Filed under: album, back issues, review | Tags: amerie, architecture in helsinki, callum sinclair, esther alexander, joan armatrading, keith anderson, rod thomas, trevor raggatt
The following reviews were published on our old MySpace blog in 2007.
Last Of The Hopeless Romantics EP ••••
Derby-based Esther Alexander has been a regular on the circuit around her hometown and London for a number of years now, paying her dues both there and with session work for the likes of Steve Winwood, Ruby Turner and the London Community Gospel Choir. Her first album, a pop and R&B-tinged affair, was released on an independent imprint in 2003 so new recorded material has been long time coming. It’s heartening, then, that the hours spent writing and treading the boards have reaped dividends aplenty.
The five songs presented here – strictly four if you take into account radio and album mixes of the title track – demonstrate what an accomplished singer and songwriter Alexander has become. Although this EP (she sweetly calls it an ‘albumette’) sees her flirt increasingly with the mainstream pop of her debut, perhaps wisely casting aside any R&B tendencies, the songs are strong enough to connect and engage. Okay, so the title track’s classy mid-tempo pop has ‘Radio 2 playlist’ written through it like a stick of Brighton rock, and the fact that it has been picked up by Caffé Nero for repeated in-store plays only lends credence to the coffee table tag, but it’s not the be all and end all.
Production duties fall to Kipper – best known for his Grammy award-winning work with Sting – who succeeds in presenting a shimmering context in which to appreciate Alexander’s delicate vocals. He also contributes to the co-penned ‘Safe House’, which, alongside ‘Come & Find Me’ is a tender ballad where the pop approach gives way to a cocooning sound in which cello, muted trumpet and flugelhorn (!) weave subtle countermelodies to the voice. ‘Other Side of Winter’ showcases the quality of the Alexander’s voice unencumbered by slick production. Only the unproduced sound of the twin acoustic guitars and the applause that closes the song betray its live origins.
Initially some of the slower songs are not as immediate as they might be but they’re well equipped to grow on you. The EP closes with an album version of the title track. Well, here’s hoping that album comes soon even though, on the basis of this ‘albumette’, it should be worth waiting for too.
Because I Love It •••
Let’s get one thing clear from the very beginning – the only track you are going to find here that’s anywhere near as mammoth as her international calling card ‘1 Thing’ is, er, ‘1 Thing’, which has been tacked on to the end of this collection to remind people that, yes, this girl ‘has’ had a hit song, thank you very much. That’s not to say that Because I Love It is a bad album. It’s not. It’s just that matching or exceeding the sheer excitement of her 2005 single is a tall order and one that Amerie’s team has not quite managed to fulfil.
As far as pop albums go it’s the same old story – the label wants to appeal to as many people as possible so they ensure that there are a few songs to dance around a handbag to, some mild-mannered sing-a-longs, and – brace yourselves – a few Mariah-robbing heartbroken ballads. Still, there’s something genuinely likeable about Amerie, and, for the most part, she pulls it off. Beyoncé and Christina may have fallen victim to their own hype, churning out unlistenable pap, but Amerie has bounced around in the background and so retains some of the zeal displayed on the earlier work of her contemporaries. Even the most mundane of lyrics are given some degree of believability when injected with the enthusiasm and passion of her performance.
Amerie shines on the brass-fuelled, upbeat tracks ‘Take Control’ and ‘Gotta Work’, and even impresses with her slinky delivery on cheeky ‘80s pastiches ‘Crush’ and ‘Crazy Wonderful’, but things start feeling hollow and clunky on obligatory sob story ‘When Loving U Was Easy’, which even Amerie does not have the personality or voice to elevate from anything but dire and unnecessary. Of course, if you are au fait with albums by R&B divas, you’ll be well acquainted by now with the dreaded phenomenon of filler tracks padding out the second half. None of Amerie’s slushy ballads or slow ‘jams’ will bother you all that much, and besides, the aforementioned pasting-on of ‘1 Thing’ and bonus track ‘Losing You’ rebounds Because I Love It into listenable territory.
Amerie is certainly somewhere near the top of the pile when it comes to the glut of female R&B singers we’ve enjoyed/endured (delete as applicable) over the last few years. The only problem is, whilst largely enjoyable, it’s unlikely that the album will spawn another major hit to propel our plucky ingénue into the big league.
Architecture In Helsinki
Places Like This ••••
The recent swathe of bands determined to bring a hefty dose of fun back into music cannot have escaped unnoticed by even the most casual of observers. CSS and Gogol Bordello are just two of the acts propelled into the higher echelons of indie greatness, not just because they are musically rather brilliant but also because they’re so full of energy that they shine amidst a sea of more po-faced generic ensembles. Architecture In Helsinki is another one of these bands. The Australian collective’s debut album Fingers Crossed emerged in 2004, with In Case We Die arriving the following year and thrusting the band into the public’s consciousness with its pure and joyful blasts of riotous fun. The accessibility and appeal of their sound was highlighted by 2006’s remix compilation where acts like Hot Chip fell sufficiently in love with their sound that they couldn’t leave it alone.
Places Like This not only keeps the pace but also ups the ante as a collection of slightly unhinged, kinda disturbed, but quite magnificent tunes. A few songs trimmer than its predecessor (and the band with two fewer members), it seems that the madness has come more into focus with energy levels going through the roof. Lead single ‘Heart It Races’ is as edgy as it is simplistic, and catchy as you like thanks to the Cameron Bird and Kellie Sutherland’s unified cries that soar above a backdrop of steel drums, bongos and synths. From start to finish, each song is orchestrated by a vast array of instruments – trumpets, drums of all ilk, glockenspiels, wind chimes, as many synth sounds as you can name, and of course the more traditional guitar, all make appearances through the course of ten songs. Adding a bewildering, kaleidoscopic feel to the album, Architecture In Helsinki veer between sounding like a calypso troupe, an ‘80s tribute band, a pack of scraggly alleycats and an experimental chamber choir.
‘Hold Music’, arguably the album’s highlight, is Architecture In Helsinki at their bonkers best; here, the vocals sound almost like the cast of ‘Fraggle Rock’ have formed a school choir and are banging out renditions of all their favourite tunes at once. It’s insanely poppy and outrageously over the top, but absolutely brilliant. This willingness to experiment with their vocal arrangements sets the band apart from many of their contemporaries as they skip between styles, harmonising in the most inventive of ways and using the voice as the ultimate instrument. The singing may frequently seem feral and untamed (‘Debbie’, ‘Hold Music’, ‘Nothing’s Wrong’) but in fact it is immaculately ordered. Both leads intertwine in a flirtatious and complementary manner that, when combined with the musical arrangement, makes for something quite astonishing overall.
As crazy and unleashed as their music becomes, Places Like This makes room for moments of a more subdued beauty. ‘Underwater’, for example, is more of a bubbling pause for air, and displays the band’s aptitude for production and arrangement. Of course, the mention of a cartoon-like energy and entertainment aspect of their music might suggest that the songs, beneath the surface, have little more to offer. This is far from the case. The album is littered with wonderful anecdotes such as “ignore me in the parking lot, I’m petrified by conversation” (‘Nothing’s Wrong’), or “your foot’s on the clutch / your hand’s on my crotch / slow down!” (‘Feathers In A Baseball Cap’).
Although it’s definitely not everyone’s cup of tea and, despite their protestations to the contrary, perhaps not a drastic move forward from their last release, Places Like This is nevertheless a wonderful collection of silly yet thought-provoking songs that will make you dance just as much as they will make you think, listen after listen.
Into The Blues •••
An appealing aspect of Joan Armatrading’s work is the way she tempers the earnest and personal nature of her lyrics – otherwise known as the curse of the confessional singer-songwriter – with a warm earthiness and sense of humour. Into The Blues is no different; she comes across as both intimate and playful in ‘Play The Blues’ as she observes that the teeth of her lover are “yellow like the sun… / but baby, when you sing the blues / I take off all my clothes for you”. Darker tracks such as the desolate ‘Empty Highway’ and intense finale ‘Something’s Gotta Blow ‘rub shoulders with the likes of ‘There Ain’t A Girl Alive (Who Likes To Look In The Mirror Like You Do)’, a sort of cheeky lesbian reworking of ‘You’re So Vain’. It’s a well-rounded album deliberately sequenced so that any given mood is not allowed to outstay its welcome.
‘A Woman In Love’, the album’s opener, is the obvious choice to get a promotional airing with its smooth groove underlying one elegantly crafted hook after another. It serves as a four-minute showcase for Armatrading’s rich voice, as well as her skilful command of piano, bass and the searing blues guitar that dominates the record. In stark contrast, ‘Deep Down’ is a messily indulgent exercise that should never have made the cut; it’s a bloated, clattering blues jam with Armatrading repeating the two words of the title ad nauseam. A more conventional clunker is ‘Liza’, which simply isn’t distinctive or appealing enough to stand up against the other material.
Much better are ‘Secular Songs’ and ‘Mama Papa’, which draw on funk and gospel influences and add flavour to an already unusual album. The sounds are consistent despite this cheery eclecticism. Armatrading’s self-production is endearingly awkward as ever, with unfashionable whirring synth pads and cascading vocal layers seeming ill at ease in contrast with the grittier elements. However, it also serves as a reminder of her pop sensibility; while the blues-inspired compositions highlight her chops as a guitarist and an adaptable songwriter with a clear appreciation and understanding of the genre, it’s tracks like ‘Baby Blue Eyes’ and ‘DNA’ – where Armatrading puts her trademark way with melodies front and centre – that really shine. The whole album turns on this compromise. It is by no means an authentic blues record, but Into The Blues stands as a strong addition to Armatrading’s admirable body of work.
Filed under: album, back issues, review | Tags: adam smith, alela diane, alex ramon, andy wasley, ani difranco, callum sinclair, celine dion, damon and naomi, gem nethersole, hilary duff, hugh armitage, james m johnston, orion rigel dommisse, siobhan donaghy, the donnas
The following reviews were published on our old MySpace blog in 2007.
Damon & Naomi
Within These Walls ••
When I was about 15, a friend passed me a tape in maths class. “My sister got into these guys at university, and I reckon they’re amazing too so I made you a tape. Let me know what you reckon.” That album was Galaxie 500’s second, On Fire, but despite the generosity of the gesture, I wasn’t impressed at the time – far too spindly and distant for someone revelling in Silverfish and their lurching ilk – and the tape eventually found its way to the dustier regions of my nascent collection. Times change, though, and when I found the tape again a few years later, what I’d previously taken for limp-wristed feyness revealed itself as an emotionally blasted combination of slowed tempos, sparse if occasionally searing instrumentation and aching melodies, its power somehow multiplied by dislocated and dislocating production. With hindsight, On Fire opened my ears to a different way of making (rock) music, since expanded into a genre – ‘slowcore’ (cringe!) – by the likes of Low, Codeine et al. In short, I owe Galaxie 500 for changing my life.
Damon Krukowski and Naomi Yang were Galaxie’s drummer and bassist, respectively, and after Dean Wareham split the band in 1991 (moving on to form Luna with Britta Phillips) his erstwhile bandmates stuck together under their Christian names. Of the two, it’s Damon & Naomi who are the more obvious descendants of Galaxie 500, leaning more toward the elegiac and wistful than Luna’s more pop-oriented efforts. Each of their previous six albums seems to have been expressly designed with notions of ‘sadness’ and ‘longing’ in mind, and have been more about developing an elegantly downbeat atmosphere than penning memorable songs per se.
While it’s true that this is never a bad thing in itself, it starts to become limiting when a band builds an entire career on it. The only memorable shift in their outlook came when they began collaborating with members of Japanese psych-rock luminaries Ghost, around the time of the prosaically named Damon & Naomi With Ghost LP. Ghost guitarist and arch collaborator Michio Kurihara is pretty much a permanent fixture in the band nowadays, and his presence continues the subtle fleshing out of the Damon & Naomi sound heralded by that album.
And subtle it is. Now, wrapped around a constant bedrock of strummed guitars and wispy vocals, are translucent gauzes of strings, horns, sax and Kurihara’s luminescent guitar work – all beautifully realised, with utmost craft and care taken to ensure that no one part overwhelms the whole in anything approaching tastelessness. And with that, we arrive at the reason why, for all the wrong reasons, this album makes me want to cry: it’s too damn tasteful. All the songs are gorgeous, the instruments gliding around each other like glittering shoals in a dappled koi pool, interlocking better than a Swiss watch…and boring this listener to death. There are ten songs here, one of them mentions lilacs, another’s about a queen or something, but it doesn’t really matter because it all. sounds. the. same. Buy it on vinyl, shut your eyes, drop the needle and play a fun game of Guess The Song; you will fail, miserably.
As I said earlier, it’s like they’ve built the entire album around preconceived ideas of the emotions they want to convey; imagine a corporate brainstorming session where ‘wistful’ and ‘elegiac’ are bubbles on a whiteboard and you’re pretty much there. It’s slow without a trace of the core, and that’s a great shame.
The Pirate’s Gospel ••••
First things first, this is not a gospel record. Alela Diane deals in the kind of languid folk that, if listened to as dawn arrives, can conjure gothic images of silhouetted trees across a misty field, yet in the full light of day will put a spring in your step and make you smile out at the world passing by. The Pirate’s Gospel, originally self-released with a slightly longer tracklist, is Diane’s official debut, discounting her limited edition vinyl EP Songs Whistled Through White Teeth and her intricate hand-drawn, stitched-sleeved CD-R Forest Parade. Fans of Jolie Holland will find some distinct similarities with the object of their affection. Take Diane’s arrangements, for example. Alela accompanies her rich tones with hypnotic arpeggios on the guitar and little else. Where it does crop up, the sparse accompaniment comes in the form of whistling and handclaps; otherwise the siren is joined by a group of men with swelling bass tones on the foot-tapping title track, a children’s choir on ‘Pieces Of String’, and nicely blended female voices at various intervals.
Diane hails from Nevada City, California, also home to Joanna Newsom, who first brought her to the public’s attention. It’s old California out there; everything you see, hear and touch is a link to the past. Giant oak trees, rusting pickup trucks, wooden porches with swing chairs, tatted lace handed down through generations and rivers once fought over for gold. This is the world that informs her music as she takes us deep into the dimly lit recesses of California’s collective conscious. It’s a place where a father reaches for the rifle on the wall because “they’re coming from the woods” and mamas are “a-runnin’ too”. Here, the mood is of midnight and the spectre of Cat Power lingers nearby.
Music, family, loss and unfamiliarity weigh heavily in the album’s lyrics, as they do in pioneer literature. In ‘Can You Blame The Sky?’ she asks “can you blame the sky / when a mama leaves her babies behind?”, and in the emotionally charged album highlight ‘Oh! My Mama’ she recalls her mother saying “use your voice… sing, sing, sing, sing, sing” and wonders whether she will “play the guitar like her father does”. There’s an element of timelessness to these songs. The change of pace and tone with the light and hook-laden ‘Somethings Gone Awry’ is reminiscent of a nursery rhyme or traditional tune, the melody immediately embedding itself in your memory.
Diane’s songs seek lyrical solace in odd domestic artefacts, religious imagery and nature, and her voice will take to you to places that are haunting yet eerily familiar. Above all, they are deceptively simple, stripped bare to the bone, as you will be when the album draws to a close. The Pirate’s Gospel is a genuine classic, and already the highlight of 2007.
James M Johnston
First of all a guilty confession: the music of the esteemed Ms DiFranco had more or less passed me by up until now (boo, hiss, shame etc.). Overwhelmed by the sheer volume of her output and by her amazing productivity – 17 albums in 17 years, plus copious EPs and concert releases – the main problem seemed to be where to start. With the early folk? The recent jazzy experiments? The live recordings? Happily, for anyone in the same boat, there’s now a very simple answer to the question of where to begin your DiFranco journey: get yourself a copy of her double-disc retrospective Canon and saddle up for a heady introduction to the work of a remarkable artist.
The 36 songs on Canon trace a broadly chronological path through DiFranco’s career, encompassing tracks from all of her albums, from her self-titled 1990 debut to last year’s Reprieve. The press release for the collection emphasises its status as no mere ‘best of’; rather, this is an “album that’s arranged and intended to be played from beginning to end,” one made to DiFranco’s “precise specifications.” Would we expect anything less? After all, DiFranco has long been celebrated as an icon of independence on the music scene, releasing all of her work through her own Righteous Babe label and retaining full control over all aspects of her music. Given the extraordinary amount of material she’s put out in the last 17 years, the decision of what to include on Canon can’t have been easy, but DiFranco has produced a carefully packaged and extremely well-sequenced collection with a strong sense of track-by-track flow.
The first thing to strike is the wonder of her guitar playing and her lyrical dexterity. DiFranco’s songs teem with imagery and detail, and she darts around the tunes with an exhilarating speed and momentum. Her rapid, attention-grabbing playing style is perfectly in sync with her vocal delivery with its funky, almost conversational quality and appealing snap and snarl (surely a formative influence on Alanis Morissette?), and also with her lyrics, which are similarly direct and upfront, full of sharp edges and breathless wordplay. Like someone on a caffeine jag, the typical DiFranco song comes at you in a rush, with a hasteful, even aggressive urgency, a need to get it all out ‘now’. Her music bristles with the brazen, nervous energy of her native New York – brilliantly described in ‘Cradle & All’ as “the city that never shuts up” – and feels intrinsically urban with images of fire escapes, subway trains, “men pissing in doorways,” “trash on the kerbs” and “traffic hissing by.”
That’s not to say that she can’t also be introspective and reflective, as on the touching piano-led post-show rumination ‘You Had Time’ and the measured, meditative ‘Grey’. Indeed, at their best, her songs sometimes spark similar shocks of recognition to those of a Mitchell or an Amos. Witness the reference to “last night’s underwear in my back pocket / sure sign of the morning after” in ‘Cradle & All’, or the moment in the sublime ‘32 Flavors’ in which the narrator pauses mid self-eulogy to acknowledge that “there’s many who’ve turned out their porch lights / just so I would think they were not home / and hid in the dark of their windows / ‘til I passed and left them alone.” With her poet’s eye for detail, DiFranco builds her songs out of fleet-footed images, vignettes and narrative fragments. Thematically, much of her work takes place at the juncture where the personal and the political intersect. ‘God’s Country’ dramatises an encounter between the Brooklynite narrator and a state-trooper on some lonesome highway. “This may be God’s country but this is my country too / move over Mr. Holiness, let the little people through” DiFranco sings, leaving it up to the listener to decide whether she’s addressing God, the cop, or both.
‘Subdivision’ anatomises poverty, homelessness and contemporary manifestations of segregation (“America the Beautiful is just one big subdivision”), while ‘Paradigm’ is a complex celebration of the political commitment of her immigrant parents, with DiFranco recalling herself as “just a girl in a room full of women / licking stamps and laughing” and remembering “the feeling of community brewing / of democracy happening”. ‘Hello Birmingham’ explores both civil and abortion rights, and the stunning ‘Fuel’ begins with the discovery of a slave cemetery and goes on to take some well-aimed pot shots at everything from clueless Presidential candidates (“Tweedle-dumb and Tweedle-dumber”) to corporate culture.
Clearly, DiFranco does not fear didacticism, but her socio-political critiques seldom sound facile or glib. She can be a lot of fun too, and it’s central to her appeal that she can crack you up one moment and make you think about society’s ills the next. Canon gives a full indication of her multi-faceted personality as an artist, as well as a valuable insight into the evolution of her sound and her lyrical concerns. Meanwhile, four judiciously chosen concert cuts – ‘Distracted’ (a spoken-word reflection on the accusation that her work has abandoned politics in favour of safer subject matter), ‘Untouchable Face’ (a wry kiss-off to an ex), ‘Gravel’ and ‘Joyful Girl’ offer a pleasing glimpse into the DiFranco live experience.
There is, it must be admitted, a strong streak of self-consciousness about some of DiFranco’s work, and it’s particularly evident on the spirited but slightly unpleasant ‘Napoleon’, an infamous diss to a friend who signed with a major label, which features a told-you-so coda that can’t avoid a whiff of smug self-righteousness. Alongside ‘Shameless’, ‘Your Next Bold Move’, ‘Both Hands’ and ‘Overlap’ (all excellent), ‘Napoleon’ is one of the re-worked tracks which are placed at the end of each disc as an enticement to fans who may otherwise be reluctant to pay out for a collection that probably doesn’t include much material that they don’t already possess. (A DiFranco rarities disc must surely be on the cards at some point.) But while the dearth of new material on ‘Canon’ means that, aside from the reworked tracks, the collection has less to offer long-time DiFranco aficionados, for newcomers to her work this is absolutely the perfect place to start.
Taking Chances •
Earlier this year, SonyBMG announced that its Quebecois star Céline Dion had sold over 200 million albums worldwide, making the Vegas favourite one of the world’s biggest-selling female artists; not only that, but in the last 15 years she has built up a formidable collection of gongs, including two Oscars, five Grammies and three Golden Globes, not to mention the Orders of Canada and Quebec. She has collaborated with stars as iconic as Aretha Franklin, Michael Jackson, Sir Elton John and Luciano Pavarotti, and released more than 25 albums in two languages, scoring dozens of chart-topping singles in countries around the world. And, in the midst of all of this, she has somehow managed to squeeze in a two-year career break to raise her son and nurse her husband through cancer. The woman has seemingly limitless energy.
It’s a shame, then, that all of this success cannot do anything to change the fact that Céline Dion is – and always has been – a redoubtably formulaic performer, utterly dependant on tried-and-tested techniques and seemingly unable to lend any sense of imagination or emotional variety to her music. It could well be that her consistently unchallenging approach is precisely what has made her so successful: doing the same thing time after time is both safe and lucrative. Unfortunately, it’s also boring, a fact more than adequately proved by her new album, the inaptly-named Taking Chances.
The title promises far more than it can deliver as Dion howls her way through 17 songs in that familiar, grating, over-loud way that has made her fortune. Rushing straight into the album’s eponymous opening number with an inelegant vibrato and hammed emoting, she quickly revisits all of her most familiar faults in track after track. Her rendition of Heart’s 1980s standard ‘Alone’ contains most of those faults: the mechanical vibrato, the oddly impersonal over-production, the needless vocal runs, and those awful, ear-shattering high-pitched shrieks, all combining to create an intensely nasty aural assault. One of Dion’s most consistent errors is her inability to temper her natural vocal power with a bit of softness; equating emotional intensity with volume, this leads to some memorably ugly music – including the execrable ‘New Dawn’, a mock-religious horror that will have Mahalia Jackson turning in her grave.
Perhaps the most disappointing thing about the album is that, musically, it actually has potential. For example, Delta Goodrem’s Bollywood-inspired ‘Eyes On Me’ is a fantastic piece of music, sadly ruined by Dion’s caterwauling and her grotesque parody of childish naïveté. ‘That’s Just The Woman In Me’ is a Hammond-fuelled gospel piece of great colour and flair which, had it been performed by a truly emotional singer such as Nina Simone or even Mavis Staples, would be stunning; instead, we are treated to a bizarre form of evangelistic torture by Ms Dion, whose uniquely horrible attempt to enliven the song with a few off-beat phrases beats Kenny Everett’s preacher parody into a cocked hat.
The album’s only truly passable song, ‘Skies Of LA’, remains as mawkish as Dion’s usual fare, only achieving a little more credibility because, for once, she eschews her trademark vocal runs for a decent piece of ordinary singing; still, it’s badly over-produced and sounds as though she threw it in just to show that she can do the normal stuff. The simple fact is that although Dion really does have a technically excellent voice, she can’t use it to strike a decent emotional balance in her music. Technical ability and artistry are not the same thing; in the classical sense, Marianne Faithfull is a poor vocal performer, but her genuinely heartfelt performances are immensely superior to any of Dion’s overdressed twaddle. Ms Dion would do well to learn that before she next steps into the recording studio.
Schmaltzy, over-produced, tasteless and crushingly bland, this is an album to strangle cats to. Taking Chances? Not likely.
Orion Rigel Dommisse
What I Want From You Is Sweet ••••
Language Of Stone
The debut album from Baltimore-based Orion Rigel Dommisse, What I Want From You Is Sweet is a bubbling cauldron of qualities and styles. The string-dominated music has a classical flavour, and many of the songs have a story-telling character. The combination of these two qualities results in an album that sounds as though it were the soundtrack to a collection of Grimm fairytales. The theme of death is also apparent throughout – the words ‘dead’ and ‘death’ appearing in four of the ten song titles.
What I Want… is an album full of lovely little flourishes. If you listen carefully on ‘A Faceless Death’, the alluring lyric “when you die I’ll rearrange your bones” is accompanied by the gentle rattling of what sounds very much like the aforementioned bones as Dommisse organises them into a more worthy pattern. ‘Simon Sent For Me’ plays in the style of a stately Regency-period dance, though its slightly sinister quality sees it transforming into something of a danse macabre – a party track for ghosts and phantoms.
Dommisse’s lyrics are not always easily comprehensible, which adds to the otherworldly strangeness of her music. Nevertheless, the story-telling quality of her writing makes itself felt throughout the album, whether through the lyrics themselves or the way in which Dommisse delivers them. This is never more obvious than in ‘A Giver’ – the image of a princess in a castle “where she is kept by a cruel and evil spell” brings to mind countless fairytales of knights, maidens and wicked witches.
The real stars of the show are the stringed instruments – Dommisse on her electric cello and Robert Pycior on his electric violin – unusual substitutes for the ubiquitous guitars that appear here only in a few guest spots. The strings wind their way through the whole album, meandering languorously here and fluttering frantically there. Pycior plucks his strings mischievously through the opening ‘Fake Yer Death’ – and why not? There is usually some mischief involved in faking your own death, after all. The strings create a particular sound that permeates the album, but Dommisse and Pycior simultaneously manage to wield their instruments in fantastically varied ways on each different track.
What I Want From You Is Sweet is unusual and wonderful by equal measure. Its rejection of the typical formula of modern music makes it stand out as something a bit magical, and more than a bit special.
Flame-haired chanteuse; former Sugababes member; challenging second album. It’s difficult not to drag out the cliches when it comes to talking about Ghosts, a record which seems to go out of its way to defy description. Producer and programmer James Sanger paints a backdrop of soft-focus pads and sundry etherealisms which flatter Donaghy’s voice and invite comparisons with her ‘80s and ‘90s predecessors rather than her peers. Unlike the smart subversion of the Motown sound by Amy Winehouse and Mark Ronson, there’s something slightly off about the pick-and-mix mentality of Ghosts – a smidgen of trip-hop here, a sprinkle of Cocteau Twins dream-gabble there.
At times the disc is naggingly derivative – the melody of ‘Medevac’ is striking in its similarity to Kate Bush’s ‘Running Up That Hill’, and ‘Halcyon Days’ gives more than just a nod in the direction of Massive Attack’s ‘Teardrop’ – but these ‘homages’ provide instant hooks. As with her debut Revolution In Me, several songs are slow to reveal not only their charms but their choruses. ‘Coming Up For Air’ is a slow-burner, but when it kicks into gear it becomes a dramatic callback to Donaghy’s debut single ‘Overrated’, revisiting and bemoaning her “selfish pain”. Also reminiscent of her earlier work is ‘Make It Right’, an uncomfortable mix of lumbering soul and Celtic flounce which seems out of place on this album. Much more successful are the likes of ‘Don’t Give It Up’ (first single, instant anthem) and ‘Goldfish’, a sparkling, hymn-like meditation on depression.
Throughout the album, Donaghy’s lyrics are hit and miss – ‘12 Bar Acid Blues’ finds our heroine in a sticky situation when she attempts to go on holiday, outlined with a wry wit reminiscent of Kirsty MacColl; the occasional amusing turns of phrase throughout the album make simpler songs like ‘Sometimes’ seem facile and uninspired in comparison. The title track, an incomprehensible strings of words soaring over a mid-tempo grind with the odd backwards vocal, sounds pretentious on paper but it works. Perhaps the album could have done with a few more unusual moments like this.
Despite being touted as having matured as a performer and co-writer since Revolution In Me, it seems that Donaghy hasn’t quite found her own voice yet. While this is an enjoyable record with some very strong tracks, it’s not as accomplished as it could be. Ghosts is an admirable attempt to do something different within the pop vernacular, and it is certainly a promising progression. The mixed blessing of this album is that it gives the impression Siobhan Donaghy is still to reach her creative peak.
‘Girl Power’ is a phrase associated with a particular band. We all know the one. In the ‘90s, it was sold to us as something that represented female liberation and a devil-may-care attitude. Young women could dress how they liked, say what they wanted and live their lives for themselves and no one else. All noble ideals, but the reality was something quite different. It was a concept manufactured by old, male music industry fat cats and purveyed to us via a collective of attention seeking shrews, the most famous of which is known more for having married well rather than anything else. It made a mockery of any concept of Girl Power.
To me, The Donnas are a much finer example of what Girl Power could mean. Their music is rough and unpolished – a raucous, punky rampage through a succession of snappy anthems. Vocalist Brett Anderson, aka Donna A, is no classically trained singer, but her voice is perfect for the music. She sounds like someone enjoying herself, and if she isn’t Joanna Newsom, who cares? The Donnas write their own music and play their own instruments, and what they lack in finesse they make up for in raw enthusiasm. This is the real sound of girls having fun, not some soulless trash cooked up by a coven of music execs in their lofty boardroom.
That’s the girls’ sound, but what of their material on this, their seventh studio album? Well, I’m sorry to report that Bitchin’ doesn’t quite live up to expectations. That isn’t to say there aren’t some sparkly gems here; each track is executed with typical Donnas energy. ‘Smoke You Out’ has its brilliantly screechy guitar solo, and ‘Here For The Party’ ends with a fluttering of surprise harmonica, while the album opener unfolds slowly like some strange cross between an AC/DC track and ‘Rhapsody In Blue’, instilling the listener with a mounting sense of anticipation, a real desire for the music to start in earnest.
But while the first few tracks of Bitchin’ are perfectly enjoyable, it isn’t long before a problem becomes apparent. What this album lacks is variation. Each track taken on its own is a three-minute blast of trademark Donnas fun, but strung out together they have an unfortunate tendency to become a bit of a blur. Every song is a variation on the theme ‘I want you why don’t you want me why would I ever want you oh screw it let’s just party’. There are no standout tracks – nothing to stick in your brain – and the songs have a habit of sounding pretty similar. Before long you won’t know ‘Better Off Dancing’ from ‘Don’t Wait Up For Me’ from ‘Give Me What I Want’.
Even the most amateurish albums manage a range of sorrow, joy, fast and slow, but The Donnas seem to have forgotten the basics. And that’s why Bitchin’ is rather disappointing. The Donnas have got the talent. They’ve got a good sound. They just need an editor, to learn how to pick their tracks better and to vary their ideas. This isn’t a bad listen, but uniformity makes this album a somewhat fluffy and forgettable affair.
She’s starred in a Disney television series, moved seamlessly into film, launched a fragrance and a clothing range, as well as churned out three albums before this one – so, do you love or hate Hilary Duff? It’s easy to dismiss her music as hyper-manufactured and vacuous, but shouldn’t we also try to positively acknowledge a woman who has made herself into such a marketable product without debasing her personal integrity? Dignity permits room for both. Billed as her most personal album to date, Duff certainly focuses on the world that she knows, a world filled with record deals, public scrutiny, media-invaded relationships, paparazzi and stalkers; it’s a heady mix and she explores it all with a bubblegum pop backing.
The inspiration for many of the songs could be seen to be rooted in her much-publicised break up with Good Charlotte’s Joel Madden. ‘Stranger’ in particular may feasibly be about her ex; then again, it could similarly be about any of the fairweather friends that she must encounter daily in a world where perfect outer appearances equate with stratospheric stardom and where personal truth is often buried by PR. Initially many of the songs on the album sound overwhelmed by their high production values and intense studio engineering, but there’s a vulnerability and awareness behind songs like ‘Stranger’ that defy Duff’s 19 years.
I’m not suggesting that the album has many layers of meaning; it does exactly what it says on the tin. This is joyous dance pop, but there’s a hint of a darker sting in the tail to many of the songs. The Hollywood socialite-baiting title track is a fabulously catchy, thinly-veiled dig at the likes of Paris Hilton and Nicole Richie who always “have another club to close”, people who have built their media empires on the faltering foundations of flashbulbs and fast money. ‘With Love’, in contrast, orders a reality check, wherein Duff pays tribute to the stabling influences in her life whom she begs to “slow [her] down, tell [her] tomorrow everything will be around”. As long as those truths are delivered with love, she’s willing to accept them. It’s this stability and inherent respect for the people that buoy her that underpins the album and makes Dignity an appropriate title. For all its dance-floor filling beats, the girl portrayed is having fun in a world that gives her the potential to spiral out of control but is reined in by her own integrity.
The quality dips in the middle a little with ‘No Work, All Play’ but rebounds with the spectacular ‘Between You & Me’, a teen-friendly version of P!nk’s ‘U & Ur Hand’ that features classic lines like “my love’s not up for negotiation / ‘hello’ doesn’t mean an open invitation”. Where the first half of the album dwells on the themes of mistrust and disillusion, the second half rejoices in strength, moving on and demanding to be noticed. ‘Dreamer’ is a brilliantly happy and very rational take on being stalked; there are few people who could sugarcoat something so terrifying without detracting from its seriousness. Yet lyrics like “I brush my teeth and feed my dogs / isn’t that thrilling?” are both funny and pointedly defiant. ‘Happy’ and ‘Play With Fire’ resonate with the same defiance and a self-awareness of the facets of her relationship that were restricting; it’s teenage break-up therapy that doesn’t hurt the head.
Exemplified by ‘Never Stop’, the whole album is a high octane sugar rush, like candyfloss laced with pop rocks. But don’t be misled, Destiny won’t numb all your brain cells in a single sitting. Let yourself be surprised and make space on the shelf next to Britney.
Filed under: album, back issues, live, review | Tags: alex ramon, ane brun, anja mccloskey, barefoot, bat for lashes, be good tanyas, be your own PET, bellrays, bettie serveert, birdie busch, bodixa, broadcast, callum sinclair, cathy burton, corinne bailey rae, emma bunton, gary munday, gem nethersole, jane birkin, jenny beck, joan baez, kate bush, mari boine, matthew hall, moya brennan, paul woodgate, robbie de santos, russell barker, sam brown, sam obernik, stephen collings, tiffany daniels, trevor raggatt, vashti bunyan
The following reviews were all published on our old website between May 2005 and December 2006.
Bowery Songs •••
Live albums are notoriously contentious; allowing the artist freedom to digress at will and maybe even include some unexpected or long awaited treats, such release carry with them a great responsibility. We music fans are a ravenous bunch, each gifted with the ability to comprise our own perfect setlist, should said artist ever stumble upon our rambling message board postings. Most artists, however, show no regard for our unique talents, the live release serving only as a greatest hits showcase with somewhat wobblier vocals. This could never be said of Joan Baez though. Forty plus years into her career, she has compiled a live set that it is both expansive and timely, with more than a passing nod to requests from her fans.
Bowery Songs is her first live disc in a decade, recorded the night after the US re-elected George Bush in 2004 at New York’s Bowery Ballroom. The context obviously informs the evening’s song selection, nowhere more so than on Steve Earle’s ‘Christmas In Washington’ (“It’s Christmastime in Washington / the Democrats rehearsed / gettin’ into gear for four more years / things not gettin’ worse”), but then politics has been the foundation of her entire career and as such this is typical, if reliable, Baez fare. Instead, the heart of the album undoubtedly lies in her menacing rendition of Natalie Merchant’s ‘Motherland’, which Baez imbues with an almost apocalyptic sense of loss. It makes you wonder what sort of album she could make if she stepped out of her comfort zone a little more often.
In addition to the more recent material, fans are treated to four oft-requested but never before recorded songs, most notably ‘Jerusalem’ – another Steve Earle track – that concludes proceedings on a rousing note. Baez is a remarkable conduit for both old and new songwriting talent, making classics like ‘Joe Hill’ (sung by Baez at Woodstock) sound ever relevant and the newer material seem like it’s long been part of her repertoire.
This is at least her eighth live album and, as is the theme with her live releases, it functions as a snapshot in time. For a more comprehensive record of what Baez can really do as a performer, check out From Every Stage. For the time being, however, this is a solid collection of songs that really only hints at her greatness.
originally published on March 19th, 2006
Live at Brighton Dome •••••
March 6, 2006
The palpable shared excitement of an audience whose ages spanned at least five decades was evidence in itself that Joan Baez’s appeal has never been limited, as some have naively suggested, to those who first encountered her music 40 years ago. When an artist is preceded onstage by a steaming cup of tea and still needs to take three bows before she can even begin to sing, you know that you’re due a remarkable evening. Accompanied by Erik Della Penna on guitars and lap steel and Graham Maby on bass, the setup was different from the percussion-heavy approach to Baez’s last tour and was perhaps the better for it; however, the phrase ‘you can’t improve on perfection’ was clearly invented for the legendary singer-songwriter-activist.
Joan’s empathetic yet fiery personality shone through as she was lovingly heckled from the start by a gentleman who enthusiastically insisted upon ‘welcoming’ her between and even during songs and then proceeded to randomly call out ‘Judy Collins’ at inopportune moments, to which Joan replied, “that’s not me but Judy’s a great friend of mine, if it helps”. Having warned him not to get too excited, she dissipated any annoyance in the audience and ultimately showed her great sense of humour and all-encompassing love for humanity by declaring, “I’m quite sure he has a good heart”.
Opening with the classic ‘The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down’, the audience needed little encouragement to join in and continued to do so as the first half of the two- hour unbroken set mixed newer songs such as ‘The Scarlet Tide’, Gillian Welch’s murderous ‘Caleb Meyer’ (followed by ‘Fennario’ and ‘Miserable’ with a joke that Joan does not deal in cheerful songs) and Steve Earle’s politically biting ballad ‘Christmas In Washington’ with favourites spanning each decade of Joan’s career to date. ‘God On Our Side’, a haunting version of Johnny Cash’s ‘Long Black Veil’, ‘Joe Hill’ and ‘Love Is Just A Four Letter Word’ had the audience enthralled and singing along, as did a wonderful impromptu cover of ‘Stand By Me’, rescued from the earlier soundcheck. Small touches like this added to the feeling that Joan continues to be a thoroughly organic artist, never repeating her most popular songs ad nauseam but genuinely connecting with her audience to interact with them through her music. This was most apparent when she rearranged her set, omitting songs that she did not feel fitted with the mood in the auditorium.
The sheer clarity of her soaring folk-soprano voice mesmerised the room as Joan, now alone onstage, stepped away from the microphone and effortlessly filled the space with an a capella version of ‘Swing Low Sweet Chariot’. It seemed impossible to follow such a performance but the subsequent heartbreaking, slightly slowed versions of ‘Jesse’ and ‘Sir Galahad’ were both enriched with the kind of tone that is only heard when an artist truly connects with the images behind each word that is sung. It was, in a word, delicious. The band returned for rousing versions of ‘Hard Rain’ and ‘Jerusalem’ before a determined encore brought them back for ‘Gracias A La Vida’ and a balladic farewell as Joan mimed that it was time for her to sleep and for us to as well. Throughout the evening it was as though each trademark expressive hand gesture spun invisible webs out into the audience and wrapped us up tighter with inimitable magic. If she is due to be in a town near you (or even not so near), do whatever you have to do to get a ticket; beg, borrow or steal, you’ll be very glad you did.
originally published April 26th, 2006
Corinne Bailey Rae
Corinne Bailey Rae •••
It seems that writing about Corinne Bailey Rae without throwing in the names of every legendary black singer since recording began is the reviewer’s equivalent of eating a jam doughnut without licking your lips. Record company hyperbole is something we’ve come to expect with high profile launches of new artists, but comparisons aside, the buzz surrounding Bailey Rae is largely on her own merits. Her Like A Star EP (the title track of which fittingly opens the album) has been floating around since last November, garnering interest on both sides of the Atlantic. Domestically at least, this was mainly aroused on the back of a last minute appearance on ‘Later With… Jools Holland’ in the place of an unwell Sinéad O’Connor. It’s interesting that fellow EMI artist KT Tunstall also got her big break on Jools, covering for a queasy Kanye West – anyone appearing on the new series should really keep an eye on the tea lady!
Praise ensued from Whiley to Wogan and it was well deserved; ‘Like A Star’ is a fierce, honest self-penned lullaby dedicated to her husband, but it acts as something of a red herring. From there on in we are left to wonder will the real Corinne Bailey Rae please stand up. It’s track seven, the sublime ‘Choux Pastry Heart’, before we’re allowed another glimpse of Rae at her most arresting; the lyrics may be somewhat trite, e.g. “one for sorrow, two for joy”, but like any great soul singer, her talent lies in the delivery and therein lies the rub. You may not learn much about Rae from this album, but then you wonder whether baring her soul is really the point when the other results are so joyous. ‘Enchantment’ has the feel of Massive Attack at their most lush, ‘Put Your Records On’ is the sound of summer come early, while the raucous ‘I’d Like To’ relocates Lauryn Hill’s ‘Every Ghetto, Every City’ to a tarmacced driveway in Leeds.
Inevitably, although Bailey Rae is eminently personable throughout, she cannot be all things to all people, even if her label try to promote that. Comparisons with the greats make nice soundbites but they only really highlight her shortcomings; she doesn’t have the phrasing of Holiday, the wit of Badu, the sensuality of Scott or the poetry of, er, Floetry and in trying on so many styles, she frequently misses the mark. But at times, albeit fleetingly, there is enough effortlessness to suggest that, if left to her own devices, Bailey Rae could come up with something spectacular. For now, stick with her. She could yet be brilliant.
originally published on March 19th, 2006
Concept albums, by their very nature, are a hit and miss breed. The clue is in the name; if the concept is a bad one, then the album is destined for ridicule as an exercise in pretension. How about a debut album made up of acoustic jazz covers of club, house and hip-hop anthems? Never mind the Balearics… here’s Barefoot.
When singer Sam Obernik performed a Cubano version of ‘It Just Won’t Do’, the Tim Deluxe hit featuring her vocals, it was large enough a radio hit that Obernik struck upon the idea to combine her guitar-based songwriting abilities with her dance scene success. Enter Tommy D, a DJ, producer and songwriter famous for his work with the likes of Kylie, Janet Jackson, Catatonia, KT Tunstall and Corinne Bailey Rae, to name but more than a few. One evening and a bottle of wine later, Obernik and Tommy D conceived the idea of reinterpreting their favourite club anthems and Barefoot was born.
A project like this could easily be dismissed as a tongue-in-cheek slice of Hoxton postmodernism. Even in the late Nineties, Turner Prize winner Jeremy Deller orchestrated colliery brass band versions of acid house anthems, while Radio One sessions often include acoustic reworks of dancefloor fillers, like Will Young’s ‘Hey Ya’ or Jamie Cullum’s ‘Frontin’. Barefoot is more than just a musical curiosity, however, and the contemporary jazz and bossa nova stylings recall the likes of Nouvelle Vague, Zero 7 and Morcheeba. Most of the album was recorded live and the immediacy of the musicianship works in the album’s favour, taking the songs that extra step further away from their over-polished origins. Plastered over so many bargain basement Asda checkout compilations, the word ‘chillout’ may have lost all meaning, but this is more laid back than a lounge singer seductress provocatively draped over a white baby grand.
On the surface the tracklisting reads like an ‘old skool classics’ CD, from Grandmaster Flash’s ‘White Lines’ and Crystal Waters’s ‘Gypsy Woman’ to Underworld’s ‘Born Slippy’ and the Run DMC / Jason Nevins mash-up ‘It’s Like That’. Aimed at the ‘90s Ibiza crowd who have swapped the clubs and plastic pints of lager (lager, lager) for red wine soirees in their dockside apartments, what this album highlights perhaps more than anything is that dance music has always boasted a wealth of great tunes beneath layers of pounding beats and sequenced loops. Even ubiquitous dancefloor fillers like Mousse T’s ‘Horny’ are given fresh life, with Obernik’s breathy vocals suiting the brazen lyrics to a, er, T, while a seductive bass line coolly pulses in the background.
The range of material here is the perfect vehicle for Obernik’s vocal versatility, but where Barefoot go from here is anyone’s guess. A debut concept album may have limited their future potential, but as far as concepts go it’s an intriguing prospect and one that more than delivers. So if you’re looking for an album to impress your friends this summer, kick off your dancefloor heels and take an i-podiatry shuffle through the Barefoot experience.
originally published on May 7th, 2006
Bat For Lashes
Fur & Gold •••••
There’s something strangely attractive about this debut album from Bat For Lashes, the curious nom de plume of Brighton-based performance artist Natasha Khan and her rotating cast of musicians. Your CD shelf may be full of a fair few other acts of her ilk who are just as good, if not better, but the chances are you’ll still be compelled to listen to Fur & Gold over and over. Perhaps it’s Khan’s evocative vocals as they run the gamut from professional crooner to heartbroken siren via the seductive confessions of a mystical, adventuring temptress. Then again, perhaps it’s simply down to the songs themselves; sneakily hook-laden and occasionally disarmingly simple, they’re the kind that leave you wishing that they’d made the album eight times longer. As it is, Fur & Gold is exquisitely free of filler; every track is a must-hear and has clearly been chosen with care. Though you’d be hard-pressed to sniff it out unaided there’s an under- lying progression at work; the songs were purposefully sequenced to take the listener on an overnight journey from dusk (‘Horse & I’) to the panoramic sunshine of a brand new day (‘I Saw A Light’).
The usual suspects have cropped up time and again in reference to Bat For Lashes, some justified, some used dismissively. Comparisons with Chan Marshall fall into the former category, particularly on the plaintive album centrepiece ‘Sad Eyes’ which is as naked and tremulous as any of the Cat Power figurehead’s best. Here and elsewhere there’s judicious use of piano so lesser-clued commentators will inevitably point to Tori Amos, while the measured quirk found throughout is reminiscent of Björk’s more sober compositions. On a couple of occasions, too, Khan employs the kind of narrative found in Kate Bush songs, but for the most part Fur & Gold stacks up perfectly well on its own. Other standout tracks are the celebrated first single ‘The Wizard’, a gloriously mystical gem that completely embodies the Bat For Lashes ethos, and the Josh T Pearson-featuring tribal rhythms of ‘Trophy’.
Having enjoyed the patronage of the likes of CocoRosie and Devendra Banhart, Khan has found herself in the enviable position of appealing to the alternative folk crowd (despite the incongruity of her music) as well as aficionados of your straight-up indie chanteuses. Admirers of her live show ought to be thrilled too, despite the omission of fan favourite ‘Howl!’. Fur & Gold has been immaculately produced; the band have got the distortions, the drums aren’t too loud and at no point do you find yourself wincing because the vocals are slightly too glittery. It’s absolutely and utterly perfect. Trust us.
originally published October 27th, 2006
The Be Good Tanyas
Hello Love ••••
Three years on from their sophomore effort Chinatown, Frazey Ford, Samantha Parton and Trish Klein return to breathe their particular brand of ethereal loveliness into a weary, somewhat jaded world. The ethos underpinning the Tanyas’ approach to this record seems to have been ‘if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it’; Hello Love replicates their first two albums by wrapping original songs and judiciously chosen covers in an inviting mix of blues, bluegrass and folk instrumentation and delivering them with those notoriously spine-tingling harmonies.
Continuing to ignore even the most rudimentary elements of the diction rulebook, Ford unfurls her trademark magical mumble throughout, stretching and slurring syllables in a manner that brings a beguiling air of mystery and enchantment to everything she sings. You have to check the lyrics to realise that what sounds like “I’ll suck your wounds” on the title track is actually “How succulent a little spring day gets.” As before, Parton’s sensuous, caressing whisper takes the lead on a few songs, most affectingly on the exquisite, piano-led ‘Song For R’, a heartbreaking portrait of addiction in which the narrator resolves to view her afflicted brother as neither saint nor demon but simply as “a child, arms stretched out for love.” But, however compelling the vocals are ‘individually’, it is of course harmony that most defines the Tanyas’ sound, and when their voices come together, as on the “things keep changing” refrain in Sean Hayes’s ‘A Thousand Tiny Pieces’ or the chorus of the joyous ‘Ootischenia’, it’s simply impossible not to be uplifted and moved.
While the likes of ‘Human Thing’, ‘Song For R’, ‘Ootischenia’ and the title track demonstrate the Tanyas’ own songwriting skills to be in fine fettle, the covers and traditional material also yield some of the strongest moments on the album. There’s a homage to fellow Canuck Neil Young on ‘For The Turnstiles’, a moving take on Mississippi John Hurt’s ‘Nobody Cares For Me’ and a wonderfully evocative, swampy rendition of the traditional number ‘Out Of The Wilderness’. But the cover destined to raise the most eyebrows is the one that’s not on the official tracklist, tucked away at the end as a hidden extra. Following its gospel makeover on the ‘Romeo + Juliet’ soundtrack, Prince’s ‘When Doves Cry’ continues to prove an adaptable beast; the Tanyas exquisitely recast it as some sort of sultry blues hymn.
It’s a testament to the distinctiveness of the Tanyas approach that they can make such a diverse selection of material sound cohesive and coherent across one album. Overall, Hello Love may not take them in any new musical directions but it sees them continuing to refine their style without losing an ounce of their freshness or spontaneity. By refusing to make any concessions to commercialism or current music trends, they sound as daring, relevant and hip as anybody out there. It’s great to have them back.
originally published November 5th, 2006
Be Your Own PET
Be Your Own PET •••
Following their much-hyped debut single ‘Damn Damn Leash’ – said by some typically over-zealous in-the-knows to be the ‘Teenage Kicks’ for the ringtone generation – was never going to be an easy task for Nashville under-agers Be Your Own PET, a teen tearaway foursome fronted by temperamental platinum blonde Jemina Pearl. A harsh and uncompromising 112 seconds of telling parents precisely where to go, ‘Damn Damn Leash’ left many an unsuspecting audience utterly breathless, and now, three more singles down the line, there are questions to be answered. Does the sheer white-knuckle exhilaration of the singles ride the course of a full-length album?
Have they mellowed and skulked into the commercial pop-punk void vacated by No Doubt in the wake of Gwen Stefani’s solo exploits and babymaking? More importantly, have they ruined it all by rush releasing an album to crest their wave of hype? To these ears, the band are guilty on all counts, though perhaps less so on the last; Be Your Own PET stakes its place on happy ground that’s somewhere between their punk/hardcore influences and mainstream accessibility in a similar vein to Pretty Girls Make Graves’s The New Romance. There are some glorious pop moments, most notably on the recent single ‘Adventure’ – an excitable, urgent and brief sonic workout on which Jemina’s vocals float between the anthemic and cutesy – and, like Stefani, Pearl is certainly skilled in the art of voice control. She almost even breaks into a ballad on ‘October, First Account’, though it’s not your usual sopfest, boasting the disturbing lyric “we cut ourselves open a hundred times but we’ve not run out of ammo yet”, but is still surprisingly buoyant and uplifting. But crass juvenilia is pretty much the order of the day elsewhere; ‘Bog’, for example, is a catchy little ditty about drowning a boyfriend’s dog in the toilet.
When the melody is clear and the vocals less screamy, Be Your Own PET are masters of their trade. It’s a pity then that this rather excludes the majority of the album – too many songs are fairly indistinguishable, all with nonsensical lyrics and little in the way of a tune. So whilst there is no denying their fresh and fiery outlook on songs like ‘Bunk Trunk Skunk’ (in which Jemina declares “I’m an independent motherfucker”), the extent to which expressing their ‘attitude’ has compromised the quality of the album is questionable indeed. Be Your Own PET is not a bad start by any stretch of the imagination, but there’s no escaping the feeling that, had the opportunity to record an album come at a slightly later point in the band’s career, the result would have been more accomplished and consistent. A brighter future awaits.
Robbie de Santos
originally published March 19th, 2006
On The Outside ••½
A casual glance at Jenny Beck’s third album, On The Outside, may well provoke a serious double take – is that Sarah McLachlan’s kid sister staring back at you from the sleeve? Sadly, no. Jenny Beck is neither Canadian nor a piano balladeer – she’s actually Swedish and ploughs a far poppier furrow. Having relocated to the UK in 2001, Beck has been constantly writing and recording material with her band and playing gigs on the circuit, and such hard-won experience shines through in the quality of her vocal. The dozen tracks here fall neatly into two broad categories; acoustic, country-tinged numbers and modern, upbeat pop songs complete scratches and samples. Beck’s vocal fit both styles with ease, giving a bright and punchy sound that suits the poppier material and a subtle country overlay and tender vibrato that, when blended with subtle harmonies, really compliments the slower songs. So while some comparisons have been rather unsurprising (e.g. The Corrs, Sheryl Crow and ‘big sis’ Sarah), Beck is no mere copyist and displays a genuine talent.
It’s a greater shame then that the album is ultimately and badly let down by a production job that fails to match the writing or performance. Perhaps it’s a symptom of Beck and her long-term partner / drummer / co-producer Mitch Deighton having a lack of professional experience, or of the perennial problem that so often besets self-produced material, an impartiality and closeness that prohibits the making of unbiased and even ruthless choices. Who knows? But because they demand more verve and sparkle, the poppier songs are the ones that suffer the most; here, the overly dry drum sounds that dominate throughout soon begin to grate and the individual elements don’t seem to come together as a cohesive whole. Indeed, you can’t help but feel that these songs could really be brought to life if the masters were left in more capable hands. Bob Clearmountain, where are your golden ears when we need them?
Fortunately, the more acoustic numbers like the affirmative ‘Be Yourself’ and ‘Everything’ are easier to admire, and the stunningly beautiful harmonies on ‘Tonight’ go some way towards redemption. Beck also strays purposefully into the country-pop realm of LeAnn Rimes with ‘I’d Be Damned’, while ‘Apology’ is a confident slice of white reggae marred only by a slightly muddy (as opposed to ‘dubby’) backing track. Elsewhere, the otherwise excellent ‘Miss Negative’ stumbles over some awkward scans and phrases, though these are the only real signs that English is not Beck’s native tongue. Tellingly, it’s more than likely that a good independent producer would have corrected these flaws at an early stage by prompting a minor edit. Overall, On The Outside boasts a decent enough set of songs and has the potential to be an excellent album were it to be retooled.
originally published March 19th, 2006
Have A Little Faith •••
Over time, bands can get too close to their own sound to know what it is; anything that personal can have a tendency to be talked up and what once was good can become disappointingly average. The BellRays, however, know exactly where they’re at – ‘maximum rock ‘n’ soul’ is what they call it, a description so succinct that it almost makes their critics redundant.
Back with what appears to be their sixth album (though only two of these and a Poptones compilation appear to have found a UK release), The BellRays have matured somewhat and appear to be invigorated after singer Lisa Kekaula’s stint touring with the reformed MC5. Although it is easily their best work to date, there’s something I personally find lacking in The BellRays. They are obviously talented and often make for a pleasant listen, but on record at least, they never really reach out and grab their audience, which is something this music is quite clearly intended to do. It’s safe to say, however, that if you’re into blues-rock, you’ll love this album regardless. That’s not to say the rest of us should switch off completely; there’s something different in the water this time around.
When The Bellrays decide to genre hop, as they frequently do on Have A Little Faith, keep your ear cocked. The jazzy guitar on ‘Tell The Lie’ provides a neat backdrop for Kekaula’s voice and ‘Lost Disciples’, though similar in feel, proves even better. Its bongo-riddled jazz makes for classy wine bar music, meant in the kindest possible way. Elsewhere, the bluesy laidback tones of ‘Have A Little Faith In Me’ and the slow blues shuffle of ‘Everyday I Think Of You’ are impressive, as is ‘Third Time’s The Charm’, which happily recalls Tina Turner in her heyday. When they rock out and try to kick ass, there are some memorable moments – like when they channel the spirit of Jimi Hendrix for ‘Time Is Gone’ or sound mountainous like Led Zep on ‘Chainsong (I’ve Been Searchin’)’ – but much of the time tends to blur into one.
Have A Little Faith is definitely an album for aficionados of blues-rock aficionado, but is also worth checking out for the moments when The BellRays deviate from their apparent set path.
originally published October 5th, 2006
Bare Stripped Naked •••½
After six studio albums and a concept live release of Velvet Underground covers, Dutch band Bettie Serveert celebrate their 15th birthday with this new collection of mostly acoustic, introspective ditties. With such a sparse remit, there’s nothing overtly original here – some of the riffs and vocal lines might as well be tattooed onto your eardrums – but there is something so real, so full of blood and fibre, flesh and flaws that you won’t really mind. Singer Carol van Dyk has some of the warmest chops around and it really shows in these back-to-basics compositions. Of the 12 tracks, ‘Brain-Tag’ and ‘Certainlie’ are reworkings of earlier numbers, the former from their 1992 debut Palomine and the latter from 2003’s career-rejuvenating Log 22. While ‘Brain-Tag’ shines, the Neil Young-inspired version of ‘Certainlie’ fares less well with its ridiculously cheesy guitar chords, pre-chorus breakdowns and a predictable flow that sounds a bit like Radiohead’s early ballad nonsense before they turned so beautifully sour.
First single ‘Hell = Other People’ may have a charming vocal but it doesn’t really go anywhere, with repetitive guitar leads that jangle and sparkle but hang in their frame alone, begging to be fiddled with and explored. The lyrics are dry and the best line – the title – is wickedly overdone. It just seems like Carol and co. found a few good hooks and played them again and again ‘til their sheen began to fade. Furthermore, there are two versions, as if we needed this point rubbed in our faces. Fortunately, there is much to be enjoyed elsewhere. ‘Love & Learn’ refuses to lock itself into the familiarities of the day, instead travelling ever further backwards until it hits a deep rooted authenticity. It isn’t folk, it isn’t a corny stereotype, but something in the trickling, magical melody hints of a deeper presence. If your mind is prone to cliché, it might wander off to think of rolling green hills, hippie mums and ruddy-faced children playing in the grass. Elsewhere, the beyond pretty weepie ‘Roadmovies’ and ‘What They Call Love’ are ideal movie soundtrack material, while the ballerina nightmare ‘Painted World’ hits home with plucked orchestral strings, tiny pianos, mournful wind instruments and a honey-glazed vocal that slithers up your spine, injecting a beautiful poison you’ll be happy to receive.
‘2nd Time’ treads similar ground to the reworked ‘Certainlie’ but swerves onto a different path before it’s too late. It actually comes through with a deadly serious conviction and sadness; just when you thought you had your feet firmly planted in the soul of suspicion, this sneaky song will steal your heart. Unless you’re careful. But then the next plausible step is that you’re on the phone and ordering that cream sofa you’ve been wanting from IKEA. Overall, Bare Stripped Naked is perhaps the most honest record that the band have ever made and one you might gladly grow old with. Cut your hair, settle down, get married, buy a Volvo; whatever. You could do worse than to hum this all the while.
originally published October 14th, 2006
For better or worse, British-born Jane Birkin is largely famous for being Mrs Serge Gainsbourg way back when and for providing a variety of saucy noises on his controversial 1969 hit ‘Je T’aime… Moi Non Plus’. However, there’s plenty more to her resume than that. As well as acting in more than 50 films, including Michelangelo Antonioni’s notorious ‘Blow Up’ in which she appeared in her 20 year-old birthday suit, she has also released a dozen albums. Not bad for a ‘60s It Girl caught up with France’s bad boy du jour.
Recent years have seen Birkin capitalising on her kitsch pop culture appeal and as with 2004’s Rendez-Vous, Fictions contains such a crowded pool of songwriting talent that you’d expect the result to be nothing less than genius. Where Rendez-Vous featured such pop luminaries as Massive Attack’s Mickey 3D, Leslie Feist, Manu Chao, Placebo’s Brian Molko, Bryan Ferry, Etienne Daho and fellow yeh-yeh girl Françoise Hardy, Fictions boasts original tracks from The Divine Comedy’s Neil Hannon, The Magic Numbers and Rufus Wainwright, as well as contributions from eminent French songwriters that are, of course, sung in Birkin’s adopted language. Only Portishead’s Beth Gibbons makes an appearance on both records, and justifiably so (more on that later). Along with musical contributions from Johnny Marr and arrangements from sought-after producer Renauld Letang (Björk, Gonzales), it almost as if a cooler version of Live Aid had gathered together in Birkin’s studio.
To make things even more eclectic, Birkin tackles a trio of songs from eminent songwriters, even by her collaborators’ standards: Tom Waits’s ‘Alice’, Neil Young’s ‘Harvest Moon’ and Kate Bush’s ‘Mother Stands For Comfort’. The reasoning behind covering these classics isn’t immediately apparent and justice is not quite served. Although the haunting quality of ‘Alice’ is captured well enough, Birkin’s rendition of ‘Harvest Moon’ veers too close to cabaret and she’s certainly no Kate Bush. What binds this rather odd bunch together, however, is Jane’s breathy and incessantly delicate vocals, which, it has to be said, sometimes fall unfortunately flat. Always on the verge of breaking into a whisper and never really breaking into song, singing isn’t Birkin’s forte and you may find it falls on the unlovable side of ‘acquired taste’. When she’s bring British, Birkin is utterly so and excels in the received pronunciation talking style of singing that acts like Black Box Recorder have tried so hard to emulate. But whether chirruping in English or French, she is always reserved and rarely dominates the songs.
It’s not all wafer thin, however; there are moments when her tender haunting vocals entirely transform a song into something both quirky and lovably unique. Album opener ‘Home’ (penned by Hannon) is one of the highlights, its jaunty tunefulness and British comedic slant really shines through, but the real jem is Gibbons’s ‘My Secret’. Words of lost love wrap around an old-fashioned lounge style sound with a dark, almost Lynchian edge that perfectly suits Birkin’s style and expression, perhaps an indication of the longer lasting connection between the two women. But while these instances of loveliness and Birkin’s characteristically oddball stamp will win your heart, Fictions is a difficult album to digest as a whole.
originally published July 14th, 2006
The Way Back Home EP ••½
This first official release from Leeds quintet Bodixa (pronounced ‘bo-di-kuh’) follows a successful few years on the touring circuit, supporting the likes of KT Tunstall, Moby and Tom McCrae. The Way Back Home is a mostly sleepy affair, though you wouldn’t know it from leadoff number ‘Goodbye Winter’. A jangly summer anthem that drives on down the speedway with unashamed smiles and the wind in its hair, it’s a familiar feminist roadtrip that travels a well-beaten path, but not so worn out that it can’t afford to accommodate another band of travellers. The mellow American stylings are easily swallowed and sink down without a fight. It doesn’t make it original, nor does it make it right as such, but there is little reservation needed for such a jolly, unpretentious tune.
‘A Room’, meanwhile, is so delicate and well-to-do that it may well pass you by. In fact, there it goes, wooing itself with simpering harmonies (courtesy of Anna Elias and Emily Norton), barely played acoustic guitars and projected by a waltzy 3/4 beat and an overall sound that’s sweet to the core. Three songs in, ‘Sing Your Bones’ is a lovely acoustic ditty that’s so chilled out it was probably recorded while lying down for a nap. The lone acoustic guitar hums away to itself as vocals sway and float above it singing of romance and crying over an open fire. It’s by far the prettiest, sloppiest inclusion and makes for a perfect choice if there’s someone in the room you really want a hug from. Final song ‘Nothing To Show’ is easy on the ear but unremarkable, like an open mic rendition of an Alanis Morissette or Beth Orton classic. Despite its clever rhythmical juts, the band’s passion for gentle, woozy melodies might well have you in the pleasant throes of slumber by the end.
Overall, The Way Back Home makes for a fine start with four appealing and highly listenable compositions. On this evidence, Bodixa are a softly simmering, sinless band seeking only to glide on through, making music and harming no one. They’re a balanced and graceful act in a sea of peacocks that strut too hard. Nothing new, but oh so very sensual.
originally published November 23rd, 2006
Idjagiedas (In The Hand Of The Night) •••½
An unsuspecting listener might at first assume that this is a Native American album, but singer-songwriter Mari Boine is actually from Norway. She comes from the Sami natives that live in the north of the country and has drawn many an influence from her strong musical heritage. She successfully blends traditional movements, such as the Christian Laestadian music of the Sami people, with Norwegian folk music and more modern musical approaches like jazz and rock. Since her first international release Gula-Gula in 1989, Boine has come a long way. Even her own people were sceptical of her approach and outspoken politics, but Boine has transcended into an inspirational role model for the Sami tribes and followers around the world.
While she still frequently expresses her anger and sadness about the oppression of her people, Boine is seen to be unreservedly embracing of her Sami heritage and mystical traits. She says herself that she is always looking for expressions that are more than just words. Most of her lyrics are written by Rauni Magga Lukkari and Karen Anne Buljo, but she also sings in her own imaginary language that originated somewhere deep in her heart and, according to her, embraces the idea that Lapp music is all about finding the primitive force in yourself.
Opening song ‘Vuoi Vuoi Mu’ is a smooth and spiritual affair. Even though Boine sings in a language not accessible to most listeners, it’s easy to feel and sympathise with the pain, experience and mysticism of the song. Boine’s touching, emotional range is enhanced by an ever present and urgent baseline and tribal-like percussion. The title track begins quite softly, with dreamy, chanting vocals accompanied only by percussion. But the trademark ever-moving, heavy bass soon comes into the arrangement, tinging the song with an intensity and darkness. At points a low and mystical male voice speak-sings over the vocals. You’ll imagine what this might sound like sung live as it screams with emotion and ancient history.
The more experimental ‘Gos But Munno Cinat Leat’ starts out with a much quieter feel, with hypnotic chanting that fades in and out, switching between near and far. When the full arrangement comes in – again dominated by a moving and urgent bassline – the mix of modern recording techniques and ancient languages and chants provides an accurate and moving reflection on what the modern day life of a Sami native might be like. The outstanding ‘Mu Ustit Engeliid Sogalas (My Friend Of Angel Tribe)’ shows Boine’s passion for atmosphere and melancholy. The vocals are quiet, almost whispery. At points the arrangement drops down to basic percussion and voice only, creating an intimate and angelic experience. ‘Davvi Bavttiin (On Fells Of The North)’ is equally quiet, rather like a lullaby. It sounds like it was written in dark days and has the feel of an ancient sad romantic love story. Other songs – they’re all quite special – include the delicate and vulnerable ‘Lottas’, the powerful and dramatic ‘Diamantta Spaillit’, the dreamily dark ‘Geasuha’, the character-laden ‘Afruvva (The Mermaid)’, the fragile and intimate ‘Uldda Nieida’ and the quiet but urgent ‘Fapmodalkkas’.
So there you have it. Idjagiedas is a beautiful album that offers an unparalleled insight into an ancient heritage that most listeners would otherwise have no connection to. Because of the songs’ emotional maturity we can attempt to grasp the pain, history and tradition the Sami culture embraces. Mari Boine certainly knows how to keep a song close to her heart.
Appellations like ‘the first lady of Irish music’ give someone a lot to live up to. Even ‘the voice of Clannad’ carries a weight of expectation but on Signature, as ever, Moya Brennan bears these proclamations well. From the opening chords of ‘Purple Haze’ (sadly not a Hendrix cover) it’s immediately apparent that we are, if not quite in the same territory as Clannad, on the same musical continent at least. A driving piano riff sets the tempo for the dance while harp, uillean pipes and Brennan’s unmistakable wash of ethereal vocals spiral around it.
That ‘No One Talks’ adopts a much more open sound with acoustic guitar and Hammond organ is all the more refreshing and caressing to the ears. Despite being the kind of song that could live quite comfortably in many a hand, from Peter Gabriel to Kate Bush (and indeed has shades of ‘Don’t Give Up’ about it), it lovingly blossoms beneath Brennan’s vulnerable, crystalline voice. Elsewhere, ‘Many Faces introduces a taste of Arabia’, ‘Merry Go Round’ successfully takes a Capercaillie-esque ambient, sample-based approach, while album closer ‘Pill A Rún Ó’ is a nicely executed modern adaptation of a traditional tune.
Brennan describes Signature as her most personal work to date that represents snapshots of moments in her life. However, she wisely eschews a strictly autobiographical approach, choosing instead to inhabit the emotional centre of each episode, both high and low. Whatever textures and musical tapestries she opts to employ, the Brennan experience is bittersweet, beguiling and utterly involving. So whilst it may be her stunning vocal talents for which Moya Brennan is quite rightly known, Signature shows what a rounded, able artist she is. Her songwriting, arranging and production skills are in fettle as equally fine as that voice, and when couched in a soundtrack provided by a hugely talented cast of musicians it really rewards. Her most complete and compelling solo work yet.
Tender Buttons •••
For their third proper full-length, Birmingham’s finest purveyors of hook-laden electronica have produced a fresher, more pared down version of their millennial post-rock. Named after enigmatic American author Gertrude Stein’s 1911 novel, Tender Buttons sees the band operating for the first time as a twosome (singer Trish Keenan and partner James Cargill) following the departure of drummer/guitarist Tim Felton. Inevitably, the replacement of real drum sounds with softer electro beats has had a dramatic effect, giving the album a sparser, more minimalist feel than 2003’s fantastic Ha-Ha Sound. Samples, too, are limited and well used, with several motifs recurring across a number of songs, adding a depth to the proceedings as they interlace the album, giving it some much needed consistency. Sadly, it’s not quite enough to see the listener through its relatively short 40-minute running time.
Although the album starts fantastically well and gets better as it proceeds throughout its first half, hitting a number of Death In Vegas-like, carefully-weighted notes, that’s about as far as it goes. Indeed, the disc arguably peaks over its first four well-arranged and impacting songs – ‘I Found The F’, ‘Black Cat’, the title track and the excellent first single ‘American Boy’ – before breaking out the old acoustic guitar for ‘Tears In The Typing Pool’ and returning to high-gear electro again for the comparatively driving ‘Corporeal’.
The other eight songs, however, are significantly less affecting and somewhat sketchy. Not even Klein’s coolly dispassionate singing redeems them, although it’s fair to say that ‘Michael A Grammar’ stands out from the crowd. There are plenty of appealing noises to be sure, but none of them seem to hang together as finished songs, in sharp relief to the polish in evidence earlier on. Overall then, the first half of Tender Buttons is worth a listen or seven, but it could have been cut down to a really fine EP. Shame.
originally published February 6th, 2006
Ukulele & Voice EP ••½
After 50 odd years of glorious obscurity and ridicule (…turned out nice again, eh?), the ukulele is in perilous danger of becoming the must-have instrument de jour. Latest to the fray comes Britain’s own Sam Brown, who will already be familiar to many from her past chart flirtations like the hit single ‘Stop!’ or from her role as firstcall singer for Jools Holland’s Rhythm & Blues Orchestra. Certainly the title Ukulele & Voice, 5 Songs… has a certain Ronseal charm, and the fact that each of those five songs features minimal, stripped-down arrangements could not be construed as deception. Sadly, this is both the EP’s weakness and its strength. On the plus side, the nakedness of the intimate recording lovingly showcases the beauty of Sam Brown’s voice and brings the listener that much closer to the singer. Then again, the inability to give a substandard performance is, more than likely, etched into Brown’s very DNA, but the ukulele in itself rather lacks the tonal richness and dynamic range to match. Neither is Brown’s particular specimen – an Ovation model by the look of the sleeve – the most mellifluous example of the breed.
Coming back to the positives, the songs themselves are strong. The uke and Brown’s whistled solo give ‘I’ll Be Here’ a convincing swing-era vibe, while ‘Kiss Of Love’, a co-write with Jools Holland, is a sumptuous blues lament that would probably sound fantastic if backed by a talented band. For bonus points, ‘Void’ makes an attempt to apply the ukulele in a novel manner, taking an arpeggio approach rather than the usual strummed chords, and this blends well with a mournful Celtic-tinged melody. Elsewhere, ‘Away With The Faeries’ may well have escaped from some unheard of Broadway musical – Brown’s very own ‘Hushabye Mountain’ – and closer ‘Over The Moon’ evokes an authentic Cole Porter/Sammy Kahn ‘golden age of the ukulele’ mood.
On balance, however, the EP’s detractions simply outweigh its merits. Perhaps the sleeve gives the game away; opening the gatefold reveals the completion of the title with “…an afternoon at Dad’s house, in January,” and suddenly the truth becomes clear that these are just a few tracks chucked down on tape for a giggle after a family lunch. Then the nagging thought of ‘wouldn’t it have been nice to hear these songs arranged with a bit more care?’ begins to crystallise. With a harmony here and parallel ukulele part there, this could have been twice the achievement and one is left to conclude with C-, could do better. The suspicion is that this is primarily a disc for die-hard fans and completists. Those simply looking for an introduction to Sam Brown’s talents would be better off getting her new Very Best Of. Likewise, those simply wishing to sample the charms of a uke in the hands of a talented singer would be better off looking elsewhere. However, for those specifically wanting to sample Sam Brown’s live uke revues in the comfort of their own homes, this EP will certainly fit the bill.
originally published March 19th, 2006
A Temporary Dive •••½
Norwegian singer-songwriter Ane Brun loves her acoustic guitar Morgan so much that she named her 2003 debut album after him. While he’s not the titular hero on this follow-up to that stunning introduction, Morgan’s haunting twang pervades each of these ten songs like a breath of fresh air. If troubadouresses are your thing, A Temporary Dive will grab your attention from the start – Brun has a highly distinctive, ensnaring voice that sets her apart from others in her field. The sheer organic nature of her music is nothing short of praiseworthy in an industry where greedy producers can get a bit buttonhappy when twiddling their knobs. Part of the praise must go to Brun herself who turned down several major-label offers to release the album on her own DetErMine Records, defiant in more ways than one (the Norwegian roughly translates to ‘it is mine’). More praise still must be heaped upon producer Katharina Nuttall, who was also at the helm of Spending Time With Morgan. Her sparing approach allows Brun to really step away from the squeaking clean wheels of the manufactured bandwagon, opting instead to concentrate on sounds you can almost touch, made with instruments you can name. It’s classy and stripped-down, yet fuller sounding than one would expect.
As the title suggests, the intervening months since the release of her debut have not been easy. Several of these songs are the musings of a downtrodden wanderer. ‘My Lover Will Go’ is a prime example of her sadness, seeping into your brain like a rising tide. On ‘A Temporary Dive’, she sings of tumbling into darkness and clawing back up, all the while surrounded by gorgeous glockenspiel and cello. Baby-faced Ron Sexsmith turns up to duet on ‘Song No. 6′ (actually track 9), a song that Ane says was written for a friend’s wedding and is a rare happy love ditty. That’s sweet, but both it and ‘Where Friend Rhymes With End’ seem to jar with the well-crafted flow of the rest of the album with their more up-tempo vibe. Elsewhere, she is lyrically preoccupied with confinement (‘Rubber & Soul’) and enforced realism (‘Balloon Ranger’), but it’s never a grim proposition. The one non-original, ‘Laid In Earth’, is an adaptation of a classical aria lifted from Henry Purcell’s 17th Century opera, ‘Dido & Aeneas’, and it’s beautifully complemented by Malene Bay-Foged’s heartbreaking string arrangements.
The only real complaint about A Temporary Dive is that it’s rather too short at just 38 minutes. I was left wanting to hear a lot more. Given the ecstatic reception the album was afforded in her native Scandinavia (it went straight to the top of the charts – remarkable for something so devoid of artifice), Ane Brun could well have a slow-burning hit on her hands. She’s already performed live with ABBA’s Benny Andersson and supported US country star Mary Gauthier and our very own PJ Harvey, so there’s no doubting her commitment to the legwork. This is an ideal soundtrack for your own emotional reckonings, so indulge in these exceptional sounds and make your way towards the light.
originally published October 1st, 2005
Live at The Borderline ••••½
December 5, 2006
When Norwegian singer-songwriter Ane Brun graced the Borderline stage back in January as the guest of Tina Dico, she unabashedly nicked off with the show, sewed it up in her pocket and slipped away into the freezing night. With Brun already something of a megastar in her homeland and being filmed for Norwegian TV, the running order seemed a little incongruous to those in the know. And to those who were not, Brun filled in the gaps with a staggeringly powerful set; where Dico too often ambled into mediocrity, Brun went directly for the jugular with her quietly commanding stage presence and mostly wounded, always deeply personal songs.
Fast forward to tonight and this time she’s rightly heading the bill, and although the venue is rather more roomy than the last time she was here, the reward is all the sweeter for those who turned out to see her. Opening with the title track from her award-winning album A Temporary Dive, released here in May, Brun makes it clear that any expectations will be more than fulfilled and almost certainly surpassed with a measured, coolly phrased performance. As she sways and leans into every chord change, her seemingly effortless inhabitation of the music mesmerises and rivals even the rarest, most esteemed of her contemporaries.
Contemporary is hardly the first adjective that springs to mind when you think of 17th Century opera but Ane’s captivating interpretation of the aria ‘Laid In Earth’ from Henry Purcell’s ‘Dido & Aeneas’ brings it weeping and juddering into a post-millennial context. As she skillfully negotiates every warble with ease, bodies around me sway in sympathetic movements. Part of Brun’s appeal is that she is not so precise as to remove the humanity of her songs, so when a note goes ever so slightly awry or her tuning dips, it only adds to the power of her delivery.
Though the set draws heavily from A Temporary Dive, there are plenty of surprises as three new songs arrive fully formed and spectacular. The first, ‘Half Open Door’, was written for a charity compilation to highlight the plight of Oslo’s homeless, and is a bittersweet childhood reflection. For this Brun enlists the sublime, perfectly pitched backing vocals of British singer-songwriter Rachel Davies, who then stays on for the remainder of the main set, embellishing and colouring in where required. ‘To Let Myself Go’ and ‘Balloon Ranger’ benefit the most, the latter being dedicated to fellow musicians who find themselves spending way too much money in the instrument shops of nearby Denmark Street. Two of Ane’s duets also put in an appearance; despite the absence of Ron Sexsmith (‘Song No. 6′) and Teitur (‘Rubber & Soul’), Brun is every bit as wonderful.
The second new song, with the working title ‘Treehouse’, is also outstanding and really shows Brun’s growth as an artist. Keeping to the assertion of A Temporary Dive that she would overcome the depression she lapsed into while trying to repeat the success of her first album Spending Time With Morgan (Morgan being the name of her beloved acoustic), there’s a noticeably more optimistic, if not outright cheerful feel. Likewise for the other newie, ‘Changing Of The Seasons’, a disarmingly frank analysis of infidelity that ends with an unexpectedly positive twist.
Closing the main set with the devastating ‘My Lover Will Go’, Brun brings the house down before quickly returning to the stage “so that [we] can get the last tube” with a hushed but stellar cover of PJ Harvey’s ‘The Dancer’. It’s intense, though in a different way to the original, but you’ll just have to wait to hear it yourself when Brun puts out a live CD and DVD early next year (though you might have to end up importing it from Scandinavia). The crowd laps it up and Ane exits stage left to thunderous applause and no small amount of whooping. She’ll be back soon, she says it’s a promise, and you really ought to be there when she keeps it.
originally published December 17th, 2006
Life In Mono ••½
You might think that the artist formerly known as Baby Spice would have some interesting things to say by now, being a former international icon with two successful albums of her own under her belt. That insight is not in evidence on Life In Mono, a mundane collection of easy-listening numbers, but it is not without its charms. The tone of this album is somewhat more sober than 2004’s Free Me, despite the similar Burt Bacharach pastiches and Motown overtones, with Bunton reigning in her playful ingenue persona in favour of a demure and sensitive approach.
The opener, breathy piano ballad ‘All I Need To Know’, demonstrates that she can do ‘wistful’ very well. However, the pensive quality that hangs over the album makes even bossa nova workouts like ‘Mischievous’ and ‘He Loves Me Not’ seem brooding. Bunton’s vocals are feather-light and pleasant as ever, but she loses her way with sultrier pieces like ‘Undressing You’. The whole thing is an odd mix of the anodyne and the bittersweet.
While this album mainly plays to Bunton’s strengths, it isn’t remotely exciting. There’s a lot to be said for consistency, but more creative production could have made this one of the best solo records any of the Spice Girls have released. As pretty as the orchestral arrangements and soothing harmonies are, they become predictable. The cheeky ‘Take Me To Another Town’ – in which Bunton globetrots accompanied by swooning strings and unusual samples – is the closest thing to a flash of ingenuity on the record. The album ends disappointingly with a glut of banal and cringeworthy covers (including the first single, a weak stab at Petula Clark’s ‘Downtown’) but the title track, a hypnotic and ethereal take on Mono’s trip-hop classic, is a rather more inspired choice.
Ultimately, it’s tasteful, but damningly so. Devoid of the fun and zest of her earlier solo work (and, of course, the back catalogue of the Spice Girls), Life In Mono is pitched directly at the sad-scene-in-Bridget-Jones market. By stringing together a series of the ballads and mid-tempo numbers she always had the knack for, Emma Bunton has made an album that is easy on the ear but pedestrian and uninteresting. The only really objectionable content appears in those predictable and poor covers mercifully grouped together as easily disregarded bonus tracks, but any praise it is possible to muster up for the rest of the album is damningly faint. Music to microwave lasagnes to.
While the story of Vashti Bunyan, the great lost child of the late 1960s folk boom, has been well rehearsed in the press in the run-up to the release of Lookaftering, the bare bones of it surely bears repeating here. Discovered by enigmatic Rolling Stones manager Andrew Loog Oldham, her 1970 debut Just Another Diamond Day is widely upheld to be one of British folk’s great unheralded works. At the time however, commercial success proved elusive and both it and Bunyan were unceremoniously shelved by record company, Decca. Disillusioned by the experience, she forsook further dalliances with the industry and has spent much of the last three decades enjoying the seclusion of a simple family life in Ireland. However, a CD reissue of that album in 2000 sparked renewed interest in her work and, by way of recordings with Animal Collective, Devendra Banhart and Piano Magic, among others, has inexorably led to this highly anachronistic follow-up.
Certainly, Lookaftering is an interesting prospect. Very much a period piece dislocated in time, it retains much of the feel of …Diamond Day and boasts the same hallmarks of early 1970s production values. Comparisons with Sandy Denny and other folkies of the era are easily justified both stylistically and sonically. The seemingly minimal production by Max Richter allows plenty of room for the broadly acoustic, almost orchestral instrumentation to breathe, all the while keeping Bunyan’s exposed and fragile vocals floating in the foreground. The arrangements themselves are mostly sparse and hauntingly beautiful; bucolic countermelodies abound, with oboe, recorder and Joanna Newsom’s harp all making an impression on various tracks. And Newsom isn’t the only member of the neo/psych-folk glitterati to make an appearance, Devendra Banhart, Adem and Kevin Barker of Espers also lend a hand, in some cases further reinforcing the early ‘70s heritage of the influences at work. In particular, Banhart’s slide guitar on ‘Wayward’ is strikingly reminiscent of Jerry Donahue’s playing on Sandy Denny’s Fotheringay.
When searching for adequate descriptors of Bunyan’s performance, adjectives like intimate, tender, delicate and fragile spring readily to mind. However, it is these very facets that are the greatest flaw of the album. Too often it seems her fragility tips over into hesitancy and weakness, in some cases lacking self-confidence and commitment to the notes. This is most apparent on ‘Wayward’ where the vocal seems particularly weak and somewhat at odds with the tenor of the words. Whilst some may see such a criticism as churlish or missing the point of the album, it raises valid questions; one wonders whether some of the effusively glowing reports of Lookaftering have been too heavily viewed through the filters of an evocative back story, rather than appraising the album on its musical merits alone. I was left with the nagging curiosity as to how these songs would have fared if sung by the likes of Mary Black, Christine Collister, June Tabor or the late, great Sandy Denny – the likely response being five star performances no less full of tenderness or vulnerability.
That said, Lookaftering remains an amazing feat and a truly beautiful album. It’s a throwback to an age of greater innocence, evoking visions of Julie Christie as ‘Far From The Madding Crowd’s Bathsheba Everdene, softly focused and shining amid some golden pastoral idyll as it wends its way through a rural dreamscape. For all its failings, the songs remain entirely beguiling and Lookaftering is sure to remain one of the most haunting and affecting discs of the year. The closer, ‘Wayward Hum’, brings the disc to a fitting close. Part meandering lullaby, part quintessentially English whimsy, it somehow summarises all that comes before in a wordless, absent-minded way. Gorgeous.
originally published November 21st, 2005
Cathy Burton’s first two albums were fairly well received slabs of British pop (as opposed to Britpop) that dressed her classical songwriting talents in suitably contemporary clothes, with all the electro beeps and twirls that a modern pop song requires. Silvertown, on the other hand, adopts a rather simpler stance with an organic sound built around piano, guitar, Hammond organ and conventional rhythm section. Topically, the ten songs are heavily dominated by the birth of her first child, Isobel, and impending motherhood and the weight of responsibility it brings is an inescapable theme. But this is no recruiting CD for the Natural Childbirth Association; there’s plenty here that will appeal to those of a non- parental persuasion.
‘Everybody’s Fool’ kicks things off with a good old- fashioned meditation on the complexities of romance. Burton’s distinctive vocal style comes to the fore right away – a delicate, shimmering tone that communicates a charming innocence whilst hinting at a deeper appreciation of the world’s more cruel aspects. If comparisons must be drawn there is perhaps a suspicion of a rather less fey version of Sixpence None The Richer’s Leigh Nash. Like Nash, Burton’s songs have never sought to conceal her Christian faith but do not act explicitly as pulpit, preferring instead to tell tales woven mostly from internal landscapes.
Despite the G word, the haunting ‘God Of The Sky’ conjures up feelings of smallness and connection to a bigger force irrespective of spiritual leanings; it’s something we’ve all felt when gazing up at a cloudless panorama of stars. The title track is another clear standout; co-written with Rocky Ross, the creative voice of Scot-popsters Deacon Blue, it touchingly compares the meandering train journey eastwards along the Thames with the twists and turns of a love affair. Album closer ‘Sleep’ is a delicate, affecting prayer from a mother to her child that’s power lies in its simplicity and openness.
So does Silvertown have any major faults? Well, only that at little over 35 minutes, Burton doesn’t exactly outstay her welcome – quite the opposite in fact! Still, as the old adage goes, leave them wanting more. Just make it soon, okay?
originally published October 5th, 2006
Cathy Burton & Dan Wheeler
Live at Maidenhead Arts Café ••••
October 7, 2005
Not many people would willingly tout Maidenhead as a cultural centre of our fair nation’s Southeastern corner. Possibly the best thing that can usually be said for it is that it isn’t next-door-neighbour, Slough. However, the good people of Maidenhead Methodist Church are doing their best to reverse that trend as, on the first Friday of every month, their church hall magically transforms into the Arts Café and hosts a range of performers from all aspects of said arts. This particular night was the turn of Cathy Burton and Dan Wheeler to grace their stage – the second night of a nationwide tour following an appearance at Balham’s homely Bedford Arms.
While Burton is already fairly well known on the UK circuit, with two acclaimed albums, Burn Out and Speed Your Love to her credit, Wheeler is more heard than recognised – his day job as session guitarist to the likes of Burton, Nicki Rogers and a score of others providing the pedigree – but he’s no mean singer-songwriter either. Together they made something of a dream team for a great evening’s music in surprisingly cosy surroundings while the audience partook of the café-based ambience and comestibles of coffee and homemade cakes.
Normally for a ‘double-header’ tour, one would expect the standard 45 minutes of one plus an hour or so of the other; however, the pair hit on a masterstroke as they took to the stage together. Deftly avoiding any chance of monotony, Burton and Wheeler played tag with the lead throughout the evening, with the non-‘it’ performer adding body with skilful backing. Even their instruments were complementary: Burton’s Gibson slope-shouldered J-Dreadnought sang with clear and solid rhythm, while Wheeler’s smaller bodied Avalon A25 Grand Auditorium chimed with chordal and flat-picked soloing and accompaniment. In this context, the songs were made fleshier with each singer able to introduce greater layers of orchestration to their sound.
The setlist was mostly chosen from Burton’s two full-lengths, plus Wheeler’s album Long Road Round and Ten Things To Do EP. Many of the songs mined the deep seams of life, love and Christian faith, with both singers refreshingly candid about the impact of religion on their lives without descending into didactic preaching. Highlights of Burton’s performances included fan favourites ‘Falling’ and ‘Hollow’ and the meaningful musings of the beautiful ‘Belongs To You’. Both artists also portrayed the melancholic bent that seems to fuel their writing. Indeed, Wheeler went so far as to confess that his wife advised him to maybe lighten up a little on first listen of (the admittedly sublime) ‘Scratches On The Glass’.
With plans already underway for both Burton and Wheeler to record new albums, they were eager to roadtest some of their new material. The most affecting of these was a tune from Burton entitled ‘Fromosa’, the Romanian word for ‘beautiful’. Written in response to her experiences at a Romanian AIDS orphanage run by the charity Cry In The Dark (www.cryinthedark.co.uk), the song was inspired by an encounter with the dying young girl of the title. The song, already dripping with raw emotion, was made all the more powerful by Wheeler’s tender slide embellishment on a lap-played Dobro resonator. Burton’s other new tune, ‘Silvertown’, and ‘Wheeler’s Run’ both provided further suggestion that any wait for their new records will be worth it. After a touching finale of Burton’s ‘Leave Me With You’, they rounded things off with an encore of Bacharach and David’s ‘(They Long To Be) Close To You’ before bowing to a content and buoyant audience in full sing-a-long mode, who then sidled out onto the glamorous Maidenhead tarmac.
originally published October 25th, 2005
The Ways We Try ••
As another in a long line of songwriters working on the premise that her homemade brand of acoustic vignettes on love and life will strike a chord with a wider audience, Emily ‘Birdie’ Busch enters the fray fresh from the Philadelphia coffeehouse circuit. After completing a range of struggling artist jobs, Birdie realised there was something else she was born to do, after which it appears she picked up a guitar, took to it like a native and voila, the benefit of her somewhat naïve musings are available to those looking for the next 21st Century troubadouress. If only all career moves were so easy! So, what does the Philly filly have to offer?
Well, it’s much as you’d expect. There’s an innocence to these simply structured melodies and arrangements; Busch floats through songs like a seed that’s caught the wind, happy to be carried in any direction as long as the destination is America’s west coast circa 1967. Unfortunately, ‘67 was a long time ago; the naiveté of the artists that gathered in Laurel Canyon to change the world with six strings and multi-part harmonies was truly a snapshot of its time and Busch is strictly little league in comparison. Then again, perhaps the comparison is simply unfair; the world is an uglier place in 2006 and the odd moment of happy-go-lucky sing-song is a welcome break from the daily routine, but the music still needs to be memorable at least.
I’d like to say that the songs benefit from a long gestation period, the culmination of ideas and experiences that stretch back years, but it’s difficult to say whether this is the case, or whether Birdie knocked the album out in an evening session at Starbucks. The songs rarely rise above pleasant, the pace rarely above a Sunday walk, and each one merges into the next in a below-par mélange of gently strummed or picked guitar, brushed percussion and upright piano. The songs aren’t bad; ‘Zeros’ has a breezy Sunday morning feel behind it’s cod-philosophy lyric, ‘Room In The City’ uses repetition well to enhance its momentum and ‘Drunk By Noon’ winds its way through your mind in a passable imitation of solo Kristin Hersh, but nothing reaches out and grabs you. There’s no eureka moment that raises the hairs on your arms, no careful turn of phrase or sparkling change of pace that sets her aside from the pack.
Despite several weeks of listening, willing myself to sing along and be impressed, I can’t honestly say that any of the material on The Ways We Try has stuck. I don’t find myself humming ‘The Cup’s harmonica line on my way to work, despite it probably being the most memorable melody. If I stumbled across Miss Busch in the aforementioned coffee emporium, I’d be pleased with the temporary release from my daily chores, applaud in the appropriate places and thank her when she’d finished, but I wouldn’t necessarily want her CD. Unless I had an elevator to paint. Must try harder.
originally published July 10th, 2006
Absence, it seems, really can make the heart grow fonder, even in the music press. Think about it: if Kate Bush had continued making records at regular intervals over the last twelve years, she would almost certainly have been subjected to even harsher critical judgement than the cold shoulder shrug that greeted her last two albums, The Sensual World (1989) and The Red Shoes (1993). Reviewers of those records at the time accused Bush of operating below her capabilities, though both albums were in fact full of inventive and rewarding music. All these years down the line, however, it seems that all has been forgiven, and the belated release of Aerial has been treated by certain publications as something akin to the Second Coming. For Bush’s fans too, every year of silence that passed made the prospect of a new opus ever more tantalising, yet more unlikely. All of these factors conspire to make Aerial unquestionably the year’s most anticipated album. But can any one record withstand such weight of expectation?
The answer, happily, is an emphatic ‘yes’. Careering from the domestic to the epic, from the inside of a washing machine to the bottom of the ocean, Aerial offers listeners all the wit, whimsy, weirdness and wonder (not to mention the impeccable musicianship) of Bush’s very best work. In fact, just as Elvis in first single ‘King Of The Mountain’ transcends the trappings of fame, wealth and possibly even death to take his place on some Parnassus of the mind, so Aerial surpasses the hype, sitting above it a bit loftily but willing to reveal its admittedly complex beauty to any listener prepared to give it the time and attention it deserves. There hasn’t been an epic pop album of comparable ambition and artistry (yes, and length) since Tori Amos’s The Beekeeper earlier this year. This is a record to lose yourself in. Actually, make that two records. For, in a nostalgic nod to Bush’s beloved vinyl era, Aerial is a double album, one which, twenty years on, duplicates the structure of 1985’s much revered Hounds Of Love, its two parts comprising a set of “independent” tracks and a song cycle. While the album preserves the stylistic verve and heterogeneity of her earlier releases, there’s a new and greater spaciousness to the arrangements, leaving more space for the distinctive vocals. Though more restrained than ever, Bush’s voice retains its remarkable capacity for drama and metamorphosis.
Along with her singing, one of the greatest aspects of Kate Bush’s music lies in the wonderful idiosyncrasy of the subject matter of her songs, and on this score too Aerial doesn’t disappoint. On the first disc, A Sea Of Honey, the bracing ‘King Of The Mountain’ segues into ‘Pi’, a eulogy for an obsessive enumerator and almost certainly the most seductive maths lesson in history with Bush cooing numbers and decimal points over a chugging organ motif. The misunderstood ‘Mrs. Bartolozzi’ is an even more vivid character sketch; the song is not ‘about’ a washing machine, but offers an oblique portrait of widowhood in which the memories of domestic duty and the freedom of the sea may or may not assuage the protagonist’s current isolation. Meanings are similarly fluid on the brooding, cinematic ‘Joanni’. With its arresting battle imagery, the song may nominally be ‘about’ Joan of Arc, but Bush’s phrasing of the title also conjures links with another significant Joni. The decidedly funky ‘How To Be Invisible’ is the record’s most playful moment, with its witty witch’s spell and wry, knowing comment on Bush’s own ‘obscurity’.
Informed by the birth of her son and the death of her mother, respectively, two of the loveliest songs on A Sea Of Honey are also the most personal. ‘Bertie’ feels like something of companion piece to Amos’s ‘Ribbons Undone’, an unadulterated expression of maternal delight and pride as Bush repeats “you bring me so much joy” over Renaissance strings, the simplicity of the statement accentuating her emotional intensity. The stunning ‘A Coral Room’ is a shivers-down-thespine piano ballad that moves from an underwater city to Bush’s intimate memories of her mother, and offers a meditation on the passage of time. With its references to cities “draped in net” and hands trailing in water, the song contains some of her most striking imagery yet. Indeed, in keeping with the sparser approach to instrumentation, there is a new clarity and precision to her songwriting on this record. You see that shirt on the washing line, that spider climbing out of a jug, Joanni “in her armour.”
The second disc, A Sky Of Honey, is a sublime nine-track sequence that traces the passage of a summer’s day, from afternoon to sunset and night and on to the following morning. Birds chirp, Bush chortles, Rolf Harris sings! It’s unlike anything you’ve ever heard, and yet pure and unmistakably Kate, as life-affirming as ‘The Ninth Wave’ was unremittingly bleak. Parts are almost overwhelmingly evocative; listening to it, you feel your senses being sharpened one by one. Bertie kicks things off, directing his parents’ attention to a “sky…full of birds.” Indeed, birdsong is a central motif, whether sampled or mimicked. Light is another central theme, and as the cycle progresses patterns develop and images recur. “This is a song of colour,” she sings on the glorious ‘Sunset’ as a piano refrain gives way to a delirious flamenco interlude, while ‘Prologue’ finds her at her most lushly romantic, “talking Italian” over a Michael Kamen orchestral arrangement. Just when you fear it’s all becoming too New Age ambient, a bewitching melody or killer chorus swoops in to orientate you. The shifts through moods of reflection, sadness and exhilaration are quite stunning. Vaughn Williams and Delius (a previous Kate Bush song topic) are presences, and the album blurs the boundaries between musical genres as assuredly as it blurs the distinctions between night and day, dream and reality, forging a space, as one song would have it, ‘Somewhere In Between’. The record concludes with the joyous, pulsing title track and Bush’s urgent desire to go “up on the roof,” an image of physical and spiritual transcendence to match the one that the album started with. By now “all of the birds are laughing”; so is Kate, and so are we.
As Bush herself intimated in a recent interview, “music should put you in a trance frenzy,” and, at its best, Aerial does precisely that. Put quite simply, it’s an extraordinary achievement that once again extends the boundaries of popular music. Of course, there are longeurs and minor indulgences, but it wouldn’t be a Bush record without them, and for her admirers, even the so-called ‘flaws’ have an air of reassurance. Twelve years may have been a long time to wait, but this kind of art is built to last. Tellingly, even after 80 minutes of music, you can’t wait to hear the whole thing again.
originally published November 21st, 2006