Friday, January 14, 2011

The one that got away

In these early days of 2011 my ears have fallen upon a record that, had I been aware of it before the end of 2010, would have been at least a strong contender for Record of the Year (which I awarded, in case you missed it and/or have the slightest interest in what I might think, to "Swim", by Caribou, although in doing so I still feel bad for a slew of other, basically equally worthy, albums, by Espers, Tindersticks, Spoon, Midlake, Joanna Newsom, Lindstrom and Christabelle, LCD Soundsystem and Darkstar, to name only those that come immediately to mind).

The record of which I speak is "Dagger Paths", by Forest Swords. And no, a couple of weeks ago I hadn't heard of it, either.

Here is a record that carries with it some of the lo-fi production aesthetic so beloved of much of the Class of 2010, but in this case it comes across more as a necessary byproduct of the circumstances of its creation than as a lifestyle choice or affectation.

It is perhaps most distinctive, musically, in its deployment of some of the most striking post-punk guitar-and-bass stylings I have heard since the end of that (very) particular era. (I am reminded, most specifically, of the Cure that was responsible for "Seventeen Seconds" and "Faith".)

(You would also have to say that at some level the maker of this record is worshipping at the church of Joy Division, but there is no harm in being a follower of that benign and (mostly) benevolent deity.)

A smattering of dub appears, at just the right moments. (Dubstep itself might be lurking in this record's many shadows, but never quite reveals itself.)

Like Burial, it evokes a rain-soaked 6am, but not so much the streets of London as some place where people do not generally gather together: not necessarily a place of rural isolation, but somewhere unfamiliar, desolate, unforgiving.

I am also reminded, at different times and for varying, possibly random, reasons, of: the more astringent end of the classic mid-80s Flying Nun stable, mostly those FN records bearing somewhere the name "Jefferies"; 4AD releases from the same period, in particular a band that I don't get reminded of very often, This Mortal Coil; and two other singular albums: "The Return of The Durutti Column", and Virginia Astley's "From Gardens Where We Felt Secure".

All of which may provide sign posts or markers of the direction you are heading in, but they won't give you any real sense of what you will find when you get there. Because "there" is a record that may well be impossible to do justice to in words. It is all the work of one guy. He lives in The Wirrall, a fact that seems to be of some importance for the sound and mood of the record, but means absolutely nothing to those of us residing in an entirely different hemisphere. The record comprises six songs over 35 minutes. It is evidently considered by its creator (yes, he does have a name, but it somehow feels wrong to attach something as direct, and mundane, as a "name" to something so personal) to be an EP, but it holds together as an unbroken, perfectly sequenced suite of songs and deserves to be considered as an "album", whatever that word might mean today.

I think what I like most about this record is its unassuming nature. It never tries to force the issue, or to get in your face. On the other hand, it isn't really background music. There is too much at stake for that. I also like that it doesn't really attach itself to any particular genre, musical style, time or place (much like the Durutti Column and Virginia Astley records mentioned above). And I get a real sense that the person behind the record understands about playing to your strengths and downplaying any weaknesses you may have. The temptation, when making a record on your own, must be to leave nothing out, to make yourself sound like a band. (This is also why most blogs don't read as well as most "paid" writing: we are our own worst editors.)

Forest Swords isn't like that. The guitar is clearly a strength: it is not that we get a lot of it, more that it is given the space to breathe, the room to stretch out. Drums, conversely (and interestingly for a very much rhythmically based record), are noticeable for what they don't say (they don't actually appear until half way through the first song, but you have to be listening for them to notice that). They are used, instead, as part of the texture of fabric of the song, or as a kind of tribal pulse. Also, he has the confidence to hold back, to make a virtue of understatement and to give a sense of the slow drift of time (think, possibly, of a slightly darker version of side two of Brian Eno's "Before And After Science").

But what I like most about this record is that I can't get the blasted thing out of my head, and when your head is as full of songs as mine is that's no small feat.

Here, to allow you to make some sense of the above, is the last song on the record.