wears the trousers magazine


2005/06 reviews dump: h

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

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

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

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

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

Loria Near 
originally published October 5th, 2006

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

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

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

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

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

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

Alex Ramon
originally published April 24th, 2006 

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Julia Harris
These Days EP ••••
Redcase

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

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

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

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

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

Trevor Raggatt
originally published August 10th, 2006 

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

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

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

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

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

Stephanie Heney
originally published December 17th, 2006

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

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

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

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

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

Russell Barker
originally published March 7th, 2006
 

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Kate Havnevik
Melankton ••½
Continentica

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

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

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

Paul Woodgate
originally published September 17th, 2006

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

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

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

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

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

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

Trevor Raggatt 
originally published September 17th, 2006

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

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

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

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

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

Paul Woodgate
originally published May 26th, 2006 

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

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

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

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

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

Danny Weddup
originally published October 14th, 2006

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Helene
Routines •••½
Series 8

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

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

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

Gem Nethersole 
originally published October 5th, 2006

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Hem
Eveningland •••••
Liberty

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

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

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

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

Loria Near
originally published December 19th, 2005 

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Hem
No Word From Tom •••½ 
Nettwerk

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

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

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

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

Loria Near
originally published March 19th, 2006 

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

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

November 21, 2005

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

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

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

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

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

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

Pete Morrow

November 22, 2005

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

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

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

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

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

Adam Smith
originally published December 7th, 2005 

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Paris Hilton
Paris ••½
Heiress / Warner Bros.

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

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

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

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

Ben Lumley
originally published August 30th, 2006

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HK119
HK119 ••••
One Little Indian

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

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

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

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

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

Bryn Williams
originally published February 6th, 2006 

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

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

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

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

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

Bryn Williams
originally published April 5th, 2006 

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Lauren Hoffman
Choreography •••
Fargo

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

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

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

Alan Pedder
originally published September 4th, 2005 

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

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

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

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

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

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

Russell Barker
originally published July 25th, 2006 

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Howling Bells
Howling Bells ••••
Bella Union

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

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

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

David Renshaw
originally published May 24th, 2006 

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Hayley Hutchinson
Independently Blue •••½ 
Gut

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

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

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

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

Trevor Raggatt
originally published January 21st, 2006 

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

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

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

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

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

Trevor Raggatt 
originally published October 5th, 2006