wears the trousers magazine


smoosh: free to stay (2008)
June 17, 2008, 12:29 am
Filed under: album, review | Tags: , , ,

Smoosh
Free To Stay ••½
Warner Bros.

I sat down to write this review determined not to let Smoosh’s age run away with my word count; numerous column inches have already been spent marvelling at the achievements of Chloe and Asya, the two teenage sisters who make up Smoosh. Instead, I decided would concentrate on ‘the music’. But it just isn’t possible. Smoosh’s age dominates the experience of listening to their songs – their very name quite deliberately conjures up childish associations and Asya’s vocals are unavoidably lacking maturity.

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2007 reviews dump: b

The following reviews were published on our old MySpace blog in 2007.

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Meg Baird
Dear Companion ••••
Wichita

What with all the caterwauling harpists in mediaeval dress, bindi sporting pinkos and long-lost commune-dwelling recluses, the folk revival of recent years has had a focus on original songs that some purists regard as contrary to the folk ethos. The revision and reinterpretation of traditional songs and adoption of new songs to the folk songbook has taken a back seat. As a member of Espers, Meg Baird has been on the side of the innovators over the past five years. For her first solo outing, however, she seeds an album of traditional songs with original numbers and creates a work at times reminiscent of luminaries of early ‘60s pastoral folk, such as Anne Briggs and Shirley Collins.

Apparently recorded in less than 24 hours with Espers conspirator Greg Weeks, Dear Companion is an unostentatious collection of songs, some of which first appeared on last year’s delicate collaboration with Sharron Kraus and Helena Espvall, Leaves From Off The Tree. The arrangement of acoustic guitar, minimum accompaniment and the largely single-tracked vocals give great immediacy to the songs. As though listening to a live performance, if you close your eyes you can smell the cloudy cider and pipe smoke.

With a voice like a mountain stream of glacial meltwater, Baird makes light work of traditional favourites such as ‘Willie O’Winsbury’, giving new life to stories told countless times. And her songs hold their own, not directly emulating the folk tradition of the traditional numbers but working as a counterpoint in the modern singer-songwriter mould. The opener and title track is a country-tinged love song that is at least as old as the Carter family and packed with lines like “I’ll drink nothing but my tears”. When revisited as an a cappella number at the end of the album, however, it sounds as though it has been lifted from the English folk canon.

This gracious nod to different heritages recurs throughout the album. A version of the classic ‘Barbry Allen’ sees her expertly subvert her crystal vocals to capture the macabre side of the song, a tale of unrequited lovers dying one after the other. The self-penned ‘Do What You Gotta Do’ and ‘All I Ever Wanted’ see Baird updating stories of frustrated love and disappointment. The haunting refrain from the latter “you keep playing your games on me / and all I ever wanted was your loving” is the aural equivalent of a plump teardrop quivering on the brink of an eyelid. ‘Tennis Players’ Waltze’ gets my instant seal of approval for likening a new love to the fruiting of a fungus: “your love for me was an overnight sensation / my love for you is an overnight sensation too… / the cowboys are sprinkling mycelium / the mushrooms are growing in every new boot print”. Such mycological accuracy may not be a clincher for everyone, although, if you fail to be moved by the humour, tenderness and honesty of the song, whether you are a fan of fungus or not, your heart has died. You just haven’t noticed it yet.

The album is completed by a couple of other traditional songs of the type in which more people called William and Ellen fall in love, are forbidden to marry, and then pine to death. These songs, accompanied by droning autoharp, sound like something from another era, whereas the other tracks sound simply timeless in the way that only songs reinterpreted time and again can. Dear Companion impresses not just with its rendering of folk classics and with the poetry and emotion of the self-penned numbers, but with its marriage of the two styles. It might not be the most joyous album, but what folk ever is? As any good folk singer should do, Meg Baird finds the beauty, humour and universal truth in stories of love, death and fungi.

Peter Hayward

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Miranda Barber
My Tomorrow EP •••½
Self-released

The second EP from Oz-born, London-based singer-songwriter Miranda Barber presents the listener with a lucky seven piano-based ballads. Whilst this is strictly a 5+2 bonus tracks release, those welcome extras easily stand alongside the ‘proper’ songs on their own merits. Barber’s first, self-titled EP drew some almost subliminal Kate Bush comparisons in the vocal style but here she moves in a more jazz-influenced direction with double bass, subtle guitar and soft percussion. However, it’s Barber’s voice and her hands on the piano that command centre stage. Luckily, that’s where it gets really interesting.

Befitting the depth and darkness of some of her lyrics, Barber guides us through some brooding, ominous musical terrain. ‘Blues Day’ and the title song succeed in chilling the heart while keeping the listener involved and transfixed. Barber’s rich, pure vocal gets straight to the emotional core of the songs with seemingly little effort, casting welcome elements of light and shade with subtly textured self-harmonies. The achingly pretty ‘My Roof Has Got A Hole In It’ might well drown you in its desperate melancholy before ‘Paprika Haze’ lifts the mood with a shift in style whereupon it occupies that sublime showtune-meets-pop song otherworld practically invented by Randy Newman. A hot ‘n’ spicy invitation to get together driven forward by Barber’s spiky piano chords, ‘Eggshells’ rounds off the regular EP, pulling the mood back down and unflinchingly exploring the more obsessive side of love.

Whatever perceived modesty led Barber to include ‘Too Damn Hard’ and ‘No Air To Breathe’ as bonus tracks was a false one; the sheer quality of the songs more than warrants their inclusion. The former allows Barber scope to display the jazzier end of her range, while the latter provides a devastatingly chilling conclusion. A political twist on the murder ballad canon, it follows a young asylum seeker on his journey to a new life and a painful loss without descending into mawkish melodrama. Not an easy feat by any means.

My Tomorrow is a perfect showcase for Barber’s talent; alternately soothing, chilling and mysterious, but always, always beguiling.

Trevor Raggatt

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Dame Shirley Bassey
Get The Party Started •••½
Lock Stock & Barrel

One of Glastonbury’s most bizarre high points this year came during the Sunday afternoon slot, when 70-year old Dame Shirley Bassey performed a short set to an enraptured audience. Hardly the kind of hard-edged rock star that often graces the Glasto stage, she nonetheless received tumultuous applause from a crowd whose individuals were mostly at least forty years her junior; clearly, her appeal has not diminished with age. Get The Party Started, then, arrives right on cue. A collection of ten remixes and three covers, most of the songs will already be familiar to Bassey fans from the old to the new – ‘Kiss Me, Honey Honey’ was first released in 1959, while the title track, a cover of P!nk’s 2002 hit single, was used in last year’s acclaimed M&S Christmas ad campaign. As ever, the biggest challenge for the Dame is to rise above the hackneyed James Bond stylings that have often marked – or marred – her music. Does she succeed? Mostly…

Bassey’s famously brassy voice seems to lend itself to remixing: witness The Propellorheads’ thumping version of ‘History Repeating’ and Kayne West’s ‘Diamonds From Sierra Leone’. Although the quantity of remixes here could easily be a recipe for a stale-sounding novelty album, all succeed in lending a fresh air to some of the Dame’s greatest hits. Of particular note, NorthXNorthwest’s accomplished mix of ‘Big Spender’ perfectly captures the song’s glitzy, darkly glamorous sound, while giving it fresh breath with a throbbing bassline and overdriven synths that perfectly complement the track’s classic brass riffs. Of course, Bassey’s turbo-charged vocals take centre stage, never secondary to the additional layers of sound. Caged Baby’s remix of ‘This Is My Life’ is an excellent example: remixed for 2007′s club crowd, the mix avoids drowning her voice with synth drums, choosing instead to build a solid crowd-pleaser around a classically breathless performance.

The covers are somewhat less successful. Although fans will be pleased to hear the title track in full, some might be dismayed by Bassey’s misguided attempts to match the original’s subversive and wavering vocals. Elsewhere, ‘The Living Tree’, itself a magnificently powerful song, suffers from the self-conscious cliché of Bond-style chromatic scales, while a woeful ‘I Will Survive’ fails to match its potential as Bassey drifts from affected rhythmic modifications to an unappealingly monotonous delivery.

Despite these low points, most of these songs are welcome additions to Bassey’s already formidable repertoire. It may not be an artistic triumph but it will certainly please the Dame’s devotees and anyone looking for an accessible party record. To quote the lady herself, she is what she is, and that’s really quite alright. After all, it’s a formula that’s worked for nigh on 50 years, and Bassey shows no signs of slowing down.

Andy Wasley

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Natasha Bedingfield
N.B. •
RCA

For those of us out there who have been feeling mounting concern at the absence of the Bedingfield brood from the airwaves, fear no more! Middle child Natasha has returned to assail our ears with the bland pop that is apparently written into her very genes. On my first attempt to listen through Ms Bedingfield’s second album, the imaginatively titled N.B., the universe revolted and I suffered a power cut halfway through the first track. I’m afraid this says it all.

It is a question long unanswered as to how some people manage to be so successful in the music industry, Bedingfield being a prime example. Her voice is not particularly pretty or tuneful, and she has a habit of shouting her lyrics rather than actually singing them. Nor does her material possess any sense of originality; each song sounds like something heard a thousand times before. Listening to this album, you could be forgiven for suspecting you had recently developed precognitive powers, so predictable and banal are the lyrics. The source of her popularity (both at home and in the US, of all places) continues to mystify.

On too many of N.B.‘s 14 tiring tracks, Bedingfield plays the role of a one-girl tribute band; ‘Tricky Angel’s chorus is pure Sugababes, and ‘When You Know You Know’ shows off Bedingfield’s very best Mariah Carey impression. Others, such as ‘How Do You Do’ and first single ‘I Wanna Have Your Babies’, are more distinctly hers but alas all sound the same. The latter is typical nonsensical Bedingfield fare in the vein of ‘These Words’. The song’s title and sentiment are enough to induce a mild sense of offence, and this is only compounded by the last handful of bars, wherein Bedingfield seems to actually be counting the children that are presumably springing one after another from her bountiful loins. Simply inexcusable. The obligatory ballads, ‘Soulmate’ (which is also her next single – can’t wait) and the Diane Warren-penned ‘Still Here’, tick all the requisite boxes on the checklist – downtempo? check! strings? check! soppy lyrics? check! – but completely fail to induce any sort of emotion in the listener.

N.B. is unoriginal, predictable, soulless, and will no doubt sell by the hundreds of thousands. Bedingfield is undoubtedly an attractive young woman, but this can hardly explain why so many people are willing to pay for the privilege of listening to her sing bad songs in her mediocre voice. When music has so much scope, why this nonsense is the stuff that sells millions is, quite frankly, unfathomable.

Hugh Armitage

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The Bird & The Bee
The Bird & The Bee ••••
Regal

This collaborative effort between keyboardist/producer Greg Kurstin (the bee) and vocalist Inara George (the bird) is a hipster’s electro-pop wet dream. It’s the kind of record Charlotte Gainsbourg’s character Stephanie in ‘The Science of Sleep’ would make were she not too busy faffing around with sweet wrappers and Pritt-Stik: ironic, referential 160s retro.

Pleasingly, it’s also very good. The track that’s garnered the most attention (and also made #1 on the US Dance Chart courtesy of a remix from Peaches) is ‘Fucking Boyfriend’, a sparkling fresh, vacuum-packed gem. There’s something thrilling about hearing filthy language in a pristine pop context and The Bird & The Bee have captured it perfectly. The expletives are born out of the frustration experienced when a giddy, flirtatious relationship resolutely fails to become something more. “Are you working up to something? / But you give me almost nothing”, George asks in the verse, before a gentle rainstorm of electronica heralds the chorus refrain, “Will you ever be my / will you be my fucking boyfriend?”. Waiting for the other party to make things ‘official’ can be a prolonged and ultimately disappointing game, but the giggles at the end of the song suggest that things might turn out rosy.

‘Fucking Boyfriend’ is fairly indicative of the album as a whole: summery pop with a sharp lyrical wit and a multitude of (to use a precise musical term) twinkling noises. On ‘Again & Again’, the album’s lead single, a charge of electronic fuzz undercuts the handclaps and acoustic guitar work. But the darkness never gets the upper hand. Even ‘I’m A Broken Heart’, with lyrics that wouldn’t be out of place on PJ Harvey’s Rid Of Me - “aching and teething / my big love is bleeding/ I think I might be dying” – sounds positively laidback, with soothing winsome brass and lazy slow beats. The effect is a little strange; George might repeatedly intone that she’s a broken heart, but she doesn’t really sound all that bothered and the point of this extreme contrast is unclear. But this is a rare unsatisfying note in a confident and cohesive album.

The Bird & The Bee is a sophisticated pop record that toys playfully with the listener, particularly on ‘I Hate Cameras’ (“Don’t take my / DON’T TAKE MY PICTURE!”) which may be a straightforward anti-photography rant or a calculated grab for attention. So if you’re a fan of breathy female vocals, sparklingly clear production and knowing lyrics, lie back in the grass with the sun on your face and let Kurstin and George teach you about the birds and the bees.

Danny Weddup

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The Bird & The Bee
Please Clap Your Hands EP •••
Blue Note

Please Clap Your Hands is the second EP from musical duo The Bird & The Bee, otherwise known as Inara George and Greg Kurstin. Kurstin is a producer/keyboardist who has been involved with a great big mixed bag of artists, some good, others distinctly bad. George is the daughter of the late Lowell George, who helped found the band Little Feat in the 1970s. She, too, has a solo career and other side projects. With such a busy and varied musical background, one might wonder what kind of music they would come up with.

The quality of the material on Please Clap Your Hands is as varied as its creators’ musical experience. The music itself is pleasant – electronic in sound but comforting like the tune favourite retro computer game or childhood cartoon, rather than weird and alienating like techno or electro. The drumbeat has an upbeat party feel that gives the tracks (particularly ‘So You Say’) the feel of an indie dance mix. The music is cute and just a little strange: fun, but nothing astounding.

For all the acclaim their debut album received, there are two sides to The Bird & The Bee: lovers of George’s light and airy vocals and haters of her apparent lack of emotion. To these ears her voice is not intolerable, but there is something unaccountably cold about it. She doesn’t sound like she feels what she is singing about. This is emphasised on ‘The Races’, where an echoing effect added to her vocals makes her sound all the more distant and detached.

The better parts of Please Clap Your Hands turn out to be the few in which George injects a bit more feeling into her voice. The half-spoken bridge in ‘So You Say’ is brazen and defiant, like something The Dresden Dolls’ Amanda Palmer might growl, and is markedly more attention grabbing than anything else the EP has to offer. The duo’s cover of the Bee Gees classic ‘How Deep Is Your Love’ is another high point, mainly because once again George sounds like she really means what she’s singing.

Please Clap Your Hands has much to recommend it, largely due to some interesting experiments with musical styles. Unfortunately, the indifferent vocals prevent this from being more than an unexceptional collection of songs.

Hugh Armitage

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The Book Of Knots
Traineater •••½
Anti-

That New York four-piece The Book Of Knots first came together under the simple premise of needing “an excuse to write songs for their friends” belies the experimental noises found on their second release, Traineater. Not an album written to sell millions and go triple platinum, but rather an idea that someone wanted to turn into music, Traineater pays tribute to the American Rust Belt. Once the manufacturing heart of the United States, the Belt encompasses places like Detroit and Cleveland that grew under the promise of a bright future at the head of industry, only to slowly decline and go to seed as the decades rolled on. This spirit is captured perfectly in Traineater, which is full of the lonely crying of strings and the industrial clunking of percussion. There is a real sense of loss, of mechanical decay and the broken promise of a bright future vanished forever.

‘View From The Watertower’ makes for a difficult start. The tone is distinctly sinister, and guest lyricist/vocalist Carla Bozulich (formerly of The Geraldine Fibbers) sounds like a strange mix of Patti Smith and Courtney Love, drawling and screaming along to a chorus of cacophonic strings. It is not a relaxing tune by any means, and is definitely something of an acquired taste. Bozulich is but the first in a parade of guests, which include the great Tom Waits and wife Kathleen Brennan on ‘Pray’, a clanking piece which could have come straight out of his own Mule Variations.

There are some songs, like ‘Midnight’ (co-written by and featuring morbid romantic Memphis singer-songwriter Megan Reilly) and the album’s title track, that possess a quiet and melancholy beauty and really capture the sadness of the Rust Belt’s soured American dream. ‘Red Apple Boy’, with guest vocals from David Thomas and harp from Zeena Parkins, is also strangely Waits-esque, and Jon Langford on ‘Boomtown’ gives a rather creepy half-spoken monologue about a sad old town ruined by the passage of years.

The harshness of ‘View From The Watertower’ is repeated throughout the album, particularly in ‘Pedro To Cleveland’ and ‘The Ballad Of John Henry’. Though these tracks are challenging, they add greatly to the strong sense of atmosphere that evokes the grim and barren Rust Belt so well. Jarring they may be, but they possess their own sense of dark beauty as much as the other, prettier songs on the album.

Traineater demands a lot from the listener. It is not the sort of album you can put on and relax with; no one will be playing it in the background at any dinner parties. It requires a lot of attention, and is not easy to like right away. It may be difficult to listen to in places, but it is masterfully atmospheric and, at times, as darkly beautiful as the places that have inspired it.

Hugh Armitage

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Katey Brooks
True Speaker EP ••••½
Self-released

Despite being of only tender years, Bristol’s Katey Brooks could already be on the road to becoming a phenomenon. Possessed of a unique voice – and oft said that rarely accurate statement – Wears The Trousers would challenge anyone to listen to the five tracks on True Speaker and not be deeply affected. The a cappella ‘Hear Me Now’ starts things off with a haunting prayer of desperation made all the more powerful by its simplicity and intimate honesty. It’s hard to draw comparisons to other singers, although a subtle blend of Joan Armatrading and Tracy Chapman is perhaps the least inadequate.

Brooks’s voice is astonishingly deep, with a richness to it that envelops the listener in a comforting blanket of honey-tinged…hmm, I might as well admit it, I’m lost for even haltingly adequate editors and similes. She really is ‘that good’. The rest of the tracks on the EP take a similarly folksy form. Acoustic guitars and bass are joined by plaintive violin in sympathy with the vocal, all the evidence suggesting that Brooks’s talents as a writer are as well developed as her singing. Each song is quietly contemplative and perfectly complements the half-swallowed vocal performance, never overshadowing the singer.

It’s so rare to come across a singer who contributes something genuinely new these days. So often such a claim merely presages yet another cookie cutter starlet and a depressing anticlimax. For once, that isn’t the case; Katey Brooks is one of those rare exceptions and someone whom Wears The Trousers will be watching carefully as she continues to bloom as an artist. She’ll be performing alongside Mara Carlyle at our artist showcase in November; you won’t want to miss it.

Trevor Raggatt

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Carla Bruni
No Promises •••
Naïve

Italian heiress Carla Bruni may have an illustrious, almost storybook past as a supermodel fashion icon but don’t let it cloud your judgement on her actual talent. What would typically be a healthy cynicism of someone making such a leap (have you heard Kate Moss sing? And what about Naomi Campbell’s ill-starred pop flirtation?) would, in this case, be entirely wrong. Bruni is a decent guitarist and is in possession of a very unique, intimate and engaging – and yes, not a little sexy – vocal style that makes her folksy chansons so appealing. Her 2002 debut, Quelqu’un m’a dit, was a Franco-Italian delight and made a dent in the English cool circles despite the language barrier.

No Promises sees Bruni take up the challenge of competing in English with a similar approach. The genius part is using texts from famous dead poets that really allow her unusual accented phrasing to bring something special to the predominantly guitar and brushed drum-supported melodies. A peek at the songwriting credits reveals a none-more-venerable cast that includes WB Yeats (‘Those Dancing Days Are Gone’, ‘Before The World Was Made’), WH Auden (‘Lady Weeping At The Crossroads’, ‘At Last The Secret Is Out’), Emily Dickinson (‘I Felt My Life With Both My Hands’, ‘If You Were Coming In The Fall’, ‘I Went To Heaven’), Walter de la Mare (‘Autumn’), Dorothy Parker (‘Afternoon’, ‘Ballad At Thirty-Five’) and Christina Rossetti (‘Promises Like Piecrust’). Bruni gives a real personal interpretation of these poems with melancholic romanticism, and whilst the writers have been set to music before – Joni Mitchell has drawn on Yeats’s verse, while composer Benjamin Britten collaborated with Auden himself – Bruni’s half-spoken, half-sung style is unique in a Françoise Hardy meets Jane Birkin manner, though not as obvious as such a comparison seems.

That Bruni appears to have that ethos of doing well at whatever she focuses her attentions on is all the more impressive given that she might easily have chosen never to work in her life with all her privileges and status. Not to mention her beauty – she’s been romantically linked with everyone from Mick Jagger and Eric Clapton to Donald Trump and Kevin Costner. Next year sees the 10th anniversary of her retirement from the fashion world and her 40th birthday, and Bruni sounds more authentic than ever. No Promises may well seep beneath your skin if you give it time to grow. Then go get her first album too.

Sara Silver

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Mutya Buena
Real Girl •
Island

The media like to make a big deal about Amy Winehouse’s drinking habits. Every second day we are subjected to stories about how she has had to cancel a gig or reschedule a TV appearance because she’s been hitting the bottle too hard. With these kinds of exaggerated stories it’s never quite clear whether or not the whole thing is the creation of an over-zealous PR team, or the actions of a self-destructive nymph who figures she doesn’t really need a liver. After listening to ‘B-Boy Baby’, Amy’s duet with Mutya, which also happens to be a rehash of the classic Ronettes’ song ‘Be My Baby’, it’s quite clear that the latter is, in fact, true. There is no other logical explanation as to why Amy would lend her lungs to this tune, AKA the worst song ever committed to plastic, other than the fact she was completely hammered on the day of recording.

But, let’s get to Mutya, who is the star of this here record. You may be aware that Mutya jumped ship on the Sugababes in 2005, leaving the band to look after her baby and start up a solo career. Many felt that with her she took the ‘voice’ of the band, and without her their edge was lost (they do, after all, pride themselves on being the ‘edgy’ girlband). It’s true that she has a not unlistenable tone which often wraps itself around her subject quite nicely, but, with material like that which appears on her solo debut it’s nowhere near time for her ex-bandmates to hand in their kitten heels and black eyeliner.

For those not in the know, Mutya was, to delicately put it, the bitch of the Sugababes. Staring blankly from CD sleeves and coming across aloof as can be in interviews, she was the member who dripped with cool. She was the girl who would steal your lunch money and sit at the back of the class, smoking cigarettes and taking swigs from a bottle of vodka. So, as you would expect her album is full of…sappy ballads with no personality. Hmm.

Every quirk and shred of character has been ironed out in order to make an album which is as inoffensive as possible. Even potentially interesting songs such as ‘It’s Not Easy’, with the knowing line ‘It’s not easy being right all the time, you know someone has to be’ have been airbrushed to the nth degree, making a spunky song bland and unlistenable. The only beacon that shines in this mess of songs is ‘Song 4 Mutya (Out of Control)’, Mutya’s collaboration with Groove Armada, which was recorded for their album ‘Soundboy Rock’ earlier this year and wasn’t even intended for inclusion on ‘Real Girl’. 

As far as solo albums by ex-members of girl bands go, this effort should be filed somewhere between Victoria Beckham’s VB, and Kelly Rowland’s Simply Deep – one semi-decent song and 40-odd minutes of additional sounds.

Keith Anderson

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Basia Bulat
Oh, My Darling •••½
Rough Trade

Since, and perhaps because of, the ‘90s tyranny of Alanis, Céline and Shania, every musician in Canada seems to have been hell bent on becoming the best folk-rock artist the world has to offer. From Broken Social Scene to The Be Good Tanyas and many others in between, Canadian music has achieved global credibility and prominence and even spawned “the best band in the world right now” (Arcade Fire, in case you have been asleep for the past two years). Maybe just once it would be a refreshing change to hear someone say “here’s a new folk-influenced Canadian artist and actually they’re a bit average”. No such opportunity with Basia Bulat, whose debut album fizzes with folksy assuredness.

Armed with an acoustic guitar and a voice like warm molasses, Bulat laces Oh, My Darling‘s collection of waltzes, ballads and gentle Spanish-influenced dances with tinges of jazz and lounge. Bulat’s approach to folk music is very reminiscent of founding Be Good Tanya, Jolie Holland, although Basia’s songs lean much more heavily on pop…in a good way. ‘Before I Knew’ is a sleepy, short number that drifts lazily into the effervescent ‘I Was A Daughter’, in which suburban streets turn into dirt tracks and Bulat finds herself in adrift in a wilderness. An approach to songwriting described in the press release as picking ideas from trees in the forest immediately sets the twee alarms ringing, but, rather than armfuls of feathers, pretty leaves and blossom, you get the idea that she came back with birds’ nests, interesting lichen and soggy socks and shoes.

The title track starts with the promising line “there are two things I will carry in my pockets at the end and you are one of them / and the way you look when you have a story to begin, that’s the other half”, but is over all too soon. ‘Little Waltz’ recalls Jolie Holland’s perfect evocation of times past and could be the soundtrack to a barn dance in an era when men wore dungarees and workman’s boots and women wore gingham pinafore dresses. But it’s not all old-timey bucolic charm and peat bogs. ‘Snakes & Ladders’ is a relationship deconstructed, an indictment of the games lovers play, and is laced with frenetic strings and a killer ukulele hook; this is, however, as fierce as the album gets. ‘Why Can’t It Be Mine’, a moving story of longing sparkles with Latin rhythms and begs to be the soundtrack to a thousand movie break-ups.

Throughout, the album the instrumentation is flawless, though sometimes predictable and heavily influenced by acts such as The Be Good Tanyas. The songs are classy, and Bulat should be applauded for the variety of styles she artfully ties together while keeping one eye on pop sensibilities, although perhaps only two or three songs really tug at the heartstrings. Nonetheless, the whole album is held together by Bulat’s sumptuous voice – warm, smoky, emotive when she needs it to be, and subtly understated at all the right times.

Her intimate, heartfelt songs have garnered Bulat quite a following in her hometown of London, Ontario, though the album’s not yet in the shops there. Certainly it is to Rough Trade’s credit that they have scooped North America with their European release and it can only be a matter of time before her home country and their southern neighbours are able to appreciate Oh, My Darling‘s many charms. It’s a consistently good (if not consistently great) and endearing effort in the tradition of the Canadian folk revival. The title track and perhaps a couple of others could have been developed further, rather than left as pleasing ditties, for at just 35 minutes the album really leaves you wanting some more. Then again, that’s not necessarily a bad thing.

Peter Hayward

 



2007 reviews dump: h

The following reviews were published on our old MySpace blog in 2007.

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Emily Haines & The Soft Skeleton
Knives Don’t Have Your Back ••••
Drowned In Sound

Best known for her achingly fashionable day job as frontwoman of chart-friendly Canadian indie dance-rock-pop outfit Metric, and not unregarded for her work with Broken Social Scene, Emily Haines can seemingly do no wrong. Knives Don’t Have Your Back isn’t going to change that. Following in the footsteps of her good friend Amy Millan of Stars and Rilo Kiley’s Jenny Lewis, Haines has pared back her sound to produce a magnificently understated, mostly elegiac album that firmly cements her reputation as an excellent songwriter.

Who, then, are The Soft Skeleton? Quite simply, they’re a bunch of players Haines put together especially for the album, including Scott Minor from Sparklehorse and various members of Broken Social Scene and Metric. Really though, the guests are just for musicianship and Knives… is all Haines. Her keyboard skills, which have barely been made use of up ’til now, are prominent. Indeed, aside from some tasteful string arrangements and some horns, the album is a showcase for Haines and her piano.

Haines’s voice is well suited to piano-driven ballads and her vocals have a dry, sad essence not too dissimilar to Martina Topley-Bird’s unusual style. With that in mind, Knives Don’t Have Your Back couldn’t be further from her muscular, vibrant work with Metric. Instead of being part of a slickly produced noise outfit, here Haines is laid bare, literally sounding as though her bandmates had upped and wandered away. A melancholic intimacy and darkness surround these lo-fi laments, the subject matter of which is often shadowy. Two songs – ‘Reading In Bed’ and ‘Mostly Waving’ – were recorded in the winter of 2002 as Haines was coping with the sudden death of her father, a famed poet from Montreal.

As refreshing as this downbeat peek into Haines’s world is, the album is ultimately let down by the sameness of the tracks; none are standout tunes that are destined for radio (perhaps a brave move for someone so accustomed to receiving considerable airplay, in Canada at least). Not to worry. Given that Haines has very publicly announced that her day job with Metric is still her priority, Knives… simply gives her the space to stretch out and really show the breadth of her talents, and in doing so to make a bold departure from that which made her name.

Stephanie Heney

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Hannah
Everything Is Changing •••½
Snowdog

Big in Estonia. It sounds like an ironic putdown. One step less successful than the now legendary “big in Japan” – how good can that be? Well, not bad actually.

Hannah Ild really is big in her Baltic home country. Big in Kylie proportions. Big enough to need only just one name. Now the 26 year old singer, who already has five hit albums to her name back home, is taking advantage of Estonia’s entry into the Internal Market and launching herself into the pop world across Europe. Everything Is Changing certainly presses all the relevant pop princess buttons, with expensive sounding production (courtesy of serious British and American studio time), lush string arrangements, heart-rending ballads and hook-laden uptempo numbers. And that’s not just damning with faint praise. The songs – all self-penned – are strong and Ild’s vocal delivery is positively luminous in places, catching with emotion at the peaks of the songs’ restrained intensity.

Typified by the single ‘I See’ and ‘They Said’, the arrangements are mostly acoustically-based with guitar and piano at the fore plus a myriad of subtle textures layered on top to retain the listener’s interest. On both of these songs there’s just enough Mitchell Froom-era Corrs-esque touches thrown into the mix to ensure that by the time the big chorus hits, the Radio 2 core audience will be hooked into submission. ‘You Are’ finds Ild in full-on ballad mode with a swooping orchestral passage that kicks in during the chorus and could easily have graced any number of albums by artists from Anastasia or Kelly Clarkson to The Veronicas, but here it’s Hannah’s own in every way. Other standouts include the title track and ‘These Days’, both of which are drenched with unrequited love and longing.

The sheer quality of Everything Is Changing is something of a pleasant revelation, showing that there really can be life outside of Eurovision (Hannah came second in the 1997 contest with ‘A Lonely Soul’) for Eastern European pop exports. Ild deserves success beyond that which she’s accrued back in Estonia, and if this is typical of what the expansion of Europe will bring, well, vivre l’esprit communautaire.

Trevor Raggatt

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Emmylou Harris
Songbird: Rare Tracks & Forgotten Gems ••••½
Rhino

From 1996′s Portraits boxset through Rhino’s 2001 Anthology to 2005′s Heartaches & Highways, a significant number of ‘best of’ compilations have been dedicated to reviewing Emmylou Harris’s extensive and eminent musical catalogue. So many, in fact, that we may question the necessity of another collection that re-caps the career of the woman who, for nearly 40 years, has brought impeccable taste, grace and elegance – as well as a healthy dose of genre-bending daring – to the country barroom.

Songbird, however, is altogether a different proposition. As its enticing subtitle makes clear, this mammoth set – 4 CDs featuring 78 tracks, a DVD of TV performances, and a 200-page booklet including track-by-track commentary – is no standard greatest hits package but rather a generous selection of “personal favourites,” hand-picked by Harris as a kind of alternative retrospective of her work to date. Don’t expect to find the likes of ‘Boulder To Birmingham’ here. Instead, Songbird showcases under-valued album tracks, live cuts, soundtrack and tribute album contributions, a whole host of collaborations, and thirteen previously unreleased songs. As such, this is very much a collection pitched at the Harris completist, or at those eager to dig deeper into a body of work that must rank as one of the most distinctive and remarkable in contemporary music. Whichever category you fall into, the opportunity to immerse yourself in some of the more obscure corners of the work of the Grace Kelly of country will prove a total pleasure.

Even so, for true Harris aficionados, quite a bit of the material featured on Songbird will be familiar, especially the songs spread across the first two CDs. These discs take a broad chronological sweep through the full range of her solo studio albums, assembling tracks from the classic 1970s Hot Band recordings, the neo-traditionalist releases Blue Kentucky Girl and Roses In The Snow and the denser textures of Wrecking Ball, Red Dirt Girl and Stumble Into Grace. The work with Gram Parsons gets surprisingly short shrift, represented by just two tracks, a heartfelt rendition of the Louvins’s ‘The Angels Rejoiced Last Night’ (a fitting choice given the brothers’ influence on the famed Parsons/Harris harmonies) and an exuberant live version of ‘The Old Country Baptizing’, while 1985′s The Ballad Of Sally Rose – the self-penned song-cycle which Parsons inspired – is also poorly represented. 

Nonetheless, the pickings are rich indeed, and of primary interest for rarities fans is the opening track, ‘Clocks’, an alternate take of a decidedly Clouds-era Joni Mitchell style ditty culled from Harris’s deleted first folk foray Gilding Bird. But perhaps the greatest revelation of these discs is just how beautifully Harris’s studio work has aged; the ‘70s and ‘80s work still sounds fresh and vital – much more so than anything that’s emerging from the Nashville mainstream these days – and the Lanois/Burns-produced tracks retain their mysterious allure. While a number of these songs remain in her concert repertoire, these discs permit the pleasure of rediscovery and offer fans a valuable opportunity to reacquaint themselves with album tracks that they may have forgotten. Compelling renditions of Springsteen’s ‘Racing In The Streets’, Sandy Denny’s ‘Like An Old-Fashioned Waltz’, and Leonard Cohen’s ‘Ballad Of A Runaway Horse’ were particular standouts for this listener.

Eschewing chronology, the next two discs collate a wide selection of rarities and hard-to-find material, and feature a roll call of collaborators and duet partners that reads like a veritable ‘Who’s Who’ of Americana. The many highlights include simply beautiful renditions of Beth Nielsen Chapman’s ‘Beyond The Blue’ (with Patty Griffin), Katy Wolf’s ‘Love Still Remains’, Woody Guthrie’s ‘Hobo’s Lullaby’, and the Carters’ ‘Wildwood Flower’ (with Iris DeMent), as well as blissfully soulful takes on Parsons’ ‘Juanita’, ‘She’ and ‘Sin City’ (with Sheryl Crow, Chrissie Hynde and Beck respectively). The sequencing is immaculate, with thematically linked tracks frequently arranged together to form little cycles and suites. Issues and images recur: loss, grief, lonesomeness, spiritual redemption, the temptations of travel, the desire for homecoming. A pair of lovely Paul Kennerley originals from his 1980 The Legend Of Jesse James project (‘Heaven Ain’t Ready For You Yet’ and ‘Wish We Were Back In Missouri’) are placed together, as are two memorable unreleased outtakes from the Trio sessions with Dolly Parton and Linda Ronstadt. In short, the advertised gems really are gems, showcasing Harris’s genius for selecting material, her special gifts of interpretation, and her seeming ability to sing with anyone and make it sound as natural and effortless as breathing.

Harris can fully inhabit songs both ancient and modern, secular and spiritual, and her singing style combines burning passion and impeccable restraint in equal measure. Her voice reflects her rich amalgam of influences, merging country ache and folky nuance, breathy highs and grainy lows, and hearing its progression from girlishness to maturity across Songbird is a fascinating and quite moving experience. Her singing may be famed for its ‘angelic’ qualities but there’s much more to it than ethereal loveliness. Yes, Harris can soothe like few others but she can also freeze the blood, as her chillingly intense takes on Townes Van Zandt’s ‘Snake Song’ and Hank Williams’s ‘Alone & Forsaken’ (both included here) attest. There’s tension, risk and a breathless sense of adventure to much of her best work, qualities that Lanois’s production on Wrecking Ball brought right out into the open. She remains, quite simply, a consummate class act, retaining her poise and conviction even when the material proves unworthy of her (and just occasionally it does: cf. the corny self-abasement of ‘First In Line’, the banal ‘Wondering’ and the earnest but clichéd ‘Immigrant Eyes’, not the finest lyrical moment of the usually reliable Guy Clark). As Joe Allison memorably wrote of the Louvins: “their sincerity reaches out and grabs you with such authority that you literally become part of the song.” This same description may be applied to Harris.

What Songbird reveals most consistently is Harris’s dedication and single-mindedness in pursuing her own wide-ranging vision of the “cosmic American music” to which Parsons first alerted her. Her music cuts through folk, country, rock and gospel borders not so much to tear down barriers as to demonstrate – and create – connections between them, allowing her, in her own words, “to draw on the past…and come up with something new.” It’s this exhilarating fusion of tradition and modernity that makes this collection – and indeed all of Harris’s work – essential listening for anyone interested in the wonderfully broad and varied terrain of American roots music.

Alex Ramon

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Deborah Harry
Necessary Evil •
Universal

What can one say about Debbie Harry? That sensuous, cherubic creature; maybe not the most talented musician in the world, but possibly the most beautiful. So beautiful in fact, that whole music videos can be made focusing solely on her face…oh, wait! Stop everything. Wake up. This isn’t 1977 anymore. It’s 2007, and nothing stays the same forever. Deborah (as she prefers to be known these days) is a very different woman from the pouty young thing that stole our hearts with ‘Heart Of Glass’ and ‘Call Me’, however much she might otherwise wish.

On Necessary Evil, Harry’s latest electro outing, she goes at it as she always did, sweet and high as in ‘Sunday Girl’. But her voice is older than it was. It’s 62 years old to be precise, and it simply can’t hit the notes it used to. Thus our unfortunate ears are subjected to the likes of ‘Love With A Vengeance’ and ‘If I Had You’. Painful stuff. It isn’t that she can’t sing – the title track shows that she’s perfectly capable of sounding quite pleasant – she just doesn’t seem to know how to use her new voice properly, too often trying to sing in exactly the same style as she was 30 years ago.

Opening track and first single ‘Two Times Blue’ starts quite sweetly with a charming little fairground ditty; unfortunately, Harry ruins it by breaking in all too soon, croaking like one of Macbeth’s Weird Sisters. The chorus is horribly strained, the words oddly stretched out as though the lyrics and music had been written in separate soundproof rooms and subsequently forced cruelly together, ‘Island Of Doctor Moreau’-style. The music itself is sometimes well written, as demonstrated in the opening bars, but this album is let down massively by its lyrics and content: every single song is about sex. Without fail. The old days of Blondie were never this explicit, but I suppose Harry didn’t need to talk about sex to make people think about it back then. Imagine if you will your mum singing along to ‘School For Scandal’; “the devil’s dick is hard to handle,” apparently. Then imagine your granny singing it.

If this assessment appears ageist, or sexist even, it’s not meant that way at all. Wears The Trousers is well aware that Jagger, Jones and Stewart get away with things that an older lady would be slammed for and that such an imbalance is mightily unfair. Nevertheless, after sitting through the 17-track long leviathan that is Necessary Evil, it’s hard to believe that anyone won’t find themselves wishing that Harry would sometimes act her years. And, after all, if The Rolling Stones wailed their way through a crass electro album like this one, you’d hope that they’d be torn to bits for it too. There are other anomalies lurking in the tracklist, for instance the deep mumblings of ‘Jen Jen’. Harry doesn’t even sing on it so how it snuck onto the album we’ll never know. Maybe she was on the decks. Then there’s ‘Dirty & Deep’, the title of which says almost all really, neglecting only to highlight the fact that a part of it rivals Madonna’s ‘American Life’ for the worst rap of all time.

So that’s Necessary Evil in a nutshell – overlong, crude and performed by a woman far past her musical prime. All this album does is sully the memory of a once great songstress turned worn out, hyper-sexed harridan.

Hugh Armitage

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Victoria Hart
Whatever Happened To Love? •••½
Decca

Today’s celebrity-obsessed world has seen the rapid rise of reality TV, and the attendant burst of homogenous, bland and short-lived manufactured artists. In such an environment, it can be difficult for niche music to prosper; would Kate Bush’s fantastical songs have impressed the judges? Would Regina Spektor’s subversive experimentalism endear her to an audience brought up with the Spice Girls and R’n’B? Perhaps not. It’s always gratifying, then, when a new singer appears who is determined to change it all, and who has the star quality to succeed. Step forward Miss Victoria Hart, former Richmond waitress turned jazz-singing sensation. A trilingual 18-year old who counts Amy Winehouse among her friends and George Clooney among her fans, Hart claims that her album represents a return to the unabashedly romantic music of the past. Comprising 13 songs and a remix of the title track, it has been designed to showcase Hart’s voice with a variety of different styles; it is in this that the album draws its strength and also, sadly, finds its weakness.

Hart’s musical heroines include such luminaries as Ella Fitzgerald and Eva Cassidy, and her love of old-fashioned big band music shines through in some of the album’s best tracks. ‘Two Time Blues’ would suit Fitzgerald perfectly with its classy and deeply sensual style, Hart’s youthful voice perfectly capturing the naiveté of the song’s heroine. The more glamorous ‘Chocolates & Strawberries’ shows off a highly developed sense of fun and wickedness, with some plainly suggestive lyrics set against a snazzy ‘70s-style backing rich with wah-wah trumpets and a thumping bass line. Hart’s ability to draw a picture with her voice is quite remarkable, and is suitably demonstrated by perhaps the best song on the album – also its only cover – ‘Sunny Afternoon’. Toe tapping and deeply sultry, Hart’s interpretation of the classic Kinks song evokes all the attendant vivid images of a languid, sun-drenched summer, managing to ensure that the song remains familiar while throwing in some throaty sax riffs to suit her jazz credentials. Other impressive tracks include the 1950s-style two-step jazz of ‘Wonderful’ and the deliciously sexy ‘Je M’Oublie’, which oozes French sophistication with its atmospheric accordion backing and Hart’s voluptuous vocals.

Where the album falls flat is in trying to demonstrate the breadth of Hart’s skills; several songs have been selected rather clumsily in an attempt to show that she can perform more mainstream work. This leads to the inclusion of some forgettable guitar-pop tracks such as ‘Some Day’, a bland ballad that simply does not do Hart’s unique voice justice. Fortunately, Hart is an accomplished jazz singer, and her wit, flair and talent pull her through the dross. Sassy, classy and unashamedly mushy, Whatever Happened To Love? marks the debut of a new and formidable force in modern jazz. Let’s hope that Hart doesn’t lose sight of what she’s best at.

Andy Wasley

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PJ Harvey
White Chalk ••••
Island

Best known for her brutal blues and sophisticated punk, PJ Harvey’s decision to trade her guitar in for a piano and her deep soulful voice for a choral falsetto looked unlikely on paper. But, true to her word, there is barely a six-string to be heard on the eleven tracks that make up White Chalk, her eighth studio album, which are largely based around gently throbbing keys and vocals piped in from a Victorian ghost story. Having explored urban life on 2001′s vibrant Stories From The City, Stories From The Sea, White Chalk is suffused with rural imagery – bleak landscapes and a pervading isolation – the title a reference to the bedrock of Harvey’s Dorset home and its gothic ring compounded by the cover image of a pale and drawn shock-headed Harvey sat bolt upright in a lacy, spectral dress. And, of course, the stark minimal piano and newly shrill vocals that run through the album.

Whether the experience of working with keys has been entirely enjoyable for Harvey is thrown into doubt when ‘The Piano’ – which knowingly features acoustic guitar and zither only – opens with the lyric “hit her with a hammer, teeth smashed in”, and as the track plays out with snapshots of strained family relations and the refrain “no-one is listening”, Harvey sounds like a truculent child trying to show off the results of her first few music lessons. For the most part the piano playing is naïve and childlike – motifs seemingly picked out with just two fingers – and while it’s used to good effect to create sinister and atmospheric songs such as opener ‘The Devil’ and ‘Grow Grow Grow’, Harvey’s lack of finesse sometimes tends towards monotony.

That the standout tracks are those in which the piano takes a back seat is perhaps somewhat telling. First single ‘When Under Ether’ is a haunting, claustrophobic and sinister track, conjuring sensations of suffocation, intoxication and chemical preservation in which the keys combine with other instrumentation and an understated yet nuanced vocal. The title track features the most prominent appearance of a guitar. So effectively does the song evoke a rural isolation and the exposed Dorset cliffs that as Harvey dramatically switches from her distant, fluting upper register to intone deeply “and I know these chalk hills will rot my bones”, you can almost smell the stone beneath the topsoil and the salt from the sea. ‘Broken Harp’s sublime vocal arrangement and (presumably broken) harp tug at the heartstrings with economically affecting lyrics. Lines like “something metal tearing my stomach out if you think ill of me / can you forgive me too?” may not be delivered with the hue and cry typical of much of Harvey’s earlier work, but surrounded by the minimalism and darkness of the album they are no less brutal.

Seven albums and 15 years into her career, Harvey remains one of our most continually interesting artists. For people who rely on such tawdry gimmicks her transition from booted proto-riot-grrrl to cat-suited vamp to urban punker and now to ghostly Victoriana would be called reinvention; in Harvey it is simply exploration. The piano-led tracks of White Chalk may not be to everyone’s taste but fantastically evocative poetry and some truly great songs more than make up for the slow pace and the few monotonous moments to create an intriguing and rewarding album. There are few other artists who so successfully continue to push their boundaries, experience and style for our (well, primarily her own) pleasure, and we should cherish her for that as long as she continues to do so.

Peter Hayward

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Charlotte Hatherley
The Deep Blue ••••
Little Sister Records

Most famous for being the ‘new girl’ in Ash for nine years, Charlotte Hatherley’s musical career in fact began a long time before, first in the band Sister George then in punk outfit Nightnurse. She was spotted by Ash’s Tim Wheeler while the band were shopping for a new guitarist and soon wound up a welcome addition to the trio, fitting right in. So, after a long period of being in one of the UK’s most successful and established indie bands, it must have been a brave and daunting decision to leave, especially as relationships within the band were still good and Ash are happy to continue without her.

Although The Deep Blue is Hatherley’s second solo album (she worked on her first, Grey Will Fade, when Ash were in the studio for Meltdown and received considerable critical praise for it), this is the first she has produced outside of the security of a day job. In fact, the focus has doubled as the ‘side project’ has now become the day job. Seemingly unfazed by new beginnings and the security of Ash’s loyal fanbase, Hatherley is clearly a seasoned rock star, and her confidence shows in both her decision making and the subsequent album that came of it. In fact, to avoid record company and A&R pressure, Hatherley and her manager Ann-Marie Shields set up Little Sister Records themselves (with distribution through Vital), thereby ensuring complete artistic control.

Produced by Eric Feldman (Captain Beefheart, Pere Ubu) and Rob Ellis (PJ Harvey), Hatherley’s sophomore album was decided upon in Australia and created in San Francisco, Italy and London. Despite Hatherley being first and foremost a guitarist, The Deep Blue isn’t entirely led by the axe. It is, in fact, a pleasant surprise of considered work and a welcome departure from the (often flawed) female singer-songwriter stereotype. Certainly, the rock chick from Ash is gone, and the upbeat mature pop of both her efforts to date belies an open, honest artist with considerable talent.

The Deep Blue creates a childlike mood of fun and innocence, both girly and fantastically otherworldly. Irresistibly catchy and tuneful, the album is a lovingly assembled, multi-textured example of bittersweet pop that signifies a change of direction from Grey Will Fade and revels in a quirky feel reminiscent of Kenickie or Giant Drag…even The Sundays at times. Vocally, Hatherley is cutesy and sweet, somewhere between Minnie Mouse and Jenny Lewis, and her vocals enhance the unusual, dreamlike tone of the work. That’s not to say that there aren’t energetic, punk-pop here and there, but the rocky elements you would naturally expect from Ash’s former guitarist simply aren’t there.

Two singles have preceded the album – ‘Behave’ and ‘I Want You To Know’ – probably the album’s poppiest numbers and definitely the catchiest. There’s more where those two came from, however, and ‘Be Thankful’ is a real standout track with an irresistible bassline. More sober moments appear in the gentle ‘Dawn Treader’ (co-written with XTC’s Andy Partridge) and the vulnerable ballad ‘Again’, one of the least cluttered songs here, while the enchanting, wordless opener ‘Cousteau’ breezes over the listener and sticks true to the sea theme.

Despite a less than perfect vocal style, these songs are sung with an assuredness that can only be known to an experienced musician; remember Hatherley played the V97 festival with Ash only days after joining the band, and all at the age of 18 – no mean feat indeed. Having toured the world with a huge act for years and promptly leaving it all behind shows a confidence and maturity older artists can only dream of. However, with nothing left to be afraid of, and nothing left to lose, Hatherley has produced an unaffected and genuinely original album that will hopefully be another step in a long and successful career.

Stephanie Heney

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Help She Can’t Swim
The Death Of Nightlife •••½
Fantastic Plastic

Reviewing The Death Of Nightlife for Wears The Trousers struck me as a peculiarly daunting experience. Having seen the band play live supporting Sleater-Kinney (R.I.P) in Bristol last year, I found co-lead vocalist and sole female member Leesey Frances the least successful member of the band. Onstage, she came across detached and belligerent, giving little recognition to the crowd and grumping between songs. Tom Denney, who shares vocals and plays guitar was engaging and wired with energy, making Leesey’s disinterest all the more apparent. Writing for a magazine that seeks to focus upon the contributions of women to music, was I faced with an uncomfortable task?

Thankfully, on record, the Help She Can’t Swim experience is different: far from detracting from the band’s riotous youthful energy, Frances is a key part of it. Having two lead vocalists works well: Frances’s vocals act as an effective counterpoint to Denney’s, which often verge upon screamo. On ‘Idle Chatter’, her plaintive, vulnerable repetitions of “I was waiting for you to call me” are surprisingly affecting. (That is, until this effect is deliberately undermined by the song’s closing couplet: “strangle you with the telephone chord / just because you’re making me feel bored”).

This is music made for frenetic, angular indie dancing, preferably in a club with sweaty walls and a sticky floor. ‘Kite Eating Tree’, with its talk of shaking hips and bruised wrists, is the kind of song Channel 4 will be snapping up to soundtrack adverts for ‘Skins’ (if they haven’t already). There’s a definite Britpop flavour to several of these tracks, and the influence of Jarvis Cocker and Justine Frischmann is palpable, only speeded way up and blasted out charged with extra guitar-plus-synths drama. The keyboard work from Lisa and puppydog-eyed Tim Palmer adds a lot to these songs, providing an insistent pulse that resembles a battery of sirens in its urgency.

‘I Think The Record’s Stopped’ is a vicious attack on fake feminism and the intersection of feminism and raunch culture, where exhibitionism and pandering to male fantasies is mistaken for a liberating expression of female sexuality. Here, Frances is tearing down the kind of girls who think the feminist movement fought – and fights – so they could have the right to snog their female friends in front of boys at clubs, and aspire to be lapdancers (“Fuck you, you’re not a feminist”). ‘Midnight Garden’ is too wilfully discordant to be thrilling but the band make up for it with the following track ‘Box Of Delights’. Denney and Frances taking alternate vocals before coming together for a deliciously noisy vocal pile-up at the song’s climax.

Over the course of the album, the relentless pace and screamed vocals become a little gruelling. However, the band are at their best when playing at fever pitch – the album’s slower moments are its least successful, like the queasy Muse-eque rock opera that makes up the closing two minutes – and in short sharp bursts this is a thrilling and immediate record. It rewards close listening as well as drunken dancing, as it bristles with blink-and-you’ll-miss-them highlights. On ‘Dragged Under The Wave’, a brilliant moment of sexual tension and ambiguity suddenly grabs the listener, as Denney and Frances duet on the line “I want to kiss her but I don’t want her near me”. And if you can find another record out this year that talks about watching reruns of ‘Lovejoy’ (‘All The Stars’) I’ll give you a fiver.

Danny Weddup

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Hem
Funnel Cloud ••••
Nettwerk

Given the somewhat obscure names of both the band and album (one the end of an item of clothing, the other the beginning of a ferocious tornado) you’d surely be forgiven for expecting to discover the kind of album that you claim to adore but in reality only own so that others can admire your quirky and eclectic taste. Not so with Hem. They do tick some of the boxes – quirky? a little; unique? definitely! – but there’s plenty to love here. As listenable and delicious as ever, the band’s fourth album Funnel Cloud makes for a remarkable encounter as it floats around discreetly and encases your heart in its melancholic but ultimately uplifting musical tendrils.

First single ‘We’ll Meet Along The Way’ could be a song from a mother to her toddler on the first day of school, a parting shot to a lover or a fond farewell from a departing grandparent; but whatever guise it takes it carries a message of benediction without seeking to hide the pitfalls that will be met en route as two paths diverge but hold the promise of a later encounter. ‘He Came To Meet Me’ appropriately follows as if it were a continuation of the story, depicting a snapshot description of a day with someone whose very presence, no matter how brief, forges a memory empowered to bring light to future black clouds. The attention to detail that Hem pour into these songs suffuses the music with emotion and situational observances that never fail to convince that the band are portraying lives that they’ve known intimately, if not their own.

Principal songwriter Dan Messe has outdone himself with tracks like ‘Curtains’ and ‘Great Houses Of New York’. So while the ever present beauty of Sally Ellyson’s vocals predominantly brings the songs to life, Messe’s vivid descriptions weave around the principal narrative to add the splashes of colour that accentuate the meaning. Funnel Cloud as a whole has a rare nostalgic quality that gives proceedings a feeling of timelessness, as though Hem inhabit a world inside a bubble in which commonplace incidents are made beautiful by deeply felt observances. ‘Hotel Fire’ is the allegorical embodiment of the band’s ability to use less attractive details to create washes of gorgeous imagery as they sing of “torn blankets [that] smell of old perfume” and follow it with a swelling refrain where “the love checks in, trips the wire / skips the bill, sets a fire”. In creating such intimate portraits, Hem are enviably able to craft a song that might mean many things to many people, and therein lies their success.

Fittingly for an album titled Funnel Cloud, atmosphere is the watchword. In another universe, the title track might well have been a black and white Sunday matinee movie. Part lullaby, part hymn to growing older and discovering that boundaries have a tendency to blur, Hem deliver a classic sound that is rarely heard outside of old Hollywood musicals. ‘The Burnt-Over District’ has similar qualities, and despite being purely instrumental, seems to tell a very distinct story. Here, the instruments themselves seem to sing to one another; those who object to instrumental tracks on albums should start their conversion right here.

All this talk of mesmerising melancholic sounds and sleepy afternoon cinema might lead you to think that Funnel Cloud is soporific fare at best, but Hem have their ballsy country-rock songs too and they flex their muscles farther than ever before. On songs like these, the lyrical drive is not lost but is simply set to a rowdier backing. Take ‘The Pills Stop Working’ for example; sounding as if it wouldn’t seem out of place as the score to a barroom brawl with its bluesy harmonica and gritty piano, it’ll get you defiantly dancing rather than lazing.

For those unfamiliar with Hem, Funnel Cloud is a great place to start. Even the most melancholic numbers are infused with a great sense of camaraderie between the band members and you’ll be happy to discover the magic of a band who entertain, enlighten and provide food for thought with every song. For those already converted, much contentment will be found in the more rock-oriented sounds. Hitch up those skirts and appreciate the legwork.

Loria Near

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Hem
Home Again, Home Again EP ***½
Nettwerk

Despite being a pretty well established country-folk act with four albums to their name, Hem’s closest brush with mainstream popularity to date has been soundtracking a recent series of insurance ads in the States. But before you scream ‘sellout’ or assume that their whimsical songs deserve no better than this most dubious of fates, further listening will uncover a much deeper resonance than fellow product endorsers Katie Melua or Norah Jones could muster between them. Wearing their emotions proudly on the sleeves of their country-hemmed shirts and blouses, Sally Ellyson and her band of men excel in soaring vocals and reflective lyrics on top of soothing arrangements. After even just a couple of listens, the melodies stick in your mind, suddenly familiar, as if you’ve known them since you were young. That said, the opening and closing tracks – ‘All That I’m Good For’ and ‘Half Acre’ have been floating around since their 2002 debut Rabbit Songs, so they’re not exactly new. Nevertheless, that’s what Hem do best, remind of times gone by.

Of the new songs, ‘The Part Where You Let Go’ and ‘Half Asleep’ blend together folk and pop melodies with the lightest of touches and are both very nice, if not wholly engaging. The fuller sound of ‘While My Hand Was Letting Go’ will prick up many an ear with its blues harmonica, pedal steel, mandolin and banjo complementing an emotive and romantic string arrangement and the warm sounds of an oboe. The song’s theme of tender remembrance is highlighted by Ellyson’s wonderful falling refrain of “asleep I dreamt beside you while my hand was letting go.” Then the EP really comes alive with the title track, ‘Home Again’. More expansive than anything else here, Hem bring in the drums, an electric guitar riff and nagging rhythm guitar. Ellyson is singing to an audience now, and not just for herself.

Sounding as fresh as ever, the night-time lullaby of ‘Half Acre’ returns us to the remembrance motif, plaintively asking “what is it that you remember? / do you carry every sadness with you? / every hour your heart was broken?”. Hem do heartfelt nostalgia exceedingly well, and after listening to their latest EP you’ll soon be gazing wistfully out of a window thinking through your memories too.

James M Johnston

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Kristin Hersh
Learn To Sing Like A Star ••••
4AD

Bass and drums pounding like an oil sink, guitars etching intricate detail, powerful strings weaving the whole lot together, and a voice like a buzzsaw…it can only be the industrial revolution reimagined by indie godmother, Kristin Hersh. Such is ‘In Shock’, the opening track of Hersh’s latest solo outing Learn To Sing Like A Star (or LTSLAS for the sake of getting this review finished one day).

Since 2003′s lesson in sombreness, The Grotto, Hersh has been focused on recording and touring with power-trio 50 Foot Wave, whose slabs of rock are as far removed from Hersh’s solo work as one woman could be expected to go. But clearly Hersh is revelling in the noise that working with a band allows at the moment, as this release features Throwing Muses’ drummer David Narcizo, 50′~ bassist Bernard Georges, and string duo The MacCarricks. By virtue of being louder, faster and several orders of magnitude more upbeat than her last release, LTSLAS harks back to 1999′s amped-up Sky Motel.

An Amazon search reveals that Paula Abdul and Randy Jackson have a DVD with the same title, but woe betide the hopeful who purchases Hersh’s ironically monikered record for tips – it would not fare well with the American Idol judges. Her voice may never have been ideally suited to pre-packaged pop, but boy is it remarkably versatile, as she shows off to full effect in opening two tracks, from force-of-nature snarl on ‘In Shock’ to porcelain purr on ‘Nerve Endings’. The vocal is a sticking point for many people with Hersh, but once accustomed to the rasp you realise how dextrous and expressive it is. She’s really something like a 60-Marlboro-a-day Joanna Newsom or a desert Billie Holiday.

It’s not all straight up rock. LTSLAS in fact runs the gamut of Hersh’s solo back catalogue, from the meaty pop of ‘Peggy Lee’ to the acoustic lament of wasted time and lost love of ‘Ice’, via the swelling grind of ‘Sugarbaby’ and the short instrumentals ‘Piano 1′ and ‘Piano 2′. Everything is delivered with the passion, humour and bile that any Hersh devotee has come to expect. ‘Winter’ is an unforgiving monster of a song. Bells chime and strings sound thoroughly festive, but this is no Christmas carol. This is a blizzard; a white-out; a warning; a fist shaken at into the void. It’s a song that expresses the contrasting feelings of hugeness and impotence in the seven words “not a fighter, you had to fight”, and as good as any song Hersh has ever written, which is saying something.

If there is one failing it’s a lack of cohesiveness that has marked Hersh’s most recent solo releases. Every song in itself reveals more detail, intricacy, craft, and beauty on each listen, but as a whole, the mood jack-knifes from track to track. That is until the final four, which swell to the crescendo of ‘The Thin Man’. Overall, though, LTSLAS is new vintage Hersh: sardonic, sublime and packed with star quality. When next year’s American Idol is flipping burgers in a freeway services, you’ll still be listening to this fulfilling, hulking galaxy of an album.

Peter Hayward

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Beth Hirsch
Wholehearted ••••
Electric Bee

Beth Hirsch has been dealt a strange hand it seems. For someone who is in fact a musically-literate household name – thanks to the global success of Air’s Moon Safari (on which she sings and co-writes ‘You Make It Easy’ and the seminal ‘All I Need’) – she has managed to since remain untouched by media spotlights. Even the artistic brilliance of solo debut Early Years, having a gorgeous duet with Wassis Diop featured in a key scene of ‘The Thomas Crown Affair’ and the big-name producers on her second, critically acclaimed album Titles & Idols didn’t manage to propel her to international superstardom. Judging by her latest work, however, this may not have been such a disaster.

Nearly six years on from Titles & Idols, it appears that time has been kind. Hirsch’s evasion of mainstream fame has hearteningly preserved her authenticity and talent. Early Days was so called as it marked her first etchings and attempts at defining herself as a musician. Wholehearted is just as aptly titled; Hirsch has clearly put her all into its making, wisely choosing to focus on her strengths as both performer and writer rather than studio wizardry. By offsetting the striking versatility displayed on Titles & Idols with the bare bones of her debut, Wholehearted brings us the sound of a more mature artist who has found her niche. It’s organic in sound and full of warmth and feeling. Her voice has always been astonishing, and now her songwriting really works in harmony with the most striking qualities of this most powerful of assets. Hirsch appears to be at a point in her life where uncertainties have been dealt with and some resolve reached. You only have to read the song titles – ‘Love Will Come Again’, ‘All Together’ and ‘Glad To Know’ – to get a sense of assurance. It’s a rare creature indeed who has the grace to spare us the usual self-indulgence and deliver something that’s both optimistic and touching.

As one might expect from a Florida-born, LA resident, these songs have a lasting summery feel. Take the title track for instance; drenched in trumpets and laidback piano, it would perfectly complement a hazy August evening. Habitually in Hirsch’s music, however, there’s a slight sense of paradox. Optimistic lyrics are often set to music with a slightly sentimental sound, and it is this edge that keeps you coming back. “This slate is clean, but not from heaven” she sings on ‘Indelibly You’, hinting some unrest still remaining. While on the whole the record is a relaxed affair, there’s a touch of feistiness too (“I’m a lunatic in love”). Externalising a little, Hirsch makes some sharp and cutting observations in the magnificent ‘Life Is Short But Wide’, a song that looks at the ever-potent issue of war and what it’s good for (hint: not much). Her soldier protagonist writes home “but Hope has died, just as I have died / I learnt today that life is short but wide.”

Simply put, Wholehearted is an album borne out of love of music. Beautifully arranged and immaculately executed, it’s a thoroughly refreshing experience. While the electronic soundscapes of Titles & Idols were a wonderful addition to Hirsch’s sound, her return to these simpler, uncluttered stylings is a welcome affirmation of her talent.

Rod Thomas

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Hummingbird
Tougher Than Love ••••
Flying Sparks

As any ‘Charmed’ fan knows, the power of three is a well-proven principle, and with their debut album, Tougher Than Love, Hummingbird set out to reaffirm it. Debut it may be, but these are no wet behind the ears tyro artists. Rather, Hummingbird brings together three singers who are firmly established on the gig/festival circuit and each with solid recording career already under their belts. There’s diminutive Cardiff rocker Amy Wadge, the gentle pop vocals of Cathy Burton and Edwina Hayes’s country-folk stylings. It’s a beguiling combo, blending Dixie Chicks and Indigo Girls with Crosby, Stills and Nash.

Production duties were left in the hands of songwriting and studio wizardry duo The Mighty Vibrations, whose previous credits include Sandi Thom’s love-it-or-hate-it debut Smile…It Confuses People, and they’ve acquitted themselves surprisingly well. The ‘birds contribute four songs between them with the remainder provided by the MVs, with Thom herself cropping up as a co-writer on the engaging ‘Live Your Life Laughing’. Where Thom’s debut was, to put it kindly, a little one-dimensional, Tougher Than Love is an altogether finer proposition. Lead vocals are shared out evenly between the trio, adding a pleasing variety whilst retaining enough stylistic commonality to avoid sounding like a mere compilation. Similarly, the four tracks written by the ‘birds themselves provide a nice contrast, reflecting each artist’s own particular muse without breaking the mood.

The arrangements are resolutely rootsy and acoustic-based throughout. Strummed guitars, piano, Hammond and double bass provide a satisfyingly organic bed for the tracks, with additional interest being provided by tastefully employed textures from mandolin, flute, harmonica and strings. The distinctive character of each individual voice enhances the harmonies. Wadge’s gritty, earthy vocal forms a solid backdrop to Hayes’s more soothing coo and Burton’s shimmering, delicate tones. Each song is deftly performed and catches the ear with an appealing concoction of melancholy, tenderness and uplifting optimism. Anyone who enjoyed the Voices On The Verge project, which brought together four of America’s finest under-the-radar songwriters – Erin McKeown, Rose Polenzani, Jess Klein and Beth Amsel – should seek this out quicksmart.

Trevor Raggatt

 



2007 reviews dump: m

The following reviews were published on our old MySpace blog in 2007.

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Amy MacDonald
This Is The Life ••••
Mercury

Scotland’s star is rising; home of some of the brightest talents in British music, its recent musical history has been impressive. Think, for example, of KT Tunstall, Franz Ferdinand, Belle & Sebastian, Isobel Campbell and The Fratellis. Now that esteemed cohort is set to increase with the debut of 19-year old folk-loving Glaswegian Amy MacDonald. Since discovering her muse – Travis – at the age of 12, MacDonald’s single-minded determination has been to write songs about the world around her. This Is The Life, then, covers everything from the T In The Park festival to today’s disposable pop culture and the vacuous celebrities who perpetuate it.

The album leaps into life with the optimism of her recent hit single ‘Mr Rock & Roll’, an uplifting number positively bulging with layered acoustics and confidently powerful vocals. Playing to MacDonald’s melodic and lyrical strengths, it’s the perfect introduction and a sure-fire live hit. ‘Let’s Start A Band’, a tumultuous mix of Latino trumpets, atmospheric strings and throaty guitars, is similarly vital, surging forward with the energy and force of a tsunami. MacDonald takes the opportunity to show off her vocal range a little, contrasting crystalline soprano notes with a huskier, Annie Lennox-style croon.

Crowd-pleasing anthem ‘Barrowland Ballroom’, an homage to the Glasgow venue that did much to launch the careers of her favourite bands, is typical of MacDonald’s arena-friendly songs. Combining a bright melody with simple lyrics, it’s sure to move some feet as it swings from a folksy, guitar-based intro to a toe-tapping conclusion, backed with the saloon bar sound of a honky-tonk piano. Gig goers will also be pleased by ‘Youth Of Today’, MacDonald’s impassioned defence of youthful optimism and joie de vivre.

Perhaps the best track of all is the epic ‘Footballer’s Wife’, a withering sideswipe at the ubiquitous WAG mentality. Opening with a dramatic combination of strings and thunderous timpani, the song’s angry lyrics and anthemic chorus are well matched to MacDonald’s rich, expressive voice. The album’s bonus tracks conclude with ‘Caledonia’, a modern folk classic given an emotional performance and a stirring pipe-and-drums coda that’s sure to moisten many a Scottish eye.

Amy MacDonald is one of the most original voices to have emerged from Scotland in recent years, and with this album she has set the scene for a stellar future. KT Tunstall may be losing sleep already. An explosive debut, This Is The Life is a magnificent demonstration of the young star’s talent, and could prove a hard act to follow.

Andy Wasley

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Magenta
The Singles ••••
JFK

As Wears The Trousers is fond of reinforcing, it’s a long-standing misconception that prog rock is just rambling, 27-minute pieces about trolls and wizards or skill Eastern philosophies. Fair enough, there’s a bit of that about but for every ‘Topographic Oceans’ there’s a good old pop tune like ‘Wondrous Stories’. Recent years have seen a move to song-based albums across the genre but none more typified than by neo-prog bands like Magenta.

The tracks here are not so much singles per se as songs selected from Magenta’s back catalogue, or extracted from their early sword-and-sorcery epics. All 11 songs have been re-recorded, giving a chance to showcase the band’s current line-up. However, just because the songs clock in at under five minutes each doesn’t mean that they won’t satisfy their core prog audience. Shifting time signatures, orchestral backing, noodling keyboards and guitars are tastefully employed throughout. However, it’s the writing of Rob Reed and the stunning vocals of Christina Booth that make the songs shine.

Standout tracks include the majestic bombast of ‘Speechless’ and ‘I’m Alive’ where the vocals soar above the backing track as it vaults to increasing levels of intensity. Adding further strings to the Magenta bow, ‘King Of The Skies’ weighs in as a boogying rocker (prog-style of course) complete with a thundering vocal performance that even Anastacia would be proud of. No wonder the UK Classic Rock Society has awarded Booth their Singer Of The Year gong on a number of occasions. Of course, some long-held prog traditions and tricks rear their head; ‘Anger’ in particular utilises that old favourite of a madrigal-esque start leading to a more expansive rock conclusion. Then, in something of a concession to the hardened proggers in their audience, Magenta close the album with three longer bonus tracks that might stretch the patience of a casual listener, introduced by a Rick Wakeman-styled organ toccata.

Magenta’s last album proper, Home, was stuffed with great songs that should have endeared the band to a wider audience. Hopefully The Singles will continue the trend.

Trevor Raggatt

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Eleni Mandell
Miracle Of Five ••••½
V2

Los Angeles-based Eleni Mandell has developed something of a cult following over the last eight or so years since the release of her debut album Wishbone. Yet the artist the New Yorker once dubbed as “perhaps one of the best unsigned artists in the business” continues to operate quietly under the radar, releasing her sixth full-length album Miracle Of Five with little to no fanfare. It’s a shame really, as this may well be the best work she’s turned in to date. Continuing to mine her strengths in jazz-soaked vocals and smoky undertones, she’s moved away from the harder edged comparisons once made with PJ Harvey and closer to the softer sounds of modern chanteuses Norah Jones and Madeleine Peyroux. But don’t box her in; Mandell owes more to Ella Fitzgerald than her modern peers and is unafraid to boldly swerve into the territories of country noir and folk to stretch her range.

Where the lead track ‘Moonglow, Lamp Low’ revels in its breathy vocals and sultry brass and the immaculate ‘My Twin’ could, in 1960, have easily been sung by the regal Patsy Cline, dig just a tiny bit deeper and you’ll find songs like ‘Girls’, a musical about-turn in the form of a singalong campfire number with amusing lyrics that could be sung by or to any number of individuals – is it a woman singing to her boyfriend? To her own insecurities? To someone she has yet to meet?

There’s no doubt Mandell can write a lovely melody but she also excels in the art of layered meaning with quite a knack for taking the simplest of lyrics and creating a song that at first seems so clear cut and simple, yet upon repeated listenings can mean so much more. Take, for example, the enjoyable ‘Salt Truck’, which at first may appear to be a simple ditty to motorised de-icing, but upon closer listen is deftly ambiguous: “Salt truck, salt truck, mean black eyes / swerving as I’m very nice / I want roads that I can drive on / I want a love I can rely on”.

It may take its time in sinking in but Miracle Of Five is a sturdy release crammed with well-crafted and memorable tunes. If there is a fault, it lies in the downbeat nature of the album as a whole – it’s easy for these songs to run into one another without anyone really batting an eyelid. Still, that only makes it all the more perfect for a reflective rainy day or quiet evening in with a fine glass of red. Hopefully someone out there is paying attention.

Loria Near

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Cynthia G Mason
Quitter’s Claim •••
High Two

Cynthia G Mason’s heartfelt, grass-roots music speaks to an unpretentious quarter of the soul. Coupling a Joni Mitchell-esque acoustic flavour with the barest hint of country, Mason’s minimalist arrangements and unassuming intensity have won particular acclaim in her native Philadelphia, a city in which she has become something of a local treasure. Quitter’s Claim ends a six-year hiatus for the singer-songwriter during which she graduated from law school and embarked on rather more mundane work; musically, she also experienced a number of professional disappointments, alluded to on the album’s final track, ‘Quit While You’re Misled’. However, a fortuitous meeting with an old collaborator, Larry D Brown, spurred Mason to dust off her guitar, clear out its musical mothballs and record this new CD with a borrowed four-track, all the while putting in her eight hours at the office.

Indeed, unembellished reality is never far away in Mason’s music and it is refreshing to find an artist whose work fits snugly into the pauses in everyday life. Opening act ‘Like A Lifer Out For Good’ deals with disillusionment in love tempered by acceptance of its imperfections, showcasing Mason’s coolly melodic vocals. Lingering uncertainty also litters the wistful ‘Claim’, while ‘The Way The Morning Came’ – a melancholy reflection on lost love – is complemented by a solitary harmonica. Bittersweet is a word that could well characterise Mason’s newest effort, inspired by a store of experiences between albums and also by the actual process of music making. ‘Fits & Starts’, for example, describes recording the album after finishing up at work: “the way it’s designed there isn’t much room for invention”. Meanwhile, the intrusion of Philadelphia traffic at the beginning of ‘Nerve’ reveals just how economical a production Quitter’s Claim was.

Quitter’s Claim is an undeniably lovely follow-up to Mason’s debut, but for some it could be just a little, well, boring. All 10 tracks slide seamlessly into one another with little instrumental variation, suggesting some great background music but failing to reveal any immediately attention-grabbing songs. Subtlety is key: Tori Amos fans beware. Folk enthusiasts will, however, delight in the return of one of Philadelphia’s best-kept secrets. With Mason’s songwriting calibre and talent for evoking all the rushed complexity of life, it is clear the city’s musical legacy is safe.

Siobhan Rooney

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Martina McBride
Waking Up Laughing •••½
SonyBMG

Martina McBride may be relatively unknown here in the UK but her reputation Stateside takes some beating. A 12-times platinum selling artist who has won a record-breaking four CMA Female Singer of the Year gongs, it’s hard to argue with her credentials. She’s tucked an impressive eight studio albums under her belt since her 1992 debut, The Time Has Come… and Waking Up Laughing, her ninth release, maintains the status quo. Here, McBride operates as artist and producer and wears both hats with ease with skilful fingers on the faders and a voice that’s as endearing as ever. Engineering duties from husband John McBride keeps it a family affair and a stately one too: every song sounds lovingly crafted.

Of course, it doesn’t hurt that she’s populated the studio with the crème de la crème of Nashville talent. The cast list reads like a roll call for the Modern Country Hall of Fame: Dan Huff, Brent Mason and Dan Dugmore on guitar, Glenn Worf on bass, Matt Chamberlain on drums and supplementary textures courtesy of The Nashville String Machine. Nicole Kidman’s husband Keith Urban crops up on one track, adding harmony vocals and a country rock guitar solo. The songs, drawn from some of Music Town’s finest writers, are uniformly strong despite occasionally veering into well-worn country lyrical clichés. Given that Waking Up Laughing features McBride’s first forays into the songwriting process, teaming up with the Warren Brothers on three of the tracks (‘How I Feel’, ‘Beautiful’ and the emotional, uplifting lead single ‘Anyway’), it’s gratifying that her efforts not only stack up well against her peers but are in fact among the album’s standout tunes.

Waking Up Laughing veers from one fertile commercial territory to another, from power ballads to mid-tempo rockers. McBride’s versatile vocals are perfect for this type of modern country; there’s a rich depth to her singing with just enough earthiness to compliment the twists and turns of the songs with a slight catch and growl. Her accumulated accolades were certainly no fluke. If your personal tastes lie closer to the rootsier end of Americana this may prove too sweet on your palate (you’d be better off exploring something like Patty Griffin’s latest offering), but if mainstream Nashville country is your thing, then Waking Up Laughing will almost certainly put a smile on your face.

Trevor Raggatt

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Helen McCookerybook
Suburban Pastoral •••½
Big Song

I viewed sitting down to listen to this album with a certain amount of trepidation, having been told by a friend on several occasions that I absolutely had to like it. At the same time I was also intrigued to hear what Ms McCookerybook had to offer. This is a lady who started her career in the late ‘70s as bassist for Joby & The Hooligans (the “worst band in Brighton”); a lady who has recently completed a book about female punk musicians entitled ‘The Lost Women Of Rock’; and a lady who, on the back sleeve, looks a little like an unassuming, sweet middle-aged housewife, and sports a crown of ivy (it’s druid chic, dontcha know). What sort of music such a person might make was impossible to predict.

The opening bars of the first track, ‘Dreaming Of You’, sound a little like something you might expect to hear at a luau, all chilled-out guitars and winsome dreaminess. Then the vocals break in, setting up the first of many little juxtapositions in the album. In contrast to the tropical feel of the music, her voice sounds, for want of a more original phrase, quintessentially English. And yes, also a bit like someone’s mum. It’s difficult to define the genre of this album beyond the vague ‘singer-songwriter’ and ‘acoustic’ labels, though some of the songs wouldn’t sound out of place as part of a lounge act in a smoky little nightclub. The gently swinging beat in songs like ‘Don’t Know Why’ and ‘Once In A Blue Moon’ induce a strong urge to sway slowly in time to the music that has to be consciously fought off.

Of course, no female singer-songwriter worth her salt will navigate such a lengthy career without penning at least one song addressing the Biblical stories of either Eve or Delilah, and McCookerybook is no exception. ‘Temptation’ is a rather quirky take on the theme of Original Sin, complete with a cacophonous introduction in brass, and in possession of a peculiar nursery rhyme quality that is repeated in ‘Swan’, a rather sinister lesson on the danger of beautiful but dangerous things. So whilst the tone of her music is usually either merry or gently melancholy, the lyrics warrant a closer inspection. For all their seeming cheerfulness, I am almost certain that ‘London’ is a song about homelessness and ‘Heaven Avenue’ about suicide. There is often a contrast between the music and lyrics that can grab your attention and make you listen more carefully to what is actually going on.

Though Suburban Pastoral probably isn’t to everyone’s taste, there is something appealing about its simplicity and clarity. McCookerybook may sound kind of motherly and a little bit twee, but the mum in question is one that can definitely sing. There is something refreshing about the way you can understand almost every word she sings. This album won’t blow you away, but it might just charm its way into your lungs.

Hugh Armitage

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Nellie McKay
Pretty Little Head ••••
Hungry Mouse

I have a nagging sense of déjà vu. What’s that? I’ve reviewed this record before? Crikey! What’s going on?

Well. Pretty Little Head in fact first surfaced, in a different form, in January 2006. McKay had turned in a 23-song, double-disc set to her record company, who, in a commercially-minded decision, culled seven songs without consulting McKay and sent the album out as a single-disc promo, entirely without her permission. Understandably, McKay was angry and a lengthy battle ensued, resulting in her parting ways with Columbia. The album ended up stuck in limbo, the record company having stated that they would not be releasing it in any form.

Finally, after what must have been several immensely frustrating and disempowered months, McKay is back and should give herself a triumphant pat on the back. Released on her own imprint Hungry Mouse, set up for this record, she presents the record as she originally intended – all 23 tracks present and correct and sequenced significantly differently in the latter half of the album. In winning this battle, McKay has proven that artistic integrity can prevail over corporate interests, and for this she should be championed (anyone who’s read Tori Amos’s memoir ‘Piece By Piece’ will know that struggles between record companies and artists can be hard-fought and extremely bitter).

As I noted in my previous review, McKay’s first album suffered from being overlong and bloated. But though it’s now a behemoth of an album, Pretty Little Head fares surprisingly well. ‘Lali est Parisseux’ is the highlight of the newly-present tracks, sung in French with a delightfully retro sound, like a transmission from a Parisian radio station of the past. Quite what it’s about I don’t know, my GCSE French having deserted me a while back, though “ce soir” crops up regularly in the lyrics and the song ends with a romantic “mwah!” so I’m guessing it’s about lovin’.

Four of the new tracks are clustered at the very end of the album, including the disturbing ‘Mama & Me’. The intro to this song might well become one of those bits you always skip through, featuring as it does a dialogue between McKay and her mother in which she appears to play both roles, one of which is a crying toddler. Hmmm. The song itself is a gritty spoken-word rap piece about a childhood of urban poverty, deprivation and domestic abuse. It’s socially conscious, reinforcing that McKay is an artist with a political agenda and the intelligence and artistry to get her message across. McKay sings about “wanting to die with your nose broken, heart choking”, and the song is surprisingly hard hitting given its intro. It’s a testament to female strength and the bond between mother and daughter: “with my mom by my side / we’ll never give up the fight”. Even so, the song features a truly bizarre spoken word coda in which mother and daughter have an almighty row, McKay voicing the daughter’s words through choking sobs and wrenching gasps. Only here does the track become a little unstuck, and the excessive theatricality of the exchange means that what had seemed entirely serious threatens to become a joke.

McKay’s desire to take on various different roles works better on the album’s more light-hearted tracks. ‘Pounce’ is a joyous 56-second ode to pussycats and pouncing in general, one of a number of interlude-esque tracks on the album. Those tracks that didn’t quite work on the promo issued last January are still a little redundant here – particularly ‘Pink Chandelier’ and ‘I Am Nothing’ – and the new track ‘Yodel’ is twee to the point of being irritating, but altogether this is a stylistically varied and consistently inventive album. McKay’s ability to pen both vigorous, fierce politically-minded tracks and gleefully playful pop numbers is particularly impressive. And as for the Cyndi Lauper duet ‘Beecharmer’; well, it’s still one of the most fantastic, fun and witty pop songs in recent memory.

Danny Weddup

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Erin McKeown
Lafayette ••••
Signature

Having had the pleasure of seeing Ms McKeown in concert on a number of occasions, the news that our diminutive spiky-haired friend was finally releasing a recording of her indomitably spirited live sets was greeted with smiles aplenty at the Wears The Trousers office. And Lafayette does not disappoint. Named after the New York street upon which Joe’s Pub (the venue where the album was taped) stands, it’s a deliciously careening treat. Kicking off with her brilliant take on ‘Thanks For The Boogie Ride’, a tune so swinging that you’d want to get up and cut some rug even after the hugest of meals, once the old school jiving beats hit the eardrum there’s no going back and dessert will have to wait. It’s the only cover in an 11-song set that runs through each of McKeown’s five albums (six if you count the original versions of ‘Lullaby In 3/4′ and ‘Fast As You Can’ on her self-released Monday Morning Cold) and still finds room to squeeze in a newbie in the form of ‘You, Sailor’.

As a songwriter McKeown seems to have settled in nicely to her own stylistic furrow, with each release since 2000′s disparate Distillation showcasing a stronger, more focused muse at work behind the scenes. The brilliant ‘Slung-Lo’, from 2003′s Judy Garland-inspired Grand, exploits this and slides perfectly into the set sandwiched between two musically less vibrant numbers, allowing it to shine. Elsewhere, Grand is represented again with a rendition of ‘James!’, this time with a noticeably darker groove than that found on the studio take.

Together with her six-piece, take-no-prisoners Little Big Band with the defiantly talented Allison Miller on drums and Todd Sickafoose on bass (both of whom accompanied Ani DiFranco on her recent European tour), McKeown has done well to capture the true essence of her live show. Her exuberant personality shines through with the crowd participation segment in ‘We Are More’ and the band’s dynamic reworking of classic back catalogue favourites. Her energy is certainly present in ‘Melody’ and ‘Blackbirds’ and her emotions in ‘Lullaby in 3/4′ are immediate and true. Indeed, ‘Blackbirds’ is the perfect example of why McKeown is so well loved as it starts out unexpectedly, surprising and pleasing the crowd in equal measure. Playful and engaging, it’s the standout track and clearly the audience favourite, reflecting the glee that Erin and the rest of the band must have had in the practice room as they gave the song a new lease of life.

As a package Lafayette is a must have for McKeown fans and a worthy introduction for any new ears. The camaraderie between McKeown, Miller and Sickafoose sticks the band tightly together, adding a fresh layer of vitality to McKeown’s older songs. Credit must be give too to the song selection and sequencing, both of which keep boredom firmly at bay. And if you don’t want to go and see the lady herself play in the flesh next time she’s in town after listening to this, well, I’ll be surprised.

Sam Murray

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Katie Melua
Pictures •½
Dramatico

Take a moment to answer the following question. What do the following songs have in common: ‘Remember You’re A Womble’, ‘A Winter’s Tale’, ‘Bright Eyes’ and ‘Closest Thing To Crazy’? Well, aside from the fact that they can all be loosely described as trite, simple and classically composed, aiming to achieve maximum effect for minimum innovation and technique, and that they’re all well-known, big-selling popular songs, they’re all the work of the phenomenally successful songwriter, Mike Batt. Or should that be unaccountably successful? – his work is often derided for being simplistic and over-sentimental (as those four songs illustrate). Nevertheless it’s worth remembering that he has a bankrolling knack for appealing to an audience unswayed by sniffy critics and poor reviews. ‘Bright Eyes’ was an international number one smash for Art Garfunkel; ‘A Winter’s Tale’ became one of David Essex’s most popular and recognisable songs; and Batt’s work with Vanessa Mae turned her into one of the most successful classical artists in the world.

As the mogul at large behind 23-year old Georgia-born singer Katie Melua, Batt has delivered amazing results: with over 7.5 million albums sold to date, Melua is by far the biggest-selling female artist in Europe, an astonishing achievement given the somewhat stale appeal of her musical output. Thanks to Terry Wogan, Katie’s debut album, Call Off The Search – an insipid collection of simple blues/jazz songs – was propelled to the top spot in the UK charts, ultimately selling a staggering 1.8 million albums in the first five months. Melua’s second album, Piece By Piece has now gone platinum four times, once again based on a recipe of digestible pop-jazz and unashamedly romantic lyrics. No matter how boring her music has been to date, Melua has clearly won a place in the public’s affection; that, surely, deserves a modicum of respect, even if she was recently described by the ‘Daily Telegraph’ as a “national embarrassment”.

As it turns out, Pictures will be Melua’s final album with Mike Batt at the helm and is a compelling indication that ditching her sentimental puppetmaster may in fact be her best possible career move. Melua’s own work is, both stylistically and lyrically, a light-year away from Batt’s increasingly inane outpourings. ‘Mary Pickford’ is typical of his drivel; a spectacularly dull creation full of schoolboy-standard rhyming couplets and a saccharine storyline, it’s as nondescript and MOR as a lowly little traffic island. The execrable ‘Spellbound’ is much the same, while ‘What It Says On The Tin’ seems to use Ronseal as a metaphor for schmaltzy romantic ideals better left to Mills & Boon. The mind boggles, truly. The common thread is Batt’s inoffensive and avowedly unchallenging lyrics, and his old-fashioned, straightforward compositions. This stuff should be played in dentists’ receptions, if only to acclimatise people to having their teeth pulled.

However – and this is Wears The Trousers going out on a limb – Melua’s own work might just indicate that a change of guidance and direction could be fruitful. To be fair to her, she does possess a beautifully clear and versatile voice and her writing has a flair that may just come into its own. ‘What I Miss About You’, for example, could never have come from Batt’s well-worn pen. Melua’s semi-biographical song about a treacherous and hurtful ex-boyfriend swings effortlessly from melancholic reminiscence (“your bashful grin when you asked if I would like your key”) to angry denunciation (“your skill of putting me down in front of everyone I knew”), and she is clearly emotionally involved in her powerful performance. The album’s other standout song, ‘Scary Movies’, is an intelligent and amusingly kooky piece completely at odds with Batt’s pedestrian styling. You could scarcely imagine the author of ‘Bright Eyes’ writing lyrics like “Nowadays I never cry… / when the psychopathic wife kills her husband with a knife”, or “I don’t care when people’s heads end up being torn to shreds”.

Overall, though, Pictures sees Melua stuck firmly on safe ground. It will appeal to Wogan’s listeners every bit as much as her previous releases, it will win no prizes for innovation or daring, and it isn’t likely to win her new fans, but Pictures does provide her with a chance to show what she is capable of. Melua is a talented musician let down by a solidly plain lyricist/composer; she might not be a Diana Krall or Joni Mitchell in the making, but if she has the courage to mark a change of direction with the clarity and skill that makes occasional appearances in her own work, she could well move into newer, better, more interesting territory.

Andy Wasley

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M.I.A.
Kala ••••½
XL

Maya Arulpragasam must be a gift to amateur sociologists, and even the more refined stratum of navel gazers known as ethnomusicologists. Just think of all the theses and dissertations that could be developed about her: a young woman born in Hounslow to Sri Lankan parents, whose family moved with her back to their homeland when she was 6 months old; who experienced the virtual loss of her father when he joined the armed Tamil Tiger separatist movement and she was forced to flee with her family to India, living for a time in a ruined house; who eventually returned to the UK and went to Central St Martin’s art college, met Justine Frischmann and was commissioned to produce the artwork for Elastica’s second album; whose response to encouragement by Frischmann and Peaches, the support act on Elastica’s US tour, to develop her confidence in music was to drop off a tape of what became her first single, the bruising and brilliant ‘Galang’, at the offices of XL Recordings with a note reading, “Trust me, you’ve been looking for me”. Without getting too pointy-headed about it, the deprivation, heartache, politicisation, talent and determination revealed by Arulpragasam’s story makes her current success much less surprising, particularly in the music world where personality hooks are often just as important as musical ones.

But it’s the music that concerns us here, until now encapsulated in her debut album, Arular, named after the pseudonym her father took when he joined the Tigers. That record was a dizzying and enervating conglomeration of grime, dancehall, techno, hip hop and a smattering of unapologetic pop, which garnered drooling praise from critics and several award nominations, not to mention healthy sales. It was genuinely one of the records of 2005: fizzing with energy and ideas, politicised but not in your face – despite MTV doing its boneheaded best to bring her politics to the foreground by banning ‘Sunshowers’ for mentioning the PLO – its slightly unfinished feel only added to its appeal, giving the songs a technoid edge that made her sound even more alien among her contemporaries. All of which makes Kala one of the most anticipated releases of 2007.

Arular was undoubtedly the product of a childhood spent mainly in the UK, a result and mirror of musics absorbed from neighbours and friends in an overpopulated city. One of the key tracks on Kala – this time named after MIA’s mother – is tellingly called ‘World Town’, and is the most obvious statement of how her concerns and vision have expanded in the two years since the first record. In itself, however, it only makes explicit that which is implied throughout what is, in many ways, an exuberant travelogue of an album, recorded as it was in India, Trinidad and Tokyo among other locations. ‘World Town’ is the equivalent of entering a dusty zocalo where a street party is in full swing: a samba band bashes out flurries of percussion above which shouts some unnamed instrument fashioned from a car exhaust, while MIA declaims from a car bonnet, “don’t be calling me desperate / when I’m knocking on the door / every wall you build / I’ll knock it down to the floor”. Only the masked guys in the corner, loading their automatic rifles as the chorus plays, ring a note of concern.

These (defiantly non-government) troops appear again on ‘Paper Planes’, the most summery track on the album, but one that sets out a similarly outspoken agenda: “I’ll fly like a paper get high like planes / catch me at the border I got visas in my name / If you come around here I’ll make ‘em all day / I’ll get one done in a second if you wait”; then there’s the chorus of “All I wanna do is -” followed by three gunshots. It’s pretty obvious that MIA’s sympathies understandably lie with the voiceless and powerless people she’s known throughout her life, but it’s equally obvious from the cartoon methodology she employs that she’s out to deliberately provoke a reaction from the other side of the fence, from the comparatively well-off record-buying fraternity that are most likely to be exposed to her music.

Whatever your opinion of her politics, it never gets in the way of Kala being both joyful and sonically innovative. ‘Mango Pickle Down River’ heavily features rhyming by a group of Aborigine adolescents called The Wilcannia Mob, and is a widescreen slice of (inevitably) didge-heavy sludge-hop with a decidedly environmental slant (“There’s only one ocean that got fish left / one day we’ll have to be a really good chef”). The opening ‘Bamboo Banga’ is bhangrafied techno, one of several songs here to extend her cross-pollinisation into good ol’ white-boy indie as she drawls quotes from Jonathan Richman’s ‘Roadrunner’ in the opening lines. ‘20 Dollar’, a sequel of sorts to Arular‘s ‘10 Dollar’, inserts The Pixies’ ‘Where Is My Mind?’ into its loping groove; and even Happy Mondays get a piece of the action when ‘The Turn’ appropriates a line or two from Wrote ‘For Luck’.

Second single ‘Jimmy’ further enlarges MIA’s already expansive tent by covering an old Bollywood tune about one of its stars, Jimmy Aaja. She chooses not to recontextualise the music, relying on lots of swirling strings and bubbling arpeggios, but transplants the lyrics from India to Rwanda and Darfur. It’s an unexpected left turn, especially after the preceding percussive double whammy of ‘Bird Flu’ and ‘Boyz’, and provides some useful breathing space before ‘Hussel’ brings back the noize with layered African drumming that propels Afrikan Boy’s flow and some evocative FX toward a soaring chorus.

As Arulpragasam herself has said, this album “takes a few listens” to reveal itself entirely. The sheer weight and breadth of the sounds on offer here makes it less immediate, and certainly less immediately charming, than Arular; there’s none of the vocal characterisation that she deployed on ‘10 Dollar’, for example. Kala‘s politics won’t appeal to everyone, and they are far more central to the album’s fabric than previously. But when this brave, fearlessly eclectic and sonically loaded music truly hits, only a churl would fail to put it straight in the box marked Albums Of The Year.

Adam Smith

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Joni Mitchell
Shine ••••
Universal

When Joni Mitchell announced in March this year that her comeback album would be based around what she called “the war of the fairytales” it’s safe to assume that no one thought she’d be penning the soundtrack for ‘Shrek The Third’. It’s also safe to assume that no one could have imagined that the sight of a grizzly bear foraging for food in her dustbin would have set aflame her desire to compose her first new songs in almost a decade. Having departed the music industry five years ago with a hefty sting in her tail – the words ‘cesspool’ and ‘slavery’ were bandied about – Mitchell’s heart seemed set on the comparative freedom of painting and a musical life lived through nicely packaged but ultimately unsatisfying Rhino Records compilations. Retiring to her beloved coastal home (her “sanctuary”) in British Columbia where she busied herself with gardening, watching old movies and painstakingly creating the 60-strong mixed media works that would later make up her first art exhibition, an anti-war collection named ‘Flag Dance’, Mitchell’s desire to make music dwindled. Unthinkably, she got out of the habit of playing the guitar, so much so that her fingers had softened and she bled when she tried. So that night, the night the bear arrived, she turned to the piano for the first time in 10 years.

Kicking off a 10-track album with an instrumental, particularly one as feverishly awaited as Shine, may seem on the surface an ungenerous gesture. It’s not. It’s perfect. ‘One Week Last Summer’ is divine anticipation in itself, a languorous delight that slowly unfurls beneath Mitchell’s ponderous, sensitive piano. It’s a stark reminder that, for all her detractors who bemoan the loss of range from her singing, Mitchell doesn’t need words to make a song her own. The sensuous, evocative phrasing of the chords keeps attention rapt throughout all seven ‘verses’, one for each day of the week, and when the bear shows its hungry muzzle on the Thursday there’s no low-end booming drama, no overly dramatic toots on the sax. As the whole of Shine attests, at 64, the music of Joni Mitchell is the fiercest calm you’ll find.

The bear makes another appearance on ‘This Place’, one of only a small clutch of guitar songs, inspired by the demolition of a mountain behind Mitchell’s sanctuary that was sold to Californian developers as gravel. You couldn’t make it up, really. With its lyrical lament about disappearing tree lines and money making them topple, it’s sort of like an updated version of ‘Big Yellow Taxi’, if there weren’t an updated version of ‘Big Yellow Taxi’ already on the album. The voice, when it comes in, sounds richer and more full, luxuriant even, than it has done for years. And for anyone thinking that Mitchell has become entirely humourless, there’s kudos for the line about making mountains into molehills.

The aforementioned retread of perhaps her best-known song is given added colour by a surprising use of accordion atop the familiar strutting guitar line. Taking in both the fiscal and corporeal implications of modern life, Mitchell foregoes Amy Grant’s 25 buck entry fee to the tree museum; here it’ll cost you “an arm and a leg”. How’s that for inflation? Having been overlooked for the orchestral reworkings that made up her last album Travelogue, it’s nice to see this classic finally get a huskier makeover among thematically relevant material. Interestingly, it’s also her first entirely solo performance since 1998′s ‘Tiger Bones’. Still, isn’t it about time that someone realised that DDT hasn’t been used as a crop pesticide in years? If you’re going to change one lyric…

With the notable exception of ‘Woodstock’, which, famously, she never actually attended due to a conflicting work schedule, and 1977′s spookily pre-emptive ‘Otis & Marlena’ that sang of Muslims sticking up Washington, until the late 1980s Mitchell had mostly eschewed the political songwriting of Joan Baez, Bob Dylan and the like – a fact she’s making up for in 2007. War and the ecological scourge of humankind are Shine’s raison d’être. From the opening salvo of the disarmingly tender ballad ‘If I Had A Heart’ to the almost hymnal title track, which contains the piercing lyric “shine on dying soldiers in patriotic pain”, Mitchell lays into modern consumerism (mobile phone users get a double dressing down), self-serving politicians and senseless killing in the name of religion. But these are not protest songs in the ‘60s tradition; Mitchell is too smart for that. She sings with a knowing weariness, an acceptance that the times when people truly believed that art could change the world are long dead and buried. It’s unsettling and strange, proving that the time spent away hasn’t tempered her mystery.

Mitchell even goes so far as to spell it out for us in ‘Hana’ where the female protagonist, a kind and resilient do-gooder, who tells us “This is no simply Sunday song / where God or Jesus come along / and they save ya,” asserting that “you’ve got to be braver than that / you tackle the beast alone / with all its tenacious teeth”. As Paulinho Da Costa’s brash percussion propels the song forward, there’s a hint of the experimentalism that marked Mitchell’s under-regarded 1980s output, and it crops up again on another classic Joni story-song, ‘Night Of The Iguana’, a lyrical adaptation of the Tennessee Williams play of the same name about a priest who falls spectacularly from grace and into tragic love. Elsewhere, ‘Bad Dreams’ takes its key lyric from Mitchell’s new grandson (“bad dreams are good in the great plan”) and talks of life “before that altering apple”, before we lived in towns that are little more than “electric scabs” on the Earth, while ‘Strong & Wrong’ takes a somewhat heavy-handed swipe at the Bush Administration and its ilk.

Shine is so much more than just a protest album, it’s a spiritual awakening. Indeed, as a protest album, it largely falls flat and, let’s be honest, mostly on deaf ears. And whilst this is her first organic-sounding new material in a long, long time, it carries a heady but inescapably dated scent. The fire is not in the music – often a smoky background haze – it’s burning in the wisdom of her voice. Mitchell has pared back everything as she urges us to snap out of our stupors and feel our surroundings. For all her chastising and didacticisms, Shine ends on a beautifully hopeful note. An adaptation of Rudyard Kipling’s famous poem ‘If’ is gorgeously rendered, pertinent both to Mitchell’s own experience and the world at large, and is given an extra poetic flourish at the end from Joni’s own pen. “If you can fill the journey of a minute / with sixty seconds worth of wonder and delight / then the Earth is yours / and everything in it” sounds almost like a challenge. Happily, despite its few flaws, Shine proves that Mitchell herself is up to the task.

Alan Pedder

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Mandy Moore
Wild Hope ••••
Firm

Granted, the name Mandy Moore is not usually synonymous with musical integrity but bear with us here. Wild Hope finds the young actress/singer in a place that’s light years away from the studio-moulded bubblegum popstrel that released So Real. Perhaps we can accredit her newfound maturity to the fact that she’s been forging friendships with the likes of Susan Sarandon and other creative geniuses, or maybe she’s simply gotten older and wiser (she’s still only 23, mind). Whatever force she’s harnessed, the new Moore is a singer who delivers her material with a belief and fervour that reinforces the fact that she’s now in a position to choose the songs she loves rather than those that will sell to a core demographic. Kicking off with ‘Extraordinary’, Moore’s conviction demands that every preconception of her sound be shed. It’s a startling reintroduction that wraps around a lyrical manifesto that’s almost therapeutic – affirmations of self-belief and embracing the opportunity to be yourself with no pretensions of doing more than appreciating the day, the life and the person for its own merits.

As co-writer on every track, Wild Hope is Moore’s most personal effort to date and seemingly forms a narrative, tracing her thoughts through the stages of relationships and self-discovery, beginning to end. The slightly acerbically titled ‘Looking Forward To Looking Back’ is the album’s pivotal moment in that context, marking the point where the realisation comes that the fun has gone and really the relationship has become a chore. Intriguingly, as the stories of the songs wax and wane so does Moore’s voice, as if she were vocally echoing the changes that she sings about; the opening tracks don’t showcase a spectacular voice, but as the narrator becomes more empowered – notably on the stunning, piano-led closer ‘Gardenia’ – Moore might just take your breath away. The voice and the person behind the songs has metamorphosed immeasurably.

Of course, there are credits to be given elsewhere as Moore has collaborated with a range of respected artists to create the songs that mark this transitional album. ‘All Good Things’ welcomes the talents of The Weepies for a song about ultimate healing and acceptance, while ‘Most Of Me’ was written with Lori McKenna and slowly gets under your skin with its melancholy leanings and lyrics. It feels like an insight into a private moment of self-revelatory optimism as Moore sings about realising that she wants to find a place of wholeness where she can be vulnerable for her new relationship, but that it’s starting at a point where it’s “crossing paths with the way he left [her]“, and so for a while all she can give is “most of [her]“; as with nearly all songs on the album, it’s the imagery that remains after the song has faded. The aforementioned ‘Gardenia’ is a collaboration with Canadian singer-songwriter Chantal Kreviazuk, and, in the tradition of saving the best for last, is the album’s peak both lyrically and in terms of performance. If you turn it up loud enough, you can even hear the creak of the piano pedal.

‘Can’t You Just Adore Her?’ is a sweet little tribute to being female and wanting to be adored for every quirk and individual trait; it’s for every woman who has eaten chocolate for breakfast, cancelled work to shop or made being late part of her personality. ‘Nothing That You Are’ and ‘Latest Mistake’ are similarly empowering, for different reasons, and provide a needed boost after the soft and introspective title track whose gentle calm barely raises the pulse. Cellos lend a beautiful depth to ‘Ladies’ Choice’ alongside the delicate keyboards and goodbyes as Moore toasts “to us at the end of the line,” realising that she’ll always miss the version of her lover that she loved but not the one that she’s leaving.

Though it doesn’t push any envelopes in the grander scheme of things, Wild Hope is nevertheless a towering achievement for someone who rarely gets credited for her musical talent and who, by her own admission, would have refunded what people paid for her earlier records. As she sings on ‘Gardenia’, “it’s been good getting to know myself more”, and after a few listens to Wild Hope you’ll most likely concur. Suddenly Moore has a chance to establish herself as a singer-songwriter of true mettle. It may take a while for people to grow accustomed to that, but it seems assured that Moore will continue to develop her talents while the world catches up.

Gem Nethersole

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Mostly Autumn
Heart Full Of Sky ••½
Mostly Autumn

Heart Full Of Sky is the eighth studio album from British prog band Mostly Autumn and sees them rack up their 10th year in the business. As is becoming fashionable (or should that be “increasingly necessary”) in the prog world, the band have followed Marillion’s lead in funding the album recording through subscription and fan pre-orders. This has allowed them to produce the album without major label support on their own Mostly Autumn Records imprint. The bonus for fans who stumped up in advance is a special limited edition with eight exclusive extra tracks.

Among the 10 songs on the regular release, the writing credits are shared between lead guitarist Bryan Josh and singer Heather Findlay, with a couple of tracks contributed by keyboard supremo Chris Johnson, and it’s this triumvirate who form the band’s creative centre. Overall, the album takes a more mainstream approach to prog rock than the likes of Yes, Genesis or King Crimson. Rather, the music bears comparison with a rockier version of bands like Pink Floyd, mixing a strong pop sensibility with their prog pretensions. Mostly Autumn layer this with an occasional folky overlay provided by the flute, clarinet and recorders of Angela Gordon and guest musicians Peter Knight of Steeleye Span and Troy Donockley from Iona.

While this would suggest that the band is aiming for a quality product, these ears found the resulting album more than a little lacklustre. In fact, the overall impression by the end of the album’s 60-odd minutes is a journeyman effort. Findlay’s vocals are excellent throughout but someone needs to tame drummer Andrew Jennings’s love affair with his cymbals. The lack of melodic hooks is doubly disappointing. Most effective are the mellower, folkier songs, where the vocals and Gordon’s flute shine through.

Listening back to the songs on Heart Full Of Sky one can’t help but wonder whether this is a CD which will please the existing fans – particularly those invested in the project – but which will do little to spread the word beyond that. That’s a shame because, if the band were to produce an album that added up to at least the sum of the parts, Mostly Autumn and their fans could be on to a commercial winner. Sadly not this time though.

Trevor Raggatt

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Alison Moyet
The Turn •••••
W14

Among the various artistic epochs of the 20th Century, the 1980s have much to answer for. That faded decade was guilty of some of the most heinous crimes against taste in living memory (leg warmers, anyone?), but it did also produce some little nuggets of joy; it was, lest we forget, the decade that saw the arrival of the CD, the animation of Danger Mouse, and the birth of charitable juggernauts of the likes of Live Aid. It also produced some pretty darn good musicians, forged in the bass-soaked glory of post-punk, faux-glam electropop bands of the likes of Wham! and Yazoo. Although both of those bands have long since folded, their brightest stars – the increasingly off-the-rails George Michael and stage-loving blues supremo Alison Moyet – seem to have maintained a certain sort of magnetism.

It is, perhaps, that vital magnetism that keeps drawing Ms Moyet back to the studio to produce magnificently symphonic albums every few years. It’s pretty clear that some force has to be at work to drag her away from a critically-acclaimed stage career that has seen her playing in shows as wildly different as glamorous jazz-fest ‘Chicago’ and the more downbeat tragedy, ‘Smaller’ (the latter with her close friend Dawn French). That stage experience is becoming increasingly evident in Moyet’s studio albums, and never more so than in her newest effort, The Turn.

It was probably inevitable that The Turn would take on a more theatrical tone than Moyet’s last album, 2004′s Hometime. Signed to new Universal label W14, Moyet has found herself far removed from the pop-loving influence of her ‘80s/’90s Sony contract, and better able to concentrate on turning out music that appeals for its artistry rather than its simplicity. The Turn is full of such music, co-written with Moyet’s long-time collaborator Pete Glenister. The album opens with the theatrics of ‘One More Time’, a complex piece that enables Moyet to show off her famously warm voice and its stage-acquired, ground-shaking vibrato. Similarly theatrical, ‘The Man In The Wings’ is full of drooping legato strings, with Moyet’s earthy, emotional vocals matching the song’s lyrical poetry perfectly. Funkier stuff is in evidence in the jazzy, snazzy stylings of ‘It’s Not The Thing Henry’, full of strutting guitars and belting vocals; Moyet is in near-gospel territory here, and comes even closer in the Hammond-fuelled funk of ‘A Guy Like You’.

The real standout track, though, is one of three that have made it to the album from ‘Smaller’. ‘Home’ is an almost absurdly theatrical tango, which marries Moyet’s masterful histrionics with the dizzying skill of virtuoso accordionist Marcel Azzola to create one of the most striking pieces of music this year. Visit Moyet’s blog (http://alisonmoyet.wordpress.com) for the background story: suffice to say, her excitement at working with Azzolo burns through the song with an incredible intensity. Stunning stuff, truly.

The Turn is easily Moyet’s best album to date. A perfect vehicle for her songwriting prowess, it also enables her to show off one of the most unique, powerful and expressive voices in Britain. If that special magnetism continues to draw her back to the studio, she might have a hard time beating her own performance; one has to hope that she would relish the challenge.

Andy Wasley

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Múm
Go Go Smear The Poison Ivy ••••
Fat Cat

I have to own up here and admit that I’m not at all familiar with Múm. All I know, or knew prior to the extensive (ahem) research necessary for this review, is that they’re Icelandic, there used to be four of them and now there are three, and that they mix electronic and acoustic elements in their music. Indirectly, it’s the latter aspect that has put me off them most, as it has led to critics describing Múm as ‘folktronica’ artists.

Now me, I hate folktronica. I even hate the name, a lazy conflation of two hitherto innocent and respectable words, presumably invented by a hack on a deadline to describe computer-based music that includes things like acoustic guitars and vocals, often in the service of song instead of texture or beats. (God knows what would be better, before you ask – ‘laptop folk’ is both clunky and inaccurate and anyway, genre tags are the province of dullards.) I really have tried to like…this type of music – I refuse to use the benighted word – but have come away burned, or rather bored, by the self-important dullness of Gravenhurst, the pleasant tedium of Tunng and the aural overthink of The Books. It’s like someone with a lifetime’s aversion to olives, who eventually gives up trying “just once more” in the hope of dislodging the Damascene scales on their tastebuds, because, to himorher, they really do taste like the devil’s haemorrhoids.

But it’s nice to be wrong sometimes. Better, even, than the feeling when an album that’s been anticipated for weeks, months, maybe even years exceeds all fevered expectations, are those times when something for which you have no great hopes plays your favourites off the pitch. For much of Go Go Smear The Poison Ivy, we’re holding one such beauty in our mortal hands. ‘Blessed Brambles’ opens with a rusty banjo being plucked, before drizzling on all manner of parps, trills and interlocking percussion and allowing airy boy/girl vocals to waft in. The sheer fecundity of the whole thing only becomes apparent when the vocals drop out again, revealing something akin to Tom Waits’s junkyard orchestra being conducted by the little Haribo cartoon boy. It’s colourful, almost painfully so, but experimental, tuneful and fun at the same time – not an easy balancing act. Even better is ‘A Little Bit, Sometimes’, which refracts music-box chimes, accordions and fragments of piano through a bass-heavy gauze of electronics, topped off with a weary, elegiac vocal melody.

It’s particularly impressive that Múm repeat this trick throughout the album, chucking in everything but the kitchen sink in a spirit of gleeful experimentation while retaining a controlled and tunesome sound. Even more so since their last album, Summer Make Good came from a far more crepuscular and forbidding neighbourhood. Elsewhere, lead single ‘They Made Frogs Smoke ‘Til They Exploded’ nearly matches its glorious title with a meditation on either pet care or animal cruelty (“If you break a kitten’s neck / you must shake its body and check / if it’s still alive, be gone to sleep”); ‘Marmalade Fires’ hides a cry for cleansing flames under a swooning confection of harps and strings; and ‘Moon Pulls’ is a piano ballad to a faraway love played on a silvered beach at evening.

Indeed, if it wasn’t for a few pointless throwaways like ‘Rhuubarbidoo’ or ‘I Was Her Horse’ (both mercifully short) – and for the fact that listening to it in its entirety leaves one with a feeling akin to eating too much candyfloss – this album would be a revelation. As it is, it’s merely great. Múm can consider themselves one more fan to the good, and I’ll be checking out their back catalogue as soon as I can.

Adam Smith

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Róisín Murphy
Overpowered •••½
EMI

“When I think that I’m over you, I’m overpowered” tease the opening seconds of Róisín Murphy’s disco-tinged second solo album. Following the critically acclaimed but commercially ignored Ruby Blue, Overpowered has been hotly tipped as a modern disco classic, and armed with decadent costumes, lavish production from Richard X, Seiji and Andy Cato, two incredibly infectious über-cool singles, as well as inextricable links with the fashion world, Murphy appears at last to be on an infallible path to greater recognition.

The album’s title, however, proves an unwitting indication of what to expect. There is no denying that Murphy has talent in abundance: each of Moloko’s albums bore incredibly well written, edgy and interesting tracks, and Ruby Blue (produced by Matthew Herbert) was an intriguing collection of leftfield art-pop. Here, the focus on disco and fashion – almost painfully displayed by the album artwork which perhaps demonstrates that the songs are swathed in too much artifice – somewhat distracts from Murphy’s majesty. So while ‘Let Me Know’ is undeniably one of this year’s best pop moments, and one that in itself almost makes up for what the rest of the album lacks, still Overpowered misses something crucial. It has energy, it has hooks galore and it’s certainly incredibly cool, but there’s a sorry lack of depth. Perhaps in irony, the words ‘babe’ and ‘baby’ crop up too often to allow the songs to be taken too seriously, and every so often songs sound far too ‘80s, and it’s too unclear where pastiche and irony begin or end.

The main problem is that, on some songs, Róisín is indeed ‘overpowered’ and somewhat drowned by the emphasis on cutting-edge production; there is frustration that the sound is not organic enough to let her breathe. Whereas on ‘Let Me Know’, ‘Overpowered’ and the quite wonderful closer ‘Scarlet Ribbon’, Murphy’s vocals soar, her lyrics and delivery are spot on and the production does not overshadow the content, much of the rest of the album borders on style over substance. ‘You Know Me Better’ is incredibly catchy, and surely must be a future single, but lies dangerously on the cusp of being too much an ‘80s revisit with its electro-handclaps and bizarre synth effects. Elsewhere, ‘Movie Star’ and ‘Checkin’ On Me’ (with unnecessary apostrophe; Róisín is far from urban) miss the mark quite substantially, suggesting that working within the confined of being retro-cool and club friendly proves to be a somewhat limiting vehicle for her talents.

Despite this criticism, Murphy has delivered a competent, accessible and energetic release. While certain songs are below par for a musician of her ilk, the standout tracks really do demand repeated listening, and are some of her best-penned moments. Still, Overpowered is far from being her most impressive work and is in no way Murphy’s most ambitious release. Perhaps the singles will at least finally convince the general public of her worth as a pop star in her own right and grant some chart success, but hopefully by her next album the good stuff will be surrounded by less superfluous material that should really have been shed along the way.

Clara Malone

 



2005/06 reviews dump: a

The following reviews were all published on our old website between May 2005 and December 2006.

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A Girl Called Eddy
A Girl Called Eddy ••••
Anti-

Finally, a vibe worth tapping into. In fact, this debut album by New Jersey-born Erin Moran even goes so far as to reclaim the word from the stoned and surreal, bringing it back to the music in style. Make no mistake, this is rainy day music of the highest calibre. From the faux tattered sleeve in, the spirit of 1970s pop chic slinks and shimmies through each song, most often recalling Karen Carpenter at her most Bacharachian, with a nuance of Aimee Mann in the dusky, self-assured vocal.

As with all great records, the styles here are embodied and lived through rather than simply plucked off the peg and crowbarred into. The world-weary whispered vocals on ‘Tears All Over Town’ (one of two songs here taken from her under-the-radar 2002 EP of the same name), the strident rock-tinged ‘The Long Goodbye’ and the soulful swing of the first single, ‘Somebody Hurt You’, seem to ebb and flow effortlessly.

Although such apparent ease could doom a less canny artist to the dreaded coffee table MOR limbo inhabited by Dido and Norah Jones, you get the sense here that Moran has actually lived and breathed these songs. The lump in the throated ‘Kathleen’, for example, is a minor key memoriam to her late mum. Death is also dealt with in the swelling, glorious finale that is ‘Golden’, a masterclass in the art of tension building. Points must also go to the subtle production by Colin Elliot and former Pulp guitarist, Richard Hawley.

Where this album stumbles slightly is that the lyrical hurdle is only half-heartedly jumped and may prove a touch pedestrian for aficionados of more forthright songwriters. ‘Did You See The Moon Tonight?’ is a perfect example of this, yet Moran’s skill as a mood-maker elevates it above the potential blandness to make it the standout cut. In this respect, she perhaps best recalls Chrissie Hynde or PJ Harvey, with whom the delivery is everything.

What this album exemplifies succinctly is that confessional and heartfelt can be done and done well without the bloodletting or shock tactics favoured by some. If you have time to savour the understatements on offer on this solid, hypnotic album, it will grab at your heartstrings. Equally, if you haven’t, frankly, this is wasted as background music and is likely to pass you by. Next time it rains, you know what to do.

Alan Pedder 
originally published May 14th, 2005

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Mina Agossi
Well, You Needn’t ••
Candid

Afro-French chanteuse Mina Agossi has been making serious waves on the European jazz circuit with her stripped back, to-the-bone approach to avant-garde jazz. This second album follows hot on the heels of her well-regarded debut Zaboum, taking further and more confident steps along her chosen, and certainly somewhat surrealist pathway. Standards, contemporary covers and original compositions are all present and each is delivered in Agossi’s unmistakable, inimitable style, and therein lies the rub.

There’s simply no arguing with Mina Agossi’s skill as a jazz singer. With such commanding control over her warble cords, it’s certain that to watch her and her band perform these songs in a dark, smoky jazz hole would be an experience equal parts exciting, unsettling and terrifically moving. You’d never quite be sure whether the swirls and pulses conjured would coalesce into perfect, pure jazz or collapse into a trainwreck of cacophony, which frankly would be half the attraction. But as has been proven by many who have come before, it is nigh on impossible to capture the adventure and controlled anarchy of this style of jazz on a recorded format. Sure the notes are all there but the danger is inevitably lacking. So often with more avant-garde or improvisational pieces, a moment that when experienced firsthand seems daring and risqué becomes merely sterile and contrived when frozen in time. Rather than a magnificent, wild snarling beast we’re delivered a shadow, caged and pacing with no small amount of discomfort.

There’s a clutch of more digestible songs such as ‘Drive’, ‘Laundry Man Blues’ and ‘May I Sit At Your Table’, and most likely it’s these that will work best for the casual listener. Other tracks take a rather less palatable approach – on ‘Don’t Look At Me’, Agossi’s voice dissolves from an appealingly sultry croon to a wailing maelstrom not unlike scathing electric guitar feedback before resolving back into the calmer vocal line, while on the title track she employs an admittedly stunning scat technique on top of the skeletal backing. It’s initially impressive but soon wears thin, taking on a tonality more Crazy Frog than Ella Fitzgerald. This is a double irony since the vocal on the mostly a cappella ‘After You’ve Gone’ bears more than a passing resemblance to the grand old lady of jazz’s velvet tones. Interestingly, Mina’s signature approach works pretty well on a cover of Jimi Hendrix’s ‘Voodoo Chile’. Her voice is given free reign and she achieves that rarest of things, an effective jazz interpretation of an iconic rock song. The fearless innovator in the late guitar hero would surely have approved.

Now back to that sorry looking rating. On a purely technical basis, this album is clearly deserving of praise. The sparse production is crystal clear, letting every nuance shine through, and Agossi’s tightly skilled band are beyond reproach. For the jazz aficionado with leanings towards the modern and avant-garde forms, this will be manna from heaven. It really is that well done. But a casual listener, including myself, could find themselves enjoying each successive listen less and less. Elements and devices that first added interest soon begin to grate and it’s a real shame. Those in the know in the jazz world will continue to beat a path to the door of Mina Agossi’s concerts and form orderly queues at their local record stores to get their copies of her albums. For anyone else with merely a passing interest in the lighter ends of the jazz spectrum, the question remains: should you buy this album for your listening pleasure? And the honest answer is well, you needn’t…

Trevor Raggatt
originally published June 8th, 2006 

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Christina Aguilera
Back To Basics •••
RCA

More superficial than supafly, it appears that the new Mrs Bratman has been sucked into her own marketing tailspin. The frustration is that it need not have been the case. The story is well known; using the nostalgic yesteryear approach and namechecking the likes of Ella, Etta, Aretha et al., Christina hopes to cement her own place in the American musical songbook and at the same time maintain the superior position she achieved in critical circles with the ridiculously successful Stripped.

Two points of interest are worth noting; in the majority of this overlong album (was a double really necessary?), RCA appears to be milking the sacred… well, you know… perhaps a little too much, maybe because it knows it may be the last throw of the dice. If it is, it’s a shame, because Aguilera’s music often stands up for itself without the need for props to past icons. Secondly, none of the music could hope to seriously offer a fitting tribute to them anyway, as it retains the smooth, polished production of 21st Century American R‘n’B and the funked-up beat manifesto beloved of the 13-25 year old market segment, many of whom wouldn’t know Aretha from a reefer. When was she ever polished? When was Gaye anything but a tortured artist spilling his guts out for the sport of record producers? Back To Basics is marketing a mimic and a fashion statement, nothing more.

And yet, the music is good. It’s not Stripped, but it’s good. First single ‘Ain’t No Other Man’ struts four-inch stillettos over the parquet flooring, ‘Slow Down Baby’ cleverly turns the boy-wants-girl scenario on its head, and ‘Nasty Naughty Boy’ is, yes, teen porn for the masses; I quote: “gimme a little taste / put your icing on my cake”. Consistently sassy and sometimes downright sexy, Aguilera pouts, preens and warbles it up when necessary with a voice that can cause a few tingles up the spine. Witness the use of her lower register on ‘Oh Mother’, another in a long line of tributes to her hard-done-by parent, or the cod-gospel ‘Makes Me Wanna Pray’, which gives a hefty nod to Christina’s real idol, Guy Ritchie’s ball and chain.

There’s a very, very good single CD in here. E-mail me and I’ll give you a listing. In the meantime, I wish Aguilera didn’t feel the need to keep proving herself. She’s admired for her strength, even by music fans such as myself who wouldn’t normally listen to this genre. She’s got a good voice and a good business brain. She’s got a husband and money in the bank and she looks good. If she’s smart enough, she’ll turn all that into a career, with or without the enforced endorsement of past kings and queens of the Billboard charts. Ignore the hype. If you want Back To Basics in your collection, buy it because it’s her.

Paul Woodgate 
originally published September 17th, 2006

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AIDS Wolf
The Lovvers LP ••½
Lovepump United / Skin Graft

Dissonance can refer to many things; in psychology, it represents a state of mental conflict, in poetry it implies a combination of sounds that clash, and in music it’s a harmony, chord or interval that is unstable and unharmonised. In all instances, it represents something that is conflicting, and dissonant is the ideal adjective for which to characterise The Lovvers LP.

There is always an element of novelty when musicians reject the conventional verse-chorus-verse paradigm, and even more so when they also discard melody, euphony and a tuning pedal. But for AIDS Wolf, this is all according to plan. The raw cacophony that calls itself The Lovvers LP isn’t the result of a badly made album or maladroit musicians, it is the album’s contrived musical premise. As if pulling out random chords from a surrealist’s hat, there is little order to be found here. With the exception of the 12-minute epic ‘Some Sexual Drawings’, every song lasts less than two minutes, and, as a result, many of them seem unfinished and lost in their own self-perpetuating chaos.

‘Special Deluxe’, as singer Chloe Lum is known, along with bandmates ‘Hiroshima Thunder’, ‘Barbarian Destroyer’ and ‘Him, the Maji’ comprise this noisy foursome who would describe themselves as a commingling of noise and rock. Lum and Thunder (aka Yannick Desranleau to his mum) are the creators of the highly popular Montreal poster design shop Serigraphie Populaire, or Seripop, and the column inches afforded to their art in the band’s press is nearly equal to the attention afforded to the music. While the cover art of The Lovvers LP is certainly interesting enough, it is really the naked photograph of the band on the inside that fascinates. Scrawled next to it in the bottom corner are the words “Stay freeeee dudes”. Perhaps this is a proposal, or a warning, to open your mind and allow the soundtrack of your nightmares to manifest itself, because once you’re done with The Lovvers LP, you’re going to need some time for mental recovery.

AIDS Wolf macerates our senses and our wits. ‘Chinese Roulette’ is a series of scraping, screechy high notes superimposed over declining scales and frenzied drums where the only audible lyric is, appropriately, “flinch”. ‘We Multiply’ is a perplexing battle of guitars where Lum’s howling vocals are once again needlessly drowned out. Both ‘Opposing Walls’ and ‘Spit Tastes Like Metal’ feature frantic needling guitars that, at high volume, may well induce involuntary eye spasms. Rescuing the album from bleeding ear oblivion are ‘Pantymind’ and ‘Vampire King’; the former’s catchy riffs explode into a chaotic sea of noise and are complimented by delicate clanging cymbals, while the latter is packed with fun and sharply pointed chords that slowly dissolve into solemn madness and disarray.

The Lovvers LP is a dizzying whirlwind of noises that give you the sensation of stumbling through a dysfunctional house of magic mirrors in the circus that, post-AIDS Wolf, could well be your own mind. Whether intentional or not, the amalgamation of repetitious needling notes, confusing, chaotic time signatures, eruptions of clamour and incomprehensible vocals leave the listener with a feeling of deficiency. Certainly, the album is made to appeal to only a very select audience, and there are some very interesting musical ideas here and much to be said about the aesthetic statement the band is making. However, as a musical work it is strenuous to endure, let alone take pleasure in. It seems AIDS Wolf still has a way to go before affirming a musical expression that is truly equal to their artistic one. The Lovvers LP is a mad conductor knocking at your door; for many, the only escape lays in the ‘STOP’ button.

Lisa Komorowska 
originally published May 1st, 2006

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All About Eve
Keepsakes: A Collection •••½ 
Mercury

It is a universally acknowledged truth that a record company in possession of a good back catalogue must be in want of a career-spanning ‘best of’ compilation. All too often the process of compiling such a package bears all the hallmarks of a minor Jane Austen character’s courtship – more to do with expedience, contractual obligations and financial security than any great level of passion. The formula is well established; gather together all of the hits, sprinkle in a few album tracks and bung on a couple of songs that weren’t really good enough even for B-sides, labelling the latter as ‘previously unreleased’ to ensure the established fans will buy in to the party. Exceptions to this rule are few and far between. Fortunately, Keepsakes happens to be one of them.

Credit for this is down to All About Eve frontwoman Julianne Regan’s determination to make it more than a mercenary exercise. Consulting the fans on the band’s official website unlocked the power of informed opinions and interesting choices, all of which make Keepsakes a worthy addition to the band’s canon. This double-disc set follows the band’s career in chronological order, and all the expected hits are here. However, there’s still plenty to engage the hardcore fan. In some cases, the obvious choices are made more interesting by choosing a rare extended 12″ mix – such as for the opener ‘Flowers In Our Hair’. Elsewhere there are live recordings or radio sessions alongside modern reworkings.

CD1 blankets the band’s early years and their most commercially successful phase. Cherry-picking tracks from their eponymous 1988 debut and the excellent follow-up, Scarlet & Other Stories, it serves to demonstrate what a good band they were and how sadly underrated they’ve been. Certainly, there are depths to All About Eve beyond the hauntingly beautiful acoustic compilation staple, ‘Martha’s Harbour’. Their songs retain a certain timeless quality, making them as accessible to new listeners today as they were when first released nearly 20 years ago. Of course there are sonic elements that peg them to the late 1980s – heavily chorused guitars, big gated reverbs on the snares – but the strength of the songwriting and Regan’s never less than heavenly vocals lifts them beyond that.

Actually, it’s hard to praise the quality of Regan’s pure, clear singing highly enough. In interviews she has often referred to her diffidence towards live performance and her struggles with stage fright; however, the live tracks included here belie any timidness, showing them to be an impressive live act, capable of rocking far beyond their twee Goth-folkie stereotype. The second disc launches with ‘Farewell Mr Sorrow’, marking a watershed in the band’s history – the departure of founder member, guitarist Tim Bricheno, who was replaced by Marty Willson-Piper from The Church. The change in personnel was accompanied by an altered sound that shifted towards a more commercial, pre-Madchester indie-pop.

The songs from 1991′s Touched By Jesus show a record label-encouraged move away from folky acoustic noodlings towards a harder, electric feel. Although not a huge commercial success, it did produce some dividends. ‘Farewell Mr Sorrow’, a stinging riposte to Regan’s former guitarist/lover, remains a perfect slice of jangle-pop that, if justice were served, should be hailed alongside contemporary songs by The La’s et al. There is much to admire from this section of All About Eve’s history, particularly ‘Wishing The Hours Away’, which benefits from a liberal sprinkling of Dave Gilmour’s unmistakable guitar sound. Ironic, then, that the band’s subsequent move to a more psychedelic, electro-tinged sound on 1992′s Ultraviolet is marked by a previously unreleased version of Pink Floyd’s classic, ‘See Emily Play’. Even here, though, the chord structures, guitar sounds and Regan’s always-beautiful voice retain the band’s hallmark.

The album closes with 2004′s abortive comeback single ‘Let Me Go Home’ and two new tracks, ‘Keepsakes’ and ‘Raindrops’, that fittingly avoid any foolish attempt to rehash their early days. All in all, Keepsakes is an effective summary, full of gems for casual and avid listeners alike. Also available is a limited edition run containing an additional DVD with videos of all the band’s singles and a range of live/TV studio appearances, including the famous ‘Top Of The Pops’ taping of ‘Martha’s Harbour’ where no one thinks to cue in the band or provide them with music to mime to – oops! Despite a muddy sound quality that betrays the age of these films they make a satisfying addition to the CD and are guaranteed to bring out the inner pre-Raphaelite in anyone.

Trevor Raggatt
originally published May 24th, 2006 

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Lily Allen
Alright, Still •••••
EMI

With her debut album Alright, Still Lily Allen has officially established herself as the Queen of London. She may be Keith Allen’s daughter (and so unavoidably categorised alongside fellow ‘fame borrowers’ Peaches Geldof, Lizzie Jagger and Kelly Osbourne) but it’s her personable character and musical talent that has propelled her album to the top of the charts. She’s genre defying: indie kids love her, mainstream listeners fight over her gig tickets and even the Queen invites her to parties. She isn’t unbearably considerate or inconsiderate about bad reviews and she doesn’t let fame go to her head. After all, she’s been wearing the same Reebok trainers for the past year. Neither does she succumb to the pressures of being an admired female; ‘Everything’s Just Wonderful’ may seem as though she’s contemplating weight loss, but just one look at her downing beer and chain smoking onstage tells us she’s too strong to give in to societal pressures. In every sense she keeps it 4 REAL.

Throughout the album Allen’s Lahndan accent is paraded both loudly and proudly, causing a certain amount of controversy in the process with critics claiming she’s copying the likes of The Streets. Truth is, Allen is simply one of the first female artists to tackle the chav culture head on. She is also one of the few young artists unafraid to give a very blunt, honest and not-dictated-by-management opinion on everyone and everything she meets. Who needs songs about old news like Top Shop girls and binge drinking when you have a witty, spectacularly real lady singing about embracing the ‘bad’ side of London (‘LDN’) and her little brother smoking dope (‘Alfie’)?

Trading on Allen’s unflinching brutal honesty is the album’s major selling point. She’s verbally attacked practically everyone she’s met along the way to the top: she’s waged a war with Girls Aloud, claimed (probably justifiably) that ex-Libertine Carl Barat is an egotist and, hilariously, spat on Peaches Geldof’s shoes. Yet, in spite of all her newly acquired enemies and their apparent popularity among the youth of Britain, Alright, Still has been an unqualified success story. Why? Because kids wanted some spokesperson, male or female, that did all of these things. Everyone has a little red devil on his or her shoulder, whispering that the girl on stage wearing Gucci thinks she’s it but equally thinks that she’s part of every culture within the gates of London. With her reggae, pop and R’n’B routes Lily successfully asserts her point of view and generally mouths off. Bravo! She could spit on my shoes any day.

Tiffany Daniels
previously unpublished 

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Annie
Live at the Magnet Club, Berlin •••½
October 26th, 2005

Annie is an odd ‘un. On one hand, she’s been proclaimed by many to be the saviour of modern pop, with this year’s kitsch electro debut, Anniemal, receiving widespread broadsheet acclaim. On the other hand, she has yet to appear on Top Of The Pops, she writes her own material, runs her own club night in Bergen, Norway, and, when playing live, finds herself on stages more accustomed to unwashed indie sorts, rather than the aircraft hanger-like arenas of her pop princess peers. Add to that the fact that her Richard X-produced single, ‘Chewing Gum’, is a favourite in the cool London indie clubs like Trash and White Heat, and it’s clear she’s no Rachel Stevens.

With her album hitting the German shops in September, almost six months after its release in the UK (where it has yet to make an impact), Annie made a trip to the country as part of the ‘Monsters of Spex’ tour with Danish punk-funk newcomers, WhoMadeWho, for the influential leftfield music magazine, Spex. Despite having released her first single, ‘The Greatest Hit’, in 1999, it wasn’t until this year that Annie has begun to play live. At first, so uncomfortable was she with being on stage that she would sing from the DJ booth. However, by the time the tour touched down in Berlin, she was dancing and singing like a bona fide popstar on the Magnet Club’s tiny stage. But there was no suspended-in-air entrance – she arrived from under a banner strewn over the headline act’s drum kit – and there were no dancers. Only her longtime collaborator Timo, playing with keys and samples, and an aging rock guitarist joined her. None of the trappings were needed in the end; Annie utterly inhabited the space. Charismatic and involving, she often made eye contact with the dancing front row fans and smiling, pointing her fingers as though she was playing a stadium and giggling at her own mistakes.

With a heavy cold straining her vocals and explosions of coughing between every song, the show was not especially polished, especially in light of the additional sound problems. But despite her obvious frustration, Annie duly proved her indie credentials by soldiering on in the face of hitches that would probably cause Madonna to throw the most embarrassing of tantrums. It’s a brave move, but more importantly, it left the crowd of curious music fans and determined Zeitgeist spotters with a warm fuzzy impression.

With new song ‘The Wedding’ (taken from her recently released DJ Kicks compilation) getting rapturous whoops and applause, it seems that Annie’s already formidable acclaim and support will only grow. The game of pop stardom is one of chance without that cynical major label backing, but Annie is good for a gamble. Global adulation and the iconic stature of her idol Debbie Harry is waiting in the wings, but for now it seems this pop idealist is happy to take the Earth one indie kid at a time, Vorsprung durch Musik.

Robbie de Santos
originally published December 19th, 2005 

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Fiona Apple
Extraordinary Machine ••••
SonyBMG

The birth of Fiona Apple’s third album follows what you might call a somewhat complicated pregnancy. If you were prone to brazen understatement, that is. Originally finished in the summer of 2003, already four years on from 1999′s attention-grabbing When The Pawn Hits The Conflict Blah Blah Blah…, the Jon Brion-produced originals were rejected by (quite possibly deaf) Sony executives because they couldn’t hear a single. So, rather than put faith in their already multi-platinum selling charge, the tapes were allegedly put in a box stamped ‘Don’t Open Ever, Or Else’ and locked in a big steel vault. Wisely, Brion leaked this information to the fans, who promptly drummed up an unprecedented protest and bombarded the suits at Sony with thousands of plastic apples, each bearing the name of an outraged signatory. Things became more curious when a leaked version of the album found its way into the hands of a radio programmer and subsequently onto the internet. Rumours then abounded that Apple had given up music altogether, but when Brion claimed that some of the leaked MP3s were not his originals, a rat was swiftly smelled.

As it turns out, Apple had sort of given up. In her own words, she was “sitting [on her sofa] watching Columbo in my bathrobe!”, but after the Free Fiona campaign filtered through to her, that famous fiery spirit reignited and the gears of Extraordinary Machine finally started to shift once more. Two new producers, Mike Elizondo (Eminem, Macy Gray, Nelly Furtado) and Brian Kehew (Beck, Air, Eleni Mandell), were brought in and the album underwent a near-complete reconstruction. Ultimately, despite a painful gestation that could have destroyed its cohesion, it’s a relief to find that the album delivers what it was always meant to – pure, unadulterated Apple.

With its odd rhythms and joyful tones, the utterly unique opener and title track spelunks along merrily and will knock flat anyone who still believes that Apple is some dark and tortured queen. Here, her vocals have grown thicker and loftier with age and she sounds, well, happier than ever. Fans of the leaked MP3s will recognise the hallmarks of Jon Brion’s production, the only other relic of which, ‘Waltz (Better Than Fine)’, rounds out the album in style. Of course, the angsty Apple of old is here too, and her highly publicised break-up with film director Paul Thomas Anderson is an obvious inspiration. The melancholic ‘Window’ positively drips with despair, while the fine first single ‘O’ Sailor’ is an archetypal breakup song that finds Apple lamenting with a maturity never before seen. In fact, it is the lyrical content that elevates Extraordinary Machine above her earlier work. Gone is the well-thumbed thesaurus-inspired, bloated teenage verse that pocked many of her previous songs. Apple is a woman now and rather than soak in her own sadness, she uses her words more strategically, battling the blows of a broken relationship with a logical finesse.

The beauty of having Extraordinary Machine out there in both its forms is that it should just about please everyone – fans have the liberty of cherry picking their favourite versions, be they the bold Brion originals or this stately, more considered collection that Apple herself is so proud of. Although it may not be the pinnacle of what she is capable of, the promise and ebullient sadness of these songs marks an impressive entry in the oeuvre of an artist quite extraordinary too.

Alan Pedder
originally published November 7th, 2005
 

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Asobi Seksu
Citrus ••••
Friendly Fire

Currently garnering lots of rave reviews in America and recently selling out a string of shows at the Bowery, Asobi Seksu are super hot property and most definitely in vogue. Never heard of them? Never fear! Here’s a few factoids for you: Asobi Seksu means ‘playful sex’ in colloquial Japanese; there’s four of them; frontwoman Yuki Chikudate sings in both English and Japanese; and the band’s 2004 self-titled debut earned them a reputation as modern-day shoegazers, a pigeonhole that they try hard to break out of on this rockier follow-up.

So keen are they to hammer this point home that their press release emphatically states that the band “have outgrown the comparisons to My Bloody Valentine and Lush”, but to these ears that’s not altogether the case. There are several parallels with Lush’s Lovelife in particular, but Asobi Seksu are more sonically and structurally adventurous and pack a more powerful and insistent punch, ratcheting up the noise level more than Lush ever did. Come the midpoint of ‘Red Sea’, for example, Mitch Spivak’s frenetic drumming and James Hannah’s guitars are creating such a maelstrom of curiously melodic noise that you wonder where on the earth the track can possibly go from there; the answer is into a plunging sea of reverb and feedback. Fantastic! ‘Exotic Animal Paradise’, on the other hand, is every bit as beautiful as its title would suggest, for the first two minutes at least, shimmering languidly and recalling Yo La Tengo at their most perfectly poppy before going off on a tangent with a sudden and exhilarating twist of manic energy.

Listeners not au fait with the Japanese language might find it a little more difficult to engage with some of the songs, but the impassioned soundscapes and squalling guitars carry more than enough emotional charge to render this minor concern practically irrelevant. ‘New Years’, for example, is one of the album’s highlights; a soaring wall of guitars is overtaken towards the end of the song by feedback that sucks in the sounds around it like a black hole, only for the melody to re-emerge even more powerfully. Even if you don’t understand what Chikudate is saying, her voice lends meaning to the words with vocals that are sweet but edged with a knowing tone, sometimes reminiscent of The Cardigans’ Nina Persson.

Citrus is very much an album for these times. If Asobi Seksu can be lumped in with the footwear fixated crowd, it’s only because they’re the most forward-looking shoegazers of 2006 – how’s that for a paradox? – and certainly not looking to retread the steps of their predecessors. Even if they were, you could guarantee that the shoes on their eight well-turned heels would be oh so terribly chic.

Danny Weddup
originally published March 7th, 2006

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Au Revoir Simone
Verses Of Comfort, Assurance & Salvation ••••
Moshi Moshi

Welcome to the keyboard overload of Erika, Annie and Heather, the three members of Au Revoir Simone. Or to put it another way, alight here for Super Casioworld. Maybe this is the future sound of Brooklyn, but more than likely it’s simply the audioscape for their private little world. Named after a tiny book of Biblical prose, this debut mini-album was recorded in a shower stall (converted into a vocal booth with the aid of a few handy quilts) in their manager’s basement apartment. Now if that doesn’t rack up the intrigue as to what it actually sounds like, maybe nothing will. So if you’re still with us, read on…

Lead track ‘Backyards Of Our Neighbours’ starts with a mere hiss of synth behind the sweetest voice imaginable as it sings about cherry trees and dreams come true. It’s the sound of having your cake and eating it, with a cherry on top and lashings of cream. Next up, ‘Hurricanes’ crackles and pops, while the singer struggles a little to keep up. It employs a ‘la la la’ chorus (always a surefire hit) before it hops, skips and changes tack completely – the music skitters while the vocalist intones, “this message is for all the people, the people who are always waiting”. There’s also a charming keyboard interlude, which may sound like an odd thing to say about a synth-based album, but the moment when things get stripped back and become even purer.

At this point, perhaps I should apologise for not picking out who sings what, but all three blend together so well that it’s difficult to distinguish between them. Whoever sings on ‘Disco Song’ makes a very good job of making the tune sound like something by Piney Gir, complimented by some lovely harmonies while the words “and you say” are buffeted from speaker to speaker to quite disorientating effect. ‘Where You Go’ proves to be a pivotal point. An interesting turn up for the books, it’s an icy slab of electro reminiscent of Ladytron, and marks the start of some ambitious moments where Au Revoir Simone break out of their self-imposed shackles. ‘Back In Time’ is a hushed, hymn-like mantra about not going over old ground, especially in relationships. ‘Winter Song’ couldn’t be more aptly titled, conjuring up images of snowbound scenes as it shuffles along. And ‘Sleep Al Mar’ is a sensual, Spanish-sounding tune that may well be about Mexican boys if I’m hearing things correctly. The slow synth blues of ‘Stay Golden’ wraps things up.

Three girls, as many keyboards, a drum machine and hand percussion. Bet you never thought that would work did you? But it does, beautifully.

Russell Barker
originally published March 7th, 2006

 

 

 



2005/06 reviews dump: c

The following reviews were all published on our old website between May 2005 and December 2006.

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Camera Obscura
Let’s Get Out Of This Country ••••
Elefant

The habitual comparisons with fellow Scots Belle & Sebastian seem somewhat overstated when listening to this, the fourth full-length album from Glaswegian sextet Camera Obscura, fronted by Traceyanne Campbell (no relation to Isobel). Although there are occasional hints of the distinctive B&S indie-pop sound here and there, Let’s Get Out Of This Country is so much more than imitation. In fact, the listener is treated, tour guide-style, to a veritable history of pop music.

There are moments of pure pop breeziness on first single and album opener ‘Lloyd, I’m Ready To Be Heartbroken’, a song written in answer to the final track on Lloyd Cole’s classic debut, Rattlesnakes, and again on the title track, where St Etienne’s catchier sunshine moments are emulated well. Indeed, the witty lyrics and upbeat mood recall a female-fronted Divine Comedy covering Cole himself in his prime. However, the real beauty here lies in the lounge country sway elements of the album where the pace is slower and more bittersweet. ‘Dory Previn’ and the French waltz of ‘The False Contender’ are enchanting and have the wistful qualities of a last dance with their unhurried melodies and sophisticated folk-pop tenderness. We’re transported to an abandoned, creaky back porch where timeless themes of longing and lost love are all encompassing.

Fittingly, everything goes back in time to the retro high school prom queen heartbreak of ‘Come Back Margaret’. With its clever doo-wop production that could quite believably have been recorded by Connie Francis, a saccharine tune right out of the ‘50s accompanies innocent lyrics of despair and teenage dramas. Further vintage melodies are explored with The Supremes-esque sound of ‘I Need All The Friends I Can Get’, a full on charming disco number complete with hand claps and tambourines. In terms of emulating older styles, nothing quite tops ‘If Looks Could Kill’, a song that lodges in your head and refuses to budge, cramming in everything that made those Phil Spector-produced Ronettes classics so great, right down to the glorious Wall of Sound and organ accompaniment.

It’s a testament to Camera Obscura’s songwriting talents that such a collection of retro styles can still sound so fresh and vibrant. Not content with simple pop sweetness, the band tackle sombre themes of broken relationships and lonely yearning for romance and love. The closing track, ‘Razzle Dazzle Rose’, is a beautiful farewell that sounds like it was recorded in a deserted ballroom. Tracyanne’s haunting Julee Cruise-like vocals perfectly express the ghostly atmosphere and a trumpet solo rounds up the magical history tour. Far from under-achievers, Camera Obscura sound like a band who have really hit their stride – not just unafraid to explore different eras and styles, but mastering each of them.

Stephanie Heney
originally published June 5th, 2006 

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Camille
Le Fil •••••
Virgin France

The word ‘chanteuse’ is bandied around rather too often these days, but rarely does an artist fit the bill more perfectly than 27-year old Parisian Camille. Though she is arguably most famous for singing on Nouvelle Vague’s self-titled album of bossa nova interpretations of New Wave classics, Le Fil is actually her second solo release. The title translates as ‘the thread’, pointedly relating to the hum that flows constantly throughout the record, undulating beneath the complex and luscious vocal layering and melodies, creating a fluid and bound piece of art. Though the album is sung almost entirely in her native tongue, a few strands of English appear in some songs, but French speaking friends assure me that, though the lyrics are indeed wonderful, the allure of Le Fil lies in its complex and beautiful sound.

One of the album’s most striking elements is the heavy dependence on a cappella arrangements. Conventional intruments have a limited presence, comprising mainly of bossa nova percussion and occasional horns and slap bass, but it is the diversity of Camille’s vocal arrangements that make it so impressive. In particular, the richness and variety of her vocalisations on ‘Ta Douleur’ are astounding and it’s not hard to see why it was chosen as a single in France; as one of the most upbeat songs on the album, there is a wider berth for interesting noises – raspberries, squeals and squelches. Much like Tanya Tagaq’s Sinaa, if it weren’t for the 5″ circular proof in your stereo, it would be hard to even entertain the thought that the human voice can make such sounds. On the slower songs (most notably ‘Vous’), the background ba-ba-bas and high-pitched vocals are reminiscent of the multi-layered and rich harmonies characteristic of Alisha’s Attic.

But it’s not just the voice parts that make Le Fil so spellbinding; the orchestral chord changes should not be underestimated, nor should Camille’s clear understanding of how to write a moving piece of music. Opener ‘La Jeune Fille Aux Cheveux Blancs’ is the most luscious composition of them all; the orchestration is as pure as a sunrise, unscathed by sin and cynicism. The chordal and melodic movements are so genuinely perfect they’ll make the hairs on your neck stand to attention. On the flipside, Camille doesn’t shy away from getting positively filthy, and ‘Janine III’ is especially explicit; her rasping snarls are layered and looped, sounding for all the world like a group of bickering wrinkled women in a small-town market square. Le Fil often feels incredibly modern in the sense that the clarity and complexity of the vocals is fresh and original, but a folky, traditional Gallic slant is also at play. Some of the melodies possess such world-weary wisdom that they may well have been passed down from generation to generation of singers. Rather like a thread, in fact. Even disregarding the lyrics completely, Le Fil is one of the most astonishing musical works of recent years.

Robbie de Santos
originally published December 19th, 2005

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Isobel Cambpell & Mark Lanegan
Ballad Of The Broken Seas •••½
V2

Weird partnerships in music are no new phenomenon. Remember Bowie and Crosby? Cave and Minogue? So what about Campbell and Lanegan? With her Mia Farrow-type features and sugar-sweet fairytale tones, Campbell could seduce even the most hardened of music fans into listening enraptured. Since leaving Glaswegian pop collective Belle & Sebastian in 2002, she has recorded a number of albums under various guises and with Ballad Of The Broken Seas, Campbell once again shows her knack for choosing allies wisely.

Lanegan, the growly-voiced former Screaming Trees frontman and sometime guitarist with metal heavyweights Queens Of The Stone Age, makes for a somewhat odd collaborator but even more bizarrely, it works. In fact, Lanegan has never sounded quite so dirty and gruff as he does on the folksy opener ‘Deus Ibi Est’. As his wicked tones slide against Campbell’s soft, ethereal vocals you almost feel part of some kind of amoral liaison between them. Hell, even the artwork locates them in a seedy hotel room. Of course, it’s all designed to play out in our heads – the pair of them have barely even been in the same room together, recording their respective vocals hundreds of miles apart.

Campbell is responsible for writing most of the songs, though Lanegan has a go with the alluring ‘Revolver’, a low-key number with sexily whispered vocals, steady percussion and delicate strings. The vocal contrast between the two is by far the most engaging aspect of the record. Some songs are designed to throw Isobel’s ghostly innocence into sharp relief against her craggy companion. The old Hank Williams standard ‘Ramblin’ Man’, for example, is a welcome inclusion, complete with a cracking whip and countrified guitars, while the title track sees Lanegan playing to type again, deliberating the ravages of drink. Less obvious are ‘Black Mountain’, which vaguely recalls a softened ‘Scarborough Fair’, and ‘Saturday’s Gone’, a wistful haunting tune on which Campbell’s vocals are truly laid bare.

Later songs, however, settle less well with Campbell’s purity. ‘(Do You Wanna) Come Walk With Me’s Lanegan-sung lyric “There’s a crimson bird flying when I go down on you” highlights the fine line between seductive and creepy. Whatever effect she was hoping for when she enlisted Lanegan, Campbell has obviously done her homework well and has hit upon that rare quality, a tangible chemistry between two unusual voices, and the attraction is compelling. You expect Lanegan to be the lascivious devil on Campbell’s celestial shoulder, but in fact the opposite also happens – Campbell’s vocals often hide a sinister side, and that aspect alone is worth the price of admission.

Helen Ogden
originally published May 22nd, 2006 

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Isobel Campbell
Milkwhite Sheets •••½ 
V2

Once upon a time, in a mysterious and supernatural world far, far away, there lived a blonde girl with big eyes, a captivating smile and slightly wonky yet chic fringe. She lived high up in a tower overlooking a beautiful bay where the ocean was clear and the sand was golden. Life would have been good for her if her tower wasn’t surrounded by shimmering mermaids who, every time a ship appeared on the horizon, would call and sing their tempting song, flicking their tails in delight as, one by one, the sailors within were called to their deaths. The blonde girl had to watch these handsome and brave men drown each time and, for each one, she would compose a lament, mourning the fact that another chance of true love was gone, borrowing harmonies from the ghosts that went before and melodies from the dreams of escape she held dear. If she ever did, she thought, she would wear deeply coloured velvet and spill glitter wherever she walked.

This, believe it or not, just about sums up what you should expect to hear on Miss Campbell’s latest album. Confirming her rather offbeat romance with traditional folk, Milkwhite Sheets takes a tentative and seemingly innocent step away from her indie/country-rock former amalgamation, instead transforming into a magical creature whose fuzzy beauty is best caught in morning light. A meandering journey back to days of yore, the former Belle & Sebastian vocalist and cellist steps into a new spotlight of her own, a more ambient one to that of her Mercury Music Prize-nominated collaboration with Mark Lanegan, but bright nonetheless.

This is an album that teaches us to listen. Though it may at first seem like the slight, shy offerings of some whispering goddess sitting next to James Iha playing the lute, it soon becomes apparent that the almost pagan-like rituals found herein are making a much bolder statement. Indeed, the power in Campbell’s music is that you have to really dig deep to notice what is there. Beginning with the lilting ‘O’ Love Is Teasin’, Campbell’s slightly unsure voice merges with desolate strumming, building up the tracks that follow, often dramatically, with haunting cello and wistful arpeggios to create something quite primeval and barely-there beautiful. From the reworked traditional offerings ‘Willow’s Song’ and ‘Hori Horo’ to the contrasting indie menace of closing track ‘Thursday’s Child’, Campbell’s quiet exultations and the simple structure of what are essentially love songs makes Milkwhite Sheets extra special indeed. It is not afraid of doing something different, and like-minded people are therefore invited in to have their cockles warmed by this rawest of British talents.

Anna Claxton
previously unpublished

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Kate Campbell with Spooner Oldham
For The Living Of These Days ••••½
Large River

Like a fine vintage wine, Kate Campbell just gets better and better. Since the release of her debut album Songs From The Levee in 1995, she’s mined the rich seams of folk, country, gospel, soul and blues in ever deeper and more fulfilling ways. Along with Iris DeMent and Lucinda Williams, Campbell has an ability to distil a variety of Southern music traditions into the space of a single song. Drawing deep from the well of tradition, she takes the music forward and infuses it with a resolutely contemporary sensibility.

Her new gospel album is a collaboration with veteran Spooner Oldham recorded at the legendary Fame Studios in Muscle Shoals, Alabama. Oldham has worked with Campbell on many of her previous records (including her first gospel release, Wandering Strange), but here it’s just the two of them, resulting in an uncluttered approach that allows each of these fourteen songs to shine. The album combines ancient hymns with songs by Woody Guthrie and Kris Kristofferson and a couple of excellent Campbell-Oldham originals. Backed only by Oldham’s stately Hammond B3 organ, piano, Wurlitzer and guitar, Campbell raids the Baptist hymnal for a lovely rendition of ‘There’s A Wideness In God’s Mercy’, while ‘God Of Grace & God Of Glory’ gets a particularly powerful and urgent treatment. And should anyone doubt the contemporary relevance of this material, just listen to the plea to “cure Thy children’s warring madness” or the reference to being “rich in things and poor in soul” in the latter hymn. The beautiful ‘Prayer Of Thomas Merton’ sets a Trappist monk’s prayer to alternately aching and assertive piano accompaniment, while Campbell and Walt Aldridge’s haunting ‘Dark Night Of The Soul’ is a stunning centrepiece that sounds like an instant classic.

As ever, Campbell’s compassionate, unaffected and effortlessly soulful vocals pull the listener into the heart of each song. Moreover, without ever resorting to facile polemic or easy didacticism, Campbell has always smuggled sharp-eyed social and political commentary into her work, and here she finds the vein of dissent and worldly dissatisfaction that links old hymns to contemporary protest songs. Both Guthrie’s ‘Jesus Christ’ and Bobby Braddock’s pointed ‘Would They Love Him Down In Shreveport’ reach disheartening conclusions about Jesus’s probable reception in the contemporary world, while Kristofferson’s ‘They Killed Him’ despairs at humanity’s tendency to dispose of its most valuable teachers. But, like all of the best country musicians, Campbell refuses to dwell in despondency for too long, and both the Civil Rights-themed ‘Faces In The Water’ and the timeless ‘There Is A Balm In Gilead’ offer hope and consolation. 

Ultimately, while For The Living of These Days may not top Campbell’s last record, the sublimely affecting Blues & Lamentations, it deserves to take its place alongside DeMent’s Lifeline and Johnny Cash’s My Mother’s Hymn Book as a stirring example of all that is good about American gospel music. If there’s something missing from this record, it’s the wonderful narrative sense, vivid character portraits and wry humour that have distinguished so much of Campbell’s earlier work. Nonetheless, she and Oldham have produced that rarity – a contemporary album that can truly be said to be good for the soul. Amen!

Alex Ramon 
originally published October 14th, 2006

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Laura Cantrell
Humming By The Flowered Vine ••••½
Matador

Country music is a much maligned genre, and not without some justification. The gross excesses of the Nashville country scene are enough to turn the stomach of even the most hard-bitten music fan. However, for every Billy Bob Stetson or Dwayne Yokel with their tasselled shirts, ten-gallon hats and horrific mullet haircuts, there’s been a Nanci Griffith, a Steve Earle, a Mary Chapin Carpenter or a Lucinda Williams who has been there to haul the genre rightly back from the ridiculous to the sublime. Laura Cantrell thankfully resides in this latter category. Indeed, she has received such widespread acclaim that many regard her as the rising star of the alt.country genre. Influential DJ John Peel proclaimed her debut album, Not The Tremblin’ Kind his “favourite record of the last ten years, and possibly my life” and Elvis Costello quickly enlisted her as a support act and was quoted as saying “If Kitty Wells made Rubber Soul it would sound like Laura Cantrell.” High praise indeed.

Humming By The Flowered Vine is Cantrell’s third album and her first for large indie label Matador, in whose pastures she runs alongside some less than likely label-mates, including Cat Power, Belle & Sebastian, Mogwai and Guided By Voices, and is fearlessly brimming with the confidence of an artist who knows she’s coming of age. Though her style is pure country, drawing on much of the language of the genre – slide and steel guitar, high third harmonies, traditional folk ballads, fiddle and accordion – Cantrell never allows these elements to add up to a cliché, but rather blends them successfully with a contemporary bent, though sometimes choosing one path or the other. Fittingly, this seems to reflect her life’s journey. Having emigrated from Nashville to attend college in New York City, Cantrell kickstarted her long-running college radio show ‘Tennessee Border’, which explores both the history of country and its diverse modern expressions, and learnt her trade playing in the city’s trendy coffee bars alongside more folk-based artists. Remarkably, her first two albums were recorded while holding a full-time job in a Wall Street investment bank.

Without the day job devouring her time, Cantrell has turned in her finest album yet. The opener, ‘14th Street’, commences proceedings with a light country-pop paean to her adopted hometown and features exquisite harmonies from Mary Lee Kortes of Mary Lee’s Corvette. Second track, ‘What You Said’, has tinges of bluegrass, with Kenny Kosek’s fiddle and Jon Graboff’s mandolin hinting at the breadth of styles to come. There’s slow-burning rock (‘Letters’, an obscure Lucinda Williams original), post-war Western swing akin to the likes of Bob Willis & His Texas Playboys with pedal steel and fiddle aplenty (‘Wishful Thinking’) and a traditional murder ballad from the 1920s (‘Poor Ellen Smith’, also covered by the likes of Kristin Hersh). The pairing of ‘And Still’ and ‘Khaki And Corduroy’ packs some serious emotional weight, with the latter perhaps just nudging it for the album’s most affecting contribution. Here, acoustic guitar and bass, brushes and sparse piano create a melancholy evocation of memories of lost times and old friends.

Elsewhere, ‘California Rose’ is Cantrell’s own tribute to Rose Maddox from the Depression-era group, Maddox Brothers & Rose. It’s an unforgettable story of that indomitable spirit of a strong woman forging her way against the odds. The biggest surprise here comes with the closer, ‘Old Downtown’, which fuses some pretty diverse styles into a delectable slab of modern country rock, as perfect as it is unexpected. It takes some imagination to mix early Steve Earle-style guitars with a heavily syncopated, almost Madchester drum and bass groove, and then to seamlessly segue to an outro of eBow guitars and pedal steel combining into a psychedelic, ambient soundscape. Oh, and all this comes complementary to classic Americana lyrical imagery. It’s easy to see why Cantrell is seen as both curator and innovator within her chosen field.

Humming By The Flowered Vine neatly establishes Cantrell as a force to be reckoned with. The production by JD Foster, former bassist for Dwight Yoakam, brings out the best of Cantrell and her musicians, delivering an album of great sonic clarity. There’s no filler here either; the disc spins for just 39 minutes, leaving the listener hungry for more rather than fully sated. With songs this strong and backed by a bigger label, Cantrell will almost certainly garner wider, more mainstream recognition and success. Here’s hoping this propels her onto equal or greater achievements.

Trevor Raggatt
originally published October 20th, 2006

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Rachael Cantu
Run All Night •••½
Q-Division

This short but sweet eight-track mini-album may not make your ears prick up with its originality or variety, but it will undoubtedly tug at your heartstrings. Californian Cantu is a former rock chick now treading lightly in the footsteps of accomplished singer-songwriters like Aimee Mann and Ani DiFranco, but sounding a bit like Luscious Jackson’s Gabby Glaser in the process. Taken at face value, Run All Night may simply be another pretty, wistful woman with a beautiful voice strumming an acoustic guitar, but once you’ve immersed yourself in it, you may find that Cantu’s appeal lies in her music holding some kind of familiarity that the others do not.

Epitomising all that is human, Cantu’s touchingly honest lullabies are performed with a subtle intensity that commands the attention of even the most unfeeling listener. The title track, for example, is about a moment we’ve all had that you just don’t want to end; at risk of sounding clichéd, this is one album that you won’t want to finish up either. In little under half an hour, and with a smidgen of help from her friends on cello and organ, Cantu wends her way through every emotion, oozing loneliness, regret and, of course, that ole devil called love, from every pore.

Run All Night may be minimalist in approach but it’s extremely powerful when given a chance to take full effect and, although it’s likely that she’ll need to bring something completely different to the table next time if she’s to go the distance, this is a confident debut that will surely get under your skin. It made me blub quietly anyway. Great stuff.

Anna Claxton 
originally published September 17th, 2006

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The Cardigans
Super Extra Gravity •••
Stockholm Records

Although The Cardigans’ last album, Long Gone Before Daylight, was a dark gem of a record consisting mainly of bleak and distinctly ‘grown-up’ lyrics set to acoustic pop tunes, commercially it was a relative dud. Whether this injustice knocked the confidence of Nina Persson and co. is unclear, but something has gone awry in between that record and this, their sixth in just over a decade.

Never one-dimensional, The Cardigans have always been a pop group with a slightly sinister side (after all, they are famously fans of Ozzy Osbourne and Black Sabbath), and that lyrical edge remains; opener ‘Losing A Friend’ dwells upon mortality and sets a black-humoured tone. The trouble here is that the music is too often tortured as well; the sweet sound that used to set the band apart from their peers has dissipated almost entirely. Gone too is the icy electronic sheen of their Gran Turismo-era hits, ‘My Favourite Game’ and ‘Erase/Rewind’. Instead, the band have opted for a more pedestrian pop-rock sound that proves somewhat unengaging over the length of the record.

That’s not to say that this is a bad record; it simply suffers in comparison with the past achievements of a very talented band. The witty lyrics of ‘Godspell’ stand out strongly, attacking the perils of organised religion (or the “great big swindle” as Persson refers to it) with vigour. Elsewhere, the driving wall-of-sound force of ‘Good Morning Joan’, tempered by sweetly tinkling bells, is sublime. However, revisiting a track from Long Gone… as the band do on ‘And Then You Kissed Me II’ is a mistake; gone is the infectious pop melody that the first instalment possessed, only to be replaced by a drawn-out and discordant inferior with strangely hollow backing. The band themselves have described the relationship of Super Extra Gravity to its predecessor as an obnoxious teenager to its mature older relation. Unfortunately, this acne-and-all approach has exposed some of their less attractive qualities.

Anticlimactically, it turns out that the lead single from the album, the spiky and brilliantly titled ‘I Need Some Fine Wine & You, You Need To Be Nicer’, is also its finest track. On the bright side, however, it’s an undeniably fine composition, and like Super Extra Gravity‘s other highlights, it serves as evidence that The Cardigans can still write sophisticated, bristling pop songs for adults, even if they now do so with slightly less consistency.

Danny Weddup
originally published December 12th, 2005

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Mariah Carey
The Emancipation Of Mimi ••••
Island/Def Jam

These days it’s too easy to focus on the problems Mariah has been through over the last few years, but on the evidence presented here, her tenth album, she herself certainly isn’t wallowing. If last album Charmbracelet reflected Carey’s mourning process, then The Emancipation Of Mimi sure ain’t the wake. This is an upbeat, light-hearted party record, reflected perfectly in the opening track and first single, ‘It’s Like That’. Harking back to 1980s R&B (via the SOS Band) yet with a pounding kick-drum that The Neptunes would be proud of, it’s a snappy, simple number that relentlessly invades the brain.

It’s no coincidence then that it’s one of the four songs on …Mimi that Carey crafted with long-time collaborator Jermaine Dupri – together they have created some of the most memorable songs of her 15-year career. Second single ‘We Belong Together’ maintains that trend, blissfully encapsulating the very best aspects of their union. The finest ingredients are to be found here – a distinct and sumputous melody carrying a universal theme, a classy arrangement and the perfect ratio of smooth to belted vocals. Elsewhere on the album, the party continues with tracks like the Prince-inspired ‘Say Something’, the infectious ‘Stay The Night’, vocal workout ‘Your Girl’ and ‘Get Your Number’, which samples Imagination’s 1980s hit, ‘Just An Illusion’.

In the past, Carey has best impressed when backed by live musicians, and …Mimi builds on these successes. ‘I Wish You Knew’ takes you straight to the concert with its energetic crowd effect, and is reminiscent of early Diana Ross, while ‘Circles’ has a classic early ’70s groove without sounding like the wannabe retro peddled by, for example, ultra-bore Joss Stone. This track, and indeed the entire album, benefits from Mariah’s maturation as a singer – where once she might have indulged in warbling and melisma, here she has learnt to rein in those early vocal flourishes and sounds all the better for it. Her voice is strong throughout, and a new-found clarity and diction makes much of …Mimi more accessible then some previous efforts. Although the album as a whole is intended to be light-hearted, closer ‘Fly Like A Bird’ is a spiritual number set among stunning live instrumentation and climactic vocals. It feels like closure.

What The Emancipation Of Mimi shows is that, when Carey is put into a position where she feels she has nothing to prove, that freedom translates into her music and allows it to convey a more relaxed energy. Though her popularity in the UK will never scale the heights of her US success, and though many music fans and critics have written her off, Mariah has no reason at all to be bothered. In terrific contrast to the usual, by blinkering herself to much of the outside world’s opinion, she has returned with a purer and much better distillation of her craft than anyone could have expected.

Adrian Roye
originally published September 3rd, 2005

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Mara Carlyle
I Blame Dido EP ••••
Accidental

Legend has it that upon her arrival in Libya, Dido, the founder queen of Carthage, was permitted to buy only as much land as could be covered by a bull’s hide. Being a wily little minx, she thus proceeded to slice the skin into slivers so fine that they encircled an area of several acres, upon which she built her city. As such, the phrase “to cut up didoes” came to describe an extravagant behaviour.

On first impression, the title of Shropshire-born Mara Carlyle’s new EP may seem like an attempt to sever a chunk from the crown of our own queen Dido, perhaps the very antithesis of extravagant, but is in fact “entirely coincidental”. That is, according to the cheeky-faced creator of last year’s most aptly titled album, The Lovely. Recorded over several years and completed on a secondhand laptop in a north London flat, The Lovely displayed a staggering yet homely virtuosity paired with through-a-glass-darkly operatic vocals that placed Carlyle somewhere along the continuum between early Joan Baez and the gentle lilt of Kathryn Williams.

Continuing the cutting theme momentarily, that album opened with the unforgettable combo of eerie vocals and bendy DIY essential that was ‘The Saw Song’ (Carlyle once played in a trio called The Weeping Saws; clearly, she knows her way around a pun or two) but it’s the sweeping, smoky ‘I Blame You Not’ that finds its way onto this EP. Sounding for all the world like a lost Dusty Springfield in pensive mode classic, it would have sounded equally at home on Feist’s Let It Die. With its muffled piano, soft jazzy drums and soothing background coos, it singlehandedly dislodges the stake from the heart of the torch song hammered in by the likes of Katie Melua and the soporific Norah Jones.

The Carthagian connection arrives in the form of a cover of ‘Dido’s Lament’ from the Henry Purcell opera, ‘Dido & Aeneas’. This was not, as it happens, wholly inspired by the baroque original, but by a spirited take by the dearly departed Jeff Buckley. “Baroque music was meant to be filled with passion when it was written” says Carlyle, “But these days people are too reverential about it.” The result is a distinctly tasteful rendition that builds in intensity to a dreamy multi-tracked refrain of “remember me, my fate.” It’s measured, certainly, but never dull. Carlyle returns again to essential listening territory with a bizarrely soulful cover of labelmate Dani Siciliano’s ‘Walk The Line’ from last year’s Likes… album. Maybe it’s the slightly comical baritone beatbox on the blink, but its charm is infectious and somehow improves on the original.

Frankly, anyone who compares opera singing to “weight lifting whilst reciting poetry from memory whilst convincingly acting like you’re about to cry / laugh / kill / shag someone” is more than alright by me. If you loved The Lovely, this is like manna from heaven. Else, if you somehow missed out, get this as an entrée and proceed to the main course directly; do not pass Dido, do not regret £10.

Alan Pedder
originally published July 26th, 2005

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Caroline
Murmurs •••
Temporary Residence

With Murmurs, Tokyo’s Caroline Lufkin has created an album of such light, polished precision and crystalline sonic clarity that it ought to stickered ‘handle with care’; so soft and feathery are proceedings that you fear you might just scare her off if you sing along too loudly. It’s odd then that the first track ‘Bicycle’ recalls the theme to ‘Coronation Street’ – unknowingly I suspect – the trumpet conjuring images of tiled rooftops and athletic cats. But unlike the sometimes ugly world of Weatherfield, gentle is the buzzword here as Caroline’s self-harmonies are accompanied by the tinkling of a triangle and muted, fuzzed-up electronic beats.

Sounds familiar, right? Murmurs is barely a stone’s throw from the hipster coffee table qualities that propelled Röyksopp to the top of the charts and made the more radio-friendly moments of Goldfrapp’s Felt Mountain the soundtrack du jour to every advert/trailer/furniture outlet going. Many of the songs have an ambient, Zero 7 quality and one suspects that all she needs to make it big is the help of that all-important endorsement – Peugeot or perfume? Who knows! Elsewhere, ‘Pink & Black’ features glacial harp reminiscent of Vespertine-era Björk; indeed, the number of comparisons that the album brings to mind is quite revealing. Whilst the songs feature absolutely top-notch production and perfectly crafted soundscapes, Murmurs as a whole holds precious little we haven’t heard elsewhere before.

At times, the relentlessly chilled-out vibe seems at odds with the lyrics. “You drove me to the wall / I put my car in stall,” she sings on ‘Drove Me To The Wall’, yet the tone doesn’t differ markedly from, for example, ‘Bicycle’, about the nostalgia of looking back on a childhood romance. After few tracks you’ll be longing for something jagged to shatter the calm, if only momentarily – a guest vocal from Kat Bjelland or a Diamanda Galás piano solo, perhaps – but it isn’t forthcoming. The reverie is broken momentarily on ‘Everylittlething’, where an Erasure-esque synth beat and menacing electronic effects briefly flourish, but the song does not fulfil its promise and fails to take off as you might hope.

Thus, the album’s title proves to be a fitting description of its contents. These are beautifully crafted murmurs, but murmurs nonetheless. Then again, like a nice cool breeze on a warm summer’s evening, Caroline’s music is entirely welcome if you’re in the mood for something relaxing and ambient; music for drifting off to sleep to, intentionally or not.

Danny Weddup 
originally published August 30th, 2006

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Lori Carson
The Finest Thing •••
One Little Indian

For all the emphasis we place on the lyrical, it’s sometimes a simple la la la that can grip you like a tendril. Take Kylie Minogue’s ‘Can’t Get You Out Of My Head’ for example, where the nagging vocalisations do exactly what it says on the tin, for hours. Fear not though, reclusive indie chanteuse Lori Carson won’t be sashaying half-naked across your TV screens any time soon. If anything, her first album of new material since 2001′s House In The Weeds sees her picking up the baton from ex-Dead Can Dancer, Lisa Gerrard, and flirting with the ethereal. These seven songs plus one reprise constitute something of a concept album, though not an overt one. In this subtle series, life itself is the concept with all its accompanying dreamscapes and sadness. Carson herself refers to them as “meditations” rather than songs and she has a point – much like meditation, this album takes patience but in return bequeaths a degree of serenity. However, with five of the tracks overrunning the seven-minute mark and many containing prolonged passages of monosyllabic, light as air whisperings, you might want to have a good book handy.

Only ‘The Finest Thing’ and ‘Hold On To The Sun’ approach the confessional singer-songwriterly melodiousness that has been Carson’s stock in trade. Both are delicate wisps of songs anchored by acoustic guitar. The title track is a swooning, aching realisation of how rare and fleeting are moments of sheer contentment. Similarly, ‘Hold On To The Sun’ is a more grounded expansion of the same theme – the spiritual salve of hope. The standout piece, ‘Glimmer’, wraps her vulnerable soft vocals around very sparse, almost skeletal instrumentation. Tellingly, it’s the one long track that doesn’t feel like it and you wish it could go on. Elsewhere, there’s a certain compelling sweetness to ‘Coney Island Ride’. While it doesn’t quite conjure all the fun of the fair, Carson successfully regresses the listener to their first rollercoaster ride, only this one arcs through clouds and there’s no rib-crushing safety bar. You’re free to float in the slipstream should you so desire.

Sadly, none of these songs survive intact when listened to out of the context of the album, and it’s this insular quality that is both the record’s most precious and most limiting factor. While The Finest Thing is a sonically adventurous and welcome diversion for Lori Carson, it is not without its tedium. By virtue of patience, however, the filmic beauty of it all is something that’s easy to treasure.

Alan Pedder
originally published May 25th, 2005

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Neko Case
Fox Confessor Brings The Flood •••••
Anti-

It would be too easy (and not to mention a bit unfair) to begin and end this review with the statement that this is the best album of 2006, considering that it’s only April. However, Fox Confessor Brings The Flood, the fourth solo studio effort from Neko Case, is easily one of the most anticipated albums of recent months. An ambitious record that’s been two years in the making from concept to glorious finished product, it’s safe to say that its been well worth the wait.

With a voice that’s often compared with Patsy Cline, Brenda Lee and Loretta Lynn, Case is clearly getting comfy in the role of the country noir chanteuse. But Case draws on more than these media-driven comparisons, transcending the limitations of genre and forging instead a new style of her own. Strong, resonant and reminiscent of a smoky bar at last call, her rich, luxuriant vocals invoke a walk after midnight, lit only by la lune and heartbreak. And while there are certainly echoes of Cline’s mournful croon on the opening track ‘Margaret vs. Pauline’, she just as easily embodies the three-minute, pure pop gold of ‘Mamas’ Michelle Phillips and Cass Elliot on the exquisitely twangy ‘Hold On, Hold On’.

The songs on Fox Confessor… are unprecedented illustrations of Case’s superb lyricism and growing skill as a storyteller and poet. Reflective and compliant yet optimistic, the songs weave their way through metaphors and myths. ‘Margaret vs. Pauline’ sees her weaving words into melodies that at first seem to only illustrate the difference between the two titular women; however, a closer look reveals a flawlessly executed character study full of minute detail – “Ancient strings set feet a’light to speed to her such mild grace / no monument of tacky gold / they smoothed her hair with cinnamon waves”.

On the title track, Case completely abandons any notion of standard structure with a beautiful tune that bypasses anything as laughably conventional as a chorus, instead wending its way through an imaginative storyline based on an old Ukrainian folk tale: “Clouds hang on these curves like me / and I kneel to the wheel / of the fox confessor on splendid heels / and he shames me from my seat”. Another of the standout tracks, ‘Star Witness’, weaves a love song into a contemporary country tune, but dipping into the darkness of a 1950s murder ballad telling the grisly story of a lover’s untimely demise: “go on, go on scream and cry / you’re miles from where anyone will find you / this is nothing new, no television crew / they don’t even put on the sirens / my nightgown sweeps the pavement, please”.

While Case is the lyricist and primary songwriter, the many skilled collaborators and guests on this album include Kelly Hogan, Visqueen’s Rachel Flotard, The Band’s Garth Hudson, Joey Burns and John Convertino of Calexico and former Flat Duo Jet Dexter Romweber, not to mention longtime bandmates Jon Rauhouse and Tom V Ray. This diversity of talent is certainly not wasted either. Feedback fills the title track, a reverberating and deep orchestral strength rises in ‘Dirty Knife’ (a song based on a decidedly un-cosy family story passed down from her grandma) and a lazy surfer backdrop gives a stunning sense of atmosphere to ‘Lion’s Jaws’. And when talking about atmosphere, it wouldn’t be right not to mention the haunting gospel tones of ‘John Saw That Number’, a traditional folk song with new music added by Case, recorded in the stairwell of Toronto’s Horseshoe Tavern. It’s what spines were really made to tingle for.

Monumentally diverse and damn near impeccable, Fox Confessor Brings The Flood is a tremendous portrait of poetics and storytelling that will surely stand the test of time. Always something of a cult artist out on the fringe of recognition, especially this side of the Atlantic, it could be that Case’s light has finally outgrown the bushel beneath which it has been hidden for so very long.

Loria Near
originally published March 6th, 2006 

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Rosanne Cash
Black Cadillac ••••
Capitol

There is a rule and a paradox that has existed since melody was first used to communicate emotion. The rule: that classic songs tend to deal in the darker elements of life. The paradox: that, for a dark song, someone somewhere has to suffer. Music can heal the deepest wounds and turn the bitterness of lost love into the rose-tinted hue of fond memory. Experts in the art of songwriting continue to educate us and we never tire of the lesson. In just over a year, Cash lost her father, mother and stepmother, leaving her the bearer of a 50-year old torch and the Carter-Cash family (who, to some, were the American family) in tatters. You’re unlikely to see again a dedication carrying the weight and legacy of a musical dynasty as popular and critically acclaimed as the one Cash has printed on the sleeve of Black Cadillac.

With the very stuff of life and death at her fingertips then, it was natural that the follow-up to 2003′s Rules Of Travel would be both a personal goodbye and a meditation on loss. The music at the wake occasionally makes for painful listening. That Cash hasn’t resorted to primal scream therapy, but instead maintained her impeccable reputation for clever, insightful wordplay and gorgeous melody, is to her credit and our gain. Black Cadillac leaves its listeners in conflict with themselves; you sing along, until you remember what it is you’re singing.

The highlights are many. Throughout ‘I Was Watching You’, the album’s recurring themes of loss and love run like a raw nerve through a simple, layered, piano-driven melody, at once ghostly and viscerally tangible, personal yet universal. ‘Like Fugitives’ comes on like Bryan Adams’ ‘Run To You’ without the ‘80s bombast or formulaic, lighter-waving middle eight. Instead, it’s the bitterest lyrical pill in Cash’s medicine cabinet: “It’s a strange new world we live in where the church leads you to Hell / and the lawyers get the money for the lives they divide and sell”. Elsewhere, the title track rolls in on an earthquake-like bass riff, not unlike her father’s voice talking beneath a stolen U2 guitar part, while ‘Radio Operator’s poignant message simply “…will not end”.

The overall tone is one of sadness, but never defeat. For every heartbreak, there is acceptance that life continues. Implicit in the journey is hope, expressed beautifully in another standout, ‘God Is In The Roses’, in which Cash takes a deep breath and smiles ruefully whilst singing “My whole world fits inside the moment I saw you re-born / God is in the roses… and the thorns”. For 20 years now, Rosanne Cash has created an exquisite blend of country, pop and rock that tends to get overlooked in the final reckoning, but remains one of the cognoscenti’s best-kept secrets. With Black Cadillac, she has triumphed; it’s a masterclass in living with the paradox, providing more of life’s truths, and laying to rest with dignity and beauty some of her troubles. Buy it. Empathise. Feel better.

Paul Woodgate
originally published March 11th, 2006 

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Cat Power
Speaking For Trees ••
Matador

As anyone who has endured the wretched soulwreck that is seemingly every other Cat Power live date will tell you, to witness Chan Marshall’s shambolic disassembly of self on stage is to feel like you are spying on a very private decline. It’s intensely uncomfortable and you wonder how soon the whitecoats will come and lift the shuddering, incoherent thirtysomething from her lonely little stool. Not that she is incapable of performing so publicly – her 2003 set at Islington’s Union Chapel was by all accounts mesmeric. Thus, providing she was having a good day, a live DVD seemed an ideal compromise, yet ‘Speaking For Trees’ manages to be as maddening and restless as Marshall is in the flesh.

Set in a noisy, chattering woodland clearing and filmed in an interminably dull single shot, supposedly in homage to the probably equally excruciating art films by Andy Warhol et al., the 100-minute long main feature could, much like Vogon poetry, extract a confession from even the most hardline criminal. Either that or put them to sleep. Shot on digital video rather than film, a barely distinguishable Chan Marshall stands at least 15 feet away from the camera for the entire feature, her face either blurry or hidden behind her trademark hair.

At first this seems like a wonderfully apt way in which to capture the reluctant indie heroine, alone with her guitar in the woods. Then, as she strums and mumbles her way through nearly 30 songs, several of which are simply alternate takes of the same tunes – ‘Night Time / Back Of Your Head’, ‘From Fur City’ and ‘Knockin’ On Heaven’s Door’ appear no less than three times each – the gritting of teeth inevitably sets in. In fact, the greatest variation for our viewing pleasure is when the filmmaker Mark Borthwick overexposes the image and gives a moment’s white respite.

There are nine covers in all, the best of which is Marshall’s version of M. Ward’s ‘Sad, Sad Song’ which appears a generous twice. When not drowned out by crickets rubbing their legs or birds singing as though their lives depended upon it, her voice is as exultantly morose and beautiful as ever, particularly on some of her more recent songs such as ‘Evolution’ and ‘I Don’t Blame You’ from the album You Are Free. Fortunately, it’s not all a big letdown as Marshall also includes a CD with the package containing a single 18-minute epic, ‘Willie Deadwilder’, which features the aforementioned M. Ward on guitar. Giving anything as conventional as a chorus or bridge the widest of berths, she weaves a charming rambling tale based around a rather naïve melody and easily gets away with it. It’s an indulgence for sure, but anyone who enjoyed You Are Free will find moments of transcendence in the song, which was taken from the same sessions.

Sadly, this is perhaps as close to a coherent Chan Marshall live performance as most are ever likely to witness. Those lucky enough to see her sing sans meltdown will continue to regale us with stories of how amazing she can be and we who miss it will continue to believe in this elusive confident character. Of course, there will be those who say that appreciating music shouldn’t be this hard and they’ll certainly have a valid point. Whatever your slant on the matter, the music industry would be a lot worse off without mercurial icons like Marshall and this blip just comes with the territory.

Alan Pedder
originally published May 25th, 2005

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Cat Power
The Greatest •••½
Matador

In case you didn’t know, Cat Power is the very singular Chan (pronounced shawn) Marshall and she’s something of a wilful enigma. Since emerging in 1995 with Dear Sir, she’s released a string of albums so acutely recognisable as her own, where universal themes – you know, life-loss-love, the tension between creativity and artifice, the whereabouts of the toothpaste cap – are explored using lo-fi instrumentation often as sparse and direct as her lyrics are oblique and wrong-footing. Possessor of a prematurely timeworn voice that somehow manages to be both rich and soulful and aridly aching at the same time, her records encompass hushed folk balladry, country stylings, blues sensibilities, and moments of spiky almost-punk. Critics being what they are, Marshall’s highly personal mix of styles has seen her fêted in certain quarters as one of the planet’s foremost songwriters; but for me, she often sounds like a sulky adolescent who’s discovered the recording studio in a weird uncle’s woodshed.

But what’s this? For her no-it’s-not-a-best-of new effort, The Greatest, Marshall decamped to Ardent Studios in Memphis, previously graced by Bob Dylan and Stax Records among others, and enlisted the help of some genuine soul veterans: Mabon ‘Teeny’ Hodges, Al Green’s songwriting partner and guitarist, his brother Leroy ‘Flick’ Hodges on bass, and drummer Steve Potts of Booker T & The MGs. Certainly, this marks a different approach to her previous record, 2003′s You Are Free, an enjoyable if rather inconsistent effort which featured Dave Grohl on drums and (ulp!) Eddie Vedder on vocals. Whether she’s simply after a bit of mainstream accessibility or getting back to her roots, maaan, the added space and warmth imparted by her new band is apparent from the first notes of the opener.

‘The Greatest’ starts with meditative piano then adds pattering drums, flecks of strings and half-heard backing vocals before Marshall gets to musing on the vagaries of her chosen career: “Once I wanted to be the greatest / no wind or waterfall could stop me / and then came the rush of the flood / the stars turned you to dust”. Such a declaration of bravado and disappointment echoes what I’ve heard of her live shows, where she’s almost legendary for clamming up and departing the stage in tears; but something in the new-found sunshine of the music gives some hope of reconciliation between her studio and live personas.

The clement weather brightens further on second song, ‘Could We’, as bursts of Memphis horn illuminate the song’s gentle swing. ‘Lived In Bars’ starts off more mopey and more like your usual Cat Power fare, but halfway through she gamely hitches up her skirts and starts to dance upon the tables. Almost. Elsewhere, there’s a couple of songs that wouldn’t sound out of place on previous albums, such as the piano ballad ‘Where Is My Love’ (“In my arms, finally”) and the spare ‘Hate’, beamed from a Southern porch through a poisonous whiskey haze (“I hate myself and I want to die”), and on these we’re back in the woodshed.

Overall, however, this album encapsulates everything that’s positive and risky about such a project, in which an established outsider attempts to refract her muse through a different prism by reconnecting with her musical heritage. Marshall’s music on The Greatest is undeniably likeable and pleasant, which may be almost an insult to aficionados of her earlier work. But whilst there is no question of a Liz Phair-esque U-turn, the fact of the matter is that most people will find these songs more palatable than any of her previous missives, thereby making it a convenient entrypoint for the curious to start.

Adam Smith
originally published December 19th, 2006

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Kasey Chambers
Carnival ••••
Warner Bros.

Kasey Chambers is the undisputed queen of Australian alt.country, a title she was destined to inherit with her extraordinary childhood story of living in the wilds and singing in her parents’ band The Dead Ringer Group from the age of nine. Not enough credentials for you? How about the fact that her first two albums went straight to the top in Australia (as did Carnival earlier this year) or that she’s befriended and toured with the likes of Lucinda Williams and Emmylou Harris – the US royalty. She’s even had her moment of flirting with Nashville but she’s certainly not your typical country starlet.

That Chambers is not originally from America’s country music capital goes at least some way to explain her appeal; by not allowing herself to be drawn into a formulaic recording process, Chambers hasn’t spent time making the same ol’ record over and over. Carnival sounds so fresh and genuine that it feels completely natural and free of any industry influence. Chambers has given herself free rein to express her thoughts and experiences whilst nudging from an alt.country framework into other genres. Whether she dabbles in a more typical singer-songwriter style, rock or blues, Chambers sounds completely comfortable and without a hint of awkwardness. Given that the album was recorded in just one week, there’s also a tangible sense of spontaneity.

Album opener ‘Colour Of A Carnival’ refers to the Mardi Gras atmosphere in the studio with her brother and long-time producer Nash Chambers and a circle of talented friends and players. “I live in a circle running around and around” is just one of those lyrics that nails a phrase you know you’ve lived through too. Chambers may have dined on much more than the average slice of life but her lyrical themes are easy to relate to. It’s not hard to hazard a guess why much of Carnival is a positive, enriching listen; the wisdom that comes with motherhood and her marriage to US singer-songwriter Shane Nicholson are obvious influences. That’s why “the sign on the door says lonely don’t live here any more” (‘Sign On The Door’) and why ‘The Rain’ is more about hope and renewal than a grey and miserable day.

That’s not to say she doesn’t strut or lay on the sass; ‘Light Up A Candle’ has the ultimate babydoll swagger with its cool blues and wah-wah guitar, while the similarly effective ‘You Make Me Sing’ is irrepressibly gutsy. On a couple of tracks, she even pushes the pop element further than ever before. ‘Nothing At All’ is the more successful of the two with a very simple but clever approach that’s not a million miles away from one of Lisa Loeb’s finer moments, while ‘Surrender’ perhaps strays a little too far. Elsewhere, on the curious ‘Railroad’, Chambers trips out the verses almost as if she were rapping in the rhythm of the sound of a train. The two duets are worthy inclusions too. ‘Hard Road’ is an unpretentious pairing with Powderfinger’s Bernard Fanning and is full of torn, soulful harmonies, while You Am I frontman Tim Rogers joins Chambers in full- on rock out mode on the feisty ‘I Got You Now’. Fans of Kasey’s earlier work will be sucked in immediately by ‘Dangerous’, a deceptively tender song that drips with melancholia. There’s a subtle difference this time though; it’s written from someone else’s perspective – yet another first for Chambers on this album. 

Chambers has been quoted as saying, “You know, when I used to listen to music, if I didn’t hear any influence of Hank Williams, I wasn’t interested, I was so closed- minded.” Throwing away the rulebook might be hard for those holding a similar viewpoint but it’s hard not to love her regardless. Just sit back and let these catchy songs and Kasey’s charming vocals speak for themselves. 

Sara Silver
originally published November 23rd, 2006

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Charalambides
Vintage Burden ••••½
Kranky

Christina Carter
Lace Heart •••½
Many Breaths

The core Charalambides duo of former spouses Christina and Tom Carter churn out so much music that they really must believe in what they do – that’s droning, intimately psychedelic folk musings, since you ask, that don’t so much stare into the sun as reflect the moon in widened eyes. Whilst their release schedule hardly approaches that of, say, Acid Mothers Temple for sheer market overload, the steady stream of limited-run CD-Rs, cassettes etc. that issue from multiple group formations, individual efforts and frequent collaborations suggest a muse both restless and overclocked. And although some releases – or, more accurately, parts of nearly all of them – tend toward blank, acid-folk noodling, so much of their back catalogue is worth checking out that Charalambides must surely be up for some sort of consistency award.

In amongst all their underground activity, the band find time to release proper grown-up CDs on reasonably sized labels like Kranky; still obscure enough to retain the all- important auteur vibe, but sufficiently established to ensure that at least some of their oeuvre is readily available outside of their devoted fanbase. A Vintage Burden is the latest of these, following 2004′s spooked and sprawling Joy Shapes, and comes at the same time as a solo disc from Christina on her own Many Breaths imprint. The two are so complementary in mood and style that they are best assessed as a pair.

It’s immediately obvious from the get go that, as a duo, the Carters have stepped back and opened out since Joy Shapes. In place of that record’s suffocating rituals, opener ‘There Is No End’ is a spare, slowly unfurling meditation on a single guitar figure by Tom, over which Christina’s multi-tracked vocals delicately hover – “there is no end / to your beauty”. Wherever they are, the leaves definitely let in more light these days, for ‘Spring’ is warmer again, its chiming shards of guitars and lovely refrain of “let it shine… it will shine” encapsulating the hopes and new beginnings of the season. Speaking of simpler things, ‘Dormant Love’ is the most nakedly songlike construction Charalambides have attempted in ages, a conventional acoustic strum chased by fireflies of electricity that gather, swarm and eventually overwhelm Christina’s gorgeous vocal melody.

Elsewhere, the instrumental ‘Black Bed Blues’ gradually unfolds in classic Charalambides manner, its keening slide stabs adding a bucolic feel to the widescreen vistas mapped by the intertwining electric and acoustic guitars. This hallucinatory, immersive music – largely improvised yet startlingly immediate and heartfelt – is the most compelling reason for Charalambides’ reputation yet, and deserves to gain the group a much wider audience. ‘Two Birds’ is similarly amazing, a welter of perfectly chosen acid notes from Tom book-ended by beautifully airy yet unusually urgent vocals from Christina. The mantric lullaby of the closing ‘Hope Against Hope’ turns the lights down slowly on one of the strongest records of Charalambides’ career – instantly accessible, individual and inviting.

If A Vintage Burden represents a trip into the daylight world for the Carters, a chance to catch some rays and frolic in the meadows, Lace Heart is a missive from the backwoods in moonlight. Christina’s overdubbed guitar lines circle and murmur to each other in the opening ‘Dream Long’, but whereas similar moves on A Vintage Burden are suffused with hope, here the overwhelming mood is one of sadness.

Unfortunately, ‘I Am Seen’ follows to no great effect, its super-sparse instrumentation failing to gel with a tuneless vocal. It sets the scene, however, for the rest of the album to create pretty great things from virtually nothing. ‘To Surrender’ barely exists – all the better to wonder “is the world an illusion?” – evoking Low at their least corporeal. It leads into the lengthy ‘Walking On The Sand’, where an infinitely repeated instrumental phrase eventually quickens and glows like blown embers. Intentions longingly declares “it is my choice to need you” over another eterno-figure that finally collapses to sing amid a breeze of wispy voices. The sheer beauty of Carter’s audacity and skill is staggering, a fact epitomised by the epic, closing ‘Long Last Breaths’, which somehow manages to make you forget that you’ve been listening to the same two chords for 15 minutes, until the music ends and the world lightens and returns to focus, the ritual over. Strictly limited to 300 copies only, good luck getting your hands on one!

Adam Smith 
originally published August 30th, 2006

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Cibelle
The Shine Of Dried Electric Leaves ••
Six Degrees

The thrill of retail therapy is a potent little thing and is cleverly designed to ensure you keep returning for more. It’s anticipation and control and material reward all in one quick fix. Often, of course, the thrill is momentary, the bell curve of desire flattening quicker than you can say pancake. Such is the deflating experience of listening to São Paulo-born Cibelle’s (pronounced see-BELLee) second album, suffering as it does from trying much too hard to be cerebral. Here, she is to Bebel Gilberto what Oasis are to The Beatles, but the comparison is an appropriate place to start. The Shine Of Dried Electric Leaves copies Gilberto’s Tanto Tempo blueprint by mixing slow electronica and Latin acoustics to a collection of very laidback torch songs. But where Bebel succeeded in finding a trade-off between the crossover elements of both genres, in part due to some excellent variations in tempo, an amazing voice and, perhaps most importantly, some cracking songs, Cibelle unfortunately fails.

The album starts pleasantly enough with the hazy summer swell of ‘Green Grass’ (tellingly, a cover of an old Tom Waits song), but you’ll have forgotten it completely halfway through the meandering follow-up, ‘Instante De Dois’, which sets the benchmark for the remainder of the set by outstaying its welcome by at least two minutes and overplaying the use of ‘novel’ instruments and sounds, until the original melody is a distant memory. Ditto ‘Phoenix’, ‘Minha Neguinha’ and, well, just about every other song.

It’s a shame because Cibelle’s voice is a fine instrument, but too often she crowds it with unnecessary percussion and ill-judged electronica. ‘Mad Man Song’, featuring French rapper Spleen, is a particularly poor example of someone seemingly offered a 48-track studio and feeling obliged to fill each one with a different sound. When those sounds are, to quote from Cibelle’s website, “…voices, spoons, sugarcubes, cups and coffee”, the phrase ‘trying too hard’ springs to mind. I’m all for experimentation, but based on the premise that it’s being conducted with goals in mind, rather than for the sake of it. There’s a lot of repetition, too much stopping to talk/whisper sultrily (sing woman, it’s what you’re good at!) and the tempo hardly ever shimmies above a slowly trudging stroll. Unless you’re paying strict attention, you won’t even know which song you’re listening to, or even if it’s still the same day of the week. I actually felt like rewarding myself for being able to listen to all of ‘Flying High’ without pushing fast forward. It just goes on and on and, well, you get the picture.

Ultimately, Cibelle’s efforts to diversify her sound suffer from the modern malaise of throwing everything at the proverbial wall and hoping that all of it sticks. There’s a startling lack of variation, both in ideas and tempo, very little thought given to the pacing and no quality control; 14 songs, only two of which clock in at under four minutes – perhaps someone has a little too much time on their hands, hmm? This is the kind of record that will make you long for a return to the limitations and boundaries of analogue and vinyl, ensuring that the obvious filler and vanity projects are culled. The Shine Of Dried Electric Leaves will pass you by in a blur of nothingness – the aural equivalent of a tranquiliser tablet.

Paul Woodgate
originally published June 24th, 2006 

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Diane Cluck
Oh Vanille/ova nil ••••
Cargo

If the world was bequeathed a stanza of poetry for every time it’s been written that such and such a songwriter was inspired by the tortured complexities of Sylvia Plath, we’d have assembled a monster modern epic to rival ‘The Iliad’ and ‘Odyssey’ combined. Clearly, this is no bad thing – Plath’s intensity is addictive and energising as much as it is famously wretched – but the comparison perhaps lacks imagination. From the clever wit of the title in, however, New York nutritionist Diane Cluck’s fourth release better recalls the less studied, rawly humanistic and life-affirming work of former NY state poet laureate, Sharon Olds. Both bring a worldly mellifluousness to the boil, daring the reader/listener to continue and delivering the kind of emotional payoff that’s totally unputdownable.

Over the course of these 11 truly memorable songs, recorded in her apartment during the summer of 2003, Cluck’s voice is the constant main attraction, coaxing out her insanely astute lyrics with a peculiar and uniquely clipped glottal beauty. When double-tracked in the rousing ‘Easy To Be Around’ and the spectral a cappella of ‘Petite Roses’, it’s enough to stop and swoon to. Elsewhere, the stark bruised balladry of ‘All I Bring You Is Love’, ‘Wild Deer At Dawn’ and the sensational ‘Yr Million Sweetnesses’ is poignant and cliché-free, the songs gliding like silk-gloved fists along their airy arrangements. Likewise with the heart-rending ‘Bones & Born Again’ – there’s no clutter here. Cluck has achieved the elusive optimal minimalism that’s easy to get so very very wrong.

Having been described by Devendra Banhart as his “favourite singer-songwriter in all of New York City”, and featured on his 2004 Golden Apples Of The Sun compilation (alongside Joanna Newsom, CocoRosie, and more) with ‘Heat From Every Corner’ from her 2002 album, Macy’s Day Bird, Diane is certainly not short of cult figure endorsements. She is also linked with the antifolk movement spearheaded by the likes of Herman Düne and Jeffrey Lewis, though her classisistic sensibilities and ornate melodies seem a little at odds with some of her crasser stablemates. She certainly comes across more demurely than, say, Kimya Dawson, claiming little more than that she likes “to play different instruments and sing and write songs.”

If there’s any justice, she’ll be doing it for decades to come, and should Oh Vanille/ova nil ever receive domestic recognition, a Newsom-style word of mouth stoking of this so far highly secret pleasure is almost guaranteed.

Alan Pedder
originally published June 12th, 2005

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Diane Cluck
Countless Times ••••
Voodoo-EROS

Keen Wears The Trousers readers must surely be aware by now of the esteem in which Brooklyn native Diane Cluck is held around these parts. They might also think, wow, another album so soon after the last? Is the woman superhuman? The responses to which can only be “sorta” and “no, of course not, don’t be daft”. For while the exquisite Oh Vanille/ova nil was rightfully acknowledged as such only this past Spring, the songs were written and recorded back in 2003, leaving plenty of growth time for this much anticipated follow-up. As it turns out, Cluck has expanded little stylistically, opting instead to plump up her peripheries and reinforce (distil, even) everything she was already great at. But Countless Times is so much more than just a retread of familiar ground. It’s a manifesto of simplicity, a dossier of yearning. It’s the diary of an ancient force, the sound of a traditionalist pushing a hand-pulped paper envelope gently.

Melodic innovation and off-kilter, bewitching harmonies have long been Cluck’s calling card, resolutely all frills barred. Indeed, there are instances on Countless Times where it seems she is pecking even at the barest bones of her songs, as if ill content to have us taste anything but their marrow. Even the production is barely there, retreating from the cleaner but still careful sounds of Oh Vanille/ova nil – here, the Brooklyn traffic rumbles into a song or two, her fingers squeak on the fretboard, she laughs. It’s amateurish as done by an expert, i.e. by intention.

Most songs rely solely on Cluck’s caressing and tender way with an acoustic guitar, coaxing out a subtle, distant sound, and by doing so leave a lacuna for the gorgeous voice-as-instrument reveal. The stellar combo of ‘Sylvania’ and ‘A Phoenix & Doves’ illustrates this best, the former a wistful paean to the vanishing simple life she acquired a taste for growing up alongside Lancaster County, Pennsylvania’s Amish communities. It’s a rural and lyrical delight with line after line of drama and bucolic soliloquy (“on your own Sylvania homestead / if that be your belief / you can claim you own it / though you bought it from a thief”). Other standout tracks include the plaintive, multi-tracked ‘Love Me If Ye Do’, the heart-warming ‘Wasn’t I Glad!’, and the insistent, salvational ‘United. The Way You Were’.

The deal-breaker for the Cluck non-converted will likely come with the album’s unusual conclusion – two songs and a no-show (listed as ‘Countless Times‘) built haphazardly around a single funereal motif. This is Cluck at her musically most naked; awkward, unsettling and yet bizarrely contagious, it throws itself to the lions of speculation. The first ‘movement’, ‘My Teacher Died/Countless Times’, would seem almost like a failed take of the second, simply ‘My Teacher Died’, were it not for its curious and complex roundelay-style arrangement and alternative lyrics, but sit through that and the more focused second dose will get you right in the heart with its humble admission: “there are no superstars / there is no Superman / there’s only everyone / I learn from who I can.”

Overall, while many of the songs on Countless Times perhaps lack the immediacy and hooks of those on Oh Vanille/ova nil, they are every bit as engaging once marinated in over the course of a few listens. You might not even notice until you sing a line that takes you by surprise, and therein lies its beauty. In a cold and stoic world that sledgehammers its populace with constant blinding stimuli, such secret declarations are all the more alluring.

Alan Pedder
originally published November 14th, 2005

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CocoRosie
La Maison De Mon Rêve ••••
Touch & Go

Ever wondered how the story would have gone if it were Wendy rather than Peter Pan who’d been allowed to never grow up? No? Well, how about if she’d teamed up with Tinkerbell and released an album so mind-bogglingly derivative yet delicious that it split Never Never Land down its green and pleasant middle? A little far-fetched perhaps, but the task of doing justice to La Maison De Mon Rêve (which translates to “the house of my dream”), the debut album from sister act Bianca (‘Coco’) and Sierra (‘Rosie’) Casady, is no Sunday stroll in the park. Recorded in a teency flat in Montmatre, with all the trappings of Parisian bohemia that the location suggests, La Maison… is positively bursting at its amateur seams with shoddy homemade chic and charm. Serving up a bonne bouche of sugary simple melodies and intertwining off-kilter harmonies, it’s the most disarmingly alluring album about sex, domestic violence, child prostitution, religion and racism that you’re ever likely to hear. Granted, it’s not for everyone – there’s enough random nonsensical percussion and sound effects here to send the easily offended back to their collection of U2 records – but those who get it will adore it.

The story goes that Sierra is a classically-trained opera singer who studied in Paris, Rome and the sisters’ native New York while Bianca spent many years just finding herself before one day when she found herself in Paris with Sierra’s number in hand. After a long period of being incommunicado, their reunion sparked the explosion of fantasy and imagination that hangs brightly like a batik over the 12 tracks that make up the album. Playing, banging and shaking every ‘instrument’ they could get their hands on, the sisters conjured up this addictive mishmash of blues, opera, hip hop beats and the sparsest of folk with admirably little evidence of effort and with no help from an outside producer. When it works, it’s tooth-rottingly sumptuous (‘Terrible Angels’, ‘By Your Side’, ‘Good Friday’, ‘Butterscotch’, ‘Madonna’) and when it works less well, it veers wildly from the pointless (‘Not For Sale’, ‘Tahiti Rain Song’) to the deranged (‘West Side’) and every intermediate. But it never gets boring and that’s what’ll keep you coming back.

Alan Pedder
originally published May 25th, 2005

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CocoRosie
Noah’s Ark ••••
Touch & Go

Sailing down the Seine to find where broken hearts go, the sisters Casady have thrown their audience the most delicate of lifelines, proportionate only to the furthest stretch of their patience. So while the short-fused among us may well crash and burn at the first bonkers lyric (“all of the aborted babies will turn into little bambies”) or cracked, unearthly vocal, it’s best to leave them steaming in their own incomprehension than try to defend or explain why this ship is worth keeping abreast of. You see, the trouble with albums like this is that there are almost too many talking points. In this case, let’s start with Melissa Shimkovitz’s extraordinary artwork. Though at first it may seem a little off-putting, like much of the album itself, it proves deliciously clever and playful on closer inspection. It’s quite something to name your record after a Biblical icon and then subvert that with seemingly smacked out unicorns in a bisexual threesome, sodomy included. Still not convinced? How about the fact that the Bible repeatedly refers to these horned horses, despite the fact that they never existed? And look, isn’t that the star of David on the forehead of the ‘filling’? Provocative, no?

Notice also the diamonds dangling from the pierced nipples of the female and the blingtastic gold logo, both presumably nods to the rudimentary hip hop elements of CocoRosie’s music. Even more so than on last year’s debut, La Maison De Mon Rêve, Bianca and Sierra play up to that influence – ‘Bisounours’ features some of the most seductive rapping you’ll ever hear, half creamily crooned by French MC, Spleen – but they also broaden their palette. So while the farmyard animal noises (‘Bear Hides & Buffalo’) and bizarre interludes (‘Milk’) remain, these are toned down in favour of genuine substance. That said, it’s hard not to view this album as a sequel to the first, or rather the flipside, for while La Maison… had its moments of darkness, this could be that house in a parallel, nightmarish universe, the Casadys flung so far over the rainbow that no slippers could ever return them.

Be in no doubt that death, criminality and dangerous sex are the on-board currency here; ‘South 2nd’ recounts the violent murder of a Brooklyn teen at the hands of other children, the anything-but-techno ‘Tekno Love Song’ is a crush with eyeliner lament complete with weeping autoharp, whilst closer ‘Honey Or Tar’ puts a new spin on obsession. Lighter moments come with the forced naivety and tweeness of the title track and the keening chorus of ‘Armageddon’, both of which feature the distinctive tones of Diane Cluck, who contributes to the verses of the former her sweetest, highest vocal. Devendra Banhart also makes several appearances, singing in French, English and Spanish. Best of all the guests, however, is Mercury Music Prize winner Antony (without his Johnsons) who enlivens former B-side ‘Beautiful Boyz’ with his soulful, wavering vocals wringing every ounce of poignant tragedy from the sad sorry tale of (in every sense lost) prison lovers.

Noah’s Ark is a stark, brave and affecting record that flirts with the surreal and the all-too-real in irresistible fashion. It won’t appease La Maison… haters, but I get the impression that the Casadys care little for everybody-pleasing, route one pop songs. And why should they when their ability to sink you into their art is so handsomely peerless?

Alan Pedder
originally published November 14th, 2006

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Cocosuma
Pointing Excitedly To The Sky •½ 
Setanta

On ‘Bam! Tululu!’, song number two on Cocosuma’s fourth album Pointing Excitedly To The Sky, singer Amanda exclaims “I’ve been Jesus Christ”. Whether or not she really believes this is a question unto itself, but the band’s label Setanta clearly think that the lyric holds some truth. Either that, or the band are being used and abused to launder as much money as possible out of the coffee table genre, but Pointing… is unlikely to filter through to the few-albums-a-year demographic.

The sad truth is it’s nothing special, neither good enough to slot into a prominent shelf on your CD rack nor bad enough to want to destroy it and bury the pieces deep underground. In a severe error of judgement, Cocosuma seem to have taken their primary influence from the insidious and grating background music found in Sims games, particularly on the opener, ‘Communication’s Lost’. Luckily, it seems that they’ve also been listening to Azure Ray and Frou Frou, and it’s these elements that rescue the songs. ‘The Servant’ maintains the ongoing theme of hushed, under-the-breath vocals but attempts, and fails, to diversify into the electro genre. The underwater Casio, or whatever it is they’ve used, simply doesn’t work. While ‘Sparks’ has an opening guitar riff worthy of any classic Britpop act and is one of the more enjoyable numbers, the vocals let the whole thing down.

There are occasional glimpses of greatness; ‘So As A Gentleman You Should Be More Polite’ is a gem with delicate acoustic guitar and thankfully brightened-up vocals, but more often than not the songs are simply a slightly different version of the track before. Essentially, Cocosuma are attempting to imitate every successful alternative band in America, but they always fall backwards into a puddle of their own hush-hush reject songs. Some of the songs show incredible potential, but to achieve what they’re truly capable of, the band are going to have to stop trying so hard to fit in.

Tiffany Daniels
originally published July 2nd, 2006 

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Cocteau Twins
Lullabies To Violaine Vol. 1 & 2 ••••½
4AD/Fontana

Well hey, old friends, it’s been a long time. Too long in fact, for now more than ever, the Cocteau Twins seem to represent a unique diversion in popular music, in the sense of being purchased by barely more than a handful of diligent searchers. Back when I were a nipper and the Cocteaus’ biggest fan (in Worcestershire at least), their sparkling hymns of abstracted emotion occasionally *gasp* got in the charts. On a good night, you could even expect to see the video to, say, ‘Iceblink Luck’ on Top Of The bleedin’ Pops. Of course, widespread acceptance is no more accurate a measure of an artist’s worth than their shoe size, but it surely says something about the way the cultural breeze has shifted in the last decade or so. Cathedrals of sound? Nah, mate, it’s all crooners in Costa and New Wave factories these days. Haven’t you heard? 

Undisputed fact: the Cocteaus – a fat bloke, a skinny bloke, and a small woman who looked like a startled shrew and was married to the fat one – made some of the most startlingly beautiful sounds ever created by man. They didn’t just write melodies, or tunes, or songs; even lumpen idiots like the Kaiser Chiefs can do that. Somehow, they wrote music like one of those underground caves revealed in David Attenborough’s latest natural history spectacular. Everywhere you look, something different and gorgeous happens. New wonders to behold lie round every bend. It’s sound concentrated to the purest essence of light and harmony.

I haven’t listened to them in years, which makes this collection of all the singles the Twins released on 4AD and Fontana, from Lullabies in 1982 to Violaine in 1996, an intensely rewarding and personal experience. Originally released last year as a four-disc boxset and now more wallet-friendly as two doubles, the first half of Vol. 1 is best described as the sound of an ice sculpture melting. The opening tracks, from ‘Feathers-Oar-Blades’ to ‘Hazel’, are twitchy, wiry, disorienting post-punk, moonlit rituals driven by drum machines bled clean of all funk, topped by Liz Fraser’s frightened incantations. And incantations they are, more or less; they certainly aren’t lyrics as lyrics are commonly understood, although the odd recognisable word or phrase is tantalisingly glimpsed now and then. It’s not until ‘Sugar Hiccup’ and the attendant songs from the same EP that the contours soften and some light is shed on the proceedings, and by the time that ‘The Spangle Maker’ arrives, the band’s parallel universe is mostly established. By the end of Vol. 1, CD1, the Cocteaus really begin to hit their stride, with baroque beauties like ‘Quisquose’ and ‘Aikea-Guinea’ fully embracing a rarefied and unique soundscape.

If the first disc is, for the most part, a frozen edifice at midnight, CD2 recalls the fathomless depths of a sunrise. Songs like ‘Great Spangled Fritillary’ and ‘Sultitan Itan’ are multi-hued and mysterious; ‘Love’s Easy Tears’ is a firework display where each explosion betters the last, while the aforementioned ‘Iceblink Luck’ is as poppy as the Cocteaus ever got whilst being no less enveloping. That song and its parent album, Heaven Or Las Vegas, saw a further shift in the band’s style, leaving behind the dramatic peaks of their earlier work for a more measured approach. Fraser even tangled with boring old English on the odd occasion.

Those hoping to save some money by buying only one of these collections, sorry; the second of the two double sets is only slightly less essential than the first. Amongst other delights, there are acoustic versions of several songs and remixes by Seefeel that push the originals way underwater and record the surface-bound bubbles, not to mention a pair of hilarious / brilliant covers of ‘Winter Wonderland’ and ‘Frosty The Snowman’. The late-period material only suffers in comparison with the band’s own prime moments, as is fitting for a group that invented, mastered, and exhausted their own idiom. As heartbreaking as it may have been at the time for their devotees, the Cocteau Twins undoubtedly split up at the right time. These fantastic, life-affirming collections are an ideal epitaph for one of the most singular bands that this or any other country has ever produced.

Adam Smith 
originally published April 26th, 2006

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Colleen
Colleen Et Les Boîtes À Musique •••½
Leaf

Cécile Schott, aka Colleen, ventures into more melodious areas with her latest EP, the title of which translates simply to ‘Colleen & The Music Boxes’. And, indeed, as the title suggests, Mme Schott explores the music box as an instrument in all its natural and artificial forms. Using her computer to accumulate, stretch and massage the tones of both new and vintage models, Colleen has developed a truly unique recording.

Originally commissioned by French radio station France Culture, the project developed further when Colleen visited a friend in Scotland who happened to have a collection of old music boxes. Already familiar with their workings from having used them on her previous albums, she set about dismantling the existing, less interesting melodies and began to explore the sounds she could make when the combs themselves were played with thumbnails or glass.

Focusing purely on the percussive sounds a music box can make, ‘John Levers The Ratchet’ provides a relatively short and sweet introduction before the stark contrast of ‘What Is A Componium? Part 1′. Here, Schott layers sound upon sound and is not shy to include crackling noises and reverb. There is no structured melody per se, rather an accumulation of different notes that create a thick blanket of sound. Occasionally the ear snags onto a note or a rhythm and manages to hang on for a little bit longer. (This dark muddled sound is continued later on ‘Part 2′).

Part of the wonder of Colleen Et Les Boîtes À Musique is that the natural timbres of the instrument have been disfigured using resampling and delay to such an extent that almost none of the pieces actually sound like music box recordings. ‘Charles’s Birthday Card’ reminds us of the origins of the sounds, in an abstract way, with a very organic but stop-start version of the lullaby ‘Rock-A-Bye Baby’. ‘Will You Gamelan For Me?’, as its title suggests, explores and alters the tone of the music box in such a way that it ends up sounding like an Indonesian gamelan, accurately reflecting the imitated instrument with a somewhat monotone arrangement in regards to rhythm and intonation.

Elsewhere, ‘The Sad Panther’ and ‘Under The Roof’ strive to find their own little dreamlike spaces: the former somewhat reminiscent of drone-based electronica (which could not be more remote from the natural sounds of a music box) and the latter truly romantic, almost harp-like in its sweetness. ‘A Bear Is Trapped’ is very different: a lot more scratchy and aggressive, dark and straightforward, it sounds like the last hoorah of a knackered old music box (indeed, you can hear that the combs are being played by hand). Other standouts are the emotional ‘Your Heart Is So Loud’ and cutesy Carribean gin-soaked ‘Calypso In A Box’. ‘I’ll Read You A Story’ is also exceptional, combining as it does the sonics of the music box with the more natural tone of the guitar, creating a more melodious and structured atmosphere.

All in all Colleen Et Les Boîtes À Musique is a truly original release and successfully brings together old and forgotten sounds with modern recording and resampling techniques. A jewel for avant-garde electronica lovers.

Anja McCloskey
previously unpublished

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Shawn Colvin
These Four Walls ••••
Nonesuch

These Four Walls is Shawn Colvin’s first album since 2001′s sorely underappreciated Whole New You and her first since leaving her longtime home of Columbia Records for the (hopefully) greener pastures of Nonesuch. It starts with that rare Colvin commodity, a slice of optimism called ‘Fill Me Up’ – a beautiful, upbeat road song in search of a highway. For an artist who recently turned the big five-o, it’s refreshing to hear her appreciate the possibilities that still exist out in the big bad world. Following quick on its heels, the title track’s opening line “I’m gonna die in these four walls…” heralds a return to the more grounded fare that her fans have become accustomed to. Lines like “I’m gonna miss your Southern drawl / a baby’s footsteps in an empty hall / and every little thing I can ever recall” may be nothing to do with the end of her marriage in 2002, but it has always been hard to separate story from autobiography with Colvin and we’re all a little better off for her honest approach to her strongest gift – communication. Just two songs in, then, and there’s enough material to eclipse all but the best of her peers.

There isn’t room to discuss each song in turn, but suffice to say the whole is a natural and sublime progression from Whole New You and its Grammy-winning predecessor A Few Small Repairs. Highlights grow into you at every turn – some blatant, such as the hooks in ‘Tuff Kid’ and ‘Let It Slide’, others more subtle. The poignant lyrical twists in ‘Summer Dress’ take a simple piece of cloth and turn it into a metaphor for an awakened spirit, while ‘Cinnamon Road’s nostalgic search for a place one can never return to is often tried but rarely as accomplished.

There’s a pivotal moment early on in ‘So Good To See You’ where the accumulated pathos and heightened awareness of life’s little realities, customary in a Colvin lyric, become almost impossible to bear. It will surprise no one to find that she simply ups the ante on the chorus, turning the emphasis around to sing the title with just the right level of acceptance and weariness. It’s a masterclass in the art of the song as message and further proof that her longstanding collaboration with musician/producer John Leventhal bears fruit each time it’s watered. It’s just a shame that it only come around once every five years.

Guest vocalists Patty Griffin, Teddy Thompson and Marc Cohn lend their warm voices and rich experience to a set of songs that you can wrap yourselves in on a cold night or sing from the rooftops on a summer’s afternoon. These Four Walls has everything any Colvin fan could have asked of her and enough to tempt those new to her literate and melodic journey into a purchase. Roll on 2011.

Paul Woodgate 
originally published September 17th, 2006

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Controller.Controller
X-Amounts ••
Paper Bag

Here’s a teaser for you: at what point in a band’s career does hype become counterproductive? I doubt the music industry will ever quite figure it out, but here’s a case worth studying. Toronto’s Controller.Controller quickly became critical darlings following a whirlwind press blitz on their debut EP, History. A quick signing from the label that brought you Broken Social Scene and Magneta Lane later and the pressure was on to justify every bit of the buzz.

In terms of genre, Controller.Controller are hard to pin down, though the phrase ‘death disco’ seems to follow them around. However, what they do is far from conventional dance, even under that colossal genre umbrella. Instead, their tunes are predominantly dubby bass driven, but where you might expect ska is edgy rock and punk. The disco bit comes in with beats that intertwine with menacing riffs reminiscent of Joy Division or early Cure – you can see why they were billed with Franz Ferdinand on tour and why they’re best mates with compatriots The Organ. With echoes of New Order, Interpol and fellow Canadians Metric, the songs have a cold experimental feel and often threaten impending doom. Regular guitar onslaughts stab away at any overriding dance or techno themes, creating a cacophony of genre-busting rhythms. The tension created from the deliberate dichotomy is practically tangible as we’re challenged by something that is one moment minimalist and the next moment bursting with melodies at war.

The songs that appear on X-Amounts may have worked in front of an audience with all the full-on energy and attitude that makes the live experience, well, live, but they don’t work here, especially as a collection. The relentless, brash assault soon begins to grate and everything melds into one giant racket. Singer Nirmala Basnayake’s vocals have euphemistically been called ‘honest’ and ‘raw’, but she really only uses one tone and it jars with the angular rhythms. In the same way that Sleater-Kinney or PiL can sometimes be better in diminutive doses (x-amounts, if you will), the same applies to this record’s monotonic resonance and dull uniformity.

Coming back to the original question, those buying into the media hype surrounding Controller.Controller may well be disappointed by the lack of sustainable interest on offer. Get one thing straight though, X-Amounts is neither safe nor dependent on the latest hot-or-not countdown – a fault that mars so many debuts from bands showered with early praise. Controller.Controller have managed to sidestep such pitfalls; their style and approach is genuinely innovative and, though the album largely fails, there are moments of exquisiteness (‘Heavy As A Heart’ in particular is energetic and tuneful). Don’t blame it on the hype, the moonlight or even the good times, it’s the dearth of tunes that really does them in.

Stephanie Heney
originally published July 17th, 2006 

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The Corrs
Home •••
Atlantic

It may only be a year since their last studio outing but Ireland’s “acceptable face of cloning” are back with a new set of lilting, Celtic-inspired tunes. The Corr family’s background in traditional Irish music has never been far from the surface of any of their recorded output, although, since their 1997 breakthrough, Talk On Corners, it has been increasingly submerged under washes of lush pop production. However the appropriately entitled Home takes the band full circle, concentrating on the music which they grew up with and the deep musical heritage of the Gaelic peoples. These 12 songs comprise a selection of nine traditional Irish and Scottish folk tunes along with covers of three modern tracks with a ‘folk royalty’ or Irish connection. The idea for an album of predominantly traditional music came from drummer Caroline, in response to the reception that the jigs and reels that are regularly slipped into live sets evoke in audiences around the world. It also allowed the family an opportunity to pay tribute to their late mother, from whose songbook a number of the traditional songs were sourced.

Stylistically, the album steers a conservative course. This is no cutting edge fusion of folk and other jazz and rock forms à la Iona or Capercaillie. The arrangements are straightforward, with the band having taken a mostly ‘live in the studio’ approach to the basic tracks (i.e. overdubs added only later and sparingly). In that respect, this could be almost any mainstream folk album from the last 20 years, but when you add in Andrea Corr’s distinctive and undeniably beautiful vocals, Sharon’s singular fiddle playing and the trademark vocal harmonies, this is very much a Corrs album. Production duties are taken by Suzanne Vega’s ex-husband, Mitchell Froom, who has worked with the band on a number of occasions. However, his sonic stamp on the album seems minimal. Anyone expecting the multi-layered pop arrangements of In Blue and Borrowed Heaven or Crowded House stylings will be disappointed. Only on ‘Spancill Hill’ are there echoes of his work with the Finn brothers in the ‘Weather With You’-like acoustic guitar lines – until it transforms briefly into a reel. Additional string arrangements penned by veteran arranger Fiachra Trench and provided by the BBC Concert Orchestra are subtly sprinkled across the tracks along with other traditional instruments, low whistles, uillean pipes and makes for an easy on the ear and attractive sound.

The traditional tracks are well chosen, including some beautiful traditional melodies dating back through the 19th Century Irish diasporas (‘Spancill Hill’) to the bardic era of the likes of harpist Turlough O’Carolan. In particular, ‘Buachaill On Eirne’ has always been among the most haunting of Irish melodies. Other tunes like ‘Haste To The Wedding’ and ‘My Lagan Love’ have oft been mined in the past by those, like landmark Celtic-rock band Horslips, wishing to bring ancient melodies to a modern audience. Even Kate Bush has covered the latter. The modern songs, too, are interesting choices. The Corrs version of ‘Heart Like A Wheel’ may not go down in history as the greatest cover of Anna McGarrigle’s song but it is well done. Richard Thompson’s ‘Dimming Of The Day’ is particularly touching and tender – Sharon’s sensitive and faltering vocal nestling among simple acoustic guitar and string backing.

The oddest choice for inclusion on the album is the track currently attracting the most radio play – ‘Old Town’. Why an obscure track from a Phil Lynott solo album should have been covered on this album and their MTV live set is a mystery. A straight cover of the original, it sits a little uncomfortably among the other folkier tracks. However, as the band has said in interviews, somehow you’d miss it if it wasn’t there. Certainly it’s a hitherto undiscovered gem and it’s perky piano, string and brass motif lifts the album before it slides into the exquisite melancholy of ‘Dimming Of The Day’. Plus it shows that there was more depth and poetry in the Lynott’s writing than the self-parodying cod metal into which Thin Lizzy descended in their later years.

It would be easy enough to damn Home with faint praise – this isn’t a groundbreaking album in any way. Adjectives spring to mind like ‘pleasant’, ‘enjoyable’ and, dare I say it, ‘nice’. However, these don’t do justice to what is essentially a fine set of traditionally based tunes which make for a very enjoyable, if undemanding, listening experience – and, when it comes down to it, there’s nothing wrong with that.

Trevor Raggatt
originally published October 1st, 2005

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Amy Courts
Amy Courts EP *
Self-released

Don’t you just hate it when your hopes are raised and then spectacularly dashed just a few seconds later? Before you listen to this mini-album by Amy Courts, you might want to prepare yourself for just such a crushing disappointment. Courts is a perfectly confident singer – her musical upbringing singing in various church and school choirs in Denver has seen to that – and competent too. Stick on the first song ‘Barely Breathing’ and you’ll notice that much; her voice cuts through the mist and knocks you sideways in a second. It’s a bit like Imogen Heap but not so doctored or squeezed through a myriad of musical trick boxes and, for a moment or two, you might well wonder if it’s the most beautiful, most soulful voice you’ve heard in quite a while.

But then…oh dear. For some reason, Courts has chosen to squander that voice on the kind of horrid, feisty ‘country’ that sells by the bucketload and makes international megastars of people like Faith Hill and, gulp, Shania Twain. Quite frankly, it’s akin to sacrilege. There are seven tracks here and they all dissolve into one sickly sludge. None of the others even attempt to endear themselves with a good intro. If Courts’s voice were generic and bland, you’d probably be simply indifferent or only mildly outraged.

As it is, the EP shows a sorely wasted talent. A voice like hers deserves so much better than this. Perhaps she needs a better inspiration so, Amy, if you’re going to do feisty, try to emulate someone who has more conviction. Be Joan Wasser, be Joan Jett…just ditch the Twainisms and you’ll be fine.

Russell Barker
originally published October 5th, 2006

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Sheryl Crow
Wildflower •••½
A&M/Universal

For those who hastily wrote her off after 2002′s mostly insipid C’Mon, C’Mon, the staggering success of Sheryl Crow’s hits collection the following year must have begged a reappraisal. Certainly, this first new material since then bears the weight of eager expectancy, not least because of her highly-publicised relationship with fiancé and seven-times Tour de France winner, Lance Armstrong. But although the album’s title alludes to the nature of their relationship (“no matter how chaotic it is, wildflowers will still spring up in the middle of nowhere”, Crow explains), anyone fearing a sick-making sludgefest will be gladly put at ease.

From the first bar of opener ‘I Know Why’, it’s clear that Crow is very much back in the game. Setting the tone for what’s to come, it’s a warm, relaxed affair set amid a swirling orchestral backdrop courtesy of Mr Beck Hansen Sr., David Campbell. With the exception of the resolutely soft rockin’ ‘Live It Up’ with its commanding 1980s chorus, Campbell’s arrangements infuse every song and are certainly an interesting addition to Crow’s sound. This is best appreciated by comparing the woozy ‘Chances Are’ (“I was lost inside a daydream / swimming through the saline”) with an earlier version that appeared as a B-side to ‘Soak Up The Sun’, or the bonus acoustic run-through of the title track with its almost fully orchestral counterpart. Yet despite the hype and emphasis placed on Campbell’s contributions, his work is often hidden somewhat by the rather lavish production.

Lyrically, Wildflower often harks back to the introspection and self-exploration that made The Globe Sessions so compelling, shying away from the third party pop cultural narratives that made her name. But while The Globe Sessions sounded akin to a freshly gouged wound (with extra added salt), Wildflower is riddled with a sense of hope. Even in the George W Bush-bashing ‘Where Has All The Love Gone’ (“I saw the flag roll by on a wooden box”), it’s there in the tone of her voice. Across the album as a whole in fact, Crow has never sounded so tender, retaining her strangely appealing slight strain for the high notes that serves especially to emphasise the vulnerability at play.

Though Wildflower wilts a little in the middle with ‘Letter To God’ and ‘Lifetimes’ in particular falling just the wrong side of average, there’s more than enough substance to songs like the Beatles-esque ‘Perfect Lie’ and the heart-wrenching ‘Always On Your Side’ to justify these falters. Not wild then, but mellow and classy, this ranks among her best work to date.

Michael Banna
originally published November 28th, 2005

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Allison Crowe
Live At Wood Hall •••½
Rubenesque

Canadian singer-songwriter Allison Crowe’s personal mantra adorns the cover of her latest album. That simple maxim is “Why music? Why breathing!”, so personal is her connection with the music she writes and performs. This new record, her fourth in total, documents a two-night stand at the Robin & Winifred Wood Recital Hall in Victoria, British Columbia in March 2005, taking in 23 songs performed live in front of a small but fortunate audience.

Crowe was born and raised on Vancouver Island in Nanaimo, a town with two prior claims to musical fame – firstly, for having a deep heritage in brass band music stemming from its coal mining history, and secondly, for being the birthplace of jazz chanteuse, Diana Krall. Fortunately, Allison Crowe has forsaken the former influence and, despite being a talented piano player and singer and sharing stages with Krall, has taken a different musical route and mines very separate sonic seams. Her piano playing often perfectly complements the mood of each song, whether she is tracing delicate arpeggios and melodies or delivering bombastic chordal backing.

This double-disc set amply demonstrates Crowe’s profound skill both as a writer and as an interpreter of other people’s songs, the performances dripping with emotion as she wrings meaning out of both the words and music. Her own compositions range from simple, tender love songs (‘There Is’, ‘By Your Side’) to insightful social commentary (‘Whether I’m Wrong’, ‘Disease’), and all are delivered in a contemporary style. However, it is perhaps her cover versions that are most revealing of Allison Crowe, and a diverse selection they are too, ranging from her personal favourites and influences (Tori Amos’s ‘Playboy Mommy’, Ani DiFranco’s classic ‘Independence Day’ and ‘A Murder Of One’ by Counting Crows) to showtunes ‘Bill’ and ‘I Dreamed A Dream’ from ‘Les Misérables’, via the oft-covered ‘Imagine’ and ‘Me & Bobby McGee’. It’s the Counting Crows cover that really highlights her skills as an interpreter. Crowe strips the song back to its skeleton and delivers a performance that completely convinces. In her version, the refrain “All your life is such a shame, shame, shame / all your love is just a dream, dream, dream / open up your eyes” is utterly divorced from the original’s lightly hopeful interpretation, becoming instead a cry of pure despair from a heart that can see clearly the life which she is missing. It’s a heart-rending tour de force. 

Live At Wood Hall easily holds the listener’s attention throughout its near 110-minute duration, but while it has certain claims on the status of masterpiece, it is perhaps a flawed one. Although Crowe’s vocal ability and accuracy are beyond reproach (her use of portamento to attain certain notes is exquisite and has a hugely powerful effect that she wisely resists overusing), there are moments where she fails to reach the odd high note. However, this is completely forgivable in the live context of the album. Larry Anschell’s production and engineering serve to give a transparent and intimate document of the concerts – this is no ProTool’d and AutoTuned plastic pop opus but a real musician creating a real performance. Where Crowe’s tuning is a little errant, it is not because of a lack of ability, but rather because raw emotion seems to overwhelm the technical aspects of the delivery. Another nice technical touch is that all of the applause and intros are recorded as separate tracks, thereby allowing the listener to edit them out with some nifty programming if they so wish.

The greatest difficulty with Crowe’s singing is perhaps most obvious on the Jerome Kern/PG Wodehouse showtune, ‘Bill’. While hers is a magnificent interpretation, bringing the song slap bang into the 21st Century, it also overemphasises her extraordinary vibrato, a technique that is usually used subtly to bring additional depth to a performance. However, when Crowe switches that internal button, it is anything but subtle. Very rapid, deep and with a ‘square-wave’ quality, she turns it on and off like a tremolo effect pedal rather than fading it into sustained passages. On initial listens, this can be rather distracting – too often I was listening to the vibrato rather than the music – but subsequent auditions lessen the shock of the new. A flaw, true, but not a fatal one.

Overall, Live At Wood Hall is a worthy document of a pair of extraordinary performances. More than that though, it’s an album that suggests that this young woman from an obscure mining town in Canada is only at the beginning of a long and successful career.

Trevor Raggatt
originally published October 18th, 2005 

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Allison Crowe
This Little Bird ••••
Rubenesque

Last year’s double album Live At Wood Hall showed Canadian songstress Allison Crowe to be a powerful artist who combines technical flair and an ability to imbue her performances with a beguiling mix of strength of spirit and a tender, bruised soul. This Little Bird, her first studio set since 2004′s festive offering Tidings, comprises nine new songs and a selection of well-chosen covers. It’s been a while then, so what’s changed? Well, a first glance at the credits might cause your brain to subconsciously remark that Crowe has seemingly ditched her solo singer-songwriter roots and hooked up with a crack team of session musicians. Your brain might also remark that, yikes, this might not be such a great idea. Would she struggle to flutter above an overpowering rhythm section or be swamped by layers of unnecessary overproduction?

Thankfully, those worries are unfounded. This Little Bird flies on the right side of tasteful, retaining the intimacy of Crowe’s remarkable vocals, couched within the context of her tender and expressive piano playing. Even when she stretches out into more impassioned proclamations, the voice and piano are firmly front and centre of our attention. Crowe’s distinctive vibrato, which sometimes wanders in the passion of her live delivery, is wisely kept in check by studio discipline without losing its character. Able to communicate purity as well as she does sultriness and a confessional tone, Crowe excels at all levels. Her cover of the Joni Mitchell classic ‘A Case Of You’ demonstrates this perfectly, from the strident confidence in the strength of love to the deep, low groan of self-doubt and despair.

For the most part the backing musicians are tastefully employed, although there are a few moments scattered across the disc where perhaps the odd timing or note choice issue should have been addressed prior to final mastering. Then again, on ‘Skeletons & Spirits’ for instance, the fact that the hand percussion seems slightly out of kilter with the piano merely emphasises the subtle oddness and foreboding contained in the lyric. Overall, This Little Bird is an intelligent, emotionally literate collection on which the talented Ms. Crowe proves once again that she’s actually 100% nightingale.

Trevor Raggatt
previously unpublished 

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Nancy Elizabeth Cunliffe
The Wheel Turning King EP •••½
Timbreland

Pulling an all-nighter in the studio certainly isn’t unheard of, but Wigan-native Nancy Elizabeth Cunliffe gets brownie points at least for her choice of location. Recorded in an old Victorian church on two consecutive nights last May, The Wheel Turning King is an intimate, emotionally cloistered collection of six eccentric and ephemeral songs. Proving that Americans don’t have a monopoly on the ‘new weird blah blah blah’ tag, Cunliffe takes as a starting point classic British folk and adds an unconventional oriental twist, inspired by a spell spent living in Thailand. With a tremulous vocal that flits between weary but resilient sighing to a birdlike falsetto with seemingly no effort, she’s of the same anachronistic breed as Charlotte Greig and Marissa Nadler. Indeed, it’s little surprise to discover that she’s opened for the latter and her kindred spirit Josephine Foster. Perhaps the most often made and obvious comparison, given the largely harp-based nature of these songs, seems to be Joanna Newsom, but that doesn’t really hold. Cunliffe shares few of Newsom’s traits; she’s more restrained and lacks Joanna’s giddy and uninhibited glee. She is just as sweetly melodic, however, and there’s an abundance of great ideas here.

Lead track ‘Place To Shelter’ is by far the most musically ambitious inclusion, and given that Cunliffe played all the instruments herself, must have eaten up a large chunk of her rather limited time. Dramatic and highly percussive once it gets in its stride, it rolls and rumbles along with a growing sense of unease. It’s not all grave, however; lines like “I feel empty / like my fridge” leavens the gloom. ‘Waiting For Cars’ is an immediate highlight, too, an apprehensive and broody number written mostly on the harp then completed with occasional but eerie swoops of double bass and, later, accordion. “I’ve been walking on a thin line / almost too thin to see it” she sings a little more despairingly than any 22-year old should. Anyone else waiting for cars should skip to the closing seconds of ‘Wildfire’ to catch the distant swishing of nighttime traffic, but you’d be dumb to miss out on the rest of the song. A captivatingly fey and meditative treat, it features Cunliffe’s most unusual instrument, a Thai kim, combined with gentle washes of flute to magical effect.

Both ‘Sense’ and ‘The Moving Sand’ are lovely and expressive harp-based performances, but the last special mention must go to the title track. It may be barely a minute long but it encapsulates Cunliffe’s entire endeavour. The most churchy of the numbers, it’s a cryptic, double-tracked a cappella ditty that spotlights her purest and most spectral vocal yet. As far-flung as her ambitions may be on this EP, the forthcoming album promises yet more. “I play the drum / this is merely thunder” she is quick to remind; New Weird Lancashire, anyone?

Alan Pedder
originally published May 22nd, 2006

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Cyann & Ben
Sweet Beliefs •••½
Ever

Charleville, a bland city buried in the Ardennes in Northern France, was once the home of rebel poet Arthur Rimbaud. Tired of vandalising his hometown’s public benches with provocative and lustrous slang with little to no effect, the wunderkind ran away four times, choosing to live in poverty in Paris instead. Having grown up in Charleville, Cyann & Ben can only sympathise, describing the town as cold, grey and rainy. They escaped to the capital as soon as they could and have been inspired by the dark and dirty hub of the sprawling city ever since.

Despite their misleading name, Cyann & Ben are in fact a foursome (though Cyann and Ben are the singers) and Sweet Beliefs is their third full-length album in four years. Inside you’ll find a collection of nine songs that are enslaved to yet manage to defy the boundaries of pop music; consistently ignoring the three-minute mark, Cyann & Ben allow their works to mature in their own time and build up delicate motifs that only become apparent after numerous listens. Save yourself the effort and don’t bother trying to categorise them; their songs often fall into several genres at once and sometimes no genre at all. There’s a hint of shoegaze, a pinch of psychedelia and maybe even an ambient influence too. It’s hard to say, and Cyann & Ben clearly wouldn’t want it any other way.

The album opens with recent single ‘Words’. After a soft but rhythmical introduction, hazy, delicate vocals enter the frame. There’s no haste here, no dramatic melodious or rhythmical movements. It is simply allowed to unfold before almost unconsciously developing into an epic but uncluttered post-rock extravaganza. ‘Sunny Morning’ – the title track of their recent EP – has a very different feel. With guest vocals from freak-folk icon and Espers frontman Greg Weeks, it’s calm as you like. The soft build-up is hardly distinguishable in its gentle ambience accompanied by occasional whispery vocals before the piano comes in and gives the piece a much more distinct direction. With layered ambient sounds piling in, the composition finally evolves into a delicate, well-rounded outro not too dissimilar from something Espers might have come up with. The freedom given to the ideas at work in these songs gives them the room to develop into emotional masterpieces. Both the title track and ‘In Union With…’ are equally emotional sonic creations and offer the listener carte blanche to get lost in their own thoughts.

Great care has been taken to blend in the vocals with the instruments, something that is especially apparent in ‘Let It Play’ and ‘Guilty’, a song that slowly adds and drops different themes, instruments and arrangements, while the vocals are so thoroughly integrated that they almost disappear in the melody. Listening to the beautifully fragile ‘Recurring’, you might start to wonder if Cyann & Ben are really truly French; a soft, folky guitar rhythm and harmonious vocals show off a sparkling arrangement and highlight their interest in thinking beyond their own borders. Even more stunning is album highlight ‘Somewhere In The Light Of Time’; accompanied only by Debussy-esque piano, Cyann turns in an astonishing performance with a mature but touchingly self-conscious vocal. Album closer ‘Sparks Of Love’ is just as dreamy and intimate, but you’ll barely notice it’s there till it meanders into a heavier and more defined musical interlude.

The overriding impression of Cyann & Ben is of a band that treats music in all its forms with great respect. If you’re after compact pop encyclopaedias then spare yourself the trouble; several listens are required before you can begin to truly appreciate Cyann & Ben’s arrangement skills and and patience is most definitely a virtue. Far from inaccessible, Sweet Beliefs will take you on a truly romantic and beautiful journey. Curl up with it and gaze out the window.

Anja McCloskey
originally published November 23rd, 2006



2005/06 reviews dump: d

The following reviews were all published on our old website between May 2005 and December 2006.
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Catherine Anne Davies
Songs For The Boy Who Wouldn’t Read Rilke EP •••
Self-released

If an artist’s output can truly be taken as an expression of their psychological landscape, the furnishings inside Ms Davies’s head may be lush and velvet but they are certainly deep crimson and black. Songs For The Boy Who Wouldn’t Read Rilke is the second of a pair of limited edition EPs from the London-based singer who recently signed to the humorously named Folkwit stable. Hers is a dark muse, embroiled in swirling currents of brooding mystery. Like its predecessor Long Day, much of the music found on ...Rilke is reminiscent of the more sombre and sepulchral elements of goth-folkies All About Eve. On a soft cushion of acoustic guitars blended with echo-drenched piano and heady flourishes of cello, Davies’s mournful vocals intone the agonies of the less illuminated reaches of the human soul, the pain of a blues singer’s Weltschmerz filtered through the spyglass of a gothic spirit; these are deeply affecting tone poems.

‘The Heart Is A Lonesome Hunter’ drips with loss and regret, with Davies’s sparse piano joining plaintive cello and acoustic guitar as the intensity racks up before the song inches toward its slow and exquisite petit mort. ‘Bury Me’ explores love both unattained and unattainable, the richness of Davies’s vocal perfectly conveying the song’s emotion, sweeping up to a pure but fleeting ecstasy on the higher ranges. At first, ‘Crave’ appears to set the sepulchral tone aside with its gentle chiming introduction, but the dissonant vocal lines soon drag us back to the realisation that perhaps all is not quite right with the world. The track also allows Davies to flex her multi-instrumentalist muscles as she drifts subtle flute lines over the refrain as if to mock the intensity below. Closing number ‘It’ll Get Said’ begins with a slow, twisted variation on what could possibly be the James Bond theme, but the mood is ripped apart by squalling, distorted electric guitar. At certain points, Davies sounds uncannily like All About Eve’s Julianne Regan, while the guitar sounds recall those of the band’s Tim Bricheno.

Both the Long Day and …Rilke EPs come dressed in sumptuous, handmade paper jackets fastened with dusky wine-coloured ribbon – the product of the auteur’s own porcelain-fair hand. This deeply romantic yet somehow archaic dressing is completely appropriate for the music that lies within its embrace. And while the songs work well within the EP format, if their appeal is to last the distance of a full-length album, more dynamics and light/shade interplay is needed. As it is, this short-form offering provides a deeply lush landscape in which the listener can totally immerse themselves. Those who have a nervous disposition need not enquire within, but for listeners whose hearts are made of darker, sterner stuff, there is much here to admire.

Trevor Raggatt
originally published March 25th, 2006 

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Kimya Dawson
Remember That I Love You •••½ 
K Records

Sometimes she’s your best friend cooing softly into your ear; sometimes she’s a street loon babbling on while you nervously back away; both stand-up comedienne and tragic heroine, on-hiatus Moldy Peach Kimya Dawson comes at you uncensored and unapologetic. Certainly, she doesn’t flinch at penning lyrics that other artists might shy away from for being too extreme, too brazenly political and – particularly here on her fifth solo record in four years – a little too close to home.

‘My Mom’ is a deeply personal and affecting song that sounds like a diary transcript – you almost feel guilty for listening, earwigging on her private thoughts. There is something entirely childlike about Dawson’s description of her mother’s illness that conveys how difficult it is to deal with the sickness and impending death of a parent, regardless of our age. Such events bring out the bewildered child within everyone, and it’s this child that sings “And there’s something in her blood / and there’s something in her leg / and there’s something in her brain / my mom’s sick, she’s in a hospital bed”. This topic recurs elsewhere on the record; on ‘Caving In’, Dawson attempts to imagine the death of her mother and the subsequent dissolution of her family in an attempt to cope better when the event arrives.

Dawson’s interest in personal tragedy is not a self-involved one, however; on ‘12.26′ the view expands and Kimya places herself in the shoes, or the bare feet, of a tsunami survivor who has lost literally everything. The song is a heartfelt elegy that analyses the world-wide response to the 2004 Boxing Day disaster and damns American complacency and selfishness: “We’d have 12.26 tattooed across our foreheads / If something this atrocious happened on our coast instead.” Remember That I Love You may be a rough, ramshackle and underproduced record, but somehow any other production style would seem entirely wrong. The lo-fi homemade quality is intrinsic to the Kimya Dawson ethos; on ‘Loose Lips’, when a whole host of voices join Kimya for the chorus, it matters less that some of them are out of time than that they sound like a gang of friends having a good time. Technical virtuosity is not the point; besides, the lyrics take centre stage to their musical base – consistently her trusty acoustic guitar.

Occasionally, the album makes for frustrating listening. When ‘I Like Giants’ turns into a paean to a friend of Kimya’s called Geneviève, if you don’t know who that is (and I don’t) it can feel like you’re on the outside of a private joke, or listening in on banter that goes over your head. But on the whole this is a very charming album, and this is the only place on the record where witty irreverent humour becomes irksome silliness. For better or worse, Kimya Dawson is unafraid to pour her heart onto the page and for that she should be saluted. Remember That I Love You veers from political idealism (when Kimya rails against George Bush on ‘Loose Lips’) to surreal humour and truly affecting personal revelations, often in the course of one song, but its voice is always honest and brave. This is an empathetic, comforting record whose aims are summed up in the lyrics of ‘Competition’: “Different voices, different tones / All saying that we’re not alone.”

Danny Weddup
originally published June 5th, 2006 

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Deerhoof
The Runners Four ••••
ATP

More than almost any other band you care to mention, Deerhoof take an obvious, unfettered joy in what they do. In a career spanning over a decade, the band have applied a particle condenser to pop and noise forms, creating albums populated by dense song-nuggets that turn so many corners, throw so many shapes and spit out so many ideas that one wonders what some of their peers do all day. Take ‘Running Thoughts’ from this latest opus; after a jangly cycle down a ‘60s country lane, the wheels abruptly come off and the tune dissolves into humming keyboard drones overlaid with spooky, fried guitarwork. That this is Deerhoof’s most focused and cohesive, even straightforward, effort thus far gives an idea of the fractured sensibilities on offer.

It’s undoubtedly true that a more stable line-up in recent years has tamed the wilder fringes of the group’s approach; formed in 1994 by the only constant member, drummer Greg Saunier, Deerhoof’s revolving line-up has settled around Saunier, bassist/vocalist Satomi Matsuzaki and guitarists John Dietrich and Chris Cohen. With this new constancy have come albums such as 2004′s Milk Man – a concept album about an evil milkman who kidnaps children and hides them in the clouds – that have eased up on their wilder tendencies in favour of heavily skewed guitar pop laced with a sugary sweetness and gnarly crunch. Both have always been important facets of their sound, but with less of a ten-cats-and-a-firework-in-a-sack approach, the music of Deerhoof has become more assured and less unpredictably dizzying.

The Runners Four continues this trajectory, and there’s an immediate inkling that Deerhoof are consciously developing. There are 20 songs and 57 minutes here, nearly twice the white-dwarf density of any of their previous efforts. But the way the guitars circle and shimmer around Satomi’s candy-cloud vocal on the beatless opener, ‘Chatterboxes’, serve to allay fears of any newfound flabbiness. By the time the lumbering groove and sunny ‘60s pop sheen of the ensuing ‘Twin Killers’ and aforementioned ‘Running Thoughts’ have gone by, it’s becoming obvious that whatever their new modus operandum may be, the band are more than comfortable with it.

Funnily enough, given their burgeoning fascination with the flowerier reaches of 1960s music and Satomi’s airy vocal style, it’s only when singing duties are shared by the, er, stags that the sweetness of their sound starts to grate. ‘You Can See’ and ‘Odyssey’ are the worst offenders, the latter saved somewhat by slyly needling harmonics. Elsewhere though, along with a couple of trademark sugar-rush songlets, are some of Deerhoof’s finest moments. ‘Siriustar’ is the trad indie quiet/loud dynamic rewritten by Willy Wonka, surging from not a lot to technicolour fuzzout with a cute smile and a chocolate kiss. ‘You’re Our Two’ raids the sharps cabinet once more to set Satomi’s paranoiac vocal against multiple stinging guitar lines, and the closing ‘RRRRRRight’ is a chipper, garagey adieu.

Describing Deerhoof is a bit like nailing jelly anyway, which is one of the things that makes them so unique. All you need to know is that you should go and buy this album and listen to it lots, because it’s really good. Couldn’t be simpler.

Adam Smith
originally published December 19th, 2005 

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Dévics
Push The Heart ••••
Bella Union

In the five years since signing to Brit indie label Bella Union, Sara Lov and Dustin O’Halloran have produced two highly-rated albums – 2001′s My Beautiful Sinking Ship and 2003′s heavenly The Stars At Saint Andrea – both of which marked a clear shift away from their earlier, more post-rock oriented self-released efforts. Calmly melding a variety of influences, the Dévics were showered with plaudits from critics and fellow musicians alike, partly because of their refusal to easily conform to any particular rulebook. Their commitment to maintain this very special brand of elusiveness led the twosome (without their formerly full-time members Ed Maxwell and Evan Schnabel) to relocate to a farmhouse hidden deep in rural Italy where they moved into their current lush and wistful sound space, a dreamy and atmospheric terrain with folk-rock influences and frequent overtones of cabaret melancholy.

Third album Push The Heart is, emotionally at least, a more straightforward affair than The Stars At Saint Andrea. The songs are simpler and more direct, with less emphasis on the smoky, late-night bar ethos that drew sideways comparisons with Portishead, or perhaps Beth Orton via Goldfrapp, and more on an overall sense of bittersweet reflection. What the Dévics do share with the likes of Portishead and Goldfrapp is a fine sense of structure and technology-led production in spades. In fact, the production (which by all accounts was a slightly disjointed affair) almost threatens the album’s credibility, but is too carefully stewarded by O’Halloran to really overwhelm; when the melodies are this sweet and Lov’s tender voice even sweeter still, it’s impossible to avoid getting pleasantly lost in some of the loveliest moments, particularly on the album’s central triptych of ‘Song For A Sleeping Girl’, ‘Distant Radio’ and ‘Just One Breath’ (all of which first appeared on last year’s exquisite Distant Radio EP).

Lyrically, the album is accessible and engaging, playful yet plaintive. Lov’s doeeyed yearnings on album opener ‘Lie To Me’ and the charming ‘Secret Message To You’, which concerns the futile construction of a boat from too few parts to bring her love back, are inspired and give the songs a depth far beyond her pretty voice. And it would certainly be remiss of me not to point out that it is a very pretty voice indeed, whether she’s singing softly into a mic with her eyes to the floor, or opening up and expanding to cover whatever sonic bed O’Halloran constructs for her. More a request than a gripe, but it would be nice to hear a few more tracks along the lines of the latter in future. O’Halloran’s balanced, reassuring voice adds a warm and comforting counterpoint on just two of the tracks – the aforementioned ‘Song For A Sleeping Girl’ and the also excellent ‘If We Cannot See’, which comes closer to lighters-aloft anthem territory than anything they’ve done in the past.

The Dévics are unlikely to fill our stadiums just yet though, and in truth I doubt they would want to. But Push The Heart can only help their cause and win them new fans looking for something fresh and convincing to see in the spring. More power to them.

Pete Morrow
originally published March 21st, 2006 

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Tina Dico
In The Red •••
Finest Gramophone

You can’t deny the popularity of Tina Dico in her homeland of Denmark. When the domestic version of In The Red hit the streets last July, it slotted in at the top of the charts, outselling the likes of Coldplay and U2. Dico (or Dickow if you’re Danish) herself was up for consideration in three categories at the 2006 Danish Music Awards; but is ‘big in Copenhagen’ like ‘big in Japan’ or can she cut it in the crowded international pop market? Though she’s better known in the UK as a vocalist for chillout maestros Zero 7, she no doubt hopes that In The Red will bring her recognition in her own right. Certainly, the overall impression of the album is of a perfectly respectable piece of Scando-pop, with darker, more brooding overtones than the likes of Norway’s Lene Marlin or Sweden’s Sophie Zelmani. But the sticking point here is a noticeable lack of spark to elevate the songs above the realms of the mundane.

Credit where it’s due though – the production is excellent. Chris Potter, who’s better known for his work on The Verve’s Urban Hymns, clearly knows his way around a mixing desk and, comparing the UK release with the Danish original, it seems that some additional remixing has been done over the autumn to prepare for its wider release. The songs are skilfully layered with lush samples, strings and orchestral instrumentation, all adding up to a luxuriant aural vista. Dico’s voice is strong and carries the melodies well, sometimes cracking attractively on the quieter, more emotional sections. Again, nothing to fault here, and when aligned with better material it makes for an effective mix. There’s no doubt that there is a good deal of talent here, although Dico’s Gen-X couldn’t-care-less delivery occasionally grates, particularly on the otherwise enjoyable ‘Nobody’s Man’. Likewise, the title track slips beneath the surface from languorous to simply dragging its heels and ‘Use Me’ seems just a little too ponderous.

Perhaps the most disappointing thing is that there are some excellent songs scattered among the album’s more average fare. Had all the tracks been of the same standard, In The Red would be a significantly more involving album. ‘Losing’ sets the disc off to an encouraging start with its big Beatles-esque choruses evoking Tears For Fears in ‘Sowing The Seeds Of Love’ mode (in a good way!). ‘Give In’ rolls along smoothly like a chilled out drivetime classic, while first single ‘Warm Sand’ is the clear standout with its moody, building verses and hummable yet majestic refrain and ‘Room With A View’ sets a gentle acoustic mood, enfolding the listener in a melancholy reverie. In the end though, this is a candidate for selective downloading. At least that way you’ll be left in the black rather than overdrawn.

Trevor Raggatt
originally published February 12th, 2006 

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Ani DiFranco
Knuckle Down ••••
Righteous Babe

Though never one to pass the responsibility buck, it is gratifying at least to see Ani DiFranco set aside some of the duties on this, her 15th studio album since her self-titled debut in 1990. Having enlisted the estimable wiles of co-producer Joe Henry on this follow-up to last year’s self-everything’d (including, perhaps, self-indulgent) Educated Guess, Knuckle Down sees Ani return in part to the more rewarding musical territories mapped out on each album up to 2001’s sprawling Revelling/Reckoning.

Inevitably, there will be those who bemoan the relative absence of DiFranco’s almost legendary leftism here; the only overtly political song, ‘Paradigm’, still resonates with an inward-looking personal relevance that stitches the emotional seams of the album and mines them to stark lyrical effect. But to complain about this seems a little hard-bitten in light of DiFranco’s recent personal upheavals. Both the dissolution of her marriage and the death of her father, Dante Americo DiFranco, to whom the album is dedicated, figure highly in these respectively bilious and brow-beaten compositions. The Bush Administration need not count their capitalist chickens just yet, however, as DiFranco has already signalled her intent to release a second album at the tail end of the year in which they may not come off so lightly.

As it is, Knuckle Down is yet another credit to DiFranco’s famed survivalist mentality. The title track grittily eschews the faintly ridiculous self-help stranglehold that grips America like a pill, instead asserting the mantra “I think I’m done gunnin’ to get closer to some imagined bliss, I gotta knuckle down and just be ok with this.” Happily, the following two tracks, ‘Studying Stones’ and ‘Manhole’ are easily among her best – the latter also featuring some charming whistling from recent Righteous Babe signing, Andrew Bird, who also contributes violin and glockenspiel elsewhere. It’s no surprise then that the more liberated radio programmers stateside have embraced these songs, giving DiFranco perhaps her best commercial chance since Little Plastic Castle. Other album highlights include the Out Of Range-y ‘Modulation’, the bluesy clunk of ‘Seeing Eye Dog’ (a memorable chorus also helps its cause), the taut slam poetics of ‘Parameters’ and the lyrical vulnerability of the closing track, ‘Recoil’.

After the chugging claustrophobia of Educated Guess and the often unlovable jazz forays of Evolve, DiFranco seems comfortable (and perhaps even comforted) to be back on familiar ground, if not entirely back to her roots. The promise of less digging for greater reward should entice both new prospectors and the DiFranco converted alike.

Alan Pedder
originally published May 13th, 2005 

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Ani DiFranco
Reprieve ••••
Righteous Babe

The Chemical Brothers once said of Beth Orton that if your soul could sing, she is what it would sound like. By this reckoning, Ani DiFranco is like the voice in the back of your head, not always telling you things you want to hear but telling it like it is nonetheless, and this time perhaps more than ever she means business. “I ain’t in the best shape / that I’ve ever been in / but I know where I’m going / and it ain’t where I’ve been,” she sings on ‘Subconscious’. As always with DiFranco, it’s a believable manifesto, one that takes on extra resonance with the recent announcement of her first pregnancy. Sonically, however, we’re in familiar surroundings.

Reprieve‘s closest cousin is 2004′s self-played, self-produced Educated Guess, but whereas that record had a swagger that reflected DiFranco’s freedom in the studio, Reprieve is altogether a more considered affair. The ghost of Hurricane Katrina hangs over proceedings, having famously halted the recording sessions when the resulting floods damaged her New Orleans studio. Forced to decamp to her other home in Buffalo, New York, DiFranco found herself continuing the recording on an old synthesiser.

The resulting album resonates as an unwitting tribute to the dislocation felt by the millions affected by the tragedy. Though it’s not explicitly referenced, aside from the oddly prophetic ‘Millennium Theater’ which ends on the line “New Orleans bides her time” (the material was written long before the hurricane hit), lines like “the stars are going out / and the stripes are getting bent” (‘Decree’) seem to say it all. Elsewhere, much of the album is classic DiFranco. Opening track, ‘Hypnotize’, recalls one of the most arresting moments of her career, ‘You Had Time’, a song that emerges out of nowhere, a meandering piano intro that eventually finds its way into a melody. A similar technique is used here, the sound of the artist working out a way to articulate an emotion she’s not entirely comfortable with: “you were no picnic / and you were no prize / but you had just enough pathos / to keep me hypnotized”. It makes for a sombre opening but, to quote Joni Mitchell, there’s comfort in melancholy.

Reprieve is perhaps DiFranco’s most cohesive record to date, never really feeling the need to shift out of its plaintive mood, which is both good and bad. Aside from the fantastic ‘Half-Assed’, surely soon to be regarded as an Ani classic, there is little here to truly stir you out of your seat. Perhaps I miss the band. Perhaps I miss the point. Check out righteousbabe.com for an explanation of the cover art and a clearer idea of what she’s trying to say. For now though, there may not be much time for dancing but Ani DiFranco is still standing, still singing and that, for us, is the most important thing.

Matthew Hall
originally published August 10th, 2006 

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Cara Dillon
After The Morning ••••
Rough Trade

With her unique blend of traditional and contemporary folk, Cara Dillon has garnered truckloads of awards and comparisons with everyone from Kate Bush to Joni Mitchell, and often with the charming Kate Rusby, whom she replaced as a member of the so-called brat pack folk-rock group Equation. This remarkable third solo album should see her finally coming out from behind the shadow of Rusby, not least for its bold use of blue- grass, and is easily her most confident statement of intent to date.

Recorded with her husband Sam Lakeman (brother of critical favourite Seth), guests include her sister Mary, influential folk veteran Martin Simpson and Paul Brady, who duets on the traditional number ‘The Streets Of Derry’ (which also goes by the name of ‘After The Morning’, depending on who you ask). Despite the presence of such luminaries, it’s Lakeman’s skilful, textured playing that really colours the backdrops to Dillon’s stunning vocals. Piano, accordion, mandolin, guitar and fiddle – you name it, he plays it, and plays it well. The shivery ‘October Winds’ is an exquisite example, the music carrying along Dillon’s rich, warm vocals in a heartfelt tribute to her dead father.

Even so, the strongest tracks are the stripped-down acoustic numbers such as ‘Here’s A Health’, ‘Bold Jamie’ (one of Cara’s own) and her near-definitive version of ‘The Snows They Melt The Soonest’ with its sumptuous arrangement of piano and strings. Despite an occasional, presumably deliberate stab at getting some commercial airplay, the treasure to disappointment ratio is extraordinarily high. There’s a timeless feel to the proceedings as a whole; Dillon’s ability to really draw out the spark of traditional folk songs is almost unparalleled and much of the album’s beauty lies in the words and the perfection of her delivery.

Forging a genuine connection with the listener is something that many traditional folk artists fall short of. Sure, they might sound pretty but they’ll sometimes leave you cold. In this respect, Dillon is firmly in the premier league, ensnaring her audience with consummate ease. Indeed, her dedicated fanbase is something that many of her rival folkies would give their right arms for and After The Morning only serves to cement her elevated status. Three albums into her solo career, she might no longer be the next big thing but this is a real gem, an appealing collection full of confidence and a finely- honed sense of musicality.

Helen Ogden 
originally published August 23rd, 2006

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Sandy Dillon
Pull The Strings •••½ 
One Little Indian

For over 20 years, the career of Sandy Dillon has been one hell of a frightening fairground and somewhere along the line our gravel-voiced heroine must have smashed an entire hall of mirrors, such has been her god-awful luck. Incredibly, even her earlier struggles – two shelved albums and a terminated contract with Elektra – pale in comparison with the trials of the last five years. After losing her beloved husband and musical partner to a heart attack in 2001, Dillon has battled with cervical cancer and a terrifying ordeal with the MRSA superbug. That’s a lot of black cats crossing hundreds of paths, each one dusted with a tonne of spilled salt, but instead of slinging it over her left shoulder into Beelzebub’s eyes she’s gargled it defiantly, refusing to be a martyr to ill health. Indeed, on the evidence of Pull The Strings, her most desolate, injured and grim recording yet (and that’s saying something!), truly the woman could unseat the four horsemen and circumvent the apocalypse. Of course, some people would rather listen to a symphony of air raid sirens than to Dillon’s serrated, half-strangled vocals, but frankly that’s their loss. The sheer feral beauty and menace at work here adds a sometimes exquisite, always interesting texture that’s totally unique.

Of the many moods and dense emotions captured throughout, the one that resonates most clearly is a longing for escape – escape from loneliness, escape into death, you name it. Though it may not sound like it on first listen, the vibrant and sinisterly sexual title track is actually a manifesto of atonement to the (wo)man upstairs. Joined on vocals by Alabama 3′s growly Robert Love, Dillon’s third-person tale of repentance becomes more akin to what the sound of mating basilisks must be like – full-blooded, throaty and raw above all else. The jaunty but creepy ‘Documents’ and Dillon’s remarkable turn on ‘Over My Head’ are similarly sultry, while the raucous ‘I Fell In Love’ is a darkly humorous swamp-blues stomper that returns her to the glass-eating Bessie Smith-inspired sound of her One Little Indian debut, Electric Chair. That she howls and wails as if having a grand mal seizure is really all just part of the fun.

Anyone who has followed Dillon’s career will know that for all her impressive vocal extremities, her real forte lies in torch song balladry. Fortunately, Pull The Strings does not disappoint on that front either, from the traditional number ‘Motherless Children’ and the sumptuous cover of Hoagy Carmichael’s jazz standard ‘Baltimore Oriole’ to the exhausting, occasionally morbid but beautiful tributes to her husband (‘Enter The Flame’, ‘Wedding Night’) and her own lost innocence (‘Play With Ruth’, ‘Broken Promises’). Throughout these heartfelt weepies run subtle flourishes of organ, electric piano and softly brushed snare, not to mention musical saw for that added tearjerk factor. Dillon even wheels out a harmonium on ‘Why?’, a sweetly-sung duet (again with Robert Love) that’s almost vaudevillian and slightly but nicely cheesy. ‘Who’s Answering’ follows the theme of accepting destiny as Dillon implores whoever or whatever lies beyond the grave to see her in safely and with a little comfort – “give me a lover, a bed and some gin / I beg the one who’s answering” – delivered with poignancy, believability and soul.

Doing justice to a Sandy Dillon album is an impossible task; like the music itself, it takes a lot of perseverance, repeated listens and an open mind, and you may still end up not knowing what to make of it. Certainly, those who are faint of heart should steer clear, but if you’re the sort who worships Captain Beefheart, Tom Waits or just loves a challenge, there’s much to enjoy here. It’s a little over-long, however, and making it to the conclusion of ‘Carnival Of Dreams’ in just one sitting guarantees an arduous listen. That said, in the triumph over adversity stakes, it’s a truly remarkable statement from one of our finest, most uncompromising artists.

Alan Pedder
originally published May 26th, 2006 

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Dixie Chicks
Taking The Long Way ••••
Columbia

Taking The Long Way is the Dixie Chicks’s fourth studio album, produced by man of the moment Rick Rubin. The girls share writing credits on all the tracks – a first for them – with such songwriting luminaries as Sheryl Crow, Neil Finn and Gary Louris of The Jayhawks. There’s a conscious effort to expand upon the acoustic, bluegrass feel of 2002′s Home. Driving rhythm guitar and threepart harmonies abound in a nod to the ‘rockier’ side of country. Fear not Chicks fans, the banjo, mandolin and fiddle still play a major part. It’s clear that Maines, Maguire and Robison haven’t totally abandoned their Nashville cousins, but be under no illusions – this is the sound of three competent songwriters with a wealth of experience cutting loose, both musically and lyrically.

Yes, they have bones to pick. Yes, they choose to do so with a certain lack of subtlety, but who can blame them? Their run-in with Dubya received more column inches of newsprint than can possibly be deemed healthy in a world where unspeakable horrors occur on a daily basis. But don’t be fooled by the media backlash; the Chicks were courting controversy way back on 2001′s ‘Goodbye Earl’ and the acerbic ‘White Trash Wedding’ from Home. If you think these girls are a manufactured country-pop wet dream, think again – they’ve always had the chops, the humour and, yes, the intelligence to shake it up with the best of them.

Taking The Long Way opens with ‘The Long Way Round’, a road movie Don Henley would be proud to have written. It’s a fine way indeed to say ‘we’re back!’ with the nice addition of some clever lyrical nods to earlier Chicks songs. ‘Easy Silence’ follows with swathes of harmony and a plea for the simple things in life to keep you sane. Key talking point and canny first single ‘Not Ready To Make Nice’ is Maines’s response to the CD burning and radio boycott the band endured as a result of her London outburst; it rocks, it says what it has to, and it’s followed by ‘Everybody Knows’, a lovely melody and an introspective look at how the last two years has affected the close-knit trio.

It goes on. Each cut has merits, carefully constructed to achieve an emotional response and most hitting the right buttons. Maines courts the ire of her hometown with ‘Lubbock Or Leave It’, which has the classic line “…this is the only place, where as you’re getting on the plane, you see Buddy Holly’s face…” Others worthy of multiple plays are ‘Favorite Year’, a wistful look back at love gone wrong, and ‘Bitter End’, which eloquently dissects the true meaning of friendship, but really, they’re all pretty good. The Chicks have consistently improved with every album, and this is their best offering yet.

Unafraid to experiment, unafraid to steer their own path, the Dixie Chicks deserve a hearing. Forget the country tag and your own prejudices, this is a band at its peak; tune in or miss out.

Paul Woodgate
originally published July 10th, 2006 

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Tanya Donelly
This Hungry Life ••••
Eleven Thirty

As a member of Throwing Muses, The Breeders and Belly, Tanya Donelly helped construct the blueprint for American college rock, writing soaring, breathless pop songs that belied dark, complex lyrics and a twisted world view. With a knack for writing the aural equivalent of a beehive – songs dripping with honey but packed with stings – Donelly was achingly vital to the 1990s but maintaining people’s interest over three acts proved a little too tough. Belly’s second album King, in no way a poor piece of work, fell on deaf ears and Donelly struck out on her own. Since then, marriage and motherhood have seemingly tempered her solo work, with each album becoming more laidback than the last, to the point where 2003′s country-laden Whiskey Tango Ghosts was practically supine.

On This Hungry Life, Donelly sets the hall of mirrors perspective that made her early work so exciting to the more traditional approach to songwriting that she has perfected. Opening with the line “it’s June and I’m still wearing my boots”, Donelly sings her sweet complaint in homage to New England. It’s this playful contrariness that gallops through the album and makes for an enjoyable listen, coming furthest to the fore on the superb ‘Littlewing’, a dark and unsettling song about falling in love.

Recorded in front of an audience in the bar of a deserted hotel on a sweltering weekend in 2004, This Hungry Life is one of those rare albums that are recorded live without being ‘live albums’ per se. The live band – including Catholic (in the Frank Black sense) Rich Gilbert, Dean ‘Mr Donelly’ Fisher, Bill Janovitz and (almost inevitably these days) Joan ‘As Police Woman’ Wasser – provide excellent accompaniment to Donelly’s liquid glycerine vocals. The heatwave conditions and setup of the recordings certainly worked for this line-up; no amount of studio time could ever improve the title track, a pedal-steel extravaganza that’s bound to break hearts. Elsewhere, the title of ‘Kundalini Slide’, one of the album’s standouts, sounds a bit like an attempt by Rory Bremner’s George Bush to pronounce the name of Condoleeza Rice, which may not in fact be all that coincidental as the lyrics represent a politically charged attack on intolerance and violence.

If a couple of the tracks retread the same matronly ground of the past two albums, Donelly’s mellifluous singing saves them and other tracks more than make up for any slight failings. This Hungry Life is a vibrant collection of songs through which a love of life and of live performance shines. If this is Donelly’s hungry life, is it wrong to kinda hope that she never ever gets a square meal?

Peter Hayward
originally published December 17th, 2006

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The Dresden Dolls
Yes, Virginia ••••
Roadrunner

If one thing sets the Dresden Dolls apart from pretty much anyone else around right now, it’s their confrontational and discomforting honesty. It’s something they practice in life as well as in their music – the blogs Amanda Palmer posts online dissect her insecurities and anxieties in detail. Take this for example: “i prefer sleeping alone nowadays. i barely think about love. i have plenty. i haven’t had a boyfriend in so long i’ve forgotten what it’s like. honestly.” The band also publish the wonderfully inarticulate hatemail they receive on their site (sample: “could you plase do something like kill yourselves,before you come to toronto, seeing you would probabnly ruin my life” – spelling mistakes author’s own – or “if you ever come to atlanta call me up 678-XXX-XXXX and i’ll fuckin beat your ass”) as well as collecting together some of the savage and abusive reviews they’ve received.

It’s this honesty that makes their music so entirely compelling, and Yes, Virginia – the follow-up to their 2004 self-titled debut – makes for truly startling listening. Building upon the dark themes and manic yet melodic style of their debut, it represents an artistic progression on every level – musically, lyrically and vocally. Palmer has extended her vocal range to incorporate a whole new palate of sounds, and, in places, sounds more aggressive than ever before. The songs are powerful and muscular, tempered with moments of tenderness made all the more affecting by the tempestuous menace that surrounds them. The Dolls have grown more confident, too, adding layer upon layer of insistent, pounding pianos and cascading drums to create a driving and sometimes frantic sound.

The insistent piano riff that opens the record is extremely ominous – like listening to the first rumbling tones of a coming thunderstorm – and it’s not long before a shout from Amanda heralds the entrance of Brian Viglione’s pummelling drums. Songs turn from tender to vicious in the space of a couple of lines. ‘Delilah’, one of the album’s highlights, describes the frustration of watching a friend wilfully enter a violent relationship: “He’s gonna beat you like a pillow / you schizos never learn / and if you take him home / you’ll get what you deserve”. From a hushed, piano and vocal opening, the song builds until the frustration and powerlessness in the lyrics is reflected in the epic, operatic music. Lyrically, the album is often violent and disturbing, with images of mutilation and surgery recurring throughout without ever sounding like they’re merely out to shock. Perhaps this is because Palmer’s writing is shot through with dark humour and a rare wit. ‘Shores Of California’, for example, is a clever dissection of male and female coping mechanisms for being single, with lyrics like “all I know is that all around the nation / the girls are crying, the boys are masturbating”.

There are occasional moments where the lyrics veer close to self-parody, but the Dolls are too knowing and self-aware to succumb to such pitfalls: on ‘Dirty Business’, Amanda sings “Am I the poster girl for some suburban sickness?” while the unmitigated stream of aggression running through the chorus of ‘Backstabber’ (“Backstabber, backstabber / greedy fucking fit-haver”) would seem ridiculously emo were the lyrics not married to the catchiest melody the band have ever penned. Furthermore, the song ends with a demented cackle as if to tell you the band know exactly how closely they’ve been flirting with the ridiculous.

Yes, Virginia is not an easy listen, but it’s an exciting, raw and emotional one. However you might categorise the Dresden Dolls – and they have been variously labelled as theatrical rock, punk cabaret, manic-musical, neoglam-torch etc. – one fact remains: their music is really damn good.

Danny Weddup
originally published April 10th, 2006 

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The Dresden Dolls
Live at Spiegelzelt, Berlin ••••
May 14th, 2006

“We were so excited when we heard we could play in a mirrored tent” exclaimed Dresden Dolls singer Amanda Palmer as she took to the stage of the Spiegelzelt, erected temporarily for a nomadic mini-festival taking place all over Germany. But as the sunset glowed through the stained-glass windows of this curiously decadent, wood- and velvet-laden construction next to the railway tracks at East Berlin’s former main station, what place could be more suitable? After all, The Dresden Dolls describe themselves as ‘Brechtian punk cabaret’ and are clearly thrilled to introduce their new album, Yes, Virginia, to the country that gave them their name, as well as Bertolt Brecht and his weird and wonderful theatre.

Since the release of their eponymous debut, the Boston duo has accumulated a dedicated, passionate and numerous following without attracting too much hype or mainstream press, mainly on the back of word-of-mouth praise and blistering live shows. Tonight was no exception. Though the sun was still illuminating the tent from all sides and The Dresden Dolls are a band best served in eerie, smoky darkness, Palmer and drummer Brian Viglione conjured up such dark intensity that it could have been on a Caribbean beach and still been just as impressive. Like The Kills, the sparseness of the arrangements (i.e. only keyboard and primal drums against Amanda’s rich and frantic vocals) makes the drama so much more affecting and severe. As they look at each other across the stage, all the fierceness that’s found in a band of five members is concentrated into a single, manic gaze. As with all things cabaret, however, it’s not all entirely serious. Early single ‘Coin-Operated Boy’ is a cheeky crowd pleaser and their cover of Grauzone’s ‘Eisbär’, a Swiss new wave band’s ode to the polar bear, had the crowd waving arms and singing at the top of their voices.

Perhaps fittingly it was not one of their own songs that captured the evening, but a cover of Jacques Brel’s ‘Port Of Amsterdam’ – a wistfully sexy black-hearted tale of a long gone time of swashbucklin’ filthy cabaret bars frequented by a shady clientele. The Dresden Dolls romanticise and capture this decadent and dangerous world and their concerts make it real for people disillusioned by their oversanitised, modern existence.

Robbie de Santos
originally published June 24th, 2006 

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Hilary Duff
Most Wanted •••½
Hollywood

In the sometimes scary land of teen pop there is a boxing ring, with Hilary Duff in the red corner and Lindsay Lohan in the blue. Whilst not quite delivering a knockout punch with this release, Hilary at least shows that she has the edge and will stay standing for quite a few more rounds. The cliché of the difficult third album is not easy to apply to Most Wanted, as it more closely resembles a greatest hits with a few new tracks thrown in. Coming in an attractive two-piece case, the Collector’s Signature Edition contains 17 slices of Duffness, of which just four are new. The remainder are remixes of songs from previous albums, although a collaboration with sister Haylie on The GoGo’s classic ‘Our Lips Are Sealed’ is carried off with dignity, showing that it is possible to cover a well-known song without leaving the original artists turning in their graves (or, in this case, mansions).

Hilary’s move into more soulful and lyrically complete tunes in her second album is less apparent in this latest offering, which walks the line between rock and pop. US radio programmers have swooped upon first single ‘Wake Up’, which flaunts a killer hook and is one of her best to date. However, the standout track is the super slick ‘Break My Heart’, which borders on a Blink 182-esque anthem pitched around a superb middle eight. This comes as no real surprise, as song was co-written with the Madden Brothers from pop/punk band Good Charlotte and John Feldmann from Goldfinger. Club DJ Chris Cox does a good job of turning the previously likeable ‘Come Clean’ into an irresistible floor-shaking house mix, building up from the simple melody of the original with big beats and delivering the goods.

Perhaps more than simply a greatest hits, this album is a showcase of some of the more unique songs from her repertoire, such as the raucous ‘Mr James Dean’, from 2003’s self-titled second album. Duff certainly has a unique voice, clearly identifiable amongst the often faceless pop crowd. ‘So Yesterday’, the signature track from her 2002 debut Metamorphosis, makes a welcome return. Although perhaps more polished than even the crown jewels, it’s pure pop perfection. The standard edition of the album, running at a more bite-sized 13 songs is an attractive option for Duff’s doubting thomases or newcomers to her music.

Simon Wilson
originally published September 4th, 2005

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The Duke Spirit
Cuts Across The Land •••½
Polydor

After 18 months in the making, it’s not surprising that Cuts Across The Land is a fairly polished, well-produced and suitably promising debut. It’s an adept and listenable dark-edged rock ‘n’ roll album. The problem arises when you start to wonder what exactly it is you’re listening to – it would be fair to say that the London-based five-piece wear their influences on their sleeves. Sadly, these are rarely combined into any new, innovative or interesting sound; rather, they are too often laid out bare in quick succession for all the world to ear, particularly in the Sebadoh-esque riffing in the chorus of the title track to the alarmingly ‘Anarchy In The UK’-like opening chord of first single, ‘Lion Rip’, although in the latter this quickly dissolves into one the album’s standout tracks.

When their influences aren’t so apparent, such as on the interminable bore that is ‘Hello To The Floor’, neither is the passion that could have made this reasonable album into a really good one. In fact, this track, and to a slightly lesser extent, ‘Bottom Of The Sea’, smack of a by-the-numbers “every rock album needs a couple of ballads” approach to recording, which fails to showcase properly any of the bands talents, except possibly an ear for a nice couplet, as the frequently well-crafted lyrics are dribbled out by singer Leila Moss with less enthusiasm than is found at your average Saturday night karaoke, which is made all the more disappointing because elsewhere on the album you discover that she can do so much better. For example, there is infinitely more zeal on ‘Win Your Love’, a high point of the record, especially if the prospect of Polly Harvey fronting Sonic Youth is one that excites you. But PJ isn’t the only vocal influence Moss parades – Patti Smith and Nico are never far from mind. Indeed, the Velvet Underground themselves are one of the more pervading influences of the guitar sound throughout.

However, it seems somewhat mean spirited to continue to run through the tracklist namedropping the many earlier, often seminal, acts that are brought to mind when listening to this record. Perhaps in this era where exceptional debuts seem to be the norm, promise is no longer enough, but Cuts Across The Land is full of it. If future efforts can use these diverse influences as exactly that and not as such obvious templates, as well as capturing some of the fervour and excitement that most reviewers and music fans alike agree that the band exhibit when on stage, then they are certainly an act worth keeping an ear out for.

Scott Millar
originally published July 16th, 2005 

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Liz Durrett
The Mezzanine ••••
Warm

Deliciously layered with meaning as though it’s a direct line into her soul, Liz Durrett’s distinctive voice will utterly transfix you; this is a good thing, for then you’ll be struck by her striking, pared-down lyrics and wonder how on earth she’s been such a best kept secret. It took her 10 years to get comfy with the idea of releasing her own material, beginning with last year’s Husk, not least because of a crippling anxiety that she wouldn’t live up to her own high standards and her familial connections (she’s the niece of singer-songwriter Vic Chesnutt, who’s on board here as producer). Luckily for us, she hasn’t let that overwhelm her and the light once hidden by that mighty bushel of doubt is finally beaming into these warmly grateful ears.

With its beguiling nursery rhyme-esque introduction, opener ‘Knives At The Wall’ lulls and soothes into an early reverie that grows ever darker as the song progresses. It’s one of the least remarkable songs of the collection, yet it serves as a perfect introduction to The Mezzanine‘s suggestive, haunting power. The similarly minimalist ‘All The Spokes’ is swiftly followed by the curiously upbeat ‘Cup On The Counter’, whose delightfully discordant atmosphere and accusatory lyrics (“I’m not a child, I know what I’ve seen”) are accompanied by the startling addition of a child in conversation. An equally evocative harmonica solo and double-tracked vocals make ‘Shivering Assembly’ the shining example of how Durrett successfully pulls off disarming little touches and effects, adding to the tone and theatricality of the music without falsifying its ambition and meaning.

This, and other songs, may tempt you to place Durrett firmly in the gothic fold, but The Mezzanine as a whole is a hopeful creature, as is the empowering track that gives the album its name. Here, Durrett’s “they” refers to unnamed oppressive influences lurking nearby. Yet while the album certainly revels in its darkness and is accordingly beautiful for it, such a mood is not its focus, merely a tangible influence that belies her upbringing in the oppressive humidity of Georgia, as well as her battle with depression. The rawness of ‘Marlene’ is both deeply personal and astounding; Durrett’s quivering vibrato gives an ethereal, wispy quality to the song and is neatly complemented by the off-key piano instrumental ‘Silent Partner’ that follows.

It’s not all easygoing, however. An eerily muffled screaming guitar slightly overwhelms ‘No Apology’, but once your ears have adjusted, simple unpleasantness quickly becomes intriguing unpleasantness and perseverance is definitely required. ‘In The Throes’ thankfully marks a return to the style of the earlier songs and brings things to a worthy close, combining all the best aspects from the previous ten tracks – introspection, a gently powerful voice, fabulous guitars and a stunning combination of orchestral and electric instruments. A trip through Durrett’s (under)world may not be appropriate for everyone but the devil’s in the details and we all know by now who has the best tunes.

Gem Nethersole
originally published August 10th, 2006

 



2005/06 reviews dump: f

The following reviews were all published on our old website between May 2005 and December 2006.

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Faun Fables
The Transit Rider •••½
Drag City

Anchored by the creative brain of Dawn McCarthy, Faun Fables is a rare breed of band, an avant-garde ensemble whose members appear to be in a near constant state of flux. In more recent years, McCarthy’s closest allies have been prog rock enthusiast Nils Frykdahl (Sleepytime Gorilla Museum) and performance artists Jenya Chernoff and Matt Lebofsky. If you were bewitched by 2004′s minor breakthrough The Family Album, you’ll almost certainly love The Transit Rider. Taking the dramatics to a whole new level, the album is based on material of the same-titled theatre show that McCarthy and Frykdahl developed and toured in 2002. Though the band now operates out of California, the idea for the play came about when McCarthy moved to New York and felt hopelessly stuck and held down by the subway system. Troubled by the city’s pace of life, her disconnection from nature’s cycles and rhythms led her to compose an entire song cycle about her situation, which she performed whilst singing, acting, playing instruments and running the tech at the same time.

Slotting nicely into the cycle are powerful and moving interpretations of traditional folk songs, such as ‘House Carpenter’ and an adaptation of Polish songwriter Zygmunt Konieczny’s ‘Taki Pejzaz’, translated into English by McCarthy and friends and gifted a gorgeously intense arrangement. Painting a delicate picture of abject pain, its mood is hard to shift even long after the song has finished. The sheer conviction and humanity of this interpretation is due in no small way to McCarthy’s versatile, expressive vocals (which you can also find stamped all over the new Bonnie ‘Prince’ Billy album).

Faun Fables’s own compositions are innovative and have a refreshingly narrative song structure, though sometimes quite bizarre. At the more unusual end of the spectrum lies the opener ‘Birth’, a song that takes train sounds and primal screams and conjoins them in an entrancingly hypnotic introduction. ‘Transit Theme’ is just as bewildering, with its dramatic chord structures and bonkers exclamation of “the tokens are 1.25! / I am the transit rider, open to public violence”. Equally confusing compositions include the slightly pretentious psych folk/prog rock-leaning ‘Fire & Castration’ – imagine Depeche Mode relocated to New Weird America – and the dialogue embracing ‘The Questioning’ (“is this a good way to sit?”…”what if the ceiling were to fall on your head?”…”do you want a piece of heart candy?”).

Despite these few OTT attempts, Faun Fables have generously stuffed the album with interesting and intriguing compositions. ‘In Speed’ is a theatrical, fast- paced portrait of a professional coffee junkie – think businesswoman in suit and trainers clutching a super-size Starbucks – and is spookily accurate. “Let’s speed up without grace and running,” sings Frykdahl in his low voice, adding “you’ve got a nail through your heart.” Elsewhere, ‘Dream On A Train’ and ‘I’d Like To Be’ convince mostly through their heartfelt synopses and carefully explored instruments.

Although it is often slightly confusing and exceedingly abstract, The Transit Rider succeeds as a magical exploration of theatre and music that managed to stir and move the listener. Of course, it might make much more sense if you watch the theatre show too (as is recommended) – then again, it might not! – but unless they bring it to Britain, we of limited funds will just have to enjoy the music and the freedom of imagination.

Anja McCloskey 
originally published October 5th, 2006

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Eddi Fiegel
Dream A Little Dream Of Me:
The Life Of ‘Mama’ Cass Elliot ••••
Sidgwick & Jackson

Contrary to popular belief, body fascism did not begin with the birth of Heat magazine in 1999. Nor did it spring from the bowels of inventor Logie Baird when his ‘Televisor’ colonised with alarming speed much of the human race. Even if the fig leaf didn’t quite make Eve’s behind look big in it, the point is that people, and especially women, of a larger size have always had it hard. That’s not to say that television (and to some extent, Heat magazine) never had or no longer has an impact. Since its arrival in the late 1950s, the medium has majorly compounded the fears and insecurities of generations of women. Indeed, while the flower power epoch surely swung, there is also room to reflect on a lesser-known angle – the Slimming Sixties.

The explosion of teen girl pop singers that ushered in the decade put the focus of many promoters firmly on their protégées’ sex appeal. The Shirelles, The Crystals, The Ronettes and their like were all youthful, fresh and distinctly uncurvy. Although dieting was already rife among female performers – Dinah Washington, for example, was a diet pill addict – the added pressure of TV appearances and the dreaded extra projected pounds was immense. Then, as now, a bit of extra baggage could send a career down the dumper. Florence Ballard of The Supremes was one such example, allegedly sacked from the band in 1967 for being overweight, among other things. Nine years later, depressed, lonely and drunk, she died at just 32 years of age.

Ellen Naomi Cohen, better known as ‘Mama’ Cass Elliot also died aged 32. Not as has been so ignobly rumoured by choking on a ham sandwich, but from massive coronary heart failure as she slept, having earlier completed the final show in a wildly successful run of solo performances at the London Palladium. As this tender account of her life reveals, the dichotomy between Cass’s charismatic outward personality and her internal struggle with her own self-image was evident from a young age. Born in Baltimore during World War II and talking by the age of two, as a teenager, Cass was as intelligent and politically aware as many of the adults who surrounded her. Being fat by the age of seven had done nothing to endear her to those her own age and their rejection haunted Cass right to her grave, despite all that she went on to achieve. From her initial faltering efforts to become “the famous fat girl” she so desired to her audacious attempts to break into the group that would become The Mamas & The Papas, Eddi Fiegel carefully picks apart Cass’s famed ambition from her genuine need to be loved. Fiegel’s fondness for her subject, while clearly apparent in every tale, is admirably never allowed to cloud or bias the story. Written over nearly four years and based on more than 100 interviews, what we get here is a mostly sympathetic but balanced account of a well-loved and unique individual.

Where the book becomes unmissable is in Fiegel’s account of the final days of The Mamas & The Papas. As adultery and unrequited love tore them apart before they had even recorded their second album, Elliot’s long struggle to extricate herself from the sorry mess without losing all she had worked for is all too vivid. The band finally folded in October 1967. Elliot’s first solo album, Dream A Little Dream Of Me, followed a year later, and a second, Bubblegum, Lemonade & Something For Mama in 1969. By then, despite having a young daughter (Owen Vanessa Elliot was born in April 1969 and contributes to the book in places), Cass had a significant drug habit and went through a number of damaging relationships with assorted Lotharios and downright spongers. Even at the time of her death, she was engaged in a one-sided relationship with shady promoter George Caldwell who mysteriously disappeared after her death.

As Fiegel notes, however, Elliot wouldn’t have stood for the ‘tragic’ tag so many have lumbered her with. Her independence and resilience defied such lazy thinking. Rarely has a mould been so completely shattered than the one from which Ellen Naomi Cohen emerged – she was the people’s princess before Diana was in training bras. In her introduction, Fiegel tells how rocker David Crosby offered her $100 if she could find a single person who hated Cass. Unsurprisingly, his money went unclaimed.

Alan Pedder
originally published September 3rd, 2005 

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Fields
Live at the Fleece & Firkin, Bristol •••
June 25th, 2006

Warm-ups, I have realised, are not supposed to be heard by outsiders for a very simple reason – bands invariably sound awful. The singer(s) will undoubtedly be out of tune. Indeed, early on in the evening, heard through the ancient industrial walls of Bristol’s Fleece & Firkin, Fields sound like shrieking banshees in the middle of a massacre of shouty East End market stall holders. This, perhaps, is why half of the audience leave before they’ve even entered the venue. A few manage to convince themselves that it was only the roadies testing the equipment, while fans of the band wonder if singer Thorunn Antonia is in possession of a hideous cold.

So far, not really that good, and the bar staff haven’t even served a drink yet. Fortunately, all is rescued when, taking to the stage ahead of headliners Larrikin Love, Fields launch into ‘Song For The Fields’ and a hundred ears prick up in an instant – “wait a minute, I’ve heard this”. It’s one of those songs that you can’t work out whether they’ve half-inched an opening chord from Bob Dylan or from some indie club classic. People sitting down at the back begin to lean against the walls instead and gradually the whole audience moves towards the stage. At times, Antonia’s voice can seem screechy and at odds with fellow Fields vocalist Nick Peill, but generally the pair have good chemistry. After a seven-song set, including some of the new tracks on their forthcoming EP, notably ‘Roll Down The Hill’, the band depart to the genuine applause of the majority.

From tonight’s performance, it’s clear that Fields are destined to be more than just another support band; they’re fast becoming headline material for smaller venues like the Fleece. With just a little more practice and perhaps a careful eye on the watch so as to ensure the audience hear only what they’re supposed to, Fields may eventually turn into acres.

Tiffany Daniels
originally published July 2nd, 2006

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The Fiery Furnaces
Rehearsing My Choir •••
Rough Trade

Those of us still surviving after the Fiery Furnaces’s last long-player (length being a somewhat paradoxical notion in their terms – an ‘EP’ released earlier this year raced in at a heady 41 minutes) are surely deserving of some sort of reward. Blueberry Boat was a challenging beast in no uncertain terms; an extended rock opera invoking the spirit of Tommy, but at times coming across like a tub of acid assaulting a crazed school orchestra. Yes indeed, we who have clung on have the scars to prove it.

Certainly, it’s no idle rhetoric to say that, from the bluesy pop sensation of their cult 2003 debut Gallowsbird’s Bark onwards, Illinois-based siblings Eleanor and Matt Friedburger have always slipped through the grasping fingers of definition. Almost aggressively progressive, but with an effortless cool that The Strokes could never buy, the duo have constantly challenged listeners to absorb their oeuvre in terms of entire albums, rather than songs. It’s an almost quixotic approach in the days of 79p iTunes singles, yet utterly admirable too.

A reward of sorts comes here. In third album Rehearsing My Choir (another, Bitter Tea, is due as early as January), we find a singular conceit truly becoming of the epithet ‘concept’. The album constitutes eleven interwoven tales of Chicago from the 1930s to the 1950s, as told through the eyes and (mostly spoken) vocals of Olga Sarantos, director of the Illinois state choir for over 65 years and, more specifically, the Friedburgers’s grandmother. So bring forth stories of wounded gangsters, dodgy back basement deals and the previously unimaginable hell that is trying to make candy when you’re due to meet your father in-law for the very first time.

On first impression, the Furnaces seem much more at home here. Their tendency to soften bluesy rock into a kind of psychedelic lullaby blossoms under the restraint of shorter songs and narrative focus. Odd instruments are still the main musical nuance and there’s certainly no sign of your everyday verse-chorus-verse, but there are at least splatterings of rhythm and release – ‘The Wayward Granddaughter’ pumps along with the kind of urgency that only a didgeridoo can muster, while ‘We Wrote Letters Every Day’ sticks in the head after only a few listens. It’s this lack of salient obscurity that makes Rehearsing My Choir a much more forgiving prospect. Sarantos’ octogenarian vocals are at once commanding and brusque, yet also disturbingly reminiscent of a female Simpsons’ Barney.

The combination of Eleanor’s matter-of-fact vocals and Matt’s seemingly bottomless box of crazy instruments elevates the tales into circus and vaudeville, and yet the melancholy still slots into place. “We can talk about it, but memories are best often sung” Sarantos tells, or rather scolds us. There’s no doubt the Fieries are fighting against musical form to save us from our own predictable expectations, and to a certain extent they have succeeded in this latest endeavour. Each song floods the imagination with a slice of tasty Americana that’s light years away from the likes of Beck and Cake. For the less adventurous, however, there remains a longing pang for the halcyon days of ultra-catchy tunes and memorable riffs.

Ian Buchan
originally published September 2nd, 2005 

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The Fiery Furnaces
Bitter Tea ••••
Rough Trade

Their PR will tell you that The Fiery Furnaces are a “quirky indie-pop duo”, but quirky doesn’t really even begin to cover the bases. The opening track of this fifth album in three years gives the listener a very good idea of what is to come, i.e. anything and everything. So while Eleanor Friedberger’s vocals on opener In ‘My Little Thatched Hut’ conjure up a repetitive, incantatory chant reminiscent of the sinister fairytale aura of PJ Harvey’s ‘Down By The Water’, her brother Matt’s musical mélange tells a whole different story. Tribal drums vie with bursts of electronica, while gentle acoustic guitar is stomped all over by squealing feedback. It’s Underworld meets Natalie Merchant and the resulting scuffle is noisy, unpredictable and thrilling; both parties surface bruised and grinning.

The synth on ‘Darling Black-Hearted Boy’ grates like the theme tune of a ‘70s kids’ TV show, but somehow in a good way, while the title track that follows morphs and warps the previous melody into a frantic Space Invaders-esque sonic landscape of frenzied bleeps and glitches. This is an immediate and exciting record with unpredictability as its buzzword. Eleanor’s spoken word vocal delivery is often reminiscent of Patti Smith, particularly of her ‘Land’ trilogy, and the mystical overtones present on several songs also recall some of the punk poetess’s vintage tracks. Like Smith’s, songs like ‘Oh Sweet Woods’ mix everyday settings – parking lots, anonymous hallways – with a simmering threat of violence and an otherworldly, almost religious presence, invoked here by the presence of the nameless figures pursuing the poem’s central character and the backwards vocals they speak in. It’s an undisputed album highlight, a disturbing narrative set to a funky handclap beat.

Matt played everything on the record, apart from drums, and the music here is so dazzlingly varied that the lyrics occasionally get lost in the maelstrom. But it won’t be long before a line like “till the bulldozers turned us into whole-fruit fruit bar stix and china markers” (‘Borneo’) pulls you out of your musical reverie and boggles your brain even further. The band’s inventiveness has its downside, although it’s a small one – the jagged textures and sudden changes in time signature can become somewhat wearying and you may find yourself longing for a consistent melody, though you’ll struggle to find one across the record’s epic 75 minutes. However, to criticise a band for being too inventive is perhaps unfair; I know who I’d plump for given the choice between the Fieries and any number of the formulaic radio-friendly unit shifters that flood commercial radio stations.

The Fiery Furnaces are a highly prolific band who are still brimming (overflowing even) with ideas. And though they may bewilder and occasionally frustrate, they more than compensate for this with their sheer originality and experimental verve. Those searching for classic pop song structure will find it (nearly) on ‘Benton Harbour Blues’; those searching for pretty much anything else – ‘70s punk meets the ‘Grange Hill’ theme tune anyone? – will probably find it here too. See, everybody’s happy!

Danny Weddup
originally published June 5th, 2006 

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50 Foot Wave
Golden Ocean ••••
4AD 

Fifty feet is pretty big if you think about it, and by thinking I mean Googling, and by Googling you’ll find it’s an oddly common anecdotal measure. Only the other week, for instance, a man was walking his dog Charlie along the Great Orme cliff in Cardiff when he heard a splash from the ocean 50 feet below. “Gosh, did you hear that, Charlie”, the man may have wondered before realising that yes, Charlie had indeed heard it because Charlie was it (www.dogsinthenews.com, we love you!). But while some might find such a chestnut of interest, we at Wears The Trousers are suckers for useless, distilled fact. Indeed, to this reporter, drilling through to the no-frills zone provides as much lascivious pleasure as a tabloid gossip column does to others. So, here we go again… 50 feet is equal to the world record for women’s triple jump, a third of the height of the leaning tower of Pisa, the distance from the chin of the Sphynx to the sand it sits on and the size of a certain Queenie, according to our Peej. Oh, and it’s also the height to which this remarkable band aspire.

50 Foot Wave are two-thirds Throwing Muses (singer/guitarist Kristin Hersh and bassist Bernard Georges) and one-third drummer Rob Ahlers, and this is their first full-length album following last year’s delightfully noisy eponymous EP. Put quite simply, the trio’s deliveries are tight and piping hot, and what the songs of Golden Ocean lack in the complexity shown by some of their peers, the band’s dynamic power and crisp, razor-sharp playing more than make up for it. But that’s not to say these tunes are simple, no sir. They’re sneaky and infectious, coming up from behind to smack you with a six-string and leave you begging for more.

Those more familiar with the Muses and with Hersh’s intermittently sedate solo work may have difficulties reconciling the snarling frontwoman of 50 Foot Wave with their beloved indie rock heroine and married mother of four. Golden Ocean is fast and nasty in comparison, drenched in the feedback and power chords that can turn an ugly grunge-rock duckling into a bloody great vicious black swan. In my view, rock has been missing the hissing for far too long (same goes for handclaps, but more about that some other time). Every song seems to have some kind of story behind it, but that layer is better absorbed once your body recovers from the initial reverberations.

Golden Ocean may just awaken the inner mosh monster in anyone who hears it. ‘Long Painting’ and ‘Dog Days’ in particular conjure the blinding strobe and pointy elbows of a lost youth. It’s that rare rock beast that succeeds in really making a statement and will amply reward any Daisy Chainsaw, Husker Dü, Pixies or L7 fans looking for something familiar but new.

Endre Buzogány
originally published November 7th, 2005 

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Kat Flint
The Secret Boys Club EP ••••
Naz Recordings

In case you haven’t discovered her yet, believe me when I say that Kat Flint is a rare and wonderful find; recently awarded the New Lyricist Award by Channel 4, her lyrics are beautifully crafted to speak of the dangers and joys of modern life. The Secret Boys Club EP is released through Rough Trade Shops and is doing very well indeed, deservedly topping the sales of even major artists such as Arctic Monkeys and Dirty Pretty Things. 

Flint has the same vocal presence as every great female solo artist; perfect and simultaneously unique. Her songs, rightfully described as “a love letter to the children we were, the adults we become and the places we make for ourselves in the world”, are deliciously nostalgic, craving the innocence we had when we were but young ‘uns. That said, it’s not simply fanciful whimsy either. Flint is smart enough to realise that we may be able to look to the past, but we’re constantly shuffling forward. ‘Anticlimax’ neatly surmises the EP’s spirit with the admirably economical lyrics, “because all I need is time, to grow up, to grow forward and to grow wise”.

Flint has the same vocal presence as every great female solo artist; perfect and simultaneously unique. Her songs, rightfully described as “a love letter to the children we were, the adults we become and the places we make for ourselves in the world”, are deliciously nostalgic, craving the innocence we had when we were but young ‘uns. That said, it’s not simply fanciful whimsy either. Flint is smart enough to realise that we may be able to look to the past, but we’re constantly shuffling forward. ‘Anticlimax’ neatly surmises the EP’s spirit with the admirably economical lyrics, “because all I need is time, to grow up, to grow forward and to grow wise”.

Opener ‘Fearsome Crowd’, arguably Flint’s masterpiece thus far, is a paranoid tale of love, childhood and surviving both, while ‘Ohio’ tells of the more sinister side of modern life, recounting a tale of prostitution in junkyards. Elsewhere, ‘Headrush’ finds Flint pleading for the Apocalypse, while ‘The Blinking’ and ‘London Lullaby’ make for an engaging pair of bitterly honest ballads.

Magical is often an overused description in the musical world, but it truly applies to this particular lady. Ironically, despite the indie uprising of recent years, her category has been partially ignored and similar talents dropped by labels; if The Secret Boys Club EP is similarly ignored, it would be a criminal offence. Don’t let it happen.

Tiffany Daniels
originally published June 16th, 2006 

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Josephine Foster
A Wolf In Sheep’s Clothing ••••
Locust

With A Wolf In Sheep’s Clothing, opera school dropout turned freak-folk songstress extraordinaire Josephine Foster has created a wonderful album free of form and conformity. It is a rather unconventional and exceedingly brave take on 19th Century German Lieder, which many regard as one of the classic schools of songwriting. Composers such as Schumann, Brahms and Schubert created wonderful and delicate works using the lyrics of the literary geniuses of the romantic era including Goethe and Eichendorff. Naturally, these compositions have been performed and recorded many times, yet Foster has found a way to filter them through a unique and magical lens using a mix of modern and classical instruments and a sound that reminds one of church recordings of the early 1900s.

‘An Die Musik’, Schubert’s ode to the wonders of music, opens the seven-song suite. Sounding at first quiet and delicate with rhythmical strumming and Foster’s angelic vocals, it soon develops into an electric guitar workout in which the instruments are played lazily and messily, giving one of the world’s most famous classical works a rather outlandish sound. ‘Der König in Thule’, also a Schubert composition, embraces the evanescence of love and life. A rough sounding electric guitar in lead melody accompanied by a softer countermelody sounds at first strangely modern, but after several listens appears effortlessly cool, Foster’s versatile vocal adding to her straightforward, honest adaptation.

Everything on this album has been played to emotional perfection. Foster has clearly been indulged with complete artistic freedom. It’s refreshing to listen to delicate and moving songs that have not been pushed to alien-sounding technical precision by commercially driven producers. Wolf’s ‘Verschwiegene Liebe’, a longing ode to the freedom of thought, and Brahms’s ‘Die Schwestern’, a wonderful and sound-layered piece about the unextinguishable bond between sisters, both strongly benefit from Foster’s approach; free from constraint, heavenly and moving. The instrumentation and arrangements are almost playful, always responding to the call of Foster’s voice. Schumann’s ‘Wehmut’ and ‘Auf einer Burg’ and Schubert’s ‘Nähe des Geliebten’ have such a strong recording approach, it’s as if you were discovering original works by this dark, delicious enchantress.

The songs may date back over 100 years, but in Foster’s fair and capable hands the dust never settles on these dramatic and arresting interpretations. Startling stuff.

Anja McCloskey
originally published June 12th, 2006
 

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Lily Fraser
Lily Fraser ••••
Self-released

How often do we see overused phrases like “a stunning debut from a truly original new talent”? And how often does it in fact refer to a rehashing, albeit an accomplished one, of whatever is the flavour of the moment? It’s rare enough to happen across something that really strikes you as being original, let alone taking you somewhere you’ve never quite been before, but this eponymous debut recording (it’s not an ‘album’ as such, more a collection of demos) by Lily Fraser may just be one of those happy exceptions.

Necessarily, then, it’s something of an arduous task to pick out suitable comparators for the purpose of describing the music. Broad and sweeping statements are precluded and more targeted comments may only reflect an instant or two. In one lyrical section, the phrasing recalls Fish’s unusual stream of consciousness scanning – but this is no Marillion album; in another, there’s a hint of Siouxsie Sioux – but this is no post-punk proto-goth; in another still, the carefully deployed theatrics and production resemble Freddy Mercury’s more whimsical moments – but this is certainly not A Night At The Opera. Enough befuddled reviewer excuses you say? Well then, if compare we must, the readiest benchmark that comes to mind is Kate Bush; not primarily because Fraser shares that auteur’s fragile but powerful upper register and falsetto, but more the inventiveness she infuses into her four-minute dysfunctional psycho-dramas. That said, the vocal performances throughout are uniformly stunning, swooping down from an angelic choir into a dark, vengeful siren in the space of just a few notes.

The unusual mix of instruments certainly helps to set the tone. Magical washes of harp and haunting cello create an ominous musical subtext, particularly on tracks like ‘Exposed’ where the two instruments are played in a manner that could only be referred to as riffing. Urgency is also found in opener ‘Shout It Out’ with its dance-based rhythms and Fraser’s insistent vocal setting out a manifesto for what is to come. It’s as if communicating her thoughts is a psychological imperative, not just a collection of ditties. ‘Man To Man’ presents an ironic hymn to the glorious sadness of low self-esteem and the futility of seeking real significance in meaningless sexual encounters, while ‘Beautiful Life’ restores the yang to the previous yin by showing that even in life’s shady undergrowth lies beauty and value. ‘About You’ introduces an air of melodrama, with a 1930s matinee idol introduction setting the tone for a scathing attack on the stunted emotions of certain men, while ‘Disagree’ and ‘It’s You’ echo the sombre danse macabre. The juxtaposition of moods seen with the warm, meditative ‘Which One Am I?’- a slice of bluesy, Gothic folk á la All About Eve – and ‘Old Devil Shine’, which spins a cautionary noir yarn, its timeless mood contrasting with unsettling gramophone-textured vocal sections, is undeniably affecting.

Impending tragedy and Victorian melodrama are very much the order of the day with Fraser, and the sheer depth and quality of the recording is little short of breathtaking. On the basis of these first though hardly tentative steps, it is clear that she and her unconventional blend of simultaneously engaging and disturbing sounds are close to creating a Kick Inside for the 21st Century.

Trevor Raggatt
originally published March 31st, 2006 

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Edith Frost
Calling Over Time ••••
Telescopic •••½
Wonder Wonder ••••
Drag City

Edith Frost is living, wonderful and irrefutable proof that even cowgirls really do get the blues. Her knack with a minor key and simple but never underspun stories is, or should be, the envy of many. Why she is not revered in wider circles remains a mystery – one that may well be favourably and deservedly solved when her long-awaited fourth album It’s A Game is released later this year. As a generous precursor to this long anticipated arrival, Drag City has graciously reissued all three of her previous efforts to reacquaint us with their charge.

Signed to the label in 1994 after mailing in a copy of her demo alongside a fan letter to Drag City luminary Will Oldham (aka Bonnie ‘Prince’ Billy), Frost’s first release was a self-titled EP fashioned out of those very same four-tracks. It was followed in 1997 by the album Calling Over Time, an unprepossessing gem of a record showcasing a voice not much unlike a Patsy Cline for the modern disaffected. In the wake of a painful divorce, Texan-born Frost, then aged 31, relocated to Chicago from New York where she had been playing in a number of long-forgotten bands. Having befriended members of the Drag City stable and other Chicagoan icons of indie, including Gastr Del Sol, Rian Murphy, Eleventh Dream Day’s Rick Rizzo and The High Llamas’ Sean O’Hagan, the sessions for Calling Over Time certainly had no shortage of talent in the studio. That the results live and breathe as they do (albeit with a slight sense of spacey disconnectedness) is testament to the skilful pool of players. The lasting sense is one of reassuring melancholia; that is to say, her songs are rarely depressing – they’re a little too detached and distant for such extremities – but somehow comforting in their minimalistic mulling over of fate’s crueller twists. Standout tracks include the divorce bruiser ‘Temporary Loan’, the achingly pragmatic ‘Too Happy’, the heartbreaking ‘Wash Of Water’ and the weary defeatism of ‘Albany Blues’.

Frost returned the following year with the even hazier but more meaty Telescopic. Opening with the fuzz-strewn lo-fi indie pop of ‘Walk On The Fire’, a dark and mournfully menacing song that early Liz Phair would have chewed an arm off for, the album signalled a clear progression from its sparser predecessor. Production duties were fulfilled by the curiously monikered Adam & Eve, better known as Neil Hagerty and Jennifer Herrema of Drag City signings Royal Trux. Other contributions came from the ever-present Rian Murphy and Tsunami’s Amy Domingues. Lyrically, Telescopic mostly offers more of the same soul-searching of her previous releases, with one notable exception. ‘You Belong To No One’ is a cabaret revenge song, a sashaying fuck-you that runs rings around her lonesome schtick and never fails to raise a smile. Musically, ‘Bluish Bells’ is further confirmation of Frost’s ear for an ingratiating mind-trick. Amid pleasingly retro jangly keyboard effects and an inobtrusive fuzz guitar motif lies a melody that’s lifted from an old Willie Nelson song played backwards. The gorgeous ballad, ‘Tender Kiss’, is similarly impressive, mixing violin, flute and a subtle complex programmed drum pattern with some of her finest vocal harmonies.

As mirrored by the simplicity of its quietly dramatic and organic sleeve, Wonder Wonder signified a step away from Telescopic‘s thicker fog of indie aspirations. That’s not to say that Frost had returned to her humbler origins – Wonder Wonder is a much more ambitious and focused record than her previous work, once again featuring Rian Murphy on production and a dozen other players, not to mention Steve Albini as sound engineer. Many of the songs have the feel of a twisted orchestra, but the central stylistic touchstone is subdued and thoughtful country. Songs like the snappy title track and the immensely hummable ‘Cars & Parties’ (surely her great lost single) sit comfortably alongside trickier material. ‘The Fear’ is reminiscent of an eerie midnight walk through a haunted fairground, while ‘True’ is the very definition of desolate. She also gifts us what is surely a country standard in waiting with ‘Honey Please’. I wouldn’t be surprised to hear Emmylou Harris cover it at some point in the future. Closing with ‘You’re Decided’, a break up song laced with despair and regret, the listener is left with little doubt that Edith Frost’s ability to convey any emotion precisely and without lyrical excess is a wonder in itself.

Like Cissy, the feet-finding heroine from ‘Even Cowgirls Get The Blues’, Edith Frost has hitched a ride with many a kind friend, travelling with them through a myriad of musical landscapes. Ultimately though, she has been at the helm of her own evolution and these timely reissues should plenty whet the appetites of fans of Lisa Germano, Cat Power, Barbara Manning, and, of course, Will Oldham before the next instalment comes along.

Alan Pedder
originally published August 22nd, 2005 

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Hannah Fury
Subterfuge EP ••••
MellowTraumatic

Self-styled Trauma Queen Hannah Fury has at last shuffled off her musical slumber. It’s been six long years since her unsettling debut album, The Thing That Feels, and three since her last EP. What has she been doing? Well, not losing one iota of her touch for a start; Subterfuge is the most sinister thing to come out of Texas since the Bush Administration, and all the better for it. Kicking off with a deliciously subversive, almost perverse take on The Turtles’ 1969 hit ‘You Showed Me’, Fury teasingly twists and plays with the melody and phrasing to great effect. And while it’s not as nakedly ambitious or successful as her gloriously gut-wrenching cover of ABBA’s ‘The Winner Takes It All’ (from 2001′s sublime Meathook EP), it sets up Subterfuge’s overarching ‘love me or else’ theme very nicely indeed.

The sheer intensity of ‘My Next Victim’ continues this motif, with hell hath no fury lyrics like “you don’t want none of my sugar / you just want that skanky snatch, no offense to her” delivered with an eerie and unwavering focus, its very matter-of-factness recalling Lisa Germano’s ‘…A Psychopath’ reverse engineered and seen through an opiate haze. The fabulously titled ‘Girls That Glitter Love The Dark’ is equally impressive with its From The Choirgirl Hotel-era Tori Amos flourishes and lush, hypnotic multi-tracked vocals. Illuminating couplets like “girls that glitter defile hope / we think that love is just tightening that sad little rope” languish in the mix with a general air of self-destructive obsession.

But perhaps the finest distillation of Fury’s particular brand of musical malaise is the multimedia track, ‘Carnival Justice (The Gloves Are Off) Part II’. Whether heard alone or in tandem with Chris Ohlson’s creepy video featuring a pair of custom-made marionettes (The Queen of Hearts and Anathema Rose to their friends), it’s an undeniably spine-tingling experience. So precisely layered are the distorted, whispery vocals, it’s almost as if she were singing in parseltongue. Needless to say, it’s the kind of song that the religious far right would love to play backwards in fear (hope?) of finding an ode to the devil. Which would be rather silly regardless, because they would then miss out on some of Fury’s best writing to date – “if you think you scored, your vision must be blurred / welcome one and all to the Theatre of the Absurd / mmmmmy heart is like the Moulin Rouge / all lit up in subterfuge” – with all its Jean Genet-conjuring dramaturgy.

Whether or not Fury intends a literal interpretation of ‘A Latch To Open’s closing sound effect of an emancipated bird fleeing its prison (and I’m inclined to believe she doesn’t), it’s tempting to see it as something symbolic. A brusque farewell to writer’s block, perhaps. For as wonderful as this enchanting EP undoubtedly is, it’s ostensibly a prelude to a far greater prize; that long-awaited full-length coming later this year. Amen!

Alan Pedder
originally published February 20th, 2006 

 



2005/06 reviews dump: h

The following reviews were all published on our old website between May 2005 and December 2006.
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Sarah Harmer
I’m A Mountain ••••
Zoe

Wears The Trousers is a bit late coming to this because one never really knows what to expect with Sarah Harmer. Having spent the ‘90s fronting the not especially great indie rock outfit Weeping Tile, 2000′s solo debut You Were Here was astonishingly good. Laced with wit and sentimentality, the songs garnered critical praise from reviewers worldwide and expanded Harmer’s sound. A year earlier, Songs For Clem – a duets album initially recorded for her father’s ears only – had seen her exploring the realms of folk and poetry with truly affecting results. After such enormous accolades, Harmer seemed to flag with the rather lacklustre All Of Our Names. Though it still bagged her a Juno Award, it seemed a little rushed, as if the songs were simply pushed together with little definition.

Thank goodness for I’m A Mountain, then. This quietly impressive collection not only showcases all the facets of her sound that made her such a unique force in the first place, but combines all that made her previous incarnations so successful. Full of affirmations and themes of renewal and revitalisation, I’m A Mountain takes a back-to-the-land approach, both thematically and stylistically, without sounding pretentious. Starting off strongly with the gently-strummed ‘The Ring’, Harmer uses the age-old metaphor of the boxing ring, but instead of focusing on the battle, she sings eloquently of the coaching support – “you thank me all the time / but now it’s my turn…and it made me feel better / to have you there in my corner”.

Continuing the theme of positive relationships, album highlight ‘I Am Aglow’ blooms with pure bluegrass and is as whimsically singalong as anyone could possibly want. But not every song is quite so light-hearted; ‘Escarpment Blues’, inspired by Harmer’s own youth spent on an Ontario farm, laments the threat to the Niagara Escarpment, a UNESCO World Biosphere Reserve. Facing modern day land use issues with an intelligent ear, the lyrics read less like an alarmist diatribe and more like a concerned citizen speaking during a council meeting. With a soft voice full of gentle concern, Harmer sings “if they blow a hole in my backyard / everyone is gonna run away / the creeks won’t flow to the Great Lake below / will the water in the wells still be okay?” It certainly doesn’t approach the hard-hitting music of the ‘60s protest masters, but Harmer does a magnificent job of echoing her concern without being patronising about what makes modern convenience such a part of day-to-day life.

The centrepiece of the record, however, is Harmer’s cover of the Dolly Parton classic ‘Will He Be Waiting For Me?’, to which she brings a delicate vulnerability that, whilst still retaining the wistfulness of the original, gives the song a slightly different perspective. Sparse and unforced yet fulfilling and ultimately satisfying, I’m A Mountain has it all – intelligent songwriting, fine musicianship and well-written songs. Harmer doesn’t go the currently popular country-noir chanteuse route, already done to near perfection by Neko Case and Jenny Lewis; instead, she sticks to more playful yet conscientiously lyrical poetry and whimsical seriousness. These are uncontrived sketches, inspired by country music before it went pop, bluegrass when it was pure and new takes on age-old stories told time after time in song.

Loria Near 
originally published October 5th, 2006

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Emmylou Harris & Mark Knopfler
All The Roadrunning •••½ 
Mercury

The illustrious career of Emmylou Harris has been marked by a series of creative collaborations with other singers and musicians. From the first, now legendary, Gram Parsons duets through her work with Linda Rondstadt and Dolly Parton as one third of Trio to her partnership with Daniel Lanois on Wrecking Ball, Harris has sought out (and been sought out by) a range of diverse collaborators. In the meantime, she’s also continued to raise harmony singing to new artistic heights on records by Lucinda Williams, Neil Young, Willie Nelson, John Prine, Steve Earle, Nanci Griffith, Patty Griffin, the McGarrigles and just about anyone else you care to name. The most significant of these collaborations have served an important function for Harris, allowing her to explore all kinds of areas of the country-folkrock palette and keep her own particular brand of “cosmic American music” fresh and vital. Crucially, however, even her most experimental work has always retained a distinctive personality, a kind of purity, elegance and poise that justifies Lucinda Williams’s description of her as “the Grace Kelly of country music.”

We haven’t heard much from Harris since 2003′s Stumble Into Grace, a record that saw her continuing to wed her own newly-discovered songwriting abilities to Wrecking Ball-esque sonic atmospherics. Once again demonstrating once again her ability to inspire and engage with new generations, she turned up on Bright Eyes’ I’m Wide Awake (It’s Morning), adding some genuine country-folk ache to Conor Oberst’s sometimes strained musings, and also made a distinguished contribution to the ‘Brokeback Mountain’ soundtrack with ‘A Love That Will Never Grow Old’. All The Roadrunning finds her in collaborative mode once again, teaming up this time with Mark Knopfler on a set of twelve new tracks, ten penned by Knopfler, two by Harris herself.

Knopfler and Harris first appeared together on the 2001 Hank Williams tribute album Timeless and All The Roadrunning has been in the pipeline ever since. Reviewers of the album so far have focused to an almost indecent degree on the singers’ respective ages, as though a record made by two people over fifty must inevitably be less ‘hip’ than ‘hip replacement’. That said, even the most cursory listen to All The Roadrunning reveals a degree of class and style that only experience can buy. Indeed, as soon as the album opens, with sturdy drums, mandolin and Knopfler’s distinctive guitar licks, we know we’re in safe hands. ‘Beachcombing’ is a joyous song of homecoming on which Harris and Knopfler’s voices combine with disarming ease and grace. Surely it can be no mere coincidence that their first shared vocal line is on the lyric “We had a harmony”. The often-used ‘silk and sandpaper’ analogy has never been more apt, and on ‘This Is Us’ they duplicate the feat achieved by Harris and Willie Nelson on ‘Gulf Coast Highway’, sounding like a long-married couple leafing through a lifetime of intimate memories.

Repeatedly, the album’s songs strike a balance between regret and resignation, mixing melancholy with a sense of possibility and hope for the future. Knopfler’s atmospheric guitar work makes ‘I Dug Up A Diamond’ truly sparkle, accordion and fiddle turn ‘Red Staggerwing’ into a rootsy reel, and the pensive verses of ‘Rollin’ On’ give way to a rush of hope and optimism in the choruses. The delicate ‘Love & Happiness’ resembles ‘Fields Of Gold’, while ‘Donkey Town’, with its small-town adultery and escape for one of the three protagonists, wouldn’t have sounded at all out of place on Springsteen’s Devils & Dust, with Knopfler taking the lead and Harris joining him on the hushed but resolved choruses. The chiming ‘Beyond My Wildest Dreams’, on the other hand, could be arena-rock Springsteen, as Harris and Knopfler unashamedly celebrate a love that has endured beyond either of the protagonist’s imaginings. The beautiful title track – a warm and moving song of time and travel – is the undisputed standout.

As a whole, however, the album is not an entirely smooth journey; ‘Right Now’ is something of a dull generic plod and ‘Belle Starr’ never quite achieves lift off. But the finale of ‘If This Is Goodbye’ features Harris’s ghostliest, most enchanting vocal and makes for a supremely graceful closer. With its smooth, easy arrangements and comfortable ‘70s country-rock ambience, it’s fair to say that the album breaks no new stylistic ground. The Harris record it most resembles is Western Wall, her 1999 collaboration with Linda Rondstadt, and while it’s ultimately just too conventional an album to rank up there as one of her most memorable collaborative efforts, it’s an undisputedly lovely one nonetheless. Tender, quietly inspiring and surprisingly addictive.

Alex Ramon
originally published April 24th, 2006 

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Julia Harris
These Days EP ••••
Redcase

When Wears The Trousers chose Cardiff-born singer Julia Harris as one of our picks for ‘06, it was on the basis of a couple of homemade live albums, a growing buzz about her on the singer-songwriter circuit and a nagging hunch that the UK had finally found its answer to Ani DiFranco. These Days is Harris’s first nationwide studio release, so were we right to hype her?

Glad to say but of course! With These Days, Harris restores our belief that a grass roots buzz really can be the product of hard work, originality and sheer talent, rather than calculated media spin (Miss Thom, I’m looking at you). Of course, the DiFranco factor is writ large throughout these four wonderful songs, but Harris stamps so much of her own individuality on them that any notion of facsimile is summarily dismissed. Her vocal is rather more smooth and soulful than DiFranco’s sometimes abrasive rasp, an asset best displayed when she lobs an unexpectedly brilliant folk scat into ‘Sticks & Stones’, or the soaring, pure falsetto she pulls out the bag for ‘Your Love’.

Her muscular and funky playing style is individual too, energetically propelling both the songs and your shuffling feet. The sympathetic production allows Harris’ energy to shine through the mix rather than languish beneath a veneer of compressed homogeneity. Keeping to a rhythm section of drums and acoustic bass allows a degree of jazziness to permeate the songs, picking up the natural funky flavour of Harris’s writing and delivery. Indeed, one of the most refreshing things about her is a lightness of tone and spirit. That’s not to say she doesn’t dwell on some of life’s more important issues, simply that she actually brings insight instead of just handwringing angst.

Kicking off with the celebratory title track, with its funky rhythm, singalong chorus and quirky arrangement, it’s apparent from the off that this is one song that you’ll keep coming back to. The almost tribal woo-hoos and insidious hooks are undeniably engaging and just get better and better with each listen. In the hands of another, ‘Sticks & Stones’ might seem a little clunky, topically at least, with Harris pointing fingers at those who don’t consider the knock-on effects of an off-hand put-down on a more fragile spirit.

But it’s not in the hands of another and Harris delivers her message with a cheeky wink and sassy sense of self-reliance. The reggae-styled verses of ‘Your Love ‘contrast nicely with the acoustic rock chorus and avoids the lovestruck clichés so many tend to rely on. Closing number ‘Leave’ belies its ‘live studio jam’ appellation by serving up a lean, well-structured ditty on getting the hell out of a destructive relationship. Aside from a few, er, ‘jazzier’ notes on the bass, you’d be hard pressed to notice that this was a live cut, it’s that well done. With the promise of a proper full-length debut some time in the winter or early 2007, Harris will be one to keep an eye on for a long while yet. There’s plenty more there this lot came from and you won’t want to miss it.

Trevor Raggatt
originally published August 10th, 2006 

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PJ Harvey
Peel Sessions 1991-2004 ••••
Fontana/Island

As a tribute to mark the second anniversary of John Peel’s death, PJ Harvey joins Siouxsie & The Banshees, Múm, Pulp, The House Of Love and others in releasing a series of tracks recorded for the late DJ’s show. Harvey, who handpicked the tracklist herself, completed nine sessions with Peel between 1991 and 2004, and he was reportedly pleased to have had a long standing association with not only one of his favourite artists but also a great friend. On her part, Harvey has gone on record as saying how important hers and other artists’ Peel Sessions have been, with their raw sound resulting from the live studio setup.

Harvey’s first session took place on October 29, 1991, a full year before her debut album Dry was even released, and it’s a fine testament to Peel’s eagerness to champion undiscovered talent that his early support would be so well rewarded. The tracks from this session – ‘Oh My Lover’, ‘Victory’, ‘Sheela-Na- Gig’ and ‘Water’ – are delivered with the poise and confidence of an established performer. As she would demonstrate later on 4 Track Demos, Harvey’s songs maintain their veracity and power when stripped to their barest essence, and these early tracks compare well with their album counterparts.

Later sessions from 1993 and 1996 make for an eclectic mix of tracks from 4 Track Demos, Rid Of Me and Dance Hall At Louse Point, Harvey’s under-the- radar but brilliant collaboration with John Parish. To a certain extent, Harvey’s choices avoid those songs already released in bare bones versions, instead revisiting those that were previously furnished with more production and polish. Recordings from the most recent sessions showcase Harvey’s vocals at their most fierce. Her gutsy, raw energy reverberates right through the staggering ‘This Wicked Tongue’, previously available only as a bonus track on Stories From The City, Stories From The Sea. The final track, ‘You Come Through’, was recorded in tribute to Peel just six weeks after his sudden passing whilst on holiday in Peru. It’s a fittingly emotional recording with added poignancy and a welcome addition to this collection.

All in all, though it is far from exhaustive of the material stashed away on tape somewhere, this is an essential album for fans of Harvey and/or Peel, saluting both her daring, nervy style and his unwavering punk rock spirit.

Stephanie Heney
originally published December 17th, 2006

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Juliana Hatfield
Made In China ••••
Ye Olde Records

So Juliana Hatfield is back with her tenth solo album, as challenging and contrary as ever. If, like me, you lost track of her somewhere around album three, 1995′s Only Everything, this is a chance to renew your acquaintance. Called Made In China to indicate her disposable and marketable state, the album features her stripped bare on the cover. Being Juliana, it’s just her torso, there to also represent where her music comes from. Like many artists, after early major label experience, Hatfield retreated to the underground and the safety of a small independent label and the freedom to do her own prolific thing. So after releasing almost one album per year, not to mention various band reunions and side project Some Girls, has the former Blake Baby grown up?

Well, the album kicks off in familiar territory with the classic brooding power-pop of ‘New Waif’, all the sass of old coming to the fore. It’s to the lyrics you should look for a statement of intent, with their opening plea of “you better give this girl something, because she’s dying for a lie”. ‘What Do I Care’ continues the nostalgia trip, its bratty vocals accompanying a slice of Babes In Toyland-style grunge, a trick that’s similarly employed and even trumped on ‘Stay Awake’. It’s the former, however, that lyrically sums up the fragile and paradoxical mood of the album. See: “Made in China for the masses, I’m cheap and plastic … / you can buy me / you can break me / you can laugh but you’ll see it’s so easy / what the fuck? / it’s a miracle I’m even here”.

It’s at this point that you realise what a big debt Avril Lavigne and her ilk owe to Hatfield. She barged the doors open and got trampled in the rush as the anodyne clones polished the product, making it more palatable and MTV friendly. This however is the real thing, challenging the listener yet remaining immensely tuneful. ‘On Video’ is Redd Kross-flavoured ‘70s rock, ‘Hole In The Sky’ goes for a hippie-ish acoustic feel, while ‘Oh’ pinches a slice of the riff from Suede’s ‘The Drowners’ and gets all slinky on us. In the rockier mid-section, ‘My Pet Lion’ kicks off like an early Bangles track, followed by the feisty power-pop of ‘Going Blonde’. ‘Rats In The Attic’ is reminiscent of ‘Nirvana’ from 1993′s Become What You Are, with Hatfield fitting a little girl lost vocal over a grinding rock tune.

There’s a big flourish to finish, a sinister and spooky number called ‘A Doe & Two Fawns’, which begins with winding electric guitar that leads into double-tracked vocals, before segueing into a long fadeout, with a shaker adding to the ill feeling. That, in turn, leads into ‘Send Money’, a sprawling, psychotic letter to God and his overeager believers. Unlike some of her contemporaries, Hatfield is still on top form after all these years. Now I owe it to her to go back and catch up on what I’ve missed.

Russell Barker
originally published March 7th, 2006
 

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Kate Havnevik
Melankton ••½
Continentica

Classically trained but rebellious from an early age – she was a member of an all-girl punk band back in Oslo – Havnevik lends an orchestral ear to a pop mentality on her debut album Melankton. Influences as diverse as jazz guitar, string quartets, punk percussion and sweeping electronica find some middle ground underneath her almost childlike (and, yes, a little Björkian) vocals. Despite the mix, the songs can sound eerily familiar and samey, particularly if you’ve recently purchased either of Frou Frou’s Details or Imogen Heap’s Speak For Yourself (and if not, why not?). The link is songwriter Guy Sigsworth, Heap’s other half in Frou Frou and all-round electronica-with-heart genius who writes with Havnevik. Sadly, Melankton comes across as a slightly under-par combination of his last two projects. That’s not to say that there isn’t anything good here, rather that, with competition like Heap, it’s got to be better than good to qualify.

From the minimalist album sleeve to the stark synth of opener ‘Unlike Me’, the similarities with Speak For Yourself are clear. It’s also clear that Havnevik can sing; she has a good range but doesn’t flaunt it unless it’s appropriate. ‘Not Fair’ could be a contender for the next Bond theme, all sweeping strings and dramatic chorus, but the album doesn’t really get interesting until the quirky pop of ‘You Again’. Frustratingly, the next four tracks give us a glimpse of what might have been; ‘Serpentine’ and ‘Sleepless’ are solid album tracks with good hooks, but it’s ‘Kaleidoscope’ and ‘Suckerlove’ that remind you that this is a debut from someone with promise. If she can write more like these two, Havnevik has serious future potential. ‘Kaleidoscope’ in particular is glorious, far and away the best track on Melankton – simple structure, great melody and a hook you’ll find yourself humming over and over again long after its finished, wondering where it came from.

Which is the point, I suppose. Another four or five ‘Kaleidoscopes’ and you’d remember exactly where it came from. The rest suffer from predictable over- experimentation and forgettable melodies, despite some promising starts and the occasionally appealing middle-eight. Recent collaborators include Moby, Royksopp and Noel Hogan of The Cranberries and if Havnevik can harness their talent for a tune, her sophomore effort will be a must-buy; until then, download ‘Kaleidoscope’ and ‘Suckerlove’ and hope for the best.

Paul Woodgate
originally published September 17th, 2006

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Edwina Hayes / Sam Semple
Live at the Half Moon, Putney ••••
August 13, 2006

It’s an accident of chance that a room out the back of some South London pub should be elevated above similar rooms in other hostelries to minor rock icon status. However, that’s the Half Moon in Putney’s good fortune and its none-more-black interior has seen performances by thousands of artists. On this particular rain-spattered evening, the select crowd who had forsaken an evening in front of the telly were treated to the distinctive country-folk sounds of rising star Edwina Hayes.

Despite having just come off the touring treadmill as special guest on Nanci Griffith’s UK tour (at the specific request of Lubbock, TX’s folkabilly queen, no less!) she seems genuinely delighted to be gracing the Half Moon’s rather more bijou stage. Add in the “adopted hometown” energy of a rare London show and the family and friends scattered among the audience and anticipation is running high. Tonight’s support is provided by Sam Semple whose stream of consciousness balladry passes the time pleasantly enough but does little more. 

No faint praise for the main event though as Hayes graces the room with a beguilingly open, natural air that easily draws the audience in and wins them over. Sure, her vocal and performance style do owe a lot to her personal heroine, Griffith, but Hayes’s maturity as a writer belies her years and her performance is assured. Scattered among the anecdotes are songs from her debut album, Out On My Own, alongside others that are as yet unrecorded and covers of Gillian Welch and Randy Newman.

One perennial danger of solo acoustic gigs is that they can sometimes become a little monotonous. Hayes’s gentle guitar style, however, mixes things up sufficiently that such a problem is avoided. In places, her country- style finger-picking lets the top strings ring clear like chiming bells, such as on the touching ‘Leave A Light On For You’, while numbers like ‘Tell Me So’ witness a shift in the mood, elegantly lurching in a bluesier direction. However, Hayes’s masterstroke is to take the opportunity of playing in the city to rope in songwriting buddy and longtime London session hound David ‘Dzal’ (pronounced ‘diesel’) Martin on second guitar, bringing further richness to the sound.

Although there is clearly a little busking going on with the chord sequences on occasion, the veteran’s experience and professionalism pay dividends. Only the pickiest ear would detect any hesitation in his playing. Certainly his acoustic solo on ‘I Can’t Believe’, his emotive slide on ‘Tell Me So’ and his country blues twang-riffing on ‘Long Highway’ catch the ear and linger in the memory. All in all, this was a hugely enjoyable evening and one that bodes well for Hayes’s involvement alongside Amy Wadge and Rosalie Deighton in their Voices On The Verge-style singer-songwriter collective Hummingbird later in 2006.

Trevor Raggatt 
originally published September 17th, 2006

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Imogen Heap
Speak For Yourself [reissue] ••••½
White Rabbit / SonyBMG

First the facts: Speak For Yourself is Heap’s second solo effort. Her first, I Megaphone, was released in 1998. Somewhere in between, she achieved a degree of success through her collaboration with Guy Sigsworth in the form of Frou Frou, releasing Details, an electronica album with hidden depths and the first hint of what was to come. After the party, however, it seems everyone else went home, so what’s a girl to do? Easy! Re-mortgage the flat and spend a year of her life writing and recording an album and issuing it under her own label, Megaphonic. What’s that you say, sounds like a rubbish idea? Hardly! Through word of mouth alone in the UK and ‘The OC’ effect in the States, Heap sold 100,000 copies of Speak For Yourself off her own back. Now, SonyBMG have bought the distribution rights and re-released it behind some heavyweight promo. Cross your fingers the big boys know what to do with her, because Heap has crafted a thing of beauty. You can hold every minute of this album up to the light and it sparkles. It’s all Tiffany, no Ratners.

It’s not immediately obvious why it’s so good. A busy sound, conjured from banks of computers and organic instruments, presents itself as the modern equivalent of early ‘80s synth culture, with added orchestra, guitars and, for all I know, the kitchen sink. Eno beeps, Trevor Horn synths, fuzz bass, multi-layered vocals – you name it, Speak For Yourself has got it; there’s value for money here, but given bold brush, a sense of space and warmth. This isn’t a cold record; the melodies are beautiful. And then it hits you – it’s the lyrics. The words are worthy of Neils Tennant and Finn and all the songwriting geniuses who know that pop works best when it doesn’t treat its listeners like idiots. They capture perfectly the way our emotions play and are played with, in a contemporary language that pulls no punches.

For example, on ‘Just For Now’, Heap dissects a longterm relationship with bruised resignation over the space of one afternoon’s dinner party and three minutes of haunting music: “How did you know? It’s what I always wanted, you can never have too many of these.” You’ve heard that before, right? How about: “Bite tongue, deep breaths, count to ten, nod your head… whoever put on this music had better quick sharp remove it, pour me another, and don’t wag your finger at me”. Is that affecting enough for you? On the a cappella ‘Hide & Seek’, a vocoder’d hymn to betrayal, Heap sings “Mm what d’ya say? Oh, that you only meant well, well of course you did, that it’s all for the best, of course it is, mm that it’s just what we need, you decided this?” – I can’t do it justice in a review, you have to hear it to know she’s lived it.

Superlatives are bandied around far too often. Each new find is the next big thing and then a future footnote in the gossip columns. Heap won’t win everyone over – that’s the beauty of opinion, but this lifelong music obsessive is happy to go on record and state that Speak For Yourself is the most consistent, wonderfully inventive and stick-it-on-repeat record he’s heard in the last 18 months. Speaking for myself. And I’ve broken my word count to try and convince you.

Paul Woodgate
originally published May 26th, 2006 

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Imogen Heap
Colston Hall, Bristol ••••
October 4th, 2006

Entering through a side door midway through the stalls just seconds after the lights go down, Imogen Heap looks half-Amazonian, half-techno warrior beamed back from the future. Already strikingly lofty, a feather-and flower-topped mohawk makes her look even taller as she strolls through the audience, keyboard slung over her shoulder like a weapon, to take her place on the stage. It’s a captivating opening and the gig that follows doesn’t disappoint. Opening with ‘I Am In Love With You’, sung on the way to the stage, Heap soon positions herself in front of a very fancy Perspex piano before swiftly launching into ‘Speeding Cars’ – a track that truly shows off her beautiful, versatile voice, and the audience is clearly enthralled.

It’s all the more surprising, therefore, when Heap apologises to the crowd for feeling under par – she later proves to be very adept at between-song banter and even introduces the frog in her throat to the audience – but if anything, the added huskiness works in her favour. Only during encore ‘Hide & Seek’ does this prevent her from reaching the highest notes, and she pauses mid-song to say sorry. Of course, this only makes the already rapturously appreciative Colston Hall warm to her even further. Frog or no frog, Heap’s voice can deliver a stupendous, piercing wail when required. It’s a trick that she rarely deploys and is all the more effective for it; accompanied by flashing strobe lights and the fierce but controlled backing of her four- piece band, the impact is thrilling.

Musically, the set holds surprises throughout, not least the bursts of metallic, distorted energy that momentarily transform ‘Loose Ends’ and ‘Daylight Robbery’. On songs where she does not play piano or keyboards, Heap dances at the front of the stage. Doing something akin to ‘the robot’, silhouetted by stark lighting and surrounded by swirling mist, she cuts a striking, androgynous figure. Playing only one song from her first record I Megaphone (‘Candle Light’) and one Frou Frou song (‘Let Go’), the set draws very heavily from last year’s Speak For Yourself. But why not? It’s an excellent album and the only track this reviewer missed was early single ‘Come Here Boy’. The perfect, punchy pop of latest single ‘Headlock’ is a definite highlight, the crystal clear sound in the venue making the song seem even more impressive than on record. As well as her band, Heap has all manner of pre-programmed beats, samples and vocal effects at her disposal, and she uses these to full effect to recreate the album’s sparkling sonic clarity.

The stage setup is a little puzzling; the Perspex piano, of which Heap is clearly very proud, is beautiful, but the lit tree stage left and bauble-esque reflective circles on the right give the show a (presumably unintentional) Christmassy feel. However, when the sole criticism you have of a concert concerns the stage set, you know you’ve watched a stellar gig. I’m pretty sure that the wildly applauding crowd and people dancing in the aisles would agree.

Danny Weddup
originally published October 14th, 2006

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Helene
Routines •••½
Series 8

A nebulous creation borne out of the band Barefoot Contessa, Helene Dineen and Graham Gargiulo retained their songwriting partnership under the simple moniker Helene to allow Dineen’s fragile, soulful voice to become the focus – and it’s a remarkable focus at that. A well-travelled instrument, having lived in Israel, London and Berlin at various junctures, at times her vocal is quite plainly British, while at others it coos with a soft Gallic lilt. This second album is a similarly experienced, richly varied tapestry of sounds and creative techniques that combine bluesy and folk-pop notes underpinned by rockier sounds. From poignant, philosophical numbers like ‘Sammy Is A Solider Now’ to ‘Beat Dream’, a powerful instrumental torrent that positively zings with high-octane guitars, these songs are anything but routine.

With such an experienced band behind her, Dineen can rely on some carefully crafted, extraordinary musicality to back up that voice, and boy does she make the most of her crew. First single ‘This Is All We Have To Know’ is a sweetly penned, guitar-centric ode to love, concluding that it is “better breath than air”, while ‘Forever In A Day’ allows the band to unfurl their shapely rock wings in a distinctly refreshing manner. Dineen’s vocal lovingly echoes the guitar melody and is bolstered by brilliant, hard-edged bridges that should seem out of place but work surprisingly well.

Outstanding totems of individuality are found also in ‘Nothing To You’ and ‘I Need A Girl’. The former edges away from the band’s sweeter side with an evidently Dylan-influenced ditty with a sumptuous refrain that proclaims “I can’t be all things to everyone and nothing to you”, while the latter – a fantastic duet with Gargiulo – takes classic folk influences with an intriguing male/ female dynamic and a twist to its tale. It seems wrong not to mention every song in turn – each one seems to grow and resonate more with every play – but that’s half the joy of the album and it would be a crime to spoil it. Routines, then; always a pleasure, never a chore!

Gem Nethersole 
originally published October 5th, 2006

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Hem
Eveningland •••••
Liberty

The story of Hem is as warming as their music. Brought together by their love of Americana and alt-country music, songwriter Dan Messe and producer/ engineer Gary Maurer placed an advert in a local paper for a like-minded vocalist, leading to their discovery of the very talented Sally Ellyson, who, despite possessing a truly affecting voice, had been too shy to sing in public. Together with Steve Curtis, George Rush, Mark Brotter, Bob Hoffnar and Heather Zimmerman, they released their articulate and folksy debut, Rabbit Songs, in 2001. In contrast, Eveningland is an opulent, lush and stronger album; a long-tabled banquet with Ellyson’s vocals the centrepiece, somehow managing to be both intimate and closed, sultry and breezy, often within the same song.

Over this 16-track offering, Hem infuse into these tunes a variety of influences, from the gentle ‘70s country-pop of The Carpenters to the more contemporary hints of Natalie Merchant post-10,000 Maniacs. The Slovak Radio Orchestra also pay a visit, their delicate strings adding considerable texture and depth, thrusting the songs to great cinematic heights. Fittingly, the songwriting imbues every song with vivid and beautiful imagery from the heartbreaking lines of lost love in ‘The Fire Thief’ (“Sometimes a heart can break and make its own relief, the way a cold dark night invites the fire thief”) to the images of the traveller in ‘Pacific Street’ (“Well I don’t know you except in the way a traveller knows a traveller, the way a station can tempt you to stay and spend some time inside it”), each song seems like a standalone artwork, as if each were a four-minute film. Nothing is more representative of the cinematic style than the all-too-brief instrumental, ‘Eveningland’, which rises and swells mid-album to wrap the listener in sound. Elsewhere, the band weave the sounds of a lullaby into ‘Lucky’, infuse a Randy Newman-esque pop sensibility into ‘Receiver’, and ably reflect the longings of the great country balladeers such as Loretta Lynn in the stunning ‘Dance Me Home’.

Hem take chances as well, gracefully lending the Johnny and June Carter Cash duet ‘Jackson’ a sleepy wistfulness that the roughhewn original has never before known. Though the song was made famous as a playful, rocking tune about a misdemeaning man whose wife makes sure her voice is heard (“Go on down to Jackson, go on and wreck your health”), Ellyson sings the part as a seductive taunt, preserving the sense of a woman scorned, but without the original’s inherent violence, and the best part is it works. Album closer, ‘Carry Me Home’, is a murder ballad that focuses not on the crime, but rather the healing from the traumatic event. Even with such a morbid topic, the song leaves the listener revelling in hope as Ellyson softly sings the refrain “tell me nothing’s wrong there”.

Disappointingly, the UK release doesn’t seem to feature the hidden track available elsewhere, an a cappella version of the traditional number, ‘Now The Day Is Over’, that Ellyson sings with an exquisite slight tremble. That minor grumble aside, Eveningland is a superb collection of songs that, despite the prevailing themes of love long lost and death, still contain a rare sense of hope and uplift that will comfort you for hours.

Loria Near
originally published December 19th, 2005 

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Hem
No Word From Tom •••½ 
Nettwerk

Some might say that after just two critically acclaimed albums, an experimental collection of covers, live tracks and reworked originals might be a bit of an ego trip. However, when the band in question is Brooklyn-based countrypolitans Hem, the idea becomes less self-absorbed and far more provocative. In fact, it becomes downright curious, especially with a casual glancing of the tracklist. Boasting everything from fully orchestrated live tracks to rollicking covers of unexpected independent hits to country standards, No Word From Tom is certainly rangier than either of its predecessors. Much of the band’s appeal and undoubtedly their strongest asset lies in the voice of Sally Ellyson, and both the a cappella version of traditional standard ‘All The Pretty Horses’ and their gorgeous cover of Tony Joe White’s ‘Rainy Night In Georgia’ wisely capitalise on this. What’s more, they showcase the very sort of song that Hem has made their signature; forlorn and longing, yet subtle and flowing, they start things off with vigour and promise.

But Hem don’t just dawdle along routes they’ve already travelled. To show they’ve been busy trying new things, they throw in some contemporary covers to keep the flow interesting and to showcase Ellyson’s wider range where a typical Hem song would keep it close. Nowhere is this more evident than in the acoustic rendition of Fountains Of Wayne’s ‘Radiation Vibe’. While theirs isn’t nearly as funky as the original, Hem gamely jam along, giving the song a little more depth and feeling than even Chris Collingwood could muster. The live tracks, too, shine brightly. Ellyson’s vocals soar above the music as it colours the gaps behind her, seemingly formed by alchemical reaction. The sound is full and resonant, losing little of the detail of their studio counterparts and proving that Hem are just as solid an outfit outside of the studio as they are magical within it.

However, the album doesn’t always gel as well as either Rabbit Songs or Eveningland. The addition of REM’s ‘South Central Rain’ works as an interesting interpretation of the band’s early classic, but for once the signature slo-core vocals detract from rather than add to the song. The same is true with many of the reworked originals. For instance, ‘Eveningland’ has swelled to twice its original length, and although it works on its own, the original did the job so succinctly that you can’t help but feel they are needlessly stretching out something that worked just fine the way it was. As the album goes on… and on… and on, for just under an hour, it’s hard to escape the notion that Hem are reaching for something that they never quite grasp, a feeling of earnestness that just isn’t resolved by the time it draws to close.

Perhaps No Word From Tom would have worked better as either an entire album of covers or an entire album of live performances. As it is, this will do more to entertain longtime fans than generate new ones, and the band just don’t play long enough with new ideas to break any ground. Nevertheless, they continue to grow and shine as a band on the up, and whilst this latest release may be quietly indulgent, who’s to say that a band as good as Hem don’t deserve that opportunity.

Loria Near
originally published March 19th, 2006 

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Kristin Hersh
1980 Forward: Live at the Scala ••••
November 21-22, 2005

[Note from the editor: When Wears The Trousers heard that the queen of alternately bruised and bruising alt-rock was playing back-to-back acoustic retrospectives of her solo work and time with the Throwing Muses, we practically fell over our dribbling selves to wangle us an invite. Then, having managed that, we scrapped like Bette and Joan over who would get to go and bask in the bliss of nostalgia. Being of a somewhat democratic, fair-minded persuasion, I opted not to pull rank but instead to offer up straws to my compadres, of which I predictably drew the shortest. Sigh. So here's the lowdown from the lucky ones... nice guys finish last people, remember that!]

November 21, 2005

This first night of Kristin Hersh’s mini-residency at the Scala in aid of record label 4AD’s 25th birthday celebrations (dubbed ‘1980 Forward’) saw her revisiting the songs of the Throwing Muses, the band that made her name in the mid-1980s as lead singer, songwriter and crunchy guitarist. For us of a certain age, many remember the Muses very fondly, occupying a similar space to Sonic Youth, early REM and fellow 4ADers, the Pixies, and yet parading an unmuddied style of their own. Armed with a string of excellently angular and unsettling songs piloted by the many mercurial gifts of Miss Hersh, they gathered a substantial underground following, while never really crossing over in such grand style as some of their peers.

The Muses were also a troubled group, and while being flat broke and quarrelling for most of their existence undoubtedly spurred them to musical and lyrical heights, it cost them dearly their peace of mind. Certainly, Hersh’s mind is famously unpeaceful, her songwriting often serving to exorcise her vivid hallucinations, so it was not really clear just how happy she would be trotting out a whole night’s worth of old, and in some cases presumably painful, memories. It’s no surprise then that the Scala crowd are tentatively hopeful but entirely unsure of how the night would progress. Mostly in their late 20s and early 30s, they definitely aren’t looking to thrash about the way they first did to these songs, but then Hersh herself is a good bit older too.

After kicking off comfortably with ‘Hook In Her Head’ and ‘Teller’, the crowd start to warm up with ‘Rabbit’s Dying’. Hersh’s voice begins to open up, revealing the maturity acquired after two decades of uninhibited performance. From then on, she noticeably settles, introducing ‘Cottonmouth’ as a drunkenly overheard and furiously scribbled down conversation between two equally drunk sisters in a bar with Hersh’s own half-sister and bandmate Tanya Donelly. After banging out another couple (‘Hazing’ and ‘Run Letter’), she wearily declares “What a horrible trip down memory lane”. It’s a relieving, ice-breaking thing to say and she smiles, clearly enjoying herself despite (or even because of) the memories.

As things get increasingly comfortable, Hersh treats us a few more unhurried anecdotes. We learn that ‘Pearl’ is about her virtually blind, psoriasis-suffering childhood friend, Marie, who won the Presidential Fitness Award (introduced by Ronald “Ketchup is a vegetable” Reagan) for doggedly hanging onto a horizontal bar the longest. She says something nice about 4AD: (“Mmmmm, 4AD… yum”) and complains after ‘Drive’ that the songs drag on too much (“None of them end! I keep waiting for them to end!”). She also tells us how the band used to amuse themselves during the long overnight sessions recording 1990′s Hunkpapa album by betting on rat races in the alleyway under the studio. Apparently, Prince’s erstwhile head bimbo, Apollonia, had the requisite cash to record her ‘album’ one syllable at a time in the studio’s daylight hours. Then she spins/spits out fantastic versions of ‘Bea’, ‘Counting Backwards’ and ‘Delicate Cutters’ before going off stage to plenty of enthusiastic cheer.

And it’s not too long before she returns for a fantastic four-song encore, accompanied on strings by Martin and Joan McCarrick. Hersh then plays three tracks from the last Muses album Limbo, saying that the band should’ve been called ‘The Martin Show’ by that point (“…better name for a band too”). Her renditions of ‘White Bikini Sands’, ‘Limbo’ and ‘Serene’ each sound even better than the last. As a nice touch, she admits that ‘White Bikini Sands’, a hidden track on the album, is probably her favourite Muses track, partly because her father wrote it and (with a laugh) as it got her kicked out of the band.

Finally, she winds things down with ‘Hate My Way’, the crowd adoringly eating up the 19-year old classic. But before she does, she tells us that the song was inspired by a day when she was walking through the student-saturated city of Providence, Rhode Island, being handed fistfuls of angsty, overzealous leaflets. One of which, about blame and responsibility, was so passionately disjointed as to be barely coherent and struck an emotional chord.

Pete Morrow

November 22, 2005

Unless you’re Kristin Hersh herself, it’s unlikely that you’ll ever know whether choosing what to play from such a vast vault of riches would be a giant headache or simply a huge dose of self-affirmation. But first things first… Paula Frazer is a name I’ve seen bandied around with complimentary abandon in the music press for some time now, but I’ve never knowingly encountered her music before tonight’s support slot. Clearly, this is a very wrong thing. Throwing simpler folk shapes than those of Hersh’s tangled thickets, Frazer’s acoustic guitar pillows her quite extraordinary mahogany voice, permitting it the space to reach out and caress the room. Her set could have been a bit longer at a measly half an hour, but it was a suitably 4AD start to the evening, and one more convert to her estimable charms.

With Frazer’s stingy on-stage allowance emphasised by the between-set lull lasting longer than her performance, I join my fellow travellers for some general milling about. Eventually, Hersh appears stage left, her hair short and plastered to her head like a 1920s flapper or demure Helmut Newton girl, brandishing the obligatory acoustic and flanked by a cellist and a violinist; “The McCarricks!” are introduced with a smile and a glitter. She seems pretty happy.

She quickly launches into ‘Sno Cat’, which despite hardly being her jolliest song (apparently it’s about a row with her hubby) is certainly an appropriate start with its chilly cadences reminiscent of the season’s descent into winter. While the couples in the room hug tighter, the rest of us are left to find sanctuary in our pockets and memories. From that handsome, sombre start, Hersh takes us on a sublime ride through her solo career, jumping between her albums with glee. After a couple of years tourin’ ‘n’ shoutin’ with new band 50 Foot Wave, her voice – already never the most velveteen of instruments – is hoarser than ever, which works to great effect on more cathartic moments like ‘Your Dirty Answer’ and brings new textures to her softer material. ‘Costa Rica’ and ‘A Cuckoo’, especially, benefit from some new bruises.

Highlights? How about the aforementioned ‘Your Dirty Answer’, Kristin looking intense and haunted, eyes glittering like coals as she spits the words while strings caroused in the air around her? Or perhaps ‘Gazebo Tree’, which surely ranks as one of her most uncomplicatedly beautiful songs. She even forgets the words for a while, which I guess happens when you produce one or two new albums each year; “Too many songs…” she sighs, knowingly. She plays a wonderfully aquatic reading of ‘Listerine’ and a lovely version of ‘Hope’ before rambling through ‘The Letter’, despite unforgivingly branding it bad. A pretty straight version of ‘Me & My Charms’ ensues, but then it’s one of those songs that doesn’t need much improvement.

The latter half of the set is taken entirely from 1994′s Hips & Makers, and ends – inevitably – with the heavenly ‘Your Ghost’. Of course, it receives a rapturous reception, and Hersh interprets it almost joyfully. It’s a poignant reminder of bad times now past, with even the spectre of Michael Stipe thoroughly McCarrickised. Then, for those who missed last night’s Musesfest, she closes out with the triptych of ‘Delicate Cutters’, ‘Mania’ and ‘Hate My Way’ – each one as great as they’ve always been. For my money at least, Hersh is one of the most important songwriters of the last two decades and this was a wonderful, wonderful evening.

Adam Smith
originally published December 7th, 2005 

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Paris Hilton
Paris ••½
Heiress / Warner Bros.

Rather like its namesake, Paris is incredibly well groomed, smothered in lip gloss and the product of many highly-paid hands’ work. Should we have expected anything else? With her venture into music, Hilton is plowing into yet another area of the entertainment industry as part of her quest for world domination. The rather prolonged production period is a testament to the anxiety of Hilton and her people to branch off into a field which requires more than for her to simply be Paris Hilton. Is she pop? rock? hip hop? disco? – with the help of a crack team of big-name producers and writers (led by Scott Storch, producer to Beyoncé and Busta Rhymes), Hilton has lumped for all of the above, in moderation of course. She purrs coquettishly from one track to another, always the picture of composure – even when her band is rocking out, Hilton continues to be blissfully emotionless.

With only one song breaking the four-minute boundary, this record is a well-paced romp through Hilton’s universe. Here, she is every bit the pouty party girl who knows exactly what you’re thinking and doesn’t care, unless you happen to be a hot love prospect. The whole package is very slick until it comes unstuck in the flat lounge-style finale, an ill-advised cover of Rod Stewart’s ‘Do Ya Think I’m Sexy?’. Even so, it’s a pretty knowing conceit, full of canned saxophone and synth, soulless to the last.

Enjoyable as Paris may be, there remains a nagging feeling throughout that this could in fact be anyone else’s record, not helped by the rather open appropriation of other artists’ signature sounds. For instance, ‘Nothing In This World’ bears more than a passing hint of ‘Since U Been Gone’ and ‘Heartbeat’ is Cyndi Lauper’s ‘Time After Time’ updated for 2006, while ‘Turn You On’ makes for a less convincing ‘Maneater’. Hilton’s voice is pleasant enough, though not exactly expressive – she never sounds like she’s struggling but the vocals have clearly been heavily layered in order to give them power.

Ultimately, this record falters because it fails to truly convince. Hilton has nothing much to be embarrassed about and Paris is a successful party soundtrack for her sympathists, but never once does it take us beyond her two-dimensional public persona.

Ben Lumley
originally published August 30th, 2006

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HK119
HK119 ••••
One Little Indian

In comparison with its Nordic neighbours, Finland has been far better known for its classical endeavours than its out-and-out joyous pop. Aside from a few questionable rock exports like The Rasmus and Nightwish, the most successful Finnish music in the international arena has been limited to opera and the works of Jean Sibelius, whose enduring symphonies continue to be played at proms across the world. Given the huge amounts of government funding into music tuition for the youth, it seems strange that the country has yet to produce a significant pop crossover act, but perhaps they could never really compete with the likes of ABBA from next-door Sweden. As a half-Finn, I’ve often despaired about this, and most fellow Finns agree. How thoroughly refreshing, then, to discover a truly original and exciting artist originating from Finland in the form of Heidi Kilpelainen, or rather her alter ego, HK119.

Putting her MA in Fine Art from Central St. Martin’s College in London to excellent use, Kilpelainen has created an all-encompassing performance art persona in HK119, and she’s not shy about utilising the entire spectrum of the art world to get across her message. Not content with simply writing, recording and producing the album herself, she’s recorded her own surreal living-sculpture videos to accompany the songs and put together a dramatic stage act involving a catsuit and helium balloons, beguiling audiences with bizarre special effects. She’s a powerful Nordic force, a beautiful blonde Amazonian monolith, simultaneously furious and fixated with modern technology.

But what of the album? HK119 is packed full of songs that act as a series of short statements (most are less than three minutes long) on the modern human condition, each taking an element of post-millennial society and pushing it to the extreme. What if we never put down our mobile phones? What if everything we said could be censored? What if commercialism was so prevalent that all you cared about was buying and selling? HK119′s world is one in which people have ultimately sacrificed humanity for consumerism. It may seem ludicrous, and in a way it’s meant to be, but it’s not a completely alien concept, and given that she’s come from the country that innovated the mobile phone to the enormous bustling city of London, it’s not hard to understand Kilpelainen’s motivation for exploring these ideas.

The music itself is hard and rough; raw electronic beats are blended with rough industrial synths, samples and HK119′s soaring and demanding vocals. But most of all, it’s just great fun. HK119 may be best friends with Alison Goldfrapp, but her album is much more vibrant and challenging than the oddly dispiriting and bland Supernature. There’s also some inventive audience participation; not only is there a hidden track, ‘11th ID’, buried somewhere in the album just waiting to be found and remixed for a competition, but if you call up the number read out in first single ‘Pick Me Up’, you may be amused and bemused in equal measure. In fact, HK119 makes almost any music from the electronic genre seem weak and ineffective.

But comparing Kilpelainen’s creation to anyone else is difficult, by virtue of her sheer uniqueness. People have tried Grace Jones, or Ziggyera Bowie, but mostly because of her appearance and bizarre, slightly alien character. Also, Björk is reportedly a fan. As is often the case with artists of such originality, it only seems possible to liken her to others that are one-of-akind. HK119 is an artist for the future. A thrillingly vibrant masterstroke of artistry, and what’s more, she’s fun to boot. At last, we have a Finnish artist who’s a keeper. Heidi, pidän työstänne!

Bryn Williams
originally published February 6th, 2006 

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HK119
Live at Fortescue Avenue Art Gallery •••½
March 31st, 2006

After traipsing through the faintly depressing underbelly of East London, we arrived at the art gallery known as Fortescue Avenue. It wasn’t quite what I was expecting, being pretty much just a garage lock-up in an industrial back street. A man standing outside was handing out bottles of beer and plastic cups of lemonade and there were only about five other people there. Inside, the garage had been painted white, and hardboard squares and triangles had been set up in one corner, onto which the videos of Heidi Kilpelainen aka HK119 were being projected.

The videos themselves were highly entertaining, which was a good thing as we ended up watching them about twice on a loop while waiting for the main event. Each had its own distinct character and featured HK using everyday disposable objects (in keeping with the theme of her debut album) in a number of creative ways; for instance, wearing a sock and a slinky over her head for ‘In-Valid’ to highly disturbing effect, or wearing binbags round her shoulders and on her behind for ‘Friend For Dinner’, making her look vaguely canine in appearance. Clearly, the videos have been made on absolutely no budget at all, but they’re a damn sight more interesting and imaginative than many that are made with millions. What’s more is that they serve to flesh out Heidi’s songs, raising them up from one-dimensionality into living, breathing creatures.

Half an hour after the live performance was supposed to start, we were still waiting. The garage had filled up though, and it didn’t seem quite so awkward. What it had filled up with, however, was a sizeable throng of highly pretentious Hoxton types, wearing capes and berets and sporting strange facial hair. I wondered if these people fully appreciated the tongue-in-cheek silliness of HK119′s work, or whether they were taking it all rather too seriously. Finally there was movement, and HK119 appeared from behind the various polygons. She was dressed in her usual black catsuit, with black polystyrene triangles on her head, arm and leg. Bathed in a blue light and standing motionless on a block, one arm outstretched, she slipped into the opening number ‘Censor Me’. Rather unnervingly, she had painted open eyes on her firmly shut lids for that Mona Lisa staring effect. All suitably robotic and her performance was impeccable.

Shaking off the subdued beginning, HK picked up the pace with highly energetic renditions of debut single ‘Pick Me Up’ plus her ode to cannibalism ‘Friend For Dinner’ and the self-explanatory ‘Malfunction’. Bounding around the ‘stage’, she screeched, laughed maniacally and generally looked quite menacing, but ultimately utterly fabulous. Overall, it was an enjoyable and well-constructed performance. Needless to say, HK119 really deserves to be performing in better venues in the future!

Bryn Williams
originally published April 5th, 2006 

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Lauren Hoffman
Choreography •••
Fargo

When an artist announces that they are quitting the music business, it’s often wise to take a pinch of salt and throw it disbelievingly over all of their records. In reality, few stay gone for long. In Lauren Hoffman’s case, it has been a fairly respectable five years since her sparse and sensual sophomore album, From The Blue House, was released independently in the UK. After dropping out of a university degree in the autumn of 2002, a spontaneous trip to India set the wheels in motion for the follow-up, via a stint in her hometown rock band, The Lilas. Certainly, many of the songs here have been thoroughly road-tested in one form or another over the last two years, including the waltzing ‘Out Of The Sky, Into The Sea’, which was formerly the title track of The Lilas’s sole EP. It’s no surprise then that the album has a slightly worn-in feel. That’s not to say it’s all been done before, but Hoffman seems to have cultivated a middle ground between From The Blue House and her exceptional debut, Megiddo, and so Choreography perhaps lacks the element of surprise that both those records possessed.

Broken’ makes for a promising start; a seductive, moody undercurrent propels Hoffmann’s perfectly ice-cool vocal along a shimmering hummable melody. Equally suggestive is the largely acoustic, slow-burning ballad ‘As The Stars’, though it is warmer in tone and boasts a lovely piano part in the bridge. Although some of the rockier numbers such as ‘Crush’ and ‘Hiding In Plain Sight’ lack the necessary bite to really impress, ‘Solipsist’ benefits from a more aggressive feel and is the first of a four-song suite that shores up the record’s second half. ‘Another Song About The Darkness’ is an ideal showcase for Hoffman’s most lucid yet languorous vocal, which escalates as the song progresses towards its palpably melancholic conclusion.

Though Choreography has neither the freshness of Megiddo nor the cohesiveness of From The Blue House, many favourable constants remain – Hoffman’s tantalising vocals and salient attitude are stamped all over the record. Not a great leap forward then, but a diagonal sidestep it might well be worth you taking alongside her.

Alan Pedder
originally published September 4th, 2005 

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The Hot Puppies
Under The Crooked Moon ••••
Fierce Panda

After a few years paying their dues on the indie circuit, gently hyped Welsh quintet The Hot Puppies finally appear to have the literate, stylish pop thing down to the finest of arts on this, their debut album. But it’s not just the quality music you need to watch out for, there’s some tales to be told as well. For example, former single ‘Terry’ could have stepped right out of a rock ‘n’ roll movie; it’s sassy, classy and boasts a chorus that’s equal parts Pipettes and Patti Smith and pretty damn wonderful too. ‘The Bottled Ship Song’ is a woozy lullaby of the sort that Rilo Kiley specialise in, with a chorus that muses on life before relinquishing control and conceding that what’s in store is “anyone’s guess”.

Indeed, it’s anyone’s guess why some of these songs weren’t bigger hits when first released. Debut single ‘Green Eyeliner’ dates back a couple of years but casts its musical net even further, dragging into the present a keyboard motif that’s reminiscent of Inspiral Carpets as singer Becki Newman vamps it up as a painted temptress of the easily led. Recent single ‘The Girl Who Was Too Beautiful’ steps things up with beats right out of a 1970s disco and an uplifting pop tune set to lyrics that namecheck agony aunt / broadcaster Mariella Frostrup as a paragon of knowledge and relationship advice. It veers a little closer to adult-alternative pop than most other songs here but comes down on the right side of the fence in the end.

Under The Crooked Moon is full of nice little touches. For example, the youthful regret of ‘Bonnie & Me’ sees Newman’s passionate vocal neatly accentuated by Bert Wood’s drums and Beth Gibson’s wailing theremin, while ‘The Drowsing Nymph’ comes complete with a rockabilly rhythm, whipcracks and gunshots adding to the western feel. There’s more effervescent organ pop on ‘Love Or Trial’, some Sons & Daughters-esque art-rock on ‘Baptist Boy’ and a dose of lovely acoustics on the sweet and girly ‘Heartbreak Soup’.

There’s even room for a short cover of the Ink Spots / Ella Fitzgerald number ‘Into Each Life Some Rain Must Fall’, which is given a doo-wop duet makeover with Newman and Gibson cooing beautifully in unison. Best of all, however, is the delightful ‘Love In Practice, Not Theory’, which started rather inauspiciously as a B-side to ‘Terry’ but more than deserves its place on the album. It’s a smouldering ballad in which Newman emotively bemoans the standoffish attitude of her man, but when guitarist Luke Taylor chimes in to duet on the chorus, there’s a distinct suggestion that not all is quite as it first appears.

When indie pop this intelligent comes along it’s always a pleasant surprise and The Hot Puppies (who, incidentally, were named after a Dorothy Parker poem) have a good chance of making a real impression.

Russell Barker
originally published July 25th, 2006 

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Howling Bells
Howling Bells ••••
Bella Union

Who exactly are Howling Bells? Many a column inch has been dedicated to them but what are they really about? To put it simply, they’re a sexy, sultry Australian quartet who’ve come a long way to turn us all on with their strangely erotic slant on loneliness. Frontwoman Juanita Stein’s vocal delivery is firmly set to haunt mode whilst her brother Joel, bassist Brendan Picchio and drummer Glen Moule create enough dark atmospherics to keep things brooding along in the background. Opening with ‘The Bell Hit’, Howling Bells ease the listener in gently with a laid back, woozy Sunday morning tune that showcases perfectly their country-tinged melancholia. ‘Low Happening’ kicks the pace up a gear and shows the band at their sexiest – instantaneous, poppy, but with blackness at its heart.

Debut single ‘Wishing Stone’ is thrown in midway through the album; initially a rather sparse, cold and uninvolving tune, it soon grows into a coolly decadent, gloriously dark heartwarmer. And therein lies the oddest thing about this stunning record – though it lacks upbeat rhythms and golden sunshine hooks, it never feels too cold, empty or lonely. The influences at work here at times seem obvious – PJ Harvey and The Velvet Underground to name but two – but Howling Bells are far from derivative. They uniquely soundtrack a brooding urban wasteland, and whilst that may sound pretentious, the band have a truly unique quality that sparks off beautiful images in the listener’s mind, transporting them to a different world. Listen to this album with the lights off. Atmospheric doesn’t even come close to describing it.

Not to bring this review down with negatives, but in the interest of fairness, here they are. Occasionally, the songs are repetitive and with summer supposedly in full swing, this album is not one for the barbeque. At times you might be wishing for the album to pick up some kind of pace and songs like ‘Across The Avenue’ and ‘I’m Not Afraid’ are a little too sparse to strike a chord with the listener. These are, however, minor points that should not take away from what is still an astonishing record. Howling Bells are unique, they have an untouchable air of class – cool, calm and devastatingly sexy like a 1940s Hollywood actress. In a world of identikit bands, Howling Bells are emerging from a smoky corner with a look on their face saying “Come join us on the dark side, you might just find you like it”.

David Renshaw
originally published May 24th, 2006 

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Hayley Hutchinson
Independently Blue •••½ 
Gut

For all her roots in the best of Britishness, the musical landscape of Yorkshire lass Hayley Hutchinson’s debut album is less the hills and dales of North England than the prairies of North America. Hailing from an established musical lineage (her dad was instrumental in David Bowie’s early success), Hutchinson clearly knows where a smidgen of ambition can take you. Though self-financed and locally recorded, Independently Blue nevertheless belies its humble origins, turning the financial limitations of the project into a solid gold advantage. Mostly recorded live in the studio by Hutchinson and her band’s core members (which include Chris Helme and Stuart Fletcher of The Seahorses – John Squire’s post-Stone Roses also-rans – and Shed Seven’s Alan Leach and Fraser Smith), the result is a cohesive little package boasting real energy. Certainly, it’s no cheap imitation.

Or is it? Logically, Independently Blue ought to be filed under D for derivative since, stylistically at least, it effortlessly cribs from the back catalogues of Sheryl Crow and Nanci Griffith. In the end though, it’s too strong an album to be so easily dismissed, and richly deserves its four-star rating. Within just a few perfunctory listens, Hutchinson’s strong writing and excellent vocal style – pure but blessed with a richness and bluesy edge that’s easy on the ear – commands the listener’s attention. First single, ‘Here’s The Love’, is a joyful slice of Crow-esque pop in which keyboard and sparse but well-utilised electric guitar motifs weave a likeable confection around an acoustic centre and country-tinged harmonies.

Other songs on the album find Hutchinson in Globe Sessions-style open-tuning mode, complete with droning strings and bluesy slide guitar. Elsewhere, ‘Climb Through’ could be a slightly updated outtake from one of Nanci Griffith’s early MCA albums, with its gentle capo’d acoustics and high harmony singing. Even the cello part echoes John Catching’s playing on some of Griffith’s best work, while the bluegrass-tinged title track also bears the Texan’s influence. ‘Minor Key’ shifts things a little more in the direction of Griffith’s first ‘pop’ album, Storms, with Telecaster licks very reminiscent of guitar supremo Jerry Donahue.

Ironically, the most problematic song on the album is also one of the strongest. ‘Deadman’, which was released as a download-only single in December 2005, is strikingly similar to Sheryl Crow’s massive chart breakthrough hit, ‘All I Wanna Do’. The rhythms, tone, handclaps, guitar stabs and other ornamentation are so close it’s almost spooky. Normally, this would sound the copycat death knell to a song, but ‘Deadman’ is just too darned strong. Indeed, all things considered, Independently Blue is a statement of intent that richly deserves the plaudits it has thus far gained, and is particularly excellent for a debut. If Hutchinson can synthesise her influences into a more individual signature on future albums, who knows, she could be the one to show Nashville’s best how it really should be done.

Trevor Raggatt
originally published January 21st, 2006 

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Hayley Hutchinson / Vita Ross / Jamie Woon
Whitechapel Art Gallery •••
August 25th, 2006

Upon arrival at the Whitechapel Art Gallery, it was rapidly apparent that it wasn’t an ideal concert venue. Taking over the in-house café for the evening, essentially by cramming a bunch of musos and attendant techie gubbins up against one wall, ensured that little room was left for an audience and poor sightlines were guaranteed. The supporting acts didn’t always engender hope either. On first was Jamie Woon who made up for a slightly aggravating guitar style (more finger-flicking than finger-picking) by the quality of his songs and his beautiful voice. A stunning a cappella version of ‘When Doves Cry’ managed to wring some much needed originality out of a, now almost obligatory, loop pedal (Ms Tunstall, I still love ‘Black Horse & The Cherry Tree’ but you’ve got a lot to answer for lady). Spirits soon flagged, however, when Vita Ross could barely scrape together an errant stab at adequate sub-Blondie fare. Not good. 

Fortunately, things looked up as John Hutchinson, former Spider From Mars and proud father of the main event took to the ‘stage’. He treated the crowd to some great ragtime and blues guitar interspersed with anecdotes of a life on the road and recent tales of playing jazz in the Balkans. Leaving the audience alternatively in awe and in stitches, he invited his daughter to the stage and performed the sterling role of sideman. It seems that talent really does run in families, as anyone who has caught Hutchinson Jr live or heard her debut album, Independently Blue, is likely to agree. As the family group sat to run through the set the lack of lighting and poor venue layout reared its ugly head again as, to all intents and purposes, they vanished into the half-light. Fortunately there were no such problems with the sound, which carried the music forth loud and clear.

It was at this point Hayley dropped a bombshell – for her father at least – announcing that, rather than the pre-planned setlist, she was going to try out some new songs and sophomore album works in progress. Some familiar songs were scattered through the set to keep the fans happy – the Nanci Griffith-esque ‘Independently Blue’, ‘Hands’ and ‘Wicked Thoughts’, with its droning, down-tuned feel and exquisitely bluesy slide riffs. The new songs, too, were uniformly strong. Whilst some suggested a stylistic continuity with Independently Blue, ranging from light country pop and folkabilly to Sheryl Crow-style ballad rock, others seemed to be going in a bluesier direction.

Of course, it’s difficult to know whether this signals a definite shift or merely reflects the particular mix of playing styles present on the night. Either way, the strength of both the songs and the performance bodes well for album number two and for those who catch Hayley as she supports Eric Bibb on tour around the UK this autumn.

Trevor Raggatt 
originally published October 5th, 2006

 

 



2005/06 reviews dump: m

The following reviews were all published on our old website between May 2005 and December 2006.
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Kirsty MacColl
From Croydon To Cuba: An Anthology ••••
EMI

It’s safe to say that listening to this 3CD retrospective compilation of Kirsty MacColl’s work was always going to be a bittersweet experience. Five years on from her premature death in a speedboat accident in Mexico at the age of 41, it seems she is still recognised more for her duet with The Pogues on the festive staple ‘Fairytale Of New York’ than for her own well-observed pop songs about chip shop romances and cowardly Lotharios. This fairly exhaustive collection sets about trying to rectify that sorry situation, serving up 65 songs worth of concrete proof to fans and non-fans alike that MacColl’s way with a tune was of a quality at least the equal of her more successful peers (from Eddi Reader and Alison Moyet to Morrissey and Johnny Marr via Van Morrison and Billy Bragg), all of whom have expressed an immense love and respect for her music and her inimitable spirit.

MacColl’s songs primarily dealt in the currency of romantic love, but always from the perspective of a woman under no illusions. As everything here is chronologically sequenced, From Croydon To Cuba goes some way to reconciling the wide-eyed girlish warbler on her 1979 debut single, ‘They Don’t Know’, with the older and wiser family woman of later years. And it doesn’t take long for her talent to shine. Her 1984 cover of Billy Bragg’s superb ‘A New England’ stands out for its bracing honesty and freshness, but it’s the reassuring tone of that single’s original B-side, ‘Patrick’, a lovely little ditty about a young Cork-born fella finding his feet in London, that tugs insistently at your heartstrings.

The country swagger of ‘Don’t Come The Cowboy With Me Sonny Jim!’ is executed in typical MacCollian fashion, mixing laugh out loud lyrical flair with a serious undertow, always ready to fall in love but never really expecting it to work. The second disc is notable for the single ‘Free World’ and her version of The Kinks’ ‘Days’, both lifted from her Steve Lillywhite-produced 1989 album, Kite. But it’s the captivatingly sad ‘Dear John’, co-written with Mark Nevin from Fairground Attraction, that really encapsulates MacColl’s unique gift for effortlessly balancing the personal with the universal without a trace of cloying sentimentality.

While Kirsty MacColl never commanded the kind of commercial respect that her music deserved, her fiercely loyal fans have always maintained that her songwriting never wavered in its splendidly literate qualities, flinching not at the Latin American rhythms that flavoured her later songs and critically acclaimed final album, Tropical Brainstorm. From Croydon To Cuba is a magnificent and towering tribute to one of the warmest, funniest and most skilful songwriters these isles have produced in the past twenty years. For those who prefer to digest an album in just one sitting, a slenderer single-disc collection, The Best Of Kirsty MacColl, is also available, but those with any more than a passing interest should indulge themselves with this.

Jane Gillow
originally published on September 5th, 2005

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Madonna
Confessions On A Dancefloor ••••
Maverick

Watching our lady Madge recently has been a somewhat bipolar experience. For a woman we’ve all grown up thinking was the spunkiest, most confrontational star this side of Grace Jones, she can appear frighteningly fragile in interviews. The less-than-impartial video diary ‘I’m Going To Tell You A Secret’ would have you believe the opposite, but one is still left with the nagging feeling that for the first time in long time, Madonna wants our approval. It’s hard to use the word ‘reinvention’ here without feeling faintly nauseous. Every new Immac blade is a reinvention chez Ritchie. It’s a shame because Confessions On A Dancefloor marks her biggest change in direction since of Ray Of Light, and is much welcomed. The last two stocking-fillers were peppered with great tracks but leadened by duds and a lack of consistency. Here, we have 56 minutes of pure dance. Dance dance dance. Out go the ballads and in comes the lycra. A coherent album – my oh my!

As a dance album it is quite something. Presumptuous to the point of having a separate, mixey-mixey single-track version, Confessions… goes for broke on the stomper ticket. Mixing early Eighties disco, light electro (the “electroclash is passé” memo clearly hit her desk), outlandishly catchy riffs and choruses, the album triumphs on both tunes and production. ‘Get Together’ is smoother than Rocco’s bottom, ‘How High’ is the Madonna vocoder track that works, ‘Sorry’ is more infectious than Thailand’s pigeon mating season and ‘I Love New York’ boasts a riff so acutely rambunctious that Rachel Stevens has all but given up the game and gone home. And that’s before we even get to the much-publicised samples. Michael Jackson and Donna Summer both feature on records that don’t get them into trouble for the first time in years, while ABBA give only their second ever nod of consent for a sample (although the first time was for a Fugees B-side, so perhaps one just has to catch Björn at the right moment). What could have looked like creative kidnapping actually melds effortlessly into the mix, joining the danceathon with a cheeky smile. This is an album that seriously doesn’t take itself seriously, you see.

And then the comedown. Like all good Chinese meals and gin-fuelled one-night stands, one wakes up the next morning with a feeling of mild dissatisfaction. Questions start to creep in: the Madonna on Confessions… is nowhere near the London-based, tweed-wearing, pheasant-murdering, homely gal presented to us in repetitive media coverage. Does she still hop down clubs and prance around on dance machines? Really? Her voice is not at its strongest either, and her over-reliance on computer trickery gives the album an unfortunate homogenous slant. The paradox being that, while it sounds like almost anyone could be singing, no-one else has the nous to pull this album off in the first place.

The energy behind Confessions… brushes aside the doubts in a rapturous, arm-swinging boogie… at least for now. She may be trying too hard, but that still makes for a more satisfying listen than most. If this is Madonna’s last boogie, it would be churlish to sit on the sidelines.

Ian Buchan
originally published on December 5th, 2005 

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Madonna
I’m Going To Tell You A Secret ••
Warner Bros.

“I have a cage / it’s called the stage / when I’m let out, I run about / and sing and dance and sweat and yell / I have so many tales to tell.”

Yep, Madonna has decided to share with us her latest poetic exploits. One can only speculate on why nobody stopped her. Perhaps it was yet another attempt to portray a sense of edginess and spontaneity, and once again that’s probably the biggest problem. This is her second behind-the-tour documentary so you might have thought she’d know by now that grainy film stock and showy lenses don’t really fool anyone into thinking that they’re getting real insight.

Covering her 2004 Reinvention tour, ‘I’m Going To Tell You A Secret’ is not actually a documentary in so far as Madonna’s editorial control ensures that there is nothing shown that falls outside of her patented spiritual mum persona. So instead of getting moments of her infamous stroppage we’re dished up yet more supposed ‘edginess’ rehearsed to within an inch of its life. Madonna talks about being caked in sweat! Madonna’s going to the loo! Madonna’s costume smells! This is the story of life on the road, edited and acutely contrived for your fanboy/girl watching pleasure. Well, you didn’t want warts, did you?

There is certainly a message amidst the mediocrity, though. You almost want to give the lass a break after the over-nauseous rabbiting on about her religious choices in the press. Surely she’s not going to try and convert us? Actually, yes, she is. Bring forth ‘teacher’ Eitan to share vague spiritual truths; observe how she reads the Kabbalah text Zohar in bed; and so on. You can prove anything with platitudes: “I always thought it was my job to wake people up,” she muses, “but it’s not enough to wake them up. You have to give them direction.” Blimey, stop the presses!

But it doesn’t stop there, oh no. See the montages of war-torn children from across the ages, set to thumping dance beats and overlaid with cod-religious pronouncements. By the time Michael Moore comes on screen to sing her praises, you just might want to throw your TV out the window. On the plus side, we’re offered pleasing insights into family life – see Daddy Ciccone in his vineyard and a neat pay-off to ‘In Bed With’s scenes of his disgust at her live show. The Ciccone children, too, are surprisingly unprecocious, frolicking around with only mild hints of primadonna antics to come, while Guy Ritchie comes across in a peculiar manner; impish and playful one moment, a walking stereotype the next. All Cockney men have lock-ins at their local so they can whip out a guitar and chant folk songs? You heard it here first people.

But what of the music, for some the preferred occupation of Madonna? We’re shown nattily-edited performances that prove the stage is where she still knows her stuff. ‘Like A Prayer’ is updated to an electro stomper, ‘Holiday’ rocks the house and ‘Oh Father’ ratchets up the teariness mechanically. Duff single ‘American Life’ comes off worst with a dance routine that’s more reminiscent of ‘Springtime For Hitler’ than anything remotely worthwhile. Think skimpily dressed marines and fauxplosions with a backdrop of real war footage. Even so, why anyone would want to listen to these performances without the aid of visuals is a cause for concern; the bonus CD may be a smart commercial move but, artistically, it’s an absolute dud.

Oh well, it could be worse – it could be Geri Halliwell. Madonna is no world thinker, but her explorations into personal enlightenment are much less crass than you might imagine. She does at least have the sense to show us the universal side of the message, keeping the brush strokes nice and broad. This is not a documentary. It’s a two-hour long coffee table book. About the only true insight one can newly glean is that she’s clearly witnessed enough nightclubs at closing time playing ‘Come On Eileen’ to know how to shift the punters – her attempt to finish with John Lennon’s ‘Imagine’ had me reaching for the stop button with alacrity.

Ian Buchan
originally published on June 24th, 2006 

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Magenta
Home •••½
F2 Music

Home is a new concept album by well-regarded Welsh progressive rock band, Magenta…but wait, don’t stop reading there. Fair enough, prog rock as a genre is hard to mention without some serious sniggering at the back of the classroom. However, if the ’70s excesses of bands like Yes and Emerson, Lake & Palmer got prog labelled as music by rock dinosaurs then modern prog, as delivered by the likes of Magenta and Spock’s Beard (…yes, I know, just let it slide) is proof of evolution. Prog in 2006 may still be a well-defined species, but its major proponents thankfully tend to be more velociraptor than brontosaurus.

Lecture over, let’s get down to the music. Home follows the emotional journey of a woman leaving 1970s Liverpool to ‘find herself’ in the States, through to the point where she finally realises that maybe home really is where the heart is. The trick with projects like this is to be disciplined when it comes to self-editing, and the album certainly benefits from condensing its ideas onto a single disc – avoiding flabbiness but still allowing room for flashes of virtuosity. It’s a hurdle at which others have tumbled by thinly spreading a single album’s worth of material across two discs (for example, Spock’s Beard’s 2002 album Snow). Home, on the other hand works well as both a concept album and a simple collection of songs.

Magenta, as a band, is the brainchild of multi-instrumentalist Rob Reed who, with his brother Steve, pens the songs. Central to their success, however, are the excellent vocals of Christina Booth. Her rich, pure voice forms the emotional core that carries the listener through our heroine’s adventures. Of course, it helps that Home is chock full of strong songs with great melodies and lean but complex structures. Where the obligatory prog virtuosity is allocated space, it’s admirably delivered with restraint. In keeping with the story’s era, references to classic prog rock abound – a dash of Steve Howe guitar here, a Genesis keyboard sound there, elsewhere some Oldfield, Floyd or Supertramp textures. But rather than suggesting a lack or original thought or derivative tendencies, the songs evoke a strong mood, keeping within prog’s strict, accepted frameworks.

Overall, Home is a worthy album and it’s no surprise that Magenta have been consistently honoured in the Classic Rock Society’s annual awards, ambassadors as they are for a musical genre that’s shamefully overlooked in the UK. So if you’re brave enough to sample your rock within a sweeping, symphonic landscape and set your preconceptions aside, this album is well worth seeking out. Those of a more progtastic bent will relish the special edition’s bonus disc, which features the more unashamedly progressive ‘New York Suite’ following our heroine’s adventures in the Big Apple.

Trevor Raggatt 
originally published September 20th, 2006

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The Magic Numbers
The Magic Numbers •••½
Heavenly

De La Soul once opined that “Three is the magic number”, but London-based quartet The Magic Numbers have discovered a different equation. While the folklore origins of many bands may be a shared pint in the art college bar, or an answered ad in the music press, the formation of The Magic Numbers was a homegrown affair. Trinidad-born siblings Romeo and Michele Stodart spent their formative years in New York City before their family relocated to London, bringing with them the sunshine of America’s East Coast. There, they quickly made friends with new neighbours Angela and Sean Gannon, and the four gelled over their collective love of music.

First puncturing the public consciousness when they guested on last year’s Chemical Brothers album Push The Button, The Magic Numbers sold out the infamous Kentish Town Forum by word-of-mouth alone. A perfect antidote to the introspective U2-isms of Coldplay, the band truly shone at a succession of UK festivals, radiating their infectious guitar-pop across waves of would-be converts. Their festival-stealing sets have certainly paid off, as initial sales of their eponymous debut album have shifted over 100,000 units to date and bagged them a Mercury Music Prize nomination. Live favourite ‘Forever Lost’ loses none of its appeal on record with it’s a cappella break inducing much hand-clapping and foot-tapping. Follow-up single ‘Love Me Like You’ is a joyful ride of a song, fuelled by jangly guitars, melodic harmonies and a soulful pulse of a bass line that justifies their recent support slot for resurrected pop-genius, Brian Wilson.

Saying that The Magic Numbers is a ‘pleasant’ listen does not mean that the band is walking firmly down the middle of the road. None of their voices are stretched by unnecessary affectations and the female vocals complement the delicately pitched lead of hirsute frontman, Romeo. Lyrically, the theme of lost or failed love runs through the album, such as in the less-than-obliquely titled ‘Love’s A Game’ where Romeo sings, “love is just a game/ broken all the same/and I will get over you”, which has already been mooted by Noel Gallagher as a “motown classic”. Despite the clichés and couplets, the band are unashamedly pop-wise and lines that would otherwise sound overwrought are treated here with the gentlest of hands, crafted with a transparent sincerity. The album’s emotional heart is exposed on ‘I See You, You See Me’ which brings Angela out from the background tapestry and it is a shame that more tracks do not exploit her fragile vocals that recall US songstress Emmylou Harris.

With their long hair and airtight harmonies, early comparisons with The Mamas and The Papas were inevitable but there are plenty more influences here, from The Lovin’ Spoonful to Nick Drake; however, co-producer Romeo ensures that the record maintains a contemporary edge, rather than lapsing into a cynical exercise in retrospection. If the reference points are obvious, then so is the appeal of this album, and when you get audio thrills like this, it’s as easy as two plus two.

Stephen Collings
originally published on September 4th, 2005

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Magneta Lane
Dancing With Daggers ••½ 
Paperbag

Formed in 2003, Magneta Lane are a Canadian power-pop trio featuring French, Lexi and Nadia in the classic combination of bass, drums and vocals/guitar, respectively. Having finally issued their debut EP, The Constant Lover, this side of the pond last December, there couldn’t be a better time to capitalise on the Canadian-friendly musical climate. This debut full-length apparently takes its inspiration from the angel and devil that sit astride each of our shoulders; thus, sinful rock and saintly melodies co-exist for the delectation of those enjoying the long dark teatime of their souls.

Unfortunately, any hopes of something special are fairly swiftly dashed. Don’t get me wrong; it’s a decent album in itself, just not one that lives up to its twin muses. A more accurate description would be Blondie meets The Strokes. There’s Debbie Harry’s archness and glacial cool, her band’s effortless pop tunes and style. From Julian Casablancas and co., the girls have duly noted how to preserve the rougher edges of their sound to give the music a bit of grit and spike. However, like recent albums from both these bands, the main problem here is a sorry lack of variety. If an album has a constant feel, it also needs to be constantly brilliant. Dancing With Daggers isn’t; it’s good, but your attention may well waver after just five songs, as if you’ve heard all you needed to hear.

It doesn’t help that this kind of thing has been done before, and rather better at that, by bands like The Duke Spirit; Nadia may have a mighty fine voice but she’s no Leila Moss. Dancing With Daggers would have been more digestible were it split down the middle and released as two EPs, tempting the palate not dulling it with overkill of a single ingredient. If Magneta Lane learn to hide their flaws much more effectively, the next course might go down a treat.

Russell Barker
originally published on June 24th, 2006 

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Ari Alexander Ergis Magnússon
Screaming Masterpiece •••
Palomar Pictures

Surely the most ambitious film title of the year, ‘Screaming Masterpiece’ is a flag-waving celebration of the contemporary Icelandic music scene, and an attempt to answer its own self-gratifying, singular question – why have so many of Iceland’s modest population (roughly 600,000) achieved international recognition as musicians whilst maintaining a keen sense of national identity? What is it about this hostile environment that inspires such transgressive musical continents, these tectonic architectures finding homes in discerning collections worldwide?

Armed with extensive concert footage, archives, pop promos and interviews, director Ari Alexander Ergis Magnússon maintains a passive presence as he presents us with a quick-fire collection of artists, from native folk singers and instrumentalists like Slow Blow, via rappers Quarashi, to successful sonic pioneers like Múm and Sigur Rós. However, the film’s modest box office potential lies with the singer and actress Björk, who despite global success, has continued to source inspiration from her mother country, sampling in her own words, Iceland’s “emotional landscape”.

From the opening credits, awash with glacial hues, the film celebrates the marriage between traditional and modern music, with a folk song segueing into a cacophony of riotous punk. Whilst many of the smaller (and unpronounceable) bands have yet to be heard outside the barren, blackened shores of their homeland, the film allows them equal space alongside the more exportable talents, and Magnússon seems keen to indulge the depths of obscurity, including pagan folk singers and xylophones made of flint.

For the uninitiated, any sense of chronology is belatedly provided halfway through the film, perhaps an attempt to reflect the free-flowing nature of its subject. Drawing upon 23-year old footage from Fridrik Thór Fridriksson’s ‘Rock In Reykjavik (Rokk í Reykjavik)’, which features a teenage Björk in punk collective Tappi Tíkarass, Magnússon traces how the end of Iceland’s relatively recent colonialism spurred a wave of creative nationalism, with Björk explaining, “When my generation came along we started to ask ourselves what it meant to be Icelandic and how to be proud of it instead of feeling guilty all the time.”

Set adrift both culturally and geographically from mainland Europe, there is reason enough behind the sense of communal isolation that invites comparison with fertile musical centres like Manchester or Detroit. However, those musical cities thrived in spite of adversity, where it is evident here that the Icelandic government, heads of religion and affluent economy all actively foster artistic expression and adolescent ambition, including a teenage punk band Nilfisk, who feature here opening for US rockers Foo Fighters after a chance meeting.

While the layering of scenic snowdrifts and cavernous vistas may leave you feeling a little cold, the concert performances provide plenty of thrills and chills, and one of the film’s greatest assets is the live sound mix, literally booming from the Dolby speakers. From the ethereal wailing of Sigur Rós to Björk, whose powerful vocals seem projected by some innate force, all the artists share a raw energy and desire to embrace new technologies and styles while remaining true to their folk heritage, which perhaps best defines the Icelandic ‘sound’.

In the end, despite an admirable sense of almost bohemian idealism, ‘Screaming Masterpiece’ feels like something of an iceberg, its hidden depths never quite surfacing. Even at a brief 87 minutes, the continuous stream of artists, bands and collectives is an exhausting affair and the film ultimately falls short in fully addressing its proposition. One suspects that the more interesting points about cultural colonialism, environment, religion and heritage are lost amid the attention-deficit editing.

Even if the film does feel like Michael Winterbottom’s own flag-waving ‘9 Songs’ without the sex, for those who already have an interest in the bands on display here, this is a great chance to catch them sounding never better, and perhaps discover some new music to add to your iPod.

Stephen Collings
originally published on January 21st, 2006 

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James Mangold
Walk The Line ••••
Palomar Pictures

It doesn’t take a genius to figure out that Johnny Cash falls rather a long way outside the Wears The Trousers remit, but, at the risk of reviving a terrible cliché, behind every good man… well, you get the idea. So while we await the transformation of Mary J Blige as Nina Simone, we’ve got front row seats to director James Mangold’s affectionate Cash biopic, ‘Walk The Line’.

Like last year’s award-grabbing ‘Ray’, the film economically sketches Cash’s tragic Arkansas childhood and his sad estrangement from a father who blamed him for the death of his elder sibling in a rather grisly sawmill accident. After first picking up a guitar during a brief stint in the forces, the young Cash (played by Joaquin Phoenix) returns home to marry his sweetheart Vivian (Ginnifer Goodwin), but soon discovers that doorto-door sales is not exactly his forte. Faced with rent and ever-mounting bills, Cash swiftly finds himself at the doorstep of Sam Phillips’s Sun Studios in Memphis. Driven by his distinctive freight-train chords, Cash’s tales of hard luck and losers are soon blazing a trail up the charts. At the epicentre of rock ‘n’ roll’s adolescence, he’s caught up in a new world of temptation, touring alongside the young Elvis (Tyler Hilton), Jerry Lee Lewis (Waylon Malloy Payne) and Roy Orbison (Jonathan Rice), and soon develops a dependency on amphetamines years before they would become rock cliché.

And this is where we come in, for Cash’s other primary problem is his attraction to feisty songstress June Carter (Reese Witherspoon), and from the moment she gets her dress caught in his guitar strap, there’s an immediate connection. Carter’s apple pie affability proves to be the perfect foil to Cash’s introspective darkness, but despite one night of unrestrained passion, their guiding Christian background forbids their adulterous union. Victims of their circumstance, Cash penned the eponymous ‘Walk The Line’ as an assertion of marital fidelity, while Carter composed the equally classic ‘Ring Of Fire’ to express the pain of her forbidden love.

Certainly it’s their abiding attraction that provides the film’s true heart, and both Phoenix and Witherspoon were nominated for top Oscar honours in recognition of these career-defining performances. The film is no slouch either when it comes to the music, and the success of any musical biopic surely rests largely on the songs themselves. Unlike Jamie Foxx’s Ray or Val Kilmer’s Jim Morrison, who were rife with affectations, Phoenix’s portrayal of Cash’s restrained primal energy transcends a ‘Stars In Their Eyes’-type impersonation with a performance that appears naturally spontaneous rather than studied. Hunching his shoulders and aiming his guitar like a machine gun across the audience, Phoenix’s pitch-perfect live vocals, specifically in the Folsom Prison sequences, are testament to the work of music producer T Bone Burnett, whose score nicely compliments Cash’s musical oeuvre.

Witherspoon is just as convincing, with her sweet, affecting trill brimming with the confidence needed to play the character of June, whose life on the stage started as a child with The Carter Family. The inspired casting of established recording artists in supporting roles also lends a refreshing authenticity to the rich musical tapestry. In her first feature film, rock and country artist Shelby Lynne plays Carrie, the matriarch of the Cash family, whose unconditional love for her son provides the emotional balance to her husband’s toughness. A long-time admirer of Cash’s music, Lynne wrote the song ‘Johnny Met June’ on the day that he died in 2003, and while she may have been cast for her voice here, her acting skills match those around her.

More than just another exercise in Hollywood myth making, ‘Walk The Line’ actually began as a collaborative effort with the original Man In Black himself until his death. Based on autobiographies and extensive interviews, Mangold’s love for his subject is evident throughout but from the telling title in, the film plays it straight, and every significant moment in Cash’s biography cues another famous composition. For all of Cash’s ragged edges, the chronological narrative arc is too neat and could have benefited from a more oblique treatment of rock star mythology, like Gus Van Sant’s angular approach to Kurt Cobain’s untimely demise in ‘Last Days’. However, this is a minor distraction. The film starts, and ends, in 1968 with Cash’s infamous Folsom Prison concert that has become part of rock ‘n’ roll folklore. As a man who had cultivated the image of the incarcerated rebel, Cash may have lived on the right side of the prison walls, but after years of emotional imprisonment to drugs and past demons, this storming finale also marks the end of his own personal redemption. More than just a cinematic eulogy, Cash’s musical legacy is cherished by all involved in this film, and although it never fully jumps the hurdles of rock biopic cliché, the Man In Black’s enduring everyman appeal on record positively crackles on screen.

Stephen Collings
originally published on February 6th, 2006  

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Aimee Mann
The Forgotten Arm ••••
SuperEgo/V2

Somewhat fittingly for an artist who famously soundtracked a movie in reverse – Paul Thomas Anderson’s multi Oscar-nominated ‘Magnolia’ was based on her songs, not the other way around – Aimee Mann’s latest endeavour is a vibrant and fully realised sonic novel in a similar vein to Tori Amos’ nomadic narrative Scarlet’s Walk. While the latter was an intimate love/hate letter to a post-9/11 America, The Forgotten Arm has a far narrower focus, chronicling as it does the oscillatory relationship of Caroline (a seemingly aimless victim of circumstance) and John (a down-and-out boxer and Vietnam war veteran). Both journeys, however, happen by the US state of Virginia.

Indeed, Mann’s story begins there, on the midway of the VA State Fair, where Caroline in her reminiscence is working as an attendant. The two ignite a spark in one another and head for the border in an old Cadillac to escape the humdrum and hassle of small-town life; however, all is not well. John’s experiences have left him a hard-drinking, drug-addicted gambler whose luck is cooling faster than either can fathom. As the Ronseal-style title suggests, ‘Goodbye Caroline’ sees a parting of the ways. Having lost every asset but the car, John heads north to San Rafael to get himself clean and earn some quick money. Inevitably, nothing’s ever so simple and ‘Going Through The Motions’ is a peek into the mind of Caroline as she realises the effort is a certainty to fail.

John is by far the better-sketched character and his sad and sorry situation is skilfully drawn out over a four-song suite beginning with the foggy ‘I Can’t Get My Head Around It’ and culminates in the grimy hotel room of ‘Little Bombs’ in which he realises that he may never recover. The highlight of the album, however, comes with Caroline’s dejected throwing in of the towel, a handsomely understated ballad fantastically titled ‘That’s How I Knew This Story Would Break My Heart’. In what is supposed to be their final meeting, the also rather self-explanatory ‘I Can’t Help You Anymore’ kicks off the regret in a rather unremarkable fashion, but the lovely piano-led ‘I Was Thinking I Could Clean Up For Christmas’ offers one last hope of salvation. Lyrically, it’s simply gold standard Aimee Mann – “I was thinking I could clean up for Christmas and then, baby, I’m done, one less fucker trying to get in the business of the prodigal son” – and the melody here is one of the album’s more memorable moments.

After all, therein lies one of the pitfalls of the concept album as a genre. When the narrative takes such precedence, the music can often fall by the wayside as a secondary concern. Not so with The Forgotten Arm. In fact, it boasts some of the most muscular music of Mann’s solo career to date. Recorded almost entirely live by producer Joe Henry, it’s a marvel that the mix is so refreshingly roomy. By adopting heavy doses of stereo separation, the production breathes with a rare and cinematic verve. Guitarists Jeff Trott and Julian Coryell turn in a few solos that never feel overcooked, and together with drummers Victor Indrizzo and Jay Bellarose and bassist Paul Bryan, they consistently add a 1970s flavour without overwhelming the broth.

There are some who will think this is Mann by numbers – more disaffected, drugged-out also-rans holding onto their last scraps of dignity – but this is a delicately nuanced side to the singer that’s both new and impressive. She has always excelled at the role of coroner, picking over the carcasses of long-dead love affairs, extracting the evidence and leaving her lyric sheets dangling from their toes. Within the central conceit of the concept, Mann has allowed herself the luxury of a more detailed analysis, and while this at first may render some of the songs seemingly superfluous (and a couple are a little samey), repeated listens peel back ever more layers. Such lack of immediacy was also evident on her previous release, Lost In Space, though this also rewarded the persistent listener with greater depth than the surface sheen suggested.

In boxing, the ‘forgotten arm’ refers to a decoy sparring manoeuvre in which one arm is deliberately underused until the sudden strike for a KO. In something of a departure for Mann, it is hope that delivers the sucker punch, the final blow of the twelfth round. In a perhaps unexpected reprieve, Mann gifts her creations a hard-won bittersweet compassion in which they realise that in a world where so many dumb things are said in haste and countless things go maddeningly unuttered, sometimes, just sometimes, a simple “you’re beautiful” can tear down the fortresses of doubt and permit that longed-for fresh start.

Alan Pedder
originally published on June 27th, 2005 

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Aimee Mann
Live At St. Ann’s Warehouse •••
SuperEgo

As a self-confessed “classic, nitpicky Virgo”, it’s hard to imagine Aimee Mann ever sitting down to watch this resolutely no frills live document of last summer’s three-night residency at Brooklyn’s St. Ann’s Warehouse. Not that it’s in any way bad, it’s just that she seemed so acutely disengaged from the experience the first time, not necessarily vocally (although her normally warm and reedy vocals are a little thin), but in an emotional sense.

Maybe it’s just my Britishness showing, but witnessing Mann’s pained and stilted stage banter made even my own cheeks flush. With her delivery so wry, it’s difficult to distinguish between deadpan and robotic. She’s hilarious when she claims she could “take Dylan” in a boxing match and at other times inadvertently, but her many “I fucking love you guys” seem as genuine as, say, a Florida election. But perhaps I’m being unkind. After all, Mann is not known for her enjoyment of touring, and although her self-effacing humour doesn’t quite translate from the interview setting to the live environment, she thaws a little towards the end.

One of the most consistently essential artists of the last decade or so, Mann could never be accused of style over substance and this 16-track DVD is a testament to her talent, spanning all of her full-lengths plus the career revitalising soundtrack to Paul Thomas Anderson’s 1999 film ‘Magnolia’. Not only that, but Mann treats us to a preview of two songs from The Forgotten Arm. Or at least it would have been a preview if we in the UK hadn’t had to wait six months from the US release date for the set to officially reach our shores. Inexplicably released a week after The Forgotten Arm, Mann thus seems even more out of the loop when referring to the album under its working title, ‘King Of The Jailhouse’.

So what of the music? There’s an air of perfunctoriness surrounding the whole affair, with little or no attempt to distinguish the songs from their studio counterparts. That said, both Mann and her fellow guitarist Julian Coryell pull off some fantastic musicianship on the excellent ‘Pavlov’s Bell’, ‘Long Shot’ and ‘Deathly’. Best of all though is ‘Wise Up’ from the ‘Magnolia’ soundtrack, representing as it does the mournful pivotal moment of the film.

Having heard The Forgotten Arm, it’s safe to say that the live takes of ‘Going Through The Motions’ and ‘King Of The Jailhouse’ add little of merit to the studio versions, although it’s nice to see Aimee at the piano on the latter. As is customary for these releases, four of the songs on the DVD are excised from the accompanying CD, although in a break with the norm, the CD features a bonus but rather inessential performance of ‘That’s Just What You Are’ not on the DVD.

Although Aimee and the band have a decent enough stab at the backstage interviews, anyone looking for real insight into the band dynamic will most likely be disappointed. All in all, this is pretty standard fare from a stellar artist. Still, it’s a pity we had to wait so long for it.

Alan Pedder
originally published on May 25th, 2005 

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Lene Marlin
Lost In A Moment •••
Virgin

OK, just for one moment suppose that at just 17 years old you had the fastest selling single in Norwegian music history and then at 22, two best-selling platinum albums under your belt. What the hell would you do next? Well, if you were Lene Marlin, you’d hide yourself away and secretly make an album with top Norwegian production trio StarGate, who have had hits with Mary J Blige, Mariah Carey, Texas, Cher and Brandy, among others. What started out as a personal experiment for the now 24-year old quickly morphed into a full album; even her record company were not expecting an new opus until she turned up with the finished article.

So, a short history lesson for those unfamiliar with Lene. Back in the mists of 1997, her debut album Playing My Game hit big with a clutch of smash hit singles, going on to sell 1.8 million copies across Europe. Faced with such overwhelming success at a young age, Marlin walked away from the music industry and it was another five years before she felt ready enough to try again. Her second album Another Day was released in 2003, bringing more success in her native land. However, the album received little fanfare in the UK upon its release and sank without a trace. So what of Ms. Marlin in 2005? Gone are the silly hats and hoodies from her previous videos and in their place comes a gorgeous, mature new look and a grown-up collection of eleven new songs that she describes as “different moods and flavours, a real personal effort and the best record I have ever made.”

Perhaps she is listening to a different album. Lost In A Moment is no genre-busting feast of musical styles. Like its predecessor, Another Day, it is a pleasant enough collection with some nice touches, but fails to really engage. On the rockier-than-usual opener, ‘My Lucky Day’, Marlin somehow manages to seem even more disinterested than Avril Lavigne – not a good place to start. Fortunately, things improve quickly; the quietly beautiful ‘All I Can Say’ is reminiscent of her earlier work, and first single ‘How Would It Be’ is one of the more upbeat numbers. It’s a nice jaunty pop song, catchy enough to be sung along to after a few listens and is certainly the kind of song to be found playing over the credits in Generic Teen Girl Movie 2.

As for the rest? Well, despite the odd highlight (‘Never To Know’, ‘Eyes Closed’), the songs tend to wash right over the listener to the extent that some may even go unnoticed (‘When You Were Around’). It is a shame because Marlin is in possession of a beautiful voice and the kind of image that should be marketable enough to sell records by the truckload in the UK as well as Norway. It may be a little soon to say whether Lene Marlin peaked too early in her career with the dizzying pop heights of ‘Unforgivable Sinner’ and ‘Sitting Down Here’, but certainly next time it will take more than this competent but rather samey collection of songs to blow her public away.

Ian Addison
originally published on August 26th, 2005 

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Mary Lee’s Corvette
Love, Loss & Lunacy ••••
Self-released

Album number four finds former book editor Mary Lee Kortes serving up yet another accomplished set of resolutely uplifting pop songs with a retro feel and a country tinge. It may seem odd to ascribe the word uplifting to a song suite tackling such issues as incest (‘Verla’), the perverse pleasure of Schadenfreude (‘I’m Saving Grace’) and the acceptance of directionless wandering (‘Lucky Me’), but the attitude with which these subjects are approached really does raise the spirits. Each of the dozen songs is infused with signature ’60s pop jangle, smooth Hammond sounds and country rock harmonies that provide a sonic consistency whilst leaving plenty of scope for ringing the changes.

Keen-eared listeners will notice that several songs appear to feature small quotations from classic hits or artists, not insofar as to lead to a string of plagiarism lawsuits, but enough to evoke a mood from the outset. ‘All That Glitters’ kicks things off with a sunny West Coast vibe with chiming guitars and Farfisa organ tootling in the background. ‘Learn From What I Dream’ begins as an etude on The Beatles’ ‘Things We Said Today’ and shares the Fab Four’s search for enlightenment. ‘Wasting The Sun’ quotes even more directly, with an ‘All Right Now’-style opening riff that mutates into something that could easily have been written either by or for Sheryl Crow. Indeed, the vocal similarity here is enough to merit a mention.

Other tracks ploughing this particular furrow include ‘Nothing Left To Say’, ‘Thunderstruck’ and ‘Falling Again’, adding in a sprinkle of Mary Chapin Carpenter, and, in the case of the latter, some more Tom Petty-style grit. ‘Verla’ chooses the driving rhythm of songs like Petty’s ‘Refugees’ as a template to address the question of helping a victim of incest to escape a cycle of abuse. Not an obvious subject matter for a pop song, but the lyrics are sensitively tailored while the instrumentation injects a sense of passion and urgency. ‘Lucky Me’ returns to the Crow template but views it through the filter of Eric Clapton’s 461 Ocean Boulevard, the guitar solos drawing deeply from both sources while the lyrics ponder the pros and cons of being set adrift and left to your own devices.

While Kortes’s performance is not so distinctive as to be unmistakable, she certainly delivers an assured, attractive and pleasing sound, and that, after all, is really what’s required. ‘I’m Saving Grace’, however, sees a transformation in her style as she channels Chrissie Hynde for a Pretenders-esque number. Suffice to say, if Kortes ever turns up on ‘Celebrity Stars In Their Eyes’ there are no prizes for guessing who she’ll be. Rather more mechanical, however, is ‘Blood Of Stones’, its stilted rhythms failing to convince and providing the low point of an otherwise excellent album. Conversely, ‘Where Did I Go Wrong, Elton John?’ is a mini masterpiece with Kortes playing the role of a failed songwriter asking the eponymous idol how come their songs have never been hits. So far, so humdrum, but the magic twist is that the lyrics are constructed almost entirely from fragments of Taupin/John song titles and words, while the inspired soundtrack hits you like a big pizza pie with its cod-Italian mandolins. Apparently Sir Elt himself loves it.

Rounding things off in a gentler mood, ‘Every Song Is Different’ is a thought-provoking gem that leaves the listener wondering whether Kortes has been winking at us all along with her musical magpie tendencies… “every song is different but the singer is the same”.

Trevor Raggatt
originally published on March 25th, 2006  

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Karen Matheson
Downriver ••••
Vertical

Since founding Capercaillie with (her now husband) Donald Shaw at the dawn of the 1980s, Karen Matheson has become one of the foundational voices of modern Scottish folk. Among her many accolades, US magazine Billboard have hailed her as “the finest Gaelic singer alive today” and Sean Connery swears she has “a throat surely touched by the hand of God”. And if Mr. James Bond says so, who are Wears The Trousers to argue?

With 17 Capercaillie albums already to her credit, 2005 saw Matheson take time out to record her third solo album, Downriver, a mostly acoustic set of songs both ancient and modern that will render the listener if not shaken, then deeply stirred. Recorded in the idyllic setting of Crear Studios in Kilberry overlooking the breathtaking Sound of Jura, Downriver certainly communicates a deep connection with the Scottish land and culture, with its organic feel and open, airy production eschewing the more electric folk-funk sound of Capercaillie. Some tracks feature the distinctive sounds of the bodhran and bouzouki, courtesy of Irish folk rock grandee Donal Lunny, producer of Capercaillie’s breakthrough albums Secret People and Delirium, whose return to the fold is a welcome one. The Scottish Ensemble provide exquisitely subtle chamber strings, whilst former Deacon Blue (and now fellow Capercaillie) member Ewen Vernal contributes double bass.

All bar two of the tracks are sung in Scots Gaelic, a beautiful and lyrical language that adeptly evokes the ethereal and mystic, tangibly linking the music to the ancient. The listener is always aware that this is a language with an emotional meaning extending beyond the choice of notes and rhythmic devices. Even in the ‘mouth music’ songs with their frenetic vocal passages, there is never the feeling of randomness that so often affects jazz scat vocals. The album’s most atypical, non-Capercaillie track is also the first; ‘Chi Mi Bhuam’ is a soothing introduction, with Donald Shaw’s sparse and jazzy piano underpinning Matheson’s gorgeous cut-glass vocal and gentle, uplifting strings. Capercaillie aficionados will be on more familiar ground thereafter; folk dances and gentle ballads mingle with the aforementioned mouth music and ‘waulking songs’, whose complex rhythmic patterns are derived from the sounds of the ancient weavers who finished the process by pounding their material against a wooden board.

The two songs sung in English are modern compositions, but Matheson blends them well with the more traditional fare. ‘Singing In The Dark’ is a writer’s lament for all those songs that never find an audience, while ‘I Will Not Wear The Willow’ boasts an interesting twist on the murder ballad. Written from a woman’s perspective, the lyrics slowly reveal why the singer will not mourn with the other village women for her seemingly absconded lover, until the final chilling realisation that she knows where she buried the body. ‘Crucan Na Bpaiste’, written by Irish author Brendan Graham for his 2005 novel ‘The Brightest Day, The Darkest Night’, draws proceedings to a sombre close with Michael McGoldrick’s uilleann pipes joining the lament with Matheson’s heartbreaking voice. And then, inevitably, we’re returned to our own less luminous world, grateful for the time that’s gone by.

Trevor Raggatt
originally published on January 22nd, 2006  

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Mates Of State
Bring It Back ••••
Moshi Moshi

Kori Gardner and Jason Hammel, aka Mates Of State, have been performing together for nine long years now and happily hitched for the last five. They don’t play guitars, preferring instead to use organs and drums to create their uplifting, near-utopian but dark-edged pop. But where other bands might struggle to make a full sound with such a basic set-up, Mates Of State make use of complicated, and often chaotic layering of vocals and different organ parts to give the impression of a much larger outfit, all the while retaining the intimacy of a duo and the chemistry of lovers.

Bring It Back is their fourth studio album and one that is practically bursting at the seams with versatile and resourceful compositions. The DIY-style vocals sound not too dissimilar to an endearing blend of The New Pornographers and the twee country tinge of Tilly & The Wall. The keyboards lend a slight 1970s sound in certain places, notably in ‘Beautiful Dreamer’s chorus, which captures the idealism of the post-’68 generation in its soaring Hammond lines, while other songs are more conventionally piano-led and simpler in terms of arrangement.

As a whole, Bring It Back is almost flawless fun with few blemishes. Whilst ‘Fraud In The ‘80s’ wears its indie-pop credentials proudly on its sleeve, it makes for a disappointing lead single that tries a little too hard to be sassy and succeeds only in carrying all the menace of Republica, which can never be a good thing. Never mind, prepare to go weak at the knees for the standout track ‘Like U Crazy’ instead. Here, Gardner’s topline vocals positively seethe with on-the-edge desperation and resignation, while her falsetto chant of “bah bah bah bah like u crazy” bubbles chillingly beneath. The production has elements of a dark, Wall Of Sound-esque sound that wouldn’t seem far out of place in a David Lynch film, and who can argue with that?

A cursory listen to ‘Beautiful Dreamer’ will tell you that what Mates Of State are bringing back is truth. No great revelation there then, but whoever thought to wrap such honesty up in consistently tasty and innovative songs deserves some kind of reward. We, on the other hand, should put on our dancing shoes promptly and do them proud.

Robbie de Santos 
originally published August 23rd, 2006

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Matson Jones
The Albatross… EP •••½
Sympathy For The Record Industry

Anyone who names their band after a pseudonym used by modernist painters Josper Johns and Robert Rauschenberg for their commercial department store work can be expected to be at least a little non-conformist. It comes as scant surprise then that US indie rock minimalists Matson Jones make music consisting of distorted vocals, cello, double bass, drums and nothing else. They’re far from being a one-trick nag, however; ever-challenging dynamic and rhythmical soundscapes abound on this EP so that its mealy-mouthed full title of The Albatross Mates For Life, But Only After A Lengthy Courtship That Can Take Up To Four Years isn’t the only interesting talking point.

The four songs on The Albatross… are complex beasts. Opener ‘Exes & Ohs’ is an energetic number reminiscent of The Arcade Fire in that it goes from hushed to rushed, from slow to hasty with fast-paced melodies and counter-rhythms whipped up by the cellos and double bass. This impressive layer of sound altern- ately supports and contrasts the vocals of Anna Mascorella and Martina Grbac, while Ross Harada’s syncopated drums expand the dynamic range of the song from beneath. The drums get slower and angrier on second song ‘Sabotage’, and combined with the howling apocalyptic strings, what you get is a sense of paranoia, a suspicious calm ahead of a vicious tornado. Incoherent lyrics like “It’s a damn good thing I kept my legs closed / you make the ground unsteady” add to the general feel of imminent malice.

‘Dirt Sea’ returns to the fast-paced rhythms of the opener, albeit in a more approachable manner. The vocals are quite plain and fairly unspectacular, but it’s the ever-moving strings and drop-in, drop-out drums that really lift the song. ‘Wrecking Ball’ is slightly less successful, though its characteristically constant time changes and distorted vocals have a certain appeal. It’s just that the instrumentation all sounds very natural and at odds with the distortion on the voice, making them sound rather out of place. Of course, this could be the intention entirely, in which case it’s a job well done. It’s a little bit manic but manages to hint at an all-too-human vulnerability that works well overall.

Matson Jones certainly know how to use the dynamic ranges of their tools, though the lack of variety in instrumentation means they have to work twice as hard to make this EP more than just an indie rock curio. That they just about manage to pull it off warrants 15 minutes of your time and a bit of your hard-earned cash.

Anja McCloskey 
originally published July 25th, 2006

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Cerys Matthews / Becky Stark
Live at The Scala, London ••••
July 26th, 2006

Barely ten minutes after the doors are flung open at the Scala, Californian songbird Becky Stark quietly glides to centre stage to kick off the evening. Wearing a striking aqua ballgown and, bizarrely, a matching blue cape, she resembles an intriguing blend of Supergirl and Cinderella. In keeping with this image and her earnest songs of love and fairytale dreams, Stark also believes in saving the planet, provocatively, yet sweetly declaring that “peace has finally come to planet Earth”. Given the notoriously indifferent, if not downright rude, reception that London audiences commonly afford a support act – usually spending more time supporting the bar takings than paying due attention – Stark commands an unusually reverent silence.

Clearly nervous and feeling rather exposed without her Lavender Diamond bandmates around her, she soon warms up, gleefully telling us that her father was an escaped convict and that her mother used to ask her to lie to the FBI, before pondering aloud whether this is the reason for her lack of respect for authority. Against all odds, her uninhibited ramblings and timid giggles come across as genuinely endearing and the volume of appreciative noises soon racks up among the amassing throng.

Between her affable anecdotes, Stark even finds time to treat us to four beautiful compositions from her solo album Artifacts Of The Winged. Her voice both warms and haunts, the unaffected tenderness of her soaring falsetto revealing one of the purest, most honest vocal talents this side of a certain Vashti Bunyan. Saving the world may be out of her reach for now, but if Stark can get a bunch of hardened Londoners eating out of her hand like puppies, persuading world leaders to just get along is not all that far-fetched.

Second support act Richard James – formerly the guitarist for Welsh rockers Gorky’s Zygotic Mynci – may have hit all the right notes musically, but his introspective tone fails to cut through the oppressive heat inside the venue. The temperature was indeed rising, but whether this was from the clamour of bodies still radiating the day’s onslaught of sunshine or from sheer anticipation I couldn’t say; up in the balcony a Welsh flag unfurls itself to announce the impending arrival of tonight’s main attraction.

In her days as Catatonia’s outspoken figurehead, Cerys Matthews would often bound (and sometimes stagger) onstage, but today she tentatively sneaks on alongside her band. Armed with a cherry red guitar, she deflects the sea of expectant eyes before her and bursts straight into new album track, ‘Streets Of New York’. Visibly overwhelmed by the sheer volume of her band, Cerys’s trademark lungs struggle at first to compete with the reverberating power chords and driving beats, and she nervously admits to the crowd that she’s “shaking like a leaf”. But if the last few years have shown anything, it’s that Matthews is a fighter and by the third song – a low-tempo run-through of early Catatonia classic ‘Lost Cat’ – the up-for-it crowd begins to have an effect. Given the parallels between her new material and some of Catatonia’s less populist efforts, a song like ‘Lost Cat’ fits snugly into the set; even The Guardian’s gig writer failed to spot the nod to her past, despite it being greeted with one of the night’s biggest cheers.

‘Open Roads’, the instantly memorable first single to be taken from her new album Never Said Goodbye, also gives the album its title, and when Matthews sings “it’s like we neh-ver said goodbye”, it’s easy to recall just how much fun Catatonia were in concert, counterpointing the pre-mill-ennial navel-gazing of their contemporaries with fuckoff power chords and anthemic choruses. Somewhat inevit-ably, Matthews’s lyrics have become more introspective since her departure, picking apart human foibles and personal frailties, disguised Trojan-horse style by sweet melodic pop.

But don’t be fooled into thinking she’s gotten stuck in a mid-paced groove; her latest musical gear shift heralds the re-emergence of Cerys’ bona fide rock star qualities. Even the most cotton-pickin’ moments from 2003′s country jamboree Cockahoop are given a shot of pure rock adrenaline. During the traditional ‘All My Trials’, for instance, Matthews dispenses with her guitar and unleashes memories of the days when she would lead thousands of fans into dance. When she follows this up with ‘The Good In Goodbye’, everyone merrily bounces along as if it were 1998 again; but this is 2006 and her triumph tonight is surely all the more sweeter on her own terms.

Befitting her rock icon status, Matthews later treats us to an enjoyable cover of David Bowie’s ‘Soul Love’ from the seminal Ziggy Stardust album. It’s an apt choice for the moment, too, proving that there can be an epilogue for rock ‘n’ roll stars who take the well-worn road to self-destruction. With her fall from grace at last in reverse, the crowd’s affection for Matthews is palpable and everyone is grinning. When she comes back for an encore, a moment’s dread that some drunken idiot might field an inappropriate request for ‘Road Rage’ or ‘Karaoke Queen’ soon passes. Tonight, Matthew, it seems that Cerys is happy simply being herself.

Stephen Collings
originally published on July 26th, 2006  

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Cerys Matthews
Never Said Goodbye ••••
Rough Trade

Rock ‘n’ roll folklore is full of dramatic departures and Messianic resurrections, so it was with some concern that Catatonia singer Cerys Matthews cancelled their 2001 tour and exited the band citing exhaustion, so often a dubious byword for drug overdoses and nervous breakdowns. In those early years, Matthews’s name became synonymous in the music press with legendary drinking sessions and her familiarity with Queensbury rules that transcended the verbal posturing of her peers. Unashamedly proud of her homeland, she rolled her vowels and consonants around driving pop anthems about road rage, teenage pregnancy and queens of karaoke, while her festive duet with Tom Jones only served to consolidate her place as the true Princess of Wales.

After Catatonia disbanded, Matthews famously decamped to Nashville to regain her health and musical muse, making an understated return in 2003 with the country jamboree Cockahoop. Oh, and she also started a family, meeting her husband whilst sharing dog walking duties for a mutual friend. Now, Matthews has chosen to return to the land of her fathers after suffering the effects of ‘hiraeth’, a particularly Welsh form of homesickness. She can certainly afford herself a few backwards glances with Never Said Goodbye, but is she here to reclaim her tattered crown?

Conceived as a modest follow-up in the same bare essentials vein as its predecessor, the album’s production turned out to be an eventful process as Matthews dis- covered that she was also gestating her second child. As her belly grew, so did the sound, and songs that started life with simple acoustics and vocals received a good old-fashioned rock makeover. Matthews has managed to fuse Catatonia’s brand of playful pop with the introspective homestead musings of her adopted American home, while Mason Neely’s proficiency with the drumsticks positively drives the album’s sound from the stable into the stadium.

But that’s not to suggest that the album lacks its tender moments; like Catatonia’s International Velvet – which effortlessly traversed its way from bollock-rocking barnstormers like ‘I Am The Mob’ to the gentle caress of ‘My Selfish Gene’ – Never Said Goodbye tempers its rockier edges with heartbreakingly beautiful moments like album closer ‘Elen’. Co-written with Super Furry Animals frontman Gruff Rhys, who also contributes whispered backing vocals, the fragile folkish melody surrounds the mellifluous mothertongue lyrics, and of all the album tracks, is perhaps the closest relation to Cockahoop.

With song titles like ‘Oxygen’, ‘This Endless Rain’ and ‘Seed Song’, it seems that Matthews has returned to her roots in more ways than one. The constant themes of love and nature are inextricably entwined throughout the album, where the ebb and flow of nature are constant metaphors for the enormity of lost loves and faltering hearts. On ‘Morning Sunshine’, her romanticism is never better expressed than in the opening lines; “I’d come to see you in the morning sunshine / saltwater dripping from your hair / 10,000 leagues of love and sheer devotion / what bubbles under breathes for air”. Perhaps the most organic treatment of a pop album since Pulp’s I Love Life, which brought us paeans to trees, weeds and sunrise, Never Said Goodbye is an album in full bloom, even if the lyrical preoccupations might have been better served by stripping away some of the disortion and synthetic layers.

While Matthews may lack the twisted lyrical wit of her former Catatonia songwriting partner, Mark Roberts, she is still at her best mining the ever-fertile ground of dysfunctional relationships. The album’s first single, ‘Open Roads’, with its opening lines “I took a ride on your fingertips / heaven high with the thrill of it / and in your eyes for a moment / it’s like we never said goodbye” encapsulates the uncertainty and vulnerability of surrendering to the safety of skin in the arms of a lost love. Indeed, listening to Never Said Goodbye is like getting a postcard from a treasured friend and as soon as you hear the first trill of that unmistakable voice, memories come flooding back.

Whereas Cockahoop was an album to fall in love to, Never Said Goodbye is there to pick up the pieces when it all falls apart. Sometimes in a world where everything is new and every turn brings yet more uncertainty, you need little cocoons of comfort. The music industry has certainly been an emptier place in her absence, and no amount of feisty pop muppets could ever fill the Cerys-shaped hole in the charts. So while Matthews has rekindled her love affair with the music that made her, for those who have tied a yellow ribbon around their Catatonia CD collections, familiarity will surely breed content.

Stephen Collings 
originally published October 24th, 2006

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Kate & Anna McGarrigle
The McGarrigle Hour ••••
Rykodisc

Originally released in the US and Canada in 1999, this companion to the studio album of the same name finally got a UK pressing this autumn. And whilst the title may parody those homely Osmond family TV specials, there is nothing twee about this gathering. Timeless in both the staging and songs, the anachronistic production feels more 1948 than 1998, but the McGarrigles and Wainwrights have always comfortably existed outside of popular music, living in a folkie vacuum where they are free to set their own courses. Family feuds are often the subject of their own songs and their closest contemporaries appear to be each other. With such a strong musical heritage, the ‘McWainwrights’ are always liable to burst into song when the mood takes them, and one can almost imagine family gatherings where “pass the salt” is sung in harmonious verse.

With an ensemble of ex-spouses, offspring and friends, the McGarrigle sisters take us on an intimate journey through the great American songbook, taking in everything from Cole Porter to Irving Berlin, whilst seamlessly interweaving original compositions for this musical family reunion. While their voices may not have the softest of timbres, the Canadian sisters’ pitch-perfect harmonies are still as strong as when they debuted in 1975 with their eponymous LP. The musical dynasty is in safe hands too, judging by the efforts here.

Martha Wainwright cuts a shy, endearing figure compared with the foot-stomping dynamic performer we see today, and her own composition ‘Year Of The Dragon’ (still a mainstay of her live set) visibly impresses the would-be converts in the McGarrigle-friendly audience. Her cover of Cole Porter’s ‘Allez-Vous-En’ is sung with experience well beyond her young years, and she is complemented well by cousin Lily Lanken whose fragile vocals are equally affecting on family favourite ‘Alice Blue Gown’.

Elsewhere, Rufus Wainwright is unusually restrained, despite upstaging his mother Kate McGarrigle during the introduction to ‘Talk To Me Of Mendocino’ by calling her a “gypsy”. In ‘Heartburn’ he shows he has inherited much of his father Loudon Wainwright III’s lyrical wit, but his voice is best suited to the standards and effortlessly croons the openings to group efforts ‘Goodnight Sweetheart’ and ‘What’ll I Do’. Friends of the family, Linda Ronstadt and Emmylou Harris, guest as they did on the studio album, while Kate’s former husband Loudon and assorted folkie friends add an authentic twang to the proceedings.

Despite the original’s release shortly before the popularity of the format exploded, a number of DVD extras are still included: a scattering of hyperlink interviews and a touching movie clip of Grandma McGarrigle’s own version of ‘Alice Blue Gown’ around the family piano, along with four bonus songs from a 1981 McGarrigle concert in their hometown of Montréal.

In a year that has seen major releases from Loudon, Rufus and Martha, the McGarrigles have reconvened for The McGarrigle Christmas Hour, an album that once again showcases the family’s songwriting talents alongside some lesser-known festive standards, this time extending their family to include Rufus’s pals Beth Orton, actress Jane Adams and Teddy Thompson.

Stephen Collings
originally published on December 19th, 2006 

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Nellie McKay
Pretty Little Head [edit] •••½
Unreleased

Nellie McKay doesn’t want me to listen to her new CD. At least, not in the form in which I received it. Columbia’s press release describes the album as “a kaleidoscopic selection of tracks culled from 23 new songs written by McKay for the album”; what it doesn’t say is that they performed this cull entirely against her will. Despite McKay’s insistence that it be released in its entirety, Columbia issued this 16-track edit to reviewers without McKay’s permission, and the dispute duly escalated. In fact it got so bad that just after Christmas Nellie and Columbia parted ways, leaving the album dangling in limbo. The label have since stated that they won’t be releasing the album in any form, and despite the fact that McKay apparently left of her own accord, media reports that she was ‘dropped’ have proliferated. This conflict raises some prescient questions. McKay’s precocious debut, 2004′s Get Away From Me, was sprawling and sporadically brilliant, but proved trying when listened to as a whole. We can certainly query whether Columbia have the right to censor the artists on their roster in such a manner, but for once, might the big bad record company have a point?

To an extent, they do. Listening to this truncated version, there are still extraneous tracks that contribute little to the album as a whole. Three songs – ‘Pink Chandelier’, ‘GES’ and ‘I Am Nothing’, all clocking in at under two minutes – feel half-finished, short sketches perhaps intended more as interludes that fail to mature into anything substantial. It is puzzling that they were included where other tracks were excised; the motivation behind Columbia’s track selection currently remains a mystery. However, when the songs do sparkle they sparkle bright, and more than compensate for the album’s weaker moments. The lyrically audacious and funny opener ‘Cupcake’ concerns the timely topic of gay marriage, and over a brightly bouncy melody McKay intones lyrics surely designed to provoke conservative ire: “Give me a G-A-Y! Jesus would approve.”

Musically, it’s not all current affairs, however. A distinct ‘80s vibe runs throughout the album – shades of Martha & The Muffins here, Kim Carnes there – but nowhere moreso, of course, than on the Cyndi Lauper duet and album highlight, ‘Bee Charmer’. A lyrically brilliant pop song (“I feel like an antelope on a nature show / Guess I gotta go!”), it’s an ideal marriage of two talented artists. McKay once again shows her versatility as a musical chameleon, turning her hand to cabaret-style pop, rap/hip-hop and, on ‘Real Life’, guitar-driven rock ‘n’ roll. Her songs don’t grab the listener with the dramatic urgency of say, Fiona Apple – whimsicality is more her forte – but her lyrics are barbed and often arresting and a happy-sounding tune can conceal darker lyrical content. ‘Columbia Is Bleeding’, for instance, throws lyrics at the listener faster than the brain can process them. Not, as you might imagine, a rant against her former label, the song concerns a recent, McKay-led PETA protest against animal research being conducted at the campus of New York’s University of Columbia, and the song voices a multiplicity of views on the subject; “Check the bible son / we got dominion / we can do as we please” vies with McKay’s assertion that “Barbarism killed the cat / Columbia is bleeding.”

While this is by no means a perfect album, it is one that has a lot to recommend it – not least the originality of McKay’s lyrics and the adventurous musical palette she draws upon. In which direction those seven missing songs will eventually tip the balance is anybody’s guess, but whenever, however, even if ever McKay ultimately rears her Pretty Little Head, it’ll be one in the eye for corporate America and a righteous scalp for artistic vision.

Danny Weddup 
originally published January 28th, 2006

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Loreena McKennitt
An Ancient Muse •••½
Quinlan Road

Back in 1985, the arrival of Loreena McKennitt seemed nothing short of brilliant; enigmatic, yes, but brilliant all the same. With her self-produced debut album Elemental, McKennitt did away with the slick, sometimes gloopy excesses of the decade and delivered something pretty much timeless. Those who heard it invariably loved it, and in pleasing all the people McKennitt inadvertently accelerated the coming of so-called ‘new age’ music. Of course, as with all great underground artists, her thunder was run off with by a more commercially minded rival in the shape of Enya, whose Watermark cemented the multi-million selling status of the genre. Happily, all the legwork gave McKennitt rich rewards in the end as her 1989 album Parallel Dreams bounced off the new age springboard and she never looked back. Since then, McKennitt has expanded her vision as both composer and producer, shifting effortlessly from softly spoken, sparse Celtic folk to full-blown band extrava- ganzas that ought to be recognised as world music anthems. And all that shifting, no matter how great, has done nothing but work in her favour.

An Ancient Muse is McKennitt’s first studio album since 1997′s four million selling The Book Of Secrets and, like its predecessor, incorporates the illustrious themes of spirituality and world travel and sets them to impressive compositional backdrops. Opening with ‘Incantation’, a slow-burning mood is softly ignited with McKennitt’s gorgeously operatic vocals shedding light on an other- wise darkly brooding piece. Two and a half minutes go by before you’re suddenly slammed into out-and-out pop mode as the undeniable slink of ‘The Gates Of Istanbul’ takes hold before the prodigal simplicity of ‘Caravanserai’ seals the deal. Both are obvious tips of the hat to her out-of-leftfield hit ‘The Mummer’s Dance’ but are fresh enough and groovy enough so as not to be derivative.

With that out of the way, An Ancient Muse goes deep with songs like the creepily gleeful Turkish instrumental ‘Sacred Shabbat’ and ‘Never-ending Road (Amhrán Duit)’, whose nomadic spirituality allows the album’s themes of inward searching and self-acceptance to shine. A slight aura of predictability surrounds a couple of tracks – for example, the other instrumental ‘Kecharitomene’ could easily have been a reply-paid card stuffed inside The Book Of Secrets for McKennitt to mail home later – and some patience might be required on the part of the listener. But, like each of her previous opuses, the payoff will be honest to goodness grade A gorgeousness.

And there’s nothing more gorgeous on An Ancient Muse than ‘The English Ladye & The Knight’. Keeping up McKennitt’s well-trodden tradition of setting classic poetry to music – the lyrics are an abridged version of the poem by Sir Walter Scott – this is the album’s finest moment. Featuring atmospheric strings and a heart- breaking choir, McKennitt subdues her impressive voice into the role of hushed storyteller and flawlessly flows into full-blown mechancholia. This is precisely why McKennitt has been a long-stay in the music industry without an overtly popular following; it is, for lack of any better description, pure genius, and makes any errors of judgement elsewhere on the album instantly forgivable.

Despite its occasional weak points, An Ancient Muse is an overall triumph and while not quite reaching the astonishing brilliance of The Visit or The Mask & Mirror, it makes for a solid and compelling listen and once again shows McKennitt as the innovative and virulent artist she has become.

Aaron Alper
originally published December 17th, 2006

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Erin McKeown
We Will Become Like Birds •••½
Nettwerk

Ingredient 1: A failed relationship at your heels and weighing on your mind. Ingredient 2: A roomful of instruments with which you are skillfully competent. What on earth’s a girl to do? Well, if you are 27-year old Erin McKeown, you creatively bind together the two ingredients with handfuls of hope, and with patience and time, We Will Become Like Birds shall emerge. With a relationship crumbling around her, McKeown has simply picked up her guitar, bass, drumsticks and keyboards and atypically enlisted other musicians to produce this wonderfully hopeful album. These 12 complementary songs are lyrically pertinent to anyone who has survived a relationship breakup – sentiments of creation and loss, construction and destruction are plentiful.

In the opener, ‘Aspera’, McKeown is found musing on her own discontent, singing “I’m in shambles, blown to bits by our troubles, these brambles, our stumblings, our struggles”, but by the second song, ‘Air’, she is contemplating the wider issue of the origins of heartache in general: “love! and you’re wondering how it works, the heart and the natural world, it’s a wonder that science can hurt”. Though the songs are firmly in the camp of relationship fodder, McKeown provides something more than the archetypal break-up album with a continuous hopeful twist. Buoyant ruminations on how experience forces growth are welcomed in the positive statement of ‘We Are More’, in which sadness is transcended in the form of “this morning I saw a glimmer of hope, in the eyes that I met at the door, of separate futures and confident sutures, to the wounds we have endured.” The album is undeniably sad and yet irrepressibly hopeful.

For those who don’t appreciate an emotional battering as part and parcel of a listening experience, McKeown’s clearly auspicious lyrics and musical choices reflecting a light emotional approach will indeed sweeten the medicine. With its upbeat, rising notes and tempting handclaps, the overall feel isn’t one of loss – the musical scenery is as misleading as her carefree, light vocals. In typical McKeown style, her voice drifts lightly and spreads warmly through the album, winding over even the highest notes with softness.

With her personal evolution in full view, McKeown’s musical growth cannot be overlooked. She is forever changing and her tendency to frolic willfully through varied musical landscapes is only slightly diminished here. As ever though, McKeown’s musicianship is nothing short of admirable and will make even the most gifted a little green-eyed. Competent enough to play all the instruments herself, McKeown could have easily created the album nestled alone in a studio, but with an ethnomusicology degree and three acclaimed genre-hopping solo albums already in the bag, Erin arrived at this album with a strong pedigree and looking for something new. She and co-producer Tucker Martine have called on highly accomplished musicians to freely improvise on her compositions as they best know how. With Matt Chamberlain on drums (Tori Amos, Fiona Apple), Sebastian Steinberg on bass (Beth Orton) and Steve Moore on keyboards (Laura Veirs), the album wears an impulsive band feel. Collaborations with singer-songwriters Pete Mulvey and Spanish chanteuse Juana Molina on ‘Delicate December’ and ‘The Golden Dream’, respectively, also add a different dimension.

The rich, multi-instrumental path set out by her previous album Grand is trodden even further here, breaking away from that record’s jazzy, 1950s-style swing. Slick production and a stark reduction in guitar focus have augmented this effect. McKeown is no longer the folkie that appeared on the independent scene in 1999 with Monday Morning Cold. Regardless, with perhaps her most commercially accessible album to date, Erin McKeown is stepping back into the alternative spotlight while laudably retaining her enthusiam for experimentation, her charming vocal style and a distinctive and familiar originality.

Helen Griffiths
originally published August 11th, 2005

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Sarah McLachlan
Wintersong •••½
Arista

Aimee Mann
One More Drifter In The Snow ••••
V2/SuperEgo

The struggle may not be as titanic as the Ali/Foreman ‘rumble in the jungle’ but this year two Lilith-cred behemoths go head to head in the Christmas album arena. In the red corner we have amateur boxer and professional cynic Aimee Mann, while in the green corner is sparkling snow queen Sarah McLachlan (put a coat on silly, you’ll catch your death!). That the pair of them both chose the same reason to release a festive offering affords us the luxury of comparing their approaches. And the approaches are definitely different – while McLachlan takes a more traditional, populist route, Mann sprinkles her collection with the trademark quirkiness that informs her work – but both pay joyful dividends and throw in a brand new original each.

Taking McLachlan first, it’s easy to see Wintersong as a sonic extension of 2003′s Afterglow, albeit with a few more whistles and sleigh bells. Like so many Christmas albums it mixes carols, standards and original songs and the selection is well chosen. Opening with a perhaps surprising cover of John Lennon and Yoko Ono’s ‘Happy Xmas (War Is Over)’ it could all have gone so horribly wrong. Panic not, however, it’s actually more likeable than the original. Retaining the essential kids’ choir element, it deftly treads the frighteningly narrow line between emoting and wanton sentimentalising. A cover of the Joni Mitchell classic ‘River’ is perhaps rather too predictable a move for McLachlan, but it’s a welcome inclusion nevertheless. Despite adding nothing to the flooringly beautiful original, McLachlan gives it her all, imbuing it with genuine emotion and a pure vocal performance that soars above that genius piano motif.

Elsewhere, standard crooner ‘I’ll Be Home For Christmas’ successfully harks back to the swing era, blending muted trumpet with thoroughly modern keyboard pads, while new track ‘Wintersong’ is pleasant enough. Always proficient at recycling old material, McLachlan couldn’t resist another shot at ‘Song For A Winter’s Night’, originally released on the 1996 compilation Rarities, B-Sides & Other Stuff, but it’s all in the spirit of giving so that’s alright. It’s the traditional carols, however, that ended up the most satisfyingly Christmassy. ‘O Little Town Of Bethlehem’ opens with a gorgeous naked vocal while ‘What Child Is This?’ and ‘First Noel / Mary Mary’ blend McLachlan’s lovely tones with an intriguing blend of traditional and modern arrangements; while the former evokes the Elizabethan derivation of its melody, the latter mixes hymnal, spiritual and contemporary Celtic styles. It’s sad, then, that Wintersong closes on its least involving and memorable track – the one which Nettwerk must have thought was a shoe-in. A duet with fellow Canadian Diana Krall on ‘Christmas Time Is Here’ washes past in all too mellow a mood.

Taking a more leftfield approach, Mann’s One More Drifter… is a rather different prospect. And while the new original ‘Calling On Mary’ and the bittersweet ‘Christmastime” (originally recorded in 1996 for the soundtrack of Paul Thomas Anderson’s ‘Hard Eight’) find her in a reassuringly downbeat mood, the talking points belong to the covers. Again, it’s a mix of carols and classic seasonal numbers given a characteristic Aimee flavour, but with one special surprise. ‘You’re A Mean One, Mister Grinch!’ might easily have been a torrid taste faux pas, but instead the duet with Grant Lee Phillips raises a glass and a grin with Mann’s vocal trademark cynicism making her the perfect musical foil for Phillips’s booming narration.

Another surprise is how well Mann copes with some of the older tunes like the Nat King Cole favourite ‘The Christmas Song’. In fact she turns out to be no mean crooner – had she been born 50 years earlier there’s no doubt that she could easily have given the likes of Julie London and Patsy Cline a run for their money. Elsewhere, familiar songs are given a lift by interesting instrumentation – a banjo and jangle piano here, pedal steel, vibes and Hawaiian guitar there. The Hawaiian guitar is deployed particularly effectively on ‘I’ll Be Home For Christmas’, pointing up nicely the difference in approach when compared with Sarah’s version, while her take on ‘Winter Wonderland’ is equal parts ‘Blue Hawaii’, ‘Shadows’ and ‘The Fabulous Thunderbirds’ in a mellow mood. Ace.

So there you have it, two very different Christmas albums, both artistically successful, very listenable and thankfully (mostly) schmaltz-free. Of the two, it’s One More Drifter… that stands a better chance of being auditioned at other times of year as a darned good album in its own rights. However, it’s Wintersong that your mum or granny will love.

Trevor Raggatt
originally published December 17th, 2006

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Natalie Merchant
VH1 Storytellers •••
Rhino Home Video

Since its inception in February 1996, VH1′s Storytellers format has given us insight into the inspirations behind the songs of some of the most enigmatic and elliptical performers of our time, including Tori Amos, REM, Tom Waits and David Bowie. More often than not, however, it was the refuge of tired and crashing MOR bores mounting their nth attempted comeback. The show was also symptomatic of US programmers’ attitudes to female artists; even though its most successful years coincided with the Lilith Fair phenomenon, less than a quarter of its 56 episodes featured women performers. Tellingly, the only such act to appear following the demise of Lilith in 1999 was Gwen Stefani’s No Doubt. After a series of mostly inessential performances by the likes of Billy Idol, Bon Jovi, Matchbox Twenty and Train, among others, the chapter finally closed on Storytellers in June 2002.

It could easily be argued that Natalie Merchant’s place in the Storytellers canon would have been warranted regardless of the Lilith influence. A performer since the age of 17 in US college rock band 10,000 Maniacs, she had well over a decade of experience, and presumably stories, behind her. This performance, recorded the same year as she released her second and arguably best solo album, Ophelia, is a resolutely no-frills affair – there’s no elaborate set design and Merchant herself is understatedly dressed for the occasion. Her instantly recognisable warm and reedy vocals, however, rise easily to the challenge as she tackles these eight songs of sadness, gratitude, stoicism and wonderment spanning her extensive back catalogue.

Given that so many of her songs are self-contained observational narratives that hardly lend themselves to in-depth analysis, it’s a little worrying when Merchant seeks to reassure the audience “I didn’t have to tell you anything deep and dark and scary about myself” after the opener ‘These Are Days’, which we’re informed is simply about the springtime. Fortunately, her romantic and humanitarian interests rescue some of the other commentaries from the precipice of blandness. In another’s hands, her explanation of how an abused child inspired her to write ‘What’s The Matter Here?’ may have seemed trite but her plainly visible emotional involvement is touching.

Special guest N’Dea Davenport adds a welcome change of pace for the blue-collar worker anthem ‘Break Your Heart’. Of the bonus tracks, ‘Life Is Sweet’ (presumably not included on the original broadcast because of a minor sweat problem) is given a new lease of life by Merchant’s explanation that her objective was to reclaim the cliché and thereby allows the viewer to listen with renewed perspective. Though the DVD is brief at only 43 minutes, as a precursor to Rhino’s forthcoming Natalie Merchant retrospective hits album it serves as an adequate reminder of her talents. In the absence of any new material to follow-up 2003′s The House Carpenter’s Daughter and the scarcity of high-quality recordings of Merchant’s live shows, fans will be satisfied with this solid, if unspectacular, addition to her discography.

Alan Pedder
originally published August 7th, 2005 

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Natalie Merchant
Retrospective 1990-2005 ••••
Rhino/Elektra

As coincidence would have it, Rhino’s 2CD retrospective of Natalie Merchant’s solo career follows a similar format to its Jane Siberry anthology. In both cases, an exemplary, beautifully sequenced first disc is followed by a patchier, less satisfying second one. This is not to suggest that fans or newcomers should only sport out for the first CD though, as is possible to do in the case of Merchant. Though longstanding followers may once again lament the dearth of new material on Retrospective, there are in fact some lovely individual performances on both discs. It’s simply that the second disc – designed, it would appear, to showcase Merchant’s stylistic range – fails to cohere as effortlessly as the first does.

Of course, Merchant is not an audacious musical innovator in the Siberry mould, and so there is nothing as wilfully perverse or off-kilter as ‘Peony’ here. Rather, Merchant’s post-10,000 Maniacs career has been marked by a series of graceful, intelligent and frequently exceptional albums, from her solo debut Tigerlily, through the lusher Ophelia, to her distinguished collection of sturdy folk perennials, The House Carpenter’s Daughter, and this compilation gathers together some of the very best material from each. Merchant’s singing has also grown more characterful over the years, as the chronologically sequenced first disc demonstrates. Tremulous and delicate, but with a surprising amount of bite and grit, her vocals are seductive and inviting on early tracks such as the driving ‘Wonder’ and ‘Jealousy’, but gain greater depth and resonance on her later work.

At its best, there is a kind of openhearted innocence and generosity of spirit to Merchant’s music. ‘Kind & Generous’, for example, is such a forthright expression of gratitude that it almost makes you uncomfortable. This tender magnanimity means that when she does despair – with a line like “the damage that some people do” on ‘Break Your Heart’ – the effect is particularly devastating. However, the superb ‘Life Is Sweet’ offers hard-won consolation, as does ‘Motherland’, the title track to her 2001 album, and a recording that may well be on its way to becoming her signature song, since it’s already been covered by both Joan Baez and Christy Moore. Its combination of striking lyrics, Van Dyke Parks’s accordion, Greg Leisz’s banjo and mandolin and a gorgeous vocal from Merchant adds up to something very special indeed. The House Carpenter’s Daughter is represented by two particularly strong tracks. ‘Owensboro’ is an achingly sad traditional ballad about downtrodden Kentucky mill workers; in the final verse, the exploited and apparently resigned narrator looks forward to a (literal or figurative) “day of judgement” when the wealthy, arrogant townsfolk who “dress so fine and spend their money free” will “have to share their pretty things”. Never has the desire for revolution been expressed more elegantly. The woozy, haunting ‘Sally Ann’ is equally fine.

The second disc pulls together some of Merchant’s duets, collaborations, outtakes and soundtrack contributions. Highlights include a sensitive, convincing rendition of ‘The Lowlands Of Holland’ (backed by The Chieftains), a slow and sultry ‘One Fine Day’ (from the 1996 Michelle Pfeiffer/George Clooney film of the same name), and a beautiful stripped-down solo piano take of Ophelia‘s ‘Thick As Thieves’. Lowlights are a leaden ‘Children Go Where I Send Thee’, and a forced version of the inappositely titled ‘I Know How To Do It’, made most famous by Dinah Washington. Collaborations with REM, Billy Bragg and Susan McKeown almost, but don’t quite work, while the closing ‘Come Take A Trip In My Airship’ unfortunately ends up on the wrong side of twee. Despite these infelicities, however, Retrospective is, overall, a very impressive collection that fully displays Merchant’s lyrical and interpretive gifts.

Alex Ramon
originally published March 25th, 2006 

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Metric
Live It Out ••••
Drowned In Sound

Back in their native Canada, it’s practically impossible to meet anyone of a certain age who hasn’t caught on to the hype of Emily Haines and her trio of musical men. Their debut Old World Underground, Where Are You Now? was hugely successful and earned the band a place in the hearts of young hipsters all over the nation. Live It Out, the much-anticipated follow-up was released last year, attracting the attention of British indie label Drowned In Sound (home to fellow Canuck Martha Wainwright) who are issuing this UK edition. Right out of the starting blocks it’s clear that Live It Out is fantastically diverse, blending genres with ease. Is it electro-pop? Melodic punk? Distorted garage rock? Eighties new wave synth nostalgia? Actually, it’s all of them, and even finds room for some heart-rending piano balladry. Phew!

Haines’s presence surely ups the potential for Metric to achieve mass idolisation above and beyond recognition of her occasional contributions to Canadian supergroup Broken Social Scene. Her lyrical ability and vocal range – an assortment of throaty whispered hushes, authoritative roars and everything in between – perfectly compliments and contrasts with the musical backdrop. Building upon, but not exhausting, the beguiling pop/rock sound that made Old World Underground… so accessible, Live It Out retains the winning formula for indisputably catchy crowd-pleasing riffs, yet noticeably focuses much more on rocking out with heavier guitars, thunderous drums, fun solos and everything feedback.

Probably the catchiest song on the album, ‘Monster Hospital’ begins with an upbeat, distorted riff that will compel you to subtly headbang and madly tap your feet. With a sly nod to The Clash, Haines howls “I fought the war / but the war won!” amidst a pleasantly simple drum line and creeping high notes. The exuberant ‘Handshakes’ is another highlight, oozing sarcasm with its chanted mantra of “Buy this car to drive to work / drive to work to pay for this car”. Recent single ‘Poster Of A Girl’ boasts a disco-esque beat, heavy synths and extreme danceability, Haines’s vocal switching effortlessly from cooing in English to quietly murmuring in French. Elsewhere, ‘Ending Start’ veers the furthest from the sprightly pop/rock appeal of the rest of the album; drenched in a river of reverb, Haines sings “Gave them our explosions, reactions, all that was ours / for graphs of passion and charts of stars”. The delicate piano, melodious ethereal guitar and haunting resonance of the vocals permits the song to linger and enchant.

For some fans, Live It Out might not live up to the ‘modern classic’ status of Old World Underground…, while others may blame the fervent hype for setting such lofty expectations. Whatever. The fact remains that this is another undeniably well-crafted piece of work that, at its best, will rock your clothes off. Turn up the speakers, put on your dancing footwear, and for goodness sake, hang on to your trousers!

Lisa Komorowska
originally published July 2nd, 2006 

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Mi & L’au
Mi & L’au ••••
Young God

These two must have the cutest backstory ever. After meeting each other in Paris, Finnish model Mi and French musician L’au fell madly in love and quickly came to resent the encroachment of the outside world into their private bliss. Not wanting to do things by halves or compromise with their surroundings, they upped sticks and retreated into splendid isolation deep within a Finnish forest where they have been living ever since with only each other and their music for company. Until, presumably, Michael Gira – once of Swans and now big strong boss of Young God Records, the original home of Devendra Banhart – came a-wanderin’ through the trees lookin’ for some new troubadours to take the place of the aforesaid beardie, now that he’s flirting with popularity on a bigger label. But while Mi & L’au certainly share a great deal of Banhart’s acoustic palette, their sound owes more to the measured, stately flow of Gira’s current Angels Of Light project than to Devendra’s more recognisably folksy leanings.

Although Mi & L’au are in the enviable position of having found ultimate sanctuary in themselves and their hermetic retreat, their music is the antithesis of the soupy tedium that cripples so many ‘love’ songs. Indeed, many of these songs seem to question the very permanence and truth of love and romantic feeling; again, these are topics that wouldn’t seem out of place on an Angels Of Light disc. That said, opener ‘They Marry’ speaks of the bliss of love’s falling, albeit unconventionally, utilising layers of naked instrumentation that glide from filmic fairground swells to softly plucked balladry.

Throughout the album, Mi’s vocals are recorded close enough for the listener to feel her very breath on their cheek, all cracks and imperfections magnified to uneasy, intimate dimensions. You can even hear her clear her throat at the end of Andy. In a starker vein still, ‘How’ shuffles along like an unhurried march over which Mi is found singing of emptiness as the single piano notes push briefly illuminate a darkened landscape like beautiful flickering stars. Elsewhere, ‘Philosopher’ extends the sepulchral atmosphere, utilising a two-chord guitar figure and enough space between notes as to bring to mind prime Low (a comparison that’s perhaps made more appropriate by the fact that Low are also a songwriting husband and wife team… oh, and a bassist, but he’s left now anyway.)

More than once, L’au takes over the vocal duties, providing a welcome contrast with his uneven, vulnerable delivery making ‘I’ve Been Watching You’ and the duo of baby paeans, ‘World In Your Belly’ and ‘New Born Child’, gorgeously affecting. Speaking of affecting and gorgeous, if album closer ‘Study’ is truly a study of anything, it’s got to be of stasis; gentle swells of accordion and strings frame Mi’s floating vocal and take it absolutely nowhere, perfectly happy to circle and converge, grow and recede like the bubbles that glisten and sparkle in the mix.

Inasmuch as it takes the instrumentation of the (largely) American neo-folk scene and takes it somewhere more considered and European-sounding – like a more bucolic Angels Of Light, or a less improvisatory Akron/Family – this gentle, reflective album must be considered a success. Ironically enough, only a certain coldness and emotional distance holds their music back from being truly brilliant, but be in no doubt that this tiny army of lovers are certainly ones to watch.

Adam Smith 
originally published May 7th, 2006

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Amy Millan
Honey From The Tombs •••½ 
Arts & Crafts/V2

Few artists can pull off an entirely elegiac album without sounding overly tedious or annoyingly self-pitying, but Stars frontwoman Amy Millan has just about done it on her first solo outing. Honey From The Tombs is a highly intimate work of self-disclosure that touches upon loss, emptiness, restlessness, love gone wrong and the healing effects of whiskey on a broken heart.

Although Millan tries to dodge the ‘country’ label, the conventions and sensibilities of the genre are clearly instated in the upbeat twangy guitars, banjos and mandolins, blues-infused solos and melancholy finger-picked acoustics. Further justifying this is the presence of bluegrass group Crazy Strings on back-up. Even so, some tracks are arguably more folk than country, a few more pop than folk, and several lean more towards a traditional rock sound. Interestingly, these songs are the product of several years spent as works in progress. “I wrote all the songs prior to joining Stars,” Millan revealed in a recent interview with the Montreal Gazette, “then I ran away from home to L.A.; I came back to a black hole…”

There are numerous highlights; a disconsolate narrative on the loss of first love, ‘He Brings Out The Whiskey In Me’ comes as close to classic country as you can get — and even Millan admits to this — with its light rhythmic picking, gentle slide guitar and ruminations on where it all went wrong. Abandoning the twangy lap-steel in favour of multi-layered dreamy atmospherics, ‘Skinny Boy’ is reminiscent of Stars’ engaging pop aura with its feathery lush vocals, xylophone and guitar. It’s also one of the few tracks with drums, and while it’s pretty enough to stick in the memory, it stays within well-mapped territory for Millan and is certainly nothing novel. The rocky ‘Headsfull’ is short but sweet, while the swirling electro essence of ‘Wayward & Parliament’ makes for an incongruent anomaly among the simplistic quietude that characterises the rest of the album.

The exquisitely somnolent ‘Pour Me Up Another’ signals an end to proceedings, Millan’s tear-tinged musings meeting despairing, clean acoustic lines to create a pathos unparalleled by her earlier efforts: “the nights are for forgetting who I am / so pour me up another before bed” — OK, so perhaps many of Millan’s turns of phrase are not really all that far removed from your average garden variety country song, but for the most part she employs enough musical variety that, as a whole, it somehow works.

Honey From The Tombs is neither groundbreaking nor wearisome. Some tracks are pleasant but interchangeable; others are catchy and poignant enough to include in your cathartic heartbreak compilation. On the whole, it makes for a memorable collection that works best when you’re in the mood for mellowness, but keep it within reach for those days when you’re nursing a bottle of whiskey and feeling real lonesome.

Lisa Komorowska
originally published July 2nd, 2006 

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Liza Minnelli
Liza With A ‘Z’ [reissue] ••
BMG

Originally released in 1972 to coincide with the film release of Kander and Ebb’s musical ‘Cabaret’, this was a televised showcase for Liza Minnelli’s stage credentials; talents that would see her run away with the Best Actress gong at the following year’s Oscar ceremony. The release of this remastered Grammy Award winning album was issued as a prelude to a full DVD.

Guided by ‘Cabaret’ director, the legendary Bob Fosse, this audio recording of the show remains an intriguing journey through traditional standards and modern compositions, although even the contemporary tracks, infused with wah-wah guitars and funky basslines, still show their age. Such television specials are a staple of the US networks, and each number is an all-singing, all-dancing affair. ‘Son Of A Preacher Man’ is a song of such excess, but falls someway short of Dusty Springfield’s definitive version, while ‘Bye, Bye Blackbird’ is given the full Fosse treatment (click, tap, heel, tap) though, again, the staging of the number is somewhat incongruous with the gently sanguine lyrics. A demanding director, Fosse would control every affectation, ad-lib and aside and the note-perfect songs, while impressive on screen, leaves the recording a little bit flat.

There is no doubt that Minnelli puts on a good show, and even on record you can imagine the clenched fists and theatrical gestures that accompany the vocal octave leaps and key changes. Liza With A ‘Z’ serves as a reminder of Minnelli’s impressive vocal range and the ‘Cabaret Medley’ is a perfect trailer for the full-length versions. From ‘Wilkommen’ and the sublime ‘Money, Money’ to the emotive ‘Maybe This Time’ and the high-kicking title tune finale, each audio vignette evokes the divine decadence of Weimar Berlin so evocatively captured on film. Even the lines “the day she died the neighbours came to snicker / well, that’s what comes from too much pills and liquor” have acquired added prescience in light of Minnelli’s public recovery from alcoholism.

Perhaps the biggest shame of Minnelli’s career is that she possessed enough unique talent to transcend mother Judy Garland’s success, but chose instead to live in her shadow, almost as if Garland left the stage and Minnelli returned for the encore. Clinging to a lost era of Hollywood razzmatazz, these days Minnelli is a grand high priestess of camp by proxy, replaying her mother’s on-stage dramatics, effortlessly gliding between tragedy and survival, before sending those “happy little bluebirds” to tug at the heartstrings of her audience.

Here, ‘Mammy’ provides the less than oblique nod to her famous mother, while ‘God Bless The Child’ is yet another reminder of her Hollywood royalty credentials (her father was director Vincente Minnelli). “Momma may have / Poppa may have / but God bless the child that’s got his own” she trills, and for a few years in the 1970s, Minnelli truly did have it all. Equal parts actress, singer and dancer, Minnelli’s versatility made her hot property and her maternal genetics ensured further success in Martin Scorsese’s ‘New York, New York’.

You can’t make a star without some edges, and even if Minnelli is more of a tabloid curiosity these days, remnants like this from her heyday are testament to the last stand of Hollywood’s golden era, but this live recording lacks dimension and is perhaps best experienced on DVD. However, the ambition is admirable and you get the feeling that even if she wasn’t topping the bill, Minnelli would still steal the show.

Stephen Collings
originally published May 24th, 2006 

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Kylie Minogue
Ultimate Kylie ••••
Parlophone

Pouting like a blow-up sex doll on the sleeve, unnecessarily airbrushed to within an inch of her life, Parlophone present the very essence of Minogue…or do they? In the midst of our celeb-obsessed cultural meltdown, Kylie has remained an admirably tight-lipped emblem of privacy, a tiny totem of schtumm. As this compilation more than adequately proves, her music too holds few clues.

Since 1987, she has been putty in the sweaty hands of pop, moulded by those around her, or so the rock snobs would have you believe. The truth, I suspect, is that underneath the layers of plasticity lies a woman plenty savvy enough to both define and defy her public persona. Live, she seems sometimes steely, often overpolished but rarely ever at ease. Her audience banter is typically painful and strained, one awkwardly uncool remove from the unprepossessing and endearing self she often reveals in interviews. Placed in an everyday conversational context Kylie positively glows, but up there on her media pedestal her natural charisma takes a holiday and she is often accused of being a bit of a blank canvas. OK, it may have been true back in the late ‘80s when she first effervesced her way into the non-‘Neighbours’ watching national consciousness – the bubble permed, bubble bathing introduction that was ‘I Should Be So Lucky’ seemed to mark her out as a one or two album wonder. Eighteen years down the line, however, the suggestion that Kylie is still not manning the controls is simply not giving credit where it’s overdue.

Let’s look at the evidence. It cannot be disputed that FluffyKylie, whose hits included the aforementioned ‘I Should Be So Lucky’, ‘The Loco-motion’, ‘Hand On Your Heart’ and the emetic ‘Especially For You’, was the brainchild of the Stock, Aitken and Waterman triumvirate. Their tinny, soulless production was the second worst virus of the decade and sucked the marrow from my childhood then dared me to buy it back. I did of course – what 9-year old boy wasn’t in love with Kylie? Thank the stars then for Michael Hutchence, tragic INXS singer and usherer in of the SexKylie (© NME) era. Like Madonna before her, Minogue discovered that it’s street sex in fishnets, not surburban sex in a pastel twin-set that sells. Douze points!

At odds with the SAW family image, Kylie decamped to the ice-cool Deconstruction label, conjuring up two bona fide classics in the bargain – ‘Confide In Me’ and ‘Put Yourself In My Place’ – lovely! Cue grown men throwing their turntables out of their prams. Kylie Minogue having hits on Deconstruction? It just wouldn’t do and so it proved. The critical backlash for the next incarnation, KookyKylie, was unrelenting, despite some surprisingly durable indie tunes (‘Did It Again’, ‘Breathe’) and a duet to literally die for with fellow Aussie, Nick Cave (‘Where The Wild Roses Grow’). Aficionados of this era may well sniff at the omission of the pleasing ‘Some Kind Of Bliss’ from this collection, while the truly besotted will surely shed a quiet tear for ‘German Bold Italic’.

Morphing into Kylie2000, Minogue returned to slay the country once more, armed with a pair of skimpy gold hotpants and a warehouse full of pop hooks good enough to hang a handbag on. Five years and one über-tune (‘Can’t Get You Out Of My Head’) later, while Body Language‘s BardotKylie may have rubbed off some of her sheen, the good news is that the two new tracks here are among her very best. ‘I Believe In You’ in particular is a nagging little gem, co-written with members of the latest New York name-to-drops, Scissor Sisters.

The most compelling evidence for a Minogue heart beating at Kylie’s control panel is her willingness to experiment, her tenacity at sticking things out and the absolute humanity of her errors. Still, whether you believe she’s a Botoxicated mannequin masterminded by others or a super trouper flying her own flag, at least half of these songs are undisputedly essential.

Alan Pedder 
originally published May 19th, 2005

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Juana Molina
Son •••½
Domino

To the novice outsider, Latin-American music doesn’t seem to have all that much going for it. If you’re lucky, you’ll have bypassed completely the desperate attempts of Shakira and Enrique Iglesias to introduce some culture to their otherwise uninteresting output. Of course, no genre should be judged by its airbrushed pin-ups and it’s always worth digging just a little bit deeper. To those unafraid to scrabble around and delve beneath the muck, Argentine songstress Juana Molina will come as a welcome surprise – a genuine talent whose acoustic guitar doesn’t jar to the sound of tap dancers in flamenco dresses, whose voice is far removed from the shrill mating call of the Costa del Sol’s greased-up, hypersexual waiters. Moving into music following a successful career as a comedic actress in the 1980s, Son (Spanish for ‘sound’) is Molina’s third album and arguably her best to date, filled with Björk-like quirks and soothing bedsit rock.

The lyrics are an obvious stumbling block for the monolingual majority of Britons; there’s little depth here for non-Spanish speakers who may fail to be creatively captivated by what will essentially be a collection of meaningless sounds. Luckily, Molina is smart enough to realise this and attempts to avoid the problem by packing Son with liberal use of phonetically pleasing a cappella performances, particularly on the cooing ‘Yo No’. There are stylistic nods, too, to various English-speaking artists; both ‘Ha Que Ver Si Voy’ and ‘Elena’ contain elements of Jim Noir’s psychedelic chanting, while ‘Las Culpas’ arguably sounds like Cat Power after a particularly heavy night of drinking. Furthermore, the trumpet and didgeridoo mash-up on ‘La Verdad’ proves that Molina ain’t no one-trick potro, while ‘Desordenado’ is reminiscent of Gemma Hayes’s soft lulling harmonies and ‘Miceal’ is in a world of its own.

Although it’s rather unlikely that this relatively subdued album will find a sizable audience outside of the electro-folk faithful, Molina is a mightily skilled performer. So if you can bear to stay in the dark about what the hell she’s singing, you’ll find this record ideal for whiling away our many rainy days. Unlike many of the poster girls of Latin-American music, an English-language album from Molina would be no commercial gimmick, it would be an event! For now, however, just revel in the mystery.

Tiffany Daniels 
originally published July 2nd, 2006

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Allison Moorer
Getting Somewhere •••½
Sugar Hill

Unbeknownst to all but the most discerning and curious of UK music fans, country star Allison Moorer has quietly constructed an impeccable back catalogue, never compromising her values for mainstream success, remaining stubbornly loyal to the one thing that makes people return to her, album after album – the music. Each album has witnessed a distinct progression in her sound without losing one iota of her individual styling and wonderfully expressive voice. Having carved out a niche in the country-pop genre, Moorer is now much in demand for Hollywood soundtracks and a firm favourite on the live circuit, where in 2004 she recorded a live album with her older sister, the equally uncompromising Shelby Lynne. Now, in 2006, newly married to Steve Earle, it seems she finally feels as if she may be Getting Somewhere.

Moorer has created no shortage of gems since 1998′s debut album Alabama Song, immersing herself in the southern soul of 2000′s The Hardest Part before delivering 2004′s harder-edged The Duel. Her appeal owes a great deal to her ability to get beneath the skin of human relationships without lazily ambling down Cliché Street. Moorer takes the road less travelled, telling stories through anything but rose-tinted glasses. Just a short while into the album, however, it becomes clear that married life may have taken the edge off somewhat – Allison’s happy, and here’s a snappy, concise 39 minutes of mostly upbeat music to prove it. It’s refreshing to see an artist unafraid to say all she’s got to say in songs that rarely climb over the three minute barrier. When music’s this good, quality beats quantity every time. Though her husband’s production has left the drums a little leaden and tinny and the guitars a touch more grungy than anything she’s done before, the catchy melodies remain.

Opener ‘Work To Do’ unveils her newly positive outlook – “I’ve got a lot of work to do / got to give you back your point of view / it suits you fine / it’s just not mine…” – while ‘You’ll Never Know’, ‘Take It So Hard’ and the beautiful ‘Where You Are’ are all fine examples of her invigorating craft. That’s not to say there isn’t an undercurrent of doubt and anxiety, but the pop stylings and a cappella intro of ‘Fairweather’ make for an interesting contrast. Where the old Moorer would have sung this song of finding post-break-up freedom from the viewpoint of a wronged woman, here we have instead a liberated female looking forward to the single life. It’s a subtle distinction, but an important one nevertheless. More importantly, it’s also (whisper it quietly) single material, one of a couple of songs that feel like they’ve been written with a more commercial slant.

Another highlight and a nod to her previous output can be found in ‘If It’s Just For Today’, a realistic look at the reasons why two people get and stay together and reminiscent in feel to ‘Can’t Get There From Here’ from 2002′s Miss Fortune. It’s dedicated (perhaps a little bravely) to Earle; presumably his famously tough exterior took it in the way it’s intended. Whether or not Moorer will continue to allow this honeymoon period to influence her writing remains to be seen, but for the moment we should be happy for her and happy that she can still produce work of this quality. There’s a classic album in her somewhere; this isn’t it, but the summer would be worse without it.

Paul Woodgate
originally published July 10th, 2006 

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Alanis Morissette
Jagged Little Pill Acoustic •••
Maverick

The first thing that came to mind when Alanis Morissette announced that she would be releasing a 10th Anniversary edition of her 1995 multi-multi-million selling debut Jagged Little Pill was that her label, Madonna’s famously loss-making Maverick Records, needed to boost their profit margin and quick. Certainly, this record is either a genius marketing ploy on their part or a genuine sign of Morissette’s affection for the songs, for rather than just repackaging the original along with a few live songs, four-track demos and a DVD of the lacklustre ‘Jagged Little Pill Live’ tour documentary, Morissette and her original producer Glen Ballard huddled back into the studio together to re-record the album as an all-acoustic feast.

To be honest, my expectations were not high. If any album was era-defining, Jagged Little Pill was it. Its angsty sturm-and-drang brought me into womanhood; yes, I was one of those girls punching my fist into the air with a feminist “fuck yeah!”, even though at age 11 I had little to really rave about. How pleasantly surprising then that Jagged Little Pill Acoustic is a minor revelation in itself. From the first opening note, Alanis’s own growth, both personal and musical, is clear. Although some songs hardly differ in terms of arrangement, the addition of some subtle orchestration and the obvious replacement of snarling electrics with gentle acoustic guitars all gels together for a very mellow and easygoing album, perfect for accompanying a long glass of Grenache.

Jagged Little Pill Acoustic runs to precisely the same order as its blueprint, and the opener ‘All I Really Want’ is a highlight in its new skin, recalling her epic 1998 album Supposed Former Infatuation Junkie, with its Eastern influences and dancing strings. This does, however, mean that the version of ‘Your House’ here must rank as the least unexpected hidden track in history. In spite of this, it varies on its previous theme by ditching the poetic a cappella and presenting itself as a gently strummed ditty. Elsewhere, the infamous single Ironic has undergone a slightly wincing lyrical change reflecting society’s progression into the Queer Eye age (“It’s like meeting the man of my dreams and then meeting his beautiful husband”) but otherwise is melodically intact and pleasant enough.

Considering the original’s inescapable ubiquity, this remake seems almost like a hits collection. But while best-ofs and greatest hits often leave this listener cold, Jagged Little Pill Acoustic clearly maps out Alanis’s musical journey over the past decade and serves as a reminder of a great collection of songs.

Elisavet Leondariti
originally published September 9th, 2005 

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Alanis Morissette
The Collection ••½ 
Maverick

Arriving just a few months after a less-than-essential tenth anniversary acoustic edition of her mighty debut, Jagged Little Pill, it’s possible to view this hits compilation of Morissette’s work as symptomatic of record label desperation. Are Maverick simply trying their hardest to wring as much mileage as possible out of the back catalogue of an artist who, for many, has failed to fulfil the creative or commercial promise of her phenomenal early success? Errant thoughts such as these may well pass through your mind as you listen to The Collection. In all fairness, however, this retrospective does have a little more to offer than such a cynical assessment suggests. In particular, for those who gave up on Morissette in the late ‘90s – that is, about mid-way through the endurance test that was Supposed Former Infatuation JunkieThe Collection functions as a valuable recap of what she’s been up to since, and a chance for listeners to reflect upon the qualities that make her, at times, a very special artist indeed. Unfortunately, though, the record also offers a few clues as to why her post-Pill output has been somewhat less than stellar.

The 18 tracks chosen for the album are broadly representative: five songs from Jagged Little Pill, a smattering from her other studio records, one from her MTV Unplugged disc, a trio of soundtrack contributions, some rarities, and a new cover (for less casual listeners, a special digipak edition supplements the CD with a one-hour documentary and a few other extras). There are, inevitably, some regrettable omissions: superior album cuts such as ‘Front Row’, ‘Narcissus’, ‘Surrendering’, ‘21 Things I Want In A Lover’ and ‘That Particular Time’ would have better displayed her gifts than some of the chosen tracks, but then no ‘best of’ collection ever pleased everyone. Less surprisingly, but perhaps a little disappointingly for some, there’s nothing featured from her early days as a teenage bubble-permed popstar either. The inclusion of some particularly obscure tracks (such as ‘Mercy’, her contribution to Jonathan Elias’s 1999 project of multi-language devotional songs entitled The Prayer Cycle) indicates that Morissette intends The Collection to be something rather more ambitious than a standard greatest hits package.

The sequencing is non-chronological and begins with …Junkie’s enduring first single ‘Thank U’, one of several of her beguiling paeans to experience as teacher. Of the less familiar tracks, ‘Sister Blister’ (from the CD/DVD package Feast On Scraps) rocks nicely and offers a trenchant view of gender roles and female competitiveness. The aforementioned ‘Mercy’ is a bizarre inclusion, however; a botched attempt at spiritual rapture on which Morissette (singing in Hungarian) duets with Salif Keita. As admirable as her decision not to follow a predictable course with this release is, it’s a tactic that often backfires and renders The Collection a rather uneven listening experience.

Indeed, quality control is sadly variable throughout. At her best, Morissette is a witty and insightful writer whose songs excavate sharp emotional truths; at her worst, she sounds like she’s reciting from a self-help manual, and a second-rate one at that. For every subtle, surprising lyrical detail that strikes a nerve, such as “I remembered you the moment I met you” in ‘Simple Together’, there’s a corresponding slide into cringe-making banality: “I thought we’d be sexy together… I thought we’d have children together.” Also exposed is her irritating penchant for repetitious ‘listing’ song structures. This compositional style – an attempt at litany? – allows little room for ambiguity, nuance or progression beyond glib paradoxes of the “I’m the funniest woman you’ve ever known… I’m the dullest woman you’ve ever known” / “I’m your doubt and your conviction” variety.

Morissette’s vocal performances can be similarly erratic. Her singing on Jagged Little Pill had character, edge, spontaneity and the power to command your attention. And while these qualities are still sometimes in evidence on her later work, they have mostly been stifled by increasingly slick and soulless production. To listen to her music is to bear witness to a gradual erosion of personality. She is, The Collection also reveals, an artist whose interpretive skills still require honing. A new cover of Seal’s ‘Crazy’ is passable, though utterly undistinguished, but an over-eager take on Cole Porter’s ‘Let’s Do It (Let’s Fall In Love)’ from the ‘De-Lovely’ soundtrack cruelly exposes her limitations, sticking out like the proverbial sore thumb. Since many of her songs are somewhat similar in tempo, a little of her work can go a long way. Whatever their deficiencies, quieter moments such as ‘Simple Together’ and ‘That I Would Be Good’ do offer a needed respite.

The nicest surprise though is just how well the Jagged Little Pill tracks have worn: ‘You Oughta Know’ retains its startling ferocity, ‘Head Over Feet’ reveals itself as a surprisingly sweet love song, while ‘Hand In My Pocket’ remains a glorious anthem. But then you probably own all those songs already and they gain little when presented out of context. Of the other tracks, the disturbing ‘Hands Clean’ – which does allow for some lyrical ambiguity – is one that you may find yourself returning to. That Morissette is a talented young artist who has yet to fully find her voice on record is the abiding impression given by The Collection. Hopefully, its release will mark a turning point in her career, freeing her up to reconnect with her muse and thereby take her music in some interesting new directions.

Alex Ramon
originally published February 6th, 2006 

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The Morning After Girls
Shadows Evolve •••
Best Before

Their press release will tell you that The Morning After Girls’s “… hazy melodies pull you right into the world of the morning after – a moment they characterise by a dreamy grogginess, a dischord of transient yet striking memories and sounds, nostalgia; a yearning to go back to last night…” Or, depending on your taste, just to stick your head in a toilet.

But seriously, The Morning After Girls are regarded by some as yet another entry in a long line of fashionable faux-New York bands who emulate Lou Reed; hard-working but perhaps a little over-hyped. So what the musical offspring of these five Aussies really sounds like is initially not so cool (at least, not in my book), taking us back to the shoegaze era with startling precision, where one must keep an eye out for The Charlatan-osaurus sniffing a Stone Rose on a kind of Happy Monday, whilst all team members probably dye their hair black in the name of über-chic and have definitely listened to the noisier bits of The Dandy Warhols.

OK, so you get the idea that The Morning After Girls (who, controversially, are all men save for sometime vocalist Aimee Nash) would probably have fitted in much better, say, fifteen years ago. Refer to the title track and ‘Always Mine’ for two obvious examples if you don’t just believe everything you read. Yes, this debut offering is mostly disguised as ‘proper indie’, even featuring a cameo by Ride’s Mark Gardener, no less, meaning I had to listen to it at least three times before I could even begin to appreciate it. After which, it was gathered that the word ‘disguised’ is particularly apt. Because, once you chomp past the somewhat indigestible and rather bland exoskeleton of self-proclaimed psychedelia moulded into the start of the album, you are rewarded with something much more worthy of your pennies.

So while the unavoidable instrumentals shamelessly appear to boast more of laziness than of creativity – the few lyrics that were thrown in justify this, even admitting “ain’t got a lot to say” – glowing treats from the melodic and upbeat ‘Straight Through You’ to the aggressive Cobain-esque vocal of first single ‘Hi-Skies’ and the sweeping stoner lust of The Beatles crossed with The Vines-inspired tracks like ‘Slowdown’ and ‘Chasing Us Under’, make for a much more convincing dynamic. Indeed, the phrase “saved by the bell” comes to mind.

Though by no means a unique specimen, The Morning After Girls are worth checking out as they pimp their noisy wares at the festivals this summer, if only to hear what they are under-rated for. Like uncovering a rare fossil of the long-forgotten time when Damon Albarn sported a bowl cut, blow off the dusty bits and you’ll no doubt get excited.

Anna Claxton
originally published June 12th, 2006 

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Morningwood
Morningwood ••
Capitol

The great thing about Morningwood is that you’re left in no doubt when they’re in the vicinity. The New York foursome are loud, glam and put on a spectacular live show, largely helped by the youthful exuberance of their wonderfully christened frontwoman, Chantal Claret. But can they cut it on CD, stripped of their visuals and spontaneity? Well they certainly can’t be criticised for not giving it their best shot. Lead track ‘Nü Rock’ slaps you upside your head with an in your face rock ‘n’ roll tune and a statement of intent, Claret screaming “come on get over it, come on get into it” over crunching riffs before finishing with the battle cry “it starts right now!”

Next, ‘Televisor’ approaches metal territory with all guns blazing, with Claret’s wailing falsetto oozing attitude. But before you have them pegged as some sort of glam rock beast, ‘Nth Degree’ arrives to surprise and confuse. It’s basically a big MOR Europop number that sounds like it’s being played by electropop robots with lyrics that spell out the name of the band. You can imagine it going down well in gay discos across the land. And do you know what, it sounds pretty good. But by the time you reach the fourth track, ‘Jetsetter’, familiarity begins to creep in, bringing as it does a contemptible lack of fresh ideas. It’s the usual brash stomping tune, with aggressive riffs and a hollered bit over the drum break. Similarly, while ‘Take Off Your Clothes’ may inspire some audience members to do just that at their live shows, here it rips the heart from ‘Smells Like Teen Spirit’ and renders it simply boring. ‘Body 21′ carries on the slip into formulaic nonsense, being a semi-dramatic rock tune full of half-baked lyrical clichés like “my body’s 21 but my mind is ageless”. Elsewhere, ‘Easy’ is all stadium posturing and screeching electric guitar solos, while ‘Babysitter’ is slightly more restrained and all the better for it. It’s still none too exciting, however.

After all this, ‘New York Girls’ comes as a nice surprise, more New Wave pop than over the top. The interruptions from riffing guitars and Go! Team-style shambolics sit rather well in the tune and make for a more interesting listen. In fact, it marks the start of a closing trio that trounces the majority of the rest of the album. ‘Everybody Rules’ is straightforward bouncy pop but with cool singalong bits, while ‘Ride The Lights’ is a rather surprising Saint Etienne-style, saccharine-coated pedestrian pop song. With more songs like these, Morningwood could yet avoid being put down as a lame one-trick pony.

Russell Barker
originally published March 8th, 2006 

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Rebecca Mosley
Morning Warning Chorus EP ••
Self-released

There’s nothing especially bad about this release from Stoke-on-Trent’s Rebecca Mosley; there’s nothing particularly good either, and the unremarkable nature of her debut sampler makes it frustratingly difficult to review. Mosley may list her influences as “anything from Kate Bush and Liz Fraser to Elliott Smith and Leonard Cohen”, but it’s hard to detect any traces of the originality that characterises these artists in Mosley’s music; as such, her songs can only pale in comparison.

For starters, opening number ‘Power In Paper’ is discordant in an amateurish rather than artful fashion (see Nina Nastasia’s ‘I Say That I Will Go’ for a good example of the latter) and the lyrics are clunky; “so did they bolt up the truth / the document weight / such a flimsy folded fate” sounds little better sung than it does on the page. On a positive note, Mosley’s voice is strong and versatile; it deserves better songs to work with. The strident acoustic guitar work jars against the ears and the lack of structure really doesn’t help. ‘Queues’ meanders in at a lengthy 6:42, long outstaying its welcome despite some pleasingly growly vocals reminiscent of Tori Amos’s ‘Pancake’.

And then it’s back to the major bugbear: the lyrics. Mosley tries too hard to be clever and too often comes unstuck. Recalling the kind of poems you stumble upon in an old notebook from your student days, scan over and hastily put away with embarrassment, the words pile up against each other but what they actually add up to is anybody’s guess. For example, “so tell me a joke please / so I can store it in a cool dry place / with your plastic attic angels / on their stone cold changeling chase” (‘Store In A Cool Dry Place’). Elsewhere, we have “fickle-fisted words”, “speckled mascara gratings making negative constellations” and light that “plays tricks like flashback movie flicks”.

Nonsense rhyme and alliteration all have their place but tend to grate when used to excess and at the expense of communicating anything worthwhile. Back to the drawing board.

Danny Weddup 
originally published November 23rd, 2006

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Múm
Yesterday Was Dramatic, Today Is OK [reissue] •••
Morr Music

It was only after the crushingly beautiful and critically revered Ágætis Byrjun by fellow Icelanders Sigur Rós that experimental foursome Múm gained recognition in the UK, helped in no small way by the fact that their second album, 2002′s Finally We Are No One, was released on the same label. But to dismiss them for riding on their countrymen’s tails would be a mistake; in their own unassuming way, Múm were pioneers too, as this reissue of their 1999 debut proves, albeit for better or worse.

Originally released on tiny Icelandic indie label Thule, it soon went out of print and, following a long and messy legal wrangle, the band regained the rights earlier this year and set about remastering the songs in preparation for this re-release on German label, Morr Music. Aside from the fact that Morr is owned by friends of the band, their roster includes some of the IDM (Intelligent Dance Music) genre’s brightest leading lights, many of whom contributed to the Morr Music Múm remix record, Please Smile My Noise Bleed. A fitting home then, but what of the album itself?

Despite the newly-tooled tune-ups, Yesterday… only serves to indicate how far the band has come in the last half-decade. Disappointingly, twin sister siren-like vocalists Kristín and Gyða (who has since departed the band) Valtýsdóttir appear on only three tracks. But what tracks they are! The most glorious moments, for instance, the end of ‘There Is A Number Of Small Things’ and the first few minutes of ‘Awake On A Train’, are breathtakingly beautiful. The former is so full of joy that it conjures the urge to run through a sunlit grassy field, while the latter accurately replicates that inner warmth you can feel when looking out from the window of a train over a glinting snowy vista as it sparkles in the sun.

Mostly though, the album sounds like exactly what it is: a bunch of teenagers sitting in a room playing with a synthesiser and a few acoustic instruments. Many of the songs have a single musical theme that is endlessly repeated and changes infrequently. As a result, it occasionally gets excessively tiresome, and some of the noodling sound effects are painful. Certainly, if their later records can be said to hold some debt to Sigur Rós, Yesterday… suffers from being a touch too in thrall of Aphex Twin. It has some nice enough moments, but is really for completists only. If you’re new to the band, try the bewitching, aquatically-themed Finally We Are No One or last year’s simpler and wonderfully ghostly Summer Make Good.

Bryn Williams
originally published December 19th, 2005 

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Róisín Murphy
Ruby Blue ••
Echo

Rumours of Moloko’s death have been greatly exaggerated. At least, I sincerely hope so. When quizzed on reuniting with her ex, Mark Brydon, the impossible-to-type Róisín ‘pronounced Rosheen’ Murphy has offered the predictably gnomic response, “I don’t not want to.” That’s promising enough for this listener. While the familiar set-up remains intact – feisty, barking mad Irish vocalist meets cutting-edge bedroom DJ turned producer – none of Moloko’s loveable Balearic stomp has survived. Instead, Murphy’s defection to one Matthew Herbert has resulted in an album of two halves; those of two egos. One is fragile and over-compensatory, getting back on its feet after a year of limbo, and the other overwhelmed and eager to please. This album is a make-or-break statement for both parties, which only adds to the overall disappointment.

Even in a world of iPod Shuffles and cut-and-paste playlists, an album should still be listened to properly, tracks one through twelve, at least until you can safely discard some of them without the risk of overlooking a nascent classic. It is therefore surprising that Ruby Blue‘s opening salvoes – the ones supposed to leap up and grab you by the balls – are so tentative, especially given how much this album has to prove. A faltering tinkle of keyboards kicks off ‘Leaving The City’, meandering in an aimless fashion that soon becomes a trademark of the album as a whole. Eventually, that husky croon we know and love shuffles to the forefront and remains there, steadfast. Reassuring? Unfortunately not. Instrumentation behind a voice as strong and distinctive as Murphy’s should complement and support, not jar as much as this. Herbert’s conscious decision to use a ramshackle collage of everyday random noises, jazz refrains, dance grooves and synthetic skiffle very rarely hits the right note. ‘Night Of The Dancing Flame’ can only be described as Dizzy Gillespie meets The Ewoks.

Things are a little brighter with ‘Through Time’. It’s a welcoming simpler affair, wrapped in gentle layers of organ and decorated with plucked acoustic guitar and cascading arpeggiated motifs. Heralding a string of stronger offerings, it is soon followed by ‘Sow Into You’. Here, one is reminded of Muphy’s Moloko diva status; a status built on a dance remix of ‘Sing It Back’ that made it onto over a hundred compilations and hundreds more dancefloors. The first and most obvious single from Ruby Blue comes with ‘If We’re In Love’, easily the most accessible and immediate of Murphy’s erratic stable. “If we’re in love, we should make love. When will be lovers?” she asks. One has a sneaking suspicion that this enigmatic girl isn’t letting on as much as we’d like to imagine. This is a lyric as poptastically bland as the market she’s aiming for.

For me, the title track is far too long coming. Buried three-quarters of the way into the album, it’s a glorious romp of grunge guitar, handclaps, jubilant backing “woos!” and swirling, multi-layered vocals. Sadly, it’s an all too brief glimpse into the heights that Murphy and Herbert could scale, but… well… don’t. The album’s solid middle section finishes here, bookended by a clutch of damp squibs. It bows out on as subdued a note as it started. Perhaps Murphy really was assuming that people would listen this solely on an iPod Shuffle.

This record might have served as a versatile and grandiose addition to Matthew Herbert’s portfolio – surely his magnum opus so far. Instead, it falls flat, weighed down by overbearing vocals far too high in the mix and much too complex to play bedfellow to the laboured production. Indeed, this is as much Herbert’s record as it is Murphy’s, but ultimately it’s to the detriment of both.

Alex Doak
originally published August 7th, 2005




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