wears the trousers magazine


joan baez: how sweet the sound (2009)
December 10, 2009, 9:02 am
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Joan Baez
How Sweet The Sound ••••
Proper

Screened earlier this week on BBC1, this American Masters documentary is now available in an excellent two-disc package which supplements the film with bonus content and a soundtrack CD of live performances. Given Baez’s centrality to American cultural and political life over the past five decades, the most surprising about the documentary is that it wasn’t made much sooner. While Bob Dylan’s career has been the subject of a multitude of docs and bios, essays and retrospectives, Baez’s work – both as artist and activist – has received comparably little scrutiny or contextualisation. Yes, her classic Vanguard albums have been carefully and conscientiously reissued and remastered (and supplemented by comprehensive liner notes by Arthur Levy), but it’s still been over 20 years since the publication of Baez’s autobiography, And A Voice To Sing With, and that book is no longer widely available.

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gillian welch: reissues (2009)
February 16, 2009, 3:55 pm
Filed under: album, film & dvd, review, video | Tags: , , , ,

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Gillian Welch
Revival ••••
Hell Among The Yearlings ••••  
Time (The Revelator) ••••
The Revelator Collection [DVD] ••••
Acony 

While some new music from Gillian Welch and her steadfast musical partner David Rawlings is long overdue, it’s nonetheless a pleasure to revisit the duo’s earlier work via Acony’s reissue of their first three albums and the international debut release of The Revelator Collection DVD. Welch’s influence on the Americana scene (and beyond) has become increasingly apparent in recent years, both in the wide range of musicians who have chosen to cover her songs and her own collaborations with artists including Emmylou Harris, Jenny Lewis, Ryan Adams, Bright Eyes, Robyn Hitchcock and The Decemberists, not to mention Ane Brun’s recent, reverent tribute song on Changing Of The Seasons [review]. There’s a timeless quality to Welch’s work which clearly appeals across the board, and it’s heartening that even in a noisy culture music as quiet as this can have such a significant impact. From a relatively limited palette of mainly guitar and vocals, Welch and Rawlings have fashioned bluegrass, blues, folk and country traditions into their own distinctive version of what Welch terms “American Primitive” music.

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my ruin: alive on the other side (2008)
November 2, 2008, 9:53 pm
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My Ruin
Alive On The Other Side ••••
Cargo/Rovena

Alive On The Other Side is the diary of an album and a tour that may never have existed. US rockers My Ruin had written the majority of their latest album Throat Full Of Heart and were due to hit the studios to start recording when fate dictated a dangerous change of direction. Lead singer and legendary frontwoman Tairrie B was injured in a near-fatal car crash, resulting in a horrendous arm injury that left her hospitalised for weeks, with the very real possibility of amputation. After enduring months of painful skin grafts and a slow, analgesic-soaked recovery, the singer returned to the studio to record the album that she’d been forcibly estranged from.

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the swell season: live at the artists den /// cara dillon: the redcastle sessions (2008)

 

The Swell Season
Live At The Artists Den •••½
The Artists Den

Cara Dillon
The Redcastle Sessions ••••
Proper Films

The parallels between these two DVD releases extend a little beyond the tenuous link of Irish blood and a folksy sensibility. Both films present their subjects in intimate acoustic mode – The Swell Season (aka ‘Once’ couple Glen Hansard and Markéta Iglová) in a historic church and Cara Dillon in an old converted hospital on the shores of Lough Foyle in Co. Donegal – and both are based on a familiar format. Following in the wake of Patty Griffin’s emotional tour de force, Hansard and Iglová pay a visit to the Artists Den in Seattle, while Dillon succeeds in recreating the formula of BBC4’s ‘The Transatlantic Sessions’ with her idyllic surroundings and liberal scattering of instruments and musicians around a beautifully decorated room.

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tori amos: live at montreux 1991/1992 (2008)
September 2, 2008, 10:07 am
Filed under: album, film & dvd, review | Tags: , , , ,

 

Tori Amos
Live At Montreux 1991/1992 ••••• 
Eagle Rock Entertainment

This belated but extremely welcome release represents a terrific way to time travel. The latest addition to Eagle Vision’s admirable Live At Montreux series, the DVD pairs one of our favourite piano-pounder’s earliest recorded solo performances at the Swiss festival in 1991 with footage of her return in ’92 – that is, directly pre and post the release of Little Earthquakes. Seventeen – gulp! – years down the line, it’s easy to forget the serious shock and awe that Amos generated when she first appeared on the scene. These performances (previously available only in unofficial audio bootleg form) serve as a potent reminder, and a very valuable record of the first time these now-classic songs met the world. If you thought you’d already had your fill of early Amos then think again: this DVD is a very special item indeed.

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kerri o’kane (dir.): the gits (2008)

Kerri O’Kane (dir.)
The Gits ••••
Liberation Entertainment 

I discovered The Gits by chance, totally unaware of their story, and immediately fell in love. Raw, melodic punk, fronted by a woman who sounded like the lovechild of Joan Jett and Bessie Smith, I hadn’t heard anything like them. Ever. A little research later, I realised they were more than just an amazing band, they are a chapter in musical history.

Kerri O’Kane’s bittersweet film is one of the most important documentaries of the last decade, a no-frills, down to earth record of a band that changed the world for many people. The Gits were on the cusp of mainstream success, after years of support and loyalty from the Seattle underground, but it was an acknowledgment suffered rather then enjoyed. On July 7th 1993, frontwoman and poet Mia Zapata was raped and murdered by an unknown assailant. The bittersweet beauty of O’Kane’s film is that it is a journey of grief, tragedy and justice. When O’Kane began the project, the crime was an unsolved mystery. As filming commenced, the case was kept alive by an extended community of family, fans and fellow musicians, who raised money for legal fees and campaigned to keep the crime in the media spotlight. Released on the 15th anniversary of Mia’s death, the film documents not only the devastating loss of such a beautiful, talented being, but also the discovery and conviction of her killer over a decade later.

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reviews dump: björk

Björk/Various Artists
Army Of Me: Remixes & Covers ••
One Little Indian

Anyone familiar with the mammoth Björk merchandising machine giving this latest release a cursory glance might well think that the folks at One Little Indian had one toke too many on the peace pipe. Twenty versions of the same song: have they all gone utterly butterly? Delving very little further than examining the sleeve, however, reveals a more gracious rationale for this newest apparent extortion. Always fiercely protective of her own progeny, to which a certain rather bruised journalist would surely attest, Björk now extends her maternal warmth (via UNICEF) to the children of southeast Asia whose lives were altered dramatically by last year’s Boxing Day tsunami. Indeed, as with past Björk remix projects, dramatic alterations are the order of the day on this bizarre collection. Equal parts a game of kiss chase with the sublime and chicken with the ridiculous, it is at the very least audacious. Ironically, however, the true audacity lies in the song itself, a stern slap on the bum of self-pity – “We won’t save you, your rescue squad is too exhausted…” and so on. Hardly a charitable sentiment is it?

Back in 1995, ‘Army Of Me’ was the lead single from Björk’s second solo album proper, Post, spawning a host of remixes and even a version with her now-defunct ex-labelmates, Skunk Anansie. In fact, the 10-year old song has attracted so much attention from remixers and reinterpreters alike that Björk herself threw down the gauntlet to visitors of her official website to contribute to this project. In less than a fortnight, she was deluged with over 600 responses, and so, having roped in the song’s original collaborator, Graham Massey of 808 State, the two set about what must have been a task both arduous and intriguing. Interestingly, it’s the second time that Björk has harnessed the internet for tracklisting purposes – the website vote for Greatest Hits famously resulted in ‘It’s Oh So Quiet’, her, er, greatest hit, getting swiftly kicked to the curb.

So what of those that made the cut? Only Patrick Wolf, the UK’s very own self-styled libertine folk curio, is instantly recognisable from the list of contributors, all of whom hail from either Europe or North America. The best tracks here are those that keep it mellow and antidotal to the original. French band Grisbi turn in a lovely sultry bossa nova, the UK’s Martin White gets wheezily wistful on the accordion and pan-European consortium Lunamoth capitalise on the marriage of harp and muted electronica best consummated on Björk’s own Vespertine. Predictably, there are at least two versions that hark back to Björk’s early punk bands, Kukl and Tappi Tikkarass, but these are probably best avoided. Likewise with the offerings by the demented Dr Gunni and the clearly piss-taking Messengers Of God, whose country and western adaptation is nothing short of risible.

With a fundraising target of £250,000 within the first 10 days of sale, it’s an ambitious endeavour, though woefully misguided, and it’s unlikely that even diehard Björk fans will want to play this in its entirety more than once. Is it value for money? Not really, but buy it anyway and think of the children.

Alan Pedder
originally published May 19th, 2005 

                                                                                                                                           

Björk
Medúlla Videos ••••
One Little Indian / Wellhart

Though already widely regarded as a fearless musical innovator, Björk’s 2004 album Medúlla was a chance for the artist to indulge and experiment further than most other ‘mainstream’ acts would dare. From the album’s title inwards (medúlla is Latin for ‘marrow’), Björk was playing on two familiar and favourite themes in her work – nature (specifically of the super kind) and the human voice. Within its inner sanctum, sounds were simply pieces in an ambitious sonic game. As well as Björk’s unearthly singing, we heard breathing, grunting, groaning, snoring, yawning, whispering, whining, and hyperventilation. But Medúlla is more than that; Björk is depicting not just the diversity of the voice, but the body as a whole being, organ and spirit. A possible explanation for this preoccupation with the physical lies in her relationship with art provocateur Matthew Barney. Barney himself has had a life-long heightened awareness of the body, previously working as a medic, model, athlete and physical performance artist in his video art works. Another major influence was Björk’s pregnancy with their daughter, Isadora, during which she says she became “really aware of my muscles and bones.” Although written at the same time, Björk refers to ‘Who Is It’ as being “from a different family” to the songs found on her previous album, Vespertine, which she describes as “introvert and shy and not very physical a record.” Featuring the extraordinary and ‘untreated’ vocals of human beatbox Rahzel of The Roots, the song creates a bridge running deep into the truly physical being of Medúlla. Video director Dawn Shadforth’s treatment places the singer in the surreal and awesome landscape of the barren black sands beneath Hjörleifshöföi, a hill on the southern Icelandic coast. We see her peering out of an eccentric Alexander McQueen dress, tubular and with a wide trunk neck covered in tiny silver bells, weighing in at a hefty 50 kilos. In this simple and sonically separate place, Björk responds directly to the conceptual dress. Appearing animated, she plucks and flicks at her percussive garment. She beats herself voluminously across the dark wide landscape, finally collapsing as if her clockwork cogs have turned to a stop at the final toll of the bell choir. This is Björk literally using her body as an instrument. This is but one of her many video selves. Bjork self-characterizes and uncompromisingly allows video directors to characterize her. She’s been a polar bear, a robot twin, a ghost in the machine and more.    

In ‘Oceania’, Björk sings as Mother Ocean, giving voice to the sea itself in what seems to be an ancient poem on the evolution of man. The Lynn Fox Collective’s visual depiction of this humbling tribute shows us the ocean’s dark, mysterious glamour. It is graceful, and in places divine. From the black depths, Björk glides into view, spinning and smouldering in silky threads. She wears a perfectly formed facemask of precious-esque diamond gems as gorgeous close-ups cast out the deep aquatic whispers of her song; however, the film does not seem to do justice to Björk’s imaginative role, failing to depict the power and eloquence of her as a physical embodiment of her chosen oceanic deity. This sentiment was better realised at the 2004 Olympics in Athens, where she commanded the huge opening ceremony wearing a gigantic sea of blue that billowed and opened out toward the crowd. 

The Lynn Fox Collective is known for their generous and impressive use of computer-generated imagery and here is no exception. The video depicts a sea-seed’s underwater germination and the upward growth of its stalk from the watery black to the orange glowing air above. We see nature bursting from the water through the air in a sumptuously choreographed display, providing a fitting metaphor for the song’s salute to the story of man as child and ocean as his origin. Although breathtaking and integral, the Collective’s use of CGI seems unreal and lacking the tangible fleshy life of the sea. It seems almost too perfect, yet still gives its depiction of nature a satisfying effect of organized chaos and natural choreography. Throughout the film, jellyfish “dance gracefully, billowing like ballroom dresses” and give graceful and endearing form to the backing of The London Choir. The Collective has worked with Bjork numerous times in the past, and are also responsible for the video for ‘Desired Constellation’, a visual and quite literal representation of Björk’s lyrical conceit of someone’s hands shaking up the stars. Although aesthetically similar, this film is subtler and, quite refreshingly, does not feature Björk.

In ‘Where Is The Line’, we are ushered into a hay-strewn barn where Björk plays a bounding and bulbous straw-sack cartoon chicken. Wobbling around her warm nest, she raises her beanbag body to give birth to a shivering white-skinned, yellow-eyed alien that on exit from her cheesecloth skirt vomits chunky womb fluid and gasps at the dusty air, accentuating the song’s accelerating shrieks and drones. Straw heaps explode and smoke in time to warping warhead pulses, until the white baby retreats and the straw walls take shape to close in on our delirious anti-diva farmyard queen. Although it’s huge fun, at worst the video seems inarticulate and am-dram. But still, it serves as a suitably surreal representation of its manic and sonically sporadic inspiration. More than anything, this video is a small weird window into the mind of director and visual artist Gabriella Fridriksdottír who previously provided artwork for Björk’s Greatest Hits and Family Tree compilations. This outlandish promo is an example of the singer’s generous ability to give the artists she works with a chance to express their own vision without compromise. That Fridriksdottír truthfully represents Björk’s preoccupation with the body, visceral and maternal, as well as the playful and surreal, is testament that their collaborative relationship was genuine and true to form. 

While each of these videos is interestingly unorthodox, they have a mutual concern with the body as instrument or vessel. Although ‘Triumph Of A Heart’ has a similar theme, extolling on the heart as “the king of the body”, the promo proves much simpler. Though the vivid imagery of the concept seems a fascinating subject for a pop song and its accompanying music video, director Spike Jonze unfortunately explores little of that potential; however, this video is a genuinely cute and comical story, with occasional fun effects and wry fly on the wall footage. It poses as an everyday tale of a woman and her commitment phobic lover, played by a tabby cat named Nietzsche. After escaping from this slapstick rom-com beginning, Björk gets roaringly inebriated before returning home to her cat-man bruised and disgruntled, but ready to reconcile and dance a feline sphinx-trot in the film’s finale. 

If one were to take Björk too seriously, she could seem self-indulgent, incoherent and perhaps downright daft. But I believe she is a dedicated and serious artist. As with her music, if you care to probe deeper into the products of her art and the various influences that have been unified within, you begin to realise that what she creates, both singularly and collaboratively, is part of a big, fast, bright and brilliant way of life. The same is true of Jonze’s video, as proved in a spoof ‘making of’ documentary by Ragnheidur Gestsdottír. In this, we are constantly unaware of what is serious and what is not. Tales are told of personal connections with Björk and the video’s location and props. We hear of the video’s quirky fairytale inspiration and scores of local Icelanders audition to be involved.

Where the other videos in this diverse collection portray Björk as an array of otherworldly characters, allowing her to manifest in herself a vision of fascinating supernatural illogic, Jonze’s video illuminates the humour of both parties, and reminds us that she is, after all, only human. After the rich and sometimes disturbing visual textures of what has gone before, Jonze brings the viewer home to Iceland, intimately including us in a jolly drunken art-bar party scene with Björk in the middle of the action. Ultimately, whatever else it is also concerned with, this video helps us to realise the album as a whole. It is physical and personal, but also uniquely political. It was, she says, a way to counter “stupid American racism and patriotism” after 9/11. “I was saying, what about the human soul? What happened before we got involved in problematic things like civilization and religion and nationality?” In the wake of recent natural disasters, these questions loom ever more importantly.

All issues aside, however, these videos are simply a dream to watch. That the DVD closes with the spoof documentary is a warm waking into a party of all of Medúlla’s colourful collaborators, of Björk’s dreams and of Iceland itself. A party where everyone can be as wild and wonderful as they like and all are invited. 

Jacob J Stevens
originally published September 4th, 2005 

                                                                                                                                           

Björk
Volta •••••
One Little Indian

For someone who is umpteen albums into a career spanning three decades (four if you count her 1977 Icelandic kiddie pop debut), Björk remains astonishingly chameleonic. The wonderfully leftfield arthouse vocal conceit of Medúlla may have driven away her more casual fans, an effect compounded by the drab and disappointing soundtrack to Matthew Barney’s ‘Drawing Restraint 9’, but Volta is here to remind us how essential and exciting she can be. From the gleeful insanity of the artwork inwards, the energy and freshness Björk brings to the proceedings far surpasses most, if not all, of today’s bright new things.

As is common with her work, there’s an element of deliberate obtuseness. An uneasy equilibrium exists between songs that are littered with arresting images of dissolution and destruction and those that are saturated with beauty and hope. But that’s precisely why it works. Volta is perhaps Björk’s closest examination of the human condition to date, and certainly her most outward looking. Never one to give a simple, one-sided account of anything, here she goes gunning for the entire species, touching equally on its flaws and marvels.

The joyfully apocalyptic march of lead single ‘Earth Intruders’ is her statement of intent and kicks off the album in foreboding fashion. Violent and chaotic lyrics soar across a rumbling backdrop of crunching footfalls, hypnotic beats and spooky echoes with hints of past glories in her extensive back catalogue. There’s the playfulness of ‘Alarm Call’, the darkly militant atmospherics of ‘Army Of Me’ and the ecstatic vitality of ‘Big Time Sensuality’. For a song that seeks justice and explores our own self-destructive appetites it’s surprisingly accessible and irresistibly fun.

As everyone knows by now, ‘Earth Intruders’ was co-produced with innovative beatmaster Timbaland, as was the similarly punchy ‘Innocence’. Harking back to the harsh musical terrains of Homogenic but replacing the strings with tribal grunts and futuristic squelches, it’s a flawless exercise in the art of collaboration and is perhaps the album’s most euphoric moment. It’s hard not to imagine that as she sings “when I once / was innocent / it’s still here / but in different places”, Björk is letting us know that she may have grown up and her music may have matured and evolved but the same spark that drove her early ‘90s flirtations with pop is still there and hasn’t disappeared into some chasm of pretentiousness. Again relating to the palette of human behaviour, ‘Innocence’ suggests that there is still some goodness left somewhere in the mess we’ve gotten ourselves into.

Other songs act as the antithesis to Volta‘s upbeat character. The frankly terrifying ‘Vetebrae By Vertebrae’ is mercilessly brooding. Darker, even, than Vespertine‘s ‘An Echo, A Stain’, this brass-led demon is the sound of hell advancing in the hulking shape of some giant beast. The sheer power of Björk’s vocals is at once devastating and hugely impressive. Then, just as you think you might lose control of your bowels in fear, a smattering of rainfall clears the air, providing just a moment’s respite before the shadowy ‘Pneumonia’ continues the mournful tone with creeping strings in a not too dissimilar vein as the overture from ‘Dancer In The Dark’.

If Björk sounds troubled on the stunning ‘I See Who You Are’, it’s because she’s confronting the unshakeable bond between mother and daughter in the context of everyone’s inevitable mortality. In tone it’s not a million miles away from ‘Sun In My Mouth’, only less glacial, more warm-blooded and spiritual. Diverse ethnic instruments clatter and twang all over the place; Björk finally goes jungle, but not quite how the ravers might have wanted.

Two songs feature Antony Hegarty of ‘that incredible voice’ fame – ‘Dull Flame Of Desire’ and ‘My Juvenile’ – but though his vocals are almost perfectly complimentary and his presence unmistakeable, these songs, too, belong to Björk. ‘Dull Flame…’ is slightly plodding at first but soon catches fire while album closer ‘My Juvenile’ will knock the breath right out of your lungs. Elsewhere, ‘Hope’, ‘Wanderlust’ and the ‘Pluto’-like soundclash of ‘Declare Independence’ are magnificent inclusions. Indeed, as you’ve probably gathered by now, Volta has no weak links. It’s an incredible album of twisted, intelligent pop with an experimental orchestral base and probably her most outstanding album to date. Of course, that tag has had several airings throughout her career, but this time you owe it yourself to take it literally.

Volta, above any other, shows just how immeasurable her talents are as performer, writer and composer. Quite simply, it will floor you. That’s not to say it’s an easy listen or necessarily all that immediate, but then you wouldn’t really expect that of her now, would you?

Rod Thomas

                                                                                                                                           

Björk
Live at Connect Festival, Argyll •••••
September 2nd, 2007

Inverary Castle, not so much a Medieval fortification as a curlicued Victorian folly tucked into the Scottish wilderness, seems like a fitting venue for a Björk performance. Her best work, which has always aimed to fuse the synthetic with the elemental, erects rich and strange musical structures in unexpected places. From plumbing clubland’s hidden depths in Debut, through to finding a voice for global geopolitics in Volta, she has played with many themes while being something else entirely. An original.

The Björk who takes the stage at Scotland’s underpopulated (and muddy) Connect festival looks every bit the princess of ‘kook’ her Spitting Image puppet would lead you to expect. Her cloak and headdress combination makes her look equal parts Shere Khan and the Wicked Queen from ‘Snow White’. From the moment she strikes up with ‘Innocence’ however, all suggestion we’re in for an evening of ‘It’s Oh So Quiet’ era Disney-ish camp are dispelled as she and her band effortlessly recreate the dense, complex soundscape of her sixth studio album. Her fusion of visual spectacle and musical invention was reinforced by an astonishing version of ‘Hunter’, re-arranged for the all-female Icelandic Wonderbrass ensemble, which culminates in streams of ribbons exploding from her sleeves.

From here, Björk continues on a career retrospective set which mirrors her own artistic journey by carving its own tricksy and unexpected path through her records. Avoiding the familiar hits of Debut and Post in favour of songs such as ‘Hidden Place’ and ‘Pagan Poetry’ from 2001’s Vespertine, she capably translates her intensely private language of this period into the public sphere. The festival environment also proves a perfect fitting for material from Homogenic, perhaps her most artistically coherent work, ‘Immature’ and ‘Jóga’ in particular sounding every bit as rugged and volatile as the Icelandic landscape that inspired them while lending Connect’s Argyll setting an air of the Nordic.

The set also gives lovers of Björk’s experimental dance and electro side something to be cheerful about, with collaborator Damian Taylor putting some of the more well-worn songs through an acid house mincer. In his hands ‘I Miss You’ is recast as nu-rave salsa, and he engineers an audacious bridge between ‘Hyberballad’ and ‘Pluto’ that smashes one of Björk’s most delicate songs to bits before reassembling it as one of her most sonically challenging. The surprise of the evening, however, goes to recent single ‘Earth Intruders’; a song that was somewhat too dense and quirky to really work on record is a revelation live. Given air and space its occasionally crowded beats make sudden sense and provide the rabble rousing high point of the concert.

When finally propelled back on to the stage to thunderous applause for an encore, she closes with a two-song coda that blends old and new Björk seamlessly. Backed by Wonderbrass, ‘Anchor Song’ could have been lifted straight from its incarnation on Debut, whereas ‘Declare Independence’ (which she mischievously dedicates to the spirit of Scottish nationalism) shows that while her journey away from pop into more inscrutable territories may have baffled some, her power to move dancing feet is undiminished. Connect Festival itself may have felt like a damp squib end to a rather soggy summer, but Björk herself is never less than incendiary.

Chris McCrudden

 



reviews dump: tori amos

Tori Amos & Ann Powers
Tori Amos: Piece By Piece •••••
Plexus Publishing

Released in the US just prior to her eighth studio album, The Beekeeper, this fascinatingly unconventional semi-autobiography did what few Tori Amos releases since Under The Pink have been able – it failed to split the critics. It even made the New York Times Bestseller List. Having finally found a publisher in the UK, where her fanbase is slenderer yet unremittingly fervent, ‘Piece By Piece’ at last hits the bookshelves in June in support of the European leg of her Original Sinsuality Tour. Regardless of whether you have an appreciation for Tori Amos the performer, Tori Amos as author brings to the fore her enviable intelligence, quick wit and literate, piercing insight and as such commands respect even from those who would give it begrudgingly. Co-written with renowned New York music journalist Ann Powers this is no mere memoir, for Amos has always had a keen eye for a concept – her last few albums have come with buckets of convolutions. With a nonlinear narrative to match the most ambitious writers of fiction, Amos and Powers construct a verbal collage of various conversations (including contributions from Amos’s husband, friends, touring bandmates, chef and security guard among others) that are woven through eight hefty chapters. 

Each chapter is overseen by an archetype of mythological or religious legend, including Amos’s constant inspiration and “erotic muse”, Mary Magdelene. Amos has been trying to reunite the spiritual and the sexual aspects of womanhood since her debut album Little Earthquakes tore down gender barriers and kicked open the floodgates for similarly confessional songwriting. Years before ‘The Da Vinci Code’ popularised the gnostic gospel of Mary Magdelene, Amos has given voice to the much maligned biblical figure, but never more so than in ‘Marys Of The Sea’, one of the standout songs from The Beekeeper. This song and many others are discussed and abstracted upon in ‘song canvasses’ scattered throughout the book. 

The motherhood chapter (overseen by Demeter, the Greek goddess of harvest and fertility), which tells of Amos’s long battle to successfully carry a child that finally ended in 2000 with the birth of her daughter Natashya Lorién, is guaranteed to hit a nerve. Her disarmingly frank account of each of her three miscarriages is both harrowing and brave. Equally engaging is her tale of how these health problems contributed to the souring of her relationship with Atlantic Records. That, and a brazen publicity scam on their part, were the final straw for Amos who told them where to stick it. Unfortunately, she still had three albums to turn in to fulfil the terms of her contract, albums which Atlantic were determined not to promote in order to effectively ruin her career, an effort in which they clearly failed. 

The interplay between Amos and Powers helps to keep the notoriously wordy songwriter on track, although some passages are a little hard going. If you can forgive Amos her small indulgences, there is much to be enjoyed here, even for those with just a passing interest. It is an utterly unprecendented opportunity to look so far into the mind of one of the most enigmatic artists of our time.

Alan Pedder
originally published May 22nd, 2005

_______________________________________________________________________________________________________

Tori Amos
Live at the Apollo, Hammersmith ••••
June 4th, 2005

Though each of her last few albums have come swaddled in conceptual complexities that would make Nietzsche think twice about indulging, tonight’s stop on Tori Amos’s Original Sinsuality Tour mostly dispenses with the cerebellar workout, leaving room for the levity of her music to truly impress. The sixth-form poetry clunkiness of the moniker aside, this latest tour has been one of the more memorable in recent years and given her the chance to showcase those famous interpretive skills first evidenced by her version of Nirvana’s ‘Smells Like Teen Spirit’.

For each night of the tour, fans have been able to request covers via Amos’ official website, resulting in performances ranging from the obvious to the outrageous. Tonight was the turn of George Michael’s ‘Father Figure and Madonna’s ‘Like A Prayer’, both of which have been played before but sounded all the more polished for it. The former especially hit all the buttons that Michael could only strive for. In a setlist drawing heavily from her first three records and this year’s The Beekeeper, several of her albums, including the sublime Scarlet’s Walk, were sadly neglected. However, a surprise rendition of Lloyd Cole & The Commotions’ ‘Rattlesnakes’ from her contract-fulfilling covers album Strange Little Girls, seemed unusually at home in the two-hour set. 

To attend a Tori Amos gig is to be guaranteed a display of reverence from her notoriously enthusiastic fans and tonight was no different. Some even wept during more tender moments such as the captivating ‘Winter’, live favourite ‘Cooling’ and the hymnal theatrics of ‘The Beekeeper’, a song written last year after Amos’s mother fell ill with a life-threatening heart problem from which she thankfully recovered, and later embellished following the death of her brother Michael in a road accident last November.

In complete contrast, Amos invited onto the stage a choir of six gospel singers to add a welcome sense of fun to the proceedings, unique to this performance. The live debut of the six-minute soulful epic ‘Witness’ was the highlight of the night, though the bizarrely fluid boogie-woogie of empowerment anthem ‘Hoochie Woman’ was another real treat. Only ‘Jamaica Inn’ floundered as Amos switched between her beloved Bösendorfer and Hammond organ a few too many times, slowing the song considerably. Still, Amos’s prodigious talent and mastery of her instrument never fails to amaze and confirms her singular status. 

The only true gripe was that, while Amos is undoubtedly a musical auteur, she fared less well visually with some of the worst lighting projections in memory. Certainly she’s no Björk in that department and they added little to the experience. But with a performer so compelling and music this affecting, who really needs such trifling distractions?

Alan Pedder
originally published June 16th, 2005

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Tori Amos
Fade To Red: The Videos ••••½ 
Rhino

My first encounter with Tori Amos on video was a shot of her hurtling towards a giant spider’s web in the abstract European promo for ‘Cornflake Girl’ (featured here as a bonus extra). Ironically, the striking red hair that hallmarks almost all of her other videos and inspires the name of this collection was indistinguishable to me as I marvelled at this monochrome masterpiece. Okay, well, in hindsight maybe it isn’t really a masterpiece, but then how many music videos are? It’s an inherently silly medium. Which is why it’s so refreshing to come across an artist willing to take a few risks and sometimes even embrace the silliness of it. In fact, most of the videos included here are, in their varying ways, even more remarkable than the cut I first fell in love with, but the point is the same: whichever avenue you take into the wonderful world of Amos’s visual output, it is likely to be a memorable one.

Her first video, ‘Silent All These Years’, is another bold affair and one that has provided most people with their first and most lasting impression of Amos – also becoming the source of the cover shot for her debut album. It comprises mostly of Tori, a white background, a wooden box, some bright red lipstick and those famous red tresses. Simple yet compelling, it works because it allows Amos to breathe. An artist with lesser presence wouldn’t be comfortable laying themselves open to such close scrutiny, yet Amos does it consistently. No matter what guise she takes, Amos never seems overwhelmed. You find yourself believing in her, whether trapped on display in a gallery window, being dragged from a burning building or bound and running away from an unidentified captor as we see in ‘Spark’, possibly the most gripping video I’ve ever laid eyes on. The results are exhilarating.

What hits you is the sheer variety of ideas that Amos and her collaborators seem to have. The sequencing of the videos contributes to this diversity, juxtaposing selections from different points in her fifteen-year career. It would have been silly to lump together the low-budget Little Earthquakes videos at the start of the collection. Whilst each video is its own entity and should be considered as such, the early videos are essentially different sides to the same box that Amos first rolled onto our screens in, none of them quite building on the stark imagery of her first promo. Instead they are much more entertaining and unique when dotted around the collection, reminding us that her vision has been uncompromising from the start. ‘Winter’ even benefits from being sandwiched between the more subversive and stylised ‘A Sorta Fairytale’ (featuring Oscar-winning actor Adrien Brody in perhaps the weirdest allegorical love story ever) and ‘Spark’. Elsewhere, the student-like experimentation of ‘China’ segues perfectly into the more adventurous ‘Raspberry Swirl’ and ‘Talula’ promos. In fact, the early videos are some of the most enjoyable to watch as Amos and director Cindy Palmano play around with the constrictions of the medium.

The music, as always, is simply outstanding. In fact, had 2003’s ‘reconditioned’ retrospective ‘Tales Of A Librarian’ been conceived and presented similarly to this it may have proved a greater testament to her talents. This has obviously been a labour of love for Amos and, overall, it’s a very well packaged and comprehensive collection. A couple of videos are conspicuous by their absence, however. One can only presume that contractual issues prevented the inclusion of the promo for her Stranglers cover, ‘Strange Little Girl’, as it is one of her best. The missing ‘Glory Of The 80s’ video is more of a mystery, although the likely reason for its omission is that it just didn’t make the grade – it’s a video with a nice idea that wasn’t quite realised. Still, do a Google search for either of these and you’ll find them in seconds. As for extras, the personal commentary on each video is a very nice and often hilarious touch, allowing us an insight into the making of and ideas behind the clips.

Matthew Hall
originally published April 10th, 2006 

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Tori Amos
The Original Bootlegs ••••½ 
Epic 

Should anyone have any doubts about what a commanding and provocative artist Tori Amos remains, they will surely be put to rest by these officially sanctioned ‘bootlegs’. Recorded during this year’s solo Original Sinsuality and Summer Of Sin tours, five of these double CDs were initially released exclusively online, and have now been packaged together as a comprehensive boxset (along with an extra bonus 2CD recording), offering yet another fix for Amos’s followers. Indeed, 2005 has been an amazingly fertile year for Amos artistically. With another brilliant studio album in The Beekeeper, an absorbing and stylistically innovative memoir in ‘Piece By Piece’, and now these releases, she’s in danger of spoiling us rotten. On these discs, culled from dates in LA, Chicago, Denver, Manchester, London and Boston, we find her singing (better than ever) songs both old and new, rarities and a series of creative covers – sufficient material to keep both diehard enthusiasts and recent converts occupied for months. If you were at these shows (and surely not even Amos’s most devoted fans could have attended all of them) then these CDs offer a wonderful memento of some amazing musical moments. If you weren’t, it’s a chance to catch up on some of what you missed and to savour the enthralling experience that is Amos’s live show.

As skilful as she has been at integrating other instruments into her music over the years, there remains something ineffably magical about Amos performing solo; the only time she shares the spotlight here is when she’s joined in quite spectacular fashion by the a six-piece gospel choir in London. With just piano, Rhodes and Hammond B3 organ to accompany her sinuous vocals, she’s at her most riveting, her ability to command an audience second to none. But is it any wonder that she’s so accomplished? Lest we forget, this self-confessed “road dog” has been performing for audiences since she was a teenager, and there’s a nice nod to those apprentice years in the ‘Piano Bar’ segments featured here, in which she performs her pick of the songs requested by fans via her website.

Among those receiving the Amos treatment are tracks by Leonard Cohen, Joni Mitchell, Madonna, Oasis, Bonnie Tyler, George Michael, Bon Jovi and Aerosmith (yes, really!), so it’s just as well that she has such a strong personality as a performer, and such finely-honed interpretive skills, that she stamps her distinctive mark on every one. “This could really be crap,” she warns before delivering a decidedly non-crap version of A Flock Of Seagulls’ ‘I Ran’. Particularly gorgeous are her takes on Jim Croce’s ‘Operator’, where she captures beautifully the combined bravado and vulnerability of the narrator, and ‘Like A Prayer’, which she invests with more genuine sexual and spiritual fervour than Madonna could ever hope to muster. There’s also some typically cherishable between-song banter in these Piano Bar interludes, including one already notorious diatribe. Who but Amos would have the chutzpah to lob some very descriptive insults at Morrissey in front of an audience of Mancunians? It’s one of many reasons to love her.

Another reason is that she’s amassed a back catalogue that ranks among the greatest in contemporary music, and which provides a very rich resource for her to mine in live performances. Aside from her undebatable instrumental prowess, Amos has always been a terrific writer of songs that can be equal parts tender and savage, raw and healing, sad and sensual, and both her oldest and newest material gets a workout here. Highlights from her own repertoire include ‘Little Amsterdam’, sounding spookier than ever with its organ accompaniment; the baroquely beautiful ‘Yes, Anastasia’; the startling ‘Father Lucifer’; the buoyant ‘Take To The Sky’; the ever-green ‘Winter’, ‘Silent All These Years’ and ‘Tear In Your Hand’; and the majestic ‘Cool On Your Island’. It’s fascinating, too, to hear new songs such as ‘Sweet The Sting’ and ‘The Power Of Orange Knickers’ stripped down to just keyboard and voice, and in the process sounding more themselves than ever.

It should be noted that there is, inevitably, quite a bit of repetition of material over the discs. ‘Original Sinsuality’ kicks off every show, and we get several ‘Jamaica Inn’s, ‘Space Dog’s and ‘Parasol’s when we might wish for a ‘Pretty Good Year’ or a ‘Northern Lad’. But, as Amos would no doubt argue, ‘Parasol’ in Chicago on April 15th is not ‘Parasol’ in Denver on April 19th, and the duplication of material does offer a valuable opportunity to compare different versions. Amos is such a spontaneous, in-the-moment performer that she never delivers identikit readings of her songs anyway, and the chance for listeners to play “compare and contrast” is one of the many pleasures offered here. Collectively then, these discs further demonstrate Amos’s sheer mastery of her art. From first note to last, you’re confronted with the slightly overwhelming sensation of hearing a performer at the very peak of her powers. While some critics continue to recycle tired complaints about ‘abstruse lyrics’ and ‘excessive ambition’, Amos just gets on with making some of the most adventurous, intelligent and extraordinary music out there. Long may she continue.

Alex Ramon
originally published December 19th, 2005 

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Tori Amos
A Piano: The Collection •••••
Rhino

The release of this monumental compilation just three years after Tales Of A Librarian suggests that the latter ‘best of’ did not entirely satisfy Amos’s desire for a comprehensive retrospective of her career. It’s hardly surprising; having produced a series of stunning, epic records which have each rehabilitated and transformed the notion of the concept album, Amos must surely feel a certain amount of frustration that her extraordinary music is still frequently dismissed by much of the mainstream British music press as the work of a Kate Bush clone. By now, of course, such accusations just sound plain silly: could an artist really sustain nine albums and a succession of Odysseyan tours (not to mention survive a major record company scrap) by simply ‘copying’ another one? Hardly.

Nonetheless, the persistence of these kinds of comments points to a worrying critical tendency to dismiss certain female artists on entirely superficial grounds of similarity. While identikit male guitar bands and warbling R&B wannabes merrily rip each other off without comment or censure, some critics’ indignant response to Amos’s work – “We’ve already got one like that!” – sadly reflects a refusal to engage with another complex, uncompromising (and resolutely female) artistic vision. Such a reaction seems both glaringly unfair as well as inaccurate. After all, surface similarities notwithstanding, Bush and Amos have never been all that alike in performance style, lyrical content or career philosophy; it’s about as easy to envisage Bush embarking on a 200-date tour as it is to imagine Amos writing a rhapsodic ode to light and birdsong and getting Rolf Harris to sing on it. Fortunately, Amos’s heartening response to such blinkered critical diminishment has been to keep her focus firmly placed upon her music, as vividly demonstrated by A Piano, a beautifully packaged collection that fully confirms her singular status. This boxset – which, in a stroke of design genius, is shaped to resemble the keyboard of one of Amos’s treasured Bösendorfers – contains five discs and 86 tracks but still only manages to scratch the surface of her brilliant career.

That said, even the most ardent of Toriphiles may approach this release with a mixture of delight and trepidation. Since Amos’s records are so intricately worked out, so thematically cohesive, do we really want another collection that inevitably distorts their immaculate sequencing and, by so doing, risks muddying our memories of the original albums? The fact is that a collection such as this one can never hope to please all of the people all of the time, and once you’ve recovered from the shock of some truly questionable omissions (no ‘Northern Lad’! no ‘Talula’! no ‘Scarlet’s Walk’, fer chrissake!) and the not overly generous supply of new and rare material (just seven previously unreleased tracks in all, along with some alternate mixes, demos and a healthy assortment of B-sides), it’s time to relax and savour what is here, as well as the fact that Amos has been able to produce the collection and oversee the selection process herself. In her own words: “A lot of times you’re a grand- mother when you get that opportunity to do the boxset – or you’re dead. To be current and creating, alongside putting a retrospective together, is an opportunity that you don’t always have in life.” For Amos, this collection marks “the end of an era” and it testifies to both the stylistic diversity of her output and the consistency of its quality. If her music is intricately bound up in your existence and identity then the experience of listening to A Piano is rather like flicking through a book of your own life, and discovering that, while a few crucial chapters have gone missing, they’ve been replaced by others that you’d forgotten about and a few that you didn’t know were there.

It will come as no surprise that no inclusions from Amos’s ill-starred Y Kant Tori Read days are made; instead, the first four discs trace a broadly chronological path through her post-1990 career, taking in everything from the bare-bones intimacy of Little Earthquakes, the dynamic rock of From The Choirgirl Hotel, the swirling electronica of To Venus & Back and the widescreen panoramas of the mighty Scarlet’s Walk. Disc A is something of a settling of scores, presenting an extended and rearranged version of Little Earthquakes that more accurately reflects Amos’s original vision of the album. It’s a bold (and possibly foolhardy) move to re-order a record that, for most of us, was perfect in its original incarnation, and no doubt many admirers of the album will feel a certain amount of ambivalence about Amos’s decision to do this. Happily, the re-sequencing does not interfere with the impact of the album, which still sounds incredibly powerful, retaining its ability to chill, inspire, shock and console in equal measure. And it’s unquestionably a bonus to have B-sides the likes of ‘Upside Down’, ‘Flying Dutchman’, ‘Take To The Sky’ and ‘Sweet Dreams’ collected together in one place on this disc.

Discs B-D mix tracks from Under The Pink, Boys For Pele, Choirgirl, Venus, Scarlet’s Walk and The Beekeeper with pit stops for the rare and unreleased material, while Disc E collates a selection of her B-sides and demos. (A typically well-produced booklet offers photos, background detail and commentaries on many of the inclusions.) As on Tales Of A Librarian, some of the album tracks have been subtly (and in some cases, very subtly) remixed from the original versions; in Amos’s terms, these are acts of “refurbishment” designed to prevent her earlier work from sounding dated. The most noticeable tweaking occurs on the dense choirgirl tracks: violent guitar stabs and all manner of unidentifiable sinister noises add new layers of atmosphere to ‘Cruel’ and ‘iieee’, while the Kurzweil and sighing pedal steel on ‘Playboy Mommy’ are given extra space. All the remixes are effective, however, contributing a crisper and cleaner sound to the songs.

If last year’s Official Bootleg series demonstrated Amos’s ability to command an audience with ‘just’ her voice and exquisite keyboard skills, these discs remind of her equally dextrous control of studio toys and band dynamics, not to mention the evolution of her singing and the complex beauty of her songwriting. As her frames of reference have broadened, taking her music ever deeper into history (or herstory), politics, myth and legend, Amos has learned how to utilise a select group of musicians – principally, drummer Matt Chamberlain and bassist Jon Evans – who share her sense of studio meticulousness. The opportunity that this boxset offers to trace her creative arc is genuinely thrilling, and it may surprise some listeners that the noisiest, rockiest songs here are among the most piercingly effective. But the constant component of her work is, of course, the piano, and these discs attest to her consistent and creative reinvention of that instrument as a vital and versatile part of the pop-rock idiom.

There’s always something new to uncover in Amos’s songs and each listener will of course have their own favourite (re-)discoveries as they dive into this collection. But it’s the new material that most fans will make a beeline for first, and the previously unreleased tracks are as brilliant as anything she’s ever done. The tense ‘Take Me With You’ (which Amos began in 1990 and finally completed this year) is an immediate highlight, a seamless merging of her earliest and most recent sensibilities. ‘Walk To Dublin (Sucker Reprise)’ is a captivating slice of harpsichord-driven Pele-era madness, while the Beekeeper reject ‘Not David Bowie’ rocks and rumbles with a blistering mix of Hammond organ and clavinet that has to be heard to be believed. Meanwhile, ‘Marys Of The Sea’ gets supplemented by a cheeky ‘intro jam’ which finds Amos scatting and improvising over funky piano, bass and drums. “I’ve got to face some kind of evil tomorrow,” she sings, rather cheerfully. Elsewhere, ‘Ode To My Clothes’ manages to be both playful and desolate and ‘Dolphin Song’ is simply mesmerising.

Each of these tracks demonstrates her amazing ability to take a song through diverse emotions, metres and moods. With her richly expressive vocals, Amos can turn a tender ballad of love betrayed savage with a simple shift in intonation or a casually dropped profanity – listen to the eruption of anger that spills into the bridge of ‘Take Me With You’ or the sudden Southern twist she puts on the “daughter of a preacher man” lyric in ‘Dolphin Song’. Her vocalisations are peerless in their expressiveness and unpredictability. Meanwhile, intricate temporal shifts in the music are matched and enhanced by startling lyrical juxtapositions: ‘Sister Janet’ finds her “slipping the blade in the marmalade”; ‘Beulah Land’ has her requesting “religion, and a lobotomy”; on ‘Honey’ she’s trying to “bribe the undertaker” and confronting a man who only “liked [his] babies tight.” (Listening to these lyrics you may find yourself wondering whether it can be a mere coincidence that Amos was born in the year Sylvia Plath died.)

From moment to moment, you never know in what direction her songs are going to take you: the nine-minute ‘Zero Point’ spends a few seconds masquerading as a delicate piano ballad before mutating into an epic of programmed beats and distorted guitar. Elsewhere, vaudeville touches merge with classical flourishes, furious harpsichord joins with church bells. As she put it so memorably in her semi-autobiography ‘Piece By Piece’: “Some days life can feel pretty normal…then there are other days that make you think you’ve walked into something sinister, like a Hermann Hesse novel.” Her songs contain and convey that breadth of feeling and experience, allowing the sacred and profane, the oblique and the brutally direct, the mythic and the colloquial, to occupy the same breathing space. Few musicians have the capacity to channel such calm and frenzy, either live or on record. And even fewer can match her ability to combine intellectual rigorousness with visceral emotion. But, for all her intensity, A Piano exposes an incredible amount of humour in her work, black and otherwise.

Still, it’s a genuine shame that none of her brilliant covers are featured, no ‘Smells Like Teen Spirit’ or ‘Angie’, and nothing from her bracingly subversive (and criminally underrated) Strange Little Girls album – who wouldn’t kill to hear her rendition of Public Enemy’s ‘Fear Of A Black Planet’? Anything, in fact, would be preferable to the Armand van Helden dance remix of ‘Professional Widow’, which, as on Tales…, sounds like a garish intrusion here. However, its appearance is compensated for by the inclusion of a blood-curdlingly intense live version of the song elsewhere. Moreover, the B-side disc yields a spectacular sequence of songs, including an inspired deconstruction of ‘Home On The Range’ (which clearly anticipates Scarlet’s Walk‘s investigation of Native American history), the most poignant version of ‘This Old Man’ you’re ever likely to hear and the rare ‘Merman’, one of her most haunting compositions. The demo medley is also a wonderful addition that bravely showcases works in progress; it’s fascinating to hear the complex narrative of ‘A Sorta Fairytale’ being developed, while on ‘Playboy Mommy’ she truly sounds as if she’s in the process of channelling the song from another dimension.

As with all of Amos’s work, thought, care and an almost visionary quality of attention to detail have gone into the compilation of A Piano. This remarkable collection confirms her genius, contextualising an extensive body of work that, spiritually speaking, owes as much to The Beatles, Led Zeppelin or Nirvana as Kate Bush and yet retains its utter uniqueness. Along with last year’s Official Bootleg series, the autobiography and this year’s ‘Fade To Red’ video collection, A Piano offers another opportunity to explore the depths in Amos’s music as we await the next step on her journey (a new studio album is due next spring). It’s a pricey purchase, to be sure, but think of it as a spiritual investment…you’ll be listening to these songs forever.

Alex Ramon
originally published October 27th, 2006

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Tori Amos 
American Doll Posse ••••½
Epic

Notwithstanding a certain newspaper’s recent assertion that she’s “as fashionable as carbohydrates” these days – the kind of glib pronouncement that only an esteemed Brit broadsheet can make – the release of a new Tori Amos album remains an event for many of us. Despite the underestimation of her 21st century output by the mainstream music press, Amos, to her credit, has not wavered in her commitment to producing bold, thematically ambitious records in the face of patronisation and dismissal. From the covers-album-as-conceptual-extravaganza Strange Little Girls through the state-of-the-nation travelogue masterpiece Scarlet’s Walk to the lush “sonic gardens” of The Beekeeper, her recent work cries out for reappraisal. While none of these releases may have satisfied anyone still hoping for Little Earthquakes II, each testified to her willingness to experiment and bend the album form in all manner of strange and original directions.

Last year’s colossal A Piano boxset was similarly underrated (not to mention under-reviewed): the collection functioned as a timely reminder of the singularity of Amos’s vision, but was sadly overlooked by all but the die-hards. Alas, it seems that her new album, American Doll Posse, has failed to fully revive her commercial fortunes either, at least on this side of the Atlantic, debuting at a lowly number 50 on the UK album chart in the week that saw new albums by Ne-Yo and Natasha Bedingfield go Top 10. It’s probably best not to linger over the cultural implications of this though, as it has subsequently emerged that the low chart placing was due to a particularly bizarre bit of regulation which barred sales of the album’s special edition from inclusion in the count. (Beck’s The Information suffered the same fate last year.)

But if mainstream success seems likely to continue to elude her now, Amos can rest assured that she has created another work of breathtaking stylistic reach, uninhibited passion and fierce intellect. A something-for-everyone record in the mould of avowed inspirations such as The White Album and Goodbye Yellow Brick Road, American Doll Posse unabashedly returns post-millennial pop to the 1970s era of grand art-rock gestures, mixing it up with a healthy dose of brazen gynocentricism, and fuelled by Amos’s wholesale assimilation (Bach to the Beatles and Bowie by way of Bartók) of the history of music.

Perhaps in witty response to those who complained that The Beekeeper was far too long, Amos here produces an album that is shorter than its predecessor – by less than a minute. Boasting a mammoth 23 tracks, American Doll Posse tops both Scarlet’s Walk and The Beekeeper for sheer unadulterated epic-ness, while maintaining a rougher, brasher (some might say less subtle) tone. As all interested parties are aware by now, the album’s concept sees Amos continuing her investigation of the possibilities of role-play and character in order to conjure five distinct female personas inspired by the Greek pantheon: Isabel (Artemis), Clyde (Persephone), Santa (Aphrodite), Pip (Athena), and – in a pleasing po-mo touch – Tori (Demeter and Dionysus, no less). These characters are our narrators and guides through the Posse maze – liner notes helpfully identify who’s singing what – sometimes duetting or providing background vocals for each other, and offering their diverse takes on contemporary experience, from the overtly political to the deeply personal.

With dedicated internet blogs, their own wardrobes, and a heap of characteristically high-flown rhetoric about challenging the supremacy of the American Christer-Republican matrix through the unification of the compartmentalised feminine (phew), it’s pretty clear (if it wasn’t already) that Amos holds no fear of the accusations of posturing and pretension that she must be aware will inevitably follow. However, anyone who’s read Amos’s autobiography ‘Piece By Piece’ will know just how central the study of myth and archetype has become to her creative process and, in this sense, American Doll Posse feels like the natural outcome of her recent influences and concerns. There’s a practical side to the concept too: the problem with something-for-everyone albums – especially ones that last 79 minutes – is that they can lack cohesion. Amos’s recourse to personas allows her to sidestep this pitfall, and provides her with a fresh way to effectively channel and utilise all of the multifarious elements that make up her musical personality. 

But leaving aside conceptual befuddlements for the moment (we’ll return to them later, sorry), how does American Doll Posse actually sound? Very good indeed. Fortunately, Amos’s socio-political agenda has not led her to produce the sonic equivalent of a Hélène Cixous essay. Rather, with typical unpredictability, she’s given us a record that is, for the most part, thoroughly accessible: sexy, decadent, slightly disreputable fun. For all the pomposity of her rhetoric, Amos seems fully aware that there’s a great deal of frivolous, high-camp potential to the concept she’s devised, and she appears to be having a very good time exploring it.

Moreover, even with Amos plainly leading the charge as she operates her inimitable keyboard arsenal (Rhodes, Wurlitzer, electric piano, clavichord and mellotron accompany the Bösendorfer this time), Posse is also very much a collaborative work. Across the album Matt Chamberlain’s protean drumming and Jon Evans’s lithe bass join with her to achieve the kind of sustained symbiosis which is only possible after many months of shared live performance. A couple of tracks boast a string quartet arranged with typically exquisite precision by long-time collaborator John Philip Shenale, but the album’s real surprise lies in the contributions of the enigmatic ‘Mac Aladdin’ (recently revealed to be Mark Hawley, aka Mr. Amos), who emerges from the shadows to contribute incendiary electric guitar work throughout. The result is an album that rocks hard; Amos hasn’t got this consistently noisy on record since 1999’s To Venus & Back. That she manages to do so while continuing to engage in an intelligent and literate manner with thorny questions of gender, identity, power and politics suggests something of her achievement here.

But if Posse quickly gets raucous it actually starts out quiet, with trademark portentous piano chords ushering in Isabel’s brief opening Bush-salute, ‘Yo George’, a hushed piano-voice duet that serves as a chilling and inviting induction into the record. This is not the first time that Amos has set the leader of the free world in her sights (cf. ‘Sweet Dreams’, ‘Indian Summer’ and her blistering deconstruction of ‘Happiness Is A Warm Gun’ which sampled the voices of Bush Jr and Snr), and here she proves conclusively that political statement doesn’t have to be loud to be effective, a sublimely appropriate reference to a certain Alan Bennett play redeeming the piece from obviousness. Throughout, the album’s major tracks are interspersed with such short (but stylistically varied) songs, Boys For Pele-esque interludes that arrive like brief bulletins from the underworld. Listeners will decide for themselves whether these constitute a valuable addition to the album or a waste of space, but the grungy ‘Fat Slut’ (a reference to Catherine Breillat’s notorious 2001 film ‘Fat Girl’?), the implicatory ‘Devils & Gods’, the deliciously disturbing Weimar cabaret ‘Velvet Revolution’, and Santa’s sly ode to adaptability, ‘Programmable Soda’, offer so many lyrical and melodic gems that it’s very hard to begrudge their appearance. And given the album’s surfeit of material maybe it’s not a bad thing to be left wanting more of something.

Such is Amos’s healthy relationship to her Muse(s) that, barring the occasional strained moment, there’s amazingly little filler on Posse. As far as the major tracks go, things begin to get really interesting as soon as ‘Big Wheel’, an unexpected piece of swaggering honky-tonk that nicely establishes the album’s gender agenda, its brilliant bridge turning on the already-infamous appropriation of an impolite appreciatory acronym. It’s followed by the thumping drums and galloping pianos of Clyde’s delectable ‘Bouncing Off Clouds’, a song that continues the sharp-eyed investigation into “the way we communicate”, which has always been a central theme of Amos’s writing. “Failure to respond worked / I talked, but did you listen?” she enquires, the challenges of human interaction – whether between lovers, enemies or the individual and a perceived Authority – remaining a primary concern throughout the album. 

With screaming electric guitar and a vocal that roves from Peckham High Street to the San Fernando Valley in the space of a syllable, Pip takes over on the magnificently truculent ‘Teenage Hustling’, a song which uncovers a link between soliciting and salvation that few would dare to make. ‘Digital Ghost’ is a superb piano-ballad-goes-glam hybrid that uses technology obsession as a metaphor for emotional unavailability. Lurching into an unanticipated 1960s girl-group chorus, ‘Mr. Bad Man’ is a surprisingly playful take on those archetypal oppressive patriarchs, while ‘You Can Bring Your Dog’ struts like a gender-inverted Led Zeppelin classic, with Amos (via Santa) unleashing her best Robert-Plant-in-heat as she proclaims “I’m not living to be the Mrs.,” an assertion that could be the album’s mission statement.

There’s a similarly retro feel to much of the material, and Amos intelligently mines and melds her diverse influences without ever resorting to larceny. Gently revising one of her favourite songs, ‘Eleanor Rigby’, the deeply affecting ‘Girl Disappearing’ questions the inevitability of a woman’s apparent annihilation, while the Fleetwood Mac-meets-REM ‘Secret Spell’ is one of those exhilarating anthems of self-reliance that have always been her speciality. As she bites down hard on the “sold a dream at 23” lyric we realise that the song is documenting a series of turning points in a young girl’s life (almost certainly her own; her miserably received first band Y Kant Tori Read was signed to a six-album deal with Atlantic Records when she was 23) and the resolve she’s going to require just to survive them intact.

Arriving at the crucial mid-album mark, ‘Body & Soul’ – all clumping percussion, staccato piano and dirty bass – is an electrifying ‘duet’ between Santa and Pip, and one that brilliantly blurs the border between sexy and scary. The pensive, political ‘Father’s Son’ condenses the spectres of a dozen recent ecological disasters into the immortal inquiry “can we blame nature if she’s had enough of us?”, and the elegantly turbulent ‘Code Red’ bathes in an ambience that wouldn’t have seemed out of place on 1998’s From The Choirgirl Hotel. “Do this long enough you get a taste for it,” Amos sings, and the surrounding lyrics are ambiguous enough to suggest that she may have playing music, masturbation or living itself on her mind.

In a Clyde double bill, ‘Beauty Of Speed’ juxtaposes an evening’s rapture with the more complicated realities visible in “the harsh of daylight,” while ‘Roosterspur Bridge’ takes its place as this album’s ‘Northern Lad’. The luminous, offbeat ‘Almost Rosey’ channels ‘American Pie’ and boasts some of Amos’s cleverest, most intricate wordplay. A conversation between Isabel and some shadowy gentleman (a soldier? her father? a lover?), ‘Dark Side Of The Sun’ envisages the consequences of American cultural imperialism – “soon there’ll be fast food on the moon / painted in neon with ‘for sale’ signs up” – before turning the spotlight firmly on the personal and the present: “you say I’m more afraid of what / tomorrow could bring to us.” But Amos is too sharp and imaginative to leave us to wallow in despair, and what you’re likely to take away from the song is the image of endurance, the obligation to persist even in the face of hardship and oppression: “Brush back my tears and he said ‘girl / we have to soldier on / yes girl, even when we don’t feel strong.'” As usual, Biblical allusions course through many of these tracks. “Bushes” are burning on the mountain in this one; think back to ‘Yo George’ and make of that particular image what you will.

The album proper arguably ends here, but Amos has a trick or two up her sleeve yet. If ‘Posse Bonus’ is the album equivalent of one of those cheeky improv jams that are staples of her live show, then Pip’s ‘Smokey Joe’ and Santa’s ‘Dragon’ are American Doll Posse‘s magnificent encores, the former a deeply disturbing contrapuntal debate about the benefits (or otherwise) of brutal female retribution, the latter a compassionate rebuttal which bravely posits love, not violence, as the answer: “now it has come to light / the Gods they have slipped up / they forgot about the power / of a woman’s love.” It’s an extension of the dispute between these two in ‘Body & Soul’ – in which Santa advised Pip that “these devils of yours, they need love” – and one that attests to the breadth and complexity of Amos’s vision. There’s no sentimentality, no cosiness in her version of female understanding, and ‘Dragon’ – on which it’s the woman who must slay the beast – plays out with ‘Smokey Joe’s assertion that “the annihilating Feminine does not need civilizing” still echoing in your mind.

Lyrically, as some of the previous quotes demonstrate, Amos continues to cut with a very sharp scalpel indeed. If there’s a retro feel to much of the music, her subject matter remains resolutely current and contemporary. Avoiding the fey romanticism and preciousness which mars the work of some of her descendents, and veering ever closer to the complex poetry, her songwriting on Posse retains its thrilling mixture of brutal frankness and hermetic opacity, each track containing some indelible image, some surprising turn of phrase. “Genital panic,” “feeling radical in cotton,” “silken rubber gloves choking his vitriolic tongue,” “a gold star on a gendarme,” “blondes here don’t jump out of cakes,” “working her hell on that red carpet,” “boycotting trends / it’s my new look this season” – Amos is highly allusive but also colloquial, solidly structured yet apparently spontaneous, rarely sloppy or repetitious. Combined with the expressiveness of her vocals, the by now notorious ambiguities of her diction, and her immaculate musicianship, Amos’s impact is often overwhelming.

But the profundity of American Doll Posse ultimately lies in the aspects that may prove most problematic for some listeners: its concept and its scale. “The songs that have been coming to me lately, with their varied points of view, have been helping me to see how many different aspects of the self there are and that there is so much to work with, for each of us, at every stage,” Amos wrote in her conclusion to ‘Piece By Piece’, and this album feels like her practical demonstration of that statement. For what Posse offers the dedicated listener is a truly multi-vocal experience, a composite picture of contemporary American womanhood that is so rich that it ends up surpassing both national and gender specifics. What’s more, the entire album may be interpreted as a celebration of the benefits to be gleaned from looking at the world from multiple and often contradictory viewpoints – a particularly valuable endeavour in this polarised period. “Objectivity,” Isabel’s liner notes tell us, “can only be attained if you are open to another perception, even one that is contrary to your own.”

Accordingly, Amos’s women are not static creations; during the album they change through interaction with each other, their identities blurring and merging and complicating the labels that have been ascribed to them. In some ways, Amos could’ve taken the concept further – how about inviting one of those much-maligned “right-wing Christians” into the Posse? – but, even so, there’s liberation and subversion in the way in which the album tramples across gender stereotypes, locating the strength in Clyde’s vulnerability, the wisdom and potency in Santa’s sexuality, the doubt in Isabel’s political conviction. By the end, on ‘Smokey Joe’, there’s even the suggestion that Pip’s aggression may be turning to equivocation. Against the societal divisions that “pit woman against feminist,” male against female, the political against the personal, Amos constructs a kaleidoscope of paradox and contradiction, of competing and complimentary voices. In the process, what she offers us is nothing less than a guide to the possibility of surmounting repressive binary logic and of working creatively with the “many different aspects of the self” there are.

Between the concept, the blogs, Blaise Reutersward’s spectacular photography and – oh yes – the music itself, American Doll Posse provides sufficient material to sustain a thesis, not a review. Long but never sluggish, dense but never dry, this is the album as artefact – a wide open space for the listener to explore in. Whether it possesses the complete cohesion and control of Scarlet’s Walk is debatable, but, in this era of the short attention span, Amos has once again crafted a work that deliberately thwarts easy consumption, requiring instead a listener’s total sensory engagement, participation, and occasional forbearance. It’s a rare enough event in our culture, and one to be savoured, not scorned. (How often can a major-label musician be accused of indulging themselves with an excess of ideas these days?) To download bits and pieces of this album, to hear a few tracks and rush to snap judgement, seems a betrayal of the dedication and commitment that has gone into its composition. Immersion is the only solution here, and if you don’t have the time or inclination for that – well, new Ne-Yo and Natasha Bedingfield albums await you. But if you’re up for an experience, dive in, and marvel at Amos’s ability to produce yet another vital record that at once reflects and transcends our troubled times.

Alex Ramon

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Vitamin String Quartet
Pieces: The String Quartet Tribute to Tori Amos Vol. 2 •••
Vitamin

Having tackled the music of an astonishingly diverse selection of artists (everyone from Björk through The Cure to Garth Brooks), and with over 200 releases to its credit, Vitamin Records’ String Quartet Tribute series now brings us a second volume dedicated to the work of Tori Amos, a follow-up to 2001’s generally well-received Precious Things. It’s probably fair to say that most of us have mixed feelings about this series: putting a classical spin on rock music seems a brave but somewhat foolhardy idea, and one which risks turning intense, hard-edged songs into pleasant muzak. However, while this record doesn’t entirely assuage such reservations, it’s a classy effort which serves as a testament both to Amos’s impeccable sense of melody and to the variety and adaptability of her compositions.

While Precious Things concentrated on material from Amos’s first few albums, Pieces takes an impressively broad sweep through her voluminous back catalogue, including songs from each of her studio albums bar Under The Pink and the covers project Strange Little Girls. (In a nice bit of serendipity, Amos herself has employed a string quartet for the first time on her new album American Doll Posse.) Fans will be pleased to discover that many of the song choices are far from obvious, and that some of them are, in fact, wonderfully left-field: it’s a delight to find underrated gems such as ‘Cars & Guitars’, ‘Taxi Ride’ and Tales Of A Librarian‘s ‘Snow Cherries From France’ here, each beautifully performed.

The album has a very good sense of pace and flow and opens, appropriately, with ‘Jackie’s Strength’, that extraordinary amalgam of intimate autobiography and US social history. This version can’t really hope to compete with John Philip Shenale’s sublime string arrangement on the original but it remains an affecting rendition. A playful ‘Sweet The Sting’ and a gracefully mournful ‘China’ are among the other highlights, while ‘Spark’ and ‘Professional Widow’ (yes, really!) manage to retain an amazing amount of the turbulent menace of the originals. ‘Me & A Gun’ – which Amos famously delivered a cappella – is another surprising choice, and one that doesn’t quite come off, but lovely takes on ‘1000 Oceans’ and ‘A Sorta Fairytale’ quickly compensate.

It will come as no surprise that Pieces ultimately fails to fully convey the passion, density and complexity of Amos’s music: how can it without two of the most significant components, that voice and those words? But it’s a worthy collection which offers a fresh perspective on a formidable body of work.

Alex Ramon

 

 



2005/06 reviews dump: i

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

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Ill Ease
Miami & The Siege Of Chicago EP ••••
Ohayo Records

Ill Ease is the project of Brooklyn-based musician Elizabeth Sharp, formerly the drummer for New Radiant Storm King. Having tried her luck signed to Too Pure for 2003’s The Exorcist, Sharp returned to her DIY roots for last year’s excellent The After After Party Party EP and she’s clearly still in her element. Considering the intricacy of the drum lines and guitar parts, not to mention the suited American rasp behind each song, this selfmade musical achievement is exactly that, and a revelation to boot. This is no antifolk record; Sharp has venom and hatred so pure that she propels herself away from that scene entirely and into a league of her own.

To fully appreciate this record, it’s necessary to understand the history surrounding ‘the siege of Chicago’. Like The Doors and MC5 before her, Sharp has focused on the after effects of the 1968 National Democratic Convention where pro-war Hubert H Humphrey and anti-war Eugene McCarthy were both campaigning for a nomination to become the country’s next President during the Vietnam War. The vote was arguably rigged for Humphrey to win, which he did, and the McCarthy voters and peace activists protested. The confusion that followed is highlighted in ‘Two Party System’ through grinding guitar loops and lyrics that don’t pull punches (“we’ve all been fucked by the two party system” being a prime example).

This feeling of wrongdoing towards the people and popular culture of America is a recurring theme, although Sharp concentrates on the hypocrisy of musicians and their fans in the other songs. Opener ‘Too Much Sucky (I Hate Drum Machines)’ throws references to Devo into the mix and shapes some crazy, conservative musician screaming over bass-heavy riffs worthy of Death From Above 1979 about the influence of new wave in New York, while ‘New York No Wave’ gives a shout out to the antifolk movement. Both ‘New York – London – Paris’ and ‘The New You’ sound like Whirlwind Heat out on the prowl, pickaxe in hand, looking for the next fresh scenester killing.

Of course, whether you understand the complicated American history and the even more complicated political system is not the be all and end all, it simply makes the songs more interesting and adds value to Sharp’s lyrics. The music itself, with its continuous thump and ingenious post-grunge structure is ample enough evidence to make this a priority on your ever burgeoning ‘to get’ list. You’ll only be shaming yourself if you don’t.

Tiffany Daniels
originally published June 24th, 2006 

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Natalie Imbruglia
Counting Down The Days •••½
Polydor

The passive-aggressive faint praise brigade have had a field day with this, the third album from Australian singer-songwriter/actress/skincare pin-up Natalie Imbruglia. Four years after the patchy White Lilies Island, a record that so earnestly wanted to be taken seriously that it only could manage to be seven shades of dull, Counting Down The Days arrives with the benefit of considerably lower expectations and is all the better for it. In fact, it’s something of a triumph.

Featuring a raft of producers and co-writers, including her husband Daniel Johns, Ash Howes (aka Mr Sarah McLachlan), Eg White (Emiliana Torrini) and Ben Hillier (Blur), Imbruglia nonetheless manages to make the album sound coherent and it’s clear that the endeavour has been a three-year labour of love. Lead single ‘Shiver’ is as fresh-sounding as ‘Torn’ or ‘Big Mistake’ seemed in 1997 and deservedly became one of UK radio’s most played songs earlier this year. Other highlights include the Johns-penned ‘Satisfied’, which will almost certainly be another radio favourite. Similarly with ‘Sanctuary’, which features jangly indie guitar-work, discreetly wailing sirens and throbbing assertive drumbeats bubbling beneath her best rock moment since ‘Big Mistake’.

After a noticeably sagging second half, the real surprise of the album lies in ‘Honeycomb Child’, an appealing little gem with undeniably Vespertine-era Björkian influences (music box? check! burbling electronica? check!). Like Madonna’s spooky ‘Mer Girl’ at the end of Ray Of Light, it hints at a direction she might do well to explore. All in all, Counting Down The Days showcases a pleasing progression and unmistakeable maturation in Imbruglia’s sound. By sticking to her organic, level-headed and famously pernickety approach to songwriting, she has pulled off an applaudable feat in reversing the (mostly exaggerated) decline of her fortunes. The fact that the album became what even Left Of The Middle couldn’t – a #1 bestseller – is surely encouraging news. Let’s hope it gives her the confidence to make a speedier follow-up.

Alan Pedder
originally published June 12th, 2005 

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Immaculate Machine
Ones & Zeros ••••
Mint

It seems like they’ve started putting something in the water in Canada, as the last year or so has seen bands like Wolf Parade and Broken Social Scene come to the fore and begin to erase memories of Bryan Adams and Celine Dion. Another recent export receiving both great critical acclaim and popular attention is Vancouver’s The New Pornographers, to whom labelmates Immaculate Machine are inextricably linked. Not only is IM’s keyboardist and vocalist Kathryn Calder the long-lost niece of New Pornographers frontman Carl Newman, her voice and piano skills can be found littered across his band’s recent offering Twin Cinema.

But, whereas The New Pornographers’ sound is created by anything from six to ten musicians at a time, Immaculate Machine need only three: Calder, guitarist/vocalist Brooke Gallupe and drummer/vocalist Luke Kozlowski. Not that you’d know it from listening to their debut album. Ones & Zeros boasts a sound as full and as rich as any five-piece can manage, helped in large parts by the multi-instrumental talents of the band members, most notably Calder herself, who not only sings but plays lead keyboards with one hand while making up for the lack of a bassist by providing accomplished bass lines with the other. It seems perfectly possible that she’s also providing additional percussion with her feet.

All of this results in a thoroughly wholesome album of likeable, power-pop tunes littered with scratchy guitars and adroit harmonies combined with lyrics that, if not exactly inspired, are intelligent and well crafted. There’s an overriding sense of joy carried throughout Ones & Zeros, even when the song’s subject matter is less than joyful (such as instantly catchy opener ‘Broken Ship’), that makes it easy to enjoy right from the opening chords. That’s not to say that they can’t drop into touching melancholia at a moment’s notice, it’s just that they somehow manage to remain uplifting while doing so.

Each song seems to have been invested with every ounce of enthusiasm and desire to entertain that the band could muster, and because they succeed in that desire almost every time, it’s hard to pick out a standout moment. That said, the aforementioned ‘Broken Ship’, and the track whose lyrics provide the album title, ‘No Such Thing As The Future’, would make for brilliant singles. However, it seems that that honour will go to ‘You’re So Cynical’, a simple and powerful song that draws the ear for having a chorus that sounds a bit like Clap Your Hands Say Yeah, though thankfully far less brain-wrenchingly discordant).

Although it’s hard to see this being anyone’s favourite record of all time, it’s almost impossible to believe that anyone could dislike the industriously wrought, energetic and beautiful indie-pop of this, almost, immaculate piece of engineering.

Scott Millar
originally published May 1st, 2006 

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Dana Immanuel
Dana Immanuel EP ••••
Self-released

Let’s not beat around the shrubbery people, Dana Immanuel is a star and anyone who describes themselves as the sound of the “Cadbury’s Caramel bunny having a very bad day, in a swamp, somewhere in North London” quite frankly deserves to be. There was always something decidedly hypersexual and wrong about Miriam Margolyes’s wascally wabbit and it’s these and similar elements of life’s pink fleshy underbelly that Immanuel taps into with undeniable brilliance. It’s only fitting, then, that she was discovered by awestruck producer Tim Shoben whilst busking on the London Underground, possibly scaring the tourists. This all-too-brief EP truly does shine under his tutelage, an ugly-beautiful hit-and-run where poptastic knob-twiddling hero collides with dryly observational antifolkstress and both bounce off all the healthier.

Though sadly not a messed-up lo-fi cover of the Dobie Gray supermarket soul compilation classic, ‘Drift Away’ beats even that most tantalising of prospects hands down and then some. With its snappy lyrical prowess, stop-start stuttering hooks and Dana’s husky, whiskeyfied croon, it’s an absolute gem. Her impeccable timing is key but she still can’t resist cheekily enquiring “am I going too fast? / I know you can muster much more than half-assed” and who is anyone to argue with that? With its gentle rolling percussion, ‘Time Flies’ takes five minutes out from a daydream to revel in the glow of creamy melancholia, its slightly woozy melody instantly hummable and stick-in- your-head-for-days fantastic. Call Fiona Apple, call Ani DiFranco, their musical lovechild has been located.

In the grand tradition of saving only the best for last, the finest track here is undoubtedly ‘Banjo Song’, or to use a slightly politer version of its alternative title, ‘Mo Fo Ho’. A feast of finger-picked banjo, sinister keys, spaghetti western electric guitar and a filthy great bassline right out of a PJ Harvey song circa Is This Desire?, it’s a genuine tour de force. Taking the Martha Wainwright route one approach to notoriety surely won’t hamper Immanuel’s cause and the Janis Joplin-style wailathon in the middle is torturously inspired. The lady herself knowingly intones “you can’t resist its pull / so go ahead and bow to the inevitable” and that, my friends, is prophecy.

Alan Pedder
originally published May 17th, 2006

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The Innocence Mission
Birds Of My Neighborhood [reissue] ••••
Badman

The Innocence Mission are the kind of band that can make you feel like you’re the only person who knows them. It’s hard to believe that the first time I heard them was once upon on a Saturday afternoon in the dim and distant late ‘80s playing live on Radio One, of all places. Then promoting their debut album, it seems they swiftly dispensed with playing the game in terms of conventional promotion and so forth, and pre-internet at least, they were certainly an elusive bunch. Every now and then an album just seemed to magically appear from their world of love and beauty. I felt quite selfish about it actually, like they were my own secret band. But they even made albums that I didn’t know about; such lovely mystery! For years, I thought that main songwriter Karen and guitarist Don were brother and sister when they are in fact Mrs. and Mr. Peris. Nowadays though, even they have a website, a fact that just doesn’t seem right somehow. And now, presumably still riding on the tidal wave of critical acclaim they’ve received in recent years – not least for 2003’s heavenly Befriended – they’re reissuing a fully remastered version of their 1999 cult classic Birds Of My Neighborhood. So while I was quite possibly the only person to ever buy a copy of the original, now any Tom, Dick or Harriet will be able to. Bah!

But you can’t keep something this good to yourself forever. Birds Of My Neighborhood is a deceptively simple-sounding collection with minimal overdubs, the couple joined only by longtime Mission-ary and double bassist, Mike Bitts. Karen has something of a Marmite voice; some may love it while others may find it impossible to get past and that’s fair enough – her sweetness makes Melanie Safka sound like a member of Slipknot. But in my opinion, hers is a gorgeous and heartrending talent, and never more so the latter than on a deeply personal song like ‘July’, perhaps the most explicit reference to a difficult time in the Peris’s marriage when they had serious problems in conceiving a much longed-for child (something that has since been happily resolved). The seasonal details here, of snow and rain, of nature, trees and lakes are vividly realised. When Karen sings “we will walk on a hill / red hats and blue coats and everything still”, you are all but right there with them on that cold snowy day.

The one cover version, a rendition of John Denver’s ‘Follow Me’, is so exquisite that it will quite possibly haunt you to the end of your days; frankly, it turns me to jelly every time I hear it and is a pertinent reminder that Denver was a far better writer than people give him credit for. Spiritual and childlike, mysterious and sparse, Birds Of My Neighborhood is too special an album to be one that gets away so be glad for a second chance to own it. Celebrity fans Joni Mitchell, Sufjan Stevens and David Gray have raved about The Innocence Mission, I’m raving about them and you will rave about them too, but it’s a very hushed and churchlike kind of raving so sssh! That way, they may even grow to feel like your very own secret band too.

Kevin Hewick
originally published March 19th, 2006 

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Iona
Journey Into The Morn [reissue]
Open Sky / Voiceprint

An ancient Celtic truism states that a three-stranded cord is strong and, stylistically, this is also true of Iona. Their output falls squarely into three clear categories – Celtic-tinged pop, ambient sounds and extended, distinctly prog-leaning musical workouts. While their more ambient works often draw lazy comparisons with the likes of Clannad and Enya, Iona’s strength lies in a depth of focus that avoids the over-reliance on texture and arrangement (to the detriment of melody and song structure) that taints some of the Brennan family’s oeuvre. This same focus and musicality also keeps their more progressive tracks safely shy of meandering pretentiousness.

The mid-1990s were something of a transition period for the band, with the exit of co-founder Dave Fitzgerald and ex-Kajagoogoo bassist Nick Beggs and the temporary recruitment of Steeleye Span’s Tim Harries and Australian woodwind player Mike Houghton. Yet, ironically, this time of upheaval produced one of their most coherent and accomplished albums, Journey Into The Morn. A key factor in this was the addition the now permanent Troy Donockley. Although he had contributed uilleann pipes and low whistles to previous Iona albums, full-time membership helped steer the group in a more authentically folk and progressive rock direction, all the while retaining their accessible sound. This welcome reissue on the Voiceprint label gives listeners a timely opportunity to re-examine this important phase in their career.

After the gentle prelude of ‘Bí-Se I Mo Shúil’, a pair of joyous, upbeat pop songs presents itself in the form of ‘Irish Day’ and ‘Wisdom’, both of which are complemented by traditional Celtic instrumentation. The more trance-styled ‘Everything Changes’ follows, before the tender, acoustic guitar-driven ‘Inside My Heart’ raises the stakes, with singer Joanne Hogg interweaving sublime self-harmonies and countermelodies before the intensity builds and the electric guitar of Dave Bainbridge enters and soars above it. The album’s symphonic centrepiece, ‘Encircling’, is an astonishing piece of modern prog rock spanning eleven minutes with three separate movements: the ethereal ‘Lorica’ takes as its basis the Celtic ‘breastplate prayer’, while the traditional instrumentation and rock backing of ‘Tara’ evokes the ancient stronghold of the kings of Ireland. ‘Caim’, the ‘encircling charm’, symbolises an all-encompassing religious love, spiralling down to a tranquil conclusion.

A further thematic thread runs through the second half of the album, with many songs inspired by the 8th Century Irish hymn, ‘Be Thou My Vision’. Final track, ‘When I Survey’, acts as a coda, melding sacred 18th Century lyrics with the American folk tune better known as ‘The Water Is Wide’, hinting towards the source of the morning to which the journey takes us. This final song, an enduring live favourite, once again highlights the impressive strength and beauty of Joanne Hogg’s vocals and the power of her performance. Backed only by djembe, keyboard and e-Bow pads, she wrings every drop of meaning out of the words and tender melody.

Journey Into The Morn also features some notable guest appearances from Clannad vocalist Máire Brennan, who contributes Celtic harp to the title track and vocal loops to others alongside King Crimson founder Robert Fripp’s guitar synth and ‘Frippertronics’ effects. A decade on, Journey… remains a stunning piece of work that almost defies classification by being neither folk, pop, prog or rock, whilst blending elements of all four; remastering has only enhanced its sonic sheen. Iona have that rare ability to seamlessly transcend many diverse styles and Journey… offers plentiful and rich reward for those seeking to expand their musical and spiritual horizons beyond the everyday.

Trevor Raggatt
originally published November 11th, 2005 

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Iona
Live In London ••••
Open Sky / Voiceprint

It’s been a long time coming but this double-disc live DVD set from Celtic rock band Iona has been well worth the wait. In fact, it has been six years since fans of the band have had any new Iona product to get their teeth into – 2000’s studio album, Open Sky. This partial exile, during which the band has made only occasional live forays, has been partly self-imposed since it allowed, amongst other things, time for lead singer Joanne Hogg to start a family. However, with new studio album The Circling Hour due for release in the autumn, Live In London serves to whet expectant appetites, not least because three of the songs here (namely ‘Wind Off The Lake’, ‘Strength’ and ‘Factory Of Magnificent Souls’) are new and tasty entrées. The remainder of the songs are culled from the band’s five studio albums, with all phases of their 16-year career represented, with a few cuts from Iona’s multi-instrumentalists Dave Bainbridge and Troy Donockley’s duo project that has kept them busy during the downtime.

Filmed in November 2004, the concert is presented as something of a comeback, and it’s a joyous affair; the mixture of party atmosphere and adrenalin-fuelled nerves are in evidence, all of which add a sense of energy. The music is presented in two sections – the main programme providing over 90 minutes of the band in full flow and a half-hour acoustic set. It’s crowd-pleasing too, as is clear from the vociferous reaction. The music and visuals are both well presented, with only a few digital artefacts on the faster motion betraying the fact that the budget for the project was hardly that of Kylie or Robbie’s latest DVD.

The producers make very good use of the five-camera film crew and all the angles available, with occasional monochrome fades and inserts adding a touch of class. That it comes in proper widescreen format is simply an additional bonus, but an excellent one. Why so many music DVDs still seem to come in 4:3 ratio is beyond me, but that’s another story. The audio, too, is exemplary with both the stereo and 5.1 surround sound mixes vibrant and lively. As ever, Hogg is in fine voice, dishing up a bewitching concoction of crystalline purity and rich, breathy intimacy. The range of instruments shared between Bainbridge and Donockley is staggering, from the conventional rock armoury of electric guitars and keyboards to more traditional instruments like bouzoukis, acoustic guitars, low whistles and uilleann pipes. This more antiquated arsenal may seem to peg them in the ambient Celtic and folk-rock categories, but comparisons with Clannad at one extreme and Fairport Convention at the other fail because of the other elements Iona bring to the table.

Many of these songs possess definite prog rock leanings with their extended instrumental passages in which duetting uilleann pipes and electric guitar is something of an Iona signature. However, a keen pop sensibility never allows them to regress into the sort of navel-gazing self-indulgence that has so often marred music of this type. The playing is never anything less than tight and the music is always accessible and focused yet multi-layered and textured. It’s a heady but satisfying mixture that draws deep from both traditional and modern music and infuses that with a soaring Celtic spirit.

All told then, Live In London is an excellent record of a supremely talented band relishing the opportunity to share a passion for their music on stage. It succeeds as both a memento for existing fans and a great introduction for those who are new to the band. If your taste for Celtic music stretches beyond the MOR ambient washes of Enya and the like, or if you’re a fan of classic rock who’s willing to go beyond familiar constructs, there is much in this set that will reward your attention.

Trevor Raggatt
originally published June 8th, 2006 

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Iona
The Circling Hour •••••
Open Sky / Voiceprint 

As 2006 slips onward into its darkening days so completes the busiest year in a long while for Iona and with it comes the greatest reward for their fans: a brand new studio album. It has certainly been a long time coming – their last album proper was 2000’s Open Sky – and follows this year’s teasers of a live DVD and tour. The wait was more than worth it; The Circling Hour is perhaps the finest statement yet from the band whose distinctive sound straddles genres as diverse as rock, pop, prog, Celtic and chillout. Too often a band’s return from an extended hiatus leads to disappointment and a sense of anticlimax, the anticipation far outweighing the event.

Right from the fragile opening of ‘Empyrean Dawn’, where Joanne Hogg’s delicate and halting intonation of lines from an ancient hymn cast a riveting spell, it’s palpable that something special is happening – underlined just seconds later when the rest of the band crash into the song with electric guitars, drums and Troy Donockley’s sublime uilleann pipes. Where Open Sky was perhaps a little too ambient and rambling, The Circling Hour is a leaner, meaner prospect. Pointedly focused and gloriously song-centred, it’s a driving, purposeful record that revels in its rhythmic elements.

Though the traditional slant to Iona’s music provides a solid grounding and a love affair with Celtic instrumentation, their pop sensibilities should not be underestimated and really come to the fore on tracks like ‘Strength’ and the marvellously titled ‘Factory Of Magnificent Souls’. Here, the band create a Celtic pop blend that The Corrs would kill for but add to that a political savvy that the Dundalk siblings could never approach. Where The Circling Hour does delve deeper into more progressive and traditional material, the symphonic and ambient moods it invokes avoid stylistic excess. See ‘Wind Off The Lake’ for a perfect example. Best of all, however, is the epic triptych of ‘Wind’, ‘Water’ and ‘Fire’; built around percussionist Frank Van Essen’s lyrical violin and Hogg’s ethereal voice, it provides a pastoral interlude that nestles between its more frantic surrounds. Evoking an Elgar serenade, the band conjures up a brief adagio before culminating in the frenetic con brio climax of ‘Fire’.

Once again, Hogg proves herself to be one of this country’s most stunning vocalists; her always-pure tones skilfully encapsulate every cool texture and deep emotion required. For that and any other reason you might care to think of, The Circling Hour is a dazzling album that politely stamps all over any notion of a slight return.

Trevor Raggatt
originally published November 23rd, 2006



2005/06 reviews dump: m

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

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

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

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

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

Jane Gillow
originally published on September 5th, 2005

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Madonna
Confessions On A Dancefloor ••••
Maverick

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

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

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

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

Ian Buchan
originally published on December 5th, 2005 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ian Buchan
originally published on June 24th, 2006 

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Magenta
Home •••½
F2 Music

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

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

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

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

Trevor Raggatt 
originally published September 20th, 2006

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The Magic Numbers
The Magic Numbers •••½
Heavenly

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

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

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

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

Stephen Collings
originally published on September 4th, 2005

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Magneta Lane
Dancing With Daggers ••½ 
Paperbag

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

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

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

Russell Barker
originally published on June 24th, 2006 

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Ari Alexander Ergis Magnússon
Screaming Masterpiece •••
Palomar Pictures

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Stephen Collings
originally published on January 21st, 2006 

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James Mangold
Walk The Line ••••
Palomar Pictures

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

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

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

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

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

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

Stephen Collings
originally published on February 6th, 2006  

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Alan Pedder
originally published on June 27th, 2005 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Alan Pedder
originally published on May 25th, 2005 

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Lene Marlin
Lost In A Moment •••
Virgin

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

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

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

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

Ian Addison
originally published on August 26th, 2005 

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

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

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

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

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

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

Trevor Raggatt
originally published on March 25th, 2006  

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Karen Matheson
Downriver ••••
Vertical

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

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

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

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

Trevor Raggatt
originally published on January 22nd, 2006  

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

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

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

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

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

Robbie de Santos 
originally published August 23rd, 2006

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

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

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

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

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

Anja McCloskey 
originally published July 25th, 2006

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Stephen Collings
originally published on July 26th, 2006  

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Cerys Matthews
Never Said Goodbye ••••
Rough Trade

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Stephen Collings 
originally published October 24th, 2006

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Stephen Collings
originally published on December 19th, 2006 

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

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

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

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

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

Danny Weddup 
originally published January 28th, 2006

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Loreena McKennitt
An Ancient Muse •••½
Quinlan Road

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

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

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

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

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

Aaron Alper
originally published December 17th, 2006

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

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

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

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

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

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

Helen Griffiths
originally published August 11th, 2005

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Sarah McLachlan
Wintersong •••½
Arista

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Trevor Raggatt
originally published December 17th, 2006

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Natalie Merchant
VH1 Storytellers •••
Rhino Home Video

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

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

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

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

Alan Pedder
originally published August 7th, 2005 

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

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

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

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

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

Alex Ramon
originally published March 25th, 2006 

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Metric
Live It Out ••••
Drowned In Sound

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

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

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

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

Lisa Komorowska
originally published July 2nd, 2006 

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Mi & L’au
Mi & L’au ••••
Young God

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

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

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

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

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

Adam Smith 
originally published May 7th, 2006

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

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

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

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

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

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

Lisa Komorowska
originally published July 2nd, 2006 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Stephen Collings
originally published May 24th, 2006 

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Kylie Minogue
Ultimate Kylie ••••
Parlophone

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

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

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

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

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

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

Alan Pedder 
originally published May 19th, 2005

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Juana Molina
Son •••½
Domino

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

The lyrics are an obvious stumbling block for the monolingual majority of Britons; there’s little depth here for non-Spanish speakers who may fail to be creatively captivated by what will essentially be a collection of meaningless sounds. Luckily, Molina is smart enough to realise this and attempts to avoid the problem by packing Son with liberal use of phonetically pleasing a cappella performances, particularly on the cooing ‘Yo No’. There are stylistic nods, too, to various English-speaking artists; both ‘Ha Que Ver Si Voy’ and ‘Elena’ contain elements of Jim Noir’s psychedelic chanting, while ‘Las Culpas’ arguably sounds like Cat Power after a particularly heavy night of drinking. Furthermore, the trumpet and didgeridoo mash-up on ‘La Verdad’ proves that Molina ain’t no one-trick potro, while ‘Desordenado’ is reminiscent of Gemma Hayes’s soft lulling harmonies and ‘Miceal’ is in a world of its own.

Although it’s rather unlikely that this relatively subdued album will find a sizable audience outside of the electro-folk faithful, Molina is a mightily skilled performer. So if you can bear to stay in the dark about what the hell she’s singing, you’ll find this record ideal for whiling away our many rainy days. Unlike many of the poster girls of Latin-American music, an English-language album from Molina would be no commercial gimmick, it would be an event! For now, however, just revel in the mystery.

Tiffany Daniels 
originally published July 2nd, 2006

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Allison Moorer
Getting Somewhere •••½
Sugar Hill

Unbeknownst to all but the most discerning and curious of UK music fans, country star Allison Moorer has quietly constructed an impeccable back catalogue, never compromising her values for mainstream success, remaining stubbornly loyal to the one thing that makes people return to her, album after album – the music. Each album has witnessed a distinct progression in her sound without losing one iota of her individual styling and wonderfully expressive voice. Having carved out a niche in the country-pop genre, Moorer is now much in demand for Hollywood soundtracks and a firm favourite on the live circuit, where in 2004 she recorded a live album with her older sister, the equally uncompromising Shelby Lynne. Now, in 2006, newly married to Steve Earle, it seems she finally feels as if she may be Getting Somewhere.

Moorer has created no shortage of gems since 1998’s debut album Alabama Song, immersing herself in the southern soul of 2000’s The Hardest Part before delivering 2004’s harder-edged The Duel. Her appeal owes a great deal to her ability to get beneath the skin of human relationships without lazily ambling down Cliché Street. Moorer takes the road less travelled, telling stories through anything but rose-tinted glasses. Just a short while into the album, however, it becomes clear that married life may have taken the edge off somewhat – Allison’s happy, and here’s a snappy, concise 39 minutes of mostly upbeat music to prove it. It’s refreshing to see an artist unafraid to say all she’s got to say in songs that rarely climb over the three minute barrier. When music’s this good, quality beats quantity every time. Though her husband’s production has left the drums a little leaden and tinny and the guitars a touch more grungy than anything she’s done before, the catchy melodies remain.

Opener ‘Work To Do’ unveils her newly positive outlook – “I’ve got a lot of work to do / got to give you back your point of view / it suits you fine / it’s just not mine…” – while ‘You’ll Never Know’, ‘Take It So Hard’ and the beautiful ‘Where You Are’ are all fine examples of her invigorating craft. That’s not to say there isn’t an undercurrent of doubt and anxiety, but the pop stylings and a cappella intro of ‘Fairweather’ make for an interesting contrast. Where the old Moorer would have sung this song of finding post-break-up freedom from the viewpoint of a wronged woman, here we have instead a liberated female looking forward to the single life. It’s a subtle distinction, but an important one nevertheless. More importantly, it’s also (whisper it quietly) single material, one of a couple of songs that feel like they’ve been written with a more commercial slant.

Another highlight and a nod to her previous output can be found in ‘If It’s Just For Today’, a realistic look at the reasons why two people get and stay together and reminiscent in feel to ‘Can’t Get There From Here’ from 2002’s Miss Fortune. It’s dedicated (perhaps a little bravely) to Earle; presumably his famously tough exterior took it in the way it’s intended. Whether or not Moorer will continue to allow this honeymoon period to influence her writing remains to be seen, but for the moment we should be happy for her and happy that she can still produce work of this quality. There’s a classic album in her somewhere; this isn’t it, but the summer would be worse without it.

Paul Woodgate
originally published July 10th, 2006 

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Alanis Morissette
Jagged Little Pill Acoustic •••
Maverick

The first thing that came to mind when Alanis Morissette announced that she would be releasing a 10th Anniversary edition of her 1995 multi-multi-million selling debut Jagged Little Pill was that her label, Madonna’s famously loss-making Maverick Records, needed to boost their profit margin and quick. Certainly, this record is either a genius marketing ploy on their part or a genuine sign of Morissette’s affection for the songs, for rather than just repackaging the original along with a few live songs, four-track demos and a DVD of the lacklustre ‘Jagged Little Pill Live’ tour documentary, Morissette and her original producer Glen Ballard huddled back into the studio together to re-record the album as an all-acoustic feast.

To be honest, my expectations were not high. If any album was era-defining, Jagged Little Pill was it. Its angsty sturm-and-drang brought me into womanhood; yes, I was one of those girls punching my fist into the air with a feminist “fuck yeah!”, even though at age 11 I had little to really rave about. How pleasantly surprising then that Jagged Little Pill Acoustic is a minor revelation in itself. From the first opening note, Alanis’s own growth, both personal and musical, is clear. Although some songs hardly differ in terms of arrangement, the addition of some subtle orchestration and the obvious replacement of snarling electrics with gentle acoustic guitars all gels together for a very mellow and easygoing album, perfect for accompanying a long glass of Grenache.

Jagged Little Pill Acoustic runs to precisely the same order as its blueprint, and the opener ‘All I Really Want’ is a highlight in its new skin, recalling her epic 1998 album Supposed Former Infatuation Junkie, with its Eastern influences and dancing strings. This does, however, mean that the version of ‘Your House’ here must rank as the least unexpected hidden track in history. In spite of this, it varies on its previous theme by ditching the poetic a cappella and presenting itself as a gently strummed ditty. Elsewhere, the infamous single Ironic has undergone a slightly wincing lyrical change reflecting society’s progression into the Queer Eye age (“It’s like meeting the man of my dreams and then meeting his beautiful husband”) but otherwise is melodically intact and pleasant enough.

Considering the original’s inescapable ubiquity, this remake seems almost like a hits collection. But while best-ofs and greatest hits often leave this listener cold, Jagged Little Pill Acoustic clearly maps out Alanis’s musical journey over the past decade and serves as a reminder of a great collection of songs.

Elisavet Leondariti
originally published September 9th, 2005 

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Alanis Morissette
The Collection ••½ 
Maverick

Arriving just a few months after a less-than-essential tenth anniversary acoustic edition of her mighty debut, Jagged Little Pill, it’s possible to view this hits compilation of Morissette’s work as symptomatic of record label desperation. Are Maverick simply trying their hardest to wring as much mileage as possible out of the back catalogue of an artist who, for many, has failed to fulfil the creative or commercial promise of her phenomenal early success? Errant thoughts such as these may well pass through your mind as you listen to The Collection. In all fairness, however, this retrospective does have a little more to offer than such a cynical assessment suggests. In particular, for those who gave up on Morissette in the late ‘90s – that is, about mid-way through the endurance test that was Supposed Former Infatuation JunkieThe Collection functions as a valuable recap of what she’s been up to since, and a chance for listeners to reflect upon the qualities that make her, at times, a very special artist indeed. Unfortunately, though, the record also offers a few clues as to why her post-Pill output has been somewhat less than stellar.

The 18 tracks chosen for the album are broadly representative: five songs from Jagged Little Pill, a smattering from her other studio records, one from her MTV Unplugged disc, a trio of soundtrack contributions, some rarities, and a new cover (for less casual listeners, a special digipak edition supplements the CD with a one-hour documentary and a few other extras). There are, inevitably, some regrettable omissions: superior album cuts such as ‘Front Row’, ‘Narcissus’, ‘Surrendering’, ‘21 Things I Want In A Lover’ and ‘That Particular Time’ would have better displayed her gifts than some of the chosen tracks, but then no ‘best of’ collection ever pleased everyone. Less surprisingly, but perhaps a little disappointingly for some, there’s nothing featured from her early days as a teenage bubble-permed popstar either. The inclusion of some particularly obscure tracks (such as ‘Mercy’, her contribution to Jonathan Elias’s 1999 project of multi-language devotional songs entitled The Prayer Cycle) indicates that Morissette intends The Collection to be something rather more ambitious than a standard greatest hits package.

The sequencing is non-chronological and begins with …Junkie’s enduring first single ‘Thank U’, one of several of her beguiling paeans to experience as teacher. Of the less familiar tracks, ‘Sister Blister’ (from the CD/DVD package Feast On Scraps) rocks nicely and offers a trenchant view of gender roles and female competitiveness. The aforementioned ‘Mercy’ is a bizarre inclusion, however; a botched attempt at spiritual rapture on which Morissette (singing in Hungarian) duets with Salif Keita. As admirable as her decision not to follow a predictable course with this release is, it’s a tactic that often backfires and renders The Collection a rather uneven listening experience.

Indeed, quality control is sadly variable throughout. At her best, Morissette is a witty and insightful writer whose songs excavate sharp emotional truths; at her worst, she sounds like she’s reciting from a self-help manual, and a second-rate one at that. For every subtle, surprising lyrical detail that strikes a nerve, such as “I remembered you the moment I met you” in ‘Simple Together’, there’s a corresponding slide into cringe-making banality: “I thought we’d be sexy together… I thought we’d have children together.” Also exposed is her irritating penchant for repetitious ‘listing’ song structures. This compositional style – an attempt at litany? – allows little room for ambiguity, nuance or progression beyond glib paradoxes of the “I’m the funniest woman you’ve ever known… I’m the dullest woman you’ve ever known” / “I’m your doubt and your conviction” variety.

Morissette’s vocal performances can be similarly erratic. Her singing on Jagged Little Pill had character, edge, spontaneity and the power to command your attention. And while these qualities are still sometimes in evidence on her later work, they have mostly been stifled by increasingly slick and soulless production. To listen to her music is to bear witness to a gradual erosion of personality. She is, The Collection also reveals, an artist whose interpretive skills still require honing. A new cover of Seal’s ‘Crazy’ is passable, though utterly undistinguished, but an over-eager take on Cole Porter’s ‘Let’s Do It (Let’s Fall In Love)’ from the ‘De-Lovely’ soundtrack cruelly exposes her limitations, sticking out like the proverbial sore thumb. Since many of her songs are somewhat similar in tempo, a little of her work can go a long way. Whatever their deficiencies, quieter moments such as ‘Simple Together’ and ‘That I Would Be Good’ do offer a needed respite.

The nicest surprise though is just how well the Jagged Little Pill tracks have worn: ‘You Oughta Know’ retains its startling ferocity, ‘Head Over Feet’ reveals itself as a surprisingly sweet love song, while ‘Hand In My Pocket’ remains a glorious anthem. But then you probably own all those songs already and they gain little when presented out of context. Of the other tracks, the disturbing ‘Hands Clean’ – which does allow for some lyrical ambiguity – is one that you may find yourself returning to. That Morissette is a talented young artist who has yet to fully find her voice on record is the abiding impression given by The Collection. Hopefully, its release will mark a turning point in her career, freeing her up to reconnect with her muse and thereby take her music in some interesting new directions.

Alex Ramon
originally published February 6th, 2006 

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The Morning After Girls
Shadows Evolve •••
Best Before

Their press release will tell you that The Morning After Girls’s “… hazy melodies pull you right into the world of the morning after – a moment they characterise by a dreamy grogginess, a dischord of transient yet striking memories and sounds, nostalgia; a yearning to go back to last night…” Or, depending on your taste, just to stick your head in a toilet.

But seriously, The Morning After Girls are regarded by some as yet another entry in a long line of fashionable faux-New York bands who emulate Lou Reed; hard-working but perhaps a little over-hyped. So what the musical offspring of these five Aussies really sounds like is initially not so cool (at least, not in my book), taking us back to the shoegaze era with startling precision, where one must keep an eye out for The Charlatan-osaurus sniffing a Stone Rose on a kind of Happy Monday, whilst all team members probably dye their hair black in the name of über-chic and have definitely listened to the noisier bits of The Dandy Warhols.

OK, so you get the idea that The Morning After Girls (who, controversially, are all men save for sometime vocalist Aimee Nash) would probably have fitted in much better, say, fifteen years ago. Refer to the title track and ‘Always Mine’ for two obvious examples if you don’t just believe everything you read. Yes, this debut offering is mostly disguised as ‘proper indie’, even featuring a cameo by Ride’s Mark Gardener, no less, meaning I had to listen to it at least three times before I could even begin to appreciate it. After which, it was gathered that the word ‘disguised’ is particularly apt. Because, once you chomp past the somewhat indigestible and rather bland exoskeleton of self-proclaimed psychedelia moulded into the start of the album, you are rewarded with something much more worthy of your pennies.

So while the unavoidable instrumentals shamelessly appear to boast more of laziness than of creativity – the few lyrics that were thrown in justify this, even admitting “ain’t got a lot to say” – glowing treats from the melodic and upbeat ‘Straight Through You’ to the aggressive Cobain-esque vocal of first single ‘Hi-Skies’ and the sweeping stoner lust of The Beatles crossed with The Vines-inspired tracks like ‘Slowdown’ and ‘Chasing Us Under’, make for a much more convincing dynamic. Indeed, the phrase “saved by the bell” comes to mind.

Though by no means a unique specimen, The Morning After Girls are worth checking out as they pimp their noisy wares at the festivals this summer, if only to hear what they are under-rated for. Like uncovering a rare fossil of the long-forgotten time when Damon Albarn sported a bowl cut, blow off the dusty bits and you’ll no doubt get excited.

Anna Claxton
originally published June 12th, 2006 

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Morningwood
Morningwood ••
Capitol

The great thing about Morningwood is that you’re left in no doubt when they’re in the vicinity. The New York foursome are loud, glam and put on a spectacular live show, largely helped by the youthful exuberance of their wonderfully christened frontwoman, Chantal Claret. But can they cut it on CD, stripped of their visuals and spontaneity? Well they certainly can’t be criticised for not giving it their best shot. Lead track ‘Nü Rock’ slaps you upside your head with an in your face rock ‘n’ roll tune and a statement of intent, Claret screaming “come on get over it, come on get into it” over crunching riffs before finishing with the battle cry “it starts right now!”

Next, ‘Televisor’ approaches metal territory with all guns blazing, with Claret’s wailing falsetto oozing attitude. But before you have them pegged as some sort of glam rock beast, ‘Nth Degree’ arrives to surprise and confuse. It’s basically a big MOR Europop number that sounds like it’s being played by electropop robots with lyrics that spell out the name of the band. You can imagine it going down well in gay discos across the land. And do you know what, it sounds pretty good. But by the time you reach the fourth track, ‘Jetsetter’, familiarity begins to creep in, bringing as it does a contemptible lack of fresh ideas. It’s the usual brash stomping tune, with aggressive riffs and a hollered bit over the drum break. Similarly, while ‘Take Off Your Clothes’ may inspire some audience members to do just that at their live shows, here it rips the heart from ‘Smells Like Teen Spirit’ and renders it simply boring. ‘Body 21′ carries on the slip into formulaic nonsense, being a semi-dramatic rock tune full of half-baked lyrical clichés like “my body’s 21 but my mind is ageless”. Elsewhere, ‘Easy’ is all stadium posturing and screeching electric guitar solos, while ‘Babysitter’ is slightly more restrained and all the better for it. It’s still none too exciting, however.

After all this, ‘New York Girls’ comes as a nice surprise, more New Wave pop than over the top. The interruptions from riffing guitars and Go! Team-style shambolics sit rather well in the tune and make for a more interesting listen. In fact, it marks the start of a closing trio that trounces the majority of the rest of the album. ‘Everybody Rules’ is straightforward bouncy pop but with cool singalong bits, while ‘Ride The Lights’ is a rather surprising Saint Etienne-style, saccharine-coated pedestrian pop song. With more songs like these, Morningwood could yet avoid being put down as a lame one-trick pony.

Russell Barker
originally published March 8th, 2006 

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Rebecca Mosley
Morning Warning Chorus EP ••
Self-released

There’s nothing especially bad about this release from Stoke-on-Trent’s Rebecca Mosley; there’s nothing particularly good either, and the unremarkable nature of her debut sampler makes it frustratingly difficult to review. Mosley may list her influences as “anything from Kate Bush and Liz Fraser to Elliott Smith and Leonard Cohen”, but it’s hard to detect any traces of the originality that characterises these artists in Mosley’s music; as such, her songs can only pale in comparison.

For starters, opening number ‘Power In Paper’ is discordant in an amateurish rather than artful fashion (see Nina Nastasia’s ‘I Say That I Will Go’ for a good example of the latter) and the lyrics are clunky; “so did they bolt up the truth / the document weight / such a flimsy folded fate” sounds little better sung than it does on the page. On a positive note, Mosley’s voice is strong and versatile; it deserves better songs to work with. The strident acoustic guitar work jars against the ears and the lack of structure really doesn’t help. ‘Queues’ meanders in at a lengthy 6:42, long outstaying its welcome despite some pleasingly growly vocals reminiscent of Tori Amos’s ‘Pancake’.

And then it’s back to the major bugbear: the lyrics. Mosley tries too hard to be clever and too often comes unstuck. Recalling the kind of poems you stumble upon in an old notebook from your student days, scan over and hastily put away with embarrassment, the words pile up against each other but what they actually add up to is anybody’s guess. For example, “so tell me a joke please / so I can store it in a cool dry place / with your plastic attic angels / on their stone cold changeling chase” (‘Store In A Cool Dry Place’). Elsewhere, we have “fickle-fisted words”, “speckled mascara gratings making negative constellations” and light that “plays tricks like flashback movie flicks”.

Nonsense rhyme and alliteration all have their place but tend to grate when used to excess and at the expense of communicating anything worthwhile. Back to the drawing board.

Danny Weddup 
originally published November 23rd, 2006

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Múm
Yesterday Was Dramatic, Today Is OK [reissue] •••
Morr Music

It was only after the crushingly beautiful and critically revered Ágætis Byrjun by fellow Icelanders Sigur Rós that experimental foursome Múm gained recognition in the UK, helped in no small way by the fact that their second album, 2002’s Finally We Are No One, was released on the same label. But to dismiss them for riding on their countrymen’s tails would be a mistake; in their own unassuming way, Múm were pioneers too, as this reissue of their 1999 debut proves, albeit for better or worse.

Originally released on tiny Icelandic indie label Thule, it soon went out of print and, following a long and messy legal wrangle, the band regained the rights earlier this year and set about remastering the songs in preparation for this re-release on German label, Morr Music. Aside from the fact that Morr is owned by friends of the band, their roster includes some of the IDM (Intelligent Dance Music) genre’s brightest leading lights, many of whom contributed to the Morr Music Múm remix record, Please Smile My Noise Bleed. A fitting home then, but what of the album itself?

Despite the newly-tooled tune-ups, Yesterday… only serves to indicate how far the band has come in the last half-decade. Disappointingly, twin sister siren-like vocalists Kristín and Gyða (who has since departed the band) Valtýsdóttir appear on only three tracks. But what tracks they are! The most glorious moments, for instance, the end of ‘There Is A Number Of Small Things’ and the first few minutes of ‘Awake On A Train’, are breathtakingly beautiful. The former is so full of joy that it conjures the urge to run through a sunlit grassy field, while the latter accurately replicates that inner warmth you can feel when looking out from the window of a train over a glinting snowy vista as it sparkles in the sun.

Mostly though, the album sounds like exactly what it is: a bunch of teenagers sitting in a room playing with a synthesiser and a few acoustic instruments. Many of the songs have a single musical theme that is endlessly repeated and changes infrequently. As a result, it occasionally gets excessively tiresome, and some of the noodling sound effects are painful. Certainly, if their later records can be said to hold some debt to Sigur Rós, Yesterday… suffers from being a touch too in thrall of Aphex Twin. It has some nice enough moments, but is really for completists only. If you’re new to the band, try the bewitching, aquatically-themed Finally We Are No One or last year’s simpler and wonderfully ghostly Summer Make Good.

Bryn Williams
originally published December 19th, 2005 

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Róisín Murphy
Ruby Blue ••
Echo

Rumours of Moloko’s death have been greatly exaggerated. At least, I sincerely hope so. When quizzed on reuniting with her ex, Mark Brydon, the impossible-to-type Róisín ‘pronounced Rosheen’ Murphy has offered the predictably gnomic response, “I don’t not want to.” That’s promising enough for this listener. While the familiar set-up remains intact – feisty, barking mad Irish vocalist meets cutting-edge bedroom DJ turned producer – none of Moloko’s loveable Balearic stomp has survived. Instead, Murphy’s defection to one Matthew Herbert has resulted in an album of two halves; those of two egos. One is fragile and over-compensatory, getting back on its feet after a year of limbo, and the other overwhelmed and eager to please. This album is a make-or-break statement for both parties, which only adds to the overall disappointment.

Even in a world of iPod Shuffles and cut-and-paste playlists, an album should still be listened to properly, tracks one through twelve, at least until you can safely discard some of them without the risk of overlooking a nascent classic. It is therefore surprising that Ruby Blue‘s opening salvoes – the ones supposed to leap up and grab you by the balls – are so tentative, especially given how much this album has to prove. A faltering tinkle of keyboards kicks off ‘Leaving The City’, meandering in an aimless fashion that soon becomes a trademark of the album as a whole. Eventually, that husky croon we know and love shuffles to the forefront and remains there, steadfast. Reassuring? Unfortunately not. Instrumentation behind a voice as strong and distinctive as Murphy’s should complement and support, not jar as much as this. Herbert’s conscious decision to use a ramshackle collage of everyday random noises, jazz refrains, dance grooves and synthetic skiffle very rarely hits the right note. ‘Night Of The Dancing Flame’ can only be described as Dizzy Gillespie meets The Ewoks.

Things are a little brighter with ‘Through Time’. It’s a welcoming simpler affair, wrapped in gentle layers of organ and decorated with plucked acoustic guitar and cascading arpeggiated motifs. Heralding a string of stronger offerings, it is soon followed by ‘Sow Into You’. Here, one is reminded of Muphy’s Moloko diva status; a status built on a dance remix of ‘Sing It Back’ that made it onto over a hundred compilations and hundreds more dancefloors. The first and most obvious single from Ruby Blue comes with ‘If We’re In Love’, easily the most accessible and immediate of Murphy’s erratic stable. “If we’re in love, we should make love. When will be lovers?” she asks. One has a sneaking suspicion that this enigmatic girl isn’t letting on as much as we’d like to imagine. This is a lyric as poptastically bland as the market she’s aiming for.

For me, the title track is far too long coming. Buried three-quarters of the way into the album, it’s a glorious romp of grunge guitar, handclaps, jubilant backing “woos!” and swirling, multi-layered vocals. Sadly, it’s an all too brief glimpse into the heights that Murphy and Herbert could scale, but… well… don’t. The album’s solid middle section finishes here, bookended by a clutch of damp squibs. It bows out on as subdued a note as it started. Perhaps Murphy really was assuming that people would listen this solely on an iPod Shuffle.

This record might have served as a versatile and grandiose addition to Matthew Herbert’s portfolio – surely his magnum opus so far. Instead, it falls flat, weighed down by overbearing vocals far too high in the mix and much too complex to play bedfellow to the laboured production. Indeed, this is as much Herbert’s record as it is Murphy’s, but ultimately it’s to the detriment of both.

Alex Doak
originally published August 7th, 2005