Filed under: album, review | Tags: 2009, charlotte richardson andrews, christopher monk, james m johnston, laura tsaggaris, music, reverie sound revue, simon christopher, simone white, susan tedeschi
Reverie Sound Revue
Reverie Sound Revue •••½
The career path of Reverie Sound Revue doesn’t speak of a band intent on world domination. They released a self-titled EP in 2003 and then promptly split up. But six years later, here they are again, releasing an album which is, confusingly, also self-titled. Their latest Wikipedia entry states, somewhat tersely, that the band “have no plans to play live”. Oh well. The music of Reverie Sound Revue is in keeping with their skittish image. Lisa Lobsinger (who, like most Canadians, is an occasional member of Broken Social Scene) coos serenely over undulating, vaguely Krautrock-y basslines, twinkly, unobtrusive guitar arpeggios and the occasional vibraphone. Imagine School Of Seven Bells with the noisier shoegaze influences shorn off.
Filed under: album, mp3, review | Tags: 2009, autorotation, cogwheel dogs, james m johnston, joanne gibson, julie feeney, music, rebecca mosley, rhian jones
In this first batch of mini-reviews: Autorotation, Cogwheel Dogs and Julie Feeney.
* * *
Everything Is Everything •••
What happens when a fixed-wing aircraft goes into stall? Spontaneous and continuous rolling to the right or left, otherwise known as autorotation. By taking this newly adopted name for their third album Everything Is Everything, the London-based electronica collective formerly known as Bleep take on one of the great signifiers of the modern age with all its free enterprise economics and carbon footprints. But within the smooth electronic loops and dives, enchanting string arrangements and Robyn Sellman’s ethereal vocals hunkers and lurks a flatly worded sermon indicting the ‘machine’: capitalism, pollution, supply and demand, and generally life as we know it.
Filed under: album, mp3, review | Tags: 2009, james m johnston, music, tara jane o'neiul, TJO
Tara Jane O’Neil
A Ways Away ••••
“Don’t fuck it up. Don’t put your clouds and shit all over it,” said Tara Jane O’Neil, quoting her own thoughts in our recent interview. She was worried that she might turn her first “pop record” back into her more traditional “cloud music”, as friends have labelled it. Newcomers to O’Neil might think cloud music is a perfect metaphor for her fifth solo album, A Ways Away; it drifts and flows, puffing out into dreamy shapes, driven urgently at times before shooting upwards and threatening to burst. But as she acknowledged herself: “The new album is very song-y.” Indeed, this is perhaps the tightest we’ve ever seen O’Neil; only two tracks break five minutes in an all-too-fleeting album.
Filed under: album, review | Tags: 2008, gudrun gut, james m johnston, music
I Put A Record On ••••½
For someone who has been recording, producing and churning out remixes for 20 years or so, and whose eclectic CV includes founding the art-rock band Malaria!, multimedia art collaborations, film scores, DJ work and heading up two labels (Monika Enterprise and Moabit Music), it’s remarkable that I Put A Record On marks Gudrun Gut’s debut album proper. As the Monika Enterprise website states, “Gut promotes unconventional attitude,” and that could equally serve as the tagline for the record. It’s a culmination of those life experiences, a mass of samples, sounds and styles all linked by a downtempo electro beat.
Filed under: album, back issues, review | Tags: adam smith, alela diane, alex ramon, andy wasley, ani difranco, callum sinclair, celine dion, damon and naomi, gem nethersole, hilary duff, hugh armitage, james m johnston, orion rigel dommisse, siobhan donaghy, the donnas
The following reviews were published on our old MySpace blog in 2007.
Damon & Naomi
Within These Walls ••
When I was about 15, a friend passed me a tape in maths class. “My sister got into these guys at university, and I reckon they’re amazing too so I made you a tape. Let me know what you reckon.” That album was Galaxie 500’s second, On Fire, but despite the generosity of the gesture, I wasn’t impressed at the time – far too spindly and distant for someone revelling in Silverfish and their lurching ilk – and the tape eventually found its way to the dustier regions of my nascent collection. Times change, though, and when I found the tape again a few years later, what I’d previously taken for limp-wristed feyness revealed itself as an emotionally blasted combination of slowed tempos, sparse if occasionally searing instrumentation and aching melodies, its power somehow multiplied by dislocated and dislocating production. With hindsight, On Fire opened my ears to a different way of making (rock) music, since expanded into a genre – ‘slowcore’ (cringe!) – by the likes of Low, Codeine et al. In short, I owe Galaxie 500 for changing my life.
Damon Krukowski and Naomi Yang were Galaxie’s drummer and bassist, respectively, and after Dean Wareham split the band in 1991 (moving on to form Luna with Britta Phillips) his erstwhile bandmates stuck together under their Christian names. Of the two, it’s Damon & Naomi who are the more obvious descendants of Galaxie 500, leaning more toward the elegiac and wistful than Luna’s more pop-oriented efforts. Each of their previous six albums seems to have been expressly designed with notions of ‘sadness’ and ‘longing’ in mind, and have been more about developing an elegantly downbeat atmosphere than penning memorable songs per se.
While it’s true that this is never a bad thing in itself, it starts to become limiting when a band builds an entire career on it. The only memorable shift in their outlook came when they began collaborating with members of Japanese psych-rock luminaries Ghost, around the time of the prosaically named Damon & Naomi With Ghost LP. Ghost guitarist and arch collaborator Michio Kurihara is pretty much a permanent fixture in the band nowadays, and his presence continues the subtle fleshing out of the Damon & Naomi sound heralded by that album.
And subtle it is. Now, wrapped around a constant bedrock of strummed guitars and wispy vocals, are translucent gauzes of strings, horns, sax and Kurihara’s luminescent guitar work – all beautifully realised, with utmost craft and care taken to ensure that no one part overwhelms the whole in anything approaching tastelessness. And with that, we arrive at the reason why, for all the wrong reasons, this album makes me want to cry: it’s too damn tasteful. All the songs are gorgeous, the instruments gliding around each other like glittering shoals in a dappled koi pool, interlocking better than a Swiss watch…and boring this listener to death. There are ten songs here, one of them mentions lilacs, another’s about a queen or something, but it doesn’t really matter because it all. sounds. the. same. Buy it on vinyl, shut your eyes, drop the needle and play a fun game of Guess The Song; you will fail, miserably.
As I said earlier, it’s like they’ve built the entire album around preconceived ideas of the emotions they want to convey; imagine a corporate brainstorming session where ‘wistful’ and ‘elegiac’ are bubbles on a whiteboard and you’re pretty much there. It’s slow without a trace of the core, and that’s a great shame.
The Pirate’s Gospel ••••
First things first, this is not a gospel record. Alela Diane deals in the kind of languid folk that, if listened to as dawn arrives, can conjure gothic images of silhouetted trees across a misty field, yet in the full light of day will put a spring in your step and make you smile out at the world passing by. The Pirate’s Gospel, originally self-released with a slightly longer tracklist, is Diane’s official debut, discounting her limited edition vinyl EP Songs Whistled Through White Teeth and her intricate hand-drawn, stitched-sleeved CD-R Forest Parade. Fans of Jolie Holland will find some distinct similarities with the object of their affection. Take Diane’s arrangements, for example. Alela accompanies her rich tones with hypnotic arpeggios on the guitar and little else. Where it does crop up, the sparse accompaniment comes in the form of whistling and handclaps; otherwise the siren is joined by a group of men with swelling bass tones on the foot-tapping title track, a children’s choir on ‘Pieces Of String’, and nicely blended female voices at various intervals.
Diane hails from Nevada City, California, also home to Joanna Newsom, who first brought her to the public’s attention. It’s old California out there; everything you see, hear and touch is a link to the past. Giant oak trees, rusting pickup trucks, wooden porches with swing chairs, tatted lace handed down through generations and rivers once fought over for gold. This is the world that informs her music as she takes us deep into the dimly lit recesses of California’s collective conscious. It’s a place where a father reaches for the rifle on the wall because “they’re coming from the woods” and mamas are “a-runnin’ too”. Here, the mood is of midnight and the spectre of Cat Power lingers nearby.
Music, family, loss and unfamiliarity weigh heavily in the album’s lyrics, as they do in pioneer literature. In ‘Can You Blame The Sky?’ she asks “can you blame the sky / when a mama leaves her babies behind?”, and in the emotionally charged album highlight ‘Oh! My Mama’ she recalls her mother saying “use your voice… sing, sing, sing, sing, sing” and wonders whether she will “play the guitar like her father does”. There’s an element of timelessness to these songs. The change of pace and tone with the light and hook-laden ‘Somethings Gone Awry’ is reminiscent of a nursery rhyme or traditional tune, the melody immediately embedding itself in your memory.
Diane’s songs seek lyrical solace in odd domestic artefacts, religious imagery and nature, and her voice will take to you to places that are haunting yet eerily familiar. Above all, they are deceptively simple, stripped bare to the bone, as you will be when the album draws to a close. The Pirate’s Gospel is a genuine classic, and already the highlight of 2007.
James M Johnston
First of all a guilty confession: the music of the esteemed Ms DiFranco had more or less passed me by up until now (boo, hiss, shame etc.). Overwhelmed by the sheer volume of her output and by her amazing productivity – 17 albums in 17 years, plus copious EPs and concert releases – the main problem seemed to be where to start. With the early folk? The recent jazzy experiments? The live recordings? Happily, for anyone in the same boat, there’s now a very simple answer to the question of where to begin your DiFranco journey: get yourself a copy of her double-disc retrospective Canon and saddle up for a heady introduction to the work of a remarkable artist.
The 36 songs on Canon trace a broadly chronological path through DiFranco’s career, encompassing tracks from all of her albums, from her self-titled 1990 debut to last year’s Reprieve. The press release for the collection emphasises its status as no mere ‘best of’; rather, this is an “album that’s arranged and intended to be played from beginning to end,” one made to DiFranco’s “precise specifications.” Would we expect anything less? After all, DiFranco has long been celebrated as an icon of independence on the music scene, releasing all of her work through her own Righteous Babe label and retaining full control over all aspects of her music. Given the extraordinary amount of material she’s put out in the last 17 years, the decision of what to include on Canon can’t have been easy, but DiFranco has produced a carefully packaged and extremely well-sequenced collection with a strong sense of track-by-track flow.
The first thing to strike is the wonder of her guitar playing and her lyrical dexterity. DiFranco’s songs teem with imagery and detail, and she darts around the tunes with an exhilarating speed and momentum. Her rapid, attention-grabbing playing style is perfectly in sync with her vocal delivery with its funky, almost conversational quality and appealing snap and snarl (surely a formative influence on Alanis Morissette?), and also with her lyrics, which are similarly direct and upfront, full of sharp edges and breathless wordplay. Like someone on a caffeine jag, the typical DiFranco song comes at you in a rush, with a hasteful, even aggressive urgency, a need to get it all out ‘now’. Her music bristles with the brazen, nervous energy of her native New York – brilliantly described in ‘Cradle & All’ as “the city that never shuts up” – and feels intrinsically urban with images of fire escapes, subway trains, “men pissing in doorways,” “trash on the kerbs” and “traffic hissing by.”
That’s not to say that she can’t also be introspective and reflective, as on the touching piano-led post-show rumination ‘You Had Time’ and the measured, meditative ‘Grey’. Indeed, at their best, her songs sometimes spark similar shocks of recognition to those of a Mitchell or an Amos. Witness the reference to “last night’s underwear in my back pocket / sure sign of the morning after” in ‘Cradle & All’, or the moment in the sublime ‘32 Flavors’ in which the narrator pauses mid self-eulogy to acknowledge that “there’s many who’ve turned out their porch lights / just so I would think they were not home / and hid in the dark of their windows / ‘til I passed and left them alone.” With her poet’s eye for detail, DiFranco builds her songs out of fleet-footed images, vignettes and narrative fragments. Thematically, much of her work takes place at the juncture where the personal and the political intersect. ‘God’s Country’ dramatises an encounter between the Brooklynite narrator and a state-trooper on some lonesome highway. “This may be God’s country but this is my country too / move over Mr. Holiness, let the little people through” DiFranco sings, leaving it up to the listener to decide whether she’s addressing God, the cop, or both.
‘Subdivision’ anatomises poverty, homelessness and contemporary manifestations of segregation (“America the Beautiful is just one big subdivision”), while ‘Paradigm’ is a complex celebration of the political commitment of her immigrant parents, with DiFranco recalling herself as “just a girl in a room full of women / licking stamps and laughing” and remembering “the feeling of community brewing / of democracy happening”. ‘Hello Birmingham’ explores both civil and abortion rights, and the stunning ‘Fuel’ begins with the discovery of a slave cemetery and goes on to take some well-aimed pot shots at everything from clueless Presidential candidates (“Tweedle-dumb and Tweedle-dumber”) to corporate culture.
Clearly, DiFranco does not fear didacticism, but her socio-political critiques seldom sound facile or glib. She can be a lot of fun too, and it’s central to her appeal that she can crack you up one moment and make you think about society’s ills the next. Canon gives a full indication of her multi-faceted personality as an artist, as well as a valuable insight into the evolution of her sound and her lyrical concerns. Meanwhile, four judiciously chosen concert cuts – ‘Distracted’ (a spoken-word reflection on the accusation that her work has abandoned politics in favour of safer subject matter), ‘Untouchable Face’ (a wry kiss-off to an ex), ‘Gravel’ and ‘Joyful Girl’ offer a pleasing glimpse into the DiFranco live experience.
There is, it must be admitted, a strong streak of self-consciousness about some of DiFranco’s work, and it’s particularly evident on the spirited but slightly unpleasant ‘Napoleon’, an infamous diss to a friend who signed with a major label, which features a told-you-so coda that can’t avoid a whiff of smug self-righteousness. Alongside ‘Shameless’, ‘Your Next Bold Move’, ‘Both Hands’ and ‘Overlap’ (all excellent), ‘Napoleon’ is one of the re-worked tracks which are placed at the end of each disc as an enticement to fans who may otherwise be reluctant to pay out for a collection that probably doesn’t include much material that they don’t already possess. (A DiFranco rarities disc must surely be on the cards at some point.) But while the dearth of new material on ‘Canon’ means that, aside from the reworked tracks, the collection has less to offer long-time DiFranco aficionados, for newcomers to her work this is absolutely the perfect place to start.
Taking Chances •
Earlier this year, SonyBMG announced that its Quebecois star Céline Dion had sold over 200 million albums worldwide, making the Vegas favourite one of the world’s biggest-selling female artists; not only that, but in the last 15 years she has built up a formidable collection of gongs, including two Oscars, five Grammies and three Golden Globes, not to mention the Orders of Canada and Quebec. She has collaborated with stars as iconic as Aretha Franklin, Michael Jackson, Sir Elton John and Luciano Pavarotti, and released more than 25 albums in two languages, scoring dozens of chart-topping singles in countries around the world. And, in the midst of all of this, she has somehow managed to squeeze in a two-year career break to raise her son and nurse her husband through cancer. The woman has seemingly limitless energy.
It’s a shame, then, that all of this success cannot do anything to change the fact that Céline Dion is – and always has been – a redoubtably formulaic performer, utterly dependant on tried-and-tested techniques and seemingly unable to lend any sense of imagination or emotional variety to her music. It could well be that her consistently unchallenging approach is precisely what has made her so successful: doing the same thing time after time is both safe and lucrative. Unfortunately, it’s also boring, a fact more than adequately proved by her new album, the inaptly-named Taking Chances.
The title promises far more than it can deliver as Dion howls her way through 17 songs in that familiar, grating, over-loud way that has made her fortune. Rushing straight into the album’s eponymous opening number with an inelegant vibrato and hammed emoting, she quickly revisits all of her most familiar faults in track after track. Her rendition of Heart’s 1980s standard ‘Alone’ contains most of those faults: the mechanical vibrato, the oddly impersonal over-production, the needless vocal runs, and those awful, ear-shattering high-pitched shrieks, all combining to create an intensely nasty aural assault. One of Dion’s most consistent errors is her inability to temper her natural vocal power with a bit of softness; equating emotional intensity with volume, this leads to some memorably ugly music – including the execrable ‘New Dawn’, a mock-religious horror that will have Mahalia Jackson turning in her grave.
Perhaps the most disappointing thing about the album is that, musically, it actually has potential. For example, Delta Goodrem’s Bollywood-inspired ‘Eyes On Me’ is a fantastic piece of music, sadly ruined by Dion’s caterwauling and her grotesque parody of childish naïveté. ‘That’s Just The Woman In Me’ is a Hammond-fuelled gospel piece of great colour and flair which, had it been performed by a truly emotional singer such as Nina Simone or even Mavis Staples, would be stunning; instead, we are treated to a bizarre form of evangelistic torture by Ms Dion, whose uniquely horrible attempt to enliven the song with a few off-beat phrases beats Kenny Everett’s preacher parody into a cocked hat.
The album’s only truly passable song, ‘Skies Of LA’, remains as mawkish as Dion’s usual fare, only achieving a little more credibility because, for once, she eschews her trademark vocal runs for a decent piece of ordinary singing; still, it’s badly over-produced and sounds as though she threw it in just to show that she can do the normal stuff. The simple fact is that although Dion really does have a technically excellent voice, she can’t use it to strike a decent emotional balance in her music. Technical ability and artistry are not the same thing; in the classical sense, Marianne Faithfull is a poor vocal performer, but her genuinely heartfelt performances are immensely superior to any of Dion’s overdressed twaddle. Ms Dion would do well to learn that before she next steps into the recording studio.
Schmaltzy, over-produced, tasteless and crushingly bland, this is an album to strangle cats to. Taking Chances? Not likely.
Orion Rigel Dommisse
What I Want From You Is Sweet ••••
Language Of Stone
The debut album from Baltimore-based Orion Rigel Dommisse, What I Want From You Is Sweet is a bubbling cauldron of qualities and styles. The string-dominated music has a classical flavour, and many of the songs have a story-telling character. The combination of these two qualities results in an album that sounds as though it were the soundtrack to a collection of Grimm fairytales. The theme of death is also apparent throughout – the words ‘dead’ and ‘death’ appearing in four of the ten song titles.
What I Want… is an album full of lovely little flourishes. If you listen carefully on ‘A Faceless Death’, the alluring lyric “when you die I’ll rearrange your bones” is accompanied by the gentle rattling of what sounds very much like the aforementioned bones as Dommisse organises them into a more worthy pattern. ‘Simon Sent For Me’ plays in the style of a stately Regency-period dance, though its slightly sinister quality sees it transforming into something of a danse macabre – a party track for ghosts and phantoms.
Dommisse’s lyrics are not always easily comprehensible, which adds to the otherworldly strangeness of her music. Nevertheless, the story-telling quality of her writing makes itself felt throughout the album, whether through the lyrics themselves or the way in which Dommisse delivers them. This is never more obvious than in ‘A Giver’ – the image of a princess in a castle “where she is kept by a cruel and evil spell” brings to mind countless fairytales of knights, maidens and wicked witches.
The real stars of the show are the stringed instruments – Dommisse on her electric cello and Robert Pycior on his electric violin – unusual substitutes for the ubiquitous guitars that appear here only in a few guest spots. The strings wind their way through the whole album, meandering languorously here and fluttering frantically there. Pycior plucks his strings mischievously through the opening ‘Fake Yer Death’ – and why not? There is usually some mischief involved in faking your own death, after all. The strings create a particular sound that permeates the album, but Dommisse and Pycior simultaneously manage to wield their instruments in fantastically varied ways on each different track.
What I Want From You Is Sweet is unusual and wonderful by equal measure. Its rejection of the typical formula of modern music makes it stand out as something a bit magical, and more than a bit special.
Flame-haired chanteuse; former Sugababes member; challenging second album. It’s difficult not to drag out the cliches when it comes to talking about Ghosts, a record which seems to go out of its way to defy description. Producer and programmer James Sanger paints a backdrop of soft-focus pads and sundry etherealisms which flatter Donaghy’s voice and invite comparisons with her ‘80s and ‘90s predecessors rather than her peers. Unlike the smart subversion of the Motown sound by Amy Winehouse and Mark Ronson, there’s something slightly off about the pick-and-mix mentality of Ghosts – a smidgen of trip-hop here, a sprinkle of Cocteau Twins dream-gabble there.
At times the disc is naggingly derivative – the melody of ‘Medevac’ is striking in its similarity to Kate Bush’s ‘Running Up That Hill’, and ‘Halcyon Days’ gives more than just a nod in the direction of Massive Attack’s ‘Teardrop’ – but these ‘homages’ provide instant hooks. As with her debut Revolution In Me, several songs are slow to reveal not only their charms but their choruses. ‘Coming Up For Air’ is a slow-burner, but when it kicks into gear it becomes a dramatic callback to Donaghy’s debut single ‘Overrated’, revisiting and bemoaning her “selfish pain”. Also reminiscent of her earlier work is ‘Make It Right’, an uncomfortable mix of lumbering soul and Celtic flounce which seems out of place on this album. Much more successful are the likes of ‘Don’t Give It Up’ (first single, instant anthem) and ‘Goldfish’, a sparkling, hymn-like meditation on depression.
Throughout the album, Donaghy’s lyrics are hit and miss – ‘12 Bar Acid Blues’ finds our heroine in a sticky situation when she attempts to go on holiday, outlined with a wry wit reminiscent of Kirsty MacColl; the occasional amusing turns of phrase throughout the album make simpler songs like ‘Sometimes’ seem facile and uninspired in comparison. The title track, an incomprehensible strings of words soaring over a mid-tempo grind with the odd backwards vocal, sounds pretentious on paper but it works. Perhaps the album could have done with a few more unusual moments like this.
Despite being touted as having matured as a performer and co-writer since Revolution In Me, it seems that Donaghy hasn’t quite found her own voice yet. While this is an enjoyable record with some very strong tracks, it’s not as accomplished as it could be. Ghosts is an admirable attempt to do something different within the pop vernacular, and it is certainly a promising progression. The mixed blessing of this album is that it gives the impression Siobhan Donaghy is still to reach her creative peak.
‘Girl Power’ is a phrase associated with a particular band. We all know the one. In the ‘90s, it was sold to us as something that represented female liberation and a devil-may-care attitude. Young women could dress how they liked, say what they wanted and live their lives for themselves and no one else. All noble ideals, but the reality was something quite different. It was a concept manufactured by old, male music industry fat cats and purveyed to us via a collective of attention seeking shrews, the most famous of which is known more for having married well rather than anything else. It made a mockery of any concept of Girl Power.
To me, The Donnas are a much finer example of what Girl Power could mean. Their music is rough and unpolished – a raucous, punky rampage through a succession of snappy anthems. Vocalist Brett Anderson, aka Donna A, is no classically trained singer, but her voice is perfect for the music. She sounds like someone enjoying herself, and if she isn’t Joanna Newsom, who cares? The Donnas write their own music and play their own instruments, and what they lack in finesse they make up for in raw enthusiasm. This is the real sound of girls having fun, not some soulless trash cooked up by a coven of music execs in their lofty boardroom.
That’s the girls’ sound, but what of their material on this, their seventh studio album? Well, I’m sorry to report that Bitchin’ doesn’t quite live up to expectations. That isn’t to say there aren’t some sparkly gems here; each track is executed with typical Donnas energy. ‘Smoke You Out’ has its brilliantly screechy guitar solo, and ‘Here For The Party’ ends with a fluttering of surprise harmonica, while the album opener unfolds slowly like some strange cross between an AC/DC track and ‘Rhapsody In Blue’, instilling the listener with a mounting sense of anticipation, a real desire for the music to start in earnest.
But while the first few tracks of Bitchin’ are perfectly enjoyable, it isn’t long before a problem becomes apparent. What this album lacks is variation. Each track taken on its own is a three-minute blast of trademark Donnas fun, but strung out together they have an unfortunate tendency to become a bit of a blur. Every song is a variation on the theme ‘I want you why don’t you want me why would I ever want you oh screw it let’s just party’. There are no standout tracks – nothing to stick in your brain – and the songs have a habit of sounding pretty similar. Before long you won’t know ‘Better Off Dancing’ from ‘Don’t Wait Up For Me’ from ‘Give Me What I Want’.
Even the most amateurish albums manage a range of sorrow, joy, fast and slow, but The Donnas seem to have forgotten the basics. And that’s why Bitchin’ is rather disappointing. The Donnas have got the talent. They’ve got a good sound. They just need an editor, to learn how to pick their tracks better and to vary their ideas. This isn’t a bad listen, but uniformity makes this album a somewhat fluffy and forgettable affair.
She’s starred in a Disney television series, moved seamlessly into film, launched a fragrance and a clothing range, as well as churned out three albums before this one – so, do you love or hate Hilary Duff? It’s easy to dismiss her music as hyper-manufactured and vacuous, but shouldn’t we also try to positively acknowledge a woman who has made herself into such a marketable product without debasing her personal integrity? Dignity permits room for both. Billed as her most personal album to date, Duff certainly focuses on the world that she knows, a world filled with record deals, public scrutiny, media-invaded relationships, paparazzi and stalkers; it’s a heady mix and she explores it all with a bubblegum pop backing.
The inspiration for many of the songs could be seen to be rooted in her much-publicised break up with Good Charlotte’s Joel Madden. ‘Stranger’ in particular may feasibly be about her ex; then again, it could similarly be about any of the fairweather friends that she must encounter daily in a world where perfect outer appearances equate with stratospheric stardom and where personal truth is often buried by PR. Initially many of the songs on the album sound overwhelmed by their high production values and intense studio engineering, but there’s a vulnerability and awareness behind songs like ‘Stranger’ that defy Duff’s 19 years.
I’m not suggesting that the album has many layers of meaning; it does exactly what it says on the tin. This is joyous dance pop, but there’s a hint of a darker sting in the tail to many of the songs. The Hollywood socialite-baiting title track is a fabulously catchy, thinly-veiled dig at the likes of Paris Hilton and Nicole Richie who always “have another club to close”, people who have built their media empires on the faltering foundations of flashbulbs and fast money. ‘With Love’, in contrast, orders a reality check, wherein Duff pays tribute to the stabling influences in her life whom she begs to “slow [her] down, tell [her] tomorrow everything will be around”. As long as those truths are delivered with love, she’s willing to accept them. It’s this stability and inherent respect for the people that buoy her that underpins the album and makes Dignity an appropriate title. For all its dance-floor filling beats, the girl portrayed is having fun in a world that gives her the potential to spiral out of control but is reined in by her own integrity.
The quality dips in the middle a little with ‘No Work, All Play’ but rebounds with the spectacular ‘Between You & Me’, a teen-friendly version of P!nk’s ‘U & Ur Hand’ that features classic lines like “my love’s not up for negotiation / ‘hello’ doesn’t mean an open invitation”. Where the first half of the album dwells on the themes of mistrust and disillusion, the second half rejoices in strength, moving on and demanding to be noticed. ‘Dreamer’ is a brilliantly happy and very rational take on being stalked; there are few people who could sugarcoat something so terrifying without detracting from its seriousness. Yet lyrics like “I brush my teeth and feed my dogs / isn’t that thrilling?” are both funny and pointedly defiant. ‘Happy’ and ‘Play With Fire’ resonate with the same defiance and a self-awareness of the facets of her relationship that were restricting; it’s teenage break-up therapy that doesn’t hurt the head.
Exemplified by ‘Never Stop’, the whole album is a high octane sugar rush, like candyfloss laced with pop rocks. But don’t be misled, Destiny won’t numb all your brain cells in a single sitting. Let yourself be surprised and make space on the shelf next to Britney.
Filed under: album, back issues, review | Tags: alex ramon, andy wasley, beth hirsch, charlotte hatherley, danny weddup, deborah harry, emily haines, emmylou harris, hannah ild, help she can't swim, hem, hugh armitage, hummingbird, james m johnston, kristin hersh, loria near, peter hayward, pj harvey, rod thomas, stephanie heney, trevor raggatt, victoria hart
The following reviews were published on our old MySpace blog in 2007.
Emily Haines & The Soft Skeleton
Knives Don’t Have Your Back ••••
Drowned In Sound
Best known for her achingly fashionable day job as frontwoman of chart-friendly Canadian indie dance-rock-pop outfit Metric, and not unregarded for her work with Broken Social Scene, Emily Haines can seemingly do no wrong. Knives Don’t Have Your Back isn’t going to change that. Following in the footsteps of her good friend Amy Millan of Stars and Rilo Kiley’s Jenny Lewis, Haines has pared back her sound to produce a magnificently understated, mostly elegiac album that firmly cements her reputation as an excellent songwriter.
Who, then, are The Soft Skeleton? Quite simply, they’re a bunch of players Haines put together especially for the album, including Scott Minor from Sparklehorse and various members of Broken Social Scene and Metric. Really though, the guests are just for musicianship and Knives… is all Haines. Her keyboard skills, which have barely been made use of up ’til now, are prominent. Indeed, aside from some tasteful string arrangements and some horns, the album is a showcase for Haines and her piano.
Haines’s voice is well suited to piano-driven ballads and her vocals have a dry, sad essence not too dissimilar to Martina Topley-Bird’s unusual style. With that in mind, Knives Don’t Have Your Back couldn’t be further from her muscular, vibrant work with Metric. Instead of being part of a slickly produced noise outfit, here Haines is laid bare, literally sounding as though her bandmates had upped and wandered away. A melancholic intimacy and darkness surround these lo-fi laments, the subject matter of which is often shadowy. Two songs – ‘Reading In Bed’ and ‘Mostly Waving’ – were recorded in the winter of 2002 as Haines was coping with the sudden death of her father, a famed poet from Montreal.
As refreshing as this downbeat peek into Haines’s world is, the album is ultimately let down by the sameness of the tracks; none are standout tunes that are destined for radio (perhaps a brave move for someone so accustomed to receiving considerable airplay, in Canada at least). Not to worry. Given that Haines has very publicly announced that her day job with Metric is still her priority, Knives… simply gives her the space to stretch out and really show the breadth of her talents, and in doing so to make a bold departure from that which made her name.
Everything Is Changing •••½
Big in Estonia. It sounds like an ironic putdown. One step less successful than the now legendary “big in Japan” – how good can that be? Well, not bad actually.
Hannah Ild really is big in her Baltic home country. Big in Kylie proportions. Big enough to need only just one name. Now the 26 year old singer, who already has five hit albums to her name back home, is taking advantage of Estonia’s entry into the Internal Market and launching herself into the pop world across Europe. Everything Is Changing certainly presses all the relevant pop princess buttons, with expensive sounding production (courtesy of serious British and American studio time), lush string arrangements, heart-rending ballads and hook-laden uptempo numbers. And that’s not just damning with faint praise. The songs – all self-penned – are strong and Ild’s vocal delivery is positively luminous in places, catching with emotion at the peaks of the songs’ restrained intensity.
Typified by the single ‘I See’ and ‘They Said’, the arrangements are mostly acoustically-based with guitar and piano at the fore plus a myriad of subtle textures layered on top to retain the listener’s interest. On both of these songs there’s just enough Mitchell Froom-era Corrs-esque touches thrown into the mix to ensure that by the time the big chorus hits, the Radio 2 core audience will be hooked into submission. ‘You Are’ finds Ild in full-on ballad mode with a swooping orchestral passage that kicks in during the chorus and could easily have graced any number of albums by artists from Anastasia or Kelly Clarkson to The Veronicas, but here it’s Hannah’s own in every way. Other standouts include the title track and ‘These Days’, both of which are drenched with unrequited love and longing.
The sheer quality of Everything Is Changing is something of a pleasant revelation, showing that there really can be life outside of Eurovision (Hannah came second in the 1997 contest with ‘A Lonely Soul’) for Eastern European pop exports. Ild deserves success beyond that which she’s accrued back in Estonia, and if this is typical of what the expansion of Europe will bring, well, vivre l’esprit communautaire.
Songbird: Rare Tracks & Forgotten Gems ••••½
From 1996’s Portraits boxset through Rhino’s 2001 Anthology to 2005’s Heartaches & Highways, a significant number of ‘best of’ compilations have been dedicated to reviewing Emmylou Harris’s extensive and eminent musical catalogue. So many, in fact, that we may question the necessity of another collection that re-caps the career of the woman who, for nearly 40 years, has brought impeccable taste, grace and elegance – as well as a healthy dose of genre-bending daring – to the country barroom.
Songbird, however, is altogether a different proposition. As its enticing subtitle makes clear, this mammoth set – 4 CDs featuring 78 tracks, a DVD of TV performances, and a 200-page booklet including track-by-track commentary – is no standard greatest hits package but rather a generous selection of “personal favourites,” hand-picked by Harris as a kind of alternative retrospective of her work to date. Don’t expect to find the likes of ‘Boulder To Birmingham’ here. Instead, Songbird showcases under-valued album tracks, live cuts, soundtrack and tribute album contributions, a whole host of collaborations, and thirteen previously unreleased songs. As such, this is very much a collection pitched at the Harris completist, or at those eager to dig deeper into a body of work that must rank as one of the most distinctive and remarkable in contemporary music. Whichever category you fall into, the opportunity to immerse yourself in some of the more obscure corners of the work of the Grace Kelly of country will prove a total pleasure.
Even so, for true Harris aficionados, quite a bit of the material featured on Songbird will be familiar, especially the songs spread across the first two CDs. These discs take a broad chronological sweep through the full range of her solo studio albums, assembling tracks from the classic 1970s Hot Band recordings, the neo-traditionalist releases Blue Kentucky Girl and Roses In The Snow and the denser textures of Wrecking Ball, Red Dirt Girl and Stumble Into Grace. The work with Gram Parsons gets surprisingly short shrift, represented by just two tracks, a heartfelt rendition of the Louvins’s ‘The Angels Rejoiced Last Night’ (a fitting choice given the brothers’ influence on the famed Parsons/Harris harmonies) and an exuberant live version of ‘The Old Country Baptizing’, while 1985’s The Ballad Of Sally Rose – the self-penned song-cycle which Parsons inspired – is also poorly represented.
Nonetheless, the pickings are rich indeed, and of primary interest for rarities fans is the opening track, ‘Clocks’, an alternate take of a decidedly Clouds-era Joni Mitchell style ditty culled from Harris’s deleted first folk foray Gilding Bird. But perhaps the greatest revelation of these discs is just how beautifully Harris’s studio work has aged; the ‘70s and ‘80s work still sounds fresh and vital – much more so than anything that’s emerging from the Nashville mainstream these days – and the Lanois/Burns-produced tracks retain their mysterious allure. While a number of these songs remain in her concert repertoire, these discs permit the pleasure of rediscovery and offer fans a valuable opportunity to reacquaint themselves with album tracks that they may have forgotten. Compelling renditions of Springsteen’s ‘Racing In The Streets’, Sandy Denny’s ‘Like An Old-Fashioned Waltz’, and Leonard Cohen’s ‘Ballad Of A Runaway Horse’ were particular standouts for this listener.
Eschewing chronology, the next two discs collate a wide selection of rarities and hard-to-find material, and feature a roll call of collaborators and duet partners that reads like a veritable ‘Who’s Who’ of Americana. The many highlights include simply beautiful renditions of Beth Nielsen Chapman’s ‘Beyond The Blue’ (with Patty Griffin), Katy Wolf’s ‘Love Still Remains’, Woody Guthrie’s ‘Hobo’s Lullaby’, and the Carters’ ‘Wildwood Flower’ (with Iris DeMent), as well as blissfully soulful takes on Parsons’ ‘Juanita’, ‘She’ and ‘Sin City’ (with Sheryl Crow, Chrissie Hynde and Beck respectively). The sequencing is immaculate, with thematically linked tracks frequently arranged together to form little cycles and suites. Issues and images recur: loss, grief, lonesomeness, spiritual redemption, the temptations of travel, the desire for homecoming. A pair of lovely Paul Kennerley originals from his 1980 The Legend Of Jesse James project (‘Heaven Ain’t Ready For You Yet’ and ‘Wish We Were Back In Missouri’) are placed together, as are two memorable unreleased outtakes from the Trio sessions with Dolly Parton and Linda Ronstadt. In short, the advertised gems really are gems, showcasing Harris’s genius for selecting material, her special gifts of interpretation, and her seeming ability to sing with anyone and make it sound as natural and effortless as breathing.
Harris can fully inhabit songs both ancient and modern, secular and spiritual, and her singing style combines burning passion and impeccable restraint in equal measure. Her voice reflects her rich amalgam of influences, merging country ache and folky nuance, breathy highs and grainy lows, and hearing its progression from girlishness to maturity across Songbird is a fascinating and quite moving experience. Her singing may be famed for its ‘angelic’ qualities but there’s much more to it than ethereal loveliness. Yes, Harris can soothe like few others but she can also freeze the blood, as her chillingly intense takes on Townes Van Zandt’s ‘Snake Song’ and Hank Williams’s ‘Alone & Forsaken’ (both included here) attest. There’s tension, risk and a breathless sense of adventure to much of her best work, qualities that Lanois’s production on Wrecking Ball brought right out into the open. She remains, quite simply, a consummate class act, retaining her poise and conviction even when the material proves unworthy of her (and just occasionally it does: cf. the corny self-abasement of ‘First In Line’, the banal ‘Wondering’ and the earnest but clichéd ‘Immigrant Eyes’, not the finest lyrical moment of the usually reliable Guy Clark). As Joe Allison memorably wrote of the Louvins: “their sincerity reaches out and grabs you with such authority that you literally become part of the song.” This same description may be applied to Harris.
What Songbird reveals most consistently is Harris’s dedication and single-mindedness in pursuing her own wide-ranging vision of the “cosmic American music” to which Parsons first alerted her. Her music cuts through folk, country, rock and gospel borders not so much to tear down barriers as to demonstrate – and create – connections between them, allowing her, in her own words, “to draw on the past…and come up with something new.” It’s this exhilarating fusion of tradition and modernity that makes this collection – and indeed all of Harris’s work – essential listening for anyone interested in the wonderfully broad and varied terrain of American roots music.
Necessary Evil •
What can one say about Debbie Harry? That sensuous, cherubic creature; maybe not the most talented musician in the world, but possibly the most beautiful. So beautiful in fact, that whole music videos can be made focusing solely on her face…oh, wait! Stop everything. Wake up. This isn’t 1977 anymore. It’s 2007, and nothing stays the same forever. Deborah (as she prefers to be known these days) is a very different woman from the pouty young thing that stole our hearts with ‘Heart Of Glass’ and ‘Call Me’, however much she might otherwise wish.
On Necessary Evil, Harry’s latest electro outing, she goes at it as she always did, sweet and high as in ‘Sunday Girl’. But her voice is older than it was. It’s 62 years old to be precise, and it simply can’t hit the notes it used to. Thus our unfortunate ears are subjected to the likes of ‘Love With A Vengeance’ and ‘If I Had You’. Painful stuff. It isn’t that she can’t sing – the title track shows that she’s perfectly capable of sounding quite pleasant – she just doesn’t seem to know how to use her new voice properly, too often trying to sing in exactly the same style as she was 30 years ago.
Opening track and first single ‘Two Times Blue’ starts quite sweetly with a charming little fairground ditty; unfortunately, Harry ruins it by breaking in all too soon, croaking like one of Macbeth’s Weird Sisters. The chorus is horribly strained, the words oddly stretched out as though the lyrics and music had been written in separate soundproof rooms and subsequently forced cruelly together, ‘Island Of Doctor Moreau’-style. The music itself is sometimes well written, as demonstrated in the opening bars, but this album is let down massively by its lyrics and content: every single song is about sex. Without fail. The old days of Blondie were never this explicit, but I suppose Harry didn’t need to talk about sex to make people think about it back then. Imagine if you will your mum singing along to ‘School For Scandal’; “the devil’s dick is hard to handle,” apparently. Then imagine your granny singing it.
If this assessment appears ageist, or sexist even, it’s not meant that way at all. Wears The Trousers is well aware that Jagger, Jones and Stewart get away with things that an older lady would be slammed for and that such an imbalance is mightily unfair. Nevertheless, after sitting through the 17-track long leviathan that is Necessary Evil, it’s hard to believe that anyone won’t find themselves wishing that Harry would sometimes act her years. And, after all, if The Rolling Stones wailed their way through a crass electro album like this one, you’d hope that they’d be torn to bits for it too. There are other anomalies lurking in the tracklist, for instance the deep mumblings of ‘Jen Jen’. Harry doesn’t even sing on it so how it snuck onto the album we’ll never know. Maybe she was on the decks. Then there’s ‘Dirty & Deep’, the title of which says almost all really, neglecting only to highlight the fact that a part of it rivals Madonna’s ‘American Life’ for the worst rap of all time.
So that’s Necessary Evil in a nutshell – overlong, crude and performed by a woman far past her musical prime. All this album does is sully the memory of a once great songstress turned worn out, hyper-sexed harridan.
Whatever Happened To Love? •••½
Today’s celebrity-obsessed world has seen the rapid rise of reality TV, and the attendant burst of homogenous, bland and short-lived manufactured artists. In such an environment, it can be difficult for niche music to prosper; would Kate Bush’s fantastical songs have impressed the judges? Would Regina Spektor’s subversive experimentalism endear her to an audience brought up with the Spice Girls and R’n’B? Perhaps not. It’s always gratifying, then, when a new singer appears who is determined to change it all, and who has the star quality to succeed. Step forward Miss Victoria Hart, former Richmond waitress turned jazz-singing sensation. A trilingual 18-year old who counts Amy Winehouse among her friends and George Clooney among her fans, Hart claims that her album represents a return to the unabashedly romantic music of the past. Comprising 13 songs and a remix of the title track, it has been designed to showcase Hart’s voice with a variety of different styles; it is in this that the album draws its strength and also, sadly, finds its weakness.
Hart’s musical heroines include such luminaries as Ella Fitzgerald and Eva Cassidy, and her love of old-fashioned big band music shines through in some of the album’s best tracks. ‘Two Time Blues’ would suit Fitzgerald perfectly with its classy and deeply sensual style, Hart’s youthful voice perfectly capturing the naiveté of the song’s heroine. The more glamorous ‘Chocolates & Strawberries’ shows off a highly developed sense of fun and wickedness, with some plainly suggestive lyrics set against a snazzy ‘70s-style backing rich with wah-wah trumpets and a thumping bass line. Hart’s ability to draw a picture with her voice is quite remarkable, and is suitably demonstrated by perhaps the best song on the album – also its only cover – ‘Sunny Afternoon’. Toe tapping and deeply sultry, Hart’s interpretation of the classic Kinks song evokes all the attendant vivid images of a languid, sun-drenched summer, managing to ensure that the song remains familiar while throwing in some throaty sax riffs to suit her jazz credentials. Other impressive tracks include the 1950s-style two-step jazz of ‘Wonderful’ and the deliciously sexy ‘Je M’Oublie’, which oozes French sophistication with its atmospheric accordion backing and Hart’s voluptuous vocals.
Where the album falls flat is in trying to demonstrate the breadth of Hart’s skills; several songs have been selected rather clumsily in an attempt to show that she can perform more mainstream work. This leads to the inclusion of some forgettable guitar-pop tracks such as ‘Some Day’, a bland ballad that simply does not do Hart’s unique voice justice. Fortunately, Hart is an accomplished jazz singer, and her wit, flair and talent pull her through the dross. Sassy, classy and unashamedly mushy, Whatever Happened To Love? marks the debut of a new and formidable force in modern jazz. Let’s hope that Hart doesn’t lose sight of what she’s best at.
White Chalk ••••
Best known for her brutal blues and sophisticated punk, PJ Harvey’s decision to trade her guitar in for a piano and her deep soulful voice for a choral falsetto looked unlikely on paper. But, true to her word, there is barely a six-string to be heard on the eleven tracks that make up White Chalk, her eighth studio album, which are largely based around gently throbbing keys and vocals piped in from a Victorian ghost story. Having explored urban life on 2001’s vibrant Stories From The City, Stories From The Sea, White Chalk is suffused with rural imagery – bleak landscapes and a pervading isolation – the title a reference to the bedrock of Harvey’s Dorset home and its gothic ring compounded by the cover image of a pale and drawn shock-headed Harvey sat bolt upright in a lacy, spectral dress. And, of course, the stark minimal piano and newly shrill vocals that run through the album.
Whether the experience of working with keys has been entirely enjoyable for Harvey is thrown into doubt when ‘The Piano’ – which knowingly features acoustic guitar and zither only – opens with the lyric “hit her with a hammer, teeth smashed in”, and as the track plays out with snapshots of strained family relations and the refrain “no-one is listening”, Harvey sounds like a truculent child trying to show off the results of her first few music lessons. For the most part the piano playing is naïve and childlike – motifs seemingly picked out with just two fingers – and while it’s used to good effect to create sinister and atmospheric songs such as opener ‘The Devil’ and ‘Grow Grow Grow’, Harvey’s lack of finesse sometimes tends towards monotony.
That the standout tracks are those in which the piano takes a back seat is perhaps somewhat telling. First single ‘When Under Ether’ is a haunting, claustrophobic and sinister track, conjuring sensations of suffocation, intoxication and chemical preservation in which the keys combine with other instrumentation and an understated yet nuanced vocal. The title track features the most prominent appearance of a guitar. So effectively does the song evoke a rural isolation and the exposed Dorset cliffs that as Harvey dramatically switches from her distant, fluting upper register to intone deeply “and I know these chalk hills will rot my bones”, you can almost smell the stone beneath the topsoil and the salt from the sea. ‘Broken Harp’s sublime vocal arrangement and (presumably broken) harp tug at the heartstrings with economically affecting lyrics. Lines like “something metal tearing my stomach out if you think ill of me / can you forgive me too?” may not be delivered with the hue and cry typical of much of Harvey’s earlier work, but surrounded by the minimalism and darkness of the album they are no less brutal.
Seven albums and 15 years into her career, Harvey remains one of our most continually interesting artists. For people who rely on such tawdry gimmicks her transition from booted proto-riot-grrrl to cat-suited vamp to urban punker and now to ghostly Victoriana would be called reinvention; in Harvey it is simply exploration. The piano-led tracks of White Chalk may not be to everyone’s taste but fantastically evocative poetry and some truly great songs more than make up for the slow pace and the few monotonous moments to create an intriguing and rewarding album. There are few other artists who so successfully continue to push their boundaries, experience and style for our (well, primarily her own) pleasure, and we should cherish her for that as long as she continues to do so.
The Deep Blue ••••
Little Sister Records
Most famous for being the ‘new girl’ in Ash for nine years, Charlotte Hatherley’s musical career in fact began a long time before, first in the band Sister George then in punk outfit Nightnurse. She was spotted by Ash’s Tim Wheeler while the band were shopping for a new guitarist and soon wound up a welcome addition to the trio, fitting right in. So, after a long period of being in one of the UK’s most successful and established indie bands, it must have been a brave and daunting decision to leave, especially as relationships within the band were still good and Ash are happy to continue without her.
Although The Deep Blue is Hatherley’s second solo album (she worked on her first, Grey Will Fade, when Ash were in the studio for Meltdown and received considerable critical praise for it), this is the first she has produced outside of the security of a day job. In fact, the focus has doubled as the ‘side project’ has now become the day job. Seemingly unfazed by new beginnings and the security of Ash’s loyal fanbase, Hatherley is clearly a seasoned rock star, and her confidence shows in both her decision making and the subsequent album that came of it. In fact, to avoid record company and A&R pressure, Hatherley and her manager Ann-Marie Shields set up Little Sister Records themselves (with distribution through Vital), thereby ensuring complete artistic control.
Produced by Eric Feldman (Captain Beefheart, Pere Ubu) and Rob Ellis (PJ Harvey), Hatherley’s sophomore album was decided upon in Australia and created in San Francisco, Italy and London. Despite Hatherley being first and foremost a guitarist, The Deep Blue isn’t entirely led by the axe. It is, in fact, a pleasant surprise of considered work and a welcome departure from the (often flawed) female singer-songwriter stereotype. Certainly, the rock chick from Ash is gone, and the upbeat mature pop of both her efforts to date belies an open, honest artist with considerable talent.
The Deep Blue creates a childlike mood of fun and innocence, both girly and fantastically otherworldly. Irresistibly catchy and tuneful, the album is a lovingly assembled, multi-textured example of bittersweet pop that signifies a change of direction from Grey Will Fade and revels in a quirky feel reminiscent of Kenickie or Giant Drag…even The Sundays at times. Vocally, Hatherley is cutesy and sweet, somewhere between Minnie Mouse and Jenny Lewis, and her vocals enhance the unusual, dreamlike tone of the work. That’s not to say that there aren’t energetic, punk-pop here and there, but the rocky elements you would naturally expect from Ash’s former guitarist simply aren’t there.
Two singles have preceded the album – ‘Behave’ and ‘I Want You To Know’ – probably the album’s poppiest numbers and definitely the catchiest. There’s more where those two came from, however, and ‘Be Thankful’ is a real standout track with an irresistible bassline. More sober moments appear in the gentle ‘Dawn Treader’ (co-written with XTC’s Andy Partridge) and the vulnerable ballad ‘Again’, one of the least cluttered songs here, while the enchanting, wordless opener ‘Cousteau’ breezes over the listener and sticks true to the sea theme.
Despite a less than perfect vocal style, these songs are sung with an assuredness that can only be known to an experienced musician; remember Hatherley played the V97 festival with Ash only days after joining the band, and all at the age of 18 – no mean feat indeed. Having toured the world with a huge act for years and promptly leaving it all behind shows a confidence and maturity older artists can only dream of. However, with nothing left to be afraid of, and nothing left to lose, Hatherley has produced an unaffected and genuinely original album that will hopefully be another step in a long and successful career.
Help She Can’t Swim
The Death Of Nightlife •••½
Reviewing The Death Of Nightlife for Wears The Trousers struck me as a peculiarly daunting experience. Having seen the band play live supporting Sleater-Kinney (R.I.P) in Bristol last year, I found co-lead vocalist and sole female member Leesey Frances the least successful member of the band. Onstage, she came across detached and belligerent, giving little recognition to the crowd and grumping between songs. Tom Denney, who shares vocals and plays guitar was engaging and wired with energy, making Leesey’s disinterest all the more apparent. Writing for a magazine that seeks to focus upon the contributions of women to music, was I faced with an uncomfortable task?
Thankfully, on record, the Help She Can’t Swim experience is different: far from detracting from the band’s riotous youthful energy, Frances is a key part of it. Having two lead vocalists works well: Frances’s vocals act as an effective counterpoint to Denney’s, which often verge upon screamo. On ‘Idle Chatter’, her plaintive, vulnerable repetitions of “I was waiting for you to call me” are surprisingly affecting. (That is, until this effect is deliberately undermined by the song’s closing couplet: “strangle you with the telephone chord / just because you’re making me feel bored”).
This is music made for frenetic, angular indie dancing, preferably in a club with sweaty walls and a sticky floor. ‘Kite Eating Tree’, with its talk of shaking hips and bruised wrists, is the kind of song Channel 4 will be snapping up to soundtrack adverts for ‘Skins’ (if they haven’t already). There’s a definite Britpop flavour to several of these tracks, and the influence of Jarvis Cocker and Justine Frischmann is palpable, only speeded way up and blasted out charged with extra guitar-plus-synths drama. The keyboard work from Lisa and puppydog-eyed Tim Palmer adds a lot to these songs, providing an insistent pulse that resembles a battery of sirens in its urgency.
‘I Think The Record’s Stopped’ is a vicious attack on fake feminism and the intersection of feminism and raunch culture, where exhibitionism and pandering to male fantasies is mistaken for a liberating expression of female sexuality. Here, Frances is tearing down the kind of girls who think the feminist movement fought – and fights – so they could have the right to snog their female friends in front of boys at clubs, and aspire to be lapdancers (“Fuck you, you’re not a feminist”). ‘Midnight Garden’ is too wilfully discordant to be thrilling but the band make up for it with the following track ‘Box Of Delights’. Denney and Frances taking alternate vocals before coming together for a deliciously noisy vocal pile-up at the song’s climax.
Over the course of the album, the relentless pace and screamed vocals become a little gruelling. However, the band are at their best when playing at fever pitch – the album’s slower moments are its least successful, like the queasy Muse-eque rock opera that makes up the closing two minutes – and in short sharp bursts this is a thrilling and immediate record. It rewards close listening as well as drunken dancing, as it bristles with blink-and-you’ll-miss-them highlights. On ‘Dragged Under The Wave’, a brilliant moment of sexual tension and ambiguity suddenly grabs the listener, as Denney and Frances duet on the line “I want to kiss her but I don’t want her near me”. And if you can find another record out this year that talks about watching reruns of ‘Lovejoy’ (‘All The Stars’) I’ll give you a fiver.
Funnel Cloud ••••
Given the somewhat obscure names of both the band and album (one the end of an item of clothing, the other the beginning of a ferocious tornado) you’d surely be forgiven for expecting to discover the kind of album that you claim to adore but in reality only own so that others can admire your quirky and eclectic taste. Not so with Hem. They do tick some of the boxes – quirky? a little; unique? definitely! – but there’s plenty to love here. As listenable and delicious as ever, the band’s fourth album Funnel Cloud makes for a remarkable encounter as it floats around discreetly and encases your heart in its melancholic but ultimately uplifting musical tendrils.
First single ‘We’ll Meet Along The Way’ could be a song from a mother to her toddler on the first day of school, a parting shot to a lover or a fond farewell from a departing grandparent; but whatever guise it takes it carries a message of benediction without seeking to hide the pitfalls that will be met en route as two paths diverge but hold the promise of a later encounter. ‘He Came To Meet Me’ appropriately follows as if it were a continuation of the story, depicting a snapshot description of a day with someone whose very presence, no matter how brief, forges a memory empowered to bring light to future black clouds. The attention to detail that Hem pour into these songs suffuses the music with emotion and situational observances that never fail to convince that the band are portraying lives that they’ve known intimately, if not their own.
Principal songwriter Dan Messe has outdone himself with tracks like ‘Curtains’ and ‘Great Houses Of New York’. So while the ever present beauty of Sally Ellyson’s vocals predominantly brings the songs to life, Messe’s vivid descriptions weave around the principal narrative to add the splashes of colour that accentuate the meaning. Funnel Cloud as a whole has a rare nostalgic quality that gives proceedings a feeling of timelessness, as though Hem inhabit a world inside a bubble in which commonplace incidents are made beautiful by deeply felt observances. ‘Hotel Fire’ is the allegorical embodiment of the band’s ability to use less attractive details to create washes of gorgeous imagery as they sing of “torn blankets [that] smell of old perfume” and follow it with a swelling refrain where “the love checks in, trips the wire / skips the bill, sets a fire”. In creating such intimate portraits, Hem are enviably able to craft a song that might mean many things to many people, and therein lies their success.
Fittingly for an album titled Funnel Cloud, atmosphere is the watchword. In another universe, the title track might well have been a black and white Sunday matinee movie. Part lullaby, part hymn to growing older and discovering that boundaries have a tendency to blur, Hem deliver a classic sound that is rarely heard outside of old Hollywood musicals. ‘The Burnt-Over District’ has similar qualities, and despite being purely instrumental, seems to tell a very distinct story. Here, the instruments themselves seem to sing to one another; those who object to instrumental tracks on albums should start their conversion right here.
All this talk of mesmerising melancholic sounds and sleepy afternoon cinema might lead you to think that Funnel Cloud is soporific fare at best, but Hem have their ballsy country-rock songs too and they flex their muscles farther than ever before. On songs like these, the lyrical drive is not lost but is simply set to a rowdier backing. Take ‘The Pills Stop Working’ for example; sounding as if it wouldn’t seem out of place as the score to a barroom brawl with its bluesy harmonica and gritty piano, it’ll get you defiantly dancing rather than lazing.
For those unfamiliar with Hem, Funnel Cloud is a great place to start. Even the most melancholic numbers are infused with a great sense of camaraderie between the band members and you’ll be happy to discover the magic of a band who entertain, enlighten and provide food for thought with every song. For those already converted, much contentment will be found in the more rock-oriented sounds. Hitch up those skirts and appreciate the legwork.
Home Again, Home Again EP ***½
Despite being a pretty well established country-folk act with four albums to their name, Hem’s closest brush with mainstream popularity to date has been soundtracking a recent series of insurance ads in the States. But before you scream ‘sellout’ or assume that their whimsical songs deserve no better than this most dubious of fates, further listening will uncover a much deeper resonance than fellow product endorsers Katie Melua or Norah Jones could muster between them. Wearing their emotions proudly on the sleeves of their country-hemmed shirts and blouses, Sally Ellyson and her band of men excel in soaring vocals and reflective lyrics on top of soothing arrangements. After even just a couple of listens, the melodies stick in your mind, suddenly familiar, as if you’ve known them since you were young. That said, the opening and closing tracks – ‘All That I’m Good For’ and ‘Half Acre’ have been floating around since their 2002 debut Rabbit Songs, so they’re not exactly new. Nevertheless, that’s what Hem do best, remind of times gone by.
Of the new songs, ‘The Part Where You Let Go’ and ‘Half Asleep’ blend together folk and pop melodies with the lightest of touches and are both very nice, if not wholly engaging. The fuller sound of ‘While My Hand Was Letting Go’ will prick up many an ear with its blues harmonica, pedal steel, mandolin and banjo complementing an emotive and romantic string arrangement and the warm sounds of an oboe. The song’s theme of tender remembrance is highlighted by Ellyson’s wonderful falling refrain of “asleep I dreamt beside you while my hand was letting go.” Then the EP really comes alive with the title track, ‘Home Again’. More expansive than anything else here, Hem bring in the drums, an electric guitar riff and nagging rhythm guitar. Ellyson is singing to an audience now, and not just for herself.
Sounding as fresh as ever, the night-time lullaby of ‘Half Acre’ returns us to the remembrance motif, plaintively asking “what is it that you remember? / do you carry every sadness with you? / every hour your heart was broken?”. Hem do heartfelt nostalgia exceedingly well, and after listening to their latest EP you’ll soon be gazing wistfully out of a window thinking through your memories too.
James M Johnston
Learn To Sing Like A Star ••••
Bass and drums pounding like an oil sink, guitars etching intricate detail, powerful strings weaving the whole lot together, and a voice like a buzzsaw…it can only be the industrial revolution reimagined by indie godmother, Kristin Hersh. Such is ‘In Shock’, the opening track of Hersh’s latest solo outing Learn To Sing Like A Star (or LTSLAS for the sake of getting this review finished one day).
Since 2003’s lesson in sombreness, The Grotto, Hersh has been focused on recording and touring with power-trio 50 Foot Wave, whose slabs of rock are as far removed from Hersh’s solo work as one woman could be expected to go. But clearly Hersh is revelling in the noise that working with a band allows at the moment, as this release features Throwing Muses’ drummer David Narcizo, 50’~ bassist Bernard Georges, and string duo The MacCarricks. By virtue of being louder, faster and several orders of magnitude more upbeat than her last release, LTSLAS harks back to 1999’s amped-up Sky Motel.
An Amazon search reveals that Paula Abdul and Randy Jackson have a DVD with the same title, but woe betide the hopeful who purchases Hersh’s ironically monikered record for tips – it would not fare well with the American Idol judges. Her voice may never have been ideally suited to pre-packaged pop, but boy is it remarkably versatile, as she shows off to full effect in opening two tracks, from force-of-nature snarl on ‘In Shock’ to porcelain purr on ‘Nerve Endings’. The vocal is a sticking point for many people with Hersh, but once accustomed to the rasp you realise how dextrous and expressive it is. She’s really something like a 60-Marlboro-a-day Joanna Newsom or a desert Billie Holiday.
It’s not all straight up rock. LTSLAS in fact runs the gamut of Hersh’s solo back catalogue, from the meaty pop of ‘Peggy Lee’ to the acoustic lament of wasted time and lost love of ‘Ice’, via the swelling grind of ‘Sugarbaby’ and the short instrumentals ‘Piano 1′ and ‘Piano 2′. Everything is delivered with the passion, humour and bile that any Hersh devotee has come to expect. ‘Winter’ is an unforgiving monster of a song. Bells chime and strings sound thoroughly festive, but this is no Christmas carol. This is a blizzard; a white-out; a warning; a fist shaken at into the void. It’s a song that expresses the contrasting feelings of hugeness and impotence in the seven words “not a fighter, you had to fight”, and as good as any song Hersh has ever written, which is saying something.
If there is one failing it’s a lack of cohesiveness that has marked Hersh’s most recent solo releases. Every song in itself reveals more detail, intricacy, craft, and beauty on each listen, but as a whole, the mood jack-knifes from track to track. That is until the final four, which swell to the crescendo of ‘The Thin Man’. Overall, though, LTSLAS is new vintage Hersh: sardonic, sublime and packed with star quality. When next year’s American Idol is flipping burgers in a freeway services, you’ll still be listening to this fulfilling, hulking galaxy of an album.
Beth Hirsch has been dealt a strange hand it seems. For someone who is in fact a musically-literate household name – thanks to the global success of Air’s Moon Safari (on which she sings and co-writes ‘You Make It Easy’ and the seminal ‘All I Need’) – she has managed to since remain untouched by media spotlights. Even the artistic brilliance of solo debut Early Years, having a gorgeous duet with Wassis Diop featured in a key scene of ‘The Thomas Crown Affair’ and the big-name producers on her second, critically acclaimed album Titles & Idols didn’t manage to propel her to international superstardom. Judging by her latest work, however, this may not have been such a disaster.
Nearly six years on from Titles & Idols, it appears that time has been kind. Hirsch’s evasion of mainstream fame has hearteningly preserved her authenticity and talent. Early Days was so called as it marked her first etchings and attempts at defining herself as a musician. Wholehearted is just as aptly titled; Hirsch has clearly put her all into its making, wisely choosing to focus on her strengths as both performer and writer rather than studio wizardry. By offsetting the striking versatility displayed on Titles & Idols with the bare bones of her debut, Wholehearted brings us the sound of a more mature artist who has found her niche. It’s organic in sound and full of warmth and feeling. Her voice has always been astonishing, and now her songwriting really works in harmony with the most striking qualities of this most powerful of assets. Hirsch appears to be at a point in her life where uncertainties have been dealt with and some resolve reached. You only have to read the song titles – ‘Love Will Come Again’, ‘All Together’ and ‘Glad To Know’ – to get a sense of assurance. It’s a rare creature indeed who has the grace to spare us the usual self-indulgence and deliver something that’s both optimistic and touching.
As one might expect from a Florida-born, LA resident, these songs have a lasting summery feel. Take the title track for instance; drenched in trumpets and laidback piano, it would perfectly complement a hazy August evening. Habitually in Hirsch’s music, however, there’s a slight sense of paradox. Optimistic lyrics are often set to music with a slightly sentimental sound, and it is this edge that keeps you coming back. “This slate is clean, but not from heaven” she sings on ‘Indelibly You’, hinting some unrest still remaining. While on the whole the record is a relaxed affair, there’s a touch of feistiness too (“I’m a lunatic in love”). Externalising a little, Hirsch makes some sharp and cutting observations in the magnificent ‘Life Is Short But Wide’, a song that looks at the ever-potent issue of war and what it’s good for (hint: not much). Her soldier protagonist writes home “but Hope has died, just as I have died / I learnt today that life is short but wide.”
Simply put, Wholehearted is an album borne out of love of music. Beautifully arranged and immaculately executed, it’s a thoroughly refreshing experience. While the electronic soundscapes of Titles & Idols were a wonderful addition to Hirsch’s sound, her return to these simpler, uncluttered stylings is a welcome affirmation of her talent.
Tougher Than Love ••••
As any ‘Charmed’ fan knows, the power of three is a well-proven principle, and with their debut album, Tougher Than Love, Hummingbird set out to reaffirm it. Debut it may be, but these are no wet behind the ears tyro artists. Rather, Hummingbird brings together three singers who are firmly established on the gig/festival circuit and each with solid recording career already under their belts. There’s diminutive Cardiff rocker Amy Wadge, the gentle pop vocals of Cathy Burton and Edwina Hayes’s country-folk stylings. It’s a beguiling combo, blending Dixie Chicks and Indigo Girls with Crosby, Stills and Nash.
Production duties were left in the hands of songwriting and studio wizardry duo The Mighty Vibrations, whose previous credits include Sandi Thom’s love-it-or-hate-it debut Smile…It Confuses People, and they’ve acquitted themselves surprisingly well. The ‘birds contribute four songs between them with the remainder provided by the MVs, with Thom herself cropping up as a co-writer on the engaging ‘Live Your Life Laughing’. Where Thom’s debut was, to put it kindly, a little one-dimensional, Tougher Than Love is an altogether finer proposition. Lead vocals are shared out evenly between the trio, adding a pleasing variety whilst retaining enough stylistic commonality to avoid sounding like a mere compilation. Similarly, the four tracks written by the ‘birds themselves provide a nice contrast, reflecting each artist’s own particular muse without breaking the mood.
The arrangements are resolutely rootsy and acoustic-based throughout. Strummed guitars, piano, Hammond and double bass provide a satisfyingly organic bed for the tracks, with additional interest being provided by tastefully employed textures from mandolin, flute, harmonica and strings. The distinctive character of each individual voice enhances the harmonies. Wadge’s gritty, earthy vocal forms a solid backdrop to Hayes’s more soothing coo and Burton’s shimmering, delicate tones. Each song is deftly performed and catches the ear with an appealing concoction of melancholy, tenderness and uplifting optimism. Anyone who enjoyed the Voices On The Verge project, which brought together four of America’s finest under-the-radar songwriters – Erin McKeown, Rose Polenzani, Jess Klein and Beth Amsel – should seek this out quicksmart.