Spike’s Top Tracks: May 2008

The six or so people who used to read my weekly top tracks feature might have noticed its absence over the last month. To be honest it was kind of draining writing three or four pages about music every week (it’s a subject I’ve never written about) and I actually kind of got bored of it. So I decided to switch it to an expanded monthly slot. So each month I’m going to try and compile a 60 minute mix and give some thoughts on the songs I’ve picked (hopefully avoiding the navel gazing paragraphs of the older features) as one essay rather than separate ruminations.

The Playlist

That’s Not My Name is a great crystallisation of what I love about The Ting Tings. Pared down beats from Jules De Martino and snarling vocals from Katie White really give the song a sort of effortless post punk vibe, and the result is quite infectiously catchy. They are currently the darlings of the alternative scene, getting massive amounts of airtime on NME and MTV2 and it is easy to see why. Their bright and colourful visual style mixed with their aggressive but precise music is nice contrast from the contrasting dourness and high camp of alternative artists at the moment. They’ve certainly been savvy in their marketing and keeping themselves in the alternative market helped raise their profile. In fact you could argue that if White and De Martino had tried a more mainstream approach their energetic, but DIYish, sound may have been lost amidst the pop shuffle.

Air have always been a favourite of mine since their video for Sexy Boy entertained the then 12 year old me with a gigantic monkey. It would take the score to The Virgin Suicides and 2004’s Talkie Walkie to dislodge Kelly Watch The Stars from its coveted spot as my favourite Air song. It’s probably one of Air’s more commercial pieces, but its use of a singular repetitive line and constantly evolving music always enraptured me.

It would be Wong Kar Wai who would make me ultimately appreciate DJ Shadow, his blisteringly brilliant music video for Six Days making me purchase the album Private Press. Upon purchase I realised that a lot of incidental music from British TV shows had been cribbed from the album, the songs Giving Up The Ghost and Blood On The Motorway in particular being used very effectively by the BBC and Film Four. But it would be the gently apocalyptic Six Days which would stick with me. From its laidback back vocals to its muted strings it was a song that was both elegiac and inspiring and would find itself appearing on many of my early morning mixes.

Another mainstay on my early morning mixes, playlists designed to try and rouse me from bed gently, would be the music of Jimmy LaValle aka Album Leaf. An American solo performer, Album Leaf would craft gloriously minimalist and minutely detailed pieces of electronica enabled guitar music. With its shimmering central chords and glitchy backing We Need Help is a perfect example of the Album Leaf sound, light hearted and soulful whilst maintaining a sense of precision.

I was going to write a long post about how I discovered Sébastien Tellier, a French artist whom I first discovered via the soundtrack to Sofia Coppola’s luminous Lost In Translation. The song would be Fantino and would lead to seek out other songs and fall in love with his electronica jazz stylings. However my plan was scuppered when he went and appeared on Eurovision and stopped being a well kept secret.

To those blessed enough to not know about the Eurovision Song Contest it is a yearly event in which every country in Europe submits a singer to compete in an international song contest. It essentially boils down to all kinds of campy excess and ridiculously political voting which ensures that us Brits, with our stiff upper lips and outright loathing of other nations, never win anything. In actuality Tellier’s song Divine was fairly decent for a Eurovision entry, it just means I can’t be all snooty about liking obscure French Electronica/Jazz artists anymore.

Of course it is silly to allow the success of favoured artists to annoy you, despite that feeling of superiority you get when compiling a mixtape full of bands the recipient will never have heard of it is always great to see other people recognise the sheer brilliance of the artists you’re currently enamoured with. There is an occasional downside in that the more successful an artist becomes the harder it is to see them live. It was like this with the Arcade Fire, a band who I was desperate to see but found myself facing the prospect of shows selling out within minutes. When I finally got to see them it was at a massive arena and whilst the performances were still absolutely incredible it lacked that tangible quality you get from smaller performances. So imagine my annoyance when I found out that Fleet Foxes, a Seattle band on the cusp of greatness, were to be playing down the road from me at a tiny venue on the day I was to travel down to London to meet family. Fleet Foxes are an unusual little group their debut EP Sun Giant sounds like a record unearthed from the 1970s, the kind of thing Paul Giovanni would have a hand in. Mixing folk with a dash of blues it’s a beautiful piece of work, if a little precious at times, and apparently the songs are substantially improved by hearing them live.

Another artist who has constantly eluded my attempts to see live is Björk. Whilst my all time favourite by her has to the be the delightfully frosty Vespertine, my favourite individual tracks come from Debut and Homogenic. Debut represents Björk at her messiest, flitting from genre to genre to find her voice, but it also contains one of my favourite songs by the artist, Venus As A Boy. Homogenic would be a conceptually more solid album, but only a handful of songs would create a true emotional connection. One of these would be Bachelorette, with its epic soundscape and brooding lyrics it’s the kind of song that was easy for my teenage self to gravitate towards and whilst its probably a little overblown that emotional connection is still immensely powerful. This is partially aided by Michael Gondry’s incredible video for the song which would be on almost constant play through 1997.

This penchant for overly dramatic songs would unfortunately continue well into the present day, with my attention currently rapt by a group named Tunng and in particularly the cheerily bleak song Bullets. With its lyrics about funerals and self doubt it’s the kind of material which would normally be covered by androgynous guys wearing eyeliners, thankfully a folk undercurrent to the song spared me the ignominy of that association. Harder to explain is my current passion for Martha Wainwright’s current album. I have general reservations about Martha; in particular I find her decision to add odd inflections to her exceptional voice to be quite odd. It pays off on certain songs, but a lot of the time it sounds like she is holding back. The song So Many Friends is one which accommodates these vocal vagaries, the emotional core strong enough to support a technique which seems to be cynically kooky.
Seen as this mix has been dawdling a bit I felt it was time to amp things up, I go by the High Fidelity principal of starting strong then easing down to build up to a big finish. In this case the big finish compromises two up tempo songs and two oddities, so stick with it if you can.

Sonny J is something of a mystery in the British Music scene. Releasing three singles his actual identity hasn’t been ascertained yet. His three singles have however been absolutely fantastic, from the Jackson 5 inspired Can’t Stop Moving to his latest barn stomping hit (complete with unknown Country sample) Handsfree. Enfant Terrible is the middle song so far, and is an oddity in of itself. Handsfree and Can’t Stop Moving are heavily sample led songs, big rousing dance numbers packed with energy. Enfant Terrible seems to be minimally sampled and has the sound of some obscure post punk band, you’ll have to listen yourself to try and draw up a conclusion because I’m kind of drawing a blank myself.

Part of the reason for the current sparseness of What Spike Likes is that Spike has liked GTA 4 very, very, much. I’ve logged about forty hours of playtime on the single player campaign alone and I’ve probably logged just as many hours playing online and trying to run over my friends with ice cream trucks. They’ll hopefully be a review soonish and in that review I’ll make sure to mention the incredible selection of music in the game. Filled with minimalist masters, afro-pop legends, obscure rock hits, classic hip-hop, contemporary Dance, and ambient electronica the GTA4 soundtrack is just incredible and one of the highlights is the Boggs song Arm in Arm. A thudding piece or electro-rock, it’s a piece of music which is just given context and weight by being used in GTA4. Heard on its own it’s a bit of a mess, within the world of Liberty City it’s just evocative as all hell.

Speaking of evocative the Israeli/South African song writer Yoav can, using just a guitar and looping device, create riffs and songs which bring to mind some of the great rock artists. Beautiful Lie is a great example, with its urgent final moments just having the strength and conviction that most men would die for. If you don’t get carried away by the plucked strings and pounding percussion then you’re either dead on the inside or an anti-Semite.

I have no idea what is in the water over in but I’ve heard three groups now which have sought to recreate the aesthetic of Balkan orchestras. Albuquerque has the ever awesome Beirut and the quietly fantastic A Hawk and A Hacksaw and I’ve just been introduced to Colorado’s take on the genre DeVotchKa. Whilst I’m trying to wade through the albums, they definitely feel like a grower mixing the Balkan sound with the rousing anthemic pop/rock of the Arcade Fire. This fucking bizarre cover of Venus In Furs isn’t particularly good at showcasing the band, but it sounds really, really, good.

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