Tuesday, 7 September 2010

The Barclaycard Mercury Prize – A Preview

Written for and published on Amelia's Magazine

Laura Marling by Natasha Thompson, for more of her work click here.

Started in 1992 during the height of Brit pop cool, the Mercury Prize still exists to champion the best of British music. Judged by a range of musicians, journalists and executive muso types the winners get a massive cash prize and usually see their album sales soar. Unless of course, they are one of the unlucky ones who fall victim to the ‘Mercury curse’, which will see them become a distant musical memory - a fate suffered by last year’s winner Speech Debelle. Or ‘Who?’ as you might know her.

As the twelve nominated acts gear up for tonight’s awards we run through the shortlisted nominees. As usual some are well known, legends the likes of the ‘Modfather’ himself — Paul Weller, some have burst onto the scene just this year such as the banjo-loving Mumford & Sons, and some are less well known such as experimental jazz outfit Kit Downes Trio.

The xx by Gareth Hopkins

The xx and their debut album, the imaginatively named ‘xx’, are joint favourites along with Dizzee’s ‘Tongue N’ Cheek’. When you consider the young rapper has already claimed the prize once in 2003 for debut album ‘Boy in Da Corner’ it could be looking quite hopeful for the indie trio. The xx, infamous for their quiet unassuming indie anthems — a description that also fits the band’s demeanour – have enjoyed a brilliant first year. Winning fans on both sides of the Atlantic and among music stars and the public alike, they were perhaps a safe bet for a Mercury nomination. In fact much has been made of the rather impressive list of nominations this year. Important though the Mercury’s are to British music, there is usually criticism that the list is perhaps not representative enough, or trying to be too representative, or, that the judges are guilty of tokenism. 2010, however, sees one of the strongest line-ups of recent years.

Laura Marling and her beautiful second album ‘I Speak Because I Can’ will compete with boyfriend Marcus Mumford’s, of Mumford & Sons, debut ‘Sigh No More’. The boys have enjoyed a pretty meteoric rise to fame this year in contrast with Laura’s steady rise in popularity since she started winning over fans with her pretty folksy ditties as far back as 2007 — her album ‘Alas I Cannot Swim’ was shortlisted for the prize in 2008. And it could be argued that either Laura or the Mumfords would be deserving winners. After some thrilling performances at this summer’s festivals, 2010 really has seen folk rock re-enter the mainstream.

Mumford & Sons by Natasha Thompson

Nominees Villagers and I Am Kloot also belong to the folksier side of British indie rock, the genre to which The Mercury’s remain the most faithful ever since the Brit pop days. Villagers enter the fray as total newbies with debut ‘Becoming A Jackal’. As beautiful as their songs are, eerie and driven by some powerful ‘80s pop influences, some critics argue that front man and chief songwriter Conor J O'Brien still has some scope for growth. I Am Kloot are definitely not newcomers; having come together from various bands in 200, Kloot are a mishmash of some of British music’s biggest names. Nominated album ‘Sky At Night’ was co-produced by former Mercury winner, Elbow front man, Guy Garvey.

Villagers friends — Conor and co. have been touring with the Cumbrian group — Wild Beasts are next, with second album ‘Two Dancers’. It impressed fans and critics upon its release and is finding new fans all the time, possibly thanks to their sound belonging to a genre similar to a range of upcoming and forward thinking American outfits like Animal Collective, Yeasayer and Grizzly Bear.

Biffy Clyro by Natasha Thompson

Biffy Clyro have been around for the best part of a decade but it is this year’s ‘Only Revolutions’ that made an impact on the Mercury shortlisters. Perhaps their increase in sales and fan base is largely down to the securing of admirers among the Radio 1 playlist compilers and consequently listeners, but their Scottish slant on stadium rock certainly appears to have taken off this year.

Then to Corinne Bailey Rae’s moving second album 'The Sea', Rae admitted that many of the songs are about her late husband and the album would probably be up there among the favourites if the list of nominees was not as strong as it is. The follow-up to her million-selling eponymous first album ‘The Sea’ sees a shift from upbeat lounge-friendly soul to songs packing a whole lot more emotional punch and meaning, understandable after the tough couple of years that punctuated the recording of the two albums.

Another Mercury act making a shift in styles between albums is, of course, Foals. Where 2008’s ‘Antidotes’ was all about bounding in with all guns blazing; guitars on the attack and punctuated chant-like vocals, 2010’s ‘Total Life Forever’ showcased another side of the Oxford five piece’s musical talents. This time round it is about quieter melodies, hushed voices and layers of instrumentation that gradually build into something really beautiful like in stand out track ‘Spanish Sahara’.

Since going solo in the early 1990s Paul Weller has released an impressive ten albums, although always selling amazingly well none have particularly made much of an impact, apart from within the circles of his hardcore followers perhaps. His 2010 effort ‘Wake Up The Nation’, however, received some critical acclaim upon its release in April making the Modfather a deserving nominee for a Mercury. It’s the second time Weller has made the shortlist, 1993 album ‘Wild Wood’ made the cut in 1994 — the same year that saw M People controversially snatch the award from firm favourites Pulp.

And then to left-field nominees the Kit Downes Trio and their album ‘Golden’, perhaps proving that the Mercury’s can be guilty of a little tokenism after all? So maybe it was the case that someone on the panel felt the list was lacking an experimental jazz band, but actually the album is totally worthy of inclusion. Beautiful in its brave attempt to forge something different and new — it wouldn’t be that unusual for the Mercury’s if outsiders, the Trio, got the prize – unfortunately for them it could be the last we ever hear of them.

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