TagMercury Prize

Mercury Prize 2009: The winner

Speech Debelle has won the 2009 Mercury Prize for her album Speech Therapy. Quite a surprise, perhaps; but a good result, I think: it’s been a long time since a hip-hop album last won, and even longer since a woman last won — and it’s nice to see one of the lesser-known nominees win. Congratulations, Speech!

Mercury Prize 2009: Conclusion

I’ve come to the end of my journey through this year’s Mercury Prize shortlist (if you’ve missed them, my individual posts are here), so it’s time for some final thoughts, and a bit of pointless-but-I’m-going-to-do-it-anyway speculation on who might actually win.

My favourites

I must say I’m pleased that all the shortlisted albums have their own distinctive sounds, and work well as albums rather than just collections of songs. Having said that, there is one album on the list that stands out to me as being that bit more complete and well-crafted – so Lisa Hannigan is my pick of the shortlist. (Second place goes to Sweet Billy Pilgrim, whose album is of a broadly similar standard, but is let down by one track.)

Who will win?

Last year, the judges and I agreed over which album was best; but I suspect that won’t happen again this time. I find it hard to envision the quiet craft of Lisa Hannigan winning out over all the other contenders; but of course I’ll be delighted if proved wrong.

What of the others, then? I think the Prize is a very open field this year; it’s extremely difficult to mark out particular albums as being obviously stronger (or weaker) contenders. Nevertheless, I think we can discount a few straight away: I don’t hear anything in Led Bib’s album to make me think they will blaze a trail by becoming the first jazz act to win the Mercury. And the Kasabian and La Roux albums are the patchiest on the list, so I think the judges will find better candidates than those.

Taking the remaining acts in roughly descending order of fame: Bat for Lashes and Florence and the Machine are almost two sides of the same coin; combine the best aspects of both and you’d have an excellent album. As it is, I think both are in with a good chance; but I suspect the greater dynamism of Florence’s album will give her the edge.

Turning to the better-known guitar bands, Glasvegas are probably the most conventional act on the list; that may lessen their chances in this field, good as their music is. Friendly Fires are likewise good at what they do, but I think the judges may go for a more varied album. The dramatic atmosphere of The Horrors’ album probably gives them the best chance of the three.

That leaves three acts who were largely unknown before the Mercury nominations (hopefully they will not remain so for much longer!); and I think The Invisible, Speech Debelle, and Sweet Billy Pilgrim are all in with a shout. Sweet Billy Pilgrim may have a slight edge, but all three are genuine contenders.

It’s a tough call, but I have a feeling that, in the end, it will come down to a contest between Florence and the Machine and The Horrors, and that Florence will take it.

Of course, I’m just guessing here, as I’ve no real idea what the judges will think. But I do know this: the Mercury Prize in 2009 is a genuinely open contest which both the best-known and most obscure acts have the potential to win. I look forward to hearing the announcement tomorrow night.

Mercury Prize: Sweet Billy Pilgrim – Twice Born Men

Audio: ‘Joy Maker Machinery’

There are several very obscure acts on this year’s Mercury shortlist, but perhaps none more so than the Buckinghamshire trio Sweet Billy Pilgrim. The story is great: Twice Born Men (their second album) was recorded in a shed, funded by selling stuff on eBay; and Tim Elsenburg — the band’s singer, songwriter and producer, who is an office maintenance man by trade — was fitting a toilet seat when he found out about their Mercury nomination. I warmed to them just from reading that, before I’d even heard a note.

And now I have listened to the album… it’s extraordinary. Sweet Billy PIlgrim recall Elbow in some places and even Sigur Rós in others, but their vision is all their own. Twice Born Men is full of rustic, homespun songs that blossom into big, expansive epics. Elsenburg has a charming croon, and the music is full of interesting quirks — if there’s an actual kitchen sink on there, I wouldn’t be surprised.

There’s only one song here that I think is below par (‘Longshore Drift’, which never quite takes off as the others do), which is unfortunate when, with eight tracks, the album doesn’t really have room to put a foot wrong. But the rest is great, and you should check these guys out — I don’t think you’ll be disappointed.

Video: ‘Kalypso’ (live)

Read my other Mercury Prize 2009 posts here.

Mercury Prize: Speech Debelle – Speech Therapy

Video: ‘The Key’

And so we come to the début album by London rapper Corynne Elliott, alias Speech Debelle — and I may be stuck for much to say about it. The thing is, I’m just not into rap. Like jazz, I can’t appreciate it properly; and that’s bound to affect how I judge Speech Therapy. We’ll see how it goes…

Of all the albums on the Mercury shortlist, this must be the most intensely personal. Debelle’s lyrics draw on such experiences as her father walking out on her and her mother (‘Daddy’s Little Girl’), and living in hostels (‘Searching’). ‘This is my speech therapy, this isn’t rap,’ she says on the title track; and there’s a strong sense of catharsis throughout the album. But there’s hope and celebration on tracks like ‘Buddy Love’.

So, Speech Therapy isn’t my cup of tea; but, with its acoustic backing and personal lyrics, it’s a distinctive rap album.

Video: ‘Working Weak’ (live)

Read my other Mercury 2009 posts here.

Mercury Prize: Lisa Hannigan – Sea Sew

Video: ‘I Don’t Know’

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County Meath’s Lisa Hannigan was, of course, Damien Rice’s singing partner, until he sacked her last year. But Hannigan is, I’d say, a much better singer than Rice, so a solo album from her was always going to be an intriguing prospect. I’d heard a couple of Hannigan’s songs, and they were catchy, folky numbers; and her performance on Later… with Jools Holland outshone all the others in that particular episode. So I was expecting Sea Sew to be good.

But it’s not good. It’s brilliant.

Listening to See Sew reminded me very much of the second Reindeer Section album, which grew on me by stealth until it became one of the most treasured records I own. I think there’s a very good chance that Hannigan’s album will do the same. Yet it’s hard to convey in words just what it is about Sea Sew that’s so extraordinary. Yes, this is a set of ten folky pop songs through which floats Hannigan’s delicate voice, singing her convoluted, oblique lyrics. And yet… there’s so much that that description doesn’t capture.

There’s the variety of sounds that Hannigan manages to encompass, from the bounce of ‘I Don’t Know’ to the quiet menace of ‘Keep it All’. There are the many subtleties, such as the way ‘An Ocean and a Rock’ bobs up and down on its melody like a boat, or the way that ‘Venn Diagram’ and ‘Teeth’ soar upwards so unexpectedly and magnificently.

(I must also mention the sleeve and lyric sheet, which were hand-sewn by Hannigan and her mother. Now that’s dedication to your art, a dedication that resounds throughout the music, too.)

Let me put it this way: I cannot listen to Sea Sew without ending up with a smile on my face and an uplifting feeling inside. I wish all music would evoke that strength of feeling, and I’m enormously pleased that I’ve found another album which does.

Video: ‘An Ocean and a Rock’ (live)

Read my other Mercury Prize 2009 posts here.

Mercury Prize: Led Bib – Sensible Shoes

Video: ‘Sweet Chilli’

Led Bib are a jazz act from London; and the difficulty I have writing about Sensible Shoes — their third album — is that I’m not much of a jazz person. I haven’t the first idea how to describe or evaluate jazz; so I’m concerned that anything I say about the album here will come across as silly, naïve, or damning with faint praise — none of which I want. I think the sleeve notes say it best when they describe Sensible Shoes as ‘a cataclysmic offering of free-jazz, jazz-rock, avant-skronk, funk-rock, noise-metal and whatever else [the band] can lay their hands on.’ With that, I’ll let the music here speak for itself.

Video: ‘Squirrel Carnage’ (extract – live)

Read my other Mercury Prize 2009 posts here.

Mercury Prize: La Roux – La Roux

Video: ‘Quicksand’

Another of this year’s hotly-tipped new acts to make the Mercury shortlist (along with Florence and the Machine), La Roux are a duo from London, comprising Elly Jackson and Ben Langmaid; though they have the appearance of being a solo act — even the name ‘La Roux’ refers to Jackson alone (though, as I’ve seen pointed out online, the name is gramatically incorrect). Now, with one notable exception, music acts named for hair colours tend not to be all that good; La Roux have some way to go yet, but they’re definitely promising.

There are two main stumbling-blocks. One is Jackson’s voice, which varies from okay to downright annoying. The second is the music, which is too in thrall to the ’80s for its own good; the duo recreate their influences rather than spin them into something new. That said, they make some good pop songs, like ‘Bulletproof’ and ‘I’m Not Your Toy’. Ultimately, though, I’d say La Roux the album is more a pleasant diversion than a great record.

Video: ‘Bulletproof’ (live)

Read my other Mercury Prize 2009 posts here.

Mercury Prize: Kasabian – West Ryder Pauper Lunatic Asylum

Video: ‘Underdog’

It’s strange how music appreciation works out sometimes. The Leicester band Kasabian are probably the best-known act on this year’s Mercury shortlist; but I don’t really know their music that well, because it has never really appealed to me in the past. Perhaps this had something to with Tom Meighan’s swaggering vocal style (yet it fits with the music so well), or the unusual way the band construct their songs (I have no idea why that might be, because some of my favourite bands also have unusually-constructed songs, but there it is). Anyway, now I’ve actually listened to a Kasabian album (their third) in full, I’ve changed my mind, and now quite like them. But, paradoxically, I don’t think West Ryder Pauper Lunatic Asylum works all that well as an album. This needs some explanation.

I tend to associate Kasabian with big, anthemic rock songs like ‘Underdog’, the first (and probably best) song on this album. This is what Kasabian do best, and there are a few other songs here in that vein; however, they try to do several other things on the album, not all of which are successful. ‘Fire’ is an interesting variation, that lends more open space to the band’s signature sound. There are quite a few ballads, some of which work well: like  the nicely laid-back ‘Ladies and Gentlemen (Roll the Dice)’, or the soulful ‘Happiness’ (sung by guitarist Serge Pizzorno, whose voice suits that kind of song better than Meighan’s). Others, like ‘Thick as Thieves’, or ‘West Ryder Silver Bullet’, never really took off for me.

So, West Ryder Pauper Lunatic Asylum is quite a mixed bag; but it has made me listen to Kasabian with fresh ears, which I’m glad to have done.

Video: ‘Fire’ (live)

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Read my other Mercury Prize 2009 posts here.

Mercury Prize: The Invisible – The Invisible

Video: ‘London Girl’

The Invisible, a trio from London, are the first really obscure act on this year’s Mercury shortlist; and the first thing I’ll say is that they don’t deserve to be obscure. Their music is quite hard to describe, but I’ll have a go: guitar-based, yes, but drawing on elements of jazz, soul, dance, and probably a few other styles as well.

Anyway, it might difficult to capture in words, but this music is certainly interesting to listen to. Some songs take unexpected turns, like the opener ‘In Retrograde’, which starts off with a minimal ‘nursery-rhyme’ backing, before bursting halfway through into something odd and spooky. Others take a particular sound — like the funk of ‘OK’ or the dance of ‘London Girl’ — and make it ‘coalesce’ into a continuous whole (I’m not sure if that truly captures what I mean, or if it will make sense to anyone else, but it’s the best description I can think of).

There are a couple of moments on The Invisible that don’t quite work for me, such as the spiky guitars on ‘Spiral’ — which I guess are meant to reflect the title of the song, but had a nails-down-blackboard effect on my ears. I think the biggest weakness of the album, though, is that Dave Okumu’s vocals tend to fade into the background a little too much. Perhaps, of course, that’s the intention, so that they become part of the texture of the record; either way, I still think the album would be stronger if the vocals were more prominent.

That said, this is a grower of an album that could be a strong contender for the Prize.

Video: ‘Monster’s Waltz’ (live)

Read my other Mercury Prize 2009 posts here.

Mercury Prize: The Horrors – Primary Colours

Video: ‘Who Can Say’

What did I know about The Horrors? I knew they were from Southend, and that Primary Colours was their second album. I’d never listened to them first time around; but there seemed to be a broad critical consensus that the new record was both very good, and a significant change in direction.

To test this out, I decided to give the début a listen first. Let’s just say that we didn’t get along. But it’s Primary Colours on the Mercury shortlist; and that album is a dark, moody, melodramatic species of rock. Perhaps that’s inevitable from a band with a name like ‘The Horrors’ and a singer like Faris Badwan, who doesn’t so much sing his vocals as intone them. But there’s more variety than you might expect (even a three-minute pop song, in the title track); and there’s a furious energy to the playing that stops it all feeling ridiculous. I can see without doubt why someone might love this record.

But I didn’t.

I don’t know why, but there’s something about this album that stops me from getting into it. Perhaps it’s the way the music seems to turn in on itself, whereas I prefer music that opens outwards (if that makes any sense at all). Whatever, the end result is the same. Don’t get me wrong, there are still moments that catch my ear — I keep humming along to ‘Mirror’s Image’, for example; and there’s the way ‘Sea Within a Sea’ transforms over its eight minutes into what sounds like an attempt to recreate the soundtrack of a ZX Spectrum game. But still, I find Primary Colours a difficult album to like.

Video: ‘Mirror’s Image’ (live)

Read my other Mercury Prize 2009 posts here.

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