wears the trousers magazine


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

 

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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

 



2007 reviews dump: u v w

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

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Uncle Earl
Waterloo Tennessee ••••
Rounder

If you are searching for a single word to describe Uncle Earl then ‘energy’ wouldn’t be a bad place to start. Close in the running would be ‘harmony’, and ‘integrity’. From the opening notes of ‘Black-Eyed Susie’ it’s apparent that this girl-group is something special. Theirs isn’t the usual Girls Aloud world of push-up bras, thongs and stumbling out of the Ivy at two in the morning. The g’Earls’ muse is somewhat more authentic. They’re practically a next-gen bluegrass supergroup, bringing together the fiddle of Rayna Gellert and guitar/mandolin talents of KC Groves with Abigail Washburn’s banjo and the guitar, fiddle and feet (yes, feet!) of renowned clog dancer, Kristin Andreassen. Individually, any one of these four accomplished musicians could command respect and admiration from their listeners. In combination, the effect is nothing short of awe-inspiring and, for that matter, foot-tapping too.

On this album all four further show their versatility by sharing vocal duties, and such is their understanding of the music that modern originals rest seamlessly alongside traditional tunes. And of course all of this is cosseted in the foursome’s glorious vocal harmonies. Bluegrass and old-time music hasn’t loomed large in the public consciousness since the year 2000 when the ‘O Brother, Where Art Thou?’ soundtrack made it temporarily flavour of the month. Uncle Earl are here to remind us just what we’ve been missing. In Waterloo Tennessee we encounter all kinds, from the infectious dance tunes of ‘Wish I Had My Time Again’ to tender folk ballads like ‘My Little Carpenter’ and ‘My Epitaph’. The performances are beautifully captured by the production skills of former Led Zeppelin bassist John Paul Jones, which present a smooth and accessible sound that still preserves the energy, honesty and rawness that brings this type of music alive.

If you’ve never given bluegrass or old-time music a chance up ‘til now, there couldn’t be a better introduction than Waterloo Tennessee, surely one of the most joyous and infectious albums you’ll hear in 2007. Better still, catch the g’Earls live the next time they grace these shores. You won’t regret it. You might even agree with Wears The Trousers that the time is finally ripe for a good ol’ British bluegrass revival. Preach it, sisters.

Trevor Raggatt

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Laura Veirs
Saltbreakers ••••
Nonesuch

Nature girl Laura Veirs continues to move through the elemental album cycle she’s engrossed in. After paying her tribute to fire, earth and sky, Veirs arrives at the seaside with her sixth album Saltbreakers. As well as the by now customary change of theme, it also represents a move away from the singer-songwriter feel and into a more spectral sound that’s very much en vogue. This is shown most evidently on the light touch of the Feist-like ‘Pink Light’, where Veirs sounds as if she’s dancing on air as she sings, and on ‘Don’t Lose Yourself’ where she shows Imogen Heap just how to pull off the trick she’s been attempting for a while now.

The whole album is beautifully played, constructed and sung, and is by far her best work to date, something that, at this far into a career, is a great achievement. There are plenty of deft touches to keep enough variation within the album to retain your avid attention. ‘Ocean Night Song’ sounds like Kate Bush adrift in the Orient, ‘Drink Deep’ is a dreamlike waltz and ‘Nightingale’ is wonderful slumber pop that rouses itself now and again with gentle brushed drums and northern sounding horns.

A little call-and-response vocal play works well on a brace of tracks. The juxtaposition of her singing the single word of the title track and being met with a wordy response that barely squeezes into the line is delightful. ‘To The Country’ simplifies the trick, but using a choral response means it’s no less effective. Two other tracks are worthy of a mention – the upbeat ‘Phantom Mountain’ which is as feisty as Juliana Hatfield and the gorgeous acoustic closing number, ‘Wrecking’.

This is a marvellous album – Veirs’s best to date in fact – and more than worth its salt.

Russell Barker

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Kate Voegele
Don’t Look Away ••••
MySpace Records

Jimmy Wales, whose foundation of Wikipedia effectively gave birth to the oft-analysed phenomenon of Web 2.0, famously said, “we make the Web not suck”. Bear with those syntactically mangled words for a moment; Web 2.0 truly is a modern social leveller, a global forum where the talented, dumb and downright insane all have equal access to public consciousness. It is this equality of access that led to the foundation of MySpace Records, a label that aims to find the newest musical talent on the web via MySpace’s overwhelmingly popular personal profiling site. To date its best achievement has been to sign Ohio-based singer-songwriter Kate Voegele.

A 21-year old Art Education student who quotes her influences as Eric Clapton, Jeff Buckley and Joni Mitchell – among others – Voegele is proof that for all the Web’s inanities it can still uncover some truly phenomenal talent. Voegele’s debut album, Don’t Look Away, is a comprehensive showcase of her impressive skills as a singer-songwriter and maybe – hopefully – the start of a long career. Dominated by a belting voice clearly influenced by Sheryl Crow, Voegele’s music takes in genres as varied as solid rock set pieces (‘Chicago’), Hammond-laden gospel blues fusion (‘Devil In Me’) and refreshingly simple guitar pop (‘Might Have Been’), an eclecticism so wide ranging as to be remarkable for such a young artist.

In addition to its range of genres, the album’s emotional range is also notable; ‘Might Have Been’, a funky rock piece with a stadium-friendly appeal and classic sounding guitar riffs, could have come straight from T in the Park and is typical of Voegele’s harder-edged work. At the softer end of the scale, ‘It’s Only Life’, which delicately combines a piano and glockenspiel ballad melody with a seemingly incongruous rock percussion, is Voegele’s nod to Joni Mitchell’s influence. Similarly, ‘Wish You Were Here’ enables Voegele to tackle a mature and deeply poetic country song with the sophistication of kd lang and the passion of 1960s Dusty Springfield. Clearly, this girl doesn’t want to be tied to any one genre, or to be compared with any one artist.

The most powerful piece on the album belies Voegele’s understated yet clear passion for her Christian musical heritage (her father, Will, is a prolific writer of modern Christian music). ‘Kindly Unspoken’, a theatrical combination of gospel-style piano riffs and Voegele’s vocal power, clearly takes its influence from hymnal music and is by far the most sophisticated of her work. Reminiscent of LeAnn Rimes at her best, it is further proof, were any needed, that Voegele’s talent is primal, compelling and astonishing.

All of which brings us back to Jimmy Wales’s assertion about Web 2.0; Kate Voegele is one of those rare products of the Web that serve to make it “not suck”. It is probably too much to expect many more artists of her quality to appear in the near future; for now Don’t Look Away sounds like reasonable advice to anyone interested in Voegele’s debut.

Andy Wasley

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Lucy Wainwright Roche
8 Songs EP •••½
Self-released

If musical talent is hereditary, Lucy Wainwright Roche is a lucky girl indeed; she is the daughter of Suzzy Roche, herself a member of a musical family, and Loudon Wainwright III – humourist, actor, singer-songwriter and progenitor of yet more musical magnificence in the form of the absurdly talented siblings Martha and Rufus Wainwright. Blessed with such a musical family, it should hardly be surprising that Lucy would eventually add her own voice to the melodic clamour.

Readers familiar with Roche’s family and its members’ various, often theatrical, musical styles will be surprised by the simplicity of 8 Songs, her debut EP. Roche has opted for a simple collection of guitar-and-voice songs whose influences vary from traditional Scots ballads to modern folk-rock. The traditional side is well represented by the beautiful Scots ballad ‘Wild Mountain Thyme’. Ranging from a husky alto to a soaring soprano, Roche’s crystal-clear voice sweetly encapsulates the song’s yearning for the ancient magnificence of heather-clad mountains and youthful adventures. The EP’s second traditional ballad, the oft-interpreted ‘Barb’ry Allen’, proves to be a perfect opportunity for Roche to show off her emotive voice a cappella as she laments the song’s lovelorn characters with faultless, ethereal clarity.

For the modern songs, Roche has selected four of her own creations and two covers. Her ballad ‘Long Before’ is a lovely blend of rich vocals and poetic lyrics, while the more sophisticated ‘Bridge’ provides her with an opportunity to demonstrate the breadth of her voice’s emotional quality, sweeping effortlessly from a breathy storytelling intensity to a brighter and more melodic chorus. Fleetwood Mac’s ’80s classic ‘Everywhere’ receives an interesting reinterpretation, while ‘Next Best Western’, Richard Shindell’s hymnal tribute to the faith and hope of travellers, is perhaps the album’s best song.

All that said, 8 Songs is not without its faults. In attempting to find a unique style, Roche occasionally over-embellishes her voice with harmonic or counter-melodic layers. A lesser singer could make great use of such techniques, but in Roche’s case they simply detract from her voice’s elegance. ‘Rather Go’, beset by needless enharmonic layers and a weak melody, does little to showcase her talents.

Although Roche has shunned the histrionics present throughout her family’s various styles, her album is familiar Wainwright stuff – rich, intense and beautiful. Reminiscent of smoky fireside singalongs, 8 Songs marks the entry of a new force in modern folk. Keep an eye on her – if this short collection proves one thing, it’s that Roche is just getting started.

Andy Wasley

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Dinah Washington
Evil Gal: The Imperious Dinah Washington ••••
El

In case you’re wondering whether the world really needs yet another knock-off ‘best of’ collection from jazz icon Dinah Washington – and let’s face it, there really is no shortage of shoddily compiled releases – set your mind at ease for Evil Gal is different. For a start there’s not a single one of her signature tunes; no ‘Mad About The Boy’, no ‘Unforgettable’, no ‘Call Me Irresponsible’…not even ‘What A Difference A Day Makes’ rears its sumptuous head. Panic not, however, for straying from the well-beaten path proves much more rewarding than you’d expect.

Mining her later career, Evil Gal finds Washington in her 1950s incarnation, performing with smaller jazz combos rather than the large swing bands of Lionel Hampton and the like. Sitting squarely in the happy transition period between big band schmaltz, we find Dinah comfortably among piano and rich Hammond organ riffs with horns providing solo counterpoint, an endearing blend of soft bebop and distinct doo-wop influences in her vocal. Whatever the style, the constant is the quality of Washington’s singing, and one thing’s for sure – there isn’t a single duff track to be found.

Even the quirkier pieces of fluff such as ‘One Arabian Night’ (“don’t rub your eyes / that’s no surprise / it’s a real-life camel in my garage”) or ‘TV Is The Thing This Year’ (channel surfing never sounded sexier!) have a charm that earns their place. However, the highlights are the standards scattered across the album – ‘Our Love Is Here To Stay’, ‘Blue Gardenia’, a great live version of ‘I’ve Got You Under My Skin’ and the truly imperious eight minutes of ‘A Foggy Day In London Town’ where the Queen of the Blues trades licks and lines with piano, trumpet, double bass and sax.

It’s not for nothing that Dinah Washington is considered to be one of the greatest voices of the 20th century (and a great loss to music at only 39 years of age). The quality of the transfers throughout is outstanding, particularly considering these recordings are 50 years old. Other compilations may have more well known songs but Evil Gal is still a great introduction to an amazing singer who, alongside the likes of Ella Fitzgerald and Billie Holliday, was a Girl Power heroine decades before Geri pulled on her Union Jack mini-dress. A sister doing it for herself indeed.

Trevor Raggatt

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Beth Waters
This Little Piggy ••••
Mermaid Mafia

I must confess that it took me a little while to get into Beth Waters third album, This Little Piggy…a full 39 seconds to be precise because that’s when, after the brooding, unsettling opening of ‘White Dogs In The Moonlight’, the first of Waters’s gloriously luminous choruses kicks in. From that point on this reviewer was sold on this uplifting album. Whether it’s self-realisation, commitment phobia, escaping from an abusive home or the road to self-destruction, Waters infuses her subject matter with rays of musical hope. And it’s this ability to lift the song with an infectious singalong chorus that raises Waters above your average introspective singer-songwriter.

Across the 10 original numbers the standard of songwriting is uniformly high and ably matched by the musical presentation and the quality of the vocals. Stylistically, This Little Piggy is a diverse collection with audible influences ranging from the likes of Sarah McLachlan and Gemma Hayes to The Barenaked Ladies and, in one instance, Latin beats. This shouldn’t be taken as indicating a lack of coherence or a butterfly mind. Rather, each song is linked through the silky and sensuous sound of Waters’s voice and the production, which subtly merges traditional keyboards and rhythm section with well-placed electronica.

The songs on This Little Piggy mix immediately accessible melodies and multilayered complexity which rewards repeated listening and deeper investigation. One could use expressions such as ‘mature’, ‘adult’ or ‘sophisticated’. but somehow that fails to capture the mixture of intelligence and enjoyment this collection grants the listener or their simultaneously intimate and cinematic scope. Previous Waters tunes have been picked up for TV soundtracks and one could imagine any number of these being used for the wistful section at the end of an episode of ‘Gray’s Anatomy’ where Meredith gazes out a rain-drenched window wondering if she ever will get her Doctor McDreamy.

Waters chooses to close the album with a couple of delightful curveballs. ‘Afraid Of Love’ mixes lyrics exploring the dilemmas of love with a lounge bar bossa nova and cannot fail to raise a smile. What could have been a taste faux pas is instead a catchy tour de force. She follows this with a beautifully downbeat cover of Paul Simon’s ‘Slip Slidin’ Away’, which eases the album to a mellow conclusion. One thing’s sure, if This Little Piggy reflects the kind of output that we can expect from songwriters in 2007, the bad news for the competition is that Beth Waters has already set the bar perilously high.

Trevor Raggatt

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Simone White
I Am The Man •••
Honest Jon’s

Advertisers’ obsession with alternative folk music has become almost a cliché. First it was mobile phone ads taking up Vashti Bunyan and Devendra Banhart, but the past couple of years have seen left-of-centre folk whimsy deployed on commercials for everything from perfume to banks to televisions, and now cars. You’d recognise Simone White’s ‘Beep Beep Song’ instantly from the Audi commercial, it goes “Beep beep beep beep beep beep beep go the horns in the cars in the street / we walked away from the lovers leap”. If this pleasing snippet has piqued your interest, before you jump into your hatchback to rush to the nearest record shop, have a read of this review.

The 13 tracks on Simone White’s sophomore album are a collection of intimate minimal torch-song folk. With simple guitars, sparse percussion and sparing use of other instruments, White’s voice is the star of the show. On the opening track ‘I Didn’t Have a Summer Romance’, the vocal is pure liquid autumn sunshine. A song as gently delightful as can be, it’s a wistful take on the old saying that it’s better to have loved and lost than never to have loved at all. The instrumentation, while slight, is pleasingly part jangly folk and part jazz. Warm trumpets close out the song and lead into a gentle brushed cymbal percussion of ‘Worm Was Wood’, the lyrics of which are jarringly, studiedly weird. “Worm was wood / the snail was an ocelot” smacks of trying a bit to hard to be quirky, although kudos to Simone for shoehorning an ocelot into a song.

While the instrumentation and production are pretty much faultless throughout the album, the songs themselves do occasionally leave a little to be desired. From the aforementioned studied weirdness to the almost trite Bush-bashing dissent of ‘The American War’ and clunky anti-capitalism sentiment of ‘Great Imperialist State’ (sample lyric: “I cannot kill my meat nor grow the food upon my plate / I’ve never walked a mile to the well”. The mawkish expression of this song combined with the overly anguished strained voice is, and it pains me to say this, reminiscent of Dido.

Fortunately, for the most part, the intimate vocals are more akin to those of Hem’s Sally Ellyson, Kathryn Williams or even, on the more affected occasions, Stina Nordenstam. However, the songwriting lacks the finesse of any of these acts and the undoubted vocal talent seems wasted on tracks such as ‘Sweetest Love Song’ and ‘Only The Moon’, on which White tells us that the “the one I love is like the moon, unattainable”, which are lyrically and musically trite. It’s a shame, because some tracks, the aforementioned ‘I Didn’t Have a Summer Romance’ and the delicately jazzy ‘Mary Jane’ hint at a talent for storytelling that is otherwise untapped. And the title track, which closes the album, far more ably achieves what ‘Great Imperialist State’ failed to do when she proclaims, “In my own government I am the president”.

The heartening twilight-folk of I Am The Man should be perfect listening for long winter evenings by the fire with a loved one or for reminisces about the summer over a bourbon in a dimly lit bar. When you scratch beneath the surface some of the songs are lacking in substance, but the ambience created by White’s vocal and the excellent musicianship pull the record through.

Peter Hayward

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Fiona Wight
The Last Rose •••½
Renaissance

You could be forgiven for thinking that Fiona Wight hailed from deepest Donegal. That’s not the case, but this maid of Kent does have twin streams of music and the Celtic spirit running through her engine. And, though The Last Rose is strictly her debut album, she already has an impressive career tucked in her back pocket. Twice heralded as Choirgirl of the Year, best-selling classical soloist, featured singer with Irish chamber choir Anúna and first-call lead vocalist for the UK Riverdance company: the music on The Last Rose reflects all of these experiences.

The dozen songs on the album take in traditional folk tunes, songs by respected modern Celtic composers and tracks co-written with Riverdance musical director Cathal Synnott. The arrangements range from the sparse to the sumptuous, couched in both classical and traditional instrumentation. However, the spotlight remains on Wight’s stunning soprano. Like the music, Wight’s voice forms a perfect bridge between classical, traditional and modern. Possessed of a crystalline beauty and controlled poise, it rises to the challenge of the classical aria ‘Ave Maria’ – albeit presented backed by Celtic harp. However, it contains none of the affectations that can make the bel canto such a struggle for the casual classical listener. Wight’s approach is rather more straightforward; for all her impeccable technique the angelic qualities of her voice betray an emotional honesty so often missing from the classically trained.

Always, the voice is the focus for the listener – whether exposed on the Celtic breeze (‘My Lagan Love’) or wrapped in Synnott’s luscious string arrangements (‘A Blessing’). Each song orbits around a Celtic gravitational centre with whistle, uilleann pipes and harp never too far away, but occasionally Wight throws in some pleasing twists from the world music palette. Even that most British of traditional tunes, ‘She Moves Through The Fair’, gets a new lease of life, transported to a sultry and ominous Seville, dripping with Moorish sensuality as Cora Venus Lunny’s violin weaves a heady gypsy melody around the vocal. Olé indeed! Assured as it is, The Last Rose is thoroughly entrancing. A rare and delicate blossom.

Trevor Raggatt

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Lucinda Williams
West •••
Lost Highway

And so the woman with the voice that Emmylou Harris memorably described as capable of “peeling the chrome off a trailer hitch” returns with her eighth studio album. After years of lengthy gaps between recordings, Williams has become positively prolific since the release of 1998’s classic Car Wheels On A Gravel Road (recently given the Deluxe Edition double-disc treatment), putting out Essence, World Without Tears and Live @ The Fillmore to ever increasing amounts of critical acclaim. For production duties on West she’s roped in Hal Willner, best known for his work with the likes of Lou Reed and Marianne Faithfull, whose bruised 1987 album Strange Weather has been an avowed influence on some of Williams’s recent music. (Indeed, at times Williams seems intent on turning herself into a Faithfull of the South, a weather-beaten, down-but-not-out ‘survivor’).

Willner’s presence has led some critics to describe the new album as an exercise in experimentation, and it’s certainly true that Williams is continuing to move away from the country/folk/blues-infused sounds of her earliest work into ambient rock territory. But, to these ears at least, West sounds less like an experimental record than a synthesis of her post-Car Wheels… output, favouring atmosphere over narrative, the ‘universal’ over the rooted and specific. And, unfortunately, like much of her recent work, the album fails to entirely cohere.

Backed by a sturdy group of musicians (Jenny Scheinman’s violin-playing is particularly noteworthy), including regular collaborators Doug Pettibone (guitars) and Jim Keltner (drums/percussion), Williams traverses (overly) familiar thematic territory throughout West, focusing upon love, lust and loss, travel, time and memory. Opener ‘Are You Alright?’ finds her at her most seductive and accessible, building an infectious melody around a series of heartfelt pleas to hear from an errant lover. Though marred by trite lyrics, the jaunty ‘Learning How To Live’ is a more optimistic, less self-pitying break-up song than we’ve come to expect from her, tempering its regret with a healthy dose of country stoicism and the resolve to “make the most of what you left me with”.

Elsewhere, ‘Fancy Funeral’ could be a sombre companion piece to Kate Campbell’s wry song ‘Funeral Food’, with Williams offering a similarly critical analysis of Southern traditions and a gentle reminder that “no amount of rituals will bring back what you’ve lost”. The fierce ‘Come On’ (a cousin of World Without Tears‘s scabrous ‘Atonement’) features a searing electric guitar part perfectly in sync with Williams’s scary vocal and allows her to fulfil her post-Car Wheels… criteria of including one expletive per album. Finally, the title track closes proceedings on a truly gorgeous note of expectation. Perhaps reflecting Williams’s optimism about her recent engagement, the song is an elegant invitation to a lover that manages to convey both the joy at the opportunity offered by a new relationship and a mature acceptance of its probable transience: “Come out west and see… / I know you won’t stay permanently / But come out west and see”.

In between, however, there are more than a few places in which West goes south. ‘Mama You Sweet’, ostensibly about the death of Williams’s mother, gets bogged down in would-be poetic imagery, while ‘Unsuffer Me’ is a slightly embarrassing litany of desires featuring the torturous (and grammatically questionable) command “unbound my feet”. ‘Rescue’ flirts feebly with Beth Orton, and the wretched ‘What If’ proffers a sequence of asinine speculations about a world in which “dogs became kings” and “birds had bank accounts”. ‘Wrap My Head Around That’ is even weaker, a dour inventory of complaints every bit as awkward as its title and stretched out over an excruciating nine minutes. After the similarly unconvincing ‘American Dream’ on World Without Tears, what Williams really needs is a producer brave enough to tell her that rapping might not be such a great idea.

Listening to these tracks, it’s hard not to feel that the increased speed of her output has resulted in an associated dip in quality, for, ever since Essence, the detailed, narrative elements of her songs have been replaced by more general statements, sometimes of a rather banal nature. Most problematic of all is her tendency to use a similar compositional style; in too many places on West she falls back on repetitious listing song structures that suggest she’s been bitten by the Alanis Morissette bug. Those who make inflated claims for Williams as a great lyricist – a Faulkner or Welty of song – will have their work cut out trying to defend the repetitive structures employed throughout, not to mention some decidedly dodgy rhymes (“eyes” and “guys”, “kid” and “did”, “danger” and “stranger”, “gum” and, er, “bum”). What’s missing is the rich, vivid detail that characterised her earlier slice-of-Southern-life songs such as ‘The Night’s Too Long’ and ‘Car Wheels On A Gravel Road’. There’s no “smell of coffee, eggs and bacon”, no “Loretta singing on the radio” here.

With the lyrics tending toward the uninspired, it’s left up to Williams’s vocals to add complexity and nuance. Blessed with one of the most instantly recognisable voices in contemporary music, she sounds less mannered than of late here, and her elegantly weary slurring and snarling commands your attention even when the words let her down. While Williams’s intention to shake off the traditional roots music shackles is admirable, it’s a shame that she insists upon straying into areas in which she seems less than comfortable. Nonetheless, despite its shortcomings, West is a warmer, less abrasive album than World Without Tears and one that features some strong material.

Alex Ramon

 



2005/06 reviews dump: d

The following reviews were all published on our old website between May 2005 and December 2006.
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Catherine Anne Davies
Songs For The Boy Who Wouldn’t Read Rilke EP •••
Self-released

If an artist’s output can truly be taken as an expression of their psychological landscape, the furnishings inside Ms Davies’s head may be lush and velvet but they are certainly deep crimson and black. Songs For The Boy Who Wouldn’t Read Rilke is the second of a pair of limited edition EPs from the London-based singer who recently signed to the humorously named Folkwit stable. Hers is a dark muse, embroiled in swirling currents of brooding mystery. Like its predecessor Long Day, much of the music found on ...Rilke is reminiscent of the more sombre and sepulchral elements of goth-folkies All About Eve. On a soft cushion of acoustic guitars blended with echo-drenched piano and heady flourishes of cello, Davies’s mournful vocals intone the agonies of the less illuminated reaches of the human soul, the pain of a blues singer’s Weltschmerz filtered through the spyglass of a gothic spirit; these are deeply affecting tone poems.

‘The Heart Is A Lonesome Hunter’ drips with loss and regret, with Davies’s sparse piano joining plaintive cello and acoustic guitar as the intensity racks up before the song inches toward its slow and exquisite petit mort. ‘Bury Me’ explores love both unattained and unattainable, the richness of Davies’s vocal perfectly conveying the song’s emotion, sweeping up to a pure but fleeting ecstasy on the higher ranges. At first, ‘Crave’ appears to set the sepulchral tone aside with its gentle chiming introduction, but the dissonant vocal lines soon drag us back to the realisation that perhaps all is not quite right with the world. The track also allows Davies to flex her multi-instrumentalist muscles as she drifts subtle flute lines over the refrain as if to mock the intensity below. Closing number ‘It’ll Get Said’ begins with a slow, twisted variation on what could possibly be the James Bond theme, but the mood is ripped apart by squalling, distorted electric guitar. At certain points, Davies sounds uncannily like All About Eve’s Julianne Regan, while the guitar sounds recall those of the band’s Tim Bricheno.

Both the Long Day and …Rilke EPs come dressed in sumptuous, handmade paper jackets fastened with dusky wine-coloured ribbon – the product of the auteur’s own porcelain-fair hand. This deeply romantic yet somehow archaic dressing is completely appropriate for the music that lies within its embrace. And while the songs work well within the EP format, if their appeal is to last the distance of a full-length album, more dynamics and light/shade interplay is needed. As it is, this short-form offering provides a deeply lush landscape in which the listener can totally immerse themselves. Those who have a nervous disposition need not enquire within, but for listeners whose hearts are made of darker, sterner stuff, there is much here to admire.

Trevor Raggatt
originally published March 25th, 2006 

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Kimya Dawson
Remember That I Love You •••½ 
K Records

Sometimes she’s your best friend cooing softly into your ear; sometimes she’s a street loon babbling on while you nervously back away; both stand-up comedienne and tragic heroine, on-hiatus Moldy Peach Kimya Dawson comes at you uncensored and unapologetic. Certainly, she doesn’t flinch at penning lyrics that other artists might shy away from for being too extreme, too brazenly political and – particularly here on her fifth solo record in four years – a little too close to home.

‘My Mom’ is a deeply personal and affecting song that sounds like a diary transcript – you almost feel guilty for listening, earwigging on her private thoughts. There is something entirely childlike about Dawson’s description of her mother’s illness that conveys how difficult it is to deal with the sickness and impending death of a parent, regardless of our age. Such events bring out the bewildered child within everyone, and it’s this child that sings “And there’s something in her blood / and there’s something in her leg / and there’s something in her brain / my mom’s sick, she’s in a hospital bed”. This topic recurs elsewhere on the record; on ‘Caving In’, Dawson attempts to imagine the death of her mother and the subsequent dissolution of her family in an attempt to cope better when the event arrives.

Dawson’s interest in personal tragedy is not a self-involved one, however; on ‘12.26′ the view expands and Kimya places herself in the shoes, or the bare feet, of a tsunami survivor who has lost literally everything. The song is a heartfelt elegy that analyses the world-wide response to the 2004 Boxing Day disaster and damns American complacency and selfishness: “We’d have 12.26 tattooed across our foreheads / If something this atrocious happened on our coast instead.” Remember That I Love You may be a rough, ramshackle and underproduced record, but somehow any other production style would seem entirely wrong. The lo-fi homemade quality is intrinsic to the Kimya Dawson ethos; on ‘Loose Lips’, when a whole host of voices join Kimya for the chorus, it matters less that some of them are out of time than that they sound like a gang of friends having a good time. Technical virtuosity is not the point; besides, the lyrics take centre stage to their musical base – consistently her trusty acoustic guitar.

Occasionally, the album makes for frustrating listening. When ‘I Like Giants’ turns into a paean to a friend of Kimya’s called Geneviève, if you don’t know who that is (and I don’t) it can feel like you’re on the outside of a private joke, or listening in on banter that goes over your head. But on the whole this is a very charming album, and this is the only place on the record where witty irreverent humour becomes irksome silliness. For better or worse, Kimya Dawson is unafraid to pour her heart onto the page and for that she should be saluted. Remember That I Love You veers from political idealism (when Kimya rails against George Bush on ‘Loose Lips’) to surreal humour and truly affecting personal revelations, often in the course of one song, but its voice is always honest and brave. This is an empathetic, comforting record whose aims are summed up in the lyrics of ‘Competition’: “Different voices, different tones / All saying that we’re not alone.”

Danny Weddup
originally published June 5th, 2006 

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Deerhoof
The Runners Four ••••
ATP

More than almost any other band you care to mention, Deerhoof take an obvious, unfettered joy in what they do. In a career spanning over a decade, the band have applied a particle condenser to pop and noise forms, creating albums populated by dense song-nuggets that turn so many corners, throw so many shapes and spit out so many ideas that one wonders what some of their peers do all day. Take ‘Running Thoughts’ from this latest opus; after a jangly cycle down a ‘60s country lane, the wheels abruptly come off and the tune dissolves into humming keyboard drones overlaid with spooky, fried guitarwork. That this is Deerhoof’s most focused and cohesive, even straightforward, effort thus far gives an idea of the fractured sensibilities on offer.

It’s undoubtedly true that a more stable line-up in recent years has tamed the wilder fringes of the group’s approach; formed in 1994 by the only constant member, drummer Greg Saunier, Deerhoof’s revolving line-up has settled around Saunier, bassist/vocalist Satomi Matsuzaki and guitarists John Dietrich and Chris Cohen. With this new constancy have come albums such as 2004’s Milk Man – a concept album about an evil milkman who kidnaps children and hides them in the clouds – that have eased up on their wilder tendencies in favour of heavily skewed guitar pop laced with a sugary sweetness and gnarly crunch. Both have always been important facets of their sound, but with less of a ten-cats-and-a-firework-in-a-sack approach, the music of Deerhoof has become more assured and less unpredictably dizzying.

The Runners Four continues this trajectory, and there’s an immediate inkling that Deerhoof are consciously developing. There are 20 songs and 57 minutes here, nearly twice the white-dwarf density of any of their previous efforts. But the way the guitars circle and shimmer around Satomi’s candy-cloud vocal on the beatless opener, ‘Chatterboxes’, serve to allay fears of any newfound flabbiness. By the time the lumbering groove and sunny ‘60s pop sheen of the ensuing ‘Twin Killers’ and aforementioned ‘Running Thoughts’ have gone by, it’s becoming obvious that whatever their new modus operandum may be, the band are more than comfortable with it.

Funnily enough, given their burgeoning fascination with the flowerier reaches of 1960s music and Satomi’s airy vocal style, it’s only when singing duties are shared by the, er, stags that the sweetness of their sound starts to grate. ‘You Can See’ and ‘Odyssey’ are the worst offenders, the latter saved somewhat by slyly needling harmonics. Elsewhere though, along with a couple of trademark sugar-rush songlets, are some of Deerhoof’s finest moments. ‘Siriustar’ is the trad indie quiet/loud dynamic rewritten by Willy Wonka, surging from not a lot to technicolour fuzzout with a cute smile and a chocolate kiss. ‘You’re Our Two’ raids the sharps cabinet once more to set Satomi’s paranoiac vocal against multiple stinging guitar lines, and the closing ‘RRRRRRight’ is a chipper, garagey adieu.

Describing Deerhoof is a bit like nailing jelly anyway, which is one of the things that makes them so unique. All you need to know is that you should go and buy this album and listen to it lots, because it’s really good. Couldn’t be simpler.

Adam Smith
originally published December 19th, 2005 

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Dévics
Push The Heart ••••
Bella Union

In the five years since signing to Brit indie label Bella Union, Sara Lov and Dustin O’Halloran have produced two highly-rated albums – 2001’s My Beautiful Sinking Ship and 2003’s heavenly The Stars At Saint Andrea – both of which marked a clear shift away from their earlier, more post-rock oriented self-released efforts. Calmly melding a variety of influences, the Dévics were showered with plaudits from critics and fellow musicians alike, partly because of their refusal to easily conform to any particular rulebook. Their commitment to maintain this very special brand of elusiveness led the twosome (without their formerly full-time members Ed Maxwell and Evan Schnabel) to relocate to a farmhouse hidden deep in rural Italy where they moved into their current lush and wistful sound space, a dreamy and atmospheric terrain with folk-rock influences and frequent overtones of cabaret melancholy.

Third album Push The Heart is, emotionally at least, a more straightforward affair than The Stars At Saint Andrea. The songs are simpler and more direct, with less emphasis on the smoky, late-night bar ethos that drew sideways comparisons with Portishead, or perhaps Beth Orton via Goldfrapp, and more on an overall sense of bittersweet reflection. What the Dévics do share with the likes of Portishead and Goldfrapp is a fine sense of structure and technology-led production in spades. In fact, the production (which by all accounts was a slightly disjointed affair) almost threatens the album’s credibility, but is too carefully stewarded by O’Halloran to really overwhelm; when the melodies are this sweet and Lov’s tender voice even sweeter still, it’s impossible to avoid getting pleasantly lost in some of the loveliest moments, particularly on the album’s central triptych of ‘Song For A Sleeping Girl’, ‘Distant Radio’ and ‘Just One Breath’ (all of which first appeared on last year’s exquisite Distant Radio EP).

Lyrically, the album is accessible and engaging, playful yet plaintive. Lov’s doeeyed yearnings on album opener ‘Lie To Me’ and the charming ‘Secret Message To You’, which concerns the futile construction of a boat from too few parts to bring her love back, are inspired and give the songs a depth far beyond her pretty voice. And it would certainly be remiss of me not to point out that it is a very pretty voice indeed, whether she’s singing softly into a mic with her eyes to the floor, or opening up and expanding to cover whatever sonic bed O’Halloran constructs for her. More a request than a gripe, but it would be nice to hear a few more tracks along the lines of the latter in future. O’Halloran’s balanced, reassuring voice adds a warm and comforting counterpoint on just two of the tracks – the aforementioned ‘Song For A Sleeping Girl’ and the also excellent ‘If We Cannot See’, which comes closer to lighters-aloft anthem territory than anything they’ve done in the past.

The Dévics are unlikely to fill our stadiums just yet though, and in truth I doubt they would want to. But Push The Heart can only help their cause and win them new fans looking for something fresh and convincing to see in the spring. More power to them.

Pete Morrow
originally published March 21st, 2006 

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Tina Dico
In The Red •••
Finest Gramophone

You can’t deny the popularity of Tina Dico in her homeland of Denmark. When the domestic version of In The Red hit the streets last July, it slotted in at the top of the charts, outselling the likes of Coldplay and U2. Dico (or Dickow if you’re Danish) herself was up for consideration in three categories at the 2006 Danish Music Awards; but is ‘big in Copenhagen’ like ‘big in Japan’ or can she cut it in the crowded international pop market? Though she’s better known in the UK as a vocalist for chillout maestros Zero 7, she no doubt hopes that In The Red will bring her recognition in her own right. Certainly, the overall impression of the album is of a perfectly respectable piece of Scando-pop, with darker, more brooding overtones than the likes of Norway’s Lene Marlin or Sweden’s Sophie Zelmani. But the sticking point here is a noticeable lack of spark to elevate the songs above the realms of the mundane.

Credit where it’s due though – the production is excellent. Chris Potter, who’s better known for his work on The Verve’s Urban Hymns, clearly knows his way around a mixing desk and, comparing the UK release with the Danish original, it seems that some additional remixing has been done over the autumn to prepare for its wider release. The songs are skilfully layered with lush samples, strings and orchestral instrumentation, all adding up to a luxuriant aural vista. Dico’s voice is strong and carries the melodies well, sometimes cracking attractively on the quieter, more emotional sections. Again, nothing to fault here, and when aligned with better material it makes for an effective mix. There’s no doubt that there is a good deal of talent here, although Dico’s Gen-X couldn’t-care-less delivery occasionally grates, particularly on the otherwise enjoyable ‘Nobody’s Man’. Likewise, the title track slips beneath the surface from languorous to simply dragging its heels and ‘Use Me’ seems just a little too ponderous.

Perhaps the most disappointing thing is that there are some excellent songs scattered among the album’s more average fare. Had all the tracks been of the same standard, In The Red would be a significantly more involving album. ‘Losing’ sets the disc off to an encouraging start with its big Beatles-esque choruses evoking Tears For Fears in ‘Sowing The Seeds Of Love’ mode (in a good way!). ‘Give In’ rolls along smoothly like a chilled out drivetime classic, while first single ‘Warm Sand’ is the clear standout with its moody, building verses and hummable yet majestic refrain and ‘Room With A View’ sets a gentle acoustic mood, enfolding the listener in a melancholy reverie. In the end though, this is a candidate for selective downloading. At least that way you’ll be left in the black rather than overdrawn.

Trevor Raggatt
originally published February 12th, 2006 

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Ani DiFranco
Knuckle Down ••••
Righteous Babe

Though never one to pass the responsibility buck, it is gratifying at least to see Ani DiFranco set aside some of the duties on this, her 15th studio album since her self-titled debut in 1990. Having enlisted the estimable wiles of co-producer Joe Henry on this follow-up to last year’s self-everything’d (including, perhaps, self-indulgent) Educated Guess, Knuckle Down sees Ani return in part to the more rewarding musical territories mapped out on each album up to 2001’s sprawling Revelling/Reckoning.

Inevitably, there will be those who bemoan the relative absence of DiFranco’s almost legendary leftism here; the only overtly political song, ‘Paradigm’, still resonates with an inward-looking personal relevance that stitches the emotional seams of the album and mines them to stark lyrical effect. But to complain about this seems a little hard-bitten in light of DiFranco’s recent personal upheavals. Both the dissolution of her marriage and the death of her father, Dante Americo DiFranco, to whom the album is dedicated, figure highly in these respectively bilious and brow-beaten compositions. The Bush Administration need not count their capitalist chickens just yet, however, as DiFranco has already signalled her intent to release a second album at the tail end of the year in which they may not come off so lightly.

As it is, Knuckle Down is yet another credit to DiFranco’s famed survivalist mentality. The title track grittily eschews the faintly ridiculous self-help stranglehold that grips America like a pill, instead asserting the mantra “I think I’m done gunnin’ to get closer to some imagined bliss, I gotta knuckle down and just be ok with this.” Happily, the following two tracks, ‘Studying Stones’ and ‘Manhole’ are easily among her best – the latter also featuring some charming whistling from recent Righteous Babe signing, Andrew Bird, who also contributes violin and glockenspiel elsewhere. It’s no surprise then that the more liberated radio programmers stateside have embraced these songs, giving DiFranco perhaps her best commercial chance since Little Plastic Castle. Other album highlights include the Out Of Range-y ‘Modulation’, the bluesy clunk of ‘Seeing Eye Dog’ (a memorable chorus also helps its cause), the taut slam poetics of ‘Parameters’ and the lyrical vulnerability of the closing track, ‘Recoil’.

After the chugging claustrophobia of Educated Guess and the often unlovable jazz forays of Evolve, DiFranco seems comfortable (and perhaps even comforted) to be back on familiar ground, if not entirely back to her roots. The promise of less digging for greater reward should entice both new prospectors and the DiFranco converted alike.

Alan Pedder
originally published May 13th, 2005 

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Ani DiFranco
Reprieve ••••
Righteous Babe

The Chemical Brothers once said of Beth Orton that if your soul could sing, she is what it would sound like. By this reckoning, Ani DiFranco is like the voice in the back of your head, not always telling you things you want to hear but telling it like it is nonetheless, and this time perhaps more than ever she means business. “I ain’t in the best shape / that I’ve ever been in / but I know where I’m going / and it ain’t where I’ve been,” she sings on ‘Subconscious’. As always with DiFranco, it’s a believable manifesto, one that takes on extra resonance with the recent announcement of her first pregnancy. Sonically, however, we’re in familiar surroundings.

Reprieve‘s closest cousin is 2004’s self-played, self-produced Educated Guess, but whereas that record had a swagger that reflected DiFranco’s freedom in the studio, Reprieve is altogether a more considered affair. The ghost of Hurricane Katrina hangs over proceedings, having famously halted the recording sessions when the resulting floods damaged her New Orleans studio. Forced to decamp to her other home in Buffalo, New York, DiFranco found herself continuing the recording on an old synthesiser.

The resulting album resonates as an unwitting tribute to the dislocation felt by the millions affected by the tragedy. Though it’s not explicitly referenced, aside from the oddly prophetic ‘Millennium Theater’ which ends on the line “New Orleans bides her time” (the material was written long before the hurricane hit), lines like “the stars are going out / and the stripes are getting bent” (‘Decree’) seem to say it all. Elsewhere, much of the album is classic DiFranco. Opening track, ‘Hypnotize’, recalls one of the most arresting moments of her career, ‘You Had Time’, a song that emerges out of nowhere, a meandering piano intro that eventually finds its way into a melody. A similar technique is used here, the sound of the artist working out a way to articulate an emotion she’s not entirely comfortable with: “you were no picnic / and you were no prize / but you had just enough pathos / to keep me hypnotized”. It makes for a sombre opening but, to quote Joni Mitchell, there’s comfort in melancholy.

Reprieve is perhaps DiFranco’s most cohesive record to date, never really feeling the need to shift out of its plaintive mood, which is both good and bad. Aside from the fantastic ‘Half-Assed’, surely soon to be regarded as an Ani classic, there is little here to truly stir you out of your seat. Perhaps I miss the band. Perhaps I miss the point. Check out righteousbabe.com for an explanation of the cover art and a clearer idea of what she’s trying to say. For now though, there may not be much time for dancing but Ani DiFranco is still standing, still singing and that, for us, is the most important thing.

Matthew Hall
originally published August 10th, 2006 

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Cara Dillon
After The Morning ••••
Rough Trade

With her unique blend of traditional and contemporary folk, Cara Dillon has garnered truckloads of awards and comparisons with everyone from Kate Bush to Joni Mitchell, and often with the charming Kate Rusby, whom she replaced as a member of the so-called brat pack folk-rock group Equation. This remarkable third solo album should see her finally coming out from behind the shadow of Rusby, not least for its bold use of blue- grass, and is easily her most confident statement of intent to date.

Recorded with her husband Sam Lakeman (brother of critical favourite Seth), guests include her sister Mary, influential folk veteran Martin Simpson and Paul Brady, who duets on the traditional number ‘The Streets Of Derry’ (which also goes by the name of ‘After The Morning’, depending on who you ask). Despite the presence of such luminaries, it’s Lakeman’s skilful, textured playing that really colours the backdrops to Dillon’s stunning vocals. Piano, accordion, mandolin, guitar and fiddle – you name it, he plays it, and plays it well. The shivery ‘October Winds’ is an exquisite example, the music carrying along Dillon’s rich, warm vocals in a heartfelt tribute to her dead father.

Even so, the strongest tracks are the stripped-down acoustic numbers such as ‘Here’s A Health’, ‘Bold Jamie’ (one of Cara’s own) and her near-definitive version of ‘The Snows They Melt The Soonest’ with its sumptuous arrangement of piano and strings. Despite an occasional, presumably deliberate stab at getting some commercial airplay, the treasure to disappointment ratio is extraordinarily high. There’s a timeless feel to the proceedings as a whole; Dillon’s ability to really draw out the spark of traditional folk songs is almost unparalleled and much of the album’s beauty lies in the words and the perfection of her delivery.

Forging a genuine connection with the listener is something that many traditional folk artists fall short of. Sure, they might sound pretty but they’ll sometimes leave you cold. In this respect, Dillon is firmly in the premier league, ensnaring her audience with consummate ease. Indeed, her dedicated fanbase is something that many of her rival folkies would give their right arms for and After The Morning only serves to cement her elevated status. Three albums into her solo career, she might no longer be the next big thing but this is a real gem, an appealing collection full of confidence and a finely- honed sense of musicality.

Helen Ogden 
originally published August 23rd, 2006

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Sandy Dillon
Pull The Strings •••½ 
One Little Indian

For over 20 years, the career of Sandy Dillon has been one hell of a frightening fairground and somewhere along the line our gravel-voiced heroine must have smashed an entire hall of mirrors, such has been her god-awful luck. Incredibly, even her earlier struggles – two shelved albums and a terminated contract with Elektra – pale in comparison with the trials of the last five years. After losing her beloved husband and musical partner to a heart attack in 2001, Dillon has battled with cervical cancer and a terrifying ordeal with the MRSA superbug. That’s a lot of black cats crossing hundreds of paths, each one dusted with a tonne of spilled salt, but instead of slinging it over her left shoulder into Beelzebub’s eyes she’s gargled it defiantly, refusing to be a martyr to ill health. Indeed, on the evidence of Pull The Strings, her most desolate, injured and grim recording yet (and that’s saying something!), truly the woman could unseat the four horsemen and circumvent the apocalypse. Of course, some people would rather listen to a symphony of air raid sirens than to Dillon’s serrated, half-strangled vocals, but frankly that’s their loss. The sheer feral beauty and menace at work here adds a sometimes exquisite, always interesting texture that’s totally unique.

Of the many moods and dense emotions captured throughout, the one that resonates most clearly is a longing for escape – escape from loneliness, escape into death, you name it. Though it may not sound like it on first listen, the vibrant and sinisterly sexual title track is actually a manifesto of atonement to the (wo)man upstairs. Joined on vocals by Alabama 3’s growly Robert Love, Dillon’s third-person tale of repentance becomes more akin to what the sound of mating basilisks must be like – full-blooded, throaty and raw above all else. The jaunty but creepy ‘Documents’ and Dillon’s remarkable turn on ‘Over My Head’ are similarly sultry, while the raucous ‘I Fell In Love’ is a darkly humorous swamp-blues stomper that returns her to the glass-eating Bessie Smith-inspired sound of her One Little Indian debut, Electric Chair. That she howls and wails as if having a grand mal seizure is really all just part of the fun.

Anyone who has followed Dillon’s career will know that for all her impressive vocal extremities, her real forte lies in torch song balladry. Fortunately, Pull The Strings does not disappoint on that front either, from the traditional number ‘Motherless Children’ and the sumptuous cover of Hoagy Carmichael’s jazz standard ‘Baltimore Oriole’ to the exhausting, occasionally morbid but beautiful tributes to her husband (‘Enter The Flame’, ‘Wedding Night’) and her own lost innocence (‘Play With Ruth’, ‘Broken Promises’). Throughout these heartfelt weepies run subtle flourishes of organ, electric piano and softly brushed snare, not to mention musical saw for that added tearjerk factor. Dillon even wheels out a harmonium on ‘Why?’, a sweetly-sung duet (again with Robert Love) that’s almost vaudevillian and slightly but nicely cheesy. ‘Who’s Answering’ follows the theme of accepting destiny as Dillon implores whoever or whatever lies beyond the grave to see her in safely and with a little comfort – “give me a lover, a bed and some gin / I beg the one who’s answering” – delivered with poignancy, believability and soul.

Doing justice to a Sandy Dillon album is an impossible task; like the music itself, it takes a lot of perseverance, repeated listens and an open mind, and you may still end up not knowing what to make of it. Certainly, those who are faint of heart should steer clear, but if you’re the sort who worships Captain Beefheart, Tom Waits or just loves a challenge, there’s much to enjoy here. It’s a little over-long, however, and making it to the conclusion of ‘Carnival Of Dreams’ in just one sitting guarantees an arduous listen. That said, in the triumph over adversity stakes, it’s a truly remarkable statement from one of our finest, most uncompromising artists.

Alan Pedder
originally published May 26th, 2006 

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Dixie Chicks
Taking The Long Way ••••
Columbia

Taking The Long Way is the Dixie Chicks’s fourth studio album, produced by man of the moment Rick Rubin. The girls share writing credits on all the tracks – a first for them – with such songwriting luminaries as Sheryl Crow, Neil Finn and Gary Louris of The Jayhawks. There’s a conscious effort to expand upon the acoustic, bluegrass feel of 2002’s Home. Driving rhythm guitar and threepart harmonies abound in a nod to the ‘rockier’ side of country. Fear not Chicks fans, the banjo, mandolin and fiddle still play a major part. It’s clear that Maines, Maguire and Robison haven’t totally abandoned their Nashville cousins, but be under no illusions – this is the sound of three competent songwriters with a wealth of experience cutting loose, both musically and lyrically.

Yes, they have bones to pick. Yes, they choose to do so with a certain lack of subtlety, but who can blame them? Their run-in with Dubya received more column inches of newsprint than can possibly be deemed healthy in a world where unspeakable horrors occur on a daily basis. But don’t be fooled by the media backlash; the Chicks were courting controversy way back on 2001’s ‘Goodbye Earl’ and the acerbic ‘White Trash Wedding’ from Home. If you think these girls are a manufactured country-pop wet dream, think again – they’ve always had the chops, the humour and, yes, the intelligence to shake it up with the best of them.

Taking The Long Way opens with ‘The Long Way Round’, a road movie Don Henley would be proud to have written. It’s a fine way indeed to say ‘we’re back!’ with the nice addition of some clever lyrical nods to earlier Chicks songs. ‘Easy Silence’ follows with swathes of harmony and a plea for the simple things in life to keep you sane. Key talking point and canny first single ‘Not Ready To Make Nice’ is Maines’s response to the CD burning and radio boycott the band endured as a result of her London outburst; it rocks, it says what it has to, and it’s followed by ‘Everybody Knows’, a lovely melody and an introspective look at how the last two years has affected the close-knit trio.

It goes on. Each cut has merits, carefully constructed to achieve an emotional response and most hitting the right buttons. Maines courts the ire of her hometown with ‘Lubbock Or Leave It’, which has the classic line “…this is the only place, where as you’re getting on the plane, you see Buddy Holly’s face…” Others worthy of multiple plays are ‘Favorite Year’, a wistful look back at love gone wrong, and ‘Bitter End’, which eloquently dissects the true meaning of friendship, but really, they’re all pretty good. The Chicks have consistently improved with every album, and this is their best offering yet.

Unafraid to experiment, unafraid to steer their own path, the Dixie Chicks deserve a hearing. Forget the country tag and your own prejudices, this is a band at its peak; tune in or miss out.

Paul Woodgate
originally published July 10th, 2006 

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Tanya Donelly
This Hungry Life ••••
Eleven Thirty

As a member of Throwing Muses, The Breeders and Belly, Tanya Donelly helped construct the blueprint for American college rock, writing soaring, breathless pop songs that belied dark, complex lyrics and a twisted world view. With a knack for writing the aural equivalent of a beehive – songs dripping with honey but packed with stings – Donelly was achingly vital to the 1990s but maintaining people’s interest over three acts proved a little too tough. Belly’s second album King, in no way a poor piece of work, fell on deaf ears and Donelly struck out on her own. Since then, marriage and motherhood have seemingly tempered her solo work, with each album becoming more laidback than the last, to the point where 2003’s country-laden Whiskey Tango Ghosts was practically supine.

On This Hungry Life, Donelly sets the hall of mirrors perspective that made her early work so exciting to the more traditional approach to songwriting that she has perfected. Opening with the line “it’s June and I’m still wearing my boots”, Donelly sings her sweet complaint in homage to New England. It’s this playful contrariness that gallops through the album and makes for an enjoyable listen, coming furthest to the fore on the superb ‘Littlewing’, a dark and unsettling song about falling in love.

Recorded in front of an audience in the bar of a deserted hotel on a sweltering weekend in 2004, This Hungry Life is one of those rare albums that are recorded live without being ‘live albums’ per se. The live band – including Catholic (in the Frank Black sense) Rich Gilbert, Dean ‘Mr Donelly’ Fisher, Bill Janovitz and (almost inevitably these days) Joan ‘As Police Woman’ Wasser – provide excellent accompaniment to Donelly’s liquid glycerine vocals. The heatwave conditions and setup of the recordings certainly worked for this line-up; no amount of studio time could ever improve the title track, a pedal-steel extravaganza that’s bound to break hearts. Elsewhere, the title of ‘Kundalini Slide’, one of the album’s standouts, sounds a bit like an attempt by Rory Bremner’s George Bush to pronounce the name of Condoleeza Rice, which may not in fact be all that coincidental as the lyrics represent a politically charged attack on intolerance and violence.

If a couple of the tracks retread the same matronly ground of the past two albums, Donelly’s mellifluous singing saves them and other tracks more than make up for any slight failings. This Hungry Life is a vibrant collection of songs through which a love of life and of live performance shines. If this is Donelly’s hungry life, is it wrong to kinda hope that she never ever gets a square meal?

Peter Hayward
originally published December 17th, 2006

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The Dresden Dolls
Yes, Virginia ••••
Roadrunner

If one thing sets the Dresden Dolls apart from pretty much anyone else around right now, it’s their confrontational and discomforting honesty. It’s something they practice in life as well as in their music – the blogs Amanda Palmer posts online dissect her insecurities and anxieties in detail. Take this for example: “i prefer sleeping alone nowadays. i barely think about love. i have plenty. i haven’t had a boyfriend in so long i’ve forgotten what it’s like. honestly.” The band also publish the wonderfully inarticulate hatemail they receive on their site (sample: “could you plase do something like kill yourselves,before you come to toronto, seeing you would probabnly ruin my life” – spelling mistakes author’s own – or “if you ever come to atlanta call me up 678-XXX-XXXX and i’ll fuckin beat your ass”) as well as collecting together some of the savage and abusive reviews they’ve received.

It’s this honesty that makes their music so entirely compelling, and Yes, Virginia – the follow-up to their 2004 self-titled debut – makes for truly startling listening. Building upon the dark themes and manic yet melodic style of their debut, it represents an artistic progression on every level – musically, lyrically and vocally. Palmer has extended her vocal range to incorporate a whole new palate of sounds, and, in places, sounds more aggressive than ever before. The songs are powerful and muscular, tempered with moments of tenderness made all the more affecting by the tempestuous menace that surrounds them. The Dolls have grown more confident, too, adding layer upon layer of insistent, pounding pianos and cascading drums to create a driving and sometimes frantic sound.

The insistent piano riff that opens the record is extremely ominous – like listening to the first rumbling tones of a coming thunderstorm – and it’s not long before a shout from Amanda heralds the entrance of Brian Viglione’s pummelling drums. Songs turn from tender to vicious in the space of a couple of lines. ‘Delilah’, one of the album’s highlights, describes the frustration of watching a friend wilfully enter a violent relationship: “He’s gonna beat you like a pillow / you schizos never learn / and if you take him home / you’ll get what you deserve”. From a hushed, piano and vocal opening, the song builds until the frustration and powerlessness in the lyrics is reflected in the epic, operatic music. Lyrically, the album is often violent and disturbing, with images of mutilation and surgery recurring throughout without ever sounding like they’re merely out to shock. Perhaps this is because Palmer’s writing is shot through with dark humour and a rare wit. ‘Shores Of California’, for example, is a clever dissection of male and female coping mechanisms for being single, with lyrics like “all I know is that all around the nation / the girls are crying, the boys are masturbating”.

There are occasional moments where the lyrics veer close to self-parody, but the Dolls are too knowing and self-aware to succumb to such pitfalls: on ‘Dirty Business’, Amanda sings “Am I the poster girl for some suburban sickness?” while the unmitigated stream of aggression running through the chorus of ‘Backstabber’ (“Backstabber, backstabber / greedy fucking fit-haver”) would seem ridiculously emo were the lyrics not married to the catchiest melody the band have ever penned. Furthermore, the song ends with a demented cackle as if to tell you the band know exactly how closely they’ve been flirting with the ridiculous.

Yes, Virginia is not an easy listen, but it’s an exciting, raw and emotional one. However you might categorise the Dresden Dolls – and they have been variously labelled as theatrical rock, punk cabaret, manic-musical, neoglam-torch etc. – one fact remains: their music is really damn good.

Danny Weddup
originally published April 10th, 2006 

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The Dresden Dolls
Live at Spiegelzelt, Berlin ••••
May 14th, 2006

“We were so excited when we heard we could play in a mirrored tent” exclaimed Dresden Dolls singer Amanda Palmer as she took to the stage of the Spiegelzelt, erected temporarily for a nomadic mini-festival taking place all over Germany. But as the sunset glowed through the stained-glass windows of this curiously decadent, wood- and velvet-laden construction next to the railway tracks at East Berlin’s former main station, what place could be more suitable? After all, The Dresden Dolls describe themselves as ‘Brechtian punk cabaret’ and are clearly thrilled to introduce their new album, Yes, Virginia, to the country that gave them their name, as well as Bertolt Brecht and his weird and wonderful theatre.

Since the release of their eponymous debut, the Boston duo has accumulated a dedicated, passionate and numerous following without attracting too much hype or mainstream press, mainly on the back of word-of-mouth praise and blistering live shows. Tonight was no exception. Though the sun was still illuminating the tent from all sides and The Dresden Dolls are a band best served in eerie, smoky darkness, Palmer and drummer Brian Viglione conjured up such dark intensity that it could have been on a Caribbean beach and still been just as impressive. Like The Kills, the sparseness of the arrangements (i.e. only keyboard and primal drums against Amanda’s rich and frantic vocals) makes the drama so much more affecting and severe. As they look at each other across the stage, all the fierceness that’s found in a band of five members is concentrated into a single, manic gaze. As with all things cabaret, however, it’s not all entirely serious. Early single ‘Coin-Operated Boy’ is a cheeky crowd pleaser and their cover of Grauzone’s ‘Eisbär’, a Swiss new wave band’s ode to the polar bear, had the crowd waving arms and singing at the top of their voices.

Perhaps fittingly it was not one of their own songs that captured the evening, but a cover of Jacques Brel’s ‘Port Of Amsterdam’ – a wistfully sexy black-hearted tale of a long gone time of swashbucklin’ filthy cabaret bars frequented by a shady clientele. The Dresden Dolls romanticise and capture this decadent and dangerous world and their concerts make it real for people disillusioned by their oversanitised, modern existence.

Robbie de Santos
originally published June 24th, 2006 

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Hilary Duff
Most Wanted •••½
Hollywood

In the sometimes scary land of teen pop there is a boxing ring, with Hilary Duff in the red corner and Lindsay Lohan in the blue. Whilst not quite delivering a knockout punch with this release, Hilary at least shows that she has the edge and will stay standing for quite a few more rounds. The cliché of the difficult third album is not easy to apply to Most Wanted, as it more closely resembles a greatest hits with a few new tracks thrown in. Coming in an attractive two-piece case, the Collector’s Signature Edition contains 17 slices of Duffness, of which just four are new. The remainder are remixes of songs from previous albums, although a collaboration with sister Haylie on The GoGo’s classic ‘Our Lips Are Sealed’ is carried off with dignity, showing that it is possible to cover a well-known song without leaving the original artists turning in their graves (or, in this case, mansions).

Hilary’s move into more soulful and lyrically complete tunes in her second album is less apparent in this latest offering, which walks the line between rock and pop. US radio programmers have swooped upon first single ‘Wake Up’, which flaunts a killer hook and is one of her best to date. However, the standout track is the super slick ‘Break My Heart’, which borders on a Blink 182-esque anthem pitched around a superb middle eight. This comes as no real surprise, as song was co-written with the Madden Brothers from pop/punk band Good Charlotte and John Feldmann from Goldfinger. Club DJ Chris Cox does a good job of turning the previously likeable ‘Come Clean’ into an irresistible floor-shaking house mix, building up from the simple melody of the original with big beats and delivering the goods.

Perhaps more than simply a greatest hits, this album is a showcase of some of the more unique songs from her repertoire, such as the raucous ‘Mr James Dean’, from 2003’s self-titled second album. Duff certainly has a unique voice, clearly identifiable amongst the often faceless pop crowd. ‘So Yesterday’, the signature track from her 2002 debut Metamorphosis, makes a welcome return. Although perhaps more polished than even the crown jewels, it’s pure pop perfection. The standard edition of the album, running at a more bite-sized 13 songs is an attractive option for Duff’s doubting thomases or newcomers to her music.

Simon Wilson
originally published September 4th, 2005

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The Duke Spirit
Cuts Across The Land •••½
Polydor

After 18 months in the making, it’s not surprising that Cuts Across The Land is a fairly polished, well-produced and suitably promising debut. It’s an adept and listenable dark-edged rock ‘n’ roll album. The problem arises when you start to wonder what exactly it is you’re listening to – it would be fair to say that the London-based five-piece wear their influences on their sleeves. Sadly, these are rarely combined into any new, innovative or interesting sound; rather, they are too often laid out bare in quick succession for all the world to ear, particularly in the Sebadoh-esque riffing in the chorus of the title track to the alarmingly ‘Anarchy In The UK’-like opening chord of first single, ‘Lion Rip’, although in the latter this quickly dissolves into one the album’s standout tracks.

When their influences aren’t so apparent, such as on the interminable bore that is ‘Hello To The Floor’, neither is the passion that could have made this reasonable album into a really good one. In fact, this track, and to a slightly lesser extent, ‘Bottom Of The Sea’, smack of a by-the-numbers “every rock album needs a couple of ballads” approach to recording, which fails to showcase properly any of the bands talents, except possibly an ear for a nice couplet, as the frequently well-crafted lyrics are dribbled out by singer Leila Moss with less enthusiasm than is found at your average Saturday night karaoke, which is made all the more disappointing because elsewhere on the album you discover that she can do so much better. For example, there is infinitely more zeal on ‘Win Your Love’, a high point of the record, especially if the prospect of Polly Harvey fronting Sonic Youth is one that excites you. But PJ isn’t the only vocal influence Moss parades – Patti Smith and Nico are never far from mind. Indeed, the Velvet Underground themselves are one of the more pervading influences of the guitar sound throughout.

However, it seems somewhat mean spirited to continue to run through the tracklist namedropping the many earlier, often seminal, acts that are brought to mind when listening to this record. Perhaps in this era where exceptional debuts seem to be the norm, promise is no longer enough, but Cuts Across The Land is full of it. If future efforts can use these diverse influences as exactly that and not as such obvious templates, as well as capturing some of the fervour and excitement that most reviewers and music fans alike agree that the band exhibit when on stage, then they are certainly an act worth keeping an ear out for.

Scott Millar
originally published July 16th, 2005 

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Liz Durrett
The Mezzanine ••••
Warm

Deliciously layered with meaning as though it’s a direct line into her soul, Liz Durrett’s distinctive voice will utterly transfix you; this is a good thing, for then you’ll be struck by her striking, pared-down lyrics and wonder how on earth she’s been such a best kept secret. It took her 10 years to get comfy with the idea of releasing her own material, beginning with last year’s Husk, not least because of a crippling anxiety that she wouldn’t live up to her own high standards and her familial connections (she’s the niece of singer-songwriter Vic Chesnutt, who’s on board here as producer). Luckily for us, she hasn’t let that overwhelm her and the light once hidden by that mighty bushel of doubt is finally beaming into these warmly grateful ears.

With its beguiling nursery rhyme-esque introduction, opener ‘Knives At The Wall’ lulls and soothes into an early reverie that grows ever darker as the song progresses. It’s one of the least remarkable songs of the collection, yet it serves as a perfect introduction to The Mezzanine‘s suggestive, haunting power. The similarly minimalist ‘All The Spokes’ is swiftly followed by the curiously upbeat ‘Cup On The Counter’, whose delightfully discordant atmosphere and accusatory lyrics (“I’m not a child, I know what I’ve seen”) are accompanied by the startling addition of a child in conversation. An equally evocative harmonica solo and double-tracked vocals make ‘Shivering Assembly’ the shining example of how Durrett successfully pulls off disarming little touches and effects, adding to the tone and theatricality of the music without falsifying its ambition and meaning.

This, and other songs, may tempt you to place Durrett firmly in the gothic fold, but The Mezzanine as a whole is a hopeful creature, as is the empowering track that gives the album its name. Here, Durrett’s “they” refers to unnamed oppressive influences lurking nearby. Yet while the album certainly revels in its darkness and is accordingly beautiful for it, such a mood is not its focus, merely a tangible influence that belies her upbringing in the oppressive humidity of Georgia, as well as her battle with depression. The rawness of ‘Marlene’ is both deeply personal and astounding; Durrett’s quivering vibrato gives an ethereal, wispy quality to the song and is neatly complemented by the off-key piano instrumental ‘Silent Partner’ that follows.

It’s not all easygoing, however. An eerily muffled screaming guitar slightly overwhelms ‘No Apology’, but once your ears have adjusted, simple unpleasantness quickly becomes intriguing unpleasantness and perseverance is definitely required. ‘In The Throes’ thankfully marks a return to the style of the earlier songs and brings things to a worthy close, combining all the best aspects from the previous ten tracks – introspection, a gently powerful voice, fabulous guitars and a stunning combination of orchestral and electric instruments. A trip through Durrett’s (under)world may not be appropriate for everyone but the devil’s in the details and we all know by now who has the best tunes.

Gem Nethersole
originally published August 10th, 2006

 



2005/06 reviews dump: n

The following reviews were all published on our old website between May 2005 and December 2006.

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Leigh Nash
Blue On Blue •••
One Son/Nettwerk

First things first, you’d be readily forgiven for not actually noticing that Christian folk-pop two-hit wonders Sixpence None The Richer had split. After all, mainstream success had eluded them long before the likes of ‘Kiss Me’ and ‘There She Goes’ (their contentious cover of The La’s classic that so infuriated many an indie purist) eventually troubled the charts, and they soon slid back into relative obscurity thereafter. They even separated quite amicably; where’s the fun in that?

Despite some prettily arranged songs, their true trump card, the thing that really made you sit up and take notice, was the pristine, almost twee vocals of frontwoman Leigh Nash. So it’s with interest piqued that many a listener should approach Blue On Blue, Nash’s first solo venture, a more mature, more careful, if brightly polished collection than the works of Sixpence None The Richer. Now a doting mother, Nash’s life has developed since the band’s demise and so has her musical sensibility and direction.

In recent times, Nash has devoted no small amount of her energies to the Movement Nashville project, spearheading a campaign to show the world that there’s much more to Nashville than Christian adult alternative and country. But whilst she shies away from some of the more overt religious imagery of her erstwhile band (burning bushes etc.), her beliefs shine through in subtle ways that shouldn’t be off-putting to anyone fearing unwitting evangelisation. Instead, its up to the music to ensnare you and it gets off to an excellent start with ‘All Along The Wall’, a song that boasts one of those elusive refrains that can keep you humming and whistling for days. It might take a few listens to truly appreciate its message, but for someone who could all too readily be dismissed as light and fluffy, Nash is endearingly earnest and occasionally profound.

As was the case with Sixpence None The Richer, Nash walks a fine line between excessive commerciality and endearing everywoman appeal. ‘My Idea Of Heaven’ is certainly single worthy with its sunny beat and joyous lyrical schtick but it’s a little cloying. Indeed, the album’s first half is dangerously sugary, though ‘Ocean Sized Love’ does pare things back to a simpler arrangement. It’s up to ‘Never Finish’ to return us to more nuanced territory – a declaration of eternal love that’s remarkable in that it doesn’t overwhelm to the point of unrealistic overstatement.

It’s the little observations and combinations of unusual images that perhaps provide the album’s greatest asset. For example, ‘Between The Lines’ finds Nash exploring the realms of what goes unspoken in our relationships, singing of the hidden depths “between hello and I would give you the moon”. ‘Cloud Nine’s lovely piano motifs actually do sound like someone skipping from cumulus to nimbus, leading nicely into the ethereal closer ‘Just A Little’ that leaves us with the simple message that “you can’t have rainbows without rain”. Ain’t that the truth!

Blue On Blue is a work of Nash’s own in every sense and is clearly the result of much soul-searching and personal observance. There’s talent and moments of magic from beginning to end, though these are sometimes obscured by the arrangements. Even so, it lovingly unfurls its secrets and, given the right push, could well eclipse her other achievements.

Gem Nethersole
originally published August 10th, 2006 

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Leigh Nash
Wishing For This •••½
One Son / Nettwerk

Hot (or should that be cold?) on the heels of her solo debut, Blue On Blue, former Sixpence None the Richer singer Leigh Nash releases this brand new EP designed to get the egg nog flowing. Just seven tracks long and available only on download, Wishing For This is a charming set of songs that by and large avoids the usual Christmas album clichés with more interesting selections. Of course, it’s an immutable law that to get such a collection to a roaring start you need to reach for a big band that knows how to swing and put them to work. Nash’s duet with country star Gabe Dixon on ‘Baby, It’s Cold Outside’ does the trick nicely, raising a smile and dispelling the discomfiting memories of Cerys Matthews being letched all over by a superannuated Tom Jones (Cerys, we love you, but eeurrgh!).

In keeping with her Christian faith, Nash doesn’t shy away from reminding us of the true meaning of Christmas. ‘Eternal Gifts’ reinforces the idea that it’s patience, kindness, generosity and other neglected virtues that ought to be under everyone’s tree, singing “Santa knows what I want for Christmas but Jesus knows what I need” in her always delightfully innocent tones. Other heart-warmingly sentimental fare can be found in Nash’s beautiful rendering of Dolly Parton’s ‘Hard Candy Christmas’ and a hymnal version of the traditional carol ‘O Holy Night’ backed only by some mellow Fender Rhodes.

However, not everything is as muted. A cover of Ron Sexsmith’s ‘Maybe This Christmas’ is infused with optimism for better times ahead and, as you might well expect, a decent enough take on Wham!’s ‘Last Christmas’ brings lashings of sleigh bells and a party mood to lift the spirit. Returning to suitably poignant territory, Wishing For This closes with its title track, the only Nash original here. It’s a heartfelt inclusion, expressing a longing to spend the season with the one you love, and isn’t that what all the greatest Christmas songs are made of? While not exactly essential, Wishing For This is a sweet, refreshing collection that lovingly captures the spirit of the season.

Trevor Raggatt
originally published December 17th, 2006

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Nina Nastasia
On Leaving •••½
Fat Cat

Bearing the prestigious John Peel seal of approval – he described her 2000 debut Dogs as “astonishing” – Nina Nastasia’s music is spare and mainly quiet, but also commanding. Arriving 2 years after the acclaimed Run To Ruin, and engineered, like its predecessors, by the great Steve Albini, On Leaving is Nastasia’s fourth album and features her regular collaborators Dylan Willemsa (viola), Steven Beck (piano), Jay Bellerose and Jim White (drums). The sparse approach to accompaniment once again leaves plenty of space for Nastasia’s clear, confiding vocals and places the spotlight firmly on her sometimes arresting lyrics. Though the mood is predominantly reflective and melancholic – in her own words, “more sad than mad” – the record also finds moments of hope, humour and redemption in its tales of reluctant departures and hard-won escapes.

The opaque, slightly discordant opener ‘Jim’s Room’ establishes a somewhat uneasy atmosphere; the narrator here wakes to the smell of “burning wires”, finds a thief waiting outside and confesses that “there were nights I would let him in”. The relatively brash ‘Brad Haunts A Party’ makes for an infectious follow- up, but things soon slow down again for the elegantly pastoral ‘Our Day Trip’. From there, the distinctly Sarah McLachlan-ish ‘Counting Up Your Bones’ is a highlight, but the album’s centrepiece is the lovely ‘Why Don’t You Stay Home’, a dramatisation of a conflict between the settled, circumspect narrator and a restless partner who hungers for escape: “why don’t you stay home where you’re loved? / where you’ll never be hungry or lost / no strangers we”. To Nastasia’s credit, she manages to turn these lines into a confident affirmation rather than a pitiful plea.

As the album’s title suggests, separations and departures are the main concern. In ‘Treehouse Song’, two protagonists seek refuge from the world, but find that escape means more to one of them than the other. Elsewhere, the narrator of ‘Settling Song’ acknowledges that “there’s a part of me still telling me to go when the feelings arrive”, while the protagonist of ‘One Old Woman’ recognises that she’s “not allowed to hold on too tightly to what has gone”. In this way, Nastasia produces a thematically coherent record, as the songs move between the perspectives of characters who leave, long to leave, or get left behind. Interestingly, the album also represents a leave-taking for the artist herself, a move from the independent Chicago-based Touch & Go label to Fat Cat Records. The result sounds at once both fresh and classic; the final ‘If We Go To The West’, for example, could be a long lost outtake from Vashti Bunyan’s Just Another Diamond Day.

If there’s a problem with some of Nastasia’s compositions it’s that they’re rather short; the entire album clocks in at just over half an hour and some of the songs feel insufficiently worked out. ‘Jim’s Room’ and ‘Brad Haunts A Party’ both set up intriguing ideas and images without developing them substantially, sometimes leaving the listener with a sense of anticlimax. Tellingly, the longest song here – the evocative childhood reminiscence of ‘Lee’ – is one of the most effective. If Nastasia works on turning her vivid sketches into more fully developed narratives, she could produce an album of real greatness. In the meantime, On Leaving remains a graceful and affecting addition to her catalogue.

Alex Ramon 
originally published September 17th, 2006

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Joanna Newsom
Ys •••••
Drag City

The Milk-Eyed Mender, Joanna Newsom’s 2004 debut album, was a stunning work of leftfield folk, unmatched in its originality, confidence and perfectly pitched eccentricity. So entrancing was it that the album pretty much came to define the new wave of American alt-folk pioneered by Devendra Banhart, Sufjan Stevens and the like. Having set herself such a high benchmark, how the hell could Newsom ever match that with her second long-player? Ys, that’s how.

On hearing that the new album would be full-length yet comprise only five songs, the prog warning alarms rang loud. Fortunately, Newsom allays all fears of overblown self-indulgence by spinning exotic, erotic and epic poems that transfix with protean themes shifting like rafts of flotsam bobbing on a wine dark sea. These lyrically dense, literate and complex songs might easily have seemed pretentious and impenetrable in the hands of another, but Newsom’s deft discussion of love, loss and relationships ensure that they captivate rather than alienate.

In the opener, ‘Emily’, lessons in astrology shared with a lover in a pioneer existence evoke a sense of wide- eyed wonderment, sublimely matching the innocent inflection of Newsom’s childlike vocals. Imagery of simpler times and more basic existence recurs throughout the album, but this folk artistry belies a complexity in expression. Even clocking in at just over 17 minutes, the leviathan ‘Only Skin’s several musical movements are stitched together with fantastic vignettes culled from the lifetime of a relationship and, miraculously, leave you wanting even more.

Although the emphasis on the harp and Newsom’s child-crone singing style means that there is no mistaking to whom you are listening, Ys (named after a mythical French city and pronounced ‘ease’) is a wholly different prospect to The Milk-Eyed Mender. This is a far more collaborative effort. Orchestration by Van Dyke Parks, production by Jim O’Rourke and engineering by man-god Steve Albini enable Newsom to structure the songs around the narrative of the lyrics. Lively string arrangements give way to plaintive accordions. Cooing vocals swell into feral screams. In places, Joanna reins in the extreme quirkiness of her singing to reveal a no less expressive, more natural sounding voice that is simultaneously harsh, stark and fragile.

With Ys, Joanna Newsom proves that her debut success was no fluke and develops her songwriting to a level of intricacy and accomplishment that so few artists achieve. If you were charmed by Newsom’s debut you will be blown away by Ys. And if you weren’t, your only hope lies this way. Ys is a bold and thoroughly entertaining instant classic from the wild frontier of Americana by one of the most distinctive and invigorating artists recording today.

Peter Hayward
originally published November 5th, 2006

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Nouvelle Vague
Bande À Part •••½ 
Peacefrog

Nouvelle Vague’s self-titled debut was a spectacular bossa nova revamp of some of the world’s most established new wave acts. Now the French collective are back with Bande À Part, an original and personal take on works by ‘80s post-punk idols such as Bauhaus, New Order and Echo & The Bunnymen. As inspiration for their approachable and seemingly unforced adaptations, the band cite the gamut of Caribbean music from the 1940s to the 1970s: “Musically it is moving between Jamaica, the cradle of mento music, which became ska/rocksteady then reggae, to the calypso isle of Trinidad via Cuban salsa, Haitian voodoo, and eventually back to Brazil.”

In keeping with this, we’re immediately greeted by the sounds of birds and splashing water as the band ease into the Bunnymen classic ‘Killing Moon’. Soft female vocals (courtesy of returning vocalist Mélanie Pain), laidback guitar strums and dreamier than dreamy vibes locate the listener in the heart of the Caribbean jungle, with added mysticism courtesy of a swooning accordion. These musical motifs are much repeated throughout the album, including Blondie’s ‘Heart Of Glass’ – who would have thought that chirping birds, South American percussion, resolving accordion chords and soothing vocals could actually turn this into a genius reconstruction of a song?

Other highlights include Billy Idol’s ‘Dancing With Myself’, a cheeky rhythmical piece loaded with bassy piano and percussion, their bluesy, sexy and full of attitude take on The Cramps’s ‘Human Fly’, and Visage’s ‘Fade To Grey’, a melancholic sea voyage riddled with weepy accordion. But while these and most of the remakes sound texturally layered and innovative, The Wake’s ‘O Pamela’ seems hastily arranged and would have benefitted from the use of more natural sounding instruments. Heaven 17’s ‘Let Me Go’ also suffers from a standard arrangement and the strings sound a bit overproduced.

Giving a nice twist to the tale, the brains behind the brand (namely Marc Collin and Olivier Libaux) only allow their vocalists to perform songs entirely new to them, thereby ensuring that any breach of sanctitude claimed by their detractors is most often the result of their own prejudice. If you like the sound of ‘Blue Monday’ sung in soothing female vocals with a heavy French accent (Pain again) accompanied by an armoury of colourful instruments, this album is for you.

Anja McCloskey
originally published June 24th, 2006 

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Heather Nova
Redbird ••••
Big Cat

Two years is a long time in the music industry and, as it turns out, ample time too for significant changes in the world of Heather Nova. Since her last album Storm snuck up quietly on 2003, she has relocated from the UK back to her childhood home of Bermuda and given birth to her first child, Sebastian. These are the sort of life events that songwriters inevitably draw upon in creating their art and Redbird unmistakeably reflects a consummate artist maturing in her craft.

That said, opener ‘Welcome’ is something of a throwback to the turn of the millennium. Co-written with Dido, the track was originally included as a bonus incentive for the delayed North American release of 2001’s South, but has not hitherto been available on this side of the pond. Much of the criticism levelled at that album was aimed at its overly slick production, and ‘Welcome’ is no slouch in that department. Yet despite basking in samples, scratches and swirling, unfurling loops, it was easily the most dynamic and accessible of South’s suite of songs, and is no less wonderful here. But don’t be fooled by its glossiness (courtesy of production trio The Matrix, who’ve worked with Avril Lavigne and Britney Spears), it’s not a true indication of the further delights to come. Then again, neither is what comes next.

‘I Miss My Sky’ is not so much a song as a five-minute operetta that Nova claims to be the pinnacle of her songwriting achievements to date. She may not be entirely wrong either, it’s an astonishing piece of music. Based on a conspiracy theory that aviation pioneer Amelia Earhart did not perish in the Pacific Ocean, but that she and co-pilot, Fred Noonan, crash-landed on an atoll, living out their remaining days in isolation. Earhart looks back on the events that brought her to this place, muses on the thoughts of those left behind and rails against the injustice of being confined to a small patch of earth when her true home is in the freedom of the sky. The intimate story effectively parallels universal themes of frustration experienced by those prevented from living out their destinies by cruel circumstances. The bare-boned acoustic intro builds inexorably to a climax of pain and desperation, with Sophie Solomon’s plaintive violin tracing haunting countermelodies beneath the impassioned vocal.

The rest of the album treads the stripped-back rock path that Nova last journeyed on Storm. Yet despite their more conventional nature than the double-barrelled opening salvo, they are nonetheless strong and extremely satisfying. Inevitably, motherhood rears its head on several tracks; ‘Motherland’ and ‘Singing You Through’ give voice to the primal feelings of protectiveness and responsibility that a mother feels for her child, while ‘Mesmerised’ reflects the overpowering, simultaneous emotions of vulnerability and strength evoked by the experience. The gentle lullaby of closer ‘The Sun Will Always Rise’ also dwells in this context, offering a soft and comforting hymn of reassurance that the light will forever prevail.

Although couched in the familiar context of a mainstream pop/rock structure, Redbird demonstrates Nova’s continuing confidence as a songwriter and lyricist. The title track successfully produces a subliminal evocation of the colour red and its vibrant symbolism through the lyrical references to roses, pomegranates, flames, roses, rubies and lust. On ‘Overturned’, Nova proves surprisingly adept at marrying a talking blues song to a backing that’s equal parts Oasis and early Tom Petty & The Heartbreakers – no mean feat! Elsewhere, the London Community Gospel Choir convene to bring a sense of uplifting majesty to ‘Done Drifting’ and ‘A Way To Live’.

In the past, Nova has covered everyone from The Beatles to The Clash, Nick Cave to Neil Young, and here opts for a fairly straight cover of Chris Isaak’s ‘Wicked Game’. Yes, you read that correctly. Even more bizarrely, it is oddly effective. While all the trademark twangy, Duane Eddy-like guitar parts remain firmly in place in a backing track that’s so close to the original it’s barely distinguishable, Isaak’s blue yodel vocal stylings are replaced by Nova’s pure falsetto and render the song utterly lovely. Overall, Redbird is an accomplished work and her strongest collection in years that re-establishes Nova as an artistic force to be reckoned with.

Trevor Raggatt
originally published October 25th, 2005 



2005/06 reviews dump: o

The following reviews were all published on our old website between May 2005 and December 2006.

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Tara Jane O’Neil
In Circles •••½
Quarterstick

Quietly making a name for herself is perhaps an oxymoronic statement to make about Portland, Oregon-based noise artist Tara Jane O’Neil but that’s exactly what she’s been doing for the last six years. Signed to hipster label Touch & Go / Quarterstick since the age of nineteen, the multi-instrumentalist, songwriter, engineer and painter has enjoyed the freedom of not having to adhere to convention, accumulating instead an enjoyable back catalogue of multi-faceted and unconventional avant-folk compositions firmly rooted in earthly sounds and concerns.

Following this year’s A Raveling EP in which she explored electronic textures, her fourth album sees O’Neil rediscover her love for the song. Recorded in its entirety within the walls of wooden houses and often including the natural noises of such an environment, In Circles is so authentic and simple that it gives her music a new approachability. A certain freshness is also found in her collaborations with veteran indie musician friends recruited from the likes of Blood On The Wall, Ida Fuck and Jackie-O Motherfucker.

Like watching the dawn break after a long dark night, the album reveals its magical tone from the outset; opener ‘Primer’ is a delicate intro of natural sounds, bells and chimes with guitars and percussion dancing to a primal rhythm. Better still is ‘A Partridge Song’, a memorable jaunt into fragile traditional folk. Unusually for O’Neil, her vocals are neither layered nor projected for a large part of the song. With guitars and subtle sonic flourishes as her only accompaniment, this beautiful arrangement is the album standout by far.

Moving on to comparatively heavier sounds, ‘The Louder’ sticks rather closer than you’d imagine to the perimeter of classic singer-songwriter territory with layered guitars and a traditional drum arrangement. Even so, O’Neil’s vocals are treated as an additional instrument rather than the central focus of the song, causing the lyrics to drift just out of earshot in places. ‘A Sparrow Song’ follows a similar concept, though this time the vocals are captured in ghost-like choir form, a delicate play of harmonies and dissonances. It’s atmospheric and pretty, with an additional flute motif giving it a worldly feel, but it lacks that vital something to remember it by. Elsewhere, a number of other songs (and particularly ‘Blue Light Room’ and ‘Need No Pony’) also suffer from this absence.

As such, In Circles is most interesting when O’Neil explores her interest in mixing folk instrumentation with electronic arrangements, such as on the wordless ‘Fundamental Tom’, mini-adventure ‘This Beats’ and the dark-as-you-like ‘The Looking Box’. ‘A Room For These’ also succeeds, delivering the goods with some semblance of urgency and interesting textures for O’Neil’s ghostly vocals.

It’s clear that after four albums and various EPs, O’Neil has become something of an old hand at what she does. That her output often lacks edginess and occasionally lapses into sonic wallpaper territory is a shame, for when she does explore her limits and verges into harmonic and electronic explorations, the results are truly inspiring.

Anja McCloskey
originally published November 23rd, 2006

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The Organ
Grab That Gun ••••
Too Pure

Just a few bars into ‘Brother’, Grab That Gun‘s commanding introduction, and you’re hit by an effects-drenched chord progression straight out of an early, danceable Cure track. So it’s no surprise that Canadian quintet The Organ are being bombarded with comparisons, and not just to Robert Smith’s enduring misfits. In recent years the New Wave revival has been inescapable, with the likes of Interpol, Hot Hot Heat and The Rapture apeing early goth to the point of making you want to go to dark clubs just to stand in the corners and stare at your plimsolls. So are The Organ late to the party?

No is the answer, and for two good reasons. The first is that Grab That Gun was released in North America back in November 2004 and is inexplicably only just bursting out of the stall over here. The second is that it’s not really a case of being late per se. The Organ don’t so much look back at the 1980s than hop into a time machine and make believe that everything post-1983 hasn’t ever actually happened. It’s a powerhouse approach to pastiche, with taut songs of longing, daydreaming and disconnection carried along on a wave of jangly guitar work. The melodies are instantly Cure-like, but trip appealingly all over the place as if Johnny Marr had fallen downstairs trying to do up his shoelaces.

And The Smiths comparisons don’t stop there; lead singer Katie Sketch is, vocally at least, a dead ringer for a female Morrissey, to the point that the observation seems so obvious as to be trite. Then there’s the trademark deadpan song titles like ‘No One Has Ever Looked So Dead’ and ‘I Am Not Surprised’. But what Sketch has over a hundred inferior Smiths tribute bands is the ability to make every vocal sound like she’s reaching for something she can never quite get to. It’s dour, yes, but totally intoxicating. They come a little undone on songs like ‘Basement Band Song’ where repetition starts to creep in, but beyond that it’s a difficult album to find any fault with. A lot of these songs have been lifted and re-recorded from their 2002 debut EP, Sinking Hearts, and with good reason. Last year’s excellent single, ‘Memorize The City’, is an obvious highlight, with its delayed guitars and an urgency that sends Sketch’s vocals scurrying around a handsomely infectious hook.

It’s great to see an all-female indie band that isn’t pelting the emo or goth-rock scene with cleavage. Katie Sketch is delightfully androgynous and the songs are rather less likely to have you reaching for the razor blades than they are to send you deep into the New Forest to re-examine your entire existence. These songs are no mere accompaniment to a look. The Organ are touring this spring. You’d be a fool to miss them, though I feel slightly sorry that they’re going to have to tout four-year old songs for the benefit of us Brits. Don’t forget to clap your heads even harder. Girls Aloud this ain’t.

Ian Buchan
originally published February 6th, 2006 

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Beth Orton
Comfort Of Strangers ••••½ 
EMI

As anyone who has ever caught one of her live shows would know, Beth Orton has a wicked sense of humour that’s absolutely unprepossessing. So the fact that her fourth album opens with ‘Worms’s lyrical shot right out of the leftfield ballpark might hardly even register were it not so utterly nutso. And when the chorus proclaims her an “apple-eatin’ heathen”, you’d be forgiven for thinking she’s been tucked away these past four years living on a diet of Fiona’s strange fruit. The comparison is all but inescapable, really; the jazzy bounce of Ted Barnes’s drums and Orton’s piano coated with some of her most pithy lyrics to date could easily fit on Extraordinary Machine, the tricksy changes in cadence and phrasing notwithstanding. It’s a healthy sign of life, and so while the countrified, nature-will-prevail groove of ‘Countenance’ lands us on more familiar ground, there’s plenty to keep the interest piqued. Witness the glorious use of Orton’s own backing vocals and Barnes’s softly frenetic drumming in the final chorus and be in no doubt that this is her most fully realised record yet.

How refreshing then to discover that the whole thing was committed to tape in roughly a fortnight. It seems that although Orton has been playing with some of these songs for at least two years, all it needed was the flinty-voiced northeasterner to find the right somebody to spark off. After abortive sessions with Adem and Four Tet’s Kieran Hebden, Orton teamed up with producer Jim O’Rourke (most recently a member of a resurgent Sonic Youth) and the magic, it seems, finally happened. Given that O’Rourke’s past production duties have lurched between disparate styles, his relatively hands-off approach to Comfort Of Strangers does Orton many great favours. Never before has she sounded so nuanced and personable, even on her benchmark album Central Reservation. She’s always been a fantastic singer, but by allowing her vocals more space in the mix, more prominence, she’s nothing short of sensational. Sure, she still has a tendency to slur out some of the lyrics, but her economy of diction works in these sparser surroundings.

Lead single ‘Conceived’ is simply the best thing she’s released in years, with its insistent drum beat, handsome swells of organ and strings, huge singalong chorus and the sweet trill of O’Rourke’s marimba. The soft brushed cymbals, gently plucked guitar and sparkly piano interludes of the sumptuous title track are downright irresistible. Lyrically, too, it’s a beauty. The plaintive chorus of “I’d rather have no love than messing with the wrong stuff, it’s just the comfort of strangers” is a perfect example of Orton’s skilfully understated and tender confessionals. Elsewhere, ‘Heartland Truckstop’ is a neat continuation of the road trip iconography that runs through her work like a dusky beautiful bruise, while ‘Shopping Trolley’ and ‘Pieces Of Sky’ echo the celestial fixation of her earlier songs like ‘Galaxy Of Emptiness’ and ‘Stars All Seem To Weep’. Happily, it’s equally impossible to single out a favourite track as it is to pick out a weak one. ‘Heart Of Soul’ is certainly a contender for the former honour; a strident, near-anthemic little number, it boasts some of Orton’s most convincing vocals and lyrical gems like “you can’t watercolour a firecracker” and the commanding refrain of “I don’t care how much religion you’ve got, you gotta put a little love in your heart” all add up to something pretty damn special.

That said, this won’t be to everyone’s taste. Even a decade on from her unit-shifting debut Trailer Park, some will still bemoan the exclusion of any electronica here, but it’s plainly obvious and has been for some time now that Orton has no interest in rejuvenating the hackneyed ‘comedown queen’ tag ungainly thrust upon her in the old days. Now in her mid-30s, Orton has shown with Comfort Of Strangers that she has something exquisite and different to bring to the Big Chill table. And it’s better than anyone could ever have foreseen.

Alan Pedder
originally published February 16th, 2006 

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Beth Orton
Live at Warwick Arts Centre ••••
February 17th, 2006

Listening to Beth Orton is a far more involving experience than simply hearing a collection of words and harmonies; she is a quaint reminder of all things female, lacking in all that is contemporary ‘celebrity’, and displaying instead a welcome vulnerability and her uniquely self-conscious form of storytelling. In a week that was filled with gossip magazines and tabloids splashed with headlines regarding Chantelle’s post-‘Big Brother’ faux-fame antics and Paris Hilton stumbling all over the autocue at the Brits, I was eager to see something distinctly natural, something with experience, emotional awareness and intellect. A 40-minute dose of Beth Orton, complete with faded jeans and scuffed worn shoes, turns out to be the perfect medicine. Not a miniature poodle or footballer boyfriend in sight!

The return of the old-style Orton, the one who sang about a ‘Galaxy Of Emptiness’ and a particular ‘Sweetest Decline’, has been warmly received by most. At last, the somewhat weaker and commercially-targeted Daybreaker can now be safely placed at the back of the CD shelf, as her voice is once again divine and jam-packed with emotion, as if she’s been swept right back to her younger days with a brain overflowing with fresh experience. Tonight, Orton performs a welcome selection of tracks from new album Comfort Of Strangers with a subtle confidence, as if deep down she knows that the audience is going to adore every moment of her unpretentious, personal performance. Even if she doesn’t, she needn’t worry. Songs such as ‘Worms’, a passionate verbal attack, and ‘Absinthe’, a bittersweet exploration of love, have the devoted crowd fixated. Her gangly, waif-like physical presence is contrasted by her haunting voice and desire to share her trauma and elation with every member of the audience. Notes are passed to her mid-song that cause her to leap about and start up mini conversations throughout the set, and she is happy to perform any favourites suggested by the crowd. The one thing she does deny her fans is a rendition of her classic, poignant love song ‘Central Reservation’; with a semi-smile and a cringe, she informs us that she has “something against that one now”.

In each tiny instance of a shift in mood, Orton allows us an extra inch of insight into her unusual and often overlooked talent. She may not grace the gossip columns from day to day, but her fame and what made her so gently revered is delivered with grace and a reminder of what ingredients are needed to make a modern, admirable woman.

Laura-May Coope
originally published March 8th, 2006 

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Joan Osborne
Pretty Little Stranger ••
Vanguard

As far as guilty pleasures go, the following is quite an admission: I really like Joan Osborne’s 1994 globe conquering track ‘One Of Us’. There’s something about the brazenness of a song that closes with the line “nobody calling on the phone, except the pope maybe in Rome”, that I admire. And what’s more, I actually really like the album it comes from. There are four or five songs on Relish besides ‘One Of Us’ that are much less mawkish and show a Joplin-esque knack for the blues. The title track of Pretty Little Stranger contains lines that, although less evangelical than ‘One Of Us’, are no less naively charming: “There is a young boy who used to ride the A train / I want to tag him like a tiger / so I can track him as he moves around the city / so I can guard him like an angel”, bears a slightly stalkerish sense of fun. But Osborne, for some reason, can get away with this sort of thing. Perhaps it is the simple, unostentatious arrangements, or maybe it is that big, ballsy, bluesy voice. 

Pretty Little Stranger is Osborne’s country album, and she has gone at it with some gusto. With backing from Allison Kraus and Rodney Crowell and heavy use of slide guitar on a cover of Kris Kristofferson’s ‘Please Don’t Tell Me How The Story Ends’, this album is pitched firmly in the sort of territory inhabited by Rosanne Cash, Alison Moorer and Shelby Lynne. Following in the torch singing country tradition established by Patsy Cline, Cash and Moorer in particular have wrested the genre from the trite and formulaic grasp of establishment Nashville, using their excellent songwriting, interpretation and powerful voices to bring tales of sorrow, injustice, loss and tough love to an audience more used to candyfloss serenades to the singer’s cousin and power ballads about hog wrasslin’ polished to within an inch of their shelf lives. However, Osborne in no way achieves the same heights as Cash and Moorer, and rather, she sits with the latter’s sister Lynne, frequently missing the point of what she seems to be trying to do. Rather, Pretty Little Stranger becomes a showcase for Osborne’s big voice.

It is a common affliction among people possessed of such voices, that they feel they have to use them all the time (cf. Tina Turner, Anastasia). ‘Shake The Devil’ is a prime example. A delightful, folky acoustic number penned by Osborne herself, it would have benefited from a much subtler take; the anguished vocals are obvious and brash. Don’t get me wrong, a big voice can be a remarkable thing – Tina Turner’s ‘River Deep, Mountain High’ is the best recorded vocal of all time (fact!) – but on tender ballads, slow love songs or country acoustic numbers, less can surely be more. 

The more up-tempo songs fare better from the Osborne treatment. ‘After Jane’, a self-penned end-of-an-affair song, has enough backing to carry the weighty pained voice, although the song itself is a bit weak. ‘Who Divided’ is a fantastic honky tonk take on the matter of heartbreak in which Osborne rises mightily to the challenge of the clamorous backing and captures the wry humour of the song. It’s a pity that so many of the other Osborne originals on the album lack finesse; while the adolescent poetry can be charming to some extent, the joke wears a little thin over the six compositions here. Covers of Patty Griffin (‘What You Are’), Kristofferson, and ‘Till I Get It Right’ (made famous by Tammy Wynette) illustrate that Osborne can spot a good song, but highlight the failings of her own. And all suffer from the big-voice treatment. ‘What You Are’, however, is a slow-burning delight, replete with cheesy guitar solo and Osborne’s powerful voice veering into ‘80s balladry by the country backroads with shoop shoop backing: another guilty pleasure right there.

Though it is in no way a terrible album, Pretty Little Stranger could have been so much better: a couple fewer self-penned songs and a more sensitive approach to the vocals, and Osborne would be in danger of making a seriously good addition to the slightly leftfield classic country canon. And for a moment on the closing, tender Rodney Crowell-penned ‘When The Blue Hour Comes’, it looks like she has got it right. The voice is fragile, the song is poetic and delicately balanced…and then she reaches the chorus, takes a deep breath and spoils the whole thing. This is an album that those with an ear for a guilty pleasure will want to like much more than they actually do.

Peter Hayward
previously unpublished