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Best tunes of 2003: #27 José González “Crosses”

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Much like most people, I came across Swedish singer/songwriter, José González’s debut material two years after it was originally recorded and released. This is because it was two years before “Veneer” saw the light of day outside of his home country.

Gonzàlez was in the middle of completing his PhD in biochemistry when, after years of performing in various bands, his solo work caught the ear of Joakim Gävert and he was signed as the first artist to Gävert’s new record label. The PhD was dropped in favour of a focus on music and a 7” single was soon followed by the aforementioned debut long player. He has since released three more solo albums and two albums as part of the indie rock band Junip.

“Crosses” was the second single to be released off of “Veneer” and was my own gateway to Gonzalez’s indie folk sound. I remember first seeing the video late one Friday night on MuchMusic’s The Wedge and finding it perfect for that time and place, went searching it out online. I was happy to find that the song is indicative of the rest of the album’s sound, mellow and intense and austere, just Gonzàlez and his acoustic guitar. But “Crosses” is particularly haunting and harrowing, contrasting the menacing and violent plucking against gentle fingertip brushing styles at different and key points. Meanwhile, González leans into the mike, singing to himself about the crosses we are all carrying, as if reassuring himself that his own sadness will be short-lived and that the sun will return eventually.

In 2006, Gonzàlez was enlisted by English electronica duo, Zero 7, to provide vocals to a number of tracks on their third studio album, “The garden”. One of these is a remake of “Crosses”, a longer and more drawn out piece that builds to a fulfilling climax. It is the high point on that particular release for me but it’s still not quite as beautiful as the original. Sometimes quieter just creates the right mood.

“Disturbing silence darkens your sight
We’ll cast some light and you’ll be alright
We’ll cast some light and you’ll be alright for now”

And you almost believe him.

For the rest of the Best tunes of 2003 list, click here.

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Best tunes of 2012: #13 The Tallest Man on Earth “1904”

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“There’s no leaving now”, Kristian Mattson’s third solo album as The Tallest Man on Earth, was my introduction to his music and though I fell deeply in love with its gentle beauty, much as I did his following three albums, I still have yet to explore his first two records. Perhaps it’s a needless worry that his songwriting might not stand up to what I’ve heard is a more bare-bones sound – just him and his guitar – that has kept me from them. I’m sure I’ll get to them eventually and when I do, I’m sure that I’ll love them just as I do the rest of his tunes.

How can I not?

Just listen to our song today, “1904”, with its loving strum and cascading guitar flourishes, and let the wistful joy wash over you. Kristian is channelling Dylan and Drake and Guthrie, jamming with friends by candlelight, seated on sofa cushions pulled from their normal spots and transferred to the scuffed up hardwood of a high-ceilinged Victorian home. He is singing about an earth shattering and earth shaking moment, some have pointed to an earthquake that occurred in his part of the world in the year referenced in the song’s title, but you get the feeling as the song pulls you in, that the actual event doesn’t matter. It’s how you allow it to affect you, how you learn from it, and how you carry on afterwards that really matters.

“And the singing is slow and so quiet
Like the sound when you sweep off the floor
And now something with the dirt is just different
Since they shook the earth in 1904”

I remember when I first heard this song and the album on which it appears and could not believe what I was hearing. Perfect folk, out of time and out of place. Much like Swedish compatriots First Aid Kit, home informs his sensibilities, just as much as his love for those that influenced his sound. It is all so obvious and so passionate and so easy to get caught up in and pulled along in its wake. He has said that in writing this album, he wanted a brittle sound, one that gives a “feeling that it might just fall apart” at any moment. And he’s definitely achieved this precariousness, a moment in perfection that we all know can’t last forever.

But luckily for us, we can simply replay the track and live it all over again.

For the rest of the Best tunes of 2012 list, click here.

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Best tunes of 2002: #4 The Decemberists “The legionnaire’s lament”

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“I’m a legionnaire, camel in disrepair, hoping for a Frigidaire to come passing by.”

And so begins yet another great track off The Decemberists’ debut album, “Castaways and cutouts”*. I got into this album and the following year’s sophomore album simultaneously, perhaps sometime in 2004, after reading about them in my favourite indie music magazine ‘Under the radar’.

I remember being immediately blown away by the songwriting of Colin Meloy. Being a word geek myself, I loved the wordplay and use of archaic terms and thought it hilarious that I found myself reaching for the dictionary when listening to the lyrics of a pop song, indie or not. But it was not just the choice of words that won me over. It was how Meloy employed them, creating worlds and weaving tales, vivid and imaginative and just so much fun. And then there was the music, indie rock with a folk rock flavour, sampling music from around the world, and not just evoking that of today, but from different points in time throughout history.

The Decemberists have gone on to make eight studio albums in total and a handful of EPs, and successfully navigated the jump from indie to the majors without losing an ounce of what made them great. Every one of their songs is an adventure and you would be hard-pressed to tell me that they are one of those bands whose songs all sound the same.

“The legionnaire’s lament”, despite its title, is an upbeat number. It was the song that first hooked my wife Victoria to the group and is one to which we both love to sing along. And though the words can be esoteric and the specific experience unfamiliar – that of a French Foreign Legion soldier stranded in the desert, his plane shot down in battle in a war over a hundred years ago – the sentiment of missing his love and his home is universal and instantly recognizable.

“If only some rain would fall on the houses and the boulevards and the sidewalk bagatelles (it’s like a dream). With the roar of cars and the lolling of the cafe bars and the sweetly sleeping sweeping of the Seine. Lord I don’t know if I’ll ever be back again.”

Our protagonist is faithfully represented by an angry and forceful strum on the acoustic, the mirage of a jaunty drum beat and playful electric guitar lick, but what really places you in the tune and perfects the feeling of homesickness for Paris is the frolicking accordion. So good.

*”July July” from this same album appeared earlier, at number nineteen, on this list.

For the rest of the Best tunes of 2002 list, click here.