Music video: One of These Days by Owen

It’s more than a little bit strange, but Owen is not really called Owen. It is, in fact, the solo project of Mike Kinsella, a name which should be familiar to fans of the Chicago indie scene. For Kinsella has been a member of several groups in Illinois, most notably the fantastic but desperately short-lived American Football, who broke up in 2000 after just three scant years together. For those unfamiliar with AF’s output, it’s hard to obtain their music – just one LP and one EP exist – but it’s well worth your time and attention if you can track it down.

So why would a well-known and -respected Chicago musician choose not to use his own name to boost marketability? Kinsella’s stated that he simply didn’t want to be associated with the deluge of other solo male singer-songwriters out there, so chose, arbitrarily so far as I can tell, the moniker ‘Owen’. It’s stuck: Owen has now been going for a decade.

Owen’s new album Ghost Town will be released on Polyvinyl Records on November 8th, and its imminent arrival offers us a welcome chance to look back on Kinsella’s previous work. This will be his sixth studio album to go along with a handful of EPs, and to date the 2006 album At Home With Owen – its title a reference to Kinsella’s first Owen recordings, which took place in his old bedroom in his mother’s house – remains his finest hour. A tender, diverse and communicative album, bearing exemplars of the hallmarks which have come to define Owen’s music: beautiful acoustic guitar playing; the infrequent, subtle deployment of percussion, piano and bass; Kinsella’s conversational vocal style; his charming, quotidian lyricism; the mixture of songwriting talent and a personable, humble recording style.

From this outstanding album, several songs stand out – specifically the extraordinary ‘Bags of Bones’ – but it’s the excellent ‘One Of These Days’ which has a visual accompaniment.

Joe Wigdahl’s video is muted and simple, a reserved effort with few locations, but it has a definable narrative which matches the lyrics perfectly. We see repeated shots of Kinsella and his girlfriend waking up in the mornings, the half-light seeping in through the windows as she kisses him goodbye and goes to work: he, as a musician, gets to sleep in. Kinsella professes his future plans – “one of these days / I’ll get a real job / One that actually pays” – but in the video we discover this isn’t happening anytime soon. Kinsella cycles to and from his girlfriend’s house every day, to the point where he promises to buy “a new bicycle seat” when he gets some money. Its tender guitar-piano interplay, meshed with Kinsella’s engaging vocals and Wigdahl’s perfectly judged video make for a gorgeous combination.

Roll on November 8th.

Owen – One of These Days [OFFICIAL MUSIC VIDEO] from Polyvinyl Record Co. on Vimeo.

Music Video: Sante Fe by Beirut

Zachary Francis Condon, the mastermind behind Beirut, is 25 years old. Three hugely diverse, relentlessly interesting and inimitably innovative albums into his still-young career, this fact is amazing, surprising and, on the whole, quite depressing.

What started as a dorm-room project at the University of New Mexico has exploded into one of the most highly-regarded indie acts in the world, a band who it’s cool to like and who it’s fun to listen to. Condon’s début record Gulag Orkestar combined the swaying waltz music of eastern Europe with Condon’s tremulous vocals and some beautifully deployed brass (Condon trained as a jazz trumpeter). His sophomore album The Flying Club Cup changed course, this time channelling French chanson and including similarly flabbergasting moments of brass-based genius. His third LP, The Rip Tide, released in August, takes elements of both and adds a sprinkling of pop veneer. All three albums have been critically lauded, and Beirut continues to draw in more and more listeners.

What makes Condon’s music so amazing is his unerring skill for composition, especially when it comes to brass. Trumpets and trombones and tubas combine for moments of orchestral beauty sewn seamlessly into the fabric of songs, and at its very best, Beirut’s music can be life-affirming.

‘Santa Fe’, one of the singles from The Rip Tide and a homage to Condon’s New Mexico hometown, is an example of Condon’s precocious songwriting talents and distinctive, effortlessly brilliant voice. Made by internet-television group Sunset Television, its video is a tragicomic exploration of love and loss, recounting the series of unfortunate events that lead our protagonist to contemplate suicide. Shot in a faded, almost sepia colour palette, and purporting to be an old ’70s B-roll, it’s clever, considered and creative, just like the music it accompanies.

A Different Kind of Fix – Bombay Bicycle Club

It’s almost impossible not to feel gigantic pangs of jealousy listening to Bombay Bicycle Club. Still in their early twenties, they’ve released three albums, played at festivals and locations all over the world, have a sizeable, loyal fanbase and are rightly lauded as one of the best UK indie bands currently working. It’s not uncommon to feel somewhat deflated when such facts are revealed, especially since BBC sound like a band of experience and guts instead of fumbling novices.

Much of this gravity and depth is a result of frontman Jack Steadman’s tremulous, but never timorous, lead vocals: his voice seems to draw on decades rather than years of love and loss, able to imbue tracks with a soulful core even when they approach the anthemic. Their first two records also show its impressive range. I Had the Blues but I Shook Them Loose, the group’s first album, is packed full of blistering power and soaring choruses, while its follow-up Flaws is far more reflective, allowing Steadman’s voice to operate in an acoustic rather than bombastic environment.

What A Different Kind of Fix does is combine these two styles effectively. It may lack the raw force of the superb I Had The Blues… but it retains a punchiness which is channelled through Ed Nash’s ferocious bass guitar on tracks like ‘Your Eyes’ and ‘Take The Right One’. The former’s finale, a little reminiscent of the long build-up of Foo Fighters ‘New Way Home’ from their album of fifteen years ago, The Colour and the Shape, is an excellent exercise in momentum and focused energy, while the latter’s lo-fi growl calls to mind the intentional distortion of Swedish pioneers The Radio Dept.

These audible influences are fleeting, however. The London quartet’s third LP is far more concerned with further honing and shaping ‘the BBC sound’, and it’s a testament to their personal skill and precocious songwriting that they make a good fist of it. Nash and drummer Suren de Saram remain one of the finest and most industrious rhythm sections in the UK, able to create a groove out of nothing more than a few well-timed bass notes. The pair’s styles fit each other like hand to glove, and carry large chunks of the record, most noticeably on the funkier, almost-80s tracks like ‘Lights Out, Words Gone’ and the superb ‘Shuffle’.

‘The BBC sound’ remains a touch elusive throughout, but there’s a far more solid sense of direction here than with Flaws which, for all its lilting tenderness, lacked the directness which we’ve come to crave from a BBC record. There’s a renewed purpose audible on A Different Kind of Fix, as each song slides smoothly into the next, although there aren’t quite as many joyous high points here as on the band’s début. ‘Bad Timing’ is a touch too arch, its jarring chord progression uneasy instead of organic, and there’s a lull towards the end, ‘Fracture’ and ‘What You Want’ taking the ethereal guitar idea a bit far and sounding more like appealing background music than something to consider further.

That said, there’s still a lot to enjoy here. Opener ‘How Can You Swallow So Much Sleep’ is one of the best songs BBC have yet recorded, its beautiful, spectral opening leading into a catchy, thudding chorus, perfectly combining the quieter sensibilities of Flaws with the forceful rhythm of I Had The Blues…. The funkier efforts are toe-tappingly infectious, and ‘Leave It’ and ‘Still’ show the flipside of BBC’s music, the more considered and reflective sound which can, at times, soar through your stereo.

Bombay Bicycle Club, the former schoolboy garage band named after a London chain of curry-houses, have made a very solid, listenable third album, but one which lacks the memorable impact of their brilliant début. In future recipes, BBC should add more meat.

Best tracks: ‘How Can You Swallow So Much Sleep’, ‘Lights Out, Words Gone’, ‘Shuffle’, ‘Leave It’.

Bombay Bicycle Club Website

A Different Kind of Fix on Spotify

Last of the Country Gentlemen – Josh T. Pearson

Ten years ago, a Texan three-piece band created a sprawling odyssey of an album, uniting religious beliefs, personal loss and lyrical beauty under the majesty of America’s largest state. A double-sided concept album, The Texas-Jerusalem Crossroads, released in 2001 by Lift To Experience, became a critical darling and a cult phenomenon, its reputation and mystique only growing as the years passed. Its scope, ambition and soaring splendour made it a record quite unlike any other released that year, and its lasting appeal speaks to the unique creativity of its crafters. A shame, then, that it would be the only album the group ever released, splitting up somewhat acrimoniously before any meaningful touring could spread the word further.

An even greater shame is that it’s been ten years since we last heard music from Josh T. Pearson, who was then fronting Lift To Experience. His début solo record Last of the Country Gentlemen, released in March of this year, is the only meaningful product in the intervening ten years, and his incandescent combination of spectral guitar playing with pained vocal lines has been absent for too long.

Pearson, a Texan raised in the Christian tradition (his father, who was in and out of his life, was a Pentecostal preacher), is a fitting torch-bearer for country music in an era where its purest form – that of the man and his guitar baring his soul to all – has largely slipped from collective consciousness. Long gone are the heydays of Willie Nelson, longer still those of Hank Williams or George Jones. Johnny Cash, perhaps the most active country star of the last decade, passed away, leaving a magical output but a gaping hole in the genre.

With his impassioned delivery and penchant for all-black attire, Pearson certainly fits the bill on paper, and although it would be foolish to compare him to the legends of country after just one solo record, there’s a similarity it’s tough to ignore.

County Gentlemen may be a solo début, but it draws on a wealth of experience and emotion: at 36, Pearson’s life history and tribulations are far more detailed and longer than most other artists releasing their first album. At over ten minutes, several of his songs are longer too.

Often relying on just the haunting resonance of his acoustic guitar and the breathy, pained vocals he makes so moving, Pearson is unafraid to tell the whole story. Themes run through his long, but deeply engaging record and its songs – religion, self-medication, loss, catharsis, confession – and weave extraordinarily nuanced stories. How much of them are true, we’ll probably never find out, but the passion and deep sorrow with which they are sung means that even cynics will struggle to avoid the album’s absorbing humanity.

‘Thou Art Loosed’ and ‘Drive Her Out!’, which bookend the seven-track LP, are by far the shortest songs, at just six minutes combined, but the other five are really what make the album such a wonderful piece of music. The piercing lamentations of the standout ‘Honeymoon’s Great! Wish You Were Her’ and the self-damnation of ‘Sweetheart I Ain’t Your Christ’ reflect the deep sorrow which fills much of the record, both filled with poetic observations and immaculately played guitar melodies, some of which are so anguished they alone could make you cry.

Country Gentlemen is probably the only album this year which will feature ten-minute, stripped-bare country songs, and Pearson the only musician who could make them listenable: as a result, the record is compulsive, gripping and moving. In listening to these tracks, we feel like we are truly communing with the soul of the man, watching on with a mixture of utter sympathy and morbid fascination as he unflinchingly bares his deepest regrets, his most closely-held fears. You cannot really listen to Country Gentlemen‘s songs individually – or at least if you do, the impact is greatly lessened – but play the entire fifty-something minutes in order and you’ll notice a new lyrical gem each time. Of course, this expansive style may work against Country Gentlemen commercially, but artistically it shapes a unique, deeply absorbing sound which none could replicate: every word feels necessary, and there is not a moment where a song’s length is contrived. Instead, we get drawn so deeply into each track it’s a wonder we’re not a quivering wreck by the end of most of them.

When I first listened to Last of the Country Gentlemen, I wasn’t quite sure what to make of it. Upon repeated listens, however – after re-discovering the album some months after its release – it has really connected with me, its tales of heartache and regret sung with such fragility it’s as if they might break. They never do, but no-one conveys this much melancholy, without a hint of melodrama, as well as Pearson.

Pearson has said that recording the album was incredibly emotionally painful, and it’s not hard to hear why. Listening to it time and again, we not only engage with this pain, we feel it in our very bones as it courses out of the Texan’s guitar and off his tongue. We all find music cathartic in some respect, but to hear a man’s catharsis so starkly bared on record makes for a superb LP with an emotional depth which most would think undiscoverable.

If you’ve ever loved and lost, struggled and hurt, wished and regretted, listen to Last of the Country Gentlemen. Several times. Because this is one of the best albums of the year.

Josh T. Pearson official site

Last of the Country Gentlemen on Spotify

The Weeknd – halcyon haze

When someone mentions R&B in a conversation about music, there’s usually an audible sigh from another participant. Or at least, if there’s not, there probably should be. No longer even vaguely associable with its original acronym, which was for Rhythm & Blues, everything from the music itself to the three-character moniker has changed, and we’re now exposed to – or, perhaps more appropriately, victims of – ‘RnB’.

The genre has recently undergone something of a crisis of confidence, no longer a top-ten tentpole as it was a few years ago. For those who followed the charts in the early 2000s, however, the end could not come soon enough. In those early years of the 21st Century, it became the go-to style for record labels, and they duly turned the genre into a photocopier, flooding the charts on both sides of the Atlantic with ‘soulful’ male RnB singers, most unidentifiable from one another.

Fortunately, the revival and reclamation of RnB is underway. The likes of Drake, Frank Ocean and Abel Tesfaye having spent the last year showing everyone it’s possible to make good, rough-edged RnB.

“Hold on. Who’s Abel Tesfaye?” is the question now crossing your mind as you re-read the above. Abel Tesfaye is The Weeknd. The Weeknd is Abel Tesfaye. For despite its deceptive, collective-implying name, the latest big name in RnB is the work of one Canadian man.

Even better, he gives his music to you for nothing. One swift trip to The Weeknd’s official website will enable you to download both Tesfaye’s mixtapes/albums to date, House of Balloons and the follow-up, Thursday, which was released in late August.

House of Balloons, which came out in March, created some sizeable web-waves: strong word-of-mouth from listeners, healthy reviews and shout-outs from Drake on Twitter all contributed to its popularity. Its stories of drug and drink-fuelled parties where no-one, much less our staggering protagonist, can really remember what happened. His electro-influenced beats, usually accompanied by atmospheric, droning synths and super-80s snare sounds, paint an image of foggy parties with smoke in the air and tunes blaring on the stereo – they sound somehow distant, like they’re being recalled through the haze of the morning after.

Tesfaye’s lyrics are constantly foraging for clues and answers, both to the events themselves and to attempt to reconcile them with the real world. Enormously profane, but creatively so, they’re certainly unique, and when sung with such beauty in Tesfaye’s distinctive high register, they sound honest, not dressed up in bad words to increase street cred but to tap into the psyche of our protagonist. The frankness of his lyrical style works, too: on the day of Thursday‘s release, so many people tried to access The Weeknd’s site to download it that it crashed. By the end of day one, 180,000 people had flocked to hear Tesfaye’s new material.

In the parlance of the genre, these are slow jams, but ones unafraid to look into the grime behind the glamour of these extravagant parties. These aren’t the veneer-smeared club nights we hear about in lazy hip-hop tracks, but the kinds of house parties everyone secretly wants to go to, full of attractive people, weed and plenty of free booze.

A few beats into the atmospheric strains of tracks like ‘The Zone’ (Thursday) or ‘High For This’ (House of Balloons) and we’re instantly transported to this half-remembered world, helped by Tesfaye’s unorthodox gift for descriptive lyricism (this from ‘The Morning’ on House of Balloons):

“From the morning to the evening
Complains from the tenants
Got the walls kicking like they six months pregnant
Drinking Alize with our cereal for breakfast
Girls calling cabs at dawn, quarter to seven”

Yet for all the decadence of the parties we hear about through Tesfaye’s two almost-concept albums – and, one assumes, in the final instalment of this trilogy, called Echoes of Silence (release date TBC) – the truth of the songs lies in the honesty and vulnerability of our guide. Tesfaye’s not some indestructible drug-fuelled superman, but a recognisably human protagonist with troubles and personal problems to which we can relate, even if they’re much more dramatic than our habitual concerns: “I left my girl at home / I don’t love her no more / and she’ll never fuckin’ know that” he sings on ‘Wicked Games’ (House of Balloons). For all the fun of these seemingly endless nights out, he is, at heart, a conflicted soul, the kind who falls for a girl who’ll “probably OD before I show her to Momma” (‘The Party & The After Party’, House of Balloons).

Yet although the first album we got from Tesfaye was superb both musically and lyrically, Thursday surpasses it on both grounds. The two-part epic ‘The Birds’ has a refrain – “don’t make me make you fall in love with a nigga like me” – which not only acts as a warning to the woman in the song, but also a devastating appraisal of self-worth and an admission of deep personal flaws. Shattering the ego-centric sterotype of the RnB star, it’s a perfect encapsulation of The Weeknd’s ethos of soul-bearing honesty and doubt. Like a lot of the best rap and hip-hop of the last couple of years, from Kanye West’s incomparably magnificent My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy to the darkest nightmares of Odd Future, it comes from a place of inner darkness and stomach-churning personal uncertainty.

Showcasing a breadth and depth of talent uncommon in artists twice his fragile 21 years, Abel Tesfaye has, in the space of one year, gone from an unknown to a buzzword. Gripping, memorable music whose appeal only increases listen upon listen, The Weeknd is something to have an opinion on, and very possibly the next poster-boy for the genre.

Watch The Throne – The Throne

Jay-Z. Kanye West. Kanye West. Jay-Z.

OK, so realistically that’s not how the first meeting between these two modern titans of rap music probably went, but its result is much the same. Kanye West, perhaps the most gifted-but-polarising figure in modern music, and Jay-Z, the self-proclaimed “best rapper alive”, have been dancing around each other for the best part of a decade, but now, finally, they have reached the moment we’ve all long suspected. They’ve made an album together.

It makes a lot of sense, the more you consider this collaboration. Not only is there a pre-existing personal and professional connection between the two moguls, but their lyrical content is undeniably similar in some respects. Whether this is because, having produced five tracks on Jay-Z’s landmark album The Blueprint (including ‘Izzo (H.O.V.A.)’ which would become Jay’s first top-10 single as a lead artist) West simply picked up some ideas from the man he was listening to in the studio, or simply because as a poor kid growing up in Chicago he connected with the experiences of the young Shawn Carter (Jay-Z’s real name), we may never know. Either way, Watch The Throne is without question the biggest rap event of 2011; the contemporary equivalent of Biggie and Tupac recording a record together.

Under the alias The Throne, this duo of epic proportions produce an album suitably awash with decadence. Taking one brief look at the record’s almost offensively bling cover art should tell you that much at least. On a production level, there are also a handful of samples – Otis Redding on ‘Otis’, Nina Simone on ‘New Day’, James Brown on ‘Gotta Have It’, Curtis Mayfield on bonus track ‘The Joy’ – which each cost a small fortune. As if to add to this opulent outlay, the producers, themselves an embarrassingly impressive cavalcade of talent including The Neptunes, Swizz Beatz, RZA and West himself, remix these samples with relish, looping one of Brown’s ecstatic shouts or auto-tuning Nina Simone singing ‘Feeling’ Good’. Saying that Watch The Throne is extravagant is like saying that Motorhead are loud: we all know it already, but until you hear it for yourself it’s scarcely believable.

Opulence also spills into the lyrics themselves. Jay-Z has long been one of the most creative braggers in the business, here dropping more brand names in some sentences than most of us use in a lifetime, while West jokes about his fleet of cars: “They ain’t see me cause I pulled up in my other Benz / Last week I was in my other other Benz” (‘Otis’).

Of course it’s all ridiculous. Of course we realise that these guys have more money than we’ll ever see and are essentially rubbing our noses in it, but, well, it’s still really fun to listen to. In fact, when this incomparably brash combination is simply talking about how great they are, or how many watches they have, or whatever else, Watch The Throne is excellent. ‘Otis’ – having also provided us with an obscenely lavish video (see below) – is a knockout, full of intuitive rhyming and brilliantly conceived boasts: “Photo shoot fresh, looking like wealth / I’m ’bout to call the paparazzi on myself” (Jay-Z).

‘Who Gon Stop Me’ and ‘That’s My Bitch’ follow a similar path, the former an uppercut of a track with a pounding beat, the latter letting the verses glide over head-nodding backing, featuring Bon Iver’s Justin Vernon and La Roux’s Elly Jackson on vocal duties.

Yet there’s a totally different side to The Throne’s album. One which, far from the materialistic decadence of many of its tracks, reveals a tortured core to both of our protagonists. We’ve heard these ruminations from both men before – West on tracks like The College Dropout‘s heartbreaking ‘Family Business’, Jay-Z on ‘Song Cry’ from The Blueprint – but combining them reflects a maturity and a depth those who decry rap’s focus on consumerism may miss.

‘Welcome To The Jungle’ sets you up before you’ve even heard it; you’re expecting a luxurious Guns N’ Roses sample and verses about the guns-and-women culture of the jungle, common synonym for the hood. What we get instead is an insistent backbeat and rhymes about struggle, death and depression, featuring perhaps the most courageous and unexpected rhyme on the whole record from Jay-Z:

“I’m losing myself, I’m stuck in the moment
I look in the mirror, my only opponent
Where the fuck is the press? Where the fuck is the press?
Either they know or don’t care I’m fuckin’ depressed”

It’s rare that a rapper, must less rap’s reigning braggart-in-chief, gives such a frank appraisal of his demons; sure it’s laced with the profanity many despise, but the words are delivered with an earnestness and visceral sincerity which hammers them home even harder.

Similarly, the excellent ‘New Day’ is based on a superb central concept, both men rapping to the kids they haven’t had, and opens more doors to the emotional psyches of two of rap’s current kingpins. West prays for strength, so that his son can have “an easy life, not like Yeezy life / Just want him to be someone people like”, and Jay swears not to repeat the sins of the father: “my dad left me and I promise, never repeat him”. The recent announcement that he and wife Beyoncé are expecting a child only increases the poignancy of this promise.

So while we can joke and enjoy the lavishness of what’s on offer, we can also reflect on the tribulations of fame, the nagging self-doubts which both men lay bare here, but which neither often show publicly.

Not every track is spectacular – ‘Lift Off’ is a bit of an electro mess – but there’s so much to enjoy here you don’t want to skip anything; whether it’s an ingenious line, a beautifully-sung melody by Frank Ocean or a piece of astonishing production, nearly every song deserves time and attention. And that’s saying a lot in an era of predictable, disposable rap music. A complex, clever and brilliant album, Watch The Throne matches and exceeds the hype, making it the best rap record of the year so far. Roll on Watch The Throne 2.

Best tracks: ‘Otis’, ‘New Day’, ‘Made In America’, ‘Murder to Excellence’.

Album to get excited about: Metals – Feist

There’s probably not a person in the English-speaking world who hasn’t heard Feist’s music. Some will be die-hard fans of the lady herself, others of Broken Social Scene, the Canadian mega-group of which she is a part-time member. Yet most of the people who’ve heard her music probably won’t even know who she is. Such is the mixture of blessing and curse which accompanies having one of your tunes used in an Apple advert.

The infectiously positive ‘1234’ is a familiar tune to many, but those unfamiliar with Leslie Feist’s solo output as a whole are sorely missing out.

Mixing an incantatory vocal style incorporating both wistful lyrics and breathy backing vocals with an unorthodox ear for a catchy melody, Feist is neither solely an acoustic-strumming troubadour nor a lung-capacity-defying balladeer, the two standard settings for a female singer-songwriter. The Canadian songstress is not bound by such reductive definitions, creating songs as often filled with lilting vocals and piano as with funky backbeats and orchestral touches.

Her three solo albums to date – 2006’s Open Season was compiled of alternative versions and remixes from her sophomore album Let It Die – have reflected an impressive breadth of talent and interest. Where tracks like ‘1234’ or ‘Mushaboom’ display Feist’s knack for crafting an infectious, optimistic melody, some of her more reflective tracks reveal a more contemplative side.

Metals will be her fourth album, coming an all-too-long four years after 2007’s superb The Reminder, and from the snippets available, it sounds as if Feist’s songwriting gifts have not deserted her. The first single from the record, entitled ‘How Come You Never Go There’, was posted on YouTube late last week, and while the full album isn’t due until October, it offers a tantalising glimpse at what is to come.

In addition to the new single – based upon a typically catchy riff and some wonderful vocals from Leslie herself – Feist’s YouTube channel has also posted a series of black and white shorts, each revealing fragments of the music we can expect to hear on Metals. Advancing what was already a brilliant, uncommon sound through additional orchestration and more electric sensibilities, these early glimpses are more than promising.

Metals is out October 3rd in the UK and 4th in North America.