Doveman and more...
It’s not Thomas Bartlett’s fault this didn’t top my PopMatters ballot. He released the album in October and I was reviewing it elsewhere, but mixing up publicist emails ensured I didn’t hear it until after my votes here were already in. That’s a shame, because as great as Bartlett’s sweeping With My Left Hand I Raise the Dead was, The Conformist is a bit of a great leap forward for Doveman. As the title cheekily implies, these are pop songs, but pop songs of a particularly lush, lovely, and devastating kind. With no disrespect to Fever Ray (my #1 since it was released), Bartlett’s craft and emotional intelligence handily unseats that record. I’ve heard few songs, in a life that’s included more music than is probably good for me, better than “Breathing Out” and “Tigers” and the rest of what’s on display here. It’s a record that demands to be widely heard, and I managed to completely drop the ball. Ian Mathers
Kingdom of Rust
Year-end rock critic lists of the best records are always so personal and subjective there is bound to be a certain amount of quibbling and head slapping. However, when Doves cannot even crack the top 60 one has to wonder “Was everyone deaf?” Kingdom of Rust, Doves’ fourth record, marked their return to the charts in four years since the highly praised Some Cities. Could it have been the long absence? Were people expecting something earth-shattering and code-cracking with such a long hiatus? Or perhaps Doves have set such high standards with previous Britpop masterstrokes that Kingdom of Rust‘s mature and measured brilliance seems like something only to savor and not be wowed by a flavor of the month.
Doves appear to be playing the aces they hold in their hands with album opener “Jetstream” creating a hypnotic pop single that belies their Manchester dance club roots, yet also trading in some Kraftwerk style computer grooves. If it’s something anthemic you want, Doves gives you the nervy and edgy “Outsiders” or the thump and strum of “House of Mirrors”, which could have been a lost Killing Joke track or better yet the lost magic U2 was so desperately in search of on their 2009 release. To prove they are gifted in the realm of Ennio Morricone’s spaghetti western soundscapes Doves even gives the title track a dusting of lilt, twang and country grandeur.
Ultimately, Kingdom of Rust stands as a testament to a band reaching and surpassing its previous level of mastery. Doves, without flash, spit, or swagger, consistently create works of epic and grand sweep, music of timeless elegies, and a sound of enchanting and engaging ache and beauty. Timothy Merello
Raindrops and Elephants
Amongst the influx of Balkan beats, Afrobeat revival and other self-consciously multicultural artists that have been peddling their wares lately, Austrian producer [dunkelbunt] stands out as an artist who celebrates an array of global sounds without using his music to lecture listeners about origins, roots or heritage. This means that he is capable of producing an album like Raindrops and Elephants, which is both beautiful and fun. At times it’s reminiscent of the Avalanches’ classic Since I Left You, but where the Avalanches used an eclectic range of samples, [dunkelbunt]‘s ammunition is a wealth of personnel from a wide swathe of musical backgrounds. Picking up influences that include Gypsy brass and Algerian Raï, and working with musicians from locations as disparate as Lebanon and Cape Verde, his great strength is his ability to unify his source material, weaving it into a coherent thread of an album without diminishing its diversity. Alan Ashton-Smith
Deftly dodging the sophomore album slump, UK electronic duo Dom Hoare and Andy Gillham took another big step in 2009 towards filling the shoes of Orbital. Several tracks from Shatterproof fall squarely under the influence of the Hartnoll brothers, with retro pads, crisp beats, bloopy leads, and ethereal vocal loop manipulation. However, while 2007’s Sketchbook was a comparatively lighthearted stab at the main stage dance floor, Shatterproof took a turn towards the dark side of the Orb, striking a balance between ominous, ambient soundscapes and minimal downtempo beats. The immaculately crafted record slowly reveals its layers to those sensible enough to reward it with repeat exposure, seeming to build on its own mystique in a compounding fashion, each listening becoming more impressive than the last. In time, Shatterproof will be recognized as one of the most important electronic albums of the ‘00s, every bit as much as Leftfield’s Leftism is recognized as one of the essentials of the ‘90s. Alan Ranta
Elvis Perkins in Dearland
Elvis Perkins in Dearland
When I heard Elvis Perkins in Dearland in March 2009, I had a hunch it would be my favorite record of the year (and this two months after the release of the mighty Merriweather Post Pavilion). Now, nearly a year later, my hunch has been confirmed. Perkins’ bio is eye-grabbing enough to land him some high-profile exposure, but this album would have found an audience—to the degree that it has found an audience—on the strength of the songs alone. What’s most impressive is the range of emotions that Perkins inspires. To be sure, there’s a hatful of melancholy here. It’s hard to listen to a song like “123 Goodbye”, for example, without doing so against the backdrop of tragedy that is Perkins’ life. But the album never wallows. Instead, it sparkles unexpectedly: the seemingly spontaneous horn interlude in “Send My Fond Regards to Lonelyville” or the way in which the dirge of “Doomsday” turns into a celebration. I liked Elvis Perkins in Dearland well enough to pick up his first album, Ash Wednesday. While it’s a solid debut, it’s a poor indicator of what was to come. I can’t wait to see where he goes from here. Kirby Fields
Yesterday and Today
Rarely does an artist’s follow-up to a killer debut fall on deaf ears, but that is what seemed to happen to Axel Willner a.k.a. the Field. From Here We Go Sublime (2007) was widely loved and his 2009 effort may be better. Call it ambient, minimalist techno, house, experimental, or any of another 100 genre tags, but make no mistake, this record is beautiful. Willner’s tiny samples (often just a few seconds, often less) build and loop upon one another to create hypnotic sound waves—songs that build up, wash over you, and then change like the tide itself. Willner proves it is possible to get musical catharsis from a few seconds sound explored and expounded over time. Jason Cook
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