End Of The Season
Maybe it’s the weather. Maybe it’s recent events orbiting in my head. Maybe it’s just the fact that it’s the end of the season and that another year of work is looming. And maybe it’s just the nature of the albums sitting in the reviews pile. But whatever the reason, there seems to be a lot of melancholic songs playing these days. I can’t say I’m complaining too much.

I’m certainly not complaining about David Smith’s Fastest Machine (are you listening? Records). It’s a bittersweetly seductive album, filled with songs covered in the scent of tired urban sighs coated in the dust of an aching Midwest. So there are hints of Mark Kozelek, Mark Eitzel and of the mighty Swell; of Paul Simon in melancholic mood; of Elliott Smith in a cheery one. Echoes too of the sadly forgotten Apartments, and I’ve got this album filed in my head alongside their lovely Apart set from ’97. Mesmerising and filled with an almost abstract sense of loss, Fastest Machine sounds like gazing into a blazing desert sun, the deserted remains of an Edward Hopper gas station the only signs of a lost civilisation. Certainly it’s one the finest finds of the summer, if not the year.

Julie Doiron’s Goodnight Nobody (jagjaguwar) is even more downbeat and raw. Recorded in swift takes, mostly with live backing band Herman Dune, this album has a wonderful understated energy about it, an energy that tastes of tears creeping down your face. Tears of simple joys, tears of complex desperations, tears that talk of the glory of moments, of fingers on faces and of falling stars glimpsed in the midnight sky. Doiron’s songs are rooms of bleached wooden boards and faded photographs taped to dusty windows, like a slightly spooked soundtrack to Alex Soth’s masterful photographs in his Sleeping By The Mississippi collection. If you haven’t seen that, or if you haven’t heard Julie Doiron yet, then you surely are in for a treat.

Speaking of soundtracks, real or imagined, I recently got a copy of the Blankets album by Tracker. Intended as a musical accompaniment to Chris Thompson’s awesome graphic novel, the album intelligently attempts to burrow into the essence of Thompson’s beautifully realised narrative, in doing so capturing in sound the gorgeous snowy landscapes and the underlying darkly melancholic but ultimately hopeful thread of the narrative. It also goes some way to capturing in sound the delicate yet supremely confident line of Thompson’s art - Thompson being I swear like the Modigliani of comics - with its nods to a Fripp/Eno-esque landscape inhabited by the echoes of the likes of Ariel M or Yo La Tengo. With fabulous packaging featuring some exclusive Thompson drawings, this is one of the Must Have’s of the year, for sure.

There are hints of Ariel M and Yo La Tengo in the Solid Ground set from Johnny Domino (artists against success) too, although it must be said this is a much more muscular and song-based record than the Tracker album. More pertinent influences actually might be the likes of Can, Meat Puppets and some of the New Zealand bands from the early ‘90s like Snapper, Straitjacket Fits and the 3Ds; the result at times reminiscent of Manual era Appliance; driving, motorik inflected rock with a penchant for looping sequences and obsessions with repetition. Throw in a nod towards the fabulous Nightingales (particularly noticeable on the terrific ‘I heart 1883’), and you have an album that bristles with an off centre angular, rhythmic dynamic that cant fail to please.

Speaking of off centre and not failing to please, what about this Jens Lekman When I Said I Wanted To Be Your Dog collection on Secretly Canadian? I knew nothing about Lekman when this album fell into my hands last week, but I’m rapidly falling in love with this record. Now, it seems like Lekman is from the seemingly endless stream of Swedish artists devoted to keeping alive the dream of effortless magically natural Pop, and with a top 20 Swedish single hit (22 weeks on the chart!) and this set reaching number 2 on their album chart, I’m having one of those ‘I wish I lived in Sweden’ moments. The album is an eccentric, eclectic trip through a myriad of marvellous sounds, with numerous figures of inspiration stepping in to guide the way: Jonathan Richman. Stephin Merritt, Belle and Sebastian, Smog, even a shadowy hint of James Kirk on the delicious Pop masterpiece ‘You Are The Light (by which to travel into this and that)’, a song that without doubt will be on my end of year compilation of songs that lit up my heart and stuck in my head for days on end. More, please, and thank you.

More Swede Popsters in Seashells, whose Remains of Something Sweet set is released on the Japanese Quince label. Seashells certainly subscribe to the ‘three minute Pop song’ school, and when you consider titles like ‘Thru With Love (I Quit!)’, ‘Waving Goodbye’ and ‘Older Than Yesterday’, well, you can pretty much guess at what you’re going to get. So yes, it’s guitars and (synthetic?) horn bursts ahoy, sweet melodies a-go-go and daydreams of unearthing lost Brilliant Corners and Mighty Mighty tapes in car boot sales. So it’s straying from that melancholic theme I started out with, but what the heck.

Most assuredly back on the trip of sweet subdued sadness is the Winged Life set by Shearwater (Fargo). Frontman Jonathan Meiburg plays keyboards with Okkervil River, whose split release with Julie Doiron was a delight last year, but Shearwater are a less obvious beast, and are even better for that. Sombre yet strangely salacious, Shearwater sound like Iron and Wine serenading Eve Horror with some ‘70s Jackson Browne albums spinning in the background. Throw in some remembrances of late Talk Talk (if they’d gone kinda folk/country) and sideways glances at Broken Social Scene and you’ve got an accomplished and quirky yet cohesive set of folk-rock Americana for days of darkening skies and nights of cloudy moonlight.

And outside it's still raining.

© 2004 Alistair Fitchett