Filed under: album, back issues, review | Tags: adam smith, alan pedder, alison moyet, amy macdonald, andy wasley, cynthia g mason, danny weddup, eleni mandell, erin mckeown, gem nethersole, helen mccookerybook, hugh armitage, joni mitchell, katie melua, loria near, magenta, mandy moore, martina mcbride, múm, MIA, mostly autumn, nellie mckay, róisín murphy, sam murray, siobhan rooney, trevor raggatt
The following reviews were published on our old MySpace blog in 2007.
This Is The Life ••••
Scotland’s star is rising; home of some of the brightest talents in British music, its recent musical history has been impressive. Think, for example, of KT Tunstall, Franz Ferdinand, Belle & Sebastian, Isobel Campbell and The Fratellis. Now that esteemed cohort is set to increase with the debut of 19-year old folk-loving Glaswegian Amy MacDonald. Since discovering her muse – Travis – at the age of 12, MacDonald’s single-minded determination has been to write songs about the world around her. This Is The Life, then, covers everything from the T In The Park festival to today’s disposable pop culture and the vacuous celebrities who perpetuate it.
The album leaps into life with the optimism of her recent hit single ‘Mr Rock & Roll’, an uplifting number positively bulging with layered acoustics and confidently powerful vocals. Playing to MacDonald’s melodic and lyrical strengths, it’s the perfect introduction and a sure-fire live hit. ‘Let’s Start A Band’, a tumultuous mix of Latino trumpets, atmospheric strings and throaty guitars, is similarly vital, surging forward with the energy and force of a tsunami. MacDonald takes the opportunity to show off her vocal range a little, contrasting crystalline soprano notes with a huskier, Annie Lennox-style croon.
Crowd-pleasing anthem ‘Barrowland Ballroom’, an homage to the Glasgow venue that did much to launch the careers of her favourite bands, is typical of MacDonald’s arena-friendly songs. Combining a bright melody with simple lyrics, it’s sure to move some feet as it swings from a folksy, guitar-based intro to a toe-tapping conclusion, backed with the saloon bar sound of a honky-tonk piano. Gig goers will also be pleased by ‘Youth Of Today’, MacDonald’s impassioned defence of youthful optimism and joie de vivre.
Perhaps the best track of all is the epic ‘Footballer’s Wife’, a withering sideswipe at the ubiquitous WAG mentality. Opening with a dramatic combination of strings and thunderous timpani, the song’s angry lyrics and anthemic chorus are well matched to MacDonald’s rich, expressive voice. The album’s bonus tracks conclude with ‘Caledonia’, a modern folk classic given an emotional performance and a stirring pipe-and-drums coda that’s sure to moisten many a Scottish eye.
Amy MacDonald is one of the most original voices to have emerged from Scotland in recent years, and with this album she has set the scene for a stellar future. KT Tunstall may be losing sleep already. An explosive debut, This Is The Life is a magnificent demonstration of the young star’s talent, and could prove a hard act to follow.
The Singles ••••
As Wears The Trousers is fond of reinforcing, it’s a long-standing misconception that prog rock is just rambling, 27-minute pieces about trolls and wizards or skill Eastern philosophies. Fair enough, there’s a bit of that about but for every ‘Topographic Oceans’ there’s a good old pop tune like ‘Wondrous Stories’. Recent years have seen a move to song-based albums across the genre but none more typified than by neo-prog bands like Magenta.
The tracks here are not so much singles per se as songs selected from Magenta’s back catalogue, or extracted from their early sword-and-sorcery epics. All 11 songs have been re-recorded, giving a chance to showcase the band’s current line-up. However, just because the songs clock in at under five minutes each doesn’t mean that they won’t satisfy their core prog audience. Shifting time signatures, orchestral backing, noodling keyboards and guitars are tastefully employed throughout. However, it’s the writing of Rob Reed and the stunning vocals of Christina Booth that make the songs shine.
Standout tracks include the majestic bombast of ‘Speechless’ and ‘I’m Alive’ where the vocals soar above the backing track as it vaults to increasing levels of intensity. Adding further strings to the Magenta bow, ‘King Of The Skies’ weighs in as a boogying rocker (prog-style of course) complete with a thundering vocal performance that even Anastacia would be proud of. No wonder the UK Classic Rock Society has awarded Booth their Singer Of The Year gong on a number of occasions. Of course, some long-held prog traditions and tricks rear their head; ‘Anger’ in particular utilises that old favourite of a madrigal-esque start leading to a more expansive rock conclusion. Then, in something of a concession to the hardened proggers in their audience, Magenta close the album with three longer bonus tracks that might stretch the patience of a casual listener, introduced by a Rick Wakeman-styled organ toccata.
Magenta’s last album proper, Home, was stuffed with great songs that should have endeared the band to a wider audience. Hopefully The Singles will continue the trend.
Miracle Of Five ••••½
Los Angeles-based Eleni Mandell has developed something of a cult following over the last eight or so years since the release of her debut album Wishbone. Yet the artist the New Yorker once dubbed as “perhaps one of the best unsigned artists in the business” continues to operate quietly under the radar, releasing her sixth full-length album Miracle Of Five with little to no fanfare. It’s a shame really, as this may well be the best work she’s turned in to date. Continuing to mine her strengths in jazz-soaked vocals and smoky undertones, she’s moved away from the harder edged comparisons once made with PJ Harvey and closer to the softer sounds of modern chanteuses Norah Jones and Madeleine Peyroux. But don’t box her in; Mandell owes more to Ella Fitzgerald than her modern peers and is unafraid to boldly swerve into the territories of country noir and folk to stretch her range.
Where the lead track ‘Moonglow, Lamp Low’ revels in its breathy vocals and sultry brass and the immaculate ‘My Twin’ could, in 1960, have easily been sung by the regal Patsy Cline, dig just a tiny bit deeper and you’ll find songs like ‘Girls’, a musical about-turn in the form of a singalong campfire number with amusing lyrics that could be sung by or to any number of individuals – is it a woman singing to her boyfriend? To her own insecurities? To someone she has yet to meet?
There’s no doubt Mandell can write a lovely melody but she also excels in the art of layered meaning with quite a knack for taking the simplest of lyrics and creating a song that at first seems so clear cut and simple, yet upon repeated listenings can mean so much more. Take, for example, the enjoyable ‘Salt Truck’, which at first may appear to be a simple ditty to motorised de-icing, but upon closer listen is deftly ambiguous: “Salt truck, salt truck, mean black eyes / swerving as I’m very nice / I want roads that I can drive on / I want a love I can rely on”.
It may take its time in sinking in but Miracle Of Five is a sturdy release crammed with well-crafted and memorable tunes. If there is a fault, it lies in the downbeat nature of the album as a whole – it’s easy for these songs to run into one another without anyone really batting an eyelid. Still, that only makes it all the more perfect for a reflective rainy day or quiet evening in with a fine glass of red. Hopefully someone out there is paying attention.
Cynthia G Mason
Quitter’s Claim •••
Cynthia G Mason’s heartfelt, grass-roots music speaks to an unpretentious quarter of the soul. Coupling a Joni Mitchell-esque acoustic flavour with the barest hint of country, Mason’s minimalist arrangements and unassuming intensity have won particular acclaim in her native Philadelphia, a city in which she has become something of a local treasure. Quitter’s Claim ends a six-year hiatus for the singer-songwriter during which she graduated from law school and embarked on rather more mundane work; musically, she also experienced a number of professional disappointments, alluded to on the album’s final track, ‘Quit While You’re Misled’. However, a fortuitous meeting with an old collaborator, Larry D Brown, spurred Mason to dust off her guitar, clear out its musical mothballs and record this new CD with a borrowed four-track, all the while putting in her eight hours at the office.
Indeed, unembellished reality is never far away in Mason’s music and it is refreshing to find an artist whose work fits snugly into the pauses in everyday life. Opening act ‘Like A Lifer Out For Good’ deals with disillusionment in love tempered by acceptance of its imperfections, showcasing Mason’s coolly melodic vocals. Lingering uncertainty also litters the wistful ‘Claim’, while ‘The Way The Morning Came’ – a melancholy reflection on lost love – is complemented by a solitary harmonica. Bittersweet is a word that could well characterise Mason’s newest effort, inspired by a store of experiences between albums and also by the actual process of music making. ‘Fits & Starts’, for example, describes recording the album after finishing up at work: “the way it’s designed there isn’t much room for invention”. Meanwhile, the intrusion of Philadelphia traffic at the beginning of ‘Nerve’ reveals just how economical a production Quitter’s Claim was.
Quitter’s Claim is an undeniably lovely follow-up to Mason’s debut, but for some it could be just a little, well, boring. All 10 tracks slide seamlessly into one another with little instrumental variation, suggesting some great background music but failing to reveal any immediately attention-grabbing songs. Subtlety is key: Tori Amos fans beware. Folk enthusiasts will, however, delight in the return of one of Philadelphia’s best-kept secrets. With Mason’s songwriting calibre and talent for evoking all the rushed complexity of life, it is clear the city’s musical legacy is safe.
Waking Up Laughing •••½
Martina McBride may be relatively unknown here in the UK but her reputation Stateside takes some beating. A 12-times platinum selling artist who has won a record-breaking four CMA Female Singer of the Year gongs, it’s hard to argue with her credentials. She’s tucked an impressive eight studio albums under her belt since her 1992 debut, The Time Has Come… and Waking Up Laughing, her ninth release, maintains the status quo. Here, McBride operates as artist and producer and wears both hats with ease with skilful fingers on the faders and a voice that’s as endearing as ever. Engineering duties from husband John McBride keeps it a family affair and a stately one too: every song sounds lovingly crafted.
Of course, it doesn’t hurt that she’s populated the studio with the crème de la crème of Nashville talent. The cast list reads like a roll call for the Modern Country Hall of Fame: Dan Huff, Brent Mason and Dan Dugmore on guitar, Glenn Worf on bass, Matt Chamberlain on drums and supplementary textures courtesy of The Nashville String Machine. Nicole Kidman’s husband Keith Urban crops up on one track, adding harmony vocals and a country rock guitar solo. The songs, drawn from some of Music Town’s finest writers, are uniformly strong despite occasionally veering into well-worn country lyrical clichés. Given that Waking Up Laughing features McBride’s first forays into the songwriting process, teaming up with the Warren Brothers on three of the tracks (‘How I Feel’, ‘Beautiful’ and the emotional, uplifting lead single ‘Anyway’), it’s gratifying that her efforts not only stack up well against her peers but are in fact among the album’s standout tunes.
Waking Up Laughing veers from one fertile commercial territory to another, from power ballads to mid-tempo rockers. McBride’s versatile vocals are perfect for this type of modern country; there’s a rich depth to her singing with just enough earthiness to compliment the twists and turns of the songs with a slight catch and growl. Her accumulated accolades were certainly no fluke. If your personal tastes lie closer to the rootsier end of Americana this may prove too sweet on your palate (you’d be better off exploring something like Patty Griffin’s latest offering), but if mainstream Nashville country is your thing, then Waking Up Laughing will almost certainly put a smile on your face.
Suburban Pastoral •••½
I viewed sitting down to listen to this album with a certain amount of trepidation, having been told by a friend on several occasions that I absolutely had to like it. At the same time I was also intrigued to hear what Ms McCookerybook had to offer. This is a lady who started her career in the late ‘70s as bassist for Joby & The Hooligans (the “worst band in Brighton”); a lady who has recently completed a book about female punk musicians entitled ‘The Lost Women Of Rock’; and a lady who, on the back sleeve, looks a little like an unassuming, sweet middle-aged housewife, and sports a crown of ivy (it’s druid chic, dontcha know). What sort of music such a person might make was impossible to predict.
The opening bars of the first track, ‘Dreaming Of You’, sound a little like something you might expect to hear at a luau, all chilled-out guitars and winsome dreaminess. Then the vocals break in, setting up the first of many little juxtapositions in the album. In contrast to the tropical feel of the music, her voice sounds, for want of a more original phrase, quintessentially English. And yes, also a bit like someone’s mum. It’s difficult to define the genre of this album beyond the vague ‘singer-songwriter’ and ‘acoustic’ labels, though some of the songs wouldn’t sound out of place as part of a lounge act in a smoky little nightclub. The gently swinging beat in songs like ‘Don’t Know Why’ and ‘Once In A Blue Moon’ induce a strong urge to sway slowly in time to the music that has to be consciously fought off.
Of course, no female singer-songwriter worth her salt will navigate such a lengthy career without penning at least one song addressing the Biblical stories of either Eve or Delilah, and McCookerybook is no exception. ‘Temptation’ is a rather quirky take on the theme of Original Sin, complete with a cacophonous introduction in brass, and in possession of a peculiar nursery rhyme quality that is repeated in ‘Swan’, a rather sinister lesson on the danger of beautiful but dangerous things. So whilst the tone of her music is usually either merry or gently melancholy, the lyrics warrant a closer inspection. For all their seeming cheerfulness, I am almost certain that ‘London’ is a song about homelessness and ‘Heaven Avenue’ about suicide. There is often a contrast between the music and lyrics that can grab your attention and make you listen more carefully to what is actually going on.
Though Suburban Pastoral probably isn’t to everyone’s taste, there is something appealing about its simplicity and clarity. McCookerybook may sound kind of motherly and a little bit twee, but the mum in question is one that can definitely sing. There is something refreshing about the way you can understand almost every word she sings. This album won’t blow you away, but it might just charm its way into your lungs.
Pretty Little Head ••••
I have a nagging sense of déjà vu. What’s that? I’ve reviewed this record before? Crikey! What’s going on?
Well. Pretty Little Head in fact first surfaced, in a different form, in January 2006. McKay had turned in a 23-song, double-disc set to her record company, who, in a commercially-minded decision, culled seven songs without consulting McKay and sent the album out as a single-disc promo, entirely without her permission. Understandably, McKay was angry and a lengthy battle ensued, resulting in her parting ways with Columbia. The album ended up stuck in limbo, the record company having stated that they would not be releasing it in any form.
Finally, after what must have been several immensely frustrating and disempowered months, McKay is back and should give herself a triumphant pat on the back. Released on her own imprint Hungry Mouse, set up for this record, she presents the record as she originally intended – all 23 tracks present and correct and sequenced significantly differently in the latter half of the album. In winning this battle, McKay has proven that artistic integrity can prevail over corporate interests, and for this she should be championed (anyone who’s read Tori Amos’s memoir ‘Piece By Piece’ will know that struggles between record companies and artists can be hard-fought and extremely bitter).
As I noted in my previous review, McKay’s first album suffered from being overlong and bloated. But though it’s now a behemoth of an album, Pretty Little Head fares surprisingly well. ‘Lali est Parisseux’ is the highlight of the newly-present tracks, sung in French with a delightfully retro sound, like a transmission from a Parisian radio station of the past. Quite what it’s about I don’t know, my GCSE French having deserted me a while back, though “ce soir” crops up regularly in the lyrics and the song ends with a romantic “mwah!” so I’m guessing it’s about lovin’.
Four of the new tracks are clustered at the very end of the album, including the disturbing ‘Mama & Me’. The intro to this song might well become one of those bits you always skip through, featuring as it does a dialogue between McKay and her mother in which she appears to play both roles, one of which is a crying toddler. Hmmm. The song itself is a gritty spoken-word rap piece about a childhood of urban poverty, deprivation and domestic abuse. It’s socially conscious, reinforcing that McKay is an artist with a political agenda and the intelligence and artistry to get her message across. McKay sings about “wanting to die with your nose broken, heart choking”, and the song is surprisingly hard hitting given its intro. It’s a testament to female strength and the bond between mother and daughter: “with my mom by my side / we’ll never give up the fight”. Even so, the song features a truly bizarre spoken word coda in which mother and daughter have an almighty row, McKay voicing the daughter’s words through choking sobs and wrenching gasps. Only here does the track become a little unstuck, and the excessive theatricality of the exchange means that what had seemed entirely serious threatens to become a joke.
McKay’s desire to take on various different roles works better on the album’s more light-hearted tracks. ‘Pounce’ is a joyous 56-second ode to pussycats and pouncing in general, one of a number of interlude-esque tracks on the album. Those tracks that didn’t quite work on the promo issued last January are still a little redundant here – particularly ‘Pink Chandelier’ and ‘I Am Nothing’ – and the new track ‘Yodel’ is twee to the point of being irritating, but altogether this is a stylistically varied and consistently inventive album. McKay’s ability to pen both vigorous, fierce politically-minded tracks and gleefully playful pop numbers is particularly impressive. And as for the Cyndi Lauper duet ‘Beecharmer’; well, it’s still one of the most fantastic, fun and witty pop songs in recent memory.
Having had the pleasure of seeing Ms McKeown in concert on a number of occasions, the news that our diminutive spiky-haired friend was finally releasing a recording of her indomitably spirited live sets was greeted with smiles aplenty at the Wears The Trousers office. And Lafayette does not disappoint. Named after the New York street upon which Joe’s Pub (the venue where the album was taped) stands, it’s a deliciously careening treat. Kicking off with her brilliant take on ‘Thanks For The Boogie Ride’, a tune so swinging that you’d want to get up and cut some rug even after the hugest of meals, once the old school jiving beats hit the eardrum there’s no going back and dessert will have to wait. It’s the only cover in an 11-song set that runs through each of McKeown’s five albums (six if you count the original versions of ‘Lullaby In 3/4′ and ‘Fast As You Can’ on her self-released Monday Morning Cold) and still finds room to squeeze in a newbie in the form of ‘You, Sailor’.
As a songwriter McKeown seems to have settled in nicely to her own stylistic furrow, with each release since 2000’s disparate Distillation showcasing a stronger, more focused muse at work behind the scenes. The brilliant ‘Slung-Lo’, from 2003’s Judy Garland-inspired Grand, exploits this and slides perfectly into the set sandwiched between two musically less vibrant numbers, allowing it to shine. Elsewhere, Grand is represented again with a rendition of ‘James!’, this time with a noticeably darker groove than that found on the studio take.
Together with her six-piece, take-no-prisoners Little Big Band with the defiantly talented Allison Miller on drums and Todd Sickafoose on bass (both of whom accompanied Ani DiFranco on her recent European tour), McKeown has done well to capture the true essence of her live show. Her exuberant personality shines through with the crowd participation segment in ‘We Are More’ and the band’s dynamic reworking of classic back catalogue favourites. Her energy is certainly present in ‘Melody’ and ‘Blackbirds’ and her emotions in ‘Lullaby in 3/4′ are immediate and true. Indeed, ‘Blackbirds’ is the perfect example of why McKeown is so well loved as it starts out unexpectedly, surprising and pleasing the crowd in equal measure. Playful and engaging, it’s the standout track and clearly the audience favourite, reflecting the glee that Erin and the rest of the band must have had in the practice room as they gave the song a new lease of life.
As a package Lafayette is a must have for McKeown fans and a worthy introduction for any new ears. The camaraderie between McKeown, Miller and Sickafoose sticks the band tightly together, adding a fresh layer of vitality to McKeown’s older songs. Credit must be give too to the song selection and sequencing, both of which keep boredom firmly at bay. And if you don’t want to go and see the lady herself play in the flesh next time she’s in town after listening to this, well, I’ll be surprised.
Take a moment to answer the following question. What do the following songs have in common: ‘Remember You’re A Womble’, ‘A Winter’s Tale’, ‘Bright Eyes’ and ‘Closest Thing To Crazy’? Well, aside from the fact that they can all be loosely described as trite, simple and classically composed, aiming to achieve maximum effect for minimum innovation and technique, and that they’re all well-known, big-selling popular songs, they’re all the work of the phenomenally successful songwriter, Mike Batt. Or should that be unaccountably successful? – his work is often derided for being simplistic and over-sentimental (as those four songs illustrate). Nevertheless it’s worth remembering that he has a bankrolling knack for appealing to an audience unswayed by sniffy critics and poor reviews. ‘Bright Eyes’ was an international number one smash for Art Garfunkel; ‘A Winter’s Tale’ became one of David Essex’s most popular and recognisable songs; and Batt’s work with Vanessa Mae turned her into one of the most successful classical artists in the world.
As the mogul at large behind 23-year old Georgia-born singer Katie Melua, Batt has delivered amazing results: with over 7.5 million albums sold to date, Melua is by far the biggest-selling female artist in Europe, an astonishing achievement given the somewhat stale appeal of her musical output. Thanks to Terry Wogan, Katie’s debut album, Call Off The Search – an insipid collection of simple blues/jazz songs – was propelled to the top spot in the UK charts, ultimately selling a staggering 1.8 million albums in the first five months. Melua’s second album, Piece By Piece has now gone platinum four times, once again based on a recipe of digestible pop-jazz and unashamedly romantic lyrics. No matter how boring her music has been to date, Melua has clearly won a place in the public’s affection; that, surely, deserves a modicum of respect, even if she was recently described by the ‘Daily Telegraph’ as a “national embarrassment”.
As it turns out, Pictures will be Melua’s final album with Mike Batt at the helm and is a compelling indication that ditching her sentimental puppetmaster may in fact be her best possible career move. Melua’s own work is, both stylistically and lyrically, a light-year away from Batt’s increasingly inane outpourings. ‘Mary Pickford’ is typical of his drivel; a spectacularly dull creation full of schoolboy-standard rhyming couplets and a saccharine storyline, it’s as nondescript and MOR as a lowly little traffic island. The execrable ‘Spellbound’ is much the same, while ‘What It Says On The Tin’ seems to use Ronseal as a metaphor for schmaltzy romantic ideals better left to Mills & Boon. The mind boggles, truly. The common thread is Batt’s inoffensive and avowedly unchallenging lyrics, and his old-fashioned, straightforward compositions. This stuff should be played in dentists’ receptions, if only to acclimatise people to having their teeth pulled.
However – and this is Wears The Trousers going out on a limb – Melua’s own work might just indicate that a change of guidance and direction could be fruitful. To be fair to her, she does possess a beautifully clear and versatile voice and her writing has a flair that may just come into its own. ‘What I Miss About You’, for example, could never have come from Batt’s well-worn pen. Melua’s semi-biographical song about a treacherous and hurtful ex-boyfriend swings effortlessly from melancholic reminiscence (“your bashful grin when you asked if I would like your key”) to angry denunciation (“your skill of putting me down in front of everyone I knew”), and she is clearly emotionally involved in her powerful performance. The album’s other standout song, ‘Scary Movies’, is an intelligent and amusingly kooky piece completely at odds with Batt’s pedestrian styling. You could scarcely imagine the author of ‘Bright Eyes’ writing lyrics like “Nowadays I never cry… / when the psychopathic wife kills her husband with a knife”, or “I don’t care when people’s heads end up being torn to shreds”.
Overall, though, Pictures sees Melua stuck firmly on safe ground. It will appeal to Wogan’s listeners every bit as much as her previous releases, it will win no prizes for innovation or daring, and it isn’t likely to win her new fans, but Pictures does provide her with a chance to show what she is capable of. Melua is a talented musician let down by a solidly plain lyricist/composer; she might not be a Diana Krall or Joni Mitchell in the making, but if she has the courage to mark a change of direction with the clarity and skill that makes occasional appearances in her own work, she could well move into newer, better, more interesting territory.
Maya Arulpragasam must be a gift to amateur sociologists, and even the more refined stratum of navel gazers known as ethnomusicologists. Just think of all the theses and dissertations that could be developed about her: a young woman born in Hounslow to Sri Lankan parents, whose family moved with her back to their homeland when she was 6 months old; who experienced the virtual loss of her father when he joined the armed Tamil Tiger separatist movement and she was forced to flee with her family to India, living for a time in a ruined house; who eventually returned to the UK and went to Central St Martin’s art college, met Justine Frischmann and was commissioned to produce the artwork for Elastica’s second album; whose response to encouragement by Frischmann and Peaches, the support act on Elastica’s US tour, to develop her confidence in music was to drop off a tape of what became her first single, the bruising and brilliant ‘Galang’, at the offices of XL Recordings with a note reading, “Trust me, you’ve been looking for me”. Without getting too pointy-headed about it, the deprivation, heartache, politicisation, talent and determination revealed by Arulpragasam’s story makes her current success much less surprising, particularly in the music world where personality hooks are often just as important as musical ones.
But it’s the music that concerns us here, until now encapsulated in her debut album, Arular, named after the pseudonym her father took when he joined the Tigers. That record was a dizzying and enervating conglomeration of grime, dancehall, techno, hip hop and a smattering of unapologetic pop, which garnered drooling praise from critics and several award nominations, not to mention healthy sales. It was genuinely one of the records of 2005: fizzing with energy and ideas, politicised but not in your face – despite MTV doing its boneheaded best to bring her politics to the foreground by banning ‘Sunshowers’ for mentioning the PLO – its slightly unfinished feel only added to its appeal, giving the songs a technoid edge that made her sound even more alien among her contemporaries. All of which makes Kala one of the most anticipated releases of 2007.
Arular was undoubtedly the product of a childhood spent mainly in the UK, a result and mirror of musics absorbed from neighbours and friends in an overpopulated city. One of the key tracks on Kala – this time named after MIA’s mother – is tellingly called ‘World Town’, and is the most obvious statement of how her concerns and vision have expanded in the two years since the first record. In itself, however, it only makes explicit that which is implied throughout what is, in many ways, an exuberant travelogue of an album, recorded as it was in India, Trinidad and Tokyo among other locations. ‘World Town’ is the equivalent of entering a dusty zocalo where a street party is in full swing: a samba band bashes out flurries of percussion above which shouts some unnamed instrument fashioned from a car exhaust, while MIA declaims from a car bonnet, “don’t be calling me desperate / when I’m knocking on the door / every wall you build / I’ll knock it down to the floor”. Only the masked guys in the corner, loading their automatic rifles as the chorus plays, ring a note of concern.
These (defiantly non-government) troops appear again on ‘Paper Planes’, the most summery track on the album, but one that sets out a similarly outspoken agenda: “I’ll fly like a paper get high like planes / catch me at the border I got visas in my name / If you come around here I’ll make ‘em all day / I’ll get one done in a second if you wait”; then there’s the chorus of “All I wanna do is -” followed by three gunshots. It’s pretty obvious that MIA’s sympathies understandably lie with the voiceless and powerless people she’s known throughout her life, but it’s equally obvious from the cartoon methodology she employs that she’s out to deliberately provoke a reaction from the other side of the fence, from the comparatively well-off record-buying fraternity that are most likely to be exposed to her music.
Whatever your opinion of her politics, it never gets in the way of Kala being both joyful and sonically innovative. ‘Mango Pickle Down River’ heavily features rhyming by a group of Aborigine adolescents called The Wilcannia Mob, and is a widescreen slice of (inevitably) didge-heavy sludge-hop with a decidedly environmental slant (“There’s only one ocean that got fish left / one day we’ll have to be a really good chef”). The opening ‘Bamboo Banga’ is bhangrafied techno, one of several songs here to extend her cross-pollinisation into good ol’ white-boy indie as she drawls quotes from Jonathan Richman’s ‘Roadrunner’ in the opening lines. ‘20 Dollar’, a sequel of sorts to Arular‘s ‘10 Dollar’, inserts The Pixies’ ‘Where Is My Mind?’ into its loping groove; and even Happy Mondays get a piece of the action when ‘The Turn’ appropriates a line or two from Wrote ‘For Luck’.
Second single ‘Jimmy’ further enlarges MIA’s already expansive tent by covering an old Bollywood tune about one of its stars, Jimmy Aaja. She chooses not to recontextualise the music, relying on lots of swirling strings and bubbling arpeggios, but transplants the lyrics from India to Rwanda and Darfur. It’s an unexpected left turn, especially after the preceding percussive double whammy of ‘Bird Flu’ and ‘Boyz’, and provides some useful breathing space before ‘Hussel’ brings back the noize with layered African drumming that propels Afrikan Boy’s flow and some evocative FX toward a soaring chorus.
As Arulpragasam herself has said, this album “takes a few listens” to reveal itself entirely. The sheer weight and breadth of the sounds on offer here makes it less immediate, and certainly less immediately charming, than Arular; there’s none of the vocal characterisation that she deployed on ‘10 Dollar’, for example. Kala‘s politics won’t appeal to everyone, and they are far more central to the album’s fabric than previously. But when this brave, fearlessly eclectic and sonically loaded music truly hits, only a churl would fail to put it straight in the box marked Albums Of The Year.
When Joni Mitchell announced in March this year that her comeback album would be based around what she called “the war of the fairytales” it’s safe to assume that no one thought she’d be penning the soundtrack for ‘Shrek The Third’. It’s also safe to assume that no one could have imagined that the sight of a grizzly bear foraging for food in her dustbin would have set aflame her desire to compose her first new songs in almost a decade. Having departed the music industry five years ago with a hefty sting in her tail – the words ‘cesspool’ and ‘slavery’ were bandied about – Mitchell’s heart seemed set on the comparative freedom of painting and a musical life lived through nicely packaged but ultimately unsatisfying Rhino Records compilations. Retiring to her beloved coastal home (her “sanctuary”) in British Columbia where she busied herself with gardening, watching old movies and painstakingly creating the 60-strong mixed media works that would later make up her first art exhibition, an anti-war collection named ‘Flag Dance’, Mitchell’s desire to make music dwindled. Unthinkably, she got out of the habit of playing the guitar, so much so that her fingers had softened and she bled when she tried. So that night, the night the bear arrived, she turned to the piano for the first time in 10 years.
Kicking off a 10-track album with an instrumental, particularly one as feverishly awaited as Shine, may seem on the surface an ungenerous gesture. It’s not. It’s perfect. ‘One Week Last Summer’ is divine anticipation in itself, a languorous delight that slowly unfurls beneath Mitchell’s ponderous, sensitive piano. It’s a stark reminder that, for all her detractors who bemoan the loss of range from her singing, Mitchell doesn’t need words to make a song her own. The sensuous, evocative phrasing of the chords keeps attention rapt throughout all seven ‘verses’, one for each day of the week, and when the bear shows its hungry muzzle on the Thursday there’s no low-end booming drama, no overly dramatic toots on the sax. As the whole of Shine attests, at 64, the music of Joni Mitchell is the fiercest calm you’ll find.
The bear makes another appearance on ‘This Place’, one of only a small clutch of guitar songs, inspired by the demolition of a mountain behind Mitchell’s sanctuary that was sold to Californian developers as gravel. You couldn’t make it up, really. With its lyrical lament about disappearing tree lines and money making them topple, it’s sort of like an updated version of ‘Big Yellow Taxi’, if there weren’t an updated version of ‘Big Yellow Taxi’ already on the album. The voice, when it comes in, sounds richer and more full, luxuriant even, than it has done for years. And for anyone thinking that Mitchell has become entirely humourless, there’s kudos for the line about making mountains into molehills.
The aforementioned retread of perhaps her best-known song is given added colour by a surprising use of accordion atop the familiar strutting guitar line. Taking in both the fiscal and corporeal implications of modern life, Mitchell foregoes Amy Grant’s 25 buck entry fee to the tree museum; here it’ll cost you “an arm and a leg”. How’s that for inflation? Having been overlooked for the orchestral reworkings that made up her last album Travelogue, it’s nice to see this classic finally get a huskier makeover among thematically relevant material. Interestingly, it’s also her first entirely solo performance since 1998’s ‘Tiger Bones’. Still, isn’t it about time that someone realised that DDT hasn’t been used as a crop pesticide in years? If you’re going to change one lyric…
With the notable exception of ‘Woodstock’, which, famously, she never actually attended due to a conflicting work schedule, and 1977’s spookily pre-emptive ‘Otis & Marlena’ that sang of Muslims sticking up Washington, until the late 1980s Mitchell had mostly eschewed the political songwriting of Joan Baez, Bob Dylan and the like – a fact she’s making up for in 2007. War and the ecological scourge of humankind are Shine’s raison d’être. From the opening salvo of the disarmingly tender ballad ‘If I Had A Heart’ to the almost hymnal title track, which contains the piercing lyric “shine on dying soldiers in patriotic pain”, Mitchell lays into modern consumerism (mobile phone users get a double dressing down), self-serving politicians and senseless killing in the name of religion. But these are not protest songs in the ‘60s tradition; Mitchell is too smart for that. She sings with a knowing weariness, an acceptance that the times when people truly believed that art could change the world are long dead and buried. It’s unsettling and strange, proving that the time spent away hasn’t tempered her mystery.
Mitchell even goes so far as to spell it out for us in ‘Hana’ where the female protagonist, a kind and resilient do-gooder, who tells us “This is no simply Sunday song / where God or Jesus come along / and they save ya,” asserting that “you’ve got to be braver than that / you tackle the beast alone / with all its tenacious teeth”. As Paulinho Da Costa’s brash percussion propels the song forward, there’s a hint of the experimentalism that marked Mitchell’s under-regarded 1980s output, and it crops up again on another classic Joni story-song, ‘Night Of The Iguana’, a lyrical adaptation of the Tennessee Williams play of the same name about a priest who falls spectacularly from grace and into tragic love. Elsewhere, ‘Bad Dreams’ takes its key lyric from Mitchell’s new grandson (“bad dreams are good in the great plan”) and talks of life “before that altering apple”, before we lived in towns that are little more than “electric scabs” on the Earth, while ‘Strong & Wrong’ takes a somewhat heavy-handed swipe at the Bush Administration and its ilk.
Shine is so much more than just a protest album, it’s a spiritual awakening. Indeed, as a protest album, it largely falls flat and, let’s be honest, mostly on deaf ears. And whilst this is her first organic-sounding new material in a long, long time, it carries a heady but inescapably dated scent. The fire is not in the music – often a smoky background haze – it’s burning in the wisdom of her voice. Mitchell has pared back everything as she urges us to snap out of our stupors and feel our surroundings. For all her chastising and didacticisms, Shine ends on a beautifully hopeful note. An adaptation of Rudyard Kipling’s famous poem ‘If’ is gorgeously rendered, pertinent both to Mitchell’s own experience and the world at large, and is given an extra poetic flourish at the end from Joni’s own pen. “If you can fill the journey of a minute / with sixty seconds worth of wonder and delight / then the Earth is yours / and everything in it” sounds almost like a challenge. Happily, despite its few flaws, Shine proves that Mitchell herself is up to the task.
Wild Hope ••••
Granted, the name Mandy Moore is not usually synonymous with musical integrity but bear with us here. Wild Hope finds the young actress/singer in a place that’s light years away from the studio-moulded bubblegum popstrel that released So Real. Perhaps we can accredit her newfound maturity to the fact that she’s been forging friendships with the likes of Susan Sarandon and other creative geniuses, or maybe she’s simply gotten older and wiser (she’s still only 23, mind). Whatever force she’s harnessed, the new Moore is a singer who delivers her material with a belief and fervour that reinforces the fact that she’s now in a position to choose the songs she loves rather than those that will sell to a core demographic. Kicking off with ‘Extraordinary’, Moore’s conviction demands that every preconception of her sound be shed. It’s a startling reintroduction that wraps around a lyrical manifesto that’s almost therapeutic – affirmations of self-belief and embracing the opportunity to be yourself with no pretensions of doing more than appreciating the day, the life and the person for its own merits.
As co-writer on every track, Wild Hope is Moore’s most personal effort to date and seemingly forms a narrative, tracing her thoughts through the stages of relationships and self-discovery, beginning to end. The slightly acerbically titled ‘Looking Forward To Looking Back’ is the album’s pivotal moment in that context, marking the point where the realisation comes that the fun has gone and really the relationship has become a chore. Intriguingly, as the stories of the songs wax and wane so does Moore’s voice, as if she were vocally echoing the changes that she sings about; the opening tracks don’t showcase a spectacular voice, but as the narrator becomes more empowered – notably on the stunning, piano-led closer ‘Gardenia’ – Moore might just take your breath away. The voice and the person behind the songs has metamorphosed immeasurably.
Of course, there are credits to be given elsewhere as Moore has collaborated with a range of respected artists to create the songs that mark this transitional album. ‘All Good Things’ welcomes the talents of The Weepies for a song about ultimate healing and acceptance, while ‘Most Of Me’ was written with Lori McKenna and slowly gets under your skin with its melancholy leanings and lyrics. It feels like an insight into a private moment of self-revelatory optimism as Moore sings about realising that she wants to find a place of wholeness where she can be vulnerable for her new relationship, but that it’s starting at a point where it’s “crossing paths with the way he left [her]”, and so for a while all she can give is “most of [her]”; as with nearly all songs on the album, it’s the imagery that remains after the song has faded. The aforementioned ‘Gardenia’ is a collaboration with Canadian singer-songwriter Chantal Kreviazuk, and, in the tradition of saving the best for last, is the album’s peak both lyrically and in terms of performance. If you turn it up loud enough, you can even hear the creak of the piano pedal.
‘Can’t You Just Adore Her?’ is a sweet little tribute to being female and wanting to be adored for every quirk and individual trait; it’s for every woman who has eaten chocolate for breakfast, cancelled work to shop or made being late part of her personality. ‘Nothing That You Are’ and ‘Latest Mistake’ are similarly empowering, for different reasons, and provide a needed boost after the soft and introspective title track whose gentle calm barely raises the pulse. Cellos lend a beautiful depth to ‘Ladies’ Choice’ alongside the delicate keyboards and goodbyes as Moore toasts “to us at the end of the line,” realising that she’ll always miss the version of her lover that she loved but not the one that she’s leaving.
Though it doesn’t push any envelopes in the grander scheme of things, Wild Hope is nevertheless a towering achievement for someone who rarely gets credited for her musical talent and who, by her own admission, would have refunded what people paid for her earlier records. As she sings on ‘Gardenia’, “it’s been good getting to know myself more”, and after a few listens to Wild Hope you’ll most likely concur. Suddenly Moore has a chance to establish herself as a singer-songwriter of true mettle. It may take a while for people to grow accustomed to that, but it seems assured that Moore will continue to develop her talents while the world catches up.
Heart Full Of Sky ••½
Heart Full Of Sky is the eighth studio album from British prog band Mostly Autumn and sees them rack up their 10th year in the business. As is becoming fashionable (or should that be “increasingly necessary”) in the prog world, the band have followed Marillion’s lead in funding the album recording through subscription and fan pre-orders. This has allowed them to produce the album without major label support on their own Mostly Autumn Records imprint. The bonus for fans who stumped up in advance is a special limited edition with eight exclusive extra tracks.
Among the 10 songs on the regular release, the writing credits are shared between lead guitarist Bryan Josh and singer Heather Findlay, with a couple of tracks contributed by keyboard supremo Chris Johnson, and it’s this triumvirate who form the band’s creative centre. Overall, the album takes a more mainstream approach to prog rock than the likes of Yes, Genesis or King Crimson. Rather, the music bears comparison with a rockier version of bands like Pink Floyd, mixing a strong pop sensibility with their prog pretensions. Mostly Autumn layer this with an occasional folky overlay provided by the flute, clarinet and recorders of Angela Gordon and guest musicians Peter Knight of Steeleye Span and Troy Donockley from Iona.
While this would suggest that the band is aiming for a quality product, these ears found the resulting album more than a little lacklustre. In fact, the overall impression by the end of the album’s 60-odd minutes is a journeyman effort. Findlay’s vocals are excellent throughout but someone needs to tame drummer Andrew Jennings’s love affair with his cymbals. The lack of melodic hooks is doubly disappointing. Most effective are the mellower, folkier songs, where the vocals and Gordon’s flute shine through.
Listening back to the songs on Heart Full Of Sky one can’t help but wonder whether this is a CD which will please the existing fans – particularly those invested in the project – but which will do little to spread the word beyond that. That’s a shame because, if the band were to produce an album that added up to at least the sum of the parts, Mostly Autumn and their fans could be on to a commercial winner. Sadly not this time though.
The Turn •••••
Among the various artistic epochs of the 20th Century, the 1980s have much to answer for. That faded decade was guilty of some of the most heinous crimes against taste in living memory (leg warmers, anyone?), but it did also produce some little nuggets of joy; it was, lest we forget, the decade that saw the arrival of the CD, the animation of Danger Mouse, and the birth of charitable juggernauts of the likes of Live Aid. It also produced some pretty darn good musicians, forged in the bass-soaked glory of post-punk, faux-glam electropop bands of the likes of Wham! and Yazoo. Although both of those bands have long since folded, their brightest stars – the increasingly off-the-rails George Michael and stage-loving blues supremo Alison Moyet – seem to have maintained a certain sort of magnetism.
It is, perhaps, that vital magnetism that keeps drawing Ms Moyet back to the studio to produce magnificently symphonic albums every few years. It’s pretty clear that some force has to be at work to drag her away from a critically-acclaimed stage career that has seen her playing in shows as wildly different as glamorous jazz-fest ‘Chicago’ and the more downbeat tragedy, ‘Smaller’ (the latter with her close friend Dawn French). That stage experience is becoming increasingly evident in Moyet’s studio albums, and never more so than in her newest effort, The Turn.
It was probably inevitable that The Turn would take on a more theatrical tone than Moyet’s last album, 2004’s Hometime. Signed to new Universal label W14, Moyet has found herself far removed from the pop-loving influence of her ‘80s/’90s Sony contract, and better able to concentrate on turning out music that appeals for its artistry rather than its simplicity. The Turn is full of such music, co-written with Moyet’s long-time collaborator Pete Glenister. The album opens with the theatrics of ‘One More Time’, a complex piece that enables Moyet to show off her famously warm voice and its stage-acquired, ground-shaking vibrato. Similarly theatrical, ‘The Man In The Wings’ is full of drooping legato strings, with Moyet’s earthy, emotional vocals matching the song’s lyrical poetry perfectly. Funkier stuff is in evidence in the jazzy, snazzy stylings of ‘It’s Not The Thing Henry’, full of strutting guitars and belting vocals; Moyet is in near-gospel territory here, and comes even closer in the Hammond-fuelled funk of ‘A Guy Like You’.
The real standout track, though, is one of three that have made it to the album from ‘Smaller’. ‘Home’ is an almost absurdly theatrical tango, which marries Moyet’s masterful histrionics with the dizzying skill of virtuoso accordionist Marcel Azzola to create one of the most striking pieces of music this year. Visit Moyet’s blog (http://alisonmoyet.wordpress.com) for the background story: suffice to say, her excitement at working with Azzolo burns through the song with an incredible intensity. Stunning stuff, truly.
The Turn is easily Moyet’s best album to date. A perfect vehicle for her songwriting prowess, it also enables her to show off one of the most unique, powerful and expressive voices in Britain. If that special magnetism continues to draw her back to the studio, she might have a hard time beating her own performance; one has to hope that she would relish the challenge.
Go Go Smear The Poison Ivy ••••
I have to own up here and admit that I’m not at all familiar with Múm. All I know, or knew prior to the extensive (ahem) research necessary for this review, is that they’re Icelandic, there used to be four of them and now there are three, and that they mix electronic and acoustic elements in their music. Indirectly, it’s the latter aspect that has put me off them most, as it has led to critics describing Múm as ‘folktronica’ artists.
Now me, I hate folktronica. I even hate the name, a lazy conflation of two hitherto innocent and respectable words, presumably invented by a hack on a deadline to describe computer-based music that includes things like acoustic guitars and vocals, often in the service of song instead of texture or beats. (God knows what would be better, before you ask – ‘laptop folk’ is both clunky and inaccurate and anyway, genre tags are the province of dullards.) I really have tried to like…this type of music – I refuse to use the benighted word – but have come away burned, or rather bored, by the self-important dullness of Gravenhurst, the pleasant tedium of Tunng and the aural overthink of The Books. It’s like someone with a lifetime’s aversion to olives, who eventually gives up trying “just once more” in the hope of dislodging the Damascene scales on their tastebuds, because, to himorher, they really do taste like the devil’s haemorrhoids.
But it’s nice to be wrong sometimes. Better, even, than the feeling when an album that’s been anticipated for weeks, months, maybe even years exceeds all fevered expectations, are those times when something for which you have no great hopes plays your favourites off the pitch. For much of Go Go Smear The Poison Ivy, we’re holding one such beauty in our mortal hands. ‘Blessed Brambles’ opens with a rusty banjo being plucked, before drizzling on all manner of parps, trills and interlocking percussion and allowing airy boy/girl vocals to waft in. The sheer fecundity of the whole thing only becomes apparent when the vocals drop out again, revealing something akin to Tom Waits’s junkyard orchestra being conducted by the little Haribo cartoon boy. It’s colourful, almost painfully so, but experimental, tuneful and fun at the same time – not an easy balancing act. Even better is ‘A Little Bit, Sometimes’, which refracts music-box chimes, accordions and fragments of piano through a bass-heavy gauze of electronics, topped off with a weary, elegiac vocal melody.
It’s particularly impressive that Múm repeat this trick throughout the album, chucking in everything but the kitchen sink in a spirit of gleeful experimentation while retaining a controlled and tunesome sound. Even more so since their last album, Summer Make Good came from a far more crepuscular and forbidding neighbourhood. Elsewhere, lead single ‘They Made Frogs Smoke ‘Til They Exploded’ nearly matches its glorious title with a meditation on either pet care or animal cruelty (“If you break a kitten’s neck / you must shake its body and check / if it’s still alive, be gone to sleep”); ‘Marmalade Fires’ hides a cry for cleansing flames under a swooning confection of harps and strings; and ‘Moon Pulls’ is a piano ballad to a faraway love played on a silvered beach at evening.
Indeed, if it wasn’t for a few pointless throwaways like ‘Rhuubarbidoo’ or ‘I Was Her Horse’ (both mercifully short) – and for the fact that listening to it in its entirety leaves one with a feeling akin to eating too much candyfloss – this album would be a revelation. As it is, it’s merely great. Múm can consider themselves one more fan to the good, and I’ll be checking out their back catalogue as soon as I can.
“When I think that I’m over you, I’m overpowered” tease the opening seconds of Róisín Murphy’s disco-tinged second solo album. Following the critically acclaimed but commercially ignored Ruby Blue, Overpowered has been hotly tipped as a modern disco classic, and armed with decadent costumes, lavish production from Richard X, Seiji and Andy Cato, two incredibly infectious über-cool singles, as well as inextricable links with the fashion world, Murphy appears at last to be on an infallible path to greater recognition.
The album’s title, however, proves an unwitting indication of what to expect. There is no denying that Murphy has talent in abundance: each of Moloko’s albums bore incredibly well written, edgy and interesting tracks, and Ruby Blue (produced by Matthew Herbert) was an intriguing collection of leftfield art-pop. Here, the focus on disco and fashion – almost painfully displayed by the album artwork which perhaps demonstrates that the songs are swathed in too much artifice – somewhat distracts from Murphy’s majesty. So while ‘Let Me Know’ is undeniably one of this year’s best pop moments, and one that in itself almost makes up for what the rest of the album lacks, still Overpowered misses something crucial. It has energy, it has hooks galore and it’s certainly incredibly cool, but there’s a sorry lack of depth. Perhaps in irony, the words ‘babe’ and ‘baby’ crop up too often to allow the songs to be taken too seriously, and every so often songs sound far too ‘80s, and it’s too unclear where pastiche and irony begin or end.
The main problem is that, on some songs, Róisín is indeed ‘overpowered’ and somewhat drowned by the emphasis on cutting-edge production; there is frustration that the sound is not organic enough to let her breathe. Whereas on ‘Let Me Know’, ‘Overpowered’ and the quite wonderful closer ‘Scarlet Ribbon’, Murphy’s vocals soar, her lyrics and delivery are spot on and the production does not overshadow the content, much of the rest of the album borders on style over substance. ‘You Know Me Better’ is incredibly catchy, and surely must be a future single, but lies dangerously on the cusp of being too much an ‘80s revisit with its electro-handclaps and bizarre synth effects. Elsewhere, ‘Movie Star’ and ‘Checkin’ On Me’ (with unnecessary apostrophe; Róisín is far from urban) miss the mark quite substantially, suggesting that working within the confined of being retro-cool and club friendly proves to be a somewhat limiting vehicle for her talents.
Despite this criticism, Murphy has delivered a competent, accessible and energetic release. While certain songs are below par for a musician of her ilk, the standout tracks really do demand repeated listening, and are some of her best-penned moments. Still, Overpowered is far from being her most impressive work and is in no way Murphy’s most ambitious release. Perhaps the singles will at least finally convince the general public of her worth as a pop star in her own right and grant some chart success, but hopefully by her next album the good stuff will be surrounded by less superfluous material that should really have been shed along the way.