My Top Ten Albums of 2017

Another great year of music, but actually quite an easy one in which to pick my top ten. They are just the ones I’ve played most. Just recently I’ve been trying to catch up with albums I’ve missed, either through ignorance or inertia. And some have been good, but none have demanded a place in the ten. And that includes U2. I listened to “Songs of Experience” on Spotify last weekend, and found it dull and formulaic in the extreme. I don’t think I’ve ever thought that about a U2 album before and I will give it a few more goes. Maybe it will reveal itself to me – but not in time for the 2017 top ten.

I’ve cheated just a little this year – there are records in this list which were released in 2016 – but late on, and I didn’t come across them until 2017, so as far as I’m concerned they count! And that applies to the No1, which can only be…

No 1 – “Babes Never Die” by Honeyblood

I love this album so much. Every track. It feels like I’ve listened to it more than all others combined, and I’m still coming back to it. For me it has everything: punk energy  (“Babes Never Die”, “Ready for the Magic”,”Sea Hearts” – what an opening trio), pop melody “Justine, Misery Queen”), haunting beauty (“Walking at Midnight”), social observation (“Gangs”); and then, the two most resonant songs of all – “Hey, Stellar” a truly uplifting break up anthem, poignant and liberating; and “Cruel”, a moving, messed-up love song, full of self-loathing and desire, with a lovely simple guitar motif. It’s those last two in particular where that phrase I use quite a lot, celtic soul, really comes into play. The band are brilliant live, too. Just the two of them: Steena on guitar and vocals and Cat on the drums. In the short festival sets, like the one I saw at Latitude, they concentrate on the rock’n’roll – from this album and their eponymous first, from 2014 (how did I not hear that?) – and it is an absolute, energy-laden joy. I saw a full set at Koko in Camden, and that was one of my best concerts of the year. I’m popping up to Nottingham Rescue Rooms on 19 December to see them play. It will be a fitting last concert for me in a great year of concerts, by the best band of 2017.

No 2 – “Party” by Aldous Harding

Aldous Harding’s music has been described as gothic folk.  I think you could say that about her debut from 2014, but “Party” is a much more varied piece, which conjures up comparisons with Bjork. Tori Amos, Joanna Newsom and any number of jazz torch singers, as well as the darker side of folk music. It’s an extraordinary, intriguing album, as Aldous’s voice ranges from a deep jazzy hue to something closer to a young child. A simple guitar underpins most of the songs, but electronics subtly alter the tempo of some of the tunes. And the lyrics – well, they are never less than interesting and are sometimes downright weird. There are some fascinating thoughts going on inside Aldous Harding’s head. So, it’s an album full of beautiful melodies, but with a fragility, an angst behind them. Live she is captivating. The songs move slowly, tentatively, easily broken. There’s something edgy about the performance – and entrancing. Favourite songs on the album include the wonderfully bizarre “Party”, “Living the Classics”, “Blend” and her best known song, “Horizon”. But the whole piece is a thing of real beauty, which bears many listens.

No 3 – “Visions of a Life” by Wolf Alice

It’s a funny thing with Wolf Alice albums (well, the two of them) – on the first listen, you think, this is OK, nothing special. And then, after two or three listens, all these melodies, big guitars, surging choruses, reveal themselves to you, and you think, this is brilliant. So yeah, this is brilliant. My appreciation was enhanced recently by seeing them live at Alexandra Palace. It’s a cavernous hall and they absolutely filled the space with sound and fury. It was a superb concert – they have really mastered the dynamics of live performance. “Visions of a Life”, in places, has quite a 70s rock style, updated of course. On things like the title track, the dread word, prog, has even entered my musings. The opening four tracks are indicative: “Heavenward” grandly atmospheric, “Yuk Foo” an angry punk thrash, “Beautifully Unconventional” one of those 70s tunes, but very catchy and great live, “Don’t Delete the Kisses” a sugary, electro pop anthem, with a hint of Pet Shop Boys in the verse. They demonstrate the range of music that Wolf Alice cover. This is an album that works in big venues, and, no doubt, has been written with that in mind. The only way for Wolf Alice is up.

No 4 – “One/ Starting from Now/ Talk of This Town” by Catherine McGrath

This is a collection of EPs and singles, the first of which came out in December 2016. Enough to count as an album! Catherine McGrath is a young Northern Irish country singer, with a pop sensibility. You can hear the Taylor Swift in some of her songs. I’d not heard of her until I went to Latitude in July. I was looking for people to check out in the early afternoon, and liked the blurb about her, with comparisons to Kacey Musgraves. There was a good crowd in the Alcove, a venue for new bands. And she went down really well. I loved it. Great songs, beautifully sung. And she told some funny stories in between songs. It’s nice to have an artist who engages with the audience in that way. When I got back from Latitude, I downloaded her first EPs, and couldn’t stop listening to them. Such beautiful, wistful songs, but with that pop edge. They are all about relationships – starting, not sure, ending, defiant, or more than one of those. I guess my two favourites are the lovely, hopeful “Cinderella” and the feisty “Hell Would Have to Freeze Over”. Since Latitude we’ve had “Talk of this Town”, which is all about her aspirations in the face of her doubters back home and “Thought it was Gonna be Me”, which I haven’t listened to properly yet. I’ve seen her live a couple of times since – one a showcase event, where she got to sing her full range of songs, and then one where she was support. Both were excellent, and with the second, she’d gone electric, with a full band. She has a couple of headline shows booked for London, in March and May. The first sold out in 24 hours. People are catching on to Catherine McGrath.

No 5 – “Truth is a Beautiful Thing” by London Grammar

The voice of Hannah Reid, London Grammar’s singer, is a truly wondrous thing. It hardly matters what she is singing – it will always be imbued with a beautiful, captivating melancholy. But the band write good tunes too – growers. Few jump out on first listen, like “Strong” from the first album did; but they work their way into you. It’s night music, music you could happily listen to into the dark, and let the tears well in your eyes with no-one noticing. Live at Brixton Academy they were magnificent. Haunting, atmospheric, reflective, entrancing. Although she is often sitting in the shadows, you can’t take your eyes off Hannah and wonder what she is going through as she sings these songs. Album highlights are “Rooting for You” (which is extraordinary live, as she hits the high notes), “Hell to the Liars”, “Non Believers” and “Truth is a Beautiful Thing”, but this is another album which reveals something new every time. The deluxe version also has a version of the Verve’s “Bittersweet Symphony”, which is rather good.

No 6 – “Slowdive” by Slowdive

Slowdive were one of the leading shoegaze bands of the early 90s. Shoegaze was essentially bands playing dreamy melodies, with surging guitars, at a rather stately pace. While staring at their shoes, allegedly. I wasn’t that into them at the time. Slowdive re-united recently and this album is their returning statement. I love it! The ingredients are similar to before, but bigger and better, I think. I went back to their earlier albums, and I don’t think any of them are a patch on this one. That will be heresy to any true Slowdive fan, but in this case, I’m a late convert. The songs are quite magnificent, and it’s those surges of guitar, rushes of sound that feel quite anguished, emotional, that do it for me. Songs like “Star Roving”, “Don’t Know Why” and my favourite, “No Longer Making Time”. “Sugar for the Pill” has a gentler beauty at first, but the guitar still takes you into the atmosphere. On the Thursday night at End of the Road, on the main stage, under the night stars, they were heavenly.

No 7 – “Faye Webster” by Faye Webster

Back in November, I went to see Julia Jacklin at the Shepherds Bush Empire. There were two support acts, which the Empire’s Facebook page provided links to. I gave them a quick look and that’s when I first heard Faye Webster singing. It was a beautiful, simple, sad song called “Alone Again”. That gave me the incentive to see her perform rather than linger in the pub. She had a band, and came across as more indie than country, but I guess the music is a bit of both, with a large dose of 70s American West Coast pop too, even though she is from Atlanta, Georgia. This album isn’t her first – she made one when she couldn’t have been more than 16. But this one is a step up. It’s full of catchy, delicate, wistful tunes that you might feel you’ve heard before; and if you have, it might be a Fleetwood Mac or Stevie Nicks album. Now, that was never really my kind of music, though, of course, I own “Rumours”, and love it these days. So, if you like that era, you might enjoy it. This is a lovely album. The tunes are insidious. It’s that melodious steel guitar, as well as Faye’s fragile voice. As well as “Alone Again”, “She Won’t Go Away”, “I Know You” and “What’s the Point” are highlights. It’s not a world changer, but just great pop – as we used to know it!

No 8 – “Earl Grey” by Girl Ray

Like so many of the bands that I’ve got into in recent years, I first heard Girl Ray on Marc Riley’s show on BBC 6 Music, which runs from 7 to 9pm, Monday to Thursday. If I have a night at home it is compulsory listening. Girl Ray’s sound is a mixture of the jangling guitars of Velvet Underground and the melodies of what I imagine to be a French jazz-pop band. The Style Council, when they went down by the Seine, would be a model. We saw them at Latitude. My friend Steve thought the singing was a bit off-tune. And it’s not perfect, I’d agree. But that is part of the charm. It works with the music. The album is mostly those chugging riffs, overlaid with wistful melodies, with “Just Like That” and “Stupid Things” the highlights. A couple of times things branch out. “A Few Months” gets into an Isley Brothers soul-funk riff. “Earl Grey (Stuck in a Groove) is 13 minutes of the Velvets groove, and a great vehicle, live, to rock out. A recent session on Marc Riley suggested they will make some harder sounds in future. It augurs well!

No 9 – “A Deeper Understanding” by the War on Drugs

The War on Drugs’ previous album, “Lost in a Dream”, was my No 2 in 2014, and could so easily have been No 1. It was a brilliant mix of deep melancholy, plaintive vocals and awesome guitars. There were strong hints of Springsteen, Dylan and The Waterboys. What was not to like? The band’s appearance at Latitude that year was the highlight, for me. “A Deeper Understanding” takes a similar template, but extends the songs – they are all pretty long. It’s discursive, powerful in places, meandering. So the initial impact isn’t as great. But, if you give it the time, it grows, and grows. And the guitars remain magnificent. My favourites, thus far, are ”Pain” and the truly awesome “Thinking of a Place”. The latter, live at Alexandra Palace recently, was sensational. Adam Granduciel continues to sing and play the guitar like a man with a lot of pain to share. I do wonder where they go to next, but for now, this is an album which I feel still has more to reveal and is already a grand confession.

No 10 – “Antisocialites” (and “Alvvays”) by Alvvays

Alvvays are a Canadian indie band with an ear for a great melody and an engaging riff. Fronted by Molly Rankin, there are inevitable comparisons with Blondie. And my top band of 2016, Amber Arcades, have a distinct resemblance.  I first heard them at End of the Road this year. It started in my tent. I had a sore back at the festival this year, and was having a brief rest on the Saturday, about 5pm. I started to hear these melodies wafting over from the main stage. They were so good, that for a while they just kept me in the tent, wallowing in them. Then, I thought, I have to see this band. There was a huge and lively crowd – Alvvays were really having an impact. There were two albums involved – the new one “Antisocialites”, and the eponymous first, from 2014. When I listened to them later, it was the first, with songs like “Marry Me, Archie” and “Ones Who Love You”, that engaged me most. But “Antisocialites” does the business too, the more you listen to it. It still references punk, but in a tuneful way – songs like “Plimsoll Punk” and “Hey” are examples. The best two songs, for me, are “Dreams Tonite”, which is just a beautiful pop song, and the closer, “Forget About Life”, which is a potential stadium lighters-out anthem.  I’m seeing them at the Roundhouse in February next year. I think it will be a big celebration.

Near misses

As ever there are albums that could have been in the ten, if I’d listened to them a bit more. But then again, there’s a reason I didn’t – the ones I did listen to were in the way! So, top twenty candidates include: “Garden of Ashes” by Duke Garwood, “Moonshine Freeze” by This is the Kit, “Sweet Kind of Blue” by Emily Barker,  “The Witch” by Pumarosa, “Young, Dumb and Full Of…” by Cabbage, “Lotta Sea Lice” by Courtney Barnett and Kurt Vile, “Life Will See You Now” by Jens Lekman. And, of course, I must acknowledge the brilliance of Lorde’s “Melodrama” and Taylor Swift’s “Reputation”. They should probably both be in my top ten really – but who would I leave out?

I must mention Lindi Ortega’s EP “Til the Going Gets Gone”, too.  It’s a brilliant country/folk collection, in which Lindi goes back to her roots. It includes the grim but beautiful cover of a Townes van Zandt song called “Waiting Round to Die”. She’s still the best, and I can’t wait for a new album, and, hopefully, a UK tour.

Pure noisy rock’n’roll 

My top ten, apart from some punky moments from Honeyblood and Wolf Alice, is pretty mellow. But I did get momentarily excited by some great noisy tracks.  They included:

“Dream Come Now” by Honey ( a New York punk band). “White City” from 2016 is also awesome. Heard “Dream Come Now” on Iggy Pop’s 6 music show. It just rocks!

“Dissonance” by Cabbage. They are great live. This is my favourite.

“Country Sleaze” by Goat Girl. Great band, can’t wait to hear their first album, which must be soon.

“Motorbike” and “Goodbye Texas” by Flatworms. Another US band who draw on the punk legacy. A Marc Riley favourite.

Spotify playlist

43 tracks for your delectation. Three from each of the top ten plus some extras, as mentioned.

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lovelondonscenes 139 – Christmas lights at Tate Britain

The facade at Tate Britain has been lit up for Christmas!

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Skies over the golf course

Once a year I play golf, as I get together with old friends for a reunion. Mostly we are are in Oxfordshire. The golf is a bit of an endurance test and the scores get worse with the passing years, but when we are lucky with the weather, as was the case this year, there are compensations. The sun starts to go down at around 3,30pm, and there are some wondrous views. These are a few from this year – the course was Kirtlington, a few miles out of Oxford. It’s where we play at least once most years.

Thursday, 30 November

Friday, 1 December

Makes the agony of the golf worthwhile!

 

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Catherine McGrath at Koko, Camden, 28 November 2017

It’s not so long since I saw Catherine McGrath at an invitation event at Cambridge Audio in Borough, South London. That was great. Tonight, she was supporting the American country pop duo Dan + Shay.  I managed to persuade my friend Dave to come along – the pre-concert meal at Sushi Salsa in Camden Lock was part of the attraction!

Catherine is a really talented singer and has written some beautiful songs, which are some of my favourites of the year. As the support act tonight, she only got half an hour, but that was enough time to play a few of her best tunes, like “Just in Case”, “Hell Would Have to Freeze Over”, Starting from Now”, and my favourite, “Cinderella.” It was also a chance to showcase her two recent singles, “Talk of This Town” and new release, “Thought it was Gonna be Me”. She got a really enthusiastic reception from the crowd, which had already filled much of the venue. Not all support acts get that. She also had a full band: guitar, drums and bass. The songs worked well with that backing. They retained their tunefulness and subtlety, but got an extra slug of rhythm. It took her further on the path towards the Taylor Swift sound – no bad thing, but quite a competitive field.

We didn’t stay for Dan + Shay. I’m sure they would have been pretty good live – they packed out Koko for a start. But I’d checked them out on Spotify and it wasn’t really my thing, so we found a pub and watched the second half of Watford v Man United.

Catherine is headlining a show at Camden Assembly on 5 March next year. Definitely one to be at – I will.

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Wolf Alice at Alexandra Palace, 24 November 2017

On Friday evening I went up to Alexandra Palace in North London for the second time in a couple of weeks – the first being The War on Drugs. After mistiming it completely last time, and keeping my friend Jon G waiting in the bar, I got there super early. There were a couple of interesting support bands in prospect. Superfood, who I saw at the Goose Island concert in Shoreditch  a while back, and then Sunflower Bean, who are getting good reviews. They were at Latitude, but another band I missed because of the clashes. Naturally, because I was early, Jon was unavoidably late this time! Gave me a chance to get a couple of beers in. Eventually we saw a bit of Sunflower Bean, who seemed pretty good. The last tune really rocked. Superfood will be for another time – sure they’ll be on the festival circuit next year.

I’ve seen Wolf Alice a couple of times before. Once at Latitude in 2015 and then at the Forum in Kentish Town in 2016. They were terrific both times. Their first album, “My Love is Cool” was the thing then. That was an album I grew to love, but not in time to give it a slot in my 2015 top ten. And now we have the second album, “Visions of a Life”. This one has been another slow burner – apart from “Yuk Foo”, which is just an awesome piece of angry noise, with Ellie Rowsell lashing out at everything.  I did a bit of mugging up before the concert, so the tunes were at least vaguely familiar. The first four on the album jumped out: “Heavenward” providing the same sort of dreamy start as “Turn to Dust” did for the first album; “Yuk Foo” blasting away for a couple of minutes, “Beautifully Unconventional” almost dancey, but very 70s too; and “Don’t Delete the Kisses”, a lovely swirl of a chorus set against verses that could have come from the Pet Shop Boys. I was really looking forward to the show, to enjoy the old favourites and see how these new songs played out.

And yes, it was an amazing show. This is a band that has really found its groove now. Able to translate their sound and performance to the bigger stages. Ally Pally is a cavern. The War on Drugs got a bit lost in it, I thought. Wolf Alice bossed it totally. They started with “Heavenward” and “Yuk Foo”. That got things going. But then we had “You’re a Germ” and “Your Love’s Whore”. Couldn’t get much better! And the concert then wound its way through both albums. “Planet Hunter” emerged as a real favourite – great melody and chorus. “Don’t Delete the Kisses” too. “Beautifully Unconventional” rocked.

And there was a lovely moment towards the end when the band invited on to the stage a 15 year girl from Kingston (or somewhere from that part of the world) who’d won a competition to play guitar on old pre-albums favourite “Moaning Lisa Smile”, while Ellie just sang. And she was great! Really confident on the guitar.

The last two songs of the main set were a contrast. First, “Visions of a Life”, a seven minute epic from the new album. Full of time and melody changes. This was the moment when I thought seventies most of all. A bit of Zep definitely, touch of Sabbath, and, I don’t know, something like Jefferson Airplane. Ellie as Grace Slick. She’d gone a bit 70s in her dress for the night. The slicked back hair was punk, same as the “Yuk Foo” video; the long white dress was definitely from another era. But then, for the last song,  a reversion to the Wolf Alice we know and love: the awesome “Fluffy”.

The encore was “Blush”, another old one, and then “Giant Peach” from “My Love is Cool”. That gave them a chance to rock out, and it all ended on a high. This was a really well-paced show, making great use of songs from throughout their catalogue. A band that really know what they are doing, but who also feel humbled by being able to play to 5,000 people on their home turf.

Could they be headliners at Latitude in 2018? I really hope so!

A few more photos.

 

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Leeds, Manchester, Aldous Harding, 18-19 November 2017

Aldous Harding is a singer from New Zealand who has been described as psych-folk. In other words, the foundation of her music is folk, but it twists and turns into something quite different. Her second album, “Party”, came out this year, and the only question for me is whether it is No 2 or No 3 in my top ten of the year.

The music on the album is extraordinarily beautiful in places, but also quite weird at times. It’s the mix of the lyrics – listen to the title track, “Party” – and the range of Aldous’s voice, which goes from jazz torch singer, to something quite child-like. It is an engrossing concoction.

The gig was the last leg of a great weekend. I went up first to Leeds with my son to see one of my daughters, who is at Leeds University. I also managed to take in Leeds Art Gallery, which is a great space, with a fascinating collection. It has recently been refurbished, and the splendour of the Victorian roof restored. There’s a splendid green-tiled cafe too. Check it out if you are in Leeds.

And on Sunday, after having a look round the University (last photo above is part of the Uni),  I moved on to Manchester. The views from the train  of the Pennine hills and the grey stone towns set into them were spectacular. In Manchester I took the opportunity to visit the Manchester Art gallery, where the highlight was the exhibition of Edwardian paintings. And the best of all, just like when I visited in March, were the Adolfe Vallette paintings of a Manchester in the early twentieth century tinged in fog – or smog. There were four in the exhibition. I find them entrancing and bathed in a kind of melancholy. I studied the technique. They are painted with oil on jute, or linen. They give the paintings texture, as well as absorbing the colour. I suspect this helps give the smog effect. Paradoxically they become clearer and brighter as you step further away. The opposite to real life.

I couldn’t not wander up to Albert Square afterwards, and to my delight, I found an absolutely buzzing scene. A Christmas market, German style, as well as an extravagant Santa, perched on the front of the town hall. The entire square was rammed with people, and quite a large part was taken up with bars serving German beers. Outside you could get excellent German Wurst. A dream combination.

And so to Aldous Harding at Gorilla. Not far from the canal. It was sold out, and the crowd was referential as she appeared. Much shushing, because the delicate fabric of her music brooks no interference. So it was nice to hear a singer in silence. She was amazing. The opening songs, “Swell does the Skull” and “I’m so Sorry” were sparse, beautiful, moving. She moved on to the more electronic ones on her new album like “Blend” and “Imagining my Man”. They got a great reception – deservedly so. She had backing from a keyboard player and bassist, on and off. Occasionally she relinquished the guitar, and gesticulated instead. It was captivating.

 

But towards the end it went slightly awry. During the wonderful “Party” a loud discussion broke out at the bar. She looked disturbed – though, to be fair, she had an intense stare quite a lot of the time. At the end of the next song*, the equally wonderful “Living the Classics”, she ended abruptly. She explained she’d got the pedals wrong. And then an air conditioning machine on the ceiling, not far from where I was standing, started to rumble. Gorilla is quite small – similar to the Scala in Kings Cross – so she could hear it. She said very little all evening, but did ask, “who invited that monster?”

The show went on, but I suspect Aldous was affected by all these things. She did come on for an encore, but just played a new song called Pilot. No “Horizon”. I wondered whether that had something to do with the disturbances, but she doesn’t seem to have played it on the British leg of her tour.  Now she is a singer who clearly doesn’t stick to the tried and trusted, but I was surprised that she’d ditch her best known song when audiences are still getting to know her.

So, a fantastic concert, wonderful music which I recommend to you, but a rather odd ending. Gorilla’s venue is in a basement, and it’s good it doesn’t swelter, but it needs to sort that machine! As for the people arguing at the bar, think of everyone else, including the singer, for God’s sake.

*(There might have been a song in between these two. I can’t quite remember. I was too caught up in the songs and worrying about that air conditioning machine and the impact it might have. There’s no Setlist FM playlist yet!)

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The War on Drugs, Alexandra Palace, 14 November 2017

The War on Drugs are a great band, led by singer and ace guitarist Adam Granduciel. They were responsible for one of the best albums of 2014, “Lost in a Dream”. I made it No 2 to Royal Blood in my Top Ten, but I always knew it would be the longer lasting. The songs have real depth and emotion, the guitar soars and weeps. I still play it a lot. That year they were also one of the highlights at Latitude and in March 2015 played Brixton Academy to great acclaim.

In 2017 we have a new album, “A Deeper Understanding”. It’s a more discursive piece than “Lost in a Dream”. The tracks are all pretty long. They meander. But the formula is ultimately not that different to “Lost in a Dream”. And because of that, it suffers in comparison. There are exceptions – on my listening thus far, I really like the song “Pain” and, especially, “Thinking of a Place”, which combines the wistfulness of the track “Lost in a Dream” with some epic guitar, which has echoes of Neil Young – maybe more than ever before.

And so, on to the concert. Ally Pally is a bit of a pain to get to. The nearest tube station, Wood Green, is 20-25 minutes walk away, and up a pretty steep hill. At the top there are some fantastic views of London though. The concert space is cavernous. Good for giving loads of people the opportunity to see the band. Not so good if you don’t want to go near the front and get hemmed in. At my age, I prefer to be on the fringes, especially if that means it’s near the bar. Not that that helped much in this case, as it always looked about five deep at the bar. So it all felt a bit remote, and we had to rely on the screen a lot. Rather like an outdoor gig, without the fresh air.

In these circumstances, it took me a bit of time really to get into the concert. The early tracks were either off the new album, or takes from before “Lost in a Dream”, so less familiar. The drums were pounding and Adam was doing his routine solos. I was feeling just a bit detached. But towards the end, it moved into another gear. First we got “Thinking of a Place”, which was truly magnificent, even better than the recorded version. And then, last song of the main show, “Under the Pressure”. The War on Drugs signature tune, and as awesome as ever. And then the encore included “Eyes to the Wind” and, last up, “Burning”. Two more of the songs that made me fall in love with the music of the War on Drugs. We didn’t get two of my great favourites, “Suffering” (we got “Pain” instead!) and “Lost in a Dream”. But I went away buzzing, after that slow start.

Interesting to see where the band goes next. Do they just carry on doing similar stuff, or try something different? Does Adam want to be the new Neil Young, or Bob Dylan, or Bruce Springsteen, or something altogether more radical? We shall see…

 

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