen too much. Yet our esteemed orator's not done yet. No matter how tired he might sound, there's still a vibrancy in his growls and a bite in his words which is such that all sat before him are rapt to the point that they neglect their lit cigarettes which, unsmoked, burn right down to the filter unnoticed.

Where did the night go, indeed? I don't think I ever want to leave.

Pantha Du Prince – Black Noise

In a year full of fantastic collaborations – Lou Reed with Gorillaz, Thom Yorke with Flying Lotus – it's Noah Lennox, alias Panda Bear, whose turn on "Stick To My Side" might make the least amount of noise but, for me at least, has the greatest impact. You see, this is music which I hear in my sleep. It seeps inside almost unnoticed – a benevolent audio virus if ever there was one – and stews and throbs in the part of the brain apparently most dedicated to wistfulness and nostalgia. Pantha Du Prince plants the seeds, but it's left to the listener to allow for them to grow.

These delicate, minimalist and meticulous compositions seem specifically tailored for headphones, incense and darkened rooms, and it's in such contexts that they sound best. However, the mind cannot help but conjure such vistas which, though contained, stretch for miles: Caverns lit by crystals glowing blue; light stabbing through lush green canopies and all but failing to penetrate all the way to the forest floor below through which you pace so tentatively. You can almost taste the fresh pine-scented air – and it's such air that's so fresh as to cold-sting your city-choked lungs.

This is pure escapism, and few retreats from the chaotic pace of modern life with which I so struggle to keep pace are sweeter than the gorgeous “Welt Am Draht” - a piece whose muted chorale sounds come across as an ancient ode to a mercurial forest spirit – essential in every sense of the word. I need music this distanced from everything else. I need transcendent music to live.

Four Tet – There Is Love In You

Not since the curious “No More Mosquitoes” on Pause have vocals played such a large role in Four Tet's music. Sweetly looped female sighing croons form almost the entirety of the melody of the opening “Angel Echoes”. Like the dusty opening monologue of an Oliver Postgate show, they instantly pull the shutters down on the world around and and instead invite you into a warm, cosy, intimate and subdued universe in which to spend any amount of time is enough to restore your sanity in the face of all that apparently strives to rid you of it.

It's hard not to think of the album in terms of the stunning nine minute alien broadcast that is “Love Cry”, but all that comes after offers thrills that might be less visceral but are no less vital – be it the sweet cyclical arpeggios of the aptly named “Circling” or the soft and scratchy jazz of “This Unfolds” which serves to leave the sweetest possible taste in the mouth.

But it took a tired yet buzzing mind in a cramped room full of surging bodies to recognise that the likes of “Sing” and “Plastic People” are veritable club anthems every bit as potent and galvanising as the finest offerings from Orbital. It would sound fantastic accompanied by lasers before an adoring crowd of thousands on a pyramid shaped stage – but the almost clandestine feel of the live experience as it stands is perhaps a lot more appropriate.

Caribou – Swim

To say that Caribou have “gone electro” would be every bit as inadvisable as saying that Neil Young has, over the years, moved away from guitars. Mathematically considered electronic composition has played a huge role in every Caribou release – be it the organic motorik industrial jazz of The Milk of Human Kindness or the sun-drenched psychedelica of Andorra.

So, no, this isn't Caribou's “electronic” album. It is, however, their most club-orientated offering to date – the album to which its easiest to dance. Hell, it's not just “easy”. Rather, it's almost impossible to resist. Who are you to refrain from at least nodding along with an immense grin plastered across your glowing face whilst grooving to the propulsive and transient “Sun” which radiates as much warmth and well-being as the entity from which it takes its name? Who are you to even attempt to refrain from churning with eyes closed so blissfully to the strummed harp which transforms, as if by magic, to a peal of bells in the too-good-to-be-true “Bowls”?

Conceived as an attempt to record music which sounded as though it was underwater, there is a melting fluidity and mercurial quality to these meticulous compositions which is, apparently, exactly what I've been looking for all along in music. To suddenly stumble across it in such lush and glorious technicolour was such a shock to the system that my initial reaction was never going to be anything other than bemusement. However, as the title suggests, these are sounds in which it's necessary to immerse yourself completely in order to fully appreciate. This is exactly the kind of energising electronic music which so often serves to make life feel not just bearable, but positively joyous.


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