It wasn’t supposed to work. It wasn’t even supposed to happen: following A Sunny Day in Glasgow’s 2007 debut, founding vocalists Robin and Lauren Daniels got sidetracked by personal matters and bassist Brice Hickey landed in the hospital with a broken leg. The finished product, recorded largely with replacement singers, squashed 22 tracks into a shape-shifting hour, populated by obscured hooks, half-formed ideas, and spare parts. All of which belies Ashes Grammar as a work of extraordinary beauty. Core players Ben Daniels and Josh Meakim oversaw the record like hawks and sculpted it into a floral dream-pop paradise designed to heighten the senses. Everything seems to have been drawn from a canon of sensual music, built according to a strangely fitting logic. Drums switch between an acoustic kit and a programmed bass thump from the Mille Plateaux school of 4 a.m. clubbing; shoegaze guitars morph and reappear from different angles; choral chants melt into melodic swoons sourced from who knows where. It’s a place of thrilling, almost limitless possibility, whose colossal length gives the impression that it has no boundaries. We’re meant to cross into it, drink in its aroma, and take the chance that its abundance of riches might really be glistening with sharp teeth.
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What of interest can a 30-year-old band bring to the table on its 12th studio album? To a lot of Depeche Mode fans, Sounds of the Univere was a disappointment because it didn’t represent a logical progression from 2005’s Playing the Angel. For a globally popular band, though, Depeche Mode have rarely made the expected, path-of-least-resistance move. Instead of dismissing the meticulous, streamlined, analog synth production, though, why not embrace how eloquently it meshes the band’s earliest sonic tendencies with the emotional maturity and songwriting development of later years? “Wrong”, for example, was a brilliantly terse, tongue-in-cheek perversion of the band’s, and its fans’, doomy image. Just as impressive was the emergence of singer Dave Gahan as a songwriter nearly on par with old hand Martin Gore. Instead of loathing Songs of the Universe for not being another Playing the Angel or Violator, why not love it for what it brought to the table? And that was plenty.
A.C. Newman’s last solo album was aptly titled The Slow Wonder because it took a few listens to sink in. No such problem exists on Get Guilty, Newman’s insanely catchy follow-up. In addition to being instantly appealing, it’s also a top contender for the title of “Best Late Night Album” of the year. The album is the aural equivalent of an empty house as drummer Jon Wurster creates an open, uncluttered sound, especially on “The Palace at 4 a.m.” For pop lovers, there are too many moments of beauty to list on Get Guilty, but put the gorgeous string introduction to “Young Atlantis” right at the top. A New Pornographers album can’t come soon enough, but this near-classic will definitely hold listeners at bay for at least another year.
The Magician’s Private Library
Releasing: 23 February
This debut album from Holly Miranda was produced by TV on the Radio’s Dave Sitek. “Forest Green Oh Forest Green” is worth a listen. Its tinkling melody is almost too precious, but the ramshackle instrumentation adequately musses up any lingering sense of cutesiness. Good show.
01 Forest Green Oh Forest Green
04 No One Just Is
05 Slow Burn Treason
06 Sweet Dreams
07 Everytime I Go to Sleep
08 High Tide
10 Sleep on Fire
Forest Green Oh Forest Green [MP3]
Bringing together the soulful folk of Justin Vernon’s Bon Iver project and the systematic, Steve Reich-like patters of fellow Wisconsin natives Colonies Collection of Bees, Volcano Choir’s “Island, IS” represents an inevitable (but perfect) distillation of electro-folk. Vernon’s layered vocals float atop dense, alternating melodic lines that are warped by samplers. Driven by tapping, but tense percussion, the song’s structure propels Vernon’s wail to a crescendo unlike what we’ve heard from Bon Iver. The song’s finale is perhaps one of the finest minute-and-a-halves of music to be heard this year.