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: feature, special | Tags: alan pedder, albums of the decade, alela diane, alex ramon, anais mitchell, ane brun, ani difranco, bat for lashes, bjork, broadcast, charlotte richardson andrews, chris catchpole, feist, fever ray, florence and the machine, gillian welch, hildur guðnadóttir, hope sandoval, jenny lewis, joan as police woman, kate bush, katy knight, kristin hersh, laura marling, marissa nadler, martha wainwright, portishead, rhian jones, robyn, rod thomas, shelby lynne, st vincent, the innocence mission, the warm inventions, the watson twins, tomas slaninka, wears the trousers magazine
Here’s the third part of our albums of the decade countdown, running from #50–26.
* * *
[Rough Trade, 2002]
Casting aside the disparaging comparisons to “Kate Bush on crack” bestowed upon her in the wake of Queen Adreena’s debut album Taxidermy, KatieJane Garside upped the ante with Drink Me, tearing whatever hinges that were still attached right off with a blisteringly manic grunge-metal fervour. Among her Wonderland’s re-energised malice, the softer moments found Garside’s raging voice shrunk mouse-high, whispering seductively as if through the keyhole, or chillingly into a void. Richly imaginative and manically enjoyable, Drink Me remains one of the decade’s most vigorous and visceral thrills, disturbing to the very last note.
Filed under: back issues, feature, interrupting yr broadcast | Tags: 2006, alan pedder, interview, music, rod thomas, the hot puppies
interrupting yr broadcast: the hot puppies
originally published on our old website in July 2006
With stamps of approval firmly in place from everyone from the Observer Music Monthly to the NME, Drowned In Sound and (crikey!) Vogue magazine, these glamorous indie pop chameleons have the potential to make it big in 2006. We caught up with their lead singer Becky Newman earlier this month for a wee chat. Rod Thomas and Alan Pedder rushed off an email full of silly questions and it went a little something like this…
Filed under: feature, interrupting yr broadcast | Tags: interview, music, rod thomas, sarabeth tucek
interrupting yr broadcast: sarabeth tucek
Sarabeth Tucek is one of the most refreshingly unpretentious artists you could hope to meet. Despite growing up in Manhattan (not exactly renowned for its easygoing nature), working with a host of incredible artists including Bill Callahan (aka Smog) and Anton Newcombe (The Brian Jonestown Massacre), appearing in infamous rockumentary ‘Dig!’, and being handpicked to support her long-time idol Bob Dylan, around Sarabeth is an air of modesty and togetherness.
Her first single ‘Something For You’ emerged on tiny indie label Sonic Cathedral but had a monumental impact on her future career. “It got a lot of radio play,” she explains – including the title of Record of the Week on Steve Lamacq’s 6Music show – “which really forged the way for the record to be made. The climate here musically is very different from the States, people are so excited about music. There are a lot of music lovers, guys running little labels. Sonic Cathedral’s essentially one guy who contacted me when he heard me through The Brian Jonestown Massacre, and it went from there.”
Filed under: feature, words in edgeways | Tags: architecture in helsinki, interview, kellie sutherland, music, rod thomas
words in edgeways with architecture in helsinki’s kellie sutherland
Having become word of mouth favourites with critics, music bloggers, fans and other musicians alike, relentlessly perky Australian ensemble Architecture In Helsinki have spent the last few years touring the world, picking up even more fans, even more praise, and putting together their third album, Places Like This. Along the way they lost two of their three female members (Isobel Knowles and Tara Shackles departed amid those infamous “creative differences”), leaving Kellie Sutherland as the band’s sole oestrogenous force. Rod Thomas met Kellie for a quick chat before last week’s low key but high demand gig at Hoxton Bar & Kitchen, sneaking past the queue that circled the square, and talked about life in the non-stop party that is Architecture In Helsinki.
Filed under: album, back issues, review | Tags: amerie, architecture in helsinki, callum sinclair, esther alexander, joan armatrading, keith anderson, rod thomas, trevor raggatt
The following reviews were published on our old MySpace blog in 2007.
Last Of The Hopeless Romantics EP ••••
Derby-based Esther Alexander has been a regular on the circuit around her hometown and London for a number of years now, paying her dues both there and with session work for the likes of Steve Winwood, Ruby Turner and the London Community Gospel Choir. Her first album, a pop and R&B-tinged affair, was released on an independent imprint in 2003 so new recorded material has been long time coming. It’s heartening, then, that the hours spent writing and treading the boards have reaped dividends aplenty.
The five songs presented here – strictly four if you take into account radio and album mixes of the title track – demonstrate what an accomplished singer and songwriter Alexander has become. Although this EP (she sweetly calls it an ‘albumette’) sees her flirt increasingly with the mainstream pop of her debut, perhaps wisely casting aside any R&B tendencies, the songs are strong enough to connect and engage. Okay, so the title track’s classy mid-tempo pop has ‘Radio 2 playlist’ written through it like a stick of Brighton rock, and the fact that it has been picked up by Caffé Nero for repeated in-store plays only lends credence to the coffee table tag, but it’s not the be all and end all.
Production duties fall to Kipper – best known for his Grammy award-winning work with Sting – who succeeds in presenting a shimmering context in which to appreciate Alexander’s delicate vocals. He also contributes to the co-penned ‘Safe House’, which, alongside ‘Come & Find Me’ is a tender ballad where the pop approach gives way to a cocooning sound in which cello, muted trumpet and flugelhorn (!) weave subtle countermelodies to the voice. ‘Other Side of Winter’ showcases the quality of the Alexander’s voice unencumbered by slick production. Only the unproduced sound of the twin acoustic guitars and the applause that closes the song betray its live origins.
Initially some of the slower songs are not as immediate as they might be but they’re well equipped to grow on you. The EP closes with an album version of the title track. Well, here’s hoping that album comes soon even though, on the basis of this ‘albumette’, it should be worth waiting for too.
Because I Love It •••
Let’s get one thing clear from the very beginning – the only track you are going to find here that’s anywhere near as mammoth as her international calling card ‘1 Thing’ is, er, ‘1 Thing’, which has been tacked on to the end of this collection to remind people that, yes, this girl ‘has’ had a hit song, thank you very much. That’s not to say that Because I Love It is a bad album. It’s not. It’s just that matching or exceeding the sheer excitement of her 2005 single is a tall order and one that Amerie’s team has not quite managed to fulfil.
As far as pop albums go it’s the same old story – the label wants to appeal to as many people as possible so they ensure that there are a few songs to dance around a handbag to, some mild-mannered sing-a-longs, and – brace yourselves – a few Mariah-robbing heartbroken ballads. Still, there’s something genuinely likeable about Amerie, and, for the most part, she pulls it off. Beyoncé and Christina may have fallen victim to their own hype, churning out unlistenable pap, but Amerie has bounced around in the background and so retains some of the zeal displayed on the earlier work of her contemporaries. Even the most mundane of lyrics are given some degree of believability when injected with the enthusiasm and passion of her performance.
Amerie shines on the brass-fuelled, upbeat tracks ‘Take Control’ and ‘Gotta Work’, and even impresses with her slinky delivery on cheeky ‘80s pastiches ‘Crush’ and ‘Crazy Wonderful’, but things start feeling hollow and clunky on obligatory sob story ‘When Loving U Was Easy’, which even Amerie does not have the personality or voice to elevate from anything but dire and unnecessary. Of course, if you are au fait with albums by R&B divas, you’ll be well acquainted by now with the dreaded phenomenon of filler tracks padding out the second half. None of Amerie’s slushy ballads or slow ‘jams’ will bother you all that much, and besides, the aforementioned pasting-on of ‘1 Thing’ and bonus track ‘Losing You’ rebounds Because I Love It into listenable territory.
Amerie is certainly somewhere near the top of the pile when it comes to the glut of female R&B singers we’ve enjoyed/endured (delete as applicable) over the last few years. The only problem is, whilst largely enjoyable, it’s unlikely that the album will spawn another major hit to propel our plucky ingénue into the big league.
Architecture In Helsinki
Places Like This ••••
The recent swathe of bands determined to bring a hefty dose of fun back into music cannot have escaped unnoticed by even the most casual of observers. CSS and Gogol Bordello are just two of the acts propelled into the higher echelons of indie greatness, not just because they are musically rather brilliant but also because they’re so full of energy that they shine amidst a sea of more po-faced generic ensembles. Architecture In Helsinki is another one of these bands. The Australian collective’s debut album Fingers Crossed emerged in 2004, with In Case We Die arriving the following year and thrusting the band into the public’s consciousness with its pure and joyful blasts of riotous fun. The accessibility and appeal of their sound was highlighted by 2006’s remix compilation where acts like Hot Chip fell sufficiently in love with their sound that they couldn’t leave it alone.
Places Like This not only keeps the pace but also ups the ante as a collection of slightly unhinged, kinda disturbed, but quite magnificent tunes. A few songs trimmer than its predecessor (and the band with two fewer members), it seems that the madness has come more into focus with energy levels going through the roof. Lead single ‘Heart It Races’ is as edgy as it is simplistic, and catchy as you like thanks to the Cameron Bird and Kellie Sutherland’s unified cries that soar above a backdrop of steel drums, bongos and synths. From start to finish, each song is orchestrated by a vast array of instruments – trumpets, drums of all ilk, glockenspiels, wind chimes, as many synth sounds as you can name, and of course the more traditional guitar, all make appearances through the course of ten songs. Adding a bewildering, kaleidoscopic feel to the album, Architecture In Helsinki veer between sounding like a calypso troupe, an ‘80s tribute band, a pack of scraggly alleycats and an experimental chamber choir.
‘Hold Music’, arguably the album’s highlight, is Architecture In Helsinki at their bonkers best; here, the vocals sound almost like the cast of ‘Fraggle Rock’ have formed a school choir and are banging out renditions of all their favourite tunes at once. It’s insanely poppy and outrageously over the top, but absolutely brilliant. This willingness to experiment with their vocal arrangements sets the band apart from many of their contemporaries as they skip between styles, harmonising in the most inventive of ways and using the voice as the ultimate instrument. The singing may frequently seem feral and untamed (‘Debbie’, ‘Hold Music’, ‘Nothing’s Wrong’) but in fact it is immaculately ordered. Both leads intertwine in a flirtatious and complementary manner that, when combined with the musical arrangement, makes for something quite astonishing overall.
As crazy and unleashed as their music becomes, Places Like This makes room for moments of a more subdued beauty. ‘Underwater’, for example, is more of a bubbling pause for air, and displays the band’s aptitude for production and arrangement. Of course, the mention of a cartoon-like energy and entertainment aspect of their music might suggest that the songs, beneath the surface, have little more to offer. This is far from the case. The album is littered with wonderful anecdotes such as “ignore me in the parking lot, I’m petrified by conversation” (‘Nothing’s Wrong’), or “your foot’s on the clutch / your hand’s on my crotch / slow down!” (‘Feathers In A Baseball Cap’).
Although it’s definitely not everyone’s cup of tea and, despite their protestations to the contrary, perhaps not a drastic move forward from their last release, Places Like This is nevertheless a wonderful collection of silly yet thought-provoking songs that will make you dance just as much as they will make you think, listen after listen.
Into The Blues •••
An appealing aspect of Joan Armatrading’s work is the way she tempers the earnest and personal nature of her lyrics – otherwise known as the curse of the confessional singer-songwriter – with a warm earthiness and sense of humour. Into The Blues is no different; she comes across as both intimate and playful in ‘Play The Blues’ as she observes that the teeth of her lover are “yellow like the sun… / but baby, when you sing the blues / I take off all my clothes for you”. Darker tracks such as the desolate ‘Empty Highway’ and intense finale ‘Something’s Gotta Blow ‘rub shoulders with the likes of ‘There Ain’t A Girl Alive (Who Likes To Look In The Mirror Like You Do)’, a sort of cheeky lesbian reworking of ‘You’re So Vain’. It’s a well-rounded album deliberately sequenced so that any given mood is not allowed to outstay its welcome.
‘A Woman In Love’, the album’s opener, is the obvious choice to get a promotional airing with its smooth groove underlying one elegantly crafted hook after another. It serves as a four-minute showcase for Armatrading’s rich voice, as well as her skilful command of piano, bass and the searing blues guitar that dominates the record. In stark contrast, ‘Deep Down’ is a messily indulgent exercise that should never have made the cut; it’s a bloated, clattering blues jam with Armatrading repeating the two words of the title ad nauseam. A more conventional clunker is ‘Liza’, which simply isn’t distinctive or appealing enough to stand up against the other material.
Much better are ‘Secular Songs’ and ‘Mama Papa’, which draw on funk and gospel influences and add flavour to an already unusual album. The sounds are consistent despite this cheery eclecticism. Armatrading’s self-production is endearingly awkward as ever, with unfashionable whirring synth pads and cascading vocal layers seeming ill at ease in contrast with the grittier elements. However, it also serves as a reminder of her pop sensibility; while the blues-inspired compositions highlight her chops as a guitarist and an adaptable songwriter with a clear appreciation and understanding of the genre, it’s tracks like ‘Baby Blue Eyes’ and ‘DNA’ – where Armatrading puts her trademark way with melodies front and centre – that really shine. The whole album turns on this compromise. It is by no means an authentic blues record, but Into The Blues stands as a strong addition to Armatrading’s admirable body of work.
Filed under: album, back issues, live, review | Tags: andy wasley, chris mccrudden, client, cocorosie, colleen, jill cunniff, judy collins, laura cortese, loria near, mary chapin carpenter, melora creager, neko case, peter hayward, rod thomas, shawn colvin, siobhan rooney, stephanie heney, the concretes, trevor raggatt, vanessa carlton
The following reviews were published on our old MySpace blog in 2007.
Heroes & Thieves ••
Poor piano-popster Vanessa Carlton might have felt the sting of inevitability about her second album, Harmonium. Coming off the back of her smash hit debut it was a relative commercial and critical failure, peaking at a lowly 33 in the US Billboard 200 charts. Part of the problem was that the whole album sounded too much like her debut single ‘A Thousand Miles’; basic, boring piano-pop with no innovation or flair for variety. Carlton soon found herself receiving a cold “thanks, but no thanks” from her record label, A&M. All was not good, until R&B supremo Irv Gotti (Ashanti’s backer) decided to take a chance on her by producing her third album, Heroes & Thieves.
Carlton’s frustration with A&M bubbles to the surface in the album’s first number, ‘Nolita Fairytale’. Immediately recognizable as standard Carlton fare, its lyrics (“Take away my record deal / go on, I don’t need it”) might strike some as being somewhat petulant; sadly, that is by far the least of the song’s problems. Although it is competent, it is certainly nothing special; despite Carlton’s powerful voice (reminiscent of a young Sheryl Crow), her enunciation is so weak that it’s something of a strain to distinguish between words and understand the song’s heartfelt lyrics. This is a shame, because Carlton’s skill as a lyricist is actually pretty good. Next track ‘Hands On Me’s tale of youthful, unrequited love works well with Carlton’s yearning vocals, although it feels somewhat overwhelmed by a intrusive percussion – a common problem throughout the album, as it happens, and something Carlton would do well to avoid in the future.
Although most of the tracks sound rather samey, there are a few standouts. Carlton’s multilayered vocals in ‘The One’ take on a rich close harmony that could tie the Puppini Sisters in knots, and ends the song with a remarkably wistful coda. ‘My Best’ shimmers with a lullaby feel, filled with the sweet chimes of an electric piano to create a very pleasing track, and proving that, when she tries, Carlton can be very impressive. However, what should have been the album’s best number – ‘Home’ – fails to live up to its potential; at first Carlton eschews percussion, opting for a simple, near-perfect combination of piano, violin, harp and voice. Sadly, this quiet mastery is shattered by needless drums for the last two minutes, wrecking what could otherwise have been a welcome recognition that innovation is at least as important as convention.
Unfortunately, it seems that the pull of ‘A Thousand Miles’s success is just too strong, leading Carlton to return to the same, sterile sound again and again. Sometimes this sort of dependence on a tried-and-tested formula works well; it certainly hasn’t done J-Lo any harm. However, she has international fame and a somewhat slavishly devoted fan-base to rely on, whereas Miss Carlton is – for now, at least – dancing at the fringes of being a one-hit wonder.
So, will Heroes & Thieves see her storming back from her long holiday from public recognition with a smash-hit single? Unlikely. Vanessa Carlton might not be over and done with, but if she wants to justify Gotti’s faith – and prove A&M wrong – she will have to throw in a little more variety and forget the winning formula of ‘A Thousand Miles’. It’s had its day; one hopes that Carlton now chooses to look to the future rather than depend upon the past.
Live From Austin, TX ••••
I admit it; I grew up with old school country music. My mother had a coveted collection of Patsy Cline 45s and my father spent Saturday nights attempting to get an old AM radio to tune into a Nashville radio station that would broadcast the Grand Ole Opry. So as I grew up in music, I learned to appreciate that which Austin City Limits has as its beginnings. Fast forward to 2007. Country music has become mainstream pop and the Grand Ole Opry has become somewhat of a caricature of itself. While in recent years, ACL has moved way from being a country and folk showcase into more current and relevant music, it still keeps to its roots of strong performances and is more successful today than ever.
So it was with pleasure that I picked up the live disc from Neko Case at Austin City Limits in Austin, TX. Neko has been something of an indomitable force in music through the last few years, both as sometime accompanist to Canada’s New Pornographers as well a stellar solo artist. Most recently, Case shined with one of the most well deserving critically acclaimed albums of 2006, Fox Confessor Brings the Flood. Selections from three earlier albums, Blacklisted, Canadian Amp and Furnace Room Lullaby are showcased in this set of 14 songs recorded in August of 2003.
Fans of Case will ask, didn’t she already do this with 2004’s The Tigers Have Spoken? Well, they would be partially correct. Tigers… was released with the help of full band, The Sadies whilst this album scales back the performance to a minimal backing band and one backup singer. Where The Tigers Have Spoken showcased a grand scale of musicianship and range, Live from Austin, TX puts Neko herself square into the spotlight.
Not surprisingly, this minimalist formula works extremely well. Neko has one of the strongest set of pipes in the music business, and they soar here. From the moment her voice takes flight on opener ‘Favorite’ to the closing rolling steel guitar in ‘Alone & Forsaken’, she takes control of each note flawlessly. The setlist appears to be chosen specifically to highlight her strengths, including an interesting selection of covers. What might be sacred ground to many artists becomes artistic license to Case, as she takes classics by Dylan (‘Buckets of Rain’) and country legend Hank Williams (‘Alone & Forsaken’) and gives them a tender twist. The band, Jon Rauhouse and Tom Ray with Kelly Hogan on backing vocals, accent Case with sparse yet substantial steel guitar and banjo.
Released as a DVD both in the UK and Stateside in 2006, the disc’s audio companion is slimmed down from the original performance, cutting to 40 minutes from 90. Perhaps it’s this production choice that at times makes the recording feel a bit rushed. With little to no banter between artist and audience, or even artist and bandmates, the recording lacks the depth normally standard of Case’s live performances. The production is at times touch and go as well, with Neko’s overwhelming vocals pushed so much to the forefront it occasionally drowns out everything around it.
Despite these minor problems, Live From Austin, TX shows the depths of an artist who was just coming into her own skin when she stepped on that stage in 2003. It is here you first hear ‘Maybe Sparrow’, which evolved just slightly for inclusion on Fox Confessor…, and gives the listener a hint of just what Neko was to become.
Mary Chapin Carpenter
The Calling ••••
Zoe / Rounder
From the opening piano chords of ‘The Calling’ it’s clear that New Jersey’s finest country export is back. When Mary Chapin Carpenter’s distinctively smoky voice makes its entrance a few bars later it’s clear that she’s back with a vengeance. And vengeance may just be the appropriate word. While sonically the album contains all Carpenter’s signature sounds there’s a distinct change in lyrical content. The songs still inhabit the contemplative side of the psyche that is so typical of her songwriting but with a newfound edge, exploring the big questions which the events of the last few years make increasingly hard to ignore. Faith, racism, commitment, bigotry, the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, the jingoism which led to the Dixie Chicks’s trial by radio, personal responsibility and free will…each steps into the spotlight across the baker’s dozen of songs presented on the disc.
As a whole, The Calling is a magnificently mature statement, demonstrating music’s unique ability to move and evoke a feeling of empathy, however difficult the subject matter. The album also represents a range of watershed moments of the artist. It’s her first album for Rounder Records and her first Nashville-recorded album. In addition, along with her regular collaborators she’s also thrown a couple of Music City studio legends into the mix in the form of veteran and drummer Russ Kunkel and guitarist Dean Parks (allegedly the most recorded guitar player in the history of modern music).
And the quality shows. The Calling is perhaps a little mellower overall than some of her best-known songs – there’s no ‘He Thinks He’ll Keep Her’ nestling among the set. However, the restraint perfectly complements the mood and it doesn’t betray some form of mid-career ennui. Even where the songs do up the BPM count a dignified spirit remains; again, the word ‘mature’ springs to mind. That said, there are still plenty of moments to get the foot tapping – ‘We’re All Right’, ‘It Must Have Happened’, ‘Your Life Story’ and ‘One With The Song’ all supply the janglesome country pop that has become a Chapin Carpenter trademark.
Careful not to leave proceedings on a down, the album closes with a pair of uplifting ballads – ‘Why Shouldn’t We’ and ‘Bright Morning Star’ – which speak of empowerment and hope. A fitting conclusion to this artist’s most mature and thoughtful collection yet.
Back in the mid-1990s, a Yorkshire lass by the name of Sarah Blackwood hit the pages of the NME fronting indie-pop trio Dubstar, whose debut album Disgraceful notched up two Top 20 singles (the rather brilliant ‘Stars’ and ‘Not So Manic Now’) and found them surrounded by weird and wonderful dolls, flowers, dogs and anything else vaguely psychedelic they could put on their artwork without finding themselves on the wrong side of kitsch. Sadly the hits dried up all too soon and the band’s millennial demise went virtually unnoticed.
Not long after, the mysterious Client emerged from the shadows shrouded with intrigue, its two unnamed members referred to as simply ‘Client A’ and ‘Client B’ and their faces left out of the press shots. Still, it was hardly a secret that Blackwood was involved, especially given how distinctive her vocals are. Client are certainly a far cry from Dubstar and who would have imagined such a transition? Gone are the slightly twee stylistics; now it’s PVC, slick photography and black as the new black. Oh, and ‘electro’ displaces ‘indie’ as the prefix to ‘-pop’.
Previous albums Client and City were surrounded by substantial media buzz (in certain circles at least), included collaborations with ex-Libertines members (spawning their only Top 40 hit, the rather uninspiring ‘Pornography’ featuring Carl Barat) but resolutely failed to ignite any real interest in the general public. The problem was that they were marketed as a slightly pretentious electroclash outfit when in fact, they themselves claim they were surprised to “find themselves relevant”. Whether or not their intention was to front this so-called scene, the result was that they didn’t quite deliver what seemingly was promised. Heartland, however, is quite another matter. While earlier songs such as ‘Rock ‘n’ Roll Machine’ or ‘Radio’ were fantastic in essence, but quite sketchily produced, just short of the spark they needed to be surefire hits, the sound on Heartland is much tighter, the vocals infinitely more honed and, on the whole, the songs much stronger. Finally, Client have produced an album that shows them off as a force to be reckoned with.
Successfully aping the ‘80s (and ‘90s come to think of it) and slightly camp, Client’s sound on Heartland is essentially what more of their first release should have sounded like. It’s slick, often catchy and achingly cool. ‘Drive’ and the fantastic ‘It’s Not Over’ are relentlessly hummable, while ‘Monkey On My Back’ and ‘6 In The Morning’ are suitably strange, risqué and provocative, with enough tongue in cheek lines to add a certain edge that keeps them serving the darker side of pop. There are obvious allusions to Goldfrapp on ‘Lights Go Out’, which sounds like a homage to ‘Train’ (although it is in itself rather good), and comparisons with acts that have already achieved success with a very similar sound is unavoidable. It’s a shame that the initial batch of songs in 2003 hadn’t sounded as full as this, as by now Client could have been pretty big.
The album isn’t without its downfalls. As was more evident on previous releases, Client sometimes revert to clichéd lyrics that are lazy and predictable. ‘Where’s The Rock & Roll Gone’ is dull and, bizarrely, lead single ‘Zerox Machine’ is one of the least interesting tracks on the record. Instrumental ‘Koeln’ is an odd inclusion on an album dominated by strong vocal hooks, although not a wholly unwelcome one. Despite its weaknesses, Heartland is a largely good album and even if their earlier efforts left you cold there’s a lot to enjoy here. Blackwood’s vocals are truly back on form, pop gems are in abundance and it makes you feel like dancing. At least just a little bit.
The Adventures Of Ghosthorse & Stillborn ••
Touch & Go
Never an outfit to unify the listening public, CocoRosie may have produced their most divisive album to date with the their characteristically quirky and surreal third album. The Brooklyn sisters appear to have taken a similar turn to fellow eccentric Patrick Wolf in producing a record that simultaneously harbours their most radio-friendly moments (‘Rainbowarriors’ as a prime example) and also their weakest work. Though it’s as varied and obscure as any previous outing and contains a similarly vast array of “instruments” (take this noun as freely as possible – coins, scissors, bicycle bells and pretty much anything else that was close to hand plays the part of percussion), the problem is that it’s just not as interesting third time around. To give the sisters credit, brains have well and truly been wracked in order to orchestrate the songs with as diverse a selection of sounds as possible, but there are other forces at work here.
The main problem with the album – admittedly a standard feature of their work – is the vocals. Now, a certain amount of leniency is allowed for artistic expression, but Bianca’s vocals on ‘Japan’ are, for want of a better word, repulsive. The song itself is an unforgivable assault of unfunny references to rape (“but you like it / so say thank you!”) and pseudo-political views topped off by one of the most excruciating vocal deliveries of recent times with Bianca’s scratchy brat-like vocal, hammed up even further with cod-patois tones, decimating everything in its wake. It’s hard to believe that anyone can naturally sing in such a manner, and the need to adopt this tiresomely impish affectation escapes me. It might seem an unfair point of focus, but now more than ever it’s a very, very thick layer of ice to dig through to appreciate what lies below.
On initial listens, tracks such as ‘Werewolf’ and ‘Promise’ are fine background music if not paid too much heed. Then, when more attention is finally given and lines such as “I suck dick” ruin any ambience created, are we supposed to be shocked? Or impressed at their intelligence? This is the album’s core irritation – that beauty is promised but destroyed at birth by mercilessly contrived lyrics and indescribably grating vocals. I really wanted to fall in love with CocoRosie and so much of The Adventures Of Ghosthorse & Stillborn begins to offer the opportunity before they spin around and spoil it by doing something woefully insubstantial.
Superficially, CocoRosie are incredibly talented as the album’s production values clearly display but their creative vision is riddled with flaws. Their lyrical images are often mundane, and even when more obscure they are predictably so, almost in the manner of a caricature. In a strange way, CocoRosie appear to have embellished the vices of their previous work and positioned themselves as very easy targets for criticism.
As harsh as the evaluation sounds, fans of previous work will likely find moments, even minutes, of beauty in this work. Many songs are decent enough efforts, but for an outfit as self-consciously styled as the Casady sisters, you might expect better. Even the presence of Devendra Banhart’s writing on ‘Houses’ offers little benefit to the equation. Occasionally glorious composition is shot dead by thoughtless lyrics; Sierra’s gorgeous operatics are strangled by Bianca’s painfully overwrought vocals – ultimately, while trying too hard, it is far too lazy.
Live at the Sacred Trinity Chapel, Salford •••½
June 12, 2007
Some artists paint on canvases metres wide with broad brushes, spattering colour and ideas everywhere. Others content themselves with Jane Austen’s “two inches square of ivory”, finding freedom in restriction. French multi-instrumentalist Colleen is very much in the latter camp, teasing intricate songs out of sometimes as few as four or five tones played variously on the guitar, clarinet, the Baroque instrument, the viol, wind chimes and even music boxes.
Her concert at the Sacred Trinity Chapel, a tiny red sandstone church washed up by the ebb and flow of the Industrial Revolution at the edge of Manchester city centre, to promote her new record Les Ondes Silencieuses (‘silent waves’) was a mesmeric rather than exciting experience. Playing to a respectful, if slightly solemn crowd of people scattered over pews and lounging earnestly on jute mats on the floor, her seven-song set brought to mind the incidental music that accompanies a sinister European fairytale, the kind where the princess gets her hand cut off in the spinning wheel and bleeds to death slowly in the forest.
Employing a sound poised somewhere between French baroque composers such as Rameau, electro-pastoral shoegazers Slowdive and the avant-garde minimalism only to be found after 11pm on Radio 3 means Colleen is unlikely to trouble the charts anytime soon. Yet her sonorous, occasionally stiff, looped soundscapes have an undeniable charm, particularly in her guitar and viol-based work. Her painstaking approach to building songs out of tiny fragments using a pedal loop yields results that make a guitar sound like sleigh bells, and can transform her rather ponderous clarinet playing into something rich and strange.
All this, however, pales into insignificance compared to her work layering the sound of chimes or music boxes over one another. Not only do they exemplify her approach to making music, using just a few repeated notes so that the drama and variation in each song emerges at micro level, but the resulting sound is also weird enough to stick in the mind. A single song, in which a distorted music box melody plays backwards and forwards over an Elizabethan-sounding guitar line sums up everything Colleen does best: building wilfully odd art out of fragments.
Sings Lennon & McCartney ••
There’s no denying the pedigree of Judy Collins, a singer as fine as they come with a career that has thus far spanned nearly 50 years and 44 albums. Throughout the 1960s, she earned herself quite the formidable reputation as a masterful interpreter of other people’s songs – early recordings featured songs by Baez, Mitchell, Cohen, Dylan, Seeger and more, all cosseted by her pure soprano vocal. Given that her landmark 1966 album featured, and took its title from, a Beatles track (‘In My Life’), it’s remarkable that Collins has waited another 40 years before attempting more entries in the Lennon and McCartney canon. Set in this context, an album on which Collins explores the Beatles oeuvre in greater depth should be a cause of the hushed anticipation.
Sadly, the reality is a disappointingly lacklustre affair. There’s no denying the pure beauty of Collins’s still-crystalline voice, but the arrangements and interpretations are inexplicably disastrous. The players on Sings… rank among the greatest musicians the session world has to offer, yet, unaccountably, too many of the songs come over as tiresome jazz noodling that would be below par even in some mediocre Manhattan cocktail bar. Imagine the inspired spoof combo which closed each episode of ‘Alas Smith & Jones’ and you have in a nutshell the Collins takes on ‘And I Love Her’ and ‘I’ll Follow The Sun’.
Some, mostly McCartney-penned, numbers fare a little better. The sweetness (or at least bittersweet tone) of ‘Blackbird’, ‘Hey Jude’ and ‘Yesterday’ acts as a sympathetic context for Collins’s trill. But there’s no escaping the fact that Collins simply doesn’t have sufficient grit, world-weariness or cynicism to convince on tracks like ‘Golden Slumbers’ and ‘We Can Work It Out’. Elsewhere, ‘Norwegian Wood’ veers way too close to department store muzak fodder for comfort. And ‘When I’m 64’…? Let’s not even go there.
It’s frustrating that what should have been a glorious canter through one of the all-time classic songbooks is such a disappointment. Perhaps another repertoire (Berlin, Porter, Gershwin…even Coward!) and a more engaging production would have reaped better dividends. As it stands, however, this particular collection will remain the preserve of Collins completists only.
Live at Shepherd’s Bush Empire ••••
June 18, 2007
The Shepherd’s Bush Empire is no easy place to play solo. The gaping maw of the auditorium must be daunting for even the most seasoned pro and bands of any number. So kudos goes to both performers this evening for having the cahones to face up to this alone.
Husky, tousled and bescarfed support Jack Savoretti, only slightly showing his nerves, provides a soundtrack of lilting and earnest acoustic numbers that greet the punters. While he seems to be somewhat thrown by the hushed tones between tracks, this is probably a trick of the acoustics as the audience there to witness his set seem pretty grateful to be rewarded for turning up early by a more than half decent support.
There is no danger that Shawn Colvin is going to be concerned about a lack of appreciation. Decked in a shiny plastic patterned halter-neck, blue jeans and platforms, she looks every bit the part of a Midwestern trailer mom casually strolling onstage with just an acoustic guitar. But this unassuming demeanour disguises one of the finest singer-songwriters, which the audience, in appreciative applause before she even plays a chord, knows only too well.
Opening with one of the less popular numbers from her largely forgotten covers album might not be the most auspicious start, but she follows this up with two songs from last year’s These Four Walls. Excellent on record, ‘Fill Me Up’ and the title track are even more poignant live, stripped of any production, the quality of Colvin’s voice and poetry resonating loud.
Having spent a long time touring live and playing the New York folk scene before making a record, Colvin is completely at ease despite her assertion that this is her largest ever London gig. Apologising if the set recapitulates a Union Chapel show from the back end of last year she says that she can’t remember what she played, to which an audience member calls back that “neither can we”, without pausing for breath she retorts “We’re the same age then”.
Culling a set from throughout her career, Colvin has wide-ranging and nuanced perspectives on life, loves and relationships, from the fatalistic ‘Trouble’, which fizzes with venom, to the mournful, glacial and soaring ‘Shotgun Down The Avalanche’. Colvin’s lyrics are deceptively sharp, and coupled here with the raw immediacy of her live vocals, which effortlessly switch from piercing soprano shaking the cornices of the domed ceiling to a desert parched scratch on demand, she entrances the audience before drawing us back from adulatory rapture with between-track quips.
The glorious lovesong ‘Polaroids’, a list of images making a flickbook animation of a relationship and the triumphant tale of escape that is ‘Sunny Came Home’ elicit two of the greatest rounds of applause of the night. But even lesser known tracks are delivered with such poise that at the end of 16 songs the standing ovation is heartfelt and well deserved.
Returning for an encore of mostly covers, we are treated to an ‘ad hoc’ version of Neil Young’s ‘Birds’ inspired by it being played before Colvin came onstage. A reworking of Gnarls Barkley’s ‘Crazy’ could be embarrassing for someone of Colvin’s maturity, but she manages to breathe new life into a song played to death. And ‘Killing The Blues’, a standard in her live set for many years now, totally floored this reviewer.
For all her Grammys and critical acclaim, it is near criminal that Colvin is not better known and better respected by the public. Anyone who can, without pretence and so confidently, hold such a masterclass in performance deserves to be much much more highly regarded.
Hey Trouble •
As most people will probably remember, Swedish collective The Concretes caused quite a stir a few years back with their self-titled debut and its almost-instant pop classics such as ‘You Can’t Hurry Love’. Fewer will remember the follow up In Colour that failed somewhat to live up to expectations, and even fewer still will be aware that they’re still going, despite losing Victoria Bergsman’s majestic lead vocals to a brief affair with Peter, Bjorn & John and, ultimately, her solo career as Taken By Trees. For those faithful hangers on who’ve been wondering what the band might sound like without her, the wait is over. And the answer is, sadly, really not great. Though it starts off pleasantly enough, it soon becomes clear that Ms Bergsman made a well-timed departure from a once-great musical force now reduced to making dishwater music. What once sparkled now grates – the retro production values, the slightly twee edge and the faux-naïve lyrics; Hey Trouble appears to faithfully adhere to the formula of their debut, but recapturing the chemistry eludes the band completely.
At times the album, or rather the mixing and arrangements of the album, veer towards Belle & Sebastian at their more electronic (‘Keep Yours’), and at other times The Supremes (a major, long-held influence). Certain moments are sufficiently well arranged and lavishly orchestrated, but it’s all bogged down by its chugging monotony. One line in ‘A Whale’s Heart’ (a song whose title is vastly more interesting than the song ever dares become) declares “it’s straight-to-DVD hell”. If this album were a film, this line would be the most apt in the script.
Alarm bells should really have rung upon hearing lead single ‘Oh Boy’, a limp attempt at reintroducing the Swedes into the limelight. Part of the problem is that many bands have jumped on the retro bandwagon since The Concretes first emerged – such as fellow Scandinavians Shout Out Louds, the aforementioned Peter, Bjorn & John, and even The Radio Dept – all of whom have become much more interesting and relevant than them. Hey Trouble is unrelentingly boring from start to finish; not a single track comes anywhere near to rivalling the pure joy of their earlier work, or even matching the energy of their successors. Lisa Milberg, who had the unenviable task of replacing Bergsman on vocals, flounders miserably, rendering any beauty in the songs impossible to hold on to. She lacks any real variety in delivery, and on the whole sounds entirely nonplussed, barely aware of the lyrics she is singing almost robotically.
In theory, the songs are fine, but they are just that: fine. They just about scrape by, but lack any real defining qualities or values that display why this album was made, or even why the band are still together aside from a contractual obligation. The ideas on this record have all been done before, often to death, by countless other bands. As harsh as it may seem, The Concretes have delivered an essentially pointless record. Hey Trouble sounds strangely empty despite the layers and layers of careful instrumentation, and, more’s the pity, achingly insincere.
Blow Out The Candle •••
Laura Cortese: fiddler, singer, dancer, songwriter, polymath, sometime purveyor of dog-house bass for old-timey outfit Uncle Earl…there’s no denying that the woman’s got talent. Her latest release, a mini-album sequel to 2006’s full-length Even The Lost Creek, finds her in pared-back, live and acoustic mode. Recorded straight from the mixing desk at a number of shows across the US and Canada, every one of the seven songs here demonstrates Cortese’s energy and skill.
Drawing heavily on material from Even The Lost Creek, with just one pick (‘I Must Away Love’) from her solo debut Hush and a cover. But the bare-bones nature of the recording – a simple mix of fiddle, guitar and percussion – leaves Cortese plenty of room to breathe. The rock ‘n’ reel style of ‘Mulqueens’ amply shows why her fiddle playing has been so lauded on the Stateside Celtic circuit, while the other excerpts from her previous release are nicely stripped down retreads of the studio material.
This is particularly effective on the raunchy traditional number ‘Jack Orion’ where brooding sensuality rubs shoulders with snare and brushes and spookily cello-like riffing on an octave fiddle. Of course it doesn’t end happily. Traditional ballads rarely do. The real surprise here is a tender cover of Kelly Clarkson’s ‘Breakaway’ (co-written by fellow Canadian Avril Lavigne), as far away from American Idol sk8r punk as you can possibly imagine. But the transformation of the song to fit Cortese’s country-folk style is seamless and the perfect foil to her lyrical fiddle playing.
Being picky, the technical quality of the recording isn’t as smooth as some ‘live’ offerings, but what we lose in smoothness and overdubs is more than repaid in energy, honesty, authenticity and connection between player, listener and music. Which would you rather have?
The old maxim about never starting a band with a woman because she’ll want to go solo has never been tested more than when applied to Melora Creager. Of course, the mythical band of this epithet wasn’t Rasputina, nor was its lead singer the notoriously eclectic Creager who, as the founding member, is the nucleus around which the organised chaos of Rasputina’s ever-shifting line-up revolves. The difficulty of the solo album already becomes apparent: can we extricate Creager from Rasputina when she is arguably the band’s driving force?
There is no doubt that Creager has delivered an accomplished album, replete with the quavering vocals we have come to love. In many ways, Perplexions represents a ‘back to basics’ approach for the singer, showcasing her voice, the cello and piano in arrangements that seem less complex than her collaborations with Rasputina. There are exceptions in ‘Sky Is Falling’ and ‘Krakatowa’, but these rather noisy affairs are dwarfed by simple voice and cello pairings like the mournful ‘American Girl’. Opening track ‘Girl Lunar Explorer’ has a gorgeous string-plucking jazz quality to it that Creager would do well exploring further in other solo projects. The all too short ‘Itinerant Airship’, meanwhile, features layered vocals over mellifluous cyclical cello.
Perplexions is only seven tracks long so seems like a rather embryonic solo effort. An inevitable problem of the album is that many elements, most notably the signature use of cello, hark back to Rasputina and do little to assert Creager’s individual identity as a musician. However, the cello is such an intrinsic part of her repertoire that it may be impossible to fully separate the two entities. For the moment, however, Creager’s work with Rasputina should be more than enough to satisfy her eager fans while she finds her musical bearings.
City Beach •••
Although a lot of musicians can boast an authentic claim to the ‘cool’ moniker, they don’t come much hipper than Jill Cunniff. Born and raised in NYC, at just 13 years old she had her birthday party at the legendary CBGBs; at 14 she taught herself to play the guitar; and at 15 found herself playing in garage underground punk bands alongside future members of the Beastie Boys. When Cunniff joined forces with fellow New Yorkers Kate Schellenbach, Gabby Glaiser and Vivian Trimble, Luscious Jackson were formed and promptly signed to Grand Royale. After five full-length albums and notable indie success, the band amicably called it quits in 2000. So, it’s fair to say that Jill Cunniff has paid her dues, musically and credibly speaking.
Since 2000, Cunniff has worked on some pop projects and worked with Emmylou Harris, continued writing her own material and even found time to learn the art of production, sampling and mixing. The result is her debut solo album City Beach, dedicated to New York’s Coney Island, a faded, atmospheric city beach famous for its lively past. In an attempt to bring the beach to the city dweller, this album is full of hot Brazilian beats, and deliberately laid back breezy tunes. Indeed, on the track ‘Warm Sound’, the listener is urged to start the century again, at a slower pace. The whole album is something of a contradiction, combining genuinely lazy sounds with an urgent and constant message of the need to slow down.
In the same way that a beach rarely belongs in a city, this insistence feels a little out of place here, perhaps consciously so. With a vocal style very similar to Nelly Furtado, the exotic hip hop beats and samba are perfectly accompanied, evoking a real world music feel that touches on several styles, including jazz, soul, Latin, electronica, pop, trip hop, funk and so on. Although essences of Luscious Jackson are evident – mostly in the sampling and beats – this has far less edge and, well, less NYC hipness, compensated for with ambiance. City Beach is a summertime album for sure and the mood is bright.
Of the 12 tracks, Cunniff wrote seven single handed and co-wrote the other five, and while the intended mood is definitely caught, the songs themselves aren’t strong. Themes of lost love come second place to the regular insistence of taking it easy, and the lyrics are simplistic and a little clichéd. It doesn’t help that the true standout number ‘Lazy Girls’, with its danceable upbeat rhythm, is situated right at the beginning.
Perhaps arriving a little too late to capture the chillout or ambient audience, the appeal of City Beach may suffer from not fitting into any particular nook. A little too soft for the indie audience and too mature for the spiritual types, the album may well contain too many disparate elements to pin it down sufficiently. Whether bringing the beach to the urbanite or the hustle and bustle to the coastal dweller, City Beach evokes a time and place unknown to either, where nothing is rushed and the atmosphere is relaxed and blissfully simple.