wears the trousers magazine


2007 reviews dump: c

The following reviews were published on our old MySpace blog in 2007.

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Vanessa Carlton
Heroes & Thieves ••
Universal

Poor piano-popster Vanessa Carlton might have felt the sting of inevitability about her second album, Harmonium. Coming off the back of her smash hit debut it was a relative commercial and critical failure, peaking at a lowly 33 in the US Billboard 200 charts. Part of the problem was that the whole album sounded too much like her debut single ‘A Thousand Miles’; basic, boring piano-pop with no innovation or flair for variety. Carlton soon found herself receiving a cold “thanks, but no thanks” from her record label, A&M. All was not good, until R&B supremo Irv Gotti (Ashanti’s backer) decided to take a chance on her by producing her third album, Heroes & Thieves.

Carlton’s frustration with A&M bubbles to the surface in the album’s first number, ‘Nolita Fairytale’. Immediately recognizable as standard Carlton fare, its lyrics (“Take away my record deal / go on, I don’t need it”) might strike some as being somewhat petulant; sadly, that is by far the least of the song’s problems. Although it is competent, it is certainly nothing special; despite Carlton’s powerful voice (reminiscent of a young Sheryl Crow), her enunciation is so weak that it’s something of a strain to distinguish between words and understand the song’s heartfelt lyrics. This is a shame, because Carlton’s skill as a lyricist is actually pretty good. Next track ‘Hands On Me’s tale of youthful, unrequited love works well with Carlton’s yearning vocals, although it feels somewhat overwhelmed by a intrusive percussion – a common problem throughout the album, as it happens, and something Carlton would do well to avoid in the future.

Although most of the tracks sound rather samey, there are a few standouts. Carlton’s multilayered vocals in ‘The One’ take on a rich close harmony that could tie the Puppini Sisters in knots, and ends the song with a remarkably wistful coda. ‘My Best’ shimmers with a lullaby feel, filled with the sweet chimes of an electric piano to create a very pleasing track, and proving that, when she tries, Carlton can be very impressive. However, what should have been the album’s best number – ‘Home’ – fails to live up to its potential; at first Carlton eschews percussion, opting for a simple, near-perfect combination of piano, violin, harp and voice. Sadly, this quiet mastery is shattered by needless drums for the last two minutes, wrecking what could otherwise have been a welcome recognition that innovation is at least as important as convention.

Unfortunately, it seems that the pull of ‘A Thousand Miles’s success is just too strong, leading Carlton to return to the same, sterile sound again and again. Sometimes this sort of dependence on a tried-and-tested formula works well; it certainly hasn’t done J-Lo any harm. However, she has international fame and a somewhat slavishly devoted fan-base to rely on, whereas Miss Carlton is – for now, at least – dancing at the fringes of being a one-hit wonder.

So, will Heroes & Thieves see her storming back from her long holiday from public recognition with a smash-hit single? Unlikely. Vanessa Carlton might not be over and done with, but if she wants to justify Gotti’s faith – and prove A&M wrong – she will have to throw in a little more variety and forget the winning formula of ‘A Thousand Miles’. It’s had its day; one hopes that Carlton now chooses to look to the future rather than depend upon the past.

Andy Wasley

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Neko Case
Live From Austin, TX ••••
New West

I admit it; I grew up with old school country music. My mother had a coveted collection of Patsy Cline 45s and my father spent Saturday nights attempting to get an old AM radio to tune into a Nashville radio station that would broadcast the Grand Ole Opry. So as I grew up in music, I learned to appreciate that which Austin City Limits has as its beginnings. Fast forward to 2007. Country music has become mainstream pop and the Grand Ole Opry has become somewhat of a caricature of itself. While in recent years, ACL has moved way from being a country and folk showcase into more current and relevant music, it still keeps to its roots of strong performances and is more successful today than ever.

So it was with pleasure that I picked up the live disc from Neko Case at Austin City Limits in Austin, TX. Neko has been something of an indomitable force in music through the last few years, both as sometime accompanist to Canada’s New Pornographers as well a stellar solo artist. Most recently, Case shined with one of the most well deserving critically acclaimed albums of 2006, Fox Confessor Brings the Flood. Selections from three earlier albums, Blacklisted, Canadian Amp and Furnace Room Lullaby are showcased in this set of 14 songs recorded in August of 2003.

Fans of Case will ask, didn’t she already do this with 2004’s The Tigers Have Spoken? Well, they would be partially correct. Tigers… was released with the help of full band, The Sadies whilst this album scales back the performance to a minimal backing band and one backup singer. Where The Tigers Have Spoken showcased a grand scale of musicianship and range, Live from Austin, TX puts Neko herself square into the spotlight.

Not surprisingly, this minimalist formula works extremely well. Neko has one of the strongest set of pipes in the music business, and they soar here. From the moment her voice takes flight on opener ‘Favorite’ to the closing rolling steel guitar in ‘Alone & Forsaken’, she takes control of each note flawlessly. The setlist appears to be chosen specifically to highlight her strengths, including an interesting selection of covers. What might be sacred ground to many artists becomes artistic license to Case, as she takes classics by Dylan (‘Buckets of Rain’) and country legend Hank Williams (‘Alone & Forsaken’) and gives them a tender twist. The band, Jon Rauhouse and Tom Ray with Kelly Hogan on backing vocals, accent Case with sparse yet substantial steel guitar and banjo.

Released as a DVD both in the UK and Stateside in 2006, the disc’s audio companion is slimmed down from the original performance, cutting to 40 minutes from 90. Perhaps it’s this production choice that at times makes the recording feel a bit rushed. With little to no banter between artist and audience, or even artist and bandmates, the recording lacks the depth normally standard of Case’s live performances. The production is at times touch and go as well, with Neko’s overwhelming vocals pushed so much to the forefront it occasionally drowns out everything around it.

Despite these minor problems, Live From Austin, TX shows the depths of an artist who was just coming into her own skin when she stepped on that stage in 2003. It is here you first hear ‘Maybe Sparrow’, which evolved just slightly for inclusion on Fox Confessor…, and gives the listener a hint of just what Neko was to become.

Loria Near

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Mary Chapin Carpenter
The Calling ••••
Zoe / Rounder

From the opening piano chords of ‘The Calling’ it’s clear that New Jersey’s finest country export is back. When Mary Chapin Carpenter’s distinctively smoky voice makes its entrance a few bars later it’s clear that she’s back with a vengeance. And vengeance may just be the appropriate word. While sonically the album contains all Carpenter’s signature sounds there’s a distinct change in lyrical content. The songs still inhabit the contemplative side of the psyche that is so typical of her songwriting but with a newfound edge, exploring the big questions which the events of the last few years make increasingly hard to ignore. Faith, racism, commitment, bigotry, the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, the jingoism which led to the Dixie Chicks’s trial by radio, personal responsibility and free will…each steps into the spotlight across the baker’s dozen of songs presented on the disc.

As a whole, The Calling is a magnificently mature statement, demonstrating music’s unique ability to move and evoke a feeling of empathy, however difficult the subject matter. The album also represents a range of watershed moments of the artist. It’s her first album for Rounder Records and her first Nashville-recorded album. In addition, along with her regular collaborators she’s also thrown a couple of Music City studio legends into the mix in the form of veteran and drummer Russ Kunkel and guitarist Dean Parks (allegedly the most recorded guitar player in the history of modern music).

And the quality shows. The Calling is perhaps a little mellower overall than some of her best-known songs – there’s no ‘He Thinks He’ll Keep Her’ nestling among the set. However, the restraint perfectly complements the mood and it doesn’t betray some form of mid-career ennui. Even where the songs do up the BPM count a dignified spirit remains; again, the word ‘mature’ springs to mind. That said, there are still plenty of moments to get the foot tapping – ‘We’re All Right’, ‘It Must Have Happened’, ‘Your Life Story’ and ‘One With The Song’ all supply the janglesome country pop that has become a Chapin Carpenter trademark.

Careful not to leave proceedings on a down, the album closes with a pair of uplifting ballads – ‘Why Shouldn’t We’ and ‘Bright Morning Star’ – which speak of empowerment and hope. A fitting conclusion to this artist’s most mature and thoughtful collection yet.

Trevor Raggatt

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Client
Heartland ••••
Loser Friendly

Back in the mid-1990s, a Yorkshire lass by the name of Sarah Blackwood hit the pages of the NME fronting indie-pop trio Dubstar, whose debut album Disgraceful notched up two Top 20 singles (the rather brilliant ‘Stars’ and ‘Not So Manic Now’) and found them surrounded by weird and wonderful dolls, flowers, dogs and anything else vaguely psychedelic they could put on their artwork without finding themselves on the wrong side of kitsch. Sadly the hits dried up all too soon and the band’s millennial demise went virtually unnoticed.

Not long after, the mysterious Client emerged from the shadows shrouded with intrigue, its two unnamed members referred to as simply ‘Client A’ and ‘Client B’ and their faces left out of the press shots. Still, it was hardly a secret that Blackwood was involved, especially given how distinctive her vocals are. Client are certainly a far cry from Dubstar and who would have imagined such a transition? Gone are the slightly twee stylistics; now it’s PVC, slick photography and black as the new black. Oh, and ‘electro’ displaces ‘indie’ as the prefix to ‘-pop’.

Previous albums Client and City were surrounded by substantial media buzz (in certain circles at least), included collaborations with ex-Libertines members (spawning their only Top 40 hit, the rather uninspiring ‘Pornography’ featuring Carl Barat) but resolutely failed to ignite any real interest in the general public. The problem was that they were marketed as a slightly pretentious electroclash outfit when in fact, they themselves claim they were surprised to “find themselves relevant”. Whether or not their intention was to front this so-called scene, the result was that they didn’t quite deliver what seemingly was promised. Heartland, however, is quite another matter. While earlier songs such as ‘Rock ‘n’ Roll Machine’ or ‘Radio’ were fantastic in essence, but quite sketchily produced, just short of the spark they needed to be surefire hits, the sound on Heartland is much tighter, the vocals infinitely more honed and, on the whole, the songs much stronger. Finally, Client have produced an album that shows them off as a force to be reckoned with.

Successfully aping the ‘80s (and ‘90s come to think of it) and slightly camp, Client’s sound on Heartland is essentially what more of their first release should have sounded like. It’s slick, often catchy and achingly cool. ‘Drive’ and the fantastic ‘It’s Not Over’ are relentlessly hummable, while ‘Monkey On My Back’ and ‘6 In The Morning’ are suitably strange, risqué and provocative, with enough tongue in cheek lines to add a certain edge that keeps them serving the darker side of pop. There are obvious allusions to Goldfrapp on ‘Lights Go Out’, which sounds like a homage to ‘Train’ (although it is in itself rather good), and comparisons with acts that have already achieved success with a very similar sound is unavoidable. It’s a shame that the initial batch of songs in 2003 hadn’t sounded as full as this, as by now Client could have been pretty big.

The album isn’t without its downfalls. As was more evident on previous releases, Client sometimes revert to clichéd lyrics that are lazy and predictable. ‘Where’s The Rock & Roll Gone’ is dull and, bizarrely, lead single ‘Zerox Machine’ is one of the least interesting tracks on the record. Instrumental ‘Koeln’ is an odd inclusion on an album dominated by strong vocal hooks, although not a wholly unwelcome one. Despite its weaknesses, Heartland is a largely good album and even if their earlier efforts left you cold there’s a lot to enjoy here. Blackwood’s vocals are truly back on form, pop gems are in abundance and it makes you feel like dancing. At least just a little bit.

Rod Thomas

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CocoRosie
The Adventures Of Ghosthorse & Stillborn ••
Touch & Go

Never an outfit to unify the listening public, CocoRosie may have produced their most divisive album to date with the their characteristically quirky and surreal third album. The Brooklyn sisters appear to have taken a similar turn to fellow eccentric Patrick Wolf in producing a record that simultaneously harbours their most radio-friendly moments (‘Rainbowarriors’ as a prime example) and also their weakest work. Though it’s as varied and obscure as any previous outing and contains a similarly vast array of “instruments” (take this noun as freely as possible – coins, scissors, bicycle bells and pretty much anything else that was close to hand plays the part of percussion), the problem is that it’s just not as interesting third time around. To give the sisters credit, brains have well and truly been wracked in order to orchestrate the songs with as diverse a selection of sounds as possible, but there are other forces at work here.

The main problem with the album – admittedly a standard feature of their work – is the vocals. Now, a certain amount of leniency is allowed for artistic expression, but Bianca’s vocals on ‘Japan’ are, for want of a better word, repulsive. The song itself is an unforgivable assault of unfunny references to rape (“but you like it / so say thank you!”) and pseudo-political views topped off by one of the most excruciating vocal deliveries of recent times with Bianca’s scratchy brat-like vocal, hammed up even further with cod-patois tones, decimating everything in its wake. It’s hard to believe that anyone can naturally sing in such a manner, and the need to adopt this tiresomely impish affectation escapes me. It might seem an unfair point of focus, but now more than ever it’s a very, very thick layer of ice to dig through to appreciate what lies below.

On initial listens, tracks such as ‘Werewolf’ and ‘Promise’ are fine background music if not paid too much heed. Then, when more attention is finally given and lines such as “I suck dick” ruin any ambience created, are we supposed to be shocked? Or impressed at their intelligence? This is the album’s core irritation – that beauty is promised but destroyed at birth by mercilessly contrived lyrics and indescribably grating vocals. I really wanted to fall in love with CocoRosie and so much of The Adventures Of Ghosthorse & Stillborn begins to offer the opportunity before they spin around and spoil it by doing something woefully insubstantial.

Superficially, CocoRosie are incredibly talented as the album’s production values clearly display but their creative vision is riddled with flaws. Their lyrical images are often mundane, and even when more obscure they are predictably so, almost in the manner of a caricature. In a strange way, CocoRosie appear to have embellished the vices of their previous work and positioned themselves as very easy targets for criticism.

As harsh as the evaluation sounds, fans of previous work will likely find moments, even minutes, of beauty in this work. Many songs are decent enough efforts, but for an outfit as self-consciously styled as the Casady sisters, you might expect better. Even the presence of Devendra Banhart’s writing on ‘Houses’ offers little benefit to the equation. Occasionally glorious composition is shot dead by thoughtless lyrics; Sierra’s gorgeous operatics are strangled by Bianca’s painfully overwrought vocals – ultimately, while trying too hard, it is far too lazy.

Rod Thomas

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Colleen
Live at the Sacred Trinity Chapel, Salford •••½
June 12, 2007

Some artists paint on canvases metres wide with broad brushes, spattering colour and ideas everywhere. Others content themselves with Jane Austen’s “two inches square of ivory”, finding freedom in restriction. French multi-instrumentalist Colleen is very much in the latter camp, teasing intricate songs out of sometimes as few as four or five tones played variously on the guitar, clarinet, the Baroque instrument, the viol, wind chimes and even music boxes.

Her concert at the Sacred Trinity Chapel, a tiny red sandstone church washed up by the ebb and flow of the Industrial Revolution at the edge of Manchester city centre, to promote her new record Les Ondes Silencieuses (‘silent waves’) was a mesmeric rather than exciting experience. Playing to a respectful, if slightly solemn crowd of people scattered over pews and lounging earnestly on jute mats on the floor, her seven-song set brought to mind the incidental music that accompanies a sinister European fairytale, the kind where the princess gets her hand cut off in the spinning wheel and bleeds to death slowly in the forest.

Employing a sound poised somewhere between French baroque composers such as Rameau, electro-pastoral shoegazers Slowdive and the avant-garde minimalism only to be found after 11pm on Radio 3 means Colleen is unlikely to trouble the charts anytime soon. Yet her sonorous, occasionally stiff, looped soundscapes have an undeniable charm, particularly in her guitar and viol-based work. Her painstaking approach to building songs out of tiny fragments using a pedal loop yields results that make a guitar sound like sleigh bells, and can transform her rather ponderous clarinet playing into something rich and strange.

All this, however, pales into insignificance compared to her work layering the sound of chimes or music boxes over one another. Not only do they exemplify her approach to making music, using just a few repeated notes so that the drama and variation in each song emerges at micro level, but the resulting sound is also weird enough to stick in the mind. A single song, in which a distorted music box melody plays backwards and forwards over an Elizabethan-sounding guitar line sums up everything Colleen does best: building wilfully odd art out of fragments.

Chris McCrudden

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Judy Collins
Sings Lennon & McCartney ••
Wildflower

There’s no denying the pedigree of Judy Collins, a singer as fine as they come with a career that has thus far spanned nearly 50 years and 44 albums. Throughout the 1960s, she earned herself quite the formidable reputation as a masterful interpreter of other people’s songs – early recordings featured songs by Baez, Mitchell, Cohen, Dylan, Seeger and more, all cosseted by her pure soprano vocal. Given that her landmark 1966 album featured, and took its title from, a Beatles track (‘In My Life’), it’s remarkable that Collins has waited another 40 years before attempting more entries in the Lennon and McCartney canon. Set in this context, an album on which Collins explores the Beatles oeuvre in greater depth should be a cause of the hushed anticipation.

Sadly, the reality is a disappointingly lacklustre affair. There’s no denying the pure beauty of Collins’s still-crystalline voice, but the arrangements and interpretations are inexplicably disastrous. The players on Sings… rank among the greatest musicians the session world has to offer, yet, unaccountably, too many of the songs come over as tiresome jazz noodling that would be below par even in some mediocre Manhattan cocktail bar. Imagine the inspired spoof combo which closed each episode of ‘Alas Smith & Jones’ and you have in a nutshell the Collins takes on ‘And I Love Her’ and ‘I’ll Follow The Sun’.

Some, mostly McCartney-penned, numbers fare a little better. The sweetness (or at least bittersweet tone) of ‘Blackbird’, ‘Hey Jude’ and ‘Yesterday’ acts as a sympathetic context for Collins’s trill. But there’s no escaping the fact that Collins simply doesn’t have sufficient grit, world-weariness or cynicism to convince on tracks like ‘Golden Slumbers’ and ‘We Can Work It Out’. Elsewhere, ‘Norwegian Wood’ veers way too close to department store muzak fodder for comfort. And ‘When I’m 64’…? Let’s not even go there.

It’s frustrating that what should have been a glorious canter through one of the all-time classic songbooks is such a disappointment. Perhaps another repertoire (Berlin, Porter, Gershwin…even Coward!) and a more engaging production would have reaped better dividends. As it stands, however, this particular collection will remain the preserve of Collins completists only.

Trevor Raggatt

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Shawn Colvin
Live at Shepherd’s Bush Empire ••••
June 18, 2007

The Shepherd’s Bush Empire is no easy place to play solo. The gaping maw of the auditorium must be daunting for even the most seasoned pro and bands of any number. So kudos goes to both performers this evening for having the cahones to face up to this alone.

Husky, tousled and bescarfed support Jack Savoretti, only slightly showing his nerves, provides a soundtrack of lilting and earnest acoustic numbers that greet the punters. While he seems to be somewhat thrown by the hushed tones between tracks, this is probably a trick of the acoustics as the audience there to witness his set seem pretty grateful to be rewarded for turning up early by a more than half decent support.

There is no danger that Shawn Colvin is going to be concerned about a lack of appreciation. Decked in a shiny plastic patterned halter-neck, blue jeans and platforms, she looks every bit the part of a Midwestern trailer mom casually strolling onstage with just an acoustic guitar. But this unassuming demeanour disguises one of the finest singer-songwriters, which the audience, in appreciative applause before she even plays a chord, knows only too well.

Opening with one of the less popular numbers from her largely forgotten covers album might not be the most auspicious start, but she follows this up with two songs from last year’s These Four Walls. Excellent on record, ‘Fill Me Up’ and the title track are even more poignant live, stripped of any production, the quality of Colvin’s voice and poetry resonating loud.

Having spent a long time touring live and playing the New York folk scene before making a record, Colvin is completely at ease despite her assertion that this is her largest ever London gig. Apologising if the set recapitulates a Union Chapel show from the back end of last year she says that she can’t remember what she played, to which an audience member calls back that “neither can we”, without pausing for breath she retorts “We’re the same age then”.

Culling a set from throughout her career, Colvin has wide-ranging and nuanced perspectives on life, loves and relationships, from the fatalistic ‘Trouble’, which fizzes with venom, to the mournful, glacial and soaring ‘Shotgun Down The Avalanche’. Colvin’s lyrics are deceptively sharp, and coupled here with the raw immediacy of her live vocals, which effortlessly switch from piercing soprano shaking the cornices of the domed ceiling to a desert parched scratch on demand, she entrances the audience before drawing us back from adulatory rapture with between-track quips.

The glorious lovesong ‘Polaroids’, a list of images making a flickbook animation of a relationship and the triumphant tale of escape that is ‘Sunny Came Home’ elicit two of the greatest rounds of applause of the night. But even lesser known tracks are delivered with such poise that at the end of 16 songs the standing ovation is heartfelt and well deserved.

Returning for an encore of mostly covers, we are treated to an ‘ad hoc’ version of Neil Young’s ‘Birds’ inspired by it being played before Colvin came onstage. A reworking of Gnarls Barkley’s ‘Crazy’ could be embarrassing for someone of Colvin’s maturity, but she manages to breathe new life into a song played to death. And ‘Killing The Blues’, a standard in her live set for many years now, totally floored this reviewer.

For all her Grammys and critical acclaim, it is near criminal that Colvin is not better known and better respected by the public. Anyone who can, without pretence and so confidently, hold such a masterclass in performance deserves to be much much more highly regarded.

Peter Hayward

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The Concretes
Hey Trouble •
Licking Fingers

As most people will probably remember, Swedish collective The Concretes caused quite a stir a few years back with their self-titled debut and its almost-instant pop classics such as ‘You Can’t Hurry Love’. Fewer will remember the follow up In Colour that failed somewhat to live up to expectations, and even fewer still will be aware that they’re still going, despite losing Victoria Bergsman’s majestic lead vocals to a brief affair with Peter, Bjorn & John and, ultimately, her solo career as Taken By Trees. For those faithful hangers on who’ve been wondering what the band might sound like without her, the wait is over. And the answer is, sadly, really not great. Though it starts off pleasantly enough, it soon becomes clear that Ms Bergsman made a well-timed departure from a once-great musical force now reduced to making dishwater music. What once sparkled now grates – the retro production values, the slightly twee edge and the faux-naïve lyrics; Hey Trouble appears to faithfully adhere to the formula of their debut, but recapturing the chemistry eludes the band completely.

At times the album, or rather the mixing and arrangements of the album, veer towards Belle & Sebastian at their more electronic (‘Keep Yours’), and at other times The Supremes (a major, long-held influence). Certain moments are sufficiently well arranged and lavishly orchestrated, but it’s all bogged down by its chugging monotony. One line in ‘A Whale’s Heart’ (a song whose title is vastly more interesting than the song ever dares become) declares “it’s straight-to-DVD hell”. If this album were a film, this line would be the most apt in the script.

Alarm bells should really have rung upon hearing lead single ‘Oh Boy’, a limp attempt at reintroducing the Swedes into the limelight. Part of the problem is that many bands have jumped on the retro bandwagon since The Concretes first emerged – such as fellow Scandinavians Shout Out Louds, the aforementioned Peter, Bjorn & John, and even The Radio Dept – all of whom have become much more interesting and relevant than them. Hey Trouble is unrelentingly boring from start to finish; not a single track comes anywhere near to rivalling the pure joy of their earlier work, or even matching the energy of their successors. Lisa Milberg, who had the unenviable task of replacing Bergsman on vocals, flounders miserably, rendering any beauty in the songs impossible to hold on to. She lacks any real variety in delivery, and on the whole sounds entirely nonplussed, barely aware of the lyrics she is singing almost robotically.

In theory, the songs are fine, but they are just that: fine. They just about scrape by, but lack any real defining qualities or values that display why this album was made, or even why the band are still together aside from a contractual obligation. The ideas on this record have all been done before, often to death, by countless other bands. As harsh as it may seem, The Concretes have delivered an essentially pointless record. Hey Trouble sounds strangely empty despite the layers and layers of careful instrumentation, and, more’s the pity, achingly insincere.

Rod Thomas

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Laura Cortese
Blow Out The Candle •••
Self-released

Laura Cortese: fiddler, singer, dancer, songwriter, polymath, sometime purveyor of dog-house bass for old-timey outfit Uncle Earl…there’s no denying that the woman’s got talent. Her latest release, a mini-album sequel to 2006’s full-length Even The Lost Creek, finds her in pared-back, live and acoustic mode. Recorded straight from the mixing desk at a number of shows across the US and Canada, every one of the seven songs here demonstrates Cortese’s energy and skill.

Drawing heavily on material from Even The Lost Creek, with just one pick (‘I Must Away Love’) from her solo debut Hush and a cover. But the bare-bones nature of the recording – a simple mix of fiddle, guitar and percussion – leaves Cortese plenty of room to breathe. The rock ‘n’ reel style of ‘Mulqueens’ amply shows why her fiddle playing has been so lauded on the Stateside Celtic circuit, while the other excerpts from her previous release are nicely stripped down retreads of the studio material.

This is particularly effective on the raunchy traditional number ‘Jack Orion’ where brooding sensuality rubs shoulders with snare and brushes and spookily cello-like riffing on an octave fiddle. Of course it doesn’t end happily. Traditional ballads rarely do. The real surprise here is a tender cover of Kelly Clarkson’s ‘Breakaway’ (co-written by fellow Canadian Avril Lavigne), as far away from American Idol sk8r punk as you can possibly imagine. But the transformation of the song to fit Cortese’s country-folk style is seamless and the perfect foil to her lyrical fiddle playing.

Being picky, the technical quality of the recording isn’t as smooth as some ‘live’ offerings, but what we lose in smoothness and overdubs is more than repaid in energy, honesty, authenticity and connection between player, listener and music. Which would you rather have?

Trevor Raggatt

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Melora Creager
Perplexions ••½
Filthy Bonnet

The old maxim about never starting a band with a woman because she’ll want to go solo has never been tested more than when applied to Melora Creager. Of course, the mythical band of this epithet wasn’t Rasputina, nor was its lead singer the notoriously eclectic Creager who, as the founding member, is the nucleus around which the organised chaos of Rasputina’s ever-shifting line-up revolves. The difficulty of the solo album already becomes apparent: can we extricate Creager from Rasputina when she is arguably the band’s driving force?

There is no doubt that Creager has delivered an accomplished album, replete with the quavering vocals we have come to love. In many ways, Perplexions represents a ‘back to basics’ approach for the singer, showcasing her voice, the cello and piano in arrangements that seem less complex than her collaborations with Rasputina. There are exceptions in ‘Sky Is Falling’ and ‘Krakatowa’, but these rather noisy affairs are dwarfed by simple voice and cello pairings like the mournful ‘American Girl’. Opening track ‘Girl Lunar Explorer’ has a gorgeous string-plucking jazz quality to it that Creager would do well exploring further in other solo projects. The all too short ‘Itinerant Airship’, meanwhile, features layered vocals over mellifluous cyclical cello.

Perplexions is only seven tracks long so seems like a rather embryonic solo effort. An inevitable problem of the album is that many elements, most notably the signature use of cello, hark back to Rasputina and do little to assert Creager’s individual identity as a musician. However, the cello is such an intrinsic part of her repertoire that it may be impossible to fully separate the two entities. For the moment, however, Creager’s work with Rasputina should be more than enough to satisfy her eager fans while she finds her musical bearings.

Siobhan Rooney

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Jill Cunniff
City Beach •••
Militia Group

Although a lot of musicians can boast an authentic claim to the ‘cool’ moniker, they don’t come much hipper than Jill Cunniff. Born and raised in NYC, at just 13 years old she had her birthday party at the legendary CBGBs; at 14 she taught herself to play the guitar; and at 15 found herself playing in garage underground punk bands alongside future members of the Beastie Boys. When Cunniff joined forces with fellow New Yorkers Kate Schellenbach, Gabby Glaiser and Vivian Trimble, Luscious Jackson were formed and promptly signed to Grand Royale. After five full-length albums and notable indie success, the band amicably called it quits in 2000. So, it’s fair to say that Jill Cunniff has paid her dues, musically and credibly speaking.

Since 2000, Cunniff has worked on some pop projects and worked with Emmylou Harris, continued writing her own material and even found time to learn the art of production, sampling and mixing. The result is her debut solo album City Beach, dedicated to New York’s Coney Island, a faded, atmospheric city beach famous for its lively past. In an attempt to bring the beach to the city dweller, this album is full of hot Brazilian beats, and deliberately laid back breezy tunes. Indeed, on the track ‘Warm Sound’, the listener is urged to start the century again, at a slower pace. The whole album is something of a contradiction, combining genuinely lazy sounds with an urgent and constant message of the need to slow down.

In the same way that a beach rarely belongs in a city, this insistence feels a little out of place here, perhaps consciously so. With a vocal style very similar to Nelly Furtado, the exotic hip hop beats and samba are perfectly accompanied, evoking a real world music feel that touches on several styles, including jazz, soul, Latin, electronica, pop, trip hop, funk and so on. Although essences of Luscious Jackson are evident – mostly in the sampling and beats – this has far less edge and, well, less NYC hipness, compensated for with ambiance. City Beach is a summertime album for sure and the mood is bright.

Of the 12 tracks, Cunniff wrote seven single handed and co-wrote the other five, and while the intended mood is definitely caught, the songs themselves aren’t strong. Themes of lost love come second place to the regular insistence of taking it easy, and the lyrics are simplistic and a little clichéd. It doesn’t help that the true standout number ‘Lazy Girls’, with its danceable upbeat rhythm, is situated right at the beginning.

Perhaps arriving a little too late to capture the chillout or ambient audience, the appeal of City Beach may suffer from not fitting into any particular nook. A little too soft for the indie audience and too mature for the spiritual types, the album may well contain too many disparate elements to pin it down sufficiently. Whether bringing the beach to the urbanite or the hustle and bustle to the coastal dweller, City Beach evokes a time and place unknown to either, where nothing is rushed and the atmosphere is relaxed and blissfully simple.

Stephanie Heney

 



2007 reviews dump: d

The following reviews were published on our old MySpace blog in 2007.

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Damon & Naomi
Within These Walls ••
20/20/20

When I was about 15, a friend passed me a tape in maths class. “My sister got into these guys at university, and I reckon they’re amazing too so I made you a tape. Let me know what you reckon.” That album was Galaxie 500’s second, On Fire, but despite the generosity of the gesture, I wasn’t impressed at the time – far too spindly and distant for someone revelling in Silverfish and their lurching ilk – and the tape eventually found its way to the dustier regions of my nascent collection. Times change, though, and when I found the tape again a few years later, what I’d previously taken for limp-wristed feyness revealed itself as an emotionally blasted combination of slowed tempos, sparse if occasionally searing instrumentation and aching melodies, its power somehow multiplied by dislocated and dislocating production. With hindsight, On Fire opened my ears to a different way of making (rock) music, since expanded into a genre – ‘slowcore’ (cringe!) – by the likes of Low, Codeine et al. In short, I owe Galaxie 500 for changing my life.

Damon Krukowski and Naomi Yang were Galaxie’s drummer and bassist, respectively, and after Dean Wareham split the band in 1991 (moving on to form Luna with Britta Phillips) his erstwhile bandmates stuck together under their Christian names. Of the two, it’s Damon & Naomi who are the more obvious descendants of Galaxie 500, leaning more toward the elegiac and wistful than Luna’s more pop-oriented efforts. Each of their previous six albums seems to have been expressly designed with notions of ‘sadness’ and ‘longing’ in mind, and have been more about developing an elegantly downbeat atmosphere than penning memorable songs per se.

While it’s true that this is never a bad thing in itself, it starts to become limiting when a band builds an entire career on it. The only memorable shift in their outlook came when they began collaborating with members of Japanese psych-rock luminaries Ghost, around the time of the prosaically named Damon & Naomi With Ghost LP. Ghost guitarist and arch collaborator Michio Kurihara is pretty much a permanent fixture in the band nowadays, and his presence continues the subtle fleshing out of the Damon & Naomi sound heralded by that album.

And subtle it is. Now, wrapped around a constant bedrock of strummed guitars and wispy vocals, are translucent gauzes of strings, horns, sax and Kurihara’s luminescent guitar work – all beautifully realised, with utmost craft and care taken to ensure that no one part overwhelms the whole in anything approaching tastelessness. And with that, we arrive at the reason why, for all the wrong reasons, this album makes me want to cry: it’s too damn tasteful. All the songs are gorgeous, the instruments gliding around each other like glittering shoals in a dappled koi pool, interlocking better than a Swiss watch…and boring this listener to death. There are ten songs here, one of them mentions lilacs, another’s about a queen or something, but it doesn’t really matter because it all. sounds. the. same. Buy it on vinyl, shut your eyes, drop the needle and play a fun game of Guess The Song; you will fail, miserably.

As I said earlier, it’s like they’ve built the entire album around preconceived ideas of the emotions they want to convey; imagine a corporate brainstorming session where ‘wistful’ and ‘elegiac’ are bubbles on a whiteboard and you’re pretty much there. It’s slow without a trace of the core, and that’s a great shame.

Adam Smith

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Alela Diane
The Pirate’s Gospel ••••
Names

First things first, this is not a gospel record. Alela Diane deals in the kind of languid folk that, if listened to as dawn arrives, can conjure gothic images of silhouetted trees across a misty field, yet in the full light of day will put a spring in your step and make you smile out at the world passing by. The Pirate’s Gospel, originally self-released with a slightly longer tracklist, is Diane’s official debut, discounting her limited edition vinyl EP Songs Whistled Through White Teeth and her intricate hand-drawn, stitched-sleeved CD-R Forest Parade. Fans of Jolie Holland will find some distinct similarities with the object of their affection. Take Diane’s arrangements, for example. Alela accompanies her rich tones with hypnotic arpeggios on the guitar and little else. Where it does crop up, the sparse accompaniment comes in the form of whistling and handclaps; otherwise the siren is joined by a group of men with swelling bass tones on the foot-tapping title track, a children’s choir on ‘Pieces Of String’, and nicely blended female voices at various intervals.

Diane hails from Nevada City, California, also home to Joanna Newsom, who first brought her to the public’s attention. It’s old California out there; everything you see, hear and touch is a link to the past. Giant oak trees, rusting pickup trucks, wooden porches with swing chairs, tatted lace handed down through generations and rivers once fought over for gold. This is the world that informs her music as she takes us deep into the dimly lit recesses of California’s collective conscious. It’s a place where a father reaches for the rifle on the wall because “they’re coming from the woods” and mamas are “a-runnin’ too”. Here, the mood is of midnight and the spectre of Cat Power lingers nearby.

Music, family, loss and unfamiliarity weigh heavily in the album’s lyrics, as they do in pioneer literature. In ‘Can You Blame The Sky?’ she asks “can you blame the sky / when a mama leaves her babies behind?”, and in the emotionally charged album highlight ‘Oh! My Mama’ she recalls her mother saying “use your voice… sing, sing, sing, sing, sing” and wonders whether she will “play the guitar like her father does”. There’s an element of timelessness to these songs. The change of pace and tone with the light and hook-laden ‘Somethings Gone Awry’ is reminiscent of a nursery rhyme or traditional tune, the melody immediately embedding itself in your memory.

Diane’s songs seek lyrical solace in odd domestic artefacts, religious imagery and nature, and her voice will take to you to places that are haunting yet eerily familiar. Above all, they are deceptively simple, stripped bare to the bone, as you will be when the album draws to a close. The Pirate’s Gospel is a genuine classic, and already the highlight of 2007.

James M Johnston

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Ani DiFranco
Canon ••••
Righteous Babe

First of all a guilty confession: the music of the esteemed Ms DiFranco had more or less passed me by up until now (boo, hiss, shame etc.). Overwhelmed by the sheer volume of her output and by her amazing productivity – 17 albums in 17 years, plus copious EPs and concert releases – the main problem seemed to be where to start. With the early folk? The recent jazzy experiments? The live recordings? Happily, for anyone in the same boat, there’s now a very simple answer to the question of where to begin your DiFranco journey: get yourself a copy of her double-disc retrospective Canon and saddle up for a heady introduction to the work of a remarkable artist.

The 36 songs on Canon trace a broadly chronological path through DiFranco’s career, encompassing tracks from all of her albums, from her self-titled 1990 debut to last year’s Reprieve. The press release for the collection emphasises its status as no mere ‘best of’; rather, this is an “album that’s arranged and intended to be played from beginning to end,” one made to DiFranco’s “precise specifications.” Would we expect anything less? After all, DiFranco has long been celebrated as an icon of independence on the music scene, releasing all of her work through her own Righteous Babe label and retaining full control over all aspects of her music. Given the extraordinary amount of material she’s put out in the last 17 years, the decision of what to include on Canon can’t have been easy, but DiFranco has produced a carefully packaged and extremely well-sequenced collection with a strong sense of track-by-track flow.

The first thing to strike is the wonder of her guitar playing and her lyrical dexterity. DiFranco’s songs teem with imagery and detail, and she darts around the tunes with an exhilarating speed and momentum. Her rapid, attention-grabbing playing style is perfectly in sync with her vocal delivery with its funky, almost conversational quality and appealing snap and snarl (surely a formative influence on Alanis Morissette?), and also with her lyrics, which are similarly direct and upfront, full of sharp edges and breathless wordplay. Like someone on a caffeine jag, the typical DiFranco song comes at you in a rush, with a hasteful, even aggressive urgency, a need to get it all out ‘now’. Her music bristles with the brazen, nervous energy of her native New York – brilliantly described in ‘Cradle & All’ as “the city that never shuts up” – and feels intrinsically urban with images of fire escapes, subway trains, “men pissing in doorways,” “trash on the kerbs” and “traffic hissing by.”

That’s not to say that she can’t also be introspective and reflective, as on the touching piano-led post-show rumination ‘You Had Time’ and the measured, meditative ‘Grey’. Indeed, at their best, her songs sometimes spark similar shocks of recognition to those of a Mitchell or an Amos. Witness the reference to “last night’s underwear in my back pocket / sure sign of the morning after” in ‘Cradle & All’, or the moment in the sublime ‘32 Flavors’ in which the narrator pauses mid self-eulogy to acknowledge that “there’s many who’ve turned out their porch lights / just so I would think they were not home / and hid in the dark of their windows / ‘til I passed and left them alone.” With her poet’s eye for detail, DiFranco builds her songs out of fleet-footed images, vignettes and narrative fragments. Thematically, much of her work takes place at the juncture where the personal and the political intersect. ‘God’s Country’ dramatises an encounter between the Brooklynite narrator and a state-trooper on some lonesome highway. “This may be God’s country but this is my country too / move over Mr. Holiness, let the little people through” DiFranco sings, leaving it up to the listener to decide whether she’s addressing God, the cop, or both.

‘Subdivision’ anatomises poverty, homelessness and contemporary manifestations of segregation (“America the Beautiful is just one big subdivision”), while ‘Paradigm’ is a complex celebration of the political commitment of her immigrant parents, with DiFranco recalling herself as “just a girl in a room full of women / licking stamps and laughing” and remembering “the feeling of community brewing / of democracy happening”. ‘Hello Birmingham’ explores both civil and abortion rights, and the stunning ‘Fuel’ begins with the discovery of a slave cemetery and goes on to take some well-aimed pot shots at everything from clueless Presidential candidates (“Tweedle-dumb and Tweedle-dumber”) to corporate culture.

Clearly, DiFranco does not fear didacticism, but her socio-political critiques seldom sound facile or glib. She can be a lot of fun too, and it’s central to her appeal that she can crack you up one moment and make you think about society’s ills the next. Canon gives a full indication of her multi-faceted personality as an artist, as well as a valuable insight into the evolution of her sound and her lyrical concerns. Meanwhile, four judiciously chosen concert cuts – ‘Distracted’ (a spoken-word reflection on the accusation that her work has abandoned politics in favour of safer subject matter), ‘Untouchable Face’ (a wry kiss-off to an ex), ‘Gravel’ and ‘Joyful Girl’ offer a pleasing glimpse into the DiFranco live experience.

There is, it must be admitted, a strong streak of self-consciousness about some of DiFranco’s work, and it’s particularly evident on the spirited but slightly unpleasant ‘Napoleon’, an infamous diss to a friend who signed with a major label, which features a told-you-so coda that can’t avoid a whiff of smug self-righteousness. Alongside ‘Shameless’, ‘Your Next Bold Move’, ‘Both Hands’ and ‘Overlap’ (all excellent), ‘Napoleon’ is one of the re-worked tracks which are placed at the end of each disc as an enticement to fans who may otherwise be reluctant to pay out for a collection that probably doesn’t include much material that they don’t already possess. (A DiFranco rarities disc must surely be on the cards at some point.) But while the dearth of new material on ‘Canon’ means that, aside from the reworked tracks, the collection has less to offer long-time DiFranco aficionados, for newcomers to her work this is absolutely the perfect place to start.

Alex Ramon

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Céline Dion
Taking Chances •
SonyBMG

Earlier this year, SonyBMG announced that its Quebecois star Céline Dion had sold over 200 million albums worldwide, making the Vegas favourite one of the world’s biggest-selling female artists; not only that, but in the last 15 years she has built up a formidable collection of gongs, including two Oscars, five Grammies and three Golden Globes, not to mention the Orders of Canada and Quebec. She has collaborated with stars as iconic as Aretha Franklin, Michael Jackson, Sir Elton John and Luciano Pavarotti, and released more than 25 albums in two languages, scoring dozens of chart-topping singles in countries around the world. And, in the midst of all of this, she has somehow managed to squeeze in a two-year career break to raise her son and nurse her husband through cancer. The woman has seemingly limitless energy.

It’s a shame, then, that all of this success cannot do anything to change the fact that Céline Dion is – and always has been – a redoubtably formulaic performer, utterly dependant on tried-and-tested techniques and seemingly unable to lend any sense of imagination or emotional variety to her music. It could well be that her consistently unchallenging approach is precisely what has made her so successful: doing the same thing time after time is both safe and lucrative. Unfortunately, it’s also boring, a fact more than adequately proved by her new album, the inaptly-named Taking Chances.

The title promises far more than it can deliver as Dion howls her way through 17 songs in that familiar, grating, over-loud way that has made her fortune. Rushing straight into the album’s eponymous opening number with an inelegant vibrato and hammed emoting, she quickly revisits all of her most familiar faults in track after track. Her rendition of Heart’s 1980s standard ‘Alone’ contains most of those faults: the mechanical vibrato, the oddly impersonal over-production, the needless vocal runs, and those awful, ear-shattering high-pitched shrieks, all combining to create an intensely nasty aural assault. One of Dion’s most consistent errors is her inability to temper her natural vocal power with a bit of softness; equating emotional intensity with volume, this leads to some memorably ugly music – including the execrable ‘New Dawn’, a mock-religious horror that will have Mahalia Jackson turning in her grave.

Perhaps the most disappointing thing about the album is that, musically, it actually has potential. For example, Delta Goodrem’s Bollywood-inspired ‘Eyes On Me’ is a fantastic piece of music, sadly ruined by Dion’s caterwauling and her grotesque parody of childish naïveté. ‘That’s Just The Woman In Me’ is a Hammond-fuelled gospel piece of great colour and flair which, had it been performed by a truly emotional singer such as Nina Simone or even Mavis Staples, would be stunning; instead, we are treated to a bizarre form of evangelistic torture by Ms Dion, whose uniquely horrible attempt to enliven the song with a few off-beat phrases beats Kenny Everett’s preacher parody into a cocked hat.

The album’s only truly passable song, ‘Skies Of LA’, remains as mawkish as Dion’s usual fare, only achieving a little more credibility because, for once, she eschews her trademark vocal runs for a decent piece of ordinary singing; still, it’s badly over-produced and sounds as though she threw it in just to show that she can do the normal stuff. The simple fact is that although Dion really does have a technically excellent voice, she can’t use it to strike a decent emotional balance in her music. Technical ability and artistry are not the same thing; in the classical sense, Marianne Faithfull is a poor vocal performer, but her genuinely heartfelt performances are immensely superior to any of Dion’s overdressed twaddle. Ms Dion would do well to learn that before she next steps into the recording studio.

Schmaltzy, over-produced, tasteless and crushingly bland, this is an album to strangle cats to. Taking Chances? Not likely.

Andy Wasley

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Orion Rigel Dommisse
What I Want From You Is Sweet ••••
Language Of Stone

The debut album from Baltimore-based Orion Rigel Dommisse, What I Want From You Is Sweet is a bubbling cauldron of qualities and styles. The string-dominated music has a classical flavour, and many of the songs have a story-telling character. The combination of these two qualities results in an album that sounds as though it were the soundtrack to a collection of Grimm fairytales. The theme of death is also apparent throughout – the words ‘dead’ and ‘death’ appearing in four of the ten song titles.

What I Want… is an album full of lovely little flourishes. If you listen carefully on ‘A Faceless Death’, the alluring lyric “when you die I’ll rearrange your bones” is accompanied by the gentle rattling of what sounds very much like the aforementioned bones as Dommisse organises them into a more worthy pattern. ‘Simon Sent For Me’ plays in the style of a stately Regency-period dance, though its slightly sinister quality sees it transforming into something of a danse macabre – a party track for ghosts and phantoms.

Dommisse’s lyrics are not always easily comprehensible, which adds to the otherworldly strangeness of her music. Nevertheless, the story-telling quality of her writing makes itself felt throughout the album, whether through the lyrics themselves or the way in which Dommisse delivers them. This is never more obvious than in ‘A Giver’ – the image of a princess in a castle “where she is kept by a cruel and evil spell” brings to mind countless fairytales of knights, maidens and wicked witches.

The real stars of the show are the stringed instruments – Dommisse on her electric cello and Robert Pycior on his electric violin – unusual substitutes for the ubiquitous guitars that appear here only in a few guest spots. The strings wind their way through the whole album, meandering languorously here and fluttering frantically there. Pycior plucks his strings mischievously through the opening ‘Fake Yer Death’ – and why not? There is usually some mischief involved in faking your own death, after all. The strings create a particular sound that permeates the album, but Dommisse and Pycior simultaneously manage to wield their instruments in fantastically varied ways on each different track.

What I Want From You Is Sweet is unusual and wonderful by equal measure. Its rejection of the typical formula of modern music makes it stand out as something a bit magical, and more than a bit special.

Hugh Armitage

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Siobhan Donaghy
Ghosts •••
Parlophone

Flame-haired chanteuse; former Sugababes member; challenging second album. It’s difficult not to drag out the cliches when it comes to talking about Ghosts, a record which seems to go out of its way to defy description. Producer and programmer James Sanger paints a backdrop of soft-focus pads and sundry etherealisms which flatter Donaghy’s voice and invite comparisons with her ‘80s and ‘90s predecessors rather than her peers. Unlike the smart subversion of the Motown sound by Amy Winehouse and Mark Ronson, there’s something slightly off about the pick-and-mix mentality of Ghosts – a smidgen of trip-hop here, a sprinkle of Cocteau Twins dream-gabble there.

At times the disc is naggingly derivative – the melody of ‘Medevac’ is striking in its similarity to Kate Bush’s ‘Running Up That Hill’, and ‘Halcyon Days’ gives more than just a nod in the direction of Massive Attack’s ‘Teardrop’ – but these ‘homages’ provide instant hooks. As with her debut Revolution In Me, several songs are slow to reveal not only their charms but their choruses. ‘Coming Up For Air’ is a slow-burner, but when it kicks into gear it becomes a dramatic callback to Donaghy’s debut single ‘Overrated’, revisiting and bemoaning her “selfish pain”. Also reminiscent of her earlier work is ‘Make It Right’, an uncomfortable mix of lumbering soul and Celtic flounce which seems out of place on this album. Much more successful are the likes of ‘Don’t Give It Up’ (first single, instant anthem) and ‘Goldfish’, a sparkling, hymn-like meditation on depression.

Throughout the album, Donaghy’s lyrics are hit and miss – ‘12 Bar Acid Blues’ finds our heroine in a sticky situation when she attempts to go on holiday, outlined with a wry wit reminiscent of Kirsty MacColl; the occasional amusing turns of phrase throughout the album make simpler songs like ‘Sometimes’ seem facile and uninspired in comparison. The title track, an incomprehensible strings of words soaring over a mid-tempo grind with the odd backwards vocal, sounds pretentious on paper but it works. Perhaps the album could have done with a few more unusual moments like this.

Despite being touted as having matured as a performer and co-writer since Revolution In Me, it seems that Donaghy hasn’t quite found her own voice yet. While this is an enjoyable record with some very strong tracks, it’s not as accomplished as it could be. Ghosts is an admirable attempt to do something different within the pop vernacular, and it is certainly a promising progression. The mixed blessing of this album is that it gives the impression Siobhan Donaghy is still to reach her creative peak.

Callum Sinclair

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The Donnas
Bitchin’ •••
Cooking Vinyl

‘Girl Power’ is a phrase associated with a particular band. We all know the one. In the ‘90s, it was sold to us as something that represented female liberation and a devil-may-care attitude. Young women could dress how they liked, say what they wanted and live their lives for themselves and no one else. All noble ideals, but the reality was something quite different. It was a concept manufactured by old, male music industry fat cats and purveyed to us via a collective of attention seeking shrews, the most famous of which is known more for having married well rather than anything else. It made a mockery of any concept of Girl Power.

To me, The Donnas are a much finer example of what Girl Power could mean. Their music is rough and unpolished – a raucous, punky rampage through a succession of snappy anthems. Vocalist Brett Anderson, aka Donna A, is no classically trained singer, but her voice is perfect for the music. She sounds like someone enjoying herself, and if she isn’t Joanna Newsom, who cares? The Donnas write their own music and play their own instruments, and what they lack in finesse they make up for in raw enthusiasm. This is the real sound of girls having fun, not some soulless trash cooked up by a coven of music execs in their lofty boardroom.

That’s the girls’ sound, but what of their material on this, their seventh studio album? Well, I’m sorry to report that Bitchin’ doesn’t quite live up to expectations. That isn’t to say there aren’t some sparkly gems here; each track is executed with typical Donnas energy. ‘Smoke You Out’ has its brilliantly screechy guitar solo, and ‘Here For The Party’ ends with a fluttering of surprise harmonica, while the album opener unfolds slowly like some strange cross between an AC/DC track and ‘Rhapsody In Blue’, instilling the listener with a mounting sense of anticipation, a real desire for the music to start in earnest.

But while the first few tracks of Bitchin’ are perfectly enjoyable, it isn’t long before a problem becomes apparent. What this album lacks is variation. Each track taken on its own is a three-minute blast of trademark Donnas fun, but strung out together they have an unfortunate tendency to become a bit of a blur. Every song is a variation on the theme ‘I want you why don’t you want me why would I ever want you oh screw it let’s just party’. There are no standout tracks – nothing to stick in your brain – and the songs have a habit of sounding pretty similar. Before long you won’t know ‘Better Off Dancing’ from ‘Don’t Wait Up For Me’ from ‘Give Me What I Want’.

Even the most amateurish albums manage a range of sorrow, joy, fast and slow, but The Donnas seem to have forgotten the basics. And that’s why Bitchin’ is rather disappointing. The Donnas have got the talent. They’ve got a good sound. They just need an editor, to learn how to pick their tracks better and to vary their ideas. This isn’t a bad listen, but uniformity makes this album a somewhat fluffy and forgettable affair.

Hugh Armitage

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Hilary Duff
Dignity ••••
Hollywood

She’s starred in a Disney television series, moved seamlessly into film, launched a fragrance and a clothing range, as well as churned out three albums before this one – so, do you love or hate Hilary Duff? It’s easy to dismiss her music as hyper-manufactured and vacuous, but shouldn’t we also try to positively acknowledge a woman who has made herself into such a marketable product without debasing her personal integrity? Dignity permits room for both. Billed as her most personal album to date, Duff certainly focuses on the world that she knows, a world filled with record deals, public scrutiny, media-invaded relationships, paparazzi and stalkers; it’s a heady mix and she explores it all with a bubblegum pop backing.

The inspiration for many of the songs could be seen to be rooted in her much-publicised break up with Good Charlotte’s Joel Madden. ‘Stranger’ in particular may feasibly be about her ex; then again, it could similarly be about any of the fairweather friends that she must encounter daily in a world where perfect outer appearances equate with stratospheric stardom and where personal truth is often buried by PR. Initially many of the songs on the album sound overwhelmed by their high production values and intense studio engineering, but there’s a vulnerability and awareness behind songs like ‘Stranger’ that defy Duff’s 19 years.

I’m not suggesting that the album has many layers of meaning; it does exactly what it says on the tin. This is joyous dance pop, but there’s a hint of a darker sting in the tail to many of the songs. The Hollywood socialite-baiting title track is a fabulously catchy, thinly-veiled dig at the likes of Paris Hilton and Nicole Richie who always “have another club to close”, people who have built their media empires on the faltering foundations of flashbulbs and fast money. ‘With Love’, in contrast, orders a reality check, wherein Duff pays tribute to the stabling influences in her life whom she begs to “slow [her] down, tell [her] tomorrow everything will be around”. As long as those truths are delivered with love, she’s willing to accept them. It’s this stability and inherent respect for the people that buoy her that underpins the album and makes Dignity an appropriate title. For all its dance-floor filling beats, the girl portrayed is having fun in a world that gives her the potential to spiral out of control but is reined in by her own integrity.

The quality dips in the middle a little with ‘No Work, All Play’ but rebounds with the spectacular ‘Between You & Me’, a teen-friendly version of P!nk’s ‘U & Ur Hand’ that features classic lines like “my love’s not up for negotiation / ‘hello’ doesn’t mean an open invitation”. Where the first half of the album dwells on the themes of mistrust and disillusion, the second half rejoices in strength, moving on and demanding to be noticed. ‘Dreamer’ is a brilliantly happy and very rational take on being stalked; there are few people who could sugarcoat something so terrifying without detracting from its seriousness. Yet lyrics like “I brush my teeth and feed my dogs / isn’t that thrilling?” are both funny and pointedly defiant. ‘Happy’ and ‘Play With Fire’ resonate with the same defiance and a self-awareness of the facets of her relationship that were restricting; it’s teenage break-up therapy that doesn’t hurt the head.

Exemplified by ‘Never Stop’, the whole album is a high octane sugar rush, like candyfloss laced with pop rocks. But don’t be misled, Destiny won’t numb all your brain cells in a single sitting. Let yourself be surprised and make space on the shelf next to Britney.

Gem Nethersole

 



2007 reviews dump: h

The following reviews were published on our old MySpace blog in 2007.

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Emily Haines & The Soft Skeleton
Knives Don’t Have Your Back ••••
Drowned In Sound

Best known for her achingly fashionable day job as frontwoman of chart-friendly Canadian indie dance-rock-pop outfit Metric, and not unregarded for her work with Broken Social Scene, Emily Haines can seemingly do no wrong. Knives Don’t Have Your Back isn’t going to change that. Following in the footsteps of her good friend Amy Millan of Stars and Rilo Kiley’s Jenny Lewis, Haines has pared back her sound to produce a magnificently understated, mostly elegiac album that firmly cements her reputation as an excellent songwriter.

Who, then, are The Soft Skeleton? Quite simply, they’re a bunch of players Haines put together especially for the album, including Scott Minor from Sparklehorse and various members of Broken Social Scene and Metric. Really though, the guests are just for musicianship and Knives… is all Haines. Her keyboard skills, which have barely been made use of up ’til now, are prominent. Indeed, aside from some tasteful string arrangements and some horns, the album is a showcase for Haines and her piano.

Haines’s voice is well suited to piano-driven ballads and her vocals have a dry, sad essence not too dissimilar to Martina Topley-Bird’s unusual style. With that in mind, Knives Don’t Have Your Back couldn’t be further from her muscular, vibrant work with Metric. Instead of being part of a slickly produced noise outfit, here Haines is laid bare, literally sounding as though her bandmates had upped and wandered away. A melancholic intimacy and darkness surround these lo-fi laments, the subject matter of which is often shadowy. Two songs – ‘Reading In Bed’ and ‘Mostly Waving’ – were recorded in the winter of 2002 as Haines was coping with the sudden death of her father, a famed poet from Montreal.

As refreshing as this downbeat peek into Haines’s world is, the album is ultimately let down by the sameness of the tracks; none are standout tunes that are destined for radio (perhaps a brave move for someone so accustomed to receiving considerable airplay, in Canada at least). Not to worry. Given that Haines has very publicly announced that her day job with Metric is still her priority, Knives… simply gives her the space to stretch out and really show the breadth of her talents, and in doing so to make a bold departure from that which made her name.

Stephanie Heney

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Hannah
Everything Is Changing •••½
Snowdog

Big in Estonia. It sounds like an ironic putdown. One step less successful than the now legendary “big in Japan” – how good can that be? Well, not bad actually.

Hannah Ild really is big in her Baltic home country. Big in Kylie proportions. Big enough to need only just one name. Now the 26 year old singer, who already has five hit albums to her name back home, is taking advantage of Estonia’s entry into the Internal Market and launching herself into the pop world across Europe. Everything Is Changing certainly presses all the relevant pop princess buttons, with expensive sounding production (courtesy of serious British and American studio time), lush string arrangements, heart-rending ballads and hook-laden uptempo numbers. And that’s not just damning with faint praise. The songs – all self-penned – are strong and Ild’s vocal delivery is positively luminous in places, catching with emotion at the peaks of the songs’ restrained intensity.

Typified by the single ‘I See’ and ‘They Said’, the arrangements are mostly acoustically-based with guitar and piano at the fore plus a myriad of subtle textures layered on top to retain the listener’s interest. On both of these songs there’s just enough Mitchell Froom-era Corrs-esque touches thrown into the mix to ensure that by the time the big chorus hits, the Radio 2 core audience will be hooked into submission. ‘You Are’ finds Ild in full-on ballad mode with a swooping orchestral passage that kicks in during the chorus and could easily have graced any number of albums by artists from Anastasia or Kelly Clarkson to The Veronicas, but here it’s Hannah’s own in every way. Other standouts include the title track and ‘These Days’, both of which are drenched with unrequited love and longing.

The sheer quality of Everything Is Changing is something of a pleasant revelation, showing that there really can be life outside of Eurovision (Hannah came second in the 1997 contest with ‘A Lonely Soul’) for Eastern European pop exports. Ild deserves success beyond that which she’s accrued back in Estonia, and if this is typical of what the expansion of Europe will bring, well, vivre l’esprit communautaire.

Trevor Raggatt

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Emmylou Harris
Songbird: Rare Tracks & Forgotten Gems ••••½
Rhino

From 1996’s Portraits boxset through Rhino’s 2001 Anthology to 2005’s Heartaches & Highways, a significant number of ‘best of’ compilations have been dedicated to reviewing Emmylou Harris’s extensive and eminent musical catalogue. So many, in fact, that we may question the necessity of another collection that re-caps the career of the woman who, for nearly 40 years, has brought impeccable taste, grace and elegance – as well as a healthy dose of genre-bending daring – to the country barroom.

Songbird, however, is altogether a different proposition. As its enticing subtitle makes clear, this mammoth set – 4 CDs featuring 78 tracks, a DVD of TV performances, and a 200-page booklet including track-by-track commentary – is no standard greatest hits package but rather a generous selection of “personal favourites,” hand-picked by Harris as a kind of alternative retrospective of her work to date. Don’t expect to find the likes of ‘Boulder To Birmingham’ here. Instead, Songbird showcases under-valued album tracks, live cuts, soundtrack and tribute album contributions, a whole host of collaborations, and thirteen previously unreleased songs. As such, this is very much a collection pitched at the Harris completist, or at those eager to dig deeper into a body of work that must rank as one of the most distinctive and remarkable in contemporary music. Whichever category you fall into, the opportunity to immerse yourself in some of the more obscure corners of the work of the Grace Kelly of country will prove a total pleasure.

Even so, for true Harris aficionados, quite a bit of the material featured on Songbird will be familiar, especially the songs spread across the first two CDs. These discs take a broad chronological sweep through the full range of her solo studio albums, assembling tracks from the classic 1970s Hot Band recordings, the neo-traditionalist releases Blue Kentucky Girl and Roses In The Snow and the denser textures of Wrecking Ball, Red Dirt Girl and Stumble Into Grace. The work with Gram Parsons gets surprisingly short shrift, represented by just two tracks, a heartfelt rendition of the Louvins’s ‘The Angels Rejoiced Last Night’ (a fitting choice given the brothers’ influence on the famed Parsons/Harris harmonies) and an exuberant live version of ‘The Old Country Baptizing’, while 1985’s The Ballad Of Sally Rose – the self-penned song-cycle which Parsons inspired – is also poorly represented. 

Nonetheless, the pickings are rich indeed, and of primary interest for rarities fans is the opening track, ‘Clocks’, an alternate take of a decidedly Clouds-era Joni Mitchell style ditty culled from Harris’s deleted first folk foray Gilding Bird. But perhaps the greatest revelation of these discs is just how beautifully Harris’s studio work has aged; the ‘70s and ‘80s work still sounds fresh and vital – much more so than anything that’s emerging from the Nashville mainstream these days – and the Lanois/Burns-produced tracks retain their mysterious allure. While a number of these songs remain in her concert repertoire, these discs permit the pleasure of rediscovery and offer fans a valuable opportunity to reacquaint themselves with album tracks that they may have forgotten. Compelling renditions of Springsteen’s ‘Racing In The Streets’, Sandy Denny’s ‘Like An Old-Fashioned Waltz’, and Leonard Cohen’s ‘Ballad Of A Runaway Horse’ were particular standouts for this listener.

Eschewing chronology, the next two discs collate a wide selection of rarities and hard-to-find material, and feature a roll call of collaborators and duet partners that reads like a veritable ‘Who’s Who’ of Americana. The many highlights include simply beautiful renditions of Beth Nielsen Chapman’s ‘Beyond The Blue’ (with Patty Griffin), Katy Wolf’s ‘Love Still Remains’, Woody Guthrie’s ‘Hobo’s Lullaby’, and the Carters’ ‘Wildwood Flower’ (with Iris DeMent), as well as blissfully soulful takes on Parsons’ ‘Juanita’, ‘She’ and ‘Sin City’ (with Sheryl Crow, Chrissie Hynde and Beck respectively). The sequencing is immaculate, with thematically linked tracks frequently arranged together to form little cycles and suites. Issues and images recur: loss, grief, lonesomeness, spiritual redemption, the temptations of travel, the desire for homecoming. A pair of lovely Paul Kennerley originals from his 1980 The Legend Of Jesse James project (‘Heaven Ain’t Ready For You Yet’ and ‘Wish We Were Back In Missouri’) are placed together, as are two memorable unreleased outtakes from the Trio sessions with Dolly Parton and Linda Ronstadt. In short, the advertised gems really are gems, showcasing Harris’s genius for selecting material, her special gifts of interpretation, and her seeming ability to sing with anyone and make it sound as natural and effortless as breathing.

Harris can fully inhabit songs both ancient and modern, secular and spiritual, and her singing style combines burning passion and impeccable restraint in equal measure. Her voice reflects her rich amalgam of influences, merging country ache and folky nuance, breathy highs and grainy lows, and hearing its progression from girlishness to maturity across Songbird is a fascinating and quite moving experience. Her singing may be famed for its ‘angelic’ qualities but there’s much more to it than ethereal loveliness. Yes, Harris can soothe like few others but she can also freeze the blood, as her chillingly intense takes on Townes Van Zandt’s ‘Snake Song’ and Hank Williams’s ‘Alone & Forsaken’ (both included here) attest. There’s tension, risk and a breathless sense of adventure to much of her best work, qualities that Lanois’s production on Wrecking Ball brought right out into the open. She remains, quite simply, a consummate class act, retaining her poise and conviction even when the material proves unworthy of her (and just occasionally it does: cf. the corny self-abasement of ‘First In Line’, the banal ‘Wondering’ and the earnest but clichéd ‘Immigrant Eyes’, not the finest lyrical moment of the usually reliable Guy Clark). As Joe Allison memorably wrote of the Louvins: “their sincerity reaches out and grabs you with such authority that you literally become part of the song.” This same description may be applied to Harris.

What Songbird reveals most consistently is Harris’s dedication and single-mindedness in pursuing her own wide-ranging vision of the “cosmic American music” to which Parsons first alerted her. Her music cuts through folk, country, rock and gospel borders not so much to tear down barriers as to demonstrate – and create – connections between them, allowing her, in her own words, “to draw on the past…and come up with something new.” It’s this exhilarating fusion of tradition and modernity that makes this collection – and indeed all of Harris’s work – essential listening for anyone interested in the wonderfully broad and varied terrain of American roots music.

Alex Ramon

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Deborah Harry
Necessary Evil •
Universal

What can one say about Debbie Harry? That sensuous, cherubic creature; maybe not the most talented musician in the world, but possibly the most beautiful. So beautiful in fact, that whole music videos can be made focusing solely on her face…oh, wait! Stop everything. Wake up. This isn’t 1977 anymore. It’s 2007, and nothing stays the same forever. Deborah (as she prefers to be known these days) is a very different woman from the pouty young thing that stole our hearts with ‘Heart Of Glass’ and ‘Call Me’, however much she might otherwise wish.

On Necessary Evil, Harry’s latest electro outing, she goes at it as she always did, sweet and high as in ‘Sunday Girl’. But her voice is older than it was. It’s 62 years old to be precise, and it simply can’t hit the notes it used to. Thus our unfortunate ears are subjected to the likes of ‘Love With A Vengeance’ and ‘If I Had You’. Painful stuff. It isn’t that she can’t sing – the title track shows that she’s perfectly capable of sounding quite pleasant – she just doesn’t seem to know how to use her new voice properly, too often trying to sing in exactly the same style as she was 30 years ago.

Opening track and first single ‘Two Times Blue’ starts quite sweetly with a charming little fairground ditty; unfortunately, Harry ruins it by breaking in all too soon, croaking like one of Macbeth’s Weird Sisters. The chorus is horribly strained, the words oddly stretched out as though the lyrics and music had been written in separate soundproof rooms and subsequently forced cruelly together, ‘Island Of Doctor Moreau’-style. The music itself is sometimes well written, as demonstrated in the opening bars, but this album is let down massively by its lyrics and content: every single song is about sex. Without fail. The old days of Blondie were never this explicit, but I suppose Harry didn’t need to talk about sex to make people think about it back then. Imagine if you will your mum singing along to ‘School For Scandal’; “the devil’s dick is hard to handle,” apparently. Then imagine your granny singing it.

If this assessment appears ageist, or sexist even, it’s not meant that way at all. Wears The Trousers is well aware that Jagger, Jones and Stewart get away with things that an older lady would be slammed for and that such an imbalance is mightily unfair. Nevertheless, after sitting through the 17-track long leviathan that is Necessary Evil, it’s hard to believe that anyone won’t find themselves wishing that Harry would sometimes act her years. And, after all, if The Rolling Stones wailed their way through a crass electro album like this one, you’d hope that they’d be torn to bits for it too. There are other anomalies lurking in the tracklist, for instance the deep mumblings of ‘Jen Jen’. Harry doesn’t even sing on it so how it snuck onto the album we’ll never know. Maybe she was on the decks. Then there’s ‘Dirty & Deep’, the title of which says almost all really, neglecting only to highlight the fact that a part of it rivals Madonna’s ‘American Life’ for the worst rap of all time.

So that’s Necessary Evil in a nutshell – overlong, crude and performed by a woman far past her musical prime. All this album does is sully the memory of a once great songstress turned worn out, hyper-sexed harridan.

Hugh Armitage

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Victoria Hart
Whatever Happened To Love? •••½
Decca

Today’s celebrity-obsessed world has seen the rapid rise of reality TV, and the attendant burst of homogenous, bland and short-lived manufactured artists. In such an environment, it can be difficult for niche music to prosper; would Kate Bush’s fantastical songs have impressed the judges? Would Regina Spektor’s subversive experimentalism endear her to an audience brought up with the Spice Girls and R’n’B? Perhaps not. It’s always gratifying, then, when a new singer appears who is determined to change it all, and who has the star quality to succeed. Step forward Miss Victoria Hart, former Richmond waitress turned jazz-singing sensation. A trilingual 18-year old who counts Amy Winehouse among her friends and George Clooney among her fans, Hart claims that her album represents a return to the unabashedly romantic music of the past. Comprising 13 songs and a remix of the title track, it has been designed to showcase Hart’s voice with a variety of different styles; it is in this that the album draws its strength and also, sadly, finds its weakness.

Hart’s musical heroines include such luminaries as Ella Fitzgerald and Eva Cassidy, and her love of old-fashioned big band music shines through in some of the album’s best tracks. ‘Two Time Blues’ would suit Fitzgerald perfectly with its classy and deeply sensual style, Hart’s youthful voice perfectly capturing the naiveté of the song’s heroine. The more glamorous ‘Chocolates & Strawberries’ shows off a highly developed sense of fun and wickedness, with some plainly suggestive lyrics set against a snazzy ‘70s-style backing rich with wah-wah trumpets and a thumping bass line. Hart’s ability to draw a picture with her voice is quite remarkable, and is suitably demonstrated by perhaps the best song on the album – also its only cover – ‘Sunny Afternoon’. Toe tapping and deeply sultry, Hart’s interpretation of the classic Kinks song evokes all the attendant vivid images of a languid, sun-drenched summer, managing to ensure that the song remains familiar while throwing in some throaty sax riffs to suit her jazz credentials. Other impressive tracks include the 1950s-style two-step jazz of ‘Wonderful’ and the deliciously sexy ‘Je M’Oublie’, which oozes French sophistication with its atmospheric accordion backing and Hart’s voluptuous vocals.

Where the album falls flat is in trying to demonstrate the breadth of Hart’s skills; several songs have been selected rather clumsily in an attempt to show that she can perform more mainstream work. This leads to the inclusion of some forgettable guitar-pop tracks such as ‘Some Day’, a bland ballad that simply does not do Hart’s unique voice justice. Fortunately, Hart is an accomplished jazz singer, and her wit, flair and talent pull her through the dross. Sassy, classy and unashamedly mushy, Whatever Happened To Love? marks the debut of a new and formidable force in modern jazz. Let’s hope that Hart doesn’t lose sight of what she’s best at.

Andy Wasley

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PJ Harvey
White Chalk ••••
Island

Best known for her brutal blues and sophisticated punk, PJ Harvey’s decision to trade her guitar in for a piano and her deep soulful voice for a choral falsetto looked unlikely on paper. But, true to her word, there is barely a six-string to be heard on the eleven tracks that make up White Chalk, her eighth studio album, which are largely based around gently throbbing keys and vocals piped in from a Victorian ghost story. Having explored urban life on 2001’s vibrant Stories From The City, Stories From The Sea, White Chalk is suffused with rural imagery – bleak landscapes and a pervading isolation – the title a reference to the bedrock of Harvey’s Dorset home and its gothic ring compounded by the cover image of a pale and drawn shock-headed Harvey sat bolt upright in a lacy, spectral dress. And, of course, the stark minimal piano and newly shrill vocals that run through the album.

Whether the experience of working with keys has been entirely enjoyable for Harvey is thrown into doubt when ‘The Piano’ – which knowingly features acoustic guitar and zither only – opens with the lyric “hit her with a hammer, teeth smashed in”, and as the track plays out with snapshots of strained family relations and the refrain “no-one is listening”, Harvey sounds like a truculent child trying to show off the results of her first few music lessons. For the most part the piano playing is naïve and childlike – motifs seemingly picked out with just two fingers – and while it’s used to good effect to create sinister and atmospheric songs such as opener ‘The Devil’ and ‘Grow Grow Grow’, Harvey’s lack of finesse sometimes tends towards monotony.

That the standout tracks are those in which the piano takes a back seat is perhaps somewhat telling. First single ‘When Under Ether’ is a haunting, claustrophobic and sinister track, conjuring sensations of suffocation, intoxication and chemical preservation in which the keys combine with other instrumentation and an understated yet nuanced vocal. The title track features the most prominent appearance of a guitar. So effectively does the song evoke a rural isolation and the exposed Dorset cliffs that as Harvey dramatically switches from her distant, fluting upper register to intone deeply “and I know these chalk hills will rot my bones”, you can almost smell the stone beneath the topsoil and the salt from the sea. ‘Broken Harp’s sublime vocal arrangement and (presumably broken) harp tug at the heartstrings with economically affecting lyrics. Lines like “something metal tearing my stomach out if you think ill of me / can you forgive me too?” may not be delivered with the hue and cry typical of much of Harvey’s earlier work, but surrounded by the minimalism and darkness of the album they are no less brutal.

Seven albums and 15 years into her career, Harvey remains one of our most continually interesting artists. For people who rely on such tawdry gimmicks her transition from booted proto-riot-grrrl to cat-suited vamp to urban punker and now to ghostly Victoriana would be called reinvention; in Harvey it is simply exploration. The piano-led tracks of White Chalk may not be to everyone’s taste but fantastically evocative poetry and some truly great songs more than make up for the slow pace and the few monotonous moments to create an intriguing and rewarding album. There are few other artists who so successfully continue to push their boundaries, experience and style for our (well, primarily her own) pleasure, and we should cherish her for that as long as she continues to do so.

Peter Hayward

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Charlotte Hatherley
The Deep Blue ••••
Little Sister Records

Most famous for being the ‘new girl’ in Ash for nine years, Charlotte Hatherley’s musical career in fact began a long time before, first in the band Sister George then in punk outfit Nightnurse. She was spotted by Ash’s Tim Wheeler while the band were shopping for a new guitarist and soon wound up a welcome addition to the trio, fitting right in. So, after a long period of being in one of the UK’s most successful and established indie bands, it must have been a brave and daunting decision to leave, especially as relationships within the band were still good and Ash are happy to continue without her.

Although The Deep Blue is Hatherley’s second solo album (she worked on her first, Grey Will Fade, when Ash were in the studio for Meltdown and received considerable critical praise for it), this is the first she has produced outside of the security of a day job. In fact, the focus has doubled as the ‘side project’ has now become the day job. Seemingly unfazed by new beginnings and the security of Ash’s loyal fanbase, Hatherley is clearly a seasoned rock star, and her confidence shows in both her decision making and the subsequent album that came of it. In fact, to avoid record company and A&R pressure, Hatherley and her manager Ann-Marie Shields set up Little Sister Records themselves (with distribution through Vital), thereby ensuring complete artistic control.

Produced by Eric Feldman (Captain Beefheart, Pere Ubu) and Rob Ellis (PJ Harvey), Hatherley’s sophomore album was decided upon in Australia and created in San Francisco, Italy and London. Despite Hatherley being first and foremost a guitarist, The Deep Blue isn’t entirely led by the axe. It is, in fact, a pleasant surprise of considered work and a welcome departure from the (often flawed) female singer-songwriter stereotype. Certainly, the rock chick from Ash is gone, and the upbeat mature pop of both her efforts to date belies an open, honest artist with considerable talent.

The Deep Blue creates a childlike mood of fun and innocence, both girly and fantastically otherworldly. Irresistibly catchy and tuneful, the album is a lovingly assembled, multi-textured example of bittersweet pop that signifies a change of direction from Grey Will Fade and revels in a quirky feel reminiscent of Kenickie or Giant Drag…even The Sundays at times. Vocally, Hatherley is cutesy and sweet, somewhere between Minnie Mouse and Jenny Lewis, and her vocals enhance the unusual, dreamlike tone of the work. That’s not to say that there aren’t energetic, punk-pop here and there, but the rocky elements you would naturally expect from Ash’s former guitarist simply aren’t there.

Two singles have preceded the album – ‘Behave’ and ‘I Want You To Know’ – probably the album’s poppiest numbers and definitely the catchiest. There’s more where those two came from, however, and ‘Be Thankful’ is a real standout track with an irresistible bassline. More sober moments appear in the gentle ‘Dawn Treader’ (co-written with XTC’s Andy Partridge) and the vulnerable ballad ‘Again’, one of the least cluttered songs here, while the enchanting, wordless opener ‘Cousteau’ breezes over the listener and sticks true to the sea theme.

Despite a less than perfect vocal style, these songs are sung with an assuredness that can only be known to an experienced musician; remember Hatherley played the V97 festival with Ash only days after joining the band, and all at the age of 18 – no mean feat indeed. Having toured the world with a huge act for years and promptly leaving it all behind shows a confidence and maturity older artists can only dream of. However, with nothing left to be afraid of, and nothing left to lose, Hatherley has produced an unaffected and genuinely original album that will hopefully be another step in a long and successful career.

Stephanie Heney

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Help She Can’t Swim
The Death Of Nightlife •••½
Fantastic Plastic

Reviewing The Death Of Nightlife for Wears The Trousers struck me as a peculiarly daunting experience. Having seen the band play live supporting Sleater-Kinney (R.I.P) in Bristol last year, I found co-lead vocalist and sole female member Leesey Frances the least successful member of the band. Onstage, she came across detached and belligerent, giving little recognition to the crowd and grumping between songs. Tom Denney, who shares vocals and plays guitar was engaging and wired with energy, making Leesey’s disinterest all the more apparent. Writing for a magazine that seeks to focus upon the contributions of women to music, was I faced with an uncomfortable task?

Thankfully, on record, the Help She Can’t Swim experience is different: far from detracting from the band’s riotous youthful energy, Frances is a key part of it. Having two lead vocalists works well: Frances’s vocals act as an effective counterpoint to Denney’s, which often verge upon screamo. On ‘Idle Chatter’, her plaintive, vulnerable repetitions of “I was waiting for you to call me” are surprisingly affecting. (That is, until this effect is deliberately undermined by the song’s closing couplet: “strangle you with the telephone chord / just because you’re making me feel bored”).

This is music made for frenetic, angular indie dancing, preferably in a club with sweaty walls and a sticky floor. ‘Kite Eating Tree’, with its talk of shaking hips and bruised wrists, is the kind of song Channel 4 will be snapping up to soundtrack adverts for ‘Skins’ (if they haven’t already). There’s a definite Britpop flavour to several of these tracks, and the influence of Jarvis Cocker and Justine Frischmann is palpable, only speeded way up and blasted out charged with extra guitar-plus-synths drama. The keyboard work from Lisa and puppydog-eyed Tim Palmer adds a lot to these songs, providing an insistent pulse that resembles a battery of sirens in its urgency.

‘I Think The Record’s Stopped’ is a vicious attack on fake feminism and the intersection of feminism and raunch culture, where exhibitionism and pandering to male fantasies is mistaken for a liberating expression of female sexuality. Here, Frances is tearing down the kind of girls who think the feminist movement fought – and fights – so they could have the right to snog their female friends in front of boys at clubs, and aspire to be lapdancers (“Fuck you, you’re not a feminist”). ‘Midnight Garden’ is too wilfully discordant to be thrilling but the band make up for it with the following track ‘Box Of Delights’. Denney and Frances taking alternate vocals before coming together for a deliciously noisy vocal pile-up at the song’s climax.

Over the course of the album, the relentless pace and screamed vocals become a little gruelling. However, the band are at their best when playing at fever pitch – the album’s slower moments are its least successful, like the queasy Muse-eque rock opera that makes up the closing two minutes – and in short sharp bursts this is a thrilling and immediate record. It rewards close listening as well as drunken dancing, as it bristles with blink-and-you’ll-miss-them highlights. On ‘Dragged Under The Wave’, a brilliant moment of sexual tension and ambiguity suddenly grabs the listener, as Denney and Frances duet on the line “I want to kiss her but I don’t want her near me”. And if you can find another record out this year that talks about watching reruns of ‘Lovejoy’ (‘All The Stars’) I’ll give you a fiver.

Danny Weddup

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Hem
Funnel Cloud ••••
Nettwerk

Given the somewhat obscure names of both the band and album (one the end of an item of clothing, the other the beginning of a ferocious tornado) you’d surely be forgiven for expecting to discover the kind of album that you claim to adore but in reality only own so that others can admire your quirky and eclectic taste. Not so with Hem. They do tick some of the boxes – quirky? a little; unique? definitely! – but there’s plenty to love here. As listenable and delicious as ever, the band’s fourth album Funnel Cloud makes for a remarkable encounter as it floats around discreetly and encases your heart in its melancholic but ultimately uplifting musical tendrils.

First single ‘We’ll Meet Along The Way’ could be a song from a mother to her toddler on the first day of school, a parting shot to a lover or a fond farewell from a departing grandparent; but whatever guise it takes it carries a message of benediction without seeking to hide the pitfalls that will be met en route as two paths diverge but hold the promise of a later encounter. ‘He Came To Meet Me’ appropriately follows as if it were a continuation of the story, depicting a snapshot description of a day with someone whose very presence, no matter how brief, forges a memory empowered to bring light to future black clouds. The attention to detail that Hem pour into these songs suffuses the music with emotion and situational observances that never fail to convince that the band are portraying lives that they’ve known intimately, if not their own.

Principal songwriter Dan Messe has outdone himself with tracks like ‘Curtains’ and ‘Great Houses Of New York’. So while the ever present beauty of Sally Ellyson’s vocals predominantly brings the songs to life, Messe’s vivid descriptions weave around the principal narrative to add the splashes of colour that accentuate the meaning. Funnel Cloud as a whole has a rare nostalgic quality that gives proceedings a feeling of timelessness, as though Hem inhabit a world inside a bubble in which commonplace incidents are made beautiful by deeply felt observances. ‘Hotel Fire’ is the allegorical embodiment of the band’s ability to use less attractive details to create washes of gorgeous imagery as they sing of “torn blankets [that] smell of old perfume” and follow it with a swelling refrain where “the love checks in, trips the wire / skips the bill, sets a fire”. In creating such intimate portraits, Hem are enviably able to craft a song that might mean many things to many people, and therein lies their success.

Fittingly for an album titled Funnel Cloud, atmosphere is the watchword. In another universe, the title track might well have been a black and white Sunday matinee movie. Part lullaby, part hymn to growing older and discovering that boundaries have a tendency to blur, Hem deliver a classic sound that is rarely heard outside of old Hollywood musicals. ‘The Burnt-Over District’ has similar qualities, and despite being purely instrumental, seems to tell a very distinct story. Here, the instruments themselves seem to sing to one another; those who object to instrumental tracks on albums should start their conversion right here.

All this talk of mesmerising melancholic sounds and sleepy afternoon cinema might lead you to think that Funnel Cloud is soporific fare at best, but Hem have their ballsy country-rock songs too and they flex their muscles farther than ever before. On songs like these, the lyrical drive is not lost but is simply set to a rowdier backing. Take ‘The Pills Stop Working’ for example; sounding as if it wouldn’t seem out of place as the score to a barroom brawl with its bluesy harmonica and gritty piano, it’ll get you defiantly dancing rather than lazing.

For those unfamiliar with Hem, Funnel Cloud is a great place to start. Even the most melancholic numbers are infused with a great sense of camaraderie between the band members and you’ll be happy to discover the magic of a band who entertain, enlighten and provide food for thought with every song. For those already converted, much contentment will be found in the more rock-oriented sounds. Hitch up those skirts and appreciate the legwork.

Loria Near

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Hem
Home Again, Home Again EP ***½
Nettwerk

Despite being a pretty well established country-folk act with four albums to their name, Hem’s closest brush with mainstream popularity to date has been soundtracking a recent series of insurance ads in the States. But before you scream ‘sellout’ or assume that their whimsical songs deserve no better than this most dubious of fates, further listening will uncover a much deeper resonance than fellow product endorsers Katie Melua or Norah Jones could muster between them. Wearing their emotions proudly on the sleeves of their country-hemmed shirts and blouses, Sally Ellyson and her band of men excel in soaring vocals and reflective lyrics on top of soothing arrangements. After even just a couple of listens, the melodies stick in your mind, suddenly familiar, as if you’ve known them since you were young. That said, the opening and closing tracks – ‘All That I’m Good For’ and ‘Half Acre’ have been floating around since their 2002 debut Rabbit Songs, so they’re not exactly new. Nevertheless, that’s what Hem do best, remind of times gone by.

Of the new songs, ‘The Part Where You Let Go’ and ‘Half Asleep’ blend together folk and pop melodies with the lightest of touches and are both very nice, if not wholly engaging. The fuller sound of ‘While My Hand Was Letting Go’ will prick up many an ear with its blues harmonica, pedal steel, mandolin and banjo complementing an emotive and romantic string arrangement and the warm sounds of an oboe. The song’s theme of tender remembrance is highlighted by Ellyson’s wonderful falling refrain of “asleep I dreamt beside you while my hand was letting go.” Then the EP really comes alive with the title track, ‘Home Again’. More expansive than anything else here, Hem bring in the drums, an electric guitar riff and nagging rhythm guitar. Ellyson is singing to an audience now, and not just for herself.

Sounding as fresh as ever, the night-time lullaby of ‘Half Acre’ returns us to the remembrance motif, plaintively asking “what is it that you remember? / do you carry every sadness with you? / every hour your heart was broken?”. Hem do heartfelt nostalgia exceedingly well, and after listening to their latest EP you’ll soon be gazing wistfully out of a window thinking through your memories too.

James M Johnston

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Kristin Hersh
Learn To Sing Like A Star ••••
4AD

Bass and drums pounding like an oil sink, guitars etching intricate detail, powerful strings weaving the whole lot together, and a voice like a buzzsaw…it can only be the industrial revolution reimagined by indie godmother, Kristin Hersh. Such is ‘In Shock’, the opening track of Hersh’s latest solo outing Learn To Sing Like A Star (or LTSLAS for the sake of getting this review finished one day).

Since 2003’s lesson in sombreness, The Grotto, Hersh has been focused on recording and touring with power-trio 50 Foot Wave, whose slabs of rock are as far removed from Hersh’s solo work as one woman could be expected to go. But clearly Hersh is revelling in the noise that working with a band allows at the moment, as this release features Throwing Muses’ drummer David Narcizo, 50’~ bassist Bernard Georges, and string duo The MacCarricks. By virtue of being louder, faster and several orders of magnitude more upbeat than her last release, LTSLAS harks back to 1999’s amped-up Sky Motel.

An Amazon search reveals that Paula Abdul and Randy Jackson have a DVD with the same title, but woe betide the hopeful who purchases Hersh’s ironically monikered record for tips – it would not fare well with the American Idol judges. Her voice may never have been ideally suited to pre-packaged pop, but boy is it remarkably versatile, as she shows off to full effect in opening two tracks, from force-of-nature snarl on ‘In Shock’ to porcelain purr on ‘Nerve Endings’. The vocal is a sticking point for many people with Hersh, but once accustomed to the rasp you realise how dextrous and expressive it is. She’s really something like a 60-Marlboro-a-day Joanna Newsom or a desert Billie Holiday.

It’s not all straight up rock. LTSLAS in fact runs the gamut of Hersh’s solo back catalogue, from the meaty pop of ‘Peggy Lee’ to the acoustic lament of wasted time and lost love of ‘Ice’, via the swelling grind of ‘Sugarbaby’ and the short instrumentals ‘Piano 1′ and ‘Piano 2′. Everything is delivered with the passion, humour and bile that any Hersh devotee has come to expect. ‘Winter’ is an unforgiving monster of a song. Bells chime and strings sound thoroughly festive, but this is no Christmas carol. This is a blizzard; a white-out; a warning; a fist shaken at into the void. It’s a song that expresses the contrasting feelings of hugeness and impotence in the seven words “not a fighter, you had to fight”, and as good as any song Hersh has ever written, which is saying something.

If there is one failing it’s a lack of cohesiveness that has marked Hersh’s most recent solo releases. Every song in itself reveals more detail, intricacy, craft, and beauty on each listen, but as a whole, the mood jack-knifes from track to track. That is until the final four, which swell to the crescendo of ‘The Thin Man’. Overall, though, LTSLAS is new vintage Hersh: sardonic, sublime and packed with star quality. When next year’s American Idol is flipping burgers in a freeway services, you’ll still be listening to this fulfilling, hulking galaxy of an album.

Peter Hayward

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Beth Hirsch
Wholehearted ••••
Electric Bee

Beth Hirsch has been dealt a strange hand it seems. For someone who is in fact a musically-literate household name – thanks to the global success of Air’s Moon Safari (on which she sings and co-writes ‘You Make It Easy’ and the seminal ‘All I Need’) – she has managed to since remain untouched by media spotlights. Even the artistic brilliance of solo debut Early Years, having a gorgeous duet with Wassis Diop featured in a key scene of ‘The Thomas Crown Affair’ and the big-name producers on her second, critically acclaimed album Titles & Idols didn’t manage to propel her to international superstardom. Judging by her latest work, however, this may not have been such a disaster.

Nearly six years on from Titles & Idols, it appears that time has been kind. Hirsch’s evasion of mainstream fame has hearteningly preserved her authenticity and talent. Early Days was so called as it marked her first etchings and attempts at defining herself as a musician. Wholehearted is just as aptly titled; Hirsch has clearly put her all into its making, wisely choosing to focus on her strengths as both performer and writer rather than studio wizardry. By offsetting the striking versatility displayed on Titles & Idols with the bare bones of her debut, Wholehearted brings us the sound of a more mature artist who has found her niche. It’s organic in sound and full of warmth and feeling. Her voice has always been astonishing, and now her songwriting really works in harmony with the most striking qualities of this most powerful of assets. Hirsch appears to be at a point in her life where uncertainties have been dealt with and some resolve reached. You only have to read the song titles – ‘Love Will Come Again’, ‘All Together’ and ‘Glad To Know’ – to get a sense of assurance. It’s a rare creature indeed who has the grace to spare us the usual self-indulgence and deliver something that’s both optimistic and touching.

As one might expect from a Florida-born, LA resident, these songs have a lasting summery feel. Take the title track for instance; drenched in trumpets and laidback piano, it would perfectly complement a hazy August evening. Habitually in Hirsch’s music, however, there’s a slight sense of paradox. Optimistic lyrics are often set to music with a slightly sentimental sound, and it is this edge that keeps you coming back. “This slate is clean, but not from heaven” she sings on ‘Indelibly You’, hinting some unrest still remaining. While on the whole the record is a relaxed affair, there’s a touch of feistiness too (“I’m a lunatic in love”). Externalising a little, Hirsch makes some sharp and cutting observations in the magnificent ‘Life Is Short But Wide’, a song that looks at the ever-potent issue of war and what it’s good for (hint: not much). Her soldier protagonist writes home “but Hope has died, just as I have died / I learnt today that life is short but wide.”

Simply put, Wholehearted is an album borne out of love of music. Beautifully arranged and immaculately executed, it’s a thoroughly refreshing experience. While the electronic soundscapes of Titles & Idols were a wonderful addition to Hirsch’s sound, her return to these simpler, uncluttered stylings is a welcome affirmation of her talent.

Rod Thomas

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Hummingbird
Tougher Than Love ••••
Flying Sparks

As any ‘Charmed’ fan knows, the power of three is a well-proven principle, and with their debut album, Tougher Than Love, Hummingbird set out to reaffirm it. Debut it may be, but these are no wet behind the ears tyro artists. Rather, Hummingbird brings together three singers who are firmly established on the gig/festival circuit and each with solid recording career already under their belts. There’s diminutive Cardiff rocker Amy Wadge, the gentle pop vocals of Cathy Burton and Edwina Hayes’s country-folk stylings. It’s a beguiling combo, blending Dixie Chicks and Indigo Girls with Crosby, Stills and Nash.

Production duties were left in the hands of songwriting and studio wizardry duo The Mighty Vibrations, whose previous credits include Sandi Thom’s love-it-or-hate-it debut Smile…It Confuses People, and they’ve acquitted themselves surprisingly well. The ‘birds contribute four songs between them with the remainder provided by the MVs, with Thom herself cropping up as a co-writer on the engaging ‘Live Your Life Laughing’. Where Thom’s debut was, to put it kindly, a little one-dimensional, Tougher Than Love is an altogether finer proposition. Lead vocals are shared out evenly between the trio, adding a pleasing variety whilst retaining enough stylistic commonality to avoid sounding like a mere compilation. Similarly, the four tracks written by the ‘birds themselves provide a nice contrast, reflecting each artist’s own particular muse without breaking the mood.

The arrangements are resolutely rootsy and acoustic-based throughout. Strummed guitars, piano, Hammond and double bass provide a satisfyingly organic bed for the tracks, with additional interest being provided by tastefully employed textures from mandolin, flute, harmonica and strings. The distinctive character of each individual voice enhances the harmonies. Wadge’s gritty, earthy vocal forms a solid backdrop to Hayes’s more soothing coo and Burton’s shimmering, delicate tones. Each song is deftly performed and catches the ear with an appealing concoction of melancholy, tenderness and uplifting optimism. Anyone who enjoyed the Voices On The Verge project, which brought together four of America’s finest under-the-radar songwriters – Erin McKeown, Rose Polenzani, Jess Klein and Beth Amsel – should seek this out quicksmart.

Trevor Raggatt

 



2007 reviews dump: k

The following reviews were published on our old MySpace blog in 2007.

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Lucy Kaplansky
Over The Hills •••
Red House

Having graduated from the early ‘80s New York folk scene that brought us Shawn Colvin and Suzanne Vega, Lucy Kaplansky’s star has been a long time rising. But after a longstanding live collaboration with Colvin, the recording project Cry Cry Cry with Dar Williams and Richard Shindell, a period as a highly sought after backing vocalist, a career as a clinical psychologist and a string of five well-received solo albums, she is now regarded as one of the most able singers in the Americana market. Over The Hills further cements this hard-earned reputation and shows her increasing development as a deft and sensitive songwriter. The 10 country-tinged songs on her sixth studio album include a selection of numbers written by Kaplansky and husband

Richard Litvin and some well-chosen covers, most notably the Bryan Ferry-penned Roxy Music love song ‘More Than This’, her take on which could not be more tender.
Many of the self-penned songs on the album deal with family. “The moon’s shining on her too; she’ll see it and she’ll think of you” from opener ‘Manhattan Moon’ is Kaplansky’s reassurance to her adopted daughter about the feelings of her birth mother. ‘Amelia’ is another song about her adopted daughter, but just as you’re worried that the album might wander into drippy sentimentalism, Kaplansky niftily sidesteps a quagmire of schmaltz with a jaunty cover of ‘Ring Of Fire’. Her warm vocals are perfectly suited to this country standard, and Kaplansky captures June Carter’s sentiment as well as anyone but Johnny himself.

A veteran of many longstanding collaborations, this is an artist who really knows how to pick her guests and instrumentalists. Former bandmate Richard Shindell lends guitars and vocals, while the mellifluous vocals of Eliza Gilkyson harmonise beautifully with Kaplansky’s throughout. And the instrumentation is spot on. That said, the absolute standout is ‘Today’s The Day’, a stripped-down solo lament for Kaplansky’s dead father.

Without ever being showy or overwrought, Kaplansky’s voice is always expressive and sensitive – traits that have made her a popular backing vocalist. With Kaplanksy having leant her talents to Nanci Griffith recordings in the past, to let the similarity between their vocal styles go unnoticed would be remiss. Akin in phrasing and tone, though slightly less idiosyncratic than Griffith’s, Kaplansky’s voice lacks some of Nanci’s flair, but has no problems bringing life to her own tender songs and the covers. For all that, when up against the ever-enthusiastic Buddy Miller on the cover of ‘Somewhere Trouble Don’t Go’, penned by Miller’s wife Julie, she seems a little lacklustre.

For all its merits, perhaps Kaplansky’s greatest problem is her association with other artists. Aside from Griffiths, her association with Shawn Colvin elicits comparison with a singer-songwriter against whose work tracks such as ‘Swimming Song’ and ‘The Gift’ seem to be clunky metaphor, while her collaborations with Dar Williams bring to mind the twee failings of her former bandmate – this album is certainly not without its saccharine moments: perhaps there’s just one too many song for her daughter, and one too many over-sentimental paean to her family. Yet, despite invoking such comparisons, she generally stacks up pretty well. Moreover, where former releases have suffered from heavy-handed production, the bare acoustic nature of Over The Hills is light and suits the songs and Kaplansky’s voice well. Mostly heartwarming or moving, Over The Hills is, if not quite up with the best country-flavoured Americana you will hear this year, the sound of a talented artist who continues to develop and refine her craft.

Peter Hayward

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Rose Kemp
A Hand Full Of Hurricanes ••••
One Little Indian

Have you ever been so far from home, speaking on the telephone, hearing the pain in the voice on the line when it says it misses you, feeling so desolate when you realise that there is nothing you can do to make it better apart from give the promise you’ll be home soon? The standout track on A Hand Full Of Hurricanes, Rose Kemp’s second solo album, ‘Sister Sleep’ is the perfect mix of heartbreak and hope, the reassuring breath on the back of your neck in the middle of the night, a folk-inspired a cappella prayer to the mystics which is, quite simply, worth the price of this album alone. Fact.

But there’s more. Often falling steadfastly between a deep and powerful PJ Harvey and the supernatural quality of Regina Spektor, I suspect that it’s not often you find a 22-year-old from Carlisle who makes songwriting something so magical. Of course, her stellar folk pedigree helps. The daughter of Steeleye Span luminaries Maddy Prior and Rick Kemp, Rose has a genetic advantage.

A world away from her early folk releases, Kemp is almost witch-like in her ability to hold you in thrall of her pure feminine angst, commanding the raucous melée of sound with enviable superiority. Last year’s single, ‘Violence, displayed a vocal so powerful it could knock you off your feet and throw you into a wall, while the beautiful ‘Tiny Flower’ is the musical equivalent of kissing it better.

A Hand Full Of Hurricanes certainly makes for an apt title. The songs here twist and turn in and away from a despair so strong it could whip even an angel into an all-out fury in a single stamp of a guitar pedal. This really isn’t a storm in a teacup. It’s really very good.

Anna Claxton

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Chaka Khan
Funk This ••
Warner Bros.

With eight Grammy awards and a handful of gold selling albums to her name, Chaka Khan could quite justly be considered one of the all-time greats of R&B. And doesn’t she know it! Despite having spent the last nine years mired in compilation album money-spinning exercises and pretty much just resting on her laurels, you might think that the commanding title of Khan’s 12th album signifies a triumphant return to her 1970s heyday. And, in a way, it does. Much of Funk This sounds like it could have been recorded 20 or even 30 years ago. Trouble is, the scene has moved on. Modern R&B is a genre where Kanye West can remix Shirley Bassey and someone like Nelly Furtado can go from the whimsical pop of ‘I’m Like A Bird’ to the vamp crunkess of ‘Maneater’ in a few short years. Khan just can’t cut it in the face of such competition.

It’s not as if she doesn’t try. ‘Disrespectful’, featuring Mary J Blige, is a clear standout with its pure Motown feel and handily sounding a bit like Amerie’s monster hit ‘1 Thing’. ‘Ladies’ Man’, too, is good – a slow-burning jam with a protruding chromatic chant of the title bubbling beneath Khan’s soulful vocal. Though it works quite well here, there’s a tendency to over-rely on a backing chorus line on other tracks. The appealingly quirky intro of ‘Will You Love Me?’ fizzles into nothing as Khan gets carried away with adding in voices blander than her trademark throaty purr. There’s really no need; vocally, she sounds as great as ever.

Still, you can understand why Khan has stuck to what she’s known to be good at; so many artists who try to update their sound meet with limited success. But a little pushing of the envelope, even a small one, would have been good. Nothing on Funk This sounds inventive or original. It’s as if she’s copied and pasted a template of what used to work and hoped for the best. There are obvious influences of funk, soul, jazz and classic power balladry – see the emotionally powered ‘Angel’ if you like that sort of thing – and to her credit Khan can work the different genres well. But Funk This is not slick. It’s not sexy. It won’t make you want to get your groove on. It may have sounded more remarkable had it been released all those years ago, but in 2007 it’s dated, tired and little more than mediocre.

The sworn Chaka faithful and those who love their prescription diva fare will no doubt lap it up, but anyone else would do better to just funk off and forget about it.

Michelle Ruda

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Angélique Kidjo
Djin Djin •••
EMI

For want of a better phrase we’ll call it ‘doing a Carlos’. Ever since the respected but (until then) commercially overlooked guitarist Carlos Santana invited his showbiz chums to play and sing on his Supernatural album, sold a gazillion units and cleaned up at the Grammys, the guest celebrity album has become all the rage. Now it’s world-music genius Angélique Kidjo’s turn and, frankly, it’s an approach that’s only partially successful for her. Kicking off with the joyous ‘Ae Ae’ makes for a glorious start, displaying all the best elements of what is often stereotyped as African music – complex rhythms, intricate jangling guitar lines, impassioned vocals; it’s all in there. The title track keeps the standard high as Branford Marsalis weaves his soprano magic across a languid track that Bebel Gilberto would be proud to call her own. Alicia Keys shows just how good a singer she is here, holding her own and complementing the duet perfectly (though the song could really have done without her sub-Fugees “uh huh, one time”-ing on the outro).

And then it’s back down to earth with a bump as Joss Stone demolishes an abysmal cover of the Rolling Stones’ ‘Gimme Shelter’ with her unfocused warbling. Gimme shelter? Gimme strength! Ziggy Marley’s contribution passes all but unnoticed in a haze of cod reggae before Santana himself puts in an appearance doing what he does on ‘Pearls’ and helping Josh Groban overcook an unsubtle “I-am-woman-hear-me-roar” ballad. I’m sorry, but encapsulating the plight of dispossessed Somalians with the line “…and it hurts like brand new shoes”? Where’s Mariah when you need her for a quote?

It’s interesting to note that the most effective contributions come from artists who truly understand music beyond the Western pop canon. Peter Gabriel is stunningly good duetting on ‘Salala’, a track that approaches the best of either his or Kidjo’s work. It’s a truly worthy inclusion. Similarly, ‘Senamou’, which features the Malian husband-and-wife team of Amadou & Mariam, hits all the right notes. Infectious and affecting, it’s one of the album’s brightest highlights. With the collaborations out of the way, the six tracks where Kidjo goes it alone are equally strong and diverse, blending African rhythms with influences as diverse as Arabic music, super-freak funk and classical as the album closes with a stunning take on Ravel’s ‘Bolero’.

Ultimately Djin Djin is an album of 13 tracks that merits three stars when had it featured only 10 it may have deserved four. Ach, the price of celebrity.

Trevor Raggatt

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Diana Krall
The Very Best Of ••••½
Universal Classics

“I feel like I really don’t have to prove anything at this point other than what I’m doing…I work very hard at being the best musician I can be because I love it.”

So said Canada’s finest jazz export, Diana Krall in 2001 upon the release of her eighth album. Six years, four albums, an Order of Canada and a marriage to Elvis Costello later, Krall is now seemingly unassailable; so much so, that we are now treated to that well-worn retirement gift, a ‘very best of’. Thankfully, Krall is not about to pop on her slippers and buy a rocking chair. Let’s face it, when you’ve won two Grammies (Best Jazz Musician in 1999 and Best Vocal Jazz Record in 2001) the desire to continue influencing, performing and accruing gold-plated desk ornamentation is pretty strong. This release does not signify an imminent farewell tour or eye-poppingly cringeworthy ‘Audience With…’ TV special; if anything, it’s a chance for the recent mother-of-two to take a well-earned rest.

The Very Best Of Diana Krall is at once an accessible album for jazz starters and an impressive treat for Krall’s legion of fans. ‘I’ve Got You Under My Skin’ is a great example of her vocal prowess and stylistic flair. She treats Frank Sinatra’s well-worn classic to a thorough revamp, replacing the recognisable swing sound with a dreamier composition, laden with sensuous vocals and mellifluous strings. Similar in tone is the first of three previously unreleased inclusions, ‘Only The Lonely’, for which the word ‘languid’ must have been invented: a voluptuous fantasia of strings, piano riffs and Krall’s thoughtful musings on solitude, this song gives her a chance to show off the depth and rich expressiveness of her voice.

For those who seek something a little less philosophical, ‘Frim Fram Sauce’ is Krall’s demonstration of her ability to match Nat King Cole’s hard-edged voice with her own brand of cheeky freestyle jazz. The Live In Paris performance of ‘East Of The Sun (& West Of The Moon)’ is another case in point: a funky ensemble whose double bass foundation and virtuoso soloist cello bridge are both perfect foils for Krall’s smooth-as-cream voice. The list goes on; suffice to say, the only criticism worthy of repeating is that, on occasion, Mantovani-style string accompaniments descend worryingly close to a muzak nightmare. Thankfully, Krall’s charismatic performances consistently prevent her songs from heading for a future in elevators, but a little more funk, á la ‘Peel Me A Grape’, certainly wouldn’t go amiss.

For an artist as varied, successful and influential as Krall, choosing which tracks to include on such a compilation must have been a formidable task. Thankfully, this album is a near-perfect cross-section of the oft-honoured singer’s remarkable repertoire. It is indicative of Krall’s excellent self-analysis, too: she really doesn’t need to prove anything any more. As long as there’s more to come.

Andy Wasley

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Alison Krauss
A Hundred Miles Or More: A Collection ••••½
Rounder

This collection of 16 tunes by veteran bluegrass artist Alison Krauss presents the reviewer with something of a dilemma: how on earth to describe it? It’s certainly not a ‘best of’ – how could it be when it ignores all her Union Station output? Nor is it a ‘greatest hits’. Sure, it may include the acclaimed ‘Down By The River To Pray’ from the ‘Oh Brother, Where Art Thou?’ soundtrack, but with a quarter of the tracks previously unreleased ‘A Collection’ is the only fitting appellation. And what a collection it is! Krauss’s versatility is displayed in all its glory as she takes on and masters a number of styles far beyond her beloved bluegrass roots. The duet with Jon Waite on his enduring classic ‘Missing You’ shows just how far she can stray stylistically and still nail the song. No wonder so many of the artists Krauss is heard duetting with here have called upon her to add a layer of class and sophistication to their own songs.

Unsurprisingly, the five previously unreleased songs collected here all prove to be present on their own merits. These aren’t the usual studio floor sweepings which haunt so many collections but worthy explorations of the folkier fringes of country. A particular treat is the mandolin, banjo and fiddlefest ‘Sawing On The Strings’, recorded live at a Country Music Television awards ceremony. Other highlights are found in songs already famous for gracing movie soundtracks, including ‘The Scarlet Tide’ and the Oscar-nominated ‘You Will Be My Ain True Love’ from the epic ‘Cold Mountain’, the latter being a duet with Sting who mercifully limits his contribution to background texture. Final mention must go to ‘How’s The World Treating You?’, a collaboration with James Taylor taken from a Louvin Brothers tribute compilation. A perfect blend of these two eminent voices, it’s a laidback affair that nevertheless suggests that if they ever decided to stretch out to a full duets album Wears The Trousers would be first in the queue at HMV.

A Hundred Miles Or More is a fitting testament to an artist acknowledged as one of the voices of her generation. The very fact that this collection has been compiled only from recordings created away from her day job with Union Station only serves to underline the breadth and depth of her brilliance.

Trevor Raggatt

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Robert Plant & Alison Krauss
Raising Sand ••••
Rounder

Say you were to compile a list of duets album dream teams. Some combinations wouldn’t spring readily to mind. For instance, pairing the darling of modern bluegrass with a hairy-chested rock behemoth. Evidently someone has a better imagination than you (possibly the same person who last year teamed Mark Lanegan with Isobel Campbell). And it works. From the ominous opening chords of ‘Rich Woman’, guitar swaddled up in layers of tremolo and reverb, it’s clear that something special is about to happen to your ears.

But, you might wonder, how can Krauss’s gentle, country voice ever blend with Plant’s million-decibel roar? That’s the power of programming, you see. So ubiquitous is the rock iconography of Led Zeppelin that it’s easy to forget that their range went far beyond the likes of ‘Whole Lotta Love’ and ‘Immigrant Song’, or that Plant’s formative years were spent singing roots-based music. Led Zeppelin’s eponymous debut was essentially a blues album, albeit cranked right up to 11.

Here, Plant’s approach is more delicate than you might have foreseen. Indeed, his vocals harmonise perfectly with Krauss – he supplies the gruff bluesiness while Krauss covers all the bases between angelic and seductive. The pair also mix up their tactics. On some tracks, such as ‘Killing The Blues’, they sing almost in unison or interweaving countermelody; on others, one provides the lead while the other fleshes out the texture with mellifluous oohs and aahs across the stereo spectrum (witness the beauty of ‘Sister Rosetta Goes Before Us’, written by Sam Phillips, aka Mrs T-Bone). The way the pair have tackled each treatment is almost instinctive, as if it all just magically fell into place.

But, of course, this is partly the hard work of a stellar band of backing musicians (including drummer Jay Bellerose, lap steel player Greg Leisz and none other than Mike Seeger on autoharp) and the production skills of iconic roots producer T-Bone Burnett. A constant presence (and pleasure) is guitarist and jazz virtuoso Mark Ribot, whether Plant and Krauss are tackling Louisiana swamp blues, tender lovelorn country or moments that would not seem out of place at the bluesier, more psychedelic end of the Zeppelin canon. From the Zeppelin-esque throb of ‘Fortune Teller’ to the grind of Townes Van Zandt’s ‘Nothin’, from the roots and country of Tom Waits and Kathleen Brennan’s ‘Trampled Rose’ and Gene Clark’s ‘Through The Morning, Through The Night’ to the zydeco tinges of the Everly Brothers’ ‘Gone Gone Gone’ or ‘Let Your Loss Be Your Lesson’, Raising Sand convinces and entrances with immediate effect.

Raising Sand is no celebrity novelty piece, it’s a serious artistic achievement. Drawing from the pens of some of our greatest songwriters and lovingly crafted by two supremely talented singers, it’s an unexpected delight.

Trevor Raggatt

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Chantal Kreviazuk
Ghost Stories ••
Nettwerk

About 10 years ago, I’d just arrived in Toronto on holiday with my parents and before leaving the hotel room I flicked on a music channel. At that fortuitous moment, the video for Chantal Kreviazuk’s ‘Wayne’ was airing; I completely fell in love with the song and couldn’t get it out of my head for months. Eventually I found her debut album Under These Rocks & Stones back in the UK and thought I’d found an artist who was going to be huge. Two albums later and UK awareness of Ms Kreviazuk’s music seems to still be almost non-existent, save those few people who bought her touching cover of John Denver’s ‘Leaving On A Jet Plane’ from the ‘Armageddon’ soundtrack. Ghost Stories, her fourth release, clearly has its work cut out if it hopes to bring her music to a wider British audience.

Unfortunately, Ghost Stories continues to whittle away at what made Kreviazuk stand out from the crowd in the first place. The passion and raw energy of her debut are very much spectres on this record, which is so far from Under These Rocks… she’s virtually unrecognisable. Fair enough, she’s now happily married to Our Lady Peace singer Raine Maida, has two baby boys and a successful second career as a behind-the-scenes songwriter (Kreviazuk and Maida co-wrote most of Avril Lavigne’s 2003 album Under My Skin), but with each of her albums becoming progressively glossier and jumping up the rungs of shimmering, slick production, the spark is dimming.

Just looking at the song titles uncovers a certain cliché or laziness to the record – ‘Mad About You’, ‘Waiting For The Sun’, ‘Asylum’, ‘Wendy House’ etc. – and the lyrics are too imprisoned in rhyme and very predictable trajectories. For example, “I don’t know why the winter’s long / it wears me out, it goes on and on” is a pretty lame effort for an artist who was once so inventive. That’s not to say that there aren’t any moments of interest on the album; ‘Spoke In Tongues’ is very good. It’s a bit more disjointed and mercifully less coffee table than the rest of the album, but again it’s overshadowed by the endless use of stock phrases and tired images (“leaves blew away” for ageing; “when you’re at a fork in the road” for…well, I don’t even need to say do I?).

Really, all there is to say about Ghost Stories is that it’s not an awful album, it’s just not that great. It’s well below par for an artist who once promised great things. The conviction has gone from her vocal delivery and it seems that the desire has left her music. Whereas before she was easy to fall in love with, now she’s easy listening. But then, while I’m disappointed as a fan of old, maybe new ears unaware of her older work will have the same experience I did when I first saw that video.

Rod Thomas

 



2007 reviews dump: m

The following reviews were published on our old MySpace blog in 2007.

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Amy MacDonald
This Is The Life ••••
Mercury

Scotland’s star is rising; home of some of the brightest talents in British music, its recent musical history has been impressive. Think, for example, of KT Tunstall, Franz Ferdinand, Belle & Sebastian, Isobel Campbell and The Fratellis. Now that esteemed cohort is set to increase with the debut of 19-year old folk-loving Glaswegian Amy MacDonald. Since discovering her muse – Travis – at the age of 12, MacDonald’s single-minded determination has been to write songs about the world around her. This Is The Life, then, covers everything from the T In The Park festival to today’s disposable pop culture and the vacuous celebrities who perpetuate it.

The album leaps into life with the optimism of her recent hit single ‘Mr Rock & Roll’, an uplifting number positively bulging with layered acoustics and confidently powerful vocals. Playing to MacDonald’s melodic and lyrical strengths, it’s the perfect introduction and a sure-fire live hit. ‘Let’s Start A Band’, a tumultuous mix of Latino trumpets, atmospheric strings and throaty guitars, is similarly vital, surging forward with the energy and force of a tsunami. MacDonald takes the opportunity to show off her vocal range a little, contrasting crystalline soprano notes with a huskier, Annie Lennox-style croon.

Crowd-pleasing anthem ‘Barrowland Ballroom’, an homage to the Glasgow venue that did much to launch the careers of her favourite bands, is typical of MacDonald’s arena-friendly songs. Combining a bright melody with simple lyrics, it’s sure to move some feet as it swings from a folksy, guitar-based intro to a toe-tapping conclusion, backed with the saloon bar sound of a honky-tonk piano. Gig goers will also be pleased by ‘Youth Of Today’, MacDonald’s impassioned defence of youthful optimism and joie de vivre.

Perhaps the best track of all is the epic ‘Footballer’s Wife’, a withering sideswipe at the ubiquitous WAG mentality. Opening with a dramatic combination of strings and thunderous timpani, the song’s angry lyrics and anthemic chorus are well matched to MacDonald’s rich, expressive voice. The album’s bonus tracks conclude with ‘Caledonia’, a modern folk classic given an emotional performance and a stirring pipe-and-drums coda that’s sure to moisten many a Scottish eye.

Amy MacDonald is one of the most original voices to have emerged from Scotland in recent years, and with this album she has set the scene for a stellar future. KT Tunstall may be losing sleep already. An explosive debut, This Is The Life is a magnificent demonstration of the young star’s talent, and could prove a hard act to follow.

Andy Wasley

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Magenta
The Singles ••••
JFK

As Wears The Trousers is fond of reinforcing, it’s a long-standing misconception that prog rock is just rambling, 27-minute pieces about trolls and wizards or skill Eastern philosophies. Fair enough, there’s a bit of that about but for every ‘Topographic Oceans’ there’s a good old pop tune like ‘Wondrous Stories’. Recent years have seen a move to song-based albums across the genre but none more typified than by neo-prog bands like Magenta.

The tracks here are not so much singles per se as songs selected from Magenta’s back catalogue, or extracted from their early sword-and-sorcery epics. All 11 songs have been re-recorded, giving a chance to showcase the band’s current line-up. However, just because the songs clock in at under five minutes each doesn’t mean that they won’t satisfy their core prog audience. Shifting time signatures, orchestral backing, noodling keyboards and guitars are tastefully employed throughout. However, it’s the writing of Rob Reed and the stunning vocals of Christina Booth that make the songs shine.

Standout tracks include the majestic bombast of ‘Speechless’ and ‘I’m Alive’ where the vocals soar above the backing track as it vaults to increasing levels of intensity. Adding further strings to the Magenta bow, ‘King Of The Skies’ weighs in as a boogying rocker (prog-style of course) complete with a thundering vocal performance that even Anastacia would be proud of. No wonder the UK Classic Rock Society has awarded Booth their Singer Of The Year gong on a number of occasions. Of course, some long-held prog traditions and tricks rear their head; ‘Anger’ in particular utilises that old favourite of a madrigal-esque start leading to a more expansive rock conclusion. Then, in something of a concession to the hardened proggers in their audience, Magenta close the album with three longer bonus tracks that might stretch the patience of a casual listener, introduced by a Rick Wakeman-styled organ toccata.

Magenta’s last album proper, Home, was stuffed with great songs that should have endeared the band to a wider audience. Hopefully The Singles will continue the trend.

Trevor Raggatt

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Eleni Mandell
Miracle Of Five ••••½
V2

Los Angeles-based Eleni Mandell has developed something of a cult following over the last eight or so years since the release of her debut album Wishbone. Yet the artist the New Yorker once dubbed as “perhaps one of the best unsigned artists in the business” continues to operate quietly under the radar, releasing her sixth full-length album Miracle Of Five with little to no fanfare. It’s a shame really, as this may well be the best work she’s turned in to date. Continuing to mine her strengths in jazz-soaked vocals and smoky undertones, she’s moved away from the harder edged comparisons once made with PJ Harvey and closer to the softer sounds of modern chanteuses Norah Jones and Madeleine Peyroux. But don’t box her in; Mandell owes more to Ella Fitzgerald than her modern peers and is unafraid to boldly swerve into the territories of country noir and folk to stretch her range.

Where the lead track ‘Moonglow, Lamp Low’ revels in its breathy vocals and sultry brass and the immaculate ‘My Twin’ could, in 1960, have easily been sung by the regal Patsy Cline, dig just a tiny bit deeper and you’ll find songs like ‘Girls’, a musical about-turn in the form of a singalong campfire number with amusing lyrics that could be sung by or to any number of individuals – is it a woman singing to her boyfriend? To her own insecurities? To someone she has yet to meet?

There’s no doubt Mandell can write a lovely melody but she also excels in the art of layered meaning with quite a knack for taking the simplest of lyrics and creating a song that at first seems so clear cut and simple, yet upon repeated listenings can mean so much more. Take, for example, the enjoyable ‘Salt Truck’, which at first may appear to be a simple ditty to motorised de-icing, but upon closer listen is deftly ambiguous: “Salt truck, salt truck, mean black eyes / swerving as I’m very nice / I want roads that I can drive on / I want a love I can rely on”.

It may take its time in sinking in but Miracle Of Five is a sturdy release crammed with well-crafted and memorable tunes. If there is a fault, it lies in the downbeat nature of the album as a whole – it’s easy for these songs to run into one another without anyone really batting an eyelid. Still, that only makes it all the more perfect for a reflective rainy day or quiet evening in with a fine glass of red. Hopefully someone out there is paying attention.

Loria Near

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Cynthia G Mason
Quitter’s Claim •••
High Two

Cynthia G Mason’s heartfelt, grass-roots music speaks to an unpretentious quarter of the soul. Coupling a Joni Mitchell-esque acoustic flavour with the barest hint of country, Mason’s minimalist arrangements and unassuming intensity have won particular acclaim in her native Philadelphia, a city in which she has become something of a local treasure. Quitter’s Claim ends a six-year hiatus for the singer-songwriter during which she graduated from law school and embarked on rather more mundane work; musically, she also experienced a number of professional disappointments, alluded to on the album’s final track, ‘Quit While You’re Misled’. However, a fortuitous meeting with an old collaborator, Larry D Brown, spurred Mason to dust off her guitar, clear out its musical mothballs and record this new CD with a borrowed four-track, all the while putting in her eight hours at the office.

Indeed, unembellished reality is never far away in Mason’s music and it is refreshing to find an artist whose work fits snugly into the pauses in everyday life. Opening act ‘Like A Lifer Out For Good’ deals with disillusionment in love tempered by acceptance of its imperfections, showcasing Mason’s coolly melodic vocals. Lingering uncertainty also litters the wistful ‘Claim’, while ‘The Way The Morning Came’ – a melancholy reflection on lost love – is complemented by a solitary harmonica. Bittersweet is a word that could well characterise Mason’s newest effort, inspired by a store of experiences between albums and also by the actual process of music making. ‘Fits & Starts’, for example, describes recording the album after finishing up at work: “the way it’s designed there isn’t much room for invention”. Meanwhile, the intrusion of Philadelphia traffic at the beginning of ‘Nerve’ reveals just how economical a production Quitter’s Claim was.

Quitter’s Claim is an undeniably lovely follow-up to Mason’s debut, but for some it could be just a little, well, boring. All 10 tracks slide seamlessly into one another with little instrumental variation, suggesting some great background music but failing to reveal any immediately attention-grabbing songs. Subtlety is key: Tori Amos fans beware. Folk enthusiasts will, however, delight in the return of one of Philadelphia’s best-kept secrets. With Mason’s songwriting calibre and talent for evoking all the rushed complexity of life, it is clear the city’s musical legacy is safe.

Siobhan Rooney

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Martina McBride
Waking Up Laughing •••½
SonyBMG

Martina McBride may be relatively unknown here in the UK but her reputation Stateside takes some beating. A 12-times platinum selling artist who has won a record-breaking four CMA Female Singer of the Year gongs, it’s hard to argue with her credentials. She’s tucked an impressive eight studio albums under her belt since her 1992 debut, The Time Has Come… and Waking Up Laughing, her ninth release, maintains the status quo. Here, McBride operates as artist and producer and wears both hats with ease with skilful fingers on the faders and a voice that’s as endearing as ever. Engineering duties from husband John McBride keeps it a family affair and a stately one too: every song sounds lovingly crafted.

Of course, it doesn’t hurt that she’s populated the studio with the crème de la crème of Nashville talent. The cast list reads like a roll call for the Modern Country Hall of Fame: Dan Huff, Brent Mason and Dan Dugmore on guitar, Glenn Worf on bass, Matt Chamberlain on drums and supplementary textures courtesy of The Nashville String Machine. Nicole Kidman’s husband Keith Urban crops up on one track, adding harmony vocals and a country rock guitar solo. The songs, drawn from some of Music Town’s finest writers, are uniformly strong despite occasionally veering into well-worn country lyrical clichés. Given that Waking Up Laughing features McBride’s first forays into the songwriting process, teaming up with the Warren Brothers on three of the tracks (‘How I Feel’, ‘Beautiful’ and the emotional, uplifting lead single ‘Anyway’), it’s gratifying that her efforts not only stack up well against her peers but are in fact among the album’s standout tunes.

Waking Up Laughing veers from one fertile commercial territory to another, from power ballads to mid-tempo rockers. McBride’s versatile vocals are perfect for this type of modern country; there’s a rich depth to her singing with just enough earthiness to compliment the twists and turns of the songs with a slight catch and growl. Her accumulated accolades were certainly no fluke. If your personal tastes lie closer to the rootsier end of Americana this may prove too sweet on your palate (you’d be better off exploring something like Patty Griffin’s latest offering), but if mainstream Nashville country is your thing, then Waking Up Laughing will almost certainly put a smile on your face.

Trevor Raggatt

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Helen McCookerybook
Suburban Pastoral •••½
Big Song

I viewed sitting down to listen to this album with a certain amount of trepidation, having been told by a friend on several occasions that I absolutely had to like it. At the same time I was also intrigued to hear what Ms McCookerybook had to offer. This is a lady who started her career in the late ‘70s as bassist for Joby & The Hooligans (the “worst band in Brighton”); a lady who has recently completed a book about female punk musicians entitled ‘The Lost Women Of Rock’; and a lady who, on the back sleeve, looks a little like an unassuming, sweet middle-aged housewife, and sports a crown of ivy (it’s druid chic, dontcha know). What sort of music such a person might make was impossible to predict.

The opening bars of the first track, ‘Dreaming Of You’, sound a little like something you might expect to hear at a luau, all chilled-out guitars and winsome dreaminess. Then the vocals break in, setting up the first of many little juxtapositions in the album. In contrast to the tropical feel of the music, her voice sounds, for want of a more original phrase, quintessentially English. And yes, also a bit like someone’s mum. It’s difficult to define the genre of this album beyond the vague ‘singer-songwriter’ and ‘acoustic’ labels, though some of the songs wouldn’t sound out of place as part of a lounge act in a smoky little nightclub. The gently swinging beat in songs like ‘Don’t Know Why’ and ‘Once In A Blue Moon’ induce a strong urge to sway slowly in time to the music that has to be consciously fought off.

Of course, no female singer-songwriter worth her salt will navigate such a lengthy career without penning at least one song addressing the Biblical stories of either Eve or Delilah, and McCookerybook is no exception. ‘Temptation’ is a rather quirky take on the theme of Original Sin, complete with a cacophonous introduction in brass, and in possession of a peculiar nursery rhyme quality that is repeated in ‘Swan’, a rather sinister lesson on the danger of beautiful but dangerous things. So whilst the tone of her music is usually either merry or gently melancholy, the lyrics warrant a closer inspection. For all their seeming cheerfulness, I am almost certain that ‘London’ is a song about homelessness and ‘Heaven Avenue’ about suicide. There is often a contrast between the music and lyrics that can grab your attention and make you listen more carefully to what is actually going on.

Though Suburban Pastoral probably isn’t to everyone’s taste, there is something appealing about its simplicity and clarity. McCookerybook may sound kind of motherly and a little bit twee, but the mum in question is one that can definitely sing. There is something refreshing about the way you can understand almost every word she sings. This album won’t blow you away, but it might just charm its way into your lungs.

Hugh Armitage

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Nellie McKay
Pretty Little Head ••••
Hungry Mouse

I have a nagging sense of déjà vu. What’s that? I’ve reviewed this record before? Crikey! What’s going on?

Well. Pretty Little Head in fact first surfaced, in a different form, in January 2006. McKay had turned in a 23-song, double-disc set to her record company, who, in a commercially-minded decision, culled seven songs without consulting McKay and sent the album out as a single-disc promo, entirely without her permission. Understandably, McKay was angry and a lengthy battle ensued, resulting in her parting ways with Columbia. The album ended up stuck in limbo, the record company having stated that they would not be releasing it in any form.

Finally, after what must have been several immensely frustrating and disempowered months, McKay is back and should give herself a triumphant pat on the back. Released on her own imprint Hungry Mouse, set up for this record, she presents the record as she originally intended – all 23 tracks present and correct and sequenced significantly differently in the latter half of the album. In winning this battle, McKay has proven that artistic integrity can prevail over corporate interests, and for this she should be championed (anyone who’s read Tori Amos’s memoir ‘Piece By Piece’ will know that struggles between record companies and artists can be hard-fought and extremely bitter).

As I noted in my previous review, McKay’s first album suffered from being overlong and bloated. But though it’s now a behemoth of an album, Pretty Little Head fares surprisingly well. ‘Lali est Parisseux’ is the highlight of the newly-present tracks, sung in French with a delightfully retro sound, like a transmission from a Parisian radio station of the past. Quite what it’s about I don’t know, my GCSE French having deserted me a while back, though “ce soir” crops up regularly in the lyrics and the song ends with a romantic “mwah!” so I’m guessing it’s about lovin’.

Four of the new tracks are clustered at the very end of the album, including the disturbing ‘Mama & Me’. The intro to this song might well become one of those bits you always skip through, featuring as it does a dialogue between McKay and her mother in which she appears to play both roles, one of which is a crying toddler. Hmmm. The song itself is a gritty spoken-word rap piece about a childhood of urban poverty, deprivation and domestic abuse. It’s socially conscious, reinforcing that McKay is an artist with a political agenda and the intelligence and artistry to get her message across. McKay sings about “wanting to die with your nose broken, heart choking”, and the song is surprisingly hard hitting given its intro. It’s a testament to female strength and the bond between mother and daughter: “with my mom by my side / we’ll never give up the fight”. Even so, the song features a truly bizarre spoken word coda in which mother and daughter have an almighty row, McKay voicing the daughter’s words through choking sobs and wrenching gasps. Only here does the track become a little unstuck, and the excessive theatricality of the exchange means that what had seemed entirely serious threatens to become a joke.

McKay’s desire to take on various different roles works better on the album’s more light-hearted tracks. ‘Pounce’ is a joyous 56-second ode to pussycats and pouncing in general, one of a number of interlude-esque tracks on the album. Those tracks that didn’t quite work on the promo issued last January are still a little redundant here – particularly ‘Pink Chandelier’ and ‘I Am Nothing’ – and the new track ‘Yodel’ is twee to the point of being irritating, but altogether this is a stylistically varied and consistently inventive album. McKay’s ability to pen both vigorous, fierce politically-minded tracks and gleefully playful pop numbers is particularly impressive. And as for the Cyndi Lauper duet ‘Beecharmer’; well, it’s still one of the most fantastic, fun and witty pop songs in recent memory.

Danny Weddup

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Erin McKeown
Lafayette ••••
Signature

Having had the pleasure of seeing Ms McKeown in concert on a number of occasions, the news that our diminutive spiky-haired friend was finally releasing a recording of her indomitably spirited live sets was greeted with smiles aplenty at the Wears The Trousers office. And Lafayette does not disappoint. Named after the New York street upon which Joe’s Pub (the venue where the album was taped) stands, it’s a deliciously careening treat. Kicking off with her brilliant take on ‘Thanks For The Boogie Ride’, a tune so swinging that you’d want to get up and cut some rug even after the hugest of meals, once the old school jiving beats hit the eardrum there’s no going back and dessert will have to wait. It’s the only cover in an 11-song set that runs through each of McKeown’s five albums (six if you count the original versions of ‘Lullaby In 3/4′ and ‘Fast As You Can’ on her self-released Monday Morning Cold) and still finds room to squeeze in a newbie in the form of ‘You, Sailor’.

As a songwriter McKeown seems to have settled in nicely to her own stylistic furrow, with each release since 2000’s disparate Distillation showcasing a stronger, more focused muse at work behind the scenes. The brilliant ‘Slung-Lo’, from 2003’s Judy Garland-inspired Grand, exploits this and slides perfectly into the set sandwiched between two musically less vibrant numbers, allowing it to shine. Elsewhere, Grand is represented again with a rendition of ‘James!’, this time with a noticeably darker groove than that found on the studio take.

Together with her six-piece, take-no-prisoners Little Big Band with the defiantly talented Allison Miller on drums and Todd Sickafoose on bass (both of whom accompanied Ani DiFranco on her recent European tour), McKeown has done well to capture the true essence of her live show. Her exuberant personality shines through with the crowd participation segment in ‘We Are More’ and the band’s dynamic reworking of classic back catalogue favourites. Her energy is certainly present in ‘Melody’ and ‘Blackbirds’ and her emotions in ‘Lullaby in 3/4′ are immediate and true. Indeed, ‘Blackbirds’ is the perfect example of why McKeown is so well loved as it starts out unexpectedly, surprising and pleasing the crowd in equal measure. Playful and engaging, it’s the standout track and clearly the audience favourite, reflecting the glee that Erin and the rest of the band must have had in the practice room as they gave the song a new lease of life.

As a package Lafayette is a must have for McKeown fans and a worthy introduction for any new ears. The camaraderie between McKeown, Miller and Sickafoose sticks the band tightly together, adding a fresh layer of vitality to McKeown’s older songs. Credit must be give too to the song selection and sequencing, both of which keep boredom firmly at bay. And if you don’t want to go and see the lady herself play in the flesh next time she’s in town after listening to this, well, I’ll be surprised.

Sam Murray

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Katie Melua
Pictures •½
Dramatico

Take a moment to answer the following question. What do the following songs have in common: ‘Remember You’re A Womble’, ‘A Winter’s Tale’, ‘Bright Eyes’ and ‘Closest Thing To Crazy’? Well, aside from the fact that they can all be loosely described as trite, simple and classically composed, aiming to achieve maximum effect for minimum innovation and technique, and that they’re all well-known, big-selling popular songs, they’re all the work of the phenomenally successful songwriter, Mike Batt. Or should that be unaccountably successful? – his work is often derided for being simplistic and over-sentimental (as those four songs illustrate). Nevertheless it’s worth remembering that he has a bankrolling knack for appealing to an audience unswayed by sniffy critics and poor reviews. ‘Bright Eyes’ was an international number one smash for Art Garfunkel; ‘A Winter’s Tale’ became one of David Essex’s most popular and recognisable songs; and Batt’s work with Vanessa Mae turned her into one of the most successful classical artists in the world.

As the mogul at large behind 23-year old Georgia-born singer Katie Melua, Batt has delivered amazing results: with over 7.5 million albums sold to date, Melua is by far the biggest-selling female artist in Europe, an astonishing achievement given the somewhat stale appeal of her musical output. Thanks to Terry Wogan, Katie’s debut album, Call Off The Search – an insipid collection of simple blues/jazz songs – was propelled to the top spot in the UK charts, ultimately selling a staggering 1.8 million albums in the first five months. Melua’s second album, Piece By Piece has now gone platinum four times, once again based on a recipe of digestible pop-jazz and unashamedly romantic lyrics. No matter how boring her music has been to date, Melua has clearly won a place in the public’s affection; that, surely, deserves a modicum of respect, even if she was recently described by the ‘Daily Telegraph’ as a “national embarrassment”.

As it turns out, Pictures will be Melua’s final album with Mike Batt at the helm and is a compelling indication that ditching her sentimental puppetmaster may in fact be her best possible career move. Melua’s own work is, both stylistically and lyrically, a light-year away from Batt’s increasingly inane outpourings. ‘Mary Pickford’ is typical of his drivel; a spectacularly dull creation full of schoolboy-standard rhyming couplets and a saccharine storyline, it’s as nondescript and MOR as a lowly little traffic island. The execrable ‘Spellbound’ is much the same, while ‘What It Says On The Tin’ seems to use Ronseal as a metaphor for schmaltzy romantic ideals better left to Mills & Boon. The mind boggles, truly. The common thread is Batt’s inoffensive and avowedly unchallenging lyrics, and his old-fashioned, straightforward compositions. This stuff should be played in dentists’ receptions, if only to acclimatise people to having their teeth pulled.

However – and this is Wears The Trousers going out on a limb – Melua’s own work might just indicate that a change of guidance and direction could be fruitful. To be fair to her, she does possess a beautifully clear and versatile voice and her writing has a flair that may just come into its own. ‘What I Miss About You’, for example, could never have come from Batt’s well-worn pen. Melua’s semi-biographical song about a treacherous and hurtful ex-boyfriend swings effortlessly from melancholic reminiscence (“your bashful grin when you asked if I would like your key”) to angry denunciation (“your skill of putting me down in front of everyone I knew”), and she is clearly emotionally involved in her powerful performance. The album’s other standout song, ‘Scary Movies’, is an intelligent and amusingly kooky piece completely at odds with Batt’s pedestrian styling. You could scarcely imagine the author of ‘Bright Eyes’ writing lyrics like “Nowadays I never cry… / when the psychopathic wife kills her husband with a knife”, or “I don’t care when people’s heads end up being torn to shreds”.

Overall, though, Pictures sees Melua stuck firmly on safe ground. It will appeal to Wogan’s listeners every bit as much as her previous releases, it will win no prizes for innovation or daring, and it isn’t likely to win her new fans, but Pictures does provide her with a chance to show what she is capable of. Melua is a talented musician let down by a solidly plain lyricist/composer; she might not be a Diana Krall or Joni Mitchell in the making, but if she has the courage to mark a change of direction with the clarity and skill that makes occasional appearances in her own work, she could well move into newer, better, more interesting territory.

Andy Wasley

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M.I.A.
Kala ••••½
XL

Maya Arulpragasam must be a gift to amateur sociologists, and even the more refined stratum of navel gazers known as ethnomusicologists. Just think of all the theses and dissertations that could be developed about her: a young woman born in Hounslow to Sri Lankan parents, whose family moved with her back to their homeland when she was 6 months old; who experienced the virtual loss of her father when he joined the armed Tamil Tiger separatist movement and she was forced to flee with her family to India, living for a time in a ruined house; who eventually returned to the UK and went to Central St Martin’s art college, met Justine Frischmann and was commissioned to produce the artwork for Elastica’s second album; whose response to encouragement by Frischmann and Peaches, the support act on Elastica’s US tour, to develop her confidence in music was to drop off a tape of what became her first single, the bruising and brilliant ‘Galang’, at the offices of XL Recordings with a note reading, “Trust me, you’ve been looking for me”. Without getting too pointy-headed about it, the deprivation, heartache, politicisation, talent and determination revealed by Arulpragasam’s story makes her current success much less surprising, particularly in the music world where personality hooks are often just as important as musical ones.

But it’s the music that concerns us here, until now encapsulated in her debut album, Arular, named after the pseudonym her father took when he joined the Tigers. That record was a dizzying and enervating conglomeration of grime, dancehall, techno, hip hop and a smattering of unapologetic pop, which garnered drooling praise from critics and several award nominations, not to mention healthy sales. It was genuinely one of the records of 2005: fizzing with energy and ideas, politicised but not in your face – despite MTV doing its boneheaded best to bring her politics to the foreground by banning ‘Sunshowers’ for mentioning the PLO – its slightly unfinished feel only added to its appeal, giving the songs a technoid edge that made her sound even more alien among her contemporaries. All of which makes Kala one of the most anticipated releases of 2007.

Arular was undoubtedly the product of a childhood spent mainly in the UK, a result and mirror of musics absorbed from neighbours and friends in an overpopulated city. One of the key tracks on Kala – this time named after MIA’s mother – is tellingly called ‘World Town’, and is the most obvious statement of how her concerns and vision have expanded in the two years since the first record. In itself, however, it only makes explicit that which is implied throughout what is, in many ways, an exuberant travelogue of an album, recorded as it was in India, Trinidad and Tokyo among other locations. ‘World Town’ is the equivalent of entering a dusty zocalo where a street party is in full swing: a samba band bashes out flurries of percussion above which shouts some unnamed instrument fashioned from a car exhaust, while MIA declaims from a car bonnet, “don’t be calling me desperate / when I’m knocking on the door / every wall you build / I’ll knock it down to the floor”. Only the masked guys in the corner, loading their automatic rifles as the chorus plays, ring a note of concern.

These (defiantly non-government) troops appear again on ‘Paper Planes’, the most summery track on the album, but one that sets out a similarly outspoken agenda: “I’ll fly like a paper get high like planes / catch me at the border I got visas in my name / If you come around here I’ll make ‘em all day / I’ll get one done in a second if you wait”; then there’s the chorus of “All I wanna do is -” followed by three gunshots. It’s pretty obvious that MIA’s sympathies understandably lie with the voiceless and powerless people she’s known throughout her life, but it’s equally obvious from the cartoon methodology she employs that she’s out to deliberately provoke a reaction from the other side of the fence, from the comparatively well-off record-buying fraternity that are most likely to be exposed to her music.

Whatever your opinion of her politics, it never gets in the way of Kala being both joyful and sonically innovative. ‘Mango Pickle Down River’ heavily features rhyming by a group of Aborigine adolescents called The Wilcannia Mob, and is a widescreen slice of (inevitably) didge-heavy sludge-hop with a decidedly environmental slant (“There’s only one ocean that got fish left / one day we’ll have to be a really good chef”). The opening ‘Bamboo Banga’ is bhangrafied techno, one of several songs here to extend her cross-pollinisation into good ol’ white-boy indie as she drawls quotes from Jonathan Richman’s ‘Roadrunner’ in the opening lines. ‘20 Dollar’, a sequel of sorts to Arular‘s ‘10 Dollar’, inserts The Pixies’ ‘Where Is My Mind?’ into its loping groove; and even Happy Mondays get a piece of the action when ‘The Turn’ appropriates a line or two from Wrote ‘For Luck’.

Second single ‘Jimmy’ further enlarges MIA’s already expansive tent by covering an old Bollywood tune about one of its stars, Jimmy Aaja. She chooses not to recontextualise the music, relying on lots of swirling strings and bubbling arpeggios, but transplants the lyrics from India to Rwanda and Darfur. It’s an unexpected left turn, especially after the preceding percussive double whammy of ‘Bird Flu’ and ‘Boyz’, and provides some useful breathing space before ‘Hussel’ brings back the noize with layered African drumming that propels Afrikan Boy’s flow and some evocative FX toward a soaring chorus.

As Arulpragasam herself has said, this album “takes a few listens” to reveal itself entirely. The sheer weight and breadth of the sounds on offer here makes it less immediate, and certainly less immediately charming, than Arular; there’s none of the vocal characterisation that she deployed on ‘10 Dollar’, for example. Kala‘s politics won’t appeal to everyone, and they are far more central to the album’s fabric than previously. But when this brave, fearlessly eclectic and sonically loaded music truly hits, only a churl would fail to put it straight in the box marked Albums Of The Year.

Adam Smith

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Joni Mitchell
Shine ••••
Universal

When Joni Mitchell announced in March this year that her comeback album would be based around what she called “the war of the fairytales” it’s safe to assume that no one thought she’d be penning the soundtrack for ‘Shrek The Third’. It’s also safe to assume that no one could have imagined that the sight of a grizzly bear foraging for food in her dustbin would have set aflame her desire to compose her first new songs in almost a decade. Having departed the music industry five years ago with a hefty sting in her tail – the words ‘cesspool’ and ‘slavery’ were bandied about – Mitchell’s heart seemed set on the comparative freedom of painting and a musical life lived through nicely packaged but ultimately unsatisfying Rhino Records compilations. Retiring to her beloved coastal home (her “sanctuary”) in British Columbia where she busied herself with gardening, watching old movies and painstakingly creating the 60-strong mixed media works that would later make up her first art exhibition, an anti-war collection named ‘Flag Dance’, Mitchell’s desire to make music dwindled. Unthinkably, she got out of the habit of playing the guitar, so much so that her fingers had softened and she bled when she tried. So that night, the night the bear arrived, she turned to the piano for the first time in 10 years.

Kicking off a 10-track album with an instrumental, particularly one as feverishly awaited as Shine, may seem on the surface an ungenerous gesture. It’s not. It’s perfect. ‘One Week Last Summer’ is divine anticipation in itself, a languorous delight that slowly unfurls beneath Mitchell’s ponderous, sensitive piano. It’s a stark reminder that, for all her detractors who bemoan the loss of range from her singing, Mitchell doesn’t need words to make a song her own. The sensuous, evocative phrasing of the chords keeps attention rapt throughout all seven ‘verses’, one for each day of the week, and when the bear shows its hungry muzzle on the Thursday there’s no low-end booming drama, no overly dramatic toots on the sax. As the whole of Shine attests, at 64, the music of Joni Mitchell is the fiercest calm you’ll find.

The bear makes another appearance on ‘This Place’, one of only a small clutch of guitar songs, inspired by the demolition of a mountain behind Mitchell’s sanctuary that was sold to Californian developers as gravel. You couldn’t make it up, really. With its lyrical lament about disappearing tree lines and money making them topple, it’s sort of like an updated version of ‘Big Yellow Taxi’, if there weren’t an updated version of ‘Big Yellow Taxi’ already on the album. The voice, when it comes in, sounds richer and more full, luxuriant even, than it has done for years. And for anyone thinking that Mitchell has become entirely humourless, there’s kudos for the line about making mountains into molehills.

The aforementioned retread of perhaps her best-known song is given added colour by a surprising use of accordion atop the familiar strutting guitar line. Taking in both the fiscal and corporeal implications of modern life, Mitchell foregoes Amy Grant’s 25 buck entry fee to the tree museum; here it’ll cost you “an arm and a leg”. How’s that for inflation? Having been overlooked for the orchestral reworkings that made up her last album Travelogue, it’s nice to see this classic finally get a huskier makeover among thematically relevant material. Interestingly, it’s also her first entirely solo performance since 1998’s ‘Tiger Bones’. Still, isn’t it about time that someone realised that DDT hasn’t been used as a crop pesticide in years? If you’re going to change one lyric…

With the notable exception of ‘Woodstock’, which, famously, she never actually attended due to a conflicting work schedule, and 1977’s spookily pre-emptive ‘Otis & Marlena’ that sang of Muslims sticking up Washington, until the late 1980s Mitchell had mostly eschewed the political songwriting of Joan Baez, Bob Dylan and the like – a fact she’s making up for in 2007. War and the ecological scourge of humankind are Shine’s raison d’être. From the opening salvo of the disarmingly tender ballad ‘If I Had A Heart’ to the almost hymnal title track, which contains the piercing lyric “shine on dying soldiers in patriotic pain”, Mitchell lays into modern consumerism (mobile phone users get a double dressing down), self-serving politicians and senseless killing in the name of religion. But these are not protest songs in the ‘60s tradition; Mitchell is too smart for that. She sings with a knowing weariness, an acceptance that the times when people truly believed that art could change the world are long dead and buried. It’s unsettling and strange, proving that the time spent away hasn’t tempered her mystery.

Mitchell even goes so far as to spell it out for us in ‘Hana’ where the female protagonist, a kind and resilient do-gooder, who tells us “This is no simply Sunday song / where God or Jesus come along / and they save ya,” asserting that “you’ve got to be braver than that / you tackle the beast alone / with all its tenacious teeth”. As Paulinho Da Costa’s brash percussion propels the song forward, there’s a hint of the experimentalism that marked Mitchell’s under-regarded 1980s output, and it crops up again on another classic Joni story-song, ‘Night Of The Iguana’, a lyrical adaptation of the Tennessee Williams play of the same name about a priest who falls spectacularly from grace and into tragic love. Elsewhere, ‘Bad Dreams’ takes its key lyric from Mitchell’s new grandson (“bad dreams are good in the great plan”) and talks of life “before that altering apple”, before we lived in towns that are little more than “electric scabs” on the Earth, while ‘Strong & Wrong’ takes a somewhat heavy-handed swipe at the Bush Administration and its ilk.

Shine is so much more than just a protest album, it’s a spiritual awakening. Indeed, as a protest album, it largely falls flat and, let’s be honest, mostly on deaf ears. And whilst this is her first organic-sounding new material in a long, long time, it carries a heady but inescapably dated scent. The fire is not in the music – often a smoky background haze – it’s burning in the wisdom of her voice. Mitchell has pared back everything as she urges us to snap out of our stupors and feel our surroundings. For all her chastising and didacticisms, Shine ends on a beautifully hopeful note. An adaptation of Rudyard Kipling’s famous poem ‘If’ is gorgeously rendered, pertinent both to Mitchell’s own experience and the world at large, and is given an extra poetic flourish at the end from Joni’s own pen. “If you can fill the journey of a minute / with sixty seconds worth of wonder and delight / then the Earth is yours / and everything in it” sounds almost like a challenge. Happily, despite its few flaws, Shine proves that Mitchell herself is up to the task.

Alan Pedder

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Mandy Moore
Wild Hope ••••
Firm

Granted, the name Mandy Moore is not usually synonymous with musical integrity but bear with us here. Wild Hope finds the young actress/singer in a place that’s light years away from the studio-moulded bubblegum popstrel that released So Real. Perhaps we can accredit her newfound maturity to the fact that she’s been forging friendships with the likes of Susan Sarandon and other creative geniuses, or maybe she’s simply gotten older and wiser (she’s still only 23, mind). Whatever force she’s harnessed, the new Moore is a singer who delivers her material with a belief and fervour that reinforces the fact that she’s now in a position to choose the songs she loves rather than those that will sell to a core demographic. Kicking off with ‘Extraordinary’, Moore’s conviction demands that every preconception of her sound be shed. It’s a startling reintroduction that wraps around a lyrical manifesto that’s almost therapeutic – affirmations of self-belief and embracing the opportunity to be yourself with no pretensions of doing more than appreciating the day, the life and the person for its own merits.

As co-writer on every track, Wild Hope is Moore’s most personal effort to date and seemingly forms a narrative, tracing her thoughts through the stages of relationships and self-discovery, beginning to end. The slightly acerbically titled ‘Looking Forward To Looking Back’ is the album’s pivotal moment in that context, marking the point where the realisation comes that the fun has gone and really the relationship has become a chore. Intriguingly, as the stories of the songs wax and wane so does Moore’s voice, as if she were vocally echoing the changes that she sings about; the opening tracks don’t showcase a spectacular voice, but as the narrator becomes more empowered – notably on the stunning, piano-led closer ‘Gardenia’ – Moore might just take your breath away. The voice and the person behind the songs has metamorphosed immeasurably.

Of course, there are credits to be given elsewhere as Moore has collaborated with a range of respected artists to create the songs that mark this transitional album. ‘All Good Things’ welcomes the talents of The Weepies for a song about ultimate healing and acceptance, while ‘Most Of Me’ was written with Lori McKenna and slowly gets under your skin with its melancholy leanings and lyrics. It feels like an insight into a private moment of self-revelatory optimism as Moore sings about realising that she wants to find a place of wholeness where she can be vulnerable for her new relationship, but that it’s starting at a point where it’s “crossing paths with the way he left [her]”, and so for a while all she can give is “most of [her]”; as with nearly all songs on the album, it’s the imagery that remains after the song has faded. The aforementioned ‘Gardenia’ is a collaboration with Canadian singer-songwriter Chantal Kreviazuk, and, in the tradition of saving the best for last, is the album’s peak both lyrically and in terms of performance. If you turn it up loud enough, you can even hear the creak of the piano pedal.

‘Can’t You Just Adore Her?’ is a sweet little tribute to being female and wanting to be adored for every quirk and individual trait; it’s for every woman who has eaten chocolate for breakfast, cancelled work to shop or made being late part of her personality. ‘Nothing That You Are’ and ‘Latest Mistake’ are similarly empowering, for different reasons, and provide a needed boost after the soft and introspective title track whose gentle calm barely raises the pulse. Cellos lend a beautiful depth to ‘Ladies’ Choice’ alongside the delicate keyboards and goodbyes as Moore toasts “to us at the end of the line,” realising that she’ll always miss the version of her lover that she loved but not the one that she’s leaving.

Though it doesn’t push any envelopes in the grander scheme of things, Wild Hope is nevertheless a towering achievement for someone who rarely gets credited for her musical talent and who, by her own admission, would have refunded what people paid for her earlier records. As she sings on ‘Gardenia’, “it’s been good getting to know myself more”, and after a few listens to Wild Hope you’ll most likely concur. Suddenly Moore has a chance to establish herself as a singer-songwriter of true mettle. It may take a while for people to grow accustomed to that, but it seems assured that Moore will continue to develop her talents while the world catches up.

Gem Nethersole

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Mostly Autumn
Heart Full Of Sky ••½
Mostly Autumn

Heart Full Of Sky is the eighth studio album from British prog band Mostly Autumn and sees them rack up their 10th year in the business. As is becoming fashionable (or should that be “increasingly necessary”) in the prog world, the band have followed Marillion’s lead in funding the album recording through subscription and fan pre-orders. This has allowed them to produce the album without major label support on their own Mostly Autumn Records imprint. The bonus for fans who stumped up in advance is a special limited edition with eight exclusive extra tracks.

Among the 10 songs on the regular release, the writing credits are shared between lead guitarist Bryan Josh and singer Heather Findlay, with a couple of tracks contributed by keyboard supremo Chris Johnson, and it’s this triumvirate who form the band’s creative centre. Overall, the album takes a more mainstream approach to prog rock than the likes of Yes, Genesis or King Crimson. Rather, the music bears comparison with a rockier version of bands like Pink Floyd, mixing a strong pop sensibility with their prog pretensions. Mostly Autumn layer this with an occasional folky overlay provided by the flute, clarinet and recorders of Angela Gordon and guest musicians Peter Knight of Steeleye Span and Troy Donockley from Iona.

While this would suggest that the band is aiming for a quality product, these ears found the resulting album more than a little lacklustre. In fact, the overall impression by the end of the album’s 60-odd minutes is a journeyman effort. Findlay’s vocals are excellent throughout but someone needs to tame drummer Andrew Jennings’s love affair with his cymbals. The lack of melodic hooks is doubly disappointing. Most effective are the mellower, folkier songs, where the vocals and Gordon’s flute shine through.

Listening back to the songs on Heart Full Of Sky one can’t help but wonder whether this is a CD which will please the existing fans – particularly those invested in the project – but which will do little to spread the word beyond that. That’s a shame because, if the band were to produce an album that added up to at least the sum of the parts, Mostly Autumn and their fans could be on to a commercial winner. Sadly not this time though.

Trevor Raggatt

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Alison Moyet
The Turn •••••
W14

Among the various artistic epochs of the 20th Century, the 1980s have much to answer for. That faded decade was guilty of some of the most heinous crimes against taste in living memory (leg warmers, anyone?), but it did also produce some little nuggets of joy; it was, lest we forget, the decade that saw the arrival of the CD, the animation of Danger Mouse, and the birth of charitable juggernauts of the likes of Live Aid. It also produced some pretty darn good musicians, forged in the bass-soaked glory of post-punk, faux-glam electropop bands of the likes of Wham! and Yazoo. Although both of those bands have long since folded, their brightest stars – the increasingly off-the-rails George Michael and stage-loving blues supremo Alison Moyet – seem to have maintained a certain sort of magnetism.

It is, perhaps, that vital magnetism that keeps drawing Ms Moyet back to the studio to produce magnificently symphonic albums every few years. It’s pretty clear that some force has to be at work to drag her away from a critically-acclaimed stage career that has seen her playing in shows as wildly different as glamorous jazz-fest ‘Chicago’ and the more downbeat tragedy, ‘Smaller’ (the latter with her close friend Dawn French). That stage experience is becoming increasingly evident in Moyet’s studio albums, and never more so than in her newest effort, The Turn.

It was probably inevitable that The Turn would take on a more theatrical tone than Moyet’s last album, 2004’s Hometime. Signed to new Universal label W14, Moyet has found herself far removed from the pop-loving influence of her ‘80s/’90s Sony contract, and better able to concentrate on turning out music that appeals for its artistry rather than its simplicity. The Turn is full of such music, co-written with Moyet’s long-time collaborator Pete Glenister. The album opens with the theatrics of ‘One More Time’, a complex piece that enables Moyet to show off her famously warm voice and its stage-acquired, ground-shaking vibrato. Similarly theatrical, ‘The Man In The Wings’ is full of drooping legato strings, with Moyet’s earthy, emotional vocals matching the song’s lyrical poetry perfectly. Funkier stuff is in evidence in the jazzy, snazzy stylings of ‘It’s Not The Thing Henry’, full of strutting guitars and belting vocals; Moyet is in near-gospel territory here, and comes even closer in the Hammond-fuelled funk of ‘A Guy Like You’.

The real standout track, though, is one of three that have made it to the album from ‘Smaller’. ‘Home’ is an almost absurdly theatrical tango, which marries Moyet’s masterful histrionics with the dizzying skill of virtuoso accordionist Marcel Azzola to create one of the most striking pieces of music this year. Visit Moyet’s blog (http://alisonmoyet.wordpress.com) for the background story: suffice to say, her excitement at working with Azzolo burns through the song with an incredible intensity. Stunning stuff, truly.

The Turn is easily Moyet’s best album to date. A perfect vehicle for her songwriting prowess, it also enables her to show off one of the most unique, powerful and expressive voices in Britain. If that special magnetism continues to draw her back to the studio, she might have a hard time beating her own performance; one has to hope that she would relish the challenge.

Andy Wasley

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Múm
Go Go Smear The Poison Ivy ••••
Fat Cat

I have to own up here and admit that I’m not at all familiar with Múm. All I know, or knew prior to the extensive (ahem) research necessary for this review, is that they’re Icelandic, there used to be four of them and now there are three, and that they mix electronic and acoustic elements in their music. Indirectly, it’s the latter aspect that has put me off them most, as it has led to critics describing Múm as ‘folktronica’ artists.

Now me, I hate folktronica. I even hate the name, a lazy conflation of two hitherto innocent and respectable words, presumably invented by a hack on a deadline to describe computer-based music that includes things like acoustic guitars and vocals, often in the service of song instead of texture or beats. (God knows what would be better, before you ask – ‘laptop folk’ is both clunky and inaccurate and anyway, genre tags are the province of dullards.) I really have tried to like…this type of music – I refuse to use the benighted word – but have come away burned, or rather bored, by the self-important dullness of Gravenhurst, the pleasant tedium of Tunng and the aural overthink of The Books. It’s like someone with a lifetime’s aversion to olives, who eventually gives up trying “just once more” in the hope of dislodging the Damascene scales on their tastebuds, because, to himorher, they really do taste like the devil’s haemorrhoids.

But it’s nice to be wrong sometimes. Better, even, than the feeling when an album that’s been anticipated for weeks, months, maybe even years exceeds all fevered expectations, are those times when something for which you have no great hopes plays your favourites off the pitch. For much of Go Go Smear The Poison Ivy, we’re holding one such beauty in our mortal hands. ‘Blessed Brambles’ opens with a rusty banjo being plucked, before drizzling on all manner of parps, trills and interlocking percussion and allowing airy boy/girl vocals to waft in. The sheer fecundity of the whole thing only becomes apparent when the vocals drop out again, revealing something akin to Tom Waits’s junkyard orchestra being conducted by the little Haribo cartoon boy. It’s colourful, almost painfully so, but experimental, tuneful and fun at the same time – not an easy balancing act. Even better is ‘A Little Bit, Sometimes’, which refracts music-box chimes, accordions and fragments of piano through a bass-heavy gauze of electronics, topped off with a weary, elegiac vocal melody.

It’s particularly impressive that Múm repeat this trick throughout the album, chucking in everything but the kitchen sink in a spirit of gleeful experimentation while retaining a controlled and tunesome sound. Even more so since their last album, Summer Make Good came from a far more crepuscular and forbidding neighbourhood. Elsewhere, lead single ‘They Made Frogs Smoke ‘Til They Exploded’ nearly matches its glorious title with a meditation on either pet care or animal cruelty (“If you break a kitten’s neck / you must shake its body and check / if it’s still alive, be gone to sleep”); ‘Marmalade Fires’ hides a cry for cleansing flames under a swooning confection of harps and strings; and ‘Moon Pulls’ is a piano ballad to a faraway love played on a silvered beach at evening.

Indeed, if it wasn’t for a few pointless throwaways like ‘Rhuubarbidoo’ or ‘I Was Her Horse’ (both mercifully short) – and for the fact that listening to it in its entirety leaves one with a feeling akin to eating too much candyfloss – this album would be a revelation. As it is, it’s merely great. Múm can consider themselves one more fan to the good, and I’ll be checking out their back catalogue as soon as I can.

Adam Smith

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Róisín Murphy
Overpowered •••½
EMI

“When I think that I’m over you, I’m overpowered” tease the opening seconds of Róisín Murphy’s disco-tinged second solo album. Following the critically acclaimed but commercially ignored Ruby Blue, Overpowered has been hotly tipped as a modern disco classic, and armed with decadent costumes, lavish production from Richard X, Seiji and Andy Cato, two incredibly infectious über-cool singles, as well as inextricable links with the fashion world, Murphy appears at last to be on an infallible path to greater recognition.

The album’s title, however, proves an unwitting indication of what to expect. There is no denying that Murphy has talent in abundance: each of Moloko’s albums bore incredibly well written, edgy and interesting tracks, and Ruby Blue (produced by Matthew Herbert) was an intriguing collection of leftfield art-pop. Here, the focus on disco and fashion – almost painfully displayed by the album artwork which perhaps demonstrates that the songs are swathed in too much artifice – somewhat distracts from Murphy’s majesty. So while ‘Let Me Know’ is undeniably one of this year’s best pop moments, and one that in itself almost makes up for what the rest of the album lacks, still Overpowered misses something crucial. It has energy, it has hooks galore and it’s certainly incredibly cool, but there’s a sorry lack of depth. Perhaps in irony, the words ‘babe’ and ‘baby’ crop up too often to allow the songs to be taken too seriously, and every so often songs sound far too ‘80s, and it’s too unclear where pastiche and irony begin or end.

The main problem is that, on some songs, Róisín is indeed ‘overpowered’ and somewhat drowned by the emphasis on cutting-edge production; there is frustration that the sound is not organic enough to let her breathe. Whereas on ‘Let Me Know’, ‘Overpowered’ and the quite wonderful closer ‘Scarlet Ribbon’, Murphy’s vocals soar, her lyrics and delivery are spot on and the production does not overshadow the content, much of the rest of the album borders on style over substance. ‘You Know Me Better’ is incredibly catchy, and surely must be a future single, but lies dangerously on the cusp of being too much an ‘80s revisit with its electro-handclaps and bizarre synth effects. Elsewhere, ‘Movie Star’ and ‘Checkin’ On Me’ (with unnecessary apostrophe; Róisín is far from urban) miss the mark quite substantially, suggesting that working within the confined of being retro-cool and club friendly proves to be a somewhat limiting vehicle for her talents.

Despite this criticism, Murphy has delivered a competent, accessible and energetic release. While certain songs are below par for a musician of her ilk, the standout tracks really do demand repeated listening, and are some of her best-penned moments. Still, Overpowered is far from being her most impressive work and is in no way Murphy’s most ambitious release. Perhaps the singles will at least finally convince the general public of her worth as a pop star in her own right and grant some chart success, but hopefully by her next album the good stuff will be surrounded by less superfluous material that should really have been shed along the way.

Clara Malone

 



2007 reviews dump: o p

The following reviews were published on our old MySpace blog in 2007.

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Sinéad O’Connor
Theology •••½
Rubyworks

From the beginning of her career, Sinéad O’Connor’s name has been synonymous with risks, the controversy surrounding her sometimes gaining as much, if not more, attention as her voice. But Theology – released 20 years after her multi million-selling debut The Lion & The Cobra – sees her taking a different kind of risk in the by now familiar arena of religion. Indeed, religion has long been an obsession of the O’Connor rumour mill, ever since that infamous moment when she tore up a photo of the Pope live on American TV. Since then she’s become an ordained minister in an off-shoot of the Catholic church and, later, wholeheartedly embraced the Rastafari faith (culminating in the woeful reggae excursion Throw Down Your Arms). In 2005 she even went so far as to claim that her mission was to “rescue God from religion”.

Theology, then, is O’Connor proclaiming her conflicted feelings for all to hear, should they still care. Theology, too, gives us reason to still care: O’Connor has tackled her subject matter very successfully, neither overly pious nor accusatory. And though it has its shortcomings – a cover of ‘I Don’t Know How To Love Him’ from ‘Jesus Christ Superstar’ is, unfortunately, as cheesy as it sounds – the album, for the most part, maturely and comprehensively addresses the idea of faith in a way that is easy to relate to. It is not only declaring that one has faith, but also questioning why one has faith, what that faith is, and in troubled times, how one can continue to have faith.

And that’s not all. If an album with religion as its central theme were not risky enough, Theology is a double album. The first disc, recorded in Dublin, and the second, recorded in London, have almost identical tracklistings, the difference being in the songs’ accompaniment. The first disc is essentially O’Connor alone with an acoustic guitar, while the second couches her in the studio with a full band. It keeps things interesting, and long-time fans will no doubt be delighted with the opportunity to find each and every little difference in the recordings. For the rest of us, the second disc may seem superfluous given how well O’Connor shines in the solo context. Download both versions of the brilliant ‘If You Had A Vineyard’ and see what I mean.

Amanda Farah

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Ollabelle
Ollabelle
Rounder / Me & My

It’s a crying shame that it’s taken a full three years for Ollabelle’s eponymous debut to get a domestic release. Rounder Records once again prove themselves to be Americana heroes, for if there’s one thing Ollabelle has that this country has been missing, it’s soul. Serious soul.

Formed at an East Village blues and gospel jam night, Ollabelle comprises five members (the female contingent being Fiona McBain and Amy Helm – daughter of The Band’s Levon Helm) of diverse backgrounds but a singular passion for the music they create. Discovered by T-Bone Burnett, he wisely signed them to his own label. From the first a cappella notes, handclaps and washboard percussion of opening number ‘Before This Time’ it’s clear that Ollabelle are something special. Rootsy touches abound throughout the album, with Hammond, slide and dobro all making their presence felt among the acoustic guitars, rhythm section and dripping-honey harmonies.

For the most part, the tunes are drawn from the classic blues and gospel songbook with songs such as ‘Jesus On The Mainline’, ‘Get Back Temptation’ and ‘No More My Lawd’, though a few self-penned inclusions are thrown in for good measure. All are delivered with a tone that strikes a perfect balance between the traditional and contemporary. Respect for the music remains paramount; this is truly soulful and heartfelt stuff, not some sort of gospel-lite R&B knock-off. Where the band attempt to stretch their legs and cut loose, a psychedelic flavour creeps into the tonal palette: ‘Elijah Rock’ and a louche updating of the Son House classic, ‘John The Revelator’ are simply perfect recordings in this respect.

Ollabelle is a truly stunning debut and should really be a centrepiece in the CD collection of any lover of blues, Americana, gospel or roots music. Here’s hoping a UK release of the follow-up, Riverside Battle Songs, won’t be too far behind.

Trevor Raggatt

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Lisa Ono
Soul & Bossa ••½
Deckdisc Brasil

Japanese culture is famously diverse – some blinkered commentators might say bizarre – and, on occasion, somewhat opaque to Western observers. How, for example, can a country that is home to some of the world’s most ancient and beautiful art also be home to that perennial ‘Tarrant On TV’ favourite, the comically sadistic game show ‘Endurance’? How can a nation with one of the world’s most effective healthcare systems also dine on fugu, the puffer fish dish that, although exquisitely tasty, can apparently be 1200 times more toxic than cyanide? To this list, add one more question: how can a nation with such variety and colour as Japan be hooked on a singer as unexciting as Lisa Ono?

Perhaps that is putting it a little too strongly. Lest we forget, Ono, a Brazilian expat, is one of the most popular bossa/jazz artists in the world and almost certainly the most popular in Japan. Like Brian Eno, Kenny G et al, she has made her home in the card shop-friendly world of pleasant background music; the problem is that when listening to Ono one senses that, like an undiscovered seam of gold beneath a Californian hill, there are riches under the surface waiting to be exploited.

Soul & Bossa, Ono’s latest collection of covered songs, might just shimmer with the odd fleck of gold. However, they are few and far between; there is nothing inherently awful about the album, but it is hard to pick highs and lows because it is crushingly average. ‘I Got You (I Feel Good)’ is a decent enough example; Ono tames James Brown’s classic into a pleasing enough bossa, but in the process strips it of its rawness and power. ‘I Feel Good’ without Brown’s exuberant barking and shrieking is rather like a tiger without its teeth and claws; pretty enough, but lacking excitement and just…well…nice. ‘Georgia On My Mind’ is similar in style and in effect; previously performed by Ray Charles (epic, emotional, intense) and Ella Fitzgerald (sultry, languid, warming), Ono’s version (nice, nice, nice) might just leave the listener wanting to choke a jazz flautist.

There is, however, gold in them thar hills. Ono’s sensitive performance of ‘Nada Mais Lately’ is powerfully redolent of Charlotte Gainsbourg’s throaty, sultry style, and thoroughly outshines the bland quality of much of Ono’s work. Another Portuguese piece, ‘Eu Você’, sounds bright and sophisticated and sizzles with Latin intensity. Elsewhere, ‘You’ve Got A Friend’ is a clever piece of work, mixing a refrain from Delibes’s ‘Flower Duet’ with a low-down, pleasing bossa that, thankfully, is a long way from the AA’s saccharine-sweet use of the song in its most recognisable format.

Listening to Soul & Bossa isn’t as painful as ‘Endurance’; nor is it as exciting as fugu. It’s a perfectly nice, perfectly average, perfectly innocent album that will suit anyone who wants to put on the headphones and relax for an hour. It is, perhaps, the “nice cup of tea” of current jazz.

Andy Wasley

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Yoko Ono
Yes, I’m A Witch ••••
EMI

As the Beatles-Lennon furore recedes into the mists of pop culture past, the much-maligned Yoko Ono has emerged from the scrum to be recognised as an important avant-garde artist “in her own right” (to coin a condescending phrase). The re-evaluation of her challenging music continues with this engaging album, a collection of remixes by some painfully hip contemporary musicians (among them Peaches, Le Tigre, Antony, Spiritualized’s Jason Pierce, The Flaming Lips, the Polyphonic Spree and The Apples in Stereo) that pays homage to her influence and clearly aims to introduce her work to a new generation. (A similar compilation of dance mixes of her songs is also available.) The choice of material on Yes, I’m A Witch spans Ono’s career from her early experimental work with Lennon to her solo albums of the 1970s and ‘80s, with the artists retaining Ono’s original vocals and creating new backing tracks for them. The result is a predictably uneven but nonetheless highly enjoyable album that makes a compelling case for the accomplishments of a composer who was clearly way ahead of her time.

Following Public Enemy producer Hank Shocklee’s brisk ‘Witch Shocktronica Intro’, proceedings get off to an energetic start with busy, electro-techno reworkings of ‘Kiss Kiss Kiss’ and ‘O’oh’, from Peaches and Shitake Monkey, respectively, the latter benefiting from a judicious sample of the opening riff of Grover Washington Jr.’s ‘Mister Magic’. Blow Up effectively transport ‘Everyman…Everywoman’ into the realm of psychedelic rock, and though the already-unsubtle empowerment anthem ‘Sisters O Sisters’ doesn’t really profit from Le Tigre’s addition of a little megaphone agitation (“Women united will never be defeated!”), the song remains a pleasing rabble-rouser. However, it’s Porcupine Tree’s sparsely atmospheric take on ‘Death Of Samantha’ – and the chilling shudder in Ono’s voice as she sings “Every day I thank God I’m such a cool chick baby” – that moves this album into more emotional and rewarding terrain.

Those more familiar with the (arguably sexist and racist) media image of Ono than her musical output will be surprised to find that there’s very little which is scary or forbidding about this music. The record may open with the heavy irony of Ono declaring “Yes, I’m a witch / I’m a bitch… / I don’t care what they say”, but much of the material is appealing, inviting and even consoling, many of the lyrics featuring positive statements that sometimes veer perilously close to a Hallmark greeting card. This is particularly true of ‘Revelations’ with its succession of positive-thinking mantras and earnest benedictions: “you are a sea of goodness / you are a sea of love… / bless you for what you are.” But the elegant sparseness of Cat Power’s treatment transcends the banality of the sentiment and turns the song into a powerful piano-led duet.

Other highlights include The Apples in Stereo’s soaring, majestic take on ‘No One Can See Me Like You Do’ and Jason Pierce’s feedback-drenched makeover of ‘Walking On Thin Ice’. Elsewhere, Antony and Hahn Rowe do well by ‘Toyboat’, while The Flaming Lips take on ‘Cambridge 1969′ with characteristic brio. The album ends on a reflective note with Craig Armstrong’s reworking of ‘Shiranakatta (I Didn’t Know)’, a song of poignant regret punctuated by Ono’s heartrending inquiry: “why didn’t you tell me you were in pain? / I would have come to you so quickly.”

Throughout Yes, I’m A Witch there’s a directness and immediacy to Ono’s writing and singing that pierces your defences. If you’re a fan already then this album – an amalgam of remix disc, tribute record and collaborative project – will provide you with the pleasure and excitement of rediscovery. If you’re a newcomer, it will challenge any lingering prejudices you may have about Ono’s work and leave you eager to hear more.

Alex Ramon

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Oom
Dead Analogue ••
Series 8

“Like a grunged up Portishead with Björk on vocals,” Radio 1 DJ Zane Lowe exclaims of Brighton-based quartet Oom, who offer up their debut album, Dead Analogue. Hmm. There is much to be suspicious of when hearing things described as ‘the new this with a touch of that and a smidgen of whatever’. Such statements are invariably either completely meaningless, or suggest something so lacking in originality that it can only be described by the things it tries to emulate. I fear the latter is indeed true of Oom.

Mr Lowe is at least partly right – Oom does indeed sound like Portishead (though where the Björk comparison came from we will never know). Indeed, that’s the first thing that strikes you when the vocals kick in on the first track, ‘Poison’. If you weren’t paying full attention it would be easy to think it was Portishead. This is all that most people would bother to say about Oom – that they sound like Portishead. Unfortunately, it is my duty to give a comprehensive review of Dead Analogue, so it falls to me to find more things to say about it.

Here goes. Before the Oom’s Debbie Clare breaks in with her best impression of Beth Gibbons’s vocal style, ‘Poison’ begins with a strange pulsing intro. This noise is irritating and somewhat dirty sounding, which may be where Mr Lowe’s “grunged up” comment comes from. These strange computer-generated baarps and blatts are distributed generously throughout the album, and make for something that is less musical and more downright annoying (though ‘Paranoia’ does offer some variation by containing what seems to be the whining of a poorly tuned radio instead).

Lyrically, Oom take their cue from Portishead as well and are suitably dreary. Witness such fine examples as “you left me for dead” (‘Black Heart’) and “I am the eye of the storm when there’s nothing left to see” (‘The Storm’). Ms Clare makes an admirable attempt at drawling them out in as sultry and suffering a manner as she can, but there are times when it sounds that, vocally, she is taking on more than she can handle. Some notes are rather strained.

This album isn’t irredeemably bad. There are no particular points of blood-curdling horror. I’m sure that people who enjoy strange blatty and baarpy music might find it quite pleasant. The real problem with Dead Analogue is that it sounds like nothing more than an inferior copy of something else. If I saw someone eyeing it in a shop I would point them towards Portishead’s Dummy instead. Dead Analogue simply has no oomph (sorry, it had to be done), no originality. And who wants to listen to a bad imitation of a better band?

Hugh Armitage

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Over The Rhine
The Trumpet Child •••½
Great Speckled Dog

Blending elements of country, jazz, soul, swing and torch song, The Trumpet Child, the umpteenth album by Ohio natives Over The Rhine, plays out like a primer to American roots music. Centred around the wonderfully named husband-and-wife team of Linford Detweiler and Karin Bergquist, the band have gone through several line-up changes in the 16 years that they’ve been recording. This time around, however, the central duo have surrounded themselves with a piano-and-brass ensemble whose contributions give many of the songs a delightfully woozy, loose, late-night barroom ambience. The result is an appealing album that, though firmly rooted in tradition, feels thoroughly fresh and contemporary.

Mixing some pleasingly surrealistic imagery with more traditional lyrical approaches, the eleven songs are well served by Bergquist’s compelling vocal style, a luxuriant croon that sometimes suggests a homelier Billie Holliday mated with a less abrasive Lucinda Williams. The haunting, jazzy title track, the propulsive ‘Entertaining Thoughts’, the rollicking Tom Waits homage ‘Don’t Wait For Tom’ and the delicious domestic reverie ‘Let’s Spend The Day In Bed’ are among the highlights of the set, but it’s the brilliant ‘If A Song Could Be President’ that arguably emerges as the standout. The track is a wry but heartfelt speculation on the consequences for America if its media and politicians were replaced by its music. Paying affectionate lyrical homage to Steve Earle, Lightnin’ Hopkins, Patsy Cline, Emmylou Harris, John Prine and Neil Young (“even though he came from Canada”), the song is at once a subtle critique of “where our country went wrong” and a proud, loving celebration of the America’s rich cultural heritage. The lyric “pass it around on an MP3” couldn’t be more appropriate; this is the kind of track you instantly want to share with everyone you know, one that already sounds like a classic.

At its least good, The Trumpet Child wears its influences a little too heavily, sometimes allowing its penchant for homage to slip into pastiche. But taken as a stylish synthesis of a range of music traditions, the album is a very enjoyable experience. “I don’t want to waste your time with music you don’t need,” Bergquist sings, and, for the most part, Over The Rhine make good on that statement.

Alex Ramon

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Paramore
Riot! •••
Fueled By Ramen

Southern pop-rockers Paramore are the kind of band that err on the digestible side of rebellion. Like ‘emo’ rockers Jimmy Eat World before them, Paramore’s music falls along the teen-friendly punk spectrum but, uniquely, they remain credible in a way that eludes similar bands. This may be thanks in part to the inclusion of ketchup-haired frontwoman Hayley Williams whose voice, an effervescent yet gritty coupling, hits all the right notes and gives Paramore a female edge over all-male competitors without the empty bravado of Avril Lavigne. Despite being voted Kerrang! magazine’s #2 Sexist Female, a dubious if lucrative honour, Williams has dismissed the importance of her gender, claiming that Paramore’s only aim is to produce good music. Indeed, one thing is certain: they know how to make some damn catchy songs.

Riot!, the band’s unambiguously named follow-up to their debut, All We Know Is Falling, lives up to its name within seconds of pressing play. ‘For A Pessimist, I’m Pretty Optimistic’ spurts into being, breathlessly introducing Josh Farro’s lead guitar and brother Zac Farro’s signature crashing drums. The title of the track, referring to Williams’s moral victory over a disappointing ex, could well be regarded as a summation of the band’s take on the ostensibly doom-laden emo genre, which seems rather perky if compared to anything by The Cure. Oddly enough, Williams has cited the gothic quartet as a personal influence, though Paramore’s youthful, confrontational style owes little to Robert Smith’s more lyrical brooding.

‘Misery Business’ and ‘Crushcrushcrush’, two of the album’s singles, promise to have listeners fumbling for the repeat button. The former, a brilliantly cathartic song inspired by a manipulative girlfriend, explodes into frenetic guitars punctuated by Zac Farro’s drums about a minute from the track’s close before Williams successfully wrests the spotlight back to her vocals. Similarly, ‘Crushcrushcrush’ exhibits some masterly drumming and equally defiant lyrics but with a subtlety that is perhaps more accessible to newbie rockers. Skipping the sickly ‘We Are Broken’, the jaunty ‘Fences’ has a whiff of bluegrass and a warning about the perils of fame, all while hinting at the band’s genesis as a funk covers outfit. ‘Hallelujah’, meanwhile, is a radio-friendly but not unappealing guitar-flecked tune.

With the exception of Paramore’s rather un-rock ‘n’ roll stance on using the Lord’s name in vain (Williams apologised to fans for the use of ‘god’ in ‘Misery Business’), the album’s only faults arise from the limitations of its genre. Though producing some infectiously memorable tracks, it is questionable whether the band would remain sufficiently distinctive were they fronted by a man. Inevitably, too, Paramore’s brand of punk is rather teen-centric, so for those of us who have graduated from uncomfortable adolescence into perhaps more experienced forms of angst, Riot! could be a miss.

Siobhan Rooney

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The Phonemes
There’s Something We’ve Been Meaning To Do •••½
Blocks Recording Club

On their debut album, Toronto’s The Phonemes unveil their own version of an indie film soundtrack full of lovingly assembled acoustic harmonies and ear-catching sounds. When a record opens with the lyrics “oh I met a man who thought he was a tree” (‘Tree’), a certain fascination with what is to come is pretty much guaranteed. With only a few simple chords filling the spaces between what is almost a completely vocal number, it makes for an affecting start to an album that sweetly enchants and ensnares your attention.

As ‘Tree’ merges almost seamlessly into the beautiful, lyrically inventive ‘Pain Perdu’, The Phonemes continue to impress with elegant melodies and a liberal sprinkling of surprising touches. Take ‘Easter Suit’ and ‘Wedding Suits’, for instance; the former’s savvy a cappella breaks and feisty protestation lead into the latter’s vividly descriptive lyrical tale with barely-there backing. Then, if the softness of the preceding songs has lulled you into a false sense of security, be prepared for the comparatively rough-edged ‘Municipality’. Vocalist Magali Meagher (former guitarist for The Hidden Cameras) unleashes her best raspy vocal for ‘Kim Rogers’ with splendid results.

Further surprises await with ‘Lewis’, a much more instrumental song that effectively conjures the colourful image of a Spanish dance troupe commanding the floor, and the angelic Anglo-French delight ‘Plate Dance’. With its gently alluring pull ‘Oh Sleep’ brings proceedings to a perfectly apt conclusion. If this is what The Phonemes have been meaning to do, be glad that they’ve finally gotten around to it and hope that procrastination doesn’t get the better of them again.

Claire Robinson

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Ping Pong Bitches
Alphadog •••
Umami

It’s nigh on seven years since Malcolm McClaren protégés Ping Pong Bitches released their self-titled debut EP on Alan McGee’s Poptones label. In that time the Bitches have parted company with McClaren, Poptones and original member Mandy Wong and reinvented themselves as a four-piece. Why it’s taken them so long to release their first full-length album is a mystery, and what’s also somewhat surprising is that a couple of songs from that first EP are still knocking around, albeit apparently re-recorded (although ‘Rock Action’ still features the original guitar riff by the presumably McClaren-recruited Steve Jones).

Okay, so ‘Rock Action’ and ‘Beat You Up’, the other oldie, are among the best track on the album and provide the finest examples of the electro rock/techno punk that was the Bitches’ original ethos. The rest of the album, whilst retaining the electro feel, is often rather more pop than punk – perhaps the influence of the owner of their new label, Mark Moore, formerly of S’Express, who signed the Bitches as his first artists.

That’s not to say that Alphadog is a bad album by any means. Founding members Emily Hell and Louise Prey share the lead on the majority of tracks, their voices complimenting each other and the eclectic backing with seemingly little effort. They spout their abject nonsense with a conviction and apparent glee that rapidly becomes infectious. Once you’ve established that the Ping Pong Bitches are, hopefully intentionally, a great long string of clichés and definitely not to be taken too seriously, thus allowing yourself to hear lyrics such as “Feel the beast, feel the beast in me / come on baby won’t you set me free” (‘The Beast’) or “Gimme gimme gimme your rock action / harder harder harder” (‘Rock Action’) without guffawing, you can then settle down and begin to feel the throbbing – see they’ve got to me – bass riffs and disturbingly catchy synthesisers to full effect and start to think to yourself, perhaps slightly grudgingly, that this is actually pretty good. Even a cover of Honor Blackman and Patrick MacNee’s 1990 chart hit ‘Kinky Boots’ succeeds against the odds.

Overall, it’s a well-produced record with a full sound that never seems cluttered despite the vast array of instruments and sounds (including a touchtone telephone on first single ‘Roc Ya Body’) and if you can ignore the rock clichés, cartoon schoolgirl innuendo and the fact that you have no idea if this is post-modern disco, futuristic dance punk, retro techno rock or some hitherto unknown but entirely obvious new genre, it’s at worst inoffensive and at best thoroughly entertaining.

Scott Millar

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Po’ Girl
Home To You •••
Diesel Motor / Nettwerk

A maxim of reviewing is not to come to an album laden with preconceptions, especially when they’re positive ones. It’s doubly galling when they end up being dashed. Canadian alt-folk, punk-bluegrass combo Po’ Girl, who number Trish Klein of The Be Good Tanyas among their ranks, come with a favourable prejudice-inducing reputation as a kickass live act. Indeed, I found myself expecting Home To You, their third album, to be a smiliarly high-energy mix of modern Americana.

The reality, however, is somewhat lacklustre. ‘Shades Of Grey’ opens on a promisingly laidback country footing, containing touches of all the genre’s best elements – great songwriting, affecting harmony vocals, subtle banjo and fiddle. ‘Drive All Night’ is less encouraging, and it’s here that we identify a number of problems that recur throughout the album.

It’s understandable that a band like Po’ Girl might want to keep their music on the raw side. But there’s a thin line between raw and just plain rough. Too many songs on Home To You fall the wrong side of that line. Vocals that might have harmonised with a bit more work seem to clash, competing rather than complementing. And, sure, clarinet is an odd choice of instrument for a solo but that’s something I can go with – what’s less appealing is the mistimed pizzicato of Diona Davies’s violin, suspect tuning and the “let’s just stop” endings.

Over the course of the album the couldn’t-care-less vocal delivery on songs like ‘Nine Hours To Go’, ‘Angels Of Grace’ and the title track becomes a little tedious. More songs like ‘Shades Of Grey’, ‘To The Angry Evangelist’ and ‘Ain’t Life Sweet’ would have been welcome. Home To You is a good, if patchy, album, but a band as interesting and gifted as Po’ Girl should have delivered so much more.

Trevor Raggatt

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The Puppini Sisters
The Rise & Fall Of Ruby Woo ••••
Universal Classics & Jazz

Little over a year since they set concert halls the country over alight with their quirky, close-harmony covers of well-loved 1940s numbers and bold adaptations of more modern classics such as ‘Wuthering Heights and ‘I Will Survive’, The Puppini Sisters are back with a back. With a new look, a new sound and even a few self-composed Puppini belters, the ever so stylish trio of Marcella Puppini, Kate Mullins and Stephanie O’Brien have clearly put a lot of energy and thought into their second release. The Rise & Fall Of Ruby Woo (named after the favoured shade of lipstick of Cure singer Robert Smith) is a much more daring venture than their debut Betcha Bottom Dollar, concentrating on the ups and downs of amour, besotted bliss and disintegrations.

Over several listens it becomes clear that the sequencing of the songs holds a genius all of its own, reflecting a twisted and fascinating storyline, the interdependence of the songs adding to the moody and authentic feel of the album. We are straight in with ‘Spooky’, known to most through Dusty Springfield’s version. A prominent and urgent double bass sets the haunted scene before the Puppinis chime in with those signature tight harmonies. The pace is fast and the band clearly revel in the uptempo swing with drum solos, close-mic’d string arrangements and a whole lot of attitude from the girls. Double bass is also prominent in the Bangles cover ‘Walk Like An Egyptian’, accompanied by subtle, almost lingering drums. The thrillingly different arrangement – unusual harmony intervals, Eastern-sounding instrumental interludes with a Jewish tough, obstreperous vocal interplay with a male choir – gives this girlgroup classic a whole new touch. The rather old-fashioned ‘Old Cape Cod’ is tackled at a much slower pace, complete with legato accordion chords, and is much more in line with the work we know from Betcha Bottom Dollar. The Puppinis trill in perfect harmony with dynamics worked out to the tiniest details. Impressive stuff.

As promised in last year’s Wears The Trousers interview, the girls have started to pen their own songs. ‘Soho Nights’ is the first of five self-composed works on the album and features some interesting chord and harmony choices as the fast-moving guitar and rhythmical double bass gives the song a Spanish flavour. It’s a quick-witted composition, recorded in such a way that puts the listener directly into the room, making them feel the beat of the pounding drums. The brilliant ‘I Can’t Believe I’m Not A Millionaire’ picks up the same close-mic’d delicate feel. Much bluesier, with lazy, sexy vocals, it has a sarcastic tone and oozes comic despair: “Look for my limousine / once more it’s not there / I can’t believe I’m not a millionaire”. ‘Jilted’, ‘And She Sang’ and ‘It’s Not Over’ are equally worthy and show a great deal of attitude, bent notes, sporadic percussion and, most importantly, strength.

There are some genius covers on this album, old and new. Certainly worth mentioning is the adaptation of Beyoncé’s ‘Crazy In Love’. The Puppini Sisters have managed to turn an instantly recognisable song into a musical Puppininised wonderland. Jazzy drums, tight vocals and a touch of Argentinian tango flair make for a bold but clever arrangement. All in all this is another great album from the London-based trio. It’s great to see the Puppinis heading into trickier territory, writing their own songs, implementing bolder arrangement and recording techniques, and moving away from what some people might see as a cabaret version of the Andrews Sisters. Because, really, these girls are so much more.

Anja McCloskey

 



2007 reviews dump: s

The following reviews were published on our old MySpace blog in 2007.

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Sahara Hotnights
What If Leaving Is A Loving Thing? ••••
Stand By Your Band

Over the course of their three-album career Sahara Hotnights have steadily perfected their craft, growing more confident in their playing, performance and their subject matter. Now, more than ever, the girls are mixing it up. By not having written with a specific audience or genre in mind and instead just seeing where their songcraft might take them, they’ve become an altogether more tantalising prospect. Lyrically, too, their growth is not just noticeable but pretty impressive. The writing on What If Leaving Is A Loving Thing? is by turns as playful, allegorical and sensitive as you could ask for from a pop-rock outfit, and always appropriate to the feel of the music.

Sahara Hotnights have clearly done their homework this time around, tapping into the 1980s with enthusiasm and retrieving polished gems like the ditty-like ‘No For An Answer’ with its killer intro and the focused, Blondie-esque ‘Static’. Updating to a more contemporary pop template, first single ‘Cheek To Cheek’ stands out as a commercially viable dancefloor hit and mark the band out as a Gossip-like success story waiting to happen. ‘Salty Lips’ and ‘Neon Lights’ accentuate the band’s willingness to experiment in the noble name of fun, the former even throwing in some country stylings for good measure. If the premise of ‘Puppy’ – using the life of a dog to describe a relationship – sounds a little cheesy, try to let it slide and you’ll soon fall for the song’s catchy charms.

Of course, for all their new-found lightness of touch the girls have not forgotten how to rock and they make their point from the very beginning; opening number ‘Visit To Vienna’ builds upon a classic pop-rock melody to reach a noisy, climactic finish before the band change gears and smoothly transition into ‘The Loneliest City Of All”s calmer, more lyrical climate. If by the time the closing number ‘If Anyone Matters It’s You’ rolls around you’re still not impressed, this suspenseful, touching ballad might well change your mind.

If leaving really is a loving thing be prepared to revisit this well-crafted album often, if only for the sweetness of every small departure.

Claire Robinson

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Santa Dog
Kittyhawk
Quince

Bristol quartet Santa Dog could be – actually, make that ‘should be’ – luxuriating under a confident next-big-thing banner. In their relatively short lifespan the band have developed quite a knack for savvy, sparkling indie pop over a series of well-received EPs. Unsurprisingly the cream of the EP tracks have made the step up onto the full-length album, and it certainly doesn’t hurt that they’re laden with more hooks than an angler’s rucksack.

‘Belle De Jour’ is a luminous celebration of young love but with words more insightful than is usually lavished on this type of song, while the janglesome ditty of ‘Chemical’ is given an undercurrent of darkness with its chilling and unsettling lyric. The new songs, too, are pretty stellar. ‘Big Bang’, ‘Yeah Yeah Yeah’ and ‘Are You Tough’, for instance, shine just as brightly as what has come before, boasting choruses guaranteed to get you singing along or absent-mindedly humming at the bus stop.

The jewel in the Santa Dog crown of excellent writing and infectious, inventive guitar is lead singer Rowena Dugdale’s vocals. Her strong sassy delivery is pitch perfect in tone and attitude, inhabiting the songs and granting them life. Where she pulls the mood down on songs like ‘Rosa’ or ‘West Coast Boy Racers’ it’s a voice which still holds the listener’s attention front and centre; just estuary enough to claim Britpop authenticity.

With Kittyhawk, Santa Dog have offered up a welcome alternative to the increasingly derivative, male-dominated indie pop that has dominated the charts in recent years. With a shimmer evocative of Belle & Sebastian via Blondie, with a little bit of Echobelly to boot, this is excellent, honest guitar pop that, like any good dog does, deserves its day in the sun.

Trevor Raggatt

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Patti Scialfa
Play It As It Lays •••½
Columbia

While her husband’s latest dose of Magic (on which she features as a member of the venerable E Street Band) has been released to the usual flurry of publicity – though not universal critical acclaim – Patti Scialfa’s third solo album Play It As It Lays has slipped out quietly, without fanfare. This is a genuine shame. Scialfa seems destined to be identified solely as Mrs. Springsteen, but the solo albums she’s produced since 1994 – Rumble Doll, 23rd Street Lullaby and now this one – have each been classy, intelligent, well-judged efforts deserving of much greater recognition than they’ve received. Play It As It Lays may be a somewhat tamer, more subdued affair than the funky and consistently strong 23rd Street Lullaby, but it remains an elegant and engaging collection that sees Scialfa continuing to establish herself as a vocalist and songwriter of note.

Co-produced by Scialfa, the album favours a classic rock sound, with soulful and bluesy touches, based around electric and acoustic guitar, organ and drums. There’s some weaker material amongst the ten tracks – in particular, ‘Rainy Day Man’ and ‘Bad For You’ fail to catch fire – but there are also several genuine gems. Opener ‘Looking For Elvis’ turns potential cliché – “I’m looking for Elvis down a Memphis road” – into a compelling existential quest, with Scialfa’s disillusioned narrator seeking a way “to rise up from these ashes”. Augmented by pleasing girl-group harmonies, ‘Like Any Woman Would’ is the album’s slinkiest, most 23rd Street Lullaby moment, and the infectious, rocking ‘Town Called Heartbreak’ is an immediate standout. Elsewhere, the deceptively gentle ‘Play Around’ bids a sharp farewell to a lover and the graceful title track finds Scialfa relinquishing her quest in favour of mature acceptance and resolve. Closing the album is the short, spare ‘Black Ladder’, a touching reaffirmation of long-term-relationship bonds.

Even when the music tends towards the derivative or uninspired, Scialfa’s expressive and inviting vocals draw you in and her lyrics remain extremely perceptive throughout. She’s an observant, skilful songwriter, as well as a wonderfully literary one, unafraid to drop references to Tennessee Williams’s ‘The Rose Tattoo’, Sylvia Plath’s ‘The Bell Jar’ and John Steinbeck’s ‘East of Eden’. (The album also takes its title from a Joan Didion novel.) Alongside her compelling lyrics and distinctive vocals, her awareness of American traditions – both musical and literary – helps to elevate Play It As It Lays beyond pleasant AOR and makes it an album that’s more than worthy of your attention.

Alex Ramon

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Sally Shapiro
Disco Romance ••••
Klein

The latest fragile voice to contrast Scandinavian glumness with a thumping four-to-the-floor beat, Sally Shapiro is following in footsteps left in the snow by artists such as ABBA, The Cardigans and Bertine Zetlitz. Her debut, Disco Romance, is no surprise in this respect, being an album of plaintive synth-pop marked out by barely-there vocals that have invited liberal comparison to Annie, pop-bloggers’ hot tip of 2004.

Unlike the cute but resolutely individualistic Annie, however, Shapiro’s music is much easier to peg within a wider movement: Italo-disco. This micro-genre brought us, at one end, Italian producer Giorgio Moroder’s peerless experimentations with European proto-dance music with Sparks, Donna Summer and even The Three Degrees, and ‘Boys Boys Boys (Summertime Love)’ at the other. Disco Romance is, fortunately, closer to Italo-disco’s beginnings than its end: pop music that manages to be both sweet and synthetic without ever being saccharine.

Opener ‘I’ll Be Your Side’ sets the scene, with its icy, almost menacing electronic backing offset by Shapiro’s delicately balanced vocals. The muted hi-NRG beat and sprinkling of vocoder strongly recalls Giorgio Moroder’s early work. ‘Time To Let Go’ flirts with Euro pretension with a French spoken-word intro before ripping its backing straight out of Visage’s back catalogue, though once again the vocals are calculated to charm rather than unsettle. ‘Anorak Christmas’, a title that could have been stolen straight from a Saint Etienne album, also borrows heavily from the lexicon of synth pop, yet does so without feeling secondhand, while ‘I Know’ could be fellow Scandinavians Röyksopp having donned their dancing shoes.

As an album which nods so wholeheartedly to a genre’s past and encompasses so many direct references to its contemporaries, Disco Romance could never be described as groundbreaking. Its ability to synthesise so many different voices in the course of just over half a dozen songs in a way that never appears crowded or contrived is, however, still impressive. The fact it numbers just seven original compositions padded out with remixes is less praiseworthy. While a glut of US-style bonus tracks tacked on to the end of the album would be unwelcome, the overall package does feel thinner than it should. Furthermore, although much is made of Shapiro’s crippling shyness (she refuses to perform live) in publicity material, as a physical body of work Disco Romance begs the question of whether she is a tortured artist or just plain idle.

Work ethic gripes notwithstanding, Disco Romance remains an accomplished example of contemporary pop music that shows European miserabilism can still hold its own on the dancefloor against the onslaught of American booty shaking tunes. The fire-and-ice binary opposition of Scandiavian pop music may be a cliché, but this record shows that it – like many other well-worn phrases – contains a lot of truth.

Chris McCrudden

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She’s Spanish, I’m American
She’s Spanish, I’m American EP •••
Nettwerk

It’s perfectly understandable; you up sticks from Nashville, immerse yourself in the Spanish lifestyle and release a quirky (and brilliant) album called Subtitulo on which your new better half, the native singer and artist Paz Suay gets a bit part. You drink a little more sangria, sleep through a few more siestas, take your girl on a tour of the States and, hey, what about a side project? Go on, just a little EP? It has disaster written all over it, or it would have if it wasn’t for Josh Rouse’s quality control, which rarely lets him down. Let’s not ignore the truth here; this is a vanity project, a classic case of ‘we can, so ner’, but thankfully Rouse doesn’t blot his copybook and Suay does have a lovely voice.

The songs are immediately identifiable as Rouse; slow-burning, beautiful verses that explode into middle eights and choruses that you can’t help but smile and tap your feet to. The percussion is subdued, guitars are locked tight into a ’70s groove and the humour is upfront but subtle. The usual element of melancholy appears lacking; it must be love.
Opener ‘Car Crash’ relives the couple’s ordeals at the hands of New York cabbies, something those of us lucky enough to survive similar experiences can attest to. ‘Jon Jon’ is Suay at her beguiling best, and it’s not difficult to hear why Rouse would want to sing with her. But the real clinchers are the third and fourth tracks. ‘The Ocean Always Wins’ opens with Spanish chords and that classic Rouse drum sound; at 1:26 a string flourish rolls you into a chorus propelled by single bass guitar notes before plunging back into Suay’s repeated “la la”s – it’s all there and it’s all good. ‘These Long Summer Days’ sounds exactly like its title. Harmonies weave through a prominent hi-hat and pulsing keyboard and Rouse waxing about being sick of “all this jive jive talking” before we “head down to the beach and escape”. You can almost see the kids playing in the broken fire hydrants.

‘Answers’ finishes on a faster note and your 17 minutes is up. It’s fun, it’s melodic and neither artist disgraces themselves. Those of us who already follow Josh Rouse will wonder whether this marks another habitual change in musical direction and what the new album (released later this year) might have in store. Those new to both Rouse and Suay will put ‘These Long Summer Days’ on their summer holiday playlist and envy their seemingly effortless alliance. File under fun, but hope it’s a one-off.

Paul Woodgate

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Shivaree
Tainted Love: Mating Calls & Fight Songs •••
V12

It’s not often that songs by R Kelly, Gary Glitter and Mötley Crüe are found on the same album. Collecting the hits of controversial rock ‘n’ roll stars and transforming them into love songs is a bold move, and the result is interesting to say the least. It’s clear from this collection of covers that the Shivaree concept of what constitutes a love song isn’t particularly traditional – singer Ambrosia Parsley’s dulcet tones mould this eclectic lot into something unique. And with a voice that alternates between honey-sweet tones and a demeanour that’s as calculating and cool as the wickedest of witches, the overall effect is a bit unnerving.

Parsley’s wicked glint is surely present in the choice of a love song from recently disgraced paedo-rocker Gary Glitter. Equally unsettling is the presence of Ike Turner’s ‘My Heart Belongs To You’, given the notoriety of his relationship with Tina. Glitter’s ‘Hello! Hello! I’m Back Again’ is probably the most recognisable of the cover versions on the album, which isn’t saying much – even the most dedicated fan would struggle to extract the original from the Shivaree version.

Mötley Crüe’s ‘Looks That Kill’ is almost unrecognisable after its revamp, which exchanges power rock for an enchanting spaceman orchestra effect. Elsewhere, Michael Jackson’s ‘Don’t Stop ‘Til You Get Enough’ sounds like it’s being played underwater, with Parsley’s floaty vocals bubbling up to the surface every now and then as the song is slowly drowned. It’s all rather sinister. Fortunately, Chuck Berry’s ‘I Wanna Be Your Driver’ is a more light-hearted affair – a punk rock rampage that lets off some Shivaree steam.

Parsley is perhaps best known for her stint on the Air America radio station where she hypnotically read the news for a while. Her eerie vocals will also be familiar to anyone who made it through to the end of the ‘Kill Bill’ films – Shivaree’s darkly brilliant ‘Goodnight Moon’ from their memorably-titled debut I Oughtta Give You A Shot In The Head For Making Me Live In This Dump plays over the closing credits. As clever and kooky as this oddball collection of covers may be, it isn’t going to redefine Parsley, or her band. Ultimately, this album is barely a patch on the three that came before it but still worth spending some time with.

Sharon Kean

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Sia
Lady Croissant ••••
EMI

Pity the poor chillout diva. Scorned by everyone but sofa commercial directors and the Ministry Of Sound mixers who mangles her efforts to make second-rate compilations, she is, unless she can disco dance her way out of the dumper Goldfrapp-style, an underrated creature. Shara Nelson, Martina Topley-Bird, Róisín Murphy: the list is longer than the tracklisting of a Ministry comp and twice as depressing. Sadly, we can also add Sia Furler’s name to the list.

Perhaps best known for her collaboration with downbeat dance maestros Zero 7, Sia has had the misfortune to have been crowned a pop queen-in-waiting several times since her debut, Taken For Granted, in 2000. Widespread fame, however, has not followed acclaim for Furler, whose rawly melancholic records are ill at ease in a mass market that prefers the Katie Melua brand of ‘reheat and serve’ sadness.

Recorded live at The Bowery Ballroom, New York, in front of the maniacally enthusiastic crowd that is the sad hallmark of an ‘under-appreciated’ artist, Lady Croissant is very much a fan record, though no worse for it. Over a brief nine-song set, Sia’s expressive, if occasionally muddy, vocals hold their own over a lush backing that swaps electronica for old-fashioned strings and guitars. The result, like so many of the better live albums, captures an artist with a past and a back catalogue to plunder at a moment of reflection.

The record opens with a studio recording of ‘Pictures’, a number whose Sesame Street-like jauntiness sets an odd tone until it becomes clear that its major key coats a story of everyday heartbreak. First live track ‘Don’t Bring Me Down’ – a standout number from Colour The Small One, Sia’s most garlanded and personal album – brings us back to more familiar territory. One of those rare songs that makes misery magnetic rather than depressing, it tears up the dual-voiced delicacy of the recorded version in favour of a reading ripped straight out of the torch song rulebook.

This atmosphere of emotional smoke stays with us for the rest of the set, which includes a straightforward if well-received version of Zero 7 collaboration ‘Distractions’ and a rather more impassioned ‘Destiny’. The show’s real star turn, however, is its three-song coda, where lullaby ‘Numb’ gives way to a brave cover of The Pretenders’ ‘I Go To Sleep’, which exchanges Chrissie Hynde’s urgency for something more bruised and aching. ‘Breathe Me’, the song used to such dramatic effect as a ‘Six Feet Under’ season closer, completes the cycle as its hymn-like poise disintegrates into an impassioned conversation between voice and cello.

As an adult pop artist cast adrift in a music business that prefers 21 year olds to serve us up low-calorie heartache, Sia will probably never reach the mass audience she deserves. On the evidence of Lady Croissant, however, this could be a blessing, leaving her free to explore richer, more resonant territory in the company of an appreciative cult. For once, there might be something in being a ‘best-kept secret’.

Chris McCrudden

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Lucie Silvas
The Same Side ••½
Mercury

Lucie Silvas is young, gorgeous, talented and creative – a UK pop aristocrat in a world belonging to Simons Fuller and Cowell. Just take a look at her extracurricular songwriting credits: Will Young, Rachel Stevens, Gareth Gates and others. Discounting 2000’s abortive attempt at starting her own pop career, The Same Side is Silvas’s second official album, the follow-up to 2004’s platinum-selling Breathe In. But wait, there’s something a bit odd going on. Originally slated for release last autumn, The Same Side has taken quite some time in reaching our shores. A test run in The Netherlands saw a number one hit single with ‘Everytime I Think Of You’, a gargantuan power ballad duet with Marco Borsato, winner of Best Dutch Artist at the TMF awards for 11 (!) consecutive years (not included here). But the first UK release ‘Last Year’ sank without so much as a whimper while second single ‘Sinking In’ couldn’t live up to its title in the consciousness of the great British public.

Without the duet’s full-frontal dual high rock vocals, the rest of the album is full of gentler pop songs coaxed along by the lush production of Denton Supple (Coldplay’s X&Y). We see that Silvas is a fine pianist and is clearly in possession of a great voice, but there is something strangely lacking here. ‘Something About You’ stands out, as does ‘Counting’, but the generic adult pop tag is inescapably stamped all over the album in a Kelly Clarkson’s big sis type of way. [As an aside, for the perfect illustration of quite how straight Silvas pens a composition, check out her version of the Metallica song ‘Nothing Else Matters’ on YouTube. It’s all plodding piano, terribly tasteful strings and wiser-than-her-years warbling].

Ultimately, Silvas’s dilemma is to decide whether she’s a twentysomething or a thirty-plus because The Same Side comes down on neither, sitting on the white picket fence that runs right down the middle of the road. Our pop seamstress must watch out for the credible Lily’s and Natasha’s these days and finally deliver some no-messin’ hits. Silvas has got what it takes but someone needs to be tougher on the songwriting as this is no Breathe In. Perhaps she should have called on her ex-boss Gary Barlow for whom she used to sing backup. He’s doing a bit alright these days. Then again, perhaps the UK music world has simply moved on and left young Lucie to enjoy her huge success in Europe, for now.

Sara Silver

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Mia Silvas
A Lot Like Me •••
Self-released

The music industry, sadly, is not democratic, eschewing the all-too-soft principle of providing freedom of access for artists for the more financially rewarding principles of heavy marketing, tight management and ruthless selection (or suffocation) of performers. Thankfully, every so often someone pops along and bucks the dominance of the majors by releasing an album with a plucky little independent label, or even off their own back. Most sink without trace; some persist; others are eventually snapped up by the big companies. It’s hard to say which category Mia Silvas will fall into, having recently negotiated the release of her debut album, A Lot Like Me, through the iTunes store before she has been signed to any label at all.

If the name sounds slightly familiar, you’re probably thinking of Lucie Silvas, who scored a couple of top 10 hits in the UK a few years ago (and is now ‘big in Holland’). Mia is Lucie’s older sister and, although she has not yet hit the charts, she does have considerable musical experience as a session singer and percussionist. Her blog (http://miasilvas.vox.com) makes interesting reading as she works her way through the difficulties of tying down a temping job in a Soho TV post-production company, producing her album and going on her first tour. It’s interesting stuff, and it’s clear that she has invested an enormous amount of effort into her album.

Mia’s main experience is in soft jazz, and A Lot Like Me reflects that. The title track, for example, has a sweetly lilting bounce reminiscent of the Kinks classic ‘Sunny Afternoon’ and is quite typical of Silvas’s relaxed style, ending with a cheeky laugh that almost – almost – sounds unplanned. Her voice is pleasingly versatile, with a considerable alto-soprano range, enabling her to tackle sweetly emotional ballads such as ‘Cry’ and jazzier numbers like ‘Trouble All The Way’, whose chunky bass riffs and jazz organ kicks match Silvas’s warmly husky voice.

The clearest thing that springs from Mia’s debut is potential; with the backing of a sympathetic label and the luxury of larger musical ensembles and more studio time, she could make a serious impact. Sadly she doesn’t have them, and the result is an album that is impressive and refreshingly original, but unlikely to achieve commercial success – if, indeed, that was what she wanted. Perhaps a passing talent scout will pick up on this release and give Mia Silvas the attention she deserves.

Andy Wasley

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Carly Simon
Into White •
SonyBMG

It’s a double disappointment when an album you’ve been hotly anticipating turns out to be a dud, particularly when it’s from an artist who can usually claim that “nobody does it better”. That’s the case with veteran singer-songwriter Carly Simon’s latest effort, Into White. The concept is promising enough: to revisit some well-loved folk tunes and covers and give them the benefit of Simon’s gorgeous vocals and interpretive skills. After all, it’s a route that’s served her former husband, James Taylor, rather well over the years. Sadly it simply hasn’t worked here. Key to the success of such a project is a killer performance and a sensitivity to the material; here the sounds are either irritatingly cloying and poorly judged. In fact, it’s barely listenable.

Kicking things off with the twee and twinkly title track, Simon more than adequately sets the scene for what follows – a vista that isn’t particularly appealing. That’s not to say that Simon hasn’t tried to mix things up with some bold choices; some songs juxtapose style and content in a move that might well have been a masterstroke had she been more careful. Take ‘Oh! Susanna’ and ‘Jamaica Farewell’, for example. The former combines a nursery rhyme vocal performance with m’biri and marimba and adds what sounds like poorly sampled Irish low pipes on top; rather than a refreshing take on an old traditional standard it better resembles New Age “relaxation” music cobbled together on a Bontempi keyboard. The latter is calypso masquerading as highly strung 1970s folk with some dobro slide thrown in for fun. ‘Scarborough Fair’ suffers a similar fate and, oh dear, it’s not looking good.

‘Blackbird’ is a competent enough Beatles cover, while not even coming close to matching Sarah McLachlan’s ‘I Am Sam’ soundtrack contribution, while ‘I Gave My Love A Cherry’ and ‘You Are My Sunshine’ are simple and warm but excessively sugared. Mercifully, it’s not a total write-off. ‘You Can Close Your Eyes’ features beautiful harmony vocals from Simon’s children, Ben and Sally Taylor, albeit battling against an overly busy piano part, and is probably the only song on the album realistically competing for your 79p. Overall, Into White is a depressingly poor affair with so many vocal performances seemingly phoned in. By the end of the set it’s a struggle not to lose faith in creativity or even the will to live. File under ‘uneasy listening’. Or ‘career suicide’. Whatever.

Trevor Raggatt

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Nina Simone
Remixed & Reimagined [reissue] ••••
SonyBMG

Diana Ross & The Supremes
The Remixes ••
Universal

During times of political turbulence music can be tremendously demonstrative, effectively identifying the struggles and fashions of its era – one need look no further than the nakedly optimistic songs of wartime Britain to see how music can reflect society’s moods. It should be no surprise, then, that the febrile atmosphere of 1950s America and the struggles of the Civil Rights Movement dominated some of the 20th Century’s most enduring and recognisable musical genres.

Two of those genres – soul and jazz – were great social levellers. In an era when it took a Supreme Court decision to point out the absurdity of racial segregation, and when women were still treated as economically and politically inferior to men, those genres probably did more to promote popular awareness of racial and gender inequality than any number of court cases, books or marches. In the face of the Civil Rights Movement and second-wave feminism, some artists – such as The Supremes and Nina Simone – were already proving that African-American women were every bit as talented and influential as their white male compatriots.

Nina Simone was, lest we forget, a civil rights activist in her own right. In an early example of the defiance that would later catapult Rosa Parks to the forefront of the Civil Rights Movement, in 1943 – at the age of 10 – Simone refused to sing at a school recital until her parents were allowed to take seats on the front row, which they had had to surrender to a white couple. This act of youthful rebellion could all too easily be written off as emotional naiveté, but Simone’s subsequent career consistently proved her emotional commitment to the Movement. Her most enduringly popular song, Billy Taylor’s ‘I Wish I Knew How It Would Feel To Be Free’, encapsulates her views; spiritual, optimistic and unashamedly defiant, it was one of the Civil Rights Movement’s most recognisable and powerful anthems.

While Simone was popularising jazz (she preferred to call it “black classical music”), The Supremes were making waves as Motown’s single most successful group. Signed to the label in 1961, the trio had a profound impact on music in the ‘60s. Hitting the Top 10 for the first time in 1964 with ‘Where Did Our Love Go’, they went on to become the most successful American musical group of the decade, second only to The Beatles as the most successful group in the world. Despite The Supremes’ success, Diana Ross’s secession from the group proved immensely profitable for her and for music in general; between 1969 and 2005 she scored 24 top 10 singles and 11 top 10 albums in the UK and US, becoming one of the most successful female artists of all time.

When performers such as Nina Simone and The Supremes achieve iconic status, remix albums become almost inevitable. This can all too easily prove to be a recipe for short-lived and quickly forgotten collections that add little to the artist’s profile. Sometimes, however, a remix can breathe new life into the artist’s career, introducing the music to new fans and wider audiences. 

Nina Simone: Remixed & Reimagined is likely to succeed in this enterprise. Covering some of the High Priestess of Soul’s greatest hits, it’s a clear demonstration of how the distinctive timbre of Simone’s voice can lend itself to a variety of interpretations. From the cavernous sound of the Daniel Y remix of ‘I Can’t See Nobody’ to the intensely sensual Organica remix of ‘Westwind’, full of unsettling augmented chords and a restless rhythm, most of the tracks on this album really do add something to Simone’s exquisitely emotive voice. ‘Go To Hell’ stands out as a particularly powerful track: Mowo’s accomplished remix cultivates this angry song into a magnificently funky opus, treating Simone’s voice with the reverence and panache it deserves. Groovefinder’s remix of ‘I Got No (I Got Life)’ is similarly successful, inflating the song’s optimism with a rich combination of brass and jazz organ layers to create a track whose distinctively festive sound will put a smile on many listeners’ faces. A couple of the tracks – ‘Obeah Woman’ and ‘Turn Me On’ – are simply banal, but most of the remixes are as engaging as they are unique. Only a purist could fail to find something positive to say about this masterful collection.

Alas, Diana Ross & The Supremes: The Remixes fails to reach similar standards. An overwhelmingly average collection of dance-style remixes, the album tends to rely too much on re-sampling and cutting the vocals rather than trying to add new dimensions to the classic performances. ‘Stop! In The Name Of Love’ is typical of this reliance on tired techniques; beset by stuttering drums and needless looped cuts, it cannot match the intelligence or emotional intensity of any of the Simone remixes. ‘Baby Love’, a tooth-rottingly sweet Halfby More Shambles remix, has more bounce than a trampoline and really ought to be consigned to a doomed future in school discos. It’s not all bad, though; the Readymade re-edit of ‘You Can’t Hurry Love’ ensures that the group’s signature tune retains a distinctive Motown sound while still injecting some originality, and DJ Fumiya’s remix of ‘You Keep Me Hanging On’ lends a sophisticated edge to the song, mixing urgent sounding synths with edgy wah-wah brass hits to create a futuristic track that should intrigue even the most ardent of Motown fans. These two tracks cannot rescue the album, however, for although some are superficially interesting the bulk of the remixes here tend to irritate rather than to inspire.

It’s a shame, really. Inspiration is what both Simone and The Supremes were all about. Trendsetters in their own genres, civil rights heroines and ground-breaking musicians, their music deserves to be heard and to be treated with respect. Good or bad, these albums might just introduce the artists to a wider audience and for that reason alone are worthy inclusions in their canon.

Andy Wasley

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Jessica Simpson
A Public Affair •
RCA

Can you imagine what a song called ‘Push Your Tush’ might sound like? Perhaps a little disco homage to line dancing? You thought so? Then I suggest you hotfoot it down to ‘the mall’, buy this CD and read no further. You will only be offended, and I get enough hate mail as it is.

Let’s face it. This was never going to be pretty. Even those unfortunates who were once suckered into Simpson’s world have turned against her on the basis of her latest effort. Surely this is a sign that enough is enough. Someone let this mass of big, blonde hair and low necklines release four albums before this one and it’s scarcely believable that she’s back for yet another round of trying to convince the world (or pubescent boys at least) that a tight arse in a pair of hotpants is a substitute for real talent. True, on the premise of being a role model, she may have nice white teeth, ‘pioneer’ the fashion and film industries and even take her multi-tasking skills to volunteer in Kenya, but give us booze hound Britney any day. At least she’s real.

Seriously, though, the spectacle of A Public Affair is utterly repulsive. I’m all for using femininity for getting what you want out of life, but here is a woman who generally epitomises all that is dated about the fairer sex. The kind of rubbish you might expect from an album largely inspired by a post-reality TV divorce settlement, A Public Affair is the sound of hormonal pre-teen girls everywhere cracking open the Ben & Jerry’s and smearing it miserably around their faces as the dream of holding a man with a six-pack slips out of consciousness for another night.
Simpson’s warbling and terrible diction might seem like a lesser concern in the face of all that, but for the rest of us it’s an excruciating chore. From the title track’s naff imitation of the Madonna classic ‘Holiday’ to the heinous ballad ‘Back To You’ – the latter pondering the woe of no longer having a “porch swing for two” – there’s precious little worth paying the slightest bit of attention to.

Unlike Gwen Stefani, who got all funky with her electro/hip-hop master class, or Nelly Furtado who made us go ‘woah!’ with her melodic and fresh take on modern R&B, Ms Simpson’s weapon of choice is, sadly, not her producer but the autotune button. She has an uncanny knack for making many different musical styles sound exactly the same. A Public Affair is alarmingly akin to all the colours of a cheap cocktail pitcher thrown up on the pavement outside and trodden through the bar on the tottering heel of an underage patron.

Anna Claxton

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Sister Vanilla
Little Pop Rock •••½
Chemikal Underground

Sometimes, ‘nice’ can be a curse. ‘Nice’ is forgettable, easily ignored, and will always be overshadowed as soon as anything either great or horrendous rears its head. Little Pop Rock‘s greatest fault is that it is ‘nice’.

Sister Vanilla is first and foremost the brainchild of Linda Reid, sibling of Jim and William Reid, who themselves hail from quasi-famous indie outfit The Jesus & Mary Chain. Rather than stepping out from the shadow of her brothers, Reid has embraced their shade and Little Pop Rock is the result of a collaboration between the three siblings and various friends. It’s ambient. It’s chilled out. And it has more than a hint of Tilly & The Wall, minus the tap dancing gimmick.

Indeed, Ms Reid’s vocals are not unlike those of the Tilly ladies, though perhaps a little stranger and more ethereal. In places, the backing vocals of brothers and friends alike lend a touch of the indie of yore, and, on ‘Delicat’, a quality that is strangely reminiscent of the Beach Boys. Also akin to their Wall-y brethren are Sister Vanilla’s lyrics, which are utterly charming in their quirkiness – “I stuck my finger in a digital pie” sings Ms Reid, somewhat obliquely, on ‘TOTP’. Needless to say, it’s a welcome change from your standard predictable lyrics and mile-long lists of words that rhyme with ‘you’.

Super-limited single release ‘Can’t Stop The Rock’ asserts itself as the strongest track on the album, befitting its Guardian Single of [that particular] Week award. It helps that the lyrics and sentiment are lovely; numerous things might happen to you – “church and state may chase you to the grave” or “you can go broke on your gold credit card” – but you just can’t stop the rock. While it’s never entirely clear what ‘the rock’ is exactly, it makes for a beautiful song. Elsewhere, the sweetly appealing ‘K To Be Lost’ and ‘Pastel Blue’ are among the album’s gems.

Still, as quirky and pretty as Little Pop Rock is, it all comes back to that dread word – nice. You could easily listen to this unassuming album a few times, shrug, say it’s ‘nice’ and forget about it forever more thereafter; it just isn’t engaging enough. More than once during writing this review I actually half-forgot I was listening to it – my own thoughts were enough to drown it out. A really great album has to grab you, to demand attention, and not necessarily by being loud or pretentious either. Sister Vanilla can slip by unnoticed far too easily.

Give it a chance though; it’s something of a grower.

Hugh Armitage

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Solveig Slettahjell
Domestic Songs •••••
Act 

Solveig Slettahjell is probably the best jazz vocalist you’ve never heard of. Her three albums to date have drawn plaudits both in her native Norway and around the world, from critics completely under the spell of her sultry voice. New album Domestic Songs (as in literally recorded in her living room) should achieve no less recognition, as Slettahjell purrs and soars through 15 magnificently poetic songs.

Opening track, ‘4.30am’, sets the tone immediately; Slettahjell’s beautifully nuanced performance is imbued with passion and longing, her hypnotic voice and restrained piano set sweetly against occasional light bursts of glockenspiel, all combining to create one of the most faultless pieces of jazz you’ll hear this year. While most of the tracks are pleasingly simple, combining nothing more than piano and voice, some benefit from the rich stylings of the Slow Motion Quintet. Their unsettling interpretation of John Lennon’s ‘Because’ is an excellent point in case: the Quintet’s somewhat sinister performance is set perfectly against Slettahjell’s emotion, with the thrumming accordion foundation, rattling drumstick percussion and freestyle bass all complementing her involved performance with absolute perfection.

There are so many striking elements in this album that it can be difficult to identify its key strengths. The most apparent of these, however, is the intense (and at times tearful) poetry of the lyrics. Nature dominates Slettahjell’s songs, with the vivid descriptions of her community in ‘This Is My People’ painting a magnificently clear picture of her homeland. The sweet lullaby version of the Dorothy Parker poem ‘Inscription For The Ceiling Of A Bedroom’ mixes Slettahjell’s talent for conceptualism with her prowess on the Steinway, creating the first of a trio of bed-themed songs (including the traditional ‘Bed Is Too Small’, aka ‘Lord, Blow The Moon Out Please’, and ‘Baby’s Bed’s A Silver Moon’), each progressively more poetic than the last.

Another strength – indeed, one of the foundations of her skills – is Slettahjell’s judicious use of the Slow Motion Quintet to add just enough variety to her music to achieve precisely the kind of reflective, dreamlike atmosphere she wishes to create. Whether the Quintet dominates a piece – as in the intensely funky ‘Snowfall’ – or whether a smattering of glockenspiel adds a playful touch to a ballad, they are fundamental to Slettahjell’s distinctive style. Few artists can create as fantastical and dreamy a soundscape as Slettahjell, but Charlotte Gainsbourg comes close; that her husky, expressive voice is similar to Slettahjell’s is perhaps indicative of how important that peculiarly seductive timbre is for both of them.

The album’s two standout tracks are more than enough to prove that Slettahjell must rank alongside Diana Krall as one of the most important jazz performers today. ‘Oh, Sweetly’, a close harmony a cappella duet with her brother Olav, impresses with its folksy, hymnic tones, while her version of the Tom Waits ballad ‘Time’ is, quite simply, one of the most stunningly beautiful interpretations I’ve ever heard. If you buy just one album this Christmas, ‘Time’ is more than enough justification for you to choose this one.

Slettahjell places great stock in developing a highly individual style, mixing traditional jazz and blues with some outstanding conceptual work to show off her formidable talent. Blessed with one of the most mesmerising voices in jazz, her emotional range is as impressive as her musical ability. Domestic Songs is a compelling addition to her repertoire; reflective, poetic, and constantly impressive, it is one of the most outstanding jazz albums of the year, and will make a stunning, sophisticated backdrop for the coming winter.

Andy Wasley

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Patti Smith
Twelve •••
SonyBMG

What is there to say of that unpredictable and unstable creature, the cover? On one hand we have unparalleled stinkers from the likes of Atomic Kitten and their heinous ilk, songs that add nothing and detract so much from some once great tracks. Conversely, some of the most beautiful and anthemic songs in existence are covers and offer something that is unique and sometimes even superior to the original (Johnny Cash’s ‘Hurt’ being a fine example). What then can we expect from Twelve, the legendary Patti Smith’s latest studio album and one comprised entirely of covers?

Smith quickly lays to rest any fears there might be that she is past her prime. Her vocals are as good as they have ever been – strong and clear and evincing none of her 60 years. No problem there. The real interest lies in the tracks she has chosen and how she has executed them. In that respect, Twelve is a bit of a mixed bag. Two of her choices are favourites of mine – Jimi Hendrix’s ‘Are You Experienced?’ and Paul Simon’s ‘The Boy In The Bubble’. The first is a pleasant enough rendition, but her attempt to put a different spin on the dulcimer-based latter involves a rather strange cadence that is quite frustrating. Ultimately, both tracks leave you wishing you were listening to the originals instead.

Elsewhere, Smith comes out on top with a truly creepy version of Jefferson Airplane’s ‘White Rabbit’ (featuring Red Hot Chili Peppers bassist Flea) and a creditable rendition of Bob Dylan’s ‘Changing Of The Guards’. Her porch-style version of Nirvana’s ‘Smells Like Teen Spirit’ was always going to divide opinions. I personally rather like it; it’s very different, of course, but manages to capture some of the original’s frantic energy.

Twelve is ultimately let down by some uninspiring renditions of rather predictable covers. Tracks such as Tears For Fears’s ‘Everybody Wants To Rule The World’ and Stevie Wonder’s ‘Pastime Paradise’ aren’t unpleasant to listen to; they just have a habit of washing right over you without making much of an impression. There are no real horrors (á la Joss Stone’s ‘Fell In Love With A Boy’), but nor are there any ‘Hallelujah’s waiting quietly in the wings. The majority of the album simply fails to attract your attention and it’s over before you even realise. We’re a long way from the wild thrill of the seminal Horses. Twelve is not a particularly bad album, just a lacklustre and slightly disappointing one.

Hugh Armitage

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The Softlightes
Say No! To Being Cool. Say Yes! To Being Happy ••••
Modular

Maybe you should never judge a book by its cover but in this instance you can most certainly judge an album by its title; the collection of songs on The Softlightes’ debut album almost equal the inspired magnificence of its sloganeering: Say No! To Being Cool. Say Yes! To Being Happy. But getting past that, the West Coast outfit offer up an album that flits between twee, morose and – despite their proclamations – quite cool, as well as charming to the core.

From the opening moments of ‘The Ballad Of Theo & June’, the Shins comparisons the band have picked up instantly make sense with the slightly sentimental, reflective lyrics and tone, although perhaps the echoes of Death Cab For Cutie and Aimee Mann resonate more. Lead single ‘Heart Made Of Sound’ (which sparked a lot of attention thanks to a brilliant video by director Kris Moyes) follows on perfectly and acts as a great summation of the band and its ideals, effortlessly mixing joyful pop melodies with a wistful delivery and sensitive arrangements.

The Softlightes’ strength lies in creating music that borders on anthemic while still retaining a genuine level of fragility that doesn’t reek of cliché. Throughout Say No!… there’s an underlying conviction that saves certain moments from becoming sickly sweet. At their most twee, The Softlightes deliver album standout ‘Untitled Duet 3′, which nods towards The Guillemots’ breakthrough single ‘Made-Up Love Song 43′ in both name and sound. Notably their least ‘cool’ moment, it is nonetheless a perfect pop song, with a fantastic but simple male/female vocal harmony floating above acoustic guitars and drum machine. More instantly upbeat than even ‘Heart Made Of Sound’, it still retains its touch of heartbreak narrating the tale of two mismatched lovers-to-be. Then, at their most fun, the band pound out the also excellently titled ‘The Robots In My Bedroom Were Playing Arena Rock’ with its tongue-in-cheek use of vocoder and playful jabs at a cod-rock stadium sound. There’s no denying it’s fun or that it bristles with energy and a great sense of humour, but couched among the album’s other, softer songs you might just want to skip it after the first few listens.

The songwriting on display is deceptively catchy with melodies that hang around in the recesses of the mind, combined with lyrics that are uncomplicated, instantly allowing for great singalong moments. That’s not to say that their writing lacks standout lyrics; inside the simplicity are some wonderfully crafted images that really bring the songs home. A careful balance of lack of pretension and musical gift makes Say No!… a land with plenty of gems to mine. This is an album that allows for many listens as the band court your ears for a long-term love affair. Delicate arrangements (save on ‘The Robots…’), subtle but effective programming and an understated electronica edge keep The Softlightes on the right side of soppy. They are gentle, granted, but key moments demonstrate that, given the chance, they still pack one hell of a punch.

Rod Thomas

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The Sounds
Dying To Say This To You ••••
Warner Bros.

On their second album, Sweden’s The Sounds are here to prove that Europop isn’t an entirely meritless genre, despite the dread the word might fill your heart with. It may be executed pretty clinically, but it’s done with enough style and panache, and more importantly tunes, to avoid an instant rubbishing. As rare as it seems these days to come up with ten consistently good pop tracks destined for the same CD, The Sounds have come up trumps. As is almost imperative with Europop, Dying To Say This To You heavily bears a 1980s influence, and while some people are going to hate it for its polish and efficiency they’re probably the same heathens who moan about the Pet Shop Boys’ lack of soul.

The ideally pitched, vaguely petulant vocals of Maja Ivarsson gives ‘Queen Of Apology’ bite as the band unashamedly mainline the ‘80s best electropop with a brief flash of a Cameo influence, while hi-NRG airplay hit ‘Tony The Beat’ is gloriously over the top with its proto-girl rap of premium entertainment value. Elsewhere, ‘24 Hours’ is singalong pop of the kind Avril Lavigne might make if she were Swedish, revelling in the beauty of its shameless appeal and the pumping beats and piano of ‘Painted By Numbers’ also impresses. The only error of judgement is ‘Night After Night’, that song being far too windswept and grandiose to sit comfortably among the rest of the material

Like fellow Swedish export Robyn, The Sounds have been blatant and upfront about their intentions with this album. That fact that it’s pretty bloody brilliant is a sure sign of a job well done.

Russell Barker

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Britney Spears
Blackout •••½
SonyBMG

Is there anyone left alive who hasn’t been dripfed every last detail of the life of Britney Spears in the last 12 months? I’m starting to doubt it, but in case you’ve been living under a rock or dwelling in caves, or (quite sensibly) just avoiding the world’s media – enjoying your own blissfully ignorant blackout, you could say – here’s a quick recap: a revolving-door attitude to rehab that would make Amy Winehouse dizzy, divorce and ugly custody battles with professional moron Kevin ‘K- Fed’ Federline, a hysterical head-shaving incident, a disastrous TV appearance, attacking people with umbrellas, crashing cars and sending members of the press out to fetch her tampons…things that make you go hmm.

Impressively, Spears has somehow managed to find the time to actually do some work and Blackout, her fifth album coming a whopping (in pop terms at least) four years after the last, is the surprisingly effective result. As befits someone who has, at times, seemed to have a rather tenuous grip on her sanity, Spears has switched to a mad, bad and quite thrillingly dangerous to know brand of electropop. Kicking off with the lead single ‘Gimme More’ (remarkably her biggest Stateside chart hit since ‘…Baby One More Time’), she immediately sets a fairly confrontational tone with the by now infamous greeting “it’s Britney, bitch”, before launching into eleven other tracks that similarly twist and stretch the notorious Spears vocal into something threateningly catchy and really rather good.

Of course, she’s still flogging us that semi-orgasmic nasal sound that now afflicts ‘X Factor’ auditions like the bubonic plague, but Spears remains the original and best at this kind of thing, and with tracks such as ‘Piece Of Me’ (co-written with production team Bloodshy & Avant, writers of ‘Toxic’, and the man behind the recent Robyn album) and ‘Radar’, where she presides over a bouncy electronic waltz with glee, she has two future hits to rival the Britney of old. As ever, Spears’s lyrics rarely tax the listener and there’s nothing’s really changed on that front. Even so, she gets a little nastier with the odd bit of swearing here and there and she has plenty to say about the constant press attention (“I’m Miss Bad Media Karma / another day, another drama” – ‘Piece Of Me’) and her grubby ex-husband (“they couldn’t believe I did it / but I was so committed” – ‘Why Should I Be Sad’, written especially for her by old pal Pharrell Williams), but, above all, she just wants to take her clothes off.

While there’s no denying the still-intact charms of one of the most photographed women in the world in spite of her increasingly erratic behaviour and worrying predilection for velour tracksuits, it seems a little incongruous to try and act the tease after so many pap shots where knickers really would have been a virtue. Even so, it’s good to see Spears eschewing the album-filling ballad of old for a sexier sound that’s a definite step forward for an artist who seemed destined for the scrap heap. Now if she can only combine this return to form with some semblance of normality, while maintaining the impression that she could bite at any time, then she really will have won us over.

Thomas Atkinson

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Spice Girls
Greatest Hits ••••
Virgin

Let’s get the introduction out of the way. The Spice Girls are the biggest-selling girl band of all time, with over 55 million certified sales worldwide. During their four-year career at the end of the ‘90s, they topped the charts in dozens of countries, challenged the dominance of the increasingly stale sound of Britpop, and sparked the global renaissance of Cool Britannia. Their unique sound inspired scores of bands that followed, contributing a huge influence to the musical backdrop to the lives of a generation of adolescents and young adults. Clearly, their profound influence on British and global musical culture in the mid-to-late ‘90s has given the Girls outstanding nostalgic appeal, proven by the phenomenally quick sale of tickets for their ongoing long-overdue reunion tour.

Like ‘em or not, the Girls are back, hurling that familiar Girl Power philosophy at fans old and new, and spicing up today’s music with a little dose of ‘90s attitude. But, unlike the era’s other comebacks, Take That, the Spices do not intend to reform permanently, instead choosing to offer their millions of fans a true farewell tour with a retrospective of their most enduring hits, both on stage and on vinyl: yes, folks, its finally time for that essential tool of dewy-eyed nostalgia, a greatest hits record.

Showcasing all of the group’s number ones, along with other hits and a pair of new tracks, Greatest Hits is sure to bring memories flooding back for those who can recall the Girls’ unshakeable chart domination. Remarkably, few of the singles seem to have dated all that much; it’s actually quite hard to believe that ‘Wannabe’ first hit the top spot over a decade ago – it sounds as fresh now as it was then. While ‘Say You’ll Be There’ sounds a little more of its time, it too retains the Girls’ distinctive attitude. Even the dreadful harmonica bridge is forgivable. ‘Mama’ and ‘2 Become 1′ will almost certainly chime with those who remember the rite of passage that is the school disco slushy, hormonal slow dance, and some might even remember the Girls’ first foray into advertising with the funkier ‘Move Over’ (Pepsi’s Generation X song), a futuristic tour-de-force full of power chords and snappy lyrics.

It’s hard to choose the best track, but ‘Spice Up Your Life’ has to be a strong contender: its intense Latino rhythm and clarion calls to the nations of the world to spice up their existences provides the Girls with a chance to show off their cheeky characters and distinctive sound, far surpassing much of the samey-samey music becoming increasingly prevalent today.

Sadly the same cannot be said for the new material. Why five women who theoretically have the world’s absolute best pop writers and producers at their disposal would choose to record the likes of ‘Voodoo’ and ‘Headlines (Friendship Never Ends)’ is nothing short of mystifying. Although both are traditional Spice Girls fare, they’re very hard to describe as special. The former, in particular, falls flat thanks to shoddy lyrics and pedestrian club sound. Even Mel C’s familiar Scouse wailing can’t pep it up.

On the whole, though, Greatest Hits is a great platform for a group that may yet have some steam left in them. A rich showcase of arguably the most influential musical phenomenon of the ‘90s, it’s a great addition to anyone’s collection. Let’s face it, we all like a bit of nostalgia; why not try the spicy stuff?

Andy Wasley

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Mavis Staples
We’ll Never Turn Back •••••
Pinnacle

At 10:25am on September 15th, 1963, a bomb exploded at the 16th Street Baptist Church, Birmingham, Alabama, killing four young girls. The atrocity, perpetrated by the Ku Klux Klan, was one of the defining moments of the Civil Rights Movement, an action that galvanised ordinary US citizens of all races and religions into supporting the struggle for freedom and equality. Less than a year later, the murder of three farm hands by KKK thugs in Mississippi caused similar outrage; later the deaths of Civil Rights pioneers such as Malcolm X, Senator Robert F Kennedy and Rev Martin Luther King, Jr., had the same effect. It is sometimes too easy to forget that the Movement paid a price in blood to achieve its goals; Mavis Staples is determined to prevent us from forgetting about it.

Staples is one of America’s most revered female artists, an untouchably talented gospel and blues performer whose soulful contralto voice carries with it the authority of an experienced and determined activist. We’ll Never Turn Back, the follow-up to 2004’s triumphant Have A Little Faith, is her newest attempt to energise ongoing debates about civil rights. Staples has opted for a mix of traditional anthems and modern songs, all supported by no less a backing choir than Ladysmith Black Mambazo.

Mambazo’s rumbling bass proves a perfect foil for Staples’s own virtuoso singing, as she slips effortlessly from high, impassioned notes to guttural growls. ‘Eyes On The Prize’ is a perfect example of how wonderful this vocal matchmaking is; powerful, emotional and spiritual, the song’s exhortation to continue the struggle for equality is a telling choice for an artist whose main market is in a country that seems – recently, at least – to be ignoring such calls. But that’s precisely what Staples wishes to challenge. Her unsettling rhythm ‘n’ blues piece, ‘99½’, brings the Civil Rights Movement right up to date, angrily lamenting the broken levées and homeless babies of post-Katrina New Orleans, and the ineffective response by the Bush administration. The Big Easy makes another appearance in Staples’s longingly hopeful ballad, ‘My Own Eyes’, a clarion call to the Movement to recall the stirring leadership of Martin Luther King.

Of course, no album can be entirely dark and mournful; some judicious use of more cheerful tracks ensures that Staples’s efforts maintain a balance between reflection and celebration. Traditional number ‘This Little Light Of Mine’ makes excellent use of a bright Hammond organ and gospel melody to contribute a welcome note of optimism to the album, while the stirring ‘We Shall Not Be Moved’ recalls the camaraderie and hope of the landmark March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom on August 28th, 1963.

However, the most thoughtful and impassioned piece, ‘I’ll Be Rested’, is solidly reflective, effectively outlining a litany of those who were slain by white supremacists during the struggle, including those who died at the 16th Street Baptist Church. It is dark, to be sure, but Staples ensures that it ends on a hopeful note: those deaths contributed to the momentum that led to freedom for millions of African-Americans. The American Dream, it seems, can come at a great cost.

Dark, optimistic, inspirational and deeply, deeply moving, We’ll Never Turn Back could well be the most important album of its kind to have been released since the turn of the century; the struggle continues, alas. Thank goodness we have the likes of the redoubtable Ms Staples to articulate it in such a powerful way.

Andy Wasley

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Stars
Do You Trust Your Friends? •••
Arts & Crafts

Inviting a bunch of talented fellow indie musicians to remix your already excellent album could be perceived as being a bit try-hard. Cynics might even go so far as to say commissioning your own tribute album is a little arrogant. However, there’s no doubt that Stars created a modern masterpiece with their 2004 album Set Yourself On Fire, so why not make the most of it? Or not as the case may be…

Final Fantasy (aka Owen Pallet) ties his violin strings round the original’s standout track and previous single ‘Your Ex-Lover Is Dead’ making it sound like something from Walt Disney’s ‘Fantasia’. While this is admittedly very dramatic it somehow lacks the punch of the original – delicate pianos replace the foreboding double bass and make the whole thing sound overly fragile. The delicate vocals float in mid-air rather than riding the crest of the bass, and much of what made the original such a work of art is lost. It’s not the best start.

Fortunately things get better, although The Dears’ two-part version of ‘What I’m Trying To Say’ seems rather greedy. The first is a crashing rock/synth effort akin to something that Muse might cook up but leaves the drums and echoing vocals rather detached. Then, by the time you get to ‘Part 2′, The Dears have stripped the song down to it’s synth simplicity and taken it upon themselves to add a few of their own instrumental jams, with questionable success. The Stills’s cover of ‘Soft Revolution’ is better – the Wild West hold-up chords and space-age riffs render the song almost unrecognisable. Even the vocals are redone, making the song sound like Pink Floyd at the rodeo.

Elsewhere, Jason Collett (of Broken Social Scene) delivers an excellent bluesy rendition of ‘Reunion’. His deadpan vocals provide a unique slant on the original. Think ‘Sweet Home Alabama’ meets 1980s pop and you’re getting warm. Then there’s Montag’s take on ‘Set Yourself On Fire’, an equally brilliant multi-instrumental filmic piece loaded with drama as it nips in and out of a psychedelic, orchestral trip-hop backing that swirls around Torquil Campbell’s original vocals.

The best remix albums tend to come from collaborations between distinctly ordinary bands, who, by getting together, manage to complete the picture and produce something great. The trouble with Stars is that they already had a brilliant album in Set Yourself On Fire, and giving that to a bunch of their talented indie-geek friends to mess around with really wasn’t necessary. That said, leaving the track listing as per the original was a nice touch, lending a welcoming element of familiarity. It’s just a shame that somewhere in among all the clever tweaks and manipulations many of the songs lose the romance and grandeur of Stars’s own creations.

Sharon Kean

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Stars
In Our Bedroom After The War ••••
City Slang

Following a career-defining album like 2004’s Set Yourself On Fire is a tough proposition for anyone, even for a band with as much talent and originality as Stars. Perhaps that’s why the band’s fourth studio album seems to have been such a long time coming, that and the fact that co-lead vocalist Amy Millan took some time out to record and tour last year’s bruised collection of whiskey-soaked ‘country’ laments, Honey From The Tombs. Happily it seems that the wait has been worthwhile. Although it’s fair to say that In Our Bedroom After The War lacks the unrefined charm and sheer emotional openness of the Stars back catalogue, it nonetheless boasts a fine clutch of angst-ridden songs from the Canadian romantics.

Stars have clearly honed and matured their unique sound during their absence, and perhaps rightly so; the band members now have an average age of well over 30. Maybe that’s why they are a clear cut above most of the teenage indie scamps dominating the current music scene. Millan and her vocal counterpoint Torquil role play the finer and not-so-finer points of falling in and out of love with a convincing reality only available to those who have actually been there, done it, got the blood-stained t-shirts and washed them so many times they’ve become retro. They even poke fun at this fact in the self-deprecating ‘Personal’ with lyrics like “Wanted single F / under 33 / must enjoy the sun / must enjoy the sea”. Here, the band’s trademark dual vocals are at their finest with Campbell’s cold deadpan chant meeting Millan’s plaintive, open-hearted soul in a melancholic tale of love gone grimly wrong – it’s everything you would expect from Stars at their very best.

Although some of the impulsive gung ho lust of Set Yourself On Fire has been ironed out, Stars make up the shortfall with some crushing paeans to tortured romance that take you on a whistle-stop tour of the trials and tribulations of a pair of ponderous, over-thinking lonely hearts. Elsewhere, ‘My Favourite Book’ allows the band a shining moment’s optimism, and there’s no shortage of rocking out either with ‘Take Me To The Riot’ and ‘Bitches In Tokyo’. Nor is there a lack of soul to be luxuriated in- at times it feels as if you could be watching this album projected onto a screen, which is perhaps not so surprising given Campbell’s extensive acting CV.

On the whole the album seems less orchestral than their previous opus – there’s none of the dramatic double bass melancholy of the superb ‘Your Ex-Lover Is Dead’ – and the childish synth flourishes of ‘The First Five Times’ are absent. Never mind. This leaves some wonderful, finely crafted pop tunes and some very delicate ballads that weep like open wounds. Stars, it seems, have opened their musical hearts once again.

Sharon Kean

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Marnie Stern
In Advance Of The Broken Arm ••
Kill Rock Stars

Marnie Stern is an artist who might loosely be described as a singer-songwriter, but she definitely doesn’t produce the sort music that most often springs to mind from that description, nor from perfectly applicable phrases such as “songs formed in her bedroom over two years”. However, add in the fact that the New Yorker’s debut was produced by Hella’s Zach Hill (who also provides the drums on the album), your expectations might be a little closer to the mark.

In Advance Of The Broken Arm starts as it means to go on with opener ‘Vibrational Match’; after a short, accidental-sounding snippet of chord, Stern kicks in with a frenetic hammer-on based riff that initially makes you sit up and take notice, quickly followed by some equally feverish drumming that sound like Hill’s attempt to apply an equivalent technique, which occasionally toys with the drummer’s traditional role of actually keeping time. When at least three Stern’s worth of vocals join the fray (she provides her own backing vocals throughout the album) you begin to think you’re onto something good here. But …The Broken Arm starts at the top and very quickly descends into more of the same and the quality declines just as rapidly.

By track five, the fantastically titled ‘Put All Your Eggs In One Basket & Then Watch That Basket!!!’, you could quite happily never hear another hammer-on in your life. Although Stern never quite stoops to the fret wankery of ‘80s guitar torturers such as Yngvie J Malmsteen, it nonetheless carries a strong element of concept over songwriting. If this wasn’t enough, Hill’s drumming makes ever more desperate sounding attempts to match Stern’s guitar when perhaps it would all hang together better if he provided a more grounded counterpoint. A final problem is that, once in a while, you make out a snippet of lyric that suggests there’s something worth listening to there; sadly for the vast bulk of the album those lyrics are lost as Stern’s voice struggles to compete with the guitar and its multi-layered self.

Some might hail this album as avant-garde, but ultimately the whole affair is, in reality, somewhat derivative. Besides, there’s a fine line between experimental and unlistenable, which …The Broken Arm too often crosses. If one woman’s attempt to recreate what might happen if Clap Your Hands, Say Yeah collaborated with Stevie Vai after suffering a serious concussion and recording the result in a wardrobe sounds interesting to you, you may well disagree.

Scott Millar

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Sugababes
Change ••••
Universal / Island

Oh, how we love the Sugababes. Their man-hungry songs; their frequent appearances in the sticky print of red-top gossip columns of the calibre of 3am and Bizarre; their hilarious off-stage internecine bitching and their legendary strops, tantrums and sulks, beloved of Popbitch and its vicarious readership. Love. Them.

Indeed, it could be claimed that the Sugababes owe as much to their soap opera reputation as they do to their prize-winning music for their popularity and – we use the term with a due sense of irony – longevity (only one of the band’s original 1998 line-up remains). Their music has won an astonishing array of trophies and hit singles, including seven number one singles in as many countries, three triple-platinum albums and countless miscellaneous prizes ranging from Capital FM’s 2001 ‘Best Known Secret’ award to Virgin’s 2006 award for ‘Most Fanciable Female’ (for Amelle, the latest newcomer). All pretty astonishing for a manufactured band whose simple, if occasionally suggestive, lyrics and basic electronic sound could easily have led to an eminently forgettable career.

New album, Change, seems set to win new prizes. Among them, an award for ‘Most Apt Title’ should be a sure bet, for it marks a considerable change in direction for the band. The songs’ lyrics have shed their traditional hormonal, boy-obsessed quality, instead taking on a more mature, emotional and, in places, elegiac character. The music, too, sounds more worldly wise. Notwithstanding these tweaks, the Sugababes succeed in retaining their club-friendly, catchy and accessible sound, qualities that they have worked hard to establish and cannot afford to lose.

The Cathy Dennis co-write ‘About You Now’ – the first UK single to hit number one on download sales only – is a fine example of where the girls are at. Although its catchy choruses and basic composition are familiar Sugababes stuff, its heavily bass-laden sound has a more powerful and grown up quality than their last club hit, 2005’s ‘Push The Button’. Similarly, the Xenomania-produced ‘Never Gonna Dance Again’s surging wall of sound and ‘Denial’s persistent bass ostinato and earworm-inducing melody will both find a safe home in clubland, alongside similarly complex work from the likes of Girls Aloud. For those seeking evidence of something a bit out of the ordinary, ‘Back Down’s lush, reggae-inspired sound – oddly redolent of hard-nosed electronica legends, Leftfield – are definitely not the normal ‘Babes fare.

Of course, the Sugababes wouldn’t be who they are without a bit of bubblegum pop trash and Change still sags a bit with forgettable schoolgirl fodder in the form of ‘Back When’ and ‘Undignified’. Overall, though, it’s a welcome addition to the Sugababes’ already formidable repertoire; it is to them as Confessions On A Dancefloor was to Madonna – a pop opus of tub-thumping anthems and refreshingly mature club tracks, and an almighty defence of the band’s claim to be the best-selling female pop group of the 21st Century. Girls Aloud must be quaking in their PVC catsuits.

Andy Wasley

 



2007 reviews dump: u v w

The following reviews were published on our old MySpace blog in 2007.

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Uncle Earl
Waterloo Tennessee ••••
Rounder

If you are searching for a single word to describe Uncle Earl then ‘energy’ wouldn’t be a bad place to start. Close in the running would be ‘harmony’, and ‘integrity’. From the opening notes of ‘Black-Eyed Susie’ it’s apparent that this girl-group is something special. Theirs isn’t the usual Girls Aloud world of push-up bras, thongs and stumbling out of the Ivy at two in the morning. The g’Earls’ muse is somewhat more authentic. They’re practically a next-gen bluegrass supergroup, bringing together the fiddle of Rayna Gellert and guitar/mandolin talents of KC Groves with Abigail Washburn’s banjo and the guitar, fiddle and feet (yes, feet!) of renowned clog dancer, Kristin Andreassen. Individually, any one of these four accomplished musicians could command respect and admiration from their listeners. In combination, the effect is nothing short of awe-inspiring and, for that matter, foot-tapping too.

On this album all four further show their versatility by sharing vocal duties, and such is their understanding of the music that modern originals rest seamlessly alongside traditional tunes. And of course all of this is cosseted in the foursome’s glorious vocal harmonies. Bluegrass and old-time music hasn’t loomed large in the public consciousness since the year 2000 when the ‘O Brother, Where Art Thou?’ soundtrack made it temporarily flavour of the month. Uncle Earl are here to remind us just what we’ve been missing. In Waterloo Tennessee we encounter all kinds, from the infectious dance tunes of ‘Wish I Had My Time Again’ to tender folk ballads like ‘My Little Carpenter’ and ‘My Epitaph’. The performances are beautifully captured by the production skills of former Led Zeppelin bassist John Paul Jones, which present a smooth and accessible sound that still preserves the energy, honesty and rawness that brings this type of music alive.

If you’ve never given bluegrass or old-time music a chance up ‘til now, there couldn’t be a better introduction than Waterloo Tennessee, surely one of the most joyous and infectious albums you’ll hear in 2007. Better still, catch the g’Earls live the next time they grace these shores. You won’t regret it. You might even agree with Wears The Trousers that the time is finally ripe for a good ol’ British bluegrass revival. Preach it, sisters.

Trevor Raggatt

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Laura Veirs
Saltbreakers ••••
Nonesuch

Nature girl Laura Veirs continues to move through the elemental album cycle she’s engrossed in. After paying her tribute to fire, earth and sky, Veirs arrives at the seaside with her sixth album Saltbreakers. As well as the by now customary change of theme, it also represents a move away from the singer-songwriter feel and into a more spectral sound that’s very much en vogue. This is shown most evidently on the light touch of the Feist-like ‘Pink Light’, where Veirs sounds as if she’s dancing on air as she sings, and on ‘Don’t Lose Yourself’ where she shows Imogen Heap just how to pull off the trick she’s been attempting for a while now.

The whole album is beautifully played, constructed and sung, and is by far her best work to date, something that, at this far into a career, is a great achievement. There are plenty of deft touches to keep enough variation within the album to retain your avid attention. ‘Ocean Night Song’ sounds like Kate Bush adrift in the Orient, ‘Drink Deep’ is a dreamlike waltz and ‘Nightingale’ is wonderful slumber pop that rouses itself now and again with gentle brushed drums and northern sounding horns.

A little call-and-response vocal play works well on a brace of tracks. The juxtaposition of her singing the single word of the title track and being met with a wordy response that barely squeezes into the line is delightful. ‘To The Country’ simplifies the trick, but using a choral response means it’s no less effective. Two other tracks are worthy of a mention – the upbeat ‘Phantom Mountain’ which is as feisty as Juliana Hatfield and the gorgeous acoustic closing number, ‘Wrecking’.

This is a marvellous album – Veirs’s best to date in fact – and more than worth its salt.

Russell Barker

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Kate Voegele
Don’t Look Away ••••
MySpace Records

Jimmy Wales, whose foundation of Wikipedia effectively gave birth to the oft-analysed phenomenon of Web 2.0, famously said, “we make the Web not suck”. Bear with those syntactically mangled words for a moment; Web 2.0 truly is a modern social leveller, a global forum where the talented, dumb and downright insane all have equal access to public consciousness. It is this equality of access that led to the foundation of MySpace Records, a label that aims to find the newest musical talent on the web via MySpace’s overwhelmingly popular personal profiling site. To date its best achievement has been to sign Ohio-based singer-songwriter Kate Voegele.

A 21-year old Art Education student who quotes her influences as Eric Clapton, Jeff Buckley and Joni Mitchell – among others – Voegele is proof that for all the Web’s inanities it can still uncover some truly phenomenal talent. Voegele’s debut album, Don’t Look Away, is a comprehensive showcase of her impressive skills as a singer-songwriter and maybe – hopefully – the start of a long career. Dominated by a belting voice clearly influenced by Sheryl Crow, Voegele’s music takes in genres as varied as solid rock set pieces (‘Chicago’), Hammond-laden gospel blues fusion (‘Devil In Me’) and refreshingly simple guitar pop (‘Might Have Been’), an eclecticism so wide ranging as to be remarkable for such a young artist.

In addition to its range of genres, the album’s emotional range is also notable; ‘Might Have Been’, a funky rock piece with a stadium-friendly appeal and classic sounding guitar riffs, could have come straight from T in the Park and is typical of Voegele’s harder-edged work. At the softer end of the scale, ‘It’s Only Life’, which delicately combines a piano and glockenspiel ballad melody with a seemingly incongruous rock percussion, is Voegele’s nod to Joni Mitchell’s influence. Similarly, ‘Wish You Were Here’ enables Voegele to tackle a mature and deeply poetic country song with the sophistication of kd lang and the passion of 1960s Dusty Springfield. Clearly, this girl doesn’t want to be tied to any one genre, or to be compared with any one artist.

The most powerful piece on the album belies Voegele’s understated yet clear passion for her Christian musical heritage (her father, Will, is a prolific writer of modern Christian music). ‘Kindly Unspoken’, a theatrical combination of gospel-style piano riffs and Voegele’s vocal power, clearly takes its influence from hymnal music and is by far the most sophisticated of her work. Reminiscent of LeAnn Rimes at her best, it is further proof, were any needed, that Voegele’s talent is primal, compelling and astonishing.

All of which brings us back to Jimmy Wales’s assertion about Web 2.0; Kate Voegele is one of those rare products of the Web that serve to make it “not suck”. It is probably too much to expect many more artists of her quality to appear in the near future; for now Don’t Look Away sounds like reasonable advice to anyone interested in Voegele’s debut.

Andy Wasley

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Lucy Wainwright Roche
8 Songs EP •••½
Self-released

If musical talent is hereditary, Lucy Wainwright Roche is a lucky girl indeed; she is the daughter of Suzzy Roche, herself a member of a musical family, and Loudon Wainwright III – humourist, actor, singer-songwriter and progenitor of yet more musical magnificence in the form of the absurdly talented siblings Martha and Rufus Wainwright. Blessed with such a musical family, it should hardly be surprising that Lucy would eventually add her own voice to the melodic clamour.

Readers familiar with Roche’s family and its members’ various, often theatrical, musical styles will be surprised by the simplicity of 8 Songs, her debut EP. Roche has opted for a simple collection of guitar-and-voice songs whose influences vary from traditional Scots ballads to modern folk-rock. The traditional side is well represented by the beautiful Scots ballad ‘Wild Mountain Thyme’. Ranging from a husky alto to a soaring soprano, Roche’s crystal-clear voice sweetly encapsulates the song’s yearning for the ancient magnificence of heather-clad mountains and youthful adventures. The EP’s second traditional ballad, the oft-interpreted ‘Barb’ry Allen’, proves to be a perfect opportunity for Roche to show off her emotive voice a cappella as she laments the song’s lovelorn characters with faultless, ethereal clarity.

For the modern songs, Roche has selected four of her own creations and two covers. Her ballad ‘Long Before’ is a lovely blend of rich vocals and poetic lyrics, while the more sophisticated ‘Bridge’ provides her with an opportunity to demonstrate the breadth of her voice’s emotional quality, sweeping effortlessly from a breathy storytelling intensity to a brighter and more melodic chorus. Fleetwood Mac’s ’80s classic ‘Everywhere’ receives an interesting reinterpretation, while ‘Next Best Western’, Richard Shindell’s hymnal tribute to the faith and hope of travellers, is perhaps the album’s best song.

All that said, 8 Songs is not without its faults. In attempting to find a unique style, Roche occasionally over-embellishes her voice with harmonic or counter-melodic layers. A lesser singer could make great use of such techniques, but in Roche’s case they simply detract from her voice’s elegance. ‘Rather Go’, beset by needless enharmonic layers and a weak melody, does little to showcase her talents.

Although Roche has shunned the histrionics present throughout her family’s various styles, her album is familiar Wainwright stuff – rich, intense and beautiful. Reminiscent of smoky fireside singalongs, 8 Songs marks the entry of a new force in modern folk. Keep an eye on her – if this short collection proves one thing, it’s that Roche is just getting started.

Andy Wasley

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Dinah Washington
Evil Gal: The Imperious Dinah Washington ••••
El

In case you’re wondering whether the world really needs yet another knock-off ‘best of’ collection from jazz icon Dinah Washington – and let’s face it, there really is no shortage of shoddily compiled releases – set your mind at ease for Evil Gal is different. For a start there’s not a single one of her signature tunes; no ‘Mad About The Boy’, no ‘Unforgettable’, no ‘Call Me Irresponsible’…not even ‘What A Difference A Day Makes’ rears its sumptuous head. Panic not, however, for straying from the well-beaten path proves much more rewarding than you’d expect.

Mining her later career, Evil Gal finds Washington in her 1950s incarnation, performing with smaller jazz combos rather than the large swing bands of Lionel Hampton and the like. Sitting squarely in the happy transition period between big band schmaltz, we find Dinah comfortably among piano and rich Hammond organ riffs with horns providing solo counterpoint, an endearing blend of soft bebop and distinct doo-wop influences in her vocal. Whatever the style, the constant is the quality of Washington’s singing, and one thing’s for sure – there isn’t a single duff track to be found.

Even the quirkier pieces of fluff such as ‘One Arabian Night’ (“don’t rub your eyes / that’s no surprise / it’s a real-life camel in my garage”) or ‘TV Is The Thing This Year’ (channel surfing never sounded sexier!) have a charm that earns their place. However, the highlights are the standards scattered across the album – ‘Our Love Is Here To Stay’, ‘Blue Gardenia’, a great live version of ‘I’ve Got You Under My Skin’ and the truly imperious eight minutes of ‘A Foggy Day In London Town’ where the Queen of the Blues trades licks and lines with piano, trumpet, double bass and sax.

It’s not for nothing that Dinah Washington is considered to be one of the greatest voices of the 20th century (and a great loss to music at only 39 years of age). The quality of the transfers throughout is outstanding, particularly considering these recordings are 50 years old. Other compilations may have more well known songs but Evil Gal is still a great introduction to an amazing singer who, alongside the likes of Ella Fitzgerald and Billie Holliday, was a Girl Power heroine decades before Geri pulled on her Union Jack mini-dress. A sister doing it for herself indeed.

Trevor Raggatt

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Beth Waters
This Little Piggy ••••
Mermaid Mafia

I must confess that it took me a little while to get into Beth Waters third album, This Little Piggy…a full 39 seconds to be precise because that’s when, after the brooding, unsettling opening of ‘White Dogs In The Moonlight’, the first of Waters’s gloriously luminous choruses kicks in. From that point on this reviewer was sold on this uplifting album. Whether it’s self-realisation, commitment phobia, escaping from an abusive home or the road to self-destruction, Waters infuses her subject matter with rays of musical hope. And it’s this ability to lift the song with an infectious singalong chorus that raises Waters above your average introspective singer-songwriter.

Across the 10 original numbers the standard of songwriting is uniformly high and ably matched by the musical presentation and the quality of the vocals. Stylistically, This Little Piggy is a diverse collection with audible influences ranging from the likes of Sarah McLachlan and Gemma Hayes to The Barenaked Ladies and, in one instance, Latin beats. This shouldn’t be taken as indicating a lack of coherence or a butterfly mind. Rather, each song is linked through the silky and sensuous sound of Waters’s voice and the production, which subtly merges traditional keyboards and rhythm section with well-placed electronica.

The songs on This Little Piggy mix immediately accessible melodies and multilayered complexity which rewards repeated listening and deeper investigation. One could use expressions such as ‘mature’, ‘adult’ or ‘sophisticated’. but somehow that fails to capture the mixture of intelligence and enjoyment this collection grants the listener or their simultaneously intimate and cinematic scope. Previous Waters tunes have been picked up for TV soundtracks and one could imagine any number of these being used for the wistful section at the end of an episode of ‘Gray’s Anatomy’ where Meredith gazes out a rain-drenched window wondering if she ever will get her Doctor McDreamy.

Waters chooses to close the album with a couple of delightful curveballs. ‘Afraid Of Love’ mixes lyrics exploring the dilemmas of love with a lounge bar bossa nova and cannot fail to raise a smile. What could have been a taste faux pas is instead a catchy tour de force. She follows this with a beautifully downbeat cover of Paul Simon’s ‘Slip Slidin’ Away’, which eases the album to a mellow conclusion. One thing’s sure, if This Little Piggy reflects the kind of output that we can expect from songwriters in 2007, the bad news for the competition is that Beth Waters has already set the bar perilously high.

Trevor Raggatt

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Simone White
I Am The Man •••
Honest Jon’s

Advertisers’ obsession with alternative folk music has become almost a cliché. First it was mobile phone ads taking up Vashti Bunyan and Devendra Banhart, but the past couple of years have seen left-of-centre folk whimsy deployed on commercials for everything from perfume to banks to televisions, and now cars. You’d recognise Simone White’s ‘Beep Beep Song’ instantly from the Audi commercial, it goes “Beep beep beep beep beep beep beep go the horns in the cars in the street / we walked away from the lovers leap”. If this pleasing snippet has piqued your interest, before you jump into your hatchback to rush to the nearest record shop, have a read of this review.

The 13 tracks on Simone White’s sophomore album are a collection of intimate minimal torch-song folk. With simple guitars, sparse percussion and sparing use of other instruments, White’s voice is the star of the show. On the opening track ‘I Didn’t Have a Summer Romance’, the vocal is pure liquid autumn sunshine. A song as gently delightful as can be, it’s a wistful take on the old saying that it’s better to have loved and lost than never to have loved at all. The instrumentation, while slight, is pleasingly part jangly folk and part jazz. Warm trumpets close out the song and lead into a gentle brushed cymbal percussion of ‘Worm Was Wood’, the lyrics of which are jarringly, studiedly weird. “Worm was wood / the snail was an ocelot” smacks of trying a bit to hard to be quirky, although kudos to Simone for shoehorning an ocelot into a song.

While the instrumentation and production are pretty much faultless throughout the album, the songs themselves do occasionally leave a little to be desired. From the aforementioned studied weirdness to the almost trite Bush-bashing dissent of ‘The American War’ and clunky anti-capitalism sentiment of ‘Great Imperialist State’ (sample lyric: “I cannot kill my meat nor grow the food upon my plate / I’ve never walked a mile to the well”. The mawkish expression of this song combined with the overly anguished strained voice is, and it pains me to say this, reminiscent of Dido.

Fortunately, for the most part, the intimate vocals are more akin to those of Hem’s Sally Ellyson, Kathryn Williams or even, on the more affected occasions, Stina Nordenstam. However, the songwriting lacks the finesse of any of these acts and the undoubted vocal talent seems wasted on tracks such as ‘Sweetest Love Song’ and ‘Only The Moon’, on which White tells us that the “the one I love is like the moon, unattainable”, which are lyrically and musically trite. It’s a shame, because some tracks, the aforementioned ‘I Didn’t Have a Summer Romance’ and the delicately jazzy ‘Mary Jane’ hint at a talent for storytelling that is otherwise untapped. And the title track, which closes the album, far more ably achieves what ‘Great Imperialist State’ failed to do when she proclaims, “In my own government I am the president”.

The heartening twilight-folk of I Am The Man should be perfect listening for long winter evenings by the fire with a loved one or for reminisces about the summer over a bourbon in a dimly lit bar. When you scratch beneath the surface some of the songs are lacking in substance, but the ambience created by White’s vocal and the excellent musicianship pull the record through.

Peter Hayward

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Fiona Wight
The Last Rose •••½
Renaissance

You could be forgiven for thinking that Fiona Wight hailed from deepest Donegal. That’s not the case, but this maid of Kent does have twin streams of music and the Celtic spirit running through her engine. And, though The Last Rose is strictly her debut album, she already has an impressive career tucked in her back pocket. Twice heralded as Choirgirl of the Year, best-selling classical soloist, featured singer with Irish chamber choir Anúna and first-call lead vocalist for the UK Riverdance company: the music on The Last Rose reflects all of these experiences.

The dozen songs on the album take in traditional folk tunes, songs by respected modern Celtic composers and tracks co-written with Riverdance musical director Cathal Synnott. The arrangements range from the sparse to the sumptuous, couched in both classical and traditional instrumentation. However, the spotlight remains on Wight’s stunning soprano. Like the music, Wight’s voice forms a perfect bridge between classical, traditional and modern. Possessed of a crystalline beauty and controlled poise, it rises to the challenge of the classical aria ‘Ave Maria’ – albeit presented backed by Celtic harp. However, it contains none of the affectations that can make the bel canto such a struggle for the casual classical listener. Wight’s approach is rather more straightforward; for all her impeccable technique the angelic qualities of her voice betray an emotional honesty so often missing from the classically trained.

Always, the voice is the focus for the listener – whether exposed on the Celtic breeze (‘My Lagan Love’) or wrapped in Synnott’s luscious string arrangements (‘A Blessing’). Each song orbits around a Celtic gravitational centre with whistle, uilleann pipes and harp never too far away, but occasionally Wight throws in some pleasing twists from the world music palette. Even that most British of traditional tunes, ‘She Moves Through The Fair’, gets a new lease of life, transported to a sultry and ominous Seville, dripping with Moorish sensuality as Cora Venus Lunny’s violin weaves a heady gypsy melody around the vocal. Olé indeed! Assured as it is, The Last Rose is thoroughly entrancing. A rare and delicate blossom.

Trevor Raggatt

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Lucinda Williams
West •••
Lost Highway

And so the woman with the voice that Emmylou Harris memorably described as capable of “peeling the chrome off a trailer hitch” returns with her eighth studio album. After years of lengthy gaps between recordings, Williams has become positively prolific since the release of 1998’s classic Car Wheels On A Gravel Road (recently given the Deluxe Edition double-disc treatment), putting out Essence, World Without Tears and Live @ The Fillmore to ever increasing amounts of critical acclaim. For production duties on West she’s roped in Hal Willner, best known for his work with the likes of Lou Reed and Marianne Faithfull, whose bruised 1987 album Strange Weather has been an avowed influence on some of Williams’s recent music. (Indeed, at times Williams seems intent on turning herself into a Faithfull of the South, a weather-beaten, down-but-not-out ‘survivor’).

Willner’s presence has led some critics to describe the new album as an exercise in experimentation, and it’s certainly true that Williams is continuing to move away from the country/folk/blues-infused sounds of her earliest work into ambient rock territory. But, to these ears at least, West sounds less like an experimental record than a synthesis of her post-Car Wheels… output, favouring atmosphere over narrative, the ‘universal’ over the rooted and specific. And, unfortunately, like much of her recent work, the album fails to entirely cohere.

Backed by a sturdy group of musicians (Jenny Scheinman’s violin-playing is particularly noteworthy), including regular collaborators Doug Pettibone (guitars) and Jim Keltner (drums/percussion), Williams traverses (overly) familiar thematic territory throughout West, focusing upon love, lust and loss, travel, time and memory. Opener ‘Are You Alright?’ finds her at her most seductive and accessible, building an infectious melody around a series of heartfelt pleas to hear from an errant lover. Though marred by trite lyrics, the jaunty ‘Learning How To Live’ is a more optimistic, less self-pitying break-up song than we’ve come to expect from her, tempering its regret with a healthy dose of country stoicism and the resolve to “make the most of what you left me with”.

Elsewhere, ‘Fancy Funeral’ could be a sombre companion piece to Kate Campbell’s wry song ‘Funeral Food’, with Williams offering a similarly critical analysis of Southern traditions and a gentle reminder that “no amount of rituals will bring back what you’ve lost”. The fierce ‘Come On’ (a cousin of World Without Tears‘s scabrous ‘Atonement’) features a searing electric guitar part perfectly in sync with Williams’s scary vocal and allows her to fulfil her post-Car Wheels… criteria of including one expletive per album. Finally, the title track closes proceedings on a truly gorgeous note of expectation. Perhaps reflecting Williams’s optimism about her recent engagement, the song is an elegant invitation to a lover that manages to convey both the joy at the opportunity offered by a new relationship and a mature acceptance of its probable transience: “Come out west and see… / I know you won’t stay permanently / But come out west and see”.

In between, however, there are more than a few places in which West goes south. ‘Mama You Sweet’, ostensibly about the death of Williams’s mother, gets bogged down in would-be poetic imagery, while ‘Unsuffer Me’ is a slightly embarrassing litany of desires featuring the torturous (and grammatically questionable) command “unbound my feet”. ‘Rescue’ flirts feebly with Beth Orton, and the wretched ‘What If’ proffers a sequence of asinine speculations about a world in which “dogs became kings” and “birds had bank accounts”. ‘Wrap My Head Around That’ is even weaker, a dour inventory of complaints every bit as awkward as its title and stretched out over an excruciating nine minutes. After the similarly unconvincing ‘American Dream’ on World Without Tears, what Williams really needs is a producer brave enough to tell her that rapping might not be such a great idea.

Listening to these tracks, it’s hard not to feel that the increased speed of her output has resulted in an associated dip in quality, for, ever since Essence, the detailed, narrative elements of her songs have been replaced by more general statements, sometimes of a rather banal nature. Most problematic of all is her tendency to use a similar compositional style; in too many places on West she falls back on repetitious listing song structures that suggest she’s been bitten by the Alanis Morissette bug. Those who make inflated claims for Williams as a great lyricist – a Faulkner or Welty of song – will have their work cut out trying to defend the repetitive structures employed throughout, not to mention some decidedly dodgy rhymes (“eyes” and “guys”, “kid” and “did”, “danger” and “stranger”, “gum” and, er, “bum”). What’s missing is the rich, vivid detail that characterised her earlier slice-of-Southern-life songs such as ‘The Night’s Too Long’ and ‘Car Wheels On A Gravel Road’. There’s no “smell of coffee, eggs and bacon”, no “Loretta singing on the radio” here.

With the lyrics tending toward the uninspired, it’s left up to Williams’s vocals to add complexity and nuance. Blessed with one of the most instantly recognisable voices in contemporary music, she sounds less mannered than of late here, and her elegantly weary slurring and snarling commands your attention even when the words let her down. While Williams’s intention to shake off the traditional roots music shackles is admirable, it’s a shame that she insists upon straying into areas in which she seems less than comfortable. Nonetheless, despite its shortcomings, West is a warmer, less abrasive album than World Without Tears and one that features some strong material.

Alex Ramon