Filed under: album, back issues, book, film & dvd, live, review | Tags: alan pedder, alex ramon, ann powers, matthew hall, tori amos, vitamin string quartet
Tori Amos & Ann Powers
Tori Amos: Piece By Piece •••••
Released in the US just prior to her eighth studio album, The Beekeeper, this fascinatingly unconventional semi-autobiography did what few Tori Amos releases since Under The Pink have been able – it failed to split the critics. It even made the New York Times Bestseller List. Having finally found a publisher in the UK, where her fanbase is slenderer yet unremittingly fervent, ‘Piece By Piece’ at last hits the bookshelves in June in support of the European leg of her Original Sinsuality Tour. Regardless of whether you have an appreciation for Tori Amos the performer, Tori Amos as author brings to the fore her enviable intelligence, quick wit and literate, piercing insight and as such commands respect even from those who would give it begrudgingly. Co-written with renowned New York music journalist Ann Powers this is no mere memoir, for Amos has always had a keen eye for a concept – her last few albums have come with buckets of convolutions. With a nonlinear narrative to match the most ambitious writers of fiction, Amos and Powers construct a verbal collage of various conversations (including contributions from Amos’s husband, friends, touring bandmates, chef and security guard among others) that are woven through eight hefty chapters.
Each chapter is overseen by an archetype of mythological or religious legend, including Amos’s constant inspiration and “erotic muse”, Mary Magdelene. Amos has been trying to reunite the spiritual and the sexual aspects of womanhood since her debut album Little Earthquakes tore down gender barriers and kicked open the floodgates for similarly confessional songwriting. Years before ‘The Da Vinci Code’ popularised the gnostic gospel of Mary Magdelene, Amos has given voice to the much maligned biblical figure, but never more so than in ‘Marys Of The Sea’, one of the standout songs from The Beekeeper. This song and many others are discussed and abstracted upon in ‘song canvasses’ scattered throughout the book.
The motherhood chapter (overseen by Demeter, the Greek goddess of harvest and fertility), which tells of Amos’s long battle to successfully carry a child that finally ended in 2000 with the birth of her daughter Natashya Lorién, is guaranteed to hit a nerve. Her disarmingly frank account of each of her three miscarriages is both harrowing and brave. Equally engaging is her tale of how these health problems contributed to the souring of her relationship with Atlantic Records. That, and a brazen publicity scam on their part, were the final straw for Amos who told them where to stick it. Unfortunately, she still had three albums to turn in to fulfil the terms of her contract, albums which Atlantic were determined not to promote in order to effectively ruin her career, an effort in which they clearly failed.
The interplay between Amos and Powers helps to keep the notoriously wordy songwriter on track, although some passages are a little hard going. If you can forgive Amos her small indulgences, there is much to be enjoyed here, even for those with just a passing interest. It is an utterly unprecendented opportunity to look so far into the mind of one of the most enigmatic artists of our time.
originally published May 22nd, 2005
Live at the Apollo, Hammersmith ••••
June 4th, 2005
Though each of her last few albums have come swaddled in conceptual complexities that would make Nietzsche think twice about indulging, tonight’s stop on Tori Amos’s Original Sinsuality Tour mostly dispenses with the cerebellar workout, leaving room for the levity of her music to truly impress. The sixth-form poetry clunkiness of the moniker aside, this latest tour has been one of the more memorable in recent years and given her the chance to showcase those famous interpretive skills first evidenced by her version of Nirvana’s ‘Smells Like Teen Spirit’.
For each night of the tour, fans have been able to request covers via Amos’ official website, resulting in performances ranging from the obvious to the outrageous. Tonight was the turn of George Michael’s ‘Father Figure and Madonna’s ‘Like A Prayer’, both of which have been played before but sounded all the more polished for it. The former especially hit all the buttons that Michael could only strive for. In a setlist drawing heavily from her first three records and this year’s The Beekeeper, several of her albums, including the sublime Scarlet’s Walk, were sadly neglected. However, a surprise rendition of Lloyd Cole & The Commotions’ ‘Rattlesnakes’ from her contract-fulfilling covers album Strange Little Girls, seemed unusually at home in the two-hour set.
To attend a Tori Amos gig is to be guaranteed a display of reverence from her notoriously enthusiastic fans and tonight was no different. Some even wept during more tender moments such as the captivating ‘Winter’, live favourite ‘Cooling’ and the hymnal theatrics of ‘The Beekeeper’, a song written last year after Amos’s mother fell ill with a life-threatening heart problem from which she thankfully recovered, and later embellished following the death of her brother Michael in a road accident last November.
In complete contrast, Amos invited onto the stage a choir of six gospel singers to add a welcome sense of fun to the proceedings, unique to this performance. The live debut of the six-minute soulful epic ‘Witness’ was the highlight of the night, though the bizarrely fluid boogie-woogie of empowerment anthem ‘Hoochie Woman’ was another real treat. Only ‘Jamaica Inn’ floundered as Amos switched between her beloved Bösendorfer and Hammond organ a few too many times, slowing the song considerably. Still, Amos’s prodigious talent and mastery of her instrument never fails to amaze and confirms her singular status.
The only true gripe was that, while Amos is undoubtedly a musical auteur, she fared less well visually with some of the worst lighting projections in memory. Certainly she’s no Björk in that department and they added little to the experience. But with a performer so compelling and music this affecting, who really needs such trifling distractions?
originally published June 16th, 2005
Fade To Red: The Videos ••••½
My first encounter with Tori Amos on video was a shot of her hurtling towards a giant spider’s web in the abstract European promo for ‘Cornflake Girl’ (featured here as a bonus extra). Ironically, the striking red hair that hallmarks almost all of her other videos and inspires the name of this collection was indistinguishable to me as I marvelled at this monochrome masterpiece. Okay, well, in hindsight maybe it isn’t really a masterpiece, but then how many music videos are? It’s an inherently silly medium. Which is why it’s so refreshing to come across an artist willing to take a few risks and sometimes even embrace the silliness of it. In fact, most of the videos included here are, in their varying ways, even more remarkable than the cut I first fell in love with, but the point is the same: whichever avenue you take into the wonderful world of Amos’s visual output, it is likely to be a memorable one.
Her first video, ‘Silent All These Years’, is another bold affair and one that has provided most people with their first and most lasting impression of Amos – also becoming the source of the cover shot for her debut album. It comprises mostly of Tori, a white background, a wooden box, some bright red lipstick and those famous red tresses. Simple yet compelling, it works because it allows Amos to breathe. An artist with lesser presence wouldn’t be comfortable laying themselves open to such close scrutiny, yet Amos does it consistently. No matter what guise she takes, Amos never seems overwhelmed. You find yourself believing in her, whether trapped on display in a gallery window, being dragged from a burning building or bound and running away from an unidentified captor as we see in ‘Spark’, possibly the most gripping video I’ve ever laid eyes on. The results are exhilarating.
What hits you is the sheer variety of ideas that Amos and her collaborators seem to have. The sequencing of the videos contributes to this diversity, juxtaposing selections from different points in her fifteen-year career. It would have been silly to lump together the low-budget Little Earthquakes videos at the start of the collection. Whilst each video is its own entity and should be considered as such, the early videos are essentially different sides to the same box that Amos first rolled onto our screens in, none of them quite building on the stark imagery of her first promo. Instead they are much more entertaining and unique when dotted around the collection, reminding us that her vision has been uncompromising from the start. ‘Winter’ even benefits from being sandwiched between the more subversive and stylised ‘A Sorta Fairytale’ (featuring Oscar-winning actor Adrien Brody in perhaps the weirdest allegorical love story ever) and ‘Spark’. Elsewhere, the student-like experimentation of ‘China’ segues perfectly into the more adventurous ‘Raspberry Swirl’ and ‘Talula’ promos. In fact, the early videos are some of the most enjoyable to watch as Amos and director Cindy Palmano play around with the constrictions of the medium.
The music, as always, is simply outstanding. In fact, had 2003’s ‘reconditioned’ retrospective ‘Tales Of A Librarian’ been conceived and presented similarly to this it may have proved a greater testament to her talents. This has obviously been a labour of love for Amos and, overall, it’s a very well packaged and comprehensive collection. A couple of videos are conspicuous by their absence, however. One can only presume that contractual issues prevented the inclusion of the promo for her Stranglers cover, ‘Strange Little Girl’, as it is one of her best. The missing ‘Glory Of The 80s’ video is more of a mystery, although the likely reason for its omission is that it just didn’t make the grade – it’s a video with a nice idea that wasn’t quite realised. Still, do a Google search for either of these and you’ll find them in seconds. As for extras, the personal commentary on each video is a very nice and often hilarious touch, allowing us an insight into the making of and ideas behind the clips.
originally published April 10th, 2006
The Original Bootlegs ••••½
Should anyone have any doubts about what a commanding and provocative artist Tori Amos remains, they will surely be put to rest by these officially sanctioned ‘bootlegs’. Recorded during this year’s solo Original Sinsuality and Summer Of Sin tours, five of these double CDs were initially released exclusively online, and have now been packaged together as a comprehensive boxset (along with an extra bonus 2CD recording), offering yet another fix for Amos’s followers. Indeed, 2005 has been an amazingly fertile year for Amos artistically. With another brilliant studio album in The Beekeeper, an absorbing and stylistically innovative memoir in ‘Piece By Piece’, and now these releases, she’s in danger of spoiling us rotten. On these discs, culled from dates in LA, Chicago, Denver, Manchester, London and Boston, we find her singing (better than ever) songs both old and new, rarities and a series of creative covers – sufficient material to keep both diehard enthusiasts and recent converts occupied for months. If you were at these shows (and surely not even Amos’s most devoted fans could have attended all of them) then these CDs offer a wonderful memento of some amazing musical moments. If you weren’t, it’s a chance to catch up on some of what you missed and to savour the enthralling experience that is Amos’s live show.
As skilful as she has been at integrating other instruments into her music over the years, there remains something ineffably magical about Amos performing solo; the only time she shares the spotlight here is when she’s joined in quite spectacular fashion by the a six-piece gospel choir in London. With just piano, Rhodes and Hammond B3 organ to accompany her sinuous vocals, she’s at her most riveting, her ability to command an audience second to none. But is it any wonder that she’s so accomplished? Lest we forget, this self-confessed “road dog” has been performing for audiences since she was a teenager, and there’s a nice nod to those apprentice years in the ‘Piano Bar’ segments featured here, in which she performs her pick of the songs requested by fans via her website.
Among those receiving the Amos treatment are tracks by Leonard Cohen, Joni Mitchell, Madonna, Oasis, Bonnie Tyler, George Michael, Bon Jovi and Aerosmith (yes, really!), so it’s just as well that she has such a strong personality as a performer, and such finely-honed interpretive skills, that she stamps her distinctive mark on every one. “This could really be crap,” she warns before delivering a decidedly non-crap version of A Flock Of Seagulls’ ‘I Ran’. Particularly gorgeous are her takes on Jim Croce’s ‘Operator’, where she captures beautifully the combined bravado and vulnerability of the narrator, and ‘Like A Prayer’, which she invests with more genuine sexual and spiritual fervour than Madonna could ever hope to muster. There’s also some typically cherishable between-song banter in these Piano Bar interludes, including one already notorious diatribe. Who but Amos would have the chutzpah to lob some very descriptive insults at Morrissey in front of an audience of Mancunians? It’s one of many reasons to love her.
Another reason is that she’s amassed a back catalogue that ranks among the greatest in contemporary music, and which provides a very rich resource for her to mine in live performances. Aside from her undebatable instrumental prowess, Amos has always been a terrific writer of songs that can be equal parts tender and savage, raw and healing, sad and sensual, and both her oldest and newest material gets a workout here. Highlights from her own repertoire include ‘Little Amsterdam’, sounding spookier than ever with its organ accompaniment; the baroquely beautiful ‘Yes, Anastasia’; the startling ‘Father Lucifer’; the buoyant ‘Take To The Sky’; the ever-green ‘Winter’, ‘Silent All These Years’ and ‘Tear In Your Hand’; and the majestic ‘Cool On Your Island’. It’s fascinating, too, to hear new songs such as ‘Sweet The Sting’ and ‘The Power Of Orange Knickers’ stripped down to just keyboard and voice, and in the process sounding more themselves than ever.
It should be noted that there is, inevitably, quite a bit of repetition of material over the discs. ‘Original Sinsuality’ kicks off every show, and we get several ‘Jamaica Inn’s, ‘Space Dog’s and ‘Parasol’s when we might wish for a ‘Pretty Good Year’ or a ‘Northern Lad’. But, as Amos would no doubt argue, ‘Parasol’ in Chicago on April 15th is not ‘Parasol’ in Denver on April 19th, and the duplication of material does offer a valuable opportunity to compare different versions. Amos is such a spontaneous, in-the-moment performer that she never delivers identikit readings of her songs anyway, and the chance for listeners to play “compare and contrast” is one of the many pleasures offered here. Collectively then, these discs further demonstrate Amos’s sheer mastery of her art. From first note to last, you’re confronted with the slightly overwhelming sensation of hearing a performer at the very peak of her powers. While some critics continue to recycle tired complaints about ‘abstruse lyrics’ and ‘excessive ambition’, Amos just gets on with making some of the most adventurous, intelligent and extraordinary music out there. Long may she continue.
originally published December 19th, 2005
A Piano: The Collection •••••
The release of this monumental compilation just three years after Tales Of A Librarian suggests that the latter ‘best of’ did not entirely satisfy Amos’s desire for a comprehensive retrospective of her career. It’s hardly surprising; having produced a series of stunning, epic records which have each rehabilitated and transformed the notion of the concept album, Amos must surely feel a certain amount of frustration that her extraordinary music is still frequently dismissed by much of the mainstream British music press as the work of a Kate Bush clone. By now, of course, such accusations just sound plain silly: could an artist really sustain nine albums and a succession of Odysseyan tours (not to mention survive a major record company scrap) by simply ‘copying’ another one? Hardly.
Nonetheless, the persistence of these kinds of comments points to a worrying critical tendency to dismiss certain female artists on entirely superficial grounds of similarity. While identikit male guitar bands and warbling R&B wannabes merrily rip each other off without comment or censure, some critics’ indignant response to Amos’s work – “We’ve already got one like that!” – sadly reflects a refusal to engage with another complex, uncompromising (and resolutely female) artistic vision. Such a reaction seems both glaringly unfair as well as inaccurate. After all, surface similarities notwithstanding, Bush and Amos have never been all that alike in performance style, lyrical content or career philosophy; it’s about as easy to envisage Bush embarking on a 200-date tour as it is to imagine Amos writing a rhapsodic ode to light and birdsong and getting Rolf Harris to sing on it. Fortunately, Amos’s heartening response to such blinkered critical diminishment has been to keep her focus firmly placed upon her music, as vividly demonstrated by A Piano, a beautifully packaged collection that fully confirms her singular status. This boxset – which, in a stroke of design genius, is shaped to resemble the keyboard of one of Amos’s treasured Bösendorfers – contains five discs and 86 tracks but still only manages to scratch the surface of her brilliant career.
That said, even the most ardent of Toriphiles may approach this release with a mixture of delight and trepidation. Since Amos’s records are so intricately worked out, so thematically cohesive, do we really want another collection that inevitably distorts their immaculate sequencing and, by so doing, risks muddying our memories of the original albums? The fact is that a collection such as this one can never hope to please all of the people all of the time, and once you’ve recovered from the shock of some truly questionable omissions (no ‘Northern Lad’! no ‘Talula’! no ‘Scarlet’s Walk’, fer chrissake!) and the not overly generous supply of new and rare material (just seven previously unreleased tracks in all, along with some alternate mixes, demos and a healthy assortment of B-sides), it’s time to relax and savour what is here, as well as the fact that Amos has been able to produce the collection and oversee the selection process herself. In her own words: “A lot of times you’re a grand- mother when you get that opportunity to do the boxset – or you’re dead. To be current and creating, alongside putting a retrospective together, is an opportunity that you don’t always have in life.” For Amos, this collection marks “the end of an era” and it testifies to both the stylistic diversity of her output and the consistency of its quality. If her music is intricately bound up in your existence and identity then the experience of listening to A Piano is rather like flicking through a book of your own life, and discovering that, while a few crucial chapters have gone missing, they’ve been replaced by others that you’d forgotten about and a few that you didn’t know were there.
It will come as no surprise that no inclusions from Amos’s ill-starred Y Kant Tori Read days are made; instead, the first four discs trace a broadly chronological path through her post-1990 career, taking in everything from the bare-bones intimacy of Little Earthquakes, the dynamic rock of From The Choirgirl Hotel, the swirling electronica of To Venus & Back and the widescreen panoramas of the mighty Scarlet’s Walk. Disc A is something of a settling of scores, presenting an extended and rearranged version of Little Earthquakes that more accurately reflects Amos’s original vision of the album. It’s a bold (and possibly foolhardy) move to re-order a record that, for most of us, was perfect in its original incarnation, and no doubt many admirers of the album will feel a certain amount of ambivalence about Amos’s decision to do this. Happily, the re-sequencing does not interfere with the impact of the album, which still sounds incredibly powerful, retaining its ability to chill, inspire, shock and console in equal measure. And it’s unquestionably a bonus to have B-sides the likes of ‘Upside Down’, ‘Flying Dutchman’, ‘Take To The Sky’ and ‘Sweet Dreams’ collected together in one place on this disc.
Discs B-D mix tracks from Under The Pink, Boys For Pele, Choirgirl, Venus, Scarlet’s Walk and The Beekeeper with pit stops for the rare and unreleased material, while Disc E collates a selection of her B-sides and demos. (A typically well-produced booklet offers photos, background detail and commentaries on many of the inclusions.) As on Tales Of A Librarian, some of the album tracks have been subtly (and in some cases, very subtly) remixed from the original versions; in Amos’s terms, these are acts of “refurbishment” designed to prevent her earlier work from sounding dated. The most noticeable tweaking occurs on the dense choirgirl tracks: violent guitar stabs and all manner of unidentifiable sinister noises add new layers of atmosphere to ‘Cruel’ and ‘iieee’, while the Kurzweil and sighing pedal steel on ‘Playboy Mommy’ are given extra space. All the remixes are effective, however, contributing a crisper and cleaner sound to the songs.
If last year’s Official Bootleg series demonstrated Amos’s ability to command an audience with ‘just’ her voice and exquisite keyboard skills, these discs remind of her equally dextrous control of studio toys and band dynamics, not to mention the evolution of her singing and the complex beauty of her songwriting. As her frames of reference have broadened, taking her music ever deeper into history (or herstory), politics, myth and legend, Amos has learned how to utilise a select group of musicians – principally, drummer Matt Chamberlain and bassist Jon Evans – who share her sense of studio meticulousness. The opportunity that this boxset offers to trace her creative arc is genuinely thrilling, and it may surprise some listeners that the noisiest, rockiest songs here are among the most piercingly effective. But the constant component of her work is, of course, the piano, and these discs attest to her consistent and creative reinvention of that instrument as a vital and versatile part of the pop-rock idiom.
There’s always something new to uncover in Amos’s songs and each listener will of course have their own favourite (re-)discoveries as they dive into this collection. But it’s the new material that most fans will make a beeline for first, and the previously unreleased tracks are as brilliant as anything she’s ever done. The tense ‘Take Me With You’ (which Amos began in 1990 and finally completed this year) is an immediate highlight, a seamless merging of her earliest and most recent sensibilities. ‘Walk To Dublin (Sucker Reprise)’ is a captivating slice of harpsichord-driven Pele-era madness, while the Beekeeper reject ‘Not David Bowie’ rocks and rumbles with a blistering mix of Hammond organ and clavinet that has to be heard to be believed. Meanwhile, ‘Marys Of The Sea’ gets supplemented by a cheeky ‘intro jam’ which finds Amos scatting and improvising over funky piano, bass and drums. “I’ve got to face some kind of evil tomorrow,” she sings, rather cheerfully. Elsewhere, ‘Ode To My Clothes’ manages to be both playful and desolate and ‘Dolphin Song’ is simply mesmerising.
Each of these tracks demonstrates her amazing ability to take a song through diverse emotions, metres and moods. With her richly expressive vocals, Amos can turn a tender ballad of love betrayed savage with a simple shift in intonation or a casually dropped profanity – listen to the eruption of anger that spills into the bridge of ‘Take Me With You’ or the sudden Southern twist she puts on the “daughter of a preacher man” lyric in ‘Dolphin Song’. Her vocalisations are peerless in their expressiveness and unpredictability. Meanwhile, intricate temporal shifts in the music are matched and enhanced by startling lyrical juxtapositions: ‘Sister Janet’ finds her “slipping the blade in the marmalade”; ‘Beulah Land’ has her requesting “religion, and a lobotomy”; on ‘Honey’ she’s trying to “bribe the undertaker” and confronting a man who only “liked [his] babies tight.” (Listening to these lyrics you may find yourself wondering whether it can be a mere coincidence that Amos was born in the year Sylvia Plath died.)
From moment to moment, you never know in what direction her songs are going to take you: the nine-minute ‘Zero Point’ spends a few seconds masquerading as a delicate piano ballad before mutating into an epic of programmed beats and distorted guitar. Elsewhere, vaudeville touches merge with classical flourishes, furious harpsichord joins with church bells. As she put it so memorably in her semi-autobiography ‘Piece By Piece’: “Some days life can feel pretty normal…then there are other days that make you think you’ve walked into something sinister, like a Hermann Hesse novel.” Her songs contain and convey that breadth of feeling and experience, allowing the sacred and profane, the oblique and the brutally direct, the mythic and the colloquial, to occupy the same breathing space. Few musicians have the capacity to channel such calm and frenzy, either live or on record. And even fewer can match her ability to combine intellectual rigorousness with visceral emotion. But, for all her intensity, A Piano exposes an incredible amount of humour in her work, black and otherwise.
Still, it’s a genuine shame that none of her brilliant covers are featured, no ‘Smells Like Teen Spirit’ or ‘Angie’, and nothing from her bracingly subversive (and criminally underrated) Strange Little Girls album – who wouldn’t kill to hear her rendition of Public Enemy’s ‘Fear Of A Black Planet’? Anything, in fact, would be preferable to the Armand van Helden dance remix of ‘Professional Widow’, which, as on Tales…, sounds like a garish intrusion here. However, its appearance is compensated for by the inclusion of a blood-curdlingly intense live version of the song elsewhere. Moreover, the B-side disc yields a spectacular sequence of songs, including an inspired deconstruction of ‘Home On The Range’ (which clearly anticipates Scarlet’s Walk‘s investigation of Native American history), the most poignant version of ‘This Old Man’ you’re ever likely to hear and the rare ‘Merman’, one of her most haunting compositions. The demo medley is also a wonderful addition that bravely showcases works in progress; it’s fascinating to hear the complex narrative of ‘A Sorta Fairytale’ being developed, while on ‘Playboy Mommy’ she truly sounds as if she’s in the process of channelling the song from another dimension.
As with all of Amos’s work, thought, care and an almost visionary quality of attention to detail have gone into the compilation of A Piano. This remarkable collection confirms her genius, contextualising an extensive body of work that, spiritually speaking, owes as much to The Beatles, Led Zeppelin or Nirvana as Kate Bush and yet retains its utter uniqueness. Along with last year’s Official Bootleg series, the autobiography and this year’s ‘Fade To Red’ video collection, A Piano offers another opportunity to explore the depths in Amos’s music as we await the next step on her journey (a new studio album is due next spring). It’s a pricey purchase, to be sure, but think of it as a spiritual investment…you’ll be listening to these songs forever.
originally published October 27th, 2006
American Doll Posse ••••½
Notwithstanding a certain newspaper’s recent assertion that she’s “as fashionable as carbohydrates” these days – the kind of glib pronouncement that only an esteemed Brit broadsheet can make – the release of a new Tori Amos album remains an event for many of us. Despite the underestimation of her 21st century output by the mainstream music press, Amos, to her credit, has not wavered in her commitment to producing bold, thematically ambitious records in the face of patronisation and dismissal. From the covers-album-as-conceptual-extravaganza Strange Little Girls through the state-of-the-nation travelogue masterpiece Scarlet’s Walk to the lush “sonic gardens” of The Beekeeper, her recent work cries out for reappraisal. While none of these releases may have satisfied anyone still hoping for Little Earthquakes II, each testified to her willingness to experiment and bend the album form in all manner of strange and original directions.
Last year’s colossal A Piano boxset was similarly underrated (not to mention under-reviewed): the collection functioned as a timely reminder of the singularity of Amos’s vision, but was sadly overlooked by all but the die-hards. Alas, it seems that her new album, American Doll Posse, has failed to fully revive her commercial fortunes either, at least on this side of the Atlantic, debuting at a lowly number 50 on the UK album chart in the week that saw new albums by Ne-Yo and Natasha Bedingfield go Top 10. It’s probably best not to linger over the cultural implications of this though, as it has subsequently emerged that the low chart placing was due to a particularly bizarre bit of regulation which barred sales of the album’s special edition from inclusion in the count. (Beck’s The Information suffered the same fate last year.)
But if mainstream success seems likely to continue to elude her now, Amos can rest assured that she has created another work of breathtaking stylistic reach, uninhibited passion and fierce intellect. A something-for-everyone record in the mould of avowed inspirations such as The White Album and Goodbye Yellow Brick Road, American Doll Posse unabashedly returns post-millennial pop to the 1970s era of grand art-rock gestures, mixing it up with a healthy dose of brazen gynocentricism, and fuelled by Amos’s wholesale assimilation (Bach to the Beatles and Bowie by way of Bartók) of the history of music.
Perhaps in witty response to those who complained that The Beekeeper was far too long, Amos here produces an album that is shorter than its predecessor – by less than a minute. Boasting a mammoth 23 tracks, American Doll Posse tops both Scarlet’s Walk and The Beekeeper for sheer unadulterated epic-ness, while maintaining a rougher, brasher (some might say less subtle) tone. As all interested parties are aware by now, the album’s concept sees Amos continuing her investigation of the possibilities of role-play and character in order to conjure five distinct female personas inspired by the Greek pantheon: Isabel (Artemis), Clyde (Persephone), Santa (Aphrodite), Pip (Athena), and – in a pleasing po-mo touch – Tori (Demeter and Dionysus, no less). These characters are our narrators and guides through the Posse maze – liner notes helpfully identify who’s singing what – sometimes duetting or providing background vocals for each other, and offering their diverse takes on contemporary experience, from the overtly political to the deeply personal.
With dedicated internet blogs, their own wardrobes, and a heap of characteristically high-flown rhetoric about challenging the supremacy of the American Christer-Republican matrix through the unification of the compartmentalised feminine (phew), it’s pretty clear (if it wasn’t already) that Amos holds no fear of the accusations of posturing and pretension that she must be aware will inevitably follow. However, anyone who’s read Amos’s autobiography ‘Piece By Piece’ will know just how central the study of myth and archetype has become to her creative process and, in this sense, American Doll Posse feels like the natural outcome of her recent influences and concerns. There’s a practical side to the concept too: the problem with something-for-everyone albums – especially ones that last 79 minutes – is that they can lack cohesion. Amos’s recourse to personas allows her to sidestep this pitfall, and provides her with a fresh way to effectively channel and utilise all of the multifarious elements that make up her musical personality.
But leaving aside conceptual befuddlements for the moment (we’ll return to them later, sorry), how does American Doll Posse actually sound? Very good indeed. Fortunately, Amos’s socio-political agenda has not led her to produce the sonic equivalent of a Hélène Cixous essay. Rather, with typical unpredictability, she’s given us a record that is, for the most part, thoroughly accessible: sexy, decadent, slightly disreputable fun. For all the pomposity of her rhetoric, Amos seems fully aware that there’s a great deal of frivolous, high-camp potential to the concept she’s devised, and she appears to be having a very good time exploring it.
Moreover, even with Amos plainly leading the charge as she operates her inimitable keyboard arsenal (Rhodes, Wurlitzer, electric piano, clavichord and mellotron accompany the Bösendorfer this time), Posse is also very much a collaborative work. Across the album Matt Chamberlain’s protean drumming and Jon Evans’s lithe bass join with her to achieve the kind of sustained symbiosis which is only possible after many months of shared live performance. A couple of tracks boast a string quartet arranged with typically exquisite precision by long-time collaborator John Philip Shenale, but the album’s real surprise lies in the contributions of the enigmatic ‘Mac Aladdin’ (recently revealed to be Mark Hawley, aka Mr. Amos), who emerges from the shadows to contribute incendiary electric guitar work throughout. The result is an album that rocks hard; Amos hasn’t got this consistently noisy on record since 1999’s To Venus & Back. That she manages to do so while continuing to engage in an intelligent and literate manner with thorny questions of gender, identity, power and politics suggests something of her achievement here.
But if Posse quickly gets raucous it actually starts out quiet, with trademark portentous piano chords ushering in Isabel’s brief opening Bush-salute, ‘Yo George’, a hushed piano-voice duet that serves as a chilling and inviting induction into the record. This is not the first time that Amos has set the leader of the free world in her sights (cf. ‘Sweet Dreams’, ‘Indian Summer’ and her blistering deconstruction of ‘Happiness Is A Warm Gun’ which sampled the voices of Bush Jr and Snr), and here she proves conclusively that political statement doesn’t have to be loud to be effective, a sublimely appropriate reference to a certain Alan Bennett play redeeming the piece from obviousness. Throughout, the album’s major tracks are interspersed with such short (but stylistically varied) songs, Boys For Pele-esque interludes that arrive like brief bulletins from the underworld. Listeners will decide for themselves whether these constitute a valuable addition to the album or a waste of space, but the grungy ‘Fat Slut’ (a reference to Catherine Breillat’s notorious 2001 film ‘Fat Girl’?), the implicatory ‘Devils & Gods’, the deliciously disturbing Weimar cabaret ‘Velvet Revolution’, and Santa’s sly ode to adaptability, ‘Programmable Soda’, offer so many lyrical and melodic gems that it’s very hard to begrudge their appearance. And given the album’s surfeit of material maybe it’s not a bad thing to be left wanting more of something.
Such is Amos’s healthy relationship to her Muse(s) that, barring the occasional strained moment, there’s amazingly little filler on Posse. As far as the major tracks go, things begin to get really interesting as soon as ‘Big Wheel’, an unexpected piece of swaggering honky-tonk that nicely establishes the album’s gender agenda, its brilliant bridge turning on the already-infamous appropriation of an impolite appreciatory acronym. It’s followed by the thumping drums and galloping pianos of Clyde’s delectable ‘Bouncing Off Clouds’, a song that continues the sharp-eyed investigation into “the way we communicate”, which has always been a central theme of Amos’s writing. “Failure to respond worked / I talked, but did you listen?” she enquires, the challenges of human interaction – whether between lovers, enemies or the individual and a perceived Authority – remaining a primary concern throughout the album.
With screaming electric guitar and a vocal that roves from Peckham High Street to the San Fernando Valley in the space of a syllable, Pip takes over on the magnificently truculent ‘Teenage Hustling’, a song which uncovers a link between soliciting and salvation that few would dare to make. ‘Digital Ghost’ is a superb piano-ballad-goes-glam hybrid that uses technology obsession as a metaphor for emotional unavailability. Lurching into an unanticipated 1960s girl-group chorus, ‘Mr. Bad Man’ is a surprisingly playful take on those archetypal oppressive patriarchs, while ‘You Can Bring Your Dog’ struts like a gender-inverted Led Zeppelin classic, with Amos (via Santa) unleashing her best Robert-Plant-in-heat as she proclaims “I’m not living to be the Mrs.,” an assertion that could be the album’s mission statement.
There’s a similarly retro feel to much of the material, and Amos intelligently mines and melds her diverse influences without ever resorting to larceny. Gently revising one of her favourite songs, ‘Eleanor Rigby’, the deeply affecting ‘Girl Disappearing’ questions the inevitability of a woman’s apparent annihilation, while the Fleetwood Mac-meets-REM ‘Secret Spell’ is one of those exhilarating anthems of self-reliance that have always been her speciality. As she bites down hard on the “sold a dream at 23” lyric we realise that the song is documenting a series of turning points in a young girl’s life (almost certainly her own; her miserably received first band Y Kant Tori Read was signed to a six-album deal with Atlantic Records when she was 23) and the resolve she’s going to require just to survive them intact.
Arriving at the crucial mid-album mark, ‘Body & Soul’ – all clumping percussion, staccato piano and dirty bass – is an electrifying ‘duet’ between Santa and Pip, and one that brilliantly blurs the border between sexy and scary. The pensive, political ‘Father’s Son’ condenses the spectres of a dozen recent ecological disasters into the immortal inquiry “can we blame nature if she’s had enough of us?”, and the elegantly turbulent ‘Code Red’ bathes in an ambience that wouldn’t have seemed out of place on 1998’s From The Choirgirl Hotel. “Do this long enough you get a taste for it,” Amos sings, and the surrounding lyrics are ambiguous enough to suggest that she may have playing music, masturbation or living itself on her mind.
In a Clyde double bill, ‘Beauty Of Speed’ juxtaposes an evening’s rapture with the more complicated realities visible in “the harsh of daylight,” while ‘Roosterspur Bridge’ takes its place as this album’s ‘Northern Lad’. The luminous, offbeat ‘Almost Rosey’ channels ‘American Pie’ and boasts some of Amos’s cleverest, most intricate wordplay. A conversation between Isabel and some shadowy gentleman (a soldier? her father? a lover?), ‘Dark Side Of The Sun’ envisages the consequences of American cultural imperialism – “soon there’ll be fast food on the moon / painted in neon with ‘for sale’ signs up” – before turning the spotlight firmly on the personal and the present: “you say I’m more afraid of what / tomorrow could bring to us.” But Amos is too sharp and imaginative to leave us to wallow in despair, and what you’re likely to take away from the song is the image of endurance, the obligation to persist even in the face of hardship and oppression: “Brush back my tears and he said ‘girl / we have to soldier on / yes girl, even when we don’t feel strong.'” As usual, Biblical allusions course through many of these tracks. “Bushes” are burning on the mountain in this one; think back to ‘Yo George’ and make of that particular image what you will.
The album proper arguably ends here, but Amos has a trick or two up her sleeve yet. If ‘Posse Bonus’ is the album equivalent of one of those cheeky improv jams that are staples of her live show, then Pip’s ‘Smokey Joe’ and Santa’s ‘Dragon’ are American Doll Posse‘s magnificent encores, the former a deeply disturbing contrapuntal debate about the benefits (or otherwise) of brutal female retribution, the latter a compassionate rebuttal which bravely posits love, not violence, as the answer: “now it has come to light / the Gods they have slipped up / they forgot about the power / of a woman’s love.” It’s an extension of the dispute between these two in ‘Body & Soul’ – in which Santa advised Pip that “these devils of yours, they need love” – and one that attests to the breadth and complexity of Amos’s vision. There’s no sentimentality, no cosiness in her version of female understanding, and ‘Dragon’ – on which it’s the woman who must slay the beast – plays out with ‘Smokey Joe’s assertion that “the annihilating Feminine does not need civilizing” still echoing in your mind.
Lyrically, as some of the previous quotes demonstrate, Amos continues to cut with a very sharp scalpel indeed. If there’s a retro feel to much of the music, her subject matter remains resolutely current and contemporary. Avoiding the fey romanticism and preciousness which mars the work of some of her descendents, and veering ever closer to the complex poetry, her songwriting on Posse retains its thrilling mixture of brutal frankness and hermetic opacity, each track containing some indelible image, some surprising turn of phrase. “Genital panic,” “feeling radical in cotton,” “silken rubber gloves choking his vitriolic tongue,” “a gold star on a gendarme,” “blondes here don’t jump out of cakes,” “working her hell on that red carpet,” “boycotting trends / it’s my new look this season” – Amos is highly allusive but also colloquial, solidly structured yet apparently spontaneous, rarely sloppy or repetitious. Combined with the expressiveness of her vocals, the by now notorious ambiguities of her diction, and her immaculate musicianship, Amos’s impact is often overwhelming.
But the profundity of American Doll Posse ultimately lies in the aspects that may prove most problematic for some listeners: its concept and its scale. “The songs that have been coming to me lately, with their varied points of view, have been helping me to see how many different aspects of the self there are and that there is so much to work with, for each of us, at every stage,” Amos wrote in her conclusion to ‘Piece By Piece’, and this album feels like her practical demonstration of that statement. For what Posse offers the dedicated listener is a truly multi-vocal experience, a composite picture of contemporary American womanhood that is so rich that it ends up surpassing both national and gender specifics. What’s more, the entire album may be interpreted as a celebration of the benefits to be gleaned from looking at the world from multiple and often contradictory viewpoints – a particularly valuable endeavour in this polarised period. “Objectivity,” Isabel’s liner notes tell us, “can only be attained if you are open to another perception, even one that is contrary to your own.”
Accordingly, Amos’s women are not static creations; during the album they change through interaction with each other, their identities blurring and merging and complicating the labels that have been ascribed to them. In some ways, Amos could’ve taken the concept further – how about inviting one of those much-maligned “right-wing Christians” into the Posse? – but, even so, there’s liberation and subversion in the way in which the album tramples across gender stereotypes, locating the strength in Clyde’s vulnerability, the wisdom and potency in Santa’s sexuality, the doubt in Isabel’s political conviction. By the end, on ‘Smokey Joe’, there’s even the suggestion that Pip’s aggression may be turning to equivocation. Against the societal divisions that “pit woman against feminist,” male against female, the political against the personal, Amos constructs a kaleidoscope of paradox and contradiction, of competing and complimentary voices. In the process, what she offers us is nothing less than a guide to the possibility of surmounting repressive binary logic and of working creatively with the “many different aspects of the self” there are.
Between the concept, the blogs, Blaise Reutersward’s spectacular photography and – oh yes – the music itself, American Doll Posse provides sufficient material to sustain a thesis, not a review. Long but never sluggish, dense but never dry, this is the album as artefact – a wide open space for the listener to explore in. Whether it possesses the complete cohesion and control of Scarlet’s Walk is debatable, but, in this era of the short attention span, Amos has once again crafted a work that deliberately thwarts easy consumption, requiring instead a listener’s total sensory engagement, participation, and occasional forbearance. It’s a rare enough event in our culture, and one to be savoured, not scorned. (How often can a major-label musician be accused of indulging themselves with an excess of ideas these days?) To download bits and pieces of this album, to hear a few tracks and rush to snap judgement, seems a betrayal of the dedication and commitment that has gone into its composition. Immersion is the only solution here, and if you don’t have the time or inclination for that – well, new Ne-Yo and Natasha Bedingfield albums await you. But if you’re up for an experience, dive in, and marvel at Amos’s ability to produce yet another vital record that at once reflects and transcends our troubled times.
Vitamin String Quartet
Pieces: The String Quartet Tribute to Tori Amos Vol. 2 •••
Having tackled the music of an astonishingly diverse selection of artists (everyone from Björk through The Cure to Garth Brooks), and with over 200 releases to its credit, Vitamin Records’ String Quartet Tribute series now brings us a second volume dedicated to the work of Tori Amos, a follow-up to 2001’s generally well-received Precious Things. It’s probably fair to say that most of us have mixed feelings about this series: putting a classical spin on rock music seems a brave but somewhat foolhardy idea, and one which risks turning intense, hard-edged songs into pleasant muzak. However, while this record doesn’t entirely assuage such reservations, it’s a classy effort which serves as a testament both to Amos’s impeccable sense of melody and to the variety and adaptability of her compositions.
While Precious Things concentrated on material from Amos’s first few albums, Pieces takes an impressively broad sweep through her voluminous back catalogue, including songs from each of her studio albums bar Under The Pink and the covers project Strange Little Girls. (In a nice bit of serendipity, Amos herself has employed a string quartet for the first time on her new album American Doll Posse.) Fans will be pleased to discover that many of the song choices are far from obvious, and that some of them are, in fact, wonderfully left-field: it’s a delight to find underrated gems such as ‘Cars & Guitars’, ‘Taxi Ride’ and Tales Of A Librarian‘s ‘Snow Cherries From France’ here, each beautifully performed.
The album has a very good sense of pace and flow and opens, appropriately, with ‘Jackie’s Strength’, that extraordinary amalgam of intimate autobiography and US social history. This version can’t really hope to compete with John Philip Shenale’s sublime string arrangement on the original but it remains an affecting rendition. A playful ‘Sweet The Sting’ and a gracefully mournful ‘China’ are among the other highlights, while ‘Spark’ and ‘Professional Widow’ (yes, really!) manage to retain an amazing amount of the turbulent menace of the originals. ‘Me & A Gun’ – which Amos famously delivered a cappella – is another surprising choice, and one that doesn’t quite come off, but lovely takes on ‘1000 Oceans’ and ‘A Sorta Fairytale’ quickly compensate.
It will come as no surprise that Pieces ultimately fails to fully convey the passion, density and complexity of Amos’s music: how can it without two of the most significant components, that voice and those words? But it’s a worthy collection which offers a fresh perspective on a formidable body of work.
Filed under: album, back issues, live, review | Tags: alex ramon, ane brun, anja mccloskey, barefoot, bat for lashes, be good tanyas, be your own PET, bellrays, bettie serveert, birdie busch, bodixa, broadcast, callum sinclair, cathy burton, corinne bailey rae, emma bunton, gary munday, gem nethersole, jane birkin, jenny beck, joan baez, kate bush, mari boine, matthew hall, moya brennan, paul woodgate, robbie de santos, russell barker, sam brown, sam obernik, stephen collings, tiffany daniels, trevor raggatt, vashti bunyan
The following reviews were all published on our old website between May 2005 and December 2006.
Bowery Songs •••
Live albums are notoriously contentious; allowing the artist freedom to digress at will and maybe even include some unexpected or long awaited treats, such release carry with them a great responsibility. We music fans are a ravenous bunch, each gifted with the ability to comprise our own perfect setlist, should said artist ever stumble upon our rambling message board postings. Most artists, however, show no regard for our unique talents, the live release serving only as a greatest hits showcase with somewhat wobblier vocals. This could never be said of Joan Baez though. Forty plus years into her career, she has compiled a live set that it is both expansive and timely, with more than a passing nod to requests from her fans.
Bowery Songs is her first live disc in a decade, recorded the night after the US re-elected George Bush in 2004 at New York’s Bowery Ballroom. The context obviously informs the evening’s song selection, nowhere more so than on Steve Earle’s ‘Christmas In Washington’ (“It’s Christmastime in Washington / the Democrats rehearsed / gettin’ into gear for four more years / things not gettin’ worse”), but then politics has been the foundation of her entire career and as such this is typical, if reliable, Baez fare. Instead, the heart of the album undoubtedly lies in her menacing rendition of Natalie Merchant’s ‘Motherland’, which Baez imbues with an almost apocalyptic sense of loss. It makes you wonder what sort of album she could make if she stepped out of her comfort zone a little more often.
In addition to the more recent material, fans are treated to four oft-requested but never before recorded songs, most notably ‘Jerusalem’ – another Steve Earle track – that concludes proceedings on a rousing note. Baez is a remarkable conduit for both old and new songwriting talent, making classics like ‘Joe Hill’ (sung by Baez at Woodstock) sound ever relevant and the newer material seem like it’s long been part of her repertoire.
This is at least her eighth live album and, as is the theme with her live releases, it functions as a snapshot in time. For a more comprehensive record of what Baez can really do as a performer, check out From Every Stage. For the time being, however, this is a solid collection of songs that really only hints at her greatness.
originally published on March 19th, 2006
Live at Brighton Dome •••••
March 6, 2006
The palpable shared excitement of an audience whose ages spanned at least five decades was evidence in itself that Joan Baez’s appeal has never been limited, as some have naively suggested, to those who first encountered her music 40 years ago. When an artist is preceded onstage by a steaming cup of tea and still needs to take three bows before she can even begin to sing, you know that you’re due a remarkable evening. Accompanied by Erik Della Penna on guitars and lap steel and Graham Maby on bass, the setup was different from the percussion-heavy approach to Baez’s last tour and was perhaps the better for it; however, the phrase ‘you can’t improve on perfection’ was clearly invented for the legendary singer-songwriter-activist.
Joan’s empathetic yet fiery personality shone through as she was lovingly heckled from the start by a gentleman who enthusiastically insisted upon ‘welcoming’ her between and even during songs and then proceeded to randomly call out ‘Judy Collins’ at inopportune moments, to which Joan replied, “that’s not me but Judy’s a great friend of mine, if it helps”. Having warned him not to get too excited, she dissipated any annoyance in the audience and ultimately showed her great sense of humour and all-encompassing love for humanity by declaring, “I’m quite sure he has a good heart”.
Opening with the classic ‘The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down’, the audience needed little encouragement to join in and continued to do so as the first half of the two- hour unbroken set mixed newer songs such as ‘The Scarlet Tide’, Gillian Welch’s murderous ‘Caleb Meyer’ (followed by ‘Fennario’ and ‘Miserable’ with a joke that Joan does not deal in cheerful songs) and Steve Earle’s politically biting ballad ‘Christmas In Washington’ with favourites spanning each decade of Joan’s career to date. ‘God On Our Side’, a haunting version of Johnny Cash’s ‘Long Black Veil’, ‘Joe Hill’ and ‘Love Is Just A Four Letter Word’ had the audience enthralled and singing along, as did a wonderful impromptu cover of ‘Stand By Me’, rescued from the earlier soundcheck. Small touches like this added to the feeling that Joan continues to be a thoroughly organic artist, never repeating her most popular songs ad nauseam but genuinely connecting with her audience to interact with them through her music. This was most apparent when she rearranged her set, omitting songs that she did not feel fitted with the mood in the auditorium.
The sheer clarity of her soaring folk-soprano voice mesmerised the room as Joan, now alone onstage, stepped away from the microphone and effortlessly filled the space with an a capella version of ‘Swing Low Sweet Chariot’. It seemed impossible to follow such a performance but the subsequent heartbreaking, slightly slowed versions of ‘Jesse’ and ‘Sir Galahad’ were both enriched with the kind of tone that is only heard when an artist truly connects with the images behind each word that is sung. It was, in a word, delicious. The band returned for rousing versions of ‘Hard Rain’ and ‘Jerusalem’ before a determined encore brought them back for ‘Gracias A La Vida’ and a balladic farewell as Joan mimed that it was time for her to sleep and for us to as well. Throughout the evening it was as though each trademark expressive hand gesture spun invisible webs out into the audience and wrapped us up tighter with inimitable magic. If she is due to be in a town near you (or even not so near), do whatever you have to do to get a ticket; beg, borrow or steal, you’ll be very glad you did.
originally published April 26th, 2006
Corinne Bailey Rae
Corinne Bailey Rae •••
It seems that writing about Corinne Bailey Rae without throwing in the names of every legendary black singer since recording began is the reviewer’s equivalent of eating a jam doughnut without licking your lips. Record company hyperbole is something we’ve come to expect with high profile launches of new artists, but comparisons aside, the buzz surrounding Bailey Rae is largely on her own merits. Her Like A Star EP (the title track of which fittingly opens the album) has been floating around since last November, garnering interest on both sides of the Atlantic. Domestically at least, this was mainly aroused on the back of a last minute appearance on ‘Later With… Jools Holland’ in the place of an unwell Sinéad O’Connor. It’s interesting that fellow EMI artist KT Tunstall also got her big break on Jools, covering for a queasy Kanye West – anyone appearing on the new series should really keep an eye on the tea lady!
Praise ensued from Whiley to Wogan and it was well deserved; ‘Like A Star’ is a fierce, honest self-penned lullaby dedicated to her husband, but it acts as something of a red herring. From there on in we are left to wonder will the real Corinne Bailey Rae please stand up. It’s track seven, the sublime ‘Choux Pastry Heart’, before we’re allowed another glimpse of Rae at her most arresting; the lyrics may be somewhat trite, e.g. “one for sorrow, two for joy”, but like any great soul singer, her talent lies in the delivery and therein lies the rub. You may not learn much about Rae from this album, but then you wonder whether baring her soul is really the point when the other results are so joyous. ‘Enchantment’ has the feel of Massive Attack at their most lush, ‘Put Your Records On’ is the sound of summer come early, while the raucous ‘I’d Like To’ relocates Lauryn Hill’s ‘Every Ghetto, Every City’ to a tarmacced driveway in Leeds.
Inevitably, although Bailey Rae is eminently personable throughout, she cannot be all things to all people, even if her label try to promote that. Comparisons with the greats make nice soundbites but they only really highlight her shortcomings; she doesn’t have the phrasing of Holiday, the wit of Badu, the sensuality of Scott or the poetry of, er, Floetry and in trying on so many styles, she frequently misses the mark. But at times, albeit fleetingly, there is enough effortlessness to suggest that, if left to her own devices, Bailey Rae could come up with something spectacular. For now, stick with her. She could yet be brilliant.
originally published on March 19th, 2006
Concept albums, by their very nature, are a hit and miss breed. The clue is in the name; if the concept is a bad one, then the album is destined for ridicule as an exercise in pretension. How about a debut album made up of acoustic jazz covers of club, house and hip-hop anthems? Never mind the Balearics… here’s Barefoot.
When singer Sam Obernik performed a Cubano version of ‘It Just Won’t Do’, the Tim Deluxe hit featuring her vocals, it was large enough a radio hit that Obernik struck upon the idea to combine her guitar-based songwriting abilities with her dance scene success. Enter Tommy D, a DJ, producer and songwriter famous for his work with the likes of Kylie, Janet Jackson, Catatonia, KT Tunstall and Corinne Bailey Rae, to name but more than a few. One evening and a bottle of wine later, Obernik and Tommy D conceived the idea of reinterpreting their favourite club anthems and Barefoot was born.
A project like this could easily be dismissed as a tongue-in-cheek slice of Hoxton postmodernism. Even in the late Nineties, Turner Prize winner Jeremy Deller orchestrated colliery brass band versions of acid house anthems, while Radio One sessions often include acoustic reworks of dancefloor fillers, like Will Young’s ‘Hey Ya’ or Jamie Cullum’s ‘Frontin’. Barefoot is more than just a musical curiosity, however, and the contemporary jazz and bossa nova stylings recall the likes of Nouvelle Vague, Zero 7 and Morcheeba. Most of the album was recorded live and the immediacy of the musicianship works in the album’s favour, taking the songs that extra step further away from their over-polished origins. Plastered over so many bargain basement Asda checkout compilations, the word ‘chillout’ may have lost all meaning, but this is more laid back than a lounge singer seductress provocatively draped over a white baby grand.
On the surface the tracklisting reads like an ‘old skool classics’ CD, from Grandmaster Flash’s ‘White Lines’ and Crystal Waters’s ‘Gypsy Woman’ to Underworld’s ‘Born Slippy’ and the Run DMC / Jason Nevins mash-up ‘It’s Like That’. Aimed at the ‘90s Ibiza crowd who have swapped the clubs and plastic pints of lager (lager, lager) for red wine soirees in their dockside apartments, what this album highlights perhaps more than anything is that dance music has always boasted a wealth of great tunes beneath layers of pounding beats and sequenced loops. Even ubiquitous dancefloor fillers like Mousse T’s ‘Horny’ are given fresh life, with Obernik’s breathy vocals suiting the brazen lyrics to a, er, T, while a seductive bass line coolly pulses in the background.
The range of material here is the perfect vehicle for Obernik’s vocal versatility, but where Barefoot go from here is anyone’s guess. A debut concept album may have limited their future potential, but as far as concepts go it’s an intriguing prospect and one that more than delivers. So if you’re looking for an album to impress your friends this summer, kick off your dancefloor heels and take an i-podiatry shuffle through the Barefoot experience.
originally published on May 7th, 2006
Bat For Lashes
Fur & Gold •••••
There’s something strangely attractive about this debut album from Bat For Lashes, the curious nom de plume of Brighton-based performance artist Natasha Khan and her rotating cast of musicians. Your CD shelf may be full of a fair few other acts of her ilk who are just as good, if not better, but the chances are you’ll still be compelled to listen to Fur & Gold over and over. Perhaps it’s Khan’s evocative vocals as they run the gamut from professional crooner to heartbroken siren via the seductive confessions of a mystical, adventuring temptress. Then again, perhaps it’s simply down to the songs themselves; sneakily hook-laden and occasionally disarmingly simple, they’re the kind that leave you wishing that they’d made the album eight times longer. As it is, Fur & Gold is exquisitely free of filler; every track is a must-hear and has clearly been chosen with care. Though you’d be hard-pressed to sniff it out unaided there’s an under- lying progression at work; the songs were purposefully sequenced to take the listener on an overnight journey from dusk (‘Horse & I’) to the panoramic sunshine of a brand new day (‘I Saw A Light’).
The usual suspects have cropped up time and again in reference to Bat For Lashes, some justified, some used dismissively. Comparisons with Chan Marshall fall into the former category, particularly on the plaintive album centrepiece ‘Sad Eyes’ which is as naked and tremulous as any of the Cat Power figurehead’s best. Here and elsewhere there’s judicious use of piano so lesser-clued commentators will inevitably point to Tori Amos, while the measured quirk found throughout is reminiscent of Björk’s more sober compositions. On a couple of occasions, too, Khan employs the kind of narrative found in Kate Bush songs, but for the most part Fur & Gold stacks up perfectly well on its own. Other standout tracks are the celebrated first single ‘The Wizard’, a gloriously mystical gem that completely embodies the Bat For Lashes ethos, and the Josh T Pearson-featuring tribal rhythms of ‘Trophy’.
Having enjoyed the patronage of the likes of CocoRosie and Devendra Banhart, Khan has found herself in the enviable position of appealing to the alternative folk crowd (despite the incongruity of her music) as well as aficionados of your straight-up indie chanteuses. Admirers of her live show ought to be thrilled too, despite the omission of fan favourite ‘Howl!’. Fur & Gold has been immaculately produced; the band have got the distortions, the drums aren’t too loud and at no point do you find yourself wincing because the vocals are slightly too glittery. It’s absolutely and utterly perfect. Trust us.
originally published October 27th, 2006
The Be Good Tanyas
Hello Love ••••
Three years on from their sophomore effort Chinatown, Frazey Ford, Samantha Parton and Trish Klein return to breathe their particular brand of ethereal loveliness into a weary, somewhat jaded world. The ethos underpinning the Tanyas’ approach to this record seems to have been ‘if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it’; Hello Love replicates their first two albums by wrapping original songs and judiciously chosen covers in an inviting mix of blues, bluegrass and folk instrumentation and delivering them with those notoriously spine-tingling harmonies.
Continuing to ignore even the most rudimentary elements of the diction rulebook, Ford unfurls her trademark magical mumble throughout, stretching and slurring syllables in a manner that brings a beguiling air of mystery and enchantment to everything she sings. You have to check the lyrics to realise that what sounds like “I’ll suck your wounds” on the title track is actually “How succulent a little spring day gets.” As before, Parton’s sensuous, caressing whisper takes the lead on a few songs, most affectingly on the exquisite, piano-led ‘Song For R’, a heartbreaking portrait of addiction in which the narrator resolves to view her afflicted brother as neither saint nor demon but simply as “a child, arms stretched out for love.” But, however compelling the vocals are ‘individually’, it is of course harmony that most defines the Tanyas’ sound, and when their voices come together, as on the “things keep changing” refrain in Sean Hayes’s ‘A Thousand Tiny Pieces’ or the chorus of the joyous ‘Ootischenia’, it’s simply impossible not to be uplifted and moved.
While the likes of ‘Human Thing’, ‘Song For R’, ‘Ootischenia’ and the title track demonstrate the Tanyas’ own songwriting skills to be in fine fettle, the covers and traditional material also yield some of the strongest moments on the album. There’s a homage to fellow Canuck Neil Young on ‘For The Turnstiles’, a moving take on Mississippi John Hurt’s ‘Nobody Cares For Me’ and a wonderfully evocative, swampy rendition of the traditional number ‘Out Of The Wilderness’. But the cover destined to raise the most eyebrows is the one that’s not on the official tracklist, tucked away at the end as a hidden extra. Following its gospel makeover on the ‘Romeo + Juliet’ soundtrack, Prince’s ‘When Doves Cry’ continues to prove an adaptable beast; the Tanyas exquisitely recast it as some sort of sultry blues hymn.
It’s a testament to the distinctiveness of the Tanyas approach that they can make such a diverse selection of material sound cohesive and coherent across one album. Overall, Hello Love may not take them in any new musical directions but it sees them continuing to refine their style without losing an ounce of their freshness or spontaneity. By refusing to make any concessions to commercialism or current music trends, they sound as daring, relevant and hip as anybody out there. It’s great to have them back.
originally published November 5th, 2006
Be Your Own PET
Be Your Own PET •••
Following their much-hyped debut single ‘Damn Damn Leash’ – said by some typically over-zealous in-the-knows to be the ‘Teenage Kicks’ for the ringtone generation – was never going to be an easy task for Nashville under-agers Be Your Own PET, a teen tearaway foursome fronted by temperamental platinum blonde Jemina Pearl. A harsh and uncompromising 112 seconds of telling parents precisely where to go, ‘Damn Damn Leash’ left many an unsuspecting audience utterly breathless, and now, three more singles down the line, there are questions to be answered. Does the sheer white-knuckle exhilaration of the singles ride the course of a full-length album?
Have they mellowed and skulked into the commercial pop-punk void vacated by No Doubt in the wake of Gwen Stefani’s solo exploits and babymaking? More importantly, have they ruined it all by rush releasing an album to crest their wave of hype? To these ears, the band are guilty on all counts, though perhaps less so on the last; Be Your Own PET stakes its place on happy ground that’s somewhere between their punk/hardcore influences and mainstream accessibility in a similar vein to Pretty Girls Make Graves’s The New Romance. There are some glorious pop moments, most notably on the recent single ‘Adventure’ – an excitable, urgent and brief sonic workout on which Jemina’s vocals float between the anthemic and cutesy – and, like Stefani, Pearl is certainly skilled in the art of voice control. She almost even breaks into a ballad on ‘October, First Account’, though it’s not your usual sopfest, boasting the disturbing lyric “we cut ourselves open a hundred times but we’ve not run out of ammo yet”, but is still surprisingly buoyant and uplifting. But crass juvenilia is pretty much the order of the day elsewhere; ‘Bog’, for example, is a catchy little ditty about drowning a boyfriend’s dog in the toilet.
When the melody is clear and the vocals less screamy, Be Your Own PET are masters of their trade. It’s a pity then that this rather excludes the majority of the album – too many songs are fairly indistinguishable, all with nonsensical lyrics and little in the way of a tune. So whilst there is no denying their fresh and fiery outlook on songs like ‘Bunk Trunk Skunk’ (in which Jemina declares “I’m an independent motherfucker”), the extent to which expressing their ‘attitude’ has compromised the quality of the album is questionable indeed. Be Your Own PET is not a bad start by any stretch of the imagination, but there’s no escaping the feeling that, had the opportunity to record an album come at a slightly later point in the band’s career, the result would have been more accomplished and consistent. A brighter future awaits.
Robbie de Santos
originally published March 19th, 2006
On The Outside ••½
A casual glance at Jenny Beck’s third album, On The Outside, may well provoke a serious double take – is that Sarah McLachlan’s kid sister staring back at you from the sleeve? Sadly, no. Jenny Beck is neither Canadian nor a piano balladeer – she’s actually Swedish and ploughs a far poppier furrow. Having relocated to the UK in 2001, Beck has been constantly writing and recording material with her band and playing gigs on the circuit, and such hard-won experience shines through in the quality of her vocal. The dozen tracks here fall neatly into two broad categories; acoustic, country-tinged numbers and modern, upbeat pop songs complete scratches and samples. Beck’s vocal fit both styles with ease, giving a bright and punchy sound that suits the poppier material and a subtle country overlay and tender vibrato that, when blended with subtle harmonies, really compliments the slower songs. So while some comparisons have been rather unsurprising (e.g. The Corrs, Sheryl Crow and ‘big sis’ Sarah), Beck is no mere copyist and displays a genuine talent.
It’s a greater shame then that the album is ultimately and badly let down by a production job that fails to match the writing or performance. Perhaps it’s a symptom of Beck and her long-term partner / drummer / co-producer Mitch Deighton having a lack of professional experience, or of the perennial problem that so often besets self-produced material, an impartiality and closeness that prohibits the making of unbiased and even ruthless choices. Who knows? But because they demand more verve and sparkle, the poppier songs are the ones that suffer the most; here, the overly dry drum sounds that dominate throughout soon begin to grate and the individual elements don’t seem to come together as a cohesive whole. Indeed, you can’t help but feel that these songs could really be brought to life if the masters were left in more capable hands. Bob Clearmountain, where are your golden ears when we need them?
Fortunately, the more acoustic numbers like the affirmative ‘Be Yourself’ and ‘Everything’ are easier to admire, and the stunningly beautiful harmonies on ‘Tonight’ go some way towards redemption. Beck also strays purposefully into the country-pop realm of LeAnn Rimes with ‘I’d Be Damned’, while ‘Apology’ is a confident slice of white reggae marred only by a slightly muddy (as opposed to ‘dubby’) backing track. Elsewhere, the otherwise excellent ‘Miss Negative’ stumbles over some awkward scans and phrases, though these are the only real signs that English is not Beck’s native tongue. Tellingly, it’s more than likely that a good independent producer would have corrected these flaws at an early stage by prompting a minor edit. Overall, On The Outside boasts a decent enough set of songs and has the potential to be an excellent album were it to be retooled.
originally published March 19th, 2006
Have A Little Faith •••
Over time, bands can get too close to their own sound to know what it is; anything that personal can have a tendency to be talked up and what once was good can become disappointingly average. The BellRays, however, know exactly where they’re at – ‘maximum rock ‘n’ soul’ is what they call it, a description so succinct that it almost makes their critics redundant.
Back with what appears to be their sixth album (though only two of these and a Poptones compilation appear to have found a UK release), The BellRays have matured somewhat and appear to be invigorated after singer Lisa Kekaula’s stint touring with the reformed MC5. Although it is easily their best work to date, there’s something I personally find lacking in The BellRays. They are obviously talented and often make for a pleasant listen, but on record at least, they never really reach out and grab their audience, which is something this music is quite clearly intended to do. It’s safe to say, however, that if you’re into blues-rock, you’ll love this album regardless. That’s not to say the rest of us should switch off completely; there’s something different in the water this time around.
When The Bellrays decide to genre hop, as they frequently do on Have A Little Faith, keep your ear cocked. The jazzy guitar on ‘Tell The Lie’ provides a neat backdrop for Kekaula’s voice and ‘Lost Disciples’, though similar in feel, proves even better. Its bongo-riddled jazz makes for classy wine bar music, meant in the kindest possible way. Elsewhere, the bluesy laidback tones of ‘Have A Little Faith In Me’ and the slow blues shuffle of ‘Everyday I Think Of You’ are impressive, as is ‘Third Time’s The Charm’, which happily recalls Tina Turner in her heyday. When they rock out and try to kick ass, there are some memorable moments – like when they channel the spirit of Jimi Hendrix for ‘Time Is Gone’ or sound mountainous like Led Zep on ‘Chainsong (I’ve Been Searchin’)’ – but much of the time tends to blur into one.
Have A Little Faith is definitely an album for aficionados of blues-rock aficionado, but is also worth checking out for the moments when The BellRays deviate from their apparent set path.
originally published October 5th, 2006
Bare Stripped Naked •••½
After six studio albums and a concept live release of Velvet Underground covers, Dutch band Bettie Serveert celebrate their 15th birthday with this new collection of mostly acoustic, introspective ditties. With such a sparse remit, there’s nothing overtly original here – some of the riffs and vocal lines might as well be tattooed onto your eardrums – but there is something so real, so full of blood and fibre, flesh and flaws that you won’t really mind. Singer Carol van Dyk has some of the warmest chops around and it really shows in these back-to-basics compositions. Of the 12 tracks, ‘Brain-Tag’ and ‘Certainlie’ are reworkings of earlier numbers, the former from their 1992 debut Palomine and the latter from 2003’s career-rejuvenating Log 22. While ‘Brain-Tag’ shines, the Neil Young-inspired version of ‘Certainlie’ fares less well with its ridiculously cheesy guitar chords, pre-chorus breakdowns and a predictable flow that sounds a bit like Radiohead’s early ballad nonsense before they turned so beautifully sour.
First single ‘Hell = Other People’ may have a charming vocal but it doesn’t really go anywhere, with repetitive guitar leads that jangle and sparkle but hang in their frame alone, begging to be fiddled with and explored. The lyrics are dry and the best line – the title – is wickedly overdone. It just seems like Carol and co. found a few good hooks and played them again and again ‘til their sheen began to fade. Furthermore, there are two versions, as if we needed this point rubbed in our faces. Fortunately, there is much to be enjoyed elsewhere. ‘Love & Learn’ refuses to lock itself into the familiarities of the day, instead travelling ever further backwards until it hits a deep rooted authenticity. It isn’t folk, it isn’t a corny stereotype, but something in the trickling, magical melody hints of a deeper presence. If your mind is prone to cliché, it might wander off to think of rolling green hills, hippie mums and ruddy-faced children playing in the grass. Elsewhere, the beyond pretty weepie ‘Roadmovies’ and ‘What They Call Love’ are ideal movie soundtrack material, while the ballerina nightmare ‘Painted World’ hits home with plucked orchestral strings, tiny pianos, mournful wind instruments and a honey-glazed vocal that slithers up your spine, injecting a beautiful poison you’ll be happy to receive.
‘2nd Time’ treads similar ground to the reworked ‘Certainlie’ but swerves onto a different path before it’s too late. It actually comes through with a deadly serious conviction and sadness; just when you thought you had your feet firmly planted in the soul of suspicion, this sneaky song will steal your heart. Unless you’re careful. But then the next plausible step is that you’re on the phone and ordering that cream sofa you’ve been wanting from IKEA. Overall, Bare Stripped Naked is perhaps the most honest record that the band have ever made and one you might gladly grow old with. Cut your hair, settle down, get married, buy a Volvo; whatever. You could do worse than to hum this all the while.
originally published October 14th, 2006
For better or worse, British-born Jane Birkin is largely famous for being Mrs Serge Gainsbourg way back when and for providing a variety of saucy noises on his controversial 1969 hit ‘Je T’aime… Moi Non Plus’. However, there’s plenty more to her resume than that. As well as acting in more than 50 films, including Michelangelo Antonioni’s notorious ‘Blow Up’ in which she appeared in her 20 year-old birthday suit, she has also released a dozen albums. Not bad for a ‘60s It Girl caught up with France’s bad boy du jour.
Recent years have seen Birkin capitalising on her kitsch pop culture appeal and as with 2004’s Rendez-Vous, Fictions contains such a crowded pool of songwriting talent that you’d expect the result to be nothing less than genius. Where Rendez-Vous featured such pop luminaries as Massive Attack’s Mickey 3D, Leslie Feist, Manu Chao, Placebo’s Brian Molko, Bryan Ferry, Etienne Daho and fellow yeh-yeh girl Françoise Hardy, Fictions boasts original tracks from The Divine Comedy’s Neil Hannon, The Magic Numbers and Rufus Wainwright, as well as contributions from eminent French songwriters that are, of course, sung in Birkin’s adopted language. Only Portishead’s Beth Gibbons makes an appearance on both records, and justifiably so (more on that later). Along with musical contributions from Johnny Marr and arrangements from sought-after producer Renauld Letang (Björk, Gonzales), it almost as if a cooler version of Live Aid had gathered together in Birkin’s studio.
To make things even more eclectic, Birkin tackles a trio of songs from eminent songwriters, even by her collaborators’ standards: Tom Waits’s ‘Alice’, Neil Young’s ‘Harvest Moon’ and Kate Bush’s ‘Mother Stands For Comfort’. The reasoning behind covering these classics isn’t immediately apparent and justice is not quite served. Although the haunting quality of ‘Alice’ is captured well enough, Birkin’s rendition of ‘Harvest Moon’ veers too close to cabaret and she’s certainly no Kate Bush. What binds this rather odd bunch together, however, is Jane’s breathy and incessantly delicate vocals, which, it has to be said, sometimes fall unfortunately flat. Always on the verge of breaking into a whisper and never really breaking into song, singing isn’t Birkin’s forte and you may find it falls on the unlovable side of ‘acquired taste’. When she’s bring British, Birkin is utterly so and excels in the received pronunciation talking style of singing that acts like Black Box Recorder have tried so hard to emulate. But whether chirruping in English or French, she is always reserved and rarely dominates the songs.
It’s not all wafer thin, however; there are moments when her tender haunting vocals entirely transform a song into something both quirky and lovably unique. Album opener ‘Home’ (penned by Hannon) is one of the highlights, its jaunty tunefulness and British comedic slant really shines through, but the real jem is Gibbons’s ‘My Secret’. Words of lost love wrap around an old-fashioned lounge style sound with a dark, almost Lynchian edge that perfectly suits Birkin’s style and expression, perhaps an indication of the longer lasting connection between the two women. But while these instances of loveliness and Birkin’s characteristically oddball stamp will win your heart, Fictions is a difficult album to digest as a whole.
originally published July 14th, 2006
The Way Back Home EP ••½
This first official release from Leeds quintet Bodixa (pronounced ‘bo-di-kuh’) follows a successful few years on the touring circuit, supporting the likes of KT Tunstall, Moby and Tom McCrae. The Way Back Home is a mostly sleepy affair, though you wouldn’t know it from leadoff number ‘Goodbye Winter’. A jangly summer anthem that drives on down the speedway with unashamed smiles and the wind in its hair, it’s a familiar feminist roadtrip that travels a well-beaten path, but not so worn out that it can’t afford to accommodate another band of travellers. The mellow American stylings are easily swallowed and sink down without a fight. It doesn’t make it original, nor does it make it right as such, but there is little reservation needed for such a jolly, unpretentious tune.
‘A Room’, meanwhile, is so delicate and well-to-do that it may well pass you by. In fact, there it goes, wooing itself with simpering harmonies (courtesy of Anna Elias and Emily Norton), barely played acoustic guitars and projected by a waltzy 3/4 beat and an overall sound that’s sweet to the core. Three songs in, ‘Sing Your Bones’ is a lovely acoustic ditty that’s so chilled out it was probably recorded while lying down for a nap. The lone acoustic guitar hums away to itself as vocals sway and float above it singing of romance and crying over an open fire. It’s by far the prettiest, sloppiest inclusion and makes for a perfect choice if there’s someone in the room you really want a hug from. Final song ‘Nothing To Show’ is easy on the ear but unremarkable, like an open mic rendition of an Alanis Morissette or Beth Orton classic. Despite its clever rhythmical juts, the band’s passion for gentle, woozy melodies might well have you in the pleasant throes of slumber by the end.
Overall, The Way Back Home makes for a fine start with four appealing and highly listenable compositions. On this evidence, Bodixa are a softly simmering, sinless band seeking only to glide on through, making music and harming no one. They’re a balanced and graceful act in a sea of peacocks that strut too hard. Nothing new, but oh so very sensual.
originally published November 23rd, 2006
Idjagiedas (In The Hand Of The Night) •••½
An unsuspecting listener might at first assume that this is a Native American album, but singer-songwriter Mari Boine is actually from Norway. She comes from the Sami natives that live in the north of the country and has drawn many an influence from her strong musical heritage. She successfully blends traditional movements, such as the Christian Laestadian music of the Sami people, with Norwegian folk music and more modern musical approaches like jazz and rock. Since her first international release Gula-Gula in 1989, Boine has come a long way. Even her own people were sceptical of her approach and outspoken politics, but Boine has transcended into an inspirational role model for the Sami tribes and followers around the world.
While she still frequently expresses her anger and sadness about the oppression of her people, Boine is seen to be unreservedly embracing of her Sami heritage and mystical traits. She says herself that she is always looking for expressions that are more than just words. Most of her lyrics are written by Rauni Magga Lukkari and Karen Anne Buljo, but she also sings in her own imaginary language that originated somewhere deep in her heart and, according to her, embraces the idea that Lapp music is all about finding the primitive force in yourself.
Opening song ‘Vuoi Vuoi Mu’ is a smooth and spiritual affair. Even though Boine sings in a language not accessible to most listeners, it’s easy to feel and sympathise with the pain, experience and mysticism of the song. Boine’s touching, emotional range is enhanced by an ever present and urgent baseline and tribal-like percussion. The title track begins quite softly, with dreamy, chanting vocals accompanied only by percussion. But the trademark ever-moving, heavy bass soon comes into the arrangement, tinging the song with an intensity and darkness. At points a low and mystical male voice speak-sings over the vocals. You’ll imagine what this might sound like sung live as it screams with emotion and ancient history.
The more experimental ‘Gos But Munno Cinat Leat’ starts out with a much quieter feel, with hypnotic chanting that fades in and out, switching between near and far. When the full arrangement comes in – again dominated by a moving and urgent bassline – the mix of modern recording techniques and ancient languages and chants provides an accurate and moving reflection on what the modern day life of a Sami native might be like. The outstanding ‘Mu Ustit Engeliid Sogalas (My Friend Of Angel Tribe)’ shows Boine’s passion for atmosphere and melancholy. The vocals are quiet, almost whispery. At points the arrangement drops down to basic percussion and voice only, creating an intimate and angelic experience. ‘Davvi Bavttiin (On Fells Of The North)’ is equally quiet, rather like a lullaby. It sounds like it was written in dark days and has the feel of an ancient sad romantic love story. Other songs – they’re all quite special – include the delicate and vulnerable ‘Lottas’, the powerful and dramatic ‘Diamantta Spaillit’, the dreamily dark ‘Geasuha’, the character-laden ‘Afruvva (The Mermaid)’, the fragile and intimate ‘Uldda Nieida’ and the quiet but urgent ‘Fapmodalkkas’.
So there you have it. Idjagiedas is a beautiful album that offers an unparalleled insight into an ancient heritage that most listeners would otherwise have no connection to. Because of the songs’ emotional maturity we can attempt to grasp the pain, history and tradition the Sami culture embraces. Mari Boine certainly knows how to keep a song close to her heart.
Appellations like ‘the first lady of Irish music’ give someone a lot to live up to. Even ‘the voice of Clannad’ carries a weight of expectation but on Signature, as ever, Moya Brennan bears these proclamations well. From the opening chords of ‘Purple Haze’ (sadly not a Hendrix cover) it’s immediately apparent that we are, if not quite in the same territory as Clannad, on the same musical continent at least. A driving piano riff sets the tempo for the dance while harp, uillean pipes and Brennan’s unmistakable wash of ethereal vocals spiral around it.
That ‘No One Talks’ adopts a much more open sound with acoustic guitar and Hammond organ is all the more refreshing and caressing to the ears. Despite being the kind of song that could live quite comfortably in many a hand, from Peter Gabriel to Kate Bush (and indeed has shades of ‘Don’t Give Up’ about it), it lovingly blossoms beneath Brennan’s vulnerable, crystalline voice. Elsewhere, ‘Many Faces introduces a taste of Arabia’, ‘Merry Go Round’ successfully takes a Capercaillie-esque ambient, sample-based approach, while album closer ‘Pill A Rún Ó’ is a nicely executed modern adaptation of a traditional tune.
Brennan describes Signature as her most personal work to date that represents snapshots of moments in her life. However, she wisely eschews a strictly autobiographical approach, choosing instead to inhabit the emotional centre of each episode, both high and low. Whatever textures and musical tapestries she opts to employ, the Brennan experience is bittersweet, beguiling and utterly involving. So whilst it may be her stunning vocal talents for which Moya Brennan is quite rightly known, Signature shows what a rounded, able artist she is. Her songwriting, arranging and production skills are in fettle as equally fine as that voice, and when couched in a soundtrack provided by a hugely talented cast of musicians it really rewards. Her most complete and compelling solo work yet.
Tender Buttons •••
For their third proper full-length, Birmingham’s finest purveyors of hook-laden electronica have produced a fresher, more pared down version of their millennial post-rock. Named after enigmatic American author Gertrude Stein’s 1911 novel, Tender Buttons sees the band operating for the first time as a twosome (singer Trish Keenan and partner James Cargill) following the departure of drummer/guitarist Tim Felton. Inevitably, the replacement of real drum sounds with softer electro beats has had a dramatic effect, giving the album a sparser, more minimalist feel than 2003’s fantastic Ha-Ha Sound. Samples, too, are limited and well used, with several motifs recurring across a number of songs, adding a depth to the proceedings as they interlace the album, giving it some much needed consistency. Sadly, it’s not quite enough to see the listener through its relatively short 40-minute running time.
Although the album starts fantastically well and gets better as it proceeds throughout its first half, hitting a number of Death In Vegas-like, carefully-weighted notes, that’s about as far as it goes. Indeed, the disc arguably peaks over its first four well-arranged and impacting songs – ‘I Found The F’, ‘Black Cat’, the title track and the excellent first single ‘American Boy’ – before breaking out the old acoustic guitar for ‘Tears In The Typing Pool’ and returning to high-gear electro again for the comparatively driving ‘Corporeal’.
The other eight songs, however, are significantly less affecting and somewhat sketchy. Not even Klein’s coolly dispassionate singing redeems them, although it’s fair to say that ‘Michael A Grammar’ stands out from the crowd. There are plenty of appealing noises to be sure, but none of them seem to hang together as finished songs, in sharp relief to the polish in evidence earlier on. Overall then, the first half of Tender Buttons is worth a listen or seven, but it could have been cut down to a really fine EP. Shame.
originally published February 6th, 2006
Ukulele & Voice EP ••½
After 50 odd years of glorious obscurity and ridicule (…turned out nice again, eh?), the ukulele is in perilous danger of becoming the must-have instrument de jour. Latest to the fray comes Britain’s own Sam Brown, who will already be familiar to many from her past chart flirtations like the hit single ‘Stop!’ or from her role as firstcall singer for Jools Holland’s Rhythm & Blues Orchestra. Certainly the title Ukulele & Voice, 5 Songs… has a certain Ronseal charm, and the fact that each of those five songs features minimal, stripped-down arrangements could not be construed as deception. Sadly, this is both the EP’s weakness and its strength. On the plus side, the nakedness of the intimate recording lovingly showcases the beauty of Sam Brown’s voice and brings the listener that much closer to the singer. Then again, the inability to give a substandard performance is, more than likely, etched into Brown’s very DNA, but the ukulele in itself rather lacks the tonal richness and dynamic range to match. Neither is Brown’s particular specimen – an Ovation model by the look of the sleeve – the most mellifluous example of the breed.
Coming back to the positives, the songs themselves are strong. The uke and Brown’s whistled solo give ‘I’ll Be Here’ a convincing swing-era vibe, while ‘Kiss Of Love’, a co-write with Jools Holland, is a sumptuous blues lament that would probably sound fantastic if backed by a talented band. For bonus points, ‘Void’ makes an attempt to apply the ukulele in a novel manner, taking an arpeggio approach rather than the usual strummed chords, and this blends well with a mournful Celtic-tinged melody. Elsewhere, ‘Away With The Faeries’ may well have escaped from some unheard of Broadway musical – Brown’s very own ‘Hushabye Mountain’ – and closer ‘Over The Moon’ evokes an authentic Cole Porter/Sammy Kahn ‘golden age of the ukulele’ mood.
On balance, however, the EP’s detractions simply outweigh its merits. Perhaps the sleeve gives the game away; opening the gatefold reveals the completion of the title with “…an afternoon at Dad’s house, in January,” and suddenly the truth becomes clear that these are just a few tracks chucked down on tape for a giggle after a family lunch. Then the nagging thought of ‘wouldn’t it have been nice to hear these songs arranged with a bit more care?’ begins to crystallise. With a harmony here and parallel ukulele part there, this could have been twice the achievement and one is left to conclude with C-, could do better. The suspicion is that this is primarily a disc for die-hard fans and completists. Those simply looking for an introduction to Sam Brown’s talents would be better off getting her new Very Best Of. Likewise, those simply wishing to sample the charms of a uke in the hands of a talented singer would be better off looking elsewhere. However, for those specifically wanting to sample Sam Brown’s live uke revues in the comfort of their own homes, this EP will certainly fit the bill.
originally published March 19th, 2006
A Temporary Dive •••½
Norwegian singer-songwriter Ane Brun loves her acoustic guitar Morgan so much that she named her 2003 debut album after him. While he’s not the titular hero on this follow-up to that stunning introduction, Morgan’s haunting twang pervades each of these ten songs like a breath of fresh air. If troubadouresses are your thing, A Temporary Dive will grab your attention from the start – Brun has a highly distinctive, ensnaring voice that sets her apart from others in her field. The sheer organic nature of her music is nothing short of praiseworthy in an industry where greedy producers can get a bit buttonhappy when twiddling their knobs. Part of the praise must go to Brun herself who turned down several major-label offers to release the album on her own DetErMine Records, defiant in more ways than one (the Norwegian roughly translates to ‘it is mine’). More praise still must be heaped upon producer Katharina Nuttall, who was also at the helm of Spending Time With Morgan. Her sparing approach allows Brun to really step away from the squeaking clean wheels of the manufactured bandwagon, opting instead to concentrate on sounds you can almost touch, made with instruments you can name. It’s classy and stripped-down, yet fuller sounding than one would expect.
As the title suggests, the intervening months since the release of her debut have not been easy. Several of these songs are the musings of a downtrodden wanderer. ‘My Lover Will Go’ is a prime example of her sadness, seeping into your brain like a rising tide. On ‘A Temporary Dive’, she sings of tumbling into darkness and clawing back up, all the while surrounded by gorgeous glockenspiel and cello. Baby-faced Ron Sexsmith turns up to duet on ‘Song No. 6′ (actually track 9), a song that Ane says was written for a friend’s wedding and is a rare happy love ditty. That’s sweet, but both it and ‘Where Friend Rhymes With End’ seem to jar with the well-crafted flow of the rest of the album with their more up-tempo vibe. Elsewhere, she is lyrically preoccupied with confinement (‘Rubber & Soul’) and enforced realism (‘Balloon Ranger’), but it’s never a grim proposition. The one non-original, ‘Laid In Earth’, is an adaptation of a classical aria lifted from Henry Purcell’s 17th Century opera, ‘Dido & Aeneas’, and it’s beautifully complemented by Malene Bay-Foged’s heartbreaking string arrangements.
The only real complaint about A Temporary Dive is that it’s rather too short at just 38 minutes. I was left wanting to hear a lot more. Given the ecstatic reception the album was afforded in her native Scandinavia (it went straight to the top of the charts – remarkable for something so devoid of artifice), Ane Brun could well have a slow-burning hit on her hands. She’s already performed live with ABBA’s Benny Andersson and supported US country star Mary Gauthier and our very own PJ Harvey, so there’s no doubting her commitment to the legwork. This is an ideal soundtrack for your own emotional reckonings, so indulge in these exceptional sounds and make your way towards the light.
originally published October 1st, 2005
Live at The Borderline ••••½
December 5, 2006
When Norwegian singer-songwriter Ane Brun graced the Borderline stage back in January as the guest of Tina Dico, she unabashedly nicked off with the show, sewed it up in her pocket and slipped away into the freezing night. With Brun already something of a megastar in her homeland and being filmed for Norwegian TV, the running order seemed a little incongruous to those in the know. And to those who were not, Brun filled in the gaps with a staggeringly powerful set; where Dico too often ambled into mediocrity, Brun went directly for the jugular with her quietly commanding stage presence and mostly wounded, always deeply personal songs.
Fast forward to tonight and this time she’s rightly heading the bill, and although the venue is rather more roomy than the last time she was here, the reward is all the sweeter for those who turned out to see her. Opening with the title track from her award-winning album A Temporary Dive, released here in May, Brun makes it clear that any expectations will be more than fulfilled and almost certainly surpassed with a measured, coolly phrased performance. As she sways and leans into every chord change, her seemingly effortless inhabitation of the music mesmerises and rivals even the rarest, most esteemed of her contemporaries.
Contemporary is hardly the first adjective that springs to mind when you think of 17th Century opera but Ane’s captivating interpretation of the aria ‘Laid In Earth’ from Henry Purcell’s ‘Dido & Aeneas’ brings it weeping and juddering into a post-millennial context. As she skillfully negotiates every warble with ease, bodies around me sway in sympathetic movements. Part of Brun’s appeal is that she is not so precise as to remove the humanity of her songs, so when a note goes ever so slightly awry or her tuning dips, it only adds to the power of her delivery.
Though the set draws heavily from A Temporary Dive, there are plenty of surprises as three new songs arrive fully formed and spectacular. The first, ‘Half Open Door’, was written for a charity compilation to highlight the plight of Oslo’s homeless, and is a bittersweet childhood reflection. For this Brun enlists the sublime, perfectly pitched backing vocals of British singer-songwriter Rachel Davies, who then stays on for the remainder of the main set, embellishing and colouring in where required. ‘To Let Myself Go’ and ‘Balloon Ranger’ benefit the most, the latter being dedicated to fellow musicians who find themselves spending way too much money in the instrument shops of nearby Denmark Street. Two of Ane’s duets also put in an appearance; despite the absence of Ron Sexsmith (‘Song No. 6′) and Teitur (‘Rubber & Soul’), Brun is every bit as wonderful.
The second new song, with the working title ‘Treehouse’, is also outstanding and really shows Brun’s growth as an artist. Keeping to the assertion of A Temporary Dive that she would overcome the depression she lapsed into while trying to repeat the success of her first album Spending Time With Morgan (Morgan being the name of her beloved acoustic), there’s a noticeably more optimistic, if not outright cheerful feel. Likewise for the other newie, ‘Changing Of The Seasons’, a disarmingly frank analysis of infidelity that ends with an unexpectedly positive twist.
Closing the main set with the devastating ‘My Lover Will Go’, Brun brings the house down before quickly returning to the stage “so that [we] can get the last tube” with a hushed but stellar cover of PJ Harvey’s ‘The Dancer’. It’s intense, though in a different way to the original, but you’ll just have to wait to hear it yourself when Brun puts out a live CD and DVD early next year (though you might have to end up importing it from Scandinavia). The crowd laps it up and Ane exits stage left to thunderous applause and no small amount of whooping. She’ll be back soon, she says it’s a promise, and you really ought to be there when she keeps it.
originally published December 17th, 2006
Life In Mono ••½
You might think that the artist formerly known as Baby Spice would have some interesting things to say by now, being a former international icon with two successful albums of her own under her belt. That insight is not in evidence on Life In Mono, a mundane collection of easy-listening numbers, but it is not without its charms. The tone of this album is somewhat more sober than 2004’s Free Me, despite the similar Burt Bacharach pastiches and Motown overtones, with Bunton reigning in her playful ingenue persona in favour of a demure and sensitive approach.
The opener, breathy piano ballad ‘All I Need To Know’, demonstrates that she can do ‘wistful’ very well. However, the pensive quality that hangs over the album makes even bossa nova workouts like ‘Mischievous’ and ‘He Loves Me Not’ seem brooding. Bunton’s vocals are feather-light and pleasant as ever, but she loses her way with sultrier pieces like ‘Undressing You’. The whole thing is an odd mix of the anodyne and the bittersweet.
While this album mainly plays to Bunton’s strengths, it isn’t remotely exciting. There’s a lot to be said for consistency, but more creative production could have made this one of the best solo records any of the Spice Girls have released. As pretty as the orchestral arrangements and soothing harmonies are, they become predictable. The cheeky ‘Take Me To Another Town’ – in which Bunton globetrots accompanied by swooning strings and unusual samples – is the closest thing to a flash of ingenuity on the record. The album ends disappointingly with a glut of banal and cringeworthy covers (including the first single, a weak stab at Petula Clark’s ‘Downtown’) but the title track, a hypnotic and ethereal take on Mono’s trip-hop classic, is a rather more inspired choice.
Ultimately, it’s tasteful, but damningly so. Devoid of the fun and zest of her earlier solo work (and, of course, the back catalogue of the Spice Girls), Life In Mono is pitched directly at the sad-scene-in-Bridget-Jones market. By stringing together a series of the ballads and mid-tempo numbers she always had the knack for, Emma Bunton has made an album that is easy on the ear but pedestrian and uninteresting. The only really objectionable content appears in those predictable and poor covers mercifully grouped together as easily disregarded bonus tracks, but any praise it is possible to muster up for the rest of the album is damningly faint. Music to microwave lasagnes to.
While the story of Vashti Bunyan, the great lost child of the late 1960s folk boom, has been well rehearsed in the press in the run-up to the release of Lookaftering, the bare bones of it surely bears repeating here. Discovered by enigmatic Rolling Stones manager Andrew Loog Oldham, her 1970 debut Just Another Diamond Day is widely upheld to be one of British folk’s great unheralded works. At the time however, commercial success proved elusive and both it and Bunyan were unceremoniously shelved by record company, Decca. Disillusioned by the experience, she forsook further dalliances with the industry and has spent much of the last three decades enjoying the seclusion of a simple family life in Ireland. However, a CD reissue of that album in 2000 sparked renewed interest in her work and, by way of recordings with Animal Collective, Devendra Banhart and Piano Magic, among others, has inexorably led to this highly anachronistic follow-up.
Certainly, Lookaftering is an interesting prospect. Very much a period piece dislocated in time, it retains much of the feel of …Diamond Day and boasts the same hallmarks of early 1970s production values. Comparisons with Sandy Denny and other folkies of the era are easily justified both stylistically and sonically. The seemingly minimal production by Max Richter allows plenty of room for the broadly acoustic, almost orchestral instrumentation to breathe, all the while keeping Bunyan’s exposed and fragile vocals floating in the foreground. The arrangements themselves are mostly sparse and hauntingly beautiful; bucolic countermelodies abound, with oboe, recorder and Joanna Newsom’s harp all making an impression on various tracks. And Newsom isn’t the only member of the neo/psych-folk glitterati to make an appearance, Devendra Banhart, Adem and Kevin Barker of Espers also lend a hand, in some cases further reinforcing the early ‘70s heritage of the influences at work. In particular, Banhart’s slide guitar on ‘Wayward’ is strikingly reminiscent of Jerry Donahue’s playing on Sandy Denny’s Fotheringay.
When searching for adequate descriptors of Bunyan’s performance, adjectives like intimate, tender, delicate and fragile spring readily to mind. However, it is these very facets that are the greatest flaw of the album. Too often it seems her fragility tips over into hesitancy and weakness, in some cases lacking self-confidence and commitment to the notes. This is most apparent on ‘Wayward’ where the vocal seems particularly weak and somewhat at odds with the tenor of the words. Whilst some may see such a criticism as churlish or missing the point of the album, it raises valid questions; one wonders whether some of the effusively glowing reports of Lookaftering have been too heavily viewed through the filters of an evocative back story, rather than appraising the album on its musical merits alone. I was left with the nagging curiosity as to how these songs would have fared if sung by the likes of Mary Black, Christine Collister, June Tabor or the late, great Sandy Denny – the likely response being five star performances no less full of tenderness or vulnerability.
That said, Lookaftering remains an amazing feat and a truly beautiful album. It’s a throwback to an age of greater innocence, evoking visions of Julie Christie as ‘Far From The Madding Crowd’s Bathsheba Everdene, softly focused and shining amid some golden pastoral idyll as it wends its way through a rural dreamscape. For all its failings, the songs remain entirely beguiling and Lookaftering is sure to remain one of the most haunting and affecting discs of the year. The closer, ‘Wayward Hum’, brings the disc to a fitting close. Part meandering lullaby, part quintessentially English whimsy, it somehow summarises all that comes before in a wordless, absent-minded way. Gorgeous.
originally published November 21st, 2005
Cathy Burton’s first two albums were fairly well received slabs of British pop (as opposed to Britpop) that dressed her classical songwriting talents in suitably contemporary clothes, with all the electro beeps and twirls that a modern pop song requires. Silvertown, on the other hand, adopts a rather simpler stance with an organic sound built around piano, guitar, Hammond organ and conventional rhythm section. Topically, the ten songs are heavily dominated by the birth of her first child, Isobel, and impending motherhood and the weight of responsibility it brings is an inescapable theme. But this is no recruiting CD for the Natural Childbirth Association; there’s plenty here that will appeal to those of a non- parental persuasion.
‘Everybody’s Fool’ kicks things off with a good old- fashioned meditation on the complexities of romance. Burton’s distinctive vocal style comes to the fore right away – a delicate, shimmering tone that communicates a charming innocence whilst hinting at a deeper appreciation of the world’s more cruel aspects. If comparisons must be drawn there is perhaps a suspicion of a rather less fey version of Sixpence None The Richer’s Leigh Nash. Like Nash, Burton’s songs have never sought to conceal her Christian faith but do not act explicitly as pulpit, preferring instead to tell tales woven mostly from internal landscapes.
Despite the G word, the haunting ‘God Of The Sky’ conjures up feelings of smallness and connection to a bigger force irrespective of spiritual leanings; it’s something we’ve all felt when gazing up at a cloudless panorama of stars. The title track is another clear standout; co-written with Rocky Ross, the creative voice of Scot-popsters Deacon Blue, it touchingly compares the meandering train journey eastwards along the Thames with the twists and turns of a love affair. Album closer ‘Sleep’ is a delicate, affecting prayer from a mother to her child that’s power lies in its simplicity and openness.
So does Silvertown have any major faults? Well, only that at little over 35 minutes, Burton doesn’t exactly outstay her welcome – quite the opposite in fact! Still, as the old adage goes, leave them wanting more. Just make it soon, okay?
originally published October 5th, 2006
Cathy Burton & Dan Wheeler
Live at Maidenhead Arts Café ••••
October 7, 2005
Not many people would willingly tout Maidenhead as a cultural centre of our fair nation’s Southeastern corner. Possibly the best thing that can usually be said for it is that it isn’t next-door-neighbour, Slough. However, the good people of Maidenhead Methodist Church are doing their best to reverse that trend as, on the first Friday of every month, their church hall magically transforms into the Arts Café and hosts a range of performers from all aspects of said arts. This particular night was the turn of Cathy Burton and Dan Wheeler to grace their stage – the second night of a nationwide tour following an appearance at Balham’s homely Bedford Arms.
While Burton is already fairly well known on the UK circuit, with two acclaimed albums, Burn Out and Speed Your Love to her credit, Wheeler is more heard than recognised – his day job as session guitarist to the likes of Burton, Nicki Rogers and a score of others providing the pedigree – but he’s no mean singer-songwriter either. Together they made something of a dream team for a great evening’s music in surprisingly cosy surroundings while the audience partook of the café-based ambience and comestibles of coffee and homemade cakes.
Normally for a ‘double-header’ tour, one would expect the standard 45 minutes of one plus an hour or so of the other; however, the pair hit on a masterstroke as they took to the stage together. Deftly avoiding any chance of monotony, Burton and Wheeler played tag with the lead throughout the evening, with the non-‘it’ performer adding body with skilful backing. Even their instruments were complementary: Burton’s Gibson slope-shouldered J-Dreadnought sang with clear and solid rhythm, while Wheeler’s smaller bodied Avalon A25 Grand Auditorium chimed with chordal and flat-picked soloing and accompaniment. In this context, the songs were made fleshier with each singer able to introduce greater layers of orchestration to their sound.
The setlist was mostly chosen from Burton’s two full-lengths, plus Wheeler’s album Long Road Round and Ten Things To Do EP. Many of the songs mined the deep seams of life, love and Christian faith, with both singers refreshingly candid about the impact of religion on their lives without descending into didactic preaching. Highlights of Burton’s performances included fan favourites ‘Falling’ and ‘Hollow’ and the meaningful musings of the beautiful ‘Belongs To You’. Both artists also portrayed the melancholic bent that seems to fuel their writing. Indeed, Wheeler went so far as to confess that his wife advised him to maybe lighten up a little on first listen of (the admittedly sublime) ‘Scratches On The Glass’.
With plans already underway for both Burton and Wheeler to record new albums, they were eager to roadtest some of their new material. The most affecting of these was a tune from Burton entitled ‘Fromosa’, the Romanian word for ‘beautiful’. Written in response to her experiences at a Romanian AIDS orphanage run by the charity Cry In The Dark (www.cryinthedark.co.uk), the song was inspired by an encounter with the dying young girl of the title. The song, already dripping with raw emotion, was made all the more powerful by Wheeler’s tender slide embellishment on a lap-played Dobro resonator. Burton’s other new tune, ‘Silvertown’, and ‘Wheeler’s Run’ both provided further suggestion that any wait for their new records will be worth it. After a touching finale of Burton’s ‘Leave Me With You’, they rounded things off with an encore of Bacharach and David’s ‘(They Long To Be) Close To You’ before bowing to a content and buoyant audience in full sing-a-long mode, who then sidled out onto the glamorous Maidenhead tarmac.
originally published October 25th, 2005
The Ways We Try ••
As another in a long line of songwriters working on the premise that her homemade brand of acoustic vignettes on love and life will strike a chord with a wider audience, Emily ‘Birdie’ Busch enters the fray fresh from the Philadelphia coffeehouse circuit. After completing a range of struggling artist jobs, Birdie realised there was something else she was born to do, after which it appears she picked up a guitar, took to it like a native and voila, the benefit of her somewhat naïve musings are available to those looking for the next 21st Century troubadouress. If only all career moves were so easy! So, what does the Philly filly have to offer?
Well, it’s much as you’d expect. There’s an innocence to these simply structured melodies and arrangements; Busch floats through songs like a seed that’s caught the wind, happy to be carried in any direction as long as the destination is America’s west coast circa 1967. Unfortunately, ‘67 was a long time ago; the naiveté of the artists that gathered in Laurel Canyon to change the world with six strings and multi-part harmonies was truly a snapshot of its time and Busch is strictly little league in comparison. Then again, perhaps the comparison is simply unfair; the world is an uglier place in 2006 and the odd moment of happy-go-lucky sing-song is a welcome break from the daily routine, but the music still needs to be memorable at least.
I’d like to say that the songs benefit from a long gestation period, the culmination of ideas and experiences that stretch back years, but it’s difficult to say whether this is the case, or whether Birdie knocked the album out in an evening session at Starbucks. The songs rarely rise above pleasant, the pace rarely above a Sunday walk, and each one merges into the next in a below-par mélange of gently strummed or picked guitar, brushed percussion and upright piano. The songs aren’t bad; ‘Zeros’ has a breezy Sunday morning feel behind it’s cod-philosophy lyric, ‘Room In The City’ uses repetition well to enhance its momentum and ‘Drunk By Noon’ winds its way through your mind in a passable imitation of solo Kristin Hersh, but nothing reaches out and grabs you. There’s no eureka moment that raises the hairs on your arms, no careful turn of phrase or sparkling change of pace that sets her aside from the pack.
Despite several weeks of listening, willing myself to sing along and be impressed, I can’t honestly say that any of the material on The Ways We Try has stuck. I don’t find myself humming ‘The Cup’s harmonica line on my way to work, despite it probably being the most memorable melody. If I stumbled across Miss Busch in the aforementioned coffee emporium, I’d be pleased with the temporary release from my daily chores, applaud in the appropriate places and thank her when she’d finished, but I wouldn’t necessarily want her CD. Unless I had an elevator to paint. Must try harder.
originally published July 10th, 2006
Absence, it seems, really can make the heart grow fonder, even in the music press. Think about it: if Kate Bush had continued making records at regular intervals over the last twelve years, she would almost certainly have been subjected to even harsher critical judgement than the cold shoulder shrug that greeted her last two albums, The Sensual World (1989) and The Red Shoes (1993). Reviewers of those records at the time accused Bush of operating below her capabilities, though both albums were in fact full of inventive and rewarding music. All these years down the line, however, it seems that all has been forgiven, and the belated release of Aerial has been treated by certain publications as something akin to the Second Coming. For Bush’s fans too, every year of silence that passed made the prospect of a new opus ever more tantalising, yet more unlikely. All of these factors conspire to make Aerial unquestionably the year’s most anticipated album. But can any one record withstand such weight of expectation?
The answer, happily, is an emphatic ‘yes’. Careering from the domestic to the epic, from the inside of a washing machine to the bottom of the ocean, Aerial offers listeners all the wit, whimsy, weirdness and wonder (not to mention the impeccable musicianship) of Bush’s very best work. In fact, just as Elvis in first single ‘King Of The Mountain’ transcends the trappings of fame, wealth and possibly even death to take his place on some Parnassus of the mind, so Aerial surpasses the hype, sitting above it a bit loftily but willing to reveal its admittedly complex beauty to any listener prepared to give it the time and attention it deserves. There hasn’t been an epic pop album of comparable ambition and artistry (yes, and length) since Tori Amos’s The Beekeeper earlier this year. This is a record to lose yourself in. Actually, make that two records. For, in a nostalgic nod to Bush’s beloved vinyl era, Aerial is a double album, one which, twenty years on, duplicates the structure of 1985’s much revered Hounds Of Love, its two parts comprising a set of “independent” tracks and a song cycle. While the album preserves the stylistic verve and heterogeneity of her earlier releases, there’s a new and greater spaciousness to the arrangements, leaving more space for the distinctive vocals. Though more restrained than ever, Bush’s voice retains its remarkable capacity for drama and metamorphosis.
Along with her singing, one of the greatest aspects of Kate Bush’s music lies in the wonderful idiosyncrasy of the subject matter of her songs, and on this score too Aerial doesn’t disappoint. On the first disc, A Sea Of Honey, the bracing ‘King Of The Mountain’ segues into ‘Pi’, a eulogy for an obsessive enumerator and almost certainly the most seductive maths lesson in history with Bush cooing numbers and decimal points over a chugging organ motif. The misunderstood ‘Mrs. Bartolozzi’ is an even more vivid character sketch; the song is not ‘about’ a washing machine, but offers an oblique portrait of widowhood in which the memories of domestic duty and the freedom of the sea may or may not assuage the protagonist’s current isolation. Meanings are similarly fluid on the brooding, cinematic ‘Joanni’. With its arresting battle imagery, the song may nominally be ‘about’ Joan of Arc, but Bush’s phrasing of the title also conjures links with another significant Joni. The decidedly funky ‘How To Be Invisible’ is the record’s most playful moment, with its witty witch’s spell and wry, knowing comment on Bush’s own ‘obscurity’.
Informed by the birth of her son and the death of her mother, respectively, two of the loveliest songs on A Sea Of Honey are also the most personal. ‘Bertie’ feels like something of companion piece to Amos’s ‘Ribbons Undone’, an unadulterated expression of maternal delight and pride as Bush repeats “you bring me so much joy” over Renaissance strings, the simplicity of the statement accentuating her emotional intensity. The stunning ‘A Coral Room’ is a shivers-down-thespine piano ballad that moves from an underwater city to Bush’s intimate memories of her mother, and offers a meditation on the passage of time. With its references to cities “draped in net” and hands trailing in water, the song contains some of her most striking imagery yet. Indeed, in keeping with the sparser approach to instrumentation, there is a new clarity and precision to her songwriting on this record. You see that shirt on the washing line, that spider climbing out of a jug, Joanni “in her armour.”
The second disc, A Sky Of Honey, is a sublime nine-track sequence that traces the passage of a summer’s day, from afternoon to sunset and night and on to the following morning. Birds chirp, Bush chortles, Rolf Harris sings! It’s unlike anything you’ve ever heard, and yet pure and unmistakably Kate, as life-affirming as ‘The Ninth Wave’ was unremittingly bleak. Parts are almost overwhelmingly evocative; listening to it, you feel your senses being sharpened one by one. Bertie kicks things off, directing his parents’ attention to a “sky…full of birds.” Indeed, birdsong is a central motif, whether sampled or mimicked. Light is another central theme, and as the cycle progresses patterns develop and images recur. “This is a song of colour,” she sings on the glorious ‘Sunset’ as a piano refrain gives way to a delirious flamenco interlude, while ‘Prologue’ finds her at her most lushly romantic, “talking Italian” over a Michael Kamen orchestral arrangement. Just when you fear it’s all becoming too New Age ambient, a bewitching melody or killer chorus swoops in to orientate you. The shifts through moods of reflection, sadness and exhilaration are quite stunning. Vaughn Williams and Delius (a previous Kate Bush song topic) are presences, and the album blurs the boundaries between musical genres as assuredly as it blurs the distinctions between night and day, dream and reality, forging a space, as one song would have it, ‘Somewhere In Between’. The record concludes with the joyous, pulsing title track and Bush’s urgent desire to go “up on the roof,” an image of physical and spiritual transcendence to match the one that the album started with. By now “all of the birds are laughing”; so is Kate, and so are we.
As Bush herself intimated in a recent interview, “music should put you in a trance frenzy,” and, at its best, Aerial does precisely that. Put quite simply, it’s an extraordinary achievement that once again extends the boundaries of popular music. Of course, there are longeurs and minor indulgences, but it wouldn’t be a Bush record without them, and for her admirers, even the so-called ‘flaws’ have an air of reassurance. Twelve years may have been a long time to wait, but this kind of art is built to last. Tellingly, even after 80 minutes of music, you can’t wait to hear the whole thing again.
originally published November 21st, 2006
Filed under: album, back issues, review | Tags: adam smith, alan pedder, ani difranco, cara dillon, catherine anne davies, danny weddup, dévics, deerhoof, dixie chicks, dresden dolls, gem nethersole, helen ogden, hilary duff, kimya dawson, liz durrett, matthew hall, paul woodgate, pete morrow, peter hayward, robbie de santos, sandy dillon, scott millar, simon wilson, tanya donelly, the duke spirit, tina dico, trevor raggatt
The following reviews were all published on our old website between May 2005 and December 2006.
Catherine Anne Davies
Songs For The Boy Who Wouldn’t Read Rilke EP •••
If an artist’s output can truly be taken as an expression of their psychological landscape, the furnishings inside Ms Davies’s head may be lush and velvet but they are certainly deep crimson and black. Songs For The Boy Who Wouldn’t Read Rilke is the second of a pair of limited edition EPs from the London-based singer who recently signed to the humorously named Folkwit stable. Hers is a dark muse, embroiled in swirling currents of brooding mystery. Like its predecessor Long Day, much of the music found on ...Rilke is reminiscent of the more sombre and sepulchral elements of goth-folkies All About Eve. On a soft cushion of acoustic guitars blended with echo-drenched piano and heady flourishes of cello, Davies’s mournful vocals intone the agonies of the less illuminated reaches of the human soul, the pain of a blues singer’s Weltschmerz filtered through the spyglass of a gothic spirit; these are deeply affecting tone poems.
‘The Heart Is A Lonesome Hunter’ drips with loss and regret, with Davies’s sparse piano joining plaintive cello and acoustic guitar as the intensity racks up before the song inches toward its slow and exquisite petit mort. ‘Bury Me’ explores love both unattained and unattainable, the richness of Davies’s vocal perfectly conveying the song’s emotion, sweeping up to a pure but fleeting ecstasy on the higher ranges. At first, ‘Crave’ appears to set the sepulchral tone aside with its gentle chiming introduction, but the dissonant vocal lines soon drag us back to the realisation that perhaps all is not quite right with the world. The track also allows Davies to flex her multi-instrumentalist muscles as she drifts subtle flute lines over the refrain as if to mock the intensity below. Closing number ‘It’ll Get Said’ begins with a slow, twisted variation on what could possibly be the James Bond theme, but the mood is ripped apart by squalling, distorted electric guitar. At certain points, Davies sounds uncannily like All About Eve’s Julianne Regan, while the guitar sounds recall those of the band’s Tim Bricheno.
Both the Long Day and …Rilke EPs come dressed in sumptuous, handmade paper jackets fastened with dusky wine-coloured ribbon – the product of the auteur’s own porcelain-fair hand. This deeply romantic yet somehow archaic dressing is completely appropriate for the music that lies within its embrace. And while the songs work well within the EP format, if their appeal is to last the distance of a full-length album, more dynamics and light/shade interplay is needed. As it is, this short-form offering provides a deeply lush landscape in which the listener can totally immerse themselves. Those who have a nervous disposition need not enquire within, but for listeners whose hearts are made of darker, sterner stuff, there is much here to admire.
originally published March 25th, 2006
Remember That I Love You •••½
Sometimes she’s your best friend cooing softly into your ear; sometimes she’s a street loon babbling on while you nervously back away; both stand-up comedienne and tragic heroine, on-hiatus Moldy Peach Kimya Dawson comes at you uncensored and unapologetic. Certainly, she doesn’t flinch at penning lyrics that other artists might shy away from for being too extreme, too brazenly political and – particularly here on her fifth solo record in four years – a little too close to home.
‘My Mom’ is a deeply personal and affecting song that sounds like a diary transcript – you almost feel guilty for listening, earwigging on her private thoughts. There is something entirely childlike about Dawson’s description of her mother’s illness that conveys how difficult it is to deal with the sickness and impending death of a parent, regardless of our age. Such events bring out the bewildered child within everyone, and it’s this child that sings “And there’s something in her blood / and there’s something in her leg / and there’s something in her brain / my mom’s sick, she’s in a hospital bed”. This topic recurs elsewhere on the record; on ‘Caving In’, Dawson attempts to imagine the death of her mother and the subsequent dissolution of her family in an attempt to cope better when the event arrives.
Dawson’s interest in personal tragedy is not a self-involved one, however; on ‘12.26′ the view expands and Kimya places herself in the shoes, or the bare feet, of a tsunami survivor who has lost literally everything. The song is a heartfelt elegy that analyses the world-wide response to the 2004 Boxing Day disaster and damns American complacency and selfishness: “We’d have 12.26 tattooed across our foreheads / If something this atrocious happened on our coast instead.” Remember That I Love You may be a rough, ramshackle and underproduced record, but somehow any other production style would seem entirely wrong. The lo-fi homemade quality is intrinsic to the Kimya Dawson ethos; on ‘Loose Lips’, when a whole host of voices join Kimya for the chorus, it matters less that some of them are out of time than that they sound like a gang of friends having a good time. Technical virtuosity is not the point; besides, the lyrics take centre stage to their musical base – consistently her trusty acoustic guitar.
Occasionally, the album makes for frustrating listening. When ‘I Like Giants’ turns into a paean to a friend of Kimya’s called Geneviève, if you don’t know who that is (and I don’t) it can feel like you’re on the outside of a private joke, or listening in on banter that goes over your head. But on the whole this is a very charming album, and this is the only place on the record where witty irreverent humour becomes irksome silliness. For better or worse, Kimya Dawson is unafraid to pour her heart onto the page and for that she should be saluted. Remember That I Love You veers from political idealism (when Kimya rails against George Bush on ‘Loose Lips’) to surreal humour and truly affecting personal revelations, often in the course of one song, but its voice is always honest and brave. This is an empathetic, comforting record whose aims are summed up in the lyrics of ‘Competition’: “Different voices, different tones / All saying that we’re not alone.”
originally published June 5th, 2006
The Runners Four ••••
More than almost any other band you care to mention, Deerhoof take an obvious, unfettered joy in what they do. In a career spanning over a decade, the band have applied a particle condenser to pop and noise forms, creating albums populated by dense song-nuggets that turn so many corners, throw so many shapes and spit out so many ideas that one wonders what some of their peers do all day. Take ‘Running Thoughts’ from this latest opus; after a jangly cycle down a ‘60s country lane, the wheels abruptly come off and the tune dissolves into humming keyboard drones overlaid with spooky, fried guitarwork. That this is Deerhoof’s most focused and cohesive, even straightforward, effort thus far gives an idea of the fractured sensibilities on offer.
It’s undoubtedly true that a more stable line-up in recent years has tamed the wilder fringes of the group’s approach; formed in 1994 by the only constant member, drummer Greg Saunier, Deerhoof’s revolving line-up has settled around Saunier, bassist/vocalist Satomi Matsuzaki and guitarists John Dietrich and Chris Cohen. With this new constancy have come albums such as 2004’s Milk Man – a concept album about an evil milkman who kidnaps children and hides them in the clouds – that have eased up on their wilder tendencies in favour of heavily skewed guitar pop laced with a sugary sweetness and gnarly crunch. Both have always been important facets of their sound, but with less of a ten-cats-and-a-firework-in-a-sack approach, the music of Deerhoof has become more assured and less unpredictably dizzying.
The Runners Four continues this trajectory, and there’s an immediate inkling that Deerhoof are consciously developing. There are 20 songs and 57 minutes here, nearly twice the white-dwarf density of any of their previous efforts. But the way the guitars circle and shimmer around Satomi’s candy-cloud vocal on the beatless opener, ‘Chatterboxes’, serve to allay fears of any newfound flabbiness. By the time the lumbering groove and sunny ‘60s pop sheen of the ensuing ‘Twin Killers’ and aforementioned ‘Running Thoughts’ have gone by, it’s becoming obvious that whatever their new modus operandum may be, the band are more than comfortable with it.
Funnily enough, given their burgeoning fascination with the flowerier reaches of 1960s music and Satomi’s airy vocal style, it’s only when singing duties are shared by the, er, stags that the sweetness of their sound starts to grate. ‘You Can See’ and ‘Odyssey’ are the worst offenders, the latter saved somewhat by slyly needling harmonics. Elsewhere though, along with a couple of trademark sugar-rush songlets, are some of Deerhoof’s finest moments. ‘Siriustar’ is the trad indie quiet/loud dynamic rewritten by Willy Wonka, surging from not a lot to technicolour fuzzout with a cute smile and a chocolate kiss. ‘You’re Our Two’ raids the sharps cabinet once more to set Satomi’s paranoiac vocal against multiple stinging guitar lines, and the closing ‘RRRRRRight’ is a chipper, garagey adieu.
Describing Deerhoof is a bit like nailing jelly anyway, which is one of the things that makes them so unique. All you need to know is that you should go and buy this album and listen to it lots, because it’s really good. Couldn’t be simpler.
originally published December 19th, 2005
Push The Heart ••••
In the five years since signing to Brit indie label Bella Union, Sara Lov and Dustin O’Halloran have produced two highly-rated albums – 2001’s My Beautiful Sinking Ship and 2003’s heavenly The Stars At Saint Andrea – both of which marked a clear shift away from their earlier, more post-rock oriented self-released efforts. Calmly melding a variety of influences, the Dévics were showered with plaudits from critics and fellow musicians alike, partly because of their refusal to easily conform to any particular rulebook. Their commitment to maintain this very special brand of elusiveness led the twosome (without their formerly full-time members Ed Maxwell and Evan Schnabel) to relocate to a farmhouse hidden deep in rural Italy where they moved into their current lush and wistful sound space, a dreamy and atmospheric terrain with folk-rock influences and frequent overtones of cabaret melancholy.
Third album Push The Heart is, emotionally at least, a more straightforward affair than The Stars At Saint Andrea. The songs are simpler and more direct, with less emphasis on the smoky, late-night bar ethos that drew sideways comparisons with Portishead, or perhaps Beth Orton via Goldfrapp, and more on an overall sense of bittersweet reflection. What the Dévics do share with the likes of Portishead and Goldfrapp is a fine sense of structure and technology-led production in spades. In fact, the production (which by all accounts was a slightly disjointed affair) almost threatens the album’s credibility, but is too carefully stewarded by O’Halloran to really overwhelm; when the melodies are this sweet and Lov’s tender voice even sweeter still, it’s impossible to avoid getting pleasantly lost in some of the loveliest moments, particularly on the album’s central triptych of ‘Song For A Sleeping Girl’, ‘Distant Radio’ and ‘Just One Breath’ (all of which first appeared on last year’s exquisite Distant Radio EP).
Lyrically, the album is accessible and engaging, playful yet plaintive. Lov’s doeeyed yearnings on album opener ‘Lie To Me’ and the charming ‘Secret Message To You’, which concerns the futile construction of a boat from too few parts to bring her love back, are inspired and give the songs a depth far beyond her pretty voice. And it would certainly be remiss of me not to point out that it is a very pretty voice indeed, whether she’s singing softly into a mic with her eyes to the floor, or opening up and expanding to cover whatever sonic bed O’Halloran constructs for her. More a request than a gripe, but it would be nice to hear a few more tracks along the lines of the latter in future. O’Halloran’s balanced, reassuring voice adds a warm and comforting counterpoint on just two of the tracks – the aforementioned ‘Song For A Sleeping Girl’ and the also excellent ‘If We Cannot See’, which comes closer to lighters-aloft anthem territory than anything they’ve done in the past.
The Dévics are unlikely to fill our stadiums just yet though, and in truth I doubt they would want to. But Push The Heart can only help their cause and win them new fans looking for something fresh and convincing to see in the spring. More power to them.
originally published March 21st, 2006
In The Red •••
You can’t deny the popularity of Tina Dico in her homeland of Denmark. When the domestic version of In The Red hit the streets last July, it slotted in at the top of the charts, outselling the likes of Coldplay and U2. Dico (or Dickow if you’re Danish) herself was up for consideration in three categories at the 2006 Danish Music Awards; but is ‘big in Copenhagen’ like ‘big in Japan’ or can she cut it in the crowded international pop market? Though she’s better known in the UK as a vocalist for chillout maestros Zero 7, she no doubt hopes that In The Red will bring her recognition in her own right. Certainly, the overall impression of the album is of a perfectly respectable piece of Scando-pop, with darker, more brooding overtones than the likes of Norway’s Lene Marlin or Sweden’s Sophie Zelmani. But the sticking point here is a noticeable lack of spark to elevate the songs above the realms of the mundane.
Credit where it’s due though – the production is excellent. Chris Potter, who’s better known for his work on The Verve’s Urban Hymns, clearly knows his way around a mixing desk and, comparing the UK release with the Danish original, it seems that some additional remixing has been done over the autumn to prepare for its wider release. The songs are skilfully layered with lush samples, strings and orchestral instrumentation, all adding up to a luxuriant aural vista. Dico’s voice is strong and carries the melodies well, sometimes cracking attractively on the quieter, more emotional sections. Again, nothing to fault here, and when aligned with better material it makes for an effective mix. There’s no doubt that there is a good deal of talent here, although Dico’s Gen-X couldn’t-care-less delivery occasionally grates, particularly on the otherwise enjoyable ‘Nobody’s Man’. Likewise, the title track slips beneath the surface from languorous to simply dragging its heels and ‘Use Me’ seems just a little too ponderous.
Perhaps the most disappointing thing is that there are some excellent songs scattered among the album’s more average fare. Had all the tracks been of the same standard, In The Red would be a significantly more involving album. ‘Losing’ sets the disc off to an encouraging start with its big Beatles-esque choruses evoking Tears For Fears in ‘Sowing The Seeds Of Love’ mode (in a good way!). ‘Give In’ rolls along smoothly like a chilled out drivetime classic, while first single ‘Warm Sand’ is the clear standout with its moody, building verses and hummable yet majestic refrain and ‘Room With A View’ sets a gentle acoustic mood, enfolding the listener in a melancholy reverie. In the end though, this is a candidate for selective downloading. At least that way you’ll be left in the black rather than overdrawn.
originally published February 12th, 2006
Knuckle Down ••••
Though never one to pass the responsibility buck, it is gratifying at least to see Ani DiFranco set aside some of the duties on this, her 15th studio album since her self-titled debut in 1990. Having enlisted the estimable wiles of co-producer Joe Henry on this follow-up to last year’s self-everything’d (including, perhaps, self-indulgent) Educated Guess, Knuckle Down sees Ani return in part to the more rewarding musical territories mapped out on each album up to 2001’s sprawling Revelling/Reckoning.
Inevitably, there will be those who bemoan the relative absence of DiFranco’s almost legendary leftism here; the only overtly political song, ‘Paradigm’, still resonates with an inward-looking personal relevance that stitches the emotional seams of the album and mines them to stark lyrical effect. But to complain about this seems a little hard-bitten in light of DiFranco’s recent personal upheavals. Both the dissolution of her marriage and the death of her father, Dante Americo DiFranco, to whom the album is dedicated, figure highly in these respectively bilious and brow-beaten compositions. The Bush Administration need not count their capitalist chickens just yet, however, as DiFranco has already signalled her intent to release a second album at the tail end of the year in which they may not come off so lightly.
As it is, Knuckle Down is yet another credit to DiFranco’s famed survivalist mentality. The title track grittily eschews the faintly ridiculous self-help stranglehold that grips America like a pill, instead asserting the mantra “I think I’m done gunnin’ to get closer to some imagined bliss, I gotta knuckle down and just be ok with this.” Happily, the following two tracks, ‘Studying Stones’ and ‘Manhole’ are easily among her best – the latter also featuring some charming whistling from recent Righteous Babe signing, Andrew Bird, who also contributes violin and glockenspiel elsewhere. It’s no surprise then that the more liberated radio programmers stateside have embraced these songs, giving DiFranco perhaps her best commercial chance since Little Plastic Castle. Other album highlights include the Out Of Range-y ‘Modulation’, the bluesy clunk of ‘Seeing Eye Dog’ (a memorable chorus also helps its cause), the taut slam poetics of ‘Parameters’ and the lyrical vulnerability of the closing track, ‘Recoil’.
After the chugging claustrophobia of Educated Guess and the often unlovable jazz forays of Evolve, DiFranco seems comfortable (and perhaps even comforted) to be back on familiar ground, if not entirely back to her roots. The promise of less digging for greater reward should entice both new prospectors and the DiFranco converted alike.
originally published May 13th, 2005
The Chemical Brothers once said of Beth Orton that if your soul could sing, she is what it would sound like. By this reckoning, Ani DiFranco is like the voice in the back of your head, not always telling you things you want to hear but telling it like it is nonetheless, and this time perhaps more than ever she means business. “I ain’t in the best shape / that I’ve ever been in / but I know where I’m going / and it ain’t where I’ve been,” she sings on ‘Subconscious’. As always with DiFranco, it’s a believable manifesto, one that takes on extra resonance with the recent announcement of her first pregnancy. Sonically, however, we’re in familiar surroundings.
Reprieve‘s closest cousin is 2004’s self-played, self-produced Educated Guess, but whereas that record had a swagger that reflected DiFranco’s freedom in the studio, Reprieve is altogether a more considered affair. The ghost of Hurricane Katrina hangs over proceedings, having famously halted the recording sessions when the resulting floods damaged her New Orleans studio. Forced to decamp to her other home in Buffalo, New York, DiFranco found herself continuing the recording on an old synthesiser.
The resulting album resonates as an unwitting tribute to the dislocation felt by the millions affected by the tragedy. Though it’s not explicitly referenced, aside from the oddly prophetic ‘Millennium Theater’ which ends on the line “New Orleans bides her time” (the material was written long before the hurricane hit), lines like “the stars are going out / and the stripes are getting bent” (‘Decree’) seem to say it all. Elsewhere, much of the album is classic DiFranco. Opening track, ‘Hypnotize’, recalls one of the most arresting moments of her career, ‘You Had Time’, a song that emerges out of nowhere, a meandering piano intro that eventually finds its way into a melody. A similar technique is used here, the sound of the artist working out a way to articulate an emotion she’s not entirely comfortable with: “you were no picnic / and you were no prize / but you had just enough pathos / to keep me hypnotized”. It makes for a sombre opening but, to quote Joni Mitchell, there’s comfort in melancholy.
Reprieve is perhaps DiFranco’s most cohesive record to date, never really feeling the need to shift out of its plaintive mood, which is both good and bad. Aside from the fantastic ‘Half-Assed’, surely soon to be regarded as an Ani classic, there is little here to truly stir you out of your seat. Perhaps I miss the band. Perhaps I miss the point. Check out righteousbabe.com for an explanation of the cover art and a clearer idea of what she’s trying to say. For now though, there may not be much time for dancing but Ani DiFranco is still standing, still singing and that, for us, is the most important thing.
originally published August 10th, 2006
After The Morning ••••
With her unique blend of traditional and contemporary folk, Cara Dillon has garnered truckloads of awards and comparisons with everyone from Kate Bush to Joni Mitchell, and often with the charming Kate Rusby, whom she replaced as a member of the so-called brat pack folk-rock group Equation. This remarkable third solo album should see her finally coming out from behind the shadow of Rusby, not least for its bold use of blue- grass, and is easily her most confident statement of intent to date.
Recorded with her husband Sam Lakeman (brother of critical favourite Seth), guests include her sister Mary, influential folk veteran Martin Simpson and Paul Brady, who duets on the traditional number ‘The Streets Of Derry’ (which also goes by the name of ‘After The Morning’, depending on who you ask). Despite the presence of such luminaries, it’s Lakeman’s skilful, textured playing that really colours the backdrops to Dillon’s stunning vocals. Piano, accordion, mandolin, guitar and fiddle – you name it, he plays it, and plays it well. The shivery ‘October Winds’ is an exquisite example, the music carrying along Dillon’s rich, warm vocals in a heartfelt tribute to her dead father.
Even so, the strongest tracks are the stripped-down acoustic numbers such as ‘Here’s A Health’, ‘Bold Jamie’ (one of Cara’s own) and her near-definitive version of ‘The Snows They Melt The Soonest’ with its sumptuous arrangement of piano and strings. Despite an occasional, presumably deliberate stab at getting some commercial airplay, the treasure to disappointment ratio is extraordinarily high. There’s a timeless feel to the proceedings as a whole; Dillon’s ability to really draw out the spark of traditional folk songs is almost unparalleled and much of the album’s beauty lies in the words and the perfection of her delivery.
Forging a genuine connection with the listener is something that many traditional folk artists fall short of. Sure, they might sound pretty but they’ll sometimes leave you cold. In this respect, Dillon is firmly in the premier league, ensnaring her audience with consummate ease. Indeed, her dedicated fanbase is something that many of her rival folkies would give their right arms for and After The Morning only serves to cement her elevated status. Three albums into her solo career, she might no longer be the next big thing but this is a real gem, an appealing collection full of confidence and a finely- honed sense of musicality.
originally published August 23rd, 2006
Pull The Strings •••½
One Little Indian
For over 20 years, the career of Sandy Dillon has been one hell of a frightening fairground and somewhere along the line our gravel-voiced heroine must have smashed an entire hall of mirrors, such has been her god-awful luck. Incredibly, even her earlier struggles – two shelved albums and a terminated contract with Elektra – pale in comparison with the trials of the last five years. After losing her beloved husband and musical partner to a heart attack in 2001, Dillon has battled with cervical cancer and a terrifying ordeal with the MRSA superbug. That’s a lot of black cats crossing hundreds of paths, each one dusted with a tonne of spilled salt, but instead of slinging it over her left shoulder into Beelzebub’s eyes she’s gargled it defiantly, refusing to be a martyr to ill health. Indeed, on the evidence of Pull The Strings, her most desolate, injured and grim recording yet (and that’s saying something!), truly the woman could unseat the four horsemen and circumvent the apocalypse. Of course, some people would rather listen to a symphony of air raid sirens than to Dillon’s serrated, half-strangled vocals, but frankly that’s their loss. The sheer feral beauty and menace at work here adds a sometimes exquisite, always interesting texture that’s totally unique.
Of the many moods and dense emotions captured throughout, the one that resonates most clearly is a longing for escape – escape from loneliness, escape into death, you name it. Though it may not sound like it on first listen, the vibrant and sinisterly sexual title track is actually a manifesto of atonement to the (wo)man upstairs. Joined on vocals by Alabama 3’s growly Robert Love, Dillon’s third-person tale of repentance becomes more akin to what the sound of mating basilisks must be like – full-blooded, throaty and raw above all else. The jaunty but creepy ‘Documents’ and Dillon’s remarkable turn on ‘Over My Head’ are similarly sultry, while the raucous ‘I Fell In Love’ is a darkly humorous swamp-blues stomper that returns her to the glass-eating Bessie Smith-inspired sound of her One Little Indian debut, Electric Chair. That she howls and wails as if having a grand mal seizure is really all just part of the fun.
Anyone who has followed Dillon’s career will know that for all her impressive vocal extremities, her real forte lies in torch song balladry. Fortunately, Pull The Strings does not disappoint on that front either, from the traditional number ‘Motherless Children’ and the sumptuous cover of Hoagy Carmichael’s jazz standard ‘Baltimore Oriole’ to the exhausting, occasionally morbid but beautiful tributes to her husband (‘Enter The Flame’, ‘Wedding Night’) and her own lost innocence (‘Play With Ruth’, ‘Broken Promises’). Throughout these heartfelt weepies run subtle flourishes of organ, electric piano and softly brushed snare, not to mention musical saw for that added tearjerk factor. Dillon even wheels out a harmonium on ‘Why?’, a sweetly-sung duet (again with Robert Love) that’s almost vaudevillian and slightly but nicely cheesy. ‘Who’s Answering’ follows the theme of accepting destiny as Dillon implores whoever or whatever lies beyond the grave to see her in safely and with a little comfort – “give me a lover, a bed and some gin / I beg the one who’s answering” – delivered with poignancy, believability and soul.
Doing justice to a Sandy Dillon album is an impossible task; like the music itself, it takes a lot of perseverance, repeated listens and an open mind, and you may still end up not knowing what to make of it. Certainly, those who are faint of heart should steer clear, but if you’re the sort who worships Captain Beefheart, Tom Waits or just loves a challenge, there’s much to enjoy here. It’s a little over-long, however, and making it to the conclusion of ‘Carnival Of Dreams’ in just one sitting guarantees an arduous listen. That said, in the triumph over adversity stakes, it’s a truly remarkable statement from one of our finest, most uncompromising artists.
originally published May 26th, 2006
Taking The Long Way ••••
Taking The Long Way is the Dixie Chicks’s fourth studio album, produced by man of the moment Rick Rubin. The girls share writing credits on all the tracks – a first for them – with such songwriting luminaries as Sheryl Crow, Neil Finn and Gary Louris of The Jayhawks. There’s a conscious effort to expand upon the acoustic, bluegrass feel of 2002’s Home. Driving rhythm guitar and threepart harmonies abound in a nod to the ‘rockier’ side of country. Fear not Chicks fans, the banjo, mandolin and fiddle still play a major part. It’s clear that Maines, Maguire and Robison haven’t totally abandoned their Nashville cousins, but be under no illusions – this is the sound of three competent songwriters with a wealth of experience cutting loose, both musically and lyrically.
Yes, they have bones to pick. Yes, they choose to do so with a certain lack of subtlety, but who can blame them? Their run-in with Dubya received more column inches of newsprint than can possibly be deemed healthy in a world where unspeakable horrors occur on a daily basis. But don’t be fooled by the media backlash; the Chicks were courting controversy way back on 2001’s ‘Goodbye Earl’ and the acerbic ‘White Trash Wedding’ from Home. If you think these girls are a manufactured country-pop wet dream, think again – they’ve always had the chops, the humour and, yes, the intelligence to shake it up with the best of them.
Taking The Long Way opens with ‘The Long Way Round’, a road movie Don Henley would be proud to have written. It’s a fine way indeed to say ‘we’re back!’ with the nice addition of some clever lyrical nods to earlier Chicks songs. ‘Easy Silence’ follows with swathes of harmony and a plea for the simple things in life to keep you sane. Key talking point and canny first single ‘Not Ready To Make Nice’ is Maines’s response to the CD burning and radio boycott the band endured as a result of her London outburst; it rocks, it says what it has to, and it’s followed by ‘Everybody Knows’, a lovely melody and an introspective look at how the last two years has affected the close-knit trio.
It goes on. Each cut has merits, carefully constructed to achieve an emotional response and most hitting the right buttons. Maines courts the ire of her hometown with ‘Lubbock Or Leave It’, which has the classic line “…this is the only place, where as you’re getting on the plane, you see Buddy Holly’s face…” Others worthy of multiple plays are ‘Favorite Year’, a wistful look back at love gone wrong, and ‘Bitter End’, which eloquently dissects the true meaning of friendship, but really, they’re all pretty good. The Chicks have consistently improved with every album, and this is their best offering yet.
Unafraid to experiment, unafraid to steer their own path, the Dixie Chicks deserve a hearing. Forget the country tag and your own prejudices, this is a band at its peak; tune in or miss out.
originally published July 10th, 2006
This Hungry Life ••••
As a member of Throwing Muses, The Breeders and Belly, Tanya Donelly helped construct the blueprint for American college rock, writing soaring, breathless pop songs that belied dark, complex lyrics and a twisted world view. With a knack for writing the aural equivalent of a beehive – songs dripping with honey but packed with stings – Donelly was achingly vital to the 1990s but maintaining people’s interest over three acts proved a little too tough. Belly’s second album King, in no way a poor piece of work, fell on deaf ears and Donelly struck out on her own. Since then, marriage and motherhood have seemingly tempered her solo work, with each album becoming more laidback than the last, to the point where 2003’s country-laden Whiskey Tango Ghosts was practically supine.
On This Hungry Life, Donelly sets the hall of mirrors perspective that made her early work so exciting to the more traditional approach to songwriting that she has perfected. Opening with the line “it’s June and I’m still wearing my boots”, Donelly sings her sweet complaint in homage to New England. It’s this playful contrariness that gallops through the album and makes for an enjoyable listen, coming furthest to the fore on the superb ‘Littlewing’, a dark and unsettling song about falling in love.
Recorded in front of an audience in the bar of a deserted hotel on a sweltering weekend in 2004, This Hungry Life is one of those rare albums that are recorded live without being ‘live albums’ per se. The live band – including Catholic (in the Frank Black sense) Rich Gilbert, Dean ‘Mr Donelly’ Fisher, Bill Janovitz and (almost inevitably these days) Joan ‘As Police Woman’ Wasser – provide excellent accompaniment to Donelly’s liquid glycerine vocals. The heatwave conditions and setup of the recordings certainly worked for this line-up; no amount of studio time could ever improve the title track, a pedal-steel extravaganza that’s bound to break hearts. Elsewhere, the title of ‘Kundalini Slide’, one of the album’s standouts, sounds a bit like an attempt by Rory Bremner’s George Bush to pronounce the name of Condoleeza Rice, which may not in fact be all that coincidental as the lyrics represent a politically charged attack on intolerance and violence.
If a couple of the tracks retread the same matronly ground of the past two albums, Donelly’s mellifluous singing saves them and other tracks more than make up for any slight failings. This Hungry Life is a vibrant collection of songs through which a love of life and of live performance shines. If this is Donelly’s hungry life, is it wrong to kinda hope that she never ever gets a square meal?
originally published December 17th, 2006
The Dresden Dolls
Yes, Virginia ••••
If one thing sets the Dresden Dolls apart from pretty much anyone else around right now, it’s their confrontational and discomforting honesty. It’s something they practice in life as well as in their music – the blogs Amanda Palmer posts online dissect her insecurities and anxieties in detail. Take this for example: “i prefer sleeping alone nowadays. i barely think about love. i have plenty. i haven’t had a boyfriend in so long i’ve forgotten what it’s like. honestly.” The band also publish the wonderfully inarticulate hatemail they receive on their site (sample: “could you plase do something like kill yourselves,before you come to toronto, seeing you would probabnly ruin my life” – spelling mistakes author’s own – or “if you ever come to atlanta call me up 678-XXX-XXXX and i’ll fuckin beat your ass”) as well as collecting together some of the savage and abusive reviews they’ve received.
It’s this honesty that makes their music so entirely compelling, and Yes, Virginia – the follow-up to their 2004 self-titled debut – makes for truly startling listening. Building upon the dark themes and manic yet melodic style of their debut, it represents an artistic progression on every level – musically, lyrically and vocally. Palmer has extended her vocal range to incorporate a whole new palate of sounds, and, in places, sounds more aggressive than ever before. The songs are powerful and muscular, tempered with moments of tenderness made all the more affecting by the tempestuous menace that surrounds them. The Dolls have grown more confident, too, adding layer upon layer of insistent, pounding pianos and cascading drums to create a driving and sometimes frantic sound.
The insistent piano riff that opens the record is extremely ominous – like listening to the first rumbling tones of a coming thunderstorm – and it’s not long before a shout from Amanda heralds the entrance of Brian Viglione’s pummelling drums. Songs turn from tender to vicious in the space of a couple of lines. ‘Delilah’, one of the album’s highlights, describes the frustration of watching a friend wilfully enter a violent relationship: “He’s gonna beat you like a pillow / you schizos never learn / and if you take him home / you’ll get what you deserve”. From a hushed, piano and vocal opening, the song builds until the frustration and powerlessness in the lyrics is reflected in the epic, operatic music. Lyrically, the album is often violent and disturbing, with images of mutilation and surgery recurring throughout without ever sounding like they’re merely out to shock. Perhaps this is because Palmer’s writing is shot through with dark humour and a rare wit. ‘Shores Of California’, for example, is a clever dissection of male and female coping mechanisms for being single, with lyrics like “all I know is that all around the nation / the girls are crying, the boys are masturbating”.
There are occasional moments where the lyrics veer close to self-parody, but the Dolls are too knowing and self-aware to succumb to such pitfalls: on ‘Dirty Business’, Amanda sings “Am I the poster girl for some suburban sickness?” while the unmitigated stream of aggression running through the chorus of ‘Backstabber’ (“Backstabber, backstabber / greedy fucking fit-haver”) would seem ridiculously emo were the lyrics not married to the catchiest melody the band have ever penned. Furthermore, the song ends with a demented cackle as if to tell you the band know exactly how closely they’ve been flirting with the ridiculous.
Yes, Virginia is not an easy listen, but it’s an exciting, raw and emotional one. However you might categorise the Dresden Dolls – and they have been variously labelled as theatrical rock, punk cabaret, manic-musical, neoglam-torch etc. – one fact remains: their music is really damn good.
originally published April 10th, 2006
The Dresden Dolls
Live at Spiegelzelt, Berlin ••••
May 14th, 2006
“We were so excited when we heard we could play in a mirrored tent” exclaimed Dresden Dolls singer Amanda Palmer as she took to the stage of the Spiegelzelt, erected temporarily for a nomadic mini-festival taking place all over Germany. But as the sunset glowed through the stained-glass windows of this curiously decadent, wood- and velvet-laden construction next to the railway tracks at East Berlin’s former main station, what place could be more suitable? After all, The Dresden Dolls describe themselves as ‘Brechtian punk cabaret’ and are clearly thrilled to introduce their new album, Yes, Virginia, to the country that gave them their name, as well as Bertolt Brecht and his weird and wonderful theatre.
Since the release of their eponymous debut, the Boston duo has accumulated a dedicated, passionate and numerous following without attracting too much hype or mainstream press, mainly on the back of word-of-mouth praise and blistering live shows. Tonight was no exception. Though the sun was still illuminating the tent from all sides and The Dresden Dolls are a band best served in eerie, smoky darkness, Palmer and drummer Brian Viglione conjured up such dark intensity that it could have been on a Caribbean beach and still been just as impressive. Like The Kills, the sparseness of the arrangements (i.e. only keyboard and primal drums against Amanda’s rich and frantic vocals) makes the drama so much more affecting and severe. As they look at each other across the stage, all the fierceness that’s found in a band of five members is concentrated into a single, manic gaze. As with all things cabaret, however, it’s not all entirely serious. Early single ‘Coin-Operated Boy’ is a cheeky crowd pleaser and their cover of Grauzone’s ‘Eisbär’, a Swiss new wave band’s ode to the polar bear, had the crowd waving arms and singing at the top of their voices.
Perhaps fittingly it was not one of their own songs that captured the evening, but a cover of Jacques Brel’s ‘Port Of Amsterdam’ – a wistfully sexy black-hearted tale of a long gone time of swashbucklin’ filthy cabaret bars frequented by a shady clientele. The Dresden Dolls romanticise and capture this decadent and dangerous world and their concerts make it real for people disillusioned by their oversanitised, modern existence.
Robbie de Santos
originally published June 24th, 2006
Most Wanted •••½
In the sometimes scary land of teen pop there is a boxing ring, with Hilary Duff in the red corner and Lindsay Lohan in the blue. Whilst not quite delivering a knockout punch with this release, Hilary at least shows that she has the edge and will stay standing for quite a few more rounds. The cliché of the difficult third album is not easy to apply to Most Wanted, as it more closely resembles a greatest hits with a few new tracks thrown in. Coming in an attractive two-piece case, the Collector’s Signature Edition contains 17 slices of Duffness, of which just four are new. The remainder are remixes of songs from previous albums, although a collaboration with sister Haylie on The GoGo’s classic ‘Our Lips Are Sealed’ is carried off with dignity, showing that it is possible to cover a well-known song without leaving the original artists turning in their graves (or, in this case, mansions).
Hilary’s move into more soulful and lyrically complete tunes in her second album is less apparent in this latest offering, which walks the line between rock and pop. US radio programmers have swooped upon first single ‘Wake Up’, which flaunts a killer hook and is one of her best to date. However, the standout track is the super slick ‘Break My Heart’, which borders on a Blink 182-esque anthem pitched around a superb middle eight. This comes as no real surprise, as song was co-written with the Madden Brothers from pop/punk band Good Charlotte and John Feldmann from Goldfinger. Club DJ Chris Cox does a good job of turning the previously likeable ‘Come Clean’ into an irresistible floor-shaking house mix, building up from the simple melody of the original with big beats and delivering the goods.
Perhaps more than simply a greatest hits, this album is a showcase of some of the more unique songs from her repertoire, such as the raucous ‘Mr James Dean’, from 2003’s self-titled second album. Duff certainly has a unique voice, clearly identifiable amongst the often faceless pop crowd. ‘So Yesterday’, the signature track from her 2002 debut Metamorphosis, makes a welcome return. Although perhaps more polished than even the crown jewels, it’s pure pop perfection. The standard edition of the album, running at a more bite-sized 13 songs is an attractive option for Duff’s doubting thomases or newcomers to her music.
originally published September 4th, 2005
The Duke Spirit
Cuts Across The Land •••½
After 18 months in the making, it’s not surprising that Cuts Across The Land is a fairly polished, well-produced and suitably promising debut. It’s an adept and listenable dark-edged rock ‘n’ roll album. The problem arises when you start to wonder what exactly it is you’re listening to – it would be fair to say that the London-based five-piece wear their influences on their sleeves. Sadly, these are rarely combined into any new, innovative or interesting sound; rather, they are too often laid out bare in quick succession for all the world to ear, particularly in the Sebadoh-esque riffing in the chorus of the title track to the alarmingly ‘Anarchy In The UK’-like opening chord of first single, ‘Lion Rip’, although in the latter this quickly dissolves into one the album’s standout tracks.
When their influences aren’t so apparent, such as on the interminable bore that is ‘Hello To The Floor’, neither is the passion that could have made this reasonable album into a really good one. In fact, this track, and to a slightly lesser extent, ‘Bottom Of The Sea’, smack of a by-the-numbers “every rock album needs a couple of ballads” approach to recording, which fails to showcase properly any of the bands talents, except possibly an ear for a nice couplet, as the frequently well-crafted lyrics are dribbled out by singer Leila Moss with less enthusiasm than is found at your average Saturday night karaoke, which is made all the more disappointing because elsewhere on the album you discover that she can do so much better. For example, there is infinitely more zeal on ‘Win Your Love’, a high point of the record, especially if the prospect of Polly Harvey fronting Sonic Youth is one that excites you. But PJ isn’t the only vocal influence Moss parades – Patti Smith and Nico are never far from mind. Indeed, the Velvet Underground themselves are one of the more pervading influences of the guitar sound throughout.
However, it seems somewhat mean spirited to continue to run through the tracklist namedropping the many earlier, often seminal, acts that are brought to mind when listening to this record. Perhaps in this era where exceptional debuts seem to be the norm, promise is no longer enough, but Cuts Across The Land is full of it. If future efforts can use these diverse influences as exactly that and not as such obvious templates, as well as capturing some of the fervour and excitement that most reviewers and music fans alike agree that the band exhibit when on stage, then they are certainly an act worth keeping an ear out for.
originally published July 16th, 2005
The Mezzanine ••••
Deliciously layered with meaning as though it’s a direct line into her soul, Liz Durrett’s distinctive voice will utterly transfix you; this is a good thing, for then you’ll be struck by her striking, pared-down lyrics and wonder how on earth she’s been such a best kept secret. It took her 10 years to get comfy with the idea of releasing her own material, beginning with last year’s Husk, not least because of a crippling anxiety that she wouldn’t live up to her own high standards and her familial connections (she’s the niece of singer-songwriter Vic Chesnutt, who’s on board here as producer). Luckily for us, she hasn’t let that overwhelm her and the light once hidden by that mighty bushel of doubt is finally beaming into these warmly grateful ears.
With its beguiling nursery rhyme-esque introduction, opener ‘Knives At The Wall’ lulls and soothes into an early reverie that grows ever darker as the song progresses. It’s one of the least remarkable songs of the collection, yet it serves as a perfect introduction to The Mezzanine‘s suggestive, haunting power. The similarly minimalist ‘All The Spokes’ is swiftly followed by the curiously upbeat ‘Cup On The Counter’, whose delightfully discordant atmosphere and accusatory lyrics (“I’m not a child, I know what I’ve seen”) are accompanied by the startling addition of a child in conversation. An equally evocative harmonica solo and double-tracked vocals make ‘Shivering Assembly’ the shining example of how Durrett successfully pulls off disarming little touches and effects, adding to the tone and theatricality of the music without falsifying its ambition and meaning.
This, and other songs, may tempt you to place Durrett firmly in the gothic fold, but The Mezzanine as a whole is a hopeful creature, as is the empowering track that gives the album its name. Here, Durrett’s “they” refers to unnamed oppressive influences lurking nearby. Yet while the album certainly revels in its darkness and is accordingly beautiful for it, such a mood is not its focus, merely a tangible influence that belies her upbringing in the oppressive humidity of Georgia, as well as her battle with depression. The rawness of ‘Marlene’ is both deeply personal and astounding; Durrett’s quivering vibrato gives an ethereal, wispy quality to the song and is neatly complemented by the off-key piano instrumental ‘Silent Partner’ that follows.
It’s not all easygoing, however. An eerily muffled screaming guitar slightly overwhelms ‘No Apology’, but once your ears have adjusted, simple unpleasantness quickly becomes intriguing unpleasantness and perseverance is definitely required. ‘In The Throes’ thankfully marks a return to the style of the earlier songs and brings things to a worthy close, combining all the best aspects from the previous ten tracks – introspection, a gently powerful voice, fabulous guitars and a stunning combination of orchestral and electric instruments. A trip through Durrett’s (under)world may not be appropriate for everyone but the devil’s in the details and we all know by now who has the best tunes.
originally published August 10th, 2006
Filed under: album, back issues, live, review | Tags: adam smith, alan pedder, anja garbarek, anja mccloskey, emm gryner, endre buzogany, garbage, giant drag, girls aloud, grouper, helen griffiths, inara george, jennifer greer, loria near, mary gauthier, matthew hall, nanci griffith, nina gordon, patty griffin, pepi ginsberg, robbie de santos, smoosh, stephanie heney, sugababes, the go team, the gossip, the grates, thea gilmore, tiffany daniels, trevor raggatt
The following reviews were all published on our old website between May 2005 and December 2006.
If the surname rings a bell – and let’s face it, it should – then yes, this is the latest musical offering from the daughter of actress/singer Jane Birkin and her one-time paramour, the legendary Serge Gainsbourg. In many ways, 5:55 could be described as her second debut, coming as it does no less than 20 years after her first, Charlotte For Ever (notable for the controversial single ‘Lemon Incest’), which was entirely penned by her father. She was only 13 when it was recorded. In the interim, Gainsbourg has enjoyed a successful and award-winning career in cinema, appearing in over 30 films – in fact, you will soon be able to see her starring alongside Gael Garcia Bernal in Michel Gondry’s hotly anticipated ‘The Science Of Sleep’ – so it’s a wonder she’s come back to the music again aged 35. That she has is thanks to meeting Air’s Nicolas Godin and Jean-Benoît Dunckel at a Radiohead concert, an encounter that led through a fortuitous chain of events to the involvement of producer Nigel Godrich, string arranger David Campbell and lyrical assistance from Jarvis Cocker and Neil Hannon of The Divine Comedy.
Laidback and jazz-like in spirit, the main comparison that springs to mind when listening to 5:55 is Black Box Recorder. Like Sarah Nixey, Gainsbourg’s delivery is arch and sinister at times, most apparent on the claustrophobic in-flight tale of ‘AF607105′. With Cocker’s lyrics sketching a very ‘Lost In Translation’ sense of displacement, Gainsbourg’s performance is suitably detached yet welcoming and gorgeously creepy. Then there’s the title track, which is a bold way for anyone to introduce an album, let alone someone who’s been away from music for so long. Easily the sexiest song on the album, her breathy Gallic tones interpreting more of Cocker’s sensitively written words over soft drums and rippling piano. Having said that, ‘Tel Que Tu Es’ isn’t far behind in the sexy stakes, helped as it is by Gainsbourg singing mainly in French. Later on, however, ‘Little Monsters’ proves that this was no mere trick of language.
All this sultriness can get a bit wearing over the course of the album’s 40-odd minutes so it’s a relief when Gainsbourg lets her sang-froid cool slip a little on ‘Everything I Cannot See’, but even amongst the Tori Amos hyper-ballad piano stylings lies a heart that’s mostly still. 5:55 is a beautifully arranged album – see how the violins gently usher along the tender vocals of ‘Beauty Mark’ – and it’s wonderfully constructed, too. It’s just that sometimes it appears to be devoid of any real emotion or feeling, and that’s a crying shame.
originally published September 20th, 2006
Bleed Like Me •••½
When it comes to the fortunes of Garbage, this reviewer appears to be in something of a minority. While their decade-long career has witnessed an inexorable fall from favour of their moody para-gothic industrial machinations that, to these ears, was never wholly convincing, for me they have matured like a reasonable cheese. So while they’ve always been on the outer shores of my tastes, this latest release has them fighting the tide and moving further inland.
Making albums has never been easy for Shirley Manson and co. – this is only their fourth in a decade and arrives a full four years after 2001’s unworthy BeautifulGarbage. During that time, Manson’s marriage collapsed and the band themselves were close to implosion. Drummer Butch Vig went so far as to quit the sessions entirely, and was temporarily replaced by old Nirvana buddy, Foo Fighters’ Dave Grohl, before Vig returned just a few months later, seemingly re-energised. Although opener ‘Bad Boyfriend’ retains Grohl’s punishing drums, Bleed Like Me is very much a Garbage record, albeit an older, more attractive proposition. The sequencing is appealingly well balanced and the genres it careens through are less ill-advised than those of BeautifulGarbage. There’s a hint of playful New Wave revivalism (‘Run Baby Run’), metal-tinged power chords (‘Why Do You Love Me’), synth-pop mechanics (‘Metal Heart’) and, most refreshingly, the sinister acoustics and pained whispered vocals of the standout title track. It’s a guise worn well and should be further explored if the rumours are wrong and this isn’t their swansong.
Recovering from the commercial near-suicide of BeautifulGarbage may have seemed insurmountable even to the casual observer, and Bleed Like Me can certainly be criticised for knowing its audience a little too well (or at least assuming it does). But, the terrible Janet Jackson boobgate-inspired ‘Sex Is Not The Enemy’ aside, that’s not entirely misjudged. The album provides a decent quality:guff ratio with its danceable, festival-friendly riffs and, if it is to be their last as a unit, a fitting farewell.
originally published November 7th, 2005
Briefly Shaking ••••
Angel-A OST •••
A decade on from her startling English language debut, Balloon Mood, delightfully quirky Norwegian chanteuse Anja Garbarek returns with not one but two new albums, Briefly Shaking and the ‘Angel-A’ soundtrack. To be fair, the latter contains little in the way of new material and what’s there is largely instrumental. But as the soundtrack to maverick director Luc Besson’s (‘The Fifth Element’, ‘Léon The Professional’) mysterious new film, shot in black and white on the streets of Paris in almost total secrecy, it is more than up to the task. Given that this is Besson’s first film without composer Eric Serra, there was a certain element of risk in taking Garbarek on, but Besson is clearly a fan; five old songs are seamlessly scattered among the newer ones.
Of course, the risk was really very tiny. Not only has Garbarek been consistently excellent throughout her career, she also has an outstanding pedigree for this sort of thing, following as she does in the footsteps of her world-famous jazz genius father Jan, who has often dipped a toe into creating musical moods for fiercely independent European cinema. As they have often done in the past, father and daughter collaborate on a number of tracks, notably on new song ‘It’s Just A Game’ with its jazzy but subdued reassurance that “this is as good as it gets”. Don’t you believe it though. The sublime ‘No Trace Of Grey’ is so convincingly sweet versus sinister that it could well have been recorded at a teddy bears’ picnic in, say, the bathroom of cabin one of the Bates Motel.
Sticking with a murderous theme, the actually quite frightening ‘Can I Keep Him?’ (the only song to appear on both albums) is written from the point of view of serial killer Dennis Nilsen, who lured several young men back to his home in Muswell Hill, north London [just round the corner from Wears The Trousers HQ!], and chopped them into pieces. It’s a towering example of Garbarek’s skill as a writer; she plays with the lost pet interpretation of the title and then, as Nilsen kills, the previously serene instrumentation explodes into beats so harsh and aggressive that it sounds like a trio of typewriters at war. Being taken inside the head of a mass murderer is rarely an attractive listen, but Garbarek’s portrayal is up there with Sufjan Stevens’s John Wayne Gacy Jr. in its almost sympathetic exploration of its subject.
It’s little wonder, then, that Garbarek has since remarked that she should have called the album ‘Beauty & The Beast’ instead of Briefly Shaking. That title comes from the chorus of the excellent first single ‘The Last Trick’ with its dark lyrical content, candied vocals and unsettlingly perky backing. It was written as Garbarek was struggling with her muse after giving birth to her daughter and could well have been her swansong had it not been for the thunderbolts of inspiration found in tales of horror and crime. ‘Sleep’, for instance, tells the story of a woman who was kidnapped and locked in an underground bunker but works equally well as a metaphor for her burdening creative imprisonment.
The most keenly felt difference between 2001’s Smiling & Waving and Briefly Shaking lies in the addition of drums, particularly on songs like ‘Dizzy With Wonder’, a thunderously intense and dramatic number in which Garbarek plays the role of an observer surveying some twisted, post-industrial landscape, and ‘Shock Activities’, with its slightly overblown kickass rock bits and unexpected mid-song shift into a cod-Gwen Stefani breakdown but with far greater charm. Other highlights include ‘My Fellow Riders’, with its piping keys and gently throbbing electro pulses, and ‘This Momentous Day’, an ecstatically unpredictable monster that juxtaposes flute and strings with grinding guitars and coolly passionate vocals.
Having said all that, while Briefly Shaking is easily Garbarek’s darkest album to date, it’s also her most accessible and lavish. Motherhood certainly hasn’t reined in either her knack for telling unusual stories or her beguling way with a drop-dead gorgeous melody. Considering that she doesn’t play a single instrument yet still can pen such epic compositions, her achievements are simply astounding. She may not be the most prolific of artists, but with every release improving on the last, seemingly unbetterable album, it’s only a matter of time before her brilliance is properly acknowledged. File between Laurie Anderson and Björk and play with an alarming regularity.
originally published May 7th, 2006
Mercy Now •••
Within just a few seconds of a soft guitar solo delicately feeding into a slow, slurred drawl, you already know you’re in the safest of hands. Such is the comforting hallmark of prime Louisiana export Mary Gauthier, whose saturnine world has been documented thus far over three sometimes stellar albums, and right from the starting blocks the gentle ear candy of her fourth, Mercy Now, signals no drop on the quality-o-meter. Revelling in its masterful weaving of guitar, percussion, cello, Hammond organ, banjo and an electric guitar with a tear-inducing twang, Gauthier once again delivers the goods with ten solid songs, including two covers (Harlan Howard’s ‘Just Say She’s A Rhymer’ and Fred Eaglesmith’s ‘Your Sister Cried’) and a re-recording of her own ‘I Drink’, offering folk and country in equal measures. As each track uncovers a little bit more of the mystery and history of Gauthier, the end product as a whole whips away the smokescreen to reveal what our genial hostess has been keeping herself busy with since Filth & Fire became the New York Times’s indie album of 2002.
The songs are both intimate and revealing, and are testimony to the art of personal storytelling which is as intact here as it has been on any of her previous albums. Influenced by the truth-telling of Dylan, John Prine, Patti Smith and Neil Young, and at times reminiscent of label buddy Lucinda Williams, Gauthier is in good company and has no doubt been encouraged to keep the stories coming, narrative after narrative. Hers are told in the barest of settings, stripped back and open. The first track, ‘Falling Out Of Love’ is so close to spoken that the listener receives an intimate, seemingly confidential one-on-one recount of a failed relationship. The pained lyrics, memories, anecdotes and post-relationship ache soon rise clear before Gauthier declares her determination in the refrain of “Let me out, set me free.” On the following track from which the album takes its name, the internal has become external and her concerns for both family and country are voiced.
Mercy Now delivers a plentiful dish of family issues, woe, personal trauma, disillusion, longing and addiction; the essential heartache ingredients of any Mary Gauthier record. Yet it is because of this rich bloodied vein of emotional injury, rather than in spite of it, that real beauty exists in her work. ‘Empty Spaces’, a gripping tale of passion gone awry, is the perfect example, rounded out with wonderful harmonies. By consistently pulling down the barriers to let her blood and guts shine through, Gauthier touches on the essence of what it is to live. Rawness, intimacy, reflection and survival are abundant in her songwriting and Mercy Now is a touching creation and a journey worth taking, though be prepared for a somewhat bumpy ride.
originally published August 7th, 2005
All Rise ••••
When you’re the daughter of a preternaturally-gifted musician, in this case, celebrated Little Feat guitarist Lowell George, there’s a certain sense of destiny at work, and Inara George is certainly no stranger to the industry. Whilst at college she fronted a pair of indie bands, Lode and Merrick, both of which boasted a small but devoted following, despite at first having no intention of following in her father’s footsteps, studying instead classical theatre. In the lead up to this, her debut solo album, George was singing back-up for Idlewild, Van Dyke Parks and Jackson Browne, the latter of whom returns the favour here. Then last year she enlisted the production skills of Michael Andrews, composer of the score to cult film ‘Donnie Darko’, and work on the album began.
The result? All Rise is a graceful, elegant album of mostly downbeat love songs that showcases George as a singer, songwriter and lyricist of considerable depth, carving for herself a distinctive niche without depending on reputation once removed. Most of the songs wrap comfortably around well-crafted melodies and inventive song structures, with George’s vocal always the centrepiece. Comparisons with Suzanne Vega and Cat Power’s Chan Marshall are not too far off the mark; George’s wide vocal range keeps her from sounding sedate yet lends the songs a greater depth of feeling. On the opening combo of ‘Mistress’ and ‘Fools Work’, she sings in the manner of a sultry but delicate coffee house chanteuse, while on guitar-pop numbers like ‘Turn On/Turn Off’ and crown jewel ‘What A Number’, she proves she can rock out as well as anyone.
To her credit, George manages to convey strong emotions in her lyrics without burying the listener with overwrought and angst-filled metaphors. In ‘Mistress’, the narrator wistfully asks, “Will you take me as your mistress? / sure and short of breath / could you carry on your business? / do you already know / the way to my door? / ‘cause you made your way inside / a dozen times before.” On the more upbeat ‘Genius’, she tackles the topic of feeling inadequate in a disarmingly simple manner, singing, “Everybody wants to be a genius / you’re not the only one / yith all the things that you might do, which one of them will you get to?”
It’s not flawless, however; there’s a few minor quibbles that detract from five-star greatness. Though George throws in a hauntingly beautiful and sparse cover of Joe Jackson’s ‘Fools In Love’ to mix things up, there are points in the album where the songs seem to fit and flow together too well, to the point where it’s sometimes easy to get lost in the tracklist. A bit more attention to the sequencing may also have solved the uneasy listening that is the album closer, ‘Everybody Knows’. While this might have better served its purpose as an experiment on a B-side or been allowed more time to grow before recording, here it almost feels like a throwaway. Though it shows a different side to George’s songwriting, it rather unbalances the disc. Yet despite these caveats, All Rise is an accomplished, excellent debut album, and one that generously leaves plenty of room for growth whilst undoubtedly holding its own, with or without the pedigree.
originally published November 11th, 2005
In The Maybe World ••••
It’s hard to disagree with Young God Records founder Michael Gira when he claims that Lisa Germano belongs “right up there with the cadre of strong, emotionally raw, challenging and original women singers such as PJ Harvey, Marianne Faithfull, Cat Power and Björk”, though quite why she isn’t, commercially at least, is and isn’t obvious. Like Harvey, Germano makes music that’s more often than not unremittingly intense, sometimes catching you off guard with unexpected shots of humour – a tried, tested and triumphant Björkian trick. Like Faithfull and Chan Marshall, her lulling voice is both narcoleptic and ravaged, deceptively sombre and extraordinarily distinctive. But where the self-professed Emotional Wench truly excels and betters even these mighty pillars of all her peers is in her ability to establish a mood and immerse you so deep inside it that you’re never quite sure whether the gut knots she invokes are down to claustrophobia, fear or rapture.
If this were Germano’s first ever album, hacks would be stabbing each other in the eyes with pencils in a race to coin a brand new genre. But it’s not, it’s her seventh in a 15-year career and no one has quite managed to pin her butterfly down. And really what’s the point? Still, if it’s a label you want, I’m prepared to make the effort and after much consideration have plumped for ‘dreamo’ – sort of like emo through an opiate haze, where snot-nosed woe-is-me’s are banished in favour of sophisticated dreamweavers who far outstrip generic dear diarists with delicately nuanced tales of human nature. Oh, and a little self-deprecation as the reward of actual life experience. That’s always good.
Funnily enough, a few of In The Maybe World‘s dozen songs could easily be shredded into out-and-out rock monsters in the hands of another. Take ‘Red Thread’, for example, whose emo appeal surely lies in its call-and-response telephone exchange of “go to hell”, “fuck you” – you can practically hear the crack as the receiver collides with its cradle. But Germano is too wily a creature to languish in the obvious, twisting the lyric to broaden the moment into a greater realisation that anger is just as valid and healthy an emotion as love, and that one can often drive the other.
Elsewhere, her main preoccupation is death. The fortunately unprophetic ‘Too Much Space’ arose from her fear of losing her dad after a serious health scare; ‘Golden Cities’ arrived on the occasion of her much-loved cat’s death from cancer; while the solo piano elegy of ‘Except For The Ghosts’ is a decade-old number written in honour of her friend Jeff Buckley, exploring his headspace in the moment he accepted he was a goner. ‘Wire’ and ‘Into Oblivion’ are equally affecting, packing more emotion into a single line than Conor Oberst at a wake for his own credibility.
Germano’s charm is incontrovertibly eerie and certainly fanciful enough to put the less enlightened off, but this is her finest work since the dementedly brilliant Geek The Girl and ‘maybe’ just won’t cut it. If you’re asking whether to investigate further, the magic word is yes.
originally published July 23rd, 2006
Live at Academy 2, Manchester ••½
February 17th, 2006
It’s fair to say that Los Angeles duo Annie Hardy and Micah Calabrese, collectively known as Giant Drag, have problems. Problems that need to be ironed out if they are to achieve a level of success beyond that afforded to artists of the cult variety and stand on a higher platform. As evidenced on last year’s debut Hearts & Unicorns, both are very talented musicians and it’s hard to argue with their live performaces too; tonight’s support slot for The Cribs sees Annie hit every note perfectly and Micah display his mastery of the art of playing the drums and synthesisers simultaneously. The problems are not in the songs either; these have a wonderful post-grunge feel and tracks like ‘yflmd (You Fuck Like My Dad)’, ‘Drugs’ and ‘My Dick Sux’ reflect the duo’s innate sense of quirkiness.
The problems arise when the audience is blissfully unaware of Annie’s unusual banter, and it can come as a damning blow in the live context. She’s overly perverse and either an obsessive liar or a very bad comedienne, depending on your view. Joking about child paedophilia and incest is hardly the way to the nation’s heart, although a few in the crowd do warm to her, if only out of sympathy. Perhaps trying to capitalise on that, Annie points out the audiences at their two previous shows “didn’t like Giant Drag”, but it’s more than obvious why. Whilst Karen O of the Yeah Yeah Yeahs would simply dismiss the jeers of a faux-macho yell of “show us yerr tits!” or “fuck me!” with a sneering “suck your own dick” when she first came to the country, Annie clearly hasn’t taken any tips from the shrieking New Yorker. Either she tries to join in on the joke and adapt her stories to include members of the audience, or, like most bands, she pretends not to hear the calls. Considering how irritating hecklers are, you could never criticise a band member for doing this, but given their abrupt nature Giant Drag are going to have to get used to such crude shout outs, and, in my opinion, the best way to deal with them is to bluntly put the caller back in their place.
Even so, the duo offer an interesting live show, and to give their music justice it’s worth seeing a gig. At the very least, it will certainly help you to form your own opinion, because like Marmite, you either love, hate, or are allergic to Giant Drag.
originally published March 6th, 2006
Harpo’s Ghost ••••½
It’s a handsome little irony that staunchly British indie singer-songwriter Thea Gilmore has produced what could be a career-defining album that has Americana running through it to the core. Sonically, Harpo’s Ghost is simultaneously a progression and a departure from her previous releases, melding her unmistakable vocals and ear for a melody with sounds that recall classic American recordings from the West Coast to Greenwich Village via Texas and the Mississippi Delta. The relative commercial success of 2003’s Avalanche afforded Gilmore the opportunity to experience the United States firsthand as a touring partner for Joan Baez, and it’s her experiences of this trip and subsequent bout with depression that dominate the album – even the title is somehow redolent of excess, decadence and decay.
‘The Gambler’ kicks things off accordingly with what initially seems like a plodding, weighty mid-paced ballad reminiscent of those that dominated Aimee Mann’s last album but soon raises the stakes with crashing guitars and Hammond organ riffage set firmly to ‘rouse’ while Gilmore dares everyone to spin the wheel of fortune. Light and shade have rarely been contrasted so magnificently and from hereon in the bar is set at neck- cricking height. Fortunately, songs that fall short are few and far between. On her voyages, Gilmore has clearly enjoyed meeting the multitudinous stuffed shirts that infect the higher echelons of the media industry, and ‘Everybody’s Numb’ bites back in excellent fashion. In a diatribe against the sacrifice of creativity in favour of bottom-feeding mediocrity, Gilmore positively drips with sarcasm as she spits through gritted teeth, “pleased to meet you boys / you know it’s been a while / since I had to fake delight / just to raise a smile”, buoyed aloft by a funky drumbeat. Perfect!
Harpo’s Ghost alternates between philosophical musings and the intimate story songs so beloved of Nebraska-era Springsteen, burrowing even further than she has before into the realms of the dysfunctional psyche. ‘Red, White & Black’ tackles those who refuse to acknowledge life’s inescapable ambiguity, colour and shade – specifically those in “the United States of Emptiness” who are blinkered to their own political environment and its effects on the world at large – while ‘The List’ follows the misadventures of a couple on a downward slide, looking for redemption in all the wrong places. Elsewhere, on platform eight, ‘Whistle & Steam’ shows that when the Gospel train’s-a-comin’ there may just be some who are reluctant to get on board.
Gilmore also excels when mining a rockier seam, tossing liberal doses of fuzz bass and a garage band vibe into the mix alongside more subtle arrangements. ‘Call Me Your Darling’ sees her channelling the spirit of late-‘60s Dylan through the modern filter of the Counting Crows, while ‘We Built A Monster’ (one of two tracks co-written with Mike Scott of The Waterboys) blends West Coast psychedelic guitars with lo-fi attitude in a stinging riposte to our ‘special relationship’ with capitalism and consumerist philosophy. First single ‘Cheap Tricks’ is an obvious choice for a new assault on the charts, being an intelligent, hook-laden, passionate stomper that’s anything but bargain basement.
An unexpected pleasure, ‘Contessa’ successfully combines Mississippi jug band blues with the sort of expansive Eno-esque soundscapes that made U2’s The Joshua Tree so cinematic and captivating, but it’s up to album closer ‘Slow Journey II’ to leave us weeping in the aisles. Slow and doleful, its despairing lyrics of a weary traveller trudging on to an inevitable oblivion are perfectly accompanied by distorted harmony vocals and evocative cello. Except it’s not really the end. Hidden track ‘Play Until The Bottle’s Gone’ blasts away the clouds with a cheery little country- tinged ditty on the cathartic effects of music. Maybe things aren’t all that bad when you’ve got inspiration from a Neil Young record and can “just pick up your plywood and learn to sing the blues”. Gilmore’s very own ‘Always Look On The Bright Side Of Life?’. Maybe not quite, but it’s an appropriately British attitude to close a great, great album.
originally published August 22nd, 2006
Orange Juice: Stephanie/Stephanie ••••
Philadelphia has long been an underrated hub of creativity where bohemians can feel completely at home, thriving in a town where the rent is so cheap that you can pay all your bills by working part-time. Pepi Ginsberg – yes, that is her real name – appears to be one of those artistic souls doing just that. Her destiny – to become extraordinary to be exact – was laid out early when she was named after her German grandmother who started a school in Palestine and married one of the organisers behind the Jewish refugee ship Exodus, best known through the seven-hour marathon movie of the same title starring Paul Newman. Fittingly, Ginsberg is one of those rare people who seem wise beyond their years, but in an entirely touching way. With a voice that’s filled with an ancient pain, so blue and lazy that it’s sometimes on the verge of being out of tune, she really is a poet in disguise, painting tender, sadly beautiful pictures with words worth framing, all enhanced by her unusual speak-sing style.
However ambiguous the title, much of Orange Juice: Stephanie/Stephanie burns with spontaneity and truth. A number of songs take a fairly straightforward approach to folk music; the opener ‘China Sea’, for example, takes a delicately played guitar and adds prosaic lyrics to give a stripped down performance that’s emotionally sound and ushers Ginsberg in, closer to her audience. Similarly, ‘Maroon Coats’ and ‘Cool Green Castle’ take the same folk influences and skilfully evoke a feeling of melancholy and nostalgia that’s entirely believable.
On songs where Ginsberg recruits a band, such as ‘Needlenumb’ and ‘Kettle Song’, the structured and fairly ordinary arrangements may make for a fuller sound but occasionally trip up her free-spirited voice, making it seem a little bit clumsy. The starkly emotional ‘Orange Juice: Stephanie/Stephanie Part 1’ and ‘Part 2′ provide a much better framework for her unrestricted singing. That’s not to say that Ginsberg is shy of experimentation. The self-explanatorily titled ‘Zelda’s Song (As Sung By A Young Spanish Woman)’ finds her singing in a Spanish accent all the way through, while ‘You, Your Brother & Me’ has a theatrical tinge that’s reminiscent of Tom Waits.
Most of the time, Ginsberg’s songs feel comfortable but not predictable; her voice pushes over lazy guitar rhythms with the appealing nous of a well-adventured soul. At one point she sings, “if your song wants to be a colour, drink it,” and judging by this debut, that’s exactly what she’s been doing. And there’s plenty of colour to spare; these dozen songs are but a very slim margin of what is floating around this songwriter’s head – apparently she chose them out of 185 songs written in just over a year.
originally published October 5th, 2006
The Sound Of Girls Aloud ••••
Overloaded: The Singles Collection ••••½
When some of the top selling (and best) pop singles of the year are built around tribal beats, heavy bass and dirty, muscular synths (yes ok, produced by Timbaland), it’s easy to forget how startling it was to hear a chart-topper as bold as ‘Freak Like Me’ back in 2002. The audacity of a pop act, more importantly a girl group, taking a previously underground bootleg, drafting in its own cutting-edge creator (Richard X, where have you gone?) and then kicking it into touch with their own crude hybrid of R&B and electro, made the rest of the top ten look as dull and predictable as a coachload of Pop Idol contestants on the drive down to London. Borne out of the brief but influential trend for electroclash, ‘Freak Like Me’ was the start of a renaissance, not only for the Sugababes but also for UK pop. It’s unlikely ‘Sound Of The Underground’ would have ever found its way into the hands of Girls Aloud had the Sugababes not set the template. It’s the reason, on their second single, ‘No Good Advice’, they chew up ‘My Sharona’ and spit out the pieces. In fact it’s fair to say that these three records not only sounded the death knell of the boy band, but put the final nail in the coffin and then revved up the hearse.
Listening to Girls Aloud can cause you to wonder at what point does it all go right? Five reality show contestants, a faceless production team, the obligatory tacky videos/costumes/dance routines and the added bonus of having Louis Walsh as your known ‘mentor’. Yet there are few pop acts now capable of producing anything even half as exciting or distinctive as most of the songs here. Whilst it would be easy to attribute their success to Brian Higgins’ Xenomania production team, it’s the execution of that material that makes the band so enjoyable. The girls may have their tongues in their cheeks half the time but they throw themselves headfirst into their performances; ‘Biology’ being one of the best pop vocals of the last few years. By comparison, a band like The Pussycat Dolls are usually too busy posturing to even notice what backing track is playing. In fact, it’s difficult to imagine any of the competition attempting half of these songs for fear of sounding ridiculous, which probably explains the Girls’ appeal – a willingness to experiment and a refreshing lack of vanity. It’s why their best songs, ‘Love Machine’, ‘Biology’, ‘Wake Me Up’, ‘Something Kinda Ooooh’, are so different from one another but so distinctively Girls Aloud. Despite Cheryl Tweedy’s insistence that numerous other bands have aped their ‘sound’ (Charlotte Church, All Saints…The Beatles, probably), The Sound Of Girls Aloud is exactly that, like no other pop act. Only four years in the making, it manages to compile 13 top 10 hits, about two-thirds of which are brilliant, exhilarating pop. It’s a shame, then, that we’re getting this relatively rushed compilation so soon. Okay, so the shelf-life of a manufactured girlband is routinely less than a pint of semi-skimmed but with a new album scheduled for 2007, a retrospective now seems somewhat redundant. Another year and a couple more killer singles could have perhaps bumped off the more tedious inclusions – specifically, a cover of The Pointer Sisters’ ‘Jump’ and an earnest, but misjudged attempt at The Pretenders classic, ‘I’ll Stand By You’. Funnily enough, it’s when they play it safe that they fall down.
The Sugababes, on the other hand, have gotten quite good at playing it safe, or rather playing to their strengths. At this point, they seem quite happy to embrace their diva status, as the two new songs on the collection show. This is no bad thing; ‘Easy’ is bold, sassy pop and ‘Good To Be Gone’ is a glam-rock stomp through ‘Independent Women’ territory. On the whole, the ‘babes have taken a more conventional route through the pop/R&B landscape than the pick ‘n’ mix approach of Girls Aloud but their saving grace has always been their believability – starting out as miserable teenagers; Siobhan Donaghy’s departure; the initial awkwardness of sandwiching smiley Heidi Range between the more knowing Keisha Buchanan and Mutya Buena; even the fact that they share the writing credits, often taking it in turns to write verses. Listening to ‘Ugly’, you find yourself genuinely warming to Keisha. Listening to ‘Stronger’ you realise why Heidi chooses it as her favourite performance. Girls Aloud will never produce something as resonant because they don’t have a back story. Whilst the Sugababes may sometimes come across a little po-faced – ‘Shape’, the duet with Sting, being a particular example – they are at least convincing. Diane Warren’s ‘Too Lost In You’, a song that could have sounded needy and overblown, is tackled with maturity and confidence. In fact, when Heidi’s vocals collide with the strings during the middle eight, it’s one of the most arresting moments on the album.
Perhaps the omissions of the sublime ‘Soul Sound’ and ‘New Year’ from their debut album, One Touch, are because the vulnerability of those tracks jars slightly with the almost Amazonian proportions they’ve risen to. Perhaps they just didn’t want to dwell on the initial line-up for too long. Incidentally, we should be glad that Siobhan Donaghy’s contribution to the group wasn’t removed altogether; initial plans to have new recruit Amelle Berraba re-record her vocals thankfully scrapped at the last stages. As it happens, Overload – the Sugababes’ first single – is the album’s high point, still as fresh and feisty as it was on release. The omissions, whilst upsetting, do at least represent a wealth of choices. Girls Aloud unfortunately seem to be running on empty a good couple of tracks before the closer, ‘I Think We’re Alone Now’. Yes, covering a song still played at every wedding, school disco and Christmas party is such an uninspired choice that you can only presume it’s a pisstake. The Sugababes round out their set with two of their four No.1 singles – ‘Hole In The Head’ (cheers again Xenomania) and ‘Push The Button’, possibly their most assured moment. It’s a clever move that leaves you wanting more and raises one question: with both bands (dodgy covers aside) at the top of their games, whatever next? The answer, as you may already have heard, is joining forces to cover Aerosmith and Run DMC’s ‘Walk This Way’ for Comic Relief. Oh dear.
The Go! Team / The Grates / Smoosh
Live at Koko ••••
March 1st, 2006
Frankly, it’s been a fantastic year for The Go! Team. Their debut album Thunder, Lightning, Strike has become a major, if slow-burning hit – unbelievably, it was first released back in September 2004 – receiving widespread acclaim and annihilating genre labels left, right and centre… oh, and notching up a nod for the Mercury Music Prize. It should come as no surprise then that the Brighton/London six-piece are in a celebratory mood. This, their biggest UK tour to date, is completely sold-out, including a three-night residency at London’s Koko. Tonight’s line-up is yet another exercise in diversification for the Go! Team; they’ve put together a stellar female-fronted bands bonanza by roping in Seattle’s Smoosh and The Grates from Australia.
In case you hadn’t heard already, Smoosh are sisters Asya and Chloe who are, respectively, 13 and 11 years old. Having already found celebrity fans in Sufjan Stevens, Sleater-Kinney, Cat Power’s Chan Marshall, Death Cab For Cutie (whose drummer has been teaching Chloe) and now seemingly The Go! Team, their premise is a basic one – Chloe plays drums while Asya sings and presses the keys. Surprisingly, the limitations of their instruments by no means inhibits their sound. So while each song may sound different from the last, one thing is consistent throughout – their attitude. There’s something scarily fierce about Asya’s vocal delivery. Even at her tender age, she is showing the angry/uplifting makings of her older mentors in Sleater-Kinney. Equally, Chloe’s rhythms are primal and driving, and the relatively stripped-down arrangement really does showcase their musical abilities.
Their set is comprised of tracks from their excellent debut, She Like Electric, and a whole lot of new songs that amply disprove the doubters who claimed it was a fluke. That said, the uninitiated denizens of the audience clearly don’t know quite how to react to the duo. Obviously aware of their age, they are appropriately supportive and somewhat cautious; are they being exploited by a twisted svengali á la t.A.T.u? Do they write their own songs? Is it fair to take them out of school to tour with older rock bands? Fortunately, Smoosh exercise a much greater degree of control over their career than Richard and Judy’s faux-lesbian enemies, and furthermore are prodigiously talented, with an originality and freshness unrivalled by most other bands so often jaded by the industry and wearing their influences all too plainly on their sleeves. Finishing with the grinding ‘La Pump’, a positively filthy electro-pop tune, Asya and Chloe exit stage right, their curious audience still slightly confused but primarily enthusiastic.
Next come The Grates making a great first impression by bounding cheerfully on to the stage. Singer Patience is a day-glo princess and perhaps a not-too-distant relative of Yeah Yeah Yeahs’s Karen O. Their music is similarly sparse – garage rock guitars, pounding rhythms and ecstatic, if somewhat deranged, vocals. Running from one side of the stage to the other, Patience makes for a manic and energetic figurehead, shaking her hair and pulling faces at the crowd. Though they are undoubtedly effective at warming up the crowd, the similarities with the Yeah Yeah Yeahs are almost too much – the voice and nonsensical yelps are trademark O. But to their credit, even if The Grates do excessively imitate, they at least do it well and with tunes and an energy that other carbon copiers have failed to muster. Happily, their upcoming single, ‘19-20-20′, is an undeniably spiky slice of angular art-pop.
Despite such strong support, the show belongs unarguably to The Go! Team. The balconies of the former theatre are packed with brightly dressed punters, while the band is even more colourful than usual thanks to the special London-only addition of cheerleading backing dancers. It feels like a carnival, and perhaps appropriately, it is the day after Shrove Tuesday and the end of Carnaval in Rio de Janeiro. Their frontwoman Ninja, clad tonight in a yellow cheerleader skirt and a blue vest top, may not even be 5’2″ but she commands the crowd like no other. Indeed, she puts so much energy into the performance that the band’s instrumental tracks are scattered throughout the set to allow her ample recovery time. Each song is properly introduced and Ninja makes each one an opportunity for some kind of crowd participation. Arms are waved, chants are chanted and it all begins to feel a little like a commune – during ‘We Just Won’t Be Defeated’ there’s an irrepressible feeling of oneness.
It would be foolish to argue that The Go! Team’s huge success is purely due to Ninja’s leadership. Their music is like dreamscapes, entirely positive, uplifting and utterly indefinable. In the live context, their show is an exhilarating blast through their album and a handful of new songs. In total, it lasts just over an hour but somehow feels sufficient. The Go! Team see no need in labouring the point, secure in the knowledge that even a short dose of their infectious magic is enough to put smiles on every last attendee as they exit into the slightly grimmer reality of Mornington Crescent. The band themselves may not know what the future holds – Thunder, Lightning, Strike is composed predominantly of samples and getting legal clearance was a long and difficult task – but, for the moment, they seem plenty rewarded by their crowd-pleasing antics and formidable reputation as pioneers of inimitably fantastic pop.
Robbie de Santos
originally published March 18th, 2006
Bleeding Heart Graffiti ••½
Previously famed as one half of the creative force that made up the moderately successful grunge-pop cross-over band Veruca Salt, this second solo album sees Nina Gordon continue to reinvent herself and draw a firm musical line beneath her indie-tastic past. For where Veruca Salt would churn out fast-paced rock with alternative cred and a tuneful, energetic formula, Gordon’s lone singer-songwriter schtick could hardly be more different. It’s as if she’s morphed from early ‘90s Liz Phair into Liz Phair nowadays, or even Sheryl Crow. With heavy production that’s much too big on niceness, gone are the kickass power guitars and in their place comes an almost easy listening, coffee table atmosphere where the only truly sweet stuff to be found is disappointingly coated in sticky mainstream saccharine pop.
Despite coming a full six years after her first solo venture, Tonight & The Rest Of My Life, Bleeding Heart Graffiti carries on almost precisely where that album left off. There’s a sense that she’s more confident in her direction and the tunes are certainly stronger than before, but mostly it’s more of the same. The theme of loves gained and lost permeate throughout with lyrics that are bittersweet and honest, and it’s clear that she’s had to suffer some bad times to get as far as she has. In that respect, Gordon seemingly wants to be taken as a serious pop artist in the vein of Aimee Mann; however, in some places she comes across more like Natalie Imbruglia with chart-friendly songs that could easily soundtrack your weekly shop at Tesco or your Monday morning Starbucks skinny latté with soy milk.
There’s some nice touches though. For instance, the sequencing lets you imagine that there is something of a concept at work here. From the upbeat beginnings where Gordon sings of relationships in bloom to the overwrought emotions of the ending where love’s beyond redemption, the songs gradually get more and more melancholy. Still, songs like ‘Suffragette’ and first single ‘Kiss Me ‘Til It Bleeds’ are winning pop tunes that will lodge in the memory, for a while at least. But then there is heartache, with presumably cathartic, open-wound tales of trying to make sense of it all. Indeed, there is perhaps a little too much of the downside of love and it’s a shame that there isn’t more of the gleeful poppiness of the openers. Indeed, many of the sadder songs were recovered and re-recorded from Gordon’s aborted 2004 release Even The Sunbeams, written during a phase in her life that she has since “snapped out of”.
With a baby on the way and a new-found focus, who knows where her next record will take her. For now though, despite having a clutch of well-written songs to its name, Bleeding Heart Graffiti can only be chalked up as something of a disappointment. Still, given its history, it’s fair to say that Gordon has been paying up on those dues and deserves some solo success. Just don’t look back in anger.
originally published July 23rd, 2006
Standing In The Way Of Control •••
Meeting The Gossip would be quite an experience if their everyday speech is as riddled with clichés as their unfortunate lyrics. Though certainly both beautiful and powerful, it’s hard to appreciate lead singer Beth Ditto’s vocals when she’s wrapping her tongue round bothersome blandness like “fight fire with fire”, “I’m a fool for you” and “as pure as the snow”, all of which should really be reserved for anodyne boybands. Worse still, the band sees fit to commit the heinous crime of rhyming “crying” and “lying”. Who do they think they are, Oasis?
This grumble aside, there are other problems. At first the album seems fairly unremarkable, a little too reminiscent of your average local don’t-give-up-your-day-jobs who manage to sound quite similar to the music you actually like but leave the nail’s head decidedly un-whacked. The ballad ‘Coal To Diamonds’ may gloriously showcase Ditto’s vocals, which for my money are unrivalled in the genre, but it’s rather monotonous all the same. Situated midway through the album, ‘Eyes Open’ is the first real gem, just as upbeat as you’d expect from The Gossip but with added bluesy soul. ‘Keeping You Alive’ is also a standout, boasting a chorus that would easily fill any self-respecting dancefloor with hand-clapping disco fans.
Okay, so it seems a little unfair to review this album having only listened to it in the comfort of my home. It clearly needs to be accompanied by some alcohol-fuelled shape throwing, somewhere with an audience that doesn’t give a shit how trite the lyrics might be. By all accounts, The Gossip’s live show is an experience not to be missed and it’s easy to see how these songs might come alive. Concurrently, they are immediate and rousing, despite one or two unforgivable blips, and at least half are destined to be favourites of your average dance-punk DJ. Perhaps most exciting when viewed as a pre-show taster, it’s worth a listen, but standing in the way of control? Hardly.
originally published July 14th, 2006
Gravity Won’t Get You High ••
This debut album from Australian upstarts The Grates should be subtitled ‘…And Neither Will We’, such is the disappointment with which you may be faced had you caught the foursome while touring with The Go! Team and The Zutons earlier this year. Where their live show is a riotously enthusiastic neon bonanza, their energetic zaniness translates with severely mixed results on record.
There’s a noticeable attempt to sound like a blues-rock band in that same bass-free way as Sleater-Kinney or Yeah Yeah Yeahs, though the sound is tinny and irritating rather than raw and intense. The songs mostly bounce along in a summery fashion and there’s no denying that it’s pleasant at times, particularly with the addition of some third-wave ska-inspired horns in ‘Lies Are Much More Fun’. It’s when they try to sound angst-ridden and angry that things go awry. ‘Feels Like Pain’ is a grunge-lite ditty with its token quiet, sullen verse and screamalong loud chorus, but comes across more like rubbish German rockers The Guano Apes than the more enjoyable likes of Hole. Despite being a fairly respectable slice of raw indie rock, even their breakthrough single, the chaotic ‘Trampoline’, is horribly let down by embarrassing lyrics.
The trouble is that none of it sounds remotely convincing; the album feels like a smash and grab pic ‘n’ mix of various bands The Grates are rather too fond of. Patience Hodgson’s accent changes from Canadian to British to American and back to Australian, a sure sign of someone trying too hard to emulate their idols. Here’s Karen O and there’s Alanis, over yonder’s Corin Tucker and lurking somewhere else is a yodelling Marlene Dietrich. OK, so none of it is really that terrible, it’s just that the reasons to own this album are excruciatingly scant when there are better versions of every song out there already.
Robbie de Santos
originally published July 25th, 2006
The Apiary •••½
Little Athena Productions
It would be quite the simplest thing to write a shallow review of Ms Greer’s album…earnest girl at a piano singing deep and meaningful, jazz-tinged songs with relationship, psychological and political overtones = Tori Amos. Review ends. Go make a nice cup of tea. However, to be such a lazy so-and-so would be a gross injustice indeed. Greer’s second album, The Apiary, does bear comparison with other piano-based musicians like Amos, Sarah McLachlan or even Norah Jones, but at their root the songs seem to be drawn from a greater songwriting well that encompasses the likes of Carole King and James Taylor. Her semi-stream of consciousness lyrics plumb the heights and depths of the human condition, acting as an internalised narrative on passing events, fused with invention very much of her own design.
The arrangements are based around a solid jazz trio format of Greer’s piano, Damian Watson’s bass and the drums of Brian Peltier. Other instruments are brought in only to serve and enhance the mood, carefully deployed where they can have the greatest effect. The jazz element is perhaps least pronounced on the opener Invited, which provides a brief, pastoral prelude to the dramas to come. ‘Honey Bee’ lopes along with Mark Knopfler-styled guitar licks and piano runs in a manner that suggests the inevitable progress of life through the mundane, always hoping for the chance of some brief connection to the sublime. ‘Walking Home To You’ continues in a wistful mood, lulling the listener before ‘Darkling’ disrupts the mood, dissected by obscene and menacing distorted guitars. The song’s brooding presence looms through the speakers; an avatar for life’s dysfunctional underbelly denied by the more polite of societies.
Thus, it becomes clear that while Greer’s playing is clearly influenced by jazz, she is not restricted to it and uses the influence to inform the more rock and pop sensibilities of her virtuoso skills. On songs like ‘Stupid People Lost In Eden’, Greer forges a subtly twisted rendering of the jazz sounds familiar from childhood Charlie Brown cartoons but infused with enough incipient terrors to show that real life isn’t the idyll of an over- idealised youth. Indeed, The Apiary‘s second half is equally strong as the first; ‘Satellite’ boasts a driving lefthand riff that’s part boogie woogie, part James Bond theme, but wholly intense and ominous. Propelling the track forward, it perfectly assembles a desperate cat’s cradle of sound around the lyrics of death, decay and inevitability. Other highlights include ‘Downtown Song’ where Greer’s dissonant la la’s contrast with the jaunty melody to underline that “hope is a thing with feathers” and perhaps just as elusive as a bird, tying in nicely with the earlier ‘Origami Birds’ where the sparse piano and cello create a dreamlike backing to musings on fragility and loss, complete with the sound of cowbells tinkling in a distant Vermont field.
For a self-produced artist resolutely ploughing an independent furrow, The Apiary is nothing if not remarkably assured. Greer is clearly a long way down the road of defining her own voice, and if circumstance should bring her to a broader, international audience, she might one day be cited as a popular critical benchmark herself.
originally published March 11th, 2006
Impossible Dream ••••½
Defeatism is not a word you will find in the vocabulary of 41-year old Patty Griffin, but that’s not to suggest some kind of deluded Pollyanna figure who could shrug off the apocalypse with a blink and an “oops” – she’s tough in the way that a tree is tough. Since her debut, 1996’s Living With Ghosts, that much has been clear. Already a formidable guitarist, this fourth studio album spices things up a bit with brass, piano and organ featuring on several tracks. Interestingly, three of them have been resurrected from her indefensibly shelved third album, Silver Bell, a victim of silly record company bureaucracy. While the album that eventually surfaced in its place, 2002’s 1000 Kisses, remains one of the most exemplary singer-songwriter albums of all time, incredibly, Impossible Dream is better. At once more personal and universal than its predecessor, it’s an intense deconstruction of the struggle of everyday lives. Consequently, some will dismiss it as depressing, but to do so is to bypass completely every subtlety and nuance of hope that infuses the sadness. Originally released in the US a year ago, the album finally makes it to the UK in support of Griffin’s first UK tour dates in years.
The jaunty staccato blues shuffle of the opening track, ‘Love Throw A Line’, is something of a red herring. Stacked with an almost tangible urgency, it’s heavy on the spirituality but light on the palate. ‘Kite Song’, too, is an easily digestible yet plaintive paean to optimism, made all the sweeter by backing vocals courtsey of Emmylou Harris and Julie Miller. Elsewhere, ‘Standing’ takes its cue from gospel artists such as Mavis Staples, but tempers it accordingly to avoid, in her own words, making “bad white blues”. The result is four minutes of being rooted to the spot in reverence.
The emotional core of the album is most evident on ‘Top Of The World’, a Griffin original made famous by the Dixie Chicks on Home, and the heart-stopping seven-minute epic, ‘Mother Of God’, both of which feature exquisite violin from the ever-wonderful Lisa Germano. ‘Top Of The World’ is tailgated by a touching reprise of Impossible Dream from the musical, ‘Man Of LaMancha’, as sung by Patty’s parents. It’s a fitting sentiment for Griffin, whose songs have often voiced the viewpoints of the older generation, that her parents take these reins and allow her own laments to bubble over. Best of all, there’s a moment approximately halfway through ‘Mother Of God’ where her tender, reedy voice cracks beneath the weight of her emotion. It’s these hiccups, these inimitable idiosyncrasies that render Patty Griffin so few of peers.
Holding an alarm clock in one hand while the other demurely hitches up her crinoline as a kite soars in the background, the Patty Griffin on the sleeve appears defiantly hopeful, as if waiting for something real to whisk her away.
originally published May 22nd, 2005
Live at the Lyric Hammersmith
May 31st, 2005
As any singer worth their salt should know, a whisper can be every bit as effective as a scream. In Patty Griffin, a woman who embodies the former but has the fire of the latter, the full range of capability is ours for the absorbing. Disarmingly shy at first, she seems almost embarrassed to have bothered us from whatever our Tuesdays typically bring, but the ice is soon broken after the first song, a stirring take on Bessie Smith’s ‘Backwater Blues’, when she realises that her guitar was unplugged for the entire rendition. To the credit of the Lyric theatre’s acoustics, however, the difference is barely noticeable.
After a stomping ‘No Bad News’, she offers up an engaging suite of songs from her latest album, Impossible Dream, released just the day before in the UK though it has long since been available in the States. Despite only being accompanied by one of her usual band, guitarist Doug Lancio, we miss none of the breezy shuffle of ‘Love Throw A Line’ nor the lightly melancholic ‘Useless Desires’. Moving to the piano, Griffin treats us to a French lullaby once sung to her by her mother. Entitled ‘J’irai La Voir Un Jour (I Will See It One Day)’, her emotive voice conveys every drop of the pensive hope that the title suggests. Staying at the keys, ‘Kite Song’, another cut from the ‘new’ album, charms effortlessly with its poignant imagery of dreaming and holding out for fulfilment.
New song ‘Free’ sounds promising but the real highlight comes next with ‘Top Of The World’, a beautiful and heartbreaking paean to those once loved and lost. The upbeat but lyrically desolate ‘Long Ride Home’ follows before Griffin really lets her hair down and unleashes a surging version of the frantic ‘Flaming Red’. Unfortunately, a residual cough left over from a recent cold begins to trouble the singer in the closing songs of the main set. In fact, her confidence is visibly shaken by wracked renditions of ‘Icicles’ and ‘Making Pies’, two of her most vivid examples of top-notch storytelling. The audience seems not to mind and shouts in encouragement and sympathy. A standing ovation later and Patty, slightly tearful, gracefully returns for an encore during which she road tests another new song, ‘Up To The Mountain’, inspired by the bravery of Martin Luther King, and old fan favourite ‘Mary’. Then she is gone, though we mill around for a few minutes uncertain of whether there will be a second encore. But Patty has other shows to play in the days to come and we’ve been plenty spoiled already.
originally published June 17th, 2005
Ruby’s Torch ••••
This latest offering from folkabilly heroine and nigh-on icon, Nanci Griffith, is an interesting affair. An album of torch songs isn’t perhaps the obvious addition to her folk and country-tinged catalogue. Griffith’s vocal style could not be further removed from the likes of Dietrich, Lenya, Piaf or Lemper but that’s not necessarily a bad thing in this context. That said, the songs here play less on her trademark Texan drawl than usual and her style is perhaps more naturalistic. One thing hasn’t changed, of course, and that’s Griffith’s strength as a musical storyteller. And who has a better story to tell than the subject of a torch song with their wounded hearts and tales of wistful regret?
Oh, okay, so torch songs are guilty of sometimes lapsing into mawkish self-pity and irksome melodrama, but Griffith’s folk music background and straightforward approach deftly sidesteps those pitfalls. Instead her vocals, devoid of florid overemphasis, infuse the songs with an honesty that speaks of the real heart within rather than a caricature. On her version of Jimmy Webb’s ‘If These Walls Could Speak’ the simplicity of the arrangement – just vocal, piano and a few strings – cannot fail to make the eyes mist over. However, the emotional core of the disc is realised in the exquisite covers of three Tom Waits numbers: ‘Ruby’s Arms’, ‘Grapefruit Moon’ and ‘Please Call Me, Baby’. Griffith’s delicate tones are certainly in contrast with Waits’ whiskey-sodden gravelly snarl but that does little to lessen the intensity or the listener’s emotional engagement with the narrator.
Elsewhere, on ‘Wee Small Hours’ the strings and snare ‘n’ brushes approach evokes memories of the classic crooners. This could be straight from the soundtrack of some post-war American romantic comedy. You can almost see Doris Day gazing out through a frosted windowpane wondering whether Rock Hudson will fall for her charms by the final reel. Final song ‘Drops From The Faucet’ carries on the same vein with its muted trumpet and draws proceedings to a mellow, wistful close.
Ruby’s Torch has much to offer the Griffith acolyte and neophyte alike. Simple, open and honest it represents good old-fashioned record making at its best. Beautifully written songs performed with taste and restraint by musicians at the top of their game and fronted by an accomplished vocalist who steps inside the song and inexorably draws you in with her. Just don’t forget the Kleenex.
Way Their Crept ••••
Free Porcupine Society
The mysterious waters of the international underground continue to combine in fascinating, ever-changing ways. What may loosely be described as the ‘noise’ scene is currently proving a particularly fertile area of creativity, regularly giving rise to surprising sounds from a fluid network of mavericks and collaborators. Of course, ‘noise’ is really a misnomer in itself, although it’s definitely catchier and less prosaic than ‘sound’ or ‘pure sound’. What links the electric devotionals of, say, US outfits The Skaters and Double Leopards to their UK counterparts like Mathew Bower of Sunroof! / Hototogisu or Phil Todd of Ashtray Navigations – and also to outfits like Merzbow or Wolf Eyes to whom the term ‘noise’ can be more traditionally applied – is a desire to use sound of whatever source to create a unique space, aside and apart from everyday experience. Or, more accurately in the case of Merzbow, to chew up our everyday experience and spit back white- hot shrapnel as a comment on our times. Or something.
Liz Harris, aka Grouper, stands apart even from the above-mentioned and their contemporaries. Hailing from Oakland, Cailfornia, she’s from the same geography as Tom and Christina Carter of Charalambides, both physically and spiritually. But even referencing the ghostly intensity of their music doesn’t convey just how strange and compelling Way Their Crept is. With Grouper having released only a couple of EPs available on infinitesimal runs in the past, this is one of those out-of-nowhere gems that delights on first listen and continues to enthrall and deepen with each hearing.
It’s also a testament to minimalism, of a sort. The opening title track simply hangs closely-miked doppelgangers of Harris’s wordless voice in a huge echoing space, leaving the spectres to converse among the rafters. Unexpected sonorities and harmonics overlap and dissolve like colours reflected in a deep pool, seemingly slowing time to a crawl. ‘Second Skin / Zombie Wind’ slips deeper beneath the surface, the vocals entwined with cracked and echoing electronics and a textured, organic hiss. Even better, the incredible ‘Sang Their Way’ illustrates Harris’s compositional technique perfectly. Glowing strands of electronic notes, tape hiss, and heavily treated vocals are strung across one another, merging and ebbing in a soundscape that’s undeniably alien and haunting, yet simultaneously human and beautiful. Even without recognisable words, it’s Liz’s vocals that anchor these shards of ectoplasm in the emotional realm, giving her music a resonance that much experimentalism sadly lacks.
Indeed, it would be interesting to hear the result of a collaboration between Grouper and any of her above-named kindred spirits, and given the absurdly high number of short-lived partnerships that drive the evolution of the noise aesthetic, it shouldn’t be a long wait. Way Their Crept is a rare first achievement, a record that represents not only the arrival of a compelling new voice, but opens new avenues for experimentation and cross-pollination in an already exciting field.
originally published June 5th, 2006
Songs Of Love & Death ••••
For her second album of covers, Canadian self-made woman Emm Gryner once again avoids the pointless celeb karaoke approach of some of her peers, but where 2001’s Girl Versions lovingly emasculated songs by everyone from Thrush Hermit to Blur via Ozzy Osbourne – an eclectic enough selection to rival even Tori Amos’s Strange Little Girls, released the same year but with ten times the marketing budget – Songs Of Love & Death is a nationalistic nod to the Irish. More contemporary than other Irish covers albums (e.g. Sinéad O’Connor’s Sean-Nós Nua, The Corrs’s Home) and with little in the way of traditional Celtic instrumentation, Songs… finds Gryner stripping back each song to its emotional core and working up from there.
Kicking in with chiming guitar and harpsichord arpeggios, ‘Forget Georgia’ sounds for all the world like a long-lost classic Pretenders single, though is actually an obscure cut from Something Happens. It’s not hard to see why the song’s picked up some airplay in the more discerning corners of national radio, but there are finer moments elsewhere. Gryner’s versions of ‘Running Back’, a track from Thin Lizzy’s 1976 album Jailbreak, and The Corrs’s ‘Breathless’ both demonstrate the panache of her deconstruction. Both are sheared to the bone as tender piano ballads wracked with the true desperation of the lyrics. Likewise, Ash’s ‘Shining Light’ benefits from the minimalist treatment; in Gryner’s hands, the disposable punk-pop anthem morphs into a tender hymn to love. Dana Feder’s achingly beautiful cello counterpoints the vocals and piano, with subtle church organ riffing completing the mystical effect. ‘Deckchairs & Cigarettes’ forgoes The Thrills’s Americana stylings in favour of the full Celtic treatment – marching-season pipe and drum backing contrasting deliciously with jangly indie pop.
Perhaps the most obscure and surprising inclusion of the album is ‘Dearg Doom’ from Celtic rock group Horslips’ seminal disc, The Tain. Quite how the casual listener, unaware of the track’s genesis as centrepiece of a concept-album based on pre-Christian Celtic mythology, will assimilate the lyrical content – Irish hero Cu Chulainn taunting the ranks of an army he’s about to slay single-handedly – I couldn’t say, but the electro-pop arrangement with its muted guitar, harpsichord, fuzz bass and distorted vocals is brilliantly compelling nonetheless.
In comparison, Gilbert O’Sullivan’s ‘Nothing Rhymed’ is the straightest cover on the album, but even here there are quirks in the arrangements; pianoforte mixed with the mbira, an East African thumb piano, makes for an effective instrumental duet. Add to that the jaunty, almost Victoria Wood-like delivery, and its the perfect contrast to what comes next. The measured horror of the Virgin Prunes’s ‘Bau-Dachong’ is truly chilling; desperate vocals and grotesque sequenced rhythms build to uncover layer after layer of menace. Never has folk legend Kate McGarrigle’s banjo sounded more disturbing. Unquestionably, this is a true tour de force and the record’s emotional climax. Which is great, except that everything thereafter smacks a little of lost momentum. That’s not to say there’s anything wrong with Gryner’s takes on The Undertones’s ‘Julie Ocean’, Therapy?’s ‘Nowhere’ or the much covered traditional ‘Moorlough Shore’; it’s just that they’ve a tough act to follow. Of the three, however, ‘Nowhere’ is the strongest candidate for radio. Divorced from Therapy?’s muscular style, it becomes a likeable acoustic ditty with a Sheryl Crow-ish vocal.
The renaissance of the covers album as a valid expression of artistry is still quite recent, and there’s no doubt that Gryner owes some small debt to the likes of Annie Lennox, Tori Amos and even Cat Power, but Songs Of Love & Death reasserts the wisdom of the old jazz truism that skilful interpretation of song is an art unto itself. It’s to Gryner’s credit, too, that her artistic input extended to playing almost all of the instruments, including the mbira. Following a successful tour of the Emerald Isle and the recent radio adds, here’s hoping a full UK release for this excellent collection can be organised, and soon!
originally published January 21st, 2006