Filed under: feature, special | Tags: aimee mann, albums of the decade, alex ramon, amy winehouse, beth gibbons, bjork, camille, cat power, charlotte richardson andrews, chris catchpole, diane cluck, fiona apple, goldfrapp, joanna newsom, lisa germano, loria near, mavis staples, MIA, neko case, nina nastasia, patty griffin, peaches, pj harvey, regina spektor, rhian jones, robbie de santos, rod thomas, shannon wright, terry mulcahy, the knife, tomas slaninka, tori amos, wears the trousers magazine, yeah yeah yeahs
Here’s the fourth and final part of our albums of the decade countdown, 25 albums so fantastic they should have sold millions (and, lo, some of them did!)…
* * *
Maps Of Tacit
[Touch & Go / Quarterstick, 2000]
Distilling everything that was good about her former band Crowsdell and her first album flightsafety, and stripping them of their twee chirpiness and indie-pop sensibilities, Shannon Wright created her finest, and darkest, work in Maps Of Tacit. A multilayered tour de force, the guitar is aggressive without being brash and the creepy, stirring piano swirls with all the innocence and foreboding of a decaying calliope; the overall effect is both intricate and cinematic. Together with some creative use of sampled sounds, dense poetic lyrics and Wright’s alternately silky and caustic vocals, it all adds up to a delightfully chilling labour of love.
Filed under: album, review, video | Tags: 2009, frida hyvönen, kleerup, marit bergman, music, robbie de santos
The Tear Collector •••½
Chances are that you hadn’t heard of Marit Bergman until her guest appearance on the new Kleerup single (or even until now, reading this review), but The Tear Collector is actually her fourth album. Firmly established in Sweden, where she has topped the long-player charts twice and established herself among some more internationally renowned friends including Jens Lekman and Frida Hyvönen. The Tear Collector continues Bergman’s trademark sound of dreamy, folky, sometimes grandiose, often bittersweet, high-calibre pop, a quality that seems almost timeless across the different stylings of the album’s 14 song artillery. Almost by definition, pop music reflects its time or seeks to evoke a different era; The Tear Collector sets a context of its own.
Filed under: feature, interrupting yr broadcast | Tags: interview, music, robbie de santos, robyn
interrupting yr broadcast: robyn
Robyn was just 18 years old when she first hit the UK charts in 1997 with upbeat teeny pop songs like ‘Show Me Love’ and ‘Do You Really Want Me?’. With notorious mogul Max Martin (he of Backstreet Boys and Britney Spears songwriting fame) penning much of this early output, Robyn was little more than a cog (a small but perfectly formed one, of course) in the machinery of the major label pop world. She later moved from RCA to Jive, but after one too many of the fickle industry’s ebb-and-flow cycles, Robyn bought her way out of her contract and took her career into her own hands.
The freedom of being her own boss paid dividends, and handsomely too. Her first self-released album, 2005’s genre-splintering Robyn, was a number one smash in her native Sweden. Word soon spread to foreign climes, much faster than the album itself, which was finally released internationally in April of this year. With a universally acclaimed live show and a near-rabid, if still cult, fanbase, Robyn is loving every minute of her pop resurrection. Three years of getting her hands dirty clearly hasn’t dampened her spirit, her numerous charms or her sparkling star quality.
When Robbie de Santos met up with Robyn at Hoxton Bar & Kitchen for a chat, he found her bursting with non-conformist creativity, wit and intelligence, a mix between the super-professional (telling the bar manager not to interrupt because SHE’S DOING AN INTERVIEW!) and the excitable, enthusiastic artist. It’s precisely this contradiction in her character that makes Robyn one of the planet’s most exhilarating pop stars right now. Here’s what she had to say…
You wrote the songs we love so much on Robyn all the way back in 2004. Is it a bit of a drag to still be playing these three-year old songs or are you still really excited by them?
I am. I mean, you always get tired of your songs after you have lived with them for a while. But the UK release has two new songs (including the new single ‘With Every Heartbeat’, a collaboration with Andreas Kleerup). I’ve been writing new songs and when you come to a new country and you have to do new things and work with new people and work the record in a different way it keeps it fresh. I have my own record company so I get to do it in a way I’ve never done it before… it’s really scary to release an album where nobody knows who you are. You never know what’s going to happen and I still don’t, so I released it to go along with the shows to give people a chance to get to know me and then there’s the MySpace site, trying to get it going in this nice way where you’re in contact with your fans and I wanted to build it slowly.
Do you run the MySpace site yourself?
It’s run together with my management because I don’t have time to be there every day but I’m on there a lot, accepting friend requests and choosing who goes in my Top 8! I’m on there most days though. It takes so much of your time – like it’s suddenly 2am and you’ve been on there for three hours!
The album is very self-referential – there’s ‘Konichiwa Bitches’ and ‘Curriculum Vitae’ – and seems to have a Japanese theme. What inspired that?
It’s not really a Japanese theme, I’m really into manga and cartoons and that whole kind of superhero thing, but the word ‘konichiwa’ came from this Dave Chapelle sketch – I don’t know if you’ve seen it – the different races in the world are fighting over which celebrities belong to which races and so the black community says you can have Michael Jackson if we can have Eminem, and they decide Oprah is white, and nobody can decide whether Tiger Woods is black or Asian. It’s really funny. Then RZA from Wu-Tang Clan came up on stage and they decided he wasn’t black, he was Asian, and he said “konichiwa bitches”. I heard it and just loved those words together. I didn’t have a name for my record company so I took it. But for the album, it’s not really a Japanese theme – it could be just as much punk or hip hop. It could be anything really!
How have you found controlling yourself as an artist? Is it scary? Do you find yourself answering the phone a lot more?
Yeah, it was scary at first. I had to make all these decisions that I’d never had to make before. I wanted to make them but I was kinda unable to. I wanted it to be like this, but when you get that power you realise how hard it can be to tell people what you want and to fire people and decide salaries. It was really something that I had to learn. But now I feel really comfortable in it; it really doesn’t take away from my creative process. It’s probably the other way – it helps me to create an economic situation where I can be creatively safe. I’m not worried about being dropped or doing what other people want me to do. So if you have the energy to really educate yourself and get into this strange world then it really pays off as an artist.
The artwork for the album is harsh and confrontational, but is also very aesthetically stylish. Does this somewhat represent how you would like be perceived – kind of punk, I guess?
I’d love to be considered to be punk! I think that all my life I’ve been in between things. I started out with this whole pop thing with Max Martin but I never felt part of that. But I still wanted to make pop music. I think that sometimes confuses people, but I think pop music can be deep and interesting and still reach a lot of people. That’s probably where I’m trying to be.
Back to Sweden, it’s always had a good reputation for good, pure pop music. Why do you think Swedish pop is received better internationally than, say, German or Russian pop music?
I think it’s about where we are on the map. Like, we’re outside of Europe but we’re very much part of the Western world. So we take bits of that and make it our own, but so do a lot of countries. We’re kinda isolated up there, you know. It’s very dark during the winter and people have to stay inside and do something. It’s a small country, too, and the music business is small. You have to listen to what other people are doing – there’s not that many people doing what you’re doing. You have to mix and that’s what’s kinda creating these meetings between people. You have to be open to things otherwise you’ll be totally alone.
Are you thinking of expanding your label?
Oh no! I don’t want to be a record company boss, that’s the kind of thing I’m trying to move away from. I think every artist should have their own record label. But I helped this friend of mine to release his album in Sweden, but we only sold 50 copies or something horrible! That was a one time thing!…can I ask you, what’s the idea behind the magazine? I had a look on the website and it looked really interesting!
Well, it’s basically all about the fact that women musicians are under-represented in the majority of the music press and so we decided to make a magazine for anyone who’s interested in balancing things out…
That’s great! I thought it was a cool page and when I saw the logo there with the women singing I thought “cool, this is a girls’ thing”, because this discussion is kinda big in Sweden too, like evening out the balance…women are under-represented in a lot of ways.
Last year’s NME ‘cool list’ actually featured five women in the top ten – Kate Jackson from the Long Blondes, Lovefoxxx from CSS, Lily Allen, Karen O and Beth Ditto from the Gossip – but then they went and ruined it with some ridiculous quote where the editor said something about “how great it is that women can rock the stage, even when they’re wearing stilettos”…
[laughs] Oh my god, that’s silly! It’s everywhere, isn’t it? You can’t get away from it; the music industry is just like any other industry. Sweden is such a good country for women and we’re very aware of our position. I think the most important thing is to look at it in a sober way. A lot of times feminism today is just about putting on stilettos and thinking “I’m going to rawk out, I’m going to be a tough girl. I can show my tits”. It’s like, c’mon, feminism is not a statement, it’s about looking at people in the same way. I never get surprised when people are ignorant. I really hope everything is always moving forward. When my great grandmother was born Swedish women couldn’t vote and now I can do things that my mother couldn’t do. I think it’s cool to be a girl right now.
The Knife, who you collaborated with on ‘Who’s That Girl’, are in on the debate too. How did the collaboration come about?
They sent me Deep Cuts, their second album, it just arrived at my house in the post. I had a listen and I loved it; I’d never listened to their music before. I was surprised and I was so happy to hear such good music coming from Sweden, but also it was something I really connected to. It felt familiar and kinda close to me or to what I wanted to do. I really wanted to work with them and told them I wanted to. I called them up and I got this beat from them and I wrote the song to that beat. But it was great working with them and they were a real inspiration in setting up my own record company. I knew I wanted to do it and it was nice to see this band already doing it and having it really work for them the way I wanted it to work for me.
Are there any other Swedish people you’d like to work with like Peter, Bjorn and John or Frida Hyvönen?
I actually worked with Bjorn already – he’s the guy who plays the piano on ‘Jack U Off’ and the ballad version of ‘Be Mine’. I wanted to do some extra stuff for the Swedish ‘Be Mine’ single. I called him and we hooked up in the studio and recorded everything in one day. There’s loads of talented people out there! I’d love to work with Lisa Millberg, the drummer in The Concretes – she plays the drums really well. But I’m so pleased with the people I’m working with at the moment, especially Andreas and Klas (Åhlund, of Stockholm indie legends Teddybears), and The Knife of course. They were great to work with. And Christian Falk.
Robbie de Santos
originally published June 13th, 2007
‘With Every Heartbeat’
Gorgeous acoustic performance of ‘Be Mine’
Filed under: album, back issues, live, review | Tags: a girl called eddy, aids wolf, alan pedder, all about eve, annie, asobi seksu, au revoir simone, christina aguilera, danny weddup, fiona apple, lily allen, lisa komorowska, mina agossi, paul woodgate, robbie de santos, russell barker, tiffany daniels, trevor raggatt
The following reviews were all published on our old website between May 2005 and December 2006.
A Girl Called Eddy
A Girl Called Eddy ••••
Finally, a vibe worth tapping into. In fact, this debut album by New Jersey-born Erin Moran even goes so far as to reclaim the word from the stoned and surreal, bringing it back to the music in style. Make no mistake, this is rainy day music of the highest calibre. From the faux tattered sleeve in, the spirit of 1970s pop chic slinks and shimmies through each song, most often recalling Karen Carpenter at her most Bacharachian, with a nuance of Aimee Mann in the dusky, self-assured vocal.
As with all great records, the styles here are embodied and lived through rather than simply plucked off the peg and crowbarred into. The world-weary whispered vocals on ‘Tears All Over Town’ (one of two songs here taken from her under-the-radar 2002 EP of the same name), the strident rock-tinged ‘The Long Goodbye’ and the soulful swing of the first single, ‘Somebody Hurt You’, seem to ebb and flow effortlessly.
Although such apparent ease could doom a less canny artist to the dreaded coffee table MOR limbo inhabited by Dido and Norah Jones, you get the sense here that Moran has actually lived and breathed these songs. The lump in the throated ‘Kathleen’, for example, is a minor key memoriam to her late mum. Death is also dealt with in the swelling, glorious finale that is ‘Golden’, a masterclass in the art of tension building. Points must also go to the subtle production by Colin Elliot and former Pulp guitarist, Richard Hawley.
Where this album stumbles slightly is that the lyrical hurdle is only half-heartedly jumped and may prove a touch pedestrian for aficionados of more forthright songwriters. ‘Did You See The Moon Tonight?’ is a perfect example of this, yet Moran’s skill as a mood-maker elevates it above the potential blandness to make it the standout cut. In this respect, she perhaps best recalls Chrissie Hynde or PJ Harvey, with whom the delivery is everything.
What this album exemplifies succinctly is that confessional and heartfelt can be done and done well without the bloodletting or shock tactics favoured by some. If you have time to savour the understatements on offer on this solid, hypnotic album, it will grab at your heartstrings. Equally, if you haven’t, frankly, this is wasted as background music and is likely to pass you by. Next time it rains, you know what to do.
originally published May 14th, 2005
Well, You Needn’t ••
Afro-French chanteuse Mina Agossi has been making serious waves on the European jazz circuit with her stripped back, to-the-bone approach to avant-garde jazz. This second album follows hot on the heels of her well-regarded debut Zaboum, taking further and more confident steps along her chosen, and certainly somewhat surrealist pathway. Standards, contemporary covers and original compositions are all present and each is delivered in Agossi’s unmistakable, inimitable style, and therein lies the rub.
There’s simply no arguing with Mina Agossi’s skill as a jazz singer. With such commanding control over her warble cords, it’s certain that to watch her and her band perform these songs in a dark, smoky jazz hole would be an experience equal parts exciting, unsettling and terrifically moving. You’d never quite be sure whether the swirls and pulses conjured would coalesce into perfect, pure jazz or collapse into a trainwreck of cacophony, which frankly would be half the attraction. But as has been proven by many who have come before, it is nigh on impossible to capture the adventure and controlled anarchy of this style of jazz on a recorded format. Sure the notes are all there but the danger is inevitably lacking. So often with more avant-garde or improvisational pieces, a moment that when experienced firsthand seems daring and risqué becomes merely sterile and contrived when frozen in time. Rather than a magnificent, wild snarling beast we’re delivered a shadow, caged and pacing with no small amount of discomfort.
There’s a clutch of more digestible songs such as ‘Drive’, ‘Laundry Man Blues’ and ‘May I Sit At Your Table’, and most likely it’s these that will work best for the casual listener. Other tracks take a rather less palatable approach – on ‘Don’t Look At Me’, Agossi’s voice dissolves from an appealingly sultry croon to a wailing maelstrom not unlike scathing electric guitar feedback before resolving back into the calmer vocal line, while on the title track she employs an admittedly stunning scat technique on top of the skeletal backing. It’s initially impressive but soon wears thin, taking on a tonality more Crazy Frog than Ella Fitzgerald. This is a double irony since the vocal on the mostly a cappella ‘After You’ve Gone’ bears more than a passing resemblance to the grand old lady of jazz’s velvet tones. Interestingly, Mina’s signature approach works pretty well on a cover of Jimi Hendrix’s ‘Voodoo Chile’. Her voice is given free reign and she achieves that rarest of things, an effective jazz interpretation of an iconic rock song. The fearless innovator in the late guitar hero would surely have approved.
Now back to that sorry looking rating. On a purely technical basis, this album is clearly deserving of praise. The sparse production is crystal clear, letting every nuance shine through, and Agossi’s tightly skilled band are beyond reproach. For the jazz aficionado with leanings towards the modern and avant-garde forms, this will be manna from heaven. It really is that well done. But a casual listener, including myself, could find themselves enjoying each successive listen less and less. Elements and devices that first added interest soon begin to grate and it’s a real shame. Those in the know in the jazz world will continue to beat a path to the door of Mina Agossi’s concerts and form orderly queues at their local record stores to get their copies of her albums. For anyone else with merely a passing interest in the lighter ends of the jazz spectrum, the question remains: should you buy this album for your listening pleasure? And the honest answer is well, you needn’t…
originally published June 8th, 2006
Back To Basics •••
More superficial than supafly, it appears that the new Mrs Bratman has been sucked into her own marketing tailspin. The frustration is that it need not have been the case. The story is well known; using the nostalgic yesteryear approach and namechecking the likes of Ella, Etta, Aretha et al., Christina hopes to cement her own place in the American musical songbook and at the same time maintain the superior position she achieved in critical circles with the ridiculously successful Stripped.
Two points of interest are worth noting; in the majority of this overlong album (was a double really necessary?), RCA appears to be milking the sacred… well, you know… perhaps a little too much, maybe because it knows it may be the last throw of the dice. If it is, it’s a shame, because Aguilera’s music often stands up for itself without the need for props to past icons. Secondly, none of the music could hope to seriously offer a fitting tribute to them anyway, as it retains the smooth, polished production of 21st Century American R‘n’B and the funked-up beat manifesto beloved of the 13-25 year old market segment, many of whom wouldn’t know Aretha from a reefer. When was she ever polished? When was Gaye anything but a tortured artist spilling his guts out for the sport of record producers? Back To Basics is marketing a mimic and a fashion statement, nothing more.
And yet, the music is good. It’s not Stripped, but it’s good. First single ‘Ain’t No Other Man’ struts four-inch stillettos over the parquet flooring, ‘Slow Down Baby’ cleverly turns the boy-wants-girl scenario on its head, and ‘Nasty Naughty Boy’ is, yes, teen porn for the masses; I quote: “gimme a little taste / put your icing on my cake”. Consistently sassy and sometimes downright sexy, Aguilera pouts, preens and warbles it up when necessary with a voice that can cause a few tingles up the spine. Witness the use of her lower register on ‘Oh Mother’, another in a long line of tributes to her hard-done-by parent, or the cod-gospel ‘Makes Me Wanna Pray’, which gives a hefty nod to Christina’s real idol, Guy Ritchie’s ball and chain.
There’s a very, very good single CD in here. E-mail me and I’ll give you a listing. In the meantime, I wish Aguilera didn’t feel the need to keep proving herself. She’s admired for her strength, even by music fans such as myself who wouldn’t normally listen to this genre. She’s got a good voice and a good business brain. She’s got a husband and money in the bank and she looks good. If she’s smart enough, she’ll turn all that into a career, with or without the enforced endorsement of past kings and queens of the Billboard charts. Ignore the hype. If you want Back To Basics in your collection, buy it because it’s her.
originally published September 17th, 2006
The Lovvers LP ••½
Lovepump United / Skin Graft
Dissonance can refer to many things; in psychology, it represents a state of mental conflict, in poetry it implies a combination of sounds that clash, and in music it’s a harmony, chord or interval that is unstable and unharmonised. In all instances, it represents something that is conflicting, and dissonant is the ideal adjective for which to characterise The Lovvers LP.
There is always an element of novelty when musicians reject the conventional verse-chorus-verse paradigm, and even more so when they also discard melody, euphony and a tuning pedal. But for AIDS Wolf, this is all according to plan. The raw cacophony that calls itself The Lovvers LP isn’t the result of a badly made album or maladroit musicians, it is the album’s contrived musical premise. As if pulling out random chords from a surrealist’s hat, there is little order to be found here. With the exception of the 12-minute epic ‘Some Sexual Drawings’, every song lasts less than two minutes, and, as a result, many of them seem unfinished and lost in their own self-perpetuating chaos.
‘Special Deluxe’, as singer Chloe Lum is known, along with bandmates ‘Hiroshima Thunder’, ‘Barbarian Destroyer’ and ‘Him, the Maji’ comprise this noisy foursome who would describe themselves as a commingling of noise and rock. Lum and Thunder (aka Yannick Desranleau to his mum) are the creators of the highly popular Montreal poster design shop Serigraphie Populaire, or Seripop, and the column inches afforded to their art in the band’s press is nearly equal to the attention afforded to the music. While the cover art of The Lovvers LP is certainly interesting enough, it is really the naked photograph of the band on the inside that fascinates. Scrawled next to it in the bottom corner are the words “Stay freeeee dudes”. Perhaps this is a proposal, or a warning, to open your mind and allow the soundtrack of your nightmares to manifest itself, because once you’re done with The Lovvers LP, you’re going to need some time for mental recovery.
AIDS Wolf macerates our senses and our wits. ‘Chinese Roulette’ is a series of scraping, screechy high notes superimposed over declining scales and frenzied drums where the only audible lyric is, appropriately, “flinch”. ‘We Multiply’ is a perplexing battle of guitars where Lum’s howling vocals are once again needlessly drowned out. Both ‘Opposing Walls’ and ‘Spit Tastes Like Metal’ feature frantic needling guitars that, at high volume, may well induce involuntary eye spasms. Rescuing the album from bleeding ear oblivion are ‘Pantymind’ and ‘Vampire King’; the former’s catchy riffs explode into a chaotic sea of noise and are complimented by delicate clanging cymbals, while the latter is packed with fun and sharply pointed chords that slowly dissolve into solemn madness and disarray.
The Lovvers LP is a dizzying whirlwind of noises that give you the sensation of stumbling through a dysfunctional house of magic mirrors in the circus that, post-AIDS Wolf, could well be your own mind. Whether intentional or not, the amalgamation of repetitious needling notes, confusing, chaotic time signatures, eruptions of clamour and incomprehensible vocals leave the listener with a feeling of deficiency. Certainly, the album is made to appeal to only a very select audience, and there are some very interesting musical ideas here and much to be said about the aesthetic statement the band is making. However, as a musical work it is strenuous to endure, let alone take pleasure in. It seems AIDS Wolf still has a way to go before affirming a musical expression that is truly equal to their artistic one. The Lovvers LP is a mad conductor knocking at your door; for many, the only escape lays in the ‘STOP’ button.
originally published May 1st, 2006
All About Eve
Keepsakes: A Collection •••½
It is a universally acknowledged truth that a record company in possession of a good back catalogue must be in want of a career-spanning ‘best of’ compilation. All too often the process of compiling such a package bears all the hallmarks of a minor Jane Austen character’s courtship – more to do with expedience, contractual obligations and financial security than any great level of passion. The formula is well established; gather together all of the hits, sprinkle in a few album tracks and bung on a couple of songs that weren’t really good enough even for B-sides, labelling the latter as ‘previously unreleased’ to ensure the established fans will buy in to the party. Exceptions to this rule are few and far between. Fortunately, Keepsakes happens to be one of them.
Credit for this is down to All About Eve frontwoman Julianne Regan’s determination to make it more than a mercenary exercise. Consulting the fans on the band’s official website unlocked the power of informed opinions and interesting choices, all of which make Keepsakes a worthy addition to the band’s canon. This double-disc set follows the band’s career in chronological order, and all the expected hits are here. However, there’s still plenty to engage the hardcore fan. In some cases, the obvious choices are made more interesting by choosing a rare extended 12″ mix – such as for the opener ‘Flowers In Our Hair’. Elsewhere there are live recordings or radio sessions alongside modern reworkings.
CD1 blankets the band’s early years and their most commercially successful phase. Cherry-picking tracks from their eponymous 1988 debut and the excellent follow-up, Scarlet & Other Stories, it serves to demonstrate what a good band they were and how sadly underrated they’ve been. Certainly, there are depths to All About Eve beyond the hauntingly beautiful acoustic compilation staple, ‘Martha’s Harbour’. Their songs retain a certain timeless quality, making them as accessible to new listeners today as they were when first released nearly 20 years ago. Of course there are sonic elements that peg them to the late 1980s – heavily chorused guitars, big gated reverbs on the snares – but the strength of the songwriting and Regan’s never less than heavenly vocals lifts them beyond that.
Actually, it’s hard to praise the quality of Regan’s pure, clear singing highly enough. In interviews she has often referred to her diffidence towards live performance and her struggles with stage fright; however, the live tracks included here belie any timidness, showing them to be an impressive live act, capable of rocking far beyond their twee Goth-folkie stereotype. The second disc launches with ‘Farewell Mr Sorrow’, marking a watershed in the band’s history – the departure of founder member, guitarist Tim Bricheno, who was replaced by Marty Willson-Piper from The Church. The change in personnel was accompanied by an altered sound that shifted towards a more commercial, pre-Madchester indie-pop.
The songs from 1991’s Touched By Jesus show a record label-encouraged move away from folky acoustic noodlings towards a harder, electric feel. Although not a huge commercial success, it did produce some dividends. ‘Farewell Mr Sorrow’, a stinging riposte to Regan’s former guitarist/lover, remains a perfect slice of jangle-pop that, if justice were served, should be hailed alongside contemporary songs by The La’s et al. There is much to admire from this section of All About Eve’s history, particularly ‘Wishing The Hours Away’, which benefits from a liberal sprinkling of Dave Gilmour’s unmistakable guitar sound. Ironic, then, that the band’s subsequent move to a more psychedelic, electro-tinged sound on 1992’s Ultraviolet is marked by a previously unreleased version of Pink Floyd’s classic, ‘See Emily Play’. Even here, though, the chord structures, guitar sounds and Regan’s always-beautiful voice retain the band’s hallmark.
The album closes with 2004’s abortive comeback single ‘Let Me Go Home’ and two new tracks, ‘Keepsakes’ and ‘Raindrops’, that fittingly avoid any foolish attempt to rehash their early days. All in all, Keepsakes is an effective summary, full of gems for casual and avid listeners alike. Also available is a limited edition run containing an additional DVD with videos of all the band’s singles and a range of live/TV studio appearances, including the famous ‘Top Of The Pops’ taping of ‘Martha’s Harbour’ where no one thinks to cue in the band or provide them with music to mime to – oops! Despite a muddy sound quality that betrays the age of these films they make a satisfying addition to the CD and are guaranteed to bring out the inner pre-Raphaelite in anyone.
originally published May 24th, 2006
Alright, Still •••••
With her debut album Alright, Still Lily Allen has officially established herself as the Queen of London. She may be Keith Allen’s daughter (and so unavoidably categorised alongside fellow ‘fame borrowers’ Peaches Geldof, Lizzie Jagger and Kelly Osbourne) but it’s her personable character and musical talent that has propelled her album to the top of the charts. She’s genre defying: indie kids love her, mainstream listeners fight over her gig tickets and even the Queen invites her to parties. She isn’t unbearably considerate or inconsiderate about bad reviews and she doesn’t let fame go to her head. After all, she’s been wearing the same Reebok trainers for the past year. Neither does she succumb to the pressures of being an admired female; ‘Everything’s Just Wonderful’ may seem as though she’s contemplating weight loss, but just one look at her downing beer and chain smoking onstage tells us she’s too strong to give in to societal pressures. In every sense she keeps it 4 REAL.
Throughout the album Allen’s Lahndan accent is paraded both loudly and proudly, causing a certain amount of controversy in the process with critics claiming she’s copying the likes of The Streets. Truth is, Allen is simply one of the first female artists to tackle the chav culture head on. She is also one of the few young artists unafraid to give a very blunt, honest and not-dictated-by-management opinion on everyone and everything she meets. Who needs songs about old news like Top Shop girls and binge drinking when you have a witty, spectacularly real lady singing about embracing the ‘bad’ side of London (‘LDN’) and her little brother smoking dope (‘Alfie’)?
Trading on Allen’s unflinching brutal honesty is the album’s major selling point. She’s verbally attacked practically everyone she’s met along the way to the top: she’s waged a war with Girls Aloud, claimed (probably justifiably) that ex-Libertine Carl Barat is an egotist and, hilariously, spat on Peaches Geldof’s shoes. Yet, in spite of all her newly acquired enemies and their apparent popularity among the youth of Britain, Alright, Still has been an unqualified success story. Why? Because kids wanted some spokesperson, male or female, that did all of these things. Everyone has a little red devil on his or her shoulder, whispering that the girl on stage wearing Gucci thinks she’s it but equally thinks that she’s part of every culture within the gates of London. With her reggae, pop and R’n’B routes Lily successfully asserts her point of view and generally mouths off. Bravo! She could spit on my shoes any day.
Live at the Magnet Club, Berlin •••½
October 26th, 2005
Annie is an odd ‘un. On one hand, she’s been proclaimed by many to be the saviour of modern pop, with this year’s kitsch electro debut, Anniemal, receiving widespread broadsheet acclaim. On the other hand, she has yet to appear on Top Of The Pops, she writes her own material, runs her own club night in Bergen, Norway, and, when playing live, finds herself on stages more accustomed to unwashed indie sorts, rather than the aircraft hanger-like arenas of her pop princess peers. Add to that the fact that her Richard X-produced single, ‘Chewing Gum’, is a favourite in the cool London indie clubs like Trash and White Heat, and it’s clear she’s no Rachel Stevens.
With her album hitting the German shops in September, almost six months after its release in the UK (where it has yet to make an impact), Annie made a trip to the country as part of the ‘Monsters of Spex’ tour with Danish punk-funk newcomers, WhoMadeWho, for the influential leftfield music magazine, Spex. Despite having released her first single, ‘The Greatest Hit’, in 1999, it wasn’t until this year that Annie has begun to play live. At first, so uncomfortable was she with being on stage that she would sing from the DJ booth. However, by the time the tour touched down in Berlin, she was dancing and singing like a bona fide popstar on the Magnet Club’s tiny stage. But there was no suspended-in-air entrance – she arrived from under a banner strewn over the headline act’s drum kit – and there were no dancers. Only her longtime collaborator Timo, playing with keys and samples, and an aging rock guitarist joined her. None of the trappings were needed in the end; Annie utterly inhabited the space. Charismatic and involving, she often made eye contact with the dancing front row fans and smiling, pointing her fingers as though she was playing a stadium and giggling at her own mistakes.
With a heavy cold straining her vocals and explosions of coughing between every song, the show was not especially polished, especially in light of the additional sound problems. But despite her obvious frustration, Annie duly proved her indie credentials by soldiering on in the face of hitches that would probably cause Madonna to throw the most embarrassing of tantrums. It’s a brave move, but more importantly, it left the crowd of curious music fans and determined Zeitgeist spotters with a warm fuzzy impression.
With new song ‘The Wedding’ (taken from her recently released DJ Kicks compilation) getting rapturous whoops and applause, it seems that Annie’s already formidable acclaim and support will only grow. The game of pop stardom is one of chance without that cynical major label backing, but Annie is good for a gamble. Global adulation and the iconic stature of her idol Debbie Harry is waiting in the wings, but for now it seems this pop idealist is happy to take the Earth one indie kid at a time, Vorsprung durch Musik.
Robbie de Santos
originally published December 19th, 2005
Extraordinary Machine ••••
The birth of Fiona Apple’s third album follows what you might call a somewhat complicated pregnancy. If you were prone to brazen understatement, that is. Originally finished in the summer of 2003, already four years on from 1999’s attention-grabbing When The Pawn Hits The Conflict Blah Blah Blah…, the Jon Brion-produced originals were rejected by (quite possibly deaf) Sony executives because they couldn’t hear a single. So, rather than put faith in their already multi-platinum selling charge, the tapes were allegedly put in a box stamped ‘Don’t Open Ever, Or Else’ and locked in a big steel vault. Wisely, Brion leaked this information to the fans, who promptly drummed up an unprecedented protest and bombarded the suits at Sony with thousands of plastic apples, each bearing the name of an outraged signatory. Things became more curious when a leaked version of the album found its way into the hands of a radio programmer and subsequently onto the internet. Rumours then abounded that Apple had given up music altogether, but when Brion claimed that some of the leaked MP3s were not his originals, a rat was swiftly smelled.
As it turns out, Apple had sort of given up. In her own words, she was “sitting [on her sofa] watching Columbo in my bathrobe!”, but after the Free Fiona campaign filtered through to her, that famous fiery spirit reignited and the gears of Extraordinary Machine finally started to shift once more. Two new producers, Mike Elizondo (Eminem, Macy Gray, Nelly Furtado) and Brian Kehew (Beck, Air, Eleni Mandell), were brought in and the album underwent a near-complete reconstruction. Ultimately, despite a painful gestation that could have destroyed its cohesion, it’s a relief to find that the album delivers what it was always meant to – pure, unadulterated Apple.
With its odd rhythms and joyful tones, the utterly unique opener and title track spelunks along merrily and will knock flat anyone who still believes that Apple is some dark and tortured queen. Here, her vocals have grown thicker and loftier with age and she sounds, well, happier than ever. Fans of the leaked MP3s will recognise the hallmarks of Jon Brion’s production, the only other relic of which, ‘Waltz (Better Than Fine)’, rounds out the album in style. Of course, the angsty Apple of old is here too, and her highly publicised break-up with film director Paul Thomas Anderson is an obvious inspiration. The melancholic ‘Window’ positively drips with despair, while the fine first single ‘O’ Sailor’ is an archetypal breakup song that finds Apple lamenting with a maturity never before seen. In fact, it is the lyrical content that elevates Extraordinary Machine above her earlier work. Gone is the well-thumbed thesaurus-inspired, bloated teenage verse that pocked many of her previous songs. Apple is a woman now and rather than soak in her own sadness, she uses her words more strategically, battling the blows of a broken relationship with a logical finesse.
The beauty of having Extraordinary Machine out there in both its forms is that it should just about please everyone – fans have the liberty of cherry picking their favourite versions, be they the bold Brion originals or this stately, more considered collection that Apple herself is so proud of. Although it may not be the pinnacle of what she is capable of, the promise and ebullient sadness of these songs marks an impressive entry in the oeuvre of an artist quite extraordinary too.
originally published November 7th, 2005
Currently garnering lots of rave reviews in America and recently selling out a string of shows at the Bowery, Asobi Seksu are super hot property and most definitely in vogue. Never heard of them? Never fear! Here’s a few factoids for you: Asobi Seksu means ‘playful sex’ in colloquial Japanese; there’s four of them; frontwoman Yuki Chikudate sings in both English and Japanese; and the band’s 2004 self-titled debut earned them a reputation as modern-day shoegazers, a pigeonhole that they try hard to break out of on this rockier follow-up.
So keen are they to hammer this point home that their press release emphatically states that the band “have outgrown the comparisons to My Bloody Valentine and Lush”, but to these ears that’s not altogether the case. There are several parallels with Lush’s Lovelife in particular, but Asobi Seksu are more sonically and structurally adventurous and pack a more powerful and insistent punch, ratcheting up the noise level more than Lush ever did. Come the midpoint of ‘Red Sea’, for example, Mitch Spivak’s frenetic drumming and James Hannah’s guitars are creating such a maelstrom of curiously melodic noise that you wonder where on the earth the track can possibly go from there; the answer is into a plunging sea of reverb and feedback. Fantastic! ‘Exotic Animal Paradise’, on the other hand, is every bit as beautiful as its title would suggest, for the first two minutes at least, shimmering languidly and recalling Yo La Tengo at their most perfectly poppy before going off on a tangent with a sudden and exhilarating twist of manic energy.
Listeners not au fait with the Japanese language might find it a little more difficult to engage with some of the songs, but the impassioned soundscapes and squalling guitars carry more than enough emotional charge to render this minor concern practically irrelevant. ‘New Years’, for example, is one of the album’s highlights; a soaring wall of guitars is overtaken towards the end of the song by feedback that sucks in the sounds around it like a black hole, only for the melody to re-emerge even more powerfully. Even if you don’t understand what Chikudate is saying, her voice lends meaning to the words with vocals that are sweet but edged with a knowing tone, sometimes reminiscent of The Cardigans’ Nina Persson.
Citrus is very much an album for these times. If Asobi Seksu can be lumped in with the footwear fixated crowd, it’s only because they’re the most forward-looking shoegazers of 2006 – how’s that for a paradox? – and certainly not looking to retread the steps of their predecessors. Even if they were, you could guarantee that the shoes on their eight well-turned heels would be oh so terribly chic.
originally published March 7th, 2006
Au Revoir Simone
Verses Of Comfort, Assurance & Salvation ••••
Welcome to the keyboard overload of Erika, Annie and Heather, the three members of Au Revoir Simone. Or to put it another way, alight here for Super Casioworld. Maybe this is the future sound of Brooklyn, but more than likely it’s simply the audioscape for their private little world. Named after a tiny book of Biblical prose, this debut mini-album was recorded in a shower stall (converted into a vocal booth with the aid of a few handy quilts) in their manager’s basement apartment. Now if that doesn’t rack up the intrigue as to what it actually sounds like, maybe nothing will. So if you’re still with us, read on…
Lead track ‘Backyards Of Our Neighbours’ starts with a mere hiss of synth behind the sweetest voice imaginable as it sings about cherry trees and dreams come true. It’s the sound of having your cake and eating it, with a cherry on top and lashings of cream. Next up, ‘Hurricanes’ crackles and pops, while the singer struggles a little to keep up. It employs a ‘la la la’ chorus (always a surefire hit) before it hops, skips and changes tack completely – the music skitters while the vocalist intones, “this message is for all the people, the people who are always waiting”. There’s also a charming keyboard interlude, which may sound like an odd thing to say about a synth-based album, but the moment when things get stripped back and become even purer.
At this point, perhaps I should apologise for not picking out who sings what, but all three blend together so well that it’s difficult to distinguish between them. Whoever sings on ‘Disco Song’ makes a very good job of making the tune sound like something by Piney Gir, complimented by some lovely harmonies while the words “and you say” are buffeted from speaker to speaker to quite disorientating effect. ‘Where You Go’ proves to be a pivotal point. An interesting turn up for the books, it’s an icy slab of electro reminiscent of Ladytron, and marks the start of some ambitious moments where Au Revoir Simone break out of their self-imposed shackles. ‘Back In Time’ is a hushed, hymn-like mantra about not going over old ground, especially in relationships. ‘Winter Song’ couldn’t be more aptly titled, conjuring up images of snowbound scenes as it shuffles along. And ‘Sleep Al Mar’ is a sensual, Spanish-sounding tune that may well be about Mexican boys if I’m hearing things correctly. The slow synth blues of ‘Stay Golden’ wraps things up.
Three girls, as many keyboards, a drum machine and hand percussion. Bet you never thought that would work did you? But it does, beautifully.
originally published March 7th, 2006
Filed under: album, back issues, live, review | Tags: alex ramon, ane brun, anja mccloskey, barefoot, bat for lashes, be good tanyas, be your own PET, bellrays, bettie serveert, birdie busch, bodixa, broadcast, callum sinclair, cathy burton, corinne bailey rae, emma bunton, gary munday, gem nethersole, jane birkin, jenny beck, joan baez, kate bush, mari boine, matthew hall, moya brennan, paul woodgate, robbie de santos, russell barker, sam brown, sam obernik, stephen collings, tiffany daniels, trevor raggatt, vashti bunyan
The following reviews were all published on our old website between May 2005 and December 2006.
Bowery Songs •••
Live albums are notoriously contentious; allowing the artist freedom to digress at will and maybe even include some unexpected or long awaited treats, such release carry with them a great responsibility. We music fans are a ravenous bunch, each gifted with the ability to comprise our own perfect setlist, should said artist ever stumble upon our rambling message board postings. Most artists, however, show no regard for our unique talents, the live release serving only as a greatest hits showcase with somewhat wobblier vocals. This could never be said of Joan Baez though. Forty plus years into her career, she has compiled a live set that it is both expansive and timely, with more than a passing nod to requests from her fans.
Bowery Songs is her first live disc in a decade, recorded the night after the US re-elected George Bush in 2004 at New York’s Bowery Ballroom. The context obviously informs the evening’s song selection, nowhere more so than on Steve Earle’s ‘Christmas In Washington’ (“It’s Christmastime in Washington / the Democrats rehearsed / gettin’ into gear for four more years / things not gettin’ worse”), but then politics has been the foundation of her entire career and as such this is typical, if reliable, Baez fare. Instead, the heart of the album undoubtedly lies in her menacing rendition of Natalie Merchant’s ‘Motherland’, which Baez imbues with an almost apocalyptic sense of loss. It makes you wonder what sort of album she could make if she stepped out of her comfort zone a little more often.
In addition to the more recent material, fans are treated to four oft-requested but never before recorded songs, most notably ‘Jerusalem’ – another Steve Earle track – that concludes proceedings on a rousing note. Baez is a remarkable conduit for both old and new songwriting talent, making classics like ‘Joe Hill’ (sung by Baez at Woodstock) sound ever relevant and the newer material seem like it’s long been part of her repertoire.
This is at least her eighth live album and, as is the theme with her live releases, it functions as a snapshot in time. For a more comprehensive record of what Baez can really do as a performer, check out From Every Stage. For the time being, however, this is a solid collection of songs that really only hints at her greatness.
originally published on March 19th, 2006
Live at Brighton Dome •••••
March 6, 2006
The palpable shared excitement of an audience whose ages spanned at least five decades was evidence in itself that Joan Baez’s appeal has never been limited, as some have naively suggested, to those who first encountered her music 40 years ago. When an artist is preceded onstage by a steaming cup of tea and still needs to take three bows before she can even begin to sing, you know that you’re due a remarkable evening. Accompanied by Erik Della Penna on guitars and lap steel and Graham Maby on bass, the setup was different from the percussion-heavy approach to Baez’s last tour and was perhaps the better for it; however, the phrase ‘you can’t improve on perfection’ was clearly invented for the legendary singer-songwriter-activist.
Joan’s empathetic yet fiery personality shone through as she was lovingly heckled from the start by a gentleman who enthusiastically insisted upon ‘welcoming’ her between and even during songs and then proceeded to randomly call out ‘Judy Collins’ at inopportune moments, to which Joan replied, “that’s not me but Judy’s a great friend of mine, if it helps”. Having warned him not to get too excited, she dissipated any annoyance in the audience and ultimately showed her great sense of humour and all-encompassing love for humanity by declaring, “I’m quite sure he has a good heart”.
Opening with the classic ‘The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down’, the audience needed little encouragement to join in and continued to do so as the first half of the two- hour unbroken set mixed newer songs such as ‘The Scarlet Tide’, Gillian Welch’s murderous ‘Caleb Meyer’ (followed by ‘Fennario’ and ‘Miserable’ with a joke that Joan does not deal in cheerful songs) and Steve Earle’s politically biting ballad ‘Christmas In Washington’ with favourites spanning each decade of Joan’s career to date. ‘God On Our Side’, a haunting version of Johnny Cash’s ‘Long Black Veil’, ‘Joe Hill’ and ‘Love Is Just A Four Letter Word’ had the audience enthralled and singing along, as did a wonderful impromptu cover of ‘Stand By Me’, rescued from the earlier soundcheck. Small touches like this added to the feeling that Joan continues to be a thoroughly organic artist, never repeating her most popular songs ad nauseam but genuinely connecting with her audience to interact with them through her music. This was most apparent when she rearranged her set, omitting songs that she did not feel fitted with the mood in the auditorium.
The sheer clarity of her soaring folk-soprano voice mesmerised the room as Joan, now alone onstage, stepped away from the microphone and effortlessly filled the space with an a capella version of ‘Swing Low Sweet Chariot’. It seemed impossible to follow such a performance but the subsequent heartbreaking, slightly slowed versions of ‘Jesse’ and ‘Sir Galahad’ were both enriched with the kind of tone that is only heard when an artist truly connects with the images behind each word that is sung. It was, in a word, delicious. The band returned for rousing versions of ‘Hard Rain’ and ‘Jerusalem’ before a determined encore brought them back for ‘Gracias A La Vida’ and a balladic farewell as Joan mimed that it was time for her to sleep and for us to as well. Throughout the evening it was as though each trademark expressive hand gesture spun invisible webs out into the audience and wrapped us up tighter with inimitable magic. If she is due to be in a town near you (or even not so near), do whatever you have to do to get a ticket; beg, borrow or steal, you’ll be very glad you did.
originally published April 26th, 2006
Corinne Bailey Rae
Corinne Bailey Rae •••
It seems that writing about Corinne Bailey Rae without throwing in the names of every legendary black singer since recording began is the reviewer’s equivalent of eating a jam doughnut without licking your lips. Record company hyperbole is something we’ve come to expect with high profile launches of new artists, but comparisons aside, the buzz surrounding Bailey Rae is largely on her own merits. Her Like A Star EP (the title track of which fittingly opens the album) has been floating around since last November, garnering interest on both sides of the Atlantic. Domestically at least, this was mainly aroused on the back of a last minute appearance on ‘Later With… Jools Holland’ in the place of an unwell Sinéad O’Connor. It’s interesting that fellow EMI artist KT Tunstall also got her big break on Jools, covering for a queasy Kanye West – anyone appearing on the new series should really keep an eye on the tea lady!
Praise ensued from Whiley to Wogan and it was well deserved; ‘Like A Star’ is a fierce, honest self-penned lullaby dedicated to her husband, but it acts as something of a red herring. From there on in we are left to wonder will the real Corinne Bailey Rae please stand up. It’s track seven, the sublime ‘Choux Pastry Heart’, before we’re allowed another glimpse of Rae at her most arresting; the lyrics may be somewhat trite, e.g. “one for sorrow, two for joy”, but like any great soul singer, her talent lies in the delivery and therein lies the rub. You may not learn much about Rae from this album, but then you wonder whether baring her soul is really the point when the other results are so joyous. ‘Enchantment’ has the feel of Massive Attack at their most lush, ‘Put Your Records On’ is the sound of summer come early, while the raucous ‘I’d Like To’ relocates Lauryn Hill’s ‘Every Ghetto, Every City’ to a tarmacced driveway in Leeds.
Inevitably, although Bailey Rae is eminently personable throughout, she cannot be all things to all people, even if her label try to promote that. Comparisons with the greats make nice soundbites but they only really highlight her shortcomings; she doesn’t have the phrasing of Holiday, the wit of Badu, the sensuality of Scott or the poetry of, er, Floetry and in trying on so many styles, she frequently misses the mark. But at times, albeit fleetingly, there is enough effortlessness to suggest that, if left to her own devices, Bailey Rae could come up with something spectacular. For now, stick with her. She could yet be brilliant.
originally published on March 19th, 2006
Concept albums, by their very nature, are a hit and miss breed. The clue is in the name; if the concept is a bad one, then the album is destined for ridicule as an exercise in pretension. How about a debut album made up of acoustic jazz covers of club, house and hip-hop anthems? Never mind the Balearics… here’s Barefoot.
When singer Sam Obernik performed a Cubano version of ‘It Just Won’t Do’, the Tim Deluxe hit featuring her vocals, it was large enough a radio hit that Obernik struck upon the idea to combine her guitar-based songwriting abilities with her dance scene success. Enter Tommy D, a DJ, producer and songwriter famous for his work with the likes of Kylie, Janet Jackson, Catatonia, KT Tunstall and Corinne Bailey Rae, to name but more than a few. One evening and a bottle of wine later, Obernik and Tommy D conceived the idea of reinterpreting their favourite club anthems and Barefoot was born.
A project like this could easily be dismissed as a tongue-in-cheek slice of Hoxton postmodernism. Even in the late Nineties, Turner Prize winner Jeremy Deller orchestrated colliery brass band versions of acid house anthems, while Radio One sessions often include acoustic reworks of dancefloor fillers, like Will Young’s ‘Hey Ya’ or Jamie Cullum’s ‘Frontin’. Barefoot is more than just a musical curiosity, however, and the contemporary jazz and bossa nova stylings recall the likes of Nouvelle Vague, Zero 7 and Morcheeba. Most of the album was recorded live and the immediacy of the musicianship works in the album’s favour, taking the songs that extra step further away from their over-polished origins. Plastered over so many bargain basement Asda checkout compilations, the word ‘chillout’ may have lost all meaning, but this is more laid back than a lounge singer seductress provocatively draped over a white baby grand.
On the surface the tracklisting reads like an ‘old skool classics’ CD, from Grandmaster Flash’s ‘White Lines’ and Crystal Waters’s ‘Gypsy Woman’ to Underworld’s ‘Born Slippy’ and the Run DMC / Jason Nevins mash-up ‘It’s Like That’. Aimed at the ‘90s Ibiza crowd who have swapped the clubs and plastic pints of lager (lager, lager) for red wine soirees in their dockside apartments, what this album highlights perhaps more than anything is that dance music has always boasted a wealth of great tunes beneath layers of pounding beats and sequenced loops. Even ubiquitous dancefloor fillers like Mousse T’s ‘Horny’ are given fresh life, with Obernik’s breathy vocals suiting the brazen lyrics to a, er, T, while a seductive bass line coolly pulses in the background.
The range of material here is the perfect vehicle for Obernik’s vocal versatility, but where Barefoot go from here is anyone’s guess. A debut concept album may have limited their future potential, but as far as concepts go it’s an intriguing prospect and one that more than delivers. So if you’re looking for an album to impress your friends this summer, kick off your dancefloor heels and take an i-podiatry shuffle through the Barefoot experience.
originally published on May 7th, 2006
Bat For Lashes
Fur & Gold •••••
There’s something strangely attractive about this debut album from Bat For Lashes, the curious nom de plume of Brighton-based performance artist Natasha Khan and her rotating cast of musicians. Your CD shelf may be full of a fair few other acts of her ilk who are just as good, if not better, but the chances are you’ll still be compelled to listen to Fur & Gold over and over. Perhaps it’s Khan’s evocative vocals as they run the gamut from professional crooner to heartbroken siren via the seductive confessions of a mystical, adventuring temptress. Then again, perhaps it’s simply down to the songs themselves; sneakily hook-laden and occasionally disarmingly simple, they’re the kind that leave you wishing that they’d made the album eight times longer. As it is, Fur & Gold is exquisitely free of filler; every track is a must-hear and has clearly been chosen with care. Though you’d be hard-pressed to sniff it out unaided there’s an under- lying progression at work; the songs were purposefully sequenced to take the listener on an overnight journey from dusk (‘Horse & I’) to the panoramic sunshine of a brand new day (‘I Saw A Light’).
The usual suspects have cropped up time and again in reference to Bat For Lashes, some justified, some used dismissively. Comparisons with Chan Marshall fall into the former category, particularly on the plaintive album centrepiece ‘Sad Eyes’ which is as naked and tremulous as any of the Cat Power figurehead’s best. Here and elsewhere there’s judicious use of piano so lesser-clued commentators will inevitably point to Tori Amos, while the measured quirk found throughout is reminiscent of Björk’s more sober compositions. On a couple of occasions, too, Khan employs the kind of narrative found in Kate Bush songs, but for the most part Fur & Gold stacks up perfectly well on its own. Other standout tracks are the celebrated first single ‘The Wizard’, a gloriously mystical gem that completely embodies the Bat For Lashes ethos, and the Josh T Pearson-featuring tribal rhythms of ‘Trophy’.
Having enjoyed the patronage of the likes of CocoRosie and Devendra Banhart, Khan has found herself in the enviable position of appealing to the alternative folk crowd (despite the incongruity of her music) as well as aficionados of your straight-up indie chanteuses. Admirers of her live show ought to be thrilled too, despite the omission of fan favourite ‘Howl!’. Fur & Gold has been immaculately produced; the band have got the distortions, the drums aren’t too loud and at no point do you find yourself wincing because the vocals are slightly too glittery. It’s absolutely and utterly perfect. Trust us.
originally published October 27th, 2006
The Be Good Tanyas
Hello Love ••••
Three years on from their sophomore effort Chinatown, Frazey Ford, Samantha Parton and Trish Klein return to breathe their particular brand of ethereal loveliness into a weary, somewhat jaded world. The ethos underpinning the Tanyas’ approach to this record seems to have been ‘if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it’; Hello Love replicates their first two albums by wrapping original songs and judiciously chosen covers in an inviting mix of blues, bluegrass and folk instrumentation and delivering them with those notoriously spine-tingling harmonies.
Continuing to ignore even the most rudimentary elements of the diction rulebook, Ford unfurls her trademark magical mumble throughout, stretching and slurring syllables in a manner that brings a beguiling air of mystery and enchantment to everything she sings. You have to check the lyrics to realise that what sounds like “I’ll suck your wounds” on the title track is actually “How succulent a little spring day gets.” As before, Parton’s sensuous, caressing whisper takes the lead on a few songs, most affectingly on the exquisite, piano-led ‘Song For R’, a heartbreaking portrait of addiction in which the narrator resolves to view her afflicted brother as neither saint nor demon but simply as “a child, arms stretched out for love.” But, however compelling the vocals are ‘individually’, it is of course harmony that most defines the Tanyas’ sound, and when their voices come together, as on the “things keep changing” refrain in Sean Hayes’s ‘A Thousand Tiny Pieces’ or the chorus of the joyous ‘Ootischenia’, it’s simply impossible not to be uplifted and moved.
While the likes of ‘Human Thing’, ‘Song For R’, ‘Ootischenia’ and the title track demonstrate the Tanyas’ own songwriting skills to be in fine fettle, the covers and traditional material also yield some of the strongest moments on the album. There’s a homage to fellow Canuck Neil Young on ‘For The Turnstiles’, a moving take on Mississippi John Hurt’s ‘Nobody Cares For Me’ and a wonderfully evocative, swampy rendition of the traditional number ‘Out Of The Wilderness’. But the cover destined to raise the most eyebrows is the one that’s not on the official tracklist, tucked away at the end as a hidden extra. Following its gospel makeover on the ‘Romeo + Juliet’ soundtrack, Prince’s ‘When Doves Cry’ continues to prove an adaptable beast; the Tanyas exquisitely recast it as some sort of sultry blues hymn.
It’s a testament to the distinctiveness of the Tanyas approach that they can make such a diverse selection of material sound cohesive and coherent across one album. Overall, Hello Love may not take them in any new musical directions but it sees them continuing to refine their style without losing an ounce of their freshness or spontaneity. By refusing to make any concessions to commercialism or current music trends, they sound as daring, relevant and hip as anybody out there. It’s great to have them back.
originally published November 5th, 2006
Be Your Own PET
Be Your Own PET •••
Following their much-hyped debut single ‘Damn Damn Leash’ – said by some typically over-zealous in-the-knows to be the ‘Teenage Kicks’ for the ringtone generation – was never going to be an easy task for Nashville under-agers Be Your Own PET, a teen tearaway foursome fronted by temperamental platinum blonde Jemina Pearl. A harsh and uncompromising 112 seconds of telling parents precisely where to go, ‘Damn Damn Leash’ left many an unsuspecting audience utterly breathless, and now, three more singles down the line, there are questions to be answered. Does the sheer white-knuckle exhilaration of the singles ride the course of a full-length album?
Have they mellowed and skulked into the commercial pop-punk void vacated by No Doubt in the wake of Gwen Stefani’s solo exploits and babymaking? More importantly, have they ruined it all by rush releasing an album to crest their wave of hype? To these ears, the band are guilty on all counts, though perhaps less so on the last; Be Your Own PET stakes its place on happy ground that’s somewhere between their punk/hardcore influences and mainstream accessibility in a similar vein to Pretty Girls Make Graves’s The New Romance. There are some glorious pop moments, most notably on the recent single ‘Adventure’ – an excitable, urgent and brief sonic workout on which Jemina’s vocals float between the anthemic and cutesy – and, like Stefani, Pearl is certainly skilled in the art of voice control. She almost even breaks into a ballad on ‘October, First Account’, though it’s not your usual sopfest, boasting the disturbing lyric “we cut ourselves open a hundred times but we’ve not run out of ammo yet”, but is still surprisingly buoyant and uplifting. But crass juvenilia is pretty much the order of the day elsewhere; ‘Bog’, for example, is a catchy little ditty about drowning a boyfriend’s dog in the toilet.
When the melody is clear and the vocals less screamy, Be Your Own PET are masters of their trade. It’s a pity then that this rather excludes the majority of the album – too many songs are fairly indistinguishable, all with nonsensical lyrics and little in the way of a tune. So whilst there is no denying their fresh and fiery outlook on songs like ‘Bunk Trunk Skunk’ (in which Jemina declares “I’m an independent motherfucker”), the extent to which expressing their ‘attitude’ has compromised the quality of the album is questionable indeed. Be Your Own PET is not a bad start by any stretch of the imagination, but there’s no escaping the feeling that, had the opportunity to record an album come at a slightly later point in the band’s career, the result would have been more accomplished and consistent. A brighter future awaits.
Robbie de Santos
originally published March 19th, 2006
On The Outside ••½
A casual glance at Jenny Beck’s third album, On The Outside, may well provoke a serious double take – is that Sarah McLachlan’s kid sister staring back at you from the sleeve? Sadly, no. Jenny Beck is neither Canadian nor a piano balladeer – she’s actually Swedish and ploughs a far poppier furrow. Having relocated to the UK in 2001, Beck has been constantly writing and recording material with her band and playing gigs on the circuit, and such hard-won experience shines through in the quality of her vocal. The dozen tracks here fall neatly into two broad categories; acoustic, country-tinged numbers and modern, upbeat pop songs complete scratches and samples. Beck’s vocal fit both styles with ease, giving a bright and punchy sound that suits the poppier material and a subtle country overlay and tender vibrato that, when blended with subtle harmonies, really compliments the slower songs. So while some comparisons have been rather unsurprising (e.g. The Corrs, Sheryl Crow and ‘big sis’ Sarah), Beck is no mere copyist and displays a genuine talent.
It’s a greater shame then that the album is ultimately and badly let down by a production job that fails to match the writing or performance. Perhaps it’s a symptom of Beck and her long-term partner / drummer / co-producer Mitch Deighton having a lack of professional experience, or of the perennial problem that so often besets self-produced material, an impartiality and closeness that prohibits the making of unbiased and even ruthless choices. Who knows? But because they demand more verve and sparkle, the poppier songs are the ones that suffer the most; here, the overly dry drum sounds that dominate throughout soon begin to grate and the individual elements don’t seem to come together as a cohesive whole. Indeed, you can’t help but feel that these songs could really be brought to life if the masters were left in more capable hands. Bob Clearmountain, where are your golden ears when we need them?
Fortunately, the more acoustic numbers like the affirmative ‘Be Yourself’ and ‘Everything’ are easier to admire, and the stunningly beautiful harmonies on ‘Tonight’ go some way towards redemption. Beck also strays purposefully into the country-pop realm of LeAnn Rimes with ‘I’d Be Damned’, while ‘Apology’ is a confident slice of white reggae marred only by a slightly muddy (as opposed to ‘dubby’) backing track. Elsewhere, the otherwise excellent ‘Miss Negative’ stumbles over some awkward scans and phrases, though these are the only real signs that English is not Beck’s native tongue. Tellingly, it’s more than likely that a good independent producer would have corrected these flaws at an early stage by prompting a minor edit. Overall, On The Outside boasts a decent enough set of songs and has the potential to be an excellent album were it to be retooled.
originally published March 19th, 2006
Have A Little Faith •••
Over time, bands can get too close to their own sound to know what it is; anything that personal can have a tendency to be talked up and what once was good can become disappointingly average. The BellRays, however, know exactly where they’re at – ‘maximum rock ‘n’ soul’ is what they call it, a description so succinct that it almost makes their critics redundant.
Back with what appears to be their sixth album (though only two of these and a Poptones compilation appear to have found a UK release), The BellRays have matured somewhat and appear to be invigorated after singer Lisa Kekaula’s stint touring with the reformed MC5. Although it is easily their best work to date, there’s something I personally find lacking in The BellRays. They are obviously talented and often make for a pleasant listen, but on record at least, they never really reach out and grab their audience, which is something this music is quite clearly intended to do. It’s safe to say, however, that if you’re into blues-rock, you’ll love this album regardless. That’s not to say the rest of us should switch off completely; there’s something different in the water this time around.
When The Bellrays decide to genre hop, as they frequently do on Have A Little Faith, keep your ear cocked. The jazzy guitar on ‘Tell The Lie’ provides a neat backdrop for Kekaula’s voice and ‘Lost Disciples’, though similar in feel, proves even better. Its bongo-riddled jazz makes for classy wine bar music, meant in the kindest possible way. Elsewhere, the bluesy laidback tones of ‘Have A Little Faith In Me’ and the slow blues shuffle of ‘Everyday I Think Of You’ are impressive, as is ‘Third Time’s The Charm’, which happily recalls Tina Turner in her heyday. When they rock out and try to kick ass, there are some memorable moments – like when they channel the spirit of Jimi Hendrix for ‘Time Is Gone’ or sound mountainous like Led Zep on ‘Chainsong (I’ve Been Searchin’)’ – but much of the time tends to blur into one.
Have A Little Faith is definitely an album for aficionados of blues-rock aficionado, but is also worth checking out for the moments when The BellRays deviate from their apparent set path.
originally published October 5th, 2006
Bare Stripped Naked •••½
After six studio albums and a concept live release of Velvet Underground covers, Dutch band Bettie Serveert celebrate their 15th birthday with this new collection of mostly acoustic, introspective ditties. With such a sparse remit, there’s nothing overtly original here – some of the riffs and vocal lines might as well be tattooed onto your eardrums – but there is something so real, so full of blood and fibre, flesh and flaws that you won’t really mind. Singer Carol van Dyk has some of the warmest chops around and it really shows in these back-to-basics compositions. Of the 12 tracks, ‘Brain-Tag’ and ‘Certainlie’ are reworkings of earlier numbers, the former from their 1992 debut Palomine and the latter from 2003’s career-rejuvenating Log 22. While ‘Brain-Tag’ shines, the Neil Young-inspired version of ‘Certainlie’ fares less well with its ridiculously cheesy guitar chords, pre-chorus breakdowns and a predictable flow that sounds a bit like Radiohead’s early ballad nonsense before they turned so beautifully sour.
First single ‘Hell = Other People’ may have a charming vocal but it doesn’t really go anywhere, with repetitive guitar leads that jangle and sparkle but hang in their frame alone, begging to be fiddled with and explored. The lyrics are dry and the best line – the title – is wickedly overdone. It just seems like Carol and co. found a few good hooks and played them again and again ‘til their sheen began to fade. Furthermore, there are two versions, as if we needed this point rubbed in our faces. Fortunately, there is much to be enjoyed elsewhere. ‘Love & Learn’ refuses to lock itself into the familiarities of the day, instead travelling ever further backwards until it hits a deep rooted authenticity. It isn’t folk, it isn’t a corny stereotype, but something in the trickling, magical melody hints of a deeper presence. If your mind is prone to cliché, it might wander off to think of rolling green hills, hippie mums and ruddy-faced children playing in the grass. Elsewhere, the beyond pretty weepie ‘Roadmovies’ and ‘What They Call Love’ are ideal movie soundtrack material, while the ballerina nightmare ‘Painted World’ hits home with plucked orchestral strings, tiny pianos, mournful wind instruments and a honey-glazed vocal that slithers up your spine, injecting a beautiful poison you’ll be happy to receive.
‘2nd Time’ treads similar ground to the reworked ‘Certainlie’ but swerves onto a different path before it’s too late. It actually comes through with a deadly serious conviction and sadness; just when you thought you had your feet firmly planted in the soul of suspicion, this sneaky song will steal your heart. Unless you’re careful. But then the next plausible step is that you’re on the phone and ordering that cream sofa you’ve been wanting from IKEA. Overall, Bare Stripped Naked is perhaps the most honest record that the band have ever made and one you might gladly grow old with. Cut your hair, settle down, get married, buy a Volvo; whatever. You could do worse than to hum this all the while.
originally published October 14th, 2006
For better or worse, British-born Jane Birkin is largely famous for being Mrs Serge Gainsbourg way back when and for providing a variety of saucy noises on his controversial 1969 hit ‘Je T’aime… Moi Non Plus’. However, there’s plenty more to her resume than that. As well as acting in more than 50 films, including Michelangelo Antonioni’s notorious ‘Blow Up’ in which she appeared in her 20 year-old birthday suit, she has also released a dozen albums. Not bad for a ‘60s It Girl caught up with France’s bad boy du jour.
Recent years have seen Birkin capitalising on her kitsch pop culture appeal and as with 2004’s Rendez-Vous, Fictions contains such a crowded pool of songwriting talent that you’d expect the result to be nothing less than genius. Where Rendez-Vous featured such pop luminaries as Massive Attack’s Mickey 3D, Leslie Feist, Manu Chao, Placebo’s Brian Molko, Bryan Ferry, Etienne Daho and fellow yeh-yeh girl Françoise Hardy, Fictions boasts original tracks from The Divine Comedy’s Neil Hannon, The Magic Numbers and Rufus Wainwright, as well as contributions from eminent French songwriters that are, of course, sung in Birkin’s adopted language. Only Portishead’s Beth Gibbons makes an appearance on both records, and justifiably so (more on that later). Along with musical contributions from Johnny Marr and arrangements from sought-after producer Renauld Letang (Björk, Gonzales), it almost as if a cooler version of Live Aid had gathered together in Birkin’s studio.
To make things even more eclectic, Birkin tackles a trio of songs from eminent songwriters, even by her collaborators’ standards: Tom Waits’s ‘Alice’, Neil Young’s ‘Harvest Moon’ and Kate Bush’s ‘Mother Stands For Comfort’. The reasoning behind covering these classics isn’t immediately apparent and justice is not quite served. Although the haunting quality of ‘Alice’ is captured well enough, Birkin’s rendition of ‘Harvest Moon’ veers too close to cabaret and she’s certainly no Kate Bush. What binds this rather odd bunch together, however, is Jane’s breathy and incessantly delicate vocals, which, it has to be said, sometimes fall unfortunately flat. Always on the verge of breaking into a whisper and never really breaking into song, singing isn’t Birkin’s forte and you may find it falls on the unlovable side of ‘acquired taste’. When she’s bring British, Birkin is utterly so and excels in the received pronunciation talking style of singing that acts like Black Box Recorder have tried so hard to emulate. But whether chirruping in English or French, she is always reserved and rarely dominates the songs.
It’s not all wafer thin, however; there are moments when her tender haunting vocals entirely transform a song into something both quirky and lovably unique. Album opener ‘Home’ (penned by Hannon) is one of the highlights, its jaunty tunefulness and British comedic slant really shines through, but the real jem is Gibbons’s ‘My Secret’. Words of lost love wrap around an old-fashioned lounge style sound with a dark, almost Lynchian edge that perfectly suits Birkin’s style and expression, perhaps an indication of the longer lasting connection between the two women. But while these instances of loveliness and Birkin’s characteristically oddball stamp will win your heart, Fictions is a difficult album to digest as a whole.
originally published July 14th, 2006
The Way Back Home EP ••½
This first official release from Leeds quintet Bodixa (pronounced ‘bo-di-kuh’) follows a successful few years on the touring circuit, supporting the likes of KT Tunstall, Moby and Tom McCrae. The Way Back Home is a mostly sleepy affair, though you wouldn’t know it from leadoff number ‘Goodbye Winter’. A jangly summer anthem that drives on down the speedway with unashamed smiles and the wind in its hair, it’s a familiar feminist roadtrip that travels a well-beaten path, but not so worn out that it can’t afford to accommodate another band of travellers. The mellow American stylings are easily swallowed and sink down without a fight. It doesn’t make it original, nor does it make it right as such, but there is little reservation needed for such a jolly, unpretentious tune.
‘A Room’, meanwhile, is so delicate and well-to-do that it may well pass you by. In fact, there it goes, wooing itself with simpering harmonies (courtesy of Anna Elias and Emily Norton), barely played acoustic guitars and projected by a waltzy 3/4 beat and an overall sound that’s sweet to the core. Three songs in, ‘Sing Your Bones’ is a lovely acoustic ditty that’s so chilled out it was probably recorded while lying down for a nap. The lone acoustic guitar hums away to itself as vocals sway and float above it singing of romance and crying over an open fire. It’s by far the prettiest, sloppiest inclusion and makes for a perfect choice if there’s someone in the room you really want a hug from. Final song ‘Nothing To Show’ is easy on the ear but unremarkable, like an open mic rendition of an Alanis Morissette or Beth Orton classic. Despite its clever rhythmical juts, the band’s passion for gentle, woozy melodies might well have you in the pleasant throes of slumber by the end.
Overall, The Way Back Home makes for a fine start with four appealing and highly listenable compositions. On this evidence, Bodixa are a softly simmering, sinless band seeking only to glide on through, making music and harming no one. They’re a balanced and graceful act in a sea of peacocks that strut too hard. Nothing new, but oh so very sensual.
originally published November 23rd, 2006
Idjagiedas (In The Hand Of The Night) •••½
An unsuspecting listener might at first assume that this is a Native American album, but singer-songwriter Mari Boine is actually from Norway. She comes from the Sami natives that live in the north of the country and has drawn many an influence from her strong musical heritage. She successfully blends traditional movements, such as the Christian Laestadian music of the Sami people, with Norwegian folk music and more modern musical approaches like jazz and rock. Since her first international release Gula-Gula in 1989, Boine has come a long way. Even her own people were sceptical of her approach and outspoken politics, but Boine has transcended into an inspirational role model for the Sami tribes and followers around the world.
While she still frequently expresses her anger and sadness about the oppression of her people, Boine is seen to be unreservedly embracing of her Sami heritage and mystical traits. She says herself that she is always looking for expressions that are more than just words. Most of her lyrics are written by Rauni Magga Lukkari and Karen Anne Buljo, but she also sings in her own imaginary language that originated somewhere deep in her heart and, according to her, embraces the idea that Lapp music is all about finding the primitive force in yourself.
Opening song ‘Vuoi Vuoi Mu’ is a smooth and spiritual affair. Even though Boine sings in a language not accessible to most listeners, it’s easy to feel and sympathise with the pain, experience and mysticism of the song. Boine’s touching, emotional range is enhanced by an ever present and urgent baseline and tribal-like percussion. The title track begins quite softly, with dreamy, chanting vocals accompanied only by percussion. But the trademark ever-moving, heavy bass soon comes into the arrangement, tinging the song with an intensity and darkness. At points a low and mystical male voice speak-sings over the vocals. You’ll imagine what this might sound like sung live as it screams with emotion and ancient history.
The more experimental ‘Gos But Munno Cinat Leat’ starts out with a much quieter feel, with hypnotic chanting that fades in and out, switching between near and far. When the full arrangement comes in – again dominated by a moving and urgent bassline – the mix of modern recording techniques and ancient languages and chants provides an accurate and moving reflection on what the modern day life of a Sami native might be like. The outstanding ‘Mu Ustit Engeliid Sogalas (My Friend Of Angel Tribe)’ shows Boine’s passion for atmosphere and melancholy. The vocals are quiet, almost whispery. At points the arrangement drops down to basic percussion and voice only, creating an intimate and angelic experience. ‘Davvi Bavttiin (On Fells Of The North)’ is equally quiet, rather like a lullaby. It sounds like it was written in dark days and has the feel of an ancient sad romantic love story. Other songs – they’re all quite special – include the delicate and vulnerable ‘Lottas’, the powerful and dramatic ‘Diamantta Spaillit’, the dreamily dark ‘Geasuha’, the character-laden ‘Afruvva (The Mermaid)’, the fragile and intimate ‘Uldda Nieida’ and the quiet but urgent ‘Fapmodalkkas’.
So there you have it. Idjagiedas is a beautiful album that offers an unparalleled insight into an ancient heritage that most listeners would otherwise have no connection to. Because of the songs’ emotional maturity we can attempt to grasp the pain, history and tradition the Sami culture embraces. Mari Boine certainly knows how to keep a song close to her heart.
Appellations like ‘the first lady of Irish music’ give someone a lot to live up to. Even ‘the voice of Clannad’ carries a weight of expectation but on Signature, as ever, Moya Brennan bears these proclamations well. From the opening chords of ‘Purple Haze’ (sadly not a Hendrix cover) it’s immediately apparent that we are, if not quite in the same territory as Clannad, on the same musical continent at least. A driving piano riff sets the tempo for the dance while harp, uillean pipes and Brennan’s unmistakable wash of ethereal vocals spiral around it.
That ‘No One Talks’ adopts a much more open sound with acoustic guitar and Hammond organ is all the more refreshing and caressing to the ears. Despite being the kind of song that could live quite comfortably in many a hand, from Peter Gabriel to Kate Bush (and indeed has shades of ‘Don’t Give Up’ about it), it lovingly blossoms beneath Brennan’s vulnerable, crystalline voice. Elsewhere, ‘Many Faces introduces a taste of Arabia’, ‘Merry Go Round’ successfully takes a Capercaillie-esque ambient, sample-based approach, while album closer ‘Pill A Rún Ó’ is a nicely executed modern adaptation of a traditional tune.
Brennan describes Signature as her most personal work to date that represents snapshots of moments in her life. However, she wisely eschews a strictly autobiographical approach, choosing instead to inhabit the emotional centre of each episode, both high and low. Whatever textures and musical tapestries she opts to employ, the Brennan experience is bittersweet, beguiling and utterly involving. So whilst it may be her stunning vocal talents for which Moya Brennan is quite rightly known, Signature shows what a rounded, able artist she is. Her songwriting, arranging and production skills are in fettle as equally fine as that voice, and when couched in a soundtrack provided by a hugely talented cast of musicians it really rewards. Her most complete and compelling solo work yet.
Tender Buttons •••
For their third proper full-length, Birmingham’s finest purveyors of hook-laden electronica have produced a fresher, more pared down version of their millennial post-rock. Named after enigmatic American author Gertrude Stein’s 1911 novel, Tender Buttons sees the band operating for the first time as a twosome (singer Trish Keenan and partner James Cargill) following the departure of drummer/guitarist Tim Felton. Inevitably, the replacement of real drum sounds with softer electro beats has had a dramatic effect, giving the album a sparser, more minimalist feel than 2003’s fantastic Ha-Ha Sound. Samples, too, are limited and well used, with several motifs recurring across a number of songs, adding a depth to the proceedings as they interlace the album, giving it some much needed consistency. Sadly, it’s not quite enough to see the listener through its relatively short 40-minute running time.
Although the album starts fantastically well and gets better as it proceeds throughout its first half, hitting a number of Death In Vegas-like, carefully-weighted notes, that’s about as far as it goes. Indeed, the disc arguably peaks over its first four well-arranged and impacting songs – ‘I Found The F’, ‘Black Cat’, the title track and the excellent first single ‘American Boy’ – before breaking out the old acoustic guitar for ‘Tears In The Typing Pool’ and returning to high-gear electro again for the comparatively driving ‘Corporeal’.
The other eight songs, however, are significantly less affecting and somewhat sketchy. Not even Klein’s coolly dispassionate singing redeems them, although it’s fair to say that ‘Michael A Grammar’ stands out from the crowd. There are plenty of appealing noises to be sure, but none of them seem to hang together as finished songs, in sharp relief to the polish in evidence earlier on. Overall then, the first half of Tender Buttons is worth a listen or seven, but it could have been cut down to a really fine EP. Shame.
originally published February 6th, 2006
Ukulele & Voice EP ••½
After 50 odd years of glorious obscurity and ridicule (…turned out nice again, eh?), the ukulele is in perilous danger of becoming the must-have instrument de jour. Latest to the fray comes Britain’s own Sam Brown, who will already be familiar to many from her past chart flirtations like the hit single ‘Stop!’ or from her role as firstcall singer for Jools Holland’s Rhythm & Blues Orchestra. Certainly the title Ukulele & Voice, 5 Songs… has a certain Ronseal charm, and the fact that each of those five songs features minimal, stripped-down arrangements could not be construed as deception. Sadly, this is both the EP’s weakness and its strength. On the plus side, the nakedness of the intimate recording lovingly showcases the beauty of Sam Brown’s voice and brings the listener that much closer to the singer. Then again, the inability to give a substandard performance is, more than likely, etched into Brown’s very DNA, but the ukulele in itself rather lacks the tonal richness and dynamic range to match. Neither is Brown’s particular specimen – an Ovation model by the look of the sleeve – the most mellifluous example of the breed.
Coming back to the positives, the songs themselves are strong. The uke and Brown’s whistled solo give ‘I’ll Be Here’ a convincing swing-era vibe, while ‘Kiss Of Love’, a co-write with Jools Holland, is a sumptuous blues lament that would probably sound fantastic if backed by a talented band. For bonus points, ‘Void’ makes an attempt to apply the ukulele in a novel manner, taking an arpeggio approach rather than the usual strummed chords, and this blends well with a mournful Celtic-tinged melody. Elsewhere, ‘Away With The Faeries’ may well have escaped from some unheard of Broadway musical – Brown’s very own ‘Hushabye Mountain’ – and closer ‘Over The Moon’ evokes an authentic Cole Porter/Sammy Kahn ‘golden age of the ukulele’ mood.
On balance, however, the EP’s detractions simply outweigh its merits. Perhaps the sleeve gives the game away; opening the gatefold reveals the completion of the title with “…an afternoon at Dad’s house, in January,” and suddenly the truth becomes clear that these are just a few tracks chucked down on tape for a giggle after a family lunch. Then the nagging thought of ‘wouldn’t it have been nice to hear these songs arranged with a bit more care?’ begins to crystallise. With a harmony here and parallel ukulele part there, this could have been twice the achievement and one is left to conclude with C-, could do better. The suspicion is that this is primarily a disc for die-hard fans and completists. Those simply looking for an introduction to Sam Brown’s talents would be better off getting her new Very Best Of. Likewise, those simply wishing to sample the charms of a uke in the hands of a talented singer would be better off looking elsewhere. However, for those specifically wanting to sample Sam Brown’s live uke revues in the comfort of their own homes, this EP will certainly fit the bill.
originally published March 19th, 2006
A Temporary Dive •••½
Norwegian singer-songwriter Ane Brun loves her acoustic guitar Morgan so much that she named her 2003 debut album after him. While he’s not the titular hero on this follow-up to that stunning introduction, Morgan’s haunting twang pervades each of these ten songs like a breath of fresh air. If troubadouresses are your thing, A Temporary Dive will grab your attention from the start – Brun has a highly distinctive, ensnaring voice that sets her apart from others in her field. The sheer organic nature of her music is nothing short of praiseworthy in an industry where greedy producers can get a bit buttonhappy when twiddling their knobs. Part of the praise must go to Brun herself who turned down several major-label offers to release the album on her own DetErMine Records, defiant in more ways than one (the Norwegian roughly translates to ‘it is mine’). More praise still must be heaped upon producer Katharina Nuttall, who was also at the helm of Spending Time With Morgan. Her sparing approach allows Brun to really step away from the squeaking clean wheels of the manufactured bandwagon, opting instead to concentrate on sounds you can almost touch, made with instruments you can name. It’s classy and stripped-down, yet fuller sounding than one would expect.
As the title suggests, the intervening months since the release of her debut have not been easy. Several of these songs are the musings of a downtrodden wanderer. ‘My Lover Will Go’ is a prime example of her sadness, seeping into your brain like a rising tide. On ‘A Temporary Dive’, she sings of tumbling into darkness and clawing back up, all the while surrounded by gorgeous glockenspiel and cello. Baby-faced Ron Sexsmith turns up to duet on ‘Song No. 6′ (actually track 9), a song that Ane says was written for a friend’s wedding and is a rare happy love ditty. That’s sweet, but both it and ‘Where Friend Rhymes With End’ seem to jar with the well-crafted flow of the rest of the album with their more up-tempo vibe. Elsewhere, she is lyrically preoccupied with confinement (‘Rubber & Soul’) and enforced realism (‘Balloon Ranger’), but it’s never a grim proposition. The one non-original, ‘Laid In Earth’, is an adaptation of a classical aria lifted from Henry Purcell’s 17th Century opera, ‘Dido & Aeneas’, and it’s beautifully complemented by Malene Bay-Foged’s heartbreaking string arrangements.
The only real complaint about A Temporary Dive is that it’s rather too short at just 38 minutes. I was left wanting to hear a lot more. Given the ecstatic reception the album was afforded in her native Scandinavia (it went straight to the top of the charts – remarkable for something so devoid of artifice), Ane Brun could well have a slow-burning hit on her hands. She’s already performed live with ABBA’s Benny Andersson and supported US country star Mary Gauthier and our very own PJ Harvey, so there’s no doubting her commitment to the legwork. This is an ideal soundtrack for your own emotional reckonings, so indulge in these exceptional sounds and make your way towards the light.
originally published October 1st, 2005
Live at The Borderline ••••½
December 5, 2006
When Norwegian singer-songwriter Ane Brun graced the Borderline stage back in January as the guest of Tina Dico, she unabashedly nicked off with the show, sewed it up in her pocket and slipped away into the freezing night. With Brun already something of a megastar in her homeland and being filmed for Norwegian TV, the running order seemed a little incongruous to those in the know. And to those who were not, Brun filled in the gaps with a staggeringly powerful set; where Dico too often ambled into mediocrity, Brun went directly for the jugular with her quietly commanding stage presence and mostly wounded, always deeply personal songs.
Fast forward to tonight and this time she’s rightly heading the bill, and although the venue is rather more roomy than the last time she was here, the reward is all the sweeter for those who turned out to see her. Opening with the title track from her award-winning album A Temporary Dive, released here in May, Brun makes it clear that any expectations will be more than fulfilled and almost certainly surpassed with a measured, coolly phrased performance. As she sways and leans into every chord change, her seemingly effortless inhabitation of the music mesmerises and rivals even the rarest, most esteemed of her contemporaries.
Contemporary is hardly the first adjective that springs to mind when you think of 17th Century opera but Ane’s captivating interpretation of the aria ‘Laid In Earth’ from Henry Purcell’s ‘Dido & Aeneas’ brings it weeping and juddering into a post-millennial context. As she skillfully negotiates every warble with ease, bodies around me sway in sympathetic movements. Part of Brun’s appeal is that she is not so precise as to remove the humanity of her songs, so when a note goes ever so slightly awry or her tuning dips, it only adds to the power of her delivery.
Though the set draws heavily from A Temporary Dive, there are plenty of surprises as three new songs arrive fully formed and spectacular. The first, ‘Half Open Door’, was written for a charity compilation to highlight the plight of Oslo’s homeless, and is a bittersweet childhood reflection. For this Brun enlists the sublime, perfectly pitched backing vocals of British singer-songwriter Rachel Davies, who then stays on for the remainder of the main set, embellishing and colouring in where required. ‘To Let Myself Go’ and ‘Balloon Ranger’ benefit the most, the latter being dedicated to fellow musicians who find themselves spending way too much money in the instrument shops of nearby Denmark Street. Two of Ane’s duets also put in an appearance; despite the absence of Ron Sexsmith (‘Song No. 6′) and Teitur (‘Rubber & Soul’), Brun is every bit as wonderful.
The second new song, with the working title ‘Treehouse’, is also outstanding and really shows Brun’s growth as an artist. Keeping to the assertion of A Temporary Dive that she would overcome the depression she lapsed into while trying to repeat the success of her first album Spending Time With Morgan (Morgan being the name of her beloved acoustic), there’s a noticeably more optimistic, if not outright cheerful feel. Likewise for the other newie, ‘Changing Of The Seasons’, a disarmingly frank analysis of infidelity that ends with an unexpectedly positive twist.
Closing the main set with the devastating ‘My Lover Will Go’, Brun brings the house down before quickly returning to the stage “so that [we] can get the last tube” with a hushed but stellar cover of PJ Harvey’s ‘The Dancer’. It’s intense, though in a different way to the original, but you’ll just have to wait to hear it yourself when Brun puts out a live CD and DVD early next year (though you might have to end up importing it from Scandinavia). The crowd laps it up and Ane exits stage left to thunderous applause and no small amount of whooping. She’ll be back soon, she says it’s a promise, and you really ought to be there when she keeps it.
originally published December 17th, 2006
Life In Mono ••½
You might think that the artist formerly known as Baby Spice would have some interesting things to say by now, being a former international icon with two successful albums of her own under her belt. That insight is not in evidence on Life In Mono, a mundane collection of easy-listening numbers, but it is not without its charms. The tone of this album is somewhat more sober than 2004’s Free Me, despite the similar Burt Bacharach pastiches and Motown overtones, with Bunton reigning in her playful ingenue persona in favour of a demure and sensitive approach.
The opener, breathy piano ballad ‘All I Need To Know’, demonstrates that she can do ‘wistful’ very well. However, the pensive quality that hangs over the album makes even bossa nova workouts like ‘Mischievous’ and ‘He Loves Me Not’ seem brooding. Bunton’s vocals are feather-light and pleasant as ever, but she loses her way with sultrier pieces like ‘Undressing You’. The whole thing is an odd mix of the anodyne and the bittersweet.
While this album mainly plays to Bunton’s strengths, it isn’t remotely exciting. There’s a lot to be said for consistency, but more creative production could have made this one of the best solo records any of the Spice Girls have released. As pretty as the orchestral arrangements and soothing harmonies are, they become predictable. The cheeky ‘Take Me To Another Town’ – in which Bunton globetrots accompanied by swooning strings and unusual samples – is the closest thing to a flash of ingenuity on the record. The album ends disappointingly with a glut of banal and cringeworthy covers (including the first single, a weak stab at Petula Clark’s ‘Downtown’) but the title track, a hypnotic and ethereal take on Mono’s trip-hop classic, is a rather more inspired choice.
Ultimately, it’s tasteful, but damningly so. Devoid of the fun and zest of her earlier solo work (and, of course, the back catalogue of the Spice Girls), Life In Mono is pitched directly at the sad-scene-in-Bridget-Jones market. By stringing together a series of the ballads and mid-tempo numbers she always had the knack for, Emma Bunton has made an album that is easy on the ear but pedestrian and uninteresting. The only really objectionable content appears in those predictable and poor covers mercifully grouped together as easily disregarded bonus tracks, but any praise it is possible to muster up for the rest of the album is damningly faint. Music to microwave lasagnes to.
While the story of Vashti Bunyan, the great lost child of the late 1960s folk boom, has been well rehearsed in the press in the run-up to the release of Lookaftering, the bare bones of it surely bears repeating here. Discovered by enigmatic Rolling Stones manager Andrew Loog Oldham, her 1970 debut Just Another Diamond Day is widely upheld to be one of British folk’s great unheralded works. At the time however, commercial success proved elusive and both it and Bunyan were unceremoniously shelved by record company, Decca. Disillusioned by the experience, she forsook further dalliances with the industry and has spent much of the last three decades enjoying the seclusion of a simple family life in Ireland. However, a CD reissue of that album in 2000 sparked renewed interest in her work and, by way of recordings with Animal Collective, Devendra Banhart and Piano Magic, among others, has inexorably led to this highly anachronistic follow-up.
Certainly, Lookaftering is an interesting prospect. Very much a period piece dislocated in time, it retains much of the feel of …Diamond Day and boasts the same hallmarks of early 1970s production values. Comparisons with Sandy Denny and other folkies of the era are easily justified both stylistically and sonically. The seemingly minimal production by Max Richter allows plenty of room for the broadly acoustic, almost orchestral instrumentation to breathe, all the while keeping Bunyan’s exposed and fragile vocals floating in the foreground. The arrangements themselves are mostly sparse and hauntingly beautiful; bucolic countermelodies abound, with oboe, recorder and Joanna Newsom’s harp all making an impression on various tracks. And Newsom isn’t the only member of the neo/psych-folk glitterati to make an appearance, Devendra Banhart, Adem and Kevin Barker of Espers also lend a hand, in some cases further reinforcing the early ‘70s heritage of the influences at work. In particular, Banhart’s slide guitar on ‘Wayward’ is strikingly reminiscent of Jerry Donahue’s playing on Sandy Denny’s Fotheringay.
When searching for adequate descriptors of Bunyan’s performance, adjectives like intimate, tender, delicate and fragile spring readily to mind. However, it is these very facets that are the greatest flaw of the album. Too often it seems her fragility tips over into hesitancy and weakness, in some cases lacking self-confidence and commitment to the notes. This is most apparent on ‘Wayward’ where the vocal seems particularly weak and somewhat at odds with the tenor of the words. Whilst some may see such a criticism as churlish or missing the point of the album, it raises valid questions; one wonders whether some of the effusively glowing reports of Lookaftering have been too heavily viewed through the filters of an evocative back story, rather than appraising the album on its musical merits alone. I was left with the nagging curiosity as to how these songs would have fared if sung by the likes of Mary Black, Christine Collister, June Tabor or the late, great Sandy Denny – the likely response being five star performances no less full of tenderness or vulnerability.
That said, Lookaftering remains an amazing feat and a truly beautiful album. It’s a throwback to an age of greater innocence, evoking visions of Julie Christie as ‘Far From The Madding Crowd’s Bathsheba Everdene, softly focused and shining amid some golden pastoral idyll as it wends its way through a rural dreamscape. For all its failings, the songs remain entirely beguiling and Lookaftering is sure to remain one of the most haunting and affecting discs of the year. The closer, ‘Wayward Hum’, brings the disc to a fitting close. Part meandering lullaby, part quintessentially English whimsy, it somehow summarises all that comes before in a wordless, absent-minded way. Gorgeous.
originally published November 21st, 2005
Cathy Burton’s first two albums were fairly well received slabs of British pop (as opposed to Britpop) that dressed her classical songwriting talents in suitably contemporary clothes, with all the electro beeps and twirls that a modern pop song requires. Silvertown, on the other hand, adopts a rather simpler stance with an organic sound built around piano, guitar, Hammond organ and conventional rhythm section. Topically, the ten songs are heavily dominated by the birth of her first child, Isobel, and impending motherhood and the weight of responsibility it brings is an inescapable theme. But this is no recruiting CD for the Natural Childbirth Association; there’s plenty here that will appeal to those of a non- parental persuasion.
‘Everybody’s Fool’ kicks things off with a good old- fashioned meditation on the complexities of romance. Burton’s distinctive vocal style comes to the fore right away – a delicate, shimmering tone that communicates a charming innocence whilst hinting at a deeper appreciation of the world’s more cruel aspects. If comparisons must be drawn there is perhaps a suspicion of a rather less fey version of Sixpence None The Richer’s Leigh Nash. Like Nash, Burton’s songs have never sought to conceal her Christian faith but do not act explicitly as pulpit, preferring instead to tell tales woven mostly from internal landscapes.
Despite the G word, the haunting ‘God Of The Sky’ conjures up feelings of smallness and connection to a bigger force irrespective of spiritual leanings; it’s something we’ve all felt when gazing up at a cloudless panorama of stars. The title track is another clear standout; co-written with Rocky Ross, the creative voice of Scot-popsters Deacon Blue, it touchingly compares the meandering train journey eastwards along the Thames with the twists and turns of a love affair. Album closer ‘Sleep’ is a delicate, affecting prayer from a mother to her child that’s power lies in its simplicity and openness.
So does Silvertown have any major faults? Well, only that at little over 35 minutes, Burton doesn’t exactly outstay her welcome – quite the opposite in fact! Still, as the old adage goes, leave them wanting more. Just make it soon, okay?
originally published October 5th, 2006
Cathy Burton & Dan Wheeler
Live at Maidenhead Arts Café ••••
October 7, 2005
Not many people would willingly tout Maidenhead as a cultural centre of our fair nation’s Southeastern corner. Possibly the best thing that can usually be said for it is that it isn’t next-door-neighbour, Slough. However, the good people of Maidenhead Methodist Church are doing their best to reverse that trend as, on the first Friday of every month, their church hall magically transforms into the Arts Café and hosts a range of performers from all aspects of said arts. This particular night was the turn of Cathy Burton and Dan Wheeler to grace their stage – the second night of a nationwide tour following an appearance at Balham’s homely Bedford Arms.
While Burton is already fairly well known on the UK circuit, with two acclaimed albums, Burn Out and Speed Your Love to her credit, Wheeler is more heard than recognised – his day job as session guitarist to the likes of Burton, Nicki Rogers and a score of others providing the pedigree – but he’s no mean singer-songwriter either. Together they made something of a dream team for a great evening’s music in surprisingly cosy surroundings while the audience partook of the café-based ambience and comestibles of coffee and homemade cakes.
Normally for a ‘double-header’ tour, one would expect the standard 45 minutes of one plus an hour or so of the other; however, the pair hit on a masterstroke as they took to the stage together. Deftly avoiding any chance of monotony, Burton and Wheeler played tag with the lead throughout the evening, with the non-‘it’ performer adding body with skilful backing. Even their instruments were complementary: Burton’s Gibson slope-shouldered J-Dreadnought sang with clear and solid rhythm, while Wheeler’s smaller bodied Avalon A25 Grand Auditorium chimed with chordal and flat-picked soloing and accompaniment. In this context, the songs were made fleshier with each singer able to introduce greater layers of orchestration to their sound.
The setlist was mostly chosen from Burton’s two full-lengths, plus Wheeler’s album Long Road Round and Ten Things To Do EP. Many of the songs mined the deep seams of life, love and Christian faith, with both singers refreshingly candid about the impact of religion on their lives without descending into didactic preaching. Highlights of Burton’s performances included fan favourites ‘Falling’ and ‘Hollow’ and the meaningful musings of the beautiful ‘Belongs To You’. Both artists also portrayed the melancholic bent that seems to fuel their writing. Indeed, Wheeler went so far as to confess that his wife advised him to maybe lighten up a little on first listen of (the admittedly sublime) ‘Scratches On The Glass’.
With plans already underway for both Burton and Wheeler to record new albums, they were eager to roadtest some of their new material. The most affecting of these was a tune from Burton entitled ‘Fromosa’, the Romanian word for ‘beautiful’. Written in response to her experiences at a Romanian AIDS orphanage run by the charity Cry In The Dark (www.cryinthedark.co.uk), the song was inspired by an encounter with the dying young girl of the title. The song, already dripping with raw emotion, was made all the more powerful by Wheeler’s tender slide embellishment on a lap-played Dobro resonator. Burton’s other new tune, ‘Silvertown’, and ‘Wheeler’s Run’ both provided further suggestion that any wait for their new records will be worth it. After a touching finale of Burton’s ‘Leave Me With You’, they rounded things off with an encore of Bacharach and David’s ‘(They Long To Be) Close To You’ before bowing to a content and buoyant audience in full sing-a-long mode, who then sidled out onto the glamorous Maidenhead tarmac.
originally published October 25th, 2005
The Ways We Try ••
As another in a long line of songwriters working on the premise that her homemade brand of acoustic vignettes on love and life will strike a chord with a wider audience, Emily ‘Birdie’ Busch enters the fray fresh from the Philadelphia coffeehouse circuit. After completing a range of struggling artist jobs, Birdie realised there was something else she was born to do, after which it appears she picked up a guitar, took to it like a native and voila, the benefit of her somewhat naïve musings are available to those looking for the next 21st Century troubadouress. If only all career moves were so easy! So, what does the Philly filly have to offer?
Well, it’s much as you’d expect. There’s an innocence to these simply structured melodies and arrangements; Busch floats through songs like a seed that’s caught the wind, happy to be carried in any direction as long as the destination is America’s west coast circa 1967. Unfortunately, ‘67 was a long time ago; the naiveté of the artists that gathered in Laurel Canyon to change the world with six strings and multi-part harmonies was truly a snapshot of its time and Busch is strictly little league in comparison. Then again, perhaps the comparison is simply unfair; the world is an uglier place in 2006 and the odd moment of happy-go-lucky sing-song is a welcome break from the daily routine, but the music still needs to be memorable at least.
I’d like to say that the songs benefit from a long gestation period, the culmination of ideas and experiences that stretch back years, but it’s difficult to say whether this is the case, or whether Birdie knocked the album out in an evening session at Starbucks. The songs rarely rise above pleasant, the pace rarely above a Sunday walk, and each one merges into the next in a below-par mélange of gently strummed or picked guitar, brushed percussion and upright piano. The songs aren’t bad; ‘Zeros’ has a breezy Sunday morning feel behind it’s cod-philosophy lyric, ‘Room In The City’ uses repetition well to enhance its momentum and ‘Drunk By Noon’ winds its way through your mind in a passable imitation of solo Kristin Hersh, but nothing reaches out and grabs you. There’s no eureka moment that raises the hairs on your arms, no careful turn of phrase or sparkling change of pace that sets her aside from the pack.
Despite several weeks of listening, willing myself to sing along and be impressed, I can’t honestly say that any of the material on The Ways We Try has stuck. I don’t find myself humming ‘The Cup’s harmonica line on my way to work, despite it probably being the most memorable melody. If I stumbled across Miss Busch in the aforementioned coffee emporium, I’d be pleased with the temporary release from my daily chores, applaud in the appropriate places and thank her when she’d finished, but I wouldn’t necessarily want her CD. Unless I had an elevator to paint. Must try harder.
originally published July 10th, 2006
Absence, it seems, really can make the heart grow fonder, even in the music press. Think about it: if Kate Bush had continued making records at regular intervals over the last twelve years, she would almost certainly have been subjected to even harsher critical judgement than the cold shoulder shrug that greeted her last two albums, The Sensual World (1989) and The Red Shoes (1993). Reviewers of those records at the time accused Bush of operating below her capabilities, though both albums were in fact full of inventive and rewarding music. All these years down the line, however, it seems that all has been forgiven, and the belated release of Aerial has been treated by certain publications as something akin to the Second Coming. For Bush’s fans too, every year of silence that passed made the prospect of a new opus ever more tantalising, yet more unlikely. All of these factors conspire to make Aerial unquestionably the year’s most anticipated album. But can any one record withstand such weight of expectation?
The answer, happily, is an emphatic ‘yes’. Careering from the domestic to the epic, from the inside of a washing machine to the bottom of the ocean, Aerial offers listeners all the wit, whimsy, weirdness and wonder (not to mention the impeccable musicianship) of Bush’s very best work. In fact, just as Elvis in first single ‘King Of The Mountain’ transcends the trappings of fame, wealth and possibly even death to take his place on some Parnassus of the mind, so Aerial surpasses the hype, sitting above it a bit loftily but willing to reveal its admittedly complex beauty to any listener prepared to give it the time and attention it deserves. There hasn’t been an epic pop album of comparable ambition and artistry (yes, and length) since Tori Amos’s The Beekeeper earlier this year. This is a record to lose yourself in. Actually, make that two records. For, in a nostalgic nod to Bush’s beloved vinyl era, Aerial is a double album, one which, twenty years on, duplicates the structure of 1985’s much revered Hounds Of Love, its two parts comprising a set of “independent” tracks and a song cycle. While the album preserves the stylistic verve and heterogeneity of her earlier releases, there’s a new and greater spaciousness to the arrangements, leaving more space for the distinctive vocals. Though more restrained than ever, Bush’s voice retains its remarkable capacity for drama and metamorphosis.
Along with her singing, one of the greatest aspects of Kate Bush’s music lies in the wonderful idiosyncrasy of the subject matter of her songs, and on this score too Aerial doesn’t disappoint. On the first disc, A Sea Of Honey, the bracing ‘King Of The Mountain’ segues into ‘Pi’, a eulogy for an obsessive enumerator and almost certainly the most seductive maths lesson in history with Bush cooing numbers and decimal points over a chugging organ motif. The misunderstood ‘Mrs. Bartolozzi’ is an even more vivid character sketch; the song is not ‘about’ a washing machine, but offers an oblique portrait of widowhood in which the memories of domestic duty and the freedom of the sea may or may not assuage the protagonist’s current isolation. Meanings are similarly fluid on the brooding, cinematic ‘Joanni’. With its arresting battle imagery, the song may nominally be ‘about’ Joan of Arc, but Bush’s phrasing of the title also conjures links with another significant Joni. The decidedly funky ‘How To Be Invisible’ is the record’s most playful moment, with its witty witch’s spell and wry, knowing comment on Bush’s own ‘obscurity’.
Informed by the birth of her son and the death of her mother, respectively, two of the loveliest songs on A Sea Of Honey are also the most personal. ‘Bertie’ feels like something of companion piece to Amos’s ‘Ribbons Undone’, an unadulterated expression of maternal delight and pride as Bush repeats “you bring me so much joy” over Renaissance strings, the simplicity of the statement accentuating her emotional intensity. The stunning ‘A Coral Room’ is a shivers-down-thespine piano ballad that moves from an underwater city to Bush’s intimate memories of her mother, and offers a meditation on the passage of time. With its references to cities “draped in net” and hands trailing in water, the song contains some of her most striking imagery yet. Indeed, in keeping with the sparser approach to instrumentation, there is a new clarity and precision to her songwriting on this record. You see that shirt on the washing line, that spider climbing out of a jug, Joanni “in her armour.”
The second disc, A Sky Of Honey, is a sublime nine-track sequence that traces the passage of a summer’s day, from afternoon to sunset and night and on to the following morning. Birds chirp, Bush chortles, Rolf Harris sings! It’s unlike anything you’ve ever heard, and yet pure and unmistakably Kate, as life-affirming as ‘The Ninth Wave’ was unremittingly bleak. Parts are almost overwhelmingly evocative; listening to it, you feel your senses being sharpened one by one. Bertie kicks things off, directing his parents’ attention to a “sky…full of birds.” Indeed, birdsong is a central motif, whether sampled or mimicked. Light is another central theme, and as the cycle progresses patterns develop and images recur. “This is a song of colour,” she sings on the glorious ‘Sunset’ as a piano refrain gives way to a delirious flamenco interlude, while ‘Prologue’ finds her at her most lushly romantic, “talking Italian” over a Michael Kamen orchestral arrangement. Just when you fear it’s all becoming too New Age ambient, a bewitching melody or killer chorus swoops in to orientate you. The shifts through moods of reflection, sadness and exhilaration are quite stunning. Vaughn Williams and Delius (a previous Kate Bush song topic) are presences, and the album blurs the boundaries between musical genres as assuredly as it blurs the distinctions between night and day, dream and reality, forging a space, as one song would have it, ‘Somewhere In Between’. The record concludes with the joyous, pulsing title track and Bush’s urgent desire to go “up on the roof,” an image of physical and spiritual transcendence to match the one that the album started with. By now “all of the birds are laughing”; so is Kate, and so are we.
As Bush herself intimated in a recent interview, “music should put you in a trance frenzy,” and, at its best, Aerial does precisely that. Put quite simply, it’s an extraordinary achievement that once again extends the boundaries of popular music. Of course, there are longeurs and minor indulgences, but it wouldn’t be a Bush record without them, and for her admirers, even the so-called ‘flaws’ have an air of reassurance. Twelve years may have been a long time to wait, but this kind of art is built to last. Tellingly, even after 80 minutes of music, you can’t wait to hear the whole thing again.
originally published November 21st, 2006
Filed under: album, back issues, review | Tags: adam smith, adrian roye, alan pedder, alex ramon, allison crowe, amy courts, anja mccloskey, anna claxton, camera obscura, camille, caroline, charalambides, christina carter, cibelle, cocorosie, cocosuma, cocteau twins, colleen, controller.controller, cyann and ben, danny weddup, diane cluck, isobel campbell, kate campbell, laura cantrell, lori carson, loria near, mara carlyle, mariah carey, mark lanegan, michael banna, nancy elizabeth, neko case, paul woodgate, rachael cantu, robbie de santos, rod thomas, rosanne cash, russell barker, shawn colvin, sheryl crow, spooner oldham, stephanie heney, the cardigans, the corrs, tiffany daniels, trevor raggatt
The following reviews were all published on our old website between May 2005 and December 2006.
Let’s Get Out Of This Country ••••
The habitual comparisons with fellow Scots Belle & Sebastian seem somewhat overstated when listening to this, the fourth full-length album from Glaswegian sextet Camera Obscura, fronted by Traceyanne Campbell (no relation to Isobel). Although there are occasional hints of the distinctive B&S indie-pop sound here and there, Let’s Get Out Of This Country is so much more than imitation. In fact, the listener is treated, tour guide-style, to a veritable history of pop music.
There are moments of pure pop breeziness on first single and album opener ‘Lloyd, I’m Ready To Be Heartbroken’, a song written in answer to the final track on Lloyd Cole’s classic debut, Rattlesnakes, and again on the title track, where St Etienne’s catchier sunshine moments are emulated well. Indeed, the witty lyrics and upbeat mood recall a female-fronted Divine Comedy covering Cole himself in his prime. However, the real beauty here lies in the lounge country sway elements of the album where the pace is slower and more bittersweet. ‘Dory Previn’ and the French waltz of ‘The False Contender’ are enchanting and have the wistful qualities of a last dance with their unhurried melodies and sophisticated folk-pop tenderness. We’re transported to an abandoned, creaky back porch where timeless themes of longing and lost love are all encompassing.
Fittingly, everything goes back in time to the retro high school prom queen heartbreak of ‘Come Back Margaret’. With its clever doo-wop production that could quite believably have been recorded by Connie Francis, a saccharine tune right out of the ‘50s accompanies innocent lyrics of despair and teenage dramas. Further vintage melodies are explored with The Supremes-esque sound of ‘I Need All The Friends I Can Get’, a full on charming disco number complete with hand claps and tambourines. In terms of emulating older styles, nothing quite tops ‘If Looks Could Kill’, a song that lodges in your head and refuses to budge, cramming in everything that made those Phil Spector-produced Ronettes classics so great, right down to the glorious Wall of Sound and organ accompaniment.
It’s a testament to Camera Obscura’s songwriting talents that such a collection of retro styles can still sound so fresh and vibrant. Not content with simple pop sweetness, the band tackle sombre themes of broken relationships and lonely yearning for romance and love. The closing track, ‘Razzle Dazzle Rose’, is a beautiful farewell that sounds like it was recorded in a deserted ballroom. Tracyanne’s haunting Julee Cruise-like vocals perfectly express the ghostly atmosphere and a trumpet solo rounds up the magical history tour. Far from under-achievers, Camera Obscura sound like a band who have really hit their stride – not just unafraid to explore different eras and styles, but mastering each of them.
originally published June 5th, 2006
Le Fil •••••
The word ‘chanteuse’ is bandied around rather too often these days, but rarely does an artist fit the bill more perfectly than 27-year old Parisian Camille. Though she is arguably most famous for singing on Nouvelle Vague’s self-titled album of bossa nova interpretations of New Wave classics, Le Fil is actually her second solo release. The title translates as ‘the thread’, pointedly relating to the hum that flows constantly throughout the record, undulating beneath the complex and luscious vocal layering and melodies, creating a fluid and bound piece of art. Though the album is sung almost entirely in her native tongue, a few strands of English appear in some songs, but French speaking friends assure me that, though the lyrics are indeed wonderful, the allure of Le Fil lies in its complex and beautiful sound.
One of the album’s most striking elements is the heavy dependence on a cappella arrangements. Conventional intruments have a limited presence, comprising mainly of bossa nova percussion and occasional horns and slap bass, but it is the diversity of Camille’s vocal arrangements that make it so impressive. In particular, the richness and variety of her vocalisations on ‘Ta Douleur’ are astounding and it’s not hard to see why it was chosen as a single in France; as one of the most upbeat songs on the album, there is a wider berth for interesting noises – raspberries, squeals and squelches. Much like Tanya Tagaq’s Sinaa, if it weren’t for the 5″ circular proof in your stereo, it would be hard to even entertain the thought that the human voice can make such sounds. On the slower songs (most notably ‘Vous’), the background ba-ba-bas and high-pitched vocals are reminiscent of the multi-layered and rich harmonies characteristic of Alisha’s Attic.
But it’s not just the voice parts that make Le Fil so spellbinding; the orchestral chord changes should not be underestimated, nor should Camille’s clear understanding of how to write a moving piece of music. Opener ‘La Jeune Fille Aux Cheveux Blancs’ is the most luscious composition of them all; the orchestration is as pure as a sunrise, unscathed by sin and cynicism. The chordal and melodic movements are so genuinely perfect they’ll make the hairs on your neck stand to attention. On the flipside, Camille doesn’t shy away from getting positively filthy, and ‘Janine III’ is especially explicit; her rasping snarls are layered and looped, sounding for all the world like a group of bickering wrinkled women in a small-town market square. Le Fil often feels incredibly modern in the sense that the clarity and complexity of the vocals is fresh and original, but a folky, traditional Gallic slant is also at play. Some of the melodies possess such world-weary wisdom that they may well have been passed down from generation to generation of singers. Rather like a thread, in fact. Even disregarding the lyrics completely, Le Fil is one of the most astonishing musical works of recent years.
Robbie de Santos
originally published December 19th, 2005
Isobel Cambpell & Mark Lanegan
Ballad Of The Broken Seas •••½
Weird partnerships in music are no new phenomenon. Remember Bowie and Crosby? Cave and Minogue? So what about Campbell and Lanegan? With her Mia Farrow-type features and sugar-sweet fairytale tones, Campbell could seduce even the most hardened of music fans into listening enraptured. Since leaving Glaswegian pop collective Belle & Sebastian in 2002, she has recorded a number of albums under various guises and with Ballad Of The Broken Seas, Campbell once again shows her knack for choosing allies wisely.
Lanegan, the growly-voiced former Screaming Trees frontman and sometime guitarist with metal heavyweights Queens Of The Stone Age, makes for a somewhat odd collaborator but even more bizarrely, it works. In fact, Lanegan has never sounded quite so dirty and gruff as he does on the folksy opener ‘Deus Ibi Est’. As his wicked tones slide against Campbell’s soft, ethereal vocals you almost feel part of some kind of amoral liaison between them. Hell, even the artwork locates them in a seedy hotel room. Of course, it’s all designed to play out in our heads – the pair of them have barely even been in the same room together, recording their respective vocals hundreds of miles apart.
Campbell is responsible for writing most of the songs, though Lanegan has a go with the alluring ‘Revolver’, a low-key number with sexily whispered vocals, steady percussion and delicate strings. The vocal contrast between the two is by far the most engaging aspect of the record. Some songs are designed to throw Isobel’s ghostly innocence into sharp relief against her craggy companion. The old Hank Williams standard ‘Ramblin’ Man’, for example, is a welcome inclusion, complete with a cracking whip and countrified guitars, while the title track sees Lanegan playing to type again, deliberating the ravages of drink. Less obvious are ‘Black Mountain’, which vaguely recalls a softened ‘Scarborough Fair’, and ‘Saturday’s Gone’, a wistful haunting tune on which Campbell’s vocals are truly laid bare.
Later songs, however, settle less well with Campbell’s purity. ‘(Do You Wanna) Come Walk With Me’s Lanegan-sung lyric “There’s a crimson bird flying when I go down on you” highlights the fine line between seductive and creepy. Whatever effect she was hoping for when she enlisted Lanegan, Campbell has obviously done her homework well and has hit upon that rare quality, a tangible chemistry between two unusual voices, and the attraction is compelling. You expect Lanegan to be the lascivious devil on Campbell’s celestial shoulder, but in fact the opposite also happens – Campbell’s vocals often hide a sinister side, and that aspect alone is worth the price of admission.
originally published May 22nd, 2006
Milkwhite Sheets •••½
Once upon a time, in a mysterious and supernatural world far, far away, there lived a blonde girl with big eyes, a captivating smile and slightly wonky yet chic fringe. She lived high up in a tower overlooking a beautiful bay where the ocean was clear and the sand was golden. Life would have been good for her if her tower wasn’t surrounded by shimmering mermaids who, every time a ship appeared on the horizon, would call and sing their tempting song, flicking their tails in delight as, one by one, the sailors within were called to their deaths. The blonde girl had to watch these handsome and brave men drown each time and, for each one, she would compose a lament, mourning the fact that another chance of true love was gone, borrowing harmonies from the ghosts that went before and melodies from the dreams of escape she held dear. If she ever did, she thought, she would wear deeply coloured velvet and spill glitter wherever she walked.
This, believe it or not, just about sums up what you should expect to hear on Miss Campbell’s latest album. Confirming her rather offbeat romance with traditional folk, Milkwhite Sheets takes a tentative and seemingly innocent step away from her indie/country-rock former amalgamation, instead transforming into a magical creature whose fuzzy beauty is best caught in morning light. A meandering journey back to days of yore, the former Belle & Sebastian vocalist and cellist steps into a new spotlight of her own, a more ambient one to that of her Mercury Music Prize-nominated collaboration with Mark Lanegan, but bright nonetheless.
This is an album that teaches us to listen. Though it may at first seem like the slight, shy offerings of some whispering goddess sitting next to James Iha playing the lute, it soon becomes apparent that the almost pagan-like rituals found herein are making a much bolder statement. Indeed, the power in Campbell’s music is that you have to really dig deep to notice what is there. Beginning with the lilting ‘O’ Love Is Teasin’, Campbell’s slightly unsure voice merges with desolate strumming, building up the tracks that follow, often dramatically, with haunting cello and wistful arpeggios to create something quite primeval and barely-there beautiful. From the reworked traditional offerings ‘Willow’s Song’ and ‘Hori Horo’ to the contrasting indie menace of closing track ‘Thursday’s Child’, Campbell’s quiet exultations and the simple structure of what are essentially love songs makes Milkwhite Sheets extra special indeed. It is not afraid of doing something different, and like-minded people are therefore invited in to have their cockles warmed by this rawest of British talents.
Kate Campbell with Spooner Oldham
For The Living Of These Days ••••½
Like a fine vintage wine, Kate Campbell just gets better and better. Since the release of her debut album Songs From The Levee in 1995, she’s mined the rich seams of folk, country, gospel, soul and blues in ever deeper and more fulfilling ways. Along with Iris DeMent and Lucinda Williams, Campbell has an ability to distil a variety of Southern music traditions into the space of a single song. Drawing deep from the well of tradition, she takes the music forward and infuses it with a resolutely contemporary sensibility.
Her new gospel album is a collaboration with veteran Spooner Oldham recorded at the legendary Fame Studios in Muscle Shoals, Alabama. Oldham has worked with Campbell on many of her previous records (including her first gospel release, Wandering Strange), but here it’s just the two of them, resulting in an uncluttered approach that allows each of these fourteen songs to shine. The album combines ancient hymns with songs by Woody Guthrie and Kris Kristofferson and a couple of excellent Campbell-Oldham originals. Backed only by Oldham’s stately Hammond B3 organ, piano, Wurlitzer and guitar, Campbell raids the Baptist hymnal for a lovely rendition of ‘There’s A Wideness In God’s Mercy’, while ‘God Of Grace & God Of Glory’ gets a particularly powerful and urgent treatment. And should anyone doubt the contemporary relevance of this material, just listen to the plea to “cure Thy children’s warring madness” or the reference to being “rich in things and poor in soul” in the latter hymn. The beautiful ‘Prayer Of Thomas Merton’ sets a Trappist monk’s prayer to alternately aching and assertive piano accompaniment, while Campbell and Walt Aldridge’s haunting ‘Dark Night Of The Soul’ is a stunning centrepiece that sounds like an instant classic.
As ever, Campbell’s compassionate, unaffected and effortlessly soulful vocals pull the listener into the heart of each song. Moreover, without ever resorting to facile polemic or easy didacticism, Campbell has always smuggled sharp-eyed social and political commentary into her work, and here she finds the vein of dissent and worldly dissatisfaction that links old hymns to contemporary protest songs. Both Guthrie’s ‘Jesus Christ’ and Bobby Braddock’s pointed ‘Would They Love Him Down In Shreveport’ reach disheartening conclusions about Jesus’s probable reception in the contemporary world, while Kristofferson’s ‘They Killed Him’ despairs at humanity’s tendency to dispose of its most valuable teachers. But, like all of the best country musicians, Campbell refuses to dwell in despondency for too long, and both the Civil Rights-themed ‘Faces In The Water’ and the timeless ‘There Is A Balm In Gilead’ offer hope and consolation.
Ultimately, while For The Living of These Days may not top Campbell’s last record, the sublimely affecting Blues & Lamentations, it deserves to take its place alongside DeMent’s Lifeline and Johnny Cash’s My Mother’s Hymn Book as a stirring example of all that is good about American gospel music. If there’s something missing from this record, it’s the wonderful narrative sense, vivid character portraits and wry humour that have distinguished so much of Campbell’s earlier work. Nonetheless, she and Oldham have produced that rarity – a contemporary album that can truly be said to be good for the soul. Amen!
originally published October 14th, 2006
Humming By The Flowered Vine ••••½
Country music is a much maligned genre, and not without some justification. The gross excesses of the Nashville country scene are enough to turn the stomach of even the most hard-bitten music fan. However, for every Billy Bob Stetson or Dwayne Yokel with their tasselled shirts, ten-gallon hats and horrific mullet haircuts, there’s been a Nanci Griffith, a Steve Earle, a Mary Chapin Carpenter or a Lucinda Williams who has been there to haul the genre rightly back from the ridiculous to the sublime. Laura Cantrell thankfully resides in this latter category. Indeed, she has received such widespread acclaim that many regard her as the rising star of the alt.country genre. Influential DJ John Peel proclaimed her debut album, Not The Tremblin’ Kind his “favourite record of the last ten years, and possibly my life” and Elvis Costello quickly enlisted her as a support act and was quoted as saying “If Kitty Wells made Rubber Soul it would sound like Laura Cantrell.” High praise indeed.
Humming By The Flowered Vine is Cantrell’s third album and her first for large indie label Matador, in whose pastures she runs alongside some less than likely label-mates, including Cat Power, Belle & Sebastian, Mogwai and Guided By Voices, and is fearlessly brimming with the confidence of an artist who knows she’s coming of age. Though her style is pure country, drawing on much of the language of the genre – slide and steel guitar, high third harmonies, traditional folk ballads, fiddle and accordion – Cantrell never allows these elements to add up to a cliché, but rather blends them successfully with a contemporary bent, though sometimes choosing one path or the other. Fittingly, this seems to reflect her life’s journey. Having emigrated from Nashville to attend college in New York City, Cantrell kickstarted her long-running college radio show ‘Tennessee Border’, which explores both the history of country and its diverse modern expressions, and learnt her trade playing in the city’s trendy coffee bars alongside more folk-based artists. Remarkably, her first two albums were recorded while holding a full-time job in a Wall Street investment bank.
Without the day job devouring her time, Cantrell has turned in her finest album yet. The opener, ‘14th Street’, commences proceedings with a light country-pop paean to her adopted hometown and features exquisite harmonies from Mary Lee Kortes of Mary Lee’s Corvette. Second track, ‘What You Said’, has tinges of bluegrass, with Kenny Kosek’s fiddle and Jon Graboff’s mandolin hinting at the breadth of styles to come. There’s slow-burning rock (‘Letters’, an obscure Lucinda Williams original), post-war Western swing akin to the likes of Bob Willis & His Texas Playboys with pedal steel and fiddle aplenty (‘Wishful Thinking’) and a traditional murder ballad from the 1920s (‘Poor Ellen Smith’, also covered by the likes of Kristin Hersh). The pairing of ‘And Still’ and ‘Khaki And Corduroy’ packs some serious emotional weight, with the latter perhaps just nudging it for the album’s most affecting contribution. Here, acoustic guitar and bass, brushes and sparse piano create a melancholy evocation of memories of lost times and old friends.
Elsewhere, ‘California Rose’ is Cantrell’s own tribute to Rose Maddox from the Depression-era group, Maddox Brothers & Rose. It’s an unforgettable story of that indomitable spirit of a strong woman forging her way against the odds. The biggest surprise here comes with the closer, ‘Old Downtown’, which fuses some pretty diverse styles into a delectable slab of modern country rock, as perfect as it is unexpected. It takes some imagination to mix early Steve Earle-style guitars with a heavily syncopated, almost Madchester drum and bass groove, and then to seamlessly segue to an outro of eBow guitars and pedal steel combining into a psychedelic, ambient soundscape. Oh, and all this comes complementary to classic Americana lyrical imagery. It’s easy to see why Cantrell is seen as both curator and innovator within her chosen field.
Humming By The Flowered Vine neatly establishes Cantrell as a force to be reckoned with. The production by JD Foster, former bassist for Dwight Yoakam, brings out the best of Cantrell and her musicians, delivering an album of great sonic clarity. There’s no filler here either; the disc spins for just 39 minutes, leaving the listener hungry for more rather than fully sated. With songs this strong and backed by a bigger label, Cantrell will almost certainly garner wider, more mainstream recognition and success. Here’s hoping this propels her onto equal or greater achievements.
originally published October 20th, 2006
Run All Night •••½
This short but sweet eight-track mini-album may not make your ears prick up with its originality or variety, but it will undoubtedly tug at your heartstrings. Californian Cantu is a former rock chick now treading lightly in the footsteps of accomplished singer-songwriters like Aimee Mann and Ani DiFranco, but sounding a bit like Luscious Jackson’s Gabby Glaser in the process. Taken at face value, Run All Night may simply be another pretty, wistful woman with a beautiful voice strumming an acoustic guitar, but once you’ve immersed yourself in it, you may find that Cantu’s appeal lies in her music holding some kind of familiarity that the others do not.
Epitomising all that is human, Cantu’s touchingly honest lullabies are performed with a subtle intensity that commands the attention of even the most unfeeling listener. The title track, for example, is about a moment we’ve all had that you just don’t want to end; at risk of sounding clichéd, this is one album that you won’t want to finish up either. In little under half an hour, and with a smidgen of help from her friends on cello and organ, Cantu wends her way through every emotion, oozing loneliness, regret and, of course, that ole devil called love, from every pore.
Run All Night may be minimalist in approach but it’s extremely powerful when given a chance to take full effect and, although it’s likely that she’ll need to bring something completely different to the table next time if she’s to go the distance, this is a confident debut that will surely get under your skin. It made me blub quietly anyway. Great stuff.
originally published September 17th, 2006
Super Extra Gravity •••
Although The Cardigans’ last album, Long Gone Before Daylight, was a dark gem of a record consisting mainly of bleak and distinctly ‘grown-up’ lyrics set to acoustic pop tunes, commercially it was a relative dud. Whether this injustice knocked the confidence of Nina Persson and co. is unclear, but something has gone awry in between that record and this, their sixth in just over a decade.
Never one-dimensional, The Cardigans have always been a pop group with a slightly sinister side (after all, they are famously fans of Ozzy Osbourne and Black Sabbath), and that lyrical edge remains; opener ‘Losing A Friend’ dwells upon mortality and sets a black-humoured tone. The trouble here is that the music is too often tortured as well; the sweet sound that used to set the band apart from their peers has dissipated almost entirely. Gone too is the icy electronic sheen of their Gran Turismo-era hits, ‘My Favourite Game’ and ‘Erase/Rewind’. Instead, the band have opted for a more pedestrian pop-rock sound that proves somewhat unengaging over the length of the record.
That’s not to say that this is a bad record; it simply suffers in comparison with the past achievements of a very talented band. The witty lyrics of ‘Godspell’ stand out strongly, attacking the perils of organised religion (or the “great big swindle” as Persson refers to it) with vigour. Elsewhere, the driving wall-of-sound force of ‘Good Morning Joan’, tempered by sweetly tinkling bells, is sublime. However, revisiting a track from Long Gone… as the band do on ‘And Then You Kissed Me II’ is a mistake; gone is the infectious pop melody that the first instalment possessed, only to be replaced by a drawn-out and discordant inferior with strangely hollow backing. The band themselves have described the relationship of Super Extra Gravity to its predecessor as an obnoxious teenager to its mature older relation. Unfortunately, this acne-and-all approach has exposed some of their less attractive qualities.
Anticlimactically, it turns out that the lead single from the album, the spiky and brilliantly titled ‘I Need Some Fine Wine & You, You Need To Be Nicer’, is also its finest track. On the bright side, however, it’s an undeniably fine composition, and like Super Extra Gravity‘s other highlights, it serves as evidence that The Cardigans can still write sophisticated, bristling pop songs for adults, even if they now do so with slightly less consistency.
originally published December 12th, 2005
The Emancipation Of Mimi ••••
These days it’s too easy to focus on the problems Mariah has been through over the last few years, but on the evidence presented here, her tenth album, she herself certainly isn’t wallowing. If last album Charmbracelet reflected Carey’s mourning process, then The Emancipation Of Mimi sure ain’t the wake. This is an upbeat, light-hearted party record, reflected perfectly in the opening track and first single, ‘It’s Like That’. Harking back to 1980s R&B (via the SOS Band) yet with a pounding kick-drum that The Neptunes would be proud of, it’s a snappy, simple number that relentlessly invades the brain.
It’s no coincidence then that it’s one of the four songs on …Mimi that Carey crafted with long-time collaborator Jermaine Dupri – together they have created some of the most memorable songs of her 15-year career. Second single ‘We Belong Together’ maintains that trend, blissfully encapsulating the very best aspects of their union. The finest ingredients are to be found here – a distinct and sumputous melody carrying a universal theme, a classy arrangement and the perfect ratio of smooth to belted vocals. Elsewhere on the album, the party continues with tracks like the Prince-inspired ‘Say Something’, the infectious ‘Stay The Night’, vocal workout ‘Your Girl’ and ‘Get Your Number’, which samples Imagination’s 1980s hit, ‘Just An Illusion’.
In the past, Carey has best impressed when backed by live musicians, and …Mimi builds on these successes. ‘I Wish You Knew’ takes you straight to the concert with its energetic crowd effect, and is reminiscent of early Diana Ross, while ‘Circles’ has a classic early ’70s groove without sounding like the wannabe retro peddled by, for example, ultra-bore Joss Stone. This track, and indeed the entire album, benefits from Mariah’s maturation as a singer – where once she might have indulged in warbling and melisma, here she has learnt to rein in those early vocal flourishes and sounds all the better for it. Her voice is strong throughout, and a new-found clarity and diction makes much of …Mimi more accessible then some previous efforts. Although the album as a whole is intended to be light-hearted, closer ‘Fly Like A Bird’ is a spiritual number set among stunning live instrumentation and climactic vocals. It feels like closure.
What The Emancipation Of Mimi shows is that, when Carey is put into a position where she feels she has nothing to prove, that freedom translates into her music and allows it to convey a more relaxed energy. Though her popularity in the UK will never scale the heights of her US success, and though many music fans and critics have written her off, Mariah has no reason at all to be bothered. In terrific contrast to the usual, by blinkering herself to much of the outside world’s opinion, she has returned with a purer and much better distillation of her craft than anyone could have expected.
originally published September 3rd, 2005
I Blame Dido EP ••••
Legend has it that upon her arrival in Libya, Dido, the founder queen of Carthage, was permitted to buy only as much land as could be covered by a bull’s hide. Being a wily little minx, she thus proceeded to slice the skin into slivers so fine that they encircled an area of several acres, upon which she built her city. As such, the phrase “to cut up didoes” came to describe an extravagant behaviour.
On first impression, the title of Shropshire-born Mara Carlyle’s new EP may seem like an attempt to sever a chunk from the crown of our own queen Dido, perhaps the very antithesis of extravagant, but is in fact “entirely coincidental”. That is, according to the cheeky-faced creator of last year’s most aptly titled album, The Lovely. Recorded over several years and completed on a secondhand laptop in a north London flat, The Lovely displayed a staggering yet homely virtuosity paired with through-a-glass-darkly operatic vocals that placed Carlyle somewhere along the continuum between early Joan Baez and the gentle lilt of Kathryn Williams.
Continuing the cutting theme momentarily, that album opened with the unforgettable combo of eerie vocals and bendy DIY essential that was ‘The Saw Song’ (Carlyle once played in a trio called The Weeping Saws; clearly, she knows her way around a pun or two) but it’s the sweeping, smoky ‘I Blame You Not’ that finds its way onto this EP. Sounding for all the world like a lost Dusty Springfield in pensive mode classic, it would have sounded equally at home on Feist’s Let It Die. With its muffled piano, soft jazzy drums and soothing background coos, it singlehandedly dislodges the stake from the heart of the torch song hammered in by the likes of Katie Melua and the soporific Norah Jones.
The Carthagian connection arrives in the form of a cover of ‘Dido’s Lament’ from the Henry Purcell opera, ‘Dido & Aeneas’. This was not, as it happens, wholly inspired by the baroque original, but by a spirited take by the dearly departed Jeff Buckley. “Baroque music was meant to be filled with passion when it was written” says Carlyle, “But these days people are too reverential about it.” The result is a distinctly tasteful rendition that builds in intensity to a dreamy multi-tracked refrain of “remember me, my fate.” It’s measured, certainly, but never dull. Carlyle returns again to essential listening territory with a bizarrely soulful cover of labelmate Dani Siciliano’s ‘Walk The Line’ from last year’s Likes… album. Maybe it’s the slightly comical baritone beatbox on the blink, but its charm is infectious and somehow improves on the original.
Frankly, anyone who compares opera singing to “weight lifting whilst reciting poetry from memory whilst convincingly acting like you’re about to cry / laugh / kill / shag someone” is more than alright by me. If you loved The Lovely, this is like manna from heaven. Else, if you somehow missed out, get this as an entrée and proceed to the main course directly; do not pass Dido, do not regret £10.
originally published July 26th, 2005
With Murmurs, Tokyo’s Caroline Lufkin has created an album of such light, polished precision and crystalline sonic clarity that it ought to stickered ‘handle with care’; so soft and feathery are proceedings that you fear you might just scare her off if you sing along too loudly. It’s odd then that the first track ‘Bicycle’ recalls the theme to ‘Coronation Street’ – unknowingly I suspect – the trumpet conjuring images of tiled rooftops and athletic cats. But unlike the sometimes ugly world of Weatherfield, gentle is the buzzword here as Caroline’s self-harmonies are accompanied by the tinkling of a triangle and muted, fuzzed-up electronic beats.
Sounds familiar, right? Murmurs is barely a stone’s throw from the hipster coffee table qualities that propelled Röyksopp to the top of the charts and made the more radio-friendly moments of Goldfrapp’s Felt Mountain the soundtrack du jour to every advert/trailer/furniture outlet going. Many of the songs have an ambient, Zero 7 quality and one suspects that all she needs to make it big is the help of that all-important endorsement – Peugeot or perfume? Who knows! Elsewhere, ‘Pink & Black’ features glacial harp reminiscent of Vespertine-era Björk; indeed, the number of comparisons that the album brings to mind is quite revealing. Whilst the songs feature absolutely top-notch production and perfectly crafted soundscapes, Murmurs as a whole holds precious little we haven’t heard elsewhere before.
At times, the relentlessly chilled-out vibe seems at odds with the lyrics. “You drove me to the wall / I put my car in stall,” she sings on ‘Drove Me To The Wall’, yet the tone doesn’t differ markedly from, for example, ‘Bicycle’, about the nostalgia of looking back on a childhood romance. After few tracks you’ll be longing for something jagged to shatter the calm, if only momentarily – a guest vocal from Kat Bjelland or a Diamanda Galás piano solo, perhaps – but it isn’t forthcoming. The reverie is broken momentarily on ‘Everylittlething’, where an Erasure-esque synth beat and menacing electronic effects briefly flourish, but the song does not fulfil its promise and fails to take off as you might hope.
Thus, the album’s title proves to be a fitting description of its contents. These are beautifully crafted murmurs, but murmurs nonetheless. Then again, like a nice cool breeze on a warm summer’s evening, Caroline’s music is entirely welcome if you’re in the mood for something relaxing and ambient; music for drifting off to sleep to, intentionally or not.
originally published August 30th, 2006
The Finest Thing •••
One Little Indian
For all the emphasis we place on the lyrical, it’s sometimes a simple la la la that can grip you like a tendril. Take Kylie Minogue’s ‘Can’t Get You Out Of My Head’ for example, where the nagging vocalisations do exactly what it says on the tin, for hours. Fear not though, reclusive indie chanteuse Lori Carson won’t be sashaying half-naked across your TV screens any time soon. If anything, her first album of new material since 2001’s House In The Weeds sees her picking up the baton from ex-Dead Can Dancer, Lisa Gerrard, and flirting with the ethereal. These seven songs plus one reprise constitute something of a concept album, though not an overt one. In this subtle series, life itself is the concept with all its accompanying dreamscapes and sadness. Carson herself refers to them as “meditations” rather than songs and she has a point – much like meditation, this album takes patience but in return bequeaths a degree of serenity. However, with five of the tracks overrunning the seven-minute mark and many containing prolonged passages of monosyllabic, light as air whisperings, you might want to have a good book handy.
Only ‘The Finest Thing’ and ‘Hold On To The Sun’ approach the confessional singer-songwriterly melodiousness that has been Carson’s stock in trade. Both are delicate wisps of songs anchored by acoustic guitar. The title track is a swooning, aching realisation of how rare and fleeting are moments of sheer contentment. Similarly, ‘Hold On To The Sun’ is a more grounded expansion of the same theme – the spiritual salve of hope. The standout piece, ‘Glimmer’, wraps her vulnerable soft vocals around very sparse, almost skeletal instrumentation. Tellingly, it’s the one long track that doesn’t feel like it and you wish it could go on. Elsewhere, there’s a certain compelling sweetness to ‘Coney Island Ride’. While it doesn’t quite conjure all the fun of the fair, Carson successfully regresses the listener to their first rollercoaster ride, only this one arcs through clouds and there’s no rib-crushing safety bar. You’re free to float in the slipstream should you so desire.
Sadly, none of these songs survive intact when listened to out of the context of the album, and it’s this insular quality that is both the record’s most precious and most limiting factor. While The Finest Thing is a sonically adventurous and welcome diversion for Lori Carson, it is not without its tedium. By virtue of patience, however, the filmic beauty of it all is something that’s easy to treasure.
originally published May 25th, 2005
Fox Confessor Brings The Flood •••••
It would be too easy (and not to mention a bit unfair) to begin and end this review with the statement that this is the best album of 2006, considering that it’s only April. However, Fox Confessor Brings The Flood, the fourth solo studio effort from Neko Case, is easily one of the most anticipated albums of recent months. An ambitious record that’s been two years in the making from concept to glorious finished product, it’s safe to say that its been well worth the wait.
With a voice that’s often compared with Patsy Cline, Brenda Lee and Loretta Lynn, Case is clearly getting comfy in the role of the country noir chanteuse. But Case draws on more than these media-driven comparisons, transcending the limitations of genre and forging instead a new style of her own. Strong, resonant and reminiscent of a smoky bar at last call, her rich, luxuriant vocals invoke a walk after midnight, lit only by la lune and heartbreak. And while there are certainly echoes of Cline’s mournful croon on the opening track ‘Margaret vs. Pauline’, she just as easily embodies the three-minute, pure pop gold of ‘Mamas’ Michelle Phillips and Cass Elliot on the exquisitely twangy ‘Hold On, Hold On’.
The songs on Fox Confessor… are unprecedented illustrations of Case’s superb lyricism and growing skill as a storyteller and poet. Reflective and compliant yet optimistic, the songs weave their way through metaphors and myths. ‘Margaret vs. Pauline’ sees her weaving words into melodies that at first seem to only illustrate the difference between the two titular women; however, a closer look reveals a flawlessly executed character study full of minute detail – “Ancient strings set feet a’light to speed to her such mild grace / no monument of tacky gold / they smoothed her hair with cinnamon waves”.
On the title track, Case completely abandons any notion of standard structure with a beautiful tune that bypasses anything as laughably conventional as a chorus, instead wending its way through an imaginative storyline based on an old Ukrainian folk tale: “Clouds hang on these curves like me / and I kneel to the wheel / of the fox confessor on splendid heels / and he shames me from my seat”. Another of the standout tracks, ‘Star Witness’, weaves a love song into a contemporary country tune, but dipping into the darkness of a 1950s murder ballad telling the grisly story of a lover’s untimely demise: “go on, go on scream and cry / you’re miles from where anyone will find you / this is nothing new, no television crew / they don’t even put on the sirens / my nightgown sweeps the pavement, please”.
While Case is the lyricist and primary songwriter, the many skilled collaborators and guests on this album include Kelly Hogan, Visqueen’s Rachel Flotard, The Band’s Garth Hudson, Joey Burns and John Convertino of Calexico and former Flat Duo Jet Dexter Romweber, not to mention longtime bandmates Jon Rauhouse and Tom V Ray. This diversity of talent is certainly not wasted either. Feedback fills the title track, a reverberating and deep orchestral strength rises in ‘Dirty Knife’ (a song based on a decidedly un-cosy family story passed down from her grandma) and a lazy surfer backdrop gives a stunning sense of atmosphere to ‘Lion’s Jaws’. And when talking about atmosphere, it wouldn’t be right not to mention the haunting gospel tones of ‘John Saw That Number’, a traditional folk song with new music added by Case, recorded in the stairwell of Toronto’s Horseshoe Tavern. It’s what spines were really made to tingle for.
Monumentally diverse and damn near impeccable, Fox Confessor Brings The Flood is a tremendous portrait of poetics and storytelling that will surely stand the test of time. Always something of a cult artist out on the fringe of recognition, especially this side of the Atlantic, it could be that Case’s light has finally outgrown the bushel beneath which it has been hidden for so very long.
originally published March 6th, 2006
Black Cadillac ••••
There is a rule and a paradox that has existed since melody was first used to communicate emotion. The rule: that classic songs tend to deal in the darker elements of life. The paradox: that, for a dark song, someone somewhere has to suffer. Music can heal the deepest wounds and turn the bitterness of lost love into the rose-tinted hue of fond memory. Experts in the art of songwriting continue to educate us and we never tire of the lesson. In just over a year, Cash lost her father, mother and stepmother, leaving her the bearer of a 50-year old torch and the Carter-Cash family (who, to some, were the American family) in tatters. You’re unlikely to see again a dedication carrying the weight and legacy of a musical dynasty as popular and critically acclaimed as the one Cash has printed on the sleeve of Black Cadillac.
With the very stuff of life and death at her fingertips then, it was natural that the follow-up to 2003’s Rules Of Travel would be both a personal goodbye and a meditation on loss. The music at the wake occasionally makes for painful listening. That Cash hasn’t resorted to primal scream therapy, but instead maintained her impeccable reputation for clever, insightful wordplay and gorgeous melody, is to her credit and our gain. Black Cadillac leaves its listeners in conflict with themselves; you sing along, until you remember what it is you’re singing.
The highlights are many. Throughout ‘I Was Watching You’, the album’s recurring themes of loss and love run like a raw nerve through a simple, layered, piano-driven melody, at once ghostly and viscerally tangible, personal yet universal. ‘Like Fugitives’ comes on like Bryan Adams’ ‘Run To You’ without the ‘80s bombast or formulaic, lighter-waving middle eight. Instead, it’s the bitterest lyrical pill in Cash’s medicine cabinet: “It’s a strange new world we live in where the church leads you to Hell / and the lawyers get the money for the lives they divide and sell”. Elsewhere, the title track rolls in on an earthquake-like bass riff, not unlike her father’s voice talking beneath a stolen U2 guitar part, while ‘Radio Operator’s poignant message simply “…will not end”.
The overall tone is one of sadness, but never defeat. For every heartbreak, there is acceptance that life continues. Implicit in the journey is hope, expressed beautifully in another standout, ‘God Is In The Roses’, in which Cash takes a deep breath and smiles ruefully whilst singing “My whole world fits inside the moment I saw you re-born / God is in the roses… and the thorns”. For 20 years now, Rosanne Cash has created an exquisite blend of country, pop and rock that tends to get overlooked in the final reckoning, but remains one of the cognoscenti’s best-kept secrets. With Black Cadillac, she has triumphed; it’s a masterclass in living with the paradox, providing more of life’s truths, and laying to rest with dignity and beauty some of her troubles. Buy it. Empathise. Feel better.
originally published March 11th, 2006
Speaking For Trees ••
As anyone who has endured the wretched soulwreck that is seemingly every other Cat Power live date will tell you, to witness Chan Marshall’s shambolic disassembly of self on stage is to feel like you are spying on a very private decline. It’s intensely uncomfortable and you wonder how soon the whitecoats will come and lift the shuddering, incoherent thirtysomething from her lonely little stool. Not that she is incapable of performing so publicly – her 2003 set at Islington’s Union Chapel was by all accounts mesmeric. Thus, providing she was having a good day, a live DVD seemed an ideal compromise, yet ‘Speaking For Trees’ manages to be as maddening and restless as Marshall is in the flesh.
Set in a noisy, chattering woodland clearing and filmed in an interminably dull single shot, supposedly in homage to the probably equally excruciating art films by Andy Warhol et al., the 100-minute long main feature could, much like Vogon poetry, extract a confession from even the most hardline criminal. Either that or put them to sleep. Shot on digital video rather than film, a barely distinguishable Chan Marshall stands at least 15 feet away from the camera for the entire feature, her face either blurry or hidden behind her trademark hair.
At first this seems like a wonderfully apt way in which to capture the reluctant indie heroine, alone with her guitar in the woods. Then, as she strums and mumbles her way through nearly 30 songs, several of which are simply alternate takes of the same tunes – ‘Night Time / Back Of Your Head’, ‘From Fur City’ and ‘Knockin’ On Heaven’s Door’ appear no less than three times each – the gritting of teeth inevitably sets in. In fact, the greatest variation for our viewing pleasure is when the filmmaker Mark Borthwick overexposes the image and gives a moment’s white respite.
There are nine covers in all, the best of which is Marshall’s version of M. Ward’s ‘Sad, Sad Song’ which appears a generous twice. When not drowned out by crickets rubbing their legs or birds singing as though their lives depended upon it, her voice is as exultantly morose and beautiful as ever, particularly on some of her more recent songs such as ‘Evolution’ and ‘I Don’t Blame You’ from the album You Are Free. Fortunately, it’s not all a big letdown as Marshall also includes a CD with the package containing a single 18-minute epic, ‘Willie Deadwilder’, which features the aforementioned M. Ward on guitar. Giving anything as conventional as a chorus or bridge the widest of berths, she weaves a charming rambling tale based around a rather naïve melody and easily gets away with it. It’s an indulgence for sure, but anyone who enjoyed You Are Free will find moments of transcendence in the song, which was taken from the same sessions.
Sadly, this is perhaps as close to a coherent Chan Marshall live performance as most are ever likely to witness. Those lucky enough to see her sing sans meltdown will continue to regale us with stories of how amazing she can be and we who miss it will continue to believe in this elusive confident character. Of course, there will be those who say that appreciating music shouldn’t be this hard and they’ll certainly have a valid point. Whatever your slant on the matter, the music industry would be a lot worse off without mercurial icons like Marshall and this blip just comes with the territory.
originally published May 25th, 2005
The Greatest •••½
In case you didn’t know, Cat Power is the very singular Chan (pronounced shawn) Marshall and she’s something of a wilful enigma. Since emerging in 1995 with Dear Sir, she’s released a string of albums so acutely recognisable as her own, where universal themes – you know, life-loss-love, the tension between creativity and artifice, the whereabouts of the toothpaste cap – are explored using lo-fi instrumentation often as sparse and direct as her lyrics are oblique and wrong-footing. Possessor of a prematurely timeworn voice that somehow manages to be both rich and soulful and aridly aching at the same time, her records encompass hushed folk balladry, country stylings, blues sensibilities, and moments of spiky almost-punk. Critics being what they are, Marshall’s highly personal mix of styles has seen her fêted in certain quarters as one of the planet’s foremost songwriters; but for me, she often sounds like a sulky adolescent who’s discovered the recording studio in a weird uncle’s woodshed.
But what’s this? For her no-it’s-not-a-best-of new effort, The Greatest, Marshall decamped to Ardent Studios in Memphis, previously graced by Bob Dylan and Stax Records among others, and enlisted the help of some genuine soul veterans: Mabon ‘Teeny’ Hodges, Al Green’s songwriting partner and guitarist, his brother Leroy ‘Flick’ Hodges on bass, and drummer Steve Potts of Booker T & The MGs. Certainly, this marks a different approach to her previous record, 2003’s You Are Free, an enjoyable if rather inconsistent effort which featured Dave Grohl on drums and (ulp!) Eddie Vedder on vocals. Whether she’s simply after a bit of mainstream accessibility or getting back to her roots, maaan, the added space and warmth imparted by her new band is apparent from the first notes of the opener.
‘The Greatest’ starts with meditative piano then adds pattering drums, flecks of strings and half-heard backing vocals before Marshall gets to musing on the vagaries of her chosen career: “Once I wanted to be the greatest / no wind or waterfall could stop me / and then came the rush of the flood / the stars turned you to dust”. Such a declaration of bravado and disappointment echoes what I’ve heard of her live shows, where she’s almost legendary for clamming up and departing the stage in tears; but something in the new-found sunshine of the music gives some hope of reconciliation between her studio and live personas.
The clement weather brightens further on second song, ‘Could We’, as bursts of Memphis horn illuminate the song’s gentle swing. ‘Lived In Bars’ starts off more mopey and more like your usual Cat Power fare, but halfway through she gamely hitches up her skirts and starts to dance upon the tables. Almost. Elsewhere, there’s a couple of songs that wouldn’t sound out of place on previous albums, such as the piano ballad ‘Where Is My Love’ (“In my arms, finally”) and the spare ‘Hate’, beamed from a Southern porch through a poisonous whiskey haze (“I hate myself and I want to die”), and on these we’re back in the woodshed.
Overall, however, this album encapsulates everything that’s positive and risky about such a project, in which an established outsider attempts to refract her muse through a different prism by reconnecting with her musical heritage. Marshall’s music on The Greatest is undeniably likeable and pleasant, which may be almost an insult to aficionados of her earlier work. But whilst there is no question of a Liz Phair-esque U-turn, the fact of the matter is that most people will find these songs more palatable than any of her previous missives, thereby making it a convenient entrypoint for the curious to start.
originally published December 19th, 2006
Kasey Chambers is the undisputed queen of Australian alt.country, a title she was destined to inherit with her extraordinary childhood story of living in the wilds and singing in her parents’ band The Dead Ringer Group from the age of nine. Not enough credentials for you? How about the fact that her first two albums went straight to the top in Australia (as did Carnival earlier this year) or that she’s befriended and toured with the likes of Lucinda Williams and Emmylou Harris – the US royalty. She’s even had her moment of flirting with Nashville but she’s certainly not your typical country starlet.
That Chambers is not originally from America’s country music capital goes at least some way to explain her appeal; by not allowing herself to be drawn into a formulaic recording process, Chambers hasn’t spent time making the same ol’ record over and over. Carnival sounds so fresh and genuine that it feels completely natural and free of any industry influence. Chambers has given herself free rein to express her thoughts and experiences whilst nudging from an alt.country framework into other genres. Whether she dabbles in a more typical singer-songwriter style, rock or blues, Chambers sounds completely comfortable and without a hint of awkwardness. Given that the album was recorded in just one week, there’s also a tangible sense of spontaneity.
Album opener ‘Colour Of A Carnival’ refers to the Mardi Gras atmosphere in the studio with her brother and long-time producer Nash Chambers and a circle of talented friends and players. “I live in a circle running around and around” is just one of those lyrics that nails a phrase you know you’ve lived through too. Chambers may have dined on much more than the average slice of life but her lyrical themes are easy to relate to. It’s not hard to hazard a guess why much of Carnival is a positive, enriching listen; the wisdom that comes with motherhood and her marriage to US singer-songwriter Shane Nicholson are obvious influences. That’s why “the sign on the door says lonely don’t live here any more” (‘Sign On The Door’) and why ‘The Rain’ is more about hope and renewal than a grey and miserable day.
That’s not to say she doesn’t strut or lay on the sass; ‘Light Up A Candle’ has the ultimate babydoll swagger with its cool blues and wah-wah guitar, while the similarly effective ‘You Make Me Sing’ is irrepressibly gutsy. On a couple of tracks, she even pushes the pop element further than ever before. ‘Nothing At All’ is the more successful of the two with a very simple but clever approach that’s not a million miles away from one of Lisa Loeb’s finer moments, while ‘Surrender’ perhaps strays a little too far. Elsewhere, on the curious ‘Railroad’, Chambers trips out the verses almost as if she were rapping in the rhythm of the sound of a train. The two duets are worthy inclusions too. ‘Hard Road’ is an unpretentious pairing with Powderfinger’s Bernard Fanning and is full of torn, soulful harmonies, while You Am I frontman Tim Rogers joins Chambers in full- on rock out mode on the feisty ‘I Got You Now’. Fans of Kasey’s earlier work will be sucked in immediately by ‘Dangerous’, a deceptively tender song that drips with melancholia. There’s a subtle difference this time though; it’s written from someone else’s perspective – yet another first for Chambers on this album.
Chambers has been quoted as saying, “You know, when I used to listen to music, if I didn’t hear any influence of Hank Williams, I wasn’t interested, I was so closed- minded.” Throwing away the rulebook might be hard for those holding a similar viewpoint but it’s hard not to love her regardless. Just sit back and let these catchy songs and Kasey’s charming vocals speak for themselves.
originally published November 23rd, 2006
Vintage Burden ••••½
Lace Heart •••½
The core Charalambides duo of former spouses Christina and Tom Carter churn out so much music that they really must believe in what they do – that’s droning, intimately psychedelic folk musings, since you ask, that don’t so much stare into the sun as reflect the moon in widened eyes. Whilst their release schedule hardly approaches that of, say, Acid Mothers Temple for sheer market overload, the steady stream of limited-run CD-Rs, cassettes etc. that issue from multiple group formations, individual efforts and frequent collaborations suggest a muse both restless and overclocked. And although some releases – or, more accurately, parts of nearly all of them – tend toward blank, acid-folk noodling, so much of their back catalogue is worth checking out that Charalambides must surely be up for some sort of consistency award.
In amongst all their underground activity, the band find time to release proper grown-up CDs on reasonably sized labels like Kranky; still obscure enough to retain the all- important auteur vibe, but sufficiently established to ensure that at least some of their oeuvre is readily available outside of their devoted fanbase. A Vintage Burden is the latest of these, following 2004’s spooked and sprawling Joy Shapes, and comes at the same time as a solo disc from Christina on her own Many Breaths imprint. The two are so complementary in mood and style that they are best assessed as a pair.
It’s immediately obvious from the get go that, as a duo, the Carters have stepped back and opened out since Joy Shapes. In place of that record’s suffocating rituals, opener ‘There Is No End’ is a spare, slowly unfurling meditation on a single guitar figure by Tom, over which Christina’s multi-tracked vocals delicately hover – “there is no end / to your beauty”. Wherever they are, the leaves definitely let in more light these days, for ‘Spring’ is warmer again, its chiming shards of guitars and lovely refrain of “let it shine… it will shine” encapsulating the hopes and new beginnings of the season. Speaking of simpler things, ‘Dormant Love’ is the most nakedly songlike construction Charalambides have attempted in ages, a conventional acoustic strum chased by fireflies of electricity that gather, swarm and eventually overwhelm Christina’s gorgeous vocal melody.
Elsewhere, the instrumental ‘Black Bed Blues’ gradually unfolds in classic Charalambides manner, its keening slide stabs adding a bucolic feel to the widescreen vistas mapped by the intertwining electric and acoustic guitars. This hallucinatory, immersive music – largely improvised yet startlingly immediate and heartfelt – is the most compelling reason for Charalambides’ reputation yet, and deserves to gain the group a much wider audience. ‘Two Birds’ is similarly amazing, a welter of perfectly chosen acid notes from Tom book-ended by beautifully airy yet unusually urgent vocals from Christina. The mantric lullaby of the closing ‘Hope Against Hope’ turns the lights down slowly on one of the strongest records of Charalambides’ career – instantly accessible, individual and inviting.
If A Vintage Burden represents a trip into the daylight world for the Carters, a chance to catch some rays and frolic in the meadows, Lace Heart is a missive from the backwoods in moonlight. Christina’s overdubbed guitar lines circle and murmur to each other in the opening ‘Dream Long’, but whereas similar moves on A Vintage Burden are suffused with hope, here the overwhelming mood is one of sadness.
Unfortunately, ‘I Am Seen’ follows to no great effect, its super-sparse instrumentation failing to gel with a tuneless vocal. It sets the scene, however, for the rest of the album to create pretty great things from virtually nothing. ‘To Surrender’ barely exists – all the better to wonder “is the world an illusion?” – evoking Low at their least corporeal. It leads into the lengthy ‘Walking On The Sand’, where an infinitely repeated instrumental phrase eventually quickens and glows like blown embers. Intentions longingly declares “it is my choice to need you” over another eterno-figure that finally collapses to sing amid a breeze of wispy voices. The sheer beauty of Carter’s audacity and skill is staggering, a fact epitomised by the epic, closing ‘Long Last Breaths’, which somehow manages to make you forget that you’ve been listening to the same two chords for 15 minutes, until the music ends and the world lightens and returns to focus, the ritual over. Strictly limited to 300 copies only, good luck getting your hands on one!
originally published August 30th, 2006
The Shine Of Dried Electric Leaves ••
The thrill of retail therapy is a potent little thing and is cleverly designed to ensure you keep returning for more. It’s anticipation and control and material reward all in one quick fix. Often, of course, the thrill is momentary, the bell curve of desire flattening quicker than you can say pancake. Such is the deflating experience of listening to São Paulo-born Cibelle’s (pronounced see-BELLee) second album, suffering as it does from trying much too hard to be cerebral. Here, she is to Bebel Gilberto what Oasis are to The Beatles, but the comparison is an appropriate place to start. The Shine Of Dried Electric Leaves copies Gilberto’s Tanto Tempo blueprint by mixing slow electronica and Latin acoustics to a collection of very laidback torch songs. But where Bebel succeeded in finding a trade-off between the crossover elements of both genres, in part due to some excellent variations in tempo, an amazing voice and, perhaps most importantly, some cracking songs, Cibelle unfortunately fails.
The album starts pleasantly enough with the hazy summer swell of ‘Green Grass’ (tellingly, a cover of an old Tom Waits song), but you’ll have forgotten it completely halfway through the meandering follow-up, ‘Instante De Dois’, which sets the benchmark for the remainder of the set by outstaying its welcome by at least two minutes and overplaying the use of ‘novel’ instruments and sounds, until the original melody is a distant memory. Ditto ‘Phoenix’, ‘Minha Neguinha’ and, well, just about every other song.
It’s a shame because Cibelle’s voice is a fine instrument, but too often she crowds it with unnecessary percussion and ill-judged electronica. ‘Mad Man Song’, featuring French rapper Spleen, is a particularly poor example of someone seemingly offered a 48-track studio and feeling obliged to fill each one with a different sound. When those sounds are, to quote from Cibelle’s website, “…voices, spoons, sugarcubes, cups and coffee”, the phrase ‘trying too hard’ springs to mind. I’m all for experimentation, but based on the premise that it’s being conducted with goals in mind, rather than for the sake of it. There’s a lot of repetition, too much stopping to talk/whisper sultrily (sing woman, it’s what you’re good at!) and the tempo hardly ever shimmies above a slowly trudging stroll. Unless you’re paying strict attention, you won’t even know which song you’re listening to, or even if it’s still the same day of the week. I actually felt like rewarding myself for being able to listen to all of ‘Flying High’ without pushing fast forward. It just goes on and on and, well, you get the picture.
Ultimately, Cibelle’s efforts to diversify her sound suffer from the modern malaise of throwing everything at the proverbial wall and hoping that all of it sticks. There’s a startling lack of variation, both in ideas and tempo, very little thought given to the pacing and no quality control; 14 songs, only two of which clock in at under four minutes – perhaps someone has a little too much time on their hands, hmm? This is the kind of record that will make you long for a return to the limitations and boundaries of analogue and vinyl, ensuring that the obvious filler and vanity projects are culled. The Shine Of Dried Electric Leaves will pass you by in a blur of nothingness – the aural equivalent of a tranquiliser tablet.
originally published June 24th, 2006
Oh Vanille/ova nil ••••
If the world was bequeathed a stanza of poetry for every time it’s been written that such and such a songwriter was inspired by the tortured complexities of Sylvia Plath, we’d have assembled a monster modern epic to rival ‘The Iliad’ and ‘Odyssey’ combined. Clearly, this is no bad thing – Plath’s intensity is addictive and energising as much as it is famously wretched – but the comparison perhaps lacks imagination. From the clever wit of the title in, however, New York nutritionist Diane Cluck’s fourth release better recalls the less studied, rawly humanistic and life-affirming work of former NY state poet laureate, Sharon Olds. Both bring a worldly mellifluousness to the boil, daring the reader/listener to continue and delivering the kind of emotional payoff that’s totally unputdownable.
Over the course of these 11 truly memorable songs, recorded in her apartment during the summer of 2003, Cluck’s voice is the constant main attraction, coaxing out her insanely astute lyrics with a peculiar and uniquely clipped glottal beauty. When double-tracked in the rousing ‘Easy To Be Around’ and the spectral a cappella of ‘Petite Roses’, it’s enough to stop and swoon to. Elsewhere, the stark bruised balladry of ‘All I Bring You Is Love’, ‘Wild Deer At Dawn’ and the sensational ‘Yr Million Sweetnesses’ is poignant and cliché-free, the songs gliding like silk-gloved fists along their airy arrangements. Likewise with the heart-rending ‘Bones & Born Again’ – there’s no clutter here. Cluck has achieved the elusive optimal minimalism that’s easy to get so very very wrong.
Having been described by Devendra Banhart as his “favourite singer-songwriter in all of New York City”, and featured on his 2004 Golden Apples Of The Sun compilation (alongside Joanna Newsom, CocoRosie, and more) with ‘Heat From Every Corner’ from her 2002 album, Macy’s Day Bird, Diane is certainly not short of cult figure endorsements. She is also linked with the antifolk movement spearheaded by the likes of Herman Düne and Jeffrey Lewis, though her classisistic sensibilities and ornate melodies seem a little at odds with some of her crasser stablemates. She certainly comes across more demurely than, say, Kimya Dawson, claiming little more than that she likes “to play different instruments and sing and write songs.”
If there’s any justice, she’ll be doing it for decades to come, and should Oh Vanille/ova nil ever receive domestic recognition, a Newsom-style word of mouth stoking of this so far highly secret pleasure is almost guaranteed.
originally published June 12th, 2005
Countless Times ••••
Keen Wears The Trousers readers must surely be aware by now of the esteem in which Brooklyn native Diane Cluck is held around these parts. They might also think, wow, another album so soon after the last? Is the woman superhuman? The responses to which can only be “sorta” and “no, of course not, don’t be daft”. For while the exquisite Oh Vanille/ova nil was rightfully acknowledged as such only this past Spring, the songs were written and recorded back in 2003, leaving plenty of growth time for this much anticipated follow-up. As it turns out, Cluck has expanded little stylistically, opting instead to plump up her peripheries and reinforce (distil, even) everything she was already great at. But Countless Times is so much more than just a retread of familiar ground. It’s a manifesto of simplicity, a dossier of yearning. It’s the diary of an ancient force, the sound of a traditionalist pushing a hand-pulped paper envelope gently.
Melodic innovation and off-kilter, bewitching harmonies have long been Cluck’s calling card, resolutely all frills barred. Indeed, there are instances on Countless Times where it seems she is pecking even at the barest bones of her songs, as if ill content to have us taste anything but their marrow. Even the production is barely there, retreating from the cleaner but still careful sounds of Oh Vanille/ova nil – here, the Brooklyn traffic rumbles into a song or two, her fingers squeak on the fretboard, she laughs. It’s amateurish as done by an expert, i.e. by intention.
Most songs rely solely on Cluck’s caressing and tender way with an acoustic guitar, coaxing out a subtle, distant sound, and by doing so leave a lacuna for the gorgeous voice-as-instrument reveal. The stellar combo of ‘Sylvania’ and ‘A Phoenix & Doves’ illustrates this best, the former a wistful paean to the vanishing simple life she acquired a taste for growing up alongside Lancaster County, Pennsylvania’s Amish communities. It’s a rural and lyrical delight with line after line of drama and bucolic soliloquy (“on your own Sylvania homestead / if that be your belief / you can claim you own it / though you bought it from a thief”). Other standout tracks include the plaintive, multi-tracked ‘Love Me If Ye Do’, the heart-warming ‘Wasn’t I Glad!’, and the insistent, salvational ‘United. The Way You Were’.
The deal-breaker for the Cluck non-converted will likely come with the album’s unusual conclusion – two songs and a no-show (listed as ‘Countless Times‘) built haphazardly around a single funereal motif. This is Cluck at her musically most naked; awkward, unsettling and yet bizarrely contagious, it throws itself to the lions of speculation. The first ‘movement’, ‘My Teacher Died/Countless Times’, would seem almost like a failed take of the second, simply ‘My Teacher Died’, were it not for its curious and complex roundelay-style arrangement and alternative lyrics, but sit through that and the more focused second dose will get you right in the heart with its humble admission: “there are no superstars / there is no Superman / there’s only everyone / I learn from who I can.”
Overall, while many of the songs on Countless Times perhaps lack the immediacy and hooks of those on Oh Vanille/ova nil, they are every bit as engaging once marinated in over the course of a few listens. You might not even notice until you sing a line that takes you by surprise, and therein lies its beauty. In a cold and stoic world that sledgehammers its populace with constant blinding stimuli, such secret declarations are all the more alluring.
originally published November 14th, 2005
La Maison De Mon Rêve ••••
Touch & Go
Ever wondered how the story would have gone if it were Wendy rather than Peter Pan who’d been allowed to never grow up? No? Well, how about if she’d teamed up with Tinkerbell and released an album so mind-bogglingly derivative yet delicious that it split Never Never Land down its green and pleasant middle? A little far-fetched perhaps, but the task of doing justice to La Maison De Mon Rêve (which translates to “the house of my dream”), the debut album from sister act Bianca (‘Coco’) and Sierra (‘Rosie’) Casady, is no Sunday stroll in the park. Recorded in a teency flat in Montmatre, with all the trappings of Parisian bohemia that the location suggests, La Maison… is positively bursting at its amateur seams with shoddy homemade chic and charm. Serving up a bonne bouche of sugary simple melodies and intertwining off-kilter harmonies, it’s the most disarmingly alluring album about sex, domestic violence, child prostitution, religion and racism that you’re ever likely to hear. Granted, it’s not for everyone – there’s enough random nonsensical percussion and sound effects here to send the easily offended back to their collection of U2 records – but those who get it will adore it.
The story goes that Sierra is a classically-trained opera singer who studied in Paris, Rome and the sisters’ native New York while Bianca spent many years just finding herself before one day when she found herself in Paris with Sierra’s number in hand. After a long period of being incommunicado, their reunion sparked the explosion of fantasy and imagination that hangs brightly like a batik over the 12 tracks that make up the album. Playing, banging and shaking every ‘instrument’ they could get their hands on, the sisters conjured up this addictive mishmash of blues, opera, hip hop beats and the sparsest of folk with admirably little evidence of effort and with no help from an outside producer. When it works, it’s tooth-rottingly sumptuous (‘Terrible Angels’, ‘By Your Side’, ‘Good Friday’, ‘Butterscotch’, ‘Madonna’) and when it works less well, it veers wildly from the pointless (‘Not For Sale’, ‘Tahiti Rain Song’) to the deranged (‘West Side’) and every intermediate. But it never gets boring and that’s what’ll keep you coming back.
originally published May 25th, 2005
Noah’s Ark ••••
Touch & Go
Sailing down the Seine to find where broken hearts go, the sisters Casady have thrown their audience the most delicate of lifelines, proportionate only to the furthest stretch of their patience. So while the short-fused among us may well crash and burn at the first bonkers lyric (“all of the aborted babies will turn into little bambies”) or cracked, unearthly vocal, it’s best to leave them steaming in their own incomprehension than try to defend or explain why this ship is worth keeping abreast of. You see, the trouble with albums like this is that there are almost too many talking points. In this case, let’s start with Melissa Shimkovitz’s extraordinary artwork. Though at first it may seem a little off-putting, like much of the album itself, it proves deliciously clever and playful on closer inspection. It’s quite something to name your record after a Biblical icon and then subvert that with seemingly smacked out unicorns in a bisexual threesome, sodomy included. Still not convinced? How about the fact that the Bible repeatedly refers to these horned horses, despite the fact that they never existed? And look, isn’t that the star of David on the forehead of the ‘filling’? Provocative, no?
Notice also the diamonds dangling from the pierced nipples of the female and the blingtastic gold logo, both presumably nods to the rudimentary hip hop elements of CocoRosie’s music. Even more so than on last year’s debut, La Maison De Mon Rêve, Bianca and Sierra play up to that influence – ‘Bisounours’ features some of the most seductive rapping you’ll ever hear, half creamily crooned by French MC, Spleen – but they also broaden their palette. So while the farmyard animal noises (‘Bear Hides & Buffalo’) and bizarre interludes (‘Milk’) remain, these are toned down in favour of genuine substance. That said, it’s hard not to view this album as a sequel to the first, or rather the flipside, for while La Maison… had its moments of darkness, this could be that house in a parallel, nightmarish universe, the Casadys flung so far over the rainbow that no slippers could ever return them.
Be in no doubt that death, criminality and dangerous sex are the on-board currency here; ‘South 2nd’ recounts the violent murder of a Brooklyn teen at the hands of other children, the anything-but-techno ‘Tekno Love Song’ is a crush with eyeliner lament complete with weeping autoharp, whilst closer ‘Honey Or Tar’ puts a new spin on obsession. Lighter moments come with the forced naivety and tweeness of the title track and the keening chorus of ‘Armageddon’, both of which feature the distinctive tones of Diane Cluck, who contributes to the verses of the former her sweetest, highest vocal. Devendra Banhart also makes several appearances, singing in French, English and Spanish. Best of all the guests, however, is Mercury Music Prize winner Antony (without his Johnsons) who enlivens former B-side ‘Beautiful Boyz’ with his soulful, wavering vocals wringing every ounce of poignant tragedy from the sad sorry tale of (in every sense lost) prison lovers.
Noah’s Ark is a stark, brave and affecting record that flirts with the surreal and the all-too-real in irresistible fashion. It won’t appease La Maison… haters, but I get the impression that the Casadys care little for everybody-pleasing, route one pop songs. And why should they when their ability to sink you into their art is so handsomely peerless?
originally published November 14th, 2006
Pointing Excitedly To The Sky •½
On ‘Bam! Tululu!’, song number two on Cocosuma’s fourth album Pointing Excitedly To The Sky, singer Amanda exclaims “I’ve been Jesus Christ”. Whether or not she really believes this is a question unto itself, but the band’s label Setanta clearly think that the lyric holds some truth. Either that, or the band are being used and abused to launder as much money as possible out of the coffee table genre, but Pointing… is unlikely to filter through to the few-albums-a-year demographic.
The sad truth is it’s nothing special, neither good enough to slot into a prominent shelf on your CD rack nor bad enough to want to destroy it and bury the pieces deep underground. In a severe error of judgement, Cocosuma seem to have taken their primary influence from the insidious and grating background music found in Sims games, particularly on the opener, ‘Communication’s Lost’. Luckily, it seems that they’ve also been listening to Azure Ray and Frou Frou, and it’s these elements that rescue the songs. ‘The Servant’ maintains the ongoing theme of hushed, under-the-breath vocals but attempts, and fails, to diversify into the electro genre. The underwater Casio, or whatever it is they’ve used, simply doesn’t work. While ‘Sparks’ has an opening guitar riff worthy of any classic Britpop act and is one of the more enjoyable numbers, the vocals let the whole thing down.
There are occasional glimpses of greatness; ‘So As A Gentleman You Should Be More Polite’ is a gem with delicate acoustic guitar and thankfully brightened-up vocals, but more often than not the songs are simply a slightly different version of the track before. Essentially, Cocosuma are attempting to imitate every successful alternative band in America, but they always fall backwards into a puddle of their own hush-hush reject songs. Some of the songs show incredible potential, but to achieve what they’re truly capable of, the band are going to have to stop trying so hard to fit in.
originally published July 2nd, 2006
Lullabies To Violaine Vol. 1 & 2 ••••½
Well hey, old friends, it’s been a long time. Too long in fact, for now more than ever, the Cocteau Twins seem to represent a unique diversion in popular music, in the sense of being purchased by barely more than a handful of diligent searchers. Back when I were a nipper and the Cocteaus’ biggest fan (in Worcestershire at least), their sparkling hymns of abstracted emotion occasionally *gasp* got in the charts. On a good night, you could even expect to see the video to, say, ‘Iceblink Luck’ on Top Of The bleedin’ Pops. Of course, widespread acceptance is no more accurate a measure of an artist’s worth than their shoe size, but it surely says something about the way the cultural breeze has shifted in the last decade or so. Cathedrals of sound? Nah, mate, it’s all crooners in Costa and New Wave factories these days. Haven’t you heard?
Undisputed fact: the Cocteaus – a fat bloke, a skinny bloke, and a small woman who looked like a startled shrew and was married to the fat one – made some of the most startlingly beautiful sounds ever created by man. They didn’t just write melodies, or tunes, or songs; even lumpen idiots like the Kaiser Chiefs can do that. Somehow, they wrote music like one of those underground caves revealed in David Attenborough’s latest natural history spectacular. Everywhere you look, something different and gorgeous happens. New wonders to behold lie round every bend. It’s sound concentrated to the purest essence of light and harmony.
I haven’t listened to them in years, which makes this collection of all the singles the Twins released on 4AD and Fontana, from Lullabies in 1982 to Violaine in 1996, an intensely rewarding and personal experience. Originally released last year as a four-disc boxset and now more wallet-friendly as two doubles, the first half of Vol. 1 is best described as the sound of an ice sculpture melting. The opening tracks, from ‘Feathers-Oar-Blades’ to ‘Hazel’, are twitchy, wiry, disorienting post-punk, moonlit rituals driven by drum machines bled clean of all funk, topped by Liz Fraser’s frightened incantations. And incantations they are, more or less; they certainly aren’t lyrics as lyrics are commonly understood, although the odd recognisable word or phrase is tantalisingly glimpsed now and then. It’s not until ‘Sugar Hiccup’ and the attendant songs from the same EP that the contours soften and some light is shed on the proceedings, and by the time that ‘The Spangle Maker’ arrives, the band’s parallel universe is mostly established. By the end of Vol. 1, CD1, the Cocteaus really begin to hit their stride, with baroque beauties like ‘Quisquose’ and ‘Aikea-Guinea’ fully embracing a rarefied and unique soundscape.
If the first disc is, for the most part, a frozen edifice at midnight, CD2 recalls the fathomless depths of a sunrise. Songs like ‘Great Spangled Fritillary’ and ‘Sultitan Itan’ are multi-hued and mysterious; ‘Love’s Easy Tears’ is a firework display where each explosion betters the last, while the aforementioned ‘Iceblink Luck’ is as poppy as the Cocteaus ever got whilst being no less enveloping. That song and its parent album, Heaven Or Las Vegas, saw a further shift in the band’s style, leaving behind the dramatic peaks of their earlier work for a more measured approach. Fraser even tangled with boring old English on the odd occasion.
Those hoping to save some money by buying only one of these collections, sorry; the second of the two double sets is only slightly less essential than the first. Amongst other delights, there are acoustic versions of several songs and remixes by Seefeel that push the originals way underwater and record the surface-bound bubbles, not to mention a pair of hilarious / brilliant covers of ‘Winter Wonderland’ and ‘Frosty The Snowman’. The late-period material only suffers in comparison with the band’s own prime moments, as is fitting for a group that invented, mastered, and exhausted their own idiom. As heartbreaking as it may have been at the time for their devotees, the Cocteau Twins undoubtedly split up at the right time. These fantastic, life-affirming collections are an ideal epitaph for one of the most singular bands that this or any other country has ever produced.
originally published April 26th, 2006
Colleen Et Les Boîtes À Musique •••½
Cécile Schott, aka Colleen, ventures into more melodious areas with her latest EP, the title of which translates simply to ‘Colleen & The Music Boxes’. And, indeed, as the title suggests, Mme Schott explores the music box as an instrument in all its natural and artificial forms. Using her computer to accumulate, stretch and massage the tones of both new and vintage models, Colleen has developed a truly unique recording.
Originally commissioned by French radio station France Culture, the project developed further when Colleen visited a friend in Scotland who happened to have a collection of old music boxes. Already familiar with their workings from having used them on her previous albums, she set about dismantling the existing, less interesting melodies and began to explore the sounds she could make when the combs themselves were played with thumbnails or glass.
Focusing purely on the percussive sounds a music box can make, ‘John Levers The Ratchet’ provides a relatively short and sweet introduction before the stark contrast of ‘What Is A Componium? Part 1′. Here, Schott layers sound upon sound and is not shy to include crackling noises and reverb. There is no structured melody per se, rather an accumulation of different notes that create a thick blanket of sound. Occasionally the ear snags onto a note or a rhythm and manages to hang on for a little bit longer. (This dark muddled sound is continued later on ‘Part 2′).
Part of the wonder of Colleen Et Les Boîtes À Musique is that the natural timbres of the instrument have been disfigured using resampling and delay to such an extent that almost none of the pieces actually sound like music box recordings. ‘Charles’s Birthday Card’ reminds us of the origins of the sounds, in an abstract way, with a very organic but stop-start version of the lullaby ‘Rock-A-Bye Baby’. ‘Will You Gamelan For Me?’, as its title suggests, explores and alters the tone of the music box in such a way that it ends up sounding like an Indonesian gamelan, accurately reflecting the imitated instrument with a somewhat monotone arrangement in regards to rhythm and intonation.
Elsewhere, ‘The Sad Panther’ and ‘Under The Roof’ strive to find their own little dreamlike spaces: the former somewhat reminiscent of drone-based electronica (which could not be more remote from the natural sounds of a music box) and the latter truly romantic, almost harp-like in its sweetness. ‘A Bear Is Trapped’ is very different: a lot more scratchy and aggressive, dark and straightforward, it sounds like the last hoorah of a knackered old music box (indeed, you can hear that the combs are being played by hand). Other standouts are the emotional ‘Your Heart Is So Loud’ and cutesy Carribean gin-soaked ‘Calypso In A Box’. ‘I’ll Read You A Story’ is also exceptional, combining as it does the sonics of the music box with the more natural tone of the guitar, creating a more melodious and structured atmosphere.
All in all Colleen Et Les Boîtes À Musique is a truly original release and successfully brings together old and forgotten sounds with modern recording and resampling techniques. A jewel for avant-garde electronica lovers.
These Four Walls ••••
These Four Walls is Shawn Colvin’s first album since 2001’s sorely underappreciated Whole New You and her first since leaving her longtime home of Columbia Records for the (hopefully) greener pastures of Nonesuch. It starts with that rare Colvin commodity, a slice of optimism called ‘Fill Me Up’ – a beautiful, upbeat road song in search of a highway. For an artist who recently turned the big five-o, it’s refreshing to hear her appreciate the possibilities that still exist out in the big bad world. Following quick on its heels, the title track’s opening line “I’m gonna die in these four walls…” heralds a return to the more grounded fare that her fans have become accustomed to. Lines like “I’m gonna miss your Southern drawl / a baby’s footsteps in an empty hall / and every little thing I can ever recall” may be nothing to do with the end of her marriage in 2002, but it has always been hard to separate story from autobiography with Colvin and we’re all a little better off for her honest approach to her strongest gift – communication. Just two songs in, then, and there’s enough material to eclipse all but the best of her peers.
There isn’t room to discuss each song in turn, but suffice to say the whole is a natural and sublime progression from Whole New You and its Grammy-winning predecessor A Few Small Repairs. Highlights grow into you at every turn – some blatant, such as the hooks in ‘Tuff Kid’ and ‘Let It Slide’, others more subtle. The poignant lyrical twists in ‘Summer Dress’ take a simple piece of cloth and turn it into a metaphor for an awakened spirit, while ‘Cinnamon Road’s nostalgic search for a place one can never return to is often tried but rarely as accomplished.
There’s a pivotal moment early on in ‘So Good To See You’ where the accumulated pathos and heightened awareness of life’s little realities, customary in a Colvin lyric, become almost impossible to bear. It will surprise no one to find that she simply ups the ante on the chorus, turning the emphasis around to sing the title with just the right level of acceptance and weariness. It’s a masterclass in the art of the song as message and further proof that her longstanding collaboration with musician/producer John Leventhal bears fruit each time it’s watered. It’s just a shame that it only come around once every five years.
Guest vocalists Patty Griffin, Teddy Thompson and Marc Cohn lend their warm voices and rich experience to a set of songs that you can wrap yourselves in on a cold night or sing from the rooftops on a summer’s afternoon. These Four Walls has everything any Colvin fan could have asked of her and enough to tempt those new to her literate and melodic journey into a purchase. Roll on 2011.
originally published September 17th, 2006
Here’s a teaser for you: at what point in a band’s career does hype become counterproductive? I doubt the music industry will ever quite figure it out, but here’s a case worth studying. Toronto’s Controller.Controller quickly became critical darlings following a whirlwind press blitz on their debut EP, History. A quick signing from the label that brought you Broken Social Scene and Magneta Lane later and the pressure was on to justify every bit of the buzz.
In terms of genre, Controller.Controller are hard to pin down, though the phrase ‘death disco’ seems to follow them around. However, what they do is far from conventional dance, even under that colossal genre umbrella. Instead, their tunes are predominantly dubby bass driven, but where you might expect ska is edgy rock and punk. The disco bit comes in with beats that intertwine with menacing riffs reminiscent of Joy Division or early Cure – you can see why they were billed with Franz Ferdinand on tour and why they’re best mates with compatriots The Organ. With echoes of New Order, Interpol and fellow Canadians Metric, the songs have a cold experimental feel and often threaten impending doom. Regular guitar onslaughts stab away at any overriding dance or techno themes, creating a cacophony of genre-busting rhythms. The tension created from the deliberate dichotomy is practically tangible as we’re challenged by something that is one moment minimalist and the next moment bursting with melodies at war.
The songs that appear on X-Amounts may have worked in front of an audience with all the full-on energy and attitude that makes the live experience, well, live, but they don’t work here, especially as a collection. The relentless, brash assault soon begins to grate and everything melds into one giant racket. Singer Nirmala Basnayake’s vocals have euphemistically been called ‘honest’ and ‘raw’, but she really only uses one tone and it jars with the angular rhythms. In the same way that Sleater-Kinney or PiL can sometimes be better in diminutive doses (x-amounts, if you will), the same applies to this record’s monotonic resonance and dull uniformity.
Coming back to the original question, those buying into the media hype surrounding Controller.Controller may well be disappointed by the lack of sustainable interest on offer. Get one thing straight though, X-Amounts is neither safe nor dependent on the latest hot-or-not countdown – a fault that mars so many debuts from bands showered with early praise. Controller.Controller have managed to sidestep such pitfalls; their style and approach is genuinely innovative and, though the album largely fails, there are moments of exquisiteness (‘Heavy As A Heart’ in particular is energetic and tuneful). Don’t blame it on the hype, the moonlight or even the good times, it’s the dearth of tunes that really does them in.
originally published July 17th, 2006
It may only be a year since their last studio outing but Ireland’s “acceptable face of cloning” are back with a new set of lilting, Celtic-inspired tunes. The Corr family’s background in traditional Irish music has never been far from the surface of any of their recorded output, although, since their 1997 breakthrough, Talk On Corners, it has been increasingly submerged under washes of lush pop production. However the appropriately entitled Home takes the band full circle, concentrating on the music which they grew up with and the deep musical heritage of the Gaelic peoples. These 12 songs comprise a selection of nine traditional Irish and Scottish folk tunes along with covers of three modern tracks with a ‘folk royalty’ or Irish connection. The idea for an album of predominantly traditional music came from drummer Caroline, in response to the reception that the jigs and reels that are regularly slipped into live sets evoke in audiences around the world. It also allowed the family an opportunity to pay tribute to their late mother, from whose songbook a number of the traditional songs were sourced.
Stylistically, the album steers a conservative course. This is no cutting edge fusion of folk and other jazz and rock forms à la Iona or Capercaillie. The arrangements are straightforward, with the band having taken a mostly ‘live in the studio’ approach to the basic tracks (i.e. overdubs added only later and sparingly). In that respect, this could be almost any mainstream folk album from the last 20 years, but when you add in Andrea Corr’s distinctive and undeniably beautiful vocals, Sharon’s singular fiddle playing and the trademark vocal harmonies, this is very much a Corrs album. Production duties are taken by Suzanne Vega’s ex-husband, Mitchell Froom, who has worked with the band on a number of occasions. However, his sonic stamp on the album seems minimal. Anyone expecting the multi-layered pop arrangements of In Blue and Borrowed Heaven or Crowded House stylings will be disappointed. Only on ‘Spancill Hill’ are there echoes of his work with the Finn brothers in the ‘Weather With You’-like acoustic guitar lines – until it transforms briefly into a reel. Additional string arrangements penned by veteran arranger Fiachra Trench and provided by the BBC Concert Orchestra are subtly sprinkled across the tracks along with other traditional instruments, low whistles, uillean pipes and makes for an easy on the ear and attractive sound.
The traditional tracks are well chosen, including some beautiful traditional melodies dating back through the 19th Century Irish diasporas (‘Spancill Hill’) to the bardic era of the likes of harpist Turlough O’Carolan. In particular, ‘Buachaill On Eirne’ has always been among the most haunting of Irish melodies. Other tunes like ‘Haste To The Wedding’ and ‘My Lagan Love’ have oft been mined in the past by those, like landmark Celtic-rock band Horslips, wishing to bring ancient melodies to a modern audience. Even Kate Bush has covered the latter. The modern songs, too, are interesting choices. The Corrs version of ‘Heart Like A Wheel’ may not go down in history as the greatest cover of Anna McGarrigle’s song but it is well done. Richard Thompson’s ‘Dimming Of The Day’ is particularly touching and tender – Sharon’s sensitive and faltering vocal nestling among simple acoustic guitar and string backing.
The oddest choice for inclusion on the album is the track currently attracting the most radio play – ‘Old Town’. Why an obscure track from a Phil Lynott solo album should have been covered on this album and their MTV live set is a mystery. A straight cover of the original, it sits a little uncomfortably among the other folkier tracks. However, as the band has said in interviews, somehow you’d miss it if it wasn’t there. Certainly it’s a hitherto undiscovered gem and it’s perky piano, string and brass motif lifts the album before it slides into the exquisite melancholy of ‘Dimming Of The Day’. Plus it shows that there was more depth and poetry in the Lynott’s writing than the self-parodying cod metal into which Thin Lizzy descended in their later years.
It would be easy enough to damn Home with faint praise – this isn’t a groundbreaking album in any way. Adjectives spring to mind like ‘pleasant’, ‘enjoyable’ and, dare I say it, ‘nice’. However, these don’t do justice to what is essentially a fine set of traditionally based tunes which make for a very enjoyable, if undemanding, listening experience – and, when it comes down to it, there’s nothing wrong with that.
originally published October 1st, 2005
Amy Courts EP *
Don’t you just hate it when your hopes are raised and then spectacularly dashed just a few seconds later? Before you listen to this mini-album by Amy Courts, you might want to prepare yourself for just such a crushing disappointment. Courts is a perfectly confident singer – her musical upbringing singing in various church and school choirs in Denver has seen to that – and competent too. Stick on the first song ‘Barely Breathing’ and you’ll notice that much; her voice cuts through the mist and knocks you sideways in a second. It’s a bit like Imogen Heap but not so doctored or squeezed through a myriad of musical trick boxes and, for a moment or two, you might well wonder if it’s the most beautiful, most soulful voice you’ve heard in quite a while.
But then…oh dear. For some reason, Courts has chosen to squander that voice on the kind of horrid, feisty ‘country’ that sells by the bucketload and makes international megastars of people like Faith Hill and, gulp, Shania Twain. Quite frankly, it’s akin to sacrilege. There are seven tracks here and they all dissolve into one sickly sludge. None of the others even attempt to endear themselves with a good intro. If Courts’s voice were generic and bland, you’d probably be simply indifferent or only mildly outraged.
As it is, the EP shows a sorely wasted talent. A voice like hers deserves so much better than this. Perhaps she needs a better inspiration so, Amy, if you’re going to do feisty, try to emulate someone who has more conviction. Be Joan Wasser, be Joan Jett…just ditch the Twainisms and you’ll be fine.
originally published October 5th, 2006
For those who hastily wrote her off after 2002’s mostly insipid C’Mon, C’Mon, the staggering success of Sheryl Crow’s hits collection the following year must have begged a reappraisal. Certainly, this first new material since then bears the weight of eager expectancy, not least because of her highly-publicised relationship with fiancé and seven-times Tour de France winner, Lance Armstrong. But although the album’s title alludes to the nature of their relationship (“no matter how chaotic it is, wildflowers will still spring up in the middle of nowhere”, Crow explains), anyone fearing a sick-making sludgefest will be gladly put at ease.
From the first bar of opener ‘I Know Why’, it’s clear that Crow is very much back in the game. Setting the tone for what’s to come, it’s a warm, relaxed affair set amid a swirling orchestral backdrop courtesy of Mr Beck Hansen Sr., David Campbell. With the exception of the resolutely soft rockin’ ‘Live It Up’ with its commanding 1980s chorus, Campbell’s arrangements infuse every song and are certainly an interesting addition to Crow’s sound. This is best appreciated by comparing the woozy ‘Chances Are’ (“I was lost inside a daydream / swimming through the saline”) with an earlier version that appeared as a B-side to ‘Soak Up The Sun’, or the bonus acoustic run-through of the title track with its almost fully orchestral counterpart. Yet despite the hype and emphasis placed on Campbell’s contributions, his work is often hidden somewhat by the rather lavish production.
Lyrically, Wildflower often harks back to the introspection and self-exploration that made The Globe Sessions so compelling, shying away from the third party pop cultural narratives that made her name. But while The Globe Sessions sounded akin to a freshly gouged wound (with extra added salt), Wildflower is riddled with a sense of hope. Even in the George W Bush-bashing ‘Where Has All The Love Gone’ (“I saw the flag roll by on a wooden box”), it’s there in the tone of her voice. Across the album as a whole in fact, Crow has never sounded so tender, retaining her strangely appealing slight strain for the high notes that serves especially to emphasise the vulnerability at play.
Though Wildflower wilts a little in the middle with ‘Letter To God’ and ‘Lifetimes’ in particular falling just the wrong side of average, there’s more than enough substance to songs like the Beatles-esque ‘Perfect Lie’ and the heart-wrenching ‘Always On Your Side’ to justify these falters. Not wild then, but mellow and classy, this ranks among her best work to date.
originally published November 28th, 2005
Live At Wood Hall •••½
Canadian singer-songwriter Allison Crowe’s personal mantra adorns the cover of her latest album. That simple maxim is “Why music? Why breathing!”, so personal is her connection with the music she writes and performs. This new record, her fourth in total, documents a two-night stand at the Robin & Winifred Wood Recital Hall in Victoria, British Columbia in March 2005, taking in 23 songs performed live in front of a small but fortunate audience.
Crowe was born and raised on Vancouver Island in Nanaimo, a town with two prior claims to musical fame – firstly, for having a deep heritage in brass band music stemming from its coal mining history, and secondly, for being the birthplace of jazz chanteuse, Diana Krall. Fortunately, Allison Crowe has forsaken the former influence and, despite being a talented piano player and singer and sharing stages with Krall, has taken a different musical route and mines very separate sonic seams. Her piano playing often perfectly complements the mood of each song, whether she is tracing delicate arpeggios and melodies or delivering bombastic chordal backing.
This double-disc set amply demonstrates Crowe’s profound skill both as a writer and as an interpreter of other people’s songs, the performances dripping with emotion as she wrings meaning out of both the words and music. Her own compositions range from simple, tender love songs (‘There Is’, ‘By Your Side’) to insightful social commentary (‘Whether I’m Wrong’, ‘Disease’), and all are delivered in a contemporary style. However, it is perhaps her cover versions that are most revealing of Allison Crowe, and a diverse selection they are too, ranging from her personal favourites and influences (Tori Amos’s ‘Playboy Mommy’, Ani DiFranco’s classic ‘Independence Day’ and ‘A Murder Of One’ by Counting Crows) to showtunes ‘Bill’ and ‘I Dreamed A Dream’ from ‘Les Misérables’, via the oft-covered ‘Imagine’ and ‘Me & Bobby McGee’. It’s the Counting Crows cover that really highlights her skills as an interpreter. Crowe strips the song back to its skeleton and delivers a performance that completely convinces. In her version, the refrain “All your life is such a shame, shame, shame / all your love is just a dream, dream, dream / open up your eyes” is utterly divorced from the original’s lightly hopeful interpretation, becoming instead a cry of pure despair from a heart that can see clearly the life which she is missing. It’s a heart-rending tour de force.
Live At Wood Hall easily holds the listener’s attention throughout its near 110-minute duration, but while it has certain claims on the status of masterpiece, it is perhaps a flawed one. Although Crowe’s vocal ability and accuracy are beyond reproach (her use of portamento to attain certain notes is exquisite and has a hugely powerful effect that she wisely resists overusing), there are moments where she fails to reach the odd high note. However, this is completely forgivable in the live context of the album. Larry Anschell’s production and engineering serve to give a transparent and intimate document of the concerts – this is no ProTool’d and AutoTuned plastic pop opus but a real musician creating a real performance. Where Crowe’s tuning is a little errant, it is not because of a lack of ability, but rather because raw emotion seems to overwhelm the technical aspects of the delivery. Another nice technical touch is that all of the applause and intros are recorded as separate tracks, thereby allowing the listener to edit them out with some nifty programming if they so wish.
The greatest difficulty with Crowe’s singing is perhaps most obvious on the Jerome Kern/PG Wodehouse showtune, ‘Bill’. While hers is a magnificent interpretation, bringing the song slap bang into the 21st Century, it also overemphasises her extraordinary vibrato, a technique that is usually used subtly to bring additional depth to a performance. However, when Crowe switches that internal button, it is anything but subtle. Very rapid, deep and with a ‘square-wave’ quality, she turns it on and off like a tremolo effect pedal rather than fading it into sustained passages. On initial listens, this can be rather distracting – too often I was listening to the vibrato rather than the music – but subsequent auditions lessen the shock of the new. A flaw, true, but not a fatal one.
Overall, Live At Wood Hall is a worthy document of a pair of extraordinary performances. More than that though, it’s an album that suggests that this young woman from an obscure mining town in Canada is only at the beginning of a long and successful career.
originally published October 18th, 2005
This Little Bird ••••
Last year’s double album Live At Wood Hall showed Canadian songstress Allison Crowe to be a powerful artist who combines technical flair and an ability to imbue her performances with a beguiling mix of strength of spirit and a tender, bruised soul. This Little Bird, her first studio set since 2004’s festive offering Tidings, comprises nine new songs and a selection of well-chosen covers. It’s been a while then, so what’s changed? Well, a first glance at the credits might cause your brain to subconsciously remark that Crowe has seemingly ditched her solo singer-songwriter roots and hooked up with a crack team of session musicians. Your brain might also remark that, yikes, this might not be such a great idea. Would she struggle to flutter above an overpowering rhythm section or be swamped by layers of unnecessary overproduction?
Thankfully, those worries are unfounded. This Little Bird flies on the right side of tasteful, retaining the intimacy of Crowe’s remarkable vocals, couched within the context of her tender and expressive piano playing. Even when she stretches out into more impassioned proclamations, the voice and piano are firmly front and centre of our attention. Crowe’s distinctive vibrato, which sometimes wanders in the passion of her live delivery, is wisely kept in check by studio discipline without losing its character. Able to communicate purity as well as she does sultriness and a confessional tone, Crowe excels at all levels. Her cover of the Joni Mitchell classic ‘A Case Of You’ demonstrates this perfectly, from the strident confidence in the strength of love to the deep, low groan of self-doubt and despair.
For the most part the backing musicians are tastefully employed, although there are a few moments scattered across the disc where perhaps the odd timing or note choice issue should have been addressed prior to final mastering. Then again, on ‘Skeletons & Spirits’ for instance, the fact that the hand percussion seems slightly out of kilter with the piano merely emphasises the subtle oddness and foreboding contained in the lyric. Overall, This Little Bird is an intelligent, emotionally literate collection on which the talented Ms. Crowe proves once again that she’s actually 100% nightingale.
Nancy Elizabeth Cunliffe
The Wheel Turning King EP •••½
Pulling an all-nighter in the studio certainly isn’t unheard of, but Wigan-native Nancy Elizabeth Cunliffe gets brownie points at least for her choice of location. Recorded in an old Victorian church on two consecutive nights last May, The Wheel Turning King is an intimate, emotionally cloistered collection of six eccentric and ephemeral songs. Proving that Americans don’t have a monopoly on the ‘new weird blah blah blah’ tag, Cunliffe takes as a starting point classic British folk and adds an unconventional oriental twist, inspired by a spell spent living in Thailand. With a tremulous vocal that flits between weary but resilient sighing to a birdlike falsetto with seemingly no effort, she’s of the same anachronistic breed as Charlotte Greig and Marissa Nadler. Indeed, it’s little surprise to discover that she’s opened for the latter and her kindred spirit Josephine Foster. Perhaps the most often made and obvious comparison, given the largely harp-based nature of these songs, seems to be Joanna Newsom, but that doesn’t really hold. Cunliffe shares few of Newsom’s traits; she’s more restrained and lacks Joanna’s giddy and uninhibited glee. She is just as sweetly melodic, however, and there’s an abundance of great ideas here.
Lead track ‘Place To Shelter’ is by far the most musically ambitious inclusion, and given that Cunliffe played all the instruments herself, must have eaten up a large chunk of her rather limited time. Dramatic and highly percussive once it gets in its stride, it rolls and rumbles along with a growing sense of unease. It’s not all grave, however; lines like “I feel empty / like my fridge” leavens the gloom. ‘Waiting For Cars’ is an immediate highlight, too, an apprehensive and broody number written mostly on the harp then completed with occasional but eerie swoops of double bass and, later, accordion. “I’ve been walking on a thin line / almost too thin to see it” she sings a little more despairingly than any 22-year old should. Anyone else waiting for cars should skip to the closing seconds of ‘Wildfire’ to catch the distant swishing of nighttime traffic, but you’d be dumb to miss out on the rest of the song. A captivatingly fey and meditative treat, it features Cunliffe’s most unusual instrument, a Thai kim, combined with gentle washes of flute to magical effect.
Both ‘Sense’ and ‘The Moving Sand’ are lovely and expressive harp-based performances, but the last special mention must go to the title track. It may be barely a minute long but it encapsulates Cunliffe’s entire endeavour. The most churchy of the numbers, it’s a cryptic, double-tracked a cappella ditty that spotlights her purest and most spectral vocal yet. As far-flung as her ambitions may be on this EP, the forthcoming album promises yet more. “I play the drum / this is merely thunder” she is quick to remind; New Weird Lancashire, anyone?
originally published May 22nd, 2006
Cyann & Ben
Sweet Beliefs •••½
Charleville, a bland city buried in the Ardennes in Northern France, was once the home of rebel poet Arthur Rimbaud. Tired of vandalising his hometown’s public benches with provocative and lustrous slang with little to no effect, the wunderkind ran away four times, choosing to live in poverty in Paris instead. Having grown up in Charleville, Cyann & Ben can only sympathise, describing the town as cold, grey and rainy. They escaped to the capital as soon as they could and have been inspired by the dark and dirty hub of the sprawling city ever since.
Despite their misleading name, Cyann & Ben are in fact a foursome (though Cyann and Ben are the singers) and Sweet Beliefs is their third full-length album in four years. Inside you’ll find a collection of nine songs that are enslaved to yet manage to defy the boundaries of pop music; consistently ignoring the three-minute mark, Cyann & Ben allow their works to mature in their own time and build up delicate motifs that only become apparent after numerous listens. Save yourself the effort and don’t bother trying to categorise them; their songs often fall into several genres at once and sometimes no genre at all. There’s a hint of shoegaze, a pinch of psychedelia and maybe even an ambient influence too. It’s hard to say, and Cyann & Ben clearly wouldn’t want it any other way.
The album opens with recent single ‘Words’. After a soft but rhythmical introduction, hazy, delicate vocals enter the frame. There’s no haste here, no dramatic melodious or rhythmical movements. It is simply allowed to unfold before almost unconsciously developing into an epic but uncluttered post-rock extravaganza. ‘Sunny Morning’ – the title track of their recent EP – has a very different feel. With guest vocals from freak-folk icon and Espers frontman Greg Weeks, it’s calm as you like. The soft build-up is hardly distinguishable in its gentle ambience accompanied by occasional whispery vocals before the piano comes in and gives the piece a much more distinct direction. With layered ambient sounds piling in, the composition finally evolves into a delicate, well-rounded outro not too dissimilar from something Espers might have come up with. The freedom given to the ideas at work in these songs gives them the room to develop into emotional masterpieces. Both the title track and ‘In Union With…’ are equally emotional sonic creations and offer the listener carte blanche to get lost in their own thoughts.
Great care has been taken to blend in the vocals with the instruments, something that is especially apparent in ‘Let It Play’ and ‘Guilty’, a song that slowly adds and drops different themes, instruments and arrangements, while the vocals are so thoroughly integrated that they almost disappear in the melody. Listening to the beautifully fragile ‘Recurring’, you might start to wonder if Cyann & Ben are really truly French; a soft, folky guitar rhythm and harmonious vocals show off a sparkling arrangement and highlight their interest in thinking beyond their own borders. Even more stunning is album highlight ‘Somewhere In The Light Of Time’; accompanied only by Debussy-esque piano, Cyann turns in an astonishing performance with a mature but touchingly self-conscious vocal. Album closer ‘Sparks Of Love’ is just as dreamy and intimate, but you’ll barely notice it’s there till it meanders into a heavier and more defined musical interlude.
The overriding impression of Cyann & Ben is of a band that treats music in all its forms with great respect. If you’re after compact pop encyclopaedias then spare yourself the trouble; several listens are required before you can begin to truly appreciate Cyann & Ben’s arrangement skills and and patience is most definitely a virtue. Far from inaccessible, Sweet Beliefs will take you on a truly romantic and beautiful journey. Curl up with it and gaze out the window.
originally published November 23rd, 2006
Filed under: album, back issues, review | Tags: adam smith, alan pedder, ani difranco, cara dillon, catherine anne davies, danny weddup, dévics, deerhoof, dixie chicks, dresden dolls, gem nethersole, helen ogden, hilary duff, kimya dawson, liz durrett, matthew hall, paul woodgate, pete morrow, peter hayward, robbie de santos, sandy dillon, scott millar, simon wilson, tanya donelly, the duke spirit, tina dico, trevor raggatt
The following reviews were all published on our old website between May 2005 and December 2006.
Catherine Anne Davies
Songs For The Boy Who Wouldn’t Read Rilke EP •••
If an artist’s output can truly be taken as an expression of their psychological landscape, the furnishings inside Ms Davies’s head may be lush and velvet but they are certainly deep crimson and black. Songs For The Boy Who Wouldn’t Read Rilke is the second of a pair of limited edition EPs from the London-based singer who recently signed to the humorously named Folkwit stable. Hers is a dark muse, embroiled in swirling currents of brooding mystery. Like its predecessor Long Day, much of the music found on ...Rilke is reminiscent of the more sombre and sepulchral elements of goth-folkies All About Eve. On a soft cushion of acoustic guitars blended with echo-drenched piano and heady flourishes of cello, Davies’s mournful vocals intone the agonies of the less illuminated reaches of the human soul, the pain of a blues singer’s Weltschmerz filtered through the spyglass of a gothic spirit; these are deeply affecting tone poems.
‘The Heart Is A Lonesome Hunter’ drips with loss and regret, with Davies’s sparse piano joining plaintive cello and acoustic guitar as the intensity racks up before the song inches toward its slow and exquisite petit mort. ‘Bury Me’ explores love both unattained and unattainable, the richness of Davies’s vocal perfectly conveying the song’s emotion, sweeping up to a pure but fleeting ecstasy on the higher ranges. At first, ‘Crave’ appears to set the sepulchral tone aside with its gentle chiming introduction, but the dissonant vocal lines soon drag us back to the realisation that perhaps all is not quite right with the world. The track also allows Davies to flex her multi-instrumentalist muscles as she drifts subtle flute lines over the refrain as if to mock the intensity below. Closing number ‘It’ll Get Said’ begins with a slow, twisted variation on what could possibly be the James Bond theme, but the mood is ripped apart by squalling, distorted electric guitar. At certain points, Davies sounds uncannily like All About Eve’s Julianne Regan, while the guitar sounds recall those of the band’s Tim Bricheno.
Both the Long Day and …Rilke EPs come dressed in sumptuous, handmade paper jackets fastened with dusky wine-coloured ribbon – the product of the auteur’s own porcelain-fair hand. This deeply romantic yet somehow archaic dressing is completely appropriate for the music that lies within its embrace. And while the songs work well within the EP format, if their appeal is to last the distance of a full-length album, more dynamics and light/shade interplay is needed. As it is, this short-form offering provides a deeply lush landscape in which the listener can totally immerse themselves. Those who have a nervous disposition need not enquire within, but for listeners whose hearts are made of darker, sterner stuff, there is much here to admire.
originally published March 25th, 2006
Remember That I Love You •••½
Sometimes she’s your best friend cooing softly into your ear; sometimes she’s a street loon babbling on while you nervously back away; both stand-up comedienne and tragic heroine, on-hiatus Moldy Peach Kimya Dawson comes at you uncensored and unapologetic. Certainly, she doesn’t flinch at penning lyrics that other artists might shy away from for being too extreme, too brazenly political and – particularly here on her fifth solo record in four years – a little too close to home.
‘My Mom’ is a deeply personal and affecting song that sounds like a diary transcript – you almost feel guilty for listening, earwigging on her private thoughts. There is something entirely childlike about Dawson’s description of her mother’s illness that conveys how difficult it is to deal with the sickness and impending death of a parent, regardless of our age. Such events bring out the bewildered child within everyone, and it’s this child that sings “And there’s something in her blood / and there’s something in her leg / and there’s something in her brain / my mom’s sick, she’s in a hospital bed”. This topic recurs elsewhere on the record; on ‘Caving In’, Dawson attempts to imagine the death of her mother and the subsequent dissolution of her family in an attempt to cope better when the event arrives.
Dawson’s interest in personal tragedy is not a self-involved one, however; on ‘12.26′ the view expands and Kimya places herself in the shoes, or the bare feet, of a tsunami survivor who has lost literally everything. The song is a heartfelt elegy that analyses the world-wide response to the 2004 Boxing Day disaster and damns American complacency and selfishness: “We’d have 12.26 tattooed across our foreheads / If something this atrocious happened on our coast instead.” Remember That I Love You may be a rough, ramshackle and underproduced record, but somehow any other production style would seem entirely wrong. The lo-fi homemade quality is intrinsic to the Kimya Dawson ethos; on ‘Loose Lips’, when a whole host of voices join Kimya for the chorus, it matters less that some of them are out of time than that they sound like a gang of friends having a good time. Technical virtuosity is not the point; besides, the lyrics take centre stage to their musical base – consistently her trusty acoustic guitar.
Occasionally, the album makes for frustrating listening. When ‘I Like Giants’ turns into a paean to a friend of Kimya’s called Geneviève, if you don’t know who that is (and I don’t) it can feel like you’re on the outside of a private joke, or listening in on banter that goes over your head. But on the whole this is a very charming album, and this is the only place on the record where witty irreverent humour becomes irksome silliness. For better or worse, Kimya Dawson is unafraid to pour her heart onto the page and for that she should be saluted. Remember That I Love You veers from political idealism (when Kimya rails against George Bush on ‘Loose Lips’) to surreal humour and truly affecting personal revelations, often in the course of one song, but its voice is always honest and brave. This is an empathetic, comforting record whose aims are summed up in the lyrics of ‘Competition’: “Different voices, different tones / All saying that we’re not alone.”
originally published June 5th, 2006
The Runners Four ••••
More than almost any other band you care to mention, Deerhoof take an obvious, unfettered joy in what they do. In a career spanning over a decade, the band have applied a particle condenser to pop and noise forms, creating albums populated by dense song-nuggets that turn so many corners, throw so many shapes and spit out so many ideas that one wonders what some of their peers do all day. Take ‘Running Thoughts’ from this latest opus; after a jangly cycle down a ‘60s country lane, the wheels abruptly come off and the tune dissolves into humming keyboard drones overlaid with spooky, fried guitarwork. That this is Deerhoof’s most focused and cohesive, even straightforward, effort thus far gives an idea of the fractured sensibilities on offer.
It’s undoubtedly true that a more stable line-up in recent years has tamed the wilder fringes of the group’s approach; formed in 1994 by the only constant member, drummer Greg Saunier, Deerhoof’s revolving line-up has settled around Saunier, bassist/vocalist Satomi Matsuzaki and guitarists John Dietrich and Chris Cohen. With this new constancy have come albums such as 2004’s Milk Man – a concept album about an evil milkman who kidnaps children and hides them in the clouds – that have eased up on their wilder tendencies in favour of heavily skewed guitar pop laced with a sugary sweetness and gnarly crunch. Both have always been important facets of their sound, but with less of a ten-cats-and-a-firework-in-a-sack approach, the music of Deerhoof has become more assured and less unpredictably dizzying.
The Runners Four continues this trajectory, and there’s an immediate inkling that Deerhoof are consciously developing. There are 20 songs and 57 minutes here, nearly twice the white-dwarf density of any of their previous efforts. But the way the guitars circle and shimmer around Satomi’s candy-cloud vocal on the beatless opener, ‘Chatterboxes’, serve to allay fears of any newfound flabbiness. By the time the lumbering groove and sunny ‘60s pop sheen of the ensuing ‘Twin Killers’ and aforementioned ‘Running Thoughts’ have gone by, it’s becoming obvious that whatever their new modus operandum may be, the band are more than comfortable with it.
Funnily enough, given their burgeoning fascination with the flowerier reaches of 1960s music and Satomi’s airy vocal style, it’s only when singing duties are shared by the, er, stags that the sweetness of their sound starts to grate. ‘You Can See’ and ‘Odyssey’ are the worst offenders, the latter saved somewhat by slyly needling harmonics. Elsewhere though, along with a couple of trademark sugar-rush songlets, are some of Deerhoof’s finest moments. ‘Siriustar’ is the trad indie quiet/loud dynamic rewritten by Willy Wonka, surging from not a lot to technicolour fuzzout with a cute smile and a chocolate kiss. ‘You’re Our Two’ raids the sharps cabinet once more to set Satomi’s paranoiac vocal against multiple stinging guitar lines, and the closing ‘RRRRRRight’ is a chipper, garagey adieu.
Describing Deerhoof is a bit like nailing jelly anyway, which is one of the things that makes them so unique. All you need to know is that you should go and buy this album and listen to it lots, because it’s really good. Couldn’t be simpler.
originally published December 19th, 2005
Push The Heart ••••
In the five years since signing to Brit indie label Bella Union, Sara Lov and Dustin O’Halloran have produced two highly-rated albums – 2001’s My Beautiful Sinking Ship and 2003’s heavenly The Stars At Saint Andrea – both of which marked a clear shift away from their earlier, more post-rock oriented self-released efforts. Calmly melding a variety of influences, the Dévics were showered with plaudits from critics and fellow musicians alike, partly because of their refusal to easily conform to any particular rulebook. Their commitment to maintain this very special brand of elusiveness led the twosome (without their formerly full-time members Ed Maxwell and Evan Schnabel) to relocate to a farmhouse hidden deep in rural Italy where they moved into their current lush and wistful sound space, a dreamy and atmospheric terrain with folk-rock influences and frequent overtones of cabaret melancholy.
Third album Push The Heart is, emotionally at least, a more straightforward affair than The Stars At Saint Andrea. The songs are simpler and more direct, with less emphasis on the smoky, late-night bar ethos that drew sideways comparisons with Portishead, or perhaps Beth Orton via Goldfrapp, and more on an overall sense of bittersweet reflection. What the Dévics do share with the likes of Portishead and Goldfrapp is a fine sense of structure and technology-led production in spades. In fact, the production (which by all accounts was a slightly disjointed affair) almost threatens the album’s credibility, but is too carefully stewarded by O’Halloran to really overwhelm; when the melodies are this sweet and Lov’s tender voice even sweeter still, it’s impossible to avoid getting pleasantly lost in some of the loveliest moments, particularly on the album’s central triptych of ‘Song For A Sleeping Girl’, ‘Distant Radio’ and ‘Just One Breath’ (all of which first appeared on last year’s exquisite Distant Radio EP).
Lyrically, the album is accessible and engaging, playful yet plaintive. Lov’s doeeyed yearnings on album opener ‘Lie To Me’ and the charming ‘Secret Message To You’, which concerns the futile construction of a boat from too few parts to bring her love back, are inspired and give the songs a depth far beyond her pretty voice. And it would certainly be remiss of me not to point out that it is a very pretty voice indeed, whether she’s singing softly into a mic with her eyes to the floor, or opening up and expanding to cover whatever sonic bed O’Halloran constructs for her. More a request than a gripe, but it would be nice to hear a few more tracks along the lines of the latter in future. O’Halloran’s balanced, reassuring voice adds a warm and comforting counterpoint on just two of the tracks – the aforementioned ‘Song For A Sleeping Girl’ and the also excellent ‘If We Cannot See’, which comes closer to lighters-aloft anthem territory than anything they’ve done in the past.
The Dévics are unlikely to fill our stadiums just yet though, and in truth I doubt they would want to. But Push The Heart can only help their cause and win them new fans looking for something fresh and convincing to see in the spring. More power to them.
originally published March 21st, 2006
In The Red •••
You can’t deny the popularity of Tina Dico in her homeland of Denmark. When the domestic version of In The Red hit the streets last July, it slotted in at the top of the charts, outselling the likes of Coldplay and U2. Dico (or Dickow if you’re Danish) herself was up for consideration in three categories at the 2006 Danish Music Awards; but is ‘big in Copenhagen’ like ‘big in Japan’ or can she cut it in the crowded international pop market? Though she’s better known in the UK as a vocalist for chillout maestros Zero 7, she no doubt hopes that In The Red will bring her recognition in her own right. Certainly, the overall impression of the album is of a perfectly respectable piece of Scando-pop, with darker, more brooding overtones than the likes of Norway’s Lene Marlin or Sweden’s Sophie Zelmani. But the sticking point here is a noticeable lack of spark to elevate the songs above the realms of the mundane.
Credit where it’s due though – the production is excellent. Chris Potter, who’s better known for his work on The Verve’s Urban Hymns, clearly knows his way around a mixing desk and, comparing the UK release with the Danish original, it seems that some additional remixing has been done over the autumn to prepare for its wider release. The songs are skilfully layered with lush samples, strings and orchestral instrumentation, all adding up to a luxuriant aural vista. Dico’s voice is strong and carries the melodies well, sometimes cracking attractively on the quieter, more emotional sections. Again, nothing to fault here, and when aligned with better material it makes for an effective mix. There’s no doubt that there is a good deal of talent here, although Dico’s Gen-X couldn’t-care-less delivery occasionally grates, particularly on the otherwise enjoyable ‘Nobody’s Man’. Likewise, the title track slips beneath the surface from languorous to simply dragging its heels and ‘Use Me’ seems just a little too ponderous.
Perhaps the most disappointing thing is that there are some excellent songs scattered among the album’s more average fare. Had all the tracks been of the same standard, In The Red would be a significantly more involving album. ‘Losing’ sets the disc off to an encouraging start with its big Beatles-esque choruses evoking Tears For Fears in ‘Sowing The Seeds Of Love’ mode (in a good way!). ‘Give In’ rolls along smoothly like a chilled out drivetime classic, while first single ‘Warm Sand’ is the clear standout with its moody, building verses and hummable yet majestic refrain and ‘Room With A View’ sets a gentle acoustic mood, enfolding the listener in a melancholy reverie. In the end though, this is a candidate for selective downloading. At least that way you’ll be left in the black rather than overdrawn.
originally published February 12th, 2006
Knuckle Down ••••
Though never one to pass the responsibility buck, it is gratifying at least to see Ani DiFranco set aside some of the duties on this, her 15th studio album since her self-titled debut in 1990. Having enlisted the estimable wiles of co-producer Joe Henry on this follow-up to last year’s self-everything’d (including, perhaps, self-indulgent) Educated Guess, Knuckle Down sees Ani return in part to the more rewarding musical territories mapped out on each album up to 2001’s sprawling Revelling/Reckoning.
Inevitably, there will be those who bemoan the relative absence of DiFranco’s almost legendary leftism here; the only overtly political song, ‘Paradigm’, still resonates with an inward-looking personal relevance that stitches the emotional seams of the album and mines them to stark lyrical effect. But to complain about this seems a little hard-bitten in light of DiFranco’s recent personal upheavals. Both the dissolution of her marriage and the death of her father, Dante Americo DiFranco, to whom the album is dedicated, figure highly in these respectively bilious and brow-beaten compositions. The Bush Administration need not count their capitalist chickens just yet, however, as DiFranco has already signalled her intent to release a second album at the tail end of the year in which they may not come off so lightly.
As it is, Knuckle Down is yet another credit to DiFranco’s famed survivalist mentality. The title track grittily eschews the faintly ridiculous self-help stranglehold that grips America like a pill, instead asserting the mantra “I think I’m done gunnin’ to get closer to some imagined bliss, I gotta knuckle down and just be ok with this.” Happily, the following two tracks, ‘Studying Stones’ and ‘Manhole’ are easily among her best – the latter also featuring some charming whistling from recent Righteous Babe signing, Andrew Bird, who also contributes violin and glockenspiel elsewhere. It’s no surprise then that the more liberated radio programmers stateside have embraced these songs, giving DiFranco perhaps her best commercial chance since Little Plastic Castle. Other album highlights include the Out Of Range-y ‘Modulation’, the bluesy clunk of ‘Seeing Eye Dog’ (a memorable chorus also helps its cause), the taut slam poetics of ‘Parameters’ and the lyrical vulnerability of the closing track, ‘Recoil’.
After the chugging claustrophobia of Educated Guess and the often unlovable jazz forays of Evolve, DiFranco seems comfortable (and perhaps even comforted) to be back on familiar ground, if not entirely back to her roots. The promise of less digging for greater reward should entice both new prospectors and the DiFranco converted alike.
originally published May 13th, 2005
The Chemical Brothers once said of Beth Orton that if your soul could sing, she is what it would sound like. By this reckoning, Ani DiFranco is like the voice in the back of your head, not always telling you things you want to hear but telling it like it is nonetheless, and this time perhaps more than ever she means business. “I ain’t in the best shape / that I’ve ever been in / but I know where I’m going / and it ain’t where I’ve been,” she sings on ‘Subconscious’. As always with DiFranco, it’s a believable manifesto, one that takes on extra resonance with the recent announcement of her first pregnancy. Sonically, however, we’re in familiar surroundings.
Reprieve‘s closest cousin is 2004’s self-played, self-produced Educated Guess, but whereas that record had a swagger that reflected DiFranco’s freedom in the studio, Reprieve is altogether a more considered affair. The ghost of Hurricane Katrina hangs over proceedings, having famously halted the recording sessions when the resulting floods damaged her New Orleans studio. Forced to decamp to her other home in Buffalo, New York, DiFranco found herself continuing the recording on an old synthesiser.
The resulting album resonates as an unwitting tribute to the dislocation felt by the millions affected by the tragedy. Though it’s not explicitly referenced, aside from the oddly prophetic ‘Millennium Theater’ which ends on the line “New Orleans bides her time” (the material was written long before the hurricane hit), lines like “the stars are going out / and the stripes are getting bent” (‘Decree’) seem to say it all. Elsewhere, much of the album is classic DiFranco. Opening track, ‘Hypnotize’, recalls one of the most arresting moments of her career, ‘You Had Time’, a song that emerges out of nowhere, a meandering piano intro that eventually finds its way into a melody. A similar technique is used here, the sound of the artist working out a way to articulate an emotion she’s not entirely comfortable with: “you were no picnic / and you were no prize / but you had just enough pathos / to keep me hypnotized”. It makes for a sombre opening but, to quote Joni Mitchell, there’s comfort in melancholy.
Reprieve is perhaps DiFranco’s most cohesive record to date, never really feeling the need to shift out of its plaintive mood, which is both good and bad. Aside from the fantastic ‘Half-Assed’, surely soon to be regarded as an Ani classic, there is little here to truly stir you out of your seat. Perhaps I miss the band. Perhaps I miss the point. Check out righteousbabe.com for an explanation of the cover art and a clearer idea of what she’s trying to say. For now though, there may not be much time for dancing but Ani DiFranco is still standing, still singing and that, for us, is the most important thing.
originally published August 10th, 2006
After The Morning ••••
With her unique blend of traditional and contemporary folk, Cara Dillon has garnered truckloads of awards and comparisons with everyone from Kate Bush to Joni Mitchell, and often with the charming Kate Rusby, whom she replaced as a member of the so-called brat pack folk-rock group Equation. This remarkable third solo album should see her finally coming out from behind the shadow of Rusby, not least for its bold use of blue- grass, and is easily her most confident statement of intent to date.
Recorded with her husband Sam Lakeman (brother of critical favourite Seth), guests include her sister Mary, influential folk veteran Martin Simpson and Paul Brady, who duets on the traditional number ‘The Streets Of Derry’ (which also goes by the name of ‘After The Morning’, depending on who you ask). Despite the presence of such luminaries, it’s Lakeman’s skilful, textured playing that really colours the backdrops to Dillon’s stunning vocals. Piano, accordion, mandolin, guitar and fiddle – you name it, he plays it, and plays it well. The shivery ‘October Winds’ is an exquisite example, the music carrying along Dillon’s rich, warm vocals in a heartfelt tribute to her dead father.
Even so, the strongest tracks are the stripped-down acoustic numbers such as ‘Here’s A Health’, ‘Bold Jamie’ (one of Cara’s own) and her near-definitive version of ‘The Snows They Melt The Soonest’ with its sumptuous arrangement of piano and strings. Despite an occasional, presumably deliberate stab at getting some commercial airplay, the treasure to disappointment ratio is extraordinarily high. There’s a timeless feel to the proceedings as a whole; Dillon’s ability to really draw out the spark of traditional folk songs is almost unparalleled and much of the album’s beauty lies in the words and the perfection of her delivery.
Forging a genuine connection with the listener is something that many traditional folk artists fall short of. Sure, they might sound pretty but they’ll sometimes leave you cold. In this respect, Dillon is firmly in the premier league, ensnaring her audience with consummate ease. Indeed, her dedicated fanbase is something that many of her rival folkies would give their right arms for and After The Morning only serves to cement her elevated status. Three albums into her solo career, she might no longer be the next big thing but this is a real gem, an appealing collection full of confidence and a finely- honed sense of musicality.
originally published August 23rd, 2006
Pull The Strings •••½
One Little Indian
For over 20 years, the career of Sandy Dillon has been one hell of a frightening fairground and somewhere along the line our gravel-voiced heroine must have smashed an entire hall of mirrors, such has been her god-awful luck. Incredibly, even her earlier struggles – two shelved albums and a terminated contract with Elektra – pale in comparison with the trials of the last five years. After losing her beloved husband and musical partner to a heart attack in 2001, Dillon has battled with cervical cancer and a terrifying ordeal with the MRSA superbug. That’s a lot of black cats crossing hundreds of paths, each one dusted with a tonne of spilled salt, but instead of slinging it over her left shoulder into Beelzebub’s eyes she’s gargled it defiantly, refusing to be a martyr to ill health. Indeed, on the evidence of Pull The Strings, her most desolate, injured and grim recording yet (and that’s saying something!), truly the woman could unseat the four horsemen and circumvent the apocalypse. Of course, some people would rather listen to a symphony of air raid sirens than to Dillon’s serrated, half-strangled vocals, but frankly that’s their loss. The sheer feral beauty and menace at work here adds a sometimes exquisite, always interesting texture that’s totally unique.
Of the many moods and dense emotions captured throughout, the one that resonates most clearly is a longing for escape – escape from loneliness, escape into death, you name it. Though it may not sound like it on first listen, the vibrant and sinisterly sexual title track is actually a manifesto of atonement to the (wo)man upstairs. Joined on vocals by Alabama 3’s growly Robert Love, Dillon’s third-person tale of repentance becomes more akin to what the sound of mating basilisks must be like – full-blooded, throaty and raw above all else. The jaunty but creepy ‘Documents’ and Dillon’s remarkable turn on ‘Over My Head’ are similarly sultry, while the raucous ‘I Fell In Love’ is a darkly humorous swamp-blues stomper that returns her to the glass-eating Bessie Smith-inspired sound of her One Little Indian debut, Electric Chair. That she howls and wails as if having a grand mal seizure is really all just part of the fun.
Anyone who has followed Dillon’s career will know that for all her impressive vocal extremities, her real forte lies in torch song balladry. Fortunately, Pull The Strings does not disappoint on that front either, from the traditional number ‘Motherless Children’ and the sumptuous cover of Hoagy Carmichael’s jazz standard ‘Baltimore Oriole’ to the exhausting, occasionally morbid but beautiful tributes to her husband (‘Enter The Flame’, ‘Wedding Night’) and her own lost innocence (‘Play With Ruth’, ‘Broken Promises’). Throughout these heartfelt weepies run subtle flourishes of organ, electric piano and softly brushed snare, not to mention musical saw for that added tearjerk factor. Dillon even wheels out a harmonium on ‘Why?’, a sweetly-sung duet (again with Robert Love) that’s almost vaudevillian and slightly but nicely cheesy. ‘Who’s Answering’ follows the theme of accepting destiny as Dillon implores whoever or whatever lies beyond the grave to see her in safely and with a little comfort – “give me a lover, a bed and some gin / I beg the one who’s answering” – delivered with poignancy, believability and soul.
Doing justice to a Sandy Dillon album is an impossible task; like the music itself, it takes a lot of perseverance, repeated listens and an open mind, and you may still end up not knowing what to make of it. Certainly, those who are faint of heart should steer clear, but if you’re the sort who worships Captain Beefheart, Tom Waits or just loves a challenge, there’s much to enjoy here. It’s a little over-long, however, and making it to the conclusion of ‘Carnival Of Dreams’ in just one sitting guarantees an arduous listen. That said, in the triumph over adversity stakes, it’s a truly remarkable statement from one of our finest, most uncompromising artists.
originally published May 26th, 2006
Taking The Long Way ••••
Taking The Long Way is the Dixie Chicks’s fourth studio album, produced by man of the moment Rick Rubin. The girls share writing credits on all the tracks – a first for them – with such songwriting luminaries as Sheryl Crow, Neil Finn and Gary Louris of The Jayhawks. There’s a conscious effort to expand upon the acoustic, bluegrass feel of 2002’s Home. Driving rhythm guitar and threepart harmonies abound in a nod to the ‘rockier’ side of country. Fear not Chicks fans, the banjo, mandolin and fiddle still play a major part. It’s clear that Maines, Maguire and Robison haven’t totally abandoned their Nashville cousins, but be under no illusions – this is the sound of three competent songwriters with a wealth of experience cutting loose, both musically and lyrically.
Yes, they have bones to pick. Yes, they choose to do so with a certain lack of subtlety, but who can blame them? Their run-in with Dubya received more column inches of newsprint than can possibly be deemed healthy in a world where unspeakable horrors occur on a daily basis. But don’t be fooled by the media backlash; the Chicks were courting controversy way back on 2001’s ‘Goodbye Earl’ and the acerbic ‘White Trash Wedding’ from Home. If you think these girls are a manufactured country-pop wet dream, think again – they’ve always had the chops, the humour and, yes, the intelligence to shake it up with the best of them.
Taking The Long Way opens with ‘The Long Way Round’, a road movie Don Henley would be proud to have written. It’s a fine way indeed to say ‘we’re back!’ with the nice addition of some clever lyrical nods to earlier Chicks songs. ‘Easy Silence’ follows with swathes of harmony and a plea for the simple things in life to keep you sane. Key talking point and canny first single ‘Not Ready To Make Nice’ is Maines’s response to the CD burning and radio boycott the band endured as a result of her London outburst; it rocks, it says what it has to, and it’s followed by ‘Everybody Knows’, a lovely melody and an introspective look at how the last two years has affected the close-knit trio.
It goes on. Each cut has merits, carefully constructed to achieve an emotional response and most hitting the right buttons. Maines courts the ire of her hometown with ‘Lubbock Or Leave It’, which has the classic line “…this is the only place, where as you’re getting on the plane, you see Buddy Holly’s face…” Others worthy of multiple plays are ‘Favorite Year’, a wistful look back at love gone wrong, and ‘Bitter End’, which eloquently dissects the true meaning of friendship, but really, they’re all pretty good. The Chicks have consistently improved with every album, and this is their best offering yet.
Unafraid to experiment, unafraid to steer their own path, the Dixie Chicks deserve a hearing. Forget the country tag and your own prejudices, this is a band at its peak; tune in or miss out.
originally published July 10th, 2006
This Hungry Life ••••
As a member of Throwing Muses, The Breeders and Belly, Tanya Donelly helped construct the blueprint for American college rock, writing soaring, breathless pop songs that belied dark, complex lyrics and a twisted world view. With a knack for writing the aural equivalent of a beehive – songs dripping with honey but packed with stings – Donelly was achingly vital to the 1990s but maintaining people’s interest over three acts proved a little too tough. Belly’s second album King, in no way a poor piece of work, fell on deaf ears and Donelly struck out on her own. Since then, marriage and motherhood have seemingly tempered her solo work, with each album becoming more laidback than the last, to the point where 2003’s country-laden Whiskey Tango Ghosts was practically supine.
On This Hungry Life, Donelly sets the hall of mirrors perspective that made her early work so exciting to the more traditional approach to songwriting that she has perfected. Opening with the line “it’s June and I’m still wearing my boots”, Donelly sings her sweet complaint in homage to New England. It’s this playful contrariness that gallops through the album and makes for an enjoyable listen, coming furthest to the fore on the superb ‘Littlewing’, a dark and unsettling song about falling in love.
Recorded in front of an audience in the bar of a deserted hotel on a sweltering weekend in 2004, This Hungry Life is one of those rare albums that are recorded live without being ‘live albums’ per se. The live band – including Catholic (in the Frank Black sense) Rich Gilbert, Dean ‘Mr Donelly’ Fisher, Bill Janovitz and (almost inevitably these days) Joan ‘As Police Woman’ Wasser – provide excellent accompaniment to Donelly’s liquid glycerine vocals. The heatwave conditions and setup of the recordings certainly worked for this line-up; no amount of studio time could ever improve the title track, a pedal-steel extravaganza that’s bound to break hearts. Elsewhere, the title of ‘Kundalini Slide’, one of the album’s standouts, sounds a bit like an attempt by Rory Bremner’s George Bush to pronounce the name of Condoleeza Rice, which may not in fact be all that coincidental as the lyrics represent a politically charged attack on intolerance and violence.
If a couple of the tracks retread the same matronly ground of the past two albums, Donelly’s mellifluous singing saves them and other tracks more than make up for any slight failings. This Hungry Life is a vibrant collection of songs through which a love of life and of live performance shines. If this is Donelly’s hungry life, is it wrong to kinda hope that she never ever gets a square meal?
originally published December 17th, 2006
The Dresden Dolls
Yes, Virginia ••••
If one thing sets the Dresden Dolls apart from pretty much anyone else around right now, it’s their confrontational and discomforting honesty. It’s something they practice in life as well as in their music – the blogs Amanda Palmer posts online dissect her insecurities and anxieties in detail. Take this for example: “i prefer sleeping alone nowadays. i barely think about love. i have plenty. i haven’t had a boyfriend in so long i’ve forgotten what it’s like. honestly.” The band also publish the wonderfully inarticulate hatemail they receive on their site (sample: “could you plase do something like kill yourselves,before you come to toronto, seeing you would probabnly ruin my life” – spelling mistakes author’s own – or “if you ever come to atlanta call me up 678-XXX-XXXX and i’ll fuckin beat your ass”) as well as collecting together some of the savage and abusive reviews they’ve received.
It’s this honesty that makes their music so entirely compelling, and Yes, Virginia – the follow-up to their 2004 self-titled debut – makes for truly startling listening. Building upon the dark themes and manic yet melodic style of their debut, it represents an artistic progression on every level – musically, lyrically and vocally. Palmer has extended her vocal range to incorporate a whole new palate of sounds, and, in places, sounds more aggressive than ever before. The songs are powerful and muscular, tempered with moments of tenderness made all the more affecting by the tempestuous menace that surrounds them. The Dolls have grown more confident, too, adding layer upon layer of insistent, pounding pianos and cascading drums to create a driving and sometimes frantic sound.
The insistent piano riff that opens the record is extremely ominous – like listening to the first rumbling tones of a coming thunderstorm – and it’s not long before a shout from Amanda heralds the entrance of Brian Viglione’s pummelling drums. Songs turn from tender to vicious in the space of a couple of lines. ‘Delilah’, one of the album’s highlights, describes the frustration of watching a friend wilfully enter a violent relationship: “He’s gonna beat you like a pillow / you schizos never learn / and if you take him home / you’ll get what you deserve”. From a hushed, piano and vocal opening, the song builds until the frustration and powerlessness in the lyrics is reflected in the epic, operatic music. Lyrically, the album is often violent and disturbing, with images of mutilation and surgery recurring throughout without ever sounding like they’re merely out to shock. Perhaps this is because Palmer’s writing is shot through with dark humour and a rare wit. ‘Shores Of California’, for example, is a clever dissection of male and female coping mechanisms for being single, with lyrics like “all I know is that all around the nation / the girls are crying, the boys are masturbating”.
There are occasional moments where the lyrics veer close to self-parody, but the Dolls are too knowing and self-aware to succumb to such pitfalls: on ‘Dirty Business’, Amanda sings “Am I the poster girl for some suburban sickness?” while the unmitigated stream of aggression running through the chorus of ‘Backstabber’ (“Backstabber, backstabber / greedy fucking fit-haver”) would seem ridiculously emo were the lyrics not married to the catchiest melody the band have ever penned. Furthermore, the song ends with a demented cackle as if to tell you the band know exactly how closely they’ve been flirting with the ridiculous.
Yes, Virginia is not an easy listen, but it’s an exciting, raw and emotional one. However you might categorise the Dresden Dolls – and they have been variously labelled as theatrical rock, punk cabaret, manic-musical, neoglam-torch etc. – one fact remains: their music is really damn good.
originally published April 10th, 2006
The Dresden Dolls
Live at Spiegelzelt, Berlin ••••
May 14th, 2006
“We were so excited when we heard we could play in a mirrored tent” exclaimed Dresden Dolls singer Amanda Palmer as she took to the stage of the Spiegelzelt, erected temporarily for a nomadic mini-festival taking place all over Germany. But as the sunset glowed through the stained-glass windows of this curiously decadent, wood- and velvet-laden construction next to the railway tracks at East Berlin’s former main station, what place could be more suitable? After all, The Dresden Dolls describe themselves as ‘Brechtian punk cabaret’ and are clearly thrilled to introduce their new album, Yes, Virginia, to the country that gave them their name, as well as Bertolt Brecht and his weird and wonderful theatre.
Since the release of their eponymous debut, the Boston duo has accumulated a dedicated, passionate and numerous following without attracting too much hype or mainstream press, mainly on the back of word-of-mouth praise and blistering live shows. Tonight was no exception. Though the sun was still illuminating the tent from all sides and The Dresden Dolls are a band best served in eerie, smoky darkness, Palmer and drummer Brian Viglione conjured up such dark intensity that it could have been on a Caribbean beach and still been just as impressive. Like The Kills, the sparseness of the arrangements (i.e. only keyboard and primal drums against Amanda’s rich and frantic vocals) makes the drama so much more affecting and severe. As they look at each other across the stage, all the fierceness that’s found in a band of five members is concentrated into a single, manic gaze. As with all things cabaret, however, it’s not all entirely serious. Early single ‘Coin-Operated Boy’ is a cheeky crowd pleaser and their cover of Grauzone’s ‘Eisbär’, a Swiss new wave band’s ode to the polar bear, had the crowd waving arms and singing at the top of their voices.
Perhaps fittingly it was not one of their own songs that captured the evening, but a cover of Jacques Brel’s ‘Port Of Amsterdam’ – a wistfully sexy black-hearted tale of a long gone time of swashbucklin’ filthy cabaret bars frequented by a shady clientele. The Dresden Dolls romanticise and capture this decadent and dangerous world and their concerts make it real for people disillusioned by their oversanitised, modern existence.
Robbie de Santos
originally published June 24th, 2006
Most Wanted •••½
In the sometimes scary land of teen pop there is a boxing ring, with Hilary Duff in the red corner and Lindsay Lohan in the blue. Whilst not quite delivering a knockout punch with this release, Hilary at least shows that she has the edge and will stay standing for quite a few more rounds. The cliché of the difficult third album is not easy to apply to Most Wanted, as it more closely resembles a greatest hits with a few new tracks thrown in. Coming in an attractive two-piece case, the Collector’s Signature Edition contains 17 slices of Duffness, of which just four are new. The remainder are remixes of songs from previous albums, although a collaboration with sister Haylie on The GoGo’s classic ‘Our Lips Are Sealed’ is carried off with dignity, showing that it is possible to cover a well-known song without leaving the original artists turning in their graves (or, in this case, mansions).
Hilary’s move into more soulful and lyrically complete tunes in her second album is less apparent in this latest offering, which walks the line between rock and pop. US radio programmers have swooped upon first single ‘Wake Up’, which flaunts a killer hook and is one of her best to date. However, the standout track is the super slick ‘Break My Heart’, which borders on a Blink 182-esque anthem pitched around a superb middle eight. This comes as no real surprise, as song was co-written with the Madden Brothers from pop/punk band Good Charlotte and John Feldmann from Goldfinger. Club DJ Chris Cox does a good job of turning the previously likeable ‘Come Clean’ into an irresistible floor-shaking house mix, building up from the simple melody of the original with big beats and delivering the goods.
Perhaps more than simply a greatest hits, this album is a showcase of some of the more unique songs from her repertoire, such as the raucous ‘Mr James Dean’, from 2003’s self-titled second album. Duff certainly has a unique voice, clearly identifiable amongst the often faceless pop crowd. ‘So Yesterday’, the signature track from her 2002 debut Metamorphosis, makes a welcome return. Although perhaps more polished than even the crown jewels, it’s pure pop perfection. The standard edition of the album, running at a more bite-sized 13 songs is an attractive option for Duff’s doubting thomases or newcomers to her music.
originally published September 4th, 2005
The Duke Spirit
Cuts Across The Land •••½
After 18 months in the making, it’s not surprising that Cuts Across The Land is a fairly polished, well-produced and suitably promising debut. It’s an adept and listenable dark-edged rock ‘n’ roll album. The problem arises when you start to wonder what exactly it is you’re listening to – it would be fair to say that the London-based five-piece wear their influences on their sleeves. Sadly, these are rarely combined into any new, innovative or interesting sound; rather, they are too often laid out bare in quick succession for all the world to ear, particularly in the Sebadoh-esque riffing in the chorus of the title track to the alarmingly ‘Anarchy In The UK’-like opening chord of first single, ‘Lion Rip’, although in the latter this quickly dissolves into one the album’s standout tracks.
When their influences aren’t so apparent, such as on the interminable bore that is ‘Hello To The Floor’, neither is the passion that could have made this reasonable album into a really good one. In fact, this track, and to a slightly lesser extent, ‘Bottom Of The Sea’, smack of a by-the-numbers “every rock album needs a couple of ballads” approach to recording, which fails to showcase properly any of the bands talents, except possibly an ear for a nice couplet, as the frequently well-crafted lyrics are dribbled out by singer Leila Moss with less enthusiasm than is found at your average Saturday night karaoke, which is made all the more disappointing because elsewhere on the album you discover that she can do so much better. For example, there is infinitely more zeal on ‘Win Your Love’, a high point of the record, especially if the prospect of Polly Harvey fronting Sonic Youth is one that excites you. But PJ isn’t the only vocal influence Moss parades – Patti Smith and Nico are never far from mind. Indeed, the Velvet Underground themselves are one of the more pervading influences of the guitar sound throughout.
However, it seems somewhat mean spirited to continue to run through the tracklist namedropping the many earlier, often seminal, acts that are brought to mind when listening to this record. Perhaps in this era where exceptional debuts seem to be the norm, promise is no longer enough, but Cuts Across The Land is full of it. If future efforts can use these diverse influences as exactly that and not as such obvious templates, as well as capturing some of the fervour and excitement that most reviewers and music fans alike agree that the band exhibit when on stage, then they are certainly an act worth keeping an ear out for.
originally published July 16th, 2005
The Mezzanine ••••
Deliciously layered with meaning as though it’s a direct line into her soul, Liz Durrett’s distinctive voice will utterly transfix you; this is a good thing, for then you’ll be struck by her striking, pared-down lyrics and wonder how on earth she’s been such a best kept secret. It took her 10 years to get comfy with the idea of releasing her own material, beginning with last year’s Husk, not least because of a crippling anxiety that she wouldn’t live up to her own high standards and her familial connections (she’s the niece of singer-songwriter Vic Chesnutt, who’s on board here as producer). Luckily for us, she hasn’t let that overwhelm her and the light once hidden by that mighty bushel of doubt is finally beaming into these warmly grateful ears.
With its beguiling nursery rhyme-esque introduction, opener ‘Knives At The Wall’ lulls and soothes into an early reverie that grows ever darker as the song progresses. It’s one of the least remarkable songs of the collection, yet it serves as a perfect introduction to The Mezzanine‘s suggestive, haunting power. The similarly minimalist ‘All The Spokes’ is swiftly followed by the curiously upbeat ‘Cup On The Counter’, whose delightfully discordant atmosphere and accusatory lyrics (“I’m not a child, I know what I’ve seen”) are accompanied by the startling addition of a child in conversation. An equally evocative harmonica solo and double-tracked vocals make ‘Shivering Assembly’ the shining example of how Durrett successfully pulls off disarming little touches and effects, adding to the tone and theatricality of the music without falsifying its ambition and meaning.
This, and other songs, may tempt you to place Durrett firmly in the gothic fold, but The Mezzanine as a whole is a hopeful creature, as is the empowering track that gives the album its name. Here, Durrett’s “they” refers to unnamed oppressive influences lurking nearby. Yet while the album certainly revels in its darkness and is accordingly beautiful for it, such a mood is not its focus, merely a tangible influence that belies her upbringing in the oppressive humidity of Georgia, as well as her battle with depression. The rawness of ‘Marlene’ is both deeply personal and astounding; Durrett’s quivering vibrato gives an ethereal, wispy quality to the song and is neatly complemented by the off-key piano instrumental ‘Silent Partner’ that follows.
It’s not all easygoing, however. An eerily muffled screaming guitar slightly overwhelms ‘No Apology’, but once your ears have adjusted, simple unpleasantness quickly becomes intriguing unpleasantness and perseverance is definitely required. ‘In The Throes’ thankfully marks a return to the style of the earlier songs and brings things to a worthy close, combining all the best aspects from the previous ten tracks – introspection, a gently powerful voice, fabulous guitars and a stunning combination of orchestral and electric instruments. A trip through Durrett’s (under)world may not be appropriate for everyone but the devil’s in the details and we all know by now who has the best tunes.
originally published August 10th, 2006