Mer­cury hope­fuls re­vive the dy­ing art of the long-player

The Irish Times - Friday - The Ticket - - Opinion -

For the chair­man of the Mer­cury Prize judg­ing panel, Si­mon Frith, the con­tin­u­ing ex­is­tence of an award for “best album” re­mains proof that the long-play­ing for­mat is still the best way of “or­gan­is­ing mu­sic”. I’m not sure if the iTunes kids would be with you on that, Mr Frith, but if the album for­mat does in­deed “re­main an un­ri­valled source of mu­si­cal in­ven­tion and imag­i­na­tion, a way of link­ing songs, ex­plor­ing themes and de­vel­op­ing sounds that is end­lessly thrilling, sur­pris­ing and worth cel­e­bra­tion” (Mr Frith again), then you can put your neg­a­tive-eq­uity house on El­bow win­ning this year’s award come Septem­ber.

Not only is El­bow’s The Sel­dom Seen Kid the best col­lec­tion of songs on this year’s 12-strong Mer­cury short­list of the best Ir­ish and Bri­tish al­bums of the last 12 months, but front man Guy Gar­vey is even more of a zealot for the album for­mat than Frith. Gar­vey has said that on­line mu­sic stores such as iTunes are re­spon­si­ble for the album “dy­ing as an art form” and has called on the site to al­low artists the free­dom to “lock” their al­bums. It’s not that he has any op­po­si­tion to the sin­gle down­load; but bands such as his be­lieve in record­ing a co­her­ent set of songs for an album and that it should be the artist’s choice as to how this mu­sic is dis­trib­uted and con­sumed. It might seem like a vaguely Stal­in­ist/Maoist approach to per­sonal mu­sic free­dom, but Gar­vey, like many of his gen­er­a­tion, strongly be­lieves that the in­tegrity of the album for­mat and the much sweated-over track-list­ing en­sures that each suc­ces­sive song some­how in­forms the other.

Cer­tainly, there are stronger in­di­vid­ual songs on some of the other al­bums on this year’s Mer­cury short­list com­pared with El­bow’s album, but as a com­plete mu­si­cal col­lec­tion, The Sel­dom Seen Kid is the strong­est ef­fort.

The only thing that will pre­vent it win­ning is the Mer­cury judges’ rather dis­tress­ing in­sis­tence on be­ing ever so “street” in their fi­nal choice. It’s for this rea­son that the front-run­ners, Ra­dio­head, won’t win (too pre­dictable), and nei­ther will The Arc­tic Mon­keys’ Alex Turner for his The Last Shadow Pup­pets side-project.

You can im­me­di­ately dis­miss the usual “to­ken” choices on the list. Estelle is only there as the to­ken black R’n’B singer, and her album is re­ally just one sin­gle and a whole load of filler. Sim­i­larly, the to­ken mod­ern jazz choice this year is Por­tico Quar­tet. How­ever, the Mer­cury ex­po­sure could help them dou­ble their album sales – from three to six.

The to­ken folk mu­sic pick this year is Rachel Unthank and the Winterset – an all-fe­male quar­tet who, to be fair, are at least a fairly ortho­dox fin­ger-in-the-ear group­ing and not just some totty dreamed up by Si­mon Cow­ell on a day off.

The only out-and-out indie album on the list is by Bri­tish Sea Power, and they should re­ally make the most out of their 15 min­utes; they’re very much also-rans here, as is Adele, who rather oddly beat off the far su­pe­rior Duffy for the “solo white fe­male singer” slot.

Neon Neon (fea­tur­ing Gruff Rhys from Su­per Furry An­i­mals) have done well to get so far, while the 18-year-old Laura Mar­ling (who sounds like Joni Mitchell on a sugar rush) can surely build on her nom­i­na­tion.

The two acts who will run El­bow to the wire come the cer­e­mony on Septem­ber 9th are the Robert Plant and Alison Krauss pair­ing and Burial. Plant and Krauss’s Rais­ing Sand is in­dis­putably one of the best al­bums of the last five years, but the fact that Krauss is very much an Amer­i­can might well work against them.

Which leaves Burial – an anony­mous dub­step mu­si­cian from south Lon­don. Dub­step is very “here and now” in the mu­sic-style press and comes com­plete with the type of “ur­ban au­then­tic­ity” that gives the Mer­cury judges the warm glow of “con­tem­po­rary rel­e­vance”. Son­i­cally, it is a stir­ring and evoca­tive piece of work that sounds like Aphex Twin pro­duc­ing very early Mas­sive At­tack. It’s El­bow’s year though.

El­bow­ing their way to the front of the Mer­cury pack

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