wears the trousers magazine

sounding off: january 2010 (i)

In this month’s roundup, we’ll be looking at a bunch of stragglers from last year that we ran out of time to publish before Christmas, plus a few early 2010 releases in brief.

* * *

Lauren Hoffman
Interplanetary Traveler •••

On her fourth album, Interplanetary Traveler, Virginia-born singer-songwriter Lauren Hoffman doesn’t so much warp between musical worlds as gently hop between familiar acoustic styles. But the good news is that, for the most part, she does it very well. Boasting cleaner production than her earlier releases, the title track makes for a brilliant opener with a strong melody and some warm horns couched in a tight arrangement. As ever, Hoffman’s voice is gorgeous; effortless and smooth, and the perfect match for her material. Other high points include ‘Surrender’, which transforms from pleasant sunny pop in its verses to a much more sensual chorus, its simplicity allowing the melody to breathe, and the haunting ‘Pictures From America’, which even has a slight touch of Ennio Morricone about it.

It’s a shame that these highlights come within the first three songs. Elsewhere, the material is pleasant and often attractively performed, such as the elegant mid-tempo pop/rocker ‘Celebrate’ and livelier ‘In This Life’, but not remarkable or original enough to sustain consistent interest. Only the closing, folksy ‘Sweet Lazy Day’ is bewitching enough to be essential. There’s no doubt that Interplanetary Traveler is a solid and enjoyable singer-songwriter record. Approached without particularly lofty expectations, it certainly delivers as an attractive affair.

Matt Barton
UK release date: 12/01/10; www.myspace.com/laurenhoffman

The Imagined Village
Empire & Love •••
Emmerson Corncrake & Constantine

Beginning as a loose collective of folk and world music musicians, The Imagined Village have coalesced into a permanent band of ten for their second album release, Empire & Love. Fusing Asian influences with traditional English folk and contemporary sensibilities, this collision of ancient and modern may have the notorious Carthys at the core, with Eliza’s distinct emotive fiddle style weaved across the eleven tracks, but just as key to understanding what The Imagined Village is all about is the sitar of Sheema Mukerjhee. It’s English meets Indian folk styles as standards get reworked. ‘My Son John’, the tale of a sailor who had lost his limbs in the Napoleonic wars, is given current force with reference to Iraq and Afghanistan, while ‘Byker Hill’ has Eliza providing backing vocals to her dad’s distinctive style in a celebratory jaunt broken by a polemical spoken-word break against the rich and the powerful.

Elsewhere, ‘The Hand Weaver & The Factory Maid’ is laidback and ambient, the sound of distant pistons and a vocal low in the mix, while the tentative beginnings of ‘Lark In The Morning’ are as fragile as a dew-soaked early summer dawn. ‘Space Girl’, an always unlikely Ewan MacColl composition, finds Eliza Carthy pondering the alien qualities of the opposite sex against a cowboy late night blues background complete with sci-fi whizzes and pops. A curveball is thrown in the shape of Slade’s ‘Cum On Feel The Noize’, slowed right down to a weary lament, but removing its pop-stomp only shows its shortcomings. With its rage against injustice, forays into whimsy and occasionally self-conscious attempts to surprise, there’s a sense of Empire & Love not quite making a cohesive whole, and the combination of cross-cultural traditional elements, electronica and a pop production sometimes feels overdone. It’s a delight in parts though, and makes for another intriguing piece in the contemporary English folk jigsaw.

Martyn Clayton
UK release date: 11/01/10; www.myspace.com/theimaginedvillage

Nat Johnson & The Figureheads
Roman Radio ••••
Damaged Goods

When band Monkey Swallows The Universe declared an “indefinite hiatus” in 2007, not long after their first full UK tour, discerning listeners would have shed a little tear for the underrated Sheffield band founded by Nat Johnson and Kevin Gori. But all was not lost for, riding on the tailfeathers of contemporaries The Long Blondes, Slow Club and Emmy The Great, the heartwarming, soul-reviving charm of the band followed Johnson in a move to London, where the makings of Nat Johnson & The Figureheads were conceived. Their debut album Roman Radio emulates everything that was great about Monkey Swallows The Universe’s two albums The Bright Carvings and The Casket Letters, so it’s no surprise to discover that Gori remains a staple part of the music. And while his vocals are sorely missed on ballads ‘Oh, Face!’ and ‘Envy’, Johnson’s superior talent prevails on the likes of ‘January’ and ‘Agnes’.

Past comparisons with Emma Pollock and Chrissie Hynde are well substantiated on Roman Radio; Johnson’s voice is honey-thick, bitter yet gentle, and captivatingly subtle, and the music she’s penned to back Roman Radio perfectly complements the atmosphere. The bluesy ‘Dirty Rotten Soul’ should have been a radio hit, while the slow-burning crooner ‘This Tide Will Turn’ is a sharp jerk away from the habits acquired during her stint in Monkey Swallows The Universe. In a time when the music industry is thick with female musicians hoping to catch a glimpse of the limelight, Johnson seems a wise side to back; not only does she have the fanbase of a decade’s work behind her, she’s got the talent to take herself forward.

Tiffany Daniels
UK release date: 19/10/09; www.myspace.com/natjohnsonband


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