On Mercury

Is there perhaps none more respected, highly regarded and desirable shortlist, than the annual Mercury Awards?  Some see it as a curse, others as a means of raising one’s profile; the most highly respected musicians, critics and journalists come together and draw out a variety of albums which best demonstrate innovation, quality and a reflection of the hard-working, not always mainstream, music industry.   This year not only features a strong female presence, but also demonstrates a wide variety of genres from electro (Metronomy) to jazz (Gwilym Simcock). It also features two previous winners in PJ Harvey and Elbow and notably a couple of more mainstream acts in the talented Adele, who has taken the music world by storm this year, and Tinie Tempah who may yet to prove Simply Unstoppable. Here for you, a quick buzz through the twelve acts (in no order of preference) who will sit and wait until September for their name to be read out.

‘On paper’, Adele leads the way. She really has had a rather good year, rightly so. Her album 21 has broken an awful lot of records and her beautiful, powerful, soulful voice is a joy to listen to and the album features a mixture of powerful upbeats numbers to more slow plaintive ballads.  But before you all go and roll around in the deep or something, ‘on paper’ may be the most unhelpful phrase to use when trying to pinpoint a winner in the Mercury Awards: ‘AND THE WINNER IS….WHAAAT?’  The Mercury has the delightful tendency of awarding the prize to the outsider within a group of outsiders.  With this in mind, I find it hard to imagine Adele winning.  The judges may have carefully selected mainstream to increase the popularity of the Mercury Awards, which may see a little counterproductive.  More likely, the inclusion of theses acts merely proves the wide variety of genres in the music industry today.  Urban acts Tinie Tempah and Katy B may also have to make do with just being shortlisted. The former’s Disc Overy features probably the most over-played song of recent times in Pass Out, which no matter what you think of the album or the genre, secretly would happily listen/dance to with or without the aid of a spirit mixer: ‘na-na-na-na-na-na-na pass out’.  I can’t say that I enjoy much of the album, but more importantly I can’t see the inclusion of Tinie being anymore than proof of variety.   I once watched an interview with Tinie who proclaimed his two most hated things in the world was both swearing and bad personnel hygiene.  Give that man some kind of award.  Brit School graduate Katy B may also struggle within the shortlist.  Despite a popular following in the urban music scene, her album On A Mission falls flat on her Katy B –hind in comparison to 21 or Disc Overy or indeed the other nine acts.

Lets continue with the wonderful PJ Harvey.  Having previously won the award in 2001 with Stories from the City, Stories from the Sea, her inclusion in the shortlist this year has caused some grumblings from the Mercury purists.  Yet with an album like Let England Shake, which has received much acclaim not just for its fantastic sound, but also as an album which acts as a voice for the Times, (not the newspaper).  Narrating a demise of English culture, as one that has built itself upon war and battle, it is a powerful protest against her country; it’s leaders (see the now famous moment on the Andrew Marr show in which she performs in front of Gordon Brown), and its heritage.  Her voice is full of anger as well as a tender sadness.  It is an exceptional album, full of spellbinding songs.  The album title opener’s first words: ‘The West’s Asleep/Let England Shake/Weighted down by silent dead’ sets the tone, not to mention the most curious, unusual, yet satisfying music she produces, with her fantastic up-and-down singing.  The Last Living Rose is Harvey’s ambiguous feelings of her beautiful war-mongering England shines through in a fantastic declaration of England’s ‘grey, damp filthiness of ages’ in a mixture of nostalgia and protest.  The Glorious Land which is certainly an album highlight looks backwards,  (including an deliberately over-use of a war-trumpet) laying out England’s war-obsessed foundations, while Written on The Forehead sees an apocalyptic future with more explicit references to modern conflict.  The Words That Maketh Murder is the most obvious modern day protest song on the album, with smatterings of Holiday, Dylan and Beefheart intertwined with most beautiful composition and use of Harvey’s auto-harp.  She laments, rages, reminisces, frightens and shames a nation in one album. Supported with other incredible tracks like England, Bitter Branches and The Colour of the Earth, this is a very strong contender for the award.

Keeping up the girl camp is Anna Calvi, whose eponymous debut is a free-flowing guitar album with hard drums and mixed with a most beautiful and intense voice.  She is a mixture of PJ Harvey, Patti Smith, Janis Joplin, Nico, Grace Slick, Edith Piaf and the singers from Emilio Morricone’s L’Estasi dell’Oro (Calvi has Italian ancestry), but still produces a most unique and original album.  It’s rich with character, as is Calvi’s presence, who is both endearing to look at (with the high-heels, tight hair, flamenco style and red lipstick) as well as to hear.  For someone so petite, to produce such a voice and to play the guitar the way she does adds an extra wonder to this debut masterpiece. First we Kiss sees Calvi tease and twist through the song, building up to a stirring chorus. The Devil and Blackout similarly are glorious benchmarks for the combination of seductive haunting vocals and wavy guitar playing. But the ultimate joys on this exhilarating album is Desire, a powerful demonstration of Calvi’s creativity and that incredible voice and the closing track Love Won’t be Leaving where Calvi releases the remaining tension and energy built-up in the album.  Calvi was shortlisted for the BBC’s sound of 2011, and I would not be at all surprised to see this album, which mixes intensity with fragility, power and delicacy, sweep up the big prize.

Metronomy’s third album The English Riviera combines a synth-electro sound with a romantic vision of the South West coast (See The 21st Century Nostalgia Movement piece below).  Based on the innovative concept alone, the award would rightly be theirs.  A couple of popular summer hits in The Look and The Bay has made it their most successful album to date.  It’s a good listen and provides a vital insight into disillusionment with a stagnant modern-day England. It’s been a good year for the quartet, and a place on the Mercury shortlist is no less than they deserve.

Everything Everything are important first and foremost for reviving a dying Manchester Music Scene, along with the likes of Dutch Uncles Delphic, Hurts, and Egyptian Hip Hop.  This quartet has however produced an album, which makes for tough listening.  Man Alive is not necessarily a bad album, but the intensity, range and amount of activity in their songs can be distracting.  Their live performances are enjoyable, and the bands enthusiasm is obvious (I was delighted to see them dress up as Ghostbusters).  This is not an average electro album – that alone deserves plaudits.  It combines a mazy exhausting range of vocals from lead singer Jonathan Higgs, with consistent electro-beats and some unique hooks.  MY KZ UR BF, Photoshop Handsome, and Final Form are the best songs by a mile.  The others tend to eventually become rather bland switch-off songs or sound very similar to the previous track.  Man Alive won’t win, but it is a well-worked debut, which belongs in this kind of shortlist for a unique take on a well-heard genre.  Their inclusion will gain them a bit of press, and promises much for the future.

Another album, which fails to fall into ‘easy listening’ but is unique, fresh, unusual and has Mercury shortlist written all over it, is London lad James Blake, who’s eponymous debut album is packed with an indescribable collection of sounds, beeps, blips and haunting autotuned vocals.  I struggle to compare this to anything that preceded it (maybe if you played a stripped down Flaming Lips album backwards).  It’s a sort of soulful dubstep, full of the most disjointed sounds and vocals.  The majority of the album is so far removed from being straightforward that one is almost bored with anticipation at the more ‘normal’ moments, waiting impatiently for the next fuzzy distorted crackled lyric like on Limit to Your Love.  An enjoyable piano ballad is suddenly transformed after a minute into a piece of genius with sub-bass and intense double autotuned vocals.  Songs such as Unluck, The Wilhelms Scream and I Mind are all full of a similar unpredictability, which forces one to literally sit in a dark room and attempt to digest the sheer level of detail in these songs.  From static fuzz to powerful synth crescendos, Blake clearly can’t and would not want to be your average London singer/songwriter, and based on the sheer pioneering sound of this monster of an album, he has a mighty fine chance of success, if not at the Mercury’s, then certainly in years to come.

Build A Rocket Boys!  I love Elbow, if not for their tireless effort to get the credit they deserve, then for their wonderful album titles.  The ‘people’s band’ return to the shortlist having won it in 2008 with The Seldom Seen Kid with an album that is warm, kind and inviting.  Build A Rocket Boys! dives deep into singer Guy Garvey’s memories, stories of growing up and gaining life experiences through adolescent encounters and situations.  Lippy Kids is a delightful combination of Garvey’s tender voice and those typical prog-rock features including the ever-popular string accompaniment.  Neat Little Rows features everything Elbow ever produced in one little song.  From Asleep, Cast, Leaders to Seldom, here we have a band that have learnt the vital tool of building on one’s success. Personal favourite Jesus is A Rochdale Girl is a wonderfully nostalgic number, while Open Arms falls neatly into the On a Day Like This category where 100,000 people will sing along and propose to their girlfriends during.  This is an album, which genuinely makes you feel better, and fills you with a warm fuzzy feeling you may not have had in a while, maybe not since The Seldom Seen Kid. With this in mind, they could be strong contenders for the prize, yet the similar styles and formula to its predecessor may see them overlooked for their second award in three years.

The next two acts I confess to have never heard of until the shortlist was announced.  On first listen to King Creosote and Jon HopkinsDiamond Mine I found myself consistently forgetting I was listening to it.  In many ways the combination of Kenny ‘KC’ Anderson’s Fyfian Folk with small-time electronic artist/producer Jon Hopkins is a great album to have on while your reading the papers or paying a tax return.  The melancholy KC delivers beautiful songs including the Bats In The Attic accompanied perfectly with a female backing singer.  Hopkins adds incredibly detailed yet subtle arrangements to what would sound like regular folk music, allowing the album to flow gently along.  It’s melodic progression, filled with perfectly agreeable folk songs about life in a small Scottish town, (Bubble is definitely my favourite track), again makes it another textbook selection for Mercury, but not one that stands above the rest.  This album however, is certainly one of those growers.  The other unknown to me is Gwilym Simcock, who many jazz critics regard as a modern day Keith Jarrett.  Good Days at Schloss Elmau is a daring, adventurous hour of unaccompanied piano.  While it is nigh on impossible to argue against his talent, and interesting to see jazz again included within the shortlist, I find this an impossible album to get to grips with.  Again, like Diamond Mine, I would happily play this in the background.  If I were to host a garden party with cocktails and finger food, I would probably seek a bit of Simcock.  Maybe it’s my ignorance of jazz, but I was never really overwhelmed by what I heard.  There are eight complex, multi-layered pieces, which the jazz community must be excited about, but I think many followers of the Mercury Awards would be rather annoyed if this was to win the big prize.  I really don’t see that happening.

Finally Obaro Ejimiwe or Ghost Poet props up this list of the twelve lucky faces of half-decent music.  His debut album is crammed full of slow-paced ramblings about a bleak urban life.  Imagine if Maxi Jazz or Andre 3000 were given horse tranquilisers; then add a bit of electro to Gil-Scot Heron and you get Peanut Butter Blues and Melancholy Jam.  Ghost Poet’s laidback softly spoken and thoughtful tracks on nights out in Coventry, and general musings and observations on the modern day are more spoken word than ‘rap’.  It’s more chilled than grime and less aggressive than hip-hop.  It incorporates aspects of garage, a bit of house and most importantly those addictive electro-hooks on tracks such as Us Against Whatever Ever, Finished I Ain’t, I Just Don’t Know and the brilliant Cash And Carry Me Home: ‘Mum look, Readin’ books and taking tests/ Wont take the pain away in the chest’.  The refreshing thing about this album is the diversity of sounds, not to mention the distinct vocal stylings of Ejumiwe.  The dulcet slurry tones, the lyrical content surrounding excessive drinking, nights out, KFC, and dead-end lives, not to mention those catchy electro beats, act as constant reminders that this is a British debut album.  All of these features operate as a strong statement of purpose from Ghostpoet and make him one of the wildcards to claim the big one.

So there you have it.  Twelve very different albums all gunning for the same prize (spare a thought briefly for those who didn’t make it: The Horrors, Wild Beasts, Friendly Fires, Arctic Monkeys, Radiohead).  I think Anna Calvi should win, but really, PJ Harvey will win,  even though she won it once before. OR ‘on paper’ is applied for the first time in the awards history and Adele will ‘Take It All’.  OR for kicks, they give it to Gwilym Simcock, which would be wrong, but not surprising.  You can see where I’m going with this.  No matter who you think will win, inevitably the other guy will, such is the nature of the Mercury Awards.  Yet, more importantly, the shortlist proves a growing talent and diversity within the music industry, and an exciting build up to September 6th 2011.

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