Jeff Penczak - A Writer's Top 10 Releases of 2014 - Articles - Soundblab

Jeff Penczak - A Writer's Top 10 Releases of 2014

by Jeff Penczak Rating: Release Date:

Having recovered (just barely) from the life-altering experience of Sun Kil Moon’s Benji, I dug out the rest of the albums that provided the most pleasurable listening experiences in 2014. I excluded EPs, singles, compilations, reissues and the like, but any and all of these belong in your collection.

Sun Kil Moon – Benji (Caldo Verde)

Like Peter Finch’s character in Network, Mark Kozelek is “mad as hell and he’s not gonna take it anymore”. The latest in a lengthy discography spanning over 20 years, Benji (named after the 40-year-old film he saw as a child) is his most stripped-down, laid-bare, autobiographical album yet, peppered with tales of first loves, family (his father, cousin, mother, grandmother, uncle, et al all make appearances), Red Lobster, Domino’s, KFC, Panera Bread, listening to Pink Floyd’s Animals (‘Dogs’), Bowie’s Young Americans (‘Micheline’), Edgar Winter’s They Only Come Out at Night (‘I Love My Dad’), and Led Zeppelin’s Houses of the Holy and Physical Graffiti and watching The Song Remains the Same and Happy Days.

Each song slices straight to the bone as Kozelek recalls (with often graphic imagery) the first girl who sucked his cock (no, it wasn’t War on Drugs), growing up in small town Ohio, signing his first record deal, getting “a part in a movie” (Almost Famous [‘Micheline’]), and dealing with the deaths of family (his cousin [‘Carissa’]), an uncle (Carissa’s grandfather), a grandmother, and friends (an ex-girlfriend’s mother, a friend’s mother, musicians Jason Molina from Songs: Ohia, and Sun Kil Moon’s drummer Tim Mooney).

There’s a lot of death in this album, perhaps more than in any other album I’ve ever heard. This is folk at its darkest, with the goosepimple vibes of Nick Drake, Tim Hardin, Jackson C, Frank, and Bert Jansch hovering like a pall over the room. ‘Pray for Newtown’ expresses the disgust over serial killers from James Huberty (McDonalds), Anders Breivik (the Norway massacre), and The Batman Killer (James Holmes), to Jacob Roberts (Portland mall) and Adam Lanza (Newtown) becoming celebrities in this crazy world where bloodthirsty, gun-toting maniacs murder innocent people and no one steps forward to rid the world of these unnecessary death machines (if you’re not part of the solution, you’re part of the problem).

Richard Ramirez (the Night Stalker), Jim Jones, the Ayatollah Khomeni, and James Hinckley Jr are all at the center of ‘Richard Ramirez Died Today of Natural Causes’. The boogie man is out there ruining our lives – we’re living in fear every day that the boogie man will take us away and “Everyone will remember where they were/ when they caught the Night Stalker”. But, as Kozelek succinctly wonders, why don’t they remember where they were when he died and the terror he wrought finally ended? 

Kozelek does, ending the song “And I remember just where I was/ when Richard Ramirez died of natural causes”. So much irony, yet so much disgust that people remember life-altering events for all the wrong reasons – or they remember the wrong events. What the fuck’s wrong with people?

Kozelek also seems to have made up with 4AD founder Ivo Watts-Russell (whom he thanks “for discovering my talent so early”) after an acrimonious split following Watts-Russell’s refusal to release Songs for a Blue Guitar due to too many cover songs (Wings’ ‘Silly Love Songs’, The Cars’ ‘All Mixed Up’) and extended guitar pyrotechnics. Hell, he even makes amends (sort of) with Nels Cline, so unceremoniously skewered on last year’s ‘Livingstone Bramble’. It’s almost as if Mark’s joined a 12-step program to get his affairs in order as he prepares for that final taxi to rock 'n' roll heaven.

These songs bring Kozelek back to his childhood to face his own mortality. In 'Richard Ramirez', he remembers hearing about James Gandolfini’s (The Sopranos) death, noting he’s only 51, the same age as Sonic Youth’s Steve Shelley, “the guy who’s coming to play drums” on the album. Later he (Kozelek) rues getting older:

“I don't like this getting older stuff

Having to pee 50 times a day is bad enough

Got a nagging prostate and I got a bad back

When I fuck too much I feel like I'm gonna have a heart attack.”

And later still, in ‘Ben’s My Friend’:

“There's a fine line between a middle-aged guy with a backstage pass

And a guy with a gut hanging around like a jackass

Everybody there was 20 years younger than me

I'll leave with this, not my fondest memory.”

To paraphrase sweet Lou Reed, even Viagra wouldn’t help that bash. And how many of us have gone to a concert only to be surrounded by kids half our age? Who wouldn’t feel a little out of place “hanging around like a jackass”?

There’s a lifetime of memories wrapped up in these songs. From losing your virginity to losing your friends and relatives. From the fucked-up travelogue of early lovers which rivals Al Stewart’s similarly themed (and vulgar) ‘Love Chronicles’, and may be the best song Neil Young hasn’t written yet (‘Dogs’, home to possibly 2014’s best lyric: “Mary Anne got cold and abruptly broke it off/ for a guy in sweatpants and a pickup truck”. Anyone who’s ever lost a lover to some sorry-looking loser can totally relate to the frustration and imagery here, and throughout this evocative album.)

Listen to his recollections of his early life in ‘I Love My Dad’. Nearly every verse starts, “When I was young” or “When I was a kid”. This and other songs about growing up remind me of Joni Mitchell’s ‘Circle Game’, only Kozelek hits closer to home because he’s singing in the first, not third person. And how about the litany of death and loss that permeates ‘Micheline’? It’s like Jim Carroll’s ‘People Who Died’ revisited by the ghost of Nick Drake.

Do yourself a favour and take an hour out of your life and listen – closely – to Benji. It’s Kozelek’s Rosebud – a childhood memory that made him happy for once in his life and something he can return to in order to help him with all the grief he’s had to deal with in recent years. In ‘I Watched the Film The Song Remains the Same”, Kozelek writes: “I'll go to my grave with my melancholy/ and my ghost will echo my sentiments for all eternity.” Even earlier, he’s referred to himself as “the melancholic kid”:

"I don't know what happened or what anyone did

From my earliest memories I was a very melancholic kid

When anything close to me at all in the world died

To my heart, forever, it would be tied.”

There, in a nutshell, is the crux of this album. In fact, I wouldn’t have objected if he called it The Melancholic Kid. This is his swan-song; he’s gone “all in”; the bride’s been stripped bare, and as he “goes to [his] grave with his melancholy”, this is the album they’ll play at his funeral.

As I reviewed the releases that gave me the most pleasure throughout 2014 and contemplated the one that had (and will have) the most lasting effect, it was easy to select the year’s best album. For, having listened again, it’s abundantly clear that when I remember 2014 in music, there will be Sun Kil Moon’s Benji and there will be everything else.

The Popguns – Pop Fiction (Matinée Recordings)

As reunion albums go, this may be my all-time favourite. Everything that set my heart aflutter (especially Wendy Morgan, now Pickles’ voice) is recaptured on these 10 brisk, jangly pop masterpieces from the pen of guitarist Simon Pickles. The whole band is back, with a new drummer and second vocalist Kate Mander, who introduces excellent harmonies which soar over, under, sideways, and around Wendy like a feather falling from an overhead dove.

Their sense of humour survives intact, with self-referential tracks like the lead single ‘Lovejunky’ (not on the eponymous, two-word 1995 album, although it sounds as fresh as if it were recorded for it) and the sequel to their earth-shattering ‘Waiting for the Winter’ bringing everything full circle as if they never left. The pain, yearning, and emotion in Wendy’s voice still astonishes – no one emotes regret better – and Simon’s jingle-jangle pop tunes still evince a masterfully gifted songcraft.

There’s heartache (‘Not Your Night Tonight”, ‘Out of Sight’) mixed in with instant power-pop classics like ‘Lovejunky’, ‘City Lights’, and ‘If You Ever Change Your Mind’. This is what tight musicianship, peerless songwriting, and an angelic choir up-front is all about and no release made me smile more this year.

The Yearning – Dreamboats & Lemonade (Elefant)

Following on from several singles and mini-albums, the king and queen of dreamy, late 50s/early 60s cotton candy return with their debut full-length and it’s everything we’ve come to love about Mr Moore and Ms Dobie. Joe’s musical sensibilities are frozen in a time-warp where bobby sox, blue jeans, ponytails, sunshine, lollipops, and rainbows were de rigueur, and no one captures naiveté and wide-eyed innocence better than Maddie Dobie, a classic teenage heart-throb for the ages (and a spitting image of a young Marilyn Monroe who should have producers knocking down her agent’s door when the next Marilyn bio pic comes around for casting).

Moore and co nail the Phil Spector-meets-Burt Bacharach sound perfectly, and everyone who’s been collecting all those 60s girl-group comps will want to scoop this up immediately. Moore tosses off unforgettable melodies like most people change ringtones, but each track is also embellished with a little extra something that makes it even more special. Simply put, the most fun I’ve had all year.

Lily & Madeleine – Fumes (Asthmatic Kitty)

The tender wholesomeness and youthful exuberance of Indiana’s Jurkiewicz sisters leaps from every song, marking a return to the innocent days of yore when perfectly constructed pop melodies sung with crystalline vocals and performed with the assurance of legendary session-men like the Wrecking Crew counted for something in the music business and blasted from AM radios and car stereos all over America. Their voices have matured a bit since they sprung on the scene from nowhere (OK, Indiana) a few years ago and their vocal arrangements are more structured, more assured - and they’re still not even 21!

This is pop and folk for the whole family – a record you can enjoy listening to with your parents and any music that brings families together is a step forward in my book. Simply amazing, this is an album that will make the upcoming winter months a lot warmer. To borrow a phrase from Mike (Social Distortion) Ness, this is what it sounds like when the angels sing.

Taylor Swift – 1989 (Big Machine)

America’s finest pop songwriter expands her palette by embracing dance, electronica, rap, and hip-hop without losing sight of what got her this far to begin with – insanely ear-catching, energetic pop tunes sung in that little girl voice with a coy wink and a knowing nudge. It’s rare for an artist this far into their career to consistently release their “best album” with each subsequent release (Camera Obscura comes to mind, but not many others). [And for once, quantity = quality, as 1989 is also the Number One selling album of 2014.] 

Is it slick? Sure. Overproduced? Maybe. But there’s no denying that Swift has her ear and finger on the pulse of today’s youth and is consistently becoming their spokesperson via her tragic love songs of loss and regret, tempered with bouncy beats that somehow make the pain a little easier to take. The maturity and skillsets that she’s amassed since she burst on the scene as a shy little 16-year setting her journals and poetry to music (‘Teardrops On My Guitar’) is astonishing. She’s accomplished more than Madonna at half the age, but is not resting on her laurels as the new Queen of Pop. And she’s still not even 25 (reference the album title).

The Primitives – Spin-O-Rama (Elefant)

Following a well-received tribute album to mostly obscure female artists, The Primitives return with their first new album of original material since bassist Steve Dullaghan’s mysterious death brought them back together and led to their reformation in 2009. Tracy’s voice has lost none of its girlish lustre and Paul Court’s jangly guitars propel each track with the vim and vigour of their 25-year-old (!) debut. If you loved the original releases, you’ll swoon over the brilliant title track, the dreamy ‘Purifying Tone’, the clap-happy ‘Lose the Reason’, and the bubbly ‘Petals’.

The Pearlfishers – Open Up Your Colouring Book (Marina)

David Scott and co have been on a long musical hiatus (hard to believe it’s been seven years since Up With the Larks), but they’ve more than made up for it with a massive 16-track, 70-minute opus that restores our faith in lighter-than-air, laundry-fresh, hummable tunes which Brian Wilson used to write 50 years ago. This is a nostalgic-yet-melancholic look to the past,when the teacher encouraged the kids in class to open up their colouring books. You just knew that good times were around the corner as your imagination was set loose on new creations.

Those days are gone and perhaps the lost innocence is something Scott feels has weakened our lives as we rush through jobs, mortgages, marriages, kids…  Why can’t life be like it was back when we listened to love songs on the radio and rolled around in the tall grass after class, with not a worry to ruin our reverie?

The Barr Brothers - Sleeping Operator (Secret City)

(Singer) Brad and (drummer) Andrew Barr’s sophomore album reunites them with harpist Sarah Page and multi-instrumentalist Andres Vial for another set of mystical folk tunes edging into new age territory (in a good way). There’s a faint glow of Dylanesque (father and son) melodicism wandering through the album and I think I heard a hint of Leonard Cohen’s influence in a few songs, with John Prine’s lyrical gift of gab and melody peeking in every once in a while. It’s a mellow, relaxing, laid-back affair that’ll put a smile in your heart and a jump in your step with a little country, a little blues, a little funk, and a whole lotta folkin’ goin' on, just like the best of all Americana. 

Wilko Johnson/Roger Daltrey – Going Back Home (Chess)

As these two legends trawl through Johnson’s back-catalogue, their sincerity, mutual respect and admiration pours through each and every sweaty, dirty-ass rock 'n' roll performance. For starters, Daltrey is in his element, ripping through funky arrangements of Johnson’s bluesy ballbreakers and obviously pouring his heart and soul into every note. This may be where he started his career 50-odd years ago, but Townshend never wrote such unbridled soul scorches as ‘Going Back Home’ or ‘I Keep It to Myself’, which allow Roger to reach down, rip his lungs out, and stomp them all over the studio floor.

And what about Johnson? Well, God bless him, the man is bloody invincible and as sharp as a razor blade. Check out his snarly solos on ‘Keep on Loving You’ and ‘Some Kind of Hero’ and tell me this guy is ready for the retirement home (or graveyard) and you’ll have to step outside for a mighty good dust-up, thank you. Johnson’s cancer seems to have abated and I hope we have many more years and albums like this to look forward to.

Better yet, if Pete gives Rog any guff, maybe Rog can kick him out and take Wilko out on the road doing Who/Feelgood tunes. Now there’s a concert I’d like to attend!

MONO – The Last Dawn (Temporary Residence)

The yang to Rays of Darkness’ yin, The Last Dawn is the more sedate of MONO’s simultaneous releases. Closer to the band’s previous oeuvre, this is the album complacent listeners were expecting. If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it. And while the disappointing Rays of Darkness may suggest the band’s new mantra is “If it ain’t broke, break it”, The Last Dawn will settle nicely in your comfort zone. The slower-than-molasses trickle oozes out of your speakers as ‘The Land Between Tides/Glory’ sneaks into the room like a sunrise drooling over the mountains, and those “rays of darkness” gradually succumb to ”the last dawn”. 

Politically motivated or pessimistic resignation to the state of world affairs, there is a finality to both albums that spreads beyond their obvious titles. This is bleak music for bleaker times. You must decide if MONO are reacting to frightening times or preparing us for apocalyptic decimation.

Garfield’s Birthday – You Are Here (Pink Hedgehog)

Simon Felton and his brother Shane’s fourth album of “indie-pop for lost romantic souls”. Aided and abetted by longtime collaborator Alan Strawbridge (Lucky Bishops, Cheese, Bitter Little Cider Apples, and Schnauser), Garfield’s Birthday’s first album in four years is chock full of danceable, toe-tapping, harmonious pop with oodles of power-pop perfection and wall-to-wall Spectorish production flourishes. Pitch-perfect harmonies flow out of every tune, with nearly every one scoring a perfect 10 on the goosepimple scale.

I don’t know if I told you that this was one of the best albums you’re likely to hear all year that I would convince you to go out and pick it up (or load it down), but I guarantee you won’t be sorry or disappointed if you did. Then you can experience for yourself the best kept secret in British pop. For, as they sing in closer ‘Water (It Looks Like Rain)’: “Everything’s beautiful to me.”

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