wears the trousers magazine


trouser press: jenny lewis, julie doiron and more

– Jenny Lewis cuts loose her Acid Tongue in September
– Julie Doiron to release collaborative album with Phil Elvrum
– is Miley Cyrus a Britney in waiting?
– ‘Heroes’ actress to release an album
– Joan Osborne gets wild on new album
– Natalie Cole reveals she has Hepatitis C

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After a brief return to the Rilo Kiley fold for last year’s Under The Blacklight, Jenny Lewis releases her second solo album, Acid Tongue, in September through major label Warner Bros. In place of The Watson Twins, Lewis has recruited the likes of Elvis Costello (who duets on ‘Carpetbaggers’), Zooey Deschanel and M Ward (aka She & Him), Johnathan Rice and various members of The Black Crowes, Beachwood Sparks, A Perfect Circle and Elvis Costello’s Imposters, as well as her own sister and her dad. If the quality of songs is anything like fan favourite ‘Jack Killed Mom’, Acid Tongue looks likely to be an unanticipated addition to this year’s best.

Acid Tongue
01 Black Sand
02 Pretty Bird
03 The Next Messiah
04 Bad Man’s World
05 Acid Tongue
06 See Fernando
07 Godspeed
08 Carpetbaggers
09 Trying My Best To Love You
10 Jack Killed Mom
11 Sing A Song for Them

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2005/06 reviews dump: o

The following reviews were all published on our old website between May 2005 and December 2006.

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Tara Jane O’Neil
In Circles •••½
Quarterstick

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.

Anja McCloskey
originally published November 23rd, 2006

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The Organ
Grab That Gun ••••
Too Pure

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.

Ian Buchan
originally published February 6th, 2006 

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Beth Orton
Comfort Of Strangers ••••½ 
EMI

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.

Alan Pedder
originally published February 16th, 2006 

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Beth Orton
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.

Laura-May Coope
originally published March 8th, 2006 

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Joan Osborne
Pretty Little Stranger ••
Vanguard

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.

Peter Hayward
previously unpublished