Filed under: album, back issues, review | Tags: adam smith, adrian roye, alan pedder, alex ramon, allison crowe, amy courts, anja mccloskey, anna claxton, camera obscura, camille, caroline, charalambides, christina carter, cibelle, cocorosie, cocosuma, cocteau twins, colleen, controller.controller, cyann and ben, danny weddup, diane cluck, isobel campbell, kate campbell, laura cantrell, lori carson, loria near, mara carlyle, mariah carey, mark lanegan, michael banna, nancy elizabeth, neko case, paul woodgate, rachael cantu, robbie de santos, rod thomas, rosanne cash, russell barker, shawn colvin, sheryl crow, spooner oldham, stephanie heney, the cardigans, the corrs, tiffany daniels, trevor raggatt
The following reviews were all published on our old website between May 2005 and December 2006.
Let’s Get Out Of This Country ••••
The habitual comparisons with fellow Scots Belle & Sebastian seem somewhat overstated when listening to this, the fourth full-length album from Glaswegian sextet Camera Obscura, fronted by Traceyanne Campbell (no relation to Isobel). Although there are occasional hints of the distinctive B&S indie-pop sound here and there, Let’s Get Out Of This Country is so much more than imitation. In fact, the listener is treated, tour guide-style, to a veritable history of pop music.
There are moments of pure pop breeziness on first single and album opener ‘Lloyd, I’m Ready To Be Heartbroken’, a song written in answer to the final track on Lloyd Cole’s classic debut, Rattlesnakes, and again on the title track, where St Etienne’s catchier sunshine moments are emulated well. Indeed, the witty lyrics and upbeat mood recall a female-fronted Divine Comedy covering Cole himself in his prime. However, the real beauty here lies in the lounge country sway elements of the album where the pace is slower and more bittersweet. ‘Dory Previn’ and the French waltz of ‘The False Contender’ are enchanting and have the wistful qualities of a last dance with their unhurried melodies and sophisticated folk-pop tenderness. We’re transported to an abandoned, creaky back porch where timeless themes of longing and lost love are all encompassing.
Fittingly, everything goes back in time to the retro high school prom queen heartbreak of ‘Come Back Margaret’. With its clever doo-wop production that could quite believably have been recorded by Connie Francis, a saccharine tune right out of the ‘50s accompanies innocent lyrics of despair and teenage dramas. Further vintage melodies are explored with The Supremes-esque sound of ‘I Need All The Friends I Can Get’, a full on charming disco number complete with hand claps and tambourines. In terms of emulating older styles, nothing quite tops ‘If Looks Could Kill’, a song that lodges in your head and refuses to budge, cramming in everything that made those Phil Spector-produced Ronettes classics so great, right down to the glorious Wall of Sound and organ accompaniment.
It’s a testament to Camera Obscura’s songwriting talents that such a collection of retro styles can still sound so fresh and vibrant. Not content with simple pop sweetness, the band tackle sombre themes of broken relationships and lonely yearning for romance and love. The closing track, ‘Razzle Dazzle Rose’, is a beautiful farewell that sounds like it was recorded in a deserted ballroom. Tracyanne’s haunting Julee Cruise-like vocals perfectly express the ghostly atmosphere and a trumpet solo rounds up the magical history tour. Far from under-achievers, Camera Obscura sound like a band who have really hit their stride – not just unafraid to explore different eras and styles, but mastering each of them.
originally published June 5th, 2006
Le Fil •••••
The word ‘chanteuse’ is bandied around rather too often these days, but rarely does an artist fit the bill more perfectly than 27-year old Parisian Camille. Though she is arguably most famous for singing on Nouvelle Vague’s self-titled album of bossa nova interpretations of New Wave classics, Le Fil is actually her second solo release. The title translates as ‘the thread’, pointedly relating to the hum that flows constantly throughout the record, undulating beneath the complex and luscious vocal layering and melodies, creating a fluid and bound piece of art. Though the album is sung almost entirely in her native tongue, a few strands of English appear in some songs, but French speaking friends assure me that, though the lyrics are indeed wonderful, the allure of Le Fil lies in its complex and beautiful sound.
One of the album’s most striking elements is the heavy dependence on a cappella arrangements. Conventional intruments have a limited presence, comprising mainly of bossa nova percussion and occasional horns and slap bass, but it is the diversity of Camille’s vocal arrangements that make it so impressive. In particular, the richness and variety of her vocalisations on ‘Ta Douleur’ are astounding and it’s not hard to see why it was chosen as a single in France; as one of the most upbeat songs on the album, there is a wider berth for interesting noises – raspberries, squeals and squelches. Much like Tanya Tagaq’s Sinaa, if it weren’t for the 5″ circular proof in your stereo, it would be hard to even entertain the thought that the human voice can make such sounds. On the slower songs (most notably ‘Vous’), the background ba-ba-bas and high-pitched vocals are reminiscent of the multi-layered and rich harmonies characteristic of Alisha’s Attic.
But it’s not just the voice parts that make Le Fil so spellbinding; the orchestral chord changes should not be underestimated, nor should Camille’s clear understanding of how to write a moving piece of music. Opener ‘La Jeune Fille Aux Cheveux Blancs’ is the most luscious composition of them all; the orchestration is as pure as a sunrise, unscathed by sin and cynicism. The chordal and melodic movements are so genuinely perfect they’ll make the hairs on your neck stand to attention. On the flipside, Camille doesn’t shy away from getting positively filthy, and ‘Janine III’ is especially explicit; her rasping snarls are layered and looped, sounding for all the world like a group of bickering wrinkled women in a small-town market square. Le Fil often feels incredibly modern in the sense that the clarity and complexity of the vocals is fresh and original, but a folky, traditional Gallic slant is also at play. Some of the melodies possess such world-weary wisdom that they may well have been passed down from generation to generation of singers. Rather like a thread, in fact. Even disregarding the lyrics completely, Le Fil is one of the most astonishing musical works of recent years.
Robbie de Santos
originally published December 19th, 2005
Isobel Cambpell & Mark Lanegan
Ballad Of The Broken Seas •••½
Weird partnerships in music are no new phenomenon. Remember Bowie and Crosby? Cave and Minogue? So what about Campbell and Lanegan? With her Mia Farrow-type features and sugar-sweet fairytale tones, Campbell could seduce even the most hardened of music fans into listening enraptured. Since leaving Glaswegian pop collective Belle & Sebastian in 2002, she has recorded a number of albums under various guises and with Ballad Of The Broken Seas, Campbell once again shows her knack for choosing allies wisely.
Lanegan, the growly-voiced former Screaming Trees frontman and sometime guitarist with metal heavyweights Queens Of The Stone Age, makes for a somewhat odd collaborator but even more bizarrely, it works. In fact, Lanegan has never sounded quite so dirty and gruff as he does on the folksy opener ‘Deus Ibi Est’. As his wicked tones slide against Campbell’s soft, ethereal vocals you almost feel part of some kind of amoral liaison between them. Hell, even the artwork locates them in a seedy hotel room. Of course, it’s all designed to play out in our heads – the pair of them have barely even been in the same room together, recording their respective vocals hundreds of miles apart.
Campbell is responsible for writing most of the songs, though Lanegan has a go with the alluring ‘Revolver’, a low-key number with sexily whispered vocals, steady percussion and delicate strings. The vocal contrast between the two is by far the most engaging aspect of the record. Some songs are designed to throw Isobel’s ghostly innocence into sharp relief against her craggy companion. The old Hank Williams standard ‘Ramblin’ Man’, for example, is a welcome inclusion, complete with a cracking whip and countrified guitars, while the title track sees Lanegan playing to type again, deliberating the ravages of drink. Less obvious are ‘Black Mountain’, which vaguely recalls a softened ‘Scarborough Fair’, and ‘Saturday’s Gone’, a wistful haunting tune on which Campbell’s vocals are truly laid bare.
Later songs, however, settle less well with Campbell’s purity. ‘(Do You Wanna) Come Walk With Me’s Lanegan-sung lyric “There’s a crimson bird flying when I go down on you” highlights the fine line between seductive and creepy. Whatever effect she was hoping for when she enlisted Lanegan, Campbell has obviously done her homework well and has hit upon that rare quality, a tangible chemistry between two unusual voices, and the attraction is compelling. You expect Lanegan to be the lascivious devil on Campbell’s celestial shoulder, but in fact the opposite also happens – Campbell’s vocals often hide a sinister side, and that aspect alone is worth the price of admission.
originally published May 22nd, 2006
Milkwhite Sheets •••½
Once upon a time, in a mysterious and supernatural world far, far away, there lived a blonde girl with big eyes, a captivating smile and slightly wonky yet chic fringe. She lived high up in a tower overlooking a beautiful bay where the ocean was clear and the sand was golden. Life would have been good for her if her tower wasn’t surrounded by shimmering mermaids who, every time a ship appeared on the horizon, would call and sing their tempting song, flicking their tails in delight as, one by one, the sailors within were called to their deaths. The blonde girl had to watch these handsome and brave men drown each time and, for each one, she would compose a lament, mourning the fact that another chance of true love was gone, borrowing harmonies from the ghosts that went before and melodies from the dreams of escape she held dear. If she ever did, she thought, she would wear deeply coloured velvet and spill glitter wherever she walked.
This, believe it or not, just about sums up what you should expect to hear on Miss Campbell’s latest album. Confirming her rather offbeat romance with traditional folk, Milkwhite Sheets takes a tentative and seemingly innocent step away from her indie/country-rock former amalgamation, instead transforming into a magical creature whose fuzzy beauty is best caught in morning light. A meandering journey back to days of yore, the former Belle & Sebastian vocalist and cellist steps into a new spotlight of her own, a more ambient one to that of her Mercury Music Prize-nominated collaboration with Mark Lanegan, but bright nonetheless.
This is an album that teaches us to listen. Though it may at first seem like the slight, shy offerings of some whispering goddess sitting next to James Iha playing the lute, it soon becomes apparent that the almost pagan-like rituals found herein are making a much bolder statement. Indeed, the power in Campbell’s music is that you have to really dig deep to notice what is there. Beginning with the lilting ‘O’ Love Is Teasin’, Campbell’s slightly unsure voice merges with desolate strumming, building up the tracks that follow, often dramatically, with haunting cello and wistful arpeggios to create something quite primeval and barely-there beautiful. From the reworked traditional offerings ‘Willow’s Song’ and ‘Hori Horo’ to the contrasting indie menace of closing track ‘Thursday’s Child’, Campbell’s quiet exultations and the simple structure of what are essentially love songs makes Milkwhite Sheets extra special indeed. It is not afraid of doing something different, and like-minded people are therefore invited in to have their cockles warmed by this rawest of British talents.
Kate Campbell with Spooner Oldham
For The Living Of These Days ••••½
Like a fine vintage wine, Kate Campbell just gets better and better. Since the release of her debut album Songs From The Levee in 1995, she’s mined the rich seams of folk, country, gospel, soul and blues in ever deeper and more fulfilling ways. Along with Iris DeMent and Lucinda Williams, Campbell has an ability to distil a variety of Southern music traditions into the space of a single song. Drawing deep from the well of tradition, she takes the music forward and infuses it with a resolutely contemporary sensibility.
Her new gospel album is a collaboration with veteran Spooner Oldham recorded at the legendary Fame Studios in Muscle Shoals, Alabama. Oldham has worked with Campbell on many of her previous records (including her first gospel release, Wandering Strange), but here it’s just the two of them, resulting in an uncluttered approach that allows each of these fourteen songs to shine. The album combines ancient hymns with songs by Woody Guthrie and Kris Kristofferson and a couple of excellent Campbell-Oldham originals. Backed only by Oldham’s stately Hammond B3 organ, piano, Wurlitzer and guitar, Campbell raids the Baptist hymnal for a lovely rendition of ‘There’s A Wideness In God’s Mercy’, while ‘God Of Grace & God Of Glory’ gets a particularly powerful and urgent treatment. And should anyone doubt the contemporary relevance of this material, just listen to the plea to “cure Thy children’s warring madness” or the reference to being “rich in things and poor in soul” in the latter hymn. The beautiful ‘Prayer Of Thomas Merton’ sets a Trappist monk’s prayer to alternately aching and assertive piano accompaniment, while Campbell and Walt Aldridge’s haunting ‘Dark Night Of The Soul’ is a stunning centrepiece that sounds like an instant classic.
As ever, Campbell’s compassionate, unaffected and effortlessly soulful vocals pull the listener into the heart of each song. Moreover, without ever resorting to facile polemic or easy didacticism, Campbell has always smuggled sharp-eyed social and political commentary into her work, and here she finds the vein of dissent and worldly dissatisfaction that links old hymns to contemporary protest songs. Both Guthrie’s ‘Jesus Christ’ and Bobby Braddock’s pointed ‘Would They Love Him Down In Shreveport’ reach disheartening conclusions about Jesus’s probable reception in the contemporary world, while Kristofferson’s ‘They Killed Him’ despairs at humanity’s tendency to dispose of its most valuable teachers. But, like all of the best country musicians, Campbell refuses to dwell in despondency for too long, and both the Civil Rights-themed ‘Faces In The Water’ and the timeless ‘There Is A Balm In Gilead’ offer hope and consolation.
Ultimately, while For The Living of These Days may not top Campbell’s last record, the sublimely affecting Blues & Lamentations, it deserves to take its place alongside DeMent’s Lifeline and Johnny Cash’s My Mother’s Hymn Book as a stirring example of all that is good about American gospel music. If there’s something missing from this record, it’s the wonderful narrative sense, vivid character portraits and wry humour that have distinguished so much of Campbell’s earlier work. Nonetheless, she and Oldham have produced that rarity – a contemporary album that can truly be said to be good for the soul. Amen!
originally published October 14th, 2006
Humming By The Flowered Vine ••••½
Country music is a much maligned genre, and not without some justification. The gross excesses of the Nashville country scene are enough to turn the stomach of even the most hard-bitten music fan. However, for every Billy Bob Stetson or Dwayne Yokel with their tasselled shirts, ten-gallon hats and horrific mullet haircuts, there’s been a Nanci Griffith, a Steve Earle, a Mary Chapin Carpenter or a Lucinda Williams who has been there to haul the genre rightly back from the ridiculous to the sublime. Laura Cantrell thankfully resides in this latter category. Indeed, she has received such widespread acclaim that many regard her as the rising star of the alt.country genre. Influential DJ John Peel proclaimed her debut album, Not The Tremblin’ Kind his “favourite record of the last ten years, and possibly my life” and Elvis Costello quickly enlisted her as a support act and was quoted as saying “If Kitty Wells made Rubber Soul it would sound like Laura Cantrell.” High praise indeed.
Humming By The Flowered Vine is Cantrell’s third album and her first for large indie label Matador, in whose pastures she runs alongside some less than likely label-mates, including Cat Power, Belle & Sebastian, Mogwai and Guided By Voices, and is fearlessly brimming with the confidence of an artist who knows she’s coming of age. Though her style is pure country, drawing on much of the language of the genre – slide and steel guitar, high third harmonies, traditional folk ballads, fiddle and accordion – Cantrell never allows these elements to add up to a cliché, but rather blends them successfully with a contemporary bent, though sometimes choosing one path or the other. Fittingly, this seems to reflect her life’s journey. Having emigrated from Nashville to attend college in New York City, Cantrell kickstarted her long-running college radio show ‘Tennessee Border’, which explores both the history of country and its diverse modern expressions, and learnt her trade playing in the city’s trendy coffee bars alongside more folk-based artists. Remarkably, her first two albums were recorded while holding a full-time job in a Wall Street investment bank.
Without the day job devouring her time, Cantrell has turned in her finest album yet. The opener, ‘14th Street’, commences proceedings with a light country-pop paean to her adopted hometown and features exquisite harmonies from Mary Lee Kortes of Mary Lee’s Corvette. Second track, ‘What You Said’, has tinges of bluegrass, with Kenny Kosek’s fiddle and Jon Graboff’s mandolin hinting at the breadth of styles to come. There’s slow-burning rock (‘Letters’, an obscure Lucinda Williams original), post-war Western swing akin to the likes of Bob Willis & His Texas Playboys with pedal steel and fiddle aplenty (‘Wishful Thinking’) and a traditional murder ballad from the 1920s (‘Poor Ellen Smith’, also covered by the likes of Kristin Hersh). The pairing of ‘And Still’ and ‘Khaki And Corduroy’ packs some serious emotional weight, with the latter perhaps just nudging it for the album’s most affecting contribution. Here, acoustic guitar and bass, brushes and sparse piano create a melancholy evocation of memories of lost times and old friends.
Elsewhere, ‘California Rose’ is Cantrell’s own tribute to Rose Maddox from the Depression-era group, Maddox Brothers & Rose. It’s an unforgettable story of that indomitable spirit of a strong woman forging her way against the odds. The biggest surprise here comes with the closer, ‘Old Downtown’, which fuses some pretty diverse styles into a delectable slab of modern country rock, as perfect as it is unexpected. It takes some imagination to mix early Steve Earle-style guitars with a heavily syncopated, almost Madchester drum and bass groove, and then to seamlessly segue to an outro of eBow guitars and pedal steel combining into a psychedelic, ambient soundscape. Oh, and all this comes complementary to classic Americana lyrical imagery. It’s easy to see why Cantrell is seen as both curator and innovator within her chosen field.
Humming By The Flowered Vine neatly establishes Cantrell as a force to be reckoned with. The production by JD Foster, former bassist for Dwight Yoakam, brings out the best of Cantrell and her musicians, delivering an album of great sonic clarity. There’s no filler here either; the disc spins for just 39 minutes, leaving the listener hungry for more rather than fully sated. With songs this strong and backed by a bigger label, Cantrell will almost certainly garner wider, more mainstream recognition and success. Here’s hoping this propels her onto equal or greater achievements.
originally published October 20th, 2006
Run All Night •••½
This short but sweet eight-track mini-album may not make your ears prick up with its originality or variety, but it will undoubtedly tug at your heartstrings. Californian Cantu is a former rock chick now treading lightly in the footsteps of accomplished singer-songwriters like Aimee Mann and Ani DiFranco, but sounding a bit like Luscious Jackson’s Gabby Glaser in the process. Taken at face value, Run All Night may simply be another pretty, wistful woman with a beautiful voice strumming an acoustic guitar, but once you’ve immersed yourself in it, you may find that Cantu’s appeal lies in her music holding some kind of familiarity that the others do not.
Epitomising all that is human, Cantu’s touchingly honest lullabies are performed with a subtle intensity that commands the attention of even the most unfeeling listener. The title track, for example, is about a moment we’ve all had that you just don’t want to end; at risk of sounding clichéd, this is one album that you won’t want to finish up either. In little under half an hour, and with a smidgen of help from her friends on cello and organ, Cantu wends her way through every emotion, oozing loneliness, regret and, of course, that ole devil called love, from every pore.
Run All Night may be minimalist in approach but it’s extremely powerful when given a chance to take full effect and, although it’s likely that she’ll need to bring something completely different to the table next time if she’s to go the distance, this is a confident debut that will surely get under your skin. It made me blub quietly anyway. Great stuff.
originally published September 17th, 2006
Super Extra Gravity •••
Although The Cardigans’ last album, Long Gone Before Daylight, was a dark gem of a record consisting mainly of bleak and distinctly ‘grown-up’ lyrics set to acoustic pop tunes, commercially it was a relative dud. Whether this injustice knocked the confidence of Nina Persson and co. is unclear, but something has gone awry in between that record and this, their sixth in just over a decade.
Never one-dimensional, The Cardigans have always been a pop group with a slightly sinister side (after all, they are famously fans of Ozzy Osbourne and Black Sabbath), and that lyrical edge remains; opener ‘Losing A Friend’ dwells upon mortality and sets a black-humoured tone. The trouble here is that the music is too often tortured as well; the sweet sound that used to set the band apart from their peers has dissipated almost entirely. Gone too is the icy electronic sheen of their Gran Turismo-era hits, ‘My Favourite Game’ and ‘Erase/Rewind’. Instead, the band have opted for a more pedestrian pop-rock sound that proves somewhat unengaging over the length of the record.
That’s not to say that this is a bad record; it simply suffers in comparison with the past achievements of a very talented band. The witty lyrics of ‘Godspell’ stand out strongly, attacking the perils of organised religion (or the “great big swindle” as Persson refers to it) with vigour. Elsewhere, the driving wall-of-sound force of ‘Good Morning Joan’, tempered by sweetly tinkling bells, is sublime. However, revisiting a track from Long Gone… as the band do on ‘And Then You Kissed Me II’ is a mistake; gone is the infectious pop melody that the first instalment possessed, only to be replaced by a drawn-out and discordant inferior with strangely hollow backing. The band themselves have described the relationship of Super Extra Gravity to its predecessor as an obnoxious teenager to its mature older relation. Unfortunately, this acne-and-all approach has exposed some of their less attractive qualities.
Anticlimactically, it turns out that the lead single from the album, the spiky and brilliantly titled ‘I Need Some Fine Wine & You, You Need To Be Nicer’, is also its finest track. On the bright side, however, it’s an undeniably fine composition, and like Super Extra Gravity‘s other highlights, it serves as evidence that The Cardigans can still write sophisticated, bristling pop songs for adults, even if they now do so with slightly less consistency.
originally published December 12th, 2005
The Emancipation Of Mimi ••••
These days it’s too easy to focus on the problems Mariah has been through over the last few years, but on the evidence presented here, her tenth album, she herself certainly isn’t wallowing. If last album Charmbracelet reflected Carey’s mourning process, then The Emancipation Of Mimi sure ain’t the wake. This is an upbeat, light-hearted party record, reflected perfectly in the opening track and first single, ‘It’s Like That’. Harking back to 1980s R&B (via the SOS Band) yet with a pounding kick-drum that The Neptunes would be proud of, it’s a snappy, simple number that relentlessly invades the brain.
It’s no coincidence then that it’s one of the four songs on …Mimi that Carey crafted with long-time collaborator Jermaine Dupri – together they have created some of the most memorable songs of her 15-year career. Second single ‘We Belong Together’ maintains that trend, blissfully encapsulating the very best aspects of their union. The finest ingredients are to be found here – a distinct and sumputous melody carrying a universal theme, a classy arrangement and the perfect ratio of smooth to belted vocals. Elsewhere on the album, the party continues with tracks like the Prince-inspired ‘Say Something’, the infectious ‘Stay The Night’, vocal workout ‘Your Girl’ and ‘Get Your Number’, which samples Imagination’s 1980s hit, ‘Just An Illusion’.
In the past, Carey has best impressed when backed by live musicians, and …Mimi builds on these successes. ‘I Wish You Knew’ takes you straight to the concert with its energetic crowd effect, and is reminiscent of early Diana Ross, while ‘Circles’ has a classic early ’70s groove without sounding like the wannabe retro peddled by, for example, ultra-bore Joss Stone. This track, and indeed the entire album, benefits from Mariah’s maturation as a singer – where once she might have indulged in warbling and melisma, here she has learnt to rein in those early vocal flourishes and sounds all the better for it. Her voice is strong throughout, and a new-found clarity and diction makes much of …Mimi more accessible then some previous efforts. Although the album as a whole is intended to be light-hearted, closer ‘Fly Like A Bird’ is a spiritual number set among stunning live instrumentation and climactic vocals. It feels like closure.
What The Emancipation Of Mimi shows is that, when Carey is put into a position where she feels she has nothing to prove, that freedom translates into her music and allows it to convey a more relaxed energy. Though her popularity in the UK will never scale the heights of her US success, and though many music fans and critics have written her off, Mariah has no reason at all to be bothered. In terrific contrast to the usual, by blinkering herself to much of the outside world’s opinion, she has returned with a purer and much better distillation of her craft than anyone could have expected.
originally published September 3rd, 2005
I Blame Dido EP ••••
Legend has it that upon her arrival in Libya, Dido, the founder queen of Carthage, was permitted to buy only as much land as could be covered by a bull’s hide. Being a wily little minx, she thus proceeded to slice the skin into slivers so fine that they encircled an area of several acres, upon which she built her city. As such, the phrase “to cut up didoes” came to describe an extravagant behaviour.
On first impression, the title of Shropshire-born Mara Carlyle’s new EP may seem like an attempt to sever a chunk from the crown of our own queen Dido, perhaps the very antithesis of extravagant, but is in fact “entirely coincidental”. That is, according to the cheeky-faced creator of last year’s most aptly titled album, The Lovely. Recorded over several years and completed on a secondhand laptop in a north London flat, The Lovely displayed a staggering yet homely virtuosity paired with through-a-glass-darkly operatic vocals that placed Carlyle somewhere along the continuum between early Joan Baez and the gentle lilt of Kathryn Williams.
Continuing the cutting theme momentarily, that album opened with the unforgettable combo of eerie vocals and bendy DIY essential that was ‘The Saw Song’ (Carlyle once played in a trio called The Weeping Saws; clearly, she knows her way around a pun or two) but it’s the sweeping, smoky ‘I Blame You Not’ that finds its way onto this EP. Sounding for all the world like a lost Dusty Springfield in pensive mode classic, it would have sounded equally at home on Feist’s Let It Die. With its muffled piano, soft jazzy drums and soothing background coos, it singlehandedly dislodges the stake from the heart of the torch song hammered in by the likes of Katie Melua and the soporific Norah Jones.
The Carthagian connection arrives in the form of a cover of ‘Dido’s Lament’ from the Henry Purcell opera, ‘Dido & Aeneas’. This was not, as it happens, wholly inspired by the baroque original, but by a spirited take by the dearly departed Jeff Buckley. “Baroque music was meant to be filled with passion when it was written” says Carlyle, “But these days people are too reverential about it.” The result is a distinctly tasteful rendition that builds in intensity to a dreamy multi-tracked refrain of “remember me, my fate.” It’s measured, certainly, but never dull. Carlyle returns again to essential listening territory with a bizarrely soulful cover of labelmate Dani Siciliano’s ‘Walk The Line’ from last year’s Likes… album. Maybe it’s the slightly comical baritone beatbox on the blink, but its charm is infectious and somehow improves on the original.
Frankly, anyone who compares opera singing to “weight lifting whilst reciting poetry from memory whilst convincingly acting like you’re about to cry / laugh / kill / shag someone” is more than alright by me. If you loved The Lovely, this is like manna from heaven. Else, if you somehow missed out, get this as an entrée and proceed to the main course directly; do not pass Dido, do not regret £10.
originally published July 26th, 2005
With Murmurs, Tokyo’s Caroline Lufkin has created an album of such light, polished precision and crystalline sonic clarity that it ought to stickered ‘handle with care’; so soft and feathery are proceedings that you fear you might just scare her off if you sing along too loudly. It’s odd then that the first track ‘Bicycle’ recalls the theme to ‘Coronation Street’ – unknowingly I suspect – the trumpet conjuring images of tiled rooftops and athletic cats. But unlike the sometimes ugly world of Weatherfield, gentle is the buzzword here as Caroline’s self-harmonies are accompanied by the tinkling of a triangle and muted, fuzzed-up electronic beats.
Sounds familiar, right? Murmurs is barely a stone’s throw from the hipster coffee table qualities that propelled Röyksopp to the top of the charts and made the more radio-friendly moments of Goldfrapp’s Felt Mountain the soundtrack du jour to every advert/trailer/furniture outlet going. Many of the songs have an ambient, Zero 7 quality and one suspects that all she needs to make it big is the help of that all-important endorsement – Peugeot or perfume? Who knows! Elsewhere, ‘Pink & Black’ features glacial harp reminiscent of Vespertine-era Björk; indeed, the number of comparisons that the album brings to mind is quite revealing. Whilst the songs feature absolutely top-notch production and perfectly crafted soundscapes, Murmurs as a whole holds precious little we haven’t heard elsewhere before.
At times, the relentlessly chilled-out vibe seems at odds with the lyrics. “You drove me to the wall / I put my car in stall,” she sings on ‘Drove Me To The Wall’, yet the tone doesn’t differ markedly from, for example, ‘Bicycle’, about the nostalgia of looking back on a childhood romance. After few tracks you’ll be longing for something jagged to shatter the calm, if only momentarily – a guest vocal from Kat Bjelland or a Diamanda Galás piano solo, perhaps – but it isn’t forthcoming. The reverie is broken momentarily on ‘Everylittlething’, where an Erasure-esque synth beat and menacing electronic effects briefly flourish, but the song does not fulfil its promise and fails to take off as you might hope.
Thus, the album’s title proves to be a fitting description of its contents. These are beautifully crafted murmurs, but murmurs nonetheless. Then again, like a nice cool breeze on a warm summer’s evening, Caroline’s music is entirely welcome if you’re in the mood for something relaxing and ambient; music for drifting off to sleep to, intentionally or not.
originally published August 30th, 2006
The Finest Thing •••
One Little Indian
For all the emphasis we place on the lyrical, it’s sometimes a simple la la la that can grip you like a tendril. Take Kylie Minogue’s ‘Can’t Get You Out Of My Head’ for example, where the nagging vocalisations do exactly what it says on the tin, for hours. Fear not though, reclusive indie chanteuse Lori Carson won’t be sashaying half-naked across your TV screens any time soon. If anything, her first album of new material since 2001’s House In The Weeds sees her picking up the baton from ex-Dead Can Dancer, Lisa Gerrard, and flirting with the ethereal. These seven songs plus one reprise constitute something of a concept album, though not an overt one. In this subtle series, life itself is the concept with all its accompanying dreamscapes and sadness. Carson herself refers to them as “meditations” rather than songs and she has a point – much like meditation, this album takes patience but in return bequeaths a degree of serenity. However, with five of the tracks overrunning the seven-minute mark and many containing prolonged passages of monosyllabic, light as air whisperings, you might want to have a good book handy.
Only ‘The Finest Thing’ and ‘Hold On To The Sun’ approach the confessional singer-songwriterly melodiousness that has been Carson’s stock in trade. Both are delicate wisps of songs anchored by acoustic guitar. The title track is a swooning, aching realisation of how rare and fleeting are moments of sheer contentment. Similarly, ‘Hold On To The Sun’ is a more grounded expansion of the same theme – the spiritual salve of hope. The standout piece, ‘Glimmer’, wraps her vulnerable soft vocals around very sparse, almost skeletal instrumentation. Tellingly, it’s the one long track that doesn’t feel like it and you wish it could go on. Elsewhere, there’s a certain compelling sweetness to ‘Coney Island Ride’. While it doesn’t quite conjure all the fun of the fair, Carson successfully regresses the listener to their first rollercoaster ride, only this one arcs through clouds and there’s no rib-crushing safety bar. You’re free to float in the slipstream should you so desire.
Sadly, none of these songs survive intact when listened to out of the context of the album, and it’s this insular quality that is both the record’s most precious and most limiting factor. While The Finest Thing is a sonically adventurous and welcome diversion for Lori Carson, it is not without its tedium. By virtue of patience, however, the filmic beauty of it all is something that’s easy to treasure.
originally published May 25th, 2005
Fox Confessor Brings The Flood •••••
It would be too easy (and not to mention a bit unfair) to begin and end this review with the statement that this is the best album of 2006, considering that it’s only April. However, Fox Confessor Brings The Flood, the fourth solo studio effort from Neko Case, is easily one of the most anticipated albums of recent months. An ambitious record that’s been two years in the making from concept to glorious finished product, it’s safe to say that its been well worth the wait.
With a voice that’s often compared with Patsy Cline, Brenda Lee and Loretta Lynn, Case is clearly getting comfy in the role of the country noir chanteuse. But Case draws on more than these media-driven comparisons, transcending the limitations of genre and forging instead a new style of her own. Strong, resonant and reminiscent of a smoky bar at last call, her rich, luxuriant vocals invoke a walk after midnight, lit only by la lune and heartbreak. And while there are certainly echoes of Cline’s mournful croon on the opening track ‘Margaret vs. Pauline’, she just as easily embodies the three-minute, pure pop gold of ‘Mamas’ Michelle Phillips and Cass Elliot on the exquisitely twangy ‘Hold On, Hold On’.
The songs on Fox Confessor… are unprecedented illustrations of Case’s superb lyricism and growing skill as a storyteller and poet. Reflective and compliant yet optimistic, the songs weave their way through metaphors and myths. ‘Margaret vs. Pauline’ sees her weaving words into melodies that at first seem to only illustrate the difference between the two titular women; however, a closer look reveals a flawlessly executed character study full of minute detail – “Ancient strings set feet a’light to speed to her such mild grace / no monument of tacky gold / they smoothed her hair with cinnamon waves”.
On the title track, Case completely abandons any notion of standard structure with a beautiful tune that bypasses anything as laughably conventional as a chorus, instead wending its way through an imaginative storyline based on an old Ukrainian folk tale: “Clouds hang on these curves like me / and I kneel to the wheel / of the fox confessor on splendid heels / and he shames me from my seat”. Another of the standout tracks, ‘Star Witness’, weaves a love song into a contemporary country tune, but dipping into the darkness of a 1950s murder ballad telling the grisly story of a lover’s untimely demise: “go on, go on scream and cry / you’re miles from where anyone will find you / this is nothing new, no television crew / they don’t even put on the sirens / my nightgown sweeps the pavement, please”.
While Case is the lyricist and primary songwriter, the many skilled collaborators and guests on this album include Kelly Hogan, Visqueen’s Rachel Flotard, The Band’s Garth Hudson, Joey Burns and John Convertino of Calexico and former Flat Duo Jet Dexter Romweber, not to mention longtime bandmates Jon Rauhouse and Tom V Ray. This diversity of talent is certainly not wasted either. Feedback fills the title track, a reverberating and deep orchestral strength rises in ‘Dirty Knife’ (a song based on a decidedly un-cosy family story passed down from her grandma) and a lazy surfer backdrop gives a stunning sense of atmosphere to ‘Lion’s Jaws’. And when talking about atmosphere, it wouldn’t be right not to mention the haunting gospel tones of ‘John Saw That Number’, a traditional folk song with new music added by Case, recorded in the stairwell of Toronto’s Horseshoe Tavern. It’s what spines were really made to tingle for.
Monumentally diverse and damn near impeccable, Fox Confessor Brings The Flood is a tremendous portrait of poetics and storytelling that will surely stand the test of time. Always something of a cult artist out on the fringe of recognition, especially this side of the Atlantic, it could be that Case’s light has finally outgrown the bushel beneath which it has been hidden for so very long.
originally published March 6th, 2006
Black Cadillac ••••
There is a rule and a paradox that has existed since melody was first used to communicate emotion. The rule: that classic songs tend to deal in the darker elements of life. The paradox: that, for a dark song, someone somewhere has to suffer. Music can heal the deepest wounds and turn the bitterness of lost love into the rose-tinted hue of fond memory. Experts in the art of songwriting continue to educate us and we never tire of the lesson. In just over a year, Cash lost her father, mother and stepmother, leaving her the bearer of a 50-year old torch and the Carter-Cash family (who, to some, were the American family) in tatters. You’re unlikely to see again a dedication carrying the weight and legacy of a musical dynasty as popular and critically acclaimed as the one Cash has printed on the sleeve of Black Cadillac.
With the very stuff of life and death at her fingertips then, it was natural that the follow-up to 2003’s Rules Of Travel would be both a personal goodbye and a meditation on loss. The music at the wake occasionally makes for painful listening. That Cash hasn’t resorted to primal scream therapy, but instead maintained her impeccable reputation for clever, insightful wordplay and gorgeous melody, is to her credit and our gain. Black Cadillac leaves its listeners in conflict with themselves; you sing along, until you remember what it is you’re singing.
The highlights are many. Throughout ‘I Was Watching You’, the album’s recurring themes of loss and love run like a raw nerve through a simple, layered, piano-driven melody, at once ghostly and viscerally tangible, personal yet universal. ‘Like Fugitives’ comes on like Bryan Adams’ ‘Run To You’ without the ‘80s bombast or formulaic, lighter-waving middle eight. Instead, it’s the bitterest lyrical pill in Cash’s medicine cabinet: “It’s a strange new world we live in where the church leads you to Hell / and the lawyers get the money for the lives they divide and sell”. Elsewhere, the title track rolls in on an earthquake-like bass riff, not unlike her father’s voice talking beneath a stolen U2 guitar part, while ‘Radio Operator’s poignant message simply “…will not end”.
The overall tone is one of sadness, but never defeat. For every heartbreak, there is acceptance that life continues. Implicit in the journey is hope, expressed beautifully in another standout, ‘God Is In The Roses’, in which Cash takes a deep breath and smiles ruefully whilst singing “My whole world fits inside the moment I saw you re-born / God is in the roses… and the thorns”. For 20 years now, Rosanne Cash has created an exquisite blend of country, pop and rock that tends to get overlooked in the final reckoning, but remains one of the cognoscenti’s best-kept secrets. With Black Cadillac, she has triumphed; it’s a masterclass in living with the paradox, providing more of life’s truths, and laying to rest with dignity and beauty some of her troubles. Buy it. Empathise. Feel better.
originally published March 11th, 2006
Speaking For Trees ••
As anyone who has endured the wretched soulwreck that is seemingly every other Cat Power live date will tell you, to witness Chan Marshall’s shambolic disassembly of self on stage is to feel like you are spying on a very private decline. It’s intensely uncomfortable and you wonder how soon the whitecoats will come and lift the shuddering, incoherent thirtysomething from her lonely little stool. Not that she is incapable of performing so publicly – her 2003 set at Islington’s Union Chapel was by all accounts mesmeric. Thus, providing she was having a good day, a live DVD seemed an ideal compromise, yet ‘Speaking For Trees’ manages to be as maddening and restless as Marshall is in the flesh.
Set in a noisy, chattering woodland clearing and filmed in an interminably dull single shot, supposedly in homage to the probably equally excruciating art films by Andy Warhol et al., the 100-minute long main feature could, much like Vogon poetry, extract a confession from even the most hardline criminal. Either that or put them to sleep. Shot on digital video rather than film, a barely distinguishable Chan Marshall stands at least 15 feet away from the camera for the entire feature, her face either blurry or hidden behind her trademark hair.
At first this seems like a wonderfully apt way in which to capture the reluctant indie heroine, alone with her guitar in the woods. Then, as she strums and mumbles her way through nearly 30 songs, several of which are simply alternate takes of the same tunes – ‘Night Time / Back Of Your Head’, ‘From Fur City’ and ‘Knockin’ On Heaven’s Door’ appear no less than three times each – the gritting of teeth inevitably sets in. In fact, the greatest variation for our viewing pleasure is when the filmmaker Mark Borthwick overexposes the image and gives a moment’s white respite.
There are nine covers in all, the best of which is Marshall’s version of M. Ward’s ‘Sad, Sad Song’ which appears a generous twice. When not drowned out by crickets rubbing their legs or birds singing as though their lives depended upon it, her voice is as exultantly morose and beautiful as ever, particularly on some of her more recent songs such as ‘Evolution’ and ‘I Don’t Blame You’ from the album You Are Free. Fortunately, it’s not all a big letdown as Marshall also includes a CD with the package containing a single 18-minute epic, ‘Willie Deadwilder’, which features the aforementioned M. Ward on guitar. Giving anything as conventional as a chorus or bridge the widest of berths, she weaves a charming rambling tale based around a rather naïve melody and easily gets away with it. It’s an indulgence for sure, but anyone who enjoyed You Are Free will find moments of transcendence in the song, which was taken from the same sessions.
Sadly, this is perhaps as close to a coherent Chan Marshall live performance as most are ever likely to witness. Those lucky enough to see her sing sans meltdown will continue to regale us with stories of how amazing she can be and we who miss it will continue to believe in this elusive confident character. Of course, there will be those who say that appreciating music shouldn’t be this hard and they’ll certainly have a valid point. Whatever your slant on the matter, the music industry would be a lot worse off without mercurial icons like Marshall and this blip just comes with the territory.
originally published May 25th, 2005
The Greatest •••½
In case you didn’t know, Cat Power is the very singular Chan (pronounced shawn) Marshall and she’s something of a wilful enigma. Since emerging in 1995 with Dear Sir, she’s released a string of albums so acutely recognisable as her own, where universal themes – you know, life-loss-love, the tension between creativity and artifice, the whereabouts of the toothpaste cap – are explored using lo-fi instrumentation often as sparse and direct as her lyrics are oblique and wrong-footing. Possessor of a prematurely timeworn voice that somehow manages to be both rich and soulful and aridly aching at the same time, her records encompass hushed folk balladry, country stylings, blues sensibilities, and moments of spiky almost-punk. Critics being what they are, Marshall’s highly personal mix of styles has seen her fêted in certain quarters as one of the planet’s foremost songwriters; but for me, she often sounds like a sulky adolescent who’s discovered the recording studio in a weird uncle’s woodshed.
But what’s this? For her no-it’s-not-a-best-of new effort, The Greatest, Marshall decamped to Ardent Studios in Memphis, previously graced by Bob Dylan and Stax Records among others, and enlisted the help of some genuine soul veterans: Mabon ‘Teeny’ Hodges, Al Green’s songwriting partner and guitarist, his brother Leroy ‘Flick’ Hodges on bass, and drummer Steve Potts of Booker T & The MGs. Certainly, this marks a different approach to her previous record, 2003’s You Are Free, an enjoyable if rather inconsistent effort which featured Dave Grohl on drums and (ulp!) Eddie Vedder on vocals. Whether she’s simply after a bit of mainstream accessibility or getting back to her roots, maaan, the added space and warmth imparted by her new band is apparent from the first notes of the opener.
‘The Greatest’ starts with meditative piano then adds pattering drums, flecks of strings and half-heard backing vocals before Marshall gets to musing on the vagaries of her chosen career: “Once I wanted to be the greatest / no wind or waterfall could stop me / and then came the rush of the flood / the stars turned you to dust”. Such a declaration of bravado and disappointment echoes what I’ve heard of her live shows, where she’s almost legendary for clamming up and departing the stage in tears; but something in the new-found sunshine of the music gives some hope of reconciliation between her studio and live personas.
The clement weather brightens further on second song, ‘Could We’, as bursts of Memphis horn illuminate the song’s gentle swing. ‘Lived In Bars’ starts off more mopey and more like your usual Cat Power fare, but halfway through she gamely hitches up her skirts and starts to dance upon the tables. Almost. Elsewhere, there’s a couple of songs that wouldn’t sound out of place on previous albums, such as the piano ballad ‘Where Is My Love’ (“In my arms, finally”) and the spare ‘Hate’, beamed from a Southern porch through a poisonous whiskey haze (“I hate myself and I want to die”), and on these we’re back in the woodshed.
Overall, however, this album encapsulates everything that’s positive and risky about such a project, in which an established outsider attempts to refract her muse through a different prism by reconnecting with her musical heritage. Marshall’s music on The Greatest is undeniably likeable and pleasant, which may be almost an insult to aficionados of her earlier work. But whilst there is no question of a Liz Phair-esque U-turn, the fact of the matter is that most people will find these songs more palatable than any of her previous missives, thereby making it a convenient entrypoint for the curious to start.
originally published December 19th, 2006
Kasey Chambers is the undisputed queen of Australian alt.country, a title she was destined to inherit with her extraordinary childhood story of living in the wilds and singing in her parents’ band The Dead Ringer Group from the age of nine. Not enough credentials for you? How about the fact that her first two albums went straight to the top in Australia (as did Carnival earlier this year) or that she’s befriended and toured with the likes of Lucinda Williams and Emmylou Harris – the US royalty. She’s even had her moment of flirting with Nashville but she’s certainly not your typical country starlet.
That Chambers is not originally from America’s country music capital goes at least some way to explain her appeal; by not allowing herself to be drawn into a formulaic recording process, Chambers hasn’t spent time making the same ol’ record over and over. Carnival sounds so fresh and genuine that it feels completely natural and free of any industry influence. Chambers has given herself free rein to express her thoughts and experiences whilst nudging from an alt.country framework into other genres. Whether she dabbles in a more typical singer-songwriter style, rock or blues, Chambers sounds completely comfortable and without a hint of awkwardness. Given that the album was recorded in just one week, there’s also a tangible sense of spontaneity.
Album opener ‘Colour Of A Carnival’ refers to the Mardi Gras atmosphere in the studio with her brother and long-time producer Nash Chambers and a circle of talented friends and players. “I live in a circle running around and around” is just one of those lyrics that nails a phrase you know you’ve lived through too. Chambers may have dined on much more than the average slice of life but her lyrical themes are easy to relate to. It’s not hard to hazard a guess why much of Carnival is a positive, enriching listen; the wisdom that comes with motherhood and her marriage to US singer-songwriter Shane Nicholson are obvious influences. That’s why “the sign on the door says lonely don’t live here any more” (‘Sign On The Door’) and why ‘The Rain’ is more about hope and renewal than a grey and miserable day.
That’s not to say she doesn’t strut or lay on the sass; ‘Light Up A Candle’ has the ultimate babydoll swagger with its cool blues and wah-wah guitar, while the similarly effective ‘You Make Me Sing’ is irrepressibly gutsy. On a couple of tracks, she even pushes the pop element further than ever before. ‘Nothing At All’ is the more successful of the two with a very simple but clever approach that’s not a million miles away from one of Lisa Loeb’s finer moments, while ‘Surrender’ perhaps strays a little too far. Elsewhere, on the curious ‘Railroad’, Chambers trips out the verses almost as if she were rapping in the rhythm of the sound of a train. The two duets are worthy inclusions too. ‘Hard Road’ is an unpretentious pairing with Powderfinger’s Bernard Fanning and is full of torn, soulful harmonies, while You Am I frontman Tim Rogers joins Chambers in full- on rock out mode on the feisty ‘I Got You Now’. Fans of Kasey’s earlier work will be sucked in immediately by ‘Dangerous’, a deceptively tender song that drips with melancholia. There’s a subtle difference this time though; it’s written from someone else’s perspective – yet another first for Chambers on this album.
Chambers has been quoted as saying, “You know, when I used to listen to music, if I didn’t hear any influence of Hank Williams, I wasn’t interested, I was so closed- minded.” Throwing away the rulebook might be hard for those holding a similar viewpoint but it’s hard not to love her regardless. Just sit back and let these catchy songs and Kasey’s charming vocals speak for themselves.
originally published November 23rd, 2006
Vintage Burden ••••½
Lace Heart •••½
The core Charalambides duo of former spouses Christina and Tom Carter churn out so much music that they really must believe in what they do – that’s droning, intimately psychedelic folk musings, since you ask, that don’t so much stare into the sun as reflect the moon in widened eyes. Whilst their release schedule hardly approaches that of, say, Acid Mothers Temple for sheer market overload, the steady stream of limited-run CD-Rs, cassettes etc. that issue from multiple group formations, individual efforts and frequent collaborations suggest a muse both restless and overclocked. And although some releases – or, more accurately, parts of nearly all of them – tend toward blank, acid-folk noodling, so much of their back catalogue is worth checking out that Charalambides must surely be up for some sort of consistency award.
In amongst all their underground activity, the band find time to release proper grown-up CDs on reasonably sized labels like Kranky; still obscure enough to retain the all- important auteur vibe, but sufficiently established to ensure that at least some of their oeuvre is readily available outside of their devoted fanbase. A Vintage Burden is the latest of these, following 2004’s spooked and sprawling Joy Shapes, and comes at the same time as a solo disc from Christina on her own Many Breaths imprint. The two are so complementary in mood and style that they are best assessed as a pair.
It’s immediately obvious from the get go that, as a duo, the Carters have stepped back and opened out since Joy Shapes. In place of that record’s suffocating rituals, opener ‘There Is No End’ is a spare, slowly unfurling meditation on a single guitar figure by Tom, over which Christina’s multi-tracked vocals delicately hover – “there is no end / to your beauty”. Wherever they are, the leaves definitely let in more light these days, for ‘Spring’ is warmer again, its chiming shards of guitars and lovely refrain of “let it shine… it will shine” encapsulating the hopes and new beginnings of the season. Speaking of simpler things, ‘Dormant Love’ is the most nakedly songlike construction Charalambides have attempted in ages, a conventional acoustic strum chased by fireflies of electricity that gather, swarm and eventually overwhelm Christina’s gorgeous vocal melody.
Elsewhere, the instrumental ‘Black Bed Blues’ gradually unfolds in classic Charalambides manner, its keening slide stabs adding a bucolic feel to the widescreen vistas mapped by the intertwining electric and acoustic guitars. This hallucinatory, immersive music – largely improvised yet startlingly immediate and heartfelt – is the most compelling reason for Charalambides’ reputation yet, and deserves to gain the group a much wider audience. ‘Two Birds’ is similarly amazing, a welter of perfectly chosen acid notes from Tom book-ended by beautifully airy yet unusually urgent vocals from Christina. The mantric lullaby of the closing ‘Hope Against Hope’ turns the lights down slowly on one of the strongest records of Charalambides’ career – instantly accessible, individual and inviting.
If A Vintage Burden represents a trip into the daylight world for the Carters, a chance to catch some rays and frolic in the meadows, Lace Heart is a missive from the backwoods in moonlight. Christina’s overdubbed guitar lines circle and murmur to each other in the opening ‘Dream Long’, but whereas similar moves on A Vintage Burden are suffused with hope, here the overwhelming mood is one of sadness.
Unfortunately, ‘I Am Seen’ follows to no great effect, its super-sparse instrumentation failing to gel with a tuneless vocal. It sets the scene, however, for the rest of the album to create pretty great things from virtually nothing. ‘To Surrender’ barely exists – all the better to wonder “is the world an illusion?” – evoking Low at their least corporeal. It leads into the lengthy ‘Walking On The Sand’, where an infinitely repeated instrumental phrase eventually quickens and glows like blown embers. Intentions longingly declares “it is my choice to need you” over another eterno-figure that finally collapses to sing amid a breeze of wispy voices. The sheer beauty of Carter’s audacity and skill is staggering, a fact epitomised by the epic, closing ‘Long Last Breaths’, which somehow manages to make you forget that you’ve been listening to the same two chords for 15 minutes, until the music ends and the world lightens and returns to focus, the ritual over. Strictly limited to 300 copies only, good luck getting your hands on one!
originally published August 30th, 2006
The Shine Of Dried Electric Leaves ••
The thrill of retail therapy is a potent little thing and is cleverly designed to ensure you keep returning for more. It’s anticipation and control and material reward all in one quick fix. Often, of course, the thrill is momentary, the bell curve of desire flattening quicker than you can say pancake. Such is the deflating experience of listening to São Paulo-born Cibelle’s (pronounced see-BELLee) second album, suffering as it does from trying much too hard to be cerebral. Here, she is to Bebel Gilberto what Oasis are to The Beatles, but the comparison is an appropriate place to start. The Shine Of Dried Electric Leaves copies Gilberto’s Tanto Tempo blueprint by mixing slow electronica and Latin acoustics to a collection of very laidback torch songs. But where Bebel succeeded in finding a trade-off between the crossover elements of both genres, in part due to some excellent variations in tempo, an amazing voice and, perhaps most importantly, some cracking songs, Cibelle unfortunately fails.
The album starts pleasantly enough with the hazy summer swell of ‘Green Grass’ (tellingly, a cover of an old Tom Waits song), but you’ll have forgotten it completely halfway through the meandering follow-up, ‘Instante De Dois’, which sets the benchmark for the remainder of the set by outstaying its welcome by at least two minutes and overplaying the use of ‘novel’ instruments and sounds, until the original melody is a distant memory. Ditto ‘Phoenix’, ‘Minha Neguinha’ and, well, just about every other song.
It’s a shame because Cibelle’s voice is a fine instrument, but too often she crowds it with unnecessary percussion and ill-judged electronica. ‘Mad Man Song’, featuring French rapper Spleen, is a particularly poor example of someone seemingly offered a 48-track studio and feeling obliged to fill each one with a different sound. When those sounds are, to quote from Cibelle’s website, “…voices, spoons, sugarcubes, cups and coffee”, the phrase ‘trying too hard’ springs to mind. I’m all for experimentation, but based on the premise that it’s being conducted with goals in mind, rather than for the sake of it. There’s a lot of repetition, too much stopping to talk/whisper sultrily (sing woman, it’s what you’re good at!) and the tempo hardly ever shimmies above a slowly trudging stroll. Unless you’re paying strict attention, you won’t even know which song you’re listening to, or even if it’s still the same day of the week. I actually felt like rewarding myself for being able to listen to all of ‘Flying High’ without pushing fast forward. It just goes on and on and, well, you get the picture.
Ultimately, Cibelle’s efforts to diversify her sound suffer from the modern malaise of throwing everything at the proverbial wall and hoping that all of it sticks. There’s a startling lack of variation, both in ideas and tempo, very little thought given to the pacing and no quality control; 14 songs, only two of which clock in at under four minutes – perhaps someone has a little too much time on their hands, hmm? This is the kind of record that will make you long for a return to the limitations and boundaries of analogue and vinyl, ensuring that the obvious filler and vanity projects are culled. The Shine Of Dried Electric Leaves will pass you by in a blur of nothingness – the aural equivalent of a tranquiliser tablet.
originally published June 24th, 2006
Oh Vanille/ova nil ••••
If the world was bequeathed a stanza of poetry for every time it’s been written that such and such a songwriter was inspired by the tortured complexities of Sylvia Plath, we’d have assembled a monster modern epic to rival ‘The Iliad’ and ‘Odyssey’ combined. Clearly, this is no bad thing – Plath’s intensity is addictive and energising as much as it is famously wretched – but the comparison perhaps lacks imagination. From the clever wit of the title in, however, New York nutritionist Diane Cluck’s fourth release better recalls the less studied, rawly humanistic and life-affirming work of former NY state poet laureate, Sharon Olds. Both bring a worldly mellifluousness to the boil, daring the reader/listener to continue and delivering the kind of emotional payoff that’s totally unputdownable.
Over the course of these 11 truly memorable songs, recorded in her apartment during the summer of 2003, Cluck’s voice is the constant main attraction, coaxing out her insanely astute lyrics with a peculiar and uniquely clipped glottal beauty. When double-tracked in the rousing ‘Easy To Be Around’ and the spectral a cappella of ‘Petite Roses’, it’s enough to stop and swoon to. Elsewhere, the stark bruised balladry of ‘All I Bring You Is Love’, ‘Wild Deer At Dawn’ and the sensational ‘Yr Million Sweetnesses’ is poignant and cliché-free, the songs gliding like silk-gloved fists along their airy arrangements. Likewise with the heart-rending ‘Bones & Born Again’ – there’s no clutter here. Cluck has achieved the elusive optimal minimalism that’s easy to get so very very wrong.
Having been described by Devendra Banhart as his “favourite singer-songwriter in all of New York City”, and featured on his 2004 Golden Apples Of The Sun compilation (alongside Joanna Newsom, CocoRosie, and more) with ‘Heat From Every Corner’ from her 2002 album, Macy’s Day Bird, Diane is certainly not short of cult figure endorsements. She is also linked with the antifolk movement spearheaded by the likes of Herman Düne and Jeffrey Lewis, though her classisistic sensibilities and ornate melodies seem a little at odds with some of her crasser stablemates. She certainly comes across more demurely than, say, Kimya Dawson, claiming little more than that she likes “to play different instruments and sing and write songs.”
If there’s any justice, she’ll be doing it for decades to come, and should Oh Vanille/ova nil ever receive domestic recognition, a Newsom-style word of mouth stoking of this so far highly secret pleasure is almost guaranteed.
originally published June 12th, 2005
Countless Times ••••
Keen Wears The Trousers readers must surely be aware by now of the esteem in which Brooklyn native Diane Cluck is held around these parts. They might also think, wow, another album so soon after the last? Is the woman superhuman? The responses to which can only be “sorta” and “no, of course not, don’t be daft”. For while the exquisite Oh Vanille/ova nil was rightfully acknowledged as such only this past Spring, the songs were written and recorded back in 2003, leaving plenty of growth time for this much anticipated follow-up. As it turns out, Cluck has expanded little stylistically, opting instead to plump up her peripheries and reinforce (distil, even) everything she was already great at. But Countless Times is so much more than just a retread of familiar ground. It’s a manifesto of simplicity, a dossier of yearning. It’s the diary of an ancient force, the sound of a traditionalist pushing a hand-pulped paper envelope gently.
Melodic innovation and off-kilter, bewitching harmonies have long been Cluck’s calling card, resolutely all frills barred. Indeed, there are instances on Countless Times where it seems she is pecking even at the barest bones of her songs, as if ill content to have us taste anything but their marrow. Even the production is barely there, retreating from the cleaner but still careful sounds of Oh Vanille/ova nil – here, the Brooklyn traffic rumbles into a song or two, her fingers squeak on the fretboard, she laughs. It’s amateurish as done by an expert, i.e. by intention.
Most songs rely solely on Cluck’s caressing and tender way with an acoustic guitar, coaxing out a subtle, distant sound, and by doing so leave a lacuna for the gorgeous voice-as-instrument reveal. The stellar combo of ‘Sylvania’ and ‘A Phoenix & Doves’ illustrates this best, the former a wistful paean to the vanishing simple life she acquired a taste for growing up alongside Lancaster County, Pennsylvania’s Amish communities. It’s a rural and lyrical delight with line after line of drama and bucolic soliloquy (“on your own Sylvania homestead / if that be your belief / you can claim you own it / though you bought it from a thief”). Other standout tracks include the plaintive, multi-tracked ‘Love Me If Ye Do’, the heart-warming ‘Wasn’t I Glad!’, and the insistent, salvational ‘United. The Way You Were’.
The deal-breaker for the Cluck non-converted will likely come with the album’s unusual conclusion – two songs and a no-show (listed as ‘Countless Times‘) built haphazardly around a single funereal motif. This is Cluck at her musically most naked; awkward, unsettling and yet bizarrely contagious, it throws itself to the lions of speculation. The first ‘movement’, ‘My Teacher Died/Countless Times’, would seem almost like a failed take of the second, simply ‘My Teacher Died’, were it not for its curious and complex roundelay-style arrangement and alternative lyrics, but sit through that and the more focused second dose will get you right in the heart with its humble admission: “there are no superstars / there is no Superman / there’s only everyone / I learn from who I can.”
Overall, while many of the songs on Countless Times perhaps lack the immediacy and hooks of those on Oh Vanille/ova nil, they are every bit as engaging once marinated in over the course of a few listens. You might not even notice until you sing a line that takes you by surprise, and therein lies its beauty. In a cold and stoic world that sledgehammers its populace with constant blinding stimuli, such secret declarations are all the more alluring.
originally published November 14th, 2005
La Maison De Mon Rêve ••••
Touch & Go
Ever wondered how the story would have gone if it were Wendy rather than Peter Pan who’d been allowed to never grow up? No? Well, how about if she’d teamed up with Tinkerbell and released an album so mind-bogglingly derivative yet delicious that it split Never Never Land down its green and pleasant middle? A little far-fetched perhaps, but the task of doing justice to La Maison De Mon Rêve (which translates to “the house of my dream”), the debut album from sister act Bianca (‘Coco’) and Sierra (‘Rosie’) Casady, is no Sunday stroll in the park. Recorded in a teency flat in Montmatre, with all the trappings of Parisian bohemia that the location suggests, La Maison… is positively bursting at its amateur seams with shoddy homemade chic and charm. Serving up a bonne bouche of sugary simple melodies and intertwining off-kilter harmonies, it’s the most disarmingly alluring album about sex, domestic violence, child prostitution, religion and racism that you’re ever likely to hear. Granted, it’s not for everyone – there’s enough random nonsensical percussion and sound effects here to send the easily offended back to their collection of U2 records – but those who get it will adore it.
The story goes that Sierra is a classically-trained opera singer who studied in Paris, Rome and the sisters’ native New York while Bianca spent many years just finding herself before one day when she found herself in Paris with Sierra’s number in hand. After a long period of being incommunicado, their reunion sparked the explosion of fantasy and imagination that hangs brightly like a batik over the 12 tracks that make up the album. Playing, banging and shaking every ‘instrument’ they could get their hands on, the sisters conjured up this addictive mishmash of blues, opera, hip hop beats and the sparsest of folk with admirably little evidence of effort and with no help from an outside producer. When it works, it’s tooth-rottingly sumptuous (‘Terrible Angels’, ‘By Your Side’, ‘Good Friday’, ‘Butterscotch’, ‘Madonna’) and when it works less well, it veers wildly from the pointless (‘Not For Sale’, ‘Tahiti Rain Song’) to the deranged (‘West Side’) and every intermediate. But it never gets boring and that’s what’ll keep you coming back.
originally published May 25th, 2005
Noah’s Ark ••••
Touch & Go
Sailing down the Seine to find where broken hearts go, the sisters Casady have thrown their audience the most delicate of lifelines, proportionate only to the furthest stretch of their patience. So while the short-fused among us may well crash and burn at the first bonkers lyric (“all of the aborted babies will turn into little bambies”) or cracked, unearthly vocal, it’s best to leave them steaming in their own incomprehension than try to defend or explain why this ship is worth keeping abreast of. You see, the trouble with albums like this is that there are almost too many talking points. In this case, let’s start with Melissa Shimkovitz’s extraordinary artwork. Though at first it may seem a little off-putting, like much of the album itself, it proves deliciously clever and playful on closer inspection. It’s quite something to name your record after a Biblical icon and then subvert that with seemingly smacked out unicorns in a bisexual threesome, sodomy included. Still not convinced? How about the fact that the Bible repeatedly refers to these horned horses, despite the fact that they never existed? And look, isn’t that the star of David on the forehead of the ‘filling’? Provocative, no?
Notice also the diamonds dangling from the pierced nipples of the female and the blingtastic gold logo, both presumably nods to the rudimentary hip hop elements of CocoRosie’s music. Even more so than on last year’s debut, La Maison De Mon Rêve, Bianca and Sierra play up to that influence – ‘Bisounours’ features some of the most seductive rapping you’ll ever hear, half creamily crooned by French MC, Spleen – but they also broaden their palette. So while the farmyard animal noises (‘Bear Hides & Buffalo’) and bizarre interludes (‘Milk’) remain, these are toned down in favour of genuine substance. That said, it’s hard not to view this album as a sequel to the first, or rather the flipside, for while La Maison… had its moments of darkness, this could be that house in a parallel, nightmarish universe, the Casadys flung so far over the rainbow that no slippers could ever return them.
Be in no doubt that death, criminality and dangerous sex are the on-board currency here; ‘South 2nd’ recounts the violent murder of a Brooklyn teen at the hands of other children, the anything-but-techno ‘Tekno Love Song’ is a crush with eyeliner lament complete with weeping autoharp, whilst closer ‘Honey Or Tar’ puts a new spin on obsession. Lighter moments come with the forced naivety and tweeness of the title track and the keening chorus of ‘Armageddon’, both of which feature the distinctive tones of Diane Cluck, who contributes to the verses of the former her sweetest, highest vocal. Devendra Banhart also makes several appearances, singing in French, English and Spanish. Best of all the guests, however, is Mercury Music Prize winner Antony (without his Johnsons) who enlivens former B-side ‘Beautiful Boyz’ with his soulful, wavering vocals wringing every ounce of poignant tragedy from the sad sorry tale of (in every sense lost) prison lovers.
Noah’s Ark is a stark, brave and affecting record that flirts with the surreal and the all-too-real in irresistible fashion. It won’t appease La Maison… haters, but I get the impression that the Casadys care little for everybody-pleasing, route one pop songs. And why should they when their ability to sink you into their art is so handsomely peerless?
originally published November 14th, 2006
Pointing Excitedly To The Sky •½
On ‘Bam! Tululu!’, song number two on Cocosuma’s fourth album Pointing Excitedly To The Sky, singer Amanda exclaims “I’ve been Jesus Christ”. Whether or not she really believes this is a question unto itself, but the band’s label Setanta clearly think that the lyric holds some truth. Either that, or the band are being used and abused to launder as much money as possible out of the coffee table genre, but Pointing… is unlikely to filter through to the few-albums-a-year demographic.
The sad truth is it’s nothing special, neither good enough to slot into a prominent shelf on your CD rack nor bad enough to want to destroy it and bury the pieces deep underground. In a severe error of judgement, Cocosuma seem to have taken their primary influence from the insidious and grating background music found in Sims games, particularly on the opener, ‘Communication’s Lost’. Luckily, it seems that they’ve also been listening to Azure Ray and Frou Frou, and it’s these elements that rescue the songs. ‘The Servant’ maintains the ongoing theme of hushed, under-the-breath vocals but attempts, and fails, to diversify into the electro genre. The underwater Casio, or whatever it is they’ve used, simply doesn’t work. While ‘Sparks’ has an opening guitar riff worthy of any classic Britpop act and is one of the more enjoyable numbers, the vocals let the whole thing down.
There are occasional glimpses of greatness; ‘So As A Gentleman You Should Be More Polite’ is a gem with delicate acoustic guitar and thankfully brightened-up vocals, but more often than not the songs are simply a slightly different version of the track before. Essentially, Cocosuma are attempting to imitate every successful alternative band in America, but they always fall backwards into a puddle of their own hush-hush reject songs. Some of the songs show incredible potential, but to achieve what they’re truly capable of, the band are going to have to stop trying so hard to fit in.
originally published July 2nd, 2006
Lullabies To Violaine Vol. 1 & 2 ••••½
Well hey, old friends, it’s been a long time. Too long in fact, for now more than ever, the Cocteau Twins seem to represent a unique diversion in popular music, in the sense of being purchased by barely more than a handful of diligent searchers. Back when I were a nipper and the Cocteaus’ biggest fan (in Worcestershire at least), their sparkling hymns of abstracted emotion occasionally *gasp* got in the charts. On a good night, you could even expect to see the video to, say, ‘Iceblink Luck’ on Top Of The bleedin’ Pops. Of course, widespread acceptance is no more accurate a measure of an artist’s worth than their shoe size, but it surely says something about the way the cultural breeze has shifted in the last decade or so. Cathedrals of sound? Nah, mate, it’s all crooners in Costa and New Wave factories these days. Haven’t you heard?
Undisputed fact: the Cocteaus – a fat bloke, a skinny bloke, and a small woman who looked like a startled shrew and was married to the fat one – made some of the most startlingly beautiful sounds ever created by man. They didn’t just write melodies, or tunes, or songs; even lumpen idiots like the Kaiser Chiefs can do that. Somehow, they wrote music like one of those underground caves revealed in David Attenborough’s latest natural history spectacular. Everywhere you look, something different and gorgeous happens. New wonders to behold lie round every bend. It’s sound concentrated to the purest essence of light and harmony.
I haven’t listened to them in years, which makes this collection of all the singles the Twins released on 4AD and Fontana, from Lullabies in 1982 to Violaine in 1996, an intensely rewarding and personal experience. Originally released last year as a four-disc boxset and now more wallet-friendly as two doubles, the first half of Vol. 1 is best described as the sound of an ice sculpture melting. The opening tracks, from ‘Feathers-Oar-Blades’ to ‘Hazel’, are twitchy, wiry, disorienting post-punk, moonlit rituals driven by drum machines bled clean of all funk, topped by Liz Fraser’s frightened incantations. And incantations they are, more or less; they certainly aren’t lyrics as lyrics are commonly understood, although the odd recognisable word or phrase is tantalisingly glimpsed now and then. It’s not until ‘Sugar Hiccup’ and the attendant songs from the same EP that the contours soften and some light is shed on the proceedings, and by the time that ‘The Spangle Maker’ arrives, the band’s parallel universe is mostly established. By the end of Vol. 1, CD1, the Cocteaus really begin to hit their stride, with baroque beauties like ‘Quisquose’ and ‘Aikea-Guinea’ fully embracing a rarefied and unique soundscape.
If the first disc is, for the most part, a frozen edifice at midnight, CD2 recalls the fathomless depths of a sunrise. Songs like ‘Great Spangled Fritillary’ and ‘Sultitan Itan’ are multi-hued and mysterious; ‘Love’s Easy Tears’ is a firework display where each explosion betters the last, while the aforementioned ‘Iceblink Luck’ is as poppy as the Cocteaus ever got whilst being no less enveloping. That song and its parent album, Heaven Or Las Vegas, saw a further shift in the band’s style, leaving behind the dramatic peaks of their earlier work for a more measured approach. Fraser even tangled with boring old English on the odd occasion.
Those hoping to save some money by buying only one of these collections, sorry; the second of the two double sets is only slightly less essential than the first. Amongst other delights, there are acoustic versions of several songs and remixes by Seefeel that push the originals way underwater and record the surface-bound bubbles, not to mention a pair of hilarious / brilliant covers of ‘Winter Wonderland’ and ‘Frosty The Snowman’. The late-period material only suffers in comparison with the band’s own prime moments, as is fitting for a group that invented, mastered, and exhausted their own idiom. As heartbreaking as it may have been at the time for their devotees, the Cocteau Twins undoubtedly split up at the right time. These fantastic, life-affirming collections are an ideal epitaph for one of the most singular bands that this or any other country has ever produced.
originally published April 26th, 2006
Colleen Et Les Boîtes À Musique •••½
Cécile Schott, aka Colleen, ventures into more melodious areas with her latest EP, the title of which translates simply to ‘Colleen & The Music Boxes’. And, indeed, as the title suggests, Mme Schott explores the music box as an instrument in all its natural and artificial forms. Using her computer to accumulate, stretch and massage the tones of both new and vintage models, Colleen has developed a truly unique recording.
Originally commissioned by French radio station France Culture, the project developed further when Colleen visited a friend in Scotland who happened to have a collection of old music boxes. Already familiar with their workings from having used them on her previous albums, she set about dismantling the existing, less interesting melodies and began to explore the sounds she could make when the combs themselves were played with thumbnails or glass.
Focusing purely on the percussive sounds a music box can make, ‘John Levers The Ratchet’ provides a relatively short and sweet introduction before the stark contrast of ‘What Is A Componium? Part 1′. Here, Schott layers sound upon sound and is not shy to include crackling noises and reverb. There is no structured melody per se, rather an accumulation of different notes that create a thick blanket of sound. Occasionally the ear snags onto a note or a rhythm and manages to hang on for a little bit longer. (This dark muddled sound is continued later on ‘Part 2′).
Part of the wonder of Colleen Et Les Boîtes À Musique is that the natural timbres of the instrument have been disfigured using resampling and delay to such an extent that almost none of the pieces actually sound like music box recordings. ‘Charles’s Birthday Card’ reminds us of the origins of the sounds, in an abstract way, with a very organic but stop-start version of the lullaby ‘Rock-A-Bye Baby’. ‘Will You Gamelan For Me?’, as its title suggests, explores and alters the tone of the music box in such a way that it ends up sounding like an Indonesian gamelan, accurately reflecting the imitated instrument with a somewhat monotone arrangement in regards to rhythm and intonation.
Elsewhere, ‘The Sad Panther’ and ‘Under The Roof’ strive to find their own little dreamlike spaces: the former somewhat reminiscent of drone-based electronica (which could not be more remote from the natural sounds of a music box) and the latter truly romantic, almost harp-like in its sweetness. ‘A Bear Is Trapped’ is very different: a lot more scratchy and aggressive, dark and straightforward, it sounds like the last hoorah of a knackered old music box (indeed, you can hear that the combs are being played by hand). Other standouts are the emotional ‘Your Heart Is So Loud’ and cutesy Carribean gin-soaked ‘Calypso In A Box’. ‘I’ll Read You A Story’ is also exceptional, combining as it does the sonics of the music box with the more natural tone of the guitar, creating a more melodious and structured atmosphere.
All in all Colleen Et Les Boîtes À Musique is a truly original release and successfully brings together old and forgotten sounds with modern recording and resampling techniques. A jewel for avant-garde electronica lovers.
These Four Walls ••••
These Four Walls is Shawn Colvin’s first album since 2001’s sorely underappreciated Whole New You and her first since leaving her longtime home of Columbia Records for the (hopefully) greener pastures of Nonesuch. It starts with that rare Colvin commodity, a slice of optimism called ‘Fill Me Up’ – a beautiful, upbeat road song in search of a highway. For an artist who recently turned the big five-o, it’s refreshing to hear her appreciate the possibilities that still exist out in the big bad world. Following quick on its heels, the title track’s opening line “I’m gonna die in these four walls…” heralds a return to the more grounded fare that her fans have become accustomed to. Lines like “I’m gonna miss your Southern drawl / a baby’s footsteps in an empty hall / and every little thing I can ever recall” may be nothing to do with the end of her marriage in 2002, but it has always been hard to separate story from autobiography with Colvin and we’re all a little better off for her honest approach to her strongest gift – communication. Just two songs in, then, and there’s enough material to eclipse all but the best of her peers.
There isn’t room to discuss each song in turn, but suffice to say the whole is a natural and sublime progression from Whole New You and its Grammy-winning predecessor A Few Small Repairs. Highlights grow into you at every turn – some blatant, such as the hooks in ‘Tuff Kid’ and ‘Let It Slide’, others more subtle. The poignant lyrical twists in ‘Summer Dress’ take a simple piece of cloth and turn it into a metaphor for an awakened spirit, while ‘Cinnamon Road’s nostalgic search for a place one can never return to is often tried but rarely as accomplished.
There’s a pivotal moment early on in ‘So Good To See You’ where the accumulated pathos and heightened awareness of life’s little realities, customary in a Colvin lyric, become almost impossible to bear. It will surprise no one to find that she simply ups the ante on the chorus, turning the emphasis around to sing the title with just the right level of acceptance and weariness. It’s a masterclass in the art of the song as message and further proof that her longstanding collaboration with musician/producer John Leventhal bears fruit each time it’s watered. It’s just a shame that it only come around once every five years.
Guest vocalists Patty Griffin, Teddy Thompson and Marc Cohn lend their warm voices and rich experience to a set of songs that you can wrap yourselves in on a cold night or sing from the rooftops on a summer’s afternoon. These Four Walls has everything any Colvin fan could have asked of her and enough to tempt those new to her literate and melodic journey into a purchase. Roll on 2011.
originally published September 17th, 2006
Here’s a teaser for you: at what point in a band’s career does hype become counterproductive? I doubt the music industry will ever quite figure it out, but here’s a case worth studying. Toronto’s Controller.Controller quickly became critical darlings following a whirlwind press blitz on their debut EP, History. A quick signing from the label that brought you Broken Social Scene and Magneta Lane later and the pressure was on to justify every bit of the buzz.
In terms of genre, Controller.Controller are hard to pin down, though the phrase ‘death disco’ seems to follow them around. However, what they do is far from conventional dance, even under that colossal genre umbrella. Instead, their tunes are predominantly dubby bass driven, but where you might expect ska is edgy rock and punk. The disco bit comes in with beats that intertwine with menacing riffs reminiscent of Joy Division or early Cure – you can see why they were billed with Franz Ferdinand on tour and why they’re best mates with compatriots The Organ. With echoes of New Order, Interpol and fellow Canadians Metric, the songs have a cold experimental feel and often threaten impending doom. Regular guitar onslaughts stab away at any overriding dance or techno themes, creating a cacophony of genre-busting rhythms. The tension created from the deliberate dichotomy is practically tangible as we’re challenged by something that is one moment minimalist and the next moment bursting with melodies at war.
The songs that appear on X-Amounts may have worked in front of an audience with all the full-on energy and attitude that makes the live experience, well, live, but they don’t work here, especially as a collection. The relentless, brash assault soon begins to grate and everything melds into one giant racket. Singer Nirmala Basnayake’s vocals have euphemistically been called ‘honest’ and ‘raw’, but she really only uses one tone and it jars with the angular rhythms. In the same way that Sleater-Kinney or PiL can sometimes be better in diminutive doses (x-amounts, if you will), the same applies to this record’s monotonic resonance and dull uniformity.
Coming back to the original question, those buying into the media hype surrounding Controller.Controller may well be disappointed by the lack of sustainable interest on offer. Get one thing straight though, X-Amounts is neither safe nor dependent on the latest hot-or-not countdown – a fault that mars so many debuts from bands showered with early praise. Controller.Controller have managed to sidestep such pitfalls; their style and approach is genuinely innovative and, though the album largely fails, there are moments of exquisiteness (‘Heavy As A Heart’ in particular is energetic and tuneful). Don’t blame it on the hype, the moonlight or even the good times, it’s the dearth of tunes that really does them in.
originally published July 17th, 2006
It may only be a year since their last studio outing but Ireland’s “acceptable face of cloning” are back with a new set of lilting, Celtic-inspired tunes. The Corr family’s background in traditional Irish music has never been far from the surface of any of their recorded output, although, since their 1997 breakthrough, Talk On Corners, it has been increasingly submerged under washes of lush pop production. However the appropriately entitled Home takes the band full circle, concentrating on the music which they grew up with and the deep musical heritage of the Gaelic peoples. These 12 songs comprise a selection of nine traditional Irish and Scottish folk tunes along with covers of three modern tracks with a ‘folk royalty’ or Irish connection. The idea for an album of predominantly traditional music came from drummer Caroline, in response to the reception that the jigs and reels that are regularly slipped into live sets evoke in audiences around the world. It also allowed the family an opportunity to pay tribute to their late mother, from whose songbook a number of the traditional songs were sourced.
Stylistically, the album steers a conservative course. This is no cutting edge fusion of folk and other jazz and rock forms à la Iona or Capercaillie. The arrangements are straightforward, with the band having taken a mostly ‘live in the studio’ approach to the basic tracks (i.e. overdubs added only later and sparingly). In that respect, this could be almost any mainstream folk album from the last 20 years, but when you add in Andrea Corr’s distinctive and undeniably beautiful vocals, Sharon’s singular fiddle playing and the trademark vocal harmonies, this is very much a Corrs album. Production duties are taken by Suzanne Vega’s ex-husband, Mitchell Froom, who has worked with the band on a number of occasions. However, his sonic stamp on the album seems minimal. Anyone expecting the multi-layered pop arrangements of In Blue and Borrowed Heaven or Crowded House stylings will be disappointed. Only on ‘Spancill Hill’ are there echoes of his work with the Finn brothers in the ‘Weather With You’-like acoustic guitar lines – until it transforms briefly into a reel. Additional string arrangements penned by veteran arranger Fiachra Trench and provided by the BBC Concert Orchestra are subtly sprinkled across the tracks along with other traditional instruments, low whistles, uillean pipes and makes for an easy on the ear and attractive sound.
The traditional tracks are well chosen, including some beautiful traditional melodies dating back through the 19th Century Irish diasporas (‘Spancill Hill’) to the bardic era of the likes of harpist Turlough O’Carolan. In particular, ‘Buachaill On Eirne’ has always been among the most haunting of Irish melodies. Other tunes like ‘Haste To The Wedding’ and ‘My Lagan Love’ have oft been mined in the past by those, like landmark Celtic-rock band Horslips, wishing to bring ancient melodies to a modern audience. Even Kate Bush has covered the latter. The modern songs, too, are interesting choices. The Corrs version of ‘Heart Like A Wheel’ may not go down in history as the greatest cover of Anna McGarrigle’s song but it is well done. Richard Thompson’s ‘Dimming Of The Day’ is particularly touching and tender – Sharon’s sensitive and faltering vocal nestling among simple acoustic guitar and string backing.
The oddest choice for inclusion on the album is the track currently attracting the most radio play – ‘Old Town’. Why an obscure track from a Phil Lynott solo album should have been covered on this album and their MTV live set is a mystery. A straight cover of the original, it sits a little uncomfortably among the other folkier tracks. However, as the band has said in interviews, somehow you’d miss it if it wasn’t there. Certainly it’s a hitherto undiscovered gem and it’s perky piano, string and brass motif lifts the album before it slides into the exquisite melancholy of ‘Dimming Of The Day’. Plus it shows that there was more depth and poetry in the Lynott’s writing than the self-parodying cod metal into which Thin Lizzy descended in their later years.
It would be easy enough to damn Home with faint praise – this isn’t a groundbreaking album in any way. Adjectives spring to mind like ‘pleasant’, ‘enjoyable’ and, dare I say it, ‘nice’. However, these don’t do justice to what is essentially a fine set of traditionally based tunes which make for a very enjoyable, if undemanding, listening experience – and, when it comes down to it, there’s nothing wrong with that.
originally published October 1st, 2005
Amy Courts EP *
Don’t you just hate it when your hopes are raised and then spectacularly dashed just a few seconds later? Before you listen to this mini-album by Amy Courts, you might want to prepare yourself for just such a crushing disappointment. Courts is a perfectly confident singer – her musical upbringing singing in various church and school choirs in Denver has seen to that – and competent too. Stick on the first song ‘Barely Breathing’ and you’ll notice that much; her voice cuts through the mist and knocks you sideways in a second. It’s a bit like Imogen Heap but not so doctored or squeezed through a myriad of musical trick boxes and, for a moment or two, you might well wonder if it’s the most beautiful, most soulful voice you’ve heard in quite a while.
But then…oh dear. For some reason, Courts has chosen to squander that voice on the kind of horrid, feisty ‘country’ that sells by the bucketload and makes international megastars of people like Faith Hill and, gulp, Shania Twain. Quite frankly, it’s akin to sacrilege. There are seven tracks here and they all dissolve into one sickly sludge. None of the others even attempt to endear themselves with a good intro. If Courts’s voice were generic and bland, you’d probably be simply indifferent or only mildly outraged.
As it is, the EP shows a sorely wasted talent. A voice like hers deserves so much better than this. Perhaps she needs a better inspiration so, Amy, if you’re going to do feisty, try to emulate someone who has more conviction. Be Joan Wasser, be Joan Jett…just ditch the Twainisms and you’ll be fine.
originally published October 5th, 2006
For those who hastily wrote her off after 2002’s mostly insipid C’Mon, C’Mon, the staggering success of Sheryl Crow’s hits collection the following year must have begged a reappraisal. Certainly, this first new material since then bears the weight of eager expectancy, not least because of her highly-publicised relationship with fiancé and seven-times Tour de France winner, Lance Armstrong. But although the album’s title alludes to the nature of their relationship (“no matter how chaotic it is, wildflowers will still spring up in the middle of nowhere”, Crow explains), anyone fearing a sick-making sludgefest will be gladly put at ease.
From the first bar of opener ‘I Know Why’, it’s clear that Crow is very much back in the game. Setting the tone for what’s to come, it’s a warm, relaxed affair set amid a swirling orchestral backdrop courtesy of Mr Beck Hansen Sr., David Campbell. With the exception of the resolutely soft rockin’ ‘Live It Up’ with its commanding 1980s chorus, Campbell’s arrangements infuse every song and are certainly an interesting addition to Crow’s sound. This is best appreciated by comparing the woozy ‘Chances Are’ (“I was lost inside a daydream / swimming through the saline”) with an earlier version that appeared as a B-side to ‘Soak Up The Sun’, or the bonus acoustic run-through of the title track with its almost fully orchestral counterpart. Yet despite the hype and emphasis placed on Campbell’s contributions, his work is often hidden somewhat by the rather lavish production.
Lyrically, Wildflower often harks back to the introspection and self-exploration that made The Globe Sessions so compelling, shying away from the third party pop cultural narratives that made her name. But while The Globe Sessions sounded akin to a freshly gouged wound (with extra added salt), Wildflower is riddled with a sense of hope. Even in the George W Bush-bashing ‘Where Has All The Love Gone’ (“I saw the flag roll by on a wooden box”), it’s there in the tone of her voice. Across the album as a whole in fact, Crow has never sounded so tender, retaining her strangely appealing slight strain for the high notes that serves especially to emphasise the vulnerability at play.
Though Wildflower wilts a little in the middle with ‘Letter To God’ and ‘Lifetimes’ in particular falling just the wrong side of average, there’s more than enough substance to songs like the Beatles-esque ‘Perfect Lie’ and the heart-wrenching ‘Always On Your Side’ to justify these falters. Not wild then, but mellow and classy, this ranks among her best work to date.
originally published November 28th, 2005
Live At Wood Hall •••½
Canadian singer-songwriter Allison Crowe’s personal mantra adorns the cover of her latest album. That simple maxim is “Why music? Why breathing!”, so personal is her connection with the music she writes and performs. This new record, her fourth in total, documents a two-night stand at the Robin & Winifred Wood Recital Hall in Victoria, British Columbia in March 2005, taking in 23 songs performed live in front of a small but fortunate audience.
Crowe was born and raised on Vancouver Island in Nanaimo, a town with two prior claims to musical fame – firstly, for having a deep heritage in brass band music stemming from its coal mining history, and secondly, for being the birthplace of jazz chanteuse, Diana Krall. Fortunately, Allison Crowe has forsaken the former influence and, despite being a talented piano player and singer and sharing stages with Krall, has taken a different musical route and mines very separate sonic seams. Her piano playing often perfectly complements the mood of each song, whether she is tracing delicate arpeggios and melodies or delivering bombastic chordal backing.
This double-disc set amply demonstrates Crowe’s profound skill both as a writer and as an interpreter of other people’s songs, the performances dripping with emotion as she wrings meaning out of both the words and music. Her own compositions range from simple, tender love songs (‘There Is’, ‘By Your Side’) to insightful social commentary (‘Whether I’m Wrong’, ‘Disease’), and all are delivered in a contemporary style. However, it is perhaps her cover versions that are most revealing of Allison Crowe, and a diverse selection they are too, ranging from her personal favourites and influences (Tori Amos’s ‘Playboy Mommy’, Ani DiFranco’s classic ‘Independence Day’ and ‘A Murder Of One’ by Counting Crows) to showtunes ‘Bill’ and ‘I Dreamed A Dream’ from ‘Les Misérables’, via the oft-covered ‘Imagine’ and ‘Me & Bobby McGee’. It’s the Counting Crows cover that really highlights her skills as an interpreter. Crowe strips the song back to its skeleton and delivers a performance that completely convinces. In her version, the refrain “All your life is such a shame, shame, shame / all your love is just a dream, dream, dream / open up your eyes” is utterly divorced from the original’s lightly hopeful interpretation, becoming instead a cry of pure despair from a heart that can see clearly the life which she is missing. It’s a heart-rending tour de force.
Live At Wood Hall easily holds the listener’s attention throughout its near 110-minute duration, but while it has certain claims on the status of masterpiece, it is perhaps a flawed one. Although Crowe’s vocal ability and accuracy are beyond reproach (her use of portamento to attain certain notes is exquisite and has a hugely powerful effect that she wisely resists overusing), there are moments where she fails to reach the odd high note. However, this is completely forgivable in the live context of the album. Larry Anschell’s production and engineering serve to give a transparent and intimate document of the concerts – this is no ProTool’d and AutoTuned plastic pop opus but a real musician creating a real performance. Where Crowe’s tuning is a little errant, it is not because of a lack of ability, but rather because raw emotion seems to overwhelm the technical aspects of the delivery. Another nice technical touch is that all of the applause and intros are recorded as separate tracks, thereby allowing the listener to edit them out with some nifty programming if they so wish.
The greatest difficulty with Crowe’s singing is perhaps most obvious on the Jerome Kern/PG Wodehouse showtune, ‘Bill’. While hers is a magnificent interpretation, bringing the song slap bang into the 21st Century, it also overemphasises her extraordinary vibrato, a technique that is usually used subtly to bring additional depth to a performance. However, when Crowe switches that internal button, it is anything but subtle. Very rapid, deep and with a ‘square-wave’ quality, she turns it on and off like a tremolo effect pedal rather than fading it into sustained passages. On initial listens, this can be rather distracting – too often I was listening to the vibrato rather than the music – but subsequent auditions lessen the shock of the new. A flaw, true, but not a fatal one.
Overall, Live At Wood Hall is a worthy document of a pair of extraordinary performances. More than that though, it’s an album that suggests that this young woman from an obscure mining town in Canada is only at the beginning of a long and successful career.
originally published October 18th, 2005
This Little Bird ••••
Last year’s double album Live At Wood Hall showed Canadian songstress Allison Crowe to be a powerful artist who combines technical flair and an ability to imbue her performances with a beguiling mix of strength of spirit and a tender, bruised soul. This Little Bird, her first studio set since 2004’s festive offering Tidings, comprises nine new songs and a selection of well-chosen covers. It’s been a while then, so what’s changed? Well, a first glance at the credits might cause your brain to subconsciously remark that Crowe has seemingly ditched her solo singer-songwriter roots and hooked up with a crack team of session musicians. Your brain might also remark that, yikes, this might not be such a great idea. Would she struggle to flutter above an overpowering rhythm section or be swamped by layers of unnecessary overproduction?
Thankfully, those worries are unfounded. This Little Bird flies on the right side of tasteful, retaining the intimacy of Crowe’s remarkable vocals, couched within the context of her tender and expressive piano playing. Even when she stretches out into more impassioned proclamations, the voice and piano are firmly front and centre of our attention. Crowe’s distinctive vibrato, which sometimes wanders in the passion of her live delivery, is wisely kept in check by studio discipline without losing its character. Able to communicate purity as well as she does sultriness and a confessional tone, Crowe excels at all levels. Her cover of the Joni Mitchell classic ‘A Case Of You’ demonstrates this perfectly, from the strident confidence in the strength of love to the deep, low groan of self-doubt and despair.
For the most part the backing musicians are tastefully employed, although there are a few moments scattered across the disc where perhaps the odd timing or note choice issue should have been addressed prior to final mastering. Then again, on ‘Skeletons & Spirits’ for instance, the fact that the hand percussion seems slightly out of kilter with the piano merely emphasises the subtle oddness and foreboding contained in the lyric. Overall, This Little Bird is an intelligent, emotionally literate collection on which the talented Ms. Crowe proves once again that she’s actually 100% nightingale.
Nancy Elizabeth Cunliffe
The Wheel Turning King EP •••½
Pulling an all-nighter in the studio certainly isn’t unheard of, but Wigan-native Nancy Elizabeth Cunliffe gets brownie points at least for her choice of location. Recorded in an old Victorian church on two consecutive nights last May, The Wheel Turning King is an intimate, emotionally cloistered collection of six eccentric and ephemeral songs. Proving that Americans don’t have a monopoly on the ‘new weird blah blah blah’ tag, Cunliffe takes as a starting point classic British folk and adds an unconventional oriental twist, inspired by a spell spent living in Thailand. With a tremulous vocal that flits between weary but resilient sighing to a birdlike falsetto with seemingly no effort, she’s of the same anachronistic breed as Charlotte Greig and Marissa Nadler. Indeed, it’s little surprise to discover that she’s opened for the latter and her kindred spirit Josephine Foster. Perhaps the most often made and obvious comparison, given the largely harp-based nature of these songs, seems to be Joanna Newsom, but that doesn’t really hold. Cunliffe shares few of Newsom’s traits; she’s more restrained and lacks Joanna’s giddy and uninhibited glee. She is just as sweetly melodic, however, and there’s an abundance of great ideas here.
Lead track ‘Place To Shelter’ is by far the most musically ambitious inclusion, and given that Cunliffe played all the instruments herself, must have eaten up a large chunk of her rather limited time. Dramatic and highly percussive once it gets in its stride, it rolls and rumbles along with a growing sense of unease. It’s not all grave, however; lines like “I feel empty / like my fridge” leavens the gloom. ‘Waiting For Cars’ is an immediate highlight, too, an apprehensive and broody number written mostly on the harp then completed with occasional but eerie swoops of double bass and, later, accordion. “I’ve been walking on a thin line / almost too thin to see it” she sings a little more despairingly than any 22-year old should. Anyone else waiting for cars should skip to the closing seconds of ‘Wildfire’ to catch the distant swishing of nighttime traffic, but you’d be dumb to miss out on the rest of the song. A captivatingly fey and meditative treat, it features Cunliffe’s most unusual instrument, a Thai kim, combined with gentle washes of flute to magical effect.
Both ‘Sense’ and ‘The Moving Sand’ are lovely and expressive harp-based performances, but the last special mention must go to the title track. It may be barely a minute long but it encapsulates Cunliffe’s entire endeavour. The most churchy of the numbers, it’s a cryptic, double-tracked a cappella ditty that spotlights her purest and most spectral vocal yet. As far-flung as her ambitions may be on this EP, the forthcoming album promises yet more. “I play the drum / this is merely thunder” she is quick to remind; New Weird Lancashire, anyone?
originally published May 22nd, 2006