Filed under: album, back issues, review | Tags: alex ramon, andy wasley, anna claxton, britney spears, carly simon, chris mccrudden, claire robinson, hugh armitage, jessica simpson, lucie silvas, marnie stern, mavis staples, mia silvas, nina simone, patti scialfa, patti smith, rod thomas, russell barker, sahara hotnights, sally shapiro, santa dog, sara silver, scott millar, sharon kean, she's spanish i'm american, shivaree, sia, sister vanilla, softlightes, solveig slettahjell, spice girls, stars, sugababes, the sounds, the supremes, thomas atkinson, trevor raggatt
The following reviews were published on our old MySpace blog in 2007.
What If Leaving Is A Loving Thing? ••••
Stand By Your Band
Over the course of their three-album career Sahara Hotnights have steadily perfected their craft, growing more confident in their playing, performance and their subject matter. Now, more than ever, the girls are mixing it up. By not having written with a specific audience or genre in mind and instead just seeing where their songcraft might take them, they’ve become an altogether more tantalising prospect. Lyrically, too, their growth is not just noticeable but pretty impressive. The writing on What If Leaving Is A Loving Thing? is by turns as playful, allegorical and sensitive as you could ask for from a pop-rock outfit, and always appropriate to the feel of the music.
Sahara Hotnights have clearly done their homework this time around, tapping into the 1980s with enthusiasm and retrieving polished gems like the ditty-like ‘No For An Answer’ with its killer intro and the focused, Blondie-esque ‘Static’. Updating to a more contemporary pop template, first single ‘Cheek To Cheek’ stands out as a commercially viable dancefloor hit and mark the band out as a Gossip-like success story waiting to happen. ‘Salty Lips’ and ‘Neon Lights’ accentuate the band’s willingness to experiment in the noble name of fun, the former even throwing in some country stylings for good measure. If the premise of ‘Puppy’ – using the life of a dog to describe a relationship – sounds a little cheesy, try to let it slide and you’ll soon fall for the song’s catchy charms.
Of course, for all their new-found lightness of touch the girls have not forgotten how to rock and they make their point from the very beginning; opening number ‘Visit To Vienna’ builds upon a classic pop-rock melody to reach a noisy, climactic finish before the band change gears and smoothly transition into ‘The Loneliest City Of All”s calmer, more lyrical climate. If by the time the closing number ‘If Anyone Matters It’s You’ rolls around you’re still not impressed, this suspenseful, touching ballad might well change your mind.
If leaving really is a loving thing be prepared to revisit this well-crafted album often, if only for the sweetness of every small departure.
Bristol quartet Santa Dog could be – actually, make that ‘should be’ – luxuriating under a confident next-big-thing banner. In their relatively short lifespan the band have developed quite a knack for savvy, sparkling indie pop over a series of well-received EPs. Unsurprisingly the cream of the EP tracks have made the step up onto the full-length album, and it certainly doesn’t hurt that they’re laden with more hooks than an angler’s rucksack.
‘Belle De Jour’ is a luminous celebration of young love but with words more insightful than is usually lavished on this type of song, while the janglesome ditty of ‘Chemical’ is given an undercurrent of darkness with its chilling and unsettling lyric. The new songs, too, are pretty stellar. ‘Big Bang’, ‘Yeah Yeah Yeah’ and ‘Are You Tough’, for instance, shine just as brightly as what has come before, boasting choruses guaranteed to get you singing along or absent-mindedly humming at the bus stop.
The jewel in the Santa Dog crown of excellent writing and infectious, inventive guitar is lead singer Rowena Dugdale’s vocals. Her strong sassy delivery is pitch perfect in tone and attitude, inhabiting the songs and granting them life. Where she pulls the mood down on songs like ‘Rosa’ or ‘West Coast Boy Racers’ it’s a voice which still holds the listener’s attention front and centre; just estuary enough to claim Britpop authenticity.
With Kittyhawk, Santa Dog have offered up a welcome alternative to the increasingly derivative, male-dominated indie pop that has dominated the charts in recent years. With a shimmer evocative of Belle & Sebastian via Blondie, with a little bit of Echobelly to boot, this is excellent, honest guitar pop that, like any good dog does, deserves its day in the sun.
Play It As It Lays •••½
While her husband’s latest dose of Magic (on which she features as a member of the venerable E Street Band) has been released to the usual flurry of publicity – though not universal critical acclaim – Patti Scialfa’s third solo album Play It As It Lays has slipped out quietly, without fanfare. This is a genuine shame. Scialfa seems destined to be identified solely as Mrs. Springsteen, but the solo albums she’s produced since 1994 – Rumble Doll, 23rd Street Lullaby and now this one – have each been classy, intelligent, well-judged efforts deserving of much greater recognition than they’ve received. Play It As It Lays may be a somewhat tamer, more subdued affair than the funky and consistently strong 23rd Street Lullaby, but it remains an elegant and engaging collection that sees Scialfa continuing to establish herself as a vocalist and songwriter of note.
Co-produced by Scialfa, the album favours a classic rock sound, with soulful and bluesy touches, based around electric and acoustic guitar, organ and drums. There’s some weaker material amongst the ten tracks – in particular, ‘Rainy Day Man’ and ‘Bad For You’ fail to catch fire – but there are also several genuine gems. Opener ‘Looking For Elvis’ turns potential cliché – “I’m looking for Elvis down a Memphis road” – into a compelling existential quest, with Scialfa’s disillusioned narrator seeking a way “to rise up from these ashes”. Augmented by pleasing girl-group harmonies, ‘Like Any Woman Would’ is the album’s slinkiest, most 23rd Street Lullaby moment, and the infectious, rocking ‘Town Called Heartbreak’ is an immediate standout. Elsewhere, the deceptively gentle ‘Play Around’ bids a sharp farewell to a lover and the graceful title track finds Scialfa relinquishing her quest in favour of mature acceptance and resolve. Closing the album is the short, spare ‘Black Ladder’, a touching reaffirmation of long-term-relationship bonds.
Even when the music tends towards the derivative or uninspired, Scialfa’s expressive and inviting vocals draw you in and her lyrics remain extremely perceptive throughout. She’s an observant, skilful songwriter, as well as a wonderfully literary one, unafraid to drop references to Tennessee Williams’s ‘The Rose Tattoo’, Sylvia Plath’s ‘The Bell Jar’ and John Steinbeck’s ‘East of Eden’. (The album also takes its title from a Joan Didion novel.) Alongside her compelling lyrics and distinctive vocals, her awareness of American traditions – both musical and literary – helps to elevate Play It As It Lays beyond pleasant AOR and makes it an album that’s more than worthy of your attention.
Disco Romance ••••
The latest fragile voice to contrast Scandinavian glumness with a thumping four-to-the-floor beat, Sally Shapiro is following in footsteps left in the snow by artists such as ABBA, The Cardigans and Bertine Zetlitz. Her debut, Disco Romance, is no surprise in this respect, being an album of plaintive synth-pop marked out by barely-there vocals that have invited liberal comparison to Annie, pop-bloggers’ hot tip of 2004.
Unlike the cute but resolutely individualistic Annie, however, Shapiro’s music is much easier to peg within a wider movement: Italo-disco. This micro-genre brought us, at one end, Italian producer Giorgio Moroder’s peerless experimentations with European proto-dance music with Sparks, Donna Summer and even The Three Degrees, and ‘Boys Boys Boys (Summertime Love)’ at the other. Disco Romance is, fortunately, closer to Italo-disco’s beginnings than its end: pop music that manages to be both sweet and synthetic without ever being saccharine.
Opener ‘I’ll Be Your Side’ sets the scene, with its icy, almost menacing electronic backing offset by Shapiro’s delicately balanced vocals. The muted hi-NRG beat and sprinkling of vocoder strongly recalls Giorgio Moroder’s early work. ‘Time To Let Go’ flirts with Euro pretension with a French spoken-word intro before ripping its backing straight out of Visage’s back catalogue, though once again the vocals are calculated to charm rather than unsettle. ‘Anorak Christmas’, a title that could have been stolen straight from a Saint Etienne album, also borrows heavily from the lexicon of synth pop, yet does so without feeling secondhand, while ‘I Know’ could be fellow Scandinavians Röyksopp having donned their dancing shoes.
As an album which nods so wholeheartedly to a genre’s past and encompasses so many direct references to its contemporaries, Disco Romance could never be described as groundbreaking. Its ability to synthesise so many different voices in the course of just over half a dozen songs in a way that never appears crowded or contrived is, however, still impressive. The fact it numbers just seven original compositions padded out with remixes is less praiseworthy. While a glut of US-style bonus tracks tacked on to the end of the album would be unwelcome, the overall package does feel thinner than it should. Furthermore, although much is made of Shapiro’s crippling shyness (she refuses to perform live) in publicity material, as a physical body of work Disco Romance begs the question of whether she is a tortured artist or just plain idle.
Work ethic gripes notwithstanding, Disco Romance remains an accomplished example of contemporary pop music that shows European miserabilism can still hold its own on the dancefloor against the onslaught of American booty shaking tunes. The fire-and-ice binary opposition of Scandiavian pop music may be a cliché, but this record shows that it – like many other well-worn phrases – contains a lot of truth.
She’s Spanish, I’m American
She’s Spanish, I’m American EP •••
It’s perfectly understandable; you up sticks from Nashville, immerse yourself in the Spanish lifestyle and release a quirky (and brilliant) album called Subtitulo on which your new better half, the native singer and artist Paz Suay gets a bit part. You drink a little more sangria, sleep through a few more siestas, take your girl on a tour of the States and, hey, what about a side project? Go on, just a little EP? It has disaster written all over it, or it would have if it wasn’t for Josh Rouse’s quality control, which rarely lets him down. Let’s not ignore the truth here; this is a vanity project, a classic case of ‘we can, so ner’, but thankfully Rouse doesn’t blot his copybook and Suay does have a lovely voice.
The songs are immediately identifiable as Rouse; slow-burning, beautiful verses that explode into middle eights and choruses that you can’t help but smile and tap your feet to. The percussion is subdued, guitars are locked tight into a ’70s groove and the humour is upfront but subtle. The usual element of melancholy appears lacking; it must be love.
Opener ‘Car Crash’ relives the couple’s ordeals at the hands of New York cabbies, something those of us lucky enough to survive similar experiences can attest to. ‘Jon Jon’ is Suay at her beguiling best, and it’s not difficult to hear why Rouse would want to sing with her. But the real clinchers are the third and fourth tracks. ‘The Ocean Always Wins’ opens with Spanish chords and that classic Rouse drum sound; at 1:26 a string flourish rolls you into a chorus propelled by single bass guitar notes before plunging back into Suay’s repeated “la la”s – it’s all there and it’s all good. ‘These Long Summer Days’ sounds exactly like its title. Harmonies weave through a prominent hi-hat and pulsing keyboard and Rouse waxing about being sick of “all this jive jive talking” before we “head down to the beach and escape”. You can almost see the kids playing in the broken fire hydrants.
‘Answers’ finishes on a faster note and your 17 minutes is up. It’s fun, it’s melodic and neither artist disgraces themselves. Those of us who already follow Josh Rouse will wonder whether this marks another habitual change in musical direction and what the new album (released later this year) might have in store. Those new to both Rouse and Suay will put ‘These Long Summer Days’ on their summer holiday playlist and envy their seemingly effortless alliance. File under fun, but hope it’s a one-off.
Tainted Love: Mating Calls & Fight Songs •••
It’s not often that songs by R Kelly, Gary Glitter and Mötley Crüe are found on the same album. Collecting the hits of controversial rock ‘n’ roll stars and transforming them into love songs is a bold move, and the result is interesting to say the least. It’s clear from this collection of covers that the Shivaree concept of what constitutes a love song isn’t particularly traditional – singer Ambrosia Parsley’s dulcet tones mould this eclectic lot into something unique. And with a voice that alternates between honey-sweet tones and a demeanour that’s as calculating and cool as the wickedest of witches, the overall effect is a bit unnerving.
Parsley’s wicked glint is surely present in the choice of a love song from recently disgraced paedo-rocker Gary Glitter. Equally unsettling is the presence of Ike Turner’s ‘My Heart Belongs To You’, given the notoriety of his relationship with Tina. Glitter’s ‘Hello! Hello! I’m Back Again’ is probably the most recognisable of the cover versions on the album, which isn’t saying much – even the most dedicated fan would struggle to extract the original from the Shivaree version.
Mötley Crüe’s ‘Looks That Kill’ is almost unrecognisable after its revamp, which exchanges power rock for an enchanting spaceman orchestra effect. Elsewhere, Michael Jackson’s ‘Don’t Stop ‘Til You Get Enough’ sounds like it’s being played underwater, with Parsley’s floaty vocals bubbling up to the surface every now and then as the song is slowly drowned. It’s all rather sinister. Fortunately, Chuck Berry’s ‘I Wanna Be Your Driver’ is a more light-hearted affair – a punk rock rampage that lets off some Shivaree steam.
Parsley is perhaps best known for her stint on the Air America radio station where she hypnotically read the news for a while. Her eerie vocals will also be familiar to anyone who made it through to the end of the ‘Kill Bill’ films – Shivaree’s darkly brilliant ‘Goodnight Moon’ from their memorably-titled debut I Oughtta Give You A Shot In The Head For Making Me Live In This Dump plays over the closing credits. As clever and kooky as this oddball collection of covers may be, it isn’t going to redefine Parsley, or her band. Ultimately, this album is barely a patch on the three that came before it but still worth spending some time with.
Lady Croissant ••••
Pity the poor chillout diva. Scorned by everyone but sofa commercial directors and the Ministry Of Sound mixers who mangles her efforts to make second-rate compilations, she is, unless she can disco dance her way out of the dumper Goldfrapp-style, an underrated creature. Shara Nelson, Martina Topley-Bird, Róisín Murphy: the list is longer than the tracklisting of a Ministry comp and twice as depressing. Sadly, we can also add Sia Furler’s name to the list.
Perhaps best known for her collaboration with downbeat dance maestros Zero 7, Sia has had the misfortune to have been crowned a pop queen-in-waiting several times since her debut, Taken For Granted, in 2000. Widespread fame, however, has not followed acclaim for Furler, whose rawly melancholic records are ill at ease in a mass market that prefers the Katie Melua brand of ‘reheat and serve’ sadness.
Recorded live at The Bowery Ballroom, New York, in front of the maniacally enthusiastic crowd that is the sad hallmark of an ‘under-appreciated’ artist, Lady Croissant is very much a fan record, though no worse for it. Over a brief nine-song set, Sia’s expressive, if occasionally muddy, vocals hold their own over a lush backing that swaps electronica for old-fashioned strings and guitars. The result, like so many of the better live albums, captures an artist with a past and a back catalogue to plunder at a moment of reflection.
The record opens with a studio recording of ‘Pictures’, a number whose Sesame Street-like jauntiness sets an odd tone until it becomes clear that its major key coats a story of everyday heartbreak. First live track ‘Don’t Bring Me Down’ – a standout number from Colour The Small One, Sia’s most garlanded and personal album – brings us back to more familiar territory. One of those rare songs that makes misery magnetic rather than depressing, it tears up the dual-voiced delicacy of the recorded version in favour of a reading ripped straight out of the torch song rulebook.
This atmosphere of emotional smoke stays with us for the rest of the set, which includes a straightforward if well-received version of Zero 7 collaboration ‘Distractions’ and a rather more impassioned ‘Destiny’. The show’s real star turn, however, is its three-song coda, where lullaby ‘Numb’ gives way to a brave cover of The Pretenders’ ‘I Go To Sleep’, which exchanges Chrissie Hynde’s urgency for something more bruised and aching. ‘Breathe Me’, the song used to such dramatic effect as a ‘Six Feet Under’ season closer, completes the cycle as its hymn-like poise disintegrates into an impassioned conversation between voice and cello.
As an adult pop artist cast adrift in a music business that prefers 21 year olds to serve us up low-calorie heartache, Sia will probably never reach the mass audience she deserves. On the evidence of Lady Croissant, however, this could be a blessing, leaving her free to explore richer, more resonant territory in the company of an appreciative cult. For once, there might be something in being a ‘best-kept secret’.
The Same Side ••½
Lucie Silvas is young, gorgeous, talented and creative – a UK pop aristocrat in a world belonging to Simons Fuller and Cowell. Just take a look at her extracurricular songwriting credits: Will Young, Rachel Stevens, Gareth Gates and others. Discounting 2000’s abortive attempt at starting her own pop career, The Same Side is Silvas’s second official album, the follow-up to 2004’s platinum-selling Breathe In. But wait, there’s something a bit odd going on. Originally slated for release last autumn, The Same Side has taken quite some time in reaching our shores. A test run in The Netherlands saw a number one hit single with ‘Everytime I Think Of You’, a gargantuan power ballad duet with Marco Borsato, winner of Best Dutch Artist at the TMF awards for 11 (!) consecutive years (not included here). But the first UK release ‘Last Year’ sank without so much as a whimper while second single ‘Sinking In’ couldn’t live up to its title in the consciousness of the great British public.
Without the duet’s full-frontal dual high rock vocals, the rest of the album is full of gentler pop songs coaxed along by the lush production of Denton Supple (Coldplay’s X&Y). We see that Silvas is a fine pianist and is clearly in possession of a great voice, but there is something strangely lacking here. ‘Something About You’ stands out, as does ‘Counting’, but the generic adult pop tag is inescapably stamped all over the album in a Kelly Clarkson’s big sis type of way. [As an aside, for the perfect illustration of quite how straight Silvas pens a composition, check out her version of the Metallica song ‘Nothing Else Matters’ on YouTube. It’s all plodding piano, terribly tasteful strings and wiser-than-her-years warbling].
Ultimately, Silvas’s dilemma is to decide whether she’s a twentysomething or a thirty-plus because The Same Side comes down on neither, sitting on the white picket fence that runs right down the middle of the road. Our pop seamstress must watch out for the credible Lily’s and Natasha’s these days and finally deliver some no-messin’ hits. Silvas has got what it takes but someone needs to be tougher on the songwriting as this is no Breathe In. Perhaps she should have called on her ex-boss Gary Barlow for whom she used to sing backup. He’s doing a bit alright these days. Then again, perhaps the UK music world has simply moved on and left young Lucie to enjoy her huge success in Europe, for now.
A Lot Like Me •••
The music industry, sadly, is not democratic, eschewing the all-too-soft principle of providing freedom of access for artists for the more financially rewarding principles of heavy marketing, tight management and ruthless selection (or suffocation) of performers. Thankfully, every so often someone pops along and bucks the dominance of the majors by releasing an album with a plucky little independent label, or even off their own back. Most sink without trace; some persist; others are eventually snapped up by the big companies. It’s hard to say which category Mia Silvas will fall into, having recently negotiated the release of her debut album, A Lot Like Me, through the iTunes store before she has been signed to any label at all.
If the name sounds slightly familiar, you’re probably thinking of Lucie Silvas, who scored a couple of top 10 hits in the UK a few years ago (and is now ‘big in Holland’). Mia is Lucie’s older sister and, although she has not yet hit the charts, she does have considerable musical experience as a session singer and percussionist. Her blog (http://miasilvas.vox.com) makes interesting reading as she works her way through the difficulties of tying down a temping job in a Soho TV post-production company, producing her album and going on her first tour. It’s interesting stuff, and it’s clear that she has invested an enormous amount of effort into her album.
Mia’s main experience is in soft jazz, and A Lot Like Me reflects that. The title track, for example, has a sweetly lilting bounce reminiscent of the Kinks classic ‘Sunny Afternoon’ and is quite typical of Silvas’s relaxed style, ending with a cheeky laugh that almost – almost – sounds unplanned. Her voice is pleasingly versatile, with a considerable alto-soprano range, enabling her to tackle sweetly emotional ballads such as ‘Cry’ and jazzier numbers like ‘Trouble All The Way’, whose chunky bass riffs and jazz organ kicks match Silvas’s warmly husky voice.
The clearest thing that springs from Mia’s debut is potential; with the backing of a sympathetic label and the luxury of larger musical ensembles and more studio time, she could make a serious impact. Sadly she doesn’t have them, and the result is an album that is impressive and refreshingly original, but unlikely to achieve commercial success – if, indeed, that was what she wanted. Perhaps a passing talent scout will pick up on this release and give Mia Silvas the attention she deserves.
Into White •
It’s a double disappointment when an album you’ve been hotly anticipating turns out to be a dud, particularly when it’s from an artist who can usually claim that “nobody does it better”. That’s the case with veteran singer-songwriter Carly Simon’s latest effort, Into White. The concept is promising enough: to revisit some well-loved folk tunes and covers and give them the benefit of Simon’s gorgeous vocals and interpretive skills. After all, it’s a route that’s served her former husband, James Taylor, rather well over the years. Sadly it simply hasn’t worked here. Key to the success of such a project is a killer performance and a sensitivity to the material; here the sounds are either irritatingly cloying and poorly judged. In fact, it’s barely listenable.
Kicking things off with the twee and twinkly title track, Simon more than adequately sets the scene for what follows – a vista that isn’t particularly appealing. That’s not to say that Simon hasn’t tried to mix things up with some bold choices; some songs juxtapose style and content in a move that might well have been a masterstroke had she been more careful. Take ‘Oh! Susanna’ and ‘Jamaica Farewell’, for example. The former combines a nursery rhyme vocal performance with m’biri and marimba and adds what sounds like poorly sampled Irish low pipes on top; rather than a refreshing take on an old traditional standard it better resembles New Age “relaxation” music cobbled together on a Bontempi keyboard. The latter is calypso masquerading as highly strung 1970s folk with some dobro slide thrown in for fun. ‘Scarborough Fair’ suffers a similar fate and, oh dear, it’s not looking good.
‘Blackbird’ is a competent enough Beatles cover, while not even coming close to matching Sarah McLachlan’s ‘I Am Sam’ soundtrack contribution, while ‘I Gave My Love A Cherry’ and ‘You Are My Sunshine’ are simple and warm but excessively sugared. Mercifully, it’s not a total write-off. ‘You Can Close Your Eyes’ features beautiful harmony vocals from Simon’s children, Ben and Sally Taylor, albeit battling against an overly busy piano part, and is probably the only song on the album realistically competing for your 79p. Overall, Into White is a depressingly poor affair with so many vocal performances seemingly phoned in. By the end of the set it’s a struggle not to lose faith in creativity or even the will to live. File under ‘uneasy listening’. Or ‘career suicide’. Whatever.
Remixed & Reimagined [reissue] ••••
Diana Ross & The Supremes
The Remixes ••
During times of political turbulence music can be tremendously demonstrative, effectively identifying the struggles and fashions of its era – one need look no further than the nakedly optimistic songs of wartime Britain to see how music can reflect society’s moods. It should be no surprise, then, that the febrile atmosphere of 1950s America and the struggles of the Civil Rights Movement dominated some of the 20th Century’s most enduring and recognisable musical genres.
Two of those genres – soul and jazz – were great social levellers. In an era when it took a Supreme Court decision to point out the absurdity of racial segregation, and when women were still treated as economically and politically inferior to men, those genres probably did more to promote popular awareness of racial and gender inequality than any number of court cases, books or marches. In the face of the Civil Rights Movement and second-wave feminism, some artists – such as The Supremes and Nina Simone – were already proving that African-American women were every bit as talented and influential as their white male compatriots.
Nina Simone was, lest we forget, a civil rights activist in her own right. In an early example of the defiance that would later catapult Rosa Parks to the forefront of the Civil Rights Movement, in 1943 – at the age of 10 – Simone refused to sing at a school recital until her parents were allowed to take seats on the front row, which they had had to surrender to a white couple. This act of youthful rebellion could all too easily be written off as emotional naiveté, but Simone’s subsequent career consistently proved her emotional commitment to the Movement. Her most enduringly popular song, Billy Taylor’s ‘I Wish I Knew How It Would Feel To Be Free’, encapsulates her views; spiritual, optimistic and unashamedly defiant, it was one of the Civil Rights Movement’s most recognisable and powerful anthems.
While Simone was popularising jazz (she preferred to call it “black classical music”), The Supremes were making waves as Motown’s single most successful group. Signed to the label in 1961, the trio had a profound impact on music in the ‘60s. Hitting the Top 10 for the first time in 1964 with ‘Where Did Our Love Go’, they went on to become the most successful American musical group of the decade, second only to The Beatles as the most successful group in the world. Despite The Supremes’ success, Diana Ross’s secession from the group proved immensely profitable for her and for music in general; between 1969 and 2005 she scored 24 top 10 singles and 11 top 10 albums in the UK and US, becoming one of the most successful female artists of all time.
When performers such as Nina Simone and The Supremes achieve iconic status, remix albums become almost inevitable. This can all too easily prove to be a recipe for short-lived and quickly forgotten collections that add little to the artist’s profile. Sometimes, however, a remix can breathe new life into the artist’s career, introducing the music to new fans and wider audiences.
Nina Simone: Remixed & Reimagined is likely to succeed in this enterprise. Covering some of the High Priestess of Soul’s greatest hits, it’s a clear demonstration of how the distinctive timbre of Simone’s voice can lend itself to a variety of interpretations. From the cavernous sound of the Daniel Y remix of ‘I Can’t See Nobody’ to the intensely sensual Organica remix of ‘Westwind’, full of unsettling augmented chords and a restless rhythm, most of the tracks on this album really do add something to Simone’s exquisitely emotive voice. ‘Go To Hell’ stands out as a particularly powerful track: Mowo’s accomplished remix cultivates this angry song into a magnificently funky opus, treating Simone’s voice with the reverence and panache it deserves. Groovefinder’s remix of ‘I Got No (I Got Life)’ is similarly successful, inflating the song’s optimism with a rich combination of brass and jazz organ layers to create a track whose distinctively festive sound will put a smile on many listeners’ faces. A couple of the tracks – ‘Obeah Woman’ and ‘Turn Me On’ – are simply banal, but most of the remixes are as engaging as they are unique. Only a purist could fail to find something positive to say about this masterful collection.
Alas, Diana Ross & The Supremes: The Remixes fails to reach similar standards. An overwhelmingly average collection of dance-style remixes, the album tends to rely too much on re-sampling and cutting the vocals rather than trying to add new dimensions to the classic performances. ‘Stop! In The Name Of Love’ is typical of this reliance on tired techniques; beset by stuttering drums and needless looped cuts, it cannot match the intelligence or emotional intensity of any of the Simone remixes. ‘Baby Love’, a tooth-rottingly sweet Halfby More Shambles remix, has more bounce than a trampoline and really ought to be consigned to a doomed future in school discos. It’s not all bad, though; the Readymade re-edit of ‘You Can’t Hurry Love’ ensures that the group’s signature tune retains a distinctive Motown sound while still injecting some originality, and DJ Fumiya’s remix of ‘You Keep Me Hanging On’ lends a sophisticated edge to the song, mixing urgent sounding synths with edgy wah-wah brass hits to create a futuristic track that should intrigue even the most ardent of Motown fans. These two tracks cannot rescue the album, however, for although some are superficially interesting the bulk of the remixes here tend to irritate rather than to inspire.
It’s a shame, really. Inspiration is what both Simone and The Supremes were all about. Trendsetters in their own genres, civil rights heroines and ground-breaking musicians, their music deserves to be heard and to be treated with respect. Good or bad, these albums might just introduce the artists to a wider audience and for that reason alone are worthy inclusions in their canon.
A Public Affair •
Can you imagine what a song called ‘Push Your Tush’ might sound like? Perhaps a little disco homage to line dancing? You thought so? Then I suggest you hotfoot it down to ‘the mall’, buy this CD and read no further. You will only be offended, and I get enough hate mail as it is.
Let’s face it. This was never going to be pretty. Even those unfortunates who were once suckered into Simpson’s world have turned against her on the basis of her latest effort. Surely this is a sign that enough is enough. Someone let this mass of big, blonde hair and low necklines release four albums before this one and it’s scarcely believable that she’s back for yet another round of trying to convince the world (or pubescent boys at least) that a tight arse in a pair of hotpants is a substitute for real talent. True, on the premise of being a role model, she may have nice white teeth, ‘pioneer’ the fashion and film industries and even take her multi-tasking skills to volunteer in Kenya, but give us booze hound Britney any day. At least she’s real.
Seriously, though, the spectacle of A Public Affair is utterly repulsive. I’m all for using femininity for getting what you want out of life, but here is a woman who generally epitomises all that is dated about the fairer sex. The kind of rubbish you might expect from an album largely inspired by a post-reality TV divorce settlement, A Public Affair is the sound of hormonal pre-teen girls everywhere cracking open the Ben & Jerry’s and smearing it miserably around their faces as the dream of holding a man with a six-pack slips out of consciousness for another night.
Simpson’s warbling and terrible diction might seem like a lesser concern in the face of all that, but for the rest of us it’s an excruciating chore. From the title track’s naff imitation of the Madonna classic ‘Holiday’ to the heinous ballad ‘Back To You’ – the latter pondering the woe of no longer having a “porch swing for two” – there’s precious little worth paying the slightest bit of attention to.
Unlike Gwen Stefani, who got all funky with her electro/hip-hop master class, or Nelly Furtado who made us go ‘woah!’ with her melodic and fresh take on modern R&B, Ms Simpson’s weapon of choice is, sadly, not her producer but the autotune button. She has an uncanny knack for making many different musical styles sound exactly the same. A Public Affair is alarmingly akin to all the colours of a cheap cocktail pitcher thrown up on the pavement outside and trodden through the bar on the tottering heel of an underage patron.
Little Pop Rock •••½
Sometimes, ‘nice’ can be a curse. ‘Nice’ is forgettable, easily ignored, and will always be overshadowed as soon as anything either great or horrendous rears its head. Little Pop Rock‘s greatest fault is that it is ‘nice’.
Sister Vanilla is first and foremost the brainchild of Linda Reid, sibling of Jim and William Reid, who themselves hail from quasi-famous indie outfit The Jesus & Mary Chain. Rather than stepping out from the shadow of her brothers, Reid has embraced their shade and Little Pop Rock is the result of a collaboration between the three siblings and various friends. It’s ambient. It’s chilled out. And it has more than a hint of Tilly & The Wall, minus the tap dancing gimmick.
Indeed, Ms Reid’s vocals are not unlike those of the Tilly ladies, though perhaps a little stranger and more ethereal. In places, the backing vocals of brothers and friends alike lend a touch of the indie of yore, and, on ‘Delicat’, a quality that is strangely reminiscent of the Beach Boys. Also akin to their Wall-y brethren are Sister Vanilla’s lyrics, which are utterly charming in their quirkiness – “I stuck my finger in a digital pie” sings Ms Reid, somewhat obliquely, on ‘TOTP’. Needless to say, it’s a welcome change from your standard predictable lyrics and mile-long lists of words that rhyme with ‘you’.
Super-limited single release ‘Can’t Stop The Rock’ asserts itself as the strongest track on the album, befitting its Guardian Single of [that particular] Week award. It helps that the lyrics and sentiment are lovely; numerous things might happen to you – “church and state may chase you to the grave” or “you can go broke on your gold credit card” – but you just can’t stop the rock. While it’s never entirely clear what ‘the rock’ is exactly, it makes for a beautiful song. Elsewhere, the sweetly appealing ‘K To Be Lost’ and ‘Pastel Blue’ are among the album’s gems.
Still, as quirky and pretty as Little Pop Rock is, it all comes back to that dread word – nice. You could easily listen to this unassuming album a few times, shrug, say it’s ‘nice’ and forget about it forever more thereafter; it just isn’t engaging enough. More than once during writing this review I actually half-forgot I was listening to it – my own thoughts were enough to drown it out. A really great album has to grab you, to demand attention, and not necessarily by being loud or pretentious either. Sister Vanilla can slip by unnoticed far too easily.
Give it a chance though; it’s something of a grower.
Domestic Songs •••••
Solveig Slettahjell is probably the best jazz vocalist you’ve never heard of. Her three albums to date have drawn plaudits both in her native Norway and around the world, from critics completely under the spell of her sultry voice. New album Domestic Songs (as in literally recorded in her living room) should achieve no less recognition, as Slettahjell purrs and soars through 15 magnificently poetic songs.
Opening track, ‘4.30am’, sets the tone immediately; Slettahjell’s beautifully nuanced performance is imbued with passion and longing, her hypnotic voice and restrained piano set sweetly against occasional light bursts of glockenspiel, all combining to create one of the most faultless pieces of jazz you’ll hear this year. While most of the tracks are pleasingly simple, combining nothing more than piano and voice, some benefit from the rich stylings of the Slow Motion Quintet. Their unsettling interpretation of John Lennon’s ‘Because’ is an excellent point in case: the Quintet’s somewhat sinister performance is set perfectly against Slettahjell’s emotion, with the thrumming accordion foundation, rattling drumstick percussion and freestyle bass all complementing her involved performance with absolute perfection.
There are so many striking elements in this album that it can be difficult to identify its key strengths. The most apparent of these, however, is the intense (and at times tearful) poetry of the lyrics. Nature dominates Slettahjell’s songs, with the vivid descriptions of her community in ‘This Is My People’ painting a magnificently clear picture of her homeland. The sweet lullaby version of the Dorothy Parker poem ‘Inscription For The Ceiling Of A Bedroom’ mixes Slettahjell’s talent for conceptualism with her prowess on the Steinway, creating the first of a trio of bed-themed songs (including the traditional ‘Bed Is Too Small’, aka ‘Lord, Blow The Moon Out Please’, and ‘Baby’s Bed’s A Silver Moon’), each progressively more poetic than the last.
Another strength – indeed, one of the foundations of her skills – is Slettahjell’s judicious use of the Slow Motion Quintet to add just enough variety to her music to achieve precisely the kind of reflective, dreamlike atmosphere she wishes to create. Whether the Quintet dominates a piece – as in the intensely funky ‘Snowfall’ – or whether a smattering of glockenspiel adds a playful touch to a ballad, they are fundamental to Slettahjell’s distinctive style. Few artists can create as fantastical and dreamy a soundscape as Slettahjell, but Charlotte Gainsbourg comes close; that her husky, expressive voice is similar to Slettahjell’s is perhaps indicative of how important that peculiarly seductive timbre is for both of them.
The album’s two standout tracks are more than enough to prove that Slettahjell must rank alongside Diana Krall as one of the most important jazz performers today. ‘Oh, Sweetly’, a close harmony a cappella duet with her brother Olav, impresses with its folksy, hymnic tones, while her version of the Tom Waits ballad ‘Time’ is, quite simply, one of the most stunningly beautiful interpretations I’ve ever heard. If you buy just one album this Christmas, ‘Time’ is more than enough justification for you to choose this one.
Slettahjell places great stock in developing a highly individual style, mixing traditional jazz and blues with some outstanding conceptual work to show off her formidable talent. Blessed with one of the most mesmerising voices in jazz, her emotional range is as impressive as her musical ability. Domestic Songs is a compelling addition to her repertoire; reflective, poetic, and constantly impressive, it is one of the most outstanding jazz albums of the year, and will make a stunning, sophisticated backdrop for the coming winter.
What is there to say of that unpredictable and unstable creature, the cover? On one hand we have unparalleled stinkers from the likes of Atomic Kitten and their heinous ilk, songs that add nothing and detract so much from some once great tracks. Conversely, some of the most beautiful and anthemic songs in existence are covers and offer something that is unique and sometimes even superior to the original (Johnny Cash’s ‘Hurt’ being a fine example). What then can we expect from Twelve, the legendary Patti Smith’s latest studio album and one comprised entirely of covers?
Smith quickly lays to rest any fears there might be that she is past her prime. Her vocals are as good as they have ever been – strong and clear and evincing none of her 60 years. No problem there. The real interest lies in the tracks she has chosen and how she has executed them. In that respect, Twelve is a bit of a mixed bag. Two of her choices are favourites of mine – Jimi Hendrix’s ‘Are You Experienced?’ and Paul Simon’s ‘The Boy In The Bubble’. The first is a pleasant enough rendition, but her attempt to put a different spin on the dulcimer-based latter involves a rather strange cadence that is quite frustrating. Ultimately, both tracks leave you wishing you were listening to the originals instead.
Elsewhere, Smith comes out on top with a truly creepy version of Jefferson Airplane’s ‘White Rabbit’ (featuring Red Hot Chili Peppers bassist Flea) and a creditable rendition of Bob Dylan’s ‘Changing Of The Guards’. Her porch-style version of Nirvana’s ‘Smells Like Teen Spirit’ was always going to divide opinions. I personally rather like it; it’s very different, of course, but manages to capture some of the original’s frantic energy.
Twelve is ultimately let down by some uninspiring renditions of rather predictable covers. Tracks such as Tears For Fears’s ‘Everybody Wants To Rule The World’ and Stevie Wonder’s ‘Pastime Paradise’ aren’t unpleasant to listen to; they just have a habit of washing right over you without making much of an impression. There are no real horrors (á la Joss Stone’s ‘Fell In Love With A Boy’), but nor are there any ‘Hallelujah’s waiting quietly in the wings. The majority of the album simply fails to attract your attention and it’s over before you even realise. We’re a long way from the wild thrill of the seminal Horses. Twelve is not a particularly bad album, just a lacklustre and slightly disappointing one.
Say No! To Being Cool. Say Yes! To Being Happy ••••
Maybe you should never judge a book by its cover but in this instance you can most certainly judge an album by its title; the collection of songs on The Softlightes’ debut album almost equal the inspired magnificence of its sloganeering: Say No! To Being Cool. Say Yes! To Being Happy. But getting past that, the West Coast outfit offer up an album that flits between twee, morose and – despite their proclamations – quite cool, as well as charming to the core.
From the opening moments of ‘The Ballad Of Theo & June’, the Shins comparisons the band have picked up instantly make sense with the slightly sentimental, reflective lyrics and tone, although perhaps the echoes of Death Cab For Cutie and Aimee Mann resonate more. Lead single ‘Heart Made Of Sound’ (which sparked a lot of attention thanks to a brilliant video by director Kris Moyes) follows on perfectly and acts as a great summation of the band and its ideals, effortlessly mixing joyful pop melodies with a wistful delivery and sensitive arrangements.
The Softlightes’ strength lies in creating music that borders on anthemic while still retaining a genuine level of fragility that doesn’t reek of cliché. Throughout Say No!… there’s an underlying conviction that saves certain moments from becoming sickly sweet. At their most twee, The Softlightes deliver album standout ‘Untitled Duet 3′, which nods towards The Guillemots’ breakthrough single ‘Made-Up Love Song 43′ in both name and sound. Notably their least ‘cool’ moment, it is nonetheless a perfect pop song, with a fantastic but simple male/female vocal harmony floating above acoustic guitars and drum machine. More instantly upbeat than even ‘Heart Made Of Sound’, it still retains its touch of heartbreak narrating the tale of two mismatched lovers-to-be. Then, at their most fun, the band pound out the also excellently titled ‘The Robots In My Bedroom Were Playing Arena Rock’ with its tongue-in-cheek use of vocoder and playful jabs at a cod-rock stadium sound. There’s no denying it’s fun or that it bristles with energy and a great sense of humour, but couched among the album’s other, softer songs you might just want to skip it after the first few listens.
The songwriting on display is deceptively catchy with melodies that hang around in the recesses of the mind, combined with lyrics that are uncomplicated, instantly allowing for great singalong moments. That’s not to say that their writing lacks standout lyrics; inside the simplicity are some wonderfully crafted images that really bring the songs home. A careful balance of lack of pretension and musical gift makes Say No!… a land with plenty of gems to mine. This is an album that allows for many listens as the band court your ears for a long-term love affair. Delicate arrangements (save on ‘The Robots…’), subtle but effective programming and an understated electronica edge keep The Softlightes on the right side of soppy. They are gentle, granted, but key moments demonstrate that, given the chance, they still pack one hell of a punch.
Dying To Say This To You ••••
On their second album, Sweden’s The Sounds are here to prove that Europop isn’t an entirely meritless genre, despite the dread the word might fill your heart with. It may be executed pretty clinically, but it’s done with enough style and panache, and more importantly tunes, to avoid an instant rubbishing. As rare as it seems these days to come up with ten consistently good pop tracks destined for the same CD, The Sounds have come up trumps. As is almost imperative with Europop, Dying To Say This To You heavily bears a 1980s influence, and while some people are going to hate it for its polish and efficiency they’re probably the same heathens who moan about the Pet Shop Boys’ lack of soul.
The ideally pitched, vaguely petulant vocals of Maja Ivarsson gives ‘Queen Of Apology’ bite as the band unashamedly mainline the ‘80s best electropop with a brief flash of a Cameo influence, while hi-NRG airplay hit ‘Tony The Beat’ is gloriously over the top with its proto-girl rap of premium entertainment value. Elsewhere, ‘24 Hours’ is singalong pop of the kind Avril Lavigne might make if she were Swedish, revelling in the beauty of its shameless appeal and the pumping beats and piano of ‘Painted By Numbers’ also impresses. The only error of judgement is ‘Night After Night’, that song being far too windswept and grandiose to sit comfortably among the rest of the material
Like fellow Swedish export Robyn, The Sounds have been blatant and upfront about their intentions with this album. That fact that it’s pretty bloody brilliant is a sure sign of a job well done.
Is there anyone left alive who hasn’t been dripfed every last detail of the life of Britney Spears in the last 12 months? I’m starting to doubt it, but in case you’ve been living under a rock or dwelling in caves, or (quite sensibly) just avoiding the world’s media – enjoying your own blissfully ignorant blackout, you could say – here’s a quick recap: a revolving-door attitude to rehab that would make Amy Winehouse dizzy, divorce and ugly custody battles with professional moron Kevin ‘K- Fed’ Federline, a hysterical head-shaving incident, a disastrous TV appearance, attacking people with umbrellas, crashing cars and sending members of the press out to fetch her tampons…things that make you go hmm.
Impressively, Spears has somehow managed to find the time to actually do some work and Blackout, her fifth album coming a whopping (in pop terms at least) four years after the last, is the surprisingly effective result. As befits someone who has, at times, seemed to have a rather tenuous grip on her sanity, Spears has switched to a mad, bad and quite thrillingly dangerous to know brand of electropop. Kicking off with the lead single ‘Gimme More’ (remarkably her biggest Stateside chart hit since ‘…Baby One More Time’), she immediately sets a fairly confrontational tone with the by now infamous greeting “it’s Britney, bitch”, before launching into eleven other tracks that similarly twist and stretch the notorious Spears vocal into something threateningly catchy and really rather good.
Of course, she’s still flogging us that semi-orgasmic nasal sound that now afflicts ‘X Factor’ auditions like the bubonic plague, but Spears remains the original and best at this kind of thing, and with tracks such as ‘Piece Of Me’ (co-written with production team Bloodshy & Avant, writers of ‘Toxic’, and the man behind the recent Robyn album) and ‘Radar’, where she presides over a bouncy electronic waltz with glee, she has two future hits to rival the Britney of old. As ever, Spears’s lyrics rarely tax the listener and there’s nothing’s really changed on that front. Even so, she gets a little nastier with the odd bit of swearing here and there and she has plenty to say about the constant press attention (“I’m Miss Bad Media Karma / another day, another drama” – ‘Piece Of Me’) and her grubby ex-husband (“they couldn’t believe I did it / but I was so committed” – ‘Why Should I Be Sad’, written especially for her by old pal Pharrell Williams), but, above all, she just wants to take her clothes off.
While there’s no denying the still-intact charms of one of the most photographed women in the world in spite of her increasingly erratic behaviour and worrying predilection for velour tracksuits, it seems a little incongruous to try and act the tease after so many pap shots where knickers really would have been a virtue. Even so, it’s good to see Spears eschewing the album-filling ballad of old for a sexier sound that’s a definite step forward for an artist who seemed destined for the scrap heap. Now if she can only combine this return to form with some semblance of normality, while maintaining the impression that she could bite at any time, then she really will have won us over.
Greatest Hits ••••
Let’s get the introduction out of the way. The Spice Girls are the biggest-selling girl band of all time, with over 55 million certified sales worldwide. During their four-year career at the end of the ‘90s, they topped the charts in dozens of countries, challenged the dominance of the increasingly stale sound of Britpop, and sparked the global renaissance of Cool Britannia. Their unique sound inspired scores of bands that followed, contributing a huge influence to the musical backdrop to the lives of a generation of adolescents and young adults. Clearly, their profound influence on British and global musical culture in the mid-to-late ‘90s has given the Girls outstanding nostalgic appeal, proven by the phenomenally quick sale of tickets for their ongoing long-overdue reunion tour.
Like ‘em or not, the Girls are back, hurling that familiar Girl Power philosophy at fans old and new, and spicing up today’s music with a little dose of ‘90s attitude. But, unlike the era’s other comebacks, Take That, the Spices do not intend to reform permanently, instead choosing to offer their millions of fans a true farewell tour with a retrospective of their most enduring hits, both on stage and on vinyl: yes, folks, its finally time for that essential tool of dewy-eyed nostalgia, a greatest hits record.
Showcasing all of the group’s number ones, along with other hits and a pair of new tracks, Greatest Hits is sure to bring memories flooding back for those who can recall the Girls’ unshakeable chart domination. Remarkably, few of the singles seem to have dated all that much; it’s actually quite hard to believe that ‘Wannabe’ first hit the top spot over a decade ago – it sounds as fresh now as it was then. While ‘Say You’ll Be There’ sounds a little more of its time, it too retains the Girls’ distinctive attitude. Even the dreadful harmonica bridge is forgivable. ‘Mama’ and ‘2 Become 1′ will almost certainly chime with those who remember the rite of passage that is the school disco slushy, hormonal slow dance, and some might even remember the Girls’ first foray into advertising with the funkier ‘Move Over’ (Pepsi’s Generation X song), a futuristic tour-de-force full of power chords and snappy lyrics.
It’s hard to choose the best track, but ‘Spice Up Your Life’ has to be a strong contender: its intense Latino rhythm and clarion calls to the nations of the world to spice up their existences provides the Girls with a chance to show off their cheeky characters and distinctive sound, far surpassing much of the samey-samey music becoming increasingly prevalent today.
Sadly the same cannot be said for the new material. Why five women who theoretically have the world’s absolute best pop writers and producers at their disposal would choose to record the likes of ‘Voodoo’ and ‘Headlines (Friendship Never Ends)’ is nothing short of mystifying. Although both are traditional Spice Girls fare, they’re very hard to describe as special. The former, in particular, falls flat thanks to shoddy lyrics and pedestrian club sound. Even Mel C’s familiar Scouse wailing can’t pep it up.
On the whole, though, Greatest Hits is a great platform for a group that may yet have some steam left in them. A rich showcase of arguably the most influential musical phenomenon of the ‘90s, it’s a great addition to anyone’s collection. Let’s face it, we all like a bit of nostalgia; why not try the spicy stuff?
We’ll Never Turn Back •••••
At 10:25am on September 15th, 1963, a bomb exploded at the 16th Street Baptist Church, Birmingham, Alabama, killing four young girls. The atrocity, perpetrated by the Ku Klux Klan, was one of the defining moments of the Civil Rights Movement, an action that galvanised ordinary US citizens of all races and religions into supporting the struggle for freedom and equality. Less than a year later, the murder of three farm hands by KKK thugs in Mississippi caused similar outrage; later the deaths of Civil Rights pioneers such as Malcolm X, Senator Robert F Kennedy and Rev Martin Luther King, Jr., had the same effect. It is sometimes too easy to forget that the Movement paid a price in blood to achieve its goals; Mavis Staples is determined to prevent us from forgetting about it.
Staples is one of America’s most revered female artists, an untouchably talented gospel and blues performer whose soulful contralto voice carries with it the authority of an experienced and determined activist. We’ll Never Turn Back, the follow-up to 2004’s triumphant Have A Little Faith, is her newest attempt to energise ongoing debates about civil rights. Staples has opted for a mix of traditional anthems and modern songs, all supported by no less a backing choir than Ladysmith Black Mambazo.
Mambazo’s rumbling bass proves a perfect foil for Staples’s own virtuoso singing, as she slips effortlessly from high, impassioned notes to guttural growls. ‘Eyes On The Prize’ is a perfect example of how wonderful this vocal matchmaking is; powerful, emotional and spiritual, the song’s exhortation to continue the struggle for equality is a telling choice for an artist whose main market is in a country that seems – recently, at least – to be ignoring such calls. But that’s precisely what Staples wishes to challenge. Her unsettling rhythm ‘n’ blues piece, ‘99½’, brings the Civil Rights Movement right up to date, angrily lamenting the broken levées and homeless babies of post-Katrina New Orleans, and the ineffective response by the Bush administration. The Big Easy makes another appearance in Staples’s longingly hopeful ballad, ‘My Own Eyes’, a clarion call to the Movement to recall the stirring leadership of Martin Luther King.
Of course, no album can be entirely dark and mournful; some judicious use of more cheerful tracks ensures that Staples’s efforts maintain a balance between reflection and celebration. Traditional number ‘This Little Light Of Mine’ makes excellent use of a bright Hammond organ and gospel melody to contribute a welcome note of optimism to the album, while the stirring ‘We Shall Not Be Moved’ recalls the camaraderie and hope of the landmark March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom on August 28th, 1963.
However, the most thoughtful and impassioned piece, ‘I’ll Be Rested’, is solidly reflective, effectively outlining a litany of those who were slain by white supremacists during the struggle, including those who died at the 16th Street Baptist Church. It is dark, to be sure, but Staples ensures that it ends on a hopeful note: those deaths contributed to the momentum that led to freedom for millions of African-Americans. The American Dream, it seems, can come at a great cost.
Dark, optimistic, inspirational and deeply, deeply moving, We’ll Never Turn Back could well be the most important album of its kind to have been released since the turn of the century; the struggle continues, alas. Thank goodness we have the likes of the redoubtable Ms Staples to articulate it in such a powerful way.
Do You Trust Your Friends? •••
Arts & Crafts
Inviting a bunch of talented fellow indie musicians to remix your already excellent album could be perceived as being a bit try-hard. Cynics might even go so far as to say commissioning your own tribute album is a little arrogant. However, there’s no doubt that Stars created a modern masterpiece with their 2004 album Set Yourself On Fire, so why not make the most of it? Or not as the case may be…
Final Fantasy (aka Owen Pallet) ties his violin strings round the original’s standout track and previous single ‘Your Ex-Lover Is Dead’ making it sound like something from Walt Disney’s ‘Fantasia’. While this is admittedly very dramatic it somehow lacks the punch of the original – delicate pianos replace the foreboding double bass and make the whole thing sound overly fragile. The delicate vocals float in mid-air rather than riding the crest of the bass, and much of what made the original such a work of art is lost. It’s not the best start.
Fortunately things get better, although The Dears’ two-part version of ‘What I’m Trying To Say’ seems rather greedy. The first is a crashing rock/synth effort akin to something that Muse might cook up but leaves the drums and echoing vocals rather detached. Then, by the time you get to ‘Part 2′, The Dears have stripped the song down to it’s synth simplicity and taken it upon themselves to add a few of their own instrumental jams, with questionable success. The Stills’s cover of ‘Soft Revolution’ is better – the Wild West hold-up chords and space-age riffs render the song almost unrecognisable. Even the vocals are redone, making the song sound like Pink Floyd at the rodeo.
Elsewhere, Jason Collett (of Broken Social Scene) delivers an excellent bluesy rendition of ‘Reunion’. His deadpan vocals provide a unique slant on the original. Think ‘Sweet Home Alabama’ meets 1980s pop and you’re getting warm. Then there’s Montag’s take on ‘Set Yourself On Fire’, an equally brilliant multi-instrumental filmic piece loaded with drama as it nips in and out of a psychedelic, orchestral trip-hop backing that swirls around Torquil Campbell’s original vocals.
The best remix albums tend to come from collaborations between distinctly ordinary bands, who, by getting together, manage to complete the picture and produce something great. The trouble with Stars is that they already had a brilliant album in Set Yourself On Fire, and giving that to a bunch of their talented indie-geek friends to mess around with really wasn’t necessary. That said, leaving the track listing as per the original was a nice touch, lending a welcoming element of familiarity. It’s just a shame that somewhere in among all the clever tweaks and manipulations many of the songs lose the romance and grandeur of Stars’s own creations.
In Our Bedroom After The War ••••
Following a career-defining album like 2004’s Set Yourself On Fire is a tough proposition for anyone, even for a band with as much talent and originality as Stars. Perhaps that’s why the band’s fourth studio album seems to have been such a long time coming, that and the fact that co-lead vocalist Amy Millan took some time out to record and tour last year’s bruised collection of whiskey-soaked ‘country’ laments, Honey From The Tombs. Happily it seems that the wait has been worthwhile. Although it’s fair to say that In Our Bedroom After The War lacks the unrefined charm and sheer emotional openness of the Stars back catalogue, it nonetheless boasts a fine clutch of angst-ridden songs from the Canadian romantics.
Stars have clearly honed and matured their unique sound during their absence, and perhaps rightly so; the band members now have an average age of well over 30. Maybe that’s why they are a clear cut above most of the teenage indie scamps dominating the current music scene. Millan and her vocal counterpoint Torquil role play the finer and not-so-finer points of falling in and out of love with a convincing reality only available to those who have actually been there, done it, got the blood-stained t-shirts and washed them so many times they’ve become retro. They even poke fun at this fact in the self-deprecating ‘Personal’ with lyrics like “Wanted single F / under 33 / must enjoy the sun / must enjoy the sea”. Here, the band’s trademark dual vocals are at their finest with Campbell’s cold deadpan chant meeting Millan’s plaintive, open-hearted soul in a melancholic tale of love gone grimly wrong – it’s everything you would expect from Stars at their very best.
Although some of the impulsive gung ho lust of Set Yourself On Fire has been ironed out, Stars make up the shortfall with some crushing paeans to tortured romance that take you on a whistle-stop tour of the trials and tribulations of a pair of ponderous, over-thinking lonely hearts. Elsewhere, ‘My Favourite Book’ allows the band a shining moment’s optimism, and there’s no shortage of rocking out either with ‘Take Me To The Riot’ and ‘Bitches In Tokyo’. Nor is there a lack of soul to be luxuriated in- at times it feels as if you could be watching this album projected onto a screen, which is perhaps not so surprising given Campbell’s extensive acting CV.
On the whole the album seems less orchestral than their previous opus – there’s none of the dramatic double bass melancholy of the superb ‘Your Ex-Lover Is Dead’ – and the childish synth flourishes of ‘The First Five Times’ are absent. Never mind. This leaves some wonderful, finely crafted pop tunes and some very delicate ballads that weep like open wounds. Stars, it seems, have opened their musical hearts once again.
In Advance Of The Broken Arm ••
Kill Rock Stars
Marnie Stern is an artist who might loosely be described as a singer-songwriter, but she definitely doesn’t produce the sort music that most often springs to mind from that description, nor from perfectly applicable phrases such as “songs formed in her bedroom over two years”. However, add in the fact that the New Yorker’s debut was produced by Hella’s Zach Hill (who also provides the drums on the album), your expectations might be a little closer to the mark.
In Advance Of The Broken Arm starts as it means to go on with opener ‘Vibrational Match’; after a short, accidental-sounding snippet of chord, Stern kicks in with a frenetic hammer-on based riff that initially makes you sit up and take notice, quickly followed by some equally feverish drumming that sound like Hill’s attempt to apply an equivalent technique, which occasionally toys with the drummer’s traditional role of actually keeping time. When at least three Stern’s worth of vocals join the fray (she provides her own backing vocals throughout the album) you begin to think you’re onto something good here. But …The Broken Arm starts at the top and very quickly descends into more of the same and the quality declines just as rapidly.
By track five, the fantastically titled ‘Put All Your Eggs In One Basket & Then Watch That Basket!!!’, you could quite happily never hear another hammer-on in your life. Although Stern never quite stoops to the fret wankery of ‘80s guitar torturers such as Yngvie J Malmsteen, it nonetheless carries a strong element of concept over songwriting. If this wasn’t enough, Hill’s drumming makes ever more desperate sounding attempts to match Stern’s guitar when perhaps it would all hang together better if he provided a more grounded counterpoint. A final problem is that, once in a while, you make out a snippet of lyric that suggests there’s something worth listening to there; sadly for the vast bulk of the album those lyrics are lost as Stern’s voice struggles to compete with the guitar and its multi-layered self.
Some might hail this album as avant-garde, but ultimately the whole affair is, in reality, somewhat derivative. Besides, there’s a fine line between experimental and unlistenable, which …The Broken Arm too often crosses. If one woman’s attempt to recreate what might happen if Clap Your Hands, Say Yeah collaborated with Stevie Vai after suffering a serious concussion and recording the result in a wardrobe sounds interesting to you, you may well disagree.
Universal / Island
Oh, how we love the Sugababes. Their man-hungry songs; their frequent appearances in the sticky print of red-top gossip columns of the calibre of 3am and Bizarre; their hilarious off-stage internecine bitching and their legendary strops, tantrums and sulks, beloved of Popbitch and its vicarious readership. Love. Them.
Indeed, it could be claimed that the Sugababes owe as much to their soap opera reputation as they do to their prize-winning music for their popularity and – we use the term with a due sense of irony – longevity (only one of the band’s original 1998 line-up remains). Their music has won an astonishing array of trophies and hit singles, including seven number one singles in as many countries, three triple-platinum albums and countless miscellaneous prizes ranging from Capital FM’s 2001 ‘Best Known Secret’ award to Virgin’s 2006 award for ‘Most Fanciable Female’ (for Amelle, the latest newcomer). All pretty astonishing for a manufactured band whose simple, if occasionally suggestive, lyrics and basic electronic sound could easily have led to an eminently forgettable career.
New album, Change, seems set to win new prizes. Among them, an award for ‘Most Apt Title’ should be a sure bet, for it marks a considerable change in direction for the band. The songs’ lyrics have shed their traditional hormonal, boy-obsessed quality, instead taking on a more mature, emotional and, in places, elegiac character. The music, too, sounds more worldly wise. Notwithstanding these tweaks, the Sugababes succeed in retaining their club-friendly, catchy and accessible sound, qualities that they have worked hard to establish and cannot afford to lose.
The Cathy Dennis co-write ‘About You Now’ – the first UK single to hit number one on download sales only – is a fine example of where the girls are at. Although its catchy choruses and basic composition are familiar Sugababes stuff, its heavily bass-laden sound has a more powerful and grown up quality than their last club hit, 2005’s ‘Push The Button’. Similarly, the Xenomania-produced ‘Never Gonna Dance Again’s surging wall of sound and ‘Denial’s persistent bass ostinato and earworm-inducing melody will both find a safe home in clubland, alongside similarly complex work from the likes of Girls Aloud. For those seeking evidence of something a bit out of the ordinary, ‘Back Down’s lush, reggae-inspired sound – oddly redolent of hard-nosed electronica legends, Leftfield – are definitely not the normal ‘Babes fare.
Of course, the Sugababes wouldn’t be who they are without a bit of bubblegum pop trash and Change still sags a bit with forgettable schoolgirl fodder in the form of ‘Back When’ and ‘Undignified’. Overall, though, it’s a welcome addition to the Sugababes’ already formidable repertoire; it is to them as Confessions On A Dancefloor was to Madonna – a pop opus of tub-thumping anthems and refreshingly mature club tracks, and an almighty defence of the band’s claim to be the best-selling female pop group of the 21st Century. Girls Aloud must be quaking in their PVC catsuits.
Filed under: album, back issues, review | Tags: alex ramon, andy wasley, beth waters, dinah washington, fiona wight, kate voegele, laura veirs, lucinda williams, lucy wainwright roche, peter hayward, russell barker, simone white, trevor raggatt, uncle earl
The following reviews were published on our old MySpace blog in 2007.
Waterloo Tennessee ••••
If you are searching for a single word to describe Uncle Earl then ‘energy’ wouldn’t be a bad place to start. Close in the running would be ‘harmony’, and ‘integrity’. From the opening notes of ‘Black-Eyed Susie’ it’s apparent that this girl-group is something special. Theirs isn’t the usual Girls Aloud world of push-up bras, thongs and stumbling out of the Ivy at two in the morning. The g’Earls’ muse is somewhat more authentic. They’re practically a next-gen bluegrass supergroup, bringing together the fiddle of Rayna Gellert and guitar/mandolin talents of KC Groves with Abigail Washburn’s banjo and the guitar, fiddle and feet (yes, feet!) of renowned clog dancer, Kristin Andreassen. Individually, any one of these four accomplished musicians could command respect and admiration from their listeners. In combination, the effect is nothing short of awe-inspiring and, for that matter, foot-tapping too.
On this album all four further show their versatility by sharing vocal duties, and such is their understanding of the music that modern originals rest seamlessly alongside traditional tunes. And of course all of this is cosseted in the foursome’s glorious vocal harmonies. Bluegrass and old-time music hasn’t loomed large in the public consciousness since the year 2000 when the ‘O Brother, Where Art Thou?’ soundtrack made it temporarily flavour of the month. Uncle Earl are here to remind us just what we’ve been missing. In Waterloo Tennessee we encounter all kinds, from the infectious dance tunes of ‘Wish I Had My Time Again’ to tender folk ballads like ‘My Little Carpenter’ and ‘My Epitaph’. The performances are beautifully captured by the production skills of former Led Zeppelin bassist John Paul Jones, which present a smooth and accessible sound that still preserves the energy, honesty and rawness that brings this type of music alive.
If you’ve never given bluegrass or old-time music a chance up ‘til now, there couldn’t be a better introduction than Waterloo Tennessee, surely one of the most joyous and infectious albums you’ll hear in 2007. Better still, catch the g’Earls live the next time they grace these shores. You won’t regret it. You might even agree with Wears The Trousers that the time is finally ripe for a good ol’ British bluegrass revival. Preach it, sisters.
Nature girl Laura Veirs continues to move through the elemental album cycle she’s engrossed in. After paying her tribute to fire, earth and sky, Veirs arrives at the seaside with her sixth album Saltbreakers. As well as the by now customary change of theme, it also represents a move away from the singer-songwriter feel and into a more spectral sound that’s very much en vogue. This is shown most evidently on the light touch of the Feist-like ‘Pink Light’, where Veirs sounds as if she’s dancing on air as she sings, and on ‘Don’t Lose Yourself’ where she shows Imogen Heap just how to pull off the trick she’s been attempting for a while now.
The whole album is beautifully played, constructed and sung, and is by far her best work to date, something that, at this far into a career, is a great achievement. There are plenty of deft touches to keep enough variation within the album to retain your avid attention. ‘Ocean Night Song’ sounds like Kate Bush adrift in the Orient, ‘Drink Deep’ is a dreamlike waltz and ‘Nightingale’ is wonderful slumber pop that rouses itself now and again with gentle brushed drums and northern sounding horns.
A little call-and-response vocal play works well on a brace of tracks. The juxtaposition of her singing the single word of the title track and being met with a wordy response that barely squeezes into the line is delightful. ‘To The Country’ simplifies the trick, but using a choral response means it’s no less effective. Two other tracks are worthy of a mention – the upbeat ‘Phantom Mountain’ which is as feisty as Juliana Hatfield and the gorgeous acoustic closing number, ‘Wrecking’.
This is a marvellous album – Veirs’s best to date in fact – and more than worth its salt.
Don’t Look Away ••••
Jimmy Wales, whose foundation of Wikipedia effectively gave birth to the oft-analysed phenomenon of Web 2.0, famously said, “we make the Web not suck”. Bear with those syntactically mangled words for a moment; Web 2.0 truly is a modern social leveller, a global forum where the talented, dumb and downright insane all have equal access to public consciousness. It is this equality of access that led to the foundation of MySpace Records, a label that aims to find the newest musical talent on the web via MySpace’s overwhelmingly popular personal profiling site. To date its best achievement has been to sign Ohio-based singer-songwriter Kate Voegele.
A 21-year old Art Education student who quotes her influences as Eric Clapton, Jeff Buckley and Joni Mitchell – among others – Voegele is proof that for all the Web’s inanities it can still uncover some truly phenomenal talent. Voegele’s debut album, Don’t Look Away, is a comprehensive showcase of her impressive skills as a singer-songwriter and maybe – hopefully – the start of a long career. Dominated by a belting voice clearly influenced by Sheryl Crow, Voegele’s music takes in genres as varied as solid rock set pieces (‘Chicago’), Hammond-laden gospel blues fusion (‘Devil In Me’) and refreshingly simple guitar pop (‘Might Have Been’), an eclecticism so wide ranging as to be remarkable for such a young artist.
In addition to its range of genres, the album’s emotional range is also notable; ‘Might Have Been’, a funky rock piece with a stadium-friendly appeal and classic sounding guitar riffs, could have come straight from T in the Park and is typical of Voegele’s harder-edged work. At the softer end of the scale, ‘It’s Only Life’, which delicately combines a piano and glockenspiel ballad melody with a seemingly incongruous rock percussion, is Voegele’s nod to Joni Mitchell’s influence. Similarly, ‘Wish You Were Here’ enables Voegele to tackle a mature and deeply poetic country song with the sophistication of kd lang and the passion of 1960s Dusty Springfield. Clearly, this girl doesn’t want to be tied to any one genre, or to be compared with any one artist.
The most powerful piece on the album belies Voegele’s understated yet clear passion for her Christian musical heritage (her father, Will, is a prolific writer of modern Christian music). ‘Kindly Unspoken’, a theatrical combination of gospel-style piano riffs and Voegele’s vocal power, clearly takes its influence from hymnal music and is by far the most sophisticated of her work. Reminiscent of LeAnn Rimes at her best, it is further proof, were any needed, that Voegele’s talent is primal, compelling and astonishing.
All of which brings us back to Jimmy Wales’s assertion about Web 2.0; Kate Voegele is one of those rare products of the Web that serve to make it “not suck”. It is probably too much to expect many more artists of her quality to appear in the near future; for now Don’t Look Away sounds like reasonable advice to anyone interested in Voegele’s debut.
Lucy Wainwright Roche
8 Songs EP •••½
If musical talent is hereditary, Lucy Wainwright Roche is a lucky girl indeed; she is the daughter of Suzzy Roche, herself a member of a musical family, and Loudon Wainwright III – humourist, actor, singer-songwriter and progenitor of yet more musical magnificence in the form of the absurdly talented siblings Martha and Rufus Wainwright. Blessed with such a musical family, it should hardly be surprising that Lucy would eventually add her own voice to the melodic clamour.
Readers familiar with Roche’s family and its members’ various, often theatrical, musical styles will be surprised by the simplicity of 8 Songs, her debut EP. Roche has opted for a simple collection of guitar-and-voice songs whose influences vary from traditional Scots ballads to modern folk-rock. The traditional side is well represented by the beautiful Scots ballad ‘Wild Mountain Thyme’. Ranging from a husky alto to a soaring soprano, Roche’s crystal-clear voice sweetly encapsulates the song’s yearning for the ancient magnificence of heather-clad mountains and youthful adventures. The EP’s second traditional ballad, the oft-interpreted ‘Barb’ry Allen’, proves to be a perfect opportunity for Roche to show off her emotive voice a cappella as she laments the song’s lovelorn characters with faultless, ethereal clarity.
For the modern songs, Roche has selected four of her own creations and two covers. Her ballad ‘Long Before’ is a lovely blend of rich vocals and poetic lyrics, while the more sophisticated ‘Bridge’ provides her with an opportunity to demonstrate the breadth of her voice’s emotional quality, sweeping effortlessly from a breathy storytelling intensity to a brighter and more melodic chorus. Fleetwood Mac’s ’80s classic ‘Everywhere’ receives an interesting reinterpretation, while ‘Next Best Western’, Richard Shindell’s hymnal tribute to the faith and hope of travellers, is perhaps the album’s best song.
All that said, 8 Songs is not without its faults. In attempting to find a unique style, Roche occasionally over-embellishes her voice with harmonic or counter-melodic layers. A lesser singer could make great use of such techniques, but in Roche’s case they simply detract from her voice’s elegance. ‘Rather Go’, beset by needless enharmonic layers and a weak melody, does little to showcase her talents.
Although Roche has shunned the histrionics present throughout her family’s various styles, her album is familiar Wainwright stuff – rich, intense and beautiful. Reminiscent of smoky fireside singalongs, 8 Songs marks the entry of a new force in modern folk. Keep an eye on her – if this short collection proves one thing, it’s that Roche is just getting started.
Evil Gal: The Imperious Dinah Washington ••••
In case you’re wondering whether the world really needs yet another knock-off ‘best of’ collection from jazz icon Dinah Washington – and let’s face it, there really is no shortage of shoddily compiled releases – set your mind at ease for Evil Gal is different. For a start there’s not a single one of her signature tunes; no ‘Mad About The Boy’, no ‘Unforgettable’, no ‘Call Me Irresponsible’…not even ‘What A Difference A Day Makes’ rears its sumptuous head. Panic not, however, for straying from the well-beaten path proves much more rewarding than you’d expect.
Mining her later career, Evil Gal finds Washington in her 1950s incarnation, performing with smaller jazz combos rather than the large swing bands of Lionel Hampton and the like. Sitting squarely in the happy transition period between big band schmaltz, we find Dinah comfortably among piano and rich Hammond organ riffs with horns providing solo counterpoint, an endearing blend of soft bebop and distinct doo-wop influences in her vocal. Whatever the style, the constant is the quality of Washington’s singing, and one thing’s for sure – there isn’t a single duff track to be found.
Even the quirkier pieces of fluff such as ‘One Arabian Night’ (“don’t rub your eyes / that’s no surprise / it’s a real-life camel in my garage”) or ‘TV Is The Thing This Year’ (channel surfing never sounded sexier!) have a charm that earns their place. However, the highlights are the standards scattered across the album – ‘Our Love Is Here To Stay’, ‘Blue Gardenia’, a great live version of ‘I’ve Got You Under My Skin’ and the truly imperious eight minutes of ‘A Foggy Day In London Town’ where the Queen of the Blues trades licks and lines with piano, trumpet, double bass and sax.
It’s not for nothing that Dinah Washington is considered to be one of the greatest voices of the 20th century (and a great loss to music at only 39 years of age). The quality of the transfers throughout is outstanding, particularly considering these recordings are 50 years old. Other compilations may have more well known songs but Evil Gal is still a great introduction to an amazing singer who, alongside the likes of Ella Fitzgerald and Billie Holliday, was a Girl Power heroine decades before Geri pulled on her Union Jack mini-dress. A sister doing it for herself indeed.
This Little Piggy ••••
I must confess that it took me a little while to get into Beth Waters third album, This Little Piggy…a full 39 seconds to be precise because that’s when, after the brooding, unsettling opening of ‘White Dogs In The Moonlight’, the first of Waters’s gloriously luminous choruses kicks in. From that point on this reviewer was sold on this uplifting album. Whether it’s self-realisation, commitment phobia, escaping from an abusive home or the road to self-destruction, Waters infuses her subject matter with rays of musical hope. And it’s this ability to lift the song with an infectious singalong chorus that raises Waters above your average introspective singer-songwriter.
Across the 10 original numbers the standard of songwriting is uniformly high and ably matched by the musical presentation and the quality of the vocals. Stylistically, This Little Piggy is a diverse collection with audible influences ranging from the likes of Sarah McLachlan and Gemma Hayes to The Barenaked Ladies and, in one instance, Latin beats. This shouldn’t be taken as indicating a lack of coherence or a butterfly mind. Rather, each song is linked through the silky and sensuous sound of Waters’s voice and the production, which subtly merges traditional keyboards and rhythm section with well-placed electronica.
The songs on This Little Piggy mix immediately accessible melodies and multilayered complexity which rewards repeated listening and deeper investigation. One could use expressions such as ‘mature’, ‘adult’ or ‘sophisticated’. but somehow that fails to capture the mixture of intelligence and enjoyment this collection grants the listener or their simultaneously intimate and cinematic scope. Previous Waters tunes have been picked up for TV soundtracks and one could imagine any number of these being used for the wistful section at the end of an episode of ‘Gray’s Anatomy’ where Meredith gazes out a rain-drenched window wondering if she ever will get her Doctor McDreamy.
Waters chooses to close the album with a couple of delightful curveballs. ‘Afraid Of Love’ mixes lyrics exploring the dilemmas of love with a lounge bar bossa nova and cannot fail to raise a smile. What could have been a taste faux pas is instead a catchy tour de force. She follows this with a beautifully downbeat cover of Paul Simon’s ‘Slip Slidin’ Away’, which eases the album to a mellow conclusion. One thing’s sure, if This Little Piggy reflects the kind of output that we can expect from songwriters in 2007, the bad news for the competition is that Beth Waters has already set the bar perilously high.
I Am The Man •••
Advertisers’ obsession with alternative folk music has become almost a cliché. First it was mobile phone ads taking up Vashti Bunyan and Devendra Banhart, but the past couple of years have seen left-of-centre folk whimsy deployed on commercials for everything from perfume to banks to televisions, and now cars. You’d recognise Simone White’s ‘Beep Beep Song’ instantly from the Audi commercial, it goes “Beep beep beep beep beep beep beep go the horns in the cars in the street / we walked away from the lovers leap”. If this pleasing snippet has piqued your interest, before you jump into your hatchback to rush to the nearest record shop, have a read of this review.
The 13 tracks on Simone White’s sophomore album are a collection of intimate minimal torch-song folk. With simple guitars, sparse percussion and sparing use of other instruments, White’s voice is the star of the show. On the opening track ‘I Didn’t Have a Summer Romance’, the vocal is pure liquid autumn sunshine. A song as gently delightful as can be, it’s a wistful take on the old saying that it’s better to have loved and lost than never to have loved at all. The instrumentation, while slight, is pleasingly part jangly folk and part jazz. Warm trumpets close out the song and lead into a gentle brushed cymbal percussion of ‘Worm Was Wood’, the lyrics of which are jarringly, studiedly weird. “Worm was wood / the snail was an ocelot” smacks of trying a bit to hard to be quirky, although kudos to Simone for shoehorning an ocelot into a song.
While the instrumentation and production are pretty much faultless throughout the album, the songs themselves do occasionally leave a little to be desired. From the aforementioned studied weirdness to the almost trite Bush-bashing dissent of ‘The American War’ and clunky anti-capitalism sentiment of ‘Great Imperialist State’ (sample lyric: “I cannot kill my meat nor grow the food upon my plate / I’ve never walked a mile to the well”. The mawkish expression of this song combined with the overly anguished strained voice is, and it pains me to say this, reminiscent of Dido.
Fortunately, for the most part, the intimate vocals are more akin to those of Hem’s Sally Ellyson, Kathryn Williams or even, on the more affected occasions, Stina Nordenstam. However, the songwriting lacks the finesse of any of these acts and the undoubted vocal talent seems wasted on tracks such as ‘Sweetest Love Song’ and ‘Only The Moon’, on which White tells us that the “the one I love is like the moon, unattainable”, which are lyrically and musically trite. It’s a shame, because some tracks, the aforementioned ‘I Didn’t Have a Summer Romance’ and the delicately jazzy ‘Mary Jane’ hint at a talent for storytelling that is otherwise untapped. And the title track, which closes the album, far more ably achieves what ‘Great Imperialist State’ failed to do when she proclaims, “In my own government I am the president”.
The heartening twilight-folk of I Am The Man should be perfect listening for long winter evenings by the fire with a loved one or for reminisces about the summer over a bourbon in a dimly lit bar. When you scratch beneath the surface some of the songs are lacking in substance, but the ambience created by White’s vocal and the excellent musicianship pull the record through.
The Last Rose •••½
You could be forgiven for thinking that Fiona Wight hailed from deepest Donegal. That’s not the case, but this maid of Kent does have twin streams of music and the Celtic spirit running through her engine. And, though The Last Rose is strictly her debut album, she already has an impressive career tucked in her back pocket. Twice heralded as Choirgirl of the Year, best-selling classical soloist, featured singer with Irish chamber choir Anúna and first-call lead vocalist for the UK Riverdance company: the music on The Last Rose reflects all of these experiences.
The dozen songs on the album take in traditional folk tunes, songs by respected modern Celtic composers and tracks co-written with Riverdance musical director Cathal Synnott. The arrangements range from the sparse to the sumptuous, couched in both classical and traditional instrumentation. However, the spotlight remains on Wight’s stunning soprano. Like the music, Wight’s voice forms a perfect bridge between classical, traditional and modern. Possessed of a crystalline beauty and controlled poise, it rises to the challenge of the classical aria ‘Ave Maria’ – albeit presented backed by Celtic harp. However, it contains none of the affectations that can make the bel canto such a struggle for the casual classical listener. Wight’s approach is rather more straightforward; for all her impeccable technique the angelic qualities of her voice betray an emotional honesty so often missing from the classically trained.
Always, the voice is the focus for the listener – whether exposed on the Celtic breeze (‘My Lagan Love’) or wrapped in Synnott’s luscious string arrangements (‘A Blessing’). Each song orbits around a Celtic gravitational centre with whistle, uilleann pipes and harp never too far away, but occasionally Wight throws in some pleasing twists from the world music palette. Even that most British of traditional tunes, ‘She Moves Through The Fair’, gets a new lease of life, transported to a sultry and ominous Seville, dripping with Moorish sensuality as Cora Venus Lunny’s violin weaves a heady gypsy melody around the vocal. Olé indeed! Assured as it is, The Last Rose is thoroughly entrancing. A rare and delicate blossom.
And so the woman with the voice that Emmylou Harris memorably described as capable of “peeling the chrome off a trailer hitch” returns with her eighth studio album. After years of lengthy gaps between recordings, Williams has become positively prolific since the release of 1998’s classic Car Wheels On A Gravel Road (recently given the Deluxe Edition double-disc treatment), putting out Essence, World Without Tears and Live @ The Fillmore to ever increasing amounts of critical acclaim. For production duties on West she’s roped in Hal Willner, best known for his work with the likes of Lou Reed and Marianne Faithfull, whose bruised 1987 album Strange Weather has been an avowed influence on some of Williams’s recent music. (Indeed, at times Williams seems intent on turning herself into a Faithfull of the South, a weather-beaten, down-but-not-out ‘survivor’).
Willner’s presence has led some critics to describe the new album as an exercise in experimentation, and it’s certainly true that Williams is continuing to move away from the country/folk/blues-infused sounds of her earliest work into ambient rock territory. But, to these ears at least, West sounds less like an experimental record than a synthesis of her post-Car Wheels… output, favouring atmosphere over narrative, the ‘universal’ over the rooted and specific. And, unfortunately, like much of her recent work, the album fails to entirely cohere.
Backed by a sturdy group of musicians (Jenny Scheinman’s violin-playing is particularly noteworthy), including regular collaborators Doug Pettibone (guitars) and Jim Keltner (drums/percussion), Williams traverses (overly) familiar thematic territory throughout West, focusing upon love, lust and loss, travel, time and memory. Opener ‘Are You Alright?’ finds her at her most seductive and accessible, building an infectious melody around a series of heartfelt pleas to hear from an errant lover. Though marred by trite lyrics, the jaunty ‘Learning How To Live’ is a more optimistic, less self-pitying break-up song than we’ve come to expect from her, tempering its regret with a healthy dose of country stoicism and the resolve to “make the most of what you left me with”.
Elsewhere, ‘Fancy Funeral’ could be a sombre companion piece to Kate Campbell’s wry song ‘Funeral Food’, with Williams offering a similarly critical analysis of Southern traditions and a gentle reminder that “no amount of rituals will bring back what you’ve lost”. The fierce ‘Come On’ (a cousin of World Without Tears‘s scabrous ‘Atonement’) features a searing electric guitar part perfectly in sync with Williams’s scary vocal and allows her to fulfil her post-Car Wheels… criteria of including one expletive per album. Finally, the title track closes proceedings on a truly gorgeous note of expectation. Perhaps reflecting Williams’s optimism about her recent engagement, the song is an elegant invitation to a lover that manages to convey both the joy at the opportunity offered by a new relationship and a mature acceptance of its probable transience: “Come out west and see… / I know you won’t stay permanently / But come out west and see”.
In between, however, there are more than a few places in which West goes south. ‘Mama You Sweet’, ostensibly about the death of Williams’s mother, gets bogged down in would-be poetic imagery, while ‘Unsuffer Me’ is a slightly embarrassing litany of desires featuring the torturous (and grammatically questionable) command “unbound my feet”. ‘Rescue’ flirts feebly with Beth Orton, and the wretched ‘What If’ proffers a sequence of asinine speculations about a world in which “dogs became kings” and “birds had bank accounts”. ‘Wrap My Head Around That’ is even weaker, a dour inventory of complaints every bit as awkward as its title and stretched out over an excruciating nine minutes. After the similarly unconvincing ‘American Dream’ on World Without Tears, what Williams really needs is a producer brave enough to tell her that rapping might not be such a great idea.
Listening to these tracks, it’s hard not to feel that the increased speed of her output has resulted in an associated dip in quality, for, ever since Essence, the detailed, narrative elements of her songs have been replaced by more general statements, sometimes of a rather banal nature. Most problematic of all is her tendency to use a similar compositional style; in too many places on West she falls back on repetitious listing song structures that suggest she’s been bitten by the Alanis Morissette bug. Those who make inflated claims for Williams as a great lyricist – a Faulkner or Welty of song – will have their work cut out trying to defend the repetitive structures employed throughout, not to mention some decidedly dodgy rhymes (“eyes” and “guys”, “kid” and “did”, “danger” and “stranger”, “gum” and, er, “bum”). What’s missing is the rich, vivid detail that characterised her earlier slice-of-Southern-life songs such as ‘The Night’s Too Long’ and ‘Car Wheels On A Gravel Road’. There’s no “smell of coffee, eggs and bacon”, no “Loretta singing on the radio” here.
With the lyrics tending toward the uninspired, it’s left up to Williams’s vocals to add complexity and nuance. Blessed with one of the most instantly recognisable voices in contemporary music, she sounds less mannered than of late here, and her elegantly weary slurring and snarling commands your attention even when the words let her down. While Williams’s intention to shake off the traditional roots music shackles is admirable, it’s a shame that she insists upon straying into areas in which she seems less than comfortable. Nonetheless, despite its shortcomings, West is a warmer, less abrasive album than World Without Tears and one that features some strong material.
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, live, review | Tags: adam smith, alan pedder, alex ramon, ben lumley, bryn williams, danny weddup, david renshaw, edwina hayes, emmylou harris, gem nethersole, hayley hutchinson, helene, hem, HK119, hot puppies, howling bells, imogen heap, jamie woon, julia harris, juliana hatfield, kate havnevik, kristin hersh, lauren hoffman, loria near, mark knopfler, paris hilton, paul woodgate, pete morrow, pj harvey, russell barker, sam semple, sarah harmer, stephanie heney, trevor raggatt, vita ross
The following reviews were all published on our old website between May 2005 and December 2006.
I’m A Mountain ••••
Wears The Trousers is a bit late coming to this because one never really knows what to expect with Sarah Harmer. Having spent the ‘90s fronting the not especially great indie rock outfit Weeping Tile, 2000’s solo debut You Were Here was astonishingly good. Laced with wit and sentimentality, the songs garnered critical praise from reviewers worldwide and expanded Harmer’s sound. A year earlier, Songs For Clem – a duets album initially recorded for her father’s ears only – had seen her exploring the realms of folk and poetry with truly affecting results. After such enormous accolades, Harmer seemed to flag with the rather lacklustre All Of Our Names. Though it still bagged her a Juno Award, it seemed a little rushed, as if the songs were simply pushed together with little definition.
Thank goodness for I’m A Mountain, then. This quietly impressive collection not only showcases all the facets of her sound that made her such a unique force in the first place, but combines all that made her previous incarnations so successful. Full of affirmations and themes of renewal and revitalisation, I’m A Mountain takes a back-to-the-land approach, both thematically and stylistically, without sounding pretentious. Starting off strongly with the gently-strummed ‘The Ring’, Harmer uses the age-old metaphor of the boxing ring, but instead of focusing on the battle, she sings eloquently of the coaching support – “you thank me all the time / but now it’s my turn…and it made me feel better / to have you there in my corner”.
Continuing the theme of positive relationships, album highlight ‘I Am Aglow’ blooms with pure bluegrass and is as whimsically singalong as anyone could possibly want. But not every song is quite so light-hearted; ‘Escarpment Blues’, inspired by Harmer’s own youth spent on an Ontario farm, laments the threat to the Niagara Escarpment, a UNESCO World Biosphere Reserve. Facing modern day land use issues with an intelligent ear, the lyrics read less like an alarmist diatribe and more like a concerned citizen speaking during a council meeting. With a soft voice full of gentle concern, Harmer sings “if they blow a hole in my backyard / everyone is gonna run away / the creeks won’t flow to the Great Lake below / will the water in the wells still be okay?” It certainly doesn’t approach the hard-hitting music of the ‘60s protest masters, but Harmer does a magnificent job of echoing her concern without being patronising about what makes modern convenience such a part of day-to-day life.
The centrepiece of the record, however, is Harmer’s cover of the Dolly Parton classic ‘Will He Be Waiting For Me?’, to which she brings a delicate vulnerability that, whilst still retaining the wistfulness of the original, gives the song a slightly different perspective. Sparse and unforced yet fulfilling and ultimately satisfying, I’m A Mountain has it all – intelligent songwriting, fine musicianship and well-written songs. Harmer doesn’t go the currently popular country-noir chanteuse route, already done to near perfection by Neko Case and Jenny Lewis; instead, she sticks to more playful yet conscientiously lyrical poetry and whimsical seriousness. These are uncontrived sketches, inspired by country music before it went pop, bluegrass when it was pure and new takes on age-old stories told time after time in song.
originally published October 5th, 2006
Emmylou Harris & Mark Knopfler
All The Roadrunning •••½
The illustrious career of Emmylou Harris has been marked by a series of creative collaborations with other singers and musicians. From the first, now legendary, Gram Parsons duets through her work with Linda Rondstadt and Dolly Parton as one third of Trio to her partnership with Daniel Lanois on Wrecking Ball, Harris has sought out (and been sought out by) a range of diverse collaborators. In the meantime, she’s also continued to raise harmony singing to new artistic heights on records by Lucinda Williams, Neil Young, Willie Nelson, John Prine, Steve Earle, Nanci Griffith, Patty Griffin, the McGarrigles and just about anyone else you care to name. The most significant of these collaborations have served an important function for Harris, allowing her to explore all kinds of areas of the country-folkrock palette and keep her own particular brand of “cosmic American music” fresh and vital. Crucially, however, even her most experimental work has always retained a distinctive personality, a kind of purity, elegance and poise that justifies Lucinda Williams’s description of her as “the Grace Kelly of country music.”
We haven’t heard much from Harris since 2003’s Stumble Into Grace, a record that saw her continuing to wed her own newly-discovered songwriting abilities to Wrecking Ball-esque sonic atmospherics. Once again demonstrating once again her ability to inspire and engage with new generations, she turned up on Bright Eyes’ I’m Wide Awake (It’s Morning), adding some genuine country-folk ache to Conor Oberst’s sometimes strained musings, and also made a distinguished contribution to the ‘Brokeback Mountain’ soundtrack with ‘A Love That Will Never Grow Old’. All The Roadrunning finds her in collaborative mode once again, teaming up this time with Mark Knopfler on a set of twelve new tracks, ten penned by Knopfler, two by Harris herself.
Knopfler and Harris first appeared together on the 2001 Hank Williams tribute album Timeless and All The Roadrunning has been in the pipeline ever since. Reviewers of the album so far have focused to an almost indecent degree on the singers’ respective ages, as though a record made by two people over fifty must inevitably be less ‘hip’ than ‘hip replacement’. That said, even the most cursory listen to All The Roadrunning reveals a degree of class and style that only experience can buy. Indeed, as soon as the album opens, with sturdy drums, mandolin and Knopfler’s distinctive guitar licks, we know we’re in safe hands. ‘Beachcombing’ is a joyous song of homecoming on which Harris and Knopfler’s voices combine with disarming ease and grace. Surely it can be no mere coincidence that their first shared vocal line is on the lyric “We had a harmony”. The often-used ‘silk and sandpaper’ analogy has never been more apt, and on ‘This Is Us’ they duplicate the feat achieved by Harris and Willie Nelson on ‘Gulf Coast Highway’, sounding like a long-married couple leafing through a lifetime of intimate memories.
Repeatedly, the album’s songs strike a balance between regret and resignation, mixing melancholy with a sense of possibility and hope for the future. Knopfler’s atmospheric guitar work makes ‘I Dug Up A Diamond’ truly sparkle, accordion and fiddle turn ‘Red Staggerwing’ into a rootsy reel, and the pensive verses of ‘Rollin’ On’ give way to a rush of hope and optimism in the choruses. The delicate ‘Love & Happiness’ resembles ‘Fields Of Gold’, while ‘Donkey Town’, with its small-town adultery and escape for one of the three protagonists, wouldn’t have sounded at all out of place on Springsteen’s Devils & Dust, with Knopfler taking the lead and Harris joining him on the hushed but resolved choruses. The chiming ‘Beyond My Wildest Dreams’, on the other hand, could be arena-rock Springsteen, as Harris and Knopfler unashamedly celebrate a love that has endured beyond either of the protagonist’s imaginings. The beautiful title track – a warm and moving song of time and travel – is the undisputed standout.
As a whole, however, the album is not an entirely smooth journey; ‘Right Now’ is something of a dull generic plod and ‘Belle Starr’ never quite achieves lift off. But the finale of ‘If This Is Goodbye’ features Harris’s ghostliest, most enchanting vocal and makes for a supremely graceful closer. With its smooth, easy arrangements and comfortable ‘70s country-rock ambience, it’s fair to say that the album breaks no new stylistic ground. The Harris record it most resembles is Western Wall, her 1999 collaboration with Linda Rondstadt, and while it’s ultimately just too conventional an album to rank up there as one of her most memorable collaborative efforts, it’s an undisputedly lovely one nonetheless. Tender, quietly inspiring and surprisingly addictive.
originally published April 24th, 2006
These Days EP ••••
When Wears The Trousers chose Cardiff-born singer Julia Harris as one of our picks for ‘06, it was on the basis of a couple of homemade live albums, a growing buzz about her on the singer-songwriter circuit and a nagging hunch that the UK had finally found its answer to Ani DiFranco. These Days is Harris’s first nationwide studio release, so were we right to hype her?
Glad to say but of course! With These Days, Harris restores our belief that a grass roots buzz really can be the product of hard work, originality and sheer talent, rather than calculated media spin (Miss Thom, I’m looking at you). Of course, the DiFranco factor is writ large throughout these four wonderful songs, but Harris stamps so much of her own individuality on them that any notion of facsimile is summarily dismissed. Her vocal is rather more smooth and soulful than DiFranco’s sometimes abrasive rasp, an asset best displayed when she lobs an unexpectedly brilliant folk scat into ‘Sticks & Stones’, or the soaring, pure falsetto she pulls out the bag for ‘Your Love’.
Her muscular and funky playing style is individual too, energetically propelling both the songs and your shuffling feet. The sympathetic production allows Harris’ energy to shine through the mix rather than languish beneath a veneer of compressed homogeneity. Keeping to a rhythm section of drums and acoustic bass allows a degree of jazziness to permeate the songs, picking up the natural funky flavour of Harris’s writing and delivery. Indeed, one of the most refreshing things about her is a lightness of tone and spirit. That’s not to say she doesn’t dwell on some of life’s more important issues, simply that she actually brings insight instead of just handwringing angst.
Kicking off with the celebratory title track, with its funky rhythm, singalong chorus and quirky arrangement, it’s apparent from the off that this is one song that you’ll keep coming back to. The almost tribal woo-hoos and insidious hooks are undeniably engaging and just get better and better with each listen. In the hands of another, ‘Sticks & Stones’ might seem a little clunky, topically at least, with Harris pointing fingers at those who don’t consider the knock-on effects of an off-hand put-down on a more fragile spirit.
But it’s not in the hands of another and Harris delivers her message with a cheeky wink and sassy sense of self-reliance. The reggae-styled verses of ‘Your Love ‘contrast nicely with the acoustic rock chorus and avoids the lovestruck clichés so many tend to rely on. Closing number ‘Leave’ belies its ‘live studio jam’ appellation by serving up a lean, well-structured ditty on getting the hell out of a destructive relationship. Aside from a few, er, ‘jazzier’ notes on the bass, you’d be hard pressed to notice that this was a live cut, it’s that well done. With the promise of a proper full-length debut some time in the winter or early 2007, Harris will be one to keep an eye on for a long while yet. There’s plenty more there this lot came from and you won’t want to miss it.
originally published August 10th, 2006
Peel Sessions 1991-2004 ••••
As a tribute to mark the second anniversary of John Peel’s death, PJ Harvey joins Siouxsie & The Banshees, Múm, Pulp, The House Of Love and others in releasing a series of tracks recorded for the late DJ’s show. Harvey, who handpicked the tracklist herself, completed nine sessions with Peel between 1991 and 2004, and he was reportedly pleased to have had a long standing association with not only one of his favourite artists but also a great friend. On her part, Harvey has gone on record as saying how important hers and other artists’ Peel Sessions have been, with their raw sound resulting from the live studio setup.
Harvey’s first session took place on October 29, 1991, a full year before her debut album Dry was even released, and it’s a fine testament to Peel’s eagerness to champion undiscovered talent that his early support would be so well rewarded. The tracks from this session – ‘Oh My Lover’, ‘Victory’, ‘Sheela-Na- Gig’ and ‘Water’ – are delivered with the poise and confidence of an established performer. As she would demonstrate later on 4 Track Demos, Harvey’s songs maintain their veracity and power when stripped to their barest essence, and these early tracks compare well with their album counterparts.
Later sessions from 1993 and 1996 make for an eclectic mix of tracks from 4 Track Demos, Rid Of Me and Dance Hall At Louse Point, Harvey’s under-the- radar but brilliant collaboration with John Parish. To a certain extent, Harvey’s choices avoid those songs already released in bare bones versions, instead revisiting those that were previously furnished with more production and polish. Recordings from the most recent sessions showcase Harvey’s vocals at their most fierce. Her gutsy, raw energy reverberates right through the staggering ‘This Wicked Tongue’, previously available only as a bonus track on Stories From The City, Stories From The Sea. The final track, ‘You Come Through’, was recorded in tribute to Peel just six weeks after his sudden passing whilst on holiday in Peru. It’s a fittingly emotional recording with added poignancy and a welcome addition to this collection.
All in all, though it is far from exhaustive of the material stashed away on tape somewhere, this is an essential album for fans of Harvey and/or Peel, saluting both her daring, nervy style and his unwavering punk rock spirit.
originally published December 17th, 2006
Made In China ••••
Ye Olde Records
So Juliana Hatfield is back with her tenth solo album, as challenging and contrary as ever. If, like me, you lost track of her somewhere around album three, 1995’s Only Everything, this is a chance to renew your acquaintance. Called Made In China to indicate her disposable and marketable state, the album features her stripped bare on the cover. Being Juliana, it’s just her torso, there to also represent where her music comes from. Like many artists, after early major label experience, Hatfield retreated to the underground and the safety of a small independent label and the freedom to do her own prolific thing. So after releasing almost one album per year, not to mention various band reunions and side project Some Girls, has the former Blake Baby grown up?
Well, the album kicks off in familiar territory with the classic brooding power-pop of ‘New Waif’, all the sass of old coming to the fore. It’s to the lyrics you should look for a statement of intent, with their opening plea of “you better give this girl something, because she’s dying for a lie”. ‘What Do I Care’ continues the nostalgia trip, its bratty vocals accompanying a slice of Babes In Toyland-style grunge, a trick that’s similarly employed and even trumped on ‘Stay Awake’. It’s the former, however, that lyrically sums up the fragile and paradoxical mood of the album. See: “Made in China for the masses, I’m cheap and plastic … / you can buy me / you can break me / you can laugh but you’ll see it’s so easy / what the fuck? / it’s a miracle I’m even here”.
It’s at this point that you realise what a big debt Avril Lavigne and her ilk owe to Hatfield. She barged the doors open and got trampled in the rush as the anodyne clones polished the product, making it more palatable and MTV friendly. This however is the real thing, challenging the listener yet remaining immensely tuneful. ‘On Video’ is Redd Kross-flavoured ‘70s rock, ‘Hole In The Sky’ goes for a hippie-ish acoustic feel, while ‘Oh’ pinches a slice of the riff from Suede’s ‘The Drowners’ and gets all slinky on us. In the rockier mid-section, ‘My Pet Lion’ kicks off like an early Bangles track, followed by the feisty power-pop of ‘Going Blonde’. ‘Rats In The Attic’ is reminiscent of ‘Nirvana’ from 1993’s Become What You Are, with Hatfield fitting a little girl lost vocal over a grinding rock tune.
There’s a big flourish to finish, a sinister and spooky number called ‘A Doe & Two Fawns’, which begins with winding electric guitar that leads into double-tracked vocals, before segueing into a long fadeout, with a shaker adding to the ill feeling. That, in turn, leads into ‘Send Money’, a sprawling, psychotic letter to God and his overeager believers. Unlike some of her contemporaries, Hatfield is still on top form after all these years. Now I owe it to her to go back and catch up on what I’ve missed.
originally published March 7th, 2006
Classically trained but rebellious from an early age – she was a member of an all-girl punk band back in Oslo – Havnevik lends an orchestral ear to a pop mentality on her debut album Melankton. Influences as diverse as jazz guitar, string quartets, punk percussion and sweeping electronica find some middle ground underneath her almost childlike (and, yes, a little Björkian) vocals. Despite the mix, the songs can sound eerily familiar and samey, particularly if you’ve recently purchased either of Frou Frou’s Details or Imogen Heap’s Speak For Yourself (and if not, why not?). The link is songwriter Guy Sigsworth, Heap’s other half in Frou Frou and all-round electronica-with-heart genius who writes with Havnevik. Sadly, Melankton comes across as a slightly under-par combination of his last two projects. That’s not to say that there isn’t anything good here, rather that, with competition like Heap, it’s got to be better than good to qualify.
From the minimalist album sleeve to the stark synth of opener ‘Unlike Me’, the similarities with Speak For Yourself are clear. It’s also clear that Havnevik can sing; she has a good range but doesn’t flaunt it unless it’s appropriate. ‘Not Fair’ could be a contender for the next Bond theme, all sweeping strings and dramatic chorus, but the album doesn’t really get interesting until the quirky pop of ‘You Again’. Frustratingly, the next four tracks give us a glimpse of what might have been; ‘Serpentine’ and ‘Sleepless’ are solid album tracks with good hooks, but it’s ‘Kaleidoscope’ and ‘Suckerlove’ that remind you that this is a debut from someone with promise. If she can write more like these two, Havnevik has serious future potential. ‘Kaleidoscope’ in particular is glorious, far and away the best track on Melankton – simple structure, great melody and a hook you’ll find yourself humming over and over again long after its finished, wondering where it came from.
Which is the point, I suppose. Another four or five ‘Kaleidoscopes’ and you’d remember exactly where it came from. The rest suffer from predictable over- experimentation and forgettable melodies, despite some promising starts and the occasionally appealing middle-eight. Recent collaborators include Moby, Royksopp and Noel Hogan of The Cranberries and if Havnevik can harness their talent for a tune, her sophomore effort will be a must-buy; until then, download ‘Kaleidoscope’ and ‘Suckerlove’ and hope for the best.
originally published September 17th, 2006
Edwina Hayes / Sam Semple
Live at the Half Moon, Putney ••••
August 13, 2006
It’s an accident of chance that a room out the back of some South London pub should be elevated above similar rooms in other hostelries to minor rock icon status. However, that’s the Half Moon in Putney’s good fortune and its none-more-black interior has seen performances by thousands of artists. On this particular rain-spattered evening, the select crowd who had forsaken an evening in front of the telly were treated to the distinctive country-folk sounds of rising star Edwina Hayes.
Despite having just come off the touring treadmill as special guest on Nanci Griffith’s UK tour (at the specific request of Lubbock, TX’s folkabilly queen, no less!) she seems genuinely delighted to be gracing the Half Moon’s rather more bijou stage. Add in the “adopted hometown” energy of a rare London show and the family and friends scattered among the audience and anticipation is running high. Tonight’s support is provided by Sam Semple whose stream of consciousness balladry passes the time pleasantly enough but does little more.
No faint praise for the main event though as Hayes graces the room with a beguilingly open, natural air that easily draws the audience in and wins them over. Sure, her vocal and performance style do owe a lot to her personal heroine, Griffith, but Hayes’s maturity as a writer belies her years and her performance is assured. Scattered among the anecdotes are songs from her debut album, Out On My Own, alongside others that are as yet unrecorded and covers of Gillian Welch and Randy Newman.
One perennial danger of solo acoustic gigs is that they can sometimes become a little monotonous. Hayes’s gentle guitar style, however, mixes things up sufficiently that such a problem is avoided. In places, her country- style finger-picking lets the top strings ring clear like chiming bells, such as on the touching ‘Leave A Light On For You’, while numbers like ‘Tell Me So’ witness a shift in the mood, elegantly lurching in a bluesier direction. However, Hayes’s masterstroke is to take the opportunity of playing in the city to rope in songwriting buddy and longtime London session hound David ‘Dzal’ (pronounced ‘diesel’) Martin on second guitar, bringing further richness to the sound.
Although there is clearly a little busking going on with the chord sequences on occasion, the veteran’s experience and professionalism pay dividends. Only the pickiest ear would detect any hesitation in his playing. Certainly his acoustic solo on ‘I Can’t Believe’, his emotive slide on ‘Tell Me So’ and his country blues twang-riffing on ‘Long Highway’ catch the ear and linger in the memory. All in all, this was a hugely enjoyable evening and one that bodes well for Hayes’s involvement alongside Amy Wadge and Rosalie Deighton in their Voices On The Verge-style singer-songwriter collective Hummingbird later in 2006.
originally published September 17th, 2006
Speak For Yourself [reissue] ••••½
White Rabbit / SonyBMG
First the facts: Speak For Yourself is Heap’s second solo effort. Her first, I Megaphone, was released in 1998. Somewhere in between, she achieved a degree of success through her collaboration with Guy Sigsworth in the form of Frou Frou, releasing Details, an electronica album with hidden depths and the first hint of what was to come. After the party, however, it seems everyone else went home, so what’s a girl to do? Easy! Re-mortgage the flat and spend a year of her life writing and recording an album and issuing it under her own label, Megaphonic. What’s that you say, sounds like a rubbish idea? Hardly! Through word of mouth alone in the UK and ‘The OC’ effect in the States, Heap sold 100,000 copies of Speak For Yourself off her own back. Now, SonyBMG have bought the distribution rights and re-released it behind some heavyweight promo. Cross your fingers the big boys know what to do with her, because Heap has crafted a thing of beauty. You can hold every minute of this album up to the light and it sparkles. It’s all Tiffany, no Ratners.
It’s not immediately obvious why it’s so good. A busy sound, conjured from banks of computers and organic instruments, presents itself as the modern equivalent of early ‘80s synth culture, with added orchestra, guitars and, for all I know, the kitchen sink. Eno beeps, Trevor Horn synths, fuzz bass, multi-layered vocals – you name it, Speak For Yourself has got it; there’s value for money here, but given bold brush, a sense of space and warmth. This isn’t a cold record; the melodies are beautiful. And then it hits you – it’s the lyrics. The words are worthy of Neils Tennant and Finn and all the songwriting geniuses who know that pop works best when it doesn’t treat its listeners like idiots. They capture perfectly the way our emotions play and are played with, in a contemporary language that pulls no punches.
For example, on ‘Just For Now’, Heap dissects a longterm relationship with bruised resignation over the space of one afternoon’s dinner party and three minutes of haunting music: “How did you know? It’s what I always wanted, you can never have too many of these.” You’ve heard that before, right? How about: “Bite tongue, deep breaths, count to ten, nod your head… whoever put on this music had better quick sharp remove it, pour me another, and don’t wag your finger at me”. Is that affecting enough for you? On the a cappella ‘Hide & Seek’, a vocoder’d hymn to betrayal, Heap sings “Mm what d’ya say? Oh, that you only meant well, well of course you did, that it’s all for the best, of course it is, mm that it’s just what we need, you decided this?” – I can’t do it justice in a review, you have to hear it to know she’s lived it.
Superlatives are bandied around far too often. Each new find is the next big thing and then a future footnote in the gossip columns. Heap won’t win everyone over – that’s the beauty of opinion, but this lifelong music obsessive is happy to go on record and state that Speak For Yourself is the most consistent, wonderfully inventive and stick-it-on-repeat record he’s heard in the last 18 months. Speaking for myself. And I’ve broken my word count to try and convince you.
originally published May 26th, 2006
Colston Hall, Bristol ••••
October 4th, 2006
Entering through a side door midway through the stalls just seconds after the lights go down, Imogen Heap looks half-Amazonian, half-techno warrior beamed back from the future. Already strikingly lofty, a feather-and flower-topped mohawk makes her look even taller as she strolls through the audience, keyboard slung over her shoulder like a weapon, to take her place on the stage. It’s a captivating opening and the gig that follows doesn’t disappoint. Opening with ‘I Am In Love With You’, sung on the way to the stage, Heap soon positions herself in front of a very fancy Perspex piano before swiftly launching into ‘Speeding Cars’ – a track that truly shows off her beautiful, versatile voice, and the audience is clearly enthralled.
It’s all the more surprising, therefore, when Heap apologises to the crowd for feeling under par – she later proves to be very adept at between-song banter and even introduces the frog in her throat to the audience – but if anything, the added huskiness works in her favour. Only during encore ‘Hide & Seek’ does this prevent her from reaching the highest notes, and she pauses mid-song to say sorry. Of course, this only makes the already rapturously appreciative Colston Hall warm to her even further. Frog or no frog, Heap’s voice can deliver a stupendous, piercing wail when required. It’s a trick that she rarely deploys and is all the more effective for it; accompanied by flashing strobe lights and the fierce but controlled backing of her four- piece band, the impact is thrilling.
Musically, the set holds surprises throughout, not least the bursts of metallic, distorted energy that momentarily transform ‘Loose Ends’ and ‘Daylight Robbery’. On songs where she does not play piano or keyboards, Heap dances at the front of the stage. Doing something akin to ‘the robot’, silhouetted by stark lighting and surrounded by swirling mist, she cuts a striking, androgynous figure. Playing only one song from her first record I Megaphone (‘Candle Light’) and one Frou Frou song (‘Let Go’), the set draws very heavily from last year’s Speak For Yourself. But why not? It’s an excellent album and the only track this reviewer missed was early single ‘Come Here Boy’. The perfect, punchy pop of latest single ‘Headlock’ is a definite highlight, the crystal clear sound in the venue making the song seem even more impressive than on record. As well as her band, Heap has all manner of pre-programmed beats, samples and vocal effects at her disposal, and she uses these to full effect to recreate the album’s sparkling sonic clarity.
The stage setup is a little puzzling; the Perspex piano, of which Heap is clearly very proud, is beautiful, but the lit tree stage left and bauble-esque reflective circles on the right give the show a (presumably unintentional) Christmassy feel. However, when the sole criticism you have of a concert concerns the stage set, you know you’ve watched a stellar gig. I’m pretty sure that the wildly applauding crowd and people dancing in the aisles would agree.
originally published October 14th, 2006
A nebulous creation borne out of the band Barefoot Contessa, Helene Dineen and Graham Gargiulo retained their songwriting partnership under the simple moniker Helene to allow Dineen’s fragile, soulful voice to become the focus – and it’s a remarkable focus at that. A well-travelled instrument, having lived in Israel, London and Berlin at various junctures, at times her vocal is quite plainly British, while at others it coos with a soft Gallic lilt. This second album is a similarly experienced, richly varied tapestry of sounds and creative techniques that combine bluesy and folk-pop notes underpinned by rockier sounds. From poignant, philosophical numbers like ‘Sammy Is A Solider Now’ to ‘Beat Dream’, a powerful instrumental torrent that positively zings with high-octane guitars, these songs are anything but routine.
With such an experienced band behind her, Dineen can rely on some carefully crafted, extraordinary musicality to back up that voice, and boy does she make the most of her crew. First single ‘This Is All We Have To Know’ is a sweetly penned, guitar-centric ode to love, concluding that it is “better breath than air”, while ‘Forever In A Day’ allows the band to unfurl their shapely rock wings in a distinctly refreshing manner. Dineen’s vocal lovingly echoes the guitar melody and is bolstered by brilliant, hard-edged bridges that should seem out of place but work surprisingly well.
Outstanding totems of individuality are found also in ‘Nothing To You’ and ‘I Need A Girl’. The former edges away from the band’s sweeter side with an evidently Dylan-influenced ditty with a sumptuous refrain that proclaims “I can’t be all things to everyone and nothing to you”, while the latter – a fantastic duet with Gargiulo – takes classic folk influences with an intriguing male/ female dynamic and a twist to its tale. It seems wrong not to mention every song in turn – each one seems to grow and resonate more with every play – but that’s half the joy of the album and it would be a crime to spoil it. Routines, then; always a pleasure, never a chore!
originally published October 5th, 2006
The story of Hem is as warming as their music. Brought together by their love of Americana and alt-country music, songwriter Dan Messe and producer/ engineer Gary Maurer placed an advert in a local paper for a like-minded vocalist, leading to their discovery of the very talented Sally Ellyson, who, despite possessing a truly affecting voice, had been too shy to sing in public. Together with Steve Curtis, George Rush, Mark Brotter, Bob Hoffnar and Heather Zimmerman, they released their articulate and folksy debut, Rabbit Songs, in 2001. In contrast, Eveningland is an opulent, lush and stronger album; a long-tabled banquet with Ellyson’s vocals the centrepiece, somehow managing to be both intimate and closed, sultry and breezy, often within the same song.
Over this 16-track offering, Hem infuse into these tunes a variety of influences, from the gentle ‘70s country-pop of The Carpenters to the more contemporary hints of Natalie Merchant post-10,000 Maniacs. The Slovak Radio Orchestra also pay a visit, their delicate strings adding considerable texture and depth, thrusting the songs to great cinematic heights. Fittingly, the songwriting imbues every song with vivid and beautiful imagery from the heartbreaking lines of lost love in ‘The Fire Thief’ (“Sometimes a heart can break and make its own relief, the way a cold dark night invites the fire thief”) to the images of the traveller in ‘Pacific Street’ (“Well I don’t know you except in the way a traveller knows a traveller, the way a station can tempt you to stay and spend some time inside it”), each song seems like a standalone artwork, as if each were a four-minute film. Nothing is more representative of the cinematic style than the all-too-brief instrumental, ‘Eveningland’, which rises and swells mid-album to wrap the listener in sound. Elsewhere, the band weave the sounds of a lullaby into ‘Lucky’, infuse a Randy Newman-esque pop sensibility into ‘Receiver’, and ably reflect the longings of the great country balladeers such as Loretta Lynn in the stunning ‘Dance Me Home’.
Hem take chances as well, gracefully lending the Johnny and June Carter Cash duet ‘Jackson’ a sleepy wistfulness that the roughhewn original has never before known. Though the song was made famous as a playful, rocking tune about a misdemeaning man whose wife makes sure her voice is heard (“Go on down to Jackson, go on and wreck your health”), Ellyson sings the part as a seductive taunt, preserving the sense of a woman scorned, but without the original’s inherent violence, and the best part is it works. Album closer, ‘Carry Me Home’, is a murder ballad that focuses not on the crime, but rather the healing from the traumatic event. Even with such a morbid topic, the song leaves the listener revelling in hope as Ellyson softly sings the refrain “tell me nothing’s wrong there”.
Disappointingly, the UK release doesn’t seem to feature the hidden track available elsewhere, an a cappella version of the traditional number, ‘Now The Day Is Over’, that Ellyson sings with an exquisite slight tremble. That minor grumble aside, Eveningland is a superb collection of songs that, despite the prevailing themes of love long lost and death, still contain a rare sense of hope and uplift that will comfort you for hours.
originally published December 19th, 2005
No Word From Tom •••½
Some might say that after just two critically acclaimed albums, an experimental collection of covers, live tracks and reworked originals might be a bit of an ego trip. However, when the band in question is Brooklyn-based countrypolitans Hem, the idea becomes less self-absorbed and far more provocative. In fact, it becomes downright curious, especially with a casual glancing of the tracklist. Boasting everything from fully orchestrated live tracks to rollicking covers of unexpected independent hits to country standards, No Word From Tom is certainly rangier than either of its predecessors. Much of the band’s appeal and undoubtedly their strongest asset lies in the voice of Sally Ellyson, and both the a cappella version of traditional standard ‘All The Pretty Horses’ and their gorgeous cover of Tony Joe White’s ‘Rainy Night In Georgia’ wisely capitalise on this. What’s more, they showcase the very sort of song that Hem has made their signature; forlorn and longing, yet subtle and flowing, they start things off with vigour and promise.
But Hem don’t just dawdle along routes they’ve already travelled. To show they’ve been busy trying new things, they throw in some contemporary covers to keep the flow interesting and to showcase Ellyson’s wider range where a typical Hem song would keep it close. Nowhere is this more evident than in the acoustic rendition of Fountains Of Wayne’s ‘Radiation Vibe’. While theirs isn’t nearly as funky as the original, Hem gamely jam along, giving the song a little more depth and feeling than even Chris Collingwood could muster. The live tracks, too, shine brightly. Ellyson’s vocals soar above the music as it colours the gaps behind her, seemingly formed by alchemical reaction. The sound is full and resonant, losing little of the detail of their studio counterparts and proving that Hem are just as solid an outfit outside of the studio as they are magical within it.
However, the album doesn’t always gel as well as either Rabbit Songs or Eveningland. The addition of REM’s ‘South Central Rain’ works as an interesting interpretation of the band’s early classic, but for once the signature slo-core vocals detract from rather than add to the song. The same is true with many of the reworked originals. For instance, ‘Eveningland’ has swelled to twice its original length, and although it works on its own, the original did the job so succinctly that you can’t help but feel they are needlessly stretching out something that worked just fine the way it was. As the album goes on… and on… and on, for just under an hour, it’s hard to escape the notion that Hem are reaching for something that they never quite grasp, a feeling of earnestness that just isn’t resolved by the time it draws to close.
Perhaps No Word From Tom would have worked better as either an entire album of covers or an entire album of live performances. As it is, this will do more to entertain longtime fans than generate new ones, and the band just don’t play long enough with new ideas to break any ground. Nevertheless, they continue to grow and shine as a band on the up, and whilst this latest release may be quietly indulgent, who’s to say that a band as good as Hem don’t deserve that opportunity.
originally published March 19th, 2006
1980 Forward: Live at the Scala ••••
November 21-22, 2005
[Note from the editor: When Wears The Trousers heard that the queen of alternately bruised and bruising alt-rock was playing back-to-back acoustic retrospectives of her solo work and time with the Throwing Muses, we practically fell over our dribbling selves to wangle us an invite. Then, having managed that, we scrapped like Bette and Joan over who would get to go and bask in the bliss of nostalgia. Being of a somewhat democratic, fair-minded persuasion, I opted not to pull rank but instead to offer up straws to my compadres, of which I predictably drew the shortest. Sigh. So here’s the lowdown from the lucky ones… nice guys finish last people, remember that!]
November 21, 2005
This first night of Kristin Hersh’s mini-residency at the Scala in aid of record label 4AD’s 25th birthday celebrations (dubbed ‘1980 Forward’) saw her revisiting the songs of the Throwing Muses, the band that made her name in the mid-1980s as lead singer, songwriter and crunchy guitarist. For us of a certain age, many remember the Muses very fondly, occupying a similar space to Sonic Youth, early REM and fellow 4ADers, the Pixies, and yet parading an unmuddied style of their own. Armed with a string of excellently angular and unsettling songs piloted by the many mercurial gifts of Miss Hersh, they gathered a substantial underground following, while never really crossing over in such grand style as some of their peers.
The Muses were also a troubled group, and while being flat broke and quarrelling for most of their existence undoubtedly spurred them to musical and lyrical heights, it cost them dearly their peace of mind. Certainly, Hersh’s mind is famously unpeaceful, her songwriting often serving to exorcise her vivid hallucinations, so it was not really clear just how happy she would be trotting out a whole night’s worth of old, and in some cases presumably painful, memories. It’s no surprise then that the Scala crowd are tentatively hopeful but entirely unsure of how the night would progress. Mostly in their late 20s and early 30s, they definitely aren’t looking to thrash about the way they first did to these songs, but then Hersh herself is a good bit older too.
After kicking off comfortably with ‘Hook In Her Head’ and ‘Teller’, the crowd start to warm up with ‘Rabbit’s Dying’. Hersh’s voice begins to open up, revealing the maturity acquired after two decades of uninhibited performance. From then on, she noticeably settles, introducing ‘Cottonmouth’ as a drunkenly overheard and furiously scribbled down conversation between two equally drunk sisters in a bar with Hersh’s own half-sister and bandmate Tanya Donelly. After banging out another couple (‘Hazing’ and ‘Run Letter’), she wearily declares “What a horrible trip down memory lane”. It’s a relieving, ice-breaking thing to say and she smiles, clearly enjoying herself despite (or even because of) the memories.
As things get increasingly comfortable, Hersh treats us a few more unhurried anecdotes. We learn that ‘Pearl’ is about her virtually blind, psoriasis-suffering childhood friend, Marie, who won the Presidential Fitness Award (introduced by Ronald “Ketchup is a vegetable” Reagan) for doggedly hanging onto a horizontal bar the longest. She says something nice about 4AD: (“Mmmmm, 4AD… yum”) and complains after ‘Drive’ that the songs drag on too much (“None of them end! I keep waiting for them to end!”). She also tells us how the band used to amuse themselves during the long overnight sessions recording 1990’s Hunkpapa album by betting on rat races in the alleyway under the studio. Apparently, Prince’s erstwhile head bimbo, Apollonia, had the requisite cash to record her ‘album’ one syllable at a time in the studio’s daylight hours. Then she spins/spits out fantastic versions of ‘Bea’, ‘Counting Backwards’ and ‘Delicate Cutters’ before going off stage to plenty of enthusiastic cheer.
And it’s not too long before she returns for a fantastic four-song encore, accompanied on strings by Martin and Joan McCarrick. Hersh then plays three tracks from the last Muses album Limbo, saying that the band should’ve been called ‘The Martin Show’ by that point (“…better name for a band too”). Her renditions of ‘White Bikini Sands’, ‘Limbo’ and ‘Serene’ each sound even better than the last. As a nice touch, she admits that ‘White Bikini Sands’, a hidden track on the album, is probably her favourite Muses track, partly because her father wrote it and (with a laugh) as it got her kicked out of the band.
Finally, she winds things down with ‘Hate My Way’, the crowd adoringly eating up the 19-year old classic. But before she does, she tells us that the song was inspired by a day when she was walking through the student-saturated city of Providence, Rhode Island, being handed fistfuls of angsty, overzealous leaflets. One of which, about blame and responsibility, was so passionately disjointed as to be barely coherent and struck an emotional chord.
November 22, 2005
Unless you’re Kristin Hersh herself, it’s unlikely that you’ll ever know whether choosing what to play from such a vast vault of riches would be a giant headache or simply a huge dose of self-affirmation. But first things first… Paula Frazer is a name I’ve seen bandied around with complimentary abandon in the music press for some time now, but I’ve never knowingly encountered her music before tonight’s support slot. Clearly, this is a very wrong thing. Throwing simpler folk shapes than those of Hersh’s tangled thickets, Frazer’s acoustic guitar pillows her quite extraordinary mahogany voice, permitting it the space to reach out and caress the room. Her set could have been a bit longer at a measly half an hour, but it was a suitably 4AD start to the evening, and one more convert to her estimable charms.
With Frazer’s stingy on-stage allowance emphasised by the between-set lull lasting longer than her performance, I join my fellow travellers for some general milling about. Eventually, Hersh appears stage left, her hair short and plastered to her head like a 1920s flapper or demure Helmut Newton girl, brandishing the obligatory acoustic and flanked by a cellist and a violinist; “The McCarricks!” are introduced with a smile and a glitter. She seems pretty happy.
She quickly launches into ‘Sno Cat’, which despite hardly being her jolliest song (apparently it’s about a row with her hubby) is certainly an appropriate start with its chilly cadences reminiscent of the season’s descent into winter. While the couples in the room hug tighter, the rest of us are left to find sanctuary in our pockets and memories. From that handsome, sombre start, Hersh takes us on a sublime ride through her solo career, jumping between her albums with glee. After a couple of years tourin’ ‘n’ shoutin’ with new band 50 Foot Wave, her voice – already never the most velveteen of instruments – is hoarser than ever, which works to great effect on more cathartic moments like ‘Your Dirty Answer’ and brings new textures to her softer material. ‘Costa Rica’ and ‘A Cuckoo’, especially, benefit from some new bruises.
Highlights? How about the aforementioned ‘Your Dirty Answer’, Kristin looking intense and haunted, eyes glittering like coals as she spits the words while strings caroused in the air around her? Or perhaps ‘Gazebo Tree’, which surely ranks as one of her most uncomplicatedly beautiful songs. She even forgets the words for a while, which I guess happens when you produce one or two new albums each year; “Too many songs…” she sighs, knowingly. She plays a wonderfully aquatic reading of ‘Listerine’ and a lovely version of ‘Hope’ before rambling through ‘The Letter’, despite unforgivingly branding it bad. A pretty straight version of ‘Me & My Charms’ ensues, but then it’s one of those songs that doesn’t need much improvement.
The latter half of the set is taken entirely from 1994’s Hips & Makers, and ends – inevitably – with the heavenly ‘Your Ghost’. Of course, it receives a rapturous reception, and Hersh interprets it almost joyfully. It’s a poignant reminder of bad times now past, with even the spectre of Michael Stipe thoroughly McCarrickised. Then, for those who missed last night’s Musesfest, she closes out with the triptych of ‘Delicate Cutters’, ‘Mania’ and ‘Hate My Way’ – each one as great as they’ve always been. For my money at least, Hersh is one of the most important songwriters of the last two decades and this was a wonderful, wonderful evening.
originally published December 7th, 2005
Heiress / Warner Bros.
Rather like its namesake, Paris is incredibly well groomed, smothered in lip gloss and the product of many highly-paid hands’ work. Should we have expected anything else? With her venture into music, Hilton is plowing into yet another area of the entertainment industry as part of her quest for world domination. The rather prolonged production period is a testament to the anxiety of Hilton and her people to branch off into a field which requires more than for her to simply be Paris Hilton. Is she pop? rock? hip hop? disco? – with the help of a crack team of big-name producers and writers (led by Scott Storch, producer to Beyoncé and Busta Rhymes), Hilton has lumped for all of the above, in moderation of course. She purrs coquettishly from one track to another, always the picture of composure – even when her band is rocking out, Hilton continues to be blissfully emotionless.
With only one song breaking the four-minute boundary, this record is a well-paced romp through Hilton’s universe. Here, she is every bit the pouty party girl who knows exactly what you’re thinking and doesn’t care, unless you happen to be a hot love prospect. The whole package is very slick until it comes unstuck in the flat lounge-style finale, an ill-advised cover of Rod Stewart’s ‘Do Ya Think I’m Sexy?’. Even so, it’s a pretty knowing conceit, full of canned saxophone and synth, soulless to the last.
Enjoyable as Paris may be, there remains a nagging feeling throughout that this could in fact be anyone else’s record, not helped by the rather open appropriation of other artists’ signature sounds. For instance, ‘Nothing In This World’ bears more than a passing hint of ‘Since U Been Gone’ and ‘Heartbeat’ is Cyndi Lauper’s ‘Time After Time’ updated for 2006, while ‘Turn You On’ makes for a less convincing ‘Maneater’. Hilton’s voice is pleasant enough, though not exactly expressive – she never sounds like she’s struggling but the vocals have clearly been heavily layered in order to give them power.
Ultimately, this record falters because it fails to truly convince. Hilton has nothing much to be embarrassed about and Paris is a successful party soundtrack for her sympathists, but never once does it take us beyond her two-dimensional public persona.
originally published August 30th, 2006
One Little Indian
In comparison with its Nordic neighbours, Finland has been far better known for its classical endeavours than its out-and-out joyous pop. Aside from a few questionable rock exports like The Rasmus and Nightwish, the most successful Finnish music in the international arena has been limited to opera and the works of Jean Sibelius, whose enduring symphonies continue to be played at proms across the world. Given the huge amounts of government funding into music tuition for the youth, it seems strange that the country has yet to produce a significant pop crossover act, but perhaps they could never really compete with the likes of ABBA from next-door Sweden. As a half-Finn, I’ve often despaired about this, and most fellow Finns agree. How thoroughly refreshing, then, to discover a truly original and exciting artist originating from Finland in the form of Heidi Kilpelainen, or rather her alter ego, HK119.
Putting her MA in Fine Art from Central St. Martin’s College in London to excellent use, Kilpelainen has created an all-encompassing performance art persona in HK119, and she’s not shy about utilising the entire spectrum of the art world to get across her message. Not content with simply writing, recording and producing the album herself, she’s recorded her own surreal living-sculpture videos to accompany the songs and put together a dramatic stage act involving a catsuit and helium balloons, beguiling audiences with bizarre special effects. She’s a powerful Nordic force, a beautiful blonde Amazonian monolith, simultaneously furious and fixated with modern technology.
But what of the album? HK119 is packed full of songs that act as a series of short statements (most are less than three minutes long) on the modern human condition, each taking an element of post-millennial society and pushing it to the extreme. What if we never put down our mobile phones? What if everything we said could be censored? What if commercialism was so prevalent that all you cared about was buying and selling? HK119’s world is one in which people have ultimately sacrificed humanity for consumerism. It may seem ludicrous, and in a way it’s meant to be, but it’s not a completely alien concept, and given that she’s come from the country that innovated the mobile phone to the enormous bustling city of London, it’s not hard to understand Kilpelainen’s motivation for exploring these ideas.
The music itself is hard and rough; raw electronic beats are blended with rough industrial synths, samples and HK119’s soaring and demanding vocals. But most of all, it’s just great fun. HK119 may be best friends with Alison Goldfrapp, but her album is much more vibrant and challenging than the oddly dispiriting and bland Supernature. There’s also some inventive audience participation; not only is there a hidden track, ‘11th ID’, buried somewhere in the album just waiting to be found and remixed for a competition, but if you call up the number read out in first single ‘Pick Me Up’, you may be amused and bemused in equal measure. In fact, HK119 makes almost any music from the electronic genre seem weak and ineffective.
But comparing Kilpelainen’s creation to anyone else is difficult, by virtue of her sheer uniqueness. People have tried Grace Jones, or Ziggyera Bowie, but mostly because of her appearance and bizarre, slightly alien character. Also, Björk is reportedly a fan. As is often the case with artists of such originality, it only seems possible to liken her to others that are one-of-akind. HK119 is an artist for the future. A thrillingly vibrant masterstroke of artistry, and what’s more, she’s fun to boot. At last, we have a Finnish artist who’s a keeper. Heidi, pidän työstänne!
originally published February 6th, 2006
Live at Fortescue Avenue Art Gallery •••½
March 31st, 2006
After traipsing through the faintly depressing underbelly of East London, we arrived at the art gallery known as Fortescue Avenue. It wasn’t quite what I was expecting, being pretty much just a garage lock-up in an industrial back street. A man standing outside was handing out bottles of beer and plastic cups of lemonade and there were only about five other people there. Inside, the garage had been painted white, and hardboard squares and triangles had been set up in one corner, onto which the videos of Heidi Kilpelainen aka HK119 were being projected.
The videos themselves were highly entertaining, which was a good thing as we ended up watching them about twice on a loop while waiting for the main event. Each had its own distinct character and featured HK using everyday disposable objects (in keeping with the theme of her debut album) in a number of creative ways; for instance, wearing a sock and a slinky over her head for ‘In-Valid’ to highly disturbing effect, or wearing binbags round her shoulders and on her behind for ‘Friend For Dinner’, making her look vaguely canine in appearance. Clearly, the videos have been made on absolutely no budget at all, but they’re a damn sight more interesting and imaginative than many that are made with millions. What’s more is that they serve to flesh out Heidi’s songs, raising them up from one-dimensionality into living, breathing creatures.
Half an hour after the live performance was supposed to start, we were still waiting. The garage had filled up though, and it didn’t seem quite so awkward. What it had filled up with, however, was a sizeable throng of highly pretentious Hoxton types, wearing capes and berets and sporting strange facial hair. I wondered if these people fully appreciated the tongue-in-cheek silliness of HK119’s work, or whether they were taking it all rather too seriously. Finally there was movement, and HK119 appeared from behind the various polygons. She was dressed in her usual black catsuit, with black polystyrene triangles on her head, arm and leg. Bathed in a blue light and standing motionless on a block, one arm outstretched, she slipped into the opening number ‘Censor Me’. Rather unnervingly, she had painted open eyes on her firmly shut lids for that Mona Lisa staring effect. All suitably robotic and her performance was impeccable.
Shaking off the subdued beginning, HK picked up the pace with highly energetic renditions of debut single ‘Pick Me Up’ plus her ode to cannibalism ‘Friend For Dinner’ and the self-explanatory ‘Malfunction’. Bounding around the ‘stage’, she screeched, laughed maniacally and generally looked quite menacing, but ultimately utterly fabulous. Overall, it was an enjoyable and well-constructed performance. Needless to say, HK119 really deserves to be performing in better venues in the future!
originally published April 5th, 2006
When an artist announces that they are quitting the music business, it’s often wise to take a pinch of salt and throw it disbelievingly over all of their records. In reality, few stay gone for long. In Lauren Hoffman’s case, it has been a fairly respectable five years since her sparse and sensual sophomore album, From The Blue House, was released independently in the UK. After dropping out of a university degree in the autumn of 2002, a spontaneous trip to India set the wheels in motion for the follow-up, via a stint in her hometown rock band, The Lilas. Certainly, many of the songs here have been thoroughly road-tested in one form or another over the last two years, including the waltzing ‘Out Of The Sky, Into The Sea’, which was formerly the title track of The Lilas’s sole EP. It’s no surprise then that the album has a slightly worn-in feel. That’s not to say it’s all been done before, but Hoffman seems to have cultivated a middle ground between From The Blue House and her exceptional debut, Megiddo, and so Choreography perhaps lacks the element of surprise that both those records possessed.
‘Broken’ makes for a promising start; a seductive, moody undercurrent propels Hoffmann’s perfectly ice-cool vocal along a shimmering hummable melody. Equally suggestive is the largely acoustic, slow-burning ballad ‘As The Stars’, though it is warmer in tone and boasts a lovely piano part in the bridge. Although some of the rockier numbers such as ‘Crush’ and ‘Hiding In Plain Sight’ lack the necessary bite to really impress, ‘Solipsist’ benefits from a more aggressive feel and is the first of a four-song suite that shores up the record’s second half. ‘Another Song About The Darkness’ is an ideal showcase for Hoffman’s most lucid yet languorous vocal, which escalates as the song progresses towards its palpably melancholic conclusion.
Though Choreography has neither the freshness of Megiddo nor the cohesiveness of From The Blue House, many favourable constants remain – Hoffman’s tantalising vocals and salient attitude are stamped all over the record. Not a great leap forward then, but a diagonal sidestep it might well be worth you taking alongside her.
originally published September 4th, 2005
The Hot Puppies
Under The Crooked Moon ••••
After a few years paying their dues on the indie circuit, gently hyped Welsh quintet The Hot Puppies finally appear to have the literate, stylish pop thing down to the finest of arts on this, their debut album. But it’s not just the quality music you need to watch out for, there’s some tales to be told as well. For example, former single ‘Terry’ could have stepped right out of a rock ‘n’ roll movie; it’s sassy, classy and boasts a chorus that’s equal parts Pipettes and Patti Smith and pretty damn wonderful too. ‘The Bottled Ship Song’ is a woozy lullaby of the sort that Rilo Kiley specialise in, with a chorus that muses on life before relinquishing control and conceding that what’s in store is “anyone’s guess”.
Indeed, it’s anyone’s guess why some of these songs weren’t bigger hits when first released. Debut single ‘Green Eyeliner’ dates back a couple of years but casts its musical net even further, dragging into the present a keyboard motif that’s reminiscent of Inspiral Carpets as singer Becki Newman vamps it up as a painted temptress of the easily led. Recent single ‘The Girl Who Was Too Beautiful’ steps things up with beats right out of a 1970s disco and an uplifting pop tune set to lyrics that namecheck agony aunt / broadcaster Mariella Frostrup as a paragon of knowledge and relationship advice. It veers a little closer to adult-alternative pop than most other songs here but comes down on the right side of the fence in the end.
Under The Crooked Moon is full of nice little touches. For example, the youthful regret of ‘Bonnie & Me’ sees Newman’s passionate vocal neatly accentuated by Bert Wood’s drums and Beth Gibson’s wailing theremin, while ‘The Drowsing Nymph’ comes complete with a rockabilly rhythm, whipcracks and gunshots adding to the western feel. There’s more effervescent organ pop on ‘Love Or Trial’, some Sons & Daughters-esque art-rock on ‘Baptist Boy’ and a dose of lovely acoustics on the sweet and girly ‘Heartbreak Soup’.
There’s even room for a short cover of the Ink Spots / Ella Fitzgerald number ‘Into Each Life Some Rain Must Fall’, which is given a doo-wop duet makeover with Newman and Gibson cooing beautifully in unison. Best of all, however, is the delightful ‘Love In Practice, Not Theory’, which started rather inauspiciously as a B-side to ‘Terry’ but more than deserves its place on the album. It’s a smouldering ballad in which Newman emotively bemoans the standoffish attitude of her man, but when guitarist Luke Taylor chimes in to duet on the chorus, there’s a distinct suggestion that not all is quite as it first appears.
When indie pop this intelligent comes along it’s always a pleasant surprise and The Hot Puppies (who, incidentally, were named after a Dorothy Parker poem) have a good chance of making a real impression.
originally published July 25th, 2006
Howling Bells ••••
Who exactly are Howling Bells? Many a column inch has been dedicated to them but what are they really about? To put it simply, they’re a sexy, sultry Australian quartet who’ve come a long way to turn us all on with their strangely erotic slant on loneliness. Frontwoman Juanita Stein’s vocal delivery is firmly set to haunt mode whilst her brother Joel, bassist Brendan Picchio and drummer Glen Moule create enough dark atmospherics to keep things brooding along in the background. Opening with ‘The Bell Hit’, Howling Bells ease the listener in gently with a laid back, woozy Sunday morning tune that showcases perfectly their country-tinged melancholia. ‘Low Happening’ kicks the pace up a gear and shows the band at their sexiest – instantaneous, poppy, but with blackness at its heart.
Debut single ‘Wishing Stone’ is thrown in midway through the album; initially a rather sparse, cold and uninvolving tune, it soon grows into a coolly decadent, gloriously dark heartwarmer. And therein lies the oddest thing about this stunning record – though it lacks upbeat rhythms and golden sunshine hooks, it never feels too cold, empty or lonely. The influences at work here at times seem obvious – PJ Harvey and The Velvet Underground to name but two – but Howling Bells are far from derivative. They uniquely soundtrack a brooding urban wasteland, and whilst that may sound pretentious, the band have a truly unique quality that sparks off beautiful images in the listener’s mind, transporting them to a different world. Listen to this album with the lights off. Atmospheric doesn’t even come close to describing it.
Not to bring this review down with negatives, but in the interest of fairness, here they are. Occasionally, the songs are repetitive and with summer supposedly in full swing, this album is not one for the barbeque. At times you might be wishing for the album to pick up some kind of pace and songs like ‘Across The Avenue’ and ‘I’m Not Afraid’ are a little too sparse to strike a chord with the listener. These are, however, minor points that should not take away from what is still an astonishing record. Howling Bells are unique, they have an untouchable air of class – cool, calm and devastatingly sexy like a 1940s Hollywood actress. In a world of identikit bands, Howling Bells are emerging from a smoky corner with a look on their face saying “Come join us on the dark side, you might just find you like it”.
originally published May 24th, 2006
Independently Blue •••½
For all her roots in the best of Britishness, the musical landscape of Yorkshire lass Hayley Hutchinson’s debut album is less the hills and dales of North England than the prairies of North America. Hailing from an established musical lineage (her dad was instrumental in David Bowie’s early success), Hutchinson clearly knows where a smidgen of ambition can take you. Though self-financed and locally recorded, Independently Blue nevertheless belies its humble origins, turning the financial limitations of the project into a solid gold advantage. Mostly recorded live in the studio by Hutchinson and her band’s core members (which include Chris Helme and Stuart Fletcher of The Seahorses – John Squire’s post-Stone Roses also-rans – and Shed Seven’s Alan Leach and Fraser Smith), the result is a cohesive little package boasting real energy. Certainly, it’s no cheap imitation.
Or is it? Logically, Independently Blue ought to be filed under D for derivative since, stylistically at least, it effortlessly cribs from the back catalogues of Sheryl Crow and Nanci Griffith. In the end though, it’s too strong an album to be so easily dismissed, and richly deserves its four-star rating. Within just a few perfunctory listens, Hutchinson’s strong writing and excellent vocal style – pure but blessed with a richness and bluesy edge that’s easy on the ear – commands the listener’s attention. First single, ‘Here’s The Love’, is a joyful slice of Crow-esque pop in which keyboard and sparse but well-utilised electric guitar motifs weave a likeable confection around an acoustic centre and country-tinged harmonies.
Other songs on the album find Hutchinson in Globe Sessions-style open-tuning mode, complete with droning strings and bluesy slide guitar. Elsewhere, ‘Climb Through’ could be a slightly updated outtake from one of Nanci Griffith’s early MCA albums, with its gentle capo’d acoustics and high harmony singing. Even the cello part echoes John Catching’s playing on some of Griffith’s best work, while the bluegrass-tinged title track also bears the Texan’s influence. ‘Minor Key’ shifts things a little more in the direction of Griffith’s first ‘pop’ album, Storms, with Telecaster licks very reminiscent of guitar supremo Jerry Donahue.
Ironically, the most problematic song on the album is also one of the strongest. ‘Deadman’, which was released as a download-only single in December 2005, is strikingly similar to Sheryl Crow’s massive chart breakthrough hit, ‘All I Wanna Do’. The rhythms, tone, handclaps, guitar stabs and other ornamentation are so close it’s almost spooky. Normally, this would sound the copycat death knell to a song, but ‘Deadman’ is just too darned strong. Indeed, all things considered, Independently Blue is a statement of intent that richly deserves the plaudits it has thus far gained, and is particularly excellent for a debut. If Hutchinson can synthesise her influences into a more individual signature on future albums, who knows, she could be the one to show Nashville’s best how it really should be done.
originally published January 21st, 2006
Hayley Hutchinson / Vita Ross / Jamie Woon
Whitechapel Art Gallery •••
August 25th, 2006
Upon arrival at the Whitechapel Art Gallery, it was rapidly apparent that it wasn’t an ideal concert venue. Taking over the in-house café for the evening, essentially by cramming a bunch of musos and attendant techie gubbins up against one wall, ensured that little room was left for an audience and poor sightlines were guaranteed. The supporting acts didn’t always engender hope either. On first was Jamie Woon who made up for a slightly aggravating guitar style (more finger-flicking than finger-picking) by the quality of his songs and his beautiful voice. A stunning a cappella version of ‘When Doves Cry’ managed to wring some much needed originality out of a, now almost obligatory, loop pedal (Ms Tunstall, I still love ‘Black Horse & The Cherry Tree’ but you’ve got a lot to answer for lady). Spirits soon flagged, however, when Vita Ross could barely scrape together an errant stab at adequate sub-Blondie fare. Not good.
Fortunately, things looked up as John Hutchinson, former Spider From Mars and proud father of the main event took to the ‘stage’. He treated the crowd to some great ragtime and blues guitar interspersed with anecdotes of a life on the road and recent tales of playing jazz in the Balkans. Leaving the audience alternatively in awe and in stitches, he invited his daughter to the stage and performed the sterling role of sideman. It seems that talent really does run in families, as anyone who has caught Hutchinson Jr live or heard her debut album, Independently Blue, is likely to agree. As the family group sat to run through the set the lack of lighting and poor venue layout reared its ugly head again as, to all intents and purposes, they vanished into the half-light. Fortunately there were no such problems with the sound, which carried the music forth loud and clear.
It was at this point Hayley dropped a bombshell – for her father at least – announcing that, rather than the pre-planned setlist, she was going to try out some new songs and sophomore album works in progress. Some familiar songs were scattered through the set to keep the fans happy – the Nanci Griffith-esque ‘Independently Blue’, ‘Hands’ and ‘Wicked Thoughts’, with its droning, down-tuned feel and exquisitely bluesy slide riffs. The new songs, too, were uniformly strong. Whilst some suggested a stylistic continuity with Independently Blue, ranging from light country pop and folkabilly to Sheryl Crow-style ballad rock, others seemed to be going in a bluesier direction.
Of course, it’s difficult to know whether this signals a definite shift or merely reflects the particular mix of playing styles present on the night. Either way, the strength of both the songs and the performance bodes well for album number two and for those who catch Hayley as she supports Eric Bibb on tour around the UK this autumn.
originally published October 5th, 2006
Filed under: album, back issues, review | Tags: alan pedder, dana immanuel, denise james, endre buzogany, gary munday, gem nethersole, janis joplin, jewel, jo mango, joan as police woman, joan jett, jodi jett, juliette and the licks, leela james, marc soucy, russell barker, toni james, trevor raggatt
The following reviews were all published on our old website between May 2005 and December 2006.
Lovers of the ’60s girl group phenomenon are having a vintage year, what with The Pipettes and The Schla-la-las doing their best to revive the genre in populist fashion, and relative veteran Denise James isn’t prepared to miss out on the action. Her third album, Promises, practically oozes the sweet aroma of a soda fountain and is probably best listened to whilst wearing a mini-skirt, even the boys! Put this on your MP3 player the next time you go trawling through vintage clothing outlets and you’ll be sure to find the perfect outfit. James effortlessly captures the balance between happiness and tragedy that came to define the era, so that when she asks “what happened to the love we knew / don’t tell me we are through”, it’s not just words, it’s backed by a gorgeous rock guitar solo and near-maniacal violin that makes heartbreak seem like an afterthought. Likewise, ‘It’s Never What You Say’ opens with the words “love is gone”, but come the chorus you’ll be smiling ear to ear from the sheer infectious parping of the trumpets.
Even the gloomier songs, such as ‘Promises’ and ‘A Word To Say To You’, still ring with the sound of jolly tambourines that make them more like tears on a pillow than tainted love. Not that these songs are any less sincere or moving because of their joyful nods to the genre; ‘Go Ahead & Change Your Mind’ resonates with emotion with its central message that “time only brings an emptiness to everything”. Indeed, James’s wonderfully stylised approach makes these soul-baring songs seem wounded and resigned despite some of them having vitriolic lyrics that any metal band would be proud of, particularly on the commanding ‘Get Out’.
To her credit, James has effectively created a portal to the past; Promises truly does sound as though it were recorded and produced in the studios of days long gone. It’s authentic yet modern and, most importantly, perfectly addictive. Just as the ‘real’ songs of the ‘60s preferred the beach to the boardroom, James voices the same freewheeling attitude in ‘Let’s Take The Day Off’, a song so lovingly stuffed with life-affirming sentiments that it would have even the most staunch capitalist disposing of their suit and grabbing a surfboard. Alternatively, they might just go home and have a slow, sad waltz on the porch to the strains of ‘There’s A Light On’. Whatever the mood of the song, James has nailed her own form of time travel, one that will erase any modern day worries in blissful three-minute bursts.
That James has painstakingly constructed an album that’s so historically aware and beautifully produced is a real achievement in itself. When coupled with such memorable songs and her inspirational delivery, Promises may well go down in the annals of pop as her finest work. Although it’s oh so commercially viable in the current musical climate, it’s hard to escape the nagging feeling that James will be somewhat overshadowed by her more boisterous peers, but wherever she goes from here it’s bound to sound pretty special.
originally published August 23rd, 2006
A Change Is Gonna Come ••••
I stole this album. I didn’t mean to, it’s not even really the kind of thing that usually does it for me. It looks pretty unassuming – girl on the front, big hair, she looks like a lot of other girls who turn out not to be very good. This one turns out good though. Her old-fashioned brand of soul is well worth the thievery stain on mine, which is not, of course, to condone or encourage that kind of bad behaviour. I’m just saying…
It’s a dangerous thing, calling the first song on your album ‘Music’ and then name-checking Aretha Franklin and Chaka Khan before the chorus even kicks in, and she probably wouldn’t get away with it if she were a bit less good. Lucky for Leela James that her voice is unremittingly extraordinary. Smooth as a James Bond chat-up line and emotional as a wounded animal, gritty and rich in all the right places. Like a really good cup of coffee.
They picked ‘Music’ along with cheery tune ‘Good Time’ as singles, but to me it’s the angrier, darker numbers ‘Ghetto’ (with Wyclef Jean) and ‘Didn’t I’ (with Kanye West) that suit her best and really stand out. She just sings it like she means it, and she has the kind of voice – technically spectacular and coming from somewhere a little bit deeper in her chest than your regular starlet – that can properly pull off lines like “low down dirty”. Not many people can do that in a serious manner, but Leela drips just the right kind of bluesy back porch sincerity. Ain’t nothing like the truth.
As an album, A Change Is Gonna Come probably misses out on real greatness, but only narrowly. A few of the songs are not, I suspect, very good under the fancy production. Don’t get me wrong, they’re still great to listen to because Leela James sings on them, but if you’re a sucker for a big chorus you’ll probably find yourself skipping through quite a few tracks. On the other hand, some of the songs are just great to dance to, and screw the chorus – ‘Rain’, for instance, has a guitar hook hooky enough that you don’t really care that no-one could be bothered writing a vocal melody worthy of it.
The songs are interspersed with little acoustic country blues and gospel interludes that sound like fried chicken and the ghost of Leadbelly, wonderful in themselves and also providing a counterpoint to ‘60s-soaked soul numbers like ‘Prayer’ and the title track, a cover of Sam Cooke’s 1964 hit that is well delivered, if a little uninspired. Thrown into the mix, too, are a few real curiosities like a delightfully unexpected cover of No Doubt’s ‘Don’t Speak’ that pisses all over the original. It’s like she’s squashed about a hundred years’ worth of American music into one album, and so perhaps it’s not surprising that in many ways this is an album full of clichés – there are some very standard lyrics, R&B sprinkles on more than one track, and she does thank Jesus and her parents in that order on the sleeve notes.
A lot of good things are being thrown together on A Change Is Gonna Come, but innovative it is not. However, in the same way that rigid metrical form can in the right hands produce the best poetry, the kinds of traditions that Leela James is tapping into provide a platform that really works to showcase her talents. An ungenerous critic might say that it is an album unsure of what it wants to be, but then again, it’s pleasing that albums are still being made that really do defy petty pigeonholing.
originally published September 27th, 2005
I’m Here, Where Are You? EP ••
Toni James’s story is nothing if not inspirational. It’s a tale of rising above a difficult family life and unwise, abusive relationships to follow her dream of making it as a soul singer. The 28 year old Liverpudlian has certainly paid her dues, not only as a graduate of the school of hard knocks but also in “the business”. A veteran of the cruise ship, lounge bar and jazz standard circuit, she’s now stepping out in her own right with that particular nu-soul style that seems to be making headway in the charts these days. But while her bio may be inspiring, the music is rather less so. There’s nothing fundamentally wrong with it, it just lacks the necessary lustre to make a real impression.
Kicking off with ‘Fate Street’, a gospel-lite number about finding Mr. Right, it’s clear that James has a decent range and a pleasant tone, both of which are tastefully employed. Whilst her pipes are not the richest around, she avoids the nasality and shrillness that’s rife among the genre, and indeed she should be roundly praised for, gasp!, singing a note as if it were a note, not the sound of a bluebird having a seizure. Why such unfocused and poorly controlled vocal riffing is de rigueur these days is a mystery to me and it continues to mar so many urban ‘soul’ records. The song itself does its job efficiently enough with all the right amounts of bluesy piano, B3 Hammond and backing vocals thrown in to the mix.
‘He’s Too Good To Share’ is a competent urban workout that manages to be neither funky enough to mine the acid jazz furrow propped up by Incognito nor urban enough to stand shoulder to shoulder with the likes of Alicia Keys. In particular, the backbeat handclaps seem rather synthetic and mechanical, sapping the usual joy right out. Elsewhere, ‘Please Don’t Wake Me’ provides the flipside to Oleta Adams’s torchy ‘Get Here’, exploring the darker reality of enforced separation – the harsh truth being that sometimes the temporary bliss of sleep is preferable to facing the cruel waking world.
Final number ‘Is It?’ isn’t much to get excited over either. Monotonous in the sense of not being boring but rather lacking in dynamics, James was clearly aiming for a sparser R&B feel but doesn’t quite possess enough groove to carry it off. A bit of a curate’s egg then, and whether the forthcoming album (due out later this year) will offer anything new is the burning question. There’s promise here, but it’s never fully realised. However, in a musical climate where the public has taken the soul-lite sounds of Joss Stone and Corinne Bailey Rae to their hearts, and with the publicity power of Sandi Thom’s people behind her, don’t write this one off just yet.
originally published June 24th, 2006
Joan Jett & The Blackhearts
With the big, clap yo’ hands feel of politico-ripper ‘Riddles’, you’re plunged straight into the true heart of Sinner, the first Joan Jett & The Blackhearts album in over a decade. The chugging, cheesy ‘80s guitars sound like a biker’s wet dream, while the admittedly catchy chorus shows that Jett can still be devilishly aware of what makes a line memorable. This all hints as a return to fun-sounding rock songs, but what makes Jett’s new work so compelling is that each track holds enough of a message to be taken seriously (for the opener this is the awareness and very real worries of political morons, the lack of political awareness in the U.S. and the world and Big Brother watching evermore). With this and the timely use of some great Bush and Rumsfeld speech samples, you’ll get the gist pretty quickly and realise that Sinner really isn’t just another rock clown acting out, but instead tries to voice items on a meaningful agenda.
This brash retro heart is a recurring theme of the album – though Jett would surely take umbrage if you called it ‘retro’ to her face – where big band rock ‘n’ roll is pounded out ‘til fingers are shaking and knuckles are bleeding. By exploring the well travelled slopes of the ‘rock anthem’, Jett succeeds in reminding of how she herself has been such a secretly domineering and influential artist. For example, ‘Everyone Knows’ is a sort of template for latter-day Weezer and anyone else that isn’t afraid of touching on something that is unashamedly good for the soul. Fists are raised to the skies and their owners are wearing ripped, black band t-shirts; the lack of a smirk or wry smile is unnerving. This is serious, folks! Meanwhile, ‘Change The World’ reeks of early Distillers and other feelgood, boppy punk rockers, but clearly Joan came first. However rearward-looking it may be, Sinner really hammers it home that there really are a great number of acts who’ve trodden on the toes of this female figurehead.
Of course, with such a well rehearsed basis for compositions, there are bound to be some potholes, bumps and areas that are unwise to venture into. ‘A 100 Ft Away’ and the truly terrible ‘Watersign’ take the foot off of the proverbial pedal and sink into the bogs that were once the battleground of the stadium pomp- rockers. And good riddance, really; there’s no need for that egotistical guitar crap. On a similarly slippery footing, ‘Bad Time’ steals part of a typical descending guitar riff used by late-era Iggy & The Stooges (have a listen to the stuff on Skull Ring and you’ll notice the likeness). Here, Jett and her band once again walk the perilous plank and stand there wobbling, threatening to teeter over into pointlessness.
Elsewhere, they’re rescued by ‘Fetish’, a notably decent stab at the heart. Getting downright dirty, sleazy, greasy and easy, Jett shrieks and yelp with a pained, unrestrained glee, her gristly vocals tearing right through, projected by her metal larynx; it works because the song simply doesn’t give a fuck. It pumps, slides and grinds all over you, asserting its dominance before you can question this return to an old and somewhat dated sound. It thrusts you down and gets on with business, just as plain and simple rock music should.
Overall, Sinner is much like diving into the deep end, bombing right into a sea of sharks whilst covered in whale meat and wearing a big fat grin. There is no shame or fear here. The mainstream media’s pointed teeth will surely sense this overt carelessness and downright disregard for the songwriting no-nos of yesteryear, but the real problem is that there isn’t enough to get worked up about either way. As soon as you get used to the sound that was supposedly ‘lost’ many moons ago, you’ll find your concentration wandering. Sinner is undoubtedly worthy of a listen, but despite Jett’s obvious influence and her eagerness to be heard on a greater political level, it’s unlikely to make a notable mark amongst the unconverted.
originally published October 14th, 2006
Love Rock Records
First things first, Jodi Jett is no relation to archetypal rocker Joan, though the Kansas-born Manhattanite certainly knows how to make herself heard. Fielding comparisons with Liz Phair and even Tom Waits, her debut album Revelations is packed full of melodies unfurling in a drawl, slung out over songs in a nonchalant manner, where notes are occasionally dropped for spoken word. This is quietly swaggering, slightly staggering rock ‘n’ roll that’s been brawled with and bitten, a carcass of a sound. Here, the ethic of rock is kept for the hell of it, but the flesh is experimented with, pierced by forethought and poisoned emotion and then sometimes dropped altogether so the song goes back to a very basic band setup. With the first two tracks slithering by – sometimes malevolent, always absorbing – the desolation, regret and/or frank admittance in the lyrics (“when I said I loved you did you believe it?”) pushes the feeling of a gathering storm right to the fore.
Perking things up a little, the slightly more driving rhythms of ’80s Girl’ boasts emotional spillage and narrative mutterings crammed into a loose vocal framework, namedropping all sorts of memorabilia, culture and fashion. Eventually morphing into a form of homage for anthems of the time (see ‘Shout’ and ‘Like A Virgin’), the song is perhaps best taken as an ode to the things of the era. After all, the song itself is only really lifted out of it nothingness by borrowing from the subject matter itself – up until the tongue-in-cheek renditions of ’80s ‘classics’, there is no true vocal line. Elsewhere, the songs don’t really do anything new, but what’s there is done in ways that feel pretty good. With a leading drunk slide guitar lick, casual brushed drumming and tales of substitute love, it’ll be hard not to spark one up over Instead, even if you don’t smoke.
This is certainly an intriguing album, and a pretty strange one too. Jett has clearly seen the rulebook, observed it with a wry look, waited for the opportune moment and shredded it to the best of her ability. With a well-kempt type of guitar distortion, live studio drum production that’s basic, crisp and real, Revelations is as honest as you could ask for. It’s like the morning after, waking up in a forgotten hotel with an unnamed partner half-buried in the pillows. It’s the backbone of Jodi Jett, without spectacle or gloss, and an admirable thing to pull off.
originally published October 14th, 2006
Goodbye Alice In Wonderland •••
A success! The exorcism was a success! It seems that Alaskan singer-songwriter Jewel Kilcher is no longer in thrall to the same tormenting demon that resides in the likes of Britney Spears and other pop icons. While some may accept that the cause of these pop princesses’ inexplicably ridiculous and self-destructive antics is simply sheer idiocy, possession is the only explanation for Kilcher’s 2003 album, 0304. Need a reminder? 0304 was a shocking, neon-stained, soulsold-to-Lucifer, dance-pop disaster, trading in her folksy image and battered acoustic for hair extensions, a push-up bra and a choreographed entourage of hyperactive dancers. It was a long long way from the album that made her, 1995’s Pieces Of You, a sweetly naïve but soulfully honest collection that yielded several hits in her native US.
Now it’s 2006 and Jewel is back from through the looking glass with Goodbye Alice In Wonderland, her sixth album. With most of her tendencies for pop exhibitionism shaken off, Jewel has bidden farewell to more than just Alice and the Mad Hatter, but also to whatever she was drinking (or smoking) at that unhinged unbirthday shindig. Delivering a collection of songs either composed or played live over the last ten years, but never recorded, Kilcher gets closer to the Jewel that millions loved. Not quite all the way back to the Pieces Of You days, but following closely in the glossier tracks of 2001’s This Way.
Somewhere along the way, between This Way and the still folksy Spirit, Kilcher struck up a friendship (a love affair even!) with the recording studio and the make-you-break-you mainstream. Take a look at her career to date; of some seventeen singles released, twelve have been altered in some way for radio. Sadly, the passion hasn’t gone out of that relationship yet and the studio is very much a presence, despite initial rumours of a lo-fi approach following an acoustic tour. Fans who are looking for titles heard from these and earlier acoustic renditions won’t find those versions here. There’s a hint of acoustic sparkle, certainly, but make no mistake about it, this is beefed-up, polished product.
The title track is billed as her most personal to date but you’ll struggle to hear genuine feeling over the studio sheen that takes the song from simple acoustic beginning to its grossly overdone conclusion. Catchy lead single ‘Again & Again’ is smooth as silk, with a nicely done vocal riding over a steady drumbeat, and the same goes for the new up-tempo version of 0304‘s ‘Fragile Heart’ – a perfect example of the revision queen reworking a song for radio play. ‘Satellite’ makes a U-turn, straying away from the direction of the rest of the album. Though it retains a primarily country feel, the pervasive radio-friendly production mires the song in its own ghastly slickness. Perhaps it’s the aftershock of 0304; after all, what else can be expected from a woman who was formerly doing the devil’s bidding? That fact and a nod to Jewel’s impressive vocal range make this sour pop ditty almost excusable.
Goodbye Alice In Wonderland might be unnecessarily overburdened with beats and extras, drowning out the simplicity for which her earlier albums were so highly regarded, but at least it’s a sign that Kilcher is well on the way back. It may require a modicum of patience, but there’s a brilliant diamond lying in the rough (if you can consider this well-buffed album rough in the slightest) if you make it to the end. ‘1000 Miles Away’ is an astonishing gift; its minimalism, simple strumming and innocent vocal will pull you back to 1995. That’s right, it’s a piece of Pieces Of You. It’s a godsend; a ray of light. Refreshing and welcoming like she’s finally come home. It might be goodbye Alice, but it’s hello again to Jewel.
originally published June 16th, 2006
Joan As Police Woman
Joan As Police Woman EP •••½
With the release of her debut solo EP, it’s finally time for Joan Wasser to, to quote one of her own song titles, “stagger into the light”, assume centre stage and take the spotlight. For the past few years, she’s been an integral part of Rufus Wainwright’s touring band and also found time to play on Antony & The Johnsons’ I Am A Bird Now. In fact, Wasser has played with just about everyone who needed some quality violin and backing vocals. Meanwhile, she also found time to play in numerous bands of her own throughout the Nineties, before breaking out on her own in 2002, taking her name from the Seventies cop show, ‘Police Woman’, starring Burt Bacharach’s ex-wife Angie Dickinson.
Recent single ‘My Gurl’ starts things off and finds her sensitively singing about the world in stopped motion while the tune echoes the lyrics. Then, after a minute and a half, the song sparks into life; a nice bit of fuzz pedal here and there, a jazzy, populist mid-section there. The jazz element is so convincing that you can almost see the smoke in the air of a crowded club, while her sassy side recalls the much-maligned Sam Brown. Following that, ‘Prime Mover’, locks into a groove and moves with it, the song itself coupling a lo-fi reading with the mystery of Bowie.
It’s no happy accident that ‘Stagger Into The Light’ falls in the middle of the record; it’s by far the best track and a wonderful centrepiece. Of all the many comparisons that Wasser has attracted so far – Dusty Springfield, Nina Simone, even Prince – the most pertinent has to be Chrissie Hynde, and this is nowhere more apparent than on this particular song. The sultriness, the ice cool attitude, being in the ideal position where women want to be her and men want to be with her. All these qualities shine through brightly, and what’s more, Wasser manages to achieve this in a few mere moments – the tempting lead up to the chorus and the inviting, yet insistent lyric “listen to me”. By the time the final refrain comes around, she’s pared it down to a satisfied “euff”, confident that she’s reeled you in. And all the while the song has swayed and stopped, copped an attitude, and rolled back in again.
Just how do you follow that? Well, it’s a difficult ask and Wasser has gamely stepped up to the plate. OK, so the final songs on the EP aren’t as good, but they’re still mighty fine efforts. ‘Game Of Life’ sounds Middle Eastern, sashaying around a bit before resorting to some helpless yelping towards the end, while ‘How Come You’re So Solid Gold?’ is broodily hypnotic; its circular rhythms drawing you deeper and deeper into its black heart. This EP is a wonderful start to Joan’s solo career and promises plenty of interest for her forthcoming full-length, Real Life.
originally published March 7th, 2006
Paperclips & Sand •••½
Glasgow-based chanteuse Jo Mango and her band have been treading the boards of the circuit for three years, each time bringing a winsome and quirky brand of folk to the good burghers of the city and the surrounding regions. In many ways, it’s difficult to fully separate Jo Mango the band from Jo Mango the artist. While the latter pens the songs (and hers is certainly a distinctive and attractive voice), the contributions of her fellow musical travellers bolster her signature sound. Backed by twin brother Jim on bass, Simon Fullarton on guitars and Calum Scott on percussion and guitar, the folk formula seems to have been adhered to. However, adding in Alan Peacock’s engrossing background and harmony vocals, and Katherine Waumsley’s flute and harp to Jo’s own eclectic instrumentation, including concertina and even African thumb piano, and a much broader sonic canvas is immediately evident.
The haunting ‘My Lung’ provides a stark introduction; Mango’s delicate and childlike vocals pick out a hymn to the positive aspects of a dependence that’s closer to symbiosis than parasitism. ‘Tea Lights’ then sets out a more typical template for the album, with folksy guitar and vocals gradually accumulating other musical elements – a bit of glockenspiel here, a violin there – and these provide a gentle reflection and indeed an enhancement of the otherworldly lyrics. Peacock steps forward to share the mic on ‘Gomer’, as he and Mango swap verses like two lovers who are connected and yet lost to one another, culminating in a harmonious finale. The folksy mood continues elsewhere; ‘How I’d Be’ finds Mango’s musings on what might have been lifted up, up and away on well-placed harmonies, while ‘Waltz With Me’ is a wistful dance leavened by lilting flute and accordion.
After ‘Take Me Back’s traditional hard knock life storytelling balladry, which happily strays into Sandy Denny / Vashti Bunyan territory (but with a stronger and more assured vocal delivery than the latter), a more contemporary edge comes to the fore. In fact, ‘Hard Day’ could slot in nicely with Suzanne Vega’s early catalogue – and that’s no faint praise – while ‘Blue Light’ swells from a hesitant, contemplative opening into a dark and brooding psychodrama, blowing moody portents on winds of overdriven electric guitars. Finally, ‘Harlow 1959′ brings the album to a halting conclusion, mirroring the Vega-esque bedsit drama it describes.
Actually, it’s not exactly a conclusion; Mango has graciously tossed us a bonus track in the shape of ‘Portugese Skies’, a charming, idyllic song that neatly bookends with opener ‘My Lung’, wishing a true love a life where all is good and true. Although it first appeared on an early EP, it’s a worthy addition to the album, which is in itself a more than worthy introduction to Mango’s beautiful world. Here and there, the intangible essences of more maverick artists like Björk and Stína Nordenstam spiral just out of reach on the edges of perception as she deftly skirts the suburbs of folk with bucolic, dusky spirit.
originally published March 11th, 2006
Pearl: Legacy Edition •••••
This October marks the 35th anniversary of the day that Janis Joplin unintentionally took her own life in an LA motel room with a lethal heroin overdose. She was just 27 years old and on the cusp of what was shaping up to be the most rewarding time of her life. Since 1990, the Grammy-award winning Sony BMG subsidiary Legacy Recordings have been rewarding the patient with lovingly packaged and often essential “reimaginings” of some of the most beloved albums ever recorded. In Joplin’s case, there is no doubt that Pearl is the jewel in a distressingly small discography, and this long-awaited full Legacy Edition adds no fewer than six bonus tracks to the original album plus an additional live disc of 13 songs recorded during 1970’s Canadian Festival Express Tour. While some of these have previously been available on either the 1999 single-disc reissue of Pearl or the 2001 3CD boxset Janis, many are newly unearthed.
After two mostly bewildering albums recorded with the psychedelic Big Brother & The Holding Company in which the sheer sonic intensity threatened to overwhelm even her powerhouse vocals, Joplin formed the Kozmic Blues Band for a successful but patchy album before disbanding them, taking Brad Campbell and John Till with her and gathering around her a more sympathetic ensemble in Full Tilt Boogie. The results were astoundingly raw, focusing on her gritty and revitalising vocals more than ever before. Everyone has their favourite tracks, and with stone-cold classics like ‘Me & Bobby McGee’, ‘A Woman Left Lonely’, ‘Move Over’ and ‘Cry Baby’ to choose from, it’s no mean feat to elevate a single cut above the others. Even the sadly overexposed ‘Mercedes Benz’ still sounds fresh in its natural context, positively brimming with Joplin’s sense of humour.
Of the two instrumental tracks on the first disc, both are poignant reminders of our loss. The frantic keyboard wig out of ‘Buried Alive In The Blues’ only serves to remind that, had Joplin lived for just one more day, it would have been completed with vocals and all. The other, the gorgeous ‘Pearl’, is available here for the first time and is a touching tribute to Janis from her band, titled in honour of the nickname given to Joplin by those closest to her. Other bonus tracks worth mentioning are the endearingly banter-laden acoustic demo of ‘Me & Bobby McGee’ and a handclap happy version of ‘Move Over’.
The second disc collates recordings from three different live shows from the summer of 1970, including live versions of ‘Piece Of My Heart’, ‘Summertime’, ‘Try (Just A Little Bit Harder)’ and more. Every song is a spirited affair and is further testament to her powerful and ingratiating onstage persona. Contrary certainly, but she used her insecurities to propel a live show like few have done since. In my favourite Janis anecdote, it is said that when warned her voice would not sustain such repeated hammering, Joplin retorted that she’d rather not be an inferior performer for the sole reason that she could be inferior for longer. It’s this dedication to her art for which she should be most praised. No mere blues belter, Janis Joplin was an intelligent and vivid woman with unparalleled grit and commitment. Given the timelessness of Pearl as a document of sheer vitality, it’s maddening to think what she could have accomplished if only she’d had more time.
originally published June 28th, 2005
Juliette & The Licks
You’re Speaking My Language •••
Your mum will tell you that first impressions are important. So when Oscar-nominated Hollywood actress Juliette Lewis deigned to cover two untouchable Polly Harvey classics back in 1995, the prognosis for a long-term rock career was significantly worse than terminal. Ten years later, she’s back with a band and this time she’s not going away. Initial thoughts? Yeah, whatever. Join the back of the queue Ms. Lewis, right behind Driver, Gershon, Crowe and Reeves. Has the work dried up so badly that they all have to scramble for a gig in a dingy Camden pub? Do they too have to send their demo tapes to some longhair in Cornwall with an obscure record company and a few grand going wanting? I mean, how seriously do they think we’ll take them?
Well, in this case, you might want to prepare yourself to purge clean away those Tinseltown prejudices. Juliette Lewis is angry, but most of all she just simply rocks. After a somewhat naff intro and a “This one goes out to the entire world…” (sloganeering is so 1984), things get better. Much better. The title track and first single kicks some hefty ass. Musically, the overall feel of the album is perhaps best described as polite and digestible punk rock. Drums, guitars, bass, all very credible, though for some reason I can’t help humming Pearl Jam songs after the slow-burning ballad ‘Long Road Out Of Here’ closes out the record. Juliette’s vocals have just the right amount of rasp (probably from sucking on Bobby De Niro’s fingers in ‘Cape Fear’) to provide that extra authenticity to her strived-for rebel sound. She even rails against the politicians and frat boy mentality in ‘American Boy Vol 2′. It’s not exactly anarchy, but it seems at least genuine.
Overall then, You’re Speaking My Language is that rare occurrence of someone awaking from a long artistic coma. For those uninclined to be overly judgmental, there’s a surprising amount of pretty decent tunes, although nothing comes close to breaking new ground. Nevertheless, where Juliette & The Licks go next will at least be an interesting footnote in the annals of rock. For now though, be content with Hollywood’s finest musical export in a long long while.
originally published September 2nd, 2005
Juliette & The Licks
Four On The Floor •••
More than a fair few eyebrows were hitched hairline high when Juliette Lewis turned her back on her Hollywood career to have a stab at a true punk rock existence. And despite all the doubters she succeeded, her slow- building but respectable sales not because of her status but because of her commitment to relentless gigging and off-the-wall interviews. This semi-anticipated second album continues her progression along the path of rock ‘n’ roll righteousness with a very decent selection of tunes that ought to appeal to a whole range of listeners, from those think that might wear their leathers to bed to those who think Pink is the saviour of girl-rock.
Thankfully Lewis has ditched the sloganeering and faux- anger that weakened her debut, though in their place comes a new fixation with sex, sleaze and relationships. Then again, why should that surprise anyone when we’re talking about a woman who, as rumour has it, decided to forego much of her personal hygiene routine when on the road in order to have a full rock ‘n’ roll experience. That’s what it’s all about for Ms Lewis, but does Four On The Floor live up to its heritage?
Well, it pretty much spans the A to Z of rock if that’s what you’re after, nowhere more obviously so than on ‘Get Up’, a song that starts off as subdued AC/DC, rolls into the Stones and mercifully comes to a halt just before it reaches ZZ Top. Multi-project rocker Dave Grohl crops up for some drumming and raw guitar, lending the floorsome foursome some extra punch in the world of the alternative left and elevating the sound from something merely average to something really quite credible.
Overall, the songs are well composed, and not just because they’re only really long enough to excite for a short spell before moving on to the next one. It’s actually quite refreshing to hear something nowadays that isn’t dispassionate indie rock fungus. The mood varies throughout, arcing from I’llbreakyerfuckingneck rage anthems to ‘come on in, the water’s lovely’ pop picks. On first listen I took the trouble to note down all the images that sprang to mind, ending up with Mallory Knox being chased down the hills of the USofAustria by Georg Ritter von Trapp, dressed in rubber. Whether that says more about my mind than it does about the music is a rather moot point. Whatever, really. Put simply, if you prefer to use chilli oil instead of chocolate body paint, Four On The Floor is your kind of dinner party soundtrack, and another appealingly honest entry from someone who may yet surprise us all with a classic.
originally published December 17th, 2006