And so I finally get myself up-to-date… I’ve heard some great new music over the past couple of months – Mammal (Big Black ketamine blues!), two new Six Organs Of Admittance releases, Jesu‘s fully-formed “Pale Sketches“, finally tracking down the 2-disc Japanese issue of Sunn O))) & Boris‘s “Altar” collaboration, and finding myself liking Sigur Rós‘s “Hvarf-Heim” a lot more than I felt inclined to – but here are the albums that particularly tickled my fancy in November & December:

November – Magik Markers : “Boss” (Ecstatic Peace!)

The first inkling I got of Magik Markers‘ potential power was on seeing Elisa Ambrogio doing her axe-wielding schoolmistress thing as part of Six Organs Of Admittance, spewing sheets of noise over Ben Chasny’s intricate guitar lines. While I at first wondered whether she could actually play, I was soon bowled over by her instinctive and natural style, effortlessly building towering walls of sound. “Axis Mundi” kicks things off with just such a piece of tortured guitar, the feedback looping into Pete Nolan’s driving beat – a better opening to an album I haven’t heard in a while. Elisa then sets the writhing sexual tone of many of these songs with the downright dirty: “I left my stink like a mink’s dead gland / All over your mouth, all over your hand“, her words bringing “the blood and violence of religion and nature” to this “Night Of The Hunter“-referencing love song.

Magic Markers - Boss

I’ve heard “Boss” referred to as sounding like Sonic Youth, probably due to Lee Ranaldo’s presence (he produces and adds his inimitable guitar to a few tracks) and its release on Thurston Moore’s Ecstatic Peace! label – and sure “Body Rot” has Sonic Youth all over it, sounding like “Catholic Block” with Elisa channeling Kim Gordon – but for the rest this is uniquely-created guitar music that challenges as much as it rocks. I’ve got the impression that there are those that feel Magic Markers have sold themselves out by making a ‘commercial’ album, that they’ve reined in what makes them special (they are an apparently formidable live experience, with numerous limited CD-R releases trying to capture this exhilarating & obliterating freeform noise assault), but to these ears (still not having heard – or seen – any of their other work) this is one of the year’s best rock releases, with sufficient bouts of barely-controlled guitar noise juxtaposed with the brittle piano of “Empty Bottles” and ethereal pluckings of “Bad Dream/Hartford’s Best Suite”.

“Last Of The Lemach Line” slithers along like the blue snake in the Garden Of Eden, sucking you into that place where sex, religion and violence meet, Elisa doing Patti-Smith-at-the-pulpit before she turns cracked torch singer on “Empty Bottles”, multi-instrumentalist Nolan’s piano glowing with a wabi-sabi beauty.
“Four/The Ballad Of Harry Angstrom” and album closer “Circle” lazily recycle “Lemach Line”‘s vocal melody but work as further showcases for Ambrogio’s primal rhymes and Calvinist/Crowley-esque intonations, with the gentle “Bad Dream/Hartford’s Beat Suite” providing a melancholic interlude with its musings on death and severed thumbs.

Magik Markers have apparently released some 30 recordings over CD-Rs, cassettes and the occasional ‘proper’ factory-pressed slab of vinyl or CD, relentlessly documenting their evolution. If “Boss” showcases their current maturation into a beast near the top of rock’s food chain, now it is time for me to excitedly delve into the Magik Markers pre-history and wallow in their primal soup

December – Alela Diane : “The Pirate’s Gospel” (Holoscene Music)

It was during a Michael Gira show at Paradiso when between songs he pointed to the pretty girl standing in front of me and asked: “Are you Alela Diane?”, and on receiving a shy nod confidently predicted to the audience that she would “be a star”. This certainly piqued my interest, coming from the man who ‘discovered’ Devendra Banhart and introduced me to the amazing Low by way of a glowing recommendation in one of his open letters. It was not a week later that I chanced upon Dutch TV show “Vrije Geluiden” to see Ms Diane performing three of her songs live in the studio, and capitivating they certainly were. It has taken me a while to track down her album “The Pirate’s Gospel” in which time it has popped up on many “Best of 2007” lists, most notably scoring the #1 spot on Rough Trade‘s end of year list. This album was actually first released in 2004 in a handmade edition of 650, Alela herself “sewing lace and paper bags for the case, drawing golden ships, lettering ink, and burning each CD”, before Holoscene Music approached her to release a resequenced version in the US in late 2006 and in Europe & Australia in 2007.

Alela Diane - The Pirate’s Gospel

Sharing her Nevada City hometown with friend Joanna Newsom, there is a certain similarity with “The Milk-Eyed Mender” in that this album feels like the work of rare talent (like Alasdair Roberts too), taking centuries of folk music and creating something that is fresh, natural and interesting while still being authentically rooted in the tradition. The meditative songs are about loneliness, wanderlust, (broken) family, religion, displacement and heartache, and have that timeless quality about them instrinsic to all folk musics. “The Rifle” could soundtrack an elegaic Western, “The Pirate’s Gospel” is a sea-chanty for the landlocked Nevada mountains, and “Foreign Tongue” a stark lament on being alone in a foreign place, written when she embarked on a “journey of solitude” in Europe. The rest of the album weaves in elements of gospel and blues along with the trance-like folk picking, all intertwined in her strong sometimes haunting voice. The bonus tracks on the European release, “Heavy Walls” and “Gipsy Eyes” are well worth inclusion, so seek it out from Names via Rough Trade or Fargo.

Here is album track “The Rifle” recorded for a Daytrotter Session at the SXSW festival in Austin, Texas (March 2007).

Alela Diane – The Rifle (Daytrotter Session)

Thanks to the fine folks at Daytrotter. Check out Daytrotter Sessions from Bonnie ‘Prince’ Billy, Marissa Nadler, Castanets, Nina NastasiaOkkervil River and many more. See here for another Alela Diane live session on MOKB/SIRIUS radio.