In case anybody is missing the point of writing about music from last year so far into this one, it is, simply, that there is always so much good music around, in so many styles and substyles, that it’s a shame to have to leave any of it out. Yet, that’s precisely what we eventually have to do so as not to miss what’s coming next. Some of the artists featured in these columns have already released 2022 albums, so this was going to be the last part of the 2021 wrap. But, having reached around 3 000 words without getting to the end, and taking readers into account (for a change, some might be heard to say), dividing part 4 into two sub-parts seemed a halfway reasonable compromise.
Nick Cave & Warren Ellis – Carnage
There have been few if any albums mentioned so far that might fit into a more or less conventional rock category and the latest Nick Cave album is really no exception, even though Cave himself could, for most of his output, most easily be classified as a more or less conventional rock artist. For ‘Carnage’, written and recorded during lockdown, Cave has eschewed the use of his band, the Bad Seeds, given a co-credit to Ellis, Cave’s multi-instrumentalist partner on so many film soundtracks and a Bad Seed in a slightly different world, and between them they have delivered a true collaborative effort where, despite the differences in name-recognition, each has contributed as much as the other to the result. The words and the vocals, the reflections of a Balcony Man during a particularly strange time for him and indeed the rest of us, are Cave’s of course, but ‘Carnage’ is essentially a soundscape with lyrics, making connections between songs without coming across as a suite or a concept (for example one song might be called Albuquerque because in another he’s listening to By The Time I Get To Phoenix on the radio), spoken as much as sung, melancholy and deeply contemplative in the fashion of recent Cave albums like ‘Skeleton Tree’ and ‘Ghosteen’, though never as morose as Cave, who always seems to be saying goodbye and “rolling through the mountains like a train”, has sometimes been. In fact, the gospel chorus on the remarkable White Elephant parts the densest clouds every time and his belief in love and a kingdom in the sky provides hope despite everything.
Low – Hey What
The so-called slow-core husband-and-wife group from Bob Dylan’s Minnesotan birthplace, best known for their gorgeous vocal blend and the glacial pacing of many of their songs, surprised many and even shocked a few with their use of disorientating electronics on their previous album, ‘Double Negative’, where the voices were so altered and even distorted that they seemed dehumanised, functioning at times as additional instruments. ‘Hey What’, produced like the two before it by BJ Burton, pursues that method further, though this time the vocals are generally the very model of clarity, while the fractured, fracturing backdrop can be downright ugly. The effect, though, can be orchestrally spectacular. Those who remain unconvinced should listen to the magnificent Days Like These where the contrast between the hymn-like lead vocal and a chorus that sounds like several layers of dust has accumulated on the needle playing the record was one of the defining sounds of my musical year.
Chuck Johnson – The Cinder Grove
I often find myself attracted to music by its sound rather than its words or melodies and by its pulse rather than its beat or even a discernible rhythm. This may be why I love the more recent albums by acoustic fingerstyle guitarist-turned-experimental pedal steel-playing soundscape artist Chuck Johnson as much as I do. Avoiding the country music-dominated conventions of his instrument and virtually all of its signature moves Johnson creates atmosphere and haunting beauty in a series of sonically textured pieces that drift, float, wash, weave and occasionally just stand still but always sound organically grounded rather than vague and ephemeral, which can be a problem with this kind of thing. Some, searching as ever for a way to package the vast and regularly ramshackle musical landscape ever more neatly, have called it ambient Americana. Some just lump It in with the rest of what has found itself described in more general terms as post-rock. Whatever the label, it remains fabulous music.
Sarah Davachi – Antiphonals
Among the small cast of collaborators on ‘The Cinder Grove’ is Canadian keyboardist and minimalist composer Sarah Davachi. Her compositional method, at least on Antiphonals, which was the first time I had consciously heard her own work (she is one of those mentioned here who has already released a subsequent album), utilises drones, both digitally and acoustically generated but here mainly by Mellotron and electric organ, to produce a breathtakingly lovely, almost reverential world of sound where the point is less the distinction between the tracks as the way that, together, they form an immersive listening experience probably best experienced alone.
Godspeed You! Black Emperor – G_d’s Pee AT STATE’S END!
Godspeed You! Black Emperor, the Canadian collective for whom the description “post-rock” was virtually invented, at the Roundhouse in London a few years ago was not only one of the three loudest concerts of my life – the others, since you ask, were by Sunn O))) and Swans – it was also among the most memorable, and in my life each Godspeed album is an event that never fails to excite, even if the records themselves don’t always reach the occasionally daunting standards I set for them. The good news is that ‘At State’s End’, their first for four years, comes close. Despite the fact that they are a purely instrumental group, with the odd sampled voice, speaking rather than singing, there is a profoundly political edge to the music which is sometimes criticised for its perceived triumphalist nature as it provides a notional, often savagely majestic soundtrack for an existential battle between right and wrong, or, if you prefer (and they probably do), between left and right. “Don’t bend, ascend”, encourages a Godspeed T-shirt, “There are more of us than them.” Here the second of two suites that are each followed by a shorter piece is called Government Came – a potentially ambiguous title it seems – and ends with jubilantly pealing bells, as if signalling victory. But Godspeed knows better than that, as the mysterious droning piece, dedicated to a deceased friend, that follows, ending the album, is entitled Our Side Has To Win.
Jerusalem In My Heart – Qalaq
Our next Canadian, Arabic singer and instrumentalist Radwan Ghazi Moumneh, part of the Jerusalem In My Heart project whose other half is a filmmaker, was born in Lebanon and has previously been associated with Godspeed. Qalaq translates for Moumneh as “deep worry”, in his case largely for his birthplace, to which his parents returned after emigrating first to Oman and then to Canada, and for nearby Palestine and on the album he collaborates with different artists on each track as they interpret that condition. Among them are Moor Mother, about whom see part three of this piece, experimental electronic musician Tim Hecker, drummer Greg Fox who has been in Guardian Alien and black metal band Liturgy and with the astonishing saxophonist Colin Stetson, and, perhaps needless to say, Zach Condon’s Beirut. The musical variety among the guests’ own careers foreshadows the variety to be found on the album as it ventures soundwise from Moor Mother’s spoken word via traditional Arabic elements to Fox’s contribution, the brutal Abyad Barraq, whose barrage of noise seems to be struggling to settle on a short-wave radio station. ‘Qalaq’ is by no means an easy listen, but it is a wonderfully rewarding one.
Mdou Moctar – Afrique Victime
Although I have loved a lot of it over the years I haven’t listened to much so-called classic rock for a long time. I prefer rock that comes with a twist – of what depends on what’s on offer. So, it may not be altogether surprising that my favourite rock album of 2021 was probably this one. It was certainly my most played. Mdou Moctar is a Tuareg guitarist and singer from Niger whose left-handedness is by no means all he has in common with Jimi Hendrix and who has starred in a West African remake of Prince’s ‘Purple Rain’ film. Mdou Moctar is also the name of his band. Despite the fact that he/they may be more likely to be found under “World Music” in such record stores as might still exist I can’t help agreeing with a recent interview with his American bass player who asserts that the music they play is rock. I disagree with his contention that calling what Moctar does world music is racist, but that’s a debate for another time. As the stuttering tehardent-like intros morph into the trademark loping rhythms of the Sahara – usually but not invariably three over two – we appear to be in familiar electric Tuareg territory, but then this, replicating the album arc that Moctar’s career has taken, gets looser, freer and heavier. He’s not entirely unique. Bombino, also Nigerien, does this sort of thing too. That Moctar takes it further, while simultaneously hewing closer to home, is most evident on a politically charged title track that opens with a keening wail that instantly conjures desert images and closes with a three-minute guitar firestorm reminiscent of a combination of Hendrix’s Machine Gun, Eddie Hazel’s Maggot Brain and, since Moctar mentions him in interviews, Eddie Van Halen. Whatever one calls this, it’s surely the kind of music that the world needs to hear and, if categories have to invented to make that happen, it seems a small price to pay.
Les Filles de Illighahad – At Pioneer Works
Les Filles de Illighahad are Tuaregs from Niger too, but though the music they play features electric guitars, it would be a stretch to call it rock. However, it does extend the Tuareg musical tradition in that two of the players are women. Indeed, Fatou Seidi Ghali, who formed the band, was apparently the first Tuareg woman to play the guitar professionally and was joined in the group by the second. Featuring the tende, a traditional drum played exclusively by women, rather than a full drum kit, its drive is more elemental than Moctar’s, but all the usual characteristics of what is sometimes known as ishumar or assouf music are firmly in place. ‘At Pioneer Works’, a nicely rough and ready live album recorded in Brooklyn, New York, features Ghali’s brother on rhythm guitar and, though their third release, serves as an excellent introduction to the band.
Samba Touré – Binga
Immediately west of Niger is Mali, largely thanks to the great Ali Farka Touré arguably the country best known for the guitar music that became widely known as desert blues. The unrelated Samba Touré has continued in that style, whether on acoustic or electric guitars, across two decades and eight albums and may be its pre-eminent current exponent. Binga, the area just below the Sahara, is where he is from and the album, simple, repetitive, haunting and displaying a deep-seated melancholy at the harshness of life in his perennially politically unsettled homeland, featuring ngoni and mainly calabash-struck percussion, and blues harmonica on the terrific Instrumental, along with Touré’s guitar, is a superb example of the region’s Songhoy music. Further south, Mali’s Wassoulou region is known for a particular style of female singing of which Oumou Sangare is the leading exponent, at least to Western ears, probably followed by Fatoumata Diawara. Years ago, as I was getting into this stuff, a compilation entitled ‘The Wassoulou Sound’ was among my favourite listening, in pretty much any style. Nahawa Doumbia was on the second volume and her latest album, ‘Kanawa’, is as good. Still in Mali, kora genius Toumani Diabaté, was, among a whole lot more and thanks to their joint Grammy, Ali Farka Touré’s best known musical partner internationally. ‘Kôrôlén’, a 2008 concert recording with the London Symphony Orchestra featuring the vocals of another magnificent Malian, Kassé Mady Diabaté, on the closing Mamadou Kanda Keita was finally released in 2021 and is about as marvellous as this all sounds. A couple of decades ago, Diabaté recorded one of the great kora records, ‘New Ancient Strings’, with Ballaké Sissoko, just as their fathers had done three decades before that on ‘Ancient Strings’. In 2020 US Customs, their interest no doubt piqued by the presence of an exotically dressed West African armed with a custom-built 21-string gourd harp proceeded to dismantle the instrument so that it couldn’t be reassembled. Last year Sissoko released two albums of exquisitely elegant kora music referencing the incident. ‘Djourou’ features guests like his sometime cello partner Vincent Segal, Sona Jobarteh who is both Toumani’s cousin and the first female professional kora player from a griot family, songwriter Piers Faccini and the mansa of contemporary Malian music himself, Salif Keita. Recorded in a single afternoon, ‘A Touma’ is the solo kora blueprint. Both are wonderful.
Comorian – We Are An Island, But We’re Not Alone
Speaking, as we were, of elemental, some might prefer what the late and very much lamented fRoots magazine, assiduously avoiding the “World Music” tag for which its own editor was partially responsible, used to call “local music from out there”, to be a bit more of an earthy and perhaps challenging listen. If so, let me steer you towards Comorian, a traditional string-playing duo with percussion from the island of Grand Comore, rough and raw but large as life and twice as natural, and recorded live, outdoors and quite by chance, the last player of the instrument that producer Ian Brennan had actually travelled to Comoros to record having just died. To the best of my knowledge, I hadn’t heard Comorian music till last year. I hadn’t seen their football team play before then either. Now I’m a fan of both.
Yat-Kha – We Will Never Die
And then there’s throat singing, most commonly recognised as the eerie, high-pitched, whistling overtones the singers produce while simultaneously humming. This technique is known as khöömei in the Russian federal republic of Tuva, but there are other throat singing techniques too and Albert Kuvezin is a leading exponent of kargyraa, an improbably low growling separated from typical khöömei by several octaves. The leader of Yat-Kha, once a Central Asian rock group but now playing mainly acoustically with guitar and the igil, a type of two-string cello, providing the melodic accompaniment, Kuvezin once made an album of cover versions of throat-sung songs by artists like Led Zeppelin, Joy Division and Captain Beefheart. Here he includes his take on While My Guitar Gently Weeps and Black Sabbath’s Solitude, and they work, but concentrate rather on the more traditional end of his repertoire for a genuinely memorable listen. Khöömei Beat, also from Tuva, do exactly what their name intimates on ‘Changys Baglaash’. Combining high-pitched overtone singing with slightly more conventionally rock backing where the banjo-esque doshpuluur and the igil are supported by cello, bass and drums, it’s a good place for newcomers to start but some of them will surely come around to Yat-Kha eventually.
Marisa Anderson & William Tyler – Lost Futures; Bill Mackay & Nathan Bowles – Keys
The connection between musical experimentation and what might, without any pejorative intent, be termed primitive musical forms is an intriguing one – see, for example, artists like Albert Ayler and John Fahey, and there are many others, including on occasion even the likes of Bill Frisell. The connections seem mainly, though not always, to travel backwards in time and degrees of complexity and might explain how the prodigious guitar talents of players like Marisa Anderson and William Tyler end up making a duo album memorable for the simple, repetitive, folkish melodies interspersed among the more difficult stuff rather than for any egregious displays of technique. A couple of years ago Tyler provided a wonderful soundtrack for a wonderful film, ‘First Cow’, that was as stark and stripped-down – as basic, really – as one imagines the music played in a remote early 19th century American outpost might have been and that could easily serve as a template for this sort of thing. On ‘Axacan’, Daniel Bachman only employs his Fahey-influenced American Primitive playing on about half the record. The rest features his tape recordings of natural sounds, including, on Blue Ocean 0, 17 minutes of the ocean over a drone (the musical rather than the flying version). This all fits together a whole lot better than you might think, but be warned, listen to the whole album … it won’t help to have your random shuffle mode select 17 minutes of the ocean when you expect an acoustic guitar instrumental. Laurel Premo, once half of the outstanding old-time roots music duo Red Tail Ring, released the fine ‘Golden Loam’, a partly traditional, partly original album of fingerstyle guitar playing on acoustic, electric and lap steel that I found myself going back to a lot but my favourite album in this musical neighbourhood last year was ‘Keys’ by Bill Mackay, an improvising guitarist with Ryley Walker, Steve Gunn and Bonnie Prince Billy on his CV, and Nathan Bowles of the Black Twig Pickers, a banjo-playing drummer with an even more desirable resumé whose solo banjo releases have kept me happy for a number of years. ‘Keys’, humble and even austere but constantly engaging, is a bit like a slightly filled-out version of that ‘First Cow’ soundtrack, as though these two exceptional musicians have taken those ideas and run with them, but only a little, demonstrating just how close much of the experimental is to old musical forms and why followers of the former so often investigate the latter as a source of inspiration. The American cultural critic Greil Marcus called a pre-war version of this kind of music the sound of the old, weird America, an expression that he used for a tremendous book on Bob Dylan’s ‘Basement Tapes’. Uncut magazine recently covered contemporary, folk-orientated English music that it called the ‘New Weird Albion’ on an accompanying CD, so we’ll start there next time and feature folk, country, bluegrass and some more rock as we wind down before winding up.