Songs of Praise
Oh, how I despise January. For me, it’s always been firmly at the tip of my top ten cruellest months. Consider also that February is almost always static at number two in that chart, and you can possibly begin to imagine how miserable this time of year makes me feel. I can feel every fibre of my being yearning for the warming suns of Spring, and the knowledge that it’s still so very far in the future is depressing as all hell. Thank goodness then for the things that help me make it through; praise the records, the books and the movies. Praise the simple thrill of moments shared and projected onto the bleak canvas of winter.

So praise Early Day Miners for their lovely All Harm Ends Here album on the Talitres label, released under license from the great Secretly Canadian (home of the peerless Jens Lekman) who have just issued this gem in the Northern American territories. The press release calls it “Midwest post-goth” and I can see the point in that, as its suffused with themes of death, decay, suicide and the kind of general abstract bleakness so beloved of those who like to hang out in graveyards pointing at crows and whispering about spirits. If that puts you off (and goodness knows it probably should), don’t be misled, because in fact Early Day Miners inject their brooding darkness with thin treads of colour and light. Hope springs eternal, and whilst you might need to listen closely and peer through the layers of cobwebs and black lace, the fires of redemption are there burning gently in the distance. And it’s that partially obscured gem of colour that makes All Harm Ends Here perfect January music, in the same way that, say, Red House Painters or American Music Club can be perfect January music: raw pain and desolation that gives way to the creeping warmth of pale sunlight falling into attic bedrooms. Highly recommended.

Praise too the bizarrely named low low low la la la love love love and their eponymous set on the equally strangely named the birds and the rodents records. Rooted firmly in the world of low/no-fi folk, this is a charming record that recalls the same juxtaposition of fragility and strength of character that suffused the early Elliott Smith albums. Singer songwriter Kelly Dyson sounds a mite like Smith too, and whilst that’s nothing to be ashamed of, it’s when his straining voice blends with the gentler tones of Natalie Brightmore that the songs really kick off their shoes to dance in early morning embraces before flickering fires. And here too, as with Early Day Miners, there is a sense of underlying warmth and the suggestion of uplifting escape that infuses the melancholia. Certainly worth investigating.
And what about recent Rough Trade signees Phantom Buffalo? Well, yes indeed, praise to Phantom Buffalo. Or praise to The Pony’s, if you prefer, as the Portland groups Shishimumu set is reissued here under their new moniker. And a fine record it is too, fizzing and popping with a sweet 60s soft psych warmth blended with a contemporary character that would have me filing Phantom Buffalo next to the likes of The Shins, Of Montreal and Belle and Sebastian if I weren’t the kind of sad individual who files all their records alphabetically (with the occasional lapse into sorted by label). Shishimumu is one of those grower records; the kind that really does reward repeated listening to allow the multi-layered textures to unravel themselves into your psyche; to allow the melodies to inject themselves into your bloodstream and to take over your subconscious. Recent(ish) single ‘A Hilly Town’ is the most obviously storming Pop moment, with its marvellous twang and loping gait, but there are many less obvious and immediate highlights: the jangling moonkissed surreal love song of ‘Distracting Salamander’; the rumbling Country of ‘Anywhere With Oxygen’ that comes over like some comic response to ‘Hey Mr Spaceman’; the light headed/fingered delicious homage to the ‘60s of album closer ‘Cheer Up My Man’, a song that starts off referencing the mighty Turtles and ends up sounding for all the world like it wants to sneak off and join Tigermilk. That it’s certainly fine enough should be recommendation enough for anyone with even a droplet of taste. With one of my favourite covers of recent times featuring fabulous collaborative artwork by the band, I have a sneaking suspicion that Shishimumu is going to end the year as one of those albums I’ll always come back to in moments of need. It’s certainly helped keep me sane all through January.

Also from Rough Trade is the confusingly titled EP set by The Fiery Furnaces. Of course its not an EP at all but rather a collection of singles sides that never featured on any of their two ‘proper’ albums. Maybe it’s the fact that these tracks showcase the band’s more upbeat and Pop side that has won me over, but whatever, it’s led me to heaping somewhat surprising praise on a band that has previously left me cold. Lots of highlights, not least of which is the magic and previously unreleased ‘Here Comes The Summer’ that, whilst it does little to recall the Undertones classic of the same name, instead references the mighty Wah’s ‘Remember’. And if you’re talking the language of uplifting Pop, well, you can’t get much finer than that.
Finally, praise to a couple of Swedish acts who’ve made the kind of Pop that’s always guaranteed to lift me out of the blues. Praise to The Legends and their Up Against The Legends set on Labrador for grabbing the Pop blueprint laid down by The Boo Radleys on their Everythings Alright Forever masterpiece (received Indiepop wisdom puts it behind Giant Steps, but received wisdom, in my experience, is often wrong) and making a contemporary gem of mangled Pop genius. Throw in the influence of Psychocandy and The Ronettes, and you start to see where this is all going. I dare say that The Legends are already darlings of Indiekids the world over, but if they aren’t then they damn well should be. Ditto the very wonderful Fibi Frap, whose sparkling ‘How Fast Is Your Heart Beating’ EP on the marvellously obscure My Secret Garden label has had me all aquiver of late. I’ve said it before but I’ll say it again: Fibi Frap remind me of a whole range of memories, from Bad Dream Fancy Dress to Action Biker to Lispector and beyond. In other words they really do sound how Pop ought to be: all sweetened rough edges, drums that clatter and one-fingered keyboards that pierce the heart like laser beams. And really, how can anyone NOT love a song that has lines about being 'tall skinny and blonde'? I for one certainly can’t resist. My copy is hand numbered as being number 8 of 50, which means that this EP is the kind of ludicrously limited edition that Pop should insist upon. Get yours whilst stocks last.

© 2005 Alistair Fitchett