The Church Of Me
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Kissing in the churchyard, I know a righteous woman

Thursday, December 14, 2006

20. SUFJAN STEVENS: The Avalanche
Does he ever get tired? Does he ever run out of ideas, or things to say? One would sometimes be suspicious of such prolix activity, but with Stevens it’s clear that his stories need to be told with as much length as patience allows. Only two states into his fifty-state project, and while he has claimed that each record may have a different format – he has, for instance, threatened to make California a seven-inch single – the fact that we already have a 75-minute album of outtakes from the second album proper makes one wonder whether he’ll live long enough to get it all in. And if that weren’t enough, he has lately released a five-EP box set, Songs For Christmas, which spans four of the last five winters and lasts for a combined total of over two hours.

Yet it is all necessary. I include The Avalanche as partial penitence for amnesically omitting Illinois(e) from last year’s count, but also because I think it marginally the better record. His blend of Phil Ochs, Rundgren, Free Design and Steve Reich remains intact, and while there’s nothing quite as deliciously decaying as “Jacksonville,” which is like “Lay Lady Lay” slowly being laid to rest, there are many sparky and powerful moments; although I cannot quite concur with the exasperated sigh of “Dear Mr Supercomputer” (especially since musically it is so bountiful) since without computers I would not be here, in any sense, but I identify with his weary compassion, and – when it comes, in the devastating “Pittsfield” – his palpable rage as he buries his family demons for good (with Songs For Christmas it’s worth mentioning that Stevens recorded these as a means of persuading himself to like, or believe in, Christmas again, after early familial traumas which he describes unambiguously in his accompanying sleevenote), and its passion grabs and stings; eventually, the soul overspills and the album blasts to its end with a completely unexpected Sonny Sharrockian free guitar explosion – one of the best FUCK YOU endings to any recent album.

There are also three marvellous alternate takes of “Chicago,” Illinois(e)’s emotional and structural centrepiece, the best of which is the “Adult Contemporary Easy Listening Version” which with a little tweaking could provide him with a major dance hit. Still, the emotion and purpose remain – “All things go, all things go,” “If I was crying in the van with my friend/It was for freedom from myself/And from the land.” Now – remembering that the stunning “Springfield” commemorates the home of Barack Obama – numerous mistakes can be rectified.

19. FIONA APPLE: Extraordinary Machine
You could make it up. The Jon Brion album scored for orchestra and doorbell which her record company didn’t want, the reluctant re-recording by Mike Elizondo which ended up far more avant-garde than the original, an extended online campaign – all combined to make one of the year’s funniest, most spiteful and profound records wherein Apple bangs her head against numerous walls (and, on “Window,” through a café window, or nearly) in search of love, or throwing it away, or rediscovering it. “Get Him Back” and “O, Sailor” are Victoria Wood remixed by Eno; the tormented torrent of “Please Please Please” and “Red Red Red” flattens even the most flexible of endurances, and, with the final, tired acceptance of “Waltz (Better Than Fine),” a compromise of happy sorts.

18. ARCTIC MONKEYS: Whatever People Say I Am, That’s What I’m Not
They have already become fatally resentful where they should have settled for documenting their city with candour and irregular originality, but this takes nothing away from their frequently smashing album, smouldering in reflection in the midst of a riot (“Red Light Indicates Doors Are Secured”), a sprightly insolence which wasn’t that far removed from Girls Aloud (the latter would have located the essence of “I Bet You Look Good On The Dancefloor” far more speedily than the Sugababes) and true poignancy in “Mardy Bum” with its “cuddles in the kitchen”…oh yes…and the touching “A Certain Romance” which may yet prove their premature farewell.

I don’t really know why I can’t get a handle on the Jarvis Cocker album; once again, the elements are all there – the “Crimson And Clover” quote in the chorus of “Black Magic” doesn’t sound gratuitous, the sentiments of “Baby’s Coming Back To Me” melt me from reading the lyrics alone, “Tonite” is as lovely as anything on Coles Corner (the good Mr Hawley is on lead guitar duties throughout), Philip Sheppard’s string charts for “Disney Time” and “Big Julie” are as audacious as those which he provided for The Drift, and it is impossible to argue with the logic or truth of “Cunts Are Still Running The World” – even though the juxtaposition of “I Will Kill Again” and “From Auschwitz To Ipswich” has lately become unfortunate.

I think there may be a problem with Jarvis himself; his voice sounds a little too portentous, and on the slapstick murder rave-up “Fat Children” he comes perilously close to sounding like some absurd, prematurely middle-aged Daily Mail columnist. And anthems like “Don’t Let Him Waste Your Time” tread a little too near to late-period Boomtown Rats (“Never In A Million Years,” anyone?) for comfort.

This feeling is accentuated by the precise brilliance of Cocker’s lyrical contributions to 5:55 – but Air provide the music, Nigel Godrich produces (maybe Cocker should have hired him for his own record) and Charlotte Gainsbourg sings the words with a tenderness and mischief which Jarvis seems to have lost. Indeed I had not forgotten that a decade ago she was Jane Eyre – even if William Hurt isn’t my idea of a Rochester – and that openness and determination persist into 5:55. It is worth listening to both records in tandem since there occur direct links from time to time; the saddening contemptuous pity of “Little Monsters” balances out “Fat Children,” “Tel Que Tu Es” is the calming response to “Heavy Weather,” the dream Cocker inhabits in “Quantum Universe” is the same dream from which Charlotte awakens in “Morning Song” – so who, if either, is doing the dreaming? However, 5:55 is so clearly the better record; both lighter and deeper.

16. BRUCE SPRINGSTEEN: We Shall Overcome – The Seeger Sessions
Can multimillionaire rock icons still touch the humblest soul? Perhaps Bruce had to find his own again, and treat it with kindness; following nearly two decades of gloomy, unbending solemnity from Tunnel Of Love to Devils And Dust, he suddenly sounds happy again with his floating pool of scratch players – and I’m wondering whether he’s checked Sufjan out of the far corner of his left eye; there is that same sense of community which, whatever else this world of now might tell you, is still needed; venerable warhorses like “John Henry” and “Pay Me My Money Down” are played as if for the first time, with lusty singing and gusto-filled playing. Meanwhile the title track is intoned gospel-style (“I’ll Take You There,” as good as) in a bloodied-but-not-beated tone of dignity.

But the most profound thing here is “Shenandoah” which conveys the illusion of stretched and suspended time; as the protagonist and river flow ever steadily westward, there is a near-transcendence of identity and location – you feel as though this song could play forever, and somewhere out there in undefined space it is still resonating, like conscience made light, or the Titanic refloated. After this year’s Congressional elections it also feels like the starting point of the turnaround.

15. CAT POWER: The Greatest
Dusted down in Memphis – Chan finds some of Al Green’s old sidemen and decides to iron out her owned soul. “Love And Communication” is the triumphant cathartic release, “Lived In Bars” and “Islands” part of the slower-than-visible burn; “Where Is My Love?” its magnificent and radiant centre. From “I hate myself and I want to die” to “You called me and you were not hunting me” – there’s another journey I recognise.

14. NEIL DIAMOND: 12 Songs
The best of the Rubin rehab records, and on paper it could so easily have been the worst; Diamond verges on the glittery rim of the glitzy self-glorifying epic on “Hell Yeah” but pulls back without needing to be told, and then it becomes a deeply relevant song of personal redemption. The gargantuan build-up of “Evermore” you anticipate from the “let Neil start it all by himself” intro, but you actually want it and savour it; Diamond needs the big gesture even in a smaller world. But the songs are among his finest; “Delirious Love” and “Save Me A Saturday Night” stand equal to any of his ‘60s classics, “What’s It Gonna Be?” is confidential but bluff, and the drunken romp of “We” does what Modern Times doesn’t quite.

13. PLAN B: Who Needs Actions When You Got Words
The intelligence and brutally ambiguous rationality of “Sick 2 Def” made it 2005’s best single, and Ben Drew wastes no time here expanding his substantial palette. No Streets-style whingeing about unnamed celebrities here; just a candid and callously considerate overview of life trying and failing to rise above a status of shit. The paternal rejection of “I Don’t Hate You” and “Tough Love” make Sufjan’s resentment explicit; the violence experienced in “No More Eatin’” or described by “Couldn’t Get Along” engender real rage that life still has to be nothing save perilous existence. However, the emotional axis here is “Everyday,” in which Drew wakes up to a pallid parody of life but realises that he has to take the first step towards changing his view. Lily Allen views all of this from her expensive limited edition pushbike, but Ben Drew lives it. Folk music for this degraded century which Seeger would understand in a second.

12. ORNETTE COLEMAN: Sound Grammar
This is not the first time Ornette has worked with a line-up of sax, two basses and drums; a shortlived 1968 quartet featuring Charlie Haden, David Izenzon and Ed Blackwell appeared with Yoko Ono at the Royal Festival Hall in 1968 (and a fragment of their rehearsal tape can be found on the Yoko Ono/Plastic Ono Band album). But I witnessed the present group at the Barbican two years ago, as part of the same tour from which this German live recording is taken. The unpromising sonic recipe was – as though I could be naïve enough to doubt! – provocative, swirling and danceable in vibrant practice.

Denardo is on drums, as ever, while of the two bassists Tony Falanga generally anchors the rhythm, leaving Greg Cohen (a name well-known to Tom Waits fans) to concentrate on bowed work, turning his bass effectively into a second horn, this group’s Don Cherry or Dewey Redman. And the music is as fantastic as I recall it being here in London; “Jordan” swings like a newly-oiled grandfather clock, Ornette’s alto as sharp and fresh as ever; “Sleep Talking” is a beauteous ballad, but the punctum really comes with the climactic reinterpretation of “Song X” which unleashes a million hitherto undreamed rhythmic crosscurrents – as Ornette switches to violin, scribbling away in unison with Cohen’s bass, the music turns into an insane new form of country and western; a harmolodic hoedown which affords a suitably euphoric reaction from the audience. Ornette at 76, sounding like the second coming of ’76.

11. TIGA: Sexor
Canada meets Belgium and I’m in the middle; I prematurely spoke of the year’s best New Pop album some seventeen places ago, but this transcends any eighties entrapment by virtue of reliving and recasting it with such poignant grandeur; “You Gonna Want Me” IS Human League Purple. “Louder Than A Bomb” induces the Nation Of Millions to Follow The Leader – how unknowingly did we cross each other’s paths in those Hampstead streets of 1988; how joyfully do we light each other’s path in these Hampstead streets of 2006! – and “Brothers” updates New Order to connect with the floating John Foxx rig of “Sir Sir Sir.” Electro? Shiny red Newer Pop? Danceable, tender and echoing such perfect mirrors of our unified souls – it is an undying, undiminishable jewel of pop punctum.

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