Welcome to MercuryFest 2013

By Jim Eaton-Terry

World-conquering pop juggernaut Speech Debelle
World-conquering pop juggernaut Speech Debelle

I love awards.  Film, music or books, they combine the fun of a race with the joy of a list of things to work through.  for years I’ve been holding my own private OscarFest every spring,  trying to watch all the major nominees ahead of the ceremony.    Given that I don’t like watching any sport, outside of an election year it’s my one chance to bet on something and cheer for the winners. Some years it’s a delight, some years it’s a trudge, and the less said about the year we ended up watching Cold Mountain, The Last Samurai, Mystic River, House of Sand and Fog and 21 Grams in a 48 hour period the better.

This year, though, I’ve gone  a little further.  With Spotify, YouTube, and a library card, I’m planning to plough through the whole Mercury shortlist and the Booker Longlist, and handicap each ahead of the ceremonies.  Assuming I can get through it all, check back here in October for BookerFest.

Right now, though, it’s the Mercury.  It’s always been a slightly odd prize, and in the past few years has drifted from its original remit to cover as much as possible of the spectrum of music* to being the Brits with the odd curveball thrown in.  For various reasons, I’ve barely listened to anything new this year and yet, when the nominees were announced last week I had listened to eight, could remember four, and actually liked two. Even then, I had a few records I expected to see on the list – no MBV? no These New Puritans? no Pet Shop Boys?   So since then I’ve been listening more or less solidly to the list.  Sorry, kids.

ARCTIC MONKEYS – AM

Yeah, not really off to a good start with this challenge; you’re going to get a review of the first 8 minutes of AM, as that’s as far as I got.  Maturity is a curse for rock bands, and Elbow have a lot to answer for. I rather liked the first Arctic Monkeys’ first records, but this is just sludge. I’m not sure they actually sound like Shed Seven, and even for you I’m not going to check, but they sound like my memories of Shed Seven, and that’s bad enough.

FOALS – HOLY FIRE

Foals have always talked a good game, and they do great things with production here.  The more I listen to the record the more things I recognise – but for most of Holy Fire they’re an overcoat band, all big washes of sound and wide canvases. Given the right haircuts they’d not sound out of place next to the Bunnymen and the Cure on the soundtrack of a John Hughes movie.   The first few times around the lack of real songs bothered me, as well as the John Taylor basslines, but it’s starting to work on me.  And anyone who can steal the riff from Passion that shamelessly and build a fidgety INXS song around it can’t be all bad.

SAVAGES – SILENCE YOURSELF

I’m deliberately grouping the rock bands up front here, and Savages are the clear winner.  It’s amazing how many rock bands forget to, well, rock, and Savages are the only act on the list that just work on a pure visceral level. From start to finish they  slam through the songs with a bite that none of the other nominees (except, oddly, Laura Marling) can even hope to touch. Absolutely pure postpunk: Patti Smith fronting Gang of Four.  They’ve got everything you want; a look, a sound, a manifesto, mysteriously combative interviews. The only weakness, as with Foals, is the songs themselves which are more skeletons to hang production off than anything else.

DISCLOSURE – SETTLE

It’s Speed Garage time!  If the rock bands on the list belong on 12″ vinyl LPs in the bedroom of an imaginary teenager, this is pure MiniDisc music.  It’s an asymmetric backpack of an album.  Catchy as hell, though, and I always liked MiniDisc players – I had a champagne coloured brushed aluminium one.  It also gives me the chance to link to this, the funniest TV show in the past decade, which you should watch now in preference to reading this.

RUDIMENTAL – HOME

OK, back?  Did you see the naked posters of his ex-girlfriends? Another incredibly effective set of dance pop songs, Rudimental sound much deeper and more contemporary than Disclosure.  They’re also the best songwriters on the list so far.

JON HOPKINS – IMMUNITY

He’s the new Eno, you know.  I don’t really see it myself; on the basis of both this and Diamond Mine he’s got far more interest in dynamics – as well as more of an ear for a tune – than the old charlatan. As a techno record to be listened to on headphones, this is incredibly hard to fault. The narrative flows beautifully, and I find myself coming back to it over and over.  It’s an album that demands one to carve out the time to listen on its own terms, and that’s rather a wonderful thing.

JAMES BLAKE – OVERGROWN

More headphone dance music. One of MF’s editors once described Tim Buckley’s singing on Song to the Siren as “the sound of a man struggling with a particularly challenging shit” and there’s a little of that to Blake at his most strained. As with Buckley, though, I really love Blake’s voice; it’s a way to express deep emotion without resorting to any soul cliche, and at it’s best it’s incredibly moving. His songs have such an unpredictable structure to them,  and where the debut album was at its best during the covers, every track on here is a winner, aside from the RZA-wasting Take a Fall For Me. The depths of the production are incredibly effective, too.

DAVID BOWIE – THE NEXT DAY

I talked about this in January, last time I appeared on MostlyFilm.  I must admit that once the novelty of Dad being home wore off, I’ve barely listened to the album at all.  It’s a perfectly fine late-period Bowie record; better than Black Tie, White Noise, not as good as Earthling, and eventually it’ll boil down to two tracks (probably the title track and Where Are We Now) on a compilation of late Bowie. Just like every Bowie album since Lodger (OK, if I’m honest, since Heroes).  Great to have him back, though, and as classy a return as you could want.

JAKE BUGG – JAKE BUGG

Jake Bugg is an incredibly good pop star name.  It’s worth saying it aloud.  He’s another of a seemingly endless parade of slightly rootsy boy singers over the past few years, with a nice line in pastiche pop stompers. I like the record a lot, actually – the songs are great, the stripped down skiffle sound suits them, and he’s considerably less offensive than Frank Turner. Well worth a listen.

VILLAGERS – AWAYLAND

The last remnant of the traditional “one folk, one jazz, one classical” Mercury tokenism is an incredibly bland record, to the point where it genuinely slipped past my ears.   This rather than the Unthanks?  Or Darren Heyman?

LAURA MVULA – SING TO THE MOON

I like her singles, but I can never get past the nagging sense that I’d rather just listen to Nina Simone. Where tUnE-yArDs takes the formula genuinely into space, Mvula is always that little bit too polite to ever take flight.  She might manage it next time, though; she has a wonderful voice and an ear for a tune.

LAURA MARLING – ONCE I WAS AN EAGLE

Despite the smart money being on Bowie, I suspect this might win and I’d be happy enough with that.  It’s a completely straightforward folk-rock album, nothing that couldn’t have come out in 1975 (after Blood on the Tracks so she could nick the Tangled Up in Blue melody for Master Hunter) , but it’s executed so perfectly that it’s one of the best listens in the list.

So, I started this process having heard eight, liked four and able to remember two of the 12 records.  After a few days of immersion I can still only remember ten of them, but of those ten I quite like all of them and genuinely love at least four. That’s not a bad batting average for the list as a whole.  I’d be happy with anything winning except Arctic Monkeys.  Who’s the favourite, again?

*Yes, OK, except Metal.  But honestly, who cares?

Jim Eaton-Terry tweets now and then.

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