The XX were this year’s Mercury Prize winners; I’m sure they were decent winners, but they’re not really my cup of tea. I understand completely what they’re trying to do and the minimalism is no doubt a bit of a zeitgeist for these times; it’s just that I tend to prefer my music to have a bit of kitchen sink thrown into the mix. But I have picked up the albums of three of the contenders and, a few months on from the award itself, here’s a brief review.
Paul Weller‘s Wake Up The Nation saw a late rush of punters’ money, but in truth this is far from Weller’s best work. At its best, on a number of tunes which share a 60s psychedelic soul influence in common, it works well – but these moments are rare and the album is otherwise overlong and contains too much filler. Continuing the ‘chuck enough mud at the wall’ practice of the previous album, there are 16 tracks on here and, occasionally mercifully, none of them hang around for very long. A bit more selectivity and this could have made a decent album but, as it stands, it’s not one to listen to right the way through too many times. Sadly, not really a keeper, whatever the late Mercury money suggested.
The two stand out acts on the night – and the only two to make me look up with interest from my laptop – were the Kit Downes Trio and Villagers. The Kit Downes trio – a piano, bass and drums combo – are straight from the Blue Note studios, around the time of the great Alfred Lyon, and I had no idea people were still making this sort of music. With just one melody instrument in the band, the large bulk of the improvisational burden clearly falls on the band leader, but Downes is clearly capable of rising to the task. The set of tunes contained in Golden ranges structurally from the simple to the complex and, although the latter is likely to make the album a tough listen for a non-jazz fan, there are enough of the former to hold the interest. Coming from so far out of left field, it would have been an unlikely Mercury winner but, outside that, it remains a good album.
Becoming A Jackal is the contribution of Villagers – in reality, the collective guise of multi-instrumentalist Conor O’Brien – whose appearance at the awards ceremony somewhat blew the cover! Choosing to play a spellbinding acoustic guitar version of the title track, Villagers brought the whole show to a complete stop for me. A collection of tender and vulnerable songs about the failures of human relationships would seem to present some challenges to the stamina of the listener, but this is an album that repays repeated listening owing largely to O’Brien’s stated desire to treat his songwriting with ‘joy and humour‘. The result is that the music provides a frequently effervescent counterpoint to the dark lyrical poetry and the overall effect is a delight. Villagers would have been a worthy prizewinner this year; that they’re not perhaps owes more to the commercial imperative of Mercury to push records and, as good as the album is, I suspect it’s not going to be a top seller (at least, not outside their native Ireland). But that shouldn’t detract from what is a fine record.