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My top 10 albums of 2009: Part 2 – The top 5

Following on from the previous post, here are the final five selections in my list of the top 10 albums of the last year, in descending order…

5) J. Tillman – Vacilando Territory Blues

More west coast americana here, this time from Seattle’s husky voiced Fleet Fox member J (Joshua) Tillman.  Vacilando Territory Blues sees him in typically thoughtful form, with the track ‘James Blues’ an example of his piano and guitar backed husky storytelling style.  ‘First Born’ is another treat on this album, which was one of two released in the last year and which peaked at just #191 in the UK album charts.

This album is patient, delicate and if you loved Bon Iver in 2007 but have been disappointed by his subsequent work, then Tillman’s your man.

4) Micah P Hinson – All Dressed Up and Smelling of Strangers

Hinson’s aching, cracked voice on swooping string backings have long since won me over.  My Fresh Air radio show and associated podcasts almost turned into a one man homage to the Texan with enough angst in his soul to make me cry.  This year though, he decided to release a double CD covers record, which I anticipated and worried about in equal measure.  Covers records are fraught with danger and I can think of very few which are actually any good.  However, in Hinson we trust…

The result was a mixed press, with many of my fellow bloggers panning the record, with his cover of George Harrison’s ‘While my guitar gently weeps’ coming in a for particularly hostile reception.  For me though, Hinson succeeds because he makes the tracks his own, rather than attempting to out-do the original.  He shows respect to the original recordings and selected them because they are songs he loves.  His cover of John Denver’s ‘This old guitar’ is my pick of the lot.  Covers albums will always be divisive and I would rather have seen an album of original Hinson material.  Still though, it is bloody good.

3) The Low Anthem – Oh my God, Charlie Darwin

A fairly new addition to my record collection, ‘Oh my God, Charlie Darwin’ has barely left the CD player since its arrival.  Incidentally, I don’t really like the title track or the album’s centrepiece ‘To Ohio’ (which the band seem to like enough for it to appear twice on the record), but once these two opening tracks are over, the US alt. folk trio’s album comes into its own with the superb Cohen-esque ‘Ticket Taker’.  There are more than a few nods to Tom Waits too, with ‘Home I’ll never be’ giving the writing credit to Tom Waits and Jack Kerouac (him again).

This album harks back to an America of old, but also deals with the contemporary issues to which its title alludes; namely the conflict between Darwinism and religion in modern America.

Having recorded the album in a desolate cabin (Bon who?), the band have recently acquired recording space in an abandoned pasta sauce factory, and regular updates from their new home are posted on their website.

‘Oh my God, Charlie Darwin’ is an album with no spaces in between the sound.  Rich and lush, with layered harmonies and a vast array of instruments, this is an album full of tales and imagery and is one I shall return to time after time.

2) Mumford and Sons – Sigh No More

So, all the bloggers get together to lavish praise on a little known act emerging out of London’s indie folk scene.  Then they become successful and have an advert on the telly with the dulcet tones of Jo Wiley telling everybody to buy it for Christmas.  No we are supposed to shun them yeah, cause they’re not cool anymore yeah, they’ve sold out yeah?  Well, no.

When I first heard ‘Little Lion Man’ in late 2007, I was blown away.  I played it on my radio show just about every week and stated then that if Mumford and Sons could back this up with some other memorable tunes, they would have an album to be reckoned with.  Well, they only went and managed that.  ‘Sigh no more’ is superb from start to finish and has rightly put them in the spotlight alongside fine scene contemporaries Johnny Flynn and Noah and the Whale, along with the somewhat questionable Laura Marling (who I saw put in a rather shockingly dull performance at Edinburgh’s Queens Hall a few months back).

‘Sigh no more’ has more plays on my iTunes than any other record and if their reward for success is a TV advert and more record sales, then I say well done.  More please more please more please…..

1) Tom Waits – Glitter and Doom

To be fair, any Tom Waits release is pretty much guaranteed to be my top album of the year, such is my love of the gravel-voiced man whose career has spanned nearly 40 varied and glorious years.  The only real problem came in 2002, when he released Blood Money and Alice at the same time.  The bugger…

Glitter and Doom is made up of live recordings from his European tour of 2007.  The pain of being too impoverished to see him when he came to Edinburgh will live with me until my dying day.  This album has gone some way to alleviating that pain, but in some ways it has only served to highlight what I missed.

Waits has always been a supreme live performer; part barfly crooner, part balladeer, part stand up comedian.  CD1 contains 17 live tracks spanning his entire career and Tom is on particularly grizzly form, even by his own formidable standards.  The jewel in the crown though is CD2, a staggeringly funny and insightful collection of his chat between songs, edited together and lasting 36 phenomenal, side splitting minutes.

Did you know you can get 14 omelettes from one ostrich egg?  Well, Tom does.  He also claims to have purchased Henry Ford’s last breath from Ebay.

True or not, thank you Mr Waits.  Yet again, you have made my year.

Having just turned 60, Tom Waits sounds as good as ever.


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In the spotlight: Thomas Western

Some acts toil for years to make their mark. Others never manage to succeed no matter how hard they try. To their eternal frustration, it has taken singer-songwriterThomas Western less than a month to become the talk of the town.

Having moved from Derbyshire to Edinburgh for a spot of postgraduate study and musical adventure, Western’s first month was a whirlwind of activity. He got his first local radio appearance, had his EP in several shops, featured on some prominent blogs and managed to become ‘musician in residence’ at the capital’s much loved Bowery venue.

Not all of this was part of a master plan, as Western happily admits. On his serendipitous Bowery meeting after a Jesus H Foxx gig, he says: “I met Ruth who runs the place, and half-jokingly asked if I could play every week. She said yes”.

As part of the link-up, Western will also produce an album – another unique offshoot of the collaboration between performer and venue. “The plan is for me to write three songs each week to play, then to record and release them as an album at the end of it all”, he enthuses.

After starting out as a drummer, Western has moved on to solo work, although he admits he was “too scared for a long time”. But he says that this also acts as a spur: “In playing by myself I am totally accountable to myself and if the music isn’t good enough, then it is my responsibility to work harder at it”.

Western’s musical style is, at times, similar to the 1960s California folk scene epitomised by Tim Buckley – his vocal style is also not dissimilar, singing in octaves other artists would never dare attempt.

Citing his influences as Woody Guthrie, Bob Dylan, Will Oldham and Jeff Buckley, it’s easy to see where the inspiration has come from in tracks like ‘Plough’ and ‘Your Front Door’, the latter featuring on Western’s wonderfully homemade and packaged EP ‘Quite Early One Morning’. There is also something charming and old fashioned about finding a CD in a shop which appears to be made from paper and UHU glue, potentially falling apart at any moment.

Western plans to release a solo album in addition to his Bowery sessions album. Beyond that, he doesn’t rule out playing as part of a band again. “There is a joy to playing with other people that is lacking from solo performance, so I would really love to get an ensemble together at some point,” he says. “It is dependent on meeting the right people though.”

Given how much Thomas Western has achieved in the short time he has lived in Scotland, by this time next year he could be running the country, although surely he’s too honest for that.

Words: Stevie Kearney

Thomas Western’s EP is available from emusic and iTunes, as well as Avalanche in Edinburgh. His Bowery album will be released later this year and his first full solo album is due to be recorded in early 2010.

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In the spotlight: The Colourful Band

Another of my pieces produced for the Scotsman.com’s Under The Radar site, this time on Edinburgh’s The Colourful Band.

Albums centred on a particular city can be tricky – they tend to exclude those unfamiliar with the locale in question.

But spread the scope of your songwriting across a few well known places and throw in some themes which will resonate with anyone and you have the potential for broader success.

Colourful EP

The Colourful EP

Step forward Ian McKelvie, a West coaster who moved East, spent a thoroughly miserable time in Fife and then settled happily in Edinburgh. He is the singer and songwriter behind The Colourful Band. And it is the historic capital city of our proud wee nation where the majority of the songs on The Colourful EP are based.

Although the band formed just a year ago, all three members have been friends for over a decade. The aim, according to McKelvie, is “really about trying to make a record with a little help from my friends”.

The EP, released earlier this year, features upbeat tales about life on ‘Easter Road’, late night festival shenanigans and reflections from abroad, including ‘Leavin’ New York’, which evokes the familiar feeling of being a stranger in a big city. Much of the writing comes from McKelvie’s ability to use travel and times of solitude as a departure point for inspiration and creativity.

“After graduating, I led a fairly solitary life for the best part of a year in a one horse town in Fife, living on my own and doing a job I wasn’t enjoying,” McKelvie recalls. “So the loneliness and isolation were kept out with the cold by playing and singing.”

After a chance encounter at an open mic night in Edinburgh’s Whistlebinkies, McKelvie was invited to play a venue in New York by an audience member who happened to own a bar in the Big Apple. “I never played his bar but I did play the open mic night at CBGB’s,” he says. “Standing on the corner of 113th and Broadway gave me the inspiration for the song ‘Leavin’ New York’. When I got back to Edinburgh I wrote the words down as soon as I got home.”

The sound of The Colourful Band is heavily influenced by folk music and a sense of place. “Folk songs tend to be written about people or places,” McKelvie notes. “So that’s why I often use my surroundings to inspire me, and sometimes it is cities, sometimes just situations. At the time of writing most of the songs for what would become The Colourful EP I was listening to a lot of folk music, and living in Edinburgh.”

With soothing, folky finger-picking, upbeat riffs and McKelvie’s voice as soft and comforting as velvet underwear, The Colourful Band have charm in abundance. For those of us stuck at home in these financially dark times, McKelvie’s music can do our travelling for us, whilst providing a timely reminder of why home is so special after all.

 

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In the Spotlight: My Tiny Robots

The latest in my series of profiles of Unsigned Scottish bands, as featured on The Scotsman’s Under the Radar blog.

Some bands appear to do everything right but, when the proverbial push comes to shove, fail to light up the stage. Thankfully, Edinburgh trio My Tiny Robots [MTR] are not one of these bands.

mytinyrobots

The Robots in the studio

Comprised of frontman Dylan Childs and multi-instrumentalists Ryan Marinello (also of Occasional Flickers fame) and Russell Williams, MTR illuminate the ear-canals with a forever sought but rarely captured trait: charisma.

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Edinburgh’s Festival Theatre set to break with convention

Edinburgh’s Festival Theatre has announced the staging of a pioneering urban show which will feature the world’s top breakdancers.

Breakin’ Convention will feature “the world’s hottest poppers, lockers, b-boys and b-girls” all showing off their moves in a highly competitive international hip hop dance competition set for the 18th and 19th of May. The event has been run from Sadler’s Wells in London for the past five years and has been so successful that it is now touring the UK.

Breakdancing workshops run by some of the biggest stars in the business will give an extra level of audience interaction

Breakdancing workshops run by some of the biggest stars in the business will give an extra level of audience interaction

Laura Penny, Front of House Manager at the Festival, says of the Breakin’ Convention, “We’re delighted to be able to stage such a fantastic and lively event like this, which gives us a chance to attract the type of audience to the Festival who would normally consider the theatre to be totally irrelevant to their lives”.

The event promises much more than the hip hop dance competition taking place in the main section of the theatre. The foyer will feature breakdancing workshops, DJing, beat boxers and an area for graffiti artists.

The line up is a headed by some world renowned acts but also has a strong Scottish element, with local act Heavy Smokers made up of dancers from Edinburgh and Livingstone. The international acts, or ‘crews’ as they are known, include Ken Swift from the USA, Salah from France and MyoSung from Korea.

“We are expecting this to be a much more interactive event, with lots of participation from all those coming to the show”, says Laura Penny. “Although I doubt you’ll find me spinning on my head on the box office front desk!”

Breakin’ Convention star Ken Swift shows off some of the moves which are set to dazzle audiences at the Festival Theatre in May

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Protected: EDINBURGH UNIVERSITY AHEAD OF THE PACK IN ENVIRONMENTAL AWARDS WHILST NAPIER IS CONSPICUOUS BY ITS ABSENCE

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Israeli ambassador given rough reception at Edinburgh University

Ron Prosor, Israeli Ambassador to the UK

Human rights groups have protested at the arrival of an Israeli ambassador due to make a speech at Edinburgh University.

Ron Prosor, Israel’s Ambassador to the UK, was met by a crowd of over 100 protesters, who had gathered outside the lecture venue on the city’s Teviot Place.

The demonstration was organised by the Scottish Palestinian Solidarity Campaign (SPSC) and featured representatives from various other human rights groups.  The SPSC felt that an Isreali Ambassador should not be given such a platform at the university, which they claimed gave Mr Prossor the opportunity to, “justify Israel’s crimes”.

The lecture, entitled ‘The Middle-East Today: Regional Challenges, Global Implications’, went ahead at the University’s McEwan Hall to an audience of Three Hundred and Fifty people.

Mr Prosor had been due to speak at the university earlier this year but the talk was cancelled.  Edinburgh University stated that the cancellation was due to logistical reasons, but the SPSC claimed it was due to pressure they had exerted.

Organiser Mick Napier described Mr Prosor as, “the ambassador of the apartheid state of Israel”, and said the protest emphasised the opposition held in the capital to the ongoing conflict in the Middle-East.

Mr Napier dismissed the talk as, “a shameful PR Israeli exercise”, saying it should not have taken place, “while Israeli bulldozers continue to destroy Palestinian homes in East Jerusalem”.

Mr Prosor was appointed Israel’s Ambassador to the UK in November 2007 and previously held the positions of Senior Deputy Director General of the Ministry and Chief of Policy Staff to the Foreign Minister.

Nobody from Edinburgh University was available for comment.

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