Filed under: album, back issues, review | Tags: aaron alper, andrzej lukowski, anja mccloskey, anna claxton, el perro del mar, electrelane, endre buzogany, enya, espers, evanescence, gary munday, justine electra, loria near, missy elliott, tiffany daniels, trevor raggatt
The following reviews were all published on our old website between May 2005 and December 2006.
El Perro Del Mar
El Perro Del Mar •••½
Three years ago, a chic-looking Swedish girl went on a Spanish beach holiday when a dog popped out of nowhere onto the shore. The girl, named Sarah, was inspired by this, went home, worked hard, wrote an album, swapped a lot of CD-Rs, got signed to the same label as The Pipettes and Field Music and toured with José González and Calexico. I suppose that this slightly odd fairy-tale goes a long way to explaining exactly what her project is about. Albeit, of course, nothing to do with canines. Musically, however, this is a debut offering that interestingly mixes the sublime with the unusual.
Because, while bittersweet, longing and often alienating, El Perro Del Mar essentially creates delicate, minimalist retro-pop by blurring a kaleidoscope of playground string quartets, gentle handclaps and Supremes-style harmonies with the vulnerable vocal of a chronically depressed Nina Persson and the mild kitsch of Petula Clark in her heyday. Yet she does it in such a way that it makes you want to stop sobbing into your milkshake in favour of doing ‘the monkey’; this is a collection of songs made for the cool chicks in tight pencil skirts wiggling their bums at ne’er-do-well boys named Kenickie. Songs with a dignified sound that will also appeal to ladies what lunch. Songs that will be cherished, most strikingly, by anyone who’s ever been in love. And been dumped. And, shortly afterwards, had someone drive past and splash a giant puddle all over their best diamanté.
Upsetting and confusing, yet undeniably refreshing, from the melancholy “be-bop-a-lula” of ‘Party’ and comforting Argyle sweater-wearing stroke of the head that is ‘This Loneliness’, to the pant-flashing mantra ‘It’s All Good’, and resigned yet slinky Brenda Lee cover, ‘Here Comes That Feeling’. In short, each track is a chapter in a frighteningly frank journey into the female psyche, an empowering celebration of grown-up teenage heartache on the outside, pure bubbling neuroses on the innards. Meaning that, by bringing a whole new perspective to being a woman in the Noughties, these seemingly cute ditties, fraught with determination and extreme femininity, just might not be for everyone. Still, if any of the above sounds a bit like you, twirl gum round index finger, fluff out petticoat and have another vodka. Rest assured you’re in good company.
originally published June 16th, 2006
Soft Rock ••••
There’s nothing like laying it all on the line up front, and with such a watery title, Soft Rock doesn’t leave much to the imagination. But getting past the immediate subconscious associations (that are, incidentally, wrong and mostly unfounded), there is something truly sincere about these recordings. That’s not to say that they don’t run the gamut of the good and bad, or that their appeal isn’t wholly subjective, depending on the willingness and mindset of the listener, but there is something about them. First track ‘Fancy Robots’ is a prime example, where the cut and crazy synth rumblings could be construed as brilliance, or, alternatively, a little bit bland and lacking the requisite punch to pull the entire song through. Luckily, this here listener feels it to be the former.
As a whole, Soft Rock succeeds as a near masterpiece of patchwork. ‘Killalady’ boasts an offbeat groove, heavenly chimes and delicate harmonies that could make an angel’s cheeks turn beetroot, combined with just enough roughness to keep up levels of intrigue and lyrics that sound familiar to the lives of those you know. All that accompanied by social commentaries that make a mockery of the bloated, predictable industry standard (e.g. “hip-hop guys showing their underpants”) make this an undisputed highlight. Similarly, the airy blues stylings of ‘Blues & Reds’ skulk their way into the depths of your memory as the song burrows itself a nice little nook that it refuses to get out of. Elsewhere, the fantastic ‘Calimba Song’ is reminiscent of a Tom Waits minimalist classic, with an almost childish marimba motif that’s carried forth by the sort of saddened vocals that would suit the back porch of a crumbling South Carolina farmhouse (she’s actually Australian but lives in Berlin).
At the opposite end of the spectrum lie the repetitive, keyboard-based ‘Autumn Leaves’ and ‘President’, both of which scrape and haul their way to the finish. There’s something distinctly terrifying and disturbing about the execution of the latter in particular. The worn radio sound, the whine of a pacemaker, the basic drum programming, the lyrics – feelings of desolation and hopelessness aren’t exactly helped by Electra’s singing of genital death.
Soft Rock is so chock full of quirk and choreographed madness that it would be extremely interesting to see how the songs might transcribe to live performance. Its crazy bass sounds, scrapings against junk for percussion, stark acoustic riffs and Tori Amos / Fiona Apple-esque backing vocals all add to the appeal; it would be a crying shame to lose the fragments of instrumentation and subtle effects that elevate Electra above her more predictable peers. Put simply, Soft Rock is like one of those close friends you only seem to see once every couple of years, in the summer. The attraction is there, but it’s something that will be nice to lose just to come across again later so the love for it stays ever faithful.
originally published July 23rd, 2006
Brighton is, as far as I’m concerned anyway, only good for taking your relatives to when you can’t be bothered to drive into London or up north, and perhaps to provide an easy apex of convergence for various rallies (cars, cycles, hippies and politicians, for example). Oh, and sanctuary for aging cheesy DJs. So I was really hoping that East Sussex four-piece Electrelane would show me a new town, a revitalised seaside resort brushed clear of its cobwebs, with newly painted shop fascias and nay a broken lightbulb on the rides.
Plugging in my headphones, I was transported in an instant to Electrelane’s creation, with a packed lunch, petty cash and a camera provided. The town is called Axes. People are milling around. Above the gentle lap of the waves, intriguing sounds are abounding. There’s a vague sense that somewhere nearby The Fall are jamming with Tom Waits, Blurt and assorted prog rockers. Yes indeed, Axes feels pleasantly arty, the sun is shining and the temperature is just perfect for a day trip.
Shame then that having spent a few hours treading its highways and byways, I can’t help but feel that the town planners could have done more with Axes to make it more attractive to casual visitors. Although this third album once again proves that Electrelane are skilled musicians and are able to hold an exceptional rhythm, it seems that nowadays that’s just not quite enough to make the masses voluntarily flock to Axes. It’s the kind of town that will rarely find its way into anyone’s much-loved holiday snaps.
This particular day trip feels much like a Sunday stroll along the promenade. Despite the desolate, almost ghostly sleeve hinting at a dark netherworld, the outlook at Axes is actually pretty mellow; mostly instrumentals with the occasional highlight coasting in on a much-appreciated breeze. Without the irrepressible gusto of these, anyone visiting Axes might be tempted to just fall asleep on a bench overlooking the shore, missing the last train home.
originally published September 1st, 2005
Rock It To The Moon [reissue] •••½
The three E’s – Envelopes, (Saint) Etienne and Electrelane. These artists are similar, not just musically, but because it takes an acquired taste to like them enough to listen to their albums the whole way through. Originally released in 2001 and now getting a well deserved reissue, Rock It To The Moon has had plenty of time to grow on me, but it’s quite likely that after only 14 minutes and six seconds, when only two tracks have played, any mainstream indie lover will be fitting on the floor, calling for it to stop, PLEASE stop!
Personally, I love it. I can’t get enough of shrieking strings placed randomly over beat after beat after beat. I love how music like this can burst away from its field of destruction and jump into a techno dance worthy of David Brent. I love the demented circus sample at the end of ‘Long Dance’, and how ‘Gabriel’, the track sequenced directly after, sounds entirely different. So different, that if it weren’t for the loop of fuzzed out voices in the background, you’d be forgiven for thinking it was a different band.
Electrelane were relatively young when this album was recorded, but it doesn’t show. Rightfully, the album should have propelled every member to stand in the clouds with Air and Ladytron, looking down on the bands that aspire to be them. I can only assume this didn’t happen because of the indie (and predominantly male) ‘uprising’ that occurred at the same time; they just weren’t given the time. Of course with every album that relies on this form of music, there is a point when even the most hardcore electro fan has to say, “enough is enough” and turn the volume down. There are days when you just don’t want to listen to what is essentially one album-length song that flips and does cartwheels all over your ears. But there are also days when you just itch for something that can do that, people who don’t aspire to live during the Romantic era or to make your ears bleed, and for those days, Electrelane are your band.
originally published March 6th, 2006
Singles, B-Sides & Live ••••
If ever there were a band more often better in principal than actual fact it’s Electrelane. While the Brightonian electro-quartet couldn’t be cooler if they were actually four very cold snowwomen, there’s always been some- thing essentially a bit boring about them. That’s not to write off any band who would give their debut album as daft a name as Rock It To The Moon; it’s just that said album is about a million times less fun than the title would suggest. Better in all ways except name is odds ‘n’ sods collection Singles, B-Sides & Live, the band’s best album to date (excepting perhaps last year’s Axes).
Relative incoherency is actually the record’s biggest plus, as rather than saddle us with hours of interminable Wurlitzer jams, every few songs heralds a change of direction as abrupt as a slap to the face. Thus the, er, interminable Wurlitzer jams of Electrelane’s cinematic early line-up give way to the ragged B-side ‘I Love You My Farfisa’, which in turn segues into tracks from the mighty I Want To Be The President EP, which is still the best of their early works.
However, it’s halfway through when things get really interesting; an astonishingly rickety cover of Bruce Springsteen’s ‘I’m On Fire’ sounds like it could derail at any moment, and it’s all the more heart-stoppingly beautiful for it. From then on frail, bizarre live tracks and covers (including a haunting version of Roxy Music’s ‘More Than This’) shed the studied hipster stylings and usher in a looser, more emotive band capable of reducing you to tears without boring you to get there.
originally published November 23rd, 2006
Respect M.E. ••••½
Goldmind / Atlantic
Nearly an entire decade has elapsed since Missy ‘Misdemeanor’ Elliott exploded onto the scene with 1997’s phenomenal debut Supa Dupa Fly and single-handedly revolutionised both R&B and hip-hop (and, consequently, radio). Not that you’d know it; with her anthemic style and incendiary guerilla flare, even Elliott’s earliest singles still sound fresh and it’s no mean feat that her albums continue to blow away almost every one of her chart rivals, Stateside at least. Given her ubiquity all over the media, it has probably escaped most people’s notice that Elliott’s fortunes have been rather less glittering here in the UK, with just one of her albums (2001’s Miss E…So Addictive) sneaking into the top 10 on the lowest rung. That’s despite a healthy clutch of singles hitting the upper echelons of the charts, though, rather perversely, the only #1 single to bear her name on these shores was the credibility car crash of 1998’s ‘I Want You Back’, a collaboration with ex-Spice Girl Melanie Brown. It makes perfect sense then that a greatest hits collection such as this be compiled to remind non-residents of North America why Elliott’s career has been one of the most lofty and artistically fruitful in recent memory.
Indeed, Respect M.E. ought to be listed in the urban dictionary as an archetypal greatest hits; it’s that good. Each song is a powerhouse display, uniquely showcasing Elliott’s craft and frenetic wordplay. Of course, some of the credit must go to her various partners in rhyme – most notably longtime collaborator / friend Timbaland, with whom she has no issue of sharing the glory – but Elliott is the true star here and constantly reinvents her sound using dance, R&B, hip-hop and good old-fashioned pop laced with a truly wicked sense of humour. Elliott has been smart to recognise that the club is where her talent shines brightest, her sound and larger-than-life persona big enough to fill any Saturday night sweatbox. And when she wants to get folks moving, boy does she ever. ‘Get Ur Freak On’ and the fabulously sexual trailblazer ‘Work It’ are so fine that they’ll forever hold their own special place in dancefloor mythology, while sonic oddities like ‘Pass That Dutch’ and ‘Gossip Folks’ squeak and gibber like hip-hop songs possessed by a mischievous robot devil.
On ‘She’s A Bitch’, ‘One Minute Man’ and ‘The Rain (Supa Dupa Fly)’, Elliott combines sass and neo-feminism with irresistibly pulsating thumps, while the Basement Jaxx remix of ‘4 My People’ and the techno-tribal ‘Lose Control’ (featuring Ciara and Fatman Scoop) make a convincing case for Elliott as a queen of gay disco, up there with the likes of Madonna and Kylie. Even on sample-heavy tracks like ‘We Run This’, which features a notable chunk of the oft-sampled ‘Apache’ by the Sugar Hill Gang, Elliott has enough pride and grit to make the song still rock and be completely her own. Of course, there’s more to Missy than just her club sound and the slower jams here are far from mediocre. ‘All N My Grill’ featuring Big Boi and Nicole Wray is funky and shows a slightly more vulnerable side that her dance songs do not, while ‘Hit ‘Em Wit Da Hee’ with the always effervescent Lil’ Kim is unapologetic in its fierceness.
If the sheer diversity of her sound occasionally baffles, it’s only that there are very few artists who consistently stay ahead of the game, who constantly innovate and keep their early tenacity going. Respect M.E. displays Elliott’s uncanny ability to do this; what’s more, her genius and considerable staying power already proven, there can be little doubt that this will be the first in a line of essential compilations from this truly gifted and artistic visionary.
originally published October 27th, 2006
The trio that is Enya, fronted and personified by Irish songstress Eithne Ní Bhraonáin, needs no introduction. From 1987’s The Celts, to 2000’s A Day Without Rain, Enya have carved out a unique musical niche that has generated fans from every corner of the globe, and, it seems, an equal number of critics. It certainly appears in vogue to dismiss Eithne and her songwriting partners Roma and Nicky Ryan as New Age fluff, constantly recycled nonsense that’s suited only for muzak and bookshop tannoys. But while some of us chuckle at the hint of truth therein, such a sweeping rebuttal is woefully inaccurate. The rank and file of Enya fanhood may be no place for an indie snob, but the sheer popularity of their music is no accident. Their unique orchestrations unabashedly create pure moods that are perfect for practically any occasion. That they are also about as inoffensive as a slice of white bread doesn’t hurt sales either. But whilst there is nothing remotely challenging about the music of Enya, there is a certain something to savour. Something familiar and comforting like a warm house at Christmas and reassuringly safe like a cup of herbal tea.
Predictably then, Amarantine is unlikely to disappoint Eithne’s legions of fans. In keeping with its title, which refers to a mythical eternal flower, it’s a longer and more satisfying album than A Day Without Rain and is subtly different from her previous releases. Abandoning the trademark Gaelic lyrics for a dabble into Japanese was certainly brave, yet works surprising well. ‘Sumiregusa’ is a striking blend of Japanese lyrics and ethereal vocals evoking visuals of geisha and white cherry blossoms, and may very well be the most innovative thing the trio has done in a decade. So much so that it nearly even manages to trump Amarantine‘s crowning achievement – that of Roma Ryan’s creation of the new language Loxian, a tongue inspired by the works of Tolkien, that appears on three of the album’s dozen tracks. Inevitably, by virtue of its indecipherability, the use of Loxian adds a little more to the fantasy and mystery of just what Eithne is singing about; those of us versed in more mundane languages, however, will just listen to those tracks as we always have with the Gaelic ones, enjoying the sound of the words rather than the actual poetry.
To be fair, a higher expectation would have been folly. The trio have found a working formula and it’s one that they pretty much stick to throughout. At times it can be overwhelmingly obvious – for example, ‘It’s In The Rain’ sounds remarkably like ‘China Roses’ from The Memory Of Trees, the title track is practically a carbon copy of the massive chart hit ‘Only Time’ from A Day Without Rain and ‘The River Sings’ harkens back to 1987’s often-sampled ‘Boudicea’. But despite the formulaic nature of the album, fans of Enya would expect little else, nor, it seems, do they really care to. Amarantine may do nothing to win new fans, but its soothing and comfortable sounds will at worst retain the masses who have come to love Enya for those overlapping vocals and synthesized swells. And since A Day Without Rain was the world’s bestselling album in 2001, perhaps comfort is really the point.
originally published March 19th, 2006
Espers II ••••
In parapsychological terms, the word ‘espers’ means ‘ghost hunters’, or rather ‘extraordinary supernatural phenomena explored and revealed’. It’s an astoundingly fitting description for this six-piece psychedelic folk act from Philadelphia, centred on the trio of vocalists Greg Weeks, Meg Baird and Brooke Sietinsons. The self-explanatory, Led Zeppelin-aping title aside, Espers II is a dark and melancholic mixture of traditional folk and freak electronica, like listening to a 1960s folk tape whilst watching a spaceship land outside your muslin-curtained window – simply outlandish. This is in fact their third full-length release, following last year’s unusual covers record The Weed Tree, and things are getting progressively weirder.
Opener ‘Dead Queen’ is a spooky, graceful affair that mixes high-pitched trembling electro sounds with medieval guitar melodies and airy female vocals. What starts quite simply slowly evolves into a thickly-layered, eight-min epic; strings, electric guitars and synthetic sounds combine to create layer after layer of countermelodies, culminating in a wall of dissonant sound that almost drives you to discomfort. The beauty of Espers is that although they use a modern approach to recording, the technology never seems to compromise the songs’ authenticity; modern and classic elements blend together extraordinarily smoothly.
‘Widow’s Weed’ and ‘Cruel Storm’ offer a more rhythmical approach, though both are equally melancholic and dark. Sometimes reminiscent of a funeral service, sometimes like a lonely summer night’s walk though a sinister forest, the arrangements are simple but clever. Another mini-epic, ‘Children Of Stone’ is an emotional masterpiece that is justly given the time it needs to evolve rather than reaching a premature conclusion. Various interludes – first a flute then a squealing theremin and lastly a swooning cello – truly accentuate the rare, strange and fragile beauty of this uniquely harmonious composition.
‘Mansfield & Cyclops’, ‘Dead King’ and ‘Moon Occults The Sun’ also blend the new with the old in clever ways. Rhythmical and textural layers and the use of dissonant and sometimes unbearably high electronic sounds have a freaky and dark effect on the listener. The closely miked recording of the vocals is just as unsettling and will leave you wondering how something so distant and unearthly can be so near.
Espers may indeed be hunters of ghosts but listen to this latest excursion into the future-past and you’ll find they’re not beyond indulging in a little haunting of their own.
originally published July 2nd, 2006
The Open Door •••
Wind-Up / SonyBMG
In the early autumn of 2003 Evanescence seemed to have the world at their feet. Their debut album, Fallen, was acclaimed across the globe, picking up awards and well on the way to multi-platinum status. Their songs had been heavily featured in that summer’s blockbuster movie? well, ‘Daredevil’ anyway? but how soon the dam did burst. Co-founder Ben Moody walked out mid-way through a European tour citing “musical differences”, a fan backlash was building up in the States as the band distanced themselves from their Christian roots and their 2004 CD/DVD live set had “contractual obligation” written all over it.
In view of all this, it’s a miracle not just that The Open Door exists but that it’s actually quite decent. In comes former Limp Bizkit and Cold guitarist Terry Balsamo and suddenly lead singer Amy Lee is claiming that they’re functioning more as a real band than ever before. That said, the focus of the album remains squarely on Lee and her pre-Raphaelite, Goth chic presence looms large over proceedings. As with Fallen, it’s her vocals that draw the disparate sounds scattered across the thirteen tracks together into one coherent whole. It’s in the cohesiveness stakes that The Open Door really scores points over its predecessor, despite songs ranging from the pop-metal of single ‘Call Me When You’re Sober’ to the ‘My Immortal’-esque piano and strings of album closer ‘Good Enough’ via the cod-operatic stylings of ‘Lachrymosa’ and ‘Cloud Nine’s curious sci-fi backing vox.
Musically, Balsamo’s addition seems to have paid off. His bone-crunching riffs are more convincingly metal (albeit with an inevitable ‘nu’ flavour) and alone form a pretty satisfying core around which the lush strings and keyboards are layered. Lee’s vocals are impressive, benefiting from her almost operatic power and projection when stretching out in the high register. Equally strong at all pitches, she captures an emotional performance rather than simply providing bombast. And that’s a good thing as, lyrically, this is much more interesting than much of the genre. ‘Lithium’ explores the dilemma facing those suffering from depression –medicate but lose the vital spark that defines who you are or struggle to live with your own demons? – whereas ‘Weight Of The World’ asks real questions about identity and self-worth.
So you see, there’s plenty to explore through this particular door. If you loved Fallen then there will be much to appeal to you here. If your tastes extend into the rock, metal or emo genres you will similarly find much to enjoy. And even if Lee and co. leave you cold, you have to concede that it’s a damn fine example of triumph over adversity.
Filed under: album, back issues, live, review | Tags: adam smith, alan pedder, anja garbarek, anja mccloskey, emm gryner, endre buzogany, garbage, giant drag, girls aloud, grouper, helen griffiths, inara george, jennifer greer, loria near, mary gauthier, matthew hall, nanci griffith, nina gordon, patty griffin, pepi ginsberg, robbie de santos, smoosh, stephanie heney, sugababes, the go team, the gossip, the grates, thea gilmore, tiffany daniels, trevor raggatt
The following reviews were all published on our old website between May 2005 and December 2006.
If the surname rings a bell – and let’s face it, it should – then yes, this is the latest musical offering from the daughter of actress/singer Jane Birkin and her one-time paramour, the legendary Serge Gainsbourg. In many ways, 5:55 could be described as her second debut, coming as it does no less than 20 years after her first, Charlotte For Ever (notable for the controversial single ‘Lemon Incest’), which was entirely penned by her father. She was only 13 when it was recorded. In the interim, Gainsbourg has enjoyed a successful and award-winning career in cinema, appearing in over 30 films – in fact, you will soon be able to see her starring alongside Gael Garcia Bernal in Michel Gondry’s hotly anticipated ‘The Science Of Sleep’ – so it’s a wonder she’s come back to the music again aged 35. That she has is thanks to meeting Air’s Nicolas Godin and Jean-Benoît Dunckel at a Radiohead concert, an encounter that led through a fortuitous chain of events to the involvement of producer Nigel Godrich, string arranger David Campbell and lyrical assistance from Jarvis Cocker and Neil Hannon of The Divine Comedy.
Laidback and jazz-like in spirit, the main comparison that springs to mind when listening to 5:55 is Black Box Recorder. Like Sarah Nixey, Gainsbourg’s delivery is arch and sinister at times, most apparent on the claustrophobic in-flight tale of ‘AF607105′. With Cocker’s lyrics sketching a very ‘Lost In Translation’ sense of displacement, Gainsbourg’s performance is suitably detached yet welcoming and gorgeously creepy. Then there’s the title track, which is a bold way for anyone to introduce an album, let alone someone who’s been away from music for so long. Easily the sexiest song on the album, her breathy Gallic tones interpreting more of Cocker’s sensitively written words over soft drums and rippling piano. Having said that, ‘Tel Que Tu Es’ isn’t far behind in the sexy stakes, helped as it is by Gainsbourg singing mainly in French. Later on, however, ‘Little Monsters’ proves that this was no mere trick of language.
All this sultriness can get a bit wearing over the course of the album’s 40-odd minutes so it’s a relief when Gainsbourg lets her sang-froid cool slip a little on ‘Everything I Cannot See’, but even amongst the Tori Amos hyper-ballad piano stylings lies a heart that’s mostly still. 5:55 is a beautifully arranged album – see how the violins gently usher along the tender vocals of ‘Beauty Mark’ – and it’s wonderfully constructed, too. It’s just that sometimes it appears to be devoid of any real emotion or feeling, and that’s a crying shame.
originally published September 20th, 2006
Bleed Like Me •••½
When it comes to the fortunes of Garbage, this reviewer appears to be in something of a minority. While their decade-long career has witnessed an inexorable fall from favour of their moody para-gothic industrial machinations that, to these ears, was never wholly convincing, for me they have matured like a reasonable cheese. So while they’ve always been on the outer shores of my tastes, this latest release has them fighting the tide and moving further inland.
Making albums has never been easy for Shirley Manson and co. – this is only their fourth in a decade and arrives a full four years after 2001’s unworthy BeautifulGarbage. During that time, Manson’s marriage collapsed and the band themselves were close to implosion. Drummer Butch Vig went so far as to quit the sessions entirely, and was temporarily replaced by old Nirvana buddy, Foo Fighters’ Dave Grohl, before Vig returned just a few months later, seemingly re-energised. Although opener ‘Bad Boyfriend’ retains Grohl’s punishing drums, Bleed Like Me is very much a Garbage record, albeit an older, more attractive proposition. The sequencing is appealingly well balanced and the genres it careens through are less ill-advised than those of BeautifulGarbage. There’s a hint of playful New Wave revivalism (‘Run Baby Run’), metal-tinged power chords (‘Why Do You Love Me’), synth-pop mechanics (‘Metal Heart’) and, most refreshingly, the sinister acoustics and pained whispered vocals of the standout title track. It’s a guise worn well and should be further explored if the rumours are wrong and this isn’t their swansong.
Recovering from the commercial near-suicide of BeautifulGarbage may have seemed insurmountable even to the casual observer, and Bleed Like Me can certainly be criticised for knowing its audience a little too well (or at least assuming it does). But, the terrible Janet Jackson boobgate-inspired ‘Sex Is Not The Enemy’ aside, that’s not entirely misjudged. The album provides a decent quality:guff ratio with its danceable, festival-friendly riffs and, if it is to be their last as a unit, a fitting farewell.
originally published November 7th, 2005
Briefly Shaking ••••
Angel-A OST •••
A decade on from her startling English language debut, Balloon Mood, delightfully quirky Norwegian chanteuse Anja Garbarek returns with not one but two new albums, Briefly Shaking and the ‘Angel-A’ soundtrack. To be fair, the latter contains little in the way of new material and what’s there is largely instrumental. But as the soundtrack to maverick director Luc Besson’s (‘The Fifth Element’, ‘Léon The Professional’) mysterious new film, shot in black and white on the streets of Paris in almost total secrecy, it is more than up to the task. Given that this is Besson’s first film without composer Eric Serra, there was a certain element of risk in taking Garbarek on, but Besson is clearly a fan; five old songs are seamlessly scattered among the newer ones.
Of course, the risk was really very tiny. Not only has Garbarek been consistently excellent throughout her career, she also has an outstanding pedigree for this sort of thing, following as she does in the footsteps of her world-famous jazz genius father Jan, who has often dipped a toe into creating musical moods for fiercely independent European cinema. As they have often done in the past, father and daughter collaborate on a number of tracks, notably on new song ‘It’s Just A Game’ with its jazzy but subdued reassurance that “this is as good as it gets”. Don’t you believe it though. The sublime ‘No Trace Of Grey’ is so convincingly sweet versus sinister that it could well have been recorded at a teddy bears’ picnic in, say, the bathroom of cabin one of the Bates Motel.
Sticking with a murderous theme, the actually quite frightening ‘Can I Keep Him?’ (the only song to appear on both albums) is written from the point of view of serial killer Dennis Nilsen, who lured several young men back to his home in Muswell Hill, north London [just round the corner from Wears The Trousers HQ!], and chopped them into pieces. It’s a towering example of Garbarek’s skill as a writer; she plays with the lost pet interpretation of the title and then, as Nilsen kills, the previously serene instrumentation explodes into beats so harsh and aggressive that it sounds like a trio of typewriters at war. Being taken inside the head of a mass murderer is rarely an attractive listen, but Garbarek’s portrayal is up there with Sufjan Stevens’s John Wayne Gacy Jr. in its almost sympathetic exploration of its subject.
It’s little wonder, then, that Garbarek has since remarked that she should have called the album ‘Beauty & The Beast’ instead of Briefly Shaking. That title comes from the chorus of the excellent first single ‘The Last Trick’ with its dark lyrical content, candied vocals and unsettlingly perky backing. It was written as Garbarek was struggling with her muse after giving birth to her daughter and could well have been her swansong had it not been for the thunderbolts of inspiration found in tales of horror and crime. ‘Sleep’, for instance, tells the story of a woman who was kidnapped and locked in an underground bunker but works equally well as a metaphor for her burdening creative imprisonment.
The most keenly felt difference between 2001’s Smiling & Waving and Briefly Shaking lies in the addition of drums, particularly on songs like ‘Dizzy With Wonder’, a thunderously intense and dramatic number in which Garbarek plays the role of an observer surveying some twisted, post-industrial landscape, and ‘Shock Activities’, with its slightly overblown kickass rock bits and unexpected mid-song shift into a cod-Gwen Stefani breakdown but with far greater charm. Other highlights include ‘My Fellow Riders’, with its piping keys and gently throbbing electro pulses, and ‘This Momentous Day’, an ecstatically unpredictable monster that juxtaposes flute and strings with grinding guitars and coolly passionate vocals.
Having said all that, while Briefly Shaking is easily Garbarek’s darkest album to date, it’s also her most accessible and lavish. Motherhood certainly hasn’t reined in either her knack for telling unusual stories or her beguling way with a drop-dead gorgeous melody. Considering that she doesn’t play a single instrument yet still can pen such epic compositions, her achievements are simply astounding. She may not be the most prolific of artists, but with every release improving on the last, seemingly unbetterable album, it’s only a matter of time before her brilliance is properly acknowledged. File between Laurie Anderson and Björk and play with an alarming regularity.
originally published May 7th, 2006
Mercy Now •••
Within just a few seconds of a soft guitar solo delicately feeding into a slow, slurred drawl, you already know you’re in the safest of hands. Such is the comforting hallmark of prime Louisiana export Mary Gauthier, whose saturnine world has been documented thus far over three sometimes stellar albums, and right from the starting blocks the gentle ear candy of her fourth, Mercy Now, signals no drop on the quality-o-meter. Revelling in its masterful weaving of guitar, percussion, cello, Hammond organ, banjo and an electric guitar with a tear-inducing twang, Gauthier once again delivers the goods with ten solid songs, including two covers (Harlan Howard’s ‘Just Say She’s A Rhymer’ and Fred Eaglesmith’s ‘Your Sister Cried’) and a re-recording of her own ‘I Drink’, offering folk and country in equal measures. As each track uncovers a little bit more of the mystery and history of Gauthier, the end product as a whole whips away the smokescreen to reveal what our genial hostess has been keeping herself busy with since Filth & Fire became the New York Times’s indie album of 2002.
The songs are both intimate and revealing, and are testimony to the art of personal storytelling which is as intact here as it has been on any of her previous albums. Influenced by the truth-telling of Dylan, John Prine, Patti Smith and Neil Young, and at times reminiscent of label buddy Lucinda Williams, Gauthier is in good company and has no doubt been encouraged to keep the stories coming, narrative after narrative. Hers are told in the barest of settings, stripped back and open. The first track, ‘Falling Out Of Love’ is so close to spoken that the listener receives an intimate, seemingly confidential one-on-one recount of a failed relationship. The pained lyrics, memories, anecdotes and post-relationship ache soon rise clear before Gauthier declares her determination in the refrain of “Let me out, set me free.” On the following track from which the album takes its name, the internal has become external and her concerns for both family and country are voiced.
Mercy Now delivers a plentiful dish of family issues, woe, personal trauma, disillusion, longing and addiction; the essential heartache ingredients of any Mary Gauthier record. Yet it is because of this rich bloodied vein of emotional injury, rather than in spite of it, that real beauty exists in her work. ‘Empty Spaces’, a gripping tale of passion gone awry, is the perfect example, rounded out with wonderful harmonies. By consistently pulling down the barriers to let her blood and guts shine through, Gauthier touches on the essence of what it is to live. Rawness, intimacy, reflection and survival are abundant in her songwriting and Mercy Now is a touching creation and a journey worth taking, though be prepared for a somewhat bumpy ride.
originally published August 7th, 2005
All Rise ••••
When you’re the daughter of a preternaturally-gifted musician, in this case, celebrated Little Feat guitarist Lowell George, there’s a certain sense of destiny at work, and Inara George is certainly no stranger to the industry. Whilst at college she fronted a pair of indie bands, Lode and Merrick, both of which boasted a small but devoted following, despite at first having no intention of following in her father’s footsteps, studying instead classical theatre. In the lead up to this, her debut solo album, George was singing back-up for Idlewild, Van Dyke Parks and Jackson Browne, the latter of whom returns the favour here. Then last year she enlisted the production skills of Michael Andrews, composer of the score to cult film ‘Donnie Darko’, and work on the album began.
The result? All Rise is a graceful, elegant album of mostly downbeat love songs that showcases George as a singer, songwriter and lyricist of considerable depth, carving for herself a distinctive niche without depending on reputation once removed. Most of the songs wrap comfortably around well-crafted melodies and inventive song structures, with George’s vocal always the centrepiece. Comparisons with Suzanne Vega and Cat Power’s Chan Marshall are not too far off the mark; George’s wide vocal range keeps her from sounding sedate yet lends the songs a greater depth of feeling. On the opening combo of ‘Mistress’ and ‘Fools Work’, she sings in the manner of a sultry but delicate coffee house chanteuse, while on guitar-pop numbers like ‘Turn On/Turn Off’ and crown jewel ‘What A Number’, she proves she can rock out as well as anyone.
To her credit, George manages to convey strong emotions in her lyrics without burying the listener with overwrought and angst-filled metaphors. In ‘Mistress’, the narrator wistfully asks, “Will you take me as your mistress? / sure and short of breath / could you carry on your business? / do you already know / the way to my door? / ‘cause you made your way inside / a dozen times before.” On the more upbeat ‘Genius’, she tackles the topic of feeling inadequate in a disarmingly simple manner, singing, “Everybody wants to be a genius / you’re not the only one / yith all the things that you might do, which one of them will you get to?”
It’s not flawless, however; there’s a few minor quibbles that detract from five-star greatness. Though George throws in a hauntingly beautiful and sparse cover of Joe Jackson’s ‘Fools In Love’ to mix things up, there are points in the album where the songs seem to fit and flow together too well, to the point where it’s sometimes easy to get lost in the tracklist. A bit more attention to the sequencing may also have solved the uneasy listening that is the album closer, ‘Everybody Knows’. While this might have better served its purpose as an experiment on a B-side or been allowed more time to grow before recording, here it almost feels like a throwaway. Though it shows a different side to George’s songwriting, it rather unbalances the disc. Yet despite these caveats, All Rise is an accomplished, excellent debut album, and one that generously leaves plenty of room for growth whilst undoubtedly holding its own, with or without the pedigree.
originally published November 11th, 2005
In The Maybe World ••••
It’s hard to disagree with Young God Records founder Michael Gira when he claims that Lisa Germano belongs “right up there with the cadre of strong, emotionally raw, challenging and original women singers such as PJ Harvey, Marianne Faithfull, Cat Power and Björk”, though quite why she isn’t, commercially at least, is and isn’t obvious. Like Harvey, Germano makes music that’s more often than not unremittingly intense, sometimes catching you off guard with unexpected shots of humour – a tried, tested and triumphant Björkian trick. Like Faithfull and Chan Marshall, her lulling voice is both narcoleptic and ravaged, deceptively sombre and extraordinarily distinctive. But where the self-professed Emotional Wench truly excels and betters even these mighty pillars of all her peers is in her ability to establish a mood and immerse you so deep inside it that you’re never quite sure whether the gut knots she invokes are down to claustrophobia, fear or rapture.
If this were Germano’s first ever album, hacks would be stabbing each other in the eyes with pencils in a race to coin a brand new genre. But it’s not, it’s her seventh in a 15-year career and no one has quite managed to pin her butterfly down. And really what’s the point? Still, if it’s a label you want, I’m prepared to make the effort and after much consideration have plumped for ‘dreamo’ – sort of like emo through an opiate haze, where snot-nosed woe-is-me’s are banished in favour of sophisticated dreamweavers who far outstrip generic dear diarists with delicately nuanced tales of human nature. Oh, and a little self-deprecation as the reward of actual life experience. That’s always good.
Funnily enough, a few of In The Maybe World‘s dozen songs could easily be shredded into out-and-out rock monsters in the hands of another. Take ‘Red Thread’, for example, whose emo appeal surely lies in its call-and-response telephone exchange of “go to hell”, “fuck you” – you can practically hear the crack as the receiver collides with its cradle. But Germano is too wily a creature to languish in the obvious, twisting the lyric to broaden the moment into a greater realisation that anger is just as valid and healthy an emotion as love, and that one can often drive the other.
Elsewhere, her main preoccupation is death. The fortunately unprophetic ‘Too Much Space’ arose from her fear of losing her dad after a serious health scare; ‘Golden Cities’ arrived on the occasion of her much-loved cat’s death from cancer; while the solo piano elegy of ‘Except For The Ghosts’ is a decade-old number written in honour of her friend Jeff Buckley, exploring his headspace in the moment he accepted he was a goner. ‘Wire’ and ‘Into Oblivion’ are equally affecting, packing more emotion into a single line than Conor Oberst at a wake for his own credibility.
Germano’s charm is incontrovertibly eerie and certainly fanciful enough to put the less enlightened off, but this is her finest work since the dementedly brilliant Geek The Girl and ‘maybe’ just won’t cut it. If you’re asking whether to investigate further, the magic word is yes.
originally published July 23rd, 2006
Live at Academy 2, Manchester ••½
February 17th, 2006
It’s fair to say that Los Angeles duo Annie Hardy and Micah Calabrese, collectively known as Giant Drag, have problems. Problems that need to be ironed out if they are to achieve a level of success beyond that afforded to artists of the cult variety and stand on a higher platform. As evidenced on last year’s debut Hearts & Unicorns, both are very talented musicians and it’s hard to argue with their live performaces too; tonight’s support slot for The Cribs sees Annie hit every note perfectly and Micah display his mastery of the art of playing the drums and synthesisers simultaneously. The problems are not in the songs either; these have a wonderful post-grunge feel and tracks like ‘yflmd (You Fuck Like My Dad)’, ‘Drugs’ and ‘My Dick Sux’ reflect the duo’s innate sense of quirkiness.
The problems arise when the audience is blissfully unaware of Annie’s unusual banter, and it can come as a damning blow in the live context. She’s overly perverse and either an obsessive liar or a very bad comedienne, depending on your view. Joking about child paedophilia and incest is hardly the way to the nation’s heart, although a few in the crowd do warm to her, if only out of sympathy. Perhaps trying to capitalise on that, Annie points out the audiences at their two previous shows “didn’t like Giant Drag”, but it’s more than obvious why. Whilst Karen O of the Yeah Yeah Yeahs would simply dismiss the jeers of a faux-macho yell of “show us yerr tits!” or “fuck me!” with a sneering “suck your own dick” when she first came to the country, Annie clearly hasn’t taken any tips from the shrieking New Yorker. Either she tries to join in on the joke and adapt her stories to include members of the audience, or, like most bands, she pretends not to hear the calls. Considering how irritating hecklers are, you could never criticise a band member for doing this, but given their abrupt nature Giant Drag are going to have to get used to such crude shout outs, and, in my opinion, the best way to deal with them is to bluntly put the caller back in their place.
Even so, the duo offer an interesting live show, and to give their music justice it’s worth seeing a gig. At the very least, it will certainly help you to form your own opinion, because like Marmite, you either love, hate, or are allergic to Giant Drag.
originally published March 6th, 2006
Harpo’s Ghost ••••½
It’s a handsome little irony that staunchly British indie singer-songwriter Thea Gilmore has produced what could be a career-defining album that has Americana running through it to the core. Sonically, Harpo’s Ghost is simultaneously a progression and a departure from her previous releases, melding her unmistakable vocals and ear for a melody with sounds that recall classic American recordings from the West Coast to Greenwich Village via Texas and the Mississippi Delta. The relative commercial success of 2003’s Avalanche afforded Gilmore the opportunity to experience the United States firsthand as a touring partner for Joan Baez, and it’s her experiences of this trip and subsequent bout with depression that dominate the album – even the title is somehow redolent of excess, decadence and decay.
‘The Gambler’ kicks things off accordingly with what initially seems like a plodding, weighty mid-paced ballad reminiscent of those that dominated Aimee Mann’s last album but soon raises the stakes with crashing guitars and Hammond organ riffage set firmly to ‘rouse’ while Gilmore dares everyone to spin the wheel of fortune. Light and shade have rarely been contrasted so magnificently and from hereon in the bar is set at neck- cricking height. Fortunately, songs that fall short are few and far between. On her voyages, Gilmore has clearly enjoyed meeting the multitudinous stuffed shirts that infect the higher echelons of the media industry, and ‘Everybody’s Numb’ bites back in excellent fashion. In a diatribe against the sacrifice of creativity in favour of bottom-feeding mediocrity, Gilmore positively drips with sarcasm as she spits through gritted teeth, “pleased to meet you boys / you know it’s been a while / since I had to fake delight / just to raise a smile”, buoyed aloft by a funky drumbeat. Perfect!
Harpo’s Ghost alternates between philosophical musings and the intimate story songs so beloved of Nebraska-era Springsteen, burrowing even further than she has before into the realms of the dysfunctional psyche. ‘Red, White & Black’ tackles those who refuse to acknowledge life’s inescapable ambiguity, colour and shade – specifically those in “the United States of Emptiness” who are blinkered to their own political environment and its effects on the world at large – while ‘The List’ follows the misadventures of a couple on a downward slide, looking for redemption in all the wrong places. Elsewhere, on platform eight, ‘Whistle & Steam’ shows that when the Gospel train’s-a-comin’ there may just be some who are reluctant to get on board.
Gilmore also excels when mining a rockier seam, tossing liberal doses of fuzz bass and a garage band vibe into the mix alongside more subtle arrangements. ‘Call Me Your Darling’ sees her channelling the spirit of late-‘60s Dylan through the modern filter of the Counting Crows, while ‘We Built A Monster’ (one of two tracks co-written with Mike Scott of The Waterboys) blends West Coast psychedelic guitars with lo-fi attitude in a stinging riposte to our ‘special relationship’ with capitalism and consumerist philosophy. First single ‘Cheap Tricks’ is an obvious choice for a new assault on the charts, being an intelligent, hook-laden, passionate stomper that’s anything but bargain basement.
An unexpected pleasure, ‘Contessa’ successfully combines Mississippi jug band blues with the sort of expansive Eno-esque soundscapes that made U2’s The Joshua Tree so cinematic and captivating, but it’s up to album closer ‘Slow Journey II’ to leave us weeping in the aisles. Slow and doleful, its despairing lyrics of a weary traveller trudging on to an inevitable oblivion are perfectly accompanied by distorted harmony vocals and evocative cello. Except it’s not really the end. Hidden track ‘Play Until The Bottle’s Gone’ blasts away the clouds with a cheery little country- tinged ditty on the cathartic effects of music. Maybe things aren’t all that bad when you’ve got inspiration from a Neil Young record and can “just pick up your plywood and learn to sing the blues”. Gilmore’s very own ‘Always Look On The Bright Side Of Life?’. Maybe not quite, but it’s an appropriately British attitude to close a great, great album.
originally published August 22nd, 2006
Orange Juice: Stephanie/Stephanie ••••
Philadelphia has long been an underrated hub of creativity where bohemians can feel completely at home, thriving in a town where the rent is so cheap that you can pay all your bills by working part-time. Pepi Ginsberg – yes, that is her real name – appears to be one of those artistic souls doing just that. Her destiny – to become extraordinary to be exact – was laid out early when she was named after her German grandmother who started a school in Palestine and married one of the organisers behind the Jewish refugee ship Exodus, best known through the seven-hour marathon movie of the same title starring Paul Newman. Fittingly, Ginsberg is one of those rare people who seem wise beyond their years, but in an entirely touching way. With a voice that’s filled with an ancient pain, so blue and lazy that it’s sometimes on the verge of being out of tune, she really is a poet in disguise, painting tender, sadly beautiful pictures with words worth framing, all enhanced by her unusual speak-sing style.
However ambiguous the title, much of Orange Juice: Stephanie/Stephanie burns with spontaneity and truth. A number of songs take a fairly straightforward approach to folk music; the opener ‘China Sea’, for example, takes a delicately played guitar and adds prosaic lyrics to give a stripped down performance that’s emotionally sound and ushers Ginsberg in, closer to her audience. Similarly, ‘Maroon Coats’ and ‘Cool Green Castle’ take the same folk influences and skilfully evoke a feeling of melancholy and nostalgia that’s entirely believable.
On songs where Ginsberg recruits a band, such as ‘Needlenumb’ and ‘Kettle Song’, the structured and fairly ordinary arrangements may make for a fuller sound but occasionally trip up her free-spirited voice, making it seem a little bit clumsy. The starkly emotional ‘Orange Juice: Stephanie/Stephanie Part 1’ and ‘Part 2′ provide a much better framework for her unrestricted singing. That’s not to say that Ginsberg is shy of experimentation. The self-explanatorily titled ‘Zelda’s Song (As Sung By A Young Spanish Woman)’ finds her singing in a Spanish accent all the way through, while ‘You, Your Brother & Me’ has a theatrical tinge that’s reminiscent of Tom Waits.
Most of the time, Ginsberg’s songs feel comfortable but not predictable; her voice pushes over lazy guitar rhythms with the appealing nous of a well-adventured soul. At one point she sings, “if your song wants to be a colour, drink it,” and judging by this debut, that’s exactly what she’s been doing. And there’s plenty of colour to spare; these dozen songs are but a very slim margin of what is floating around this songwriter’s head – apparently she chose them out of 185 songs written in just over a year.
originally published October 5th, 2006
The Sound Of Girls Aloud ••••
Overloaded: The Singles Collection ••••½
When some of the top selling (and best) pop singles of the year are built around tribal beats, heavy bass and dirty, muscular synths (yes ok, produced by Timbaland), it’s easy to forget how startling it was to hear a chart-topper as bold as ‘Freak Like Me’ back in 2002. The audacity of a pop act, more importantly a girl group, taking a previously underground bootleg, drafting in its own cutting-edge creator (Richard X, where have you gone?) and then kicking it into touch with their own crude hybrid of R&B and electro, made the rest of the top ten look as dull and predictable as a coachload of Pop Idol contestants on the drive down to London. Borne out of the brief but influential trend for electroclash, ‘Freak Like Me’ was the start of a renaissance, not only for the Sugababes but also for UK pop. It’s unlikely ‘Sound Of The Underground’ would have ever found its way into the hands of Girls Aloud had the Sugababes not set the template. It’s the reason, on their second single, ‘No Good Advice’, they chew up ‘My Sharona’ and spit out the pieces. In fact it’s fair to say that these three records not only sounded the death knell of the boy band, but put the final nail in the coffin and then revved up the hearse.
Listening to Girls Aloud can cause you to wonder at what point does it all go right? Five reality show contestants, a faceless production team, the obligatory tacky videos/costumes/dance routines and the added bonus of having Louis Walsh as your known ‘mentor’. Yet there are few pop acts now capable of producing anything even half as exciting or distinctive as most of the songs here. Whilst it would be easy to attribute their success to Brian Higgins’ Xenomania production team, it’s the execution of that material that makes the band so enjoyable. The girls may have their tongues in their cheeks half the time but they throw themselves headfirst into their performances; ‘Biology’ being one of the best pop vocals of the last few years. By comparison, a band like The Pussycat Dolls are usually too busy posturing to even notice what backing track is playing. In fact, it’s difficult to imagine any of the competition attempting half of these songs for fear of sounding ridiculous, which probably explains the Girls’ appeal – a willingness to experiment and a refreshing lack of vanity. It’s why their best songs, ‘Love Machine’, ‘Biology’, ‘Wake Me Up’, ‘Something Kinda Ooooh’, are so different from one another but so distinctively Girls Aloud. Despite Cheryl Tweedy’s insistence that numerous other bands have aped their ‘sound’ (Charlotte Church, All Saints…The Beatles, probably), The Sound Of Girls Aloud is exactly that, like no other pop act. Only four years in the making, it manages to compile 13 top 10 hits, about two-thirds of which are brilliant, exhilarating pop. It’s a shame, then, that we’re getting this relatively rushed compilation so soon. Okay, so the shelf-life of a manufactured girlband is routinely less than a pint of semi-skimmed but with a new album scheduled for 2007, a retrospective now seems somewhat redundant. Another year and a couple more killer singles could have perhaps bumped off the more tedious inclusions – specifically, a cover of The Pointer Sisters’ ‘Jump’ and an earnest, but misjudged attempt at The Pretenders classic, ‘I’ll Stand By You’. Funnily enough, it’s when they play it safe that they fall down.
The Sugababes, on the other hand, have gotten quite good at playing it safe, or rather playing to their strengths. At this point, they seem quite happy to embrace their diva status, as the two new songs on the collection show. This is no bad thing; ‘Easy’ is bold, sassy pop and ‘Good To Be Gone’ is a glam-rock stomp through ‘Independent Women’ territory. On the whole, the ‘babes have taken a more conventional route through the pop/R&B landscape than the pick ‘n’ mix approach of Girls Aloud but their saving grace has always been their believability – starting out as miserable teenagers; Siobhan Donaghy’s departure; the initial awkwardness of sandwiching smiley Heidi Range between the more knowing Keisha Buchanan and Mutya Buena; even the fact that they share the writing credits, often taking it in turns to write verses. Listening to ‘Ugly’, you find yourself genuinely warming to Keisha. Listening to ‘Stronger’ you realise why Heidi chooses it as her favourite performance. Girls Aloud will never produce something as resonant because they don’t have a back story. Whilst the Sugababes may sometimes come across a little po-faced – ‘Shape’, the duet with Sting, being a particular example – they are at least convincing. Diane Warren’s ‘Too Lost In You’, a song that could have sounded needy and overblown, is tackled with maturity and confidence. In fact, when Heidi’s vocals collide with the strings during the middle eight, it’s one of the most arresting moments on the album.
Perhaps the omissions of the sublime ‘Soul Sound’ and ‘New Year’ from their debut album, One Touch, are because the vulnerability of those tracks jars slightly with the almost Amazonian proportions they’ve risen to. Perhaps they just didn’t want to dwell on the initial line-up for too long. Incidentally, we should be glad that Siobhan Donaghy’s contribution to the group wasn’t removed altogether; initial plans to have new recruit Amelle Berraba re-record her vocals thankfully scrapped at the last stages. As it happens, Overload – the Sugababes’ first single – is the album’s high point, still as fresh and feisty as it was on release. The omissions, whilst upsetting, do at least represent a wealth of choices. Girls Aloud unfortunately seem to be running on empty a good couple of tracks before the closer, ‘I Think We’re Alone Now’. Yes, covering a song still played at every wedding, school disco and Christmas party is such an uninspired choice that you can only presume it’s a pisstake. The Sugababes round out their set with two of their four No.1 singles – ‘Hole In The Head’ (cheers again Xenomania) and ‘Push The Button’, possibly their most assured moment. It’s a clever move that leaves you wanting more and raises one question: with both bands (dodgy covers aside) at the top of their games, whatever next? The answer, as you may already have heard, is joining forces to cover Aerosmith and Run DMC’s ‘Walk This Way’ for Comic Relief. Oh dear.
The Go! Team / The Grates / Smoosh
Live at Koko ••••
March 1st, 2006
Frankly, it’s been a fantastic year for The Go! Team. Their debut album Thunder, Lightning, Strike has become a major, if slow-burning hit – unbelievably, it was first released back in September 2004 – receiving widespread acclaim and annihilating genre labels left, right and centre… oh, and notching up a nod for the Mercury Music Prize. It should come as no surprise then that the Brighton/London six-piece are in a celebratory mood. This, their biggest UK tour to date, is completely sold-out, including a three-night residency at London’s Koko. Tonight’s line-up is yet another exercise in diversification for the Go! Team; they’ve put together a stellar female-fronted bands bonanza by roping in Seattle’s Smoosh and The Grates from Australia.
In case you hadn’t heard already, Smoosh are sisters Asya and Chloe who are, respectively, 13 and 11 years old. Having already found celebrity fans in Sufjan Stevens, Sleater-Kinney, Cat Power’s Chan Marshall, Death Cab For Cutie (whose drummer has been teaching Chloe) and now seemingly The Go! Team, their premise is a basic one – Chloe plays drums while Asya sings and presses the keys. Surprisingly, the limitations of their instruments by no means inhibits their sound. So while each song may sound different from the last, one thing is consistent throughout – their attitude. There’s something scarily fierce about Asya’s vocal delivery. Even at her tender age, she is showing the angry/uplifting makings of her older mentors in Sleater-Kinney. Equally, Chloe’s rhythms are primal and driving, and the relatively stripped-down arrangement really does showcase their musical abilities.
Their set is comprised of tracks from their excellent debut, She Like Electric, and a whole lot of new songs that amply disprove the doubters who claimed it was a fluke. That said, the uninitiated denizens of the audience clearly don’t know quite how to react to the duo. Obviously aware of their age, they are appropriately supportive and somewhat cautious; are they being exploited by a twisted svengali á la t.A.T.u? Do they write their own songs? Is it fair to take them out of school to tour with older rock bands? Fortunately, Smoosh exercise a much greater degree of control over their career than Richard and Judy’s faux-lesbian enemies, and furthermore are prodigiously talented, with an originality and freshness unrivalled by most other bands so often jaded by the industry and wearing their influences all too plainly on their sleeves. Finishing with the grinding ‘La Pump’, a positively filthy electro-pop tune, Asya and Chloe exit stage right, their curious audience still slightly confused but primarily enthusiastic.
Next come The Grates making a great first impression by bounding cheerfully on to the stage. Singer Patience is a day-glo princess and perhaps a not-too-distant relative of Yeah Yeah Yeahs’s Karen O. Their music is similarly sparse – garage rock guitars, pounding rhythms and ecstatic, if somewhat deranged, vocals. Running from one side of the stage to the other, Patience makes for a manic and energetic figurehead, shaking her hair and pulling faces at the crowd. Though they are undoubtedly effective at warming up the crowd, the similarities with the Yeah Yeah Yeahs are almost too much – the voice and nonsensical yelps are trademark O. But to their credit, even if The Grates do excessively imitate, they at least do it well and with tunes and an energy that other carbon copiers have failed to muster. Happily, their upcoming single, ‘19-20-20′, is an undeniably spiky slice of angular art-pop.
Despite such strong support, the show belongs unarguably to The Go! Team. The balconies of the former theatre are packed with brightly dressed punters, while the band is even more colourful than usual thanks to the special London-only addition of cheerleading backing dancers. It feels like a carnival, and perhaps appropriately, it is the day after Shrove Tuesday and the end of Carnaval in Rio de Janeiro. Their frontwoman Ninja, clad tonight in a yellow cheerleader skirt and a blue vest top, may not even be 5’2″ but she commands the crowd like no other. Indeed, she puts so much energy into the performance that the band’s instrumental tracks are scattered throughout the set to allow her ample recovery time. Each song is properly introduced and Ninja makes each one an opportunity for some kind of crowd participation. Arms are waved, chants are chanted and it all begins to feel a little like a commune – during ‘We Just Won’t Be Defeated’ there’s an irrepressible feeling of oneness.
It would be foolish to argue that The Go! Team’s huge success is purely due to Ninja’s leadership. Their music is like dreamscapes, entirely positive, uplifting and utterly indefinable. In the live context, their show is an exhilarating blast through their album and a handful of new songs. In total, it lasts just over an hour but somehow feels sufficient. The Go! Team see no need in labouring the point, secure in the knowledge that even a short dose of their infectious magic is enough to put smiles on every last attendee as they exit into the slightly grimmer reality of Mornington Crescent. The band themselves may not know what the future holds – Thunder, Lightning, Strike is composed predominantly of samples and getting legal clearance was a long and difficult task – but, for the moment, they seem plenty rewarded by their crowd-pleasing antics and formidable reputation as pioneers of inimitably fantastic pop.
Robbie de Santos
originally published March 18th, 2006
Bleeding Heart Graffiti ••½
Previously famed as one half of the creative force that made up the moderately successful grunge-pop cross-over band Veruca Salt, this second solo album sees Nina Gordon continue to reinvent herself and draw a firm musical line beneath her indie-tastic past. For where Veruca Salt would churn out fast-paced rock with alternative cred and a tuneful, energetic formula, Gordon’s lone singer-songwriter schtick could hardly be more different. It’s as if she’s morphed from early ‘90s Liz Phair into Liz Phair nowadays, or even Sheryl Crow. With heavy production that’s much too big on niceness, gone are the kickass power guitars and in their place comes an almost easy listening, coffee table atmosphere where the only truly sweet stuff to be found is disappointingly coated in sticky mainstream saccharine pop.
Despite coming a full six years after her first solo venture, Tonight & The Rest Of My Life, Bleeding Heart Graffiti carries on almost precisely where that album left off. There’s a sense that she’s more confident in her direction and the tunes are certainly stronger than before, but mostly it’s more of the same. The theme of loves gained and lost permeate throughout with lyrics that are bittersweet and honest, and it’s clear that she’s had to suffer some bad times to get as far as she has. In that respect, Gordon seemingly wants to be taken as a serious pop artist in the vein of Aimee Mann; however, in some places she comes across more like Natalie Imbruglia with chart-friendly songs that could easily soundtrack your weekly shop at Tesco or your Monday morning Starbucks skinny latté with soy milk.
There’s some nice touches though. For instance, the sequencing lets you imagine that there is something of a concept at work here. From the upbeat beginnings where Gordon sings of relationships in bloom to the overwrought emotions of the ending where love’s beyond redemption, the songs gradually get more and more melancholy. Still, songs like ‘Suffragette’ and first single ‘Kiss Me ‘Til It Bleeds’ are winning pop tunes that will lodge in the memory, for a while at least. But then there is heartache, with presumably cathartic, open-wound tales of trying to make sense of it all. Indeed, there is perhaps a little too much of the downside of love and it’s a shame that there isn’t more of the gleeful poppiness of the openers. Indeed, many of the sadder songs were recovered and re-recorded from Gordon’s aborted 2004 release Even The Sunbeams, written during a phase in her life that she has since “snapped out of”.
With a baby on the way and a new-found focus, who knows where her next record will take her. For now though, despite having a clutch of well-written songs to its name, Bleeding Heart Graffiti can only be chalked up as something of a disappointment. Still, given its history, it’s fair to say that Gordon has been paying up on those dues and deserves some solo success. Just don’t look back in anger.
originally published July 23rd, 2006
Standing In The Way Of Control •••
Meeting The Gossip would be quite an experience if their everyday speech is as riddled with clichés as their unfortunate lyrics. Though certainly both beautiful and powerful, it’s hard to appreciate lead singer Beth Ditto’s vocals when she’s wrapping her tongue round bothersome blandness like “fight fire with fire”, “I’m a fool for you” and “as pure as the snow”, all of which should really be reserved for anodyne boybands. Worse still, the band sees fit to commit the heinous crime of rhyming “crying” and “lying”. Who do they think they are, Oasis?
This grumble aside, there are other problems. At first the album seems fairly unremarkable, a little too reminiscent of your average local don’t-give-up-your-day-jobs who manage to sound quite similar to the music you actually like but leave the nail’s head decidedly un-whacked. The ballad ‘Coal To Diamonds’ may gloriously showcase Ditto’s vocals, which for my money are unrivalled in the genre, but it’s rather monotonous all the same. Situated midway through the album, ‘Eyes Open’ is the first real gem, just as upbeat as you’d expect from The Gossip but with added bluesy soul. ‘Keeping You Alive’ is also a standout, boasting a chorus that would easily fill any self-respecting dancefloor with hand-clapping disco fans.
Okay, so it seems a little unfair to review this album having only listened to it in the comfort of my home. It clearly needs to be accompanied by some alcohol-fuelled shape throwing, somewhere with an audience that doesn’t give a shit how trite the lyrics might be. By all accounts, The Gossip’s live show is an experience not to be missed and it’s easy to see how these songs might come alive. Concurrently, they are immediate and rousing, despite one or two unforgivable blips, and at least half are destined to be favourites of your average dance-punk DJ. Perhaps most exciting when viewed as a pre-show taster, it’s worth a listen, but standing in the way of control? Hardly.
originally published July 14th, 2006
Gravity Won’t Get You High ••
This debut album from Australian upstarts The Grates should be subtitled ‘…And Neither Will We’, such is the disappointment with which you may be faced had you caught the foursome while touring with The Go! Team and The Zutons earlier this year. Where their live show is a riotously enthusiastic neon bonanza, their energetic zaniness translates with severely mixed results on record.
There’s a noticeable attempt to sound like a blues-rock band in that same bass-free way as Sleater-Kinney or Yeah Yeah Yeahs, though the sound is tinny and irritating rather than raw and intense. The songs mostly bounce along in a summery fashion and there’s no denying that it’s pleasant at times, particularly with the addition of some third-wave ska-inspired horns in ‘Lies Are Much More Fun’. It’s when they try to sound angst-ridden and angry that things go awry. ‘Feels Like Pain’ is a grunge-lite ditty with its token quiet, sullen verse and screamalong loud chorus, but comes across more like rubbish German rockers The Guano Apes than the more enjoyable likes of Hole. Despite being a fairly respectable slice of raw indie rock, even their breakthrough single, the chaotic ‘Trampoline’, is horribly let down by embarrassing lyrics.
The trouble is that none of it sounds remotely convincing; the album feels like a smash and grab pic ‘n’ mix of various bands The Grates are rather too fond of. Patience Hodgson’s accent changes from Canadian to British to American and back to Australian, a sure sign of someone trying too hard to emulate their idols. Here’s Karen O and there’s Alanis, over yonder’s Corin Tucker and lurking somewhere else is a yodelling Marlene Dietrich. OK, so none of it is really that terrible, it’s just that the reasons to own this album are excruciatingly scant when there are better versions of every song out there already.
Robbie de Santos
originally published July 25th, 2006
The Apiary •••½
Little Athena Productions
It would be quite the simplest thing to write a shallow review of Ms Greer’s album…earnest girl at a piano singing deep and meaningful, jazz-tinged songs with relationship, psychological and political overtones = Tori Amos. Review ends. Go make a nice cup of tea. However, to be such a lazy so-and-so would be a gross injustice indeed. Greer’s second album, The Apiary, does bear comparison with other piano-based musicians like Amos, Sarah McLachlan or even Norah Jones, but at their root the songs seem to be drawn from a greater songwriting well that encompasses the likes of Carole King and James Taylor. Her semi-stream of consciousness lyrics plumb the heights and depths of the human condition, acting as an internalised narrative on passing events, fused with invention very much of her own design.
The arrangements are based around a solid jazz trio format of Greer’s piano, Damian Watson’s bass and the drums of Brian Peltier. Other instruments are brought in only to serve and enhance the mood, carefully deployed where they can have the greatest effect. The jazz element is perhaps least pronounced on the opener Invited, which provides a brief, pastoral prelude to the dramas to come. ‘Honey Bee’ lopes along with Mark Knopfler-styled guitar licks and piano runs in a manner that suggests the inevitable progress of life through the mundane, always hoping for the chance of some brief connection to the sublime. ‘Walking Home To You’ continues in a wistful mood, lulling the listener before ‘Darkling’ disrupts the mood, dissected by obscene and menacing distorted guitars. The song’s brooding presence looms through the speakers; an avatar for life’s dysfunctional underbelly denied by the more polite of societies.
Thus, it becomes clear that while Greer’s playing is clearly influenced by jazz, she is not restricted to it and uses the influence to inform the more rock and pop sensibilities of her virtuoso skills. On songs like ‘Stupid People Lost In Eden’, Greer forges a subtly twisted rendering of the jazz sounds familiar from childhood Charlie Brown cartoons but infused with enough incipient terrors to show that real life isn’t the idyll of an over- idealised youth. Indeed, The Apiary‘s second half is equally strong as the first; ‘Satellite’ boasts a driving lefthand riff that’s part boogie woogie, part James Bond theme, but wholly intense and ominous. Propelling the track forward, it perfectly assembles a desperate cat’s cradle of sound around the lyrics of death, decay and inevitability. Other highlights include ‘Downtown Song’ where Greer’s dissonant la la’s contrast with the jaunty melody to underline that “hope is a thing with feathers” and perhaps just as elusive as a bird, tying in nicely with the earlier ‘Origami Birds’ where the sparse piano and cello create a dreamlike backing to musings on fragility and loss, complete with the sound of cowbells tinkling in a distant Vermont field.
For a self-produced artist resolutely ploughing an independent furrow, The Apiary is nothing if not remarkably assured. Greer is clearly a long way down the road of defining her own voice, and if circumstance should bring her to a broader, international audience, she might one day be cited as a popular critical benchmark herself.
originally published March 11th, 2006
Impossible Dream ••••½
Defeatism is not a word you will find in the vocabulary of 41-year old Patty Griffin, but that’s not to suggest some kind of deluded Pollyanna figure who could shrug off the apocalypse with a blink and an “oops” – she’s tough in the way that a tree is tough. Since her debut, 1996’s Living With Ghosts, that much has been clear. Already a formidable guitarist, this fourth studio album spices things up a bit with brass, piano and organ featuring on several tracks. Interestingly, three of them have been resurrected from her indefensibly shelved third album, Silver Bell, a victim of silly record company bureaucracy. While the album that eventually surfaced in its place, 2002’s 1000 Kisses, remains one of the most exemplary singer-songwriter albums of all time, incredibly, Impossible Dream is better. At once more personal and universal than its predecessor, it’s an intense deconstruction of the struggle of everyday lives. Consequently, some will dismiss it as depressing, but to do so is to bypass completely every subtlety and nuance of hope that infuses the sadness. Originally released in the US a year ago, the album finally makes it to the UK in support of Griffin’s first UK tour dates in years.
The jaunty staccato blues shuffle of the opening track, ‘Love Throw A Line’, is something of a red herring. Stacked with an almost tangible urgency, it’s heavy on the spirituality but light on the palate. ‘Kite Song’, too, is an easily digestible yet plaintive paean to optimism, made all the sweeter by backing vocals courtsey of Emmylou Harris and Julie Miller. Elsewhere, ‘Standing’ takes its cue from gospel artists such as Mavis Staples, but tempers it accordingly to avoid, in her own words, making “bad white blues”. The result is four minutes of being rooted to the spot in reverence.
The emotional core of the album is most evident on ‘Top Of The World’, a Griffin original made famous by the Dixie Chicks on Home, and the heart-stopping seven-minute epic, ‘Mother Of God’, both of which feature exquisite violin from the ever-wonderful Lisa Germano. ‘Top Of The World’ is tailgated by a touching reprise of Impossible Dream from the musical, ‘Man Of LaMancha’, as sung by Patty’s parents. It’s a fitting sentiment for Griffin, whose songs have often voiced the viewpoints of the older generation, that her parents take these reins and allow her own laments to bubble over. Best of all, there’s a moment approximately halfway through ‘Mother Of God’ where her tender, reedy voice cracks beneath the weight of her emotion. It’s these hiccups, these inimitable idiosyncrasies that render Patty Griffin so few of peers.
Holding an alarm clock in one hand while the other demurely hitches up her crinoline as a kite soars in the background, the Patty Griffin on the sleeve appears defiantly hopeful, as if waiting for something real to whisk her away.
originally published May 22nd, 2005
Live at the Lyric Hammersmith
May 31st, 2005
As any singer worth their salt should know, a whisper can be every bit as effective as a scream. In Patty Griffin, a woman who embodies the former but has the fire of the latter, the full range of capability is ours for the absorbing. Disarmingly shy at first, she seems almost embarrassed to have bothered us from whatever our Tuesdays typically bring, but the ice is soon broken after the first song, a stirring take on Bessie Smith’s ‘Backwater Blues’, when she realises that her guitar was unplugged for the entire rendition. To the credit of the Lyric theatre’s acoustics, however, the difference is barely noticeable.
After a stomping ‘No Bad News’, she offers up an engaging suite of songs from her latest album, Impossible Dream, released just the day before in the UK though it has long since been available in the States. Despite only being accompanied by one of her usual band, guitarist Doug Lancio, we miss none of the breezy shuffle of ‘Love Throw A Line’ nor the lightly melancholic ‘Useless Desires’. Moving to the piano, Griffin treats us to a French lullaby once sung to her by her mother. Entitled ‘J’irai La Voir Un Jour (I Will See It One Day)’, her emotive voice conveys every drop of the pensive hope that the title suggests. Staying at the keys, ‘Kite Song’, another cut from the ‘new’ album, charms effortlessly with its poignant imagery of dreaming and holding out for fulfilment.
New song ‘Free’ sounds promising but the real highlight comes next with ‘Top Of The World’, a beautiful and heartbreaking paean to those once loved and lost. The upbeat but lyrically desolate ‘Long Ride Home’ follows before Griffin really lets her hair down and unleashes a surging version of the frantic ‘Flaming Red’. Unfortunately, a residual cough left over from a recent cold begins to trouble the singer in the closing songs of the main set. In fact, her confidence is visibly shaken by wracked renditions of ‘Icicles’ and ‘Making Pies’, two of her most vivid examples of top-notch storytelling. The audience seems not to mind and shouts in encouragement and sympathy. A standing ovation later and Patty, slightly tearful, gracefully returns for an encore during which she road tests another new song, ‘Up To The Mountain’, inspired by the bravery of Martin Luther King, and old fan favourite ‘Mary’. Then she is gone, though we mill around for a few minutes uncertain of whether there will be a second encore. But Patty has other shows to play in the days to come and we’ve been plenty spoiled already.
originally published June 17th, 2005
Ruby’s Torch ••••
This latest offering from folkabilly heroine and nigh-on icon, Nanci Griffith, is an interesting affair. An album of torch songs isn’t perhaps the obvious addition to her folk and country-tinged catalogue. Griffith’s vocal style could not be further removed from the likes of Dietrich, Lenya, Piaf or Lemper but that’s not necessarily a bad thing in this context. That said, the songs here play less on her trademark Texan drawl than usual and her style is perhaps more naturalistic. One thing hasn’t changed, of course, and that’s Griffith’s strength as a musical storyteller. And who has a better story to tell than the subject of a torch song with their wounded hearts and tales of wistful regret?
Oh, okay, so torch songs are guilty of sometimes lapsing into mawkish self-pity and irksome melodrama, but Griffith’s folk music background and straightforward approach deftly sidesteps those pitfalls. Instead her vocals, devoid of florid overemphasis, infuse the songs with an honesty that speaks of the real heart within rather than a caricature. On her version of Jimmy Webb’s ‘If These Walls Could Speak’ the simplicity of the arrangement – just vocal, piano and a few strings – cannot fail to make the eyes mist over. However, the emotional core of the disc is realised in the exquisite covers of three Tom Waits numbers: ‘Ruby’s Arms’, ‘Grapefruit Moon’ and ‘Please Call Me, Baby’. Griffith’s delicate tones are certainly in contrast with Waits’ whiskey-sodden gravelly snarl but that does little to lessen the intensity or the listener’s emotional engagement with the narrator.
Elsewhere, on ‘Wee Small Hours’ the strings and snare ‘n’ brushes approach evokes memories of the classic crooners. This could be straight from the soundtrack of some post-war American romantic comedy. You can almost see Doris Day gazing out through a frosted windowpane wondering whether Rock Hudson will fall for her charms by the final reel. Final song ‘Drops From The Faucet’ carries on the same vein with its muted trumpet and draws proceedings to a mellow, wistful close.
Ruby’s Torch has much to offer the Griffith acolyte and neophyte alike. Simple, open and honest it represents good old-fashioned record making at its best. Beautifully written songs performed with taste and restraint by musicians at the top of their game and fronted by an accomplished vocalist who steps inside the song and inexorably draws you in with her. Just don’t forget the Kleenex.
Way Their Crept ••••
Free Porcupine Society
The mysterious waters of the international underground continue to combine in fascinating, ever-changing ways. What may loosely be described as the ‘noise’ scene is currently proving a particularly fertile area of creativity, regularly giving rise to surprising sounds from a fluid network of mavericks and collaborators. Of course, ‘noise’ is really a misnomer in itself, although it’s definitely catchier and less prosaic than ‘sound’ or ‘pure sound’. What links the electric devotionals of, say, US outfits The Skaters and Double Leopards to their UK counterparts like Mathew Bower of Sunroof! / Hototogisu or Phil Todd of Ashtray Navigations – and also to outfits like Merzbow or Wolf Eyes to whom the term ‘noise’ can be more traditionally applied – is a desire to use sound of whatever source to create a unique space, aside and apart from everyday experience. Or, more accurately in the case of Merzbow, to chew up our everyday experience and spit back white- hot shrapnel as a comment on our times. Or something.
Liz Harris, aka Grouper, stands apart even from the above-mentioned and their contemporaries. Hailing from Oakland, Cailfornia, she’s from the same geography as Tom and Christina Carter of Charalambides, both physically and spiritually. But even referencing the ghostly intensity of their music doesn’t convey just how strange and compelling Way Their Crept is. With Grouper having released only a couple of EPs available on infinitesimal runs in the past, this is one of those out-of-nowhere gems that delights on first listen and continues to enthrall and deepen with each hearing.
It’s also a testament to minimalism, of a sort. The opening title track simply hangs closely-miked doppelgangers of Harris’s wordless voice in a huge echoing space, leaving the spectres to converse among the rafters. Unexpected sonorities and harmonics overlap and dissolve like colours reflected in a deep pool, seemingly slowing time to a crawl. ‘Second Skin / Zombie Wind’ slips deeper beneath the surface, the vocals entwined with cracked and echoing electronics and a textured, organic hiss. Even better, the incredible ‘Sang Their Way’ illustrates Harris’s compositional technique perfectly. Glowing strands of electronic notes, tape hiss, and heavily treated vocals are strung across one another, merging and ebbing in a soundscape that’s undeniably alien and haunting, yet simultaneously human and beautiful. Even without recognisable words, it’s Liz’s vocals that anchor these shards of ectoplasm in the emotional realm, giving her music a resonance that much experimentalism sadly lacks.
Indeed, it would be interesting to hear the result of a collaboration between Grouper and any of her above-named kindred spirits, and given the absurdly high number of short-lived partnerships that drive the evolution of the noise aesthetic, it shouldn’t be a long wait. Way Their Crept is a rare first achievement, a record that represents not only the arrival of a compelling new voice, but opens new avenues for experimentation and cross-pollination in an already exciting field.
originally published June 5th, 2006
Songs Of Love & Death ••••
For her second album of covers, Canadian self-made woman Emm Gryner once again avoids the pointless celeb karaoke approach of some of her peers, but where 2001’s Girl Versions lovingly emasculated songs by everyone from Thrush Hermit to Blur via Ozzy Osbourne – an eclectic enough selection to rival even Tori Amos’s Strange Little Girls, released the same year but with ten times the marketing budget – Songs Of Love & Death is a nationalistic nod to the Irish. More contemporary than other Irish covers albums (e.g. Sinéad O’Connor’s Sean-Nós Nua, The Corrs’s Home) and with little in the way of traditional Celtic instrumentation, Songs… finds Gryner stripping back each song to its emotional core and working up from there.
Kicking in with chiming guitar and harpsichord arpeggios, ‘Forget Georgia’ sounds for all the world like a long-lost classic Pretenders single, though is actually an obscure cut from Something Happens. It’s not hard to see why the song’s picked up some airplay in the more discerning corners of national radio, but there are finer moments elsewhere. Gryner’s versions of ‘Running Back’, a track from Thin Lizzy’s 1976 album Jailbreak, and The Corrs’s ‘Breathless’ both demonstrate the panache of her deconstruction. Both are sheared to the bone as tender piano ballads wracked with the true desperation of the lyrics. Likewise, Ash’s ‘Shining Light’ benefits from the minimalist treatment; in Gryner’s hands, the disposable punk-pop anthem morphs into a tender hymn to love. Dana Feder’s achingly beautiful cello counterpoints the vocals and piano, with subtle church organ riffing completing the mystical effect. ‘Deckchairs & Cigarettes’ forgoes The Thrills’s Americana stylings in favour of the full Celtic treatment – marching-season pipe and drum backing contrasting deliciously with jangly indie pop.
Perhaps the most obscure and surprising inclusion of the album is ‘Dearg Doom’ from Celtic rock group Horslips’ seminal disc, The Tain. Quite how the casual listener, unaware of the track’s genesis as centrepiece of a concept-album based on pre-Christian Celtic mythology, will assimilate the lyrical content – Irish hero Cu Chulainn taunting the ranks of an army he’s about to slay single-handedly – I couldn’t say, but the electro-pop arrangement with its muted guitar, harpsichord, fuzz bass and distorted vocals is brilliantly compelling nonetheless.
In comparison, Gilbert O’Sullivan’s ‘Nothing Rhymed’ is the straightest cover on the album, but even here there are quirks in the arrangements; pianoforte mixed with the mbira, an East African thumb piano, makes for an effective instrumental duet. Add to that the jaunty, almost Victoria Wood-like delivery, and its the perfect contrast to what comes next. The measured horror of the Virgin Prunes’s ‘Bau-Dachong’ is truly chilling; desperate vocals and grotesque sequenced rhythms build to uncover layer after layer of menace. Never has folk legend Kate McGarrigle’s banjo sounded more disturbing. Unquestionably, this is a true tour de force and the record’s emotional climax. Which is great, except that everything thereafter smacks a little of lost momentum. That’s not to say there’s anything wrong with Gryner’s takes on The Undertones’s ‘Julie Ocean’, Therapy?’s ‘Nowhere’ or the much covered traditional ‘Moorlough Shore’; it’s just that they’ve a tough act to follow. Of the three, however, ‘Nowhere’ is the strongest candidate for radio. Divorced from Therapy?’s muscular style, it becomes a likeable acoustic ditty with a Sheryl Crow-ish vocal.
The renaissance of the covers album as a valid expression of artistry is still quite recent, and there’s no doubt that Gryner owes some small debt to the likes of Annie Lennox, Tori Amos and even Cat Power, but Songs Of Love & Death reasserts the wisdom of the old jazz truism that skilful interpretation of song is an art unto itself. It’s to Gryner’s credit, too, that her artistic input extended to playing almost all of the instruments, including the mbira. Following a successful tour of the Emerald Isle and the recent radio adds, here’s hoping a full UK release for this excellent collection can be organised, and soon!
originally published January 21st, 2006
Filed under: album, back issues, review | Tags: alan pedder, dana immanuel, denise james, endre buzogany, gary munday, gem nethersole, janis joplin, jewel, jo mango, joan as police woman, joan jett, jodi jett, juliette and the licks, leela james, marc soucy, russell barker, toni james, trevor raggatt
The following reviews were all published on our old website between May 2005 and December 2006.
Lovers of the ’60s girl group phenomenon are having a vintage year, what with The Pipettes and The Schla-la-las doing their best to revive the genre in populist fashion, and relative veteran Denise James isn’t prepared to miss out on the action. Her third album, Promises, practically oozes the sweet aroma of a soda fountain and is probably best listened to whilst wearing a mini-skirt, even the boys! Put this on your MP3 player the next time you go trawling through vintage clothing outlets and you’ll be sure to find the perfect outfit. James effortlessly captures the balance between happiness and tragedy that came to define the era, so that when she asks “what happened to the love we knew / don’t tell me we are through”, it’s not just words, it’s backed by a gorgeous rock guitar solo and near-maniacal violin that makes heartbreak seem like an afterthought. Likewise, ‘It’s Never What You Say’ opens with the words “love is gone”, but come the chorus you’ll be smiling ear to ear from the sheer infectious parping of the trumpets.
Even the gloomier songs, such as ‘Promises’ and ‘A Word To Say To You’, still ring with the sound of jolly tambourines that make them more like tears on a pillow than tainted love. Not that these songs are any less sincere or moving because of their joyful nods to the genre; ‘Go Ahead & Change Your Mind’ resonates with emotion with its central message that “time only brings an emptiness to everything”. Indeed, James’s wonderfully stylised approach makes these soul-baring songs seem wounded and resigned despite some of them having vitriolic lyrics that any metal band would be proud of, particularly on the commanding ‘Get Out’.
To her credit, James has effectively created a portal to the past; Promises truly does sound as though it were recorded and produced in the studios of days long gone. It’s authentic yet modern and, most importantly, perfectly addictive. Just as the ‘real’ songs of the ‘60s preferred the beach to the boardroom, James voices the same freewheeling attitude in ‘Let’s Take The Day Off’, a song so lovingly stuffed with life-affirming sentiments that it would have even the most staunch capitalist disposing of their suit and grabbing a surfboard. Alternatively, they might just go home and have a slow, sad waltz on the porch to the strains of ‘There’s A Light On’. Whatever the mood of the song, James has nailed her own form of time travel, one that will erase any modern day worries in blissful three-minute bursts.
That James has painstakingly constructed an album that’s so historically aware and beautifully produced is a real achievement in itself. When coupled with such memorable songs and her inspirational delivery, Promises may well go down in the annals of pop as her finest work. Although it’s oh so commercially viable in the current musical climate, it’s hard to escape the nagging feeling that James will be somewhat overshadowed by her more boisterous peers, but wherever she goes from here it’s bound to sound pretty special.
originally published August 23rd, 2006
A Change Is Gonna Come ••••
I stole this album. I didn’t mean to, it’s not even really the kind of thing that usually does it for me. It looks pretty unassuming – girl on the front, big hair, she looks like a lot of other girls who turn out not to be very good. This one turns out good though. Her old-fashioned brand of soul is well worth the thievery stain on mine, which is not, of course, to condone or encourage that kind of bad behaviour. I’m just saying…
It’s a dangerous thing, calling the first song on your album ‘Music’ and then name-checking Aretha Franklin and Chaka Khan before the chorus even kicks in, and she probably wouldn’t get away with it if she were a bit less good. Lucky for Leela James that her voice is unremittingly extraordinary. Smooth as a James Bond chat-up line and emotional as a wounded animal, gritty and rich in all the right places. Like a really good cup of coffee.
They picked ‘Music’ along with cheery tune ‘Good Time’ as singles, but to me it’s the angrier, darker numbers ‘Ghetto’ (with Wyclef Jean) and ‘Didn’t I’ (with Kanye West) that suit her best and really stand out. She just sings it like she means it, and she has the kind of voice – technically spectacular and coming from somewhere a little bit deeper in her chest than your regular starlet – that can properly pull off lines like “low down dirty”. Not many people can do that in a serious manner, but Leela drips just the right kind of bluesy back porch sincerity. Ain’t nothing like the truth.
As an album, A Change Is Gonna Come probably misses out on real greatness, but only narrowly. A few of the songs are not, I suspect, very good under the fancy production. Don’t get me wrong, they’re still great to listen to because Leela James sings on them, but if you’re a sucker for a big chorus you’ll probably find yourself skipping through quite a few tracks. On the other hand, some of the songs are just great to dance to, and screw the chorus – ‘Rain’, for instance, has a guitar hook hooky enough that you don’t really care that no-one could be bothered writing a vocal melody worthy of it.
The songs are interspersed with little acoustic country blues and gospel interludes that sound like fried chicken and the ghost of Leadbelly, wonderful in themselves and also providing a counterpoint to ‘60s-soaked soul numbers like ‘Prayer’ and the title track, a cover of Sam Cooke’s 1964 hit that is well delivered, if a little uninspired. Thrown into the mix, too, are a few real curiosities like a delightfully unexpected cover of No Doubt’s ‘Don’t Speak’ that pisses all over the original. It’s like she’s squashed about a hundred years’ worth of American music into one album, and so perhaps it’s not surprising that in many ways this is an album full of clichés – there are some very standard lyrics, R&B sprinkles on more than one track, and she does thank Jesus and her parents in that order on the sleeve notes.
A lot of good things are being thrown together on A Change Is Gonna Come, but innovative it is not. However, in the same way that rigid metrical form can in the right hands produce the best poetry, the kinds of traditions that Leela James is tapping into provide a platform that really works to showcase her talents. An ungenerous critic might say that it is an album unsure of what it wants to be, but then again, it’s pleasing that albums are still being made that really do defy petty pigeonholing.
originally published September 27th, 2005
I’m Here, Where Are You? EP ••
Toni James’s story is nothing if not inspirational. It’s a tale of rising above a difficult family life and unwise, abusive relationships to follow her dream of making it as a soul singer. The 28 year old Liverpudlian has certainly paid her dues, not only as a graduate of the school of hard knocks but also in “the business”. A veteran of the cruise ship, lounge bar and jazz standard circuit, she’s now stepping out in her own right with that particular nu-soul style that seems to be making headway in the charts these days. But while her bio may be inspiring, the music is rather less so. There’s nothing fundamentally wrong with it, it just lacks the necessary lustre to make a real impression.
Kicking off with ‘Fate Street’, a gospel-lite number about finding Mr. Right, it’s clear that James has a decent range and a pleasant tone, both of which are tastefully employed. Whilst her pipes are not the richest around, she avoids the nasality and shrillness that’s rife among the genre, and indeed she should be roundly praised for, gasp!, singing a note as if it were a note, not the sound of a bluebird having a seizure. Why such unfocused and poorly controlled vocal riffing is de rigueur these days is a mystery to me and it continues to mar so many urban ‘soul’ records. The song itself does its job efficiently enough with all the right amounts of bluesy piano, B3 Hammond and backing vocals thrown in to the mix.
‘He’s Too Good To Share’ is a competent urban workout that manages to be neither funky enough to mine the acid jazz furrow propped up by Incognito nor urban enough to stand shoulder to shoulder with the likes of Alicia Keys. In particular, the backbeat handclaps seem rather synthetic and mechanical, sapping the usual joy right out. Elsewhere, ‘Please Don’t Wake Me’ provides the flipside to Oleta Adams’s torchy ‘Get Here’, exploring the darker reality of enforced separation – the harsh truth being that sometimes the temporary bliss of sleep is preferable to facing the cruel waking world.
Final number ‘Is It?’ isn’t much to get excited over either. Monotonous in the sense of not being boring but rather lacking in dynamics, James was clearly aiming for a sparser R&B feel but doesn’t quite possess enough groove to carry it off. A bit of a curate’s egg then, and whether the forthcoming album (due out later this year) will offer anything new is the burning question. There’s promise here, but it’s never fully realised. However, in a musical climate where the public has taken the soul-lite sounds of Joss Stone and Corinne Bailey Rae to their hearts, and with the publicity power of Sandi Thom’s people behind her, don’t write this one off just yet.
originally published June 24th, 2006
Joan Jett & The Blackhearts
With the big, clap yo’ hands feel of politico-ripper ‘Riddles’, you’re plunged straight into the true heart of Sinner, the first Joan Jett & The Blackhearts album in over a decade. The chugging, cheesy ‘80s guitars sound like a biker’s wet dream, while the admittedly catchy chorus shows that Jett can still be devilishly aware of what makes a line memorable. This all hints as a return to fun-sounding rock songs, but what makes Jett’s new work so compelling is that each track holds enough of a message to be taken seriously (for the opener this is the awareness and very real worries of political morons, the lack of political awareness in the U.S. and the world and Big Brother watching evermore). With this and the timely use of some great Bush and Rumsfeld speech samples, you’ll get the gist pretty quickly and realise that Sinner really isn’t just another rock clown acting out, but instead tries to voice items on a meaningful agenda.
This brash retro heart is a recurring theme of the album – though Jett would surely take umbrage if you called it ‘retro’ to her face – where big band rock ‘n’ roll is pounded out ‘til fingers are shaking and knuckles are bleeding. By exploring the well travelled slopes of the ‘rock anthem’, Jett succeeds in reminding of how she herself has been such a secretly domineering and influential artist. For example, ‘Everyone Knows’ is a sort of template for latter-day Weezer and anyone else that isn’t afraid of touching on something that is unashamedly good for the soul. Fists are raised to the skies and their owners are wearing ripped, black band t-shirts; the lack of a smirk or wry smile is unnerving. This is serious, folks! Meanwhile, ‘Change The World’ reeks of early Distillers and other feelgood, boppy punk rockers, but clearly Joan came first. However rearward-looking it may be, Sinner really hammers it home that there really are a great number of acts who’ve trodden on the toes of this female figurehead.
Of course, with such a well rehearsed basis for compositions, there are bound to be some potholes, bumps and areas that are unwise to venture into. ‘A 100 Ft Away’ and the truly terrible ‘Watersign’ take the foot off of the proverbial pedal and sink into the bogs that were once the battleground of the stadium pomp- rockers. And good riddance, really; there’s no need for that egotistical guitar crap. On a similarly slippery footing, ‘Bad Time’ steals part of a typical descending guitar riff used by late-era Iggy & The Stooges (have a listen to the stuff on Skull Ring and you’ll notice the likeness). Here, Jett and her band once again walk the perilous plank and stand there wobbling, threatening to teeter over into pointlessness.
Elsewhere, they’re rescued by ‘Fetish’, a notably decent stab at the heart. Getting downright dirty, sleazy, greasy and easy, Jett shrieks and yelp with a pained, unrestrained glee, her gristly vocals tearing right through, projected by her metal larynx; it works because the song simply doesn’t give a fuck. It pumps, slides and grinds all over you, asserting its dominance before you can question this return to an old and somewhat dated sound. It thrusts you down and gets on with business, just as plain and simple rock music should.
Overall, Sinner is much like diving into the deep end, bombing right into a sea of sharks whilst covered in whale meat and wearing a big fat grin. There is no shame or fear here. The mainstream media’s pointed teeth will surely sense this overt carelessness and downright disregard for the songwriting no-nos of yesteryear, but the real problem is that there isn’t enough to get worked up about either way. As soon as you get used to the sound that was supposedly ‘lost’ many moons ago, you’ll find your concentration wandering. Sinner is undoubtedly worthy of a listen, but despite Jett’s obvious influence and her eagerness to be heard on a greater political level, it’s unlikely to make a notable mark amongst the unconverted.
originally published October 14th, 2006
Love Rock Records
First things first, Jodi Jett is no relation to archetypal rocker Joan, though the Kansas-born Manhattanite certainly knows how to make herself heard. Fielding comparisons with Liz Phair and even Tom Waits, her debut album Revelations is packed full of melodies unfurling in a drawl, slung out over songs in a nonchalant manner, where notes are occasionally dropped for spoken word. This is quietly swaggering, slightly staggering rock ‘n’ roll that’s been brawled with and bitten, a carcass of a sound. Here, the ethic of rock is kept for the hell of it, but the flesh is experimented with, pierced by forethought and poisoned emotion and then sometimes dropped altogether so the song goes back to a very basic band setup. With the first two tracks slithering by – sometimes malevolent, always absorbing – the desolation, regret and/or frank admittance in the lyrics (“when I said I loved you did you believe it?”) pushes the feeling of a gathering storm right to the fore.
Perking things up a little, the slightly more driving rhythms of ’80s Girl’ boasts emotional spillage and narrative mutterings crammed into a loose vocal framework, namedropping all sorts of memorabilia, culture and fashion. Eventually morphing into a form of homage for anthems of the time (see ‘Shout’ and ‘Like A Virgin’), the song is perhaps best taken as an ode to the things of the era. After all, the song itself is only really lifted out of it nothingness by borrowing from the subject matter itself – up until the tongue-in-cheek renditions of ’80s ‘classics’, there is no true vocal line. Elsewhere, the songs don’t really do anything new, but what’s there is done in ways that feel pretty good. With a leading drunk slide guitar lick, casual brushed drumming and tales of substitute love, it’ll be hard not to spark one up over Instead, even if you don’t smoke.
This is certainly an intriguing album, and a pretty strange one too. Jett has clearly seen the rulebook, observed it with a wry look, waited for the opportune moment and shredded it to the best of her ability. With a well-kempt type of guitar distortion, live studio drum production that’s basic, crisp and real, Revelations is as honest as you could ask for. It’s like the morning after, waking up in a forgotten hotel with an unnamed partner half-buried in the pillows. It’s the backbone of Jodi Jett, without spectacle or gloss, and an admirable thing to pull off.
originally published October 14th, 2006
Goodbye Alice In Wonderland •••
A success! The exorcism was a success! It seems that Alaskan singer-songwriter Jewel Kilcher is no longer in thrall to the same tormenting demon that resides in the likes of Britney Spears and other pop icons. While some may accept that the cause of these pop princesses’ inexplicably ridiculous and self-destructive antics is simply sheer idiocy, possession is the only explanation for Kilcher’s 2003 album, 0304. Need a reminder? 0304 was a shocking, neon-stained, soulsold-to-Lucifer, dance-pop disaster, trading in her folksy image and battered acoustic for hair extensions, a push-up bra and a choreographed entourage of hyperactive dancers. It was a long long way from the album that made her, 1995’s Pieces Of You, a sweetly naïve but soulfully honest collection that yielded several hits in her native US.
Now it’s 2006 and Jewel is back from through the looking glass with Goodbye Alice In Wonderland, her sixth album. With most of her tendencies for pop exhibitionism shaken off, Jewel has bidden farewell to more than just Alice and the Mad Hatter, but also to whatever she was drinking (or smoking) at that unhinged unbirthday shindig. Delivering a collection of songs either composed or played live over the last ten years, but never recorded, Kilcher gets closer to the Jewel that millions loved. Not quite all the way back to the Pieces Of You days, but following closely in the glossier tracks of 2001’s This Way.
Somewhere along the way, between This Way and the still folksy Spirit, Kilcher struck up a friendship (a love affair even!) with the recording studio and the make-you-break-you mainstream. Take a look at her career to date; of some seventeen singles released, twelve have been altered in some way for radio. Sadly, the passion hasn’t gone out of that relationship yet and the studio is very much a presence, despite initial rumours of a lo-fi approach following an acoustic tour. Fans who are looking for titles heard from these and earlier acoustic renditions won’t find those versions here. There’s a hint of acoustic sparkle, certainly, but make no mistake about it, this is beefed-up, polished product.
The title track is billed as her most personal to date but you’ll struggle to hear genuine feeling over the studio sheen that takes the song from simple acoustic beginning to its grossly overdone conclusion. Catchy lead single ‘Again & Again’ is smooth as silk, with a nicely done vocal riding over a steady drumbeat, and the same goes for the new up-tempo version of 0304‘s ‘Fragile Heart’ – a perfect example of the revision queen reworking a song for radio play. ‘Satellite’ makes a U-turn, straying away from the direction of the rest of the album. Though it retains a primarily country feel, the pervasive radio-friendly production mires the song in its own ghastly slickness. Perhaps it’s the aftershock of 0304; after all, what else can be expected from a woman who was formerly doing the devil’s bidding? That fact and a nod to Jewel’s impressive vocal range make this sour pop ditty almost excusable.
Goodbye Alice In Wonderland might be unnecessarily overburdened with beats and extras, drowning out the simplicity for which her earlier albums were so highly regarded, but at least it’s a sign that Kilcher is well on the way back. It may require a modicum of patience, but there’s a brilliant diamond lying in the rough (if you can consider this well-buffed album rough in the slightest) if you make it to the end. ‘1000 Miles Away’ is an astonishing gift; its minimalism, simple strumming and innocent vocal will pull you back to 1995. That’s right, it’s a piece of Pieces Of You. It’s a godsend; a ray of light. Refreshing and welcoming like she’s finally come home. It might be goodbye Alice, but it’s hello again to Jewel.
originally published June 16th, 2006
Joan As Police Woman
Joan As Police Woman EP •••½
With the release of her debut solo EP, it’s finally time for Joan Wasser to, to quote one of her own song titles, “stagger into the light”, assume centre stage and take the spotlight. For the past few years, she’s been an integral part of Rufus Wainwright’s touring band and also found time to play on Antony & The Johnsons’ I Am A Bird Now. In fact, Wasser has played with just about everyone who needed some quality violin and backing vocals. Meanwhile, she also found time to play in numerous bands of her own throughout the Nineties, before breaking out on her own in 2002, taking her name from the Seventies cop show, ‘Police Woman’, starring Burt Bacharach’s ex-wife Angie Dickinson.
Recent single ‘My Gurl’ starts things off and finds her sensitively singing about the world in stopped motion while the tune echoes the lyrics. Then, after a minute and a half, the song sparks into life; a nice bit of fuzz pedal here and there, a jazzy, populist mid-section there. The jazz element is so convincing that you can almost see the smoke in the air of a crowded club, while her sassy side recalls the much-maligned Sam Brown. Following that, ‘Prime Mover’, locks into a groove and moves with it, the song itself coupling a lo-fi reading with the mystery of Bowie.
It’s no happy accident that ‘Stagger Into The Light’ falls in the middle of the record; it’s by far the best track and a wonderful centrepiece. Of all the many comparisons that Wasser has attracted so far – Dusty Springfield, Nina Simone, even Prince – the most pertinent has to be Chrissie Hynde, and this is nowhere more apparent than on this particular song. The sultriness, the ice cool attitude, being in the ideal position where women want to be her and men want to be with her. All these qualities shine through brightly, and what’s more, Wasser manages to achieve this in a few mere moments – the tempting lead up to the chorus and the inviting, yet insistent lyric “listen to me”. By the time the final refrain comes around, she’s pared it down to a satisfied “euff”, confident that she’s reeled you in. And all the while the song has swayed and stopped, copped an attitude, and rolled back in again.
Just how do you follow that? Well, it’s a difficult ask and Wasser has gamely stepped up to the plate. OK, so the final songs on the EP aren’t as good, but they’re still mighty fine efforts. ‘Game Of Life’ sounds Middle Eastern, sashaying around a bit before resorting to some helpless yelping towards the end, while ‘How Come You’re So Solid Gold?’ is broodily hypnotic; its circular rhythms drawing you deeper and deeper into its black heart. This EP is a wonderful start to Joan’s solo career and promises plenty of interest for her forthcoming full-length, Real Life.
originally published March 7th, 2006
Paperclips & Sand •••½
Glasgow-based chanteuse Jo Mango and her band have been treading the boards of the circuit for three years, each time bringing a winsome and quirky brand of folk to the good burghers of the city and the surrounding regions. In many ways, it’s difficult to fully separate Jo Mango the band from Jo Mango the artist. While the latter pens the songs (and hers is certainly a distinctive and attractive voice), the contributions of her fellow musical travellers bolster her signature sound. Backed by twin brother Jim on bass, Simon Fullarton on guitars and Calum Scott on percussion and guitar, the folk formula seems to have been adhered to. However, adding in Alan Peacock’s engrossing background and harmony vocals, and Katherine Waumsley’s flute and harp to Jo’s own eclectic instrumentation, including concertina and even African thumb piano, and a much broader sonic canvas is immediately evident.
The haunting ‘My Lung’ provides a stark introduction; Mango’s delicate and childlike vocals pick out a hymn to the positive aspects of a dependence that’s closer to symbiosis than parasitism. ‘Tea Lights’ then sets out a more typical template for the album, with folksy guitar and vocals gradually accumulating other musical elements – a bit of glockenspiel here, a violin there – and these provide a gentle reflection and indeed an enhancement of the otherworldly lyrics. Peacock steps forward to share the mic on ‘Gomer’, as he and Mango swap verses like two lovers who are connected and yet lost to one another, culminating in a harmonious finale. The folksy mood continues elsewhere; ‘How I’d Be’ finds Mango’s musings on what might have been lifted up, up and away on well-placed harmonies, while ‘Waltz With Me’ is a wistful dance leavened by lilting flute and accordion.
After ‘Take Me Back’s traditional hard knock life storytelling balladry, which happily strays into Sandy Denny / Vashti Bunyan territory (but with a stronger and more assured vocal delivery than the latter), a more contemporary edge comes to the fore. In fact, ‘Hard Day’ could slot in nicely with Suzanne Vega’s early catalogue – and that’s no faint praise – while ‘Blue Light’ swells from a hesitant, contemplative opening into a dark and brooding psychodrama, blowing moody portents on winds of overdriven electric guitars. Finally, ‘Harlow 1959′ brings the album to a halting conclusion, mirroring the Vega-esque bedsit drama it describes.
Actually, it’s not exactly a conclusion; Mango has graciously tossed us a bonus track in the shape of ‘Portugese Skies’, a charming, idyllic song that neatly bookends with opener ‘My Lung’, wishing a true love a life where all is good and true. Although it first appeared on an early EP, it’s a worthy addition to the album, which is in itself a more than worthy introduction to Mango’s beautiful world. Here and there, the intangible essences of more maverick artists like Björk and Stína Nordenstam spiral just out of reach on the edges of perception as she deftly skirts the suburbs of folk with bucolic, dusky spirit.
originally published March 11th, 2006
Pearl: Legacy Edition •••••
This October marks the 35th anniversary of the day that Janis Joplin unintentionally took her own life in an LA motel room with a lethal heroin overdose. She was just 27 years old and on the cusp of what was shaping up to be the most rewarding time of her life. Since 1990, the Grammy-award winning Sony BMG subsidiary Legacy Recordings have been rewarding the patient with lovingly packaged and often essential “reimaginings” of some of the most beloved albums ever recorded. In Joplin’s case, there is no doubt that Pearl is the jewel in a distressingly small discography, and this long-awaited full Legacy Edition adds no fewer than six bonus tracks to the original album plus an additional live disc of 13 songs recorded during 1970’s Canadian Festival Express Tour. While some of these have previously been available on either the 1999 single-disc reissue of Pearl or the 2001 3CD boxset Janis, many are newly unearthed.
After two mostly bewildering albums recorded with the psychedelic Big Brother & The Holding Company in which the sheer sonic intensity threatened to overwhelm even her powerhouse vocals, Joplin formed the Kozmic Blues Band for a successful but patchy album before disbanding them, taking Brad Campbell and John Till with her and gathering around her a more sympathetic ensemble in Full Tilt Boogie. The results were astoundingly raw, focusing on her gritty and revitalising vocals more than ever before. Everyone has their favourite tracks, and with stone-cold classics like ‘Me & Bobby McGee’, ‘A Woman Left Lonely’, ‘Move Over’ and ‘Cry Baby’ to choose from, it’s no mean feat to elevate a single cut above the others. Even the sadly overexposed ‘Mercedes Benz’ still sounds fresh in its natural context, positively brimming with Joplin’s sense of humour.
Of the two instrumental tracks on the first disc, both are poignant reminders of our loss. The frantic keyboard wig out of ‘Buried Alive In The Blues’ only serves to remind that, had Joplin lived for just one more day, it would have been completed with vocals and all. The other, the gorgeous ‘Pearl’, is available here for the first time and is a touching tribute to Janis from her band, titled in honour of the nickname given to Joplin by those closest to her. Other bonus tracks worth mentioning are the endearingly banter-laden acoustic demo of ‘Me & Bobby McGee’ and a handclap happy version of ‘Move Over’.
The second disc collates recordings from three different live shows from the summer of 1970, including live versions of ‘Piece Of My Heart’, ‘Summertime’, ‘Try (Just A Little Bit Harder)’ and more. Every song is a spirited affair and is further testament to her powerful and ingratiating onstage persona. Contrary certainly, but she used her insecurities to propel a live show like few have done since. In my favourite Janis anecdote, it is said that when warned her voice would not sustain such repeated hammering, Joplin retorted that she’d rather not be an inferior performer for the sole reason that she could be inferior for longer. It’s this dedication to her art for which she should be most praised. No mere blues belter, Janis Joplin was an intelligent and vivid woman with unparalleled grit and commitment. Given the timelessness of Pearl as a document of sheer vitality, it’s maddening to think what she could have accomplished if only she’d had more time.
originally published June 28th, 2005
Juliette & The Licks
You’re Speaking My Language •••
Your mum will tell you that first impressions are important. So when Oscar-nominated Hollywood actress Juliette Lewis deigned to cover two untouchable Polly Harvey classics back in 1995, the prognosis for a long-term rock career was significantly worse than terminal. Ten years later, she’s back with a band and this time she’s not going away. Initial thoughts? Yeah, whatever. Join the back of the queue Ms. Lewis, right behind Driver, Gershon, Crowe and Reeves. Has the work dried up so badly that they all have to scramble for a gig in a dingy Camden pub? Do they too have to send their demo tapes to some longhair in Cornwall with an obscure record company and a few grand going wanting? I mean, how seriously do they think we’ll take them?
Well, in this case, you might want to prepare yourself to purge clean away those Tinseltown prejudices. Juliette Lewis is angry, but most of all she just simply rocks. After a somewhat naff intro and a “This one goes out to the entire world…” (sloganeering is so 1984), things get better. Much better. The title track and first single kicks some hefty ass. Musically, the overall feel of the album is perhaps best described as polite and digestible punk rock. Drums, guitars, bass, all very credible, though for some reason I can’t help humming Pearl Jam songs after the slow-burning ballad ‘Long Road Out Of Here’ closes out the record. Juliette’s vocals have just the right amount of rasp (probably from sucking on Bobby De Niro’s fingers in ‘Cape Fear’) to provide that extra authenticity to her strived-for rebel sound. She even rails against the politicians and frat boy mentality in ‘American Boy Vol 2′. It’s not exactly anarchy, but it seems at least genuine.
Overall then, You’re Speaking My Language is that rare occurrence of someone awaking from a long artistic coma. For those uninclined to be overly judgmental, there’s a surprising amount of pretty decent tunes, although nothing comes close to breaking new ground. Nevertheless, where Juliette & The Licks go next will at least be an interesting footnote in the annals of rock. For now though, be content with Hollywood’s finest musical export in a long long while.
originally published September 2nd, 2005
Juliette & The Licks
Four On The Floor •••
More than a fair few eyebrows were hitched hairline high when Juliette Lewis turned her back on her Hollywood career to have a stab at a true punk rock existence. And despite all the doubters she succeeded, her slow- building but respectable sales not because of her status but because of her commitment to relentless gigging and off-the-wall interviews. This semi-anticipated second album continues her progression along the path of rock ‘n’ roll righteousness with a very decent selection of tunes that ought to appeal to a whole range of listeners, from those think that might wear their leathers to bed to those who think Pink is the saviour of girl-rock.
Thankfully Lewis has ditched the sloganeering and faux- anger that weakened her debut, though in their place comes a new fixation with sex, sleaze and relationships. Then again, why should that surprise anyone when we’re talking about a woman who, as rumour has it, decided to forego much of her personal hygiene routine when on the road in order to have a full rock ‘n’ roll experience. That’s what it’s all about for Ms Lewis, but does Four On The Floor live up to its heritage?
Well, it pretty much spans the A to Z of rock if that’s what you’re after, nowhere more obviously so than on ‘Get Up’, a song that starts off as subdued AC/DC, rolls into the Stones and mercifully comes to a halt just before it reaches ZZ Top. Multi-project rocker Dave Grohl crops up for some drumming and raw guitar, lending the floorsome foursome some extra punch in the world of the alternative left and elevating the sound from something merely average to something really quite credible.
Overall, the songs are well composed, and not just because they’re only really long enough to excite for a short spell before moving on to the next one. It’s actually quite refreshing to hear something nowadays that isn’t dispassionate indie rock fungus. The mood varies throughout, arcing from I’llbreakyerfuckingneck rage anthems to ‘come on in, the water’s lovely’ pop picks. On first listen I took the trouble to note down all the images that sprang to mind, ending up with Mallory Knox being chased down the hills of the USofAustria by Georg Ritter von Trapp, dressed in rubber. Whether that says more about my mind than it does about the music is a rather moot point. Whatever, really. Put simply, if you prefer to use chilli oil instead of chocolate body paint, Four On The Floor is your kind of dinner party soundtrack, and another appealingly honest entry from someone who may yet surprise us all with a classic.
originally published December 17th, 2006
Filed under: album, back issues, live, review | Tags: aaron alper, alan pedder, alex ramon, andrzej lukowski, anna claxton, beth orton, bryn williams, ciccone youth, dani siciliano, danny weddup, ember swift, endre buzogany, helen griffiths, jane siberry, jennifer hall, kristin hersh, loria near, marianne faithfull, marsha swanson, miranda richardson, patti smith, paul woodgate, rachael sage, rachel stevens, regina spektor, robbie de santos, rod thomas, russell barker, saint etienne, santa dog, scanners, scissor sisters, scott millar, sinead o'connor, sing-sing, skin, sleater-kinney, smoosh, sonic youth, sons and daughters, spider, stars, stephen collings, the sailplanes, the slits, tilda swinton, tori amos, trevor raggatt, yoko ono
The following reviews were all published on our old website between May 2005 and December 2006.
The Blistering Sun ••
Though anyone this side of the Atlantic is unlikely to have noticed, The Blistering Sun is, believe it or not, the seventh album by award-winning US singer-songwriter Rachael Sage. Sadly, longevity is rarely ever a cast iron guarantee of quality and the album finds Sage in something of a comfort zone and is immediately both shaky and derivative. It’s not even a particularly good derivative either. Sage’s compositions, whilst showing a grand affinity for traditional pop composition, barely register verifiable emotion and leave her sounding a step above the likes of Jewel and a step below the increasingly anodyne Sarah McLachlan.
The Blistering Sun works best when it gets quirky. For instance, the uptempo sass of ‘Hit ‘ – a parody of music industry shmoozaholism – finds Sage playing a slightly awry coffeehouse poet, while ‘Lonely Streets’ slightly ups the pulse with an appealing back alley ambience. Even ‘Proof’ is unashamedly pretty in its sweet, if a little bland, adult contemporariness. But everything else wears thin much too quickly. In particular, ‘Calypso’ and the Melissa Ferrick cover ‘Anything, Anywhere’ are fairly unremarkable and their chord progressions sound almost identical. Even Sage’s lyrics, which for a long time have served as her strongest asset, are lost in the humdrum of the arrangements and, like Jewel and McLachlan, make no argument against sounding dull and anonymous. Even the amassed ensemble of talented musicians, including the likes of Julie Wolf, Julia Kent, Todd Sickafoose and Rufus Wainwright’s guitarist Jack Petruzelli, never quite let the songs catch fire.
Despite the album’s inescapable aura of disappointment, Sage is far from a doomed soul by any means. She obviously has enough theatrics in her to go up against the likes of Regina Spektor (check out the lovely Ballads & Burlesque for example) but The Blistering Sun just doesn’t click into place in the same way that her earlier albums seemed to. It would be a shame to see Sage’s promise fizzle away and there’s every chance that this is merely a blip in her thus far consistently fruitful and ambitious career. Investigate her back catalogue first.
originally published July 14th, 2006
The Deepest Red EP ••••
As with many stupendous live acts, the studio version of London’s The Sailplanes doesn’t quite have the same impact, but when the songs are as strong as they are on this latest EP it hardly seems to matter. Packed with stark and scratchy, paranoid and jerky numbers very much in thrall to early Sonic Youth, The Deepest Red reveals a band that’s on to a very good thing. After all, there are far worse things they could be doing than channeling the energy and zest of the Youth into these excellent, ramshackle songs.
‘Seven Ships Lost’ makes for an intense, rumbling start with plenty of needling guitars and a lightly melodious feel that marries well with a crisp delivery from singer/ guitarist Stacey Hine. Next, ‘Underwound’ jolts you out of your seat with a short sharp shock as co-vocalist Tim Webster blasts the song into your skull. ‘Killing Time’, whose lyrics give the EP its name, is the clear standout – it’s a little bit second-wave punk, quite a lot riot grrrl and all fantastic. Much darker and sinister than the rest of the EP is ‘The Wild Huntsman’, which rounds off proceedings with a memorable mid-section where the song fades out until its almost inaudible, then after what seems like an eternity springs back into life.
Grab a copy of this and if you like what you hear just a little, go and see them live. You won’t be disappointed.
originally published October 5th, 2006
Tales From Turnpike House ••••
Thank the blue expanse above for Saint Etienne, perennial vanguards of fair Londinium, and their inimitable eye for a sorry mundanity in need of a paean to its ordinary glory. Clearly, whoever in radical Islam wants the capital on its knees hasn’t reckoned with Cracknell and co. Their latest feat of escapism, Tales From Turnpike House, is a concept album so familiar in its themes of inner city struggle and on the point of bursting bubbles of esteem that it’s utterly engaging for the most part. Over the course of the 12-track song cycle, the Ets unravel a day in the life of the residents of an East London high-rise, the titular Turnpike House. As such, the album opens with the breezily optimistic twosome of ‘Sun In My Morning’, a gentle strum that lazily blossoms with winsome Beach Boys harmonies and a gossamer-light flute solo, and ‘Milk Bottle Symphony’, which, quite simply, may well be their finest moment yet in a 15-year long career. Serving as more than just an introduction to the denizens of Turnpike House (one of whom, Gary Stead, appears in no fewer than three songs), it’s an irony-free and poignant glimpse into the morning rituals of the plateau’d and downwardly mobile.
Elsewhere, the work of Girls Aloud producers Xenomania yields that rare beast, an emotional dance number (!), in the guise of ‘Lightning Strikes Twice’, which recounts the laments of a failing new-ager. They also crop up to polish the charm offensive of ‘Stars Above Us’, a sweetly gratifying floor-filler extolling the simple virtues of a roof garden in this reverse oasis of concrete. Other highlights include the sultry first single, ‘Side Streets’, a tune that swings so unapologetically that it’s easy to overlook the urban paranoia / violent crime lyrical bent, and ‘A Good Thing’, a hefty slab of disco Etienne at their finest. The mostly spoken word ‘Teenage Winter’ mines a similarly rich seam of nostalgia as the glorious ‘How We Used To Live’ from 2000’s Sound Of Water, this time with an added twist of the inevitability of change and the futility of resistance. Album closer ‘Goodnight’ is also worthy of a mention, with its soothing backdrop of wistful boy-girl harmonies drawing the cloak of evening around the humble tower block.
Where Saint Etienne have been less successful in the past, it’s almost always been the fault of being just that little bit too knowing, a fault repeated here on the stilted and silly Relocate, a marital wobbly about moving to the country featuring none other than David Essex as the reluctant husband. It’s as if the Tom Jones/Cerys Matthews duet on ‘Baby, It’s Cold Outside’ never even happened. Even William Shatner managed to mostly avoid such cringesome pitfalls on last year’s Has Been. Nevertheless, Tales... is a dignified return to form after the mostly disappointing Finisterre, and one that will ensure that their legacy remains intact if, as the abounding rumours suggest, it does indeed turn out to be their last album together, at least for grown-ups that is – September’s Up The Wooden Hills will be aimed at, though by no means restricted to, those who’ve recently mastered the feat of walking from the high chair to the potty.
At a time when London is reeling from the first blood of a psychological turf war, Tales From Turnpike House is not just another album from the city’s most enduring musical champions, but also an affectionate tour of an instantly recognisable but altogether less harrowing reality. Get lost in it.
originally published July 26th, 2005
Belle de Jour EP •••
The Belle de Jour EP is the third release from Bristol-based indie-pop hopefuls Santa Dog (where did they get that name?) in little over a year, and it’s certainly a likeable offering that demonstrates a definite progression from their previous EP. Released in October 2005, the Chemical EP suffered from a flat production job that all but buried the vocal in the mix, yet contained the requisite amount of shoegazing introspection to maintain a degree of appeal. No such regrets to be found on this follow-up, however; Belle de Jour sparkles with a clarity of sound that allows the guitars to jangle as intended. This pleasing development shows a clear and confident step forward in the intervening six months and suggest that the band are growing in confidence. So whilst their indie intensity stays intact, the sound and delivery presents a more accomplished package.
Each member has their own role to play and does so with aplomb. Jojo Harper’s bass drives proceedings along, effectively melding with genuinely scary looking drummer Martin Maidment’s rhythms, while guitarist Rob Williams liberally layers jangly arpeggios and riffs throughout, his occasional squalls suggesting that his influences are wider than the Squire/ Marr/Butler triumvirate to encompass rather less textbook sources like Steve Howe or Bill Nelson. Perhaps their greatest assets, however, are those they exploit most effectively here – good tunes and an even better singer in Rowena Dugdale, whose vocals are just sufficiently ‘estuary’ to perfectly suit the music, with more than a touch of Kirsty MacColl around the edges. Dugdale pitches her performance well, giving a sense of strength and also vulnerability.
Musically, the title track skirts pleasingly along the perimeter of Belle & Sebastian territory, occasionally adding in shades of Teenage Fanclub, The Divine Comedy and the aforementioned Electric Landlady. It weaves an all-too-relevant story of finding significance in meaningful relationships in a society in which we are systematically brainwashed by daytime TV and reality gameshow banalities. Elsewhere, ‘Rosa’ is a parade of sunny summer hooks that risks being rained on by an undercurrent of sadness and desperation, while ‘Pop-Coloured’ is a power-chord confection that visits The Boo Radleys via Franz Ferdinand with its pounding snare driving along the jaunty, choppy guitars. Finally, ‘1000 Cranes’ brings things to a close with a gloomy yet luminous evocation of lost love in post-industrial Britain. On this evidence, it seems that Dugdale and co. are on a serious upward trajectory, and if things continue apace, this Dog may yet have its day.
originally published March 19th, 2006
Violence Is Golden ••••
Though having a name that’s pretty much Google kryptonite probably hasn’t helped Scanners’ cause, it’s hard not to feel this fledgling London quartet have been dealt a slightly unfortunate hand. A domestic deal hasn’t been forthcoming, and while US indie Dim Mak snapped them up Stateside some months ago, doubtless thanks to the magic of the internet, this isn’t as rosy as it sounds. A couple of LA showcase gigs aside, Scanners are in the somewhat Catch 22-ish position of being too skint to tour the only country their record is out in, instead gigging almost exclusively in London where no bugger can buy the album.
This deserves to change, as said album, Violence Is Golden, is as invigorating a record as you’ll hear all year. The lynchpin is singer Sarah Daly, whose vocals lie somewhere between Polly Jean Harvey and glam-era Bowie – eerie and off-kilter, but delivered with too much arch panache to ever drift into woe-is-me territory. But it’s the music that really makes the album; on a budget of what must have been about 5p, the band appear to have compressed all the best bits of the ‘70s and ‘80s into eleven slick, tuneful blasts. From the faintly ribald electro-avalanche of opener ‘Joy’, through the New Order-esque melancholy of ‘Lowlife’ and the rabid camp of ‘Air 164′ and ‘Raw’, Violence Is Golden smacks into you like Zinedine Zidane on happy pills, a Technicolor beast gleefully devouring glam, new wave, punk and a half-dozen other genres.
That it occasionally lacks depth and is generally a touch incoherent does little to diminish the album’s appeal – after all, lack of depth and shallowness are classic signs of a good time, and Violence Is Golden is more fun than snorting a tequila slammer.
originally published July 23rd, 2006
Drawing inspiration from 1970s disco, glam and the club culture of their native New York City, the Scissor Sisters stormed the nation in 2004, selling over three million copies of their eponymous debut. Exuberant and enjoyably brash, they fabulously forged their way, feather boas and all, into the hearts of everyone from hipsters to suburban housewives. It stands to reason, then, that the follow-up might be greeted with hesitant scrutiny. Would they manage to carry their signature sound across another album or quickly snuff out of the spotlight, their proverbial 15 minutes exhausted?
Interestingly, Ta-Dah almost seems to be something of a cautious response to their success. Where Scissor Sisters danced saucily all over with themes of freedom and parties, Ta-Dah delves into the psyche with songs about the love, relationships and death, without being a million musical miles from its predecessor with more of the same dance-infused pop that made the band so famous. Take the first single ‘I Don’t Feel Like Dancin’ for example. It’s just as catchy and radio ready as ‘Take Your Mama’, with the added gloss of being co-written by Sir Elton John himself, yet it’s a song about Sunday morning, not Saturday night – the first of many tracks where the music belies the sentiment woven into the lyrics. “Wake up in the morning with a head like ‘what ya done?’ / this used to be the life but I don’t need another one.”
And it doesn’t stop there. As the album wears on, it’s obvious that the songs are strong and danceworthy, with several hits in waiting. But pay attention to the lyrics and a darker element emerges. In the David Bowie-esque Intermission, lead vocalist Jake Shears sings wistfully that “tomorrow’s not what it used to be / we were born to die”, while ‘The Other Side’ shows he’s not just a Barry Gibb clone as he really milks the slowie by crooning softly of a lover’s passing, “if it takes another life / I’ll wait for you / on the other side.”
If the album lacks anything in particular it is the rich voice of Ana Matronic, the self-described “drag queen stuck in a woman’s body”. Notably a strong force in the Sisters’s live shows, her voice is buried here, only coming out from the shadow of Shears’ overwhelming falsetto to shine on the infectious dance track ‘Kiss You Off’. Channeling a pissed off Debbie Harry, Matronic doesn’t just take the lead, she takes complete centre stage with a soaring voice that bites back with lyrics like “spare this child your sideways smile / that crack in your veneer / some blue broad will spoil your rod / it just takes patience dear.”
If you haven’t been a fan of the Scissor Sisters before this point, Ta-Dah isn’t likely to change your mind. Despite strong lyrical development and inventive songwriting, the band has a proud image that it’s highly doubtful to shed any time soon. And who would want them to? They’ve done well for themselves and despite a few weak points here and there, Ta-Dah is a solid album that recalls why the ‘70s are so much fun to remember.
originally published December 17th, 2006
Love Is Everything: An Anthology [reissue] ••••½
From Joni Mitchell to the McGarrigles, Sarah McLachlan to kd lang, Canada has produced a significant number of accomplished and influential female singer-songwriters. Mitchell is the undisputed foremother, of course, setting the bar almost ludicrously high in terms of innovation, musicianship and lyrical dexterity. But the artists who have followed in her wake have also made their own distinctive contributions to Canada’s musical mosaic. Though extremely diverse and individual, their work is characterised by emotional fearlessness, a willingness to experiment and an often-breathtaking ability to fuse elements of pop, folk, rock and jazz in creative ways – sometimes in the space of a single song.
Jane Siberry is one such artist. Blessed with a playful sense of humour, a protean voice that can both soar and confide, and the ability to turn a song about a missing cow into an aching expression of loss, she has a devoted following in Canada and elsewhere. In the UK, however, she has seldom received the recognition she richly deserves. In recent years, her decision to release new material only through her own Sheeba label has not helped to raise her profile, and when kd lang covered two of her songs on her 2004 covers album of classic Canadian songcraft, Hymns Of The 49th Parallel, British listeners could perhaps have been forgiven for asking “Jane who”? For the uninitiated, then, this 2-disc, 30-track retrospective (first released in 2002) serves as the perfect introduction to an idiosyncratic and endlessly rewarding body of work. Drawn mainly from Siberry’s early 1980s folk-based releases, her experimental No Borders Here, The Speckless Sky and The Walking trilogy, 1989’s Bound By The Beauty and 1993’s When I Was A Boy, the choice of material on the first disc could not be bettered. Given the extraordinary level of quality control, it’s almost churlish to pick favourites, but the inviting piano ballad ‘In The Blue Light’, the spry ‘Red High Heels’, the unearthly ‘The Walking (& Constantly)’, the hymnal ‘The Lobby’ and the rapt ‘Bound By The Beauty’ are all particularly captivating expressions of Siberry’s unique gifts. The disc also gives a clear sense of her creative development, from her spare apprentice material to her exhilarating experiments with studio trickery throughout the 1980s.
This is not to suggest that the compilation follows a slavishly chronological path through Siberry’s work, however. Instead, several thematically connected songs from different periods are linked together to form mini cycles and suites. Thus, ‘Bessie’ (from her 1996 album, Teenager) is paired with its 1981 ‘prequel’ ‘The Mystery At Ogwen’s Farm’ to tell the tale of a flying bovine from two contrasting perspectives. Placed side by side, the songs sound especially striking, the former a buoyant acoustic strum full of Chagall-esque imagery, the latter an exquisite lament in which the narrator of ‘Bessie’ features as a mere bit player. The same trick occurs on the second disc, whereupon Siberry’s classic ‘Mimi On The Beach’ is followed by the live recording ‘Mimi Speaks’, a cheeky spoken-word piece in which the objectified title character is finally given the chance to “have [her] say”. Such thoughtful sequencing reveals Siberry’s heartening commitment to the fullest possible development of her stories and characters, and is a valuable feature of this compilation. Siberry trades immaculate harmonies with lang on ‘Calling All Angels’, one of her best-loved songs and also one of her most beautiful, pitched in some galaxy midway between despair and consolation. Yet Siberry does not fear bold exuberance; ‘The Life Is The Red Wagon’ is a dose of happiness, its “you pull for me… I pull for you” refrain serving as the ultimate antidepressant.
The second disc is patchier and gives the impression that Siberry’s work has become somewhat less compelling in recent years. There are, of course, some heavenly moments; the sublime, minutely-detailed pop of ‘Mimi’ and the skewed piano ballads ‘Goodnight Sweet Pumpkinhead’ and ‘Barkis Is Willin’. However, the bizarre ‘Peony’ is a piece of woeful, substandard experimenta, and the best that can be said of her treatments of traditional material such as ‘All Through The Night’ and ‘The Water Is Wide’ is that they’re pretty. But ‘pretty’ feels like a considerable letdown after her complex and daring earlier work, and there are times when these songs veer perilously close to schmaltz. It’s left to her closing cycle of ‘Map Of The World’ tracks – presented together in sequence for the first time here with a new (and not very satisfying) ‘Part IV’ – to regain some of the lost momentum.
Siberry shares with Kate Bush an ability to combine unconventional lyrical subject matter with intricate, densely layered yet accessible melodies and arrangements. The work of both also expresses an unabashed femininity and an emotional openness that can sound surprisingly close to toughness. The relative paucity of rarities or new material on this collection means that it has less to offer long-time devotees of Siberry’s music. But Rhino have done a typically impeccable job on it, and it will undoubtedly inspire those new to her work, and leave them eager to hear more.
originally published March 25th, 2006
Dani Siciliano is an artist with a rather impressive CV, having worked extensively with ex-husband Matthew Herbert and charmed all the critics with her acclaimed solo debut, 2004’s Likes…, which featured reworkings of her favourite tracks, including a brave and overall successful take on Nirvana’s ‘Come As You Are’. My first reaction on listening to Slappers, however, is that her musical past is more hindrance than help to her current material. Comparisons are inevitable and, unfortunately for Dani, Slappers is simply not a patch on her past achievements. Although that might strike you as rather a crude statement to make as an intro, it’s not just an easy dismissal. The production values of Slappers vary very, very minutely from Herbert’s Bodily Functions and though the latter saw Siciliano’s vocal transport the music onto another level entirely, allowing her talent to shine, here her voice is simply not enough and is, in all honesty, sorely underused.
While always slightly understated, the melodies and stylistics of Siciliano’s previous work have allowed her voice to be a constantly powerful presence, you’ll struggle to find a track on Slappers that showcases any vocal prowess. The overriding problem is that the album is painfully flat; it merely meanders along without any real driving force. With so little real variation between songs, there’s something crucial lacking. Only the single ‘Why Can’t I Make You High?’ differs in style, but it’s messy – a little bit Goldfrapp in terms of beat but with acoustic bass, a melody extremely reminiscent of many other songs, and a terrible, terrible chorus. Though it pains me to say this, it sounds like Rachel Stevens at a hoedown, a quirky throwaway and the album’s weakest moment by far.
Slappers is not a total failure by any means, it’s just a bit boring. Its dynamics rarely change, so much so that the few stronger moments such as ‘Too Young’ only emphasise the underachievement elsewhere. I found myself confused by Slappers; I just don’t understand what it’s trying to do – it is neither well written enough to be a commercial success or intelligent enough to be a word of mouth classic.
The main problem that Siciliano faces, and most probably will continue to face, is that people expect more of her. Anyone aware of her working history will see very little progression in the music on offer here, and I cannot see Slappers winning fans of anyone not already on board as the songs simply aren’t strong enough. In a music scene where production values are becoming much more the point of focus, and where electronic acts are either achieving massive underground success or, from time to time, commercial glory, this collection of songs is far too weak to be of any real challenge or significance.
originally published September 17th, 2006
Vanishing Girl [reissue] •••½
Angelic Music is the brainchild of London-based singer-songwriter Janice Haves; more than just a simple indie label, it looks to provide a platform and a resource for female musicians. Angelic’s first signing is fellow Londoner Liz Simcock and their second release (after Haves’s own Big Front Door) is a very welcome reissue of 2005’s Vanishing Girl.
Simcock has passed the last few years plying her trade around the country’s folk club circuit, ably assisted by regular cohorts Ian Newman and Warwick Jones on bass and guitar, both of whom appear here along with drummer Pete Abernathy. The musical maturity that comes from entertaining such a notoriously difficult-to-please audience is certainly evident on the recording. But Simcock is not some twiddly, finger-in-the-ear folkster – her palette is much broader than that. Sure, there are winsome acoustic-based numbers and Joni Mitchell is a notable influence – ‘The Sand That Makes The Pearl’ is a gently personal tribute to the great lady, inspired by the 2003 TV documentary ‘Woman Of Heart & Mind’. Even the lyrics are populated with a patchwork of Mitchell’s thoughts and quotations, adding an additionally moving and poignant dimension to the song. On other songs, Simcock draws from more diverse sources – ‘Scissors Cut Paper’ rocks quietly along whilst musing about the futility of the conflicts which beset this troubled world and ‘Home To You’ is a country boogie that Mary Chapin Carpenter herself would be proud of. Elsewhere, there are nods in the direction of some of the last century’s greatest songwriters, from Paul Simon to Cole Porter and various points in between.
Like Mitchell, Simcock invests a good deal of well- judged humour in her music, scattering the ticklers among the more contemplative numbers. Most notable of the former variety is the sublime ‘Letisha Boccemski’, on which Simcock wonders what it would be like to inherit a greater sense of devil-may-care centeredness and self-confidence (fans of Channel 4’s ‘Countdown’ will instantly recognise the identity of Ms Boccemski’s mild-mannered alter ego). Lyrically, it’s witty and urbane and carried along on a jaunty, almost trad-jazz soundtrack (with Simcock manning the clarinet too). Imagine Aimee Mann singing from the Peter Skellern songbook, or even vice versa, and smile.
All this focus on the quality of the writing risks neglecting the beauty of Simcock’s voice. Blending a mellow richness with clarity and genuine emotion she produces a beautiful tone that perfectly complements the songs. Similarly, she is no slouch on the acoustic guitar either, mixing some excellent finger picking and riffing with Jones. On this evidence, Simcock is a singer to watch out for and with the backing of Angelic and a healthy dollop of luck she won’t be disappearing any time soon.
originally published October 27th, 2006
Sing-Sing & I •••••
At the turn of the millennium, a bright pop phoenix arose from the ashes of Britpoppers Lush in the form of the shiny Sing-Sing, a whip-smart collaboration between songwriter/guitarist Emma Anderson and former Mad Professor associate, Lisa O’Neill. Released on their own Aerial imprint through Sanctuary Records, their debut album The Joy Of Sing-Sing inexplicably vanished, even with a second push when signed to Poptones. Five years on, the duo are back with an astonishingly strong set of modern, intelligent pop that takes no prisoners.
‘Lover’ gets proceedings off to a flying start with a slab of Blondie-meets-The Bangles punk-pop combining driving drums and bass with an insidiously memorable chorus set off with luscious background harmonies. ‘Come, Sing Me A Song’ successfully blends Bond villain strings and horns with perky acoustic guitar to create a flawless pop song with a lightness that never grows cloying, while ‘A Modern’ Girl encapsulates the best ‘80s and ‘90s pop; coming on like the Lightning Seeds with Associates-style piano chops, it sets out a manifesto for the Bridget Jones generation. The quirky ‘Mr Kadali’ lopes along wistfully contemplating a quick fix for life’s little hassles, punctuated with voiceovers from the eponymous spiritual healer. Then, just when you think you’ve got the measure of the girls, Sing-Sing try to wrong-foot you. ‘Ruby’ kicks the door of assumption to the floor and throws around the furniture with a louche and sleazy slice of disco metal that the Scissor Sisters would kill for.
Normally with a ‘side one’ this strong, the fear of anticlimax kicks in, but thankfully Sing-Sing & I completely assuages. ‘I Do’ and ‘Going Out Tonight’ retain the Lightning Seeds pop feel but add in the indie and electronica influences that reflect their musical backgrounds. After a mellower moment provided by ‘Unseen’, ‘The Time Has Come’ is a rites of passage drinking song with a boozy sing-a-long chorus, complete with bierkeller ambience, contrasting nicely with Lisa’s tender and vulnerable verses. The album rounds off with ‘When I Was Made’ and ‘A Kind Of Love’; the former a joyous pop song recalling the likes of Belle & Sebastian or even the Divine Comedy, complete with harp ‘pling’s and an instrumental coda, and the latter a complex, beautiful and contemplative song that echoes O’Neill’s work with the Mad Professor.
It’s hard to praise Sing-Sing & I highly enough – every song is a potential hit single. O’Neill’s vocals are pure and sit well in the mix, at times conjuring a looser Kate Bush and at others Isobel Campbell, and are woven into an effective, harmonious web with Emma’s graceful backing coos. Despite the use of synths, samples and electronic effects throughout the album, the production is never permitted to steal the show, but serves the songs and coaxes out their subtleties. Perhaps the most striking thing about Sing-Sing is that the songs burrow into your consciousness, quickly becoming your internal soundtrack. After just a couple of listens, they seem so utterly familiar that it’s almost inconceivable you haven’t known them for years. Sing-Sing are precisely the type of talent required to rescue the UK pop charts from the turgid, manufactured product that currently holds them in thrall.
originally published November 28th, 2005
Fake Chemical State •••½
Following the dissolution of Skunk Anansie in 2000 after three albums that successfully blended punk and metal with anthemic pop and soul and a 1999 headline slot at Glastonbury, a solo career was almost inevitable for Skin, their charismatic incendiary frontwoman. However, her first solo effort, 2003’s Fleshwounds, was a sparse, lo-fi and introspective record that dismally failed to register in the public consciousness and quickly dropped off the radar. Fast forward three years and it’s no surprise that solo album number two, Fake Chemical State, heralds a return to our heroine’s rock roots. From the cover art depicting her collapsed on a ceramic floor, face painted in junkie chic (a none-too-subtle literalisation of the album title, perhaps?), the self-proclaimed leader of clit-rock is evidently keen to reaffirm her territory, changing record labels to V2 and bringing Strokes producer Gordon Raphael on board. Always defying expectation – after all, how many black skinhead lesbian singers are there in the white boy rock world? – and without any real comparison, Skin only needs to live up to her own high standards.
For the most part she succeeds. After the radio-unfriendly Fleshwounds, Skunk Anansie fans looking for a fix of nostalgia will not be disappointed by Fake Chemical State, which comes complete with softly softly verses that suddenly break into bombastic choruses – the aural equivalent of shaking your hand before slapping you square in the face. ‘Alone In My Room’, one of four co-writes with former Mansun frontman Paul Draper, is a flashback to 1997 and Mansun’s own particular brand of pretentious prog-rock. It’s the perfect album opener, full of dirty chords, clipped post-punk vocals and a glorious pop chorus. The latest single release, ‘Just Let The Sun’, another Draper co-write, also comes complete with crunching post-grunge guitars layered with multi-tracked vocals that makes for an unmistakeable, but perhaps too familiar listen.
What mars the album slightly is a sense of identity crisis; like a nasty neighbour with 20ft Leylandii, the edgier tracks leave the sensitive songs in the shade, which is especially a shame with the dreamy swirling riffs of album closer ‘Falling For You’, a song that reveals Skin’s vocals at their best, honest and pure. Like former labelmate Björk, Skin can make effortless octave leaps that would leave lesser singers breathless, and her patented wind-tunnel scream is in full force here, meaning the catchier songs like the slow building ‘Don’t Need A Reason’ have all the necessary ingredients to become live favourites. Lyrically, Fake Chemical State is a demanding listen, balancing youthful petulance and bittersweet reflection. The cut-and-paste words of the punkier songs seem strung together solely for musical effect, while the sensitive numbers display a lyrical heart-on-sleeve intensity. Most poignantly on the Linda ‘1 Non-Blonde’ Perry-produced ‘Nothing But’, Skin sings of a lost love who has since moved on: “please ignore the particular way I smile / take no notice of the blood on the lip I bite / I am still your friend”.
Wisely, Fake Chemical State is not simply an attempt to repeat the formula of her past successes, and there is enough here to suggest that Skin is finally moving in a direction where she feels comfortable and confident. Clocking in at just over half an hour, the album hints at finer things to come and the fact that it also makes for an enjoyable listen is simply a happy coincidence.
originally published March 29th, 2006
Mind How You Go ••••
Most people will already be familiar with Skye Edwards from her days fronting trip-hop heroes turned coffee table adorners Morcheeba and, inevitably, your liking or loathing of her origins will prejudice opinions of this, her debut solo outing, right, left and middle of the road. But wipe away those preconceived ideas, for now is Edwards’s time to at last be appreciated as an artist in her own right. A richly layered musical approach gives Mind How You Go a sublime, multi-sensory texture that, when combined with Skye’s distinctive voice, produces an album with highly individual characteristics. With its prevailing sense of the hazy dog days of summer, not explicitly expressed until the closer ‘Jamaica Days’, Skye makes the most of the contrast between inherently grey urban environments and sprawling, idle, sun-drenched days. Guaranteed to effectively enrich your day, it’s ideally suited to life in the city for those with escapist tendencies.
‘Love Show’ is a perfect introduction, allowing you to gently descend into Edwards’s world, cushioned by her light and breathy but infinitely listenable vocal. Love is usually unrequited, tumultuous or passionate in song, so when Edwards sings “it’s painless letting your love show”, it’s a minor revelation. By ‘What’s Wrong With Me’, these refreshingly unusual insights are a regular feature but not all are effective. Mentions of mortgages and emails are hardly the kind of thing that most of us would relish being reminded of when indulging in idealism. Elsewhere, ‘Stop Complaining’ contains a jarring reference to driving “down to the rodeo”. But for the occasions where things don’t quite work, there are just as many where her slightly left of centre worldview makes you listen harder and appreciate the work all the more.
Gossamer-light and gorgeous, ‘Solitary’ jostles into the memory with a well-executed staccato approach and is a nice example of when the more synthetic sounds at work on the album are at their most effective. ‘No Other’, on the other hand, could perhaps rely less heavily upon them as the exotic beach-inspired sounds seem unnecessarily fake. The conversational ‘Tell Me’, with its Disney-esque introductory motif, is reminiscent of a postcard or phonecall home in which the overall message is positive but there are moments when the realisation hits that “all the distance spoils the view”, that to be sharing the experience rather than trying to live and re-tell the adventure would make the journey more authentic.
Certainly, what makes Mind How You Go that little bit special is Edwards’s way with a lyric. So while on the first listen you may be fooled into finding superficial similarities with Dido or Katie Melua – the vocal tone is comparable – the more you listen, the richer and more unique it becomes. ‘All The Promises’ is the definitive song in that respect, with unusual snippets like “we broke the chain and left the cross behind” and “love’s a stain on a shirt like old red wine” that haunt you long after the song has ended. Rather than reinterpret a traditional perspective, she’ll take each subject and give it a personal twist, sharing the benefit of her own experience.
The island voices feel to ‘Jamaica Days’ complements nicely the lyrical hymn of desire for sunshine, propelling the album towards that which it and perhaps Edwards herself has been seeking from the beginning – an entwining of the new and traditional, an identity carved from many influences and a sense of individulity that allows for fresh starts and beautiful changes, the most enduring part of which is that Skye is taking us all with her for the ride.
originally published June 12th, 2006
The Woods ••••
I have no intention of clogging the page with ruminations on band set-up, record labels, history, tour dates, and downloads etc. You can find all that on http://www.sleater-kinney.com or http://www.sleater-kinney.net, written with more care and aim to please than I could ever be bothered with. While to Sleater-Kinney newbies, the trio’s name might conjure up thoughts of a solicitors’ office or city financial advisors, fortunately nothing could be further from the truth. If the metaphor is to be persevered with, Sleater-Kinney are, if anything, more like a construction company, complete with all the heavy earth-moving machinery that any local area regeneration scheme would be rightly envious of.
Seventh album The Woods contains everything from high-energy melodic grinding (‘The Fox’) to raw and impassioned rock (‘What’s Mine Is Yours’ and ‘Entertain’). Even the instrumental sections on the epic 11-minute ‘Let’s Call It Love’ lift you up, let you float happily awhile, before throwing you down from a very great height. Add to that the range of Corin Tucker and Carrie Brownstein’s duelling vocals, which gloriously hurtle from sweet-sounding harmonies on ‘Night Light’ to the howling roar of a B52 bomber found almost everywhere else, and you’re on to a winner.
Although you cannot fail to recognise some of their grunge influences and PJ Harvey-esque deliveries, Sleater-Kinney pull it off by exuding a more natural and unforced cool. While the cynics amongst you might say it’s all been done before, I say not recently and certainly not as well as this. The Woods is unadulterated, fresh, fun and very cleverly composed. The sequencing of the tracks ensures an invigorating flow that maintains a certain sense of urgency and keeps the listener wanting more. Want proof? It’s a rare thing indeed that most tunes on an album would force me to wriggle to the rhythm and shake a leg discreetly under the desk, but it happened here alright. The Woods has plenty to offer and stands up to repeated listens. It seems to me that the interpretation of each tune will also depend on your mood. A song that made you air guitar with your mates on first listen might later make you want to drive out onto the interstate to lock horns with a tornado. Alone. At night. Wearing nothing but your shades.
originally published ??, 2005
Revenge Of The Killer Slits EP •••
It’s been 28 years since The Slits’ ragged debut Cut, 28 years since they greeted the world at large whilst smeared in mud and wearing nothing but loincloths and over 30 years since their first ever gig, a riotous performance of their anthem ‘Shoplifting’ in Selfridges. Here in 2006, only two of the band’s original line-up remain and this hotly anticipated new EP has everyone begging the question: do The Slits still have it?
Beginning with ‘The Slits Tradition’, a self-mythologising big-up that recaps the band’s history and charts their influence on the punk scene, The Slits commendably waste no time in putting forward their gender-political views. Though it sounds like a rather embarrassing prospect, surprisingly they still have the nous to carry it off. Admittedly some of the spoken word segments do sound like they’re being read directly from a feminist textbook, but their sentiment is admirable. Backed by rumbling, distorted bass and Peaches-esque electronics, the band sound fired up and fiercely committed. Disconcertingly, the opening lines are sung in a girl group-esque chant that immediately and disturbingly recalls All Saints rather than Ari Up, but any claim on that band’s behalf to be “the first of our kind / way ahead of our time” would be laughed off the stage, and quite rightly so.
It’s refreshing to see that The Slits still refuse to allow the cocky arrogance of punk to be solely the preserve of the male: this has always been one of their major aims and they continue to convince at it. That said, it seems a little incongruent at best to place this manifesto, a mission statement that makes great claims, as the opening number of such a brief EP; ‘The Slits Tradition’ would fit better as the opening salvo of a full-length album where there ought to be more evidence to support its grand statements. The clues do lie in The Slits’ back catalogue, but many (especially younger) music fans might not be familiar with their work and find the self-aggrandising statements of the track a little puzzling.
Next up, ‘Number One Enemy’ is reportedly an unrecorded track from back in the day, and it certainly sounds like its been beamed direct from 1978: it’s aggressive and confrontational, with an old-school punk riff far removed from the more modern sound of the first track. The scattergun anger of the era comes across in the snarled lines, “I’m gonna be your number one enemy / all for the hell of it”. Final track ‘Kill Them With Love’ is a dub reggae affair in a similar vein to Ari Up’s most recent solo outing, but is easily the weakest inclusion. It’s not bad exactly, but after the ballsy energy of ‘Number One Enemy’ it feels a little wan. Fact fans might jump for trivia joy when they spot ex-‘Popworld’ presenter Miquita Oliver on backing vocals, but that’s about as surprising as it gets.
There’s no denying that Revenge Of The Killer Slits is a strange little project; the three tracks are so incohesive and brief that they’ll almost certainly leave you to wonder whether Up and co. just couldn’t pen enough good tracks to fill a decent album. Still, it makes for an interesting soundclash between 1978 and 2006, serving both as a time capsule that demonstrates why the band must have been such a startling, anarchic presence back in the late ‘70s and as a pleasing reminder that they’re still relevant now.
originally published December 17th, 2006
Patti Smith’s Meltdown: Songs Of Innocence
Live at the Royal Festival Hall ••••
June 18th, 2005
It’s 7:30pm and already tonight’s instalment of the 2005 Meltdown Festival is lingering a little too close to the literal for my liking; the temperature at the rear of the Royal Festival Hall is enough to make the blood boil. All of a sudden, I feel sorry for lobsters. Luckily, such empathy fits snugly into the theme of the evening. Patti Smith, punk’s most judicious high poetess, has seen to it personally that this year’s festival is no mere excavation cum shindig with cronies (à la Morrissey’s 2004 effort) or disappointingly macho all-male love-in (e.g. David Bowie’s stint as curator in 2002).
Instead, she has opted for a typically many-layered production, drawing together the themes of war, politics, art, the working class, literature, experience and tonight’s raison d’être, the innocence of children. More specifically, the theme of the evening is an extension of Smith’s love affair with the works of poet William Blake, and in particular with his late 18th Century classic, ‘Songs Of Innocence & Experience’. The book was originally published in two volumes, the first of which is tonight’s inspiration and the second will close the festival on June 26th during a neat tie-in with the work of Jimi Hendrix, featuring the likes of Joanna Newsom, Jeff Beck, Robert Wyatt and Patti Smith herself. Tonight’s cast is no less stellar. In fact, it’s deliriously brilliant. A once-in-a-lifetime bringing together of some of the world’s greatest female performers, plus a few token males and Yoko Ono.
After a comedic short film of a lunatic dancing boy plays on the big screen, the stage goes dark until actress Miranda Richardson steps out of the shadows to read Blake’s pastorally charming ‘The Lamb’. Patti Smith and her band then take to the stage for an utterly engrossing and powerful rendition of ‘Birdland’ from her near-sacred debut Horses. The song is a discourse on the loss of a young boy’s father and the desire the child feels to be reunited with his dad. Given that tomorrow is Father’s Day, it’s inevitably uncomfortable listening for some. Patti later returns to sing a sweet but drippy ditty written for her son Jackson by her late husband, Fred “Sonic” Smith of MC5, and then another with her daughter Jesse on piano. She also takes time out to introduce us to her favourite childhood toy, little green Gumby, the “clay man you can trust” who’s fast becoming the unofficial Meltdown festival mascot.
In that moment, the notion of Smith as tortured artist and sullen elder stateswoman is banished forever and rightly so. If only Tori Amos were as endearing. As exemplary as her performance is, the empathy factor is lacking. In a four-song set drawing heavily on her earlier albums, her finest moment is in fact a stirring take on ‘Mother Revolution’ from 2005’s The Beekeeper. For someone who struggled so hard to be a mother and is so proud to finally be one, that she doesn’t engage the crowd with onstage banter or even acknowledge the purpose of the show smacks of lost opportunity, though you can’t really argue with a standing ovation. The notoriously self-effacing Beth Orton fares better with the endearment factor – her sweet reedy voice cosies up to the songs like old friends, and she ends each with a somewhat overexcited yelp of thanks. Best of all is a cover of Fred Neill’s ‘Dolphins’, but a fine version of Woody Guthrie’s ‘Don’t You Push Me Down’ is an unexpected joy. It is in fact the second Guthrie song of the night, following Billy Bragg’s hilarious take on ‘Dry Bed’, a charming ode to no nocturia. Kristin Hersh later extends the night-time subplot, performing traditional songs about death and despair that her father lulled her to sleep with as a child. Other highlights are Eliza Carthy’s enriching a cappella folk songs and Marianne Faithfull’s boisterous rendition of The Beatles’s ‘Working Class Hero’. Additional readings from the works of Blake come courtesy of a hushed and spooky Tilda Swinton, although she doesn’t join Miranda Richardson in indulging us with a simple pretty folk song that Eliza herself would be proud of.
It’s not all quite as successful, however. Tim Booth of now-defunct indie stalwarts James performs an awfully trite song about child abuse before plundering the past for an acoustic version of ‘Sit Down’, his former band’s biggest hit, with a sorry sense of ‘so what?’. The same can be said of The High Llamas, whose sole contribution, a song based on an imagining of Blake’s own childhood, is surprisingly dull for one with such a glorious premise. Sinéad O’Connor, too, is equally unexciting, though more unexpectedly so. Granted, she isn’t aided by the sound problems which render her rudimentary acoustic plucking all but inaudible, but for someone so famously impassioned her set is devoid of emotion. Only ‘Scarlet Ribbons’ from her Am I Not Your Girl covers album seems to raise her out of a stupor.
Then there’s Yoko Ono, in a giant hat, providing a timely reminder why the most derided 72-year old woman in ‘music’ is so utterly unlovable. Screeching “Follow your heart, trust your intuition” for ten solid minutes would test the mettle of anybody’s audience. It actually seems like an hour, thereby allowing far too much time to contemplate how on earth we are all still breathing in this sauna. In fact, the performance is so lacking in redeeming features that it’s a relief when Ono departs to a bizarrely rapturous round of applause. The same people were sniggering just seconds before. Maybe I just didn’t get it.
Such a disparate line-up was guaranteed to raise a few eyebrows, but none arched higher than during the finale, a bizarre attempt to sing rounds beneath Patti’s pulsing Blakean verse. The song – ‘Inchworm’ from the Hans Christian Andersen biopic – is a cute choice, and after a faltering start the entire cast of the evening finally get the harmonies right. A moment of indefinably beautiful uplift ensues before the tired, hot but mostly exhilarated audience spills back into the muggy London streets singing “Inchworm, inchworm measuring the marigold, you and your arithmetic, you’ll probably go far…”
originally published June 24th, 2005
She Like Electric •••
Just in case you haven’t heard about the mini phenomenon that is Smoosh, here’s a brief recap: two sisters from Seattle – Asya, 13, and Chloe, 11 – who play drums and keyboards and have been creating quite a stir amongst the alternative rock press both here and at home, whilst also garnering praise from many a respected musician. But can they really be any good? For me, the alarm bells started ringing when I read people on certain music forums going on about how great the band are. These are the sort of people that I’ve always maintained are constantly on the search for something more challenging, more obscure and hey, maybe more unlistenable than what anyone else is ‘listening’ to. They want to be the first on the block to uncover something new, something to impress their peers with just how avant-garde they are. Mind you, if Everett True likes them, there must be something worthy going on.
For a start there are some great musical moments; She Like Electric has ideas a-plenty. After the Money Mark-style lo-fi of ‘Massive Cure’, the rolling Ben Folds-y piano of ‘It’s Cold’ and the infectiously jaunty ‘It’s Not Your Day To Shine’, ‘Rad’ is the first moment that knocks you sideways. Eighties-style ‘hip-pop’ is the best way to describe it, with Asya and Chloe’s youthful exuberance really coming to the fore through incessant chants of “yo guys”. Early signs of teenage angst are apparent on two of the best songs here. ‘La Pump’ is a deceptively chugging petulant number with a stroppy riot grrl chorus, and ‘Bottlenose’ has a shouty, close to irritating intro but settles for some fine Bis-style screaming and space age keyboards. ‘Make It Through’ once again spins the album on its head, with Asya’s echoing vocals floating over a rumbling tune that’s closer to Joy Division than anything else. Then ‘I’ve Got My Own Problems To Fix’ manages to make riot grrl sound ethereal. The wonderfully titled and brief ‘The Quack’ clocks in at under a minute and is a ‘Monster Mash’ for the Buffy generation. Smoosh have quite a way with song titles – there’s another on here called ‘Pygmy Motorcycle’.
But while there are many good points to the album, Asya’s vocals are exactly how you’d expect a young kid to sound. It may be an unfair criticism, but it’s a bit like going to see your child singing in the school play. Of course they sound wonderful, but then you’re forced to sit through all the other kids’ performances too. Which begs the question, who would choose to listen to this? But the main impression I’m left with is that She Like Electric is the sound of a band warming up for something special. The ideas are bursting out of this album and one suspects that come album two they will be better, if not fully, formed.
originally published March 7th, 2006
The Bells Of 1 2 •••••
Is Sol Seppy a faerie queen? Did she make this as a soundtrack to her magnificent transfiguration? I only ask because, from the atmospheric opener ‘1 2′ onwards, one cannot help but be enchanted, nay, mesmerised by what has been achieved here. Often womblike in its comfort, like taking a big floaty bubble bath with Sigur Rós or diving by moonlight to the ocean’s murky depths with Stína Nordenstam, The Bells Of 1 2 heralds the arrival of a preternatural talent. Alas, the faerie bit is a touch of truth economy.
Sol Seppy’s alter ego is actually a woman of mere flesh and bone, a woman known as Sophie Michalitsianos, who happens to be something of an allsinging monopoly; a woman with one foot in England and one in Oz, who began to write songs when she was only five years old, who found time to become a classically trained musician, build her own studio, tour with Radiohead and make special sounds with Sparklehorse in the U S of A. She’s a multi-faceted and shimmering creature who seemingly can’t help but lay herself bare, capturing the sound of an unpretentious drifter who is unsure of where she’s been but is definitely aware of where she’s headed. She’s someone who wants to share with you what she’s seen. What she’s seen is sadness and hope, sex and confusion, simultaneously powerless and powerful.
Her music is devastating where it’s touching and uplifting, heart-wrenchingly human in the most basic way, but a story told with a supernatural quality that belittles all that. Gracefully innocent piano, sitting amidst unaffected hushed vocals and soft orchestration, is wonderfully contrasted by a darker attitude, where the likes of Lamb or Ruby flit between the sombre moodiness of Gorillaz’s ‘El Mañana’ and the twisting of pretty homemade lo-fi knives into beats that border on trip-hop; each part of this vast spectrum illustrated with magical poetry like a modern day spell.
Consider me under it. This is utterly breathtaking stuff and deserves to be immersed in for quite some time to come. Quite simply, a twinkling debut from beginning to end.
originally published June 24th, 2006
Sonic Youth [reissue] •••
The Whitey Album [reissue] •••
Picture the scene: it’s the UK in the early 1980s and, bruised from the onslaught that was punk, the mainstream musical scene is on the cusp of gentrification – the time of the dandy is at hand. When Sonic Youth released their eponymous debut in 1982, the UK charts were dominated by the likes of Bucks Fizz, Dollar, Tight Fit and Charlene, all of whom, in their own way, made a success of their fifteen minutes, but are unlikely to be spoken of in the same reverential hush afforded to Kim Gordon and her atonal chums when musos sit down to discuss the popular canon. By 1983, Duran Duran would be all over the airwaves like a rash and English pop would enter its wilderness years, culminating in the hegemony of Stock, Aitken and Waterman. In New York, Madonna flirted with a real band and pranced about in leotards (proving that what goes around…), before crossing the ‘Borderline’ and going on ‘Holiday’. More of her later. Time has repeatedly shown that mediocrity often precipitates revolt, and while Sonic Youth cannot be called upon to shoulder full responsibility for what happened next, their coming together, and subsequent success, influenced the greatest of the ‘80s guitar bands and the ‘90s grunge-athon. They didn’t so much storm the barricades as sneak round their edges and lay the enemy flat with their own walls of dissonance; this wasn’t revolution, it was renaissance.
Twenty-five years after its initial release, Universal are reissuing not only their debut mini-album, but also their 1988 off-the-wall oddity The Whitey Album (recorded under the affectionate moniker Ciccone Youth) and Thurston Moore’s 1995 solo effort Psychic Hearts, in preparation for a new album in the summer – all come remastered with extra studio and live tracks. Leaving aside the argument that a remastered Sonic Youth album rather contradicts their rationale, the recent recycling of art-rock/pop and post-post-punk in the forms of Franz Ferdinand and The Strokes et al. is an ideal time to revisit the daddies of the anti-melody scene. After all, without them, it’s highly unlikely that students would have anything decent to get drunk to.
The good news is that Sonic Youth sounds just as contemporary now as it must have sounded young, fresh and new in 1982. It’s not a welcoming sound, however. You don’t listen to Sonic Youth for relief from the world; this music is a relentless test of your mental capacity, an extended middle finger to your ears and melodic sensibilities. This is the sound of musicians building whole cities from concrete slabs of bass and jackboot guitars, extending jams on one note for five minutes before firing up the Sherman tanks and blowing structure and sense into smithereens. On ‘Burning Spear’, Moore intones “I’m not afraid to say I’m scared” and you would do well to admit the same, or turn the CD off and go listen to The Carpenters. ‘I Dreamed I Dream’ is a slow Motörhead bass riff over a scattering of dissonant guitar notes and random, half-whispered Gordon vocals that would give Martin Luther King a sleepless night. The extended outro to ‘I Don’t Want To Push It’ is a torture device; loop it, turn it up to eleven and watch your victim beg for clemency within ten minutes. ‘The Good & The Bad’ picks up where it leaves off and goes on. And on. And on. As a teenager in a dark basement club off Bleeker Street with 200 of your mates and no lectures tomorrow, it must have approached aural nirvana (a term I use not wholly without irony). Emerging into a Manhattan morning, the world would have been a different place.
Only five tracks long, Sonic Youth had ‘cult’ written all over it. Creativity and experimentalism of this quality is never meant to last, but should implode as quickly as each of the compositions grabs you by the throat and screams for attention. That Sonic Youth are still a potent force is testament to their ability to ride the edge of commercial success and critical acclaim and find succour in both. Nothing in their latter (and large) catalogue comes close to the exuberance and couldn’t-give-a-fuck attitude of this debut. Listening to it from start to finish is like being stabbed slowly. By someone you love.
The Whitey Album was the product of a collaboration between Sonic Youth and Minutemen bassist Mike Watt. If the Youth’s catalogue to this date had cemented their place in the art-rock heavens, this album, released under the name Ciccone Youth and named in honour of The Beatles’s double from 1968, proved that art for art’s sake was still a viable proposition in the blossoming, style-over-substance MTV era. Short pieces (to call them ‘songs’ would be stretching it) with little structure, less melody and lots of humour, The Whitey Album was the arch-experimenters freed from even the loose strictures of their ‘day job’ and deciding to go play in the traffic. Pity the traffic – this is disco for the disturbed, with techno rhythms and noise that would ably soundtrack Orwell’s ‘1984′ or perhaps a darker ‘Blade Runner’. It’s dystopian pop.
‘Me & Jill/Hendrix Cosby’ sounds like someone’s let Hunter S Thompson man the decks after a raid on the local pharmacy. ‘Macbeth’ is a circular road trip at 33.3 rpm, four flat tyres and a Casio keyboard. It might be better to be stoned when listening, but I couldn’t really say. Where any semblance of song pokes its head above the parapet, it’s a cover, and finds Ciccone Youth at their funniest. Madonna’s ‘Burnin’ Up’ is given the out-of-tune treatment, cleverly mixing the original chorus with Moore’s laconic drawl. And when Gordon later rampages through Robert Palmer’s ‘Addicted To Love’, it’s almost respectful yet stupidly hilarious. Other tracks that stand out are ‘Platoon II’, ‘Two Cool Rock Chicks Listening To Neu!’ and ‘March Of The Ciccone Robots’, all titles that indicate the playful levels to which Ciccone Youth descended in their efforts to massage the boundaries. The ‘90s would see Sonic Youth move to a major label and release ever-more mainstream albums, albeit retaining artistic control. In this way, they would expand their fanbase whilst maintaining their role as the spearhead of late 20th Century art-noise. The Whitey Album, their affectionate lampooning of the music they originally revolted against, stands as the last time they could conceivably be called ‘alt-‘ and not be accused of hypocrisy.
So, Sonic Youth – are they (not very) melodic masturbation of the highest order, or ground breaking experimentalism on a scale not seen since Schoenberg? Actually, they’re both. This is music that marries the requirements of no-wave New Yorkers in need of a noise fix, with the band’s genre-busting lust for creativity amid respectful nods to The Stooges, Velvet Underground and contemporaries like Joy Division, Dinosaur Jr and My Bloody Valentine. Or, as a friend and fan told me when I asked for his opinion, it’s Kim Gordon on stage, playing the bass and making a noise. Sometimes that’s enough.
originally published March 31st, 2006
Sons & Daughters
The Repulsion Box •••••
The Repulsion Box is the first full album from hard-edged Glaswegian indie rock band Sons & Daughters, formed in 2003 by ex-Arab Strap bit-parters, Adele Bethel (vox, guitar, piano) and David Gow (drums, percussion). Alongside bassist Ailidh Lennon and guitarist/co-vocalist Scott Paterson, they released their debut seven-track mini-album, Love The Cup, in July 2004 to widespread critical acclaim. In fact, the Strap connection provides two key elements in the Sons & Daughters equation – a penchant for the darker things in life and a willingness to sing in their native Glasgow accent, the latter of which only adds to the overwhelming sense of menace that runs throughout this album. It almost badgers you into appreciating it, conjuring up an image of Bethel leaning down, spitting and sneering in your face as her bandmates draw in ever closer, backing her up with a relentless wall of drums and guitars warning you that you’d better like it, or else.
Some comparisons have been drawn between Sons & Daughters and now-defunct fellow Glaswegians, The Delgados, mostly due to the male/female singing patterns. Frankly, that’s ridiculous, the hometown and the gender balance are the only similarities here. The Delgados are sorely missed, but Sons & Daughters are not here to provide a stopgap. On the subject of dual (or duelling) vocals, whilst Paterson is nominally the co-vocalist in Sons & Daughters, in reality he’s more the dark, deadpan backing vocal to Bethel’s more varied, more passionate and ultimately more frightening lead. This is how it should be; Paterson’s not a bad singer by any means, but it’s clear when he takes to the front – such as in the second verse of ‘Monsters’ – exactly who it is that makes this record outstanding.
That said, the Paterson-fronted ‘Rama Lama’ is one of the best tracks on the album. A slower-paced, stomping, chanting verse that bursts into an energetic, derisive Bethel-screamed chorus, alternately cresting on waves of quiet menace and passionate anger – it’s a deadly combination. That’s not to say that Sons & Daughters don’t have a pop sensibility to go with it; tracks such as ‘Dance Me In’ and ‘Taste The Last Girl’ disprove that theory. However, it’s pretty unlikely that these will lead to a slot on Top of the Pops just yet.
The final part of the jigsaw is provided by producer Victor van Vugt, who has previously worked with PJ Harvey and Beth Orton, though his long-standing collaboration with Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds is a more fitting reference point in the context of this album. You can certainly pick out some of the Australian’s dark glaring foreboding, brilliantly helped along by the death-, break up- and murder-inspired lyrics. Indeed, Bethel is positively pant-wetting in the closing track, ‘Gone’, shrieking “I’ll cut you out of every photograph to within an inch of your life!”, channelling the spirit of a bunny-boiling psychotic.
The relentless musical assault might make this album difficult for some listeners to stick with all the way through without wanting to hide in a corner, but track by track it will insinuate itself into your playlists until everything else begins to feel almost unimportant and trite in comparison. In a word, essential.
originally published August 15th, 2005
The Last Of The Rock Stars •••
Since the original line-up of The Ronettes disbanded way back in 1966, the trajectory of Ronnie Spector’s career has been spectacularly steep in the wrong direction. For this, her first album since 1987 and only her third solo full-length altogether, she returns to the fold both older and wiser and trying to break free from her dogged bad luck and the stigma of her allegedly homicidal ex-husband. The self-congratulatory (or is it self-mocking?) title aside, The Last Of The Rock Stars is a qualified success, against all the odds and in spite of a few wobbly moments.
It’s a touch unfortunate that the album starts with one such dodgy inclusion, ‘Never Gonna Be Your Baby’ coming across like a craggy Cyndi Lauper impersonator singing a third-rate Roxette number. Her once glorious voice sadly sounds a little strained, even on ‘Ode To LA’, her collaboration with The Raveonettes in which the old girl group vibe is back in full effect. Her cover of Amy Rigby’s ‘All I Want’, however, is right on the money, both lyrically and musically with its country-ish theme and perky backing vocals. Other highlights include ‘Hey Sah Lo Ney’, with its nonsense lyrics providing a dose of pure dumb fun, and ‘Work Out Fine’, a cool-as-you-like rock ‘n’ stroll number with spoken word interjections and guitar courtesy of none other than Keith Richards. ‘Won’t Stop Saying Goodbye’ is a glossy, seemingly effortless shimmy with appealing “ba ba ba” bits, while ‘Out In The Cold Again’ pulls out all the stops for a grand, jazzy lounge number that makes for a welcome change in style.
Given the events of recent years, casual listeners will perhaps be most interested in ‘Girl From The Ghetto’, a thinly veiled attack on her ex-husband set to a jaunty 10,000 Maniacs-style tune. Here, Spector extols the virtues of believing in karma and how things are finally balancing out for her. What could well have been a car crash of a track is actually so touching that you can’t help but be affected by the sentiment, especially when it contains lines like “I hope your hell is filled with magazines / and on every page you see a picture of me”. Ouch.
Despite the occasionally poignant lyric, the degree to which the success of the album rests on Spector’s vocal is clearly apparent. When she finds the right song for her pipes, as she has with ‘All I Want’, everything else falls into place and it all seems so effortless and the song so expansive. When things go awry, however, they really get ugly. Ramones cover ‘Here Today, Gone Tomorrow’ is stodgy blues rock with little to recommend it to anyone, while her inclusion of yet another version of Johnny Thunder’s ‘You Can’t Put Your Arms Around A Memory’ is a bit of a mixed bag – the verses are quietly affecting in their tribute to the late Joey Ramone (who sings backing vocals), but the sentiment is lost when the chorus explodes in overblown pomp.
It’s a shame that a greater degree of quality control was lacking given the album’s lengthy gestation period, but in spite of its blips, The Last Of The Rock Stars is a timely reminder of how great Ronnie Spector once was, and how great she can still be given the right tune.
originally published August 23rd, 2006
Live at AR2, Bristol University ••••½
November 19th, 2005
The AR2 at Bristol University is a minuscule venue and one that is frankly inhospitable to whomsoever graces its dingy little stage. Just to even get there, Regina Spektor must climb through a crowd of adoring fans who’ve been eagerly waiting for two hours, and in the atmosphere of heady devotion and anticipation one fears a little for her safety; the French boy I’ve been talking to has just informed me that if he gets to meet her afterwards he will cry and, if by any chance she hugs him, he will die.
Thankfully, Spektor’s burly tour manager and assorted security men clear her a path, and when she finally mounts the stage, she beams at the crowd and looks very happy to be here. Swiftly launching into ‘Ain’t No Cover’, a lovely a cappella ditty, her voice swoops in a manner so soulful that it recalls the great jazz singers like Nina Simone and Billie Holliday as she taps the microphone gently with her finger to form a beat. The song is about death – not an uncommon topic for Spektor – and yet she sings and inhabits the lyrics in a way that celebrates every aspect of living.
As on her records she is irrepressibly playful, and what shines through the entire performance is an undeniable wit. Even when playing songs that are new to many audience members – Spektor has two albums, 11:11 and Songs, yet to be released in the UK, plus a truckload of others so far unrecorded – she elicits genuine laughter from the enthusiastic crowd. Nowhere is this more true than on ‘Baby Jesus’, which, in a pre-emptive strike, Regina warns the crowd not to be offended by. Ostensibly about her fear of fanatical right-wing Christians, the chorus of “All the non-believers, they get to eat dirt / and the believers get to spit on their graves” simply reaffirms that Spektor is a brave, sardonic and original lyricist.
The evening’s excitement doesn’t stop there either. For ‘Poor Little Rich Boy’, Regina plays keyboard one-handed while simultaneously bashing a chair with a drumstick so vigorously that chips can be seen flying into the audience. When she launches into ‘Us’, also from 2004’s Soviet Kitsch, the reverence with which the crowd sing along and faithfully recite each word gets Regina’s infectiously wide grin of approval. Later on, when a lady briefly faints at the front, Spektor stops playing in order to help her up and, after easing her into a seat on the stage, hands her a bottle of water and allows her to sit there for the rest of the show.
Clearly, this is an artist who truly cares for her fans. Indeed, following a rapturously received encore of ‘Samson’, one of Spektor’s most affecting and simple songs that spins the yarn of a tender love, she announces that she’ll attempt to meet any fans who want to say hi at the merchandise stand. She tells us that she fears this plan is overly ambitious, and the fans do indeed flock to meet their idol, but Regina remains until every last one has queued, blushed and gushed their thanks (myself included). For not only is she one of today’s most unique, creative and playful artists, but also one of the most humble and generous.
originally published December 6th, 2005
Mary Ann Meets The Gravediggers & Other Stories ••••
Despite the lazy comparisons that journos often make – “She’s got red hair, she must be the new Tori Amos!” – the songs of Regina Spektor sound like noone else on Earth. This is conclusively proven by this new compilation, which collects together selected tracks from her three previous albums under one overarching theme. Mary Ann Meets The Gravediggers… privileges Spektor’s narrative-driven songs, which are conveniently often the strongest cuts on her albums. Many of them have a literary lyrical bent, making reference to Greek tragedies (‘Oedipus’) and Hans Christian Anderson (‘Prisoners’), alongside sparkling stories of her own creation. The cast of characters is eclectic and colourful, but not all of the songs feature fictional constructions – Spektor is not afraid to place herself centre-stage.
On a sonic level, the record is striking; Regina has a playful attitude to words and a clearly apparent delight in their sound, or rather the unusual sounds she can draw out of them. This is evident throughout, but most of all on ‘Consequence Of Sounds’. The lyrics directly contradict the melodic stream that leaps from Spektor’s mouth. So while the song begins “My rhyme ain’t good just yet / my brain and tongue just met” and goes on to discuss the problems caused by consonants and vowels, every line is delivered with stunning verbal dexterity. Furthermore, many of her songs are punctuated by bursts of foreign language and surprising sounds that play a part in their respective narratives – a sneeze on ‘Mary Ann’, hawking spittle on ‘Daniel Cowman’. Regularly swooping from pop to rap to jazz stylings, often in the space of two lines, Spektor displays an inventiveness that sets her way above the majority of her peers. But one comparison does stand true; the energy and elasticity of her vocals are reminiscent of Ani DiFranco’s riotous live shows.
What this collection also proves is that Spektor can communicate whimsical humour (‘Love Affair’, ‘Sailor Song’) and affecting tragedy with equal skill. ‘Daniel Cowman’ (“a man destined to hang / a man destined to fry”) is about a death row inmate’s desire to take a final bath before his execution. ‘Chemo Limo’ is the album’s most lyrically complex and brilliant song. It presents us with the dream narrative of a mother diagnosed with cancer, her anxieties about dying and leaving her children behind revealed through the coded images thrown up in her dream. In the lyrics “I had a dream: crispy crispy Benjamin Franklin came over and babysat all four of my kids”, her financial concerns and worries about the welfare of her children are conflated with the precision and economy that characterises the best poetry. Meanwhile, the character’s outrage at the financial burden of paying for chemotherapy is expressed in the song’s impassioned chorus: “I can afford chemo like I can afford a limo and on any given day I’d rather ride a limousine.”
The album culminates with recent single, ‘Us’, a dramatic, stormy number that finally began to attract the sort of press and radio attention that Spektor more than warrants. She is an artist who improves with each release – the finest songs here are taken from 2004’s Soviet Kitsch – and she has already completed her next album, scheduled for release later this year. With that in mind, it looks increasingly likely that 2006 will be the year in which Regina Spektor Meets Chart Success & The Acclaim That She Deserves.
originally published January 23rd, 2006
Begin To Hope ••••½
The moment when any semi-established artist braves that most perilous of career moves and delivers their first major label release is always a worrisome one. Though it’s hard to imagine that fans who invested in Regina Spektor’s formative albums – the self-released 11.11 and Songs and 2003’s breakthrough Soviet Kitsch – would begrudge her finally getting the deal she justly deserves, it’s bound to ruffle some feathers.
Born in the former Soviet Union and having moved to New York City aged seven, Spektor has been playing bars the size of broom cupboards for years. Primarily a word-of-mouth phenomenon, her dramatic rise in fame has led to sold-out concerts in more spacious surrounds and, as a result, Begin To Hope has clearly had a whole wad of money hurled in its direction. With over two months spent recording compared with Soviet Kitsch‘s brisk ten days, Spektor has been given a chance to experiment with production and instruments that she’s never been able to before, with beats, drums and bigger arrangements that her previous albums only ever dreamed of.
The result is an album that feels rich and cared for, but one that has already alienated some hardcore fans with cries of “Regina’s gone pop!”. It’s certainly true that some of these songs sound completely different to the girl-and-a-piano affair that is Spektor performing live. But would an album of purely piano-based songs really be as varied and exciting as Begin To Hope is? I doubt it. Regardless, nothing is able to detract from Spektor’s obvious talent for songwriting and performing.
Each song has its own story to tell, both musically and through Spektor’s fascinating way with words. Her lyrics are at times haunting and moving, such as ‘Field Below’s evocative refrain: “darkness spreads over the snow / like ancient bruises”, and at other times laugh-out-loud funny: “Hey remember that month when I would only eat boxes of tangerines / so cheap and juicy!” (‘That Time’). Fittingly for that commanding title, many songs on Begin To Hope are uplifting and invigorating, such as opener ‘Fidelity’, with its bouncy plucked-strings beat, and the rock-out thrill of ‘Better’. Recent single ‘On The Radio’ seems to almost parody the sound of your average radio hit, but the lyrics are thought-provoking and somehow it works. Elsewhere, a number of other songs on the album are kept sparse, with Spektor’s talent for the piano the main focus. The best of these is ‘Samson’, a soulful weepie, while the Russian gothic of ‘Après Moi’ is suitably dark and epic, complete with the atmospheric effect of clocktower chimes.
There are a couple of songs that aren’t so successful, such as the strangely unmelodic piano splurge that is ‘20 Years Of Snow’ and ‘Edit’, which might lead you to wonder whether Spektor has been having a little too much fun with ProTools. On the whole, though, Begin To Hope is an outstanding album of substance and thought, a comprehensive delve into one of the greatest young musical talents around who is carving out trends, not following them. May her fame continue to soar so that she has more chance to experiment with her passion and her art.
originally published July 10th, 2006
The Way To Bitter Lake ••••
Old wives once foretold that a fever could be cured by wearing around one’s neck a spider in a nutshell. In a nutshell, that’s poppycock, but many a fetid sweaty furrowed brow could be soothed by a spin of The Way To Bitter Lake, the debut mini-album from Brooklyn-based artist Jane Herships. Quite where she’s hiding her other four limbs is anybody’s guess, but with Herships less is unquestionably more. She may be yet another Sidewalk Café alumnus, having stolen the show at a November 2004 open mic night, but Herships stands out on the antifolk periphery by virtue of having a classically beautiful, bittersweet voice. Some comparisons ring true, but only fleetingly; a first listen brought to mind a less twangy Jill Barber or Victoria Williams, while a second conjured a slightly less deathly Julie Doiron supping a herbal tea with Nina Nastasia. Then just when you think you might have nailed her down, Herships will gleefully give you the slip.
Opener ‘The Clearing’ is deceptively textbook, lo-fi finger-picked loveliness; “now is the time to behave” she opines a little mischieviously, but the undulating melody and perfectly timed harmonies of Louis Schwadron (who was, until recently, the Polyphonic Spree’s French horn supremo) are ecstatically cracked and lovelorn. ‘Don’t Be Afraid, I’ve Just Come To Say Goodbye’ is what Múm might sound like if they spent less time on their laptops – gorgeous flourishes of flute and Schwadron’s horn are woven sparingly through hushed double-tracked vocals, sweetly intimate guitar and unintrusive electric piano. Herships clearly knows a thing or two about subtlety, resisting too the temptation to overegg the lyrics; “and should I beware / your nights and your mares” in particular is devastatingly simple and suggestive. The intriguingly-titled ‘I Don’t Know If She Had Any Teeth Because She Never Smiled’ offers up more of the same, this time coated in black treacle drones, while ‘The Bitter One’ is blessed with a crisper guitar sound, bolder vocal and weeping, evocative strings.
But it’s when Herships plugs in that things get truly exhilarating. The cool countrified lament of ‘Cold Eyes’ is a long-lost Edith Frost song, circa Telescopic, or at least it shimmers so finely that it very well could be. The prettiness of ‘Maggie’s Song For Alice’ is torn completely asunder by a jagged wedge of electric guitar that at first might seem woefully misjudged, but just ten seconds later may just be the most wonderfully pained Stratocaster solo that’s ever pierced your armour. And after the summery stroll of ‘Midnight On The Nile’ lulls you back into calm, ‘End Song’ briefly erupts with a quietly fierce farewell, the feedback so thickly caked on that the lyrics are all but obscured and indecipherable.
For disambiguation’s sake and a handy bit of useless trivia, there are in fact three Bitter Lakes in Herships’ native land, and which of them this captivating song suite points to, who really minds? If further fruits of her labour are this truly scrumptious, Herships herself may find the path to success rather well signposted too.
originally published February 26th, 2006