Posts Tagged ‘critics’

Mercury Prize 2012 – Runners & Riders

In Culture on September 12, 2012 at 6:47 PM

So, it’s that time of year again which brings out the inner muso in all of us – the announcement of the Mercury Prize shortlist. And as much as it may be decried it as worthless when the choices are ‘crap’, it’s rarely so when the choices are ‘right’. Never one to miss out throwing around my two cents’ worth on music, despite having nowhere near the requisite talent to make it, here’s my take on this year’s cast of nominees and the likely successes…

 First in the list alphabetically, and in the bookies’ books, is Alt-J (∆), with their album An Awesome Wave. The recently-graduated Leeds Uni students created a storm in critics’ circles in May with this debut – an idiosyncratic mix of indie by way of psychadelica and electronica described by some as “folk-wave” – and have been quickly gaining commercial awareness since. It’s certainly a very accomplished, and gently foot-tapping, but there’s something about it that prevents me loving it; from completely warming to it. Maybe it’s just a little too clever, too abstruse and studenty, as shown by the strange triangle in their name. And Joe Newman’s twee vocals can grate. But nonetheless, it’s an impressive album, which I’d tip for the big gong.

The consensus (judging from unscientific canvassing on Twitter and NME) seems to be that fellow bookish indie stars, The Maccabees, are the other frontrunners. And one can see why, as Given To The Wild is a bold leap from their nice but fairly unremarkable and twee indie to a bigger ‘stadium’ sound, while retaining some of their more personal appeal.

Ben Howard is another strong contender with his debut, Every Kingdom – a brilliant collection of indie folk that’s managed to sound distinct in the hardly sparse genre of sensitive-bloke-with-a-guitar, and succeeded in the even trickier task of sounding both intimate and universal. Poppy enough for Radio 1, yet (evidently) folky enough for the type of person who pays heed to the Mercury. Probably my favourite of the bunch, though not necessarily the one I think should win.

Jessie Ware’s Devotion is another debut gracing the shortlist. Making the strange move from journalism to singing (rather than the other way round, settling for merely writing about one’s passion), she earnt her chops touring with electronic producer, SBTRKT, whose influence is evident on this collection of nu-soul, along with echoes of Adele and Sade (intended as a compliment).

Plan B is an altogether angrier presence on the shortlist, having, since his soul-boy Strickland Banks crooning, been soured by the riots, recession and (supposedly) regressive Coalition politics. But no less worthy of being there for this fine, sign-of-the-times, snapshot of so-called ‘Broken Britain’ (just don’t say that to him). In fact, amidst all the anger, there is also a lot of soul too, just not in the frankly awful lead single and title track, which seems confused as to whether the ‘yobs on a council estate’ is a unfair stereotype or a rightful truth.

Michael Kiwanuka’s and Lianne La Havas’ respective oeuvres are somewhat less state-of-the-nation, despite the former being the son of Ugandan parents who came to London after escaping the brutal Idi Amin regime. No, Michael seems far more at home with his geographical surroundings than Ben Drew; it’s his emotional ones that cause more soul-searching. Similarly, Greek/Jamaican/British Lianne La Havas – the latest in the seemingly endless line of Adele-a-likes, though with more soul, even in places funk, and better songs than many of her peers. While they both possess great voices – La Havas’ a proper belter in the classic soul mould and Kiwanuka’s a rich sound that (to the generous observer) recalls the likes of Bill Withers, Randy Newman and Otis Redding – they should be a tad beige, too coffee table to win the Mercury outright.

Of the other contenders, Richard Hawley is a strong contender to win with his rocky, atmospheric (though arguably ponderous) Standing at the Sky’s Edge; Sam Lee’s some folkie who seems quite interesting; Django Django’s self-titled debut is a typically ‘Mercury’, left-field indie offering that’s easy to like, hard to love; Roller Trio are the obligatory jazz entry; and Field Music are nominated because they’ve made a hummable, pretty creative album (or because they’re, it seems, nice lads, who only earn about £5,000 a year so could do with the sales boost).

The sign of a decent Mercury selection is one that avoids people staring in disbelief at the NME website and thinking ‘how is [certain piece/s of supposed shit] in above [certain supposed musical god/s]?!’ The main offenders in the former category in last year’s selection being Katy B (deservingly, I think) and Tinie Tempah and Adele (undeservingly, I think). Of course, there are still notable absentees this year, notably the xx’s Coexist (a sublime collection of electro-soul), Bombay Bicycle Club’s A Different Kind of Fix (soulful, feel-good indie), and I’d add to the list of unlucky losers Florence & The Machine’s Ceremonials (no need for description) and Hot Chip’s In Our Heads (a glorious electronic/pop ode to staying young while growing up).

Maybe this is due to a tendency of the Mercury Prize to favour breakthrough albums, typically debuts from up-and-coming artists (eight of this year’s shortlist) but often ones that have maybe just taken a significant new direction (Plan B) or could do with a commercial leg-up (Field Music). Broadly speaking, this is a noble aim, as I’m sure the Florence Welchs and Romy Madley-Crofts (of the xx) of this world are happy enough basking in their relatively large sales and love from the fans/critics. But it can have the side effect of leaving out some very good albums, as I feel has happened here.

But this is a minor quibble, for this is a strong line-up in an often much-maligned prize. In a world, where pop music is often said to have lost in soul, with many music collections containing next to nothing actually physical, the Mercury is to be praised for honouring the form of the album and artists who put the effort into creating them, as opposed to mere collections of songs.

Joel Durston

Check out War Child’s site for details of forthcoming charity gigs from the nominees.