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The best rock you may ever hear – by names you may not know


The best rock you may ever hear – by names you may not know

By Mark Beech



So little time, so many new CDs to listen to. But which ones?





It’s way too easy to go for the most obvious music, by simply walking into the nearest record store or going online, closing your eyes and grabbing the very first thing on offer. You’ll probably pick up the ever-available Lady Gaga. She’s been sashaying across the charts this year, as we are all too well aware, while Adele is waving the flag for British artists, and of course the Red Hot Chili Peppers are rocking the airwaves. These artists are all fine in their own way, and probably good to hear when they are so much talked about. At least you have a point of view if someone else praises or slates them. To paraphrase the old advertisement used in the U.K. to promote the Financial Times newspaper: “No CD, no comment.”

It has to be said, though, that none of the above stars’ releases are exactly in the category of the very best Presley, Beatles or Stones. Or whatever classic artist you like. So what’s new, you may say, that is genuinely fresh and not so blatantly obvious?
We all get so much popular music rammed down our throats, or more accurately stuffed into our ears, that it’s easy to give in to the incessant overblown hype or the insistent adverts, and never really stop to ask if this is the finest on offer. Let’s do so right now. I’m assuming that “Dante” readers want only the best. I’ll try to tell you something you may not know, like possibly where you might find it.

More than 200,000 popular-music albums are released every year, according to industry figures. About a half of them come out in the U.S. alone. Nobody can listen to all that, though I do my best in my role as the chief rock critic for Bloomberg News and as an author of books about music. Record companies from around the world send me many review copies and I buy too many records myself. Fortunately, apart from writing and editing and somehow having a life, I don’t need much sleep. On average, I get through three or four albums each day, or more than 1,000 a year. I play them for my own pleasure (at home, on the iPod or in the car) and sometimes for others (on the radio or at discos). I really do put on every one I receive, listening carefully and with gratitude for a good job — I’d never want to miss finding  The Next Big Thing.

Still, the vast majority of review copies are sadly mediocre. They are often not that original, just pale imitations of U2, Bruce Springsteen or Madonna. Or, these days, rip-offs of the Killers/ Kings of Leon, Eminem and Amy Winehouse, God rest her troubled soul. But all the imitation is fine, because this makes it all the more worthwhile when the good material jumps out. There is nothing more exciting, for a critic or for anyone really, than putting on a CD by an unknown act and being totally blown away by it.
A couple of years back, I was one of the first to hear a new band called the Fleet Foxes. Within minutes, they had encompassed mediaeval plainsong, Beach Boys, barbershop quartet singing and folk that recalled early Fairport Convention or Jefferson Airplane. I got typing at once on what was one of the first top-star reviews to appear in print and online. The group’s second release, out this year with the slightly odd title “Helplessness Blues,” isn’t bad either.

One can expect record companies to overpraise potential stars, even if they aren’t actually much good. Alarm bells go off when acts have silly names (such as Gaye Bykers on Acid or Gay Dad), have ridiculous outfits (as an example, Empire of the Sun, who sport the most laughable headdresses) or are just hyped to the heavens (Virgin Music got very hot about Palladium, a gimmicky ensemble that went precisely nowhere, except into the bargain bins.)

I get more excited when I get an unsolicited email from a reader — my column is syndicated to more than 500 newspapers worldwide — or one of my Twitter followers who wants to draw my attention to some new discovery. Of course, this is sometimes a false trail and it turns out that they are the girlfriend or brother of the act being raved about.

A New York concertgoer, who clearly knew something about music, called to rave about musicians called Leroy Justice. I checked them out on one of my visits to the U.S. and they are not exactly cutting edge, though nicely powerful. I enjoyed their show more than Elton John at Madison Square Garden soon after, which gives some idea of their talent.
A reader from California enthused about a quartet called the Morning Benders. I wasn’t too sure about the unfortunate name, but their CD “Big Echo” has an irresistible West-Coast vibe on summer anthems like “All Day Daylight.”.  The Beat Geeks from Atlanta, and London’s “Decline & Fall,” also came as recommendations and they are good.

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Just now and again, an artist will make direct contact. I’d already heard of Jon Regen, a songwriter and pianist. He isn’t above pushing his own talent and sent me his accomplished “Let It Go” in 2007. I was impressed by that, and also his most recent “Revolution,” both of which feature Andy Summers of the Police.

Just every now again, there is some big surprise, as with a recent disc mailed from Jagjaguwar records, in a plain box and labeled “Public Strain.” It had me baffled with its weird glacial melodies and off-key singing. It turned out to be a thing of beauty, the second recording by Women, a misleadingly named Canadian quartet of guys.

The “Gaga versus Adele, Beyoncé and Britney” battle
has blocked out some other divas who are worth getting to know. Eilen Jewell, from Idaho, combines the blues with country in a way that recalls Lucinda Williams or the excellent Eileen Rose. Jewell’s “Queen of the Minor Key” is well crafted. Anna Calvi has won praise from Nick Cave and Brian Eno. While the latter’s rave, in a BBC interview, saying that Calvi is “the biggest thing since Patti Smith” is going a little too far,  her self-titled debut has echoes of P.J. Harvey and Florence Welch. Katy B’s “On a Mission” is club music made by someone who, remarkably, really seems to have been to a club. Download the track “Rider to the Sea” in particular.
Charlie Haden Quartet West’s “Sophisticated Ladies” is a jazzy disc with impeccable female singers covering standards. Norah Jones is irresistible on “Ill Wind” and Ruth Cameron brings maturity to “Let’s Call It a Day.” If you like a jazzy twist to your music, check out Norwegian saxophonist Marius Neset’s 2011 album “Golden Xplosion” or Italian Alessandro Magnanini’s “Someday I Still Do” from a couple of years back.

Italy has been expanding its musical reach ever further from its proud operatic heritage. Ignoring the ubiquitous Zucchero Fornaciari, the country has been exploring heavy metal, rap and instrumental music. Zu, a Rome-based trio, avoid the translation difficulty with a fusion of distorted bass, saxophone and drums.
French pop is also breaking free of the old Johnny Hallyday/ Serge Gainsbourg cliché. Gainsbourg’s daughter Charlotte has been making her own way, with an intriguing double album “Stage Whisper” on its way. The title is amusing after the breathy almost-not-singing whispers of Carla Bruni on “Comme si de rien n’était” which suggested President Sarkozy’s wife had best stick to the day job.

If you like your music a little rawer, I have recommendations from a rainy Glastonbury this year, inspired by punky performances from the Horrors, Yuck, the Vaccines and Warpaint in front of an audience of mud-splattered wellington boot wearers. I spend a lot of time going to gigs and festivals watching for talent, usually in more congenial conditions than a festival mudbath, often before the major record companies scouts find them.

Some miscellaneous tips: Shh, an electropop act from Buenos Aires; Geordie good-time band Smoove & Turrell; Sneaky, a double-bass genius living in Berlin; and British folk band the Kittiwakes, whose independent album “Lofoten Calling” is brilliant and unjustly neglected.

Elsewhere, Kanye West and Jay-Z are battling for the male crown with their respective rap albums and the joint CD “The Throne,” though there are plenty more not so well-known singer-songwriters out there worth hearing. Ron Sexsmith’s recent “Long Player Late Bloomer” is literate and tuneful. As the title suggests, the Canadian seems to have been around forever. So has Sufjan Stevens, who plans a series of 50 albums each named after a U.S. State, and also Ryan Adams — yes, that’s Ryan, not Bryan Adams. The two Adams are not related and Ryan’s work sounds nothing like “Everything I Do (I Do It for You)”: he is a prolific artist, back after a long illness.
It’s important to be internationalist (and heck, of the festivals, Rock en Seine, Benicassim and Rock Werchter are worth visits). There is a long-standing tradition for rock writers just to think about English-language lyrics, and of course, if you do that, you omit much of the outstanding music of the world.
I’ve always had time for Akvarium, a Russian band formed in 1972 by Leningrad math student Boris Grebenshchikov. He faced years of official disapproval but has kept going, with the latest, “Archangel, ” a wonderfully inspired return.
Spanish and Brazilian influences are all over “Cosmic Ocean Ship” by U.S. alternative folk singer Mia Doi Todd. Canadian artist Abel Tesfaye’s “House of Balloons” is a striking mixtape of sounds. A group of four wheelchair-bound street musicians from Congo-Kinshasa, called Staff Benda Billy, came together with a teenager who plays on a lute made out of a tin can. That formula doesn’t sound too promising on paper, which makes the result, “Très Très Fort,” all the more breathtaking with its fusing of rumba, rhythm `n’ blues and reggae.

African music has been billed as “the Next Big Thing” even before Paul Simon’s “Graceland” project in the 1980s. It’s worth discovering the joys of blind Mali musicians Amadou & Mariam — “Welcome to Mali” is a joyous celebration and builds on the equally fine Ali Farka Touré, who died in 2006 after making the sublime “Savane.”
I don’t pretend to understand a word of records by Geoffrey Gurrumul Yunupingu, an indigenous Australian who sings in the Yolngu language. He might be singing the telephone book for all I care, I just know he sounds great.

I know my tastes might not be yours. My favourite CD of last year was Arcade Fire’s “The Suburbs,” which defeated challenges from the Gorillaz, Robert Plant and Cee Lo Green. I keep pretty mainstream, so I am often more in tune with popular taste than some of my rock-critic colleagues who seem to like to pretend how superior they are by dissing everything commercial and selecting only the most obscure, if not to say unplayable.

I do give extras kudos to records with clever lyrics and those that have up tempo rock. I’m also a little old fashioned in liking melodic tunes but I don’t necessarily like things to be retro or backward looking. CDs get an extra star if they are fresh or do something that hasn’t been done before. It’s getting harder to do this, when most forms of pop have been done and a lot of the time when trying to describe it, I resort to saying it sounds like a combination of something that’s come before. Liam Gallagher’s new act Beady Eye predictably sounds like a combination of Oasis and John Lennon, and so on.

Hopefully, the preceding paragraphs have some recommendations that will win approval. Slightly more obvious names from this year’s releases include Gil Scott-Heron and Jamie xx’s “We’re New Here”; the Streets’ “Computers and Blues” and P.J. Harvey’s “Let England Shake.”

There’s so much good music to hear that searching it out could be a fulltime job. Come to think of it…[/three_fourth]


Mark Beech is global team leader of Bloomberg Muse, the arts and culture section of Bloomberg News, and Bloomberg’s chief rock critic. He is the author of “The A-Z of Names in Rock,” “The Dictionary of Rock & Pop Names” and “Culture Shock” (forthcoming in 2012).
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