wears the trousers magazine


2005/06 reviews dump: h

The following reviews were all published on our old website between May 2005 and December 2006.
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Sarah Harmer
I’m A Mountain ••••
Zoe

Wears The Trousers is a bit late coming to this because one never really knows what to expect with Sarah Harmer. Having spent the ‘90s fronting the not especially great indie rock outfit Weeping Tile, 2000’s solo debut You Were Here was astonishingly good. Laced with wit and sentimentality, the songs garnered critical praise from reviewers worldwide and expanded Harmer’s sound. A year earlier, Songs For Clem – a duets album initially recorded for her father’s ears only – had seen her exploring the realms of folk and poetry with truly affecting results. After such enormous accolades, Harmer seemed to flag with the rather lacklustre All Of Our Names. Though it still bagged her a Juno Award, it seemed a little rushed, as if the songs were simply pushed together with little definition.

Thank goodness for I’m A Mountain, then. This quietly impressive collection not only showcases all the facets of her sound that made her such a unique force in the first place, but combines all that made her previous incarnations so successful. Full of affirmations and themes of renewal and revitalisation, I’m A Mountain takes a back-to-the-land approach, both thematically and stylistically, without sounding pretentious. Starting off strongly with the gently-strummed ‘The Ring’, Harmer uses the age-old metaphor of the boxing ring, but instead of focusing on the battle, she sings eloquently of the coaching support – “you thank me all the time / but now it’s my turn…and it made me feel better / to have you there in my corner”.

Continuing the theme of positive relationships, album highlight ‘I Am Aglow’ blooms with pure bluegrass and is as whimsically singalong as anyone could possibly want. But not every song is quite so light-hearted; ‘Escarpment Blues’, inspired by Harmer’s own youth spent on an Ontario farm, laments the threat to the Niagara Escarpment, a UNESCO World Biosphere Reserve. Facing modern day land use issues with an intelligent ear, the lyrics read less like an alarmist diatribe and more like a concerned citizen speaking during a council meeting. With a soft voice full of gentle concern, Harmer sings “if they blow a hole in my backyard / everyone is gonna run away / the creeks won’t flow to the Great Lake below / will the water in the wells still be okay?” It certainly doesn’t approach the hard-hitting music of the ‘60s protest masters, but Harmer does a magnificent job of echoing her concern without being patronising about what makes modern convenience such a part of day-to-day life.

The centrepiece of the record, however, is Harmer’s cover of the Dolly Parton classic ‘Will He Be Waiting For Me?’, to which she brings a delicate vulnerability that, whilst still retaining the wistfulness of the original, gives the song a slightly different perspective. Sparse and unforced yet fulfilling and ultimately satisfying, I’m A Mountain has it all – intelligent songwriting, fine musicianship and well-written songs. Harmer doesn’t go the currently popular country-noir chanteuse route, already done to near perfection by Neko Case and Jenny Lewis; instead, she sticks to more playful yet conscientiously lyrical poetry and whimsical seriousness. These are uncontrived sketches, inspired by country music before it went pop, bluegrass when it was pure and new takes on age-old stories told time after time in song.

Loria Near 
originally published October 5th, 2006

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Emmylou Harris & Mark Knopfler
All The Roadrunning •••½ 
Mercury

The illustrious career of Emmylou Harris has been marked by a series of creative collaborations with other singers and musicians. From the first, now legendary, Gram Parsons duets through her work with Linda Rondstadt and Dolly Parton as one third of Trio to her partnership with Daniel Lanois on Wrecking Ball, Harris has sought out (and been sought out by) a range of diverse collaborators. In the meantime, she’s also continued to raise harmony singing to new artistic heights on records by Lucinda Williams, Neil Young, Willie Nelson, John Prine, Steve Earle, Nanci Griffith, Patty Griffin, the McGarrigles and just about anyone else you care to name. The most significant of these collaborations have served an important function for Harris, allowing her to explore all kinds of areas of the country-folkrock palette and keep her own particular brand of “cosmic American music” fresh and vital. Crucially, however, even her most experimental work has always retained a distinctive personality, a kind of purity, elegance and poise that justifies Lucinda Williams’s description of her as “the Grace Kelly of country music.”

We haven’t heard much from Harris since 2003’s Stumble Into Grace, a record that saw her continuing to wed her own newly-discovered songwriting abilities to Wrecking Ball-esque sonic atmospherics. Once again demonstrating once again her ability to inspire and engage with new generations, she turned up on Bright Eyes’ I’m Wide Awake (It’s Morning), adding some genuine country-folk ache to Conor Oberst’s sometimes strained musings, and also made a distinguished contribution to the ‘Brokeback Mountain’ soundtrack with ‘A Love That Will Never Grow Old’. All The Roadrunning finds her in collaborative mode once again, teaming up this time with Mark Knopfler on a set of twelve new tracks, ten penned by Knopfler, two by Harris herself.

Knopfler and Harris first appeared together on the 2001 Hank Williams tribute album Timeless and All The Roadrunning has been in the pipeline ever since. Reviewers of the album so far have focused to an almost indecent degree on the singers’ respective ages, as though a record made by two people over fifty must inevitably be less ‘hip’ than ‘hip replacement’. That said, even the most cursory listen to All The Roadrunning reveals a degree of class and style that only experience can buy. Indeed, as soon as the album opens, with sturdy drums, mandolin and Knopfler’s distinctive guitar licks, we know we’re in safe hands. ‘Beachcombing’ is a joyous song of homecoming on which Harris and Knopfler’s voices combine with disarming ease and grace. Surely it can be no mere coincidence that their first shared vocal line is on the lyric “We had a harmony”. The often-used ‘silk and sandpaper’ analogy has never been more apt, and on ‘This Is Us’ they duplicate the feat achieved by Harris and Willie Nelson on ‘Gulf Coast Highway’, sounding like a long-married couple leafing through a lifetime of intimate memories.

Repeatedly, the album’s songs strike a balance between regret and resignation, mixing melancholy with a sense of possibility and hope for the future. Knopfler’s atmospheric guitar work makes ‘I Dug Up A Diamond’ truly sparkle, accordion and fiddle turn ‘Red Staggerwing’ into a rootsy reel, and the pensive verses of ‘Rollin’ On’ give way to a rush of hope and optimism in the choruses. The delicate ‘Love & Happiness’ resembles ‘Fields Of Gold’, while ‘Donkey Town’, with its small-town adultery and escape for one of the three protagonists, wouldn’t have sounded at all out of place on Springsteen’s Devils & Dust, with Knopfler taking the lead and Harris joining him on the hushed but resolved choruses. The chiming ‘Beyond My Wildest Dreams’, on the other hand, could be arena-rock Springsteen, as Harris and Knopfler unashamedly celebrate a love that has endured beyond either of the protagonist’s imaginings. The beautiful title track – a warm and moving song of time and travel – is the undisputed standout.

As a whole, however, the album is not an entirely smooth journey; ‘Right Now’ is something of a dull generic plod and ‘Belle Starr’ never quite achieves lift off. But the finale of ‘If This Is Goodbye’ features Harris’s ghostliest, most enchanting vocal and makes for a supremely graceful closer. With its smooth, easy arrangements and comfortable ‘70s country-rock ambience, it’s fair to say that the album breaks no new stylistic ground. The Harris record it most resembles is Western Wall, her 1999 collaboration with Linda Rondstadt, and while it’s ultimately just too conventional an album to rank up there as one of her most memorable collaborative efforts, it’s an undisputedly lovely one nonetheless. Tender, quietly inspiring and surprisingly addictive.

Alex Ramon
originally published April 24th, 2006 

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Julia Harris
These Days EP ••••
Redcase

When Wears The Trousers chose Cardiff-born singer Julia Harris as one of our picks for ‘06, it was on the basis of a couple of homemade live albums, a growing buzz about her on the singer-songwriter circuit and a nagging hunch that the UK had finally found its answer to Ani DiFranco. These Days is Harris’s first nationwide studio release, so were we right to hype her?

Glad to say but of course! With These Days, Harris restores our belief that a grass roots buzz really can be the product of hard work, originality and sheer talent, rather than calculated media spin (Miss Thom, I’m looking at you). Of course, the DiFranco factor is writ large throughout these four wonderful songs, but Harris stamps so much of her own individuality on them that any notion of facsimile is summarily dismissed. Her vocal is rather more smooth and soulful than DiFranco’s sometimes abrasive rasp, an asset best displayed when she lobs an unexpectedly brilliant folk scat into ‘Sticks & Stones’, or the soaring, pure falsetto she pulls out the bag for ‘Your Love’.

Her muscular and funky playing style is individual too, energetically propelling both the songs and your shuffling feet. The sympathetic production allows Harris’ energy to shine through the mix rather than languish beneath a veneer of compressed homogeneity. Keeping to a rhythm section of drums and acoustic bass allows a degree of jazziness to permeate the songs, picking up the natural funky flavour of Harris’s writing and delivery. Indeed, one of the most refreshing things about her is a lightness of tone and spirit. That’s not to say she doesn’t dwell on some of life’s more important issues, simply that she actually brings insight instead of just handwringing angst.

Kicking off with the celebratory title track, with its funky rhythm, singalong chorus and quirky arrangement, it’s apparent from the off that this is one song that you’ll keep coming back to. The almost tribal woo-hoos and insidious hooks are undeniably engaging and just get better and better with each listen. In the hands of another, ‘Sticks & Stones’ might seem a little clunky, topically at least, with Harris pointing fingers at those who don’t consider the knock-on effects of an off-hand put-down on a more fragile spirit.

But it’s not in the hands of another and Harris delivers her message with a cheeky wink and sassy sense of self-reliance. The reggae-styled verses of ‘Your Love ‘contrast nicely with the acoustic rock chorus and avoids the lovestruck clichés so many tend to rely on. Closing number ‘Leave’ belies its ‘live studio jam’ appellation by serving up a lean, well-structured ditty on getting the hell out of a destructive relationship. Aside from a few, er, ‘jazzier’ notes on the bass, you’d be hard pressed to notice that this was a live cut, it’s that well done. With the promise of a proper full-length debut some time in the winter or early 2007, Harris will be one to keep an eye on for a long while yet. There’s plenty more there this lot came from and you won’t want to miss it.

Trevor Raggatt
originally published August 10th, 2006 

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PJ Harvey
Peel Sessions 1991-2004 ••••
Fontana/Island

As a tribute to mark the second anniversary of John Peel’s death, PJ Harvey joins Siouxsie & The Banshees, Múm, Pulp, The House Of Love and others in releasing a series of tracks recorded for the late DJ’s show. Harvey, who handpicked the tracklist herself, completed nine sessions with Peel between 1991 and 2004, and he was reportedly pleased to have had a long standing association with not only one of his favourite artists but also a great friend. On her part, Harvey has gone on record as saying how important hers and other artists’ Peel Sessions have been, with their raw sound resulting from the live studio setup.

Harvey’s first session took place on October 29, 1991, a full year before her debut album Dry was even released, and it’s a fine testament to Peel’s eagerness to champion undiscovered talent that his early support would be so well rewarded. The tracks from this session – ‘Oh My Lover’, ‘Victory’, ‘Sheela-Na- Gig’ and ‘Water’ – are delivered with the poise and confidence of an established performer. As she would demonstrate later on 4 Track Demos, Harvey’s songs maintain their veracity and power when stripped to their barest essence, and these early tracks compare well with their album counterparts.

Later sessions from 1993 and 1996 make for an eclectic mix of tracks from 4 Track Demos, Rid Of Me and Dance Hall At Louse Point, Harvey’s under-the- radar but brilliant collaboration with John Parish. To a certain extent, Harvey’s choices avoid those songs already released in bare bones versions, instead revisiting those that were previously furnished with more production and polish. Recordings from the most recent sessions showcase Harvey’s vocals at their most fierce. Her gutsy, raw energy reverberates right through the staggering ‘This Wicked Tongue’, previously available only as a bonus track on Stories From The City, Stories From The Sea. The final track, ‘You Come Through’, was recorded in tribute to Peel just six weeks after his sudden passing whilst on holiday in Peru. It’s a fittingly emotional recording with added poignancy and a welcome addition to this collection.

All in all, though it is far from exhaustive of the material stashed away on tape somewhere, this is an essential album for fans of Harvey and/or Peel, saluting both her daring, nervy style and his unwavering punk rock spirit.

Stephanie Heney
originally published December 17th, 2006

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Juliana Hatfield
Made In China ••••
Ye Olde Records

So Juliana Hatfield is back with her tenth solo album, as challenging and contrary as ever. If, like me, you lost track of her somewhere around album three, 1995’s Only Everything, this is a chance to renew your acquaintance. Called Made In China to indicate her disposable and marketable state, the album features her stripped bare on the cover. Being Juliana, it’s just her torso, there to also represent where her music comes from. Like many artists, after early major label experience, Hatfield retreated to the underground and the safety of a small independent label and the freedom to do her own prolific thing. So after releasing almost one album per year, not to mention various band reunions and side project Some Girls, has the former Blake Baby grown up?

Well, the album kicks off in familiar territory with the classic brooding power-pop of ‘New Waif’, all the sass of old coming to the fore. It’s to the lyrics you should look for a statement of intent, with their opening plea of “you better give this girl something, because she’s dying for a lie”. ‘What Do I Care’ continues the nostalgia trip, its bratty vocals accompanying a slice of Babes In Toyland-style grunge, a trick that’s similarly employed and even trumped on ‘Stay Awake’. It’s the former, however, that lyrically sums up the fragile and paradoxical mood of the album. See: “Made in China for the masses, I’m cheap and plastic … / you can buy me / you can break me / you can laugh but you’ll see it’s so easy / what the fuck? / it’s a miracle I’m even here”.

It’s at this point that you realise what a big debt Avril Lavigne and her ilk owe to Hatfield. She barged the doors open and got trampled in the rush as the anodyne clones polished the product, making it more palatable and MTV friendly. This however is the real thing, challenging the listener yet remaining immensely tuneful. ‘On Video’ is Redd Kross-flavoured ‘70s rock, ‘Hole In The Sky’ goes for a hippie-ish acoustic feel, while ‘Oh’ pinches a slice of the riff from Suede’s ‘The Drowners’ and gets all slinky on us. In the rockier mid-section, ‘My Pet Lion’ kicks off like an early Bangles track, followed by the feisty power-pop of ‘Going Blonde’. ‘Rats In The Attic’ is reminiscent of ‘Nirvana’ from 1993’s Become What You Are, with Hatfield fitting a little girl lost vocal over a grinding rock tune.

There’s a big flourish to finish, a sinister and spooky number called ‘A Doe & Two Fawns’, which begins with winding electric guitar that leads into double-tracked vocals, before segueing into a long fadeout, with a shaker adding to the ill feeling. That, in turn, leads into ‘Send Money’, a sprawling, psychotic letter to God and his overeager believers. Unlike some of her contemporaries, Hatfield is still on top form after all these years. Now I owe it to her to go back and catch up on what I’ve missed.

Russell Barker
originally published March 7th, 2006
 

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Kate Havnevik
Melankton ••½
Continentica

Classically trained but rebellious from an early age – she was a member of an all-girl punk band back in Oslo – Havnevik lends an orchestral ear to a pop mentality on her debut album Melankton. Influences as diverse as jazz guitar, string quartets, punk percussion and sweeping electronica find some middle ground underneath her almost childlike (and, yes, a little Björkian) vocals. Despite the mix, the songs can sound eerily familiar and samey, particularly if you’ve recently purchased either of Frou Frou’s Details or Imogen Heap’s Speak For Yourself (and if not, why not?). The link is songwriter Guy Sigsworth, Heap’s other half in Frou Frou and all-round electronica-with-heart genius who writes with Havnevik. Sadly, Melankton comes across as a slightly under-par combination of his last two projects. That’s not to say that there isn’t anything good here, rather that, with competition like Heap, it’s got to be better than good to qualify.

From the minimalist album sleeve to the stark synth of opener ‘Unlike Me’, the similarities with Speak For Yourself are clear. It’s also clear that Havnevik can sing; she has a good range but doesn’t flaunt it unless it’s appropriate. ‘Not Fair’ could be a contender for the next Bond theme, all sweeping strings and dramatic chorus, but the album doesn’t really get interesting until the quirky pop of ‘You Again’. Frustratingly, the next four tracks give us a glimpse of what might have been; ‘Serpentine’ and ‘Sleepless’ are solid album tracks with good hooks, but it’s ‘Kaleidoscope’ and ‘Suckerlove’ that remind you that this is a debut from someone with promise. If she can write more like these two, Havnevik has serious future potential. ‘Kaleidoscope’ in particular is glorious, far and away the best track on Melankton – simple structure, great melody and a hook you’ll find yourself humming over and over again long after its finished, wondering where it came from.

Which is the point, I suppose. Another four or five ‘Kaleidoscopes’ and you’d remember exactly where it came from. The rest suffer from predictable over- experimentation and forgettable melodies, despite some promising starts and the occasionally appealing middle-eight. Recent collaborators include Moby, Royksopp and Noel Hogan of The Cranberries and if Havnevik can harness their talent for a tune, her sophomore effort will be a must-buy; until then, download ‘Kaleidoscope’ and ‘Suckerlove’ and hope for the best.

Paul Woodgate
originally published September 17th, 2006

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Edwina Hayes / Sam Semple
Live at the Half Moon, Putney ••••
August 13, 2006

It’s an accident of chance that a room out the back of some South London pub should be elevated above similar rooms in other hostelries to minor rock icon status. However, that’s the Half Moon in Putney’s good fortune and its none-more-black interior has seen performances by thousands of artists. On this particular rain-spattered evening, the select crowd who had forsaken an evening in front of the telly were treated to the distinctive country-folk sounds of rising star Edwina Hayes.

Despite having just come off the touring treadmill as special guest on Nanci Griffith’s UK tour (at the specific request of Lubbock, TX’s folkabilly queen, no less!) she seems genuinely delighted to be gracing the Half Moon’s rather more bijou stage. Add in the “adopted hometown” energy of a rare London show and the family and friends scattered among the audience and anticipation is running high. Tonight’s support is provided by Sam Semple whose stream of consciousness balladry passes the time pleasantly enough but does little more. 

No faint praise for the main event though as Hayes graces the room with a beguilingly open, natural air that easily draws the audience in and wins them over. Sure, her vocal and performance style do owe a lot to her personal heroine, Griffith, but Hayes’s maturity as a writer belies her years and her performance is assured. Scattered among the anecdotes are songs from her debut album, Out On My Own, alongside others that are as yet unrecorded and covers of Gillian Welch and Randy Newman.

One perennial danger of solo acoustic gigs is that they can sometimes become a little monotonous. Hayes’s gentle guitar style, however, mixes things up sufficiently that such a problem is avoided. In places, her country- style finger-picking lets the top strings ring clear like chiming bells, such as on the touching ‘Leave A Light On For You’, while numbers like ‘Tell Me So’ witness a shift in the mood, elegantly lurching in a bluesier direction. However, Hayes’s masterstroke is to take the opportunity of playing in the city to rope in songwriting buddy and longtime London session hound David ‘Dzal’ (pronounced ‘diesel’) Martin on second guitar, bringing further richness to the sound.

Although there is clearly a little busking going on with the chord sequences on occasion, the veteran’s experience and professionalism pay dividends. Only the pickiest ear would detect any hesitation in his playing. Certainly his acoustic solo on ‘I Can’t Believe’, his emotive slide on ‘Tell Me So’ and his country blues twang-riffing on ‘Long Highway’ catch the ear and linger in the memory. All in all, this was a hugely enjoyable evening and one that bodes well for Hayes’s involvement alongside Amy Wadge and Rosalie Deighton in their Voices On The Verge-style singer-songwriter collective Hummingbird later in 2006.

Trevor Raggatt 
originally published September 17th, 2006

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Imogen Heap
Speak For Yourself [reissue] ••••½
White Rabbit / SonyBMG

First the facts: Speak For Yourself is Heap’s second solo effort. Her first, I Megaphone, was released in 1998. Somewhere in between, she achieved a degree of success through her collaboration with Guy Sigsworth in the form of Frou Frou, releasing Details, an electronica album with hidden depths and the first hint of what was to come. After the party, however, it seems everyone else went home, so what’s a girl to do? Easy! Re-mortgage the flat and spend a year of her life writing and recording an album and issuing it under her own label, Megaphonic. What’s that you say, sounds like a rubbish idea? Hardly! Through word of mouth alone in the UK and ‘The OC’ effect in the States, Heap sold 100,000 copies of Speak For Yourself off her own back. Now, SonyBMG have bought the distribution rights and re-released it behind some heavyweight promo. Cross your fingers the big boys know what to do with her, because Heap has crafted a thing of beauty. You can hold every minute of this album up to the light and it sparkles. It’s all Tiffany, no Ratners.

It’s not immediately obvious why it’s so good. A busy sound, conjured from banks of computers and organic instruments, presents itself as the modern equivalent of early ‘80s synth culture, with added orchestra, guitars and, for all I know, the kitchen sink. Eno beeps, Trevor Horn synths, fuzz bass, multi-layered vocals – you name it, Speak For Yourself has got it; there’s value for money here, but given bold brush, a sense of space and warmth. This isn’t a cold record; the melodies are beautiful. And then it hits you – it’s the lyrics. The words are worthy of Neils Tennant and Finn and all the songwriting geniuses who know that pop works best when it doesn’t treat its listeners like idiots. They capture perfectly the way our emotions play and are played with, in a contemporary language that pulls no punches.

For example, on ‘Just For Now’, Heap dissects a longterm relationship with bruised resignation over the space of one afternoon’s dinner party and three minutes of haunting music: “How did you know? It’s what I always wanted, you can never have too many of these.” You’ve heard that before, right? How about: “Bite tongue, deep breaths, count to ten, nod your head… whoever put on this music had better quick sharp remove it, pour me another, and don’t wag your finger at me”. Is that affecting enough for you? On the a cappella ‘Hide & Seek’, a vocoder’d hymn to betrayal, Heap sings “Mm what d’ya say? Oh, that you only meant well, well of course you did, that it’s all for the best, of course it is, mm that it’s just what we need, you decided this?” – I can’t do it justice in a review, you have to hear it to know she’s lived it.

Superlatives are bandied around far too often. Each new find is the next big thing and then a future footnote in the gossip columns. Heap won’t win everyone over – that’s the beauty of opinion, but this lifelong music obsessive is happy to go on record and state that Speak For Yourself is the most consistent, wonderfully inventive and stick-it-on-repeat record he’s heard in the last 18 months. Speaking for myself. And I’ve broken my word count to try and convince you.

Paul Woodgate
originally published May 26th, 2006 

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Imogen Heap
Colston Hall, Bristol ••••
October 4th, 2006

Entering through a side door midway through the stalls just seconds after the lights go down, Imogen Heap looks half-Amazonian, half-techno warrior beamed back from the future. Already strikingly lofty, a feather-and flower-topped mohawk makes her look even taller as she strolls through the audience, keyboard slung over her shoulder like a weapon, to take her place on the stage. It’s a captivating opening and the gig that follows doesn’t disappoint. Opening with ‘I Am In Love With You’, sung on the way to the stage, Heap soon positions herself in front of a very fancy Perspex piano before swiftly launching into ‘Speeding Cars’ – a track that truly shows off her beautiful, versatile voice, and the audience is clearly enthralled.

It’s all the more surprising, therefore, when Heap apologises to the crowd for feeling under par – she later proves to be very adept at between-song banter and even introduces the frog in her throat to the audience – but if anything, the added huskiness works in her favour. Only during encore ‘Hide & Seek’ does this prevent her from reaching the highest notes, and she pauses mid-song to say sorry. Of course, this only makes the already rapturously appreciative Colston Hall warm to her even further. Frog or no frog, Heap’s voice can deliver a stupendous, piercing wail when required. It’s a trick that she rarely deploys and is all the more effective for it; accompanied by flashing strobe lights and the fierce but controlled backing of her four- piece band, the impact is thrilling.

Musically, the set holds surprises throughout, not least the bursts of metallic, distorted energy that momentarily transform ‘Loose Ends’ and ‘Daylight Robbery’. On songs where she does not play piano or keyboards, Heap dances at the front of the stage. Doing something akin to ‘the robot’, silhouetted by stark lighting and surrounded by swirling mist, she cuts a striking, androgynous figure. Playing only one song from her first record I Megaphone (‘Candle Light’) and one Frou Frou song (‘Let Go’), the set draws very heavily from last year’s Speak For Yourself. But why not? It’s an excellent album and the only track this reviewer missed was early single ‘Come Here Boy’. The perfect, punchy pop of latest single ‘Headlock’ is a definite highlight, the crystal clear sound in the venue making the song seem even more impressive than on record. As well as her band, Heap has all manner of pre-programmed beats, samples and vocal effects at her disposal, and she uses these to full effect to recreate the album’s sparkling sonic clarity.

The stage setup is a little puzzling; the Perspex piano, of which Heap is clearly very proud, is beautiful, but the lit tree stage left and bauble-esque reflective circles on the right give the show a (presumably unintentional) Christmassy feel. However, when the sole criticism you have of a concert concerns the stage set, you know you’ve watched a stellar gig. I’m pretty sure that the wildly applauding crowd and people dancing in the aisles would agree.

Danny Weddup
originally published October 14th, 2006

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Helene
Routines •••½
Series 8

A nebulous creation borne out of the band Barefoot Contessa, Helene Dineen and Graham Gargiulo retained their songwriting partnership under the simple moniker Helene to allow Dineen’s fragile, soulful voice to become the focus – and it’s a remarkable focus at that. A well-travelled instrument, having lived in Israel, London and Berlin at various junctures, at times her vocal is quite plainly British, while at others it coos with a soft Gallic lilt. This second album is a similarly experienced, richly varied tapestry of sounds and creative techniques that combine bluesy and folk-pop notes underpinned by rockier sounds. From poignant, philosophical numbers like ‘Sammy Is A Solider Now’ to ‘Beat Dream’, a powerful instrumental torrent that positively zings with high-octane guitars, these songs are anything but routine.

With such an experienced band behind her, Dineen can rely on some carefully crafted, extraordinary musicality to back up that voice, and boy does she make the most of her crew. First single ‘This Is All We Have To Know’ is a sweetly penned, guitar-centric ode to love, concluding that it is “better breath than air”, while ‘Forever In A Day’ allows the band to unfurl their shapely rock wings in a distinctly refreshing manner. Dineen’s vocal lovingly echoes the guitar melody and is bolstered by brilliant, hard-edged bridges that should seem out of place but work surprisingly well.

Outstanding totems of individuality are found also in ‘Nothing To You’ and ‘I Need A Girl’. The former edges away from the band’s sweeter side with an evidently Dylan-influenced ditty with a sumptuous refrain that proclaims “I can’t be all things to everyone and nothing to you”, while the latter – a fantastic duet with Gargiulo – takes classic folk influences with an intriguing male/ female dynamic and a twist to its tale. It seems wrong not to mention every song in turn – each one seems to grow and resonate more with every play – but that’s half the joy of the album and it would be a crime to spoil it. Routines, then; always a pleasure, never a chore!

Gem Nethersole 
originally published October 5th, 2006

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Hem
Eveningland •••••
Liberty

The story of Hem is as warming as their music. Brought together by their love of Americana and alt-country music, songwriter Dan Messe and producer/ engineer Gary Maurer placed an advert in a local paper for a like-minded vocalist, leading to their discovery of the very talented Sally Ellyson, who, despite possessing a truly affecting voice, had been too shy to sing in public. Together with Steve Curtis, George Rush, Mark Brotter, Bob Hoffnar and Heather Zimmerman, they released their articulate and folksy debut, Rabbit Songs, in 2001. In contrast, Eveningland is an opulent, lush and stronger album; a long-tabled banquet with Ellyson’s vocals the centrepiece, somehow managing to be both intimate and closed, sultry and breezy, often within the same song.

Over this 16-track offering, Hem infuse into these tunes a variety of influences, from the gentle ‘70s country-pop of The Carpenters to the more contemporary hints of Natalie Merchant post-10,000 Maniacs. The Slovak Radio Orchestra also pay a visit, their delicate strings adding considerable texture and depth, thrusting the songs to great cinematic heights. Fittingly, the songwriting imbues every song with vivid and beautiful imagery from the heartbreaking lines of lost love in ‘The Fire Thief’ (“Sometimes a heart can break and make its own relief, the way a cold dark night invites the fire thief”) to the images of the traveller in ‘Pacific Street’ (“Well I don’t know you except in the way a traveller knows a traveller, the way a station can tempt you to stay and spend some time inside it”), each song seems like a standalone artwork, as if each were a four-minute film. Nothing is more representative of the cinematic style than the all-too-brief instrumental, ‘Eveningland’, which rises and swells mid-album to wrap the listener in sound. Elsewhere, the band weave the sounds of a lullaby into ‘Lucky’, infuse a Randy Newman-esque pop sensibility into ‘Receiver’, and ably reflect the longings of the great country balladeers such as Loretta Lynn in the stunning ‘Dance Me Home’.

Hem take chances as well, gracefully lending the Johnny and June Carter Cash duet ‘Jackson’ a sleepy wistfulness that the roughhewn original has never before known. Though the song was made famous as a playful, rocking tune about a misdemeaning man whose wife makes sure her voice is heard (“Go on down to Jackson, go on and wreck your health”), Ellyson sings the part as a seductive taunt, preserving the sense of a woman scorned, but without the original’s inherent violence, and the best part is it works. Album closer, ‘Carry Me Home’, is a murder ballad that focuses not on the crime, but rather the healing from the traumatic event. Even with such a morbid topic, the song leaves the listener revelling in hope as Ellyson softly sings the refrain “tell me nothing’s wrong there”.

Disappointingly, the UK release doesn’t seem to feature the hidden track available elsewhere, an a cappella version of the traditional number, ‘Now The Day Is Over’, that Ellyson sings with an exquisite slight tremble. That minor grumble aside, Eveningland is a superb collection of songs that, despite the prevailing themes of love long lost and death, still contain a rare sense of hope and uplift that will comfort you for hours.

Loria Near
originally published December 19th, 2005 

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Hem
No Word From Tom •••½ 
Nettwerk

Some might say that after just two critically acclaimed albums, an experimental collection of covers, live tracks and reworked originals might be a bit of an ego trip. However, when the band in question is Brooklyn-based countrypolitans Hem, the idea becomes less self-absorbed and far more provocative. In fact, it becomes downright curious, especially with a casual glancing of the tracklist. Boasting everything from fully orchestrated live tracks to rollicking covers of unexpected independent hits to country standards, No Word From Tom is certainly rangier than either of its predecessors. Much of the band’s appeal and undoubtedly their strongest asset lies in the voice of Sally Ellyson, and both the a cappella version of traditional standard ‘All The Pretty Horses’ and their gorgeous cover of Tony Joe White’s ‘Rainy Night In Georgia’ wisely capitalise on this. What’s more, they showcase the very sort of song that Hem has made their signature; forlorn and longing, yet subtle and flowing, they start things off with vigour and promise.

But Hem don’t just dawdle along routes they’ve already travelled. To show they’ve been busy trying new things, they throw in some contemporary covers to keep the flow interesting and to showcase Ellyson’s wider range where a typical Hem song would keep it close. Nowhere is this more evident than in the acoustic rendition of Fountains Of Wayne’s ‘Radiation Vibe’. While theirs isn’t nearly as funky as the original, Hem gamely jam along, giving the song a little more depth and feeling than even Chris Collingwood could muster. The live tracks, too, shine brightly. Ellyson’s vocals soar above the music as it colours the gaps behind her, seemingly formed by alchemical reaction. The sound is full and resonant, losing little of the detail of their studio counterparts and proving that Hem are just as solid an outfit outside of the studio as they are magical within it.

However, the album doesn’t always gel as well as either Rabbit Songs or Eveningland. The addition of REM’s ‘South Central Rain’ works as an interesting interpretation of the band’s early classic, but for once the signature slo-core vocals detract from rather than add to the song. The same is true with many of the reworked originals. For instance, ‘Eveningland’ has swelled to twice its original length, and although it works on its own, the original did the job so succinctly that you can’t help but feel they are needlessly stretching out something that worked just fine the way it was. As the album goes on… and on… and on, for just under an hour, it’s hard to escape the notion that Hem are reaching for something that they never quite grasp, a feeling of earnestness that just isn’t resolved by the time it draws to close.

Perhaps No Word From Tom would have worked better as either an entire album of covers or an entire album of live performances. As it is, this will do more to entertain longtime fans than generate new ones, and the band just don’t play long enough with new ideas to break any ground. Nevertheless, they continue to grow and shine as a band on the up, and whilst this latest release may be quietly indulgent, who’s to say that a band as good as Hem don’t deserve that opportunity.

Loria Near
originally published March 19th, 2006 

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Kristin Hersh
1980 Forward: Live at the Scala ••••
November 21-22, 2005

[Note from the editor: When Wears The Trousers heard that the queen of alternately bruised and bruising alt-rock was playing back-to-back acoustic retrospectives of her solo work and time with the Throwing Muses, we practically fell over our dribbling selves to wangle us an invite. Then, having managed that, we scrapped like Bette and Joan over who would get to go and bask in the bliss of nostalgia. Being of a somewhat democratic, fair-minded persuasion, I opted not to pull rank but instead to offer up straws to my compadres, of which I predictably drew the shortest. Sigh. So here’s the lowdown from the lucky ones… nice guys finish last people, remember that!]

November 21, 2005

This first night of Kristin Hersh’s mini-residency at the Scala in aid of record label 4AD’s 25th birthday celebrations (dubbed ‘1980 Forward’) saw her revisiting the songs of the Throwing Muses, the band that made her name in the mid-1980s as lead singer, songwriter and crunchy guitarist. For us of a certain age, many remember the Muses very fondly, occupying a similar space to Sonic Youth, early REM and fellow 4ADers, the Pixies, and yet parading an unmuddied style of their own. Armed with a string of excellently angular and unsettling songs piloted by the many mercurial gifts of Miss Hersh, they gathered a substantial underground following, while never really crossing over in such grand style as some of their peers.

The Muses were also a troubled group, and while being flat broke and quarrelling for most of their existence undoubtedly spurred them to musical and lyrical heights, it cost them dearly their peace of mind. Certainly, Hersh’s mind is famously unpeaceful, her songwriting often serving to exorcise her vivid hallucinations, so it was not really clear just how happy she would be trotting out a whole night’s worth of old, and in some cases presumably painful, memories. It’s no surprise then that the Scala crowd are tentatively hopeful but entirely unsure of how the night would progress. Mostly in their late 20s and early 30s, they definitely aren’t looking to thrash about the way they first did to these songs, but then Hersh herself is a good bit older too.

After kicking off comfortably with ‘Hook In Her Head’ and ‘Teller’, the crowd start to warm up with ‘Rabbit’s Dying’. Hersh’s voice begins to open up, revealing the maturity acquired after two decades of uninhibited performance. From then on, she noticeably settles, introducing ‘Cottonmouth’ as a drunkenly overheard and furiously scribbled down conversation between two equally drunk sisters in a bar with Hersh’s own half-sister and bandmate Tanya Donelly. After banging out another couple (‘Hazing’ and ‘Run Letter’), she wearily declares “What a horrible trip down memory lane”. It’s a relieving, ice-breaking thing to say and she smiles, clearly enjoying herself despite (or even because of) the memories.

As things get increasingly comfortable, Hersh treats us a few more unhurried anecdotes. We learn that ‘Pearl’ is about her virtually blind, psoriasis-suffering childhood friend, Marie, who won the Presidential Fitness Award (introduced by Ronald “Ketchup is a vegetable” Reagan) for doggedly hanging onto a horizontal bar the longest. She says something nice about 4AD: (“Mmmmm, 4AD… yum”) and complains after ‘Drive’ that the songs drag on too much (“None of them end! I keep waiting for them to end!”). She also tells us how the band used to amuse themselves during the long overnight sessions recording 1990’s Hunkpapa album by betting on rat races in the alleyway under the studio. Apparently, Prince’s erstwhile head bimbo, Apollonia, had the requisite cash to record her ‘album’ one syllable at a time in the studio’s daylight hours. Then she spins/spits out fantastic versions of ‘Bea’, ‘Counting Backwards’ and ‘Delicate Cutters’ before going off stage to plenty of enthusiastic cheer.

And it’s not too long before she returns for a fantastic four-song encore, accompanied on strings by Martin and Joan McCarrick. Hersh then plays three tracks from the last Muses album Limbo, saying that the band should’ve been called ‘The Martin Show’ by that point (“…better name for a band too”). Her renditions of ‘White Bikini Sands’, ‘Limbo’ and ‘Serene’ each sound even better than the last. As a nice touch, she admits that ‘White Bikini Sands’, a hidden track on the album, is probably her favourite Muses track, partly because her father wrote it and (with a laugh) as it got her kicked out of the band.

Finally, she winds things down with ‘Hate My Way’, the crowd adoringly eating up the 19-year old classic. But before she does, she tells us that the song was inspired by a day when she was walking through the student-saturated city of Providence, Rhode Island, being handed fistfuls of angsty, overzealous leaflets. One of which, about blame and responsibility, was so passionately disjointed as to be barely coherent and struck an emotional chord.

Pete Morrow

November 22, 2005

Unless you’re Kristin Hersh herself, it’s unlikely that you’ll ever know whether choosing what to play from such a vast vault of riches would be a giant headache or simply a huge dose of self-affirmation. But first things first… Paula Frazer is a name I’ve seen bandied around with complimentary abandon in the music press for some time now, but I’ve never knowingly encountered her music before tonight’s support slot. Clearly, this is a very wrong thing. Throwing simpler folk shapes than those of Hersh’s tangled thickets, Frazer’s acoustic guitar pillows her quite extraordinary mahogany voice, permitting it the space to reach out and caress the room. Her set could have been a bit longer at a measly half an hour, but it was a suitably 4AD start to the evening, and one more convert to her estimable charms.

With Frazer’s stingy on-stage allowance emphasised by the between-set lull lasting longer than her performance, I join my fellow travellers for some general milling about. Eventually, Hersh appears stage left, her hair short and plastered to her head like a 1920s flapper or demure Helmut Newton girl, brandishing the obligatory acoustic and flanked by a cellist and a violinist; “The McCarricks!” are introduced with a smile and a glitter. She seems pretty happy.

She quickly launches into ‘Sno Cat’, which despite hardly being her jolliest song (apparently it’s about a row with her hubby) is certainly an appropriate start with its chilly cadences reminiscent of the season’s descent into winter. While the couples in the room hug tighter, the rest of us are left to find sanctuary in our pockets and memories. From that handsome, sombre start, Hersh takes us on a sublime ride through her solo career, jumping between her albums with glee. After a couple of years tourin’ ‘n’ shoutin’ with new band 50 Foot Wave, her voice – already never the most velveteen of instruments – is hoarser than ever, which works to great effect on more cathartic moments like ‘Your Dirty Answer’ and brings new textures to her softer material. ‘Costa Rica’ and ‘A Cuckoo’, especially, benefit from some new bruises.

Highlights? How about the aforementioned ‘Your Dirty Answer’, Kristin looking intense and haunted, eyes glittering like coals as she spits the words while strings caroused in the air around her? Or perhaps ‘Gazebo Tree’, which surely ranks as one of her most uncomplicatedly beautiful songs. She even forgets the words for a while, which I guess happens when you produce one or two new albums each year; “Too many songs…” she sighs, knowingly. She plays a wonderfully aquatic reading of ‘Listerine’ and a lovely version of ‘Hope’ before rambling through ‘The Letter’, despite unforgivingly branding it bad. A pretty straight version of ‘Me & My Charms’ ensues, but then it’s one of those songs that doesn’t need much improvement.

The latter half of the set is taken entirely from 1994’s Hips & Makers, and ends – inevitably – with the heavenly ‘Your Ghost’. Of course, it receives a rapturous reception, and Hersh interprets it almost joyfully. It’s a poignant reminder of bad times now past, with even the spectre of Michael Stipe thoroughly McCarrickised. Then, for those who missed last night’s Musesfest, she closes out with the triptych of ‘Delicate Cutters’, ‘Mania’ and ‘Hate My Way’ – each one as great as they’ve always been. For my money at least, Hersh is one of the most important songwriters of the last two decades and this was a wonderful, wonderful evening.

Adam Smith
originally published December 7th, 2005 

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Paris Hilton
Paris ••½
Heiress / Warner Bros.

Rather like its namesake, Paris is incredibly well groomed, smothered in lip gloss and the product of many highly-paid hands’ work. Should we have expected anything else? With her venture into music, Hilton is plowing into yet another area of the entertainment industry as part of her quest for world domination. The rather prolonged production period is a testament to the anxiety of Hilton and her people to branch off into a field which requires more than for her to simply be Paris Hilton. Is she pop? rock? hip hop? disco? – with the help of a crack team of big-name producers and writers (led by Scott Storch, producer to Beyoncé and Busta Rhymes), Hilton has lumped for all of the above, in moderation of course. She purrs coquettishly from one track to another, always the picture of composure – even when her band is rocking out, Hilton continues to be blissfully emotionless.

With only one song breaking the four-minute boundary, this record is a well-paced romp through Hilton’s universe. Here, she is every bit the pouty party girl who knows exactly what you’re thinking and doesn’t care, unless you happen to be a hot love prospect. The whole package is very slick until it comes unstuck in the flat lounge-style finale, an ill-advised cover of Rod Stewart’s ‘Do Ya Think I’m Sexy?’. Even so, it’s a pretty knowing conceit, full of canned saxophone and synth, soulless to the last.

Enjoyable as Paris may be, there remains a nagging feeling throughout that this could in fact be anyone else’s record, not helped by the rather open appropriation of other artists’ signature sounds. For instance, ‘Nothing In This World’ bears more than a passing hint of ‘Since U Been Gone’ and ‘Heartbeat’ is Cyndi Lauper’s ‘Time After Time’ updated for 2006, while ‘Turn You On’ makes for a less convincing ‘Maneater’. Hilton’s voice is pleasant enough, though not exactly expressive – she never sounds like she’s struggling but the vocals have clearly been heavily layered in order to give them power.

Ultimately, this record falters because it fails to truly convince. Hilton has nothing much to be embarrassed about and Paris is a successful party soundtrack for her sympathists, but never once does it take us beyond her two-dimensional public persona.

Ben Lumley
originally published August 30th, 2006

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HK119
HK119 ••••
One Little Indian

In comparison with its Nordic neighbours, Finland has been far better known for its classical endeavours than its out-and-out joyous pop. Aside from a few questionable rock exports like The Rasmus and Nightwish, the most successful Finnish music in the international arena has been limited to opera and the works of Jean Sibelius, whose enduring symphonies continue to be played at proms across the world. Given the huge amounts of government funding into music tuition for the youth, it seems strange that the country has yet to produce a significant pop crossover act, but perhaps they could never really compete with the likes of ABBA from next-door Sweden. As a half-Finn, I’ve often despaired about this, and most fellow Finns agree. How thoroughly refreshing, then, to discover a truly original and exciting artist originating from Finland in the form of Heidi Kilpelainen, or rather her alter ego, HK119.

Putting her MA in Fine Art from Central St. Martin’s College in London to excellent use, Kilpelainen has created an all-encompassing performance art persona in HK119, and she’s not shy about utilising the entire spectrum of the art world to get across her message. Not content with simply writing, recording and producing the album herself, she’s recorded her own surreal living-sculpture videos to accompany the songs and put together a dramatic stage act involving a catsuit and helium balloons, beguiling audiences with bizarre special effects. She’s a powerful Nordic force, a beautiful blonde Amazonian monolith, simultaneously furious and fixated with modern technology.

But what of the album? HK119 is packed full of songs that act as a series of short statements (most are less than three minutes long) on the modern human condition, each taking an element of post-millennial society and pushing it to the extreme. What if we never put down our mobile phones? What if everything we said could be censored? What if commercialism was so prevalent that all you cared about was buying and selling? HK119’s world is one in which people have ultimately sacrificed humanity for consumerism. It may seem ludicrous, and in a way it’s meant to be, but it’s not a completely alien concept, and given that she’s come from the country that innovated the mobile phone to the enormous bustling city of London, it’s not hard to understand Kilpelainen’s motivation for exploring these ideas.

The music itself is hard and rough; raw electronic beats are blended with rough industrial synths, samples and HK119’s soaring and demanding vocals. But most of all, it’s just great fun. HK119 may be best friends with Alison Goldfrapp, but her album is much more vibrant and challenging than the oddly dispiriting and bland Supernature. There’s also some inventive audience participation; not only is there a hidden track, ‘11th ID’, buried somewhere in the album just waiting to be found and remixed for a competition, but if you call up the number read out in first single ‘Pick Me Up’, you may be amused and bemused in equal measure. In fact, HK119 makes almost any music from the electronic genre seem weak and ineffective.

But comparing Kilpelainen’s creation to anyone else is difficult, by virtue of her sheer uniqueness. People have tried Grace Jones, or Ziggyera Bowie, but mostly because of her appearance and bizarre, slightly alien character. Also, Björk is reportedly a fan. As is often the case with artists of such originality, it only seems possible to liken her to others that are one-of-akind. HK119 is an artist for the future. A thrillingly vibrant masterstroke of artistry, and what’s more, she’s fun to boot. At last, we have a Finnish artist who’s a keeper. Heidi, pidän työstänne!

Bryn Williams
originally published February 6th, 2006 

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HK119
Live at Fortescue Avenue Art Gallery •••½
March 31st, 2006

After traipsing through the faintly depressing underbelly of East London, we arrived at the art gallery known as Fortescue Avenue. It wasn’t quite what I was expecting, being pretty much just a garage lock-up in an industrial back street. A man standing outside was handing out bottles of beer and plastic cups of lemonade and there were only about five other people there. Inside, the garage had been painted white, and hardboard squares and triangles had been set up in one corner, onto which the videos of Heidi Kilpelainen aka HK119 were being projected.

The videos themselves were highly entertaining, which was a good thing as we ended up watching them about twice on a loop while waiting for the main event. Each had its own distinct character and featured HK using everyday disposable objects (in keeping with the theme of her debut album) in a number of creative ways; for instance, wearing a sock and a slinky over her head for ‘In-Valid’ to highly disturbing effect, or wearing binbags round her shoulders and on her behind for ‘Friend For Dinner’, making her look vaguely canine in appearance. Clearly, the videos have been made on absolutely no budget at all, but they’re a damn sight more interesting and imaginative than many that are made with millions. What’s more is that they serve to flesh out Heidi’s songs, raising them up from one-dimensionality into living, breathing creatures.

Half an hour after the live performance was supposed to start, we were still waiting. The garage had filled up though, and it didn’t seem quite so awkward. What it had filled up with, however, was a sizeable throng of highly pretentious Hoxton types, wearing capes and berets and sporting strange facial hair. I wondered if these people fully appreciated the tongue-in-cheek silliness of HK119’s work, or whether they were taking it all rather too seriously. Finally there was movement, and HK119 appeared from behind the various polygons. She was dressed in her usual black catsuit, with black polystyrene triangles on her head, arm and leg. Bathed in a blue light and standing motionless on a block, one arm outstretched, she slipped into the opening number ‘Censor Me’. Rather unnervingly, she had painted open eyes on her firmly shut lids for that Mona Lisa staring effect. All suitably robotic and her performance was impeccable.

Shaking off the subdued beginning, HK picked up the pace with highly energetic renditions of debut single ‘Pick Me Up’ plus her ode to cannibalism ‘Friend For Dinner’ and the self-explanatory ‘Malfunction’. Bounding around the ‘stage’, she screeched, laughed maniacally and generally looked quite menacing, but ultimately utterly fabulous. Overall, it was an enjoyable and well-constructed performance. Needless to say, HK119 really deserves to be performing in better venues in the future!

Bryn Williams
originally published April 5th, 2006 

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Lauren Hoffman
Choreography •••
Fargo

When an artist announces that they are quitting the music business, it’s often wise to take a pinch of salt and throw it disbelievingly over all of their records. In reality, few stay gone for long. In Lauren Hoffman’s case, it has been a fairly respectable five years since her sparse and sensual sophomore album, From The Blue House, was released independently in the UK. After dropping out of a university degree in the autumn of 2002, a spontaneous trip to India set the wheels in motion for the follow-up, via a stint in her hometown rock band, The Lilas. Certainly, many of the songs here have been thoroughly road-tested in one form or another over the last two years, including the waltzing ‘Out Of The Sky, Into The Sea’, which was formerly the title track of The Lilas’s sole EP. It’s no surprise then that the album has a slightly worn-in feel. That’s not to say it’s all been done before, but Hoffman seems to have cultivated a middle ground between From The Blue House and her exceptional debut, Megiddo, and so Choreography perhaps lacks the element of surprise that both those records possessed.

Broken’ makes for a promising start; a seductive, moody undercurrent propels Hoffmann’s perfectly ice-cool vocal along a shimmering hummable melody. Equally suggestive is the largely acoustic, slow-burning ballad ‘As The Stars’, though it is warmer in tone and boasts a lovely piano part in the bridge. Although some of the rockier numbers such as ‘Crush’ and ‘Hiding In Plain Sight’ lack the necessary bite to really impress, ‘Solipsist’ benefits from a more aggressive feel and is the first of a four-song suite that shores up the record’s second half. ‘Another Song About The Darkness’ is an ideal showcase for Hoffman’s most lucid yet languorous vocal, which escalates as the song progresses towards its palpably melancholic conclusion.

Though Choreography has neither the freshness of Megiddo nor the cohesiveness of From The Blue House, many favourable constants remain – Hoffman’s tantalising vocals and salient attitude are stamped all over the record. Not a great leap forward then, but a diagonal sidestep it might well be worth you taking alongside her.

Alan Pedder
originally published September 4th, 2005 

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The Hot Puppies
Under The Crooked Moon ••••
Fierce Panda

After a few years paying their dues on the indie circuit, gently hyped Welsh quintet The Hot Puppies finally appear to have the literate, stylish pop thing down to the finest of arts on this, their debut album. But it’s not just the quality music you need to watch out for, there’s some tales to be told as well. For example, former single ‘Terry’ could have stepped right out of a rock ‘n’ roll movie; it’s sassy, classy and boasts a chorus that’s equal parts Pipettes and Patti Smith and pretty damn wonderful too. ‘The Bottled Ship Song’ is a woozy lullaby of the sort that Rilo Kiley specialise in, with a chorus that muses on life before relinquishing control and conceding that what’s in store is “anyone’s guess”.

Indeed, it’s anyone’s guess why some of these songs weren’t bigger hits when first released. Debut single ‘Green Eyeliner’ dates back a couple of years but casts its musical net even further, dragging into the present a keyboard motif that’s reminiscent of Inspiral Carpets as singer Becki Newman vamps it up as a painted temptress of the easily led. Recent single ‘The Girl Who Was Too Beautiful’ steps things up with beats right out of a 1970s disco and an uplifting pop tune set to lyrics that namecheck agony aunt / broadcaster Mariella Frostrup as a paragon of knowledge and relationship advice. It veers a little closer to adult-alternative pop than most other songs here but comes down on the right side of the fence in the end.

Under The Crooked Moon is full of nice little touches. For example, the youthful regret of ‘Bonnie & Me’ sees Newman’s passionate vocal neatly accentuated by Bert Wood’s drums and Beth Gibson’s wailing theremin, while ‘The Drowsing Nymph’ comes complete with a rockabilly rhythm, whipcracks and gunshots adding to the western feel. There’s more effervescent organ pop on ‘Love Or Trial’, some Sons & Daughters-esque art-rock on ‘Baptist Boy’ and a dose of lovely acoustics on the sweet and girly ‘Heartbreak Soup’.

There’s even room for a short cover of the Ink Spots / Ella Fitzgerald number ‘Into Each Life Some Rain Must Fall’, which is given a doo-wop duet makeover with Newman and Gibson cooing beautifully in unison. Best of all, however, is the delightful ‘Love In Practice, Not Theory’, which started rather inauspiciously as a B-side to ‘Terry’ but more than deserves its place on the album. It’s a smouldering ballad in which Newman emotively bemoans the standoffish attitude of her man, but when guitarist Luke Taylor chimes in to duet on the chorus, there’s a distinct suggestion that not all is quite as it first appears.

When indie pop this intelligent comes along it’s always a pleasant surprise and The Hot Puppies (who, incidentally, were named after a Dorothy Parker poem) have a good chance of making a real impression.

Russell Barker
originally published July 25th, 2006 

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Howling Bells
Howling Bells ••••
Bella Union

Who exactly are Howling Bells? Many a column inch has been dedicated to them but what are they really about? To put it simply, they’re a sexy, sultry Australian quartet who’ve come a long way to turn us all on with their strangely erotic slant on loneliness. Frontwoman Juanita Stein’s vocal delivery is firmly set to haunt mode whilst her brother Joel, bassist Brendan Picchio and drummer Glen Moule create enough dark atmospherics to keep things brooding along in the background. Opening with ‘The Bell Hit’, Howling Bells ease the listener in gently with a laid back, woozy Sunday morning tune that showcases perfectly their country-tinged melancholia. ‘Low Happening’ kicks the pace up a gear and shows the band at their sexiest – instantaneous, poppy, but with blackness at its heart.

Debut single ‘Wishing Stone’ is thrown in midway through the album; initially a rather sparse, cold and uninvolving tune, it soon grows into a coolly decadent, gloriously dark heartwarmer. And therein lies the oddest thing about this stunning record – though it lacks upbeat rhythms and golden sunshine hooks, it never feels too cold, empty or lonely. The influences at work here at times seem obvious – PJ Harvey and The Velvet Underground to name but two – but Howling Bells are far from derivative. They uniquely soundtrack a brooding urban wasteland, and whilst that may sound pretentious, the band have a truly unique quality that sparks off beautiful images in the listener’s mind, transporting them to a different world. Listen to this album with the lights off. Atmospheric doesn’t even come close to describing it.

Not to bring this review down with negatives, but in the interest of fairness, here they are. Occasionally, the songs are repetitive and with summer supposedly in full swing, this album is not one for the barbeque. At times you might be wishing for the album to pick up some kind of pace and songs like ‘Across The Avenue’ and ‘I’m Not Afraid’ are a little too sparse to strike a chord with the listener. These are, however, minor points that should not take away from what is still an astonishing record. Howling Bells are unique, they have an untouchable air of class – cool, calm and devastatingly sexy like a 1940s Hollywood actress. In a world of identikit bands, Howling Bells are emerging from a smoky corner with a look on their face saying “Come join us on the dark side, you might just find you like it”.

David Renshaw
originally published May 24th, 2006 

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Hayley Hutchinson
Independently Blue •••½ 
Gut

For all her roots in the best of Britishness, the musical landscape of Yorkshire lass Hayley Hutchinson’s debut album is less the hills and dales of North England than the prairies of North America. Hailing from an established musical lineage (her dad was instrumental in David Bowie’s early success), Hutchinson clearly knows where a smidgen of ambition can take you. Though self-financed and locally recorded, Independently Blue nevertheless belies its humble origins, turning the financial limitations of the project into a solid gold advantage. Mostly recorded live in the studio by Hutchinson and her band’s core members (which include Chris Helme and Stuart Fletcher of The Seahorses – John Squire’s post-Stone Roses also-rans – and Shed Seven’s Alan Leach and Fraser Smith), the result is a cohesive little package boasting real energy. Certainly, it’s no cheap imitation.

Or is it? Logically, Independently Blue ought to be filed under D for derivative since, stylistically at least, it effortlessly cribs from the back catalogues of Sheryl Crow and Nanci Griffith. In the end though, it’s too strong an album to be so easily dismissed, and richly deserves its four-star rating. Within just a few perfunctory listens, Hutchinson’s strong writing and excellent vocal style – pure but blessed with a richness and bluesy edge that’s easy on the ear – commands the listener’s attention. First single, ‘Here’s The Love’, is a joyful slice of Crow-esque pop in which keyboard and sparse but well-utilised electric guitar motifs weave a likeable confection around an acoustic centre and country-tinged harmonies.

Other songs on the album find Hutchinson in Globe Sessions-style open-tuning mode, complete with droning strings and bluesy slide guitar. Elsewhere, ‘Climb Through’ could be a slightly updated outtake from one of Nanci Griffith’s early MCA albums, with its gentle capo’d acoustics and high harmony singing. Even the cello part echoes John Catching’s playing on some of Griffith’s best work, while the bluegrass-tinged title track also bears the Texan’s influence. ‘Minor Key’ shifts things a little more in the direction of Griffith’s first ‘pop’ album, Storms, with Telecaster licks very reminiscent of guitar supremo Jerry Donahue.

Ironically, the most problematic song on the album is also one of the strongest. ‘Deadman’, which was released as a download-only single in December 2005, is strikingly similar to Sheryl Crow’s massive chart breakthrough hit, ‘All I Wanna Do’. The rhythms, tone, handclaps, guitar stabs and other ornamentation are so close it’s almost spooky. Normally, this would sound the copycat death knell to a song, but ‘Deadman’ is just too darned strong. Indeed, all things considered, Independently Blue is a statement of intent that richly deserves the plaudits it has thus far gained, and is particularly excellent for a debut. If Hutchinson can synthesise her influences into a more individual signature on future albums, who knows, she could be the one to show Nashville’s best how it really should be done.

Trevor Raggatt
originally published January 21st, 2006 

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Hayley Hutchinson / Vita Ross / Jamie Woon
Whitechapel Art Gallery •••
August 25th, 2006

Upon arrival at the Whitechapel Art Gallery, it was rapidly apparent that it wasn’t an ideal concert venue. Taking over the in-house café for the evening, essentially by cramming a bunch of musos and attendant techie gubbins up against one wall, ensured that little room was left for an audience and poor sightlines were guaranteed. The supporting acts didn’t always engender hope either. On first was Jamie Woon who made up for a slightly aggravating guitar style (more finger-flicking than finger-picking) by the quality of his songs and his beautiful voice. A stunning a cappella version of ‘When Doves Cry’ managed to wring some much needed originality out of a, now almost obligatory, loop pedal (Ms Tunstall, I still love ‘Black Horse & The Cherry Tree’ but you’ve got a lot to answer for lady). Spirits soon flagged, however, when Vita Ross could barely scrape together an errant stab at adequate sub-Blondie fare. Not good. 

Fortunately, things looked up as John Hutchinson, former Spider From Mars and proud father of the main event took to the ‘stage’. He treated the crowd to some great ragtime and blues guitar interspersed with anecdotes of a life on the road and recent tales of playing jazz in the Balkans. Leaving the audience alternatively in awe and in stitches, he invited his daughter to the stage and performed the sterling role of sideman. It seems that talent really does run in families, as anyone who has caught Hutchinson Jr live or heard her debut album, Independently Blue, is likely to agree. As the family group sat to run through the set the lack of lighting and poor venue layout reared its ugly head again as, to all intents and purposes, they vanished into the half-light. Fortunately there were no such problems with the sound, which carried the music forth loud and clear.

It was at this point Hayley dropped a bombshell – for her father at least – announcing that, rather than the pre-planned setlist, she was going to try out some new songs and sophomore album works in progress. Some familiar songs were scattered through the set to keep the fans happy – the Nanci Griffith-esque ‘Independently Blue’, ‘Hands’ and ‘Wicked Thoughts’, with its droning, down-tuned feel and exquisitely bluesy slide riffs. The new songs, too, were uniformly strong. Whilst some suggested a stylistic continuity with Independently Blue, ranging from light country pop and folkabilly to Sheryl Crow-style ballad rock, others seemed to be going in a bluesier direction.

Of course, it’s difficult to know whether this signals a definite shift or merely reflects the particular mix of playing styles present on the night. Either way, the strength of both the songs and the performance bodes well for album number two and for those who catch Hayley as she supports Eric Bibb on tour around the UK this autumn.

Trevor Raggatt 
originally published October 5th, 2006

 

 



2005/06 reviews dump: m

The following reviews were all published on our old website between May 2005 and December 2006.
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Kirsty MacColl
From Croydon To Cuba: An Anthology ••••
EMI

It’s safe to say that listening to this 3CD retrospective compilation of Kirsty MacColl’s work was always going to be a bittersweet experience. Five years on from her premature death in a speedboat accident in Mexico at the age of 41, it seems she is still recognised more for her duet with The Pogues on the festive staple ‘Fairytale Of New York’ than for her own well-observed pop songs about chip shop romances and cowardly Lotharios. This fairly exhaustive collection sets about trying to rectify that sorry situation, serving up 65 songs worth of concrete proof to fans and non-fans alike that MacColl’s way with a tune was of a quality at least the equal of her more successful peers (from Eddi Reader and Alison Moyet to Morrissey and Johnny Marr via Van Morrison and Billy Bragg), all of whom have expressed an immense love and respect for her music and her inimitable spirit.

MacColl’s songs primarily dealt in the currency of romantic love, but always from the perspective of a woman under no illusions. As everything here is chronologically sequenced, From Croydon To Cuba goes some way to reconciling the wide-eyed girlish warbler on her 1979 debut single, ‘They Don’t Know’, with the older and wiser family woman of later years. And it doesn’t take long for her talent to shine. Her 1984 cover of Billy Bragg’s superb ‘A New England’ stands out for its bracing honesty and freshness, but it’s the reassuring tone of that single’s original B-side, ‘Patrick’, a lovely little ditty about a young Cork-born fella finding his feet in London, that tugs insistently at your heartstrings.

The country swagger of ‘Don’t Come The Cowboy With Me Sonny Jim!’ is executed in typical MacCollian fashion, mixing laugh out loud lyrical flair with a serious undertow, always ready to fall in love but never really expecting it to work. The second disc is notable for the single ‘Free World’ and her version of The Kinks’ ‘Days’, both lifted from her Steve Lillywhite-produced 1989 album, Kite. But it’s the captivatingly sad ‘Dear John’, co-written with Mark Nevin from Fairground Attraction, that really encapsulates MacColl’s unique gift for effortlessly balancing the personal with the universal without a trace of cloying sentimentality.

While Kirsty MacColl never commanded the kind of commercial respect that her music deserved, her fiercely loyal fans have always maintained that her songwriting never wavered in its splendidly literate qualities, flinching not at the Latin American rhythms that flavoured her later songs and critically acclaimed final album, Tropical Brainstorm. From Croydon To Cuba is a magnificent and towering tribute to one of the warmest, funniest and most skilful songwriters these isles have produced in the past twenty years. For those who prefer to digest an album in just one sitting, a slenderer single-disc collection, The Best Of Kirsty MacColl, is also available, but those with any more than a passing interest should indulge themselves with this.

Jane Gillow
originally published on September 5th, 2005

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Madonna
Confessions On A Dancefloor ••••
Maverick

Watching our lady Madge recently has been a somewhat bipolar experience. For a woman we’ve all grown up thinking was the spunkiest, most confrontational star this side of Grace Jones, she can appear frighteningly fragile in interviews. The less-than-impartial video diary ‘I’m Going To Tell You A Secret’ would have you believe the opposite, but one is still left with the nagging feeling that for the first time in long time, Madonna wants our approval. It’s hard to use the word ‘reinvention’ here without feeling faintly nauseous. Every new Immac blade is a reinvention chez Ritchie. It’s a shame because Confessions On A Dancefloor marks her biggest change in direction since of Ray Of Light, and is much welcomed. The last two stocking-fillers were peppered with great tracks but leadened by duds and a lack of consistency. Here, we have 56 minutes of pure dance. Dance dance dance. Out go the ballads and in comes the lycra. A coherent album – my oh my!

As a dance album it is quite something. Presumptuous to the point of having a separate, mixey-mixey single-track version, Confessions… goes for broke on the stomper ticket. Mixing early Eighties disco, light electro (the “electroclash is passé” memo clearly hit her desk), outlandishly catchy riffs and choruses, the album triumphs on both tunes and production. ‘Get Together’ is smoother than Rocco’s bottom, ‘How High’ is the Madonna vocoder track that works, ‘Sorry’ is more infectious than Thailand’s pigeon mating season and ‘I Love New York’ boasts a riff so acutely rambunctious that Rachel Stevens has all but given up the game and gone home. And that’s before we even get to the much-publicised samples. Michael Jackson and Donna Summer both feature on records that don’t get them into trouble for the first time in years, while ABBA give only their second ever nod of consent for a sample (although the first time was for a Fugees B-side, so perhaps one just has to catch Björn at the right moment). What could have looked like creative kidnapping actually melds effortlessly into the mix, joining the danceathon with a cheeky smile. This is an album that seriously doesn’t take itself seriously, you see.

And then the comedown. Like all good Chinese meals and gin-fuelled one-night stands, one wakes up the next morning with a feeling of mild dissatisfaction. Questions start to creep in: the Madonna on Confessions… is nowhere near the London-based, tweed-wearing, pheasant-murdering, homely gal presented to us in repetitive media coverage. Does she still hop down clubs and prance around on dance machines? Really? Her voice is not at its strongest either, and her over-reliance on computer trickery gives the album an unfortunate homogenous slant. The paradox being that, while it sounds like almost anyone could be singing, no-one else has the nous to pull this album off in the first place.

The energy behind Confessions… brushes aside the doubts in a rapturous, arm-swinging boogie… at least for now. She may be trying too hard, but that still makes for a more satisfying listen than most. If this is Madonna’s last boogie, it would be churlish to sit on the sidelines.

Ian Buchan
originally published on December 5th, 2005 

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Madonna
I’m Going To Tell You A Secret ••
Warner Bros.

“I have a cage / it’s called the stage / when I’m let out, I run about / and sing and dance and sweat and yell / I have so many tales to tell.”

Yep, Madonna has decided to share with us her latest poetic exploits. One can only speculate on why nobody stopped her. Perhaps it was yet another attempt to portray a sense of edginess and spontaneity, and once again that’s probably the biggest problem. This is her second behind-the-tour documentary so you might have thought she’d know by now that grainy film stock and showy lenses don’t really fool anyone into thinking that they’re getting real insight.

Covering her 2004 Reinvention tour, ‘I’m Going To Tell You A Secret’ is not actually a documentary in so far as Madonna’s editorial control ensures that there is nothing shown that falls outside of her patented spiritual mum persona. So instead of getting moments of her infamous stroppage we’re dished up yet more supposed ‘edginess’ rehearsed to within an inch of its life. Madonna talks about being caked in sweat! Madonna’s going to the loo! Madonna’s costume smells! This is the story of life on the road, edited and acutely contrived for your fanboy/girl watching pleasure. Well, you didn’t want warts, did you?

There is certainly a message amidst the mediocrity, though. You almost want to give the lass a break after the over-nauseous rabbiting on about her religious choices in the press. Surely she’s not going to try and convert us? Actually, yes, she is. Bring forth ‘teacher’ Eitan to share vague spiritual truths; observe how she reads the Kabbalah text Zohar in bed; and so on. You can prove anything with platitudes: “I always thought it was my job to wake people up,” she muses, “but it’s not enough to wake them up. You have to give them direction.” Blimey, stop the presses!

But it doesn’t stop there, oh no. See the montages of war-torn children from across the ages, set to thumping dance beats and overlaid with cod-religious pronouncements. By the time Michael Moore comes on screen to sing her praises, you just might want to throw your TV out the window. On the plus side, we’re offered pleasing insights into family life – see Daddy Ciccone in his vineyard and a neat pay-off to ‘In Bed With’s scenes of his disgust at her live show. The Ciccone children, too, are surprisingly unprecocious, frolicking around with only mild hints of primadonna antics to come, while Guy Ritchie comes across in a peculiar manner; impish and playful one moment, a walking stereotype the next. All Cockney men have lock-ins at their local so they can whip out a guitar and chant folk songs? You heard it here first people.

But what of the music, for some the preferred occupation of Madonna? We’re shown nattily-edited performances that prove the stage is where she still knows her stuff. ‘Like A Prayer’ is updated to an electro stomper, ‘Holiday’ rocks the house and ‘Oh Father’ ratchets up the teariness mechanically. Duff single ‘American Life’ comes off worst with a dance routine that’s more reminiscent of ‘Springtime For Hitler’ than anything remotely worthwhile. Think skimpily dressed marines and fauxplosions with a backdrop of real war footage. Even so, why anyone would want to listen to these performances without the aid of visuals is a cause for concern; the bonus CD may be a smart commercial move but, artistically, it’s an absolute dud.

Oh well, it could be worse – it could be Geri Halliwell. Madonna is no world thinker, but her explorations into personal enlightenment are much less crass than you might imagine. She does at least have the sense to show us the universal side of the message, keeping the brush strokes nice and broad. This is not a documentary. It’s a two-hour long coffee table book. About the only true insight one can newly glean is that she’s clearly witnessed enough nightclubs at closing time playing ‘Come On Eileen’ to know how to shift the punters – her attempt to finish with John Lennon’s ‘Imagine’ had me reaching for the stop button with alacrity.

Ian Buchan
originally published on June 24th, 2006 

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Magenta
Home •••½
F2 Music

Home is a new concept album by well-regarded Welsh progressive rock band, Magenta…but wait, don’t stop reading there. Fair enough, prog rock as a genre is hard to mention without some serious sniggering at the back of the classroom. However, if the ’70s excesses of bands like Yes and Emerson, Lake & Palmer got prog labelled as music by rock dinosaurs then modern prog, as delivered by the likes of Magenta and Spock’s Beard (…yes, I know, just let it slide) is proof of evolution. Prog in 2006 may still be a well-defined species, but its major proponents thankfully tend to be more velociraptor than brontosaurus.

Lecture over, let’s get down to the music. Home follows the emotional journey of a woman leaving 1970s Liverpool to ‘find herself’ in the States, through to the point where she finally realises that maybe home really is where the heart is. The trick with projects like this is to be disciplined when it comes to self-editing, and the album certainly benefits from condensing its ideas onto a single disc – avoiding flabbiness but still allowing room for flashes of virtuosity. It’s a hurdle at which others have tumbled by thinly spreading a single album’s worth of material across two discs (for example, Spock’s Beard’s 2002 album Snow). Home, on the other hand works well as both a concept album and a simple collection of songs.

Magenta, as a band, is the brainchild of multi-instrumentalist Rob Reed who, with his brother Steve, pens the songs. Central to their success, however, are the excellent vocals of Christina Booth. Her rich, pure voice forms the emotional core that carries the listener through our heroine’s adventures. Of course, it helps that Home is chock full of strong songs with great melodies and lean but complex structures. Where the obligatory prog virtuosity is allocated space, it’s admirably delivered with restraint. In keeping with the story’s era, references to classic prog rock abound – a dash of Steve Howe guitar here, a Genesis keyboard sound there, elsewhere some Oldfield, Floyd or Supertramp textures. But rather than suggesting a lack or original thought or derivative tendencies, the songs evoke a strong mood, keeping within prog’s strict, accepted frameworks.

Overall, Home is a worthy album and it’s no surprise that Magenta have been consistently honoured in the Classic Rock Society’s annual awards, ambassadors as they are for a musical genre that’s shamefully overlooked in the UK. So if you’re brave enough to sample your rock within a sweeping, symphonic landscape and set your preconceptions aside, this album is well worth seeking out. Those of a more progtastic bent will relish the special edition’s bonus disc, which features the more unashamedly progressive ‘New York Suite’ following our heroine’s adventures in the Big Apple.

Trevor Raggatt 
originally published September 20th, 2006

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The Magic Numbers
The Magic Numbers •••½
Heavenly

De La Soul once opined that “Three is the magic number”, but London-based quartet The Magic Numbers have discovered a different equation. While the folklore origins of many bands may be a shared pint in the art college bar, or an answered ad in the music press, the formation of The Magic Numbers was a homegrown affair. Trinidad-born siblings Romeo and Michele Stodart spent their formative years in New York City before their family relocated to London, bringing with them the sunshine of America’s East Coast. There, they quickly made friends with new neighbours Angela and Sean Gannon, and the four gelled over their collective love of music.

First puncturing the public consciousness when they guested on last year’s Chemical Brothers album Push The Button, The Magic Numbers sold out the infamous Kentish Town Forum by word-of-mouth alone. A perfect antidote to the introspective U2-isms of Coldplay, the band truly shone at a succession of UK festivals, radiating their infectious guitar-pop across waves of would-be converts. Their festival-stealing sets have certainly paid off, as initial sales of their eponymous debut album have shifted over 100,000 units to date and bagged them a Mercury Music Prize nomination. Live favourite ‘Forever Lost’ loses none of its appeal on record with it’s a cappella break inducing much hand-clapping and foot-tapping. Follow-up single ‘Love Me Like You’ is a joyful ride of a song, fuelled by jangly guitars, melodic harmonies and a soulful pulse of a bass line that justifies their recent support slot for resurrected pop-genius, Brian Wilson.

Saying that The Magic Numbers is a ‘pleasant’ listen does not mean that the band is walking firmly down the middle of the road. None of their voices are stretched by unnecessary affectations and the female vocals complement the delicately pitched lead of hirsute frontman, Romeo. Lyrically, the theme of lost or failed love runs through the album, such as in the less-than-obliquely titled ‘Love’s A Game’ where Romeo sings, “love is just a game/ broken all the same/and I will get over you”, which has already been mooted by Noel Gallagher as a “motown classic”. Despite the clichés and couplets, the band are unashamedly pop-wise and lines that would otherwise sound overwrought are treated here with the gentlest of hands, crafted with a transparent sincerity. The album’s emotional heart is exposed on ‘I See You, You See Me’ which brings Angela out from the background tapestry and it is a shame that more tracks do not exploit her fragile vocals that recall US songstress Emmylou Harris.

With their long hair and airtight harmonies, early comparisons with The Mamas and The Papas were inevitable but there are plenty more influences here, from The Lovin’ Spoonful to Nick Drake; however, co-producer Romeo ensures that the record maintains a contemporary edge, rather than lapsing into a cynical exercise in retrospection. If the reference points are obvious, then so is the appeal of this album, and when you get audio thrills like this, it’s as easy as two plus two.

Stephen Collings
originally published on September 4th, 2005

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Magneta Lane
Dancing With Daggers ••½ 
Paperbag

Formed in 2003, Magneta Lane are a Canadian power-pop trio featuring French, Lexi and Nadia in the classic combination of bass, drums and vocals/guitar, respectively. Having finally issued their debut EP, The Constant Lover, this side of the pond last December, there couldn’t be a better time to capitalise on the Canadian-friendly musical climate. This debut full-length apparently takes its inspiration from the angel and devil that sit astride each of our shoulders; thus, sinful rock and saintly melodies co-exist for the delectation of those enjoying the long dark teatime of their souls.

Unfortunately, any hopes of something special are fairly swiftly dashed. Don’t get me wrong; it’s a decent album in itself, just not one that lives up to its twin muses. A more accurate description would be Blondie meets The Strokes. There’s Debbie Harry’s archness and glacial cool, her band’s effortless pop tunes and style. From Julian Casablancas and co., the girls have duly noted how to preserve the rougher edges of their sound to give the music a bit of grit and spike. However, like recent albums from both these bands, the main problem here is a sorry lack of variety. If an album has a constant feel, it also needs to be constantly brilliant. Dancing With Daggers isn’t; it’s good, but your attention may well waver after just five songs, as if you’ve heard all you needed to hear.

It doesn’t help that this kind of thing has been done before, and rather better at that, by bands like The Duke Spirit; Nadia may have a mighty fine voice but she’s no Leila Moss. Dancing With Daggers would have been more digestible were it split down the middle and released as two EPs, tempting the palate not dulling it with overkill of a single ingredient. If Magneta Lane learn to hide their flaws much more effectively, the next course might go down a treat.

Russell Barker
originally published on June 24th, 2006 

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Ari Alexander Ergis Magnússon
Screaming Masterpiece •••
Palomar Pictures

Surely the most ambitious film title of the year, ‘Screaming Masterpiece’ is a flag-waving celebration of the contemporary Icelandic music scene, and an attempt to answer its own self-gratifying, singular question – why have so many of Iceland’s modest population (roughly 600,000) achieved international recognition as musicians whilst maintaining a keen sense of national identity? What is it about this hostile environment that inspires such transgressive musical continents, these tectonic architectures finding homes in discerning collections worldwide?

Armed with extensive concert footage, archives, pop promos and interviews, director Ari Alexander Ergis Magnússon maintains a passive presence as he presents us with a quick-fire collection of artists, from native folk singers and instrumentalists like Slow Blow, via rappers Quarashi, to successful sonic pioneers like Múm and Sigur Rós. However, the film’s modest box office potential lies with the singer and actress Björk, who despite global success, has continued to source inspiration from her mother country, sampling in her own words, Iceland’s “emotional landscape”.

From the opening credits, awash with glacial hues, the film celebrates the marriage between traditional and modern music, with a folk song segueing into a cacophony of riotous punk. Whilst many of the smaller (and unpronounceable) bands have yet to be heard outside the barren, blackened shores of their homeland, the film allows them equal space alongside the more exportable talents, and Magnússon seems keen to indulge the depths of obscurity, including pagan folk singers and xylophones made of flint.

For the uninitiated, any sense of chronology is belatedly provided halfway through the film, perhaps an attempt to reflect the free-flowing nature of its subject. Drawing upon 23-year old footage from Fridrik Thór Fridriksson’s ‘Rock In Reykjavik (Rokk í Reykjavik)’, which features a teenage Björk in punk collective Tappi Tíkarass, Magnússon traces how the end of Iceland’s relatively recent colonialism spurred a wave of creative nationalism, with Björk explaining, “When my generation came along we started to ask ourselves what it meant to be Icelandic and how to be proud of it instead of feeling guilty all the time.”

Set adrift both culturally and geographically from mainland Europe, there is reason enough behind the sense of communal isolation that invites comparison with fertile musical centres like Manchester or Detroit. However, those musical cities thrived in spite of adversity, where it is evident here that the Icelandic government, heads of religion and affluent economy all actively foster artistic expression and adolescent ambition, including a teenage punk band Nilfisk, who feature here opening for US rockers Foo Fighters after a chance meeting.

While the layering of scenic snowdrifts and cavernous vistas may leave you feeling a little cold, the concert performances provide plenty of thrills and chills, and one of the film’s greatest assets is the live sound mix, literally booming from the Dolby speakers. From the ethereal wailing of Sigur Rós to Björk, whose powerful vocals seem projected by some innate force, all the artists share a raw energy and desire to embrace new technologies and styles while remaining true to their folk heritage, which perhaps best defines the Icelandic ‘sound’.

In the end, despite an admirable sense of almost bohemian idealism, ‘Screaming Masterpiece’ feels like something of an iceberg, its hidden depths never quite surfacing. Even at a brief 87 minutes, the continuous stream of artists, bands and collectives is an exhausting affair and the film ultimately falls short in fully addressing its proposition. One suspects that the more interesting points about cultural colonialism, environment, religion and heritage are lost amid the attention-deficit editing.

Even if the film does feel like Michael Winterbottom’s own flag-waving ‘9 Songs’ without the sex, for those who already have an interest in the bands on display here, this is a great chance to catch them sounding never better, and perhaps discover some new music to add to your iPod.

Stephen Collings
originally published on January 21st, 2006 

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James Mangold
Walk The Line ••••
Palomar Pictures

It doesn’t take a genius to figure out that Johnny Cash falls rather a long way outside the Wears The Trousers remit, but, at the risk of reviving a terrible cliché, behind every good man… well, you get the idea. So while we await the transformation of Mary J Blige as Nina Simone, we’ve got front row seats to director James Mangold’s affectionate Cash biopic, ‘Walk The Line’.

Like last year’s award-grabbing ‘Ray’, the film economically sketches Cash’s tragic Arkansas childhood and his sad estrangement from a father who blamed him for the death of his elder sibling in a rather grisly sawmill accident. After first picking up a guitar during a brief stint in the forces, the young Cash (played by Joaquin Phoenix) returns home to marry his sweetheart Vivian (Ginnifer Goodwin), but soon discovers that doorto-door sales is not exactly his forte. Faced with rent and ever-mounting bills, Cash swiftly finds himself at the doorstep of Sam Phillips’s Sun Studios in Memphis. Driven by his distinctive freight-train chords, Cash’s tales of hard luck and losers are soon blazing a trail up the charts. At the epicentre of rock ‘n’ roll’s adolescence, he’s caught up in a new world of temptation, touring alongside the young Elvis (Tyler Hilton), Jerry Lee Lewis (Waylon Malloy Payne) and Roy Orbison (Jonathan Rice), and soon develops a dependency on amphetamines years before they would become rock cliché.

And this is where we come in, for Cash’s other primary problem is his attraction to feisty songstress June Carter (Reese Witherspoon), and from the moment she gets her dress caught in his guitar strap, there’s an immediate connection. Carter’s apple pie affability proves to be the perfect foil to Cash’s introspective darkness, but despite one night of unrestrained passion, their guiding Christian background forbids their adulterous union. Victims of their circumstance, Cash penned the eponymous ‘Walk The Line’ as an assertion of marital fidelity, while Carter composed the equally classic ‘Ring Of Fire’ to express the pain of her forbidden love.

Certainly it’s their abiding attraction that provides the film’s true heart, and both Phoenix and Witherspoon were nominated for top Oscar honours in recognition of these career-defining performances. The film is no slouch either when it comes to the music, and the success of any musical biopic surely rests largely on the songs themselves. Unlike Jamie Foxx’s Ray or Val Kilmer’s Jim Morrison, who were rife with affectations, Phoenix’s portrayal of Cash’s restrained primal energy transcends a ‘Stars In Their Eyes’-type impersonation with a performance that appears naturally spontaneous rather than studied. Hunching his shoulders and aiming his guitar like a machine gun across the audience, Phoenix’s pitch-perfect live vocals, specifically in the Folsom Prison sequences, are testament to the work of music producer T Bone Burnett, whose score nicely compliments Cash’s musical oeuvre.

Witherspoon is just as convincing, with her sweet, affecting trill brimming with the confidence needed to play the character of June, whose life on the stage started as a child with The Carter Family. The inspired casting of established recording artists in supporting roles also lends a refreshing authenticity to the rich musical tapestry. In her first feature film, rock and country artist Shelby Lynne plays Carrie, the matriarch of the Cash family, whose unconditional love for her son provides the emotional balance to her husband’s toughness. A long-time admirer of Cash’s music, Lynne wrote the song ‘Johnny Met June’ on the day that he died in 2003, and while she may have been cast for her voice here, her acting skills match those around her.

More than just another exercise in Hollywood myth making, ‘Walk The Line’ actually began as a collaborative effort with the original Man In Black himself until his death. Based on autobiographies and extensive interviews, Mangold’s love for his subject is evident throughout but from the telling title in, the film plays it straight, and every significant moment in Cash’s biography cues another famous composition. For all of Cash’s ragged edges, the chronological narrative arc is too neat and could have benefited from a more oblique treatment of rock star mythology, like Gus Van Sant’s angular approach to Kurt Cobain’s untimely demise in ‘Last Days’. However, this is a minor distraction. The film starts, and ends, in 1968 with Cash’s infamous Folsom Prison concert that has become part of rock ‘n’ roll folklore. As a man who had cultivated the image of the incarcerated rebel, Cash may have lived on the right side of the prison walls, but after years of emotional imprisonment to drugs and past demons, this storming finale also marks the end of his own personal redemption. More than just a cinematic eulogy, Cash’s musical legacy is cherished by all involved in this film, and although it never fully jumps the hurdles of rock biopic cliché, the Man In Black’s enduring everyman appeal on record positively crackles on screen.

Stephen Collings
originally published on February 6th, 2006  

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Aimee Mann
The Forgotten Arm ••••
SuperEgo/V2

Somewhat fittingly for an artist who famously soundtracked a movie in reverse – Paul Thomas Anderson’s multi Oscar-nominated ‘Magnolia’ was based on her songs, not the other way around – Aimee Mann’s latest endeavour is a vibrant and fully realised sonic novel in a similar vein to Tori Amos’ nomadic narrative Scarlet’s Walk. While the latter was an intimate love/hate letter to a post-9/11 America, The Forgotten Arm has a far narrower focus, chronicling as it does the oscillatory relationship of Caroline (a seemingly aimless victim of circumstance) and John (a down-and-out boxer and Vietnam war veteran). Both journeys, however, happen by the US state of Virginia.

Indeed, Mann’s story begins there, on the midway of the VA State Fair, where Caroline in her reminiscence is working as an attendant. The two ignite a spark in one another and head for the border in an old Cadillac to escape the humdrum and hassle of small-town life; however, all is not well. John’s experiences have left him a hard-drinking, drug-addicted gambler whose luck is cooling faster than either can fathom. As the Ronseal-style title suggests, ‘Goodbye Caroline’ sees a parting of the ways. Having lost every asset but the car, John heads north to San Rafael to get himself clean and earn some quick money. Inevitably, nothing’s ever so simple and ‘Going Through The Motions’ is a peek into the mind of Caroline as she realises the effort is a certainty to fail.

John is by far the better-sketched character and his sad and sorry situation is skilfully drawn out over a four-song suite beginning with the foggy ‘I Can’t Get My Head Around It’ and culminates in the grimy hotel room of ‘Little Bombs’ in which he realises that he may never recover. The highlight of the album, however, comes with Caroline’s dejected throwing in of the towel, a handsomely understated ballad fantastically titled ‘That’s How I Knew This Story Would Break My Heart’. In what is supposed to be their final meeting, the also rather self-explanatory ‘I Can’t Help You Anymore’ kicks off the regret in a rather unremarkable fashion, but the lovely piano-led ‘I Was Thinking I Could Clean Up For Christmas’ offers one last hope of salvation. Lyrically, it’s simply gold standard Aimee Mann – “I was thinking I could clean up for Christmas and then, baby, I’m done, one less fucker trying to get in the business of the prodigal son” – and the melody here is one of the album’s more memorable moments.

After all, therein lies one of the pitfalls of the concept album as a genre. When the narrative takes such precedence, the music can often fall by the wayside as a secondary concern. Not so with The Forgotten Arm. In fact, it boasts some of the most muscular music of Mann’s solo career to date. Recorded almost entirely live by producer Joe Henry, it’s a marvel that the mix is so refreshingly roomy. By adopting heavy doses of stereo separation, the production breathes with a rare and cinematic verve. Guitarists Jeff Trott and Julian Coryell turn in a few solos that never feel overcooked, and together with drummers Victor Indrizzo and Jay Bellarose and bassist Paul Bryan, they consistently add a 1970s flavour without overwhelming the broth.

There are some who will think this is Mann by numbers – more disaffected, drugged-out also-rans holding onto their last scraps of dignity – but this is a delicately nuanced side to the singer that’s both new and impressive. She has always excelled at the role of coroner, picking over the carcasses of long-dead love affairs, extracting the evidence and leaving her lyric sheets dangling from their toes. Within the central conceit of the concept, Mann has allowed herself the luxury of a more detailed analysis, and while this at first may render some of the songs seemingly superfluous (and a couple are a little samey), repeated listens peel back ever more layers. Such lack of immediacy was also evident on her previous release, Lost In Space, though this also rewarded the persistent listener with greater depth than the surface sheen suggested.

In boxing, the ‘forgotten arm’ refers to a decoy sparring manoeuvre in which one arm is deliberately underused until the sudden strike for a KO. In something of a departure for Mann, it is hope that delivers the sucker punch, the final blow of the twelfth round. In a perhaps unexpected reprieve, Mann gifts her creations a hard-won bittersweet compassion in which they realise that in a world where so many dumb things are said in haste and countless things go maddeningly unuttered, sometimes, just sometimes, a simple “you’re beautiful” can tear down the fortresses of doubt and permit that longed-for fresh start.

Alan Pedder
originally published on June 27th, 2005 

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Aimee Mann
Live At St. Ann’s Warehouse •••
SuperEgo

As a self-confessed “classic, nitpicky Virgo”, it’s hard to imagine Aimee Mann ever sitting down to watch this resolutely no frills live document of last summer’s three-night residency at Brooklyn’s St. Ann’s Warehouse. Not that it’s in any way bad, it’s just that she seemed so acutely disengaged from the experience the first time, not necessarily vocally (although her normally warm and reedy vocals are a little thin), but in an emotional sense.

Maybe it’s just my Britishness showing, but witnessing Mann’s pained and stilted stage banter made even my own cheeks flush. With her delivery so wry, it’s difficult to distinguish between deadpan and robotic. She’s hilarious when she claims she could “take Dylan” in a boxing match and at other times inadvertently, but her many “I fucking love you guys” seem as genuine as, say, a Florida election. But perhaps I’m being unkind. After all, Mann is not known for her enjoyment of touring, and although her self-effacing humour doesn’t quite translate from the interview setting to the live environment, she thaws a little towards the end.

One of the most consistently essential artists of the last decade or so, Mann could never be accused of style over substance and this 16-track DVD is a testament to her talent, spanning all of her full-lengths plus the career revitalising soundtrack to Paul Thomas Anderson’s 1999 film ‘Magnolia’. Not only that, but Mann treats us to a preview of two songs from The Forgotten Arm. Or at least it would have been a preview if we in the UK hadn’t had to wait six months from the US release date for the set to officially reach our shores. Inexplicably released a week after The Forgotten Arm, Mann thus seems even more out of the loop when referring to the album under its working title, ‘King Of The Jailhouse’.

So what of the music? There’s an air of perfunctoriness surrounding the whole affair, with little or no attempt to distinguish the songs from their studio counterparts. That said, both Mann and her fellow guitarist Julian Coryell pull off some fantastic musicianship on the excellent ‘Pavlov’s Bell’, ‘Long Shot’ and ‘Deathly’. Best of all though is ‘Wise Up’ from the ‘Magnolia’ soundtrack, representing as it does the mournful pivotal moment of the film.

Having heard The Forgotten Arm, it’s safe to say that the live takes of ‘Going Through The Motions’ and ‘King Of The Jailhouse’ add little of merit to the studio versions, although it’s nice to see Aimee at the piano on the latter. As is customary for these releases, four of the songs on the DVD are excised from the accompanying CD, although in a break with the norm, the CD features a bonus but rather inessential performance of ‘That’s Just What You Are’ not on the DVD.

Although Aimee and the band have a decent enough stab at the backstage interviews, anyone looking for real insight into the band dynamic will most likely be disappointed. All in all, this is pretty standard fare from a stellar artist. Still, it’s a pity we had to wait so long for it.

Alan Pedder
originally published on May 25th, 2005 

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Lene Marlin
Lost In A Moment •••
Virgin

OK, just for one moment suppose that at just 17 years old you had the fastest selling single in Norwegian music history and then at 22, two best-selling platinum albums under your belt. What the hell would you do next? Well, if you were Lene Marlin, you’d hide yourself away and secretly make an album with top Norwegian production trio StarGate, who have had hits with Mary J Blige, Mariah Carey, Texas, Cher and Brandy, among others. What started out as a personal experiment for the now 24-year old quickly morphed into a full album; even her record company were not expecting an new opus until she turned up with the finished article.

So, a short history lesson for those unfamiliar with Lene. Back in the mists of 1997, her debut album Playing My Game hit big with a clutch of smash hit singles, going on to sell 1.8 million copies across Europe. Faced with such overwhelming success at a young age, Marlin walked away from the music industry and it was another five years before she felt ready enough to try again. Her second album Another Day was released in 2003, bringing more success in her native land. However, the album received little fanfare in the UK upon its release and sank without a trace. So what of Ms. Marlin in 2005? Gone are the silly hats and hoodies from her previous videos and in their place comes a gorgeous, mature new look and a grown-up collection of eleven new songs that she describes as “different moods and flavours, a real personal effort and the best record I have ever made.”

Perhaps she is listening to a different album. Lost In A Moment is no genre-busting feast of musical styles. Like its predecessor, Another Day, it is a pleasant enough collection with some nice touches, but fails to really engage. On the rockier-than-usual opener, ‘My Lucky Day’, Marlin somehow manages to seem even more disinterested than Avril Lavigne – not a good place to start. Fortunately, things improve quickly; the quietly beautiful ‘All I Can Say’ is reminiscent of her earlier work, and first single ‘How Would It Be’ is one of the more upbeat numbers. It’s a nice jaunty pop song, catchy enough to be sung along to after a few listens and is certainly the kind of song to be found playing over the credits in Generic Teen Girl Movie 2.

As for the rest? Well, despite the odd highlight (‘Never To Know’, ‘Eyes Closed’), the songs tend to wash right over the listener to the extent that some may even go unnoticed (‘When You Were Around’). It is a shame because Marlin is in possession of a beautiful voice and the kind of image that should be marketable enough to sell records by the truckload in the UK as well as Norway. It may be a little soon to say whether Lene Marlin peaked too early in her career with the dizzying pop heights of ‘Unforgivable Sinner’ and ‘Sitting Down Here’, but certainly next time it will take more than this competent but rather samey collection of songs to blow her public away.

Ian Addison
originally published on August 26th, 2005 

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Mary Lee’s Corvette
Love, Loss & Lunacy ••••
Self-released

Album number four finds former book editor Mary Lee Kortes serving up yet another accomplished set of resolutely uplifting pop songs with a retro feel and a country tinge. It may seem odd to ascribe the word uplifting to a song suite tackling such issues as incest (‘Verla’), the perverse pleasure of Schadenfreude (‘I’m Saving Grace’) and the acceptance of directionless wandering (‘Lucky Me’), but the attitude with which these subjects are approached really does raise the spirits. Each of the dozen songs is infused with signature ’60s pop jangle, smooth Hammond sounds and country rock harmonies that provide a sonic consistency whilst leaving plenty of scope for ringing the changes.

Keen-eared listeners will notice that several songs appear to feature small quotations from classic hits or artists, not insofar as to lead to a string of plagiarism lawsuits, but enough to evoke a mood from the outset. ‘All That Glitters’ kicks things off with a sunny West Coast vibe with chiming guitars and Farfisa organ tootling in the background. ‘Learn From What I Dream’ begins as an etude on The Beatles’ ‘Things We Said Today’ and shares the Fab Four’s search for enlightenment. ‘Wasting The Sun’ quotes even more directly, with an ‘All Right Now’-style opening riff that mutates into something that could easily have been written either by or for Sheryl Crow. Indeed, the vocal similarity here is enough to merit a mention.

Other tracks ploughing this particular furrow include ‘Nothing Left To Say’, ‘Thunderstruck’ and ‘Falling Again’, adding in a sprinkle of Mary Chapin Carpenter, and, in the case of the latter, some more Tom Petty-style grit. ‘Verla’ chooses the driving rhythm of songs like Petty’s ‘Refugees’ as a template to address the question of helping a victim of incest to escape a cycle of abuse. Not an obvious subject matter for a pop song, but the lyrics are sensitively tailored while the instrumentation injects a sense of passion and urgency. ‘Lucky Me’ returns to the Crow template but views it through the filter of Eric Clapton’s 461 Ocean Boulevard, the guitar solos drawing deeply from both sources while the lyrics ponder the pros and cons of being set adrift and left to your own devices.

While Kortes’s performance is not so distinctive as to be unmistakable, she certainly delivers an assured, attractive and pleasing sound, and that, after all, is really what’s required. ‘I’m Saving Grace’, however, sees a transformation in her style as she channels Chrissie Hynde for a Pretenders-esque number. Suffice to say, if Kortes ever turns up on ‘Celebrity Stars In Their Eyes’ there are no prizes for guessing who she’ll be. Rather more mechanical, however, is ‘Blood Of Stones’, its stilted rhythms failing to convince and providing the low point of an otherwise excellent album. Conversely, ‘Where Did I Go Wrong, Elton John?’ is a mini masterpiece with Kortes playing the role of a failed songwriter asking the eponymous idol how come their songs have never been hits. So far, so humdrum, but the magic twist is that the lyrics are constructed almost entirely from fragments of Taupin/John song titles and words, while the inspired soundtrack hits you like a big pizza pie with its cod-Italian mandolins. Apparently Sir Elt himself loves it.

Rounding things off in a gentler mood, ‘Every Song Is Different’ is a thought-provoking gem that leaves the listener wondering whether Kortes has been winking at us all along with her musical magpie tendencies… “every song is different but the singer is the same”.

Trevor Raggatt
originally published on March 25th, 2006  

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Karen Matheson
Downriver ••••
Vertical

Since founding Capercaillie with (her now husband) Donald Shaw at the dawn of the 1980s, Karen Matheson has become one of the foundational voices of modern Scottish folk. Among her many accolades, US magazine Billboard have hailed her as “the finest Gaelic singer alive today” and Sean Connery swears she has “a throat surely touched by the hand of God”. And if Mr. James Bond says so, who are Wears The Trousers to argue?

With 17 Capercaillie albums already to her credit, 2005 saw Matheson take time out to record her third solo album, Downriver, a mostly acoustic set of songs both ancient and modern that will render the listener if not shaken, then deeply stirred. Recorded in the idyllic setting of Crear Studios in Kilberry overlooking the breathtaking Sound of Jura, Downriver certainly communicates a deep connection with the Scottish land and culture, with its organic feel and open, airy production eschewing the more electric folk-funk sound of Capercaillie. Some tracks feature the distinctive sounds of the bodhran and bouzouki, courtesy of Irish folk rock grandee Donal Lunny, producer of Capercaillie’s breakthrough albums Secret People and Delirium, whose return to the fold is a welcome one. The Scottish Ensemble provide exquisitely subtle chamber strings, whilst former Deacon Blue (and now fellow Capercaillie) member Ewen Vernal contributes double bass.

All bar two of the tracks are sung in Scots Gaelic, a beautiful and lyrical language that adeptly evokes the ethereal and mystic, tangibly linking the music to the ancient. The listener is always aware that this is a language with an emotional meaning extending beyond the choice of notes and rhythmic devices. Even in the ‘mouth music’ songs with their frenetic vocal passages, there is never the feeling of randomness that so often affects jazz scat vocals. The album’s most atypical, non-Capercaillie track is also the first; ‘Chi Mi Bhuam’ is a soothing introduction, with Donald Shaw’s sparse and jazzy piano underpinning Matheson’s gorgeous cut-glass vocal and gentle, uplifting strings. Capercaillie aficionados will be on more familiar ground thereafter; folk dances and gentle ballads mingle with the aforementioned mouth music and ‘waulking songs’, whose complex rhythmic patterns are derived from the sounds of the ancient weavers who finished the process by pounding their material against a wooden board.

The two songs sung in English are modern compositions, but Matheson blends them well with the more traditional fare. ‘Singing In The Dark’ is a writer’s lament for all those songs that never find an audience, while ‘I Will Not Wear The Willow’ boasts an interesting twist on the murder ballad. Written from a woman’s perspective, the lyrics slowly reveal why the singer will not mourn with the other village women for her seemingly absconded lover, until the final chilling realisation that she knows where she buried the body. ‘Crucan Na Bpaiste’, written by Irish author Brendan Graham for his 2005 novel ‘The Brightest Day, The Darkest Night’, draws proceedings to a sombre close with Michael McGoldrick’s uilleann pipes joining the lament with Matheson’s heartbreaking voice. And then, inevitably, we’re returned to our own less luminous world, grateful for the time that’s gone by.

Trevor Raggatt
originally published on January 22nd, 2006  

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Mates Of State
Bring It Back ••••
Moshi Moshi

Kori Gardner and Jason Hammel, aka Mates Of State, have been performing together for nine long years now and happily hitched for the last five. They don’t play guitars, preferring instead to use organs and drums to create their uplifting, near-utopian but dark-edged pop. But where other bands might struggle to make a full sound with such a basic set-up, Mates Of State make use of complicated, and often chaotic layering of vocals and different organ parts to give the impression of a much larger outfit, all the while retaining the intimacy of a duo and the chemistry of lovers.

Bring It Back is their fourth studio album and one that is practically bursting at the seams with versatile and resourceful compositions. The DIY-style vocals sound not too dissimilar to an endearing blend of The New Pornographers and the twee country tinge of Tilly & The Wall. The keyboards lend a slight 1970s sound in certain places, notably in ‘Beautiful Dreamer’s chorus, which captures the idealism of the post-’68 generation in its soaring Hammond lines, while other songs are more conventionally piano-led and simpler in terms of arrangement.

As a whole, Bring It Back is almost flawless fun with few blemishes. Whilst ‘Fraud In The ‘80s’ wears its indie-pop credentials proudly on its sleeve, it makes for a disappointing lead single that tries a little too hard to be sassy and succeeds only in carrying all the menace of Republica, which can never be a good thing. Never mind, prepare to go weak at the knees for the standout track ‘Like U Crazy’ instead. Here, Gardner’s topline vocals positively seethe with on-the-edge desperation and resignation, while her falsetto chant of “bah bah bah bah like u crazy” bubbles chillingly beneath. The production has elements of a dark, Wall Of Sound-esque sound that wouldn’t seem far out of place in a David Lynch film, and who can argue with that?

A cursory listen to ‘Beautiful Dreamer’ will tell you that what Mates Of State are bringing back is truth. No great revelation there then, but whoever thought to wrap such honesty up in consistently tasty and innovative songs deserves some kind of reward. We, on the other hand, should put on our dancing shoes promptly and do them proud.

Robbie de Santos 
originally published August 23rd, 2006

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Matson Jones
The Albatross… EP •••½
Sympathy For The Record Industry

Anyone who names their band after a pseudonym used by modernist painters Josper Johns and Robert Rauschenberg for their commercial department store work can be expected to be at least a little non-conformist. It comes as scant surprise then that US indie rock minimalists Matson Jones make music consisting of distorted vocals, cello, double bass, drums and nothing else. They’re far from being a one-trick nag, however; ever-challenging dynamic and rhythmical soundscapes abound on this EP so that its mealy-mouthed full title of The Albatross Mates For Life, But Only After A Lengthy Courtship That Can Take Up To Four Years isn’t the only interesting talking point.

The four songs on The Albatross… are complex beasts. Opener ‘Exes & Ohs’ is an energetic number reminiscent of The Arcade Fire in that it goes from hushed to rushed, from slow to hasty with fast-paced melodies and counter-rhythms whipped up by the cellos and double bass. This impressive layer of sound altern- ately supports and contrasts the vocals of Anna Mascorella and Martina Grbac, while Ross Harada’s syncopated drums expand the dynamic range of the song from beneath. The drums get slower and angrier on second song ‘Sabotage’, and combined with the howling apocalyptic strings, what you get is a sense of paranoia, a suspicious calm ahead of a vicious tornado. Incoherent lyrics like “It’s a damn good thing I kept my legs closed / you make the ground unsteady” add to the general feel of imminent malice.

‘Dirt Sea’ returns to the fast-paced rhythms of the opener, albeit in a more approachable manner. The vocals are quite plain and fairly unspectacular, but it’s the ever-moving strings and drop-in, drop-out drums that really lift the song. ‘Wrecking Ball’ is slightly less successful, though its characteristically constant time changes and distorted vocals have a certain appeal. It’s just that the instrumentation all sounds very natural and at odds with the distortion on the voice, making them sound rather out of place. Of course, this could be the intention entirely, in which case it’s a job well done. It’s a little bit manic but manages to hint at an all-too-human vulnerability that works well overall.

Matson Jones certainly know how to use the dynamic ranges of their tools, though the lack of variety in instrumentation means they have to work twice as hard to make this EP more than just an indie rock curio. That they just about manage to pull it off warrants 15 minutes of your time and a bit of your hard-earned cash.

Anja McCloskey 
originally published July 25th, 2006

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Cerys Matthews / Becky Stark
Live at The Scala, London ••••
July 26th, 2006

Barely ten minutes after the doors are flung open at the Scala, Californian songbird Becky Stark quietly glides to centre stage to kick off the evening. Wearing a striking aqua ballgown and, bizarrely, a matching blue cape, she resembles an intriguing blend of Supergirl and Cinderella. In keeping with this image and her earnest songs of love and fairytale dreams, Stark also believes in saving the planet, provocatively, yet sweetly declaring that “peace has finally come to planet Earth”. Given the notoriously indifferent, if not downright rude, reception that London audiences commonly afford a support act – usually spending more time supporting the bar takings than paying due attention – Stark commands an unusually reverent silence.

Clearly nervous and feeling rather exposed without her Lavender Diamond bandmates around her, she soon warms up, gleefully telling us that her father was an escaped convict and that her mother used to ask her to lie to the FBI, before pondering aloud whether this is the reason for her lack of respect for authority. Against all odds, her uninhibited ramblings and timid giggles come across as genuinely endearing and the volume of appreciative noises soon racks up among the amassing throng.

Between her affable anecdotes, Stark even finds time to treat us to four beautiful compositions from her solo album Artifacts Of The Winged. Her voice both warms and haunts, the unaffected tenderness of her soaring falsetto revealing one of the purest, most honest vocal talents this side of a certain Vashti Bunyan. Saving the world may be out of her reach for now, but if Stark can get a bunch of hardened Londoners eating out of her hand like puppies, persuading world leaders to just get along is not all that far-fetched.

Second support act Richard James – formerly the guitarist for Welsh rockers Gorky’s Zygotic Mynci – may have hit all the right notes musically, but his introspective tone fails to cut through the oppressive heat inside the venue. The temperature was indeed rising, but whether this was from the clamour of bodies still radiating the day’s onslaught of sunshine or from sheer anticipation I couldn’t say; up in the balcony a Welsh flag unfurls itself to announce the impending arrival of tonight’s main attraction.

In her days as Catatonia’s outspoken figurehead, Cerys Matthews would often bound (and sometimes stagger) onstage, but today she tentatively sneaks on alongside her band. Armed with a cherry red guitar, she deflects the sea of expectant eyes before her and bursts straight into new album track, ‘Streets Of New York’. Visibly overwhelmed by the sheer volume of her band, Cerys’s trademark lungs struggle at first to compete with the reverberating power chords and driving beats, and she nervously admits to the crowd that she’s “shaking like a leaf”. But if the last few years have shown anything, it’s that Matthews is a fighter and by the third song – a low-tempo run-through of early Catatonia classic ‘Lost Cat’ – the up-for-it crowd begins to have an effect. Given the parallels between her new material and some of Catatonia’s less populist efforts, a song like ‘Lost Cat’ fits snugly into the set; even The Guardian’s gig writer failed to spot the nod to her past, despite it being greeted with one of the night’s biggest cheers.

‘Open Roads’, the instantly memorable first single to be taken from her new album Never Said Goodbye, also gives the album its title, and when Matthews sings “it’s like we neh-ver said goodbye”, it’s easy to recall just how much fun Catatonia were in concert, counterpointing the pre-mill-ennial navel-gazing of their contemporaries with fuckoff power chords and anthemic choruses. Somewhat inevit-ably, Matthews’s lyrics have become more introspective since her departure, picking apart human foibles and personal frailties, disguised Trojan-horse style by sweet melodic pop.

But don’t be fooled into thinking she’s gotten stuck in a mid-paced groove; her latest musical gear shift heralds the re-emergence of Cerys’ bona fide rock star qualities. Even the most cotton-pickin’ moments from 2003’s country jamboree Cockahoop are given a shot of pure rock adrenaline. During the traditional ‘All My Trials’, for instance, Matthews dispenses with her guitar and unleashes memories of the days when she would lead thousands of fans into dance. When she follows this up with ‘The Good In Goodbye’, everyone merrily bounces along as if it were 1998 again; but this is 2006 and her triumph tonight is surely all the more sweeter on her own terms.

Befitting her rock icon status, Matthews later treats us to an enjoyable cover of David Bowie’s ‘Soul Love’ from the seminal Ziggy Stardust album. It’s an apt choice for the moment, too, proving that there can be an epilogue for rock ‘n’ roll stars who take the well-worn road to self-destruction. With her fall from grace at last in reverse, the crowd’s affection for Matthews is palpable and everyone is grinning. When she comes back for an encore, a moment’s dread that some drunken idiot might field an inappropriate request for ‘Road Rage’ or ‘Karaoke Queen’ soon passes. Tonight, Matthew, it seems that Cerys is happy simply being herself.

Stephen Collings
originally published on July 26th, 2006  

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Cerys Matthews
Never Said Goodbye ••••
Rough Trade

Rock ‘n’ roll folklore is full of dramatic departures and Messianic resurrections, so it was with some concern that Catatonia singer Cerys Matthews cancelled their 2001 tour and exited the band citing exhaustion, so often a dubious byword for drug overdoses and nervous breakdowns. In those early years, Matthews’s name became synonymous in the music press with legendary drinking sessions and her familiarity with Queensbury rules that transcended the verbal posturing of her peers. Unashamedly proud of her homeland, she rolled her vowels and consonants around driving pop anthems about road rage, teenage pregnancy and queens of karaoke, while her festive duet with Tom Jones only served to consolidate her place as the true Princess of Wales.

After Catatonia disbanded, Matthews famously decamped to Nashville to regain her health and musical muse, making an understated return in 2003 with the country jamboree Cockahoop. Oh, and she also started a family, meeting her husband whilst sharing dog walking duties for a mutual friend. Now, Matthews has chosen to return to the land of her fathers after suffering the effects of ‘hiraeth’, a particularly Welsh form of homesickness. She can certainly afford herself a few backwards glances with Never Said Goodbye, but is she here to reclaim her tattered crown?

Conceived as a modest follow-up in the same bare essentials vein as its predecessor, the album’s production turned out to be an eventful process as Matthews dis- covered that she was also gestating her second child. As her belly grew, so did the sound, and songs that started life with simple acoustics and vocals received a good old-fashioned rock makeover. Matthews has managed to fuse Catatonia’s brand of playful pop with the introspective homestead musings of her adopted American home, while Mason Neely’s proficiency with the drumsticks positively drives the album’s sound from the stable into the stadium.

But that’s not to suggest that the album lacks its tender moments; like Catatonia’s International Velvet – which effortlessly traversed its way from bollock-rocking barnstormers like ‘I Am The Mob’ to the gentle caress of ‘My Selfish Gene’ – Never Said Goodbye tempers its rockier edges with heartbreakingly beautiful moments like album closer ‘Elen’. Co-written with Super Furry Animals frontman Gruff Rhys, who also contributes whispered backing vocals, the fragile folkish melody surrounds the mellifluous mothertongue lyrics, and of all the album tracks, is perhaps the closest relation to Cockahoop.

With song titles like ‘Oxygen’, ‘This Endless Rain’ and ‘Seed Song’, it seems that Matthews has returned to her roots in more ways than one. The constant themes of love and nature are inextricably entwined throughout the album, where the ebb and flow of nature are constant metaphors for the enormity of lost loves and faltering hearts. On ‘Morning Sunshine’, her romanticism is never better expressed than in the opening lines; “I’d come to see you in the morning sunshine / saltwater dripping from your hair / 10,000 leagues of love and sheer devotion / what bubbles under breathes for air”. Perhaps the most organic treatment of a pop album since Pulp’s I Love Life, which brought us paeans to trees, weeds and sunrise, Never Said Goodbye is an album in full bloom, even if the lyrical preoccupations might have been better served by stripping away some of the disortion and synthetic layers.

While Matthews may lack the twisted lyrical wit of her former Catatonia songwriting partner, Mark Roberts, she is still at her best mining the ever-fertile ground of dysfunctional relationships. The album’s first single, ‘Open Roads’, with its opening lines “I took a ride on your fingertips / heaven high with the thrill of it / and in your eyes for a moment / it’s like we never said goodbye” encapsulates the uncertainty and vulnerability of surrendering to the safety of skin in the arms of a lost love. Indeed, listening to Never Said Goodbye is like getting a postcard from a treasured friend and as soon as you hear the first trill of that unmistakable voice, memories come flooding back.

Whereas Cockahoop was an album to fall in love to, Never Said Goodbye is there to pick up the pieces when it all falls apart. Sometimes in a world where everything is new and every turn brings yet more uncertainty, you need little cocoons of comfort. The music industry has certainly been an emptier place in her absence, and no amount of feisty pop muppets could ever fill the Cerys-shaped hole in the charts. So while Matthews has rekindled her love affair with the music that made her, for those who have tied a yellow ribbon around their Catatonia CD collections, familiarity will surely breed content.

Stephen Collings 
originally published October 24th, 2006

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Kate & Anna McGarrigle
The McGarrigle Hour ••••
Rykodisc

Originally released in the US and Canada in 1999, this companion to the studio album of the same name finally got a UK pressing this autumn. And whilst the title may parody those homely Osmond family TV specials, there is nothing twee about this gathering. Timeless in both the staging and songs, the anachronistic production feels more 1948 than 1998, but the McGarrigles and Wainwrights have always comfortably existed outside of popular music, living in a folkie vacuum where they are free to set their own courses. Family feuds are often the subject of their own songs and their closest contemporaries appear to be each other. With such a strong musical heritage, the ‘McWainwrights’ are always liable to burst into song when the mood takes them, and one can almost imagine family gatherings where “pass the salt” is sung in harmonious verse.

With an ensemble of ex-spouses, offspring and friends, the McGarrigle sisters take us on an intimate journey through the great American songbook, taking in everything from Cole Porter to Irving Berlin, whilst seamlessly interweaving original compositions for this musical family reunion. While their voices may not have the softest of timbres, the Canadian sisters’ pitch-perfect harmonies are still as strong as when they debuted in 1975 with their eponymous LP. The musical dynasty is in safe hands too, judging by the efforts here.

Martha Wainwright cuts a shy, endearing figure compared with the foot-stomping dynamic performer we see today, and her own composition ‘Year Of The Dragon’ (still a mainstay of her live set) visibly impresses the would-be converts in the McGarrigle-friendly audience. Her cover of Cole Porter’s ‘Allez-Vous-En’ is sung with experience well beyond her young years, and she is complemented well by cousin Lily Lanken whose fragile vocals are equally affecting on family favourite ‘Alice Blue Gown’.

Elsewhere, Rufus Wainwright is unusually restrained, despite upstaging his mother Kate McGarrigle during the introduction to ‘Talk To Me Of Mendocino’ by calling her a “gypsy”. In ‘Heartburn’ he shows he has inherited much of his father Loudon Wainwright III’s lyrical wit, but his voice is best suited to the standards and effortlessly croons the openings to group efforts ‘Goodnight Sweetheart’ and ‘What’ll I Do’. Friends of the family, Linda Ronstadt and Emmylou Harris, guest as they did on the studio album, while Kate’s former husband Loudon and assorted folkie friends add an authentic twang to the proceedings.

Despite the original’s release shortly before the popularity of the format exploded, a number of DVD extras are still included: a scattering of hyperlink interviews and a touching movie clip of Grandma McGarrigle’s own version of ‘Alice Blue Gown’ around the family piano, along with four bonus songs from a 1981 McGarrigle concert in their hometown of Montréal.

In a year that has seen major releases from Loudon, Rufus and Martha, the McGarrigles have reconvened for The McGarrigle Christmas Hour, an album that once again showcases the family’s songwriting talents alongside some lesser-known festive standards, this time extending their family to include Rufus’s pals Beth Orton, actress Jane Adams and Teddy Thompson.

Stephen Collings
originally published on December 19th, 2006 

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Nellie McKay
Pretty Little Head [edit] •••½
Unreleased

Nellie McKay doesn’t want me to listen to her new CD. At least, not in the form in which I received it. Columbia’s press release describes the album as “a kaleidoscopic selection of tracks culled from 23 new songs written by McKay for the album”; what it doesn’t say is that they performed this cull entirely against her will. Despite McKay’s insistence that it be released in its entirety, Columbia issued this 16-track edit to reviewers without McKay’s permission, and the dispute duly escalated. In fact it got so bad that just after Christmas Nellie and Columbia parted ways, leaving the album dangling in limbo. The label have since stated that they won’t be releasing the album in any form, and despite the fact that McKay apparently left of her own accord, media reports that she was ‘dropped’ have proliferated. This conflict raises some prescient questions. McKay’s precocious debut, 2004’s Get Away From Me, was sprawling and sporadically brilliant, but proved trying when listened to as a whole. We can certainly query whether Columbia have the right to censor the artists on their roster in such a manner, but for once, might the big bad record company have a point?

To an extent, they do. Listening to this truncated version, there are still extraneous tracks that contribute little to the album as a whole. Three songs – ‘Pink Chandelier’, ‘GES’ and ‘I Am Nothing’, all clocking in at under two minutes – feel half-finished, short sketches perhaps intended more as interludes that fail to mature into anything substantial. It is puzzling that they were included where other tracks were excised; the motivation behind Columbia’s track selection currently remains a mystery. However, when the songs do sparkle they sparkle bright, and more than compensate for the album’s weaker moments. The lyrically audacious and funny opener ‘Cupcake’ concerns the timely topic of gay marriage, and over a brightly bouncy melody McKay intones lyrics surely designed to provoke conservative ire: “Give me a G-A-Y! Jesus would approve.”

Musically, it’s not all current affairs, however. A distinct ‘80s vibe runs throughout the album – shades of Martha & The Muffins here, Kim Carnes there – but nowhere moreso, of course, than on the Cyndi Lauper duet and album highlight, ‘Bee Charmer’. A lyrically brilliant pop song (“I feel like an antelope on a nature show / Guess I gotta go!”), it’s an ideal marriage of two talented artists. McKay once again shows her versatility as a musical chameleon, turning her hand to cabaret-style pop, rap/hip-hop and, on ‘Real Life’, guitar-driven rock ‘n’ roll. Her songs don’t grab the listener with the dramatic urgency of say, Fiona Apple – whimsicality is more her forte – but her lyrics are barbed and often arresting and a happy-sounding tune can conceal darker lyrical content. ‘Columbia Is Bleeding’, for instance, throws lyrics at the listener faster than the brain can process them. Not, as you might imagine, a rant against her former label, the song concerns a recent, McKay-led PETA protest against animal research being conducted at the campus of New York’s University of Columbia, and the song voices a multiplicity of views on the subject; “Check the bible son / we got dominion / we can do as we please” vies with McKay’s assertion that “Barbarism killed the cat / Columbia is bleeding.”

While this is by no means a perfect album, it is one that has a lot to recommend it – not least the originality of McKay’s lyrics and the adventurous musical palette she draws upon. In which direction those seven missing songs will eventually tip the balance is anybody’s guess, but whenever, however, even if ever McKay ultimately rears her Pretty Little Head, it’ll be one in the eye for corporate America and a righteous scalp for artistic vision.

Danny Weddup 
originally published January 28th, 2006

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Loreena McKennitt
An Ancient Muse •••½
Quinlan Road

Back in 1985, the arrival of Loreena McKennitt seemed nothing short of brilliant; enigmatic, yes, but brilliant all the same. With her self-produced debut album Elemental, McKennitt did away with the slick, sometimes gloopy excesses of the decade and delivered something pretty much timeless. Those who heard it invariably loved it, and in pleasing all the people McKennitt inadvertently accelerated the coming of so-called ‘new age’ music. Of course, as with all great underground artists, her thunder was run off with by a more commercially minded rival in the shape of Enya, whose Watermark cemented the multi-million selling status of the genre. Happily, all the legwork gave McKennitt rich rewards in the end as her 1989 album Parallel Dreams bounced off the new age springboard and she never looked back. Since then, McKennitt has expanded her vision as both composer and producer, shifting effortlessly from softly spoken, sparse Celtic folk to full-blown band extrava- ganzas that ought to be recognised as world music anthems. And all that shifting, no matter how great, has done nothing but work in her favour.

An Ancient Muse is McKennitt’s first studio album since 1997’s four million selling The Book Of Secrets and, like its predecessor, incorporates the illustrious themes of spirituality and world travel and sets them to impressive compositional backdrops. Opening with ‘Incantation’, a slow-burning mood is softly ignited with McKennitt’s gorgeously operatic vocals shedding light on an other- wise darkly brooding piece. Two and a half minutes go by before you’re suddenly slammed into out-and-out pop mode as the undeniable slink of ‘The Gates Of Istanbul’ takes hold before the prodigal simplicity of ‘Caravanserai’ seals the deal. Both are obvious tips of the hat to her out-of-leftfield hit ‘The Mummer’s Dance’ but are fresh enough and groovy enough so as not to be derivative.

With that out of the way, An Ancient Muse goes deep with songs like the creepily gleeful Turkish instrumental ‘Sacred Shabbat’ and ‘Never-ending Road (Amhrán Duit)’, whose nomadic spirituality allows the album’s themes of inward searching and self-acceptance to shine. A slight aura of predictability surrounds a couple of tracks – for example, the other instrumental ‘Kecharitomene’ could easily have been a reply-paid card stuffed inside The Book Of Secrets for McKennitt to mail home later – and some patience might be required on the part of the listener. But, like each of her previous opuses, the payoff will be honest to goodness grade A gorgeousness.

And there’s nothing more gorgeous on An Ancient Muse than ‘The English Ladye & The Knight’. Keeping up McKennitt’s well-trodden tradition of setting classic poetry to music – the lyrics are an abridged version of the poem by Sir Walter Scott – this is the album’s finest moment. Featuring atmospheric strings and a heart- breaking choir, McKennitt subdues her impressive voice into the role of hushed storyteller and flawlessly flows into full-blown mechancholia. This is precisely why McKennitt has been a long-stay in the music industry without an overtly popular following; it is, for lack of any better description, pure genius, and makes any errors of judgement elsewhere on the album instantly forgivable.

Despite its occasional weak points, An Ancient Muse is an overall triumph and while not quite reaching the astonishing brilliance of The Visit or The Mask & Mirror, it makes for a solid and compelling listen and once again shows McKennitt as the innovative and virulent artist she has become.

Aaron Alper
originally published December 17th, 2006

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Erin McKeown
We Will Become Like Birds •••½
Nettwerk

Ingredient 1: A failed relationship at your heels and weighing on your mind. Ingredient 2: A roomful of instruments with which you are skillfully competent. What on earth’s a girl to do? Well, if you are 27-year old Erin McKeown, you creatively bind together the two ingredients with handfuls of hope, and with patience and time, We Will Become Like Birds shall emerge. With a relationship crumbling around her, McKeown has simply picked up her guitar, bass, drumsticks and keyboards and atypically enlisted other musicians to produce this wonderfully hopeful album. These 12 complementary songs are lyrically pertinent to anyone who has survived a relationship breakup – sentiments of creation and loss, construction and destruction are plentiful.

In the opener, ‘Aspera’, McKeown is found musing on her own discontent, singing “I’m in shambles, blown to bits by our troubles, these brambles, our stumblings, our struggles”, but by the second song, ‘Air’, she is contemplating the wider issue of the origins of heartache in general: “love! and you’re wondering how it works, the heart and the natural world, it’s a wonder that science can hurt”. Though the songs are firmly in the camp of relationship fodder, McKeown provides something more than the archetypal break-up album with a continuous hopeful twist. Buoyant ruminations on how experience forces growth are welcomed in the positive statement of ‘We Are More’, in which sadness is transcended in the form of “this morning I saw a glimmer of hope, in the eyes that I met at the door, of separate futures and confident sutures, to the wounds we have endured.” The album is undeniably sad and yet irrepressibly hopeful.

For those who don’t appreciate an emotional battering as part and parcel of a listening experience, McKeown’s clearly auspicious lyrics and musical choices reflecting a light emotional approach will indeed sweeten the medicine. With its upbeat, rising notes and tempting handclaps, the overall feel isn’t one of loss – the musical scenery is as misleading as her carefree, light vocals. In typical McKeown style, her voice drifts lightly and spreads warmly through the album, winding over even the highest notes with softness.

With her personal evolution in full view, McKeown’s musical growth cannot be overlooked. She is forever changing and her tendency to frolic willfully through varied musical landscapes is only slightly diminished here. As ever though, McKeown’s musicianship is nothing short of admirable and will make even the most gifted a little green-eyed. Competent enough to play all the instruments herself, McKeown could have easily created the album nestled alone in a studio, but with an ethnomusicology degree and three acclaimed genre-hopping solo albums already in the bag, Erin arrived at this album with a strong pedigree and looking for something new. She and co-producer Tucker Martine have called on highly accomplished musicians to freely improvise on her compositions as they best know how. With Matt Chamberlain on drums (Tori Amos, Fiona Apple), Sebastian Steinberg on bass (Beth Orton) and Steve Moore on keyboards (Laura Veirs), the album wears an impulsive band feel. Collaborations with singer-songwriters Pete Mulvey and Spanish chanteuse Juana Molina on ‘Delicate December’ and ‘The Golden Dream’, respectively, also add a different dimension.

The rich, multi-instrumental path set out by her previous album Grand is trodden even further here, breaking away from that record’s jazzy, 1950s-style swing. Slick production and a stark reduction in guitar focus have augmented this effect. McKeown is no longer the folkie that appeared on the independent scene in 1999 with Monday Morning Cold. Regardless, with perhaps her most commercially accessible album to date, Erin McKeown is stepping back into the alternative spotlight while laudably retaining her enthusiam for experimentation, her charming vocal style and a distinctive and familiar originality.

Helen Griffiths
originally published August 11th, 2005

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Sarah McLachlan
Wintersong •••½
Arista

Aimee Mann
One More Drifter In The Snow ••••
V2/SuperEgo

The struggle may not be as titanic as the Ali/Foreman ‘rumble in the jungle’ but this year two Lilith-cred behemoths go head to head in the Christmas album arena. In the red corner we have amateur boxer and professional cynic Aimee Mann, while in the green corner is sparkling snow queen Sarah McLachlan (put a coat on silly, you’ll catch your death!). That the pair of them both chose the same reason to release a festive offering affords us the luxury of comparing their approaches. And the approaches are definitely different – while McLachlan takes a more traditional, populist route, Mann sprinkles her collection with the trademark quirkiness that informs her work – but both pay joyful dividends and throw in a brand new original each.

Taking McLachlan first, it’s easy to see Wintersong as a sonic extension of 2003’s Afterglow, albeit with a few more whistles and sleigh bells. Like so many Christmas albums it mixes carols, standards and original songs and the selection is well chosen. Opening with a perhaps surprising cover of John Lennon and Yoko Ono’s ‘Happy Xmas (War Is Over)’ it could all have gone so horribly wrong. Panic not, however, it’s actually more likeable than the original. Retaining the essential kids’ choir element, it deftly treads the frighteningly narrow line between emoting and wanton sentimentalising. A cover of the Joni Mitchell classic ‘River’ is perhaps rather too predictable a move for McLachlan, but it’s a welcome inclusion nevertheless. Despite adding nothing to the flooringly beautiful original, McLachlan gives it her all, imbuing it with genuine emotion and a pure vocal performance that soars above that genius piano motif.

Elsewhere, standard crooner ‘I’ll Be Home For Christmas’ successfully harks back to the swing era, blending muted trumpet with thoroughly modern keyboard pads, while new track ‘Wintersong’ is pleasant enough. Always proficient at recycling old material, McLachlan couldn’t resist another shot at ‘Song For A Winter’s Night’, originally released on the 1996 compilation Rarities, B-Sides & Other Stuff, but it’s all in the spirit of giving so that’s alright. It’s the traditional carols, however, that ended up the most satisfyingly Christmassy. ‘O Little Town Of Bethlehem’ opens with a gorgeous naked vocal while ‘What Child Is This?’ and ‘First Noel / Mary Mary’ blend McLachlan’s lovely tones with an intriguing blend of traditional and modern arrangements; while the former evokes the Elizabethan derivation of its melody, the latter mixes hymnal, spiritual and contemporary Celtic styles. It’s sad, then, that Wintersong closes on its least involving and memorable track – the one which Nettwerk must have thought was a shoe-in. A duet with fellow Canadian Diana Krall on ‘Christmas Time Is Here’ washes past in all too mellow a mood.

Taking a more leftfield approach, Mann’s One More Drifter… is a rather different prospect. And while the new original ‘Calling On Mary’ and the bittersweet ‘Christmastime” (originally recorded in 1996 for the soundtrack of Paul Thomas Anderson’s ‘Hard Eight’) find her in a reassuringly downbeat mood, the talking points belong to the covers. Again, it’s a mix of carols and classic seasonal numbers given a characteristic Aimee flavour, but with one special surprise. ‘You’re A Mean One, Mister Grinch!’ might easily have been a torrid taste faux pas, but instead the duet with Grant Lee Phillips raises a glass and a grin with Mann’s vocal trademark cynicism making her the perfect musical foil for Phillips’s booming narration.

Another surprise is how well Mann copes with some of the older tunes like the Nat King Cole favourite ‘The Christmas Song’. In fact she turns out to be no mean crooner – had she been born 50 years earlier there’s no doubt that she could easily have given the likes of Julie London and Patsy Cline a run for their money. Elsewhere, familiar songs are given a lift by interesting instrumentation – a banjo and jangle piano here, pedal steel, vibes and Hawaiian guitar there. The Hawaiian guitar is deployed particularly effectively on ‘I’ll Be Home For Christmas’, pointing up nicely the difference in approach when compared with Sarah’s version, while her take on ‘Winter Wonderland’ is equal parts ‘Blue Hawaii’, ‘Shadows’ and ‘The Fabulous Thunderbirds’ in a mellow mood. Ace.

So there you have it, two very different Christmas albums, both artistically successful, very listenable and thankfully (mostly) schmaltz-free. Of the two, it’s One More Drifter… that stands a better chance of being auditioned at other times of year as a darned good album in its own rights. However, it’s Wintersong that your mum or granny will love.

Trevor Raggatt
originally published December 17th, 2006

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Natalie Merchant
VH1 Storytellers •••
Rhino Home Video

Since its inception in February 1996, VH1’s Storytellers format has given us insight into the inspirations behind the songs of some of the most enigmatic and elliptical performers of our time, including Tori Amos, REM, Tom Waits and David Bowie. More often than not, however, it was the refuge of tired and crashing MOR bores mounting their nth attempted comeback. The show was also symptomatic of US programmers’ attitudes to female artists; even though its most successful years coincided with the Lilith Fair phenomenon, less than a quarter of its 56 episodes featured women performers. Tellingly, the only such act to appear following the demise of Lilith in 1999 was Gwen Stefani’s No Doubt. After a series of mostly inessential performances by the likes of Billy Idol, Bon Jovi, Matchbox Twenty and Train, among others, the chapter finally closed on Storytellers in June 2002.

It could easily be argued that Natalie Merchant’s place in the Storytellers canon would have been warranted regardless of the Lilith influence. A performer since the age of 17 in US college rock band 10,000 Maniacs, she had well over a decade of experience, and presumably stories, behind her. This performance, recorded the same year as she released her second and arguably best solo album, Ophelia, is a resolutely no-frills affair – there’s no elaborate set design and Merchant herself is understatedly dressed for the occasion. Her instantly recognisable warm and reedy vocals, however, rise easily to the challenge as she tackles these eight songs of sadness, gratitude, stoicism and wonderment spanning her extensive back catalogue.

Given that so many of her songs are self-contained observational narratives that hardly lend themselves to in-depth analysis, it’s a little worrying when Merchant seeks to reassure the audience “I didn’t have to tell you anything deep and dark and scary about myself” after the opener ‘These Are Days’, which we’re informed is simply about the springtime. Fortunately, her romantic and humanitarian interests rescue some of the other commentaries from the precipice of blandness. In another’s hands, her explanation of how an abused child inspired her to write ‘What’s The Matter Here?’ may have seemed trite but her plainly visible emotional involvement is touching.

Special guest N’Dea Davenport adds a welcome change of pace for the blue-collar worker anthem ‘Break Your Heart’. Of the bonus tracks, ‘Life Is Sweet’ (presumably not included on the original broadcast because of a minor sweat problem) is given a new lease of life by Merchant’s explanation that her objective was to reclaim the cliché and thereby allows the viewer to listen with renewed perspective. Though the DVD is brief at only 43 minutes, as a precursor to Rhino’s forthcoming Natalie Merchant retrospective hits album it serves as an adequate reminder of her talents. In the absence of any new material to follow-up 2003’s The House Carpenter’s Daughter and the scarcity of high-quality recordings of Merchant’s live shows, fans will be satisfied with this solid, if unspectacular, addition to her discography.

Alan Pedder
originally published August 7th, 2005 

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Natalie Merchant
Retrospective 1990-2005 ••••
Rhino/Elektra

As coincidence would have it, Rhino’s 2CD retrospective of Natalie Merchant’s solo career follows a similar format to its Jane Siberry anthology. In both cases, an exemplary, beautifully sequenced first disc is followed by a patchier, less satisfying second one. This is not to suggest that fans or newcomers should only sport out for the first CD though, as is possible to do in the case of Merchant. Though longstanding followers may once again lament the dearth of new material on Retrospective, there are in fact some lovely individual performances on both discs. It’s simply that the second disc – designed, it would appear, to showcase Merchant’s stylistic range – fails to cohere as effortlessly as the first does.

Of course, Merchant is not an audacious musical innovator in the Siberry mould, and so there is nothing as wilfully perverse or off-kilter as ‘Peony’ here. Rather, Merchant’s post-10,000 Maniacs career has been marked by a series of graceful, intelligent and frequently exceptional albums, from her solo debut Tigerlily, through the lusher Ophelia, to her distinguished collection of sturdy folk perennials, The House Carpenter’s Daughter, and this compilation gathers together some of the very best material from each. Merchant’s singing has also grown more characterful over the years, as the chronologically sequenced first disc demonstrates. Tremulous and delicate, but with a surprising amount of bite and grit, her vocals are seductive and inviting on early tracks such as the driving ‘Wonder’ and ‘Jealousy’, but gain greater depth and resonance on her later work.

At its best, there is a kind of openhearted innocence and generosity of spirit to Merchant’s music. ‘Kind & Generous’, for example, is such a forthright expression of gratitude that it almost makes you uncomfortable. This tender magnanimity means that when she does despair – with a line like “the damage that some people do” on ‘Break Your Heart’ – the effect is particularly devastating. However, the superb ‘Life Is Sweet’ offers hard-won consolation, as does ‘Motherland’, the title track to her 2001 album, and a recording that may well be on its way to becoming her signature song, since it’s already been covered by both Joan Baez and Christy Moore. Its combination of striking lyrics, Van Dyke Parks’s accordion, Greg Leisz’s banjo and mandolin and a gorgeous vocal from Merchant adds up to something very special indeed. The House Carpenter’s Daughter is represented by two particularly strong tracks. ‘Owensboro’ is an achingly sad traditional ballad about downtrodden Kentucky mill workers; in the final verse, the exploited and apparently resigned narrator looks forward to a (literal or figurative) “day of judgement” when the wealthy, arrogant townsfolk who “dress so fine and spend their money free” will “have to share their pretty things”. Never has the desire for revolution been expressed more elegantly. The woozy, haunting ‘Sally Ann’ is equally fine.

The second disc pulls together some of Merchant’s duets, collaborations, outtakes and soundtrack contributions. Highlights include a sensitive, convincing rendition of ‘The Lowlands Of Holland’ (backed by The Chieftains), a slow and sultry ‘One Fine Day’ (from the 1996 Michelle Pfeiffer/George Clooney film of the same name), and a beautiful stripped-down solo piano take of Ophelia‘s ‘Thick As Thieves’. Lowlights are a leaden ‘Children Go Where I Send Thee’, and a forced version of the inappositely titled ‘I Know How To Do It’, made most famous by Dinah Washington. Collaborations with REM, Billy Bragg and Susan McKeown almost, but don’t quite work, while the closing ‘Come Take A Trip In My Airship’ unfortunately ends up on the wrong side of twee. Despite these infelicities, however, Retrospective is, overall, a very impressive collection that fully displays Merchant’s lyrical and interpretive gifts.

Alex Ramon
originally published March 25th, 2006 

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Metric
Live It Out ••••
Drowned In Sound

Back in their native Canada, it’s practically impossible to meet anyone of a certain age who hasn’t caught on to the hype of Emily Haines and her trio of musical men. Their debut Old World Underground, Where Are You Now? was hugely successful and earned the band a place in the hearts of young hipsters all over the nation. Live It Out, the much-anticipated follow-up was released last year, attracting the attention of British indie label Drowned In Sound (home to fellow Canuck Martha Wainwright) who are issuing this UK edition. Right out of the starting blocks it’s clear that Live It Out is fantastically diverse, blending genres with ease. Is it electro-pop? Melodic punk? Distorted garage rock? Eighties new wave synth nostalgia? Actually, it’s all of them, and even finds room for some heart-rending piano balladry. Phew!

Haines’s presence surely ups the potential for Metric to achieve mass idolisation above and beyond recognition of her occasional contributions to Canadian supergroup Broken Social Scene. Her lyrical ability and vocal range – an assortment of throaty whispered hushes, authoritative roars and everything in between – perfectly compliments and contrasts with the musical backdrop. Building upon, but not exhausting, the beguiling pop/rock sound that made Old World Underground… so accessible, Live It Out retains the winning formula for indisputably catchy crowd-pleasing riffs, yet noticeably focuses much more on rocking out with heavier guitars, thunderous drums, fun solos and everything feedback.

Probably the catchiest song on the album, ‘Monster Hospital’ begins with an upbeat, distorted riff that will compel you to subtly headbang and madly tap your feet. With a sly nod to The Clash, Haines howls “I fought the war / but the war won!” amidst a pleasantly simple drum line and creeping high notes. The exuberant ‘Handshakes’ is another highlight, oozing sarcasm with its chanted mantra of “Buy this car to drive to work / drive to work to pay for this car”. Recent single ‘Poster Of A Girl’ boasts a disco-esque beat, heavy synths and extreme danceability, Haines’s vocal switching effortlessly from cooing in English to quietly murmuring in French. Elsewhere, ‘Ending Start’ veers the furthest from the sprightly pop/rock appeal of the rest of the album; drenched in a river of reverb, Haines sings “Gave them our explosions, reactions, all that was ours / for graphs of passion and charts of stars”. The delicate piano, melodious ethereal guitar and haunting resonance of the vocals permits the song to linger and enchant.

For some fans, Live It Out might not live up to the ‘modern classic’ status of Old World Underground…, while others may blame the fervent hype for setting such lofty expectations. Whatever. The fact remains that this is another undeniably well-crafted piece of work that, at its best, will rock your clothes off. Turn up the speakers, put on your dancing footwear, and for goodness sake, hang on to your trousers!

Lisa Komorowska
originally published July 2nd, 2006 

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Mi & L’au
Mi & L’au ••••
Young God

These two must have the cutest backstory ever. After meeting each other in Paris, Finnish model Mi and French musician L’au fell madly in love and quickly came to resent the encroachment of the outside world into their private bliss. Not wanting to do things by halves or compromise with their surroundings, they upped sticks and retreated into splendid isolation deep within a Finnish forest where they have been living ever since with only each other and their music for company. Until, presumably, Michael Gira – once of Swans and now big strong boss of Young God Records, the original home of Devendra Banhart – came a-wanderin’ through the trees lookin’ for some new troubadours to take the place of the aforesaid beardie, now that he’s flirting with popularity on a bigger label. But while Mi & L’au certainly share a great deal of Banhart’s acoustic palette, their sound owes more to the measured, stately flow of Gira’s current Angels Of Light project than to Devendra’s more recognisably folksy leanings.

Although Mi & L’au are in the enviable position of having found ultimate sanctuary in themselves and their hermetic retreat, their music is the antithesis of the soupy tedium that cripples so many ‘love’ songs. Indeed, many of these songs seem to question the very permanence and truth of love and romantic feeling; again, these are topics that wouldn’t seem out of place on an Angels Of Light disc. That said, opener ‘They Marry’ speaks of the bliss of love’s falling, albeit unconventionally, utilising layers of naked instrumentation that glide from filmic fairground swells to softly plucked balladry.

Throughout the album, Mi’s vocals are recorded close enough for the listener to feel her very breath on their cheek, all cracks and imperfections magnified to uneasy, intimate dimensions. You can even hear her clear her throat at the end of Andy. In a starker vein still, ‘How’ shuffles along like an unhurried march over which Mi is found singing of emptiness as the single piano notes push briefly illuminate a darkened landscape like beautiful flickering stars. Elsewhere, ‘Philosopher’ extends the sepulchral atmosphere, utilising a two-chord guitar figure and enough space between notes as to bring to mind prime Low (a comparison that’s perhaps made more appropriate by the fact that Low are also a songwriting husband and wife team… oh, and a bassist, but he’s left now anyway.)

More than once, L’au takes over the vocal duties, providing a welcome contrast with his uneven, vulnerable delivery making ‘I’ve Been Watching You’ and the duo of baby paeans, ‘World In Your Belly’ and ‘New Born Child’, gorgeously affecting. Speaking of affecting and gorgeous, if album closer ‘Study’ is truly a study of anything, it’s got to be of stasis; gentle swells of accordion and strings frame Mi’s floating vocal and take it absolutely nowhere, perfectly happy to circle and converge, grow and recede like the bubbles that glisten and sparkle in the mix.

Inasmuch as it takes the instrumentation of the (largely) American neo-folk scene and takes it somewhere more considered and European-sounding – like a more bucolic Angels Of Light, or a less improvisatory Akron/Family – this gentle, reflective album must be considered a success. Ironically enough, only a certain coldness and emotional distance holds their music back from being truly brilliant, but be in no doubt that this tiny army of lovers are certainly ones to watch.

Adam Smith 
originally published May 7th, 2006

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Amy Millan
Honey From The Tombs •••½ 
Arts & Crafts/V2

Few artists can pull off an entirely elegiac album without sounding overly tedious or annoyingly self-pitying, but Stars frontwoman Amy Millan has just about done it on her first solo outing. Honey From The Tombs is a highly intimate work of self-disclosure that touches upon loss, emptiness, restlessness, love gone wrong and the healing effects of whiskey on a broken heart.

Although Millan tries to dodge the ‘country’ label, the conventions and sensibilities of the genre are clearly instated in the upbeat twangy guitars, banjos and mandolins, blues-infused solos and melancholy finger-picked acoustics. Further justifying this is the presence of bluegrass group Crazy Strings on back-up. Even so, some tracks are arguably more folk than country, a few more pop than folk, and several lean more towards a traditional rock sound. Interestingly, these songs are the product of several years spent as works in progress. “I wrote all the songs prior to joining Stars,” Millan revealed in a recent interview with the Montreal Gazette, “then I ran away from home to L.A.; I came back to a black hole…”

There are numerous highlights; a disconsolate narrative on the loss of first love, ‘He Brings Out The Whiskey In Me’ comes as close to classic country as you can get — and even Millan admits to this — with its light rhythmic picking, gentle slide guitar and ruminations on where it all went wrong. Abandoning the twangy lap-steel in favour of multi-layered dreamy atmospherics, ‘Skinny Boy’ is reminiscent of Stars’ engaging pop aura with its feathery lush vocals, xylophone and guitar. It’s also one of the few tracks with drums, and while it’s pretty enough to stick in the memory, it stays within well-mapped territory for Millan and is certainly nothing novel. The rocky ‘Headsfull’ is short but sweet, while the swirling electro essence of ‘Wayward & Parliament’ makes for an incongruent anomaly among the simplistic quietude that characterises the rest of the album.

The exquisitely somnolent ‘Pour Me Up Another’ signals an end to proceedings, Millan’s tear-tinged musings meeting despairing, clean acoustic lines to create a pathos unparalleled by her earlier efforts: “the nights are for forgetting who I am / so pour me up another before bed” — OK, so perhaps many of Millan’s turns of phrase are not really all that far removed from your average garden variety country song, but for the most part she employs enough musical variety that, as a whole, it somehow works.

Honey From The Tombs is neither groundbreaking nor wearisome. Some tracks are pleasant but interchangeable; others are catchy and poignant enough to include in your cathartic heartbreak compilation. On the whole, it makes for a memorable collection that works best when you’re in the mood for mellowness, but keep it within reach for those days when you’re nursing a bottle of whiskey and feeling real lonesome.

Lisa Komorowska
originally published July 2nd, 2006 

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Liza Minnelli
Liza With A ‘Z’ [reissue] ••
BMG

Originally released in 1972 to coincide with the film release of Kander and Ebb’s musical ‘Cabaret’, this was a televised showcase for Liza Minnelli’s stage credentials; talents that would see her run away with the Best Actress gong at the following year’s Oscar ceremony. The release of this remastered Grammy Award winning album was issued as a prelude to a full DVD.

Guided by ‘Cabaret’ director, the legendary Bob Fosse, this audio recording of the show remains an intriguing journey through traditional standards and modern compositions, although even the contemporary tracks, infused with wah-wah guitars and funky basslines, still show their age. Such television specials are a staple of the US networks, and each number is an all-singing, all-dancing affair. ‘Son Of A Preacher Man’ is a song of such excess, but falls someway short of Dusty Springfield’s definitive version, while ‘Bye, Bye Blackbird’ is given the full Fosse treatment (click, tap, heel, tap) though, again, the staging of the number is somewhat incongruous with the gently sanguine lyrics. A demanding director, Fosse would control every affectation, ad-lib and aside and the note-perfect songs, while impressive on screen, leaves the recording a little bit flat.

There is no doubt that Minnelli puts on a good show, and even on record you can imagine the clenched fists and theatrical gestures that accompany the vocal octave leaps and key changes. Liza With A ‘Z’ serves as a reminder of Minnelli’s impressive vocal range and the ‘Cabaret Medley’ is a perfect trailer for the full-length versions. From ‘Wilkommen’ and the sublime ‘Money, Money’ to the emotive ‘Maybe This Time’ and the high-kicking title tune finale, each audio vignette evokes the divine decadence of Weimar Berlin so evocatively captured on film. Even the lines “the day she died the neighbours came to snicker / well, that’s what comes from too much pills and liquor” have acquired added prescience in light of Minnelli’s public recovery from alcoholism.

Perhaps the biggest shame of Minnelli’s career is that she possessed enough unique talent to transcend mother Judy Garland’s success, but chose instead to live in her shadow, almost as if Garland left the stage and Minnelli returned for the encore. Clinging to a lost era of Hollywood razzmatazz, these days Minnelli is a grand high priestess of camp by proxy, replaying her mother’s on-stage dramatics, effortlessly gliding between tragedy and survival, before sending those “happy little bluebirds” to tug at the heartstrings of her audience.

Here, ‘Mammy’ provides the less than oblique nod to her famous mother, while ‘God Bless The Child’ is yet another reminder of her Hollywood royalty credentials (her father was director Vincente Minnelli). “Momma may have / Poppa may have / but God bless the child that’s got his own” she trills, and for a few years in the 1970s, Minnelli truly did have it all. Equal parts actress, singer and dancer, Minnelli’s versatility made her hot property and her maternal genetics ensured further success in Martin Scorsese’s ‘New York, New York’.

You can’t make a star without some edges, and even if Minnelli is more of a tabloid curiosity these days, remnants like this from her heyday are testament to the last stand of Hollywood’s golden era, but this live recording lacks dimension and is perhaps best experienced on DVD. However, the ambition is admirable and you get the feeling that even if she wasn’t topping the bill, Minnelli would still steal the show.

Stephen Collings
originally published May 24th, 2006 

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Kylie Minogue
Ultimate Kylie ••••
Parlophone

Pouting like a blow-up sex doll on the sleeve, unnecessarily airbrushed to within an inch of her life, Parlophone present the very essence of Minogue…or do they? In the midst of our celeb-obsessed cultural meltdown, Kylie has remained an admirably tight-lipped emblem of privacy, a tiny totem of schtumm. As this compilation more than adequately proves, her music too holds few clues.

Since 1987, she has been putty in the sweaty hands of pop, moulded by those around her, or so the rock snobs would have you believe. The truth, I suspect, is that underneath the layers of plasticity lies a woman plenty savvy enough to both define and defy her public persona. Live, she seems sometimes steely, often overpolished but rarely ever at ease. Her audience banter is typically painful and strained, one awkwardly uncool remove from the unprepossessing and endearing self she often reveals in interviews. Placed in an everyday conversational context Kylie positively glows, but up there on her media pedestal her natural charisma takes a holiday and she is often accused of being a bit of a blank canvas. OK, it may have been true back in the late ‘80s when she first effervesced her way into the non-‘Neighbours’ watching national consciousness – the bubble permed, bubble bathing introduction that was ‘I Should Be So Lucky’ seemed to mark her out as a one or two album wonder. Eighteen years down the line, however, the suggestion that Kylie is still not manning the controls is simply not giving credit where it’s overdue.

Let’s look at the evidence. It cannot be disputed that FluffyKylie, whose hits included the aforementioned ‘I Should Be So Lucky’, ‘The Loco-motion’, ‘Hand On Your Heart’ and the emetic ‘Especially For You’, was the brainchild of the Stock, Aitken and Waterman triumvirate. Their tinny, soulless production was the second worst virus of the decade and sucked the marrow from my childhood then dared me to buy it back. I did of course – what 9-year old boy wasn’t in love with Kylie? Thank the stars then for Michael Hutchence, tragic INXS singer and usherer in of the SexKylie (© NME) era. Like Madonna before her, Minogue discovered that it’s street sex in fishnets, not surburban sex in a pastel twin-set that sells. Douze points!

At odds with the SAW family image, Kylie decamped to the ice-cool Deconstruction label, conjuring up two bona fide classics in the bargain – ‘Confide In Me’ and ‘Put Yourself In My Place’ – lovely! Cue grown men throwing their turntables out of their prams. Kylie Minogue having hits on Deconstruction? It just wouldn’t do and so it proved. The critical backlash for the next incarnation, KookyKylie, was unrelenting, despite some surprisingly durable indie tunes (‘Did It Again’, ‘Breathe’) and a duet to literally die for with fellow Aussie, Nick Cave (‘Where The Wild Roses Grow’). Aficionados of this era may well sniff at the omission of the pleasing ‘Some Kind Of Bliss’ from this collection, while the truly besotted will surely shed a quiet tear for ‘German Bold Italic’.

Morphing into Kylie2000, Minogue returned to slay the country once more, armed with a pair of skimpy gold hotpants and a warehouse full of pop hooks good enough to hang a handbag on. Five years and one über-tune (‘Can’t Get You Out Of My Head’) later, while Body Language‘s BardotKylie may have rubbed off some of her sheen, the good news is that the two new tracks here are among her very best. ‘I Believe In You’ in particular is a nagging little gem, co-written with members of the latest New York name-to-drops, Scissor Sisters.

The most compelling evidence for a Minogue heart beating at Kylie’s control panel is her willingness to experiment, her tenacity at sticking things out and the absolute humanity of her errors. Still, whether you believe she’s a Botoxicated mannequin masterminded by others or a super trouper flying her own flag, at least half of these songs are undisputedly essential.

Alan Pedder 
originally published May 19th, 2005

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Juana Molina
Son •••½
Domino

To the novice outsider, Latin-American music doesn’t seem to have all that much going for it. If you’re lucky, you’ll have bypassed completely the desperate attempts of Shakira and Enrique Iglesias to introduce some culture to their otherwise uninteresting output. Of course, no genre should be judged by its airbrushed pin-ups and it’s always worth digging just a little bit deeper. To those unafraid to scrabble around and delve beneath the muck, Argentine songstress Juana Molina will come as a welcome surprise – a genuine talent whose acoustic guitar doesn’t jar to the sound of tap dancers in flamenco dresses, whose voice is far removed from the shrill mating call of the Costa del Sol’s greased-up, hypersexual waiters. Moving into music following a successful career as a comedic actress in the 1980s, Son (Spanish for ‘sound’) is Molina’s third album and arguably her best to date, filled with Björk-like quirks and soothing bedsit rock.

The lyrics are an obvious stumbling block for the monolingual majority of Britons; there’s little depth here for non-Spanish speakers who may fail to be creatively captivated by what will essentially be a collection of meaningless sounds. Luckily, Molina is smart enough to realise this and attempts to avoid the problem by packing Son with liberal use of phonetically pleasing a cappella performances, particularly on the cooing ‘Yo No’. There are stylistic nods, too, to various English-speaking artists; both ‘Ha Que Ver Si Voy’ and ‘Elena’ contain elements of Jim Noir’s psychedelic chanting, while ‘Las Culpas’ arguably sounds like Cat Power after a particularly heavy night of drinking. Furthermore, the trumpet and didgeridoo mash-up on ‘La Verdad’ proves that Molina ain’t no one-trick potro, while ‘Desordenado’ is reminiscent of Gemma Hayes’s soft lulling harmonies and ‘Miceal’ is in a world of its own.

Although it’s rather unlikely that this relatively subdued album will find a sizable audience outside of the electro-folk faithful, Molina is a mightily skilled performer. So if you can bear to stay in the dark about what the hell she’s singing, you’ll find this record ideal for whiling away our many rainy days. Unlike many of the poster girls of Latin-American music, an English-language album from Molina would be no commercial gimmick, it would be an event! For now, however, just revel in the mystery.

Tiffany Daniels 
originally published July 2nd, 2006

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Allison Moorer
Getting Somewhere •••½
Sugar Hill

Unbeknownst to all but the most discerning and curious of UK music fans, country star Allison Moorer has quietly constructed an impeccable back catalogue, never compromising her values for mainstream success, remaining stubbornly loyal to the one thing that makes people return to her, album after album – the music. Each album has witnessed a distinct progression in her sound without losing one iota of her individual styling and wonderfully expressive voice. Having carved out a niche in the country-pop genre, Moorer is now much in demand for Hollywood soundtracks and a firm favourite on the live circuit, where in 2004 she recorded a live album with her older sister, the equally uncompromising Shelby Lynne. Now, in 2006, newly married to Steve Earle, it seems she finally feels as if she may be Getting Somewhere.

Moorer has created no shortage of gems since 1998’s debut album Alabama Song, immersing herself in the southern soul of 2000’s The Hardest Part before delivering 2004’s harder-edged The Duel. Her appeal owes a great deal to her ability to get beneath the skin of human relationships without lazily ambling down Cliché Street. Moorer takes the road less travelled, telling stories through anything but rose-tinted glasses. Just a short while into the album, however, it becomes clear that married life may have taken the edge off somewhat – Allison’s happy, and here’s a snappy, concise 39 minutes of mostly upbeat music to prove it. It’s refreshing to see an artist unafraid to say all she’s got to say in songs that rarely climb over the three minute barrier. When music’s this good, quality beats quantity every time. Though her husband’s production has left the drums a little leaden and tinny and the guitars a touch more grungy than anything she’s done before, the catchy melodies remain.

Opener ‘Work To Do’ unveils her newly positive outlook – “I’ve got a lot of work to do / got to give you back your point of view / it suits you fine / it’s just not mine…” – while ‘You’ll Never Know’, ‘Take It So Hard’ and the beautiful ‘Where You Are’ are all fine examples of her invigorating craft. That’s not to say there isn’t an undercurrent of doubt and anxiety, but the pop stylings and a cappella intro of ‘Fairweather’ make for an interesting contrast. Where the old Moorer would have sung this song of finding post-break-up freedom from the viewpoint of a wronged woman, here we have instead a liberated female looking forward to the single life. It’s a subtle distinction, but an important one nevertheless. More importantly, it’s also (whisper it quietly) single material, one of a couple of songs that feel like they’ve been written with a more commercial slant.

Another highlight and a nod to her previous output can be found in ‘If It’s Just For Today’, a realistic look at the reasons why two people get and stay together and reminiscent in feel to ‘Can’t Get There From Here’ from 2002’s Miss Fortune. It’s dedicated (perhaps a little bravely) to Earle; presumably his famously tough exterior took it in the way it’s intended. Whether or not Moorer will continue to allow this honeymoon period to influence her writing remains to be seen, but for the moment we should be happy for her and happy that she can still produce work of this quality. There’s a classic album in her somewhere; this isn’t it, but the summer would be worse without it.

Paul Woodgate
originally published July 10th, 2006 

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Alanis Morissette
Jagged Little Pill Acoustic •••
Maverick

The first thing that came to mind when Alanis Morissette announced that she would be releasing a 10th Anniversary edition of her 1995 multi-multi-million selling debut Jagged Little Pill was that her label, Madonna’s famously loss-making Maverick Records, needed to boost their profit margin and quick. Certainly, this record is either a genius marketing ploy on their part or a genuine sign of Morissette’s affection for the songs, for rather than just repackaging the original along with a few live songs, four-track demos and a DVD of the lacklustre ‘Jagged Little Pill Live’ tour documentary, Morissette and her original producer Glen Ballard huddled back into the studio together to re-record the album as an all-acoustic feast.

To be honest, my expectations were not high. If any album was era-defining, Jagged Little Pill was it. Its angsty sturm-and-drang brought me into womanhood; yes, I was one of those girls punching my fist into the air with a feminist “fuck yeah!”, even though at age 11 I had little to really rave about. How pleasantly surprising then that Jagged Little Pill Acoustic is a minor revelation in itself. From the first opening note, Alanis’s own growth, both personal and musical, is clear. Although some songs hardly differ in terms of arrangement, the addition of some subtle orchestration and the obvious replacement of snarling electrics with gentle acoustic guitars all gels together for a very mellow and easygoing album, perfect for accompanying a long glass of Grenache.

Jagged Little Pill Acoustic runs to precisely the same order as its blueprint, and the opener ‘All I Really Want’ is a highlight in its new skin, recalling her epic 1998 album Supposed Former Infatuation Junkie, with its Eastern influences and dancing strings. This does, however, mean that the version of ‘Your House’ here must rank as the least unexpected hidden track in history. In spite of this, it varies on its previous theme by ditching the poetic a cappella and presenting itself as a gently strummed ditty. Elsewhere, the infamous single Ironic has undergone a slightly wincing lyrical change reflecting society’s progression into the Queer Eye age (“It’s like meeting the man of my dreams and then meeting his beautiful husband”) but otherwise is melodically intact and pleasant enough.

Considering the original’s inescapable ubiquity, this remake seems almost like a hits collection. But while best-ofs and greatest hits often leave this listener cold, Jagged Little Pill Acoustic clearly maps out Alanis’s musical journey over the past decade and serves as a reminder of a great collection of songs.

Elisavet Leondariti
originally published September 9th, 2005 

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Alanis Morissette
The Collection ••½ 
Maverick

Arriving just a few months after a less-than-essential tenth anniversary acoustic edition of her mighty debut, Jagged Little Pill, it’s possible to view this hits compilation of Morissette’s work as symptomatic of record label desperation. Are Maverick simply trying their hardest to wring as much mileage as possible out of the back catalogue of an artist who, for many, has failed to fulfil the creative or commercial promise of her phenomenal early success? Errant thoughts such as these may well pass through your mind as you listen to The Collection. In all fairness, however, this retrospective does have a little more to offer than such a cynical assessment suggests. In particular, for those who gave up on Morissette in the late ‘90s – that is, about mid-way through the endurance test that was Supposed Former Infatuation JunkieThe Collection functions as a valuable recap of what she’s been up to since, and a chance for listeners to reflect upon the qualities that make her, at times, a very special artist indeed. Unfortunately, though, the record also offers a few clues as to why her post-Pill output has been somewhat less than stellar.

The 18 tracks chosen for the album are broadly representative: five songs from Jagged Little Pill, a smattering from her other studio records, one from her MTV Unplugged disc, a trio of soundtrack contributions, some rarities, and a new cover (for less casual listeners, a special digipak edition supplements the CD with a one-hour documentary and a few other extras). There are, inevitably, some regrettable omissions: superior album cuts such as ‘Front Row’, ‘Narcissus’, ‘Surrendering’, ‘21 Things I Want In A Lover’ and ‘That Particular Time’ would have better displayed her gifts than some of the chosen tracks, but then no ‘best of’ collection ever pleased everyone. Less surprisingly, but perhaps a little disappointingly for some, there’s nothing featured from her early days as a teenage bubble-permed popstar either. The inclusion of some particularly obscure tracks (such as ‘Mercy’, her contribution to Jonathan Elias’s 1999 project of multi-language devotional songs entitled The Prayer Cycle) indicates that Morissette intends The Collection to be something rather more ambitious than a standard greatest hits package.

The sequencing is non-chronological and begins with …Junkie’s enduring first single ‘Thank U’, one of several of her beguiling paeans to experience as teacher. Of the less familiar tracks, ‘Sister Blister’ (from the CD/DVD package Feast On Scraps) rocks nicely and offers a trenchant view of gender roles and female competitiveness. The aforementioned ‘Mercy’ is a bizarre inclusion, however; a botched attempt at spiritual rapture on which Morissette (singing in Hungarian) duets with Salif Keita. As admirable as her decision not to follow a predictable course with this release is, it’s a tactic that often backfires and renders The Collection a rather uneven listening experience.

Indeed, quality control is sadly variable throughout. At her best, Morissette is a witty and insightful writer whose songs excavate sharp emotional truths; at her worst, she sounds like she’s reciting from a self-help manual, and a second-rate one at that. For every subtle, surprising lyrical detail that strikes a nerve, such as “I remembered you the moment I met you” in ‘Simple Together’, there’s a corresponding slide into cringe-making banality: “I thought we’d be sexy together… I thought we’d have children together.” Also exposed is her irritating penchant for repetitious ‘listing’ song structures. This compositional style – an attempt at litany? – allows little room for ambiguity, nuance or progression beyond glib paradoxes of the “I’m the funniest woman you’ve ever known… I’m the dullest woman you’ve ever known” / “I’m your doubt and your conviction” variety.

Morissette’s vocal performances can be similarly erratic. Her singing on Jagged Little Pill had character, edge, spontaneity and the power to command your attention. And while these qualities are still sometimes in evidence on her later work, they have mostly been stifled by increasingly slick and soulless production. To listen to her music is to bear witness to a gradual erosion of personality. She is, The Collection also reveals, an artist whose interpretive skills still require honing. A new cover of Seal’s ‘Crazy’ is passable, though utterly undistinguished, but an over-eager take on Cole Porter’s ‘Let’s Do It (Let’s Fall In Love)’ from the ‘De-Lovely’ soundtrack cruelly exposes her limitations, sticking out like the proverbial sore thumb. Since many of her songs are somewhat similar in tempo, a little of her work can go a long way. Whatever their deficiencies, quieter moments such as ‘Simple Together’ and ‘That I Would Be Good’ do offer a needed respite.

The nicest surprise though is just how well the Jagged Little Pill tracks have worn: ‘You Oughta Know’ retains its startling ferocity, ‘Head Over Feet’ reveals itself as a surprisingly sweet love song, while ‘Hand In My Pocket’ remains a glorious anthem. But then you probably own all those songs already and they gain little when presented out of context. Of the other tracks, the disturbing ‘Hands Clean’ – which does allow for some lyrical ambiguity – is one that you may find yourself returning to. That Morissette is a talented young artist who has yet to fully find her voice on record is the abiding impression given by The Collection. Hopefully, its release will mark a turning point in her career, freeing her up to reconnect with her muse and thereby take her music in some interesting new directions.

Alex Ramon
originally published February 6th, 2006 

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The Morning After Girls
Shadows Evolve •••
Best Before

Their press release will tell you that The Morning After Girls’s “… hazy melodies pull you right into the world of the morning after – a moment they characterise by a dreamy grogginess, a dischord of transient yet striking memories and sounds, nostalgia; a yearning to go back to last night…” Or, depending on your taste, just to stick your head in a toilet.

But seriously, The Morning After Girls are regarded by some as yet another entry in a long line of fashionable faux-New York bands who emulate Lou Reed; hard-working but perhaps a little over-hyped. So what the musical offspring of these five Aussies really sounds like is initially not so cool (at least, not in my book), taking us back to the shoegaze era with startling precision, where one must keep an eye out for The Charlatan-osaurus sniffing a Stone Rose on a kind of Happy Monday, whilst all team members probably dye their hair black in the name of über-chic and have definitely listened to the noisier bits of The Dandy Warhols.

OK, so you get the idea that The Morning After Girls (who, controversially, are all men save for sometime vocalist Aimee Nash) would probably have fitted in much better, say, fifteen years ago. Refer to the title track and ‘Always Mine’ for two obvious examples if you don’t just believe everything you read. Yes, this debut offering is mostly disguised as ‘proper indie’, even featuring a cameo by Ride’s Mark Gardener, no less, meaning I had to listen to it at least three times before I could even begin to appreciate it. After which, it was gathered that the word ‘disguised’ is particularly apt. Because, once you chomp past the somewhat indigestible and rather bland exoskeleton of self-proclaimed psychedelia moulded into the start of the album, you are rewarded with something much more worthy of your pennies.

So while the unavoidable instrumentals shamelessly appear to boast more of laziness than of creativity – the few lyrics that were thrown in justify this, even admitting “ain’t got a lot to say” – glowing treats from the melodic and upbeat ‘Straight Through You’ to the aggressive Cobain-esque vocal of first single ‘Hi-Skies’ and the sweeping stoner lust of The Beatles crossed with The Vines-inspired tracks like ‘Slowdown’ and ‘Chasing Us Under’, make for a much more convincing dynamic. Indeed, the phrase “saved by the bell” comes to mind.

Though by no means a unique specimen, The Morning After Girls are worth checking out as they pimp their noisy wares at the festivals this summer, if only to hear what they are under-rated for. Like uncovering a rare fossil of the long-forgotten time when Damon Albarn sported a bowl cut, blow off the dusty bits and you’ll no doubt get excited.

Anna Claxton
originally published June 12th, 2006 

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Morningwood
Morningwood ••
Capitol

The great thing about Morningwood is that you’re left in no doubt when they’re in the vicinity. The New York foursome are loud, glam and put on a spectacular live show, largely helped by the youthful exuberance of their wonderfully christened frontwoman, Chantal Claret. But can they cut it on CD, stripped of their visuals and spontaneity? Well they certainly can’t be criticised for not giving it their best shot. Lead track ‘Nü Rock’ slaps you upside your head with an in your face rock ‘n’ roll tune and a statement of intent, Claret screaming “come on get over it, come on get into it” over crunching riffs before finishing with the battle cry “it starts right now!”

Next, ‘Televisor’ approaches metal territory with all guns blazing, with Claret’s wailing falsetto oozing attitude. But before you have them pegged as some sort of glam rock beast, ‘Nth Degree’ arrives to surprise and confuse. It’s basically a big MOR Europop number that sounds like it’s being played by electropop robots with lyrics that spell out the name of the band. You can imagine it going down well in gay discos across the land. And do you know what, it sounds pretty good. But by the time you reach the fourth track, ‘Jetsetter’, familiarity begins to creep in, bringing as it does a contemptible lack of fresh ideas. It’s the usual brash stomping tune, with aggressive riffs and a hollered bit over the drum break. Similarly, while ‘Take Off Your Clothes’ may inspire some audience members to do just that at their live shows, here it rips the heart from ‘Smells Like Teen Spirit’ and renders it simply boring. ‘Body 21′ carries on the slip into formulaic nonsense, being a semi-dramatic rock tune full of half-baked lyrical clichés like “my body’s 21 but my mind is ageless”. Elsewhere, ‘Easy’ is all stadium posturing and screeching electric guitar solos, while ‘Babysitter’ is slightly more restrained and all the better for it. It’s still none too exciting, however.

After all this, ‘New York Girls’ comes as a nice surprise, more New Wave pop than over the top. The interruptions from riffing guitars and Go! Team-style shambolics sit rather well in the tune and make for a more interesting listen. In fact, it marks the start of a closing trio that trounces the majority of the rest of the album. ‘Everybody Rules’ is straightforward bouncy pop but with cool singalong bits, while ‘Ride The Lights’ is a rather surprising Saint Etienne-style, saccharine-coated pedestrian pop song. With more songs like these, Morningwood could yet avoid being put down as a lame one-trick pony.

Russell Barker
originally published March 8th, 2006 

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Rebecca Mosley
Morning Warning Chorus EP ••
Self-released

There’s nothing especially bad about this release from Stoke-on-Trent’s Rebecca Mosley; there’s nothing particularly good either, and the unremarkable nature of her debut sampler makes it frustratingly difficult to review. Mosley may list her influences as “anything from Kate Bush and Liz Fraser to Elliott Smith and Leonard Cohen”, but it’s hard to detect any traces of the originality that characterises these artists in Mosley’s music; as such, her songs can only pale in comparison.

For starters, opening number ‘Power In Paper’ is discordant in an amateurish rather than artful fashion (see Nina Nastasia’s ‘I Say That I Will Go’ for a good example of the latter) and the lyrics are clunky; “so did they bolt up the truth / the document weight / such a flimsy folded fate” sounds little better sung than it does on the page. On a positive note, Mosley’s voice is strong and versatile; it deserves better songs to work with. The strident acoustic guitar work jars against the ears and the lack of structure really doesn’t help. ‘Queues’ meanders in at a lengthy 6:42, long outstaying its welcome despite some pleasingly growly vocals reminiscent of Tori Amos’s ‘Pancake’.

And then it’s back to the major bugbear: the lyrics. Mosley tries too hard to be clever and too often comes unstuck. Recalling the kind of poems you stumble upon in an old notebook from your student days, scan over and hastily put away with embarrassment, the words pile up against each other but what they actually add up to is anybody’s guess. For example, “so tell me a joke please / so I can store it in a cool dry place / with your plastic attic angels / on their stone cold changeling chase” (‘Store In A Cool Dry Place’). Elsewhere, we have “fickle-fisted words”, “speckled mascara gratings making negative constellations” and light that “plays tricks like flashback movie flicks”.

Nonsense rhyme and alliteration all have their place but tend to grate when used to excess and at the expense of communicating anything worthwhile. Back to the drawing board.

Danny Weddup 
originally published November 23rd, 2006

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Múm
Yesterday Was Dramatic, Today Is OK [reissue] •••
Morr Music

It was only after the crushingly beautiful and critically revered Ágætis Byrjun by fellow Icelanders Sigur Rós that experimental foursome Múm gained recognition in the UK, helped in no small way by the fact that their second album, 2002’s Finally We Are No One, was released on the same label. But to dismiss them for riding on their countrymen’s tails would be a mistake; in their own unassuming way, Múm were pioneers too, as this reissue of their 1999 debut proves, albeit for better or worse.

Originally released on tiny Icelandic indie label Thule, it soon went out of print and, following a long and messy legal wrangle, the band regained the rights earlier this year and set about remastering the songs in preparation for this re-release on German label, Morr Music. Aside from the fact that Morr is owned by friends of the band, their roster includes some of the IDM (Intelligent Dance Music) genre’s brightest leading lights, many of whom contributed to the Morr Music Múm remix record, Please Smile My Noise Bleed. A fitting home then, but what of the album itself?

Despite the newly-tooled tune-ups, Yesterday… only serves to indicate how far the band has come in the last half-decade. Disappointingly, twin sister siren-like vocalists Kristín and Gyða (who has since departed the band) Valtýsdóttir appear on only three tracks. But what tracks they are! The most glorious moments, for instance, the end of ‘There Is A Number Of Small Things’ and the first few minutes of ‘Awake On A Train’, are breathtakingly beautiful. The former is so full of joy that it conjures the urge to run through a sunlit grassy field, while the latter accurately replicates that inner warmth you can feel when looking out from the window of a train over a glinting snowy vista as it sparkles in the sun.

Mostly though, the album sounds like exactly what it is: a bunch of teenagers sitting in a room playing with a synthesiser and a few acoustic instruments. Many of the songs have a single musical theme that is endlessly repeated and changes infrequently. As a result, it occasionally gets excessively tiresome, and some of the noodling sound effects are painful. Certainly, if their later records can be said to hold some debt to Sigur Rós, Yesterday… suffers from being a touch too in thrall of Aphex Twin. It has some nice enough moments, but is really for completists only. If you’re new to the band, try the bewitching, aquatically-themed Finally We Are No One or last year’s simpler and wonderfully ghostly Summer Make Good.

Bryn Williams
originally published December 19th, 2005 

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Róisín Murphy
Ruby Blue ••
Echo

Rumours of Moloko’s death have been greatly exaggerated. At least, I sincerely hope so. When quizzed on reuniting with her ex, Mark Brydon, the impossible-to-type Róisín ‘pronounced Rosheen’ Murphy has offered the predictably gnomic response, “I don’t not want to.” That’s promising enough for this listener. While the familiar set-up remains intact – feisty, barking mad Irish vocalist meets cutting-edge bedroom DJ turned producer – none of Moloko’s loveable Balearic stomp has survived. Instead, Murphy’s defection to one Matthew Herbert has resulted in an album of two halves; those of two egos. One is fragile and over-compensatory, getting back on its feet after a year of limbo, and the other overwhelmed and eager to please. This album is a make-or-break statement for both parties, which only adds to the overall disappointment.

Even in a world of iPod Shuffles and cut-and-paste playlists, an album should still be listened to properly, tracks one through twelve, at least until you can safely discard some of them without the risk of overlooking a nascent classic. It is therefore surprising that Ruby Blue‘s opening salvoes – the ones supposed to leap up and grab you by the balls – are so tentative, especially given how much this album has to prove. A faltering tinkle of keyboards kicks off ‘Leaving The City’, meandering in an aimless fashion that soon becomes a trademark of the album as a whole. Eventually, that husky croon we know and love shuffles to the forefront and remains there, steadfast. Reassuring? Unfortunately not. Instrumentation behind a voice as strong and distinctive as Murphy’s should complement and support, not jar as much as this. Herbert’s conscious decision to use a ramshackle collage of everyday random noises, jazz refrains, dance grooves and synthetic skiffle very rarely hits the right note. ‘Night Of The Dancing Flame’ can only be described as Dizzy Gillespie meets The Ewoks.

Things are a little brighter with ‘Through Time’. It’s a welcoming simpler affair, wrapped in gentle layers of organ and decorated with plucked acoustic guitar and cascading arpeggiated motifs. Heralding a string of stronger offerings, it is soon followed by ‘Sow Into You’. Here, one is reminded of Muphy’s Moloko diva status; a status built on a dance remix of ‘Sing It Back’ that made it onto over a hundred compilations and hundreds more dancefloors. The first and most obvious single from Ruby Blue comes with ‘If We’re In Love’, easily the most accessible and immediate of Murphy’s erratic stable. “If we’re in love, we should make love. When will be lovers?” she asks. One has a sneaking suspicion that this enigmatic girl isn’t letting on as much as we’d like to imagine. This is a lyric as poptastically bland as the market she’s aiming for.

For me, the title track is far too long coming. Buried three-quarters of the way into the album, it’s a glorious romp of grunge guitar, handclaps, jubilant backing “woos!” and swirling, multi-layered vocals. Sadly, it’s an all too brief glimpse into the heights that Murphy and Herbert could scale, but… well… don’t. The album’s solid middle section finishes here, bookended by a clutch of damp squibs. It bows out on as subdued a note as it started. Perhaps Murphy really was assuming that people would listen this solely on an iPod Shuffle.

This record might have served as a versatile and grandiose addition to Matthew Herbert’s portfolio – surely his magnum opus so far. Instead, it falls flat, weighed down by overbearing vocals far too high in the mix and much too complex to play bedfellow to the laboured production. Indeed, this is as much Herbert’s record as it is Murphy’s, but ultimately it’s to the detriment of both.

Alex Doak
originally published August 7th, 2005



2005/06 reviews dump: s

The following reviews were all published on our old website between May 2005 and December 2006.

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Rachael Sage
The Blistering Sun ••
MPress

Though anyone this side of the Atlantic is unlikely to have noticed, The Blistering Sun is, believe it or not, the seventh album by award-winning US singer-songwriter Rachael Sage. Sadly, longevity is rarely ever a cast iron guarantee of quality and the album finds Sage in something of a comfort zone and is immediately both shaky and derivative. It’s not even a particularly good derivative either. Sage’s compositions, whilst showing a grand affinity for traditional pop composition, barely register verifiable emotion and leave her sounding a step above the likes of Jewel and a step below the increasingly anodyne Sarah McLachlan.

The Blistering Sun works best when it gets quirky. For instance, the uptempo sass of ‘Hit ‘ – a parody of music industry shmoozaholism – finds Sage playing a slightly awry coffeehouse poet, while ‘Lonely Streets’ slightly ups the pulse with an appealing back alley ambience. Even ‘Proof’ is unashamedly pretty in its sweet, if a little bland, adult contemporariness. But everything else wears thin much too quickly. In particular, ‘Calypso’ and the Melissa Ferrick cover ‘Anything, Anywhere’ are fairly unremarkable and their chord progressions sound almost identical. Even Sage’s lyrics, which for a long time have served as her strongest asset, are lost in the humdrum of the arrangements and, like Jewel and McLachlan, make no argument against sounding dull and anonymous. Even the amassed ensemble of talented musicians, including the likes of Julie Wolf, Julia Kent, Todd Sickafoose and Rufus Wainwright’s guitarist Jack Petruzelli, never quite let the songs catch fire.

Despite the album’s inescapable aura of disappointment, Sage is far from a doomed soul by any means. She obviously has enough theatrics in her to go up against the likes of Regina Spektor (check out the lovely Ballads & Burlesque for example) but The Blistering Sun just doesn’t click into place in the same way that her earlier albums seemed to. It would be a shame to see Sage’s promise fizzle away and there’s every chance that this is merely a blip in her thus far consistently fruitful and ambitious career. Investigate her back catalogue first.

Aaron Alper 
originally published July 14th, 2006

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The Sailplanes
The Deepest Red EP ••••
Self-released

As with many stupendous live acts, the studio version of London’s The Sailplanes doesn’t quite have the same impact, but when the songs are as strong as they are on this latest EP it hardly seems to matter. Packed with stark and scratchy, paranoid and jerky numbers very much in thrall to early Sonic Youth, The Deepest Red reveals a band that’s on to a very good thing. After all, there are far worse things they could be doing than channeling the energy and zest of the Youth into these excellent, ramshackle songs.

‘Seven Ships Lost’ makes for an intense, rumbling start with plenty of needling guitars and a lightly melodious feel that marries well with a crisp delivery from singer/ guitarist Stacey Hine. Next, ‘Underwound’ jolts you out of your seat with a short sharp shock as co-vocalist Tim Webster blasts the song into your skull. ‘Killing Time’, whose lyrics give the EP its name, is the clear standout – it’s a little bit second-wave punk, quite a lot riot grrrl and all fantastic. Much darker and sinister than the rest of the EP is ‘The Wild Huntsman’, which rounds off proceedings with a memorable mid-section where the song fades out until its almost inaudible, then after what seems like an eternity springs back into life.

Grab a copy of this and if you like what you hear just a little, go and see them live. You won’t be disappointed.

Russell Barker 
originally published October 5th, 2006

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Saint Etienne
Tales From Turnpike House ••••
Sanctuary

Thank the blue expanse above for Saint Etienne, perennial vanguards of fair Londinium, and their inimitable eye for a sorry mundanity in need of a paean to its ordinary glory. Clearly, whoever in radical Islam wants the capital on its knees hasn’t reckoned with Cracknell and co. Their latest feat of escapism, Tales From Turnpike House, is a concept album so familiar in its themes of inner city struggle and on the point of bursting bubbles of esteem that it’s utterly engaging for the most part. Over the course of the 12-track song cycle, the Ets unravel a day in the life of the residents of an East London high-rise, the titular Turnpike House. As such, the album opens with the breezily optimistic twosome of ‘Sun In My Morning’, a gentle strum that lazily blossoms with winsome Beach Boys harmonies and a gossamer-light flute solo, and ‘Milk Bottle Symphony’, which, quite simply, may well be their finest moment yet in a 15-year long career. Serving as more than just an introduction to the denizens of Turnpike House (one of whom, Gary Stead, appears in no fewer than three songs), it’s an irony-free and poignant glimpse into the morning rituals of the plateau’d and downwardly mobile.

Elsewhere, the work of Girls Aloud producers Xenomania yields that rare beast, an emotional dance number (!), in the guise of ‘Lightning Strikes Twice’, which recounts the laments of a failing new-ager. They also crop up to polish the charm offensive of ‘Stars Above Us’, a sweetly gratifying floor-filler extolling the simple virtues of a roof garden in this reverse oasis of concrete. Other highlights include the sultry first single, ‘Side Streets’, a tune that swings so unapologetically that it’s easy to overlook the urban paranoia / violent crime lyrical bent, and ‘A Good Thing’, a hefty slab of disco Etienne at their finest. The mostly spoken word ‘Teenage Winter’ mines a similarly rich seam of nostalgia as the glorious ‘How We Used To Live’ from 2000’s Sound Of Water, this time with an added twist of the inevitability of change and the futility of resistance. Album closer ‘Goodnight’ is also worthy of a mention, with its soothing backdrop of wistful boy-girl harmonies drawing the cloak of evening around the humble tower block.

Where Saint Etienne have been less successful in the past, it’s almost always been the fault of being just that little bit too knowing, a fault repeated here on the stilted and silly Relocate, a marital wobbly about moving to the country featuring none other than David Essex as the reluctant husband. It’s as if the Tom Jones/Cerys Matthews duet on ‘Baby, It’s Cold Outside’ never even happened. Even William Shatner managed to mostly avoid such cringesome pitfalls on last year’s Has Been. Nevertheless, Tales... is a dignified return to form after the mostly disappointing Finisterre, and one that will ensure that their legacy remains intact if, as the abounding rumours suggest, it does indeed turn out to be their last album together, at least for grown-ups that is – September’s Up The Wooden Hills will be aimed at, though by no means restricted to, those who’ve recently mastered the feat of walking from the high chair to the potty.

At a time when London is reeling from the first blood of a psychological turf war, Tales From Turnpike House is not just another album from the city’s most enduring musical champions, but also an affectionate tour of an instantly recognisable but altogether less harrowing reality. Get lost in it.

Alan Pedder
originally published July 26th, 2005 

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Santa Dog
Belle de Jour EP •••
Self-released

The Belle de Jour EP is the third release from Bristol-based indie-pop hopefuls Santa Dog (where did they get that name?) in little over a year, and it’s certainly a likeable offering that demonstrates a definite progression from their previous EP. Released in October 2005, the Chemical EP suffered from a flat production job that all but buried the vocal in the mix, yet contained the requisite amount of shoegazing introspection to maintain a degree of appeal. No such regrets to be found on this follow-up, however; Belle de Jour sparkles with a clarity of sound that allows the guitars to jangle as intended. This pleasing development shows a clear and confident step forward in the intervening six months and suggest that the band are growing in confidence. So whilst their indie intensity stays intact, the sound and delivery presents a more accomplished package.

Each member has their own role to play and does so with aplomb. Jojo Harper’s bass drives proceedings along, effectively melding with genuinely scary looking drummer Martin Maidment’s rhythms, while guitarist Rob Williams liberally layers jangly arpeggios and riffs throughout, his occasional squalls suggesting that his influences are wider than the Squire/ Marr/Butler triumvirate to encompass rather less textbook sources like Steve Howe or Bill Nelson. Perhaps their greatest assets, however, are those they exploit most effectively here – good tunes and an even better singer in Rowena Dugdale, whose vocals are just sufficiently ‘estuary’ to perfectly suit the music, with more than a touch of Kirsty MacColl around the edges. Dugdale pitches her performance well, giving a sense of strength and also vulnerability.

Musically, the title track skirts pleasingly along the perimeter of Belle & Sebastian territory, occasionally adding in shades of Teenage Fanclub, The Divine Comedy and the aforementioned Electric Landlady. It weaves an all-too-relevant story of finding significance in meaningful relationships in a society in which we are systematically brainwashed by daytime TV and reality gameshow banalities. Elsewhere, ‘Rosa’ is a parade of sunny summer hooks that risks being rained on by an undercurrent of sadness and desperation, while ‘Pop-Coloured’ is a power-chord confection that visits The Boo Radleys via Franz Ferdinand with its pounding snare driving along the jaunty, choppy guitars. Finally, ‘1000 Cranes’ brings things to a close with a gloomy yet luminous evocation of lost love in post-industrial Britain. On this evidence, it seems that Dugdale and co. are on a serious upward trajectory, and if things continue apace, this Dog may yet have its day.

Trevor Raggatt
originally published March 19th, 2006 

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Scanners
Violence Is Golden ••••
Dim Mak

Though having a name that’s pretty much Google kryptonite probably hasn’t helped Scanners’ cause, it’s hard not to feel this fledgling London quartet have been dealt a slightly unfortunate hand. A domestic deal hasn’t been forthcoming, and while US indie Dim Mak snapped them up Stateside some months ago, doubtless thanks to the magic of the internet, this isn’t as rosy as it sounds. A couple of LA showcase gigs aside, Scanners are in the somewhat Catch 22-ish position of being too skint to tour the only country their record is out in, instead gigging almost exclusively in London where no bugger can buy the album.

This deserves to change, as said album, Violence Is Golden, is as invigorating a record as you’ll hear all year. The lynchpin is singer Sarah Daly, whose vocals lie somewhere between Polly Jean Harvey and glam-era Bowie – eerie and off-kilter, but delivered with too much arch panache to ever drift into woe-is-me territory. But it’s the music that really makes the album; on a budget of what must have been about 5p, the band appear to have compressed all the best bits of the ‘70s and ‘80s into eleven slick, tuneful blasts. From the faintly ribald electro-avalanche of opener ‘Joy’, through the New Order-esque melancholy of ‘Lowlife’ and the rabid camp of ‘Air 164′ and ‘Raw’, Violence Is Golden smacks into you like Zinedine Zidane on happy pills, a Technicolor beast gleefully devouring glam, new wave, punk and a half-dozen other genres.

That it occasionally lacks depth and is generally a touch incoherent does little to diminish the album’s appeal – after all, lack of depth and shallowness are classic signs of a good time, and Violence Is Golden is more fun than snorting a tequila slammer.

Andrzej Lukowski
originally published July 23rd, 2006 

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Scissor Sisters
Ta-Dah •••½
Polydor

Drawing inspiration from 1970s disco, glam and the club culture of their native New York City, the Scissor Sisters stormed the nation in 2004, selling over three million copies of their eponymous debut. Exuberant and enjoyably brash, they fabulously forged their way, feather boas and all, into the hearts of everyone from hipsters to suburban housewives. It stands to reason, then, that the follow-up might be greeted with hesitant scrutiny. Would they manage to carry their signature sound across another album or quickly snuff out of the spotlight, their proverbial 15 minutes exhausted?

Interestingly, Ta-Dah almost seems to be something of a cautious response to their success. Where Scissor Sisters danced saucily all over with themes of freedom and parties, Ta-Dah delves into the psyche with songs about the love, relationships and death, without being a million musical miles from its predecessor with more of the same dance-infused pop that made the band so famous. Take the first single ‘I Don’t Feel Like Dancin’ for example. It’s just as catchy and radio ready as ‘Take Your Mama’, with the added gloss of being co-written by Sir Elton John himself, yet it’s a song about Sunday morning, not Saturday night – the first of many tracks where the music belies the sentiment woven into the lyrics. “Wake up in the morning with a head like ‘what ya done?’ / this used to be the life but I don’t need another one.”

And it doesn’t stop there. As the album wears on, it’s obvious that the songs are strong and danceworthy, with several hits in waiting. But pay attention to the lyrics and a darker element emerges. In the David Bowie-esque Intermission, lead vocalist Jake Shears sings wistfully that “tomorrow’s not what it used to be / we were born to die”, while ‘The Other Side’ shows he’s not just a Barry Gibb clone as he really milks the slowie by crooning softly of a lover’s passing, “if it takes another life / I’ll wait for you / on the other side.”

If the album lacks anything in particular it is the rich voice of Ana Matronic, the self-described “drag queen stuck in a woman’s body”. Notably a strong force in the Sisters’s live shows, her voice is buried here, only coming out from the shadow of Shears’ overwhelming falsetto to shine on the infectious dance track ‘Kiss You Off’. Channeling a pissed off Debbie Harry, Matronic doesn’t just take the lead, she takes complete centre stage with a soaring voice that bites back with lyrics like “spare this child your sideways smile / that crack in your veneer / some blue broad will spoil your rod / it just takes patience dear.”

If you haven’t been a fan of the Scissor Sisters before this point, Ta-Dah isn’t likely to change your mind. Despite strong lyrical development and inventive songwriting, the band has a proud image that it’s highly doubtful to shed any time soon. And who would want them to? They’ve done well for themselves and despite a few weak points here and there, Ta-Dah is a solid album that recalls why the ‘70s are so much fun to remember.

Loria Near
originally published December 17th, 2006

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Jane Siberry
Love Is Everything: An Anthology [reissue] ••••½ 
Warner Bros/Rhino

From Joni Mitchell to the McGarrigles, Sarah McLachlan to kd lang, Canada has produced a significant number of accomplished and influential female singer-songwriters. Mitchell is the undisputed foremother, of course, setting the bar almost ludicrously high in terms of innovation, musicianship and lyrical dexterity. But the artists who have followed in her wake have also made their own distinctive contributions to Canada’s musical mosaic. Though extremely diverse and individual, their work is characterised by emotional fearlessness, a willingness to experiment and an often-breathtaking ability to fuse elements of pop, folk, rock and jazz in creative ways – sometimes in the space of a single song.

Jane Siberry is one such artist. Blessed with a playful sense of humour, a protean voice that can both soar and confide, and the ability to turn a song about a missing cow into an aching expression of loss, she has a devoted following in Canada and elsewhere. In the UK, however, she has seldom received the recognition she richly deserves. In recent years, her decision to release new material only through her own Sheeba label has not helped to raise her profile, and when kd lang covered two of her songs on her 2004 covers album of classic Canadian songcraft, Hymns Of The 49th Parallel, British listeners could perhaps have been forgiven for asking “Jane who”? For the uninitiated, then, this 2-disc, 30-track retrospective (first released in 2002) serves as the perfect introduction to an idiosyncratic and endlessly rewarding body of work. Drawn mainly from Siberry’s early 1980s folk-based releases, her experimental No Borders Here, The Speckless Sky and The Walking trilogy, 1989’s Bound By The Beauty and 1993’s When I Was A Boy, the choice of material on the first disc could not be bettered. Given the extraordinary level of quality control, it’s almost churlish to pick favourites, but the inviting piano ballad ‘In The Blue Light’, the spry ‘Red High Heels’, the unearthly ‘The Walking (& Constantly)’, the hymnal ‘The Lobby’ and the rapt ‘Bound By The Beauty’ are all particularly captivating expressions of Siberry’s unique gifts. The disc also gives a clear sense of her creative development, from her spare apprentice material to her exhilarating experiments with studio trickery throughout the 1980s.

This is not to suggest that the compilation follows a slavishly chronological path through Siberry’s work, however. Instead, several thematically connected songs from different periods are linked together to form mini cycles and suites. Thus, ‘Bessie’ (from her 1996 album, Teenager) is paired with its 1981 ‘prequel’ ‘The Mystery At Ogwen’s Farm’ to tell the tale of a flying bovine from two contrasting perspectives. Placed side by side, the songs sound especially striking, the former a buoyant acoustic strum full of Chagall-esque imagery, the latter an exquisite lament in which the narrator of ‘Bessie’ features as a mere bit player. The same trick occurs on the second disc, whereupon Siberry’s classic ‘Mimi On The Beach’ is followed by the live recording ‘Mimi Speaks’, a cheeky spoken-word piece in which the objectified title character is finally given the chance to “have [her] say”. Such thoughtful sequencing reveals Siberry’s heartening commitment to the fullest possible development of her stories and characters, and is a valuable feature of this compilation. Siberry trades immaculate harmonies with lang on ‘Calling All Angels’, one of her best-loved songs and also one of her most beautiful, pitched in some galaxy midway between despair and consolation. Yet Siberry does not fear bold exuberance; ‘The Life Is The Red Wagon’ is a dose of happiness, its “you pull for me… I pull for you” refrain serving as the ultimate antidepressant.

The second disc is patchier and gives the impression that Siberry’s work has become somewhat less compelling in recent years. There are, of course, some heavenly moments; the sublime, minutely-detailed pop of ‘Mimi’ and the skewed piano ballads ‘Goodnight Sweet Pumpkinhead’ and ‘Barkis Is Willin’. However, the bizarre ‘Peony’ is a piece of woeful, substandard experimenta, and the best that can be said of her treatments of traditional material such as ‘All Through The Night’ and ‘The Water Is Wide’ is that they’re pretty. But ‘pretty’ feels like a considerable letdown after her complex and daring earlier work, and there are times when these songs veer perilously close to schmaltz. It’s left to her closing cycle of ‘Map Of The World’ tracks – presented together in sequence for the first time here with a new (and not very satisfying) ‘Part IV’ – to regain some of the lost momentum.

Siberry shares with Kate Bush an ability to combine unconventional lyrical subject matter with intricate, densely layered yet accessible melodies and arrangements. The work of both also expresses an unabashed femininity and an emotional openness that can sound surprisingly close to toughness. The relative paucity of rarities or new material on this collection means that it has less to offer long-time devotees of Siberry’s music. But Rhino have done a typically impeccable job on it, and it will undoubtedly inspire those new to her work, and leave them eager to hear more.

Alex Ramon
originally published March 25th, 2006 

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Dani Siciliano
Slappers ••
!k7

Dani Siciliano is an artist with a rather impressive CV, having worked extensively with ex-husband Matthew Herbert and charmed all the critics with her acclaimed solo debut, 2004’s Likes…, which featured reworkings of her favourite tracks, including a brave and overall successful take on Nirvana’s ‘Come As You Are’. My first reaction on listening to Slappers, however, is that her musical past is more hindrance than help to her current material. Comparisons are inevitable and, unfortunately for Dani, Slappers is simply not a patch on her past achievements. Although that might strike you as rather a crude statement to make as an intro, it’s not just an easy dismissal. The production values of Slappers vary very, very minutely from Herbert’s Bodily Functions and though the latter saw Siciliano’s vocal transport the music onto another level entirely, allowing her talent to shine, here her voice is simply not enough and is, in all honesty, sorely underused.

While always slightly understated, the melodies and stylistics of Siciliano’s previous work have allowed her voice to be a constantly powerful presence, you’ll struggle to find a track on Slappers that showcases any vocal prowess. The overriding problem is that the album is painfully flat; it merely meanders along without any real driving force. With so little real variation between songs, there’s something crucial lacking. Only the single ‘Why Can’t I Make You High?’ differs in style, but it’s messy – a little bit Goldfrapp in terms of beat but with acoustic bass, a melody extremely reminiscent of many other songs, and a terrible, terrible chorus. Though it pains me to say this, it sounds like Rachel Stevens at a hoedown, a quirky throwaway and the album’s weakest moment by far.

Slappers is not a total failure by any means, it’s just a bit boring. Its dynamics rarely change, so much so that the few stronger moments such as ‘Too Young’ only emphasise the underachievement elsewhere. I found myself confused by Slappers; I just don’t understand what it’s trying to do – it is neither well written enough to be a commercial success or intelligent enough to be a word of mouth classic.

The main problem that Siciliano faces, and most probably will continue to face, is that people expect more of her. Anyone aware of her working history will see very little progression in the music on offer here, and I cannot see Slappers winning fans of anyone not already on board as the songs simply aren’t strong enough. In a music scene where production values are becoming much more the point of focus, and where electronic acts are either achieving massive underground success or, from time to time, commercial glory, this collection of songs is far too weak to be of any real challenge or significance.

Rod Thomas 
originally published September 17th, 2006

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Liz Simcock
Vanishing Girl [reissue] •••½
Angelic Music

Angelic Music is the brainchild of London-based singer-songwriter Janice Haves; more than just a simple indie label, it looks to provide a platform and a resource for female musicians. Angelic’s first signing is fellow Londoner Liz Simcock and their second release (after Haves’s own Big Front Door) is a very welcome reissue of 2005’s Vanishing Girl.

Simcock has passed the last few years plying her trade around the country’s folk club circuit, ably assisted by regular cohorts Ian Newman and Warwick Jones on bass and guitar, both of whom appear here along with drummer Pete Abernathy. The musical maturity that comes from entertaining such a notoriously difficult-to-please audience is certainly evident on the recording. But Simcock is not some twiddly, finger-in-the-ear folkster – her palette is much broader than that. Sure, there are winsome acoustic-based numbers and Joni Mitchell is a notable influence – ‘The Sand That Makes The Pearl’ is a gently personal tribute to the great lady, inspired by the 2003 TV documentary ‘Woman Of Heart & Mind’. Even the lyrics are populated with a patchwork of Mitchell’s thoughts and quotations, adding an additionally moving and poignant dimension to the song. On other songs, Simcock draws from more diverse sources – ‘Scissors Cut Paper’ rocks quietly along whilst musing about the futility of the conflicts which beset this troubled world and ‘Home To You’ is a country boogie that Mary Chapin Carpenter herself would be proud of. Elsewhere, there are nods in the direction of some of the last century’s greatest songwriters, from Paul Simon to Cole Porter and various points in between.

Like Mitchell, Simcock invests a good deal of well- judged humour in her music, scattering the ticklers among the more contemplative numbers. Most notable of the former variety is the sublime ‘Letisha Boccemski’, on which Simcock wonders what it would be like to inherit a greater sense of devil-may-care centeredness and self-confidence (fans of Channel 4’s ‘Countdown’ will instantly recognise the identity of Ms Boccemski’s mild-mannered alter ego). Lyrically, it’s witty and urbane and carried along on a jaunty, almost trad-jazz soundtrack (with Simcock manning the clarinet too). Imagine Aimee Mann singing from the Peter Skellern songbook, or even vice versa, and smile.

All this focus on the quality of the writing risks neglecting the beauty of Simcock’s voice. Blending a mellow richness with clarity and genuine emotion she produces a beautiful tone that perfectly complements the songs. Similarly, she is no slouch on the acoustic guitar either, mixing some excellent finger picking and riffing with Jones. On this evidence, Simcock is a singer to watch out for and with the backing of Angelic and a healthy dollop of luck she won’t be disappearing any time soon.

Trevor Raggatt 
originally published October 27th, 2006

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Sing-Sing
Sing-Sing & I •••••
Aerial

At the turn of the millennium, a bright pop phoenix arose from the ashes of Britpoppers Lush in the form of the shiny Sing-Sing, a whip-smart collaboration between songwriter/guitarist Emma Anderson and former Mad Professor associate, Lisa O’Neill. Released on their own Aerial imprint through Sanctuary Records, their debut album The Joy Of Sing-Sing inexplicably vanished, even with a second push when signed to Poptones. Five years on, the duo are back with an astonishingly strong set of modern, intelligent pop that takes no prisoners.

‘Lover’ gets proceedings off to a flying start with a slab of Blondie-meets-The Bangles punk-pop combining driving drums and bass with an insidiously memorable chorus set off with luscious background harmonies. ‘Come, Sing Me A Song’ successfully blends Bond villain strings and horns with perky acoustic guitar to create a flawless pop song with a lightness that never grows cloying, while ‘A Modern’ Girl encapsulates the best ‘80s and ‘90s pop; coming on like the Lightning Seeds with Associates-style piano chops, it sets out a manifesto for the Bridget Jones generation. The quirky ‘Mr Kadali’ lopes along wistfully contemplating a quick fix for life’s little hassles, punctuated with voiceovers from the eponymous spiritual healer. Then, just when you think you’ve got the measure of the girls, Sing-Sing try to wrong-foot you. ‘Ruby’ kicks the door of assumption to the floor and throws around the furniture with a louche and sleazy slice of disco metal that the Scissor Sisters would kill for.

Normally with a ‘side one’ this strong, the fear of anticlimax kicks in, but thankfully Sing-Sing & I completely assuages. ‘I Do’ and ‘Going Out Tonight’ retain the Lightning Seeds pop feel but add in the indie and electronica influences that reflect their musical backgrounds. After a mellower moment provided by ‘Unseen’, ‘The Time Has Come’ is a rites of passage drinking song with a boozy sing-a-long chorus, complete with bierkeller ambience, contrasting nicely with Lisa’s tender and vulnerable verses. The album rounds off with ‘When I Was Made’ and ‘A Kind Of Love’; the former a joyous pop song recalling the likes of Belle & Sebastian or even the Divine Comedy, complete with harp ‘pling’s and an instrumental coda, and the latter a complex, beautiful and contemplative song that echoes O’Neill’s work with the Mad Professor.

It’s hard to praise Sing-Sing & I highly enough – every song is a potential hit single. O’Neill’s vocals are pure and sit well in the mix, at times conjuring a looser Kate Bush and at others Isobel Campbell, and are woven into an effective, harmonious web with Emma’s graceful backing coos. Despite the use of synths, samples and electronic effects throughout the album, the production is never permitted to steal the show, but serves the songs and coaxes out their subtleties. Perhaps the most striking thing about Sing-Sing is that the songs burrow into your consciousness, quickly becoming your internal soundtrack. After just a couple of listens, they seem so utterly familiar that it’s almost inconceivable you haven’t known them for years. Sing-Sing are precisely the type of talent required to rescue the UK pop charts from the turgid, manufactured product that currently holds them in thrall.

Trevor Raggatt
originally published November 28th, 2005 

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Skin
Fake Chemical State •••½ 
V2

Following the dissolution of Skunk Anansie in 2000 after three albums that successfully blended punk and metal with anthemic pop and soul and a 1999 headline slot at Glastonbury, a solo career was almost inevitable for Skin, their charismatic incendiary frontwoman. However, her first solo effort, 2003’s Fleshwounds, was a sparse, lo-fi and introspective record that dismally failed to register in the public consciousness and quickly dropped off the radar. Fast forward three years and it’s no surprise that solo album number two, Fake Chemical State, heralds a return to our heroine’s rock roots. From the cover art depicting her collapsed on a ceramic floor, face painted in junkie chic (a none-too-subtle literalisation of the album title, perhaps?), the self-proclaimed leader of clit-rock is evidently keen to reaffirm her territory, changing record labels to V2 and bringing Strokes producer Gordon Raphael on board. Always defying expectation – after all, how many black skinhead lesbian singers are there in the white boy rock world? – and without any real comparison, Skin only needs to live up to her own high standards.

For the most part she succeeds. After the radio-unfriendly Fleshwounds, Skunk Anansie fans looking for a fix of nostalgia will not be disappointed by Fake Chemical State, which comes complete with softly softly verses that suddenly break into bombastic choruses – the aural equivalent of shaking your hand before slapping you square in the face. ‘Alone In My Room’, one of four co-writes with former Mansun frontman Paul Draper, is a flashback to 1997 and Mansun’s own particular brand of pretentious prog-rock. It’s the perfect album opener, full of dirty chords, clipped post-punk vocals and a glorious pop chorus. The latest single release, ‘Just Let The Sun’, another Draper co-write, also comes complete with crunching post-grunge guitars layered with multi-tracked vocals that makes for an unmistakeable, but perhaps too familiar listen.

What mars the album slightly is a sense of identity crisis; like a nasty neighbour with 20ft Leylandii, the edgier tracks leave the sensitive songs in the shade, which is especially a shame with the dreamy swirling riffs of album closer ‘Falling For You’, a song that reveals Skin’s vocals at their best, honest and pure. Like former labelmate Björk, Skin can make effortless octave leaps that would leave lesser singers breathless, and her patented wind-tunnel scream is in full force here, meaning the catchier songs like the slow building ‘Don’t Need A Reason’ have all the necessary ingredients to become live favourites. Lyrically, Fake Chemical State is a demanding listen, balancing youthful petulance and bittersweet reflection. The cut-and-paste words of the punkier songs seem strung together solely for musical effect, while the sensitive numbers display a lyrical heart-on-sleeve intensity. Most poignantly on the Linda ‘1 Non-Blonde’ Perry-produced ‘Nothing But’, Skin sings of a lost love who has since moved on: “please ignore the particular way I smile / take no notice of the blood on the lip I bite / I am still your friend”.

Wisely, Fake Chemical State is not simply an attempt to repeat the formula of her past successes, and there is enough here to suggest that Skin is finally moving in a direction where she feels comfortable and confident. Clocking in at just over half an hour, the album hints at finer things to come and the fact that it also makes for an enjoyable listen is simply a happy coincidence.

Stephen Collings
originally published March 29th, 2006 

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Skye
Mind How You Go ••••
Atlantic

Most people will already be familiar with Skye Edwards from her days fronting trip-hop heroes turned coffee table adorners Morcheeba and, inevitably, your liking or loathing of her origins will prejudice opinions of this, her debut solo outing, right, left and middle of the road. But wipe away those preconceived ideas, for now is Edwards’s time to at last be appreciated as an artist in her own right. A richly layered musical approach gives Mind How You Go a sublime, multi-sensory texture that, when combined with Skye’s distinctive voice, produces an album with highly individual characteristics. With its prevailing sense of the hazy dog days of summer, not explicitly expressed until the closer ‘Jamaica Days’, Skye makes the most of the contrast between inherently grey urban environments and sprawling, idle, sun-drenched days. Guaranteed to effectively enrich your day, it’s ideally suited to life in the city for those with escapist tendencies.

‘Love Show’ is a perfect introduction, allowing you to gently descend into Edwards’s world, cushioned by her light and breathy but infinitely listenable vocal. Love is usually unrequited, tumultuous or passionate in song, so when Edwards sings “it’s painless letting your love show”, it’s a minor revelation. By ‘What’s Wrong With Me’, these refreshingly unusual insights are a regular feature but not all are effective. Mentions of mortgages and emails are hardly the kind of thing that most of us would relish being reminded of when indulging in idealism. Elsewhere, ‘Stop Complaining’ contains a jarring reference to driving “down to the rodeo”. But for the occasions where things don’t quite work, there are just as many where her slightly left of centre worldview makes you listen harder and appreciate the work all the more.

Gossamer-light and gorgeous, ‘Solitary’ jostles into the memory with a well-executed staccato approach and is a nice example of when the more synthetic sounds at work on the album are at their most effective. ‘No Other’, on the other hand, could perhaps rely less heavily upon them as the exotic beach-inspired sounds seem unnecessarily fake. The conversational ‘Tell Me’, with its Disney-esque introductory motif, is reminiscent of a postcard or phonecall home in which the overall message is positive but there are moments when the realisation hits that “all the distance spoils the view”, that to be sharing the experience rather than trying to live and re-tell the adventure would make the journey more authentic.

Certainly, what makes Mind How You Go that little bit special is Edwards’s way with a lyric. So while on the first listen you may be fooled into finding superficial similarities with Dido or Katie Melua – the vocal tone is comparable – the more you listen, the richer and more unique it becomes. ‘All The Promises’ is the definitive song in that respect, with unusual snippets like “we broke the chain and left the cross behind” and “love’s a stain on a shirt like old red wine” that haunt you long after the song has ended. Rather than reinterpret a traditional perspective, she’ll take each subject and give it a personal twist, sharing the benefit of her own experience.

The island voices feel to ‘Jamaica Days’ complements nicely the lyrical hymn of desire for sunshine, propelling the album towards that which it and perhaps Edwards herself has been seeking from the beginning – an entwining of the new and traditional, an identity carved from many influences and a sense of individulity that allows for fresh starts and beautiful changes, the most enduring part of which is that Skye is taking us all with her for the ride.

Gem Nethersole
originally published June 12th, 2006 

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Sleater-Kinney
The Woods ••••
Sub Pop

I have no intention of clogging the page with ruminations on band set-up, record labels, history, tour dates, and downloads etc. You can find all that on http://www.sleater-kinney.com or http://www.sleater-kinney.net, written with more care and aim to please than I could ever be bothered with. While to Sleater-Kinney newbies, the trio’s name might conjure up thoughts of a solicitors’ office or city financial advisors, fortunately nothing could be further from the truth. If the metaphor is to be persevered with, Sleater-Kinney are, if anything, more like a construction company, complete with all the heavy earth-moving machinery that any local area regeneration scheme would be rightly envious of.

Seventh album The Woods contains everything from high-energy melodic grinding (‘The Fox’) to raw and impassioned rock (‘What’s Mine Is Yours’ and ‘Entertain’). Even the instrumental sections on the epic 11-minute ‘Let’s Call It Love’ lift you up, let you float happily awhile, before throwing you down from a very great height. Add to that the range of Corin Tucker and Carrie Brownstein’s duelling vocals, which gloriously hurtle from sweet-sounding harmonies on ‘Night Light’ to the howling roar of a B52 bomber found almost everywhere else, and you’re on to a winner.

Although you cannot fail to recognise some of their grunge influences and PJ Harvey-esque deliveries, Sleater-Kinney pull it off by exuding a more natural and unforced cool. While the cynics amongst you might say it’s all been done before, I say not recently and certainly not as well as this. The Woods is unadulterated, fresh, fun and very cleverly composed. The sequencing of the tracks ensures an invigorating flow that maintains a certain sense of urgency and keeps the listener wanting more. Want proof? It’s a rare thing indeed that most tunes on an album would force me to wriggle to the rhythm and shake a leg discreetly under the desk, but it happened here alright. The Woods has plenty to offer and stands up to repeated listens. It seems to me that the interpretation of each tune will also depend on your mood. A song that made you air guitar with your mates on first listen might later make you want to drive out onto the interstate to lock horns with a tornado. Alone. At night. Wearing nothing but your shades.

Endre Buzogány
originally published ??, 2005 

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The Slits
Revenge Of The Killer Slits EP •••
Cargo

It’s been 28 years since The Slits’ ragged debut Cut, 28 years since they greeted the world at large whilst smeared in mud and wearing nothing but loincloths and over 30 years since their first ever gig, a riotous performance of their anthem ‘Shoplifting’ in Selfridges. Here in 2006, only two of the band’s original line-up remain and this hotly anticipated new EP has everyone begging the question: do The Slits still have it?

Beginning with ‘The Slits Tradition’, a self-mythologising big-up that recaps the band’s history and charts their influence on the punk scene, The Slits commendably waste no time in putting forward their gender-political views. Though it sounds like a rather embarrassing prospect, surprisingly they still have the nous to carry it off. Admittedly some of the spoken word segments do sound like they’re being read directly from a feminist textbook, but their sentiment is admirable. Backed by rumbling, distorted bass and Peaches-esque electronics, the band sound fired up and fiercely committed. Disconcertingly, the opening lines are sung in a girl group-esque chant that immediately and disturbingly recalls All Saints rather than Ari Up, but any claim on that band’s behalf to be “the first of our kind / way ahead of our time” would be laughed off the stage, and quite rightly so.

It’s refreshing to see that The Slits still refuse to allow the cocky arrogance of punk to be solely the preserve of the male: this has always been one of their major aims and they continue to convince at it. That said, it seems a little incongruent at best to place this manifesto, a mission statement that makes great claims, as the opening number of such a brief EP; ‘The Slits Tradition’ would fit better as the opening salvo of a full-length album where there ought to be more evidence to support its grand statements. The clues do lie in The Slits’ back catalogue, but many (especially younger) music fans might not be familiar with their work and find the self-aggrandising statements of the track a little puzzling.

Next up, ‘Number One Enemy’ is reportedly an unrecorded track from back in the day, and it certainly sounds like its been beamed direct from 1978: it’s aggressive and confrontational, with an old-school punk riff far removed from the more modern sound of the first track. The scattergun anger of the era comes across in the snarled lines, “I’m gonna be your number one enemy / all for the hell of it”. Final track ‘Kill Them With Love’ is a dub reggae affair in a similar vein to Ari Up’s most recent solo outing, but is easily the weakest inclusion. It’s not bad exactly, but after the ballsy energy of ‘Number One Enemy’ it feels a little wan. Fact fans might jump for trivia joy when they spot ex-‘Popworld’ presenter Miquita Oliver on backing vocals, but that’s about as surprising as it gets.

There’s no denying that Revenge Of The Killer Slits is a strange little project; the three tracks are so incohesive and brief that they’ll almost certainly leave you to wonder whether Up and co. just couldn’t pen enough good tracks to fill a decent album. Still, it makes for an interesting soundclash between 1978 and 2006, serving both as a time capsule that demonstrates why the band must have been such a startling, anarchic presence back in the late ‘70s and as a pleasing reminder that they’re still relevant now.

Danny Weddup
originally published December 17th, 2006

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Patti Smith’s Meltdown: Songs Of Innocence
Live at the Royal Festival Hall ••••
June 18th, 2005

It’s 7:30pm and already tonight’s instalment of the 2005 Meltdown Festival is lingering a little too close to the literal for my liking; the temperature at the rear of the Royal Festival Hall is enough to make the blood boil. All of a sudden, I feel sorry for lobsters. Luckily, such empathy fits snugly into the theme of the evening. Patti Smith, punk’s most judicious high poetess, has seen to it personally that this year’s festival is no mere excavation cum shindig with cronies (à la Morrissey’s 2004 effort) or disappointingly macho all-male love-in (e.g. David Bowie’s stint as curator in 2002).

Instead, she has opted for a typically many-layered production, drawing together the themes of war, politics, art, the working class, literature, experience and tonight’s raison d’être, the innocence of children. More specifically, the theme of the evening is an extension of Smith’s love affair with the works of poet William Blake, and in particular with his late 18th Century classic, ‘Songs Of Innocence & Experience’. The book was originally published in two volumes, the first of which is tonight’s inspiration and the second will close the festival on June 26th during a neat tie-in with the work of Jimi Hendrix, featuring the likes of Joanna Newsom, Jeff Beck, Robert Wyatt and Patti Smith herself. Tonight’s cast is no less stellar. In fact, it’s deliriously brilliant. A once-in-a-lifetime bringing together of some of the world’s greatest female performers, plus a few token males and Yoko Ono.

After a comedic short film of a lunatic dancing boy plays on the big screen, the stage goes dark until actress Miranda Richardson steps out of the shadows to read Blake’s pastorally charming ‘The Lamb’. Patti Smith and her band then take to the stage for an utterly engrossing and powerful rendition of ‘Birdland’ from her near-sacred debut Horses. The song is a discourse on the loss of a young boy’s father and the desire the child feels to be reunited with his dad. Given that tomorrow is Father’s Day, it’s inevitably uncomfortable listening for some. Patti later returns to sing a sweet but drippy ditty written for her son Jackson by her late husband, Fred “Sonic” Smith of MC5, and then another with her daughter Jesse on piano. She also takes time out to introduce us to her favourite childhood toy, little green Gumby, the “clay man you can trust” who’s fast becoming the unofficial Meltdown festival mascot.

In that moment, the notion of Smith as tortured artist and sullen elder stateswoman is banished forever and rightly so. If only Tori Amos were as endearing. As exemplary as her performance is, the empathy factor is lacking. In a four-song set drawing heavily on her earlier albums, her finest moment is in fact a stirring take on ‘Mother Revolution’ from 2005’s The Beekeeper. For someone who struggled so hard to be a mother and is so proud to finally be one, that she doesn’t engage the crowd with onstage banter or even acknowledge the purpose of the show smacks of lost opportunity, though you can’t really argue with a standing ovation. The notoriously self-effacing Beth Orton fares better with the endearment factor – her sweet reedy voice cosies up to the songs like old friends, and she ends each with a somewhat overexcited yelp of thanks. Best of all is a cover of Fred Neill’s ‘Dolphins’, but a fine version of Woody Guthrie’s ‘Don’t You Push Me Down’ is an unexpected joy. It is in fact the second Guthrie song of the night, following Billy Bragg’s hilarious take on ‘Dry Bed’, a charming ode to no nocturia. Kristin Hersh later extends the night-time subplot, performing traditional songs about death and despair that her father lulled her to sleep with as a child. Other highlights are Eliza Carthy’s enriching a cappella folk songs and Marianne Faithfull’s boisterous rendition of The Beatles’s ‘Working Class Hero’. Additional readings from the works of Blake come courtesy of a hushed and spooky Tilda Swinton, although she doesn’t join Miranda Richardson in indulging us with a simple pretty folk song that Eliza herself would be proud of.

It’s not all quite as successful, however. Tim Booth of now-defunct indie stalwarts James performs an awfully trite song about child abuse before plundering the past for an acoustic version of ‘Sit Down’, his former band’s biggest hit, with a sorry sense of ‘so what?’. The same can be said of The High Llamas, whose sole contribution, a song based on an imagining of Blake’s own childhood, is surprisingly dull for one with such a glorious premise. Sinéad O’Connor, too, is equally unexciting, though more unexpectedly so. Granted, she isn’t aided by the sound problems which render her rudimentary acoustic plucking all but inaudible, but for someone so famously impassioned her set is devoid of emotion. Only ‘Scarlet Ribbons’ from her Am I Not Your Girl covers album seems to raise her out of a stupor.

Then there’s Yoko Ono, in a giant hat, providing a timely reminder why the most derided 72-year old woman in ‘music’ is so utterly unlovable. Screeching “Follow your heart, trust your intuition” for ten solid minutes would test the mettle of anybody’s audience. It actually seems like an hour, thereby allowing far too much time to contemplate how on earth we are all still breathing in this sauna. In fact, the performance is so lacking in redeeming features that it’s a relief when Ono departs to a bizarrely rapturous round of applause. The same people were sniggering just seconds before. Maybe I just didn’t get it.

Such a disparate line-up was guaranteed to raise a few eyebrows, but none arched higher than during the finale, a bizarre attempt to sing rounds beneath Patti’s pulsing Blakean verse. The song – ‘Inchworm’ from the Hans Christian Andersen biopic – is a cute choice, and after a faltering start the entire cast of the evening finally get the harmonies right. A moment of indefinably beautiful uplift ensues before the tired, hot but mostly exhilarated audience spills back into the muggy London streets singing “Inchworm, inchworm measuring the marigold, you and your arithmetic, you’ll probably go far…”

Alan Pedder
originally published June 24th, 2005 

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Smoosh
She Like Electric •••
Pattern 25

Just in case you haven’t heard about the mini phenomenon that is Smoosh, here’s a brief recap: two sisters from Seattle – Asya, 13, and Chloe, 11 – who play drums and keyboards and have been creating quite a stir amongst the alternative rock press both here and at home, whilst also garnering praise from many a respected musician. But can they really be any good? For me, the alarm bells started ringing when I read people on certain music forums going on about how great the band are. These are the sort of people that I’ve always maintained are constantly on the search for something more challenging, more obscure and hey, maybe more unlistenable than what anyone else is ‘listening’ to. They want to be the first on the block to uncover something new, something to impress their peers with just how avant-garde they are. Mind you, if Everett True likes them, there must be something worthy going on.

For a start there are some great musical moments; She Like Electric has ideas a-plenty. After the Money Mark-style lo-fi of ‘Massive Cure’, the rolling Ben Folds-y piano of ‘It’s Cold’ and the infectiously jaunty ‘It’s Not Your Day To Shine’, ‘Rad’ is the first moment that knocks you sideways. Eighties-style ‘hip-pop’ is the best way to describe it, with Asya and Chloe’s youthful exuberance really coming to the fore through incessant chants of “yo guys”. Early signs of teenage angst are apparent on two of the best songs here. ‘La Pump’ is a deceptively chugging petulant number with a stroppy riot grrl chorus, and ‘Bottlenose’ has a shouty, close to irritating intro but settles for some fine Bis-style screaming and space age keyboards. ‘Make It Through’ once again spins the album on its head, with Asya’s echoing vocals floating over a rumbling tune that’s closer to Joy Division than anything else. Then ‘I’ve Got My Own Problems To Fix’ manages to make riot grrl sound ethereal. The wonderfully titled and brief ‘The Quack’ clocks in at under a minute and is a ‘Monster Mash’ for the Buffy generation. Smoosh have quite a way with song titles – there’s another on here called ‘Pygmy Motorcycle’.

But while there are many good points to the album, Asya’s vocals are exactly how you’d expect a young kid to sound. It may be an unfair criticism, but it’s a bit like going to see your child singing in the school play. Of course they sound wonderful, but then you’re forced to sit through all the other kids’ performances too. Which begs the question, who would choose to listen to this? But the main impression I’m left with is that She Like Electric is the sound of a band warming up for something special. The ideas are bursting out of this album and one suspects that come album two they will be better, if not fully, formed.

Russell Barker
originally published March 7th, 2006 

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Sol Seppy
The Bells Of 1 2 •••••
Grönland

Is Sol Seppy a faerie queen? Did she make this as a soundtrack to her magnificent transfiguration? I only ask because, from the atmospheric opener ‘1 2′ onwards, one cannot help but be enchanted, nay, mesmerised by what has been achieved here. Often womblike in its comfort, like taking a big floaty bubble bath with Sigur Rós or diving by moonlight to the ocean’s murky depths with Stína Nordenstam, The Bells Of 1 2 heralds the arrival of a preternatural talent. Alas, the faerie bit is a touch of truth economy.

Sol Seppy’s alter ego is actually a woman of mere flesh and bone, a woman known as Sophie Michalitsianos, who happens to be something of an allsinging monopoly; a woman with one foot in England and one in Oz, who began to write songs when she was only five years old, who found time to become a classically trained musician, build her own studio, tour with Radiohead and make special sounds with Sparklehorse in the U S of A. She’s a multi-faceted and shimmering creature who seemingly can’t help but lay herself bare, capturing the sound of an unpretentious drifter who is unsure of where she’s been but is definitely aware of where she’s headed. She’s someone who wants to share with you what she’s seen. What she’s seen is sadness and hope, sex and confusion, simultaneously powerless and powerful.

Her music is devastating where it’s touching and uplifting, heart-wrenchingly human in the most basic way, but a story told with a supernatural quality that belittles all that. Gracefully innocent piano, sitting amidst unaffected hushed vocals and soft orchestration, is wonderfully contrasted by a darker attitude, where the likes of Lamb or Ruby flit between the sombre moodiness of Gorillaz’s ‘El Mañana’ and the twisting of pretty homemade lo-fi knives into beats that border on trip-hop; each part of this vast spectrum illustrated with magical poetry like a modern day spell.

Consider me under it. This is utterly breathtaking stuff and deserves to be immersed in for quite some time to come. Quite simply, a twinkling debut from beginning to end.

Anna Claxton
originally published June 24th, 2006 

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Sonic Youth
Sonic Youth [reissue] •••
The Whitey Album [reissue] •••
Universal

Picture the scene: it’s the UK in the early 1980s and, bruised from the onslaught that was punk, the mainstream musical scene is on the cusp of gentrification – the time of the dandy is at hand. When Sonic Youth released their eponymous debut in 1982, the UK charts were dominated by the likes of Bucks Fizz, Dollar, Tight Fit and Charlene, all of whom, in their own way, made a success of their fifteen minutes, but are unlikely to be spoken of in the same reverential hush afforded to Kim Gordon and her atonal chums when musos sit down to discuss the popular canon. By 1983, Duran Duran would be all over the airwaves like a rash and English pop would enter its wilderness years, culminating in the hegemony of Stock, Aitken and Waterman. In New York, Madonna flirted with a real band and pranced about in leotards (proving that what goes around…), before crossing the ‘Borderline’ and going on ‘Holiday’. More of her later. Time has repeatedly shown that mediocrity often precipitates revolt, and while Sonic Youth cannot be called upon to shoulder full responsibility for what happened next, their coming together, and subsequent success, influenced the greatest of the ‘80s guitar bands and the ‘90s grunge-athon. They didn’t so much storm the barricades as sneak round their edges and lay the enemy flat with their own walls of dissonance; this wasn’t revolution, it was renaissance.

Twenty-five years after its initial release, Universal are reissuing not only their debut mini-album, but also their 1988 off-the-wall oddity The Whitey Album (recorded under the affectionate moniker Ciccone Youth) and Thurston Moore’s 1995 solo effort Psychic Hearts, in preparation for a new album in the summer – all come remastered with extra studio and live tracks. Leaving aside the argument that a remastered Sonic Youth album rather contradicts their rationale, the recent recycling of art-rock/pop and post-post-punk in the forms of Franz Ferdinand and The Strokes et al. is an ideal time to revisit the daddies of the anti-melody scene. After all, without them, it’s highly unlikely that students would have anything decent to get drunk to.

The good news is that Sonic Youth sounds just as contemporary now as it must have sounded young, fresh and new in 1982. It’s not a welcoming sound, however. You don’t listen to Sonic Youth for relief from the world; this music is a relentless test of your mental capacity, an extended middle finger to your ears and melodic sensibilities. This is the sound of musicians building whole cities from concrete slabs of bass and jackboot guitars, extending jams on one note for five minutes before firing up the Sherman tanks and blowing structure and sense into smithereens. On ‘Burning Spear’, Moore intones “I’m not afraid to say I’m scared” and you would do well to admit the same, or turn the CD off and go listen to The Carpenters. ‘I Dreamed I Dream’ is a slow Motörhead bass riff over a scattering of dissonant guitar notes and random, half-whispered Gordon vocals that would give Martin Luther King a sleepless night. The extended outro to ‘I Don’t Want To Push It’ is a torture device; loop it, turn it up to eleven and watch your victim beg for clemency within ten minutes. ‘The Good & The Bad’ picks up where it leaves off and goes on. And on. And on. As a teenager in a dark basement club off Bleeker Street with 200 of your mates and no lectures tomorrow, it must have approached aural nirvana (a term I use not wholly without irony). Emerging into a Manhattan morning, the world would have been a different place.

Only five tracks long, Sonic Youth had ‘cult’ written all over it. Creativity and experimentalism of this quality is never meant to last, but should implode as quickly as each of the compositions grabs you by the throat and screams for attention. That Sonic Youth are still a potent force is testament to their ability to ride the edge of commercial success and critical acclaim and find succour in both. Nothing in their latter (and large) catalogue comes close to the exuberance and couldn’t-give-a-fuck attitude of this debut. Listening to it from start to finish is like being stabbed slowly. By someone you love.

The Whitey Album was the product of a collaboration between Sonic Youth and Minutemen bassist Mike Watt. If the Youth’s catalogue to this date had cemented their place in the art-rock heavens, this album, released under the name Ciccone Youth and named in honour of The Beatles’s double from 1968, proved that art for art’s sake was still a viable proposition in the blossoming, style-over-substance MTV era. Short pieces (to call them ‘songs’ would be stretching it) with little structure, less melody and lots of humour, The Whitey Album was the arch-experimenters freed from even the loose strictures of their ‘day job’ and deciding to go play in the traffic. Pity the traffic – this is disco for the disturbed, with techno rhythms and noise that would ably soundtrack Orwell’s ‘1984′ or perhaps a darker ‘Blade Runner’. It’s dystopian pop.

‘Me & Jill/Hendrix Cosby’ sounds like someone’s let Hunter S Thompson man the decks after a raid on the local pharmacy. ‘Macbeth’ is a circular road trip at 33.3 rpm, four flat tyres and a Casio keyboard. It might be better to be stoned when listening, but I couldn’t really say. Where any semblance of song pokes its head above the parapet, it’s a cover, and finds Ciccone Youth at their funniest. Madonna’s ‘Burnin’ Up’ is given the out-of-tune treatment, cleverly mixing the original chorus with Moore’s laconic drawl. And when Gordon later rampages through Robert Palmer’s ‘Addicted To Love’, it’s almost respectful yet stupidly hilarious. Other tracks that stand out are ‘Platoon II’, ‘Two Cool Rock Chicks Listening To Neu!’ and ‘March Of The Ciccone Robots’, all titles that indicate the playful levels to which Ciccone Youth descended in their efforts to massage the boundaries. The ‘90s would see Sonic Youth move to a major label and release ever-more mainstream albums, albeit retaining artistic control. In this way, they would expand their fanbase whilst maintaining their role as the spearhead of late 20th Century art-noise. The Whitey Album, their affectionate lampooning of the music they originally revolted against, stands as the last time they could conceivably be called ‘alt-‘ and not be accused of hypocrisy.

So, Sonic Youth – are they (not very) melodic masturbation of the highest order, or ground breaking experimentalism on a scale not seen since Schoenberg? Actually, they’re both. This is music that marries the requirements of no-wave New Yorkers in need of a noise fix, with the band’s genre-busting lust for creativity amid respectful nods to The Stooges, Velvet Underground and contemporaries like Joy Division, Dinosaur Jr and My Bloody Valentine. Or, as a friend and fan told me when I asked for his opinion, it’s Kim Gordon on stage, playing the bass and making a noise. Sometimes that’s enough.

Paul Woodgate
originally published March 31st, 2006 

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Sons & Daughters
The Repulsion Box •••••
Domino

The Repulsion Box is the first full album from hard-edged Glaswegian indie rock band Sons & Daughters, formed in 2003 by ex-Arab Strap bit-parters, Adele Bethel (vox, guitar, piano) and David Gow (drums, percussion). Alongside bassist Ailidh Lennon and guitarist/co-vocalist Scott Paterson, they released their debut seven-track mini-album, Love The Cup, in July 2004 to widespread critical acclaim. In fact, the Strap connection provides two key elements in the Sons & Daughters equation – a penchant for the darker things in life and a willingness to sing in their native Glasgow accent, the latter of which only adds to the overwhelming sense of menace that runs throughout this album. It almost badgers you into appreciating it, conjuring up an image of Bethel leaning down, spitting and sneering in your face as her bandmates draw in ever closer, backing her up with a relentless wall of drums and guitars warning you that you’d better like it, or else.

Some comparisons have been drawn between Sons & Daughters and now-defunct fellow Glaswegians, The Delgados, mostly due to the male/female singing patterns. Frankly, that’s ridiculous, the hometown and the gender balance are the only similarities here. The Delgados are sorely missed, but Sons & Daughters are not here to provide a stopgap. On the subject of dual (or duelling) vocals, whilst Paterson is nominally the co-vocalist in Sons & Daughters, in reality he’s more the dark, deadpan backing vocal to Bethel’s more varied, more passionate and ultimately more frightening lead. This is how it should be; Paterson’s not a bad singer by any means, but it’s clear when he takes to the front – such as in the second verse of ‘Monsters’ – exactly who it is that makes this record outstanding.

That said, the Paterson-fronted ‘Rama Lama’ is one of the best tracks on the album. A slower-paced, stomping, chanting verse that bursts into an energetic, derisive Bethel-screamed chorus, alternately cresting on waves of quiet menace and passionate anger – it’s a deadly combination. That’s not to say that Sons & Daughters don’t have a pop sensibility to go with it; tracks such as ‘Dance Me In’ and ‘Taste The Last Girl’ disprove that theory. However, it’s pretty unlikely that these will lead to a slot on Top of the Pops just yet.

The final part of the jigsaw is provided by producer Victor van Vugt, who has previously worked with PJ Harvey and Beth Orton, though his long-standing collaboration with Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds is a more fitting reference point in the context of this album. You can certainly pick out some of the Australian’s dark glaring foreboding, brilliantly helped along by the death-, break up- and murder-inspired lyrics. Indeed, Bethel is positively pant-wetting in the closing track, ‘Gone’, shrieking “I’ll cut you out of every photograph to within an inch of your life!”, channelling the spirit of a bunny-boiling psychotic.

The relentless musical assault might make this album difficult for some listeners to stick with all the way through without wanting to hide in a corner, but track by track it will insinuate itself into your playlists until everything else begins to feel almost unimportant and trite in comparison. In a word, essential.

Scott Millar
originally published August 15th, 2005 

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Ronnie Spector
The Last Of The Rock Stars •••
High Coin

Since the original line-up of The Ronettes disbanded way back in 1966, the trajectory of Ronnie Spector’s career has been spectacularly steep in the wrong direction. For this, her first album since 1987 and only her third solo full-length altogether, she returns to the fold both older and wiser and trying to break free from her dogged bad luck and the stigma of her allegedly homicidal ex-husband. The self-congratulatory (or is it self-mocking?) title aside, The Last Of The Rock Stars is a qualified success, against all the odds and in spite of a few wobbly moments.

It’s a touch unfortunate that the album starts with one such dodgy inclusion, ‘Never Gonna Be Your Baby’ coming across like a craggy Cyndi Lauper impersonator singing a third-rate Roxette number. Her once glorious voice sadly sounds a little strained, even on ‘Ode To LA’, her collaboration with The Raveonettes in which the old girl group vibe is back in full effect. Her cover of Amy Rigby’s ‘All I Want’, however, is right on the money, both lyrically and musically with its country-ish theme and perky backing vocals. Other highlights include ‘Hey Sah Lo Ney’, with its nonsense lyrics providing a dose of pure dumb fun, and ‘Work Out Fine’, a cool-as-you-like rock ‘n’ stroll number with spoken word interjections and guitar courtesy of none other than Keith Richards. ‘Won’t Stop Saying Goodbye’ is a glossy, seemingly effortless shimmy with appealing “ba ba ba” bits, while ‘Out In The Cold Again’ pulls out all the stops for a grand, jazzy lounge number that makes for a welcome change in style.

Given the events of recent years, casual listeners will perhaps be most interested in ‘Girl From The Ghetto’, a thinly veiled attack on her ex-husband set to a jaunty 10,000 Maniacs-style tune. Here, Spector extols the virtues of believing in karma and how things are finally balancing out for her. What could well have been a car crash of a track is actually so touching that you can’t help but be affected by the sentiment, especially when it contains lines like “I hope your hell is filled with magazines / and on every page you see a picture of me”. Ouch.

Despite the occasionally poignant lyric, the degree to which the success of the album rests on Spector’s vocal is clearly apparent. When she finds the right song for her pipes, as she has with ‘All I Want’, everything else falls into place and it all seems so effortless and the song so expansive. When things go awry, however, they really get ugly. Ramones cover ‘Here Today, Gone Tomorrow’ is stodgy blues rock with little to recommend it to anyone, while her inclusion of yet another version of Johnny Thunder’s ‘You Can’t Put Your Arms Around A Memory’ is a bit of a mixed bag – the verses are quietly affecting in their tribute to the late Joey Ramone (who sings backing vocals), but the sentiment is lost when the chorus explodes in overblown pomp.

It’s a shame that a greater degree of quality control was lacking given the album’s lengthy gestation period, but in spite of its blips, The Last Of The Rock Stars is a timely reminder of how great Ronnie Spector once was, and how great she can still be given the right tune.

Russell Barker 
originally published August 23rd, 2006

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Regina Spektor
Live at AR2, Bristol University ••••½
November 19th, 2005

The AR2 at Bristol University is a minuscule venue and one that is frankly inhospitable to whomsoever graces its dingy little stage. Just to even get there, Regina Spektor must climb through a crowd of adoring fans who’ve been eagerly waiting for two hours, and in the atmosphere of heady devotion and anticipation one fears a little for her safety; the French boy I’ve been talking to has just informed me that if he gets to meet her afterwards he will cry and, if by any chance she hugs him, he will die.

Thankfully, Spektor’s burly tour manager and assorted security men clear her a path, and when she finally mounts the stage, she beams at the crowd and looks very happy to be here. Swiftly launching into ‘Ain’t No Cover’, a lovely a cappella ditty, her voice swoops in a manner so soulful that it recalls the great jazz singers like Nina Simone and Billie Holliday as she taps the microphone gently with her finger to form a beat. The song is about death – not an uncommon topic for Spektor – and yet she sings and inhabits the lyrics in a way that celebrates every aspect of living.

As on her records she is irrepressibly playful, and what shines through the entire performance is an undeniable wit. Even when playing songs that are new to many audience members – Spektor has two albums, 11:11 and Songs, yet to be released in the UK, plus a truckload of others so far unrecorded – she elicits genuine laughter from the enthusiastic crowd. Nowhere is this more true than on ‘Baby Jesus’, which, in a pre-emptive strike, Regina warns the crowd not to be offended by. Ostensibly about her fear of fanatical right-wing Christians, the chorus of “All the non-believers, they get to eat dirt / and the believers get to spit on their graves” simply reaffirms that Spektor is a brave, sardonic and original lyricist.

The evening’s excitement doesn’t stop there either. For ‘Poor Little Rich Boy’, Regina plays keyboard one-handed while simultaneously bashing a chair with a drumstick so vigorously that chips can be seen flying into the audience. When she launches into ‘Us’, also from 2004’s Soviet Kitsch, the reverence with which the crowd sing along and faithfully recite each word gets Regina’s infectiously wide grin of approval. Later on, when a lady briefly faints at the front, Spektor stops playing in order to help her up and, after easing her into a seat on the stage, hands her a bottle of water and allows her to sit there for the rest of the show.

Clearly, this is an artist who truly cares for her fans. Indeed, following a rapturously received encore of ‘Samson’, one of Spektor’s most affecting and simple songs that spins the yarn of a tender love, she announces that she’ll attempt to meet any fans who want to say hi at the merchandise stand. She tells us that she fears this plan is overly ambitious, and the fans do indeed flock to meet their idol, but Regina remains until every last one has queued, blushed and gushed their thanks (myself included). For not only is she one of today’s most unique, creative and playful artists, but also one of the most humble and generous.

Danny Weddup
originally published December 6th, 2005 

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Regina Spektor
Mary Ann Meets The Gravediggers & Other Stories ••••
Transgressive

Despite the lazy comparisons that journos often make – “She’s got red hair, she must be the new Tori Amos!” – the songs of Regina Spektor sound like noone else on Earth. This is conclusively proven by this new compilation, which collects together selected tracks from her three previous albums under one overarching theme. Mary Ann Meets The Gravediggers… privileges Spektor’s narrative-driven songs, which are conveniently often the strongest cuts on her albums. Many of them have a literary lyrical bent, making reference to Greek tragedies (‘Oedipus’) and Hans Christian Anderson (‘Prisoners’), alongside sparkling stories of her own creation. The cast of characters is eclectic and colourful, but not all of the songs feature fictional constructions – Spektor is not afraid to place herself centre-stage.

On a sonic level, the record is striking; Regina has a playful attitude to words and a clearly apparent delight in their sound, or rather the unusual sounds she can draw out of them. This is evident throughout, but most of all on ‘Consequence Of Sounds’. The lyrics directly contradict the melodic stream that leaps from Spektor’s mouth. So while the song begins “My rhyme ain’t good just yet / my brain and tongue just met” and goes on to discuss the problems caused by consonants and vowels, every line is delivered with stunning verbal dexterity. Furthermore, many of her songs are punctuated by bursts of foreign language and surprising sounds that play a part in their respective narratives – a sneeze on ‘Mary Ann’, hawking spittle on ‘Daniel Cowman’. Regularly swooping from pop to rap to jazz stylings, often in the space of two lines, Spektor displays an inventiveness that sets her way above the majority of her peers. But one comparison does stand true; the energy and elasticity of her vocals are reminiscent of Ani DiFranco’s riotous live shows.

What this collection also proves is that Spektor can communicate whimsical humour (‘Love Affair’, ‘Sailor Song’) and affecting tragedy with equal skill. ‘Daniel Cowman’ (“a man destined to hang / a man destined to fry”) is about a death row inmate’s desire to take a final bath before his execution. ‘Chemo Limo’ is the album’s most lyrically complex and brilliant song. It presents us with the dream narrative of a mother diagnosed with cancer, her anxieties about dying and leaving her children behind revealed through the coded images thrown up in her dream. In the lyrics “I had a dream: crispy crispy Benjamin Franklin came over and babysat all four of my kids”, her financial concerns and worries about the welfare of her children are conflated with the precision and economy that characterises the best poetry. Meanwhile, the character’s outrage at the financial burden of paying for chemotherapy is expressed in the song’s impassioned chorus: “I can afford chemo like I can afford a limo and on any given day I’d rather ride a limousine.”

The album culminates with recent single, ‘Us’, a dramatic, stormy number that finally began to attract the sort of press and radio attention that Spektor more than warrants. She is an artist who improves with each release – the finest songs here are taken from 2004’s Soviet Kitsch – and she has already completed her next album, scheduled for release later this year. With that in mind, it looks increasingly likely that 2006 will be the year in which Regina Spektor Meets Chart Success & The Acclaim That She Deserves.

Danny Weddup
originally published January 23rd, 2006 

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Regina Spektor
Begin To Hope ••••½ 
Sire

The moment when any semi-established artist braves that most perilous of career moves and delivers their first major label release is always a worrisome one. Though it’s hard to imagine that fans who invested in Regina Spektor’s formative albums – the self-released 11.11 and Songs and 2003’s breakthrough Soviet Kitsch – would begrudge her finally getting the deal she justly deserves, it’s bound to ruffle some feathers.

Born in the former Soviet Union and having moved to New York City aged seven, Spektor has been playing bars the size of broom cupboards for years. Primarily a word-of-mouth phenomenon, her dramatic rise in fame has led to sold-out concerts in more spacious surrounds and, as a result, Begin To Hope has clearly had a whole wad of money hurled in its direction. With over two months spent recording compared with Soviet Kitsch‘s brisk ten days, Spektor has been given a chance to experiment with production and instruments that she’s never been able to before, with beats, drums and bigger arrangements that her previous albums only ever dreamed of.

The result is an album that feels rich and cared for, but one that has already alienated some hardcore fans with cries of “Regina’s gone pop!”. It’s certainly true that some of these songs sound completely different to the girl-and-a-piano affair that is Spektor performing live. But would an album of purely piano-based songs really be as varied and exciting as Begin To Hope is? I doubt it. Regardless, nothing is able to detract from Spektor’s obvious talent for songwriting and performing.

Each song has its own story to tell, both musically and through Spektor’s fascinating way with words. Her lyrics are at times haunting and moving, such as ‘Field Below’s evocative refrain: “darkness spreads over the snow / like ancient bruises”, and at other times laugh-out-loud funny: “Hey remember that month when I would only eat boxes of tangerines / so cheap and juicy!” (‘That Time’). Fittingly for that commanding title, many songs on Begin To Hope are uplifting and invigorating, such as opener ‘Fidelity’, with its bouncy plucked-strings beat, and the rock-out thrill of ‘Better’. Recent single ‘On The Radio’ seems to almost parody the sound of your average radio hit, but the lyrics are thought-provoking and somehow it works. Elsewhere, a number of other songs on the album are kept sparse, with Spektor’s talent for the piano the main focus. The best of these is ‘Samson’, a soulful weepie, while the Russian gothic of ‘Après Moi’ is suitably dark and epic, complete with the atmospheric effect of clocktower chimes.

There are a couple of songs that aren’t so successful, such as the strangely unmelodic piano splurge that is ‘20 Years Of Snow’ and ‘Edit’, which might lead you to wonder whether Spektor has been having a little too much fun with ProTools. On the whole, though, Begin To Hope is an outstanding album of substance and thought, a comprehensive delve into one of the greatest young musical talents around who is carving out trends, not following them. May her fame continue to soar so that she has more chance to experiment with her passion and her art.

Bryn Williams
originally published July 10th, 2006 

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Spider
The Way To Bitter Lake ••••
Self-released

Old wives once foretold that a fever could be cured by wearing around one’s neck a spider in a nutshell. In a nutshell, that’s poppycock, but many a fetid sweaty furrowed brow could be soothed by a spin of The Way To Bitter Lake, the debut mini-album from Brooklyn-based artist Jane Herships. Quite where she’s hiding her other four limbs is anybody’s guess, but with Herships less is unquestionably more. She may be yet another Sidewalk Café alumnus, having stolen the show at a November 2004 open mic night, but Herships stands out on the antifolk periphery by virtue of having a classically beautiful, bittersweet voice. Some comparisons ring true, but only fleetingly; a first listen brought to mind a less twangy Jill Barber or Victoria Williams, while a second conjured a slightly less deathly Julie Doiron supping a herbal tea with Nina Nastasia. Then just when you think you might have nailed her down, Herships will gleefully give you the slip.

Opener ‘The Clearing’ is deceptively textbook, lo-fi finger-picked loveliness; “now is the time to behave” she opines a little mischieviously, but the undulating melody and perfectly timed harmonies of Louis Schwadron (who was, until recently, the Polyphonic Spree’s French horn supremo) are ecstatically cracked and lovelorn. ‘Don’t Be Afraid, I’ve Just Come To Say Goodbye’ is what Múm might sound like if they spent less time on their laptops – gorgeous flourishes of flute and Schwadron’s horn are woven sparingly through hushed double-tracked vocals, sweetly intimate guitar and unintrusive electric piano. Herships clearly knows a thing or two about subtlety, resisting too the temptation to overegg the lyrics; “and should I beware / your nights and your mares” in particular is devastatingly simple and suggestive. The intriguingly-titled ‘I Don’t Know If She Had Any Teeth Because She Never Smiled’ offers up more of the same, this time coated in black treacle drones, while ‘The Bitter One’ is blessed with a crisper guitar sound, bolder vocal and weeping, evocative strings.

But it’s when Herships plugs in that things get truly exhilarating. The cool countrified lament of ‘Cold Eyes’ is a long-lost Edith Frost song, circa Telescopic, or at least it shimmers so finely that it very well could be. The prettiness of ‘Maggie’s Song For Alice’ is torn completely asunder by a jagged wedge of electric guitar that at first might seem woefully misjudged, but just ten seconds later may just be the most wonderfully pained Stratocaster solo that’s ever pierced your armour. And after the summery stroll of ‘Midnight On The Nile’ lulls you back into calm, ‘End Song’ briefly erupts with a quietly fierce farewell, the feedback so thickly caked on that the lyrics are all but obscured and indecipherable.

For disambiguation’s sake and a handy bit of useless trivia, there are in fact three Bitter Lakes in Herships’ native land, and which of them this captivating song suite points to, who really minds? If further fruits of her labour are this truly scrumptious, Herships herself may find the path to success rather well signposted too.

Alan Pedder
originally published February 26th, 2006 

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Stars
Set Yourself On Fire •••½
City Slang

Set Yourself On Fire is the third full album from talented Canadian indie-pop quintet Stars, although only the second to get a domestic release, and over six months late at that (and with an inexplicably hideous new sleeve). Whilst they haven’t moved far from the keyboard-driven electropop of Heart, there’s a deliciously fuller sound at work with some beautifully crafted orchestral additions that never overpower or become pompous, as can often happen when rock bands try to add a string section (are you listening Oasis?).

Of course the real fuel to Stars’s fire is the vocals, and there’s eerily tight harmonising aplenty from Amy Millan and Torquil Campbell, sometimes to the point where it requires a finely-tuned ear to even tell that two people are singing. While the gentle, melodic opener ‘Your Ex-Lover Is Dead’ seems to be more of an intro than a song, recalling The Delgados in places, its string-soaked self-help mutterings could well put off some listeners worried that the rest of the album may be as dreary or, worse, unpleasantly saccharine. It’s a strange choice for second single and certainly doesn’t live up to the great title, but if you take Millan’s breathily delivered assertion that “live through this and you won’t look back” as a plea to stick with it, you’ll be taking good advice.

The reward comes swiftly as the band shifts up a gear or two for the title track, a masterful slab of quirky pop that crests along beautiful soundscapes while successfully avoiding the perennially attendant pitfall of dullness. The only criticism is that Stars seem overly keen on excessively long outros that often so completely change the mood of the piece that you forget what the main part of the song was like. In this case, two minutes of Campbell languidly repeating “20 years asleep until we sleep forever” over tired piano and slide guitar, whilst undoubtedly lovely, simply does not thrill.

First single ‘Ageless Beauty’ is something of an insidious toe-tapper. It may not impress on the initial listen or two, but your head will surely nod without you knowing and, like me, you may even find yourself typing in rhythm and your feet competing to be most active. Providing rare relief from Stars’s favourite theme of broken hearts and failed relationships, this one’s actually about getting together. Another highlight comes successively with ‘Reunion’, the chorus of which is an uplifting joy as Campbell chimes “all I want is one more chance to be young and wild and free”. Don’t we all. Elsewhere he sighs, “I had six too many drinks last night”, but if this is what happens when the man is hungover, I shall personally take him out on a massive bender before the next album.

Thematically on another level entirely, ‘He Lied About Death’ is an edgy, spiky anti-Bush song. It’s slightly out of keeping with the tone of the rest of the album, but nonetheless stands out for the right reasons as a great little rant that deals more with political passion than reasoned debate with lines like “I hope your drunken daughters are gay!”. Its second half verges on a discordant noise assault, but never becomes unlistenable and certainly sustains the mood of the track. Perhaps this is where the record should have ended, however, as it leaves the concluding trio of songs feeling somewhat hollow and even a little boring.

Stars produce well-realised, enchanting, pretty indie pop-rock mostly dealing with the endlessly engaging subject of the battle of the sexes, and in doing so have produced a listenable, likeable and often affecting record, only slightly let down by a few too many unnecessary fillers, which would have been better placed as B-sides, and those occasional off-topic outros.

Scott Millar
originally published October 25th, 2005 

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Rachel Stevens
Come & Get It •••
Polydor

Take seven unnaturally polite post-pubescents, add generous helpings of hit factory pop droppings and garnish with guidance from Simon ‘Svengali’ Fuller. Leave mostly uncovered for a few years before separating the mixture and leaving to cool. Seize a generic pop princess cookie cutter and voila! you too can make yourself a Rachel Stevens. With so little of her debut solo outing Funky Dory clinging favourably to the tastebuds, Stevens has everything to prove with this second dish, and while it’s still no eureka moment in the evolution of pop music, she succeeds at least in dispensing with flogging the now lifeless S Club horse. With Funky Dory essentially just a retread of her days of sharing the limelight, Stevens’s solo career looked dead in the water. Cue a hasty reinvention and a few ‘borrowed’ ideas from the likes of Goldfrapp, and all of a sudden there was life in the proverbial old dog yet.

The ‘frappian single ‘Some Girls’ is repeated here for the benefit of fans not willing to shell out for the bolstered reissue of its predecessor. Indeed, this feels rather less like an album than a meticulously planned strategy for total chart domination. How often is it these days that you get four singles released in the run up to a record? It’s just as well then that the songwriters and producers behind it (including Karen and Shelly Poole, Richard X, Rob Davis and former S Club hitmakers Jewels & Stone) have managed to conjure up some tunes well worthy of attention.

In particular, Richard X’s ‘80s retro-electro influence really makes its mark. In a similar vein to Goldfrapp’s ‘Ooh La La’, most recent single ‘I Said Never Again (But Here We Are)’ calls on late ‘80s glam-a-likes Adam & The Ants and combines their influence with some rather dubious but entertaining lyrics. Elsewhere, ‘Je M’Appelle’ is a spiky mid-tempo R&B number that suits Stevens well, while the pseudo nursery rhyme ‘Secret Garden’ displays a vocal style heavily borrowed from Kylie Minogue’s ‘Chocolate’ – although this may have been intentional given that both songs sprang from the pen of Karen Poole. Making an unapologetic play for the fantasies of Stevens’s young male fans, ‘Crazy Boys’ teases with its chunky beats and solid bassline underpinning her moans and groans.

While the songs are, for the most part, amply strong enough to carry her, Stevens’s struggle for success has always been marred by the music coming second to her image. Sure, it’s worked for others, but somehow she lacks the likeability factor that separates Kylie from Dannii and Robbie from Gary. Targeting the loins of the boys won’t necessarily translate into healthy sales if she cannot endear herself to the sisterhood also. Even with some of the finest songwriters in pop putting rockets under Rachel, you can’t help feeling that some of Come & Get It has gone to waste on something of a damp squib.

Andrew Stewart
originally published October 10th, 2005 

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Marsha Swanson / Jennifer Hall
Live at CB2, Cambridge •••
May 11th, 2006

Jennifer Hall is fashionably late this evening, soundchecking in front of the few people cosily spread out on rugs and floral cushions before her. She’s small and cute and extremely apologetic about travelling all the way from Bath. After being introduced by a strange man in a smoking jacket, she begins perhaps a little nervously, but with each song forces her listeners to fall in love with her slightly more as her tiny hands skilfully pluck at her acoustic guitar. If there are any imperfections tonight, I personally find them endearing. And even if I didn’t they’d be cancelled out regardless by the sheer size and quality of her voice, a noticeable salute to Tori Amos through its journey from soothing to searing.

There is certainly more to this girl than meets the eye, too. As much as she and violinist Mari Dackevych may look like carefree young women for whom it’s all about the handbags and the gladrags, there’s a beautiful and surprising honesty in these stripped down, rawly emotional songs of loss and love. In fact, when Miss Hall performs an a cappella version of the title track from her Mostly Grey EP, it was all I could do to contain myself. My only quibble is that my arse went dead halfway through the set. A great new talent.

Which is more than I can say for the headline act – London-based singer/songwriter Marsha Swanson and her Nickelback-influenced guitarist. I can barely believe she’s actually landed a record deal. Although sincerity and a strong conviction can sometimes atone for a lack of tunefulness, I almost wee my pants when she soberly introduces a song about dyslexia – an apparent affliction that affects 10% of the population – a song named ‘Johnny Can’t Read’. And, as much as you claim to be influenced by Carole King and Beth Orton, you, Marsha my dear, can’t write songs. Or sing very well. I had to run away by this point but I wish I hadn’t. Apparently dyslexic people write their j’s upside down. And I missed her singing about hoovering the sky or something. Damn.

Anna Claxton 
originally published May 18th, 2006

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Ember Swift
Disarming ••••
Few’ll Ignite Sound

The dark heavy boot and brightly striped sock featured on the sleeve offer only a suggestive shade of the intensely gritty grass roots, independent musical and energetic thrust of Ontario native Ember Swift and her band. On this, her eighth release since 1996, the trio proudly parades their musical dexterity. Charging through a musical mélange of jazz, punk, feisty blues, folk-rock, pop and Middle Eastern tunes, they carefully weave together rich acoustic guitar with layers of bass, drums, electric violin and harmonies. Some may sense a little too much activity on a musical level, leaving a wake of disjointed tracks in its ambitious path. However, do not be turned off by how different Ember sounds. Beyond the unusual mish-mash of songs and wandering vocal style lies a lyrical truth, a beautiful voice and forceful maverick passion. Released on her own indie label, Disarming leaves the listener in no doubt that Swift is freely and happily “independent by identity not by default.”

Opening with ‘Tapped & Wired’, Ember swiftly welcomes and energetically lures the listener into her consciously aware and politically active world. A poignant commentary, the song champions the enlightenment of the masses, unreservedly noting the dodgy dealings and twisted priorities of politicians. It is a positively intelligent kickstart to a unique musical journey, treading a path through political and personal ideology. You’ll want to join in. You’ll want to believe in these tunes with their soaring jazz vocals and sweetly soft sounds. Other highlights include the title track and ‘FAQ’, which Ember describes as “a reggae-driven pop quiz”. It’s the perfect Q&A session song to get to know the girl behind the music.

To dismiss Disarming as disjointed and lacking concept would be a rash decision and one that misses the purpose of her songwriting as truthful expression and storytelling. It is immediate, uncalculated on a corporate level, full of passion and revels in revealing her truth. As the title track accentuates, “I think it’s sad if you find me alarmingly disarming, and I look for those who align, and who find the honesty charming.”

When ‘Breath’ draws to a close and the album stops spinning, the listener may reflectively appreciate the slightly funkier feel to this release compared with previous discs, and if time allows, they may also reach over and press repeat to absorb more of the plentiful lyrics and audacious grooves. Swift will have made them smile in musical bliss for long enough to open their mouth and poured in little truths of the world outside their headphones.

Helen Griffiths
originally published June 17th, 2005 



2005/06 reviews dump: t

The following reviews were all published on our old website between May 2005 and December 2006.

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June Tabor
At The Wood’s Heart ••••
Topic

Following 2003’s stunning An Echo Of Hooves and this year’s wonderfully diverse and comprehensive boxset, Always, June Tabor returns with another excellent collection of material that extends and transcends folk music boundaries. Rather than the focused, intimate balladry of …Hooves, the range of song choices on At The Wood’s Heart better recalls those of her earlier albums Angel Tiger and Aleyn, mixing songs both ancient and modern, all of which are given cohesion by the performances of Tabor and her musicians Huw Warren (piano), Martin Simpson (guitar), Mark Emerson (viola/violin), Andy Cutting (accordion), Tim Harries (double bass), Mark Lockheart and Iain Ballamy (saxophones). This accomplished ensemble brings a loose and fluid jazzy texture to the arrangements and sensitive accompaniment to Tabor’s always spot-on vocals.

Though considerably less bloody than the death-soaked …Hooves, shades of darkness abound on the majority of these dozen, mostly traditional songs – the bitter lovers’ quarrel in ‘Johnny, Johnny’, the agony of a lost love in ‘Ah! The Sighs’ and the pain of betrayal in ‘She’s Like The Swallow’. On the McGarrigles’ enduring ‘Heart Like A Wheel’, Tabor turns the “wreck a human being” lyric into a chilling refrain, making the song sound a good deal bleaker than any previous version. Light relief of sorts is provided by a spirited Chaucerian roundel (‘Now Welcome Summer’) and a splendid rendition of the Duke Ellington standard, ‘Do Nothing ‘Til You Hear From Me’. The album rarely strays from a sense of vulnerability however, and the closer ‘Lie With Me’ is a touching and heartfelt plea for romantic reciprocation.

Tabor’s ability to blow the dust from decades-old ballads and standards is evidenced throughout. Her sense of drama and the authority of her singing remain unequalled on the contemporary folk scene – no-one delivers a line like “Stand off for you are deceitful” (on ‘The Banks Of The Sweet Primroses’) with more magnificent, withering disdain. At the same time, her interpretation of a gorgeous new Bill Caddick song, ‘The Cloud Factory’, is one of the warmest, most moving songs she’s ever performed in her 30-year career. An engrossing and beautiful album then, At The Wood’s Heart is another distinguished addition to her exemplary catalogue.

Alex Ramon
originally published October 18th, 2005 

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Tagaq
Sinaa •••½
Ugarte Anaiak
          

The traditional Inuit practice of throat singing, a form of vocalisation that uses the timbres of the windpipe to create unusual rhythmic sounds, is often considered to be a whimsical pastime by those who indulge. Not so for Tanya Tagaq Gillis, born in the Nunavut province of Canada, whose unique abilities have been championed by the likes of the Kronos Quartet and Björk. While a typical throat singing setup would involve two women standing face-to-face, close enough to feel one another’s vibrations and singing rhythms in a kind of round, Tagaq was forced to develop unprecedented methods of emulating these rhythms as a soloist after moving away from Nunavut to study in Nova Scotia. With no partner to practice with, she would spend hours attempting to cure homesickness by copying the throat singing audio tapes her mother would send from home. While traditional practice dictates that throat singing should be completely emotionless, Tagaq’s modified rounds were propelled by instinct and feeling. Her unique style subsequently heralded her arrival on the experimental music scene before being thrust out of obscurity when, in 2001, a keen-eared Björk proclaimed her to be “the Edith Piaf of throat singing.”

By personal invitation, Tagaq then accompanied Björk, experimental duo Matmos and harpist Zeena Parkins on a number of dates for the Icelandic singer’s 2001 Vespertine world tour. They collaborated again in 2004 where Tagaq played a pivotal role on Medúlla. These triumphs have led to her debut solo album, Sinaa, an Inuktituk word that translates to ‘edge’. It’s almost certainly unlike anything you will have ever heard before, displaying Tagaq’s art in all its glory, range and intricacy. Few instruments appear on the album, the most commonly used being the txalaparta, a percussive instrument that often sounds like wooden wind chimes and has little musical structure. Indeed, most of the rhythms are created by Tagaq herself and sometimes seem inhuman.

Recalling by turns a wide range of sighs, growls, clicks, yelps, whispers and yells, it’s harsh and guttural, and parts won’t even sound like music to the casual listener. But it’s also interesting and incredibly atmospheric. Much like Björk did on Medúlla, Tagaq recognises that instinct and emotion are the most powerful driving forces in all of us, and she tries to explore the places inside us where these concepts reside. On ‘Still’, the only song in English, the lyrical theme is the inner workings of the human body. Elsewhere, ‘Qimiruluapik’ is a traditional throat song in which Tagaq performs the parts of both participants, sounding like a factory floor production line with her rhythmic growling and buzzing.

The album centres around ‘Ancestors’, an atmospheric duet with Björk that also appeared on Medúlla. As Tagaq’s vocals undulate and pulse, the raw emotion invested is clear. It’s a magical combination. Although Tagaq also attempts regular singing on three tracks, displaying a warm voice admirably soft and deep, the closest she gets to a pop song is on ‘Breather’, one of the only songs to feature noticeable programming. It’s an unexpected and glorious finale in which her vocals and the chimes of the txalaparta are cut up into a rhythmic but organic dance tune. A hidden track at the end seems to consist of her baby daughter Naia, to whom the album is dedicated, crying softly in the background.

Overall, while Sinaa conjures up feelings of longing and dreams of other lands, it never quite stirs the want to leave your home. In that respect, for something so daring and original, it’s a safe, introverted way of exploring the broadness of human capacity for emotion and imagination. In a traditional game of throat singing, the loser is she who breaks the rhythms through either tiredness or laughter. As with all no-frills declarations of honesty and humanity, there will be sceptics who tire easily of such unembellished purity, there may even be some who laugh, but those who enjoyed Medúlla or have a wider interest in the voice as the ultimate instrument will find something to admire here.

Bryn Williams
originally published July 16th, 2005 

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Jane Taylor
Montpelier ••••
Bicycle

Some artists might consider it a disservice to be compared with another, but despite the difference in locality (Texas vs. Bristol), there are definite hints of Nanci Griffith in the sweetly disarming voice of Jane Taylor. Her lovely light tone combines with carefully crafted, often biting lyrics in a manner that avoids the saccharine pitfalls of many of her peers. Admirably keeping a true sense of self, Taylor appears to be a woman with no time for affectation, holding no truck with vocal cultivation for the sake of marketability; as a result, Montpelier showcases a reassuringly individual sound that holds the spotlight throughout.

Taylor’s interest in people and their lives is one of her strongest assets, and this is nowhere better displayed than on ‘My Street’, a French-flavoured number that recalls Simon & Garfunkel’s ‘America’. Taylor creates imagined worlds for the people on her street as she decides that there is a girl who is “really an alien”, a woman who is “really a duchess” and a man with a briefcase who has a “painted left toenail but don’t ask him why”. The transcendence of ordinary scenes to extraordinary status has a tragicomic effect as the mundane reality of the street is evidently too gloomy to believe in. Fiction creates something remarkable that simultaneously satisfies Taylor’s curiosity and provides an intriguing little ditty that unravels more details of each concocted tale with each and every hearing.

‘Fall On Me’ will tug at all the right heartstrings, daubing a portrait of the singer as a sensitive, insightful observer of life and emotions who excels at bittersweet love songs. Many of the songs are romantically idyllic, but these secret shared smiles are underpinned by censorship of love and the assumption that happiness might dissolve at any second. Only in ‘Hit The Ground’ does Taylor express these images not in terms of possibility but of certainty. Elsewhere, ‘Chef’ and ‘Mirror Mirror’ herald the arrival of a distinctly darker tone to the album, the former with a distinctive, jazzy feel with plucked double bass that racks up an exquisite tension that Taylor cuts and runs with, shortening the middle or ends of certain words, giving a curiously clipped texture to the song. As you might expect, ‘Mirror Mirror’ goes some way in creating a twisted fairytale with discordant strings and a piano motif that sounds like a music box. Its central message that the quest for perfection is a futile aspiration seems wise rather than trite, and is delivered with a subtlety that’s utterly charming.

Standout track ‘Blowing This Candle Out’ is a breathtakingly self-aware dissection of the end of a relationship, each event replaying in the mind as Taylor wrestles with heartbreak and the acute hurt of knowing that the best way out is to totally extinguish the flame of love that she’s still maintaining. ‘Landslide’ comes close to being equally brilliant as yet another exceptionally well observed depiction of the day-to-day effects of overwhelming pressure on a person who is desperately trying to prove that they’re not “inside out… [in] a landslide with no time out”. Anxiety, insomnia and imminent destruction – it’s all there and portrayed with alarming accuracy.

To describe Montpelier as a rollercoaster ride through emotional minefields and heart-warming dramas just wouldn’t be sufficient. It’s so artfully arranged and sequenced that every song comes on like a freshly enriching experience in which the essences of life’s most significant moments seem to have been melted in a crucible, the gold dust extracted from each one and then sprinkled over the music. Much of this is compulsive listening that really shouldn’t be missed.

Gem Nethersole
originally published August 22nd, 2006

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Maria Taylor
11:11 •••
Saddle Creek

On this, her debut solo album, Saddle Creek staple Maria Taylor sings as if trapped behind a veil. As a result, too many of the songs enclosed herein hold all the sensual suggestion of a whisper but lack the electrics of touch to fulfil their heady promise. Certainly, there are many bewitching melodies at work in the rear, but Taylor’s vocals are often at best lethargic and, in places, even monotonous. The opener ‘Leap Year’ is a prime example – Taylor intones impassionately over a complex but undistinguishing mess of instrumentation, leaving an unfortunate sense of so what? This is not a newly acquired trait either. Certain songs in her band Azure Ray’s three-album oeuvre have fallen equally flat.

Tellingly, the most vital songs here are the ones uplifted through guest star turns by her bright-eyed boyfriend and Saddle Creek label boss Conor Oberst (‘Song Beneath The Song’) and her Now It’s Overhead cohort Andy LeMaster (‘Hitched’). Remarkably, ‘One For The Shareholder’ is a decent enough stab at dancefloor bothering, but it jars enormously with the rest of the album and is perhaps best listened to when taken out of context. The veil is lifted a little on simpler tracks such as ‘Two Of Those Too’, ‘Nature Song’ and ‘Speak Easy’, and these carry greater a emotional impact as a result, though the two former are perhaps overlong and don’t really go anywhere.

The production by LeMaster and Mike Mogis, another Saddle Creek regular and sometime member of Bright Eyes, is partly to blame for the album’s overall unwelcome detachment. The instruments, and particularly the strings, seem to flounder too low in the mix, adding to the absence of immediacy. Although 11:11 does thaw slightly with repeated listens, Taylor’s ambition is used too sparingly and spread a little too thinly to make this anything more than just a pleasant listen.

Alan Pedder
originally published August 28th, 2005 

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Tegan & Sara
So Jealous •••½
Sanctuary

By virtue of their alt-folk roots and association with the Lilith crowd, Canadian twins Tegan and Sara Quinn have often been awkwardly shoehorned into a genre packed with more acoustic, earnest types by some quarters of the music press. On this, their third album, the duo go all out to put that stereotyping to bed, serving up a simultaneously modern yet thoroughly retro feast; it’s post-punk New Wave seen through a glistening, contemporary filter. So while there are acoustics and harmonies aplenty, its references diverge from those of Sarah McLachlan, the Indigo Girls and the like. Instead, So Jealous evokes fond memories of Blondie, the Buzzcocks, Martha & The Muffins, ‘Til Tuesday (before they went electro), early U2 and even the Ramones, and yet many of these songs would not sound out of sorts on a record by Avril Lavigne.

Spiky rhythm guitar, authentic New Wave beats (courtesy of Chris Carlson’s clanking bass tones and Rob Chursinoff’s metronomic drums) and, perhaps most crucially, subtly hummable tunes are sprinkled liberally throughout. The production by fellow Canadians and occasional New Pornographers Joan Collins, David Caswell and Howard Redekopp gleefully nails the contradiction of a lo-fi vibe in crystal clear sound, perfectly matching the modern retro ethos. ‘You Wouldn’t Like Me’ eases us in gently with folky rhythm guitars, but these rapidly transmute into a driving pulse that any classic New Waver would be proud of. ‘Take Me Anywhere’ continues yet further into such territory, seasoned with a healthy dose of lyrical self-loathing.

Despite many of the songs using deceptively simple and repetitive chord structures, they deftly sidestep monotony through their clever use of arrangements, vocal interplay and dynamics. A good example is ‘Where Does The Good Go’, a song that builds hypnotically until the twins wind up trading lead vocals on a round using the song’s signature melody. First single ‘Speak Slow’- welds Buzzcocks guitars onto a Nirvana-esque chord sequence, setting them off with a sing -a-long bubblegum chorus recalling Toni Basil’s ‘Mickey’. Other standout tracks include the multi-layered title track, the poppy ‘Downtown’ and the sweetly mellow ‘I Know I Know I Know’.

The sisters take turns with the lead, though they interweave and double their parts so often that the question of ‘lead’ becomes somewhat moot. The vocals, with their oddly seductive nasal tones and dissonance, work particularly well in the context of the pop-punk arrangements and attractively blend when one is bouncing off the other. This natural voice distortion persists throughout and works to temper the shock of the few songs where the feat is achieved by electronic means. Elsewhere, guitarist Ted Gowans and former Weezer bassist Matt Sharp’s Moog synth add further nice touches and texture.

If a complaint is to be made, it’s that despite being scattered with hooks and quirky melodies, the songs aren’t always instantly ingratiating. On the positive side, this means that So Jealous is not only an easily accessible collection of songs, but it also gives itself room to grow in your affections. Originally released in the US last year, it’s high time that UK audiences discovered why So Jealous made so many Best Of 2004 lists. With a generous 14 tracks spread across the album’s 45 minutes, Tegan and Sara amply prove that the glorious art of the three-minute pop song is alive and well and residing in America’s northernmost neighbour.

Trevor Raggatt
originally published November 7th, 2005 

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Tender Trap
6 Billion People •••
Fortuna Pop!

Twee queen Amelia Fletcher returns with the long-awaited second album from Tender Trap, a band that includes her cohorts John Stanley (bass) and Rob Pursey (guitar), both of whom have been with Fletcher since her days fronting the much-loved ‘90s indie band Heavenly and their second incarnation Marine Research. The addition of drums from The Magnetic Fields’s Claudia Gonson gives the album a fuller feel than its stripped back, electronic predecessor, 2002’s Film Molecules. If anything, 6 Billion People sees Fletcher reverting to type, being closer to Heavenly in style than the glossier sounds of Marine Research. Having said that, the title track veers closer to the latter, with a touch of doo-wop gracing the shuffling rhythm and Fletcher’s coy vocal bemoaning the difficulties of finding a perfect partner for her friend, unselfish to the last. Indeed, when it comes to her own love life, she just gets all tongue tied and starts ‘Talking Backwards’. Yet by the time we reach the self-assured and sultry ‘I Would Die For You’, things are becoming a mess of contradictions.

While ‘Applecore’ isn’t the new genre that you might be hoping for, it’s something slightly different for Tender Trap, closer than they’ve ever come to avant garde. The skin-and-bones chorus displays an art-rock element and fits well as a centrepiece double with ‘Fahrenheit 451′, as despairing and sombre a thing as you’ll hear all year. Revelling in the success of these musical departures, Tender Trap prove themselves adept at mixing it up across the rest of the album, the experiments being the highlights. ‘(I Always Love You When I’m) Leaving You’ is another dark number, one you can imagine soundtracking the lead from a black and white movie as they lurk and dart through the shadows. Elsewhere, ‘Dreaming Of Dreaming’ evokes memories of the spirit of Ride, being a hazy phase offering that falls somewhere lovely between shoegaze and post-rock.

Fletcher and her friends have delivered yet another solid album, and indeed there’s something inherently reliable about any project she’s involved in. Whilst her albums will almost certainly fall short of changing the face of music, the world would be a much duller place without them.

Russell Barker
originally published June 24th, 2006
 

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Vienna Teng
Warm Strangers ••••
Zoe

Classically trained pianist Vienna Teng initially discarded her instrument of choice as a means of making a living, but after graduating with a computer science degree and enduring a stint as a cubicle-bound software engineer, it somewhat inevitably called her home. With the help of the internet, Teng soon made a name for herself on US college campuses and websites, and in 2002, her debut album Waking Hour was released in North America to critical acclaim. Whilst that record was certainly characterised by beautiful melodies and well-performed, haunting autobiographical pieces, at times it seemed to suffer from its own pomp and pageantry. The ethereal music was formulaic and the songwriting loose and occasionally repetitive. It’s safe to say then that Teng has grown further in the intervening months, and Warm Strangers (originally released in the US in 2003) shimmers with elegant and tender songs illuminated by their intelligent and imaginative lyrics.

Poetic opener ‘Feather Moon’ starts off with prominent but simple minor key piano, much in the vein of Little Earthquakes-era Tori Amos, before Teng’s beautiful voice is allowed to gently envelop the listener. Elsewhere, however, Teng lets the piano take a lesser role in many songs, becoming part of the blend rather than the focus. Most notably on ‘Hope On Fire’, the album’s rhythmic centrepiece, she steps up to the plate primarily a vocalist and a pianist second, with positive results. So while her main strength still lies in her skilled musicianship, Teng is growing as a vocalist and is certainly no lightweight as a songwriter. Throughout the album, the finely detailed orchestration is diverse and adds considerable strength and force to music that in previous efforts has smacked of preciousness.

Lyrically, too, Warm Strangers is a clear progression. Whereas Waking Hour was filled with personal vignettes, Teng stretches herself to explore the stories of others; so while ‘Shasta’ tells the tale of a pregnant woman, ‘Homecoming’ puts her in the shoes of a preacher. Most affecting, however, is the devastatingly beautiful a cappella track, ‘Passage’. The story is spun from the viewpoint of a woman who is killed in a car crash but watches as those she loved move on through the mourning process. Each lyric follows her lover, mother and sister through various forms of grief, from: “my mother trembles with the sobs whose absence seems absurd, my sister shouts to let her see through the cloud of crowd surrounding me” to the heart-wrenching conclusion of “my lover hears the open wind and crawls blinking into the sun” and “my lover very much alive, arms wrapped now around his wife.”

On the downside, Teng still slides from time to time into the well-trod lighter fare of latter-day Sarah McLachlan, and Tori Amos aficionados might recognise a number of the chord progressions and vocal tricks. Emotionally, too, Teng’s clear and distinct intonations sometimes feel removed from the feelings that she is attempting to express. Yet, in spite of these minor caveats, Warm Strangers is a treasurable album of undeniable talent from an artist becoming less tentative in finding her own voice.

Loria Near
originally published December 19th, 2005 

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Vienna Teng
Dreaming Through the Noise ••••
Zoe

After two solid piano-based albums – 2001’s Waking Hour and 2003’s Warm Strangers – former computer programmer Vienna Teng unexpectedly found herself gazing at a crossroads. Her self-described chamber-folk had won a small but loyal following and she was touring with notable acts such as Over The Rhine and Joan Osborne, yet she struggled with her sound. “I was sitting at the piano,” she mused in a recent concert, “trying to come up with something that didn’t sound like what had come before.” Dreaming Through The Noise, produced by Larry Klein (Joni Mitchell, Madeleine Peyroux), accomplishes that and then some. 

Lyrically, Teng has come on leaps and bounds and Dreaming… boasts several well-written, layered pieces of prose, appealingly ripe for different readings, though neither overly pretentious nor horribly contrived. Retaining her piano as the musical centrepiece, Teng dips her oar into the sometimes murky waters of jazz but admirably raises her game, coming up sultry and smoky, much more than simply afloat. ‘Love Turns 40′ is a fine example, an emotional infusion in which the narrator sombrely speaks of the realness of aging (“we were once cinema gods in the light / and now all we’ve got is lunch-hour light / where nothing photographs well”), while the simple piano melody of ‘I Don’t Feel So Well’ belies the possible cynicism of the lyrics.

A native San Franciscan, Teng plays homage to her hometown in the jaunty ‘City Hall’ in honour of the February 2004 announcement by mayor Gavin Newsome that the city would recognise gay and lesbian marriages. Instead of writing a celebratory song focusing on ‘them’, Vienna sings the song from the view of ‘us’, as a protagonist making the journey to that “seaside town” where “me and baby stand in line” to get their chance after 10 years to proudly show their union, poignantly stating that “if they take it away someday, this beautiful thing won’t change”. 

Less of a political statement than a mournful reminiscence, more a tender observance than a damning indictment of failure, ‘Pontchartrain’ provides the album’s emotional core. Named after the lake whose salty waters broke through the levees and flooded New Orleans during Hurricane Katrina, the song digs deep and bars no holds. Her deep voice resonating with feeling, Teng describes the heartbreak and disaster to spectacular effect, singing: “Sunday: dark water draining north / the heat swells and bursts like a plague / Lake Pontchartrain is haunted, bones without names / photographs framed in reeds / darling, what blood our veins are holding.” The slow piano and eerie string arrangements are accentuated chillingly by the incantations of a lamenting choir, possibly constructed by 32 Tengs overlaid – “Lie as darkness hardens / lie of our reunion / O lie if god is sleeping / O I believe you now.”

Unafraid to be heavy and fearsomely ambitious, Teng’s weightier numbers are easily the album’s focal points, yet Vienna lightens up from time to time, particularly on the thoroughly enjoyable, if a little obtuse, ‘1BR/1BA’. Written almost entirely using language from a newspaper advert, Teng gets percussive with her beloved piano to add an extra dimension to this tale of searching for that first apartment. A true tapestry of emotion and sound, Dreaming Through The Noise is an engaging body of work that should elevate Teng to higher regard and a wider, more adoring audience.

Loria Near
previously unpublished

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Rosie Thomas
If Songs Could Be Held •••½
Sub Pop

The songs of Seattle native Rosie Thomas can bear such disarming simplicity that some might be tempted to write her off as simply saccharine fodder for Radio 2. But to do so would be a grave disservice to both the listener and the artist, whose softly-softly approach and tender earnestness is one of her greatest assets. That said, If Songs Could Be Held, her third album for Sub Pop, is considerably more complex and layered than anything up to this point in her career, and it is clear that she has gained in both confidence and skill. It’s no surprise then that Thomas made a concerted effort to add some extra strings to her bow, moving to Los Angeles, away from her immediate circle, and forcing herself to try new things. From the first moments of opening track ‘Since You’ve Been Around’, the stylistic leap from 2003’s Only With Laughter Can You Win becomes blindingly obvious. Delicate and lyrical, it’s an unequivocal success, the instrumentation and vocals jostling to be the most adored like the sides of a diamond held up to the sun.

Despite the new compositional complexity, Thomas doesn’t stray far from the highly personal subject matter that’s been her stock in trade. As she herself sings on the raw but focused ‘Guess It May’, she is “still learning what love is”, and one gets the impression that this has always been her concern, that her music is a constant exploration of the nature of love. As ever, Thomas’s multi-faceted voice surprises and delights throughout. Highlights include ‘Let It Be Me’, a warm and sweetly sung duet with UK singer-songwriter Ed Harcourt, and the closing track ‘Tomorrow’, in which Thomas’s simple, fragile vocal is complimented by a minimal yet strong arrangement.

As is the case with her previous albums, a few of these songs find the music itself unequal to her lyrics and vocals. For instance, ‘Loose Ends’ is a wonderful extended metaphor set to an underwhelmingly gentle country backing, while ‘Time Goes Away’ is a poignant reflection on the fleeting nature of love and happiness that’s set to an unfortunately clunky piece of piano. However, in both cases, Thomas’s shining performance leaves these lacking arrangements firmly in the shade, allowing the listener to linger long and savour a strong impression of beauty.

Clare Byrne
originally published November 7th, 2005 

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Susy Thomas
In The Morning ••••
Season

Portsmouth expat Susy Thomas has crammed a quite remarkable amount into her tender years, working with the likes of Dave Stewart, Michael Kamen and Bob Clearmountain, among others. So it’s no surprise that her debut album, In The Morning, is a superb and confident collection of mature, intelligent pop songs. From the first sparse, acoustic chords of ‘Never Far’ and Thomas’s intimate, confessional vocal, your ear is well and truly snagged, the stripped-back arrangement giving her sultriness room to impress with its inviting vulnerability. On the similarly skeletal ‘Because You’re Near’, Thomas portrays a longing that’s both palpable and personal when she intones “I wanna touch you tonight / like I’ve never wanted to touch anybody before in my life” – heady stuff indeed!

As well as these handsomely simple numbers, In The Morning offers several songs that are finely dressed in richly textured arrangements, ably applied through smooth but subtle production values. ‘Make The Grade’, for instance, conjures a subliminal Bacharach and David influence with muted electric piano, flute and trumpet motifs, while debut single ‘Mirror For Me’ is as uplifting as it is laden with hooks and inspiring lyrics about how those we love can be a looking glass to reflect upon our own merits. Picking further album highlights presents an unusual problem, since the dozen songs offered up are consistently strong and arresting. If pick we must, however, then the intensity of the title track and the sublime pop of ‘Love Fools’ deserve special mention, not only for their emotionally literate depictions of modern relationships, but also for their stubbornly addictive melodies. Also worthy of a nod are ‘Time’ and ‘I Believe’, both of which tap into a somewhat funkier vein but to broadly similar effect.

If you’re a fan of classically soulful pop/rock then Susy Thomas delivers the goods in generous measure. In a just society, these songs would be staking a sizeable claim on every radio playlist, but why not start with your iPod? Add In The Morning to the top of your personal listening list ce soir not à matin.

Trevor Raggatt 
originally published September 20th, 2006

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Adrina Thorpe
Elusive ••••
Self-released

On Elusive, Californian singer-songwriter Adrina Thorpe delivers an impressive debut album, packed with thoughtful songs that are beautifully written, beautifully arranged, beautifully performed and beautifully sung. Drawing deep from the well of a host of great singer-songwriters, from Carole King through to Tori Amos, Thorpe succeeds without ever freefalling into the all too common trap of imitation. Rather, the album portrays a noble interplay of heritage and influence, and it’s to startling effect. Musically, the songs range from intimate piano ballads, with their hints of her classical training, to more up-tempo pop songs, whilst lyrically touching on the all-encompassing concerns of life and spirituality.

Opener ‘Fly Fly Fly’ is a slice of well-crafted pop, boasting the creamy production skills of Dave Bassett (Lisa Loeb, Jane Wiedlin) and Phil Swann (Lee Ann Womack), kicking the album off in uplifting fashion. The remaining nine songs then ebb and flow through moods and experiences ranging from the difficulties of being seen as more than just a daughter in ‘More Than Seventeen’, through loss and regret (‘Wistful’, ‘Sorry’ and ‘Correction’ – the latter finding Thorpe in dependable Sarah McLachlan piano ballad mode, not surprising given that the Lilith era figurehead is Adrina’s musical idol), to hope and redemptive love in ‘Elusive’, ‘Never Meant’ and ‘With Hope’.

In the album’s gentler moments, Thorpe’s delicate piano playing weaves memorable harmonies and melodies around the poignant and heartfelt words, before soaring above the tight full band arrangements on the bouncier numbers. Though her vocals are both pure and clear, they bear an attractive hint of breathiness that makes for a very intimate sound. The production is entirely complementary to both the singer and songs, with the vocals sitting forward in the mix but still meshing well with the backing. Having been composing since the age of six, Thorpe has had plenty of time to get her debut just so, and indeed it is a strong start, made all the more impressive for being independently produced.

Trevor Raggatt
originally published September 27th, 2005

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Holly Throsby
On Night •••½ 
Woo Me!

Perhaps as a response to a bombastic, punishing age, these post-millennial years have seen a resurgence of interest in quiet, meditative albums. These records, made equally by male and female artists, may be personal or political (or both), narrative or impressionistic (or both), but they share a number of distinctive characteristics. Unashamedly acoustic, fragile, spare and intimate, they’re a little bit country and more than a little bit folk, whilst colouring outside the lines of both genres. The most effective of these records, however, use their quietness strategically. Recognising the value of restraint, they conceal layers of emotion under their apparently serene surfaces, forging a reflective space for the listener and sometimes inspiring fervent, devoted followings as a result. But these records should never be confused with easy listening; they function instead as a confident rejoinder to the bluster and hype of the contemporary mainstream music scene.

At its best, On Night, the debut album from Sydney shopgirl turned singer-songwriter Holly Throsby, achieves this feat. Reminiscent of Kathryn Williams and Beth Orton, but with a gentle, distinctive Australian twang to her vocals, Throsby has been forging a solid reputation in her native land and elsewhere, playing shows with such neo-folk luminaries as Joanna Newsom, Devendra Banhart and Bonnie ‘Prince’ Billy. Recorded in producer Tony Dupe’s house up on Saddleback Mountain in New South Wales (with the windows open for added atmosphere), Throsby’s tales of rue and relationships are, for the most part, poignant and well observed. The instrumentation is typically sparse – acoustic guitar, a dash of cello and piano – forcing Throsby’s sleepy-sounding voice right up front, making even her more self-consciously poetic lyrical flights sound conversational. Constructed from a limited but effective palette of recurrent motifs (birds, dogs, references to time), the result is a record preoccupied by the challenges of sustaining a relationship through the day or night.

While a couple of tracks do veer into inconsequentiality, even after repeated listens, there are several highlights. Opener ‘We’re Good People But Why Don’t We Show It?’ juxtaposes two lovers’ good intentions with disturbing references to “dead birds on the stairwell” and “the violence when we met”. ‘Some Nights Are Long’ is a truly great song about confusion, with the narrator caught between the desire to “make up my mind and then want to change it,” to “order my days and then rearrange them”. It’s followed later by ‘Some Days Are Long’, in which the uncertainty has been replaced with resolve and the narrator bravely attempts to equate love with emancipation: “I’ll work while I’m still young / Not to hold you down but to let you go.”

Throsby’s songs move through diverse moods with considerable grace and skill. Despite its lovely wry opening (“I get home after one and the dog looks drunk”), ‘Don’t Be Howling’ becomes a quietly desperate plea to be left alone. In contrast, ‘As The Night Dies’ is touchingly resigned, offering a frank and unadorned response to a relationship’s demise: “Is it too much for you? / is it? / well alright”. The narrator anticipates “coffeepots calling / and the sunrise” and is imbued with tentative hope for the new day. This is where the original 2004 Australian release ended, but the European edition is bolstered by bonus track ‘The Dark’ taken from the same recording sessions. With or without it, On Night is an engaging album that draws you into its hushed and measured atmosphere. It may require a little more verve to truly distinguish it from the crowd, but it’s a promising debut and one that marks Throsby out as an artist to watch.

Alex Ramon
originally published March 18th, 2006 

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Kathryn Tickell & Corrina Hewat
The Sky Didn’t Fall •••½
Park Records

The history of bringing two individually renowned and prodigious talents together on disc is strewn with glorious failures. Creative forces are all too often pulling in opposing directions, leading to a product much less than the sum of its parts. Now, there’s no denying the level of talent at work here, nor the regard with which these two musicians are held. Tickell has long been known as one of the UK’s foremost pipers and fiddlers – certainly the premier proponent of the Northumbrian small pipes – while Hewat’s reputation as an interpreter of traditional songs and as a player of the Scottish harp is a formidable one. Luckily for us then, the driving force behind The Sky Didn’t Fall is not ego but a deeply felt love for the music of their respective heritages. Rather than rubbing against the other’s skills, each draws out their partner’s depths and subtleties, all of which blend to create a magical whole.

One aspect of this magic is that Tickell and Hewat have achieved a truly difficult task, to present traditional music, often centuries old, in a way that is contemporary and relevant but completely true to its origins. This isn’t modernised folk. This isn’t Capercaillie’s dance- funk blended reels, Clannad’s ethereal ambient sounds or Christy Moore’s Celtic protest music – no, it’s simply beautiful songs, lovingly crafted, that could fail to move only the hardest of hearts. Tickell’s fiddle playing is as lively and fluid as ever and her piping subtle and moving. Hewat’s harp is equally stunning throughout – sometimes taking the melody, sometimes duelling with reed or string, and often laying down a continuo for the melody. Such is her skill and range on the instrument that I found myself double checking the credits to make sure they hadn’t sneaked in a bass guitar to underpin her chiming arpeggios. Another treat is the inclusion of vocal tracks, with even Tickell tempted up to the mic.

To choose the most remarkable element in an album so tightly put together is hard, but the album’s bookending track ‘Favourite Place’ is certainly among them, providing the perfect frame for the collection. It’s an affecting narration that evokes a simple but idyllic childhood in rural post-war Northumbria, buoyed by a dreamlike Celtic-tinged soundscape and lending an ideal context to the ancient yet timeless airs running through the album. Truly, The Sky Didn’t Fall is a distillation of the best of another time, brought to life for this generation.

Trevor Raggatt 
originally published September 17th, 2006

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Cortney Tidwell
Cortney Tidwell ••••
Ever

Nashville sure ain’t what it used to be y’all. Where once it stood for clean cut ‘n’ wholesome, perma-grinning cheese merchants, these days we’re hearing a lot more from those on the so-called wrong side of the tracks. But while the likes of Be Your Own PET are doing their best to tear down the planet in a snot-nosed sonic frenzy, fellow Tennessean Cortney Tidwell is conducting a quiet deconstruction of her own. Breaking rules and hearts in equal measure, these six unpredictable, beautiful songs add up to a deeply profound and classy debut, one that creaks and sighs as it drifts into your ears then gorgeously courses and cavorts through your delighted grey matter. These are songs of the kind that touch on familiar constructs but just as quickly morph into their opposite, consequently sounding just as alike as they do unlike what has come before.

On the plaintive ‘Mama From The Mountain’, she’s Laura Veirs without the geeky deadpan cool, replacing it with a morose and eerie stridency. On ‘Hard 2 Tell’, she’s The Sundays’ Harriet Wheeler doing Vespertine-era Björk- like vocal layering over booming scattershot drums. ‘Drink Up’ could be a long-lost Mazzy Star song with its desolate piano and atmospheric, almost narcoleptic vocals that also recall the mournful Southern stylings of Cat Power’s latest offering. Shades of Jana Hunter’s Texan twang filter through ‘The Light’, a pedal steel-drenched moody lament that would give even Neko Case, the queen of country-noir, a week of sleepless nights. Make no mistake about it, these are complex creations, but nothing here is stifled and everything flourishes. For a debut, it’s ridiculously accomplished and sets up a compelling aesthetic that will hopefully be carried over into the forthcoming full-length, Don’t Let the Stars Keep Us Tangled Up, out in July.

In many places, the vocal simply hangs in the air, dangling from invisible strings as strong as every emotion that Tidwell wrings out of her words. Not that you can necessarily hear them all that well – like Beth Orton, she has a tendency to slur her lyrics to a certain degree, but the effect is more mesmeric than smacking of idleness. Besides, songs of such heartbreak and solitude as these often benefit from a muddiness of diction. Tidwell sounds most clear-eyed and purposeful on the heart-bustingly tender, bruisingly nude ‘So I’ll Go Out & Meet My Love’, a devastatingly intimate slow-country weepie that truly shimmers. The sweetly beguiling ‘Fever Queen’ makes for a somewhat more hopeful closer with its dainty percussion provided by chimes and a handy glass of water – perhaps the only instance here where its proverbial equivalent is less than half empty.

Alan Pedder
originally published May 17th, 2006

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Cortney Tidwell
Don’t Let The Stars Keep Us Tangled Up ••••
Ever

Upon receipt of her self-titled mini-album earlier this year, some critics have placed Nashville-born Cortney Tidwell alongside the ambient, post-jazz acts that have been sprawling out of America recently and cautiously dubbed ‘New Weird America’. The title of her first full release, Don’t Let The Stars Keep Us Tangled Up, even suggests the kind of mysterious, open spaces these artists commonly refer to, and her vocals would definitely not be out of place. The difference with Tidwell is that she has been quite literally tangled up in every other great music movement and is clearly not scared of her obviously country background. 

‘La La’ is a perfect example of this. Had a band such as Psapp or CocoRosie gotten their claws into it, the distorted organs would have been dimmed down and the backing vocals forced to the fore. But with Tidwell this is not the case. She knows how to control her own music and she does it splendidly, simultaneously giving a nod to the ‘bedsit acoustic’ movement that emerged in Britain during the early 2000s. She even braves some of the less accepted genres: the title track strays into world music territories and comes out not only unscathed but as one of the best songs on the album. That it appears to be about conducting a long-distance love affair with an alien simply adds to its alluring strangeness.

Elsewhere, the more subdued songs such as ‘New Commitment’ may echo styles that have been tried and tried again but Tidwell’s extraordinary vocals make sure that the song is anything other than tired. Collaborations with distinguished artists such as Lamchop’s Kurt Wagner and William Tyler, who perform on the grounded ‘Society’, and Ryan Norris who gives a hand throughout (notably co-writing ‘Illegal’ and ‘I Do Not Notice’) are well placed and dust the tracks off perfectly.

Comparisons with Björk have become a little over-used, but with such a great wealth of influences backing her up Tidwell will surely find it hard to go wrong. Don’t Let The Stars Keep Us Tangled Up proves that the music fans who complain that 2006 has had few musical successes are simply not digging deep enough, and hopefully with many future years ahead of her Tidwell will become as prominent as the greats before her.

Tiffany Daniels
previously unpublished 

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Tilly & The Wall
Wild Like Children •••½ 
Moshi Moshi

Tilly & The Wall are a Nebraska-based band who specialise in mesmerising lyrics about, well, getting drunk, falling over and generally being a bit depressed. The more impatient listener may feel inclined to put the album back on the shelf as soon as they realise this – after all, it’s been done and bettered by many other Nebraskan bands well before them but those faithful to the album will be rewarded. Tilly & The Wall’s major strength is Jamie Williams, their (female) tap dancer used in lieu of a drummer, who gives the music an inspiring ethos, quietening any mutters that they lack originality. Musically, the band are a peculiar mix of childhood chants and disastrous relationships; Neely J’s growling vocals can only be compared to a five-year old child who’s just smoked a pack of twenty.

Their official debut album also marks their first material to be released in the UK. ‘Bessa’ and ‘Let It Rain’ give a confusingly folk sound to an arguably antifolk album, while ‘Nights Of The Living Dead’ and ‘Ice Storm, Big Gust & You’ are more akin to Bright Eyes’ Conor Oberst, who originally produced some of the tracks featured on the album. First single ‘Reckless’ and ‘Perfect Fit’ carry the same stomping (literally) theme, but the band wisely steer clear of the dangerous cliff called We Sound Like Franz Ferdinand (But We’re American, Yeah!). ‘I Always Knew’ stands alone as the song that shows the band’s true potential, mixing all of their talents and sounds in equal measure, while also giving the album a wise and positive edge. The album only really falls short of being a classic because some of their better songs have been overlooked and left off of the album, replaced with ‘Shake It Out’, a mediocre tribute to the other nine tracks on the album.

The truth is, in five years’ time Wild Like Children will be under two inches of dust, because by then Tilly & The Wall will have released an album so stupendously good, so mind-blowingly different and crucial, every album you own will be shoved under the bed or piled on your desk, cases cracked, collecting coffee stains. A second album, Bottoms Of Barrels, is waiting in the wings, but for now, this album is here to taunt you into submission and to patiently remind Nebraska that its artists can do better.

Tiffany Daniels
originally published March 6th, 2006 

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Tilly & The Wall
Bottoms Of Barrels ••••
Team Love

Tap dancing hardly has an illustrious history in rock. In fact, I’d be pushed to come up with a single occasion it’s been used (cue a slew of emails from prog rock obsessives claiming its appearance on some long-lost Emerson, Lake & Palmer 7″ – sorry in advance). How gratifyingly odd then that Nebraskan quintet Tilly & The Wall have done away with traditional percussion and in its place installed the feet of Jamie Williams, and it’s this unusual feature that gives their second album a delightful flamenco feel, castanets cast aside in favour of metal-plated boots.

Despite releasing their debut Wild Like Children in 2004, the record only reached these shores in March, so while our lucky Stateside friends can enjoy this new offering right away, we’ll be waiting a little bit longer. No doubt there’ll still be an audience for it though; Bottoms Of Barrels fits squarely into the box marked leftfield US pop that’s currently so popular with bloggers and indie music fans alike. ‘Rainbows In The Dark’ falls somewhere between Feist and Sufjan Stevens and features a lovely lyrical refrain in the admission of defeat – “sometimes you can’t hold back the river” – while ‘Sing Songs Along’ boasts a tune that’s every bit as euphoric as something from The Polyphonic Spree. The relentlessly cheery organ and background crowd noise of ‘Urgency’ raise the muffled vocals to a higher musical plane, while ‘Bad Education’ could well have come straight off the soundtrack to a Western, with its big brass horns, tinkly barroom piano and taps like horses hooves.

Tilly & The Wall are at their most delightful when their kookier elements come to the fore, and it’s these precious moments that rescue songs like ‘Lost Girls’ from slipping completely into MOR sludge. There’s a hint of Natalie Merchant in this one, while the soft inflections of ‘Brave Days’s male vocals are reminiscent of late-period Lemonheads, backed with gentle organ and a slight country tinge. Elsewhere, ‘Love Song’ has a brittle beauty, a lullaby duet that wouldn’t sound out of place coming from a musical box, while ‘The Freest Man’ evokes its title with airy, minimal backing.

As good as the rest of it is, Bottoms Of Barrels saves the best for last with a genuine masterstroke ending. These days it’s all too common for bands to mistake being epic for grandiose and overblown, but not Tilly & The Wall; ‘Coughing Colors’ is an understated but beautifully grand finale. This is a wonderfully charming, ramshackle album, lurching from one idea to the next with an impressive hit rate. If you’re ever down in the dumps, stick this on and it’s bound to raise a smile.

Russell Barker
originally published June 24th, 2006

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The Tiny
Starring; Someone Like You •••••
DetErMine/V2

Although preconceptions of yet another Swedish band hitting the market are probably rife, unlike many of their counterparts, The Tiny have recorded an album that will surprise even the most clued-up music fan. Bearing in mind their intention to make a record that’s “grandiose and true to life in a cinematic way, taking each idea to a new level whilst still keeping our tiny personal identity”, one thing becomes immediately obvious: The Tiny write for no one but themselves. The initial and most poignant charm of Starring; Someone Like You lies in its sheer authenticity – no matter how bizarre the songs may become or what may be said, there isn’t a second where you don’t believe them.

A trio, The Tiny combine the childlike but strikingly original voice of Ellekari with the classical training and string arrangement skills of cellist Leo and double bassist Johan. Instead of sticking to a purely orchestral sound, however, innovative combinations of sounds flicker between songs like scenes in a film. Like a candlelit journey through a fairytale forest, god only knows what is going to happen next. The unpretentiousness of the song titles and simplicity of the language used are designed to lure you into a false sense of security. For while effectively elementary instruments are put to good use – strings, a toy piano, a saw – nothing about this album is ‘simple’. Each sound is perfectly placed, each change in mood a natural movement and each song paying compliment to its predecessor.

‘My Mother’ sounds like a spell being cast; vocals circle round gorgeous strings and a bewildering narrative, which then trickles into the equally ethereal ‘Know Your Demons’ – a dark, yet strangely uplifting number, full of haunting pedal organ and piano as the vocals chant “know your demons as they know you, wherever they go you’re bound to”. Without you even realising it, The Tiny will excise you completely from your earthly surrounds. Ed Harcourt makes an appearance on ‘Sorry’, oddly sounding almost more natural here than on his own compositions, while talented Norwegian songstress Ane Brun contributes backing vocals to a number of tracks. Elsewhere, the arrangements vary wildly from upbeat, fast-paced tracks like ‘Dirty Frames’ to the more stripped down sketches of ‘Everything Is Free’ – surely the most unusual cover of a Gillian Welch tune ever – and ‘In Reality’.

At its quietest, Starring… is as intimate as a whispered confession and almost unbearably lovely. At its most energetic, it’s full of life, full of colour and bursting with character. The dynamics work unbelievably well, the ups and downs maintaining interest and continuing to enchant right until the very last moments of final number ‘My Greatest Fear’, perhaps their most spellbinding moment. Going back to the blueprint, it’s clear that their goal has been attained. Cinematic in the way it creates an entire new world, both grandiose and simple, and undoubtedly unique, Starring… marks the beginning of an exciting new talent; somewhere between genius and insanity but totally, totally brilliant.

Rod Thomas
originally published June 16th, 2006 

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Mia Doi Todd
La Ninja: Amor & Other Dreams Of Manzanita ••••
Plug Research

This latest full-length release from Californian singer-songwriter Mia Doi Todd is both new and not new. Three new songs appear (including a haunting cover of The Beatles’s ‘Norwegian Wood’) but mostly this is a remix album, with versions of tracks from her 2005 collection Manzanita given a treatment from her Plug Research labelmates and others. Oftentimes, a remix of a song can drown out the essence of the original, revealing more about the remixer than the song. It can be argued that a truly good remix (like good production) has the purpose of adding to the fundamentals, interpreting while enhancing rather than swallowing up. Luckily, this is largely what we have here.

For an artist who predominantly performs with sparse accompaniment – her first three albums were solo acoustic – it seems an obvious move to invite some outside musical interpretation, and the result is quite interesting. The treatment of the songs has fortunately been mostly minimal. A true and tangible beauty lies in their stripped-down nature and in the raw quality of her impressive voice. Indeed, it’s this that makes her music so moving. The songs’ ethereal and poetic qualities have generally been preserved and the remixing done with a gentle rather than heavy-handed approach. Only on ‘Amor’ does it seem to flounder completely, the additional sounds adding clutter and confusion. There are other moments of unexpected distortion, but these are used to good effect. Todd’s unique resonance and deep tones enable her to create distinctive atmospheres extremely well, and a spooky Portishead feel gives an additional edge to her melodic traditional folk.

There are three remixes of ‘My Room Is White’, and while the Reminder edit corrupts the vocals beyond recognition, the Flying Lotus effort creates a quite inviting ambience, complete with submarine echoes and far-off whalesong. Here, instead of drawing away from the vocals, the effects enhance them and Mia reaches near-operatic perfection – she’s classically trained – full of ghostly feeling and chilling restraint. ‘Muscle, Bone & Blood’ evokes a hint of Natalie Merchant but with a matchless mysticism and warmth, and elsewhere, as on ‘Deep At Sea,’ we are reminded of Kosheen’s quieter moments. All in all, Mia’s vocals are utterly unique and warrant only the lightest of treatment.

The only untouched song, the new ‘Kokoro’, is conspicuous in its lack of production, yet its bare bones nature makes it both heartbreaking and perfect, proof that sometimes, less is more. However, what shows through on La Ninja is that the music of Mia Doi Todd has great possibilities and works both accompanied and bare. Like Björk, her strong vocals always manage to retain the listener’s focus, and as Beth Orton has shown in the past, a sensitive remix of a folksy tune can be extremely effective and quite quite beautiful.

Stephanie Heney
originally published June 12th, 2006 

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Emiliana Torrini
Fisherman’s Woman •••••
Rough Trade

The last few years have been eventful for Emiliana Torrini, though you’d be forgiven for not really noticing. Since her disappearance from the public eye following the release of her 1999 international debut Love In The Time Of Science, she has not only contributed ‘Gollum’s Song’ to the ‘Lord Of The Rings: The Two Towers OST’ (a video for which can be found as an extra on the DVD), but also found time to pen a number one single for Kylie Minogue in the shape of the slinky ‘Slow’. At last, following a critical standing ovation for her debut and deserved commercial success, albeit not directly in her own name, Ms. Torrini offers up her second album proper to the music world.

Lucky us! Emiliana returns with one of the most captivating folk albums of recent times, combining her delicate but powerful vocals with impossibly good melodies, perfect musical arrangements and a set of songs that place her firmly among the ranks of the best. The dreamy electronica of her debut had been shed in favour of sparse, gorgeous folk with acoustic guitars replacing programmed instruments. The result: Emiliana sounds considerably more comfortable than anyone I have heard in a long time. At last, she seems to have finally found her niche.

In all honesty there is not a bad song on this album and tracks such as ‘Sunnyroad’, the sweet and enchanting first single, ‘Nothing Brings Me Down’ and the outstanding ‘At Least It Was’ make it even more amazing that Emiliana’s talents have not brought her more attention. The title track takes us far away from the city and time of science of her debut into a simple, more homely world where melancholy and sweetness are balanced effortlessly to create an album that is both warming and heartbreaking. The innermost Emiliana comes out on this album. In ‘At Least It Was’, the timid heartbroken girl sings, “I thought I saw you on the train, I hid behind some man. I’d never seen you look so good…” and in ‘Heartstopper’, the self-professed “chick flick song”, the hopeless, daydreaming romantic is allowed to voice her thoughts where “outside your house to make a scene, in my head you grab me passionately”. In almost every way, on Fisherman’s Woman the real Emiliana grabs the reins.

Unlike her debut, the bulk of this album is self-penned, written with new co-writer Dan Carey and shows her maturity as writer and performer. Alongside her own songs, the album features a song written for her by Bill Callaghan (better known in some circles as Domino-signed artist Smog) and a sublime cover of the Sandy Denny classic ‘Next Time Around’. These songs slide seamlessly in amongst her own to complete a near-perfect setlist. Album closer ‘Serenade’ is possibly the most serene moment of her career. The most striking thing about Fisherman’s Woman, however, is its utter lack of pretence. It sounds so completely natural, free from the self-consciousness and artifice that colours so many other artists. All in all then, this is a beautifully honest and human album, and as a nice surprise, even more spellbinding than her debut.

Rod Thomas
originally published June 9th, 2005 

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Emiliana Torrini
Live at the Passionskirche, Berlin •••••
September 26th, 2005

With her second album Fisherman’s Woman one of the biggest slow-burning, word-of-mouth successes of the year, Emiliana Torrini has firmly established herself as a young, exotic heiress to Vashti Bunyan’s throne of fragile, female folk. It’s somehow fitting then that for her last big tour of the year, Torrini has upped the ante a little, this time playing venues that, while larger than those on her earlier trips, have an ambience more sensitive to her delicate songs. The Passionskirche in Berlin is such a venue; a large, red-bricked church with beautiful stained-glass windows, intricately detailed murals and carved wooden friezes lining the walls, and the best acoustics known to man.

It seems that Germany holds a special appeal for Torrini; it’s here that Fisherman’s Woman has enjoyed the most success and regular radio play. Like Rufus Wainwright and Antony & The Johnsons, she has been welcomed by the German mainstream, while so many other folk artists remain a niche interest. It’s no mistake then that the long queue outside for first dibs on the pews was a mixture of old couples, young couples, indie kids, teenage girls, black-clad Berlin hipsters, groups of women, groups of men… but why labour a point? More interesting is why this may be so, and one possibility is that the multilingual Icelandic–Italian is pretty nifty with the language. Certainly, her German between-song banter is just as charming, if not more, than her English preambles. Everyone appreciates a “danke” here and there, but a whole concert in German with light-hearted attempts to translate song titles into the language certainly endears her to the Berliners.

Despite a fairly rigorous tour schedule, Torrini still suffers from a degree of stage-fright, and one of the most satisfying elements of her live show is seeing her warm to the crowd, her speech becoming less staccato as the night stretches on, her stories longer and funnier. It’s very much more ‘An Evening with…’ than your standard gig; it’s as if she lets you into her world, with the songs imbibing even more meaning as she confides in the audience as if all were close friends sharing a bottle of red wine. Then, as soon as she is finished confiding, she slips back into a consumed and introverted performance, eyes closed, hands twitching with nerves and emotion. It’s in this contradiction that her charm can be said to lie – she is both entertainer and artist, and like the best of butterflies, she can flit between the two almost effortlessly.

Although the set was drawn almost exclusively from Fisherman’s Woman, a few highlights from her 1999 international debut Love In The Time Of Science were thrown in for good measure, each getting an equally rapturous welcome. Closing on her heartbreaking rendition of Jacques Brel’s ‘If You Go Away (Ne Me Quitte Pas)’, an elusive early B-side, Torrini proves her point. She doesn’t need to finish on a single. She could finish on anything and still be guaranteed a thunderous standing ovation. A truly holy experience.

Robbie de Santos
originally published December 7th, 2005 

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Trespassers William
Having ••
Nettwerk

Let’s get things clear, Trespassers William live with their heads in a big fluffy cloud. That’s not to say they’re otherworldly – this particular nimbus definitely sits within the confines of our atmosphere – nor is it to say that they’re deceiving themselves into thinking they’re better than they actually are. Having is far too modest to ever be thought of as arrogant. Trespassers William sound like The Cardigans on tranquilisers, which is a great thing indeed if you want to relax and slip into unconsciousness but not so good first thing in the morning when you’re commuting down a busy road on the way to work. There’s no coffee call in sight; these songs will neither stick in the mind nor wake you from a slumber.

Opener ‘Safe, Sound’ could easily be paralleled with Broken Social Scene’s ‘Passport Radio’, awash as it is with echo machines and dreamy guitars. But while singer Anna-Lynne Williams croons lovingly over the top, she can’t quite match up to Leslie Feist’s hypnotic whisper. Sadly, it’s all downhill from there, each track unfurling like dribble from your snoring mouth. ‘Weakening’ is so vacant you wonder whether the music is about to disappear into itself, while the title of ‘Eyes Like Bottles’ really speaks for itself.

Elsewhere, ‘Low Point’ almost succeeds in its mission of becoming a table leg to which the listen can cling onto, saving them from the imminent impact with the floor. ‘No One’ and ‘Matching Weight’, however, act like a bat to the back of the head. The end result resembles middle-class junkie heaven: a polished mahogany coffee table, half a cup of nettle tea and an unconscious, neatly-dressed ‘O.C.’ watcher lying face up on the rug.

Trespassers William ultimately prove that too much of a good thing is, well, not so great. There are inspired songs here, absolutely, it’s just that the comatose effect of Having in its entirety means that fewer listeners will come to appreciate the fact. Had the acoustic guitar been turned up just a little and the sound of waves dimmed down only slightly, the whole album would have been saved. As it stands, the only time that having Having will be handy is when you’re finding it hard to nod off.

Tiffany Daniels
originally published July 2nd, 2006 

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KT Tunstall
Eye To The Telescope •••
Relentless

KT Tunstall is something of an unusual prospect in these parts. Rarely does an artist on a major-label imprint freely admit to having sacrificed their artistic vision to satisfy the commercial demands of the suits, at least not in the dawn of their careers rather than the twilight, let alone profess to writing music that they themselves would not buy. But that is precisely the situation in which the 29-year old part-Scottish, part-Cantonese theatre studies graduate has placed us. Can she be taken at all seriously in light of such revelations? The answer, thankfully, is a large plate of yes with just a small garnish of no.

There is no question that Tunstall is in possession of a disarmingly versatile voice, best displayed here on the proverbial sore thumb that is ‘Black Horse & The Cherry Tree’, a refreshingly odd toe-tapping singalong rooted in swampy blues. As a first single, it’s almost entirely unrepresentative of the album as it stands, though one suspects not of the album Tunstall had in mind before the creases were A&R’d out. Given that her live shows are considerably more engaging than this sometimes samey record would suggest, even garnering comparisons to the more visceral rock of Carina Round, Tunstall clearly has the potential to make an album more vital than this.

That nagging frustration aside, Eye To The Telescope is by no means bad. There are enough moments of swagger and poise to delight a wide audience and the album’s shortlisting for the 2005 Nationwide Mercury Music Prize would certainly have pricked up many a new ear. ‘False Alarm’, the title track from last year’s debut EP, is a fine example of accessible melancholia, and the similarly accomplished ‘Stoppin’ The Love’ is almost downright groovy. Elsewhere, ‘Other Side Of The World’ is her power ballad moment and she handles it with aplomb. Sure it sounds a little calculatedly widescreen, but if Avril Lavigne could get away with ‘I’m With You’, Tunstall’s off the hook. The somewhat Norah Jones-a-like ‘Under The Weather’ and the raspy ‘Miniature Disasters’ are also worthy of attention.

Overall though, despite a number of flourishes and the glaring promise of a prodigious new talent, Eye To The Telescope suffers from a few too many generic contributions. Though it’s tempting to think that had she stuck more rigidly to her original blueprint we’d be listening to a far better album, this is, after all, only the beginning. The true test of Tunstall’s determination to find her sound will come later.

Alan Pedder
originally published July 26th, 2005 

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KT Tunstall
KT Tunstall’s Acoustic Extravaganza ••••
EMI

The acoustic/live session version of a mainstream but ‘credible’ artist’s best-selling album is fast becoming a useful marketing tool (or dare we say it, cash-in) for record companies looking to maintain interest in between albums and tours. So we’ve had James Blunt’s fairly inexcusable The Bedlam Sessions, Maroon 5’s post-Songs About Jane acoustic live CD and the list goes on and on. Invariably, the resulting product is just that – product with a capital P, a marketing expedience rather than a creative experience. Jaded as we are then, it would be almost too easy to approach KT Tunstall’s Acoustic Extravaganza with precisely the same cynical view. In fact, watching the documentaries on this double CD/DVD package (available exclusively through Tunstall’s own website), there are hints that this might have been just what was on the EMI shareholders’s Christmas wishlist when the project was first mooted. Plans were made and a couple of days were duly booked at the stub end of 2005 in a tiny studio on the Isle of Skye.

Happily, Tunstall’s own cheekily subversive streak meant that corporate plans didn’t go quite as planned. As she states during the making-of documentary ‘Five Go To Skye’, “We all decided last night that, instead of doing the album remake, we’re going to do something a little more unorthodox…which is great…and we’re going to do some B-sides, and a couple of new songs…so we’ve got quite a crazy little setlist that we didn’t expect”. Well, Wears The Trousers rolls up its denims and yells “viva la revolution!” for the end result is something much more worthwhile.

Although Eye To The Telescope was certainly one of the revelations of 2005, many maintain that it was over-produced and that some of Tunstall’s true character was suppressed and sacrificed at the altar of commerciality. Here, that balance is nicely redressed and the rawness of KT’s talent is allowed to shine out with minimal post-production to obscure it. The clear advantage of taking a band straight off a world tour and recording them live in intimate surroundings is the lingering presence of musical ESP between them and that spirit really comes across. Producer Steve Osborne has also done a great job of capturing the sessions, while Tunstall’s singing is as soulful, gutsy and smoky as one would have anticipated.

Of course, all that is rather irrelevant if the songs themselves aren’t up to much. There’s no worries on that score, however. The eight ‘new’ songs (‘Gone To The Dogs’ and ‘Change’ originally appeared on her self-released album, 2000’s Tracks In July) are uniformly strong, while the songs chosen from Eye To The Telescope are perhaps less obvious, neatly avoiding any of the singles yet well worthy of inclusion. ‘Ashes’, an obscene love song of the “can’t live with you, can’t kill you” variety kicks off proceedings with verve in loping acoustic country style. ‘Girl & The Ghost’ and ‘One Day’ are more recognisably Tunstall and immediately likeable – in an alternative reality either would make a sweet little single. ‘Golden Age’, a Beck cover, contains echoes of Sheryl Crow’s ‘Over You’ in its feel and harmonies, while ‘Boo Hoo’ goes country blues on us, breaking out the slide guitar and Hammond organ. ‘Throw Me A Rope’, which first appeared on the pre-fame False Alarm EP, closes out the album in lovely stripped-down fashion.

So, is …Acoustic Extravaganza a better album than Eye To The Telescope? Probably not, but it does give a glimpse into a rawer, musically more honest side to Tunstall and should be considered a must for fans. It surely won’t be long before the tracks included here become firm favourites among her appreciative throng, while the DVD portion provides interesting insights into both the artist and the creative process. The outtakes reel and a fun feature on her now infamous ‘Wee Bastard’ pedal are particularly enjoyable. Perhaps it would have been nice to see some more web content included, such as the solo recording of ‘Black Horse & The Cherry Tree’, or to bundle in the videos from the singles. But that’s just being greedy! As it is, …Extravaganza is a refreshing and lovingly crafted treat for eyes and ears.

Trevor Raggatt
originally published June 8th, 2006 

             



2005/06 reviews dump: w

The following reviews were all published on our old website between May 2005 and December 2006.

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Amy Wadge
No Sudden Moves •••½ 
Manhaton Records

If just a single word were to sum up the career to date of Bristol-born, Cardiff-based singer-songwriter Amy Wadge, it would probably be ‘almost’. After the richly promising start of gritty mini-album The Famous Hour, her debut album proper, 2004’s WOJ, was an overproduced error of judgement and went mostly unregarded. Even so, Wadge has twice managed to trump the likes of Cerys Matthews and Charlotte Church at the Welsh Music Awards, yet despite working with and supporting some of the most respected names in the business and representing Wales as a cultural ambassador, Wadge has somehow failed to filter into the realms of public recognition outside of blessed Cymru. If a mixture of talent and hard work alone guaranteed anything in the music industry, she might already be a household name. So does No Sudden Moves have the legs to right this sorry inequality?

You know, it really just might. Sticking to the blueprint of its title, the album provides a baker’s dozen of likeable, mellow, middle-of-the-road cuts, but this in itself should not be taken as damnation with faint praise. The songs here may be accessible and easy on the ear, but they are not by inference bland or undemanding. Lyrical preoccupations include intelligent musings on life and love with the odd wink at social politics; take, for instance, the first two single releases. The first, ‘USA, We’ll Wait & See’, was released late last year in both Welsh and English language versions and explores that all too human tendency of running away to find meaning and significance when those things were already at hand, if you’d only taken time to look. The second, soon to be released is an exquisite cover of the Manic Street Preachers’ ‘A Design For Life’. From the moment Wadge’s bare and exposed vocal intones the lyric “Libraries gave us power, then work came and set us free / what price now for a shallow piece of dignity?” backed only by skeletal right-hand piano, you realise you’re in for something truly special. Stripped of the Manics’s raging guitar onslaught, the song loses none of its power. Indeed, the aching passion for righteousness and a decent life for the ordinary person in Nicky Wire’s lyrics are thrown into even sharper relief.

It has never been in doubt that Amy Wadge possesses a voice of astonishing strength and beauty. Smoky and seductively sibilant, each performance drips with feeling and is delivered at either a visceral or higher emotional level depending on the context. While the production takes an open, acoustic approach that complements the vocal performance nicely, No Sudden Moves is not an exercise in minimalism. On the contrary, acoustic guitars, piano, double bass and other instruments such as strings and muted trumpet conspire to create a lush soundscape that envelops the listener whilst allowing the music to breathe. Bringing to mind the work of Mary Black in the 1990s, these songs are smooth but not soulless, produced but still organic. Some songs recall the arrangements of Julia Fordham; others are stripped back to the bare essentials of guitar or piano and lovely harmonies (‘No Sudden Moves’, ‘Worry About You’).

Readily grabbing the ear with a subtle immediacy, No Sudden Moves nevertheless retains enough appeal to reward digging deeper and repeated auditions. It’s an album that should attract the attentions of stations like Radio 2 and a listenership that responds to well-written, well-sung songs. Neither tortoise nor hare, No Sudden Moves is the sound of moderate progression and a sturdy bid for wider recognition.

Trevor Raggatt
originally published March 31st, 2006 

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The Wailin’ Jennys
Firecracker ••••½
Red House

Dear Wears The Trousers reader,
Have just found Canada’s female answer to Crosby, Stills and Nash. Would love to go into more detail, but that would prevent me from listening to them.

TTFN,
Your critic.

P.S. Did I mention they were wonderful?

P.P.S. It seems they started out working in a guitar shop in Winnipeg. Their previous album, 40 Days was a Juno award winner, after which they lost founder member Cara Luft to a solo career. Remaining members Nicky Mehta (mezzo) and Ruth Moody (soprano) met Annabelle Chvostek (alto); the result is Firecracker.

P.P.P.S. You want more? Alriiight. Firecracker was produced by David Travers-Smith (Jane Siberry) and is a quantum leap from 40 Days, which, though equally lovely, was a little too twee in places. Firecracker is aptly named; each song literally fizzes with moments that raise the hairs on your arms, whether it’s Nicky’s beautiful solo on the lament ‘Begin’ (“when are you going to learn things sometimes turn instead of turn out”), the rolling country-folk melody of ‘Things That You Know’ or Annabelle’s haunting rising octave changes on ‘Apocalypse Lullaby’ when she sings “earthquakes break the walls / oceans rise, empires fall”. You may have noticed that I’ve been able to pick out songs written by all three; each member contributes four songs, lending additional weight to the diversity and talent on offer. The only traditional arrangement is the stunning a cappella ‘Long Time Traveller’.

The icing on this particularly tasty cake is the way their voices blend together. On ‘Swallow’ they are so much a bird on the wing you can practically feel the rushing wind through their feathers, while ‘Starlight’ finds them “shattered under midnight” and it’s almost unbearably sad. Then there’s the finale, ‘Prairie Town’, as perfect an evocation of longing to lose your origins as you’re every likely to hear and one of the best songs I’ve heard in… well, ever really: “when it rains it snows in this prairie town / and we just watch it fall to the ground / and wait for love to come around”. Ah, me, that was it, I was undone.

Recent live shows in the UK and throughout the US appear to have had the same effect on the crowds as Firecracker has had on me. It’s genuinely difficult to be critical of anything here, it’s simply magnificent. If there’s any justice, Nicky, Ruth and Annabelle’s acoustic assault on the plastic people will conquer; in reality, we may have to settle for the best-kept secret north of the Great Lakes. I deny anyone not to drown in this achingly beautiful record; it’s what your CD player was invented for. Now, please, leave me alone, I need to hit repeat.

Paul Woodgate 
originally published September 17th, 2006

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Martha Wainwright
Bloody Mother Fucking Asshole EP •••••
Drowned In Sound

Some voices were just meant to be heard, and at 29 years of age, Martha Wainwright has kept us waiting long enough. But who can blame her? Growing up among a family consisting of a notoriously fractious singer-songwriter/part-time Hollywood actor father, Loudon Wainwright III, a scene-stealing brother in the ubiquitous Rufus Wainwright and the liberal-thinking folk heritage of her mother and aunt, Kate and Anna McGarrigle, could not have been easy. Certainly, at least one of these is brought to account on this, her debut UK release. (Canadian fans may be more familiar with her after three self-released EPs – Ground Floor, Martha Wainwright and Factory.) Having contributed backing vocals to each of Rufus’ albums, a smattering of Loudon’s and singing lead on two tracks of 1999’s The McGarrigle Hour, this EP represents a deft familial sidestep that is poised at last to put the spotlight on Martha.

It’s fantastic, of course. If there’s a better song than the title track this year then we should all be excited to hear it. Aside from the title, ‘Bloody Mother Fucking Asshole’ is the kind of song that grabs you by the vernaculars and leaves you slightly slackjawed and drooling. Like Kate Bush’s ‘Wuthering Heights’ and Alanis Morissette’s ‘You Oughta Know’, the result is an instantly memorable experience. Coming on like a slightly nutra-sweetened solo Kristin Hersh, Wainwright sings with unflinching command of her struggle to find her calling through the thick fog of family talent, and in particular the barbed machinations of her dad. It’s the catch in her voice that gets you.

Fans who picked up a copy of the EP at her support slots for Rufus may be surprised to find that the official release has just four tracks instead of five. Gone are the Loudon cover ‘Pretty Good Day’ and the charmingly soulful ‘When The Day Is Short’, and in their place is the raucous and raw ‘It’s Over’. Of course, nothing else here has the immediacy of the title track but ‘I Will Internalize’ is equally devastating and ‘How Soon’ similarly yearning. Overall, this is impressive stuff and an excellent precursor to her self-titled full length debut album.

Alan Pedder
originally published May 15th, 2005 

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Martha Wainwright
Martha Wainwright ••••
Drowned In Sound

When writing about Martha Wainwright, youngest progeny of the McGarrigle / Wainwright dynasty, it has become standard fare to open with family trees, domestic wounds and sibling rivalry. Releasing her debut album within months of father Loudon Wainwright III’s Here Come The Choppers and brother Rufus’s acclaimed Want Two, Martha has avoided trying to emulate the theatrical excesses of her elder sibling as this assured debut’s musical roots are closer to the country-tinged folk rock of mother Kate McGarrigle. In the McWainwright’s hermetically-sealed world, writing songs about family members is perhaps one of the more creative forms of psychological catharsis. While Loudon was still reeling from Rufus’s ode to paternal absence, ‘Dinner At Eight’, Martha provided the killer blow with last year’s ‘Bloody Mother Fucking Asshole’, an acid-tongued riposte to a father who once wrote that his daughter was “just a clone of every woman I’ve known.”

Turning 30 next year, Martha’s first album proper is the culmination of over seven years of songwriting that may have endured a long gestation, but for fans of her live sets, this album reads like a ‘best of’ collection. Having spent these formative years opening and backing for Rufus, Martha has acquired many fans of her raw, whisky-coated vocals over earnestly strummed guitar strings. Now at last rewarded with a record deal on independent label Drowned In Sound, the songs translate well to disc without compromising their heart-on-sleeve simplicity. For instance, ‘Don’t Forget’, complimented here by Kate McGarrigle’s dreamlike piano, is a beautiful realisation of a live favourite. Cousin Lily Lanken also contributes, not only with honeyed backing vocals, but also the paintings that adorn the inner artwork of the sleeve. Rufus returns Martha’s many favours by cropping up, albeit with far less of his usual gusto, on ‘Don’t Forget’ and ‘The Maker’, particularly impressing on the latter as their two voices interweave along a precious swirling melody.

While Martha admits that many of her songs fall into the ‘woe is me’ vein, the album itself has many faces and one album is almost too little to contain the number of voices fighting for attention. ‘Far Away’ and ‘Whither I Must Wander’, a traditional cover, bookend the album and find Martha at her most sensitive and subdued, while ‘Ball & Chain’ is infused with all the resentment, hurt and resignation of a lost love. With a lyrical candour that recalls fellow Canuck Alanis Morissette, Martha places herself firmly at the centre of her songs, and while her voice takes centre stage here, the harmonies complete the musical landscape far beyond the horizon. It’s not all plain sailing however. The album’s MOR low comes with the anaemic lyricism of ‘This Life’. “This life is boring”, she begins with an uncanny accuracy. However, normal service is resumed with latest single ‘When The Day Is Short’, and, alongside the achingly good ‘BMFA’, the album subsequently scales one peak after another.

On his latest album, Rufus sings on ‘Little Sister’ a tale of paranoia at being eclipsed by his talented sibling. Martha, however, should not be so concerned with such familial one-upmanship when her strongest competition is evidently with herself.

Stephen Collings
originally published July 16th, 2005 

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Tamsin Warley
Wide Open Sky ••••
Pure Passion

The last few years has seen a resurgence in the mainstream of female singers unafraid to let it rock, at least politely. Whether it’s the sk8er ‘punk’ of Avril Lavigne, the big vocals of Anastacia and Kelly Clarkson or Michelle Branch’s more acoustic offerings, there’s clearly a market for well-written pop songs with guitars aplenty. It’s into this particular arena that Lancashire-born, London-based singer-songwriter Tamsin Warley has firmly planted her feet, her debut album setting out a stall packed with attractive produce.

Overseen by Tamsin herself, in cahoots with former SnowDogs Ville and Mat Leppanen, at East London’s Atomic Studios, Wide Open Sky is no shabbily recorded portastudio fodder; from a technical point of view, the results are mighty impressive. The rockier numbers are imbued with a mixture of modern angular guitar sounds mixed together and shaken up with an almost subliminal retro sheen, while the keyboard flourishes recall some of the great pop songs of the late ‘80s and early ‘90s, but never drag them back through a time-warp. And while this remains a thoroughly contemporary pop album, the excellent production would be largely irrelevant without decent songs and a great performance. Fortunately, Warley really delivers on these counts too. Her vocal style is perfectly suited to this type of music, clear and rich with the strength to impose herself during the louder moments but tender enough to convince in the softer lulls.

The quality of the self-penned songs is thankfully equal to the delivery. While dealing with fairly universal themes of life, love and the search for significance, they are a million miles from the usual pop platitudes – there is a real depth to Warley’s lyrics. The writing is observant and insightful, picking up on the minutiae of life (…but when I found her text to you / there was nothing else to do / ‘cause I’d lost you once and for all…) which are so often symbolic of the broader picture – a technique so well exploited by the likes of Ulvaeus and Andersson. ‘Macefin Avenue’ looks back to a life that never was in a Manchester suburb to ponder the effects of the choices we make in love. Even when delivering the classic breakup song, Warley’s emphasis is never on self-pity but on a woman learning from her mishaps and moving on to something better.

The faster songs are similarly inspiring; opener ‘Drive For Miles’ is the quintessential top-down, foot-to-thefloor classic, while ‘Dance Like No One Is Watching’ is a glorious hymn to the pleasure of surrendering to the moment. In a softer gear, Warley subtly recalls the better aspects of Beverley Craven, but when cranked up the comparisons are harder to pin down. There’s perhaps a touch of Annie Lennox with Chrissie Hynde’s attitude; elsewhere, maybe a hint of Shawn Colvin’s rockier side – but Warley is never indistinct. That said, much of Wide Open Sky wouldn’t be out of place sat at the top of the charts in the hands (or rather, the tonsils) of the aforementioned Ms. Clarkson or Newkirk. With a good publishing deal and contacts, a comfy retirement fund could certainly be assured. However, with the right backing, opportunities and a side order of luck, there’s no reason why she couldn’t take the songs there herself. The pop music market may be crowded and cut-throat, but Warley could be one to succeed in that particular den of fiery dragons.

Trevor Raggatt
originally published February 15th, 2006 

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Abigail Washburn
Song Of The Traveling Daughter ••••½
Nettwerk

For someone who never set out to be a musician, let alone a bona fide recording artiste, Nashville resident Abigail Washburn has created a spectacular debut in the wistfully-titled Song Of The Traveling Daughter. A beautifully layered, heartfelt ode to well-trodden American folk traditions, it is nevertheless just as surprising and quirky as one might expect from an adventurous, Mandarin-fluent, banjo-playing political activist.

Born in Illinois, rather more than a stone’s throw away from the Appalachias whose music infuses this record, she took her time in finding her calling. Unusually, a college trip to China was the catalyst – “It had a profound effect on me,” she explains, “I discovered a Chinese culture that was so deep and ancient; it changed my perspective on America.” Sure enough, on her return from Chengdu, she invested in a banjo and began a journey that led her back to her native country’s traditional roots.

Okay, so it was a fairly long journey. She barely touched the banjo for years until fate intervened and she found herself performing at short notice on an Alaskan tour with friends. Later, she joined the string band Uncle Earl before finally inking a deal of her own. Encapsulating the spirit and grit of the journeywoman, Song Of The Traveling Daughter positively sparkles with jewel after jewel of song. ‘Red & Blazing’ and ‘Deep In The Night’, for instance, may seem simple on first audition, but listen back and they reveal layer after layer of emotion and astonish with their sheer expressiveness. The more unusual ‘Eve Stole The Apple’ is packed with longing, folksy strings searching for meaning in an ever-evolving travelling rhythm. It is broody and full of character and texture, Washburn’s vocals tearing right through the dramatic arrangements.

Co-produced by banjo supremo Béla Fleck, this is an album that focuses on the singer and the song in the purest sense. Washburn’s voice is showcased in all its extraordinary versatility – sometimes soothing, sometimes overwhelming and often childlike, full of hopes and dreams – while the clever arrangements support rather than interfere with the simple song structures. It’s a moving tribute to America’s traditions that also takes things one step further, blending roots and building bridges. As Washburn says in her own words: “I want to learn more about Chinese folk traditions, so I can integrate them into my music and continue to be a part of the development of a more universal language” – a noble sentiment indeed.

Anja McCloskey
originally published May 19th, 2006

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Jane Weaver
Seven Day Smile •••½
Bird/Cherry Red

It has been four years since Mancunian Jane Weaver last charmed our ears with the unjustly ignored mini-album Like An Aspen Leaf, a record that nonetheless made an indelible impression on those who actually heard it. Since then she’s released an album under her ‘girl group’ alter ego Misty Dixon and continued to tour with Andy Votel and members of his Twisted Nerve label collective.

However, despite the long gap, Seven Day Smile is not to be mistaken for a brand new album. It was actually recorded way back in the early Nineties when she was signed to Haçienda co-founder and former Joy Division manager Rob Gretton’s label Manchester Records. Also affiliated with the label were dance outfit Sub Sub, who later blossomed into acclaimed indie rock band Doves, and it’s with these esteemed collaborators that much of Seven Day Smile was committed to tape. After Bretton died of a heart attack in 1999, the label went down with him and the songs remained unreleased, until the bright sparks at Cherry Red Records allowed Weaver to release them on her very own imprint.

So was it worth the wait? On balance, a definite yes, though Weaver herself will be the first to admit that there are moments that could have been bettered, but as a statement of a time and place it’s more than adequate. Various tracks have cropped up elsewhere (most notably ‘Starglow’) but none have been easy to find and all still sound fresh and appealing. Weaver’s instrument of choice, the Farfisa organ, pipes up throughout and lends a slightly kitsch feel to the otherwise highly personal and sometimes serious goings on.

Weaver might sound sweet but there’s a dark streak at her centre for sure, and rather infectious it is too. ‘You’re A Riot’, for example, is a meaty, mostly acoustic beauty that exemplifies her special brand of unsettling tranquility (see also ‘Once You’d Given Me Up’). The rising and falling notes of ‘In Summer’ are effortlessly lazy yet suck you in completely, but one true standout number is saved for last in the form of ‘Gutter Girl’. Collaborating with Votel, Weaver allows his electronic bleeps, burps and trickles to run free all over the place as she tells an anguished tale of unrequited love and passion. The song’s second half has her singing as if she were underwater, which sounds silly but works well.

Despite its long shelf-life and slight imperfections, Seven Day Smile is a highly listenable album. The better tracks are musically diverse and interesting, mixing lush melodies with Weaver’s headmess of lyrics. It’s a real pleasure that these songs have finally had a chance to see the light of day as a proper, if somewhat brief album, to stand alone as something truly original. If you’re looking for music that seriously messes with the singer-songwriter status quo, then look no further than this.

Helen Ogden
originally published August 23rd, 2006 

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The Weepies
Say I Am You ••
Nettwerk

Mellow folk-pop duo The Weepies claim to have touched on “a more complex sort of joy” with their second album, Say I Am You. That may be true on a personal level, but there’s little evidence of the real-life lovebirds going that extra mile to impress. There are so many bands out there doing this sort of folksy pop that gone are the times when a few guitar strokes, predictable drumming and some harmonious vocals, albeit quite lovely, warrant much attention.

Not all of their contemporaries have such a sweet background, however; independent singer-songwriters and mutual admirers Deb Talan and Steve Tannen first met four years ago at a show in Boston where Tannen was playing in support of his debut album. They clicked immediately and consequently fell in love, moved in with each other and formed The Weepies. An independently released album brought them to the attention of Nettwerk, who set them to work on this follow-up.

Whilst there is nothing specifically inaccurate with the PR blurb implying “lush meditations”, “sunny hook-laden tunes” and “dark charmers”, there’s a distinct lack of an original angle. The instrumentation barely varies; ‘Take It From Me’ and ‘Not Your Year’ in particular are drearily uninventive, while ‘Slow Pony Home’ falls short of being great due to a distracting arrangement that detracts from the vocals. Talan is definitely a talented singer but the album doesn’t really allow her the space to show it off. A few calm moments in ‘Citywide Rodeo’ and ‘Stars’ hint at what The Weepies could have achieved if the songs had been given more depth.

There’s potential here, certainly, but you may well find yourself longing for more varied and natural sounds. The almost raindrop-like piano motif in ‘Nobody Knows Me At All’ may be subtle and barely audible, but it’s touches like this that The Weepies should make a much bigger deal of next time. Not everyone falls in love so neatly.

Anja McCloskey
originally published May 22nd, 2006 

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Lise Westzynthius
Rock, You Can Fly •••••
One Little Indian

Although you’ve most likely never heard of new One Little Indian signing Lise Westzynthius, Rock, You Can Fly is actually her second solo album, but the first to be released outside of her native Denmark. Looking further in reverse, she was once part of a critically acclaimed band named Luksus who lasted for two albums before disbanding. No wispy-voiced newcomer then, Westzynthius has been admired by many for years, and this album only cemented that status; Rock, You Can Fly won her both the vocalist and album of the year awards at last year’s Prize of Danish Music Critics. Upon hearing the album, it’s not hard to believe; it’s a work of high calibre and incredible beauty.

Westzynthius was first exposed to music by her Finnish grandmother, who was a pianist in Helsinki. During the long Finnish summers, she was exposed to Brahms and Chopin, both of which clearly had a profound effect – the classical influence is prominent on Rock, You Can Fly, with simple piano melodies that take their time to develop, and instruments that complement the entire sound rather than carving their own individual spaces. This is a delicate record, full of subtleties that make for a rich but intimate sound. Take ‘Reparation’ for example; it’s a slow, uncomplicated song that manages to be utterly mesmerising despite barely changing for nearly five minutes.

Breathy and dreamlike, Lise’s vocals make it easy to imagine her as a tiny elfin creature, fragile and helpless. Occasionally, however, she displays real vocal strengths – “She is strong, but in a frail way” she coos early on, perhaps self-referentially. Lyrically, Rock, You Can Fly explores the themes of love, loss, death and Arctic climbs, simultaneously conveying the epic and the deeply personal. First single ‘Séance’ is about a dead lover coming back to whisper comforting words in your ear, and it perfectly conjures up that spooked feeling when you don’t know if what you just experienced was a dream or reality. ‘Northernmost’ is a simple refrain about the cold morning mist, while ‘Cowboys & Indians’ makes turf into playful whimsy and the magic of childhood. Mostly though, the songs deal with loss, or whether you ever really had what you were looking for in the first place, such as on the beautiful ‘Sans Souci’. Her message is ambiguous, however, especially when coupling joyful melodies with heartbreaking sadness on the devastating ‘Mousquetaire’.

The art of creating rich but quiet soundscapes seem to have been perfected by the Scandinavians. Much of Rock, You Can Fly bears a similarity to the work of Sigur Rós, but with a voice more akin to that of Stína Nordenstam. Yet Lise’s music feels a great deal more personal, as if she couldn’t help but tell you her secrets. The album takes you through her joy, her pain, her longing. We’re closer to her by the end of it, as well as closer to ourselves.

Bryn Williams
originally published March 31st, 2006 

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Katharine Whalen
Dirty Little Secret ••••
Koch

It’s the sound of summer, but not as you might necessarily know it. Cuban beats and slinky sounds saunter through this new solo album from the former Squirrel Nut Zippers frontwoman, hooking up with some intelligent lyrics and creating a fantastic mélange of music that you can dance to one day and cook to the next.

Throwing us headlong into the best phase of the party, ‘The Funniest Game’ strikes up a playful conversation between trumpets, guitars and a hefty percussion section. Be prepared for your dancing shoes to find their own way to the floor and don’t count on being able to leave it ‘til the final song fades for ‘Dirty Little Secret’ is similarly catchy; Whalen’s backing band gets bigger and bigger as the song progresses, each new instrumental addition interspersed with teasing lyrical snippets that neatly preserve at least some of the mystery. Things get even sultrier on ‘Meet Me By the Fire’ with Whalen’s witty wordplay and the buzzing of cicadas adding an appealing sense of transportation out of your surroundings. “Walking on lava / drinking cherry kava kava on ice,” she sings, as if it were the coolest thing ever.

Electronic trickery abounds on the all-too-brief ‘The Garden’, a fascinating ninety second number based on the story of Eden, and the almost gothic underground feel of ‘Angel’, which proudly boasts a gorgeously gutsy, visceral chorus. ‘Three Blind Mice’ throws an electric harpsichord into the mix in a genius tale of Mr Right vs. Mr Tonight where Whalen plays the role of the femme fatale in a clubland parody of the titular nursery rhyme and the pay-off is handsome.

Of Dirty Little Secret‘s less dancefloor-destined moments, the piano ballads ‘Follow’ and album closer ‘Blur’ are worthy listens, though the former suffers from some unintelligible lyrics. No such problem on ‘Blur’, its final lyrics, “I’ve got to be sure it’s not just a blur from a shooting star” exemplifying the tone of all that has preceded it; a desire to find the most fabulous aspect of any given situation. Like them or not, they certainly add an extra dimension to Whalen’s pop/funk hybrid.

This album ought to satisfy most musical tastes to a certain degree, so it’s a good one for gatherings and parties without having to worry that some oaf will clamour for a different selection. Let the good times roll.

Gem Nethersole 
originally published October 5th, 2006

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Dar Williams
My Better Self •••½
Zoe/Rounder

Brimming with the usual mélange of moods and merriment, Dar Williams’s sixth studio album, My Better Self, comes two years after the acclaimed Beauty Of The Rain snuck up on our hearts. Clearly, she hasn’t been resting on those laurels in the meantime; My Better Self is a confident return, smooth to digest and yet layered beyond its first audition. On this evidence, Williams could hardly be accused of omphaloskepsis (it’s the new navel-gazing, tell your friends!), pausing to deliberate over karma, fated meetings and the ever-sorrier political state of the world. But this is an album of personal growth too, and many songs bear a measure of elegant sadness. Moreover, it seems that Williams may have spent the last two years purposefully ingratiating herself with fellow musicians, perhaps sociably hosting jams and gatherings and making muso friends with a will to collaboration – selected guests include Ani DiFranco, Patty Larkin, Soulive and Marshall Crenshaw. It’s the team efforts here that really shine, and certainly provide some of the mellower moments as joined forces serve up a pair of Pink Floyd and Neil Young covers.

In keeping with her established style, opener ‘Teen For God’ is crammed full of fast-paced lyrics backed by a hyper-melody that bouncily announces Williams’s arrival. Things quickly shift down several gears with the calm and serene ‘I’ll Miss You ‘Til I Meet You’. Featuring a beautiful slow vocal layered over an expansive array of instruments, including melodica, piano, guitars and percussion, it’s up there with the best of the album. The other clear standout is her duet with Ani DiFranco, their take on Pink Floyd’s ‘Comfortably Numb’ standing out with grace as a somewhat sobering reflection of the times.

Overall, My Better Self takes the underlying pop current in Williams’s canon and pushes it further to the surface, with the folk:pop ratio almost equal on this offering. Lyrically less playful and ever more mature, she has stitched together songs that combine social and environmental issues with the more personal passions of love and hate. But it never turns didactic, the extra maturity suits her and she’s never seemed more confident. Musically, too, she has stepped up her already well-rounded and appealing delivery, which works well in the context of the plusher instrumentation and welcome collaborations.

So don’t be disconcerted by the album’s lack of a consistent feel – that the moments of calm and beauty rub shoulders with lyric-stuffed dizziness and up-tempo strumming are simply nothing other than charmingly and characteristically Dar.

Helen Griffiths
originally published November 30th, 2005 

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Dar Williams
Live at the Exchange, Maidstone •••••
April 30th, 2006

In a quiet street behind the Hazlitt Theatre, away from the hubbub of Maidstone city centre, Dar Williams’s voice floated across the cobblestones in a brief warm-up before she and the band launched into a joyous version of ‘Teen For God’, the lead track from the latest in her long line of quality albums, My Better Self. A select crowd gathered to listen to stolen snippets of magic as we were privvy to a pre-show soundcheck of six semi-songs an hour before the show until the street descended into silence once more. ‘Teen For God’ did indeed open the actual show, and as Dar stepped out of the wings in jeans and a casual top, it was hard to believe that this tiny, beautifully self-deprecating woman on stage with a glitter-edged guitar was the same person who had overwhelmed the air outside. But it soon became clear that these apparently different personas were one and the same as she punctuated each drumbeat with an endearing little jump and highly infectious enthusiasm.

Each song was introduced with an anecdote explaining its origin, and, in one case, even a commentary on the tuning process as her first electric tuner broke and had to replaced. ‘Spring Street’ was Dar’s homage to her boho dreams amid the bustle of New York, while the percussion of ‘Close To My Heart’ was so perfectly arranged it was almost as if the vastness and heat of middle America were transported into the room, cicadas strumming in every corner. Next, she described the plot of Native American movie ‘Smoke Signals’ in which her song ‘Road Buddy’ featured, taking us on the long trip from New York to New Mexico and then “to the third capo and the land of the Jesuit priests” for ‘I Had No Right’. ‘The Beauty Of The Rain’ needed no introduction; the variety of emotions evoked in this single song exemplifies Dar’s massive appeal, imparting so much meaning to so many without ever becoming dogmatic.

The band made a fiery exit with the passionate and political ‘Empire’, its anti-capitalist messages made all the more forceful by their juxtaposition against Dar’s little leaps and glittering guitar. Once alone on the stage, the benefits of such an intimate venue became most apparent, allowing her to chat as if among friends. And while she herself was mortified when forgetting the lyrics to Pink Floyd’s ‘Comfortably Numb’, we forgave her all too easily. I for one had a similar memory blank at the crucial moment, but the song was just as remarkable, even considering the absence of Ani DiFranco who sings on the version found on My Better Self. Ani was the link to the next song, ‘Two Sides Of The River’, which heralded the return of the band as we were whsiked away to America’s Deep South and the balmy humid environs of New Orleans.

After ‘Beautiful Enemy’ and ‘Mercy Of The Fallen’ unleashed the band’s rockier side, the hauntingly poignant ‘Blue Light Of The Flame’ created a clichéd ‘pin-drop’ atmosphere as the audience clung to the song’s painful truths. Written for songwriter Rachel Bissex who died in 2005 from breast cancer, the album version does not do justice to how wrenching the song must be to sing. Yet with lines as jarringly beautiful as “we were the gods that we blamed” and “so this is where it all ends, with flowers by your bed”, we cannot help but want to hear more. Unable to leave the audience overwhelmed by such heart-rending images, ‘Are You Out There’ and ‘Cool As I Am’ were the chosen closing anthems that chased away the sorrow and swelled to a grand finale with stunning solos by each of the band.

Naturally, we were unlikely to allow her to leave so soon and Dar returned alone to perform the wonderfully narrative February followed by a rare and enchanting performance of ‘We Learned The Sea’. The highlight of the evening for most, however, was the final encore of ‘The Christians & The Pagans’ that was met by rapturous applause before it even began. Throughout the evening and particularly the encores, Dar’s humility and sparkle shone. At no point was there a divide between audience and performer, but instead a sharing of experiences; the fact that one person dominated the conversation and that she happened to be the person on stage with a guitar really didn’t seem to matter.

Gem Nethersole 
originally published May 18th, 2006

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Kathryn Williams
Over Fly Over ••••½
Caw

Kathryn Williams has an unusual habit of naming her songs after her albums. Nothing strange about that you might think, but she does it in such a way that defies usual convention. First, the song ‘Little Black Numbers’ appeared on 2002’s Old Low Light and not 2000’s Mercury Music Prize-nominated album of the same name. Similarly, Over Fly Over boasts a composition entitled ‘Old Low Light #2′, the ‘#2′ presumably a nod to her peculiar little quirk. A minor point, true, but who’d bet against her next album having an ‘Over Fly Over’ of its own? Luckily for us, Williams has other unusual habits, one of which includes constantly improving and bolstering her sound. Where she goes from here though is anyone’s guess – Over Fly Over could well be the first Kathryn Williams Band album, such is the stylistic jump from her previous, more stripped down releases.

After last year’s enchanting major label contract-fulfilling Relations covers album, her self-professed disillusionment with music was vanquished, and she set about making Over Fly Over a renewed woman. The result is a sometimes dramatic, sometimes eerie collection of eleven densely-coloured and lyrically intriguing songs and a typically yearning instrumental. Thematically, the songs continue Williams’s sweet way with the minutiae, with lyrics about Lemsips, watching cartoons and listening to a lover’s compilation in the dark.

As it happens, the album splits almost neatly in half between the new bold sonic adventurer Williams and the quieter, more reflective folkie we’ve grown to cherish. From opener ‘Three’, which features a “bad ass out of tune electric guitar solo”, through to the poptastic climax of ‘Shop Window’, Williams has never sounded so demurely forceful. Hell, ‘Just Like A Birthday’ even contains her first ever swear word – she had previously only alluded to pardoning her French in ‘No One To Blame’ from her debut Dog Leap Stairs. Intriguingly, the song begins with a softly spoken line from Cole Porter’s ‘I Love Paris’ – perhaps an inside joke? Then, at its pinnacle, menacing strings swoop around and threaten to strangle the song completely as Alex Tustin’s drumming grows increasingly erratic. It’s a defining moment, not just for Over Fly Over as a whole, but for Williams herself. A thumb in the eye for anyone who suggested that her songs lacked drama.

While there is nay a poor song here, other notable tracks include the thoughtful ‘Breath’, the sweetly nostalgic ‘City Streets’ and the existentialist ‘Full Colour’, in which Williams sings “People like you and me could leave this world and go unnoticed in another.” It’s a typical sentiment for her, full of humility and wonder. Over Fly Over proves that she is capable of testing her tether and, yet again, that she’s a sorely under-appreciated national treasure.

Alan Pedder
originally published August 28th, 2005 

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Kathryn Williams
Leave To Remain ••••
Caw

‘Fragile’ is an adjective too readily assigned to female singer-songwriters of a predominantly acoustic persuasion, and it certainly has no place when appraising the music of Kathryn Williams. She may be softly spoken and embraceably modest but fragile she isn’t. Here is a woman who, even when at her most musically denuded and open, has her head screwed on tight and knows exactly how it is. Tender is a better choice of word, and one that immediately leapfrogs to mind from the very first song on this, her sixth album in almost as many years. Indeed, as the songs keep coming, this tenderness comes to characterise the album as a whole – see her non-sensationalist account of a girl who lives her life through a webcam for a public that she’s too afraid to meet (‘Sandy L’) or her touching portrayal of the late poet Stevie Smith, a striking talent too often misunderstood for her seemingly morbid outlook (‘Stevie’).

Leave To Remain is the record that Williams has always wanted to make; full of remembrance and boasting a subtle but mile-wide playful streak, it’s the kind of album you can put on the stereo and be gently ushered along the cobbles of your own memory lane, into the arms of a past somebody special. It could be the love of your life or simply the best shag you ever had – that’s what makes it remarkable and surprisingly seductive. Opening with the stunningly easy perfection of ‘Blue Onto You’, during which Williams’s lush layered harmonies gently massage and soothe, Leave To Remain raises the bar even higher as it progresses. Tracks like the aching ‘Sustain Pedal’, ‘Room In My Head’ and the nervous sexuality of standout number ‘Glass Bottom Boat’ give voice to the private fears and feelings we can all align with. It’s the aural equivalent of watching someone you love sleep, of tracing their face with your fingertips and feeling familiar and safe. Or perhaps of that moment after what you thought was purely sex when you look into their eyes and realise that what?s staring back is something you?ve been searching for forever.

Though admittedly not something that’s overwrought with variation, Leave To Remain makes a clear, concise effort to be grabbing and enticing throughout. In taking the rather understated route, Williams is almost overwhelmingly endearing in her honest and meaningful presence. Each story told stands testament to how grand a scale relationships can reach if we would only let them, wiping clean away any trace of cynicism and the desperation of the daily grind. As the artist herself claims, “you don’t need to know people to love them” – a fact that she has proved a thousand-fold with this release.

Anna Claxton
previously unpublished

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Lucinda Williams
Live @ The Fillmore •••
Mercury

The Fillmore in San Francisco, California, is the legendary venue from which Lucinda Williams chose to record this, her first official live release and eighth album overall. As was characteristic of the preceding seven, the generous two-disc Live @ The Fillmore set plentifully delivers the charmed smoky hues of Williams’s vocals and beautifully melancholic songwriting. Lovingly presented in a lavish cover featuring one of the famously hand-drawn posters produced exclusively for the venue, the album comprises highlights from a three-night residency personally selected by Lucinda herself.

Her pickings span five out of her seven studio albums and have a definite bias favouring the most recent, 2003’s World Without Tears – 11 of its 13 tracks are included – though this is hardly surprising, given that the set was recorded in November 2003 when Williams was in full swing of the tour behind that album. Indeed, the track selection will excite those familiar with the rich, full-bodied and slightly drowsy World Without Tears, a record that immediately transports the listener into a world of distant hazy memories bereft of names and times – a world to which most would gladly return to in order to replenish those elusive warm fuzzy feelings. With other songs coming from albums such as the intimate Essence and the countrified, career-rejuvenating Car Wheels On A Gravel Road, the album offers a comprehensive selection of Williams’s songcraft spanning a decade.

However, it lacks any real deviations from her preciously polished studio work and offers nothing in the way of narration other than the occasional uttered track title or quick slur of thanks to a surprisingly muted audience, though for many the lack of audience noise will be a welcome feature – with little in the way of whoops and screams, many fans will beam happily as they sit and indulge in the rich depths of the music alone. But surely I am not the only one who appreciates a little artist-audience dynamic in the form of banter and song explanation, even if only once during these 22 tracks. I’m left with the feeling of wanting something more than or at least different to the studio takes.

Despite lacking a new flavour, the set features plenty of strong, tight and mercurial music. The first disc, in much the same vein as World Without Tears, possesses a chilled out, dreamlike quality with songs winding their own sweet way through the speakers. Highlights such as ‘Sweet Side’ and ‘Lonely Girls’ hint at the magic that Williams can generate with her haunting voice, while closing track ‘Atonement’ spotlights some meticulously crafted vocals to great effect. The second disc, with its vibrant and rockier stance finds strength in the catchy and sexily slurred ‘Righteously’, the wounded, naked vocals of ‘Joy’ and the desperate lament of ‘Those Three Days’. The band – Doug Pettibone, Taras Prodaniuk and Jim Christie – add skilful and soulful support with mandolin, harmonica, drums, percussion and carefully blended keys, with musical backdrops cutting through country, folk, blues and rock.

Packed with well-told stories intricately detailed through fine musicianship, Live @ The Fillmore is never a stale listen. Williams’s ability to communicate her experience through music is evident on all 22 tracks. But, as much as it is easy to enjoy this release, it doesn’t come close to capturing the energy of Williams’s live band in the flesh.

Helen Griffiths
originally published July 16th, 2005 

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Astrid Williamson
Day Of The Lone Wolf ••••
Incarnation/One Little Indian

It’s been 10 long years since Shetland-born singer Astrid Williamson struck out on her lonesome, forsaking the safety in numbers afforded by indie duo Goya Dress in which she provided the lush, hypnotic vocals. That decade has seen her put in a number of guest appearances and a pair of solo excursions – one on Nude Records, the other self-produced and distributed through the mighty BMG machine. Day Of The Lone Wolf finds Williamson taking the DIY route once again under the auspices of her own label, Incarnation, with indie stalwart One Little Indian taking care of getting it out there.

These days, DIY is no longer necessarily equated with slapdash bodgery or hissy four-track production. Day Of The Lone Wolf is as sumptuous an aural experience as any bigger budget offering and as insightful a soundtrack to 21st Century living as an entire library of US TV series spin-off compilations. On a cursory listen, and as is certainly implied by the title, these intelligent contemporary pop songs hint at a confident, selfreliant woman negotiating her way through a post-‘Sex In The City’ climate with predatory confidence. But Williamson’s songs deserve more serious consideration and scratching beneath the hide of the album sees the veneer of the hunter stripped right back, exposing the loneliness and solitude of a life separated from the comfort and support of the pack. Suddenly the noble hunter seems a little less majestic, rather more flawed, dysfunctional and unfulfilled – and perfectly in tune with life in the urban landscape.

‘Siamese’ kicks off proceedings in a muted manner, musing on the nature of connection and trust. It’s just a little too reminiscent of Laura Veirs’s ‘Galaxies’ but sets the ensuing emotional tone quite nicely. But not just yet; the wistfully uplifting ‘Superman 2′ (the sequel to a song on her previous album) bursts into life after a brief string intro, driven along by fluid piano and charming Wurlitzer. Like Lois Lane jumping into Niagara Falls on faith in her hero alone, Williamson concludes that sometime it’s best to leap headlong into love and to hell with the consequences. ‘Reach’ brings the tone back down with bare acoustic guitar showing that Astrid’s no slouch on the six-string either, her equally exposed vocal counterpointing ‘Superman 2’s veiled optimism. ‘Amaryllis’ continues in a similar vein, her half-whispered vocal teetering on the edges of perception.

Williamson has often courted controversy with her lyric writing, but while ‘True Romance’s striking couplet “Look at me and think of this / all my tangled hair across your hips” has been hotly debated, the song’s meaning goes far beyond veiled oral sex references to explore the twin fires of obsession and dependency. Other highlights include the perky ‘Shh…’ (surely a future single?), the Brion-esque piano étude of the instrumental ‘Carlotta’, and the stunning standout ‘Tonight’, a tender and sensitive plea for companionship.

The informal trilogy of ‘Another Twisted Thing’, ‘Forgive Me’ and ‘Only Heaven Knows’ dares to ask some of life’s bigger nagging questions (no, not whether Brandon Routh makes a better Man of Steel than Christopher Reeve), the latter bowing out with a mixture of cynical resignation and contentment with circumstance. The lyric “sometimes your beauty suffocates me, but I would gladly die and repose” makes for a fitting conclusion to an album of exquisitely beautiful uncertainty. Day Of The Lone Wolf sees Williamson growing ever more confident in bending to meet her muse and in her abilities as an artist. Even if this isn’t the album to establish her as a major talent, all the evidence points to Astrid finally having her day in the not-too-distant future.

Trevor Raggatt
originally published July 2nd, 2006 

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Amy Winehouse
Back To Black ••••
Island

First things first, I hated Amy Winehouse’s debut album Frank. The word that springs to mind, written in foot-high flashing neon letters, is ‘grating’: the vocal theatrics, the endless travelling up and down octaves in that overly showy Christina curse / Mariah manner that so often incites the rage in ‘range’. It belonged in a box rather clumsily christened nu-jazz, a chest that was best left padlocked and dropped off the side of a boat at midnight yet was somehow stealthily maneuvered into the charts by Winehouse’s stage school compatriots Jamie Cullum and, to a less jazzy extent, Katie Melua.

So I’m taken aback and frankly a little baffled by the sheer quality of Back To Black. It’s a top-class soul record, less something to play in the background at an Esher dinner soiree and more something to get pissed and dance round the living room to. Gone are the weak jazzy stylings of Frank; from the sounds of Back To Black, Winehouse has been living on a musical diet of ‘50s and ‘60s girl groups and the legends of soul. But unlike, say, The Pipettes (though a hugely fun prospect), Winehouse doesn’t sound like she’s studied these acts in order to imitate them. Back To Black seems much more natural, the sound of an artist entirely at home with her music.

Perhaps this authenticity comes in part from the fact that we know that Winehouse has lived the life she sings about. The shockwaves felt upon first hearing ‘Rehab’ on the radio stem not just from the fact that it’s a truly fantastic song, but because of Winehouse’s extreme lyrical candour. The now-famous refrain describing the two-fingered salute she gave to her former management company (“They tried to make me go to rehab / I said no, no, no”) is comic in its gleeful irresponsibility, especially paired with the sexy ‘Brown Sugar’ saxophone and chiming bells. And yet, the song is touching too. In the lines “I’m not ever gonna drink again / I just need a friend”, this danceable song gains a depth and complexity that gives you pause for thought as you move to it with a can of Red Stripe (or a bottle of red wine) in your hand.

Alongside the big brass band and powerful Aretha-esque vocals, Back To Black has a rare subtlety that elevates it up to the next level. Take the closing lines of ‘Love Is A Losing Game’ for example; so softly sighed and sadly sung are they that even if you didn’t understand the lyrics, the weary malaise of the music would be all the clue you needed. Occasionally Winehouse slips back into the mannerisms that made her debut so irritating; ‘Just Friends’ drifts past in a vaguely jazzy, non-committal manner and all that grabs the attention are the oversung vocals where words gain more syllables than you’d ever have thought possible. But these moments can be forgiven when elsewhere Winehouse is singing lyrics like “I’m in the tub, you’re on the seat / lick your lips as I soak my feet” (‘You Know I’m No Good’) set to such classy musical backdrops.

Coupled with her unapologetic and attention-grabbing persona, Back To Black unequivocally shows that Winehouse has the wherewithal and worth to become a big, enduring star. Perhaps not going to rehab was the right idea after all.

Danny Weddup
originally published December 17th, 2006