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mixtape (detail) - sakura snow


Although this time last year I relented to the whole end-of-year list thing, through a combination of laziness and principle I’ve decided to retire from that and instead focus on more practical list-making (e.g. “Top 5 Ways To Thread The Shoelaces Of My Work Shoes” or “Top 10 Items I Discovered In My Stool This Morning”). This is not to say I don’t very much enjoy trawling the various End Of Year Best Ofs that populate the interwebosphere every January – they are a great source of new listening inspiration, and can be a useful nudge in finally going ahead and procuring that ‘buzz’ album that you’ve been meaning to check out but haven’t yet got around to (but no, that Bon Iver chappie is not for me). Particularly those lists that attempt to add a little bit of context as to why a particular recording is worthy of attention, as opposed to those un-annotated lists which I myself was guilty of. This is one I like, or this… (and for group-compiled, consensus-based lists you could do worse that check this one out).

But this does not mean I’m above trying to foist my questionable tastes on others…

Each year I make myself a “Best Of…” compilation, trying to encapsulate the best of that year’s listening (and live) experiences over the course of a couple of mastered CDs. And so in a rare act of magnanimous generosity, I’m making that compilation available here for your listening pleasure.

NarcoAgent – Best of 2008 volume I
NarcoAgent – Best of 2008 volume II

If you’d like an aurally-tangible run-through of the releases that caught my ear in 2008, right-click, ‘Save As’ and put ’em on the portable music player of your choice . Hopefully you make some enjoyable discoveries (or at the very least supress those sociopathic thoughts for an hour or two – it works for me!).


mixtape (detail) - sakura snow 


This first NarcoAgent ‘podcast’ also marks the launch of the Mixtapes page where I’ll occasionally upload other collections for your listening pleasure.
Tracklistings & associated info to be found there too.


mixtape (detail) - sakura snow



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The first half of the year has again sped by in a flash, and despite occasional protestations to the contrary I can’t resist the list-making urge, so here are the fifteen releases that most caught the ear in the first six months of 2008.



Bonnie ‘Prince’ Billy : “Lie Down In The Light” (Drag City/Domino)

The Brian Jonestown Massacre : “My Bloody Underground” (A Records)

The Bug : “London Zoo” (Ninja Tune)

Earth : “The Bees Made Honey In The Lion’s Skull” (Southern Lord/Daymare)

Fuck Buttons : “Street Horrrsing” (ATP/R)

Lo Dubs presents “Analog Clash” (Lo Dubs/Anthem)

Lustmord : “Other” (Hydra Head/Daymare)

Nadja : “Skin Turns To Glass” (The End)

Our Brother The Native : “Make Amends For We Are Merely Vessels” (Fat Cat)

Portishead : “Third” (Go! Discs)

Sixteen Horsepower : “Live March 2001” (Glitterhouse)

These New Puritans : “Beat Pyramid” (Domino)

Thom Yorke : “The Eraser Rmxs” (XL)

Torche : “Meanderthal” (Hydra Head)

Ufomammut : “Idolum” (Supernatural Cat)

 

 
Moving to the Netherlands has by no means restricted access to ear-and-mind-blowingly good live music (and then there were the three days of aural pleasure in Barcelona). I’ve tried to write about most of it, but these slipped through the cracks…

 
Vic Chesnutt w/ A Silver Mt. Zion @ Paradiso, Amsterdam (13-Feb-2008)

Chesnutt is a songwriters’ songwriter, lauded by his peers around the world, but 2007’s “North Star Deserter” was the first time I’d been exposed to his darkly humourous confessionals on death & wanting to bring it closer. His ‘backing band’ on that album – most of A Silver Mt. Zion and Fugazi‘s Guy Picciotto – are here tonight, throwing up squalls of howling Godspeed guitar and giving added pathos to Vic’s songs with mournful strings. After a rendition of “Debriefing” that threatens to blow the stained-glass out of the windows of this old church, they encore with a haunting “Ruby Tuesday”, Vic then remaining alone on stage to close, appropriately enough, with “Over”.

Here is a recording of “Ruby Tuesday” performed at The Button Factory, Dublin, Ireland on 01 Dec 2007. The whole show, courtesy of David Bell, is available at Internet Archive.

Vic Chesnutt & A Silver Mt. Zion – Ruby Tuesday (live)

 

Earth @ Effenaar, Eindhoven (07-Mar-2008)

Hearing the pure tone of Dylan Carlson’s Telecaster ring out at a volume where the drone can be felt as well as heard is thrilling (thanks must go in part to the Effenaar’s good sound setup). The opener “Hung From The Moon” is aptly-named – the notes hang in the air, the band’s slow-motion playing evoking a pagan ritual performed under a ghostly moon. Where once Earth was a solo mission, now Carlson is orbited by a stellar set of fellow cosmonauts – Adrienne Davies’s drumming verges on stasis but is precise & powerful, Don McGreevy adds planet-weight low end, and although Steve Moore’s Wurlitzer keys and trombone blasts could nudge the whole enterprise towards the dreaded blackhole that is j&*z, he fortunately steers a more psychedelic course. “Ouroboros Is Broken“, introduced by Carlson as the first song he ever wrote, is a monolithic juggernaut, Carlson sometimes holding his guitar aloft as though it were an offering to the gods. Support act Sir Richard Bishop joins the band onstage to add his Eastern-inflected guitar to “The Bees Ate Honey From The Lion’s Skull”, before they end this performance (and this tour) with the encore of “Coda Maestoso in F-flat Minor”, like “Ouroboros…” another early song reworked in the new Earth aesthetic.

Here is “Ouroboros Is Broken“, live at the Point Ephémère, Paris (17 Feb 2006), taken from the “Live Europe 2006” disc.

Earth – Ouroboros Is Broken (live)



The Cure @ Ahoy, Rotterdam (18-Mar-2008)

The current incarnation of the Cure looks a lot like one of the first, a stripped down rock band that delivers a guitar-heavy take on over 30 years of Robert Smith’s superlative songwriting. With no keyboard player, some of the keyboard parts are instead replicated by guitarist Porl Thomson, giving those songs an interesting twist. After a “Disintegration“-laden set, they treat us to three extended encores, the second drawn exclusively from “Three Imaginary Boys” and the first singles. To my delight (in a gloomy gothy kinda way of course) they finish (after playing for over three hours!) with my two favourite Cure songs – “Faith” and “A Forest”.


These New Puritans @ Paradiso, Amsterdam (06-May-2008)

On my first exposure to TNP (supporting Liars in London last year) I wrote them off as nothing more than youthfully energetic Fall copyists, but then “Beat Pyramid” (with its arcana-referencing distillation of the best of early 80s post-punk) became one of my favourite albums of the year. They deliver on the magicks of the album live, their frenetic set unfortunately cut short by the Paradiso’s sloppy scheduling. Check out some video clips from the show here.

 

Butthole Surfers @ Melkweg, Amsterdam (15-Jul-2008)

OK so I went off them when they took the honourable Touch and Go to court, but there was no chance of me passing up the opportunity to see the original Buttholes line-up play again for the first time since the 80s. Being joined by ‘the kids from the School of Rock ‘ lent an air of parody to it all, but they played their best songs, Gibby the megaphone-toting headmaster directing proceedings from behind the amazing Gibbytronix, and fuck it if Paul Leary ain’t one of the best goddamn guitarists I’ve had the pleasure of hearing (and now witnessing).

A live recording of their show at the Forum in London a couple of weeks later is available for purchase here.



On getting wind of this year’s Primavera Sound festival in Barcelona it immediately became an attend-at-all-costs kinda thing – three (presumably sunny) days of some of my favourite bands by the sea in one of my favourite cities being too good to resist. The incredible line-up that sucked me in included Portishead, Scout Niblett, Six Organs Of Admittance, Boris, Public Enemy performing “It Takes A Nation Of Millions To Hold Us Back“, Om, Shipping News, Okkervil River, Bill Callahan, Kinski, Fuck Buttons… tickets were swiftly procured, so when Shellac were added to the bill a little while later I could barely contain myself.

The festival site is the Parc del Forum, a concrete ‘urban park’ built for the 2004 “Universal Forum of Cultures” and located in the northwest corner of the city at the end of the Avinguda Diagonal & Barcelona’s stretch of beaches. The five open-air stages and the indoor ‘Auditori’ concert hall are well-spaced so that moving from one to the other is easily done, without there being too much sound bleed from one to the other. The ATP stage (where most of my time is spent over the next few days) is particularly well-situated in the far corner of the site, a tree-lined avenue leading to the stage, which is flanked by a grassy knoll (from which the sea is visible) on one side and a bank of concrete seating on the other, meaning great views for (almost) all. 

Primavera map

An early arrival to ‘check-in’ means that I get to enjoy sitting in the sun listening to Portishead soundcheck, the views out over the industrialised section of Barcelona’s coastline suitably soundtracked by Portishead’s mechanical beats and spooky synths. Hearing snatches of the likes of “Glory Box” and “Sour Times” along with new favourites like “We Carry On” and “Machine Gun” mean that we’re all going to be in for a treat later that evening, and certainly gets the pulse racing for what is in store when the festival properly kicks off a few hours later.


I’ve only recently come to the finely-crafted soundworlds of Phil Elverum of Mount Eerie/Microphones – the brooding ‘organic’ odes to nature (in particular to the topography of his native Anacortes, Washington State) cut through with an almost playful folkpop sensibility mixed with lo-fi ‘anything goes’ experimentation. His recordings are often ambitious, densely-layered, inscrutable works, rounded out with contributions from any number of fleeting studio visitors, so I wondered how this sound would translate to his solo live performance.

For the first part of the set Elverum (on acoustic guitar) is joined by Julie Doiron (voice) of recently-reunited Canadian band Eric’s Trip (who are also playing the festival) and Fred Squire (electric guitar). The trio have recently recorded together (Mt. Eerie’s forthcoming “Lost Wisdom” album) and are therefore comfortably in-sync with each other & the material, but nonetheless fail to ignite – Elverum’s soft & measured mumble meshes well with Doiron’s Joni-Mitchell-esque voice but the songs seem to wander aimlessly before either ending abruptly or petering out sans any sense of resolution. Nonetheless, experiencing this pastoralism, beer-in-hand, under the sunny Spanish sky seems as good an introduction as any to the delights of this seaside festival. 

Mount Eerie, ATP stage, Primavera Sound, 29-May-2008

For the rest of the set Elverum is on his own, this time on electric guitar, and the material is of a doomier, gloomier bent. He gently coaxes distorted waves of sound from his guitar that better evoke the looming and vast natural landscapes that often serve as his muse, and the lyrics take on a darker existentialism than those brightened by the earlier presence of Doiron.

Mount Eerie’s current focus is on what Elverum has termed “Black Wooden” – ‘black metal using natural materials’ – and based on the darker drones of the second half of this performance I’m keen to discover what this talented-yet-frustratingly-oblique songwriter can make of such an appealing concept on forthcoming releases.


1988’s “It Takes A Nation Of Millions To Hold Us Back” is widely considered to be Public Enemy‘s (and hiphop’s) finest album, a reactionary barrage of sparse Bomb Squad beats, squealing sample stabs, and rhyme animal Chuck D’s we-ain’t-gonna-take-no-shit-from-the-Man lyrics. To say anticipation is running high is somewhat of an understatement. However, PE give over the first part of their slot to the recently reformed Bomb Squad, brothers Hank and Keith Shocklee playing a captivating set of “dub bass” (their take on dubstep, which they credit themselves for inventing!). Public Enemy finally take the stage to a rapturous reception from the crowd, Chuck D and Flavor Flav augmented by a full live band, DJ Lord and of course members of their Security Of The First World (Professor Griff would’ve been present too but for visa problems). “Bring The Noise” predictably gets us all into a frenzy, and as they take us through their landmark album the audience parties under the Spanish stars. Chuck D’s iconic bullhorn voice is as imposing as ever, Flavor cold lamps all over the big stage (“Yeah, Boooooooooy!”) and the S1Ws ‘dance’ in formation.

Public Enemy, Rockdelux stage, Primavera Sound 2008, 29-May-2008

When they get to “Terminator X To The Edge Of Panic” Chuck D announces this (tour) as the first time they’re playing this in 15 years, and as original PE DJ Terminator X is long retired (apparently now an ostrich farmer!) it serves as a fitting tribute. But having given up so much of their slot to the Bomb Squad, PE only get as far as playing “She Watch Channel Zero?!”, before ending off with a quick run-through of some more recent crowd-pleasers (“911 Is A Joke”, “Welcome To The Terrordome” and new song “Just Like That”) – leaving me sorely disappointed at missing out on such classics as “Black Steel In The Hour Of Chaos” and my favourite PE song “Rebel Without A Pause”…


It’s then swiftly up to the CD Drome stage to catch the last part of Shipping News‘s set, and man are they playing a blinder, ending with a massive version of “Paper Lanterns (Zero Return)”. When I’d seen them previously they’d played as a trio with Jason Noble on bass, but here he is freed up to double up the riffage by the presence of Todd Cook, Louisville’s hardest working bassist. It leaves me regretting not having caught their whole performance, particularly as they don’t tour very often – but that is the only downside to this excellent festival: there is just too much good stuff on to have any hope in catching it all.

Shipping News, CD Drome stage, Primavera Sound, 29-May-2008



Portishead, Rockdelux stage, Primavera Sound, 29-May-2008

Portishead are undoubtedly the main Primavera drawcard for many and so the amphitheatre-style Rockdelux stage is packed with expectant punters, by far the biggest crush of the day. The start is delayed (messing up my plans to catch most of both their set and Boris, who play elsewhere a little later). They eventually kick off with “Silence”, the first track off new album “Third” – the spoken-word sample intro to that song almost perfectly-appropriate (it’s Portuguese, rather than Spanish). Geoff Barrow hammers out the rolling beat on a floor tom, while the screens on either side of the stage flicker with grainy black & white close-ups of the action on stage. The new material’s emphasis on live instrumentation is clear here as the band are able to faultlessly recreate the sound of their new record. It is a thrill to see them live for the first time, but as they’re playing the following night (in the seated Auditori) I make the tough choice to depart as they launch into “Hunter” in order to catch the Japanese sludge monsters rumbling into life nearby. I later learn that I miss one of those one-off gig experiences as Chuck D joins Portishead on stage to spit a few rhymes over the staccato industrial beats of “Machine Gun”…


Boris, who are playing the nearby ATP Stage, threaten to do a Godzilla stomp all over Beth Gibbons’s fragile vocals as they open with the crunchy noise of “Statement” – they are LOUD, and with the addition of an extra guitarist (Ghost mainman Michio Kurihara) the sludgy, distorted wail of sound is even more dense than usual. In contrast to the last time I saw them, I’m unfortunately unable to engage with them tonight, their schizophrenic, scuzzy barrage of noise proving to be an impenetrable and distancing barrier. Instead I just marvel at the slight Wata & her masterful playing – she spews out massive riffs incongruous with her diminutive frame, barely moving as she propels the band forward. I recognise “Pink” and “Farewell” but the rest sadly congeals into an eardrum-assaulting morass, a messy mix of Motörhead, hair metal and punk rock that brings a slightly disappointing close to a wonderful first day.

Boris, ATP stage, Primavera Sound, 29-May-2008



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