Filed under: live, review | Tags: 2008, alan pedder, amadeep chana, gig, marla hansen, music, my brightest diamond, shara worden
My Brightest Diamond / Marla Hansen
Soho Theatre, London ••••½
September 15th, 2008
It’s worth remembering first of all that Shara Worden is a graduate of the Sufjan Stevens School of Immaculate Musicianship and Onstage Whimsy, with first-class honours. The former Illinoisemaker turned jewel of the Asthmatic Kitty roster knows a thing or two about entertainment, and with tonight’s show billed as something a bit special, from her, you know it’s going to deliver. The sight that greets my eyes as they slowly adjust to the darkness of the intimate Soho Theatre is of stepladders draped in black and white striped bunting, a large table covered in a black cloth, a mop bucket filled with a suspiciously green liquid, tin cans, a saw, a kalimba, a top hat perched on a pair of Orange amps, a daunting array of effects pedals, a tannoy system strapped to a mic stand, and, of course, more conventional instruments: three guitars, a glockenspiel, a cello and a violin.
Filed under: album, back issues, live, review | Tags: amadeep chana, anja mccloskey, beth nielsen chapman, chris mccrudden, jim white, joanna newsom, kate nash, marissa nadler, michelle ruda, nightwish, nina nastasia, northern state, peter hayward, rod thomas, sarah nixey, scout niblett, sharon kean, siobhan rooney, stephanie heney, stevie nicks, the noisettes, trevor raggatt
The following reviews were published on our old MySpace blog in 2007.
Live at the Phoenix, Manchester ••••
May 9, 2007
As the poster girl for a new wave of American Gothic, Marissa Nadler is evidently an artist who believes in appearances. The singer-songwriter, raised by a clairvoyant in the same Massachusetts countryside that brought us the Salem Witches and Stephen King, wears her hair as black and long as her songs are dark and languorous. Her singing voice, piercing but never shrill, is a stark contrast to the barely-there drawl with which she introduces herself. She’s here, in the drab surroundings of Manchester’s Phoenix Club – the weekend home of Tangled, the city’s one remaining outpost of hard house – to promote her new album, Songs III: Bird On The Water, and this is what she gives us.
From her opener, ‘Dying Breed’, the comparisons to magic, black or otherwise, are unmistakable. She doesn’t so much write songs as use her bell-like picked guitar playing, echoed vocals and lyrics to evoke moods and visions. There’s the “reliquary eyes and diadem crown” of the fallen woman in ‘Diamond Heart’ and Daisy and Violet Hilton, the superannuated vaudeville Siamese twins working at the store for their bus ride home from Florida in ‘The Story Of Daisy & Violet’. Her effect is hypnotic rather than memorable, though occasional images strike home with bird-like precision – notably the electrifying hook “with eyes as deep as brandy wine” from ‘Feathers’.
With a sound and source material that often treads on the purple crushed velvet skirts of goth rather than the gothic, not every song succeeds. Indeed, her material that focuses more on personal matters of the heart rather than laudanum-fuelled fancy can plod, suggesting she’s at her best when she draws inspiration from a New England Goblin Market world of raven-haired maidens and deformed circus clowns. Yet she recovers from a mid-set dip to finish with an audacious cover of Leonard Cohen’s ‘Famous Blue Raincoat’, which teases out the sisterliness beneath this densely written account of a menage á trois. Triumphant, but quietly so, it shows how Marissa Nadler’s principal talent lies in allying the aural to the visual. She sounds exactly how Tim Burton’s best films look: dark, playful, intensely felt.
Made Of Bricks ••½
Seemingly it’s now quite the thing to be a Cockney, even if one’s been born with a musical silver spoon in one’s mouth. Just look at Lily Allen, who recently predicted Kate Nash would be ‘the next big thing’. Kate duly obliged – she’s already been in Vogue and Elle, and NME made up a music genre just for her: ‘chavtronica’. Oh, and she’s also had a number one hit with the annoying catchy, ‘Foundations’.
Unsurprisingly, this means almost everyone is very excited about Kate Nash and her debut album Made Of Bricks. But is it any good? It’s certainly all about Kate with tales of rubbish boyfriends, getting drunk with mates and that old chestnut, the crumbling relationship. So it seems that there’s something here for everyone, so long as you can put up with 40 minutes of La Nash’s irritatingly OTT accent. As Kate herself freely admits, “I’ll use that voice that you find annoying,” and she sure isn’t lying. The whiney faux-Lahndan vocals are there on every track, but so – to varying degrees – are the catchy tunes and toe-tapping beats that hold her songs together.
‘Shit Song’ sounds like a schoolgirl rapping (badly) over the top of a pre-programmed tune from an old Casio keyboard. ‘Pumpkin Soup’ is a bit more elaborate – with brass and echoing vocals – and has a girl group feel (think Eternal spliced with All Saints and shudder). And ‘Skeleton Song’ is a good tune with its multi-instrumental layers but suffers from terrible lyrics. ‘Merry Happy’ has the opposite issue, being pretty clever lyrically but with a tiresome staccato piano motif providing the ‘tune’.
Kate Nash is undeniably a talented girl, and if self-indulgent whining is your thing then you’ll enjoy this catalogue of the not-so-finer aspects of Cockney Kate’s existence. It’s a bit like listening to your mate who just got dumped ranting about how bad everything is for them, in a really grating voice. Song titles like ‘Dick Head’ and ‘Shit Song’ might work for Blink 182, but they make Kate sound even more self-pityingly simple than she should. That said, there is plenty of dry wit buried in the chav-speak, and anyone who can bring themselves to listen to this album more than twice will probably appreciate that. Basically, if you really, really like ‘Foundations’, a lot, then you’ll love this. Otherwise, it will drive you mad after three songs.
She may be the least authentic cockney since Guy Ritchie – Nash wouldn’t know the Bow Bells even if they were her mobile’s ringtone – but that doesn’t entirely extinguish her appeal. Listening to Kate Nash may be like simultaneously listening to your iPod and a loudmouth girl-chav’s inane but punishingly fascinating phone chatter, but at least the playlist is actually not that bad.
Nina Nastasia & Jim White
You Follow Me ••••
With each of her first four albums Nina Nastasia further cemented a glowing reputation as one of the most consistently worthwhile singer-songwriters working today, as recognised by DJ John Peel who had her in for six sessions in less than four years. Though traditionally known as something of a miserablist, 2006’s On Leaving was her lightest and brightest album to date. You Follow Me, a collection of songs co-written with long-term collaborator Jim White (Dirty Three, Sonic Youth), sees a return to her dark roots with a glorious set of fevered, skittish songs arising from a brutal collision of White’s frantic, intricate drumming and Nastasia’s soaring, anguished vocals.
Since the incredibly sparse charms of her debut, Dogs, Nastasia’s work has become increasingly orchestrated, with simply picked guitars giving way to piano and strings. On You Follow Me she bucks this trend but instead gives White free rein with the drumming. As you might expect, the result is entirely fitting for Nastasia’s anguished, ugly-beautiful voice and evocation of a small world relentlessly falling apart. Certainly anyone who’s familiar with Nastasia’s music is no stranger to the subjects of loss, death and doomed relationships. In the gothic tradition of Nick Cave and Marissa Nadler, Nastasia’s voice gives a drunken, strained and measured theatricality to her songs. At times fragile and wistful such as on ‘Odd Said The Doe’, in which a dog that visits her yard becomes the focus of her grief for a lost lover, Nastasia is able to turn her New York brogue to a sinister cry (witness ‘Late Night’s wretched howl of “there’s blood on your face”). Her undisguised accent sets the songs firmly in America, enough to make songs that could be about anyone anywhere seem like strongly rooted Americana.
At times White’s drumming threatens to overpower the songs; ‘Odd Said The Doe’ is swamped by a mess of free-noise drumming that even Yellow Swans would find confusing. But more often than not the combination works. ‘I’ve Been Out Walking’ and ‘In The Evening’ in particular are driven by White’s contribution. At it’s best, White’s contribution is startlingly smart; on ‘Our Discussion’ the percussion rumbles like a storm and pitter-patters like rain beneath a tale of a late night talk between partners in the faltering, stumbling stages of a failing love. Even so, you almost want to hear two other versions of the album – one without the drums and another without the guitar.
You Follow Me is doubtless Nastasia’s darkest album so far, and that’s no mean feat. The songs have been eked out from the bourbon-soaked, drug-hazed night-time of human experience. If the contribution of the drums doesn’t always seem necessary, only rarely does it cause detriment to the songs, and more often it adds muscle to Nastasia’s minimal and fraught acoustic style. Definitely not an album to put on before you go out, it’s the perfect soundtrack to drunken, sorrowful and shameful break-up sex, which perhaps Nastasia had in mind when she called the closing track ‘I Come After You’. The only problem with this scenario is that at close to just half an hour long, it is much too short.
Joanna Newsom & The Ys Street Band EP ••••
As is by now almost expected from Miss Newsom, this EP (with its titular nod to The Boss) is a slightly strange release comprising a track triumphantly performed throughout January’s much-celebrated European tour (‘Colleen’), a reworking of ‘Clam, Crab, Cockle, Cowrie’ and, somewhat unbelievably if you own the wonderful Ys, an extended version of ‘Cosmia’. Two things become immediately apparent when listening to this record, namely how the childlike element of Newsom’s voice has been tempered between albums, and the sheer power of her live performances. ‘Colleen’ is a magnificent song driven by a great beat – an odd thing to say for a folk song – and captivating rhythm. Very haunting and brought to life by a beautiful arrangement, it’s a powerful lead for the EP and exemplary of just how mesmerising her songs can be.
That said, ‘Colleen’ is also evidence of the shortcomings of studio recording. There is a certain something missing in the recording (concerning vocals mainly) that was very prominent on stage. I can’t put my finger on what exactly is absent, but something that made the song unavoidably arresting on stage isn’t quite captured on this recording. Still, it’s unfair to compare an EP to a live performance, especially for those who missed the tour (apologies!). Still, ‘Colleen’ is a wonderful reassurance that new material from everyone’s favourite harpist is just as strong, if not stronger, than that of her very fine album, and for those who haven’t already heard it, an absolute treat.
It’s not the easiest thing to persuade you into the purchase of an EP when the other two tracks are simply reworkings of older numbers. That said, though the new version of ‘Clam, Crab, Cockle, Cowrie’ might seem unnecessary on the surface, it makes its case incredibly well. Highlighting the changes in her singing style, Newsom’s vocal delivery on this version is astounding and the addition of backing vocals an excellent decision. It sounds grown up, giving the illusion that it could be a timeless standard sung by hundreds of others through the years. Having lived with it through all of her touring and writing, Newsom now presents us with the song updated as it means to her in the present day. It’s nothing short of gorgeous, but a word of warning; it might break your heart.
Finally, the sprawling new version of ‘Cosmia’ is double the length (!) of the original, but it’s much more fresh. Slight alterations to the instrumentation of the song give it a completely different feel. Although at times the instrumental movements drown out the beauty of the vocals (especially when the little squeals of “And I miss…” kick in – more of a mixing issue than anything else), on the whole it sounds cleaner and fuller in its new form. It’s interesting that Newsom has chosen to rework the two closing tracks from her albums. Sort of like unravelling the ends that initially tied up two very different pieces of work as if to say that there is no definite ending to them; that her work continues to change and breathe.
Not an essential EP in the sense that it offers enough new material, but absolutely necessary in that it is indicative of the growth and vision of a very important artist. Plus, with all its changes, ‘Cosmia’ is almost a new track. Something to fall quite in love with.
Live at Shepherds Bush Empire ••••
February 11, 2007
For this evening in Shepherds Bush, dear Scout Niblett (or Emma to her mother, though possibly Em) is opening for Bonnie ‘Prince’ Billy (Will to his mother, possibly Bill) and for the first few songs, it seems like an apt choice. She meekly takes to the stage, plugs in, and as the murmurs die down towards the back, woos the sold-out audience with her gentle, awkward strums and fragile delivery in her songs of woe while standing in front of a vacant drumkit.
The crowd hang on her every word as she swoons through selected material from her wondrous album I Am and more recent offering Kidnapped By Neptune. She creeps out ‘No-One’s Wrong (Giricocola)’ which sounds utterly heart rending as she pleads that we all just “reach out for a song!”. This is recited over and over with a restrained growl, almost as if she were partially possessed by the spirit of a certain Mr Cobain.
And it appears that it’s in this direction where the set progresses with Scout turning to her undying appreciation for grunge; the drums are occupied by Kristian Goddard, giving Niblett the freedom to indulge in some unadulterated crazed rock action. Like a wolf in sheep’s clothing, she allows the audience (who are mostly of the chin-stroking beardy variety) a comfy sense of familiarity that she absolutely marvels in turning on its head. The guitar blares out something rotten and just plain filthy, distorted and fuzzed, and accompanied with some deep and heavy primal drumbeats. ‘12 Mile’ ploughs a low-slung, sleazy furrow of caterwauling drums ‘n’ guitars, over which her haunting voice yelps and coos.
Niblett then gives the crowd a glimpse of another feather in her cap full of talents, taking over for a solo drum rendition of some of her personal favourites. ‘Your Beat Kicks Back Like Death’, which infamously includes the fatalistic mantra “we’re all gonna die! / we don’t know when / we don’t know how” – it’s cheerfully delivered and constantly repeated. People don’t know whether to laugh or cry. They seem mostly intrigued and confused, but they don’t turn away for a second. Maybe because it’s true. Or maybe because the sound of Scout’s voice dancing skittering along an infectious drumbeat just sounds so good.
We are all going to die at some point, though. Deal with it, yeah.
This Fool Can Die Now ••••
Nottingham-born maverick Emma ‘Scout’ Niblett is famed for spiky songs, eccentric accompaniment, an acquired-taste voice and a brilliant cover of Althea and Dorothy’s ‘Uptown Top Ranking’. Her three albums to date have showcased a mercurial talent for lunatic storytelling and melodic innovation. This Fool Can Die Now once again sees Steve Albini on production and features the inimitable Will Oldham on guest vocals on four duets.
Not so much kicking the album off as nudging it gently into life with the pointed toe of a cowboy boot, ‘Do You Wanna Be Buried With My People’ is a sprawling country duet, Oldham’s cracked vocals matched by Niblett’s plaintive warmth in a gloriously morose love song. Kiss also finds the two voices playing off each other in mellifluous harmony, until discord stalks up on the song and Niblett unleashes a Minnie Mouse howl while Oldham’s singing turns to barking in response. Intense and loving, it’s just begging to be used in a David Lynch film to soundtrack a late-night bar scene. Then, as you begin to worry that Portland, Oregon, to where Niblett has relocated, has changed her completely, ‘Moon Lake’ reprises the just-drums approach to accompaniment for which she is well known. And ‘Let Thine Heart Be Warned’ is Helium meets Bikini Kill in a mediaeval-flavoured homage to early ‘90s alternative music.
Comparisons with Cat Power have dogged Niblett throughout her career, most notably with the former’s first two dark, violent and feverish albums Dear Sir and Myra Lee. But while Chan Marshall has drifted away from the tortured grunge, Scout Niblett has rarefied the idea. Although at times the results are not a million miles apart – a couple of tracks on This Fool Can Die Now, most notably ‘Baby Emma’ and ‘Yummy’, sound very similar musically to tracks on Moon Pix or You Are Free. Overall, though, Niblett rises above such parallels this time. Simple accompaniments to strained and forced crone-like vocals make for highly affecting songs, such as the intense and brooding ‘Hide & Seek’, whereas sweet strings and straight, unaffected duetting on the cover of ‘River Of No Return’ (first made famous by Marilyn Monroe in the 1954 movie of the same name) make for an utterly charming frontier lullaby.
Quite how Niblett manages to reconcile such sweet homefires songs with her skewed take on grunge on one album is anyone’s guess. But she does. The only really jarring moment is ‘Dinosaur Egg’, quite possibly the most lunatic song you’ll hear this year. It won’t surprise anyone to learn that such lyrical gems as “dinosaur egg, when will you hatch / because I’ve got a million people coming on Friday / and they expect to see a dinosaur not an egg” could only come from the mind of one David Shrigley. But as the song progresses to a plea to her tortured soul to stay hidden for the million visitors, not only does the song begin to make sense in relation to Niblett, but also Cat Power once again comes to mind.
The less notable tracks such as ‘Nevada’ and ‘Yummy’ serve to carry the listener between the standouts, and after ‘Dinosaur Egg’ and ‘Hide & Seek’ the album seems to coast to a close with the final two songs. For the Niblett uninitiated, This Fool Can Die Now serves as a great introduction to her unique and diverse talents. If it loses pace from time to time, that can be forgiven. Some of these songs are the best of her career.
Crystal Visions: The Very Best Of ••½
One of the first women ever to receive the ill-starred title ‘Queen Of Rock ‘n’ Roll’ from Rolling Stone magazine, Stevie Nicks’s long career in the music business has mirrored its own progress from Summer of Love innocence to corporate experience. Going from folky idealism to mainstream success (and excess) as part of troubled behemoth Fleetwood Mac, she emerged as a solo artist in the ‘80s with a series of solo albums which trod a fine line between inspired and naff.
Crystal Visions is Nicks’s third career retrospective in just over a decade and, while it seeks to avoid repetition by mixing familiar hits with newer and live material, the result feels oddly compiled. Dating from a time when age and a combined cocaine and synthesisers habit had started to turn her kittenish voice into a rasp, ‘Edge Of Seventeen’, ‘Stand Back’ and ‘Rooms On Fire’ mould thrilling music from the unmalleable clay of soft rock. More recent efforts such as ‘Planets Of The Universe’ and ‘Sorcerer’ feel joyless in comparison, however, swapping fuck-you self-importance for her rather chewy brand of earth-mother songwriting.
The value to fans of live and re-recorded versions of Nicks’s classics is also a mixed blessing. The addition of Mac songs ‘Rhiannon’ and ‘Dreams’ may be a welcome reminder that few artists could be as haunting, yet it also suggests that the multi-songwriter line-up that caused so much personal tension within Fleetwood Mac made for better quality control than Nicks ever showed on her own. ‘Dreams’ makes it onto the disc in its 2005 re-recording with Deep Dish which ditches the original’s mystery and sensuality in favour of a limp trance makeover. ‘Rhiannon’ fares better, however, in an extended live version which shows that, while she might have lost more than a few top notes, Nicks is still capable of putting on a good show.
Now that vast tranches of ‘80s rock are seen as little more than legends disgracing themselves before they ‘rediscovered their roots’ or a ready source of ironic samples, it would be easy to dismiss Stevie Nicks as an icon of bloated times. Yet for all the attendant self-indulgence, her voice, talent as a writer of memorable pop songs and determination to equal the genre’s big boys – instead of singing backup for them – marks her out for posterity. Her influence on artists as diverse as Courtney Love, Destiny’s Child and The Dixie Chicks shows her mettle, even if this compilation doesn’t.
Completists will appreciate the live recordings and various video clips bundled with Crystal Visions‘s bonus DVD: everyone else, scour the bargain bins for her infinitely better ‘best of’, Timespace.
Beth Nielsen Chapman
Beth Nielsen Chapman’s sixth studio album, Prism, comes three years after her CD of ancient Latin liturgical music, Hymns, was released to critical acclaim and a mixture of awe and rapture from a devoted fan base. However, this new album is more than a collection of songs composed over the last three years; it’s the culmination of a project which had its gestation a decade ago.
Always a deeply spiritual writer and performer, Chapman has taken the soul of her previous album and grounded deeply in a global village of faith and belief. Prism was inspired by the words of the likes of Archbishop Desmond Tutu, Jody Williams and other campaigners of peace and tolerance in an increasingly troubled world. However, it was Tutu’s post-9/11 speech at the Washington National Cathedral that provided the project with its focus – a call for people of all faiths and cultures to embrace their place as members of one human family, ‘The Rainbow People of God’. That humanitarian, multi-faith ethos runs as a constant theme across the album’s two discs.
Prism‘s first CD is a collection of original songs interspersed with two traditional hymns – ‘The Beauty Of The Earth’ and ‘Be Still My Soul’ – both glorious in the simplicity of their arrangements allowing Chapman’s always beautiful and affecting voice to wring every drop of meaning from them. The other tracks take a pleasing folk pop approach but still throw up surprises such as the rap duet on ‘My Religion (Sweet Love)’, written around Atoaji Radellant’s hip hop lyric. Other highlights include the single, ‘Shine All Your Light’, and the poignant ‘Prayers Of An Atheist’, first heard on her recent live DVD.
However, it’s on the second CD that things start to get interesting. Across the dozen tracks Chapman sings in nine different languages, each song reflecting a different faith tradition. Here, English stands alongside Sanskrit, Latin, Hebrew, Zulu, Tibetan, Navajo and Welsh, while Farsi chant makes its presence felt on ‘Bad-E-Saba’ (backed by Persian Tar and Tombak). That the disc remains compelling and absorbing across its eclectic length rather than descending into awkward world music indulgence is testament to the singer’s mesmerising voice. The second disc truly represents a fascinating project on Beth Nielsen Chapman’s part. It’s perhaps a shame that, of Prism’s two sides, it is this one which will inevitably get less airplay and less auditioning time.
Dark Passion Play ••••
Nightwish very nearly disqualified itself from Wears The Trousers in 2005 with the unceremonious firing of lead singer Tarja Turunen. However, two years and a spate of auditions later, Finland’s most popular non-Eurovision export return with a new vocalist and a whole slew of violins for the eighth showcase of their trademark symphonic metal. In their newest incarnation the band skimp on neither ambition nor expense: Dark Passion Play is reportedly the most expensive Finnish album ever made, racking up a cardiac-inducing 500 thousand euro bill via recording sessions at Abbey Road. But is it money well spent?
The album blinkers into life with ‘The Poet & The Pendulum’, a real metal magnum opus in the vein of Pink Floyd’s ‘Shine On You Crazy Diamond’. New lead Anette Olzon warbles beatifically for several seconds before being interrupted by an orchestral crash, signalling the beginning of the band’s more familiar rock theatrics. The song ebbs and surges over 14 inspired minutes, with a frenetic string sequence evoking the hurried melody of Oceanborn’s ‘Moondance’ about seven minutes in. The influence of film scores, which the band’s lyricist Tuomas Holopainen has cited, also becomes evident via a brass section that channels the ‘Lord Of The Rings’ soundtrack.
After this ambitious beginning, Dark Passion Play struggles somewhat to match the quality of its first enterprise. The orchestra is largely put to bed and out come the guitars, diluting the album’s epic quality. However, the remaining standout tracks really are first rate: ‘Bye Bye Beautiful’ is a pleasingly upbeat offering with oddly bleak lyrics, albeit one that features some disconcertingly Van Halen-esque synthesisers. ‘Amaranth’, the album’s second single, is suitably commercial and sticks in your head like a limpet on a West Country beach. ‘Sahara’ is a competent return to heavy metal form with Egyptian nuances while ‘The Islander’ reveals a compelling vocal-driven folk ballad. On a similar theme, the instrumental ‘Last Of The Wilds’ is pure ceilidh with guitars.
Concerns that Olzon would fail to measure up with Turunen appear to be unfounded, though indeed Nightwish have chosen an entirely different direction with the appointment of their new vocalist. Olzon has a softer, less operatic voice than classically trained Turunen, which is often employed to gorgeous effect, particularly during duets with the band’s bassist Marco Hietala. However, the effect can also be less complementary, specifically in the sickly ‘Meadows Of Heaven’ and the near-pop of ‘For The Heart I Once Had’, which could have been salvaged by more powerful vocals. Yet despite these blips and a couple of pedestrian tracks such as ‘Whoever Brings The Night’ and ‘Eva’, Dark Passion Play remains an assured, if predictably unsubtle, addition to the band’s repertoire.
Sing, Memory ••½
Most famous for being the face of a Luke Haines side project for seven years, Sarah Nixey has bided her time and earned a loving fanbase in preparation for Sing, Memory, her debut solo outing. Although Nixey was very much the focal and vocal point of Black Box Recorder, it is generally considered that the real talent behind the band were Auteurs founder Haines and John Moore, formerly of The Jesus & Mary Chain. Although a split has never been official, the band is pretty much defunct these days; their last album Passionoia received lukewarm reviews, Nixey and Moore have married and divorced, and Haines has seemingly moved on with last year’s solo effort, Off My Rocker At The Art School Bop. So, whilst the songwriting talents of Moore and Haines are undisputed, the question remains: does the muse have any talent of her own?
Nixey co-wrote Sing, Memory with producer James Banbury (also a former Auteurs member) and gone are the indie arthouse sounds of Black Box Recorder. Sing, Memory is an electro-pop collection of synth-based songs, half-sung and half-spoken by Nixey. It seems she has been unable to completely abandon her trademark upper class English spoken vocal style that instantly identifies with her former band. Then, when she does sing in the proper sense of the word, the vocals are weak and fail to carry the songs.
Although the tunes are sugary, the themes are bittersweet and noir, giving the album a grown up, if icy, feel. Nixey’s songs of limbo, obsession, psychopaths, liars and the human condition, while arty, lack the satire of Haines’s writing and comparisons that highlight this missing element are inevitable. Sound-wise, we are reminded of Saint Etienne and early Goldfrapp…even Kylie Minogue’s weaker moments. Former single ‘Strangelove’ is the poppiest track, appearing here in a remixed form, with other highlights being the glam sounds of ‘Hotel Room’ and the rather creepy ‘The Collector’. Two covers put in an appearance – the Human League’s ‘Black Hit Of Space’ and John Peel favourites The Names’s ‘Nightshift’. The former closes the album on an upbeat note and the latter is an oddly bleepy version that, while inventive, doesn’t really add to the album as a whole. One would expect a Depeche Mode cover to be more appropriate, given Sing, Memory‘s predominantly dark, 1980s electronica feel.
For a debut album this is a considerable effort, even moreso given all the assumptions that Nixey was merely a singer. However, Sing, Memory isn’t strong enough to be a dance contender and is too austere to attract the chart listeners that Sophie Ellis-Bextor did with her stylish yet fun take on pop. There’s a little too much subtlety here to keep things interesting throughout, and Nixey’s detached ice queen demeanour obstructs a more gleeful poppy approach. That said, given the current trend of post-mod and retro ‘80s sounds, to write the album’s commercial prospects off entirely would be a mistake.
What’s The Time Mr Wolf ••••
London-based indie rock trio The Noisettes have really been making a name for themselves this year. Pushed by the media, hailed by the likes of E4 and NME, they are in for a shot at rock stardom. And not surprisingly; their post-modern, energetic and individual debut What’s The Time Mr Wolf can be counted among the best releases of 2007 so far. With her dynamic bursts of rock kinetics and theatricality, lead singer and bassist Shingai Shoniwa could arguably stake a claim in the pantheon of truly great rock frontwomen, though it’s clearly early days yet. And indeed, why rush? There’s plenty of fun to be had here as, together with lead guitarist Dan Smith and drummer Jamie Morrison, Shoniwa takes us on a noisy and original journey.
Bluesy opener and Noisettes anthem ‘Don’t Give Up’ provides an immediate foot-stomping introduction to their trademark sound. Shoniwa’s vibrant and dramatic vocal intro announces itself as a force to be reckoned with. Her musicianship, too, is unquestionably accomplished. Her bass is cleverly utilised, weaving closely with the guitar line and dropping in and out of the song for maximum power effect. Previous single ‘Scratch Your Name’ is equally strong, despite its fairly traditional rock intro with syncopated drums. Shoniwa’s delicate but angry vocals dramatically propel the song onwards and upwards into more theatrical territory. The Noisettes may be fairly restricted when it comes to instrumentation, sticking to a palette of guitar, bass, drums and vocals, but they deliver impressive variety with effective use of dynamics and rhythm. They certainly know how to rock, and, more importantly, to be unpredictable in the most refreshing way.
Speaking of unexpected twists, ‘Count Of Monte Christo’ surprises with its stripped-down acoustic approach showing a completely different side to the band, exposing Shoniwa and Smith’s vocals in an affecting call-and-response arrangement. At one point all instruments magically fade out to leave just the softly interacting vocals. Recent single ‘Sister Rosetta (Capture The Spirit)’ ups the ante once more with a nod to Goldfrapp’s stomping glamour. It’s a simple song, sure, but one with a powerful chorus buoyed by Shoniwa’s closely-miked vocals. ‘Bridge To Canada’ is a tightly-wound, thespian speak-sing number with abstract lyrics, chaotic instrumentation and plenty of good old-fashioned rhythm. ‘IWE’, too, is stuffed full of random chord structures and organised mayhem with Shinowa’s screamy yelping lending an urgent but playful edge.
Elsewhere, ‘Cannot Even (Break Free)’ and ‘Hierarchy’ are well worth a listen. The former is an intimate, abstract jazzy track that’s cathartic and yet positively lost, while the latter is a much more melodic and surprisingly mature recording than most on the album, even throwing in a bit of an experiment with vocal panning. A hidden outro provides an emotional exit and, all too suddenly, the party’s over. A word to the wise though, as convincing as The Noisettes may be on record, they are triple energetic on stage. Do not miss the chance to see Shoniwa and co. live if theatre-rock is what you’re after.
Can I Keep This Pen? ••••
Emerging in 2002 from the ‘city that never sleeps’, underrated NYC rappers Northern State have climbed another step or two on the ladder of success with third album Can I Keep This Pen?. The all-girl trio (Spero, Sprout and Hesta Prynn, seriously!) manage to combine guitars, funky drumbeats, synth sounds and high school rap to create an all-round great album that gets better with every listen. Initially they sound like they’re clowning around with a silly take on ‘The Fresh Prince Of Bel-Air’, but on closer inspection this is, both lyrically and musically, a real triumph. The variety of instruments and sounds put to use on this album confounds expectations, pushing boundaries with glee. You’ll hear your classic indie guitar and drums, you’ll hear your sprinkled electro sounds, and then the icing on the cake is the rap. Though defiantly of the bubblegum variety, Northern State out-feist the best of their contemporaries with a sound that bitchslaps Gwen Stefani’s ‘Hollaback Girl’ and then some.
Opening with ‘Mic Tester’, the album explodes with drums and Spero’s energetic rapping before the imaginative synth sounds start to appear. This, alongside the trio’s boisterous, big-upping lyrics makes for a track so catchy it’s almost pure pop and paves the way for the rest of the album. ‘Sucka Mofo’ and ‘Oooh Girl’ benefit from the distinctive production of Beastie Boy Ad Rock, while ‘Better Already’ stands out most as the star inclusion with its electric guitar intro and crashing chorus. After thirteen exuberant songs, closing number ‘Fall Apart’ (which features a guest appearance from the astonishingly talented guitarist Kaki King and, get this, a harp!), proves that Northern State can do slower ballad-ish rap with panache, never sounding too mushy or losing their distinct sound.
Anyone who thought they knew rap, think again. Northern State don’t play the game the way we’ve grown accustomed to. Instead of abiding by the rules that people paint for rap – gangsters, life in the hood, violence, guns, hefty men with heavy bling – Can I Keep This Pen? is quirky and endearing, sounding just like three girls who’ve just stepped out of high school and reckon they can take on the world. Upon your first hearing you’d be forgiven for thinking that the whole thing was a joke. It’s not every day you hear a rap about how “your mom drives an ice cream truck,” but that’s the charm of this album. You don’t hear music like this every day on the radio or TV. Can you name all the girl groups on the UK rap scene? No?
It’s clear that Northern State is just what music needs, on both sides of the Atlantic. They rap about politics, friendship and being the coolest kids in school; they have all the attitude and American funk befitting of New Yorkers, and its influence is inescapable throughout the album, seeping through perfectly on every track. Can I Keep This Pen? sounds raw, fresh off the street and, above all, truly original. It’s a grower, yes, but deserves to be heard by anyone with an open mind about music.