A love affair with album covers

If the record industry was smart, it would have saved the demise of vinyl by playing up the fact that there is nothing quite as wonderful as a full-sized album cover. Personally, album art in general was always one of the greatest things about buying some new vinyl when I was a kid.

Having recently rekindled my love affair with vinyl, I’m beginning also to realise what a grossly underrated aspect of record production the album cover has been over the years. I guess the reason for that is that not everyone took it seriously. Thankfully, the bands I was into did, and spent time commissioning some sensational artists or photographers to come up with some wonderful work.

Take Iron Maiden, for instance, who created their very own character, Eddie The Head, with a little help from artist Derek Riggs. Eddie has featured on every album the band released, starting with Killers, a number of single covers and, of course on stage with the band and on other merchandise in various guises.

Then you’ve got the great photographic efforts, like The Beatles’ Abbey Road cover, which any tourist in London tries to replicate when on tour in London. Ian MacMillan took the shot from a step ladder while a policeman held up traffic behind him. Paul McCartney’s bare feet, and opposite step to his band-mates, was deliberate, as was the lack of any writing on the cover. No band name, and no album name. Apple Records creative director at the time, Kosh, knew it wasn’t needed since The Beatles was the most famous band in the world and knew it would sell anyway.

Both those covers have been “reversed” by Flickr identity Harvezt recently in his terrific little series The Dark Side Of The Covers. And yes, he’s also done that famous Pink Floyd cover for Dark Side Of The Moon. He’s also done Joy Divisions Unknown Pleasures, a brilliant one for Led Zeppelin IV, Computer World by Kraftwerk, Metallica’s Master Of Puppets and King Crimson’s In The Court Of The Crimson King. These are all albums I own, and I love Harvezt’s imagination in creating these reverse views. The Abbey Road one is particularly great for including that policeman in its story. The Killers one is awesome, too.

Abbey Road - Harvezt

Abbey Road – Harvezt

Killers - Harvezt

Killers – Harvezt

I’ve noticed a few album cover things happening over the past few weeks. The Guardian’s series of shots placing album covers in Google Street View was a good one too.

Original Pirate Material by the Streets

Original Pirate Material by The Streets, as it would be on Google Street View.

And last but not least, if you’re on Facebook, no doubt one or more of your friends has shared something about “sleeveface”, whereby people use album covers to replace real heads and faces in photographs. Always a source of amusement and fun.

Sleeveface - Freddie Mercury

Sleeveface – Freddie Mercury

But the fact is with all this digital music around, we’re in danger of losing the meaning and joy of album art because in large part, the consumption of music in the digital age is purely a purely sonic experience. It’s not longer visual, nor physical, as it was when I was growing up with 12-inch vinyl records. That’s a shame, I reckon, and I’d encourage any young music fan to pick up some of their favourites on vinyl if they get the chance. I’d also encourage record companies to

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Ten things I’ve been listening to

Once again I find myself apologising for the massive gap between this post and the last. If only I could do this full-time and not the job that actually pays me money to survive in this dig eat dog world. Ho hum.

Anyway, I thought I’d keep it simple by posting a bunch of songs I’ve heard over the past few weeks I haven’t been writing. Hope you’ve all got Spotify. If not, now is a good time to sign up, because it just launched a redesign which is pretty sweet.

1. Porter Robinson – Sea Of Voices
This one surprised me a little. Porter Robinson is perhaps better know for his dancefloor fillers like Unison and Language. But with this one, he gone all atmospheric and anthemic. It’s got a fair does of M83 about it, and is apparently the new direction he wants to go in. Good on him. He’s ageing, like the rest of us, and appears to have chose to do so gracefully. I heard this one while away on a long weekend in Mornington.

2. deadmau5 – Ghosts ‘n’ Stuff (Nero Remix) feat Rob Swire
Nothing like a bit of dubstep to blow your mind, especially when it’s in a snowboard movie, as this track is. In the amazing film Art Of Flight, which I watched on Blu-ray in awe a few weeks back, this track accompanies some quite breathtaking super-slow-mo footage of some of the world’s best boarders in powder we can only dream of riding.

3. Elbow – Fly Boy Blue/Lunette
A song I raved about when I reviewed Elbow’s latest album The Take Off And Landing Of Everything, last month. Read more there, I guess. A cracking tune, especially the Lunette half.

4. Erik Hassle – Somebody’s Party EP
Sweden’s Erik Hassle is, for me, one of the best soul voices I’ve ever heard. Seriously, I know that’s a big call, but he is blissfully gifted. He hit me hard a few years back with an extraordinary cover of Sam Cooke’s Nothing Can Ever Change This Love For You, and I’ve loved him ever since. He’s recently released an EP, and it’s a beauty, full of heartfelt lyrics and eclectic arrangements that break the mould. The guy is awesome. Listen, in particular, to Innocence Lost, which features Tinashe.

5. Embrace – Refugees EP
Yorkshire rockers Embrace haven’t done anything for a very long time. This EP, released last year, came to my attention via some sort of music discovery app. Just when I thought they were dead and buried, they slapped me in the face and demanded my attention again. This EP is the forerunner to a sixth album, due out this month and self-titled. If this collection is anything to go by, it sounds like it might be good.

6. Beck – Morning Phase
Not much to say about this other than it is still my early contender for album of the year. Beck took my breath away when he released this earlier in 2014. Every listen melts me. A truly magnificent musical compendium.

7. The Preatures – Better Than It Ever Could Be
Another band I spruiked back in February, largely as a result of this song getting a bit of airplay. Read more here, and listen below. A cracking little summer song, and while summer may be over, the song still rings in my ears.

8. Lykke Li – No Rest For The Wicked
I like Lykke Li, quite fancy her, actually. She’s Scandinavian (tick), sexy (tick), has an awesome voice (tick), and sings my kind of songs. No Rest For The Wicked has popped out of her forthcoming album I Never Learn. It’s in no way a new direction for her musically, but so what? I like her style, and I’ve been spinning this one a fair bit.

9. Broken Bells – Perfect World
One half Shins singer/guitarist James Mercer, the other musical genius Brian Burton (aka Danger Mouse), Broken Bells is such a great little project: two guys that just have fun with sounds and produce some sensational tunes. It was a big secret for a while, but now they’re open about their brilliance, thank goodness. After The Disco is the duo’s second album and came out in February. No doubt you’ve heard Holding On To Life, but the one I keep playing over and over is Perfect World. It just feels like one when you’re listening to these boys.

10. The Alan Parsons Project – Time
Yeh, this is an old one, but I found a copy of The Turn Of A Friendly Card on vinyl at a market so got listening to it again. That album was released in 1980, and I was pretty obsessed with it at the age of nine or 10. Incredible really when I think about it. I still love it, especially this track. Sit back, headphones on loud, and let it sweep over you. It’s a stunner.

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REVIEW: Elbow – The Take Off And Landing Of Everything

Elbow - The Take Off And Landing Of Everything

Elbow – The Take Off And Landing Of Everything album art.

Maybe it’s because I’m in the same generation as Elbow, who are hitting or have already hit 40. Maybe it’s because lead singer Guy Garvey and I appear to have similar interests without knowing each other from bars of soap. Maybe it’s because I love the way he finds positives in all the negatives. Or maybe it’s just because the music is always so bloody good.

Whatever it is, Elbow has once again released a collection of beautiful songs for us to enjoy in The Take Off And Landing Of Everything. Garvey has allowed his lyrics to soar higher than ever before, and even had the confidence to commit a couple of first drafts to tape, New York Morning and Fly Boy / Lunette the two songs in question.

It’s true, there are no major surprises across the album’s 10 songs, but bands this good don’t need bells and whistles to make you listen. From the opener, This Blue World, we’re immediately drawn into a fantastical world of poetry and motion. “Our atoms straining to align, was the universe in rehearsal for us?” It’s a long opener, more than seven minutes, but it’s an hypnotic experience just to lay back and allow yourself to be swept away on its charming waves.

Charge picks things up with its gritty rhythm and chinking reggae guitar as Garvey sings the story of a middle-aged man in a boozer realising that a new generation has popped up behind him, and thinks he’s old and past it. “Another night beside myself could finish me. Give me G&T and sympathy.” It’s so well written, you laugh and empathise all at once. “I’ve broken jaws protecting laws to keep you free.” It’s a middle finger in the face for all the young bucks that swan around town these days thinking they own the place, and are entitled to everything without having to work for it. Hipsters. Who needs them? This is truly the grumpy old man in full voice.

Fly Boy / Lunette chugs along nicely, and while a disjointed two-songs-in-one arrangement, is perhaps my favourite track. There are some Pink Floyd moments in its first half, perhaps an unintentional hat-tip to Elbow’s fellow Brits from the song’s writer, drummer Richard Jupp. But it’s the second half that really grips. A genius bassline from Pete Turner drives it all as Jupp guides him along on the sea of Mark Potter’s acoustic guitar. And then there are the lyrics. I listened in sheer wonderment. “Perverse as it may sound I sometimes believe, the tip to my lips just reminds me to breathe.” And then this. “I’m reaching the age when decisions are made on life and living, and I’m sure last ditch that I’ll ask for more time, but mother forgive me, I’ll still want a bottle of good Irish whiskey and a bundle of smokes in my grave.” It really, very rarely, gets better than that.

Garvey’s remarkable skill as a writer has been long apparent, but it’s on this album that he appears to have truly let himself shine. He constructs not just wonderful stories, but writes them up like poems. He’s kept a diary since his mid-teens, which no doubt helps to unearth a few gems, but he truly crafts the most wonderful lines and, somehow, stitches them together in prose that plays along delightedly to the music the band as a whole composes. And to think Fly Boy / Lunette is a first draft just staggers me.

New York Morning, the album’s other first draft, was written by Garvey when he spent some months in Brooklyn on another project. It’s the first time, apparently, he’d ever lived anywhere other than Manchester, and represents Elbow’s first song about a city other than their home. It’s a marvellous rendition of everything New York, which he describes as the “modern Rome and folks are nice to Yoko”.

As we hit the album’s midpoint, it becomes clear that relationships have played their part in this record. Garvey split from his decade-long romance with author Emma Jane Unsworth in the process of Elbow writing The Take Off And Landing Of Everything. Dedication to that task proved too much for them both to bear. But there remain lighter moments on the record. Honey Sun starts after what sounds like a laughter-filled outtake from the studio before hitting a somewhat surprising electronic feel, and My Sad Captains is a beautiful little tale of how spending a night in conversation with a couple of pals has become infinitely better than staggering around the streets across a weekend with 15 of your “best” mates, learning nothing. “Another sunrise with my sad captains, with whom I choose to lose my mind, and if it’s so we only pass this way but once, what a perfect waste of time.”

Colour Fields brings back the electronic beats of Honey Sun, a driving backbone that is perfect for the tale it tells of a “bright girl” from a “dead town”, whom he thinks should skip that destination for a better place.

The title track of the album is something of a summary of the band’s life events, and the album as a whole, while closing track The Blanket Of Night tucks us all in nicely with its bluesy, jazzy undertones.

The Take Off And Landing Of Everything is probably not Elbow’s best album, and it has no moments of cloud-bursting triumph like those of One Day Like This or even Newborn from back in the day, but it does stick like glue to the mind, and allows an escape route from the mundane music that pollutes our radio airwaves, and for that, we can be truly grateful.

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Let’s Walk A While, my labour of love

Let's Walk A While

Jacalin walks a while in Iceland, one of many inspiring trips we’ve taken together.

It’s been a long time since I wrote a new song, but finally, I’m done on this one. Let’s Walk A While has been some years in the making, but it’s here to share with you now. It’s not perfect, but it’s special to me, as you’ll discover. But take a listen first.

So here is some background. About five years ago, I was in a mess. I was pretty lost, hopeless, emotionally broken. I won’t bore you with the details of that troublesome episode in my life, but needless to say I wasn’t a happy little chappy. That was roughly when this song started, originally me and my acoustic guitar, noodling around some chords I liked the sound of, and fumbling for some lyrics I hoped would tell the story of how I was feeling. In its original form, the song was called It Just Feels Wrong. It was about how nothing was going my way. It was sad, depressing, reflective of my mood at the time. But I liked it as a composition. and I thought others might empathise.

After recording a light demo of my vocal against an acoustic guitar, I decided to beef it up in Logic Pro. If you didn’t know, I love producing music. Doing so in Logic is a great escape for me, and was exactly what I needed at the time. Logic was relatively new to me then, so it was therapeutic and took my mind of all the other shit that was getting me down. The song grew a little. I added an electric piano part, some weird drums, bass, an electric  guitar part, and recorded the vocals with a heap of horrible reverb. But it didn’t sit right for some reason. I always preferred the acoustic version, and so I left it again, this time for a long time.

Between then and now, my life has turned around. I’ve fallen in love with the most wonderful woman imaginable, been on some fantastic journeys with her, and basically been reborn in a sense because of the inspiration she’s given me. About a month ago, I was mucking about with some old stubs and stems in Logic when I stumbled across It Just Feels Wrong again. It suddenly dawned on me that the title was perfect. It did feel wrong. It was wrong. It was self-indulgent, and essentially a musical moan. That’s precisely why it didn’t work for me. So I started on the lyrics again. Within 24 hours I’d rewritten it, but I’d only changed a few words. I basically turned all the negative sentiment into positive phrases. The music stayed the same initially, but the lyrics had gone from how awful everything was to how I was able to turn everything around. The words are below if you’re interested. With new lyrics came a new approach to the instrumentation, with the original acoustic back in there, strings parts added, live-sounding drums as opposed to electronic ones, and a fuller sound all around. The song builds from a quiet, reflective first verse to a bold middle section that represents me working out where the good place is, and running harder than I’ve ever run to get there.

The song has been a journey that reflects my life over the past half-decade, and I couldn’t be happier with it … except maybe the slightly ropey vocals in the first verse. (Believe me, I recorded that about 100 times, but I’ll fix it some day.) Best of all, I managed to get the sound of the person that inspired this turnaround on the record, too. Jacalin, that wonderful woman I mentioned earlier, performs the backing vocals, and quite beautifully so.

So that’s it. I hope you like the track. I hope it can serve as a helping hand for anyone out there struggling. Just look for little twinkles of light in whatever dark tunnel or place you might be in. If you walk towards them, they get bigger, and when you’re up really close, you’ll realise you can walk straight through them to the brightness outside. It’s proof, for me at least, that even in the negatives, there are positives, and once you figure out what they are, like I did with the lyrics, it only takes a few small changes to create huge positives.

Let’s Walk A While (lyrics by Toby Forage)

The certainty I had was all but gone
But somewhere in me feint hope lingered on
Whatever I did wrong I don’t recall
I just remember feeling nothing at all

 But now this seems so far from me
There’s so much more for me to see
My heart could burst 

It took so long for me to understand
Until you came along and took my hand
When this began it all seemed so aligned
You helped me push that painful world behind

You only wanted me to see
How good life is when you start to breathe
You let me draw you close to me
So I could set my demons free 

There is no darkness left for me to find
The clarity of us now fills my mind
A torch has lit my heart, it’s warm outside
So take my hand again, let’s walk a while
Let’s talk a while

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I love HAIM, but WTF is this video?

HAIM - If I Could Change Your Mind

HAIM … WTF is going on here.

For more than a year now, I’ve been professing a bit of love and admiration for HAIM. I found them before they hit the big time, and I have to say I was always a little concerned that this would happen.

By this, I mean this … an early contender for the worst music video of 2014, perhaps.

If I Could Change Your Mind hit the interwebs this week, another single from the band’s Days Are Gone debut album. Believe me, if I could change the minds of the people that thought this clip was a good idea, I absolutely wouldn’t hesitate. I mean excuse my French, but what the f**k? It’s really not like me to slag off things I like, but this is truly woeful. The lighting, the make-up, the stage, the logo in lights, the dance moves. Oh my goodness, let’s just talk about those dance moves.

If you’ve ever seen HAIM live, you’ll know these moves are about as far from what this trio is all about. On stage, a real one, these sisters are raw, powerful, packed with attitude and humour, the new generation of cool rock chicks. They don’t take themselves too seriously, but they always rock hard, and usually have the crowd right where they want them; eating out of their hands. They don’t indulge in foxy dance moves. They don’t throw cheesy stares to the audience, mouths gaped open like some post-orgasmic porn star. They just play their great tunes with a full dose of energy and fun, and they play them damn well. They’re a joy to see.

What’s wrong with this clip for If I Could Change Your Mind, is that it delivers none of that. It just sucks. Music videos, I always thought, were a marketing tool for an artist, an excellent opportunity to not only sell the music, but the personality behind it. Here’s where this video fails for me. If I didn’t know who HAIM was and I saw this, I’d love the song, but think these girls were up themselves, too concerned with their dance move to deliver a decent show live. I might be one less ticket sale for a band that deserves to sell out whatever venue it chooses to play.

But maybe the management doesn’t care about me. Maybe I’m the wrong the demographic. I mean I’m past 40, the grey hairs are starting to poke through, I don’t have any tattoos or a hipster haircut, but hey, I know good music when I hear it. I advocate for those that can really play their songs, and write them well, which is why I was so excited about HAIM 18 months ago when I first heard them. They represented a new generation of actual musicians, not pretty people plucked from nowhere, thrown into a studio, asked to sing a few lines of a crap song and then have their voices auto-tuned to a point where they become unrecognisable from the original.

I’m appealing to the managers of HAIM to please change direction with these girls from where this video is taking them. They can be popular with a youthful audience without this type of shit on their resume. Showcase their true personalities, their musicianship, their sassiness, their humour. They’re amazing role models for any young girls, and guys for that matter, who are out there looking to make music and enjoy life without the excesses too many other young stars fall prey too, so please don’t try and make them something they’re not.

Maybe I’m wrong, but it looks like even Este’s bass-face was stifled in this clip. That’s a tragedy in itself. These girls are rockers. Just let them rock.

And to show I’m not completely out of touch with the youthof today, I’ll just sign off with a KTHXBAI. Second thoughts, maybe that does make me uncool.

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Looky who’s back … it’s Lykke Li

Lykke Li - I Never Learn

Lykke Li … a break-up has inspired her new songs.

Lykke Li has been quiet for the past three years, but this week emerged from the silence with a haunting tease for her new album I Never Learn.

The record is slated for a 5 May release worldwide, and from what little she gives away here, it has all the hallmarks of previous albums Wounded Rhymes and the outstanding debut Youth Novels. In fact, she told NME, it’s the final chapter in a trilogy of records that have explored being a woman in her 20s.

A break-up has inspired the third record, so who knows how deeply she has explored her emotional turmoil. We’ll just have to wait and see. But ultimately, Lykke wants us to think of her not as a pretty pop songstress in the mould of Kylie Minogue or Katy Perry, but rather a serious singer-songwriter. Why that wouldn’t be the case for some is beyond me, but I guess that’s the superficial nature of the world we live in.

“I always feel like I’ve been slightly misunderstood. As a woman you get judged for appearances or things like that I don’t really care about,” she said in the NME chit-chat. If anything I want to be seen as a singer-songwriter rather than a pop artist. I really feel like I’ve found my voice.”

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Preaching for The Preatures

Isabella Manfredi, The Preatures

Isabella Manfredi … a frazzled and promiscuous Natalie Imbruglia. Nice.

The Preatures have come a long way, it seems, since their little bio appeared on the Triple J Unearthed website not so long ago. Currently receiving endless airplay on said radio station’s programmes throughout the days of summer, this Sydney five-piece is currently completing a short the UK small-venue circuit plus a few shows in Germany, blowing audiences away, it seems, with their infectious soulful indie-pop grooves.

Expect to hear current single Better Than It Ever Could Be on TV promos and commercials in the same way The Naked And Famous’s Young Blood shot them into a different stratosphere. And should that happen, it’ll be richly deserved.

This poppy little belter fills your ears with joy, takes you back to house parties and summer nights when the breeze was warm, the drinks were cool, and the ladies were hot. And speaking of hot ladies, The Preatures certainly have one up front. Isabella Manfredi is sexy, bold, carries a stack of attitude and will be a key factor in what brings many people to the shows these guys perform, male and female.

An example of why the guys might show up. At a recent show in Nottingham, England, where the reviewer described her as a “frazzled, promiscuous Natalie Imbruglia”, the band had to cut short their set because of a blown fuse in the bass rig. Isabella announced on stage: “If you want a refund, come see me. I’ll give you a kiss.” As to whether that offer was taken up by all in attendance is unclear, but it’s a great way to win fans and deal with a sticky situation with comic genius.

The Preatures hit the radio waves at a time when retro sounds are proving to be a popular potion. Haim hit us early last year with their brand of female-driven disco rock, attitude included, and Australian acts like The Bamboos and Saskwatch have also been filling venues by delivering faultless soul-fuelled sets that are taking us back to a time when it was the music, and not the technology, that made us smile and dance.

Manfredi has been described as part Chrissy Amphlett (Divinyls), part Stevie Nicks (Fleetwood Mac), two comparisons she could only be delighted by. And they’re not far off the mark. I can’t speak for the live performances, as I’ve not managed to get to a show yet, but what I’ve heard coming out of the studio would certainly make those two queens of rock and roll smile.

The band’s second EP certainly appears to be paving the way to bigger and better things, perhaps an album. Aside from Better Than It Ever Could Be, the other track of sheer quality is Is This How You Feel?, which certainly tips the hat in the direction of Ms Nicks. There are some great vocal chops from the outset (“a-chika-a-chika) and it’s an almost breathless, desperate delivery thereafter by both Isabella and partner in crime guitarist and vocalist Gideon Benson. Superbly done, all bouncing on a bright poppy backbeat that charms the senses. Lyrically, the song is about a relationship that’s so bad it’s good, and the ripping at the mind and psyche that can cause. Love, right. It makes great songs, there is no doubt.

All up, I hope for a very bright future for these guys, and look forward to their return Down Under, because I’ll certainly be buying a ticket to one or more of their shows.

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RÁJ wants to love you

Raj - Let Me Love You

Raj – Let Me Love You

I stumbled across this gorgeous piece of music from RÁJ today, a track called Let Me Love You.

RÁJ hails from Los Angeles, I’ve discovered, and is just 20 years of age, joining what seems to be a plethora of stunningly good young musicians already on the scene. He’s got some pretty mature, soulful tones in his voice. But this is far from a song of love. It’s dark, twisted, but incredibly beautiful all at the same time. “Let me love you ’til it hurts,” he broods, reminding us all of the times we fell in love with someone that was only going to hurt us.

There have only been a few loose demos from RÁJ up until now, so it’s good to hear that he’s getting some more produced tracks out there. We don’t know about you, but we can’t wait for more.

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NONONO return with Hungry Eyes

NONONO - Hungry Eyes

NONONO – Hungry Eyes

Last year they had the whole wide world whistling with Pumpin Blood, and now Swedish popsters NONONO are back with a new track, Hungry Eyes.

It’s a little bit more laid back than Pumpin Blood, and less dark than Human Being, which we wrote about more than a year ago. What we’re hearing from the Stockholm trio so far is that there is versatility in the sounds Astma & Rocwell are producing for Stina Wäppling’s voice.

There is a debut album coming that will feature all these tunes, and the band has announced it will be titled We Are Only What We Feel.

There is no date for the album release as yet, but we’re already looking forward to it here Down Under.

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Wake up to Elbow’s beautiful New York Morning

New York Morning Elbow

The sleeve art for Elbow’s New York Morning single.

We wrote a few days ago about Elbow’s new material, and this week, the first single from upcoming album The Take Off And Landing Of Everything is out.

New York Morning is a cracking way to introduce us to the new record. I already want more, because it’s a truly magnificent piece of music. Check it out via the video below, or listen to the Spotify embed if you want to close your eyes and truly listen. (I recommend the latter first.)

If you’re unaware, the clip is a tribute to Dennis and Lois, a music-mad Brooklyn couple who met through music and continue to enjoy their lives through it. “That’s what I do with my money. Buy gas and go and see music,” Lois says. Apart from the gas part, how I can empathise with that.

The Take Off And Landing Of Everything is slated for launch on 7 March. Here’s the tracklisting, which the band released earlier this month.

This Blue World
Fly Boy Blue/Lunette
New York Morning
Real Life (Angel)
Honey Sun
My Sad Captains
Colour Fields
The Take Off and Landing of Everything
The Blanket of Night

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