Free To Stay ••½
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.
Filed under: album, back issues, review | Tags: andy wasley, basia bulat, carla bruni, danny weddup, hugh armitage, katey brooks, keith anderson, meg baird, miranda barber, mutya buena, natasha bedingfield, peter hayward, sara silver, shirley bassey, the bird and the bee, the book of knots, trevor raggatt
The following reviews were published on our old MySpace blog in 2007.
Dear Companion ••••
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.
My Tomorrow EP •••½
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.
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.
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.
The Bird & The Bee
The Bird & The Bee ••••
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.
The Bird & The Bee
Please Clap Your Hands EP •••
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.
The Book Of Knots
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.
True Speaker EP ••••½
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.
No Promises •••
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.
Real Girl •
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.
Oh, My Darling •••½
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.
Filed under: album, back issues, review | Tags: alex ramon, andy wasley, beth hirsch, charlotte hatherley, danny weddup, deborah harry, emily haines, emmylou harris, hannah ild, help she can't swim, hem, hugh armitage, hummingbird, james m johnston, kristin hersh, loria near, peter hayward, pj harvey, rod thomas, stephanie heney, trevor raggatt, victoria hart
The following reviews were published on our old MySpace blog in 2007.
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.
Everything Is Changing •••½
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.
Songbird: Rare Tracks & Forgotten Gems ••••½
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.
Necessary Evil •
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.
Whatever Happened To Love? •••½
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.
White Chalk ••••
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.
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.
Help She Can’t Swim
The Death Of Nightlife •••½
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.
Funnel Cloud ••••
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.
Home Again, Home Again EP ***½
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
Learn To Sing Like A Star ••••
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.
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.
Tougher Than Love ••••
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.
Filed under: album, back issues, review | Tags: adam smith, alan pedder, alison moyet, amy macdonald, andy wasley, cynthia g mason, danny weddup, eleni mandell, erin mckeown, gem nethersole, helen mccookerybook, hugh armitage, joni mitchell, katie melua, loria near, magenta, mandy moore, martina mcbride, múm, MIA, mostly autumn, nellie mckay, róisín murphy, sam murray, siobhan rooney, trevor raggatt
The following reviews were published on our old MySpace blog in 2007.
This Is The Life ••••
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.
The Singles ••••
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.
Miracle Of Five ••••½
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.
Cynthia G Mason
Quitter’s Claim •••
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.
Waking Up Laughing •••½
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.
Suburban Pastoral •••½
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.
Pretty Little Head ••••
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Wild Hope ••••
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.
Heart Full Of Sky ••½
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.
The Turn •••••
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.
Go Go Smear The Poison Ivy ••••
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.
“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.
Filed under: album, back issues, live, review | Tags: a girl called eddy, aids wolf, alan pedder, all about eve, annie, asobi seksu, au revoir simone, christina aguilera, danny weddup, fiona apple, lily allen, lisa komorowska, mina agossi, paul woodgate, robbie de santos, russell barker, tiffany daniels, trevor raggatt
The following reviews were all published on our old website between May 2005 and December 2006.
A Girl Called Eddy
A Girl Called Eddy ••••
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.
originally published May 14th, 2005
Well, You Needn’t ••
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…
originally published June 8th, 2006
Back To Basics •••
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.
originally published September 17th, 2006
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.
originally published May 1st, 2006
All About Eve
Keepsakes: A Collection •••½
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.
originally published May 24th, 2006
Alright, Still •••••
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.
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
Extraordinary Machine ••••
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.
originally published November 7th, 2005
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.
originally published March 7th, 2006
Au Revoir Simone
Verses Of Comfort, Assurance & Salvation ••••
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.
originally published March 7th, 2006
Filed under: album, back issues, review | Tags: adam smith, adrian roye, alan pedder, alex ramon, allison crowe, amy courts, anja mccloskey, anna claxton, camera obscura, camille, caroline, charalambides, christina carter, cibelle, cocorosie, cocosuma, cocteau twins, colleen, controller.controller, cyann and ben, danny weddup, diane cluck, isobel campbell, kate campbell, laura cantrell, lori carson, loria near, mara carlyle, mariah carey, mark lanegan, michael banna, nancy elizabeth, neko case, paul woodgate, rachael cantu, robbie de santos, rod thomas, rosanne cash, russell barker, shawn colvin, sheryl crow, spooner oldham, stephanie heney, the cardigans, the corrs, tiffany daniels, trevor raggatt
The following reviews were all published on our old website between May 2005 and December 2006.
Let’s Get Out Of This Country ••••
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.
originally published June 5th, 2006
Le Fil •••••
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
Isobel Cambpell & Mark Lanegan
Ballad Of The Broken Seas •••½
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.
originally published May 22nd, 2006
Milkwhite Sheets •••½
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.
Kate Campbell with Spooner Oldham
For The Living Of These Days ••••½
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!
originally published October 14th, 2006
Humming By The Flowered Vine ••••½
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.
originally published October 20th, 2006
Run All Night •••½
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.
originally published September 17th, 2006
Super Extra Gravity •••
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.
originally published December 12th, 2005
The Emancipation Of Mimi ••••
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.
originally published September 3rd, 2005
I Blame Dido EP ••••
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.
originally published July 26th, 2005
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.
originally published August 30th, 2006
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.
originally published May 25th, 2005
Fox Confessor Brings The Flood •••••
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.
originally published March 6th, 2006
Black Cadillac ••••
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.
originally published March 11th, 2006
Speaking For Trees ••
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.
originally published May 25th, 2005
The Greatest •••½
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.
originally published December 19th, 2006
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.
originally published November 23rd, 2006
Vintage Burden ••••½
Lace Heart •••½
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!
originally published August 30th, 2006
The Shine Of Dried Electric Leaves ••
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.
originally published June 24th, 2006
Oh Vanille/ova nil ••••
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.
originally published June 12th, 2005
Countless Times ••••
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.
originally published November 14th, 2005
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.
originally published May 25th, 2005
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?
originally published November 14th, 2006
Pointing Excitedly To The Sky •½
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.
originally published July 2nd, 2006
Lullabies To Violaine Vol. 1 & 2 ••••½
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.
originally published April 26th, 2006
Colleen Et Les Boîtes À Musique •••½
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.
These Four Walls ••••
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.
originally published September 17th, 2006
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.
originally published July 17th, 2006
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.
originally published October 1st, 2005
Amy Courts EP *
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.
originally published October 5th, 2006
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.
originally published November 28th, 2005
Live At Wood Hall •••½
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.
originally published October 18th, 2005
This Little Bird ••••
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.
Nancy Elizabeth Cunliffe
The Wheel Turning King EP •••½
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?
originally published May 22nd, 2006
Cyann & Ben
Sweet Beliefs •••½
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.
originally published November 23rd, 2006
Filed under: album, back issues, review | Tags: adam smith, alan pedder, ani difranco, cara dillon, catherine anne davies, danny weddup, dévics, deerhoof, dixie chicks, dresden dolls, gem nethersole, helen ogden, hilary duff, kimya dawson, liz durrett, matthew hall, paul woodgate, pete morrow, peter hayward, robbie de santos, sandy dillon, scott millar, simon wilson, tanya donelly, the duke spirit, tina dico, trevor raggatt
The following reviews were all published on our old website between May 2005 and December 2006.
Catherine Anne Davies
Songs For The Boy Who Wouldn’t Read Rilke EP •••
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.
originally published March 25th, 2006
Remember That I Love You •••½
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.”
originally published June 5th, 2006
The Runners Four ••••
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.
originally published December 19th, 2005
Push The Heart ••••
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.
originally published March 21st, 2006
In The Red •••
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.
originally published February 12th, 2006
Knuckle Down ••••
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.
originally published May 13th, 2005
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.
originally published August 10th, 2006
After The Morning ••••
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.
originally published August 23rd, 2006
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.
originally published May 26th, 2006
Taking The Long Way ••••
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.
originally published July 10th, 2006
This Hungry Life ••••
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?
originally published December 17th, 2006
The Dresden Dolls
Yes, Virginia ••••
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.
originally published April 10th, 2006
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
Most Wanted •••½
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.
originally published September 4th, 2005
The Duke Spirit
Cuts Across The Land •••½
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.
originally published July 16th, 2005
The Mezzanine ••••
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.
originally published August 10th, 2006