wears the trousers magazine


2007 reviews dump: d

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Adam Smith

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

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

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

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

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

James M Johnston

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Ani DiFranco
Canon ••••
Righteous Babe

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Alex Ramon

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Céline Dion
Taking Chances •
SonyBMG

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

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

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

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

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

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

Andy Wasley

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

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

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

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

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

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

Hugh Armitage

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Siobhan Donaghy
Ghosts •••
Parlophone

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

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

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

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

Callum Sinclair

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The Donnas
Bitchin’ •••
Cooking Vinyl

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

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

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

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

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

Hugh Armitage

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Hilary Duff
Dignity ••••
Hollywood

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

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

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

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

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

Gem Nethersole

 



2005/06 reviews dump: d

The following reviews were all published on our old website between May 2005 and December 2006.
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Catherine Anne Davies
Songs For The Boy Who Wouldn’t Read Rilke EP •••
Self-released

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.

Trevor Raggatt
originally published March 25th, 2006 

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Kimya Dawson
Remember That I Love You •••½ 
K Records

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.”

Danny Weddup
originally published June 5th, 2006 

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Deerhoof
The Runners Four ••••
ATP

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.

Adam Smith
originally published December 19th, 2005 

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Dévics
Push The Heart ••••
Bella Union

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.

Pete Morrow
originally published March 21st, 2006 

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Tina Dico
In The Red •••
Finest Gramophone

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.

Trevor Raggatt
originally published February 12th, 2006 

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Ani DiFranco
Knuckle Down ••••
Righteous Babe

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.

Alan Pedder
originally published May 13th, 2005 

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Ani DiFranco
Reprieve ••••
Righteous Babe

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.

Matthew Hall
originally published August 10th, 2006 

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Cara Dillon
After The Morning ••••
Rough Trade

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.

Helen Ogden 
originally published August 23rd, 2006

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Sandy Dillon
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.

Alan Pedder
originally published May 26th, 2006 

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Dixie Chicks
Taking The Long Way ••••
Columbia

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.

Paul Woodgate
originally published July 10th, 2006 

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Tanya Donelly
This Hungry Life ••••
Eleven Thirty

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?

Peter Hayward
originally published December 17th, 2006

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The Dresden Dolls
Yes, Virginia ••••
Roadrunner

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.

Danny Weddup
originally published April 10th, 2006 

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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 

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Hilary Duff
Most Wanted •••½
Hollywood

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.

Simon Wilson
originally published September 4th, 2005

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The Duke Spirit
Cuts Across The Land •••½
Polydor

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.

Scott Millar
originally published July 16th, 2005 

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Liz Durrett
The Mezzanine ••••
Warm

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.

Gem Nethersole
originally published August 10th, 2006