2011 Weighed & Judged for Your Consumerist Convenience

Toilet Guppies despises lists, from the top ten to the shopping variety, so bravely refuses to come up with an end-of-year ranking of the supposedly best albums of 2011. Make up your own mind. If, however, you'd like a taste of albums or tracks that may have slipped past your fleeting attention in the year that was, here's a random sampler of balmy songs/sounds/grooves/wallowing/ecstasies of the past twelve months—a celebration of the year that was:

So what happened in 2011? Toilet Guppies heard about the genre «salsa trance» for the first time and thought the 2012 apocalypse had come early. As for record releases, Mark E. Smith's the Fall took the piss… again. Lou Reed & Metallica were universally derided, even though they produced the most sonically interesting record by Reed in three or four decades, and by Metallica in their entire career. (The cruel and disconcertingly inspired lyrics were a pervert's delight. Pity there's no room for that in 2011. Critics always come around to Lou Reed's albums a few decades after panning them, though, so watch this space in, oh, 2041 or something like that.) Amy Winehouse died, and people began to talk about the singer's actual music. Nick Cave disbanded Grinderman, sadly ending half a decade of sonic depravity and lyrical men's lib. SWANS tore across the world, obliterating minds by playing music so loud it turned entire bodies into ears and ears into a constant ringing sensation as if heard underwater, every victim/glutton for punishment having to endure rippling waves of sound vibrating in the void between the molecules, atoms and particles of their tenuous beings. Just in time for the 2012 rupture of our world, then.

What else? Download the above comp and hear for yourself. Whatever you do, go buy HTRK's Work (work, work). Despite the lyrics, it's the album of the year.


XXXmas for Your Body

New HTRK vid for perhaps the finest tracks off one of this year's best albums, Work (Work, Work):


A Date with Larkin Grimm's Forthcoming Record

2012 will see the release of Larkin Grimm's fourth album, Soul Retrieval. A follow up to Parplar—that delightfully intimidating (and occasionally creepy) document of brutal truth and compassionate destruction—Toilet Guppies' expectations were set impossibly high. But like Devendra Banhart moved on to make less edgy, but in other ways more accomplished music upon splitting with intense producer M. Gira, Larkin Grimm has delivered a heavily instrumented, but ultimately more uplifting record after slipping out from under the influence of that same producer. The venom and bite has given way somewhat to a perfection of craftsmanship.

Soul Retrieval opens with a slew of folk songs with traditional acoustic instruments quite often playing untraditional arrangements, but nonetheless maintaining an overall rootsy Americana feel. «Paradise and so Many Colors» is a soft and soothing opener that turns into a hearty folk romp replete with cherubic joy. «Flash and Thunder Came to Earth» is—ironically, considering the title—the closest Grimm has come to progressive kindergarten muzak, all flutes, harp and lullaby melody. «The Butcher», one of Grimm's most eloquent compositions, known from her exquisite 2008 WFMU session (and also as a collaboration with Italian trio Rosolina Mar on African relief aid benefit CD Leaves of Life), is revisited and given a more uptempo, instrumented treatment that would be good, had we not already heard two superior versions. «The Road Is Paved with Leaves» offers a languid country soul feel, whereas «Be a Great Burglar» veers into Middle Eastern territory. They're both well executed, but fail to stir the confronting emotions and uncomfortable insights that made Parplar such a crushing beauty.

So far, then, Soul Retrieval is underwhelming. But then the song with the most promising title—«Dirty Heart, Dirty Mind»—comes on, a track less dense with instruments, but with eerie strings that flutter and stab at just the right moments. This is fairytale feel Grimm as we know and love her—who intimidates (and thrills!) us so. Then «Lying in a Pool of Milk» accepts the preceding song's challenge, offering an equally pared down, orchestrally atmospheric performance with perhaps the new songs' first stand out lyric, making you stop to take notice:
«Fuck that child, oh, fuck that child!»
One of Grimm's strongest qualities has always been her fearlessness and liberated pagan perspective, seeing past the Manichaean or Judeo-Christian «good» versus «evil» dualism that so oversimplifies and paralyses. Not that «fuck that child» is a call to pederasty, but most artists simply wouldn't have gone there, whether for lack of imagination, humour or balls.

The next track, «Hello, Pool of Tears» is an embellished rendition of one of the gems off her WFMU session, «One Sweet Drop». Again, the strings flit and sting as the main melody floats mellifluously along, a river beset by killer bees. Finally, a fourth song extends and ends the good run:

Album closer «I Am Not Real» confirms that Grimm is at her best when toned down and minimal almost to the point of mantras. The lyrics are a return to a more immediately accessible spirituality, the melody flowing with easily understood (but perhaps hard won) ways of viewing reality. (Good luck finding that on Pitchfork.) Mysticism is hard to pull off, demanding as it does a certain restraint and balance, lest it devolve into indulgent jiggery pokery for yoga feminists and the ponytailed, all clad in purple and on the run from sex and meat, eating, praying and loving it up all over the place. Thankfully, Grimm elegantly sidesteps the traps, and is never far from contrasting the rainbow-coloured unicorns playing with dolphins under a full moon with some visceral human urge, base and natural. «I am not real» is not an insight from the motivational self-help New Age healing industry. That said, it does provide soul—metaphorically speaking, of course—that you'd be hard pressed to find among the inane reflections of all the ambitious artists out there who only write lyrics because their stylish front person needs an excuse to do all that posturing with their hands and hair.

Soul Retrieval might not be the doozy Parplar was, but where the latter was a bit too long—a bit too much in places—the former keeps it short and sweet. (The last half being particularly dulcet.) And while Gira's production on Parplar was crisp and creepy, imbuing psychosis with lucidity, it could also be overwrought with overdubs. Grimm's own mixing is softer, every sound hidden in the same place (as opposed to competing for primacy). There's about as much going on, strings flowing and pricking, glockenspiel twinkling, but the instruments are understated. Soul Retrieval is also a very acoustic album. No hard brass, sexed guitars or brute percussion. Guitar strings are picked rather than forcefully strummed, and the string arrangements are downright psychoactive. Outside of Gira's brilliant, but primitivistic determination, Grimm's vision is allowed to breathe. Apart from showcasing her subtle, but sophisticated production values—heard through a headset, the album is the sweetest ear candy—Soul Retrieval boasts elegant and inventive arrangements, fine, fine and refined. These are the kind of recordings that grow with each listen. Which is to say buying it is a smart investment.

On her first two albums, Grimm had the tendency to get histrionic, sometimes for better, quite a few times for worse, howling like a banshee being treated to an icy bath by Freud and Jung. Perhaps she's more skilled now, as she relies less on energy and more on craft on this new release. It's one step forward, which is all you can ask of a new album, really.

Besides, pure mathematics state that half a great album makes one good album, so look out for it once it hits stores and whatnot in January or February. Provided you have a soul to retrieve, the four last songs will give you hours of joy, relief and support. You can't say that about Vampire Weekend or Sleigh Bells or whoever it is who's being blogged about this week. (Present blog excluded. Naturally.)

P.S. Should you require added incentive for buying the record, backing vocals on Soul Retrieval come courtesy of Clara Engel (among others), who Toilet Guppies had the pleasure of previewing in March. Also, renowned rock producer Tony Visconti, of Iggy Pop and, er, David Bowie fame, contributes some instrumentation (recorder!) and a little production assistance on the album. Otto Hauser, drummer for more artists than anyone would care to mention, but who has played with Devendra Banhart, Vetiver and James Jackson Toth, also plays on this one.


Wintertime, and the Livin' Is Hard

Winter has its beauty, and a roughness that's only good for you, but there's no getting around it: The cold season makes you wish there were hemispheres, climate zones and a season or two between you and it. With your body in its grip, your mind is already somewhere else, where the climate suits your body and your being actually belongs, more at peace with nature than fighting it. Some place where you're not always having to ward off the world.

And so to a compilation that lets you dream of warmer times in drier climes, especially good on a Sunday that's wet in all the wrong ways (and none of the right). So hush, little baby, don't you cry…