I first heard Sharon Van Etten on internet radio. Full disclosure: to be precise, I heard her on Indie Wonderland, the radio show hosted by my friend Jules, who - unless sitting down - is a walking encyclopaedia of indie and alt-rock. Her show is genuinely excellent, striking the right balance between artists so new that Jules risks burning her hand on the warm, limited-edition vinyl, through to tried and trusted favourites, back to Britpop and Peel nostalgia. So I have no hesitation sending you into the show's path: go to ARfm to hear the show live on Thursday evening (7-9pm) or to the station's Mixcloud archive where you can hear all the old shows as well.
This track is the one Jules played - 'Give Out' from the latest album 'Tramp'. I think it's one of the most haunting songs I've heard in ages (it reminds me of a grittier Marissa Nadler) - the voice and production are so glacial while the guitar is busy and agitated. And the recurring turn of phrase in the lyric ('look down/out', 'hold on/out', 'give up/out') seems to me one of those nuggets of writing genius that lift the song into something truly great.
Real World have started re-releasing some of their best albums, and so far, three of Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan's records for the label have been reissued. One of them, 'Shahen-Shah', is just the great Qawwali singer himself and 'Party' (ie his own musicians) - so, without taking anything away from the records he made with Western collaborators, this CD is a great way to hear how this sacred music is traditionally performed, by an absoluter master of the art. This is taken from that record.
I've always loved funky instrumentals - is there anyone who doesn't like a funky instrumental? - so I was chastened to only learn about the Meters through David Hepworth in the Word podcasts proclaiming their rhythm section the best ever. There's a handy compilation on Charly Records with lots of great stuff on it, including 'Live Wire':
Renee Fleming's voice can, at the risk of sounding technical, make me 'come over all funny', and right at the end of 2011, I got to hear her perform Richard Strauss's 'Four Last Songs' at the Royal Festival Hall. Apparently, Strauss is one of her favourite composers (and mine - great minds, etc), and she does seem to keep returning to him in her recordings and recitals. This is one of the songs, 'September', and that gorgeous voice aside, I marvel at the music's modern, at times almost bluesy, glide.
Baltic Fleet is a one-man band who creates instrumentals that occupy a space somewhere between psychedelia and electronica. It's the kind of thing that makes you wish there was an acceptable way of executing an 'air synthesiser'. I have to thank DJ/podcaster and all-round musical authority Mondo (nickname: 'Dave') for alerting me to this band, and you should find out all about him here. This track is called 'Headless Heroes of the Acropolis', from Baltic Fleet's 2nd album 'Towers'.
If you've read my blog before, you may remember my child-like excitement at seeing a newly reunited Dead Can Dance play live. The concert (everything I could've hoped for) drove me back to my old DCD records. This track, from their album inspired by early music called 'Aion', is called 'As the Bell Rings, the Maypole Spins', and is one of my all-time favourites. Listen out, as the track builds, to how Lisa Gerrard's voice almost becomes part of the rhythm or body of the song, while the pipes are all melody and speed. Brilliant.
I've also blogged about Touareg band, Tinariwen, after seeing them relatively recently at the Union Chapel. However - whisper it - they are my 2nd favourite group of nomads, after this band, Terakaft. Terakaft began years ago as a Tinariwen offshoot, but have found their own identity. While Tinariwen have a full, roaring blues-related sound, Terakaft are slightly more fleet of foot. There are fewer of them, for a start, and much of their music has a bit more agility and an almost reggae-like 'bounce'. They are currently on a run of brilliant albums. The current record, 'Kel Tamasheq', features this track, 'Awa Adounia':
I think Trembling Bells are one of the most restless bands I know. A constant stream of albums, dovetailed with collaborations and side-projects - they seem almost like a folk Fall, where unless you more or less follow them around with a notepad, you're going to miss out on some of their releases. They recently put out an album with Bonnie 'Prince' Billy, but in case that felt too easy, they accompanied it with a vinyl or download EP on the side, with extra tracks that didn't make the main album, plus some a cappella collaborations with Muldoon's Picnic, a vocal ensemble who specialise in trad folk and sacred harp singing. That small batch of songs is well worth seeking out. On tour, a combined Bells/Picnic choir sang them live - this is 'Tuning Fork of the Earth'. Don't be put off by the idea of no instruments. Here they're not needed.
More re-releases - a lot of the Philadelphia International soul records got another airing last year thanks to 40th anniversary celebrations. Particular attention was paid - rightly - to the man who basically invented the idea of the 12" single and the extended mix: Tom Moulton. All the more incredible to think that he achieved what he did years before the production and engineering technology we take for granted today. Here is his 11-minute version of Harold Melvin and the Blue Notes's 'Don't Leave Me This Way'. Not a second too long.
And back to the world of indie, with Martin Rossiter. Some of you might remember his band Gene, who put out some lovely songs before their split in 2004. (Sadly, what might stick in your mind was the 'Smiths facsimile' tag they were unfairly saddled with - especially since MR was a charismatic anti-macho frontman who talked a great interview.) Rossiter has kept quiet until now - although, he's still keeping pretty quiet, with an album mostly of just piano and voice, the brilliantly-titled 'The Defenestration of St Martin'. This lead track, 'Drop Anchor', is exactly how you'd expect the brains behind Gene to sound after a period of retreat, contemplating how to be different but still excellent.
I realise I might think of another 10 options the moment I hit 'Publish'......