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Gold Soundz: Songs for the Summer

Posted in Feature, List with tags , , , , , , , , , on July 12, 2015 by David Hall

Summer has definitely, belatedly made its way even to the UK, which you can tell probably most reliably not from the weather outside, but when you see releases like this being made. Obviously this is money-grabbing of the most blatant variety, those aren’t summer hits any more than any other time of year; they aren’t season-specific. Which begs the question, just what is summer music? Would any of us actually know? Well, in an attempt to answer this never-asked question, I sought out some albums that would actually suit a nice day rather well. Sometimes there’s no telling what will happen to a record in a new context, and the only way to find out is to throw it in the pool and see if it sinks or swims. So let’s get this particular witch trial underway:

Warpaint – Warpaint

Warpaint’s confident self-titled second album stands out as music perfectly suited to a stiflingly, paralysingly hot day, which demands barely a toe-tap or a laconic head nod with closed eyes. Plumbing its hazy, druggy depths proves almost mirage-like in the heat, bassy swells washing over the listener in great droning waves. ‘Keep It Healthy’ begins the album brightly with melodic guitar lines, a pleasant morning with dawning sun that hasn’t quite gotten its claws into heating the earth just yet. Compare that with the atonal and sticky twilight of ‘CC’, which pours viscously like molten magma from the listeners’ speakers with almost perceptible heat. Lead single ‘Love Is To Die’ cavorts about the listener mockingly, circling a coastal bonfire at midnight, chanting and flitting out of the moth-ridden darkness. There’s also more than a hint of feverish threat in the death march of ‘Disco//Very’, which forges aimlessly onwards into the heady evening, verses and choruses melting and melding into one another thrillingly. The overwhelming sensation however is fearsome midday heat in Warpaint; you can almost hear the buzzy chirrup of cicadas in ‘Biggy’, its keyboard riff emerging from a blanket of heat haze, whilst ‘Feeling Alright’ falls asleep in the shade, vultures circling overhead.

Joni Mitchell – Ladies of the Canyon

The lengthy evening shadow of Woodstock looms large over Joni Mitchell’s third album, from the brightly sparkling curtain pull of ‘Morning Morgantown’ through to the thrumming, throbbing keys of Woodstock and the existential nursery rhyme closer ‘The Circle Game’s choral chant. It’s a sparsely arranged album, sounding particularly in the title track like a slow drive through the Californian desert, lonely humanoid cacti gliding by in scrubland by the secluded roadside. Though sparing and often unadorned, Mitchell’s material is heady and perfumed, such as on the gorgeous title track. ‘Morning Morgantown’ is the most perfect capturing of a summer dawn as is imaginable, a charmingly and seemingly earnest paean to the possibilities of a new day. However, ‘Woodstock’ is much more arch, sun scorched and serious, almost apocalyptic at times in its imagery – “I dreamed I saw the bombers riding shotgun in the sky” Mitchell sings – but ultimately hopeful in its assertion that “they were turning into butterflies above our nation”. Even the atmosphere of ‘Rainy Night House’ and its interspersed choir and cello, suggests a dusky summer evening thunderstorm rather than autumnal downpour. To paraphrase Mitchell herself, sunlight streams through curtains of ‘Conversation’s setting, her open-tuned chords sounding effervescent and thriving. Plenty of Mitchell’s output, particularly her early-to-middle period exemplified by the later Court and Spark, invokes the sunshine of the American west coast.

The Avalanches – Since I Left You

First and foremost, Since I Left You is quite simply an incredible album. It’s like the best party you’ve ever been to, and everyone has been invited. From the moment you press play, it never lets up for a moment. It’s as full of ideas and self-reference as its copious use of samples suggests, motifs recurring throughout like it is its own little self-contained universe. Track after track tagteams in, each bringing with it their own distinct personality, like ‘Two Hearts In 3/4 Time’s cut-and-paste vocal melody bleeding through ‘Avalanche Rock’ into the juddering, jungleish, almost blaxploitation-flavoured ‘Flight Tonight’, before bass dips in and out of ‘Close To You’ as if being heard through the walls. As a whole, Since I Left You is a big, open-sounding record, easily enough so to be a played at an outdoor party at great volume and be equally pleasing to all ages. It’s a sunkissed, optimistic thrill to dip casually in and out of (the bouncing beats of ‘A Different Feeling’ into ‘Electricity’ prove to be highlights, and quite rightly form the spine of the album), or to listen through.

LCD Soundsystem – Sound of Silver

From the quietly percussive videogame soundalike intro of ‘Get Innocuous!’, Sound Of Silver album stretches its limbs up to a cloudless, frighteningly blue sky. The opener is soon swarming around, all clattering drums and multitracked vocals, then peeling itself back before crowding in once more. Throughout, James Murphy’s sophomore LCD record proves a very urbane album. It reeks of uncomfortably overheated concrete, of opened windows breathing out the hot air from within and shines with the fierce glare of steel and glass under a summer sun. Sound of Silver longs for night to fall and for the city’s dingy nightspots to open; it feels busy, populated. The informal party atmosphere tells tales of a misspent but regret-free youth, most notably in ‘All My Friends’, which along with ‘Someone Great’ and ‘Us V Them’ flanking it, elevates the album to a genre and period classic. The production is about as crisp as seems possible, each instrument on ‘Time To Get Away’ focussed sharply enough to cut yourself upon even as the track clutters. Finally, ‘New York I Love You, But You’re Bringing Me Down’ feels like a late night or early morning train ride home anywhere in the world, spent but already reliving the previous evenings’ exploits.

Radiohead – In Rainbows

Radiohead have always harboured a tendency to create soaring music, often hiding this light under a bushel; frequently very well, as on The King Of Limbs, which really only breaks out into the open on final track ‘Connector’. So, perhaps deservedly given the glacial atmosphere of albums like King Of Limbs or the chilly Kid A, they have earned themselves something of a maudlin reputation. To suggest In Rainbows is Radiohead’s summer album then? Surely not. And yet it works. It’s a record on which the band decided to go as full-on pop as they’ve ever been, sounding natural and full of enjoyment. On ‘Jigsaw Falling Into Place’, Yorke describes the all but alien environ of a club – like, a nightclub, with people smiling and having a good time and stuff – over a danceable rhythm section with looping, whirling guitar parts encircling his vocal. ‘Reckoner’ stands as the highlight of the album, its monolithic, triangular upswells of strings creating giant blocks of sound in a desert-like atmosphere. ‘House Of Cards’ follows in its churning wake, again with eastern-sounding strings and a spacious, yawning mix suggestive of gigantic panorama. ‘All I Need’ sounds sunburnt and migraineous, fully realising the bands’ intention to mirror the overwhelming sonic concussion of a band playing loudly in a small room. Rumbling bass synth impels Yorke’s voice to loom over the track, who in turn seems to recognise and stoke the sweltering atmosphere, “I’m an animal, trapped in your hot car” he sings in a cloying, and disarmingly unrequited lovelorn lyric. Following up from Hail To The Thief’s form-finding swagger, In Rainbows found Radiohead in loose but immediate form, and suits long, warm days beautifully.

The Field – From Here We Go Sublime

Track after track from The Field’s much-praised debut album lolls in on the breeze, like hearing a distant radio playing loud but broken snippets of songs, somewhere off in a housing project window. ‘Everday’ for example cuts and pastes Fleetwood Mac’s polite radio pop of ‘Everywhere’, drawing out from a harsh, hacking synth until Christine McVie’s vocal is whisked into a constant, looping hook that throbs and pummels and never lets go. ‘A Paw in My Face’ stretches Lionel Ritchie’s treacly ‘Hello’ into gorgeous, bleeping techno, ending as an authentic-sounding early 90’s slow jam rather than the lampoonable mid-80’s radio ballad of the original. Centrepiece ‘The Deal’ is minimal techno loving life in the open air, freed from bedroom laptops into a world of lawn sprinklers and dizzying heat.

Broken Social Scene – Broken Social Scene

It’s hard to choose just one record from the Canadian supergroup’s catalogue to sum up that summertime feeling, as all do it so perfectly. I’d love to go with the often-overlooked Forgiveness Rock Record, if only because it presents an opportunity to give that album a well-deserved day in the sun. The real winner however must be their second eponymous record, which is every shade of summer, from blissed out (‘Our Faces Split the Coast in Half’), through joyous (‘7/4 Shoreline’), to sweet and smiling (‘Swimmers’). Each track is a near-whitewash of vying noise, a roaring cacophony, constantly on the point of clipping. ‘Ibi Dreams of Pavement’ features Kevin Drew’s half-shouted vocal struggling to be heard above the shrieking squall of drums, synthesizers and brass, relentless and near-blinding. ‘Superconnected’ comes on like a rush of heated air, even the tempo rocketing after a much-needed midsection lull including the simmering, shimmering ‘Swimmers’. The saturated sound of Broken Social Scene perfectly encapsulates the heady, giddy thrill of the season. Days spent so long in the searing sunlight that your head throbs, that your sight is funnelled with brightness when stepping back indoors. It’s a time of overwhelming, endless-feeling possibility, a sensation that Broken Social Scene’s work encapsulates joyously.

Kurt Vile – Wakin On A Pretty Daze

A jammy, noodling affair, Kurt Vile’s fifth solo album is like the most pleasant of commitment-free summer days, which starts when it starts and just keeps pressing onward irrespective of time. The opening title (ish) track stretches on endlessly towards the horizon for nearly ten minutes, seeming both longer and shorter like some sort of perspective trick, its riff repeating hypnotically and ploughing through half-formed solos and drawled verses, at once impressionistic (“Don’t worry about a thing, it’s only dying” Vile sings at one point) and at times smartly focussed and astutely observed, “I gotta think about what wisecracks I’m gonna drop along the way today”. Song titles are repeated like mantras, Vile venturing out in verses only to return to the touchstone, punning and messing with the words playfully. ‘Goldtone’ is a case in point, with its morphing chord sequence spiralling outwards like a galaxy as Vile explores the lyrics’ phonetics, all strange annunciations and unexpected rhymes and declarations. Again like the album as a whole, it feels improvisational, informal and open-ended, just as the season it represents and celebrates should be; Pretty Daze is as pretty and meandering as a summer stroll.

Sufjan Stevens – Come On Feel the Illinoise!

Twee, but never overbearingly so, Come On Feel the Illinoise! is painstakingly researched, a lush and vibrant concept album exploring the geography, communities and history of the state of Illinois. Nothing short of a tour de force, it’s spirallingly lengthy and stands as the pinnacle of Stevens’ career; it took him five years and a dramatic shift in both direction and approach to properly follow up. Even tales of cancer death, religious cults (‘Casimir Pulaski Day’) somehow manage to sound at once uncomfortably specific and personal, but also expansive and macrospective. If it’s expansive you want, Illinoise has that aesthetic in spades. Segueing in and out of characters, places and landmarks throughout its considerable running time, this is an album that demands a free afternoon or a long journey, to sit and be appreciated in full. Track-by-track however, Stevens is also generous with the hooks and choruses, with earworming chord progressions and lovely, lapping melodies that wash like sunlight onto painted walls. ‘Jacksonville’s, sawed, scale-hopping strings give way into banjos and wandering, tremulous guitar lines and pattering drums before brass pogos the track into a pleasingly ornate chorus. Also muscular in places, instrumentation towering around Steven’s trademark barely-whispered vocal on the bristling, anthemic ‘Chicago’, choirs rising and falling along with flutes and woodwind, marching band cymbals crashing like breakers all around. In amongst all this grandeur and splendour, moments like ‘Concerning the UFO Sighting…’ and the breathtaking, eerie ‘John Wayne Gacy, Jr.’ provide goosebumps, a darker, more overbearingly intimate Sufjan Stevens explored further in this year’s exceptional Carrie & Lowell, further signposting how vast and vaulted Illinoise was by comparison. It’s an album of scorching, state-sized beauty.

Pavement – Slanted and Enchanted

Like Broken Social Scene, many of the 90’s alt-rock icons’ five albums would be welcome on a summer playlist, reflecting the Californian locale of the bands’ surroundings. However it’s their charmingly shambling, and correctly acclaimed, debut Slanted and Enchanted that crackles most brightly with almost solar-powered energy. The untutored, gleefully-pounded drumming of ‘Summer Babe’ opens the album as it means to go on, guitars buzzing full of warm distortion. ‘Loretta’s Scars’ jangles more, Malkmus and Spiral Stairs finding a beautiful range of textured tones for their guitars to occupy throughout Slanted, ‘Zurich is Stained’ played almost entirely cleanly for example. Melodic, high-fretted bass hovers delightfully over blankets of distortion on ‘Jackals, False Grails’, its bashed-out drum track and frenzied soloing recalling an image of sunlight breaking repeatedly through a canopy of tree branches. ‘Our Singer’ sounds frazzled, ‘No Life Singed Her’ appropriately fried and frayed around the edges, there’s barely a track that doesn’t imbue some kind of warmth. Malkmus’ drawling, free-associating wordplay mesh with his infantile, sing-song vocals is sweetly addictive and permanently optimistic-sounding. As mentioned, most if not all of Pavement’s output stands up as excellent summer material. The alt pop of Crooked Rain, Crooked Rain is a fantastic soundtrack to a sunny day, the more structured material making for a slightly more coherent listen, with more dynamism and more build-up and release of tension. Away from the obvious single cuts ‘Range Life’ and ‘Cut Your Hair’, ‘Stop Breathin’’ and ‘Gold Soundz’ provide the keening, sun-bleached moments of uplift on Crooked Rain. Even their eclectic Wowee Zowee! middle period and more restrained and studied later records retain the same shambling, slacker mood than makes Slanted and Enchanted such a summer delight.