Filed under: album, review | Tags: 2008, keith anderson, music, tegan and sara
Tegan & Sara
The Con ••••
It’s hard to pinpoint what makes Tegan & Sara so special. On paper, it sounds like a nightmarish proposition: twin sisters with nasal voices singing over distorted guitars – like what could happen if the Olsens decided to go punk and sing songs about cheating lovers and having their period. But, it works. The band has consistently managed to excite with their developing sound, and the tunes on display on The Con are no exception, defying the album title by continuing to be bold, honest and believable.
Filed under: album, back issues, review | Tags: amerie, architecture in helsinki, callum sinclair, esther alexander, joan armatrading, keith anderson, rod thomas, trevor raggatt
The following reviews were published on our old MySpace blog in 2007.
Last Of The Hopeless Romantics EP ••••
Derby-based Esther Alexander has been a regular on the circuit around her hometown and London for a number of years now, paying her dues both there and with session work for the likes of Steve Winwood, Ruby Turner and the London Community Gospel Choir. Her first album, a pop and R&B-tinged affair, was released on an independent imprint in 2003 so new recorded material has been long time coming. It’s heartening, then, that the hours spent writing and treading the boards have reaped dividends aplenty.
The five songs presented here – strictly four if you take into account radio and album mixes of the title track – demonstrate what an accomplished singer and songwriter Alexander has become. Although this EP (she sweetly calls it an ‘albumette’) sees her flirt increasingly with the mainstream pop of her debut, perhaps wisely casting aside any R&B tendencies, the songs are strong enough to connect and engage. Okay, so the title track’s classy mid-tempo pop has ‘Radio 2 playlist’ written through it like a stick of Brighton rock, and the fact that it has been picked up by Caffé Nero for repeated in-store plays only lends credence to the coffee table tag, but it’s not the be all and end all.
Production duties fall to Kipper – best known for his Grammy award-winning work with Sting – who succeeds in presenting a shimmering context in which to appreciate Alexander’s delicate vocals. He also contributes to the co-penned ‘Safe House’, which, alongside ‘Come & Find Me’ is a tender ballad where the pop approach gives way to a cocooning sound in which cello, muted trumpet and flugelhorn (!) weave subtle countermelodies to the voice. ‘Other Side of Winter’ showcases the quality of the Alexander’s voice unencumbered by slick production. Only the unproduced sound of the twin acoustic guitars and the applause that closes the song betray its live origins.
Initially some of the slower songs are not as immediate as they might be but they’re well equipped to grow on you. The EP closes with an album version of the title track. Well, here’s hoping that album comes soon even though, on the basis of this ‘albumette’, it should be worth waiting for too.
Because I Love It •••
Let’s get one thing clear from the very beginning – the only track you are going to find here that’s anywhere near as mammoth as her international calling card ‘1 Thing’ is, er, ‘1 Thing’, which has been tacked on to the end of this collection to remind people that, yes, this girl ‘has’ had a hit song, thank you very much. That’s not to say that Because I Love It is a bad album. It’s not. It’s just that matching or exceeding the sheer excitement of her 2005 single is a tall order and one that Amerie’s team has not quite managed to fulfil.
As far as pop albums go it’s the same old story – the label wants to appeal to as many people as possible so they ensure that there are a few songs to dance around a handbag to, some mild-mannered sing-a-longs, and – brace yourselves – a few Mariah-robbing heartbroken ballads. Still, there’s something genuinely likeable about Amerie, and, for the most part, she pulls it off. Beyoncé and Christina may have fallen victim to their own hype, churning out unlistenable pap, but Amerie has bounced around in the background and so retains some of the zeal displayed on the earlier work of her contemporaries. Even the most mundane of lyrics are given some degree of believability when injected with the enthusiasm and passion of her performance.
Amerie shines on the brass-fuelled, upbeat tracks ‘Take Control’ and ‘Gotta Work’, and even impresses with her slinky delivery on cheeky ‘80s pastiches ‘Crush’ and ‘Crazy Wonderful’, but things start feeling hollow and clunky on obligatory sob story ‘When Loving U Was Easy’, which even Amerie does not have the personality or voice to elevate from anything but dire and unnecessary. Of course, if you are au fait with albums by R&B divas, you’ll be well acquainted by now with the dreaded phenomenon of filler tracks padding out the second half. None of Amerie’s slushy ballads or slow ‘jams’ will bother you all that much, and besides, the aforementioned pasting-on of ‘1 Thing’ and bonus track ‘Losing You’ rebounds Because I Love It into listenable territory.
Amerie is certainly somewhere near the top of the pile when it comes to the glut of female R&B singers we’ve enjoyed/endured (delete as applicable) over the last few years. The only problem is, whilst largely enjoyable, it’s unlikely that the album will spawn another major hit to propel our plucky ingénue into the big league.
Architecture In Helsinki
Places Like This ••••
The recent swathe of bands determined to bring a hefty dose of fun back into music cannot have escaped unnoticed by even the most casual of observers. CSS and Gogol Bordello are just two of the acts propelled into the higher echelons of indie greatness, not just because they are musically rather brilliant but also because they’re so full of energy that they shine amidst a sea of more po-faced generic ensembles. Architecture In Helsinki is another one of these bands. The Australian collective’s debut album Fingers Crossed emerged in 2004, with In Case We Die arriving the following year and thrusting the band into the public’s consciousness with its pure and joyful blasts of riotous fun. The accessibility and appeal of their sound was highlighted by 2006’s remix compilation where acts like Hot Chip fell sufficiently in love with their sound that they couldn’t leave it alone.
Places Like This not only keeps the pace but also ups the ante as a collection of slightly unhinged, kinda disturbed, but quite magnificent tunes. A few songs trimmer than its predecessor (and the band with two fewer members), it seems that the madness has come more into focus with energy levels going through the roof. Lead single ‘Heart It Races’ is as edgy as it is simplistic, and catchy as you like thanks to the Cameron Bird and Kellie Sutherland’s unified cries that soar above a backdrop of steel drums, bongos and synths. From start to finish, each song is orchestrated by a vast array of instruments – trumpets, drums of all ilk, glockenspiels, wind chimes, as many synth sounds as you can name, and of course the more traditional guitar, all make appearances through the course of ten songs. Adding a bewildering, kaleidoscopic feel to the album, Architecture In Helsinki veer between sounding like a calypso troupe, an ‘80s tribute band, a pack of scraggly alleycats and an experimental chamber choir.
‘Hold Music’, arguably the album’s highlight, is Architecture In Helsinki at their bonkers best; here, the vocals sound almost like the cast of ‘Fraggle Rock’ have formed a school choir and are banging out renditions of all their favourite tunes at once. It’s insanely poppy and outrageously over the top, but absolutely brilliant. This willingness to experiment with their vocal arrangements sets the band apart from many of their contemporaries as they skip between styles, harmonising in the most inventive of ways and using the voice as the ultimate instrument. The singing may frequently seem feral and untamed (‘Debbie’, ‘Hold Music’, ‘Nothing’s Wrong’) but in fact it is immaculately ordered. Both leads intertwine in a flirtatious and complementary manner that, when combined with the musical arrangement, makes for something quite astonishing overall.
As crazy and unleashed as their music becomes, Places Like This makes room for moments of a more subdued beauty. ‘Underwater’, for example, is more of a bubbling pause for air, and displays the band’s aptitude for production and arrangement. Of course, the mention of a cartoon-like energy and entertainment aspect of their music might suggest that the songs, beneath the surface, have little more to offer. This is far from the case. The album is littered with wonderful anecdotes such as “ignore me in the parking lot, I’m petrified by conversation” (‘Nothing’s Wrong’), or “your foot’s on the clutch / your hand’s on my crotch / slow down!” (‘Feathers In A Baseball Cap’).
Although it’s definitely not everyone’s cup of tea and, despite their protestations to the contrary, perhaps not a drastic move forward from their last release, Places Like This is nevertheless a wonderful collection of silly yet thought-provoking songs that will make you dance just as much as they will make you think, listen after listen.
Into The Blues •••
An appealing aspect of Joan Armatrading’s work is the way she tempers the earnest and personal nature of her lyrics – otherwise known as the curse of the confessional singer-songwriter – with a warm earthiness and sense of humour. Into The Blues is no different; she comes across as both intimate and playful in ‘Play The Blues’ as she observes that the teeth of her lover are “yellow like the sun… / but baby, when you sing the blues / I take off all my clothes for you”. Darker tracks such as the desolate ‘Empty Highway’ and intense finale ‘Something’s Gotta Blow ‘rub shoulders with the likes of ‘There Ain’t A Girl Alive (Who Likes To Look In The Mirror Like You Do)’, a sort of cheeky lesbian reworking of ‘You’re So Vain’. It’s a well-rounded album deliberately sequenced so that any given mood is not allowed to outstay its welcome.
‘A Woman In Love’, the album’s opener, is the obvious choice to get a promotional airing with its smooth groove underlying one elegantly crafted hook after another. It serves as a four-minute showcase for Armatrading’s rich voice, as well as her skilful command of piano, bass and the searing blues guitar that dominates the record. In stark contrast, ‘Deep Down’ is a messily indulgent exercise that should never have made the cut; it’s a bloated, clattering blues jam with Armatrading repeating the two words of the title ad nauseam. A more conventional clunker is ‘Liza’, which simply isn’t distinctive or appealing enough to stand up against the other material.
Much better are ‘Secular Songs’ and ‘Mama Papa’, which draw on funk and gospel influences and add flavour to an already unusual album. The sounds are consistent despite this cheery eclecticism. Armatrading’s self-production is endearingly awkward as ever, with unfashionable whirring synth pads and cascading vocal layers seeming ill at ease in contrast with the grittier elements. However, it also serves as a reminder of her pop sensibility; while the blues-inspired compositions highlight her chops as a guitarist and an adaptable songwriter with a clear appreciation and understanding of the genre, it’s tracks like ‘Baby Blue Eyes’ and ‘DNA’ – where Armatrading puts her trademark way with melodies front and centre – that really shine. The whole album turns on this compromise. It is by no means an authentic blues record, but Into The Blues stands as a strong addition to Armatrading’s admirable body of work.
Filed under: album, back issues, review | Tags: andy wasley, basia bulat, carla bruni, danny weddup, hugh armitage, katey brooks, keith anderson, meg baird, miranda barber, mutya buena, natasha bedingfield, peter hayward, sara silver, shirley bassey, the bird and the bee, the book of knots, trevor raggatt
The following reviews were published on our old MySpace blog in 2007.
Dear Companion ••••
What with all the caterwauling harpists in mediaeval dress, bindi sporting pinkos and long-lost commune-dwelling recluses, the folk revival of recent years has had a focus on original songs that some purists regard as contrary to the folk ethos. The revision and reinterpretation of traditional songs and adoption of new songs to the folk songbook has taken a back seat. As a member of Espers, Meg Baird has been on the side of the innovators over the past five years. For her first solo outing, however, she seeds an album of traditional songs with original numbers and creates a work at times reminiscent of luminaries of early ‘60s pastoral folk, such as Anne Briggs and Shirley Collins.
Apparently recorded in less than 24 hours with Espers conspirator Greg Weeks, Dear Companion is an unostentatious collection of songs, some of which first appeared on last year’s delicate collaboration with Sharron Kraus and Helena Espvall, Leaves From Off The Tree. The arrangement of acoustic guitar, minimum accompaniment and the largely single-tracked vocals give great immediacy to the songs. As though listening to a live performance, if you close your eyes you can smell the cloudy cider and pipe smoke.
With a voice like a mountain stream of glacial meltwater, Baird makes light work of traditional favourites such as ‘Willie O’Winsbury’, giving new life to stories told countless times. And her songs hold their own, not directly emulating the folk tradition of the traditional numbers but working as a counterpoint in the modern singer-songwriter mould. The opener and title track is a country-tinged love song that is at least as old as the Carter family and packed with lines like “I’ll drink nothing but my tears”. When revisited as an a cappella number at the end of the album, however, it sounds as though it has been lifted from the English folk canon.
This gracious nod to different heritages recurs throughout the album. A version of the classic ‘Barbry Allen’ sees her expertly subvert her crystal vocals to capture the macabre side of the song, a tale of unrequited lovers dying one after the other. The self-penned ‘Do What You Gotta Do’ and ‘All I Ever Wanted’ see Baird updating stories of frustrated love and disappointment. The haunting refrain from the latter “you keep playing your games on me / and all I ever wanted was your loving” is the aural equivalent of a plump teardrop quivering on the brink of an eyelid. ‘Tennis Players’ Waltze’ gets my instant seal of approval for likening a new love to the fruiting of a fungus: “your love for me was an overnight sensation / my love for you is an overnight sensation too… / the cowboys are sprinkling mycelium / the mushrooms are growing in every new boot print”. Such mycological accuracy may not be a clincher for everyone, although, if you fail to be moved by the humour, tenderness and honesty of the song, whether you are a fan of fungus or not, your heart has died. You just haven’t noticed it yet.
The album is completed by a couple of other traditional songs of the type in which more people called William and Ellen fall in love, are forbidden to marry, and then pine to death. These songs, accompanied by droning autoharp, sound like something from another era, whereas the other tracks sound simply timeless in the way that only songs reinterpreted time and again can. Dear Companion impresses not just with its rendering of folk classics and with the poetry and emotion of the self-penned numbers, but with its marriage of the two styles. It might not be the most joyous album, but what folk ever is? As any good folk singer should do, Meg Baird finds the beauty, humour and universal truth in stories of love, death and fungi.
My Tomorrow EP •••½
The second EP from Oz-born, London-based singer-songwriter Miranda Barber presents the listener with a lucky seven piano-based ballads. Whilst this is strictly a 5+2 bonus tracks release, those welcome extras easily stand alongside the ‘proper’ songs on their own merits. Barber’s first, self-titled EP drew some almost subliminal Kate Bush comparisons in the vocal style but here she moves in a more jazz-influenced direction with double bass, subtle guitar and soft percussion. However, it’s Barber’s voice and her hands on the piano that command centre stage. Luckily, that’s where it gets really interesting.
Befitting the depth and darkness of some of her lyrics, Barber guides us through some brooding, ominous musical terrain. ‘Blues Day’ and the title song succeed in chilling the heart while keeping the listener involved and transfixed. Barber’s rich, pure vocal gets straight to the emotional core of the songs with seemingly little effort, casting welcome elements of light and shade with subtly textured self-harmonies. The achingly pretty ‘My Roof Has Got A Hole In It’ might well drown you in its desperate melancholy before ‘Paprika Haze’ lifts the mood with a shift in style whereupon it occupies that sublime showtune-meets-pop song otherworld practically invented by Randy Newman. A hot ‘n’ spicy invitation to get together driven forward by Barber’s spiky piano chords, ‘Eggshells’ rounds off the regular EP, pulling the mood back down and unflinchingly exploring the more obsessive side of love.
Whatever perceived modesty led Barber to include ‘Too Damn Hard’ and ‘No Air To Breathe’ as bonus tracks was a false one; the sheer quality of the songs more than warrants their inclusion. The former allows Barber scope to display the jazzier end of her range, while the latter provides a devastatingly chilling conclusion. A political twist on the murder ballad canon, it follows a young asylum seeker on his journey to a new life and a painful loss without descending into mawkish melodrama. Not an easy feat by any means.
My Tomorrow is a perfect showcase for Barber’s talent; alternately soothing, chilling and mysterious, but always, always beguiling.
Dame Shirley Bassey
Get The Party Started •••½
Lock Stock & Barrel
One of Glastonbury’s most bizarre high points this year came during the Sunday afternoon slot, when 70-year old Dame Shirley Bassey performed a short set to an enraptured audience. Hardly the kind of hard-edged rock star that often graces the Glasto stage, she nonetheless received tumultuous applause from a crowd whose individuals were mostly at least forty years her junior; clearly, her appeal has not diminished with age. Get The Party Started, then, arrives right on cue. A collection of ten remixes and three covers, most of the songs will already be familiar to Bassey fans from the old to the new – ‘Kiss Me, Honey Honey’ was first released in 1959, while the title track, a cover of P!nk’s 2002 hit single, was used in last year’s acclaimed M&S Christmas ad campaign. As ever, the biggest challenge for the Dame is to rise above the hackneyed James Bond stylings that have often marked – or marred – her music. Does she succeed? Mostly…
Bassey’s famously brassy voice seems to lend itself to remixing: witness The Propellorheads’ thumping version of ‘History Repeating’ and Kayne West’s ‘Diamonds From Sierra Leone’. Although the quantity of remixes here could easily be a recipe for a stale-sounding novelty album, all succeed in lending a fresh air to some of the Dame’s greatest hits. Of particular note, NorthXNorthwest’s accomplished mix of ‘Big Spender’ perfectly captures the song’s glitzy, darkly glamorous sound, while giving it fresh breath with a throbbing bassline and overdriven synths that perfectly complement the track’s classic brass riffs. Of course, Bassey’s turbo-charged vocals take centre stage, never secondary to the additional layers of sound. Caged Baby’s remix of ‘This Is My Life’ is an excellent example: remixed for 2007’s club crowd, the mix avoids drowning her voice with synth drums, choosing instead to build a solid crowd-pleaser around a classically breathless performance.
The covers are somewhat less successful. Although fans will be pleased to hear the title track in full, some might be dismayed by Bassey’s misguided attempts to match the original’s subversive and wavering vocals. Elsewhere, ‘The Living Tree’, itself a magnificently powerful song, suffers from the self-conscious cliché of Bond-style chromatic scales, while a woeful ‘I Will Survive’ fails to match its potential as Bassey drifts from affected rhythmic modifications to an unappealingly monotonous delivery.
Despite these low points, most of these songs are welcome additions to Bassey’s already formidable repertoire. It may not be an artistic triumph but it will certainly please the Dame’s devotees and anyone looking for an accessible party record. To quote the lady herself, she is what she is, and that’s really quite alright. After all, it’s a formula that’s worked for nigh on 50 years, and Bassey shows no signs of slowing down.
For those of us out there who have been feeling mounting concern at the absence of the Bedingfield brood from the airwaves, fear no more! Middle child Natasha has returned to assail our ears with the bland pop that is apparently written into her very genes. On my first attempt to listen through Ms Bedingfield’s second album, the imaginatively titled N.B., the universe revolted and I suffered a power cut halfway through the first track. I’m afraid this says it all.
It is a question long unanswered as to how some people manage to be so successful in the music industry, Bedingfield being a prime example. Her voice is not particularly pretty or tuneful, and she has a habit of shouting her lyrics rather than actually singing them. Nor does her material possess any sense of originality; each song sounds like something heard a thousand times before. Listening to this album, you could be forgiven for suspecting you had recently developed precognitive powers, so predictable and banal are the lyrics. The source of her popularity (both at home and in the US, of all places) continues to mystify.
On too many of N.B.‘s 14 tiring tracks, Bedingfield plays the role of a one-girl tribute band; ‘Tricky Angel’s chorus is pure Sugababes, and ‘When You Know You Know’ shows off Bedingfield’s very best Mariah Carey impression. Others, such as ‘How Do You Do’ and first single ‘I Wanna Have Your Babies’, are more distinctly hers but alas all sound the same. The latter is typical nonsensical Bedingfield fare in the vein of ‘These Words’. The song’s title and sentiment are enough to induce a mild sense of offence, and this is only compounded by the last handful of bars, wherein Bedingfield seems to actually be counting the children that are presumably springing one after another from her bountiful loins. Simply inexcusable. The obligatory ballads, ‘Soulmate’ (which is also her next single – can’t wait) and the Diane Warren-penned ‘Still Here’, tick all the requisite boxes on the checklist – downtempo? check! strings? check! soppy lyrics? check! – but completely fail to induce any sort of emotion in the listener.
N.B. is unoriginal, predictable, soulless, and will no doubt sell by the hundreds of thousands. Bedingfield is undoubtedly an attractive young woman, but this can hardly explain why so many people are willing to pay for the privilege of listening to her sing bad songs in her mediocre voice. When music has so much scope, why this nonsense is the stuff that sells millions is, quite frankly, unfathomable.
The Bird & The Bee
The Bird & The Bee ••••
This collaborative effort between keyboardist/producer Greg Kurstin (the bee) and vocalist Inara George (the bird) is a hipster’s electro-pop wet dream. It’s the kind of record Charlotte Gainsbourg’s character Stephanie in ‘The Science of Sleep’ would make were she not too busy faffing around with sweet wrappers and Pritt-Stik: ironic, referential 160s retro.
Pleasingly, it’s also very good. The track that’s garnered the most attention (and also made #1 on the US Dance Chart courtesy of a remix from Peaches) is ‘Fucking Boyfriend’, a sparkling fresh, vacuum-packed gem. There’s something thrilling about hearing filthy language in a pristine pop context and The Bird & The Bee have captured it perfectly. The expletives are born out of the frustration experienced when a giddy, flirtatious relationship resolutely fails to become something more. “Are you working up to something? / But you give me almost nothing”, George asks in the verse, before a gentle rainstorm of electronica heralds the chorus refrain, “Will you ever be my / will you be my fucking boyfriend?”. Waiting for the other party to make things ‘official’ can be a prolonged and ultimately disappointing game, but the giggles at the end of the song suggest that things might turn out rosy.
‘Fucking Boyfriend’ is fairly indicative of the album as a whole: summery pop with a sharp lyrical wit and a multitude of (to use a precise musical term) twinkling noises. On ‘Again & Again’, the album’s lead single, a charge of electronic fuzz undercuts the handclaps and acoustic guitar work. But the darkness never gets the upper hand. Even ‘I’m A Broken Heart’, with lyrics that wouldn’t be out of place on PJ Harvey’s Rid Of Me – “aching and teething / my big love is bleeding/ I think I might be dying” – sounds positively laidback, with soothing winsome brass and lazy slow beats. The effect is a little strange; George might repeatedly intone that she’s a broken heart, but she doesn’t really sound all that bothered and the point of this extreme contrast is unclear. But this is a rare unsatisfying note in a confident and cohesive album.
The Bird & The Bee is a sophisticated pop record that toys playfully with the listener, particularly on ‘I Hate Cameras’ (“Don’t take my / DON’T TAKE MY PICTURE!”) which may be a straightforward anti-photography rant or a calculated grab for attention. So if you’re a fan of breathy female vocals, sparklingly clear production and knowing lyrics, lie back in the grass with the sun on your face and let Kurstin and George teach you about the birds and the bees.
The Bird & The Bee
Please Clap Your Hands EP •••
Please Clap Your Hands is the second EP from musical duo The Bird & The Bee, otherwise known as Inara George and Greg Kurstin. Kurstin is a producer/keyboardist who has been involved with a great big mixed bag of artists, some good, others distinctly bad. George is the daughter of the late Lowell George, who helped found the band Little Feat in the 1970s. She, too, has a solo career and other side projects. With such a busy and varied musical background, one might wonder what kind of music they would come up with.
The quality of the material on Please Clap Your Hands is as varied as its creators’ musical experience. The music itself is pleasant – electronic in sound but comforting like the tune favourite retro computer game or childhood cartoon, rather than weird and alienating like techno or electro. The drumbeat has an upbeat party feel that gives the tracks (particularly ‘So You Say’) the feel of an indie dance mix. The music is cute and just a little strange: fun, but nothing astounding.
For all the acclaim their debut album received, there are two sides to The Bird & The Bee: lovers of George’s light and airy vocals and haters of her apparent lack of emotion. To these ears her voice is not intolerable, but there is something unaccountably cold about it. She doesn’t sound like she feels what she is singing about. This is emphasised on ‘The Races’, where an echoing effect added to her vocals makes her sound all the more distant and detached.
The better parts of Please Clap Your Hands turn out to be the few in which George injects a bit more feeling into her voice. The half-spoken bridge in ‘So You Say’ is brazen and defiant, like something The Dresden Dolls’ Amanda Palmer might growl, and is markedly more attention grabbing than anything else the EP has to offer. The duo’s cover of the Bee Gees classic ‘How Deep Is Your Love’ is another high point, mainly because once again George sounds like she really means what she’s singing.
Please Clap Your Hands has much to recommend it, largely due to some interesting experiments with musical styles. Unfortunately, the indifferent vocals prevent this from being more than an unexceptional collection of songs.
The Book Of Knots
That New York four-piece The Book Of Knots first came together under the simple premise of needing “an excuse to write songs for their friends” belies the experimental noises found on their second release, Traineater. Not an album written to sell millions and go triple platinum, but rather an idea that someone wanted to turn into music, Traineater pays tribute to the American Rust Belt. Once the manufacturing heart of the United States, the Belt encompasses places like Detroit and Cleveland that grew under the promise of a bright future at the head of industry, only to slowly decline and go to seed as the decades rolled on. This spirit is captured perfectly in Traineater, which is full of the lonely crying of strings and the industrial clunking of percussion. There is a real sense of loss, of mechanical decay and the broken promise of a bright future vanished forever.
‘View From The Watertower’ makes for a difficult start. The tone is distinctly sinister, and guest lyricist/vocalist Carla Bozulich (formerly of The Geraldine Fibbers) sounds like a strange mix of Patti Smith and Courtney Love, drawling and screaming along to a chorus of cacophonic strings. It is not a relaxing tune by any means, and is definitely something of an acquired taste. Bozulich is but the first in a parade of guests, which include the great Tom Waits and wife Kathleen Brennan on ‘Pray’, a clanking piece which could have come straight out of his own Mule Variations.
There are some songs, like ‘Midnight’ (co-written by and featuring morbid romantic Memphis singer-songwriter Megan Reilly) and the album’s title track, that possess a quiet and melancholy beauty and really capture the sadness of the Rust Belt’s soured American dream. ‘Red Apple Boy’, with guest vocals from David Thomas and harp from Zeena Parkins, is also strangely Waits-esque, and Jon Langford on ‘Boomtown’ gives a rather creepy half-spoken monologue about a sad old town ruined by the passage of years.
The harshness of ‘View From The Watertower’ is repeated throughout the album, particularly in ‘Pedro To Cleveland’ and ‘The Ballad Of John Henry’. Though these tracks are challenging, they add greatly to the strong sense of atmosphere that evokes the grim and barren Rust Belt so well. Jarring they may be, but they possess their own sense of dark beauty as much as the other, prettier songs on the album.
Traineater demands a lot from the listener. It is not the sort of album you can put on and relax with; no one will be playing it in the background at any dinner parties. It requires a lot of attention, and is not easy to like right away. It may be difficult to listen to in places, but it is masterfully atmospheric and, at times, as darkly beautiful as the places that have inspired it.
True Speaker EP ••••½
Despite being of only tender years, Bristol’s Katey Brooks could already be on the road to becoming a phenomenon. Possessed of a unique voice – and oft said that rarely accurate statement – Wears The Trousers would challenge anyone to listen to the five tracks on True Speaker and not be deeply affected. The a cappella ‘Hear Me Now’ starts things off with a haunting prayer of desperation made all the more powerful by its simplicity and intimate honesty. It’s hard to draw comparisons to other singers, although a subtle blend of Joan Armatrading and Tracy Chapman is perhaps the least inadequate.
Brooks’s voice is astonishingly deep, with a richness to it that envelops the listener in a comforting blanket of honey-tinged…hmm, I might as well admit it, I’m lost for even haltingly adequate editors and similes. She really is ‘that good’. The rest of the tracks on the EP take a similarly folksy form. Acoustic guitars and bass are joined by plaintive violin in sympathy with the vocal, all the evidence suggesting that Brooks’s talents as a writer are as well developed as her singing. Each song is quietly contemplative and perfectly complements the half-swallowed vocal performance, never overshadowing the singer.
It’s so rare to come across a singer who contributes something genuinely new these days. So often such a claim merely presages yet another cookie cutter starlet and a depressing anticlimax. For once, that isn’t the case; Katey Brooks is one of those rare exceptions and someone whom Wears The Trousers will be watching carefully as she continues to bloom as an artist. She’ll be performing alongside Mara Carlyle at our artist showcase in November; you won’t want to miss it.
No Promises •••
Italian heiress Carla Bruni may have an illustrious, almost storybook past as a supermodel fashion icon but don’t let it cloud your judgement on her actual talent. What would typically be a healthy cynicism of someone making such a leap (have you heard Kate Moss sing? And what about Naomi Campbell’s ill-starred pop flirtation?) would, in this case, be entirely wrong. Bruni is a decent guitarist and is in possession of a very unique, intimate and engaging – and yes, not a little sexy – vocal style that makes her folksy chansons so appealing. Her 2002 debut, Quelqu’un m’a dit, was a Franco-Italian delight and made a dent in the English cool circles despite the language barrier.
No Promises sees Bruni take up the challenge of competing in English with a similar approach. The genius part is using texts from famous dead poets that really allow her unusual accented phrasing to bring something special to the predominantly guitar and brushed drum-supported melodies. A peek at the songwriting credits reveals a none-more-venerable cast that includes WB Yeats (‘Those Dancing Days Are Gone’, ‘Before The World Was Made’), WH Auden (‘Lady Weeping At The Crossroads’, ‘At Last The Secret Is Out’), Emily Dickinson (‘I Felt My Life With Both My Hands’, ‘If You Were Coming In The Fall’, ‘I Went To Heaven’), Walter de la Mare (‘Autumn’), Dorothy Parker (‘Afternoon’, ‘Ballad At Thirty-Five’) and Christina Rossetti (‘Promises Like Piecrust’). Bruni gives a real personal interpretation of these poems with melancholic romanticism, and whilst the writers have been set to music before – Joni Mitchell has drawn on Yeats’s verse, while composer Benjamin Britten collaborated with Auden himself – Bruni’s half-spoken, half-sung style is unique in a Françoise Hardy meets Jane Birkin manner, though not as obvious as such a comparison seems.
That Bruni appears to have that ethos of doing well at whatever she focuses her attentions on is all the more impressive given that she might easily have chosen never to work in her life with all her privileges and status. Not to mention her beauty – she’s been romantically linked with everyone from Mick Jagger and Eric Clapton to Donald Trump and Kevin Costner. Next year sees the 10th anniversary of her retirement from the fashion world and her 40th birthday, and Bruni sounds more authentic than ever. No Promises may well seep beneath your skin if you give it time to grow. Then go get her first album too.
Real Girl •
The media like to make a big deal about Amy Winehouse’s drinking habits. Every second day we are subjected to stories about how she has had to cancel a gig or reschedule a TV appearance because she’s been hitting the bottle too hard. With these kinds of exaggerated stories it’s never quite clear whether or not the whole thing is the creation of an over-zealous PR team, or the actions of a self-destructive nymph who figures she doesn’t really need a liver. After listening to ‘B-Boy Baby’, Amy’s duet with Mutya, which also happens to be a rehash of the classic Ronettes’ song ‘Be My Baby’, it’s quite clear that the latter is, in fact, true. There is no other logical explanation as to why Amy would lend her lungs to this tune, AKA the worst song ever committed to plastic, other than the fact she was completely hammered on the day of recording.
But, let’s get to Mutya, who is the star of this here record. You may be aware that Mutya jumped ship on the Sugababes in 2005, leaving the band to look after her baby and start up a solo career. Many felt that with her she took the ‘voice’ of the band, and without her their edge was lost (they do, after all, pride themselves on being the ‘edgy’ girlband). It’s true that she has a not unlistenable tone which often wraps itself around her subject quite nicely, but, with material like that which appears on her solo debut it’s nowhere near time for her ex-bandmates to hand in their kitten heels and black eyeliner.
For those not in the know, Mutya was, to delicately put it, the bitch of the Sugababes. Staring blankly from CD sleeves and coming across aloof as can be in interviews, she was the member who dripped with cool. She was the girl who would steal your lunch money and sit at the back of the class, smoking cigarettes and taking swigs from a bottle of vodka. So, as you would expect her album is full of…sappy ballads with no personality. Hmm.
Every quirk and shred of character has been ironed out in order to make an album which is as inoffensive as possible. Even potentially interesting songs such as ‘It’s Not Easy’, with the knowing line ‘It’s not easy being right all the time, you know someone has to be’ have been airbrushed to the nth degree, making a spunky song bland and unlistenable. The only beacon that shines in this mess of songs is ‘Song 4 Mutya (Out of Control)’, Mutya’s collaboration with Groove Armada, which was recorded for their album ‘Soundboy Rock’ earlier this year and wasn’t even intended for inclusion on ‘Real Girl’.
As far as solo albums by ex-members of girl bands go, this effort should be filed somewhere between Victoria Beckham’s VB, and Kelly Rowland’s Simply Deep – one semi-decent song and 40-odd minutes of additional sounds.
Oh, My Darling •••½
Since, and perhaps because of, the ‘90s tyranny of Alanis, Céline and Shania, every musician in Canada seems to have been hell bent on becoming the best folk-rock artist the world has to offer. From Broken Social Scene to The Be Good Tanyas and many others in between, Canadian music has achieved global credibility and prominence and even spawned “the best band in the world right now” (Arcade Fire, in case you have been asleep for the past two years). Maybe just once it would be a refreshing change to hear someone say “here’s a new folk-influenced Canadian artist and actually they’re a bit average”. No such opportunity with Basia Bulat, whose debut album fizzes with folksy assuredness.
Armed with an acoustic guitar and a voice like warm molasses, Bulat laces Oh, My Darling‘s collection of waltzes, ballads and gentle Spanish-influenced dances with tinges of jazz and lounge. Bulat’s approach to folk music is very reminiscent of founding Be Good Tanya, Jolie Holland, although Basia’s songs lean much more heavily on pop…in a good way. ‘Before I Knew’ is a sleepy, short number that drifts lazily into the effervescent ‘I Was A Daughter’, in which suburban streets turn into dirt tracks and Bulat finds herself in adrift in a wilderness. An approach to songwriting described in the press release as picking ideas from trees in the forest immediately sets the twee alarms ringing, but, rather than armfuls of feathers, pretty leaves and blossom, you get the idea that she came back with birds’ nests, interesting lichen and soggy socks and shoes.
The title track starts with the promising line “there are two things I will carry in my pockets at the end and you are one of them / and the way you look when you have a story to begin, that’s the other half”, but is over all too soon. ‘Little Waltz’ recalls Jolie Holland’s perfect evocation of times past and could be the soundtrack to a barn dance in an era when men wore dungarees and workman’s boots and women wore gingham pinafore dresses. But it’s not all old-timey bucolic charm and peat bogs. ‘Snakes & Ladders’ is a relationship deconstructed, an indictment of the games lovers play, and is laced with frenetic strings and a killer ukulele hook; this is, however, as fierce as the album gets. ‘Why Can’t It Be Mine’, a moving story of longing sparkles with Latin rhythms and begs to be the soundtrack to a thousand movie break-ups.
Throughout, the album the instrumentation is flawless, though sometimes predictable and heavily influenced by acts such as The Be Good Tanyas. The songs are classy, and Bulat should be applauded for the variety of styles she artfully ties together while keeping one eye on pop sensibilities, although perhaps only two or three songs really tug at the heartstrings. Nonetheless, the whole album is held together by Bulat’s sumptuous voice – warm, smoky, emotive when she needs it to be, and subtly understated at all the right times.
Her intimate, heartfelt songs have garnered Bulat quite a following in her hometown of London, Ontario, though the album’s not yet in the shops there. Certainly it is to Rough Trade’s credit that they have scooped North America with their European release and it can only be a matter of time before her home country and their southern neighbours are able to appreciate Oh, My Darling‘s many charms. It’s a consistently good (if not consistently great) and endearing effort in the tradition of the Canadian folk revival. The title track and perhaps a couple of others could have been developed further, rather than left as pleasing ditties, for at just 35 minutes the album really leaves you wanting some more. Then again, that’s not necessarily a bad thing.
Filed under: album, back issues, review | Tags: adam smith, alan pedder, chris mccrudden, dana falconberry, eisley, electrelane, feist, fields, fursaxa, gem nethersole, keith anderson, lily fraser, rod thomas, sharon kean, sophie ellis-bextor, the fiery furnaces, trevor raggatt
The following reviews were published on our old MySpace blog in 2007.
Despite the fact that two of their number aren’t yet out of their teens and that their eldest member is just 25 years old, the Texan family affair that is Eisley celebrates its tenth year of existence with the release of Combinations, their second album for major label Warners. One thing is clear right from the outset; it may have only been two short years since their sparkling debut Room Noises charmed its way into the hearts of a predominantly adolescent audience with truckloads of fanciful quirks, but the five DuPree kids are no longer ingénues – the band are growing up fast.
Having taken their name from Mos Eisley, a spaceport in the ‘Star Wars’ films, the band are no strangers to sci-fi and the chance to be produced by ‘Battlestar Galactica’ score composer Richard Gibbs was almost certainly leapt upon – a brave move, sure, but one that has paid some handsome dividends. Though Gibbs occasionally lapses into clichéd territory (the rainfall that fades in and out of ‘If You’re Wondering’ being the number one offender) and the band stick mostly to the safe side, Combinations contains sufficient variety to keep appreciation levels at a near constant high.
The vocals, as ever, are resplendent and glorious; Sherri’s malleable, exquisite soprano mingles with sister Stacy’s slightly deeper tones in a manner recalling a poppier, more widescreen version of ‘90s duo Pooka. Opener ‘Many Funerals’ sees the two trading lines as they flutter and charge over snarling electric guitar, a clear departure from the gentler, more whimsical pop-rock of Room Noises. Themes of death and sci-fi collide on the driving first single ‘Invasion’. Inspired by the Jack Finney novel ‘Invasion Of The Body Snatchers’, its unnervingly catchy indie-pop clatter is accentuated nicely by Eisley’s trademark harmonies, packaged here as an impressively soaring rock vocal.
For the most part Eisley succeed when stepping outside of what has come before. The brilliant ‘Ten Cent Blues’ is a love rival story song that Rilo Kiley would be proud of (“she is cheesy, she is scrawny, with her uncanny styling / I’m teasing, she is pleasing, she just has no wit”), while ‘Come Clean’ is perhaps their most sumptuous, elegant composition to date, the tail end of which is given added oomph by the unexpected arrival of third sister Chauntelle, brother Weston and cousin Garron on backing vocals. The title track is a straight up love song, given a mystical twist, with ‘Taking Control’ and the commanding ‘A Sight To Behold’ also worthy of attention.
Combinations sags a little early on with the side-by-side pairing of ‘Go Away’ and ‘I Could Be There For You’, the former being overly repetitive and the latter excessively bland, but for the most part Eisley pull it off with style. Fans of their debut might miss that album’s more childish and playful elements, but (in the UK at least) compensation arrives in the form of two bonus tracks, ‘Golly Sandra’ and ‘Marvellous Things’, both of which have previously appeared on Eisley EPs. While these more frivolous inclusions could threaten to detract from the album as a whole, the country twang of ‘Golly Sandra’ is at the very least thoroughly enjoyable and the quality of the ‘Alice In Wonderland’-inspired ‘Marvellous Things’ speaks for itself.
No Shouts No Calls •••
No Shouts No Calls is the fourth studio album from the Brighton-based low-fi ladies and, in typical Electrelane fashion, doesn’t deviate far from what has gone before. In fact it doesn’t deviate at all – if there’s one word that best describes this band it’s ‘subtlety’. There are muffled vocals, crunchy guitars, buried organs and the occasional ukulele – nothing sounds clean or polished. But that’s just you’d expect from the band who are forever the queens of understatement.
There’s a sense of greatness about many of the songs, many of which feature a near-orchestral climax, yet impending doom continues to flow through most of the music. Verity Susman’s deadpan vocals do nothing to dispel the air of foreboding that wafts from the organs and fuzzy guitars. Yet this is a funeral dirge with a lift – in a similar vein to the way Arcade Fire rejoice in how bad everything is in the world right now. How appropriate that the mighty Fire have invited Electrelane to support them on their US tour.
As usual the minimalist lyrics are notoriously hard to understand, allowing little insight into the stories behind the angst present in much of the music…unless you listen very carefully. ‘The Greater Times’ is yet another tortured Electrelane lament of unrequited love, continually threatening to break out into a raucous chorus of elation but never quite making it. And with lyrics like “there’s no meaning now” and “I’m tearing down the walls without you”, it’s easy to see why.
It’s also clear that Electrelane will probably never quite shake off the Stereolab comparisons, and there are plenty of nods to their low-fi cousins here. The crescendo-ing organs on ‘Tram 21′ are eventually joined by ghostly backing vocals and the thrashing guitars rage throughout, all making for great background music but tends to lack the punch of something you’d find yourself naturally humming along to. That said, the hauntingly beautiful ‘In Berlin’ has some ‘proper vocals’ as Susman goes all choirgirl and angelically sings to her lover. The usually unintelligible lyrics are ditched in favour of deep felt dedications of love and outpourings of angst, making this a love song to charm even the coldest of hearts.
Elsewhere, ‘Between The Wolf & The Dog’ also threatens to be catchy but retreats into its shell of raucous guitar-distortion jamming, with murmurs of Susman’s voice cooing along with the vaguely ‘80s synth tune buried deep within. It’s subtly brilliant and will no doubt delight the band’s existing fans, but the lack of anything ‘new’ means it’s unlikely to win them any new supporters.
The standout track is without a doubt ‘Cut & Run’ – starting calmly with ukuleles and tambourines and blossoming into yet another love song, with desperate cries for the lover that Susman can’t bear to lose: “It’s the end I need to know / before I have to let you go / just not ready to be alone”. It’s beautifully simple and folk-rock at it’s finest. ‘To The East’ is another fanbase pleaser, an organ-filled, Krautrock-inspired jam, it’s not surprising that this was the album’s first single and not ‘Cut & Run’. This is what Electrelane (and No Shouts No Calls) are really all about.
Trip The Light Fantastic ••
Sophie Ellis-Bextor (don’t forget the hyphenation) is an interesting proposition. Starting out in indie band theaudience (don’t forget the lack of space) in the late 1990s, our girl Soph made it common knowledge that she was not so fond of pop and dance music. A few short years and one big musical U-turn later, she scored a #1 hit providing vocals for Spiller’s ‘Groovejet (If This Ain’t Love)’ (don’t forget the brackets) and went on to churn out two solo albums full of disco-pop stompers that presented her as the ‘du jour’ posh-girl singer with the odd-shaped face. So, was the whole campaign a cynical marketing ploy to capitalise on her unexpected chart success, or was it simply an affectionate deviation to the pure pop sounds she no doubt listened to during her youth? Really, it’s hard to be sure.
Ellis-Bextor’s career somewhat hit the skids when her second, more adult, album Shoot From The Hip failed to rouse much interest and tumbled from the charts almost as quickly as it had appeared. Taking no chances, Trip The Light Fantastic ticks all the appropriate boxes and sets out to guarantee pretty much what you’d expect from someone trying to resurrect her inner popstrel – a careful retreading of the winning Kylie blueprint. Any pop princess worth her salt would scratch out the eyes of her closest competition to get her hands on a Cathy Dennis song, and ‘Catch You’ is a blistering slice of pop confection, with clever lyrics and jaunty choruses. The fee for Dennis must have been too high, however, as the rest of the album flags beneath the weight of cloying, calculated numbers like ‘New York City Lights’ and ‘Today The Sun’s On Us’.
It doesn’t help that Ellis-Bextor seemingly comes from the moon/June/spoon school of songwriting and, unfortunately, lyrics as banal as “I’ve become fond of having you near / the way I’m fond of breathing in air” can’t be improved with the gloss of the world-class, occasionally inventive production. And there are more lyrical gems where that one came from; “every night before I sleep / I hope and pray you’re mine to keep” and “I have been storing all my devotion / it flows like an ocean” helpfully pad out the cringe-inducing moments on offer.
Three albums into her pop career, Ellis-Bextor fails to convince that she is producing the music that she’s genuinely enthused about. Whether this is because of her trademark deadpan delivery (that’s what makes her posh, you see) or the fact that most of the album’s material wouldn’t even make it to the shortlist for Hilary Duff’s next project is not immediately apparent. Pop music is supposed to be jubilant and thrilling, but, with the exception of a few highlights, Trip The Light Fantastic dismally fails to live up to its promise.
It’s a shame, for Sophie surely has it in her to be a true icon, her calculated swagger often reminiscent of a young Debbie Harry. The moments of genius on Trip The Light Fantastic, however, are too few and far between to really recommend it. Maybe one day, Soph (but next time, please, don’t forget the tunes).
Paper Sailboat EP ••••
Released last year but only recently coming to the attention of Wears The Trousers courtesy of the brilliant emusic.com, Dana Falconberry’s debut solo EP comprises a tantalising sextet of songs of wonderful musicianship and lyrical excellence. From melancholy Gallic folk to ravishingly jaunty, sultry numbers, Falconberry covers it all. Opener ‘My Sweetheart, My Dear’ lulls and cossets you into dreams of balmy nights filled with fireflies and the sighs of fading love. An accordion blusters low in the mix as Falconberry’s mesmerising acoustic plucking wraps around and squeezes you tightly. Then, just as you’re cosying up to it, ‘Leave In The Middle Of The Night’ dances onto the scene like a spontaneous tango in a Mediterranean plaza. Within moments, Falconberry transports us to a velvety, seductive world, albeit one where an edge of sadness is never entirely out of earshot and there’s no time for getting cold feet.
At this point you might expect the magic to stop since EPs so frequently contain two standalone songs coupled with a few hurried afterthoughts. In this case the diamonds continue to sparkle with no rough in sight. If there’s a full-length release of this remarkable quality waiting in the wings, it’ll be stunning. Falconberry clearly has some good friends to call on; the musicians involved in this recording read like a who’s who of independent artists with immense gravitas. There’s Patty Griffin on piano, Luis Guerra on bowed bass and Michael Longoria on percussion, amongst others. Falconberry is the undisputed star of the show, however, with her tender and intelligent lyrics holding each song aloft. As the title track unfolds, letters become vessels, ink begins to run and time moves backwards; it’s a Salvador Dali painting in an aural incarnation.
The Gallic sounds of ‘Sadie’ conjure up a darkly sleepy waltz accompanied by muffled drums, gentle and then discordant clamped vibraphones and stomach-hitting bass notes. Fans of famed whistlers Andrew Bird and Otis Redding will enjoy the song’s atmospheric tweeting coupled with the understated power of Falconberry’s croon. Sadie is a heartbreaking ode of longing and regret, of history and unending space. It’s a fitting closer to an EP that is partly a desolate exploration of emotion and character and partly a hazy riverbank fiesta.
The Reminder ••••½
Canadian chanteuse Leslie Feist is no stranger to the highest of praises. For those with their fingers firmly on the pulse, her name has long been associated with scenesters such as her one-time room-mate Peaches and the multi-talented, multi-guised Gonzales, who featured her heavily throughout his career before helping her to mould her own. Others will be aware of her involvement with Broken Social Scene who, like Feist herself, have gained a huge cult following but evaded mainstream success. For the more casual listener, 2004’s sublime Let It Die (co-written and produced by Gonzales) would have been their first introduction, and after extensive touring of her debut album proper, The Reminder arrives as a weighty demonstration of how much her presence has been missed.
Let It Die was a half originals, half covers collection that provided the ideal playground for her most powerful asset – that astonishing voice. Switching between languages, styles and octaves, her vocal performances were seldom short of breathtaking. The Reminder goes further, cementing Feist’s reputation as a sensitive composer. Here she delivers an impressive catalogue of well-crafted, deceptively brilliant songs, once again working with Gonzales and enlisting outside help from Mocky and UK soul/techno darling Jamie Lidell. The result is an album that seamlessly spans a variety of styles, eras and moods.
Lead single ‘My Moon, My Man’ is regarded by some as her most commercial sounding song to date, but despite its undeniable pop sensibilities it comes snugly wrapped in a thick sultry blanket and effervesces with passion. ‘1234′ is similarly radio-friendly, but still so touching and so completely organic that by no means could her work be seen as ‘sell-out’ or hollow. In interviews, Feist has described the recording process where musicians all taped their parts in a room together (particularly on ‘1234′), letting the sounds bleed between microphones for a warm, collective sound, and this decision breathes real life into the recordings, escaping the often stifling ‘studio’ sound.
Feist rocks the dancefloor harder than ever with tracks like the Nina Simone reworking ‘Sea Lion Woman’, ‘I Feel It All’ and ‘Past In Present’, all of which shimmer with vibrancy and energy. Of course, this being Feist, even these songs contain a touching sentimentality; ‘I Feel It All’ bristles with hope and strength as she boldly declares, “I’ll be the one who breaks my heart.” On the flipside, her vulnerability comes to the fore. ‘The Park’ aches longingly as she sings, “It’s not him who’ll come across the sea to surprise you / not him who will know where in London to find you,” while ‘The Water’ bubbles beautifully and ‘Intuition’ is literally heart-stopping.
For each of The Reminder‘s songs, the judgement of the right production values to tease out the character is impeccable. ‘The Limit To Your Love’ and ‘How My Heart Behaves’ in particular are staggering, the latter aptly ending an album that documents both a triumphant celebration of success and a wistful acknowledgement of weaknesses and failures. Perhaps the running order could use some fine-tuning; just as energy builds into ‘My Moon, My Man’, the drift into ‘The Park’ sombres the tone a touch too soon, but from ‘Sea Lion Woman’ onwards, the chronology of songs is well judged. Also, in a long programme, ‘Brandy Alexander’ pales next to the album’s stronger moments, so possibly some harsher editing could have been exercised.
Minor quibbles aside, The Reminder is a startling piece of work. True to its title, it marks the powerful return of a unique talent and a definite indication that the last thing anyone should ever do is to let this incredible artist slip from their memory.
Everything Last Winter •••
Things you never thought you’d hear in 2007 #1: Kylie’s hairdresser has made an album of baggy-influenced shoegaze folk.
Highly tipped for mainstream success, publicity surrounding Fields has centred on the aforementioned hairdresser (bassist Matty Derham), the striking appearance of co-vocalist and keyboard player Thórunn Antonía (also of The Honeymoon), several well-received EPs and liberal comparisons to My Bloody Valentine. Feedback-phobics can, however, rest assured that Everything Last Winter is a more pastoral affair than its early ‘90s antecedents. While the Anglo-Icelandic four-piece have been heavily influenced by the widescreen soundscapes of shoegaze, their bittersweet, if sometimes winsome, boy-girl vocals nicely offset any guitar noise.
The band are at their best when at their most muscular, however, with opener ‘Song For The Fields’s vocal lines given added body by guitars that recall The Smashing Pumpkins’ more melodic moments. ‘If You Fail We All Fail’ takes them into more avant-garde territory, with distorted vocals and military drumming intertwined round a guitar line reminiscent of M83’s work on Before The Dawn Heals Us. Elsewhere, songs like ‘You Don’t Need This Song (To Fix Your Broken Heart)’ or ‘Skulls & Flesh & More’ seem to echo with the clear-eyed optimism familiar to anyone with a record by Fairport Convention or short-lived ‘70s collective Agincourt in their collection.
Ultimately, though Everything Last Winter is a promising record with a pleasantly wide frame of reference, it leaves the sensation that Fields have not quite succeeded in offsetting their musical debts. Perhaps this can only be expected of a band formed little over a year ago and rushed headlong into recording a full album with little time to turn a distinctive sound into an original voice. Perhaps if the hype pays off enough to buy Fields a year away from the spotlight, they might make the genre-busting record Everything Last Winter could have been. As it is, this album imitates instead of innovates, which is a shame. Watch out for their third album though, because – if the business lets them get that far – it may well prove worth the wait.
The Fiery Furnaces
Widow City ••••½
Five albums into their career, and there’s general blogospheric consensus that The Fiery Furnaces’ duo of sister and brother Eleanor and Matthew Friedberger are undergoing some kind of artistic renaissance. Never having gotten round to listening to any of their past material, though, I have to take Widow City on its own merits, but what merits they are! The band revealed on this album sound (re)invigorated, possessed of sprawling ambition and the restless, inventive energy needed to pull off those conceits.
Having said that, it’s lucky that first impressions are neither indicative nor lasting. ‘The Philadelphia Grand Jury’ opens on a rinkydink drumbeat intercut with 1970s AM radio guitars – a combination that just screams out ‘novelty’ and not one designed to get the juices flowing – but quickly morphs into something far more interesting, a kind of suite where distinct styles of engaging noodling bookend a leftfield pop song about being sentenced to death by the aforementioned good men and true. No, I can’t think of another band who would pen a ditty with a vocal hook as clumsy-sounding as “I hope they notarise my will” either, but hey, it works; and it’s by no means the only time on the album where you’ll find yourself singing along to lyrics that read as though they should never be sung.
In fact, it’s pretty safe to say they should definitely not be sung unless by a vocalist as capable as Eleanor. She’s able to carry off songs like ‘The Philadelphia Grand Jury’, the driving, skittering ‘Navy Nurse’ (hook: “She’s a nurse / she’s open-minded / she’s involved”) or the frantic ‘Uncle Charlie’ where knotted streams of verbiage like “make my wish for the day / no more revenge cobbler, whisky pie / my cheeks were the colour of dead jellyfish / lying on the beach” fly past amidst a whirl of instrumental shards. Impressively the siblings carry it off without sounding either whimsical or affected, but always tuneful and even catchy. The melodies communicate on a far more direct level than the words, which revel in hyper-literate streams of consciousness or picaresque stories. ‘Right By Conquest’, for example, may be a conversation between a conquering lord and his underling, or it could be an oblique ode to a promised seduction.
It makes perfect sense that Eleanor’s foil in the Furnaces’ musical crucible is her brother, as the instrumental backdrops he creates are incredibly sympathetic to the character of her voice and words. It’s a parallel universe they inhabit, but without the preciousness of, say, CocoRosie; within their baroque arrangements beats a heart of pure pop. Even though the main melody in ‘The Old Hag Is Sleeping’ is built from children’s laughter, whistles, accordions and static, the song sets out at a joyful lope, declaiming its story of a wife spurned with a rueful grin.
I’ve been listening to this album for a week now and it feels like I’ve only scratched the surface of what these 16 songs have to offer. The Furnaces’ back catalogue now waits tantalisingly in my future, but for now Widow City is an absolute triumph that’s plenty to be getting along with.
Shadow Walking ••••
And the winner of the 2007 Grammy Award for ‘Best Opening Line On A Debut Album is…Lily Fraser! It’s a real category, honest, I checked. And with “I’ve got fear of housewives / of patient mothers and quiet lives / I’ve got fear of disappearing / of engineering my own demise,” Shadow Walking is a shoe-in! Better than that, the slightly unhinged, eyelid-twitching sentiment expressed in the lyric perfectly sets the scene for the dozen tracks to come. The whole album is shot through with a barely restrained mania that threatens at any moment to brandish a carving knife and whip out a bunny-filled saucepan.
Several the tracks on Shadow Walking also appear on Fraser’s previous, self-titled CD, but that was in many ways more of an extended demo than a true album. Here, they are presented in a slightly more restrained mood – just a touch of brilliantly demented energy. And this just serves to underline the ominous and brooding undercurrent that runs through them like a seam of black rock, a creepily satisfying bed on which to lay the angels-and-demons vocal delivery. Fraser expresses her psychodramas like a pro, sweeping effortlessly between crystal purity and a powerful single-mindedness.
Songs like ‘Exposed’ and ‘Shout It Out’ inhabit the insecurities which plague our 21st Century lives, the riffing cello and guitar giving oomph to the angst of the lyric. Elsewhere, the use of the harp in place of conventional keyboard backing provides a sense of disjointedness from the real world, which, again, reflects the tone. But it’s not all wild-eyed histrionics. ‘Wake Up Sweetheart’ and ‘The Time Has Come’ occupy a more comforting place. And for all her soul-searching intensity, Fraser doesn’t take herself too seriously. On ‘Untapped Violence’, a tremolo-drenched guitar line adds just enough Addams Family absurdity to beautifully counterpoint the manic darkness of the words.
Seek her out if you dare.
Alone In The Dark Wood •••
First visit: this album, Tara Burke’s fifth as Fursaxa, does so many things that any right-thinking person would love that it’s impossible not to fall for it instantly. It immediately draws you into its soundworld, for one, the repeated descents of the brief ‘Introduction’ leading the listener, white rabbit-like, into a shadowed, rarefied place. When ‘Lunaria Enters The Blue Lodge’, woody drones seep from the halls and alcoves to create a hallowed atmosphere that seems set to envelop with misty fingers, before an abrupt tack leftward ends on unsettling voices circling a disjointed strum. There’s some impressive alchemy performed here from frugal beginnings, like the ghostly chorale of ‘Nawne Ye’ that consists of nothing but Burke’s voice layered and curling around itself, or the title track’s simple mandolin figure that flickers behind a crystal screen of wordless song. If the title’s meant onomatopoeically, the midnight forest is a wonderful place to be.
First return: Fursaxa’s music has always been about atmosphere and intimation, weaving simple layers of organ drone, acoustic guitar and percussion into dense tapestries threaded with her multitracked vocals. Her reliance on vocals and the pure, circular nature of the melodies they sing give the music a spiritual air, occasionally evocative of plainsong. But even compared with its immediate predecessor, 2005’s Lepidoptera, Alone In The Dark Wood relies less on traditional melody or structure. The lunar humming of ‘Cle Elum’ recreates with sourceless acoustics the shimmering lunar soundscape breathed out by Biosphere’s Geir Jenssen on Autour de la Lune. Or there’s ‘Bells Of Capistrano’, where a cloud of flutes hovers around churchly chimes.
Diminishing return: something else that Burke has opted to change on this album is the employment of length to maintain her carefully wrought atmospheres. Many of these 13 songs can most usefully be described as tone poems, snippets of sonic environments that drift apart before leaving a mark. Which is all very well, but I don’t think I’m being selfish in wanting to spend more time being silvered by the moon of ‘Cle Elum’. Longer spent ‘Drinking Wine In Yarrow’ would also be good, its plucked guitars, banjos and assorted shakers talking together like the No Neck Blues Band, but it’s as if those revered heads developed ADHD and gave up after a minute or two. Upon repeated listening, even the longer songs like the title track and the witchy ‘Black Haw’ seem to break their embrace too soon, and a little frustration creeps in.
Slight return: the music on Alone In The Dark Wood is often mesmerisingly beautiful, but it has to be considered something of a failure on its own terms. Fursaxa sets out to cast a spell, to entrance and hold the listener in her sonic universe; but by trying to tease out so many dimensions of her sound, she seems to have diluted its essential impact. These songs need more time to unfurl, to truly seep in and transport. Bear this in mind, though, and there’s plenty to marvel at here.
Filed under: album, back issues, review | Tags: bebel gilberto, holly golightly, katiejane garside, keith anderson, lesley gore, mary gauthier, patty griffin, rod thomas, sara silver, sean hudspeth, the go team, thea gilmore, trevor raggatt
The following reviews were published on our old MySpace blog in 2007.
Darling, they’ve found the body: an exhibition ••••
Woom Gallery, Birmingham
For those of you who have followed her from the early days of Daisy Chainsaw through to her current band, Queenadreena, Katiejane Garside’s debut art exhibition, ‘Darling, they’ve found the body’ is not to be missed. Currently on display at Woom in Birmingham’s famous Jewellery Quarter, ‘Darling…’ presents a whole new side to one of rock music’s most underrated frontwomen. Despite already boasting an enviable array of talents, Garside recently decided to throw her hat into the ring of the art world. Having often been the source of great speculation and controversy in the media, she has always seemed enigmatic, eccentric, and, according to her more cynical critics, utterly mad. ‘Darling…’ offers the chance to learn more about what makes Garside tick and what has propelled her this far into what has been a fascinating career to date.
Firstly, if you’re planning on going, there is the issue of getting to the venue. Unless you’re familiar with the city, it can be a long and confusing walk to the exhibition, so I recommend that you take a taxi or train there. The distance from Birmingham New Street Station and Woom is reasonable, so a taxi should not cost any more than four to five pounds, and is the quickest option by far. You will find it next to the jewellery college in Vittoria Street, where you are given a friendly greeting by the owners upon entry. Admission is free, but they have a wide selection of related merchandise at agreeable prices at the front desk should you wish to have something to remember your visit by.
Coming to the first room of the exhibition, you are immediately greeted with facets of Garside’s life and mind, hanging from every wall, in every corner, as clips from her recent solo musical project Lalleshwari play in the background. Although it’s not overwhelming, you immediately realise that you are seeing a sizeable part of Garside’s personal life laid wide open for others to see. At first it feels slightly voyeuristic but you soon become accustomed to it, knowing that she would not display these things if she didn’t want people to see.
Among the first things you will notice as you get your bearings are the displays on the walls of letters, bills, journal entries on old, torn paper and negatives, home-made dresses displayed on surreal mannequins, personal effects arranged in a fireplace, along tables or suspended from the ceiling. She has added to most of the letters with sentences and sketches and self-portraits, showing an impressive and seldom-seen skill for drawing; artefacts in display cases, the most memorable being an old set of scales to which she has stuck taxidermied butterflies, one for each year of her life so far. You’ll see photographs both large and small, depicting her in the middle of various moments, some more directly artistic, some candid, each showing subtle glimpses into her private world, past and present; polaroids of her daubing walls with verse in red paint, posing with shop mannequins, some of her in her kitchen or bathroom, blown up to a larger scale – the latter with Garside as nature intended, a mask being the only exception to her nakedness. There is a definite sexual element to them, and the exhibition as a whole, but it’s not to make you uneasy. This is Garside being as open and honest as she wants to be. She is somehow simultaneously androgynous and feminine, exuding the aura of one eternally young and pretty.
The videos – one for the exhibition itself and the other a promotional clip for her forthcoming album Ruby Throat – sit at the very end of the exhibition. The first is very much a dark, surreal affair that’s centred on a pair of ‘dreamdolls’ she created: Genica Pussywillow and Sleeplikewolves. It’s hard to describe and do justice – watch very carefully and you’ll understand what I mean. The Ruby Throat promo, meanwhile, exudes a different kind of mystery and peculiar fragility as Garside moves like a grown-up ragdoll in an overgrown plant-strewn midnight garden, inviting you to come out and play alongside her.
All of these things, though separate little works in their own right, come together to form a window. A window that Garside has put together to allow us to see a little of her world, and, whether or not it was her intention, see that she is as human as any of us. You will walk away feeling you have got to know her, the real her, a little better.
Between Daylight & Dark ••••
There couldn’t be a more apt title for this fifth release from Louisiana-born singer-songwriter Mary Gauthier. It’s plain from a cursory listen that the human dramas set out in these songs inhabit that moral and emotional twilight of the soul implied by the four words – Between Daylight & Dark. Gauthier (for the uninitiated that’s pronounced go-shay – no stripy-shirted Gallic fashion pixies here!) and her music are polar extremes to the mullets and Stetsons country of CMT. Not for nothing has her output been labelled ‘country-noir’. Each tune is a small window on a real life full of hope and pain, dignity and disappointment.
If this all sounds a little dour and depressing don’t be fooled. This might not be your average party music but sit tight and be rewarded with an authentic emotional experience. Recorded live in the studio with minimal overdubs it’s the passion of Gauthier’s performance that shines through each rootsy track, producing a surprisingly uplifting and energising result – particularly considering some of the subject matter.
Closing track ‘Thanksgiving’ is a case in point. A story of visiting relatives in prison on that most family-centred of US holidays it is filed with conflicted poignancy and insight into the dignity of the human soul. Gauthier is quoted as saying “It’s absolutely about the words.” With lines like “My Grammy looks so old now… / her hands tremble when they frisk her from head to her toes / they make her take her winter coat off and then they frisk her again / when they’re done she wipes their touch off her dress, stands tall and heads in”, who would dare to argue?
Between Daylight & Dark is the very definition of a grower. A little difficult to like at first listen, but impossible not to love in time.
Given the principles of nature and nurture it’s understandable that Bebel Gilberto, youngest member of the Gilberto bossa nova dynasty, has a remarkable voice. Whether that statement is applied literally to her seductively silky vocals or figuratively to her music’s unique blending of trad-Latin rhythms with chillout pop sensibility, it’s no less true. Bebel Gilberto has a remarkable voice.
On Momento, her third solo album, Gilberto looks set to cement her place at the leading edge of contemporary flavoured Latin music. The opening track sets the agenda in the clearest terms. This isn’t the Rio de Janeiro of carnival – rather the sounds conjure up a reverie composed of a heady mix of laidback Brazilian fragrances. This is a tranquil moment(o) sitting atop the summit of the Sugar Loaf Mountain, soaking in the view of the city nestling amid the forests with a golden beach arcing away into the distance. Or perhaps it’s a late afternoon resting on that same strand before wandering into a sophisticated nightclub where the beautiful people slink the night away. The hints of odd electronic noises layered amongst the music only serve to further heighten this otherworldly dreamscape. Blissful!
So intoxicating is this Brazilian cocktail that it’s hard to believe that large parts of the disc were recorded in New York and London with avowedly Western producer Guy Sigsworth’s fingers on the faders. Still, the music here is 100% Brazilian and 100% designed for the supposedly more sophisticated palate of the Northern Hemisphere. Perhaps the wisdom of involving her regular band members alongside Sigsworth’s swirling keyboards was the masterstroke needed to lend the required authenticity and consistency in Latin feel and sound. Whatever the reasons, it works in spades.
The original compositions are blended with three inspired covers, ‘Caçada’ (written by Gilberto’s uncle and famed Brazilian songwriter Chico Barque), ‘Tranquilo’ (by the young Rio-based producer Kassin) and finally the Cole Porter classic ‘Night & Day’. This latter track takes on a particularly languid bossa nova feel as Gilberto’s voice is supported by simple acoustic guitar and percussion before opening out into a smokier jazz club feel. This, of course, is one of the few English language tracks, but so captivating are the performances across the album that the Portuguese lyrics on the majority of songs go unnoticed. Somehow, sinking into the warm arms of Momento we know Gilberto’s seductive meaning all too well.
The Threads EP ••••
Gilmore’s second EP comes six years after the brilliant As If and is her first release since the birth of her son Egan last November. Originally available exclusively from the merchandise desk during her acoustic tour this past Spring, a limited run of The Threads is now available to purchase from http://www.theagilmore.net. And the good news is that it’s more than just a half-hearted collection of acoustic demos or dubious outtakes from her last album proper. The distorted opening chords of ‘Teacher Teacher’ dispel both assumptions as electric guitar adds some bite.
This is clearly not acoustic and it’s much more English sounding than 2006’s Americana flavoured Harpo’s Ghost; it feels like something from the Avalanche sessions, perhaps a bit less glossy. ‘Are You Ready?’ continues this feel with one of those strangely compelling, hypnotic choruses that Thea writes so well, perfectly offset by Nigel Stonier’s swirling guitar and counterpoint vocals. With its typically politicised lyrical bent it’s pretty much a classic Gilmore tune.
The sumptuous ‘Icarus Wind’ brings the mood right down as Gilmore turns her gaze inwards with perhaps her most tender composition to date. She sounds suddenly vulnerable and emotionally raw, picking out a sparse piano motif and singing slightly higher than usual. It’s a trick that worked so well for PJ Harvey recently and Gilmore is almost as convincingly ghostlike. The EP draws to a close with 18th Century traditional Irish ballad, ‘The Parting Glass’, again delivered nigh on perfectly with subtle guitar textures and Gilmore’s intimately rendered vocal. A church-like ambience adds a welcome tenderness as she creates a holy moment of rejoicing in present company and a remembrance of friends past. Truly gorgeous stuff.
Like As If before it, The Threads EP is a more than worthy addition to Gilmore’s already thoroughly impressive canon. And with no plans to ever re-press it once the first limited run is gone, our advice is to grab a copy now or be forced into an eBay bidding frenzy later when you realise you really need this disc. You have been warned.
The Go! Team
Proof Of Youth ••
Energetic, noisy and hard to ignore, The Go! Team certainly made a name for themselves the first time around. Beginning as the kitchen project of founding member Ian Parton (clearly far too cool for a bedroom project like many others made by one man with no budget) in his mum’s house, their 2004 debut Thunder, Lightning, Strike went from being an underground and critical favourite to a Mercury Music Prize nominee through the unbeatable power of word of mouth (albeit with flirtations with major labels along the way). Endless touring, numerous festival appearances and a clutch of EPs later, Parton and his troop of multi-instrumentalists greet us with their second full-length offering Proof Of Youth. Unfortunately, the title is the only thing of any vigour or freshness about the album. What’s the difference between this and their debut? Um, very little…really. Proof Of Youth follows the blueprint of Thunder, Lightning, Strike almost step by step, but forgets to bring the spark.
Lead single ‘Grip Like A Vice’ is a perfect illustration of what’s gone wrong. Where The Go! Team used to excel at mixing well chosen samples and live instrumentation, here it sounds more like they have sampled their previous record than anyone else’s. Exactly the same guitar sounds float above identical brass and drum loops, everything seemingly sticking to an if-it-ain’t-broke blueprint until even the vocal raps over the top appear identical in tone and arrangement. A weak comeback single that fails to get into gear paves the way for a similarly limp and soulless album. The Avalanches, whose debut album received huge critical and public acclaim, had the sense to leave their cut-and-paste musical efforts confined to one cherished album, presumably because they recognised the limitations of a fun, but ultimately constricting format. By constructing album number two in the same fashion as their last, The Go! Team have left little room for experimentation and have made a record that is, by all accounts, alright, but utterly pointless.
That’s not to say it’s unpleasant as such; ‘The Wrath Of Marcie’ is a sweet track, possibly the album’s highlight, but it’s really only ‘Feelgood By Numbers’ part two. Or part one, but rehashed. There is little shift in the album’s tone from start to finish, and at this point in time, the lo-fi production values and slightly too trebly EQ balance begin to grate. Lots of artists and outfits have done this now, particularly in the three years between Thunder, Lightning, Strike‘s release, re-release and succession. If Parton et al. wanted to repeat the tone of their earlier work, the songwriting should have at least moved on, but it hasn’t, and even at it’s strongest Proof Of Youth falls flat.
It is less a proof of youth than an admission of immaturity. The Go! Team are still stuck in their career of three years ago, and the only thing really ‘young’ here is the level of craftsmanship as the songs are ultimately hollow, lacking either direction or development. Very disappointing.
Holly Golightly & The Brokeoffs
You Can’t Buy A Gun When You’re Crying ••••½
Holly Golightly is a true, if underappreciated, icon of women in music, having co-founded the all-girl garage band Thee Headcoatees in the early ‘90s (associated with Thee Headcoats and the twisted lyrical world of Billy Childish), and, 13 solo studio albums later, is still producing gems under her own terms. But who the hell are The Brokeoffs? Why they’re essentially an ever-revolving band of musicians orbiting around one man, the mysteriously titled Lawyer Dave (real name David Drake, or weren’t we supposed to know that?), whose self-released 2005 album Rest Stop marked out a natural collaborator for Ms Golightly – an exquisite piece of musical matchmaking.
Much of Golightly’s riotous appeal lies in that she recognises the beauty of blues and rockabilly is that the most important aspect is conveying the essence of borrowed musical roots, not playing it to perfection or being to the manner born. On You Can’t Buy A Gun When You’re Crying she invites us all to enter her echo-filled room, kick the boxes, tap on every available saucepan and pot and away we go with ‘Devil Do’, a hypnotic chant to that ol’ horndog Satan. But make sure you listen all the way through as you kick off your shoes to companion piece and closer ‘Devil Don’t’, a slice of sheer abandon to shambolic sonic joy.
Along the way you’ll go ‘Just Around The Bend’ as the madame sashays around the saloon with a light fatigue dogging her heels and a tinge of 1930s cabaret chic. Your journeywoman will then lead you through a land of whiskey slouches where ‘Everything You Touch’ pays close heed to the sound of Exene Cervenka (former wife of ‘Lord Of The Rings’ actor Viggo Mortenson) from The Knitters, X and, more recently, the Original Sinners, with lashings of slide guitar and lilting atmosphere. A run-in with the cops will reiterate the album title (apparently a genuine law in the USA) but it won’t matter as the song just oozes country cool with its pervading loved and lost scenarios so brilliantly described in the lyrics.
Elsewhere, ‘So Long’ is finger-pickin’ good with meandering sad lyrics sung as a duet, while ‘Time To Go’ maintains the same atmosphere with a train-like chugging rhythm. You’re still travelling at this point, no matter what the destination may be. The most haunting locale you’ll visit has to be ‘I Let My Daddy Do That’. Golightly takes us to the deeper than deep South and is the most delta-wistful track on the album. Hopeless can be cool after all.
Every bit the rebellious southern belle (one suspects with the heart of a tomboy) and less her alter ego image of the protagonist in ‘Breakfast At Tiffany’s’ with whom she shares her name, may Golightly long continue to kick up the dust and the southern blues. Everyone who’s prone to a hard luck mood and wants something to sink beers to without feeling tragedy should buy this record post haste for a deliciously languid, lost weekend.
Ever Since ••••
You’ve gotta feel for Lesley Gore, the ‘It’s My Party’ girl who insisted that she’d cry if she bloody well wanted to thankyouverymuch. After four years in the glaring spotlight in the mid-1960s, she was all but washed up come her early 20s. Even the release of two Carole King-inspired albums couldn’t save her career, and she was forced into virtual retirement by the end of the decade, resurfacing sporadically to perform on Golden Oldies tours and talk about how she used to be famous. Now, in 2007, not having released a single note on record since a dodgy collection of covers 25 years ago, Gore has decided it’s high time for a comeback.
Of course, comebacks are tricky affairs. One of Gore’s peers, Mary Weiss, the innocent, clear-cut voice of The Shangri-Las, unleashed her debut solo album earlier this year more than 40 years on from her last release with the group. It was a mess. The album, recorded as an homage to the era she first fame in, lacked the purity and spark of the original records. Her sound had scarcely progressed one iota and Weiss wound up sounding more like a hokey tribute to herself than the genuine deal. And therein lies the dilemma of the comeback: do you carry along the same route or try and catch the coattails flapping from the top of the nearest passing bandwagon? Should Gore have hired the hitmaker of the moment and sluttily vogued over beats, possibly replicating Cher’s success from the late 1990s? No, probably not. Still, it would have been a sight to behold.
Instead, what you will find on Ever Since is thoroughly sensible, middle-of-the-road pop. Which really isn’t a bad thing, no matter what the NME might tell you. There is much that will seem familiar on this album, from the warmth of the production (courtesy of one Blake Morgan) to the knowing lyrics. While the arrangements are mostly tasteful and adult contemporary, Gore gives a nod to her past life with the kind of doo-wop harmonies found on her earlier hits. There’s even a smart lyrical reference to ‘It’s My Party’ on the title track, where she coos “All the parties I’ve been to you were missed”, romanticising all those missed opportunities for love.
Also harking backwards, Gore recreates her past hit ‘You Don’t Own Me’ and the song she co-wrote for ‘80s flick ‘Fame’, ‘Out Here On My Own’, surprisingly effectively. Elsewhere, the benefits and wisdom of age come to the fore on ‘Not The First’, where she caringly chastises a misguided, naïve woman pursuing the wrong guy, delivering lines like “you’re not the first to think you’ll be the last” with a motherly concern. Ever Since may not be cutting edge but Gore’s world-weary vocals, which make her sound like a more accessible present-day Joni Mitchell, are what gives the album a magical touch. Always direct, Gore isn’t trying to be something she isn’t, or someone she once was, and that’s the glue that binds this set together so well.
Children Running Through ••••½
It’s a real injustice that the name of Patty Griffin does not reside in the category called ‘household’. Of course this isn’t the case for those in the know – Griffin’s music has been covered by artists ranging from Emmylou Harris, Mary Chapin Carpenter and The Dixie Chicks to Bette Midler, Jessica Simpson and Solomon Burke – but recognition beyond the cognoscenti is long overdue.
Griffin’s music resides in that American folk, pop, country, rock nexus exploited so effectively by Sheryl Crow and many others (although her sensibilities are decidedly more folk and country than that particular wildflower). In fact, the loping talkin’ feel of ‘Stay On The Ride’ is reminiscent of some of the best of Crow’s songs. Having said that, I suspect that the converse is a more accurate statement since the strange, existential tale of a mysterious old man taking a bus ride into destiny could easily have served as a skewed blueprint for Crow’s stream of consciousness breakthrough hit, ‘All I Wanna Do’. This strangeness serves to heighten the heartbreak contained in track which follows, the equally chilling and heartwarming ‘Trapeze’ – a down-home story of lost love in the circus.
Across the album arrangements are generally sparse, throwing the listener’s attention squarely on to Griffin’s arresting voice and haunting lyrics. Where fripperies such as strings and horns are applied it’s with taste and discretion. One such instance is single ‘Heavenly Day’ which also features guest vocals from Emmylou Harris and luscious grand piano from Ian McLagan of The Small Faces. It’s a testament to the varied sounds on the album that this is followed up by the jangling dobro, autoharp and Tex-Mex horns of ‘No Bad News’ and the stripped back folk of ‘Railroad Wings’.
From the naked opening double bass notes of ‘You’ll Remember’ to the wistful closer ‘Crying Over’, Griffin’s pure country tones drill down to the emotional core of the songs, revealing a new dimension of philosophical and metaphysical depth to the American folk-country genre and moving the story-song far beyond simple narrative. Griffin’s career to date, has never shown less than brilliance in both in writing and performance but Children Running Through looks set to be a coup de grace, taking her music to new heights and establishing her as another National Treasure of the 50 States.
Filed under: album, back issues, review | Tags: avril lavigne, gem nethersole, gretchen wilson, hugh armitage, jennifer lopez, keith anderson, lavender diamond, miranda lambert, peter hayward, sylvie lewis, trevor raggatt
The following reviews were published on our old MySpace blog in 2007.
Crazy Ex-Girlfriend •••
One Of The Boys •••
Within a week of one another, international music giant SonyBMG unleashes two of the up-and-coming young guns of the Nashville country music scene on an unsuspecting UK audience. The question is, how will these archetypically American gals fare on British shores? There’s no question about the artists’ credentials or talent – the multiple CMA award nominations and music industry awards shared among them are more than just lip service. The fact is that they might just prove a little too country for the Transatlantic palate.
Of course, Wilson is hardly a newcomer and has gone over big with readers of Maverick and other proponents of this sort of thigh-slapping fun, and both women bring precisely the right ingredients to the table: down-home songs with story lyrics, pedal steel aplenty and liberal doses of Telecaster twang. All these elements are nigh on guaranteed to endear them to a be-tasselled, suede-clad core clientele and alienate them from the mainstream music fan. Both Wilson and Lambert excel at Nashville-by-numbers and, in places, both these albums deftly strike the mechanical bull squarely in the eye. Both carry a likeable mix of tender ballads and raucous, careening country-rock tracks, all delivered with a studied poise. Both artists, too, have written the majority of the songs and display an appealing lightness of touch that ought to please their publishing companies. There’s not much to choose between them really.
Where the songs are covers, it’s the less-experienced Lambert who comes up with the more interesting choices. Album closer ‘Easy From Now On’ is a brave choice; written by Carlene Carter and more famously recorded by Emmylou Harris, it draws proceedings to a mellow but uplifting conclusion and Lambert acquits herself well. Elsewhere, she tackles Gillian Welch’s ‘Dry Town’ and, less successfully perhaps, Patty Griffin’s ‘Getting Ready’. Griffin’s version, found on her recent release Children Running Through, is thankfully somewhat less heavy on the mouth-harp boings. Disappointingly, Wilson’s ‘There Goes The Neighborhood’ isn’t a countrified take on Sheryl Crow’s addictively woozy paean to living the low-life, but never mind. She doesn’t stray too far from the formula that has served her so well – who can argue with six million album sales? – and gleefully romps through Southern boogie and mainstream country, with a nod to rootsy rock along the way.
Both albums will undoubtedly sell by the truckload Stateside and if you can take the cheesier aspects of these records at face value and simply revel in their guileless fun factor, you’ll find them both to be fine examples of what modern Nashville has to offer.
Imagine Our Love ••½
When given something to review by a group of which you have never heard, the first thing is to listen. On a rare occasion you will hear something that makes you care not one jot about who the artist is. It is either so astoundingly great or so shockingly awful that you need nothing more than the music. These are the gifts. Lavender Diamond’s offering is not one of those. Imagine Our Love is a confusing mix of country, showtunes, and indie, all delivered with an irrepressible optimism that, by turns, captivates, excites, annoys, and begs a lot of questions about the people behind the music.
As I understand it, although Lavender Diamond sounds a little bit like a name that might be adopted by a tame saucy stage act working the peep shows in Victorian Bath – nothing too risqué you understand, the garter stays on! – but it is actually a band, a band that originated from the concept of a character of a pacifist optimist developed for a US touring indie operetta. The character in the operetta was played by a woman who left a Brown University literature degree before graduating to study dance then moving to LA to form a country pop group, the songs of which would to some extent reflect the views of the character from the operetta. And the name comes from a play written by the songwriter in which a man goes into a cave and picks up a purple gemstone. Confused? There is perhaps every need to be.
Becky Stark is the multi-talented ingénue behind Lavender Diamond. Writing songs largely as the character lifted from the operetta, Stark approaches love, social injustice and misgovernment as an eternal optimist. The product is a mixture of upbeat, lounge-tinted country numbers, Sunday school nursery rhymes and straight up jangly indie. Opening track ‘Oh No’ sounds for all the world like a track discarded at the last minute from The Sundays’ album Static & Silence. The lines “oh no / it’s such a sad and grey day, oh / when will I love again?” chime with suburban ennui as Stark’s vocals soar above plonking pianos and a stomping drum line. Citing influences from Prince to Lightning Bolt to Linda Ronstadt (though the first two may be difficult to pick up on), ‘Garden Rose’ and ‘Side Of Our Lord’ are both atmospheric, simple country songs delivered in a no-nonsense but nuanced style of which Ronstadt would be proud.
The lyric to ‘Garden Rose’ with the catchy opening lines “I’ll never stop a bullet but a bullet might stop me / I’ll never drink the ocean but the ocean might drink me” provide a languid hint of pessimism. But despite a litany of frustration, the protagonist of the song still loves how the garden grows and loves that garden rose. This ethic of appreciating the simple things in life ethic is the first notch on the ratchet of optimism that shapes the rest of the album. From start to finish the songs are infused with an irrepressibly positive outlook without the slightest hint of irony. The glorious girl-group stylings of ‘Open Your Heart’, the plaintive ‘Dance Until Tomorrow’, and even the downbeat ‘I’ll Never Lie Again’ all seem to ignore the downside of bad situations, only ever seeing the positives, and, in parts, the delivery smacks of that of a highly medicated depressive in denial.
Although the musicianship is solid throughout, it more often sounds like a house band (as on the kitsch ‘My Shadow Is A Monday’) rather than a creative unit, though this comes through loud and clear on the brooding ‘Like An Arrow’. The irrepressibly jaunty ‘Here Comes One’, which sounds like a Broadway musical number and begs for a nostalgic dance routine featuring girls in bobby socks and pigtails, is one of the album’s genuine highlights, especially when juxtaposed with the surprisingly Cocteau Twins-like ‘Find A Way’, in which the familiar, perhaps even forced, optimism is masked by the soaring vocals and swirling guitars.
The mix of styles, from plaintive indie, to country ballad, to musical, to nursery rhyme is alternately refreshing and jarring. And, dare I say it, perhaps a little too contrived? The boundless optimism is a nice idea, but such positivity loses all meaning without contrast. For one or two songs, the message is uplifting, but as it escalates throughout the twelve tracks the whole effect seems disingenuous. Imagine Our Love is a brave idea, but can you really trust a set of songs that only ever see the silver lining and not the cloud?
The Best Damn Thing •
Let us ponder briefly over the past ramblings of punk-pop upstart Avril Lavigne. First…”I created punk for this day and age. Do you see Britney walking around wearing ties and singing punk? Hell no. That’s what I do. I’m like a Sid Vicious for a new generation.” And then…”People are like, ‘well, she doesn’t know the Sex Pistols.’ Why would I know that stuff? Look how young I am. That stuff’s old, right?” Right. And therein lies her problem. Over the last five years it’s been hard to shake off the suspicion that underneath her projection of a defiant rocker image is little more than a young girl having fun playing dress-up.
Third album The Best Damn Thing sees Lavigne arrive at an important junction in her career. Will she shed her famed tween angst and become a serious musician, or will she continue making records aimed at the once-14-year-olds who have likely outgrown her? Though her second album Under My Skin hinted at a darker direction than her multi-platinum debut Let Go, Lavigne has seemingly done a guileless about-turn, delivering an album of bratty bubblegum pop with little sense of irony or joy, both of which are kinda important when, for example, you’re shouting what essentially amounts to a cheerleading chant over perfectly polished guitar licks. The subject matter, too, is so light and frothy that you’re still left wondering what happened to the girl who used to claim she was a serious musician when its 40 minutes are up.
So why is Lavigne embracing the frivolity of singers like Britney and Jessica Simpson who she has previously dismissed? The official line, according to the woman herself, is that she cheered up after getting married to Sum 41’s Deryck Whibley, although a recent interview with Canadian singer-songwriter Chantal Kreviazuk in Performing Songwriter magazine suggests that perhaps Avril doesn’t have as much control over her career as she has previously alluded to and is merely performing the role assigned to her.
In her trademark nasal tone Lavigne bleats unenthusiastically over half-baked songs about being better than her ex-boyfriend, rocking out at the end of a bad day, and how her boyfriend makes her so hot, baby. If there are any highlights they would have to be the first single ‘Girlfriend’, with its amusing hint of self-awareness in her proclamation of “I’m the motherfucking princess”, and ‘Keep Holding On’, a soft-rock ballad tacked on to the end of the album having first featured on the ‘Eragon’ soundtrack.
However, with The Best Damn Thing‘s mostly trite, dull lyrics and uninspired production values, Lavigne makes no strides in terms of her musicality and the listener is seriously left questioning her motivation to stare nonchalantly from the cover of such a dire collection of songs that show none of her personality or ‘credibility’.
But, then, maybe we shouldn’t be so hard on the lass. As the wise young woman once spouted “you’re who you are and if people don’t like who you are, all they’re going to get is who you are”. Um, yeah.
Upon the release of her debut album Tangos & Tantrums in 2005, we at Wears The Trousers went a little bit giddy over the delightful Ms Lewis. Now Sylvie’s back and not a moment too soon. Her sound has gained a more polished edge in the intervening two years, but devotees will be pleased to hear there’s no loss of the timeless beauty that characterises her sound. The summer-stroll-in-a-sun-bleached piazza feel is still there too, and amen to that. So what’s new?
Well, Translations sees Lewis stepping outside of herself, taking on other guises on nearly all of the songs, allowing herself to explore a variety of perspectives and people while retaining some of her own personality. ‘Starsong’ has Lewis twirling onto the scene with 1940s jazz influences and an acerbic tale of a lover who predicted the trajectory of romance with horoscopes but neglected to predict its demise. A jaunty double bass skips through the background, dancing around the percussion and it’s business as usual in Sylvieland as the music playfully lightens lyrics that could sound cruel in the care of a less kindly vocalist.
In conjunction with her stunning part jazz, part folk, part tea-dance sound, Lewis adds in lyrics that unfold myriad images, “when the moon rises up, pointing like a fingernail… / he reads her like scripture, he reads her like Braille”, and she creates a catalogue of unusual comparisons combined with tragic dying cadences that bewitch and ensnare so that each song is a perfectly gift-wrapped snippet of another, slower, more languorous world. The prize for Translations‘s best lyric might well go to the opening line of ‘Happy Like That’, a song that seems to have a split personality, castigating flirtatious married men for diverting lonely souls the world over away from the path to romantic happiness, whilst empowering the loveless at the same time by name-dropping June and Johnny Cash as bastions of true love en route; it could even be a ‘how-to’ guide to love satisfaction.
Elsewhere Lewis is in exuberant form. The delicious muffled drums in ‘If It Don’t Come Easy’ will get you shaking off the blues, while ‘Just You’ paints pictures of a world newly seen through loving eyes with gentle glockenspiel twinkles, combining the hues of rose-tinted loveliness with the usual minor leanings. It’s filled with self-awareness and the combination of dreamlike tinkling chimes and celestial backing vocals creates an atmosphere of charmed space and contented otherness. Never one to let us get wrapped up in a joyous reverie, however, ‘Stay In Touch’. interrupts the joviality with sad hotel pianos and a gently muffled snare drum to create a melancholy New York scene of a man, his mistress and their country-specific trysts. There’s loneliness without desolation and a beautiful realism to the couple who speak in touches rather than words or romantic gestures. Lewis has distilled the complexity of emotions in the tale to the simplicity of “nobody wondering if their feelings are returned”; it’s an unusually truthful account of an affair without disguising it as something squalid or glamorous.
Leaping from one stage of promiscuous life to another, ‘Cheap Ain’t Free’ is a fabulous address to the girl that might have become the mistress in New York or to a younger Sylvie and friend with the hindsight that one day there may be consequences to their actions. It’s not recriminatory, but a snapshot of a time when a broken heart was treated “parking ticket style, once you’ve got one you can’t get another for a little while” and is crammed with images of innocence lost, with a smile. A gentle tale of a once-in-a-while lover (‘Something To Dream To’) tumbles along with purposeful abandon that echoes the pattern of the relationship, before ‘Death By Beauty’ shifts the perspective. An amazing anthropomorphication of Beauty, Lewis inhabits the girls that float around like satellites on the periphery of the life of the man she portrays. As the song unfolds we learn of the cruelty of Beauty who uses the girls as a conduit of love and leaves scars on the lives of those who encounter her. She is an insidious force that creeps into lives when least expected, lurking in the guise of a cocktail waitress or beguiling songstress, so that the heart gives in and chooses ‘death by beauty’. It’s wonderfully catchy and takes a few hearings to decide upon the interpretation, by which point it’s already buzzing around in your head begging to be played again.
Despite being perhaps the most modern sounding song on the album, ‘Your Voice Carries’ hardly seems incongruous. An unspoken love story, rooted in the words that actually ‘are’ spoken, here the words are the new windows to the soul, showing “how much to hold back and how much to show”, so that each utterance shows a facet of personality, reveals and old scar or releases love. Translations, then, is a mesmerising investigation into other peoples’ worlds by taking on their personalities, foibles, loves and losses. Lewis shines through in her own inimitable way, but powerfully manages to imbue each character that she takes on with life, vibrance and personality. Whether it’s the titular protagonist of ‘Isabelle’ or the man who’ll die for the sight of a beautiful woman, each one has a story that is told without drama, a story that’s told with a lot of heart.
Jennifer Lopez, aka J-Lo, aka Jellopez, the Gyrating Chaos as HP Lovecraft would surely have known her, has returned once more with her sixth album, Brave. Yes, there really has been that many. And yes, it really is as bad as we’ve all come to expect.
On Wikipedia Jellopez is listed as an “actress, singer-songwriter, model, dancer, fashion designer and television producer”. This might meat than Lopez is either a genius, or that it is much easier to fulfil all the above roles than we have been led to believe. My personal belief is that she is the next evolutionary stage of mankind (or perhaps a bizarre genetic offshoot), where a human being becomes a sort of living brand, strutting around and marketing their shallow, empty life to the masses. Lopez is clearly a driven and media-savvy woman, but there are precious few people who could be genuinely good in such an extensive list of roles, and evidence suggests that she isn’t one of them.
For starters Jellopez is not a talented musician. Her voice is by turns shrill, whiny and breathy, and she adopts a sort of Bronx-esque rap style that can most politely be described as “unusual”. First single ‘Do It Well’ is a perfect example: noisy, non-descript, and with Lopez somehow achieving the feat of being both shouty and monotonous at the same time. This is bad R&B the like of which has slithered its way out of the US a thousand times before.
Of course, some pop musicians of questionable talent, when coupled with some clever songwriting, have been known to come out with some beautiful little gems. Girls Aloud in their heyday came out with a string of hits that were hummable at the very least, though the Beach Boys they are not. Sadly for Jellopez, her extremely average voice is not even supported by well-written songs. The music on Brave is as generic and cold as if it were all produced in a weekend on somebody’s laptop. The lyrics are frustratingly repetitive – if Lopez says “I can do this forever” once, she says it a hundred times. She could repeat herself forever, forever, forever, forever.
Never the most likeable star on the planet anyway, Lopez displays a continued talent for spouting lyrics that are at best slightly…insulting. If you’ll recall, she was still Jenny from the block who always remembers where she came from (presumably so she would never accidentally find herself going back) and now, on ‘Stay Together’, she claims not breaking up as “the new trend”, as if millions of people had never done it before she managed three years in the same marriage. Her childhood might have been hard, but nowadays the only reason you couldn’t ‘Walk A Mile In These Shoes’ is because they are stilettoed torture devices the size of a postage stamp. Lopez wears conceit like a badge of honour.
Kudos where it’s due, Jellopez has travelled far on her ambition for rather than an aptitude for music. But Brave is unremittingly awful. Lopez wails her way through all 13 tracks like the anthropomorphic personification of offensiveness. Find a corner to hide in until she blusters over.