There is something downright mesmerizing in the understated, persistent songs of Neil Halstead, former frontman of the bands Slowdive and Mojave 3 and pioneer of the shoegaze sound in England. I keep putting this chapel session on to play at nighttime, to quiet my racing mind like a hypnotist’s gold swinging watch in a darkened study somewhere, or like a metronome that whispers instead of clacks.
On the day we recorded this, an eddy amidst the rush of the workday all around us, Neil amiably walked up the wide central aisle of Shove Chapel with his guitar case in his hand and a tour manager who was doubling as a piano player on the gorgeous Steinway. Neil slowly wove a resonant, dappled set for us, with two songs from his rich new album Palindrome Hunches (2012, Brushfire Records). When reviewers talk about cozy sweaters and thoughtfulness in this album, they’re right, but that’s not to say that it is sleepy or at all boring. Rather, it feels quietly satisfying.
After the new songs, Neil turned to me and asked “Is it okay if I do a Damien Jurado cover?” I nearly choked. “Um, yeah, sure I guess that would be okay,” I replied. The results are as completely stunning as you would imagine. He also played a song I specifically requested that afternoon, “See You on Rooftops” – an older tune from 2002′s Sleeping on Roads (4AD), and one that he hadn’t played in so long that he had to remember how it went.
The whole session felt, to me, like a reawakening.
FUEL/FRIENDS CHAPEL SESSION: NEIL HALSTEAD
OCTOBER 17, 2012
Britain’s Neil Halstead writes albums that grow slowly, the way a science class time-lapse video of a seed turns into a green shoot, curling into a bud and finally unfurling into a flower.
I keep returning the music of this former Slowdive/Mojave 3 frontman as a perennial favorite: deep, understated, and redolent in its reminiscence. Neil has a new album coming out later this summer called Palindrome Hunches (Brushfire Records, Sept 11), and lately I just keep listening to it in full. This is the first we’ve heard from him in four years, since 2008′s Oh! Mighty Engine, a record that was one of my favorites that year. Full Moon Rising – Neil Halstead
In honor of that big bright full moon on the horizon tonight, here’s the first single from the new record. All pensively resonant piano and wending violins, it’s pretty damn perfect for summer evenings.
Frontman of the influential shoegaze band Slowdive in the ’90s before forming Mojave 3, warmly colorful songwriter Neil Halstead is now exploring a solo career which brings him to Denver’s Walnut Room tonight.
Halstead’s first solo record Sleeping On Roads was released on 4AD Records in 2002, and after six long years he returned with Oh Mighty Engine (Brushfire Records) which made it onto my Favorites of 2008 list. I wrote that it was “a humble album of acoustic folk melodies that rewards the listener for their patience. This is a slow grower for me, and I find that more hues in the songs are revealed to me the longer I sit with it — a task I am eminently willing to take on. Halstead sings about trying to get the colors right, and with these unassuming tunes I think he does.”
I first heard Neil’s music on the Sprout surf movie soundtrack, and over the last few years it has has grown so steadily and warmly on me. Timeout Magazine has called him “one of Britain’s greatest songwriters” and NME said that he’s “Britains best-kept secret.” Come see for yourself:
Another year packed with music has come and gone. Music is a language I can’t create myself but it does me good to know that every hour someone out there is humming a snippet of a melody, returning to their seat at the bar with a head full of lyrics that just occurred to them, or tapping out a drumbeat on their leg in the car. People everywhere are trying to get it right, to get the music out just so they can be. I am glad that they do.
2008 was full of fantastic (and varied) music from all corners of the world for me. I sometimes feel overwhelmed with the quantity of music and the subjectivity that swirls around the ones that make it vs. the ones that no one ever hears. I wish I’d had more hours to listen to (and properly digest) more songs this year. As it is, these are ten albums (plus two EPs plus one carryover from last year) that affected me on a gut level in the past twelve months. These are the ones I listened to over and over, that knocked the wind out of me and made me glad I have ears.
These aren’t “the best.” These are just my favorites.
FUEL/FRIENDS FAVORITES OF 2008
Lucky Nada Surf(Barsuk) I’ve been surprised by the intensity with which I’ve listened to this album in 2008. I guess it’s tapping into the introspective moments of my year as it pertains to “grown-up life,” which Caws sings is like “eating speed or flying a plane — it’s too bright.” The album cover hints perfectly at the feel of the music; the moment where it’s still warm from the sun but the gorgeous pinpricks of light are starting to shine through. I talked today about the cascades of glory on this album, a blazing meteor from this band that’s been around so long. I saw Matthew Caws perform solo last night and he said, “We feel blessed to have a second story,” (post-mid-Nineties buzz band). “It’s the story we always wanted anyways.” I’ve listened to this album a hundred times this year and it still affects me deeply, makes it okay to be fragile — and to be on a vector up. [original review, interview]
Midnight Organ Fight Frightened Rabbit(Fat Cat) Coming from Scotland with their hearts held out for the offering, these two brothers plus two bandmates have crafted an album that is not for the fainthearted, but excellent for the honest. Over gorgeous melodies and with a thick and wrenching Scottish brogue, Frightened Rabbit guttingly dissect the moments of bravery and moments of weakness that go with a relationship ending. Peter Katis (The National) produced this lilting, rocking piece of perfection — unflinching in its intimacy. [original review, interview]
For Emma Forever Ago Bon Iver (Jagjaguwar) I didn’t know when I started 2008 just how much I would need this album. Justin Vernon recorded this achingly vulnerable album in the Wisconsin woods in the dead of cold winter as he recovered from a breakup. The name he adopted means “good winter” in French, and I think the name fits the music as well as that ice-encrusted window on the cover. In winter, things move a little slower, but with more crisply defined edges, and the first time I heard this something was scraped loose inside of me. His music is wrapped in a thin skin but a current thrums powerfully under the surface. This is an album that I am unable to shake. [watch: still one of the most perfect things I've seen this year]
Stay Positive The Hold Steady (Vagrant) I think the thing that gets me with the Hold Steady, this year or any past year when they’ve released an album, is that they are unabashed in their belief in rock and roll. Craig Finn is a modern day prophet who flails and explodes with the force of the catharsis of these fantastic sounding songs that they must get out. The lyrics trace some of the most intelligent, evocative stories you’ll hear with characters I feel I know by now (they might as well be breathing). This is an immense album, with the pounding piano that crashes across the songs and the brass instruments slicing through. Gorgeously grand and subversively hopeful. [original review]
The ’59 Sound The Gaslight Anthem (Side One Dummy) If the Hold Steady filter their love for Springsteen through a lens of kids raised on punk and The Replacements, Jersey’s Gaslight Anthem play with an urgency and passion of a pre-Born to Run Bruce, young and hungry. Lead singer Brian Fallon grew up in a home four blocks from E Street, and this band is crafting songs that hold up as well when howled out ragged as they do stripped down to their bare acoustic bones. There’s a wisdom and sometimes a resignation beyond their years.
Ode To Sunshine Delta Spirit (Rounder) Delta Spirit was formed in San Diego when lead singer Matt Vasquez was busking loudly by the train tracks and he met with Brandon Young at two in the morning. The honesty and sloppiness that bleeds through at 2am is captured well on this authentic album with a vintage feel. It basks in the warmth of the surf guitars, the singalongs and handclaps and banging on trashcan lids, the tinkly last-call piano over glasses clattering. [original review]
Dual Hawks Centro-Matic/South San Gabriel (Misra) The cinematic desert beauty and chugging fuzz-rock found side-by-side on this dual album swooped in late in the year to win me over. I saw an acoustic video of Will Johnson, who helms both bands, performing “I, The Kite,” from an album I’d passed over too quickly the first time around. Both bands are Will’s and explore different dimensions of his music — Centro-matic electric like the heat in the air even as the Texas August sun has just begun to rise, whereas the more muted, spacious South San Gabriel has tones of evening and fireflies. This album was written and recorded fast and pure in a handful of days in the studio, and has a feeling of distilled essentials.
Oh! Mighty Engine Neil Halstead (Brushfire Records) Taking six long years from his last solo release Sleeping On Roads, influential British musician Neil Halstead (Slowdive) comes quietly back with a humble album of acoustic folk melodies that rewards the listener for their patience. This is a slow grower for me, and I find that more hues in the songs are revealed to me the longer I sit with it — a task I am eminently willing to take on. Halstead sings about trying to get the colors right, and with these unassuming tunes I think he does.
The Great Collapse Everything Absent or Distorted(self-released) This Denver collective does things full tilt. They play with seemingly all the instruments they can find, in order to squeeze the earnest beauty out of every melody and every rhythm. They fearlessly meld incisive lyrics with a resilient hope, like on “Aquariums”: “We are aquariums — left outside, but we hold life and a bright light in our glass walls.” With eight official members (and up to 15 on stage) EAOD is a joy to watch, and that joy transmits onto this smart album of sweeping scope. Amidst banjos and casio keyboards, trumpets and pots and pans, this band is ready for a larger stage. Literally. [original review]
Little Joy Little Joy (Rough Trade) It’s as simple as this: Little Joy just makes me happy. Their thirty-minute debut album is short and occasionally rough, it’s kitschy and danceable with Brazilian influences. I like the quiet Technicolor flicker of songs like the Portuguese “Evaporar” as much as the jerky fun of “How To Hang A Warhol,” and all the shades in between. Binki Shapiro’s vocal contributions on this album are especially charming, as she croons out of my stereo like an old-time Victrola. [original review]
HONORARY TOPS (should have been on last year’s damn list): In Rainbows(physical release) Radiohead Because I was overwhelmed and ignorant at the end of 2007, and didn’t give this my undivided attention until someone sat me down in a darkened room and made me really, really listen to it.
The Confiscation EP, A Musical Novella Samantha Crain(Ramseur Records) Also from the excellent Ramseur label, 22-year-old Oklahoman Samantha Crain has Choctaw Indian roots and a dusky earnestness to her alto voice. The five songs here tell a cohesive story (a musical novella indeed) with shimmering, unvarnished truth. [original review]
LISTEN: Once again this year, I’ll be appearing on NPR’s World Cafe with David Dye on January 1st to talk about stuff from this list! We have a lot of fun. You should listen (online, or via your local station that carries the show), and tell your mom to listen too. I know mine will be.
British musician Neil Halstead has produced some lovely, starry-night music in his years of tunes; with Slowdive, with Mojave 3, and solo. The first time I probably heard him was on a surf movie soundtrack, or something that conjures up a sparkling ocean in my mind. It’s gorgeous, melancholy, sleepwalking music with a strong support of melody holding it up from slogging around in the dreamland.
This song is the first listen from his forthcoming Oh! Mighty Engine album (out July 29th on Brushfire). He sings, “I just want to live somewhere where the air is sweet and clear,” and this sounds like it will be the perfect accompaniment when he does get there.
This song is also the lead-off track on the newest contest item I have for your winning: Brushfire has supplied me with two 12″ vinyl samplers left from the festivities of Record Store Day. It features eight songs from their artist roster –
12″ TRACKLISTING Neil Halstead – Paint A Face Mason Jennings – Something About Your Love Jack Johnson – What You Thought You Need Matt Costa – Never Looking Back Money Mark – Summer Blue G. Love and Special Sauce – Crumble (from the new album Superhero Brother, out yesterday) Zach Gill (of ALO) – Beautiful Reason (from unreleased new album Stuff, out July 29) Christians In Black – Rogue Wave
Not a bad selection, there. I’ve got two to give away, leave me a comment if you would like to be entered for one of ‘em. You can also buy the vinyl here if you don’t win it. Neil Halstead will be the opening act for labelmate Jack Johnson in August from Toronto to Salt Lake, and then will be announcing a West Coast headlining tour soon.
Ahhh, it is so much fun (and so time-consuming!) to just browse around and see what kind of good stuff there is for the listening in the Live Music Archive. It really is a phenomenal resource for music lovers. Late one night recently I spent some time immersed in the archives and I wanted to share with you what I sauntered away with, happily. Oh, and this is just the tip of the iceberg. It’s like the Smithsonian, which I once got lost in during the class trip to Washington D.C. in junior high. It’s easy to wander off.
ROGER CLYNE AND THE PEACEMAKERS My favorite show of theirs to listen to from the Live Music Archive is still the August 19 show at the Gothic Theatre last year: It was my birthday, and my first inauguration to the sweaty, rockin’ goodness that is a Roger Clyne show. Plus, Clyne kissed my hand after the show for a birthday present. The whole show is top notch, and I love how it captures all the audience participation as well. Banditos
Name: Heather Browne Location: Colorado, originally by way of California Giving context to the torrent since 2005.
"I love the relationship that anyone has with music: because there's something in us that is beyond the reach of words, something that eludes and defies our best attempts to spit it out. It's the best part of us, probably, the richest and strangest part..."
—Nick Hornby, Songbook
"Music has always been a matter of energy to me, a question of Fuel. Sentimental people call it Inspiration, but what they really mean is Fuel." —Hunter S. Thompson
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