wears the trousers magazine


wears the trousers albums of the decade #75-51

part one part threepart four

Here’s the second part of our albums of the decade countdown, running from #75–51.

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75

Róisín Murphy
Overpowered

[EMI, 2007]

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.

Chris Catchpole

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kristin hersh week: buyer’s guide
February 10, 2009, 7:34 pm
Filed under: buyer's guide, feature | Tags: , , ,

guide_kristinhersh

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.
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2007 reviews dump: b

The following reviews were published on our old MySpace blog in 2007.

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Meg Baird
Dear Companion ••••
Wichita

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.

Peter Hayward

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Miranda Barber
My Tomorrow EP •••½
Self-released

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.

Trevor Raggatt

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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.

Andy Wasley

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Natasha Bedingfield
N.B. •
RCA

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.

Hugh Armitage

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The Bird & The Bee
The Bird & The Bee ••••
Regal

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.

Danny Weddup

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The Bird & The Bee
Please Clap Your Hands EP •••
Blue Note

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.

Hugh Armitage

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The Book Of Knots
Traineater •••½
Anti-

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.

Hugh Armitage

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Katey Brooks
True Speaker EP ••••½
Self-released

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.

Trevor Raggatt

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Carla Bruni
No Promises •••
Naïve

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.

Sara Silver

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Mutya Buena
Real Girl •
Island

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.

Keith Anderson

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Basia Bulat
Oh, My Darling •••½
Rough Trade

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.

Peter Hayward

 



2007 reviews dump: c

The following reviews were published on our old MySpace blog in 2007.

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Vanessa Carlton
Heroes & Thieves ••
Universal

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.

Andy Wasley

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Neko Case
Live From Austin, TX ••••
New West

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.

Loria Near

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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.

Trevor Raggatt

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Client
Heartland ••••
Loser Friendly

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.

Rod Thomas

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CocoRosie
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.

Rod Thomas

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Colleen
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.

Chris McCrudden

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Judy Collins
Sings Lennon & McCartney ••
Wildflower

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.

Trevor Raggatt

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Shawn Colvin
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.

Peter Hayward

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The Concretes
Hey Trouble •
Licking Fingers

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.

Rod Thomas

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Laura Cortese
Blow Out The Candle •••
Self-released

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?

Trevor Raggatt

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Melora Creager
Perplexions ••½
Filthy Bonnet

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.

Siobhan Rooney

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Jill Cunniff
City Beach •••
Militia Group

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.

Stephanie Heney

 



2007 reviews dump: h

The following reviews were published on our old MySpace blog in 2007.

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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.

Stephanie Heney

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Hannah
Everything Is Changing •••½
Snowdog

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.

Trevor Raggatt

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Emmylou Harris
Songbird: Rare Tracks & Forgotten Gems ••••½
Rhino

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.

Alex Ramon

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Deborah Harry
Necessary Evil •
Universal

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.

Hugh Armitage

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Victoria Hart
Whatever Happened To Love? •••½
Decca

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.

Andy Wasley

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PJ Harvey
White Chalk ••••
Island

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.

Peter Hayward

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Charlotte Hatherley
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.

Stephanie Heney

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Help She Can’t Swim
The Death Of Nightlife •••½
Fantastic Plastic

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.

Danny Weddup

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Hem
Funnel Cloud ••••
Nettwerk

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.

Loria Near

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Hem
Home Again, Home Again EP ***½
Nettwerk

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

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Kristin Hersh
Learn To Sing Like A Star ••••
4AD

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.

Peter Hayward

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Beth Hirsch
Wholehearted ••••
Electric Bee

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.

Rod Thomas

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Hummingbird
Tougher Than Love ••••
Flying Sparks

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.

Trevor Raggatt

 



2007 reviews dump: k

The following reviews were published on our old MySpace blog in 2007.

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Lucy Kaplansky
Over The Hills •••
Red House

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.

Peter Hayward

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Rose Kemp
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.

Anna Claxton

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Chaka Khan
Funk This ••
Warner Bros.

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.

Michelle Ruda

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Angélique Kidjo
Djin Djin •••
EMI

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.

Trevor Raggatt

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Diana Krall
The Very Best Of ••••½
Universal Classics

“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.

Andy Wasley

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Alison Krauss
A Hundred Miles Or More: A Collection ••••½
Rounder

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.

Trevor Raggatt

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Robert Plant & Alison Krauss
Raising Sand ••••
Rounder

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.

Trevor Raggatt

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Chantal Kreviazuk
Ghost Stories ••
Nettwerk

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.

Rod Thomas

 



2007 reviews dump: l

The following reviews were published on our old MySpace blog in 2007.

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Miranda Lambert
Crazy Ex-Girlfriend •••
Columbia

Gretchen Wilson
One Of The Boys •••
SonyBMG

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.

Trevor Raggatt

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Lavender Diamond
Imagine Our Love ••½
Rough Trade

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?

Peter Hayward

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Avril Lavigne
The Best Damn Thing •
SonyBMG

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.

Keith Anderson

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Sylvie Lewis
Translations ••••
Cheap Lullaby

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.

Gem Nethersole

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Jennifer Lopez
Brave •
RCA

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.

Hugh Armitage

 



2007 reviews dump: n

The following reviews were published on our old MySpace blog in 2007.

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Marissa Nadler
Live at the Phoenix, Manchester ••••
May 9, 2007

As the poster girl for a new wave of American Gothic, Marissa Nadler is evidently an artist who believes in appearances. The singer-songwriter, raised by a clairvoyant in the same Massachusetts countryside that brought us the Salem Witches and Stephen King, wears her hair as black and long as her songs are dark and languorous. Her singing voice, piercing but never shrill, is a stark contrast to the barely-there drawl with which she introduces herself. She’s here, in the drab surroundings of Manchester’s Phoenix Club – the weekend home of Tangled, the city’s one remaining outpost of hard house – to promote her new album, Songs III: Bird On The Water, and this is what she gives us.

From her opener, ‘Dying Breed’, the comparisons to magic, black or otherwise, are unmistakable. She doesn’t so much write songs as use her bell-like picked guitar playing, echoed vocals and lyrics to evoke moods and visions. There’s the “reliquary eyes and diadem crown” of the fallen woman in ‘Diamond Heart’ and Daisy and Violet Hilton, the superannuated vaudeville Siamese twins working at the store for their bus ride home from Florida in ‘The Story Of Daisy & Violet’. Her effect is hypnotic rather than memorable, though occasional images strike home with bird-like precision – notably the electrifying hook “with eyes as deep as brandy wine” from ‘Feathers’.

With a sound and source material that often treads on the purple crushed velvet skirts of goth rather than the gothic, not every song succeeds. Indeed, her material that focuses more on personal matters of the heart rather than laudanum-fuelled fancy can plod, suggesting she’s at her best when she draws inspiration from a New England Goblin Market world of raven-haired maidens and deformed circus clowns. Yet she recovers from a mid-set dip to finish with an audacious cover of Leonard Cohen’s ‘Famous Blue Raincoat’, which teases out the sisterliness beneath this densely written account of a menage á trois. Triumphant, but quietly so, it shows how Marissa Nadler’s principal talent lies in allying the aural to the visual. She sounds exactly how Tim Burton’s best films look: dark, playful, intensely felt.

Chris McCrudden

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Kate Nash
Made Of Bricks ••½
Polydor

Seemingly it’s now quite the thing to be a Cockney, even if one’s been born with a musical silver spoon in one’s mouth. Just look at Lily Allen, who recently predicted Kate Nash would be ‘the next big thing’. Kate duly obliged – she’s already been in Vogue and Elle, and NME made up a music genre just for her: ‘chavtronica’. Oh, and she’s also had a number one hit with the annoying catchy, ‘Foundations’.

Unsurprisingly, this means almost everyone is very excited about Kate Nash and her debut album Made Of Bricks. But is it any good? It’s certainly all about Kate with tales of rubbish boyfriends, getting drunk with mates and that old chestnut, the crumbling relationship. So it seems that there’s something here for everyone, so long as you can put up with 40 minutes of La Nash’s irritatingly OTT accent. As Kate herself freely admits, “I’ll use that voice that you find annoying,” and she sure isn’t lying. The whiney faux-Lahndan vocals are there on every track, but so – to varying degrees – are the catchy tunes and toe-tapping beats that hold her songs together.

‘Shit Song’ sounds like a schoolgirl rapping (badly) over the top of a pre-programmed tune from an old Casio keyboard. ‘Pumpkin Soup’ is a bit more elaborate – with brass and echoing vocals – and has a girl group feel (think Eternal spliced with All Saints and shudder). And ‘Skeleton Song’ is a good tune with its multi-instrumental layers but suffers from terrible lyrics. ‘Merry Happy’ has the opposite issue, being pretty clever lyrically but with a tiresome staccato piano motif providing the ‘tune’.

Kate Nash is undeniably a talented girl, and if self-indulgent whining is your thing then you’ll enjoy this catalogue of the not-so-finer aspects of Cockney Kate’s existence. It’s a bit like listening to your mate who just got dumped ranting about how bad everything is for them, in a really grating voice. Song titles like ‘Dick Head’ and ‘Shit Song’ might work for Blink 182, but they make Kate sound even more self-pityingly simple than she should. That said, there is plenty of dry wit buried in the chav-speak, and anyone who can bring themselves to listen to this album more than twice will probably appreciate that. Basically, if you really, really like ‘Foundations’, a lot, then you’ll love this. Otherwise, it will drive you mad after three songs.

She may be the least authentic cockney since Guy Ritchie – Nash wouldn’t know the Bow Bells even if they were her mobile’s ringtone – but that doesn’t entirely extinguish her appeal. Listening to Kate Nash may be like simultaneously listening to your iPod and a loudmouth girl-chav’s inane but punishingly fascinating phone chatter, but at least the playlist is actually not that bad.

Sharon Kean

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Nina Nastasia & Jim White
You Follow Me ••••
Fat Cat

With each of her first four albums Nina Nastasia further cemented a glowing reputation as one of the most consistently worthwhile singer-songwriters working today, as recognised by DJ John Peel who had her in for six sessions in less than four years. Though traditionally known as something of a miserablist, 2006’s On Leaving was her lightest and brightest album to date. You Follow Me, a collection of songs co-written with long-term collaborator Jim White (Dirty Three, Sonic Youth), sees a return to her dark roots with a glorious set of fevered, skittish songs arising from a brutal collision of White’s frantic, intricate drumming and Nastasia’s soaring, anguished vocals.

Since the incredibly sparse charms of her debut, Dogs, Nastasia’s work has become increasingly orchestrated, with simply picked guitars giving way to piano and strings. On You Follow Me she bucks this trend but instead gives White free rein with the drumming. As you might expect, the result is entirely fitting for Nastasia’s anguished, ugly-beautiful voice and evocation of a small world relentlessly falling apart. Certainly anyone who’s familiar with Nastasia’s music is no stranger to the subjects of loss, death and doomed relationships. In the gothic tradition of Nick Cave and Marissa Nadler, Nastasia’s voice gives a drunken, strained and measured theatricality to her songs. At times fragile and wistful such as on ‘Odd Said The Doe’, in which a dog that visits her yard becomes the focus of her grief for a lost lover, Nastasia is able to turn her New York brogue to a sinister cry (witness ‘Late Night’s wretched howl of “there’s blood on your face”). Her undisguised accent sets the songs firmly in America, enough to make songs that could be about anyone anywhere seem like strongly rooted Americana.

At times White’s drumming threatens to overpower the songs; ‘Odd Said The Doe’ is swamped by a mess of free-noise drumming that even Yellow Swans would find confusing. But more often than not the combination works. ‘I’ve Been Out Walking’ and ‘In The Evening’ in particular are driven by White’s contribution. At it’s best, White’s contribution is startlingly smart; on ‘Our Discussion’ the percussion rumbles like a storm and pitter-patters like rain beneath a tale of a late night talk between partners in the faltering, stumbling stages of a failing love. Even so, you almost want to hear two other versions of the album – one without the drums and another without the guitar.

You Follow Me is doubtless Nastasia’s darkest album so far, and that’s no mean feat. The songs have been eked out from the bourbon-soaked, drug-hazed night-time of human experience. If the contribution of the drums doesn’t always seem necessary, only rarely does it cause detriment to the songs, and more often it adds muscle to Nastasia’s minimal and fraught acoustic style. Definitely not an album to put on before you go out, it’s the perfect soundtrack to drunken, sorrowful and shameful break-up sex, which perhaps Nastasia had in mind when she called the closing track ‘I Come After You’. The only problem with this scenario is that at close to just half an hour long, it is much too short.

Peter Hayward

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Joanna Newsom
Joanna Newsom & The Ys Street Band EP ••••
Drag City

As is by now almost expected from Miss Newsom, this EP (with its titular nod to The Boss) is a slightly strange release comprising a track triumphantly performed throughout January’s much-celebrated European tour (‘Colleen’), a reworking of ‘Clam, Crab, Cockle, Cowrie’ and, somewhat unbelievably if you own the wonderful Ys, an extended version of ‘Cosmia’. Two things become immediately apparent when listening to this record, namely how the childlike element of Newsom’s voice has been tempered between albums, and the sheer power of her live performances. ‘Colleen’ is a magnificent song driven by a great beat – an odd thing to say for a folk song – and captivating rhythm. Very haunting and brought to life by a beautiful arrangement, it’s a powerful lead for the EP and exemplary of just how mesmerising her songs can be.

That said, ‘Colleen’ is also evidence of the shortcomings of studio recording. There is a certain something missing in the recording (concerning vocals mainly) that was very prominent on stage. I can’t put my finger on what exactly is absent, but something that made the song unavoidably arresting on stage isn’t quite captured on this recording. Still, it’s unfair to compare an EP to a live performance, especially for those who missed the tour (apologies!). Still, ‘Colleen’ is a wonderful reassurance that new material from everyone’s favourite harpist is just as strong, if not stronger, than that of her very fine album, and for those who haven’t already heard it, an absolute treat.

It’s not the easiest thing to persuade you into the purchase of an EP when the other two tracks are simply reworkings of older numbers. That said, though the new version of ‘Clam, Crab, Cockle, Cowrie’ might seem unnecessary on the surface, it makes its case incredibly well. Highlighting the changes in her singing style, Newsom’s vocal delivery on this version is astounding and the addition of backing vocals an excellent decision. It sounds grown up, giving the illusion that it could be a timeless standard sung by hundreds of others through the years. Having lived with it through all of her touring and writing, Newsom now presents us with the song updated as it means to her in the present day. It’s nothing short of gorgeous, but a word of warning; it might break your heart.

Finally, the sprawling new version of ‘Cosmia’ is double the length (!) of the original, but it’s much more fresh. Slight alterations to the instrumentation of the song give it a completely different feel. Although at times the instrumental movements drown out the beauty of the vocals (especially when the little squeals of “And I miss…” kick in – more of a mixing issue than anything else), on the whole it sounds cleaner and fuller in its new form. It’s interesting that Newsom has chosen to rework the two closing tracks from her albums. Sort of like unravelling the ends that initially tied up two very different pieces of work as if to say that there is no definite ending to them; that her work continues to change and breathe.

Not an essential EP in the sense that it offers enough new material, but absolutely necessary in that it is indicative of the growth and vision of a very important artist. Plus, with all its changes, ‘Cosmia’ is almost a new track. Something to fall quite in love with.

Rod Thomas

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Scout Niblett
Live at Shepherds Bush Empire ••••
February 11, 2007

For this evening in Shepherds Bush, dear Scout Niblett (or Emma to her mother, though possibly Em) is opening for Bonnie ‘Prince’ Billy (Will to his mother, possibly Bill) and for the first few songs, it seems like an apt choice. She meekly takes to the stage, plugs in, and as the murmurs die down towards the back, woos the sold-out audience with her gentle, awkward strums and fragile delivery in her songs of woe while standing in front of a vacant drumkit.

The crowd hang on her every word as she swoons through selected material from her wondrous album I Am and more recent offering Kidnapped By Neptune. She creeps out ‘No-One’s Wrong (Giricocola)’ which sounds utterly heart rending as she pleads that we all just “reach out for a song!”. This is recited over and over with a restrained growl, almost as if she were partially possessed by the spirit of a certain Mr Cobain.

And it appears that it’s in this direction where the set progresses with Scout turning to her undying appreciation for grunge; the drums are occupied by Kristian Goddard, giving Niblett the freedom to indulge in some unadulterated crazed rock action. Like a wolf in sheep’s clothing, she allows the audience (who are mostly of the chin-stroking beardy variety) a comfy sense of familiarity that she absolutely marvels in turning on its head. The guitar blares out something rotten and just plain filthy, distorted and fuzzed, and accompanied with some deep and heavy primal drumbeats. ‘12 Mile’ ploughs a low-slung, sleazy furrow of caterwauling drums ‘n’ guitars, over which her haunting voice yelps and coos.

Niblett then gives the crowd a glimpse of another feather in her cap full of talents, taking over for a solo drum rendition of some of her personal favourites. ‘Your Beat Kicks Back Like Death’, which infamously includes the fatalistic mantra “we’re all gonna die! / we don’t know when / we don’t know how” – it’s cheerfully delivered and constantly repeated. People don’t know whether to laugh or cry. They seem mostly intrigued and confused, but they don’t turn away for a second. Maybe because it’s true. Or maybe because the sound of Scout’s voice dancing skittering along an infectious drumbeat just sounds so good.

We are all going to die at some point, though. Deal with it, yeah.

Amadeep Chana

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Scout Niblett
This Fool Can Die Now ••••
Too Pure

Nottingham-born maverick Emma ‘Scout’ Niblett is famed for spiky songs, eccentric accompaniment, an acquired-taste voice and a brilliant cover of Althea and Dorothy’s ‘Uptown Top Ranking’. Her three albums to date have showcased a mercurial talent for lunatic storytelling and melodic innovation. This Fool Can Die Now once again sees Steve Albini on production and features the inimitable Will Oldham on guest vocals on four duets.

Not so much kicking the album off as nudging it gently into life with the pointed toe of a cowboy boot, ‘Do You Wanna Be Buried With My People’ is a sprawling country duet, Oldham’s cracked vocals matched by Niblett’s plaintive warmth in a gloriously morose love song. Kiss also finds the two voices playing off each other in mellifluous harmony, until discord stalks up on the song and Niblett unleashes a Minnie Mouse howl while Oldham’s singing turns to barking in response. Intense and loving, it’s just begging to be used in a David Lynch film to soundtrack a late-night bar scene. Then, as you begin to worry that Portland, Oregon, to where Niblett has relocated, has changed her completely, ‘Moon Lake’ reprises the just-drums approach to accompaniment for which she is well known. And ‘Let Thine Heart Be Warned’ is Helium meets Bikini Kill in a mediaeval-flavoured homage to early ‘90s alternative music.

Comparisons with Cat Power have dogged Niblett throughout her career, most notably with the former’s first two dark, violent and feverish albums Dear Sir and Myra Lee. But while Chan Marshall has drifted away from the tortured grunge, Scout Niblett has rarefied the idea. Although at times the results are not a million miles apart – a couple of tracks on This Fool Can Die Now, most notably ‘Baby Emma’ and ‘Yummy’, sound very similar musically to tracks on Moon Pix or You Are Free. Overall, though, Niblett rises above such parallels this time. Simple accompaniments to strained and forced crone-like vocals make for highly affecting songs, such as the intense and brooding ‘Hide & Seek’, whereas sweet strings and straight, unaffected duetting on the cover of ‘River Of No Return’ (first made famous by Marilyn Monroe in the 1954 movie of the same name) make for an utterly charming frontier lullaby.

Quite how Niblett manages to reconcile such sweet homefires songs with her skewed take on grunge on one album is anyone’s guess. But she does. The only really jarring moment is ‘Dinosaur Egg’, quite possibly the most lunatic song you’ll hear this year. It won’t surprise anyone to learn that such lyrical gems as “dinosaur egg, when will you hatch / because I’ve got a million people coming on Friday / and they expect to see a dinosaur not an egg” could only come from the mind of one David Shrigley. But as the song progresses to a plea to her tortured soul to stay hidden for the million visitors, not only does the song begin to make sense in relation to Niblett, but also Cat Power once again comes to mind.

The less notable tracks such as ‘Nevada’ and ‘Yummy’ serve to carry the listener between the standouts, and after ‘Dinosaur Egg’ and ‘Hide & Seek’ the album seems to coast to a close with the final two songs. For the Niblett uninitiated, This Fool Can Die Now serves as a great introduction to her unique and diverse talents. If it loses pace from time to time, that can be forgiven. Some of these songs are the best of her career.

Peter Hayward

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Stevie Nicks
Crystal Visions: The Very Best Of ••½
Reprise

One of the first women ever to receive the ill-starred title ‘Queen Of Rock ‘n’ Roll’ from Rolling Stone magazine, Stevie Nicks’s long career in the music business has mirrored its own progress from Summer of Love innocence to corporate experience. Going from folky idealism to mainstream success (and excess) as part of troubled behemoth Fleetwood Mac, she emerged as a solo artist in the ‘80s with a series of solo albums which trod a fine line between inspired and naff.

Crystal Visions is Nicks’s third career retrospective in just over a decade and, while it seeks to avoid repetition by mixing familiar hits with newer and live material, the result feels oddly compiled. Dating from a time when age and a combined cocaine and synthesisers habit had started to turn her kittenish voice into a rasp, ‘Edge Of Seventeen’, ‘Stand Back’ and ‘Rooms On Fire’ mould thrilling music from the unmalleable clay of soft rock. More recent efforts such as ‘Planets Of The Universe’ and ‘Sorcerer’ feel joyless in comparison, however, swapping fuck-you self-importance for her rather chewy brand of earth-mother songwriting.

The value to fans of live and re-recorded versions of Nicks’s classics is also a mixed blessing. The addition of Mac songs ‘Rhiannon’ and ‘Dreams’ may be a welcome reminder that few artists could be as haunting, yet it also suggests that the multi-songwriter line-up that caused so much personal tension within Fleetwood Mac made for better quality control than Nicks ever showed on her own. ‘Dreams’ makes it onto the disc in its 2005 re-recording with Deep Dish which ditches the original’s mystery and sensuality in favour of a limp trance makeover. ‘Rhiannon’ fares better, however, in an extended live version which shows that, while she might have lost more than a few top notes, Nicks is still capable of putting on a good show.

Now that vast tranches of ‘80s rock are seen as little more than legends disgracing themselves before they ‘rediscovered their roots’ or a ready source of ironic samples, it would be easy to dismiss Stevie Nicks as an icon of bloated times. Yet for all the attendant self-indulgence, her voice, talent as a writer of memorable pop songs and determination to equal the genre’s big boys – instead of singing backup for them – marks her out for posterity. Her influence on artists as diverse as Courtney Love, Destiny’s Child and The Dixie Chicks shows her mettle, even if this compilation doesn’t.

Completists will appreciate the live recordings and various video clips bundled with Crystal Visions‘s bonus DVD: everyone else, scour the bargain bins for her infinitely better ‘best of’, Timespace.

Chris McCrudden

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Beth Nielsen Chapman
Prism •••
BNC

Beth Nielsen Chapman’s sixth studio album, Prism, comes three years after her CD of ancient Latin liturgical music, Hymns, was released to critical acclaim and a mixture of awe and rapture from a devoted fan base. However, this new album is more than a collection of songs composed over the last three years; it’s the culmination of a project which had its gestation a decade ago.

Always a deeply spiritual writer and performer, Chapman has taken the soul of her previous album and grounded deeply in a global village of faith and belief. Prism was inspired by the words of the likes of Archbishop Desmond Tutu, Jody Williams and other campaigners of peace and tolerance in an increasingly troubled world. However, it was Tutu’s post-9/11 speech at the Washington National Cathedral that provided the project with its focus – a call for people of all faiths and cultures to embrace their place as members of one human family, ‘The Rainbow People of God’. That humanitarian, multi-faith ethos runs as a constant theme across the album’s two discs.

Prism‘s first CD is a collection of original songs interspersed with two traditional hymns – ‘The Beauty Of The Earth’ and ‘Be Still My Soul’ – both glorious in the simplicity of their arrangements allowing Chapman’s always beautiful and affecting voice to wring every drop of meaning from them. The other tracks take a pleasing folk pop approach but still throw up surprises such as the rap duet on ‘My Religion (Sweet Love)’, written around Atoaji Radellant’s hip hop lyric. Other highlights include the single, ‘Shine All Your Light’, and the poignant ‘Prayers Of An Atheist’, first heard on her recent live DVD.

However, it’s on the second CD that things start to get interesting. Across the dozen tracks Chapman sings in nine different languages, each song reflecting a different faith tradition. Here, English stands alongside Sanskrit, Latin, Hebrew, Zulu, Tibetan, Navajo and Welsh, while Farsi chant makes its presence felt on ‘Bad-E-Saba’ (backed by Persian Tar and Tombak). That the disc remains compelling and absorbing across its eclectic length rather than descending into awkward world music indulgence is testament to the singer’s mesmerising voice. The second disc truly represents a fascinating project on Beth Nielsen Chapman’s part. It’s perhaps a shame that, of Prism’s two sides, it is this one which will inevitably get less airplay and less auditioning time.

Trevor Raggatt

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Nightwish
Dark Passion Play ••••
Nuclear Blast

Nightwish very nearly disqualified itself from Wears The Trousers in 2005 with the unceremonious firing of lead singer Tarja Turunen. However, two years and a spate of auditions later, Finland’s most popular non-Eurovision export return with a new vocalist and a whole slew of violins for the eighth showcase of their trademark symphonic metal. In their newest incarnation the band skimp on neither ambition nor expense: Dark Passion Play is reportedly the most expensive Finnish album ever made, racking up a cardiac-inducing 500 thousand euro bill via recording sessions at Abbey Road. But is it money well spent?

The album blinkers into life with ‘The Poet & The Pendulum’, a real metal magnum opus in the vein of Pink Floyd’s ‘Shine On You Crazy Diamond’. New lead Anette Olzon warbles beatifically for several seconds before being interrupted by an orchestral crash, signalling the beginning of the band’s more familiar rock theatrics. The song ebbs and surges over 14 inspired minutes, with a frenetic string sequence evoking the hurried melody of Oceanborn’s ‘Moondance’ about seven minutes in. The influence of film scores, which the band’s lyricist Tuomas Holopainen has cited, also becomes evident via a brass section that channels the ‘Lord Of The Rings’ soundtrack.

After this ambitious beginning, Dark Passion Play struggles somewhat to match the quality of its first enterprise. The orchestra is largely put to bed and out come the guitars, diluting the album’s epic quality. However, the remaining standout tracks really are first rate: ‘Bye Bye Beautiful’ is a pleasingly upbeat offering with oddly bleak lyrics, albeit one that features some disconcertingly Van Halen-esque synthesisers. ‘Amaranth’, the album’s second single, is suitably commercial and sticks in your head like a limpet on a West Country beach. ‘Sahara’ is a competent return to heavy metal form with Egyptian nuances while ‘The Islander’ reveals a compelling vocal-driven folk ballad. On a similar theme, the instrumental ‘Last Of The Wilds’ is pure ceilidh with guitars.

Concerns that Olzon would fail to measure up with Turunen appear to be unfounded, though indeed Nightwish have chosen an entirely different direction with the appointment of their new vocalist. Olzon has a softer, less operatic voice than classically trained Turunen, which is often employed to gorgeous effect, particularly during duets with the band’s bassist Marco Hietala. However, the effect can also be less complementary, specifically in the sickly ‘Meadows Of Heaven’ and the near-pop of ‘For The Heart I Once Had’, which could have been salvaged by more powerful vocals. Yet despite these blips and a couple of pedestrian tracks such as ‘Whoever Brings The Night’ and ‘Eva’, Dark Passion Play remains an assured, if predictably unsubtle, addition to the band’s repertoire.

Siobhan Rooney

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Sarah Nixey
Sing, Memory ••½
Service AV

Most famous for being the face of a Luke Haines side project for seven years, Sarah Nixey has bided her time and earned a loving fanbase in preparation for Sing, Memory, her debut solo outing. Although Nixey was very much the focal and vocal point of Black Box Recorder, it is generally considered that the real talent behind the band were Auteurs founder Haines and John Moore, formerly of The Jesus & Mary Chain. Although a split has never been official, the band is pretty much defunct these days; their last album Passionoia received lukewarm reviews, Nixey and Moore have married and divorced, and Haines has seemingly moved on with last year’s solo effort, Off My Rocker At The Art School Bop. So, whilst the songwriting talents of Moore and Haines are undisputed, the question remains: does the muse have any talent of her own?

Nixey co-wrote Sing, Memory with producer James Banbury (also a former Auteurs member) and gone are the indie arthouse sounds of Black Box Recorder. Sing, Memory is an electro-pop collection of synth-based songs, half-sung and half-spoken by Nixey. It seems she has been unable to completely abandon her trademark upper class English spoken vocal style that instantly identifies with her former band. Then, when she does sing in the proper sense of the word, the vocals are weak and fail to carry the songs.

Although the tunes are sugary, the themes are bittersweet and noir, giving the album a grown up, if icy, feel. Nixey’s songs of limbo, obsession, psychopaths, liars and the human condition, while arty, lack the satire of Haines’s writing and comparisons that highlight this missing element are inevitable. Sound-wise, we are reminded of Saint Etienne and early Goldfrapp…even Kylie Minogue’s weaker moments. Former single ‘Strangelove’ is the poppiest track, appearing here in a remixed form, with other highlights being the glam sounds of ‘Hotel Room’ and the rather creepy ‘The Collector’. Two covers put in an appearance – the Human League’s ‘Black Hit Of Space’ and John Peel favourites The Names’s ‘Nightshift’. The former closes the album on an upbeat note and the latter is an oddly bleepy version that, while inventive, doesn’t really add to the album as a whole. One would expect a Depeche Mode cover to be more appropriate, given Sing, Memory‘s predominantly dark, 1980s electronica feel.

For a debut album this is a considerable effort, even moreso given all the assumptions that Nixey was merely a singer. However, Sing, Memory isn’t strong enough to be a dance contender and is too austere to attract the chart listeners that Sophie Ellis-Bextor did with her stylish yet fun take on pop. There’s a little too much subtlety here to keep things interesting throughout, and Nixey’s detached ice queen demeanour obstructs a more gleeful poppy approach. That said, given the current trend of post-mod and retro ‘80s sounds, to write the album’s commercial prospects off entirely would be a mistake.

Stephanie Heney

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The Noisettes
What’s The Time Mr Wolf ••••
Universal

London-based indie rock trio The Noisettes have really been making a name for themselves this year. Pushed by the media, hailed by the likes of E4 and NME, they are in for a shot at rock stardom. And not surprisingly; their post-modern, energetic and individual debut What’s The Time Mr Wolf can be counted among the best releases of 2007 so far. With her dynamic bursts of rock kinetics and theatricality, lead singer and bassist Shingai Shoniwa could arguably stake a claim in the pantheon of truly great rock frontwomen, though it’s clearly early days yet. And indeed, why rush? There’s plenty of fun to be had here as, together with lead guitarist Dan Smith and drummer Jamie Morrison, Shoniwa takes us on a noisy and original journey.

Bluesy opener and Noisettes anthem ‘Don’t Give Up’ provides an immediate foot-stomping introduction to their trademark sound. Shoniwa’s vibrant and dramatic vocal intro announces itself as a force to be reckoned with. Her musicianship, too, is unquestionably accomplished. Her bass is cleverly utilised, weaving closely with the guitar line and dropping in and out of the song for maximum power effect. Previous single ‘Scratch Your Name’ is equally strong, despite its fairly traditional rock intro with syncopated drums. Shoniwa’s delicate but angry vocals dramatically propel the song onwards and upwards into more theatrical territory. The Noisettes may be fairly restricted when it comes to instrumentation, sticking to a palette of guitar, bass, drums and vocals, but they deliver impressive variety with effective use of dynamics and rhythm. They certainly know how to rock, and, more importantly, to be unpredictable in the most refreshing way.

Speaking of unexpected twists, ‘Count Of Monte Christo’ surprises with its stripped-down acoustic approach showing a completely different side to the band, exposing Shoniwa and Smith’s vocals in an affecting call-and-response arrangement. At one point all instruments magically fade out to leave just the softly interacting vocals. Recent single ‘Sister Rosetta (Capture The Spirit)’ ups the ante once more with a nod to Goldfrapp’s stomping glamour. It’s a simple song, sure, but one with a powerful chorus buoyed by Shoniwa’s closely-miked vocals. ‘Bridge To Canada’ is a tightly-wound, thespian speak-sing number with abstract lyrics, chaotic instrumentation and plenty of good old-fashioned rhythm. ‘IWE’, too, is stuffed full of random chord structures and organised mayhem with Shinowa’s screamy yelping lending an urgent but playful edge.

Elsewhere, ‘Cannot Even (Break Free)’ and ‘Hierarchy’ are well worth a listen. The former is an intimate, abstract jazzy track that’s cathartic and yet positively lost, while the latter is a much more melodic and surprisingly mature recording than most on the album, even throwing in a bit of an experiment with vocal panning. A hidden outro provides an emotional exit and, all too suddenly, the party’s over. A word to the wise though, as convincing as The Noisettes may be on record, they are triple energetic on stage. Do not miss the chance to see Shoniwa and co. live if theatre-rock is what you’re after.

Anja McCloskey

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Northern State
Can I Keep This Pen? ••••
Ipecac

Emerging in 2002 from the ‘city that never sleeps’, underrated NYC rappers Northern State have climbed another step or two on the ladder of success with third album Can I Keep This Pen?. The all-girl trio (Spero, Sprout and Hesta Prynn, seriously!) manage to combine guitars, funky drumbeats, synth sounds and high school rap to create an all-round great album that gets better with every listen. Initially they sound like they’re clowning around with a silly take on ‘The Fresh Prince Of Bel-Air’, but on closer inspection this is, both lyrically and musically, a real triumph. The variety of instruments and sounds put to use on this album confounds expectations, pushing boundaries with glee. You’ll hear your classic indie guitar and drums, you’ll hear your sprinkled electro sounds, and then the icing on the cake is the rap. Though defiantly of the bubblegum variety, Northern State out-feist the best of their contemporaries with a sound that bitchslaps Gwen Stefani’s ‘Hollaback Girl’ and then some.

Opening with ‘Mic Tester’, the album explodes with drums and Spero’s energetic rapping before the imaginative synth sounds start to appear. This, alongside the trio’s boisterous, big-upping lyrics makes for a track so catchy it’s almost pure pop and paves the way for the rest of the album. ‘Sucka Mofo’ and ‘Oooh Girl’ benefit from the distinctive production of Beastie Boy Ad Rock, while ‘Better Already’ stands out most as the star inclusion with its electric guitar intro and crashing chorus. After thirteen exuberant songs, closing number ‘Fall Apart’ (which features a guest appearance from the astonishingly talented guitarist Kaki King and, get this, a harp!), proves that Northern State can do slower ballad-ish rap with panache, never sounding too mushy or losing their distinct sound.

Anyone who thought they knew rap, think again. Northern State don’t play the game the way we’ve grown accustomed to. Instead of abiding by the rules that people paint for rap – gangsters, life in the hood, violence, guns, hefty men with heavy bling – Can I Keep This Pen? is quirky and endearing, sounding just like three girls who’ve just stepped out of high school and reckon they can take on the world. Upon your first hearing you’d be forgiven for thinking that the whole thing was a joke. It’s not every day you hear a rap about how “your mom drives an ice cream truck,” but that’s the charm of this album. You don’t hear music like this every day on the radio or TV. Can you name all the girl groups on the UK rap scene? No?

It’s clear that Northern State is just what music needs, on both sides of the Atlantic. They rap about politics, friendship and being the coolest kids in school; they have all the attitude and American funk befitting of New Yorkers, and its influence is inescapable throughout the album, seeping through perfectly on every track. Can I Keep This Pen? sounds raw, fresh off the street and, above all, truly original. It’s a grower, yes, but deserves to be heard by anyone with an open mind about music.

Michelle Ruda

 



2007 reviews dump: q r

The following reviews were published on our old MySpace blog in 2007.

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Eddi Reader
Peacetime •••½
Rough Trade

Following 2003’s well-regarded Sings The Songs Of Robert Burns album, the newly MBE’d Eddi Reader continues to venture into deep folk waters on Peacetime. But while her previous album concentrated solely on the work of Scotland’s favourite son, Peacetime broadens its musical horizons to encompass some contemporary material, mixing traditional tunes (including a few more Burns compositions) with songs by the likes of Johnny Dillon, Declan O’Rourke and Trashcan Sinatras’ John Douglas, alongside original compositions by Reader and her long-time collaborator Boo Hewerdine. The result is an engaging and enjoyable album that mainly stays true to Reader’s intention to “inject some soul into the old songs”.

That Peacetime often resembles a Kate Rusby record in its arrangements and instrumentation should come as no surprise – the album was produced by the venerable John McCusker (Mr Rusby himself and a regular Reader collaborator for a number of years). The connections are particularly evident on the likes of the traditional ‘Mary & The Soldier’ and the sublime opener ‘Baron’s Heir’, a track that showcases Reader’s clear, lilting vocals at their best, caressing like honey an archetypal folk narrative of love and class. The wonderfully melancholy ‘Aye-Waukin-O’ is a highlight, as is the brass-augmented ‘The Shepherd’s Song’. Elsewhere, the lovely ‘Leezie Lindsay’ seamlessly weds Reader/Hewerdine-penned verses to a Burns chorus, ‘The Afton’ boasts strong harmonies, and hidden track ‘The Carlton Weaver’ closes the album on a rousing note.

Like Rusby, Reader has a tendency to prettify the darker aspects of folk music, opting for charm over gravitas and occasionally smoothing over the harder edges of the material, with the consequence that there are moments on Peacetime when you may wish for a little more bite and grit. Moreover, the mix of contemporary and traditional material is not always seamless: references to “CCTV cameras” (in Hewerdine’s ‘Muddy Water’) sound rather jarring in this context. Even so, Reader has produced a beguiling collection of songs that should appeal to a wide range of listeners.

Alex Ramon

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Rilo Kiley
Under The Blacklight •••½
WEA

Rock music fans can be a fickle bunch. One minute they’re declaring their undying adoration for some new band, the next said band have signed to a major label, released an allegedly less ‘edgy’ and more cynically ‘commercial’ album and said fans are falling over themselves in the rush to yell “sell out!” Typical, eh? It’s a familiar predicament, and one that Rilo Kiley now find themselves in with the release of Under The Blacklight. Having reached great heights of critical prestige with 2005’s much-adored More Adventurous and kept themselves busy with a variety of interesting side projects, the group have now reunited for their fourth album, only to be attacked by fans for producing a record which is allegedly too slick, too poppy and altogether less adventurous than their earlier work. How very dare they!

Are these accusations fair? Well, Under The Blacklight is undoubtedly a more overtly radio-friendly album than the group’s previous efforts and one that sees them moving away from spiky indie, or at least supplementing it with liberal amounts of pop, disco, dance and country-rock. But while the record seems destined to disappoint the band’s hardcore supporters, the good news is that it might well find them some new ones. For if Under The Blacklight possesses less guitar grunt than its predecessors, it’s also warmer, more immediately inviting and (whisper it) maybe a little less arch and pretentious than their previous work.

For those of us old enough to hold fond memories of Jenny Lewis as a winsome pre-teen actress in such epic motion picture masterpieces as ‘Troop Beverly Hills’ and ‘The Wizard’, her metamorphosis into charismatic indie chanteuse has a special appeal. Lewis retains an actress’s gift for phrasing and expression and her distinctive presence still accounts for a great part of the band’s power. But while there are several songs here that would have been perfectly at home on her solo debut Rabbit Fur Coat (most notably the infuriatingly catchy opener ‘Silver Lining’), Under The Blacklight doesn’t entirely play out like a star vehicle for the singer; whatever their internal wranglings, Rilo Kiley still sound like a cohesive unit.

The Fleetwood Mac comparisons which have surfaced in many reviews are apt, especially on the taut first single ‘The Moneymaker’ and the silky harmonies and seductive rhythms of the engaging title track. Other influences are also discernable: a trace of Blondie, a dash of The Bangles, even a touch of Heart. ‘Breakin’ Up’ is a nicely retro disco-fied anthem that finds Lewis cooing “Ooh, it feels good to be free!” While the majority of fans have balked at such flagrant excursions from the indie rock road map, this is clearly the sound of a band attempting to broaden their music intro fresh territory and having a lot of fun in the process. For the most part, the trademark acerbic Lewis/Sennett lyrics remain (“When you get sober will you get kinder? / ‘cos when you get uptight it’s such a drag”), and at its best the record achieves the not inconsiderable feat of sounding retro and thoroughly contemporary at the same time.

Unfortunately, the quality of the songs takes something of a dive after the consistently strong first half. Both ‘Dejalo’ (written in collaboration with Lewis’s boyfriend Jonathan Rice) and ‘15′ (an attempt at the character-driven narratives they’ve often been acclaimed for) feel forced and unconvincing, and closer ‘Give A Little Love’ is static and repetitious, failing to improve on its corny title. Nonetheless, despite its shortcomings, Under The Blacklight remains an enjoyable album and one that may prove a more enticing proposition to those who felt ambivalent about Rilo Kiley’s previous work. After all, smart, literate, female-fronted rock groups aren’t exactly common these days. This fact alone makes Under The Blacklight an album worth celebrating.

Alex Ramon

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LeAnn Rimes
Family ••
Curb

Despite her history of teenage power ballads, prematurely aged inspirational country pop crossovers and shoddy remixes the likes of which pack out the dancefloor in clubs where fake IDs secure a glut of alcopops for underage drinkers, I’ve always had bit of a soft spot for LeAnn Rimes. Don’t ask me what it is, I’ve never really liked her music, but I’ve liked her attitude to it. Switching from country to pop, alienating either audience by turn, she does what she wants, and as other teen pop stars have fallen prey to celebrity magazines, drug addiction and reality TV, Rimes has quietly continued to make the occasional inspirational country-pop crossover.

So I have always hoped that LeAnn would make an album that made me think “good on you girl, I knew you could”. And the news that Rimes has a writing credit on every track on Family filled me with curiosity and trepidation in equal measure. Excitement won out over both emotions when I first heard the lead single; ‘Nothing Better To Do’ is a rollicking bayou rock song more likely to appear on a Kings Of Leon album than on an establishment country album, and delivered with Rimes’s belting vocals it’s a breathless, clamouring triumph of a song. A tale of a bored girl going astray, one imagines that Rimes, who while maybe not squeakily so definitely seems clean, has not drawn on experience when writing this song, but when she purrs “hid deep in the Mississippi backwoods… / I had them wrestlin’ for my first kiss” you really believe that she did. With each listen the muddy vocals reveal another twist in a story of a girl’s unrepentant downfall at breakneck speed. I can listen to this song over and over again without tiring of it, and indeed I have.

So, naturally, I had high expectations of the rest of the album. And opening track ‘Family’ kept my hopes alive: another breakneck tale of dysfunctional southern relationships, this time of siblings struggling to hold it together when parents let them down. Rimes, who has sued her own father, might have more experience to draw on here, and the familiar country territory of personal struggles makes for a lively start. ‘Fight’ is a sturdy country break-up song that sees Rimes giving her formidable lungs a thorough airing. But the territory is much safer; this is the kind of song that could sit atop the country charts for weeks. And once she finds this safe ground, Rimes seems happy to stay there. ‘Good Friends & A Glass Of Wine’ is as dull as the title suggests – a galumphing tawdry party song to soundtrack a sorority sleepover at Alabama State Uni.

The rest of the content will go down a storm with the country fraternity. Guest slots from Bon Jovi and Reba McEntire add to the album’s mass appeal, and as the inspirational country-pop and lung-busting ballads rack up, your interest may well wane. For all that I have this soft spot for Rimes, most of the songs on this album could be by Trisha Yearwood, Reba McEntire, Faith Hill or any number of bland country darlings.

So, Family is a letdown. From a great start it rapidly deteriorates into dull mainstream conventions. But I haven’t given up on Rimes just yet; one day in the future, sat atop a pile of money and platinum discs she’ll decide to put that powerful and sometimes highly effective voice to much better use. In the meantime, I’ll just listen to ‘Nothing Better To Do’ on repeat until my neighbours complain.

Peter Hayward

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Carina Round
Slow Motion Addict •••½
Interscope

Here’s an idea that sounds great on paper. Take one ferociously talented but mystifyingly underachieving homegrown rock chick, fly her out to California and hook her up with the producer of Jagged Little Pill, then shut them in a studio for months and see what happens. Given the fact that the last time Glen Ballard tailored anything remotely astonishing was, um, well, it was Jagged Little Pill, that the results are somewhat mixed should come as little surprise. Since crashing onto the scene at the dawn of the millennium with mini-album The First Blood Mystery, Midlander Carina Round has asserted herself as a woman of vision and as a formidable performer. With an intensity to rival that of PJ Harvey (who is, unsurprisingly, a common comparator for Round’s particular brand of the blues) and a swooping, theatrical vocal style that’s vulnerable yet fierce, a wider audience than the small cult following she currently has is clearly deserved, and kudos to Carina for trying. Slow Motion Addict, her third release, sees her approach a more accessible sound, beefing up the hooks and glossing up her image.

Visceral is the ideal adjective here as Round recycles the attendant goth-chic images of burning and bleeding, poisons and wounds, twisting them to suit her purpose. But where once these motifs tied in with the rawness of the production, their impact on Slow Motion Addict is sometimes muddied. Things get off to an encouraging start with the pulsing, urgent ‘Stolen Car’ and the thrilling ‘How Many Times’, a terrifying plea to break the cycle of anguish and spiralling self-doubt, but things soon falter. Too many songs show remarkable promise only to fail to gel as they rage and thunder along, lacking that vital ingredient to elevate them from simply enjoyable to dangerously brilliant. Songs like the title track and ‘Ready To Confess’ could have been phenomenal, and that’s a great shame.

Then there’s the two that are outright duff. Round is better than ‘Take The Money’, a patently silly cautionary tale of glory seekers who go west in search of fortune that’s rescued only by an inventive use of vocals, a punchy male chorus and some addictive handclaps. Elsewhere, ‘Come To You’ makes for an excruciatingly poor choice for the album’s first single. It feels strangely plodding and dated. Worse still, it indulges Round’s vibrato a little too much, making a feature of the least attractive facet of her otherwise remarkable voice.

Round is at her best when the music broods and swells beneath her like an oil slick, its menace more in its suggestion of ill will than in its uncontainable threat. Songs like the hypnotic ‘Down Slow’, ‘The Disconnection’ and the Harvey-esque ‘January Heart’ (a song that, in parts at least, is reminiscent of ‘This Mess We’re In’ and ‘Beautiful Feeling’) are stunningly dark and unsettling. “It’s bound to come undone / but your body is so much fun,” she croons with delicious intent. It’s a real pity that some of the songs that pound and squall render her sounding as fearsome but neutered as a gummy, defanged Cerberus.

Ultimately, Slow Motion Addict suffers from the clear divide between Round’s visionary, unflinching art-rock writing and her desire to broaden her fanbase. She may well succeed in the latter, of course, and Wears The Trousers would love to see that happen. There are certainly better songs here than you would find on most commercial girl-rock albums; Round is worth at least a hundred Clarksons and Lavignes. Seen live, these songs will most likely blow your head off. As it stands, the album is a brave and bold portrait of the artist, just a little poorly hung.

Alan Pedder

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Kate Rusby
Awkward Annie ••••½
Pure

Don’t be misled by Kate Rusby’s recent flirtation with the charts in the company of grannies’ favourite and former Boyzone crooner, Ronan Keating. You’ll be pleased to know that she hasn’t sold her soul to filthy lucre – she’s still a true folkie at heart. Awkward Annie, her seventh solo album, confirms this unashamedly and with style, further cementing Rusby’s status as one of the UK’s finest vocal talents. Of course, as befits someone of her standing, Rusby has recruited the crème de la crème of the country’s folk instrumentalists, including three members of Capercaillie. Most notably perhaps are the guest appearances from Eddi Reader, who contributes backing vocals on three songs, and Nickel Creek’s Chris Thile, who lends his vocal and mandolin skills to two others.

As you might expect, Awkward Annie has a mix of original songs given an authentically folk feel, traditional numbers and half ‘n’ half songs were Rusby takes ancient words and sets them to new tunes. The hybrid approach works surprisingly well, particularly on the sparkling ‘The Old Man’ whose tongue-in-cheek girl power sentiment has a surprising amount of modern-day resonance. Of course, Thile’s inspired mandolin doesn’t hurt either. There are no duff tracks here; on each song, the honesty and purity of Rusby’s singing tugs at the heartstrings and it’s love all over again. Whether she’s delivering a new song, like the title track with its tale of a friendship stretched to extreme or the simple sentiment of ‘The Bitter Boy’, or familiar folk tunes like ‘Blooming Heather’ (known to many as ‘Wild Mountain Thyme’ or ‘Will Ye Go Lassie Go’) Rubsy’s straightforward but wonderfully crafted arrangements are a delight to the ears.

Saving the best ‘til last, the album closes with its pièce de résistance – a cover of the forgotten Kinks classic ‘The Village Green Preservation Society’. There weren’t many redeeming features of the Jennifer Saunders sitcom ‘Jam & Jerusalem’ but Rusby’s luminous rendering of the theme tune was one of them. Awkward Annie sees Rusby stepping up to the plate and yet again knocking expectations out of the ballpark; there’s no doubt that this will be one of the best folk-based albums you’ll hear this year. It’s been eight years since her second album Sleepless saw her filling the ‘credible folkie’ nomination slot of the Mercury Music Prize. Perhaps it’s time the committee gave her a second look. Regardless of whether they will, Awkward Annie positively demands your attention.

Trevor Raggatt

 



2007 reviews dump: t

The following reviews were published on our old MySpace blog in 2007.

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June Tabor
Apples ••••
Topic

An artist who can never be accused of prettifying the darker aspects of folk music is June Tabor. Like Eddi Reader, Tabor has profitably mined the rich seams of traditional and contemporary song over the years, and has recorded her fair share of Burns material; indeed, her new album Apples includes one Burns song, ‘Speak Easy’, in Tabor’s words “an eloquent plea for tolerance and understanding”. But, despite such similarities, the differences in Reader’s and Tabor’s styles are marked: while Reader embroiders her sound with generic folk accoutrements – acoustic guitars, fiddles, pipes – and some smooth poppy filigrees, Tabor has developed a minimalist ‘chamber-folk’ approach – piano, viola, accordion, double bass – which sounds quite unlike that of any other contemporary folk artist and seems to draw from a deeper well. While Apples sees some (very) minor shifts in line-up – with violin/viola virtuoso Mark Emerson replacing Huw Warren on tremulous piano and Andy Cutting’s fabulous accordion playing getting greater prominence – it continues the Tabor tradition of combining an excellent selection of material with exquisite musicianship that provides the perfect setting for her remarkable vocals.

Channelling both ‘Midnight On The Water’ and Richard Thompson’s ‘Waltzing For Dreamers’ – and supplemented by a gorgeous Cutting tune titled ‘Miss Lindsay Barker’ – Andy Shanks and Jim Russell’s ‘The Dancing’ makes for a stunning opener, a deeply evocative portrait of a Saturday night dance and the respite it offers after a hard week’s work at the factory or mill. The Vaughan Williams-collected ‘The Old Garden Gate’ mixes gentle pastoral with startling images of emotional torment, while Lester Simpson’s ‘Standing In Line’ builds a poignant World War I narrative from the image of a “half-empty washing line”. Both ‘I Love My Love’ and the celestial ‘The Rigs Of Rye’ play out tricky tensions between familial duty and romantic opportunity.

Two excellent French-language tracks – ‘Au Logis De Mon Pére’ and ‘Ce Fu En Mai’ – are good value, as is ‘Soldier’s Three’, on which Tabor, accompanied by Cutting’s biting accordion, sounds positively murderous. But people are inclined to forget how much fun Tabor can be, and for proof witness her gleeful delivery on ‘The Auld Beggarman’. Still, there’s no denying that love-gone-wrong remains her favourite theme, as a devastating interpretation of Patrick Galvin’s ‘My Love Came To Dublin’ attests. Christopher Somerville’s haunting ‘Send Us A Quiet Night’ – a sailor’s plea for gentle weather – brings the album to a graceful close.

Approaching her 60th year, Tabor just gets more powerful; there’s not a moment on Apples when you feel that she’s skating over the meaning of a lyric or is less than fully committed to communicating the emotion of a song. The mixture of cool detachment and burning passion that defines her style is extraordinarily compelling. It’s a genuine shame that her wonderful music has been somewhat overlooked in the rush to excavate the work of obscure 1970s folk singers with just a couple of albums between them. Apples is not a smooth or easy record, but it’s a starkly beautiful, endlessly rewarding one that grows richer with each listen.

Alex Ramon

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Avey Tare & Kría Brekkan
Pullhair Rubeye •••
Paw Tracks

Love may be the inspiration behind more music than can ever be measured, but records made by married couples have something of a chequered history. For every Birkin and Gainsbourg there’s a Lennon and Ono, proving somehow that the intensity of feeling that binds two people together isn’t the same as that which makes for 45 minutes of listenable music. So, given that Avey Tare and Kría Brekkan (otherwise known as Dave Portner of Animal Collective and Kristín Anna Valtýsdottír formerly of Múm) dreamed up Pullhair Rubeye shortly after their nuptials, is the outcome a ‘Je T’Aime (Moi Non Plus)’ or something rather less lovable? The answer is probably a bit of both.

Much of the publicity surrounding the album has centred on the couple’s bizarre last minute decision to reverse the original songs and speed a few of them up, apparently inspired by David Lynch’s ‘Inland Empire’. Those who don’t approve of such whimsy look away now because Pullhair Rubeye is very much the product of two musicians speaking a private, lovers’ language. This is a sonically dense and inward-looking record that eschews anything so conventional as hooks and the foot-stomping psychedelia that marks out Animal Collective’s back catalogue in favour of a sense of twisted domesticity. Throughout these eight tracks recorded in their practice space in Brooklyn, Tare’s skittering guitar converses with Brekkan’s more hesitant piano as sometimes whispered, occasionally squeaky vocals bubble over the top.

The result, when it’s right, is compelling. Tare’s plaintive voice and Brekkan’s simple arpeggios make ‘Opís Helpus’ and ‘Was Ónaíp’ hypnotic and affecting. Elsewhere, ‘Who Wellses In My Hoff’, in which guitar and piano and husband and wife indulge in a kind of musical pillow talk, succeeds in being simple and intricate at the same time. It’s a shame the same couldn’t be said of ‘Palenka’ and ‘Sasong’, which can only be described as a questionable attempt at crossing New Weird America with Alvin & The Chipmunks.

The reversal of the original songs notwithstanding, Pullhair Rubeye teeters on the wacky side of odd. Yet it also showcases the talents of two musicians who, when they apply enough self-discipline, make arresting work, particularly if you re-reverse the tracks (a tactic Tare himself has openly approved of; indeed, four of the re-reversed songs are currently streaming from the duo’s MySpace). With this record, Tare and Brekkan make a valiant stab at becoming the psych revival’s equivalent of Sonny and Cher. It’s good, not great, but nonetheless holds the promise of better things to come.

Chris McCrudden

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Ruth Theodore
Worm Food ••••
River Rat

Ruth Theodore is confused, and a bit angry. People are “packaging and labelling and branding” everything in sight, mobile phones are constantly ringing in her ears, the world is on the fast track to “a new form of Hell” and meanwhile she’s developing a rather nasty allergy. Petite and elfish, Theodore comes across like a righteous woodland spirit writing love songs to trees and railing against the modern mayhem. Her debut album Worm Food is in part a polemic against our miserable capitalist lifestyles, and part a celebration of old school romanticism. Often it’s difficult to tell where one part ends and the other begins.

A rising star of London’s acoustic singer-songwriter scene, Theodore is abundantly talented and, seen live, utterly astounding. She picks away at her six-string at an unbelievable speed, never missing a note, and manages some pretty amazing feats with her voice at the same time. Her lyrics are funny and charming; her music stylistically varied and often surprising. I’ve got a little EP of hers somewhere, but I never thought it captured the brilliance of her live performance and lost it somewhere in my disappointment. Worm Food does much better justice to Theodore’s talent. The recording quality is miles ahead of those homemade demos; you can pick every note out of the gentle but persistent flow. The album’s all-acoustic nature is a fine reflection of her obvious dissatisfaction with the modern world. The styles she experiments with are diverse: some are fun, like ‘Overexpanding’s Spanish-style guitars and the accordion-punctuated, sailor song-like parts of ‘Grounded’ and ‘CO2′. Rash is surprising by the sheer fury and dirtiness Theodore is able to whip up without the help of effects pedals and lashings of distortion. Other tracks are quiet and gentle affairs, perfectly sweet and beautiful songs about love.

Theodore’s voice is distinctive, a very English sounding voice, that sits somewhere between song and speech. It is soft and quite low, but also makes a casual display of hitting all the high notes of ‘Grounded’. Indeed the entire album seems almost effortless. She makes it sound as if making music of this quality is the easiest thing in the world. Perhaps for her it is. The lyrics, though peculiarly phrased, match those familiar thoughts that we have every day, thoughts about love and life and how shit things can be. Her themes, as I said before, cross over in unexpected places. ‘Rash’ and ‘Overexpanding’ are clearly songs of protest, but ‘Grounded’, which initially sounds like a love song, seems to be asking why people can’t just get along with each other. The title track and ‘Home’ might be about either, take your pick.

If this album has a flaw it would not be with the music but the content. One might consider the overarching theme of ‘look at what a mess our world is in’ to be a bit preachy – we don’t need our faces rubbed in it all of the time. But maybe that’s exactly the problem that Theodore is singing about – the ease with which we turn a blind and irritable eye away from the problems we are faced with. Personally, I’m just pleased to finally have a recording that does this wonderful songwriter justice. Worm Food is an essential collection for anyone with a social conscience, all the while enchanting and amusing and causing the listener to fall head over heels for its fey creator.

Hugh Armitage

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Priya Thomas
You & Me Against The World Baby ••••
Irl

You & Me Against The World Baby may be the first domestic release from Canadian noisenik Priya Thomas, but it’s actually her fourth album in 10 years back home. Things get off to a rocky start, in both senses of the word, with opener ‘Anything I Want I Can Get Me Some’, a track so generic that you’ll likely be convinced that you’ve heard it before. As loud and raucous as it is formulaic, it may well prove to be something of a live favourite, but here it is fairly forgettable. Fortunately you can do just that if you so desire as the rest of the album reveals a great deal more imagination and talent. That much is clear from just the opening refrains of the deranged and brilliant ‘Motherfucking West’, which, radio-unfriendly title aside, makes for the perfect choice for her first UK single.

Though she rarely strays far from the realms of rock, Thomas demonstrates a far greater range than that particular pigeonhole might at first imply. Her songs are full of enough hooks, melodies and crashing guitar riffs to keep other acts going for several albums. Moving through the trashy sleaze of ‘She Said (Why Were We Born)’ to the pretty pop rock ballad of the title track, Thomas makes damned sure we know what she can do. Perhaps that’s what that first track is all about, almost as if she were saying “sure, I can do this rock-by-numbers stuff if that’s what you want, but wouldn’t you rather have this?”

Wears The Trousers, for one, most certainly would, and with a follow-up album touted for release in the autumn, we won’t have to wait long to see where she’s headed.

Scott Millar

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Linda Thompson
Versatile Heart ••••
Universal Classics

Despite the persistence of the vocal problems which have made both studio recording and live performance a recurrent challenge over the years (and that throughout the ‘90s seemed to have curtailed her career altogether), Linda Thompson has kept herself remarkably busy since the release of her long-awaited and well-received comeback album, Fashionably Late. Guest spots on records by son Teddy Thompson and Rufus Wainwright and appearances at live shows, including the Leonard Cohen ‘Came So Far For Beauty’ tribute concerts and her own evenings of homage to the Music Hall tradition, have allowed Thompson to build on the momentum created by Fashionably Late and to forge a solo identity distinct from her work with ex-husband Richard on the classic albums they made together in the ‘70s and early ‘80s. The excellent Versatile Heart continues her heartening creative renaissance.

In mood, tone and the warmth of its acoustic trappings, the new album feels very much like a companion piece to the last, and continues the strongly collaborative ethos established by its predecessor. Martha Wainwright, accordionist John Kirkpatrick, and Martin and Eliza Carthy all make appearances, alongside Thompson’s daughter Kamila, and, most prominently, son Teddy, who contributes vocals and guitar work and gets co-writing credits across the album. Combining original material with songs by Tom Waits and Rufus Wainwright, and book-ended by two gentle instrumentals entitled ‘Stay Bright’ (a statement of intent if ever there was one), the album feels all of a piece: the songs are united by the palpable love and respect of the players and by Thompson’s own deliciously sepulchral tones.

The delightful title track begins with Kate Rusby-esque brass and moves into a spry acoustic strum that’s immediately inviting. “Will you write me a letter of recommendation?” Thompson inquires of an unworthy lover. “Say what you think, but please don’t stint on the praise.” The line encapsulates the disarming mixture of emotional candour and dry wit that characterises her songwriter and that of Teddy’s. Their lyrics teem with direct but delicately delivered emotional insights. “Nothing’s worth the holding if you can’t let go,” she muses on ‘The Way I Love You’, a stately ballad that pivots on the narrator’s recognition of her own neediness – “Father, brother, son’s too much for any man to do” – and benefits from Martha Wainwright’s lovely harmonies. Other originals such as ‘Blue & Gold, Give Me A Sad Song’ (penned with long-time collaborator Betsy Cook) and ‘Go Home’ are carefully crafted, boasting strong melodies and yielding more and more on each listen, while ‘Do Your Best For Rock ‘N Roll’ – which commences with the wry command “Take me to a bar and leave me there to die” – adds a pleasing dose of country twang to the proceedings. The tense ‘Nice Cars’, written by Kamila (who also contributes fine harmonies), finds the narrator trapped in a broken down vehicle that may or may not stand for a stalled relationship. “Ladies shouldn’t drive nice cars,” Thompson intones. “They’re only gonna break our hearts.”

Two particularly memorable tracks demonstrate Thompson’s special skills of interpretation. Plaintive strings usher in the elegant, Rufus-penned ‘Beauty’, a bespoke composition that offers a timely disquisition on the title concept, with Thompson wondering “Beauty, what is your face? / what has it given the human race? / all that it has given me is a longing for / pople and things I could never afford.” Halfway through the song, Antony Hegarty (who must surely have broken some record or other for the sheer number of guest appearances in the past year) shows up to add his ubiquitous quavering contribution, one that, unfortunately, is already in danger of beginning to sound somewhat phoned-in. It doesn’t help that his cameo occurs on what is arguably the song’s weakest lyrical moment, as Wainwright’s writing breaks the mood of reflection with some jarring references to Oscar Wilde and Michael Jackson. Nonetheless, the song remains one of the most immediately striking tracks on the album. Tom Waits and Kathleen Brennan’s ‘Day After Tomorrow’ also gets an arresting reading; the song is a heart-wrenching letter home from an American soldier fighting in an unspecified foreign war and beautifully juxtaposes the protagonist’s loss of faith in the conflict with nostalgic memories of hometown routine, and his anticipation of homecoming. Thompson’s spare interpretation gives the song the quality of an ancient prayer.

Despite the formidable art-rock credentials of much of the company she’s keeping here, Thompson is certainly unafraid of showing her folk roots, as evidenced by the “fiddle-da-day” flourishes on her biting rendition of the traditional ‘Katie Cruel’ and especially by the original number ‘Whisky, Bob Copper & Me’, a beautiful homage to English folk traditions that namechecks not only the Brit-folk patriarch of the title but also revival luminaries Shirley Collins and Davey Graham. Here (unlike on ‘Beauty’) the name-dropping sounds easy and natural, and as the unmistakable voice of Eliza Carthy swoops in on one of the verses, a host of English traditions seem to come full circle. It’s a sublimely warm and moving moment, one of many on a very fine record. Ultimately, though, it’s the sound of Thompson’s own voice, with its lovely, sincere, grave quality and subtle expressive power, that makes Versatile Heart such a compelling and enjoyable album.

Alex Ramon

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Tracey Thorn
Out Of The Woods •••½
Virgin

Change is as good as a rest, right? Hold that thought.

Those of us not afraid to admit to being of a certain generation have been subject to a glut of nostalgia-pricking TV over the last couple of years; think day-glo clad lads messing about on boats in glossy videos, Casio keyboards and message t-shirts. Where the goggle-box goes, the rest of the world usually follows, so welcome back into the musical fold our Tracey, 50% of Everything But The Girl and the voice that lit up a thousand college bedsits with her solo debut A Distant Shore in 1982. Sterling work with Mr Watt, guest spots with Massive Attack and Deep Dish and three children later, and we have…well, we have a follow-up that could have been written in 1983.

Granted, the production values are better and the stories imbued with the additional spice of experience, but bless her, Ms Thorn has taken her own baton seamlessly and provided us with a 44-minute wallow in yesterday. On first listen I scribbled down the following: “Gary Numan, Kraftwerk, Pet Shop Boys, Eurythmics, Alison Moyet (when she was Alf), sunrise chords from Ibiza circa ’84” – a heady mix and a roll call anyone would be justly proud of. Make no mistake, the sound is derivative for those of us who were ‘there’, but we wouldn’t have it any other way because the music is excellent, the lyrics playful and poignant, and a voice that sounds like coming home to familiar faces after an extended business trip.

Name-dropping Siouxsie Sioux and Edwin Starr, laced with quintessentially English melancholy and pulsating dance beats, Out Of The Woods gets better as it progresses through the attics of Thorn’s mind. The single ‘It’s All True’ is fleeting, all tinny synth (Trevor) horns and a clever, Kraftwerk-lite dance video that drives the simple message home. ‘Hands Up To The Ceiling’ is a beautiful shout out to the music of her youth. The opening piano run on ‘Easy’, reminiscent of Ultravox, blurs swiftly into a couplet Thorn delivers with such restrained anguish you want to make her cocoa: “I love the way you breathe / I hate the day you leave / it’s easy to forget / we haven’t even started yet”.

The highlights are kept almost ’til last in ‘Grand Canyon’ and ‘By Piccadilly Station I Sat Down & Wept’. The former will have you attempting to throw shapes on the living room floor to the stomping beat and mantra “…everybody loves you here”; the latter, all the more delicious for its song title (surely a contender for best of 2007), is 2:27 of break-up song that’s both knowing and innocent at the same time. Finally, on closer ‘Raise The Roof’, when Thorn sings “all of those years I wasted / sitting on my own,” I’m not sure who she thinks she’s fooling; she’s been busy alright, and the results are an early contender for the soundtrack to the summer.

Paul Woodgate

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Holly Throsby
Under The Town •••½
Woo Me!

Sydney-based singer-songwriter Holly Throsby’s second album Under The Town is very much a companion piece to her debut, last year’s spare and beguiling On Night. Produced, like its predecessor, by Tony Dupe, the record once again places Throsby’s hushed, breathy, intimate vocals in a sympathetic acoustic setting, with guitar, dashes of piano, fiddles and a few jazzy touches fleshing out the sound. Even so, Under The Town is a somewhat more consistent and confident album and one that should see Throsby’s star continue to rise on the alt-folk circuit.

Throsby’s songs remain suggestive, delicate and fragmentary; sketches rather than portraits, they allow the listener to fill in the gaps. As with On Night, the tracks are conjured from a palette of recurrent images, allusions and word-sounds. There are lots of cups, lots of animals (dogs and birds are back, joined by rabbits, horses and deer this time), lots of references to youth and winter, as well as quite a bit of driving. But where On Night‘s songs tended to blur into one another, these tracks develop distinctive personalities more rapidly and linger longer in the mind. The title track continues where The Be Good Tanyas left off with a song about dead dogs, opening with the image of an “old hound sleep[ing] in the ground”.

‘Making A Fire’ transports the listener to a wintery location where “the wind and the woods are warring” but companionship offers respite: “I’m here and you’re here / We’re here!”. Indeed, relationships remain the principal thematic focus and Throsby’s songs find reasons for both hope and despair in the interactions between lovers, family and friends. The piano-led ‘On Longing’ is an emotionally complex apology to a lover, while ‘Come Visit’ entertains speculations about the possible outcomes of an invitation before recognising that “maybe you won’t come visit at all”. Elsewhere, ‘Swing On’ accepts both the universality of romantic disappointment and the ability to overcome it, while ‘The Shoulders & Bends’ equates a relationship with the danger, uncertainty and excitement of driving at night. These songs feel slight at times but retain a hypnotic quality and grow in stature with each play.

Throsby can be precious, and, at worst, there’s a somewhat random quality to her imagery, as well as a notable self-consciousness. At her best, though, she can write songs that resemble little journeys with unforeseen twists and turns in the road. Her music has a deceptive gentleness, lulling you into a reverie before pulling you up sharply with a surprising image: when she describes “a new love” as being “as warm as a gun / or a knife that I fell on” (on the excellent ‘What Becomes Of Us’) you realise just how powerful she can be. Such moments make Under The Town an album worthy of attention, particularly for fans of her debut.

Alex Ramon 

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KT Tunstall
Drastic Fantastic •••
Relentless

‘Star’ is the word that springs to mind when first clocking the cover to KT Tunstall’s new album Drastic Fantastic. Framed like a classical interpretation of a constellation, with her face in profile, Tunstall brandishes a mirrored guitar with the same purpose a warrior might hold a sword. For an artist with four million sales under her belt (not to mention a Grammy nomination and a Brits nod in triplicate) such posturing can be forgiven. But does the follow-up to the leviathan Eye To The Telescope justify this confidence? Anyone seeking songs that live up to the anthemic bliss of her Patti Smith tribute ‘Suddenly I See’ won’t find them in the album’s rockier tracks, although lead single ‘Hold On’ comes closest to this buoyant joy. The most memorable moments on Drastic Fantastic are provided by the ballads and the straight-up pop songs.

In the enviable position of enjoying both critical and commercial success, Tunstall is best known for a pop-rock hybrid that recalls Sheryl Crow, and this is never more apparent than on ‘Little Favour’, which kicks off the album with strident guitars and a snarling vocal pertaining to a feral love. The pace is slackened only slightly for ‘If Only’, a break-up song from the point of view of an empowered victim on which the excellent backing band, particularly the backing vocals, and an inspired and obtuse melody disguise the slightly lacklustre lyrics: “If only you could see me now / if only you could hear me now / if only it was only me now”.

Given her involvement with the Fence collective alongside artists such as King Creosote, James Yorkston and Lone Pigeon, and the decidedly folkish lyric of ‘Black Horse & The Cherry Tree’, the breakthrough single from her debut, it’s a surprise that ‘White Bird’ is the only folk-tinged number on this album. Despite being fairly pleasantly delivered, it smacks a little of contractual fulfilment to satisfy those punters who might stick with her simply because of her folk connections and credentials. A particularly affecting inclusion is ‘Funnyman’, a touching, amusing and poignant song written about her friend Gordon Anderson (Lone Pigeon, The Aliens) and his fight with mental illness/demonic possession. This truly heartfelt song is one of the signs that Tunstall has more to her than other mega-selling artists of recent years, balancing perfectly her black humour and concern.

Elsewhere, the songs stick very closely to the credible pop standard, with ‘Saving Face’s “I’m all out of luck / I’m all out of faith… / losing my memory, saving my face” in particular bringing to mind Natalie Imbruglia’s Torn. Then there’s ‘I Don’t Want You Now’, which could easily be a poor Pretenders number, while ‘Someday Soon’ sounds for all the world like a dusted-off Edie Brickell & The New Bohemians track. The meandering ‘Beauty Of Sound’ recalls the chart-friendly end of Tori Amos or recent PJ Harvey, but once again sounds like a calculated attempt to satisfy yet another subgroup of her potential audience. The standout tracks are those where Tunstall find her own voice, as she does on ‘Hold On’. ‘Hopeless’ is a jaunty pop number pitched somewhere between Aimee Mann and Chrissie Hynde, which is no bad place to be (although not quite as good as that sounds), while the closer ‘Paper Aeroplane’, is perhaps the best track of the album: a radio-friendly, idiosyncratic and touching ballad.

Tunstall continues to stand astride the Radio 1 and 2 playlists – the pillars of UK music output – like a Scottish colossus, and in the US these tracks should provide the perfect accompaniment to teen break-ups in California and tough medical decisions in Seattle. Gargantuan sales for Drastic Fantastic seem guaranteed. However, for all its accomplishment and polished pop-rock, the album sits too comfortably among the mainstream, occasionally slipping into trite pop conventions and anodyne lyrical construction. Someone with Tunstall’s background, knowledge and charm can surely do better. Perhaps next time she will not play it so safe.

Peter Hayward