Top Tracks 2013: August

After a relatively dry month of music back in July where I almost struggled to compile eight particularly noteworthy songs/releases, I had the opposite problem for August 2013. Many of the songs released in the first two weeks of August which I thought were sure to make the cut eventually got pushed out by each new release I listened to. As a result, there are probably a few essential releases which have not been highlighted below since I generally prefer to give exposure to the lesser known artists.

Julianna Barwick
“The Harbinger”

From: Nepenthe
Genre: Ambient
Listen: SoundCloudSpotify
Julianna Barwick has managed to do what I thought was impossible on Nepenthe: to sound more like Sigur Rós than Sigur Rós. The comparisons are unfortunately inevitable with this release. Glacial, ethereal, angelic; they’re all words you’ll find scattered throughout most reviews of both artists. Indeed, Nepenthe was even recorded in Iceland, produced by Jónsi’s partner Alex Somers, and features long-time Sigur Rós collaborators Amiina. Titled after a kind of potion used by the ancients to induce forgetfulness of something painful or sorrowful, I don’t think any word other than ‘nepenthe‘ itself could describe this album more accurately. Although it could probably be a little more dynamic throughout, this remains one of the most breathtaking releases of the year so far.

Julia Holter
“Maxim’s I”

From: Loud City Song
Genre: Art Pop
Listen: SoundCloud | YouTube | Spotify
loudcityThere is usually at least one ‘essential’ album released each month, and for August 2013 that honour goes to Julia Holter’s Loud City Song. Loosely based on both the 1944 novella Gigi and its late-50s musical adaptation, this is one of those rare albums which somehow manages to remain deadly catchy even at its most avant-garde. At times I get an almost Julee Cruise via Twin Peaks vibe on some of these songs, especially on “Maxims’s I” highlighted here. Indeed, Cruise’s “I Float Alone” wouldn’t sound out of place on this album at all. There are also some amazing musical arrangements on Loud City Song, with complex string and horn sections often bubbling underneath the music or rising out of seemingly nowhere. For all of its grandeur though, the most powerful moments are often when the sounds are stripped back and Holter’s voice comes to the fore, especially on the commanding “Hello Stranger”.

Zola Jesus
“Fall Back”

From: Versions
Genre: Art Pop
Listen: SoundCloudYouTube | Spotify
versionzOn May 10 last year, Zola Jesus (a.k.a. Nika Roza Danilova) teamed up with with experimental musician JG Thirlwell of Foetus to perform her music at the Guggenheim Museum. Instead of her usual synths though, Thirlwell had composed string arrangements for the Mivos string quartet to accompany Danilova’s grand voice. By all accounts, it seems to have been a powerful performance, although you can watch her final song of the night “Avalanche” to see for yourself. Over a year later, the same line-up has released Versions featuring more or less the same songs performed on that night. Nearly all of these songs are updated versions of older Zola Jesus songs, and it is interesting to see what the string quartet brings to each of the original compositions. There is one new track though, the expansive “Fall Back”, and it is perhaps the highlight of the album with its slowly dramatic introduction which builds into a massive finale as Danilova repeats how she “would do anything to be the one with you”.

Sarah Neufeld
“Hero Brother”

From: Hero Brother
Genre: Modern Classical
Listen: SoundCloudSpotify
herobroPerhaps better known as the violinist in Arcade Fire, Sarah Neufeld has released her solo debut album Hero Brother. While her work with Arcade Fire (along with other projects including the delightful Bell Orchestre) demonstrated Neufeld is a fine violinist, this solo album reveals that she is also quite a mature composer in her own right. She cites the likes of Béla Bartók, Steve Reich, Iva Bittova and Arthur Russell as primary influences for her solo work, although her compositions remind me perhaps more directly of fellow Montréal-based musician Colin Stetson. Each performance on this album is exquisite, and although most pieces can be intensely reflective, she also displays a playful side to her music in places, such as on the cutesy plucked melodies of “They Live On”. Neufeld also introduces a few other instruments and textures on some songs that add a great deal of depth to her compositions, especially with the pounding rhythm of the title track and the delicate piano chords that gradually accompany Neufeld on “Forcelessness“.

Danny Paul Grody
“You, The Invisible”

From: Between Two Worlds
Genre: Ambient/Acoustic
Listen: BandcampSpotify
between2worldsIt’s always a good sign when I struggle to settle on an appropriate genre tag for these little reviews. Although Californian guitarist Danny Paul Grody makes what broadly falls under the term ‘guitar music’ (i.e. mostly solo acoustic fingerpicking music), there is much more to him than that. Grody manages to set himself apart from others working in this niche by incorporating some elements of ambient and other genres to make music that is entirely his own. There is undoubtedly a meditative quality to this album, especially the deeper you get as it builds to the 10 minute exploration “Ojito (At Sunset)” dedicated to the Ojito Wilderness of New Mexico in which much of the piece was written. Where Grody succeeds most though is that he never forgets the importance of an underlying melody to sustain the listener, even while wandering a strange desert late at night.

Mark Kozelek & Desertshore
“Tavoris Cloud”

From: Mark Kozelek & Desertshore
Genre: Contemporary Folk
Listen: Spotify
kozeshoreMark Kozelek of Sun Kil Moon and Red House Painters fame seems to have recently entered a particularly productive period of his life. Following on from his obscure covers album earlier this year and then an effective foray into folktronica with Jimmy LaValle, Kozelek continues his previous collaboration with Desertshore on the creatively titled Mark Kozelek & Desertshore. There is a lot of death throughout his lyrics on these new songs; from the little ditty in “Hey You Bastard I’m Still Here” of how he missed a party at Anton LaVey’s place shortly before his death, to the delicate reflection of how his father lost each of his brothers on “Brothers”, and then the more personal story of how Kozelek cried every night for a week when his friend Tim Mooney died last year on “Tavoris Cloud”. It’s not all grim though, as he delivers one of the funniest lines this year on “Livingstone Bramble” where he confesses that he hates Derek Trucks, Eric Clapton, and Nels Cline. Especially Nels Cline.

“The Jura Wedding Reels”

From: At the Heart of It All
Genre: Scottish Folk Music
Listen: Spotify
Although I’ve always had a general interest in Celtic music and the like, I’ve never delved much deeper into the tradition than The Chieftains. I’ve never really known where to go from there since the Celtic section at the local record store seems to only ever consist of the aforementioned Chieftains, Clannad (who seem more ‘New Age’ than anything), and terrible drinking song compilations. It was a nice surprise then to stumble across Scotland’s Capercaillie and their 30th anniversary release At the Heart of It All. Maybe I’ve been living under a Lewisian gneiss (or was just born too late), but apparently they’re quite popular and achieved widespread success back in the 1990s when they started adding synthesisers and funky bass to their music. I haven’t heard anything from that period, but luckily this album is mostly an acoustic affair and celebrates their more traditional past. Sir Sean Connery certainly spoke the truth when he described lead singer Karen Matheson as having “a throat that is surely touched by God”. Matheson sings most of the songs on this album in Gaelic and, although I can’t be sure if it’s simply due to her lovely voice, I never realised that it is quite a beautiful language.

Causa Sui

From: Euporie Tide
Genre: Psychedelic Rock
Listen: Spotify
Okay, I’ll admit that two words are generally enough for me to get excited about a band: ‘jam’ and ‘band’. Although there is no single sound that defines the genre, Denmark’s Causa Sui offer a psychedelic mix of stoner riffs, funky interludes, and jazzy grooves; quite often all within a few minutes. True to many of the best jam bands though, the music of Causa Sui is not simply about lengthy guitar solos or song lengths that reach into the double digits. Sure, these are certainly present on Euporie Tide, but the focus is more on developing intricate compositions which change quite dynamically throughout each song. Apparently the band achieved quite a lot of exposure with their Summer Sessions trilogy back in 2008 and 2009, although this is the first I’ve heard of them. If those sessions are anything like this new release, then I think I may have just discovered my new favourite band.

As I mentioned, there were plenty of other great releases last month that could have easily made the final playlist. The major omissions were probably Earl Sweatshirt’s highly anticipated Doris, King Krule’s bold debut 6 Feet Beneath the Moon, and Forest Swords’ utterly unique Engravings. There was also an unusual plethora of notable Australian releases during August. The debut albums by dream pop outfit Snakadaktal (Sleep in the Water) and indie folk band The Paper Kites (States) were the best of the bunch, although the new ones by Cloud Control, Pikelet, Boy & Bear, and RÜFÜS may also be worth checking out for those interested.

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