It is funny how things turn out sometimes. Four months ago, Austin Texas duo Twilight Hotel were turning up in various MM End-of-Year-Best-Of Lists following the release of their superb album When The Wolves Go Blind.
On Saturday they turned up at the fag-end of their UK tour just a few miles from chez Mackerel playing a free show at the rather lovely, and certainly intimate, Brasenose Arms in Cropredy – a tiny village outside the turgid town of Banbury.
Cropredy has form though, being as it is, the spiritual home of fiddley-dee, finger-in-the-ear, muesli sweatered, folk legends Fairport Convention and their annual festival. The Brasenose plugs happily into these traditions and boasts a small room for live performances concentrating on “the best in blues and roots music”
And so it was, accompanied by Chris T Popper (who has form of his own when it comes to Fairport and one fair maiden in particular – hey nonny no) that we turned up ourselves, real ale in hand, to watch one of our most anticipated gigs of 2012 so far.
As if they knew the audience would be in the “win me over” mould or just impatient to prove their credentials, the opening salvo was a strong one – the title track from Wolves, the rhetorically despondent What Do I Know About Love? and the spaghetti western road trip extraordinaire of Mahogany Veneer. Three album highlights that briefly, nay wonderfully, muted the hum of self-important blah, blah, blah from the back of the room.
Despite the omnipotent hum of the “I was there, but I’m not really here” crowd, Brandy Zdan and Dave Quanbury were undeterred. Switching effortlessly from folk ballads to the swamp delta and back again it was a thrilling diversion into the threatening crackle of Ham Radio Blues that was the highlight of the first set and gave them a narrow points victory over the chatterati.
So ten songs down they regrouped to plan their strategy for Round 2, for it would also be the increasing extrovertism of the demon ale they would now be battling too. Popper and I feared for them, we’d surely had the best they had to offer already, and with only one more gig in Blighty to go before heading home to an uncertain future for the band, it must have been tempting to have given up and just gone through the motions.
Not a bit of it. The second set was a knockout. Bobbing and weaving between the raw blues wail and moan of tracks like Iowalta Morningside and My Daddy to the stunning folk reflections of The Master and Impatient Love, the hum first quietened and then died completely. We were on a roll now, and from front to back and even behind the bar, heads nodded, feet tapped and tongues were stilled as they sashayed through to the end of the night sweeping all before them with the infectious, crackling, stomp of Viva La Vinyl. Two encores later and Twilight Hotel were finally checking out of The Brasenose still undefeated and en-route for a final bout in Nottingham.
And so here we have our top ten albums of the year. To be honest the order is fairly arbitrary – on another day it could be a completely different as really these ten records have so little between them in turns of the pleasure and enjoyment they gave us. If you’ve not acquainted yourselves with any of these then we’re pretty sure you won’t be disappointed.
Next to share their favourites of the year is part man part canine Barry-Sean…
What a fantastic year for music this has been for me. I don’t just mean for music that has been produced this year but more about the music that I’ve discovered from previous years (or, more accurately in most cases, music that has been discovered for me). And, because I’ve spent a lot of time going backwards and forwards to London on the train, I’ve had loads of listening time. Hurrah!
So here we go. Here’s my top ten songs of 2011.
10. Sissy & The Blisters – Let Her Go
When MM first introduced me to Sissy & The Blisters, I wasn’t too fussed. But they’ve grown on me over the past few months. Let Her Go starts off sounding like the Editors covering Placebo. But it does remain a truly S&tB song throughout and has a wonderfully catchy chorus. A great start to my top 10, I think.
9. Tom Williams & The Boat – See My Evil
My favourite track from the fantastic Too Slow, released early in the year. It’s an album that’s so good I could have easily included at least one more track from it in my top ten songs of the year. But no, let’s keep things varied.
Tom Williams & The Boat produce some pretty dark songs and this one bounds from one grim situation to another with a vocal that flicks between contempt and resignation accompanied by a tortured but catchy guitar riff. Pure brilliance!
I’m well behind the mackerel shoal in getting to love the Roadside Graves. While the other mackerels were waxing lyrical about songs like Far And Wide and Liv Tyler, I just wasn’t getting it. And then Double Feature came along and it was like having a bucket of water thrown over my head. Suddenly everything made sense and I understood what all the fuss was about.
Double Feature is from the concept album We Can Take Care of Ourselves and feels like a story … its just I’m not really sure what its about. But it builds beautifully and transported me to a drive-in on a middle-America summer evening. Atmospheric and tuneful with a great pace and vocals. If you’ve not listened to Roadside Graves before, please do try this first … then go and buy the album.
Another band I didn’t really ‘get’ but Shake Me Down from the album Thank You Happy Birthday caught my attention and held it from the opening chords. And I’ve carried on playing regularly since I first heard it in March.
I couldn’t tell you what musical genre this track fits into but its somewhere between rock and Americana. I’m just not sure where.
I love Deer Tick. They’re a really talented bunch of chaps who can switch between songs about the painful side of love (listen to Ashamed from their War Elephant album) to rollocking, lets-just-have-a-beer-and-party singalongs. The Bump falls well and truly into the latter category. Any song that can make me smile and stamp my foot along to it every time I hear it has got to be worth a place in my top ten, hasn’t it?
5. Ha Ha Tonka – Usual Suspects
I’m not really a ‘fun song’ sort of bloke but from the opening, jangly chords I fell in love with this. It’s just three and a half minutes of fun and it never fails to give me that feel-good feeling. If you’re ever a bit down in the mouth, this is sure to pick you up.
Pure atmosphere … a bit like a modern day Ocean Rain (for younger readers that’s an Echo & The Bunnymen track from their sublime album of the same name).
This songs meanders gently along with breathy, haunting vocals that takes you to a place where you can almost feel the creak of wood beneath your feet and feel the rain on your face. Beautiful.
3. Richmond Fontaine – Lost in the Trees
Now we’re into the really serious stuff. This track has been on so many of playlists this year and I’ve never tired of it. A dark tale of a party in the woods that goes badly wrong.
The backing riff is as moody as the lyrics and, sorry to namedrop the Bunnymen again, brings to mind the brilliant Do It Clean. To be honest the only reason this isn’t at number one is because I couldn’t make my mind up between my top three songs of the year and not all of them can be number one. It is a great, great track though.
2. The Decemberists – January Hymn
Again, this could have been number one (but equally could have been number three) but just got pipped at the post.
January Hymn is a beautiful, atmospheric song that tells of a fella who goes out clearing his drive of snow on a snowy day. He thinks of his love who has left him and all the things he should have said before she left.
You’d expect the Decemberists to come up with quality tunes and lyrics but this is so good you can picture the scenes as Colin Meloy sings them. Genius.
Twilight Hotel – Mahogany Veneer
A moody (and slightly sad) road trip as Twilight Hotel take us across America, visiting some of the places you wanted necessarily want to see, New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina being a great example.
The entire song conjures up so many images in the mind to a backdrop of a melancholic melody. I do love story songs and this has become one of my favourites. Not necessarily for the story itself but for the intelligent way Twilight Hotel have matched lyrics with tune and brought them together to create a dark, dark journey.
A thumping, foot-tapping tune that seems to push the buttons of the fellas in our office more than the ladies. Great tune … enough said.
Lovely Eggs – Don’t Look At Me (I Don’t Like It)
This got in my head back at the start of autumn and just stayed there. Daft lyrics set to a late seventies punky tune with a distinctive and quite addictive vocal. Great fun.
Mr Plow – Typhus
Not such great fun but you’ve got to love a song about a killer disease haven’t you? If you’re mad enough not to want to listen to this all the way through … just about everyone dies in the end! Don’t listen to this is if you’re feeling low though, eh?
Download Mr Plow – Typhus mp3 (from Joyful In Song We Are)
The Whalers – That Rabbit
If this had been a 2011 song, it would have been top five. I love this.
This would have been my number two if it had been this year. It conjures up memories of sitting on a Friday evening train on the way back from London and marvelling at the Berkshire countryside in early spring. For me, this tune will always remind me of the coming of lighter evenings and warmer days.
And this would have been my number one. Brilliant lyrics that starts with the storyteller’s girlfriend storming out after a row. The storyteller goes on to reflect on the downside of being in love. I‘m not going to say anything else. Just that if you only listen to one of the songs I’ve talked about here, please make it this one.
Okkervil River – John Allyn Smith Sails
Aaaaah, Okkervil River. Why didn’t I know about you before this year? These guys were one of my highlights of End of the Road 2011. This is another dark tale but without the moody tune to go with it. There’s also a brilliant cameo by a well-known tune towards the end of the song that I absolutely love.
Modest Mouse – Doin’ the Cockroach
I love Modest Mouse and I think this is as good as the brilliant Float On. It might be an acquired taste, I don’t know, but it has dominated my playlists for much of the year and I truly wish it hadn’t taken me so long to get past the aforementioned Float On and into some of MM’s other tunes.
Ray Wylie Hubbard – Choctaw Bingo
And lastly, a song from way, way back that seems to have passed me by. Shame on me and shame for me. I’ve put the Ray Wylie Hubbard version here but I love the live version by James McMurtry & The Heartless Bastards too. Its eight and a half minutes of roister-doistering, foot-stomping that will have you hooked as quickly as the crystal meth that Uncle Slayton cooks up. Great story, great song, glad its in my ITunes collection.
Siskiyou – Revolution Blues
My favourite Neil Young tune covered perfectly. Perhaps even more tortured and paranoid than the original vocal, Siskiyou have really done the brilliance of Revolution Blues proud.
Black Keys – Ummm Oh Yeah (Dearest)
This is a standout track from an outstanding album of Buddy Holly covers. I was brought up on Buddy Holly and have come to love his music almost as much as my dad loves it. I could have easily picked out half a dozen tracks from the sublime Rave On Buddy Holly album but Ummm Oh Yeah (Dearest) is my favourite Buddy Holly original so this is the one I’m putting forward in my favourite covers of the year.
For our first ever Festive Feature on Mad Mackerel, we asked twelve of our favourite bands and artists of 2011 to answer twelve questions and we will publish them over the next twelve days taking us up to Christmas Eve.
Kicking us off on Day 1 are Twilight Hotel who released the superb When The Wolves Go Blind album back in January. From the jazzy echoes of the title track to the dark road trip of Mahogany Veneer and the pulsing folky reverb of Ham Radio Blues they delivered a record which we’ve played solidly throughout the year. They are certain to feature in MM’s Best of lists that are coming shortly.
1) Three iconic clashes. Who would you vote for?
a) The Velvet Underground or The Doors?
Velvet Underground because their music was way ahead of its time, their debut was low fi slacker indie rock before well before mustaches became ironic.
b) Bob Dylan or Neil Young?
Neil Young, I love Bob Dylan, but Neil has an honest vulnerability to his songs that moves my heart in a way that cool detached Dylan just can’t.
c) The Sex Pistols or the Clash?
2) What has been your personal highlight of 2011?
2011… the year of…. lets see… A little over a year ago I joined a group called the Minor Mishap Marchingband, I saw them playing at a club and I thought “I could be in that band playing trumpet” So I approached the group and they let me join. Fast forward to Dia de los Muertas 2011 and I found myself with the band in a parade on 6th st, covered in face paint blowing trumpet along with what are now 30 of my closest friends and playing a song that I wrote part of and I thought, “well, here you are.” Oh and did I mention we made a cameo in the remake of Slacker?
3) What was your low point of the year?
The low point of 2011 was undoubtably being stuck in Toronto Canada in the freezing late January, broke and sleeping on the air mattress of a friend who was going through a mini mid life crisis. Every night around 1 am I’d go out for a shivering cigarette and order bad coffee from the late night service window of a Coffee Time on Queen St E and end up at a 24 hour internet cafe where I’d buy a day old double chocolate muffin with pocket change. This one particular day the fellow working says to me “I’ll give you computer number 23 in the back so you can look at your porn. My god those were dark days.
4) You can give one single album from 2011 to just one person for Christmas. What would you buy and who for?
Sorry, but if I get to chose, it isn’t going to be any album from 2011. In this fantasy, I come across a dog-eared copy of The Rolling Stones Exile on Main St for $1.99 from some thrift store after thumbing through 500 Roger Whittaker and James Last titles; I keep it for myself.
5) Give us between two and five songs from 2011 that you’d recommend as the best of the year.
Tom Wait’s has a new record out called Bad as Me, there’s at least 5 songs on it. Also, not so current, but Beethoven’s Archduke Trio performed by The Million Dollar Trio was recommended to me by Haruki Murikami and is now my favorite discovery of the year.
6) Do you have a favourite Christmas Carol?
When I was a kid I loved the Kingston Trio’s version of “the Virgin mary had a baby boy” I just thought it was a catchy song and I liked the Calipso undertones, but then again you’d also hear a lot of Boney M’s christmas album in my house. More recently I got hooked on Bob Dylan’s “Must be Santa” because it makes me laugh and he looks like Sanderson from Newhart with his long hair.
7) Imagine you are snowed in and stuck in an isolated house in the woods for Christmas with no way out. Wolves and bears are prowling outside.You need to recommend the following:
A classic song to impress an ultra cool, know-it-all, teenager
Play the teenager Nat King Cole’s version of Nature Boy (who cares if he likes it).
A song to terrify Grandma
Play grandma Tom Waits’ “Midtown”.
A traditional song to help send Grandad to sleep
Play grandad McCartney’s “Mull of Kintyre” but tell him its an old Celtic ballad.
A song for someone just waking from a five-year coma
Play the coma patient Gillian Welch’s “I Dream a Highway back to you”.
A book to frighten the children
Read the kiddo’s the original Grimm’s version of almost any fairytale they’ve come to assume Disney wrote.
An unforgettable film to watch
I don’t really like movies, can’t think of an unforgettable one…
8) What is top of your Christmas list this year?
9) What is the worst Christmas present you’ve ever given and/or ever received?
Some people are hard to buy for, I once got my sister a bag of coffee beans, on the tag I wrote “from Juan Valdez” and she looked at it and said, “well it seems like coffee, which is strange cuz I don’t drink coffee”.
Somewhere in this world is a graveyard of all the ill considered shirts mothers have bought their sons…
10) Will you be making a New Year Resolution? If so can you share it and will you keep it? What is the stupidest New Year resolution you’ve ever made?
New years is a fun party night but I won’t be making any resolutions beyond having fun.
11) Imagine you’re headlining a Christmas Concert at your favourite venue. You can share the stage with three other artists or bands (past or present) for the final encore of the night. Who would they be and what would you play?
12) Can you write us a Christmas themed limerick?
There once was a holiday called yule
The pagans all thought it was cool
A season for muggins
And kissing your cousins
But the christians came along with their rules
You can buy a copy of When The Wolves Go Blindhere, or download from eMusic here.
A slow, pulsing blues riff and a plaintive vocal combine perfectly to give us a song so authentic that it sounds like it was made to be sung in the cottonfields and on backwoods porches throughout the South.
Download The Diamond Center – Caraway mp3 (from Caraway 7″)
A haunting, echoing melancholy feel that spreads over almost six and a half pulsing minutes and somehow manages to soothe and surprise in equal measure.
A mix of sparse, haunted folk, outlaw country and gypsy riot!
And to finish off, here is another Strand of Oaks cover, this time of Joe Pug’s wonderful Hymn 101, a rare remix (for us anyway) of Moon Duo, a wonderful new band in the shape of rootsy trio Cowboy And Indian, the title track from blistering blues-rock duo White Mystery’s new album Blood & Venom and in the krautrock rhythms and pyschedelia of Echo Lady, probably Wet Hair’s finest release to date.
We’re late again probably, but we are loving this track by Austin’s Twilight Hotel from their third album When The Wolves Go Blind.
It is a brilliant combination of alt-country and spaghetti-western desert twang that moves languidly to conclusion via poignant, scalpel sharp lyrics. We will be investigating the rest of the album and the back catalogue for sure.