wears the trousers magazine


the weepies: hideaway (2008)
August 21, 2008, 2:50 pm
Filed under: album, review | Tags: , , , , , ,

The Weepies
Hideaway •••½
Nettwerk

It’s hard to believe Deb Talan and Steve Tannen’s third album as The Weepies is once again homemade. It sounds so perfectly produced and richly detailed that ‘homemade’ seems an inappropriate adjective. It has been home-nurtured and home-loved but never just ‘made’.

Continue reading

Advertisements


kat vipers: hot air balloon ep (2008)
August 21, 2008, 2:48 pm
Filed under: EP, review, video | Tags: , , ,

Kat Vipers
Hot Air Balloon EP ••••
Py 

Let’s get things straight up front: Hot Air Balloon is the kind of EP that grabs you by the throat, drags you onto a smoky circus stage and makes you dance as if your life depended on it. If it were a drink, it would be a dark burning whiskey with a frangelico chaser. It’s a remarkable dichotomy of seductive, electric, gypsy-style blues mixed with angry, powerful vocals punctuated by images of hot sweat, marmalade and dancing with wolves.

Continue reading



beth dariti: in-between (2008)
June 17, 2008, 12:24 am
Filed under: album, review | Tags: , , ,

Beth Dariti
In-Between ••••
MoHo

Reinvigorating if not reinventing the quintessential girl-with-a-guitar acoustic concept, In-Between mixes intelligent lyrics with unusual organic drumbeats, atypically (brilliantly!) placed backing vocals and a love of music so evident that it ricochets off every strum. Dariti, a regular on the London acoustic scene for a few years now, has a voice that draws you in with its conversational quality. So when she sings about her existential fears in first track ‘Gettin’ Older’ her plain-sung truthfulness is touching where another singer might lapse, martyring themselves on a slab of self-pity. Dariti’s guitar style may owe a debt to Ani DiFranco but it’s immaculately skilled, signposting the way to more where that came from.

Continue reading



2007 reviews dump: d

The following reviews were published on our old MySpace blog in 2007.

_______________________________________________________________________

Damon & Naomi
Within These Walls ••
20/20/20

When I was about 15, a friend passed me a tape in maths class. “My sister got into these guys at university, and I reckon they’re amazing too so I made you a tape. Let me know what you reckon.” That album was Galaxie 500’s second, On Fire, but despite the generosity of the gesture, I wasn’t impressed at the time – far too spindly and distant for someone revelling in Silverfish and their lurching ilk – and the tape eventually found its way to the dustier regions of my nascent collection. Times change, though, and when I found the tape again a few years later, what I’d previously taken for limp-wristed feyness revealed itself as an emotionally blasted combination of slowed tempos, sparse if occasionally searing instrumentation and aching melodies, its power somehow multiplied by dislocated and dislocating production. With hindsight, On Fire opened my ears to a different way of making (rock) music, since expanded into a genre – ‘slowcore’ (cringe!) – by the likes of Low, Codeine et al. In short, I owe Galaxie 500 for changing my life.

Damon Krukowski and Naomi Yang were Galaxie’s drummer and bassist, respectively, and after Dean Wareham split the band in 1991 (moving on to form Luna with Britta Phillips) his erstwhile bandmates stuck together under their Christian names. Of the two, it’s Damon & Naomi who are the more obvious descendants of Galaxie 500, leaning more toward the elegiac and wistful than Luna’s more pop-oriented efforts. Each of their previous six albums seems to have been expressly designed with notions of ‘sadness’ and ‘longing’ in mind, and have been more about developing an elegantly downbeat atmosphere than penning memorable songs per se.

While it’s true that this is never a bad thing in itself, it starts to become limiting when a band builds an entire career on it. The only memorable shift in their outlook came when they began collaborating with members of Japanese psych-rock luminaries Ghost, around the time of the prosaically named Damon & Naomi With Ghost LP. Ghost guitarist and arch collaborator Michio Kurihara is pretty much a permanent fixture in the band nowadays, and his presence continues the subtle fleshing out of the Damon & Naomi sound heralded by that album.

And subtle it is. Now, wrapped around a constant bedrock of strummed guitars and wispy vocals, are translucent gauzes of strings, horns, sax and Kurihara’s luminescent guitar work – all beautifully realised, with utmost craft and care taken to ensure that no one part overwhelms the whole in anything approaching tastelessness. And with that, we arrive at the reason why, for all the wrong reasons, this album makes me want to cry: it’s too damn tasteful. All the songs are gorgeous, the instruments gliding around each other like glittering shoals in a dappled koi pool, interlocking better than a Swiss watch…and boring this listener to death. There are ten songs here, one of them mentions lilacs, another’s about a queen or something, but it doesn’t really matter because it all. sounds. the. same. Buy it on vinyl, shut your eyes, drop the needle and play a fun game of Guess The Song; you will fail, miserably.

As I said earlier, it’s like they’ve built the entire album around preconceived ideas of the emotions they want to convey; imagine a corporate brainstorming session where ‘wistful’ and ‘elegiac’ are bubbles on a whiteboard and you’re pretty much there. It’s slow without a trace of the core, and that’s a great shame.

Adam Smith

_______________________________________________________________________

Alela Diane
The Pirate’s Gospel ••••
Names

First things first, this is not a gospel record. Alela Diane deals in the kind of languid folk that, if listened to as dawn arrives, can conjure gothic images of silhouetted trees across a misty field, yet in the full light of day will put a spring in your step and make you smile out at the world passing by. The Pirate’s Gospel, originally self-released with a slightly longer tracklist, is Diane’s official debut, discounting her limited edition vinyl EP Songs Whistled Through White Teeth and her intricate hand-drawn, stitched-sleeved CD-R Forest Parade. Fans of Jolie Holland will find some distinct similarities with the object of their affection. Take Diane’s arrangements, for example. Alela accompanies her rich tones with hypnotic arpeggios on the guitar and little else. Where it does crop up, the sparse accompaniment comes in the form of whistling and handclaps; otherwise the siren is joined by a group of men with swelling bass tones on the foot-tapping title track, a children’s choir on ‘Pieces Of String’, and nicely blended female voices at various intervals.

Diane hails from Nevada City, California, also home to Joanna Newsom, who first brought her to the public’s attention. It’s old California out there; everything you see, hear and touch is a link to the past. Giant oak trees, rusting pickup trucks, wooden porches with swing chairs, tatted lace handed down through generations and rivers once fought over for gold. This is the world that informs her music as she takes us deep into the dimly lit recesses of California’s collective conscious. It’s a place where a father reaches for the rifle on the wall because “they’re coming from the woods” and mamas are “a-runnin’ too”. Here, the mood is of midnight and the spectre of Cat Power lingers nearby.

Music, family, loss and unfamiliarity weigh heavily in the album’s lyrics, as they do in pioneer literature. In ‘Can You Blame The Sky?’ she asks “can you blame the sky / when a mama leaves her babies behind?”, and in the emotionally charged album highlight ‘Oh! My Mama’ she recalls her mother saying “use your voice… sing, sing, sing, sing, sing” and wonders whether she will “play the guitar like her father does”. There’s an element of timelessness to these songs. The change of pace and tone with the light and hook-laden ‘Somethings Gone Awry’ is reminiscent of a nursery rhyme or traditional tune, the melody immediately embedding itself in your memory.

Diane’s songs seek lyrical solace in odd domestic artefacts, religious imagery and nature, and her voice will take to you to places that are haunting yet eerily familiar. Above all, they are deceptively simple, stripped bare to the bone, as you will be when the album draws to a close. The Pirate’s Gospel is a genuine classic, and already the highlight of 2007.

James M Johnston

_______________________________________________________________________

Ani DiFranco
Canon ••••
Righteous Babe

First of all a guilty confession: the music of the esteemed Ms DiFranco had more or less passed me by up until now (boo, hiss, shame etc.). Overwhelmed by the sheer volume of her output and by her amazing productivity – 17 albums in 17 years, plus copious EPs and concert releases – the main problem seemed to be where to start. With the early folk? The recent jazzy experiments? The live recordings? Happily, for anyone in the same boat, there’s now a very simple answer to the question of where to begin your DiFranco journey: get yourself a copy of her double-disc retrospective Canon and saddle up for a heady introduction to the work of a remarkable artist.

The 36 songs on Canon trace a broadly chronological path through DiFranco’s career, encompassing tracks from all of her albums, from her self-titled 1990 debut to last year’s Reprieve. The press release for the collection emphasises its status as no mere ‘best of’; rather, this is an “album that’s arranged and intended to be played from beginning to end,” one made to DiFranco’s “precise specifications.” Would we expect anything less? After all, DiFranco has long been celebrated as an icon of independence on the music scene, releasing all of her work through her own Righteous Babe label and retaining full control over all aspects of her music. Given the extraordinary amount of material she’s put out in the last 17 years, the decision of what to include on Canon can’t have been easy, but DiFranco has produced a carefully packaged and extremely well-sequenced collection with a strong sense of track-by-track flow.

The first thing to strike is the wonder of her guitar playing and her lyrical dexterity. DiFranco’s songs teem with imagery and detail, and she darts around the tunes with an exhilarating speed and momentum. Her rapid, attention-grabbing playing style is perfectly in sync with her vocal delivery with its funky, almost conversational quality and appealing snap and snarl (surely a formative influence on Alanis Morissette?), and also with her lyrics, which are similarly direct and upfront, full of sharp edges and breathless wordplay. Like someone on a caffeine jag, the typical DiFranco song comes at you in a rush, with a hasteful, even aggressive urgency, a need to get it all out ‘now’. Her music bristles with the brazen, nervous energy of her native New York – brilliantly described in ‘Cradle & All’ as “the city that never shuts up” – and feels intrinsically urban with images of fire escapes, subway trains, “men pissing in doorways,” “trash on the kerbs” and “traffic hissing by.”

That’s not to say that she can’t also be introspective and reflective, as on the touching piano-led post-show rumination ‘You Had Time’ and the measured, meditative ‘Grey’. Indeed, at their best, her songs sometimes spark similar shocks of recognition to those of a Mitchell or an Amos. Witness the reference to “last night’s underwear in my back pocket / sure sign of the morning after” in ‘Cradle & All’, or the moment in the sublime ‘32 Flavors’ in which the narrator pauses mid self-eulogy to acknowledge that “there’s many who’ve turned out their porch lights / just so I would think they were not home / and hid in the dark of their windows / ‘til I passed and left them alone.” With her poet’s eye for detail, DiFranco builds her songs out of fleet-footed images, vignettes and narrative fragments. Thematically, much of her work takes place at the juncture where the personal and the political intersect. ‘God’s Country’ dramatises an encounter between the Brooklynite narrator and a state-trooper on some lonesome highway. “This may be God’s country but this is my country too / move over Mr. Holiness, let the little people through” DiFranco sings, leaving it up to the listener to decide whether she’s addressing God, the cop, or both.

‘Subdivision’ anatomises poverty, homelessness and contemporary manifestations of segregation (“America the Beautiful is just one big subdivision”), while ‘Paradigm’ is a complex celebration of the political commitment of her immigrant parents, with DiFranco recalling herself as “just a girl in a room full of women / licking stamps and laughing” and remembering “the feeling of community brewing / of democracy happening”. ‘Hello Birmingham’ explores both civil and abortion rights, and the stunning ‘Fuel’ begins with the discovery of a slave cemetery and goes on to take some well-aimed pot shots at everything from clueless Presidential candidates (“Tweedle-dumb and Tweedle-dumber”) to corporate culture.

Clearly, DiFranco does not fear didacticism, but her socio-political critiques seldom sound facile or glib. She can be a lot of fun too, and it’s central to her appeal that she can crack you up one moment and make you think about society’s ills the next. Canon gives a full indication of her multi-faceted personality as an artist, as well as a valuable insight into the evolution of her sound and her lyrical concerns. Meanwhile, four judiciously chosen concert cuts – ‘Distracted’ (a spoken-word reflection on the accusation that her work has abandoned politics in favour of safer subject matter), ‘Untouchable Face’ (a wry kiss-off to an ex), ‘Gravel’ and ‘Joyful Girl’ offer a pleasing glimpse into the DiFranco live experience.

There is, it must be admitted, a strong streak of self-consciousness about some of DiFranco’s work, and it’s particularly evident on the spirited but slightly unpleasant ‘Napoleon’, an infamous diss to a friend who signed with a major label, which features a told-you-so coda that can’t avoid a whiff of smug self-righteousness. Alongside ‘Shameless’, ‘Your Next Bold Move’, ‘Both Hands’ and ‘Overlap’ (all excellent), ‘Napoleon’ is one of the re-worked tracks which are placed at the end of each disc as an enticement to fans who may otherwise be reluctant to pay out for a collection that probably doesn’t include much material that they don’t already possess. (A DiFranco rarities disc must surely be on the cards at some point.) But while the dearth of new material on ‘Canon’ means that, aside from the reworked tracks, the collection has less to offer long-time DiFranco aficionados, for newcomers to her work this is absolutely the perfect place to start.

Alex Ramon

_______________________________________________________________________

Céline Dion
Taking Chances •
SonyBMG

Earlier this year, SonyBMG announced that its Quebecois star Céline Dion had sold over 200 million albums worldwide, making the Vegas favourite one of the world’s biggest-selling female artists; not only that, but in the last 15 years she has built up a formidable collection of gongs, including two Oscars, five Grammies and three Golden Globes, not to mention the Orders of Canada and Quebec. She has collaborated with stars as iconic as Aretha Franklin, Michael Jackson, Sir Elton John and Luciano Pavarotti, and released more than 25 albums in two languages, scoring dozens of chart-topping singles in countries around the world. And, in the midst of all of this, she has somehow managed to squeeze in a two-year career break to raise her son and nurse her husband through cancer. The woman has seemingly limitless energy.

It’s a shame, then, that all of this success cannot do anything to change the fact that Céline Dion is – and always has been – a redoubtably formulaic performer, utterly dependant on tried-and-tested techniques and seemingly unable to lend any sense of imagination or emotional variety to her music. It could well be that her consistently unchallenging approach is precisely what has made her so successful: doing the same thing time after time is both safe and lucrative. Unfortunately, it’s also boring, a fact more than adequately proved by her new album, the inaptly-named Taking Chances.

The title promises far more than it can deliver as Dion howls her way through 17 songs in that familiar, grating, over-loud way that has made her fortune. Rushing straight into the album’s eponymous opening number with an inelegant vibrato and hammed emoting, she quickly revisits all of her most familiar faults in track after track. Her rendition of Heart’s 1980s standard ‘Alone’ contains most of those faults: the mechanical vibrato, the oddly impersonal over-production, the needless vocal runs, and those awful, ear-shattering high-pitched shrieks, all combining to create an intensely nasty aural assault. One of Dion’s most consistent errors is her inability to temper her natural vocal power with a bit of softness; equating emotional intensity with volume, this leads to some memorably ugly music – including the execrable ‘New Dawn’, a mock-religious horror that will have Mahalia Jackson turning in her grave.

Perhaps the most disappointing thing about the album is that, musically, it actually has potential. For example, Delta Goodrem’s Bollywood-inspired ‘Eyes On Me’ is a fantastic piece of music, sadly ruined by Dion’s caterwauling and her grotesque parody of childish naïveté. ‘That’s Just The Woman In Me’ is a Hammond-fuelled gospel piece of great colour and flair which, had it been performed by a truly emotional singer such as Nina Simone or even Mavis Staples, would be stunning; instead, we are treated to a bizarre form of evangelistic torture by Ms Dion, whose uniquely horrible attempt to enliven the song with a few off-beat phrases beats Kenny Everett’s preacher parody into a cocked hat.

The album’s only truly passable song, ‘Skies Of LA’, remains as mawkish as Dion’s usual fare, only achieving a little more credibility because, for once, she eschews her trademark vocal runs for a decent piece of ordinary singing; still, it’s badly over-produced and sounds as though she threw it in just to show that she can do the normal stuff. The simple fact is that although Dion really does have a technically excellent voice, she can’t use it to strike a decent emotional balance in her music. Technical ability and artistry are not the same thing; in the classical sense, Marianne Faithfull is a poor vocal performer, but her genuinely heartfelt performances are immensely superior to any of Dion’s overdressed twaddle. Ms Dion would do well to learn that before she next steps into the recording studio.

Schmaltzy, over-produced, tasteless and crushingly bland, this is an album to strangle cats to. Taking Chances? Not likely.

Andy Wasley

_______________________________________________________________________

Orion Rigel Dommisse
What I Want From You Is Sweet ••••
Language Of Stone

The debut album from Baltimore-based Orion Rigel Dommisse, What I Want From You Is Sweet is a bubbling cauldron of qualities and styles. The string-dominated music has a classical flavour, and many of the songs have a story-telling character. The combination of these two qualities results in an album that sounds as though it were the soundtrack to a collection of Grimm fairytales. The theme of death is also apparent throughout – the words ‘dead’ and ‘death’ appearing in four of the ten song titles.

What I Want… is an album full of lovely little flourishes. If you listen carefully on ‘A Faceless Death’, the alluring lyric “when you die I’ll rearrange your bones” is accompanied by the gentle rattling of what sounds very much like the aforementioned bones as Dommisse organises them into a more worthy pattern. ‘Simon Sent For Me’ plays in the style of a stately Regency-period dance, though its slightly sinister quality sees it transforming into something of a danse macabre – a party track for ghosts and phantoms.

Dommisse’s lyrics are not always easily comprehensible, which adds to the otherworldly strangeness of her music. Nevertheless, the story-telling quality of her writing makes itself felt throughout the album, whether through the lyrics themselves or the way in which Dommisse delivers them. This is never more obvious than in ‘A Giver’ – the image of a princess in a castle “where she is kept by a cruel and evil spell” brings to mind countless fairytales of knights, maidens and wicked witches.

The real stars of the show are the stringed instruments – Dommisse on her electric cello and Robert Pycior on his electric violin – unusual substitutes for the ubiquitous guitars that appear here only in a few guest spots. The strings wind their way through the whole album, meandering languorously here and fluttering frantically there. Pycior plucks his strings mischievously through the opening ‘Fake Yer Death’ – and why not? There is usually some mischief involved in faking your own death, after all. The strings create a particular sound that permeates the album, but Dommisse and Pycior simultaneously manage to wield their instruments in fantastically varied ways on each different track.

What I Want From You Is Sweet is unusual and wonderful by equal measure. Its rejection of the typical formula of modern music makes it stand out as something a bit magical, and more than a bit special.

Hugh Armitage

_______________________________________________________________________

Siobhan Donaghy
Ghosts •••
Parlophone

Flame-haired chanteuse; former Sugababes member; challenging second album. It’s difficult not to drag out the cliches when it comes to talking about Ghosts, a record which seems to go out of its way to defy description. Producer and programmer James Sanger paints a backdrop of soft-focus pads and sundry etherealisms which flatter Donaghy’s voice and invite comparisons with her ‘80s and ‘90s predecessors rather than her peers. Unlike the smart subversion of the Motown sound by Amy Winehouse and Mark Ronson, there’s something slightly off about the pick-and-mix mentality of Ghosts – a smidgen of trip-hop here, a sprinkle of Cocteau Twins dream-gabble there.

At times the disc is naggingly derivative – the melody of ‘Medevac’ is striking in its similarity to Kate Bush’s ‘Running Up That Hill’, and ‘Halcyon Days’ gives more than just a nod in the direction of Massive Attack’s ‘Teardrop’ – but these ‘homages’ provide instant hooks. As with her debut Revolution In Me, several songs are slow to reveal not only their charms but their choruses. ‘Coming Up For Air’ is a slow-burner, but when it kicks into gear it becomes a dramatic callback to Donaghy’s debut single ‘Overrated’, revisiting and bemoaning her “selfish pain”. Also reminiscent of her earlier work is ‘Make It Right’, an uncomfortable mix of lumbering soul and Celtic flounce which seems out of place on this album. Much more successful are the likes of ‘Don’t Give It Up’ (first single, instant anthem) and ‘Goldfish’, a sparkling, hymn-like meditation on depression.

Throughout the album, Donaghy’s lyrics are hit and miss – ‘12 Bar Acid Blues’ finds our heroine in a sticky situation when she attempts to go on holiday, outlined with a wry wit reminiscent of Kirsty MacColl; the occasional amusing turns of phrase throughout the album make simpler songs like ‘Sometimes’ seem facile and uninspired in comparison. The title track, an incomprehensible strings of words soaring over a mid-tempo grind with the odd backwards vocal, sounds pretentious on paper but it works. Perhaps the album could have done with a few more unusual moments like this.

Despite being touted as having matured as a performer and co-writer since Revolution In Me, it seems that Donaghy hasn’t quite found her own voice yet. While this is an enjoyable record with some very strong tracks, it’s not as accomplished as it could be. Ghosts is an admirable attempt to do something different within the pop vernacular, and it is certainly a promising progression. The mixed blessing of this album is that it gives the impression Siobhan Donaghy is still to reach her creative peak.

Callum Sinclair

_______________________________________________________________________

The Donnas
Bitchin’ •••
Cooking Vinyl

‘Girl Power’ is a phrase associated with a particular band. We all know the one. In the ‘90s, it was sold to us as something that represented female liberation and a devil-may-care attitude. Young women could dress how they liked, say what they wanted and live their lives for themselves and no one else. All noble ideals, but the reality was something quite different. It was a concept manufactured by old, male music industry fat cats and purveyed to us via a collective of attention seeking shrews, the most famous of which is known more for having married well rather than anything else. It made a mockery of any concept of Girl Power.

To me, The Donnas are a much finer example of what Girl Power could mean. Their music is rough and unpolished – a raucous, punky rampage through a succession of snappy anthems. Vocalist Brett Anderson, aka Donna A, is no classically trained singer, but her voice is perfect for the music. She sounds like someone enjoying herself, and if she isn’t Joanna Newsom, who cares? The Donnas write their own music and play their own instruments, and what they lack in finesse they make up for in raw enthusiasm. This is the real sound of girls having fun, not some soulless trash cooked up by a coven of music execs in their lofty boardroom.

That’s the girls’ sound, but what of their material on this, their seventh studio album? Well, I’m sorry to report that Bitchin’ doesn’t quite live up to expectations. That isn’t to say there aren’t some sparkly gems here; each track is executed with typical Donnas energy. ‘Smoke You Out’ has its brilliantly screechy guitar solo, and ‘Here For The Party’ ends with a fluttering of surprise harmonica, while the album opener unfolds slowly like some strange cross between an AC/DC track and ‘Rhapsody In Blue’, instilling the listener with a mounting sense of anticipation, a real desire for the music to start in earnest.

But while the first few tracks of Bitchin’ are perfectly enjoyable, it isn’t long before a problem becomes apparent. What this album lacks is variation. Each track taken on its own is a three-minute blast of trademark Donnas fun, but strung out together they have an unfortunate tendency to become a bit of a blur. Every song is a variation on the theme ‘I want you why don’t you want me why would I ever want you oh screw it let’s just party’. There are no standout tracks – nothing to stick in your brain – and the songs have a habit of sounding pretty similar. Before long you won’t know ‘Better Off Dancing’ from ‘Don’t Wait Up For Me’ from ‘Give Me What I Want’.

Even the most amateurish albums manage a range of sorrow, joy, fast and slow, but The Donnas seem to have forgotten the basics. And that’s why Bitchin’ is rather disappointing. The Donnas have got the talent. They’ve got a good sound. They just need an editor, to learn how to pick their tracks better and to vary their ideas. This isn’t a bad listen, but uniformity makes this album a somewhat fluffy and forgettable affair.

Hugh Armitage

_______________________________________________________________________

Hilary Duff
Dignity ••••
Hollywood

She’s starred in a Disney television series, moved seamlessly into film, launched a fragrance and a clothing range, as well as churned out three albums before this one – so, do you love or hate Hilary Duff? It’s easy to dismiss her music as hyper-manufactured and vacuous, but shouldn’t we also try to positively acknowledge a woman who has made herself into such a marketable product without debasing her personal integrity? Dignity permits room for both. Billed as her most personal album to date, Duff certainly focuses on the world that she knows, a world filled with record deals, public scrutiny, media-invaded relationships, paparazzi and stalkers; it’s a heady mix and she explores it all with a bubblegum pop backing.

The inspiration for many of the songs could be seen to be rooted in her much-publicised break up with Good Charlotte’s Joel Madden. ‘Stranger’ in particular may feasibly be about her ex; then again, it could similarly be about any of the fairweather friends that she must encounter daily in a world where perfect outer appearances equate with stratospheric stardom and where personal truth is often buried by PR. Initially many of the songs on the album sound overwhelmed by their high production values and intense studio engineering, but there’s a vulnerability and awareness behind songs like ‘Stranger’ that defy Duff’s 19 years.

I’m not suggesting that the album has many layers of meaning; it does exactly what it says on the tin. This is joyous dance pop, but there’s a hint of a darker sting in the tail to many of the songs. The Hollywood socialite-baiting title track is a fabulously catchy, thinly-veiled dig at the likes of Paris Hilton and Nicole Richie who always “have another club to close”, people who have built their media empires on the faltering foundations of flashbulbs and fast money. ‘With Love’, in contrast, orders a reality check, wherein Duff pays tribute to the stabling influences in her life whom she begs to “slow [her] down, tell [her] tomorrow everything will be around”. As long as those truths are delivered with love, she’s willing to accept them. It’s this stability and inherent respect for the people that buoy her that underpins the album and makes Dignity an appropriate title. For all its dance-floor filling beats, the girl portrayed is having fun in a world that gives her the potential to spiral out of control but is reined in by her own integrity.

The quality dips in the middle a little with ‘No Work, All Play’ but rebounds with the spectacular ‘Between You & Me’, a teen-friendly version of P!nk’s ‘U & Ur Hand’ that features classic lines like “my love’s not up for negotiation / ‘hello’ doesn’t mean an open invitation”. Where the first half of the album dwells on the themes of mistrust and disillusion, the second half rejoices in strength, moving on and demanding to be noticed. ‘Dreamer’ is a brilliantly happy and very rational take on being stalked; there are few people who could sugarcoat something so terrifying without detracting from its seriousness. Yet lyrics like “I brush my teeth and feed my dogs / isn’t that thrilling?” are both funny and pointedly defiant. ‘Happy’ and ‘Play With Fire’ resonate with the same defiance and a self-awareness of the facets of her relationship that were restricting; it’s teenage break-up therapy that doesn’t hurt the head.

Exemplified by ‘Never Stop’, the whole album is a high octane sugar rush, like candyfloss laced with pop rocks. But don’t be misled, Destiny won’t numb all your brain cells in a single sitting. Let yourself be surprised and make space on the shelf next to Britney.

Gem Nethersole

 



2007 reviews dump: e f

The following reviews were published on our old MySpace blog in 2007.

_______________________________________________________________________

Eisley
Combinations •••½
Rykodisc

Despite the fact that two of their number aren’t yet out of their teens and that their eldest member is just 25 years old, the Texan family affair that is Eisley celebrates its tenth year of existence with the release of Combinations, their second album for major label Warners. One thing is clear right from the outset; it may have only been two short years since their sparkling debut Room Noises charmed its way into the hearts of a predominantly adolescent audience with truckloads of fanciful quirks, but the five DuPree kids are no longer ingénues – the band are growing up fast.

Having taken their name from Mos Eisley, a spaceport in the ‘Star Wars’ films, the band are no strangers to sci-fi and the chance to be produced by ‘Battlestar Galactica’ score composer Richard Gibbs was almost certainly leapt upon – a brave move, sure, but one that has paid some handsome dividends. Though Gibbs occasionally lapses into clichéd territory (the rainfall that fades in and out of ‘If You’re Wondering’ being the number one offender) and the band stick mostly to the safe side, Combinations contains sufficient variety to keep appreciation levels at a near constant high.

The vocals, as ever, are resplendent and glorious; Sherri’s malleable, exquisite soprano mingles with sister Stacy’s slightly deeper tones in a manner recalling a poppier, more widescreen version of ‘90s duo Pooka. Opener ‘Many Funerals’ sees the two trading lines as they flutter and charge over snarling electric guitar, a clear departure from the gentler, more whimsical pop-rock of Room Noises. Themes of death and sci-fi collide on the driving first single ‘Invasion’. Inspired by the Jack Finney novel ‘Invasion Of The Body Snatchers’, its unnervingly catchy indie-pop clatter is accentuated nicely by Eisley’s trademark harmonies, packaged here as an impressively soaring rock vocal.

For the most part Eisley succeed when stepping outside of what has come before. The brilliant ‘Ten Cent Blues’ is a love rival story song that Rilo Kiley would be proud of (“she is cheesy, she is scrawny, with her uncanny styling / I’m teasing, she is pleasing, she just has no wit”), while ‘Come Clean’ is perhaps their most sumptuous, elegant composition to date, the tail end of which is given added oomph by the unexpected arrival of third sister Chauntelle, brother Weston and cousin Garron on backing vocals. The title track is a straight up love song, given a mystical twist, with ‘Taking Control’ and the commanding ‘A Sight To Behold’ also worthy of attention.

Combinations sags a little early on with the side-by-side pairing of ‘Go Away’ and ‘I Could Be There For You’, the former being overly repetitive and the latter excessively bland, but for the most part Eisley pull it off with style. Fans of their debut might miss that album’s more childish and playful elements, but (in the UK at least) compensation arrives in the form of two bonus tracks, ‘Golly Sandra’ and ‘Marvellous Things’, both of which have previously appeared on Eisley EPs. While these more frivolous inclusions could threaten to detract from the album as a whole, the country twang of ‘Golly Sandra’ is at the very least thoroughly enjoyable and the quality of the ‘Alice In Wonderland’-inspired ‘Marvellous Things’ speaks for itself.

Alan Pedder

______________________________________________________________________________________________________

Electrelane
No Shouts No Calls •••
Too Pure

No Shouts No Calls is the fourth studio album from the Brighton-based low-fi ladies and, in typical Electrelane fashion, doesn’t deviate far from what has gone before. In fact it doesn’t deviate at all – if there’s one word that best describes this band it’s ‘subtlety’. There are muffled vocals, crunchy guitars, buried organs and the occasional ukulele – nothing sounds clean or polished. But that’s just you’d expect from the band who are forever the queens of understatement.

There’s a sense of greatness about many of the songs, many of which feature a near-orchestral climax, yet impending doom continues to flow through most of the music. Verity Susman’s deadpan vocals do nothing to dispel the air of foreboding that wafts from the organs and fuzzy guitars. Yet this is a funeral dirge with a lift – in a similar vein to the way Arcade Fire rejoice in how bad everything is in the world right now. How appropriate that the mighty Fire have invited Electrelane to support them on their US tour.

As usual the minimalist lyrics are notoriously hard to understand, allowing little insight into the stories behind the angst present in much of the music…unless you listen very carefully. ‘The Greater Times’ is yet another tortured Electrelane lament of unrequited love, continually threatening to break out into a raucous chorus of elation but never quite making it. And with lyrics like “there’s no meaning now” and “I’m tearing down the walls without you”, it’s easy to see why.

It’s also clear that Electrelane will probably never quite shake off the Stereolab comparisons, and there are plenty of nods to their low-fi cousins here. The crescendo-ing organs on ‘Tram 21′ are eventually joined by ghostly backing vocals and the thrashing guitars rage throughout, all making for great background music but tends to lack the punch of something you’d find yourself naturally humming along to. That said, the hauntingly beautiful ‘In Berlin’ has some ‘proper vocals’ as Susman goes all choirgirl and angelically sings to her lover. The usually unintelligible lyrics are ditched in favour of deep felt dedications of love and outpourings of angst, making this a love song to charm even the coldest of hearts.

Elsewhere, ‘Between The Wolf & The Dog’ also threatens to be catchy but retreats into its shell of raucous guitar-distortion jamming, with murmurs of Susman’s voice cooing along with the vaguely ‘80s synth tune buried deep within. It’s subtly brilliant and will no doubt delight the band’s existing fans, but the lack of anything ‘new’ means it’s unlikely to win them any new supporters.

The standout track is without a doubt ‘Cut & Run’ – starting calmly with ukuleles and tambourines and blossoming into yet another love song, with desperate cries for the lover that Susman can’t bear to lose: “It’s the end I need to know / before I have to let you go / just not ready to be alone”. It’s beautifully simple and folk-rock at it’s finest. ‘To The East’ is another fanbase pleaser, an organ-filled, Krautrock-inspired jam, it’s not surprising that this was the album’s first single and not ‘Cut & Run’. This is what Electrelane (and No Shouts No Calls) are really all about.

Sharon Kean

______________________________________________________________________________________________________

Sophie Ellis-Bextor
Trip The Light Fantastic ••
Polydor

Sophie Ellis-Bextor (don’t forget the hyphenation) is an interesting proposition. Starting out in indie band theaudience (don’t forget the lack of space) in the late 1990s, our girl Soph made it common knowledge that she was not so fond of pop and dance music. A few short years and one big musical U-turn later, she scored a #1 hit providing vocals for Spiller’s ‘Groovejet (If This Ain’t Love)’ (don’t forget the brackets) and went on to churn out two solo albums full of disco-pop stompers that presented her as the ‘du jour’ posh-girl singer with the odd-shaped face. So, was the whole campaign a cynical marketing ploy to capitalise on her unexpected chart success, or was it simply an affectionate deviation to the pure pop sounds she no doubt listened to during her youth? Really, it’s hard to be sure.

Ellis-Bextor’s career somewhat hit the skids when her second, more adult, album Shoot From The Hip failed to rouse much interest and tumbled from the charts almost as quickly as it had appeared. Taking no chances, Trip The Light Fantastic ticks all the appropriate boxes and sets out to guarantee pretty much what you’d expect from someone trying to resurrect her inner popstrel – a careful retreading of the winning Kylie blueprint. Any pop princess worth her salt would scratch out the eyes of her closest competition to get her hands on a Cathy Dennis song, and ‘Catch You’ is a blistering slice of pop confection, with clever lyrics and jaunty choruses. The fee for Dennis must have been too high, however, as the rest of the album flags beneath the weight of cloying, calculated numbers like ‘New York City Lights’ and ‘Today The Sun’s On Us’.

It doesn’t help that Ellis-Bextor seemingly comes from the moon/June/spoon school of songwriting and, unfortunately, lyrics as banal as “I’ve become fond of having you near / the way I’m fond of breathing in air” can’t be improved with the gloss of the world-class, occasionally inventive production. And there are more lyrical gems where that one came from; “every night before I sleep / I hope and pray you’re mine to keep” and “I have been storing all my devotion / it flows like an ocean” helpfully pad out the cringe-inducing moments on offer.

Three albums into her pop career, Ellis-Bextor fails to convince that she is producing the music that she’s genuinely enthused about. Whether this is because of her trademark deadpan delivery (that’s what makes her posh, you see) or the fact that most of the album’s material wouldn’t even make it to the shortlist for Hilary Duff’s next project is not immediately apparent. Pop music is supposed to be jubilant and thrilling, but, with the exception of a few highlights, Trip The Light Fantastic dismally fails to live up to its promise.

It’s a shame, for Sophie surely has it in her to be a true icon, her calculated swagger often reminiscent of a young Debbie Harry. The moments of genius on Trip The Light Fantastic, however, are too few and far between to really recommend it. Maybe one day, Soph (but next time, please, don’t forget the tunes).

Keith Anderson

______________________________________________________________________________________________________

Dana Falconberry
Paper Sailboat EP ••••
Self-released

Released last year but only recently coming to the attention of Wears The Trousers courtesy of the brilliant emusic.com, Dana Falconberry’s debut solo EP comprises a tantalising sextet of songs of wonderful musicianship and lyrical excellence. From melancholy Gallic folk to ravishingly jaunty, sultry numbers, Falconberry covers it all. Opener ‘My Sweetheart, My Dear’ lulls and cossets you into dreams of balmy nights filled with fireflies and the sighs of fading love. An accordion blusters low in the mix as Falconberry’s mesmerising acoustic plucking wraps around and squeezes you tightly. Then, just as you’re cosying up to it, ‘Leave In The Middle Of The Night’ dances onto the scene like a spontaneous tango in a Mediterranean plaza. Within moments, Falconberry transports us to a velvety, seductive world, albeit one where an edge of sadness is never entirely out of earshot and there’s no time for getting cold feet.

At this point you might expect the magic to stop since EPs so frequently contain two standalone songs coupled with a few hurried afterthoughts. In this case the diamonds continue to sparkle with no rough in sight. If there’s a full-length release of this remarkable quality waiting in the wings, it’ll be stunning. Falconberry clearly has some good friends to call on; the musicians involved in this recording read like a who’s who of independent artists with immense gravitas. There’s Patty Griffin on piano, Luis Guerra on bowed bass and Michael Longoria on percussion, amongst others. Falconberry is the undisputed star of the show, however, with her tender and intelligent lyrics holding each song aloft. As the title track unfolds, letters become vessels, ink begins to run and time moves backwards; it’s a Salvador Dali painting in an aural incarnation.

The Gallic sounds of ‘Sadie’ conjure up a darkly sleepy waltz accompanied by muffled drums, gentle and then discordant clamped vibraphones and stomach-hitting bass notes. Fans of famed whistlers Andrew Bird and Otis Redding will enjoy the song’s atmospheric tweeting coupled with the understated power of Falconberry’s croon. Sadie is a heartbreaking ode of longing and regret, of history and unending space. It’s a fitting closer to an EP that is partly a desolate exploration of emotion and character and partly a hazy riverbank fiesta.

Gem Nethersole

______________________________________________________________________________________________________

Feist
The Reminder ••••½
Universal

Canadian chanteuse Leslie Feist is no stranger to the highest of praises. For those with their fingers firmly on the pulse, her name has long been associated with scenesters such as her one-time room-mate Peaches and the multi-talented, multi-guised Gonzales, who featured her heavily throughout his career before helping her to mould her own. Others will be aware of her involvement with Broken Social Scene who, like Feist herself, have gained a huge cult following but evaded mainstream success. For the more casual listener, 2004’s sublime Let It Die (co-written and produced by Gonzales) would have been their first introduction, and after extensive touring of her debut album proper, The Reminder arrives as a weighty demonstration of how much her presence has been missed.

Let It Die was a half originals, half covers collection that provided the ideal playground for her most powerful asset – that astonishing voice. Switching between languages, styles and octaves, her vocal performances were seldom short of breathtaking. The Reminder goes further, cementing Feist’s reputation as a sensitive composer. Here she delivers an impressive catalogue of well-crafted, deceptively brilliant songs, once again working with Gonzales and enlisting outside help from Mocky and UK soul/techno darling Jamie Lidell. The result is an album that seamlessly spans a variety of styles, eras and moods.

Lead single ‘My Moon, My Man’ is regarded by some as her most commercial sounding song to date, but despite its undeniable pop sensibilities it comes snugly wrapped in a thick sultry blanket and effervesces with passion. ‘1234′ is similarly radio-friendly, but still so touching and so completely organic that by no means could her work be seen as ‘sell-out’ or hollow. In interviews, Feist has described the recording process where musicians all taped their parts in a room together (particularly on ‘1234′), letting the sounds bleed between microphones for a warm, collective sound, and this decision breathes real life into the recordings, escaping the often stifling ‘studio’ sound.

Feist rocks the dancefloor harder than ever with tracks like the Nina Simone reworking ‘Sea Lion Woman’, ‘I Feel It All’ and ‘Past In Present’, all of which shimmer with vibrancy and energy. Of course, this being Feist, even these songs contain a touching sentimentality; ‘I Feel It All’ bristles with hope and strength as she boldly declares, “I’ll be the one who breaks my heart.” On the flipside, her vulnerability comes to the fore. ‘The Park’ aches longingly as she sings, “It’s not him who’ll come across the sea to surprise you / not him who will know where in London to find you,” while ‘The Water’ bubbles beautifully and ‘Intuition’ is literally heart-stopping.

For each of The Reminder‘s songs, the judgement of the right production values to tease out the character is impeccable. ‘The Limit To Your Love’ and ‘How My Heart Behaves’ in particular are staggering, the latter aptly ending an album that documents both a triumphant celebration of success and a wistful acknowledgement of weaknesses and failures. Perhaps the running order could use some fine-tuning; just as energy builds into ‘My Moon, My Man’, the drift into ‘The Park’ sombres the tone a touch too soon, but from ‘Sea Lion Woman’ onwards, the chronology of songs is well judged. Also, in a long programme, ‘Brandy Alexander’ pales next to the album’s stronger moments, so possibly some harsher editing could have been exercised.

Minor quibbles aside, The Reminder is a startling piece of work. True to its title, it marks the powerful return of a unique talent and a definite indication that the last thing anyone should ever do is to let this incredible artist slip from their memory.

Rod Thomas

______________________________________________________________________________________________________

Fields
Everything Last Winter •••
Atlantic

Things you never thought you’d hear in 2007 #1: Kylie’s hairdresser has made an album of baggy-influenced shoegaze folk.

Highly tipped for mainstream success, publicity surrounding Fields has centred on the aforementioned hairdresser (bassist Matty Derham), the striking appearance of co-vocalist and keyboard player Thórunn Antonía (also of The Honeymoon), several well-received EPs and liberal comparisons to My Bloody Valentine. Feedback-phobics can, however, rest assured that Everything Last Winter is a more pastoral affair than its early ‘90s antecedents. While the Anglo-Icelandic four-piece have been heavily influenced by the widescreen soundscapes of shoegaze, their bittersweet, if sometimes winsome, boy-girl vocals nicely offset any guitar noise.

The band are at their best when at their most muscular, however, with opener ‘Song For The Fields’s vocal lines given added body by guitars that recall The Smashing Pumpkins’ more melodic moments. ‘If You Fail We All Fail’ takes them into more avant-garde territory, with distorted vocals and military drumming intertwined round a guitar line reminiscent of M83’s work on Before The Dawn Heals Us. Elsewhere, songs like ‘You Don’t Need This Song (To Fix Your Broken Heart)’ or ‘Skulls & Flesh & More’ seem to echo with the clear-eyed optimism familiar to anyone with a record by Fairport Convention or short-lived ‘70s collective Agincourt in their collection.

Ultimately, though Everything Last Winter is a promising record with a pleasantly wide frame of reference, it leaves the sensation that Fields have not quite succeeded in offsetting their musical debts. Perhaps this can only be expected of a band formed little over a year ago and rushed headlong into recording a full album with little time to turn a distinctive sound into an original voice. Perhaps if the hype pays off enough to buy Fields a year away from the spotlight, they might make the genre-busting record Everything Last Winter could have been. As it is, this album imitates instead of innovates, which is a shame. Watch out for their third album though, because – if the business lets them get that far – it may well prove worth the wait.

Chris McCrudden

______________________________________________________________________________________________________

The Fiery Furnaces
Widow City ••••½
Thrill Jockey

Five albums into their career, and there’s general blogospheric consensus that The Fiery Furnaces’ duo of sister and brother Eleanor and Matthew Friedberger are undergoing some kind of artistic renaissance. Never having gotten round to listening to any of their past material, though, I have to take Widow City on its own merits, but what merits they are! The band revealed on this album sound (re)invigorated, possessed of sprawling ambition and the restless, inventive energy needed to pull off those conceits.

Having said that, it’s lucky that first impressions are neither indicative nor lasting. ‘The Philadelphia Grand Jury’ opens on a rinkydink drumbeat intercut with 1970s AM radio guitars – a combination that just screams out ‘novelty’ and not one designed to get the juices flowing – but quickly morphs into something far more interesting, a kind of suite where distinct styles of engaging noodling bookend a leftfield pop song about being sentenced to death by the aforementioned good men and true. No, I can’t think of another band who would pen a ditty with a vocal hook as clumsy-sounding as “I hope they notarise my will” either, but hey, it works; and it’s by no means the only time on the album where you’ll find yourself singing along to lyrics that read as though they should never be sung.

In fact, it’s pretty safe to say they should definitely not be sung unless by a vocalist as capable as Eleanor. She’s able to carry off songs like ‘The Philadelphia Grand Jury’, the driving, skittering ‘Navy Nurse’ (hook: “She’s a nurse / she’s open-minded / she’s involved”) or the frantic ‘Uncle Charlie’ where knotted streams of verbiage like “make my wish for the day / no more revenge cobbler, whisky pie / my cheeks were the colour of dead jellyfish / lying on the beach” fly past amidst a whirl of instrumental shards. Impressively the siblings carry it off without sounding either whimsical or affected, but always tuneful and even catchy. The melodies communicate on a far more direct level than the words, which revel in hyper-literate streams of consciousness or picaresque stories. ‘Right By Conquest’, for example, may be a conversation between a conquering lord and his underling, or it could be an oblique ode to a promised seduction.

It makes perfect sense that Eleanor’s foil in the Furnaces’ musical crucible is her brother, as the instrumental backdrops he creates are incredibly sympathetic to the character of her voice and words. It’s a parallel universe they inhabit, but without the preciousness of, say, CocoRosie; within their baroque arrangements beats a heart of pure pop. Even though the main melody in ‘The Old Hag Is Sleeping’ is built from children’s laughter, whistles, accordions and static, the song sets out at a joyful lope, declaiming its story of a wife spurned with a rueful grin.

I’ve been listening to this album for a week now and it feels like I’ve only scratched the surface of what these 16 songs have to offer. The Furnaces’ back catalogue now waits tantalisingly in my future, but for now Widow City is an absolute triumph that’s plenty to be getting along with.

Adam Smith

______________________________________________________________________________________________________

Lily Fraser
Shadow Walking ••••
Self-released

And the winner of the 2007 Grammy Award for ‘Best Opening Line On A Debut Album is…Lily Fraser! It’s a real category, honest, I checked. And with “I’ve got fear of housewives / of patient mothers and quiet lives / I’ve got fear of disappearing / of engineering my own demise,” Shadow Walking is a shoe-in! Better than that, the slightly unhinged, eyelid-twitching sentiment expressed in the lyric perfectly sets the scene for the dozen tracks to come. The whole album is shot through with a barely restrained mania that threatens at any moment to brandish a carving knife and whip out a bunny-filled saucepan.

Several the tracks on Shadow Walking also appear on Fraser’s previous, self-titled CD, but that was in many ways more of an extended demo than a true album. Here, they are presented in a slightly more restrained mood – just a touch of brilliantly demented energy. And this just serves to underline the ominous and brooding undercurrent that runs through them like a seam of black rock, a creepily satisfying bed on which to lay the angels-and-demons vocal delivery. Fraser expresses her psychodramas like a pro, sweeping effortlessly between crystal purity and a powerful single-mindedness.

Songs like ‘Exposed’ and ‘Shout It Out’ inhabit the insecurities which plague our 21st Century lives, the riffing cello and guitar giving oomph to the angst of the lyric. Elsewhere, the use of the harp in place of conventional keyboard backing provides a sense of disjointedness from the real world, which, again, reflects the tone. But it’s not all wild-eyed histrionics. ‘Wake Up Sweetheart’ and ‘The Time Has Come’ occupy a more comforting place. And for all her soul-searching intensity, Fraser doesn’t take herself too seriously. On ‘Untapped Violence’, a tremolo-drenched guitar line adds just enough Addams Family absurdity to beautifully counterpoint the manic darkness of the words.

Seek her out if you dare.

Trevor Raggatt

______________________________________________________________________________________________________

Fursaxa
Alone In The Dark Wood •••
ATP

First visit: this album, Tara Burke’s fifth as Fursaxa, does so many things that any right-thinking person would love that it’s impossible not to fall for it instantly. It immediately draws you into its soundworld, for one, the repeated descents of the brief ‘Introduction’ leading the listener, white rabbit-like, into a shadowed, rarefied place. When ‘Lunaria Enters The Blue Lodge’, woody drones seep from the halls and alcoves to create a hallowed atmosphere that seems set to envelop with misty fingers, before an abrupt tack leftward ends on unsettling voices circling a disjointed strum. There’s some impressive alchemy performed here from frugal beginnings, like the ghostly chorale of ‘Nawne Ye’ that consists of nothing but Burke’s voice layered and curling around itself, or the title track’s simple mandolin figure that flickers behind a crystal screen of wordless song. If the title’s meant onomatopoeically, the midnight forest is a wonderful place to be.

First return: Fursaxa’s music has always been about atmosphere and intimation, weaving simple layers of organ drone, acoustic guitar and percussion into dense tapestries threaded with her multitracked vocals. Her reliance on vocals and the pure, circular nature of the melodies they sing give the music a spiritual air, occasionally evocative of plainsong. But even compared with its immediate predecessor, 2005’s Lepidoptera, Alone In The Dark Wood relies less on traditional melody or structure. The lunar humming of ‘Cle Elum’ recreates with sourceless acoustics the shimmering lunar soundscape breathed out by Biosphere’s Geir Jenssen on Autour de la Lune. Or there’s ‘Bells Of Capistrano’, where a cloud of flutes hovers around churchly chimes.

Diminishing return: something else that Burke has opted to change on this album is the employment of length to maintain her carefully wrought atmospheres. Many of these 13 songs can most usefully be described as tone poems, snippets of sonic environments that drift apart before leaving a mark. Which is all very well, but I don’t think I’m being selfish in wanting to spend more time being silvered by the moon of ‘Cle Elum’. Longer spent ‘Drinking Wine In Yarrow’ would also be good, its plucked guitars, banjos and assorted shakers talking together like the No Neck Blues Band, but it’s as if those revered heads developed ADHD and gave up after a minute or two. Upon repeated listening, even the longer songs like the title track and the witchy ‘Black Haw’ seem to break their embrace too soon, and a little frustration creeps in.

Slight return: the music on Alone In The Dark Wood is often mesmerisingly beautiful, but it has to be considered something of a failure on its own terms. Fursaxa sets out to cast a spell, to entrance and hold the listener in her sonic universe; but by trying to tease out so many dimensions of her sound, she seems to have diluted its essential impact. These songs need more time to unfurl, to truly seep in and transport. Bear this in mind, though, and there’s plenty to marvel at here.

Adam Smith

 

 



2007 reviews dump: l

The following reviews were published on our old MySpace blog in 2007.

_____________________________________

 

Miranda Lambert
Crazy Ex-Girlfriend •••
Columbia

Gretchen Wilson
One Of The Boys •••
SonyBMG

Within a week of one another, international music giant SonyBMG unleashes two of the up-and-coming young guns of the Nashville country music scene on an unsuspecting UK audience. The question is, how will these archetypically American gals fare on British shores? There’s no question about the artists’ credentials or talent – the multiple CMA award nominations and music industry awards shared among them are more than just lip service. The fact is that they might just prove a little too country for the Transatlantic palate.

Of course, Wilson is hardly a newcomer and has gone over big with readers of Maverick and other proponents of this sort of thigh-slapping fun, and both women bring precisely the right ingredients to the table: down-home songs with story lyrics, pedal steel aplenty and liberal doses of Telecaster twang. All these elements are nigh on guaranteed to endear them to a be-tasselled, suede-clad core clientele and alienate them from the mainstream music fan. Both Wilson and Lambert excel at Nashville-by-numbers and, in places, both these albums deftly strike the mechanical bull squarely in the eye. Both carry a likeable mix of tender ballads and raucous, careening country-rock tracks, all delivered with a studied poise. Both artists, too, have written the majority of the songs and display an appealing lightness of touch that ought to please their publishing companies. There’s not much to choose between them really.

Where the songs are covers, it’s the less-experienced Lambert who comes up with the more interesting choices. Album closer ‘Easy From Now On’ is a brave choice; written by Carlene Carter and more famously recorded by Emmylou Harris, it draws proceedings to a mellow but uplifting conclusion and Lambert acquits herself well. Elsewhere, she tackles Gillian Welch’s ‘Dry Town’ and, less successfully perhaps, Patty Griffin’s ‘Getting Ready’. Griffin’s version, found on her recent release Children Running Through, is thankfully somewhat less heavy on the mouth-harp boings. Disappointingly, Wilson’s ‘There Goes The Neighborhood’ isn’t a countrified take on Sheryl Crow’s addictively woozy paean to living the low-life, but never mind. She doesn’t stray too far from the formula that has served her so well – who can argue with six million album sales? – and gleefully romps through Southern boogie and mainstream country, with a nod to rootsy rock along the way.

Both albums will undoubtedly sell by the truckload Stateside and if you can take the cheesier aspects of these records at face value and simply revel in their guileless fun factor, you’ll find them both to be fine examples of what modern Nashville has to offer.

Trevor Raggatt

_____________________________________

Lavender Diamond
Imagine Our Love ••½
Rough Trade

When given something to review by a group of which you have never heard, the first thing is to listen. On a rare occasion you will hear something that makes you care not one jot about who the artist is. It is either so astoundingly great or so shockingly awful that you need nothing more than the music. These are the gifts. Lavender Diamond’s offering is not one of those. Imagine Our Love is a confusing mix of country, showtunes, and indie, all delivered with an irrepressible optimism that, by turns, captivates, excites, annoys, and begs a lot of questions about the people behind the music.

As I understand it, although Lavender Diamond sounds a little bit like a name that might be adopted by a tame saucy stage act working the peep shows in Victorian Bath – nothing too risqué you understand, the garter stays on! – but it is actually a band, a band that originated from the concept of a character of a pacifist optimist developed for a US touring indie operetta. The character in the operetta was played by a woman who left a Brown University literature degree before graduating to study dance then moving to LA to form a country pop group, the songs of which would to some extent reflect the views of the character from the operetta. And the name comes from a play written by the songwriter in which a man goes into a cave and picks up a purple gemstone. Confused? There is perhaps every need to be.

Becky Stark is the multi-talented ingénue behind Lavender Diamond. Writing songs largely as the character lifted from the operetta, Stark approaches love, social injustice and misgovernment as an eternal optimist. The product is a mixture of upbeat, lounge-tinted country numbers, Sunday school nursery rhymes and straight up jangly indie. Opening track ‘Oh No’ sounds for all the world like a track discarded at the last minute from The Sundays’ album Static & Silence. The lines “oh no / it’s such a sad and grey day, oh / when will I love again?” chime with suburban ennui as Stark’s vocals soar above plonking pianos and a stomping drum line. Citing influences from Prince to Lightning Bolt to Linda Ronstadt (though the first two may be difficult to pick up on), ‘Garden Rose’ and ‘Side Of Our Lord’ are both atmospheric, simple country songs delivered in a no-nonsense but nuanced style of which Ronstadt would be proud. 

The lyric to ‘Garden Rose’ with the catchy opening lines “I’ll never stop a bullet but a bullet might stop me / I’ll never drink the ocean but the ocean might drink me” provide a languid hint of pessimism. But despite a litany of frustration, the protagonist of the song still loves how the garden grows and loves that garden rose. This ethic of appreciating the simple things in life ethic is the first notch on the ratchet of optimism that shapes the rest of the album. From start to finish the songs are infused with an irrepressibly positive outlook without the slightest hint of irony. The glorious girl-group stylings of ‘Open Your Heart’, the plaintive ‘Dance Until Tomorrow’, and even the downbeat ‘I’ll Never Lie Again’ all seem to ignore the downside of bad situations, only ever seeing the positives, and, in parts, the delivery smacks of that of a highly medicated depressive in denial.

Although the musicianship is solid throughout, it more often sounds like a house band (as on the kitsch ‘My Shadow Is A Monday’) rather than a creative unit, though this comes through loud and clear on the brooding ‘Like An Arrow’. The irrepressibly jaunty ‘Here Comes One’, which sounds like a Broadway musical number and begs for a nostalgic dance routine featuring girls in bobby socks and pigtails, is one of the album’s genuine highlights, especially when juxtaposed with the surprisingly Cocteau Twins-like ‘Find A Way’, in which the familiar, perhaps even forced, optimism is masked by the soaring vocals and swirling guitars.

The mix of styles, from plaintive indie, to country ballad, to musical, to nursery rhyme is alternately refreshing and jarring. And, dare I say it, perhaps a little too contrived? The boundless optimism is a nice idea, but such positivity loses all meaning without contrast. For one or two songs, the message is uplifting, but as it escalates throughout the twelve tracks the whole effect seems disingenuous. Imagine Our Love is a brave idea, but can you really trust a set of songs that only ever see the silver lining and not the cloud?

Peter Hayward

_____________________________________

Avril Lavigne
The Best Damn Thing •
SonyBMG

Let us ponder briefly over the past ramblings of punk-pop upstart Avril Lavigne. First…”I created punk for this day and age. Do you see Britney walking around wearing ties and singing punk? Hell no. That’s what I do. I’m like a Sid Vicious for a new generation.” And then…”People are like, ‘well, she doesn’t know the Sex Pistols.’ Why would I know that stuff? Look how young I am. That stuff’s old, right?” Right. And therein lies her problem. Over the last five years it’s been hard to shake off the suspicion that underneath her projection of a defiant rocker image is little more than a young girl having fun playing dress-up.

Third album The Best Damn Thing sees Lavigne arrive at an important junction in her career. Will she shed her famed tween angst and become a serious musician, or will she continue making records aimed at the once-14-year-olds who have likely outgrown her? Though her second album Under My Skin hinted at a darker direction than her multi-platinum debut Let Go, Lavigne has seemingly done a guileless about-turn, delivering an album of bratty bubblegum pop with little sense of irony or joy, both of which are kinda important when, for example, you’re shouting what essentially amounts to a cheerleading chant over perfectly polished guitar licks. The subject matter, too, is so light and frothy that you’re still left wondering what happened to the girl who used to claim she was a serious musician when its 40 minutes are up.

So why is Lavigne embracing the frivolity of singers like Britney and Jessica Simpson who she has previously dismissed? The official line, according to the woman herself, is that she cheered up after getting married to Sum 41’s Deryck Whibley, although a recent interview with Canadian singer-songwriter Chantal Kreviazuk in Performing Songwriter magazine suggests that perhaps Avril doesn’t have as much control over her career as she has previously alluded to and is merely performing the role assigned to her.

In her trademark nasal tone Lavigne bleats unenthusiastically over half-baked songs about being better than her ex-boyfriend, rocking out at the end of a bad day, and how her boyfriend makes her so hot, baby. If there are any highlights they would have to be the first single ‘Girlfriend’, with its amusing hint of self-awareness in her proclamation of “I’m the motherfucking princess”, and ‘Keep Holding On’, a soft-rock ballad tacked on to the end of the album having first featured on the ‘Eragon’ soundtrack.

However, with The Best Damn Thing‘s mostly trite, dull lyrics and uninspired production values, Lavigne makes no strides in terms of her musicality and the listener is seriously left questioning her motivation to stare nonchalantly from the cover of such a dire collection of songs that show none of her personality or ‘credibility’.

But, then, maybe we shouldn’t be so hard on the lass. As the wise young woman once spouted “you’re who you are and if people don’t like who you are, all they’re going to get is who you are”. Um, yeah.

Keith Anderson

_____________________________________

Sylvie Lewis
Translations ••••
Cheap Lullaby

Upon the release of her debut album Tangos & Tantrums in 2005, we at Wears The Trousers went a little bit giddy over the delightful Ms Lewis. Now Sylvie’s back and not a moment too soon. Her sound has gained a more polished edge in the intervening two years, but devotees will be pleased to hear there’s no loss of the timeless beauty that characterises her sound. The summer-stroll-in-a-sun-bleached piazza feel is still there too, and amen to that. So what’s new?

Well, Translations sees Lewis stepping outside of herself, taking on other guises on nearly all of the songs, allowing herself to explore a variety of perspectives and people while retaining some of her own personality. ‘Starsong’ has Lewis twirling onto the scene with 1940s jazz influences and an acerbic tale of a lover who predicted the trajectory of romance with horoscopes but neglected to predict its demise. A jaunty double bass skips through the background, dancing around the percussion and it’s business as usual in Sylvieland as the music playfully lightens lyrics that could sound cruel in the care of a less kindly vocalist.

In conjunction with her stunning part jazz, part folk, part tea-dance sound, Lewis adds in lyrics that unfold myriad images, “when the moon rises up, pointing like a fingernail… / he reads her like scripture, he reads her like Braille”, and she creates a catalogue of unusual comparisons combined with tragic dying cadences that bewitch and ensnare so that each song is a perfectly gift-wrapped snippet of another, slower, more languorous world. The prize for Translations‘s best lyric might well go to the opening line of ‘Happy Like That’, a song that seems to have a split personality, castigating flirtatious married men for diverting lonely souls the world over away from the path to romantic happiness, whilst empowering the loveless at the same time by name-dropping June and Johnny Cash as bastions of true love en route; it could even be a ‘how-to’ guide to love satisfaction.

Elsewhere Lewis is in exuberant form. The delicious muffled drums in ‘If It Don’t Come Easy’ will get you shaking off the blues, while ‘Just You’ paints pictures of a world newly seen through loving eyes with gentle glockenspiel twinkles, combining the hues of rose-tinted loveliness with the usual minor leanings. It’s filled with self-awareness and the combination of dreamlike tinkling chimes and celestial backing vocals creates an atmosphere of charmed space and contented otherness. Never one to let us get wrapped up in a joyous reverie, however, ‘Stay In Touch’. interrupts the joviality with sad hotel pianos and a gently muffled snare drum to create a melancholy New York scene of a man, his mistress and their country-specific trysts. There’s loneliness without desolation and a beautiful realism to the couple who speak in touches rather than words or romantic gestures. Lewis has distilled the complexity of emotions in the tale to the simplicity of “nobody wondering if their feelings are returned”; it’s an unusually truthful account of an affair without disguising it as something squalid or glamorous.

Leaping from one stage of promiscuous life to another, ‘Cheap Ain’t Free’ is a fabulous address to the girl that might have become the mistress in New York or to a younger Sylvie and friend with the hindsight that one day there may be consequences to their actions. It’s not recriminatory, but a snapshot of a time when a broken heart was treated “parking ticket style, once you’ve got one you can’t get another for a little while” and is crammed with images of innocence lost, with a smile. A gentle tale of a once-in-a-while lover (‘Something To Dream To’) tumbles along with purposeful abandon that echoes the pattern of the relationship, before ‘Death By Beauty’ shifts the perspective. An amazing anthropomorphication of Beauty, Lewis inhabits the girls that float around like satellites on the periphery of the life of the man she portrays. As the song unfolds we learn of the cruelty of Beauty who uses the girls as a conduit of love and leaves scars on the lives of those who encounter her. She is an insidious force that creeps into lives when least expected, lurking in the guise of a cocktail waitress or beguiling songstress, so that the heart gives in and chooses ‘death by beauty’. It’s wonderfully catchy and takes a few hearings to decide upon the interpretation, by which point it’s already buzzing around in your head begging to be played again.

Despite being perhaps the most modern sounding song on the album, ‘Your Voice Carries’ hardly seems incongruous. An unspoken love story, rooted in the words that actually ‘are’ spoken, here the words are the new windows to the soul, showing “how much to hold back and how much to show”, so that each utterance shows a facet of personality, reveals and old scar or releases love. Translations, then, is a mesmerising investigation into other peoples’ worlds by taking on their personalities, foibles, loves and losses. Lewis shines through in her own inimitable way, but powerfully manages to imbue each character that she takes on with life, vibrance and personality. Whether it’s the titular protagonist of ‘Isabelle’ or the man who’ll die for the sight of a beautiful woman, each one has a story that is told without drama, a story that’s told with a lot of heart.

Gem Nethersole

_____________________________________

Jennifer Lopez
Brave •
RCA

Jennifer Lopez, aka J-Lo, aka Jellopez, the Gyrating Chaos as HP Lovecraft would surely have known her, has returned once more with her sixth album, Brave. Yes, there really has been that many. And yes, it really is as bad as we’ve all come to expect.

On Wikipedia Jellopez is listed as an “actress, singer-songwriter, model, dancer, fashion designer and television producer”. This might meat than Lopez is either a genius, or that it is much easier to fulfil all the above roles than we have been led to believe. My personal belief is that she is the next evolutionary stage of mankind (or perhaps a bizarre genetic offshoot), where a human being becomes a sort of living brand, strutting around and marketing their shallow, empty life to the masses. Lopez is clearly a driven and media-savvy woman, but there are precious few people who could be genuinely good in such an extensive list of roles, and evidence suggests that she isn’t one of them.

For starters Jellopez is not a talented musician. Her voice is by turns shrill, whiny and breathy, and she adopts a sort of Bronx-esque rap style that can most politely be described as “unusual”. First single ‘Do It Well’ is a perfect example: noisy, non-descript, and with Lopez somehow achieving the feat of being both shouty and monotonous at the same time. This is bad R&B the like of which has slithered its way out of the US a thousand times before.

Of course, some pop musicians of questionable talent, when coupled with some clever songwriting, have been known to come out with some beautiful little gems. Girls Aloud in their heyday came out with a string of hits that were hummable at the very least, though the Beach Boys they are not. Sadly for Jellopez, her extremely average voice is not even supported by well-written songs. The music on Brave is as generic and cold as if it were all produced in a weekend on somebody’s laptop. The lyrics are frustratingly repetitive – if Lopez says “I can do this forever” once, she says it a hundred times. She could repeat herself forever, forever, forever, forever.

Never the most likeable star on the planet anyway, Lopez displays a continued talent for spouting lyrics that are at best slightly…insulting. If you’ll recall, she was still Jenny from the block who always remembers where she came from (presumably so she would never accidentally find herself going back) and now, on ‘Stay Together’, she claims not breaking up as “the new trend”, as if millions of people had never done it before she managed three years in the same marriage. Her childhood might have been hard, but nowadays the only reason you couldn’t ‘Walk A Mile In These Shoes’ is because they are stilettoed torture devices the size of a postage stamp. Lopez wears conceit like a badge of honour.

Kudos where it’s due, Jellopez has travelled far on her ambition for rather than an aptitude for music. But Brave is unremittingly awful. Lopez wails her way through all 13 tracks like the anthropomorphic personification of offensiveness. Find a corner to hide in until she blusters over.

Hugh Armitage

 



2007 reviews dump: m

The following reviews were published on our old MySpace blog in 2007.

_______________________________________________________________________

Amy MacDonald
This Is The Life ••••
Mercury

Scotland’s star is rising; home of some of the brightest talents in British music, its recent musical history has been impressive. Think, for example, of KT Tunstall, Franz Ferdinand, Belle & Sebastian, Isobel Campbell and The Fratellis. Now that esteemed cohort is set to increase with the debut of 19-year old folk-loving Glaswegian Amy MacDonald. Since discovering her muse – Travis – at the age of 12, MacDonald’s single-minded determination has been to write songs about the world around her. This Is The Life, then, covers everything from the T In The Park festival to today’s disposable pop culture and the vacuous celebrities who perpetuate it.

The album leaps into life with the optimism of her recent hit single ‘Mr Rock & Roll’, an uplifting number positively bulging with layered acoustics and confidently powerful vocals. Playing to MacDonald’s melodic and lyrical strengths, it’s the perfect introduction and a sure-fire live hit. ‘Let’s Start A Band’, a tumultuous mix of Latino trumpets, atmospheric strings and throaty guitars, is similarly vital, surging forward with the energy and force of a tsunami. MacDonald takes the opportunity to show off her vocal range a little, contrasting crystalline soprano notes with a huskier, Annie Lennox-style croon.

Crowd-pleasing anthem ‘Barrowland Ballroom’, an homage to the Glasgow venue that did much to launch the careers of her favourite bands, is typical of MacDonald’s arena-friendly songs. Combining a bright melody with simple lyrics, it’s sure to move some feet as it swings from a folksy, guitar-based intro to a toe-tapping conclusion, backed with the saloon bar sound of a honky-tonk piano. Gig goers will also be pleased by ‘Youth Of Today’, MacDonald’s impassioned defence of youthful optimism and joie de vivre.

Perhaps the best track of all is the epic ‘Footballer’s Wife’, a withering sideswipe at the ubiquitous WAG mentality. Opening with a dramatic combination of strings and thunderous timpani, the song’s angry lyrics and anthemic chorus are well matched to MacDonald’s rich, expressive voice. The album’s bonus tracks conclude with ‘Caledonia’, a modern folk classic given an emotional performance and a stirring pipe-and-drums coda that’s sure to moisten many a Scottish eye.

Amy MacDonald is one of the most original voices to have emerged from Scotland in recent years, and with this album she has set the scene for a stellar future. KT Tunstall may be losing sleep already. An explosive debut, This Is The Life is a magnificent demonstration of the young star’s talent, and could prove a hard act to follow.

Andy Wasley

_______________________________________________________________________

Magenta
The Singles ••••
JFK

As Wears The Trousers is fond of reinforcing, it’s a long-standing misconception that prog rock is just rambling, 27-minute pieces about trolls and wizards or skill Eastern philosophies. Fair enough, there’s a bit of that about but for every ‘Topographic Oceans’ there’s a good old pop tune like ‘Wondrous Stories’. Recent years have seen a move to song-based albums across the genre but none more typified than by neo-prog bands like Magenta.

The tracks here are not so much singles per se as songs selected from Magenta’s back catalogue, or extracted from their early sword-and-sorcery epics. All 11 songs have been re-recorded, giving a chance to showcase the band’s current line-up. However, just because the songs clock in at under five minutes each doesn’t mean that they won’t satisfy their core prog audience. Shifting time signatures, orchestral backing, noodling keyboards and guitars are tastefully employed throughout. However, it’s the writing of Rob Reed and the stunning vocals of Christina Booth that make the songs shine.

Standout tracks include the majestic bombast of ‘Speechless’ and ‘I’m Alive’ where the vocals soar above the backing track as it vaults to increasing levels of intensity. Adding further strings to the Magenta bow, ‘King Of The Skies’ weighs in as a boogying rocker (prog-style of course) complete with a thundering vocal performance that even Anastacia would be proud of. No wonder the UK Classic Rock Society has awarded Booth their Singer Of The Year gong on a number of occasions. Of course, some long-held prog traditions and tricks rear their head; ‘Anger’ in particular utilises that old favourite of a madrigal-esque start leading to a more expansive rock conclusion. Then, in something of a concession to the hardened proggers in their audience, Magenta close the album with three longer bonus tracks that might stretch the patience of a casual listener, introduced by a Rick Wakeman-styled organ toccata.

Magenta’s last album proper, Home, was stuffed with great songs that should have endeared the band to a wider audience. Hopefully The Singles will continue the trend.

Trevor Raggatt

_______________________________________________________________________

Eleni Mandell
Miracle Of Five ••••½
V2

Los Angeles-based Eleni Mandell has developed something of a cult following over the last eight or so years since the release of her debut album Wishbone. Yet the artist the New Yorker once dubbed as “perhaps one of the best unsigned artists in the business” continues to operate quietly under the radar, releasing her sixth full-length album Miracle Of Five with little to no fanfare. It’s a shame really, as this may well be the best work she’s turned in to date. Continuing to mine her strengths in jazz-soaked vocals and smoky undertones, she’s moved away from the harder edged comparisons once made with PJ Harvey and closer to the softer sounds of modern chanteuses Norah Jones and Madeleine Peyroux. But don’t box her in; Mandell owes more to Ella Fitzgerald than her modern peers and is unafraid to boldly swerve into the territories of country noir and folk to stretch her range.

Where the lead track ‘Moonglow, Lamp Low’ revels in its breathy vocals and sultry brass and the immaculate ‘My Twin’ could, in 1960, have easily been sung by the regal Patsy Cline, dig just a tiny bit deeper and you’ll find songs like ‘Girls’, a musical about-turn in the form of a singalong campfire number with amusing lyrics that could be sung by or to any number of individuals – is it a woman singing to her boyfriend? To her own insecurities? To someone she has yet to meet?

There’s no doubt Mandell can write a lovely melody but she also excels in the art of layered meaning with quite a knack for taking the simplest of lyrics and creating a song that at first seems so clear cut and simple, yet upon repeated listenings can mean so much more. Take, for example, the enjoyable ‘Salt Truck’, which at first may appear to be a simple ditty to motorised de-icing, but upon closer listen is deftly ambiguous: “Salt truck, salt truck, mean black eyes / swerving as I’m very nice / I want roads that I can drive on / I want a love I can rely on”.

It may take its time in sinking in but Miracle Of Five is a sturdy release crammed with well-crafted and memorable tunes. If there is a fault, it lies in the downbeat nature of the album as a whole – it’s easy for these songs to run into one another without anyone really batting an eyelid. Still, that only makes it all the more perfect for a reflective rainy day or quiet evening in with a fine glass of red. Hopefully someone out there is paying attention.

Loria Near

_______________________________________________________________________

Cynthia G Mason
Quitter’s Claim •••
High Two

Cynthia G Mason’s heartfelt, grass-roots music speaks to an unpretentious quarter of the soul. Coupling a Joni Mitchell-esque acoustic flavour with the barest hint of country, Mason’s minimalist arrangements and unassuming intensity have won particular acclaim in her native Philadelphia, a city in which she has become something of a local treasure. Quitter’s Claim ends a six-year hiatus for the singer-songwriter during which she graduated from law school and embarked on rather more mundane work; musically, she also experienced a number of professional disappointments, alluded to on the album’s final track, ‘Quit While You’re Misled’. However, a fortuitous meeting with an old collaborator, Larry D Brown, spurred Mason to dust off her guitar, clear out its musical mothballs and record this new CD with a borrowed four-track, all the while putting in her eight hours at the office.

Indeed, unembellished reality is never far away in Mason’s music and it is refreshing to find an artist whose work fits snugly into the pauses in everyday life. Opening act ‘Like A Lifer Out For Good’ deals with disillusionment in love tempered by acceptance of its imperfections, showcasing Mason’s coolly melodic vocals. Lingering uncertainty also litters the wistful ‘Claim’, while ‘The Way The Morning Came’ – a melancholy reflection on lost love – is complemented by a solitary harmonica. Bittersweet is a word that could well characterise Mason’s newest effort, inspired by a store of experiences between albums and also by the actual process of music making. ‘Fits & Starts’, for example, describes recording the album after finishing up at work: “the way it’s designed there isn’t much room for invention”. Meanwhile, the intrusion of Philadelphia traffic at the beginning of ‘Nerve’ reveals just how economical a production Quitter’s Claim was.

Quitter’s Claim is an undeniably lovely follow-up to Mason’s debut, but for some it could be just a little, well, boring. All 10 tracks slide seamlessly into one another with little instrumental variation, suggesting some great background music but failing to reveal any immediately attention-grabbing songs. Subtlety is key: Tori Amos fans beware. Folk enthusiasts will, however, delight in the return of one of Philadelphia’s best-kept secrets. With Mason’s songwriting calibre and talent for evoking all the rushed complexity of life, it is clear the city’s musical legacy is safe.

Siobhan Rooney

_______________________________________________________________________

Martina McBride
Waking Up Laughing •••½
SonyBMG

Martina McBride may be relatively unknown here in the UK but her reputation Stateside takes some beating. A 12-times platinum selling artist who has won a record-breaking four CMA Female Singer of the Year gongs, it’s hard to argue with her credentials. She’s tucked an impressive eight studio albums under her belt since her 1992 debut, The Time Has Come… and Waking Up Laughing, her ninth release, maintains the status quo. Here, McBride operates as artist and producer and wears both hats with ease with skilful fingers on the faders and a voice that’s as endearing as ever. Engineering duties from husband John McBride keeps it a family affair and a stately one too: every song sounds lovingly crafted.

Of course, it doesn’t hurt that she’s populated the studio with the crème de la crème of Nashville talent. The cast list reads like a roll call for the Modern Country Hall of Fame: Dan Huff, Brent Mason and Dan Dugmore on guitar, Glenn Worf on bass, Matt Chamberlain on drums and supplementary textures courtesy of The Nashville String Machine. Nicole Kidman’s husband Keith Urban crops up on one track, adding harmony vocals and a country rock guitar solo. The songs, drawn from some of Music Town’s finest writers, are uniformly strong despite occasionally veering into well-worn country lyrical clichés. Given that Waking Up Laughing features McBride’s first forays into the songwriting process, teaming up with the Warren Brothers on three of the tracks (‘How I Feel’, ‘Beautiful’ and the emotional, uplifting lead single ‘Anyway’), it’s gratifying that her efforts not only stack up well against her peers but are in fact among the album’s standout tunes.

Waking Up Laughing veers from one fertile commercial territory to another, from power ballads to mid-tempo rockers. McBride’s versatile vocals are perfect for this type of modern country; there’s a rich depth to her singing with just enough earthiness to compliment the twists and turns of the songs with a slight catch and growl. Her accumulated accolades were certainly no fluke. If your personal tastes lie closer to the rootsier end of Americana this may prove too sweet on your palate (you’d be better off exploring something like Patty Griffin’s latest offering), but if mainstream Nashville country is your thing, then Waking Up Laughing will almost certainly put a smile on your face.

Trevor Raggatt

_______________________________________________________________________

Helen McCookerybook
Suburban Pastoral •••½
Big Song

I viewed sitting down to listen to this album with a certain amount of trepidation, having been told by a friend on several occasions that I absolutely had to like it. At the same time I was also intrigued to hear what Ms McCookerybook had to offer. This is a lady who started her career in the late ‘70s as bassist for Joby & The Hooligans (the “worst band in Brighton”); a lady who has recently completed a book about female punk musicians entitled ‘The Lost Women Of Rock’; and a lady who, on the back sleeve, looks a little like an unassuming, sweet middle-aged housewife, and sports a crown of ivy (it’s druid chic, dontcha know). What sort of music such a person might make was impossible to predict.

The opening bars of the first track, ‘Dreaming Of You’, sound a little like something you might expect to hear at a luau, all chilled-out guitars and winsome dreaminess. Then the vocals break in, setting up the first of many little juxtapositions in the album. In contrast to the tropical feel of the music, her voice sounds, for want of a more original phrase, quintessentially English. And yes, also a bit like someone’s mum. It’s difficult to define the genre of this album beyond the vague ‘singer-songwriter’ and ‘acoustic’ labels, though some of the songs wouldn’t sound out of place as part of a lounge act in a smoky little nightclub. The gently swinging beat in songs like ‘Don’t Know Why’ and ‘Once In A Blue Moon’ induce a strong urge to sway slowly in time to the music that has to be consciously fought off.

Of course, no female singer-songwriter worth her salt will navigate such a lengthy career without penning at least one song addressing the Biblical stories of either Eve or Delilah, and McCookerybook is no exception. ‘Temptation’ is a rather quirky take on the theme of Original Sin, complete with a cacophonous introduction in brass, and in possession of a peculiar nursery rhyme quality that is repeated in ‘Swan’, a rather sinister lesson on the danger of beautiful but dangerous things. So whilst the tone of her music is usually either merry or gently melancholy, the lyrics warrant a closer inspection. For all their seeming cheerfulness, I am almost certain that ‘London’ is a song about homelessness and ‘Heaven Avenue’ about suicide. There is often a contrast between the music and lyrics that can grab your attention and make you listen more carefully to what is actually going on.

Though Suburban Pastoral probably isn’t to everyone’s taste, there is something appealing about its simplicity and clarity. McCookerybook may sound kind of motherly and a little bit twee, but the mum in question is one that can definitely sing. There is something refreshing about the way you can understand almost every word she sings. This album won’t blow you away, but it might just charm its way into your lungs.

Hugh Armitage

_______________________________________________________________________

Nellie McKay
Pretty Little Head ••••
Hungry Mouse

I have a nagging sense of déjà vu. What’s that? I’ve reviewed this record before? Crikey! What’s going on?

Well. Pretty Little Head in fact first surfaced, in a different form, in January 2006. McKay had turned in a 23-song, double-disc set to her record company, who, in a commercially-minded decision, culled seven songs without consulting McKay and sent the album out as a single-disc promo, entirely without her permission. Understandably, McKay was angry and a lengthy battle ensued, resulting in her parting ways with Columbia. The album ended up stuck in limbo, the record company having stated that they would not be releasing it in any form.

Finally, after what must have been several immensely frustrating and disempowered months, McKay is back and should give herself a triumphant pat on the back. Released on her own imprint Hungry Mouse, set up for this record, she presents the record as she originally intended – all 23 tracks present and correct and sequenced significantly differently in the latter half of the album. In winning this battle, McKay has proven that artistic integrity can prevail over corporate interests, and for this she should be championed (anyone who’s read Tori Amos’s memoir ‘Piece By Piece’ will know that struggles between record companies and artists can be hard-fought and extremely bitter).

As I noted in my previous review, McKay’s first album suffered from being overlong and bloated. But though it’s now a behemoth of an album, Pretty Little Head fares surprisingly well. ‘Lali est Parisseux’ is the highlight of the newly-present tracks, sung in French with a delightfully retro sound, like a transmission from a Parisian radio station of the past. Quite what it’s about I don’t know, my GCSE French having deserted me a while back, though “ce soir” crops up regularly in the lyrics and the song ends with a romantic “mwah!” so I’m guessing it’s about lovin’.

Four of the new tracks are clustered at the very end of the album, including the disturbing ‘Mama & Me’. The intro to this song might well become one of those bits you always skip through, featuring as it does a dialogue between McKay and her mother in which she appears to play both roles, one of which is a crying toddler. Hmmm. The song itself is a gritty spoken-word rap piece about a childhood of urban poverty, deprivation and domestic abuse. It’s socially conscious, reinforcing that McKay is an artist with a political agenda and the intelligence and artistry to get her message across. McKay sings about “wanting to die with your nose broken, heart choking”, and the song is surprisingly hard hitting given its intro. It’s a testament to female strength and the bond between mother and daughter: “with my mom by my side / we’ll never give up the fight”. Even so, the song features a truly bizarre spoken word coda in which mother and daughter have an almighty row, McKay voicing the daughter’s words through choking sobs and wrenching gasps. Only here does the track become a little unstuck, and the excessive theatricality of the exchange means that what had seemed entirely serious threatens to become a joke.

McKay’s desire to take on various different roles works better on the album’s more light-hearted tracks. ‘Pounce’ is a joyous 56-second ode to pussycats and pouncing in general, one of a number of interlude-esque tracks on the album. Those tracks that didn’t quite work on the promo issued last January are still a little redundant here – particularly ‘Pink Chandelier’ and ‘I Am Nothing’ – and the new track ‘Yodel’ is twee to the point of being irritating, but altogether this is a stylistically varied and consistently inventive album. McKay’s ability to pen both vigorous, fierce politically-minded tracks and gleefully playful pop numbers is particularly impressive. And as for the Cyndi Lauper duet ‘Beecharmer’; well, it’s still one of the most fantastic, fun and witty pop songs in recent memory.

Danny Weddup

_______________________________________________________________________

Erin McKeown
Lafayette ••••
Signature

Having had the pleasure of seeing Ms McKeown in concert on a number of occasions, the news that our diminutive spiky-haired friend was finally releasing a recording of her indomitably spirited live sets was greeted with smiles aplenty at the Wears The Trousers office. And Lafayette does not disappoint. Named after the New York street upon which Joe’s Pub (the venue where the album was taped) stands, it’s a deliciously careening treat. Kicking off with her brilliant take on ‘Thanks For The Boogie Ride’, a tune so swinging that you’d want to get up and cut some rug even after the hugest of meals, once the old school jiving beats hit the eardrum there’s no going back and dessert will have to wait. It’s the only cover in an 11-song set that runs through each of McKeown’s five albums (six if you count the original versions of ‘Lullaby In 3/4′ and ‘Fast As You Can’ on her self-released Monday Morning Cold) and still finds room to squeeze in a newbie in the form of ‘You, Sailor’.

As a songwriter McKeown seems to have settled in nicely to her own stylistic furrow, with each release since 2000’s disparate Distillation showcasing a stronger, more focused muse at work behind the scenes. The brilliant ‘Slung-Lo’, from 2003’s Judy Garland-inspired Grand, exploits this and slides perfectly into the set sandwiched between two musically less vibrant numbers, allowing it to shine. Elsewhere, Grand is represented again with a rendition of ‘James!’, this time with a noticeably darker groove than that found on the studio take.

Together with her six-piece, take-no-prisoners Little Big Band with the defiantly talented Allison Miller on drums and Todd Sickafoose on bass (both of whom accompanied Ani DiFranco on her recent European tour), McKeown has done well to capture the true essence of her live show. Her exuberant personality shines through with the crowd participation segment in ‘We Are More’ and the band’s dynamic reworking of classic back catalogue favourites. Her energy is certainly present in ‘Melody’ and ‘Blackbirds’ and her emotions in ‘Lullaby in 3/4′ are immediate and true. Indeed, ‘Blackbirds’ is the perfect example of why McKeown is so well loved as it starts out unexpectedly, surprising and pleasing the crowd in equal measure. Playful and engaging, it’s the standout track and clearly the audience favourite, reflecting the glee that Erin and the rest of the band must have had in the practice room as they gave the song a new lease of life.

As a package Lafayette is a must have for McKeown fans and a worthy introduction for any new ears. The camaraderie between McKeown, Miller and Sickafoose sticks the band tightly together, adding a fresh layer of vitality to McKeown’s older songs. Credit must be give too to the song selection and sequencing, both of which keep boredom firmly at bay. And if you don’t want to go and see the lady herself play in the flesh next time she’s in town after listening to this, well, I’ll be surprised.

Sam Murray

_______________________________________________________________________

Katie Melua
Pictures •½
Dramatico

Take a moment to answer the following question. What do the following songs have in common: ‘Remember You’re A Womble’, ‘A Winter’s Tale’, ‘Bright Eyes’ and ‘Closest Thing To Crazy’? Well, aside from the fact that they can all be loosely described as trite, simple and classically composed, aiming to achieve maximum effect for minimum innovation and technique, and that they’re all well-known, big-selling popular songs, they’re all the work of the phenomenally successful songwriter, Mike Batt. Or should that be unaccountably successful? – his work is often derided for being simplistic and over-sentimental (as those four songs illustrate). Nevertheless it’s worth remembering that he has a bankrolling knack for appealing to an audience unswayed by sniffy critics and poor reviews. ‘Bright Eyes’ was an international number one smash for Art Garfunkel; ‘A Winter’s Tale’ became one of David Essex’s most popular and recognisable songs; and Batt’s work with Vanessa Mae turned her into one of the most successful classical artists in the world.

As the mogul at large behind 23-year old Georgia-born singer Katie Melua, Batt has delivered amazing results: with over 7.5 million albums sold to date, Melua is by far the biggest-selling female artist in Europe, an astonishing achievement given the somewhat stale appeal of her musical output. Thanks to Terry Wogan, Katie’s debut album, Call Off The Search – an insipid collection of simple blues/jazz songs – was propelled to the top spot in the UK charts, ultimately selling a staggering 1.8 million albums in the first five months. Melua’s second album, Piece By Piece has now gone platinum four times, once again based on a recipe of digestible pop-jazz and unashamedly romantic lyrics. No matter how boring her music has been to date, Melua has clearly won a place in the public’s affection; that, surely, deserves a modicum of respect, even if she was recently described by the ‘Daily Telegraph’ as a “national embarrassment”.

As it turns out, Pictures will be Melua’s final album with Mike Batt at the helm and is a compelling indication that ditching her sentimental puppetmaster may in fact be her best possible career move. Melua’s own work is, both stylistically and lyrically, a light-year away from Batt’s increasingly inane outpourings. ‘Mary Pickford’ is typical of his drivel; a spectacularly dull creation full of schoolboy-standard rhyming couplets and a saccharine storyline, it’s as nondescript and MOR as a lowly little traffic island. The execrable ‘Spellbound’ is much the same, while ‘What It Says On The Tin’ seems to use Ronseal as a metaphor for schmaltzy romantic ideals better left to Mills & Boon. The mind boggles, truly. The common thread is Batt’s inoffensive and avowedly unchallenging lyrics, and his old-fashioned, straightforward compositions. This stuff should be played in dentists’ receptions, if only to acclimatise people to having their teeth pulled.

However – and this is Wears The Trousers going out on a limb – Melua’s own work might just indicate that a change of guidance and direction could be fruitful. To be fair to her, she does possess a beautifully clear and versatile voice and her writing has a flair that may just come into its own. ‘What I Miss About You’, for example, could never have come from Batt’s well-worn pen. Melua’s semi-biographical song about a treacherous and hurtful ex-boyfriend swings effortlessly from melancholic reminiscence (“your bashful grin when you asked if I would like your key”) to angry denunciation (“your skill of putting me down in front of everyone I knew”), and she is clearly emotionally involved in her powerful performance. The album’s other standout song, ‘Scary Movies’, is an intelligent and amusingly kooky piece completely at odds with Batt’s pedestrian styling. You could scarcely imagine the author of ‘Bright Eyes’ writing lyrics like “Nowadays I never cry… / when the psychopathic wife kills her husband with a knife”, or “I don’t care when people’s heads end up being torn to shreds”.

Overall, though, Pictures sees Melua stuck firmly on safe ground. It will appeal to Wogan’s listeners every bit as much as her previous releases, it will win no prizes for innovation or daring, and it isn’t likely to win her new fans, but Pictures does provide her with a chance to show what she is capable of. Melua is a talented musician let down by a solidly plain lyricist/composer; she might not be a Diana Krall or Joni Mitchell in the making, but if she has the courage to mark a change of direction with the clarity and skill that makes occasional appearances in her own work, she could well move into newer, better, more interesting territory.

Andy Wasley

_______________________________________________________________________

M.I.A.
Kala ••••½
XL

Maya Arulpragasam must be a gift to amateur sociologists, and even the more refined stratum of navel gazers known as ethnomusicologists. Just think of all the theses and dissertations that could be developed about her: a young woman born in Hounslow to Sri Lankan parents, whose family moved with her back to their homeland when she was 6 months old; who experienced the virtual loss of her father when he joined the armed Tamil Tiger separatist movement and she was forced to flee with her family to India, living for a time in a ruined house; who eventually returned to the UK and went to Central St Martin’s art college, met Justine Frischmann and was commissioned to produce the artwork for Elastica’s second album; whose response to encouragement by Frischmann and Peaches, the support act on Elastica’s US tour, to develop her confidence in music was to drop off a tape of what became her first single, the bruising and brilliant ‘Galang’, at the offices of XL Recordings with a note reading, “Trust me, you’ve been looking for me”. Without getting too pointy-headed about it, the deprivation, heartache, politicisation, talent and determination revealed by Arulpragasam’s story makes her current success much less surprising, particularly in the music world where personality hooks are often just as important as musical ones.

But it’s the music that concerns us here, until now encapsulated in her debut album, Arular, named after the pseudonym her father took when he joined the Tigers. That record was a dizzying and enervating conglomeration of grime, dancehall, techno, hip hop and a smattering of unapologetic pop, which garnered drooling praise from critics and several award nominations, not to mention healthy sales. It was genuinely one of the records of 2005: fizzing with energy and ideas, politicised but not in your face – despite MTV doing its boneheaded best to bring her politics to the foreground by banning ‘Sunshowers’ for mentioning the PLO – its slightly unfinished feel only added to its appeal, giving the songs a technoid edge that made her sound even more alien among her contemporaries. All of which makes Kala one of the most anticipated releases of 2007.

Arular was undoubtedly the product of a childhood spent mainly in the UK, a result and mirror of musics absorbed from neighbours and friends in an overpopulated city. One of the key tracks on Kala – this time named after MIA’s mother – is tellingly called ‘World Town’, and is the most obvious statement of how her concerns and vision have expanded in the two years since the first record. In itself, however, it only makes explicit that which is implied throughout what is, in many ways, an exuberant travelogue of an album, recorded as it was in India, Trinidad and Tokyo among other locations. ‘World Town’ is the equivalent of entering a dusty zocalo where a street party is in full swing: a samba band bashes out flurries of percussion above which shouts some unnamed instrument fashioned from a car exhaust, while MIA declaims from a car bonnet, “don’t be calling me desperate / when I’m knocking on the door / every wall you build / I’ll knock it down to the floor”. Only the masked guys in the corner, loading their automatic rifles as the chorus plays, ring a note of concern.

These (defiantly non-government) troops appear again on ‘Paper Planes’, the most summery track on the album, but one that sets out a similarly outspoken agenda: “I’ll fly like a paper get high like planes / catch me at the border I got visas in my name / If you come around here I’ll make ‘em all day / I’ll get one done in a second if you wait”; then there’s the chorus of “All I wanna do is -” followed by three gunshots. It’s pretty obvious that MIA’s sympathies understandably lie with the voiceless and powerless people she’s known throughout her life, but it’s equally obvious from the cartoon methodology she employs that she’s out to deliberately provoke a reaction from the other side of the fence, from the comparatively well-off record-buying fraternity that are most likely to be exposed to her music.

Whatever your opinion of her politics, it never gets in the way of Kala being both joyful and sonically innovative. ‘Mango Pickle Down River’ heavily features rhyming by a group of Aborigine adolescents called The Wilcannia Mob, and is a widescreen slice of (inevitably) didge-heavy sludge-hop with a decidedly environmental slant (“There’s only one ocean that got fish left / one day we’ll have to be a really good chef”). The opening ‘Bamboo Banga’ is bhangrafied techno, one of several songs here to extend her cross-pollinisation into good ol’ white-boy indie as she drawls quotes from Jonathan Richman’s ‘Roadrunner’ in the opening lines. ‘20 Dollar’, a sequel of sorts to Arular‘s ‘10 Dollar’, inserts The Pixies’ ‘Where Is My Mind?’ into its loping groove; and even Happy Mondays get a piece of the action when ‘The Turn’ appropriates a line or two from Wrote ‘For Luck’.

Second single ‘Jimmy’ further enlarges MIA’s already expansive tent by covering an old Bollywood tune about one of its stars, Jimmy Aaja. She chooses not to recontextualise the music, relying on lots of swirling strings and bubbling arpeggios, but transplants the lyrics from India to Rwanda and Darfur. It’s an unexpected left turn, especially after the preceding percussive double whammy of ‘Bird Flu’ and ‘Boyz’, and provides some useful breathing space before ‘Hussel’ brings back the noize with layered African drumming that propels Afrikan Boy’s flow and some evocative FX toward a soaring chorus.

As Arulpragasam herself has said, this album “takes a few listens” to reveal itself entirely. The sheer weight and breadth of the sounds on offer here makes it less immediate, and certainly less immediately charming, than Arular; there’s none of the vocal characterisation that she deployed on ‘10 Dollar’, for example. Kala‘s politics won’t appeal to everyone, and they are far more central to the album’s fabric than previously. But when this brave, fearlessly eclectic and sonically loaded music truly hits, only a churl would fail to put it straight in the box marked Albums Of The Year.

Adam Smith

_______________________________________________________________________

Joni Mitchell
Shine ••••
Universal

When Joni Mitchell announced in March this year that her comeback album would be based around what she called “the war of the fairytales” it’s safe to assume that no one thought she’d be penning the soundtrack for ‘Shrek The Third’. It’s also safe to assume that no one could have imagined that the sight of a grizzly bear foraging for food in her dustbin would have set aflame her desire to compose her first new songs in almost a decade. Having departed the music industry five years ago with a hefty sting in her tail – the words ‘cesspool’ and ‘slavery’ were bandied about – Mitchell’s heart seemed set on the comparative freedom of painting and a musical life lived through nicely packaged but ultimately unsatisfying Rhino Records compilations. Retiring to her beloved coastal home (her “sanctuary”) in British Columbia where she busied herself with gardening, watching old movies and painstakingly creating the 60-strong mixed media works that would later make up her first art exhibition, an anti-war collection named ‘Flag Dance’, Mitchell’s desire to make music dwindled. Unthinkably, she got out of the habit of playing the guitar, so much so that her fingers had softened and she bled when she tried. So that night, the night the bear arrived, she turned to the piano for the first time in 10 years.

Kicking off a 10-track album with an instrumental, particularly one as feverishly awaited as Shine, may seem on the surface an ungenerous gesture. It’s not. It’s perfect. ‘One Week Last Summer’ is divine anticipation in itself, a languorous delight that slowly unfurls beneath Mitchell’s ponderous, sensitive piano. It’s a stark reminder that, for all her detractors who bemoan the loss of range from her singing, Mitchell doesn’t need words to make a song her own. The sensuous, evocative phrasing of the chords keeps attention rapt throughout all seven ‘verses’, one for each day of the week, and when the bear shows its hungry muzzle on the Thursday there’s no low-end booming drama, no overly dramatic toots on the sax. As the whole of Shine attests, at 64, the music of Joni Mitchell is the fiercest calm you’ll find.

The bear makes another appearance on ‘This Place’, one of only a small clutch of guitar songs, inspired by the demolition of a mountain behind Mitchell’s sanctuary that was sold to Californian developers as gravel. You couldn’t make it up, really. With its lyrical lament about disappearing tree lines and money making them topple, it’s sort of like an updated version of ‘Big Yellow Taxi’, if there weren’t an updated version of ‘Big Yellow Taxi’ already on the album. The voice, when it comes in, sounds richer and more full, luxuriant even, than it has done for years. And for anyone thinking that Mitchell has become entirely humourless, there’s kudos for the line about making mountains into molehills.

The aforementioned retread of perhaps her best-known song is given added colour by a surprising use of accordion atop the familiar strutting guitar line. Taking in both the fiscal and corporeal implications of modern life, Mitchell foregoes Amy Grant’s 25 buck entry fee to the tree museum; here it’ll cost you “an arm and a leg”. How’s that for inflation? Having been overlooked for the orchestral reworkings that made up her last album Travelogue, it’s nice to see this classic finally get a huskier makeover among thematically relevant material. Interestingly, it’s also her first entirely solo performance since 1998’s ‘Tiger Bones’. Still, isn’t it about time that someone realised that DDT hasn’t been used as a crop pesticide in years? If you’re going to change one lyric…

With the notable exception of ‘Woodstock’, which, famously, she never actually attended due to a conflicting work schedule, and 1977’s spookily pre-emptive ‘Otis & Marlena’ that sang of Muslims sticking up Washington, until the late 1980s Mitchell had mostly eschewed the political songwriting of Joan Baez, Bob Dylan and the like – a fact she’s making up for in 2007. War and the ecological scourge of humankind are Shine’s raison d’être. From the opening salvo of the disarmingly tender ballad ‘If I Had A Heart’ to the almost hymnal title track, which contains the piercing lyric “shine on dying soldiers in patriotic pain”, Mitchell lays into modern consumerism (mobile phone users get a double dressing down), self-serving politicians and senseless killing in the name of religion. But these are not protest songs in the ‘60s tradition; Mitchell is too smart for that. She sings with a knowing weariness, an acceptance that the times when people truly believed that art could change the world are long dead and buried. It’s unsettling and strange, proving that the time spent away hasn’t tempered her mystery.

Mitchell even goes so far as to spell it out for us in ‘Hana’ where the female protagonist, a kind and resilient do-gooder, who tells us “This is no simply Sunday song / where God or Jesus come along / and they save ya,” asserting that “you’ve got to be braver than that / you tackle the beast alone / with all its tenacious teeth”. As Paulinho Da Costa’s brash percussion propels the song forward, there’s a hint of the experimentalism that marked Mitchell’s under-regarded 1980s output, and it crops up again on another classic Joni story-song, ‘Night Of The Iguana’, a lyrical adaptation of the Tennessee Williams play of the same name about a priest who falls spectacularly from grace and into tragic love. Elsewhere, ‘Bad Dreams’ takes its key lyric from Mitchell’s new grandson (“bad dreams are good in the great plan”) and talks of life “before that altering apple”, before we lived in towns that are little more than “electric scabs” on the Earth, while ‘Strong & Wrong’ takes a somewhat heavy-handed swipe at the Bush Administration and its ilk.

Shine is so much more than just a protest album, it’s a spiritual awakening. Indeed, as a protest album, it largely falls flat and, let’s be honest, mostly on deaf ears. And whilst this is her first organic-sounding new material in a long, long time, it carries a heady but inescapably dated scent. The fire is not in the music – often a smoky background haze – it’s burning in the wisdom of her voice. Mitchell has pared back everything as she urges us to snap out of our stupors and feel our surroundings. For all her chastising and didacticisms, Shine ends on a beautifully hopeful note. An adaptation of Rudyard Kipling’s famous poem ‘If’ is gorgeously rendered, pertinent both to Mitchell’s own experience and the world at large, and is given an extra poetic flourish at the end from Joni’s own pen. “If you can fill the journey of a minute / with sixty seconds worth of wonder and delight / then the Earth is yours / and everything in it” sounds almost like a challenge. Happily, despite its few flaws, Shine proves that Mitchell herself is up to the task.

Alan Pedder

_______________________________________________________________________

Mandy Moore
Wild Hope ••••
Firm

Granted, the name Mandy Moore is not usually synonymous with musical integrity but bear with us here. Wild Hope finds the young actress/singer in a place that’s light years away from the studio-moulded bubblegum popstrel that released So Real. Perhaps we can accredit her newfound maturity to the fact that she’s been forging friendships with the likes of Susan Sarandon and other creative geniuses, or maybe she’s simply gotten older and wiser (she’s still only 23, mind). Whatever force she’s harnessed, the new Moore is a singer who delivers her material with a belief and fervour that reinforces the fact that she’s now in a position to choose the songs she loves rather than those that will sell to a core demographic. Kicking off with ‘Extraordinary’, Moore’s conviction demands that every preconception of her sound be shed. It’s a startling reintroduction that wraps around a lyrical manifesto that’s almost therapeutic – affirmations of self-belief and embracing the opportunity to be yourself with no pretensions of doing more than appreciating the day, the life and the person for its own merits.

As co-writer on every track, Wild Hope is Moore’s most personal effort to date and seemingly forms a narrative, tracing her thoughts through the stages of relationships and self-discovery, beginning to end. The slightly acerbically titled ‘Looking Forward To Looking Back’ is the album’s pivotal moment in that context, marking the point where the realisation comes that the fun has gone and really the relationship has become a chore. Intriguingly, as the stories of the songs wax and wane so does Moore’s voice, as if she were vocally echoing the changes that she sings about; the opening tracks don’t showcase a spectacular voice, but as the narrator becomes more empowered – notably on the stunning, piano-led closer ‘Gardenia’ – Moore might just take your breath away. The voice and the person behind the songs has metamorphosed immeasurably.

Of course, there are credits to be given elsewhere as Moore has collaborated with a range of respected artists to create the songs that mark this transitional album. ‘All Good Things’ welcomes the talents of The Weepies for a song about ultimate healing and acceptance, while ‘Most Of Me’ was written with Lori McKenna and slowly gets under your skin with its melancholy leanings and lyrics. It feels like an insight into a private moment of self-revelatory optimism as Moore sings about realising that she wants to find a place of wholeness where she can be vulnerable for her new relationship, but that it’s starting at a point where it’s “crossing paths with the way he left [her]”, and so for a while all she can give is “most of [her]”; as with nearly all songs on the album, it’s the imagery that remains after the song has faded. The aforementioned ‘Gardenia’ is a collaboration with Canadian singer-songwriter Chantal Kreviazuk, and, in the tradition of saving the best for last, is the album’s peak both lyrically and in terms of performance. If you turn it up loud enough, you can even hear the creak of the piano pedal.

‘Can’t You Just Adore Her?’ is a sweet little tribute to being female and wanting to be adored for every quirk and individual trait; it’s for every woman who has eaten chocolate for breakfast, cancelled work to shop or made being late part of her personality. ‘Nothing That You Are’ and ‘Latest Mistake’ are similarly empowering, for different reasons, and provide a needed boost after the soft and introspective title track whose gentle calm barely raises the pulse. Cellos lend a beautiful depth to ‘Ladies’ Choice’ alongside the delicate keyboards and goodbyes as Moore toasts “to us at the end of the line,” realising that she’ll always miss the version of her lover that she loved but not the one that she’s leaving.

Though it doesn’t push any envelopes in the grander scheme of things, Wild Hope is nevertheless a towering achievement for someone who rarely gets credited for her musical talent and who, by her own admission, would have refunded what people paid for her earlier records. As she sings on ‘Gardenia’, “it’s been good getting to know myself more”, and after a few listens to Wild Hope you’ll most likely concur. Suddenly Moore has a chance to establish herself as a singer-songwriter of true mettle. It may take a while for people to grow accustomed to that, but it seems assured that Moore will continue to develop her talents while the world catches up.

Gem Nethersole

_______________________________________________________________________

Mostly Autumn
Heart Full Of Sky ••½
Mostly Autumn

Heart Full Of Sky is the eighth studio album from British prog band Mostly Autumn and sees them rack up their 10th year in the business. As is becoming fashionable (or should that be “increasingly necessary”) in the prog world, the band have followed Marillion’s lead in funding the album recording through subscription and fan pre-orders. This has allowed them to produce the album without major label support on their own Mostly Autumn Records imprint. The bonus for fans who stumped up in advance is a special limited edition with eight exclusive extra tracks.

Among the 10 songs on the regular release, the writing credits are shared between lead guitarist Bryan Josh and singer Heather Findlay, with a couple of tracks contributed by keyboard supremo Chris Johnson, and it’s this triumvirate who form the band’s creative centre. Overall, the album takes a more mainstream approach to prog rock than the likes of Yes, Genesis or King Crimson. Rather, the music bears comparison with a rockier version of bands like Pink Floyd, mixing a strong pop sensibility with their prog pretensions. Mostly Autumn layer this with an occasional folky overlay provided by the flute, clarinet and recorders of Angela Gordon and guest musicians Peter Knight of Steeleye Span and Troy Donockley from Iona.

While this would suggest that the band is aiming for a quality product, these ears found the resulting album more than a little lacklustre. In fact, the overall impression by the end of the album’s 60-odd minutes is a journeyman effort. Findlay’s vocals are excellent throughout but someone needs to tame drummer Andrew Jennings’s love affair with his cymbals. The lack of melodic hooks is doubly disappointing. Most effective are the mellower, folkier songs, where the vocals and Gordon’s flute shine through.

Listening back to the songs on Heart Full Of Sky one can’t help but wonder whether this is a CD which will please the existing fans – particularly those invested in the project – but which will do little to spread the word beyond that. That’s a shame because, if the band were to produce an album that added up to at least the sum of the parts, Mostly Autumn and their fans could be on to a commercial winner. Sadly not this time though.

Trevor Raggatt

_______________________________________________________________________

Alison Moyet
The Turn •••••
W14

Among the various artistic epochs of the 20th Century, the 1980s have much to answer for. That faded decade was guilty of some of the most heinous crimes against taste in living memory (leg warmers, anyone?), but it did also produce some little nuggets of joy; it was, lest we forget, the decade that saw the arrival of the CD, the animation of Danger Mouse, and the birth of charitable juggernauts of the likes of Live Aid. It also produced some pretty darn good musicians, forged in the bass-soaked glory of post-punk, faux-glam electropop bands of the likes of Wham! and Yazoo. Although both of those bands have long since folded, their brightest stars – the increasingly off-the-rails George Michael and stage-loving blues supremo Alison Moyet – seem to have maintained a certain sort of magnetism.

It is, perhaps, that vital magnetism that keeps drawing Ms Moyet back to the studio to produce magnificently symphonic albums every few years. It’s pretty clear that some force has to be at work to drag her away from a critically-acclaimed stage career that has seen her playing in shows as wildly different as glamorous jazz-fest ‘Chicago’ and the more downbeat tragedy, ‘Smaller’ (the latter with her close friend Dawn French). That stage experience is becoming increasingly evident in Moyet’s studio albums, and never more so than in her newest effort, The Turn.

It was probably inevitable that The Turn would take on a more theatrical tone than Moyet’s last album, 2004’s Hometime. Signed to new Universal label W14, Moyet has found herself far removed from the pop-loving influence of her ‘80s/’90s Sony contract, and better able to concentrate on turning out music that appeals for its artistry rather than its simplicity. The Turn is full of such music, co-written with Moyet’s long-time collaborator Pete Glenister. The album opens with the theatrics of ‘One More Time’, a complex piece that enables Moyet to show off her famously warm voice and its stage-acquired, ground-shaking vibrato. Similarly theatrical, ‘The Man In The Wings’ is full of drooping legato strings, with Moyet’s earthy, emotional vocals matching the song’s lyrical poetry perfectly. Funkier stuff is in evidence in the jazzy, snazzy stylings of ‘It’s Not The Thing Henry’, full of strutting guitars and belting vocals; Moyet is in near-gospel territory here, and comes even closer in the Hammond-fuelled funk of ‘A Guy Like You’.

The real standout track, though, is one of three that have made it to the album from ‘Smaller’. ‘Home’ is an almost absurdly theatrical tango, which marries Moyet’s masterful histrionics with the dizzying skill of virtuoso accordionist Marcel Azzola to create one of the most striking pieces of music this year. Visit Moyet’s blog (http://alisonmoyet.wordpress.com) for the background story: suffice to say, her excitement at working with Azzolo burns through the song with an incredible intensity. Stunning stuff, truly.

The Turn is easily Moyet’s best album to date. A perfect vehicle for her songwriting prowess, it also enables her to show off one of the most unique, powerful and expressive voices in Britain. If that special magnetism continues to draw her back to the studio, she might have a hard time beating her own performance; one has to hope that she would relish the challenge.

Andy Wasley

_______________________________________________________________________

Múm
Go Go Smear The Poison Ivy ••••
Fat Cat

I have to own up here and admit that I’m not at all familiar with Múm. All I know, or knew prior to the extensive (ahem) research necessary for this review, is that they’re Icelandic, there used to be four of them and now there are three, and that they mix electronic and acoustic elements in their music. Indirectly, it’s the latter aspect that has put me off them most, as it has led to critics describing Múm as ‘folktronica’ artists.

Now me, I hate folktronica. I even hate the name, a lazy conflation of two hitherto innocent and respectable words, presumably invented by a hack on a deadline to describe computer-based music that includes things like acoustic guitars and vocals, often in the service of song instead of texture or beats. (God knows what would be better, before you ask – ‘laptop folk’ is both clunky and inaccurate and anyway, genre tags are the province of dullards.) I really have tried to like…this type of music – I refuse to use the benighted word – but have come away burned, or rather bored, by the self-important dullness of Gravenhurst, the pleasant tedium of Tunng and the aural overthink of The Books. It’s like someone with a lifetime’s aversion to olives, who eventually gives up trying “just once more” in the hope of dislodging the Damascene scales on their tastebuds, because, to himorher, they really do taste like the devil’s haemorrhoids.

But it’s nice to be wrong sometimes. Better, even, than the feeling when an album that’s been anticipated for weeks, months, maybe even years exceeds all fevered expectations, are those times when something for which you have no great hopes plays your favourites off the pitch. For much of Go Go Smear The Poison Ivy, we’re holding one such beauty in our mortal hands. ‘Blessed Brambles’ opens with a rusty banjo being plucked, before drizzling on all manner of parps, trills and interlocking percussion and allowing airy boy/girl vocals to waft in. The sheer fecundity of the whole thing only becomes apparent when the vocals drop out again, revealing something akin to Tom Waits’s junkyard orchestra being conducted by the little Haribo cartoon boy. It’s colourful, almost painfully so, but experimental, tuneful and fun at the same time – not an easy balancing act. Even better is ‘A Little Bit, Sometimes’, which refracts music-box chimes, accordions and fragments of piano through a bass-heavy gauze of electronics, topped off with a weary, elegiac vocal melody.

It’s particularly impressive that Múm repeat this trick throughout the album, chucking in everything but the kitchen sink in a spirit of gleeful experimentation while retaining a controlled and tunesome sound. Even more so since their last album, Summer Make Good came from a far more crepuscular and forbidding neighbourhood. Elsewhere, lead single ‘They Made Frogs Smoke ‘Til They Exploded’ nearly matches its glorious title with a meditation on either pet care or animal cruelty (“If you break a kitten’s neck / you must shake its body and check / if it’s still alive, be gone to sleep”); ‘Marmalade Fires’ hides a cry for cleansing flames under a swooning confection of harps and strings; and ‘Moon Pulls’ is a piano ballad to a faraway love played on a silvered beach at evening.

Indeed, if it wasn’t for a few pointless throwaways like ‘Rhuubarbidoo’ or ‘I Was Her Horse’ (both mercifully short) – and for the fact that listening to it in its entirety leaves one with a feeling akin to eating too much candyfloss – this album would be a revelation. As it is, it’s merely great. Múm can consider themselves one more fan to the good, and I’ll be checking out their back catalogue as soon as I can.

Adam Smith

_______________________________________________________________________

Róisín Murphy
Overpowered •••½
EMI

“When I think that I’m over you, I’m overpowered” tease the opening seconds of Róisín Murphy’s disco-tinged second solo album. Following the critically acclaimed but commercially ignored Ruby Blue, Overpowered has been hotly tipped as a modern disco classic, and armed with decadent costumes, lavish production from Richard X, Seiji and Andy Cato, two incredibly infectious über-cool singles, as well as inextricable links with the fashion world, Murphy appears at last to be on an infallible path to greater recognition.

The album’s title, however, proves an unwitting indication of what to expect. There is no denying that Murphy has talent in abundance: each of Moloko’s albums bore incredibly well written, edgy and interesting tracks, and Ruby Blue (produced by Matthew Herbert) was an intriguing collection of leftfield art-pop. Here, the focus on disco and fashion – almost painfully displayed by the album artwork which perhaps demonstrates that the songs are swathed in too much artifice – somewhat distracts from Murphy’s majesty. So while ‘Let Me Know’ is undeniably one of this year’s best pop moments, and one that in itself almost makes up for what the rest of the album lacks, still Overpowered misses something crucial. It has energy, it has hooks galore and it’s certainly incredibly cool, but there’s a sorry lack of depth. Perhaps in irony, the words ‘babe’ and ‘baby’ crop up too often to allow the songs to be taken too seriously, and every so often songs sound far too ‘80s, and it’s too unclear where pastiche and irony begin or end.

The main problem is that, on some songs, Róisín is indeed ‘overpowered’ and somewhat drowned by the emphasis on cutting-edge production; there is frustration that the sound is not organic enough to let her breathe. Whereas on ‘Let Me Know’, ‘Overpowered’ and the quite wonderful closer ‘Scarlet Ribbon’, Murphy’s vocals soar, her lyrics and delivery are spot on and the production does not overshadow the content, much of the rest of the album borders on style over substance. ‘You Know Me Better’ is incredibly catchy, and surely must be a future single, but lies dangerously on the cusp of being too much an ‘80s revisit with its electro-handclaps and bizarre synth effects. Elsewhere, ‘Movie Star’ and ‘Checkin’ On Me’ (with unnecessary apostrophe; Róisín is far from urban) miss the mark quite substantially, suggesting that working within the confined of being retro-cool and club friendly proves to be a somewhat limiting vehicle for her talents.

Despite this criticism, Murphy has delivered a competent, accessible and energetic release. While certain songs are below par for a musician of her ilk, the standout tracks really do demand repeated listening, and are some of her best-penned moments. Still, Overpowered is far from being her most impressive work and is in no way Murphy’s most ambitious release. Perhaps the singles will at least finally convince the general public of her worth as a pop star in her own right and grant some chart success, but hopefully by her next album the good stuff will be surrounded by less superfluous material that should really have been shed along the way.

Clara Malone