Filed under: album, back issues, book, review | Tags: 50 foot wave, alan pedder, anja mccloskey, danny weddup, eddi fiegel, edith frost, faun fables, fields, hannah fury, ian buchan, josephine foster, kat flint, lily fraser, mama cass, the fiery furnaces, tiffany daniels, trevor raggatt
The following reviews were all published on our old website between May 2005 and December 2006.
The Transit Rider •••½
Anchored by the creative brain of Dawn McCarthy, Faun Fables is a rare breed of band, an avant-garde ensemble whose members appear to be in a near constant state of flux. In more recent years, McCarthy’s closest allies have been prog rock enthusiast Nils Frykdahl (Sleepytime Gorilla Museum) and performance artists Jenya Chernoff and Matt Lebofsky. If you were bewitched by 2004’s minor breakthrough The Family Album, you’ll almost certainly love The Transit Rider. Taking the dramatics to a whole new level, the album is based on material of the same-titled theatre show that McCarthy and Frykdahl developed and toured in 2002. Though the band now operates out of California, the idea for the play came about when McCarthy moved to New York and felt hopelessly stuck and held down by the subway system. Troubled by the city’s pace of life, her disconnection from nature’s cycles and rhythms led her to compose an entire song cycle about her situation, which she performed whilst singing, acting, playing instruments and running the tech at the same time.
Slotting nicely into the cycle are powerful and moving interpretations of traditional folk songs, such as ‘House Carpenter’ and an adaptation of Polish songwriter Zygmunt Konieczny’s ‘Taki Pejzaz’, translated into English by McCarthy and friends and gifted a gorgeously intense arrangement. Painting a delicate picture of abject pain, its mood is hard to shift even long after the song has finished. The sheer conviction and humanity of this interpretation is due in no small way to McCarthy’s versatile, expressive vocals (which you can also find stamped all over the new Bonnie ‘Prince’ Billy album).
Faun Fables’s own compositions are innovative and have a refreshingly narrative song structure, though sometimes quite bizarre. At the more unusual end of the spectrum lies the opener ‘Birth’, a song that takes train sounds and primal screams and conjoins them in an entrancingly hypnotic introduction. ‘Transit Theme’ is just as bewildering, with its dramatic chord structures and bonkers exclamation of “the tokens are 1.25! / I am the transit rider, open to public violence”. Equally confusing compositions include the slightly pretentious psych folk/prog rock-leaning ‘Fire & Castration’ – imagine Depeche Mode relocated to New Weird America – and the dialogue embracing ‘The Questioning’ (“is this a good way to sit?”…”what if the ceiling were to fall on your head?”…”do you want a piece of heart candy?”).
Despite these few OTT attempts, Faun Fables have generously stuffed the album with interesting and intriguing compositions. ‘In Speed’ is a theatrical, fast- paced portrait of a professional coffee junkie – think businesswoman in suit and trainers clutching a super-size Starbucks – and is spookily accurate. “Let’s speed up without grace and running,” sings Frykdahl in his low voice, adding “you’ve got a nail through your heart.” Elsewhere, ‘Dream On A Train’ and ‘I’d Like To Be’ convince mostly through their heartfelt synopses and carefully explored instruments.
Although it is often slightly confusing and exceedingly abstract, The Transit Rider succeeds as a magical exploration of theatre and music that managed to stir and move the listener. Of course, it might make much more sense if you watch the theatre show too (as is recommended) – then again, it might not! – but unless they bring it to Britain, we of limited funds will just have to enjoy the music and the freedom of imagination.
originally published October 5th, 2006
Dream A Little Dream Of Me:
The Life Of ‘Mama’ Cass Elliot ••••
Sidgwick & Jackson
Contrary to popular belief, body fascism did not begin with the birth of Heat magazine in 1999. Nor did it spring from the bowels of inventor Logie Baird when his ‘Televisor’ colonised with alarming speed much of the human race. Even if the fig leaf didn’t quite make Eve’s behind look big in it, the point is that people, and especially women, of a larger size have always had it hard. That’s not to say that television (and to some extent, Heat magazine) never had or no longer has an impact. Since its arrival in the late 1950s, the medium has majorly compounded the fears and insecurities of generations of women. Indeed, while the flower power epoch surely swung, there is also room to reflect on a lesser-known angle – the Slimming Sixties.
The explosion of teen girl pop singers that ushered in the decade put the focus of many promoters firmly on their protégées’ sex appeal. The Shirelles, The Crystals, The Ronettes and their like were all youthful, fresh and distinctly uncurvy. Although dieting was already rife among female performers – Dinah Washington, for example, was a diet pill addict – the added pressure of TV appearances and the dreaded extra projected pounds was immense. Then, as now, a bit of extra baggage could send a career down the dumper. Florence Ballard of The Supremes was one such example, allegedly sacked from the band in 1967 for being overweight, among other things. Nine years later, depressed, lonely and drunk, she died at just 32 years of age.
Ellen Naomi Cohen, better known as ‘Mama’ Cass Elliot also died aged 32. Not as has been so ignobly rumoured by choking on a ham sandwich, but from massive coronary heart failure as she slept, having earlier completed the final show in a wildly successful run of solo performances at the London Palladium. As this tender account of her life reveals, the dichotomy between Cass’s charismatic outward personality and her internal struggle with her own self-image was evident from a young age. Born in Baltimore during World War II and talking by the age of two, as a teenager, Cass was as intelligent and politically aware as many of the adults who surrounded her. Being fat by the age of seven had done nothing to endear her to those her own age and their rejection haunted Cass right to her grave, despite all that she went on to achieve. From her initial faltering efforts to become “the famous fat girl” she so desired to her audacious attempts to break into the group that would become The Mamas & The Papas, Eddi Fiegel carefully picks apart Cass’s famed ambition from her genuine need to be loved. Fiegel’s fondness for her subject, while clearly apparent in every tale, is admirably never allowed to cloud or bias the story. Written over nearly four years and based on more than 100 interviews, what we get here is a mostly sympathetic but balanced account of a well-loved and unique individual.
Where the book becomes unmissable is in Fiegel’s account of the final days of The Mamas & The Papas. As adultery and unrequited love tore them apart before they had even recorded their second album, Elliot’s long struggle to extricate herself from the sorry mess without losing all she had worked for is all too vivid. The band finally folded in October 1967. Elliot’s first solo album, Dream A Little Dream Of Me, followed a year later, and a second, Bubblegum, Lemonade & Something For Mama in 1969. By then, despite having a young daughter (Owen Vanessa Elliot was born in April 1969 and contributes to the book in places), Cass had a significant drug habit and went through a number of damaging relationships with assorted Lotharios and downright spongers. Even at the time of her death, she was engaged in a one-sided relationship with shady promoter George Caldwell who mysteriously disappeared after her death.
As Fiegel notes, however, Elliot wouldn’t have stood for the ‘tragic’ tag so many have lumbered her with. Her independence and resilience defied such lazy thinking. Rarely has a mould been so completely shattered than the one from which Ellen Naomi Cohen emerged – she was the people’s princess before Diana was in training bras. In her introduction, Fiegel tells how rocker David Crosby offered her $100 if she could find a single person who hated Cass. Unsurprisingly, his money went unclaimed.
originally published September 3rd, 2005
Live at the Fleece & Firkin, Bristol •••
June 25th, 2006
Warm-ups, I have realised, are not supposed to be heard by outsiders for a very simple reason – bands invariably sound awful. The singer(s) will undoubtedly be out of tune. Indeed, early on in the evening, heard through the ancient industrial walls of Bristol’s Fleece & Firkin, Fields sound like shrieking banshees in the middle of a massacre of shouty East End market stall holders. This, perhaps, is why half of the audience leave before they’ve even entered the venue. A few manage to convince themselves that it was only the roadies testing the equipment, while fans of the band wonder if singer Thorunn Antonia is in possession of a hideous cold.
So far, not really that good, and the bar staff haven’t even served a drink yet. Fortunately, all is rescued when, taking to the stage ahead of headliners Larrikin Love, Fields launch into ‘Song For The Fields’ and a hundred ears prick up in an instant – “wait a minute, I’ve heard this”. It’s one of those songs that you can’t work out whether they’ve half-inched an opening chord from Bob Dylan or from some indie club classic. People sitting down at the back begin to lean against the walls instead and gradually the whole audience moves towards the stage. At times, Antonia’s voice can seem screechy and at odds with fellow Fields vocalist Nick Peill, but generally the pair have good chemistry. After a seven-song set, including some of the new tracks on their forthcoming EP, notably ‘Roll Down The Hill’, the band depart to the genuine applause of the majority.
From tonight’s performance, it’s clear that Fields are destined to be more than just another support band; they’re fast becoming headline material for smaller venues like the Fleece. With just a little more practice and perhaps a careful eye on the watch so as to ensure the audience hear only what they’re supposed to, Fields may eventually turn into acres.
originally published July 2nd, 2006
The Fiery Furnaces
Rehearsing My Choir •••
Those of us still surviving after the Fiery Furnaces’s last long-player (length being a somewhat paradoxical notion in their terms – an ‘EP’ released earlier this year raced in at a heady 41 minutes) are surely deserving of some sort of reward. Blueberry Boat was a challenging beast in no uncertain terms; an extended rock opera invoking the spirit of Tommy, but at times coming across like a tub of acid assaulting a crazed school orchestra. Yes indeed, we who have clung on have the scars to prove it.
Certainly, it’s no idle rhetoric to say that, from the bluesy pop sensation of their cult 2003 debut Gallowsbird’s Bark onwards, Illinois-based siblings Eleanor and Matt Friedburger have always slipped through the grasping fingers of definition. Almost aggressively progressive, but with an effortless cool that The Strokes could never buy, the duo have constantly challenged listeners to absorb their oeuvre in terms of entire albums, rather than songs. It’s an almost quixotic approach in the days of 79p iTunes singles, yet utterly admirable too.
A reward of sorts comes here. In third album Rehearsing My Choir (another, Bitter Tea, is due as early as January), we find a singular conceit truly becoming of the epithet ‘concept’. The album constitutes eleven interwoven tales of Chicago from the 1930s to the 1950s, as told through the eyes and (mostly spoken) vocals of Olga Sarantos, director of the Illinois state choir for over 65 years and, more specifically, the Friedburgers’s grandmother. So bring forth stories of wounded gangsters, dodgy back basement deals and the previously unimaginable hell that is trying to make candy when you’re due to meet your father in-law for the very first time.
On first impression, the Furnaces seem much more at home here. Their tendency to soften bluesy rock into a kind of psychedelic lullaby blossoms under the restraint of shorter songs and narrative focus. Odd instruments are still the main musical nuance and there’s certainly no sign of your everyday verse-chorus-verse, but there are at least splatterings of rhythm and release – ‘The Wayward Granddaughter’ pumps along with the kind of urgency that only a didgeridoo can muster, while ‘We Wrote Letters Every Day’ sticks in the head after only a few listens. It’s this lack of salient obscurity that makes Rehearsing My Choir a much more forgiving prospect. Sarantos’ octogenarian vocals are at once commanding and brusque, yet also disturbingly reminiscent of a female Simpsons’ Barney.
The combination of Eleanor’s matter-of-fact vocals and Matt’s seemingly bottomless box of crazy instruments elevates the tales into circus and vaudeville, and yet the melancholy still slots into place. “We can talk about it, but memories are best often sung” Sarantos tells, or rather scolds us. There’s no doubt the Fieries are fighting against musical form to save us from our own predictable expectations, and to a certain extent they have succeeded in this latest endeavour. Each song floods the imagination with a slice of tasty Americana that’s light years away from the likes of Beck and Cake. For the less adventurous, however, there remains a longing pang for the halcyon days of ultra-catchy tunes and memorable riffs.
originally published September 2nd, 2005
The Fiery Furnaces
Bitter Tea ••••
Their PR will tell you that The Fiery Furnaces are a “quirky indie-pop duo”, but quirky doesn’t really even begin to cover the bases. The opening track of this fifth album in three years gives the listener a very good idea of what is to come, i.e. anything and everything. So while Eleanor Friedberger’s vocals on opener In ‘My Little Thatched Hut’ conjure up a repetitive, incantatory chant reminiscent of the sinister fairytale aura of PJ Harvey’s ‘Down By The Water’, her brother Matt’s musical mélange tells a whole different story. Tribal drums vie with bursts of electronica, while gentle acoustic guitar is stomped all over by squealing feedback. It’s Underworld meets Natalie Merchant and the resulting scuffle is noisy, unpredictable and thrilling; both parties surface bruised and grinning.
The synth on ‘Darling Black-Hearted Boy’ grates like the theme tune of a ‘70s kids’ TV show, but somehow in a good way, while the title track that follows morphs and warps the previous melody into a frantic Space Invaders-esque sonic landscape of frenzied bleeps and glitches. This is an immediate and exciting record with unpredictability as its buzzword. Eleanor’s spoken word vocal delivery is often reminiscent of Patti Smith, particularly of her ‘Land’ trilogy, and the mystical overtones present on several songs also recall some of the punk poetess’s vintage tracks. Like Smith’s, songs like ‘Oh Sweet Woods’ mix everyday settings – parking lots, anonymous hallways – with a simmering threat of violence and an otherworldly, almost religious presence, invoked here by the presence of the nameless figures pursuing the poem’s central character and the backwards vocals they speak in. It’s an undisputed album highlight, a disturbing narrative set to a funky handclap beat.
Matt played everything on the record, apart from drums, and the music here is so dazzlingly varied that the lyrics occasionally get lost in the maelstrom. But it won’t be long before a line like “till the bulldozers turned us into whole-fruit fruit bar stix and china markers” (‘Borneo’) pulls you out of your musical reverie and boggles your brain even further. The band’s inventiveness has its downside, although it’s a small one – the jagged textures and sudden changes in time signature can become somewhat wearying and you may find yourself longing for a consistent melody, though you’ll struggle to find one across the record’s epic 75 minutes. However, to criticise a band for being too inventive is perhaps unfair; I know who I’d plump for given the choice between the Fieries and any number of the formulaic radio-friendly unit shifters that flood commercial radio stations.
The Fiery Furnaces are a highly prolific band who are still brimming (overflowing even) with ideas. And though they may bewilder and occasionally frustrate, they more than compensate for this with their sheer originality and experimental verve. Those searching for classic pop song structure will find it (nearly) on ‘Benton Harbour Blues’; those searching for pretty much anything else – ‘70s punk meets the ‘Grange Hill’ theme tune anyone? – will probably find it here too. See, everybody’s happy!
originally published June 5th, 2006
50 Foot Wave
Golden Ocean ••••
Fifty feet is pretty big if you think about it, and by thinking I mean Googling, and by Googling you’ll find it’s an oddly common anecdotal measure. Only the other week, for instance, a man was walking his dog Charlie along the Great Orme cliff in Cardiff when he heard a splash from the ocean 50 feet below. “Gosh, did you hear that, Charlie”, the man may have wondered before realising that yes, Charlie had indeed heard it because Charlie was it (www.dogsinthenews.com, we love you!). But while some might find such a chestnut of interest, we at Wears The Trousers are suckers for useless, distilled fact. Indeed, to this reporter, drilling through to the no-frills zone provides as much lascivious pleasure as a tabloid gossip column does to others. So, here we go again… 50 feet is equal to the world record for women’s triple jump, a third of the height of the leaning tower of Pisa, the distance from the chin of the Sphynx to the sand it sits on and the size of a certain Queenie, according to our Peej. Oh, and it’s also the height to which this remarkable band aspire.
50 Foot Wave are two-thirds Throwing Muses (singer/guitarist Kristin Hersh and bassist Bernard Georges) and one-third drummer Rob Ahlers, and this is their first full-length album following last year’s delightfully noisy eponymous EP. Put quite simply, the trio’s deliveries are tight and piping hot, and what the songs of Golden Ocean lack in the complexity shown by some of their peers, the band’s dynamic power and crisp, razor-sharp playing more than make up for it. But that’s not to say these tunes are simple, no sir. They’re sneaky and infectious, coming up from behind to smack you with a six-string and leave you begging for more.
Those more familiar with the Muses and with Hersh’s intermittently sedate solo work may have difficulties reconciling the snarling frontwoman of 50 Foot Wave with their beloved indie rock heroine and married mother of four. Golden Ocean is fast and nasty in comparison, drenched in the feedback and power chords that can turn an ugly grunge-rock duckling into a bloody great vicious black swan. In my view, rock has been missing the hissing for far too long (same goes for handclaps, but more about that some other time). Every song seems to have some kind of story behind it, but that layer is better absorbed once your body recovers from the initial reverberations.
Golden Ocean may just awaken the inner mosh monster in anyone who hears it. ‘Long Painting’ and ‘Dog Days’ in particular conjure the blinding strobe and pointy elbows of a lost youth. It’s that rare rock beast that succeeds in really making a statement and will amply reward any Daisy Chainsaw, Husker Dü, Pixies or L7 fans looking for something familiar but new.
originally published November 7th, 2005
The Secret Boys Club EP ••••
In case you haven’t discovered her yet, believe me when I say that Kat Flint is a rare and wonderful find; recently awarded the New Lyricist Award by Channel 4, her lyrics are beautifully crafted to speak of the dangers and joys of modern life. The Secret Boys Club EP is released through Rough Trade Shops and is doing very well indeed, deservedly topping the sales of even major artists such as Arctic Monkeys and Dirty Pretty Things.
Flint has the same vocal presence as every great female solo artist; perfect and simultaneously unique. Her songs, rightfully described as “a love letter to the children we were, the adults we become and the places we make for ourselves in the world”, are deliciously nostalgic, craving the innocence we had when we were but young ‘uns. That said, it’s not simply fanciful whimsy either. Flint is smart enough to realise that we may be able to look to the past, but we’re constantly shuffling forward. ‘Anticlimax’ neatly surmises the EP’s spirit with the admirably economical lyrics, “because all I need is time, to grow up, to grow forward and to grow wise”.
Flint has the same vocal presence as every great female solo artist; perfect and simultaneously unique. Her songs, rightfully described as “a love letter to the children we were, the adults we become and the places we make for ourselves in the world”, are deliciously nostalgic, craving the innocence we had when we were but young ‘uns. That said, it’s not simply fanciful whimsy either. Flint is smart enough to realise that we may be able to look to the past, but we’re constantly shuffling forward. ‘Anticlimax’ neatly surmises the EP’s spirit with the admirably economical lyrics, “because all I need is time, to grow up, to grow forward and to grow wise”.
Opener ‘Fearsome Crowd’, arguably Flint’s masterpiece thus far, is a paranoid tale of love, childhood and surviving both, while ‘Ohio’ tells of the more sinister side of modern life, recounting a tale of prostitution in junkyards. Elsewhere, ‘Headrush’ finds Flint pleading for the Apocalypse, while ‘The Blinking’ and ‘London Lullaby’ make for an engaging pair of bitterly honest ballads.
Magical is often an overused description in the musical world, but it truly applies to this particular lady. Ironically, despite the indie uprising of recent years, her category has been partially ignored and similar talents dropped by labels; if The Secret Boys Club EP is similarly ignored, it would be a criminal offence. Don’t let it happen.
originally published June 16th, 2006
A Wolf In Sheep’s Clothing ••••
With A Wolf In Sheep’s Clothing, opera school dropout turned freak-folk songstress extraordinaire Josephine Foster has created a wonderful album free of form and conformity. It is a rather unconventional and exceedingly brave take on 19th Century German Lieder, which many regard as one of the classic schools of songwriting. Composers such as Schumann, Brahms and Schubert created wonderful and delicate works using the lyrics of the literary geniuses of the romantic era including Goethe and Eichendorff. Naturally, these compositions have been performed and recorded many times, yet Foster has found a way to filter them through a unique and magical lens using a mix of modern and classical instruments and a sound that reminds one of church recordings of the early 1900s.
‘An Die Musik’, Schubert’s ode to the wonders of music, opens the seven-song suite. Sounding at first quiet and delicate with rhythmical strumming and Foster’s angelic vocals, it soon develops into an electric guitar workout in which the instruments are played lazily and messily, giving one of the world’s most famous classical works a rather outlandish sound. ‘Der König in Thule’, also a Schubert composition, embraces the evanescence of love and life. A rough sounding electric guitar in lead melody accompanied by a softer countermelody sounds at first strangely modern, but after several listens appears effortlessly cool, Foster’s versatile vocal adding to her straightforward, honest adaptation.
Everything on this album has been played to emotional perfection. Foster has clearly been indulged with complete artistic freedom. It’s refreshing to listen to delicate and moving songs that have not been pushed to alien-sounding technical precision by commercially driven producers. Wolf’s ‘Verschwiegene Liebe’, a longing ode to the freedom of thought, and Brahms’s ‘Die Schwestern’, a wonderful and sound-layered piece about the unextinguishable bond between sisters, both strongly benefit from Foster’s approach; free from constraint, heavenly and moving. The instrumentation and arrangements are almost playful, always responding to the call of Foster’s voice. Schumann’s ‘Wehmut’ and ‘Auf einer Burg’ and Schubert’s ‘Nähe des Geliebten’ have such a strong recording approach, it’s as if you were discovering original works by this dark, delicious enchantress.
The songs may date back over 100 years, but in Foster’s fair and capable hands the dust never settles on these dramatic and arresting interpretations. Startling stuff.
originally published June 12th, 2006
Lily Fraser ••••
How often do we see overused phrases like “a stunning debut from a truly original new talent”? And how often does it in fact refer to a rehashing, albeit an accomplished one, of whatever is the flavour of the moment? It’s rare enough to happen across something that really strikes you as being original, let alone taking you somewhere you’ve never quite been before, but this eponymous debut recording (it’s not an ‘album’ as such, more a collection of demos) by Lily Fraser may just be one of those happy exceptions.
Necessarily, then, it’s something of an arduous task to pick out suitable comparators for the purpose of describing the music. Broad and sweeping statements are precluded and more targeted comments may only reflect an instant or two. In one lyrical section, the phrasing recalls Fish’s unusual stream of consciousness scanning – but this is no Marillion album; in another, there’s a hint of Siouxsie Sioux – but this is no post-punk proto-goth; in another still, the carefully deployed theatrics and production resemble Freddy Mercury’s more whimsical moments – but this is certainly not A Night At The Opera. Enough befuddled reviewer excuses you say? Well then, if compare we must, the readiest benchmark that comes to mind is Kate Bush; not primarily because Fraser shares that auteur’s fragile but powerful upper register and falsetto, but more the inventiveness she infuses into her four-minute dysfunctional psycho-dramas. That said, the vocal performances throughout are uniformly stunning, swooping down from an angelic choir into a dark, vengeful siren in the space of just a few notes.
The unusual mix of instruments certainly helps to set the tone. Magical washes of harp and haunting cello create an ominous musical subtext, particularly on tracks like ‘Exposed’ where the two instruments are played in a manner that could only be referred to as riffing. Urgency is also found in opener ‘Shout It Out’ with its dance-based rhythms and Fraser’s insistent vocal setting out a manifesto for what is to come. It’s as if communicating her thoughts is a psychological imperative, not just a collection of ditties. ‘Man To Man’ presents an ironic hymn to the glorious sadness of low self-esteem and the futility of seeking real significance in meaningless sexual encounters, while ‘Beautiful Life’ restores the yang to the previous yin by showing that even in life’s shady undergrowth lies beauty and value. ‘About You’ introduces an air of melodrama, with a 1930s matinee idol introduction setting the tone for a scathing attack on the stunted emotions of certain men, while ‘Disagree’ and ‘It’s You’ echo the sombre danse macabre. The juxtaposition of moods seen with the warm, meditative ‘Which One Am I?’- a slice of bluesy, Gothic folk á la All About Eve – and ‘Old Devil Shine’, which spins a cautionary noir yarn, its timeless mood contrasting with unsettling gramophone-textured vocal sections, is undeniably affecting.
Impending tragedy and Victorian melodrama are very much the order of the day with Fraser, and the sheer depth and quality of the recording is little short of breathtaking. On the basis of these first though hardly tentative steps, it is clear that she and her unconventional blend of simultaneously engaging and disturbing sounds are close to creating a Kick Inside for the 21st Century.
originally published March 31st, 2006
Calling Over Time ••••
Wonder Wonder ••••
Edith Frost is living, wonderful and irrefutable proof that even cowgirls really do get the blues. Her knack with a minor key and simple but never underspun stories is, or should be, the envy of many. Why she is not revered in wider circles remains a mystery – one that may well be favourably and deservedly solved when her long-awaited fourth album It’s A Game is released later this year. As a generous precursor to this long anticipated arrival, Drag City has graciously reissued all three of her previous efforts to reacquaint us with their charge.
Signed to the label in 1994 after mailing in a copy of her demo alongside a fan letter to Drag City luminary Will Oldham (aka Bonnie ‘Prince’ Billy), Frost’s first release was a self-titled EP fashioned out of those very same four-tracks. It was followed in 1997 by the album Calling Over Time, an unprepossessing gem of a record showcasing a voice not much unlike a Patsy Cline for the modern disaffected. In the wake of a painful divorce, Texan-born Frost, then aged 31, relocated to Chicago from New York where she had been playing in a number of long-forgotten bands. Having befriended members of the Drag City stable and other Chicagoan icons of indie, including Gastr Del Sol, Rian Murphy, Eleventh Dream Day’s Rick Rizzo and The High Llamas’ Sean O’Hagan, the sessions for Calling Over Time certainly had no shortage of talent in the studio. That the results live and breathe as they do (albeit with a slight sense of spacey disconnectedness) is testament to the skilful pool of players. The lasting sense is one of reassuring melancholia; that is to say, her songs are rarely depressing – they’re a little too detached and distant for such extremities – but somehow comforting in their minimalistic mulling over of fate’s crueller twists. Standout tracks include the divorce bruiser ‘Temporary Loan’, the achingly pragmatic ‘Too Happy’, the heartbreaking ‘Wash Of Water’ and the weary defeatism of ‘Albany Blues’.
Frost returned the following year with the even hazier but more meaty Telescopic. Opening with the fuzz-strewn lo-fi indie pop of ‘Walk On The Fire’, a dark and mournfully menacing song that early Liz Phair would have chewed an arm off for, the album signalled a clear progression from its sparser predecessor. Production duties were fulfilled by the curiously monikered Adam & Eve, better known as Neil Hagerty and Jennifer Herrema of Drag City signings Royal Trux. Other contributions came from the ever-present Rian Murphy and Tsunami’s Amy Domingues. Lyrically, Telescopic mostly offers more of the same soul-searching of her previous releases, with one notable exception. ‘You Belong To No One’ is a cabaret revenge song, a sashaying fuck-you that runs rings around her lonesome schtick and never fails to raise a smile. Musically, ‘Bluish Bells’ is further confirmation of Frost’s ear for an ingratiating mind-trick. Amid pleasingly retro jangly keyboard effects and an inobtrusive fuzz guitar motif lies a melody that’s lifted from an old Willie Nelson song played backwards. The gorgeous ballad, ‘Tender Kiss’, is similarly impressive, mixing violin, flute and a subtle complex programmed drum pattern with some of her finest vocal harmonies.
As mirrored by the simplicity of its quietly dramatic and organic sleeve, Wonder Wonder signified a step away from Telescopic‘s thicker fog of indie aspirations. That’s not to say that Frost had returned to her humbler origins – Wonder Wonder is a much more ambitious and focused record than her previous work, once again featuring Rian Murphy on production and a dozen other players, not to mention Steve Albini as sound engineer. Many of the songs have the feel of a twisted orchestra, but the central stylistic touchstone is subdued and thoughtful country. Songs like the snappy title track and the immensely hummable ‘Cars & Parties’ (surely her great lost single) sit comfortably alongside trickier material. ‘The Fear’ is reminiscent of an eerie midnight walk through a haunted fairground, while ‘True’ is the very definition of desolate. She also gifts us what is surely a country standard in waiting with ‘Honey Please’. I wouldn’t be surprised to hear Emmylou Harris cover it at some point in the future. Closing with ‘You’re Decided’, a break up song laced with despair and regret, the listener is left with little doubt that Edith Frost’s ability to convey any emotion precisely and without lyrical excess is a wonder in itself.
Like Cissy, the feet-finding heroine from ‘Even Cowgirls Get The Blues’, Edith Frost has hitched a ride with many a kind friend, travelling with them through a myriad of musical landscapes. Ultimately though, she has been at the helm of her own evolution and these timely reissues should plenty whet the appetites of fans of Lisa Germano, Cat Power, Barbara Manning, and, of course, Will Oldham before the next instalment comes along.
originally published August 22nd, 2005
Subterfuge EP ••••
Self-styled Trauma Queen Hannah Fury has at last shuffled off her musical slumber. It’s been six long years since her unsettling debut album, The Thing That Feels, and three since her last EP. What has she been doing? Well, not losing one iota of her touch for a start; Subterfuge is the most sinister thing to come out of Texas since the Bush Administration, and all the better for it. Kicking off with a deliciously subversive, almost perverse take on The Turtles’ 1969 hit ‘You Showed Me’, Fury teasingly twists and plays with the melody and phrasing to great effect. And while it’s not as nakedly ambitious or successful as her gloriously gut-wrenching cover of ABBA’s ‘The Winner Takes It All’ (from 2001’s sublime Meathook EP), it sets up Subterfuge’s overarching ‘love me or else’ theme very nicely indeed.
The sheer intensity of ‘My Next Victim’ continues this motif, with hell hath no fury lyrics like “you don’t want none of my sugar / you just want that skanky snatch, no offense to her” delivered with an eerie and unwavering focus, its very matter-of-factness recalling Lisa Germano’s ‘…A Psychopath’ reverse engineered and seen through an opiate haze. The fabulously titled ‘Girls That Glitter Love The Dark’ is equally impressive with its From The Choirgirl Hotel-era Tori Amos flourishes and lush, hypnotic multi-tracked vocals. Illuminating couplets like “girls that glitter defile hope / we think that love is just tightening that sad little rope” languish in the mix with a general air of self-destructive obsession.
But perhaps the finest distillation of Fury’s particular brand of musical malaise is the multimedia track, ‘Carnival Justice (The Gloves Are Off) Part II’. Whether heard alone or in tandem with Chris Ohlson’s creepy video featuring a pair of custom-made marionettes (The Queen of Hearts and Anathema Rose to their friends), it’s an undeniably spine-tingling experience. So precisely layered are the distorted, whispery vocals, it’s almost as if she were singing in parseltongue. Needless to say, it’s the kind of song that the religious far right would love to play backwards in fear (hope?) of finding an ode to the devil. Which would be rather silly regardless, because they would then miss out on some of Fury’s best writing to date – “if you think you scored, your vision must be blurred / welcome one and all to the Theatre of the Absurd / mmmmmy heart is like the Moulin Rouge / all lit up in subterfuge” – with all its Jean Genet-conjuring dramaturgy.
Whether or not Fury intends a literal interpretation of ‘A Latch To Open’s closing sound effect of an emancipated bird fleeing its prison (and I’m inclined to believe she doesn’t), it’s tempting to see it as something symbolic. A brusque farewell to writer’s block, perhaps. For as wonderful as this enchanting EP undoubtedly is, it’s ostensibly a prelude to a far greater prize; that long-awaited full-length coming later this year. Amen!
originally published February 20th, 2006
Filed under: album, back issues, film & dvd, live, review | Tags: aaron alper, aimee mann, alan pedder, alanis morissette, alex ramon, allison moorer, amy millan, anja mccloskey, becky stark, bryn williams, cerys matthews, danny weddup, elisavet leondariti, erin mckeown, helen griffiths, ian addison, ian buchan, jane gillow, juana molina, karen matheson, kate and anna mcgarrigle, kirsty maccoll, kylie minogue, lene marlin, lisa komorowska, liza minnelli, loreena mckennitt, madonna, magenta, magneta lane, mary lee's corvette, mates of state, matson jones, múm, metric, morning after girls, morningwood, natalie merchant, nellie mckay, paul woodgate, róisín murphy, rebecca mosley, robbie de santos, russell barker, sarah mclachlan, screaming masterpiece, stephen collings, the magic numbers, tiffany daniels, trevor raggatt, walk the line
The following reviews were all published on our old website between May 2005 and December 2006.
From Croydon To Cuba: An Anthology ••••
It’s safe to say that listening to this 3CD retrospective compilation of Kirsty MacColl’s work was always going to be a bittersweet experience. Five years on from her premature death in a speedboat accident in Mexico at the age of 41, it seems she is still recognised more for her duet with The Pogues on the festive staple ‘Fairytale Of New York’ than for her own well-observed pop songs about chip shop romances and cowardly Lotharios. This fairly exhaustive collection sets about trying to rectify that sorry situation, serving up 65 songs worth of concrete proof to fans and non-fans alike that MacColl’s way with a tune was of a quality at least the equal of her more successful peers (from Eddi Reader and Alison Moyet to Morrissey and Johnny Marr via Van Morrison and Billy Bragg), all of whom have expressed an immense love and respect for her music and her inimitable spirit.
MacColl’s songs primarily dealt in the currency of romantic love, but always from the perspective of a woman under no illusions. As everything here is chronologically sequenced, From Croydon To Cuba goes some way to reconciling the wide-eyed girlish warbler on her 1979 debut single, ‘They Don’t Know’, with the older and wiser family woman of later years. And it doesn’t take long for her talent to shine. Her 1984 cover of Billy Bragg’s superb ‘A New England’ stands out for its bracing honesty and freshness, but it’s the reassuring tone of that single’s original B-side, ‘Patrick’, a lovely little ditty about a young Cork-born fella finding his feet in London, that tugs insistently at your heartstrings.
The country swagger of ‘Don’t Come The Cowboy With Me Sonny Jim!’ is executed in typical MacCollian fashion, mixing laugh out loud lyrical flair with a serious undertow, always ready to fall in love but never really expecting it to work. The second disc is notable for the single ‘Free World’ and her version of The Kinks’ ‘Days’, both lifted from her Steve Lillywhite-produced 1989 album, Kite. But it’s the captivatingly sad ‘Dear John’, co-written with Mark Nevin from Fairground Attraction, that really encapsulates MacColl’s unique gift for effortlessly balancing the personal with the universal without a trace of cloying sentimentality.
While Kirsty MacColl never commanded the kind of commercial respect that her music deserved, her fiercely loyal fans have always maintained that her songwriting never wavered in its splendidly literate qualities, flinching not at the Latin American rhythms that flavoured her later songs and critically acclaimed final album, Tropical Brainstorm. From Croydon To Cuba is a magnificent and towering tribute to one of the warmest, funniest and most skilful songwriters these isles have produced in the past twenty years. For those who prefer to digest an album in just one sitting, a slenderer single-disc collection, The Best Of Kirsty MacColl, is also available, but those with any more than a passing interest should indulge themselves with this.
originally published on September 5th, 2005
Confessions On A Dancefloor ••••
Watching our lady Madge recently has been a somewhat bipolar experience. For a woman we’ve all grown up thinking was the spunkiest, most confrontational star this side of Grace Jones, she can appear frighteningly fragile in interviews. The less-than-impartial video diary ‘I’m Going To Tell You A Secret’ would have you believe the opposite, but one is still left with the nagging feeling that for the first time in long time, Madonna wants our approval. It’s hard to use the word ‘reinvention’ here without feeling faintly nauseous. Every new Immac blade is a reinvention chez Ritchie. It’s a shame because Confessions On A Dancefloor marks her biggest change in direction since of Ray Of Light, and is much welcomed. The last two stocking-fillers were peppered with great tracks but leadened by duds and a lack of consistency. Here, we have 56 minutes of pure dance. Dance dance dance. Out go the ballads and in comes the lycra. A coherent album – my oh my!
As a dance album it is quite something. Presumptuous to the point of having a separate, mixey-mixey single-track version, Confessions… goes for broke on the stomper ticket. Mixing early Eighties disco, light electro (the “electroclash is passé” memo clearly hit her desk), outlandishly catchy riffs and choruses, the album triumphs on both tunes and production. ‘Get Together’ is smoother than Rocco’s bottom, ‘How High’ is the Madonna vocoder track that works, ‘Sorry’ is more infectious than Thailand’s pigeon mating season and ‘I Love New York’ boasts a riff so acutely rambunctious that Rachel Stevens has all but given up the game and gone home. And that’s before we even get to the much-publicised samples. Michael Jackson and Donna Summer both feature on records that don’t get them into trouble for the first time in years, while ABBA give only their second ever nod of consent for a sample (although the first time was for a Fugees B-side, so perhaps one just has to catch Björn at the right moment). What could have looked like creative kidnapping actually melds effortlessly into the mix, joining the danceathon with a cheeky smile. This is an album that seriously doesn’t take itself seriously, you see.
And then the comedown. Like all good Chinese meals and gin-fuelled one-night stands, one wakes up the next morning with a feeling of mild dissatisfaction. Questions start to creep in: the Madonna on Confessions… is nowhere near the London-based, tweed-wearing, pheasant-murdering, homely gal presented to us in repetitive media coverage. Does she still hop down clubs and prance around on dance machines? Really? Her voice is not at its strongest either, and her over-reliance on computer trickery gives the album an unfortunate homogenous slant. The paradox being that, while it sounds like almost anyone could be singing, no-one else has the nous to pull this album off in the first place.
The energy behind Confessions… brushes aside the doubts in a rapturous, arm-swinging boogie… at least for now. She may be trying too hard, but that still makes for a more satisfying listen than most. If this is Madonna’s last boogie, it would be churlish to sit on the sidelines.
originally published on December 5th, 2005
I’m Going To Tell You A Secret ••
“I have a cage / it’s called the stage / when I’m let out, I run about / and sing and dance and sweat and yell / I have so many tales to tell.”
Yep, Madonna has decided to share with us her latest poetic exploits. One can only speculate on why nobody stopped her. Perhaps it was yet another attempt to portray a sense of edginess and spontaneity, and once again that’s probably the biggest problem. This is her second behind-the-tour documentary so you might have thought she’d know by now that grainy film stock and showy lenses don’t really fool anyone into thinking that they’re getting real insight.
Covering her 2004 Reinvention tour, ‘I’m Going To Tell You A Secret’ is not actually a documentary in so far as Madonna’s editorial control ensures that there is nothing shown that falls outside of her patented spiritual mum persona. So instead of getting moments of her infamous stroppage we’re dished up yet more supposed ‘edginess’ rehearsed to within an inch of its life. Madonna talks about being caked in sweat! Madonna’s going to the loo! Madonna’s costume smells! This is the story of life on the road, edited and acutely contrived for your fanboy/girl watching pleasure. Well, you didn’t want warts, did you?
There is certainly a message amidst the mediocrity, though. You almost want to give the lass a break after the over-nauseous rabbiting on about her religious choices in the press. Surely she’s not going to try and convert us? Actually, yes, she is. Bring forth ‘teacher’ Eitan to share vague spiritual truths; observe how she reads the Kabbalah text Zohar in bed; and so on. You can prove anything with platitudes: “I always thought it was my job to wake people up,” she muses, “but it’s not enough to wake them up. You have to give them direction.” Blimey, stop the presses!
But it doesn’t stop there, oh no. See the montages of war-torn children from across the ages, set to thumping dance beats and overlaid with cod-religious pronouncements. By the time Michael Moore comes on screen to sing her praises, you just might want to throw your TV out the window. On the plus side, we’re offered pleasing insights into family life – see Daddy Ciccone in his vineyard and a neat pay-off to ‘In Bed With’s scenes of his disgust at her live show. The Ciccone children, too, are surprisingly unprecocious, frolicking around with only mild hints of primadonna antics to come, while Guy Ritchie comes across in a peculiar manner; impish and playful one moment, a walking stereotype the next. All Cockney men have lock-ins at their local so they can whip out a guitar and chant folk songs? You heard it here first people.
But what of the music, for some the preferred occupation of Madonna? We’re shown nattily-edited performances that prove the stage is where she still knows her stuff. ‘Like A Prayer’ is updated to an electro stomper, ‘Holiday’ rocks the house and ‘Oh Father’ ratchets up the teariness mechanically. Duff single ‘American Life’ comes off worst with a dance routine that’s more reminiscent of ‘Springtime For Hitler’ than anything remotely worthwhile. Think skimpily dressed marines and fauxplosions with a backdrop of real war footage. Even so, why anyone would want to listen to these performances without the aid of visuals is a cause for concern; the bonus CD may be a smart commercial move but, artistically, it’s an absolute dud.
Oh well, it could be worse – it could be Geri Halliwell. Madonna is no world thinker, but her explorations into personal enlightenment are much less crass than you might imagine. She does at least have the sense to show us the universal side of the message, keeping the brush strokes nice and broad. This is not a documentary. It’s a two-hour long coffee table book. About the only true insight one can newly glean is that she’s clearly witnessed enough nightclubs at closing time playing ‘Come On Eileen’ to know how to shift the punters – her attempt to finish with John Lennon’s ‘Imagine’ had me reaching for the stop button with alacrity.
originally published on June 24th, 2006
Home is a new concept album by well-regarded Welsh progressive rock band, Magenta…but wait, don’t stop reading there. Fair enough, prog rock as a genre is hard to mention without some serious sniggering at the back of the classroom. However, if the ’70s excesses of bands like Yes and Emerson, Lake & Palmer got prog labelled as music by rock dinosaurs then modern prog, as delivered by the likes of Magenta and Spock’s Beard (…yes, I know, just let it slide) is proof of evolution. Prog in 2006 may still be a well-defined species, but its major proponents thankfully tend to be more velociraptor than brontosaurus.
Lecture over, let’s get down to the music. Home follows the emotional journey of a woman leaving 1970s Liverpool to ‘find herself’ in the States, through to the point where she finally realises that maybe home really is where the heart is. The trick with projects like this is to be disciplined when it comes to self-editing, and the album certainly benefits from condensing its ideas onto a single disc – avoiding flabbiness but still allowing room for flashes of virtuosity. It’s a hurdle at which others have tumbled by thinly spreading a single album’s worth of material across two discs (for example, Spock’s Beard’s 2002 album Snow). Home, on the other hand works well as both a concept album and a simple collection of songs.
Magenta, as a band, is the brainchild of multi-instrumentalist Rob Reed who, with his brother Steve, pens the songs. Central to their success, however, are the excellent vocals of Christina Booth. Her rich, pure voice forms the emotional core that carries the listener through our heroine’s adventures. Of course, it helps that Home is chock full of strong songs with great melodies and lean but complex structures. Where the obligatory prog virtuosity is allocated space, it’s admirably delivered with restraint. In keeping with the story’s era, references to classic prog rock abound – a dash of Steve Howe guitar here, a Genesis keyboard sound there, elsewhere some Oldfield, Floyd or Supertramp textures. But rather than suggesting a lack or original thought or derivative tendencies, the songs evoke a strong mood, keeping within prog’s strict, accepted frameworks.
Overall, Home is a worthy album and it’s no surprise that Magenta have been consistently honoured in the Classic Rock Society’s annual awards, ambassadors as they are for a musical genre that’s shamefully overlooked in the UK. So if you’re brave enough to sample your rock within a sweeping, symphonic landscape and set your preconceptions aside, this album is well worth seeking out. Those of a more progtastic bent will relish the special edition’s bonus disc, which features the more unashamedly progressive ‘New York Suite’ following our heroine’s adventures in the Big Apple.
originally published September 20th, 2006
The Magic Numbers
The Magic Numbers •••½
De La Soul once opined that “Three is the magic number”, but London-based quartet The Magic Numbers have discovered a different equation. While the folklore origins of many bands may be a shared pint in the art college bar, or an answered ad in the music press, the formation of The Magic Numbers was a homegrown affair. Trinidad-born siblings Romeo and Michele Stodart spent their formative years in New York City before their family relocated to London, bringing with them the sunshine of America’s East Coast. There, they quickly made friends with new neighbours Angela and Sean Gannon, and the four gelled over their collective love of music.
First puncturing the public consciousness when they guested on last year’s Chemical Brothers album Push The Button, The Magic Numbers sold out the infamous Kentish Town Forum by word-of-mouth alone. A perfect antidote to the introspective U2-isms of Coldplay, the band truly shone at a succession of UK festivals, radiating their infectious guitar-pop across waves of would-be converts. Their festival-stealing sets have certainly paid off, as initial sales of their eponymous debut album have shifted over 100,000 units to date and bagged them a Mercury Music Prize nomination. Live favourite ‘Forever Lost’ loses none of its appeal on record with it’s a cappella break inducing much hand-clapping and foot-tapping. Follow-up single ‘Love Me Like You’ is a joyful ride of a song, fuelled by jangly guitars, melodic harmonies and a soulful pulse of a bass line that justifies their recent support slot for resurrected pop-genius, Brian Wilson.
Saying that The Magic Numbers is a ‘pleasant’ listen does not mean that the band is walking firmly down the middle of the road. None of their voices are stretched by unnecessary affectations and the female vocals complement the delicately pitched lead of hirsute frontman, Romeo. Lyrically, the theme of lost or failed love runs through the album, such as in the less-than-obliquely titled ‘Love’s A Game’ where Romeo sings, “love is just a game/ broken all the same/and I will get over you”, which has already been mooted by Noel Gallagher as a “motown classic”. Despite the clichés and couplets, the band are unashamedly pop-wise and lines that would otherwise sound overwrought are treated here with the gentlest of hands, crafted with a transparent sincerity. The album’s emotional heart is exposed on ‘I See You, You See Me’ which brings Angela out from the background tapestry and it is a shame that more tracks do not exploit her fragile vocals that recall US songstress Emmylou Harris.
With their long hair and airtight harmonies, early comparisons with The Mamas and The Papas were inevitable but there are plenty more influences here, from The Lovin’ Spoonful to Nick Drake; however, co-producer Romeo ensures that the record maintains a contemporary edge, rather than lapsing into a cynical exercise in retrospection. If the reference points are obvious, then so is the appeal of this album, and when you get audio thrills like this, it’s as easy as two plus two.
originally published on September 4th, 2005
Dancing With Daggers ••½
Formed in 2003, Magneta Lane are a Canadian power-pop trio featuring French, Lexi and Nadia in the classic combination of bass, drums and vocals/guitar, respectively. Having finally issued their debut EP, The Constant Lover, this side of the pond last December, there couldn’t be a better time to capitalise on the Canadian-friendly musical climate. This debut full-length apparently takes its inspiration from the angel and devil that sit astride each of our shoulders; thus, sinful rock and saintly melodies co-exist for the delectation of those enjoying the long dark teatime of their souls.
Unfortunately, any hopes of something special are fairly swiftly dashed. Don’t get me wrong; it’s a decent album in itself, just not one that lives up to its twin muses. A more accurate description would be Blondie meets The Strokes. There’s Debbie Harry’s archness and glacial cool, her band’s effortless pop tunes and style. From Julian Casablancas and co., the girls have duly noted how to preserve the rougher edges of their sound to give the music a bit of grit and spike. However, like recent albums from both these bands, the main problem here is a sorry lack of variety. If an album has a constant feel, it also needs to be constantly brilliant. Dancing With Daggers isn’t; it’s good, but your attention may well waver after just five songs, as if you’ve heard all you needed to hear.
It doesn’t help that this kind of thing has been done before, and rather better at that, by bands like The Duke Spirit; Nadia may have a mighty fine voice but she’s no Leila Moss. Dancing With Daggers would have been more digestible were it split down the middle and released as two EPs, tempting the palate not dulling it with overkill of a single ingredient. If Magneta Lane learn to hide their flaws much more effectively, the next course might go down a treat.
originally published on June 24th, 2006
Ari Alexander Ergis Magnússon
Screaming Masterpiece •••
Surely the most ambitious film title of the year, ‘Screaming Masterpiece’ is a flag-waving celebration of the contemporary Icelandic music scene, and an attempt to answer its own self-gratifying, singular question – why have so many of Iceland’s modest population (roughly 600,000) achieved international recognition as musicians whilst maintaining a keen sense of national identity? What is it about this hostile environment that inspires such transgressive musical continents, these tectonic architectures finding homes in discerning collections worldwide?
Armed with extensive concert footage, archives, pop promos and interviews, director Ari Alexander Ergis Magnússon maintains a passive presence as he presents us with a quick-fire collection of artists, from native folk singers and instrumentalists like Slow Blow, via rappers Quarashi, to successful sonic pioneers like Múm and Sigur Rós. However, the film’s modest box office potential lies with the singer and actress Björk, who despite global success, has continued to source inspiration from her mother country, sampling in her own words, Iceland’s “emotional landscape”.
From the opening credits, awash with glacial hues, the film celebrates the marriage between traditional and modern music, with a folk song segueing into a cacophony of riotous punk. Whilst many of the smaller (and unpronounceable) bands have yet to be heard outside the barren, blackened shores of their homeland, the film allows them equal space alongside the more exportable talents, and Magnússon seems keen to indulge the depths of obscurity, including pagan folk singers and xylophones made of flint.
For the uninitiated, any sense of chronology is belatedly provided halfway through the film, perhaps an attempt to reflect the free-flowing nature of its subject. Drawing upon 23-year old footage from Fridrik Thór Fridriksson’s ‘Rock In Reykjavik (Rokk í Reykjavik)’, which features a teenage Björk in punk collective Tappi Tíkarass, Magnússon traces how the end of Iceland’s relatively recent colonialism spurred a wave of creative nationalism, with Björk explaining, “When my generation came along we started to ask ourselves what it meant to be Icelandic and how to be proud of it instead of feeling guilty all the time.”
Set adrift both culturally and geographically from mainland Europe, there is reason enough behind the sense of communal isolation that invites comparison with fertile musical centres like Manchester or Detroit. However, those musical cities thrived in spite of adversity, where it is evident here that the Icelandic government, heads of religion and affluent economy all actively foster artistic expression and adolescent ambition, including a teenage punk band Nilfisk, who feature here opening for US rockers Foo Fighters after a chance meeting.
While the layering of scenic snowdrifts and cavernous vistas may leave you feeling a little cold, the concert performances provide plenty of thrills and chills, and one of the film’s greatest assets is the live sound mix, literally booming from the Dolby speakers. From the ethereal wailing of Sigur Rós to Björk, whose powerful vocals seem projected by some innate force, all the artists share a raw energy and desire to embrace new technologies and styles while remaining true to their folk heritage, which perhaps best defines the Icelandic ‘sound’.
In the end, despite an admirable sense of almost bohemian idealism, ‘Screaming Masterpiece’ feels like something of an iceberg, its hidden depths never quite surfacing. Even at a brief 87 minutes, the continuous stream of artists, bands and collectives is an exhausting affair and the film ultimately falls short in fully addressing its proposition. One suspects that the more interesting points about cultural colonialism, environment, religion and heritage are lost amid the attention-deficit editing.
Even if the film does feel like Michael Winterbottom’s own flag-waving ‘9 Songs’ without the sex, for those who already have an interest in the bands on display here, this is a great chance to catch them sounding never better, and perhaps discover some new music to add to your iPod.
originally published on January 21st, 2006
Walk The Line ••••
It doesn’t take a genius to figure out that Johnny Cash falls rather a long way outside the Wears The Trousers remit, but, at the risk of reviving a terrible cliché, behind every good man… well, you get the idea. So while we await the transformation of Mary J Blige as Nina Simone, we’ve got front row seats to director James Mangold’s affectionate Cash biopic, ‘Walk The Line’.
Like last year’s award-grabbing ‘Ray’, the film economically sketches Cash’s tragic Arkansas childhood and his sad estrangement from a father who blamed him for the death of his elder sibling in a rather grisly sawmill accident. After first picking up a guitar during a brief stint in the forces, the young Cash (played by Joaquin Phoenix) returns home to marry his sweetheart Vivian (Ginnifer Goodwin), but soon discovers that doorto-door sales is not exactly his forte. Faced with rent and ever-mounting bills, Cash swiftly finds himself at the doorstep of Sam Phillips’s Sun Studios in Memphis. Driven by his distinctive freight-train chords, Cash’s tales of hard luck and losers are soon blazing a trail up the charts. At the epicentre of rock ‘n’ roll’s adolescence, he’s caught up in a new world of temptation, touring alongside the young Elvis (Tyler Hilton), Jerry Lee Lewis (Waylon Malloy Payne) and Roy Orbison (Jonathan Rice), and soon develops a dependency on amphetamines years before they would become rock cliché.
And this is where we come in, for Cash’s other primary problem is his attraction to feisty songstress June Carter (Reese Witherspoon), and from the moment she gets her dress caught in his guitar strap, there’s an immediate connection. Carter’s apple pie affability proves to be the perfect foil to Cash’s introspective darkness, but despite one night of unrestrained passion, their guiding Christian background forbids their adulterous union. Victims of their circumstance, Cash penned the eponymous ‘Walk The Line’ as an assertion of marital fidelity, while Carter composed the equally classic ‘Ring Of Fire’ to express the pain of her forbidden love.
Certainly it’s their abiding attraction that provides the film’s true heart, and both Phoenix and Witherspoon were nominated for top Oscar honours in recognition of these career-defining performances. The film is no slouch either when it comes to the music, and the success of any musical biopic surely rests largely on the songs themselves. Unlike Jamie Foxx’s Ray or Val Kilmer’s Jim Morrison, who were rife with affectations, Phoenix’s portrayal of Cash’s restrained primal energy transcends a ‘Stars In Their Eyes’-type impersonation with a performance that appears naturally spontaneous rather than studied. Hunching his shoulders and aiming his guitar like a machine gun across the audience, Phoenix’s pitch-perfect live vocals, specifically in the Folsom Prison sequences, are testament to the work of music producer T Bone Burnett, whose score nicely compliments Cash’s musical oeuvre.
Witherspoon is just as convincing, with her sweet, affecting trill brimming with the confidence needed to play the character of June, whose life on the stage started as a child with The Carter Family. The inspired casting of established recording artists in supporting roles also lends a refreshing authenticity to the rich musical tapestry. In her first feature film, rock and country artist Shelby Lynne plays Carrie, the matriarch of the Cash family, whose unconditional love for her son provides the emotional balance to her husband’s toughness. A long-time admirer of Cash’s music, Lynne wrote the song ‘Johnny Met June’ on the day that he died in 2003, and while she may have been cast for her voice here, her acting skills match those around her.
More than just another exercise in Hollywood myth making, ‘Walk The Line’ actually began as a collaborative effort with the original Man In Black himself until his death. Based on autobiographies and extensive interviews, Mangold’s love for his subject is evident throughout but from the telling title in, the film plays it straight, and every significant moment in Cash’s biography cues another famous composition. For all of Cash’s ragged edges, the chronological narrative arc is too neat and could have benefited from a more oblique treatment of rock star mythology, like Gus Van Sant’s angular approach to Kurt Cobain’s untimely demise in ‘Last Days’. However, this is a minor distraction. The film starts, and ends, in 1968 with Cash’s infamous Folsom Prison concert that has become part of rock ‘n’ roll folklore. As a man who had cultivated the image of the incarcerated rebel, Cash may have lived on the right side of the prison walls, but after years of emotional imprisonment to drugs and past demons, this storming finale also marks the end of his own personal redemption. More than just a cinematic eulogy, Cash’s musical legacy is cherished by all involved in this film, and although it never fully jumps the hurdles of rock biopic cliché, the Man In Black’s enduring everyman appeal on record positively crackles on screen.
originally published on February 6th, 2006
The Forgotten Arm ••••
Somewhat fittingly for an artist who famously soundtracked a movie in reverse – Paul Thomas Anderson’s multi Oscar-nominated ‘Magnolia’ was based on her songs, not the other way around – Aimee Mann’s latest endeavour is a vibrant and fully realised sonic novel in a similar vein to Tori Amos’ nomadic narrative Scarlet’s Walk. While the latter was an intimate love/hate letter to a post-9/11 America, The Forgotten Arm has a far narrower focus, chronicling as it does the oscillatory relationship of Caroline (a seemingly aimless victim of circumstance) and John (a down-and-out boxer and Vietnam war veteran). Both journeys, however, happen by the US state of Virginia.
Indeed, Mann’s story begins there, on the midway of the VA State Fair, where Caroline in her reminiscence is working as an attendant. The two ignite a spark in one another and head for the border in an old Cadillac to escape the humdrum and hassle of small-town life; however, all is not well. John’s experiences have left him a hard-drinking, drug-addicted gambler whose luck is cooling faster than either can fathom. As the Ronseal-style title suggests, ‘Goodbye Caroline’ sees a parting of the ways. Having lost every asset but the car, John heads north to San Rafael to get himself clean and earn some quick money. Inevitably, nothing’s ever so simple and ‘Going Through The Motions’ is a peek into the mind of Caroline as she realises the effort is a certainty to fail.
John is by far the better-sketched character and his sad and sorry situation is skilfully drawn out over a four-song suite beginning with the foggy ‘I Can’t Get My Head Around It’ and culminates in the grimy hotel room of ‘Little Bombs’ in which he realises that he may never recover. The highlight of the album, however, comes with Caroline’s dejected throwing in of the towel, a handsomely understated ballad fantastically titled ‘That’s How I Knew This Story Would Break My Heart’. In what is supposed to be their final meeting, the also rather self-explanatory ‘I Can’t Help You Anymore’ kicks off the regret in a rather unremarkable fashion, but the lovely piano-led ‘I Was Thinking I Could Clean Up For Christmas’ offers one last hope of salvation. Lyrically, it’s simply gold standard Aimee Mann – “I was thinking I could clean up for Christmas and then, baby, I’m done, one less fucker trying to get in the business of the prodigal son” – and the melody here is one of the album’s more memorable moments.
After all, therein lies one of the pitfalls of the concept album as a genre. When the narrative takes such precedence, the music can often fall by the wayside as a secondary concern. Not so with The Forgotten Arm. In fact, it boasts some of the most muscular music of Mann’s solo career to date. Recorded almost entirely live by producer Joe Henry, it’s a marvel that the mix is so refreshingly roomy. By adopting heavy doses of stereo separation, the production breathes with a rare and cinematic verve. Guitarists Jeff Trott and Julian Coryell turn in a few solos that never feel overcooked, and together with drummers Victor Indrizzo and Jay Bellarose and bassist Paul Bryan, they consistently add a 1970s flavour without overwhelming the broth.
There are some who will think this is Mann by numbers – more disaffected, drugged-out also-rans holding onto their last scraps of dignity – but this is a delicately nuanced side to the singer that’s both new and impressive. She has always excelled at the role of coroner, picking over the carcasses of long-dead love affairs, extracting the evidence and leaving her lyric sheets dangling from their toes. Within the central conceit of the concept, Mann has allowed herself the luxury of a more detailed analysis, and while this at first may render some of the songs seemingly superfluous (and a couple are a little samey), repeated listens peel back ever more layers. Such lack of immediacy was also evident on her previous release, Lost In Space, though this also rewarded the persistent listener with greater depth than the surface sheen suggested.
In boxing, the ‘forgotten arm’ refers to a decoy sparring manoeuvre in which one arm is deliberately underused until the sudden strike for a KO. In something of a departure for Mann, it is hope that delivers the sucker punch, the final blow of the twelfth round. In a perhaps unexpected reprieve, Mann gifts her creations a hard-won bittersweet compassion in which they realise that in a world where so many dumb things are said in haste and countless things go maddeningly unuttered, sometimes, just sometimes, a simple “you’re beautiful” can tear down the fortresses of doubt and permit that longed-for fresh start.
originally published on June 27th, 2005
Live At St. Ann’s Warehouse •••
As a self-confessed “classic, nitpicky Virgo”, it’s hard to imagine Aimee Mann ever sitting down to watch this resolutely no frills live document of last summer’s three-night residency at Brooklyn’s St. Ann’s Warehouse. Not that it’s in any way bad, it’s just that she seemed so acutely disengaged from the experience the first time, not necessarily vocally (although her normally warm and reedy vocals are a little thin), but in an emotional sense.
Maybe it’s just my Britishness showing, but witnessing Mann’s pained and stilted stage banter made even my own cheeks flush. With her delivery so wry, it’s difficult to distinguish between deadpan and robotic. She’s hilarious when she claims she could “take Dylan” in a boxing match and at other times inadvertently, but her many “I fucking love you guys” seem as genuine as, say, a Florida election. But perhaps I’m being unkind. After all, Mann is not known for her enjoyment of touring, and although her self-effacing humour doesn’t quite translate from the interview setting to the live environment, she thaws a little towards the end.
One of the most consistently essential artists of the last decade or so, Mann could never be accused of style over substance and this 16-track DVD is a testament to her talent, spanning all of her full-lengths plus the career revitalising soundtrack to Paul Thomas Anderson’s 1999 film ‘Magnolia’. Not only that, but Mann treats us to a preview of two songs from The Forgotten Arm. Or at least it would have been a preview if we in the UK hadn’t had to wait six months from the US release date for the set to officially reach our shores. Inexplicably released a week after The Forgotten Arm, Mann thus seems even more out of the loop when referring to the album under its working title, ‘King Of The Jailhouse’.
So what of the music? There’s an air of perfunctoriness surrounding the whole affair, with little or no attempt to distinguish the songs from their studio counterparts. That said, both Mann and her fellow guitarist Julian Coryell pull off some fantastic musicianship on the excellent ‘Pavlov’s Bell’, ‘Long Shot’ and ‘Deathly’. Best of all though is ‘Wise Up’ from the ‘Magnolia’ soundtrack, representing as it does the mournful pivotal moment of the film.
Having heard The Forgotten Arm, it’s safe to say that the live takes of ‘Going Through The Motions’ and ‘King Of The Jailhouse’ add little of merit to the studio versions, although it’s nice to see Aimee at the piano on the latter. As is customary for these releases, four of the songs on the DVD are excised from the accompanying CD, although in a break with the norm, the CD features a bonus but rather inessential performance of ‘That’s Just What You Are’ not on the DVD.
Although Aimee and the band have a decent enough stab at the backstage interviews, anyone looking for real insight into the band dynamic will most likely be disappointed. All in all, this is pretty standard fare from a stellar artist. Still, it’s a pity we had to wait so long for it.
originally published on May 25th, 2005
Lost In A Moment •••
OK, just for one moment suppose that at just 17 years old you had the fastest selling single in Norwegian music history and then at 22, two best-selling platinum albums under your belt. What the hell would you do next? Well, if you were Lene Marlin, you’d hide yourself away and secretly make an album with top Norwegian production trio StarGate, who have had hits with Mary J Blige, Mariah Carey, Texas, Cher and Brandy, among others. What started out as a personal experiment for the now 24-year old quickly morphed into a full album; even her record company were not expecting an new opus until she turned up with the finished article.
So, a short history lesson for those unfamiliar with Lene. Back in the mists of 1997, her debut album Playing My Game hit big with a clutch of smash hit singles, going on to sell 1.8 million copies across Europe. Faced with such overwhelming success at a young age, Marlin walked away from the music industry and it was another five years before she felt ready enough to try again. Her second album Another Day was released in 2003, bringing more success in her native land. However, the album received little fanfare in the UK upon its release and sank without a trace. So what of Ms. Marlin in 2005? Gone are the silly hats and hoodies from her previous videos and in their place comes a gorgeous, mature new look and a grown-up collection of eleven new songs that she describes as “different moods and flavours, a real personal effort and the best record I have ever made.”
Perhaps she is listening to a different album. Lost In A Moment is no genre-busting feast of musical styles. Like its predecessor, Another Day, it is a pleasant enough collection with some nice touches, but fails to really engage. On the rockier-than-usual opener, ‘My Lucky Day’, Marlin somehow manages to seem even more disinterested than Avril Lavigne – not a good place to start. Fortunately, things improve quickly; the quietly beautiful ‘All I Can Say’ is reminiscent of her earlier work, and first single ‘How Would It Be’ is one of the more upbeat numbers. It’s a nice jaunty pop song, catchy enough to be sung along to after a few listens and is certainly the kind of song to be found playing over the credits in Generic Teen Girl Movie 2.
As for the rest? Well, despite the odd highlight (‘Never To Know’, ‘Eyes Closed’), the songs tend to wash right over the listener to the extent that some may even go unnoticed (‘When You Were Around’). It is a shame because Marlin is in possession of a beautiful voice and the kind of image that should be marketable enough to sell records by the truckload in the UK as well as Norway. It may be a little soon to say whether Lene Marlin peaked too early in her career with the dizzying pop heights of ‘Unforgivable Sinner’ and ‘Sitting Down Here’, but certainly next time it will take more than this competent but rather samey collection of songs to blow her public away.
originally published on August 26th, 2005
Mary Lee’s Corvette
Love, Loss & Lunacy ••••
Album number four finds former book editor Mary Lee Kortes serving up yet another accomplished set of resolutely uplifting pop songs with a retro feel and a country tinge. It may seem odd to ascribe the word uplifting to a song suite tackling such issues as incest (‘Verla’), the perverse pleasure of Schadenfreude (‘I’m Saving Grace’) and the acceptance of directionless wandering (‘Lucky Me’), but the attitude with which these subjects are approached really does raise the spirits. Each of the dozen songs is infused with signature ’60s pop jangle, smooth Hammond sounds and country rock harmonies that provide a sonic consistency whilst leaving plenty of scope for ringing the changes.
Keen-eared listeners will notice that several songs appear to feature small quotations from classic hits or artists, not insofar as to lead to a string of plagiarism lawsuits, but enough to evoke a mood from the outset. ‘All That Glitters’ kicks things off with a sunny West Coast vibe with chiming guitars and Farfisa organ tootling in the background. ‘Learn From What I Dream’ begins as an etude on The Beatles’ ‘Things We Said Today’ and shares the Fab Four’s search for enlightenment. ‘Wasting The Sun’ quotes even more directly, with an ‘All Right Now’-style opening riff that mutates into something that could easily have been written either by or for Sheryl Crow. Indeed, the vocal similarity here is enough to merit a mention.
Other tracks ploughing this particular furrow include ‘Nothing Left To Say’, ‘Thunderstruck’ and ‘Falling Again’, adding in a sprinkle of Mary Chapin Carpenter, and, in the case of the latter, some more Tom Petty-style grit. ‘Verla’ chooses the driving rhythm of songs like Petty’s ‘Refugees’ as a template to address the question of helping a victim of incest to escape a cycle of abuse. Not an obvious subject matter for a pop song, but the lyrics are sensitively tailored while the instrumentation injects a sense of passion and urgency. ‘Lucky Me’ returns to the Crow template but views it through the filter of Eric Clapton’s 461 Ocean Boulevard, the guitar solos drawing deeply from both sources while the lyrics ponder the pros and cons of being set adrift and left to your own devices.
While Kortes’s performance is not so distinctive as to be unmistakable, she certainly delivers an assured, attractive and pleasing sound, and that, after all, is really what’s required. ‘I’m Saving Grace’, however, sees a transformation in her style as she channels Chrissie Hynde for a Pretenders-esque number. Suffice to say, if Kortes ever turns up on ‘Celebrity Stars In Their Eyes’ there are no prizes for guessing who she’ll be. Rather more mechanical, however, is ‘Blood Of Stones’, its stilted rhythms failing to convince and providing the low point of an otherwise excellent album. Conversely, ‘Where Did I Go Wrong, Elton John?’ is a mini masterpiece with Kortes playing the role of a failed songwriter asking the eponymous idol how come their songs have never been hits. So far, so humdrum, but the magic twist is that the lyrics are constructed almost entirely from fragments of Taupin/John song titles and words, while the inspired soundtrack hits you like a big pizza pie with its cod-Italian mandolins. Apparently Sir Elt himself loves it.
Rounding things off in a gentler mood, ‘Every Song Is Different’ is a thought-provoking gem that leaves the listener wondering whether Kortes has been winking at us all along with her musical magpie tendencies… “every song is different but the singer is the same”.
originally published on March 25th, 2006
Since founding Capercaillie with (her now husband) Donald Shaw at the dawn of the 1980s, Karen Matheson has become one of the foundational voices of modern Scottish folk. Among her many accolades, US magazine Billboard have hailed her as “the finest Gaelic singer alive today” and Sean Connery swears she has “a throat surely touched by the hand of God”. And if Mr. James Bond says so, who are Wears The Trousers to argue?
With 17 Capercaillie albums already to her credit, 2005 saw Matheson take time out to record her third solo album, Downriver, a mostly acoustic set of songs both ancient and modern that will render the listener if not shaken, then deeply stirred. Recorded in the idyllic setting of Crear Studios in Kilberry overlooking the breathtaking Sound of Jura, Downriver certainly communicates a deep connection with the Scottish land and culture, with its organic feel and open, airy production eschewing the more electric folk-funk sound of Capercaillie. Some tracks feature the distinctive sounds of the bodhran and bouzouki, courtesy of Irish folk rock grandee Donal Lunny, producer of Capercaillie’s breakthrough albums Secret People and Delirium, whose return to the fold is a welcome one. The Scottish Ensemble provide exquisitely subtle chamber strings, whilst former Deacon Blue (and now fellow Capercaillie) member Ewen Vernal contributes double bass.
All bar two of the tracks are sung in Scots Gaelic, a beautiful and lyrical language that adeptly evokes the ethereal and mystic, tangibly linking the music to the ancient. The listener is always aware that this is a language with an emotional meaning extending beyond the choice of notes and rhythmic devices. Even in the ‘mouth music’ songs with their frenetic vocal passages, there is never the feeling of randomness that so often affects jazz scat vocals. The album’s most atypical, non-Capercaillie track is also the first; ‘Chi Mi Bhuam’ is a soothing introduction, with Donald Shaw’s sparse and jazzy piano underpinning Matheson’s gorgeous cut-glass vocal and gentle, uplifting strings. Capercaillie aficionados will be on more familiar ground thereafter; folk dances and gentle ballads mingle with the aforementioned mouth music and ‘waulking songs’, whose complex rhythmic patterns are derived from the sounds of the ancient weavers who finished the process by pounding their material against a wooden board.
The two songs sung in English are modern compositions, but Matheson blends them well with the more traditional fare. ‘Singing In The Dark’ is a writer’s lament for all those songs that never find an audience, while ‘I Will Not Wear The Willow’ boasts an interesting twist on the murder ballad. Written from a woman’s perspective, the lyrics slowly reveal why the singer will not mourn with the other village women for her seemingly absconded lover, until the final chilling realisation that she knows where she buried the body. ‘Crucan Na Bpaiste’, written by Irish author Brendan Graham for his 2005 novel ‘The Brightest Day, The Darkest Night’, draws proceedings to a sombre close with Michael McGoldrick’s uilleann pipes joining the lament with Matheson’s heartbreaking voice. And then, inevitably, we’re returned to our own less luminous world, grateful for the time that’s gone by.
originally published on January 22nd, 2006
Mates Of State
Bring It Back ••••
Kori Gardner and Jason Hammel, aka Mates Of State, have been performing together for nine long years now and happily hitched for the last five. They don’t play guitars, preferring instead to use organs and drums to create their uplifting, near-utopian but dark-edged pop. But where other bands might struggle to make a full sound with such a basic set-up, Mates Of State make use of complicated, and often chaotic layering of vocals and different organ parts to give the impression of a much larger outfit, all the while retaining the intimacy of a duo and the chemistry of lovers.
Bring It Back is their fourth studio album and one that is practically bursting at the seams with versatile and resourceful compositions. The DIY-style vocals sound not too dissimilar to an endearing blend of The New Pornographers and the twee country tinge of Tilly & The Wall. The keyboards lend a slight 1970s sound in certain places, notably in ‘Beautiful Dreamer’s chorus, which captures the idealism of the post-’68 generation in its soaring Hammond lines, while other songs are more conventionally piano-led and simpler in terms of arrangement.
As a whole, Bring It Back is almost flawless fun with few blemishes. Whilst ‘Fraud In The ‘80s’ wears its indie-pop credentials proudly on its sleeve, it makes for a disappointing lead single that tries a little too hard to be sassy and succeeds only in carrying all the menace of Republica, which can never be a good thing. Never mind, prepare to go weak at the knees for the standout track ‘Like U Crazy’ instead. Here, Gardner’s topline vocals positively seethe with on-the-edge desperation and resignation, while her falsetto chant of “bah bah bah bah like u crazy” bubbles chillingly beneath. The production has elements of a dark, Wall Of Sound-esque sound that wouldn’t seem far out of place in a David Lynch film, and who can argue with that?
A cursory listen to ‘Beautiful Dreamer’ will tell you that what Mates Of State are bringing back is truth. No great revelation there then, but whoever thought to wrap such honesty up in consistently tasty and innovative songs deserves some kind of reward. We, on the other hand, should put on our dancing shoes promptly and do them proud.
Robbie de Santos
originally published August 23rd, 2006
The Albatross… EP •••½
Sympathy For The Record Industry
Anyone who names their band after a pseudonym used by modernist painters Josper Johns and Robert Rauschenberg for their commercial department store work can be expected to be at least a little non-conformist. It comes as scant surprise then that US indie rock minimalists Matson Jones make music consisting of distorted vocals, cello, double bass, drums and nothing else. They’re far from being a one-trick nag, however; ever-challenging dynamic and rhythmical soundscapes abound on this EP so that its mealy-mouthed full title of The Albatross Mates For Life, But Only After A Lengthy Courtship That Can Take Up To Four Years isn’t the only interesting talking point.
The four songs on The Albatross… are complex beasts. Opener ‘Exes & Ohs’ is an energetic number reminiscent of The Arcade Fire in that it goes from hushed to rushed, from slow to hasty with fast-paced melodies and counter-rhythms whipped up by the cellos and double bass. This impressive layer of sound altern- ately supports and contrasts the vocals of Anna Mascorella and Martina Grbac, while Ross Harada’s syncopated drums expand the dynamic range of the song from beneath. The drums get slower and angrier on second song ‘Sabotage’, and combined with the howling apocalyptic strings, what you get is a sense of paranoia, a suspicious calm ahead of a vicious tornado. Incoherent lyrics like “It’s a damn good thing I kept my legs closed / you make the ground unsteady” add to the general feel of imminent malice.
‘Dirt Sea’ returns to the fast-paced rhythms of the opener, albeit in a more approachable manner. The vocals are quite plain and fairly unspectacular, but it’s the ever-moving strings and drop-in, drop-out drums that really lift the song. ‘Wrecking Ball’ is slightly less successful, though its characteristically constant time changes and distorted vocals have a certain appeal. It’s just that the instrumentation all sounds very natural and at odds with the distortion on the voice, making them sound rather out of place. Of course, this could be the intention entirely, in which case it’s a job well done. It’s a little bit manic but manages to hint at an all-too-human vulnerability that works well overall.
Matson Jones certainly know how to use the dynamic ranges of their tools, though the lack of variety in instrumentation means they have to work twice as hard to make this EP more than just an indie rock curio. That they just about manage to pull it off warrants 15 minutes of your time and a bit of your hard-earned cash.
originally published July 25th, 2006
Cerys Matthews / Becky Stark
Live at The Scala, London ••••
July 26th, 2006
Barely ten minutes after the doors are flung open at the Scala, Californian songbird Becky Stark quietly glides to centre stage to kick off the evening. Wearing a striking aqua ballgown and, bizarrely, a matching blue cape, she resembles an intriguing blend of Supergirl and Cinderella. In keeping with this image and her earnest songs of love and fairytale dreams, Stark also believes in saving the planet, provocatively, yet sweetly declaring that “peace has finally come to planet Earth”. Given the notoriously indifferent, if not downright rude, reception that London audiences commonly afford a support act – usually spending more time supporting the bar takings than paying due attention – Stark commands an unusually reverent silence.
Clearly nervous and feeling rather exposed without her Lavender Diamond bandmates around her, she soon warms up, gleefully telling us that her father was an escaped convict and that her mother used to ask her to lie to the FBI, before pondering aloud whether this is the reason for her lack of respect for authority. Against all odds, her uninhibited ramblings and timid giggles come across as genuinely endearing and the volume of appreciative noises soon racks up among the amassing throng.
Between her affable anecdotes, Stark even finds time to treat us to four beautiful compositions from her solo album Artifacts Of The Winged. Her voice both warms and haunts, the unaffected tenderness of her soaring falsetto revealing one of the purest, most honest vocal talents this side of a certain Vashti Bunyan. Saving the world may be out of her reach for now, but if Stark can get a bunch of hardened Londoners eating out of her hand like puppies, persuading world leaders to just get along is not all that far-fetched.
Second support act Richard James – formerly the guitarist for Welsh rockers Gorky’s Zygotic Mynci – may have hit all the right notes musically, but his introspective tone fails to cut through the oppressive heat inside the venue. The temperature was indeed rising, but whether this was from the clamour of bodies still radiating the day’s onslaught of sunshine or from sheer anticipation I couldn’t say; up in the balcony a Welsh flag unfurls itself to announce the impending arrival of tonight’s main attraction.
In her days as Catatonia’s outspoken figurehead, Cerys Matthews would often bound (and sometimes stagger) onstage, but today she tentatively sneaks on alongside her band. Armed with a cherry red guitar, she deflects the sea of expectant eyes before her and bursts straight into new album track, ‘Streets Of New York’. Visibly overwhelmed by the sheer volume of her band, Cerys’s trademark lungs struggle at first to compete with the reverberating power chords and driving beats, and she nervously admits to the crowd that she’s “shaking like a leaf”. But if the last few years have shown anything, it’s that Matthews is a fighter and by the third song – a low-tempo run-through of early Catatonia classic ‘Lost Cat’ – the up-for-it crowd begins to have an effect. Given the parallels between her new material and some of Catatonia’s less populist efforts, a song like ‘Lost Cat’ fits snugly into the set; even The Guardian’s gig writer failed to spot the nod to her past, despite it being greeted with one of the night’s biggest cheers.
‘Open Roads’, the instantly memorable first single to be taken from her new album Never Said Goodbye, also gives the album its title, and when Matthews sings “it’s like we neh-ver said goodbye”, it’s easy to recall just how much fun Catatonia were in concert, counterpointing the pre-mill-ennial navel-gazing of their contemporaries with fuckoff power chords and anthemic choruses. Somewhat inevit-ably, Matthews’s lyrics have become more introspective since her departure, picking apart human foibles and personal frailties, disguised Trojan-horse style by sweet melodic pop.
But don’t be fooled into thinking she’s gotten stuck in a mid-paced groove; her latest musical gear shift heralds the re-emergence of Cerys’ bona fide rock star qualities. Even the most cotton-pickin’ moments from 2003’s country jamboree Cockahoop are given a shot of pure rock adrenaline. During the traditional ‘All My Trials’, for instance, Matthews dispenses with her guitar and unleashes memories of the days when she would lead thousands of fans into dance. When she follows this up with ‘The Good In Goodbye’, everyone merrily bounces along as if it were 1998 again; but this is 2006 and her triumph tonight is surely all the more sweeter on her own terms.
Befitting her rock icon status, Matthews later treats us to an enjoyable cover of David Bowie’s ‘Soul Love’ from the seminal Ziggy Stardust album. It’s an apt choice for the moment, too, proving that there can be an epilogue for rock ‘n’ roll stars who take the well-worn road to self-destruction. With her fall from grace at last in reverse, the crowd’s affection for Matthews is palpable and everyone is grinning. When she comes back for an encore, a moment’s dread that some drunken idiot might field an inappropriate request for ‘Road Rage’ or ‘Karaoke Queen’ soon passes. Tonight, Matthew, it seems that Cerys is happy simply being herself.
originally published on July 26th, 2006
Never Said Goodbye ••••
Rock ‘n’ roll folklore is full of dramatic departures and Messianic resurrections, so it was with some concern that Catatonia singer Cerys Matthews cancelled their 2001 tour and exited the band citing exhaustion, so often a dubious byword for drug overdoses and nervous breakdowns. In those early years, Matthews’s name became synonymous in the music press with legendary drinking sessions and her familiarity with Queensbury rules that transcended the verbal posturing of her peers. Unashamedly proud of her homeland, she rolled her vowels and consonants around driving pop anthems about road rage, teenage pregnancy and queens of karaoke, while her festive duet with Tom Jones only served to consolidate her place as the true Princess of Wales.
After Catatonia disbanded, Matthews famously decamped to Nashville to regain her health and musical muse, making an understated return in 2003 with the country jamboree Cockahoop. Oh, and she also started a family, meeting her husband whilst sharing dog walking duties for a mutual friend. Now, Matthews has chosen to return to the land of her fathers after suffering the effects of ‘hiraeth’, a particularly Welsh form of homesickness. She can certainly afford herself a few backwards glances with Never Said Goodbye, but is she here to reclaim her tattered crown?
Conceived as a modest follow-up in the same bare essentials vein as its predecessor, the album’s production turned out to be an eventful process as Matthews dis- covered that she was also gestating her second child. As her belly grew, so did the sound, and songs that started life with simple acoustics and vocals received a good old-fashioned rock makeover. Matthews has managed to fuse Catatonia’s brand of playful pop with the introspective homestead musings of her adopted American home, while Mason Neely’s proficiency with the drumsticks positively drives the album’s sound from the stable into the stadium.
But that’s not to suggest that the album lacks its tender moments; like Catatonia’s International Velvet – which effortlessly traversed its way from bollock-rocking barnstormers like ‘I Am The Mob’ to the gentle caress of ‘My Selfish Gene’ – Never Said Goodbye tempers its rockier edges with heartbreakingly beautiful moments like album closer ‘Elen’. Co-written with Super Furry Animals frontman Gruff Rhys, who also contributes whispered backing vocals, the fragile folkish melody surrounds the mellifluous mothertongue lyrics, and of all the album tracks, is perhaps the closest relation to Cockahoop.
With song titles like ‘Oxygen’, ‘This Endless Rain’ and ‘Seed Song’, it seems that Matthews has returned to her roots in more ways than one. The constant themes of love and nature are inextricably entwined throughout the album, where the ebb and flow of nature are constant metaphors for the enormity of lost loves and faltering hearts. On ‘Morning Sunshine’, her romanticism is never better expressed than in the opening lines; “I’d come to see you in the morning sunshine / saltwater dripping from your hair / 10,000 leagues of love and sheer devotion / what bubbles under breathes for air”. Perhaps the most organic treatment of a pop album since Pulp’s I Love Life, which brought us paeans to trees, weeds and sunrise, Never Said Goodbye is an album in full bloom, even if the lyrical preoccupations might have been better served by stripping away some of the disortion and synthetic layers.
While Matthews may lack the twisted lyrical wit of her former Catatonia songwriting partner, Mark Roberts, she is still at her best mining the ever-fertile ground of dysfunctional relationships. The album’s first single, ‘Open Roads’, with its opening lines “I took a ride on your fingertips / heaven high with the thrill of it / and in your eyes for a moment / it’s like we never said goodbye” encapsulates the uncertainty and vulnerability of surrendering to the safety of skin in the arms of a lost love. Indeed, listening to Never Said Goodbye is like getting a postcard from a treasured friend and as soon as you hear the first trill of that unmistakable voice, memories come flooding back.
Whereas Cockahoop was an album to fall in love to, Never Said Goodbye is there to pick up the pieces when it all falls apart. Sometimes in a world where everything is new and every turn brings yet more uncertainty, you need little cocoons of comfort. The music industry has certainly been an emptier place in her absence, and no amount of feisty pop muppets could ever fill the Cerys-shaped hole in the charts. So while Matthews has rekindled her love affair with the music that made her, for those who have tied a yellow ribbon around their Catatonia CD collections, familiarity will surely breed content.
originally published October 24th, 2006
Kate & Anna McGarrigle
The McGarrigle Hour ••••
Originally released in the US and Canada in 1999, this companion to the studio album of the same name finally got a UK pressing this autumn. And whilst the title may parody those homely Osmond family TV specials, there is nothing twee about this gathering. Timeless in both the staging and songs, the anachronistic production feels more 1948 than 1998, but the McGarrigles and Wainwrights have always comfortably existed outside of popular music, living in a folkie vacuum where they are free to set their own courses. Family feuds are often the subject of their own songs and their closest contemporaries appear to be each other. With such a strong musical heritage, the ‘McWainwrights’ are always liable to burst into song when the mood takes them, and one can almost imagine family gatherings where “pass the salt” is sung in harmonious verse.
With an ensemble of ex-spouses, offspring and friends, the McGarrigle sisters take us on an intimate journey through the great American songbook, taking in everything from Cole Porter to Irving Berlin, whilst seamlessly interweaving original compositions for this musical family reunion. While their voices may not have the softest of timbres, the Canadian sisters’ pitch-perfect harmonies are still as strong as when they debuted in 1975 with their eponymous LP. The musical dynasty is in safe hands too, judging by the efforts here.
Martha Wainwright cuts a shy, endearing figure compared with the foot-stomping dynamic performer we see today, and her own composition ‘Year Of The Dragon’ (still a mainstay of her live set) visibly impresses the would-be converts in the McGarrigle-friendly audience. Her cover of Cole Porter’s ‘Allez-Vous-En’ is sung with experience well beyond her young years, and she is complemented well by cousin Lily Lanken whose fragile vocals are equally affecting on family favourite ‘Alice Blue Gown’.
Elsewhere, Rufus Wainwright is unusually restrained, despite upstaging his mother Kate McGarrigle during the introduction to ‘Talk To Me Of Mendocino’ by calling her a “gypsy”. In ‘Heartburn’ he shows he has inherited much of his father Loudon Wainwright III’s lyrical wit, but his voice is best suited to the standards and effortlessly croons the openings to group efforts ‘Goodnight Sweetheart’ and ‘What’ll I Do’. Friends of the family, Linda Ronstadt and Emmylou Harris, guest as they did on the studio album, while Kate’s former husband Loudon and assorted folkie friends add an authentic twang to the proceedings.
Despite the original’s release shortly before the popularity of the format exploded, a number of DVD extras are still included: a scattering of hyperlink interviews and a touching movie clip of Grandma McGarrigle’s own version of ‘Alice Blue Gown’ around the family piano, along with four bonus songs from a 1981 McGarrigle concert in their hometown of Montréal.
In a year that has seen major releases from Loudon, Rufus and Martha, the McGarrigles have reconvened for The McGarrigle Christmas Hour, an album that once again showcases the family’s songwriting talents alongside some lesser-known festive standards, this time extending their family to include Rufus’s pals Beth Orton, actress Jane Adams and Teddy Thompson.
originally published on December 19th, 2006
Pretty Little Head  •••½
Nellie McKay doesn’t want me to listen to her new CD. At least, not in the form in which I received it. Columbia’s press release describes the album as “a kaleidoscopic selection of tracks culled from 23 new songs written by McKay for the album”; what it doesn’t say is that they performed this cull entirely against her will. Despite McKay’s insistence that it be released in its entirety, Columbia issued this 16-track edit to reviewers without McKay’s permission, and the dispute duly escalated. In fact it got so bad that just after Christmas Nellie and Columbia parted ways, leaving the album dangling in limbo. The label have since stated that they won’t be releasing the album in any form, and despite the fact that McKay apparently left of her own accord, media reports that she was ‘dropped’ have proliferated. This conflict raises some prescient questions. McKay’s precocious debut, 2004’s Get Away From Me, was sprawling and sporadically brilliant, but proved trying when listened to as a whole. We can certainly query whether Columbia have the right to censor the artists on their roster in such a manner, but for once, might the big bad record company have a point?
To an extent, they do. Listening to this truncated version, there are still extraneous tracks that contribute little to the album as a whole. Three songs – ‘Pink Chandelier’, ‘GES’ and ‘I Am Nothing’, all clocking in at under two minutes – feel half-finished, short sketches perhaps intended more as interludes that fail to mature into anything substantial. It is puzzling that they were included where other tracks were excised; the motivation behind Columbia’s track selection currently remains a mystery. However, when the songs do sparkle they sparkle bright, and more than compensate for the album’s weaker moments. The lyrically audacious and funny opener ‘Cupcake’ concerns the timely topic of gay marriage, and over a brightly bouncy melody McKay intones lyrics surely designed to provoke conservative ire: “Give me a G-A-Y! Jesus would approve.”
Musically, it’s not all current affairs, however. A distinct ‘80s vibe runs throughout the album – shades of Martha & The Muffins here, Kim Carnes there – but nowhere moreso, of course, than on the Cyndi Lauper duet and album highlight, ‘Bee Charmer’. A lyrically brilliant pop song (“I feel like an antelope on a nature show / Guess I gotta go!”), it’s an ideal marriage of two talented artists. McKay once again shows her versatility as a musical chameleon, turning her hand to cabaret-style pop, rap/hip-hop and, on ‘Real Life’, guitar-driven rock ‘n’ roll. Her songs don’t grab the listener with the dramatic urgency of say, Fiona Apple – whimsicality is more her forte – but her lyrics are barbed and often arresting and a happy-sounding tune can conceal darker lyrical content. ‘Columbia Is Bleeding’, for instance, throws lyrics at the listener faster than the brain can process them. Not, as you might imagine, a rant against her former label, the song concerns a recent, McKay-led PETA protest against animal research being conducted at the campus of New York’s University of Columbia, and the song voices a multiplicity of views on the subject; “Check the bible son / we got dominion / we can do as we please” vies with McKay’s assertion that “Barbarism killed the cat / Columbia is bleeding.”
While this is by no means a perfect album, it is one that has a lot to recommend it – not least the originality of McKay’s lyrics and the adventurous musical palette she draws upon. In which direction those seven missing songs will eventually tip the balance is anybody’s guess, but whenever, however, even if ever McKay ultimately rears her Pretty Little Head, it’ll be one in the eye for corporate America and a righteous scalp for artistic vision.
originally published January 28th, 2006
An Ancient Muse •••½
Back in 1985, the arrival of Loreena McKennitt seemed nothing short of brilliant; enigmatic, yes, but brilliant all the same. With her self-produced debut album Elemental, McKennitt did away with the slick, sometimes gloopy excesses of the decade and delivered something pretty much timeless. Those who heard it invariably loved it, and in pleasing all the people McKennitt inadvertently accelerated the coming of so-called ‘new age’ music. Of course, as with all great underground artists, her thunder was run off with by a more commercially minded rival in the shape of Enya, whose Watermark cemented the multi-million selling status of the genre. Happily, all the legwork gave McKennitt rich rewards in the end as her 1989 album Parallel Dreams bounced off the new age springboard and she never looked back. Since then, McKennitt has expanded her vision as both composer and producer, shifting effortlessly from softly spoken, sparse Celtic folk to full-blown band extrava- ganzas that ought to be recognised as world music anthems. And all that shifting, no matter how great, has done nothing but work in her favour.
An Ancient Muse is McKennitt’s first studio album since 1997’s four million selling The Book Of Secrets and, like its predecessor, incorporates the illustrious themes of spirituality and world travel and sets them to impressive compositional backdrops. Opening with ‘Incantation’, a slow-burning mood is softly ignited with McKennitt’s gorgeously operatic vocals shedding light on an other- wise darkly brooding piece. Two and a half minutes go by before you’re suddenly slammed into out-and-out pop mode as the undeniable slink of ‘The Gates Of Istanbul’ takes hold before the prodigal simplicity of ‘Caravanserai’ seals the deal. Both are obvious tips of the hat to her out-of-leftfield hit ‘The Mummer’s Dance’ but are fresh enough and groovy enough so as not to be derivative.
With that out of the way, An Ancient Muse goes deep with songs like the creepily gleeful Turkish instrumental ‘Sacred Shabbat’ and ‘Never-ending Road (Amhrán Duit)’, whose nomadic spirituality allows the album’s themes of inward searching and self-acceptance to shine. A slight aura of predictability surrounds a couple of tracks – for example, the other instrumental ‘Kecharitomene’ could easily have been a reply-paid card stuffed inside The Book Of Secrets for McKennitt to mail home later – and some patience might be required on the part of the listener. But, like each of her previous opuses, the payoff will be honest to goodness grade A gorgeousness.
And there’s nothing more gorgeous on An Ancient Muse than ‘The English Ladye & The Knight’. Keeping up McKennitt’s well-trodden tradition of setting classic poetry to music – the lyrics are an abridged version of the poem by Sir Walter Scott – this is the album’s finest moment. Featuring atmospheric strings and a heart- breaking choir, McKennitt subdues her impressive voice into the role of hushed storyteller and flawlessly flows into full-blown mechancholia. This is precisely why McKennitt has been a long-stay in the music industry without an overtly popular following; it is, for lack of any better description, pure genius, and makes any errors of judgement elsewhere on the album instantly forgivable.
Despite its occasional weak points, An Ancient Muse is an overall triumph and while not quite reaching the astonishing brilliance of The Visit or The Mask & Mirror, it makes for a solid and compelling listen and once again shows McKennitt as the innovative and virulent artist she has become.
originally published December 17th, 2006
We Will Become Like Birds •••½
Ingredient 1: A failed relationship at your heels and weighing on your mind. Ingredient 2: A roomful of instruments with which you are skillfully competent. What on earth’s a girl to do? Well, if you are 27-year old Erin McKeown, you creatively bind together the two ingredients with handfuls of hope, and with patience and time, We Will Become Like Birds shall emerge. With a relationship crumbling around her, McKeown has simply picked up her guitar, bass, drumsticks and keyboards and atypically enlisted other musicians to produce this wonderfully hopeful album. These 12 complementary songs are lyrically pertinent to anyone who has survived a relationship breakup – sentiments of creation and loss, construction and destruction are plentiful.
In the opener, ‘Aspera’, McKeown is found musing on her own discontent, singing “I’m in shambles, blown to bits by our troubles, these brambles, our stumblings, our struggles”, but by the second song, ‘Air’, she is contemplating the wider issue of the origins of heartache in general: “love! and you’re wondering how it works, the heart and the natural world, it’s a wonder that science can hurt”. Though the songs are firmly in the camp of relationship fodder, McKeown provides something more than the archetypal break-up album with a continuous hopeful twist. Buoyant ruminations on how experience forces growth are welcomed in the positive statement of ‘We Are More’, in which sadness is transcended in the form of “this morning I saw a glimmer of hope, in the eyes that I met at the door, of separate futures and confident sutures, to the wounds we have endured.” The album is undeniably sad and yet irrepressibly hopeful.
For those who don’t appreciate an emotional battering as part and parcel of a listening experience, McKeown’s clearly auspicious lyrics and musical choices reflecting a light emotional approach will indeed sweeten the medicine. With its upbeat, rising notes and tempting handclaps, the overall feel isn’t one of loss – the musical scenery is as misleading as her carefree, light vocals. In typical McKeown style, her voice drifts lightly and spreads warmly through the album, winding over even the highest notes with softness.
With her personal evolution in full view, McKeown’s musical growth cannot be overlooked. She is forever changing and her tendency to frolic willfully through varied musical landscapes is only slightly diminished here. As ever though, McKeown’s musicianship is nothing short of admirable and will make even the most gifted a little green-eyed. Competent enough to play all the instruments herself, McKeown could have easily created the album nestled alone in a studio, but with an ethnomusicology degree and three acclaimed genre-hopping solo albums already in the bag, Erin arrived at this album with a strong pedigree and looking for something new. She and co-producer Tucker Martine have called on highly accomplished musicians to freely improvise on her compositions as they best know how. With Matt Chamberlain on drums (Tori Amos, Fiona Apple), Sebastian Steinberg on bass (Beth Orton) and Steve Moore on keyboards (Laura Veirs), the album wears an impulsive band feel. Collaborations with singer-songwriters Pete Mulvey and Spanish chanteuse Juana Molina on ‘Delicate December’ and ‘The Golden Dream’, respectively, also add a different dimension.
The rich, multi-instrumental path set out by her previous album Grand is trodden even further here, breaking away from that record’s jazzy, 1950s-style swing. Slick production and a stark reduction in guitar focus have augmented this effect. McKeown is no longer the folkie that appeared on the independent scene in 1999 with Monday Morning Cold. Regardless, with perhaps her most commercially accessible album to date, Erin McKeown is stepping back into the alternative spotlight while laudably retaining her enthusiam for experimentation, her charming vocal style and a distinctive and familiar originality.
originally published August 11th, 2005
One More Drifter In The Snow ••••
The struggle may not be as titanic as the Ali/Foreman ‘rumble in the jungle’ but this year two Lilith-cred behemoths go head to head in the Christmas album arena. In the red corner we have amateur boxer and professional cynic Aimee Mann, while in the green corner is sparkling snow queen Sarah McLachlan (put a coat on silly, you’ll catch your death!). That the pair of them both chose the same reason to release a festive offering affords us the luxury of comparing their approaches. And the approaches are definitely different – while McLachlan takes a more traditional, populist route, Mann sprinkles her collection with the trademark quirkiness that informs her work – but both pay joyful dividends and throw in a brand new original each.
Taking McLachlan first, it’s easy to see Wintersong as a sonic extension of 2003’s Afterglow, albeit with a few more whistles and sleigh bells. Like so many Christmas albums it mixes carols, standards and original songs and the selection is well chosen. Opening with a perhaps surprising cover of John Lennon and Yoko Ono’s ‘Happy Xmas (War Is Over)’ it could all have gone so horribly wrong. Panic not, however, it’s actually more likeable than the original. Retaining the essential kids’ choir element, it deftly treads the frighteningly narrow line between emoting and wanton sentimentalising. A cover of the Joni Mitchell classic ‘River’ is perhaps rather too predictable a move for McLachlan, but it’s a welcome inclusion nevertheless. Despite adding nothing to the flooringly beautiful original, McLachlan gives it her all, imbuing it with genuine emotion and a pure vocal performance that soars above that genius piano motif.
Elsewhere, standard crooner ‘I’ll Be Home For Christmas’ successfully harks back to the swing era, blending muted trumpet with thoroughly modern keyboard pads, while new track ‘Wintersong’ is pleasant enough. Always proficient at recycling old material, McLachlan couldn’t resist another shot at ‘Song For A Winter’s Night’, originally released on the 1996 compilation Rarities, B-Sides & Other Stuff, but it’s all in the spirit of giving so that’s alright. It’s the traditional carols, however, that ended up the most satisfyingly Christmassy. ‘O Little Town Of Bethlehem’ opens with a gorgeous naked vocal while ‘What Child Is This?’ and ‘First Noel / Mary Mary’ blend McLachlan’s lovely tones with an intriguing blend of traditional and modern arrangements; while the former evokes the Elizabethan derivation of its melody, the latter mixes hymnal, spiritual and contemporary Celtic styles. It’s sad, then, that Wintersong closes on its least involving and memorable track – the one which Nettwerk must have thought was a shoe-in. A duet with fellow Canadian Diana Krall on ‘Christmas Time Is Here’ washes past in all too mellow a mood.
Taking a more leftfield approach, Mann’s One More Drifter… is a rather different prospect. And while the new original ‘Calling On Mary’ and the bittersweet ‘Christmastime” (originally recorded in 1996 for the soundtrack of Paul Thomas Anderson’s ‘Hard Eight’) find her in a reassuringly downbeat mood, the talking points belong to the covers. Again, it’s a mix of carols and classic seasonal numbers given a characteristic Aimee flavour, but with one special surprise. ‘You’re A Mean One, Mister Grinch!’ might easily have been a torrid taste faux pas, but instead the duet with Grant Lee Phillips raises a glass and a grin with Mann’s vocal trademark cynicism making her the perfect musical foil for Phillips’s booming narration.
Another surprise is how well Mann copes with some of the older tunes like the Nat King Cole favourite ‘The Christmas Song’. In fact she turns out to be no mean crooner – had she been born 50 years earlier there’s no doubt that she could easily have given the likes of Julie London and Patsy Cline a run for their money. Elsewhere, familiar songs are given a lift by interesting instrumentation – a banjo and jangle piano here, pedal steel, vibes and Hawaiian guitar there. The Hawaiian guitar is deployed particularly effectively on ‘I’ll Be Home For Christmas’, pointing up nicely the difference in approach when compared with Sarah’s version, while her take on ‘Winter Wonderland’ is equal parts ‘Blue Hawaii’, ‘Shadows’ and ‘The Fabulous Thunderbirds’ in a mellow mood. Ace.
So there you have it, two very different Christmas albums, both artistically successful, very listenable and thankfully (mostly) schmaltz-free. Of the two, it’s One More Drifter… that stands a better chance of being auditioned at other times of year as a darned good album in its own rights. However, it’s Wintersong that your mum or granny will love.
originally published December 17th, 2006
VH1 Storytellers •••
Rhino Home Video
Since its inception in February 1996, VH1’s Storytellers format has given us insight into the inspirations behind the songs of some of the most enigmatic and elliptical performers of our time, including Tori Amos, REM, Tom Waits and David Bowie. More often than not, however, it was the refuge of tired and crashing MOR bores mounting their nth attempted comeback. The show was also symptomatic of US programmers’ attitudes to female artists; even though its most successful years coincided with the Lilith Fair phenomenon, less than a quarter of its 56 episodes featured women performers. Tellingly, the only such act to appear following the demise of Lilith in 1999 was Gwen Stefani’s No Doubt. After a series of mostly inessential performances by the likes of Billy Idol, Bon Jovi, Matchbox Twenty and Train, among others, the chapter finally closed on Storytellers in June 2002.
It could easily be argued that Natalie Merchant’s place in the Storytellers canon would have been warranted regardless of the Lilith influence. A performer since the age of 17 in US college rock band 10,000 Maniacs, she had well over a decade of experience, and presumably stories, behind her. This performance, recorded the same year as she released her second and arguably best solo album, Ophelia, is a resolutely no-frills affair – there’s no elaborate set design and Merchant herself is understatedly dressed for the occasion. Her instantly recognisable warm and reedy vocals, however, rise easily to the challenge as she tackles these eight songs of sadness, gratitude, stoicism and wonderment spanning her extensive back catalogue.
Given that so many of her songs are self-contained observational narratives that hardly lend themselves to in-depth analysis, it’s a little worrying when Merchant seeks to reassure the audience “I didn’t have to tell you anything deep and dark and scary about myself” after the opener ‘These Are Days’, which we’re informed is simply about the springtime. Fortunately, her romantic and humanitarian interests rescue some of the other commentaries from the precipice of blandness. In another’s hands, her explanation of how an abused child inspired her to write ‘What’s The Matter Here?’ may have seemed trite but her plainly visible emotional involvement is touching.
Special guest N’Dea Davenport adds a welcome change of pace for the blue-collar worker anthem ‘Break Your Heart’. Of the bonus tracks, ‘Life Is Sweet’ (presumably not included on the original broadcast because of a minor sweat problem) is given a new lease of life by Merchant’s explanation that her objective was to reclaim the cliché and thereby allows the viewer to listen with renewed perspective. Though the DVD is brief at only 43 minutes, as a precursor to Rhino’s forthcoming Natalie Merchant retrospective hits album it serves as an adequate reminder of her talents. In the absence of any new material to follow-up 2003’s The House Carpenter’s Daughter and the scarcity of high-quality recordings of Merchant’s live shows, fans will be satisfied with this solid, if unspectacular, addition to her discography.
originally published August 7th, 2005
Retrospective 1990-2005 ••••
As coincidence would have it, Rhino’s 2CD retrospective of Natalie Merchant’s solo career follows a similar format to its Jane Siberry anthology. In both cases, an exemplary, beautifully sequenced first disc is followed by a patchier, less satisfying second one. This is not to suggest that fans or newcomers should only sport out for the first CD though, as is possible to do in the case of Merchant. Though longstanding followers may once again lament the dearth of new material on Retrospective, there are in fact some lovely individual performances on both discs. It’s simply that the second disc – designed, it would appear, to showcase Merchant’s stylistic range – fails to cohere as effortlessly as the first does.
Of course, Merchant is not an audacious musical innovator in the Siberry mould, and so there is nothing as wilfully perverse or off-kilter as ‘Peony’ here. Rather, Merchant’s post-10,000 Maniacs career has been marked by a series of graceful, intelligent and frequently exceptional albums, from her solo debut Tigerlily, through the lusher Ophelia, to her distinguished collection of sturdy folk perennials, The House Carpenter’s Daughter, and this compilation gathers together some of the very best material from each. Merchant’s singing has also grown more characterful over the years, as the chronologically sequenced first disc demonstrates. Tremulous and delicate, but with a surprising amount of bite and grit, her vocals are seductive and inviting on early tracks such as the driving ‘Wonder’ and ‘Jealousy’, but gain greater depth and resonance on her later work.
At its best, there is a kind of openhearted innocence and generosity of spirit to Merchant’s music. ‘Kind & Generous’, for example, is such a forthright expression of gratitude that it almost makes you uncomfortable. This tender magnanimity means that when she does despair – with a line like “the damage that some people do” on ‘Break Your Heart’ – the effect is particularly devastating. However, the superb ‘Life Is Sweet’ offers hard-won consolation, as does ‘Motherland’, the title track to her 2001 album, and a recording that may well be on its way to becoming her signature song, since it’s already been covered by both Joan Baez and Christy Moore. Its combination of striking lyrics, Van Dyke Parks’s accordion, Greg Leisz’s banjo and mandolin and a gorgeous vocal from Merchant adds up to something very special indeed. The House Carpenter’s Daughter is represented by two particularly strong tracks. ‘Owensboro’ is an achingly sad traditional ballad about downtrodden Kentucky mill workers; in the final verse, the exploited and apparently resigned narrator looks forward to a (literal or figurative) “day of judgement” when the wealthy, arrogant townsfolk who “dress so fine and spend their money free” will “have to share their pretty things”. Never has the desire for revolution been expressed more elegantly. The woozy, haunting ‘Sally Ann’ is equally fine.
The second disc pulls together some of Merchant’s duets, collaborations, outtakes and soundtrack contributions. Highlights include a sensitive, convincing rendition of ‘The Lowlands Of Holland’ (backed by The Chieftains), a slow and sultry ‘One Fine Day’ (from the 1996 Michelle Pfeiffer/George Clooney film of the same name), and a beautiful stripped-down solo piano take of Ophelia‘s ‘Thick As Thieves’. Lowlights are a leaden ‘Children Go Where I Send Thee’, and a forced version of the inappositely titled ‘I Know How To Do It’, made most famous by Dinah Washington. Collaborations with REM, Billy Bragg and Susan McKeown almost, but don’t quite work, while the closing ‘Come Take A Trip In My Airship’ unfortunately ends up on the wrong side of twee. Despite these infelicities, however, Retrospective is, overall, a very impressive collection that fully displays Merchant’s lyrical and interpretive gifts.
originally published March 25th, 2006
Live It Out ••••
Drowned In Sound
Back in their native Canada, it’s practically impossible to meet anyone of a certain age who hasn’t caught on to the hype of Emily Haines and her trio of musical men. Their debut Old World Underground, Where Are You Now? was hugely successful and earned the band a place in the hearts of young hipsters all over the nation. Live It Out, the much-anticipated follow-up was released last year, attracting the attention of British indie label Drowned In Sound (home to fellow Canuck Martha Wainwright) who are issuing this UK edition. Right out of the starting blocks it’s clear that Live It Out is fantastically diverse, blending genres with ease. Is it electro-pop? Melodic punk? Distorted garage rock? Eighties new wave synth nostalgia? Actually, it’s all of them, and even finds room for some heart-rending piano balladry. Phew!
Haines’s presence surely ups the potential for Metric to achieve mass idolisation above and beyond recognition of her occasional contributions to Canadian supergroup Broken Social Scene. Her lyrical ability and vocal range – an assortment of throaty whispered hushes, authoritative roars and everything in between – perfectly compliments and contrasts with the musical backdrop. Building upon, but not exhausting, the beguiling pop/rock sound that made Old World Underground… so accessible, Live It Out retains the winning formula for indisputably catchy crowd-pleasing riffs, yet noticeably focuses much more on rocking out with heavier guitars, thunderous drums, fun solos and everything feedback.
Probably the catchiest song on the album, ‘Monster Hospital’ begins with an upbeat, distorted riff that will compel you to subtly headbang and madly tap your feet. With a sly nod to The Clash, Haines howls “I fought the war / but the war won!” amidst a pleasantly simple drum line and creeping high notes. The exuberant ‘Handshakes’ is another highlight, oozing sarcasm with its chanted mantra of “Buy this car to drive to work / drive to work to pay for this car”. Recent single ‘Poster Of A Girl’ boasts a disco-esque beat, heavy synths and extreme danceability, Haines’s vocal switching effortlessly from cooing in English to quietly murmuring in French. Elsewhere, ‘Ending Start’ veers the furthest from the sprightly pop/rock appeal of the rest of the album; drenched in a river of reverb, Haines sings “Gave them our explosions, reactions, all that was ours / for graphs of passion and charts of stars”. The delicate piano, melodious ethereal guitar and haunting resonance of the vocals permits the song to linger and enchant.
For some fans, Live It Out might not live up to the ‘modern classic’ status of Old World Underground…, while others may blame the fervent hype for setting such lofty expectations. Whatever. The fact remains that this is another undeniably well-crafted piece of work that, at its best, will rock your clothes off. Turn up the speakers, put on your dancing footwear, and for goodness sake, hang on to your trousers!
originally published July 2nd, 2006
Mi & L’au
Mi & L’au ••••
These two must have the cutest backstory ever. After meeting each other in Paris, Finnish model Mi and French musician L’au fell madly in love and quickly came to resent the encroachment of the outside world into their private bliss. Not wanting to do things by halves or compromise with their surroundings, they upped sticks and retreated into splendid isolation deep within a Finnish forest where they have been living ever since with only each other and their music for company. Until, presumably, Michael Gira – once of Swans and now big strong boss of Young God Records, the original home of Devendra Banhart – came a-wanderin’ through the trees lookin’ for some new troubadours to take the place of the aforesaid beardie, now that he’s flirting with popularity on a bigger label. But while Mi & L’au certainly share a great deal of Banhart’s acoustic palette, their sound owes more to the measured, stately flow of Gira’s current Angels Of Light project than to Devendra’s more recognisably folksy leanings.
Although Mi & L’au are in the enviable position of having found ultimate sanctuary in themselves and their hermetic retreat, their music is the antithesis of the soupy tedium that cripples so many ‘love’ songs. Indeed, many of these songs seem to question the very permanence and truth of love and romantic feeling; again, these are topics that wouldn’t seem out of place on an Angels Of Light disc. That said, opener ‘They Marry’ speaks of the bliss of love’s falling, albeit unconventionally, utilising layers of naked instrumentation that glide from filmic fairground swells to softly plucked balladry.
Throughout the album, Mi’s vocals are recorded close enough for the listener to feel her very breath on their cheek, all cracks and imperfections magnified to uneasy, intimate dimensions. You can even hear her clear her throat at the end of Andy. In a starker vein still, ‘How’ shuffles along like an unhurried march over which Mi is found singing of emptiness as the single piano notes push briefly illuminate a darkened landscape like beautiful flickering stars. Elsewhere, ‘Philosopher’ extends the sepulchral atmosphere, utilising a two-chord guitar figure and enough space between notes as to bring to mind prime Low (a comparison that’s perhaps made more appropriate by the fact that Low are also a songwriting husband and wife team… oh, and a bassist, but he’s left now anyway.)
More than once, L’au takes over the vocal duties, providing a welcome contrast with his uneven, vulnerable delivery making ‘I’ve Been Watching You’ and the duo of baby paeans, ‘World In Your Belly’ and ‘New Born Child’, gorgeously affecting. Speaking of affecting and gorgeous, if album closer ‘Study’ is truly a study of anything, it’s got to be of stasis; gentle swells of accordion and strings frame Mi’s floating vocal and take it absolutely nowhere, perfectly happy to circle and converge, grow and recede like the bubbles that glisten and sparkle in the mix.
Inasmuch as it takes the instrumentation of the (largely) American neo-folk scene and takes it somewhere more considered and European-sounding – like a more bucolic Angels Of Light, or a less improvisatory Akron/Family – this gentle, reflective album must be considered a success. Ironically enough, only a certain coldness and emotional distance holds their music back from being truly brilliant, but be in no doubt that this tiny army of lovers are certainly ones to watch.
originally published May 7th, 2006
Honey From The Tombs •••½
Arts & Crafts/V2
Few artists can pull off an entirely elegiac album without sounding overly tedious or annoyingly self-pitying, but Stars frontwoman Amy Millan has just about done it on her first solo outing. Honey From The Tombs is a highly intimate work of self-disclosure that touches upon loss, emptiness, restlessness, love gone wrong and the healing effects of whiskey on a broken heart.
Although Millan tries to dodge the ‘country’ label, the conventions and sensibilities of the genre are clearly instated in the upbeat twangy guitars, banjos and mandolins, blues-infused solos and melancholy finger-picked acoustics. Further justifying this is the presence of bluegrass group Crazy Strings on back-up. Even so, some tracks are arguably more folk than country, a few more pop than folk, and several lean more towards a traditional rock sound. Interestingly, these songs are the product of several years spent as works in progress. “I wrote all the songs prior to joining Stars,” Millan revealed in a recent interview with the Montreal Gazette, “then I ran away from home to L.A.; I came back to a black hole…”
There are numerous highlights; a disconsolate narrative on the loss of first love, ‘He Brings Out The Whiskey In Me’ comes as close to classic country as you can get — and even Millan admits to this — with its light rhythmic picking, gentle slide guitar and ruminations on where it all went wrong. Abandoning the twangy lap-steel in favour of multi-layered dreamy atmospherics, ‘Skinny Boy’ is reminiscent of Stars’ engaging pop aura with its feathery lush vocals, xylophone and guitar. It’s also one of the few tracks with drums, and while it’s pretty enough to stick in the memory, it stays within well-mapped territory for Millan and is certainly nothing novel. The rocky ‘Headsfull’ is short but sweet, while the swirling electro essence of ‘Wayward & Parliament’ makes for an incongruent anomaly among the simplistic quietude that characterises the rest of the album.
The exquisitely somnolent ‘Pour Me Up Another’ signals an end to proceedings, Millan’s tear-tinged musings meeting despairing, clean acoustic lines to create a pathos unparalleled by her earlier efforts: “the nights are for forgetting who I am / so pour me up another before bed” — OK, so perhaps many of Millan’s turns of phrase are not really all that far removed from your average garden variety country song, but for the most part she employs enough musical variety that, as a whole, it somehow works.
Honey From The Tombs is neither groundbreaking nor wearisome. Some tracks are pleasant but interchangeable; others are catchy and poignant enough to include in your cathartic heartbreak compilation. On the whole, it makes for a memorable collection that works best when you’re in the mood for mellowness, but keep it within reach for those days when you’re nursing a bottle of whiskey and feeling real lonesome.
originally published July 2nd, 2006
Liza With A ‘Z’ [reissue] ••
Originally released in 1972 to coincide with the film release of Kander and Ebb’s musical ‘Cabaret’, this was a televised showcase for Liza Minnelli’s stage credentials; talents that would see her run away with the Best Actress gong at the following year’s Oscar ceremony. The release of this remastered Grammy Award winning album was issued as a prelude to a full DVD.
Guided by ‘Cabaret’ director, the legendary Bob Fosse, this audio recording of the show remains an intriguing journey through traditional standards and modern compositions, although even the contemporary tracks, infused with wah-wah guitars and funky basslines, still show their age. Such television specials are a staple of the US networks, and each number is an all-singing, all-dancing affair. ‘Son Of A Preacher Man’ is a song of such excess, but falls someway short of Dusty Springfield’s definitive version, while ‘Bye, Bye Blackbird’ is given the full Fosse treatment (click, tap, heel, tap) though, again, the staging of the number is somewhat incongruous with the gently sanguine lyrics. A demanding director, Fosse would control every affectation, ad-lib and aside and the note-perfect songs, while impressive on screen, leaves the recording a little bit flat.
There is no doubt that Minnelli puts on a good show, and even on record you can imagine the clenched fists and theatrical gestures that accompany the vocal octave leaps and key changes. Liza With A ‘Z’ serves as a reminder of Minnelli’s impressive vocal range and the ‘Cabaret Medley’ is a perfect trailer for the full-length versions. From ‘Wilkommen’ and the sublime ‘Money, Money’ to the emotive ‘Maybe This Time’ and the high-kicking title tune finale, each audio vignette evokes the divine decadence of Weimar Berlin so evocatively captured on film. Even the lines “the day she died the neighbours came to snicker / well, that’s what comes from too much pills and liquor” have acquired added prescience in light of Minnelli’s public recovery from alcoholism.
Perhaps the biggest shame of Minnelli’s career is that she possessed enough unique talent to transcend mother Judy Garland’s success, but chose instead to live in her shadow, almost as if Garland left the stage and Minnelli returned for the encore. Clinging to a lost era of Hollywood razzmatazz, these days Minnelli is a grand high priestess of camp by proxy, replaying her mother’s on-stage dramatics, effortlessly gliding between tragedy and survival, before sending those “happy little bluebirds” to tug at the heartstrings of her audience.
Here, ‘Mammy’ provides the less than oblique nod to her famous mother, while ‘God Bless The Child’ is yet another reminder of her Hollywood royalty credentials (her father was director Vincente Minnelli). “Momma may have / Poppa may have / but God bless the child that’s got his own” she trills, and for a few years in the 1970s, Minnelli truly did have it all. Equal parts actress, singer and dancer, Minnelli’s versatility made her hot property and her maternal genetics ensured further success in Martin Scorsese’s ‘New York, New York’.
You can’t make a star without some edges, and even if Minnelli is more of a tabloid curiosity these days, remnants like this from her heyday are testament to the last stand of Hollywood’s golden era, but this live recording lacks dimension and is perhaps best experienced on DVD. However, the ambition is admirable and you get the feeling that even if she wasn’t topping the bill, Minnelli would still steal the show.
originally published May 24th, 2006
Ultimate Kylie ••••
Pouting like a blow-up sex doll on the sleeve, unnecessarily airbrushed to within an inch of her life, Parlophone present the very essence of Minogue…or do they? In the midst of our celeb-obsessed cultural meltdown, Kylie has remained an admirably tight-lipped emblem of privacy, a tiny totem of schtumm. As this compilation more than adequately proves, her music too holds few clues.
Since 1987, she has been putty in the sweaty hands of pop, moulded by those around her, or so the rock snobs would have you believe. The truth, I suspect, is that underneath the layers of plasticity lies a woman plenty savvy enough to both define and defy her public persona. Live, she seems sometimes steely, often overpolished but rarely ever at ease. Her audience banter is typically painful and strained, one awkwardly uncool remove from the unprepossessing and endearing self she often reveals in interviews. Placed in an everyday conversational context Kylie positively glows, but up there on her media pedestal her natural charisma takes a holiday and she is often accused of being a bit of a blank canvas. OK, it may have been true back in the late ‘80s when she first effervesced her way into the non-‘Neighbours’ watching national consciousness – the bubble permed, bubble bathing introduction that was ‘I Should Be So Lucky’ seemed to mark her out as a one or two album wonder. Eighteen years down the line, however, the suggestion that Kylie is still not manning the controls is simply not giving credit where it’s overdue.
Let’s look at the evidence. It cannot be disputed that FluffyKylie, whose hits included the aforementioned ‘I Should Be So Lucky’, ‘The Loco-motion’, ‘Hand On Your Heart’ and the emetic ‘Especially For You’, was the brainchild of the Stock, Aitken and Waterman triumvirate. Their tinny, soulless production was the second worst virus of the decade and sucked the marrow from my childhood then dared me to buy it back. I did of course – what 9-year old boy wasn’t in love with Kylie? Thank the stars then for Michael Hutchence, tragic INXS singer and usherer in of the SexKylie (© NME) era. Like Madonna before her, Minogue discovered that it’s street sex in fishnets, not surburban sex in a pastel twin-set that sells. Douze points!
At odds with the SAW family image, Kylie decamped to the ice-cool Deconstruction label, conjuring up two bona fide classics in the bargain – ‘Confide In Me’ and ‘Put Yourself In My Place’ – lovely! Cue grown men throwing their turntables out of their prams. Kylie Minogue having hits on Deconstruction? It just wouldn’t do and so it proved. The critical backlash for the next incarnation, KookyKylie, was unrelenting, despite some surprisingly durable indie tunes (‘Did It Again’, ‘Breathe’) and a duet to literally die for with fellow Aussie, Nick Cave (‘Where The Wild Roses Grow’). Aficionados of this era may well sniff at the omission of the pleasing ‘Some Kind Of Bliss’ from this collection, while the truly besotted will surely shed a quiet tear for ‘German Bold Italic’.
Morphing into Kylie2000, Minogue returned to slay the country once more, armed with a pair of skimpy gold hotpants and a warehouse full of pop hooks good enough to hang a handbag on. Five years and one über-tune (‘Can’t Get You Out Of My Head’) later, while Body Language‘s BardotKylie may have rubbed off some of her sheen, the good news is that the two new tracks here are among her very best. ‘I Believe In You’ in particular is a nagging little gem, co-written with members of the latest New York name-to-drops, Scissor Sisters.
The most compelling evidence for a Minogue heart beating at Kylie’s control panel is her willingness to experiment, her tenacity at sticking things out and the absolute humanity of her errors. Still, whether you believe she’s a Botoxicated mannequin masterminded by others or a super trouper flying her own flag, at least half of these songs are undisputedly essential.
originally published May 19th, 2005
To the novice outsider, Latin-American music doesn’t seem to have all that much going for it. If you’re lucky, you’ll have bypassed completely the desperate attempts of Shakira and Enrique Iglesias to introduce some culture to their otherwise uninteresting output. Of course, no genre should be judged by its airbrushed pin-ups and it’s always worth digging just a little bit deeper. To those unafraid to scrabble around and delve beneath the muck, Argentine songstress Juana Molina will come as a welcome surprise – a genuine talent whose acoustic guitar doesn’t jar to the sound of tap dancers in flamenco dresses, whose voice is far removed from the shrill mating call of the Costa del Sol’s greased-up, hypersexual waiters. Moving into music following a successful career as a comedic actress in the 1980s, Son (Spanish for ‘sound’) is Molina’s third album and arguably her best to date, filled with Björk-like quirks and soothing bedsit rock.
The lyrics are an obvious stumbling block for the monolingual majority of Britons; there’s little depth here for non-Spanish speakers who may fail to be creatively captivated by what will essentially be a collection of meaningless sounds. Luckily, Molina is smart enough to realise this and attempts to avoid the problem by packing Son with liberal use of phonetically pleasing a cappella performances, particularly on the cooing ‘Yo No’. There are stylistic nods, too, to various English-speaking artists; both ‘Ha Que Ver Si Voy’ and ‘Elena’ contain elements of Jim Noir’s psychedelic chanting, while ‘Las Culpas’ arguably sounds like Cat Power after a particularly heavy night of drinking. Furthermore, the trumpet and didgeridoo mash-up on ‘La Verdad’ proves that Molina ain’t no one-trick potro, while ‘Desordenado’ is reminiscent of Gemma Hayes’s soft lulling harmonies and ‘Miceal’ is in a world of its own.
Although it’s rather unlikely that this relatively subdued album will find a sizable audience outside of the electro-folk faithful, Molina is a mightily skilled performer. So if you can bear to stay in the dark about what the hell she’s singing, you’ll find this record ideal for whiling away our many rainy days. Unlike many of the poster girls of Latin-American music, an English-language album from Molina would be no commercial gimmick, it would be an event! For now, however, just revel in the mystery.
originally published July 2nd, 2006
Getting Somewhere •••½
Unbeknownst to all but the most discerning and curious of UK music fans, country star Allison Moorer has quietly constructed an impeccable back catalogue, never compromising her values for mainstream success, remaining stubbornly loyal to the one thing that makes people return to her, album after album – the music. Each album has witnessed a distinct progression in her sound without losing one iota of her individual styling and wonderfully expressive voice. Having carved out a niche in the country-pop genre, Moorer is now much in demand for Hollywood soundtracks and a firm favourite on the live circuit, where in 2004 she recorded a live album with her older sister, the equally uncompromising Shelby Lynne. Now, in 2006, newly married to Steve Earle, it seems she finally feels as if she may be Getting Somewhere.
Moorer has created no shortage of gems since 1998’s debut album Alabama Song, immersing herself in the southern soul of 2000’s The Hardest Part before delivering 2004’s harder-edged The Duel. Her appeal owes a great deal to her ability to get beneath the skin of human relationships without lazily ambling down Cliché Street. Moorer takes the road less travelled, telling stories through anything but rose-tinted glasses. Just a short while into the album, however, it becomes clear that married life may have taken the edge off somewhat – Allison’s happy, and here’s a snappy, concise 39 minutes of mostly upbeat music to prove it. It’s refreshing to see an artist unafraid to say all she’s got to say in songs that rarely climb over the three minute barrier. When music’s this good, quality beats quantity every time. Though her husband’s production has left the drums a little leaden and tinny and the guitars a touch more grungy than anything she’s done before, the catchy melodies remain.
Opener ‘Work To Do’ unveils her newly positive outlook – “I’ve got a lot of work to do / got to give you back your point of view / it suits you fine / it’s just not mine…” – while ‘You’ll Never Know’, ‘Take It So Hard’ and the beautiful ‘Where You Are’ are all fine examples of her invigorating craft. That’s not to say there isn’t an undercurrent of doubt and anxiety, but the pop stylings and a cappella intro of ‘Fairweather’ make for an interesting contrast. Where the old Moorer would have sung this song of finding post-break-up freedom from the viewpoint of a wronged woman, here we have instead a liberated female looking forward to the single life. It’s a subtle distinction, but an important one nevertheless. More importantly, it’s also (whisper it quietly) single material, one of a couple of songs that feel like they’ve been written with a more commercial slant.
Another highlight and a nod to her previous output can be found in ‘If It’s Just For Today’, a realistic look at the reasons why two people get and stay together and reminiscent in feel to ‘Can’t Get There From Here’ from 2002’s Miss Fortune. It’s dedicated (perhaps a little bravely) to Earle; presumably his famously tough exterior took it in the way it’s intended. Whether or not Moorer will continue to allow this honeymoon period to influence her writing remains to be seen, but for the moment we should be happy for her and happy that she can still produce work of this quality. There’s a classic album in her somewhere; this isn’t it, but the summer would be worse without it.
originally published July 10th, 2006
Jagged Little Pill Acoustic •••
The first thing that came to mind when Alanis Morissette announced that she would be releasing a 10th Anniversary edition of her 1995 multi-multi-million selling debut Jagged Little Pill was that her label, Madonna’s famously loss-making Maverick Records, needed to boost their profit margin and quick. Certainly, this record is either a genius marketing ploy on their part or a genuine sign of Morissette’s affection for the songs, for rather than just repackaging the original along with a few live songs, four-track demos and a DVD of the lacklustre ‘Jagged Little Pill Live’ tour documentary, Morissette and her original producer Glen Ballard huddled back into the studio together to re-record the album as an all-acoustic feast.
To be honest, my expectations were not high. If any album was era-defining, Jagged Little Pill was it. Its angsty sturm-and-drang brought me into womanhood; yes, I was one of those girls punching my fist into the air with a feminist “fuck yeah!”, even though at age 11 I had little to really rave about. How pleasantly surprising then that Jagged Little Pill Acoustic is a minor revelation in itself. From the first opening note, Alanis’s own growth, both personal and musical, is clear. Although some songs hardly differ in terms of arrangement, the addition of some subtle orchestration and the obvious replacement of snarling electrics with gentle acoustic guitars all gels together for a very mellow and easygoing album, perfect for accompanying a long glass of Grenache.
Jagged Little Pill Acoustic runs to precisely the same order as its blueprint, and the opener ‘All I Really Want’ is a highlight in its new skin, recalling her epic 1998 album Supposed Former Infatuation Junkie, with its Eastern influences and dancing strings. This does, however, mean that the version of ‘Your House’ here must rank as the least unexpected hidden track in history. In spite of this, it varies on its previous theme by ditching the poetic a cappella and presenting itself as a gently strummed ditty. Elsewhere, the infamous single Ironic has undergone a slightly wincing lyrical change reflecting society’s progression into the Queer Eye age (“It’s like meeting the man of my dreams and then meeting his beautiful husband”) but otherwise is melodically intact and pleasant enough.
Considering the original’s inescapable ubiquity, this remake seems almost like a hits collection. But while best-ofs and greatest hits often leave this listener cold, Jagged Little Pill Acoustic clearly maps out Alanis’s musical journey over the past decade and serves as a reminder of a great collection of songs.
originally published September 9th, 2005
The Collection ••½
Arriving just a few months after a less-than-essential tenth anniversary acoustic edition of her mighty debut, Jagged Little Pill, it’s possible to view this hits compilation of Morissette’s work as symptomatic of record label desperation. Are Maverick simply trying their hardest to wring as much mileage as possible out of the back catalogue of an artist who, for many, has failed to fulfil the creative or commercial promise of her phenomenal early success? Errant thoughts such as these may well pass through your mind as you listen to The Collection. In all fairness, however, this retrospective does have a little more to offer than such a cynical assessment suggests. In particular, for those who gave up on Morissette in the late ‘90s – that is, about mid-way through the endurance test that was Supposed Former Infatuation Junkie – The Collection functions as a valuable recap of what she’s been up to since, and a chance for listeners to reflect upon the qualities that make her, at times, a very special artist indeed. Unfortunately, though, the record also offers a few clues as to why her post-Pill output has been somewhat less than stellar.
The 18 tracks chosen for the album are broadly representative: five songs from Jagged Little Pill, a smattering from her other studio records, one from her MTV Unplugged disc, a trio of soundtrack contributions, some rarities, and a new cover (for less casual listeners, a special digipak edition supplements the CD with a one-hour documentary and a few other extras). There are, inevitably, some regrettable omissions: superior album cuts such as ‘Front Row’, ‘Narcissus’, ‘Surrendering’, ‘21 Things I Want In A Lover’ and ‘That Particular Time’ would have better displayed her gifts than some of the chosen tracks, but then no ‘best of’ collection ever pleased everyone. Less surprisingly, but perhaps a little disappointingly for some, there’s nothing featured from her early days as a teenage bubble-permed popstar either. The inclusion of some particularly obscure tracks (such as ‘Mercy’, her contribution to Jonathan Elias’s 1999 project of multi-language devotional songs entitled The Prayer Cycle) indicates that Morissette intends The Collection to be something rather more ambitious than a standard greatest hits package.
The sequencing is non-chronological and begins with …Junkie’s enduring first single ‘Thank U’, one of several of her beguiling paeans to experience as teacher. Of the less familiar tracks, ‘Sister Blister’ (from the CD/DVD package Feast On Scraps) rocks nicely and offers a trenchant view of gender roles and female competitiveness. The aforementioned ‘Mercy’ is a bizarre inclusion, however; a botched attempt at spiritual rapture on which Morissette (singing in Hungarian) duets with Salif Keita. As admirable as her decision not to follow a predictable course with this release is, it’s a tactic that often backfires and renders The Collection a rather uneven listening experience.
Indeed, quality control is sadly variable throughout. At her best, Morissette is a witty and insightful writer whose songs excavate sharp emotional truths; at her worst, she sounds like she’s reciting from a self-help manual, and a second-rate one at that. For every subtle, surprising lyrical detail that strikes a nerve, such as “I remembered you the moment I met you” in ‘Simple Together’, there’s a corresponding slide into cringe-making banality: “I thought we’d be sexy together… I thought we’d have children together.” Also exposed is her irritating penchant for repetitious ‘listing’ song structures. This compositional style – an attempt at litany? – allows little room for ambiguity, nuance or progression beyond glib paradoxes of the “I’m the funniest woman you’ve ever known… I’m the dullest woman you’ve ever known” / “I’m your doubt and your conviction” variety.
Morissette’s vocal performances can be similarly erratic. Her singing on Jagged Little Pill had character, edge, spontaneity and the power to command your attention. And while these qualities are still sometimes in evidence on her later work, they have mostly been stifled by increasingly slick and soulless production. To listen to her music is to bear witness to a gradual erosion of personality. She is, The Collection also reveals, an artist whose interpretive skills still require honing. A new cover of Seal’s ‘Crazy’ is passable, though utterly undistinguished, but an over-eager take on Cole Porter’s ‘Let’s Do It (Let’s Fall In Love)’ from the ‘De-Lovely’ soundtrack cruelly exposes her limitations, sticking out like the proverbial sore thumb. Since many of her songs are somewhat similar in tempo, a little of her work can go a long way. Whatever their deficiencies, quieter moments such as ‘Simple Together’ and ‘That I Would Be Good’ do offer a needed respite.
The nicest surprise though is just how well the Jagged Little Pill tracks have worn: ‘You Oughta Know’ retains its startling ferocity, ‘Head Over Feet’ reveals itself as a surprisingly sweet love song, while ‘Hand In My Pocket’ remains a glorious anthem. But then you probably own all those songs already and they gain little when presented out of context. Of the other tracks, the disturbing ‘Hands Clean’ – which does allow for some lyrical ambiguity – is one that you may find yourself returning to. That Morissette is a talented young artist who has yet to fully find her voice on record is the abiding impression given by The Collection. Hopefully, its release will mark a turning point in her career, freeing her up to reconnect with her muse and thereby take her music in some interesting new directions.
originally published February 6th, 2006
The Morning After Girls
Shadows Evolve •••
Their press release will tell you that The Morning After Girls’s “… hazy melodies pull you right into the world of the morning after – a moment they characterise by a dreamy grogginess, a dischord of transient yet striking memories and sounds, nostalgia; a yearning to go back to last night…” Or, depending on your taste, just to stick your head in a toilet.
But seriously, The Morning After Girls are regarded by some as yet another entry in a long line of fashionable faux-New York bands who emulate Lou Reed; hard-working but perhaps a little over-hyped. So what the musical offspring of these five Aussies really sounds like is initially not so cool (at least, not in my book), taking us back to the shoegaze era with startling precision, where one must keep an eye out for The Charlatan-osaurus sniffing a Stone Rose on a kind of Happy Monday, whilst all team members probably dye their hair black in the name of über-chic and have definitely listened to the noisier bits of The Dandy Warhols.
OK, so you get the idea that The Morning After Girls (who, controversially, are all men save for sometime vocalist Aimee Nash) would probably have fitted in much better, say, fifteen years ago. Refer to the title track and ‘Always Mine’ for two obvious examples if you don’t just believe everything you read. Yes, this debut offering is mostly disguised as ‘proper indie’, even featuring a cameo by Ride’s Mark Gardener, no less, meaning I had to listen to it at least three times before I could even begin to appreciate it. After which, it was gathered that the word ‘disguised’ is particularly apt. Because, once you chomp past the somewhat indigestible and rather bland exoskeleton of self-proclaimed psychedelia moulded into the start of the album, you are rewarded with something much more worthy of your pennies.
So while the unavoidable instrumentals shamelessly appear to boast more of laziness than of creativity – the few lyrics that were thrown in justify this, even admitting “ain’t got a lot to say” – glowing treats from the melodic and upbeat ‘Straight Through You’ to the aggressive Cobain-esque vocal of first single ‘Hi-Skies’ and the sweeping stoner lust of The Beatles crossed with The Vines-inspired tracks like ‘Slowdown’ and ‘Chasing Us Under’, make for a much more convincing dynamic. Indeed, the phrase “saved by the bell” comes to mind.
Though by no means a unique specimen, The Morning After Girls are worth checking out as they pimp their noisy wares at the festivals this summer, if only to hear what they are under-rated for. Like uncovering a rare fossil of the long-forgotten time when Damon Albarn sported a bowl cut, blow off the dusty bits and you’ll no doubt get excited.
originally published June 12th, 2006
The great thing about Morningwood is that you’re left in no doubt when they’re in the vicinity. The New York foursome are loud, glam and put on a spectacular live show, largely helped by the youthful exuberance of their wonderfully christened frontwoman, Chantal Claret. But can they cut it on CD, stripped of their visuals and spontaneity? Well they certainly can’t be criticised for not giving it their best shot. Lead track ‘Nü Rock’ slaps you upside your head with an in your face rock ‘n’ roll tune and a statement of intent, Claret screaming “come on get over it, come on get into it” over crunching riffs before finishing with the battle cry “it starts right now!”
Next, ‘Televisor’ approaches metal territory with all guns blazing, with Claret’s wailing falsetto oozing attitude. But before you have them pegged as some sort of glam rock beast, ‘Nth Degree’ arrives to surprise and confuse. It’s basically a big MOR Europop number that sounds like it’s being played by electropop robots with lyrics that spell out the name of the band. You can imagine it going down well in gay discos across the land. And do you know what, it sounds pretty good. But by the time you reach the fourth track, ‘Jetsetter’, familiarity begins to creep in, bringing as it does a contemptible lack of fresh ideas. It’s the usual brash stomping tune, with aggressive riffs and a hollered bit over the drum break. Similarly, while ‘Take Off Your Clothes’ may inspire some audience members to do just that at their live shows, here it rips the heart from ‘Smells Like Teen Spirit’ and renders it simply boring. ‘Body 21′ carries on the slip into formulaic nonsense, being a semi-dramatic rock tune full of half-baked lyrical clichés like “my body’s 21 but my mind is ageless”. Elsewhere, ‘Easy’ is all stadium posturing and screeching electric guitar solos, while ‘Babysitter’ is slightly more restrained and all the better for it. It’s still none too exciting, however.
After all this, ‘New York Girls’ comes as a nice surprise, more New Wave pop than over the top. The interruptions from riffing guitars and Go! Team-style shambolics sit rather well in the tune and make for a more interesting listen. In fact, it marks the start of a closing trio that trounces the majority of the rest of the album. ‘Everybody Rules’ is straightforward bouncy pop but with cool singalong bits, while ‘Ride The Lights’ is a rather surprising Saint Etienne-style, saccharine-coated pedestrian pop song. With more songs like these, Morningwood could yet avoid being put down as a lame one-trick pony.
originally published March 8th, 2006
Morning Warning Chorus EP ••
There’s nothing especially bad about this release from Stoke-on-Trent’s Rebecca Mosley; there’s nothing particularly good either, and the unremarkable nature of her debut sampler makes it frustratingly difficult to review. Mosley may list her influences as “anything from Kate Bush and Liz Fraser to Elliott Smith and Leonard Cohen”, but it’s hard to detect any traces of the originality that characterises these artists in Mosley’s music; as such, her songs can only pale in comparison.
For starters, opening number ‘Power In Paper’ is discordant in an amateurish rather than artful fashion (see Nina Nastasia’s ‘I Say That I Will Go’ for a good example of the latter) and the lyrics are clunky; “so did they bolt up the truth / the document weight / such a flimsy folded fate” sounds little better sung than it does on the page. On a positive note, Mosley’s voice is strong and versatile; it deserves better songs to work with. The strident acoustic guitar work jars against the ears and the lack of structure really doesn’t help. ‘Queues’ meanders in at a lengthy 6:42, long outstaying its welcome despite some pleasingly growly vocals reminiscent of Tori Amos’s ‘Pancake’.
And then it’s back to the major bugbear: the lyrics. Mosley tries too hard to be clever and too often comes unstuck. Recalling the kind of poems you stumble upon in an old notebook from your student days, scan over and hastily put away with embarrassment, the words pile up against each other but what they actually add up to is anybody’s guess. For example, “so tell me a joke please / so I can store it in a cool dry place / with your plastic attic angels / on their stone cold changeling chase” (‘Store In A Cool Dry Place’). Elsewhere, we have “fickle-fisted words”, “speckled mascara gratings making negative constellations” and light that “plays tricks like flashback movie flicks”.
Nonsense rhyme and alliteration all have their place but tend to grate when used to excess and at the expense of communicating anything worthwhile. Back to the drawing board.
originally published November 23rd, 2006
Yesterday Was Dramatic, Today Is OK [reissue] •••
It was only after the crushingly beautiful and critically revered Ágætis Byrjun by fellow Icelanders Sigur Rós that experimental foursome Múm gained recognition in the UK, helped in no small way by the fact that their second album, 2002’s Finally We Are No One, was released on the same label. But to dismiss them for riding on their countrymen’s tails would be a mistake; in their own unassuming way, Múm were pioneers too, as this reissue of their 1999 debut proves, albeit for better or worse.
Originally released on tiny Icelandic indie label Thule, it soon went out of print and, following a long and messy legal wrangle, the band regained the rights earlier this year and set about remastering the songs in preparation for this re-release on German label, Morr Music. Aside from the fact that Morr is owned by friends of the band, their roster includes some of the IDM (Intelligent Dance Music) genre’s brightest leading lights, many of whom contributed to the Morr Music Múm remix record, Please Smile My Noise Bleed. A fitting home then, but what of the album itself?
Despite the newly-tooled tune-ups, Yesterday… only serves to indicate how far the band has come in the last half-decade. Disappointingly, twin sister siren-like vocalists Kristín and Gyða (who has since departed the band) Valtýsdóttir appear on only three tracks. But what tracks they are! The most glorious moments, for instance, the end of ‘There Is A Number Of Small Things’ and the first few minutes of ‘Awake On A Train’, are breathtakingly beautiful. The former is so full of joy that it conjures the urge to run through a sunlit grassy field, while the latter accurately replicates that inner warmth you can feel when looking out from the window of a train over a glinting snowy vista as it sparkles in the sun.
Mostly though, the album sounds like exactly what it is: a bunch of teenagers sitting in a room playing with a synthesiser and a few acoustic instruments. Many of the songs have a single musical theme that is endlessly repeated and changes infrequently. As a result, it occasionally gets excessively tiresome, and some of the noodling sound effects are painful. Certainly, if their later records can be said to hold some debt to Sigur Rós, Yesterday… suffers from being a touch too in thrall of Aphex Twin. It has some nice enough moments, but is really for completists only. If you’re new to the band, try the bewitching, aquatically-themed Finally We Are No One or last year’s simpler and wonderfully ghostly Summer Make Good.
originally published December 19th, 2005
Ruby Blue ••
Rumours of Moloko’s death have been greatly exaggerated. At least, I sincerely hope so. When quizzed on reuniting with her ex, Mark Brydon, the impossible-to-type Róisín ‘pronounced Rosheen’ Murphy has offered the predictably gnomic response, “I don’t not want to.” That’s promising enough for this listener. While the familiar set-up remains intact – feisty, barking mad Irish vocalist meets cutting-edge bedroom DJ turned producer – none of Moloko’s loveable Balearic stomp has survived. Instead, Murphy’s defection to one Matthew Herbert has resulted in an album of two halves; those of two egos. One is fragile and over-compensatory, getting back on its feet after a year of limbo, and the other overwhelmed and eager to please. This album is a make-or-break statement for both parties, which only adds to the overall disappointment.
Even in a world of iPod Shuffles and cut-and-paste playlists, an album should still be listened to properly, tracks one through twelve, at least until you can safely discard some of them without the risk of overlooking a nascent classic. It is therefore surprising that Ruby Blue‘s opening salvoes – the ones supposed to leap up and grab you by the balls – are so tentative, especially given how much this album has to prove. A faltering tinkle of keyboards kicks off ‘Leaving The City’, meandering in an aimless fashion that soon becomes a trademark of the album as a whole. Eventually, that husky croon we know and love shuffles to the forefront and remains there, steadfast. Reassuring? Unfortunately not. Instrumentation behind a voice as strong and distinctive as Murphy’s should complement and support, not jar as much as this. Herbert’s conscious decision to use a ramshackle collage of everyday random noises, jazz refrains, dance grooves and synthetic skiffle very rarely hits the right note. ‘Night Of The Dancing Flame’ can only be described as Dizzy Gillespie meets The Ewoks.
Things are a little brighter with ‘Through Time’. It’s a welcoming simpler affair, wrapped in gentle layers of organ and decorated with plucked acoustic guitar and cascading arpeggiated motifs. Heralding a string of stronger offerings, it is soon followed by ‘Sow Into You’. Here, one is reminded of Muphy’s Moloko diva status; a status built on a dance remix of ‘Sing It Back’ that made it onto over a hundred compilations and hundreds more dancefloors. The first and most obvious single from Ruby Blue comes with ‘If We’re In Love’, easily the most accessible and immediate of Murphy’s erratic stable. “If we’re in love, we should make love. When will be lovers?” she asks. One has a sneaking suspicion that this enigmatic girl isn’t letting on as much as we’d like to imagine. This is a lyric as poptastically bland as the market she’s aiming for.
For me, the title track is far too long coming. Buried three-quarters of the way into the album, it’s a glorious romp of grunge guitar, handclaps, jubilant backing “woos!” and swirling, multi-layered vocals. Sadly, it’s an all too brief glimpse into the heights that Murphy and Herbert could scale, but… well… don’t. The album’s solid middle section finishes here, bookended by a clutch of damp squibs. It bows out on as subdued a note as it started. Perhaps Murphy really was assuming that people would listen this solely on an iPod Shuffle.
This record might have served as a versatile and grandiose addition to Matthew Herbert’s portfolio – surely his magnum opus so far. Instead, it falls flat, weighed down by overbearing vocals far too high in the mix and much too complex to play bedfellow to the laboured production. Indeed, this is as much Herbert’s record as it is Murphy’s, but ultimately it’s to the detriment of both.
originally published August 7th, 2005
Filed under: album, back issues, live, review | Tags: alan pedder, anja mccloskey, beth orton, ian buchan, joan osborne, laura-may coope, peter hayward, tara jane o'neil, the organ
The following reviews were all published on our old website between May 2005 and December 2006.
Tara Jane O’Neil
In Circles •••½
Quietly making a name for herself is perhaps an oxymoronic statement to make about Portland, Oregon-based noise artist Tara Jane O’Neil but that’s exactly what she’s been doing for the last six years. Signed to hipster label Touch & Go / Quarterstick since the age of nineteen, the multi-instrumentalist, songwriter, engineer and painter has enjoyed the freedom of not having to adhere to convention, accumulating instead an enjoyable back catalogue of multi-faceted and unconventional avant-folk compositions firmly rooted in earthly sounds and concerns.
Following this year’s A Raveling EP in which she explored electronic textures, her fourth album sees O’Neil rediscover her love for the song. Recorded in its entirety within the walls of wooden houses and often including the natural noises of such an environment, In Circles is so authentic and simple that it gives her music a new approachability. A certain freshness is also found in her collaborations with veteran indie musician friends recruited from the likes of Blood On The Wall, Ida Fuck and Jackie-O Motherfucker.
Like watching the dawn break after a long dark night, the album reveals its magical tone from the outset; opener ‘Primer’ is a delicate intro of natural sounds, bells and chimes with guitars and percussion dancing to a primal rhythm. Better still is ‘A Partridge Song’, a memorable jaunt into fragile traditional folk. Unusually for O’Neil, her vocals are neither layered nor projected for a large part of the song. With guitars and subtle sonic flourishes as her only accompaniment, this beautiful arrangement is the album standout by far.
Moving on to comparatively heavier sounds, ‘The Louder’ sticks rather closer than you’d imagine to the perimeter of classic singer-songwriter territory with layered guitars and a traditional drum arrangement. Even so, O’Neil’s vocals are treated as an additional instrument rather than the central focus of the song, causing the lyrics to drift just out of earshot in places. ‘A Sparrow Song’ follows a similar concept, though this time the vocals are captured in ghost-like choir form, a delicate play of harmonies and dissonances. It’s atmospheric and pretty, with an additional flute motif giving it a worldly feel, but it lacks that vital something to remember it by. Elsewhere, a number of other songs (and particularly ‘Blue Light Room’ and ‘Need No Pony’) also suffer from this absence.
As such, In Circles is most interesting when O’Neil explores her interest in mixing folk instrumentation with electronic arrangements, such as on the wordless ‘Fundamental Tom’, mini-adventure ‘This Beats’ and the dark-as-you-like ‘The Looking Box’. ‘A Room For These’ also succeeds, delivering the goods with some semblance of urgency and interesting textures for O’Neil’s ghostly vocals.
It’s clear that after four albums and various EPs, O’Neil has become something of an old hand at what she does. That her output often lacks edginess and occasionally lapses into sonic wallpaper territory is a shame, for when she does explore her limits and verges into harmonic and electronic explorations, the results are truly inspiring.
originally published November 23rd, 2006
Grab That Gun ••••
Just a few bars into ‘Brother’, Grab That Gun‘s commanding introduction, and you’re hit by an effects-drenched chord progression straight out of an early, danceable Cure track. So it’s no surprise that Canadian quintet The Organ are being bombarded with comparisons, and not just to Robert Smith’s enduring misfits. In recent years the New Wave revival has been inescapable, with the likes of Interpol, Hot Hot Heat and The Rapture apeing early goth to the point of making you want to go to dark clubs just to stand in the corners and stare at your plimsolls. So are The Organ late to the party?
No is the answer, and for two good reasons. The first is that Grab That Gun was released in North America back in November 2004 and is inexplicably only just bursting out of the stall over here. The second is that it’s not really a case of being late per se. The Organ don’t so much look back at the 1980s than hop into a time machine and make believe that everything post-1983 hasn’t ever actually happened. It’s a powerhouse approach to pastiche, with taut songs of longing, daydreaming and disconnection carried along on a wave of jangly guitar work. The melodies are instantly Cure-like, but trip appealingly all over the place as if Johnny Marr had fallen downstairs trying to do up his shoelaces.
And The Smiths comparisons don’t stop there; lead singer Katie Sketch is, vocally at least, a dead ringer for a female Morrissey, to the point that the observation seems so obvious as to be trite. Then there’s the trademark deadpan song titles like ‘No One Has Ever Looked So Dead’ and ‘I Am Not Surprised’. But what Sketch has over a hundred inferior Smiths tribute bands is the ability to make every vocal sound like she’s reaching for something she can never quite get to. It’s dour, yes, but totally intoxicating. They come a little undone on songs like ‘Basement Band Song’ where repetition starts to creep in, but beyond that it’s a difficult album to find any fault with. A lot of these songs have been lifted and re-recorded from their 2002 debut EP, Sinking Hearts, and with good reason. Last year’s excellent single, ‘Memorize The City’, is an obvious highlight, with its delayed guitars and an urgency that sends Sketch’s vocals scurrying around a handsomely infectious hook.
It’s great to see an all-female indie band that isn’t pelting the emo or goth-rock scene with cleavage. Katie Sketch is delightfully androgynous and the songs are rather less likely to have you reaching for the razor blades than they are to send you deep into the New Forest to re-examine your entire existence. These songs are no mere accompaniment to a look. The Organ are touring this spring. You’d be a fool to miss them, though I feel slightly sorry that they’re going to have to tout four-year old songs for the benefit of us Brits. Don’t forget to clap your heads even harder. Girls Aloud this ain’t.
originally published February 6th, 2006
Comfort Of Strangers ••••½
As anyone who has ever caught one of her live shows would know, Beth Orton has a wicked sense of humour that’s absolutely unprepossessing. So the fact that her fourth album opens with ‘Worms’s lyrical shot right out of the leftfield ballpark might hardly even register were it not so utterly nutso. And when the chorus proclaims her an “apple-eatin’ heathen”, you’d be forgiven for thinking she’s been tucked away these past four years living on a diet of Fiona’s strange fruit. The comparison is all but inescapable, really; the jazzy bounce of Ted Barnes’s drums and Orton’s piano coated with some of her most pithy lyrics to date could easily fit on Extraordinary Machine, the tricksy changes in cadence and phrasing notwithstanding. It’s a healthy sign of life, and so while the countrified, nature-will-prevail groove of ‘Countenance’ lands us on more familiar ground, there’s plenty to keep the interest piqued. Witness the glorious use of Orton’s own backing vocals and Barnes’s softly frenetic drumming in the final chorus and be in no doubt that this is her most fully realised record yet.
How refreshing then to discover that the whole thing was committed to tape in roughly a fortnight. It seems that although Orton has been playing with some of these songs for at least two years, all it needed was the flinty-voiced northeasterner to find the right somebody to spark off. After abortive sessions with Adem and Four Tet’s Kieran Hebden, Orton teamed up with producer Jim O’Rourke (most recently a member of a resurgent Sonic Youth) and the magic, it seems, finally happened. Given that O’Rourke’s past production duties have lurched between disparate styles, his relatively hands-off approach to Comfort Of Strangers does Orton many great favours. Never before has she sounded so nuanced and personable, even on her benchmark album Central Reservation. She’s always been a fantastic singer, but by allowing her vocals more space in the mix, more prominence, she’s nothing short of sensational. Sure, she still has a tendency to slur out some of the lyrics, but her economy of diction works in these sparser surroundings.
Lead single ‘Conceived’ is simply the best thing she’s released in years, with its insistent drum beat, handsome swells of organ and strings, huge singalong chorus and the sweet trill of O’Rourke’s marimba. The soft brushed cymbals, gently plucked guitar and sparkly piano interludes of the sumptuous title track are downright irresistible. Lyrically, too, it’s a beauty. The plaintive chorus of “I’d rather have no love than messing with the wrong stuff, it’s just the comfort of strangers” is a perfect example of Orton’s skilfully understated and tender confessionals. Elsewhere, ‘Heartland Truckstop’ is a neat continuation of the road trip iconography that runs through her work like a dusky beautiful bruise, while ‘Shopping Trolley’ and ‘Pieces Of Sky’ echo the celestial fixation of her earlier songs like ‘Galaxy Of Emptiness’ and ‘Stars All Seem To Weep’. Happily, it’s equally impossible to single out a favourite track as it is to pick out a weak one. ‘Heart Of Soul’ is certainly a contender for the former honour; a strident, near-anthemic little number, it boasts some of Orton’s most convincing vocals and lyrical gems like “you can’t watercolour a firecracker” and the commanding refrain of “I don’t care how much religion you’ve got, you gotta put a little love in your heart” all add up to something pretty damn special.
That said, this won’t be to everyone’s taste. Even a decade on from her unit-shifting debut Trailer Park, some will still bemoan the exclusion of any electronica here, but it’s plainly obvious and has been for some time now that Orton has no interest in rejuvenating the hackneyed ‘comedown queen’ tag ungainly thrust upon her in the old days. Now in her mid-30s, Orton has shown with Comfort Of Strangers that she has something exquisite and different to bring to the Big Chill table. And it’s better than anyone could ever have foreseen.
originally published February 16th, 2006
Live at Warwick Arts Centre ••••
February 17th, 2006
Listening to Beth Orton is a far more involving experience than simply hearing a collection of words and harmonies; she is a quaint reminder of all things female, lacking in all that is contemporary ‘celebrity’, and displaying instead a welcome vulnerability and her uniquely self-conscious form of storytelling. In a week that was filled with gossip magazines and tabloids splashed with headlines regarding Chantelle’s post-‘Big Brother’ faux-fame antics and Paris Hilton stumbling all over the autocue at the Brits, I was eager to see something distinctly natural, something with experience, emotional awareness and intellect. A 40-minute dose of Beth Orton, complete with faded jeans and scuffed worn shoes, turns out to be the perfect medicine. Not a miniature poodle or footballer boyfriend in sight!
The return of the old-style Orton, the one who sang about a ‘Galaxy Of Emptiness’ and a particular ‘Sweetest Decline’, has been warmly received by most. At last, the somewhat weaker and commercially-targeted Daybreaker can now be safely placed at the back of the CD shelf, as her voice is once again divine and jam-packed with emotion, as if she’s been swept right back to her younger days with a brain overflowing with fresh experience. Tonight, Orton performs a welcome selection of tracks from new album Comfort Of Strangers with a subtle confidence, as if deep down she knows that the audience is going to adore every moment of her unpretentious, personal performance. Even if she doesn’t, she needn’t worry. Songs such as ‘Worms’, a passionate verbal attack, and ‘Absinthe’, a bittersweet exploration of love, have the devoted crowd fixated. Her gangly, waif-like physical presence is contrasted by her haunting voice and desire to share her trauma and elation with every member of the audience. Notes are passed to her mid-song that cause her to leap about and start up mini conversations throughout the set, and she is happy to perform any favourites suggested by the crowd. The one thing she does deny her fans is a rendition of her classic, poignant love song ‘Central Reservation’; with a semi-smile and a cringe, she informs us that she has “something against that one now”.
In each tiny instance of a shift in mood, Orton allows us an extra inch of insight into her unusual and often overlooked talent. She may not grace the gossip columns from day to day, but her fame and what made her so gently revered is delivered with grace and a reminder of what ingredients are needed to make a modern, admirable woman.
originally published March 8th, 2006
Pretty Little Stranger ••
As far as guilty pleasures go, the following is quite an admission: I really like Joan Osborne’s 1994 globe conquering track ‘One Of Us’. There’s something about the brazenness of a song that closes with the line “nobody calling on the phone, except the pope maybe in Rome”, that I admire. And what’s more, I actually really like the album it comes from. There are four or five songs on Relish besides ‘One Of Us’ that are much less mawkish and show a Joplin-esque knack for the blues. The title track of Pretty Little Stranger contains lines that, although less evangelical than ‘One Of Us’, are no less naively charming: “There is a young boy who used to ride the A train / I want to tag him like a tiger / so I can track him as he moves around the city / so I can guard him like an angel”, bears a slightly stalkerish sense of fun. But Osborne, for some reason, can get away with this sort of thing. Perhaps it is the simple, unostentatious arrangements, or maybe it is that big, ballsy, bluesy voice.
Pretty Little Stranger is Osborne’s country album, and she has gone at it with some gusto. With backing from Allison Kraus and Rodney Crowell and heavy use of slide guitar on a cover of Kris Kristofferson’s ‘Please Don’t Tell Me How The Story Ends’, this album is pitched firmly in the sort of territory inhabited by Rosanne Cash, Alison Moorer and Shelby Lynne. Following in the torch singing country tradition established by Patsy Cline, Cash and Moorer in particular have wrested the genre from the trite and formulaic grasp of establishment Nashville, using their excellent songwriting, interpretation and powerful voices to bring tales of sorrow, injustice, loss and tough love to an audience more used to candyfloss serenades to the singer’s cousin and power ballads about hog wrasslin’ polished to within an inch of their shelf lives. However, Osborne in no way achieves the same heights as Cash and Moorer, and rather, she sits with the latter’s sister Lynne, frequently missing the point of what she seems to be trying to do. Rather, Pretty Little Stranger becomes a showcase for Osborne’s big voice.
It is a common affliction among people possessed of such voices, that they feel they have to use them all the time (cf. Tina Turner, Anastasia). ‘Shake The Devil’ is a prime example. A delightful, folky acoustic number penned by Osborne herself, it would have benefited from a much subtler take; the anguished vocals are obvious and brash. Don’t get me wrong, a big voice can be a remarkable thing – Tina Turner’s ‘River Deep, Mountain High’ is the best recorded vocal of all time (fact!) – but on tender ballads, slow love songs or country acoustic numbers, less can surely be more.
The more up-tempo songs fare better from the Osborne treatment. ‘After Jane’, a self-penned end-of-an-affair song, has enough backing to carry the weighty pained voice, although the song itself is a bit weak. ‘Who Divided’ is a fantastic honky tonk take on the matter of heartbreak in which Osborne rises mightily to the challenge of the clamorous backing and captures the wry humour of the song. It’s a pity that so many of the other Osborne originals on the album lack finesse; while the adolescent poetry can be charming to some extent, the joke wears a little thin over the six compositions here. Covers of Patty Griffin (‘What You Are’), Kristofferson, and ‘Till I Get It Right’ (made famous by Tammy Wynette) illustrate that Osborne can spot a good song, but highlight the failings of her own. And all suffer from the big-voice treatment. ‘What You Are’, however, is a slow-burning delight, replete with cheesy guitar solo and Osborne’s powerful voice veering into ‘80s balladry by the country backroads with shoop shoop backing: another guilty pleasure right there.
Though it is in no way a terrible album, Pretty Little Stranger could have been so much better: a couple fewer self-penned songs and a more sensitive approach to the vocals, and Osborne would be in danger of making a seriously good addition to the slightly leftfield classic country canon. And for a moment on the closing, tender Rodney Crowell-penned ‘When The Blue Hour Comes’, it looks like she has got it right. The voice is fragile, the song is poetic and delicately balanced…and then she reaches the chorus, takes a deep breath and spoils the whole thing. This is an album that those with an ear for a guilty pleasure will want to like much more than they actually do.