Filed under: feature, words in edgeways | Tags: amy millan, andrzej lukowski, interview, music, stars
words in edgeways with amy millan
Of all the members of Montreal post-poppers Stars, Amy Millan always looked and sounded like the one who’d be the most likely to batter you if you tried steal the band’s stuff. That’s perhaps self-evident given that she shares guitar and vocal duties with a rather fey chap named Torquil [Campbell]. But one listen to her turn on ‘Your Ex-Lover Is Dead’ – the first track on last year’s Set Yourself On Fire album – and you find yourself in the presence of a vocal so steely you could chop someone’s head off with it. Some wags have suggested that such moments are proof positive that Torquil should stop hogging the mic, go gawp at his own navel in the background and hand the spotlight over Millan. That’s possibly a bit unfair, but it is to some extent borne out by the fact that Stars’ best songs are quite blatantly the ones Millan sings lead on (check out ‘Ageless Beauty’ for their most sublime moment to date).
Naturally being a bunch of rampant misandrists Wears The Trousers would say that, but fortunately a happy compromise for the Millan mob emerged this summer in the form of her debut album Honey From The Tombs, a record very nearly as good as a Stars album with her as sole singer. Though the front cover features her looking, if anything, even more badass than usual (think Patti Smith’s prettier but much, much harder daughter), from the moment opener ‘Losin’ You’ kicks in with a simple, gorgeous strum so timeless you can’t help but wonder if Millan nicked it from someplace else, we’re clearly deep into country territory. Country-ish, anyway.
“I don’t think of it as a country album,” notes the actually-very-charming Millan, speaking down the phone from her Montreal home, “I think of it as a toxic roots album. Like, I dunno, I came up with that one myself because I knew that people were going to continually ask me what I thought the record was. I don’t thing that by any means you could classify a song like ‘Skinny Boy’ or ‘Wayward & Parliament’ as country. I know there are confusions in there like ‘He Brings Out The Whiskey In Me’, but to me I look to people like Johnny Cash and Loretta Lynn and the records they’ve made and over the past couple of years they’re showed me you can sound like that without necessarily having to put yourself inside a box.”
Whiskey, incidentally, is nothing if not a recurring motif. Wears The Trousers couldn’t actually be bothered to count the number of times Millan references the spirit over the course of the record, but a vague guesstimate would put it somewhere in the low billions. “I know!” she laughs. “I swear that’s going to be the last time that happens, I’m not going to make any more whiskey songs after this record. I have sort of moved on to Bordeaux. For me what it was was the texture of it and the sound of the way it pours and the way ice rings in that glass, there’s a whole sort of structure and, uh, tradition to the way you work your drink.”
She speaks in the past tense, which is apt because Honey From The Tombs is a past tense type of record. The title is cribbed from an old Tom Waits quote making reference to the Ancient Egyptian practice of burying pasteurised honey with the dead because it will still be good generations later. Serving a rather more practical purpose than offering a snack to hungry grave robbers, the words on Millan’s debut are those of a much younger, pre-Stars singer who, not being very happy in her lovelife at that time, decided the only solution was to get absolutely hammered.
“I kind of put these songs on the backburner for a while but they were haunting me in the back of my mind, I felt like I wasn’t really respecting the part of myself that had lived and should have made this record a long time ago, but then I joined the circus and there wasn’t really the time to do it, and finally I mustered up the time and courage to finish it.
“Did I spend my youth drunk and heartbroken?” she chuckles. “That’s exactly the case actually. And you know, I was a fan of George Jones and there’s some old Keith Whitley song, you know that song ‘Tennessee Courage’? I can really relate to it, my early 20s was a very lonely period and sometimes what comes through as a great friend is your glass.”
Hence the gargantuan number of free endorsement for the hard spirit industry, and also ‘Losin’ You’, both the album’s loveliest and saddest moment, the tale of a lover walking out on the dying embers of her of her relationship. “I was absolutely heartbroken and he absolutely does not deserve that song,” she sighs. “It’s things you can’t articulate I guess, and I find that I’m addicted to the dream of that song that you kind of have the last word in that way, and though I was the one going, I felt completely dissed and ignored by that person in my life. But I can now get up and everyone will feel sorry for me and think he’s a jerk. And that’s why I love three minute songs,” she smiles.
Whatever the hell ‘toxic roots’ might actually be, they definitely aren’t restricted to gently strummed, nocturnal songs about being shitfaced. For every ravaged, bottom-of-the-barroom-floor ballad like ‘Pour Me Up Another’, there are tunes far stranger than anything offered up by Cash or Lynn even at their most adventurous. The aforementioned ‘Wayward & Parliament’ actually manages to outweird the dayjob, being an elegiac, lyrically ambiguous piece of shoegazing which abruptly collapses into a completely barking drum and horn breakdown.
“Actually,” smirks the singer, “the middle part was even more insane before and I really hated it, I felt I’d really failed and missed the mark of what I was trying to emulate. I was really obsessed with Brian Eno when I wrote it and I thought that maybe if I wrote it right he’d come find me and er, we would talk about weird scientific facts and, I dunno, come up with bizarre new keyboard sounds together.
“I didn’t want it on the record,” she continues, “but Ian Burton, who produced it, loved the song and knew he could save it and he started mixing it and I started yelling at him that ‘this is a terrible song and you’re completely wasting my time and I don’t want to hear it for one more single second’ and he kind of looked at me very sternly said ‘leave the studio. Come back in four hours.’ So I was very angry because I really did feel he was wasting my time and money. But I left because he was my producer and I came back and he’d manipulated it and it became one of my favourite songs on the record.”
With most of this album written years ago, a new Stars record due next year, and Millan still having commitments to the mighty Broken Social Scene collective, it would be not unreasonable to savour Honey From The Tombs as a one-off and hope Torquil gives over a bit next time. Not so, apparently. “I felt clogged by these songs,” she explains. “I had to put them out and bring them life and part of finally making this record was learning from Stars and Broken Social Scene, that was what gave these songs three dimensions And since I’ve given these songs the life that they deserve I’ve got back into the studio and I’m now ready to make a new record next year.”
Given the comparative age of her first solo album, given Millan’s unwillingness to be labelled a country artist, and given how entirely unexpected Honey From The Tombs was in the first place, it’s anyone’s guess what her next solo record might sound like. The only thing for sure is that it’ll probably have a much lower proof by volume. “You have to say ‘I need a glass of water’ at some point,” she confides, with only a trace of wistfulness.
Filed under: album, back issues, review | Tags: aaron alper, andrzej lukowski, anja mccloskey, anna claxton, el perro del mar, electrelane, endre buzogany, enya, espers, evanescence, gary munday, justine electra, loria near, missy elliott, tiffany daniels, trevor raggatt
The following reviews were all published on our old website between May 2005 and December 2006.
El Perro Del Mar
El Perro Del Mar •••½
Three years ago, a chic-looking Swedish girl went on a Spanish beach holiday when a dog popped out of nowhere onto the shore. The girl, named Sarah, was inspired by this, went home, worked hard, wrote an album, swapped a lot of CD-Rs, got signed to the same label as The Pipettes and Field Music and toured with José González and Calexico. I suppose that this slightly odd fairy-tale goes a long way to explaining exactly what her project is about. Albeit, of course, nothing to do with canines. Musically, however, this is a debut offering that interestingly mixes the sublime with the unusual.
Because, while bittersweet, longing and often alienating, El Perro Del Mar essentially creates delicate, minimalist retro-pop by blurring a kaleidoscope of playground string quartets, gentle handclaps and Supremes-style harmonies with the vulnerable vocal of a chronically depressed Nina Persson and the mild kitsch of Petula Clark in her heyday. Yet she does it in such a way that it makes you want to stop sobbing into your milkshake in favour of doing ‘the monkey’; this is a collection of songs made for the cool chicks in tight pencil skirts wiggling their bums at ne’er-do-well boys named Kenickie. Songs with a dignified sound that will also appeal to ladies what lunch. Songs that will be cherished, most strikingly, by anyone who’s ever been in love. And been dumped. And, shortly afterwards, had someone drive past and splash a giant puddle all over their best diamanté.
Upsetting and confusing, yet undeniably refreshing, from the melancholy “be-bop-a-lula” of ‘Party’ and comforting Argyle sweater-wearing stroke of the head that is ‘This Loneliness’, to the pant-flashing mantra ‘It’s All Good’, and resigned yet slinky Brenda Lee cover, ‘Here Comes That Feeling’. In short, each track is a chapter in a frighteningly frank journey into the female psyche, an empowering celebration of grown-up teenage heartache on the outside, pure bubbling neuroses on the innards. Meaning that, by bringing a whole new perspective to being a woman in the Noughties, these seemingly cute ditties, fraught with determination and extreme femininity, just might not be for everyone. Still, if any of the above sounds a bit like you, twirl gum round index finger, fluff out petticoat and have another vodka. Rest assured you’re in good company.
originally published June 16th, 2006
Soft Rock ••••
There’s nothing like laying it all on the line up front, and with such a watery title, Soft Rock doesn’t leave much to the imagination. But getting past the immediate subconscious associations (that are, incidentally, wrong and mostly unfounded), there is something truly sincere about these recordings. That’s not to say that they don’t run the gamut of the good and bad, or that their appeal isn’t wholly subjective, depending on the willingness and mindset of the listener, but there is something about them. First track ‘Fancy Robots’ is a prime example, where the cut and crazy synth rumblings could be construed as brilliance, or, alternatively, a little bit bland and lacking the requisite punch to pull the entire song through. Luckily, this here listener feels it to be the former.
As a whole, Soft Rock succeeds as a near masterpiece of patchwork. ‘Killalady’ boasts an offbeat groove, heavenly chimes and delicate harmonies that could make an angel’s cheeks turn beetroot, combined with just enough roughness to keep up levels of intrigue and lyrics that sound familiar to the lives of those you know. All that accompanied by social commentaries that make a mockery of the bloated, predictable industry standard (e.g. “hip-hop guys showing their underpants”) make this an undisputed highlight. Similarly, the airy blues stylings of ‘Blues & Reds’ skulk their way into the depths of your memory as the song burrows itself a nice little nook that it refuses to get out of. Elsewhere, the fantastic ‘Calimba Song’ is reminiscent of a Tom Waits minimalist classic, with an almost childish marimba motif that’s carried forth by the sort of saddened vocals that would suit the back porch of a crumbling South Carolina farmhouse (she’s actually Australian but lives in Berlin).
At the opposite end of the spectrum lie the repetitive, keyboard-based ‘Autumn Leaves’ and ‘President’, both of which scrape and haul their way to the finish. There’s something distinctly terrifying and disturbing about the execution of the latter in particular. The worn radio sound, the whine of a pacemaker, the basic drum programming, the lyrics – feelings of desolation and hopelessness aren’t exactly helped by Electra’s singing of genital death.
Soft Rock is so chock full of quirk and choreographed madness that it would be extremely interesting to see how the songs might transcribe to live performance. Its crazy bass sounds, scrapings against junk for percussion, stark acoustic riffs and Tori Amos / Fiona Apple-esque backing vocals all add to the appeal; it would be a crying shame to lose the fragments of instrumentation and subtle effects that elevate Electra above her more predictable peers. Put simply, Soft Rock is like one of those close friends you only seem to see once every couple of years, in the summer. The attraction is there, but it’s something that will be nice to lose just to come across again later so the love for it stays ever faithful.
originally published July 23rd, 2006
Brighton is, as far as I’m concerned anyway, only good for taking your relatives to when you can’t be bothered to drive into London or up north, and perhaps to provide an easy apex of convergence for various rallies (cars, cycles, hippies and politicians, for example). Oh, and sanctuary for aging cheesy DJs. So I was really hoping that East Sussex four-piece Electrelane would show me a new town, a revitalised seaside resort brushed clear of its cobwebs, with newly painted shop fascias and nay a broken lightbulb on the rides.
Plugging in my headphones, I was transported in an instant to Electrelane’s creation, with a packed lunch, petty cash and a camera provided. The town is called Axes. People are milling around. Above the gentle lap of the waves, intriguing sounds are abounding. There’s a vague sense that somewhere nearby The Fall are jamming with Tom Waits, Blurt and assorted prog rockers. Yes indeed, Axes feels pleasantly arty, the sun is shining and the temperature is just perfect for a day trip.
Shame then that having spent a few hours treading its highways and byways, I can’t help but feel that the town planners could have done more with Axes to make it more attractive to casual visitors. Although this third album once again proves that Electrelane are skilled musicians and are able to hold an exceptional rhythm, it seems that nowadays that’s just not quite enough to make the masses voluntarily flock to Axes. It’s the kind of town that will rarely find its way into anyone’s much-loved holiday snaps.
This particular day trip feels much like a Sunday stroll along the promenade. Despite the desolate, almost ghostly sleeve hinting at a dark netherworld, the outlook at Axes is actually pretty mellow; mostly instrumentals with the occasional highlight coasting in on a much-appreciated breeze. Without the irrepressible gusto of these, anyone visiting Axes might be tempted to just fall asleep on a bench overlooking the shore, missing the last train home.
originally published September 1st, 2005
Rock It To The Moon [reissue] •••½
The three E’s – Envelopes, (Saint) Etienne and Electrelane. These artists are similar, not just musically, but because it takes an acquired taste to like them enough to listen to their albums the whole way through. Originally released in 2001 and now getting a well deserved reissue, Rock It To The Moon has had plenty of time to grow on me, but it’s quite likely that after only 14 minutes and six seconds, when only two tracks have played, any mainstream indie lover will be fitting on the floor, calling for it to stop, PLEASE stop!
Personally, I love it. I can’t get enough of shrieking strings placed randomly over beat after beat after beat. I love how music like this can burst away from its field of destruction and jump into a techno dance worthy of David Brent. I love the demented circus sample at the end of ‘Long Dance’, and how ‘Gabriel’, the track sequenced directly after, sounds entirely different. So different, that if it weren’t for the loop of fuzzed out voices in the background, you’d be forgiven for thinking it was a different band.
Electrelane were relatively young when this album was recorded, but it doesn’t show. Rightfully, the album should have propelled every member to stand in the clouds with Air and Ladytron, looking down on the bands that aspire to be them. I can only assume this didn’t happen because of the indie (and predominantly male) ‘uprising’ that occurred at the same time; they just weren’t given the time. Of course with every album that relies on this form of music, there is a point when even the most hardcore electro fan has to say, “enough is enough” and turn the volume down. There are days when you just don’t want to listen to what is essentially one album-length song that flips and does cartwheels all over your ears. But there are also days when you just itch for something that can do that, people who don’t aspire to live during the Romantic era or to make your ears bleed, and for those days, Electrelane are your band.
originally published March 6th, 2006
Singles, B-Sides & Live ••••
If ever there were a band more often better in principal than actual fact it’s Electrelane. While the Brightonian electro-quartet couldn’t be cooler if they were actually four very cold snowwomen, there’s always been some- thing essentially a bit boring about them. That’s not to write off any band who would give their debut album as daft a name as Rock It To The Moon; it’s just that said album is about a million times less fun than the title would suggest. Better in all ways except name is odds ‘n’ sods collection Singles, B-Sides & Live, the band’s best album to date (excepting perhaps last year’s Axes).
Relative incoherency is actually the record’s biggest plus, as rather than saddle us with hours of interminable Wurlitzer jams, every few songs heralds a change of direction as abrupt as a slap to the face. Thus the, er, interminable Wurlitzer jams of Electrelane’s cinematic early line-up give way to the ragged B-side ‘I Love You My Farfisa’, which in turn segues into tracks from the mighty I Want To Be The President EP, which is still the best of their early works.
However, it’s halfway through when things get really interesting; an astonishingly rickety cover of Bruce Springsteen’s ‘I’m On Fire’ sounds like it could derail at any moment, and it’s all the more heart-stoppingly beautiful for it. From then on frail, bizarre live tracks and covers (including a haunting version of Roxy Music’s ‘More Than This’) shed the studied hipster stylings and usher in a looser, more emotive band capable of reducing you to tears without boring you to get there.
originally published November 23rd, 2006
Respect M.E. ••••½
Goldmind / Atlantic
Nearly an entire decade has elapsed since Missy ‘Misdemeanor’ Elliott exploded onto the scene with 1997’s phenomenal debut Supa Dupa Fly and single-handedly revolutionised both R&B and hip-hop (and, consequently, radio). Not that you’d know it; with her anthemic style and incendiary guerilla flare, even Elliott’s earliest singles still sound fresh and it’s no mean feat that her albums continue to blow away almost every one of her chart rivals, Stateside at least. Given her ubiquity all over the media, it has probably escaped most people’s notice that Elliott’s fortunes have been rather less glittering here in the UK, with just one of her albums (2001’s Miss E…So Addictive) sneaking into the top 10 on the lowest rung. That’s despite a healthy clutch of singles hitting the upper echelons of the charts, though, rather perversely, the only #1 single to bear her name on these shores was the credibility car crash of 1998’s ‘I Want You Back’, a collaboration with ex-Spice Girl Melanie Brown. It makes perfect sense then that a greatest hits collection such as this be compiled to remind non-residents of North America why Elliott’s career has been one of the most lofty and artistically fruitful in recent memory.
Indeed, Respect M.E. ought to be listed in the urban dictionary as an archetypal greatest hits; it’s that good. Each song is a powerhouse display, uniquely showcasing Elliott’s craft and frenetic wordplay. Of course, some of the credit must go to her various partners in rhyme – most notably longtime collaborator / friend Timbaland, with whom she has no issue of sharing the glory – but Elliott is the true star here and constantly reinvents her sound using dance, R&B, hip-hop and good old-fashioned pop laced with a truly wicked sense of humour. Elliott has been smart to recognise that the club is where her talent shines brightest, her sound and larger-than-life persona big enough to fill any Saturday night sweatbox. And when she wants to get folks moving, boy does she ever. ‘Get Ur Freak On’ and the fabulously sexual trailblazer ‘Work It’ are so fine that they’ll forever hold their own special place in dancefloor mythology, while sonic oddities like ‘Pass That Dutch’ and ‘Gossip Folks’ squeak and gibber like hip-hop songs possessed by a mischievous robot devil.
On ‘She’s A Bitch’, ‘One Minute Man’ and ‘The Rain (Supa Dupa Fly)’, Elliott combines sass and neo-feminism with irresistibly pulsating thumps, while the Basement Jaxx remix of ‘4 My People’ and the techno-tribal ‘Lose Control’ (featuring Ciara and Fatman Scoop) make a convincing case for Elliott as a queen of gay disco, up there with the likes of Madonna and Kylie. Even on sample-heavy tracks like ‘We Run This’, which features a notable chunk of the oft-sampled ‘Apache’ by the Sugar Hill Gang, Elliott has enough pride and grit to make the song still rock and be completely her own. Of course, there’s more to Missy than just her club sound and the slower jams here are far from mediocre. ‘All N My Grill’ featuring Big Boi and Nicole Wray is funky and shows a slightly more vulnerable side that her dance songs do not, while ‘Hit ‘Em Wit Da Hee’ with the always effervescent Lil’ Kim is unapologetic in its fierceness.
If the sheer diversity of her sound occasionally baffles, it’s only that there are very few artists who consistently stay ahead of the game, who constantly innovate and keep their early tenacity going. Respect M.E. displays Elliott’s uncanny ability to do this; what’s more, her genius and considerable staying power already proven, there can be little doubt that this will be the first in a line of essential compilations from this truly gifted and artistic visionary.
originally published October 27th, 2006
The trio that is Enya, fronted and personified by Irish songstress Eithne Ní Bhraonáin, needs no introduction. From 1987’s The Celts, to 2000’s A Day Without Rain, Enya have carved out a unique musical niche that has generated fans from every corner of the globe, and, it seems, an equal number of critics. It certainly appears in vogue to dismiss Eithne and her songwriting partners Roma and Nicky Ryan as New Age fluff, constantly recycled nonsense that’s suited only for muzak and bookshop tannoys. But while some of us chuckle at the hint of truth therein, such a sweeping rebuttal is woefully inaccurate. The rank and file of Enya fanhood may be no place for an indie snob, but the sheer popularity of their music is no accident. Their unique orchestrations unabashedly create pure moods that are perfect for practically any occasion. That they are also about as inoffensive as a slice of white bread doesn’t hurt sales either. But whilst there is nothing remotely challenging about the music of Enya, there is a certain something to savour. Something familiar and comforting like a warm house at Christmas and reassuringly safe like a cup of herbal tea.
Predictably then, Amarantine is unlikely to disappoint Eithne’s legions of fans. In keeping with its title, which refers to a mythical eternal flower, it’s a longer and more satisfying album than A Day Without Rain and is subtly different from her previous releases. Abandoning the trademark Gaelic lyrics for a dabble into Japanese was certainly brave, yet works surprising well. ‘Sumiregusa’ is a striking blend of Japanese lyrics and ethereal vocals evoking visuals of geisha and white cherry blossoms, and may very well be the most innovative thing the trio has done in a decade. So much so that it nearly even manages to trump Amarantine‘s crowning achievement – that of Roma Ryan’s creation of the new language Loxian, a tongue inspired by the works of Tolkien, that appears on three of the album’s dozen tracks. Inevitably, by virtue of its indecipherability, the use of Loxian adds a little more to the fantasy and mystery of just what Eithne is singing about; those of us versed in more mundane languages, however, will just listen to those tracks as we always have with the Gaelic ones, enjoying the sound of the words rather than the actual poetry.
To be fair, a higher expectation would have been folly. The trio have found a working formula and it’s one that they pretty much stick to throughout. At times it can be overwhelmingly obvious – for example, ‘It’s In The Rain’ sounds remarkably like ‘China Roses’ from The Memory Of Trees, the title track is practically a carbon copy of the massive chart hit ‘Only Time’ from A Day Without Rain and ‘The River Sings’ harkens back to 1987’s often-sampled ‘Boudicea’. But despite the formulaic nature of the album, fans of Enya would expect little else, nor, it seems, do they really care to. Amarantine may do nothing to win new fans, but its soothing and comfortable sounds will at worst retain the masses who have come to love Enya for those overlapping vocals and synthesized swells. And since A Day Without Rain was the world’s bestselling album in 2001, perhaps comfort is really the point.
originally published March 19th, 2006
Espers II ••••
In parapsychological terms, the word ‘espers’ means ‘ghost hunters’, or rather ‘extraordinary supernatural phenomena explored and revealed’. It’s an astoundingly fitting description for this six-piece psychedelic folk act from Philadelphia, centred on the trio of vocalists Greg Weeks, Meg Baird and Brooke Sietinsons. The self-explanatory, Led Zeppelin-aping title aside, Espers II is a dark and melancholic mixture of traditional folk and freak electronica, like listening to a 1960s folk tape whilst watching a spaceship land outside your muslin-curtained window – simply outlandish. This is in fact their third full-length release, following last year’s unusual covers record The Weed Tree, and things are getting progressively weirder.
Opener ‘Dead Queen’ is a spooky, graceful affair that mixes high-pitched trembling electro sounds with medieval guitar melodies and airy female vocals. What starts quite simply slowly evolves into a thickly-layered, eight-min epic; strings, electric guitars and synthetic sounds combine to create layer after layer of countermelodies, culminating in a wall of dissonant sound that almost drives you to discomfort. The beauty of Espers is that although they use a modern approach to recording, the technology never seems to compromise the songs’ authenticity; modern and classic elements blend together extraordinarily smoothly.
‘Widow’s Weed’ and ‘Cruel Storm’ offer a more rhythmical approach, though both are equally melancholic and dark. Sometimes reminiscent of a funeral service, sometimes like a lonely summer night’s walk though a sinister forest, the arrangements are simple but clever. Another mini-epic, ‘Children Of Stone’ is an emotional masterpiece that is justly given the time it needs to evolve rather than reaching a premature conclusion. Various interludes – first a flute then a squealing theremin and lastly a swooning cello – truly accentuate the rare, strange and fragile beauty of this uniquely harmonious composition.
‘Mansfield & Cyclops’, ‘Dead King’ and ‘Moon Occults The Sun’ also blend the new with the old in clever ways. Rhythmical and textural layers and the use of dissonant and sometimes unbearably high electronic sounds have a freaky and dark effect on the listener. The closely miked recording of the vocals is just as unsettling and will leave you wondering how something so distant and unearthly can be so near.
Espers may indeed be hunters of ghosts but listen to this latest excursion into the future-past and you’ll find they’re not beyond indulging in a little haunting of their own.
originally published July 2nd, 2006
The Open Door •••
Wind-Up / SonyBMG
In the early autumn of 2003 Evanescence seemed to have the world at their feet. Their debut album, Fallen, was acclaimed across the globe, picking up awards and well on the way to multi-platinum status. Their songs had been heavily featured in that summer’s blockbuster movie? well, ‘Daredevil’ anyway? but how soon the dam did burst. Co-founder Ben Moody walked out mid-way through a European tour citing “musical differences”, a fan backlash was building up in the States as the band distanced themselves from their Christian roots and their 2004 CD/DVD live set had “contractual obligation” written all over it.
In view of all this, it’s a miracle not just that The Open Door exists but that it’s actually quite decent. In comes former Limp Bizkit and Cold guitarist Terry Balsamo and suddenly lead singer Amy Lee is claiming that they’re functioning more as a real band than ever before. That said, the focus of the album remains squarely on Lee and her pre-Raphaelite, Goth chic presence looms large over proceedings. As with Fallen, it’s her vocals that draw the disparate sounds scattered across the thirteen tracks together into one coherent whole. It’s in the cohesiveness stakes that The Open Door really scores points over its predecessor, despite songs ranging from the pop-metal of single ‘Call Me When You’re Sober’ to the ‘My Immortal’-esque piano and strings of album closer ‘Good Enough’ via the cod-operatic stylings of ‘Lachrymosa’ and ‘Cloud Nine’s curious sci-fi backing vox.
Musically, Balsamo’s addition seems to have paid off. His bone-crunching riffs are more convincingly metal (albeit with an inevitable ‘nu’ flavour) and alone form a pretty satisfying core around which the lush strings and keyboards are layered. Lee’s vocals are impressive, benefiting from her almost operatic power and projection when stretching out in the high register. Equally strong at all pitches, she captures an emotional performance rather than simply providing bombast. And that’s a good thing as, lyrically, this is much more interesting than much of the genre. ‘Lithium’ explores the dilemma facing those suffering from depression –medicate but lose the vital spark that defines who you are or struggle to live with your own demons? – whereas ‘Weight Of The World’ asks real questions about identity and self-worth.
So you see, there’s plenty to explore through this particular door. If you loved Fallen then there will be much to appeal to you here. If your tastes extend into the rock, metal or emo genres you will similarly find much to enjoy. And even if Lee and co. leave you cold, you have to concede that it’s a damn fine example of triumph over adversity.
Filed under: album, back issues, live, review | Tags: aaron alper, alan pedder, alex ramon, andrzej lukowski, anna claxton, beth orton, bryn williams, ciccone youth, dani siciliano, danny weddup, ember swift, endre buzogany, helen griffiths, jane siberry, jennifer hall, kristin hersh, loria near, marianne faithfull, marsha swanson, miranda richardson, patti smith, paul woodgate, rachael sage, rachel stevens, regina spektor, robbie de santos, rod thomas, russell barker, saint etienne, santa dog, scanners, scissor sisters, scott millar, sinead o'connor, sing-sing, skin, sleater-kinney, smoosh, sonic youth, sons and daughters, spider, stars, stephen collings, the sailplanes, the slits, tilda swinton, tori amos, trevor raggatt, yoko ono
The following reviews were all published on our old website between May 2005 and December 2006.
The Blistering Sun ••
Though anyone this side of the Atlantic is unlikely to have noticed, The Blistering Sun is, believe it or not, the seventh album by award-winning US singer-songwriter Rachael Sage. Sadly, longevity is rarely ever a cast iron guarantee of quality and the album finds Sage in something of a comfort zone and is immediately both shaky and derivative. It’s not even a particularly good derivative either. Sage’s compositions, whilst showing a grand affinity for traditional pop composition, barely register verifiable emotion and leave her sounding a step above the likes of Jewel and a step below the increasingly anodyne Sarah McLachlan.
The Blistering Sun works best when it gets quirky. For instance, the uptempo sass of ‘Hit ‘ – a parody of music industry shmoozaholism – finds Sage playing a slightly awry coffeehouse poet, while ‘Lonely Streets’ slightly ups the pulse with an appealing back alley ambience. Even ‘Proof’ is unashamedly pretty in its sweet, if a little bland, adult contemporariness. But everything else wears thin much too quickly. In particular, ‘Calypso’ and the Melissa Ferrick cover ‘Anything, Anywhere’ are fairly unremarkable and their chord progressions sound almost identical. Even Sage’s lyrics, which for a long time have served as her strongest asset, are lost in the humdrum of the arrangements and, like Jewel and McLachlan, make no argument against sounding dull and anonymous. Even the amassed ensemble of talented musicians, including the likes of Julie Wolf, Julia Kent, Todd Sickafoose and Rufus Wainwright’s guitarist Jack Petruzelli, never quite let the songs catch fire.
Despite the album’s inescapable aura of disappointment, Sage is far from a doomed soul by any means. She obviously has enough theatrics in her to go up against the likes of Regina Spektor (check out the lovely Ballads & Burlesque for example) but The Blistering Sun just doesn’t click into place in the same way that her earlier albums seemed to. It would be a shame to see Sage’s promise fizzle away and there’s every chance that this is merely a blip in her thus far consistently fruitful and ambitious career. Investigate her back catalogue first.
originally published July 14th, 2006
The Deepest Red EP ••••
As with many stupendous live acts, the studio version of London’s The Sailplanes doesn’t quite have the same impact, but when the songs are as strong as they are on this latest EP it hardly seems to matter. Packed with stark and scratchy, paranoid and jerky numbers very much in thrall to early Sonic Youth, The Deepest Red reveals a band that’s on to a very good thing. After all, there are far worse things they could be doing than channeling the energy and zest of the Youth into these excellent, ramshackle songs.
‘Seven Ships Lost’ makes for an intense, rumbling start with plenty of needling guitars and a lightly melodious feel that marries well with a crisp delivery from singer/ guitarist Stacey Hine. Next, ‘Underwound’ jolts you out of your seat with a short sharp shock as co-vocalist Tim Webster blasts the song into your skull. ‘Killing Time’, whose lyrics give the EP its name, is the clear standout – it’s a little bit second-wave punk, quite a lot riot grrrl and all fantastic. Much darker and sinister than the rest of the EP is ‘The Wild Huntsman’, which rounds off proceedings with a memorable mid-section where the song fades out until its almost inaudible, then after what seems like an eternity springs back into life.
Grab a copy of this and if you like what you hear just a little, go and see them live. You won’t be disappointed.
originally published October 5th, 2006
Tales From Turnpike House ••••
Thank the blue expanse above for Saint Etienne, perennial vanguards of fair Londinium, and their inimitable eye for a sorry mundanity in need of a paean to its ordinary glory. Clearly, whoever in radical Islam wants the capital on its knees hasn’t reckoned with Cracknell and co. Their latest feat of escapism, Tales From Turnpike House, is a concept album so familiar in its themes of inner city struggle and on the point of bursting bubbles of esteem that it’s utterly engaging for the most part. Over the course of the 12-track song cycle, the Ets unravel a day in the life of the residents of an East London high-rise, the titular Turnpike House. As such, the album opens with the breezily optimistic twosome of ‘Sun In My Morning’, a gentle strum that lazily blossoms with winsome Beach Boys harmonies and a gossamer-light flute solo, and ‘Milk Bottle Symphony’, which, quite simply, may well be their finest moment yet in a 15-year long career. Serving as more than just an introduction to the denizens of Turnpike House (one of whom, Gary Stead, appears in no fewer than three songs), it’s an irony-free and poignant glimpse into the morning rituals of the plateau’d and downwardly mobile.
Elsewhere, the work of Girls Aloud producers Xenomania yields that rare beast, an emotional dance number (!), in the guise of ‘Lightning Strikes Twice’, which recounts the laments of a failing new-ager. They also crop up to polish the charm offensive of ‘Stars Above Us’, a sweetly gratifying floor-filler extolling the simple virtues of a roof garden in this reverse oasis of concrete. Other highlights include the sultry first single, ‘Side Streets’, a tune that swings so unapologetically that it’s easy to overlook the urban paranoia / violent crime lyrical bent, and ‘A Good Thing’, a hefty slab of disco Etienne at their finest. The mostly spoken word ‘Teenage Winter’ mines a similarly rich seam of nostalgia as the glorious ‘How We Used To Live’ from 2000’s Sound Of Water, this time with an added twist of the inevitability of change and the futility of resistance. Album closer ‘Goodnight’ is also worthy of a mention, with its soothing backdrop of wistful boy-girl harmonies drawing the cloak of evening around the humble tower block.
Where Saint Etienne have been less successful in the past, it’s almost always been the fault of being just that little bit too knowing, a fault repeated here on the stilted and silly Relocate, a marital wobbly about moving to the country featuring none other than David Essex as the reluctant husband. It’s as if the Tom Jones/Cerys Matthews duet on ‘Baby, It’s Cold Outside’ never even happened. Even William Shatner managed to mostly avoid such cringesome pitfalls on last year’s Has Been. Nevertheless, Tales... is a dignified return to form after the mostly disappointing Finisterre, and one that will ensure that their legacy remains intact if, as the abounding rumours suggest, it does indeed turn out to be their last album together, at least for grown-ups that is – September’s Up The Wooden Hills will be aimed at, though by no means restricted to, those who’ve recently mastered the feat of walking from the high chair to the potty.
At a time when London is reeling from the first blood of a psychological turf war, Tales From Turnpike House is not just another album from the city’s most enduring musical champions, but also an affectionate tour of an instantly recognisable but altogether less harrowing reality. Get lost in it.
originally published July 26th, 2005
Belle de Jour EP •••
The Belle de Jour EP is the third release from Bristol-based indie-pop hopefuls Santa Dog (where did they get that name?) in little over a year, and it’s certainly a likeable offering that demonstrates a definite progression from their previous EP. Released in October 2005, the Chemical EP suffered from a flat production job that all but buried the vocal in the mix, yet contained the requisite amount of shoegazing introspection to maintain a degree of appeal. No such regrets to be found on this follow-up, however; Belle de Jour sparkles with a clarity of sound that allows the guitars to jangle as intended. This pleasing development shows a clear and confident step forward in the intervening six months and suggest that the band are growing in confidence. So whilst their indie intensity stays intact, the sound and delivery presents a more accomplished package.
Each member has their own role to play and does so with aplomb. Jojo Harper’s bass drives proceedings along, effectively melding with genuinely scary looking drummer Martin Maidment’s rhythms, while guitarist Rob Williams liberally layers jangly arpeggios and riffs throughout, his occasional squalls suggesting that his influences are wider than the Squire/ Marr/Butler triumvirate to encompass rather less textbook sources like Steve Howe or Bill Nelson. Perhaps their greatest assets, however, are those they exploit most effectively here – good tunes and an even better singer in Rowena Dugdale, whose vocals are just sufficiently ‘estuary’ to perfectly suit the music, with more than a touch of Kirsty MacColl around the edges. Dugdale pitches her performance well, giving a sense of strength and also vulnerability.
Musically, the title track skirts pleasingly along the perimeter of Belle & Sebastian territory, occasionally adding in shades of Teenage Fanclub, The Divine Comedy and the aforementioned Electric Landlady. It weaves an all-too-relevant story of finding significance in meaningful relationships in a society in which we are systematically brainwashed by daytime TV and reality gameshow banalities. Elsewhere, ‘Rosa’ is a parade of sunny summer hooks that risks being rained on by an undercurrent of sadness and desperation, while ‘Pop-Coloured’ is a power-chord confection that visits The Boo Radleys via Franz Ferdinand with its pounding snare driving along the jaunty, choppy guitars. Finally, ‘1000 Cranes’ brings things to a close with a gloomy yet luminous evocation of lost love in post-industrial Britain. On this evidence, it seems that Dugdale and co. are on a serious upward trajectory, and if things continue apace, this Dog may yet have its day.
originally published March 19th, 2006
Violence Is Golden ••••
Though having a name that’s pretty much Google kryptonite probably hasn’t helped Scanners’ cause, it’s hard not to feel this fledgling London quartet have been dealt a slightly unfortunate hand. A domestic deal hasn’t been forthcoming, and while US indie Dim Mak snapped them up Stateside some months ago, doubtless thanks to the magic of the internet, this isn’t as rosy as it sounds. A couple of LA showcase gigs aside, Scanners are in the somewhat Catch 22-ish position of being too skint to tour the only country their record is out in, instead gigging almost exclusively in London where no bugger can buy the album.
This deserves to change, as said album, Violence Is Golden, is as invigorating a record as you’ll hear all year. The lynchpin is singer Sarah Daly, whose vocals lie somewhere between Polly Jean Harvey and glam-era Bowie – eerie and off-kilter, but delivered with too much arch panache to ever drift into woe-is-me territory. But it’s the music that really makes the album; on a budget of what must have been about 5p, the band appear to have compressed all the best bits of the ‘70s and ‘80s into eleven slick, tuneful blasts. From the faintly ribald electro-avalanche of opener ‘Joy’, through the New Order-esque melancholy of ‘Lowlife’ and the rabid camp of ‘Air 164′ and ‘Raw’, Violence Is Golden smacks into you like Zinedine Zidane on happy pills, a Technicolor beast gleefully devouring glam, new wave, punk and a half-dozen other genres.
That it occasionally lacks depth and is generally a touch incoherent does little to diminish the album’s appeal – after all, lack of depth and shallowness are classic signs of a good time, and Violence Is Golden is more fun than snorting a tequila slammer.
originally published July 23rd, 2006
Drawing inspiration from 1970s disco, glam and the club culture of their native New York City, the Scissor Sisters stormed the nation in 2004, selling over three million copies of their eponymous debut. Exuberant and enjoyably brash, they fabulously forged their way, feather boas and all, into the hearts of everyone from hipsters to suburban housewives. It stands to reason, then, that the follow-up might be greeted with hesitant scrutiny. Would they manage to carry their signature sound across another album or quickly snuff out of the spotlight, their proverbial 15 minutes exhausted?
Interestingly, Ta-Dah almost seems to be something of a cautious response to their success. Where Scissor Sisters danced saucily all over with themes of freedom and parties, Ta-Dah delves into the psyche with songs about the love, relationships and death, without being a million musical miles from its predecessor with more of the same dance-infused pop that made the band so famous. Take the first single ‘I Don’t Feel Like Dancin’ for example. It’s just as catchy and radio ready as ‘Take Your Mama’, with the added gloss of being co-written by Sir Elton John himself, yet it’s a song about Sunday morning, not Saturday night – the first of many tracks where the music belies the sentiment woven into the lyrics. “Wake up in the morning with a head like ‘what ya done?’ / this used to be the life but I don’t need another one.”
And it doesn’t stop there. As the album wears on, it’s obvious that the songs are strong and danceworthy, with several hits in waiting. But pay attention to the lyrics and a darker element emerges. In the David Bowie-esque Intermission, lead vocalist Jake Shears sings wistfully that “tomorrow’s not what it used to be / we were born to die”, while ‘The Other Side’ shows he’s not just a Barry Gibb clone as he really milks the slowie by crooning softly of a lover’s passing, “if it takes another life / I’ll wait for you / on the other side.”
If the album lacks anything in particular it is the rich voice of Ana Matronic, the self-described “drag queen stuck in a woman’s body”. Notably a strong force in the Sisters’s live shows, her voice is buried here, only coming out from the shadow of Shears’ overwhelming falsetto to shine on the infectious dance track ‘Kiss You Off’. Channeling a pissed off Debbie Harry, Matronic doesn’t just take the lead, she takes complete centre stage with a soaring voice that bites back with lyrics like “spare this child your sideways smile / that crack in your veneer / some blue broad will spoil your rod / it just takes patience dear.”
If you haven’t been a fan of the Scissor Sisters before this point, Ta-Dah isn’t likely to change your mind. Despite strong lyrical development and inventive songwriting, the band has a proud image that it’s highly doubtful to shed any time soon. And who would want them to? They’ve done well for themselves and despite a few weak points here and there, Ta-Dah is a solid album that recalls why the ‘70s are so much fun to remember.
originally published December 17th, 2006
Love Is Everything: An Anthology [reissue] ••••½
From Joni Mitchell to the McGarrigles, Sarah McLachlan to kd lang, Canada has produced a significant number of accomplished and influential female singer-songwriters. Mitchell is the undisputed foremother, of course, setting the bar almost ludicrously high in terms of innovation, musicianship and lyrical dexterity. But the artists who have followed in her wake have also made their own distinctive contributions to Canada’s musical mosaic. Though extremely diverse and individual, their work is characterised by emotional fearlessness, a willingness to experiment and an often-breathtaking ability to fuse elements of pop, folk, rock and jazz in creative ways – sometimes in the space of a single song.
Jane Siberry is one such artist. Blessed with a playful sense of humour, a protean voice that can both soar and confide, and the ability to turn a song about a missing cow into an aching expression of loss, she has a devoted following in Canada and elsewhere. In the UK, however, she has seldom received the recognition she richly deserves. In recent years, her decision to release new material only through her own Sheeba label has not helped to raise her profile, and when kd lang covered two of her songs on her 2004 covers album of classic Canadian songcraft, Hymns Of The 49th Parallel, British listeners could perhaps have been forgiven for asking “Jane who”? For the uninitiated, then, this 2-disc, 30-track retrospective (first released in 2002) serves as the perfect introduction to an idiosyncratic and endlessly rewarding body of work. Drawn mainly from Siberry’s early 1980s folk-based releases, her experimental No Borders Here, The Speckless Sky and The Walking trilogy, 1989’s Bound By The Beauty and 1993’s When I Was A Boy, the choice of material on the first disc could not be bettered. Given the extraordinary level of quality control, it’s almost churlish to pick favourites, but the inviting piano ballad ‘In The Blue Light’, the spry ‘Red High Heels’, the unearthly ‘The Walking (& Constantly)’, the hymnal ‘The Lobby’ and the rapt ‘Bound By The Beauty’ are all particularly captivating expressions of Siberry’s unique gifts. The disc also gives a clear sense of her creative development, from her spare apprentice material to her exhilarating experiments with studio trickery throughout the 1980s.
This is not to suggest that the compilation follows a slavishly chronological path through Siberry’s work, however. Instead, several thematically connected songs from different periods are linked together to form mini cycles and suites. Thus, ‘Bessie’ (from her 1996 album, Teenager) is paired with its 1981 ‘prequel’ ‘The Mystery At Ogwen’s Farm’ to tell the tale of a flying bovine from two contrasting perspectives. Placed side by side, the songs sound especially striking, the former a buoyant acoustic strum full of Chagall-esque imagery, the latter an exquisite lament in which the narrator of ‘Bessie’ features as a mere bit player. The same trick occurs on the second disc, whereupon Siberry’s classic ‘Mimi On The Beach’ is followed by the live recording ‘Mimi Speaks’, a cheeky spoken-word piece in which the objectified title character is finally given the chance to “have [her] say”. Such thoughtful sequencing reveals Siberry’s heartening commitment to the fullest possible development of her stories and characters, and is a valuable feature of this compilation. Siberry trades immaculate harmonies with lang on ‘Calling All Angels’, one of her best-loved songs and also one of her most beautiful, pitched in some galaxy midway between despair and consolation. Yet Siberry does not fear bold exuberance; ‘The Life Is The Red Wagon’ is a dose of happiness, its “you pull for me… I pull for you” refrain serving as the ultimate antidepressant.
The second disc is patchier and gives the impression that Siberry’s work has become somewhat less compelling in recent years. There are, of course, some heavenly moments; the sublime, minutely-detailed pop of ‘Mimi’ and the skewed piano ballads ‘Goodnight Sweet Pumpkinhead’ and ‘Barkis Is Willin’. However, the bizarre ‘Peony’ is a piece of woeful, substandard experimenta, and the best that can be said of her treatments of traditional material such as ‘All Through The Night’ and ‘The Water Is Wide’ is that they’re pretty. But ‘pretty’ feels like a considerable letdown after her complex and daring earlier work, and there are times when these songs veer perilously close to schmaltz. It’s left to her closing cycle of ‘Map Of The World’ tracks – presented together in sequence for the first time here with a new (and not very satisfying) ‘Part IV’ – to regain some of the lost momentum.
Siberry shares with Kate Bush an ability to combine unconventional lyrical subject matter with intricate, densely layered yet accessible melodies and arrangements. The work of both also expresses an unabashed femininity and an emotional openness that can sound surprisingly close to toughness. The relative paucity of rarities or new material on this collection means that it has less to offer long-time devotees of Siberry’s music. But Rhino have done a typically impeccable job on it, and it will undoubtedly inspire those new to her work, and leave them eager to hear more.
originally published March 25th, 2006
Dani Siciliano is an artist with a rather impressive CV, having worked extensively with ex-husband Matthew Herbert and charmed all the critics with her acclaimed solo debut, 2004’s Likes…, which featured reworkings of her favourite tracks, including a brave and overall successful take on Nirvana’s ‘Come As You Are’. My first reaction on listening to Slappers, however, is that her musical past is more hindrance than help to her current material. Comparisons are inevitable and, unfortunately for Dani, Slappers is simply not a patch on her past achievements. Although that might strike you as rather a crude statement to make as an intro, it’s not just an easy dismissal. The production values of Slappers vary very, very minutely from Herbert’s Bodily Functions and though the latter saw Siciliano’s vocal transport the music onto another level entirely, allowing her talent to shine, here her voice is simply not enough and is, in all honesty, sorely underused.
While always slightly understated, the melodies and stylistics of Siciliano’s previous work have allowed her voice to be a constantly powerful presence, you’ll struggle to find a track on Slappers that showcases any vocal prowess. The overriding problem is that the album is painfully flat; it merely meanders along without any real driving force. With so little real variation between songs, there’s something crucial lacking. Only the single ‘Why Can’t I Make You High?’ differs in style, but it’s messy – a little bit Goldfrapp in terms of beat but with acoustic bass, a melody extremely reminiscent of many other songs, and a terrible, terrible chorus. Though it pains me to say this, it sounds like Rachel Stevens at a hoedown, a quirky throwaway and the album’s weakest moment by far.
Slappers is not a total failure by any means, it’s just a bit boring. Its dynamics rarely change, so much so that the few stronger moments such as ‘Too Young’ only emphasise the underachievement elsewhere. I found myself confused by Slappers; I just don’t understand what it’s trying to do – it is neither well written enough to be a commercial success or intelligent enough to be a word of mouth classic.
The main problem that Siciliano faces, and most probably will continue to face, is that people expect more of her. Anyone aware of her working history will see very little progression in the music on offer here, and I cannot see Slappers winning fans of anyone not already on board as the songs simply aren’t strong enough. In a music scene where production values are becoming much more the point of focus, and where electronic acts are either achieving massive underground success or, from time to time, commercial glory, this collection of songs is far too weak to be of any real challenge or significance.
originally published September 17th, 2006
Vanishing Girl [reissue] •••½
Angelic Music is the brainchild of London-based singer-songwriter Janice Haves; more than just a simple indie label, it looks to provide a platform and a resource for female musicians. Angelic’s first signing is fellow Londoner Liz Simcock and their second release (after Haves’s own Big Front Door) is a very welcome reissue of 2005’s Vanishing Girl.
Simcock has passed the last few years plying her trade around the country’s folk club circuit, ably assisted by regular cohorts Ian Newman and Warwick Jones on bass and guitar, both of whom appear here along with drummer Pete Abernathy. The musical maturity that comes from entertaining such a notoriously difficult-to-please audience is certainly evident on the recording. But Simcock is not some twiddly, finger-in-the-ear folkster – her palette is much broader than that. Sure, there are winsome acoustic-based numbers and Joni Mitchell is a notable influence – ‘The Sand That Makes The Pearl’ is a gently personal tribute to the great lady, inspired by the 2003 TV documentary ‘Woman Of Heart & Mind’. Even the lyrics are populated with a patchwork of Mitchell’s thoughts and quotations, adding an additionally moving and poignant dimension to the song. On other songs, Simcock draws from more diverse sources – ‘Scissors Cut Paper’ rocks quietly along whilst musing about the futility of the conflicts which beset this troubled world and ‘Home To You’ is a country boogie that Mary Chapin Carpenter herself would be proud of. Elsewhere, there are nods in the direction of some of the last century’s greatest songwriters, from Paul Simon to Cole Porter and various points in between.
Like Mitchell, Simcock invests a good deal of well- judged humour in her music, scattering the ticklers among the more contemplative numbers. Most notable of the former variety is the sublime ‘Letisha Boccemski’, on which Simcock wonders what it would be like to inherit a greater sense of devil-may-care centeredness and self-confidence (fans of Channel 4’s ‘Countdown’ will instantly recognise the identity of Ms Boccemski’s mild-mannered alter ego). Lyrically, it’s witty and urbane and carried along on a jaunty, almost trad-jazz soundtrack (with Simcock manning the clarinet too). Imagine Aimee Mann singing from the Peter Skellern songbook, or even vice versa, and smile.
All this focus on the quality of the writing risks neglecting the beauty of Simcock’s voice. Blending a mellow richness with clarity and genuine emotion she produces a beautiful tone that perfectly complements the songs. Similarly, she is no slouch on the acoustic guitar either, mixing some excellent finger picking and riffing with Jones. On this evidence, Simcock is a singer to watch out for and with the backing of Angelic and a healthy dollop of luck she won’t be disappearing any time soon.
originally published October 27th, 2006
Sing-Sing & I •••••
At the turn of the millennium, a bright pop phoenix arose from the ashes of Britpoppers Lush in the form of the shiny Sing-Sing, a whip-smart collaboration between songwriter/guitarist Emma Anderson and former Mad Professor associate, Lisa O’Neill. Released on their own Aerial imprint through Sanctuary Records, their debut album The Joy Of Sing-Sing inexplicably vanished, even with a second push when signed to Poptones. Five years on, the duo are back with an astonishingly strong set of modern, intelligent pop that takes no prisoners.
‘Lover’ gets proceedings off to a flying start with a slab of Blondie-meets-The Bangles punk-pop combining driving drums and bass with an insidiously memorable chorus set off with luscious background harmonies. ‘Come, Sing Me A Song’ successfully blends Bond villain strings and horns with perky acoustic guitar to create a flawless pop song with a lightness that never grows cloying, while ‘A Modern’ Girl encapsulates the best ‘80s and ‘90s pop; coming on like the Lightning Seeds with Associates-style piano chops, it sets out a manifesto for the Bridget Jones generation. The quirky ‘Mr Kadali’ lopes along wistfully contemplating a quick fix for life’s little hassles, punctuated with voiceovers from the eponymous spiritual healer. Then, just when you think you’ve got the measure of the girls, Sing-Sing try to wrong-foot you. ‘Ruby’ kicks the door of assumption to the floor and throws around the furniture with a louche and sleazy slice of disco metal that the Scissor Sisters would kill for.
Normally with a ‘side one’ this strong, the fear of anticlimax kicks in, but thankfully Sing-Sing & I completely assuages. ‘I Do’ and ‘Going Out Tonight’ retain the Lightning Seeds pop feel but add in the indie and electronica influences that reflect their musical backgrounds. After a mellower moment provided by ‘Unseen’, ‘The Time Has Come’ is a rites of passage drinking song with a boozy sing-a-long chorus, complete with bierkeller ambience, contrasting nicely with Lisa’s tender and vulnerable verses. The album rounds off with ‘When I Was Made’ and ‘A Kind Of Love’; the former a joyous pop song recalling the likes of Belle & Sebastian or even the Divine Comedy, complete with harp ‘pling’s and an instrumental coda, and the latter a complex, beautiful and contemplative song that echoes O’Neill’s work with the Mad Professor.
It’s hard to praise Sing-Sing & I highly enough – every song is a potential hit single. O’Neill’s vocals are pure and sit well in the mix, at times conjuring a looser Kate Bush and at others Isobel Campbell, and are woven into an effective, harmonious web with Emma’s graceful backing coos. Despite the use of synths, samples and electronic effects throughout the album, the production is never permitted to steal the show, but serves the songs and coaxes out their subtleties. Perhaps the most striking thing about Sing-Sing is that the songs burrow into your consciousness, quickly becoming your internal soundtrack. After just a couple of listens, they seem so utterly familiar that it’s almost inconceivable you haven’t known them for years. Sing-Sing are precisely the type of talent required to rescue the UK pop charts from the turgid, manufactured product that currently holds them in thrall.
originally published November 28th, 2005
Fake Chemical State •••½
Following the dissolution of Skunk Anansie in 2000 after three albums that successfully blended punk and metal with anthemic pop and soul and a 1999 headline slot at Glastonbury, a solo career was almost inevitable for Skin, their charismatic incendiary frontwoman. However, her first solo effort, 2003’s Fleshwounds, was a sparse, lo-fi and introspective record that dismally failed to register in the public consciousness and quickly dropped off the radar. Fast forward three years and it’s no surprise that solo album number two, Fake Chemical State, heralds a return to our heroine’s rock roots. From the cover art depicting her collapsed on a ceramic floor, face painted in junkie chic (a none-too-subtle literalisation of the album title, perhaps?), the self-proclaimed leader of clit-rock is evidently keen to reaffirm her territory, changing record labels to V2 and bringing Strokes producer Gordon Raphael on board. Always defying expectation – after all, how many black skinhead lesbian singers are there in the white boy rock world? – and without any real comparison, Skin only needs to live up to her own high standards.
For the most part she succeeds. After the radio-unfriendly Fleshwounds, Skunk Anansie fans looking for a fix of nostalgia will not be disappointed by Fake Chemical State, which comes complete with softly softly verses that suddenly break into bombastic choruses – the aural equivalent of shaking your hand before slapping you square in the face. ‘Alone In My Room’, one of four co-writes with former Mansun frontman Paul Draper, is a flashback to 1997 and Mansun’s own particular brand of pretentious prog-rock. It’s the perfect album opener, full of dirty chords, clipped post-punk vocals and a glorious pop chorus. The latest single release, ‘Just Let The Sun’, another Draper co-write, also comes complete with crunching post-grunge guitars layered with multi-tracked vocals that makes for an unmistakeable, but perhaps too familiar listen.
What mars the album slightly is a sense of identity crisis; like a nasty neighbour with 20ft Leylandii, the edgier tracks leave the sensitive songs in the shade, which is especially a shame with the dreamy swirling riffs of album closer ‘Falling For You’, a song that reveals Skin’s vocals at their best, honest and pure. Like former labelmate Björk, Skin can make effortless octave leaps that would leave lesser singers breathless, and her patented wind-tunnel scream is in full force here, meaning the catchier songs like the slow building ‘Don’t Need A Reason’ have all the necessary ingredients to become live favourites. Lyrically, Fake Chemical State is a demanding listen, balancing youthful petulance and bittersweet reflection. The cut-and-paste words of the punkier songs seem strung together solely for musical effect, while the sensitive numbers display a lyrical heart-on-sleeve intensity. Most poignantly on the Linda ‘1 Non-Blonde’ Perry-produced ‘Nothing But’, Skin sings of a lost love who has since moved on: “please ignore the particular way I smile / take no notice of the blood on the lip I bite / I am still your friend”.
Wisely, Fake Chemical State is not simply an attempt to repeat the formula of her past successes, and there is enough here to suggest that Skin is finally moving in a direction where she feels comfortable and confident. Clocking in at just over half an hour, the album hints at finer things to come and the fact that it also makes for an enjoyable listen is simply a happy coincidence.
originally published March 29th, 2006
Mind How You Go ••••
Most people will already be familiar with Skye Edwards from her days fronting trip-hop heroes turned coffee table adorners Morcheeba and, inevitably, your liking or loathing of her origins will prejudice opinions of this, her debut solo outing, right, left and middle of the road. But wipe away those preconceived ideas, for now is Edwards’s time to at last be appreciated as an artist in her own right. A richly layered musical approach gives Mind How You Go a sublime, multi-sensory texture that, when combined with Skye’s distinctive voice, produces an album with highly individual characteristics. With its prevailing sense of the hazy dog days of summer, not explicitly expressed until the closer ‘Jamaica Days’, Skye makes the most of the contrast between inherently grey urban environments and sprawling, idle, sun-drenched days. Guaranteed to effectively enrich your day, it’s ideally suited to life in the city for those with escapist tendencies.
‘Love Show’ is a perfect introduction, allowing you to gently descend into Edwards’s world, cushioned by her light and breathy but infinitely listenable vocal. Love is usually unrequited, tumultuous or passionate in song, so when Edwards sings “it’s painless letting your love show”, it’s a minor revelation. By ‘What’s Wrong With Me’, these refreshingly unusual insights are a regular feature but not all are effective. Mentions of mortgages and emails are hardly the kind of thing that most of us would relish being reminded of when indulging in idealism. Elsewhere, ‘Stop Complaining’ contains a jarring reference to driving “down to the rodeo”. But for the occasions where things don’t quite work, there are just as many where her slightly left of centre worldview makes you listen harder and appreciate the work all the more.
Gossamer-light and gorgeous, ‘Solitary’ jostles into the memory with a well-executed staccato approach and is a nice example of when the more synthetic sounds at work on the album are at their most effective. ‘No Other’, on the other hand, could perhaps rely less heavily upon them as the exotic beach-inspired sounds seem unnecessarily fake. The conversational ‘Tell Me’, with its Disney-esque introductory motif, is reminiscent of a postcard or phonecall home in which the overall message is positive but there are moments when the realisation hits that “all the distance spoils the view”, that to be sharing the experience rather than trying to live and re-tell the adventure would make the journey more authentic.
Certainly, what makes Mind How You Go that little bit special is Edwards’s way with a lyric. So while on the first listen you may be fooled into finding superficial similarities with Dido or Katie Melua – the vocal tone is comparable – the more you listen, the richer and more unique it becomes. ‘All The Promises’ is the definitive song in that respect, with unusual snippets like “we broke the chain and left the cross behind” and “love’s a stain on a shirt like old red wine” that haunt you long after the song has ended. Rather than reinterpret a traditional perspective, she’ll take each subject and give it a personal twist, sharing the benefit of her own experience.
The island voices feel to ‘Jamaica Days’ complements nicely the lyrical hymn of desire for sunshine, propelling the album towards that which it and perhaps Edwards herself has been seeking from the beginning – an entwining of the new and traditional, an identity carved from many influences and a sense of individulity that allows for fresh starts and beautiful changes, the most enduring part of which is that Skye is taking us all with her for the ride.
originally published June 12th, 2006
The Woods ••••
I have no intention of clogging the page with ruminations on band set-up, record labels, history, tour dates, and downloads etc. You can find all that on http://www.sleater-kinney.com or http://www.sleater-kinney.net, written with more care and aim to please than I could ever be bothered with. While to Sleater-Kinney newbies, the trio’s name might conjure up thoughts of a solicitors’ office or city financial advisors, fortunately nothing could be further from the truth. If the metaphor is to be persevered with, Sleater-Kinney are, if anything, more like a construction company, complete with all the heavy earth-moving machinery that any local area regeneration scheme would be rightly envious of.
Seventh album The Woods contains everything from high-energy melodic grinding (‘The Fox’) to raw and impassioned rock (‘What’s Mine Is Yours’ and ‘Entertain’). Even the instrumental sections on the epic 11-minute ‘Let’s Call It Love’ lift you up, let you float happily awhile, before throwing you down from a very great height. Add to that the range of Corin Tucker and Carrie Brownstein’s duelling vocals, which gloriously hurtle from sweet-sounding harmonies on ‘Night Light’ to the howling roar of a B52 bomber found almost everywhere else, and you’re on to a winner.
Although you cannot fail to recognise some of their grunge influences and PJ Harvey-esque deliveries, Sleater-Kinney pull it off by exuding a more natural and unforced cool. While the cynics amongst you might say it’s all been done before, I say not recently and certainly not as well as this. The Woods is unadulterated, fresh, fun and very cleverly composed. The sequencing of the tracks ensures an invigorating flow that maintains a certain sense of urgency and keeps the listener wanting more. Want proof? It’s a rare thing indeed that most tunes on an album would force me to wriggle to the rhythm and shake a leg discreetly under the desk, but it happened here alright. The Woods has plenty to offer and stands up to repeated listens. It seems to me that the interpretation of each tune will also depend on your mood. A song that made you air guitar with your mates on first listen might later make you want to drive out onto the interstate to lock horns with a tornado. Alone. At night. Wearing nothing but your shades.
originally published ??, 2005
Revenge Of The Killer Slits EP •••
It’s been 28 years since The Slits’ ragged debut Cut, 28 years since they greeted the world at large whilst smeared in mud and wearing nothing but loincloths and over 30 years since their first ever gig, a riotous performance of their anthem ‘Shoplifting’ in Selfridges. Here in 2006, only two of the band’s original line-up remain and this hotly anticipated new EP has everyone begging the question: do The Slits still have it?
Beginning with ‘The Slits Tradition’, a self-mythologising big-up that recaps the band’s history and charts their influence on the punk scene, The Slits commendably waste no time in putting forward their gender-political views. Though it sounds like a rather embarrassing prospect, surprisingly they still have the nous to carry it off. Admittedly some of the spoken word segments do sound like they’re being read directly from a feminist textbook, but their sentiment is admirable. Backed by rumbling, distorted bass and Peaches-esque electronics, the band sound fired up and fiercely committed. Disconcertingly, the opening lines are sung in a girl group-esque chant that immediately and disturbingly recalls All Saints rather than Ari Up, but any claim on that band’s behalf to be “the first of our kind / way ahead of our time” would be laughed off the stage, and quite rightly so.
It’s refreshing to see that The Slits still refuse to allow the cocky arrogance of punk to be solely the preserve of the male: this has always been one of their major aims and they continue to convince at it. That said, it seems a little incongruent at best to place this manifesto, a mission statement that makes great claims, as the opening number of such a brief EP; ‘The Slits Tradition’ would fit better as the opening salvo of a full-length album where there ought to be more evidence to support its grand statements. The clues do lie in The Slits’ back catalogue, but many (especially younger) music fans might not be familiar with their work and find the self-aggrandising statements of the track a little puzzling.
Next up, ‘Number One Enemy’ is reportedly an unrecorded track from back in the day, and it certainly sounds like its been beamed direct from 1978: it’s aggressive and confrontational, with an old-school punk riff far removed from the more modern sound of the first track. The scattergun anger of the era comes across in the snarled lines, “I’m gonna be your number one enemy / all for the hell of it”. Final track ‘Kill Them With Love’ is a dub reggae affair in a similar vein to Ari Up’s most recent solo outing, but is easily the weakest inclusion. It’s not bad exactly, but after the ballsy energy of ‘Number One Enemy’ it feels a little wan. Fact fans might jump for trivia joy when they spot ex-‘Popworld’ presenter Miquita Oliver on backing vocals, but that’s about as surprising as it gets.
There’s no denying that Revenge Of The Killer Slits is a strange little project; the three tracks are so incohesive and brief that they’ll almost certainly leave you to wonder whether Up and co. just couldn’t pen enough good tracks to fill a decent album. Still, it makes for an interesting soundclash between 1978 and 2006, serving both as a time capsule that demonstrates why the band must have been such a startling, anarchic presence back in the late ‘70s and as a pleasing reminder that they’re still relevant now.
originally published December 17th, 2006
Patti Smith’s Meltdown: Songs Of Innocence
Live at the Royal Festival Hall ••••
June 18th, 2005
It’s 7:30pm and already tonight’s instalment of the 2005 Meltdown Festival is lingering a little too close to the literal for my liking; the temperature at the rear of the Royal Festival Hall is enough to make the blood boil. All of a sudden, I feel sorry for lobsters. Luckily, such empathy fits snugly into the theme of the evening. Patti Smith, punk’s most judicious high poetess, has seen to it personally that this year’s festival is no mere excavation cum shindig with cronies (à la Morrissey’s 2004 effort) or disappointingly macho all-male love-in (e.g. David Bowie’s stint as curator in 2002).
Instead, she has opted for a typically many-layered production, drawing together the themes of war, politics, art, the working class, literature, experience and tonight’s raison d’être, the innocence of children. More specifically, the theme of the evening is an extension of Smith’s love affair with the works of poet William Blake, and in particular with his late 18th Century classic, ‘Songs Of Innocence & Experience’. The book was originally published in two volumes, the first of which is tonight’s inspiration and the second will close the festival on June 26th during a neat tie-in with the work of Jimi Hendrix, featuring the likes of Joanna Newsom, Jeff Beck, Robert Wyatt and Patti Smith herself. Tonight’s cast is no less stellar. In fact, it’s deliriously brilliant. A once-in-a-lifetime bringing together of some of the world’s greatest female performers, plus a few token males and Yoko Ono.
After a comedic short film of a lunatic dancing boy plays on the big screen, the stage goes dark until actress Miranda Richardson steps out of the shadows to read Blake’s pastorally charming ‘The Lamb’. Patti Smith and her band then take to the stage for an utterly engrossing and powerful rendition of ‘Birdland’ from her near-sacred debut Horses. The song is a discourse on the loss of a young boy’s father and the desire the child feels to be reunited with his dad. Given that tomorrow is Father’s Day, it’s inevitably uncomfortable listening for some. Patti later returns to sing a sweet but drippy ditty written for her son Jackson by her late husband, Fred “Sonic” Smith of MC5, and then another with her daughter Jesse on piano. She also takes time out to introduce us to her favourite childhood toy, little green Gumby, the “clay man you can trust” who’s fast becoming the unofficial Meltdown festival mascot.
In that moment, the notion of Smith as tortured artist and sullen elder stateswoman is banished forever and rightly so. If only Tori Amos were as endearing. As exemplary as her performance is, the empathy factor is lacking. In a four-song set drawing heavily on her earlier albums, her finest moment is in fact a stirring take on ‘Mother Revolution’ from 2005’s The Beekeeper. For someone who struggled so hard to be a mother and is so proud to finally be one, that she doesn’t engage the crowd with onstage banter or even acknowledge the purpose of the show smacks of lost opportunity, though you can’t really argue with a standing ovation. The notoriously self-effacing Beth Orton fares better with the endearment factor – her sweet reedy voice cosies up to the songs like old friends, and she ends each with a somewhat overexcited yelp of thanks. Best of all is a cover of Fred Neill’s ‘Dolphins’, but a fine version of Woody Guthrie’s ‘Don’t You Push Me Down’ is an unexpected joy. It is in fact the second Guthrie song of the night, following Billy Bragg’s hilarious take on ‘Dry Bed’, a charming ode to no nocturia. Kristin Hersh later extends the night-time subplot, performing traditional songs about death and despair that her father lulled her to sleep with as a child. Other highlights are Eliza Carthy’s enriching a cappella folk songs and Marianne Faithfull’s boisterous rendition of The Beatles’s ‘Working Class Hero’. Additional readings from the works of Blake come courtesy of a hushed and spooky Tilda Swinton, although she doesn’t join Miranda Richardson in indulging us with a simple pretty folk song that Eliza herself would be proud of.
It’s not all quite as successful, however. Tim Booth of now-defunct indie stalwarts James performs an awfully trite song about child abuse before plundering the past for an acoustic version of ‘Sit Down’, his former band’s biggest hit, with a sorry sense of ‘so what?’. The same can be said of The High Llamas, whose sole contribution, a song based on an imagining of Blake’s own childhood, is surprisingly dull for one with such a glorious premise. Sinéad O’Connor, too, is equally unexciting, though more unexpectedly so. Granted, she isn’t aided by the sound problems which render her rudimentary acoustic plucking all but inaudible, but for someone so famously impassioned her set is devoid of emotion. Only ‘Scarlet Ribbons’ from her Am I Not Your Girl covers album seems to raise her out of a stupor.
Then there’s Yoko Ono, in a giant hat, providing a timely reminder why the most derided 72-year old woman in ‘music’ is so utterly unlovable. Screeching “Follow your heart, trust your intuition” for ten solid minutes would test the mettle of anybody’s audience. It actually seems like an hour, thereby allowing far too much time to contemplate how on earth we are all still breathing in this sauna. In fact, the performance is so lacking in redeeming features that it’s a relief when Ono departs to a bizarrely rapturous round of applause. The same people were sniggering just seconds before. Maybe I just didn’t get it.
Such a disparate line-up was guaranteed to raise a few eyebrows, but none arched higher than during the finale, a bizarre attempt to sing rounds beneath Patti’s pulsing Blakean verse. The song – ‘Inchworm’ from the Hans Christian Andersen biopic – is a cute choice, and after a faltering start the entire cast of the evening finally get the harmonies right. A moment of indefinably beautiful uplift ensues before the tired, hot but mostly exhilarated audience spills back into the muggy London streets singing “Inchworm, inchworm measuring the marigold, you and your arithmetic, you’ll probably go far…”
originally published June 24th, 2005
She Like Electric •••
Just in case you haven’t heard about the mini phenomenon that is Smoosh, here’s a brief recap: two sisters from Seattle – Asya, 13, and Chloe, 11 – who play drums and keyboards and have been creating quite a stir amongst the alternative rock press both here and at home, whilst also garnering praise from many a respected musician. But can they really be any good? For me, the alarm bells started ringing when I read people on certain music forums going on about how great the band are. These are the sort of people that I’ve always maintained are constantly on the search for something more challenging, more obscure and hey, maybe more unlistenable than what anyone else is ‘listening’ to. They want to be the first on the block to uncover something new, something to impress their peers with just how avant-garde they are. Mind you, if Everett True likes them, there must be something worthy going on.
For a start there are some great musical moments; She Like Electric has ideas a-plenty. After the Money Mark-style lo-fi of ‘Massive Cure’, the rolling Ben Folds-y piano of ‘It’s Cold’ and the infectiously jaunty ‘It’s Not Your Day To Shine’, ‘Rad’ is the first moment that knocks you sideways. Eighties-style ‘hip-pop’ is the best way to describe it, with Asya and Chloe’s youthful exuberance really coming to the fore through incessant chants of “yo guys”. Early signs of teenage angst are apparent on two of the best songs here. ‘La Pump’ is a deceptively chugging petulant number with a stroppy riot grrl chorus, and ‘Bottlenose’ has a shouty, close to irritating intro but settles for some fine Bis-style screaming and space age keyboards. ‘Make It Through’ once again spins the album on its head, with Asya’s echoing vocals floating over a rumbling tune that’s closer to Joy Division than anything else. Then ‘I’ve Got My Own Problems To Fix’ manages to make riot grrl sound ethereal. The wonderfully titled and brief ‘The Quack’ clocks in at under a minute and is a ‘Monster Mash’ for the Buffy generation. Smoosh have quite a way with song titles – there’s another on here called ‘Pygmy Motorcycle’.
But while there are many good points to the album, Asya’s vocals are exactly how you’d expect a young kid to sound. It may be an unfair criticism, but it’s a bit like going to see your child singing in the school play. Of course they sound wonderful, but then you’re forced to sit through all the other kids’ performances too. Which begs the question, who would choose to listen to this? But the main impression I’m left with is that She Like Electric is the sound of a band warming up for something special. The ideas are bursting out of this album and one suspects that come album two they will be better, if not fully, formed.
originally published March 7th, 2006
The Bells Of 1 2 •••••
Is Sol Seppy a faerie queen? Did she make this as a soundtrack to her magnificent transfiguration? I only ask because, from the atmospheric opener ‘1 2′ onwards, one cannot help but be enchanted, nay, mesmerised by what has been achieved here. Often womblike in its comfort, like taking a big floaty bubble bath with Sigur Rós or diving by moonlight to the ocean’s murky depths with Stína Nordenstam, The Bells Of 1 2 heralds the arrival of a preternatural talent. Alas, the faerie bit is a touch of truth economy.
Sol Seppy’s alter ego is actually a woman of mere flesh and bone, a woman known as Sophie Michalitsianos, who happens to be something of an allsinging monopoly; a woman with one foot in England and one in Oz, who began to write songs when she was only five years old, who found time to become a classically trained musician, build her own studio, tour with Radiohead and make special sounds with Sparklehorse in the U S of A. She’s a multi-faceted and shimmering creature who seemingly can’t help but lay herself bare, capturing the sound of an unpretentious drifter who is unsure of where she’s been but is definitely aware of where she’s headed. She’s someone who wants to share with you what she’s seen. What she’s seen is sadness and hope, sex and confusion, simultaneously powerless and powerful.
Her music is devastating where it’s touching and uplifting, heart-wrenchingly human in the most basic way, but a story told with a supernatural quality that belittles all that. Gracefully innocent piano, sitting amidst unaffected hushed vocals and soft orchestration, is wonderfully contrasted by a darker attitude, where the likes of Lamb or Ruby flit between the sombre moodiness of Gorillaz’s ‘El Mañana’ and the twisting of pretty homemade lo-fi knives into beats that border on trip-hop; each part of this vast spectrum illustrated with magical poetry like a modern day spell.
Consider me under it. This is utterly breathtaking stuff and deserves to be immersed in for quite some time to come. Quite simply, a twinkling debut from beginning to end.
originally published June 24th, 2006
Sonic Youth [reissue] •••
The Whitey Album [reissue] •••
Picture the scene: it’s the UK in the early 1980s and, bruised from the onslaught that was punk, the mainstream musical scene is on the cusp of gentrification – the time of the dandy is at hand. When Sonic Youth released their eponymous debut in 1982, the UK charts were dominated by the likes of Bucks Fizz, Dollar, Tight Fit and Charlene, all of whom, in their own way, made a success of their fifteen minutes, but are unlikely to be spoken of in the same reverential hush afforded to Kim Gordon and her atonal chums when musos sit down to discuss the popular canon. By 1983, Duran Duran would be all over the airwaves like a rash and English pop would enter its wilderness years, culminating in the hegemony of Stock, Aitken and Waterman. In New York, Madonna flirted with a real band and pranced about in leotards (proving that what goes around…), before crossing the ‘Borderline’ and going on ‘Holiday’. More of her later. Time has repeatedly shown that mediocrity often precipitates revolt, and while Sonic Youth cannot be called upon to shoulder full responsibility for what happened next, their coming together, and subsequent success, influenced the greatest of the ‘80s guitar bands and the ‘90s grunge-athon. They didn’t so much storm the barricades as sneak round their edges and lay the enemy flat with their own walls of dissonance; this wasn’t revolution, it was renaissance.
Twenty-five years after its initial release, Universal are reissuing not only their debut mini-album, but also their 1988 off-the-wall oddity The Whitey Album (recorded under the affectionate moniker Ciccone Youth) and Thurston Moore’s 1995 solo effort Psychic Hearts, in preparation for a new album in the summer – all come remastered with extra studio and live tracks. Leaving aside the argument that a remastered Sonic Youth album rather contradicts their rationale, the recent recycling of art-rock/pop and post-post-punk in the forms of Franz Ferdinand and The Strokes et al. is an ideal time to revisit the daddies of the anti-melody scene. After all, without them, it’s highly unlikely that students would have anything decent to get drunk to.
The good news is that Sonic Youth sounds just as contemporary now as it must have sounded young, fresh and new in 1982. It’s not a welcoming sound, however. You don’t listen to Sonic Youth for relief from the world; this music is a relentless test of your mental capacity, an extended middle finger to your ears and melodic sensibilities. This is the sound of musicians building whole cities from concrete slabs of bass and jackboot guitars, extending jams on one note for five minutes before firing up the Sherman tanks and blowing structure and sense into smithereens. On ‘Burning Spear’, Moore intones “I’m not afraid to say I’m scared” and you would do well to admit the same, or turn the CD off and go listen to The Carpenters. ‘I Dreamed I Dream’ is a slow Motörhead bass riff over a scattering of dissonant guitar notes and random, half-whispered Gordon vocals that would give Martin Luther King a sleepless night. The extended outro to ‘I Don’t Want To Push It’ is a torture device; loop it, turn it up to eleven and watch your victim beg for clemency within ten minutes. ‘The Good & The Bad’ picks up where it leaves off and goes on. And on. And on. As a teenager in a dark basement club off Bleeker Street with 200 of your mates and no lectures tomorrow, it must have approached aural nirvana (a term I use not wholly without irony). Emerging into a Manhattan morning, the world would have been a different place.
Only five tracks long, Sonic Youth had ‘cult’ written all over it. Creativity and experimentalism of this quality is never meant to last, but should implode as quickly as each of the compositions grabs you by the throat and screams for attention. That Sonic Youth are still a potent force is testament to their ability to ride the edge of commercial success and critical acclaim and find succour in both. Nothing in their latter (and large) catalogue comes close to the exuberance and couldn’t-give-a-fuck attitude of this debut. Listening to it from start to finish is like being stabbed slowly. By someone you love.
The Whitey Album was the product of a collaboration between Sonic Youth and Minutemen bassist Mike Watt. If the Youth’s catalogue to this date had cemented their place in the art-rock heavens, this album, released under the name Ciccone Youth and named in honour of The Beatles’s double from 1968, proved that art for art’s sake was still a viable proposition in the blossoming, style-over-substance MTV era. Short pieces (to call them ‘songs’ would be stretching it) with little structure, less melody and lots of humour, The Whitey Album was the arch-experimenters freed from even the loose strictures of their ‘day job’ and deciding to go play in the traffic. Pity the traffic – this is disco for the disturbed, with techno rhythms and noise that would ably soundtrack Orwell’s ‘1984′ or perhaps a darker ‘Blade Runner’. It’s dystopian pop.
‘Me & Jill/Hendrix Cosby’ sounds like someone’s let Hunter S Thompson man the decks after a raid on the local pharmacy. ‘Macbeth’ is a circular road trip at 33.3 rpm, four flat tyres and a Casio keyboard. It might be better to be stoned when listening, but I couldn’t really say. Where any semblance of song pokes its head above the parapet, it’s a cover, and finds Ciccone Youth at their funniest. Madonna’s ‘Burnin’ Up’ is given the out-of-tune treatment, cleverly mixing the original chorus with Moore’s laconic drawl. And when Gordon later rampages through Robert Palmer’s ‘Addicted To Love’, it’s almost respectful yet stupidly hilarious. Other tracks that stand out are ‘Platoon II’, ‘Two Cool Rock Chicks Listening To Neu!’ and ‘March Of The Ciccone Robots’, all titles that indicate the playful levels to which Ciccone Youth descended in their efforts to massage the boundaries. The ‘90s would see Sonic Youth move to a major label and release ever-more mainstream albums, albeit retaining artistic control. In this way, they would expand their fanbase whilst maintaining their role as the spearhead of late 20th Century art-noise. The Whitey Album, their affectionate lampooning of the music they originally revolted against, stands as the last time they could conceivably be called ‘alt-‘ and not be accused of hypocrisy.
So, Sonic Youth – are they (not very) melodic masturbation of the highest order, or ground breaking experimentalism on a scale not seen since Schoenberg? Actually, they’re both. This is music that marries the requirements of no-wave New Yorkers in need of a noise fix, with the band’s genre-busting lust for creativity amid respectful nods to The Stooges, Velvet Underground and contemporaries like Joy Division, Dinosaur Jr and My Bloody Valentine. Or, as a friend and fan told me when I asked for his opinion, it’s Kim Gordon on stage, playing the bass and making a noise. Sometimes that’s enough.
originally published March 31st, 2006
Sons & Daughters
The Repulsion Box •••••
The Repulsion Box is the first full album from hard-edged Glaswegian indie rock band Sons & Daughters, formed in 2003 by ex-Arab Strap bit-parters, Adele Bethel (vox, guitar, piano) and David Gow (drums, percussion). Alongside bassist Ailidh Lennon and guitarist/co-vocalist Scott Paterson, they released their debut seven-track mini-album, Love The Cup, in July 2004 to widespread critical acclaim. In fact, the Strap connection provides two key elements in the Sons & Daughters equation – a penchant for the darker things in life and a willingness to sing in their native Glasgow accent, the latter of which only adds to the overwhelming sense of menace that runs throughout this album. It almost badgers you into appreciating it, conjuring up an image of Bethel leaning down, spitting and sneering in your face as her bandmates draw in ever closer, backing her up with a relentless wall of drums and guitars warning you that you’d better like it, or else.
Some comparisons have been drawn between Sons & Daughters and now-defunct fellow Glaswegians, The Delgados, mostly due to the male/female singing patterns. Frankly, that’s ridiculous, the hometown and the gender balance are the only similarities here. The Delgados are sorely missed, but Sons & Daughters are not here to provide a stopgap. On the subject of dual (or duelling) vocals, whilst Paterson is nominally the co-vocalist in Sons & Daughters, in reality he’s more the dark, deadpan backing vocal to Bethel’s more varied, more passionate and ultimately more frightening lead. This is how it should be; Paterson’s not a bad singer by any means, but it’s clear when he takes to the front – such as in the second verse of ‘Monsters’ – exactly who it is that makes this record outstanding.
That said, the Paterson-fronted ‘Rama Lama’ is one of the best tracks on the album. A slower-paced, stomping, chanting verse that bursts into an energetic, derisive Bethel-screamed chorus, alternately cresting on waves of quiet menace and passionate anger – it’s a deadly combination. That’s not to say that Sons & Daughters don’t have a pop sensibility to go with it; tracks such as ‘Dance Me In’ and ‘Taste The Last Girl’ disprove that theory. However, it’s pretty unlikely that these will lead to a slot on Top of the Pops just yet.
The final part of the jigsaw is provided by producer Victor van Vugt, who has previously worked with PJ Harvey and Beth Orton, though his long-standing collaboration with Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds is a more fitting reference point in the context of this album. You can certainly pick out some of the Australian’s dark glaring foreboding, brilliantly helped along by the death-, break up- and murder-inspired lyrics. Indeed, Bethel is positively pant-wetting in the closing track, ‘Gone’, shrieking “I’ll cut you out of every photograph to within an inch of your life!”, channelling the spirit of a bunny-boiling psychotic.
The relentless musical assault might make this album difficult for some listeners to stick with all the way through without wanting to hide in a corner, but track by track it will insinuate itself into your playlists until everything else begins to feel almost unimportant and trite in comparison. In a word, essential.
originally published August 15th, 2005
The Last Of The Rock Stars •••
Since the original line-up of The Ronettes disbanded way back in 1966, the trajectory of Ronnie Spector’s career has been spectacularly steep in the wrong direction. For this, her first album since 1987 and only her third solo full-length altogether, she returns to the fold both older and wiser and trying to break free from her dogged bad luck and the stigma of her allegedly homicidal ex-husband. The self-congratulatory (or is it self-mocking?) title aside, The Last Of The Rock Stars is a qualified success, against all the odds and in spite of a few wobbly moments.
It’s a touch unfortunate that the album starts with one such dodgy inclusion, ‘Never Gonna Be Your Baby’ coming across like a craggy Cyndi Lauper impersonator singing a third-rate Roxette number. Her once glorious voice sadly sounds a little strained, even on ‘Ode To LA’, her collaboration with The Raveonettes in which the old girl group vibe is back in full effect. Her cover of Amy Rigby’s ‘All I Want’, however, is right on the money, both lyrically and musically with its country-ish theme and perky backing vocals. Other highlights include ‘Hey Sah Lo Ney’, with its nonsense lyrics providing a dose of pure dumb fun, and ‘Work Out Fine’, a cool-as-you-like rock ‘n’ stroll number with spoken word interjections and guitar courtesy of none other than Keith Richards. ‘Won’t Stop Saying Goodbye’ is a glossy, seemingly effortless shimmy with appealing “ba ba ba” bits, while ‘Out In The Cold Again’ pulls out all the stops for a grand, jazzy lounge number that makes for a welcome change in style.
Given the events of recent years, casual listeners will perhaps be most interested in ‘Girl From The Ghetto’, a thinly veiled attack on her ex-husband set to a jaunty 10,000 Maniacs-style tune. Here, Spector extols the virtues of believing in karma and how things are finally balancing out for her. What could well have been a car crash of a track is actually so touching that you can’t help but be affected by the sentiment, especially when it contains lines like “I hope your hell is filled with magazines / and on every page you see a picture of me”. Ouch.
Despite the occasionally poignant lyric, the degree to which the success of the album rests on Spector’s vocal is clearly apparent. When she finds the right song for her pipes, as she has with ‘All I Want’, everything else falls into place and it all seems so effortless and the song so expansive. When things go awry, however, they really get ugly. Ramones cover ‘Here Today, Gone Tomorrow’ is stodgy blues rock with little to recommend it to anyone, while her inclusion of yet another version of Johnny Thunder’s ‘You Can’t Put Your Arms Around A Memory’ is a bit of a mixed bag – the verses are quietly affecting in their tribute to the late Joey Ramone (who sings backing vocals), but the sentiment is lost when the chorus explodes in overblown pomp.
It’s a shame that a greater degree of quality control was lacking given the album’s lengthy gestation period, but in spite of its blips, The Last Of The Rock Stars is a timely reminder of how great Ronnie Spector once was, and how great she can still be given the right tune.
originally published August 23rd, 2006
Live at AR2, Bristol University ••••½
November 19th, 2005
The AR2 at Bristol University is a minuscule venue and one that is frankly inhospitable to whomsoever graces its dingy little stage. Just to even get there, Regina Spektor must climb through a crowd of adoring fans who’ve been eagerly waiting for two hours, and in the atmosphere of heady devotion and anticipation one fears a little for her safety; the French boy I’ve been talking to has just informed me that if he gets to meet her afterwards he will cry and, if by any chance she hugs him, he will die.
Thankfully, Spektor’s burly tour manager and assorted security men clear her a path, and when she finally mounts the stage, she beams at the crowd and looks very happy to be here. Swiftly launching into ‘Ain’t No Cover’, a lovely a cappella ditty, her voice swoops in a manner so soulful that it recalls the great jazz singers like Nina Simone and Billie Holliday as she taps the microphone gently with her finger to form a beat. The song is about death – not an uncommon topic for Spektor – and yet she sings and inhabits the lyrics in a way that celebrates every aspect of living.
As on her records she is irrepressibly playful, and what shines through the entire performance is an undeniable wit. Even when playing songs that are new to many audience members – Spektor has two albums, 11:11 and Songs, yet to be released in the UK, plus a truckload of others so far unrecorded – she elicits genuine laughter from the enthusiastic crowd. Nowhere is this more true than on ‘Baby Jesus’, which, in a pre-emptive strike, Regina warns the crowd not to be offended by. Ostensibly about her fear of fanatical right-wing Christians, the chorus of “All the non-believers, they get to eat dirt / and the believers get to spit on their graves” simply reaffirms that Spektor is a brave, sardonic and original lyricist.
The evening’s excitement doesn’t stop there either. For ‘Poor Little Rich Boy’, Regina plays keyboard one-handed while simultaneously bashing a chair with a drumstick so vigorously that chips can be seen flying into the audience. When she launches into ‘Us’, also from 2004’s Soviet Kitsch, the reverence with which the crowd sing along and faithfully recite each word gets Regina’s infectiously wide grin of approval. Later on, when a lady briefly faints at the front, Spektor stops playing in order to help her up and, after easing her into a seat on the stage, hands her a bottle of water and allows her to sit there for the rest of the show.
Clearly, this is an artist who truly cares for her fans. Indeed, following a rapturously received encore of ‘Samson’, one of Spektor’s most affecting and simple songs that spins the yarn of a tender love, she announces that she’ll attempt to meet any fans who want to say hi at the merchandise stand. She tells us that she fears this plan is overly ambitious, and the fans do indeed flock to meet their idol, but Regina remains until every last one has queued, blushed and gushed their thanks (myself included). For not only is she one of today’s most unique, creative and playful artists, but also one of the most humble and generous.
originally published December 6th, 2005
Mary Ann Meets The Gravediggers & Other Stories ••••
Despite the lazy comparisons that journos often make – “She’s got red hair, she must be the new Tori Amos!” – the songs of Regina Spektor sound like noone else on Earth. This is conclusively proven by this new compilation, which collects together selected tracks from her three previous albums under one overarching theme. Mary Ann Meets The Gravediggers… privileges Spektor’s narrative-driven songs, which are conveniently often the strongest cuts on her albums. Many of them have a literary lyrical bent, making reference to Greek tragedies (‘Oedipus’) and Hans Christian Anderson (‘Prisoners’), alongside sparkling stories of her own creation. The cast of characters is eclectic and colourful, but not all of the songs feature fictional constructions – Spektor is not afraid to place herself centre-stage.
On a sonic level, the record is striking; Regina has a playful attitude to words and a clearly apparent delight in their sound, or rather the unusual sounds she can draw out of them. This is evident throughout, but most of all on ‘Consequence Of Sounds’. The lyrics directly contradict the melodic stream that leaps from Spektor’s mouth. So while the song begins “My rhyme ain’t good just yet / my brain and tongue just met” and goes on to discuss the problems caused by consonants and vowels, every line is delivered with stunning verbal dexterity. Furthermore, many of her songs are punctuated by bursts of foreign language and surprising sounds that play a part in their respective narratives – a sneeze on ‘Mary Ann’, hawking spittle on ‘Daniel Cowman’. Regularly swooping from pop to rap to jazz stylings, often in the space of two lines, Spektor displays an inventiveness that sets her way above the majority of her peers. But one comparison does stand true; the energy and elasticity of her vocals are reminiscent of Ani DiFranco’s riotous live shows.
What this collection also proves is that Spektor can communicate whimsical humour (‘Love Affair’, ‘Sailor Song’) and affecting tragedy with equal skill. ‘Daniel Cowman’ (“a man destined to hang / a man destined to fry”) is about a death row inmate’s desire to take a final bath before his execution. ‘Chemo Limo’ is the album’s most lyrically complex and brilliant song. It presents us with the dream narrative of a mother diagnosed with cancer, her anxieties about dying and leaving her children behind revealed through the coded images thrown up in her dream. In the lyrics “I had a dream: crispy crispy Benjamin Franklin came over and babysat all four of my kids”, her financial concerns and worries about the welfare of her children are conflated with the precision and economy that characterises the best poetry. Meanwhile, the character’s outrage at the financial burden of paying for chemotherapy is expressed in the song’s impassioned chorus: “I can afford chemo like I can afford a limo and on any given day I’d rather ride a limousine.”
The album culminates with recent single, ‘Us’, a dramatic, stormy number that finally began to attract the sort of press and radio attention that Spektor more than warrants. She is an artist who improves with each release – the finest songs here are taken from 2004’s Soviet Kitsch – and she has already completed her next album, scheduled for release later this year. With that in mind, it looks increasingly likely that 2006 will be the year in which Regina Spektor Meets Chart Success & The Acclaim That She Deserves.
originally published January 23rd, 2006
Begin To Hope ••••½
The moment when any semi-established artist braves that most perilous of career moves and delivers their first major label release is always a worrisome one. Though it’s hard to imagine that fans who invested in Regina Spektor’s formative albums – the self-released 11.11 and Songs and 2003’s breakthrough Soviet Kitsch – would begrudge her finally getting the deal she justly deserves, it’s bound to ruffle some feathers.
Born in the former Soviet Union and having moved to New York City aged seven, Spektor has been playing bars the size of broom cupboards for years. Primarily a word-of-mouth phenomenon, her dramatic rise in fame has led to sold-out concerts in more spacious surrounds and, as a result, Begin To Hope has clearly had a whole wad of money hurled in its direction. With over two months spent recording compared with Soviet Kitsch‘s brisk ten days, Spektor has been given a chance to experiment with production and instruments that she’s never been able to before, with beats, drums and bigger arrangements that her previous albums only ever dreamed of.
The result is an album that feels rich and cared for, but one that has already alienated some hardcore fans with cries of “Regina’s gone pop!”. It’s certainly true that some of these songs sound completely different to the girl-and-a-piano affair that is Spektor performing live. But would an album of purely piano-based songs really be as varied and exciting as Begin To Hope is? I doubt it. Regardless, nothing is able to detract from Spektor’s obvious talent for songwriting and performing.
Each song has its own story to tell, both musically and through Spektor’s fascinating way with words. Her lyrics are at times haunting and moving, such as ‘Field Below’s evocative refrain: “darkness spreads over the snow / like ancient bruises”, and at other times laugh-out-loud funny: “Hey remember that month when I would only eat boxes of tangerines / so cheap and juicy!” (‘That Time’). Fittingly for that commanding title, many songs on Begin To Hope are uplifting and invigorating, such as opener ‘Fidelity’, with its bouncy plucked-strings beat, and the rock-out thrill of ‘Better’. Recent single ‘On The Radio’ seems to almost parody the sound of your average radio hit, but the lyrics are thought-provoking and somehow it works. Elsewhere, a number of other songs on the album are kept sparse, with Spektor’s talent for the piano the main focus. The best of these is ‘Samson’, a soulful weepie, while the Russian gothic of ‘Après Moi’ is suitably dark and epic, complete with the atmospheric effect of clocktower chimes.
There are a couple of songs that aren’t so successful, such as the strangely unmelodic piano splurge that is ‘20 Years Of Snow’ and ‘Edit’, which might lead you to wonder whether Spektor has been having a little too much fun with ProTools. On the whole, though, Begin To Hope is an outstanding album of substance and thought, a comprehensive delve into one of the greatest young musical talents around who is carving out trends, not following them. May her fame continue to soar so that she has more chance to experiment with her passion and her art.
originally published July 10th, 2006
The Way To Bitter Lake ••••
Old wives once foretold that a fever could be cured by wearing around one’s neck a spider in a nutshell. In a nutshell, that’s poppycock, but many a fetid sweaty furrowed brow could be soothed by a spin of The Way To Bitter Lake, the debut mini-album from Brooklyn-based artist Jane Herships. Quite where she’s hiding her other four limbs is anybody’s guess, but with Herships less is unquestionably more. She may be yet another Sidewalk Café alumnus, having stolen the show at a November 2004 open mic night, but Herships stands out on the antifolk periphery by virtue of having a classically beautiful, bittersweet voice. Some comparisons ring true, but only fleetingly; a first listen brought to mind a less twangy Jill Barber or Victoria Williams, while a second conjured a slightly less deathly Julie Doiron supping a herbal tea with Nina Nastasia. Then just when you think you might have nailed her down, Herships will gleefully give you the slip.
Opener ‘The Clearing’ is deceptively textbook, lo-fi finger-picked loveliness; “now is the time to behave” she opines a little mischieviously, but the undulating melody and perfectly timed harmonies of Louis Schwadron (who was, until recently, the Polyphonic Spree’s French horn supremo) are ecstatically cracked and lovelorn. ‘Don’t Be Afraid, I’ve Just Come To Say Goodbye’ is what Múm might sound like if they spent less time on their laptops – gorgeous flourishes of flute and Schwadron’s horn are woven sparingly through hushed double-tracked vocals, sweetly intimate guitar and unintrusive electric piano. Herships clearly knows a thing or two about subtlety, resisting too the temptation to overegg the lyrics; “and should I beware / your nights and your mares” in particular is devastatingly simple and suggestive. The intriguingly-titled ‘I Don’t Know If She Had Any Teeth Because She Never Smiled’ offers up more of the same, this time coated in black treacle drones, while ‘The Bitter One’ is blessed with a crisper guitar sound, bolder vocal and weeping, evocative strings.
But it’s when Herships plugs in that things get truly exhilarating. The cool countrified lament of ‘Cold Eyes’ is a long-lost Edith Frost song, circa Telescopic, or at least it shimmers so finely that it very well could be. The prettiness of ‘Maggie’s Song For Alice’ is torn completely asunder by a jagged wedge of electric guitar that at first might seem woefully misjudged, but just ten seconds later may just be the most wonderfully pained Stratocaster solo that’s ever pierced your armour. And after the summery stroll of ‘Midnight On The Nile’ lulls you back into calm, ‘End Song’ briefly erupts with a quietly fierce farewell, the feedback so thickly caked on that the lyrics are all but obscured and indecipherable.
For disambiguation’s sake and a handy bit of useless trivia, there are in fact three Bitter Lakes in Herships’ native land, and which of them this captivating song suite points to, who really minds? If further fruits of her labour are this truly scrumptious, Herships herself may find the path to success rather well signposted too.
originally published February 26th, 2006
Set Yourself On Fire •••½
Set Yourself On Fire is the third full album from talented Canadian indie-pop quintet Stars, although only the second to get a domestic release, and over six months late at that (and with an inexplicably hideous new sleeve). Whilst they haven’t moved far from the keyboard-driven electropop of Heart, there’s a deliciously fuller sound at work with some beautifully crafted orchestral additions that never overpower or become pompous, as can often happen when rock bands try to add a string section (are you listening Oasis?).
Of course the real fuel to Stars’s fire is the vocals, and there’s eerily tight harmonising aplenty from Amy Millan and Torquil Campbell, sometimes to the point where it requires a finely-tuned ear to even tell that two people are singing. While the gentle, melodic opener ‘Your Ex-Lover Is Dead’ seems to be more of an intro than a song, recalling The Delgados in places, its string-soaked self-help mutterings could well put off some listeners worried that the rest of the album may be as dreary or, worse, unpleasantly saccharine. It’s a strange choice for second single and certainly doesn’t live up to the great title, but if you take Millan’s breathily delivered assertion that “live through this and you won’t look back” as a plea to stick with it, you’ll be taking good advice.
The reward comes swiftly as the band shifts up a gear or two for the title track, a masterful slab of quirky pop that crests along beautiful soundscapes while successfully avoiding the perennially attendant pitfall of dullness. The only criticism is that Stars seem overly keen on excessively long outros that often so completely change the mood of the piece that you forget what the main part of the song was like. In this case, two minutes of Campbell languidly repeating “20 years asleep until we sleep forever” over tired piano and slide guitar, whilst undoubtedly lovely, simply does not thrill.
First single ‘Ageless Beauty’ is something of an insidious toe-tapper. It may not impress on the initial listen or two, but your head will surely nod without you knowing and, like me, you may even find yourself typing in rhythm and your feet competing to be most active. Providing rare relief from Stars’s favourite theme of broken hearts and failed relationships, this one’s actually about getting together. Another highlight comes successively with ‘Reunion’, the chorus of which is an uplifting joy as Campbell chimes “all I want is one more chance to be young and wild and free”. Don’t we all. Elsewhere he sighs, “I had six too many drinks last night”, but if this is what happens when the man is hungover, I shall personally take him out on a massive bender before the next album.
Thematically on another level entirely, ‘He Lied About Death’ is an edgy, spiky anti-Bush song. It’s slightly out of keeping with the tone of the rest of the album, but nonetheless stands out for the right reasons as a great little rant that deals more with political passion than reasoned debate with lines like “I hope your drunken daughters are gay!”. Its second half verges on a discordant noise assault, but never becomes unlistenable and certainly sustains the mood of the track. Perhaps this is where the record should have ended, however, as it leaves the concluding trio of songs feeling somewhat hollow and even a little boring.
Stars produce well-realised, enchanting, pretty indie pop-rock mostly dealing with the endlessly engaging subject of the battle of the sexes, and in doing so have produced a listenable, likeable and often affecting record, only slightly let down by a few too many unnecessary fillers, which would have been better placed as B-sides, and those occasional off-topic outros.
originally published October 25th, 2005
Come & Get It •••
Take seven unnaturally polite post-pubescents, add generous helpings of hit factory pop droppings and garnish with guidance from Simon ‘Svengali’ Fuller. Leave mostly uncovered for a few years before separating the mixture and leaving to cool. Seize a generic pop princess cookie cutter and voila! you too can make yourself a Rachel Stevens. With so little of her debut solo outing Funky Dory clinging favourably to the tastebuds, Stevens has everything to prove with this second dish, and while it’s still no eureka moment in the evolution of pop music, she succeeds at least in dispensing with flogging the now lifeless S Club horse. With Funky Dory essentially just a retread of her days of sharing the limelight, Stevens’s solo career looked dead in the water. Cue a hasty reinvention and a few ‘borrowed’ ideas from the likes of Goldfrapp, and all of a sudden there was life in the proverbial old dog yet.
The ‘frappian single ‘Some Girls’ is repeated here for the benefit of fans not willing to shell out for the bolstered reissue of its predecessor. Indeed, this feels rather less like an album than a meticulously planned strategy for total chart domination. How often is it these days that you get four singles released in the run up to a record? It’s just as well then that the songwriters and producers behind it (including Karen and Shelly Poole, Richard X, Rob Davis and former S Club hitmakers Jewels & Stone) have managed to conjure up some tunes well worthy of attention.
In particular, Richard X’s ‘80s retro-electro influence really makes its mark. In a similar vein to Goldfrapp’s ‘Ooh La La’, most recent single ‘I Said Never Again (But Here We Are)’ calls on late ‘80s glam-a-likes Adam & The Ants and combines their influence with some rather dubious but entertaining lyrics. Elsewhere, ‘Je M’Appelle’ is a spiky mid-tempo R&B number that suits Stevens well, while the pseudo nursery rhyme ‘Secret Garden’ displays a vocal style heavily borrowed from Kylie Minogue’s ‘Chocolate’ – although this may have been intentional given that both songs sprang from the pen of Karen Poole. Making an unapologetic play for the fantasies of Stevens’s young male fans, ‘Crazy Boys’ teases with its chunky beats and solid bassline underpinning her moans and groans.
While the songs are, for the most part, amply strong enough to carry her, Stevens’s struggle for success has always been marred by the music coming second to her image. Sure, it’s worked for others, but somehow she lacks the likeability factor that separates Kylie from Dannii and Robbie from Gary. Targeting the loins of the boys won’t necessarily translate into healthy sales if she cannot endear herself to the sisterhood also. Even with some of the finest songwriters in pop putting rockets under Rachel, you can’t help feeling that some of Come & Get It has gone to waste on something of a damp squib.
originally published October 10th, 2005
Marsha Swanson / Jennifer Hall
Live at CB2, Cambridge •••
May 11th, 2006
Jennifer Hall is fashionably late this evening, soundchecking in front of the few people cosily spread out on rugs and floral cushions before her. She’s small and cute and extremely apologetic about travelling all the way from Bath. After being introduced by a strange man in a smoking jacket, she begins perhaps a little nervously, but with each song forces her listeners to fall in love with her slightly more as her tiny hands skilfully pluck at her acoustic guitar. If there are any imperfections tonight, I personally find them endearing. And even if I didn’t they’d be cancelled out regardless by the sheer size and quality of her voice, a noticeable salute to Tori Amos through its journey from soothing to searing.
There is certainly more to this girl than meets the eye, too. As much as she and violinist Mari Dackevych may look like carefree young women for whom it’s all about the handbags and the gladrags, there’s a beautiful and surprising honesty in these stripped down, rawly emotional songs of loss and love. In fact, when Miss Hall performs an a cappella version of the title track from her Mostly Grey EP, it was all I could do to contain myself. My only quibble is that my arse went dead halfway through the set. A great new talent.
Which is more than I can say for the headline act – London-based singer/songwriter Marsha Swanson and her Nickelback-influenced guitarist. I can barely believe she’s actually landed a record deal. Although sincerity and a strong conviction can sometimes atone for a lack of tunefulness, I almost wee my pants when she soberly introduces a song about dyslexia – an apparent affliction that affects 10% of the population – a song named ‘Johnny Can’t Read’. And, as much as you claim to be influenced by Carole King and Beth Orton, you, Marsha my dear, can’t write songs. Or sing very well. I had to run away by this point but I wish I hadn’t. Apparently dyslexic people write their j’s upside down. And I missed her singing about hoovering the sky or something. Damn.
originally published May 18th, 2006
Few’ll Ignite Sound
The dark heavy boot and brightly striped sock featured on the sleeve offer only a suggestive shade of the intensely gritty grass roots, independent musical and energetic thrust of Ontario native Ember Swift and her band. On this, her eighth release since 1996, the trio proudly parades their musical dexterity. Charging through a musical mélange of jazz, punk, feisty blues, folk-rock, pop and Middle Eastern tunes, they carefully weave together rich acoustic guitar with layers of bass, drums, electric violin and harmonies. Some may sense a little too much activity on a musical level, leaving a wake of disjointed tracks in its ambitious path. However, do not be turned off by how different Ember sounds. Beyond the unusual mish-mash of songs and wandering vocal style lies a lyrical truth, a beautiful voice and forceful maverick passion. Released on her own indie label, Disarming leaves the listener in no doubt that Swift is freely and happily “independent by identity not by default.”
Opening with ‘Tapped & Wired’, Ember swiftly welcomes and energetically lures the listener into her consciously aware and politically active world. A poignant commentary, the song champions the enlightenment of the masses, unreservedly noting the dodgy dealings and twisted priorities of politicians. It is a positively intelligent kickstart to a unique musical journey, treading a path through political and personal ideology. You’ll want to join in. You’ll want to believe in these tunes with their soaring jazz vocals and sweetly soft sounds. Other highlights include the title track and ‘FAQ’, which Ember describes as “a reggae-driven pop quiz”. It’s the perfect Q&A session song to get to know the girl behind the music.
To dismiss Disarming as disjointed and lacking concept would be a rash decision and one that misses the purpose of her songwriting as truthful expression and storytelling. It is immediate, uncalculated on a corporate level, full of passion and revels in revealing her truth. As the title track accentuates, “I think it’s sad if you find me alarmingly disarming, and I look for those who align, and who find the honesty charming.”
When ‘Breath’ draws to a close and the album stops spinning, the listener may reflectively appreciate the slightly funkier feel to this release compared with previous discs, and if time allows, they may also reach over and press repeat to absorb more of the plentiful lyrics and audacious grooves. Swift will have made them smile in musical bliss for long enough to open their mouth and poured in little truths of the world outside their headphones.
originally published June 17th, 2005
Filed under: album, back issues, live, review | Tags: andrzej lukowski, danny weddup, laura veirs, russell barker, the veronicas, the victorian english gentlemans club, trevor raggatt, victoria vox, viva voce
The following reviews were all published on our old website between May 2005 and December 2006.
Year Of Meteors ••••½
At the risk of plunging straight into the pull quote, if there’s any justice in the world, Year Of Meteors will be the album that breaks Laura Veirs through to a wider audience. Following a trio of acclaimed collections, including last year’s stellar Carbon Glacier, Veirs plugs in to her more experimental side, melding ambient electro with traditional singer-songwriterisms, but crucially does so without dropping or fumbling the melodic ball. Throw in her sideways-looking, intelligent lyrics and quirky similes and it all adds up to more rather than MOR. Perhaps it’s partly her unusual background that marks her out from the crowd. After all, it’s unlikely that there are many artists in the Seattle alt-folk underground who speak fluent Mandarin and have a postgrad-level grounding in applied geology.
Certainly, Veirs’s way with a lyric flits from the Zen-like and philosophical to the mundane and seemingly irrelevant, yet somehow revealing. And that’s often with the space of a single song. Take ‘Secret Someones’, for example, in which she ponders a restless horizon before casually asking what you make of the drummer’s haircut. All of this propelled along by a beautiful jazz-tinged backing track set to a garage beat and punctuated with distorted guitar stabs and feedback. It’s an ambitious mélange that’s never quite matched elsewhere but is heartening evidence of the album’s inventive spirit.
Opener ‘Fire Snakes’ starts out with dreamy acoustics reminiscent of Suzanne Vega, particularly in the phrasing, but Veirs soon raises the bar with beats and bleeps that signify a defiance to be easily pigeonholed. Further textures are woven in with hammered dulcimer and Eyvind Kang’s haunting viola, amassing and ascending to an engaging climax. Similarly, the obvious first single ‘Galaxies’ kicks off with vocal and solo guitar (albeit this time spiky and distorted), contrasting nicely with the smooth beats, keyboard vibraphone and analogue synth sounds that follow.
Happily, Veirs never errs toward the pretentious in her music and the obscurist in her lyric. Each song is quickly appealing and the arrangements, though dense, are also swiftly accessible. Indeed, it would be easy to listen through the entire disc and be unaware of the complexity (and downright oddness in places – the heavy riffing viola on ‘Parisian Dream’ for example) of the sounds, so seamlessly do they become a part of the music. Similarly, the ambiguity in the lyrics allows space for the listener to draw their own meanings and fasten their own values to the frameworks provided. Even better, this multi-layered approach only serves to make the simpler tracks, ‘Spelunking’ and ‘Where Gravity is Dead’, all the more striking, particularly as they bookend the measured brutality of ‘Black Gold Blues’. Viola has never sounded so menacing! ‘Lake Swimming’ draws the album to a mesmeric close, save for the almost obligatory ‘hidden’ track; in this case, a short, protean version of what was to become ‘Magnetized’ with a performance for which Veirs could reasonably be accused of phoning in… but in a good way.
The skilful production from Tucker Martine, also the drummer in Veirs’s backing band, The Tortured Souls, turns what could so easily have been a sonic mess into a record of great beauty. Every performance is impeccably nailed, from Veirs’s vocal and acoustic guitar to Steve Moore’s keyboards and Karl Blau’s bass and electric guitar. It’s gratifying then that Year Of Meteors has been deservedly lauded from all corners of the press and should comfortably ensconce itself in many a shortlist for album of the year.
originally published November 28th, 2005
Live at the Fleece & Firkin, Bristol ••••
February 16th, 2006
The night does not start well. After a lengthy altercation with the bouncer about age, Citizen Cards and valid forms of ID in which I have to get my friend to drive down to the venue with my passport, I am finally allowed in midway through Pure Horsehair’s support slot feeling a little irate and somewhat weary. However, my malaise is dispelled in an instant when I catch sight of Laura herself sitting at a little table in the corner doodling on her setlists and signing stuff for the occasional fan. She’s sweet and entirely approachable, even when pestered by crazy-permed archetypal middle-aged men who have seemingly converged upon the venue to confirm the folk fan stereotype.
When she takes the stage solo, a serene hush cloaks the venue, in contrast to the noisy chatter that rather overwhelmed Pure Horsehair’s quiet melodies. It feels as if we’re watching one of our friends play for us. Opening with ‘Cool Water’ – a joyfully simple and beautiful song – Veirs sets the tone for a set comprised mostly of older songs, many from 2004’s Carbon Glacier. This is surprising and refreshing as she’s touring behind last year’s Year Of Meteors, but chooses from her entire back catalogue and does not allow the new songs to dominate.
Announcing “It’s good to be in Bristol!” (and looking like she really means it), she launches into ‘Lakeswimming’ and capably proves that she’s just as captivating solo as she is with the various incarnations of her band, The Tortured Souls. Making excellent use of a sampler and pre-programmed electronics, the song is ably constructed through a multitude of looped beats and layered vocals. This approach also perfectly suits the songs from Year Of Meteors, an album which sees Veirs embrace a far more electronic influence than ever before – think of a midpoint between The Postal Service and Gillian Welch. Speaking between songs, Laura seems almost apologetic that she hasn’t brought her band, but her impeccable musicianship shines through the myriad of sounds, melodies and layers that she spectacularly conjures on her own.
For ‘Tiger Tattoos’, Veirs passes out metal chiming sticks to members of the audience, asking them to accompany her by playing them against the venue’s walls and posts. It’s potentially a risky move as just one overactive participant could mar the song’s fragile beauty, but it pays off wonderfully. Under Laura’s direction, the crowd’s subtle chimes, as well as claps and even beatboxing (!), prove to be a highly effective accompaniment to her acoustic guitar and clear, crystalline vocals. On ‘Fire Snakes’, subtle electronic touches brush alongside the acoustics, and the song draws upon the geological and astrological images that Veirs returns to throughout the night – ice, stars, sea, glaciers.
During the main set, someone in the crowd yells out for ‘Ether Sings’, and Laura happily plays it when she returns for the encore, the beguiling melody weaving a hypnotic spell upon the attentive crowd. Throughout the evening, the beats and effects employed haven’t been at all obtrusive, but for closer ‘Jailhouse Fire’ they are, and wonderfully so. Pulling out a Melody Pop (remember them?) and alternately whistling and chomping on it, she records and layers the sound until her whistling fills the venue. It’s a fitting end to an entirely charming evening.
originally published March 6th, 2006
The Secret Life Of… •••
Sire / Warner Bros.
Are Jess and Lisa Origliasso – aka The Veronicas – the Australian equivalent of Tegan & Sara? Not quite, but the diminutive identical twins certainly serve up many of the right ingredients on their debut album The Secret Life Of…, a collection of immensely likeable power-pop that presses a good many buttons with just the right amount of post-Lavigne attitude (though sadly not post- sk8r punk spelling, or should we just blame Prince and mobile phones?). With no less than seven producers on board, including Canadian songstress turned Lavigne co-writer Chantal Kreviazuk, there’s no shortage of gloss; these people have been put to good use! As such, the rockier numbers chime with smoothly crashing guitars, while tasteful piano and acoustic strumming effectively underpin the ballads like ‘Nobody Wins’, but it’s carried off nicely without sounding overly clinical.
Which is all well and good, but what about the performances? Happily, they are perfectly judged; Jess and Lisa’s dual vocals and harmonic interplay adds an extra sheen to an already polished sound, but, crucially, it seems natural and unforced. Like Tegan & Sara, their seemingly instinctive communication endears them to the listener and raises all the usual questions over twin telepathy. For what is essentially a straightforward pop product, it’s gratifying to be able to say that the songs on which the twins have a writing credit (that’s 8 out of 12) are the strongest, with special mentions for ‘Leave Me Alone’, ‘When It All Falls Apart’ and ‘I Could Get Used To This’. Indeed, any cynical preconceptions of the Origliassos as simply a fabricated marketing ploy are happily dashed after just one listen.
The tongue-in-cheek humour of first single ‘Everything I’m Not’ and the sublimely executed Secret are just two of the highlights, the latter song recounting the inevitable difficulties when your find out that your gay best friend isn’t really into guys and is actually just stalking you. It may not be original (did you see ‘Three To Tango’?) but it’s fun regardless. Less fun is their pseudo-angsty cover of Tracy Bonham’s ‘Mother Mother’ which fails to convince, attempting to invoke rebellion in a lameass, “ooh, I went to a bar and had two lagers” sort of way. It’s a disappointing way to close an album that, for the most part, is very enjoyable.
When it’s good, The Secret Life Of… is perfect for zooming down the motorway with the top down, hair whipping in the breeze, and the tunes are defiantly hummable. What it really lacks is substance; the job of this sort of album is to inveigle its way into the teenage psyche and become the soundtrack to youth. You have to wonder how many of these songs are going to be played in 10 years’ time at a class of 2006 school reunion – not many I suspect, and that’s a real shame.
originally published October 27th, 2006
The Victorian English Gentlemens Club
The Victorian English Gentlemens Club ••••
For every terrible band that’s looking to the early 1980s for a shot of inspiration, there’s a surprising number of good ones. This may well be to do with the fact that they’re digging just that little bit deeper and pulling their influences from further and wider. So where The Futureheads dig Gang Of Four, Captain are the anti- fashion with their Prefab Sprout influence and countless bands pick up on the punk-funk element, The Victorian English Gentlemens Club are flying the flag for the overlooked genius of the early work of The B-52s and The Cramps. A recent radio interview saw the band proclaiming their love for XTC, and whilst that is certainly an audible influence, the Club have a stronger alliance with the former.
Take ‘Stupid As Wood’ for instance. There’s a rumbling bass line, trashy drums and psych-surf guitar – all the elements of The Cramps in glorious 3D technicolour. It’s no mere homage either; the Club are far too savvy and skilled for that. ‘The Tales Of Hermit Mark’ is another good example of this, right down to the way lead singer Adam Taylor yelps like Lux Interior, while the chorus shows off the B-52s link. Similarly, ‘Such A Chore’ jerks and bounces all over, exuding the same insanity that pervaded their major influences.
Other songs reveal a feeling much closer to some of their more contemporary peers. Latest single ‘Impossible Sightings Over Shelton’ has the ramshackle spirit of Clap Your Hands Say Yeah!, while ‘My Son Spells Backwards’ is musically reminiscent of The Young Knives with some really great interacting male and female vocals. As this is Wears The Trousers, it’s at this point that the brilliance of bassist Louise Mason and drummer Emma Daman’s backing vocals deserves to be mentioned. Indeed, the term ‘backing vocals’ almost does them a disservice as they form an integral part of the tune, filling out the melodies rather than being merely added as an afterthought. More of that please.
Early single ‘Ban The Gin’ is a pleasant surprise when it arrives just past the halfway point. Stylistically, it lurks somewhere between rockabilly and skiffle – unexpected but highly effective! However, closing epic ‘Cannonball’ dwarfs all that came before it, kicking off with such convincing Pixies-style latent dementia that you simply can’t wait for the dormant volcano to blow. And then, of course, it does, showering sparks of Sonic Youth and The Fall down from above.
Exhilarating and with great appeal, The Victorian English Gentlemens Club have come up with a very fine debut, one that’s very much of today and, simultaneously, of times gone by.
originally published October 5th, 2006
Get Yr Blood Sucked Out •••
Full Time Hobby
Any long-lasting relationship needs a bit of spice; in the case of husband and wife duo Viva Voce, you’re probably on fairly safe ground if instead of ‘spice’ you read ‘vast quantities of brain-warping intoxicants’. And though Kevin and Anita Robinson don’t explicitly bill themselves as proponents of illicit substances, the mantric vocals and hazy grooves of fourth album Get Yr Blood Sucked Out are so thoroughly blissed out you’ve got to think that, at the very least, they have freakishly high serotonin levels.
Much like its predecessor The Heat Can Melt Your Brain, giving Get Yr Blood Sucked Out a rating based on a totally sober listen is rather problematic when it appears to have been designed to accompany a heavy dose of prescription medication. Certainly, 10 minutes of ‘We Do Not Fuck Around’ (which you’ve got to think is maybe a smidge ironically named) is not necessarily something that qualifies as ‘fun’ when you have a clear head. But if a few of the tracks outstay their welcome, it’s still the duo’s finest moment to date; no jazz cigarettes are needed to appreciate the thunderous rumble of opener ‘I’m A Believer’, while lead single ‘From The Devil Himself’ sees the pair finally marry their fuggy soundscapes to something approaching a pop song.
More than ever, the sheer scale of the noise the two produce will floor your jaw; these tracks are huge, muscular beasts that stalk the earth like a herd of psychedelic dinosaurs. At this rate of growth the next record should be the moment the ambience of the Robinsons’ music is finally matched by the songs themselves. But to steal a march on such hedonistic pleasure, simply give Get Yr Blood Sucked Out a spin while imbibing your trusted narcotic of choice.
Victoria Vox & Her Jumping Flea ••••
What is it with the ukulele all of a sudden? Not since George Harrison became obsessed with them in the early 1990s has the Hawaiian four-stringed instrument been so in the limelight. One of last year’s most memorable singles, Mara Carlyle’s ‘Baby Bloodheart’, was almost entirely ukulele and voice, and criminally under-rated UK singer-songwriter Sam Brown followed in her shoes with the, er, Ukulele & Voice EP. First though, Berklee graduate Victoria Vox steps up to the plate with Victoria Vox & Her Jumping Flea, ten deftly woven original compositions and well-chosen covers, some modern, some from the golden age of the uke’s post-World War I popularity.
For the uninitiated, the ‘jumping flea’ of the title derives from the literal translation of the Hawaiian. Rest assured, however, that there’s no fleas, flies or insects of any kind on Victoria Vox. Since striking out as an independent artist three years ago, she’s been plying her engaging brand of acoustic pop the length and breadth of the States, mostly backed by guitar, but since an accident of circumstance introduced her to the uke, she’s been slipping it into her live set on an increasingly frequent basis. An entire ukulele album was only a matter of time! Now, to be fair, the uke as an instrument isn’t blessed with the broadest of dynamic or tonal ranges, though it is a pleasing sound. However, Vox’s consummate skill as arranger and interpreter really pays dividends. So while the uke and vocals take centre stage on all tracks, a sympathetic backing adds texture and depth to each, adding in guitar, bass, cello, vibes, and even toy piano and kazoo.
The album starts off with ‘Ukulele Lady’, a cute little novelty song from the ukulele’s heyday, written by Broadway composer Gus Kahn, who also had a hand in classics like ‘Dream A Little Dream Of Me’, ‘Makin’ Whoopee’ and ‘My Baby Just Cares For Me’. It’s a charming period piece, with its authentic showtune feel and slide guitar ornament providing the perfect opener. Vox interprets another of Kahn’s tunes (‘Guilty’) later on, while the two more recent covers include the Talking Heads’s ‘Psycho Killer’, gorgeously arranged with cello, and ‘Le Vent Nous Portera’ by French rock band Noir Desir – better known in the UK because of their singer’s involvement in the death of actress Marie Trintignant. It’s a beautiful rendition, transporting the listener directly to the narrow streets of Montmartre or the Quatier-Latin with its melodica and Hot Club-styled jazz comping. The album’s centrepiece, however, is a fantastic medley of ‘Somewhere Over The Rainbow’ and ‘What A Wonderful World’. Here, mellow vibraphone chimes contrast with the staccato ukulele while Vox interweaves and improvises around the melodies, her beautifully pure voice bringing a feeling of innocence and intimacy to the hopeful lyrics – totally beguiling.
Vox is no slouch either when it comes to her own compositions. America tells the lonely tale of being a solo travelling troubadouress, while ‘Dreamin’ About You’ (the only song that’s simply uke and voice) shows that, for all the rich clarity of her vocal, Vox can extend to a more bluesy wail when she wants to. It’s a real testimony to her delivery that other songs like ‘My Darlin’ Beau’, ‘Yodelayheehoo’ and ‘Christmas With You’, that might have sounded twee or cloying in less skilful hands, are only ever charming and engaging. Certainly, there are few albums this undeniably enchanting, creating a world of their own around the listener. This is a pleasant world, both forwardlooking and back, and indeed, the only real complaint to speak of is that, at little over a half hour of music, it would have been nice to overstay our welcome.
originally published January 21st, 2006
Filed under: back issues, feature, words in edgeways | Tags: 2006, amanda palmer, andrzej lukowski, interview, issue four, music, the dresden dolls
words in edgeways with amanda palmer of the dresden dolls
Pianos, painted eyebrows and gender realignment. Just an average day for the Dresden Dolls discovers Andrzej Lukowski.
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Filed under: back issues, feature, interrupting yr broadcast | Tags: andrzej lukowski, emily haines, interview, issue four, music