Filed under: feature, interrupting yr broadcast | Tags: 2008, die so fluid, gary munday, interview, music
interrupting yr broadcast: die so fluid
In a reputable yet cosy venue hybrid metal-somethings Die So Fluid are patiently wandering the performance room, occasionally meeting and greeting an early punter that has sneaked in from the main bar, clutching old courage. As I stroll into the black and musty venue area, the soundman is pacing to and from the desk to the PA and the band are milling about. Seizing my chance for interview, there is a typically awkward moment of introduction with the band’s striking but humble frontlady, Grog, but soon enough all three members exit the room, walk upstairs and plonk onto a pair of leather sofas that many an unfortunate has got lost in at the end of a night.
We settle with ease, striking up banter. They are about to have a short American stint for their tour, and due to their previous touring friendship with fellow girlgut metallers My Ruin, it seems likely they’ll fit in just fine. However, with the typical struggles of escaping major label strangleholds and the making of the latest album Not Everybody Gets A Happy Ending being quite a drawn out affair, are times hard? Or is this a fabricated piece of journo-spin? Wears The Trousers investigates…
Filed under: album, back issues, live, review | Tags: alex ramon, ane brun, anja mccloskey, barefoot, bat for lashes, be good tanyas, be your own PET, bellrays, bettie serveert, birdie busch, bodixa, broadcast, callum sinclair, cathy burton, corinne bailey rae, emma bunton, gary munday, gem nethersole, jane birkin, jenny beck, joan baez, kate bush, mari boine, matthew hall, moya brennan, paul woodgate, robbie de santos, russell barker, sam brown, sam obernik, stephen collings, tiffany daniels, trevor raggatt, vashti bunyan
The following reviews were all published on our old website between May 2005 and December 2006.
Bowery Songs •••
Live albums are notoriously contentious; allowing the artist freedom to digress at will and maybe even include some unexpected or long awaited treats, such release carry with them a great responsibility. We music fans are a ravenous bunch, each gifted with the ability to comprise our own perfect setlist, should said artist ever stumble upon our rambling message board postings. Most artists, however, show no regard for our unique talents, the live release serving only as a greatest hits showcase with somewhat wobblier vocals. This could never be said of Joan Baez though. Forty plus years into her career, she has compiled a live set that it is both expansive and timely, with more than a passing nod to requests from her fans.
Bowery Songs is her first live disc in a decade, recorded the night after the US re-elected George Bush in 2004 at New York’s Bowery Ballroom. The context obviously informs the evening’s song selection, nowhere more so than on Steve Earle’s ‘Christmas In Washington’ (“It’s Christmastime in Washington / the Democrats rehearsed / gettin’ into gear for four more years / things not gettin’ worse”), but then politics has been the foundation of her entire career and as such this is typical, if reliable, Baez fare. Instead, the heart of the album undoubtedly lies in her menacing rendition of Natalie Merchant’s ‘Motherland’, which Baez imbues with an almost apocalyptic sense of loss. It makes you wonder what sort of album she could make if she stepped out of her comfort zone a little more often.
In addition to the more recent material, fans are treated to four oft-requested but never before recorded songs, most notably ‘Jerusalem’ – another Steve Earle track – that concludes proceedings on a rousing note. Baez is a remarkable conduit for both old and new songwriting talent, making classics like ‘Joe Hill’ (sung by Baez at Woodstock) sound ever relevant and the newer material seem like it’s long been part of her repertoire.
This is at least her eighth live album and, as is the theme with her live releases, it functions as a snapshot in time. For a more comprehensive record of what Baez can really do as a performer, check out From Every Stage. For the time being, however, this is a solid collection of songs that really only hints at her greatness.
originally published on March 19th, 2006
Live at Brighton Dome •••••
March 6, 2006
The palpable shared excitement of an audience whose ages spanned at least five decades was evidence in itself that Joan Baez’s appeal has never been limited, as some have naively suggested, to those who first encountered her music 40 years ago. When an artist is preceded onstage by a steaming cup of tea and still needs to take three bows before she can even begin to sing, you know that you’re due a remarkable evening. Accompanied by Erik Della Penna on guitars and lap steel and Graham Maby on bass, the setup was different from the percussion-heavy approach to Baez’s last tour and was perhaps the better for it; however, the phrase ‘you can’t improve on perfection’ was clearly invented for the legendary singer-songwriter-activist.
Joan’s empathetic yet fiery personality shone through as she was lovingly heckled from the start by a gentleman who enthusiastically insisted upon ‘welcoming’ her between and even during songs and then proceeded to randomly call out ‘Judy Collins’ at inopportune moments, to which Joan replied, “that’s not me but Judy’s a great friend of mine, if it helps”. Having warned him not to get too excited, she dissipated any annoyance in the audience and ultimately showed her great sense of humour and all-encompassing love for humanity by declaring, “I’m quite sure he has a good heart”.
Opening with the classic ‘The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down’, the audience needed little encouragement to join in and continued to do so as the first half of the two- hour unbroken set mixed newer songs such as ‘The Scarlet Tide’, Gillian Welch’s murderous ‘Caleb Meyer’ (followed by ‘Fennario’ and ‘Miserable’ with a joke that Joan does not deal in cheerful songs) and Steve Earle’s politically biting ballad ‘Christmas In Washington’ with favourites spanning each decade of Joan’s career to date. ‘God On Our Side’, a haunting version of Johnny Cash’s ‘Long Black Veil’, ‘Joe Hill’ and ‘Love Is Just A Four Letter Word’ had the audience enthralled and singing along, as did a wonderful impromptu cover of ‘Stand By Me’, rescued from the earlier soundcheck. Small touches like this added to the feeling that Joan continues to be a thoroughly organic artist, never repeating her most popular songs ad nauseam but genuinely connecting with her audience to interact with them through her music. This was most apparent when she rearranged her set, omitting songs that she did not feel fitted with the mood in the auditorium.
The sheer clarity of her soaring folk-soprano voice mesmerised the room as Joan, now alone onstage, stepped away from the microphone and effortlessly filled the space with an a capella version of ‘Swing Low Sweet Chariot’. It seemed impossible to follow such a performance but the subsequent heartbreaking, slightly slowed versions of ‘Jesse’ and ‘Sir Galahad’ were both enriched with the kind of tone that is only heard when an artist truly connects with the images behind each word that is sung. It was, in a word, delicious. The band returned for rousing versions of ‘Hard Rain’ and ‘Jerusalem’ before a determined encore brought them back for ‘Gracias A La Vida’ and a balladic farewell as Joan mimed that it was time for her to sleep and for us to as well. Throughout the evening it was as though each trademark expressive hand gesture spun invisible webs out into the audience and wrapped us up tighter with inimitable magic. If she is due to be in a town near you (or even not so near), do whatever you have to do to get a ticket; beg, borrow or steal, you’ll be very glad you did.
originally published April 26th, 2006
Corinne Bailey Rae
Corinne Bailey Rae •••
It seems that writing about Corinne Bailey Rae without throwing in the names of every legendary black singer since recording began is the reviewer’s equivalent of eating a jam doughnut without licking your lips. Record company hyperbole is something we’ve come to expect with high profile launches of new artists, but comparisons aside, the buzz surrounding Bailey Rae is largely on her own merits. Her Like A Star EP (the title track of which fittingly opens the album) has been floating around since last November, garnering interest on both sides of the Atlantic. Domestically at least, this was mainly aroused on the back of a last minute appearance on ‘Later With… Jools Holland’ in the place of an unwell Sinéad O’Connor. It’s interesting that fellow EMI artist KT Tunstall also got her big break on Jools, covering for a queasy Kanye West – anyone appearing on the new series should really keep an eye on the tea lady!
Praise ensued from Whiley to Wogan and it was well deserved; ‘Like A Star’ is a fierce, honest self-penned lullaby dedicated to her husband, but it acts as something of a red herring. From there on in we are left to wonder will the real Corinne Bailey Rae please stand up. It’s track seven, the sublime ‘Choux Pastry Heart’, before we’re allowed another glimpse of Rae at her most arresting; the lyrics may be somewhat trite, e.g. “one for sorrow, two for joy”, but like any great soul singer, her talent lies in the delivery and therein lies the rub. You may not learn much about Rae from this album, but then you wonder whether baring her soul is really the point when the other results are so joyous. ‘Enchantment’ has the feel of Massive Attack at their most lush, ‘Put Your Records On’ is the sound of summer come early, while the raucous ‘I’d Like To’ relocates Lauryn Hill’s ‘Every Ghetto, Every City’ to a tarmacced driveway in Leeds.
Inevitably, although Bailey Rae is eminently personable throughout, she cannot be all things to all people, even if her label try to promote that. Comparisons with the greats make nice soundbites but they only really highlight her shortcomings; she doesn’t have the phrasing of Holiday, the wit of Badu, the sensuality of Scott or the poetry of, er, Floetry and in trying on so many styles, she frequently misses the mark. But at times, albeit fleetingly, there is enough effortlessness to suggest that, if left to her own devices, Bailey Rae could come up with something spectacular. For now, stick with her. She could yet be brilliant.
originally published on March 19th, 2006
Concept albums, by their very nature, are a hit and miss breed. The clue is in the name; if the concept is a bad one, then the album is destined for ridicule as an exercise in pretension. How about a debut album made up of acoustic jazz covers of club, house and hip-hop anthems? Never mind the Balearics… here’s Barefoot.
When singer Sam Obernik performed a Cubano version of ‘It Just Won’t Do’, the Tim Deluxe hit featuring her vocals, it was large enough a radio hit that Obernik struck upon the idea to combine her guitar-based songwriting abilities with her dance scene success. Enter Tommy D, a DJ, producer and songwriter famous for his work with the likes of Kylie, Janet Jackson, Catatonia, KT Tunstall and Corinne Bailey Rae, to name but more than a few. One evening and a bottle of wine later, Obernik and Tommy D conceived the idea of reinterpreting their favourite club anthems and Barefoot was born.
A project like this could easily be dismissed as a tongue-in-cheek slice of Hoxton postmodernism. Even in the late Nineties, Turner Prize winner Jeremy Deller orchestrated colliery brass band versions of acid house anthems, while Radio One sessions often include acoustic reworks of dancefloor fillers, like Will Young’s ‘Hey Ya’ or Jamie Cullum’s ‘Frontin’. Barefoot is more than just a musical curiosity, however, and the contemporary jazz and bossa nova stylings recall the likes of Nouvelle Vague, Zero 7 and Morcheeba. Most of the album was recorded live and the immediacy of the musicianship works in the album’s favour, taking the songs that extra step further away from their over-polished origins. Plastered over so many bargain basement Asda checkout compilations, the word ‘chillout’ may have lost all meaning, but this is more laid back than a lounge singer seductress provocatively draped over a white baby grand.
On the surface the tracklisting reads like an ‘old skool classics’ CD, from Grandmaster Flash’s ‘White Lines’ and Crystal Waters’s ‘Gypsy Woman’ to Underworld’s ‘Born Slippy’ and the Run DMC / Jason Nevins mash-up ‘It’s Like That’. Aimed at the ‘90s Ibiza crowd who have swapped the clubs and plastic pints of lager (lager, lager) for red wine soirees in their dockside apartments, what this album highlights perhaps more than anything is that dance music has always boasted a wealth of great tunes beneath layers of pounding beats and sequenced loops. Even ubiquitous dancefloor fillers like Mousse T’s ‘Horny’ are given fresh life, with Obernik’s breathy vocals suiting the brazen lyrics to a, er, T, while a seductive bass line coolly pulses in the background.
The range of material here is the perfect vehicle for Obernik’s vocal versatility, but where Barefoot go from here is anyone’s guess. A debut concept album may have limited their future potential, but as far as concepts go it’s an intriguing prospect and one that more than delivers. So if you’re looking for an album to impress your friends this summer, kick off your dancefloor heels and take an i-podiatry shuffle through the Barefoot experience.
originally published on May 7th, 2006
Bat For Lashes
Fur & Gold •••••
There’s something strangely attractive about this debut album from Bat For Lashes, the curious nom de plume of Brighton-based performance artist Natasha Khan and her rotating cast of musicians. Your CD shelf may be full of a fair few other acts of her ilk who are just as good, if not better, but the chances are you’ll still be compelled to listen to Fur & Gold over and over. Perhaps it’s Khan’s evocative vocals as they run the gamut from professional crooner to heartbroken siren via the seductive confessions of a mystical, adventuring temptress. Then again, perhaps it’s simply down to the songs themselves; sneakily hook-laden and occasionally disarmingly simple, they’re the kind that leave you wishing that they’d made the album eight times longer. As it is, Fur & Gold is exquisitely free of filler; every track is a must-hear and has clearly been chosen with care. Though you’d be hard-pressed to sniff it out unaided there’s an under- lying progression at work; the songs were purposefully sequenced to take the listener on an overnight journey from dusk (‘Horse & I’) to the panoramic sunshine of a brand new day (‘I Saw A Light’).
The usual suspects have cropped up time and again in reference to Bat For Lashes, some justified, some used dismissively. Comparisons with Chan Marshall fall into the former category, particularly on the plaintive album centrepiece ‘Sad Eyes’ which is as naked and tremulous as any of the Cat Power figurehead’s best. Here and elsewhere there’s judicious use of piano so lesser-clued commentators will inevitably point to Tori Amos, while the measured quirk found throughout is reminiscent of Björk’s more sober compositions. On a couple of occasions, too, Khan employs the kind of narrative found in Kate Bush songs, but for the most part Fur & Gold stacks up perfectly well on its own. Other standout tracks are the celebrated first single ‘The Wizard’, a gloriously mystical gem that completely embodies the Bat For Lashes ethos, and the Josh T Pearson-featuring tribal rhythms of ‘Trophy’.
Having enjoyed the patronage of the likes of CocoRosie and Devendra Banhart, Khan has found herself in the enviable position of appealing to the alternative folk crowd (despite the incongruity of her music) as well as aficionados of your straight-up indie chanteuses. Admirers of her live show ought to be thrilled too, despite the omission of fan favourite ‘Howl!’. Fur & Gold has been immaculately produced; the band have got the distortions, the drums aren’t too loud and at no point do you find yourself wincing because the vocals are slightly too glittery. It’s absolutely and utterly perfect. Trust us.
originally published October 27th, 2006
The Be Good Tanyas
Hello Love ••••
Three years on from their sophomore effort Chinatown, Frazey Ford, Samantha Parton and Trish Klein return to breathe their particular brand of ethereal loveliness into a weary, somewhat jaded world. The ethos underpinning the Tanyas’ approach to this record seems to have been ‘if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it’; Hello Love replicates their first two albums by wrapping original songs and judiciously chosen covers in an inviting mix of blues, bluegrass and folk instrumentation and delivering them with those notoriously spine-tingling harmonies.
Continuing to ignore even the most rudimentary elements of the diction rulebook, Ford unfurls her trademark magical mumble throughout, stretching and slurring syllables in a manner that brings a beguiling air of mystery and enchantment to everything she sings. You have to check the lyrics to realise that what sounds like “I’ll suck your wounds” on the title track is actually “How succulent a little spring day gets.” As before, Parton’s sensuous, caressing whisper takes the lead on a few songs, most affectingly on the exquisite, piano-led ‘Song For R’, a heartbreaking portrait of addiction in which the narrator resolves to view her afflicted brother as neither saint nor demon but simply as “a child, arms stretched out for love.” But, however compelling the vocals are ‘individually’, it is of course harmony that most defines the Tanyas’ sound, and when their voices come together, as on the “things keep changing” refrain in Sean Hayes’s ‘A Thousand Tiny Pieces’ or the chorus of the joyous ‘Ootischenia’, it’s simply impossible not to be uplifted and moved.
While the likes of ‘Human Thing’, ‘Song For R’, ‘Ootischenia’ and the title track demonstrate the Tanyas’ own songwriting skills to be in fine fettle, the covers and traditional material also yield some of the strongest moments on the album. There’s a homage to fellow Canuck Neil Young on ‘For The Turnstiles’, a moving take on Mississippi John Hurt’s ‘Nobody Cares For Me’ and a wonderfully evocative, swampy rendition of the traditional number ‘Out Of The Wilderness’. But the cover destined to raise the most eyebrows is the one that’s not on the official tracklist, tucked away at the end as a hidden extra. Following its gospel makeover on the ‘Romeo + Juliet’ soundtrack, Prince’s ‘When Doves Cry’ continues to prove an adaptable beast; the Tanyas exquisitely recast it as some sort of sultry blues hymn.
It’s a testament to the distinctiveness of the Tanyas approach that they can make such a diverse selection of material sound cohesive and coherent across one album. Overall, Hello Love may not take them in any new musical directions but it sees them continuing to refine their style without losing an ounce of their freshness or spontaneity. By refusing to make any concessions to commercialism or current music trends, they sound as daring, relevant and hip as anybody out there. It’s great to have them back.
originally published November 5th, 2006
Be Your Own PET
Be Your Own PET •••
Following their much-hyped debut single ‘Damn Damn Leash’ – said by some typically over-zealous in-the-knows to be the ‘Teenage Kicks’ for the ringtone generation – was never going to be an easy task for Nashville under-agers Be Your Own PET, a teen tearaway foursome fronted by temperamental platinum blonde Jemina Pearl. A harsh and uncompromising 112 seconds of telling parents precisely where to go, ‘Damn Damn Leash’ left many an unsuspecting audience utterly breathless, and now, three more singles down the line, there are questions to be answered. Does the sheer white-knuckle exhilaration of the singles ride the course of a full-length album?
Have they mellowed and skulked into the commercial pop-punk void vacated by No Doubt in the wake of Gwen Stefani’s solo exploits and babymaking? More importantly, have they ruined it all by rush releasing an album to crest their wave of hype? To these ears, the band are guilty on all counts, though perhaps less so on the last; Be Your Own PET stakes its place on happy ground that’s somewhere between their punk/hardcore influences and mainstream accessibility in a similar vein to Pretty Girls Make Graves’s The New Romance. There are some glorious pop moments, most notably on the recent single ‘Adventure’ – an excitable, urgent and brief sonic workout on which Jemina’s vocals float between the anthemic and cutesy – and, like Stefani, Pearl is certainly skilled in the art of voice control. She almost even breaks into a ballad on ‘October, First Account’, though it’s not your usual sopfest, boasting the disturbing lyric “we cut ourselves open a hundred times but we’ve not run out of ammo yet”, but is still surprisingly buoyant and uplifting. But crass juvenilia is pretty much the order of the day elsewhere; ‘Bog’, for example, is a catchy little ditty about drowning a boyfriend’s dog in the toilet.
When the melody is clear and the vocals less screamy, Be Your Own PET are masters of their trade. It’s a pity then that this rather excludes the majority of the album – too many songs are fairly indistinguishable, all with nonsensical lyrics and little in the way of a tune. So whilst there is no denying their fresh and fiery outlook on songs like ‘Bunk Trunk Skunk’ (in which Jemina declares “I’m an independent motherfucker”), the extent to which expressing their ‘attitude’ has compromised the quality of the album is questionable indeed. Be Your Own PET is not a bad start by any stretch of the imagination, but there’s no escaping the feeling that, had the opportunity to record an album come at a slightly later point in the band’s career, the result would have been more accomplished and consistent. A brighter future awaits.
Robbie de Santos
originally published March 19th, 2006
On The Outside ••½
A casual glance at Jenny Beck’s third album, On The Outside, may well provoke a serious double take – is that Sarah McLachlan’s kid sister staring back at you from the sleeve? Sadly, no. Jenny Beck is neither Canadian nor a piano balladeer – she’s actually Swedish and ploughs a far poppier furrow. Having relocated to the UK in 2001, Beck has been constantly writing and recording material with her band and playing gigs on the circuit, and such hard-won experience shines through in the quality of her vocal. The dozen tracks here fall neatly into two broad categories; acoustic, country-tinged numbers and modern, upbeat pop songs complete scratches and samples. Beck’s vocal fit both styles with ease, giving a bright and punchy sound that suits the poppier material and a subtle country overlay and tender vibrato that, when blended with subtle harmonies, really compliments the slower songs. So while some comparisons have been rather unsurprising (e.g. The Corrs, Sheryl Crow and ‘big sis’ Sarah), Beck is no mere copyist and displays a genuine talent.
It’s a greater shame then that the album is ultimately and badly let down by a production job that fails to match the writing or performance. Perhaps it’s a symptom of Beck and her long-term partner / drummer / co-producer Mitch Deighton having a lack of professional experience, or of the perennial problem that so often besets self-produced material, an impartiality and closeness that prohibits the making of unbiased and even ruthless choices. Who knows? But because they demand more verve and sparkle, the poppier songs are the ones that suffer the most; here, the overly dry drum sounds that dominate throughout soon begin to grate and the individual elements don’t seem to come together as a cohesive whole. Indeed, you can’t help but feel that these songs could really be brought to life if the masters were left in more capable hands. Bob Clearmountain, where are your golden ears when we need them?
Fortunately, the more acoustic numbers like the affirmative ‘Be Yourself’ and ‘Everything’ are easier to admire, and the stunningly beautiful harmonies on ‘Tonight’ go some way towards redemption. Beck also strays purposefully into the country-pop realm of LeAnn Rimes with ‘I’d Be Damned’, while ‘Apology’ is a confident slice of white reggae marred only by a slightly muddy (as opposed to ‘dubby’) backing track. Elsewhere, the otherwise excellent ‘Miss Negative’ stumbles over some awkward scans and phrases, though these are the only real signs that English is not Beck’s native tongue. Tellingly, it’s more than likely that a good independent producer would have corrected these flaws at an early stage by prompting a minor edit. Overall, On The Outside boasts a decent enough set of songs and has the potential to be an excellent album were it to be retooled.
originally published March 19th, 2006
Have A Little Faith •••
Over time, bands can get too close to their own sound to know what it is; anything that personal can have a tendency to be talked up and what once was good can become disappointingly average. The BellRays, however, know exactly where they’re at – ‘maximum rock ‘n’ soul’ is what they call it, a description so succinct that it almost makes their critics redundant.
Back with what appears to be their sixth album (though only two of these and a Poptones compilation appear to have found a UK release), The BellRays have matured somewhat and appear to be invigorated after singer Lisa Kekaula’s stint touring with the reformed MC5. Although it is easily their best work to date, there’s something I personally find lacking in The BellRays. They are obviously talented and often make for a pleasant listen, but on record at least, they never really reach out and grab their audience, which is something this music is quite clearly intended to do. It’s safe to say, however, that if you’re into blues-rock, you’ll love this album regardless. That’s not to say the rest of us should switch off completely; there’s something different in the water this time around.
When The Bellrays decide to genre hop, as they frequently do on Have A Little Faith, keep your ear cocked. The jazzy guitar on ‘Tell The Lie’ provides a neat backdrop for Kekaula’s voice and ‘Lost Disciples’, though similar in feel, proves even better. Its bongo-riddled jazz makes for classy wine bar music, meant in the kindest possible way. Elsewhere, the bluesy laidback tones of ‘Have A Little Faith In Me’ and the slow blues shuffle of ‘Everyday I Think Of You’ are impressive, as is ‘Third Time’s The Charm’, which happily recalls Tina Turner in her heyday. When they rock out and try to kick ass, there are some memorable moments – like when they channel the spirit of Jimi Hendrix for ‘Time Is Gone’ or sound mountainous like Led Zep on ‘Chainsong (I’ve Been Searchin’)’ – but much of the time tends to blur into one.
Have A Little Faith is definitely an album for aficionados of blues-rock aficionado, but is also worth checking out for the moments when The BellRays deviate from their apparent set path.
originally published October 5th, 2006
Bare Stripped Naked •••½
After six studio albums and a concept live release of Velvet Underground covers, Dutch band Bettie Serveert celebrate their 15th birthday with this new collection of mostly acoustic, introspective ditties. With such a sparse remit, there’s nothing overtly original here – some of the riffs and vocal lines might as well be tattooed onto your eardrums – but there is something so real, so full of blood and fibre, flesh and flaws that you won’t really mind. Singer Carol van Dyk has some of the warmest chops around and it really shows in these back-to-basics compositions. Of the 12 tracks, ‘Brain-Tag’ and ‘Certainlie’ are reworkings of earlier numbers, the former from their 1992 debut Palomine and the latter from 2003’s career-rejuvenating Log 22. While ‘Brain-Tag’ shines, the Neil Young-inspired version of ‘Certainlie’ fares less well with its ridiculously cheesy guitar chords, pre-chorus breakdowns and a predictable flow that sounds a bit like Radiohead’s early ballad nonsense before they turned so beautifully sour.
First single ‘Hell = Other People’ may have a charming vocal but it doesn’t really go anywhere, with repetitive guitar leads that jangle and sparkle but hang in their frame alone, begging to be fiddled with and explored. The lyrics are dry and the best line – the title – is wickedly overdone. It just seems like Carol and co. found a few good hooks and played them again and again ‘til their sheen began to fade. Furthermore, there are two versions, as if we needed this point rubbed in our faces. Fortunately, there is much to be enjoyed elsewhere. ‘Love & Learn’ refuses to lock itself into the familiarities of the day, instead travelling ever further backwards until it hits a deep rooted authenticity. It isn’t folk, it isn’t a corny stereotype, but something in the trickling, magical melody hints of a deeper presence. If your mind is prone to cliché, it might wander off to think of rolling green hills, hippie mums and ruddy-faced children playing in the grass. Elsewhere, the beyond pretty weepie ‘Roadmovies’ and ‘What They Call Love’ are ideal movie soundtrack material, while the ballerina nightmare ‘Painted World’ hits home with plucked orchestral strings, tiny pianos, mournful wind instruments and a honey-glazed vocal that slithers up your spine, injecting a beautiful poison you’ll be happy to receive.
‘2nd Time’ treads similar ground to the reworked ‘Certainlie’ but swerves onto a different path before it’s too late. It actually comes through with a deadly serious conviction and sadness; just when you thought you had your feet firmly planted in the soul of suspicion, this sneaky song will steal your heart. Unless you’re careful. But then the next plausible step is that you’re on the phone and ordering that cream sofa you’ve been wanting from IKEA. Overall, Bare Stripped Naked is perhaps the most honest record that the band have ever made and one you might gladly grow old with. Cut your hair, settle down, get married, buy a Volvo; whatever. You could do worse than to hum this all the while.
originally published October 14th, 2006
For better or worse, British-born Jane Birkin is largely famous for being Mrs Serge Gainsbourg way back when and for providing a variety of saucy noises on his controversial 1969 hit ‘Je T’aime… Moi Non Plus’. However, there’s plenty more to her resume than that. As well as acting in more than 50 films, including Michelangelo Antonioni’s notorious ‘Blow Up’ in which she appeared in her 20 year-old birthday suit, she has also released a dozen albums. Not bad for a ‘60s It Girl caught up with France’s bad boy du jour.
Recent years have seen Birkin capitalising on her kitsch pop culture appeal and as with 2004’s Rendez-Vous, Fictions contains such a crowded pool of songwriting talent that you’d expect the result to be nothing less than genius. Where Rendez-Vous featured such pop luminaries as Massive Attack’s Mickey 3D, Leslie Feist, Manu Chao, Placebo’s Brian Molko, Bryan Ferry, Etienne Daho and fellow yeh-yeh girl Françoise Hardy, Fictions boasts original tracks from The Divine Comedy’s Neil Hannon, The Magic Numbers and Rufus Wainwright, as well as contributions from eminent French songwriters that are, of course, sung in Birkin’s adopted language. Only Portishead’s Beth Gibbons makes an appearance on both records, and justifiably so (more on that later). Along with musical contributions from Johnny Marr and arrangements from sought-after producer Renauld Letang (Björk, Gonzales), it almost as if a cooler version of Live Aid had gathered together in Birkin’s studio.
To make things even more eclectic, Birkin tackles a trio of songs from eminent songwriters, even by her collaborators’ standards: Tom Waits’s ‘Alice’, Neil Young’s ‘Harvest Moon’ and Kate Bush’s ‘Mother Stands For Comfort’. The reasoning behind covering these classics isn’t immediately apparent and justice is not quite served. Although the haunting quality of ‘Alice’ is captured well enough, Birkin’s rendition of ‘Harvest Moon’ veers too close to cabaret and she’s certainly no Kate Bush. What binds this rather odd bunch together, however, is Jane’s breathy and incessantly delicate vocals, which, it has to be said, sometimes fall unfortunately flat. Always on the verge of breaking into a whisper and never really breaking into song, singing isn’t Birkin’s forte and you may find it falls on the unlovable side of ‘acquired taste’. When she’s bring British, Birkin is utterly so and excels in the received pronunciation talking style of singing that acts like Black Box Recorder have tried so hard to emulate. But whether chirruping in English or French, she is always reserved and rarely dominates the songs.
It’s not all wafer thin, however; there are moments when her tender haunting vocals entirely transform a song into something both quirky and lovably unique. Album opener ‘Home’ (penned by Hannon) is one of the highlights, its jaunty tunefulness and British comedic slant really shines through, but the real jem is Gibbons’s ‘My Secret’. Words of lost love wrap around an old-fashioned lounge style sound with a dark, almost Lynchian edge that perfectly suits Birkin’s style and expression, perhaps an indication of the longer lasting connection between the two women. But while these instances of loveliness and Birkin’s characteristically oddball stamp will win your heart, Fictions is a difficult album to digest as a whole.
originally published July 14th, 2006
The Way Back Home EP ••½
This first official release from Leeds quintet Bodixa (pronounced ‘bo-di-kuh’) follows a successful few years on the touring circuit, supporting the likes of KT Tunstall, Moby and Tom McCrae. The Way Back Home is a mostly sleepy affair, though you wouldn’t know it from leadoff number ‘Goodbye Winter’. A jangly summer anthem that drives on down the speedway with unashamed smiles and the wind in its hair, it’s a familiar feminist roadtrip that travels a well-beaten path, but not so worn out that it can’t afford to accommodate another band of travellers. The mellow American stylings are easily swallowed and sink down without a fight. It doesn’t make it original, nor does it make it right as such, but there is little reservation needed for such a jolly, unpretentious tune.
‘A Room’, meanwhile, is so delicate and well-to-do that it may well pass you by. In fact, there it goes, wooing itself with simpering harmonies (courtesy of Anna Elias and Emily Norton), barely played acoustic guitars and projected by a waltzy 3/4 beat and an overall sound that’s sweet to the core. Three songs in, ‘Sing Your Bones’ is a lovely acoustic ditty that’s so chilled out it was probably recorded while lying down for a nap. The lone acoustic guitar hums away to itself as vocals sway and float above it singing of romance and crying over an open fire. It’s by far the prettiest, sloppiest inclusion and makes for a perfect choice if there’s someone in the room you really want a hug from. Final song ‘Nothing To Show’ is easy on the ear but unremarkable, like an open mic rendition of an Alanis Morissette or Beth Orton classic. Despite its clever rhythmical juts, the band’s passion for gentle, woozy melodies might well have you in the pleasant throes of slumber by the end.
Overall, The Way Back Home makes for a fine start with four appealing and highly listenable compositions. On this evidence, Bodixa are a softly simmering, sinless band seeking only to glide on through, making music and harming no one. They’re a balanced and graceful act in a sea of peacocks that strut too hard. Nothing new, but oh so very sensual.
originally published November 23rd, 2006
Idjagiedas (In The Hand Of The Night) •••½
An unsuspecting listener might at first assume that this is a Native American album, but singer-songwriter Mari Boine is actually from Norway. She comes from the Sami natives that live in the north of the country and has drawn many an influence from her strong musical heritage. She successfully blends traditional movements, such as the Christian Laestadian music of the Sami people, with Norwegian folk music and more modern musical approaches like jazz and rock. Since her first international release Gula-Gula in 1989, Boine has come a long way. Even her own people were sceptical of her approach and outspoken politics, but Boine has transcended into an inspirational role model for the Sami tribes and followers around the world.
While she still frequently expresses her anger and sadness about the oppression of her people, Boine is seen to be unreservedly embracing of her Sami heritage and mystical traits. She says herself that she is always looking for expressions that are more than just words. Most of her lyrics are written by Rauni Magga Lukkari and Karen Anne Buljo, but she also sings in her own imaginary language that originated somewhere deep in her heart and, according to her, embraces the idea that Lapp music is all about finding the primitive force in yourself.
Opening song ‘Vuoi Vuoi Mu’ is a smooth and spiritual affair. Even though Boine sings in a language not accessible to most listeners, it’s easy to feel and sympathise with the pain, experience and mysticism of the song. Boine’s touching, emotional range is enhanced by an ever present and urgent baseline and tribal-like percussion. The title track begins quite softly, with dreamy, chanting vocals accompanied only by percussion. But the trademark ever-moving, heavy bass soon comes into the arrangement, tinging the song with an intensity and darkness. At points a low and mystical male voice speak-sings over the vocals. You’ll imagine what this might sound like sung live as it screams with emotion and ancient history.
The more experimental ‘Gos But Munno Cinat Leat’ starts out with a much quieter feel, with hypnotic chanting that fades in and out, switching between near and far. When the full arrangement comes in – again dominated by a moving and urgent bassline – the mix of modern recording techniques and ancient languages and chants provides an accurate and moving reflection on what the modern day life of a Sami native might be like. The outstanding ‘Mu Ustit Engeliid Sogalas (My Friend Of Angel Tribe)’ shows Boine’s passion for atmosphere and melancholy. The vocals are quiet, almost whispery. At points the arrangement drops down to basic percussion and voice only, creating an intimate and angelic experience. ‘Davvi Bavttiin (On Fells Of The North)’ is equally quiet, rather like a lullaby. It sounds like it was written in dark days and has the feel of an ancient sad romantic love story. Other songs – they’re all quite special – include the delicate and vulnerable ‘Lottas’, the powerful and dramatic ‘Diamantta Spaillit’, the dreamily dark ‘Geasuha’, the character-laden ‘Afruvva (The Mermaid)’, the fragile and intimate ‘Uldda Nieida’ and the quiet but urgent ‘Fapmodalkkas’.
So there you have it. Idjagiedas is a beautiful album that offers an unparalleled insight into an ancient heritage that most listeners would otherwise have no connection to. Because of the songs’ emotional maturity we can attempt to grasp the pain, history and tradition the Sami culture embraces. Mari Boine certainly knows how to keep a song close to her heart.
Appellations like ‘the first lady of Irish music’ give someone a lot to live up to. Even ‘the voice of Clannad’ carries a weight of expectation but on Signature, as ever, Moya Brennan bears these proclamations well. From the opening chords of ‘Purple Haze’ (sadly not a Hendrix cover) it’s immediately apparent that we are, if not quite in the same territory as Clannad, on the same musical continent at least. A driving piano riff sets the tempo for the dance while harp, uillean pipes and Brennan’s unmistakable wash of ethereal vocals spiral around it.
That ‘No One Talks’ adopts a much more open sound with acoustic guitar and Hammond organ is all the more refreshing and caressing to the ears. Despite being the kind of song that could live quite comfortably in many a hand, from Peter Gabriel to Kate Bush (and indeed has shades of ‘Don’t Give Up’ about it), it lovingly blossoms beneath Brennan’s vulnerable, crystalline voice. Elsewhere, ‘Many Faces introduces a taste of Arabia’, ‘Merry Go Round’ successfully takes a Capercaillie-esque ambient, sample-based approach, while album closer ‘Pill A Rún Ó’ is a nicely executed modern adaptation of a traditional tune.
Brennan describes Signature as her most personal work to date that represents snapshots of moments in her life. However, she wisely eschews a strictly autobiographical approach, choosing instead to inhabit the emotional centre of each episode, both high and low. Whatever textures and musical tapestries she opts to employ, the Brennan experience is bittersweet, beguiling and utterly involving. So whilst it may be her stunning vocal talents for which Moya Brennan is quite rightly known, Signature shows what a rounded, able artist she is. Her songwriting, arranging and production skills are in fettle as equally fine as that voice, and when couched in a soundtrack provided by a hugely talented cast of musicians it really rewards. Her most complete and compelling solo work yet.
Tender Buttons •••
For their third proper full-length, Birmingham’s finest purveyors of hook-laden electronica have produced a fresher, more pared down version of their millennial post-rock. Named after enigmatic American author Gertrude Stein’s 1911 novel, Tender Buttons sees the band operating for the first time as a twosome (singer Trish Keenan and partner James Cargill) following the departure of drummer/guitarist Tim Felton. Inevitably, the replacement of real drum sounds with softer electro beats has had a dramatic effect, giving the album a sparser, more minimalist feel than 2003’s fantastic Ha-Ha Sound. Samples, too, are limited and well used, with several motifs recurring across a number of songs, adding a depth to the proceedings as they interlace the album, giving it some much needed consistency. Sadly, it’s not quite enough to see the listener through its relatively short 40-minute running time.
Although the album starts fantastically well and gets better as it proceeds throughout its first half, hitting a number of Death In Vegas-like, carefully-weighted notes, that’s about as far as it goes. Indeed, the disc arguably peaks over its first four well-arranged and impacting songs – ‘I Found The F’, ‘Black Cat’, the title track and the excellent first single ‘American Boy’ – before breaking out the old acoustic guitar for ‘Tears In The Typing Pool’ and returning to high-gear electro again for the comparatively driving ‘Corporeal’.
The other eight songs, however, are significantly less affecting and somewhat sketchy. Not even Klein’s coolly dispassionate singing redeems them, although it’s fair to say that ‘Michael A Grammar’ stands out from the crowd. There are plenty of appealing noises to be sure, but none of them seem to hang together as finished songs, in sharp relief to the polish in evidence earlier on. Overall then, the first half of Tender Buttons is worth a listen or seven, but it could have been cut down to a really fine EP. Shame.
originally published February 6th, 2006
Ukulele & Voice EP ••½
After 50 odd years of glorious obscurity and ridicule (…turned out nice again, eh?), the ukulele is in perilous danger of becoming the must-have instrument de jour. Latest to the fray comes Britain’s own Sam Brown, who will already be familiar to many from her past chart flirtations like the hit single ‘Stop!’ or from her role as firstcall singer for Jools Holland’s Rhythm & Blues Orchestra. Certainly the title Ukulele & Voice, 5 Songs… has a certain Ronseal charm, and the fact that each of those five songs features minimal, stripped-down arrangements could not be construed as deception. Sadly, this is both the EP’s weakness and its strength. On the plus side, the nakedness of the intimate recording lovingly showcases the beauty of Sam Brown’s voice and brings the listener that much closer to the singer. Then again, the inability to give a substandard performance is, more than likely, etched into Brown’s very DNA, but the ukulele in itself rather lacks the tonal richness and dynamic range to match. Neither is Brown’s particular specimen – an Ovation model by the look of the sleeve – the most mellifluous example of the breed.
Coming back to the positives, the songs themselves are strong. The uke and Brown’s whistled solo give ‘I’ll Be Here’ a convincing swing-era vibe, while ‘Kiss Of Love’, a co-write with Jools Holland, is a sumptuous blues lament that would probably sound fantastic if backed by a talented band. For bonus points, ‘Void’ makes an attempt to apply the ukulele in a novel manner, taking an arpeggio approach rather than the usual strummed chords, and this blends well with a mournful Celtic-tinged melody. Elsewhere, ‘Away With The Faeries’ may well have escaped from some unheard of Broadway musical – Brown’s very own ‘Hushabye Mountain’ – and closer ‘Over The Moon’ evokes an authentic Cole Porter/Sammy Kahn ‘golden age of the ukulele’ mood.
On balance, however, the EP’s detractions simply outweigh its merits. Perhaps the sleeve gives the game away; opening the gatefold reveals the completion of the title with “…an afternoon at Dad’s house, in January,” and suddenly the truth becomes clear that these are just a few tracks chucked down on tape for a giggle after a family lunch. Then the nagging thought of ‘wouldn’t it have been nice to hear these songs arranged with a bit more care?’ begins to crystallise. With a harmony here and parallel ukulele part there, this could have been twice the achievement and one is left to conclude with C-, could do better. The suspicion is that this is primarily a disc for die-hard fans and completists. Those simply looking for an introduction to Sam Brown’s talents would be better off getting her new Very Best Of. Likewise, those simply wishing to sample the charms of a uke in the hands of a talented singer would be better off looking elsewhere. However, for those specifically wanting to sample Sam Brown’s live uke revues in the comfort of their own homes, this EP will certainly fit the bill.
originally published March 19th, 2006
A Temporary Dive •••½
Norwegian singer-songwriter Ane Brun loves her acoustic guitar Morgan so much that she named her 2003 debut album after him. While he’s not the titular hero on this follow-up to that stunning introduction, Morgan’s haunting twang pervades each of these ten songs like a breath of fresh air. If troubadouresses are your thing, A Temporary Dive will grab your attention from the start – Brun has a highly distinctive, ensnaring voice that sets her apart from others in her field. The sheer organic nature of her music is nothing short of praiseworthy in an industry where greedy producers can get a bit buttonhappy when twiddling their knobs. Part of the praise must go to Brun herself who turned down several major-label offers to release the album on her own DetErMine Records, defiant in more ways than one (the Norwegian roughly translates to ‘it is mine’). More praise still must be heaped upon producer Katharina Nuttall, who was also at the helm of Spending Time With Morgan. Her sparing approach allows Brun to really step away from the squeaking clean wheels of the manufactured bandwagon, opting instead to concentrate on sounds you can almost touch, made with instruments you can name. It’s classy and stripped-down, yet fuller sounding than one would expect.
As the title suggests, the intervening months since the release of her debut have not been easy. Several of these songs are the musings of a downtrodden wanderer. ‘My Lover Will Go’ is a prime example of her sadness, seeping into your brain like a rising tide. On ‘A Temporary Dive’, she sings of tumbling into darkness and clawing back up, all the while surrounded by gorgeous glockenspiel and cello. Baby-faced Ron Sexsmith turns up to duet on ‘Song No. 6′ (actually track 9), a song that Ane says was written for a friend’s wedding and is a rare happy love ditty. That’s sweet, but both it and ‘Where Friend Rhymes With End’ seem to jar with the well-crafted flow of the rest of the album with their more up-tempo vibe. Elsewhere, she is lyrically preoccupied with confinement (‘Rubber & Soul’) and enforced realism (‘Balloon Ranger’), but it’s never a grim proposition. The one non-original, ‘Laid In Earth’, is an adaptation of a classical aria lifted from Henry Purcell’s 17th Century opera, ‘Dido & Aeneas’, and it’s beautifully complemented by Malene Bay-Foged’s heartbreaking string arrangements.
The only real complaint about A Temporary Dive is that it’s rather too short at just 38 minutes. I was left wanting to hear a lot more. Given the ecstatic reception the album was afforded in her native Scandinavia (it went straight to the top of the charts – remarkable for something so devoid of artifice), Ane Brun could well have a slow-burning hit on her hands. She’s already performed live with ABBA’s Benny Andersson and supported US country star Mary Gauthier and our very own PJ Harvey, so there’s no doubting her commitment to the legwork. This is an ideal soundtrack for your own emotional reckonings, so indulge in these exceptional sounds and make your way towards the light.
originally published October 1st, 2005
Live at The Borderline ••••½
December 5, 2006
When Norwegian singer-songwriter Ane Brun graced the Borderline stage back in January as the guest of Tina Dico, she unabashedly nicked off with the show, sewed it up in her pocket and slipped away into the freezing night. With Brun already something of a megastar in her homeland and being filmed for Norwegian TV, the running order seemed a little incongruous to those in the know. And to those who were not, Brun filled in the gaps with a staggeringly powerful set; where Dico too often ambled into mediocrity, Brun went directly for the jugular with her quietly commanding stage presence and mostly wounded, always deeply personal songs.
Fast forward to tonight and this time she’s rightly heading the bill, and although the venue is rather more roomy than the last time she was here, the reward is all the sweeter for those who turned out to see her. Opening with the title track from her award-winning album A Temporary Dive, released here in May, Brun makes it clear that any expectations will be more than fulfilled and almost certainly surpassed with a measured, coolly phrased performance. As she sways and leans into every chord change, her seemingly effortless inhabitation of the music mesmerises and rivals even the rarest, most esteemed of her contemporaries.
Contemporary is hardly the first adjective that springs to mind when you think of 17th Century opera but Ane’s captivating interpretation of the aria ‘Laid In Earth’ from Henry Purcell’s ‘Dido & Aeneas’ brings it weeping and juddering into a post-millennial context. As she skillfully negotiates every warble with ease, bodies around me sway in sympathetic movements. Part of Brun’s appeal is that she is not so precise as to remove the humanity of her songs, so when a note goes ever so slightly awry or her tuning dips, it only adds to the power of her delivery.
Though the set draws heavily from A Temporary Dive, there are plenty of surprises as three new songs arrive fully formed and spectacular. The first, ‘Half Open Door’, was written for a charity compilation to highlight the plight of Oslo’s homeless, and is a bittersweet childhood reflection. For this Brun enlists the sublime, perfectly pitched backing vocals of British singer-songwriter Rachel Davies, who then stays on for the remainder of the main set, embellishing and colouring in where required. ‘To Let Myself Go’ and ‘Balloon Ranger’ benefit the most, the latter being dedicated to fellow musicians who find themselves spending way too much money in the instrument shops of nearby Denmark Street. Two of Ane’s duets also put in an appearance; despite the absence of Ron Sexsmith (‘Song No. 6′) and Teitur (‘Rubber & Soul’), Brun is every bit as wonderful.
The second new song, with the working title ‘Treehouse’, is also outstanding and really shows Brun’s growth as an artist. Keeping to the assertion of A Temporary Dive that she would overcome the depression she lapsed into while trying to repeat the success of her first album Spending Time With Morgan (Morgan being the name of her beloved acoustic), there’s a noticeably more optimistic, if not outright cheerful feel. Likewise for the other newie, ‘Changing Of The Seasons’, a disarmingly frank analysis of infidelity that ends with an unexpectedly positive twist.
Closing the main set with the devastating ‘My Lover Will Go’, Brun brings the house down before quickly returning to the stage “so that [we] can get the last tube” with a hushed but stellar cover of PJ Harvey’s ‘The Dancer’. It’s intense, though in a different way to the original, but you’ll just have to wait to hear it yourself when Brun puts out a live CD and DVD early next year (though you might have to end up importing it from Scandinavia). The crowd laps it up and Ane exits stage left to thunderous applause and no small amount of whooping. She’ll be back soon, she says it’s a promise, and you really ought to be there when she keeps it.
originally published December 17th, 2006
Life In Mono ••½
You might think that the artist formerly known as Baby Spice would have some interesting things to say by now, being a former international icon with two successful albums of her own under her belt. That insight is not in evidence on Life In Mono, a mundane collection of easy-listening numbers, but it is not without its charms. The tone of this album is somewhat more sober than 2004’s Free Me, despite the similar Burt Bacharach pastiches and Motown overtones, with Bunton reigning in her playful ingenue persona in favour of a demure and sensitive approach.
The opener, breathy piano ballad ‘All I Need To Know’, demonstrates that she can do ‘wistful’ very well. However, the pensive quality that hangs over the album makes even bossa nova workouts like ‘Mischievous’ and ‘He Loves Me Not’ seem brooding. Bunton’s vocals are feather-light and pleasant as ever, but she loses her way with sultrier pieces like ‘Undressing You’. The whole thing is an odd mix of the anodyne and the bittersweet.
While this album mainly plays to Bunton’s strengths, it isn’t remotely exciting. There’s a lot to be said for consistency, but more creative production could have made this one of the best solo records any of the Spice Girls have released. As pretty as the orchestral arrangements and soothing harmonies are, they become predictable. The cheeky ‘Take Me To Another Town’ – in which Bunton globetrots accompanied by swooning strings and unusual samples – is the closest thing to a flash of ingenuity on the record. The album ends disappointingly with a glut of banal and cringeworthy covers (including the first single, a weak stab at Petula Clark’s ‘Downtown’) but the title track, a hypnotic and ethereal take on Mono’s trip-hop classic, is a rather more inspired choice.
Ultimately, it’s tasteful, but damningly so. Devoid of the fun and zest of her earlier solo work (and, of course, the back catalogue of the Spice Girls), Life In Mono is pitched directly at the sad-scene-in-Bridget-Jones market. By stringing together a series of the ballads and mid-tempo numbers she always had the knack for, Emma Bunton has made an album that is easy on the ear but pedestrian and uninteresting. The only really objectionable content appears in those predictable and poor covers mercifully grouped together as easily disregarded bonus tracks, but any praise it is possible to muster up for the rest of the album is damningly faint. Music to microwave lasagnes to.
While the story of Vashti Bunyan, the great lost child of the late 1960s folk boom, has been well rehearsed in the press in the run-up to the release of Lookaftering, the bare bones of it surely bears repeating here. Discovered by enigmatic Rolling Stones manager Andrew Loog Oldham, her 1970 debut Just Another Diamond Day is widely upheld to be one of British folk’s great unheralded works. At the time however, commercial success proved elusive and both it and Bunyan were unceremoniously shelved by record company, Decca. Disillusioned by the experience, she forsook further dalliances with the industry and has spent much of the last three decades enjoying the seclusion of a simple family life in Ireland. However, a CD reissue of that album in 2000 sparked renewed interest in her work and, by way of recordings with Animal Collective, Devendra Banhart and Piano Magic, among others, has inexorably led to this highly anachronistic follow-up.
Certainly, Lookaftering is an interesting prospect. Very much a period piece dislocated in time, it retains much of the feel of …Diamond Day and boasts the same hallmarks of early 1970s production values. Comparisons with Sandy Denny and other folkies of the era are easily justified both stylistically and sonically. The seemingly minimal production by Max Richter allows plenty of room for the broadly acoustic, almost orchestral instrumentation to breathe, all the while keeping Bunyan’s exposed and fragile vocals floating in the foreground. The arrangements themselves are mostly sparse and hauntingly beautiful; bucolic countermelodies abound, with oboe, recorder and Joanna Newsom’s harp all making an impression on various tracks. And Newsom isn’t the only member of the neo/psych-folk glitterati to make an appearance, Devendra Banhart, Adem and Kevin Barker of Espers also lend a hand, in some cases further reinforcing the early ‘70s heritage of the influences at work. In particular, Banhart’s slide guitar on ‘Wayward’ is strikingly reminiscent of Jerry Donahue’s playing on Sandy Denny’s Fotheringay.
When searching for adequate descriptors of Bunyan’s performance, adjectives like intimate, tender, delicate and fragile spring readily to mind. However, it is these very facets that are the greatest flaw of the album. Too often it seems her fragility tips over into hesitancy and weakness, in some cases lacking self-confidence and commitment to the notes. This is most apparent on ‘Wayward’ where the vocal seems particularly weak and somewhat at odds with the tenor of the words. Whilst some may see such a criticism as churlish or missing the point of the album, it raises valid questions; one wonders whether some of the effusively glowing reports of Lookaftering have been too heavily viewed through the filters of an evocative back story, rather than appraising the album on its musical merits alone. I was left with the nagging curiosity as to how these songs would have fared if sung by the likes of Mary Black, Christine Collister, June Tabor or the late, great Sandy Denny – the likely response being five star performances no less full of tenderness or vulnerability.
That said, Lookaftering remains an amazing feat and a truly beautiful album. It’s a throwback to an age of greater innocence, evoking visions of Julie Christie as ‘Far From The Madding Crowd’s Bathsheba Everdene, softly focused and shining amid some golden pastoral idyll as it wends its way through a rural dreamscape. For all its failings, the songs remain entirely beguiling and Lookaftering is sure to remain one of the most haunting and affecting discs of the year. The closer, ‘Wayward Hum’, brings the disc to a fitting close. Part meandering lullaby, part quintessentially English whimsy, it somehow summarises all that comes before in a wordless, absent-minded way. Gorgeous.
originally published November 21st, 2005
Cathy Burton’s first two albums were fairly well received slabs of British pop (as opposed to Britpop) that dressed her classical songwriting talents in suitably contemporary clothes, with all the electro beeps and twirls that a modern pop song requires. Silvertown, on the other hand, adopts a rather simpler stance with an organic sound built around piano, guitar, Hammond organ and conventional rhythm section. Topically, the ten songs are heavily dominated by the birth of her first child, Isobel, and impending motherhood and the weight of responsibility it brings is an inescapable theme. But this is no recruiting CD for the Natural Childbirth Association; there’s plenty here that will appeal to those of a non- parental persuasion.
‘Everybody’s Fool’ kicks things off with a good old- fashioned meditation on the complexities of romance. Burton’s distinctive vocal style comes to the fore right away – a delicate, shimmering tone that communicates a charming innocence whilst hinting at a deeper appreciation of the world’s more cruel aspects. If comparisons must be drawn there is perhaps a suspicion of a rather less fey version of Sixpence None The Richer’s Leigh Nash. Like Nash, Burton’s songs have never sought to conceal her Christian faith but do not act explicitly as pulpit, preferring instead to tell tales woven mostly from internal landscapes.
Despite the G word, the haunting ‘God Of The Sky’ conjures up feelings of smallness and connection to a bigger force irrespective of spiritual leanings; it’s something we’ve all felt when gazing up at a cloudless panorama of stars. The title track is another clear standout; co-written with Rocky Ross, the creative voice of Scot-popsters Deacon Blue, it touchingly compares the meandering train journey eastwards along the Thames with the twists and turns of a love affair. Album closer ‘Sleep’ is a delicate, affecting prayer from a mother to her child that’s power lies in its simplicity and openness.
So does Silvertown have any major faults? Well, only that at little over 35 minutes, Burton doesn’t exactly outstay her welcome – quite the opposite in fact! Still, as the old adage goes, leave them wanting more. Just make it soon, okay?
originally published October 5th, 2006
Cathy Burton & Dan Wheeler
Live at Maidenhead Arts Café ••••
October 7, 2005
Not many people would willingly tout Maidenhead as a cultural centre of our fair nation’s Southeastern corner. Possibly the best thing that can usually be said for it is that it isn’t next-door-neighbour, Slough. However, the good people of Maidenhead Methodist Church are doing their best to reverse that trend as, on the first Friday of every month, their church hall magically transforms into the Arts Café and hosts a range of performers from all aspects of said arts. This particular night was the turn of Cathy Burton and Dan Wheeler to grace their stage – the second night of a nationwide tour following an appearance at Balham’s homely Bedford Arms.
While Burton is already fairly well known on the UK circuit, with two acclaimed albums, Burn Out and Speed Your Love to her credit, Wheeler is more heard than recognised – his day job as session guitarist to the likes of Burton, Nicki Rogers and a score of others providing the pedigree – but he’s no mean singer-songwriter either. Together they made something of a dream team for a great evening’s music in surprisingly cosy surroundings while the audience partook of the café-based ambience and comestibles of coffee and homemade cakes.
Normally for a ‘double-header’ tour, one would expect the standard 45 minutes of one plus an hour or so of the other; however, the pair hit on a masterstroke as they took to the stage together. Deftly avoiding any chance of monotony, Burton and Wheeler played tag with the lead throughout the evening, with the non-‘it’ performer adding body with skilful backing. Even their instruments were complementary: Burton’s Gibson slope-shouldered J-Dreadnought sang with clear and solid rhythm, while Wheeler’s smaller bodied Avalon A25 Grand Auditorium chimed with chordal and flat-picked soloing and accompaniment. In this context, the songs were made fleshier with each singer able to introduce greater layers of orchestration to their sound.
The setlist was mostly chosen from Burton’s two full-lengths, plus Wheeler’s album Long Road Round and Ten Things To Do EP. Many of the songs mined the deep seams of life, love and Christian faith, with both singers refreshingly candid about the impact of religion on their lives without descending into didactic preaching. Highlights of Burton’s performances included fan favourites ‘Falling’ and ‘Hollow’ and the meaningful musings of the beautiful ‘Belongs To You’. Both artists also portrayed the melancholic bent that seems to fuel their writing. Indeed, Wheeler went so far as to confess that his wife advised him to maybe lighten up a little on first listen of (the admittedly sublime) ‘Scratches On The Glass’.
With plans already underway for both Burton and Wheeler to record new albums, they were eager to roadtest some of their new material. The most affecting of these was a tune from Burton entitled ‘Fromosa’, the Romanian word for ‘beautiful’. Written in response to her experiences at a Romanian AIDS orphanage run by the charity Cry In The Dark (www.cryinthedark.co.uk), the song was inspired by an encounter with the dying young girl of the title. The song, already dripping with raw emotion, was made all the more powerful by Wheeler’s tender slide embellishment on a lap-played Dobro resonator. Burton’s other new tune, ‘Silvertown’, and ‘Wheeler’s Run’ both provided further suggestion that any wait for their new records will be worth it. After a touching finale of Burton’s ‘Leave Me With You’, they rounded things off with an encore of Bacharach and David’s ‘(They Long To Be) Close To You’ before bowing to a content and buoyant audience in full sing-a-long mode, who then sidled out onto the glamorous Maidenhead tarmac.
originally published October 25th, 2005
The Ways We Try ••
As another in a long line of songwriters working on the premise that her homemade brand of acoustic vignettes on love and life will strike a chord with a wider audience, Emily ‘Birdie’ Busch enters the fray fresh from the Philadelphia coffeehouse circuit. After completing a range of struggling artist jobs, Birdie realised there was something else she was born to do, after which it appears she picked up a guitar, took to it like a native and voila, the benefit of her somewhat naïve musings are available to those looking for the next 21st Century troubadouress. If only all career moves were so easy! So, what does the Philly filly have to offer?
Well, it’s much as you’d expect. There’s an innocence to these simply structured melodies and arrangements; Busch floats through songs like a seed that’s caught the wind, happy to be carried in any direction as long as the destination is America’s west coast circa 1967. Unfortunately, ‘67 was a long time ago; the naiveté of the artists that gathered in Laurel Canyon to change the world with six strings and multi-part harmonies was truly a snapshot of its time and Busch is strictly little league in comparison. Then again, perhaps the comparison is simply unfair; the world is an uglier place in 2006 and the odd moment of happy-go-lucky sing-song is a welcome break from the daily routine, but the music still needs to be memorable at least.
I’d like to say that the songs benefit from a long gestation period, the culmination of ideas and experiences that stretch back years, but it’s difficult to say whether this is the case, or whether Birdie knocked the album out in an evening session at Starbucks. The songs rarely rise above pleasant, the pace rarely above a Sunday walk, and each one merges into the next in a below-par mélange of gently strummed or picked guitar, brushed percussion and upright piano. The songs aren’t bad; ‘Zeros’ has a breezy Sunday morning feel behind it’s cod-philosophy lyric, ‘Room In The City’ uses repetition well to enhance its momentum and ‘Drunk By Noon’ winds its way through your mind in a passable imitation of solo Kristin Hersh, but nothing reaches out and grabs you. There’s no eureka moment that raises the hairs on your arms, no careful turn of phrase or sparkling change of pace that sets her aside from the pack.
Despite several weeks of listening, willing myself to sing along and be impressed, I can’t honestly say that any of the material on The Ways We Try has stuck. I don’t find myself humming ‘The Cup’s harmonica line on my way to work, despite it probably being the most memorable melody. If I stumbled across Miss Busch in the aforementioned coffee emporium, I’d be pleased with the temporary release from my daily chores, applaud in the appropriate places and thank her when she’d finished, but I wouldn’t necessarily want her CD. Unless I had an elevator to paint. Must try harder.
originally published July 10th, 2006
Absence, it seems, really can make the heart grow fonder, even in the music press. Think about it: if Kate Bush had continued making records at regular intervals over the last twelve years, she would almost certainly have been subjected to even harsher critical judgement than the cold shoulder shrug that greeted her last two albums, The Sensual World (1989) and The Red Shoes (1993). Reviewers of those records at the time accused Bush of operating below her capabilities, though both albums were in fact full of inventive and rewarding music. All these years down the line, however, it seems that all has been forgiven, and the belated release of Aerial has been treated by certain publications as something akin to the Second Coming. For Bush’s fans too, every year of silence that passed made the prospect of a new opus ever more tantalising, yet more unlikely. All of these factors conspire to make Aerial unquestionably the year’s most anticipated album. But can any one record withstand such weight of expectation?
The answer, happily, is an emphatic ‘yes’. Careering from the domestic to the epic, from the inside of a washing machine to the bottom of the ocean, Aerial offers listeners all the wit, whimsy, weirdness and wonder (not to mention the impeccable musicianship) of Bush’s very best work. In fact, just as Elvis in first single ‘King Of The Mountain’ transcends the trappings of fame, wealth and possibly even death to take his place on some Parnassus of the mind, so Aerial surpasses the hype, sitting above it a bit loftily but willing to reveal its admittedly complex beauty to any listener prepared to give it the time and attention it deserves. There hasn’t been an epic pop album of comparable ambition and artistry (yes, and length) since Tori Amos’s The Beekeeper earlier this year. This is a record to lose yourself in. Actually, make that two records. For, in a nostalgic nod to Bush’s beloved vinyl era, Aerial is a double album, one which, twenty years on, duplicates the structure of 1985’s much revered Hounds Of Love, its two parts comprising a set of “independent” tracks and a song cycle. While the album preserves the stylistic verve and heterogeneity of her earlier releases, there’s a new and greater spaciousness to the arrangements, leaving more space for the distinctive vocals. Though more restrained than ever, Bush’s voice retains its remarkable capacity for drama and metamorphosis.
Along with her singing, one of the greatest aspects of Kate Bush’s music lies in the wonderful idiosyncrasy of the subject matter of her songs, and on this score too Aerial doesn’t disappoint. On the first disc, A Sea Of Honey, the bracing ‘King Of The Mountain’ segues into ‘Pi’, a eulogy for an obsessive enumerator and almost certainly the most seductive maths lesson in history with Bush cooing numbers and decimal points over a chugging organ motif. The misunderstood ‘Mrs. Bartolozzi’ is an even more vivid character sketch; the song is not ‘about’ a washing machine, but offers an oblique portrait of widowhood in which the memories of domestic duty and the freedom of the sea may or may not assuage the protagonist’s current isolation. Meanings are similarly fluid on the brooding, cinematic ‘Joanni’. With its arresting battle imagery, the song may nominally be ‘about’ Joan of Arc, but Bush’s phrasing of the title also conjures links with another significant Joni. The decidedly funky ‘How To Be Invisible’ is the record’s most playful moment, with its witty witch’s spell and wry, knowing comment on Bush’s own ‘obscurity’.
Informed by the birth of her son and the death of her mother, respectively, two of the loveliest songs on A Sea Of Honey are also the most personal. ‘Bertie’ feels like something of companion piece to Amos’s ‘Ribbons Undone’, an unadulterated expression of maternal delight and pride as Bush repeats “you bring me so much joy” over Renaissance strings, the simplicity of the statement accentuating her emotional intensity. The stunning ‘A Coral Room’ is a shivers-down-thespine piano ballad that moves from an underwater city to Bush’s intimate memories of her mother, and offers a meditation on the passage of time. With its references to cities “draped in net” and hands trailing in water, the song contains some of her most striking imagery yet. Indeed, in keeping with the sparser approach to instrumentation, there is a new clarity and precision to her songwriting on this record. You see that shirt on the washing line, that spider climbing out of a jug, Joanni “in her armour.”
The second disc, A Sky Of Honey, is a sublime nine-track sequence that traces the passage of a summer’s day, from afternoon to sunset and night and on to the following morning. Birds chirp, Bush chortles, Rolf Harris sings! It’s unlike anything you’ve ever heard, and yet pure and unmistakably Kate, as life-affirming as ‘The Ninth Wave’ was unremittingly bleak. Parts are almost overwhelmingly evocative; listening to it, you feel your senses being sharpened one by one. Bertie kicks things off, directing his parents’ attention to a “sky…full of birds.” Indeed, birdsong is a central motif, whether sampled or mimicked. Light is another central theme, and as the cycle progresses patterns develop and images recur. “This is a song of colour,” she sings on the glorious ‘Sunset’ as a piano refrain gives way to a delirious flamenco interlude, while ‘Prologue’ finds her at her most lushly romantic, “talking Italian” over a Michael Kamen orchestral arrangement. Just when you fear it’s all becoming too New Age ambient, a bewitching melody or killer chorus swoops in to orientate you. The shifts through moods of reflection, sadness and exhilaration are quite stunning. Vaughn Williams and Delius (a previous Kate Bush song topic) are presences, and the album blurs the boundaries between musical genres as assuredly as it blurs the distinctions between night and day, dream and reality, forging a space, as one song would have it, ‘Somewhere In Between’. The record concludes with the joyous, pulsing title track and Bush’s urgent desire to go “up on the roof,” an image of physical and spiritual transcendence to match the one that the album started with. By now “all of the birds are laughing”; so is Kate, and so are we.
As Bush herself intimated in a recent interview, “music should put you in a trance frenzy,” and, at its best, Aerial does precisely that. Put quite simply, it’s an extraordinary achievement that once again extends the boundaries of popular music. Of course, there are longeurs and minor indulgences, but it wouldn’t be a Bush record without them, and for her admirers, even the so-called ‘flaws’ have an air of reassurance. Twelve years may have been a long time to wait, but this kind of art is built to last. Tellingly, even after 80 minutes of music, you can’t wait to hear the whole thing again.
originally published November 21st, 2006
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, 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, film & dvd, live, review | Tags: alice russell, andrea corr, anja mccloskey, anna claxton, beth rowley, bic runga, elin ruth, gary munday, gem nethersole, jean lynch, julia paynter, kate rusby, lou rhodes, matthew smith, paul woodgate, rainer maria, raveonettes, revl9n, richard raymond, robbie de santos, robinella, robyn, rodrigo y gabriela, rogers sisters, tiffany daniels, trevor raggatt
The following reviews were all published on our old website between May 2005 and December 2006.
Catastrophe Keeps Us Together •••
Although it’s highly likely that most of the UK populace won’t have heard of Rainer Maria, they’ve been right around the block in the last ten years cooking up the sort of music that the phrase ‘kickass’ might have been coined for. On this, their sixth album, the band indulge in some mostly straightforward but catchy rock ‘n’ roll, with Caithlin de Marrais and her two male musical brethren forging a literate but hopelessly angst-ridden connection with the listener. Poetic lyrics are carried along by strong and feisty vocals reminiscent of Nerina Pallot (a lot), Tanya Donnelly (a little bit) and Meredith Brooks indulging in a catfight slanging match, mixed with a little of the New Man emo stylings of Jimmy Eat World.
Despite their obvious academic influences, you can’t help but feel that much of Catastrophe Keeps Us Together sounds as if it’s been plucked from the bedside table chick-lit of a high school sweetheart. Here is a band that perhaps has the potential to appeal to a wider market than they currently manage to reach; note the word ‘perhaps’, however, for it’s equally possible that from seemingly trying so desperately to appeal to the younger kids, the band may actually be alienating their older audience who may fondly remember the genre from the first time around.
Springing from the slacker generation in smalltown Wisconsin a decade or so ago, a cursory listen may condemn Rainer Maria to be shrugged off as just another indie band cryogenically frozen somewhere circa 1992 and, now defrosted, trying to regain their hipster points and cool mystique. There’s more to them than that, however, and a little extra effort on your part might well go a long way. Though they might have done better than to embrace the ‘Reality Bites’ school of songwriting with its punchy, gutsy beats and dance-along riffs that proceed from ‘Life Of Leisure’ all the way to ‘Clear & True’, it’s not until you reach the sweetly fragile ‘Terrified’ that you notice quite how empty the sentiments of the other songs are in hindsight.
Still, it’s the quieter songs that succeed best on the album with their more mature and less dated outlook. Here, de Marrais’s voice softens, becomes vulnerable and innocent, even childishly beautiful, and wonderfully complemented by her bandmates’ sensitive playing. Even so, it’s a little worrying that the best performance on the album by far is a cover of Bob Dylan’s ‘I’ll Keep It With Mine’. Perseverance and repeated plays of the album begin to open up the rest of the songs. So if you’ve got a little patience, sticking with Catastrophe… might just be enough to make a lifelong convert of you.
originally published July 25th, 2006
Pretty In Black ••••
Fronted by the six-foot icy platinum blonde Sharin Foo and the deep, dark and handsome Sune Rose-Wagner, the mighty Raveonettes have tended to receive more press for writing entire albums in one key – 2002’s Whip It On in Bb minor and 2003’s breakthrough Chain Gang Of Love in a sunnier Bb major – and for heavy feedback than for the pop perfection that was the result of this concept writing and recording. Three years and as many albums in, the duo have thrown out the rulebook and delivered their strongest record yet. They’ve always had a penchant for the 1960s and faded Hollywood B-movie glamour (they have written three songs about LA), but it seems that only without those self-imposed musical restrictions that they have been able to embrace these themes fully.
Lead single ‘Love In A Trashcan’ conjures up an image of Carnaby Street in 1967, with girls in go-go skirts and huge platform heels furiously shaking their shoulders to its twangy, sassy guitar lines. In ‘Sleepwalking’, Foo sings in a husky, sultry Debbie Harry-like voice, and the dramatic quiet–loud guitar chugs could indeed have come from one of the darker moments on Blondie’s Parallel Lines. But it’s when the duo play the kitsch card that Pretty In Black hits the pop climax. In ‘Ode To LA’ and their cover of The Angels’s ‘My Boyfriend’s Back’, they ham the 1960s motif to the max, with handclaps, woah oh oh ohs, sleigh bells, timpani drums, Ronnie-freakin’-Spector! It’s as if Radiohead had never happened.
The simplicity of these songs is the key to their success as great pop. Rose-Wagner has always expressed his love for the tragi-pop of ’60s girl groups like The Shangri-Las, The Ronettes and just about everyone else Phil Spector ever produced. It’s no surprise then that on around half of these songs, The Raveonettes make it happen again. Many have that same muffled desperation, sung through gritted teeth and sugar-sweet pop harmonies. Unfortunately, a few songs towards the end of the album grow tiresome and some of the glistening production begins to grate. While they do not detract from the brilliance of the album’s strongest moments, they can hamper its flow, and the amiability that the heavy feedback and mono production brought to the earlier albums isn’t so strong. Yet despite this perhaps inevitable trade-off between authenticity and charm, this is still a great album, just not for the same reasons as their previous efforts.
Robbie de Santos
originally published August 18th, 2005
You can just see the headlines… INDIGO GIRL IN GARAGE BAND SHOCKER!… and, indeed, Prom may take some fans of the colourful folky twosome by surprise. For her second solo outing, Amy Ray charges further down the rocky road of 2002’s Stag, casting out the Lilith Fair staples of acoustic guitars, interweaving harmonies and subtle poetics in favour of a straight up, 1970s-tinged garage band ethos. Weighing her musical anchor in the sounds of her youth is certainly appropriate given the over-riding theme of the album – teenage rites of passage, sexual awakenings etc., all as implied by the title – and that’s both the record’s blessing and its curse. Where the Indigo Girls as a unit tend to lavish each song with subtle washes of meaning and texture, Prom, to quote the great philosopher Shrek, simply “don’t have layers.” And whilst this single-minded agenda can be a strength in terms of bringing a common focus and sense of coherence, it sure does wear you down, too often spilling over into one-dimensionality and hammered-home polemic. Fortunately, Ray is too good and experienced a songwriter to render Prom entirely no mouth, all trousers; the subtler songs will stick where the bombast fails.
To her credit, Ray admirably battles her early demons and formative experiences in a way that provides an opportunity for catharsis, particularly where matters of sexuality and the teenage trauma of accepting one’s self are concerned. It’s a shame then that the result is not more insightful and considered. Though she sings of important and involving topics, they often seem to suffer from an apparently shallow treatment laced with invective, as if she were seeking to shock rather than to enquire and inform. For instance, ‘Rural Faggot’ might as well be paraphrased as “It’s rough growing up as a young gay man in an isolated, avowedly red-neck community. Maybe life would less awkward if you’d lived in Greenwich Village. Yeah!” – and it’s a real pity because elsewhere in the song are a few lines of gorgeous, evocative imagery, and many of the other songs fall at this same hurdle. Ray’s sometimes striking similes and scenes are robbed of any apparent subtext, and therefore pass by all but unregarded.
It must be conceded, however, that even the less effective songs are at least workmanlike, pushing along with a pre-punk sense of purpose and the tunes are perfectly hummable. The album does contain a few real gems too; ‘Driver Education’ motors along with Farfisa organ motifs burbling in the background, evoking images of American high school life, while ‘Sober Girl’ recalls Billy Idol’s ‘White Wedding’, perhaps as covered by Iggy & The Stooges. Compelling stories of sexual confusion and youthful exploration are spun on ‘Covered For You’ and ‘Pennies On The Track’, while the uncharacteristically Indigos-esque closer ‘Let It Ring’ successfully blends acoustic guitars and mandolins with more strident, rockier sounds. Rounding squarely on the intolerance and prejudice shown to the gay community, in particular by the conservative churches in the US and elsewhere, it draws the thematic curtains of the album to an aptly vocal close.
originally published January 21st, 2006
The Bridge, starring Andrea Corr ••••
In her office, late at night, Mary (Andrea Corr), a psychologist, takes a voicemail from the father of a girl who has committed suicide whilst under her care, urging her that it’s time to ‘let go’. Having lost her position through this unfortunate event, Mary finds it very hard to do so, and scribbles down the man’s number only to see it vanish beneath the remnants of a teacup, upended by her friendly cat. An attempt at remembering the number leads to a call to an elderly man, Simon (Leonard Fenton), who only moments before was poised, barefoot on a snowy ledge, about to leap to his death into the dark waters below…
Against the shadowy silhouette of the bridge, blue-tinged and feathered with falling snow, director Richard Raymond elicits a magical and haunting sense of other-worldliness, the stylised heightened reality an escapee of a Tim Burton landscape, demonstrating all of Burton’s delicious dark melancholy but devoid of his black humour. However, this is no triumph of style over substance: Raymond gently unfurls his tale, Mary at first still as she receives the message, her agitation growing as she takes the call from Simon and realises he is on the brink of killing himself, and then her flight into the night as she attempts to lay her own ghosts to rest by saving another, all leading to a taught and chilling climax.
Whilst an interesting combination, there may not be the highest of expectations for the pairing of the lead singer of a pop group with Doctor Legge from ‘Eastenders’. In that case, be prepared for a most pleasing surprise. The pacing of the film is dependent on the camera exploring the performers’ actions and gestures and, within their dialogue, to linger on their expressions. As such, any mis-timing or errors would be magnified to the audience. That they both deliver convincing, gripping and moving performances is a credit to both actors and Raymond as director. Corr, previously seen in ‘The Commitments’ and ‘Evita’, the Madonna vehicle in which she was criminally allowed only one line of what should have been her character’s own song, has her sights set on an acting career and the evidence on display here leads one to suspect she’ll be most successful.
Underplaying rather than overplaying is a most subtle skill and Corr demonstrates this with aplomb. Fenton, meanwhile, ranges from pathos to simmering rage, as his anger at his life erupts and, his face a close-up of crevice shadowed contortion, bores into the viewer. The interplay between seasoned thespian and fresh-faced newcomer is nicely balanced, and the unlikely two-hander deftly explores a range of human emotions. As the falling snow is by turn luminescent white in the lamplight, or midnight blue against the darkened night, it reflects how the film’s themes of regret, guilt, blame, loyalty and redemption are rarely black or white but instead change, Monet-esque, dependent on the light in which they’re seen.
Are there flaws? One or two, but even these are debatable. The plot is stretched slightly and could be shorter, but to lose the slow-burning build would almost certainly detract from the atmospherics of the film. The ending, too, is not as dramatically climatic as one has been led to suspect, but it is satisfying and quite haunting, resolving itself and yet is ambiguous enough to leave the viewer revisiting the tale in the mind’s eye. ‘The Bridge’ has already attracted a considerable fanbase and plaudits from home and abroad. It’s legacy will be as a beautiful, melancholy calling card that heralded the beginning of a most promising career for both its director and its leading lady, but one which will remain a favourite in it’s own right in any viewer’s personal film collection.
originally published September 1st, 2006
Revl9n (originally named and still pronounced ‘Revlon 9′) make dirty disco death karaoke with leather boots, glitter and tiny, cheap, fantastic drum machines, packing in enough appeal for any frustrated gyrating scenester to get their filed polished teeth into. Those who like to bask in the raw musical power of a dominant woman will find much to enjoy here, but the more straight-edged listener who isn’t into haute couture music and requires a background to their random hip thrusts and mechanical arms may well find this debut album too much or, equally, too little to get excited about.
With their roots running deep within the sleazy urban fashion scene, it’s surely no coincidence that the trio’s name is twinned with a universally renowned hair product (no plug intended). Their reasons for changing it were presumably legal, but who knows. It’s apt and that is all. That they hail from Sweden is hardly surprising; the country has a proven track record in spawning ice cool throwbacks proud to have missed their true genre generation by decades, somehow managing to pull off all the shots that their forerunners did but with twice the effect – The Raveonettes and The Peepshows being particularly apt examples.
Beneath the breathily suggestive vocals of serial heartbreakers Maria Eilersen and Åsa Cederqvist lies the random guttural urges and robotic tampering of Nandor Hegedüs and his vast array of machines. Listen once and you’re dropped behind the gleaming eye of a high-powered filter lens peering down the inner sanctum of a smoky club draped with bastard fashion art and futuristic lightning; at the far end, there’s a catwalk down which the two women strut and point and rack up the heat. This is the beauty of Revl9n in all its grandeur – straight out of the glossy pages, ragged and overtly horny.
Listen again, however, and the constant club thumps, rhythmical pouting, sometimes ill-advised samples and old-school keyboard riffing begin to wear thin – the fabric frays, the heels break off and the fur coat whips around and stings you on your peachy, bronzed butt. Maybe it’s just that something’s gotten lost in translation with high-camp, cheesy lines like “I feel super fantastic / I feel fucking fantastic”, but whatever it is, the album just doesn’t front up enough genuine likeability to be the new black / brown/ taupe etc.
Being out of your mind on club drugs may be what’s required to enjoy this album as its makers intended. Lyrics like “I’m on my knees / I’m dripping wet / I tie you down / I kinda feel forced / It feels so good” are ridiculous and laughable otherwise. All in all, Revl9n may have muscles but for now they’re only flexing them. Next time let’s see some sweat on those thighs.
originally published July 23rd, 2006
Beloved One •••
First impressions? That Lou Rhodes (formerly 50% of Lamb) has joined the burgeoning underground army of waifs armed with an acoustic guitar, a penchant for Martha’s Harbour-era self-sufficiency and a Joni fixation. Listening through for the first time, I could almost smell the cherrywood fires and see Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young harmonising over the barbecue. On the surface, Beloved One has all the hallmarks of being nice, safe and harmless. In fact, (whisper it) maybe even bland.
Fortunately, it just goes to show how a little knowledge can be a dangerous thing. Don’t be fooled by the ‘back to the woods’ manifesto – the ‘Good Life’-cum-Amish lifestyle extolled in the (very nice) packaging and homemade art of the booklet are slightly at odds with the warmth, quality and expanse of the recording. The production is exemplary; the instrument separation is balanced and the vocals pushed to the fore. This isn’t Old Ma Rhodes whiling away a harsh winter in the Appalachians with a beat-up acoustic, but a gifted songwriter, numerous musician friends, four recording studios, a plethora of organic instruments and the adventure of creative release from her previous band’s lo-fi format.
Dig a little and there is plenty of musical invention and personal freedom to be found. Rhodes’ sentiments have a disarming honesty that’s displayed in each song, let down only by a tendency to rely on lyrical cliché – “Don’t underestimate simplicity”, “Try to live each day by day”, “Feel each moment new” – and those are all from the very first song. More follow, equally unsubtle. But while they don’t stop coming, neither do they ruin the show. There are hooks too – the heartbeat rhythm of ‘Each Moment New’, the drowsy double bass underpinning ‘In’lakesh’ and ‘Treat Her Gently’s staccato guitar and slowly evolving strings.
In the title track, a hesitant beginning gives way to urgent, driven violin and intermittent passages of pastoral flute. Each song builds on the previous one, the sum of the whole distancing itself from individual moments that casual listeners could be forgiven for thinking bear too many similarities. The best is saved for last with ‘Why’. Although more conventional in its structure than the rest of the album, it’s oozes loveliness. All the first-rate ideas and melodies coalesce into a statement where the simplicity of theme and craft finally hit home. Interestingly, it’s the only song where Rhodes shares a writing credit.
A clarion call for reducing the complexities that surround us, Beloved One rewards continued listening and a reflective mind. By combining the DIY ethos of 1970s folkies with 21st Century production values, it just about hits the spot. Thank goodness for second impressions; this Lamb isn’t lying down, just resting.
originally published March 11th, 2006
More Adventurous [reissue] •••••
“Any chimp can play human for a day
Use his opposable thumbs to iron his uniform”
And so begins Rilo Kiley’s More Adventurous – with a warning shot across the bows to anyone expecting a bland bit of grown-up pop to play in the background. From this instantly evocative couplet onwards, the band’s third full-length demands your constant attention, challenging, amusing, surprising and, yes, titillating the listener. This is hard to justify through words alone, as a simple description of the music itself would merely wind up sounding like yet another jangly-guitar indie band fronted by another waif-like art-college dropout. Which this is not, of course. It is an album full of uplifting songs of heartbreak, instability, cynicism, lack of trust and loss, performed with utterly accomplished aplomb. And throughout, the undeniable star of the show is Jenny Lewis’s voice – snarling, crooning and lilting its way around her razor-sharp lyrics. Indeed, their occasional proximity to the bone is only heightened by Lewis’s refreshingly uncluttered and honest style.
As far as indie credentials go, Rilo Kiley’s are flawless: a self-released EP and album that was then picked up by Barsuk Records (the recently re-released Take Offs & Landings); adoption by the Saddle Creek Records family for the second long-player, The Execution Of All Things; founding their own label Brute/Beaute Records for More Adventurous; and defying all expectations by actually improving on a seemingly flawless back catalogue. More Adventurous achieves its perfection by virtue of restraint. Expansive and soaring, the scope is wide but judiciously aimed. Country, soul, alt-rock, punk and lush acoustic folk are all somewhat inconceivably absorbed by this melting pot of talent. Where pedal steel guitar should sound corny, here it sounds heart-wrenching and yearning; where radio crackle and vocoder should sound clichéd, here it adds depth to a seemingly bottomless chasm; where distorted thrash guitar should sit uncomfortably amongst such diligent arrangement, here it sounds natural and thrilling – as thrash guitar should sound. Even up against a mellotron, vibraphone and wurlitzer…
‘I Never’ is a deeply soulful number, with Lewis doing a convincing turn as Aretha Franklin. “I’m only a woman,” she implores, husky-voiced, with heartfelt despair. This is where the string arrangements come into their own – courtesy of labelmate and Bright Eyes member Nate Walcott. Indeed, the lush multi-layered production of More Adventurous puts punk purists to shame, showing how truly independent, confrontational rock can still be beautiful and clever. “This is definitely the album where we were finally able to truly understand how to use the studio,” explains Blake Sennett, guitarist and singer.
Walcott is one of numerous canny collaborations on this album. Most significantly, fellow LA resident and Dntel lynchpin Jimmy Tamborello produces the cleverly titled ‘Accidntel Deth’, in a break from his day job with the Postal Service. This is most probably in return for Lewis’s backing vocals on the latter’s Give Up – an album rapidly gathering cult status, especially amongst new emo-punk converts introduced to Death Cab For Cutie et al. by The OC’s Seth Cohen. ‘Accidntel Deth’ retains Lewis’s prominent vocals, against a relatively conservative drums-and-acoustic guitars arrangement. But Tamborello’s influence is stamped all over, and predictably makes the track. Characteristic bleeps and bips, seemingly random samples and loops, backward strings and eerie atmospherics are all sparse but crucial.
Choosing a standout track in an album full of them is hard but for my money it’s ‘A Man/Me/Then Jim’. Rippled textures of percussion, pedal steel guitar and delicate plucking fit beautifully around Lewis’s never-finer soaraway voice and intricately woven lyrics. As always, these are sardonic and knowing, yet fragile, effortless and uplifting. With this in mind, I have the pleasure of informing you that Jenny Lewis releases her solo debut, Rabbit Fur Coat in January. This is news to get truly excited about.
originally published October 1st, 2005
Solace For The Lonely •••½
The music of Baptist choirleader’s daughter RobinElla has been variously described as containing touches of jazz, pop, funk and soul, but from the opening acoustics of ‘Break It Down Baby’ and the drawled out Hey, the genre that strikes you most is country. But this is neither the trad Dolly Parton-isms beloved of conservative America nor pop-lite C&W, this is the sound of steamy, swamp-fuelled Tennessean nights conjured by the likes of Lucinda Williams and Tift Merritt. RobinElla’s potent blend of nasal Appalachia suckers you right in, her characterful voice full of experience and sounding like a cross between Alannah Myles and Abra Moore.
Truly kicking into gear by track number three, Solace For The Lonely rarely fumbles the charm thereafter, yielding deceptively simple sounding melodies that ultimately reveal hidden and wonderful depths. A slow-burning ode to religion and family, ‘Press On’ builds over insistent tom toms and hushed keyboards into something quite magical, while the decidedly jaunty ‘Down The Mountain’ picks up the pace, propelled by train rhythm brushes and RobinElla’s vocals a friendly guide between the stations. With its unexpected but pleasant midsong change of tempo, ‘Whippin’ Wind’ is reminiscent of recent Patty Griffin albums, both in quality and tone, though that’s less surprising when you consider that Solace… was produced by Griffin’s musical sidekick Doug Lancio.
Elsewhere, ‘Little Boy’ gives an unabashed nod to funk, with flashes of Hammond giving way to a full-blown organ solo over Stevie Wonder-esque electric bass; ‘Oh So Sexy’ is a nifty little bar anthem about the universal human affliction that is the ability to view our drinking buddies as relationship material once we’re three sheets to the wind. Shanty waltz ‘Teardrops’ is another gem of excellent musicianship from a tight band that understands the value of space between the music, allowing RobinElla to emote without pretense.
Indeed, those wondering where the catch is will be pleasantly surprised. This is great stuff to the last; ‘I Fall In Love As Much As I Can’ is a fitting farewell, evoking thoughts of Ella Fitzgerald serenading passengers on a Mississippi steamer, muted brass and woozy fiddle intact. Solace… has humour, grace and diversity in spades; most importantly, it also has a voice that truly deserves to be heard. If you’re lonesome tonight then don’t be; share the RobinElla love!
originally published June 24th, 2006
You don’t need me to tell you that the geopolitical trans-national region of Scandinavia is something of a hotbed for eccentric female talent, but who would have expected Swedish ‘90s two-hit wonder Robyn to make one of the sassiest modern pop albums of recent times. While Britney and Christina were rising and falling, marrying slobs and getting pregnant, Robyn was still a pretty successful pop star at home. This, her eponymous comeback, is actually album number five, and is being tipped to make her an international star (again). Like Gwen Stefani, she has re-branded herself as the ultimate post-modern woman – feisty, complex, couture, insecure, self-aware. The similarities don’t end there either. Recalling Stefani’s obsession with the Japanese Harajuku Girls, Robyn is similarly playful and outrageous on the pimpalicious, self-referential ‘Konichiwa Bitches’, which has been setting tongues wagging all over the place. She has even set up her own label, Konichiwa Records, in order to release this irrepressibly modern collection.
In the tradition of the most durable and iconic female pop personalities, Robyn enjoys playing with the listener’s perceptions. As such, while opening track ‘Curriculum Vitae’ is a two-minute ironic spoken-word intro hyping her as “the Queen of Queen Bees… two time winner of the Nobel Prize for the super foxiest female evah!”, by the second song, the hard-nosed, sexy ‘Who’s That Girl?’, we find her proclaiming “the girls are sexy, like, every day, I’m only sexy when I say it’s ok,” exposing her insecurities beneath her sneering ice queen façade.
There’s real magic in her collaborations with Swedish electro duo, The Knife, who received broadsheet acclaim for their electroclash-meets-calypso sound on last year’s Deep Cuts. Their icy, heavy synth lines and pounding staccato drum machine rhythms give the songs a real edge, adding to the feisty sexiness that Robyn’s vocal delivery conjures. They work with Robyn on over half of the album, with the remainder consisting of more conventional strumming pop/ rock. However, due to the complex persona built up throughout the album, what may have seemed drippy were it anyone else, here comes across as touching and heartfelt. That said, the ballads do disappoint to an extent. They aren’t bad as such, but in context seem less vital when the Knife-produced tracks are so strong and cutting edge. Tarnishing the carefully crafted concept of the album, they detract from the bold, eccentric statements made elsewhere.
While terrific, shamelessly pop albums like this and Stefani’s Love Angel Music Baby steer impressively clear of the (4 x single) + (12 x filler) = album formula that prevents most pop records from actually being amazing, they would benefit further from an even stricter degree of quality control. Fortunately, there’s enough humour, sassiness and originality to Robyn to make it one of the most memorable pop albums in recent years and an unexpected delight.
Robbie de Santos
originally published September 18th, 2005
Rodrigo y Gabriela
Rodrigo y Gabriela ••••
There are two things that Rodrigo y Gabriela, a pair of Mexican ex-pats now based in Dublin, want you to know above all else. One, they aren’t siblings and two, they don’t, I repeat don’t play flamenco music. It’s easy to see why one might make that mistake though; their music is certainly infused to overflowing with Latin passion. It can be frenetic and in your face, is played on nylon-strung Spanish guitars and features stirring melodies that float above energetic instrumentation that mixes percussion and guitar in equal amounts… flamenco, surely? Only if you insist on missing the point. You see, Rodrigo y Gabriela were originally members of Tierra Acida, one of Mexico’s premier metal bands, before quitting for Europe in 1999. So, yes, the music does contain flamenco elements but it mines a cluster of other genres too – pop, classical, funk, heavy metal and Al di Meola-esque jazz fusion – all performed on acoustic guitars. Having already gained a glowing reputation as a live act and assorted critical dribblings with their previous albums Re-Foc and Live-Manchester & Dublin, this John Leckie-produced eponymous release seems set to break them to a wider audience, and deservedly so.
While both are virtuosi in their own right, playing duties are split with Rodrigo taking the majority of the lead lines and Gabriela holding down the rhythm. However, this shouldn’t be taken to imply that she plays the subordinate role behind the male guitar hero. In fact, in many ways, it is Gabriela’s energised and muscular playing style that characterises the duo’s unique sound. Rodrigo’s fluid and emotional melodies are easy on the ear and lodge in the consciousness, and the thought occurs that this could be just the guitar style that Jimi Hendrix, Hank Marvin and John Schofield might have come up with if they’d grown up together in the hills of Andalusia. But without Gabriela’s astonishing rhythms, it could very well just be shredding. Hers truly is rhythm playing, seamlessly incorporating percussion into the chordal playing, tapping flamenco-style on golpeadores and tapping plates but goes far beyond. No part of the guitar is safe from her onslaught and so breathtakingly intricate is her playing that her right hand is often little more than a blur.
Parts of the album are truly astonishing. Somewhere a jaunty jazz motif morphs into a metal-based arpeggio solo. Somewhere else a ‘60s cop show guitar line merges into a sassy Mexican melody. ‘Ixtapa’ boasts the album’s only guest musician in the shape of violinist Roby Lakatos who liberally sprinkles it with gypsy jazz improvs. Two rather unexpected covers – Led Zeppelin’s ‘Stairway To Heaven’ and Metallica’s ‘Orion’, join the seven original numbers. Frankly, whether we really need another version of ‘Stairway…’ now that we have the definitive cover (can ya tell what it is yet?) is debatable, but fortunately Rodrigo y Gabriela free the song from its lyrical strictures and provide an entirely new take on the classic. All the signature melodies and sounds are there but in Rodrigo y Gabriela’s hands, the over-familiar aunt of your record collection becomes a suddenly attractive second cousin once removed. ‘Orion ‘is presented firmly on its own terms, underlining the duo’s determination not to be tied down by ticking the tired boxes marked genre. Certainly the opening verses utilise metal-styled riffing, but they do so in a manner that disentangles them from expectation. The dreamy slide guitar introduced towards the end shows, yet again, that the word ‘boundaries’ is not a familiar component of Rodrigo y Gabriela’s vocabulary.
This magnificently inventive album is guaranteed to have any fan of instrumental guitar music enthralled from the very first bars. Even casual music fans will surely come away from this with uplifted spirits and a goofy smile. Also, if you’re quick off the blocks, you may be able to snap up one of the limited edition copies complete with bonus DVD. Well worth the price of admission, it contains a documentary, three stunning live performances and a short tutorial showing how to capture the opening track ‘Tamacun’ in Rodrigo y Gabriela style – do try this at home folks!
originally published March 21st, 2006
The Rogers Sisters
The Invisible Deck •••½
Having finally managed to break out of their slightly hipsterish leftie prison with last year’s mini-album Three Fingers, New York rockers The Rogers Sisters are back with their second full-length, The Invisible Deck. Singer/guitarist Jennifer Rogers explains that the album’s title comes from a card trick her father used to do when she and sister Laura (drums) were kids: “It’s mind-blowing, like real magic. Plus, we thought the word deck had a lot of different implications – decks are stacked and played, people and halls are decked, there are tape decks. The word invisible has a double meaning too; it can mean powerless or it can mean sneaky.”
It comes as no surprise then that the album is a thickly layered piece of work, full of distorted guitars, oddly muffled drums and slightly hypnotising vocals. The one non-related band member of the Rogers clan, singer/bassist Miyuki Furtado (no relation of Nelly) explains that they tried to experiment with writing music that had more of a classic song structure, something that better exhibited their melancholic and slightly sinister personalities. Unlike the bass- and beat-laden Three Fingers, The Invisible Deck certainly succeeds in showing off the dark side of the trio. At first sounding not unlike a bunch of stroppy children banging on the floor in frustration (indie dancefloor hit ‘Why Won’t You?’), the mood then shifts through a Scissor Sisters-in-therapy mid-section before culminating in the creepy, drugged-up and drawn out finale of ‘Sooner Or Later’.
The Rogers Sisters certainly aren’t shy of using a variety of unusual amps and guitars or of experimenting with sound through creative mic placements and covering drums with different materials. The recording mix, however, lets the usually energetic trio down; there’s hardly any dynamic range and the vocals either drown in heavy, messy guitar licks or seem strangely detached from the instrumental soundscapes. Former single ‘Emotion Control’, which was re-recorded for the album, particularly suffers. Overall, the arrangements are fairly simplistic, and apart from the use of percussion and occasional flute (see the brooding, near seven-minute epic ‘Your Littlest World’), the songs vary little instrumentally. The rhythmical structures, vocal harmonies and phrasing are also fairly consistent throughout the album. Intentional or not, with one or two notable exceptions (e.g. the bouncy, chugging ‘The Clock’), these are the kind of songs that could easily play in the background without demanding much direct attention, yet at the same time affect the mood from underneath, rather like an ‘invisible deck’ in fact.
So while it is heartening to see that The Rogers Sisters have not fallen into the trap of commercialism, choosing instead to explore and expand their musical horizons, I wouldn’t go so far as to label their latest work an ‘opus’ as they have done ever so modestly in their bio. Instead, it’s simply a document (and a worthwhile one at that) of a band that’s continuing to find and define their musical path and refusing to simply blend in with the scenery.
originally published March 25th, 2006
Sweet Hours EP ••••
With her delicate features framed by blonde pre- Raphaelite curls, Beth Rowley looks anything but a smokin’ jazz-soul diva. Excepting some serious Milli Vanilli-style shenanigans, however, that’s exactly what she is. Boasting an extraordinary voice that could melt a heart of anthracite, a lazier scribe would attest to a certain Joss Stone-like quality, but Rowley’s is a rawer, more affecting talent. Combining a clarity and strength of spirit with bluesy and often sulty undertones, flecks of jazz and blues blend flawlessy with soul and even gospel to concoct a bewitching brew. While last year’s self-titled debut EP concentrated more on the former, the brand new Sweet Hours effortlessly stretches out to encompass them all, and sounds the more outstanding for it.
The traditional number ‘Nobody’s Fault But Mine’ is Rowley at her most vocally isolated and vulnerable. A tender whisper here, a despairing wail of anguish there, it’s a real floor-filler as everyone around her swoons in admiration. ‘How Could You Ever Leave’ has a more contemporary soul / R’n’B styling, but is once again delivered in a manner that knocks the cork placemats off those other young upstarts venturing into this territory. Coffee table music it ain’t. The title track, also co-written with producer/saxophonist Ben Castle (son of Roy), mainlines a lite soul flavour and makes a satisfying pop song. Elsewhere, ‘Magazines’ sees Rowley kicks off her shoes and hit the dancefloor barefoot with a tasty melange fusing the best of Stax and Motown with a frenetic Tower of Power delivery. Funky horns soar over a solid rhythm track as the words, recounted with her tongue planted firmly in cheek, recite a hymn of thanks to the modern woman’s fount of all knowledge; “Should I lose weight or should I buy bigger chairs? It’s good to know that somebody cares!”, she sings, gleefully playing it large.
The EP closes with a pair of unusual covers. George Formby’s ‘Leaning On A Lamp-post’ (wait!… hear her out) is barely recognisable as Rowley sublimely subverts the gimmicky, ukulele-banjo associations to deliver her smouldering blues with boogie woogie-tinged piano. It’s the boldest transformation since Tori Amos heartily ravished the Chas & Dave ditty, ‘London Girls’. The Ronettes classic ‘Be My Baby’ also gets the full Beth Rowley remake treatment, morphing into doo-wop jazz with a cosseting harmony so close it practically stalks the melody. Melded with rich and syrupy double bass, the song’s astonishing vocal arrangement is a strange but stunning coda. Fans of these covers would do well to seek out the first EP for an authoritative take on T-Bone Walker’s ‘Stormy Monday’, which Rowley bends to her will and successfully conveys a world-weary knowingness far beyond her youth.
There’s no doubt that Rowley has the ability and, most importantly, the likeability to bring authentic but accessible jazz and blues to a mainstream audience. With her vocals and interpretative skills already seemingly head and shoulders above the other populist jazzers – Melua, Cullum, Bublé and the like – it would only take a kind twist of fate for Rowley to graduate from Carleen Anderson’s backing singer to a homegrown singular talent every bit as revered.
originally published January 28th, 2006
Live at Lock 17 ••••
March 1st, 2006
When the soundtrack of my formative years takes to the stage, the technician doesn’t even bother to turn the lights down, perhaps sensing the already feverish anticipation of the crowd. Mostly jammed with fellow New Zealanders, the sold-out venue swells with applause as the object of their affection greets them with a simple “Hi, nice to see you” before launching straight into her greatest hit ‘Sway’ from 1998’s debut album Drive. Shrugging her shoulders as if to say “well what other song would I start with?,” Runga affably commands the attention of everyone before getting a fit of the giggles midway through the song. But rather than being greeted with a good natured heckle, the besotted crowd stand still and quiet, hanging on Runga’s every word, me included. She’s a connection to our distant homeland, someone who transports us back to a precious time and place and lets us forget our aching feet and crappy jobs.
Wearing a black vintage-style dress to match her newly-cropped glossy black hair and dusky eye shadow, Bic stands with one hand in her pocket and the other on the mic, clearly quite comfy in her own way. For someone who regularly sells out venues umpteen times the size of Lock 17, the set is very simple; just a black curtain, red lighting, Neil Finn on the piano and a guitarist whose name I don’t quite catch. The Finn connection goes back a few years. A self-proclaimed Runga fan, Finn asked her to co-headline a sold-out tour (also with John Dobbyn) before adding harmonies and flourishes to her 2002 album Beautiful Collision and the new one, Birds. Released in New Zealand last November, the album finally gets its UK release in May, and our first taste of it comes with second song ‘Captured’. Runga’s clear, soothing and peaceful vocal wraps itself around the accompaniment; it’s hard to believe that a song with such a mysterious, ghost-like quality can be carried so expertly by just three (albeit very talented) individuals.
Introducing ‘Say After Me’ as the future first single to be taken from Birds (surprisingly not ‘Winning Arrow’ as in other territories), Runga knowingly adds “the whole song is real depressing” before clicking her fingers and counting her compadres in. Proving that she can be a very intense performer when the situation calls for it, Runga tends to either close her eyes so tightly as to concentrate immensely on every note or to stand deathly still looking straight out at the crowd. Tonight, her expert manipulation of the tension climaxes with ‘It’s Over”, during which she appears to become genuinely upset and uneasy with the memories invoked. It’s no surprise really, many of these new songs sprang directly from the death of her father in 2005. But as the evening continues, she begins to get more playful with the audience. She starts a song or two with springy little dances, claps and laughs with the band and asks endearingly dappy things such as “how does it go again?” and “do I play in this one?”, to which one of them answers “if you want to!” and she does.
After just 10 songs she says goodnight and departs the stage with her band, but we’re having none of it. And when she returns to play the new album’s title track, a loud rippling “shhh!” rushes round the room. Clearly us Kiwis are eager to prolong the feeling of home. As the darkly dramatic number draws to a close, Runga thanks the boys and proceeds to do another two alone; the worldly wise ‘No Crying No More’ and harking back to her younger days with ‘Drive’. Then with a smile and a wave she departs with a promise – “see you in a couple of months!” On the strength of tonight’s performance, it might finally be time for Runga’s career to take flight in Britain.
originally published March 18th, 2006
The Girl Who Couldn’t Fly ••••
Objectivity is rarely an option where the music of Kate Rusby is concerned. Since her deserving nomination (and, for that matter, cruelly robbed loss – Talvin Singh, where are you now?) as the ‘token folkie’ for the 1999 Mercury Music Prize, she has released album after album of exquisitely winsome, unsullied beauty, and this, her fifth, is no exception. In fact, if you’ve liked any of her previous releases, why read any further? Part with that cash! So sure-footed is she that to question the consistency of this album is to verge on the blasphemous. Rusby knows what she loves and what she does best, and by happy coincidence, enough people seem to agree wholeheartedly. Yet despite the unbroken, no repairs approach, there are enough clues here to make us aware that she’s still growing.
Though always a strong collaborative artist, most of Rusby’s pairings have been with artists themselves immersed in the British and American folk scenes, with the exception of Ocean Colour Scene’s Simon Fowler’s guest vocal on 2003’s Underneath The Stars. Here, not only has former Blur guitarist Graham Coxon provided the album artwork, but Roddy Woomble, lead singer with Scottish rockers Idlewild, improbably appears on no less than three tracks. As ever though, the most important collaborator is Rusby’s husband, John McCusker, an impressive multi-instrumentalist and member of The Battlefield Band. With an array of talented musicians, Rusby’s pure, endearing vocals are deftly backed by double bass, harmonium, euphonium, flutes and whistles, all serving to blur the distinction between the results of Rusby’s own evolving songwriting and those of a more traditional nature. So much so that it’s easy not to realise on first listen that seven of these songs are her own.
As is her wont, Rusby also throws a cover into the mix – previous albums have seen reinterpretations of Suzanne Vega’s ‘The Queen & The Soldier’, Richard and Linda Thompson’s ‘Withered & Died’ and ‘Old Town’ by Iris DeMent – and this time it’s not a great deal more leftfield. The jazz standard, ‘You Belong To Me’, has been recorded by everyone from Ella Fitzgerald and Judy Garland to Tori Amos and Bob Dylan, and Rubsy does it justice in her own unflourished, mellow style. Elsewhere, ‘Bonnie House Of Airlie’ is a thundering blood feud epic based on the tale of ‘Bonnie’ Prince Charlie, ‘Game Of All Fours’ tells the engrossing tale of a high-stakes card game between a girl and boy, and ‘Wandering Soul’ is a rousing number reminiscent of ‘Canaan’s Land’ from Little Lights that was previously issued on the soundtrack to the BBC series, ‘Billy Connolly’s Musical Tour of New Zealand’. It should have you and anyone else in the vicinity singing along with gusto. Take it from me, the practice will come in useful should you ever see a Rusby live show – she’ll be right impressed!
One of the standout tracks, ‘A Ballad’, is a significant change in pace and subject, telling the story of a bride who discovers her cheating husband-to-be up to no good on the morning of their wedding. But rather than getting her parents to seek him out and clout him, as is the norm in English folk, she does herself in; cheerful it’s not, but unendingly gorgeous. And don’t worry, if that gets you down, the cute little hidden track, ‘Little Jack Frost’, is the pick-you-upper theme tune to the BBC’s adorable Christmas animation that lit up the schedules last year.
Is Rusby herself the girl afraid to fly? Certainly not musically, but apparently so in the flesh – the title was inspired by a conversation with a friend about a trip to the Maldives. So whilst it might take a hypnotist for that boduberu and Indian pot dance album to materialise, for now The Girl Who Couldn’t Fly simply reaffirms our faith well-placed in Rusby’s very special brand of Britishness.
originally published December 12th, 2005
Under The Munka Moon II •½
Under The Munka Moon II is the third album from contemporary soul artist Alice Russell and an apparent sequel to her debut in more than just name. Although the interim release, My Favourite Letters, demonstrated that Russell is able to work inside the traditional album template and create her own sound, like the first installment, Under The Munka Moon II essentially rests on collaborations. It’s enough to make you wonder whether, with this revisit to partnerships, Russell is able to sustain her own career. That, and the fact that Russell wears her influences so heavily her confession that she loves Aretha Franklin, Minnie Riperton and Stevie Wonder can only be viewed with light amusement.
That’s not to say that this new release is worthless. Her cover of ‘Seven Nation Army’, in which Nostalgia 77 sneak in, plods at points and lacks the fever of the White Stripes original but Russell has a lot more oomph than soul ‘wunderkind’ Joss Stone and deserves far more respect for her attempt. ‘Hurry On Now’ attempts to introduce a light-hearted reggae-driven beat under Russell’s soulful vocal but perhaps falls at the last hurdle, which is a shame.
Elsewhere, ‘A Fly In The Hand’ might have the average radio listener typing in ‘soul’, ‘Aretha Franklin’ and ‘gospel’ into Google, completely unaware that the material is new, and this is fundamentally the album’s downfall. The listener can look past the multitudes of ‘help’ Russell has received and listen to Under The Munka Moon II for what it is worth, but eventually they will realise their Best Soul Album In The World…Ever! compilation has been gathering dust and once more completely forget about Russell.
Russell struggles throughout to find her feet and create a new, wantingly unexpected sound. Were she to polish a few of these songs up she would find herself in a much more saleable position, but as it is the album is barely strong enough to support its own cast.