Filed under: album, back issues, live, review | Tags: alan pedder, alex parks, alisha's attic, andrew stewart, anja mccloskey, anna claxton, dolly parton, helen griffiths, hugh armitage, james gurney, liz phair, lynn roberts, miss pain, nerina pallot, paul the girl, paul woodgate, petra jean phillipson, piney gir, pretty girls make graves, rod thomas, rose polenzani, shelly poole, sophie richards, teasing lulu, the pipettes, trevor raggatt, zeena parkins
The following reviews were all published on our old website between May 2005 and December 2006.
The silver-tongued Miss Pallot (as in mallow) sure is dicing with those titular flames on this, her second album and first since 2001’s precocious Dear Frustrated Superstar. As a collection of songs, Fires warms and cools the soul in equal measures, as her sweet soaring vocals and clear, crisp harmonies sometimes sour on bitter lyrical content. Like an assortment of chocolates missing its label, while most songs are colourfully packaged enough to please the aesthetic palette, some are just average and others may leave a slightly bitter aftertaste.
First single, ‘Everybody’s Gone To War’, is the most obvious talking point of the album. Musically, it’s a rather mixed bag, drawing on influences falling squarely under the pop/rock umbrella, yet raining down with the folk-like sentiments of a protest song. However honourable her intention, you can’t help feeling that her desire to cast religious and political aspersions within a high-class pop framework merely complicates and detracts from her message. Pop with a conscience has always been a risky business, with its clear winners (Black Eyed Peas’ ‘Where Is The Love?’) and losers (see Jewel’s entire 0304 album), and in this setting Pallot’s ‘controversial’ lyrics seem only twee and a shade condescending. Indeed, this may well have been better digested as two separate songs.
Elsewhere, the road to ‘Damascus’ is a labour of uncertainty. As a mid-tempo spiral of conversion to atheism, it’s surprisingly meaty and goes for the jugular, highlighting the hypocrisy in believing in something for the sake of it alone. In the past, Pallot has never been shy of using the odd expletive, and this one may well be slapped with a parental advisory. The derivative but fun ‘Geek Love’ could have been lifted from any US teen TV drama soundtrack. Its awkward chording and pensive reflection marks it out for the moment of first carnal fumblings, but just as those visuals would be censored to fit the PG13 watershed, the song leaves you wanting. The more impressive Heart Attack has a gleefully oozing bassline, integral to the song’s structure that is designed to reflect the nature of an infarction – the chorus cuts through the regular pulse of the verse as a shuddering arrhythmia complete with vocals that constrict then heighten and finally explode. This and the ethereal closer, ‘Nickindia’, pick out Nerina as a determined femme fatale.
Overall, while Fires is intended as a light to guide through various directions, forks and U-turns, as with all journeys, there are points you might like to dwell on a little longer and a few that are better bypassed altogether.
originally published September 7th, 2005
Live at Bush Hall •••••
November 28th, 2005
After several years spent licking the wounds from the rigors of abuse at the hands of one the ‘majors’, 2005 was finally good to Nerina Pallot. This time taking the independent route, her second album, Fires, garnered both critical acclaim and serious national airplay. Several high-profile support slots followed and Pallot wound up opening for the likes of Jamie Cullum, Sheryl Crow and Suzanne Vega, with the occasional headliner on the London club scene. This led to the desire to hold an end of year celebration, something special for the artist and her obsessively loyal and rapidly growing fanbase. Certainly, from the moment she took to the stage to the strains of a string quartet, it was clear that the sell-out crowd were indeed in for a memorable treat.
The opening number – a string rearrangement of her debut single ‘Patience’ from ill-fated first album Dear Frustrated Superstar – set the tone for the evening, transforming the jaunty pop number into something bearing menace and tension, with the strings used to maximum effect demonstrating Pallot’s skill as an arranger as well as a composer. Although this was the most overtly orchestral treatment of the evening, the songs that followed did not fall into the trap of using the strings simply as keyboard-pad replacements. Rather, the orchestrations by both Ned Bingham and Pallot herself added a depth to the music that transcended simple melody and chord structure.
With the setlist taking in the breadth of both her albums, Pallot remarked on what a pleasure it was to perform the earlier songs since the “pots of big record company money” that was lavished on it had allowed many of those tracks to have lush string backing. This was her first opportunity to give them such an airing in a live context, and it was clear that she was enjoying the experience, characteristically throwing herself into the performance – whether on acoustic guitar or a baby grand piano. Pallot, wearing a classy black ensemble suited to the ambience and the venue’s ornate interior, seemed initially overawed by the rapturous reception she received. She professed being at an uncharacteristic loss for words, although soon loosened up and delivered her now trademark between-song blethering.
Pallot’s consummate skill as a performer drew her rapt audience through the emotional and musical ebb and flow of the songs, whether the short solo set in the middle of the evening or the ensemble pieces; the awed silence which accompanied the music contrasting with the enthusiastic applause. A moving performance of ‘Damascus’ particularly impressed, with the strings adding extra poignancy to the music and lyrics. Punctuated by a switch from legato to pizzicato strings, the song’s middle eight formed a veritable danse macabre of regrets for lost love. The set was drawn to a wistful conclusion with the beautiful ‘My Last Tango’. The recorded version, which closes out …Superstar, features a sumptuous string backing and tonight was done full justice, the closing notes met with a standing ovation.
With such a response an encore was assured, and when Pallot returned alone to the stage, she pulled off a tender rendition of the Joy Division classic ‘Love Will Tear Us Apart’. Unbelievably, her treatment drew hitherto unheard depths of poignancy out of what is already a paean to the pain of loss. Two new songs – ‘Everything’s Illuminated’ (almost certainly a reference to the Jonathan Safran Foer novel and new Elijah Wood film) and ‘I’m Gonna Be A Man’ – brought the evening to a stunning conclusion, boding well for her next disc. Finally satiated, the audience spilled out into the bitterly cold West London streets suffused with the inner glow of knowing that they had participated in a very special evening indeed.
originally published December 12th, 2005
Live at Regent’s Park Open Air Theatre •••••
September 3rd, 2006
It’s been a busy year since Wears The Trousers reviewed Nerina Pallot’s sophomore album, Fires. She’s picked up the record deal she richly deserves, seeing her self- financed disc reissued with what Pallot herself refers to as “a bit of a tit job”, a top twenty single and an appearance on ‘Top Of The Pops’ before it went the way of the dodo. This concert, therefore, has a coming of age feel, and what a stage to do it on! The Open Air Theatre at London’s magnificent Regent’s Park provides a magical setting, with its grotto-like entrances, canvas canopy dwarfed by trees festooned with fairy lights and a stage that’s clothed in lush green grass – okay, so it’s actually Astroturf, but the effect is the same.
After an excellent support set from London circuit regular Jon Allen, Pallot takes to the stage dressed in a floaty pink chiffon number with sparkly shoes and a pink orchid in her hair, looking every inch the faerie queen. As it happens, the weather is balmy – in direct contrast to the previous day’s torrential downpours – and the breeze, when it comes, simply ruffles Pallot’s hair and dress as if she were doing a video shoot with a costly, well-aimed wind machine. In fact, all aspects of the evening conspire to enhance the mood. Pallot’s extended band line-up also pays dividends, allowing greater depth to be added to even the most authentic recreations of her album’s arrangements. Even the distinctive Jon Brion production of ‘Damascus’ is flawlessly brought to life. Where required, the band lend a greater muscularity and authority to the rockier numbers and a real-life string section will always be preferable to a Korg keyboard, however well played.
Songs are mostly culled from her two albums, but there are some which have not yet reached vinyl. ‘Everything Is Illuminated’ (inspired by the Jonathan Safran Foer novel) is a reliable stomper while Heidi is proof positive that never seriously pissing off an up-and-coming songwriter is often a wise principle. There’s a cover too – and an unusual one at that – in the shape of Frank Mills from the musical ‘Hair’. With its gentle string backing, however, decency was mercifully preserved. All too soon, though, the evening was over and Pallot closed proceedings with a solo piano version of new single ‘Sophia’, leaving the gathered acolytes with a sense of having witnessed a rite of passage.
Nerina Pallot has long beguiled her audiences with a down-to-earth openness under-girded with an intelligent and mischievous sense of humour that perfectly complements her writing and performing skills. As ever, such qualities were in evidence tonight, but they were joined by something else – a palpable leap in confidence that perhaps stems from seeing her vision and perseverance acknowledged and rewarded among a much broader audience. A coming of age indeed and some- thing that bodes well for audiences who catch her as she tours through the autumn. On this occasion, as Shakespeare himself might just have said, “well met by moonlight, proud Nerina!”
originally published September 17th, 2006
Of the few avant-garde harpists around, the influence of New Yorker Zeena Parkins is perhaps the most widely felt, ever changing our perception of this traditionally formal, beautiful instrument. During her 20+ year career, Parkins has racked up some impressive collaborations – most notably with Björk (that’s her sound stamped all over Vespertine), Ikue Mori, John Zorn and Bang On A Can – as well as composing her own, often astonishing material. Despite (or perhaps owing to) her prolific work rate, Necklace is Parkins’ first solo release in over five years and showcases four very different compositions, two of which feature the Eclipse String Quartet (one half of whom are Zeena’s Juilliard-trained sisters Sara and Maggie). Previous works have successfully melded the natural sounds of acoustic instruments with all sorts of strange percussive objects, such as alligator clips, nails, rubber tubing and glass jars, and, in keeping with this, Necklace has a few surprises of its own.
Opener ‘Persuasion’ is a powerfully intense, 17-minute long epic. Urgent and bleak, its most disconcerting feature is the implementation of some unusual panning. Sounds move from side to side within the stereo field in a fast changing rhythm, while the strings veer from piano to fortissimo in a matter of seconds. The recording of the dynamics is extraordinarily well defined, giving a dramatic and effective composition, albeit in a pointedly uncoordinated manner. The instruments follow an unpredictable and dissonant pattern that only they know, sometimes breaking from frail vibrato structures straight into scratchy and sliding string passages.
More unusual still is ‘16 Feet + Cello’, the title of which should be taken as entirely literal. While Zeena’s sister Maggie takes to the cello, the percussion is provided by eight dancers from the French performing arts collective Compagnie Sui-Generis. Here, Parkins toys with the recorded sounds of tapping, running and squeaking shoes accompanied by moody experimental cello. Through searching to find musical structures in the accumulation of unusual noise, the piece achieves something quite remarkable, though undoubtedly of an acquired taste.
Played alone on an acoustic harp, ‘Solo For Neil’ really shows off Parkins’s distinctive playing style as she explores her instrument in rapidly undulating melodies and chord structures, unafraid to use the harp percussively. Finally, ‘Visible / Invisible’ is a striking composition presented in three parts. First up, ‘The Hand’ is a lively adventure into the myriad ways in which string instruments can be used. Percussive sounds mix with sliding notes and plucked passages; notes in the higher frequencies are contrasted by what could be described as a dark moaning rhythm, while a distressed and uncomfortable melody is played without any sign of urgency. Middle section ‘Anamnesis’ is a spooky experience, fairly successfully contrasting different frequencies with dark cello sounds, while ‘The Necklace’ focuses on more dissonant structures.
Honest and refreshingly unpretentious, Zeena Parkins has created another avant-garde jewel. Long may she continue!
originally published October 14th, 2006
Live at Bush Hall ••
October 20th, 2005
Curiosity, it has to be said, is a bit of a risky business. Aside from disposing of our feline friends, it can lead (albeit less fatally) to some sorry situations, and yet life would be much the poorer without it. It’s with this caveat in mind that I offered to review this show, the third and final performance on a teeny tiny tour to air the new album from a genuine oddity. Alex Parks, the black sheep of the 2003/04 Fame Academy alumni, is back after a near two-year hiatus with Honesty, an album of originals and co-writes with the likes of Alisha’s Attic’s Karen Poole, Shakespear’s Sister Marcella Detroit and veteran British folkie, Judie Tzuke. Though I confess to holding a rather cynical view of the worth of TV search-for-a-star clones, there’s something sweetly irregular about Parks that has me wanting to be impressed, even proven wrong.
Sadly my suspicions are confirmed. Despite having started a singing career at the age of 14 (she’s 21 now) and fronting up for millions of viewers week after week at the Academy, Parks is hugely lacking in confidence. As the night goes on she fidgets, mumbles and looks terrifically embarrassed – and what a stretch it is too. Perhaps over-eager to distance herself from the bland cover versions comprising much of her rush-released debut, Introduction, Parks’s set is devoid of any sympathy for her audience. Song after song from Honesty is bashfully unfurled, which might have been all well and good if anyone had actually heard the thing (bar the first single ‘Looking For Water’), but in the context of the night was hardly the wisest of moves. As well as hampering the evening’s flow, the constant fluctuation from ‘Dawson’s Creek’ background ballads to Evanescence and Lavigne-like teen angst rock chants seemed to simply weary and confuse those in attendance.
Finally, after an apology from Parks for playing too much new material, the last song of a long slog was thrown like a bone to the crowd hungry for recognition. Suddenly awoken to how good she can be, they swayed and open-mouthedly emoted to her engaging debut single ‘Maybe That’s What It Takes’, waving aloft their glowing mobile phones in place of the more traditional lighter. Sadly, it was too little too late, and with nary so much as an encore, she slipped off into the darkness. There’s no doubting that Parks can sing. There’s an exceptional quality and depth to her voice, but while that was enough to see her graduate with honours from the Fame Academy, sharper instincts are needed if she’s to avoid this ruthless industry’s chop. Such a fate would be a wicked irony indeed for someone who started out in a band named One Trick Pony.
originally published November 7th, 2005
Those Were The Days •
Oh dear. Just when it was all going so right for Dolly Parton, she’s lost her footing in the farmyard and recorded this insipid collection of bluegrass-inflected covers of songs from the ‘60s and ‘70s. And while it probably seemed like a good idea to rope in original artists where possible, seasoned with more contemporary singers where not; it really, really wasn’t. Not since 1996’s Treasures has she seemed so uninspired – a not entirely coincidental link, as that too was an all-covers album over-egged by an all-star cast. But before I go on, I must confess that daring to aim criticism at the Dolly of immortal legend just makes me feel mean and seedy, low down and dirty. But having tried to come to terms with this album, it’s down to the gutter I go and I’ll have my meths straight up.
Parton is, of course, famous for insisting that she ain’t no dumb blonde, which is almost certainly true, but she’s woefully misjudged this gut-wrenching cash cow. Where her trio of albums from 1999’s The Grass Is Blue to 2002’s Halos & Horns were packed with nicely nuanced, if faintly schmaltzy bluegrass ballads, Those Were The Days heaps on the saccharine by the noxious, suffocating bucketload. Worse still, some of the gaps in between the songs are filled with giggling Barbie-esque studio outtakes of Parton bantering with her vast array of fellow duettists, who include Lee Ann Womack, Judy Collins, Norah Jones, Nickel Creek, Alison Krauss, Mindy Smith, Kris Kristofferson, Joe Nichols and Keith Urban.
As far as the songs go, ‘Crimson & Clover’ is quite nice, and ‘Blowin’ In The Wind’ is, well, breezy I guess. But ‘Me & Bobby McGee’ is turgid and I know Cat Stevens isn’t real big in Texas these days, but Dolly’s ‘Where Do The Children Play’ is really something else, despite Yusuf himself chiming in on guitar. There’s even a ‘Turn Turn Turn’ for the crystal meth generation, while every trace of pathos in Joni Mitchell’s ‘Both Sides Now’ is mercilessly throttled by a high-speed banjo workout so inanely cheerful, it’s what an aerobics class in Hell must sound like. And seeing as that’s exactly where I’m headed after writing this review, I might as well finish the bottle.
originally published January 23rd, 2006
Paul The Girl
Little Miss Weird •••½
Paul The Girl is a girl from London whose real name may or may not be Paul, but that’s not important. What’s crucial is that her songs sound like witch’s mantras – dramatic, sinister and often frighteningly primal – deconstructing any familiar blues and jazz influences and rendering them utterly bizarre when combined with a fiercely DIY ethic and cabaret quirk. As much as Tori Amos was cited as America’s flame-haired answer to Kate Bush, so Paul The Girl could perhaps be described as schizophrenia’s answer to Tori Amos. But Little Miss Weird features a whole host of other influences, too. From the ghost of Jimi Hendrix to The White Stripes and James Brown, Paul The Girl sounds akin to all yet none of these; in fact, she might well have redefined the notion of a singular talent.
Little Miss Weird is the work of a manic genius, and what an apt title! Singing like a woman possessed and ever so slightly scorned, one might half expect to hear the crunch of tendons beneath her feet as her head spins on its axis – something that would not seem amiss in this bold, peculiar offering. From the very first song, the malevolent ‘The Little Girl Who Loved Down The Lane’, Paul The Girl stays very much on the dark side of every note, her fingers clasped around the neck of rock ‘n’ roll and squeezing until all you thought was real and right is dead. Inexplicably, however, the seething mass of sound you are left with is something rather likeable.
Although there are points during ‘We Ain’t Gonna Lay’ and the folk-inspired ‘Bricks’ that Paul comes oddly close to sounding soothing and pondering, barminess is very much the order of the day. Her sneering yet soulful, seductive yet innocent performances dominate the album, from ‘Gimme Rest’, wherein she channels the spirit of a Russian dancer with Tourettes, to the desolate ‘Circumstantial Blues’. Everyday lyrics are freshly painted with a new shade of wry mysticism as fast moving fingers shudder in and out of ballsy riffs and haunting melodies.
Needless to say, Little Miss Weird stands up to be counted completely as it is and does not beat around any bush to make its point. Admittedly, it’s more like a piece of theatre than something you can boogie your socks off to, but there remains no doubt that this is an album as hypnotic as it is thought-provoking. Quite what the average listener will make of it, however, is rather less certain. Having said that, it’s plain to see that Paul The Girl doesn’t care what anyone thinks, though she’s worth having an opinion on, just in case.
originally published September 20th, 2006
Impeach My Bush ••••
Vilified in some quarters of the music press as an infantile pottymouth and celebrated in others as a genuinely subversive interrogator of gender/sex roles, Peaches demonstrates yet again that it’s possible to be both things simultaneously. Though thematically similar to previous releases, Impeach My Bush marks a more complete marriage between electroclash and rock than ever before – Josh Homme of Queens Of The Stone Age provides a few riffs, while The Gossip’s Beth Ditto and archetypal rocker girl Joan Jett guest – with most tracks an addictive mix of minimal beats and powerhouse guitars.
Peaches herself describes the record as “an album for the masses, a social album – to challenge, educate and encourage”. Her manifesto as such is based upon a refusal to willingly accept the rigid representation of gender and sexuality found in mainstream cultural products, in which hetero/homosexuality is presented as a binary opposition and male and female gender roles are clearly demarcated. And so we find the former music teacher continuing her quest to challenge traditional (and predominantly male) notions, or, in the case of ‘Two Guys (For Every Girl)’, flip them on their head entirely.
As she did on ‘Back It Up, Boy’ from 2003’s Fatherfucker, her aim is to open straight male eyes to the taboo of anal sex. Brushing away the guy-girl-girl fantasy threesome that blares out from the pages of every Loaded / Maxim / Zoo-style rag, Peaches calls on men to be more adventurous, with Ditto’s help on the chorus. Gleefully firing out demands, she paints an explicit picture as she directs the action on her own terms: “Just one thing I can’t compromise / I wanna see you work it, guy on guy”, and later, “Just remember, an ass is an ass / so roll on over, have yourselves a blast”. It’s gloriously filthy, funny and just what parental advisory stickers were made for.
Despite the suggestion of Impeach My Bush that Peaches has extended her reach outside of gender politics to encompass matters of national political importance, this proves to be a little misleading. Only on the 48-second opening track ‘Fuck Or Kill’ is the president really in her sights. The album’s opening salvo – “I’d rather fuck who I want than kill who I am told to” – is suggestive of the Bush administration’s aggressive military politics and its ultra-conservative sexual outlook. But even if she hasn’t really changed the spots on her leopard print thong, the record at least demonstrates an awareness on Peaches’s part that she’s in danger of being – or perhaps already has been – stuck with the label ‘that filthy lady’. On ‘Stick It To The Pimp’, she toys with these expectations, playing the role of an indignant prostitute sick of male intimidation and fighting back. It’s a rousing end to a rousing – and sometimes arousing – album.
Of course, as with most politically and/or sexually subversive artists, Peaches is preaching primarily to the converted. That’s not to say, for example, that all Peaches fans are into M/M/F three-ways, but she is the artist of choice at alternative queer nights the world over and her support slots have tended to be with like-minded alternative / electro artists (though there are some exceptions, like Marilyn Manson). However, if the former Ms Merrill Nisker can get even one avowedly hetero guy looking at his “nasty little brother” (‘Two Guys’ again) in a new way, or one young voter wondering about the sexually oppressive policies of the Bush administration, then she has succeeded in her aim. As for those of us who don’t need convincing that sex is fun and Bush is bad, we can just dance to the beats, laugh at the jokes and get lost in the glorious racket.
originally published July 23rd, 2006
Live at the Forum, Kentish Town ••••
October 13, 2006
If it wasn’t all that obvious beforehand, tonight’s show makes it perfectly clear – immediately apparent even – that Peaches is quite the formidable performer. My first glimpse of her is at an angle that’s admittedly not all that becoming, the phrase ‘in the flesh’ never more appropriate when looking up into the crotch of a tiny silver jumpsuit as its wearer dry humps the banister she’s straddling. With her trademark silver mask glinting like a madcap mirrorball, the crowd goes (quite literally) bonkers as she begins with the charming ‘Tent In Your Pants’, a ditty about stiffies, prompting a raunchy and raucous set undoubtedly best viewed with tongue stuck firmly in cheek, though not necessarily your own.
On this pitifully brief tour, Peaches is being egged on by her fabulously androgynous oestrogen-fuelled all-girl supergroup The Herms, comprising drummer Samantha Moloney (who earnt her stripes in Hole and Motley Crüe), ex-Courtney Love guitarist Radio Sloan and JD Samson of Le Tigre notoriety on keytar and sequencing. In their coordinating costumes, The Herms make a wonderfully choreographed addition to the unfolding mayhem as Peaches raids and massacres her entire back catalogue with riotous glee. From the oh-so-subtle anti-government sentiments of ‘Impeach My Bush’ – imagine Dubya cower as she screams “I’d rather fuck who I want than kill who I’m told to” – to promising that there are ‘Two Guys (For Every Girl)’, via instructing those assembled to proudly shake their dix, it’s a hardcore assault on the ears in every sense of the phrase.
As she climaxes with the sinister sexuality of ‘Back It Up, Boys’ and ‘Fuck The Pain Away’, one thing is clear; Peaches is a woman who is certainly never going to apologise for her own or anyone else’s behaviour. A refreshing and tantalising hybrid of Marc Bolan glam, bollock-grabbing sexuality and futuristic gyrating femininity, she’s a huge ball of energy. As she commands her audience to climb the sweaty walls that encase them, a couple of thousand bodies work up a lather in her sublimely perverse spectacle, enslaved to the death-defying force atop the PA system. They are willing participants in the purely dirty electro rock ‘n’ roll opera that passes before them in an eye-popping collage of giant inflatable penises, kitsch medal ceremonies, small pink bicycles and even smaller pink bra and panty sets.
Iconic feminist or a downright barmy nymphomaniac? Whatever your opinion, Peaches is avowedly among the most powerfully entertaining artists around. Don’t dare miss her next time!
originally published October 24th, 2006
Somebody’s Miracle •••½
What would have happened if The Beatles had had an online fan forum between Revolver and Sgt Pepper’s? Or to Dylan when he went electric? Chances are they’d have still created work worthy of their genius, but the internet has stripped away the distance between creator and critic. Today you can send e-mails to artists with your opinions on their work, and it’s increasingly likely they’ll actually read it. Don’t believe me? Check out Adam Duritz’s forum on the Counting Crows website, a rare taste of a songwriter giving his admirers a taste of their own tongue-lashing. Is the musician just an avatar for the neuroses of their more, shall we say, ardent appreciators, or someone articulating their inner emotions for cathartic reasons? 99 of 100 artists will tell you, correctly, that they make music for themselves first. If we like it too, great. They’re not our personal troubadours. Get over it. Move on. Liz Phair has. Just listen to ‘Everything To Me’ on which she sings: “…you never gave a damn about all of those things I did to please you / all that you wanted, you found somewhere else / and nothing could drag you away from yourself / do you really know me at all?”
I haven’t followed Phair since 1993’s Exile In Guyville. I haven’t queued in the rain for her gigs and I wouldn’t frame her plectrum and place it above my pillow, turn around four times and chant her name before I sleep. For all the indignant chorus of disapprovals and shouts of “sell out!” she’s suffered, an album of new material from Phair is something to be respected, if not treasured. If you don’t like it, don’t listen to it. You’ll be missing out though because Somebody’s Miracle is intelligent, adult power-pop. It’s rock in a suede glove, and it’s going to cost you a fortune because to really appreciate it you’ll need to buy a convertible, put the top down and crank up the stereo; this album is a summer stomper. It pushes all the right buttons at all the right times. There are Beach Boys backing vocals, minor chords when you expect major, stop-start verse/chorus structures and sweet vocals about love, sex and more love. It’s equal parts Aimee Mann, Blondie, Fountains Of Wayne and Sheryl Crow and, occasionally, a little of Phair’s back-catalogue spikiness. The title track, ‘Stars & Planets’ and the glorious ‘Count On My Love’ are songs to give your heart to. If you don’t tap your feet, I’ll eat mine.
Cons? The album pacing isn’t always brilliant, the two opening tracks don’t get out of the blocks and it’s two songs too long, but I’m not going to camp outside her flat and demand she changes it for me. It’s her album, her songs and her feelings. I’m just along for the ride. If the top’s down, I’ll be happy. Hell, I may even e-mail Liz and let her know.
originally published March 11th, 2006
Petra Jean Phillipson
Extended Play EP ••••
Former Free Association vocalist and veteran of many an immemorable band, Petra Jean Phillipson is finally getting it all her own way. With her debut solo album Notes On: Love due out at the end of June, this four track teaser indicates a stellar reinvention. With an affecting vocal style not unlike our other favourite PJ kicking back with Billie Holiday, these bluesy, spooky songs do not shy away from acknowledging their roots. Indeed, the initial recording sessions for the album were done with longtime PJ Harvey collaborators, Rob Ellis and Head but, perhaps fearing these similarities and the inevitable comparisons would overshadow her efforts, Petra scrapped the sessions, returning to London to try again with her friend, former Verve guitarist Si Tong.
Regardless, ‘Independent Woman’ could easily have been plucked from Harvey’s often misunderstood Is This Desire?, whereas ‘Billy Steaks’ would not have sounded out of place on CocoRosie’s La Maison De Mon Rêve. ‘Play Play’ is astounding, however, and all her own. With a bewitching cooing hook, it undulates with quiet menace. ‘Dead Eyes’, too, is exquisitely mournful in the same vein as something from Beth Gibbons’s Out Of Season. It weaves along seductively before disintegrating into a thrillingly arrythmic clanging of bells and rattles.
In between the release of Extended Play and the now eagerly-anticipated Notes On: Love, Petra embarks on a small tour supporting Turin Brakes, calling at Birmingham Academy (June 9), Glasgow Barrowlands (June 10), Manchester Ritz (June 12) and London Shepherd’s Bush Empire (June 13).
originally published May 21st, 2005
Petra Jean Phillipson
Notes On: Love •••
Warning! Do not listen to Notes On: Love on an otherwise happy and bright summer’s day. The chances are that this debut solo album from Petra Jean Phillipson will pass you by completely between squinty looks up to the sun. A more appropriate setting would be within the cold, dark spaces of a winter’s evening as you lie cocooned and thoughtful. This is an album for which the setting must be perfectly aligned. It’s obscure and delicate sounds are reminiscent of Adem, and these are coupled with wavering, haunting vocals, not enormously discrepant from those of bearded folkie Devendra Banhart. Keen ears may even recognise Phillipson’s vocals, though distinctive in kind, from her earlier work with artists such as Martina Topley-Bird, The Beta Band, Mad Professor, Marc Almond and David Holmes (Phillipson was formerly the lead vocalist for his briefly successful Free Association collective).
So, once ensconced in your hiemal surrounds, earphones close by, and thus the mood perfectly set, Notes On: Love will take you on a closing journey through the eight-year chapter of Phillipson’s life for which it has been gestating. It’s a chapter told through intimate songs, curious attention-grabbing lyrics (e.g. “I want to have a penis for a day”) and sounds that inevitably warrant comparisons to Billie Holiday and the UK’s more famous PJ, Ms Harvey. Standout tracks include the Harvey-esque ‘Independent Woman’, ‘Nothing If Not Writing Time’, which is reminiscent of Martha Wainwright’s lovely ascending melodies, and ‘Into My Arms’, a Nick Cave cover into which Phillipson’s voice delicately wanders with much success.
No doubt owing a great deal to the production talents of former Verve guitarist Si Tong, the clean and uncluttered atmosphere works well with the album’s foreboding. However, Notes On: Love won’t be to everyone’s taste. It’s certainly in no hurry to become familiar, particularly during the second half for which it is harder to find time. Phillipson herself admits to the dark, heavy tones that shade and sometimes overshadow this release. Yet it is these sentiments that are precisely what she was aiming for – the challenges to the listener originate from what are indeed her notes on love. Thus, just as love can be immense and bewitching, so can this collection.
originally published September 9th, 2005
The Piney Gir Country Roadshow
Hold Yer Horses ••••
Piney Gir is the alter ego of Kansas City-born Angela Penhaligon, who offers up half an hour of diverse country stylings in the form of her second album, Hold Yer Horses, co-credited with her Country Roadshow bandmates. Not just a peculiar handle for the sake of being quirky, Piney Gir is the name Penhaligon gave herself as a child with ‘Gir’ being her attempt at ‘girl’ and the meaning of ‘Piney’ being lost to posterity. It all hints at a sense of fun and a rare ability to not take herself too seriously, as was confirmed by her riotous 2004 debut Peakahokahoo.
Hold Yer Horses, too, is a romp. It veritably bounces along, few of the tracks exceeding the three minute mark. From the opening ‘Greetings, Salutations, Goodbye’ (a twangy, thigh-slapping take on the Peakahokahoo number), each song is distinctive and wastes no time in lodging itself deep inside your brain. The subject matter is, on the whole, the usual fare of love, heartache and wanderlust, and the delivery is largely light-hearted and avoids the depths of despair plumbed by so many others, which can be a welcome change on occasion. This sense of frivolity is reflected in tracks like ‘Tell It To The Dog’, where Piney croons sweetly, “it’s alright now baby…just tell it to the dog”.
Hold Yer Horses is also very nicely structured. It’s essentially a country album, but manages to make itself an excellent showcase for the diversity of musical styles that Penhaligon is known for. The first few tracks are classic Nashville; ‘I Don’t Know Why I Feel Like Cryin’ But I Do’ could have been sung by Saint Dolly herself. Then, repeating the trick from Peakahokahoo but with a rustic twist, we bizarrely encounter the first verse of ‘Que Sera Sera’, which breaks straight into the feisty ‘Girl’, set to a country tune that’s certainly not of the garden variety.
The next segment is more experimental, offering something that is usually a little faster and heavier than the norm (barring ‘Little Doggie’, which is more run-of-the-mill, and at certain points gratingly saccharine). This section concludes with the lovely ‘Nightsong’, a blissfully chilled out duet with David Fisher, the Roadshow’s singing drummer who sounds a little like a young Tom Waits dosed up on Benylin. The final few tracks mark a return to the more classic style, with ‘Trouble’ even boasting its very own train whistle. ‘Be Careful’, with its chorus of singing and clapping of hands, makes for the perfect finale.
As for Piney herself, her voice may not possess beauty of the breathtaking variety, but it’s sweet and light and a pleasure to listen to. The entire album reflects this ease, its diversity being interesting but not jarring. Hold Yer Horses may not be deep and meaningful, but it’ll have you humming along before you even cotton on to what you’re doing.
The Pipettes / Teasing LuLu / Miss Pain
Live at Concorde 2, Brighton •••½
March 27th, 2006
Despite my initial plan to review only The Pipettes’s performance tonight, the appearance of two other equally unique acts on stage forced a bit of a rethink, and I thought it only right and just to write about the entire affair. First to take to the stage are Teasing LuLu, an indie/punk/rock band comprising guitarist/lead singer Lucy, bassist/backing vocalist Louisa and drummer Jason, currently gearing up to release their very limited edition debut single, ‘Infatuation’, on indie label Militant Recordings in April. It’s a shameful thing to admit to, but I was planning to turn up just before The Pipettes were scheduled on stage. As it turns out, I’m glad I wasn’t so lame.
To get an idea of Teasing LuLu’s live show, try to imagine what would happen if Wayne’s World’s Cassandra (as played by Tia Carrere) happened to manage a band with the help of Justine Frischmann, PJ Harvey, Debbie Harry and Queens Of The Stone Age frontman Josh Homme. Under such tutelage, I reckon the result would be not too dissimilar to the sound of this very fine band; they really can wail! Visit their MySpace and listen to ‘Loser’, a song that boasts the unusual pairing of a knockout rock track and tuneful screaming, and while you’re there, have a listen also to ‘Cat & Mouse’ – they actually miaow!
Next up are Miss Pain, another two-girl, one-boy combo I had read all about on the back of a toilet door the previous Thursday and was therefore expecting something extraordinary. I was not disappointed… they were extraordinarily ludicrous. I tried really hard to like them, really I did, but if you gotta try that hard then something’s amiss. What I’m secretly hoping is that they’re actually a comedy concept band since the entire experience was on a par with watching a particularly excruciating episode of ‘The Office’, only there were feathers and synthesisers and bizarre dancing… or maybe I’m just not avant-garde enough. Hmm.
Finally, The Pipettes are welcomed enthusiastically to the stage and show the crowd the real meaning of fantastic. Apart from the fact that the girls (Gwenno, Becky and Rose) are talented vocalists, they’re also brilliant fun. Of course, it’s all very tongue in cheek but that’s just part of the charm. You don’t just go to listen to the music, you go to watch them dance and wear their excellent dresses. Although I worried at first that my feminist principles might conflict with my enjoyment of The Pipettes, any doubts vanished pretty sharpish for two reasons. Firstly, despite being an example of a knowingly post-modern or post-post-modern (or whatever!) act and having a sound reminiscent of The Supremes or The Ronettes, none of their lyrics scream ‘doormat’ and none appear to be strung up on a man. Secondly, even one who is as prone to being a bit of a stuffed shirt like myself cannot resist lightening up for ladies this upbeat.
Recent single ‘Your Kisses Are Wasted On Me’ and older tracks like ‘ABC’ and ‘Judy’ are the standouts of the set, and while it could certainly be argued that they’re a bit too grown up to be singing about schoolboys, and maybe the doo-wop fixation complete with polka dots is a gimmick that won’t last, to be honest that’s rather beside the point. I don’t imagine for a second that it’s meant to be taken all that seriously. The Pipettes are simply fabulous, unapologetic, witty, bubblegum pop purveyors with bags of charisma and an excellent live show.
originally published March 29th, 2006
We Are The Pipettes ••••
When The Pipettes first appeared on the stages of London and Brighton’s grubbiest pubs and clubs two years ago, not many people could in all honesty imagine they’d be releasing their debut album and playing sold out theatres across the country. The band fought dismissive slurs of ‘novelty band’, ‘kitsch’ and ‘unmarketable’ and simply kept touring and releasing pop gems on limited-pressing 7″ vinyls. As such, We Are The Pipettes arrives as the product of the hard-won realisation of their ambitions to replicate the essence of 1960s girl groups – from their self-styled svengali (guitarist ‘Monster’ Bobby) to the contemporary Wall of Sound production, via coordinated outfits and dance moves.
For those who eagerly collected the hard-to-find vinyls and witnessed the earlier live shows, a first listen to the album might be hard to swallow. The tinny sound of their demos has been replaced by luscious synths and sound effects, and some of the organic DIY charm has been compromised in favour of a more consistent sound. On second listen, however, such fans ought to find it in their hearts to forgive them; We Are The Pipettes positively shimmers with a real sense of accomplishment, the more polished production serving to bolster the seriousness with which the band have tackled their concept, certainly in comparison with those early recordings.
The Pipettes, you see, possess a knack for writing classic pop songs. Of the 14 tracks, at least nine might find older listeners questioning themselves over whether they might have gotten down to it at a town hall disco in 1965, such is the authenticity projected through Rose, Gwenno and Becki’s crystal clear vocals, arrangements, ooohs and ahhhs. Old favourites like ‘ABC’ and ‘It Hurts To See You Dance So Well’ maintain their dancefloor magnetism, as do newer songs like recent hit ‘Pull Shapes’, a command so brilliant that it cannot be resisted. Though their performances are wonderfully uplifting throughout, the band don’t shirk on the adolescent tinges of naivety and sadness that really capture the spirit of the girl group era. What The Pipettes bring fresh to the party is a distinctly British twist on the sound, their southern accents ringing with a nicely comforting familiarity.
If nitpick we must, there are points on the album where the fine line between pop perfection and overplayed kitsch is in danger of being traversed. Creating a modern twist on the girl group era need not have entailed some of the tackier sound effects, evident on the titular theme song and ‘Pull Shapes’s canned applause, while the sometimes overly glossy production makes the songs seem a little less personal. However, these are small criticisms of an otherwise excellent album on which every song is worthy of being a single. If the girls can find a way to progress without becoming a parody, this exciting debut could be the beginning of a long and sparkling career.
Robbie de Santos
originally published August 30th, 2006
Have It All ••••
Chicks On Speed
PlanningToRock is better known to her family as Bolton-born wander-woman Janine Rostron who, like many creative types before her, left her English-speaking homeland and decamped to Berlin, the spiritual homeland of electro and techno and a city bustling with artists seeking a less corporate environment in which to develop their talents. Peaches, perhaps the city’s most famous musical ex-pat, recently moved to Los Angeles, leaving Berlin’s electro-hip-hop sovereignty very much open for Rostron to capture the throne.
That’s not to say that the two artists are especially similar; Have It All is sexy but doesn’t fixate on it, telling instead a fascinating story of taking unknown steps into and among a foreign environment, subtly hinting at the desperate times that factored such a leap. It’s about Berlin and the strange balance of belonging and being an outsider. Musically, it’s impressively diverse, mixing Elizabethan ballroom, Berlin-style hip-hop, dark icy electro in the vein of The Knife, and full-blown out-and-out techno – a dizzying concoction in the hands of lesser artists, but one that’s held together beautifully here by Rostron’s unique and affecting vocal.
As any self-respecting hip-hop album should, Have It All opens with a short self-referential intro number in the shape of ‘The PTR Show’, an atmospheric minute-long hello with tuned percussion and staccato beats that wastes no time in setting up the soul-searching theme of the album. ‘Bolton Wanderer’, one of several standout tracks, continues this theme with a twisted, sexy slump of a tune complete with slow beats and haunting background vocals that give it a surprisingly soulful edge. This kind of chilling vocal layering is also present on ‘Changes’, an ambient ode to figurative metamorphosis based on a striking arrangement of plucked strings.
If that doesn’t get you, ‘Never Going Back’ will almost certainly stop you dead in your tracks. It’s as if Rostron is channelling the type of muse that visits Kate Bush or Patrick Wolf in their sleep; a folk-inspired slowie with warm inviting strings and emotional chord after emotional chord, it deals with the romance of running away and finding who you are among the masses, married to an idiosyncratic but nonetheless heartfelt vocal delivery. At the opposite end of the spectrum, the title track provides Have It All‘s dancefloor filler-in-chief. It’s an energetic blast of creepy technopop that would fit just as well at a seedy Berlin warehouse party as it would in a whip-smart London indie club. The true intensity at work here doesn’t only arrive on the pounding beats and immense wall of synthesizer sounds, but is also conveyed by elements of desperation and urgency that lurk deep down in the mix.
Have It All is a thoroughly satisfying piece of work in that it feels very much like a project followed all the way through to completion; the sequencing is perfect and even the artwork (also by Rostron) reflects the original and evocative music within. The contribution of Rostron’s visual artistry to the finished product cannot be underestimated; it’s evident throughout, in the thematic thoroughness and clarity of the music, the conscious awareness of even the subtlest conditions around her. A truly inspiring album.
Robbie de Santos
originally published July 25th, 2006
Like armchair travel through a newly-carved glacial valley, Rose Polenzani’s fourth solo album, August, has a hushed itinerant quality that throws wide open the world, yet mostly remains cosily in an intimate comfort zone. With the wow and flutter of her earlier work all but assuaged – there’s nothing here as tummy-tighteningly gripping as, say, ‘Shake Through To Ugly’ from 1999’s Anybody – August is Polenzani’s melodic nucleus come to fruition.
Recorded entirely in her bedroom on 4- and 8-track recorders, these twelve persuasive songs are both as spare and yet far more pithy than that might suggest. Polenzani has always been an acute and lively lyricist, and the sentient imagery she brings to songs like ‘The First Time’ and ‘And These Hands’ infuse and lift them above their delicate beginnings. Elsewhere, on the decidedly unsettling diptych of ‘How Shall I Love Thee?’ and ‘Girl’, she quietly rages, audibly struggling with her own mixed emotions. Best of all is the charming ‘Rolling Suitcase’. Sure, it may in fact be about locking a boyfriend in the wardrobe, but it’s so sweetly offset by toy percussion and romantic French accordion that you almost don’t notice.
The one cover here is of little-known US singer-songwriter Josh Cole, who also adds his warped harmonica to the atmospherics of ‘How Shall I Love Thee?’. From the title in, his ‘Easter Hymn’ is something of a religious experience in itself as he softly trades harmonies with Rose over gently plucked acoustics. Like Tori Amos, Polenzani has never shied away from mingling the sacred with the profane, but August seems to revel in a more humbled stance. Where many of her earlier songs have been heavy with passion originating from “a guilt-regret-religious-fervour-type feeling”, tracks like ‘Easter Hymn’ and ‘Sometimes’ appear more mature and accepting of her beliefs. That said, ‘Explain It To Me’ bears a hint of her former unease, complemented by keyboard sounds like a church organ possessed. It’s a definite progression.
It’s somewhat redundant to say that this is Rose Polenzani’s most consistent album to date – all of them impress – but it is, and there’s a seemingly simple explanation. Having held her own whilst touring as a member of Voices On The Verge (alongside Erin McKeown, Jess Klein and Beth Amsel), in addition to her spiritual growth, the Rose Polenzani of August seems more confident. In her own quiet way, she sounds larger than ever before, cleverly trading off the value of understatement. It’s a neat and beautiful trick and one that demands recognition.
originally published September 21st, 2005
Scribbled In Chalk ••••
Spit & Polish
Karine Polwart has been no stranger to applause since quitting her day job as a women’s issues campaigner. Her first album Faultlines cleaned up at last year’s Radio 2 Folk Awards and won many critical plaudits. The question is, can Scribbled In Chalk live up to already stellar expectations? I’m glad to report that the answer is an unequivocal yes. Polwart has turned in a charming and affecting collection of folk songs equally capable of raising a grin as they are of moistening eyes, running the gamut from mountaintop expressions of joy to the murkiest teatimes of the human soul.
Stylistically, Polwart confidently straddles the line between modern folk and contemporary adult pop, with an added edge of alternative country. That she does this without ever sacrificing her integrity or losing her distinctiveness to lowest common denominator slush deserves particular praise. ‘Hole In The Heart’ sets things off in an ominous minor key with regrets and reminiscences of a life that’s been frittered away, before the single ‘I’m Gonna Do It All’ lovingly lightens the tone with a wistful, charming reverie of hopes and aspirations (though it’s hard to imagine her swearing so loud she’ll “strip the silver lining from a cloud”). Even by the towering standards of Polwart’s sensitive songwriting, it’s an absolute gem.
Many of her songs draw on Judaeo-Christian imagery but never fall into the mantrap marked ‘didactic’, instead using these ancient stories to ground her songs deep in folklore and history. Only on ‘Holy Moses’ does she deal direct, using the Patriarch as a metaphor for the ability of the human spirit to rise above expectation and circumstance to achieve a destiny as yet unknown. It’s a cute little touch that the music meanders beneath like the river that ferried the baby to safety.
The frankly chilling ‘Baleerie Baloo’, however, is a very different proposition. Mixing the ancient and modern, it’s a moving tribute to missionary Jane Haining who died in Auschwitz along with the Jewish orphans she had cared for in Budapest. The ‘crimes’ for which she was imprisoned included weeping whilst sewing the compulsory Star of David onto the children’s clothes. ‘Terminal Star’ delves deeper into the dignity of an unsung hero, while ‘Take Its Own Time’ employs an interesting horticultural metaphor; the gardener who delights in letting parts of their garden be planned by nature rather than design suggesting that we might do better to hold onto our troubles more lightly. The track also features some delightful accordion from Inge Thomson, weaving pastoral melodies around the chords.
‘Follow The Heron’ closes the album in contemplative style, ‘covering’ a song of Polwart’s own making (it was originally recorded by the band Malinky, with whom she has collaborated in the past). But then, in the instant that the final notes fade, Polwart cannot help but render a falsehood – these songs are by no means ephemeral scribbles that vanish with the first drop of rain, they are instead small treasures that, once heard, are not easily forgotten.
originally published July 17th, 2006
Hard Time For The Dreamer ••••
For those who only know sister duo Alisha’s Attic for their late 1990s run of hit singles, this solo offering from the younger half Shelly may well pleasantly shock. Gone is much of the quirk so characteristic of their early singles that unequivocally polarised critical opinion, and what steps forward from the shadows is a much breezier, beautifully human record from a woman who appears to have progressed into the next phase of her career with unmistakeable grace. Those who followed the Attics to the conclusion of their shelf life with third album The House We Built – their most critically praised and, ironically, their commercial flop – will perhaps be less taken aback. Shelly has carried across the strongest elements of that collection’s sophisticated songwriting into her solo work, crafting a peach of a record that’s dreamy without losing focus or being overly detached. Certainly there are echoes of Alisha’s Attic here, but this time Shelly self-harmonises and keeps proceedings clean and uncluttered.
One of the secret pleasures of Alisha’s Attic was discovering their B-sides, which were frequently more spontaneous and exuberant than their album output, recorded as they were mostly outside of record company meddling. Such was the quality of many of these footnotes that one of them justly reappears here, albeit in a considerably tweaked, polished and remoulded form, on the downloadable single ‘Little Wonder’. Digging up a few key lines and melodies, the result is a sweeping and majestic track that showcases Shelly’s more relaxed and natural vocals, fully at ease with her new style. Quitting the cigarettes may have helped smooth away the grit that suited the Alisha’s Attic mould, but Shelly clearly revels in these more gentle surroundings.
Stylistically, the songs touch mainly on folk-pop with their shimmering and addictive melodies, but there are also shades of palatable jazz showing a fondness for the likes of Rickie Lee Jones and Joni Mitchell. The title track trades almost spoken word verses with a nagging chorus and woozy production, while the rolling ethnic percussion of ‘Totally Underwater’ is positively finger-clicking good. Other highlights include the yearning lamentations of ‘Don’t Look That Way’, the sumptuous love song ‘If You Will Be Pilot’ and the poptastic ‘Lose Yourself’.
Two duets with young New York Italian singer-songwriter Jack Savoretti bookend the second half of the record; the first, ‘Anyday Now’, is the finer of the two and takes its inspiration from the Meryl Streep/Robert Redford movie ‘Out Of Africa’, but that’s not to say that the closer, ‘Hope’, is no good. Each track has something to recommend it to a wider audience than will probably hear them, which is a real shame. Hard Time For The Dreamer is a real coming of age record and a blissful listen, and with such maturity and confidence contained in these ten songs, it’s hard to believe that Shelly hasn’t always been a solo artist.
originally published October 10th, 2005
Pretty Girls Make Graves
Élan Vital •••
Three years on from their critically acclaimed second album, The New Romance, Pretty Girls Make Graves return with an altered line-up – out with guitarist Nathan Thelan; in with keyboard player Leona Marrs, formerly of Hint Hint – and with lead singer Andrea Zollo still recovering from the vocal nodules she suffered after touring their debut Good Health. The result is Élan Vital, but for all the enthusiastic vigour and liveliness suggested by the title, rarely does such spirit manifest itself in the album. First three tracks ‘The Nocturnal House’, ‘Pyrite Pedestal’ and ‘The Number’ are all good but not quite perfect. On ‘Pyrite Pedestal’, Pretty Girls Make Graves sound more like a polished high-school rock band than the punk-rock revivalists they’re often hailed as. On the positive side, it is catchy, it is upbeat and it does feature fantastic vocal arrangements.
Unfortunately, the rather pedestrian lyrics of this and ‘The Number’ don’t help either, “I guess these days I’m someone else” being a particularly cringeworthy example.
Things pick up with the next track though; ‘Parade’ is easily the album standout – a gorgeously rousing, retro workman’s song with soaring harmonies, where the addition of Marrs is really felt. It’s perfect mixtape fodder. The following track, ‘Domino’, is also strong but sadly it’s all downhill from there. Songs that start off promisingly, like the atmospheric ‘Pearls On A Plate’, go on to display little variation and are ultimately a bit disappointing. See also ‘Pictures Of A Night Scene’, on which the boys take the lead, and the Sons & Daughters-esque ‘Selling The Wind’, both of which are slightly lacklustre but not terrible.
Penultimate track ‘Wildcat’ is something of an improvement and is strangely evocative of mid-‘90s house parties, but it’s followed up with the ironically titled and less than enamouring ‘Bullet Charm’. A sense of striving for incitement runs through the album, meeting with mixed success along the way, and with two songs about workers disputes alone, I wouldn’t mind betting that the band watched a bit too much of ‘Brassed Off’ or ‘North County’ during the recording. So while Zollo’s post-op voice is clear and engaging, and notwithstanding the good hooks throughout, Élan Vital sounds on the whole like the kind of thing you might expect to hear on a teenage rom-com soundtrack, complete with lyrics that are consistently banal and sometimes even criminal. It’s not necessarily a disaster, but it is less than we music fans have come to expect from a band that were once so exciting.
originally published April 4th, 2006
The Only Thing I Ever Wanted ••½
I have absolutely no idea how to define what I just listened to. Psapp ingeniously use every instrument and kids’ toy available to make a stupefyingly odd yet very intriguing mass of noise. The Only Thing I Ever Wanted, the follow-up to 2004’s debut Tiger, My Friend, is loosely based around the band’s obsession with soothing electronica, tribal music and cats. Imagine if The Arcade Fire were to be translocated to an as yet undiscovered African village and force-fed magic mushrooms; the music of Psapp embodies the resulting hallucination.
Most of the songs, particularly ‘Hi’ and first single ‘Tricycle’, have an uplifting and childish beat, and although the songs are simply performed and can seem repetitive, they carry a charm that redeems the album. Having said that, ‘Hill Of Our Home’ and ‘Make Up’ are chillingly attractive and sharp little ditties, with a quirk not too dissimilar to that of Regina Spektor. If the whole album was consistently like this, there’s little doubt that it could well be commercially hailed an instant classic, but the rattles and clanking prevent a sense of cohesion. It’s as if the band have split their wares into two distinct piles that awkwardly cohabit the disc: one enjoyable to any kind of music fan, the other meant for those who like experimental jazz and general madness, which to the majority is far from accessible.
Unlike many second albums, the problem with The Only Thing I Ever Wanted is not that the album is half-baked or incomplete, it’s that they’ve seemingly attempted to condense too many ideas into one. What is sure, however, is that Psapp have not been wasting their time. A clutch of beautifully edgy songs are to be found within, lovingly hinting at brilliant things to come. We’ll just have to wait for album number three to hear them.
originally published June 16th, 2006
The Puppini Sisters
Betcha Bottom Dollar ••••
Universal Classics & Jazz
It’s a cold hard fact that Britain has a habit of embracing novelty acts over and above most other major music markets, more often for worse than for better. But The Puppini Sisters (Marcella Puppini, Kate Mullins and Stephanie O’Brien) aren’t just any old novelty act – they pay homage to the Andrews Sisters and other performers of the 1940s in a way we haven’t seen in a long long time. They’re the whole package – look, moves, old school swing sounds – and through this impressive dedication to the details, they’ve developed a sizable cult following in the hipper parts of London. To fully appreciate The Puppini Sisters, you really have to see them live because they put on a hell of a show. As such, focusing purely on the musical aspect was always going to be something of a shaky proposition, running the risk of pigeonholing the band as yet another covers band with a twist in the hideously schmaltzy vein of G4 and Il Divo.
But don’t be so quick to dismiss them; Betcha Bottom Dollar is a delight with barely a whiff of a stinker. The ‘sisters’ have studied their inspirations to perfection and in doing so have created an amalgam of styles that is truly unique, adding something new to even the most familiar of tunes. Getting Oscar-nominated composer Benoît Charest (‘Les Triplettes De Belleville’) in the producer’s chair was a masterstroke for the Puppinis. His expertise ensured that the trio’s close harmony singing was recorded in the most natural way and the array of weird instruments he introduced to the mix adds distinctive touches of character throughout.
Classics such as ‘Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy’, ‘Bei Mir Bist Du Schön’ and ‘Jeepers Creepers’ really show off how tight the ladies have become. Mr Sandman’s acoustic-sounding swing arrangement is reminiscent of Buena Vista Social Club and other old-school Cuban acts, while their very sexy take on Java Jive offers irrefutable proof of their individual vocal talent and greatness. It’s the ‘40s makeovers of modern classics that really make this album special, however, and first up is Kate Bush’s ‘Wuthering Heights’. Unbelievably, they pull it off; what at first seems like an unusual choice develops into a spooky swing affair with added musical saw for eerie effect. Female empowerment anthem ‘I Will Survive’ also gets the full Puppini treatment. In true acoustic swing style with ever-running double bass lines and drop-in piano chords, it’s a thrillingly unique interpretation. They also tackle Blondie’s ‘Heart Of Glass’, a perennial covers band favourite that also appears on Nouvelle Vague’s recent album. This version is quite different – sung in ‘40s doo-wop fashion with what can only be described as ragtime percussion clattering beneath the vocal.
There are less exciting numbers too; their version of The Smiths’s ‘Panic’, for instance, doesn’t seem to have received that much of an original twist. Even so, it all comes good in the end as the album concludes with a lovely impromptu live recording of ‘In The Mood’ with finger snapping and plenty of attitude. The Puppini Sisters really seem to be on to something worthwhile here, and it’s not hard to see how they were snapped up for a cool £1 million by a major label in no time. That they’re currently writing their own original song material is even more promising. Here’s to a future steeped in the glorious past.
originally published July 25th, 2006