I hope you enjoy the following reviews of my five most enjoyed albums of 2009, in no particular order.
Jeremy Ekleb — Drop a Key
Jeremy Ekleb’s second album was finally released in March of this year after being delayed in a mess of legal battles, with the artist fighting once again to destroy it after events that have become the stuff of legend.
Never was the “difficult second album” syndrome so aptly referenced. After losing his right arm to a polar bear during the recording of his first album, Ekleb had presumably to relearn much of his craft, abandoning some instruments entirely while relearning those others that could be satisfactorily manipulated one-handedly. The man had apparently retreated to a small flat in his home town of Glasgow, and taken on a rather hermetic existence, leaving home only to work on his recordings at a small studio five minutes’ walk away.
His label became increasingly disappointed with his direction after the inspired, flukish Surprise Bear, arguing often that his retreat to comforting, piano-driven melodies was in breach of the original three-album contract. His falling out with English producer Milton Milton during the two month recording session only came to light during the protracted court cases that were to follow.
The facts known are these: On the afternoon of June 17th 2008, Ekleb was taping a key melody at the studio when one leg of the grand piano he sat behind gave out entirely. The instrument collapsed, shattering his left leg in a dozen places and dislocating his hip. The event was fully captured by the microphones present. Ekleb was rushed to hospital where he spent the next six weeks in traction, and his involvement with the project essentially ended on that day. The resulting album is a strange assembly of obviously repurposed recordings and ends, unsurprisingly, with the audio of Jeremy’s misadventure.
Rumours run rife, of course, that Milton was involved somehow. That, desperate to maximise on the success of Surprise Bear, he orchestrated a most unlikely accident that allowed him to mirror the ambient horror found on that record. He certainly made cynical use of the mishap, if that’s all it was.
And so the album, such as it was, eventually saw the light of day. Ekleb couldn’t afford the huge costs involved in taking on his label and eventually rolled over. He has disassociated himself entirely from the LP and vows that he’ll one day make the music he’s always meant to. I’d give an arm and a leg to know what he has planned.
The Growing Concern — Self Titled
It was a normal enough beginning for a band, I suppose. Mairéad Ní Bhric, finding herself recently unemployed, decided to start playing music with her friend Colm Farrell in their hometown of Portbellyrush. They both played a variety of instruments, but Mairéad plastered a few posters on telephone poles around the town looking for other unemployed locals who might want to pass some time group playing with the rest of them.
The magic beans for this album was the next day’s closure of the mirror factory in Portbellyrush that provided 60% of the parish’s employment. Not an unusual tale in these times. Ní Bhric was expecting to pick up a couple of loose fiddle players for accompaniment, but within a week the band swelled to ninety-odd members. It now stands at somewhere close to seven-hundred. It’s difficult to find an exact headcount as many of the participants are part-timers. Ní Bhric estimates a core of three-hundred regulars, but many more than that feature on this debut album. Many of the band do not own or play instruments; there is a large contingent of choral members in the group, and a lot of the musicians make use of “found instruments” such as barrels, bottles, etc.
Rehearsing and performing is obviously a daunting task for a gathering that regularly exceeds the half-thousand, but with the closure of Macauly Mirrors a very large enclosed space was suddenly sitting unused. The company went so thoroughly bankrupt that they were unable to pay for the usual security detail to mind their disused building, so when numbers swelled to the point that rehearsing in the town hall became impossible, Ní Bhric moved her growing band in through a back door of the plant’s warehouse to play in the vast interior.
The album is a grand, untethered and orchestral mix of traditional Irish and contemporary elements. It suits the current climate well, complementing our collective unease with the value structures that have carried us through the last ten years and also the re-emergence of creative pursuits disassociated from financial goals as acceptable pastimes in our society. Of course, the band can make nothing. Not with seven-hundred members. And yet here they are, belting it out for the pure joy of it.
3 Lightbulbs (Screws) — carrots
This short album is known to most since its incredible spread in late July, and remains one of the great music mysteries of all time. It’s beginning to look like a mystery that will never be solved.
It arrived via post on the desk of Adrian Yellow, small time record label owner, some time in June. There was no return address. The album was packaged in attractive, ink-blotted paper that bore no mark of ownership, which is normal a enough feature of artistically assembled sleeves. Folded in with the CD, however, was a neat, white A4 sheet containing what appeared to be a shopping list, scrawled with half a dozen groceries. Yellow later surmised that the white sheet was originally to be the band or composer’s personal information, contact details etc. He has guessed publicly that the sender of the demo inadvertently dropped the wrong folded sheet into the envelope, and went off to do their shopping with a résumé in their back pocket.
Curiosity made him put on the album, and astonishment made him seek its author. Having nothing to identify the music but the accompanying paper, he noticed that the seven items listed could correspond to a band name, album title and five tracks, the number that happened to be on the disc.
Yellow posted a few songs on his site with holding names like “soda bread (not that sliced crap)” and “cheap biscuits”, asking for information, or whether anyone had heard them before. No one piped up, and soon the entire collection was online and circulating.
The original creators have never come to light. The short album has become one of the most lauded debuts (assuming it is a debut) of the past decade. One must consider two possibilities: that the author intentionally dropped this anonymous parcel for unknown reasons, or else Yellow’s theory is right, and the band is still out there somewhere, waiting for feedback on a bunch of songs that were named like any other, only to be uniquely orphaned and sent down the river in a basket.
Roger Makewill & Maxwell Roger — Ulysses (Soundtrack)
Another soundtrack makes this list this year, as it happens. It’s not entirely unknown for bands to construct an unlicensed soundtrack for films after they’ve already been released (the much-debated Dark Side of the Moon as accompaniment to Alice in Wonderland is probably the most well-known example) but this is the first time I’ve heard of one being created for a novel. And the novel is, of course, Ulysses.
There are technical obstacles to overcome. Firstly, syncing the soundtrack and the novel requires you to read at the precise pace intending by the composers. They appear to have gone for something around average reading speed for Ulysses readers. The problem, of course, is that a novel such as this is going to require pausing, rereading, floundering and flinging. Attempting to keep to the precise rhythm is close to impossible. There’s a chance to reset at each chapter’s closing, and the annotated copy will allow you to resynchronise every couple of pages, but even so it grows tedious as the hours go on, despite being almost worth it for the occasional moments of brilliant concord.
The other technical limitation is the length of the album. At somewhere close to thirty hours, it would be a very expensive physical product, so Makewill and Roger have gone for fully digital distribution at a not-very-high bit rate. It makes for a more manageable download but one can’t help feel like one is missing out on the full experience at some of the soundtrack’s better moments.
A lot of the above review suggests I’ve been reading Ulysses accompanied by the soundtrack. I haven’t. I mean, I had a go. Got through two or three chapters even. I have found the album particularly good material for listening to while walking around Dublin of an afternoon, which is in itself quite a beautiful achievement.
Lydia Ramsbottom — The Forest Sings
Lydia Ramsbottom released a wonderful little concept album for kids this year. Each of the fifteen tracks introduces a type of tree, describing its size, form and spread. Leaf shapes and bark textures are playfully woven in with information about species’ preferred climate and altitude. The tunes themselves are perky, sing-along stuff, perfect for catching a child’s attention. In fact, the album became somewhat of a sensation in primary schools across the country, with many teachers using it to support nature studies. This was presumably Ramsbottom’s intention in releasing a peppy album with a good introduction to a kid-friendly subject. How she manages to keep the pace across fifteen trees without flagging, you’ll just have to hear for yourself.
The project would have been a royal success were it not for one misstep that comes, embarrassingly and unmissably, at song number nine on the list. It seems that somehow, despite every evidence of thorough research and fact-checking on every other track on the album, somehow Ms. Ramsbottom believes that a porcupine is a kind of tree. There is a song devoted entirely to the splendour of the porcupine tree.
It’s a conceivable mistake. The name could easily be mistaken for a species of pine, of which there are many. A quick search online reveals a band of the same name that could only add to the confusion. It’s the level of detail that really beggars belief. She sings about its spiny needles, its brown sides and solitary disposition, all the while apparently labouring under the impression that it’s flora she’s describing.
The whole thing might have passed with quiet embarrassment were it not for the album’s popularity among four to eight-year-olds. With children loving nothing better than to laugh at an adult caught out, Lydia Ramsbottom has become almost a byword for foolishness in playgrounds everywhere. She the subject of various Facebook groups given names like “Lydia Ramsbottom = STUPID SILLYHEAD”, often with thousands of members who fill the pages with badly spelled comments. It’s probably not helping that her name is “Ramsbottom”.
One can only hope that she’ll come out of the experience intact. A tour of schools has been cancelled, for obvious reasons. It may be that Lydia’s career will be the first one ended solely by Internet users under the age of ten.