Thursday, 13 August 2009

Mercury Music Prize 2009

Shortlist:

• Bat For Lashes – Two Suns
• Florence and the Machine – Lungs
• Friendly Fires – Friendly Fires
• Glasvegas – Glasvegas
• Kasabian – West Ryder Pauper Lunatic Asylum
• La Roux – La Roux
• Led Bib – Sensible Shoes
• Lisa Hannigan – Sea Sew
• Speech Debelle – Speech Therapy
• Sweet Billy Pilgrim – Twice Born Men
• The Horrors – Primary Colours
• The Invisible – The Invisible

This year's shortlisting conspiracy is to show, by implication, that men are brutish grunty adolescents and women sophisticated, creatively inventive grown-ups. For on the one hand we are offered the chittering, repetitive inarticulacies of The Horrors, the dreary yowling and unimaginative melodies of Glasvegas, the second-hand goods of the yelping Friendly Fires and the been-there-done-that schtick of Kasabian, all quasi-Oasis posturing and booming. To be fair (oh must I be fair?) The Horrors’ ‘The Sea Within a Sea’ has an eerie Kraftwerkian charm; and some of the boingy plonky synthesiser effects on the Kasabian album are nice. And then again The Invisible aren’t bad, although theirs is a music that indelibly evokes mental images of middle-aged men dancing badly in their kitchens and living rooms. The thing is, it’s all a bit obvious, and blokey, and don’t-call-me-stupid Otto-ish, and especially so when set alongside the often exquisite, nuanced, well-made-song work of Lisa Hannigan (the whole of Sea Sew elaborates its nautical trope expressively and effectively, a thoroughly graceful, beautiful, touching, insightful album); or the needle-sharp suite from La Roux (let down only by the fact that her voice has too much of the expanded polystyrene scraped down a blackboard about it); or the plangent, dreamy woo of the new Bat For Lashes; or Florence and the Machine’s superb Lungs (Number 71 say perceptive things about this one: 'Quirky, angry and passionate songs soar into uplifting climaxes ... Florence Welch has a clawing cat-cry of a voice, in a good way – if you like Bj√∂rk ... very pre-Raphaelite and loaded with dark symbolism.')

Otherwise there’s some jazz (which I will start liking the day they hang the royal family), a bit of this and some of that. I haven’t heard the Speech Debelle rap album, which may be brilliant or not. But I just feel that my gender has let itself down rather badly here.

[P.S: half a day later, having followed David's advice and rectified the unaccountable omission of Sweet Billy Pilgrim, I have to concede: Twice Born Men is very far from the stompy-stompy oi!-oi! version of manhood I talk about in this post. It's rather pretty, in fact, in a poor-fractured-Atlas sort of way, although it strays a little too close to being actually clapped out to really endear. Some very nice, bruised, scratchy pieces on it, though; and the 'Calypso' song is, after the John Denver track, the second-best song to namecheck Calypso that isn't actually a Calypso I know. A good album, in a slightly over-familiar, exhausted, Neil Young, Sparklehorse, Deerhunter way. But it is the exception that disproves my initial rule.]

8 comments:

Adam Roberts said...

Second thoughts: the Friendly Fires are growing on me a little. Just a little, mind.

David said...

Hope you don't mind a random lurker suddenly turning commenter; and this may not be such a useful contribution, as I'm only a third of the way through the shortlist so far -- but:

My impressions have been that Bat for Lashes could do with more of Florence Welch's dynamism; and Florence & the Machine could do with more of Natasha Khan's delicacy (combine the best aspects of both and the result would be a superb album). Friendly Fires are fun, but probably not much more than that; the Glasvegas album has grown on me more than I expected.

Having said all that, I don't think any of those four matches last year's Elbow album in terms of overall quality.

Adam Roberts said...

Hope I don't mind? Of course not! Those are interesting points you make, there. I agree that the Bat For Lashes is probably a little too languid (and I could certainly do without her breathy, posh-voice voice-over bits). And Florence & the Machine are a little one-note, I suppose.

Friendly Fires are pretty slick; but I'm a little constitutionally allergic to slickness. I've given Glasvegas half a dozen listens and each time I find the album less likeable.

David said...

Actually, I'd say Florence and the Machine are the least one-note of the four acts; it's just that it gets so overwrought, as though she's trying to pile crescendo on crescendo.

But you have brought to mind a recurring problem I am having with the shortlist, which is that I may like the songs individually, but they sound too similar across the course of a whole album (I've found this particularly with Friendly Fires and Glasvegas; and The Horrors album is shaping up the same way -- though I'm not particularly liking their songs individually).

I notice you don't talk about the Sweet Billy Pilgrim album specifically. Have you heard that one yet?

Adam Roberts said...

Overwrought, yes: all melodrama, but in a gripping sort of way.

Sweet Billy Pilgrim: no, I haven't heard them. I shall download them right now and rectify that anomaly. Right now, I say!

redrichie said...

Hi...not to hijack your thread, but, not like the jazz, eh?

Granted that, in my most humblest of opinions anyway, anything that makes it onto such stultifyingly worthy music prizes as the Mercury is probably best avoided there has been and still is some excellent stuff in jazz. I'm particularly fond of Albert Ayler's gospel tinged free jazz, Peter Brotzmann's hard blowin' offerings and the, sadly missed, Masayuki Takayanagi's guitar-based oeuvre which evolved to incorporate more non-traditional electronic elements. Also worthwhile, more recently, are Matthew Shipp's work with various hip-hop, um, stars (such as El-P and Mike Ladd) which are ususally of a good standard and I have a penchant for some of the jazz-influenced stuff featuring members of and patronised by the godlike Sonic Youth. That recommendtion is, of course, is useless if you can't stand Sonic Youth.

Sorry if it does seem a little hi-jacky...I just always feel sorry for the jazz...it gets too hard a time. Sure dreary pish, like Jamie Cullum is painful to anybody with ears, but then so are Coldplay.

As regards the prize...if it helps anyone feel OK about disliking 'em, some point last year when I went to visit my parents, my mum asked me if I wanted to hear the Glasvegas album...

(P.S. Really very sorry if this is horribly OT!)

Adam Roberts said...

Redrichie. I'm sure there's a great deal in what you say.

I'll go this far: there are two Sun Ra records I quite like.

Actually I can go further: once upon a time I owned Miles Davis' Kind of Blue, though I can no longer remember if I liked it or not.

David said...

Having listened to a couple more, we broadly agree on The Horrors; I just can't get into that album at all. The Invisible are certainly the most adventurous of the four male acts I've heard so far; but they still seem a bit... 'one-note' isn't the word I want, but heading towards that, if you see what I mean.

I'm intrigued by your mention of 'middle-aged men dancing badly in their kitchens and living rooms', because that puts me in mind of '80s power ballads and wedding reception discos; but The Invisible sound like neither of those to me, so I'd guess you had something else in mind..?

Kasabian next. Hmm...