Filed under: feature, special | Tags: alan pedder, albums of the decade, alex doak, alex ramon, anja mccloskey, charlotte richardson andrews, cocorosie, diamanda galas, emiliana torrini, emmylou harris, erykah badu, espers, gossip, juana molina, julie doiron, kd lang, kirsty maccoll, le tigre, lucinda williams, meg baird, my brightest diamond, paul woodgate, peter hayward, róisín murphy, rhian jones, rilo kiley, rosanne cash, sarah blasko, sleater-kinney, soap&skin, the be good tanyas, the distillers, the dresden dolls, tUnE-yArDs, wears the trousers magazine
Here’s the second part of our albums of the decade countdown, running from #75–51.
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Of all the critical droolfests that failed to ignite on the commercial front this decade, Róisín Murphy’s second solo album is among the most inexplicable damp squibs. The ex-Moloko frontwoman may have shed the avant-garde experimentalism of her solo debut Ruby Blue in favour of full-on disco diva mode, set against a backdrop of thumping, shimmering state-of-the-art production, but it seems the world wasn’t ready to accept even Murphy’s toned down personality quirks. That’s a real shame for although Overpowered is not without its flaws, there is a sense of playful grandeur here that can easily toe the line with Goldfrapp at their most teasing.
Filed under: buyer's guide, feature | Tags: 2009, kristin hersh week, music, peter hayward
a player of three acts: a buyer’s guide to kristin hersh
Since 1986, under the banners of Throwing Muses, her own name, and 50 Foot Wave, Kristin Hersh has released some 20 albums. And what with bipolar disorder, a lost custody battle for her first-born son, a dissolving band, and in her own way overcoming the unhappy beast that is the music industry, Hersh has weathered a lot. The frenetic use of loops, cowbells, shifting time signatures and frantic, dark, unsettling stream-of-consciousness poetry of Throwing Muses’ untitled debut still inspires shock and awe, and throughout her career Hersh has delivered several other albums that are no less astounding.
Mercurial in the extreme, each of Hersh’s guises has a distinct personality, and in her longstanding concerns as lead Muse and a solo artist, these personalities have themselves matured. Hersh is frequently a challenging artist, viewed by many as an acquired taste. Her style may not be immediately everybody’s cup of tea, but perseverance is recommended. All her work retains certain traits – oblique lyrics, a Proustian gift for evocation, and highly skilled but understated musicianship – and the catalogue we’re about to delve into really does offer something for every music fan.
Filed under: album, back issues, review | Tags: andy wasley, basia bulat, carla bruni, danny weddup, hugh armitage, katey brooks, keith anderson, meg baird, miranda barber, mutya buena, natasha bedingfield, peter hayward, sara silver, shirley bassey, the bird and the bee, the book of knots, trevor raggatt
The following reviews were published on our old MySpace blog in 2007.
Dear Companion ••••
What with all the caterwauling harpists in mediaeval dress, bindi sporting pinkos and long-lost commune-dwelling recluses, the folk revival of recent years has had a focus on original songs that some purists regard as contrary to the folk ethos. The revision and reinterpretation of traditional songs and adoption of new songs to the folk songbook has taken a back seat. As a member of Espers, Meg Baird has been on the side of the innovators over the past five years. For her first solo outing, however, she seeds an album of traditional songs with original numbers and creates a work at times reminiscent of luminaries of early ‘60s pastoral folk, such as Anne Briggs and Shirley Collins.
Apparently recorded in less than 24 hours with Espers conspirator Greg Weeks, Dear Companion is an unostentatious collection of songs, some of which first appeared on last year’s delicate collaboration with Sharron Kraus and Helena Espvall, Leaves From Off The Tree. The arrangement of acoustic guitar, minimum accompaniment and the largely single-tracked vocals give great immediacy to the songs. As though listening to a live performance, if you close your eyes you can smell the cloudy cider and pipe smoke.
With a voice like a mountain stream of glacial meltwater, Baird makes light work of traditional favourites such as ‘Willie O’Winsbury’, giving new life to stories told countless times. And her songs hold their own, not directly emulating the folk tradition of the traditional numbers but working as a counterpoint in the modern singer-songwriter mould. The opener and title track is a country-tinged love song that is at least as old as the Carter family and packed with lines like “I’ll drink nothing but my tears”. When revisited as an a cappella number at the end of the album, however, it sounds as though it has been lifted from the English folk canon.
This gracious nod to different heritages recurs throughout the album. A version of the classic ‘Barbry Allen’ sees her expertly subvert her crystal vocals to capture the macabre side of the song, a tale of unrequited lovers dying one after the other. The self-penned ‘Do What You Gotta Do’ and ‘All I Ever Wanted’ see Baird updating stories of frustrated love and disappointment. The haunting refrain from the latter “you keep playing your games on me / and all I ever wanted was your loving” is the aural equivalent of a plump teardrop quivering on the brink of an eyelid. ‘Tennis Players’ Waltze’ gets my instant seal of approval for likening a new love to the fruiting of a fungus: “your love for me was an overnight sensation / my love for you is an overnight sensation too… / the cowboys are sprinkling mycelium / the mushrooms are growing in every new boot print”. Such mycological accuracy may not be a clincher for everyone, although, if you fail to be moved by the humour, tenderness and honesty of the song, whether you are a fan of fungus or not, your heart has died. You just haven’t noticed it yet.
The album is completed by a couple of other traditional songs of the type in which more people called William and Ellen fall in love, are forbidden to marry, and then pine to death. These songs, accompanied by droning autoharp, sound like something from another era, whereas the other tracks sound simply timeless in the way that only songs reinterpreted time and again can. Dear Companion impresses not just with its rendering of folk classics and with the poetry and emotion of the self-penned numbers, but with its marriage of the two styles. It might not be the most joyous album, but what folk ever is? As any good folk singer should do, Meg Baird finds the beauty, humour and universal truth in stories of love, death and fungi.
My Tomorrow EP •••½
The second EP from Oz-born, London-based singer-songwriter Miranda Barber presents the listener with a lucky seven piano-based ballads. Whilst this is strictly a 5+2 bonus tracks release, those welcome extras easily stand alongside the ‘proper’ songs on their own merits. Barber’s first, self-titled EP drew some almost subliminal Kate Bush comparisons in the vocal style but here she moves in a more jazz-influenced direction with double bass, subtle guitar and soft percussion. However, it’s Barber’s voice and her hands on the piano that command centre stage. Luckily, that’s where it gets really interesting.
Befitting the depth and darkness of some of her lyrics, Barber guides us through some brooding, ominous musical terrain. ‘Blues Day’ and the title song succeed in chilling the heart while keeping the listener involved and transfixed. Barber’s rich, pure vocal gets straight to the emotional core of the songs with seemingly little effort, casting welcome elements of light and shade with subtly textured self-harmonies. The achingly pretty ‘My Roof Has Got A Hole In It’ might well drown you in its desperate melancholy before ‘Paprika Haze’ lifts the mood with a shift in style whereupon it occupies that sublime showtune-meets-pop song otherworld practically invented by Randy Newman. A hot ‘n’ spicy invitation to get together driven forward by Barber’s spiky piano chords, ‘Eggshells’ rounds off the regular EP, pulling the mood back down and unflinchingly exploring the more obsessive side of love.
Whatever perceived modesty led Barber to include ‘Too Damn Hard’ and ‘No Air To Breathe’ as bonus tracks was a false one; the sheer quality of the songs more than warrants their inclusion. The former allows Barber scope to display the jazzier end of her range, while the latter provides a devastatingly chilling conclusion. A political twist on the murder ballad canon, it follows a young asylum seeker on his journey to a new life and a painful loss without descending into mawkish melodrama. Not an easy feat by any means.
My Tomorrow is a perfect showcase for Barber’s talent; alternately soothing, chilling and mysterious, but always, always beguiling.
Dame Shirley Bassey
Get The Party Started •••½
Lock Stock & Barrel
One of Glastonbury’s most bizarre high points this year came during the Sunday afternoon slot, when 70-year old Dame Shirley Bassey performed a short set to an enraptured audience. Hardly the kind of hard-edged rock star that often graces the Glasto stage, she nonetheless received tumultuous applause from a crowd whose individuals were mostly at least forty years her junior; clearly, her appeal has not diminished with age. Get The Party Started, then, arrives right on cue. A collection of ten remixes and three covers, most of the songs will already be familiar to Bassey fans from the old to the new – ‘Kiss Me, Honey Honey’ was first released in 1959, while the title track, a cover of P!nk’s 2002 hit single, was used in last year’s acclaimed M&S Christmas ad campaign. As ever, the biggest challenge for the Dame is to rise above the hackneyed James Bond stylings that have often marked – or marred – her music. Does she succeed? Mostly…
Bassey’s famously brassy voice seems to lend itself to remixing: witness The Propellorheads’ thumping version of ‘History Repeating’ and Kayne West’s ‘Diamonds From Sierra Leone’. Although the quantity of remixes here could easily be a recipe for a stale-sounding novelty album, all succeed in lending a fresh air to some of the Dame’s greatest hits. Of particular note, NorthXNorthwest’s accomplished mix of ‘Big Spender’ perfectly captures the song’s glitzy, darkly glamorous sound, while giving it fresh breath with a throbbing bassline and overdriven synths that perfectly complement the track’s classic brass riffs. Of course, Bassey’s turbo-charged vocals take centre stage, never secondary to the additional layers of sound. Caged Baby’s remix of ‘This Is My Life’ is an excellent example: remixed for 2007’s club crowd, the mix avoids drowning her voice with synth drums, choosing instead to build a solid crowd-pleaser around a classically breathless performance.
The covers are somewhat less successful. Although fans will be pleased to hear the title track in full, some might be dismayed by Bassey’s misguided attempts to match the original’s subversive and wavering vocals. Elsewhere, ‘The Living Tree’, itself a magnificently powerful song, suffers from the self-conscious cliché of Bond-style chromatic scales, while a woeful ‘I Will Survive’ fails to match its potential as Bassey drifts from affected rhythmic modifications to an unappealingly monotonous delivery.
Despite these low points, most of these songs are welcome additions to Bassey’s already formidable repertoire. It may not be an artistic triumph but it will certainly please the Dame’s devotees and anyone looking for an accessible party record. To quote the lady herself, she is what she is, and that’s really quite alright. After all, it’s a formula that’s worked for nigh on 50 years, and Bassey shows no signs of slowing down.
For those of us out there who have been feeling mounting concern at the absence of the Bedingfield brood from the airwaves, fear no more! Middle child Natasha has returned to assail our ears with the bland pop that is apparently written into her very genes. On my first attempt to listen through Ms Bedingfield’s second album, the imaginatively titled N.B., the universe revolted and I suffered a power cut halfway through the first track. I’m afraid this says it all.
It is a question long unanswered as to how some people manage to be so successful in the music industry, Bedingfield being a prime example. Her voice is not particularly pretty or tuneful, and she has a habit of shouting her lyrics rather than actually singing them. Nor does her material possess any sense of originality; each song sounds like something heard a thousand times before. Listening to this album, you could be forgiven for suspecting you had recently developed precognitive powers, so predictable and banal are the lyrics. The source of her popularity (both at home and in the US, of all places) continues to mystify.
On too many of N.B.‘s 14 tiring tracks, Bedingfield plays the role of a one-girl tribute band; ‘Tricky Angel’s chorus is pure Sugababes, and ‘When You Know You Know’ shows off Bedingfield’s very best Mariah Carey impression. Others, such as ‘How Do You Do’ and first single ‘I Wanna Have Your Babies’, are more distinctly hers but alas all sound the same. The latter is typical nonsensical Bedingfield fare in the vein of ‘These Words’. The song’s title and sentiment are enough to induce a mild sense of offence, and this is only compounded by the last handful of bars, wherein Bedingfield seems to actually be counting the children that are presumably springing one after another from her bountiful loins. Simply inexcusable. The obligatory ballads, ‘Soulmate’ (which is also her next single – can’t wait) and the Diane Warren-penned ‘Still Here’, tick all the requisite boxes on the checklist – downtempo? check! strings? check! soppy lyrics? check! – but completely fail to induce any sort of emotion in the listener.
N.B. is unoriginal, predictable, soulless, and will no doubt sell by the hundreds of thousands. Bedingfield is undoubtedly an attractive young woman, but this can hardly explain why so many people are willing to pay for the privilege of listening to her sing bad songs in her mediocre voice. When music has so much scope, why this nonsense is the stuff that sells millions is, quite frankly, unfathomable.
The Bird & The Bee
The Bird & The Bee ••••
This collaborative effort between keyboardist/producer Greg Kurstin (the bee) and vocalist Inara George (the bird) is a hipster’s electro-pop wet dream. It’s the kind of record Charlotte Gainsbourg’s character Stephanie in ‘The Science of Sleep’ would make were she not too busy faffing around with sweet wrappers and Pritt-Stik: ironic, referential 160s retro.
Pleasingly, it’s also very good. The track that’s garnered the most attention (and also made #1 on the US Dance Chart courtesy of a remix from Peaches) is ‘Fucking Boyfriend’, a sparkling fresh, vacuum-packed gem. There’s something thrilling about hearing filthy language in a pristine pop context and The Bird & The Bee have captured it perfectly. The expletives are born out of the frustration experienced when a giddy, flirtatious relationship resolutely fails to become something more. “Are you working up to something? / But you give me almost nothing”, George asks in the verse, before a gentle rainstorm of electronica heralds the chorus refrain, “Will you ever be my / will you be my fucking boyfriend?”. Waiting for the other party to make things ‘official’ can be a prolonged and ultimately disappointing game, but the giggles at the end of the song suggest that things might turn out rosy.
‘Fucking Boyfriend’ is fairly indicative of the album as a whole: summery pop with a sharp lyrical wit and a multitude of (to use a precise musical term) twinkling noises. On ‘Again & Again’, the album’s lead single, a charge of electronic fuzz undercuts the handclaps and acoustic guitar work. But the darkness never gets the upper hand. Even ‘I’m A Broken Heart’, with lyrics that wouldn’t be out of place on PJ Harvey’s Rid Of Me – “aching and teething / my big love is bleeding/ I think I might be dying” – sounds positively laidback, with soothing winsome brass and lazy slow beats. The effect is a little strange; George might repeatedly intone that she’s a broken heart, but she doesn’t really sound all that bothered and the point of this extreme contrast is unclear. But this is a rare unsatisfying note in a confident and cohesive album.
The Bird & The Bee is a sophisticated pop record that toys playfully with the listener, particularly on ‘I Hate Cameras’ (“Don’t take my / DON’T TAKE MY PICTURE!”) which may be a straightforward anti-photography rant or a calculated grab for attention. So if you’re a fan of breathy female vocals, sparklingly clear production and knowing lyrics, lie back in the grass with the sun on your face and let Kurstin and George teach you about the birds and the bees.
The Bird & The Bee
Please Clap Your Hands EP •••
Please Clap Your Hands is the second EP from musical duo The Bird & The Bee, otherwise known as Inara George and Greg Kurstin. Kurstin is a producer/keyboardist who has been involved with a great big mixed bag of artists, some good, others distinctly bad. George is the daughter of the late Lowell George, who helped found the band Little Feat in the 1970s. She, too, has a solo career and other side projects. With such a busy and varied musical background, one might wonder what kind of music they would come up with.
The quality of the material on Please Clap Your Hands is as varied as its creators’ musical experience. The music itself is pleasant – electronic in sound but comforting like the tune favourite retro computer game or childhood cartoon, rather than weird and alienating like techno or electro. The drumbeat has an upbeat party feel that gives the tracks (particularly ‘So You Say’) the feel of an indie dance mix. The music is cute and just a little strange: fun, but nothing astounding.
For all the acclaim their debut album received, there are two sides to The Bird & The Bee: lovers of George’s light and airy vocals and haters of her apparent lack of emotion. To these ears her voice is not intolerable, but there is something unaccountably cold about it. She doesn’t sound like she feels what she is singing about. This is emphasised on ‘The Races’, where an echoing effect added to her vocals makes her sound all the more distant and detached.
The better parts of Please Clap Your Hands turn out to be the few in which George injects a bit more feeling into her voice. The half-spoken bridge in ‘So You Say’ is brazen and defiant, like something The Dresden Dolls’ Amanda Palmer might growl, and is markedly more attention grabbing than anything else the EP has to offer. The duo’s cover of the Bee Gees classic ‘How Deep Is Your Love’ is another high point, mainly because once again George sounds like she really means what she’s singing.
Please Clap Your Hands has much to recommend it, largely due to some interesting experiments with musical styles. Unfortunately, the indifferent vocals prevent this from being more than an unexceptional collection of songs.
The Book Of Knots
That New York four-piece The Book Of Knots first came together under the simple premise of needing “an excuse to write songs for their friends” belies the experimental noises found on their second release, Traineater. Not an album written to sell millions and go triple platinum, but rather an idea that someone wanted to turn into music, Traineater pays tribute to the American Rust Belt. Once the manufacturing heart of the United States, the Belt encompasses places like Detroit and Cleveland that grew under the promise of a bright future at the head of industry, only to slowly decline and go to seed as the decades rolled on. This spirit is captured perfectly in Traineater, which is full of the lonely crying of strings and the industrial clunking of percussion. There is a real sense of loss, of mechanical decay and the broken promise of a bright future vanished forever.
‘View From The Watertower’ makes for a difficult start. The tone is distinctly sinister, and guest lyricist/vocalist Carla Bozulich (formerly of The Geraldine Fibbers) sounds like a strange mix of Patti Smith and Courtney Love, drawling and screaming along to a chorus of cacophonic strings. It is not a relaxing tune by any means, and is definitely something of an acquired taste. Bozulich is but the first in a parade of guests, which include the great Tom Waits and wife Kathleen Brennan on ‘Pray’, a clanking piece which could have come straight out of his own Mule Variations.
There are some songs, like ‘Midnight’ (co-written by and featuring morbid romantic Memphis singer-songwriter Megan Reilly) and the album’s title track, that possess a quiet and melancholy beauty and really capture the sadness of the Rust Belt’s soured American dream. ‘Red Apple Boy’, with guest vocals from David Thomas and harp from Zeena Parkins, is also strangely Waits-esque, and Jon Langford on ‘Boomtown’ gives a rather creepy half-spoken monologue about a sad old town ruined by the passage of years.
The harshness of ‘View From The Watertower’ is repeated throughout the album, particularly in ‘Pedro To Cleveland’ and ‘The Ballad Of John Henry’. Though these tracks are challenging, they add greatly to the strong sense of atmosphere that evokes the grim and barren Rust Belt so well. Jarring they may be, but they possess their own sense of dark beauty as much as the other, prettier songs on the album.
Traineater demands a lot from the listener. It is not the sort of album you can put on and relax with; no one will be playing it in the background at any dinner parties. It requires a lot of attention, and is not easy to like right away. It may be difficult to listen to in places, but it is masterfully atmospheric and, at times, as darkly beautiful as the places that have inspired it.
True Speaker EP ••••½
Despite being of only tender years, Bristol’s Katey Brooks could already be on the road to becoming a phenomenon. Possessed of a unique voice – and oft said that rarely accurate statement – Wears The Trousers would challenge anyone to listen to the five tracks on True Speaker and not be deeply affected. The a cappella ‘Hear Me Now’ starts things off with a haunting prayer of desperation made all the more powerful by its simplicity and intimate honesty. It’s hard to draw comparisons to other singers, although a subtle blend of Joan Armatrading and Tracy Chapman is perhaps the least inadequate.
Brooks’s voice is astonishingly deep, with a richness to it that envelops the listener in a comforting blanket of honey-tinged…hmm, I might as well admit it, I’m lost for even haltingly adequate editors and similes. She really is ‘that good’. The rest of the tracks on the EP take a similarly folksy form. Acoustic guitars and bass are joined by plaintive violin in sympathy with the vocal, all the evidence suggesting that Brooks’s talents as a writer are as well developed as her singing. Each song is quietly contemplative and perfectly complements the half-swallowed vocal performance, never overshadowing the singer.
It’s so rare to come across a singer who contributes something genuinely new these days. So often such a claim merely presages yet another cookie cutter starlet and a depressing anticlimax. For once, that isn’t the case; Katey Brooks is one of those rare exceptions and someone whom Wears The Trousers will be watching carefully as she continues to bloom as an artist. She’ll be performing alongside Mara Carlyle at our artist showcase in November; you won’t want to miss it.
No Promises •••
Italian heiress Carla Bruni may have an illustrious, almost storybook past as a supermodel fashion icon but don’t let it cloud your judgement on her actual talent. What would typically be a healthy cynicism of someone making such a leap (have you heard Kate Moss sing? And what about Naomi Campbell’s ill-starred pop flirtation?) would, in this case, be entirely wrong. Bruni is a decent guitarist and is in possession of a very unique, intimate and engaging – and yes, not a little sexy – vocal style that makes her folksy chansons so appealing. Her 2002 debut, Quelqu’un m’a dit, was a Franco-Italian delight and made a dent in the English cool circles despite the language barrier.
No Promises sees Bruni take up the challenge of competing in English with a similar approach. The genius part is using texts from famous dead poets that really allow her unusual accented phrasing to bring something special to the predominantly guitar and brushed drum-supported melodies. A peek at the songwriting credits reveals a none-more-venerable cast that includes WB Yeats (‘Those Dancing Days Are Gone’, ‘Before The World Was Made’), WH Auden (‘Lady Weeping At The Crossroads’, ‘At Last The Secret Is Out’), Emily Dickinson (‘I Felt My Life With Both My Hands’, ‘If You Were Coming In The Fall’, ‘I Went To Heaven’), Walter de la Mare (‘Autumn’), Dorothy Parker (‘Afternoon’, ‘Ballad At Thirty-Five’) and Christina Rossetti (‘Promises Like Piecrust’). Bruni gives a real personal interpretation of these poems with melancholic romanticism, and whilst the writers have been set to music before – Joni Mitchell has drawn on Yeats’s verse, while composer Benjamin Britten collaborated with Auden himself – Bruni’s half-spoken, half-sung style is unique in a Françoise Hardy meets Jane Birkin manner, though not as obvious as such a comparison seems.
That Bruni appears to have that ethos of doing well at whatever she focuses her attentions on is all the more impressive given that she might easily have chosen never to work in her life with all her privileges and status. Not to mention her beauty – she’s been romantically linked with everyone from Mick Jagger and Eric Clapton to Donald Trump and Kevin Costner. Next year sees the 10th anniversary of her retirement from the fashion world and her 40th birthday, and Bruni sounds more authentic than ever. No Promises may well seep beneath your skin if you give it time to grow. Then go get her first album too.
Real Girl •
The media like to make a big deal about Amy Winehouse’s drinking habits. Every second day we are subjected to stories about how she has had to cancel a gig or reschedule a TV appearance because she’s been hitting the bottle too hard. With these kinds of exaggerated stories it’s never quite clear whether or not the whole thing is the creation of an over-zealous PR team, or the actions of a self-destructive nymph who figures she doesn’t really need a liver. After listening to ‘B-Boy Baby’, Amy’s duet with Mutya, which also happens to be a rehash of the classic Ronettes’ song ‘Be My Baby’, it’s quite clear that the latter is, in fact, true. There is no other logical explanation as to why Amy would lend her lungs to this tune, AKA the worst song ever committed to plastic, other than the fact she was completely hammered on the day of recording.
But, let’s get to Mutya, who is the star of this here record. You may be aware that Mutya jumped ship on the Sugababes in 2005, leaving the band to look after her baby and start up a solo career. Many felt that with her she took the ‘voice’ of the band, and without her their edge was lost (they do, after all, pride themselves on being the ‘edgy’ girlband). It’s true that she has a not unlistenable tone which often wraps itself around her subject quite nicely, but, with material like that which appears on her solo debut it’s nowhere near time for her ex-bandmates to hand in their kitten heels and black eyeliner.
For those not in the know, Mutya was, to delicately put it, the bitch of the Sugababes. Staring blankly from CD sleeves and coming across aloof as can be in interviews, she was the member who dripped with cool. She was the girl who would steal your lunch money and sit at the back of the class, smoking cigarettes and taking swigs from a bottle of vodka. So, as you would expect her album is full of…sappy ballads with no personality. Hmm.
Every quirk and shred of character has been ironed out in order to make an album which is as inoffensive as possible. Even potentially interesting songs such as ‘It’s Not Easy’, with the knowing line ‘It’s not easy being right all the time, you know someone has to be’ have been airbrushed to the nth degree, making a spunky song bland and unlistenable. The only beacon that shines in this mess of songs is ‘Song 4 Mutya (Out of Control)’, Mutya’s collaboration with Groove Armada, which was recorded for their album ‘Soundboy Rock’ earlier this year and wasn’t even intended for inclusion on ‘Real Girl’.
As far as solo albums by ex-members of girl bands go, this effort should be filed somewhere between Victoria Beckham’s VB, and Kelly Rowland’s Simply Deep – one semi-decent song and 40-odd minutes of additional sounds.
Oh, My Darling •••½
Since, and perhaps because of, the ‘90s tyranny of Alanis, Céline and Shania, every musician in Canada seems to have been hell bent on becoming the best folk-rock artist the world has to offer. From Broken Social Scene to The Be Good Tanyas and many others in between, Canadian music has achieved global credibility and prominence and even spawned “the best band in the world right now” (Arcade Fire, in case you have been asleep for the past two years). Maybe just once it would be a refreshing change to hear someone say “here’s a new folk-influenced Canadian artist and actually they’re a bit average”. No such opportunity with Basia Bulat, whose debut album fizzes with folksy assuredness.
Armed with an acoustic guitar and a voice like warm molasses, Bulat laces Oh, My Darling‘s collection of waltzes, ballads and gentle Spanish-influenced dances with tinges of jazz and lounge. Bulat’s approach to folk music is very reminiscent of founding Be Good Tanya, Jolie Holland, although Basia’s songs lean much more heavily on pop…in a good way. ‘Before I Knew’ is a sleepy, short number that drifts lazily into the effervescent ‘I Was A Daughter’, in which suburban streets turn into dirt tracks and Bulat finds herself in adrift in a wilderness. An approach to songwriting described in the press release as picking ideas from trees in the forest immediately sets the twee alarms ringing, but, rather than armfuls of feathers, pretty leaves and blossom, you get the idea that she came back with birds’ nests, interesting lichen and soggy socks and shoes.
The title track starts with the promising line “there are two things I will carry in my pockets at the end and you are one of them / and the way you look when you have a story to begin, that’s the other half”, but is over all too soon. ‘Little Waltz’ recalls Jolie Holland’s perfect evocation of times past and could be the soundtrack to a barn dance in an era when men wore dungarees and workman’s boots and women wore gingham pinafore dresses. But it’s not all old-timey bucolic charm and peat bogs. ‘Snakes & Ladders’ is a relationship deconstructed, an indictment of the games lovers play, and is laced with frenetic strings and a killer ukulele hook; this is, however, as fierce as the album gets. ‘Why Can’t It Be Mine’, a moving story of longing sparkles with Latin rhythms and begs to be the soundtrack to a thousand movie break-ups.
Throughout, the album the instrumentation is flawless, though sometimes predictable and heavily influenced by acts such as The Be Good Tanyas. The songs are classy, and Bulat should be applauded for the variety of styles she artfully ties together while keeping one eye on pop sensibilities, although perhaps only two or three songs really tug at the heartstrings. Nonetheless, the whole album is held together by Bulat’s sumptuous voice – warm, smoky, emotive when she needs it to be, and subtly understated at all the right times.
Her intimate, heartfelt songs have garnered Bulat quite a following in her hometown of London, Ontario, though the album’s not yet in the shops there. Certainly it is to Rough Trade’s credit that they have scooped North America with their European release and it can only be a matter of time before her home country and their southern neighbours are able to appreciate Oh, My Darling‘s many charms. It’s a consistently good (if not consistently great) and endearing effort in the tradition of the Canadian folk revival. The title track and perhaps a couple of others could have been developed further, rather than left as pleasing ditties, for at just 35 minutes the album really leaves you wanting some more. Then again, that’s not necessarily a bad thing.
Filed under: album, back issues, live, review | Tags: andy wasley, chris mccrudden, client, cocorosie, colleen, jill cunniff, judy collins, laura cortese, loria near, mary chapin carpenter, melora creager, neko case, peter hayward, rod thomas, shawn colvin, siobhan rooney, stephanie heney, the concretes, trevor raggatt, vanessa carlton
The following reviews were published on our old MySpace blog in 2007.
Heroes & Thieves ••
Poor piano-popster Vanessa Carlton might have felt the sting of inevitability about her second album, Harmonium. Coming off the back of her smash hit debut it was a relative commercial and critical failure, peaking at a lowly 33 in the US Billboard 200 charts. Part of the problem was that the whole album sounded too much like her debut single ‘A Thousand Miles’; basic, boring piano-pop with no innovation or flair for variety. Carlton soon found herself receiving a cold “thanks, but no thanks” from her record label, A&M. All was not good, until R&B supremo Irv Gotti (Ashanti’s backer) decided to take a chance on her by producing her third album, Heroes & Thieves.
Carlton’s frustration with A&M bubbles to the surface in the album’s first number, ‘Nolita Fairytale’. Immediately recognizable as standard Carlton fare, its lyrics (“Take away my record deal / go on, I don’t need it”) might strike some as being somewhat petulant; sadly, that is by far the least of the song’s problems. Although it is competent, it is certainly nothing special; despite Carlton’s powerful voice (reminiscent of a young Sheryl Crow), her enunciation is so weak that it’s something of a strain to distinguish between words and understand the song’s heartfelt lyrics. This is a shame, because Carlton’s skill as a lyricist is actually pretty good. Next track ‘Hands On Me’s tale of youthful, unrequited love works well with Carlton’s yearning vocals, although it feels somewhat overwhelmed by a intrusive percussion – a common problem throughout the album, as it happens, and something Carlton would do well to avoid in the future.
Although most of the tracks sound rather samey, there are a few standouts. Carlton’s multilayered vocals in ‘The One’ take on a rich close harmony that could tie the Puppini Sisters in knots, and ends the song with a remarkably wistful coda. ‘My Best’ shimmers with a lullaby feel, filled with the sweet chimes of an electric piano to create a very pleasing track, and proving that, when she tries, Carlton can be very impressive. However, what should have been the album’s best number – ‘Home’ – fails to live up to its potential; at first Carlton eschews percussion, opting for a simple, near-perfect combination of piano, violin, harp and voice. Sadly, this quiet mastery is shattered by needless drums for the last two minutes, wrecking what could otherwise have been a welcome recognition that innovation is at least as important as convention.
Unfortunately, it seems that the pull of ‘A Thousand Miles’s success is just too strong, leading Carlton to return to the same, sterile sound again and again. Sometimes this sort of dependence on a tried-and-tested formula works well; it certainly hasn’t done J-Lo any harm. However, she has international fame and a somewhat slavishly devoted fan-base to rely on, whereas Miss Carlton is – for now, at least – dancing at the fringes of being a one-hit wonder.
So, will Heroes & Thieves see her storming back from her long holiday from public recognition with a smash-hit single? Unlikely. Vanessa Carlton might not be over and done with, but if she wants to justify Gotti’s faith – and prove A&M wrong – she will have to throw in a little more variety and forget the winning formula of ‘A Thousand Miles’. It’s had its day; one hopes that Carlton now chooses to look to the future rather than depend upon the past.
Live From Austin, TX ••••
I admit it; I grew up with old school country music. My mother had a coveted collection of Patsy Cline 45s and my father spent Saturday nights attempting to get an old AM radio to tune into a Nashville radio station that would broadcast the Grand Ole Opry. So as I grew up in music, I learned to appreciate that which Austin City Limits has as its beginnings. Fast forward to 2007. Country music has become mainstream pop and the Grand Ole Opry has become somewhat of a caricature of itself. While in recent years, ACL has moved way from being a country and folk showcase into more current and relevant music, it still keeps to its roots of strong performances and is more successful today than ever.
So it was with pleasure that I picked up the live disc from Neko Case at Austin City Limits in Austin, TX. Neko has been something of an indomitable force in music through the last few years, both as sometime accompanist to Canada’s New Pornographers as well a stellar solo artist. Most recently, Case shined with one of the most well deserving critically acclaimed albums of 2006, Fox Confessor Brings the Flood. Selections from three earlier albums, Blacklisted, Canadian Amp and Furnace Room Lullaby are showcased in this set of 14 songs recorded in August of 2003.
Fans of Case will ask, didn’t she already do this with 2004’s The Tigers Have Spoken? Well, they would be partially correct. Tigers… was released with the help of full band, The Sadies whilst this album scales back the performance to a minimal backing band and one backup singer. Where The Tigers Have Spoken showcased a grand scale of musicianship and range, Live from Austin, TX puts Neko herself square into the spotlight.
Not surprisingly, this minimalist formula works extremely well. Neko has one of the strongest set of pipes in the music business, and they soar here. From the moment her voice takes flight on opener ‘Favorite’ to the closing rolling steel guitar in ‘Alone & Forsaken’, she takes control of each note flawlessly. The setlist appears to be chosen specifically to highlight her strengths, including an interesting selection of covers. What might be sacred ground to many artists becomes artistic license to Case, as she takes classics by Dylan (‘Buckets of Rain’) and country legend Hank Williams (‘Alone & Forsaken’) and gives them a tender twist. The band, Jon Rauhouse and Tom Ray with Kelly Hogan on backing vocals, accent Case with sparse yet substantial steel guitar and banjo.
Released as a DVD both in the UK and Stateside in 2006, the disc’s audio companion is slimmed down from the original performance, cutting to 40 minutes from 90. Perhaps it’s this production choice that at times makes the recording feel a bit rushed. With little to no banter between artist and audience, or even artist and bandmates, the recording lacks the depth normally standard of Case’s live performances. The production is at times touch and go as well, with Neko’s overwhelming vocals pushed so much to the forefront it occasionally drowns out everything around it.
Despite these minor problems, Live From Austin, TX shows the depths of an artist who was just coming into her own skin when she stepped on that stage in 2003. It is here you first hear ‘Maybe Sparrow’, which evolved just slightly for inclusion on Fox Confessor…, and gives the listener a hint of just what Neko was to become.
Mary Chapin Carpenter
The Calling ••••
Zoe / Rounder
From the opening piano chords of ‘The Calling’ it’s clear that New Jersey’s finest country export is back. When Mary Chapin Carpenter’s distinctively smoky voice makes its entrance a few bars later it’s clear that she’s back with a vengeance. And vengeance may just be the appropriate word. While sonically the album contains all Carpenter’s signature sounds there’s a distinct change in lyrical content. The songs still inhabit the contemplative side of the psyche that is so typical of her songwriting but with a newfound edge, exploring the big questions which the events of the last few years make increasingly hard to ignore. Faith, racism, commitment, bigotry, the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, the jingoism which led to the Dixie Chicks’s trial by radio, personal responsibility and free will…each steps into the spotlight across the baker’s dozen of songs presented on the disc.
As a whole, The Calling is a magnificently mature statement, demonstrating music’s unique ability to move and evoke a feeling of empathy, however difficult the subject matter. The album also represents a range of watershed moments of the artist. It’s her first album for Rounder Records and her first Nashville-recorded album. In addition, along with her regular collaborators she’s also thrown a couple of Music City studio legends into the mix in the form of veteran and drummer Russ Kunkel and guitarist Dean Parks (allegedly the most recorded guitar player in the history of modern music).
And the quality shows. The Calling is perhaps a little mellower overall than some of her best-known songs – there’s no ‘He Thinks He’ll Keep Her’ nestling among the set. However, the restraint perfectly complements the mood and it doesn’t betray some form of mid-career ennui. Even where the songs do up the BPM count a dignified spirit remains; again, the word ‘mature’ springs to mind. That said, there are still plenty of moments to get the foot tapping – ‘We’re All Right’, ‘It Must Have Happened’, ‘Your Life Story’ and ‘One With The Song’ all supply the janglesome country pop that has become a Chapin Carpenter trademark.
Careful not to leave proceedings on a down, the album closes with a pair of uplifting ballads – ‘Why Shouldn’t We’ and ‘Bright Morning Star’ – which speak of empowerment and hope. A fitting conclusion to this artist’s most mature and thoughtful collection yet.
Back in the mid-1990s, a Yorkshire lass by the name of Sarah Blackwood hit the pages of the NME fronting indie-pop trio Dubstar, whose debut album Disgraceful notched up two Top 20 singles (the rather brilliant ‘Stars’ and ‘Not So Manic Now’) and found them surrounded by weird and wonderful dolls, flowers, dogs and anything else vaguely psychedelic they could put on their artwork without finding themselves on the wrong side of kitsch. Sadly the hits dried up all too soon and the band’s millennial demise went virtually unnoticed.
Not long after, the mysterious Client emerged from the shadows shrouded with intrigue, its two unnamed members referred to as simply ‘Client A’ and ‘Client B’ and their faces left out of the press shots. Still, it was hardly a secret that Blackwood was involved, especially given how distinctive her vocals are. Client are certainly a far cry from Dubstar and who would have imagined such a transition? Gone are the slightly twee stylistics; now it’s PVC, slick photography and black as the new black. Oh, and ‘electro’ displaces ‘indie’ as the prefix to ‘-pop’.
Previous albums Client and City were surrounded by substantial media buzz (in certain circles at least), included collaborations with ex-Libertines members (spawning their only Top 40 hit, the rather uninspiring ‘Pornography’ featuring Carl Barat) but resolutely failed to ignite any real interest in the general public. The problem was that they were marketed as a slightly pretentious electroclash outfit when in fact, they themselves claim they were surprised to “find themselves relevant”. Whether or not their intention was to front this so-called scene, the result was that they didn’t quite deliver what seemingly was promised. Heartland, however, is quite another matter. While earlier songs such as ‘Rock ‘n’ Roll Machine’ or ‘Radio’ were fantastic in essence, but quite sketchily produced, just short of the spark they needed to be surefire hits, the sound on Heartland is much tighter, the vocals infinitely more honed and, on the whole, the songs much stronger. Finally, Client have produced an album that shows them off as a force to be reckoned with.
Successfully aping the ‘80s (and ‘90s come to think of it) and slightly camp, Client’s sound on Heartland is essentially what more of their first release should have sounded like. It’s slick, often catchy and achingly cool. ‘Drive’ and the fantastic ‘It’s Not Over’ are relentlessly hummable, while ‘Monkey On My Back’ and ‘6 In The Morning’ are suitably strange, risqué and provocative, with enough tongue in cheek lines to add a certain edge that keeps them serving the darker side of pop. There are obvious allusions to Goldfrapp on ‘Lights Go Out’, which sounds like a homage to ‘Train’ (although it is in itself rather good), and comparisons with acts that have already achieved success with a very similar sound is unavoidable. It’s a shame that the initial batch of songs in 2003 hadn’t sounded as full as this, as by now Client could have been pretty big.
The album isn’t without its downfalls. As was more evident on previous releases, Client sometimes revert to clichéd lyrics that are lazy and predictable. ‘Where’s The Rock & Roll Gone’ is dull and, bizarrely, lead single ‘Zerox Machine’ is one of the least interesting tracks on the record. Instrumental ‘Koeln’ is an odd inclusion on an album dominated by strong vocal hooks, although not a wholly unwelcome one. Despite its weaknesses, Heartland is a largely good album and even if their earlier efforts left you cold there’s a lot to enjoy here. Blackwood’s vocals are truly back on form, pop gems are in abundance and it makes you feel like dancing. At least just a little bit.
The Adventures Of Ghosthorse & Stillborn ••
Touch & Go
Never an outfit to unify the listening public, CocoRosie may have produced their most divisive album to date with the their characteristically quirky and surreal third album. The Brooklyn sisters appear to have taken a similar turn to fellow eccentric Patrick Wolf in producing a record that simultaneously harbours their most radio-friendly moments (‘Rainbowarriors’ as a prime example) and also their weakest work. Though it’s as varied and obscure as any previous outing and contains a similarly vast array of “instruments” (take this noun as freely as possible – coins, scissors, bicycle bells and pretty much anything else that was close to hand plays the part of percussion), the problem is that it’s just not as interesting third time around. To give the sisters credit, brains have well and truly been wracked in order to orchestrate the songs with as diverse a selection of sounds as possible, but there are other forces at work here.
The main problem with the album – admittedly a standard feature of their work – is the vocals. Now, a certain amount of leniency is allowed for artistic expression, but Bianca’s vocals on ‘Japan’ are, for want of a better word, repulsive. The song itself is an unforgivable assault of unfunny references to rape (“but you like it / so say thank you!”) and pseudo-political views topped off by one of the most excruciating vocal deliveries of recent times with Bianca’s scratchy brat-like vocal, hammed up even further with cod-patois tones, decimating everything in its wake. It’s hard to believe that anyone can naturally sing in such a manner, and the need to adopt this tiresomely impish affectation escapes me. It might seem an unfair point of focus, but now more than ever it’s a very, very thick layer of ice to dig through to appreciate what lies below.
On initial listens, tracks such as ‘Werewolf’ and ‘Promise’ are fine background music if not paid too much heed. Then, when more attention is finally given and lines such as “I suck dick” ruin any ambience created, are we supposed to be shocked? Or impressed at their intelligence? This is the album’s core irritation – that beauty is promised but destroyed at birth by mercilessly contrived lyrics and indescribably grating vocals. I really wanted to fall in love with CocoRosie and so much of The Adventures Of Ghosthorse & Stillborn begins to offer the opportunity before they spin around and spoil it by doing something woefully insubstantial.
Superficially, CocoRosie are incredibly talented as the album’s production values clearly display but their creative vision is riddled with flaws. Their lyrical images are often mundane, and even when more obscure they are predictably so, almost in the manner of a caricature. In a strange way, CocoRosie appear to have embellished the vices of their previous work and positioned themselves as very easy targets for criticism.
As harsh as the evaluation sounds, fans of previous work will likely find moments, even minutes, of beauty in this work. Many songs are decent enough efforts, but for an outfit as self-consciously styled as the Casady sisters, you might expect better. Even the presence of Devendra Banhart’s writing on ‘Houses’ offers little benefit to the equation. Occasionally glorious composition is shot dead by thoughtless lyrics; Sierra’s gorgeous operatics are strangled by Bianca’s painfully overwrought vocals – ultimately, while trying too hard, it is far too lazy.
Live at the Sacred Trinity Chapel, Salford •••½
June 12, 2007
Some artists paint on canvases metres wide with broad brushes, spattering colour and ideas everywhere. Others content themselves with Jane Austen’s “two inches square of ivory”, finding freedom in restriction. French multi-instrumentalist Colleen is very much in the latter camp, teasing intricate songs out of sometimes as few as four or five tones played variously on the guitar, clarinet, the Baroque instrument, the viol, wind chimes and even music boxes.
Her concert at the Sacred Trinity Chapel, a tiny red sandstone church washed up by the ebb and flow of the Industrial Revolution at the edge of Manchester city centre, to promote her new record Les Ondes Silencieuses (‘silent waves’) was a mesmeric rather than exciting experience. Playing to a respectful, if slightly solemn crowd of people scattered over pews and lounging earnestly on jute mats on the floor, her seven-song set brought to mind the incidental music that accompanies a sinister European fairytale, the kind where the princess gets her hand cut off in the spinning wheel and bleeds to death slowly in the forest.
Employing a sound poised somewhere between French baroque composers such as Rameau, electro-pastoral shoegazers Slowdive and the avant-garde minimalism only to be found after 11pm on Radio 3 means Colleen is unlikely to trouble the charts anytime soon. Yet her sonorous, occasionally stiff, looped soundscapes have an undeniable charm, particularly in her guitar and viol-based work. Her painstaking approach to building songs out of tiny fragments using a pedal loop yields results that make a guitar sound like sleigh bells, and can transform her rather ponderous clarinet playing into something rich and strange.
All this, however, pales into insignificance compared to her work layering the sound of chimes or music boxes over one another. Not only do they exemplify her approach to making music, using just a few repeated notes so that the drama and variation in each song emerges at micro level, but the resulting sound is also weird enough to stick in the mind. A single song, in which a distorted music box melody plays backwards and forwards over an Elizabethan-sounding guitar line sums up everything Colleen does best: building wilfully odd art out of fragments.
Sings Lennon & McCartney ••
There’s no denying the pedigree of Judy Collins, a singer as fine as they come with a career that has thus far spanned nearly 50 years and 44 albums. Throughout the 1960s, she earned herself quite the formidable reputation as a masterful interpreter of other people’s songs – early recordings featured songs by Baez, Mitchell, Cohen, Dylan, Seeger and more, all cosseted by her pure soprano vocal. Given that her landmark 1966 album featured, and took its title from, a Beatles track (‘In My Life’), it’s remarkable that Collins has waited another 40 years before attempting more entries in the Lennon and McCartney canon. Set in this context, an album on which Collins explores the Beatles oeuvre in greater depth should be a cause of the hushed anticipation.
Sadly, the reality is a disappointingly lacklustre affair. There’s no denying the pure beauty of Collins’s still-crystalline voice, but the arrangements and interpretations are inexplicably disastrous. The players on Sings… rank among the greatest musicians the session world has to offer, yet, unaccountably, too many of the songs come over as tiresome jazz noodling that would be below par even in some mediocre Manhattan cocktail bar. Imagine the inspired spoof combo which closed each episode of ‘Alas Smith & Jones’ and you have in a nutshell the Collins takes on ‘And I Love Her’ and ‘I’ll Follow The Sun’.
Some, mostly McCartney-penned, numbers fare a little better. The sweetness (or at least bittersweet tone) of ‘Blackbird’, ‘Hey Jude’ and ‘Yesterday’ acts as a sympathetic context for Collins’s trill. But there’s no escaping the fact that Collins simply doesn’t have sufficient grit, world-weariness or cynicism to convince on tracks like ‘Golden Slumbers’ and ‘We Can Work It Out’. Elsewhere, ‘Norwegian Wood’ veers way too close to department store muzak fodder for comfort. And ‘When I’m 64’…? Let’s not even go there.
It’s frustrating that what should have been a glorious canter through one of the all-time classic songbooks is such a disappointment. Perhaps another repertoire (Berlin, Porter, Gershwin…even Coward!) and a more engaging production would have reaped better dividends. As it stands, however, this particular collection will remain the preserve of Collins completists only.
Live at Shepherd’s Bush Empire ••••
June 18, 2007
The Shepherd’s Bush Empire is no easy place to play solo. The gaping maw of the auditorium must be daunting for even the most seasoned pro and bands of any number. So kudos goes to both performers this evening for having the cahones to face up to this alone.
Husky, tousled and bescarfed support Jack Savoretti, only slightly showing his nerves, provides a soundtrack of lilting and earnest acoustic numbers that greet the punters. While he seems to be somewhat thrown by the hushed tones between tracks, this is probably a trick of the acoustics as the audience there to witness his set seem pretty grateful to be rewarded for turning up early by a more than half decent support.
There is no danger that Shawn Colvin is going to be concerned about a lack of appreciation. Decked in a shiny plastic patterned halter-neck, blue jeans and platforms, she looks every bit the part of a Midwestern trailer mom casually strolling onstage with just an acoustic guitar. But this unassuming demeanour disguises one of the finest singer-songwriters, which the audience, in appreciative applause before she even plays a chord, knows only too well.
Opening with one of the less popular numbers from her largely forgotten covers album might not be the most auspicious start, but she follows this up with two songs from last year’s These Four Walls. Excellent on record, ‘Fill Me Up’ and the title track are even more poignant live, stripped of any production, the quality of Colvin’s voice and poetry resonating loud.
Having spent a long time touring live and playing the New York folk scene before making a record, Colvin is completely at ease despite her assertion that this is her largest ever London gig. Apologising if the set recapitulates a Union Chapel show from the back end of last year she says that she can’t remember what she played, to which an audience member calls back that “neither can we”, without pausing for breath she retorts “We’re the same age then”.
Culling a set from throughout her career, Colvin has wide-ranging and nuanced perspectives on life, loves and relationships, from the fatalistic ‘Trouble’, which fizzes with venom, to the mournful, glacial and soaring ‘Shotgun Down The Avalanche’. Colvin’s lyrics are deceptively sharp, and coupled here with the raw immediacy of her live vocals, which effortlessly switch from piercing soprano shaking the cornices of the domed ceiling to a desert parched scratch on demand, she entrances the audience before drawing us back from adulatory rapture with between-track quips.
The glorious lovesong ‘Polaroids’, a list of images making a flickbook animation of a relationship and the triumphant tale of escape that is ‘Sunny Came Home’ elicit two of the greatest rounds of applause of the night. But even lesser known tracks are delivered with such poise that at the end of 16 songs the standing ovation is heartfelt and well deserved.
Returning for an encore of mostly covers, we are treated to an ‘ad hoc’ version of Neil Young’s ‘Birds’ inspired by it being played before Colvin came onstage. A reworking of Gnarls Barkley’s ‘Crazy’ could be embarrassing for someone of Colvin’s maturity, but she manages to breathe new life into a song played to death. And ‘Killing The Blues’, a standard in her live set for many years now, totally floored this reviewer.
For all her Grammys and critical acclaim, it is near criminal that Colvin is not better known and better respected by the public. Anyone who can, without pretence and so confidently, hold such a masterclass in performance deserves to be much much more highly regarded.
Hey Trouble •
As most people will probably remember, Swedish collective The Concretes caused quite a stir a few years back with their self-titled debut and its almost-instant pop classics such as ‘You Can’t Hurry Love’. Fewer will remember the follow up In Colour that failed somewhat to live up to expectations, and even fewer still will be aware that they’re still going, despite losing Victoria Bergsman’s majestic lead vocals to a brief affair with Peter, Bjorn & John and, ultimately, her solo career as Taken By Trees. For those faithful hangers on who’ve been wondering what the band might sound like without her, the wait is over. And the answer is, sadly, really not great. Though it starts off pleasantly enough, it soon becomes clear that Ms Bergsman made a well-timed departure from a once-great musical force now reduced to making dishwater music. What once sparkled now grates – the retro production values, the slightly twee edge and the faux-naïve lyrics; Hey Trouble appears to faithfully adhere to the formula of their debut, but recapturing the chemistry eludes the band completely.
At times the album, or rather the mixing and arrangements of the album, veer towards Belle & Sebastian at their more electronic (‘Keep Yours’), and at other times The Supremes (a major, long-held influence). Certain moments are sufficiently well arranged and lavishly orchestrated, but it’s all bogged down by its chugging monotony. One line in ‘A Whale’s Heart’ (a song whose title is vastly more interesting than the song ever dares become) declares “it’s straight-to-DVD hell”. If this album were a film, this line would be the most apt in the script.
Alarm bells should really have rung upon hearing lead single ‘Oh Boy’, a limp attempt at reintroducing the Swedes into the limelight. Part of the problem is that many bands have jumped on the retro bandwagon since The Concretes first emerged – such as fellow Scandinavians Shout Out Louds, the aforementioned Peter, Bjorn & John, and even The Radio Dept – all of whom have become much more interesting and relevant than them. Hey Trouble is unrelentingly boring from start to finish; not a single track comes anywhere near to rivalling the pure joy of their earlier work, or even matching the energy of their successors. Lisa Milberg, who had the unenviable task of replacing Bergsman on vocals, flounders miserably, rendering any beauty in the songs impossible to hold on to. She lacks any real variety in delivery, and on the whole sounds entirely nonplussed, barely aware of the lyrics she is singing almost robotically.
In theory, the songs are fine, but they are just that: fine. They just about scrape by, but lack any real defining qualities or values that display why this album was made, or even why the band are still together aside from a contractual obligation. The ideas on this record have all been done before, often to death, by countless other bands. As harsh as it may seem, The Concretes have delivered an essentially pointless record. Hey Trouble sounds strangely empty despite the layers and layers of careful instrumentation, and, more’s the pity, achingly insincere.
Blow Out The Candle •••
Laura Cortese: fiddler, singer, dancer, songwriter, polymath, sometime purveyor of dog-house bass for old-timey outfit Uncle Earl…there’s no denying that the woman’s got talent. Her latest release, a mini-album sequel to 2006’s full-length Even The Lost Creek, finds her in pared-back, live and acoustic mode. Recorded straight from the mixing desk at a number of shows across the US and Canada, every one of the seven songs here demonstrates Cortese’s energy and skill.
Drawing heavily on material from Even The Lost Creek, with just one pick (‘I Must Away Love’) from her solo debut Hush and a cover. But the bare-bones nature of the recording – a simple mix of fiddle, guitar and percussion – leaves Cortese plenty of room to breathe. The rock ‘n’ reel style of ‘Mulqueens’ amply shows why her fiddle playing has been so lauded on the Stateside Celtic circuit, while the other excerpts from her previous release are nicely stripped down retreads of the studio material.
This is particularly effective on the raunchy traditional number ‘Jack Orion’ where brooding sensuality rubs shoulders with snare and brushes and spookily cello-like riffing on an octave fiddle. Of course it doesn’t end happily. Traditional ballads rarely do. The real surprise here is a tender cover of Kelly Clarkson’s ‘Breakaway’ (co-written by fellow Canadian Avril Lavigne), as far away from American Idol sk8r punk as you can possibly imagine. But the transformation of the song to fit Cortese’s country-folk style is seamless and the perfect foil to her lyrical fiddle playing.
Being picky, the technical quality of the recording isn’t as smooth as some ‘live’ offerings, but what we lose in smoothness and overdubs is more than repaid in energy, honesty, authenticity and connection between player, listener and music. Which would you rather have?
The old maxim about never starting a band with a woman because she’ll want to go solo has never been tested more than when applied to Melora Creager. Of course, the mythical band of this epithet wasn’t Rasputina, nor was its lead singer the notoriously eclectic Creager who, as the founding member, is the nucleus around which the organised chaos of Rasputina’s ever-shifting line-up revolves. The difficulty of the solo album already becomes apparent: can we extricate Creager from Rasputina when she is arguably the band’s driving force?
There is no doubt that Creager has delivered an accomplished album, replete with the quavering vocals we have come to love. In many ways, Perplexions represents a ‘back to basics’ approach for the singer, showcasing her voice, the cello and piano in arrangements that seem less complex than her collaborations with Rasputina. There are exceptions in ‘Sky Is Falling’ and ‘Krakatowa’, but these rather noisy affairs are dwarfed by simple voice and cello pairings like the mournful ‘American Girl’. Opening track ‘Girl Lunar Explorer’ has a gorgeous string-plucking jazz quality to it that Creager would do well exploring further in other solo projects. The all too short ‘Itinerant Airship’, meanwhile, features layered vocals over mellifluous cyclical cello.
Perplexions is only seven tracks long so seems like a rather embryonic solo effort. An inevitable problem of the album is that many elements, most notably the signature use of cello, hark back to Rasputina and do little to assert Creager’s individual identity as a musician. However, the cello is such an intrinsic part of her repertoire that it may be impossible to fully separate the two entities. For the moment, however, Creager’s work with Rasputina should be more than enough to satisfy her eager fans while she finds her musical bearings.
City Beach •••
Although a lot of musicians can boast an authentic claim to the ‘cool’ moniker, they don’t come much hipper than Jill Cunniff. Born and raised in NYC, at just 13 years old she had her birthday party at the legendary CBGBs; at 14 she taught herself to play the guitar; and at 15 found herself playing in garage underground punk bands alongside future members of the Beastie Boys. When Cunniff joined forces with fellow New Yorkers Kate Schellenbach, Gabby Glaiser and Vivian Trimble, Luscious Jackson were formed and promptly signed to Grand Royale. After five full-length albums and notable indie success, the band amicably called it quits in 2000. So, it’s fair to say that Jill Cunniff has paid her dues, musically and credibly speaking.
Since 2000, Cunniff has worked on some pop projects and worked with Emmylou Harris, continued writing her own material and even found time to learn the art of production, sampling and mixing. The result is her debut solo album City Beach, dedicated to New York’s Coney Island, a faded, atmospheric city beach famous for its lively past. In an attempt to bring the beach to the city dweller, this album is full of hot Brazilian beats, and deliberately laid back breezy tunes. Indeed, on the track ‘Warm Sound’, the listener is urged to start the century again, at a slower pace. The whole album is something of a contradiction, combining genuinely lazy sounds with an urgent and constant message of the need to slow down.
In the same way that a beach rarely belongs in a city, this insistence feels a little out of place here, perhaps consciously so. With a vocal style very similar to Nelly Furtado, the exotic hip hop beats and samba are perfectly accompanied, evoking a real world music feel that touches on several styles, including jazz, soul, Latin, electronica, pop, trip hop, funk and so on. Although essences of Luscious Jackson are evident – mostly in the sampling and beats – this has far less edge and, well, less NYC hipness, compensated for with ambiance. City Beach is a summertime album for sure and the mood is bright.
Of the 12 tracks, Cunniff wrote seven single handed and co-wrote the other five, and while the intended mood is definitely caught, the songs themselves aren’t strong. Themes of lost love come second place to the regular insistence of taking it easy, and the lyrics are simplistic and a little clichéd. It doesn’t help that the true standout number ‘Lazy Girls’, with its danceable upbeat rhythm, is situated right at the beginning.
Perhaps arriving a little too late to capture the chillout or ambient audience, the appeal of City Beach may suffer from not fitting into any particular nook. A little too soft for the indie audience and too mature for the spiritual types, the album may well contain too many disparate elements to pin it down sufficiently. Whether bringing the beach to the urbanite or the hustle and bustle to the coastal dweller, City Beach evokes a time and place unknown to either, where nothing is rushed and the atmosphere is relaxed and blissfully simple.
Filed under: album, back issues, review | Tags: alex ramon, andy wasley, beth hirsch, charlotte hatherley, danny weddup, deborah harry, emily haines, emmylou harris, hannah ild, help she can't swim, hem, hugh armitage, hummingbird, james m johnston, kristin hersh, loria near, peter hayward, pj harvey, rod thomas, stephanie heney, trevor raggatt, victoria hart
The following reviews were published on our old MySpace blog in 2007.
Emily Haines & The Soft Skeleton
Knives Don’t Have Your Back ••••
Drowned In Sound
Best known for her achingly fashionable day job as frontwoman of chart-friendly Canadian indie dance-rock-pop outfit Metric, and not unregarded for her work with Broken Social Scene, Emily Haines can seemingly do no wrong. Knives Don’t Have Your Back isn’t going to change that. Following in the footsteps of her good friend Amy Millan of Stars and Rilo Kiley’s Jenny Lewis, Haines has pared back her sound to produce a magnificently understated, mostly elegiac album that firmly cements her reputation as an excellent songwriter.
Who, then, are The Soft Skeleton? Quite simply, they’re a bunch of players Haines put together especially for the album, including Scott Minor from Sparklehorse and various members of Broken Social Scene and Metric. Really though, the guests are just for musicianship and Knives… is all Haines. Her keyboard skills, which have barely been made use of up ’til now, are prominent. Indeed, aside from some tasteful string arrangements and some horns, the album is a showcase for Haines and her piano.
Haines’s voice is well suited to piano-driven ballads and her vocals have a dry, sad essence not too dissimilar to Martina Topley-Bird’s unusual style. With that in mind, Knives Don’t Have Your Back couldn’t be further from her muscular, vibrant work with Metric. Instead of being part of a slickly produced noise outfit, here Haines is laid bare, literally sounding as though her bandmates had upped and wandered away. A melancholic intimacy and darkness surround these lo-fi laments, the subject matter of which is often shadowy. Two songs – ‘Reading In Bed’ and ‘Mostly Waving’ – were recorded in the winter of 2002 as Haines was coping with the sudden death of her father, a famed poet from Montreal.
As refreshing as this downbeat peek into Haines’s world is, the album is ultimately let down by the sameness of the tracks; none are standout tunes that are destined for radio (perhaps a brave move for someone so accustomed to receiving considerable airplay, in Canada at least). Not to worry. Given that Haines has very publicly announced that her day job with Metric is still her priority, Knives… simply gives her the space to stretch out and really show the breadth of her talents, and in doing so to make a bold departure from that which made her name.
Everything Is Changing •••½
Big in Estonia. It sounds like an ironic putdown. One step less successful than the now legendary “big in Japan” – how good can that be? Well, not bad actually.
Hannah Ild really is big in her Baltic home country. Big in Kylie proportions. Big enough to need only just one name. Now the 26 year old singer, who already has five hit albums to her name back home, is taking advantage of Estonia’s entry into the Internal Market and launching herself into the pop world across Europe. Everything Is Changing certainly presses all the relevant pop princess buttons, with expensive sounding production (courtesy of serious British and American studio time), lush string arrangements, heart-rending ballads and hook-laden uptempo numbers. And that’s not just damning with faint praise. The songs – all self-penned – are strong and Ild’s vocal delivery is positively luminous in places, catching with emotion at the peaks of the songs’ restrained intensity.
Typified by the single ‘I See’ and ‘They Said’, the arrangements are mostly acoustically-based with guitar and piano at the fore plus a myriad of subtle textures layered on top to retain the listener’s interest. On both of these songs there’s just enough Mitchell Froom-era Corrs-esque touches thrown into the mix to ensure that by the time the big chorus hits, the Radio 2 core audience will be hooked into submission. ‘You Are’ finds Ild in full-on ballad mode with a swooping orchestral passage that kicks in during the chorus and could easily have graced any number of albums by artists from Anastasia or Kelly Clarkson to The Veronicas, but here it’s Hannah’s own in every way. Other standouts include the title track and ‘These Days’, both of which are drenched with unrequited love and longing.
The sheer quality of Everything Is Changing is something of a pleasant revelation, showing that there really can be life outside of Eurovision (Hannah came second in the 1997 contest with ‘A Lonely Soul’) for Eastern European pop exports. Ild deserves success beyond that which she’s accrued back in Estonia, and if this is typical of what the expansion of Europe will bring, well, vivre l’esprit communautaire.
Songbird: Rare Tracks & Forgotten Gems ••••½
From 1996’s Portraits boxset through Rhino’s 2001 Anthology to 2005’s Heartaches & Highways, a significant number of ‘best of’ compilations have been dedicated to reviewing Emmylou Harris’s extensive and eminent musical catalogue. So many, in fact, that we may question the necessity of another collection that re-caps the career of the woman who, for nearly 40 years, has brought impeccable taste, grace and elegance – as well as a healthy dose of genre-bending daring – to the country barroom.
Songbird, however, is altogether a different proposition. As its enticing subtitle makes clear, this mammoth set – 4 CDs featuring 78 tracks, a DVD of TV performances, and a 200-page booklet including track-by-track commentary – is no standard greatest hits package but rather a generous selection of “personal favourites,” hand-picked by Harris as a kind of alternative retrospective of her work to date. Don’t expect to find the likes of ‘Boulder To Birmingham’ here. Instead, Songbird showcases under-valued album tracks, live cuts, soundtrack and tribute album contributions, a whole host of collaborations, and thirteen previously unreleased songs. As such, this is very much a collection pitched at the Harris completist, or at those eager to dig deeper into a body of work that must rank as one of the most distinctive and remarkable in contemporary music. Whichever category you fall into, the opportunity to immerse yourself in some of the more obscure corners of the work of the Grace Kelly of country will prove a total pleasure.
Even so, for true Harris aficionados, quite a bit of the material featured on Songbird will be familiar, especially the songs spread across the first two CDs. These discs take a broad chronological sweep through the full range of her solo studio albums, assembling tracks from the classic 1970s Hot Band recordings, the neo-traditionalist releases Blue Kentucky Girl and Roses In The Snow and the denser textures of Wrecking Ball, Red Dirt Girl and Stumble Into Grace. The work with Gram Parsons gets surprisingly short shrift, represented by just two tracks, a heartfelt rendition of the Louvins’s ‘The Angels Rejoiced Last Night’ (a fitting choice given the brothers’ influence on the famed Parsons/Harris harmonies) and an exuberant live version of ‘The Old Country Baptizing’, while 1985’s The Ballad Of Sally Rose – the self-penned song-cycle which Parsons inspired – is also poorly represented.
Nonetheless, the pickings are rich indeed, and of primary interest for rarities fans is the opening track, ‘Clocks’, an alternate take of a decidedly Clouds-era Joni Mitchell style ditty culled from Harris’s deleted first folk foray Gilding Bird. But perhaps the greatest revelation of these discs is just how beautifully Harris’s studio work has aged; the ‘70s and ‘80s work still sounds fresh and vital – much more so than anything that’s emerging from the Nashville mainstream these days – and the Lanois/Burns-produced tracks retain their mysterious allure. While a number of these songs remain in her concert repertoire, these discs permit the pleasure of rediscovery and offer fans a valuable opportunity to reacquaint themselves with album tracks that they may have forgotten. Compelling renditions of Springsteen’s ‘Racing In The Streets’, Sandy Denny’s ‘Like An Old-Fashioned Waltz’, and Leonard Cohen’s ‘Ballad Of A Runaway Horse’ were particular standouts for this listener.
Eschewing chronology, the next two discs collate a wide selection of rarities and hard-to-find material, and feature a roll call of collaborators and duet partners that reads like a veritable ‘Who’s Who’ of Americana. The many highlights include simply beautiful renditions of Beth Nielsen Chapman’s ‘Beyond The Blue’ (with Patty Griffin), Katy Wolf’s ‘Love Still Remains’, Woody Guthrie’s ‘Hobo’s Lullaby’, and the Carters’ ‘Wildwood Flower’ (with Iris DeMent), as well as blissfully soulful takes on Parsons’ ‘Juanita’, ‘She’ and ‘Sin City’ (with Sheryl Crow, Chrissie Hynde and Beck respectively). The sequencing is immaculate, with thematically linked tracks frequently arranged together to form little cycles and suites. Issues and images recur: loss, grief, lonesomeness, spiritual redemption, the temptations of travel, the desire for homecoming. A pair of lovely Paul Kennerley originals from his 1980 The Legend Of Jesse James project (‘Heaven Ain’t Ready For You Yet’ and ‘Wish We Were Back In Missouri’) are placed together, as are two memorable unreleased outtakes from the Trio sessions with Dolly Parton and Linda Ronstadt. In short, the advertised gems really are gems, showcasing Harris’s genius for selecting material, her special gifts of interpretation, and her seeming ability to sing with anyone and make it sound as natural and effortless as breathing.
Harris can fully inhabit songs both ancient and modern, secular and spiritual, and her singing style combines burning passion and impeccable restraint in equal measure. Her voice reflects her rich amalgam of influences, merging country ache and folky nuance, breathy highs and grainy lows, and hearing its progression from girlishness to maturity across Songbird is a fascinating and quite moving experience. Her singing may be famed for its ‘angelic’ qualities but there’s much more to it than ethereal loveliness. Yes, Harris can soothe like few others but she can also freeze the blood, as her chillingly intense takes on Townes Van Zandt’s ‘Snake Song’ and Hank Williams’s ‘Alone & Forsaken’ (both included here) attest. There’s tension, risk and a breathless sense of adventure to much of her best work, qualities that Lanois’s production on Wrecking Ball brought right out into the open. She remains, quite simply, a consummate class act, retaining her poise and conviction even when the material proves unworthy of her (and just occasionally it does: cf. the corny self-abasement of ‘First In Line’, the banal ‘Wondering’ and the earnest but clichéd ‘Immigrant Eyes’, not the finest lyrical moment of the usually reliable Guy Clark). As Joe Allison memorably wrote of the Louvins: “their sincerity reaches out and grabs you with such authority that you literally become part of the song.” This same description may be applied to Harris.
What Songbird reveals most consistently is Harris’s dedication and single-mindedness in pursuing her own wide-ranging vision of the “cosmic American music” to which Parsons first alerted her. Her music cuts through folk, country, rock and gospel borders not so much to tear down barriers as to demonstrate – and create – connections between them, allowing her, in her own words, “to draw on the past…and come up with something new.” It’s this exhilarating fusion of tradition and modernity that makes this collection – and indeed all of Harris’s work – essential listening for anyone interested in the wonderfully broad and varied terrain of American roots music.
Necessary Evil •
What can one say about Debbie Harry? That sensuous, cherubic creature; maybe not the most talented musician in the world, but possibly the most beautiful. So beautiful in fact, that whole music videos can be made focusing solely on her face…oh, wait! Stop everything. Wake up. This isn’t 1977 anymore. It’s 2007, and nothing stays the same forever. Deborah (as she prefers to be known these days) is a very different woman from the pouty young thing that stole our hearts with ‘Heart Of Glass’ and ‘Call Me’, however much she might otherwise wish.
On Necessary Evil, Harry’s latest electro outing, she goes at it as she always did, sweet and high as in ‘Sunday Girl’. But her voice is older than it was. It’s 62 years old to be precise, and it simply can’t hit the notes it used to. Thus our unfortunate ears are subjected to the likes of ‘Love With A Vengeance’ and ‘If I Had You’. Painful stuff. It isn’t that she can’t sing – the title track shows that she’s perfectly capable of sounding quite pleasant – she just doesn’t seem to know how to use her new voice properly, too often trying to sing in exactly the same style as she was 30 years ago.
Opening track and first single ‘Two Times Blue’ starts quite sweetly with a charming little fairground ditty; unfortunately, Harry ruins it by breaking in all too soon, croaking like one of Macbeth’s Weird Sisters. The chorus is horribly strained, the words oddly stretched out as though the lyrics and music had been written in separate soundproof rooms and subsequently forced cruelly together, ‘Island Of Doctor Moreau’-style. The music itself is sometimes well written, as demonstrated in the opening bars, but this album is let down massively by its lyrics and content: every single song is about sex. Without fail. The old days of Blondie were never this explicit, but I suppose Harry didn’t need to talk about sex to make people think about it back then. Imagine if you will your mum singing along to ‘School For Scandal’; “the devil’s dick is hard to handle,” apparently. Then imagine your granny singing it.
If this assessment appears ageist, or sexist even, it’s not meant that way at all. Wears The Trousers is well aware that Jagger, Jones and Stewart get away with things that an older lady would be slammed for and that such an imbalance is mightily unfair. Nevertheless, after sitting through the 17-track long leviathan that is Necessary Evil, it’s hard to believe that anyone won’t find themselves wishing that Harry would sometimes act her years. And, after all, if The Rolling Stones wailed their way through a crass electro album like this one, you’d hope that they’d be torn to bits for it too. There are other anomalies lurking in the tracklist, for instance the deep mumblings of ‘Jen Jen’. Harry doesn’t even sing on it so how it snuck onto the album we’ll never know. Maybe she was on the decks. Then there’s ‘Dirty & Deep’, the title of which says almost all really, neglecting only to highlight the fact that a part of it rivals Madonna’s ‘American Life’ for the worst rap of all time.
So that’s Necessary Evil in a nutshell – overlong, crude and performed by a woman far past her musical prime. All this album does is sully the memory of a once great songstress turned worn out, hyper-sexed harridan.
Whatever Happened To Love? •••½
Today’s celebrity-obsessed world has seen the rapid rise of reality TV, and the attendant burst of homogenous, bland and short-lived manufactured artists. In such an environment, it can be difficult for niche music to prosper; would Kate Bush’s fantastical songs have impressed the judges? Would Regina Spektor’s subversive experimentalism endear her to an audience brought up with the Spice Girls and R’n’B? Perhaps not. It’s always gratifying, then, when a new singer appears who is determined to change it all, and who has the star quality to succeed. Step forward Miss Victoria Hart, former Richmond waitress turned jazz-singing sensation. A trilingual 18-year old who counts Amy Winehouse among her friends and George Clooney among her fans, Hart claims that her album represents a return to the unabashedly romantic music of the past. Comprising 13 songs and a remix of the title track, it has been designed to showcase Hart’s voice with a variety of different styles; it is in this that the album draws its strength and also, sadly, finds its weakness.
Hart’s musical heroines include such luminaries as Ella Fitzgerald and Eva Cassidy, and her love of old-fashioned big band music shines through in some of the album’s best tracks. ‘Two Time Blues’ would suit Fitzgerald perfectly with its classy and deeply sensual style, Hart’s youthful voice perfectly capturing the naiveté of the song’s heroine. The more glamorous ‘Chocolates & Strawberries’ shows off a highly developed sense of fun and wickedness, with some plainly suggestive lyrics set against a snazzy ‘70s-style backing rich with wah-wah trumpets and a thumping bass line. Hart’s ability to draw a picture with her voice is quite remarkable, and is suitably demonstrated by perhaps the best song on the album – also its only cover – ‘Sunny Afternoon’. Toe tapping and deeply sultry, Hart’s interpretation of the classic Kinks song evokes all the attendant vivid images of a languid, sun-drenched summer, managing to ensure that the song remains familiar while throwing in some throaty sax riffs to suit her jazz credentials. Other impressive tracks include the 1950s-style two-step jazz of ‘Wonderful’ and the deliciously sexy ‘Je M’Oublie’, which oozes French sophistication with its atmospheric accordion backing and Hart’s voluptuous vocals.
Where the album falls flat is in trying to demonstrate the breadth of Hart’s skills; several songs have been selected rather clumsily in an attempt to show that she can perform more mainstream work. This leads to the inclusion of some forgettable guitar-pop tracks such as ‘Some Day’, a bland ballad that simply does not do Hart’s unique voice justice. Fortunately, Hart is an accomplished jazz singer, and her wit, flair and talent pull her through the dross. Sassy, classy and unashamedly mushy, Whatever Happened To Love? marks the debut of a new and formidable force in modern jazz. Let’s hope that Hart doesn’t lose sight of what she’s best at.
White Chalk ••••
Best known for her brutal blues and sophisticated punk, PJ Harvey’s decision to trade her guitar in for a piano and her deep soulful voice for a choral falsetto looked unlikely on paper. But, true to her word, there is barely a six-string to be heard on the eleven tracks that make up White Chalk, her eighth studio album, which are largely based around gently throbbing keys and vocals piped in from a Victorian ghost story. Having explored urban life on 2001’s vibrant Stories From The City, Stories From The Sea, White Chalk is suffused with rural imagery – bleak landscapes and a pervading isolation – the title a reference to the bedrock of Harvey’s Dorset home and its gothic ring compounded by the cover image of a pale and drawn shock-headed Harvey sat bolt upright in a lacy, spectral dress. And, of course, the stark minimal piano and newly shrill vocals that run through the album.
Whether the experience of working with keys has been entirely enjoyable for Harvey is thrown into doubt when ‘The Piano’ – which knowingly features acoustic guitar and zither only – opens with the lyric “hit her with a hammer, teeth smashed in”, and as the track plays out with snapshots of strained family relations and the refrain “no-one is listening”, Harvey sounds like a truculent child trying to show off the results of her first few music lessons. For the most part the piano playing is naïve and childlike – motifs seemingly picked out with just two fingers – and while it’s used to good effect to create sinister and atmospheric songs such as opener ‘The Devil’ and ‘Grow Grow Grow’, Harvey’s lack of finesse sometimes tends towards monotony.
That the standout tracks are those in which the piano takes a back seat is perhaps somewhat telling. First single ‘When Under Ether’ is a haunting, claustrophobic and sinister track, conjuring sensations of suffocation, intoxication and chemical preservation in which the keys combine with other instrumentation and an understated yet nuanced vocal. The title track features the most prominent appearance of a guitar. So effectively does the song evoke a rural isolation and the exposed Dorset cliffs that as Harvey dramatically switches from her distant, fluting upper register to intone deeply “and I know these chalk hills will rot my bones”, you can almost smell the stone beneath the topsoil and the salt from the sea. ‘Broken Harp’s sublime vocal arrangement and (presumably broken) harp tug at the heartstrings with economically affecting lyrics. Lines like “something metal tearing my stomach out if you think ill of me / can you forgive me too?” may not be delivered with the hue and cry typical of much of Harvey’s earlier work, but surrounded by the minimalism and darkness of the album they are no less brutal.
Seven albums and 15 years into her career, Harvey remains one of our most continually interesting artists. For people who rely on such tawdry gimmicks her transition from booted proto-riot-grrrl to cat-suited vamp to urban punker and now to ghostly Victoriana would be called reinvention; in Harvey it is simply exploration. The piano-led tracks of White Chalk may not be to everyone’s taste but fantastically evocative poetry and some truly great songs more than make up for the slow pace and the few monotonous moments to create an intriguing and rewarding album. There are few other artists who so successfully continue to push their boundaries, experience and style for our (well, primarily her own) pleasure, and we should cherish her for that as long as she continues to do so.
The Deep Blue ••••
Little Sister Records
Most famous for being the ‘new girl’ in Ash for nine years, Charlotte Hatherley’s musical career in fact began a long time before, first in the band Sister George then in punk outfit Nightnurse. She was spotted by Ash’s Tim Wheeler while the band were shopping for a new guitarist and soon wound up a welcome addition to the trio, fitting right in. So, after a long period of being in one of the UK’s most successful and established indie bands, it must have been a brave and daunting decision to leave, especially as relationships within the band were still good and Ash are happy to continue without her.
Although The Deep Blue is Hatherley’s second solo album (she worked on her first, Grey Will Fade, when Ash were in the studio for Meltdown and received considerable critical praise for it), this is the first she has produced outside of the security of a day job. In fact, the focus has doubled as the ‘side project’ has now become the day job. Seemingly unfazed by new beginnings and the security of Ash’s loyal fanbase, Hatherley is clearly a seasoned rock star, and her confidence shows in both her decision making and the subsequent album that came of it. In fact, to avoid record company and A&R pressure, Hatherley and her manager Ann-Marie Shields set up Little Sister Records themselves (with distribution through Vital), thereby ensuring complete artistic control.
Produced by Eric Feldman (Captain Beefheart, Pere Ubu) and Rob Ellis (PJ Harvey), Hatherley’s sophomore album was decided upon in Australia and created in San Francisco, Italy and London. Despite Hatherley being first and foremost a guitarist, The Deep Blue isn’t entirely led by the axe. It is, in fact, a pleasant surprise of considered work and a welcome departure from the (often flawed) female singer-songwriter stereotype. Certainly, the rock chick from Ash is gone, and the upbeat mature pop of both her efforts to date belies an open, honest artist with considerable talent.
The Deep Blue creates a childlike mood of fun and innocence, both girly and fantastically otherworldly. Irresistibly catchy and tuneful, the album is a lovingly assembled, multi-textured example of bittersweet pop that signifies a change of direction from Grey Will Fade and revels in a quirky feel reminiscent of Kenickie or Giant Drag…even The Sundays at times. Vocally, Hatherley is cutesy and sweet, somewhere between Minnie Mouse and Jenny Lewis, and her vocals enhance the unusual, dreamlike tone of the work. That’s not to say that there aren’t energetic, punk-pop here and there, but the rocky elements you would naturally expect from Ash’s former guitarist simply aren’t there.
Two singles have preceded the album – ‘Behave’ and ‘I Want You To Know’ – probably the album’s poppiest numbers and definitely the catchiest. There’s more where those two came from, however, and ‘Be Thankful’ is a real standout track with an irresistible bassline. More sober moments appear in the gentle ‘Dawn Treader’ (co-written with XTC’s Andy Partridge) and the vulnerable ballad ‘Again’, one of the least cluttered songs here, while the enchanting, wordless opener ‘Cousteau’ breezes over the listener and sticks true to the sea theme.
Despite a less than perfect vocal style, these songs are sung with an assuredness that can only be known to an experienced musician; remember Hatherley played the V97 festival with Ash only days after joining the band, and all at the age of 18 – no mean feat indeed. Having toured the world with a huge act for years and promptly leaving it all behind shows a confidence and maturity older artists can only dream of. However, with nothing left to be afraid of, and nothing left to lose, Hatherley has produced an unaffected and genuinely original album that will hopefully be another step in a long and successful career.
Help She Can’t Swim
The Death Of Nightlife •••½
Reviewing The Death Of Nightlife for Wears The Trousers struck me as a peculiarly daunting experience. Having seen the band play live supporting Sleater-Kinney (R.I.P) in Bristol last year, I found co-lead vocalist and sole female member Leesey Frances the least successful member of the band. Onstage, she came across detached and belligerent, giving little recognition to the crowd and grumping between songs. Tom Denney, who shares vocals and plays guitar was engaging and wired with energy, making Leesey’s disinterest all the more apparent. Writing for a magazine that seeks to focus upon the contributions of women to music, was I faced with an uncomfortable task?
Thankfully, on record, the Help She Can’t Swim experience is different: far from detracting from the band’s riotous youthful energy, Frances is a key part of it. Having two lead vocalists works well: Frances’s vocals act as an effective counterpoint to Denney’s, which often verge upon screamo. On ‘Idle Chatter’, her plaintive, vulnerable repetitions of “I was waiting for you to call me” are surprisingly affecting. (That is, until this effect is deliberately undermined by the song’s closing couplet: “strangle you with the telephone chord / just because you’re making me feel bored”).
This is music made for frenetic, angular indie dancing, preferably in a club with sweaty walls and a sticky floor. ‘Kite Eating Tree’, with its talk of shaking hips and bruised wrists, is the kind of song Channel 4 will be snapping up to soundtrack adverts for ‘Skins’ (if they haven’t already). There’s a definite Britpop flavour to several of these tracks, and the influence of Jarvis Cocker and Justine Frischmann is palpable, only speeded way up and blasted out charged with extra guitar-plus-synths drama. The keyboard work from Lisa and puppydog-eyed Tim Palmer adds a lot to these songs, providing an insistent pulse that resembles a battery of sirens in its urgency.
‘I Think The Record’s Stopped’ is a vicious attack on fake feminism and the intersection of feminism and raunch culture, where exhibitionism and pandering to male fantasies is mistaken for a liberating expression of female sexuality. Here, Frances is tearing down the kind of girls who think the feminist movement fought – and fights – so they could have the right to snog their female friends in front of boys at clubs, and aspire to be lapdancers (“Fuck you, you’re not a feminist”). ‘Midnight Garden’ is too wilfully discordant to be thrilling but the band make up for it with the following track ‘Box Of Delights’. Denney and Frances taking alternate vocals before coming together for a deliciously noisy vocal pile-up at the song’s climax.
Over the course of the album, the relentless pace and screamed vocals become a little gruelling. However, the band are at their best when playing at fever pitch – the album’s slower moments are its least successful, like the queasy Muse-eque rock opera that makes up the closing two minutes – and in short sharp bursts this is a thrilling and immediate record. It rewards close listening as well as drunken dancing, as it bristles with blink-and-you’ll-miss-them highlights. On ‘Dragged Under The Wave’, a brilliant moment of sexual tension and ambiguity suddenly grabs the listener, as Denney and Frances duet on the line “I want to kiss her but I don’t want her near me”. And if you can find another record out this year that talks about watching reruns of ‘Lovejoy’ (‘All The Stars’) I’ll give you a fiver.
Funnel Cloud ••••
Given the somewhat obscure names of both the band and album (one the end of an item of clothing, the other the beginning of a ferocious tornado) you’d surely be forgiven for expecting to discover the kind of album that you claim to adore but in reality only own so that others can admire your quirky and eclectic taste. Not so with Hem. They do tick some of the boxes – quirky? a little; unique? definitely! – but there’s plenty to love here. As listenable and delicious as ever, the band’s fourth album Funnel Cloud makes for a remarkable encounter as it floats around discreetly and encases your heart in its melancholic but ultimately uplifting musical tendrils.
First single ‘We’ll Meet Along The Way’ could be a song from a mother to her toddler on the first day of school, a parting shot to a lover or a fond farewell from a departing grandparent; but whatever guise it takes it carries a message of benediction without seeking to hide the pitfalls that will be met en route as two paths diverge but hold the promise of a later encounter. ‘He Came To Meet Me’ appropriately follows as if it were a continuation of the story, depicting a snapshot description of a day with someone whose very presence, no matter how brief, forges a memory empowered to bring light to future black clouds. The attention to detail that Hem pour into these songs suffuses the music with emotion and situational observances that never fail to convince that the band are portraying lives that they’ve known intimately, if not their own.
Principal songwriter Dan Messe has outdone himself with tracks like ‘Curtains’ and ‘Great Houses Of New York’. So while the ever present beauty of Sally Ellyson’s vocals predominantly brings the songs to life, Messe’s vivid descriptions weave around the principal narrative to add the splashes of colour that accentuate the meaning. Funnel Cloud as a whole has a rare nostalgic quality that gives proceedings a feeling of timelessness, as though Hem inhabit a world inside a bubble in which commonplace incidents are made beautiful by deeply felt observances. ‘Hotel Fire’ is the allegorical embodiment of the band’s ability to use less attractive details to create washes of gorgeous imagery as they sing of “torn blankets [that] smell of old perfume” and follow it with a swelling refrain where “the love checks in, trips the wire / skips the bill, sets a fire”. In creating such intimate portraits, Hem are enviably able to craft a song that might mean many things to many people, and therein lies their success.
Fittingly for an album titled Funnel Cloud, atmosphere is the watchword. In another universe, the title track might well have been a black and white Sunday matinee movie. Part lullaby, part hymn to growing older and discovering that boundaries have a tendency to blur, Hem deliver a classic sound that is rarely heard outside of old Hollywood musicals. ‘The Burnt-Over District’ has similar qualities, and despite being purely instrumental, seems to tell a very distinct story. Here, the instruments themselves seem to sing to one another; those who object to instrumental tracks on albums should start their conversion right here.
All this talk of mesmerising melancholic sounds and sleepy afternoon cinema might lead you to think that Funnel Cloud is soporific fare at best, but Hem have their ballsy country-rock songs too and they flex their muscles farther than ever before. On songs like these, the lyrical drive is not lost but is simply set to a rowdier backing. Take ‘The Pills Stop Working’ for example; sounding as if it wouldn’t seem out of place as the score to a barroom brawl with its bluesy harmonica and gritty piano, it’ll get you defiantly dancing rather than lazing.
For those unfamiliar with Hem, Funnel Cloud is a great place to start. Even the most melancholic numbers are infused with a great sense of camaraderie between the band members and you’ll be happy to discover the magic of a band who entertain, enlighten and provide food for thought with every song. For those already converted, much contentment will be found in the more rock-oriented sounds. Hitch up those skirts and appreciate the legwork.
Home Again, Home Again EP ***½
Despite being a pretty well established country-folk act with four albums to their name, Hem’s closest brush with mainstream popularity to date has been soundtracking a recent series of insurance ads in the States. But before you scream ‘sellout’ or assume that their whimsical songs deserve no better than this most dubious of fates, further listening will uncover a much deeper resonance than fellow product endorsers Katie Melua or Norah Jones could muster between them. Wearing their emotions proudly on the sleeves of their country-hemmed shirts and blouses, Sally Ellyson and her band of men excel in soaring vocals and reflective lyrics on top of soothing arrangements. After even just a couple of listens, the melodies stick in your mind, suddenly familiar, as if you’ve known them since you were young. That said, the opening and closing tracks – ‘All That I’m Good For’ and ‘Half Acre’ have been floating around since their 2002 debut Rabbit Songs, so they’re not exactly new. Nevertheless, that’s what Hem do best, remind of times gone by.
Of the new songs, ‘The Part Where You Let Go’ and ‘Half Asleep’ blend together folk and pop melodies with the lightest of touches and are both very nice, if not wholly engaging. The fuller sound of ‘While My Hand Was Letting Go’ will prick up many an ear with its blues harmonica, pedal steel, mandolin and banjo complementing an emotive and romantic string arrangement and the warm sounds of an oboe. The song’s theme of tender remembrance is highlighted by Ellyson’s wonderful falling refrain of “asleep I dreamt beside you while my hand was letting go.” Then the EP really comes alive with the title track, ‘Home Again’. More expansive than anything else here, Hem bring in the drums, an electric guitar riff and nagging rhythm guitar. Ellyson is singing to an audience now, and not just for herself.
Sounding as fresh as ever, the night-time lullaby of ‘Half Acre’ returns us to the remembrance motif, plaintively asking “what is it that you remember? / do you carry every sadness with you? / every hour your heart was broken?”. Hem do heartfelt nostalgia exceedingly well, and after listening to their latest EP you’ll soon be gazing wistfully out of a window thinking through your memories too.
James M Johnston
Learn To Sing Like A Star ••••
Bass and drums pounding like an oil sink, guitars etching intricate detail, powerful strings weaving the whole lot together, and a voice like a buzzsaw…it can only be the industrial revolution reimagined by indie godmother, Kristin Hersh. Such is ‘In Shock’, the opening track of Hersh’s latest solo outing Learn To Sing Like A Star (or LTSLAS for the sake of getting this review finished one day).
Since 2003’s lesson in sombreness, The Grotto, Hersh has been focused on recording and touring with power-trio 50 Foot Wave, whose slabs of rock are as far removed from Hersh’s solo work as one woman could be expected to go. But clearly Hersh is revelling in the noise that working with a band allows at the moment, as this release features Throwing Muses’ drummer David Narcizo, 50’~ bassist Bernard Georges, and string duo The MacCarricks. By virtue of being louder, faster and several orders of magnitude more upbeat than her last release, LTSLAS harks back to 1999’s amped-up Sky Motel.
An Amazon search reveals that Paula Abdul and Randy Jackson have a DVD with the same title, but woe betide the hopeful who purchases Hersh’s ironically monikered record for tips – it would not fare well with the American Idol judges. Her voice may never have been ideally suited to pre-packaged pop, but boy is it remarkably versatile, as she shows off to full effect in opening two tracks, from force-of-nature snarl on ‘In Shock’ to porcelain purr on ‘Nerve Endings’. The vocal is a sticking point for many people with Hersh, but once accustomed to the rasp you realise how dextrous and expressive it is. She’s really something like a 60-Marlboro-a-day Joanna Newsom or a desert Billie Holiday.
It’s not all straight up rock. LTSLAS in fact runs the gamut of Hersh’s solo back catalogue, from the meaty pop of ‘Peggy Lee’ to the acoustic lament of wasted time and lost love of ‘Ice’, via the swelling grind of ‘Sugarbaby’ and the short instrumentals ‘Piano 1′ and ‘Piano 2′. Everything is delivered with the passion, humour and bile that any Hersh devotee has come to expect. ‘Winter’ is an unforgiving monster of a song. Bells chime and strings sound thoroughly festive, but this is no Christmas carol. This is a blizzard; a white-out; a warning; a fist shaken at into the void. It’s a song that expresses the contrasting feelings of hugeness and impotence in the seven words “not a fighter, you had to fight”, and as good as any song Hersh has ever written, which is saying something.
If there is one failing it’s a lack of cohesiveness that has marked Hersh’s most recent solo releases. Every song in itself reveals more detail, intricacy, craft, and beauty on each listen, but as a whole, the mood jack-knifes from track to track. That is until the final four, which swell to the crescendo of ‘The Thin Man’. Overall, though, LTSLAS is new vintage Hersh: sardonic, sublime and packed with star quality. When next year’s American Idol is flipping burgers in a freeway services, you’ll still be listening to this fulfilling, hulking galaxy of an album.
Beth Hirsch has been dealt a strange hand it seems. For someone who is in fact a musically-literate household name – thanks to the global success of Air’s Moon Safari (on which she sings and co-writes ‘You Make It Easy’ and the seminal ‘All I Need’) – she has managed to since remain untouched by media spotlights. Even the artistic brilliance of solo debut Early Years, having a gorgeous duet with Wassis Diop featured in a key scene of ‘The Thomas Crown Affair’ and the big-name producers on her second, critically acclaimed album Titles & Idols didn’t manage to propel her to international superstardom. Judging by her latest work, however, this may not have been such a disaster.
Nearly six years on from Titles & Idols, it appears that time has been kind. Hirsch’s evasion of mainstream fame has hearteningly preserved her authenticity and talent. Early Days was so called as it marked her first etchings and attempts at defining herself as a musician. Wholehearted is just as aptly titled; Hirsch has clearly put her all into its making, wisely choosing to focus on her strengths as both performer and writer rather than studio wizardry. By offsetting the striking versatility displayed on Titles & Idols with the bare bones of her debut, Wholehearted brings us the sound of a more mature artist who has found her niche. It’s organic in sound and full of warmth and feeling. Her voice has always been astonishing, and now her songwriting really works in harmony with the most striking qualities of this most powerful of assets. Hirsch appears to be at a point in her life where uncertainties have been dealt with and some resolve reached. You only have to read the song titles – ‘Love Will Come Again’, ‘All Together’ and ‘Glad To Know’ – to get a sense of assurance. It’s a rare creature indeed who has the grace to spare us the usual self-indulgence and deliver something that’s both optimistic and touching.
As one might expect from a Florida-born, LA resident, these songs have a lasting summery feel. Take the title track for instance; drenched in trumpets and laidback piano, it would perfectly complement a hazy August evening. Habitually in Hirsch’s music, however, there’s a slight sense of paradox. Optimistic lyrics are often set to music with a slightly sentimental sound, and it is this edge that keeps you coming back. “This slate is clean, but not from heaven” she sings on ‘Indelibly You’, hinting some unrest still remaining. While on the whole the record is a relaxed affair, there’s a touch of feistiness too (“I’m a lunatic in love”). Externalising a little, Hirsch makes some sharp and cutting observations in the magnificent ‘Life Is Short But Wide’, a song that looks at the ever-potent issue of war and what it’s good for (hint: not much). Her soldier protagonist writes home “but Hope has died, just as I have died / I learnt today that life is short but wide.”
Simply put, Wholehearted is an album borne out of love of music. Beautifully arranged and immaculately executed, it’s a thoroughly refreshing experience. While the electronic soundscapes of Titles & Idols were a wonderful addition to Hirsch’s sound, her return to these simpler, uncluttered stylings is a welcome affirmation of her talent.
Tougher Than Love ••••
As any ‘Charmed’ fan knows, the power of three is a well-proven principle, and with their debut album, Tougher Than Love, Hummingbird set out to reaffirm it. Debut it may be, but these are no wet behind the ears tyro artists. Rather, Hummingbird brings together three singers who are firmly established on the gig/festival circuit and each with solid recording career already under their belts. There’s diminutive Cardiff rocker Amy Wadge, the gentle pop vocals of Cathy Burton and Edwina Hayes’s country-folk stylings. It’s a beguiling combo, blending Dixie Chicks and Indigo Girls with Crosby, Stills and Nash.
Production duties were left in the hands of songwriting and studio wizardry duo The Mighty Vibrations, whose previous credits include Sandi Thom’s love-it-or-hate-it debut Smile…It Confuses People, and they’ve acquitted themselves surprisingly well. The ‘birds contribute four songs between them with the remainder provided by the MVs, with Thom herself cropping up as a co-writer on the engaging ‘Live Your Life Laughing’. Where Thom’s debut was, to put it kindly, a little one-dimensional, Tougher Than Love is an altogether finer proposition. Lead vocals are shared out evenly between the trio, adding a pleasing variety whilst retaining enough stylistic commonality to avoid sounding like a mere compilation. Similarly, the four tracks written by the ‘birds themselves provide a nice contrast, reflecting each artist’s own particular muse without breaking the mood.
The arrangements are resolutely rootsy and acoustic-based throughout. Strummed guitars, piano, Hammond and double bass provide a satisfyingly organic bed for the tracks, with additional interest being provided by tastefully employed textures from mandolin, flute, harmonica and strings. The distinctive character of each individual voice enhances the harmonies. Wadge’s gritty, earthy vocal forms a solid backdrop to Hayes’s more soothing coo and Burton’s shimmering, delicate tones. Each song is deftly performed and catches the ear with an appealing concoction of melancholy, tenderness and uplifting optimism. Anyone who enjoyed the Voices On The Verge project, which brought together four of America’s finest under-the-radar songwriters – Erin McKeown, Rose Polenzani, Jess Klein and Beth Amsel – should seek this out quicksmart.
Filed under: album, back issues, review | Tags: alison krauss, andy wasley, angelique kidjo, anna claxton, chaka khan, chantal kreviazuk, diana krall, lucy kaplansky, michelle ruda, peter hayward, robert plant, rod thomas, rose kemp, trevor raggatt
The following reviews were published on our old MySpace blog in 2007.
Over The Hills •••
Having graduated from the early ‘80s New York folk scene that brought us Shawn Colvin and Suzanne Vega, Lucy Kaplansky’s star has been a long time rising. But after a longstanding live collaboration with Colvin, the recording project Cry Cry Cry with Dar Williams and Richard Shindell, a period as a highly sought after backing vocalist, a career as a clinical psychologist and a string of five well-received solo albums, she is now regarded as one of the most able singers in the Americana market. Over The Hills further cements this hard-earned reputation and shows her increasing development as a deft and sensitive songwriter. The 10 country-tinged songs on her sixth studio album include a selection of numbers written by Kaplansky and husband
Richard Litvin and some well-chosen covers, most notably the Bryan Ferry-penned Roxy Music love song ‘More Than This’, her take on which could not be more tender.
Many of the self-penned songs on the album deal with family. “The moon’s shining on her too; she’ll see it and she’ll think of you” from opener ‘Manhattan Moon’ is Kaplansky’s reassurance to her adopted daughter about the feelings of her birth mother. ‘Amelia’ is another song about her adopted daughter, but just as you’re worried that the album might wander into drippy sentimentalism, Kaplansky niftily sidesteps a quagmire of schmaltz with a jaunty cover of ‘Ring Of Fire’. Her warm vocals are perfectly suited to this country standard, and Kaplansky captures June Carter’s sentiment as well as anyone but Johnny himself.
A veteran of many longstanding collaborations, this is an artist who really knows how to pick her guests and instrumentalists. Former bandmate Richard Shindell lends guitars and vocals, while the mellifluous vocals of Eliza Gilkyson harmonise beautifully with Kaplansky’s throughout. And the instrumentation is spot on. That said, the absolute standout is ‘Today’s The Day’, a stripped-down solo lament for Kaplansky’s dead father.
Without ever being showy or overwrought, Kaplansky’s voice is always expressive and sensitive – traits that have made her a popular backing vocalist. With Kaplanksy having leant her talents to Nanci Griffith recordings in the past, to let the similarity between their vocal styles go unnoticed would be remiss. Akin in phrasing and tone, though slightly less idiosyncratic than Griffith’s, Kaplansky’s voice lacks some of Nanci’s flair, but has no problems bringing life to her own tender songs and the covers. For all that, when up against the ever-enthusiastic Buddy Miller on the cover of ‘Somewhere Trouble Don’t Go’, penned by Miller’s wife Julie, she seems a little lacklustre.
For all its merits, perhaps Kaplansky’s greatest problem is her association with other artists. Aside from Griffiths, her association with Shawn Colvin elicits comparison with a singer-songwriter against whose work tracks such as ‘Swimming Song’ and ‘The Gift’ seem to be clunky metaphor, while her collaborations with Dar Williams bring to mind the twee failings of her former bandmate – this album is certainly not without its saccharine moments: perhaps there’s just one too many song for her daughter, and one too many over-sentimental paean to her family. Yet, despite invoking such comparisons, she generally stacks up pretty well. Moreover, where former releases have suffered from heavy-handed production, the bare acoustic nature of Over The Hills is light and suits the songs and Kaplansky’s voice well. Mostly heartwarming or moving, Over The Hills is, if not quite up with the best country-flavoured Americana you will hear this year, the sound of a talented artist who continues to develop and refine her craft.
A Hand Full Of Hurricanes ••••
One Little Indian
Have you ever been so far from home, speaking on the telephone, hearing the pain in the voice on the line when it says it misses you, feeling so desolate when you realise that there is nothing you can do to make it better apart from give the promise you’ll be home soon? The standout track on A Hand Full Of Hurricanes, Rose Kemp’s second solo album, ‘Sister Sleep’ is the perfect mix of heartbreak and hope, the reassuring breath on the back of your neck in the middle of the night, a folk-inspired a cappella prayer to the mystics which is, quite simply, worth the price of this album alone. Fact.
But there’s more. Often falling steadfastly between a deep and powerful PJ Harvey and the supernatural quality of Regina Spektor, I suspect that it’s not often you find a 22-year-old from Carlisle who makes songwriting something so magical. Of course, her stellar folk pedigree helps. The daughter of Steeleye Span luminaries Maddy Prior and Rick Kemp, Rose has a genetic advantage.
A world away from her early folk releases, Kemp is almost witch-like in her ability to hold you in thrall of her pure feminine angst, commanding the raucous melée of sound with enviable superiority. Last year’s single, ‘Violence, displayed a vocal so powerful it could knock you off your feet and throw you into a wall, while the beautiful ‘Tiny Flower’ is the musical equivalent of kissing it better.
A Hand Full Of Hurricanes certainly makes for an apt title. The songs here twist and turn in and away from a despair so strong it could whip even an angel into an all-out fury in a single stamp of a guitar pedal. This really isn’t a storm in a teacup. It’s really very good.
Funk This ••
With eight Grammy awards and a handful of gold selling albums to her name, Chaka Khan could quite justly be considered one of the all-time greats of R&B. And doesn’t she know it! Despite having spent the last nine years mired in compilation album money-spinning exercises and pretty much just resting on her laurels, you might think that the commanding title of Khan’s 12th album signifies a triumphant return to her 1970s heyday. And, in a way, it does. Much of Funk This sounds like it could have been recorded 20 or even 30 years ago. Trouble is, the scene has moved on. Modern R&B is a genre where Kanye West can remix Shirley Bassey and someone like Nelly Furtado can go from the whimsical pop of ‘I’m Like A Bird’ to the vamp crunkess of ‘Maneater’ in a few short years. Khan just can’t cut it in the face of such competition.
It’s not as if she doesn’t try. ‘Disrespectful’, featuring Mary J Blige, is a clear standout with its pure Motown feel and handily sounding a bit like Amerie’s monster hit ‘1 Thing’. ‘Ladies’ Man’, too, is good – a slow-burning jam with a protruding chromatic chant of the title bubbling beneath Khan’s soulful vocal. Though it works quite well here, there’s a tendency to over-rely on a backing chorus line on other tracks. The appealingly quirky intro of ‘Will You Love Me?’ fizzles into nothing as Khan gets carried away with adding in voices blander than her trademark throaty purr. There’s really no need; vocally, she sounds as great as ever.
Still, you can understand why Khan has stuck to what she’s known to be good at; so many artists who try to update their sound meet with limited success. But a little pushing of the envelope, even a small one, would have been good. Nothing on Funk This sounds inventive or original. It’s as if she’s copied and pasted a template of what used to work and hoped for the best. There are obvious influences of funk, soul, jazz and classic power balladry – see the emotionally powered ‘Angel’ if you like that sort of thing – and to her credit Khan can work the different genres well. But Funk This is not slick. It’s not sexy. It won’t make you want to get your groove on. It may have sounded more remarkable had it been released all those years ago, but in 2007 it’s dated, tired and little more than mediocre.
The sworn Chaka faithful and those who love their prescription diva fare will no doubt lap it up, but anyone else would do better to just funk off and forget about it.
Djin Djin •••
For want of a better phrase we’ll call it ‘doing a Carlos’. Ever since the respected but (until then) commercially overlooked guitarist Carlos Santana invited his showbiz chums to play and sing on his Supernatural album, sold a gazillion units and cleaned up at the Grammys, the guest celebrity album has become all the rage. Now it’s world-music genius Angélique Kidjo’s turn and, frankly, it’s an approach that’s only partially successful for her. Kicking off with the joyous ‘Ae Ae’ makes for a glorious start, displaying all the best elements of what is often stereotyped as African music – complex rhythms, intricate jangling guitar lines, impassioned vocals; it’s all in there. The title track keeps the standard high as Branford Marsalis weaves his soprano magic across a languid track that Bebel Gilberto would be proud to call her own. Alicia Keys shows just how good a singer she is here, holding her own and complementing the duet perfectly (though the song could really have done without her sub-Fugees “uh huh, one time”-ing on the outro).
And then it’s back down to earth with a bump as Joss Stone demolishes an abysmal cover of the Rolling Stones’ ‘Gimme Shelter’ with her unfocused warbling. Gimme shelter? Gimme strength! Ziggy Marley’s contribution passes all but unnoticed in a haze of cod reggae before Santana himself puts in an appearance doing what he does on ‘Pearls’ and helping Josh Groban overcook an unsubtle “I-am-woman-hear-me-roar” ballad. I’m sorry, but encapsulating the plight of dispossessed Somalians with the line “…and it hurts like brand new shoes”? Where’s Mariah when you need her for a quote?
It’s interesting to note that the most effective contributions come from artists who truly understand music beyond the Western pop canon. Peter Gabriel is stunningly good duetting on ‘Salala’, a track that approaches the best of either his or Kidjo’s work. It’s a truly worthy inclusion. Similarly, ‘Senamou’, which features the Malian husband-and-wife team of Amadou & Mariam, hits all the right notes. Infectious and affecting, it’s one of the album’s brightest highlights. With the collaborations out of the way, the six tracks where Kidjo goes it alone are equally strong and diverse, blending African rhythms with influences as diverse as Arabic music, super-freak funk and classical as the album closes with a stunning take on Ravel’s ‘Bolero’.
Ultimately Djin Djin is an album of 13 tracks that merits three stars when had it featured only 10 it may have deserved four. Ach, the price of celebrity.
The Very Best Of ••••½
“I feel like I really don’t have to prove anything at this point other than what I’m doing…I work very hard at being the best musician I can be because I love it.”
So said Canada’s finest jazz export, Diana Krall in 2001 upon the release of her eighth album. Six years, four albums, an Order of Canada and a marriage to Elvis Costello later, Krall is now seemingly unassailable; so much so, that we are now treated to that well-worn retirement gift, a ‘very best of’. Thankfully, Krall is not about to pop on her slippers and buy a rocking chair. Let’s face it, when you’ve won two Grammies (Best Jazz Musician in 1999 and Best Vocal Jazz Record in 2001) the desire to continue influencing, performing and accruing gold-plated desk ornamentation is pretty strong. This release does not signify an imminent farewell tour or eye-poppingly cringeworthy ‘Audience With…’ TV special; if anything, it’s a chance for the recent mother-of-two to take a well-earned rest.
The Very Best Of Diana Krall is at once an accessible album for jazz starters and an impressive treat for Krall’s legion of fans. ‘I’ve Got You Under My Skin’ is a great example of her vocal prowess and stylistic flair. She treats Frank Sinatra’s well-worn classic to a thorough revamp, replacing the recognisable swing sound with a dreamier composition, laden with sensuous vocals and mellifluous strings. Similar in tone is the first of three previously unreleased inclusions, ‘Only The Lonely’, for which the word ‘languid’ must have been invented: a voluptuous fantasia of strings, piano riffs and Krall’s thoughtful musings on solitude, this song gives her a chance to show off the depth and rich expressiveness of her voice.
For those who seek something a little less philosophical, ‘Frim Fram Sauce’ is Krall’s demonstration of her ability to match Nat King Cole’s hard-edged voice with her own brand of cheeky freestyle jazz. The Live In Paris performance of ‘East Of The Sun (& West Of The Moon)’ is another case in point: a funky ensemble whose double bass foundation and virtuoso soloist cello bridge are both perfect foils for Krall’s smooth-as-cream voice. The list goes on; suffice to say, the only criticism worthy of repeating is that, on occasion, Mantovani-style string accompaniments descend worryingly close to a muzak nightmare. Thankfully, Krall’s charismatic performances consistently prevent her songs from heading for a future in elevators, but a little more funk, á la ‘Peel Me A Grape’, certainly wouldn’t go amiss.
For an artist as varied, successful and influential as Krall, choosing which tracks to include on such a compilation must have been a formidable task. Thankfully, this album is a near-perfect cross-section of the oft-honoured singer’s remarkable repertoire. It is indicative of Krall’s excellent self-analysis, too: she really doesn’t need to prove anything any more. As long as there’s more to come.
A Hundred Miles Or More: A Collection ••••½
This collection of 16 tunes by veteran bluegrass artist Alison Krauss presents the reviewer with something of a dilemma: how on earth to describe it? It’s certainly not a ‘best of’ – how could it be when it ignores all her Union Station output? Nor is it a ‘greatest hits’. Sure, it may include the acclaimed ‘Down By The River To Pray’ from the ‘Oh Brother, Where Art Thou?’ soundtrack, but with a quarter of the tracks previously unreleased ‘A Collection’ is the only fitting appellation. And what a collection it is! Krauss’s versatility is displayed in all its glory as she takes on and masters a number of styles far beyond her beloved bluegrass roots. The duet with Jon Waite on his enduring classic ‘Missing You’ shows just how far she can stray stylistically and still nail the song. No wonder so many of the artists Krauss is heard duetting with here have called upon her to add a layer of class and sophistication to their own songs.
Unsurprisingly, the five previously unreleased songs collected here all prove to be present on their own merits. These aren’t the usual studio floor sweepings which haunt so many collections but worthy explorations of the folkier fringes of country. A particular treat is the mandolin, banjo and fiddlefest ‘Sawing On The Strings’, recorded live at a Country Music Television awards ceremony. Other highlights are found in songs already famous for gracing movie soundtracks, including ‘The Scarlet Tide’ and the Oscar-nominated ‘You Will Be My Ain True Love’ from the epic ‘Cold Mountain’, the latter being a duet with Sting who mercifully limits his contribution to background texture. Final mention must go to ‘How’s The World Treating You?’, a collaboration with James Taylor taken from a Louvin Brothers tribute compilation. A perfect blend of these two eminent voices, it’s a laidback affair that nevertheless suggests that if they ever decided to stretch out to a full duets album Wears The Trousers would be first in the queue at HMV.
A Hundred Miles Or More is a fitting testament to an artist acknowledged as one of the voices of her generation. The very fact that this collection has been compiled only from recordings created away from her day job with Union Station only serves to underline the breadth and depth of her brilliance.
Robert Plant & Alison Krauss
Raising Sand ••••
Say you were to compile a list of duets album dream teams. Some combinations wouldn’t spring readily to mind. For instance, pairing the darling of modern bluegrass with a hairy-chested rock behemoth. Evidently someone has a better imagination than you (possibly the same person who last year teamed Mark Lanegan with Isobel Campbell). And it works. From the ominous opening chords of ‘Rich Woman’, guitar swaddled up in layers of tremolo and reverb, it’s clear that something special is about to happen to your ears.
But, you might wonder, how can Krauss’s gentle, country voice ever blend with Plant’s million-decibel roar? That’s the power of programming, you see. So ubiquitous is the rock iconography of Led Zeppelin that it’s easy to forget that their range went far beyond the likes of ‘Whole Lotta Love’ and ‘Immigrant Song’, or that Plant’s formative years were spent singing roots-based music. Led Zeppelin’s eponymous debut was essentially a blues album, albeit cranked right up to 11.
Here, Plant’s approach is more delicate than you might have foreseen. Indeed, his vocals harmonise perfectly with Krauss – he supplies the gruff bluesiness while Krauss covers all the bases between angelic and seductive. The pair also mix up their tactics. On some tracks, such as ‘Killing The Blues’, they sing almost in unison or interweaving countermelody; on others, one provides the lead while the other fleshes out the texture with mellifluous oohs and aahs across the stereo spectrum (witness the beauty of ‘Sister Rosetta Goes Before Us’, written by Sam Phillips, aka Mrs T-Bone). The way the pair have tackled each treatment is almost instinctive, as if it all just magically fell into place.
But, of course, this is partly the hard work of a stellar band of backing musicians (including drummer Jay Bellerose, lap steel player Greg Leisz and none other than Mike Seeger on autoharp) and the production skills of iconic roots producer T-Bone Burnett. A constant presence (and pleasure) is guitarist and jazz virtuoso Mark Ribot, whether Plant and Krauss are tackling Louisiana swamp blues, tender lovelorn country or moments that would not seem out of place at the bluesier, more psychedelic end of the Zeppelin canon. From the Zeppelin-esque throb of ‘Fortune Teller’ to the grind of Townes Van Zandt’s ‘Nothin’, from the roots and country of Tom Waits and Kathleen Brennan’s ‘Trampled Rose’ and Gene Clark’s ‘Through The Morning, Through The Night’ to the zydeco tinges of the Everly Brothers’ ‘Gone Gone Gone’ or ‘Let Your Loss Be Your Lesson’, Raising Sand convinces and entrances with immediate effect.
Raising Sand is no celebrity novelty piece, it’s a serious artistic achievement. Drawing from the pens of some of our greatest songwriters and lovingly crafted by two supremely talented singers, it’s an unexpected delight.
Ghost Stories ••
About 10 years ago, I’d just arrived in Toronto on holiday with my parents and before leaving the hotel room I flicked on a music channel. At that fortuitous moment, the video for Chantal Kreviazuk’s ‘Wayne’ was airing; I completely fell in love with the song and couldn’t get it out of my head for months. Eventually I found her debut album Under These Rocks & Stones back in the UK and thought I’d found an artist who was going to be huge. Two albums later and UK awareness of Ms Kreviazuk’s music seems to still be almost non-existent, save those few people who bought her touching cover of John Denver’s ‘Leaving On A Jet Plane’ from the ‘Armageddon’ soundtrack. Ghost Stories, her fourth release, clearly has its work cut out if it hopes to bring her music to a wider British audience.
Unfortunately, Ghost Stories continues to whittle away at what made Kreviazuk stand out from the crowd in the first place. The passion and raw energy of her debut are very much spectres on this record, which is so far from Under These Rocks… she’s virtually unrecognisable. Fair enough, she’s now happily married to Our Lady Peace singer Raine Maida, has two baby boys and a successful second career as a behind-the-scenes songwriter (Kreviazuk and Maida co-wrote most of Avril Lavigne’s 2003 album Under My Skin), but with each of her albums becoming progressively glossier and jumping up the rungs of shimmering, slick production, the spark is dimming.
Just looking at the song titles uncovers a certain cliché or laziness to the record – ‘Mad About You’, ‘Waiting For The Sun’, ‘Asylum’, ‘Wendy House’ etc. – and the lyrics are too imprisoned in rhyme and very predictable trajectories. For example, “I don’t know why the winter’s long / it wears me out, it goes on and on” is a pretty lame effort for an artist who was once so inventive. That’s not to say that there aren’t any moments of interest on the album; ‘Spoke In Tongues’ is very good. It’s a bit more disjointed and mercifully less coffee table than the rest of the album, but again it’s overshadowed by the endless use of stock phrases and tired images (“leaves blew away” for ageing; “when you’re at a fork in the road” for…well, I don’t even need to say do I?).
Really, all there is to say about Ghost Stories is that it’s not an awful album, it’s just not that great. It’s well below par for an artist who once promised great things. The conviction has gone from her vocal delivery and it seems that the desire has left her music. Whereas before she was easy to fall in love with, now she’s easy listening. But then, while I’m disappointed as a fan of old, maybe new ears unaware of her older work will have the same experience I did when I first saw that video.
Filed under: album, back issues, review | Tags: avril lavigne, gem nethersole, gretchen wilson, hugh armitage, jennifer lopez, keith anderson, lavender diamond, miranda lambert, peter hayward, sylvie lewis, trevor raggatt
The following reviews were published on our old MySpace blog in 2007.
Crazy Ex-Girlfriend •••
One Of The Boys •••
Within a week of one another, international music giant SonyBMG unleashes two of the up-and-coming young guns of the Nashville country music scene on an unsuspecting UK audience. The question is, how will these archetypically American gals fare on British shores? There’s no question about the artists’ credentials or talent – the multiple CMA award nominations and music industry awards shared among them are more than just lip service. The fact is that they might just prove a little too country for the Transatlantic palate.
Of course, Wilson is hardly a newcomer and has gone over big with readers of Maverick and other proponents of this sort of thigh-slapping fun, and both women bring precisely the right ingredients to the table: down-home songs with story lyrics, pedal steel aplenty and liberal doses of Telecaster twang. All these elements are nigh on guaranteed to endear them to a be-tasselled, suede-clad core clientele and alienate them from the mainstream music fan. Both Wilson and Lambert excel at Nashville-by-numbers and, in places, both these albums deftly strike the mechanical bull squarely in the eye. Both carry a likeable mix of tender ballads and raucous, careening country-rock tracks, all delivered with a studied poise. Both artists, too, have written the majority of the songs and display an appealing lightness of touch that ought to please their publishing companies. There’s not much to choose between them really.
Where the songs are covers, it’s the less-experienced Lambert who comes up with the more interesting choices. Album closer ‘Easy From Now On’ is a brave choice; written by Carlene Carter and more famously recorded by Emmylou Harris, it draws proceedings to a mellow but uplifting conclusion and Lambert acquits herself well. Elsewhere, she tackles Gillian Welch’s ‘Dry Town’ and, less successfully perhaps, Patty Griffin’s ‘Getting Ready’. Griffin’s version, found on her recent release Children Running Through, is thankfully somewhat less heavy on the mouth-harp boings. Disappointingly, Wilson’s ‘There Goes The Neighborhood’ isn’t a countrified take on Sheryl Crow’s addictively woozy paean to living the low-life, but never mind. She doesn’t stray too far from the formula that has served her so well – who can argue with six million album sales? – and gleefully romps through Southern boogie and mainstream country, with a nod to rootsy rock along the way.
Both albums will undoubtedly sell by the truckload Stateside and if you can take the cheesier aspects of these records at face value and simply revel in their guileless fun factor, you’ll find them both to be fine examples of what modern Nashville has to offer.
Imagine Our Love ••½
When given something to review by a group of which you have never heard, the first thing is to listen. On a rare occasion you will hear something that makes you care not one jot about who the artist is. It is either so astoundingly great or so shockingly awful that you need nothing more than the music. These are the gifts. Lavender Diamond’s offering is not one of those. Imagine Our Love is a confusing mix of country, showtunes, and indie, all delivered with an irrepressible optimism that, by turns, captivates, excites, annoys, and begs a lot of questions about the people behind the music.
As I understand it, although Lavender Diamond sounds a little bit like a name that might be adopted by a tame saucy stage act working the peep shows in Victorian Bath – nothing too risqué you understand, the garter stays on! – but it is actually a band, a band that originated from the concept of a character of a pacifist optimist developed for a US touring indie operetta. The character in the operetta was played by a woman who left a Brown University literature degree before graduating to study dance then moving to LA to form a country pop group, the songs of which would to some extent reflect the views of the character from the operetta. And the name comes from a play written by the songwriter in which a man goes into a cave and picks up a purple gemstone. Confused? There is perhaps every need to be.
Becky Stark is the multi-talented ingénue behind Lavender Diamond. Writing songs largely as the character lifted from the operetta, Stark approaches love, social injustice and misgovernment as an eternal optimist. The product is a mixture of upbeat, lounge-tinted country numbers, Sunday school nursery rhymes and straight up jangly indie. Opening track ‘Oh No’ sounds for all the world like a track discarded at the last minute from The Sundays’ album Static & Silence. The lines “oh no / it’s such a sad and grey day, oh / when will I love again?” chime with suburban ennui as Stark’s vocals soar above plonking pianos and a stomping drum line. Citing influences from Prince to Lightning Bolt to Linda Ronstadt (though the first two may be difficult to pick up on), ‘Garden Rose’ and ‘Side Of Our Lord’ are both atmospheric, simple country songs delivered in a no-nonsense but nuanced style of which Ronstadt would be proud.
The lyric to ‘Garden Rose’ with the catchy opening lines “I’ll never stop a bullet but a bullet might stop me / I’ll never drink the ocean but the ocean might drink me” provide a languid hint of pessimism. But despite a litany of frustration, the protagonist of the song still loves how the garden grows and loves that garden rose. This ethic of appreciating the simple things in life ethic is the first notch on the ratchet of optimism that shapes the rest of the album. From start to finish the songs are infused with an irrepressibly positive outlook without the slightest hint of irony. The glorious girl-group stylings of ‘Open Your Heart’, the plaintive ‘Dance Until Tomorrow’, and even the downbeat ‘I’ll Never Lie Again’ all seem to ignore the downside of bad situations, only ever seeing the positives, and, in parts, the delivery smacks of that of a highly medicated depressive in denial.
Although the musicianship is solid throughout, it more often sounds like a house band (as on the kitsch ‘My Shadow Is A Monday’) rather than a creative unit, though this comes through loud and clear on the brooding ‘Like An Arrow’. The irrepressibly jaunty ‘Here Comes One’, which sounds like a Broadway musical number and begs for a nostalgic dance routine featuring girls in bobby socks and pigtails, is one of the album’s genuine highlights, especially when juxtaposed with the surprisingly Cocteau Twins-like ‘Find A Way’, in which the familiar, perhaps even forced, optimism is masked by the soaring vocals and swirling guitars.
The mix of styles, from plaintive indie, to country ballad, to musical, to nursery rhyme is alternately refreshing and jarring. And, dare I say it, perhaps a little too contrived? The boundless optimism is a nice idea, but such positivity loses all meaning without contrast. For one or two songs, the message is uplifting, but as it escalates throughout the twelve tracks the whole effect seems disingenuous. Imagine Our Love is a brave idea, but can you really trust a set of songs that only ever see the silver lining and not the cloud?
The Best Damn Thing •
Let us ponder briefly over the past ramblings of punk-pop upstart Avril Lavigne. First…”I created punk for this day and age. Do you see Britney walking around wearing ties and singing punk? Hell no. That’s what I do. I’m like a Sid Vicious for a new generation.” And then…”People are like, ‘well, she doesn’t know the Sex Pistols.’ Why would I know that stuff? Look how young I am. That stuff’s old, right?” Right. And therein lies her problem. Over the last five years it’s been hard to shake off the suspicion that underneath her projection of a defiant rocker image is little more than a young girl having fun playing dress-up.
Third album The Best Damn Thing sees Lavigne arrive at an important junction in her career. Will she shed her famed tween angst and become a serious musician, or will she continue making records aimed at the once-14-year-olds who have likely outgrown her? Though her second album Under My Skin hinted at a darker direction than her multi-platinum debut Let Go, Lavigne has seemingly done a guileless about-turn, delivering an album of bratty bubblegum pop with little sense of irony or joy, both of which are kinda important when, for example, you’re shouting what essentially amounts to a cheerleading chant over perfectly polished guitar licks. The subject matter, too, is so light and frothy that you’re still left wondering what happened to the girl who used to claim she was a serious musician when its 40 minutes are up.
So why is Lavigne embracing the frivolity of singers like Britney and Jessica Simpson who she has previously dismissed? The official line, according to the woman herself, is that she cheered up after getting married to Sum 41’s Deryck Whibley, although a recent interview with Canadian singer-songwriter Chantal Kreviazuk in Performing Songwriter magazine suggests that perhaps Avril doesn’t have as much control over her career as she has previously alluded to and is merely performing the role assigned to her.
In her trademark nasal tone Lavigne bleats unenthusiastically over half-baked songs about being better than her ex-boyfriend, rocking out at the end of a bad day, and how her boyfriend makes her so hot, baby. If there are any highlights they would have to be the first single ‘Girlfriend’, with its amusing hint of self-awareness in her proclamation of “I’m the motherfucking princess”, and ‘Keep Holding On’, a soft-rock ballad tacked on to the end of the album having first featured on the ‘Eragon’ soundtrack.
However, with The Best Damn Thing‘s mostly trite, dull lyrics and uninspired production values, Lavigne makes no strides in terms of her musicality and the listener is seriously left questioning her motivation to stare nonchalantly from the cover of such a dire collection of songs that show none of her personality or ‘credibility’.
But, then, maybe we shouldn’t be so hard on the lass. As the wise young woman once spouted “you’re who you are and if people don’t like who you are, all they’re going to get is who you are”. Um, yeah.
Upon the release of her debut album Tangos & Tantrums in 2005, we at Wears The Trousers went a little bit giddy over the delightful Ms Lewis. Now Sylvie’s back and not a moment too soon. Her sound has gained a more polished edge in the intervening two years, but devotees will be pleased to hear there’s no loss of the timeless beauty that characterises her sound. The summer-stroll-in-a-sun-bleached piazza feel is still there too, and amen to that. So what’s new?
Well, Translations sees Lewis stepping outside of herself, taking on other guises on nearly all of the songs, allowing herself to explore a variety of perspectives and people while retaining some of her own personality. ‘Starsong’ has Lewis twirling onto the scene with 1940s jazz influences and an acerbic tale of a lover who predicted the trajectory of romance with horoscopes but neglected to predict its demise. A jaunty double bass skips through the background, dancing around the percussion and it’s business as usual in Sylvieland as the music playfully lightens lyrics that could sound cruel in the care of a less kindly vocalist.
In conjunction with her stunning part jazz, part folk, part tea-dance sound, Lewis adds in lyrics that unfold myriad images, “when the moon rises up, pointing like a fingernail… / he reads her like scripture, he reads her like Braille”, and she creates a catalogue of unusual comparisons combined with tragic dying cadences that bewitch and ensnare so that each song is a perfectly gift-wrapped snippet of another, slower, more languorous world. The prize for Translations‘s best lyric might well go to the opening line of ‘Happy Like That’, a song that seems to have a split personality, castigating flirtatious married men for diverting lonely souls the world over away from the path to romantic happiness, whilst empowering the loveless at the same time by name-dropping June and Johnny Cash as bastions of true love en route; it could even be a ‘how-to’ guide to love satisfaction.
Elsewhere Lewis is in exuberant form. The delicious muffled drums in ‘If It Don’t Come Easy’ will get you shaking off the blues, while ‘Just You’ paints pictures of a world newly seen through loving eyes with gentle glockenspiel twinkles, combining the hues of rose-tinted loveliness with the usual minor leanings. It’s filled with self-awareness and the combination of dreamlike tinkling chimes and celestial backing vocals creates an atmosphere of charmed space and contented otherness. Never one to let us get wrapped up in a joyous reverie, however, ‘Stay In Touch’. interrupts the joviality with sad hotel pianos and a gently muffled snare drum to create a melancholy New York scene of a man, his mistress and their country-specific trysts. There’s loneliness without desolation and a beautiful realism to the couple who speak in touches rather than words or romantic gestures. Lewis has distilled the complexity of emotions in the tale to the simplicity of “nobody wondering if their feelings are returned”; it’s an unusually truthful account of an affair without disguising it as something squalid or glamorous.
Leaping from one stage of promiscuous life to another, ‘Cheap Ain’t Free’ is a fabulous address to the girl that might have become the mistress in New York or to a younger Sylvie and friend with the hindsight that one day there may be consequences to their actions. It’s not recriminatory, but a snapshot of a time when a broken heart was treated “parking ticket style, once you’ve got one you can’t get another for a little while” and is crammed with images of innocence lost, with a smile. A gentle tale of a once-in-a-while lover (‘Something To Dream To’) tumbles along with purposeful abandon that echoes the pattern of the relationship, before ‘Death By Beauty’ shifts the perspective. An amazing anthropomorphication of Beauty, Lewis inhabits the girls that float around like satellites on the periphery of the life of the man she portrays. As the song unfolds we learn of the cruelty of Beauty who uses the girls as a conduit of love and leaves scars on the lives of those who encounter her. She is an insidious force that creeps into lives when least expected, lurking in the guise of a cocktail waitress or beguiling songstress, so that the heart gives in and chooses ‘death by beauty’. It’s wonderfully catchy and takes a few hearings to decide upon the interpretation, by which point it’s already buzzing around in your head begging to be played again.
Despite being perhaps the most modern sounding song on the album, ‘Your Voice Carries’ hardly seems incongruous. An unspoken love story, rooted in the words that actually ‘are’ spoken, here the words are the new windows to the soul, showing “how much to hold back and how much to show”, so that each utterance shows a facet of personality, reveals and old scar or releases love. Translations, then, is a mesmerising investigation into other peoples’ worlds by taking on their personalities, foibles, loves and losses. Lewis shines through in her own inimitable way, but powerfully manages to imbue each character that she takes on with life, vibrance and personality. Whether it’s the titular protagonist of ‘Isabelle’ or the man who’ll die for the sight of a beautiful woman, each one has a story that is told without drama, a story that’s told with a lot of heart.
Jennifer Lopez, aka J-Lo, aka Jellopez, the Gyrating Chaos as HP Lovecraft would surely have known her, has returned once more with her sixth album, Brave. Yes, there really has been that many. And yes, it really is as bad as we’ve all come to expect.
On Wikipedia Jellopez is listed as an “actress, singer-songwriter, model, dancer, fashion designer and television producer”. This might meat than Lopez is either a genius, or that it is much easier to fulfil all the above roles than we have been led to believe. My personal belief is that she is the next evolutionary stage of mankind (or perhaps a bizarre genetic offshoot), where a human being becomes a sort of living brand, strutting around and marketing their shallow, empty life to the masses. Lopez is clearly a driven and media-savvy woman, but there are precious few people who could be genuinely good in such an extensive list of roles, and evidence suggests that she isn’t one of them.
For starters Jellopez is not a talented musician. Her voice is by turns shrill, whiny and breathy, and she adopts a sort of Bronx-esque rap style that can most politely be described as “unusual”. First single ‘Do It Well’ is a perfect example: noisy, non-descript, and with Lopez somehow achieving the feat of being both shouty and monotonous at the same time. This is bad R&B the like of which has slithered its way out of the US a thousand times before.
Of course, some pop musicians of questionable talent, when coupled with some clever songwriting, have been known to come out with some beautiful little gems. Girls Aloud in their heyday came out with a string of hits that were hummable at the very least, though the Beach Boys they are not. Sadly for Jellopez, her extremely average voice is not even supported by well-written songs. The music on Brave is as generic and cold as if it were all produced in a weekend on somebody’s laptop. The lyrics are frustratingly repetitive – if Lopez says “I can do this forever” once, she says it a hundred times. She could repeat herself forever, forever, forever, forever.
Never the most likeable star on the planet anyway, Lopez displays a continued talent for spouting lyrics that are at best slightly…insulting. If you’ll recall, she was still Jenny from the block who always remembers where she came from (presumably so she would never accidentally find herself going back) and now, on ‘Stay Together’, she claims not breaking up as “the new trend”, as if millions of people had never done it before she managed three years in the same marriage. Her childhood might have been hard, but nowadays the only reason you couldn’t ‘Walk A Mile In These Shoes’ is because they are stilettoed torture devices the size of a postage stamp. Lopez wears conceit like a badge of honour.
Kudos where it’s due, Jellopez has travelled far on her ambition for rather than an aptitude for music. But Brave is unremittingly awful. Lopez wails her way through all 13 tracks like the anthropomorphic personification of offensiveness. Find a corner to hide in until she blusters over.