Filed under: album, back issues, film & dvd, review | Tags: alan pedder, dana immanuel, ill ease, immaculate machine, innocence mission, iona, kevin hewick, natalie imbruglia, scott millar, tiffany daniels, trevor raggatt
The following reviews were all published on our old website between May 2005 and December 2006.
Miami & The Siege Of Chicago EP ••••
Ill Ease is the project of Brooklyn-based musician Elizabeth Sharp, formerly the drummer for New Radiant Storm King. Having tried her luck signed to Too Pure for 2003’s The Exorcist, Sharp returned to her DIY roots for last year’s excellent The After After Party Party EP and she’s clearly still in her element. Considering the intricacy of the drum lines and guitar parts, not to mention the suited American rasp behind each song, this selfmade musical achievement is exactly that, and a revelation to boot. This is no antifolk record; Sharp has venom and hatred so pure that she propels herself away from that scene entirely and into a league of her own.
To fully appreciate this record, it’s necessary to understand the history surrounding ‘the siege of Chicago’. Like The Doors and MC5 before her, Sharp has focused on the after effects of the 1968 National Democratic Convention where pro-war Hubert H Humphrey and anti-war Eugene McCarthy were both campaigning for a nomination to become the country’s next President during the Vietnam War. The vote was arguably rigged for Humphrey to win, which he did, and the McCarthy voters and peace activists protested. The confusion that followed is highlighted in ‘Two Party System’ through grinding guitar loops and lyrics that don’t pull punches (“we’ve all been fucked by the two party system” being a prime example).
This feeling of wrongdoing towards the people and popular culture of America is a recurring theme, although Sharp concentrates on the hypocrisy of musicians and their fans in the other songs. Opener ‘Too Much Sucky (I Hate Drum Machines)’ throws references to Devo into the mix and shapes some crazy, conservative musician screaming over bass-heavy riffs worthy of Death From Above 1979 about the influence of new wave in New York, while ‘New York No Wave’ gives a shout out to the antifolk movement. Both ‘New York – London – Paris’ and ‘The New You’ sound like Whirlwind Heat out on the prowl, pickaxe in hand, looking for the next fresh scenester killing.
Of course, whether you understand the complicated American history and the even more complicated political system is not the be all and end all, it simply makes the songs more interesting and adds value to Sharp’s lyrics. The music itself, with its continuous thump and ingenious post-grunge structure is ample enough evidence to make this a priority on your ever burgeoning ‘to get’ list. You’ll only be shaming yourself if you don’t.
originally published June 24th, 2006
Counting Down The Days •••½
The passive-aggressive faint praise brigade have had a field day with this, the third album from Australian singer-songwriter/actress/skincare pin-up Natalie Imbruglia. Four years after the patchy White Lilies Island, a record that so earnestly wanted to be taken seriously that it only could manage to be seven shades of dull, Counting Down The Days arrives with the benefit of considerably lower expectations and is all the better for it. In fact, it’s something of a triumph.
Featuring a raft of producers and co-writers, including her husband Daniel Johns, Ash Howes (aka Mr Sarah McLachlan), Eg White (Emiliana Torrini) and Ben Hillier (Blur), Imbruglia nonetheless manages to make the album sound coherent and it’s clear that the endeavour has been a three-year labour of love. Lead single ‘Shiver’ is as fresh-sounding as ‘Torn’ or ‘Big Mistake’ seemed in 1997 and deservedly became one of UK radio’s most played songs earlier this year. Other highlights include the Johns-penned ‘Satisfied’, which will almost certainly be another radio favourite. Similarly with ‘Sanctuary’, which features jangly indie guitar-work, discreetly wailing sirens and throbbing assertive drumbeats bubbling beneath her best rock moment since ‘Big Mistake’.
After a noticeably sagging second half, the real surprise of the album lies in ‘Honeycomb Child’, an appealing little gem with undeniably Vespertine-era Björkian influences (music box? check! burbling electronica? check!). Like Madonna’s spooky ‘Mer Girl’ at the end of Ray Of Light, it hints at a direction she might do well to explore. All in all, Counting Down The Days showcases a pleasing progression and unmistakeable maturation in Imbruglia’s sound. By sticking to her organic, level-headed and famously pernickety approach to songwriting, she has pulled off an applaudable feat in reversing the (mostly exaggerated) decline of her fortunes. The fact that the album became what even Left Of The Middle couldn’t – a #1 bestseller – is surely encouraging news. Let’s hope it gives her the confidence to make a speedier follow-up.
originally published June 12th, 2005
Ones & Zeros ••••
It seems like they’ve started putting something in the water in Canada, as the last year or so has seen bands like Wolf Parade and Broken Social Scene come to the fore and begin to erase memories of Bryan Adams and Celine Dion. Another recent export receiving both great critical acclaim and popular attention is Vancouver’s The New Pornographers, to whom labelmates Immaculate Machine are inextricably linked. Not only is IM’s keyboardist and vocalist Kathryn Calder the long-lost niece of New Pornographers frontman Carl Newman, her voice and piano skills can be found littered across his band’s recent offering Twin Cinema.
But, whereas The New Pornographers’ sound is created by anything from six to ten musicians at a time, Immaculate Machine need only three: Calder, guitarist/vocalist Brooke Gallupe and drummer/vocalist Luke Kozlowski. Not that you’d know it from listening to their debut album. Ones & Zeros boasts a sound as full and as rich as any five-piece can manage, helped in large parts by the multi-instrumental talents of the band members, most notably Calder herself, who not only sings but plays lead keyboards with one hand while making up for the lack of a bassist by providing accomplished bass lines with the other. It seems perfectly possible that she’s also providing additional percussion with her feet.
All of this results in a thoroughly wholesome album of likeable, power-pop tunes littered with scratchy guitars and adroit harmonies combined with lyrics that, if not exactly inspired, are intelligent and well crafted. There’s an overriding sense of joy carried throughout Ones & Zeros, even when the song’s subject matter is less than joyful (such as instantly catchy opener ‘Broken Ship’), that makes it easy to enjoy right from the opening chords. That’s not to say that they can’t drop into touching melancholia at a moment’s notice, it’s just that they somehow manage to remain uplifting while doing so.
Each song seems to have been invested with every ounce of enthusiasm and desire to entertain that the band could muster, and because they succeed in that desire almost every time, it’s hard to pick out a standout moment. That said, the aforementioned ‘Broken Ship’, and the track whose lyrics provide the album title, ‘No Such Thing As The Future’, would make for brilliant singles. However, it seems that that honour will go to ‘You’re So Cynical’, a simple and powerful song that draws the ear for having a chorus that sounds a bit like Clap Your Hands Say Yeah, though thankfully far less brain-wrenchingly discordant).
Although it’s hard to see this being anyone’s favourite record of all time, it’s almost impossible to believe that anyone could dislike the industriously wrought, energetic and beautiful indie-pop of this, almost, immaculate piece of engineering.
originally published May 1st, 2006
Dana Immanuel EP ••••
Let’s not beat around the shrubbery people, Dana Immanuel is a star and anyone who describes themselves as the sound of the “Cadbury’s Caramel bunny having a very bad day, in a swamp, somewhere in North London” quite frankly deserves to be. There was always something decidedly hypersexual and wrong about Miriam Margolyes’s wascally wabbit and it’s these and similar elements of life’s pink fleshy underbelly that Immanuel taps into with undeniable brilliance. It’s only fitting, then, that she was discovered by awestruck producer Tim Shoben whilst busking on the London Underground, possibly scaring the tourists. This all-too-brief EP truly does shine under his tutelage, an ugly-beautiful hit-and-run where poptastic knob-twiddling hero collides with dryly observational antifolkstress and both bounce off all the healthier.
Though sadly not a messed-up lo-fi cover of the Dobie Gray supermarket soul compilation classic, ‘Drift Away’ beats even that most tantalising of prospects hands down and then some. With its snappy lyrical prowess, stop-start stuttering hooks and Dana’s husky, whiskeyfied croon, it’s an absolute gem. Her impeccable timing is key but she still can’t resist cheekily enquiring “am I going too fast? / I know you can muster much more than half-assed” and who is anyone to argue with that? With its gentle rolling percussion, ‘Time Flies’ takes five minutes out from a daydream to revel in the glow of creamy melancholia, its slightly woozy melody instantly hummable and stick-in- your-head-for-days fantastic. Call Fiona Apple, call Ani DiFranco, their musical lovechild has been located.
In the grand tradition of saving only the best for last, the finest track here is undoubtedly ‘Banjo Song’, or to use a slightly politer version of its alternative title, ‘Mo Fo Ho’. A feast of finger-picked banjo, sinister keys, spaghetti western electric guitar and a filthy great bassline right out of a PJ Harvey song circa Is This Desire?, it’s a genuine tour de force. Taking the Martha Wainwright route one approach to notoriety surely won’t hamper Immanuel’s cause and the Janis Joplin-style wailathon in the middle is torturously inspired. The lady herself knowingly intones “you can’t resist its pull / so go ahead and bow to the inevitable” and that, my friends, is prophecy.
originally published May 17th, 2006
The Innocence Mission
Birds Of My Neighborhood [reissue] ••••
The Innocence Mission are the kind of band that can make you feel like you’re the only person who knows them. It’s hard to believe that the first time I heard them was once upon on a Saturday afternoon in the dim and distant late ‘80s playing live on Radio One, of all places. Then promoting their debut album, it seems they swiftly dispensed with playing the game in terms of conventional promotion and so forth, and pre-internet at least, they were certainly an elusive bunch. Every now and then an album just seemed to magically appear from their world of love and beauty. I felt quite selfish about it actually, like they were my own secret band. But they even made albums that I didn’t know about; such lovely mystery! For years, I thought that main songwriter Karen and guitarist Don were brother and sister when they are in fact Mrs. and Mr. Peris. Nowadays though, even they have a website, a fact that just doesn’t seem right somehow. And now, presumably still riding on the tidal wave of critical acclaim they’ve received in recent years – not least for 2003’s heavenly Befriended – they’re reissuing a fully remastered version of their 1999 cult classic Birds Of My Neighborhood. So while I was quite possibly the only person to ever buy a copy of the original, now any Tom, Dick or Harriet will be able to. Bah!
But you can’t keep something this good to yourself forever. Birds Of My Neighborhood is a deceptively simple-sounding collection with minimal overdubs, the couple joined only by longtime Mission-ary and double bassist, Mike Bitts. Karen has something of a Marmite voice; some may love it while others may find it impossible to get past and that’s fair enough – her sweetness makes Melanie Safka sound like a member of Slipknot. But in my opinion, hers is a gorgeous and heartrending talent, and never more so the latter than on a deeply personal song like ‘July’, perhaps the most explicit reference to a difficult time in the Peris’s marriage when they had serious problems in conceiving a much longed-for child (something that has since been happily resolved). The seasonal details here, of snow and rain, of nature, trees and lakes are vividly realised. When Karen sings “we will walk on a hill / red hats and blue coats and everything still”, you are all but right there with them on that cold snowy day.
The one cover version, a rendition of John Denver’s ‘Follow Me’, is so exquisite that it will quite possibly haunt you to the end of your days; frankly, it turns me to jelly every time I hear it and is a pertinent reminder that Denver was a far better writer than people give him credit for. Spiritual and childlike, mysterious and sparse, Birds Of My Neighborhood is too special an album to be one that gets away so be glad for a second chance to own it. Celebrity fans Joni Mitchell, Sufjan Stevens and David Gray have raved about The Innocence Mission, I’m raving about them and you will rave about them too, but it’s a very hushed and churchlike kind of raving so sssh! That way, they may even grow to feel like your very own secret band too.
originally published March 19th, 2006
Journey Into The Morn [reissue]
Open Sky / Voiceprint
An ancient Celtic truism states that a three-stranded cord is strong and, stylistically, this is also true of Iona. Their output falls squarely into three clear categories – Celtic-tinged pop, ambient sounds and extended, distinctly prog-leaning musical workouts. While their more ambient works often draw lazy comparisons with the likes of Clannad and Enya, Iona’s strength lies in a depth of focus that avoids the over-reliance on texture and arrangement (to the detriment of melody and song structure) that taints some of the Brennan family’s oeuvre. This same focus and musicality also keeps their more progressive tracks safely shy of meandering pretentiousness.
The mid-1990s were something of a transition period for the band, with the exit of co-founder Dave Fitzgerald and ex-Kajagoogoo bassist Nick Beggs and the temporary recruitment of Steeleye Span’s Tim Harries and Australian woodwind player Mike Houghton. Yet, ironically, this time of upheaval produced one of their most coherent and accomplished albums, Journey Into The Morn. A key factor in this was the addition the now permanent Troy Donockley. Although he had contributed uilleann pipes and low whistles to previous Iona albums, full-time membership helped steer the group in a more authentically folk and progressive rock direction, all the while retaining their accessible sound. This welcome reissue on the Voiceprint label gives listeners a timely opportunity to re-examine this important phase in their career.
After the gentle prelude of ‘Bí-Se I Mo Shúil’, a pair of joyous, upbeat pop songs presents itself in the form of ‘Irish Day’ and ‘Wisdom’, both of which are complemented by traditional Celtic instrumentation. The more trance-styled ‘Everything Changes’ follows, before the tender, acoustic guitar-driven ‘Inside My Heart’ raises the stakes, with singer Joanne Hogg interweaving sublime self-harmonies and countermelodies before the intensity builds and the electric guitar of Dave Bainbridge enters and soars above it. The album’s symphonic centrepiece, ‘Encircling’, is an astonishing piece of modern prog rock spanning eleven minutes with three separate movements: the ethereal ‘Lorica’ takes as its basis the Celtic ‘breastplate prayer’, while the traditional instrumentation and rock backing of ‘Tara’ evokes the ancient stronghold of the kings of Ireland. ‘Caim’, the ‘encircling charm’, symbolises an all-encompassing religious love, spiralling down to a tranquil conclusion.
A further thematic thread runs through the second half of the album, with many songs inspired by the 8th Century Irish hymn, ‘Be Thou My Vision’. Final track, ‘When I Survey’, acts as a coda, melding sacred 18th Century lyrics with the American folk tune better known as ‘The Water Is Wide’, hinting towards the source of the morning to which the journey takes us. This final song, an enduring live favourite, once again highlights the impressive strength and beauty of Joanne Hogg’s vocals and the power of her performance. Backed only by djembe, keyboard and e-Bow pads, she wrings every drop of meaning out of the words and tender melody.
Journey Into The Morn also features some notable guest appearances from Clannad vocalist Máire Brennan, who contributes Celtic harp to the title track and vocal loops to others alongside King Crimson founder Robert Fripp’s guitar synth and ‘Frippertronics’ effects. A decade on, Journey… remains a stunning piece of work that almost defies classification by being neither folk, pop, prog or rock, whilst blending elements of all four; remastering has only enhanced its sonic sheen. Iona have that rare ability to seamlessly transcend many diverse styles and Journey… offers plentiful and rich reward for those seeking to expand their musical and spiritual horizons beyond the everyday.
originally published November 11th, 2005
Live In London ••••
Open Sky / Voiceprint
It’s been a long time coming but this double-disc live DVD set from Celtic rock band Iona has been well worth the wait. In fact, it has been six years since fans of the band have had any new Iona product to get their teeth into – 2000’s studio album, Open Sky. This partial exile, during which the band has made only occasional live forays, has been partly self-imposed since it allowed, amongst other things, time for lead singer Joanne Hogg to start a family. However, with new studio album The Circling Hour due for release in the autumn, Live In London serves to whet expectant appetites, not least because three of the songs here (namely ‘Wind Off The Lake’, ‘Strength’ and ‘Factory Of Magnificent Souls’) are new and tasty entrées. The remainder of the songs are culled from the band’s five studio albums, with all phases of their 16-year career represented, with a few cuts from Iona’s multi-instrumentalists Dave Bainbridge and Troy Donockley’s duo project that has kept them busy during the downtime.
Filmed in November 2004, the concert is presented as something of a comeback, and it’s a joyous affair; the mixture of party atmosphere and adrenalin-fuelled nerves are in evidence, all of which add a sense of energy. The music is presented in two sections – the main programme providing over 90 minutes of the band in full flow and a half-hour acoustic set. It’s crowd-pleasing too, as is clear from the vociferous reaction. The music and visuals are both well presented, with only a few digital artefacts on the faster motion betraying the fact that the budget for the project was hardly that of Kylie or Robbie’s latest DVD.
The producers make very good use of the five-camera film crew and all the angles available, with occasional monochrome fades and inserts adding a touch of class. That it comes in proper widescreen format is simply an additional bonus, but an excellent one. Why so many music DVDs still seem to come in 4:3 ratio is beyond me, but that’s another story. The audio, too, is exemplary with both the stereo and 5.1 surround sound mixes vibrant and lively. As ever, Hogg is in fine voice, dishing up a bewitching concoction of crystalline purity and rich, breathy intimacy. The range of instruments shared between Bainbridge and Donockley is staggering, from the conventional rock armoury of electric guitars and keyboards to more traditional instruments like bouzoukis, acoustic guitars, low whistles and uilleann pipes. This more antiquated arsenal may seem to peg them in the ambient Celtic and folk-rock categories, but comparisons with Clannad at one extreme and Fairport Convention at the other fail because of the other elements Iona bring to the table.
Many of these songs possess definite prog rock leanings with their extended instrumental passages in which duetting uilleann pipes and electric guitar is something of an Iona signature. However, a keen pop sensibility never allows them to regress into the sort of navel-gazing self-indulgence that has so often marred music of this type. The playing is never anything less than tight and the music is always accessible and focused yet multi-layered and textured. It’s a heady but satisfying mixture that draws deep from both traditional and modern music and infuses that with a soaring Celtic spirit.
All told then, Live In London is an excellent record of a supremely talented band relishing the opportunity to share a passion for their music on stage. It succeeds as both a memento for existing fans and a great introduction for those who are new to the band. If your taste for Celtic music stretches beyond the MOR ambient washes of Enya and the like, or if you’re a fan of classic rock who’s willing to go beyond familiar constructs, there is much in this set that will reward your attention.
originally published June 8th, 2006
The Circling Hour •••••
Open Sky / Voiceprint
As 2006 slips onward into its darkening days so completes the busiest year in a long while for Iona and with it comes the greatest reward for their fans: a brand new studio album. It has certainly been a long time coming – their last album proper was 2000’s Open Sky – and follows this year’s teasers of a live DVD and tour. The wait was more than worth it; The Circling Hour is perhaps the finest statement yet from the band whose distinctive sound straddles genres as diverse as rock, pop, prog, Celtic and chillout. Too often a band’s return from an extended hiatus leads to disappointment and a sense of anticlimax, the anticipation far outweighing the event.
Right from the fragile opening of ‘Empyrean Dawn’, where Joanne Hogg’s delicate and halting intonation of lines from an ancient hymn cast a riveting spell, it’s palpable that something special is happening – underlined just seconds later when the rest of the band crash into the song with electric guitars, drums and Troy Donockley’s sublime uilleann pipes. Where Open Sky was perhaps a little too ambient and rambling, The Circling Hour is a leaner, meaner prospect. Pointedly focused and gloriously song-centred, it’s a driving, purposeful record that revels in its rhythmic elements.
Though the traditional slant to Iona’s music provides a solid grounding and a love affair with Celtic instrumentation, their pop sensibilities should not be underestimated and really come to the fore on tracks like ‘Strength’ and the marvellously titled ‘Factory Of Magnificent Souls’. Here, the band create a Celtic pop blend that The Corrs would kill for but add to that a political savvy that the Dundalk siblings could never approach. Where The Circling Hour does delve deeper into more progressive and traditional material, the symphonic and ambient moods it invokes avoid stylistic excess. See ‘Wind Off The Lake’ for a perfect example. Best of all, however, is the epic triptych of ‘Wind’, ‘Water’ and ‘Fire’; built around percussionist Frank Van Essen’s lyrical violin and Hogg’s ethereal voice, it provides a pastoral interlude that nestles between its more frantic surrounds. Evoking an Elgar serenade, the band conjures up a brief adagio before culminating in the frenetic con brio climax of ‘Fire’.
Once again, Hogg proves herself to be one of this country’s most stunning vocalists; her always-pure tones skilfully encapsulate every cool texture and deep emotion required. For that and any other reason you might care to think of, The Circling Hour is a dazzling album that politely stamps all over any notion of a slight return.
originally published November 23rd, 2006
Filed under: album, back issues, live, review | Tags: aaron alper, alan pedder, alex doak, anja mccloskey, anna claxton, cyndi lauper, gem nethersole, jenny lewis, kevin hewick, ladyfuzz, lampshade, lavender diamond, les georges leningrad, lisa li-lund, lisa loeb, love is all, rachel lipson, robbie de santos, sara silver, sylvie lewis, the last town chorus, the like, the long blondes, the watson twins, tiffany daniels
The following reviews were all published on our old website between May 2005 and December 2006.
Live at Carling Academy, Bristol ••••
June 30th, 2006
As is usually the case with Bristol’s indie-funk-electro night Ramshackle, the band that is playing have not been promoted well. In fact, I’d go so far to say they’ve not been promoted at all. I’m a fairly loyal Ladyfuzz fan and the first time I heard of this gig was when I was half-walking, half-falling down the lethally slippery steps in the venue. My friend in front of me stopped dead, stared in disappointment and exclaimed, “oh no, a band are playing!”
You can forgive the reaction; a live act is the last thing the sweaty, intoxicated audience want right now. It’s 11:30pm and everyone is ready to dance. The arrival of a band would usually mean hardcore supporters cheering at the front, drunk misplaced souls falling over themselves in the centre of the dancefloor wondering where they are, while the majority of the crowd sulk and wait for the performance to end. But hallelujah! The venue is comfortably empty, the drunk people are slumped against a wall, and the sulkers? There are no sulkers, because Ladyfuzz are fantastic!
Launching into ‘My Summer Of Fun’ and ‘Monster’, singer Liz Neumayr rocks the electro look and it’s not long before the large crowd that’s gathered to watch these unexpected guests are dancing like mad. The addictive chorus of single ‘Oh Marie’ is adopted and repeated at random intervals by those present throughout the night and the band look genuinely pleased. Rightfully so, this was the night a small three-piece band conquered an area of entertainment few other bands have conquered before: they pleased a Ramshackle audience.
originally published June 30th, 2006
Because Trees Can Fly ••½
Part-Danish, part-Swedish combo Lampshade first formed in 2000, but it was not until singer-songwriter Rebekkamaria joined a year later that the band began to make headway. Since then they’ve had a hit single in Denmark with the title track of this, their debut album, and become the toast of the indie music press, radio and national TV. The album’s unusual title comes from a poem by Danish author Martin A Hansen and is supposed to reflect their solid and simple yet grandiose music.
On first impression, Because Trees Can Fly is thickly layered with intensely repetitive and atmospheric soundscapes, mainly constructed through judicious use of electric guitar and drums, with the occasional sounding of a trumpet, keys or glockenspiel melody. Most of what’s on offer are fairly predictable, basic post-rock compositions, choosing to work with dynamics and impact rather than taking the listener on an expressive, rewarding and melodic journey.
Certainly, there is little doubt that the band’s wild card (if not meal ticket) is the voice of Rebekkamaria, a Björk-like (or rather, Björk-inspired) wonder that both anchors and elevates the band. Her light and frail vocals make for an appealing contrast with the heavy, driving guitars, although sometimes her singing is embedded within the sound, rendering it more of a melodic instrument than a conduit of intelligible words. However, she sometimes has a tendency to overemphasise her vocals, excessively emoting and coming across as slightly contrived.
Though Lampshade clearly know how to rack up the intensity with dynamics and layers of sound, their repertoire and instrumentation does lack variety. Whenever they do take an alternative approach or slightly alter the instrumentation, authentic emotion and creativity shimmers through the guitar and drum-crammed surface like delicate sunbeams. Essentially a sometimes impressive guitar act fronted by a little girl with a sweet, soft voice, if they’re given time to develop, Lampshade might well be worth looking out for in the future.
originally published November 7th, 2005
The Last Town Chorus
Wire Waltz •••
The Last Town Chorus used to be a duo – lap-steel guitar playing singer Megan Hickey and vibrato guitarist Nat Guy released their eponymous debut album in 2002 and performed all over the world until Guy departed in early 2004. Since then, Hickey has been fronting The Last Town Chorus alone, working closely with an ever-revolving ensemble of musicians. Despite living in Brooklyn, surrounded by canal traffic, aircraft noise, subway rumbles and sirens, Hickey somehow manages to shut out the racket. Almost without exception, her songs are slow and dark and played on a sixty-year old cheap lap-steel guitar. She probably performs with her eyes closed. Certainly, Wire Waltz is a very quiet album for a city girl; if you hadn’t read otherwise, you might easily imagine her sitting on her front porch in Midwest America, on a rocking chair, clutching her guitar, rather than the floor of her buzzing urban apartment.
The title track is a perfect example of Hickey’s vision. A dreamy but fairly fast-paced intro is soon followed by long, almost dragged out vocals, giving the song a certain edge and sudden mood change. In a densely layered arrangement, a lonely violin is the only approachable and natural sound in a sea of clouded pedal steel and it works like a charm. ‘You’ is equally affecting; Hickey’s simple, soothing vocals are accompanied by stop-start instrumentation, as if all the musicians were taking a breath at the same time and thoughts were put on hold.
Elsewhere, the songs sometimes lack an interesting angle, suffering from predictable arrangements and offering few, if any, surprises to the listener, ‘It’s Not Over’ and ‘Understanding’ being the worst offenders. It’s only when The Last Town Chorus get more experimental that the attention doesn’t wander. In a way, these songs are more authentic and make for comfy listening. ‘Caroline’, for example, is a playful little number with its upbeat tempo and layered vocals making it one of the more memorable inclusions. ‘Wintering In Brooklyn’ is similarly perky and has an optimistic, more melodious feel.
Hickey has a vulnerable side, too, and this comes across in ‘Boat’ and ‘Huntsville 1989′, both very intimate and personal affairs. It’s a shame, then, that the recording lets her down, her detached and distant vocals failing to do justice to the songs. Oddly enough, it’s the cover of David Bowie’s ‘Modern Love’ that really shows what The Last Town Chorus can do. The colourful arrangement and clear song structure really helps to bring out the emotion in the song. ‘Foreign Land’ is equally interesting. Here, Hickey has taken a much angrier, darker approach. It’s an attitude that really suits and her vocals are honest and close.
Although Wire Waltz has one or two hidden jewels, overall it lacks spark; the dearth of variation and repetitive motifs bring it down. When Hickey plugs in to her more instinctual side musically and wrings out her emotions, that’s when things get interesting and if she can do that more, The Last Town Chorus will be ones to watch in the future.
originally published October 5th, 2006
The Body Acoustic •••½
Epic / Daylight
It’s a little known fact that Cyndi Lauper and Madonna both had their first UK chart hit in the very same week back in January 1984, and while Lauper won the battle and that year’s Grammy for Best New Artist, Madonna has undisputedly trounced her in the war. Though both are peas from the same tenacious pod, Lauper’s sorely underrated vocals and songwriting skills never quite broke into the grounds of longstanding popularity. Her highest-charting album was her greatest hits collection, 1994’s Twelve Deadly Cyns… & Then Some – surely a sign of someone primarily regarded as a ‘singles artist’. It’s a shame too that 2003’s covers collection, At Last, failed to even chart in this country, as it was an eye- opening and never before seen showcase of the depth of Lauper’s emotional intensity, proving that her voice and creativity were considerably more potent than critics originally believed.
Lauper continues in this vein of switching creative gears with new album The Body Acoustic, a collection of unplugged revamps of some of her best known songs. It’s a dangerous concept, and one that risks the emotional evisceration of her bona fide classics – see Alanis Morissette’s Jagged Little Pill Acoustic for a prime example of how not to do it – but surprisingly enough, while never actually surpassing the originals, The Body Acoustic presents Lauper in a new and interesting light. The most striking difference here is the depth of Lauper’s singing. She was always able to hit the upper register in the ‘80s, but this time around she ditches the kitsch vocal stylings and lets her true talent shine. The county and western warmth of ‘Money Changes Everything’ sees her getting good and gritty before culminating in some eye-popping high notes, while the quasi-blues take on ‘She Bop’ (the original female masturbation anthem, predating The Divinyls’ ‘I Touch Myself’ and Tori Amos’s ‘Icicle’ by several years) has Lauper channelling sex and loneliness with sobering effectiveness.
Indeed, the only real weak point of the album is the overabundance of guest vocalists; Lauper’s impeccable vocals do not call for back-up. That said, some of the collaborations work well, such as Ani DiFranco and Taking Back Sunday member Vivian Green’s raucously funky contribution to ‘Sisters Of Avalon’. At the other end of the scale, the classic pop archetype of ‘Time After Time’ fares less well with the weightless vocals of Sarah McLachlan letting the side down. The worst offender by far, however, is Shaggy, whose clogged-up throat warbling almost butchers an otherwise wonderful rendition of ‘All Through The Night’. Happily, the two new compositions, ‘Above The Clouds’ (featuring Jeff Beck) and ‘I’ll Be Your River’ (also with Vivian Green), sit comfortably among the more familiar material and are rather pleasant indeed.
Given the dismal reception afforded to her more recent work, a domestic release for The Body Acoustic is almost too much to hope for. But, as a whole, the album really works on its own and doesn’t dilute the songs it borrows its inspiration from, proving that Cyndi Lauper, even after all these years, still just wants to have fun.
originally published February 6th, 2006
The Cavalry Of Light EP ••••
When the lovely Dévics namedropped this Los Angeles-based quartet in last issue’s interview, Wears The Trousers knew we had to investigate further. What we found was this sparkling jewel of an import – 16 minutes of some of the most evocative music ever committed to disc. Fronted by ‘70s songstress throwback Becky Stark and featuring former Young People singer/guitarist Jeff Rosenberg, composer Steve Gregoropoulos and percussionist/visual artist Ron Regé Jr., Lavender Diamond make pastoral chamber-folk with a spiritual bent that steers away from being fiercely didactic, just gently inspirational. Stark in particular is a keen advocate of the healing power of music and making every second sacred.
The daughter of a would-be minister mother (she was kicked out of ministerial school for rock ‘n’ roll tendencies), Becky and her sister would often attend their mum’s own ‘Church of Popular Culture’ where they would debate the metaphysical meanings of songs by Madonna and Culture Club, before graduating to the likes of Fugazi and Chisel. None of which really give you any idea of how heavenly this EP is, so moving swiftly on…
The thing about singing of a broken heart is that everyone’s doing it. The theme is so prevalent, so universal that it’s hard to really give that much of a damn unless it’s being done with fresh invention. Clearly, Lavender Diamond have collectively preempted such a jaded, grumbling worldview, and with a sense of humour too. If anyone had told me last week that I would soon become obsessed with a song as bluntly named as ‘You Broke My Heart’, in which it takes a full sixty seconds before any other lyric is uttered, I never would have believed them. Yet here I am with the song on its umpteenth repeat thinking it could well be the greatest piece of music since, well, almost anything on Joni Mitchell’s Blue. Rarely has anyone sounded so simultaneously mortified and overwhelmingly thrilled at getting the boot. Stark’s angelic, escalating vocal soars and swoops like a repentant bird of ill omen over a janglefest of acoustic guitar, tambourine and radiofriendly staccato piano riffs. It’s an ecstatic revelation that works far better in practice than it ever could on paper.
While just as brilliantly conceived, nothing else is quite as good. The sleepy, weeping strings and plaintive piano of ‘Please’ touch on a rainy-day Carpenters vibe and would sound perfect if it were played as the credits roll on some devastating indie flick (that is, if Aimee Mann were too busy). ‘In Heaven There Is No Heat’ starts off like a subdued Josephine Foster outtake then suddenly there’s sunshine – irresistibly bursting through the gloomy repetitive verses comes the biggest, shiniest, multi-part harmony chorus this side of The Magic Numbers. Inspired! Then, like Vashti Bunyan on valium, ‘Rise In The Springtime’ arrives a fully-formed mini-Britfolk epic that’s so airy and gossamer-light that not even its worshipful lyrics can cloy. It’s sweet, strange and a little bit squidgy, like aural Turkish delight for slimmers.
Herbalists claim that extracts of lavender can be used to soothe headaches, to aid your sleep and even to help cure acne. I’m making no promises on that last one, but The Cavalry Of Light seems equally potent. Seek it out on editor’s orders.
originally published May 22nd, 2006
Les Georges Leningrad
Sangue Puro ••••
Les Georges Leningrad came into being in 2000 and have an illustrious history of releases of handmade CDs, 7″ singles, and two albums – Deux Hot Dogs Moutarde Chou (‘two hot dogs mustard cabbage’) and Sur Les Traces De Black Eskimo, for which they purportedly travelled to the North Pole to get in touch with nature and chanced upon a black Eskimo population. In the bare-all, behind-the-scenes world the rest of us live in, where mystery and magic are mangled into media mush, stumbling into the strangeness of the Les Georges Leningrad outré existence is a welcome injection of swirling emotional charges.
In the flesh, the story of Bobo Boutin, Mingo L’Idien and Poney P is one of love and hate, having been introduced to one another by way of a fight in Ontario street tavern, la Terrasse Bellehumeur. Boutin was at the time a bohemian singer, L’Idien a contemporary music student at University of Montréal, while Ms P was busying herself with writing hundreds of songs in a gigantic schoolbook and dreaming of sharing a stage with the art-rock greats: Plume, Duchess Says, Sun Ra and Felix Kubin. Musically, their tale can be summarised as follows: eight-note, F2-undulating synthesiser riffs, an explosive rhythmic drive inspired by the sambo (a Russian self-defence technique invented in the 1930s) and the sexy voice of their ‘South Central Li’l Amazon’ immersing us in the eerie and unforeseeable universe of Petrochemical Rock…their terminology, yes, but it works just fine.
Third album Sangue Puro proves that art installation music is alive and well and that Les Georges Leningrad are only too ecstatic to serve up even more Franglais power-punk/scary electro tunes for our edification. The title track gets an industrial electronic ambient shock treatment with drum rolls and finishes with what might well be the sound of electronic crickets rubbing their legs together in frenzy. Nine-minute epic ‘The Future For Less’ is built upon a Kafka-esque electro soundbed that’s so unnerving you might prefer to face an angry horde of Daleks entering stage left. It’s not as bleak as it sounds; humour is everywhere between the musical lines of intense expressionism. Take ‘Lonely Lonely’ for example. It starts like a fairly typical punk tune with rhythmic power drumming but once the grunting Neanderthal vocals kick in with “un, deux, trois” and “la la” lyrics, you’ll be forced to reassess as any semblance of normality slides away.
Things are at their punk-poppiest on ‘Mange Avec Tes Doigts’ (‘eat with your fingers’) with a heavy guitar riff and Poney P’s Nina Hagen-esque punk vocal, but LGL soon turn up the rage. Later, she raps over ‘Sleek Answer’s rhythmic bass synth and shrieks along with eerie speed rhythms on Germanic wundersong ‘Ennio Morricone’. Elsewhere, ‘Eli, Eli Lamma Sabbacthani’ (‘my God, my God, why hast Thou forsaken me?’ [Matthew 27:46]) may borrow its title from the words of the cross but it comes across as a Latino-style political rant that segues into a Native American chant with bongos to finish and might well have you reaching for the magic mushrooms.
With Sangue Puro, Les Georges Leningrad bring real hope that we haven’t quite washed out all the world’s colour just yet, and for that they should be commended. Not for the fainthearted but well worth investigating for those of a sterner constitution, anyone wanting to know more should steel themselves and check out clips of Les Georges Leningrad’s live show on YouTube or simply splash some blood around on their website.
originally published November 23rd, 2006
Jenny Lewis with the Watson Twins
Rabbit Fur Coat •••½
Probably the first thing you’ll notice with this album, perhaps with a pang of initial apprehension, are the two neatly accessorised yet slightly sinister characters loitering in the background on the Shining-esque sleeve. Say hello to The Watson Twins, with whom the moonlighting Rilo Kiley frontwoman Jenny Lewis generously shares the credit for Rabbit Fur Coat. It’s surprising really, for though they are ever-present in the mix and undoubtedly talented, the twins are essentially only backing singers to Lewis’s distinctive vocals. The unrivalled star of the show, she drifts, snarls and soars her way through witty and occasionally uncomfortable lyrics, leaving the Watsons to fill in the gaps wherever they can. Even the instrumentation is kept to a minimum, in keeping with the highly personal manner in which Lewis wrote these songs.
Supposedly recorded in six days flat, Rabbit Fur Coat is intended as a tribute to Lewis’s relationship with her mother and Mrs Lewis’s favourite singer, Laura Nyro – specifically the 1971 Nyro/ LaBelle collaboration, Gonna Take A Miracle. That’s quite an ambition, but luckily Lewis boasts a sensational resume that proves she possesses more than enough countrified white soul to carry it off, and there are touching moments aplenty. Take the gospel/bluegrass opener ‘Run Devil Run’, for instance, a short a cappella vocal workout in which Lewis immediately gives the Watsons a run for their money. But while the lush harmonies contained therein is surely what the twins were hired for, a few songs down the line they soon start to grate a little, popping up unawares to embellish a chorus or three in their rather dated style (occasionally reminiscent of Mary Ford’s multi-tracked crooning on 1950s Les Paul records).
Luckily, no amount of excessive cooing can entirely distract from Lewis’s expressive and compelling vocals, and the talents of the twins admittedly compliment these well, teasing out and reinforcing the melodic subtleties throughout, no matter how occasionally mawkish. No better is this demonstrated than on ‘You Are What You Love’ (“not what loves you back”), an exuberant, wholesome pop confection that you can practically taste. Twinkling keyboards, a shuffling rhythm and an addictively relentless chorus all combine perfectly, rounded off with possibly the most satisfying ending imaginable in a culture of lazy fadeouts and over-indulgence. Also rather incredible are the seductive first single ‘Rise Up With Fists!!’ and the title track, the first of the twelve to be written. Lewis’s echoey voice is accompanied only by a tentatively plucked acoustic guitar, creating the impression of eavesdropping as she strums alone onstage, long after her audience and band has gone home. ‘Rabbit Fur Coat’ is the undisputed centerpiece of the record, best exemplifying Lewis’s sugar-sweet singing (thankfully shed of Watson warblings in this case). It’s a crafty little number, however; the nursery rhyme simplicity of the melody belies a chilling fable of how a cursed garment takes a family from rags to riches to rags again – a metaphor that, according to Lewis, runs throughout the album.
A cover of ‘80s OAP supergroup The Travelling Wilburys’ ‘Handle With Care’ makes for a dramatic change of pace and reveals itself to be a delightful surprise. The benefits of being one of the most well-connected women in the business are clearly laid out, with Death Cab For Cutie / The Postal Service’s Ben Gibbard contributing a chiming 12-string guitar and Roy Orbison’s parts, co-producer M. Ward doing Jeff Lynne and Conor Oberst of Bright Eyes croaking his way through the Dylan lines. Elsewhere, Lewis’s boyfriend Johnathan Rice and Saddle Creek producer extraordinaire Mike Mogis are among the 16-strong player count. Overall, Rabbit Fur Coat is a captivating, delightful and reassuring album that, although it lacks some of Rilo Kiley’s broad scope and musical versatility, offers an endearing glimpse into the heart and mind of a very special talent. The world should know about Jenny Lewis. Spread the word.
originally published February 6th, 2006
Tangos & Tantrums ••••
Enchanting right from the outset, Tangos & Tantrums boasts a beautiful blend of eccentric music hall-style backing and a voice that sounds as though its been classically trained and then eloped to New Orleans with a bluesy jazz band. Surprisingly upbeat considering its invariably dark subject matter and melancholic minor chord leanings, each track is a snapshot of a world that only Lewis seems to inhabit, her sepia-toned memories elegantly floating along. Fittingly, the sleeve bears no lyrics and is filled instead with anecdotes connected with each song, including musings by the artist and, in one case, a recipe for the cocktail imbibed at the time of writing.
‘By Heart’ sets the mood of the album perfectly; Wurlitzer, piano and percussion chime along nicely, invoking the feel of a gently turning carousel. As the lament unfurls, Lewis comes to the painful realisation that, although the relationship in question is not on her terms, she will stay the course until her beau decides to end it, whilst in the interim she learns to read his every move. Lines such as “your eyes are always straying, you want whatever’s far” form simple but jarring contrasts with the playful accompaniment.
Such stunning mini-stories are woven throughout the album, tackling different stages of relationships with a distinctly elegant and unusual take on every aspect. For example, in ‘All His Exes’, Lewis is seemingly possessed by the spirit of a 1920s flapper, asserting her individuality away from the titular cast-offs. Many of these songs are steeped in atmospheric melancholy, for example, the waltzing ‘When I Drink’. In fact, so often does Lewis discuss drinking and tragedy that if you gave her a dobro, more twang in her voice and a pair of very delicate cowboy boots, she would not be out of place in country music. ‘Promises Of Paris’ tells the tale of a man who’s liable to drink himself to ruin and death while believing his own deranged whisperings of the capital’s majesty. Musically, the song possesses a climate all of its own, with a saxophone solo so richly textured that it feels as though you could step inside the scenario and find the afternoon sunshine streaming through slatted blinds and a chrome fan ticking in the background, hardly moving the hot, sticky air.
Despite its glorious lyrics about being unable to awake from “daydreams of blue roses you used to bring”, ‘Love Songs’ is a slight disappointment and ‘New York’ could feasibly be skipped altogether to get to the fabulous ‘Conversation Piece’ where Lewis is joined in a duet by Richard Swift, their voices seductively blending in a tale of love punctuated with allusions to war. ‘Valentine’s Day ‘slows the pace to a cynical crawl before picking up once again for the delightfully dramatic bitterness of ‘My Rival’, inspired by Rudyard Kipling’s ‘Other Than That’, and the poignant ‘Old Friends’, which serves as a fitting finale for the album, as though bidding farewell to the listener with promises of a far-off reunion.
If given the attention it surely merits, the sensual, heart-sick world of Sylvie Lewis will transport you back in time and may even help you deal with a modern-day dilemma or two. Perfect for a lazy Sunday or an afternoon when you need to take time out from the world or perhaps to mend a wounded heart.
originally published April 26th, 2006
Are You Thinking What I’m Thinking? •••
Nepotism has never been cuter thanks to this Los Angeles trio. All daughters of famous musical fathers (Mitchell Froom, Pete Thomas and Tony Berg), The Like’s punk-chic good looks and sassy sense of style make for great eye candy, but considering their connections, talent was not necessarily a prerequisite for a record deal. Luckily The Like do have talent and have inherited some musical inclinations from their prominent poppas. Are You Thinking What I’m Thinking? is quality girl-rock fodder that, whilst not being stellar under any circumstances, presents them in a promising enough light.
Mostly, the album employs the archetypal pop formula, portrayed with just a hint of girl power, and is utterly soundtrack prone. ‘Once Things Look Up’ delivers a shimmering MOR vibe, with vocalist Z Berg sounding like a teenaged Sarah McLachlan. ‘The One’ is an uptown take on the 1980s, its warm orchestration reminiscent of Modern English’s ‘Melt With You’, while both ‘Falling’ and ‘Too Late’ share a lite feminine swagger. The only true misdirection lies in Wendy Melvoin’s sometimes overcompensating production. The droning guitars and faded drums don’t mix well with Z Berg’s soft soprano, and as a result, many of the songs never gain momentum; in particular, album closer ‘Waves That Never Break’ and ‘(So I’ll Sit Here) Waiting’ seem to stop before they start. The music itself is not bad; it is simply presented in a less than ideal way.
Ultimately, both the album and The Like themselves come off as a bit average, but unlike many pop acts today they have talent and are never disingenuous in their music. Factor in their youth and the fact that most bands never nail their sound on their debut, and Are You Thinking What I’m Thinking? is more a step in the right direction than a defining moment in The Like’s career. Perhaps one day they will make the shift from eye candy to ear candy, and make music that allows them to step outside the shadows of their famous fathers.
originally published December 19th, 2005
Live at Camden Barfly ••••
March 8th, 2006
It is midday on a Sunday and three young women are standing on a street corner in Camden Town. Wrapped up against the March chill, they could be any late teens/early twenties trio, and the fact that they haven’t seen a bed to lie in in over 24 hours is not so odd for their generation. However, the fact that only six or so hours ago they were stood on a street corner in Paris not entirely unlike this one is. Freshly Eurostarred back from playing at a fashion show, The Like are about to do an afternoon show at Camden’s Barfly, part of a bewilderingly heavy itinerary to purportedly break them in the UK. Either that or break them full stop.
Not that they are whinging about it. Later, Tennessee Thomas is proud to display her drumstick blistered hands to anyone who wishes to be appalled by the mess they’re in, while Charlotte Froom is endlessly enthusiastic and slips easily into her coolest-personto-ever-pick-up-a-bass poses within an instant of arriving onstage. Straight after the set, she just as happily works the merchandising stall – “We sell more t-shirts if the girls do it themselves” explains their affable tour manager. Z Berg also shrugs off the crazy pace with the detachment of a dreamer who has written songs in her teens that many so-called mature writers would find hard to match in terms of their remarkable depth and passion.
A few days earlier at Nottingham’s Rock City, a throng of fans cheered, screamed and sang every word of ‘Too Late’, while The Ramones-meets-The Cure hybrid of ‘What I Say & What I Mean’ was greeted as if it were already a greatest hit. The stream of interviews, the TV shows they barely know the names of, the mad yo-yoing back and forth to London are all about this moment where The Like are, as an entity, a perfect, classic indie pop-rock trio with a masterful grasp of the epic and the intimate, often within the same song as is superbly displayed in ‘You Bring Me Down’ and ‘(So I’ll Sit Here) Waiting’.
In London, there is a sense of exposure in daylight for both the band and their audience, creating a true dramatic tension and blurring of the line between performer and listener; the venue is rammed to the edge of the curved stage. As Froom’s basslines bop over Thomas’s relentless beat, the finest swirls of shoegaze guitar since Lush emit from Berg’s twin Orange amps. Already overtired, Z has an uphill struggle to keep her voice, but one has to marvel at the sheer grit of her performance as she lives out every raw emotion threaded through her lyrics.
Coming just at a time when the UK rock scene is all laddish boys-will-be-boys predicting a riot in the takeaway kebab house, The Like are surely the band that many have been waiting for; one with a pure, warm sound that goes straight for the heart. After today, they face another week of touring the country before heading back to Los Angeles for just one day off, then flying off again for an industry showcase in triplicate at SXSW in Austin. Both loving and laughing at it, The Like uncomplainingly thrive on the pace. And that pace will surely only increase as their message gets across to more and more potential fans.
originally published March 18th, 2006
Lisa Li-Lund & Friends
Li-Lund Ran Away ••••
Lisa Li-Lund likes panda bears, wants to sleep with Mick Jagger as he was roughly 20 years ago and lives in a fantasy world somewhere between Paris, NYC and Scandinavia. What’s more, she is little sister to the two hairy men of the amazing Herman Düne, which, after hearing her first proper solo effort, you would instantly be able to tell. Written by a long-time hip-hop fan on a cute little Casio, this surely essential latest chapter in the somewhat incestual, and therefore obviously influential, antifolk movement was recorded in one week, a raw testament to the real creative talent of someone who would at first appear to be a quirky, whimsical songwriter (though those are two words that Li-Lund would probably never want to be associated with).
It all makes for a meaningful and surprisingly deep collection of songs. Childlike and innocent on the surface, yet, in places, brooding with angry femininity and emotion, Li-Lund’s sweet and soothing vocals are wonderfully complimented by minimalist instrumentation. Incredibly effortless, mind-bogglingly spontaneous, the songs flit between the playful romps of The Moldy Peaches, the sloppy DIY riot-grrl phenomenon and the dark edge of The Breeders or PJ Harvey without the Dorset accent. Then there’s the constant of her European charm and distinct sense of mystery. Each of Li-Lund’s stories is a unique glimpse into a magical land filled with pigs the size of your finger and miniature rabbits, as she first laments and then joins in the party. And if that’s not bizarre or wonderful enough to tempt you to give her a chance, tune in simply to hear Herman Düne’s Neman howling at the moon dramatically in the distance.
That said, although the fanciful stuff is hugely appealing the most stunning tracks are the more mature, spine- tingling lullabies of resignation, particularly ‘Drop My Tears’ and the haunting Emmet Kelly collaboration on traditional number ‘All My Trials’. It‘s a tragically gorgeous end to an album that bravely spans the yearning to the erratic to the downright daft, the best thing about it being that it fits into so many genres but, at the same time, not fitting in at all. Simply put, Li-Lund Ran Away is absolutely too cool for school. I dare you not to fall in love with it.
originally published September 17th, 2006
The reasons why most singer-songwriters would balk at and rail against the adjective ‘sweet’ appear to be self-evident. The term seems almost a nullification of having something to say, a catch-all for the mild, meek and soon forgettable. Then, as with every rule, an exception sometimes happens along, twirling fancy free and twee beyond belief but utterly astute and devastatingly relevant. Rachel Lipson is one such exception, coming on like an amalgam of Kimya Dawson, Rosie Thomas and shades of Suzanne Vega. The sheer simplicity of her laconic, almost deadpan enunciation is the stuff that either steals your heart or sends you running feeling too pure back to The Teaches Of Peaches. But graze awhile in Lipson’s quiet acres and you’ll find the lectures of Pastures equally appealing. With a finely detailed wisdom that never trips the homily detector, Lipson’s minutiae are everyone’s minutiae, but told with a worldview that’s all her own.
Whether on the seemingly George “God made me do it” Bush-bashing ‘A Blessing’ or the advisory ‘Oh Little Sister’, she is constantly disarming and aware. But Pastures works best when Lipson deals in heartbreak, the triptych of ‘What Won’t Wait For You’, ‘I’ve Sat At The Table’ and ‘He Knows The Way To The Golden Road’ providing an exquisite lesson in the dispassionate delivery of a raw and deeply-felt subject. Cropping up on the first of these songs and again on ‘The End Of The Summer’ is David Herman Düne, to all intents and purposes antifolk royalty, chiming in with gorgeous ukulele and perfectly imperfect, tender harmonies. Also adding his voice and credibility is good friend Jeffrey Lewis, who shared the album’s only co-writing credit for the childlike duet, ‘The Eagle’. It’s followed by the heartwarming, home-recorded album closer, ‘Will They Remember Your Name’, on which Lipson lapses into fits of giggles while trying to get some children singing a round.
While it’s true that Lipson’s vocals are a little one-trick pony and that it simply wouldn’t work if the music itself were more convoluted, the overwhelming innocence inspires. As a snapshot of a deceptively rich, modern fable-teller, Pastures really works. Definitely one to watch then, she may put Cadbury out of business yet.
originally published December 5th, 2005
The Very Best Of •••
Twelve years ago, a little known unsigned singer-songwriter from Dallas redefined what it means to hit the ground running. A rogue release from the ‘Reality Bites’ soundtrack, her debut single ‘Stay (I Missed You)’ took off entirely on its own merits, its unadulterated pop archetype and Loeb’s girl next door persona striking a chord with radio listeners and propelling her to the summit of the Billboard Top 100 and peaking at #6 in the UK. Of course, a sparse video directed by ‘Reality Bites’ star Ethan Hawke didn’t harm its chances, and Loeb was quickly signed to Geffen Records soon after. Her debut album Tails was released the following autumn and quickly went platinum. Although her songwriting has never quite achieved the same tenacity as it did on ‘Stay’, Loeb’s skills as a pop singer-songwriter are unmitigated and this career retrospective offers a good mix, albeit with some bias towards her earlier years; 12 of the 18 selections originate from the first two of her four releases. Sadly, there’s nothing from Catch The Moon, her entertaining album of music aimed at children.
Loeb is best when she tackles darker material, such as ‘Sandalwood’s stark declarations of obsession, the mournful ‘How’ and the relationship autopsy of ‘Do You Sleep?’, which by all rights should have equalled the success of ‘Stay’. Her lighter material, such as the minor Stateside hits ‘I Do’ and ‘Let’s Forget About It’ and the reggae-lite ‘All Day’ – Loeb’s contribution to 1998’s ‘The Rugrats Movie’, in which she also provided the voice of a newborn baby – manage to hit the marks they should despite being a little less majestic. It’s a credit to her likeability and craft that songs like ‘Bring Me Up’ would come off on the wrong side of tame if placed in the hands of almost any other artist, while Loeb’s sweet vocals and nebbish lyrical honesty elevate the song above the dreaded MOR mark.
In fact, what is apparent in each of these songs is that Loeb’s personable nature and unflinching truth-telling, even when looming in the face of cliché, has given her a kind of staying power that’s wholly of her own making and not a commercial commodity. But while she may finally be showing signs of some questionable decision-making see her reality dating programme ‘#1 Single’ that recently aired in the States and is represented here with the passable theme tune ‘Single Me Out’ – the only new song included – Loeb’s integrity as a solid pop musician remains untarnished and The Very Best Of showcases both her and her catalogue as an underappreciated but smiling success.
originally published March 21st, 2006
The Long Blondes
Live at UEA, Norwich ••••
May 18th, 2006
With a little help from Rough Trade, The Long Blondes have recently blossomed from Britain’s best unsigned band to Britain’s best signed band and are finally able to give up the day jobs and start touring the length of the country, spreading their perfect escapist pop. Having won the Philip Hall Radar award for new bands at February’s NME ceremony awards (and been the only band with a single female, let alone three, to win an award), The Long Blondes have been waiting in the wings for long enough. They were subsequently invited to open up the NME New Music Tour while three identikit emo indie bands secured the more coveted later slots, but you’ve gotta start somewhere, right?
Daylight was still shining through the upper windows as The Long Blondes elegantly took to the stage in the University of East Anglia’s gym-like student union. Their quirky, secondhand glamour rested uneasily in the cavernous setting, the MySpace teens who comprised the sell-out crowd still blathering away. But as the opening bars of single ‘Appropriation (By Any Other Name)’ chimed out and singer Kate Jackson started her now trademark stilettos-and-drainpipes angular shimmy, the crowd were transfixed. During their half-hour set, the band churned out would-be-hit after would-be-hit and many of their strongest songs didn’t even get aired in a performance that should leave any band three albums into their career feeling more than slightly insecure. They embody the escapist songwriting spirit of Burt Bacharach mixed with the British realism of Pulp and the classic dancefloor/rock club versatility of Blondie, and they’re prolific at it too.
They played three new songs, all of which received the same excited response as by-now cult classics like ‘Separated By Motorways’ and ‘Once & Never Again’, most notably the new B-side, ‘You Could Have Both’, which features a spoken-word breakdown between Dorian and Kate detailing the post-university crisis that hits us twentysomethings so hard, admitting “I’ve only got a job so I don’t disappoint my mother” before chanting “What about us?”. The crowd may not yet have taken their AS-level exams, but the universality of The Long Blondes’s themes, clever lyrics and classic tunes ensure that their appeal is widespread.
It’s the penultimate song, ‘Giddy Stratospheres’, that best sums up what The Long Blondes are about; it’s an epic 4:54, but so completely perfect you’ll wish it wouldn’t end. With its soaring choruses and Shangri-la-esque chants from guitarist Emma and bassist Reenie, the song has a certain snotty charm and a middle-eight so yummy you won’t know whether to laugh or cry. As they walk off-stage 30 minutes after their humble entrance, they can sleep soundly in the knowledge that they have once again shown the boys that their hegemony won’t last forever.
Robbie de Santos
originally published July 23rd, 2006