Filed under: feature, interrupting yr broadcast | Tags: 2006, belle and sebastian, helen ogden, interview, isobel campbell, mark lanegan, music, the gentle waves
interrupting yr broadcast: isobel campbell
Musical collaborations, according to Glaswegian songstress Isobel Campbell, are “very much like relationships” and with her latest CD, Ballad Of The Broken Seas, the former Belle & Sebastian cellist has delivered a poetic collection of haunted duets with Mark Lanegan of Screaming Trees/Queens Of The Stone Age fame. Reminiscent of classic partnerships past, who were Campbell’s inspirations? “I would have to say I admire Lee Hazlewood and Nancy Sinatra very much because of the melancholy sounds they produced,” she says. “When I first listened to ‘Some Velvet Morning’, that was it for me – it was such a wonderful song.” Johnny Cash, Tom Waits and Joni Mitchell are all favourites too, along with Leonard Cohen and even Doctor John.
After two albums fronting The Gentle Waves and a ghostly Billie Holiday covers project with eminent Scottish musician Bill Wells, Isobel released her debut solo album, the acclaimed Amorino, in 2003. The partnership with Mark began shortly afterwards while she was working on some songs for her 2004 EP, Time Is Just The Same. Eugene Kelly, formerly of The Vaselines and Captain America/Eugenius, was drafted in to sing on two tracks, but his voice was too high to carry off his lines in the desolate ‘Why Does My Head Hurt So?’. By coincidence, Isobel’s boyfriend at the time played her one of Lanegan’s justly-lauded solo albums, and Campbell knew that she’d found the voice for her song.
After Isobel sent the track to Lanegan’s label, the singer got in contact while working on his 2004 Mark Lanegan Band album, Bubblegum, crooning the song down the phone to her on their first conversation. They finally met when Queens Of The Stone Age played Glasgow’s Barrowlands that summer, and then again when his band played Scotland with a couple of months later. “When I talked to him I knew immediately I wanted to work with him. He was so positive, so responsive and encouraging. He’d say, ‘I think we can make such a beautiful record’ and it would spur me on. It made me not want to disappoint him. When I’m not on tour I like the quiet life very much. I’m happy in my own company. But it was good to work with Mark because although we were on opposite sides of the world, we were always asking what the other was doing.”
The result is an impressive one, by turns equally raw and soft. Lanegan’s husky drawl contrasts perfectly with Campbell’s angelic vocals. Musically, too, Ballad… clearly demonstrates just how extensive Isobel’s numerous talents are. Asked whether she minds comparisons with saucy letch Serge Gainsbourg and the innocent Jane Birkin, she laughs: “I don’t mind comparisons but at the end of the day it’s me and Mark singing and we created the music for it so we have to be judged on our own merits.”
Luckily, these two talented people have merits aplenty and Ballad… is a successful but certainly bizarre blend of grizzled rock and doe-eyed folk. But Campbell’s plans for the year don’t end there. A new EP, O Love Is Teasin’ has just been released via her website as a prelude to her second solo album, Milkwhite Sheets, which could well be released by the end of the year. Described by Isobel as “delicate and sparse”, the project is a bewitching combination of old folk ballads and new compositions said to be inspired by “magic, fertility, lunar cycles and leading ladies of folk, Jean Ritchie and Shirley Collins.” Writing in her online journal last year, she said she was aiming for an “ancient and earthy” sound. “No matter what age we are born into, the enduring aspects of the human experience will always prevail…” she continued. “And it is my opinion that it is these aspects that are the most joyous.”
Also in the works is a new book about her former band. Although she says that she doesn’t revisit her Belle & Sebastian past too often, she was happy to participate in interviews. “It was a bit bizarre,” she admits. “I was forwarded the rough copy. There were a lot of memories there.”
originally published May 22nd, 2006
Filed under: album, back issues, review | Tags: adam smith, alan pedder, ani difranco, cara dillon, catherine anne davies, danny weddup, dévics, deerhoof, dixie chicks, dresden dolls, gem nethersole, helen ogden, hilary duff, kimya dawson, liz durrett, matthew hall, paul woodgate, pete morrow, peter hayward, robbie de santos, sandy dillon, scott millar, simon wilson, tanya donelly, the duke spirit, tina dico, trevor raggatt
The following reviews were all published on our old website between May 2005 and December 2006.
Catherine Anne Davies
Songs For The Boy Who Wouldn’t Read Rilke EP •••
If an artist’s output can truly be taken as an expression of their psychological landscape, the furnishings inside Ms Davies’s head may be lush and velvet but they are certainly deep crimson and black. Songs For The Boy Who Wouldn’t Read Rilke is the second of a pair of limited edition EPs from the London-based singer who recently signed to the humorously named Folkwit stable. Hers is a dark muse, embroiled in swirling currents of brooding mystery. Like its predecessor Long Day, much of the music found on ...Rilke is reminiscent of the more sombre and sepulchral elements of goth-folkies All About Eve. On a soft cushion of acoustic guitars blended with echo-drenched piano and heady flourishes of cello, Davies’s mournful vocals intone the agonies of the less illuminated reaches of the human soul, the pain of a blues singer’s Weltschmerz filtered through the spyglass of a gothic spirit; these are deeply affecting tone poems.
‘The Heart Is A Lonesome Hunter’ drips with loss and regret, with Davies’s sparse piano joining plaintive cello and acoustic guitar as the intensity racks up before the song inches toward its slow and exquisite petit mort. ‘Bury Me’ explores love both unattained and unattainable, the richness of Davies’s vocal perfectly conveying the song’s emotion, sweeping up to a pure but fleeting ecstasy on the higher ranges. At first, ‘Crave’ appears to set the sepulchral tone aside with its gentle chiming introduction, but the dissonant vocal lines soon drag us back to the realisation that perhaps all is not quite right with the world. The track also allows Davies to flex her multi-instrumentalist muscles as she drifts subtle flute lines over the refrain as if to mock the intensity below. Closing number ‘It’ll Get Said’ begins with a slow, twisted variation on what could possibly be the James Bond theme, but the mood is ripped apart by squalling, distorted electric guitar. At certain points, Davies sounds uncannily like All About Eve’s Julianne Regan, while the guitar sounds recall those of the band’s Tim Bricheno.
Both the Long Day and …Rilke EPs come dressed in sumptuous, handmade paper jackets fastened with dusky wine-coloured ribbon – the product of the auteur’s own porcelain-fair hand. This deeply romantic yet somehow archaic dressing is completely appropriate for the music that lies within its embrace. And while the songs work well within the EP format, if their appeal is to last the distance of a full-length album, more dynamics and light/shade interplay is needed. As it is, this short-form offering provides a deeply lush landscape in which the listener can totally immerse themselves. Those who have a nervous disposition need not enquire within, but for listeners whose hearts are made of darker, sterner stuff, there is much here to admire.
originally published March 25th, 2006
Remember That I Love You •••½
Sometimes she’s your best friend cooing softly into your ear; sometimes she’s a street loon babbling on while you nervously back away; both stand-up comedienne and tragic heroine, on-hiatus Moldy Peach Kimya Dawson comes at you uncensored and unapologetic. Certainly, she doesn’t flinch at penning lyrics that other artists might shy away from for being too extreme, too brazenly political and – particularly here on her fifth solo record in four years – a little too close to home.
‘My Mom’ is a deeply personal and affecting song that sounds like a diary transcript – you almost feel guilty for listening, earwigging on her private thoughts. There is something entirely childlike about Dawson’s description of her mother’s illness that conveys how difficult it is to deal with the sickness and impending death of a parent, regardless of our age. Such events bring out the bewildered child within everyone, and it’s this child that sings “And there’s something in her blood / and there’s something in her leg / and there’s something in her brain / my mom’s sick, she’s in a hospital bed”. This topic recurs elsewhere on the record; on ‘Caving In’, Dawson attempts to imagine the death of her mother and the subsequent dissolution of her family in an attempt to cope better when the event arrives.
Dawson’s interest in personal tragedy is not a self-involved one, however; on ‘12.26′ the view expands and Kimya places herself in the shoes, or the bare feet, of a tsunami survivor who has lost literally everything. The song is a heartfelt elegy that analyses the world-wide response to the 2004 Boxing Day disaster and damns American complacency and selfishness: “We’d have 12.26 tattooed across our foreheads / If something this atrocious happened on our coast instead.” Remember That I Love You may be a rough, ramshackle and underproduced record, but somehow any other production style would seem entirely wrong. The lo-fi homemade quality is intrinsic to the Kimya Dawson ethos; on ‘Loose Lips’, when a whole host of voices join Kimya for the chorus, it matters less that some of them are out of time than that they sound like a gang of friends having a good time. Technical virtuosity is not the point; besides, the lyrics take centre stage to their musical base – consistently her trusty acoustic guitar.
Occasionally, the album makes for frustrating listening. When ‘I Like Giants’ turns into a paean to a friend of Kimya’s called Geneviève, if you don’t know who that is (and I don’t) it can feel like you’re on the outside of a private joke, or listening in on banter that goes over your head. But on the whole this is a very charming album, and this is the only place on the record where witty irreverent humour becomes irksome silliness. For better or worse, Kimya Dawson is unafraid to pour her heart onto the page and for that she should be saluted. Remember That I Love You veers from political idealism (when Kimya rails against George Bush on ‘Loose Lips’) to surreal humour and truly affecting personal revelations, often in the course of one song, but its voice is always honest and brave. This is an empathetic, comforting record whose aims are summed up in the lyrics of ‘Competition’: “Different voices, different tones / All saying that we’re not alone.”
originally published June 5th, 2006
The Runners Four ••••
More than almost any other band you care to mention, Deerhoof take an obvious, unfettered joy in what they do. In a career spanning over a decade, the band have applied a particle condenser to pop and noise forms, creating albums populated by dense song-nuggets that turn so many corners, throw so many shapes and spit out so many ideas that one wonders what some of their peers do all day. Take ‘Running Thoughts’ from this latest opus; after a jangly cycle down a ‘60s country lane, the wheels abruptly come off and the tune dissolves into humming keyboard drones overlaid with spooky, fried guitarwork. That this is Deerhoof’s most focused and cohesive, even straightforward, effort thus far gives an idea of the fractured sensibilities on offer.
It’s undoubtedly true that a more stable line-up in recent years has tamed the wilder fringes of the group’s approach; formed in 1994 by the only constant member, drummer Greg Saunier, Deerhoof’s revolving line-up has settled around Saunier, bassist/vocalist Satomi Matsuzaki and guitarists John Dietrich and Chris Cohen. With this new constancy have come albums such as 2004’s Milk Man – a concept album about an evil milkman who kidnaps children and hides them in the clouds – that have eased up on their wilder tendencies in favour of heavily skewed guitar pop laced with a sugary sweetness and gnarly crunch. Both have always been important facets of their sound, but with less of a ten-cats-and-a-firework-in-a-sack approach, the music of Deerhoof has become more assured and less unpredictably dizzying.
The Runners Four continues this trajectory, and there’s an immediate inkling that Deerhoof are consciously developing. There are 20 songs and 57 minutes here, nearly twice the white-dwarf density of any of their previous efforts. But the way the guitars circle and shimmer around Satomi’s candy-cloud vocal on the beatless opener, ‘Chatterboxes’, serve to allay fears of any newfound flabbiness. By the time the lumbering groove and sunny ‘60s pop sheen of the ensuing ‘Twin Killers’ and aforementioned ‘Running Thoughts’ have gone by, it’s becoming obvious that whatever their new modus operandum may be, the band are more than comfortable with it.
Funnily enough, given their burgeoning fascination with the flowerier reaches of 1960s music and Satomi’s airy vocal style, it’s only when singing duties are shared by the, er, stags that the sweetness of their sound starts to grate. ‘You Can See’ and ‘Odyssey’ are the worst offenders, the latter saved somewhat by slyly needling harmonics. Elsewhere though, along with a couple of trademark sugar-rush songlets, are some of Deerhoof’s finest moments. ‘Siriustar’ is the trad indie quiet/loud dynamic rewritten by Willy Wonka, surging from not a lot to technicolour fuzzout with a cute smile and a chocolate kiss. ‘You’re Our Two’ raids the sharps cabinet once more to set Satomi’s paranoiac vocal against multiple stinging guitar lines, and the closing ‘RRRRRRight’ is a chipper, garagey adieu.
Describing Deerhoof is a bit like nailing jelly anyway, which is one of the things that makes them so unique. All you need to know is that you should go and buy this album and listen to it lots, because it’s really good. Couldn’t be simpler.
originally published December 19th, 2005
Push The Heart ••••
In the five years since signing to Brit indie label Bella Union, Sara Lov and Dustin O’Halloran have produced two highly-rated albums – 2001’s My Beautiful Sinking Ship and 2003’s heavenly The Stars At Saint Andrea – both of which marked a clear shift away from their earlier, more post-rock oriented self-released efforts. Calmly melding a variety of influences, the Dévics were showered with plaudits from critics and fellow musicians alike, partly because of their refusal to easily conform to any particular rulebook. Their commitment to maintain this very special brand of elusiveness led the twosome (without their formerly full-time members Ed Maxwell and Evan Schnabel) to relocate to a farmhouse hidden deep in rural Italy where they moved into their current lush and wistful sound space, a dreamy and atmospheric terrain with folk-rock influences and frequent overtones of cabaret melancholy.
Third album Push The Heart is, emotionally at least, a more straightforward affair than The Stars At Saint Andrea. The songs are simpler and more direct, with less emphasis on the smoky, late-night bar ethos that drew sideways comparisons with Portishead, or perhaps Beth Orton via Goldfrapp, and more on an overall sense of bittersweet reflection. What the Dévics do share with the likes of Portishead and Goldfrapp is a fine sense of structure and technology-led production in spades. In fact, the production (which by all accounts was a slightly disjointed affair) almost threatens the album’s credibility, but is too carefully stewarded by O’Halloran to really overwhelm; when the melodies are this sweet and Lov’s tender voice even sweeter still, it’s impossible to avoid getting pleasantly lost in some of the loveliest moments, particularly on the album’s central triptych of ‘Song For A Sleeping Girl’, ‘Distant Radio’ and ‘Just One Breath’ (all of which first appeared on last year’s exquisite Distant Radio EP).
Lyrically, the album is accessible and engaging, playful yet plaintive. Lov’s doeeyed yearnings on album opener ‘Lie To Me’ and the charming ‘Secret Message To You’, which concerns the futile construction of a boat from too few parts to bring her love back, are inspired and give the songs a depth far beyond her pretty voice. And it would certainly be remiss of me not to point out that it is a very pretty voice indeed, whether she’s singing softly into a mic with her eyes to the floor, or opening up and expanding to cover whatever sonic bed O’Halloran constructs for her. More a request than a gripe, but it would be nice to hear a few more tracks along the lines of the latter in future. O’Halloran’s balanced, reassuring voice adds a warm and comforting counterpoint on just two of the tracks – the aforementioned ‘Song For A Sleeping Girl’ and the also excellent ‘If We Cannot See’, which comes closer to lighters-aloft anthem territory than anything they’ve done in the past.
The Dévics are unlikely to fill our stadiums just yet though, and in truth I doubt they would want to. But Push The Heart can only help their cause and win them new fans looking for something fresh and convincing to see in the spring. More power to them.
originally published March 21st, 2006
In The Red •••
You can’t deny the popularity of Tina Dico in her homeland of Denmark. When the domestic version of In The Red hit the streets last July, it slotted in at the top of the charts, outselling the likes of Coldplay and U2. Dico (or Dickow if you’re Danish) herself was up for consideration in three categories at the 2006 Danish Music Awards; but is ‘big in Copenhagen’ like ‘big in Japan’ or can she cut it in the crowded international pop market? Though she’s better known in the UK as a vocalist for chillout maestros Zero 7, she no doubt hopes that In The Red will bring her recognition in her own right. Certainly, the overall impression of the album is of a perfectly respectable piece of Scando-pop, with darker, more brooding overtones than the likes of Norway’s Lene Marlin or Sweden’s Sophie Zelmani. But the sticking point here is a noticeable lack of spark to elevate the songs above the realms of the mundane.
Credit where it’s due though – the production is excellent. Chris Potter, who’s better known for his work on The Verve’s Urban Hymns, clearly knows his way around a mixing desk and, comparing the UK release with the Danish original, it seems that some additional remixing has been done over the autumn to prepare for its wider release. The songs are skilfully layered with lush samples, strings and orchestral instrumentation, all adding up to a luxuriant aural vista. Dico’s voice is strong and carries the melodies well, sometimes cracking attractively on the quieter, more emotional sections. Again, nothing to fault here, and when aligned with better material it makes for an effective mix. There’s no doubt that there is a good deal of talent here, although Dico’s Gen-X couldn’t-care-less delivery occasionally grates, particularly on the otherwise enjoyable ‘Nobody’s Man’. Likewise, the title track slips beneath the surface from languorous to simply dragging its heels and ‘Use Me’ seems just a little too ponderous.
Perhaps the most disappointing thing is that there are some excellent songs scattered among the album’s more average fare. Had all the tracks been of the same standard, In The Red would be a significantly more involving album. ‘Losing’ sets the disc off to an encouraging start with its big Beatles-esque choruses evoking Tears For Fears in ‘Sowing The Seeds Of Love’ mode (in a good way!). ‘Give In’ rolls along smoothly like a chilled out drivetime classic, while first single ‘Warm Sand’ is the clear standout with its moody, building verses and hummable yet majestic refrain and ‘Room With A View’ sets a gentle acoustic mood, enfolding the listener in a melancholy reverie. In the end though, this is a candidate for selective downloading. At least that way you’ll be left in the black rather than overdrawn.
originally published February 12th, 2006
Knuckle Down ••••
Though never one to pass the responsibility buck, it is gratifying at least to see Ani DiFranco set aside some of the duties on this, her 15th studio album since her self-titled debut in 1990. Having enlisted the estimable wiles of co-producer Joe Henry on this follow-up to last year’s self-everything’d (including, perhaps, self-indulgent) Educated Guess, Knuckle Down sees Ani return in part to the more rewarding musical territories mapped out on each album up to 2001’s sprawling Revelling/Reckoning.
Inevitably, there will be those who bemoan the relative absence of DiFranco’s almost legendary leftism here; the only overtly political song, ‘Paradigm’, still resonates with an inward-looking personal relevance that stitches the emotional seams of the album and mines them to stark lyrical effect. But to complain about this seems a little hard-bitten in light of DiFranco’s recent personal upheavals. Both the dissolution of her marriage and the death of her father, Dante Americo DiFranco, to whom the album is dedicated, figure highly in these respectively bilious and brow-beaten compositions. The Bush Administration need not count their capitalist chickens just yet, however, as DiFranco has already signalled her intent to release a second album at the tail end of the year in which they may not come off so lightly.
As it is, Knuckle Down is yet another credit to DiFranco’s famed survivalist mentality. The title track grittily eschews the faintly ridiculous self-help stranglehold that grips America like a pill, instead asserting the mantra “I think I’m done gunnin’ to get closer to some imagined bliss, I gotta knuckle down and just be ok with this.” Happily, the following two tracks, ‘Studying Stones’ and ‘Manhole’ are easily among her best – the latter also featuring some charming whistling from recent Righteous Babe signing, Andrew Bird, who also contributes violin and glockenspiel elsewhere. It’s no surprise then that the more liberated radio programmers stateside have embraced these songs, giving DiFranco perhaps her best commercial chance since Little Plastic Castle. Other album highlights include the Out Of Range-y ‘Modulation’, the bluesy clunk of ‘Seeing Eye Dog’ (a memorable chorus also helps its cause), the taut slam poetics of ‘Parameters’ and the lyrical vulnerability of the closing track, ‘Recoil’.
After the chugging claustrophobia of Educated Guess and the often unlovable jazz forays of Evolve, DiFranco seems comfortable (and perhaps even comforted) to be back on familiar ground, if not entirely back to her roots. The promise of less digging for greater reward should entice both new prospectors and the DiFranco converted alike.
originally published May 13th, 2005
The Chemical Brothers once said of Beth Orton that if your soul could sing, she is what it would sound like. By this reckoning, Ani DiFranco is like the voice in the back of your head, not always telling you things you want to hear but telling it like it is nonetheless, and this time perhaps more than ever she means business. “I ain’t in the best shape / that I’ve ever been in / but I know where I’m going / and it ain’t where I’ve been,” she sings on ‘Subconscious’. As always with DiFranco, it’s a believable manifesto, one that takes on extra resonance with the recent announcement of her first pregnancy. Sonically, however, we’re in familiar surroundings.
Reprieve‘s closest cousin is 2004’s self-played, self-produced Educated Guess, but whereas that record had a swagger that reflected DiFranco’s freedom in the studio, Reprieve is altogether a more considered affair. The ghost of Hurricane Katrina hangs over proceedings, having famously halted the recording sessions when the resulting floods damaged her New Orleans studio. Forced to decamp to her other home in Buffalo, New York, DiFranco found herself continuing the recording on an old synthesiser.
The resulting album resonates as an unwitting tribute to the dislocation felt by the millions affected by the tragedy. Though it’s not explicitly referenced, aside from the oddly prophetic ‘Millennium Theater’ which ends on the line “New Orleans bides her time” (the material was written long before the hurricane hit), lines like “the stars are going out / and the stripes are getting bent” (‘Decree’) seem to say it all. Elsewhere, much of the album is classic DiFranco. Opening track, ‘Hypnotize’, recalls one of the most arresting moments of her career, ‘You Had Time’, a song that emerges out of nowhere, a meandering piano intro that eventually finds its way into a melody. A similar technique is used here, the sound of the artist working out a way to articulate an emotion she’s not entirely comfortable with: “you were no picnic / and you were no prize / but you had just enough pathos / to keep me hypnotized”. It makes for a sombre opening but, to quote Joni Mitchell, there’s comfort in melancholy.
Reprieve is perhaps DiFranco’s most cohesive record to date, never really feeling the need to shift out of its plaintive mood, which is both good and bad. Aside from the fantastic ‘Half-Assed’, surely soon to be regarded as an Ani classic, there is little here to truly stir you out of your seat. Perhaps I miss the band. Perhaps I miss the point. Check out righteousbabe.com for an explanation of the cover art and a clearer idea of what she’s trying to say. For now though, there may not be much time for dancing but Ani DiFranco is still standing, still singing and that, for us, is the most important thing.
originally published August 10th, 2006
After The Morning ••••
With her unique blend of traditional and contemporary folk, Cara Dillon has garnered truckloads of awards and comparisons with everyone from Kate Bush to Joni Mitchell, and often with the charming Kate Rusby, whom she replaced as a member of the so-called brat pack folk-rock group Equation. This remarkable third solo album should see her finally coming out from behind the shadow of Rusby, not least for its bold use of blue- grass, and is easily her most confident statement of intent to date.
Recorded with her husband Sam Lakeman (brother of critical favourite Seth), guests include her sister Mary, influential folk veteran Martin Simpson and Paul Brady, who duets on the traditional number ‘The Streets Of Derry’ (which also goes by the name of ‘After The Morning’, depending on who you ask). Despite the presence of such luminaries, it’s Lakeman’s skilful, textured playing that really colours the backdrops to Dillon’s stunning vocals. Piano, accordion, mandolin, guitar and fiddle – you name it, he plays it, and plays it well. The shivery ‘October Winds’ is an exquisite example, the music carrying along Dillon’s rich, warm vocals in a heartfelt tribute to her dead father.
Even so, the strongest tracks are the stripped-down acoustic numbers such as ‘Here’s A Health’, ‘Bold Jamie’ (one of Cara’s own) and her near-definitive version of ‘The Snows They Melt The Soonest’ with its sumptuous arrangement of piano and strings. Despite an occasional, presumably deliberate stab at getting some commercial airplay, the treasure to disappointment ratio is extraordinarily high. There’s a timeless feel to the proceedings as a whole; Dillon’s ability to really draw out the spark of traditional folk songs is almost unparalleled and much of the album’s beauty lies in the words and the perfection of her delivery.
Forging a genuine connection with the listener is something that many traditional folk artists fall short of. Sure, they might sound pretty but they’ll sometimes leave you cold. In this respect, Dillon is firmly in the premier league, ensnaring her audience with consummate ease. Indeed, her dedicated fanbase is something that many of her rival folkies would give their right arms for and After The Morning only serves to cement her elevated status. Three albums into her solo career, she might no longer be the next big thing but this is a real gem, an appealing collection full of confidence and a finely- honed sense of musicality.
originally published August 23rd, 2006
Pull The Strings •••½
One Little Indian
For over 20 years, the career of Sandy Dillon has been one hell of a frightening fairground and somewhere along the line our gravel-voiced heroine must have smashed an entire hall of mirrors, such has been her god-awful luck. Incredibly, even her earlier struggles – two shelved albums and a terminated contract with Elektra – pale in comparison with the trials of the last five years. After losing her beloved husband and musical partner to a heart attack in 2001, Dillon has battled with cervical cancer and a terrifying ordeal with the MRSA superbug. That’s a lot of black cats crossing hundreds of paths, each one dusted with a tonne of spilled salt, but instead of slinging it over her left shoulder into Beelzebub’s eyes she’s gargled it defiantly, refusing to be a martyr to ill health. Indeed, on the evidence of Pull The Strings, her most desolate, injured and grim recording yet (and that’s saying something!), truly the woman could unseat the four horsemen and circumvent the apocalypse. Of course, some people would rather listen to a symphony of air raid sirens than to Dillon’s serrated, half-strangled vocals, but frankly that’s their loss. The sheer feral beauty and menace at work here adds a sometimes exquisite, always interesting texture that’s totally unique.
Of the many moods and dense emotions captured throughout, the one that resonates most clearly is a longing for escape – escape from loneliness, escape into death, you name it. Though it may not sound like it on first listen, the vibrant and sinisterly sexual title track is actually a manifesto of atonement to the (wo)man upstairs. Joined on vocals by Alabama 3’s growly Robert Love, Dillon’s third-person tale of repentance becomes more akin to what the sound of mating basilisks must be like – full-blooded, throaty and raw above all else. The jaunty but creepy ‘Documents’ and Dillon’s remarkable turn on ‘Over My Head’ are similarly sultry, while the raucous ‘I Fell In Love’ is a darkly humorous swamp-blues stomper that returns her to the glass-eating Bessie Smith-inspired sound of her One Little Indian debut, Electric Chair. That she howls and wails as if having a grand mal seizure is really all just part of the fun.
Anyone who has followed Dillon’s career will know that for all her impressive vocal extremities, her real forte lies in torch song balladry. Fortunately, Pull The Strings does not disappoint on that front either, from the traditional number ‘Motherless Children’ and the sumptuous cover of Hoagy Carmichael’s jazz standard ‘Baltimore Oriole’ to the exhausting, occasionally morbid but beautiful tributes to her husband (‘Enter The Flame’, ‘Wedding Night’) and her own lost innocence (‘Play With Ruth’, ‘Broken Promises’). Throughout these heartfelt weepies run subtle flourishes of organ, electric piano and softly brushed snare, not to mention musical saw for that added tearjerk factor. Dillon even wheels out a harmonium on ‘Why?’, a sweetly-sung duet (again with Robert Love) that’s almost vaudevillian and slightly but nicely cheesy. ‘Who’s Answering’ follows the theme of accepting destiny as Dillon implores whoever or whatever lies beyond the grave to see her in safely and with a little comfort – “give me a lover, a bed and some gin / I beg the one who’s answering” – delivered with poignancy, believability and soul.
Doing justice to a Sandy Dillon album is an impossible task; like the music itself, it takes a lot of perseverance, repeated listens and an open mind, and you may still end up not knowing what to make of it. Certainly, those who are faint of heart should steer clear, but if you’re the sort who worships Captain Beefheart, Tom Waits or just loves a challenge, there’s much to enjoy here. It’s a little over-long, however, and making it to the conclusion of ‘Carnival Of Dreams’ in just one sitting guarantees an arduous listen. That said, in the triumph over adversity stakes, it’s a truly remarkable statement from one of our finest, most uncompromising artists.
originally published May 26th, 2006
Taking The Long Way ••••
Taking The Long Way is the Dixie Chicks’s fourth studio album, produced by man of the moment Rick Rubin. The girls share writing credits on all the tracks – a first for them – with such songwriting luminaries as Sheryl Crow, Neil Finn and Gary Louris of The Jayhawks. There’s a conscious effort to expand upon the acoustic, bluegrass feel of 2002’s Home. Driving rhythm guitar and threepart harmonies abound in a nod to the ‘rockier’ side of country. Fear not Chicks fans, the banjo, mandolin and fiddle still play a major part. It’s clear that Maines, Maguire and Robison haven’t totally abandoned their Nashville cousins, but be under no illusions – this is the sound of three competent songwriters with a wealth of experience cutting loose, both musically and lyrically.
Yes, they have bones to pick. Yes, they choose to do so with a certain lack of subtlety, but who can blame them? Their run-in with Dubya received more column inches of newsprint than can possibly be deemed healthy in a world where unspeakable horrors occur on a daily basis. But don’t be fooled by the media backlash; the Chicks were courting controversy way back on 2001’s ‘Goodbye Earl’ and the acerbic ‘White Trash Wedding’ from Home. If you think these girls are a manufactured country-pop wet dream, think again – they’ve always had the chops, the humour and, yes, the intelligence to shake it up with the best of them.
Taking The Long Way opens with ‘The Long Way Round’, a road movie Don Henley would be proud to have written. It’s a fine way indeed to say ‘we’re back!’ with the nice addition of some clever lyrical nods to earlier Chicks songs. ‘Easy Silence’ follows with swathes of harmony and a plea for the simple things in life to keep you sane. Key talking point and canny first single ‘Not Ready To Make Nice’ is Maines’s response to the CD burning and radio boycott the band endured as a result of her London outburst; it rocks, it says what it has to, and it’s followed by ‘Everybody Knows’, a lovely melody and an introspective look at how the last two years has affected the close-knit trio.
It goes on. Each cut has merits, carefully constructed to achieve an emotional response and most hitting the right buttons. Maines courts the ire of her hometown with ‘Lubbock Or Leave It’, which has the classic line “…this is the only place, where as you’re getting on the plane, you see Buddy Holly’s face…” Others worthy of multiple plays are ‘Favorite Year’, a wistful look back at love gone wrong, and ‘Bitter End’, which eloquently dissects the true meaning of friendship, but really, they’re all pretty good. The Chicks have consistently improved with every album, and this is their best offering yet.
Unafraid to experiment, unafraid to steer their own path, the Dixie Chicks deserve a hearing. Forget the country tag and your own prejudices, this is a band at its peak; tune in or miss out.
originally published July 10th, 2006
This Hungry Life ••••
As a member of Throwing Muses, The Breeders and Belly, Tanya Donelly helped construct the blueprint for American college rock, writing soaring, breathless pop songs that belied dark, complex lyrics and a twisted world view. With a knack for writing the aural equivalent of a beehive – songs dripping with honey but packed with stings – Donelly was achingly vital to the 1990s but maintaining people’s interest over three acts proved a little too tough. Belly’s second album King, in no way a poor piece of work, fell on deaf ears and Donelly struck out on her own. Since then, marriage and motherhood have seemingly tempered her solo work, with each album becoming more laidback than the last, to the point where 2003’s country-laden Whiskey Tango Ghosts was practically supine.
On This Hungry Life, Donelly sets the hall of mirrors perspective that made her early work so exciting to the more traditional approach to songwriting that she has perfected. Opening with the line “it’s June and I’m still wearing my boots”, Donelly sings her sweet complaint in homage to New England. It’s this playful contrariness that gallops through the album and makes for an enjoyable listen, coming furthest to the fore on the superb ‘Littlewing’, a dark and unsettling song about falling in love.
Recorded in front of an audience in the bar of a deserted hotel on a sweltering weekend in 2004, This Hungry Life is one of those rare albums that are recorded live without being ‘live albums’ per se. The live band – including Catholic (in the Frank Black sense) Rich Gilbert, Dean ‘Mr Donelly’ Fisher, Bill Janovitz and (almost inevitably these days) Joan ‘As Police Woman’ Wasser – provide excellent accompaniment to Donelly’s liquid glycerine vocals. The heatwave conditions and setup of the recordings certainly worked for this line-up; no amount of studio time could ever improve the title track, a pedal-steel extravaganza that’s bound to break hearts. Elsewhere, the title of ‘Kundalini Slide’, one of the album’s standouts, sounds a bit like an attempt by Rory Bremner’s George Bush to pronounce the name of Condoleeza Rice, which may not in fact be all that coincidental as the lyrics represent a politically charged attack on intolerance and violence.
If a couple of the tracks retread the same matronly ground of the past two albums, Donelly’s mellifluous singing saves them and other tracks more than make up for any slight failings. This Hungry Life is a vibrant collection of songs through which a love of life and of live performance shines. If this is Donelly’s hungry life, is it wrong to kinda hope that she never ever gets a square meal?
originally published December 17th, 2006
The Dresden Dolls
Yes, Virginia ••••
If one thing sets the Dresden Dolls apart from pretty much anyone else around right now, it’s their confrontational and discomforting honesty. It’s something they practice in life as well as in their music – the blogs Amanda Palmer posts online dissect her insecurities and anxieties in detail. Take this for example: “i prefer sleeping alone nowadays. i barely think about love. i have plenty. i haven’t had a boyfriend in so long i’ve forgotten what it’s like. honestly.” The band also publish the wonderfully inarticulate hatemail they receive on their site (sample: “could you plase do something like kill yourselves,before you come to toronto, seeing you would probabnly ruin my life” – spelling mistakes author’s own – or “if you ever come to atlanta call me up 678-XXX-XXXX and i’ll fuckin beat your ass”) as well as collecting together some of the savage and abusive reviews they’ve received.
It’s this honesty that makes their music so entirely compelling, and Yes, Virginia – the follow-up to their 2004 self-titled debut – makes for truly startling listening. Building upon the dark themes and manic yet melodic style of their debut, it represents an artistic progression on every level – musically, lyrically and vocally. Palmer has extended her vocal range to incorporate a whole new palate of sounds, and, in places, sounds more aggressive than ever before. The songs are powerful and muscular, tempered with moments of tenderness made all the more affecting by the tempestuous menace that surrounds them. The Dolls have grown more confident, too, adding layer upon layer of insistent, pounding pianos and cascading drums to create a driving and sometimes frantic sound.
The insistent piano riff that opens the record is extremely ominous – like listening to the first rumbling tones of a coming thunderstorm – and it’s not long before a shout from Amanda heralds the entrance of Brian Viglione’s pummelling drums. Songs turn from tender to vicious in the space of a couple of lines. ‘Delilah’, one of the album’s highlights, describes the frustration of watching a friend wilfully enter a violent relationship: “He’s gonna beat you like a pillow / you schizos never learn / and if you take him home / you’ll get what you deserve”. From a hushed, piano and vocal opening, the song builds until the frustration and powerlessness in the lyrics is reflected in the epic, operatic music. Lyrically, the album is often violent and disturbing, with images of mutilation and surgery recurring throughout without ever sounding like they’re merely out to shock. Perhaps this is because Palmer’s writing is shot through with dark humour and a rare wit. ‘Shores Of California’, for example, is a clever dissection of male and female coping mechanisms for being single, with lyrics like “all I know is that all around the nation / the girls are crying, the boys are masturbating”.
There are occasional moments where the lyrics veer close to self-parody, but the Dolls are too knowing and self-aware to succumb to such pitfalls: on ‘Dirty Business’, Amanda sings “Am I the poster girl for some suburban sickness?” while the unmitigated stream of aggression running through the chorus of ‘Backstabber’ (“Backstabber, backstabber / greedy fucking fit-haver”) would seem ridiculously emo were the lyrics not married to the catchiest melody the band have ever penned. Furthermore, the song ends with a demented cackle as if to tell you the band know exactly how closely they’ve been flirting with the ridiculous.
Yes, Virginia is not an easy listen, but it’s an exciting, raw and emotional one. However you might categorise the Dresden Dolls – and they have been variously labelled as theatrical rock, punk cabaret, manic-musical, neoglam-torch etc. – one fact remains: their music is really damn good.
originally published April 10th, 2006
The Dresden Dolls
Live at Spiegelzelt, Berlin ••••
May 14th, 2006
“We were so excited when we heard we could play in a mirrored tent” exclaimed Dresden Dolls singer Amanda Palmer as she took to the stage of the Spiegelzelt, erected temporarily for a nomadic mini-festival taking place all over Germany. But as the sunset glowed through the stained-glass windows of this curiously decadent, wood- and velvet-laden construction next to the railway tracks at East Berlin’s former main station, what place could be more suitable? After all, The Dresden Dolls describe themselves as ‘Brechtian punk cabaret’ and are clearly thrilled to introduce their new album, Yes, Virginia, to the country that gave them their name, as well as Bertolt Brecht and his weird and wonderful theatre.
Since the release of their eponymous debut, the Boston duo has accumulated a dedicated, passionate and numerous following without attracting too much hype or mainstream press, mainly on the back of word-of-mouth praise and blistering live shows. Tonight was no exception. Though the sun was still illuminating the tent from all sides and The Dresden Dolls are a band best served in eerie, smoky darkness, Palmer and drummer Brian Viglione conjured up such dark intensity that it could have been on a Caribbean beach and still been just as impressive. Like The Kills, the sparseness of the arrangements (i.e. only keyboard and primal drums against Amanda’s rich and frantic vocals) makes the drama so much more affecting and severe. As they look at each other across the stage, all the fierceness that’s found in a band of five members is concentrated into a single, manic gaze. As with all things cabaret, however, it’s not all entirely serious. Early single ‘Coin-Operated Boy’ is a cheeky crowd pleaser and their cover of Grauzone’s ‘Eisbär’, a Swiss new wave band’s ode to the polar bear, had the crowd waving arms and singing at the top of their voices.
Perhaps fittingly it was not one of their own songs that captured the evening, but a cover of Jacques Brel’s ‘Port Of Amsterdam’ – a wistfully sexy black-hearted tale of a long gone time of swashbucklin’ filthy cabaret bars frequented by a shady clientele. The Dresden Dolls romanticise and capture this decadent and dangerous world and their concerts make it real for people disillusioned by their oversanitised, modern existence.
Robbie de Santos
originally published June 24th, 2006
Most Wanted •••½
In the sometimes scary land of teen pop there is a boxing ring, with Hilary Duff in the red corner and Lindsay Lohan in the blue. Whilst not quite delivering a knockout punch with this release, Hilary at least shows that she has the edge and will stay standing for quite a few more rounds. The cliché of the difficult third album is not easy to apply to Most Wanted, as it more closely resembles a greatest hits with a few new tracks thrown in. Coming in an attractive two-piece case, the Collector’s Signature Edition contains 17 slices of Duffness, of which just four are new. The remainder are remixes of songs from previous albums, although a collaboration with sister Haylie on The GoGo’s classic ‘Our Lips Are Sealed’ is carried off with dignity, showing that it is possible to cover a well-known song without leaving the original artists turning in their graves (or, in this case, mansions).
Hilary’s move into more soulful and lyrically complete tunes in her second album is less apparent in this latest offering, which walks the line between rock and pop. US radio programmers have swooped upon first single ‘Wake Up’, which flaunts a killer hook and is one of her best to date. However, the standout track is the super slick ‘Break My Heart’, which borders on a Blink 182-esque anthem pitched around a superb middle eight. This comes as no real surprise, as song was co-written with the Madden Brothers from pop/punk band Good Charlotte and John Feldmann from Goldfinger. Club DJ Chris Cox does a good job of turning the previously likeable ‘Come Clean’ into an irresistible floor-shaking house mix, building up from the simple melody of the original with big beats and delivering the goods.
Perhaps more than simply a greatest hits, this album is a showcase of some of the more unique songs from her repertoire, such as the raucous ‘Mr James Dean’, from 2003’s self-titled second album. Duff certainly has a unique voice, clearly identifiable amongst the often faceless pop crowd. ‘So Yesterday’, the signature track from her 2002 debut Metamorphosis, makes a welcome return. Although perhaps more polished than even the crown jewels, it’s pure pop perfection. The standard edition of the album, running at a more bite-sized 13 songs is an attractive option for Duff’s doubting thomases or newcomers to her music.
originally published September 4th, 2005
The Duke Spirit
Cuts Across The Land •••½
After 18 months in the making, it’s not surprising that Cuts Across The Land is a fairly polished, well-produced and suitably promising debut. It’s an adept and listenable dark-edged rock ‘n’ roll album. The problem arises when you start to wonder what exactly it is you’re listening to – it would be fair to say that the London-based five-piece wear their influences on their sleeves. Sadly, these are rarely combined into any new, innovative or interesting sound; rather, they are too often laid out bare in quick succession for all the world to ear, particularly in the Sebadoh-esque riffing in the chorus of the title track to the alarmingly ‘Anarchy In The UK’-like opening chord of first single, ‘Lion Rip’, although in the latter this quickly dissolves into one the album’s standout tracks.
When their influences aren’t so apparent, such as on the interminable bore that is ‘Hello To The Floor’, neither is the passion that could have made this reasonable album into a really good one. In fact, this track, and to a slightly lesser extent, ‘Bottom Of The Sea’, smack of a by-the-numbers “every rock album needs a couple of ballads” approach to recording, which fails to showcase properly any of the bands talents, except possibly an ear for a nice couplet, as the frequently well-crafted lyrics are dribbled out by singer Leila Moss with less enthusiasm than is found at your average Saturday night karaoke, which is made all the more disappointing because elsewhere on the album you discover that she can do so much better. For example, there is infinitely more zeal on ‘Win Your Love’, a high point of the record, especially if the prospect of Polly Harvey fronting Sonic Youth is one that excites you. But PJ isn’t the only vocal influence Moss parades – Patti Smith and Nico are never far from mind. Indeed, the Velvet Underground themselves are one of the more pervading influences of the guitar sound throughout.
However, it seems somewhat mean spirited to continue to run through the tracklist namedropping the many earlier, often seminal, acts that are brought to mind when listening to this record. Perhaps in this era where exceptional debuts seem to be the norm, promise is no longer enough, but Cuts Across The Land is full of it. If future efforts can use these diverse influences as exactly that and not as such obvious templates, as well as capturing some of the fervour and excitement that most reviewers and music fans alike agree that the band exhibit when on stage, then they are certainly an act worth keeping an ear out for.
originally published July 16th, 2005
The Mezzanine ••••
Deliciously layered with meaning as though it’s a direct line into her soul, Liz Durrett’s distinctive voice will utterly transfix you; this is a good thing, for then you’ll be struck by her striking, pared-down lyrics and wonder how on earth she’s been such a best kept secret. It took her 10 years to get comfy with the idea of releasing her own material, beginning with last year’s Husk, not least because of a crippling anxiety that she wouldn’t live up to her own high standards and her familial connections (she’s the niece of singer-songwriter Vic Chesnutt, who’s on board here as producer). Luckily for us, she hasn’t let that overwhelm her and the light once hidden by that mighty bushel of doubt is finally beaming into these warmly grateful ears.
With its beguiling nursery rhyme-esque introduction, opener ‘Knives At The Wall’ lulls and soothes into an early reverie that grows ever darker as the song progresses. It’s one of the least remarkable songs of the collection, yet it serves as a perfect introduction to The Mezzanine‘s suggestive, haunting power. The similarly minimalist ‘All The Spokes’ is swiftly followed by the curiously upbeat ‘Cup On The Counter’, whose delightfully discordant atmosphere and accusatory lyrics (“I’m not a child, I know what I’ve seen”) are accompanied by the startling addition of a child in conversation. An equally evocative harmonica solo and double-tracked vocals make ‘Shivering Assembly’ the shining example of how Durrett successfully pulls off disarming little touches and effects, adding to the tone and theatricality of the music without falsifying its ambition and meaning.
This, and other songs, may tempt you to place Durrett firmly in the gothic fold, but The Mezzanine as a whole is a hopeful creature, as is the empowering track that gives the album its name. Here, Durrett’s “they” refers to unnamed oppressive influences lurking nearby. Yet while the album certainly revels in its darkness and is accordingly beautiful for it, such a mood is not its focus, merely a tangible influence that belies her upbringing in the oppressive humidity of Georgia, as well as her battle with depression. The rawness of ‘Marlene’ is both deeply personal and astounding; Durrett’s quivering vibrato gives an ethereal, wispy quality to the song and is neatly complemented by the off-key piano instrumental ‘Silent Partner’ that follows.
It’s not all easygoing, however. An eerily muffled screaming guitar slightly overwhelms ‘No Apology’, but once your ears have adjusted, simple unpleasantness quickly becomes intriguing unpleasantness and perseverance is definitely required. ‘In The Throes’ thankfully marks a return to the style of the earlier songs and brings things to a worthy close, combining all the best aspects from the previous ten tracks – introspection, a gently powerful voice, fabulous guitars and a stunning combination of orchestral and electric instruments. A trip through Durrett’s (under)world may not be appropriate for everyone but the devil’s in the details and we all know by now who has the best tunes.
originally published August 10th, 2006
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