Filed under: album, back issues, live, review | Tags: adam smith, alan pedder, anja garbarek, anja mccloskey, emm gryner, endre buzogany, garbage, giant drag, girls aloud, grouper, helen griffiths, inara george, jennifer greer, loria near, mary gauthier, matthew hall, nanci griffith, nina gordon, patty griffin, pepi ginsberg, robbie de santos, smoosh, stephanie heney, sugababes, the go team, the gossip, the grates, thea gilmore, tiffany daniels, trevor raggatt
The following reviews were all published on our old website between May 2005 and December 2006.
If the surname rings a bell – and let’s face it, it should – then yes, this is the latest musical offering from the daughter of actress/singer Jane Birkin and her one-time paramour, the legendary Serge Gainsbourg. In many ways, 5:55 could be described as her second debut, coming as it does no less than 20 years after her first, Charlotte For Ever (notable for the controversial single ‘Lemon Incest’), which was entirely penned by her father. She was only 13 when it was recorded. In the interim, Gainsbourg has enjoyed a successful and award-winning career in cinema, appearing in over 30 films – in fact, you will soon be able to see her starring alongside Gael Garcia Bernal in Michel Gondry’s hotly anticipated ‘The Science Of Sleep’ – so it’s a wonder she’s come back to the music again aged 35. That she has is thanks to meeting Air’s Nicolas Godin and Jean-Benoît Dunckel at a Radiohead concert, an encounter that led through a fortuitous chain of events to the involvement of producer Nigel Godrich, string arranger David Campbell and lyrical assistance from Jarvis Cocker and Neil Hannon of The Divine Comedy.
Laidback and jazz-like in spirit, the main comparison that springs to mind when listening to 5:55 is Black Box Recorder. Like Sarah Nixey, Gainsbourg’s delivery is arch and sinister at times, most apparent on the claustrophobic in-flight tale of ‘AF607105′. With Cocker’s lyrics sketching a very ‘Lost In Translation’ sense of displacement, Gainsbourg’s performance is suitably detached yet welcoming and gorgeously creepy. Then there’s the title track, which is a bold way for anyone to introduce an album, let alone someone who’s been away from music for so long. Easily the sexiest song on the album, her breathy Gallic tones interpreting more of Cocker’s sensitively written words over soft drums and rippling piano. Having said that, ‘Tel Que Tu Es’ isn’t far behind in the sexy stakes, helped as it is by Gainsbourg singing mainly in French. Later on, however, ‘Little Monsters’ proves that this was no mere trick of language.
All this sultriness can get a bit wearing over the course of the album’s 40-odd minutes so it’s a relief when Gainsbourg lets her sang-froid cool slip a little on ‘Everything I Cannot See’, but even amongst the Tori Amos hyper-ballad piano stylings lies a heart that’s mostly still. 5:55 is a beautifully arranged album – see how the violins gently usher along the tender vocals of ‘Beauty Mark’ – and it’s wonderfully constructed, too. It’s just that sometimes it appears to be devoid of any real emotion or feeling, and that’s a crying shame.
originally published September 20th, 2006
Bleed Like Me •••½
When it comes to the fortunes of Garbage, this reviewer appears to be in something of a minority. While their decade-long career has witnessed an inexorable fall from favour of their moody para-gothic industrial machinations that, to these ears, was never wholly convincing, for me they have matured like a reasonable cheese. So while they’ve always been on the outer shores of my tastes, this latest release has them fighting the tide and moving further inland.
Making albums has never been easy for Shirley Manson and co. – this is only their fourth in a decade and arrives a full four years after 2001’s unworthy BeautifulGarbage. During that time, Manson’s marriage collapsed and the band themselves were close to implosion. Drummer Butch Vig went so far as to quit the sessions entirely, and was temporarily replaced by old Nirvana buddy, Foo Fighters’ Dave Grohl, before Vig returned just a few months later, seemingly re-energised. Although opener ‘Bad Boyfriend’ retains Grohl’s punishing drums, Bleed Like Me is very much a Garbage record, albeit an older, more attractive proposition. The sequencing is appealingly well balanced and the genres it careens through are less ill-advised than those of BeautifulGarbage. There’s a hint of playful New Wave revivalism (‘Run Baby Run’), metal-tinged power chords (‘Why Do You Love Me’), synth-pop mechanics (‘Metal Heart’) and, most refreshingly, the sinister acoustics and pained whispered vocals of the standout title track. It’s a guise worn well and should be further explored if the rumours are wrong and this isn’t their swansong.
Recovering from the commercial near-suicide of BeautifulGarbage may have seemed insurmountable even to the casual observer, and Bleed Like Me can certainly be criticised for knowing its audience a little too well (or at least assuming it does). But, the terrible Janet Jackson boobgate-inspired ‘Sex Is Not The Enemy’ aside, that’s not entirely misjudged. The album provides a decent quality:guff ratio with its danceable, festival-friendly riffs and, if it is to be their last as a unit, a fitting farewell.
originally published November 7th, 2005
Briefly Shaking ••••
Angel-A OST •••
A decade on from her startling English language debut, Balloon Mood, delightfully quirky Norwegian chanteuse Anja Garbarek returns with not one but two new albums, Briefly Shaking and the ‘Angel-A’ soundtrack. To be fair, the latter contains little in the way of new material and what’s there is largely instrumental. But as the soundtrack to maverick director Luc Besson’s (‘The Fifth Element’, ‘Léon The Professional’) mysterious new film, shot in black and white on the streets of Paris in almost total secrecy, it is more than up to the task. Given that this is Besson’s first film without composer Eric Serra, there was a certain element of risk in taking Garbarek on, but Besson is clearly a fan; five old songs are seamlessly scattered among the newer ones.
Of course, the risk was really very tiny. Not only has Garbarek been consistently excellent throughout her career, she also has an outstanding pedigree for this sort of thing, following as she does in the footsteps of her world-famous jazz genius father Jan, who has often dipped a toe into creating musical moods for fiercely independent European cinema. As they have often done in the past, father and daughter collaborate on a number of tracks, notably on new song ‘It’s Just A Game’ with its jazzy but subdued reassurance that “this is as good as it gets”. Don’t you believe it though. The sublime ‘No Trace Of Grey’ is so convincingly sweet versus sinister that it could well have been recorded at a teddy bears’ picnic in, say, the bathroom of cabin one of the Bates Motel.
Sticking with a murderous theme, the actually quite frightening ‘Can I Keep Him?’ (the only song to appear on both albums) is written from the point of view of serial killer Dennis Nilsen, who lured several young men back to his home in Muswell Hill, north London [just round the corner from Wears The Trousers HQ!], and chopped them into pieces. It’s a towering example of Garbarek’s skill as a writer; she plays with the lost pet interpretation of the title and then, as Nilsen kills, the previously serene instrumentation explodes into beats so harsh and aggressive that it sounds like a trio of typewriters at war. Being taken inside the head of a mass murderer is rarely an attractive listen, but Garbarek’s portrayal is up there with Sufjan Stevens’s John Wayne Gacy Jr. in its almost sympathetic exploration of its subject.
It’s little wonder, then, that Garbarek has since remarked that she should have called the album ‘Beauty & The Beast’ instead of Briefly Shaking. That title comes from the chorus of the excellent first single ‘The Last Trick’ with its dark lyrical content, candied vocals and unsettlingly perky backing. It was written as Garbarek was struggling with her muse after giving birth to her daughter and could well have been her swansong had it not been for the thunderbolts of inspiration found in tales of horror and crime. ‘Sleep’, for instance, tells the story of a woman who was kidnapped and locked in an underground bunker but works equally well as a metaphor for her burdening creative imprisonment.
The most keenly felt difference between 2001’s Smiling & Waving and Briefly Shaking lies in the addition of drums, particularly on songs like ‘Dizzy With Wonder’, a thunderously intense and dramatic number in which Garbarek plays the role of an observer surveying some twisted, post-industrial landscape, and ‘Shock Activities’, with its slightly overblown kickass rock bits and unexpected mid-song shift into a cod-Gwen Stefani breakdown but with far greater charm. Other highlights include ‘My Fellow Riders’, with its piping keys and gently throbbing electro pulses, and ‘This Momentous Day’, an ecstatically unpredictable monster that juxtaposes flute and strings with grinding guitars and coolly passionate vocals.
Having said all that, while Briefly Shaking is easily Garbarek’s darkest album to date, it’s also her most accessible and lavish. Motherhood certainly hasn’t reined in either her knack for telling unusual stories or her beguling way with a drop-dead gorgeous melody. Considering that she doesn’t play a single instrument yet still can pen such epic compositions, her achievements are simply astounding. She may not be the most prolific of artists, but with every release improving on the last, seemingly unbetterable album, it’s only a matter of time before her brilliance is properly acknowledged. File between Laurie Anderson and Björk and play with an alarming regularity.
originally published May 7th, 2006
Mercy Now •••
Within just a few seconds of a soft guitar solo delicately feeding into a slow, slurred drawl, you already know you’re in the safest of hands. Such is the comforting hallmark of prime Louisiana export Mary Gauthier, whose saturnine world has been documented thus far over three sometimes stellar albums, and right from the starting blocks the gentle ear candy of her fourth, Mercy Now, signals no drop on the quality-o-meter. Revelling in its masterful weaving of guitar, percussion, cello, Hammond organ, banjo and an electric guitar with a tear-inducing twang, Gauthier once again delivers the goods with ten solid songs, including two covers (Harlan Howard’s ‘Just Say She’s A Rhymer’ and Fred Eaglesmith’s ‘Your Sister Cried’) and a re-recording of her own ‘I Drink’, offering folk and country in equal measures. As each track uncovers a little bit more of the mystery and history of Gauthier, the end product as a whole whips away the smokescreen to reveal what our genial hostess has been keeping herself busy with since Filth & Fire became the New York Times’s indie album of 2002.
The songs are both intimate and revealing, and are testimony to the art of personal storytelling which is as intact here as it has been on any of her previous albums. Influenced by the truth-telling of Dylan, John Prine, Patti Smith and Neil Young, and at times reminiscent of label buddy Lucinda Williams, Gauthier is in good company and has no doubt been encouraged to keep the stories coming, narrative after narrative. Hers are told in the barest of settings, stripped back and open. The first track, ‘Falling Out Of Love’ is so close to spoken that the listener receives an intimate, seemingly confidential one-on-one recount of a failed relationship. The pained lyrics, memories, anecdotes and post-relationship ache soon rise clear before Gauthier declares her determination in the refrain of “Let me out, set me free.” On the following track from which the album takes its name, the internal has become external and her concerns for both family and country are voiced.
Mercy Now delivers a plentiful dish of family issues, woe, personal trauma, disillusion, longing and addiction; the essential heartache ingredients of any Mary Gauthier record. Yet it is because of this rich bloodied vein of emotional injury, rather than in spite of it, that real beauty exists in her work. ‘Empty Spaces’, a gripping tale of passion gone awry, is the perfect example, rounded out with wonderful harmonies. By consistently pulling down the barriers to let her blood and guts shine through, Gauthier touches on the essence of what it is to live. Rawness, intimacy, reflection and survival are abundant in her songwriting and Mercy Now is a touching creation and a journey worth taking, though be prepared for a somewhat bumpy ride.
originally published August 7th, 2005
All Rise ••••
When you’re the daughter of a preternaturally-gifted musician, in this case, celebrated Little Feat guitarist Lowell George, there’s a certain sense of destiny at work, and Inara George is certainly no stranger to the industry. Whilst at college she fronted a pair of indie bands, Lode and Merrick, both of which boasted a small but devoted following, despite at first having no intention of following in her father’s footsteps, studying instead classical theatre. In the lead up to this, her debut solo album, George was singing back-up for Idlewild, Van Dyke Parks and Jackson Browne, the latter of whom returns the favour here. Then last year she enlisted the production skills of Michael Andrews, composer of the score to cult film ‘Donnie Darko’, and work on the album began.
The result? All Rise is a graceful, elegant album of mostly downbeat love songs that showcases George as a singer, songwriter and lyricist of considerable depth, carving for herself a distinctive niche without depending on reputation once removed. Most of the songs wrap comfortably around well-crafted melodies and inventive song structures, with George’s vocal always the centrepiece. Comparisons with Suzanne Vega and Cat Power’s Chan Marshall are not too far off the mark; George’s wide vocal range keeps her from sounding sedate yet lends the songs a greater depth of feeling. On the opening combo of ‘Mistress’ and ‘Fools Work’, she sings in the manner of a sultry but delicate coffee house chanteuse, while on guitar-pop numbers like ‘Turn On/Turn Off’ and crown jewel ‘What A Number’, she proves she can rock out as well as anyone.
To her credit, George manages to convey strong emotions in her lyrics without burying the listener with overwrought and angst-filled metaphors. In ‘Mistress’, the narrator wistfully asks, “Will you take me as your mistress? / sure and short of breath / could you carry on your business? / do you already know / the way to my door? / ‘cause you made your way inside / a dozen times before.” On the more upbeat ‘Genius’, she tackles the topic of feeling inadequate in a disarmingly simple manner, singing, “Everybody wants to be a genius / you’re not the only one / yith all the things that you might do, which one of them will you get to?”
It’s not flawless, however; there’s a few minor quibbles that detract from five-star greatness. Though George throws in a hauntingly beautiful and sparse cover of Joe Jackson’s ‘Fools In Love’ to mix things up, there are points in the album where the songs seem to fit and flow together too well, to the point where it’s sometimes easy to get lost in the tracklist. A bit more attention to the sequencing may also have solved the uneasy listening that is the album closer, ‘Everybody Knows’. While this might have better served its purpose as an experiment on a B-side or been allowed more time to grow before recording, here it almost feels like a throwaway. Though it shows a different side to George’s songwriting, it rather unbalances the disc. Yet despite these caveats, All Rise is an accomplished, excellent debut album, and one that generously leaves plenty of room for growth whilst undoubtedly holding its own, with or without the pedigree.
originally published November 11th, 2005
In The Maybe World ••••
It’s hard to disagree with Young God Records founder Michael Gira when he claims that Lisa Germano belongs “right up there with the cadre of strong, emotionally raw, challenging and original women singers such as PJ Harvey, Marianne Faithfull, Cat Power and Björk”, though quite why she isn’t, commercially at least, is and isn’t obvious. Like Harvey, Germano makes music that’s more often than not unremittingly intense, sometimes catching you off guard with unexpected shots of humour – a tried, tested and triumphant Björkian trick. Like Faithfull and Chan Marshall, her lulling voice is both narcoleptic and ravaged, deceptively sombre and extraordinarily distinctive. But where the self-professed Emotional Wench truly excels and betters even these mighty pillars of all her peers is in her ability to establish a mood and immerse you so deep inside it that you’re never quite sure whether the gut knots she invokes are down to claustrophobia, fear or rapture.
If this were Germano’s first ever album, hacks would be stabbing each other in the eyes with pencils in a race to coin a brand new genre. But it’s not, it’s her seventh in a 15-year career and no one has quite managed to pin her butterfly down. And really what’s the point? Still, if it’s a label you want, I’m prepared to make the effort and after much consideration have plumped for ‘dreamo’ – sort of like emo through an opiate haze, where snot-nosed woe-is-me’s are banished in favour of sophisticated dreamweavers who far outstrip generic dear diarists with delicately nuanced tales of human nature. Oh, and a little self-deprecation as the reward of actual life experience. That’s always good.
Funnily enough, a few of In The Maybe World‘s dozen songs could easily be shredded into out-and-out rock monsters in the hands of another. Take ‘Red Thread’, for example, whose emo appeal surely lies in its call-and-response telephone exchange of “go to hell”, “fuck you” – you can practically hear the crack as the receiver collides with its cradle. But Germano is too wily a creature to languish in the obvious, twisting the lyric to broaden the moment into a greater realisation that anger is just as valid and healthy an emotion as love, and that one can often drive the other.
Elsewhere, her main preoccupation is death. The fortunately unprophetic ‘Too Much Space’ arose from her fear of losing her dad after a serious health scare; ‘Golden Cities’ arrived on the occasion of her much-loved cat’s death from cancer; while the solo piano elegy of ‘Except For The Ghosts’ is a decade-old number written in honour of her friend Jeff Buckley, exploring his headspace in the moment he accepted he was a goner. ‘Wire’ and ‘Into Oblivion’ are equally affecting, packing more emotion into a single line than Conor Oberst at a wake for his own credibility.
Germano’s charm is incontrovertibly eerie and certainly fanciful enough to put the less enlightened off, but this is her finest work since the dementedly brilliant Geek The Girl and ‘maybe’ just won’t cut it. If you’re asking whether to investigate further, the magic word is yes.
originally published July 23rd, 2006
Live at Academy 2, Manchester ••½
February 17th, 2006
It’s fair to say that Los Angeles duo Annie Hardy and Micah Calabrese, collectively known as Giant Drag, have problems. Problems that need to be ironed out if they are to achieve a level of success beyond that afforded to artists of the cult variety and stand on a higher platform. As evidenced on last year’s debut Hearts & Unicorns, both are very talented musicians and it’s hard to argue with their live performaces too; tonight’s support slot for The Cribs sees Annie hit every note perfectly and Micah display his mastery of the art of playing the drums and synthesisers simultaneously. The problems are not in the songs either; these have a wonderful post-grunge feel and tracks like ‘yflmd (You Fuck Like My Dad)’, ‘Drugs’ and ‘My Dick Sux’ reflect the duo’s innate sense of quirkiness.
The problems arise when the audience is blissfully unaware of Annie’s unusual banter, and it can come as a damning blow in the live context. She’s overly perverse and either an obsessive liar or a very bad comedienne, depending on your view. Joking about child paedophilia and incest is hardly the way to the nation’s heart, although a few in the crowd do warm to her, if only out of sympathy. Perhaps trying to capitalise on that, Annie points out the audiences at their two previous shows “didn’t like Giant Drag”, but it’s more than obvious why. Whilst Karen O of the Yeah Yeah Yeahs would simply dismiss the jeers of a faux-macho yell of “show us yerr tits!” or “fuck me!” with a sneering “suck your own dick” when she first came to the country, Annie clearly hasn’t taken any tips from the shrieking New Yorker. Either she tries to join in on the joke and adapt her stories to include members of the audience, or, like most bands, she pretends not to hear the calls. Considering how irritating hecklers are, you could never criticise a band member for doing this, but given their abrupt nature Giant Drag are going to have to get used to such crude shout outs, and, in my opinion, the best way to deal with them is to bluntly put the caller back in their place.
Even so, the duo offer an interesting live show, and to give their music justice it’s worth seeing a gig. At the very least, it will certainly help you to form your own opinion, because like Marmite, you either love, hate, or are allergic to Giant Drag.
originally published March 6th, 2006
Harpo’s Ghost ••••½
It’s a handsome little irony that staunchly British indie singer-songwriter Thea Gilmore has produced what could be a career-defining album that has Americana running through it to the core. Sonically, Harpo’s Ghost is simultaneously a progression and a departure from her previous releases, melding her unmistakable vocals and ear for a melody with sounds that recall classic American recordings from the West Coast to Greenwich Village via Texas and the Mississippi Delta. The relative commercial success of 2003’s Avalanche afforded Gilmore the opportunity to experience the United States firsthand as a touring partner for Joan Baez, and it’s her experiences of this trip and subsequent bout with depression that dominate the album – even the title is somehow redolent of excess, decadence and decay.
‘The Gambler’ kicks things off accordingly with what initially seems like a plodding, weighty mid-paced ballad reminiscent of those that dominated Aimee Mann’s last album but soon raises the stakes with crashing guitars and Hammond organ riffage set firmly to ‘rouse’ while Gilmore dares everyone to spin the wheel of fortune. Light and shade have rarely been contrasted so magnificently and from hereon in the bar is set at neck- cricking height. Fortunately, songs that fall short are few and far between. On her voyages, Gilmore has clearly enjoyed meeting the multitudinous stuffed shirts that infect the higher echelons of the media industry, and ‘Everybody’s Numb’ bites back in excellent fashion. In a diatribe against the sacrifice of creativity in favour of bottom-feeding mediocrity, Gilmore positively drips with sarcasm as she spits through gritted teeth, “pleased to meet you boys / you know it’s been a while / since I had to fake delight / just to raise a smile”, buoyed aloft by a funky drumbeat. Perfect!
Harpo’s Ghost alternates between philosophical musings and the intimate story songs so beloved of Nebraska-era Springsteen, burrowing even further than she has before into the realms of the dysfunctional psyche. ‘Red, White & Black’ tackles those who refuse to acknowledge life’s inescapable ambiguity, colour and shade – specifically those in “the United States of Emptiness” who are blinkered to their own political environment and its effects on the world at large – while ‘The List’ follows the misadventures of a couple on a downward slide, looking for redemption in all the wrong places. Elsewhere, on platform eight, ‘Whistle & Steam’ shows that when the Gospel train’s-a-comin’ there may just be some who are reluctant to get on board.
Gilmore also excels when mining a rockier seam, tossing liberal doses of fuzz bass and a garage band vibe into the mix alongside more subtle arrangements. ‘Call Me Your Darling’ sees her channelling the spirit of late-‘60s Dylan through the modern filter of the Counting Crows, while ‘We Built A Monster’ (one of two tracks co-written with Mike Scott of The Waterboys) blends West Coast psychedelic guitars with lo-fi attitude in a stinging riposte to our ‘special relationship’ with capitalism and consumerist philosophy. First single ‘Cheap Tricks’ is an obvious choice for a new assault on the charts, being an intelligent, hook-laden, passionate stomper that’s anything but bargain basement.
An unexpected pleasure, ‘Contessa’ successfully combines Mississippi jug band blues with the sort of expansive Eno-esque soundscapes that made U2’s The Joshua Tree so cinematic and captivating, but it’s up to album closer ‘Slow Journey II’ to leave us weeping in the aisles. Slow and doleful, its despairing lyrics of a weary traveller trudging on to an inevitable oblivion are perfectly accompanied by distorted harmony vocals and evocative cello. Except it’s not really the end. Hidden track ‘Play Until The Bottle’s Gone’ blasts away the clouds with a cheery little country- tinged ditty on the cathartic effects of music. Maybe things aren’t all that bad when you’ve got inspiration from a Neil Young record and can “just pick up your plywood and learn to sing the blues”. Gilmore’s very own ‘Always Look On The Bright Side Of Life?’. Maybe not quite, but it’s an appropriately British attitude to close a great, great album.
originally published August 22nd, 2006
Orange Juice: Stephanie/Stephanie ••••
Philadelphia has long been an underrated hub of creativity where bohemians can feel completely at home, thriving in a town where the rent is so cheap that you can pay all your bills by working part-time. Pepi Ginsberg – yes, that is her real name – appears to be one of those artistic souls doing just that. Her destiny – to become extraordinary to be exact – was laid out early when she was named after her German grandmother who started a school in Palestine and married one of the organisers behind the Jewish refugee ship Exodus, best known through the seven-hour marathon movie of the same title starring Paul Newman. Fittingly, Ginsberg is one of those rare people who seem wise beyond their years, but in an entirely touching way. With a voice that’s filled with an ancient pain, so blue and lazy that it’s sometimes on the verge of being out of tune, she really is a poet in disguise, painting tender, sadly beautiful pictures with words worth framing, all enhanced by her unusual speak-sing style.
However ambiguous the title, much of Orange Juice: Stephanie/Stephanie burns with spontaneity and truth. A number of songs take a fairly straightforward approach to folk music; the opener ‘China Sea’, for example, takes a delicately played guitar and adds prosaic lyrics to give a stripped down performance that’s emotionally sound and ushers Ginsberg in, closer to her audience. Similarly, ‘Maroon Coats’ and ‘Cool Green Castle’ take the same folk influences and skilfully evoke a feeling of melancholy and nostalgia that’s entirely believable.
On songs where Ginsberg recruits a band, such as ‘Needlenumb’ and ‘Kettle Song’, the structured and fairly ordinary arrangements may make for a fuller sound but occasionally trip up her free-spirited voice, making it seem a little bit clumsy. The starkly emotional ‘Orange Juice: Stephanie/Stephanie Part 1’ and ‘Part 2′ provide a much better framework for her unrestricted singing. That’s not to say that Ginsberg is shy of experimentation. The self-explanatorily titled ‘Zelda’s Song (As Sung By A Young Spanish Woman)’ finds her singing in a Spanish accent all the way through, while ‘You, Your Brother & Me’ has a theatrical tinge that’s reminiscent of Tom Waits.
Most of the time, Ginsberg’s songs feel comfortable but not predictable; her voice pushes over lazy guitar rhythms with the appealing nous of a well-adventured soul. At one point she sings, “if your song wants to be a colour, drink it,” and judging by this debut, that’s exactly what she’s been doing. And there’s plenty of colour to spare; these dozen songs are but a very slim margin of what is floating around this songwriter’s head – apparently she chose them out of 185 songs written in just over a year.
originally published October 5th, 2006
The Sound Of Girls Aloud ••••
Overloaded: The Singles Collection ••••½
When some of the top selling (and best) pop singles of the year are built around tribal beats, heavy bass and dirty, muscular synths (yes ok, produced by Timbaland), it’s easy to forget how startling it was to hear a chart-topper as bold as ‘Freak Like Me’ back in 2002. The audacity of a pop act, more importantly a girl group, taking a previously underground bootleg, drafting in its own cutting-edge creator (Richard X, where have you gone?) and then kicking it into touch with their own crude hybrid of R&B and electro, made the rest of the top ten look as dull and predictable as a coachload of Pop Idol contestants on the drive down to London. Borne out of the brief but influential trend for electroclash, ‘Freak Like Me’ was the start of a renaissance, not only for the Sugababes but also for UK pop. It’s unlikely ‘Sound Of The Underground’ would have ever found its way into the hands of Girls Aloud had the Sugababes not set the template. It’s the reason, on their second single, ‘No Good Advice’, they chew up ‘My Sharona’ and spit out the pieces. In fact it’s fair to say that these three records not only sounded the death knell of the boy band, but put the final nail in the coffin and then revved up the hearse.
Listening to Girls Aloud can cause you to wonder at what point does it all go right? Five reality show contestants, a faceless production team, the obligatory tacky videos/costumes/dance routines and the added bonus of having Louis Walsh as your known ‘mentor’. Yet there are few pop acts now capable of producing anything even half as exciting or distinctive as most of the songs here. Whilst it would be easy to attribute their success to Brian Higgins’ Xenomania production team, it’s the execution of that material that makes the band so enjoyable. The girls may have their tongues in their cheeks half the time but they throw themselves headfirst into their performances; ‘Biology’ being one of the best pop vocals of the last few years. By comparison, a band like The Pussycat Dolls are usually too busy posturing to even notice what backing track is playing. In fact, it’s difficult to imagine any of the competition attempting half of these songs for fear of sounding ridiculous, which probably explains the Girls’ appeal – a willingness to experiment and a refreshing lack of vanity. It’s why their best songs, ‘Love Machine’, ‘Biology’, ‘Wake Me Up’, ‘Something Kinda Ooooh’, are so different from one another but so distinctively Girls Aloud. Despite Cheryl Tweedy’s insistence that numerous other bands have aped their ‘sound’ (Charlotte Church, All Saints…The Beatles, probably), The Sound Of Girls Aloud is exactly that, like no other pop act. Only four years in the making, it manages to compile 13 top 10 hits, about two-thirds of which are brilliant, exhilarating pop. It’s a shame, then, that we’re getting this relatively rushed compilation so soon. Okay, so the shelf-life of a manufactured girlband is routinely less than a pint of semi-skimmed but with a new album scheduled for 2007, a retrospective now seems somewhat redundant. Another year and a couple more killer singles could have perhaps bumped off the more tedious inclusions – specifically, a cover of The Pointer Sisters’ ‘Jump’ and an earnest, but misjudged attempt at The Pretenders classic, ‘I’ll Stand By You’. Funnily enough, it’s when they play it safe that they fall down.
The Sugababes, on the other hand, have gotten quite good at playing it safe, or rather playing to their strengths. At this point, they seem quite happy to embrace their diva status, as the two new songs on the collection show. This is no bad thing; ‘Easy’ is bold, sassy pop and ‘Good To Be Gone’ is a glam-rock stomp through ‘Independent Women’ territory. On the whole, the ‘babes have taken a more conventional route through the pop/R&B landscape than the pick ‘n’ mix approach of Girls Aloud but their saving grace has always been their believability – starting out as miserable teenagers; Siobhan Donaghy’s departure; the initial awkwardness of sandwiching smiley Heidi Range between the more knowing Keisha Buchanan and Mutya Buena; even the fact that they share the writing credits, often taking it in turns to write verses. Listening to ‘Ugly’, you find yourself genuinely warming to Keisha. Listening to ‘Stronger’ you realise why Heidi chooses it as her favourite performance. Girls Aloud will never produce something as resonant because they don’t have a back story. Whilst the Sugababes may sometimes come across a little po-faced – ‘Shape’, the duet with Sting, being a particular example – they are at least convincing. Diane Warren’s ‘Too Lost In You’, a song that could have sounded needy and overblown, is tackled with maturity and confidence. In fact, when Heidi’s vocals collide with the strings during the middle eight, it’s one of the most arresting moments on the album.
Perhaps the omissions of the sublime ‘Soul Sound’ and ‘New Year’ from their debut album, One Touch, are because the vulnerability of those tracks jars slightly with the almost Amazonian proportions they’ve risen to. Perhaps they just didn’t want to dwell on the initial line-up for too long. Incidentally, we should be glad that Siobhan Donaghy’s contribution to the group wasn’t removed altogether; initial plans to have new recruit Amelle Berraba re-record her vocals thankfully scrapped at the last stages. As it happens, Overload – the Sugababes’ first single – is the album’s high point, still as fresh and feisty as it was on release. The omissions, whilst upsetting, do at least represent a wealth of choices. Girls Aloud unfortunately seem to be running on empty a good couple of tracks before the closer, ‘I Think We’re Alone Now’. Yes, covering a song still played at every wedding, school disco and Christmas party is such an uninspired choice that you can only presume it’s a pisstake. The Sugababes round out their set with two of their four No.1 singles – ‘Hole In The Head’ (cheers again Xenomania) and ‘Push The Button’, possibly their most assured moment. It’s a clever move that leaves you wanting more and raises one question: with both bands (dodgy covers aside) at the top of their games, whatever next? The answer, as you may already have heard, is joining forces to cover Aerosmith and Run DMC’s ‘Walk This Way’ for Comic Relief. Oh dear.
The Go! Team / The Grates / Smoosh
Live at Koko ••••
March 1st, 2006
Frankly, it’s been a fantastic year for The Go! Team. Their debut album Thunder, Lightning, Strike has become a major, if slow-burning hit – unbelievably, it was first released back in September 2004 – receiving widespread acclaim and annihilating genre labels left, right and centre… oh, and notching up a nod for the Mercury Music Prize. It should come as no surprise then that the Brighton/London six-piece are in a celebratory mood. This, their biggest UK tour to date, is completely sold-out, including a three-night residency at London’s Koko. Tonight’s line-up is yet another exercise in diversification for the Go! Team; they’ve put together a stellar female-fronted bands bonanza by roping in Seattle’s Smoosh and The Grates from Australia.
In case you hadn’t heard already, Smoosh are sisters Asya and Chloe who are, respectively, 13 and 11 years old. Having already found celebrity fans in Sufjan Stevens, Sleater-Kinney, Cat Power’s Chan Marshall, Death Cab For Cutie (whose drummer has been teaching Chloe) and now seemingly The Go! Team, their premise is a basic one – Chloe plays drums while Asya sings and presses the keys. Surprisingly, the limitations of their instruments by no means inhibits their sound. So while each song may sound different from the last, one thing is consistent throughout – their attitude. There’s something scarily fierce about Asya’s vocal delivery. Even at her tender age, she is showing the angry/uplifting makings of her older mentors in Sleater-Kinney. Equally, Chloe’s rhythms are primal and driving, and the relatively stripped-down arrangement really does showcase their musical abilities.
Their set is comprised of tracks from their excellent debut, She Like Electric, and a whole lot of new songs that amply disprove the doubters who claimed it was a fluke. That said, the uninitiated denizens of the audience clearly don’t know quite how to react to the duo. Obviously aware of their age, they are appropriately supportive and somewhat cautious; are they being exploited by a twisted svengali á la t.A.T.u? Do they write their own songs? Is it fair to take them out of school to tour with older rock bands? Fortunately, Smoosh exercise a much greater degree of control over their career than Richard and Judy’s faux-lesbian enemies, and furthermore are prodigiously talented, with an originality and freshness unrivalled by most other bands so often jaded by the industry and wearing their influences all too plainly on their sleeves. Finishing with the grinding ‘La Pump’, a positively filthy electro-pop tune, Asya and Chloe exit stage right, their curious audience still slightly confused but primarily enthusiastic.
Next come The Grates making a great first impression by bounding cheerfully on to the stage. Singer Patience is a day-glo princess and perhaps a not-too-distant relative of Yeah Yeah Yeahs’s Karen O. Their music is similarly sparse – garage rock guitars, pounding rhythms and ecstatic, if somewhat deranged, vocals. Running from one side of the stage to the other, Patience makes for a manic and energetic figurehead, shaking her hair and pulling faces at the crowd. Though they are undoubtedly effective at warming up the crowd, the similarities with the Yeah Yeah Yeahs are almost too much – the voice and nonsensical yelps are trademark O. But to their credit, even if The Grates do excessively imitate, they at least do it well and with tunes and an energy that other carbon copiers have failed to muster. Happily, their upcoming single, ‘19-20-20′, is an undeniably spiky slice of angular art-pop.
Despite such strong support, the show belongs unarguably to The Go! Team. The balconies of the former theatre are packed with brightly dressed punters, while the band is even more colourful than usual thanks to the special London-only addition of cheerleading backing dancers. It feels like a carnival, and perhaps appropriately, it is the day after Shrove Tuesday and the end of Carnaval in Rio de Janeiro. Their frontwoman Ninja, clad tonight in a yellow cheerleader skirt and a blue vest top, may not even be 5’2″ but she commands the crowd like no other. Indeed, she puts so much energy into the performance that the band’s instrumental tracks are scattered throughout the set to allow her ample recovery time. Each song is properly introduced and Ninja makes each one an opportunity for some kind of crowd participation. Arms are waved, chants are chanted and it all begins to feel a little like a commune – during ‘We Just Won’t Be Defeated’ there’s an irrepressible feeling of oneness.
It would be foolish to argue that The Go! Team’s huge success is purely due to Ninja’s leadership. Their music is like dreamscapes, entirely positive, uplifting and utterly indefinable. In the live context, their show is an exhilarating blast through their album and a handful of new songs. In total, it lasts just over an hour but somehow feels sufficient. The Go! Team see no need in labouring the point, secure in the knowledge that even a short dose of their infectious magic is enough to put smiles on every last attendee as they exit into the slightly grimmer reality of Mornington Crescent. The band themselves may not know what the future holds – Thunder, Lightning, Strike is composed predominantly of samples and getting legal clearance was a long and difficult task – but, for the moment, they seem plenty rewarded by their crowd-pleasing antics and formidable reputation as pioneers of inimitably fantastic pop.
Robbie de Santos
originally published March 18th, 2006
Bleeding Heart Graffiti ••½
Previously famed as one half of the creative force that made up the moderately successful grunge-pop cross-over band Veruca Salt, this second solo album sees Nina Gordon continue to reinvent herself and draw a firm musical line beneath her indie-tastic past. For where Veruca Salt would churn out fast-paced rock with alternative cred and a tuneful, energetic formula, Gordon’s lone singer-songwriter schtick could hardly be more different. It’s as if she’s morphed from early ‘90s Liz Phair into Liz Phair nowadays, or even Sheryl Crow. With heavy production that’s much too big on niceness, gone are the kickass power guitars and in their place comes an almost easy listening, coffee table atmosphere where the only truly sweet stuff to be found is disappointingly coated in sticky mainstream saccharine pop.
Despite coming a full six years after her first solo venture, Tonight & The Rest Of My Life, Bleeding Heart Graffiti carries on almost precisely where that album left off. There’s a sense that she’s more confident in her direction and the tunes are certainly stronger than before, but mostly it’s more of the same. The theme of loves gained and lost permeate throughout with lyrics that are bittersweet and honest, and it’s clear that she’s had to suffer some bad times to get as far as she has. In that respect, Gordon seemingly wants to be taken as a serious pop artist in the vein of Aimee Mann; however, in some places she comes across more like Natalie Imbruglia with chart-friendly songs that could easily soundtrack your weekly shop at Tesco or your Monday morning Starbucks skinny latté with soy milk.
There’s some nice touches though. For instance, the sequencing lets you imagine that there is something of a concept at work here. From the upbeat beginnings where Gordon sings of relationships in bloom to the overwrought emotions of the ending where love’s beyond redemption, the songs gradually get more and more melancholy. Still, songs like ‘Suffragette’ and first single ‘Kiss Me ‘Til It Bleeds’ are winning pop tunes that will lodge in the memory, for a while at least. But then there is heartache, with presumably cathartic, open-wound tales of trying to make sense of it all. Indeed, there is perhaps a little too much of the downside of love and it’s a shame that there isn’t more of the gleeful poppiness of the openers. Indeed, many of the sadder songs were recovered and re-recorded from Gordon’s aborted 2004 release Even The Sunbeams, written during a phase in her life that she has since “snapped out of”.
With a baby on the way and a new-found focus, who knows where her next record will take her. For now though, despite having a clutch of well-written songs to its name, Bleeding Heart Graffiti can only be chalked up as something of a disappointment. Still, given its history, it’s fair to say that Gordon has been paying up on those dues and deserves some solo success. Just don’t look back in anger.
originally published July 23rd, 2006
Standing In The Way Of Control •••
Meeting The Gossip would be quite an experience if their everyday speech is as riddled with clichés as their unfortunate lyrics. Though certainly both beautiful and powerful, it’s hard to appreciate lead singer Beth Ditto’s vocals when she’s wrapping her tongue round bothersome blandness like “fight fire with fire”, “I’m a fool for you” and “as pure as the snow”, all of which should really be reserved for anodyne boybands. Worse still, the band sees fit to commit the heinous crime of rhyming “crying” and “lying”. Who do they think they are, Oasis?
This grumble aside, there are other problems. At first the album seems fairly unremarkable, a little too reminiscent of your average local don’t-give-up-your-day-jobs who manage to sound quite similar to the music you actually like but leave the nail’s head decidedly un-whacked. The ballad ‘Coal To Diamonds’ may gloriously showcase Ditto’s vocals, which for my money are unrivalled in the genre, but it’s rather monotonous all the same. Situated midway through the album, ‘Eyes Open’ is the first real gem, just as upbeat as you’d expect from The Gossip but with added bluesy soul. ‘Keeping You Alive’ is also a standout, boasting a chorus that would easily fill any self-respecting dancefloor with hand-clapping disco fans.
Okay, so it seems a little unfair to review this album having only listened to it in the comfort of my home. It clearly needs to be accompanied by some alcohol-fuelled shape throwing, somewhere with an audience that doesn’t give a shit how trite the lyrics might be. By all accounts, The Gossip’s live show is an experience not to be missed and it’s easy to see how these songs might come alive. Concurrently, they are immediate and rousing, despite one or two unforgivable blips, and at least half are destined to be favourites of your average dance-punk DJ. Perhaps most exciting when viewed as a pre-show taster, it’s worth a listen, but standing in the way of control? Hardly.
originally published July 14th, 2006
Gravity Won’t Get You High ••
This debut album from Australian upstarts The Grates should be subtitled ‘…And Neither Will We’, such is the disappointment with which you may be faced had you caught the foursome while touring with The Go! Team and The Zutons earlier this year. Where their live show is a riotously enthusiastic neon bonanza, their energetic zaniness translates with severely mixed results on record.
There’s a noticeable attempt to sound like a blues-rock band in that same bass-free way as Sleater-Kinney or Yeah Yeah Yeahs, though the sound is tinny and irritating rather than raw and intense. The songs mostly bounce along in a summery fashion and there’s no denying that it’s pleasant at times, particularly with the addition of some third-wave ska-inspired horns in ‘Lies Are Much More Fun’. It’s when they try to sound angst-ridden and angry that things go awry. ‘Feels Like Pain’ is a grunge-lite ditty with its token quiet, sullen verse and screamalong loud chorus, but comes across more like rubbish German rockers The Guano Apes than the more enjoyable likes of Hole. Despite being a fairly respectable slice of raw indie rock, even their breakthrough single, the chaotic ‘Trampoline’, is horribly let down by embarrassing lyrics.
The trouble is that none of it sounds remotely convincing; the album feels like a smash and grab pic ‘n’ mix of various bands The Grates are rather too fond of. Patience Hodgson’s accent changes from Canadian to British to American and back to Australian, a sure sign of someone trying too hard to emulate their idols. Here’s Karen O and there’s Alanis, over yonder’s Corin Tucker and lurking somewhere else is a yodelling Marlene Dietrich. OK, so none of it is really that terrible, it’s just that the reasons to own this album are excruciatingly scant when there are better versions of every song out there already.
Robbie de Santos
originally published July 25th, 2006
The Apiary •••½
Little Athena Productions
It would be quite the simplest thing to write a shallow review of Ms Greer’s album…earnest girl at a piano singing deep and meaningful, jazz-tinged songs with relationship, psychological and political overtones = Tori Amos. Review ends. Go make a nice cup of tea. However, to be such a lazy so-and-so would be a gross injustice indeed. Greer’s second album, The Apiary, does bear comparison with other piano-based musicians like Amos, Sarah McLachlan or even Norah Jones, but at their root the songs seem to be drawn from a greater songwriting well that encompasses the likes of Carole King and James Taylor. Her semi-stream of consciousness lyrics plumb the heights and depths of the human condition, acting as an internalised narrative on passing events, fused with invention very much of her own design.
The arrangements are based around a solid jazz trio format of Greer’s piano, Damian Watson’s bass and the drums of Brian Peltier. Other instruments are brought in only to serve and enhance the mood, carefully deployed where they can have the greatest effect. The jazz element is perhaps least pronounced on the opener Invited, which provides a brief, pastoral prelude to the dramas to come. ‘Honey Bee’ lopes along with Mark Knopfler-styled guitar licks and piano runs in a manner that suggests the inevitable progress of life through the mundane, always hoping for the chance of some brief connection to the sublime. ‘Walking Home To You’ continues in a wistful mood, lulling the listener before ‘Darkling’ disrupts the mood, dissected by obscene and menacing distorted guitars. The song’s brooding presence looms through the speakers; an avatar for life’s dysfunctional underbelly denied by the more polite of societies.
Thus, it becomes clear that while Greer’s playing is clearly influenced by jazz, she is not restricted to it and uses the influence to inform the more rock and pop sensibilities of her virtuoso skills. On songs like ‘Stupid People Lost In Eden’, Greer forges a subtly twisted rendering of the jazz sounds familiar from childhood Charlie Brown cartoons but infused with enough incipient terrors to show that real life isn’t the idyll of an over- idealised youth. Indeed, The Apiary‘s second half is equally strong as the first; ‘Satellite’ boasts a driving lefthand riff that’s part boogie woogie, part James Bond theme, but wholly intense and ominous. Propelling the track forward, it perfectly assembles a desperate cat’s cradle of sound around the lyrics of death, decay and inevitability. Other highlights include ‘Downtown Song’ where Greer’s dissonant la la’s contrast with the jaunty melody to underline that “hope is a thing with feathers” and perhaps just as elusive as a bird, tying in nicely with the earlier ‘Origami Birds’ where the sparse piano and cello create a dreamlike backing to musings on fragility and loss, complete with the sound of cowbells tinkling in a distant Vermont field.
For a self-produced artist resolutely ploughing an independent furrow, The Apiary is nothing if not remarkably assured. Greer is clearly a long way down the road of defining her own voice, and if circumstance should bring her to a broader, international audience, she might one day be cited as a popular critical benchmark herself.
originally published March 11th, 2006
Impossible Dream ••••½
Defeatism is not a word you will find in the vocabulary of 41-year old Patty Griffin, but that’s not to suggest some kind of deluded Pollyanna figure who could shrug off the apocalypse with a blink and an “oops” – she’s tough in the way that a tree is tough. Since her debut, 1996’s Living With Ghosts, that much has been clear. Already a formidable guitarist, this fourth studio album spices things up a bit with brass, piano and organ featuring on several tracks. Interestingly, three of them have been resurrected from her indefensibly shelved third album, Silver Bell, a victim of silly record company bureaucracy. While the album that eventually surfaced in its place, 2002’s 1000 Kisses, remains one of the most exemplary singer-songwriter albums of all time, incredibly, Impossible Dream is better. At once more personal and universal than its predecessor, it’s an intense deconstruction of the struggle of everyday lives. Consequently, some will dismiss it as depressing, but to do so is to bypass completely every subtlety and nuance of hope that infuses the sadness. Originally released in the US a year ago, the album finally makes it to the UK in support of Griffin’s first UK tour dates in years.
The jaunty staccato blues shuffle of the opening track, ‘Love Throw A Line’, is something of a red herring. Stacked with an almost tangible urgency, it’s heavy on the spirituality but light on the palate. ‘Kite Song’, too, is an easily digestible yet plaintive paean to optimism, made all the sweeter by backing vocals courtsey of Emmylou Harris and Julie Miller. Elsewhere, ‘Standing’ takes its cue from gospel artists such as Mavis Staples, but tempers it accordingly to avoid, in her own words, making “bad white blues”. The result is four minutes of being rooted to the spot in reverence.
The emotional core of the album is most evident on ‘Top Of The World’, a Griffin original made famous by the Dixie Chicks on Home, and the heart-stopping seven-minute epic, ‘Mother Of God’, both of which feature exquisite violin from the ever-wonderful Lisa Germano. ‘Top Of The World’ is tailgated by a touching reprise of Impossible Dream from the musical, ‘Man Of LaMancha’, as sung by Patty’s parents. It’s a fitting sentiment for Griffin, whose songs have often voiced the viewpoints of the older generation, that her parents take these reins and allow her own laments to bubble over. Best of all, there’s a moment approximately halfway through ‘Mother Of God’ where her tender, reedy voice cracks beneath the weight of her emotion. It’s these hiccups, these inimitable idiosyncrasies that render Patty Griffin so few of peers.
Holding an alarm clock in one hand while the other demurely hitches up her crinoline as a kite soars in the background, the Patty Griffin on the sleeve appears defiantly hopeful, as if waiting for something real to whisk her away.
originally published May 22nd, 2005
Live at the Lyric Hammersmith
May 31st, 2005
As any singer worth their salt should know, a whisper can be every bit as effective as a scream. In Patty Griffin, a woman who embodies the former but has the fire of the latter, the full range of capability is ours for the absorbing. Disarmingly shy at first, she seems almost embarrassed to have bothered us from whatever our Tuesdays typically bring, but the ice is soon broken after the first song, a stirring take on Bessie Smith’s ‘Backwater Blues’, when she realises that her guitar was unplugged for the entire rendition. To the credit of the Lyric theatre’s acoustics, however, the difference is barely noticeable.
After a stomping ‘No Bad News’, she offers up an engaging suite of songs from her latest album, Impossible Dream, released just the day before in the UK though it has long since been available in the States. Despite only being accompanied by one of her usual band, guitarist Doug Lancio, we miss none of the breezy shuffle of ‘Love Throw A Line’ nor the lightly melancholic ‘Useless Desires’. Moving to the piano, Griffin treats us to a French lullaby once sung to her by her mother. Entitled ‘J’irai La Voir Un Jour (I Will See It One Day)’, her emotive voice conveys every drop of the pensive hope that the title suggests. Staying at the keys, ‘Kite Song’, another cut from the ‘new’ album, charms effortlessly with its poignant imagery of dreaming and holding out for fulfilment.
New song ‘Free’ sounds promising but the real highlight comes next with ‘Top Of The World’, a beautiful and heartbreaking paean to those once loved and lost. The upbeat but lyrically desolate ‘Long Ride Home’ follows before Griffin really lets her hair down and unleashes a surging version of the frantic ‘Flaming Red’. Unfortunately, a residual cough left over from a recent cold begins to trouble the singer in the closing songs of the main set. In fact, her confidence is visibly shaken by wracked renditions of ‘Icicles’ and ‘Making Pies’, two of her most vivid examples of top-notch storytelling. The audience seems not to mind and shouts in encouragement and sympathy. A standing ovation later and Patty, slightly tearful, gracefully returns for an encore during which she road tests another new song, ‘Up To The Mountain’, inspired by the bravery of Martin Luther King, and old fan favourite ‘Mary’. Then she is gone, though we mill around for a few minutes uncertain of whether there will be a second encore. But Patty has other shows to play in the days to come and we’ve been plenty spoiled already.
originally published June 17th, 2005
Ruby’s Torch ••••
This latest offering from folkabilly heroine and nigh-on icon, Nanci Griffith, is an interesting affair. An album of torch songs isn’t perhaps the obvious addition to her folk and country-tinged catalogue. Griffith’s vocal style could not be further removed from the likes of Dietrich, Lenya, Piaf or Lemper but that’s not necessarily a bad thing in this context. That said, the songs here play less on her trademark Texan drawl than usual and her style is perhaps more naturalistic. One thing hasn’t changed, of course, and that’s Griffith’s strength as a musical storyteller. And who has a better story to tell than the subject of a torch song with their wounded hearts and tales of wistful regret?
Oh, okay, so torch songs are guilty of sometimes lapsing into mawkish self-pity and irksome melodrama, but Griffith’s folk music background and straightforward approach deftly sidesteps those pitfalls. Instead her vocals, devoid of florid overemphasis, infuse the songs with an honesty that speaks of the real heart within rather than a caricature. On her version of Jimmy Webb’s ‘If These Walls Could Speak’ the simplicity of the arrangement – just vocal, piano and a few strings – cannot fail to make the eyes mist over. However, the emotional core of the disc is realised in the exquisite covers of three Tom Waits numbers: ‘Ruby’s Arms’, ‘Grapefruit Moon’ and ‘Please Call Me, Baby’. Griffith’s delicate tones are certainly in contrast with Waits’ whiskey-sodden gravelly snarl but that does little to lessen the intensity or the listener’s emotional engagement with the narrator.
Elsewhere, on ‘Wee Small Hours’ the strings and snare ‘n’ brushes approach evokes memories of the classic crooners. This could be straight from the soundtrack of some post-war American romantic comedy. You can almost see Doris Day gazing out through a frosted windowpane wondering whether Rock Hudson will fall for her charms by the final reel. Final song ‘Drops From The Faucet’ carries on the same vein with its muted trumpet and draws proceedings to a mellow, wistful close.
Ruby’s Torch has much to offer the Griffith acolyte and neophyte alike. Simple, open and honest it represents good old-fashioned record making at its best. Beautifully written songs performed with taste and restraint by musicians at the top of their game and fronted by an accomplished vocalist who steps inside the song and inexorably draws you in with her. Just don’t forget the Kleenex.
Way Their Crept ••••
Free Porcupine Society
The mysterious waters of the international underground continue to combine in fascinating, ever-changing ways. What may loosely be described as the ‘noise’ scene is currently proving a particularly fertile area of creativity, regularly giving rise to surprising sounds from a fluid network of mavericks and collaborators. Of course, ‘noise’ is really a misnomer in itself, although it’s definitely catchier and less prosaic than ‘sound’ or ‘pure sound’. What links the electric devotionals of, say, US outfits The Skaters and Double Leopards to their UK counterparts like Mathew Bower of Sunroof! / Hototogisu or Phil Todd of Ashtray Navigations – and also to outfits like Merzbow or Wolf Eyes to whom the term ‘noise’ can be more traditionally applied – is a desire to use sound of whatever source to create a unique space, aside and apart from everyday experience. Or, more accurately in the case of Merzbow, to chew up our everyday experience and spit back white- hot shrapnel as a comment on our times. Or something.
Liz Harris, aka Grouper, stands apart even from the above-mentioned and their contemporaries. Hailing from Oakland, Cailfornia, she’s from the same geography as Tom and Christina Carter of Charalambides, both physically and spiritually. But even referencing the ghostly intensity of their music doesn’t convey just how strange and compelling Way Their Crept is. With Grouper having released only a couple of EPs available on infinitesimal runs in the past, this is one of those out-of-nowhere gems that delights on first listen and continues to enthrall and deepen with each hearing.
It’s also a testament to minimalism, of a sort. The opening title track simply hangs closely-miked doppelgangers of Harris’s wordless voice in a huge echoing space, leaving the spectres to converse among the rafters. Unexpected sonorities and harmonics overlap and dissolve like colours reflected in a deep pool, seemingly slowing time to a crawl. ‘Second Skin / Zombie Wind’ slips deeper beneath the surface, the vocals entwined with cracked and echoing electronics and a textured, organic hiss. Even better, the incredible ‘Sang Their Way’ illustrates Harris’s compositional technique perfectly. Glowing strands of electronic notes, tape hiss, and heavily treated vocals are strung across one another, merging and ebbing in a soundscape that’s undeniably alien and haunting, yet simultaneously human and beautiful. Even without recognisable words, it’s Liz’s vocals that anchor these shards of ectoplasm in the emotional realm, giving her music a resonance that much experimentalism sadly lacks.
Indeed, it would be interesting to hear the result of a collaboration between Grouper and any of her above-named kindred spirits, and given the absurdly high number of short-lived partnerships that drive the evolution of the noise aesthetic, it shouldn’t be a long wait. Way Their Crept is a rare first achievement, a record that represents not only the arrival of a compelling new voice, but opens new avenues for experimentation and cross-pollination in an already exciting field.
originally published June 5th, 2006
Songs Of Love & Death ••••
For her second album of covers, Canadian self-made woman Emm Gryner once again avoids the pointless celeb karaoke approach of some of her peers, but where 2001’s Girl Versions lovingly emasculated songs by everyone from Thrush Hermit to Blur via Ozzy Osbourne – an eclectic enough selection to rival even Tori Amos’s Strange Little Girls, released the same year but with ten times the marketing budget – Songs Of Love & Death is a nationalistic nod to the Irish. More contemporary than other Irish covers albums (e.g. Sinéad O’Connor’s Sean-Nós Nua, The Corrs’s Home) and with little in the way of traditional Celtic instrumentation, Songs… finds Gryner stripping back each song to its emotional core and working up from there.
Kicking in with chiming guitar and harpsichord arpeggios, ‘Forget Georgia’ sounds for all the world like a long-lost classic Pretenders single, though is actually an obscure cut from Something Happens. It’s not hard to see why the song’s picked up some airplay in the more discerning corners of national radio, but there are finer moments elsewhere. Gryner’s versions of ‘Running Back’, a track from Thin Lizzy’s 1976 album Jailbreak, and The Corrs’s ‘Breathless’ both demonstrate the panache of her deconstruction. Both are sheared to the bone as tender piano ballads wracked with the true desperation of the lyrics. Likewise, Ash’s ‘Shining Light’ benefits from the minimalist treatment; in Gryner’s hands, the disposable punk-pop anthem morphs into a tender hymn to love. Dana Feder’s achingly beautiful cello counterpoints the vocals and piano, with subtle church organ riffing completing the mystical effect. ‘Deckchairs & Cigarettes’ forgoes The Thrills’s Americana stylings in favour of the full Celtic treatment – marching-season pipe and drum backing contrasting deliciously with jangly indie pop.
Perhaps the most obscure and surprising inclusion of the album is ‘Dearg Doom’ from Celtic rock group Horslips’ seminal disc, The Tain. Quite how the casual listener, unaware of the track’s genesis as centrepiece of a concept-album based on pre-Christian Celtic mythology, will assimilate the lyrical content – Irish hero Cu Chulainn taunting the ranks of an army he’s about to slay single-handedly – I couldn’t say, but the electro-pop arrangement with its muted guitar, harpsichord, fuzz bass and distorted vocals is brilliantly compelling nonetheless.
In comparison, Gilbert O’Sullivan’s ‘Nothing Rhymed’ is the straightest cover on the album, but even here there are quirks in the arrangements; pianoforte mixed with the mbira, an East African thumb piano, makes for an effective instrumental duet. Add to that the jaunty, almost Victoria Wood-like delivery, and its the perfect contrast to what comes next. The measured horror of the Virgin Prunes’s ‘Bau-Dachong’ is truly chilling; desperate vocals and grotesque sequenced rhythms build to uncover layer after layer of menace. Never has folk legend Kate McGarrigle’s banjo sounded more disturbing. Unquestionably, this is a true tour de force and the record’s emotional climax. Which is great, except that everything thereafter smacks a little of lost momentum. That’s not to say there’s anything wrong with Gryner’s takes on The Undertones’s ‘Julie Ocean’, Therapy?’s ‘Nowhere’ or the much covered traditional ‘Moorlough Shore’; it’s just that they’ve a tough act to follow. Of the three, however, ‘Nowhere’ is the strongest candidate for radio. Divorced from Therapy?’s muscular style, it becomes a likeable acoustic ditty with a Sheryl Crow-ish vocal.
The renaissance of the covers album as a valid expression of artistry is still quite recent, and there’s no doubt that Gryner owes some small debt to the likes of Annie Lennox, Tori Amos and even Cat Power, but Songs Of Love & Death reasserts the wisdom of the old jazz truism that skilful interpretation of song is an art unto itself. It’s to Gryner’s credit, too, that her artistic input extended to playing almost all of the instruments, including the mbira. Following a successful tour of the Emerald Isle and the recent radio adds, here’s hoping a full UK release for this excellent collection can be organised, and soon!
originally published January 21st, 2006
Filed under: album, back issues, film & dvd, live, review | Tags: aaron alper, aimee mann, alan pedder, alanis morissette, alex ramon, allison moorer, amy millan, anja mccloskey, becky stark, bryn williams, cerys matthews, danny weddup, elisavet leondariti, erin mckeown, helen griffiths, ian addison, ian buchan, jane gillow, juana molina, karen matheson, kate and anna mcgarrigle, kirsty maccoll, kylie minogue, lene marlin, lisa komorowska, liza minnelli, loreena mckennitt, madonna, magenta, magneta lane, mary lee's corvette, mates of state, matson jones, múm, metric, morning after girls, morningwood, natalie merchant, nellie mckay, paul woodgate, róisín murphy, rebecca mosley, robbie de santos, russell barker, sarah mclachlan, screaming masterpiece, stephen collings, the magic numbers, tiffany daniels, trevor raggatt, walk the line
The following reviews were all published on our old website between May 2005 and December 2006.
From Croydon To Cuba: An Anthology ••••
It’s safe to say that listening to this 3CD retrospective compilation of Kirsty MacColl’s work was always going to be a bittersweet experience. Five years on from her premature death in a speedboat accident in Mexico at the age of 41, it seems she is still recognised more for her duet with The Pogues on the festive staple ‘Fairytale Of New York’ than for her own well-observed pop songs about chip shop romances and cowardly Lotharios. This fairly exhaustive collection sets about trying to rectify that sorry situation, serving up 65 songs worth of concrete proof to fans and non-fans alike that MacColl’s way with a tune was of a quality at least the equal of her more successful peers (from Eddi Reader and Alison Moyet to Morrissey and Johnny Marr via Van Morrison and Billy Bragg), all of whom have expressed an immense love and respect for her music and her inimitable spirit.
MacColl’s songs primarily dealt in the currency of romantic love, but always from the perspective of a woman under no illusions. As everything here is chronologically sequenced, From Croydon To Cuba goes some way to reconciling the wide-eyed girlish warbler on her 1979 debut single, ‘They Don’t Know’, with the older and wiser family woman of later years. And it doesn’t take long for her talent to shine. Her 1984 cover of Billy Bragg’s superb ‘A New England’ stands out for its bracing honesty and freshness, but it’s the reassuring tone of that single’s original B-side, ‘Patrick’, a lovely little ditty about a young Cork-born fella finding his feet in London, that tugs insistently at your heartstrings.
The country swagger of ‘Don’t Come The Cowboy With Me Sonny Jim!’ is executed in typical MacCollian fashion, mixing laugh out loud lyrical flair with a serious undertow, always ready to fall in love but never really expecting it to work. The second disc is notable for the single ‘Free World’ and her version of The Kinks’ ‘Days’, both lifted from her Steve Lillywhite-produced 1989 album, Kite. But it’s the captivatingly sad ‘Dear John’, co-written with Mark Nevin from Fairground Attraction, that really encapsulates MacColl’s unique gift for effortlessly balancing the personal with the universal without a trace of cloying sentimentality.
While Kirsty MacColl never commanded the kind of commercial respect that her music deserved, her fiercely loyal fans have always maintained that her songwriting never wavered in its splendidly literate qualities, flinching not at the Latin American rhythms that flavoured her later songs and critically acclaimed final album, Tropical Brainstorm. From Croydon To Cuba is a magnificent and towering tribute to one of the warmest, funniest and most skilful songwriters these isles have produced in the past twenty years. For those who prefer to digest an album in just one sitting, a slenderer single-disc collection, The Best Of Kirsty MacColl, is also available, but those with any more than a passing interest should indulge themselves with this.
originally published on September 5th, 2005
Confessions On A Dancefloor ••••
Watching our lady Madge recently has been a somewhat bipolar experience. For a woman we’ve all grown up thinking was the spunkiest, most confrontational star this side of Grace Jones, she can appear frighteningly fragile in interviews. The less-than-impartial video diary ‘I’m Going To Tell You A Secret’ would have you believe the opposite, but one is still left with the nagging feeling that for the first time in long time, Madonna wants our approval. It’s hard to use the word ‘reinvention’ here without feeling faintly nauseous. Every new Immac blade is a reinvention chez Ritchie. It’s a shame because Confessions On A Dancefloor marks her biggest change in direction since of Ray Of Light, and is much welcomed. The last two stocking-fillers were peppered with great tracks but leadened by duds and a lack of consistency. Here, we have 56 minutes of pure dance. Dance dance dance. Out go the ballads and in comes the lycra. A coherent album – my oh my!
As a dance album it is quite something. Presumptuous to the point of having a separate, mixey-mixey single-track version, Confessions… goes for broke on the stomper ticket. Mixing early Eighties disco, light electro (the “electroclash is passé” memo clearly hit her desk), outlandishly catchy riffs and choruses, the album triumphs on both tunes and production. ‘Get Together’ is smoother than Rocco’s bottom, ‘How High’ is the Madonna vocoder track that works, ‘Sorry’ is more infectious than Thailand’s pigeon mating season and ‘I Love New York’ boasts a riff so acutely rambunctious that Rachel Stevens has all but given up the game and gone home. And that’s before we even get to the much-publicised samples. Michael Jackson and Donna Summer both feature on records that don’t get them into trouble for the first time in years, while ABBA give only their second ever nod of consent for a sample (although the first time was for a Fugees B-side, so perhaps one just has to catch Björn at the right moment). What could have looked like creative kidnapping actually melds effortlessly into the mix, joining the danceathon with a cheeky smile. This is an album that seriously doesn’t take itself seriously, you see.
And then the comedown. Like all good Chinese meals and gin-fuelled one-night stands, one wakes up the next morning with a feeling of mild dissatisfaction. Questions start to creep in: the Madonna on Confessions… is nowhere near the London-based, tweed-wearing, pheasant-murdering, homely gal presented to us in repetitive media coverage. Does she still hop down clubs and prance around on dance machines? Really? Her voice is not at its strongest either, and her over-reliance on computer trickery gives the album an unfortunate homogenous slant. The paradox being that, while it sounds like almost anyone could be singing, no-one else has the nous to pull this album off in the first place.
The energy behind Confessions… brushes aside the doubts in a rapturous, arm-swinging boogie… at least for now. She may be trying too hard, but that still makes for a more satisfying listen than most. If this is Madonna’s last boogie, it would be churlish to sit on the sidelines.
originally published on December 5th, 2005
I’m Going To Tell You A Secret ••
“I have a cage / it’s called the stage / when I’m let out, I run about / and sing and dance and sweat and yell / I have so many tales to tell.”
Yep, Madonna has decided to share with us her latest poetic exploits. One can only speculate on why nobody stopped her. Perhaps it was yet another attempt to portray a sense of edginess and spontaneity, and once again that’s probably the biggest problem. This is her second behind-the-tour documentary so you might have thought she’d know by now that grainy film stock and showy lenses don’t really fool anyone into thinking that they’re getting real insight.
Covering her 2004 Reinvention tour, ‘I’m Going To Tell You A Secret’ is not actually a documentary in so far as Madonna’s editorial control ensures that there is nothing shown that falls outside of her patented spiritual mum persona. So instead of getting moments of her infamous stroppage we’re dished up yet more supposed ‘edginess’ rehearsed to within an inch of its life. Madonna talks about being caked in sweat! Madonna’s going to the loo! Madonna’s costume smells! This is the story of life on the road, edited and acutely contrived for your fanboy/girl watching pleasure. Well, you didn’t want warts, did you?
There is certainly a message amidst the mediocrity, though. You almost want to give the lass a break after the over-nauseous rabbiting on about her religious choices in the press. Surely she’s not going to try and convert us? Actually, yes, she is. Bring forth ‘teacher’ Eitan to share vague spiritual truths; observe how she reads the Kabbalah text Zohar in bed; and so on. You can prove anything with platitudes: “I always thought it was my job to wake people up,” she muses, “but it’s not enough to wake them up. You have to give them direction.” Blimey, stop the presses!
But it doesn’t stop there, oh no. See the montages of war-torn children from across the ages, set to thumping dance beats and overlaid with cod-religious pronouncements. By the time Michael Moore comes on screen to sing her praises, you just might want to throw your TV out the window. On the plus side, we’re offered pleasing insights into family life – see Daddy Ciccone in his vineyard and a neat pay-off to ‘In Bed With’s scenes of his disgust at her live show. The Ciccone children, too, are surprisingly unprecocious, frolicking around with only mild hints of primadonna antics to come, while Guy Ritchie comes across in a peculiar manner; impish and playful one moment, a walking stereotype the next. All Cockney men have lock-ins at their local so they can whip out a guitar and chant folk songs? You heard it here first people.
But what of the music, for some the preferred occupation of Madonna? We’re shown nattily-edited performances that prove the stage is where she still knows her stuff. ‘Like A Prayer’ is updated to an electro stomper, ‘Holiday’ rocks the house and ‘Oh Father’ ratchets up the teariness mechanically. Duff single ‘American Life’ comes off worst with a dance routine that’s more reminiscent of ‘Springtime For Hitler’ than anything remotely worthwhile. Think skimpily dressed marines and fauxplosions with a backdrop of real war footage. Even so, why anyone would want to listen to these performances without the aid of visuals is a cause for concern; the bonus CD may be a smart commercial move but, artistically, it’s an absolute dud.
Oh well, it could be worse – it could be Geri Halliwell. Madonna is no world thinker, but her explorations into personal enlightenment are much less crass than you might imagine. She does at least have the sense to show us the universal side of the message, keeping the brush strokes nice and broad. This is not a documentary. It’s a two-hour long coffee table book. About the only true insight one can newly glean is that she’s clearly witnessed enough nightclubs at closing time playing ‘Come On Eileen’ to know how to shift the punters – her attempt to finish with John Lennon’s ‘Imagine’ had me reaching for the stop button with alacrity.
originally published on June 24th, 2006
Home is a new concept album by well-regarded Welsh progressive rock band, Magenta…but wait, don’t stop reading there. Fair enough, prog rock as a genre is hard to mention without some serious sniggering at the back of the classroom. However, if the ’70s excesses of bands like Yes and Emerson, Lake & Palmer got prog labelled as music by rock dinosaurs then modern prog, as delivered by the likes of Magenta and Spock’s Beard (…yes, I know, just let it slide) is proof of evolution. Prog in 2006 may still be a well-defined species, but its major proponents thankfully tend to be more velociraptor than brontosaurus.
Lecture over, let’s get down to the music. Home follows the emotional journey of a woman leaving 1970s Liverpool to ‘find herself’ in the States, through to the point where she finally realises that maybe home really is where the heart is. The trick with projects like this is to be disciplined when it comes to self-editing, and the album certainly benefits from condensing its ideas onto a single disc – avoiding flabbiness but still allowing room for flashes of virtuosity. It’s a hurdle at which others have tumbled by thinly spreading a single album’s worth of material across two discs (for example, Spock’s Beard’s 2002 album Snow). Home, on the other hand works well as both a concept album and a simple collection of songs.
Magenta, as a band, is the brainchild of multi-instrumentalist Rob Reed who, with his brother Steve, pens the songs. Central to their success, however, are the excellent vocals of Christina Booth. Her rich, pure voice forms the emotional core that carries the listener through our heroine’s adventures. Of course, it helps that Home is chock full of strong songs with great melodies and lean but complex structures. Where the obligatory prog virtuosity is allocated space, it’s admirably delivered with restraint. In keeping with the story’s era, references to classic prog rock abound – a dash of Steve Howe guitar here, a Genesis keyboard sound there, elsewhere some Oldfield, Floyd or Supertramp textures. But rather than suggesting a lack or original thought or derivative tendencies, the songs evoke a strong mood, keeping within prog’s strict, accepted frameworks.
Overall, Home is a worthy album and it’s no surprise that Magenta have been consistently honoured in the Classic Rock Society’s annual awards, ambassadors as they are for a musical genre that’s shamefully overlooked in the UK. So if you’re brave enough to sample your rock within a sweeping, symphonic landscape and set your preconceptions aside, this album is well worth seeking out. Those of a more progtastic bent will relish the special edition’s bonus disc, which features the more unashamedly progressive ‘New York Suite’ following our heroine’s adventures in the Big Apple.
originally published September 20th, 2006
The Magic Numbers
The Magic Numbers •••½
De La Soul once opined that “Three is the magic number”, but London-based quartet The Magic Numbers have discovered a different equation. While the folklore origins of many bands may be a shared pint in the art college bar, or an answered ad in the music press, the formation of The Magic Numbers was a homegrown affair. Trinidad-born siblings Romeo and Michele Stodart spent their formative years in New York City before their family relocated to London, bringing with them the sunshine of America’s East Coast. There, they quickly made friends with new neighbours Angela and Sean Gannon, and the four gelled over their collective love of music.
First puncturing the public consciousness when they guested on last year’s Chemical Brothers album Push The Button, The Magic Numbers sold out the infamous Kentish Town Forum by word-of-mouth alone. A perfect antidote to the introspective U2-isms of Coldplay, the band truly shone at a succession of UK festivals, radiating their infectious guitar-pop across waves of would-be converts. Their festival-stealing sets have certainly paid off, as initial sales of their eponymous debut album have shifted over 100,000 units to date and bagged them a Mercury Music Prize nomination. Live favourite ‘Forever Lost’ loses none of its appeal on record with it’s a cappella break inducing much hand-clapping and foot-tapping. Follow-up single ‘Love Me Like You’ is a joyful ride of a song, fuelled by jangly guitars, melodic harmonies and a soulful pulse of a bass line that justifies their recent support slot for resurrected pop-genius, Brian Wilson.
Saying that The Magic Numbers is a ‘pleasant’ listen does not mean that the band is walking firmly down the middle of the road. None of their voices are stretched by unnecessary affectations and the female vocals complement the delicately pitched lead of hirsute frontman, Romeo. Lyrically, the theme of lost or failed love runs through the album, such as in the less-than-obliquely titled ‘Love’s A Game’ where Romeo sings, “love is just a game/ broken all the same/and I will get over you”, which has already been mooted by Noel Gallagher as a “motown classic”. Despite the clichés and couplets, the band are unashamedly pop-wise and lines that would otherwise sound overwrought are treated here with the gentlest of hands, crafted with a transparent sincerity. The album’s emotional heart is exposed on ‘I See You, You See Me’ which brings Angela out from the background tapestry and it is a shame that more tracks do not exploit her fragile vocals that recall US songstress Emmylou Harris.
With their long hair and airtight harmonies, early comparisons with The Mamas and The Papas were inevitable but there are plenty more influences here, from The Lovin’ Spoonful to Nick Drake; however, co-producer Romeo ensures that the record maintains a contemporary edge, rather than lapsing into a cynical exercise in retrospection. If the reference points are obvious, then so is the appeal of this album, and when you get audio thrills like this, it’s as easy as two plus two.
originally published on September 4th, 2005
Dancing With Daggers ••½
Formed in 2003, Magneta Lane are a Canadian power-pop trio featuring French, Lexi and Nadia in the classic combination of bass, drums and vocals/guitar, respectively. Having finally issued their debut EP, The Constant Lover, this side of the pond last December, there couldn’t be a better time to capitalise on the Canadian-friendly musical climate. This debut full-length apparently takes its inspiration from the angel and devil that sit astride each of our shoulders; thus, sinful rock and saintly melodies co-exist for the delectation of those enjoying the long dark teatime of their souls.
Unfortunately, any hopes of something special are fairly swiftly dashed. Don’t get me wrong; it’s a decent album in itself, just not one that lives up to its twin muses. A more accurate description would be Blondie meets The Strokes. There’s Debbie Harry’s archness and glacial cool, her band’s effortless pop tunes and style. From Julian Casablancas and co., the girls have duly noted how to preserve the rougher edges of their sound to give the music a bit of grit and spike. However, like recent albums from both these bands, the main problem here is a sorry lack of variety. If an album has a constant feel, it also needs to be constantly brilliant. Dancing With Daggers isn’t; it’s good, but your attention may well waver after just five songs, as if you’ve heard all you needed to hear.
It doesn’t help that this kind of thing has been done before, and rather better at that, by bands like The Duke Spirit; Nadia may have a mighty fine voice but she’s no Leila Moss. Dancing With Daggers would have been more digestible were it split down the middle and released as two EPs, tempting the palate not dulling it with overkill of a single ingredient. If Magneta Lane learn to hide their flaws much more effectively, the next course might go down a treat.
originally published on June 24th, 2006
Ari Alexander Ergis Magnússon
Screaming Masterpiece •••
Surely the most ambitious film title of the year, ‘Screaming Masterpiece’ is a flag-waving celebration of the contemporary Icelandic music scene, and an attempt to answer its own self-gratifying, singular question – why have so many of Iceland’s modest population (roughly 600,000) achieved international recognition as musicians whilst maintaining a keen sense of national identity? What is it about this hostile environment that inspires such transgressive musical continents, these tectonic architectures finding homes in discerning collections worldwide?
Armed with extensive concert footage, archives, pop promos and interviews, director Ari Alexander Ergis Magnússon maintains a passive presence as he presents us with a quick-fire collection of artists, from native folk singers and instrumentalists like Slow Blow, via rappers Quarashi, to successful sonic pioneers like Múm and Sigur Rós. However, the film’s modest box office potential lies with the singer and actress Björk, who despite global success, has continued to source inspiration from her mother country, sampling in her own words, Iceland’s “emotional landscape”.
From the opening credits, awash with glacial hues, the film celebrates the marriage between traditional and modern music, with a folk song segueing into a cacophony of riotous punk. Whilst many of the smaller (and unpronounceable) bands have yet to be heard outside the barren, blackened shores of their homeland, the film allows them equal space alongside the more exportable talents, and Magnússon seems keen to indulge the depths of obscurity, including pagan folk singers and xylophones made of flint.
For the uninitiated, any sense of chronology is belatedly provided halfway through the film, perhaps an attempt to reflect the free-flowing nature of its subject. Drawing upon 23-year old footage from Fridrik Thór Fridriksson’s ‘Rock In Reykjavik (Rokk í Reykjavik)’, which features a teenage Björk in punk collective Tappi Tíkarass, Magnússon traces how the end of Iceland’s relatively recent colonialism spurred a wave of creative nationalism, with Björk explaining, “When my generation came along we started to ask ourselves what it meant to be Icelandic and how to be proud of it instead of feeling guilty all the time.”
Set adrift both culturally and geographically from mainland Europe, there is reason enough behind the sense of communal isolation that invites comparison with fertile musical centres like Manchester or Detroit. However, those musical cities thrived in spite of adversity, where it is evident here that the Icelandic government, heads of religion and affluent economy all actively foster artistic expression and adolescent ambition, including a teenage punk band Nilfisk, who feature here opening for US rockers Foo Fighters after a chance meeting.
While the layering of scenic snowdrifts and cavernous vistas may leave you feeling a little cold, the concert performances provide plenty of thrills and chills, and one of the film’s greatest assets is the live sound mix, literally booming from the Dolby speakers. From the ethereal wailing of Sigur Rós to Björk, whose powerful vocals seem projected by some innate force, all the artists share a raw energy and desire to embrace new technologies and styles while remaining true to their folk heritage, which perhaps best defines the Icelandic ‘sound’.
In the end, despite an admirable sense of almost bohemian idealism, ‘Screaming Masterpiece’ feels like something of an iceberg, its hidden depths never quite surfacing. Even at a brief 87 minutes, the continuous stream of artists, bands and collectives is an exhausting affair and the film ultimately falls short in fully addressing its proposition. One suspects that the more interesting points about cultural colonialism, environment, religion and heritage are lost amid the attention-deficit editing.
Even if the film does feel like Michael Winterbottom’s own flag-waving ‘9 Songs’ without the sex, for those who already have an interest in the bands on display here, this is a great chance to catch them sounding never better, and perhaps discover some new music to add to your iPod.
originally published on January 21st, 2006
Walk The Line ••••
It doesn’t take a genius to figure out that Johnny Cash falls rather a long way outside the Wears The Trousers remit, but, at the risk of reviving a terrible cliché, behind every good man… well, you get the idea. So while we await the transformation of Mary J Blige as Nina Simone, we’ve got front row seats to director James Mangold’s affectionate Cash biopic, ‘Walk The Line’.
Like last year’s award-grabbing ‘Ray’, the film economically sketches Cash’s tragic Arkansas childhood and his sad estrangement from a father who blamed him for the death of his elder sibling in a rather grisly sawmill accident. After first picking up a guitar during a brief stint in the forces, the young Cash (played by Joaquin Phoenix) returns home to marry his sweetheart Vivian (Ginnifer Goodwin), but soon discovers that doorto-door sales is not exactly his forte. Faced with rent and ever-mounting bills, Cash swiftly finds himself at the doorstep of Sam Phillips’s Sun Studios in Memphis. Driven by his distinctive freight-train chords, Cash’s tales of hard luck and losers are soon blazing a trail up the charts. At the epicentre of rock ‘n’ roll’s adolescence, he’s caught up in a new world of temptation, touring alongside the young Elvis (Tyler Hilton), Jerry Lee Lewis (Waylon Malloy Payne) and Roy Orbison (Jonathan Rice), and soon develops a dependency on amphetamines years before they would become rock cliché.
And this is where we come in, for Cash’s other primary problem is his attraction to feisty songstress June Carter (Reese Witherspoon), and from the moment she gets her dress caught in his guitar strap, there’s an immediate connection. Carter’s apple pie affability proves to be the perfect foil to Cash’s introspective darkness, but despite one night of unrestrained passion, their guiding Christian background forbids their adulterous union. Victims of their circumstance, Cash penned the eponymous ‘Walk The Line’ as an assertion of marital fidelity, while Carter composed the equally classic ‘Ring Of Fire’ to express the pain of her forbidden love.
Certainly it’s their abiding attraction that provides the film’s true heart, and both Phoenix and Witherspoon were nominated for top Oscar honours in recognition of these career-defining performances. The film is no slouch either when it comes to the music, and the success of any musical biopic surely rests largely on the songs themselves. Unlike Jamie Foxx’s Ray or Val Kilmer’s Jim Morrison, who were rife with affectations, Phoenix’s portrayal of Cash’s restrained primal energy transcends a ‘Stars In Their Eyes’-type impersonation with a performance that appears naturally spontaneous rather than studied. Hunching his shoulders and aiming his guitar like a machine gun across the audience, Phoenix’s pitch-perfect live vocals, specifically in the Folsom Prison sequences, are testament to the work of music producer T Bone Burnett, whose score nicely compliments Cash’s musical oeuvre.
Witherspoon is just as convincing, with her sweet, affecting trill brimming with the confidence needed to play the character of June, whose life on the stage started as a child with The Carter Family. The inspired casting of established recording artists in supporting roles also lends a refreshing authenticity to the rich musical tapestry. In her first feature film, rock and country artist Shelby Lynne plays Carrie, the matriarch of the Cash family, whose unconditional love for her son provides the emotional balance to her husband’s toughness. A long-time admirer of Cash’s music, Lynne wrote the song ‘Johnny Met June’ on the day that he died in 2003, and while she may have been cast for her voice here, her acting skills match those around her.
More than just another exercise in Hollywood myth making, ‘Walk The Line’ actually began as a collaborative effort with the original Man In Black himself until his death. Based on autobiographies and extensive interviews, Mangold’s love for his subject is evident throughout but from the telling title in, the film plays it straight, and every significant moment in Cash’s biography cues another famous composition. For all of Cash’s ragged edges, the chronological narrative arc is too neat and could have benefited from a more oblique treatment of rock star mythology, like Gus Van Sant’s angular approach to Kurt Cobain’s untimely demise in ‘Last Days’. However, this is a minor distraction. The film starts, and ends, in 1968 with Cash’s infamous Folsom Prison concert that has become part of rock ‘n’ roll folklore. As a man who had cultivated the image of the incarcerated rebel, Cash may have lived on the right side of the prison walls, but after years of emotional imprisonment to drugs and past demons, this storming finale also marks the end of his own personal redemption. More than just a cinematic eulogy, Cash’s musical legacy is cherished by all involved in this film, and although it never fully jumps the hurdles of rock biopic cliché, the Man In Black’s enduring everyman appeal on record positively crackles on screen.
originally published on February 6th, 2006
The Forgotten Arm ••••
Somewhat fittingly for an artist who famously soundtracked a movie in reverse – Paul Thomas Anderson’s multi Oscar-nominated ‘Magnolia’ was based on her songs, not the other way around – Aimee Mann’s latest endeavour is a vibrant and fully realised sonic novel in a similar vein to Tori Amos’ nomadic narrative Scarlet’s Walk. While the latter was an intimate love/hate letter to a post-9/11 America, The Forgotten Arm has a far narrower focus, chronicling as it does the oscillatory relationship of Caroline (a seemingly aimless victim of circumstance) and John (a down-and-out boxer and Vietnam war veteran). Both journeys, however, happen by the US state of Virginia.
Indeed, Mann’s story begins there, on the midway of the VA State Fair, where Caroline in her reminiscence is working as an attendant. The two ignite a spark in one another and head for the border in an old Cadillac to escape the humdrum and hassle of small-town life; however, all is not well. John’s experiences have left him a hard-drinking, drug-addicted gambler whose luck is cooling faster than either can fathom. As the Ronseal-style title suggests, ‘Goodbye Caroline’ sees a parting of the ways. Having lost every asset but the car, John heads north to San Rafael to get himself clean and earn some quick money. Inevitably, nothing’s ever so simple and ‘Going Through The Motions’ is a peek into the mind of Caroline as she realises the effort is a certainty to fail.
John is by far the better-sketched character and his sad and sorry situation is skilfully drawn out over a four-song suite beginning with the foggy ‘I Can’t Get My Head Around It’ and culminates in the grimy hotel room of ‘Little Bombs’ in which he realises that he may never recover. The highlight of the album, however, comes with Caroline’s dejected throwing in of the towel, a handsomely understated ballad fantastically titled ‘That’s How I Knew This Story Would Break My Heart’. In what is supposed to be their final meeting, the also rather self-explanatory ‘I Can’t Help You Anymore’ kicks off the regret in a rather unremarkable fashion, but the lovely piano-led ‘I Was Thinking I Could Clean Up For Christmas’ offers one last hope of salvation. Lyrically, it’s simply gold standard Aimee Mann – “I was thinking I could clean up for Christmas and then, baby, I’m done, one less fucker trying to get in the business of the prodigal son” – and the melody here is one of the album’s more memorable moments.
After all, therein lies one of the pitfalls of the concept album as a genre. When the narrative takes such precedence, the music can often fall by the wayside as a secondary concern. Not so with The Forgotten Arm. In fact, it boasts some of the most muscular music of Mann’s solo career to date. Recorded almost entirely live by producer Joe Henry, it’s a marvel that the mix is so refreshingly roomy. By adopting heavy doses of stereo separation, the production breathes with a rare and cinematic verve. Guitarists Jeff Trott and Julian Coryell turn in a few solos that never feel overcooked, and together with drummers Victor Indrizzo and Jay Bellarose and bassist Paul Bryan, they consistently add a 1970s flavour without overwhelming the broth.
There are some who will think this is Mann by numbers – more disaffected, drugged-out also-rans holding onto their last scraps of dignity – but this is a delicately nuanced side to the singer that’s both new and impressive. She has always excelled at the role of coroner, picking over the carcasses of long-dead love affairs, extracting the evidence and leaving her lyric sheets dangling from their toes. Within the central conceit of the concept, Mann has allowed herself the luxury of a more detailed analysis, and while this at first may render some of the songs seemingly superfluous (and a couple are a little samey), repeated listens peel back ever more layers. Such lack of immediacy was also evident on her previous release, Lost In Space, though this also rewarded the persistent listener with greater depth than the surface sheen suggested.
In boxing, the ‘forgotten arm’ refers to a decoy sparring manoeuvre in which one arm is deliberately underused until the sudden strike for a KO. In something of a departure for Mann, it is hope that delivers the sucker punch, the final blow of the twelfth round. In a perhaps unexpected reprieve, Mann gifts her creations a hard-won bittersweet compassion in which they realise that in a world where so many dumb things are said in haste and countless things go maddeningly unuttered, sometimes, just sometimes, a simple “you’re beautiful” can tear down the fortresses of doubt and permit that longed-for fresh start.
originally published on June 27th, 2005
Live At St. Ann’s Warehouse •••
As a self-confessed “classic, nitpicky Virgo”, it’s hard to imagine Aimee Mann ever sitting down to watch this resolutely no frills live document of last summer’s three-night residency at Brooklyn’s St. Ann’s Warehouse. Not that it’s in any way bad, it’s just that she seemed so acutely disengaged from the experience the first time, not necessarily vocally (although her normally warm and reedy vocals are a little thin), but in an emotional sense.
Maybe it’s just my Britishness showing, but witnessing Mann’s pained and stilted stage banter made even my own cheeks flush. With her delivery so wry, it’s difficult to distinguish between deadpan and robotic. She’s hilarious when she claims she could “take Dylan” in a boxing match and at other times inadvertently, but her many “I fucking love you guys” seem as genuine as, say, a Florida election. But perhaps I’m being unkind. After all, Mann is not known for her enjoyment of touring, and although her self-effacing humour doesn’t quite translate from the interview setting to the live environment, she thaws a little towards the end.
One of the most consistently essential artists of the last decade or so, Mann could never be accused of style over substance and this 16-track DVD is a testament to her talent, spanning all of her full-lengths plus the career revitalising soundtrack to Paul Thomas Anderson’s 1999 film ‘Magnolia’. Not only that, but Mann treats us to a preview of two songs from The Forgotten Arm. Or at least it would have been a preview if we in the UK hadn’t had to wait six months from the US release date for the set to officially reach our shores. Inexplicably released a week after The Forgotten Arm, Mann thus seems even more out of the loop when referring to the album under its working title, ‘King Of The Jailhouse’.
So what of the music? There’s an air of perfunctoriness surrounding the whole affair, with little or no attempt to distinguish the songs from their studio counterparts. That said, both Mann and her fellow guitarist Julian Coryell pull off some fantastic musicianship on the excellent ‘Pavlov’s Bell’, ‘Long Shot’ and ‘Deathly’. Best of all though is ‘Wise Up’ from the ‘Magnolia’ soundtrack, representing as it does the mournful pivotal moment of the film.
Having heard The Forgotten Arm, it’s safe to say that the live takes of ‘Going Through The Motions’ and ‘King Of The Jailhouse’ add little of merit to the studio versions, although it’s nice to see Aimee at the piano on the latter. As is customary for these releases, four of the songs on the DVD are excised from the accompanying CD, although in a break with the norm, the CD features a bonus but rather inessential performance of ‘That’s Just What You Are’ not on the DVD.
Although Aimee and the band have a decent enough stab at the backstage interviews, anyone looking for real insight into the band dynamic will most likely be disappointed. All in all, this is pretty standard fare from a stellar artist. Still, it’s a pity we had to wait so long for it.
originally published on May 25th, 2005
Lost In A Moment •••
OK, just for one moment suppose that at just 17 years old you had the fastest selling single in Norwegian music history and then at 22, two best-selling platinum albums under your belt. What the hell would you do next? Well, if you were Lene Marlin, you’d hide yourself away and secretly make an album with top Norwegian production trio StarGate, who have had hits with Mary J Blige, Mariah Carey, Texas, Cher and Brandy, among others. What started out as a personal experiment for the now 24-year old quickly morphed into a full album; even her record company were not expecting an new opus until she turned up with the finished article.
So, a short history lesson for those unfamiliar with Lene. Back in the mists of 1997, her debut album Playing My Game hit big with a clutch of smash hit singles, going on to sell 1.8 million copies across Europe. Faced with such overwhelming success at a young age, Marlin walked away from the music industry and it was another five years before she felt ready enough to try again. Her second album Another Day was released in 2003, bringing more success in her native land. However, the album received little fanfare in the UK upon its release and sank without a trace. So what of Ms. Marlin in 2005? Gone are the silly hats and hoodies from her previous videos and in their place comes a gorgeous, mature new look and a grown-up collection of eleven new songs that she describes as “different moods and flavours, a real personal effort and the best record I have ever made.”
Perhaps she is listening to a different album. Lost In A Moment is no genre-busting feast of musical styles. Like its predecessor, Another Day, it is a pleasant enough collection with some nice touches, but fails to really engage. On the rockier-than-usual opener, ‘My Lucky Day’, Marlin somehow manages to seem even more disinterested than Avril Lavigne – not a good place to start. Fortunately, things improve quickly; the quietly beautiful ‘All I Can Say’ is reminiscent of her earlier work, and first single ‘How Would It Be’ is one of the more upbeat numbers. It’s a nice jaunty pop song, catchy enough to be sung along to after a few listens and is certainly the kind of song to be found playing over the credits in Generic Teen Girl Movie 2.
As for the rest? Well, despite the odd highlight (‘Never To Know’, ‘Eyes Closed’), the songs tend to wash right over the listener to the extent that some may even go unnoticed (‘When You Were Around’). It is a shame because Marlin is in possession of a beautiful voice and the kind of image that should be marketable enough to sell records by the truckload in the UK as well as Norway. It may be a little soon to say whether Lene Marlin peaked too early in her career with the dizzying pop heights of ‘Unforgivable Sinner’ and ‘Sitting Down Here’, but certainly next time it will take more than this competent but rather samey collection of songs to blow her public away.
originally published on August 26th, 2005
Mary Lee’s Corvette
Love, Loss & Lunacy ••••
Album number four finds former book editor Mary Lee Kortes serving up yet another accomplished set of resolutely uplifting pop songs with a retro feel and a country tinge. It may seem odd to ascribe the word uplifting to a song suite tackling such issues as incest (‘Verla’), the perverse pleasure of Schadenfreude (‘I’m Saving Grace’) and the acceptance of directionless wandering (‘Lucky Me’), but the attitude with which these subjects are approached really does raise the spirits. Each of the dozen songs is infused with signature ’60s pop jangle, smooth Hammond sounds and country rock harmonies that provide a sonic consistency whilst leaving plenty of scope for ringing the changes.
Keen-eared listeners will notice that several songs appear to feature small quotations from classic hits or artists, not insofar as to lead to a string of plagiarism lawsuits, but enough to evoke a mood from the outset. ‘All That Glitters’ kicks things off with a sunny West Coast vibe with chiming guitars and Farfisa organ tootling in the background. ‘Learn From What I Dream’ begins as an etude on The Beatles’ ‘Things We Said Today’ and shares the Fab Four’s search for enlightenment. ‘Wasting The Sun’ quotes even more directly, with an ‘All Right Now’-style opening riff that mutates into something that could easily have been written either by or for Sheryl Crow. Indeed, the vocal similarity here is enough to merit a mention.
Other tracks ploughing this particular furrow include ‘Nothing Left To Say’, ‘Thunderstruck’ and ‘Falling Again’, adding in a sprinkle of Mary Chapin Carpenter, and, in the case of the latter, some more Tom Petty-style grit. ‘Verla’ chooses the driving rhythm of songs like Petty’s ‘Refugees’ as a template to address the question of helping a victim of incest to escape a cycle of abuse. Not an obvious subject matter for a pop song, but the lyrics are sensitively tailored while the instrumentation injects a sense of passion and urgency. ‘Lucky Me’ returns to the Crow template but views it through the filter of Eric Clapton’s 461 Ocean Boulevard, the guitar solos drawing deeply from both sources while the lyrics ponder the pros and cons of being set adrift and left to your own devices.
While Kortes’s performance is not so distinctive as to be unmistakable, she certainly delivers an assured, attractive and pleasing sound, and that, after all, is really what’s required. ‘I’m Saving Grace’, however, sees a transformation in her style as she channels Chrissie Hynde for a Pretenders-esque number. Suffice to say, if Kortes ever turns up on ‘Celebrity Stars In Their Eyes’ there are no prizes for guessing who she’ll be. Rather more mechanical, however, is ‘Blood Of Stones’, its stilted rhythms failing to convince and providing the low point of an otherwise excellent album. Conversely, ‘Where Did I Go Wrong, Elton John?’ is a mini masterpiece with Kortes playing the role of a failed songwriter asking the eponymous idol how come their songs have never been hits. So far, so humdrum, but the magic twist is that the lyrics are constructed almost entirely from fragments of Taupin/John song titles and words, while the inspired soundtrack hits you like a big pizza pie with its cod-Italian mandolins. Apparently Sir Elt himself loves it.
Rounding things off in a gentler mood, ‘Every Song Is Different’ is a thought-provoking gem that leaves the listener wondering whether Kortes has been winking at us all along with her musical magpie tendencies… “every song is different but the singer is the same”.
originally published on March 25th, 2006
Since founding Capercaillie with (her now husband) Donald Shaw at the dawn of the 1980s, Karen Matheson has become one of the foundational voices of modern Scottish folk. Among her many accolades, US magazine Billboard have hailed her as “the finest Gaelic singer alive today” and Sean Connery swears she has “a throat surely touched by the hand of God”. And if Mr. James Bond says so, who are Wears The Trousers to argue?
With 17 Capercaillie albums already to her credit, 2005 saw Matheson take time out to record her third solo album, Downriver, a mostly acoustic set of songs both ancient and modern that will render the listener if not shaken, then deeply stirred. Recorded in the idyllic setting of Crear Studios in Kilberry overlooking the breathtaking Sound of Jura, Downriver certainly communicates a deep connection with the Scottish land and culture, with its organic feel and open, airy production eschewing the more electric folk-funk sound of Capercaillie. Some tracks feature the distinctive sounds of the bodhran and bouzouki, courtesy of Irish folk rock grandee Donal Lunny, producer of Capercaillie’s breakthrough albums Secret People and Delirium, whose return to the fold is a welcome one. The Scottish Ensemble provide exquisitely subtle chamber strings, whilst former Deacon Blue (and now fellow Capercaillie) member Ewen Vernal contributes double bass.
All bar two of the tracks are sung in Scots Gaelic, a beautiful and lyrical language that adeptly evokes the ethereal and mystic, tangibly linking the music to the ancient. The listener is always aware that this is a language with an emotional meaning extending beyond the choice of notes and rhythmic devices. Even in the ‘mouth music’ songs with their frenetic vocal passages, there is never the feeling of randomness that so often affects jazz scat vocals. The album’s most atypical, non-Capercaillie track is also the first; ‘Chi Mi Bhuam’ is a soothing introduction, with Donald Shaw’s sparse and jazzy piano underpinning Matheson’s gorgeous cut-glass vocal and gentle, uplifting strings. Capercaillie aficionados will be on more familiar ground thereafter; folk dances and gentle ballads mingle with the aforementioned mouth music and ‘waulking songs’, whose complex rhythmic patterns are derived from the sounds of the ancient weavers who finished the process by pounding their material against a wooden board.
The two songs sung in English are modern compositions, but Matheson blends them well with the more traditional fare. ‘Singing In The Dark’ is a writer’s lament for all those songs that never find an audience, while ‘I Will Not Wear The Willow’ boasts an interesting twist on the murder ballad. Written from a woman’s perspective, the lyrics slowly reveal why the singer will not mourn with the other village women for her seemingly absconded lover, until the final chilling realisation that she knows where she buried the body. ‘Crucan Na Bpaiste’, written by Irish author Brendan Graham for his 2005 novel ‘The Brightest Day, The Darkest Night’, draws proceedings to a sombre close with Michael McGoldrick’s uilleann pipes joining the lament with Matheson’s heartbreaking voice. And then, inevitably, we’re returned to our own less luminous world, grateful for the time that’s gone by.
originally published on January 22nd, 2006
Mates Of State
Bring It Back ••••
Kori Gardner and Jason Hammel, aka Mates Of State, have been performing together for nine long years now and happily hitched for the last five. They don’t play guitars, preferring instead to use organs and drums to create their uplifting, near-utopian but dark-edged pop. But where other bands might struggle to make a full sound with such a basic set-up, Mates Of State make use of complicated, and often chaotic layering of vocals and different organ parts to give the impression of a much larger outfit, all the while retaining the intimacy of a duo and the chemistry of lovers.
Bring It Back is their fourth studio album and one that is practically bursting at the seams with versatile and resourceful compositions. The DIY-style vocals sound not too dissimilar to an endearing blend of The New Pornographers and the twee country tinge of Tilly & The Wall. The keyboards lend a slight 1970s sound in certain places, notably in ‘Beautiful Dreamer’s chorus, which captures the idealism of the post-’68 generation in its soaring Hammond lines, while other songs are more conventionally piano-led and simpler in terms of arrangement.
As a whole, Bring It Back is almost flawless fun with few blemishes. Whilst ‘Fraud In The ‘80s’ wears its indie-pop credentials proudly on its sleeve, it makes for a disappointing lead single that tries a little too hard to be sassy and succeeds only in carrying all the menace of Republica, which can never be a good thing. Never mind, prepare to go weak at the knees for the standout track ‘Like U Crazy’ instead. Here, Gardner’s topline vocals positively seethe with on-the-edge desperation and resignation, while her falsetto chant of “bah bah bah bah like u crazy” bubbles chillingly beneath. The production has elements of a dark, Wall Of Sound-esque sound that wouldn’t seem far out of place in a David Lynch film, and who can argue with that?
A cursory listen to ‘Beautiful Dreamer’ will tell you that what Mates Of State are bringing back is truth. No great revelation there then, but whoever thought to wrap such honesty up in consistently tasty and innovative songs deserves some kind of reward. We, on the other hand, should put on our dancing shoes promptly and do them proud.
Robbie de Santos
originally published August 23rd, 2006
The Albatross… EP •••½
Sympathy For The Record Industry
Anyone who names their band after a pseudonym used by modernist painters Josper Johns and Robert Rauschenberg for their commercial department store work can be expected to be at least a little non-conformist. It comes as scant surprise then that US indie rock minimalists Matson Jones make music consisting of distorted vocals, cello, double bass, drums and nothing else. They’re far from being a one-trick nag, however; ever-challenging dynamic and rhythmical soundscapes abound on this EP so that its mealy-mouthed full title of The Albatross Mates For Life, But Only After A Lengthy Courtship That Can Take Up To Four Years isn’t the only interesting talking point.
The four songs on The Albatross… are complex beasts. Opener ‘Exes & Ohs’ is an energetic number reminiscent of The Arcade Fire in that it goes from hushed to rushed, from slow to hasty with fast-paced melodies and counter-rhythms whipped up by the cellos and double bass. This impressive layer of sound altern- ately supports and contrasts the vocals of Anna Mascorella and Martina Grbac, while Ross Harada’s syncopated drums expand the dynamic range of the song from beneath. The drums get slower and angrier on second song ‘Sabotage’, and combined with the howling apocalyptic strings, what you get is a sense of paranoia, a suspicious calm ahead of a vicious tornado. Incoherent lyrics like “It’s a damn good thing I kept my legs closed / you make the ground unsteady” add to the general feel of imminent malice.
‘Dirt Sea’ returns to the fast-paced rhythms of the opener, albeit in a more approachable manner. The vocals are quite plain and fairly unspectacular, but it’s the ever-moving strings and drop-in, drop-out drums that really lift the song. ‘Wrecking Ball’ is slightly less successful, though its characteristically constant time changes and distorted vocals have a certain appeal. It’s just that the instrumentation all sounds very natural and at odds with the distortion on the voice, making them sound rather out of place. Of course, this could be the intention entirely, in which case it’s a job well done. It’s a little bit manic but manages to hint at an all-too-human vulnerability that works well overall.
Matson Jones certainly know how to use the dynamic ranges of their tools, though the lack of variety in instrumentation means they have to work twice as hard to make this EP more than just an indie rock curio. That they just about manage to pull it off warrants 15 minutes of your time and a bit of your hard-earned cash.
originally published July 25th, 2006
Cerys Matthews / Becky Stark
Live at The Scala, London ••••
July 26th, 2006
Barely ten minutes after the doors are flung open at the Scala, Californian songbird Becky Stark quietly glides to centre stage to kick off the evening. Wearing a striking aqua ballgown and, bizarrely, a matching blue cape, she resembles an intriguing blend of Supergirl and Cinderella. In keeping with this image and her earnest songs of love and fairytale dreams, Stark also believes in saving the planet, provocatively, yet sweetly declaring that “peace has finally come to planet Earth”. Given the notoriously indifferent, if not downright rude, reception that London audiences commonly afford a support act – usually spending more time supporting the bar takings than paying due attention – Stark commands an unusually reverent silence.
Clearly nervous and feeling rather exposed without her Lavender Diamond bandmates around her, she soon warms up, gleefully telling us that her father was an escaped convict and that her mother used to ask her to lie to the FBI, before pondering aloud whether this is the reason for her lack of respect for authority. Against all odds, her uninhibited ramblings and timid giggles come across as genuinely endearing and the volume of appreciative noises soon racks up among the amassing throng.
Between her affable anecdotes, Stark even finds time to treat us to four beautiful compositions from her solo album Artifacts Of The Winged. Her voice both warms and haunts, the unaffected tenderness of her soaring falsetto revealing one of the purest, most honest vocal talents this side of a certain Vashti Bunyan. Saving the world may be out of her reach for now, but if Stark can get a bunch of hardened Londoners eating out of her hand like puppies, persuading world leaders to just get along is not all that far-fetched.
Second support act Richard James – formerly the guitarist for Welsh rockers Gorky’s Zygotic Mynci – may have hit all the right notes musically, but his introspective tone fails to cut through the oppressive heat inside the venue. The temperature was indeed rising, but whether this was from the clamour of bodies still radiating the day’s onslaught of sunshine or from sheer anticipation I couldn’t say; up in the balcony a Welsh flag unfurls itself to announce the impending arrival of tonight’s main attraction.
In her days as Catatonia’s outspoken figurehead, Cerys Matthews would often bound (and sometimes stagger) onstage, but today she tentatively sneaks on alongside her band. Armed with a cherry red guitar, she deflects the sea of expectant eyes before her and bursts straight into new album track, ‘Streets Of New York’. Visibly overwhelmed by the sheer volume of her band, Cerys’s trademark lungs struggle at first to compete with the reverberating power chords and driving beats, and she nervously admits to the crowd that she’s “shaking like a leaf”. But if the last few years have shown anything, it’s that Matthews is a fighter and by the third song – a low-tempo run-through of early Catatonia classic ‘Lost Cat’ – the up-for-it crowd begins to have an effect. Given the parallels between her new material and some of Catatonia’s less populist efforts, a song like ‘Lost Cat’ fits snugly into the set; even The Guardian’s gig writer failed to spot the nod to her past, despite it being greeted with one of the night’s biggest cheers.
‘Open Roads’, the instantly memorable first single to be taken from her new album Never Said Goodbye, also gives the album its title, and when Matthews sings “it’s like we neh-ver said goodbye”, it’s easy to recall just how much fun Catatonia were in concert, counterpointing the pre-mill-ennial navel-gazing of their contemporaries with fuckoff power chords and anthemic choruses. Somewhat inevit-ably, Matthews’s lyrics have become more introspective since her departure, picking apart human foibles and personal frailties, disguised Trojan-horse style by sweet melodic pop.
But don’t be fooled into thinking she’s gotten stuck in a mid-paced groove; her latest musical gear shift heralds the re-emergence of Cerys’ bona fide rock star qualities. Even the most cotton-pickin’ moments from 2003’s country jamboree Cockahoop are given a shot of pure rock adrenaline. During the traditional ‘All My Trials’, for instance, Matthews dispenses with her guitar and unleashes memories of the days when she would lead thousands of fans into dance. When she follows this up with ‘The Good In Goodbye’, everyone merrily bounces along as if it were 1998 again; but this is 2006 and her triumph tonight is surely all the more sweeter on her own terms.
Befitting her rock icon status, Matthews later treats us to an enjoyable cover of David Bowie’s ‘Soul Love’ from the seminal Ziggy Stardust album. It’s an apt choice for the moment, too, proving that there can be an epilogue for rock ‘n’ roll stars who take the well-worn road to self-destruction. With her fall from grace at last in reverse, the crowd’s affection for Matthews is palpable and everyone is grinning. When she comes back for an encore, a moment’s dread that some drunken idiot might field an inappropriate request for ‘Road Rage’ or ‘Karaoke Queen’ soon passes. Tonight, Matthew, it seems that Cerys is happy simply being herself.
originally published on July 26th, 2006
Never Said Goodbye ••••
Rock ‘n’ roll folklore is full of dramatic departures and Messianic resurrections, so it was with some concern that Catatonia singer Cerys Matthews cancelled their 2001 tour and exited the band citing exhaustion, so often a dubious byword for drug overdoses and nervous breakdowns. In those early years, Matthews’s name became synonymous in the music press with legendary drinking sessions and her familiarity with Queensbury rules that transcended the verbal posturing of her peers. Unashamedly proud of her homeland, she rolled her vowels and consonants around driving pop anthems about road rage, teenage pregnancy and queens of karaoke, while her festive duet with Tom Jones only served to consolidate her place as the true Princess of Wales.
After Catatonia disbanded, Matthews famously decamped to Nashville to regain her health and musical muse, making an understated return in 2003 with the country jamboree Cockahoop. Oh, and she also started a family, meeting her husband whilst sharing dog walking duties for a mutual friend. Now, Matthews has chosen to return to the land of her fathers after suffering the effects of ‘hiraeth’, a particularly Welsh form of homesickness. She can certainly afford herself a few backwards glances with Never Said Goodbye, but is she here to reclaim her tattered crown?
Conceived as a modest follow-up in the same bare essentials vein as its predecessor, the album’s production turned out to be an eventful process as Matthews dis- covered that she was also gestating her second child. As her belly grew, so did the sound, and songs that started life with simple acoustics and vocals received a good old-fashioned rock makeover. Matthews has managed to fuse Catatonia’s brand of playful pop with the introspective homestead musings of her adopted American home, while Mason Neely’s proficiency with the drumsticks positively drives the album’s sound from the stable into the stadium.
But that’s not to suggest that the album lacks its tender moments; like Catatonia’s International Velvet – which effortlessly traversed its way from bollock-rocking barnstormers like ‘I Am The Mob’ to the gentle caress of ‘My Selfish Gene’ – Never Said Goodbye tempers its rockier edges with heartbreakingly beautiful moments like album closer ‘Elen’. Co-written with Super Furry Animals frontman Gruff Rhys, who also contributes whispered backing vocals, the fragile folkish melody surrounds the mellifluous mothertongue lyrics, and of all the album tracks, is perhaps the closest relation to Cockahoop.
With song titles like ‘Oxygen’, ‘This Endless Rain’ and ‘Seed Song’, it seems that Matthews has returned to her roots in more ways than one. The constant themes of love and nature are inextricably entwined throughout the album, where the ebb and flow of nature are constant metaphors for the enormity of lost loves and faltering hearts. On ‘Morning Sunshine’, her romanticism is never better expressed than in the opening lines; “I’d come to see you in the morning sunshine / saltwater dripping from your hair / 10,000 leagues of love and sheer devotion / what bubbles under breathes for air”. Perhaps the most organic treatment of a pop album since Pulp’s I Love Life, which brought us paeans to trees, weeds and sunrise, Never Said Goodbye is an album in full bloom, even if the lyrical preoccupations might have been better served by stripping away some of the disortion and synthetic layers.
While Matthews may lack the twisted lyrical wit of her former Catatonia songwriting partner, Mark Roberts, she is still at her best mining the ever-fertile ground of dysfunctional relationships. The album’s first single, ‘Open Roads’, with its opening lines “I took a ride on your fingertips / heaven high with the thrill of it / and in your eyes for a moment / it’s like we never said goodbye” encapsulates the uncertainty and vulnerability of surrendering to the safety of skin in the arms of a lost love. Indeed, listening to Never Said Goodbye is like getting a postcard from a treasured friend and as soon as you hear the first trill of that unmistakable voice, memories come flooding back.
Whereas Cockahoop was an album to fall in love to, Never Said Goodbye is there to pick up the pieces when it all falls apart. Sometimes in a world where everything is new and every turn brings yet more uncertainty, you need little cocoons of comfort. The music industry has certainly been an emptier place in her absence, and no amount of feisty pop muppets could ever fill the Cerys-shaped hole in the charts. So while Matthews has rekindled her love affair with the music that made her, for those who have tied a yellow ribbon around their Catatonia CD collections, familiarity will surely breed content.
originally published October 24th, 2006
Kate & Anna McGarrigle
The McGarrigle Hour ••••
Originally released in the US and Canada in 1999, this companion to the studio album of the same name finally got a UK pressing this autumn. And whilst the title may parody those homely Osmond family TV specials, there is nothing twee about this gathering. Timeless in both the staging and songs, the anachronistic production feels more 1948 than 1998, but the McGarrigles and Wainwrights have always comfortably existed outside of popular music, living in a folkie vacuum where they are free to set their own courses. Family feuds are often the subject of their own songs and their closest contemporaries appear to be each other. With such a strong musical heritage, the ‘McWainwrights’ are always liable to burst into song when the mood takes them, and one can almost imagine family gatherings where “pass the salt” is sung in harmonious verse.
With an ensemble of ex-spouses, offspring and friends, the McGarrigle sisters take us on an intimate journey through the great American songbook, taking in everything from Cole Porter to Irving Berlin, whilst seamlessly interweaving original compositions for this musical family reunion. While their voices may not have the softest of timbres, the Canadian sisters’ pitch-perfect harmonies are still as strong as when they debuted in 1975 with their eponymous LP. The musical dynasty is in safe hands too, judging by the efforts here.
Martha Wainwright cuts a shy, endearing figure compared with the foot-stomping dynamic performer we see today, and her own composition ‘Year Of The Dragon’ (still a mainstay of her live set) visibly impresses the would-be converts in the McGarrigle-friendly audience. Her cover of Cole Porter’s ‘Allez-Vous-En’ is sung with experience well beyond her young years, and she is complemented well by cousin Lily Lanken whose fragile vocals are equally affecting on family favourite ‘Alice Blue Gown’.
Elsewhere, Rufus Wainwright is unusually restrained, despite upstaging his mother Kate McGarrigle during the introduction to ‘Talk To Me Of Mendocino’ by calling her a “gypsy”. In ‘Heartburn’ he shows he has inherited much of his father Loudon Wainwright III’s lyrical wit, but his voice is best suited to the standards and effortlessly croons the openings to group efforts ‘Goodnight Sweetheart’ and ‘What’ll I Do’. Friends of the family, Linda Ronstadt and Emmylou Harris, guest as they did on the studio album, while Kate’s former husband Loudon and assorted folkie friends add an authentic twang to the proceedings.
Despite the original’s release shortly before the popularity of the format exploded, a number of DVD extras are still included: a scattering of hyperlink interviews and a touching movie clip of Grandma McGarrigle’s own version of ‘Alice Blue Gown’ around the family piano, along with four bonus songs from a 1981 McGarrigle concert in their hometown of Montréal.
In a year that has seen major releases from Loudon, Rufus and Martha, the McGarrigles have reconvened for The McGarrigle Christmas Hour, an album that once again showcases the family’s songwriting talents alongside some lesser-known festive standards, this time extending their family to include Rufus’s pals Beth Orton, actress Jane Adams and Teddy Thompson.
originally published on December 19th, 2006
Pretty Little Head  •••½
Nellie McKay doesn’t want me to listen to her new CD. At least, not in the form in which I received it. Columbia’s press release describes the album as “a kaleidoscopic selection of tracks culled from 23 new songs written by McKay for the album”; what it doesn’t say is that they performed this cull entirely against her will. Despite McKay’s insistence that it be released in its entirety, Columbia issued this 16-track edit to reviewers without McKay’s permission, and the dispute duly escalated. In fact it got so bad that just after Christmas Nellie and Columbia parted ways, leaving the album dangling in limbo. The label have since stated that they won’t be releasing the album in any form, and despite the fact that McKay apparently left of her own accord, media reports that she was ‘dropped’ have proliferated. This conflict raises some prescient questions. McKay’s precocious debut, 2004’s Get Away From Me, was sprawling and sporadically brilliant, but proved trying when listened to as a whole. We can certainly query whether Columbia have the right to censor the artists on their roster in such a manner, but for once, might the big bad record company have a point?
To an extent, they do. Listening to this truncated version, there are still extraneous tracks that contribute little to the album as a whole. Three songs – ‘Pink Chandelier’, ‘GES’ and ‘I Am Nothing’, all clocking in at under two minutes – feel half-finished, short sketches perhaps intended more as interludes that fail to mature into anything substantial. It is puzzling that they were included where other tracks were excised; the motivation behind Columbia’s track selection currently remains a mystery. However, when the songs do sparkle they sparkle bright, and more than compensate for the album’s weaker moments. The lyrically audacious and funny opener ‘Cupcake’ concerns the timely topic of gay marriage, and over a brightly bouncy melody McKay intones lyrics surely designed to provoke conservative ire: “Give me a G-A-Y! Jesus would approve.”
Musically, it’s not all current affairs, however. A distinct ‘80s vibe runs throughout the album – shades of Martha & The Muffins here, Kim Carnes there – but nowhere moreso, of course, than on the Cyndi Lauper duet and album highlight, ‘Bee Charmer’. A lyrically brilliant pop song (“I feel like an antelope on a nature show / Guess I gotta go!”), it’s an ideal marriage of two talented artists. McKay once again shows her versatility as a musical chameleon, turning her hand to cabaret-style pop, rap/hip-hop and, on ‘Real Life’, guitar-driven rock ‘n’ roll. Her songs don’t grab the listener with the dramatic urgency of say, Fiona Apple – whimsicality is more her forte – but her lyrics are barbed and often arresting and a happy-sounding tune can conceal darker lyrical content. ‘Columbia Is Bleeding’, for instance, throws lyrics at the listener faster than the brain can process them. Not, as you might imagine, a rant against her former label, the song concerns a recent, McKay-led PETA protest against animal research being conducted at the campus of New York’s University of Columbia, and the song voices a multiplicity of views on the subject; “Check the bible son / we got dominion / we can do as we please” vies with McKay’s assertion that “Barbarism killed the cat / Columbia is bleeding.”
While this is by no means a perfect album, it is one that has a lot to recommend it – not least the originality of McKay’s lyrics and the adventurous musical palette she draws upon. In which direction those seven missing songs will eventually tip the balance is anybody’s guess, but whenever, however, even if ever McKay ultimately rears her Pretty Little Head, it’ll be one in the eye for corporate America and a righteous scalp for artistic vision.
originally published January 28th, 2006
An Ancient Muse •••½
Back in 1985, the arrival of Loreena McKennitt seemed nothing short of brilliant; enigmatic, yes, but brilliant all the same. With her self-produced debut album Elemental, McKennitt did away with the slick, sometimes gloopy excesses of the decade and delivered something pretty much timeless. Those who heard it invariably loved it, and in pleasing all the people McKennitt inadvertently accelerated the coming of so-called ‘new age’ music. Of course, as with all great underground artists, her thunder was run off with by a more commercially minded rival in the shape of Enya, whose Watermark cemented the multi-million selling status of the genre. Happily, all the legwork gave McKennitt rich rewards in the end as her 1989 album Parallel Dreams bounced off the new age springboard and she never looked back. Since then, McKennitt has expanded her vision as both composer and producer, shifting effortlessly from softly spoken, sparse Celtic folk to full-blown band extrava- ganzas that ought to be recognised as world music anthems. And all that shifting, no matter how great, has done nothing but work in her favour.
An Ancient Muse is McKennitt’s first studio album since 1997’s four million selling The Book Of Secrets and, like its predecessor, incorporates the illustrious themes of spirituality and world travel and sets them to impressive compositional backdrops. Opening with ‘Incantation’, a slow-burning mood is softly ignited with McKennitt’s gorgeously operatic vocals shedding light on an other- wise darkly brooding piece. Two and a half minutes go by before you’re suddenly slammed into out-and-out pop mode as the undeniable slink of ‘The Gates Of Istanbul’ takes hold before the prodigal simplicity of ‘Caravanserai’ seals the deal. Both are obvious tips of the hat to her out-of-leftfield hit ‘The Mummer’s Dance’ but are fresh enough and groovy enough so as not to be derivative.
With that out of the way, An Ancient Muse goes deep with songs like the creepily gleeful Turkish instrumental ‘Sacred Shabbat’ and ‘Never-ending Road (Amhrán Duit)’, whose nomadic spirituality allows the album’s themes of inward searching and self-acceptance to shine. A slight aura of predictability surrounds a couple of tracks – for example, the other instrumental ‘Kecharitomene’ could easily have been a reply-paid card stuffed inside The Book Of Secrets for McKennitt to mail home later – and some patience might be required on the part of the listener. But, like each of her previous opuses, the payoff will be honest to goodness grade A gorgeousness.
And there’s nothing more gorgeous on An Ancient Muse than ‘The English Ladye & The Knight’. Keeping up McKennitt’s well-trodden tradition of setting classic poetry to music – the lyrics are an abridged version of the poem by Sir Walter Scott – this is the album’s finest moment. Featuring atmospheric strings and a heart- breaking choir, McKennitt subdues her impressive voice into the role of hushed storyteller and flawlessly flows into full-blown mechancholia. This is precisely why McKennitt has been a long-stay in the music industry without an overtly popular following; it is, for lack of any better description, pure genius, and makes any errors of judgement elsewhere on the album instantly forgivable.
Despite its occasional weak points, An Ancient Muse is an overall triumph and while not quite reaching the astonishing brilliance of The Visit or The Mask & Mirror, it makes for a solid and compelling listen and once again shows McKennitt as the innovative and virulent artist she has become.
originally published December 17th, 2006
We Will Become Like Birds •••½
Ingredient 1: A failed relationship at your heels and weighing on your mind. Ingredient 2: A roomful of instruments with which you are skillfully competent. What on earth’s a girl to do? Well, if you are 27-year old Erin McKeown, you creatively bind together the two ingredients with handfuls of hope, and with patience and time, We Will Become Like Birds shall emerge. With a relationship crumbling around her, McKeown has simply picked up her guitar, bass, drumsticks and keyboards and atypically enlisted other musicians to produce this wonderfully hopeful album. These 12 complementary songs are lyrically pertinent to anyone who has survived a relationship breakup – sentiments of creation and loss, construction and destruction are plentiful.
In the opener, ‘Aspera’, McKeown is found musing on her own discontent, singing “I’m in shambles, blown to bits by our troubles, these brambles, our stumblings, our struggles”, but by the second song, ‘Air’, she is contemplating the wider issue of the origins of heartache in general: “love! and you’re wondering how it works, the heart and the natural world, it’s a wonder that science can hurt”. Though the songs are firmly in the camp of relationship fodder, McKeown provides something more than the archetypal break-up album with a continuous hopeful twist. Buoyant ruminations on how experience forces growth are welcomed in the positive statement of ‘We Are More’, in which sadness is transcended in the form of “this morning I saw a glimmer of hope, in the eyes that I met at the door, of separate futures and confident sutures, to the wounds we have endured.” The album is undeniably sad and yet irrepressibly hopeful.
For those who don’t appreciate an emotional battering as part and parcel of a listening experience, McKeown’s clearly auspicious lyrics and musical choices reflecting a light emotional approach will indeed sweeten the medicine. With its upbeat, rising notes and tempting handclaps, the overall feel isn’t one of loss – the musical scenery is as misleading as her carefree, light vocals. In typical McKeown style, her voice drifts lightly and spreads warmly through the album, winding over even the highest notes with softness.
With her personal evolution in full view, McKeown’s musical growth cannot be overlooked. She is forever changing and her tendency to frolic willfully through varied musical landscapes is only slightly diminished here. As ever though, McKeown’s musicianship is nothing short of admirable and will make even the most gifted a little green-eyed. Competent enough to play all the instruments herself, McKeown could have easily created the album nestled alone in a studio, but with an ethnomusicology degree and three acclaimed genre-hopping solo albums already in the bag, Erin arrived at this album with a strong pedigree and looking for something new. She and co-producer Tucker Martine have called on highly accomplished musicians to freely improvise on her compositions as they best know how. With Matt Chamberlain on drums (Tori Amos, Fiona Apple), Sebastian Steinberg on bass (Beth Orton) and Steve Moore on keyboards (Laura Veirs), the album wears an impulsive band feel. Collaborations with singer-songwriters Pete Mulvey and Spanish chanteuse Juana Molina on ‘Delicate December’ and ‘The Golden Dream’, respectively, also add a different dimension.
The rich, multi-instrumental path set out by her previous album Grand is trodden even further here, breaking away from that record’s jazzy, 1950s-style swing. Slick production and a stark reduction in guitar focus have augmented this effect. McKeown is no longer the folkie that appeared on the independent scene in 1999 with Monday Morning Cold. Regardless, with perhaps her most commercially accessible album to date, Erin McKeown is stepping back into the alternative spotlight while laudably retaining her enthusiam for experimentation, her charming vocal style and a distinctive and familiar originality.
originally published August 11th, 2005
One More Drifter In The Snow ••••
The struggle may not be as titanic as the Ali/Foreman ‘rumble in the jungle’ but this year two Lilith-cred behemoths go head to head in the Christmas album arena. In the red corner we have amateur boxer and professional cynic Aimee Mann, while in the green corner is sparkling snow queen Sarah McLachlan (put a coat on silly, you’ll catch your death!). That the pair of them both chose the same reason to release a festive offering affords us the luxury of comparing their approaches. And the approaches are definitely different – while McLachlan takes a more traditional, populist route, Mann sprinkles her collection with the trademark quirkiness that informs her work – but both pay joyful dividends and throw in a brand new original each.
Taking McLachlan first, it’s easy to see Wintersong as a sonic extension of 2003’s Afterglow, albeit with a few more whistles and sleigh bells. Like so many Christmas albums it mixes carols, standards and original songs and the selection is well chosen. Opening with a perhaps surprising cover of John Lennon and Yoko Ono’s ‘Happy Xmas (War Is Over)’ it could all have gone so horribly wrong. Panic not, however, it’s actually more likeable than the original. Retaining the essential kids’ choir element, it deftly treads the frighteningly narrow line between emoting and wanton sentimentalising. A cover of the Joni Mitchell classic ‘River’ is perhaps rather too predictable a move for McLachlan, but it’s a welcome inclusion nevertheless. Despite adding nothing to the flooringly beautiful original, McLachlan gives it her all, imbuing it with genuine emotion and a pure vocal performance that soars above that genius piano motif.
Elsewhere, standard crooner ‘I’ll Be Home For Christmas’ successfully harks back to the swing era, blending muted trumpet with thoroughly modern keyboard pads, while new track ‘Wintersong’ is pleasant enough. Always proficient at recycling old material, McLachlan couldn’t resist another shot at ‘Song For A Winter’s Night’, originally released on the 1996 compilation Rarities, B-Sides & Other Stuff, but it’s all in the spirit of giving so that’s alright. It’s the traditional carols, however, that ended up the most satisfyingly Christmassy. ‘O Little Town Of Bethlehem’ opens with a gorgeous naked vocal while ‘What Child Is This?’ and ‘First Noel / Mary Mary’ blend McLachlan’s lovely tones with an intriguing blend of traditional and modern arrangements; while the former evokes the Elizabethan derivation of its melody, the latter mixes hymnal, spiritual and contemporary Celtic styles. It’s sad, then, that Wintersong closes on its least involving and memorable track – the one which Nettwerk must have thought was a shoe-in. A duet with fellow Canadian Diana Krall on ‘Christmas Time Is Here’ washes past in all too mellow a mood.
Taking a more leftfield approach, Mann’s One More Drifter… is a rather different prospect. And while the new original ‘Calling On Mary’ and the bittersweet ‘Christmastime” (originally recorded in 1996 for the soundtrack of Paul Thomas Anderson’s ‘Hard Eight’) find her in a reassuringly downbeat mood, the talking points belong to the covers. Again, it’s a mix of carols and classic seasonal numbers given a characteristic Aimee flavour, but with one special surprise. ‘You’re A Mean One, Mister Grinch!’ might easily have been a torrid taste faux pas, but instead the duet with Grant Lee Phillips raises a glass and a grin with Mann’s vocal trademark cynicism making her the perfect musical foil for Phillips’s booming narration.
Another surprise is how well Mann copes with some of the older tunes like the Nat King Cole favourite ‘The Christmas Song’. In fact she turns out to be no mean crooner – had she been born 50 years earlier there’s no doubt that she could easily have given the likes of Julie London and Patsy Cline a run for their money. Elsewhere, familiar songs are given a lift by interesting instrumentation – a banjo and jangle piano here, pedal steel, vibes and Hawaiian guitar there. The Hawaiian guitar is deployed particularly effectively on ‘I’ll Be Home For Christmas’, pointing up nicely the difference in approach when compared with Sarah’s version, while her take on ‘Winter Wonderland’ is equal parts ‘Blue Hawaii’, ‘Shadows’ and ‘The Fabulous Thunderbirds’ in a mellow mood. Ace.
So there you have it, two very different Christmas albums, both artistically successful, very listenable and thankfully (mostly) schmaltz-free. Of the two, it’s One More Drifter… that stands a better chance of being auditioned at other times of year as a darned good album in its own rights. However, it’s Wintersong that your mum or granny will love.
originally published December 17th, 2006
VH1 Storytellers •••
Rhino Home Video
Since its inception in February 1996, VH1’s Storytellers format has given us insight into the inspirations behind the songs of some of the most enigmatic and elliptical performers of our time, including Tori Amos, REM, Tom Waits and David Bowie. More often than not, however, it was the refuge of tired and crashing MOR bores mounting their nth attempted comeback. The show was also symptomatic of US programmers’ attitudes to female artists; even though its most successful years coincided with the Lilith Fair phenomenon, less than a quarter of its 56 episodes featured women performers. Tellingly, the only such act to appear following the demise of Lilith in 1999 was Gwen Stefani’s No Doubt. After a series of mostly inessential performances by the likes of Billy Idol, Bon Jovi, Matchbox Twenty and Train, among others, the chapter finally closed on Storytellers in June 2002.
It could easily be argued that Natalie Merchant’s place in the Storytellers canon would have been warranted regardless of the Lilith influence. A performer since the age of 17 in US college rock band 10,000 Maniacs, she had well over a decade of experience, and presumably stories, behind her. This performance, recorded the same year as she released her second and arguably best solo album, Ophelia, is a resolutely no-frills affair – there’s no elaborate set design and Merchant herself is understatedly dressed for the occasion. Her instantly recognisable warm and reedy vocals, however, rise easily to the challenge as she tackles these eight songs of sadness, gratitude, stoicism and wonderment spanning her extensive back catalogue.
Given that so many of her songs are self-contained observational narratives that hardly lend themselves to in-depth analysis, it’s a little worrying when Merchant seeks to reassure the audience “I didn’t have to tell you anything deep and dark and scary about myself” after the opener ‘These Are Days’, which we’re informed is simply about the springtime. Fortunately, her romantic and humanitarian interests rescue some of the other commentaries from the precipice of blandness. In another’s hands, her explanation of how an abused child inspired her to write ‘What’s The Matter Here?’ may have seemed trite but her plainly visible emotional involvement is touching.
Special guest N’Dea Davenport adds a welcome change of pace for the blue-collar worker anthem ‘Break Your Heart’. Of the bonus tracks, ‘Life Is Sweet’ (presumably not included on the original broadcast because of a minor sweat problem) is given a new lease of life by Merchant’s explanation that her objective was to reclaim the cliché and thereby allows the viewer to listen with renewed perspective. Though the DVD is brief at only 43 minutes, as a precursor to Rhino’s forthcoming Natalie Merchant retrospective hits album it serves as an adequate reminder of her talents. In the absence of any new material to follow-up 2003’s The House Carpenter’s Daughter and the scarcity of high-quality recordings of Merchant’s live shows, fans will be satisfied with this solid, if unspectacular, addition to her discography.
originally published August 7th, 2005
Retrospective 1990-2005 ••••
As coincidence would have it, Rhino’s 2CD retrospective of Natalie Merchant’s solo career follows a similar format to its Jane Siberry anthology. In both cases, an exemplary, beautifully sequenced first disc is followed by a patchier, less satisfying second one. This is not to suggest that fans or newcomers should only sport out for the first CD though, as is possible to do in the case of Merchant. Though longstanding followers may once again lament the dearth of new material on Retrospective, there are in fact some lovely individual performances on both discs. It’s simply that the second disc – designed, it would appear, to showcase Merchant’s stylistic range – fails to cohere as effortlessly as the first does.
Of course, Merchant is not an audacious musical innovator in the Siberry mould, and so there is nothing as wilfully perverse or off-kilter as ‘Peony’ here. Rather, Merchant’s post-10,000 Maniacs career has been marked by a series of graceful, intelligent and frequently exceptional albums, from her solo debut Tigerlily, through the lusher Ophelia, to her distinguished collection of sturdy folk perennials, The House Carpenter’s Daughter, and this compilation gathers together some of the very best material from each. Merchant’s singing has also grown more characterful over the years, as the chronologically sequenced first disc demonstrates. Tremulous and delicate, but with a surprising amount of bite and grit, her vocals are seductive and inviting on early tracks such as the driving ‘Wonder’ and ‘Jealousy’, but gain greater depth and resonance on her later work.
At its best, there is a kind of openhearted innocence and generosity of spirit to Merchant’s music. ‘Kind & Generous’, for example, is such a forthright expression of gratitude that it almost makes you uncomfortable. This tender magnanimity means that when she does despair – with a line like “the damage that some people do” on ‘Break Your Heart’ – the effect is particularly devastating. However, the superb ‘Life Is Sweet’ offers hard-won consolation, as does ‘Motherland’, the title track to her 2001 album, and a recording that may well be on its way to becoming her signature song, since it’s already been covered by both Joan Baez and Christy Moore. Its combination of striking lyrics, Van Dyke Parks’s accordion, Greg Leisz’s banjo and mandolin and a gorgeous vocal from Merchant adds up to something very special indeed. The House Carpenter’s Daughter is represented by two particularly strong tracks. ‘Owensboro’ is an achingly sad traditional ballad about downtrodden Kentucky mill workers; in the final verse, the exploited and apparently resigned narrator looks forward to a (literal or figurative) “day of judgement” when the wealthy, arrogant townsfolk who “dress so fine and spend their money free” will “have to share their pretty things”. Never has the desire for revolution been expressed more elegantly. The woozy, haunting ‘Sally Ann’ is equally fine.
The second disc pulls together some of Merchant’s duets, collaborations, outtakes and soundtrack contributions. Highlights include a sensitive, convincing rendition of ‘The Lowlands Of Holland’ (backed by The Chieftains), a slow and sultry ‘One Fine Day’ (from the 1996 Michelle Pfeiffer/George Clooney film of the same name), and a beautiful stripped-down solo piano take of Ophelia‘s ‘Thick As Thieves’. Lowlights are a leaden ‘Children Go Where I Send Thee’, and a forced version of the inappositely titled ‘I Know How To Do It’, made most famous by Dinah Washington. Collaborations with REM, Billy Bragg and Susan McKeown almost, but don’t quite work, while the closing ‘Come Take A Trip In My Airship’ unfortunately ends up on the wrong side of twee. Despite these infelicities, however, Retrospective is, overall, a very impressive collection that fully displays Merchant’s lyrical and interpretive gifts.
originally published March 25th, 2006
Live It Out ••••
Drowned In Sound
Back in their native Canada, it’s practically impossible to meet anyone of a certain age who hasn’t caught on to the hype of Emily Haines and her trio of musical men. Their debut Old World Underground, Where Are You Now? was hugely successful and earned the band a place in the hearts of young hipsters all over the nation. Live It Out, the much-anticipated follow-up was released last year, attracting the attention of British indie label Drowned In Sound (home to fellow Canuck Martha Wainwright) who are issuing this UK edition. Right out of the starting blocks it’s clear that Live It Out is fantastically diverse, blending genres with ease. Is it electro-pop? Melodic punk? Distorted garage rock? Eighties new wave synth nostalgia? Actually, it’s all of them, and even finds room for some heart-rending piano balladry. Phew!
Haines’s presence surely ups the potential for Metric to achieve mass idolisation above and beyond recognition of her occasional contributions to Canadian supergroup Broken Social Scene. Her lyrical ability and vocal range – an assortment of throaty whispered hushes, authoritative roars and everything in between – perfectly compliments and contrasts with the musical backdrop. Building upon, but not exhausting, the beguiling pop/rock sound that made Old World Underground… so accessible, Live It Out retains the winning formula for indisputably catchy crowd-pleasing riffs, yet noticeably focuses much more on rocking out with heavier guitars, thunderous drums, fun solos and everything feedback.
Probably the catchiest song on the album, ‘Monster Hospital’ begins with an upbeat, distorted riff that will compel you to subtly headbang and madly tap your feet. With a sly nod to The Clash, Haines howls “I fought the war / but the war won!” amidst a pleasantly simple drum line and creeping high notes. The exuberant ‘Handshakes’ is another highlight, oozing sarcasm with its chanted mantra of “Buy this car to drive to work / drive to work to pay for this car”. Recent single ‘Poster Of A Girl’ boasts a disco-esque beat, heavy synths and extreme danceability, Haines’s vocal switching effortlessly from cooing in English to quietly murmuring in French. Elsewhere, ‘Ending Start’ veers the furthest from the sprightly pop/rock appeal of the rest of the album; drenched in a river of reverb, Haines sings “Gave them our explosions, reactions, all that was ours / for graphs of passion and charts of stars”. The delicate piano, melodious ethereal guitar and haunting resonance of the vocals permits the song to linger and enchant.
For some fans, Live It Out might not live up to the ‘modern classic’ status of Old World Underground…, while others may blame the fervent hype for setting such lofty expectations. Whatever. The fact remains that this is another undeniably well-crafted piece of work that, at its best, will rock your clothes off. Turn up the speakers, put on your dancing footwear, and for goodness sake, hang on to your trousers!
originally published July 2nd, 2006
Mi & L’au
Mi & L’au ••••
These two must have the cutest backstory ever. After meeting each other in Paris, Finnish model Mi and French musician L’au fell madly in love and quickly came to resent the encroachment of the outside world into their private bliss. Not wanting to do things by halves or compromise with their surroundings, they upped sticks and retreated into splendid isolation deep within a Finnish forest where they have been living ever since with only each other and their music for company. Until, presumably, Michael Gira – once of Swans and now big strong boss of Young God Records, the original home of Devendra Banhart – came a-wanderin’ through the trees lookin’ for some new troubadours to take the place of the aforesaid beardie, now that he’s flirting with popularity on a bigger label. But while Mi & L’au certainly share a great deal of Banhart’s acoustic palette, their sound owes more to the measured, stately flow of Gira’s current Angels Of Light project than to Devendra’s more recognisably folksy leanings.
Although Mi & L’au are in the enviable position of having found ultimate sanctuary in themselves and their hermetic retreat, their music is the antithesis of the soupy tedium that cripples so many ‘love’ songs. Indeed, many of these songs seem to question the very permanence and truth of love and romantic feeling; again, these are topics that wouldn’t seem out of place on an Angels Of Light disc. That said, opener ‘They Marry’ speaks of the bliss of love’s falling, albeit unconventionally, utilising layers of naked instrumentation that glide from filmic fairground swells to softly plucked balladry.
Throughout the album, Mi’s vocals are recorded close enough for the listener to feel her very breath on their cheek, all cracks and imperfections magnified to uneasy, intimate dimensions. You can even hear her clear her throat at the end of Andy. In a starker vein still, ‘How’ shuffles along like an unhurried march over which Mi is found singing of emptiness as the single piano notes push briefly illuminate a darkened landscape like beautiful flickering stars. Elsewhere, ‘Philosopher’ extends the sepulchral atmosphere, utilising a two-chord guitar figure and enough space between notes as to bring to mind prime Low (a comparison that’s perhaps made more appropriate by the fact that Low are also a songwriting husband and wife team… oh, and a bassist, but he’s left now anyway.)
More than once, L’au takes over the vocal duties, providing a welcome contrast with his uneven, vulnerable delivery making ‘I’ve Been Watching You’ and the duo of baby paeans, ‘World In Your Belly’ and ‘New Born Child’, gorgeously affecting. Speaking of affecting and gorgeous, if album closer ‘Study’ is truly a study of anything, it’s got to be of stasis; gentle swells of accordion and strings frame Mi’s floating vocal and take it absolutely nowhere, perfectly happy to circle and converge, grow and recede like the bubbles that glisten and sparkle in the mix.
Inasmuch as it takes the instrumentation of the (largely) American neo-folk scene and takes it somewhere more considered and European-sounding – like a more bucolic Angels Of Light, or a less improvisatory Akron/Family – this gentle, reflective album must be considered a success. Ironically enough, only a certain coldness and emotional distance holds their music back from being truly brilliant, but be in no doubt that this tiny army of lovers are certainly ones to watch.
originally published May 7th, 2006
Honey From The Tombs •••½
Arts & Crafts/V2
Few artists can pull off an entirely elegiac album without sounding overly tedious or annoyingly self-pitying, but Stars frontwoman Amy Millan has just about done it on her first solo outing. Honey From The Tombs is a highly intimate work of self-disclosure that touches upon loss, emptiness, restlessness, love gone wrong and the healing effects of whiskey on a broken heart.
Although Millan tries to dodge the ‘country’ label, the conventions and sensibilities of the genre are clearly instated in the upbeat twangy guitars, banjos and mandolins, blues-infused solos and melancholy finger-picked acoustics. Further justifying this is the presence of bluegrass group Crazy Strings on back-up. Even so, some tracks are arguably more folk than country, a few more pop than folk, and several lean more towards a traditional rock sound. Interestingly, these songs are the product of several years spent as works in progress. “I wrote all the songs prior to joining Stars,” Millan revealed in a recent interview with the Montreal Gazette, “then I ran away from home to L.A.; I came back to a black hole…”
There are numerous highlights; a disconsolate narrative on the loss of first love, ‘He Brings Out The Whiskey In Me’ comes as close to classic country as you can get — and even Millan admits to this — with its light rhythmic picking, gentle slide guitar and ruminations on where it all went wrong. Abandoning the twangy lap-steel in favour of multi-layered dreamy atmospherics, ‘Skinny Boy’ is reminiscent of Stars’ engaging pop aura with its feathery lush vocals, xylophone and guitar. It’s also one of the few tracks with drums, and while it’s pretty enough to stick in the memory, it stays within well-mapped territory for Millan and is certainly nothing novel. The rocky ‘Headsfull’ is short but sweet, while the swirling electro essence of ‘Wayward & Parliament’ makes for an incongruent anomaly among the simplistic quietude that characterises the rest of the album.
The exquisitely somnolent ‘Pour Me Up Another’ signals an end to proceedings, Millan’s tear-tinged musings meeting despairing, clean acoustic lines to create a pathos unparalleled by her earlier efforts: “the nights are for forgetting who I am / so pour me up another before bed” — OK, so perhaps many of Millan’s turns of phrase are not really all that far removed from your average garden variety country song, but for the most part she employs enough musical variety that, as a whole, it somehow works.
Honey From The Tombs is neither groundbreaking nor wearisome. Some tracks are pleasant but interchangeable; others are catchy and poignant enough to include in your cathartic heartbreak compilation. On the whole, it makes for a memorable collection that works best when you’re in the mood for mellowness, but keep it within reach for those days when you’re nursing a bottle of whiskey and feeling real lonesome.
originally published July 2nd, 2006
Liza With A ‘Z’ [reissue] ••
Originally released in 1972 to coincide with the film release of Kander and Ebb’s musical ‘Cabaret’, this was a televised showcase for Liza Minnelli’s stage credentials; talents that would see her run away with the Best Actress gong at the following year’s Oscar ceremony. The release of this remastered Grammy Award winning album was issued as a prelude to a full DVD.
Guided by ‘Cabaret’ director, the legendary Bob Fosse, this audio recording of the show remains an intriguing journey through traditional standards and modern compositions, although even the contemporary tracks, infused with wah-wah guitars and funky basslines, still show their age. Such television specials are a staple of the US networks, and each number is an all-singing, all-dancing affair. ‘Son Of A Preacher Man’ is a song of such excess, but falls someway short of Dusty Springfield’s definitive version, while ‘Bye, Bye Blackbird’ is given the full Fosse treatment (click, tap, heel, tap) though, again, the staging of the number is somewhat incongruous with the gently sanguine lyrics. A demanding director, Fosse would control every affectation, ad-lib and aside and the note-perfect songs, while impressive on screen, leaves the recording a little bit flat.
There is no doubt that Minnelli puts on a good show, and even on record you can imagine the clenched fists and theatrical gestures that accompany the vocal octave leaps and key changes. Liza With A ‘Z’ serves as a reminder of Minnelli’s impressive vocal range and the ‘Cabaret Medley’ is a perfect trailer for the full-length versions. From ‘Wilkommen’ and the sublime ‘Money, Money’ to the emotive ‘Maybe This Time’ and the high-kicking title tune finale, each audio vignette evokes the divine decadence of Weimar Berlin so evocatively captured on film. Even the lines “the day she died the neighbours came to snicker / well, that’s what comes from too much pills and liquor” have acquired added prescience in light of Minnelli’s public recovery from alcoholism.
Perhaps the biggest shame of Minnelli’s career is that she possessed enough unique talent to transcend mother Judy Garland’s success, but chose instead to live in her shadow, almost as if Garland left the stage and Minnelli returned for the encore. Clinging to a lost era of Hollywood razzmatazz, these days Minnelli is a grand high priestess of camp by proxy, replaying her mother’s on-stage dramatics, effortlessly gliding between tragedy and survival, before sending those “happy little bluebirds” to tug at the heartstrings of her audience.
Here, ‘Mammy’ provides the less than oblique nod to her famous mother, while ‘God Bless The Child’ is yet another reminder of her Hollywood royalty credentials (her father was director Vincente Minnelli). “Momma may have / Poppa may have / but God bless the child that’s got his own” she trills, and for a few years in the 1970s, Minnelli truly did have it all. Equal parts actress, singer and dancer, Minnelli’s versatility made her hot property and her maternal genetics ensured further success in Martin Scorsese’s ‘New York, New York’.
You can’t make a star without some edges, and even if Minnelli is more of a tabloid curiosity these days, remnants like this from her heyday are testament to the last stand of Hollywood’s golden era, but this live recording lacks dimension and is perhaps best experienced on DVD. However, the ambition is admirable and you get the feeling that even if she wasn’t topping the bill, Minnelli would still steal the show.
originally published May 24th, 2006
Ultimate Kylie ••••
Pouting like a blow-up sex doll on the sleeve, unnecessarily airbrushed to within an inch of her life, Parlophone present the very essence of Minogue…or do they? In the midst of our celeb-obsessed cultural meltdown, Kylie has remained an admirably tight-lipped emblem of privacy, a tiny totem of schtumm. As this compilation more than adequately proves, her music too holds few clues.
Since 1987, she has been putty in the sweaty hands of pop, moulded by those around her, or so the rock snobs would have you believe. The truth, I suspect, is that underneath the layers of plasticity lies a woman plenty savvy enough to both define and defy her public persona. Live, she seems sometimes steely, often overpolished but rarely ever at ease. Her audience banter is typically painful and strained, one awkwardly uncool remove from the unprepossessing and endearing self she often reveals in interviews. Placed in an everyday conversational context Kylie positively glows, but up there on her media pedestal her natural charisma takes a holiday and she is often accused of being a bit of a blank canvas. OK, it may have been true back in the late ‘80s when she first effervesced her way into the non-‘Neighbours’ watching national consciousness – the bubble permed, bubble bathing introduction that was ‘I Should Be So Lucky’ seemed to mark her out as a one or two album wonder. Eighteen years down the line, however, the suggestion that Kylie is still not manning the controls is simply not giving credit where it’s overdue.
Let’s look at the evidence. It cannot be disputed that FluffyKylie, whose hits included the aforementioned ‘I Should Be So Lucky’, ‘The Loco-motion’, ‘Hand On Your Heart’ and the emetic ‘Especially For You’, was the brainchild of the Stock, Aitken and Waterman triumvirate. Their tinny, soulless production was the second worst virus of the decade and sucked the marrow from my childhood then dared me to buy it back. I did of course – what 9-year old boy wasn’t in love with Kylie? Thank the stars then for Michael Hutchence, tragic INXS singer and usherer in of the SexKylie (© NME) era. Like Madonna before her, Minogue discovered that it’s street sex in fishnets, not surburban sex in a pastel twin-set that sells. Douze points!
At odds with the SAW family image, Kylie decamped to the ice-cool Deconstruction label, conjuring up two bona fide classics in the bargain – ‘Confide In Me’ and ‘Put Yourself In My Place’ – lovely! Cue grown men throwing their turntables out of their prams. Kylie Minogue having hits on Deconstruction? It just wouldn’t do and so it proved. The critical backlash for the next incarnation, KookyKylie, was unrelenting, despite some surprisingly durable indie tunes (‘Did It Again’, ‘Breathe’) and a duet to literally die for with fellow Aussie, Nick Cave (‘Where The Wild Roses Grow’). Aficionados of this era may well sniff at the omission of the pleasing ‘Some Kind Of Bliss’ from this collection, while the truly besotted will surely shed a quiet tear for ‘German Bold Italic’.
Morphing into Kylie2000, Minogue returned to slay the country once more, armed with a pair of skimpy gold hotpants and a warehouse full of pop hooks good enough to hang a handbag on. Five years and one über-tune (‘Can’t Get You Out Of My Head’) later, while Body Language‘s BardotKylie may have rubbed off some of her sheen, the good news is that the two new tracks here are among her very best. ‘I Believe In You’ in particular is a nagging little gem, co-written with members of the latest New York name-to-drops, Scissor Sisters.
The most compelling evidence for a Minogue heart beating at Kylie’s control panel is her willingness to experiment, her tenacity at sticking things out and the absolute humanity of her errors. Still, whether you believe she’s a Botoxicated mannequin masterminded by others or a super trouper flying her own flag, at least half of these songs are undisputedly essential.
originally published May 19th, 2005
To the novice outsider, Latin-American music doesn’t seem to have all that much going for it. If you’re lucky, you’ll have bypassed completely the desperate attempts of Shakira and Enrique Iglesias to introduce some culture to their otherwise uninteresting output. Of course, no genre should be judged by its airbrushed pin-ups and it’s always worth digging just a little bit deeper. To those unafraid to scrabble around and delve beneath the muck, Argentine songstress Juana Molina will come as a welcome surprise – a genuine talent whose acoustic guitar doesn’t jar to the sound of tap dancers in flamenco dresses, whose voice is far removed from the shrill mating call of the Costa del Sol’s greased-up, hypersexual waiters. Moving into music following a successful career as a comedic actress in the 1980s, Son (Spanish for ‘sound’) is Molina’s third album and arguably her best to date, filled with Björk-like quirks and soothing bedsit rock.
The lyrics are an obvious stumbling block for the monolingual majority of Britons; there’s little depth here for non-Spanish speakers who may fail to be creatively captivated by what will essentially be a collection of meaningless sounds. Luckily, Molina is smart enough to realise this and attempts to avoid the problem by packing Son with liberal use of phonetically pleasing a cappella performances, particularly on the cooing ‘Yo No’. There are stylistic nods, too, to various English-speaking artists; both ‘Ha Que Ver Si Voy’ and ‘Elena’ contain elements of Jim Noir’s psychedelic chanting, while ‘Las Culpas’ arguably sounds like Cat Power after a particularly heavy night of drinking. Furthermore, the trumpet and didgeridoo mash-up on ‘La Verdad’ proves that Molina ain’t no one-trick potro, while ‘Desordenado’ is reminiscent of Gemma Hayes’s soft lulling harmonies and ‘Miceal’ is in a world of its own.
Although it’s rather unlikely that this relatively subdued album will find a sizable audience outside of the electro-folk faithful, Molina is a mightily skilled performer. So if you can bear to stay in the dark about what the hell she’s singing, you’ll find this record ideal for whiling away our many rainy days. Unlike many of the poster girls of Latin-American music, an English-language album from Molina would be no commercial gimmick, it would be an event! For now, however, just revel in the mystery.
originally published July 2nd, 2006
Getting Somewhere •••½
Unbeknownst to all but the most discerning and curious of UK music fans, country star Allison Moorer has quietly constructed an impeccable back catalogue, never compromising her values for mainstream success, remaining stubbornly loyal to the one thing that makes people return to her, album after album – the music. Each album has witnessed a distinct progression in her sound without losing one iota of her individual styling and wonderfully expressive voice. Having carved out a niche in the country-pop genre, Moorer is now much in demand for Hollywood soundtracks and a firm favourite on the live circuit, where in 2004 she recorded a live album with her older sister, the equally uncompromising Shelby Lynne. Now, in 2006, newly married to Steve Earle, it seems she finally feels as if she may be Getting Somewhere.
Moorer has created no shortage of gems since 1998’s debut album Alabama Song, immersing herself in the southern soul of 2000’s The Hardest Part before delivering 2004’s harder-edged The Duel. Her appeal owes a great deal to her ability to get beneath the skin of human relationships without lazily ambling down Cliché Street. Moorer takes the road less travelled, telling stories through anything but rose-tinted glasses. Just a short while into the album, however, it becomes clear that married life may have taken the edge off somewhat – Allison’s happy, and here’s a snappy, concise 39 minutes of mostly upbeat music to prove it. It’s refreshing to see an artist unafraid to say all she’s got to say in songs that rarely climb over the three minute barrier. When music’s this good, quality beats quantity every time. Though her husband’s production has left the drums a little leaden and tinny and the guitars a touch more grungy than anything she’s done before, the catchy melodies remain.
Opener ‘Work To Do’ unveils her newly positive outlook – “I’ve got a lot of work to do / got to give you back your point of view / it suits you fine / it’s just not mine…” – while ‘You’ll Never Know’, ‘Take It So Hard’ and the beautiful ‘Where You Are’ are all fine examples of her invigorating craft. That’s not to say there isn’t an undercurrent of doubt and anxiety, but the pop stylings and a cappella intro of ‘Fairweather’ make for an interesting contrast. Where the old Moorer would have sung this song of finding post-break-up freedom from the viewpoint of a wronged woman, here we have instead a liberated female looking forward to the single life. It’s a subtle distinction, but an important one nevertheless. More importantly, it’s also (whisper it quietly) single material, one of a couple of songs that feel like they’ve been written with a more commercial slant.
Another highlight and a nod to her previous output can be found in ‘If It’s Just For Today’, a realistic look at the reasons why two people get and stay together and reminiscent in feel to ‘Can’t Get There From Here’ from 2002’s Miss Fortune. It’s dedicated (perhaps a little bravely) to Earle; presumably his famously tough exterior took it in the way it’s intended. Whether or not Moorer will continue to allow this honeymoon period to influence her writing remains to be seen, but for the moment we should be happy for her and happy that she can still produce work of this quality. There’s a classic album in her somewhere; this isn’t it, but the summer would be worse without it.
originally published July 10th, 2006
Jagged Little Pill Acoustic •••
The first thing that came to mind when Alanis Morissette announced that she would be releasing a 10th Anniversary edition of her 1995 multi-multi-million selling debut Jagged Little Pill was that her label, Madonna’s famously loss-making Maverick Records, needed to boost their profit margin and quick. Certainly, this record is either a genius marketing ploy on their part or a genuine sign of Morissette’s affection for the songs, for rather than just repackaging the original along with a few live songs, four-track demos and a DVD of the lacklustre ‘Jagged Little Pill Live’ tour documentary, Morissette and her original producer Glen Ballard huddled back into the studio together to re-record the album as an all-acoustic feast.
To be honest, my expectations were not high. If any album was era-defining, Jagged Little Pill was it. Its angsty sturm-and-drang brought me into womanhood; yes, I was one of those girls punching my fist into the air with a feminist “fuck yeah!”, even though at age 11 I had little to really rave about. How pleasantly surprising then that Jagged Little Pill Acoustic is a minor revelation in itself. From the first opening note, Alanis’s own growth, both personal and musical, is clear. Although some songs hardly differ in terms of arrangement, the addition of some subtle orchestration and the obvious replacement of snarling electrics with gentle acoustic guitars all gels together for a very mellow and easygoing album, perfect for accompanying a long glass of Grenache.
Jagged Little Pill Acoustic runs to precisely the same order as its blueprint, and the opener ‘All I Really Want’ is a highlight in its new skin, recalling her epic 1998 album Supposed Former Infatuation Junkie, with its Eastern influences and dancing strings. This does, however, mean that the version of ‘Your House’ here must rank as the least unexpected hidden track in history. In spite of this, it varies on its previous theme by ditching the poetic a cappella and presenting itself as a gently strummed ditty. Elsewhere, the infamous single Ironic has undergone a slightly wincing lyrical change reflecting society’s progression into the Queer Eye age (“It’s like meeting the man of my dreams and then meeting his beautiful husband”) but otherwise is melodically intact and pleasant enough.
Considering the original’s inescapable ubiquity, this remake seems almost like a hits collection. But while best-ofs and greatest hits often leave this listener cold, Jagged Little Pill Acoustic clearly maps out Alanis’s musical journey over the past decade and serves as a reminder of a great collection of songs.
originally published September 9th, 2005
The Collection ••½
Arriving just a few months after a less-than-essential tenth anniversary acoustic edition of her mighty debut, Jagged Little Pill, it’s possible to view this hits compilation of Morissette’s work as symptomatic of record label desperation. Are Maverick simply trying their hardest to wring as much mileage as possible out of the back catalogue of an artist who, for many, has failed to fulfil the creative or commercial promise of her phenomenal early success? Errant thoughts such as these may well pass through your mind as you listen to The Collection. In all fairness, however, this retrospective does have a little more to offer than such a cynical assessment suggests. In particular, for those who gave up on Morissette in the late ‘90s – that is, about mid-way through the endurance test that was Supposed Former Infatuation Junkie – The Collection functions as a valuable recap of what she’s been up to since, and a chance for listeners to reflect upon the qualities that make her, at times, a very special artist indeed. Unfortunately, though, the record also offers a few clues as to why her post-Pill output has been somewhat less than stellar.
The 18 tracks chosen for the album are broadly representative: five songs from Jagged Little Pill, a smattering from her other studio records, one from her MTV Unplugged disc, a trio of soundtrack contributions, some rarities, and a new cover (for less casual listeners, a special digipak edition supplements the CD with a one-hour documentary and a few other extras). There are, inevitably, some regrettable omissions: superior album cuts such as ‘Front Row’, ‘Narcissus’, ‘Surrendering’, ‘21 Things I Want In A Lover’ and ‘That Particular Time’ would have better displayed her gifts than some of the chosen tracks, but then no ‘best of’ collection ever pleased everyone. Less surprisingly, but perhaps a little disappointingly for some, there’s nothing featured from her early days as a teenage bubble-permed popstar either. The inclusion of some particularly obscure tracks (such as ‘Mercy’, her contribution to Jonathan Elias’s 1999 project of multi-language devotional songs entitled The Prayer Cycle) indicates that Morissette intends The Collection to be something rather more ambitious than a standard greatest hits package.
The sequencing is non-chronological and begins with …Junkie’s enduring first single ‘Thank U’, one of several of her beguiling paeans to experience as teacher. Of the less familiar tracks, ‘Sister Blister’ (from the CD/DVD package Feast On Scraps) rocks nicely and offers a trenchant view of gender roles and female competitiveness. The aforementioned ‘Mercy’ is a bizarre inclusion, however; a botched attempt at spiritual rapture on which Morissette (singing in Hungarian) duets with Salif Keita. As admirable as her decision not to follow a predictable course with this release is, it’s a tactic that often backfires and renders The Collection a rather uneven listening experience.
Indeed, quality control is sadly variable throughout. At her best, Morissette is a witty and insightful writer whose songs excavate sharp emotional truths; at her worst, she sounds like she’s reciting from a self-help manual, and a second-rate one at that. For every subtle, surprising lyrical detail that strikes a nerve, such as “I remembered you the moment I met you” in ‘Simple Together’, there’s a corresponding slide into cringe-making banality: “I thought we’d be sexy together… I thought we’d have children together.” Also exposed is her irritating penchant for repetitious ‘listing’ song structures. This compositional style – an attempt at litany? – allows little room for ambiguity, nuance or progression beyond glib paradoxes of the “I’m the funniest woman you’ve ever known… I’m the dullest woman you’ve ever known” / “I’m your doubt and your conviction” variety.
Morissette’s vocal performances can be similarly erratic. Her singing on Jagged Little Pill had character, edge, spontaneity and the power to command your attention. And while these qualities are still sometimes in evidence on her later work, they have mostly been stifled by increasingly slick and soulless production. To listen to her music is to bear witness to a gradual erosion of personality. She is, The Collection also reveals, an artist whose interpretive skills still require honing. A new cover of Seal’s ‘Crazy’ is passable, though utterly undistinguished, but an over-eager take on Cole Porter’s ‘Let’s Do It (Let’s Fall In Love)’ from the ‘De-Lovely’ soundtrack cruelly exposes her limitations, sticking out like the proverbial sore thumb. Since many of her songs are somewhat similar in tempo, a little of her work can go a long way. Whatever their deficiencies, quieter moments such as ‘Simple Together’ and ‘That I Would Be Good’ do offer a needed respite.
The nicest surprise though is just how well the Jagged Little Pill tracks have worn: ‘You Oughta Know’ retains its startling ferocity, ‘Head Over Feet’ reveals itself as a surprisingly sweet love song, while ‘Hand In My Pocket’ remains a glorious anthem. But then you probably own all those songs already and they gain little when presented out of context. Of the other tracks, the disturbing ‘Hands Clean’ – which does allow for some lyrical ambiguity – is one that you may find yourself returning to. That Morissette is a talented young artist who has yet to fully find her voice on record is the abiding impression given by The Collection. Hopefully, its release will mark a turning point in her career, freeing her up to reconnect with her muse and thereby take her music in some interesting new directions.
originally published February 6th, 2006
The Morning After Girls
Shadows Evolve •••
Their press release will tell you that The Morning After Girls’s “… hazy melodies pull you right into the world of the morning after – a moment they characterise by a dreamy grogginess, a dischord of transient yet striking memories and sounds, nostalgia; a yearning to go back to last night…” Or, depending on your taste, just to stick your head in a toilet.
But seriously, The Morning After Girls are regarded by some as yet another entry in a long line of fashionable faux-New York bands who emulate Lou Reed; hard-working but perhaps a little over-hyped. So what the musical offspring of these five Aussies really sounds like is initially not so cool (at least, not in my book), taking us back to the shoegaze era with startling precision, where one must keep an eye out for The Charlatan-osaurus sniffing a Stone Rose on a kind of Happy Monday, whilst all team members probably dye their hair black in the name of über-chic and have definitely listened to the noisier bits of The Dandy Warhols.
OK, so you get the idea that The Morning After Girls (who, controversially, are all men save for sometime vocalist Aimee Nash) would probably have fitted in much better, say, fifteen years ago. Refer to the title track and ‘Always Mine’ for two obvious examples if you don’t just believe everything you read. Yes, this debut offering is mostly disguised as ‘proper indie’, even featuring a cameo by Ride’s Mark Gardener, no less, meaning I had to listen to it at least three times before I could even begin to appreciate it. After which, it was gathered that the word ‘disguised’ is particularly apt. Because, once you chomp past the somewhat indigestible and rather bland exoskeleton of self-proclaimed psychedelia moulded into the start of the album, you are rewarded with something much more worthy of your pennies.
So while the unavoidable instrumentals shamelessly appear to boast more of laziness than of creativity – the few lyrics that were thrown in justify this, even admitting “ain’t got a lot to say” – glowing treats from the melodic and upbeat ‘Straight Through You’ to the aggressive Cobain-esque vocal of first single ‘Hi-Skies’ and the sweeping stoner lust of The Beatles crossed with The Vines-inspired tracks like ‘Slowdown’ and ‘Chasing Us Under’, make for a much more convincing dynamic. Indeed, the phrase “saved by the bell” comes to mind.
Though by no means a unique specimen, The Morning After Girls are worth checking out as they pimp their noisy wares at the festivals this summer, if only to hear what they are under-rated for. Like uncovering a rare fossil of the long-forgotten time when Damon Albarn sported a bowl cut, blow off the dusty bits and you’ll no doubt get excited.
originally published June 12th, 2006
The great thing about Morningwood is that you’re left in no doubt when they’re in the vicinity. The New York foursome are loud, glam and put on a spectacular live show, largely helped by the youthful exuberance of their wonderfully christened frontwoman, Chantal Claret. But can they cut it on CD, stripped of their visuals and spontaneity? Well they certainly can’t be criticised for not giving it their best shot. Lead track ‘Nü Rock’ slaps you upside your head with an in your face rock ‘n’ roll tune and a statement of intent, Claret screaming “come on get over it, come on get into it” over crunching riffs before finishing with the battle cry “it starts right now!”
Next, ‘Televisor’ approaches metal territory with all guns blazing, with Claret’s wailing falsetto oozing attitude. But before you have them pegged as some sort of glam rock beast, ‘Nth Degree’ arrives to surprise and confuse. It’s basically a big MOR Europop number that sounds like it’s being played by electropop robots with lyrics that spell out the name of the band. You can imagine it going down well in gay discos across the land. And do you know what, it sounds pretty good. But by the time you reach the fourth track, ‘Jetsetter’, familiarity begins to creep in, bringing as it does a contemptible lack of fresh ideas. It’s the usual brash stomping tune, with aggressive riffs and a hollered bit over the drum break. Similarly, while ‘Take Off Your Clothes’ may inspire some audience members to do just that at their live shows, here it rips the heart from ‘Smells Like Teen Spirit’ and renders it simply boring. ‘Body 21′ carries on the slip into formulaic nonsense, being a semi-dramatic rock tune full of half-baked lyrical clichés like “my body’s 21 but my mind is ageless”. Elsewhere, ‘Easy’ is all stadium posturing and screeching electric guitar solos, while ‘Babysitter’ is slightly more restrained and all the better for it. It’s still none too exciting, however.
After all this, ‘New York Girls’ comes as a nice surprise, more New Wave pop than over the top. The interruptions from riffing guitars and Go! Team-style shambolics sit rather well in the tune and make for a more interesting listen. In fact, it marks the start of a closing trio that trounces the majority of the rest of the album. ‘Everybody Rules’ is straightforward bouncy pop but with cool singalong bits, while ‘Ride The Lights’ is a rather surprising Saint Etienne-style, saccharine-coated pedestrian pop song. With more songs like these, Morningwood could yet avoid being put down as a lame one-trick pony.
originally published March 8th, 2006
Morning Warning Chorus EP ••
There’s nothing especially bad about this release from Stoke-on-Trent’s Rebecca Mosley; there’s nothing particularly good either, and the unremarkable nature of her debut sampler makes it frustratingly difficult to review. Mosley may list her influences as “anything from Kate Bush and Liz Fraser to Elliott Smith and Leonard Cohen”, but it’s hard to detect any traces of the originality that characterises these artists in Mosley’s music; as such, her songs can only pale in comparison.
For starters, opening number ‘Power In Paper’ is discordant in an amateurish rather than artful fashion (see Nina Nastasia’s ‘I Say That I Will Go’ for a good example of the latter) and the lyrics are clunky; “so did they bolt up the truth / the document weight / such a flimsy folded fate” sounds little better sung than it does on the page. On a positive note, Mosley’s voice is strong and versatile; it deserves better songs to work with. The strident acoustic guitar work jars against the ears and the lack of structure really doesn’t help. ‘Queues’ meanders in at a lengthy 6:42, long outstaying its welcome despite some pleasingly growly vocals reminiscent of Tori Amos’s ‘Pancake’.
And then it’s back to the major bugbear: the lyrics. Mosley tries too hard to be clever and too often comes unstuck. Recalling the kind of poems you stumble upon in an old notebook from your student days, scan over and hastily put away with embarrassment, the words pile up against each other but what they actually add up to is anybody’s guess. For example, “so tell me a joke please / so I can store it in a cool dry place / with your plastic attic angels / on their stone cold changeling chase” (‘Store In A Cool Dry Place’). Elsewhere, we have “fickle-fisted words”, “speckled mascara gratings making negative constellations” and light that “plays tricks like flashback movie flicks”.
Nonsense rhyme and alliteration all have their place but tend to grate when used to excess and at the expense of communicating anything worthwhile. Back to the drawing board.
originally published November 23rd, 2006
Yesterday Was Dramatic, Today Is OK [reissue] •••
It was only after the crushingly beautiful and critically revered Ágætis Byrjun by fellow Icelanders Sigur Rós that experimental foursome Múm gained recognition in the UK, helped in no small way by the fact that their second album, 2002’s Finally We Are No One, was released on the same label. But to dismiss them for riding on their countrymen’s tails would be a mistake; in their own unassuming way, Múm were pioneers too, as this reissue of their 1999 debut proves, albeit for better or worse.
Originally released on tiny Icelandic indie label Thule, it soon went out of print and, following a long and messy legal wrangle, the band regained the rights earlier this year and set about remastering the songs in preparation for this re-release on German label, Morr Music. Aside from the fact that Morr is owned by friends of the band, their roster includes some of the IDM (Intelligent Dance Music) genre’s brightest leading lights, many of whom contributed to the Morr Music Múm remix record, Please Smile My Noise Bleed. A fitting home then, but what of the album itself?
Despite the newly-tooled tune-ups, Yesterday… only serves to indicate how far the band has come in the last half-decade. Disappointingly, twin sister siren-like vocalists Kristín and Gyða (who has since departed the band) Valtýsdóttir appear on only three tracks. But what tracks they are! The most glorious moments, for instance, the end of ‘There Is A Number Of Small Things’ and the first few minutes of ‘Awake On A Train’, are breathtakingly beautiful. The former is so full of joy that it conjures the urge to run through a sunlit grassy field, while the latter accurately replicates that inner warmth you can feel when looking out from the window of a train over a glinting snowy vista as it sparkles in the sun.
Mostly though, the album sounds like exactly what it is: a bunch of teenagers sitting in a room playing with a synthesiser and a few acoustic instruments. Many of the songs have a single musical theme that is endlessly repeated and changes infrequently. As a result, it occasionally gets excessively tiresome, and some of the noodling sound effects are painful. Certainly, if their later records can be said to hold some debt to Sigur Rós, Yesterday… suffers from being a touch too in thrall of Aphex Twin. It has some nice enough moments, but is really for completists only. If you’re new to the band, try the bewitching, aquatically-themed Finally We Are No One or last year’s simpler and wonderfully ghostly Summer Make Good.
originally published December 19th, 2005
Ruby Blue ••
Rumours of Moloko’s death have been greatly exaggerated. At least, I sincerely hope so. When quizzed on reuniting with her ex, Mark Brydon, the impossible-to-type Róisín ‘pronounced Rosheen’ Murphy has offered the predictably gnomic response, “I don’t not want to.” That’s promising enough for this listener. While the familiar set-up remains intact – feisty, barking mad Irish vocalist meets cutting-edge bedroom DJ turned producer – none of Moloko’s loveable Balearic stomp has survived. Instead, Murphy’s defection to one Matthew Herbert has resulted in an album of two halves; those of two egos. One is fragile and over-compensatory, getting back on its feet after a year of limbo, and the other overwhelmed and eager to please. This album is a make-or-break statement for both parties, which only adds to the overall disappointment.
Even in a world of iPod Shuffles and cut-and-paste playlists, an album should still be listened to properly, tracks one through twelve, at least until you can safely discard some of them without the risk of overlooking a nascent classic. It is therefore surprising that Ruby Blue‘s opening salvoes – the ones supposed to leap up and grab you by the balls – are so tentative, especially given how much this album has to prove. A faltering tinkle of keyboards kicks off ‘Leaving The City’, meandering in an aimless fashion that soon becomes a trademark of the album as a whole. Eventually, that husky croon we know and love shuffles to the forefront and remains there, steadfast. Reassuring? Unfortunately not. Instrumentation behind a voice as strong and distinctive as Murphy’s should complement and support, not jar as much as this. Herbert’s conscious decision to use a ramshackle collage of everyday random noises, jazz refrains, dance grooves and synthetic skiffle very rarely hits the right note. ‘Night Of The Dancing Flame’ can only be described as Dizzy Gillespie meets The Ewoks.
Things are a little brighter with ‘Through Time’. It’s a welcoming simpler affair, wrapped in gentle layers of organ and decorated with plucked acoustic guitar and cascading arpeggiated motifs. Heralding a string of stronger offerings, it is soon followed by ‘Sow Into You’. Here, one is reminded of Muphy’s Moloko diva status; a status built on a dance remix of ‘Sing It Back’ that made it onto over a hundred compilations and hundreds more dancefloors. The first and most obvious single from Ruby Blue comes with ‘If We’re In Love’, easily the most accessible and immediate of Murphy’s erratic stable. “If we’re in love, we should make love. When will be lovers?” she asks. One has a sneaking suspicion that this enigmatic girl isn’t letting on as much as we’d like to imagine. This is a lyric as poptastically bland as the market she’s aiming for.
For me, the title track is far too long coming. Buried three-quarters of the way into the album, it’s a glorious romp of grunge guitar, handclaps, jubilant backing “woos!” and swirling, multi-layered vocals. Sadly, it’s an all too brief glimpse into the heights that Murphy and Herbert could scale, but… well… don’t. The album’s solid middle section finishes here, bookended by a clutch of damp squibs. It bows out on as subdued a note as it started. Perhaps Murphy really was assuming that people would listen this solely on an iPod Shuffle.
This record might have served as a versatile and grandiose addition to Matthew Herbert’s portfolio – surely his magnum opus so far. Instead, it falls flat, weighed down by overbearing vocals far too high in the mix and much too complex to play bedfellow to the laboured production. Indeed, this is as much Herbert’s record as it is Murphy’s, but ultimately it’s to the detriment of both.
originally published August 7th, 2005
Filed under: album, back issues, live, review | Tags: alan pedder, alex parks, alisha's attic, andrew stewart, anja mccloskey, anna claxton, dolly parton, helen griffiths, hugh armitage, james gurney, liz phair, lynn roberts, miss pain, nerina pallot, paul the girl, paul woodgate, petra jean phillipson, piney gir, pretty girls make graves, rod thomas, rose polenzani, shelly poole, sophie richards, teasing lulu, the pipettes, trevor raggatt, zeena parkins
The following reviews were all published on our old website between May 2005 and December 2006.
The silver-tongued Miss Pallot (as in mallow) sure is dicing with those titular flames on this, her second album and first since 2001’s precocious Dear Frustrated Superstar. As a collection of songs, Fires warms and cools the soul in equal measures, as her sweet soaring vocals and clear, crisp harmonies sometimes sour on bitter lyrical content. Like an assortment of chocolates missing its label, while most songs are colourfully packaged enough to please the aesthetic palette, some are just average and others may leave a slightly bitter aftertaste.
First single, ‘Everybody’s Gone To War’, is the most obvious talking point of the album. Musically, it’s a rather mixed bag, drawing on influences falling squarely under the pop/rock umbrella, yet raining down with the folk-like sentiments of a protest song. However honourable her intention, you can’t help feeling that her desire to cast religious and political aspersions within a high-class pop framework merely complicates and detracts from her message. Pop with a conscience has always been a risky business, with its clear winners (Black Eyed Peas’ ‘Where Is The Love?’) and losers (see Jewel’s entire 0304 album), and in this setting Pallot’s ‘controversial’ lyrics seem only twee and a shade condescending. Indeed, this may well have been better digested as two separate songs.
Elsewhere, the road to ‘Damascus’ is a labour of uncertainty. As a mid-tempo spiral of conversion to atheism, it’s surprisingly meaty and goes for the jugular, highlighting the hypocrisy in believing in something for the sake of it alone. In the past, Pallot has never been shy of using the odd expletive, and this one may well be slapped with a parental advisory. The derivative but fun ‘Geek Love’ could have been lifted from any US teen TV drama soundtrack. Its awkward chording and pensive reflection marks it out for the moment of first carnal fumblings, but just as those visuals would be censored to fit the PG13 watershed, the song leaves you wanting. The more impressive Heart Attack has a gleefully oozing bassline, integral to the song’s structure that is designed to reflect the nature of an infarction – the chorus cuts through the regular pulse of the verse as a shuddering arrhythmia complete with vocals that constrict then heighten and finally explode. This and the ethereal closer, ‘Nickindia’, pick out Nerina as a determined femme fatale.
Overall, while Fires is intended as a light to guide through various directions, forks and U-turns, as with all journeys, there are points you might like to dwell on a little longer and a few that are better bypassed altogether.
originally published September 7th, 2005
Live at Bush Hall •••••
November 28th, 2005
After several years spent licking the wounds from the rigors of abuse at the hands of one the ‘majors’, 2005 was finally good to Nerina Pallot. This time taking the independent route, her second album, Fires, garnered both critical acclaim and serious national airplay. Several high-profile support slots followed and Pallot wound up opening for the likes of Jamie Cullum, Sheryl Crow and Suzanne Vega, with the occasional headliner on the London club scene. This led to the desire to hold an end of year celebration, something special for the artist and her obsessively loyal and rapidly growing fanbase. Certainly, from the moment she took to the stage to the strains of a string quartet, it was clear that the sell-out crowd were indeed in for a memorable treat.
The opening number – a string rearrangement of her debut single ‘Patience’ from ill-fated first album Dear Frustrated Superstar – set the tone for the evening, transforming the jaunty pop number into something bearing menace and tension, with the strings used to maximum effect demonstrating Pallot’s skill as an arranger as well as a composer. Although this was the most overtly orchestral treatment of the evening, the songs that followed did not fall into the trap of using the strings simply as keyboard-pad replacements. Rather, the orchestrations by both Ned Bingham and Pallot herself added a depth to the music that transcended simple melody and chord structure.
With the setlist taking in the breadth of both her albums, Pallot remarked on what a pleasure it was to perform the earlier songs since the “pots of big record company money” that was lavished on it had allowed many of those tracks to have lush string backing. This was her first opportunity to give them such an airing in a live context, and it was clear that she was enjoying the experience, characteristically throwing herself into the performance – whether on acoustic guitar or a baby grand piano. Pallot, wearing a classy black ensemble suited to the ambience and the venue’s ornate interior, seemed initially overawed by the rapturous reception she received. She professed being at an uncharacteristic loss for words, although soon loosened up and delivered her now trademark between-song blethering.
Pallot’s consummate skill as a performer drew her rapt audience through the emotional and musical ebb and flow of the songs, whether the short solo set in the middle of the evening or the ensemble pieces; the awed silence which accompanied the music contrasting with the enthusiastic applause. A moving performance of ‘Damascus’ particularly impressed, with the strings adding extra poignancy to the music and lyrics. Punctuated by a switch from legato to pizzicato strings, the song’s middle eight formed a veritable danse macabre of regrets for lost love. The set was drawn to a wistful conclusion with the beautiful ‘My Last Tango’. The recorded version, which closes out …Superstar, features a sumptuous string backing and tonight was done full justice, the closing notes met with a standing ovation.
With such a response an encore was assured, and when Pallot returned alone to the stage, she pulled off a tender rendition of the Joy Division classic ‘Love Will Tear Us Apart’. Unbelievably, her treatment drew hitherto unheard depths of poignancy out of what is already a paean to the pain of loss. Two new songs – ‘Everything’s Illuminated’ (almost certainly a reference to the Jonathan Safran Foer novel and new Elijah Wood film) and ‘I’m Gonna Be A Man’ – brought the evening to a stunning conclusion, boding well for her next disc. Finally satiated, the audience spilled out into the bitterly cold West London streets suffused with the inner glow of knowing that they had participated in a very special evening indeed.
originally published December 12th, 2005
Live at Regent’s Park Open Air Theatre •••••
September 3rd, 2006
It’s been a busy year since Wears The Trousers reviewed Nerina Pallot’s sophomore album, Fires. She’s picked up the record deal she richly deserves, seeing her self- financed disc reissued with what Pallot herself refers to as “a bit of a tit job”, a top twenty single and an appearance on ‘Top Of The Pops’ before it went the way of the dodo. This concert, therefore, has a coming of age feel, and what a stage to do it on! The Open Air Theatre at London’s magnificent Regent’s Park provides a magical setting, with its grotto-like entrances, canvas canopy dwarfed by trees festooned with fairy lights and a stage that’s clothed in lush green grass – okay, so it’s actually Astroturf, but the effect is the same.
After an excellent support set from London circuit regular Jon Allen, Pallot takes to the stage dressed in a floaty pink chiffon number with sparkly shoes and a pink orchid in her hair, looking every inch the faerie queen. As it happens, the weather is balmy – in direct contrast to the previous day’s torrential downpours – and the breeze, when it comes, simply ruffles Pallot’s hair and dress as if she were doing a video shoot with a costly, well-aimed wind machine. In fact, all aspects of the evening conspire to enhance the mood. Pallot’s extended band line-up also pays dividends, allowing greater depth to be added to even the most authentic recreations of her album’s arrangements. Even the distinctive Jon Brion production of ‘Damascus’ is flawlessly brought to life. Where required, the band lend a greater muscularity and authority to the rockier numbers and a real-life string section will always be preferable to a Korg keyboard, however well played.
Songs are mostly culled from her two albums, but there are some which have not yet reached vinyl. ‘Everything Is Illuminated’ (inspired by the Jonathan Safran Foer novel) is a reliable stomper while Heidi is proof positive that never seriously pissing off an up-and-coming songwriter is often a wise principle. There’s a cover too – and an unusual one at that – in the shape of Frank Mills from the musical ‘Hair’. With its gentle string backing, however, decency was mercifully preserved. All too soon, though, the evening was over and Pallot closed proceedings with a solo piano version of new single ‘Sophia’, leaving the gathered acolytes with a sense of having witnessed a rite of passage.
Nerina Pallot has long beguiled her audiences with a down-to-earth openness under-girded with an intelligent and mischievous sense of humour that perfectly complements her writing and performing skills. As ever, such qualities were in evidence tonight, but they were joined by something else – a palpable leap in confidence that perhaps stems from seeing her vision and perseverance acknowledged and rewarded among a much broader audience. A coming of age indeed and some- thing that bodes well for audiences who catch her as she tours through the autumn. On this occasion, as Shakespeare himself might just have said, “well met by moonlight, proud Nerina!”
originally published September 17th, 2006
Of the few avant-garde harpists around, the influence of New Yorker Zeena Parkins is perhaps the most widely felt, ever changing our perception of this traditionally formal, beautiful instrument. During her 20+ year career, Parkins has racked up some impressive collaborations – most notably with Björk (that’s her sound stamped all over Vespertine), Ikue Mori, John Zorn and Bang On A Can – as well as composing her own, often astonishing material. Despite (or perhaps owing to) her prolific work rate, Necklace is Parkins’ first solo release in over five years and showcases four very different compositions, two of which feature the Eclipse String Quartet (one half of whom are Zeena’s Juilliard-trained sisters Sara and Maggie). Previous works have successfully melded the natural sounds of acoustic instruments with all sorts of strange percussive objects, such as alligator clips, nails, rubber tubing and glass jars, and, in keeping with this, Necklace has a few surprises of its own.
Opener ‘Persuasion’ is a powerfully intense, 17-minute long epic. Urgent and bleak, its most disconcerting feature is the implementation of some unusual panning. Sounds move from side to side within the stereo field in a fast changing rhythm, while the strings veer from piano to fortissimo in a matter of seconds. The recording of the dynamics is extraordinarily well defined, giving a dramatic and effective composition, albeit in a pointedly uncoordinated manner. The instruments follow an unpredictable and dissonant pattern that only they know, sometimes breaking from frail vibrato structures straight into scratchy and sliding string passages.
More unusual still is ‘16 Feet + Cello’, the title of which should be taken as entirely literal. While Zeena’s sister Maggie takes to the cello, the percussion is provided by eight dancers from the French performing arts collective Compagnie Sui-Generis. Here, Parkins toys with the recorded sounds of tapping, running and squeaking shoes accompanied by moody experimental cello. Through searching to find musical structures in the accumulation of unusual noise, the piece achieves something quite remarkable, though undoubtedly of an acquired taste.
Played alone on an acoustic harp, ‘Solo For Neil’ really shows off Parkins’s distinctive playing style as she explores her instrument in rapidly undulating melodies and chord structures, unafraid to use the harp percussively. Finally, ‘Visible / Invisible’ is a striking composition presented in three parts. First up, ‘The Hand’ is a lively adventure into the myriad ways in which string instruments can be used. Percussive sounds mix with sliding notes and plucked passages; notes in the higher frequencies are contrasted by what could be described as a dark moaning rhythm, while a distressed and uncomfortable melody is played without any sign of urgency. Middle section ‘Anamnesis’ is a spooky experience, fairly successfully contrasting different frequencies with dark cello sounds, while ‘The Necklace’ focuses on more dissonant structures.
Honest and refreshingly unpretentious, Zeena Parkins has created another avant-garde jewel. Long may she continue!
originally published October 14th, 2006
Live at Bush Hall ••
October 20th, 2005
Curiosity, it has to be said, is a bit of a risky business. Aside from disposing of our feline friends, it can lead (albeit less fatally) to some sorry situations, and yet life would be much the poorer without it. It’s with this caveat in mind that I offered to review this show, the third and final performance on a teeny tiny tour to air the new album from a genuine oddity. Alex Parks, the black sheep of the 2003/04 Fame Academy alumni, is back after a near two-year hiatus with Honesty, an album of originals and co-writes with the likes of Alisha’s Attic’s Karen Poole, Shakespear’s Sister Marcella Detroit and veteran British folkie, Judie Tzuke. Though I confess to holding a rather cynical view of the worth of TV search-for-a-star clones, there’s something sweetly irregular about Parks that has me wanting to be impressed, even proven wrong.
Sadly my suspicions are confirmed. Despite having started a singing career at the age of 14 (she’s 21 now) and fronting up for millions of viewers week after week at the Academy, Parks is hugely lacking in confidence. As the night goes on she fidgets, mumbles and looks terrifically embarrassed – and what a stretch it is too. Perhaps over-eager to distance herself from the bland cover versions comprising much of her rush-released debut, Introduction, Parks’s set is devoid of any sympathy for her audience. Song after song from Honesty is bashfully unfurled, which might have been all well and good if anyone had actually heard the thing (bar the first single ‘Looking For Water’), but in the context of the night was hardly the wisest of moves. As well as hampering the evening’s flow, the constant fluctuation from ‘Dawson’s Creek’ background ballads to Evanescence and Lavigne-like teen angst rock chants seemed to simply weary and confuse those in attendance.
Finally, after an apology from Parks for playing too much new material, the last song of a long slog was thrown like a bone to the crowd hungry for recognition. Suddenly awoken to how good she can be, they swayed and open-mouthedly emoted to her engaging debut single ‘Maybe That’s What It Takes’, waving aloft their glowing mobile phones in place of the more traditional lighter. Sadly, it was too little too late, and with nary so much as an encore, she slipped off into the darkness. There’s no doubting that Parks can sing. There’s an exceptional quality and depth to her voice, but while that was enough to see her graduate with honours from the Fame Academy, sharper instincts are needed if she’s to avoid this ruthless industry’s chop. Such a fate would be a wicked irony indeed for someone who started out in a band named One Trick Pony.
originally published November 7th, 2005
Those Were The Days •
Oh dear. Just when it was all going so right for Dolly Parton, she’s lost her footing in the farmyard and recorded this insipid collection of bluegrass-inflected covers of songs from the ‘60s and ‘70s. And while it probably seemed like a good idea to rope in original artists where possible, seasoned with more contemporary singers where not; it really, really wasn’t. Not since 1996’s Treasures has she seemed so uninspired – a not entirely coincidental link, as that too was an all-covers album over-egged by an all-star cast. But before I go on, I must confess that daring to aim criticism at the Dolly of immortal legend just makes me feel mean and seedy, low down and dirty. But having tried to come to terms with this album, it’s down to the gutter I go and I’ll have my meths straight up.
Parton is, of course, famous for insisting that she ain’t no dumb blonde, which is almost certainly true, but she’s woefully misjudged this gut-wrenching cash cow. Where her trio of albums from 1999’s The Grass Is Blue to 2002’s Halos & Horns were packed with nicely nuanced, if faintly schmaltzy bluegrass ballads, Those Were The Days heaps on the saccharine by the noxious, suffocating bucketload. Worse still, some of the gaps in between the songs are filled with giggling Barbie-esque studio outtakes of Parton bantering with her vast array of fellow duettists, who include Lee Ann Womack, Judy Collins, Norah Jones, Nickel Creek, Alison Krauss, Mindy Smith, Kris Kristofferson, Joe Nichols and Keith Urban.
As far as the songs go, ‘Crimson & Clover’ is quite nice, and ‘Blowin’ In The Wind’ is, well, breezy I guess. But ‘Me & Bobby McGee’ is turgid and I know Cat Stevens isn’t real big in Texas these days, but Dolly’s ‘Where Do The Children Play’ is really something else, despite Yusuf himself chiming in on guitar. There’s even a ‘Turn Turn Turn’ for the crystal meth generation, while every trace of pathos in Joni Mitchell’s ‘Both Sides Now’ is mercilessly throttled by a high-speed banjo workout so inanely cheerful, it’s what an aerobics class in Hell must sound like. And seeing as that’s exactly where I’m headed after writing this review, I might as well finish the bottle.
originally published January 23rd, 2006
Paul The Girl
Little Miss Weird •••½
Paul The Girl is a girl from London whose real name may or may not be Paul, but that’s not important. What’s crucial is that her songs sound like witch’s mantras – dramatic, sinister and often frighteningly primal – deconstructing any familiar blues and jazz influences and rendering them utterly bizarre when combined with a fiercely DIY ethic and cabaret quirk. As much as Tori Amos was cited as America’s flame-haired answer to Kate Bush, so Paul The Girl could perhaps be described as schizophrenia’s answer to Tori Amos. But Little Miss Weird features a whole host of other influences, too. From the ghost of Jimi Hendrix to The White Stripes and James Brown, Paul The Girl sounds akin to all yet none of these; in fact, she might well have redefined the notion of a singular talent.
Little Miss Weird is the work of a manic genius, and what an apt title! Singing like a woman possessed and ever so slightly scorned, one might half expect to hear the crunch of tendons beneath her feet as her head spins on its axis – something that would not seem amiss in this bold, peculiar offering. From the very first song, the malevolent ‘The Little Girl Who Loved Down The Lane’, Paul The Girl stays very much on the dark side of every note, her fingers clasped around the neck of rock ‘n’ roll and squeezing until all you thought was real and right is dead. Inexplicably, however, the seething mass of sound you are left with is something rather likeable.
Although there are points during ‘We Ain’t Gonna Lay’ and the folk-inspired ‘Bricks’ that Paul comes oddly close to sounding soothing and pondering, barminess is very much the order of the day. Her sneering yet soulful, seductive yet innocent performances dominate the album, from ‘Gimme Rest’, wherein she channels the spirit of a Russian dancer with Tourettes, to the desolate ‘Circumstantial Blues’. Everyday lyrics are freshly painted with a new shade of wry mysticism as fast moving fingers shudder in and out of ballsy riffs and haunting melodies.
Needless to say, Little Miss Weird stands up to be counted completely as it is and does not beat around any bush to make its point. Admittedly, it’s more like a piece of theatre than something you can boogie your socks off to, but there remains no doubt that this is an album as hypnotic as it is thought-provoking. Quite what the average listener will make of it, however, is rather less certain. Having said that, it’s plain to see that Paul The Girl doesn’t care what anyone thinks, though she’s worth having an opinion on, just in case.
originally published September 20th, 2006
Impeach My Bush ••••
Vilified in some quarters of the music press as an infantile pottymouth and celebrated in others as a genuinely subversive interrogator of gender/sex roles, Peaches demonstrates yet again that it’s possible to be both things simultaneously. Though thematically similar to previous releases, Impeach My Bush marks a more complete marriage between electroclash and rock than ever before – Josh Homme of Queens Of The Stone Age provides a few riffs, while The Gossip’s Beth Ditto and archetypal rocker girl Joan Jett guest – with most tracks an addictive mix of minimal beats and powerhouse guitars.
Peaches herself describes the record as “an album for the masses, a social album – to challenge, educate and encourage”. Her manifesto as such is based upon a refusal to willingly accept the rigid representation of gender and sexuality found in mainstream cultural products, in which hetero/homosexuality is presented as a binary opposition and male and female gender roles are clearly demarcated. And so we find the former music teacher continuing her quest to challenge traditional (and predominantly male) notions, or, in the case of ‘Two Guys (For Every Girl)’, flip them on their head entirely.
As she did on ‘Back It Up, Boy’ from 2003’s Fatherfucker, her aim is to open straight male eyes to the taboo of anal sex. Brushing away the guy-girl-girl fantasy threesome that blares out from the pages of every Loaded / Maxim / Zoo-style rag, Peaches calls on men to be more adventurous, with Ditto’s help on the chorus. Gleefully firing out demands, she paints an explicit picture as she directs the action on her own terms: “Just one thing I can’t compromise / I wanna see you work it, guy on guy”, and later, “Just remember, an ass is an ass / so roll on over, have yourselves a blast”. It’s gloriously filthy, funny and just what parental advisory stickers were made for.
Despite the suggestion of Impeach My Bush that Peaches has extended her reach outside of gender politics to encompass matters of national political importance, this proves to be a little misleading. Only on the 48-second opening track ‘Fuck Or Kill’ is the president really in her sights. The album’s opening salvo – “I’d rather fuck who I want than kill who I am told to” – is suggestive of the Bush administration’s aggressive military politics and its ultra-conservative sexual outlook. But even if she hasn’t really changed the spots on her leopard print thong, the record at least demonstrates an awareness on Peaches’s part that she’s in danger of being – or perhaps already has been – stuck with the label ‘that filthy lady’. On ‘Stick It To The Pimp’, she toys with these expectations, playing the role of an indignant prostitute sick of male intimidation and fighting back. It’s a rousing end to a rousing – and sometimes arousing – album.
Of course, as with most politically and/or sexually subversive artists, Peaches is preaching primarily to the converted. That’s not to say, for example, that all Peaches fans are into M/M/F three-ways, but she is the artist of choice at alternative queer nights the world over and her support slots have tended to be with like-minded alternative / electro artists (though there are some exceptions, like Marilyn Manson). However, if the former Ms Merrill Nisker can get even one avowedly hetero guy looking at his “nasty little brother” (‘Two Guys’ again) in a new way, or one young voter wondering about the sexually oppressive policies of the Bush administration, then she has succeeded in her aim. As for those of us who don’t need convincing that sex is fun and Bush is bad, we can just dance to the beats, laugh at the jokes and get lost in the glorious racket.
originally published July 23rd, 2006
Live at the Forum, Kentish Town ••••
October 13, 2006
If it wasn’t all that obvious beforehand, tonight’s show makes it perfectly clear – immediately apparent even – that Peaches is quite the formidable performer. My first glimpse of her is at an angle that’s admittedly not all that becoming, the phrase ‘in the flesh’ never more appropriate when looking up into the crotch of a tiny silver jumpsuit as its wearer dry humps the banister she’s straddling. With her trademark silver mask glinting like a madcap mirrorball, the crowd goes (quite literally) bonkers as she begins with the charming ‘Tent In Your Pants’, a ditty about stiffies, prompting a raunchy and raucous set undoubtedly best viewed with tongue stuck firmly in cheek, though not necessarily your own.
On this pitifully brief tour, Peaches is being egged on by her fabulously androgynous oestrogen-fuelled all-girl supergroup The Herms, comprising drummer Samantha Moloney (who earnt her stripes in Hole and Motley Crüe), ex-Courtney Love guitarist Radio Sloan and JD Samson of Le Tigre notoriety on keytar and sequencing. In their coordinating costumes, The Herms make a wonderfully choreographed addition to the unfolding mayhem as Peaches raids and massacres her entire back catalogue with riotous glee. From the oh-so-subtle anti-government sentiments of ‘Impeach My Bush’ – imagine Dubya cower as she screams “I’d rather fuck who I want than kill who I’m told to” – to promising that there are ‘Two Guys (For Every Girl)’, via instructing those assembled to proudly shake their dix, it’s a hardcore assault on the ears in every sense of the phrase.
As she climaxes with the sinister sexuality of ‘Back It Up, Boys’ and ‘Fuck The Pain Away’, one thing is clear; Peaches is a woman who is certainly never going to apologise for her own or anyone else’s behaviour. A refreshing and tantalising hybrid of Marc Bolan glam, bollock-grabbing sexuality and futuristic gyrating femininity, she’s a huge ball of energy. As she commands her audience to climb the sweaty walls that encase them, a couple of thousand bodies work up a lather in her sublimely perverse spectacle, enslaved to the death-defying force atop the PA system. They are willing participants in the purely dirty electro rock ‘n’ roll opera that passes before them in an eye-popping collage of giant inflatable penises, kitsch medal ceremonies, small pink bicycles and even smaller pink bra and panty sets.
Iconic feminist or a downright barmy nymphomaniac? Whatever your opinion, Peaches is avowedly among the most powerfully entertaining artists around. Don’t dare miss her next time!
originally published October 24th, 2006
Somebody’s Miracle •••½
What would have happened if The Beatles had had an online fan forum between Revolver and Sgt Pepper’s? Or to Dylan when he went electric? Chances are they’d have still created work worthy of their genius, but the internet has stripped away the distance between creator and critic. Today you can send e-mails to artists with your opinions on their work, and it’s increasingly likely they’ll actually read it. Don’t believe me? Check out Adam Duritz’s forum on the Counting Crows website, a rare taste of a songwriter giving his admirers a taste of their own tongue-lashing. Is the musician just an avatar for the neuroses of their more, shall we say, ardent appreciators, or someone articulating their inner emotions for cathartic reasons? 99 of 100 artists will tell you, correctly, that they make music for themselves first. If we like it too, great. They’re not our personal troubadours. Get over it. Move on. Liz Phair has. Just listen to ‘Everything To Me’ on which she sings: “…you never gave a damn about all of those things I did to please you / all that you wanted, you found somewhere else / and nothing could drag you away from yourself / do you really know me at all?”
I haven’t followed Phair since 1993’s Exile In Guyville. I haven’t queued in the rain for her gigs and I wouldn’t frame her plectrum and place it above my pillow, turn around four times and chant her name before I sleep. For all the indignant chorus of disapprovals and shouts of “sell out!” she’s suffered, an album of new material from Phair is something to be respected, if not treasured. If you don’t like it, don’t listen to it. You’ll be missing out though because Somebody’s Miracle is intelligent, adult power-pop. It’s rock in a suede glove, and it’s going to cost you a fortune because to really appreciate it you’ll need to buy a convertible, put the top down and crank up the stereo; this album is a summer stomper. It pushes all the right buttons at all the right times. There are Beach Boys backing vocals, minor chords when you expect major, stop-start verse/chorus structures and sweet vocals about love, sex and more love. It’s equal parts Aimee Mann, Blondie, Fountains Of Wayne and Sheryl Crow and, occasionally, a little of Phair’s back-catalogue spikiness. The title track, ‘Stars & Planets’ and the glorious ‘Count On My Love’ are songs to give your heart to. If you don’t tap your feet, I’ll eat mine.
Cons? The album pacing isn’t always brilliant, the two opening tracks don’t get out of the blocks and it’s two songs too long, but I’m not going to camp outside her flat and demand she changes it for me. It’s her album, her songs and her feelings. I’m just along for the ride. If the top’s down, I’ll be happy. Hell, I may even e-mail Liz and let her know.
originally published March 11th, 2006
Petra Jean Phillipson
Extended Play EP ••••
Former Free Association vocalist and veteran of many an immemorable band, Petra Jean Phillipson is finally getting it all her own way. With her debut solo album Notes On: Love due out at the end of June, this four track teaser indicates a stellar reinvention. With an affecting vocal style not unlike our other favourite PJ kicking back with Billie Holiday, these bluesy, spooky songs do not shy away from acknowledging their roots. Indeed, the initial recording sessions for the album were done with longtime PJ Harvey collaborators, Rob Ellis and Head but, perhaps fearing these similarities and the inevitable comparisons would overshadow her efforts, Petra scrapped the sessions, returning to London to try again with her friend, former Verve guitarist Si Tong.
Regardless, ‘Independent Woman’ could easily have been plucked from Harvey’s often misunderstood Is This Desire?, whereas ‘Billy Steaks’ would not have sounded out of place on CocoRosie’s La Maison De Mon Rêve. ‘Play Play’ is astounding, however, and all her own. With a bewitching cooing hook, it undulates with quiet menace. ‘Dead Eyes’, too, is exquisitely mournful in the same vein as something from Beth Gibbons’s Out Of Season. It weaves along seductively before disintegrating into a thrillingly arrythmic clanging of bells and rattles.
In between the release of Extended Play and the now eagerly-anticipated Notes On: Love, Petra embarks on a small tour supporting Turin Brakes, calling at Birmingham Academy (June 9), Glasgow Barrowlands (June 10), Manchester Ritz (June 12) and London Shepherd’s Bush Empire (June 13).
originally published May 21st, 2005
Petra Jean Phillipson
Notes On: Love •••
Warning! Do not listen to Notes On: Love on an otherwise happy and bright summer’s day. The chances are that this debut solo album from Petra Jean Phillipson will pass you by completely between squinty looks up to the sun. A more appropriate setting would be within the cold, dark spaces of a winter’s evening as you lie cocooned and thoughtful. This is an album for which the setting must be perfectly aligned. It’s obscure and delicate sounds are reminiscent of Adem, and these are coupled with wavering, haunting vocals, not enormously discrepant from those of bearded folkie Devendra Banhart. Keen ears may even recognise Phillipson’s vocals, though distinctive in kind, from her earlier work with artists such as Martina Topley-Bird, The Beta Band, Mad Professor, Marc Almond and David Holmes (Phillipson was formerly the lead vocalist for his briefly successful Free Association collective).
So, once ensconced in your hiemal surrounds, earphones close by, and thus the mood perfectly set, Notes On: Love will take you on a closing journey through the eight-year chapter of Phillipson’s life for which it has been gestating. It’s a chapter told through intimate songs, curious attention-grabbing lyrics (e.g. “I want to have a penis for a day”) and sounds that inevitably warrant comparisons to Billie Holiday and the UK’s more famous PJ, Ms Harvey. Standout tracks include the Harvey-esque ‘Independent Woman’, ‘Nothing If Not Writing Time’, which is reminiscent of Martha Wainwright’s lovely ascending melodies, and ‘Into My Arms’, a Nick Cave cover into which Phillipson’s voice delicately wanders with much success.
No doubt owing a great deal to the production talents of former Verve guitarist Si Tong, the clean and uncluttered atmosphere works well with the album’s foreboding. However, Notes On: Love won’t be to everyone’s taste. It’s certainly in no hurry to become familiar, particularly during the second half for which it is harder to find time. Phillipson herself admits to the dark, heavy tones that shade and sometimes overshadow this release. Yet it is these sentiments that are precisely what she was aiming for – the challenges to the listener originate from what are indeed her notes on love. Thus, just as love can be immense and bewitching, so can this collection.
originally published September 9th, 2005
The Piney Gir Country Roadshow
Hold Yer Horses ••••
Piney Gir is the alter ego of Kansas City-born Angela Penhaligon, who offers up half an hour of diverse country stylings in the form of her second album, Hold Yer Horses, co-credited with her Country Roadshow bandmates. Not just a peculiar handle for the sake of being quirky, Piney Gir is the name Penhaligon gave herself as a child with ‘Gir’ being her attempt at ‘girl’ and the meaning of ‘Piney’ being lost to posterity. It all hints at a sense of fun and a rare ability to not take herself too seriously, as was confirmed by her riotous 2004 debut Peakahokahoo.
Hold Yer Horses, too, is a romp. It veritably bounces along, few of the tracks exceeding the three minute mark. From the opening ‘Greetings, Salutations, Goodbye’ (a twangy, thigh-slapping take on the Peakahokahoo number), each song is distinctive and wastes no time in lodging itself deep inside your brain. The subject matter is, on the whole, the usual fare of love, heartache and wanderlust, and the delivery is largely light-hearted and avoids the depths of despair plumbed by so many others, which can be a welcome change on occasion. This sense of frivolity is reflected in tracks like ‘Tell It To The Dog’, where Piney croons sweetly, “it’s alright now baby…just tell it to the dog”.
Hold Yer Horses is also very nicely structured. It’s essentially a country album, but manages to make itself an excellent showcase for the diversity of musical styles that Penhaligon is known for. The first few tracks are classic Nashville; ‘I Don’t Know Why I Feel Like Cryin’ But I Do’ could have been sung by Saint Dolly herself. Then, repeating the trick from Peakahokahoo but with a rustic twist, we bizarrely encounter the first verse of ‘Que Sera Sera’, which breaks straight into the feisty ‘Girl’, set to a country tune that’s certainly not of the garden variety.
The next segment is more experimental, offering something that is usually a little faster and heavier than the norm (barring ‘Little Doggie’, which is more run-of-the-mill, and at certain points gratingly saccharine). This section concludes with the lovely ‘Nightsong’, a blissfully chilled out duet with David Fisher, the Roadshow’s singing drummer who sounds a little like a young Tom Waits dosed up on Benylin. The final few tracks mark a return to the more classic style, with ‘Trouble’ even boasting its very own train whistle. ‘Be Careful’, with its chorus of singing and clapping of hands, makes for the perfect finale.
As for Piney herself, her voice may not possess beauty of the breathtaking variety, but it’s sweet and light and a pleasure to listen to. The entire album reflects this ease, its diversity being interesting but not jarring. Hold Yer Horses may not be deep and meaningful, but it’ll have you humming along before you even cotton on to what you’re doing.
The Pipettes / Teasing LuLu / Miss Pain
Live at Concorde 2, Brighton •••½
March 27th, 2006
Despite my initial plan to review only The Pipettes’s performance tonight, the appearance of two other equally unique acts on stage forced a bit of a rethink, and I thought it only right and just to write about the entire affair. First to take to the stage are Teasing LuLu, an indie/punk/rock band comprising guitarist/lead singer Lucy, bassist/backing vocalist Louisa and drummer Jason, currently gearing up to release their very limited edition debut single, ‘Infatuation’, on indie label Militant Recordings in April. It’s a shameful thing to admit to, but I was planning to turn up just before The Pipettes were scheduled on stage. As it turns out, I’m glad I wasn’t so lame.
To get an idea of Teasing LuLu’s live show, try to imagine what would happen if Wayne’s World’s Cassandra (as played by Tia Carrere) happened to manage a band with the help of Justine Frischmann, PJ Harvey, Debbie Harry and Queens Of The Stone Age frontman Josh Homme. Under such tutelage, I reckon the result would be not too dissimilar to the sound of this very fine band; they really can wail! Visit their MySpace and listen to ‘Loser’, a song that boasts the unusual pairing of a knockout rock track and tuneful screaming, and while you’re there, have a listen also to ‘Cat & Mouse’ – they actually miaow!
Next up are Miss Pain, another two-girl, one-boy combo I had read all about on the back of a toilet door the previous Thursday and was therefore expecting something extraordinary. I was not disappointed… they were extraordinarily ludicrous. I tried really hard to like them, really I did, but if you gotta try that hard then something’s amiss. What I’m secretly hoping is that they’re actually a comedy concept band since the entire experience was on a par with watching a particularly excruciating episode of ‘The Office’, only there were feathers and synthesisers and bizarre dancing… or maybe I’m just not avant-garde enough. Hmm.
Finally, The Pipettes are welcomed enthusiastically to the stage and show the crowd the real meaning of fantastic. Apart from the fact that the girls (Gwenno, Becky and Rose) are talented vocalists, they’re also brilliant fun. Of course, it’s all very tongue in cheek but that’s just part of the charm. You don’t just go to listen to the music, you go to watch them dance and wear their excellent dresses. Although I worried at first that my feminist principles might conflict with my enjoyment of The Pipettes, any doubts vanished pretty sharpish for two reasons. Firstly, despite being an example of a knowingly post-modern or post-post-modern (or whatever!) act and having a sound reminiscent of The Supremes or The Ronettes, none of their lyrics scream ‘doormat’ and none appear to be strung up on a man. Secondly, even one who is as prone to being a bit of a stuffed shirt like myself cannot resist lightening up for ladies this upbeat.
Recent single ‘Your Kisses Are Wasted On Me’ and older tracks like ‘ABC’ and ‘Judy’ are the standouts of the set, and while it could certainly be argued that they’re a bit too grown up to be singing about schoolboys, and maybe the doo-wop fixation complete with polka dots is a gimmick that won’t last, to be honest that’s rather beside the point. I don’t imagine for a second that it’s meant to be taken all that seriously. The Pipettes are simply fabulous, unapologetic, witty, bubblegum pop purveyors with bags of charisma and an excellent live show.
originally published March 29th, 2006
We Are The Pipettes ••••
When The Pipettes first appeared on the stages of London and Brighton’s grubbiest pubs and clubs two years ago, not many people could in all honesty imagine they’d be releasing their debut album and playing sold out theatres across the country. The band fought dismissive slurs of ‘novelty band’, ‘kitsch’ and ‘unmarketable’ and simply kept touring and releasing pop gems on limited-pressing 7″ vinyls. As such, We Are The Pipettes arrives as the product of the hard-won realisation of their ambitions to replicate the essence of 1960s girl groups – from their self-styled svengali (guitarist ‘Monster’ Bobby) to the contemporary Wall of Sound production, via coordinated outfits and dance moves.
For those who eagerly collected the hard-to-find vinyls and witnessed the earlier live shows, a first listen to the album might be hard to swallow. The tinny sound of their demos has been replaced by luscious synths and sound effects, and some of the organic DIY charm has been compromised in favour of a more consistent sound. On second listen, however, such fans ought to find it in their hearts to forgive them; We Are The Pipettes positively shimmers with a real sense of accomplishment, the more polished production serving to bolster the seriousness with which the band have tackled their concept, certainly in comparison with those early recordings.
The Pipettes, you see, possess a knack for writing classic pop songs. Of the 14 tracks, at least nine might find older listeners questioning themselves over whether they might have gotten down to it at a town hall disco in 1965, such is the authenticity projected through Rose, Gwenno and Becki’s crystal clear vocals, arrangements, ooohs and ahhhs. Old favourites like ‘ABC’ and ‘It Hurts To See You Dance So Well’ maintain their dancefloor magnetism, as do newer songs like recent hit ‘Pull Shapes’, a command so brilliant that it cannot be resisted. Though their performances are wonderfully uplifting throughout, the band don’t shirk on the adolescent tinges of naivety and sadness that really capture the spirit of the girl group era. What The Pipettes bring fresh to the party is a distinctly British twist on the sound, their southern accents ringing with a nicely comforting familiarity.
If nitpick we must, there are points on the album where the fine line between pop perfection and overplayed kitsch is in danger of being traversed. Creating a modern twist on the girl group era need not have entailed some of the tackier sound effects, evident on the titular theme song and ‘Pull Shapes’s canned applause, while the sometimes overly glossy production makes the songs seem a little less personal. However, these are small criticisms of an otherwise excellent album on which every song is worthy of being a single. If the girls can find a way to progress without becoming a parody, this exciting debut could be the beginning of a long and sparkling career.
Robbie de Santos
originally published August 30th, 2006
Have It All ••••
Chicks On Speed
PlanningToRock is better known to her family as Bolton-born wander-woman Janine Rostron who, like many creative types before her, left her English-speaking homeland and decamped to Berlin, the spiritual homeland of electro and techno and a city bustling with artists seeking a less corporate environment in which to develop their talents. Peaches, perhaps the city’s most famous musical ex-pat, recently moved to Los Angeles, leaving Berlin’s electro-hip-hop sovereignty very much open for Rostron to capture the throne.
That’s not to say that the two artists are especially similar; Have It All is sexy but doesn’t fixate on it, telling instead a fascinating story of taking unknown steps into and among a foreign environment, subtly hinting at the desperate times that factored such a leap. It’s about Berlin and the strange balance of belonging and being an outsider. Musically, it’s impressively diverse, mixing Elizabethan ballroom, Berlin-style hip-hop, dark icy electro in the vein of The Knife, and full-blown out-and-out techno – a dizzying concoction in the hands of lesser artists, but one that’s held together beautifully here by Rostron’s unique and affecting vocal.
As any self-respecting hip-hop album should, Have It All opens with a short self-referential intro number in the shape of ‘The PTR Show’, an atmospheric minute-long hello with tuned percussion and staccato beats that wastes no time in setting up the soul-searching theme of the album. ‘Bolton Wanderer’, one of several standout tracks, continues this theme with a twisted, sexy slump of a tune complete with slow beats and haunting background vocals that give it a surprisingly soulful edge. This kind of chilling vocal layering is also present on ‘Changes’, an ambient ode to figurative metamorphosis based on a striking arrangement of plucked strings.
If that doesn’t get you, ‘Never Going Back’ will almost certainly stop you dead in your tracks. It’s as if Rostron is channelling the type of muse that visits Kate Bush or Patrick Wolf in their sleep; a folk-inspired slowie with warm inviting strings and emotional chord after emotional chord, it deals with the romance of running away and finding who you are among the masses, married to an idiosyncratic but nonetheless heartfelt vocal delivery. At the opposite end of the spectrum, the title track provides Have It All‘s dancefloor filler-in-chief. It’s an energetic blast of creepy technopop that would fit just as well at a seedy Berlin warehouse party as it would in a whip-smart London indie club. The true intensity at work here doesn’t only arrive on the pounding beats and immense wall of synthesizer sounds, but is also conveyed by elements of desperation and urgency that lurk deep down in the mix.
Have It All is a thoroughly satisfying piece of work in that it feels very much like a project followed all the way through to completion; the sequencing is perfect and even the artwork (also by Rostron) reflects the original and evocative music within. The contribution of Rostron’s visual artistry to the finished product cannot be underestimated; it’s evident throughout, in the thematic thoroughness and clarity of the music, the conscious awareness of even the subtlest conditions around her. A truly inspiring album.
Robbie de Santos
originally published July 25th, 2006
Like armchair travel through a newly-carved glacial valley, Rose Polenzani’s fourth solo album, August, has a hushed itinerant quality that throws wide open the world, yet mostly remains cosily in an intimate comfort zone. With the wow and flutter of her earlier work all but assuaged – there’s nothing here as tummy-tighteningly gripping as, say, ‘Shake Through To Ugly’ from 1999’s Anybody – August is Polenzani’s melodic nucleus come to fruition.
Recorded entirely in her bedroom on 4- and 8-track recorders, these twelve persuasive songs are both as spare and yet far more pithy than that might suggest. Polenzani has always been an acute and lively lyricist, and the sentient imagery she brings to songs like ‘The First Time’ and ‘And These Hands’ infuse and lift them above their delicate beginnings. Elsewhere, on the decidedly unsettling diptych of ‘How Shall I Love Thee?’ and ‘Girl’, she quietly rages, audibly struggling with her own mixed emotions. Best of all is the charming ‘Rolling Suitcase’. Sure, it may in fact be about locking a boyfriend in the wardrobe, but it’s so sweetly offset by toy percussion and romantic French accordion that you almost don’t notice.
The one cover here is of little-known US singer-songwriter Josh Cole, who also adds his warped harmonica to the atmospherics of ‘How Shall I Love Thee?’. From the title in, his ‘Easter Hymn’ is something of a religious experience in itself as he softly trades harmonies with Rose over gently plucked acoustics. Like Tori Amos, Polenzani has never shied away from mingling the sacred with the profane, but August seems to revel in a more humbled stance. Where many of her earlier songs have been heavy with passion originating from “a guilt-regret-religious-fervour-type feeling”, tracks like ‘Easter Hymn’ and ‘Sometimes’ appear more mature and accepting of her beliefs. That said, ‘Explain It To Me’ bears a hint of her former unease, complemented by keyboard sounds like a church organ possessed. It’s a definite progression.
It’s somewhat redundant to say that this is Rose Polenzani’s most consistent album to date – all of them impress – but it is, and there’s a seemingly simple explanation. Having held her own whilst touring as a member of Voices On The Verge (alongside Erin McKeown, Jess Klein and Beth Amsel), in addition to her spiritual growth, the Rose Polenzani of August seems more confident. In her own quiet way, she sounds larger than ever before, cleverly trading off the value of understatement. It’s a neat and beautiful trick and one that demands recognition.
originally published September 21st, 2005
Scribbled In Chalk ••••
Spit & Polish
Karine Polwart has been no stranger to applause since quitting her day job as a women’s issues campaigner. Her first album Faultlines cleaned up at last year’s Radio 2 Folk Awards and won many critical plaudits. The question is, can Scribbled In Chalk live up to already stellar expectations? I’m glad to report that the answer is an unequivocal yes. Polwart has turned in a charming and affecting collection of folk songs equally capable of raising a grin as they are of moistening eyes, running the gamut from mountaintop expressions of joy to the murkiest teatimes of the human soul.
Stylistically, Polwart confidently straddles the line between modern folk and contemporary adult pop, with an added edge of alternative country. That she does this without ever sacrificing her integrity or losing her distinctiveness to lowest common denominator slush deserves particular praise. ‘Hole In The Heart’ sets things off in an ominous minor key with regrets and reminiscences of a life that’s been frittered away, before the single ‘I’m Gonna Do It All’ lovingly lightens the tone with a wistful, charming reverie of hopes and aspirations (though it’s hard to imagine her swearing so loud she’ll “strip the silver lining from a cloud”). Even by the towering standards of Polwart’s sensitive songwriting, it’s an absolute gem.
Many of her songs draw on Judaeo-Christian imagery but never fall into the mantrap marked ‘didactic’, instead using these ancient stories to ground her songs deep in folklore and history. Only on ‘Holy Moses’ does she deal direct, using the Patriarch as a metaphor for the ability of the human spirit to rise above expectation and circumstance to achieve a destiny as yet unknown. It’s a cute little touch that the music meanders beneath like the river that ferried the baby to safety.
The frankly chilling ‘Baleerie Baloo’, however, is a very different proposition. Mixing the ancient and modern, it’s a moving tribute to missionary Jane Haining who died in Auschwitz along with the Jewish orphans she had cared for in Budapest. The ‘crimes’ for which she was imprisoned included weeping whilst sewing the compulsory Star of David onto the children’s clothes. ‘Terminal Star’ delves deeper into the dignity of an unsung hero, while ‘Take Its Own Time’ employs an interesting horticultural metaphor; the gardener who delights in letting parts of their garden be planned by nature rather than design suggesting that we might do better to hold onto our troubles more lightly. The track also features some delightful accordion from Inge Thomson, weaving pastoral melodies around the chords.
‘Follow The Heron’ closes the album in contemplative style, ‘covering’ a song of Polwart’s own making (it was originally recorded by the band Malinky, with whom she has collaborated in the past). But then, in the instant that the final notes fade, Polwart cannot help but render a falsehood – these songs are by no means ephemeral scribbles that vanish with the first drop of rain, they are instead small treasures that, once heard, are not easily forgotten.
originally published July 17th, 2006
Hard Time For The Dreamer ••••
For those who only know sister duo Alisha’s Attic for their late 1990s run of hit singles, this solo offering from the younger half Shelly may well pleasantly shock. Gone is much of the quirk so characteristic of their early singles that unequivocally polarised critical opinion, and what steps forward from the shadows is a much breezier, beautifully human record from a woman who appears to have progressed into the next phase of her career with unmistakeable grace. Those who followed the Attics to the conclusion of their shelf life with third album The House We Built – their most critically praised and, ironically, their commercial flop – will perhaps be less taken aback. Shelly has carried across the strongest elements of that collection’s sophisticated songwriting into her solo work, crafting a peach of a record that’s dreamy without losing focus or being overly detached. Certainly there are echoes of Alisha’s Attic here, but this time Shelly self-harmonises and keeps proceedings clean and uncluttered.
One of the secret pleasures of Alisha’s Attic was discovering their B-sides, which were frequently more spontaneous and exuberant than their album output, recorded as they were mostly outside of record company meddling. Such was the quality of many of these footnotes that one of them justly reappears here, albeit in a considerably tweaked, polished and remoulded form, on the downloadable single ‘Little Wonder’. Digging up a few key lines and melodies, the result is a sweeping and majestic track that showcases Shelly’s more relaxed and natural vocals, fully at ease with her new style. Quitting the cigarettes may have helped smooth away the grit that suited the Alisha’s Attic mould, but Shelly clearly revels in these more gentle surroundings.
Stylistically, the songs touch mainly on folk-pop with their shimmering and addictive melodies, but there are also shades of palatable jazz showing a fondness for the likes of Rickie Lee Jones and Joni Mitchell. The title track trades almost spoken word verses with a nagging chorus and woozy production, while the rolling ethnic percussion of ‘Totally Underwater’ is positively finger-clicking good. Other highlights include the yearning lamentations of ‘Don’t Look That Way’, the sumptuous love song ‘If You Will Be Pilot’ and the poptastic ‘Lose Yourself’.
Two duets with young New York Italian singer-songwriter Jack Savoretti bookend the second half of the record; the first, ‘Anyday Now’, is the finer of the two and takes its inspiration from the Meryl Streep/Robert Redford movie ‘Out Of Africa’, but that’s not to say that the closer, ‘Hope’, is no good. Each track has something to recommend it to a wider audience than will probably hear them, which is a real shame. Hard Time For The Dreamer is a real coming of age record and a blissful listen, and with such maturity and confidence contained in these ten songs, it’s hard to believe that Shelly hasn’t always been a solo artist.
originally published October 10th, 2005
Pretty Girls Make Graves
Élan Vital •••
Three years on from their critically acclaimed second album, The New Romance, Pretty Girls Make Graves return with an altered line-up – out with guitarist Nathan Thelan; in with keyboard player Leona Marrs, formerly of Hint Hint – and with lead singer Andrea Zollo still recovering from the vocal nodules she suffered after touring their debut Good Health. The result is Élan Vital, but for all the enthusiastic vigour and liveliness suggested by the title, rarely does such spirit manifest itself in the album. First three tracks ‘The Nocturnal House’, ‘Pyrite Pedestal’ and ‘The Number’ are all good but not quite perfect. On ‘Pyrite Pedestal’, Pretty Girls Make Graves sound more like a polished high-school rock band than the punk-rock revivalists they’re often hailed as. On the positive side, it is catchy, it is upbeat and it does feature fantastic vocal arrangements.
Unfortunately, the rather pedestrian lyrics of this and ‘The Number’ don’t help either, “I guess these days I’m someone else” being a particularly cringeworthy example.
Things pick up with the next track though; ‘Parade’ is easily the album standout – a gorgeously rousing, retro workman’s song with soaring harmonies, where the addition of Marrs is really felt. It’s perfect mixtape fodder. The following track, ‘Domino’, is also strong but sadly it’s all downhill from there. Songs that start off promisingly, like the atmospheric ‘Pearls On A Plate’, go on to display little variation and are ultimately a bit disappointing. See also ‘Pictures Of A Night Scene’, on which the boys take the lead, and the Sons & Daughters-esque ‘Selling The Wind’, both of which are slightly lacklustre but not terrible.
Penultimate track ‘Wildcat’ is something of an improvement and is strangely evocative of mid-‘90s house parties, but it’s followed up with the ironically titled and less than enamouring ‘Bullet Charm’. A sense of striving for incitement runs through the album, meeting with mixed success along the way, and with two songs about workers disputes alone, I wouldn’t mind betting that the band watched a bit too much of ‘Brassed Off’ or ‘North County’ during the recording. So while Zollo’s post-op voice is clear and engaging, and notwithstanding the good hooks throughout, Élan Vital sounds on the whole like the kind of thing you might expect to hear on a teenage rom-com soundtrack, complete with lyrics that are consistently banal and sometimes even criminal. It’s not necessarily a disaster, but it is less than we music fans have come to expect from a band that were once so exciting.
originally published April 4th, 2006
The Only Thing I Ever Wanted ••½
I have absolutely no idea how to define what I just listened to. Psapp ingeniously use every instrument and kids’ toy available to make a stupefyingly odd yet very intriguing mass of noise. The Only Thing I Ever Wanted, the follow-up to 2004’s debut Tiger, My Friend, is loosely based around the band’s obsession with soothing electronica, tribal music and cats. Imagine if The Arcade Fire were to be translocated to an as yet undiscovered African village and force-fed magic mushrooms; the music of Psapp embodies the resulting hallucination.
Most of the songs, particularly ‘Hi’ and first single ‘Tricycle’, have an uplifting and childish beat, and although the songs are simply performed and can seem repetitive, they carry a charm that redeems the album. Having said that, ‘Hill Of Our Home’ and ‘Make Up’ are chillingly attractive and sharp little ditties, with a quirk not too dissimilar to that of Regina Spektor. If the whole album was consistently like this, there’s little doubt that it could well be commercially hailed an instant classic, but the rattles and clanking prevent a sense of cohesion. It’s as if the band have split their wares into two distinct piles that awkwardly cohabit the disc: one enjoyable to any kind of music fan, the other meant for those who like experimental jazz and general madness, which to the majority is far from accessible.
Unlike many second albums, the problem with The Only Thing I Ever Wanted is not that the album is half-baked or incomplete, it’s that they’ve seemingly attempted to condense too many ideas into one. What is sure, however, is that Psapp have not been wasting their time. A clutch of beautifully edgy songs are to be found within, lovingly hinting at brilliant things to come. We’ll just have to wait for album number three to hear them.
originally published June 16th, 2006
The Puppini Sisters
Betcha Bottom Dollar ••••
Universal Classics & Jazz
It’s a cold hard fact that Britain has a habit of embracing novelty acts over and above most other major music markets, more often for worse than for better. But The Puppini Sisters (Marcella Puppini, Kate Mullins and Stephanie O’Brien) aren’t just any old novelty act – they pay homage to the Andrews Sisters and other performers of the 1940s in a way we haven’t seen in a long long time. They’re the whole package – look, moves, old school swing sounds – and through this impressive dedication to the details, they’ve developed a sizable cult following in the hipper parts of London. To fully appreciate The Puppini Sisters, you really have to see them live because they put on a hell of a show. As such, focusing purely on the musical aspect was always going to be something of a shaky proposition, running the risk of pigeonholing the band as yet another covers band with a twist in the hideously schmaltzy vein of G4 and Il Divo.
But don’t be so quick to dismiss them; Betcha Bottom Dollar is a delight with barely a whiff of a stinker. The ‘sisters’ have studied their inspirations to perfection and in doing so have created an amalgam of styles that is truly unique, adding something new to even the most familiar of tunes. Getting Oscar-nominated composer Benoît Charest (‘Les Triplettes De Belleville’) in the producer’s chair was a masterstroke for the Puppinis. His expertise ensured that the trio’s close harmony singing was recorded in the most natural way and the array of weird instruments he introduced to the mix adds distinctive touches of character throughout.
Classics such as ‘Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy’, ‘Bei Mir Bist Du Schön’ and ‘Jeepers Creepers’ really show off how tight the ladies have become. Mr Sandman’s acoustic-sounding swing arrangement is reminiscent of Buena Vista Social Club and other old-school Cuban acts, while their very sexy take on Java Jive offers irrefutable proof of their individual vocal talent and greatness. It’s the ‘40s makeovers of modern classics that really make this album special, however, and first up is Kate Bush’s ‘Wuthering Heights’. Unbelievably, they pull it off; what at first seems like an unusual choice develops into a spooky swing affair with added musical saw for eerie effect. Female empowerment anthem ‘I Will Survive’ also gets the full Puppini treatment. In true acoustic swing style with ever-running double bass lines and drop-in piano chords, it’s a thrillingly unique interpretation. They also tackle Blondie’s ‘Heart Of Glass’, a perennial covers band favourite that also appears on Nouvelle Vague’s recent album. This version is quite different – sung in ‘40s doo-wop fashion with what can only be described as ragtime percussion clattering beneath the vocal.
There are less exciting numbers too; their version of The Smiths’s ‘Panic’, for instance, doesn’t seem to have received that much of an original twist. Even so, it all comes good in the end as the album concludes with a lovely impromptu live recording of ‘In The Mood’ with finger snapping and plenty of attitude. The Puppini Sisters really seem to be on to something worthwhile here, and it’s not hard to see how they were snapped up for a cool £1 million by a major label in no time. That they’re currently writing their own original song material is even more promising. Here’s to a future steeped in the glorious past.
originally published July 25th, 2006
Filed under: album, back issues, live, review | Tags: aaron alper, alan pedder, alex ramon, andrzej lukowski, anna claxton, beth orton, bryn williams, ciccone youth, dani siciliano, danny weddup, ember swift, endre buzogany, helen griffiths, jane siberry, jennifer hall, kristin hersh, loria near, marianne faithfull, marsha swanson, miranda richardson, patti smith, paul woodgate, rachael sage, rachel stevens, regina spektor, robbie de santos, rod thomas, russell barker, saint etienne, santa dog, scanners, scissor sisters, scott millar, sinead o'connor, sing-sing, skin, sleater-kinney, smoosh, sonic youth, sons and daughters, spider, stars, stephen collings, the sailplanes, the slits, tilda swinton, tori amos, trevor raggatt, yoko ono
The following reviews were all published on our old website between May 2005 and December 2006.
The Blistering Sun ••
Though anyone this side of the Atlantic is unlikely to have noticed, The Blistering Sun is, believe it or not, the seventh album by award-winning US singer-songwriter Rachael Sage. Sadly, longevity is rarely ever a cast iron guarantee of quality and the album finds Sage in something of a comfort zone and is immediately both shaky and derivative. It’s not even a particularly good derivative either. Sage’s compositions, whilst showing a grand affinity for traditional pop composition, barely register verifiable emotion and leave her sounding a step above the likes of Jewel and a step below the increasingly anodyne Sarah McLachlan.
The Blistering Sun works best when it gets quirky. For instance, the uptempo sass of ‘Hit ‘ – a parody of music industry shmoozaholism – finds Sage playing a slightly awry coffeehouse poet, while ‘Lonely Streets’ slightly ups the pulse with an appealing back alley ambience. Even ‘Proof’ is unashamedly pretty in its sweet, if a little bland, adult contemporariness. But everything else wears thin much too quickly. In particular, ‘Calypso’ and the Melissa Ferrick cover ‘Anything, Anywhere’ are fairly unremarkable and their chord progressions sound almost identical. Even Sage’s lyrics, which for a long time have served as her strongest asset, are lost in the humdrum of the arrangements and, like Jewel and McLachlan, make no argument against sounding dull and anonymous. Even the amassed ensemble of talented musicians, including the likes of Julie Wolf, Julia Kent, Todd Sickafoose and Rufus Wainwright’s guitarist Jack Petruzelli, never quite let the songs catch fire.
Despite the album’s inescapable aura of disappointment, Sage is far from a doomed soul by any means. She obviously has enough theatrics in her to go up against the likes of Regina Spektor (check out the lovely Ballads & Burlesque for example) but The Blistering Sun just doesn’t click into place in the same way that her earlier albums seemed to. It would be a shame to see Sage’s promise fizzle away and there’s every chance that this is merely a blip in her thus far consistently fruitful and ambitious career. Investigate her back catalogue first.
originally published July 14th, 2006
The Deepest Red EP ••••
As with many stupendous live acts, the studio version of London’s The Sailplanes doesn’t quite have the same impact, but when the songs are as strong as they are on this latest EP it hardly seems to matter. Packed with stark and scratchy, paranoid and jerky numbers very much in thrall to early Sonic Youth, The Deepest Red reveals a band that’s on to a very good thing. After all, there are far worse things they could be doing than channeling the energy and zest of the Youth into these excellent, ramshackle songs.
‘Seven Ships Lost’ makes for an intense, rumbling start with plenty of needling guitars and a lightly melodious feel that marries well with a crisp delivery from singer/ guitarist Stacey Hine. Next, ‘Underwound’ jolts you out of your seat with a short sharp shock as co-vocalist Tim Webster blasts the song into your skull. ‘Killing Time’, whose lyrics give the EP its name, is the clear standout – it’s a little bit second-wave punk, quite a lot riot grrrl and all fantastic. Much darker and sinister than the rest of the EP is ‘The Wild Huntsman’, which rounds off proceedings with a memorable mid-section where the song fades out until its almost inaudible, then after what seems like an eternity springs back into life.
Grab a copy of this and if you like what you hear just a little, go and see them live. You won’t be disappointed.
originally published October 5th, 2006
Tales From Turnpike House ••••
Thank the blue expanse above for Saint Etienne, perennial vanguards of fair Londinium, and their inimitable eye for a sorry mundanity in need of a paean to its ordinary glory. Clearly, whoever in radical Islam wants the capital on its knees hasn’t reckoned with Cracknell and co. Their latest feat of escapism, Tales From Turnpike House, is a concept album so familiar in its themes of inner city struggle and on the point of bursting bubbles of esteem that it’s utterly engaging for the most part. Over the course of the 12-track song cycle, the Ets unravel a day in the life of the residents of an East London high-rise, the titular Turnpike House. As such, the album opens with the breezily optimistic twosome of ‘Sun In My Morning’, a gentle strum that lazily blossoms with winsome Beach Boys harmonies and a gossamer-light flute solo, and ‘Milk Bottle Symphony’, which, quite simply, may well be their finest moment yet in a 15-year long career. Serving as more than just an introduction to the denizens of Turnpike House (one of whom, Gary Stead, appears in no fewer than three songs), it’s an irony-free and poignant glimpse into the morning rituals of the plateau’d and downwardly mobile.
Elsewhere, the work of Girls Aloud producers Xenomania yields that rare beast, an emotional dance number (!), in the guise of ‘Lightning Strikes Twice’, which recounts the laments of a failing new-ager. They also crop up to polish the charm offensive of ‘Stars Above Us’, a sweetly gratifying floor-filler extolling the simple virtues of a roof garden in this reverse oasis of concrete. Other highlights include the sultry first single, ‘Side Streets’, a tune that swings so unapologetically that it’s easy to overlook the urban paranoia / violent crime lyrical bent, and ‘A Good Thing’, a hefty slab of disco Etienne at their finest. The mostly spoken word ‘Teenage Winter’ mines a similarly rich seam of nostalgia as the glorious ‘How We Used To Live’ from 2000’s Sound Of Water, this time with an added twist of the inevitability of change and the futility of resistance. Album closer ‘Goodnight’ is also worthy of a mention, with its soothing backdrop of wistful boy-girl harmonies drawing the cloak of evening around the humble tower block.
Where Saint Etienne have been less successful in the past, it’s almost always been the fault of being just that little bit too knowing, a fault repeated here on the stilted and silly Relocate, a marital wobbly about moving to the country featuring none other than David Essex as the reluctant husband. It’s as if the Tom Jones/Cerys Matthews duet on ‘Baby, It’s Cold Outside’ never even happened. Even William Shatner managed to mostly avoid such cringesome pitfalls on last year’s Has Been. Nevertheless, Tales... is a dignified return to form after the mostly disappointing Finisterre, and one that will ensure that their legacy remains intact if, as the abounding rumours suggest, it does indeed turn out to be their last album together, at least for grown-ups that is – September’s Up The Wooden Hills will be aimed at, though by no means restricted to, those who’ve recently mastered the feat of walking from the high chair to the potty.
At a time when London is reeling from the first blood of a psychological turf war, Tales From Turnpike House is not just another album from the city’s most enduring musical champions, but also an affectionate tour of an instantly recognisable but altogether less harrowing reality. Get lost in it.
originally published July 26th, 2005
Belle de Jour EP •••
The Belle de Jour EP is the third release from Bristol-based indie-pop hopefuls Santa Dog (where did they get that name?) in little over a year, and it’s certainly a likeable offering that demonstrates a definite progression from their previous EP. Released in October 2005, the Chemical EP suffered from a flat production job that all but buried the vocal in the mix, yet contained the requisite amount of shoegazing introspection to maintain a degree of appeal. No such regrets to be found on this follow-up, however; Belle de Jour sparkles with a clarity of sound that allows the guitars to jangle as intended. This pleasing development shows a clear and confident step forward in the intervening six months and suggest that the band are growing in confidence. So whilst their indie intensity stays intact, the sound and delivery presents a more accomplished package.
Each member has their own role to play and does so with aplomb. Jojo Harper’s bass drives proceedings along, effectively melding with genuinely scary looking drummer Martin Maidment’s rhythms, while guitarist Rob Williams liberally layers jangly arpeggios and riffs throughout, his occasional squalls suggesting that his influences are wider than the Squire/ Marr/Butler triumvirate to encompass rather less textbook sources like Steve Howe or Bill Nelson. Perhaps their greatest assets, however, are those they exploit most effectively here – good tunes and an even better singer in Rowena Dugdale, whose vocals are just sufficiently ‘estuary’ to perfectly suit the music, with more than a touch of Kirsty MacColl around the edges. Dugdale pitches her performance well, giving a sense of strength and also vulnerability.
Musically, the title track skirts pleasingly along the perimeter of Belle & Sebastian territory, occasionally adding in shades of Teenage Fanclub, The Divine Comedy and the aforementioned Electric Landlady. It weaves an all-too-relevant story of finding significance in meaningful relationships in a society in which we are systematically brainwashed by daytime TV and reality gameshow banalities. Elsewhere, ‘Rosa’ is a parade of sunny summer hooks that risks being rained on by an undercurrent of sadness and desperation, while ‘Pop-Coloured’ is a power-chord confection that visits The Boo Radleys via Franz Ferdinand with its pounding snare driving along the jaunty, choppy guitars. Finally, ‘1000 Cranes’ brings things to a close with a gloomy yet luminous evocation of lost love in post-industrial Britain. On this evidence, it seems that Dugdale and co. are on a serious upward trajectory, and if things continue apace, this Dog may yet have its day.
originally published March 19th, 2006
Violence Is Golden ••••
Though having a name that’s pretty much Google kryptonite probably hasn’t helped Scanners’ cause, it’s hard not to feel this fledgling London quartet have been dealt a slightly unfortunate hand. A domestic deal hasn’t been forthcoming, and while US indie Dim Mak snapped them up Stateside some months ago, doubtless thanks to the magic of the internet, this isn’t as rosy as it sounds. A couple of LA showcase gigs aside, Scanners are in the somewhat Catch 22-ish position of being too skint to tour the only country their record is out in, instead gigging almost exclusively in London where no bugger can buy the album.
This deserves to change, as said album, Violence Is Golden, is as invigorating a record as you’ll hear all year. The lynchpin is singer Sarah Daly, whose vocals lie somewhere between Polly Jean Harvey and glam-era Bowie – eerie and off-kilter, but delivered with too much arch panache to ever drift into woe-is-me territory. But it’s the music that really makes the album; on a budget of what must have been about 5p, the band appear to have compressed all the best bits of the ‘70s and ‘80s into eleven slick, tuneful blasts. From the faintly ribald electro-avalanche of opener ‘Joy’, through the New Order-esque melancholy of ‘Lowlife’ and the rabid camp of ‘Air 164′ and ‘Raw’, Violence Is Golden smacks into you like Zinedine Zidane on happy pills, a Technicolor beast gleefully devouring glam, new wave, punk and a half-dozen other genres.
That it occasionally lacks depth and is generally a touch incoherent does little to diminish the album’s appeal – after all, lack of depth and shallowness are classic signs of a good time, and Violence Is Golden is more fun than snorting a tequila slammer.
originally published July 23rd, 2006
Drawing inspiration from 1970s disco, glam and the club culture of their native New York City, the Scissor Sisters stormed the nation in 2004, selling over three million copies of their eponymous debut. Exuberant and enjoyably brash, they fabulously forged their way, feather boas and all, into the hearts of everyone from hipsters to suburban housewives. It stands to reason, then, that the follow-up might be greeted with hesitant scrutiny. Would they manage to carry their signature sound across another album or quickly snuff out of the spotlight, their proverbial 15 minutes exhausted?
Interestingly, Ta-Dah almost seems to be something of a cautious response to their success. Where Scissor Sisters danced saucily all over with themes of freedom and parties, Ta-Dah delves into the psyche with songs about the love, relationships and death, without being a million musical miles from its predecessor with more of the same dance-infused pop that made the band so famous. Take the first single ‘I Don’t Feel Like Dancin’ for example. It’s just as catchy and radio ready as ‘Take Your Mama’, with the added gloss of being co-written by Sir Elton John himself, yet it’s a song about Sunday morning, not Saturday night – the first of many tracks where the music belies the sentiment woven into the lyrics. “Wake up in the morning with a head like ‘what ya done?’ / this used to be the life but I don’t need another one.”
And it doesn’t stop there. As the album wears on, it’s obvious that the songs are strong and danceworthy, with several hits in waiting. But pay attention to the lyrics and a darker element emerges. In the David Bowie-esque Intermission, lead vocalist Jake Shears sings wistfully that “tomorrow’s not what it used to be / we were born to die”, while ‘The Other Side’ shows he’s not just a Barry Gibb clone as he really milks the slowie by crooning softly of a lover’s passing, “if it takes another life / I’ll wait for you / on the other side.”
If the album lacks anything in particular it is the rich voice of Ana Matronic, the self-described “drag queen stuck in a woman’s body”. Notably a strong force in the Sisters’s live shows, her voice is buried here, only coming out from the shadow of Shears’ overwhelming falsetto to shine on the infectious dance track ‘Kiss You Off’. Channeling a pissed off Debbie Harry, Matronic doesn’t just take the lead, she takes complete centre stage with a soaring voice that bites back with lyrics like “spare this child your sideways smile / that crack in your veneer / some blue broad will spoil your rod / it just takes patience dear.”
If you haven’t been a fan of the Scissor Sisters before this point, Ta-Dah isn’t likely to change your mind. Despite strong lyrical development and inventive songwriting, the band has a proud image that it’s highly doubtful to shed any time soon. And who would want them to? They’ve done well for themselves and despite a few weak points here and there, Ta-Dah is a solid album that recalls why the ‘70s are so much fun to remember.
originally published December 17th, 2006
Love Is Everything: An Anthology [reissue] ••••½
From Joni Mitchell to the McGarrigles, Sarah McLachlan to kd lang, Canada has produced a significant number of accomplished and influential female singer-songwriters. Mitchell is the undisputed foremother, of course, setting the bar almost ludicrously high in terms of innovation, musicianship and lyrical dexterity. But the artists who have followed in her wake have also made their own distinctive contributions to Canada’s musical mosaic. Though extremely diverse and individual, their work is characterised by emotional fearlessness, a willingness to experiment and an often-breathtaking ability to fuse elements of pop, folk, rock and jazz in creative ways – sometimes in the space of a single song.
Jane Siberry is one such artist. Blessed with a playful sense of humour, a protean voice that can both soar and confide, and the ability to turn a song about a missing cow into an aching expression of loss, she has a devoted following in Canada and elsewhere. In the UK, however, she has seldom received the recognition she richly deserves. In recent years, her decision to release new material only through her own Sheeba label has not helped to raise her profile, and when kd lang covered two of her songs on her 2004 covers album of classic Canadian songcraft, Hymns Of The 49th Parallel, British listeners could perhaps have been forgiven for asking “Jane who”? For the uninitiated, then, this 2-disc, 30-track retrospective (first released in 2002) serves as the perfect introduction to an idiosyncratic and endlessly rewarding body of work. Drawn mainly from Siberry’s early 1980s folk-based releases, her experimental No Borders Here, The Speckless Sky and The Walking trilogy, 1989’s Bound By The Beauty and 1993’s When I Was A Boy, the choice of material on the first disc could not be bettered. Given the extraordinary level of quality control, it’s almost churlish to pick favourites, but the inviting piano ballad ‘In The Blue Light’, the spry ‘Red High Heels’, the unearthly ‘The Walking (& Constantly)’, the hymnal ‘The Lobby’ and the rapt ‘Bound By The Beauty’ are all particularly captivating expressions of Siberry’s unique gifts. The disc also gives a clear sense of her creative development, from her spare apprentice material to her exhilarating experiments with studio trickery throughout the 1980s.
This is not to suggest that the compilation follows a slavishly chronological path through Siberry’s work, however. Instead, several thematically connected songs from different periods are linked together to form mini cycles and suites. Thus, ‘Bessie’ (from her 1996 album, Teenager) is paired with its 1981 ‘prequel’ ‘The Mystery At Ogwen’s Farm’ to tell the tale of a flying bovine from two contrasting perspectives. Placed side by side, the songs sound especially striking, the former a buoyant acoustic strum full of Chagall-esque imagery, the latter an exquisite lament in which the narrator of ‘Bessie’ features as a mere bit player. The same trick occurs on the second disc, whereupon Siberry’s classic ‘Mimi On The Beach’ is followed by the live recording ‘Mimi Speaks’, a cheeky spoken-word piece in which the objectified title character is finally given the chance to “have [her] say”. Such thoughtful sequencing reveals Siberry’s heartening commitment to the fullest possible development of her stories and characters, and is a valuable feature of this compilation. Siberry trades immaculate harmonies with lang on ‘Calling All Angels’, one of her best-loved songs and also one of her most beautiful, pitched in some galaxy midway between despair and consolation. Yet Siberry does not fear bold exuberance; ‘The Life Is The Red Wagon’ is a dose of happiness, its “you pull for me… I pull for you” refrain serving as the ultimate antidepressant.
The second disc is patchier and gives the impression that Siberry’s work has become somewhat less compelling in recent years. There are, of course, some heavenly moments; the sublime, minutely-detailed pop of ‘Mimi’ and the skewed piano ballads ‘Goodnight Sweet Pumpkinhead’ and ‘Barkis Is Willin’. However, the bizarre ‘Peony’ is a piece of woeful, substandard experimenta, and the best that can be said of her treatments of traditional material such as ‘All Through The Night’ and ‘The Water Is Wide’ is that they’re pretty. But ‘pretty’ feels like a considerable letdown after her complex and daring earlier work, and there are times when these songs veer perilously close to schmaltz. It’s left to her closing cycle of ‘Map Of The World’ tracks – presented together in sequence for the first time here with a new (and not very satisfying) ‘Part IV’ – to regain some of the lost momentum.
Siberry shares with Kate Bush an ability to combine unconventional lyrical subject matter with intricate, densely layered yet accessible melodies and arrangements. The work of both also expresses an unabashed femininity and an emotional openness that can sound surprisingly close to toughness. The relative paucity of rarities or new material on this collection means that it has less to offer long-time devotees of Siberry’s music. But Rhino have done a typically impeccable job on it, and it will undoubtedly inspire those new to her work, and leave them eager to hear more.
originally published March 25th, 2006
Dani Siciliano is an artist with a rather impressive CV, having worked extensively with ex-husband Matthew Herbert and charmed all the critics with her acclaimed solo debut, 2004’s Likes…, which featured reworkings of her favourite tracks, including a brave and overall successful take on Nirvana’s ‘Come As You Are’. My first reaction on listening to Slappers, however, is that her musical past is more hindrance than help to her current material. Comparisons are inevitable and, unfortunately for Dani, Slappers is simply not a patch on her past achievements. Although that might strike you as rather a crude statement to make as an intro, it’s not just an easy dismissal. The production values of Slappers vary very, very minutely from Herbert’s Bodily Functions and though the latter saw Siciliano’s vocal transport the music onto another level entirely, allowing her talent to shine, here her voice is simply not enough and is, in all honesty, sorely underused.
While always slightly understated, the melodies and stylistics of Siciliano’s previous work have allowed her voice to be a constantly powerful presence, you’ll struggle to find a track on Slappers that showcases any vocal prowess. The overriding problem is that the album is painfully flat; it merely meanders along without any real driving force. With so little real variation between songs, there’s something crucial lacking. Only the single ‘Why Can’t I Make You High?’ differs in style, but it’s messy – a little bit Goldfrapp in terms of beat but with acoustic bass, a melody extremely reminiscent of many other songs, and a terrible, terrible chorus. Though it pains me to say this, it sounds like Rachel Stevens at a hoedown, a quirky throwaway and the album’s weakest moment by far.
Slappers is not a total failure by any means, it’s just a bit boring. Its dynamics rarely change, so much so that the few stronger moments such as ‘Too Young’ only emphasise the underachievement elsewhere. I found myself confused by Slappers; I just don’t understand what it’s trying to do – it is neither well written enough to be a commercial success or intelligent enough to be a word of mouth classic.
The main problem that Siciliano faces, and most probably will continue to face, is that people expect more of her. Anyone aware of her working history will see very little progression in the music on offer here, and I cannot see Slappers winning fans of anyone not already on board as the songs simply aren’t strong enough. In a music scene where production values are becoming much more the point of focus, and where electronic acts are either achieving massive underground success or, from time to time, commercial glory, this collection of songs is far too weak to be of any real challenge or significance.
originally published September 17th, 2006
Vanishing Girl [reissue] •••½
Angelic Music is the brainchild of London-based singer-songwriter Janice Haves; more than just a simple indie label, it looks to provide a platform and a resource for female musicians. Angelic’s first signing is fellow Londoner Liz Simcock and their second release (after Haves’s own Big Front Door) is a very welcome reissue of 2005’s Vanishing Girl.
Simcock has passed the last few years plying her trade around the country’s folk club circuit, ably assisted by regular cohorts Ian Newman and Warwick Jones on bass and guitar, both of whom appear here along with drummer Pete Abernathy. The musical maturity that comes from entertaining such a notoriously difficult-to-please audience is certainly evident on the recording. But Simcock is not some twiddly, finger-in-the-ear folkster – her palette is much broader than that. Sure, there are winsome acoustic-based numbers and Joni Mitchell is a notable influence – ‘The Sand That Makes The Pearl’ is a gently personal tribute to the great lady, inspired by the 2003 TV documentary ‘Woman Of Heart & Mind’. Even the lyrics are populated with a patchwork of Mitchell’s thoughts and quotations, adding an additionally moving and poignant dimension to the song. On other songs, Simcock draws from more diverse sources – ‘Scissors Cut Paper’ rocks quietly along whilst musing about the futility of the conflicts which beset this troubled world and ‘Home To You’ is a country boogie that Mary Chapin Carpenter herself would be proud of. Elsewhere, there are nods in the direction of some of the last century’s greatest songwriters, from Paul Simon to Cole Porter and various points in between.
Like Mitchell, Simcock invests a good deal of well- judged humour in her music, scattering the ticklers among the more contemplative numbers. Most notable of the former variety is the sublime ‘Letisha Boccemski’, on which Simcock wonders what it would be like to inherit a greater sense of devil-may-care centeredness and self-confidence (fans of Channel 4’s ‘Countdown’ will instantly recognise the identity of Ms Boccemski’s mild-mannered alter ego). Lyrically, it’s witty and urbane and carried along on a jaunty, almost trad-jazz soundtrack (with Simcock manning the clarinet too). Imagine Aimee Mann singing from the Peter Skellern songbook, or even vice versa, and smile.
All this focus on the quality of the writing risks neglecting the beauty of Simcock’s voice. Blending a mellow richness with clarity and genuine emotion she produces a beautiful tone that perfectly complements the songs. Similarly, she is no slouch on the acoustic guitar either, mixing some excellent finger picking and riffing with Jones. On this evidence, Simcock is a singer to watch out for and with the backing of Angelic and a healthy dollop of luck she won’t be disappearing any time soon.
originally published October 27th, 2006
Sing-Sing & I •••••
At the turn of the millennium, a bright pop phoenix arose from the ashes of Britpoppers Lush in the form of the shiny Sing-Sing, a whip-smart collaboration between songwriter/guitarist Emma Anderson and former Mad Professor associate, Lisa O’Neill. Released on their own Aerial imprint through Sanctuary Records, their debut album The Joy Of Sing-Sing inexplicably vanished, even with a second push when signed to Poptones. Five years on, the duo are back with an astonishingly strong set of modern, intelligent pop that takes no prisoners.
‘Lover’ gets proceedings off to a flying start with a slab of Blondie-meets-The Bangles punk-pop combining driving drums and bass with an insidiously memorable chorus set off with luscious background harmonies. ‘Come, Sing Me A Song’ successfully blends Bond villain strings and horns with perky acoustic guitar to create a flawless pop song with a lightness that never grows cloying, while ‘A Modern’ Girl encapsulates the best ‘80s and ‘90s pop; coming on like the Lightning Seeds with Associates-style piano chops, it sets out a manifesto for the Bridget Jones generation. The quirky ‘Mr Kadali’ lopes along wistfully contemplating a quick fix for life’s little hassles, punctuated with voiceovers from the eponymous spiritual healer. Then, just when you think you’ve got the measure of the girls, Sing-Sing try to wrong-foot you. ‘Ruby’ kicks the door of assumption to the floor and throws around the furniture with a louche and sleazy slice of disco metal that the Scissor Sisters would kill for.
Normally with a ‘side one’ this strong, the fear of anticlimax kicks in, but thankfully Sing-Sing & I completely assuages. ‘I Do’ and ‘Going Out Tonight’ retain the Lightning Seeds pop feel but add in the indie and electronica influences that reflect their musical backgrounds. After a mellower moment provided by ‘Unseen’, ‘The Time Has Come’ is a rites of passage drinking song with a boozy sing-a-long chorus, complete with bierkeller ambience, contrasting nicely with Lisa’s tender and vulnerable verses. The album rounds off with ‘When I Was Made’ and ‘A Kind Of Love’; the former a joyous pop song recalling the likes of Belle & Sebastian or even the Divine Comedy, complete with harp ‘pling’s and an instrumental coda, and the latter a complex, beautiful and contemplative song that echoes O’Neill’s work with the Mad Professor.
It’s hard to praise Sing-Sing & I highly enough – every song is a potential hit single. O’Neill’s vocals are pure and sit well in the mix, at times conjuring a looser Kate Bush and at others Isobel Campbell, and are woven into an effective, harmonious web with Emma’s graceful backing coos. Despite the use of synths, samples and electronic effects throughout the album, the production is never permitted to steal the show, but serves the songs and coaxes out their subtleties. Perhaps the most striking thing about Sing-Sing is that the songs burrow into your consciousness, quickly becoming your internal soundtrack. After just a couple of listens, they seem so utterly familiar that it’s almost inconceivable you haven’t known them for years. Sing-Sing are precisely the type of talent required to rescue the UK pop charts from the turgid, manufactured product that currently holds them in thrall.
originally published November 28th, 2005
Fake Chemical State •••½
Following the dissolution of Skunk Anansie in 2000 after three albums that successfully blended punk and metal with anthemic pop and soul and a 1999 headline slot at Glastonbury, a solo career was almost inevitable for Skin, their charismatic incendiary frontwoman. However, her first solo effort, 2003’s Fleshwounds, was a sparse, lo-fi and introspective record that dismally failed to register in the public consciousness and quickly dropped off the radar. Fast forward three years and it’s no surprise that solo album number two, Fake Chemical State, heralds a return to our heroine’s rock roots. From the cover art depicting her collapsed on a ceramic floor, face painted in junkie chic (a none-too-subtle literalisation of the album title, perhaps?), the self-proclaimed leader of clit-rock is evidently keen to reaffirm her territory, changing record labels to V2 and bringing Strokes producer Gordon Raphael on board. Always defying expectation – after all, how many black skinhead lesbian singers are there in the white boy rock world? – and without any real comparison, Skin only needs to live up to her own high standards.
For the most part she succeeds. After the radio-unfriendly Fleshwounds, Skunk Anansie fans looking for a fix of nostalgia will not be disappointed by Fake Chemical State, which comes complete with softly softly verses that suddenly break into bombastic choruses – the aural equivalent of shaking your hand before slapping you square in the face. ‘Alone In My Room’, one of four co-writes with former Mansun frontman Paul Draper, is a flashback to 1997 and Mansun’s own particular brand of pretentious prog-rock. It’s the perfect album opener, full of dirty chords, clipped post-punk vocals and a glorious pop chorus. The latest single release, ‘Just Let The Sun’, another Draper co-write, also comes complete with crunching post-grunge guitars layered with multi-tracked vocals that makes for an unmistakeable, but perhaps too familiar listen.
What mars the album slightly is a sense of identity crisis; like a nasty neighbour with 20ft Leylandii, the edgier tracks leave the sensitive songs in the shade, which is especially a shame with the dreamy swirling riffs of album closer ‘Falling For You’, a song that reveals Skin’s vocals at their best, honest and pure. Like former labelmate Björk, Skin can make effortless octave leaps that would leave lesser singers breathless, and her patented wind-tunnel scream is in full force here, meaning the catchier songs like the slow building ‘Don’t Need A Reason’ have all the necessary ingredients to become live favourites. Lyrically, Fake Chemical State is a demanding listen, balancing youthful petulance and bittersweet reflection. The cut-and-paste words of the punkier songs seem strung together solely for musical effect, while the sensitive numbers display a lyrical heart-on-sleeve intensity. Most poignantly on the Linda ‘1 Non-Blonde’ Perry-produced ‘Nothing But’, Skin sings of a lost love who has since moved on: “please ignore the particular way I smile / take no notice of the blood on the lip I bite / I am still your friend”.
Wisely, Fake Chemical State is not simply an attempt to repeat the formula of her past successes, and there is enough here to suggest that Skin is finally moving in a direction where she feels comfortable and confident. Clocking in at just over half an hour, the album hints at finer things to come and the fact that it also makes for an enjoyable listen is simply a happy coincidence.
originally published March 29th, 2006
Mind How You Go ••••
Most people will already be familiar with Skye Edwards from her days fronting trip-hop heroes turned coffee table adorners Morcheeba and, inevitably, your liking or loathing of her origins will prejudice opinions of this, her debut solo outing, right, left and middle of the road. But wipe away those preconceived ideas, for now is Edwards’s time to at last be appreciated as an artist in her own right. A richly layered musical approach gives Mind How You Go a sublime, multi-sensory texture that, when combined with Skye’s distinctive voice, produces an album with highly individual characteristics. With its prevailing sense of the hazy dog days of summer, not explicitly expressed until the closer ‘Jamaica Days’, Skye makes the most of the contrast between inherently grey urban environments and sprawling, idle, sun-drenched days. Guaranteed to effectively enrich your day, it’s ideally suited to life in the city for those with escapist tendencies.
‘Love Show’ is a perfect introduction, allowing you to gently descend into Edwards’s world, cushioned by her light and breathy but infinitely listenable vocal. Love is usually unrequited, tumultuous or passionate in song, so when Edwards sings “it’s painless letting your love show”, it’s a minor revelation. By ‘What’s Wrong With Me’, these refreshingly unusual insights are a regular feature but not all are effective. Mentions of mortgages and emails are hardly the kind of thing that most of us would relish being reminded of when indulging in idealism. Elsewhere, ‘Stop Complaining’ contains a jarring reference to driving “down to the rodeo”. But for the occasions where things don’t quite work, there are just as many where her slightly left of centre worldview makes you listen harder and appreciate the work all the more.
Gossamer-light and gorgeous, ‘Solitary’ jostles into the memory with a well-executed staccato approach and is a nice example of when the more synthetic sounds at work on the album are at their most effective. ‘No Other’, on the other hand, could perhaps rely less heavily upon them as the exotic beach-inspired sounds seem unnecessarily fake. The conversational ‘Tell Me’, with its Disney-esque introductory motif, is reminiscent of a postcard or phonecall home in which the overall message is positive but there are moments when the realisation hits that “all the distance spoils the view”, that to be sharing the experience rather than trying to live and re-tell the adventure would make the journey more authentic.
Certainly, what makes Mind How You Go that little bit special is Edwards’s way with a lyric. So while on the first listen you may be fooled into finding superficial similarities with Dido or Katie Melua – the vocal tone is comparable – the more you listen, the richer and more unique it becomes. ‘All The Promises’ is the definitive song in that respect, with unusual snippets like “we broke the chain and left the cross behind” and “love’s a stain on a shirt like old red wine” that haunt you long after the song has ended. Rather than reinterpret a traditional perspective, she’ll take each subject and give it a personal twist, sharing the benefit of her own experience.
The island voices feel to ‘Jamaica Days’ complements nicely the lyrical hymn of desire for sunshine, propelling the album towards that which it and perhaps Edwards herself has been seeking from the beginning – an entwining of the new and traditional, an identity carved from many influences and a sense of individulity that allows for fresh starts and beautiful changes, the most enduring part of which is that Skye is taking us all with her for the ride.
originally published June 12th, 2006
The Woods ••••
I have no intention of clogging the page with ruminations on band set-up, record labels, history, tour dates, and downloads etc. You can find all that on http://www.sleater-kinney.com or http://www.sleater-kinney.net, written with more care and aim to please than I could ever be bothered with. While to Sleater-Kinney newbies, the trio’s name might conjure up thoughts of a solicitors’ office or city financial advisors, fortunately nothing could be further from the truth. If the metaphor is to be persevered with, Sleater-Kinney are, if anything, more like a construction company, complete with all the heavy earth-moving machinery that any local area regeneration scheme would be rightly envious of.
Seventh album The Woods contains everything from high-energy melodic grinding (‘The Fox’) to raw and impassioned rock (‘What’s Mine Is Yours’ and ‘Entertain’). Even the instrumental sections on the epic 11-minute ‘Let’s Call It Love’ lift you up, let you float happily awhile, before throwing you down from a very great height. Add to that the range of Corin Tucker and Carrie Brownstein’s duelling vocals, which gloriously hurtle from sweet-sounding harmonies on ‘Night Light’ to the howling roar of a B52 bomber found almost everywhere else, and you’re on to a winner.
Although you cannot fail to recognise some of their grunge influences and PJ Harvey-esque deliveries, Sleater-Kinney pull it off by exuding a more natural and unforced cool. While the cynics amongst you might say it’s all been done before, I say not recently and certainly not as well as this. The Woods is unadulterated, fresh, fun and very cleverly composed. The sequencing of the tracks ensures an invigorating flow that maintains a certain sense of urgency and keeps the listener wanting more. Want proof? It’s a rare thing indeed that most tunes on an album would force me to wriggle to the rhythm and shake a leg discreetly under the desk, but it happened here alright. The Woods has plenty to offer and stands up to repeated listens. It seems to me that the interpretation of each tune will also depend on your mood. A song that made you air guitar with your mates on first listen might later make you want to drive out onto the interstate to lock horns with a tornado. Alone. At night. Wearing nothing but your shades.
originally published ??, 2005
Revenge Of The Killer Slits EP •••
It’s been 28 years since The Slits’ ragged debut Cut, 28 years since they greeted the world at large whilst smeared in mud and wearing nothing but loincloths and over 30 years since their first ever gig, a riotous performance of their anthem ‘Shoplifting’ in Selfridges. Here in 2006, only two of the band’s original line-up remain and this hotly anticipated new EP has everyone begging the question: do The Slits still have it?
Beginning with ‘The Slits Tradition’, a self-mythologising big-up that recaps the band’s history and charts their influence on the punk scene, The Slits commendably waste no time in putting forward their gender-political views. Though it sounds like a rather embarrassing prospect, surprisingly they still have the nous to carry it off. Admittedly some of the spoken word segments do sound like they’re being read directly from a feminist textbook, but their sentiment is admirable. Backed by rumbling, distorted bass and Peaches-esque electronics, the band sound fired up and fiercely committed. Disconcertingly, the opening lines are sung in a girl group-esque chant that immediately and disturbingly recalls All Saints rather than Ari Up, but any claim on that band’s behalf to be “the first of our kind / way ahead of our time” would be laughed off the stage, and quite rightly so.
It’s refreshing to see that The Slits still refuse to allow the cocky arrogance of punk to be solely the preserve of the male: this has always been one of their major aims and they continue to convince at it. That said, it seems a little incongruent at best to place this manifesto, a mission statement that makes great claims, as the opening number of such a brief EP; ‘The Slits Tradition’ would fit better as the opening salvo of a full-length album where there ought to be more evidence to support its grand statements. The clues do lie in The Slits’ back catalogue, but many (especially younger) music fans might not be familiar with their work and find the self-aggrandising statements of the track a little puzzling.
Next up, ‘Number One Enemy’ is reportedly an unrecorded track from back in the day, and it certainly sounds like its been beamed direct from 1978: it’s aggressive and confrontational, with an old-school punk riff far removed from the more modern sound of the first track. The scattergun anger of the era comes across in the snarled lines, “I’m gonna be your number one enemy / all for the hell of it”. Final track ‘Kill Them With Love’ is a dub reggae affair in a similar vein to Ari Up’s most recent solo outing, but is easily the weakest inclusion. It’s not bad exactly, but after the ballsy energy of ‘Number One Enemy’ it feels a little wan. Fact fans might jump for trivia joy when they spot ex-‘Popworld’ presenter Miquita Oliver on backing vocals, but that’s about as surprising as it gets.
There’s no denying that Revenge Of The Killer Slits is a strange little project; the three tracks are so incohesive and brief that they’ll almost certainly leave you to wonder whether Up and co. just couldn’t pen enough good tracks to fill a decent album. Still, it makes for an interesting soundclash between 1978 and 2006, serving both as a time capsule that demonstrates why the band must have been such a startling, anarchic presence back in the late ‘70s and as a pleasing reminder that they’re still relevant now.
originally published December 17th, 2006
Patti Smith’s Meltdown: Songs Of Innocence
Live at the Royal Festival Hall ••••
June 18th, 2005
It’s 7:30pm and already tonight’s instalment of the 2005 Meltdown Festival is lingering a little too close to the literal for my liking; the temperature at the rear of the Royal Festival Hall is enough to make the blood boil. All of a sudden, I feel sorry for lobsters. Luckily, such empathy fits snugly into the theme of the evening. Patti Smith, punk’s most judicious high poetess, has seen to it personally that this year’s festival is no mere excavation cum shindig with cronies (à la Morrissey’s 2004 effort) or disappointingly macho all-male love-in (e.g. David Bowie’s stint as curator in 2002).
Instead, she has opted for a typically many-layered production, drawing together the themes of war, politics, art, the working class, literature, experience and tonight’s raison d’être, the innocence of children. More specifically, the theme of the evening is an extension of Smith’s love affair with the works of poet William Blake, and in particular with his late 18th Century classic, ‘Songs Of Innocence & Experience’. The book was originally published in two volumes, the first of which is tonight’s inspiration and the second will close the festival on June 26th during a neat tie-in with the work of Jimi Hendrix, featuring the likes of Joanna Newsom, Jeff Beck, Robert Wyatt and Patti Smith herself. Tonight’s cast is no less stellar. In fact, it’s deliriously brilliant. A once-in-a-lifetime bringing together of some of the world’s greatest female performers, plus a few token males and Yoko Ono.
After a comedic short film of a lunatic dancing boy plays on the big screen, the stage goes dark until actress Miranda Richardson steps out of the shadows to read Blake’s pastorally charming ‘The Lamb’. Patti Smith and her band then take to the stage for an utterly engrossing and powerful rendition of ‘Birdland’ from her near-sacred debut Horses. The song is a discourse on the loss of a young boy’s father and the desire the child feels to be reunited with his dad. Given that tomorrow is Father’s Day, it’s inevitably uncomfortable listening for some. Patti later returns to sing a sweet but drippy ditty written for her son Jackson by her late husband, Fred “Sonic” Smith of MC5, and then another with her daughter Jesse on piano. She also takes time out to introduce us to her favourite childhood toy, little green Gumby, the “clay man you can trust” who’s fast becoming the unofficial Meltdown festival mascot.
In that moment, the notion of Smith as tortured artist and sullen elder stateswoman is banished forever and rightly so. If only Tori Amos were as endearing. As exemplary as her performance is, the empathy factor is lacking. In a four-song set drawing heavily on her earlier albums, her finest moment is in fact a stirring take on ‘Mother Revolution’ from 2005’s The Beekeeper. For someone who struggled so hard to be a mother and is so proud to finally be one, that she doesn’t engage the crowd with onstage banter or even acknowledge the purpose of the show smacks of lost opportunity, though you can’t really argue with a standing ovation. The notoriously self-effacing Beth Orton fares better with the endearment factor – her sweet reedy voice cosies up to the songs like old friends, and she ends each with a somewhat overexcited yelp of thanks. Best of all is a cover of Fred Neill’s ‘Dolphins’, but a fine version of Woody Guthrie’s ‘Don’t You Push Me Down’ is an unexpected joy. It is in fact the second Guthrie song of the night, following Billy Bragg’s hilarious take on ‘Dry Bed’, a charming ode to no nocturia. Kristin Hersh later extends the night-time subplot, performing traditional songs about death and despair that her father lulled her to sleep with as a child. Other highlights are Eliza Carthy’s enriching a cappella folk songs and Marianne Faithfull’s boisterous rendition of The Beatles’s ‘Working Class Hero’. Additional readings from the works of Blake come courtesy of a hushed and spooky Tilda Swinton, although she doesn’t join Miranda Richardson in indulging us with a simple pretty folk song that Eliza herself would be proud of.
It’s not all quite as successful, however. Tim Booth of now-defunct indie stalwarts James performs an awfully trite song about child abuse before plundering the past for an acoustic version of ‘Sit Down’, his former band’s biggest hit, with a sorry sense of ‘so what?’. The same can be said of The High Llamas, whose sole contribution, a song based on an imagining of Blake’s own childhood, is surprisingly dull for one with such a glorious premise. Sinéad O’Connor, too, is equally unexciting, though more unexpectedly so. Granted, she isn’t aided by the sound problems which render her rudimentary acoustic plucking all but inaudible, but for someone so famously impassioned her set is devoid of emotion. Only ‘Scarlet Ribbons’ from her Am I Not Your Girl covers album seems to raise her out of a stupor.
Then there’s Yoko Ono, in a giant hat, providing a timely reminder why the most derided 72-year old woman in ‘music’ is so utterly unlovable. Screeching “Follow your heart, trust your intuition” for ten solid minutes would test the mettle of anybody’s audience. It actually seems like an hour, thereby allowing far too much time to contemplate how on earth we are all still breathing in this sauna. In fact, the performance is so lacking in redeeming features that it’s a relief when Ono departs to a bizarrely rapturous round of applause. The same people were sniggering just seconds before. Maybe I just didn’t get it.
Such a disparate line-up was guaranteed to raise a few eyebrows, but none arched higher than during the finale, a bizarre attempt to sing rounds beneath Patti’s pulsing Blakean verse. The song – ‘Inchworm’ from the Hans Christian Andersen biopic – is a cute choice, and after a faltering start the entire cast of the evening finally get the harmonies right. A moment of indefinably beautiful uplift ensues before the tired, hot but mostly exhilarated audience spills back into the muggy London streets singing “Inchworm, inchworm measuring the marigold, you and your arithmetic, you’ll probably go far…”
originally published June 24th, 2005
She Like Electric •••
Just in case you haven’t heard about the mini phenomenon that is Smoosh, here’s a brief recap: two sisters from Seattle – Asya, 13, and Chloe, 11 – who play drums and keyboards and have been creating quite a stir amongst the alternative rock press both here and at home, whilst also garnering praise from many a respected musician. But can they really be any good? For me, the alarm bells started ringing when I read people on certain music forums going on about how great the band are. These are the sort of people that I’ve always maintained are constantly on the search for something more challenging, more obscure and hey, maybe more unlistenable than what anyone else is ‘listening’ to. They want to be the first on the block to uncover something new, something to impress their peers with just how avant-garde they are. Mind you, if Everett True likes them, there must be something worthy going on.
For a start there are some great musical moments; She Like Electric has ideas a-plenty. After the Money Mark-style lo-fi of ‘Massive Cure’, the rolling Ben Folds-y piano of ‘It’s Cold’ and the infectiously jaunty ‘It’s Not Your Day To Shine’, ‘Rad’ is the first moment that knocks you sideways. Eighties-style ‘hip-pop’ is the best way to describe it, with Asya and Chloe’s youthful exuberance really coming to the fore through incessant chants of “yo guys”. Early signs of teenage angst are apparent on two of the best songs here. ‘La Pump’ is a deceptively chugging petulant number with a stroppy riot grrl chorus, and ‘Bottlenose’ has a shouty, close to irritating intro but settles for some fine Bis-style screaming and space age keyboards. ‘Make It Through’ once again spins the album on its head, with Asya’s echoing vocals floating over a rumbling tune that’s closer to Joy Division than anything else. Then ‘I’ve Got My Own Problems To Fix’ manages to make riot grrl sound ethereal. The wonderfully titled and brief ‘The Quack’ clocks in at under a minute and is a ‘Monster Mash’ for the Buffy generation. Smoosh have quite a way with song titles – there’s another on here called ‘Pygmy Motorcycle’.
But while there are many good points to the album, Asya’s vocals are exactly how you’d expect a young kid to sound. It may be an unfair criticism, but it’s a bit like going to see your child singing in the school play. Of course they sound wonderful, but then you’re forced to sit through all the other kids’ performances too. Which begs the question, who would choose to listen to this? But the main impression I’m left with is that She Like Electric is the sound of a band warming up for something special. The ideas are bursting out of this album and one suspects that come album two they will be better, if not fully, formed.
originally published March 7th, 2006
The Bells Of 1 2 •••••
Is Sol Seppy a faerie queen? Did she make this as a soundtrack to her magnificent transfiguration? I only ask because, from the atmospheric opener ‘1 2′ onwards, one cannot help but be enchanted, nay, mesmerised by what has been achieved here. Often womblike in its comfort, like taking a big floaty bubble bath with Sigur Rós or diving by moonlight to the ocean’s murky depths with Stína Nordenstam, The Bells Of 1 2 heralds the arrival of a preternatural talent. Alas, the faerie bit is a touch of truth economy.
Sol Seppy’s alter ego is actually a woman of mere flesh and bone, a woman known as Sophie Michalitsianos, who happens to be something of an allsinging monopoly; a woman with one foot in England and one in Oz, who began to write songs when she was only five years old, who found time to become a classically trained musician, build her own studio, tour with Radiohead and make special sounds with Sparklehorse in the U S of A. She’s a multi-faceted and shimmering creature who seemingly can’t help but lay herself bare, capturing the sound of an unpretentious drifter who is unsure of where she’s been but is definitely aware of where she’s headed. She’s someone who wants to share with you what she’s seen. What she’s seen is sadness and hope, sex and confusion, simultaneously powerless and powerful.
Her music is devastating where it’s touching and uplifting, heart-wrenchingly human in the most basic way, but a story told with a supernatural quality that belittles all that. Gracefully innocent piano, sitting amidst unaffected hushed vocals and soft orchestration, is wonderfully contrasted by a darker attitude, where the likes of Lamb or Ruby flit between the sombre moodiness of Gorillaz’s ‘El Mañana’ and the twisting of pretty homemade lo-fi knives into beats that border on trip-hop; each part of this vast spectrum illustrated with magical poetry like a modern day spell.
Consider me under it. This is utterly breathtaking stuff and deserves to be immersed in for quite some time to come. Quite simply, a twinkling debut from beginning to end.
originally published June 24th, 2006
Sonic Youth [reissue] •••
The Whitey Album [reissue] •••
Picture the scene: it’s the UK in the early 1980s and, bruised from the onslaught that was punk, the mainstream musical scene is on the cusp of gentrification – the time of the dandy is at hand. When Sonic Youth released their eponymous debut in 1982, the UK charts were dominated by the likes of Bucks Fizz, Dollar, Tight Fit and Charlene, all of whom, in their own way, made a success of their fifteen minutes, but are unlikely to be spoken of in the same reverential hush afforded to Kim Gordon and her atonal chums when musos sit down to discuss the popular canon. By 1983, Duran Duran would be all over the airwaves like a rash and English pop would enter its wilderness years, culminating in the hegemony of Stock, Aitken and Waterman. In New York, Madonna flirted with a real band and pranced about in leotards (proving that what goes around…), before crossing the ‘Borderline’ and going on ‘Holiday’. More of her later. Time has repeatedly shown that mediocrity often precipitates revolt, and while Sonic Youth cannot be called upon to shoulder full responsibility for what happened next, their coming together, and subsequent success, influenced the greatest of the ‘80s guitar bands and the ‘90s grunge-athon. They didn’t so much storm the barricades as sneak round their edges and lay the enemy flat with their own walls of dissonance; this wasn’t revolution, it was renaissance.
Twenty-five years after its initial release, Universal are reissuing not only their debut mini-album, but also their 1988 off-the-wall oddity The Whitey Album (recorded under the affectionate moniker Ciccone Youth) and Thurston Moore’s 1995 solo effort Psychic Hearts, in preparation for a new album in the summer – all come remastered with extra studio and live tracks. Leaving aside the argument that a remastered Sonic Youth album rather contradicts their rationale, the recent recycling of art-rock/pop and post-post-punk in the forms of Franz Ferdinand and The Strokes et al. is an ideal time to revisit the daddies of the anti-melody scene. After all, without them, it’s highly unlikely that students would have anything decent to get drunk to.
The good news is that Sonic Youth sounds just as contemporary now as it must have sounded young, fresh and new in 1982. It’s not a welcoming sound, however. You don’t listen to Sonic Youth for relief from the world; this music is a relentless test of your mental capacity, an extended middle finger to your ears and melodic sensibilities. This is the sound of musicians building whole cities from concrete slabs of bass and jackboot guitars, extending jams on one note for five minutes before firing up the Sherman tanks and blowing structure and sense into smithereens. On ‘Burning Spear’, Moore intones “I’m not afraid to say I’m scared” and you would do well to admit the same, or turn the CD off and go listen to The Carpenters. ‘I Dreamed I Dream’ is a slow Motörhead bass riff over a scattering of dissonant guitar notes and random, half-whispered Gordon vocals that would give Martin Luther King a sleepless night. The extended outro to ‘I Don’t Want To Push It’ is a torture device; loop it, turn it up to eleven and watch your victim beg for clemency within ten minutes. ‘The Good & The Bad’ picks up where it leaves off and goes on. And on. And on. As a teenager in a dark basement club off Bleeker Street with 200 of your mates and no lectures tomorrow, it must have approached aural nirvana (a term I use not wholly without irony). Emerging into a Manhattan morning, the world would have been a different place.
Only five tracks long, Sonic Youth had ‘cult’ written all over it. Creativity and experimentalism of this quality is never meant to last, but should implode as quickly as each of the compositions grabs you by the throat and screams for attention. That Sonic Youth are still a potent force is testament to their ability to ride the edge of commercial success and critical acclaim and find succour in both. Nothing in their latter (and large) catalogue comes close to the exuberance and couldn’t-give-a-fuck attitude of this debut. Listening to it from start to finish is like being stabbed slowly. By someone you love.
The Whitey Album was the product of a collaboration between Sonic Youth and Minutemen bassist Mike Watt. If the Youth’s catalogue to this date had cemented their place in the art-rock heavens, this album, released under the name Ciccone Youth and named in honour of The Beatles’s double from 1968, proved that art for art’s sake was still a viable proposition in the blossoming, style-over-substance MTV era. Short pieces (to call them ‘songs’ would be stretching it) with little structure, less melody and lots of humour, The Whitey Album was the arch-experimenters freed from even the loose strictures of their ‘day job’ and deciding to go play in the traffic. Pity the traffic – this is disco for the disturbed, with techno rhythms and noise that would ably soundtrack Orwell’s ‘1984′ or perhaps a darker ‘Blade Runner’. It’s dystopian pop.
‘Me & Jill/Hendrix Cosby’ sounds like someone’s let Hunter S Thompson man the decks after a raid on the local pharmacy. ‘Macbeth’ is a circular road trip at 33.3 rpm, four flat tyres and a Casio keyboard. It might be better to be stoned when listening, but I couldn’t really say. Where any semblance of song pokes its head above the parapet, it’s a cover, and finds Ciccone Youth at their funniest. Madonna’s ‘Burnin’ Up’ is given the out-of-tune treatment, cleverly mixing the original chorus with Moore’s laconic drawl. And when Gordon later rampages through Robert Palmer’s ‘Addicted To Love’, it’s almost respectful yet stupidly hilarious. Other tracks that stand out are ‘Platoon II’, ‘Two Cool Rock Chicks Listening To Neu!’ and ‘March Of The Ciccone Robots’, all titles that indicate the playful levels to which Ciccone Youth descended in their efforts to massage the boundaries. The ‘90s would see Sonic Youth move to a major label and release ever-more mainstream albums, albeit retaining artistic control. In this way, they would expand their fanbase whilst maintaining their role as the spearhead of late 20th Century art-noise. The Whitey Album, their affectionate lampooning of the music they originally revolted against, stands as the last time they could conceivably be called ‘alt-‘ and not be accused of hypocrisy.
So, Sonic Youth – are they (not very) melodic masturbation of the highest order, or ground breaking experimentalism on a scale not seen since Schoenberg? Actually, they’re both. This is music that marries the requirements of no-wave New Yorkers in need of a noise fix, with the band’s genre-busting lust for creativity amid respectful nods to The Stooges, Velvet Underground and contemporaries like Joy Division, Dinosaur Jr and My Bloody Valentine. Or, as a friend and fan told me when I asked for his opinion, it’s Kim Gordon on stage, playing the bass and making a noise. Sometimes that’s enough.
originally published March 31st, 2006
Sons & Daughters
The Repulsion Box •••••
The Repulsion Box is the first full album from hard-edged Glaswegian indie rock band Sons & Daughters, formed in 2003 by ex-Arab Strap bit-parters, Adele Bethel (vox, guitar, piano) and David Gow (drums, percussion). Alongside bassist Ailidh Lennon and guitarist/co-vocalist Scott Paterson, they released their debut seven-track mini-album, Love The Cup, in July 2004 to widespread critical acclaim. In fact, the Strap connection provides two key elements in the Sons & Daughters equation – a penchant for the darker things in life and a willingness to sing in their native Glasgow accent, the latter of which only adds to the overwhelming sense of menace that runs throughout this album. It almost badgers you into appreciating it, conjuring up an image of Bethel leaning down, spitting and sneering in your face as her bandmates draw in ever closer, backing her up with a relentless wall of drums and guitars warning you that you’d better like it, or else.
Some comparisons have been drawn between Sons & Daughters and now-defunct fellow Glaswegians, The Delgados, mostly due to the male/female singing patterns. Frankly, that’s ridiculous, the hometown and the gender balance are the only similarities here. The Delgados are sorely missed, but Sons & Daughters are not here to provide a stopgap. On the subject of dual (or duelling) vocals, whilst Paterson is nominally the co-vocalist in Sons & Daughters, in reality he’s more the dark, deadpan backing vocal to Bethel’s more varied, more passionate and ultimately more frightening lead. This is how it should be; Paterson’s not a bad singer by any means, but it’s clear when he takes to the front – such as in the second verse of ‘Monsters’ – exactly who it is that makes this record outstanding.
That said, the Paterson-fronted ‘Rama Lama’ is one of the best tracks on the album. A slower-paced, stomping, chanting verse that bursts into an energetic, derisive Bethel-screamed chorus, alternately cresting on waves of quiet menace and passionate anger – it’s a deadly combination. That’s not to say that Sons & Daughters don’t have a pop sensibility to go with it; tracks such as ‘Dance Me In’ and ‘Taste The Last Girl’ disprove that theory. However, it’s pretty unlikely that these will lead to a slot on Top of the Pops just yet.
The final part of the jigsaw is provided by producer Victor van Vugt, who has previously worked with PJ Harvey and Beth Orton, though his long-standing collaboration with Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds is a more fitting reference point in the context of this album. You can certainly pick out some of the Australian’s dark glaring foreboding, brilliantly helped along by the death-, break up- and murder-inspired lyrics. Indeed, Bethel is positively pant-wetting in the closing track, ‘Gone’, shrieking “I’ll cut you out of every photograph to within an inch of your life!”, channelling the spirit of a bunny-boiling psychotic.
The relentless musical assault might make this album difficult for some listeners to stick with all the way through without wanting to hide in a corner, but track by track it will insinuate itself into your playlists until everything else begins to feel almost unimportant and trite in comparison. In a word, essential.
originally published August 15th, 2005
The Last Of The Rock Stars •••
Since the original line-up of The Ronettes disbanded way back in 1966, the trajectory of Ronnie Spector’s career has been spectacularly steep in the wrong direction. For this, her first album since 1987 and only her third solo full-length altogether, she returns to the fold both older and wiser and trying to break free from her dogged bad luck and the stigma of her allegedly homicidal ex-husband. The self-congratulatory (or is it self-mocking?) title aside, The Last Of The Rock Stars is a qualified success, against all the odds and in spite of a few wobbly moments.
It’s a touch unfortunate that the album starts with one such dodgy inclusion, ‘Never Gonna Be Your Baby’ coming across like a craggy Cyndi Lauper impersonator singing a third-rate Roxette number. Her once glorious voice sadly sounds a little strained, even on ‘Ode To LA’, her collaboration with The Raveonettes in which the old girl group vibe is back in full effect. Her cover of Amy Rigby’s ‘All I Want’, however, is right on the money, both lyrically and musically with its country-ish theme and perky backing vocals. Other highlights include ‘Hey Sah Lo Ney’, with its nonsense lyrics providing a dose of pure dumb fun, and ‘Work Out Fine’, a cool-as-you-like rock ‘n’ stroll number with spoken word interjections and guitar courtesy of none other than Keith Richards. ‘Won’t Stop Saying Goodbye’ is a glossy, seemingly effortless shimmy with appealing “ba ba ba” bits, while ‘Out In The Cold Again’ pulls out all the stops for a grand, jazzy lounge number that makes for a welcome change in style.
Given the events of recent years, casual listeners will perhaps be most interested in ‘Girl From The Ghetto’, a thinly veiled attack on her ex-husband set to a jaunty 10,000 Maniacs-style tune. Here, Spector extols the virtues of believing in karma and how things are finally balancing out for her. What could well have been a car crash of a track is actually so touching that you can’t help but be affected by the sentiment, especially when it contains lines like “I hope your hell is filled with magazines / and on every page you see a picture of me”. Ouch.
Despite the occasionally poignant lyric, the degree to which the success of the album rests on Spector’s vocal is clearly apparent. When she finds the right song for her pipes, as she has with ‘All I Want’, everything else falls into place and it all seems so effortless and the song so expansive. When things go awry, however, they really get ugly. Ramones cover ‘Here Today, Gone Tomorrow’ is stodgy blues rock with little to recommend it to anyone, while her inclusion of yet another version of Johnny Thunder’s ‘You Can’t Put Your Arms Around A Memory’ is a bit of a mixed bag – the verses are quietly affecting in their tribute to the late Joey Ramone (who sings backing vocals), but the sentiment is lost when the chorus explodes in overblown pomp.
It’s a shame that a greater degree of quality control was lacking given the album’s lengthy gestation period, but in spite of its blips, The Last Of The Rock Stars is a timely reminder of how great Ronnie Spector once was, and how great she can still be given the right tune.
originally published August 23rd, 2006
Live at AR2, Bristol University ••••½
November 19th, 2005
The AR2 at Bristol University is a minuscule venue and one that is frankly inhospitable to whomsoever graces its dingy little stage. Just to even get there, Regina Spektor must climb through a crowd of adoring fans who’ve been eagerly waiting for two hours, and in the atmosphere of heady devotion and anticipation one fears a little for her safety; the French boy I’ve been talking to has just informed me that if he gets to meet her afterwards he will cry and, if by any chance she hugs him, he will die.
Thankfully, Spektor’s burly tour manager and assorted security men clear her a path, and when she finally mounts the stage, she beams at the crowd and looks very happy to be here. Swiftly launching into ‘Ain’t No Cover’, a lovely a cappella ditty, her voice swoops in a manner so soulful that it recalls the great jazz singers like Nina Simone and Billie Holliday as she taps the microphone gently with her finger to form a beat. The song is about death – not an uncommon topic for Spektor – and yet she sings and inhabits the lyrics in a way that celebrates every aspect of living.
As on her records she is irrepressibly playful, and what shines through the entire performance is an undeniable wit. Even when playing songs that are new to many audience members – Spektor has two albums, 11:11 and Songs, yet to be released in the UK, plus a truckload of others so far unrecorded – she elicits genuine laughter from the enthusiastic crowd. Nowhere is this more true than on ‘Baby Jesus’, which, in a pre-emptive strike, Regina warns the crowd not to be offended by. Ostensibly about her fear of fanatical right-wing Christians, the chorus of “All the non-believers, they get to eat dirt / and the believers get to spit on their graves” simply reaffirms that Spektor is a brave, sardonic and original lyricist.
The evening’s excitement doesn’t stop there either. For ‘Poor Little Rich Boy’, Regina plays keyboard one-handed while simultaneously bashing a chair with a drumstick so vigorously that chips can be seen flying into the audience. When she launches into ‘Us’, also from 2004’s Soviet Kitsch, the reverence with which the crowd sing along and faithfully recite each word gets Regina’s infectiously wide grin of approval. Later on, when a lady briefly faints at the front, Spektor stops playing in order to help her up and, after easing her into a seat on the stage, hands her a bottle of water and allows her to sit there for the rest of the show.
Clearly, this is an artist who truly cares for her fans. Indeed, following a rapturously received encore of ‘Samson’, one of Spektor’s most affecting and simple songs that spins the yarn of a tender love, she announces that she’ll attempt to meet any fans who want to say hi at the merchandise stand. She tells us that she fears this plan is overly ambitious, and the fans do indeed flock to meet their idol, but Regina remains until every last one has queued, blushed and gushed their thanks (myself included). For not only is she one of today’s most unique, creative and playful artists, but also one of the most humble and generous.
originally published December 6th, 2005
Mary Ann Meets The Gravediggers & Other Stories ••••
Despite the lazy comparisons that journos often make – “She’s got red hair, she must be the new Tori Amos!” – the songs of Regina Spektor sound like noone else on Earth. This is conclusively proven by this new compilation, which collects together selected tracks from her three previous albums under one overarching theme. Mary Ann Meets The Gravediggers… privileges Spektor’s narrative-driven songs, which are conveniently often the strongest cuts on her albums. Many of them have a literary lyrical bent, making reference to Greek tragedies (‘Oedipus’) and Hans Christian Anderson (‘Prisoners’), alongside sparkling stories of her own creation. The cast of characters is eclectic and colourful, but not all of the songs feature fictional constructions – Spektor is not afraid to place herself centre-stage.
On a sonic level, the record is striking; Regina has a playful attitude to words and a clearly apparent delight in their sound, or rather the unusual sounds she can draw out of them. This is evident throughout, but most of all on ‘Consequence Of Sounds’. The lyrics directly contradict the melodic stream that leaps from Spektor’s mouth. So while the song begins “My rhyme ain’t good just yet / my brain and tongue just met” and goes on to discuss the problems caused by consonants and vowels, every line is delivered with stunning verbal dexterity. Furthermore, many of her songs are punctuated by bursts of foreign language and surprising sounds that play a part in their respective narratives – a sneeze on ‘Mary Ann’, hawking spittle on ‘Daniel Cowman’. Regularly swooping from pop to rap to jazz stylings, often in the space of two lines, Spektor displays an inventiveness that sets her way above the majority of her peers. But one comparison does stand true; the energy and elasticity of her vocals are reminiscent of Ani DiFranco’s riotous live shows.
What this collection also proves is that Spektor can communicate whimsical humour (‘Love Affair’, ‘Sailor Song’) and affecting tragedy with equal skill. ‘Daniel Cowman’ (“a man destined to hang / a man destined to fry”) is about a death row inmate’s desire to take a final bath before his execution. ‘Chemo Limo’ is the album’s most lyrically complex and brilliant song. It presents us with the dream narrative of a mother diagnosed with cancer, her anxieties about dying and leaving her children behind revealed through the coded images thrown up in her dream. In the lyrics “I had a dream: crispy crispy Benjamin Franklin came over and babysat all four of my kids”, her financial concerns and worries about the welfare of her children are conflated with the precision and economy that characterises the best poetry. Meanwhile, the character’s outrage at the financial burden of paying for chemotherapy is expressed in the song’s impassioned chorus: “I can afford chemo like I can afford a limo and on any given day I’d rather ride a limousine.”
The album culminates with recent single, ‘Us’, a dramatic, stormy number that finally began to attract the sort of press and radio attention that Spektor more than warrants. She is an artist who improves with each release – the finest songs here are taken from 2004’s Soviet Kitsch – and she has already completed her next album, scheduled for release later this year. With that in mind, it looks increasingly likely that 2006 will be the year in which Regina Spektor Meets Chart Success & The Acclaim That She Deserves.
originally published January 23rd, 2006
Begin To Hope ••••½
The moment when any semi-established artist braves that most perilous of career moves and delivers their first major label release is always a worrisome one. Though it’s hard to imagine that fans who invested in Regina Spektor’s formative albums – the self-released 11.11 and Songs and 2003’s breakthrough Soviet Kitsch – would begrudge her finally getting the deal she justly deserves, it’s bound to ruffle some feathers.
Born in the former Soviet Union and having moved to New York City aged seven, Spektor has been playing bars the size of broom cupboards for years. Primarily a word-of-mouth phenomenon, her dramatic rise in fame has led to sold-out concerts in more spacious surrounds and, as a result, Begin To Hope has clearly had a whole wad of money hurled in its direction. With over two months spent recording compared with Soviet Kitsch‘s brisk ten days, Spektor has been given a chance to experiment with production and instruments that she’s never been able to before, with beats, drums and bigger arrangements that her previous albums only ever dreamed of.
The result is an album that feels rich and cared for, but one that has already alienated some hardcore fans with cries of “Regina’s gone pop!”. It’s certainly true that some of these songs sound completely different to the girl-and-a-piano affair that is Spektor performing live. But would an album of purely piano-based songs really be as varied and exciting as Begin To Hope is? I doubt it. Regardless, nothing is able to detract from Spektor’s obvious talent for songwriting and performing.
Each song has its own story to tell, both musically and through Spektor’s fascinating way with words. Her lyrics are at times haunting and moving, such as ‘Field Below’s evocative refrain: “darkness spreads over the snow / like ancient bruises”, and at other times laugh-out-loud funny: “Hey remember that month when I would only eat boxes of tangerines / so cheap and juicy!” (‘That Time’). Fittingly for that commanding title, many songs on Begin To Hope are uplifting and invigorating, such as opener ‘Fidelity’, with its bouncy plucked-strings beat, and the rock-out thrill of ‘Better’. Recent single ‘On The Radio’ seems to almost parody the sound of your average radio hit, but the lyrics are thought-provoking and somehow it works. Elsewhere, a number of other songs on the album are kept sparse, with Spektor’s talent for the piano the main focus. The best of these is ‘Samson’, a soulful weepie, while the Russian gothic of ‘Après Moi’ is suitably dark and epic, complete with the atmospheric effect of clocktower chimes.
There are a couple of songs that aren’t so successful, such as the strangely unmelodic piano splurge that is ‘20 Years Of Snow’ and ‘Edit’, which might lead you to wonder whether Spektor has been having a little too much fun with ProTools. On the whole, though, Begin To Hope is an outstanding album of substance and thought, a comprehensive delve into one of the greatest young musical talents around who is carving out trends, not following them. May her fame continue to soar so that she has more chance to experiment with her passion and her art.
originally published July 10th, 2006
The Way To Bitter Lake ••••
Old wives once foretold that a fever could be cured by wearing around one’s neck a spider in a nutshell. In a nutshell, that’s poppycock, but many a fetid sweaty furrowed brow could be soothed by a spin of The Way To Bitter Lake, the debut mini-album from Brooklyn-based artist Jane Herships. Quite where she’s hiding her other four limbs is anybody’s guess, but with Herships less is unquestionably more. She may be yet another Sidewalk Café alumnus, having stolen the show at a November 2004 open mic night, but Herships stands out on the antifolk periphery by virtue of having a classically beautiful, bittersweet voice. Some comparisons ring true, but only fleetingly; a first listen brought to mind a less twangy Jill Barber or Victoria Williams, while a second conjured a slightly less deathly Julie Doiron supping a herbal tea with Nina Nastasia. Then just when you think you might have nailed her down, Herships will gleefully give you the slip.
Opener ‘The Clearing’ is deceptively textbook, lo-fi finger-picked loveliness; “now is the time to behave” she opines a little mischieviously, but the undulating melody and perfectly timed harmonies of Louis Schwadron (who was, until recently, the Polyphonic Spree’s French horn supremo) are ecstatically cracked and lovelorn. ‘Don’t Be Afraid, I’ve Just Come To Say Goodbye’ is what Múm might sound like if they spent less time on their laptops – gorgeous flourishes of flute and Schwadron’s horn are woven sparingly through hushed double-tracked vocals, sweetly intimate guitar and unintrusive electric piano. Herships clearly knows a thing or two about subtlety, resisting too the temptation to overegg the lyrics; “and should I beware / your nights and your mares” in particular is devastatingly simple and suggestive. The intriguingly-titled ‘I Don’t Know If She Had Any Teeth Because She Never Smiled’ offers up more of the same, this time coated in black treacle drones, while ‘The Bitter One’ is blessed with a crisper guitar sound, bolder vocal and weeping, evocative strings.
But it’s when Herships plugs in that things get truly exhilarating. The cool countrified lament of ‘Cold Eyes’ is a long-lost Edith Frost song, circa Telescopic, or at least it shimmers so finely that it very well could be. The prettiness of ‘Maggie’s Song For Alice’ is torn completely asunder by a jagged wedge of electric guitar that at first might seem woefully misjudged, but just ten seconds later may just be the most wonderfully pained Stratocaster solo that’s ever pierced your armour. And after the summery stroll of ‘Midnight On The Nile’ lulls you back into calm, ‘End Song’ briefly erupts with a quietly fierce farewell, the feedback so thickly caked on that the lyrics are all but obscured and indecipherable.
For disambiguation’s sake and a handy bit of useless trivia, there are in fact three Bitter Lakes in Herships’ native land, and which of them this captivating song suite points to, who really minds? If further fruits of her labour are this truly scrumptious, Herships herself may find the path to success rather well signposted too.
originally published February 26th, 2006
Set Yourself On Fire •••½
Set Yourself On Fire is the third full album from talented Canadian indie-pop quintet Stars, although only the second to get a domestic release, and over six months late at that (and with an inexplicably hideous new sleeve). Whilst they haven’t moved far from the keyboard-driven electropop of Heart, there’s a deliciously fuller sound at work with some beautifully crafted orchestral additions that never overpower or become pompous, as can often happen when rock bands try to add a string section (are you listening Oasis?).
Of course the real fuel to Stars’s fire is the vocals, and there’s eerily tight harmonising aplenty from Amy Millan and Torquil Campbell, sometimes to the point where it requires a finely-tuned ear to even tell that two people are singing. While the gentle, melodic opener ‘Your Ex-Lover Is Dead’ seems to be more of an intro than a song, recalling The Delgados in places, its string-soaked self-help mutterings could well put off some listeners worried that the rest of the album may be as dreary or, worse, unpleasantly saccharine. It’s a strange choice for second single and certainly doesn’t live up to the great title, but if you take Millan’s breathily delivered assertion that “live through this and you won’t look back” as a plea to stick with it, you’ll be taking good advice.
The reward comes swiftly as the band shifts up a gear or two for the title track, a masterful slab of quirky pop that crests along beautiful soundscapes while successfully avoiding the perennially attendant pitfall of dullness. The only criticism is that Stars seem overly keen on excessively long outros that often so completely change the mood of the piece that you forget what the main part of the song was like. In this case, two minutes of Campbell languidly repeating “20 years asleep until we sleep forever” over tired piano and slide guitar, whilst undoubtedly lovely, simply does not thrill.
First single ‘Ageless Beauty’ is something of an insidious toe-tapper. It may not impress on the initial listen or two, but your head will surely nod without you knowing and, like me, you may even find yourself typing in rhythm and your feet competing to be most active. Providing rare relief from Stars’s favourite theme of broken hearts and failed relationships, this one’s actually about getting together. Another highlight comes successively with ‘Reunion’, the chorus of which is an uplifting joy as Campbell chimes “all I want is one more chance to be young and wild and free”. Don’t we all. Elsewhere he sighs, “I had six too many drinks last night”, but if this is what happens when the man is hungover, I shall personally take him out on a massive bender before the next album.
Thematically on another level entirely, ‘He Lied About Death’ is an edgy, spiky anti-Bush song. It’s slightly out of keeping with the tone of the rest of the album, but nonetheless stands out for the right reasons as a great little rant that deals more with political passion than reasoned debate with lines like “I hope your drunken daughters are gay!”. Its second half verges on a discordant noise assault, but never becomes unlistenable and certainly sustains the mood of the track. Perhaps this is where the record should have ended, however, as it leaves the concluding trio of songs feeling somewhat hollow and even a little boring.
Stars produce well-realised, enchanting, pretty indie pop-rock mostly dealing with the endlessly engaging subject of the battle of the sexes, and in doing so have produced a listenable, likeable and often affecting record, only slightly let down by a few too many unnecessary fillers, which would have been better placed as B-sides, and those occasional off-topic outros.
originally published October 25th, 2005
Come & Get It •••
Take seven unnaturally polite post-pubescents, add generous helpings of hit factory pop droppings and garnish with guidance from Simon ‘Svengali’ Fuller. Leave mostly uncovered for a few years before separating the mixture and leaving to cool. Seize a generic pop princess cookie cutter and voila! you too can make yourself a Rachel Stevens. With so little of her debut solo outing Funky Dory clinging favourably to the tastebuds, Stevens has everything to prove with this second dish, and while it’s still no eureka moment in the evolution of pop music, she succeeds at least in dispensing with flogging the now lifeless S Club horse. With Funky Dory essentially just a retread of her days of sharing the limelight, Stevens’s solo career looked dead in the water. Cue a hasty reinvention and a few ‘borrowed’ ideas from the likes of Goldfrapp, and all of a sudden there was life in the proverbial old dog yet.
The ‘frappian single ‘Some Girls’ is repeated here for the benefit of fans not willing to shell out for the bolstered reissue of its predecessor. Indeed, this feels rather less like an album than a meticulously planned strategy for total chart domination. How often is it these days that you get four singles released in the run up to a record? It’s just as well then that the songwriters and producers behind it (including Karen and Shelly Poole, Richard X, Rob Davis and former S Club hitmakers Jewels & Stone) have managed to conjure up some tunes well worthy of attention.
In particular, Richard X’s ‘80s retro-electro influence really makes its mark. In a similar vein to Goldfrapp’s ‘Ooh La La’, most recent single ‘I Said Never Again (But Here We Are)’ calls on late ‘80s glam-a-likes Adam & The Ants and combines their influence with some rather dubious but entertaining lyrics. Elsewhere, ‘Je M’Appelle’ is a spiky mid-tempo R&B number that suits Stevens well, while the pseudo nursery rhyme ‘Secret Garden’ displays a vocal style heavily borrowed from Kylie Minogue’s ‘Chocolate’ – although this may have been intentional given that both songs sprang from the pen of Karen Poole. Making an unapologetic play for the fantasies of Stevens’s young male fans, ‘Crazy Boys’ teases with its chunky beats and solid bassline underpinning her moans and groans.
While the songs are, for the most part, amply strong enough to carry her, Stevens’s struggle for success has always been marred by the music coming second to her image. Sure, it’s worked for others, but somehow she lacks the likeability factor that separates Kylie from Dannii and Robbie from Gary. Targeting the loins of the boys won’t necessarily translate into healthy sales if she cannot endear herself to the sisterhood also. Even with some of the finest songwriters in pop putting rockets under Rachel, you can’t help feeling that some of Come & Get It has gone to waste on something of a damp squib.
originally published October 10th, 2005
Marsha Swanson / Jennifer Hall
Live at CB2, Cambridge •••
May 11th, 2006
Jennifer Hall is fashionably late this evening, soundchecking in front of the few people cosily spread out on rugs and floral cushions before her. She’s small and cute and extremely apologetic about travelling all the way from Bath. After being introduced by a strange man in a smoking jacket, she begins perhaps a little nervously, but with each song forces her listeners to fall in love with her slightly more as her tiny hands skilfully pluck at her acoustic guitar. If there are any imperfections tonight, I personally find them endearing. And even if I didn’t they’d be cancelled out regardless by the sheer size and quality of her voice, a noticeable salute to Tori Amos through its journey from soothing to searing.
There is certainly more to this girl than meets the eye, too. As much as she and violinist Mari Dackevych may look like carefree young women for whom it’s all about the handbags and the gladrags, there’s a beautiful and surprising honesty in these stripped down, rawly emotional songs of loss and love. In fact, when Miss Hall performs an a cappella version of the title track from her Mostly Grey EP, it was all I could do to contain myself. My only quibble is that my arse went dead halfway through the set. A great new talent.
Which is more than I can say for the headline act – London-based singer/songwriter Marsha Swanson and her Nickelback-influenced guitarist. I can barely believe she’s actually landed a record deal. Although sincerity and a strong conviction can sometimes atone for a lack of tunefulness, I almost wee my pants when she soberly introduces a song about dyslexia – an apparent affliction that affects 10% of the population – a song named ‘Johnny Can’t Read’. And, as much as you claim to be influenced by Carole King and Beth Orton, you, Marsha my dear, can’t write songs. Or sing very well. I had to run away by this point but I wish I hadn’t. Apparently dyslexic people write their j’s upside down. And I missed her singing about hoovering the sky or something. Damn.
originally published May 18th, 2006
Few’ll Ignite Sound
The dark heavy boot and brightly striped sock featured on the sleeve offer only a suggestive shade of the intensely gritty grass roots, independent musical and energetic thrust of Ontario native Ember Swift and her band. On this, her eighth release since 1996, the trio proudly parades their musical dexterity. Charging through a musical mélange of jazz, punk, feisty blues, folk-rock, pop and Middle Eastern tunes, they carefully weave together rich acoustic guitar with layers of bass, drums, electric violin and harmonies. Some may sense a little too much activity on a musical level, leaving a wake of disjointed tracks in its ambitious path. However, do not be turned off by how different Ember sounds. Beyond the unusual mish-mash of songs and wandering vocal style lies a lyrical truth, a beautiful voice and forceful maverick passion. Released on her own indie label, Disarming leaves the listener in no doubt that Swift is freely and happily “independent by identity not by default.”
Opening with ‘Tapped & Wired’, Ember swiftly welcomes and energetically lures the listener into her consciously aware and politically active world. A poignant commentary, the song champions the enlightenment of the masses, unreservedly noting the dodgy dealings and twisted priorities of politicians. It is a positively intelligent kickstart to a unique musical journey, treading a path through political and personal ideology. You’ll want to join in. You’ll want to believe in these tunes with their soaring jazz vocals and sweetly soft sounds. Other highlights include the title track and ‘FAQ’, which Ember describes as “a reggae-driven pop quiz”. It’s the perfect Q&A session song to get to know the girl behind the music.
To dismiss Disarming as disjointed and lacking concept would be a rash decision and one that misses the purpose of her songwriting as truthful expression and storytelling. It is immediate, uncalculated on a corporate level, full of passion and revels in revealing her truth. As the title track accentuates, “I think it’s sad if you find me alarmingly disarming, and I look for those who align, and who find the honesty charming.”
When ‘Breath’ draws to a close and the album stops spinning, the listener may reflectively appreciate the slightly funkier feel to this release compared with previous discs, and if time allows, they may also reach over and press repeat to absorb more of the plentiful lyrics and audacious grooves. Swift will have made them smile in musical bliss for long enough to open their mouth and poured in little truths of the world outside their headphones.
originally published June 17th, 2005
Filed under: album, back issues, live, review | Tags: abigail washburn, alan pedder, amy wadge, amy winehouse, anja mccloskey, astrid williamson, bryn williams, danny weddup, dar williams, gem nethersole, helen griffiths, helen ogden, jane weaver, kathryn williams, lise westzynthius, lucinda williams, martha wainwright, paul woodgate, stephen collings, tamsin warley, the weepies, trevor raggatt, wailin' jennys
The following reviews were all published on our old website between May 2005 and December 2006.
No Sudden Moves •••½
If just a single word were to sum up the career to date of Bristol-born, Cardiff-based singer-songwriter Amy Wadge, it would probably be ‘almost’. After the richly promising start of gritty mini-album The Famous Hour, her debut album proper, 2004’s WOJ, was an overproduced error of judgement and went mostly unregarded. Even so, Wadge has twice managed to trump the likes of Cerys Matthews and Charlotte Church at the Welsh Music Awards, yet despite working with and supporting some of the most respected names in the business and representing Wales as a cultural ambassador, Wadge has somehow failed to filter into the realms of public recognition outside of blessed Cymru. If a mixture of talent and hard work alone guaranteed anything in the music industry, she might already be a household name. So does No Sudden Moves have the legs to right this sorry inequality?
You know, it really just might. Sticking to the blueprint of its title, the album provides a baker’s dozen of likeable, mellow, middle-of-the-road cuts, but this in itself should not be taken as damnation with faint praise. The songs here may be accessible and easy on the ear, but they are not by inference bland or undemanding. Lyrical preoccupations include intelligent musings on life and love with the odd wink at social politics; take, for instance, the first two single releases. The first, ‘USA, We’ll Wait & See’, was released late last year in both Welsh and English language versions and explores that all too human tendency of running away to find meaning and significance when those things were already at hand, if you’d only taken time to look. The second, soon to be released is an exquisite cover of the Manic Street Preachers’ ‘A Design For Life’. From the moment Wadge’s bare and exposed vocal intones the lyric “Libraries gave us power, then work came and set us free / what price now for a shallow piece of dignity?” backed only by skeletal right-hand piano, you realise you’re in for something truly special. Stripped of the Manics’s raging guitar onslaught, the song loses none of its power. Indeed, the aching passion for righteousness and a decent life for the ordinary person in Nicky Wire’s lyrics are thrown into even sharper relief.
It has never been in doubt that Amy Wadge possesses a voice of astonishing strength and beauty. Smoky and seductively sibilant, each performance drips with feeling and is delivered at either a visceral or higher emotional level depending on the context. While the production takes an open, acoustic approach that complements the vocal performance nicely, No Sudden Moves is not an exercise in minimalism. On the contrary, acoustic guitars, piano, double bass and other instruments such as strings and muted trumpet conspire to create a lush soundscape that envelops the listener whilst allowing the music to breathe. Bringing to mind the work of Mary Black in the 1990s, these songs are smooth but not soulless, produced but still organic. Some songs recall the arrangements of Julia Fordham; others are stripped back to the bare essentials of guitar or piano and lovely harmonies (‘No Sudden Moves’, ‘Worry About You’).
Readily grabbing the ear with a subtle immediacy, No Sudden Moves nevertheless retains enough appeal to reward digging deeper and repeated auditions. It’s an album that should attract the attentions of stations like Radio 2 and a listenership that responds to well-written, well-sung songs. Neither tortoise nor hare, No Sudden Moves is the sound of moderate progression and a sturdy bid for wider recognition.
originally published March 31st, 2006
The Wailin’ Jennys
Dear Wears The Trousers reader,
Have just found Canada’s female answer to Crosby, Stills and Nash. Would love to go into more detail, but that would prevent me from listening to them.
P.S. Did I mention they were wonderful?
P.P.S. It seems they started out working in a guitar shop in Winnipeg. Their previous album, 40 Days was a Juno award winner, after which they lost founder member Cara Luft to a solo career. Remaining members Nicky Mehta (mezzo) and Ruth Moody (soprano) met Annabelle Chvostek (alto); the result is Firecracker.
P.P.P.S. You want more? Alriiight. Firecracker was produced by David Travers-Smith (Jane Siberry) and is a quantum leap from 40 Days, which, though equally lovely, was a little too twee in places. Firecracker is aptly named; each song literally fizzes with moments that raise the hairs on your arms, whether it’s Nicky’s beautiful solo on the lament ‘Begin’ (“when are you going to learn things sometimes turn instead of turn out”), the rolling country-folk melody of ‘Things That You Know’ or Annabelle’s haunting rising octave changes on ‘Apocalypse Lullaby’ when she sings “earthquakes break the walls / oceans rise, empires fall”. You may have noticed that I’ve been able to pick out songs written by all three; each member contributes four songs, lending additional weight to the diversity and talent on offer. The only traditional arrangement is the stunning a cappella ‘Long Time Traveller’.
The icing on this particularly tasty cake is the way their voices blend together. On ‘Swallow’ they are so much a bird on the wing you can practically feel the rushing wind through their feathers, while ‘Starlight’ finds them “shattered under midnight” and it’s almost unbearably sad. Then there’s the finale, ‘Prairie Town’, as perfect an evocation of longing to lose your origins as you’re every likely to hear and one of the best songs I’ve heard in… well, ever really: “when it rains it snows in this prairie town / and we just watch it fall to the ground / and wait for love to come around”. Ah, me, that was it, I was undone.
Recent live shows in the UK and throughout the US appear to have had the same effect on the crowds as Firecracker has had on me. It’s genuinely difficult to be critical of anything here, it’s simply magnificent. If there’s any justice, Nicky, Ruth and Annabelle’s acoustic assault on the plastic people will conquer; in reality, we may have to settle for the best-kept secret north of the Great Lakes. I deny anyone not to drown in this achingly beautiful record; it’s what your CD player was invented for. Now, please, leave me alone, I need to hit repeat.
originally published September 17th, 2006
Bloody Mother Fucking Asshole EP •••••
Drowned In Sound
Some voices were just meant to be heard, and at 29 years of age, Martha Wainwright has kept us waiting long enough. But who can blame her? Growing up among a family consisting of a notoriously fractious singer-songwriter/part-time Hollywood actor father, Loudon Wainwright III, a scene-stealing brother in the ubiquitous Rufus Wainwright and the liberal-thinking folk heritage of her mother and aunt, Kate and Anna McGarrigle, could not have been easy. Certainly, at least one of these is brought to account on this, her debut UK release. (Canadian fans may be more familiar with her after three self-released EPs – Ground Floor, Martha Wainwright and Factory.) Having contributed backing vocals to each of Rufus’ albums, a smattering of Loudon’s and singing lead on two tracks of 1999’s The McGarrigle Hour, this EP represents a deft familial sidestep that is poised at last to put the spotlight on Martha.
It’s fantastic, of course. If there’s a better song than the title track this year then we should all be excited to hear it. Aside from the title, ‘Bloody Mother Fucking Asshole’ is the kind of song that grabs you by the vernaculars and leaves you slightly slackjawed and drooling. Like Kate Bush’s ‘Wuthering Heights’ and Alanis Morissette’s ‘You Oughta Know’, the result is an instantly memorable experience. Coming on like a slightly nutra-sweetened solo Kristin Hersh, Wainwright sings with unflinching command of her struggle to find her calling through the thick fog of family talent, and in particular the barbed machinations of her dad. It’s the catch in her voice that gets you.
Fans who picked up a copy of the EP at her support slots for Rufus may be surprised to find that the official release has just four tracks instead of five. Gone are the Loudon cover ‘Pretty Good Day’ and the charmingly soulful ‘When The Day Is Short’, and in their place is the raucous and raw ‘It’s Over’. Of course, nothing else here has the immediacy of the title track but ‘I Will Internalize’ is equally devastating and ‘How Soon’ similarly yearning. Overall, this is impressive stuff and an excellent precursor to her self-titled full length debut album.
originally published May 15th, 2005
Martha Wainwright ••••
Drowned In Sound
When writing about Martha Wainwright, youngest progeny of the McGarrigle / Wainwright dynasty, it has become standard fare to open with family trees, domestic wounds and sibling rivalry. Releasing her debut album within months of father Loudon Wainwright III’s Here Come The Choppers and brother Rufus’s acclaimed Want Two, Martha has avoided trying to emulate the theatrical excesses of her elder sibling as this assured debut’s musical roots are closer to the country-tinged folk rock of mother Kate McGarrigle. In the McWainwright’s hermetically-sealed world, writing songs about family members is perhaps one of the more creative forms of psychological catharsis. While Loudon was still reeling from Rufus’s ode to paternal absence, ‘Dinner At Eight’, Martha provided the killer blow with last year’s ‘Bloody Mother Fucking Asshole’, an acid-tongued riposte to a father who once wrote that his daughter was “just a clone of every woman I’ve known.”
Turning 30 next year, Martha’s first album proper is the culmination of over seven years of songwriting that may have endured a long gestation, but for fans of her live sets, this album reads like a ‘best of’ collection. Having spent these formative years opening and backing for Rufus, Martha has acquired many fans of her raw, whisky-coated vocals over earnestly strummed guitar strings. Now at last rewarded with a record deal on independent label Drowned In Sound, the songs translate well to disc without compromising their heart-on-sleeve simplicity. For instance, ‘Don’t Forget’, complimented here by Kate McGarrigle’s dreamlike piano, is a beautiful realisation of a live favourite. Cousin Lily Lanken also contributes, not only with honeyed backing vocals, but also the paintings that adorn the inner artwork of the sleeve. Rufus returns Martha’s many favours by cropping up, albeit with far less of his usual gusto, on ‘Don’t Forget’ and ‘The Maker’, particularly impressing on the latter as their two voices interweave along a precious swirling melody.
While Martha admits that many of her songs fall into the ‘woe is me’ vein, the album itself has many faces and one album is almost too little to contain the number of voices fighting for attention. ‘Far Away’ and ‘Whither I Must Wander’, a traditional cover, bookend the album and find Martha at her most sensitive and subdued, while ‘Ball & Chain’ is infused with all the resentment, hurt and resignation of a lost love. With a lyrical candour that recalls fellow Canuck Alanis Morissette, Martha places herself firmly at the centre of her songs, and while her voice takes centre stage here, the harmonies complete the musical landscape far beyond the horizon. It’s not all plain sailing however. The album’s MOR low comes with the anaemic lyricism of ‘This Life’. “This life is boring”, she begins with an uncanny accuracy. However, normal service is resumed with latest single ‘When The Day Is Short’, and, alongside the achingly good ‘BMFA’, the album subsequently scales one peak after another.
On his latest album, Rufus sings on ‘Little Sister’ a tale of paranoia at being eclipsed by his talented sibling. Martha, however, should not be so concerned with such familial one-upmanship when her strongest competition is evidently with herself.
originally published July 16th, 2005
Wide Open Sky ••••
The last few years has seen a resurgence in the mainstream of female singers unafraid to let it rock, at least politely. Whether it’s the sk8er ‘punk’ of Avril Lavigne, the big vocals of Anastacia and Kelly Clarkson or Michelle Branch’s more acoustic offerings, there’s clearly a market for well-written pop songs with guitars aplenty. It’s into this particular arena that Lancashire-born, London-based singer-songwriter Tamsin Warley has firmly planted her feet, her debut album setting out a stall packed with attractive produce.
Overseen by Tamsin herself, in cahoots with former SnowDogs Ville and Mat Leppanen, at East London’s Atomic Studios, Wide Open Sky is no shabbily recorded portastudio fodder; from a technical point of view, the results are mighty impressive. The rockier numbers are imbued with a mixture of modern angular guitar sounds mixed together and shaken up with an almost subliminal retro sheen, while the keyboard flourishes recall some of the great pop songs of the late ‘80s and early ‘90s, but never drag them back through a time-warp. And while this remains a thoroughly contemporary pop album, the excellent production would be largely irrelevant without decent songs and a great performance. Fortunately, Warley really delivers on these counts too. Her vocal style is perfectly suited to this type of music, clear and rich with the strength to impose herself during the louder moments but tender enough to convince in the softer lulls.
The quality of the self-penned songs is thankfully equal to the delivery. While dealing with fairly universal themes of life, love and the search for significance, they are a million miles from the usual pop platitudes – there is a real depth to Warley’s lyrics. The writing is observant and insightful, picking up on the minutiae of life (…but when I found her text to you / there was nothing else to do / ‘cause I’d lost you once and for all…) which are so often symbolic of the broader picture – a technique so well exploited by the likes of Ulvaeus and Andersson. ‘Macefin Avenue’ looks back to a life that never was in a Manchester suburb to ponder the effects of the choices we make in love. Even when delivering the classic breakup song, Warley’s emphasis is never on self-pity but on a woman learning from her mishaps and moving on to something better.
The faster songs are similarly inspiring; opener ‘Drive For Miles’ is the quintessential top-down, foot-to-thefloor classic, while ‘Dance Like No One Is Watching’ is a glorious hymn to the pleasure of surrendering to the moment. In a softer gear, Warley subtly recalls the better aspects of Beverley Craven, but when cranked up the comparisons are harder to pin down. There’s perhaps a touch of Annie Lennox with Chrissie Hynde’s attitude; elsewhere, maybe a hint of Shawn Colvin’s rockier side – but Warley is never indistinct. That said, much of Wide Open Sky wouldn’t be out of place sat at the top of the charts in the hands (or rather, the tonsils) of the aforementioned Ms. Clarkson or Newkirk. With a good publishing deal and contacts, a comfy retirement fund could certainly be assured. However, with the right backing, opportunities and a side order of luck, there’s no reason why she couldn’t take the songs there herself. The pop music market may be crowded and cut-throat, but Warley could be one to succeed in that particular den of fiery dragons.
originally published February 15th, 2006
Song Of The Traveling Daughter ••••½
For someone who never set out to be a musician, let alone a bona fide recording artiste, Nashville resident Abigail Washburn has created a spectacular debut in the wistfully-titled Song Of The Traveling Daughter. A beautifully layered, heartfelt ode to well-trodden American folk traditions, it is nevertheless just as surprising and quirky as one might expect from an adventurous, Mandarin-fluent, banjo-playing political activist.
Born in Illinois, rather more than a stone’s throw away from the Appalachias whose music infuses this record, she took her time in finding her calling. Unusually, a college trip to China was the catalyst – “It had a profound effect on me,” she explains, “I discovered a Chinese culture that was so deep and ancient; it changed my perspective on America.” Sure enough, on her return from Chengdu, she invested in a banjo and began a journey that led her back to her native country’s traditional roots.
Okay, so it was a fairly long journey. She barely touched the banjo for years until fate intervened and she found herself performing at short notice on an Alaskan tour with friends. Later, she joined the string band Uncle Earl before finally inking a deal of her own. Encapsulating the spirit and grit of the journeywoman, Song Of The Traveling Daughter positively sparkles with jewel after jewel of song. ‘Red & Blazing’ and ‘Deep In The Night’, for instance, may seem simple on first audition, but listen back and they reveal layer after layer of emotion and astonish with their sheer expressiveness. The more unusual ‘Eve Stole The Apple’ is packed with longing, folksy strings searching for meaning in an ever-evolving travelling rhythm. It is broody and full of character and texture, Washburn’s vocals tearing right through the dramatic arrangements.
Co-produced by banjo supremo Béla Fleck, this is an album that focuses on the singer and the song in the purest sense. Washburn’s voice is showcased in all its extraordinary versatility – sometimes soothing, sometimes overwhelming and often childlike, full of hopes and dreams – while the clever arrangements support rather than interfere with the simple song structures. It’s a moving tribute to America’s traditions that also takes things one step further, blending roots and building bridges. As Washburn says in her own words: “I want to learn more about Chinese folk traditions, so I can integrate them into my music and continue to be a part of the development of a more universal language” – a noble sentiment indeed.
originally published May 19th, 2006
Seven Day Smile •••½
It has been four years since Mancunian Jane Weaver last charmed our ears with the unjustly ignored mini-album Like An Aspen Leaf, a record that nonetheless made an indelible impression on those who actually heard it. Since then she’s released an album under her ‘girl group’ alter ego Misty Dixon and continued to tour with Andy Votel and members of his Twisted Nerve label collective.
However, despite the long gap, Seven Day Smile is not to be mistaken for a brand new album. It was actually recorded way back in the early Nineties when she was signed to Haçienda co-founder and former Joy Division manager Rob Gretton’s label Manchester Records. Also affiliated with the label were dance outfit Sub Sub, who later blossomed into acclaimed indie rock band Doves, and it’s with these esteemed collaborators that much of Seven Day Smile was committed to tape. After Bretton died of a heart attack in 1999, the label went down with him and the songs remained unreleased, until the bright sparks at Cherry Red Records allowed Weaver to release them on her very own imprint.
So was it worth the wait? On balance, a definite yes, though Weaver herself will be the first to admit that there are moments that could have been bettered, but as a statement of a time and place it’s more than adequate. Various tracks have cropped up elsewhere (most notably ‘Starglow’) but none have been easy to find and all still sound fresh and appealing. Weaver’s instrument of choice, the Farfisa organ, pipes up throughout and lends a slightly kitsch feel to the otherwise highly personal and sometimes serious goings on.
Weaver might sound sweet but there’s a dark streak at her centre for sure, and rather infectious it is too. ‘You’re A Riot’, for example, is a meaty, mostly acoustic beauty that exemplifies her special brand of unsettling tranquility (see also ‘Once You’d Given Me Up’). The rising and falling notes of ‘In Summer’ are effortlessly lazy yet suck you in completely, but one true standout number is saved for last in the form of ‘Gutter Girl’. Collaborating with Votel, Weaver allows his electronic bleeps, burps and trickles to run free all over the place as she tells an anguished tale of unrequited love and passion. The song’s second half has her singing as if she were underwater, which sounds silly but works well.
Despite its long shelf-life and slight imperfections, Seven Day Smile is a highly listenable album. The better tracks are musically diverse and interesting, mixing lush melodies with Weaver’s headmess of lyrics. It’s a real pleasure that these songs have finally had a chance to see the light of day as a proper, if somewhat brief album, to stand alone as something truly original. If you’re looking for music that seriously messes with the singer-songwriter status quo, then look no further than this.
originally published August 23rd, 2006
Say I Am You ••
Mellow folk-pop duo The Weepies claim to have touched on “a more complex sort of joy” with their second album, Say I Am You. That may be true on a personal level, but there’s little evidence of the real-life lovebirds going that extra mile to impress. There are so many bands out there doing this sort of folksy pop that gone are the times when a few guitar strokes, predictable drumming and some harmonious vocals, albeit quite lovely, warrant much attention.
Not all of their contemporaries have such a sweet background, however; independent singer-songwriters and mutual admirers Deb Talan and Steve Tannen first met four years ago at a show in Boston where Tannen was playing in support of his debut album. They clicked immediately and consequently fell in love, moved in with each other and formed The Weepies. An independently released album brought them to the attention of Nettwerk, who set them to work on this follow-up.
Whilst there is nothing specifically inaccurate with the PR blurb implying “lush meditations”, “sunny hook-laden tunes” and “dark charmers”, there’s a distinct lack of an original angle. The instrumentation barely varies; ‘Take It From Me’ and ‘Not Your Year’ in particular are drearily uninventive, while ‘Slow Pony Home’ falls short of being great due to a distracting arrangement that detracts from the vocals. Talan is definitely a talented singer but the album doesn’t really allow her the space to show it off. A few calm moments in ‘Citywide Rodeo’ and ‘Stars’ hint at what The Weepies could have achieved if the songs had been given more depth.
There’s potential here, certainly, but you may well find yourself longing for more varied and natural sounds. The almost raindrop-like piano motif in ‘Nobody Knows Me At All’ may be subtle and barely audible, but it’s touches like this that The Weepies should make a much bigger deal of next time. Not everyone falls in love so neatly.
originally published May 22nd, 2006
Rock, You Can Fly •••••
One Little Indian
Although you’ve most likely never heard of new One Little Indian signing Lise Westzynthius, Rock, You Can Fly is actually her second solo album, but the first to be released outside of her native Denmark. Looking further in reverse, she was once part of a critically acclaimed band named Luksus who lasted for two albums before disbanding. No wispy-voiced newcomer then, Westzynthius has been admired by many for years, and this album only cemented that status; Rock, You Can Fly won her both the vocalist and album of the year awards at last year’s Prize of Danish Music Critics. Upon hearing the album, it’s not hard to believe; it’s a work of high calibre and incredible beauty.
Westzynthius was first exposed to music by her Finnish grandmother, who was a pianist in Helsinki. During the long Finnish summers, she was exposed to Brahms and Chopin, both of which clearly had a profound effect – the classical influence is prominent on Rock, You Can Fly, with simple piano melodies that take their time to develop, and instruments that complement the entire sound rather than carving their own individual spaces. This is a delicate record, full of subtleties that make for a rich but intimate sound. Take ‘Reparation’ for example; it’s a slow, uncomplicated song that manages to be utterly mesmerising despite barely changing for nearly five minutes.
Breathy and dreamlike, Lise’s vocals make it easy to imagine her as a tiny elfin creature, fragile and helpless. Occasionally, however, she displays real vocal strengths – “She is strong, but in a frail way” she coos early on, perhaps self-referentially. Lyrically, Rock, You Can Fly explores the themes of love, loss, death and Arctic climbs, simultaneously conveying the epic and the deeply personal. First single ‘Séance’ is about a dead lover coming back to whisper comforting words in your ear, and it perfectly conjures up that spooked feeling when you don’t know if what you just experienced was a dream or reality. ‘Northernmost’ is a simple refrain about the cold morning mist, while ‘Cowboys & Indians’ makes turf into playful whimsy and the magic of childhood. Mostly though, the songs deal with loss, or whether you ever really had what you were looking for in the first place, such as on the beautiful ‘Sans Souci’. Her message is ambiguous, however, especially when coupling joyful melodies with heartbreaking sadness on the devastating ‘Mousquetaire’.
The art of creating rich but quiet soundscapes seem to have been perfected by the Scandinavians. Much of Rock, You Can Fly bears a similarity to the work of Sigur Rós, but with a voice more akin to that of Stína Nordenstam. Yet Lise’s music feels a great deal more personal, as if she couldn’t help but tell you her secrets. The album takes you through her joy, her pain, her longing. We’re closer to her by the end of it, as well as closer to ourselves.
originally published March 31st, 2006
Dirty Little Secret ••••
It’s the sound of summer, but not as you might necessarily know it. Cuban beats and slinky sounds saunter through this new solo album from the former Squirrel Nut Zippers frontwoman, hooking up with some intelligent lyrics and creating a fantastic mélange of music that you can dance to one day and cook to the next.
Throwing us headlong into the best phase of the party, ‘The Funniest Game’ strikes up a playful conversation between trumpets, guitars and a hefty percussion section. Be prepared for your dancing shoes to find their own way to the floor and don’t count on being able to leave it ‘til the final song fades for ‘Dirty Little Secret’ is similarly catchy; Whalen’s backing band gets bigger and bigger as the song progresses, each new instrumental addition interspersed with teasing lyrical snippets that neatly preserve at least some of the mystery. Things get even sultrier on ‘Meet Me By the Fire’ with Whalen’s witty wordplay and the buzzing of cicadas adding an appealing sense of transportation out of your surroundings. “Walking on lava / drinking cherry kava kava on ice,” she sings, as if it were the coolest thing ever.
Electronic trickery abounds on the all-too-brief ‘The Garden’, a fascinating ninety second number based on the story of Eden, and the almost gothic underground feel of ‘Angel’, which proudly boasts a gorgeously gutsy, visceral chorus. ‘Three Blind Mice’ throws an electric harpsichord into the mix in a genius tale of Mr Right vs. Mr Tonight where Whalen plays the role of the femme fatale in a clubland parody of the titular nursery rhyme and the pay-off is handsome.
Of Dirty Little Secret‘s less dancefloor-destined moments, the piano ballads ‘Follow’ and album closer ‘Blur’ are worthy listens, though the former suffers from some unintelligible lyrics. No such problem on ‘Blur’, its final lyrics, “I’ve got to be sure it’s not just a blur from a shooting star” exemplifying the tone of all that has preceded it; a desire to find the most fabulous aspect of any given situation. Like them or not, they certainly add an extra dimension to Whalen’s pop/funk hybrid.
This album ought to satisfy most musical tastes to a certain degree, so it’s a good one for gatherings and parties without having to worry that some oaf will clamour for a different selection. Let the good times roll.
originally published October 5th, 2006
My Better Self •••½
Brimming with the usual mélange of moods and merriment, Dar Williams’s sixth studio album, My Better Self, comes two years after the acclaimed Beauty Of The Rain snuck up on our hearts. Clearly, she hasn’t been resting on those laurels in the meantime; My Better Self is a confident return, smooth to digest and yet layered beyond its first audition. On this evidence, Williams could hardly be accused of omphaloskepsis (it’s the new navel-gazing, tell your friends!), pausing to deliberate over karma, fated meetings and the ever-sorrier political state of the world. But this is an album of personal growth too, and many songs bear a measure of elegant sadness. Moreover, it seems that Williams may have spent the last two years purposefully ingratiating herself with fellow musicians, perhaps sociably hosting jams and gatherings and making muso friends with a will to collaboration – selected guests include Ani DiFranco, Patty Larkin, Soulive and Marshall Crenshaw. It’s the team efforts here that really shine, and certainly provide some of the mellower moments as joined forces serve up a pair of Pink Floyd and Neil Young covers.
In keeping with her established style, opener ‘Teen For God’ is crammed full of fast-paced lyrics backed by a hyper-melody that bouncily announces Williams’s arrival. Things quickly shift down several gears with the calm and serene ‘I’ll Miss You ‘Til I Meet You’. Featuring a beautiful slow vocal layered over an expansive array of instruments, including melodica, piano, guitars and percussion, it’s up there with the best of the album. The other clear standout is her duet with Ani DiFranco, their take on Pink Floyd’s ‘Comfortably Numb’ standing out with grace as a somewhat sobering reflection of the times.
Overall, My Better Self takes the underlying pop current in Williams’s canon and pushes it further to the surface, with the folk:pop ratio almost equal on this offering. Lyrically less playful and ever more mature, she has stitched together songs that combine social and environmental issues with the more personal passions of love and hate. But it never turns didactic, the extra maturity suits her and she’s never seemed more confident. Musically, too, she has stepped up her already well-rounded and appealing delivery, which works well in the context of the plusher instrumentation and welcome collaborations.
So don’t be disconcerted by the album’s lack of a consistent feel – that the moments of calm and beauty rub shoulders with lyric-stuffed dizziness and up-tempo strumming are simply nothing other than charmingly and characteristically Dar.
originally published November 30th, 2005
Live at the Exchange, Maidstone •••••
April 30th, 2006
In a quiet street behind the Hazlitt Theatre, away from the hubbub of Maidstone city centre, Dar Williams’s voice floated across the cobblestones in a brief warm-up before she and the band launched into a joyous version of ‘Teen For God’, the lead track from the latest in her long line of quality albums, My Better Self. A select crowd gathered to listen to stolen snippets of magic as we were privvy to a pre-show soundcheck of six semi-songs an hour before the show until the street descended into silence once more. ‘Teen For God’ did indeed open the actual show, and as Dar stepped out of the wings in jeans and a casual top, it was hard to believe that this tiny, beautifully self-deprecating woman on stage with a glitter-edged guitar was the same person who had overwhelmed the air outside. But it soon became clear that these apparently different personas were one and the same as she punctuated each drumbeat with an endearing little jump and highly infectious enthusiasm.
Each song was introduced with an anecdote explaining its origin, and, in one case, even a commentary on the tuning process as her first electric tuner broke and had to replaced. ‘Spring Street’ was Dar’s homage to her boho dreams amid the bustle of New York, while the percussion of ‘Close To My Heart’ was so perfectly arranged it was almost as if the vastness and heat of middle America were transported into the room, cicadas strumming in every corner. Next, she described the plot of Native American movie ‘Smoke Signals’ in which her song ‘Road Buddy’ featured, taking us on the long trip from New York to New Mexico and then “to the third capo and the land of the Jesuit priests” for ‘I Had No Right’. ‘The Beauty Of The Rain’ needed no introduction; the variety of emotions evoked in this single song exemplifies Dar’s massive appeal, imparting so much meaning to so many without ever becoming dogmatic.
The band made a fiery exit with the passionate and political ‘Empire’, its anti-capitalist messages made all the more forceful by their juxtaposition against Dar’s little leaps and glittering guitar. Once alone on the stage, the benefits of such an intimate venue became most apparent, allowing her to chat as if among friends. And while she herself was mortified when forgetting the lyrics to Pink Floyd’s ‘Comfortably Numb’, we forgave her all too easily. I for one had a similar memory blank at the crucial moment, but the song was just as remarkable, even considering the absence of Ani DiFranco who sings on the version found on My Better Self. Ani was the link to the next song, ‘Two Sides Of The River’, which heralded the return of the band as we were whsiked away to America’s Deep South and the balmy humid environs of New Orleans.
After ‘Beautiful Enemy’ and ‘Mercy Of The Fallen’ unleashed the band’s rockier side, the hauntingly poignant ‘Blue Light Of The Flame’ created a clichéd ‘pin-drop’ atmosphere as the audience clung to the song’s painful truths. Written for songwriter Rachel Bissex who died in 2005 from breast cancer, the album version does not do justice to how wrenching the song must be to sing. Yet with lines as jarringly beautiful as “we were the gods that we blamed” and “so this is where it all ends, with flowers by your bed”, we cannot help but want to hear more. Unable to leave the audience overwhelmed by such heart-rending images, ‘Are You Out There’ and ‘Cool As I Am’ were the chosen closing anthems that chased away the sorrow and swelled to a grand finale with stunning solos by each of the band.
Naturally, we were unlikely to allow her to leave so soon and Dar returned alone to perform the wonderfully narrative February followed by a rare and enchanting performance of ‘We Learned The Sea’. The highlight of the evening for most, however, was the final encore of ‘The Christians & The Pagans’ that was met by rapturous applause before it even began. Throughout the evening and particularly the encores, Dar’s humility and sparkle shone. At no point was there a divide between audience and performer, but instead a sharing of experiences; the fact that one person dominated the conversation and that she happened to be the person on stage with a guitar really didn’t seem to matter.
originally published May 18th, 2006
Over Fly Over ••••½
Kathryn Williams has an unusual habit of naming her songs after her albums. Nothing strange about that you might think, but she does it in such a way that defies usual convention. First, the song ‘Little Black Numbers’ appeared on 2002’s Old Low Light and not 2000’s Mercury Music Prize-nominated album of the same name. Similarly, Over Fly Over boasts a composition entitled ‘Old Low Light #2′, the ‘#2′ presumably a nod to her peculiar little quirk. A minor point, true, but who’d bet against her next album having an ‘Over Fly Over’ of its own? Luckily for us, Williams has other unusual habits, one of which includes constantly improving and bolstering her sound. Where she goes from here though is anyone’s guess – Over Fly Over could well be the first Kathryn Williams Band album, such is the stylistic jump from her previous, more stripped down releases.
After last year’s enchanting major label contract-fulfilling Relations covers album, her self-professed disillusionment with music was vanquished, and she set about making Over Fly Over a renewed woman. The result is a sometimes dramatic, sometimes eerie collection of eleven densely-coloured and lyrically intriguing songs and a typically yearning instrumental. Thematically, the songs continue Williams’s sweet way with the minutiae, with lyrics about Lemsips, watching cartoons and listening to a lover’s compilation in the dark.
As it happens, the album splits almost neatly in half between the new bold sonic adventurer Williams and the quieter, more reflective folkie we’ve grown to cherish. From opener ‘Three’, which features a “bad ass out of tune electric guitar solo”, through to the poptastic climax of ‘Shop Window’, Williams has never sounded so demurely forceful. Hell, ‘Just Like A Birthday’ even contains her first ever swear word – she had previously only alluded to pardoning her French in ‘No One To Blame’ from her debut Dog Leap Stairs. Intriguingly, the song begins with a softly spoken line from Cole Porter’s ‘I Love Paris’ – perhaps an inside joke? Then, at its pinnacle, menacing strings swoop around and threaten to strangle the song completely as Alex Tustin’s drumming grows increasingly erratic. It’s a defining moment, not just for Over Fly Over as a whole, but for Williams herself. A thumb in the eye for anyone who suggested that her songs lacked drama.
While there is nay a poor song here, other notable tracks include the thoughtful ‘Breath’, the sweetly nostalgic ‘City Streets’ and the existentialist ‘Full Colour’, in which Williams sings “People like you and me could leave this world and go unnoticed in another.” It’s a typical sentiment for her, full of humility and wonder. Over Fly Over proves that she is capable of testing her tether and, yet again, that she’s a sorely under-appreciated national treasure.
originally published August 28th, 2005
Leave To Remain ••••
‘Fragile’ is an adjective too readily assigned to female singer-songwriters of a predominantly acoustic persuasion, and it certainly has no place when appraising the music of Kathryn Williams. She may be softly spoken and embraceably modest but fragile she isn’t. Here is a woman who, even when at her most musically denuded and open, has her head screwed on tight and knows exactly how it is. Tender is a better choice of word, and one that immediately leapfrogs to mind from the very first song on this, her sixth album in almost as many years. Indeed, as the songs keep coming, this tenderness comes to characterise the album as a whole – see her non-sensationalist account of a girl who lives her life through a webcam for a public that she’s too afraid to meet (‘Sandy L’) or her touching portrayal of the late poet Stevie Smith, a striking talent too often misunderstood for her seemingly morbid outlook (‘Stevie’).
Leave To Remain is the record that Williams has always wanted to make; full of remembrance and boasting a subtle but mile-wide playful streak, it’s the kind of album you can put on the stereo and be gently ushered along the cobbles of your own memory lane, into the arms of a past somebody special. It could be the love of your life or simply the best shag you ever had – that’s what makes it remarkable and surprisingly seductive. Opening with the stunningly easy perfection of ‘Blue Onto You’, during which Williams’s lush layered harmonies gently massage and soothe, Leave To Remain raises the bar even higher as it progresses. Tracks like the aching ‘Sustain Pedal’, ‘Room In My Head’ and the nervous sexuality of standout number ‘Glass Bottom Boat’ give voice to the private fears and feelings we can all align with. It’s the aural equivalent of watching someone you love sleep, of tracing their face with your fingertips and feeling familiar and safe. Or perhaps of that moment after what you thought was purely sex when you look into their eyes and realise that what?s staring back is something you?ve been searching for forever.
Though admittedly not something that’s overwrought with variation, Leave To Remain makes a clear, concise effort to be grabbing and enticing throughout. In taking the rather understated route, Williams is almost overwhelmingly endearing in her honest and meaningful presence. Each story told stands testament to how grand a scale relationships can reach if we would only let them, wiping clean away any trace of cynicism and the desperation of the daily grind. As the artist herself claims, “you don’t need to know people to love them” – a fact that she has proved a thousand-fold with this release.
Live @ The Fillmore •••
The Fillmore in San Francisco, California, is the legendary venue from which Lucinda Williams chose to record this, her first official live release and eighth album overall. As was characteristic of the preceding seven, the generous two-disc Live @ The Fillmore set plentifully delivers the charmed smoky hues of Williams’s vocals and beautifully melancholic songwriting. Lovingly presented in a lavish cover featuring one of the famously hand-drawn posters produced exclusively for the venue, the album comprises highlights from a three-night residency personally selected by Lucinda herself.
Her pickings span five out of her seven studio albums and have a definite bias favouring the most recent, 2003’s World Without Tears – 11 of its 13 tracks are included – though this is hardly surprising, given that the set was recorded in November 2003 when Williams was in full swing of the tour behind that album. Indeed, the track selection will excite those familiar with the rich, full-bodied and slightly drowsy World Without Tears, a record that immediately transports the listener into a world of distant hazy memories bereft of names and times – a world to which most would gladly return to in order to replenish those elusive warm fuzzy feelings. With other songs coming from albums such as the intimate Essence and the countrified, career-rejuvenating Car Wheels On A Gravel Road, the album offers a comprehensive selection of Williams’s songcraft spanning a decade.
However, it lacks any real deviations from her preciously polished studio work and offers nothing in the way of narration other than the occasional uttered track title or quick slur of thanks to a surprisingly muted audience, though for many the lack of audience noise will be a welcome feature – with little in the way of whoops and screams, many fans will beam happily as they sit and indulge in the rich depths of the music alone. But surely I am not the only one who appreciates a little artist-audience dynamic in the form of banter and song explanation, even if only once during these 22 tracks. I’m left with the feeling of wanting something more than or at least different to the studio takes.
Despite lacking a new flavour, the set features plenty of strong, tight and mercurial music. The first disc, in much the same vein as World Without Tears, possesses a chilled out, dreamlike quality with songs winding their own sweet way through the speakers. Highlights such as ‘Sweet Side’ and ‘Lonely Girls’ hint at the magic that Williams can generate with her haunting voice, while closing track ‘Atonement’ spotlights some meticulously crafted vocals to great effect. The second disc, with its vibrant and rockier stance finds strength in the catchy and sexily slurred ‘Righteously’, the wounded, naked vocals of ‘Joy’ and the desperate lament of ‘Those Three Days’. The band – Doug Pettibone, Taras Prodaniuk and Jim Christie – add skilful and soulful support with mandolin, harmonica, drums, percussion and carefully blended keys, with musical backdrops cutting through country, folk, blues and rock.
Packed with well-told stories intricately detailed through fine musicianship, Live @ The Fillmore is never a stale listen. Williams’s ability to communicate her experience through music is evident on all 22 tracks. But, as much as it is easy to enjoy this release, it doesn’t come close to capturing the energy of Williams’s live band in the flesh.
originally published July 16th, 2005
Day Of The Lone Wolf ••••
Incarnation/One Little Indian
It’s been 10 long years since Shetland-born singer Astrid Williamson struck out on her lonesome, forsaking the safety in numbers afforded by indie duo Goya Dress in which she provided the lush, hypnotic vocals. That decade has seen her put in a number of guest appearances and a pair of solo excursions – one on Nude Records, the other self-produced and distributed through the mighty BMG machine. Day Of The Lone Wolf finds Williamson taking the DIY route once again under the auspices of her own label, Incarnation, with indie stalwart One Little Indian taking care of getting it out there.
These days, DIY is no longer necessarily equated with slapdash bodgery or hissy four-track production. Day Of The Lone Wolf is as sumptuous an aural experience as any bigger budget offering and as insightful a soundtrack to 21st Century living as an entire library of US TV series spin-off compilations. On a cursory listen, and as is certainly implied by the title, these intelligent contemporary pop songs hint at a confident, selfreliant woman negotiating her way through a post-‘Sex In The City’ climate with predatory confidence. But Williamson’s songs deserve more serious consideration and scratching beneath the hide of the album sees the veneer of the hunter stripped right back, exposing the loneliness and solitude of a life separated from the comfort and support of the pack. Suddenly the noble hunter seems a little less majestic, rather more flawed, dysfunctional and unfulfilled – and perfectly in tune with life in the urban landscape.
‘Siamese’ kicks off proceedings in a muted manner, musing on the nature of connection and trust. It’s just a little too reminiscent of Laura Veirs’s ‘Galaxies’ but sets the ensuing emotional tone quite nicely. But not just yet; the wistfully uplifting ‘Superman 2′ (the sequel to a song on her previous album) bursts into life after a brief string intro, driven along by fluid piano and charming Wurlitzer. Like Lois Lane jumping into Niagara Falls on faith in her hero alone, Williamson concludes that sometime it’s best to leap headlong into love and to hell with the consequences. ‘Reach’ brings the tone back down with bare acoustic guitar showing that Astrid’s no slouch on the six-string either, her equally exposed vocal counterpointing ‘Superman 2’s veiled optimism. ‘Amaryllis’ continues in a similar vein, her half-whispered vocal teetering on the edges of perception.
Williamson has often courted controversy with her lyric writing, but while ‘True Romance’s striking couplet “Look at me and think of this / all my tangled hair across your hips” has been hotly debated, the song’s meaning goes far beyond veiled oral sex references to explore the twin fires of obsession and dependency. Other highlights include the perky ‘Shh…’ (surely a future single?), the Brion-esque piano étude of the instrumental ‘Carlotta’, and the stunning standout ‘Tonight’, a tender and sensitive plea for companionship.
The informal trilogy of ‘Another Twisted Thing’, ‘Forgive Me’ and ‘Only Heaven Knows’ dares to ask some of life’s bigger nagging questions (no, not whether Brandon Routh makes a better Man of Steel than Christopher Reeve), the latter bowing out with a mixture of cynical resignation and contentment with circumstance. The lyric “sometimes your beauty suffocates me, but I would gladly die and repose” makes for a fitting conclusion to an album of exquisitely beautiful uncertainty. Day Of The Lone Wolf sees Williamson growing ever more confident in bending to meet her muse and in her abilities as an artist. Even if this isn’t the album to establish her as a major talent, all the evidence points to Astrid finally having her day in the not-too-distant future.
originally published July 2nd, 2006
Back To Black ••••
First things first, I hated Amy Winehouse’s debut album Frank. The word that springs to mind, written in foot-high flashing neon letters, is ‘grating’: the vocal theatrics, the endless travelling up and down octaves in that overly showy Christina curse / Mariah manner that so often incites the rage in ‘range’. It belonged in a box rather clumsily christened nu-jazz, a chest that was best left padlocked and dropped off the side of a boat at midnight yet was somehow stealthily maneuvered into the charts by Winehouse’s stage school compatriots Jamie Cullum and, to a less jazzy extent, Katie Melua.
So I’m taken aback and frankly a little baffled by the sheer quality of Back To Black. It’s a top-class soul record, less something to play in the background at an Esher dinner soiree and more something to get pissed and dance round the living room to. Gone are the weak jazzy stylings of Frank; from the sounds of Back To Black, Winehouse has been living on a musical diet of ‘50s and ‘60s girl groups and the legends of soul. But unlike, say, The Pipettes (though a hugely fun prospect), Winehouse doesn’t sound like she’s studied these acts in order to imitate them. Back To Black seems much more natural, the sound of an artist entirely at home with her music.
Perhaps this authenticity comes in part from the fact that we know that Winehouse has lived the life she sings about. The shockwaves felt upon first hearing ‘Rehab’ on the radio stem not just from the fact that it’s a truly fantastic song, but because of Winehouse’s extreme lyrical candour. The now-famous refrain describing the two-fingered salute she gave to her former management company (“They tried to make me go to rehab / I said no, no, no”) is comic in its gleeful irresponsibility, especially paired with the sexy ‘Brown Sugar’ saxophone and chiming bells. And yet, the song is touching too. In the lines “I’m not ever gonna drink again / I just need a friend”, this danceable song gains a depth and complexity that gives you pause for thought as you move to it with a can of Red Stripe (or a bottle of red wine) in your hand.
Alongside the big brass band and powerful Aretha-esque vocals, Back To Black has a rare subtlety that elevates it up to the next level. Take the closing lines of ‘Love Is A Losing Game’ for example; so softly sighed and sadly sung are they that even if you didn’t understand the lyrics, the weary malaise of the music would be all the clue you needed. Occasionally Winehouse slips back into the mannerisms that made her debut so irritating; ‘Just Friends’ drifts past in a vaguely jazzy, non-committal manner and all that grabs the attention are the oversung vocals where words gain more syllables than you’d ever have thought possible. But these moments can be forgiven when elsewhere Winehouse is singing lyrics like “I’m in the tub, you’re on the seat / lick your lips as I soak my feet” (‘You Know I’m No Good’) set to such classy musical backdrops.
Coupled with her unapologetic and attention-grabbing persona, Back To Black unequivocally shows that Winehouse has the wherewithal and worth to become a big, enduring star. Perhaps not going to rehab was the right idea after all.
originally published December 17th, 2006