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No Neck Blues Band - Sticks and Stones May Break My Bones but Names Will Never Hurt Me
(free-folk, experimental-rock, post-rock)

New York free-folk 7-piece the No Neck Blues Band (commonly referred to as NNCK) trade in longfrom, sparse compositions that give the impression of being somewhat improvisational and free from constraint. The cumbersomely-titled Sticks and Stones May Break My Bones but Names Will Never Hurt Me is no exception, but it's most definitely a deceptive album in this sense, as the songs eventually reveal themselves to be surprisingly rigid in their structure and are played with firm discipline and a keen eye for detail. Everything about this album is undeniably slow and drawn out, with songs unwinding gradually and patiently, but as they progress it becomes clear that virtually everything the band play has a predetermined place and a vital purpose within the final product. For evidence of this, just check out the 18+ minute centrepiece "Assignment Subdub", arguably one of the best long-running tracks the free-folk/experimental-rock field have ever produced.


Destroyer - Streethawk: A Seduction
(chamber-pop, baroque-pop, singer/songwriter)

On his third major release as Destroyer, Dan Bejar delivers the usual goods that listeners expect from his albums - crisp piano playing, clever songwriting, lashings of black humour, infectiously rousing melodies, intelligent and witty lyricism (with more than a handful of the usual meta-musical references) and Bejar's ever-present, passionate, warbling vocals. Streethawk: A Seduction juggles these elements beautifully, resulting in a concise, well-balanced album that's effortlessly on par with the vast majority of modern, top-tier, singer-songwriter works. Meanwhile, its curiously idiosyncratic, baroque/chamber-pop aesthetic gives it a fascinating stylistic edge.


Tosca Tango Orchestra - Waking Life
(tango nuevo, film score)

With Spirited Away having already showed up, Yann Tiersen's Amelie narrowly missing the cut, and now Tosca Tango Orchestra's Waking Life soundtrack making an appearance, it's well and truly apparent that 2001 was a stellar year for film music. Tosca Tango Orchestra are a Texas-based five-piece, trading in contemporary Tango Nuevo, and this soundtrack, their fifth release since formation in 1998, was most definitely their major commercial breakthrough. On this soundtrack, the group present a gracefully darkened, sometimes melancholy take on the tango, with a noticeable chamber-music aesthetic and hazy classical undertones that help to maintain a consistently surreal, dreamy feeling - one that was so very central to the film itself. Like Spirited Away, it's also simply a fantastic listen, visuals or no visuals.


The Shins - Oh, Inverted World

The Shins are one of those groups you want to describe with adjectives like "reliable" and "workmanlike". When they're on form, which is most of the time, they churn out enjoyable tracks one after another, always keeping the showmanship and theatrics in check in favour of strong-yet-subtle songwriting. For a long time I ranked Chutes too Narrow (which was my initial exposure to the group) as their best release, but over time their debut gradually revealed itself to me as the superior album. The influence of 60s sunshine pop (particularly The Kinks) is evident right from the start, but The Shins manage to wrap that genre in an enticing layer of distinctly modern flourishes, impeccable sequencing and James Mercer's strong lyrical ability. The "weakest" tracks on the album are merely good, enjoyable listens, but the highlights, such as "Caring is Creepy", "One by One All Day", "New Slang", "Pressed in a Book" and "The Past and Pending" are simply a joy to hear again and again, and make up a sizeable portion of the group's finest work.


Old Time Relijun - Witchcraft Rebellion
(experimental, noise-rock, blues)

On his (incredibly awesome) 1969 song "Moonlight On Vermont", Captain Beefheart repeatedly bellowed in his distinctive style "Gimme that old time religion!" I'm not entirely certain that Old Time Relijun took their bandname from Don Van Vliet's lyric, but it seems extremely likely given the obvious influence of Trout Mask Replica on this album, with the band taking on a similar kitchen-sink approach to the blues that's unconventional, difficult and really quite brilliant. Nothing is predictable about Witchcraft Rebellion, and the group's wicked brew of off-kilter vocals, unusual rhythms, enigmatic lyrics, wonky instrumentation, noise-rock bursts and red-raw recording is likely to confuse, thrill, amuse and frighten you, probably in the space of the first track alone. Rocketing by in just over thirty minutes, it's a short, strange, creative joyride - one which will probably require multiple listens before it even begins to make sense.
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