I’m not the only novelist (and certainly not the only crime writer) who’s passionate about music. I’m not even the only writer who’s also a music journalist. One of the great perks of music journalism, at least to my mind, is the number of CDs and downloads I receive. The chance to review some of them for real money and even do the occasional feature on an artist, is the icing on the cake.
My tastes run as far as possible from the mainstream. Most rock bores me now (age means I seem to have heard something similar before) and pop should rightly be aimed at the young, and possible those not especially interested in music. I value something different, something that moves my heart, and hopefully either my head or feet, too. Something different, something that captures my ears and makes me think.
In that regard, 2012 has been a decent year. I’m going to avoid albums that have been up for awards or have already won them. People like Sam Lee and Bellowhead, for instance, have enjoyed the oxygen of publicity. Their albums are great, but no one needs me pointing that out when others already have. So, here are four that might have gone under the radar in 2012 but which I found to be among my best of the year. Click the link for videos.
Lo’Jo – Cinema el Mundo
I love Lo’Jo and I make no bones about it. I have since I first heard them in 1998 and seeing them only cemented my passion. How much do I love them? Enough to be their US record label for a while when I lived there and to fly from Seattle to London to see them perform. Their new album, celebrating 30 years of anarchy and communal living in Angers, France, sees them leaping out of their skins again with guests like Robert Wyatt on hand to help out (and that mean is a musical god in my book). Leader Denis Péan still has the gravelly vocals, somewhere between Tom Waits and Serge Gainsbourg, and the magical, unlikely, surreal touch with his poetry. The El Mourid sisters still have those dry desert sororal harmonies and the music ranges from the breathless to the dashing, but with so much more detail than before. Listening it like losing yourself in a painting where each brushstroke contributes something and takes you deeper into its rather magical web. Their concerts can be events, with circus performers, bizarre cabaret, whatever strikes their fancy, and their music draws from French chanson, the cha’abi of North Africa and from so many corners of the globe, but they absorb the influences and make it all sound like Lo’Jo.
Tim Eriksen – Josh Billings Voyage
Tim Eriksen was the mainstay of the wonderful Cordelia’s Dad, a band who could play traditional American folk with all the intensity of hardcore punk and then turn electric for a feast of noise. As a solo artist he’s wandered several paths (his last album was unaccompanied songs, recorded in a single take in a tower in Poland, as an example), and he’s a superb singer (with a deep love of the Sacred Harp tradition), as well as gifted banjo player and fiddler. This album, however, is much fuller, set in a mythical New England port town, and that guitar on it isn’t – it’s bajo sexto, a Mexican instrument. What Eriksen captures in the rather strange voyage is the multiculturalism on 19th century New England, the way tunes and songs and above all ideas travel. His creation might seem to creak with the weight of age but it really stands outside time, whether on Hindoo Air, a song that’s turned into a children’s rhyme or his version of Auld Lang Syne which morphs into a sweaty electric workout. There’s religion, of course, given the period, but even more there’s thought and compassion. It’s the product of one person’s powerful vision and a sign that he really does continue to grow as an artist. And bowed banjo is a true wonder to hear.
Katy Carr – Paszport
This came late in the year but still made a great impact. Carr – a new name on me – has been releasing albums since 2001, but in 2009 came up with a song, Kommander’s Car, based on the story of a young man who escaped Auschwitz by dressing in Nazi uniform and driving out in the commander’s car. She met the man and it triggered something special, putting her in touch with her Polish side (she’s English but her mother comes from Poland) and their resistance and fighting spirit, first against the Nazis, then Stalin’s Russia. It a disc of small heroisms, from the spy Mala to Wojtek the fighting bear. Musically it’s a beautifully accomplished record, fine songs and occasional touches of Poland in the arrangements. There’s a little bit of Kate Bush about her writing and singing at times, but that’s certainly no bad thing; she’s no copyist and this is very much a labour of love, where politics, the heart and art all manage to come beautifully together. On the basis of this at least (and I’m still not familiar with her earlier albums) she deserves to be more widely known.
Mama Rosin – Bye Bye Bayou
There aren’t too many Swiss Cajun punk bands; this may or may not be a good thing. But there is Mama Rosin, who have filled the role perfectly with their previous releases. This time out, though, they’ve filled out the sound a bit. Yes, there’s still Zydeco in there but with the help of producer Jon Spencer (of Blues Explosion fame) there’s some swamp pop, a bit of blues, and more unselfconscious retro touches than you can shake a stick at – without every sounding like a re-creation of another era. It’s a disc that also manages to really rock, even more than they have in their past, and Spencer adds depth to the production that’s been missing in the past – makes it more professional without being slick. The band has matured without having grown up. They’re still having fun, there’s still a sense of chaos. But years of touring hard have helped them develop real tightness. What this disc really does is take them up to that next level to where they can find a wider audience, and proves there’s much more on the menu than crayfish.