wears the trousers magazine


sounding off: january 2010 (iii)

In this month’s roundup, we’ll be looking at a bunch of stragglers from last year that we ran out of time to publish before Christmas, plus a few early 2010 releases in brief.

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Vanessa Paradis
Best Of •••
Wrasse

In many ways, Vanessa Paradis’ 1987 hit ‘Joe Le Taxi’ still sums up how the English regard French female popstars: the heavy accent, delivered with a babydoll pitch, cute as a kitten with a little bit of vixen thrown in. Such was its provocative, innocent-girl charm that, out of nowhere, the song launched Paradis, then just 14 years old, on the path to a lengthy career. Next came a slightly more sophisticated album, Variations sur le même t’aime. Produced by Serge Gainsbourg, it ushered in a second wave of huge success in France, with the wonderful ‘Tandem’ barely off the airwaves, helping to really nail a credible career for the still young ingénue.

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2007 reviews dump: b

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

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Meg Baird
Dear Companion ••••
Wichita

What with all the caterwauling harpists in mediaeval dress, bindi sporting pinkos and long-lost commune-dwelling recluses, the folk revival of recent years has had a focus on original songs that some purists regard as contrary to the folk ethos. The revision and reinterpretation of traditional songs and adoption of new songs to the folk songbook has taken a back seat. As a member of Espers, Meg Baird has been on the side of the innovators over the past five years. For her first solo outing, however, she seeds an album of traditional songs with original numbers and creates a work at times reminiscent of luminaries of early ‘60s pastoral folk, such as Anne Briggs and Shirley Collins.

Apparently recorded in less than 24 hours with Espers conspirator Greg Weeks, Dear Companion is an unostentatious collection of songs, some of which first appeared on last year’s delicate collaboration with Sharron Kraus and Helena Espvall, Leaves From Off The Tree. The arrangement of acoustic guitar, minimum accompaniment and the largely single-tracked vocals give great immediacy to the songs. As though listening to a live performance, if you close your eyes you can smell the cloudy cider and pipe smoke.

With a voice like a mountain stream of glacial meltwater, Baird makes light work of traditional favourites such as ‘Willie O’Winsbury’, giving new life to stories told countless times. And her songs hold their own, not directly emulating the folk tradition of the traditional numbers but working as a counterpoint in the modern singer-songwriter mould. The opener and title track is a country-tinged love song that is at least as old as the Carter family and packed with lines like “I’ll drink nothing but my tears”. When revisited as an a cappella number at the end of the album, however, it sounds as though it has been lifted from the English folk canon.

This gracious nod to different heritages recurs throughout the album. A version of the classic ‘Barbry Allen’ sees her expertly subvert her crystal vocals to capture the macabre side of the song, a tale of unrequited lovers dying one after the other. The self-penned ‘Do What You Gotta Do’ and ‘All I Ever Wanted’ see Baird updating stories of frustrated love and disappointment. The haunting refrain from the latter “you keep playing your games on me / and all I ever wanted was your loving” is the aural equivalent of a plump teardrop quivering on the brink of an eyelid. ‘Tennis Players’ Waltze’ gets my instant seal of approval for likening a new love to the fruiting of a fungus: “your love for me was an overnight sensation / my love for you is an overnight sensation too… / the cowboys are sprinkling mycelium / the mushrooms are growing in every new boot print”. Such mycological accuracy may not be a clincher for everyone, although, if you fail to be moved by the humour, tenderness and honesty of the song, whether you are a fan of fungus or not, your heart has died. You just haven’t noticed it yet.

The album is completed by a couple of other traditional songs of the type in which more people called William and Ellen fall in love, are forbidden to marry, and then pine to death. These songs, accompanied by droning autoharp, sound like something from another era, whereas the other tracks sound simply timeless in the way that only songs reinterpreted time and again can. Dear Companion impresses not just with its rendering of folk classics and with the poetry and emotion of the self-penned numbers, but with its marriage of the two styles. It might not be the most joyous album, but what folk ever is? As any good folk singer should do, Meg Baird finds the beauty, humour and universal truth in stories of love, death and fungi.

Peter Hayward

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Miranda Barber
My Tomorrow EP •••½
Self-released

The second EP from Oz-born, London-based singer-songwriter Miranda Barber presents the listener with a lucky seven piano-based ballads. Whilst this is strictly a 5+2 bonus tracks release, those welcome extras easily stand alongside the ‘proper’ songs on their own merits. Barber’s first, self-titled EP drew some almost subliminal Kate Bush comparisons in the vocal style but here she moves in a more jazz-influenced direction with double bass, subtle guitar and soft percussion. However, it’s Barber’s voice and her hands on the piano that command centre stage. Luckily, that’s where it gets really interesting.

Befitting the depth and darkness of some of her lyrics, Barber guides us through some brooding, ominous musical terrain. ‘Blues Day’ and the title song succeed in chilling the heart while keeping the listener involved and transfixed. Barber’s rich, pure vocal gets straight to the emotional core of the songs with seemingly little effort, casting welcome elements of light and shade with subtly textured self-harmonies. The achingly pretty ‘My Roof Has Got A Hole In It’ might well drown you in its desperate melancholy before ‘Paprika Haze’ lifts the mood with a shift in style whereupon it occupies that sublime showtune-meets-pop song otherworld practically invented by Randy Newman. A hot ‘n’ spicy invitation to get together driven forward by Barber’s spiky piano chords, ‘Eggshells’ rounds off the regular EP, pulling the mood back down and unflinchingly exploring the more obsessive side of love.

Whatever perceived modesty led Barber to include ‘Too Damn Hard’ and ‘No Air To Breathe’ as bonus tracks was a false one; the sheer quality of the songs more than warrants their inclusion. The former allows Barber scope to display the jazzier end of her range, while the latter provides a devastatingly chilling conclusion. A political twist on the murder ballad canon, it follows a young asylum seeker on his journey to a new life and a painful loss without descending into mawkish melodrama. Not an easy feat by any means.

My Tomorrow is a perfect showcase for Barber’s talent; alternately soothing, chilling and mysterious, but always, always beguiling.

Trevor Raggatt

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Dame Shirley Bassey
Get The Party Started •••½
Lock Stock & Barrel

One of Glastonbury’s most bizarre high points this year came during the Sunday afternoon slot, when 70-year old Dame Shirley Bassey performed a short set to an enraptured audience. Hardly the kind of hard-edged rock star that often graces the Glasto stage, she nonetheless received tumultuous applause from a crowd whose individuals were mostly at least forty years her junior; clearly, her appeal has not diminished with age. Get The Party Started, then, arrives right on cue. A collection of ten remixes and three covers, most of the songs will already be familiar to Bassey fans from the old to the new – ‘Kiss Me, Honey Honey’ was first released in 1959, while the title track, a cover of P!nk’s 2002 hit single, was used in last year’s acclaimed M&S Christmas ad campaign. As ever, the biggest challenge for the Dame is to rise above the hackneyed James Bond stylings that have often marked – or marred – her music. Does she succeed? Mostly…

Bassey’s famously brassy voice seems to lend itself to remixing: witness The Propellorheads’ thumping version of ‘History Repeating’ and Kayne West’s ‘Diamonds From Sierra Leone’. Although the quantity of remixes here could easily be a recipe for a stale-sounding novelty album, all succeed in lending a fresh air to some of the Dame’s greatest hits. Of particular note, NorthXNorthwest’s accomplished mix of ‘Big Spender’ perfectly captures the song’s glitzy, darkly glamorous sound, while giving it fresh breath with a throbbing bassline and overdriven synths that perfectly complement the track’s classic brass riffs. Of course, Bassey’s turbo-charged vocals take centre stage, never secondary to the additional layers of sound. Caged Baby’s remix of ‘This Is My Life’ is an excellent example: remixed for 2007’s club crowd, the mix avoids drowning her voice with synth drums, choosing instead to build a solid crowd-pleaser around a classically breathless performance.

The covers are somewhat less successful. Although fans will be pleased to hear the title track in full, some might be dismayed by Bassey’s misguided attempts to match the original’s subversive and wavering vocals. Elsewhere, ‘The Living Tree’, itself a magnificently powerful song, suffers from the self-conscious cliché of Bond-style chromatic scales, while a woeful ‘I Will Survive’ fails to match its potential as Bassey drifts from affected rhythmic modifications to an unappealingly monotonous delivery.

Despite these low points, most of these songs are welcome additions to Bassey’s already formidable repertoire. It may not be an artistic triumph but it will certainly please the Dame’s devotees and anyone looking for an accessible party record. To quote the lady herself, she is what she is, and that’s really quite alright. After all, it’s a formula that’s worked for nigh on 50 years, and Bassey shows no signs of slowing down.

Andy Wasley

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Natasha Bedingfield
N.B. •
RCA

For those of us out there who have been feeling mounting concern at the absence of the Bedingfield brood from the airwaves, fear no more! Middle child Natasha has returned to assail our ears with the bland pop that is apparently written into her very genes. On my first attempt to listen through Ms Bedingfield’s second album, the imaginatively titled N.B., the universe revolted and I suffered a power cut halfway through the first track. I’m afraid this says it all.

It is a question long unanswered as to how some people manage to be so successful in the music industry, Bedingfield being a prime example. Her voice is not particularly pretty or tuneful, and she has a habit of shouting her lyrics rather than actually singing them. Nor does her material possess any sense of originality; each song sounds like something heard a thousand times before. Listening to this album, you could be forgiven for suspecting you had recently developed precognitive powers, so predictable and banal are the lyrics. The source of her popularity (both at home and in the US, of all places) continues to mystify.

On too many of N.B.‘s 14 tiring tracks, Bedingfield plays the role of a one-girl tribute band; ‘Tricky Angel’s chorus is pure Sugababes, and ‘When You Know You Know’ shows off Bedingfield’s very best Mariah Carey impression. Others, such as ‘How Do You Do’ and first single ‘I Wanna Have Your Babies’, are more distinctly hers but alas all sound the same. The latter is typical nonsensical Bedingfield fare in the vein of ‘These Words’. The song’s title and sentiment are enough to induce a mild sense of offence, and this is only compounded by the last handful of bars, wherein Bedingfield seems to actually be counting the children that are presumably springing one after another from her bountiful loins. Simply inexcusable. The obligatory ballads, ‘Soulmate’ (which is also her next single – can’t wait) and the Diane Warren-penned ‘Still Here’, tick all the requisite boxes on the checklist – downtempo? check! strings? check! soppy lyrics? check! – but completely fail to induce any sort of emotion in the listener.

N.B. is unoriginal, predictable, soulless, and will no doubt sell by the hundreds of thousands. Bedingfield is undoubtedly an attractive young woman, but this can hardly explain why so many people are willing to pay for the privilege of listening to her sing bad songs in her mediocre voice. When music has so much scope, why this nonsense is the stuff that sells millions is, quite frankly, unfathomable.

Hugh Armitage

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The Bird & The Bee
The Bird & The Bee ••••
Regal

This collaborative effort between keyboardist/producer Greg Kurstin (the bee) and vocalist Inara George (the bird) is a hipster’s electro-pop wet dream. It’s the kind of record Charlotte Gainsbourg’s character Stephanie in ‘The Science of Sleep’ would make were she not too busy faffing around with sweet wrappers and Pritt-Stik: ironic, referential 160s retro.

Pleasingly, it’s also very good. The track that’s garnered the most attention (and also made #1 on the US Dance Chart courtesy of a remix from Peaches) is ‘Fucking Boyfriend’, a sparkling fresh, vacuum-packed gem. There’s something thrilling about hearing filthy language in a pristine pop context and The Bird & The Bee have captured it perfectly. The expletives are born out of the frustration experienced when a giddy, flirtatious relationship resolutely fails to become something more. “Are you working up to something? / But you give me almost nothing”, George asks in the verse, before a gentle rainstorm of electronica heralds the chorus refrain, “Will you ever be my / will you be my fucking boyfriend?”. Waiting for the other party to make things ‘official’ can be a prolonged and ultimately disappointing game, but the giggles at the end of the song suggest that things might turn out rosy.

‘Fucking Boyfriend’ is fairly indicative of the album as a whole: summery pop with a sharp lyrical wit and a multitude of (to use a precise musical term) twinkling noises. On ‘Again & Again’, the album’s lead single, a charge of electronic fuzz undercuts the handclaps and acoustic guitar work. But the darkness never gets the upper hand. Even ‘I’m A Broken Heart’, with lyrics that wouldn’t be out of place on PJ Harvey’s Rid Of Me – “aching and teething / my big love is bleeding/ I think I might be dying” – sounds positively laidback, with soothing winsome brass and lazy slow beats. The effect is a little strange; George might repeatedly intone that she’s a broken heart, but she doesn’t really sound all that bothered and the point of this extreme contrast is unclear. But this is a rare unsatisfying note in a confident and cohesive album.

The Bird & The Bee is a sophisticated pop record that toys playfully with the listener, particularly on ‘I Hate Cameras’ (“Don’t take my / DON’T TAKE MY PICTURE!”) which may be a straightforward anti-photography rant or a calculated grab for attention. So if you’re a fan of breathy female vocals, sparklingly clear production and knowing lyrics, lie back in the grass with the sun on your face and let Kurstin and George teach you about the birds and the bees.

Danny Weddup

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The Bird & The Bee
Please Clap Your Hands EP •••
Blue Note

Please Clap Your Hands is the second EP from musical duo The Bird & The Bee, otherwise known as Inara George and Greg Kurstin. Kurstin is a producer/keyboardist who has been involved with a great big mixed bag of artists, some good, others distinctly bad. George is the daughter of the late Lowell George, who helped found the band Little Feat in the 1970s. She, too, has a solo career and other side projects. With such a busy and varied musical background, one might wonder what kind of music they would come up with.

The quality of the material on Please Clap Your Hands is as varied as its creators’ musical experience. The music itself is pleasant – electronic in sound but comforting like the tune favourite retro computer game or childhood cartoon, rather than weird and alienating like techno or electro. The drumbeat has an upbeat party feel that gives the tracks (particularly ‘So You Say’) the feel of an indie dance mix. The music is cute and just a little strange: fun, but nothing astounding.

For all the acclaim their debut album received, there are two sides to The Bird & The Bee: lovers of George’s light and airy vocals and haters of her apparent lack of emotion. To these ears her voice is not intolerable, but there is something unaccountably cold about it. She doesn’t sound like she feels what she is singing about. This is emphasised on ‘The Races’, where an echoing effect added to her vocals makes her sound all the more distant and detached.

The better parts of Please Clap Your Hands turn out to be the few in which George injects a bit more feeling into her voice. The half-spoken bridge in ‘So You Say’ is brazen and defiant, like something The Dresden Dolls’ Amanda Palmer might growl, and is markedly more attention grabbing than anything else the EP has to offer. The duo’s cover of the Bee Gees classic ‘How Deep Is Your Love’ is another high point, mainly because once again George sounds like she really means what she’s singing.

Please Clap Your Hands has much to recommend it, largely due to some interesting experiments with musical styles. Unfortunately, the indifferent vocals prevent this from being more than an unexceptional collection of songs.

Hugh Armitage

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The Book Of Knots
Traineater •••½
Anti-

That New York four-piece The Book Of Knots first came together under the simple premise of needing “an excuse to write songs for their friends” belies the experimental noises found on their second release, Traineater. Not an album written to sell millions and go triple platinum, but rather an idea that someone wanted to turn into music, Traineater pays tribute to the American Rust Belt. Once the manufacturing heart of the United States, the Belt encompasses places like Detroit and Cleveland that grew under the promise of a bright future at the head of industry, only to slowly decline and go to seed as the decades rolled on. This spirit is captured perfectly in Traineater, which is full of the lonely crying of strings and the industrial clunking of percussion. There is a real sense of loss, of mechanical decay and the broken promise of a bright future vanished forever.

‘View From The Watertower’ makes for a difficult start. The tone is distinctly sinister, and guest lyricist/vocalist Carla Bozulich (formerly of The Geraldine Fibbers) sounds like a strange mix of Patti Smith and Courtney Love, drawling and screaming along to a chorus of cacophonic strings. It is not a relaxing tune by any means, and is definitely something of an acquired taste. Bozulich is but the first in a parade of guests, which include the great Tom Waits and wife Kathleen Brennan on ‘Pray’, a clanking piece which could have come straight out of his own Mule Variations.

There are some songs, like ‘Midnight’ (co-written by and featuring morbid romantic Memphis singer-songwriter Megan Reilly) and the album’s title track, that possess a quiet and melancholy beauty and really capture the sadness of the Rust Belt’s soured American dream. ‘Red Apple Boy’, with guest vocals from David Thomas and harp from Zeena Parkins, is also strangely Waits-esque, and Jon Langford on ‘Boomtown’ gives a rather creepy half-spoken monologue about a sad old town ruined by the passage of years.

The harshness of ‘View From The Watertower’ is repeated throughout the album, particularly in ‘Pedro To Cleveland’ and ‘The Ballad Of John Henry’. Though these tracks are challenging, they add greatly to the strong sense of atmosphere that evokes the grim and barren Rust Belt so well. Jarring they may be, but they possess their own sense of dark beauty as much as the other, prettier songs on the album.

Traineater demands a lot from the listener. It is not the sort of album you can put on and relax with; no one will be playing it in the background at any dinner parties. It requires a lot of attention, and is not easy to like right away. It may be difficult to listen to in places, but it is masterfully atmospheric and, at times, as darkly beautiful as the places that have inspired it.

Hugh Armitage

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Katey Brooks
True Speaker EP ••••½
Self-released

Despite being of only tender years, Bristol’s Katey Brooks could already be on the road to becoming a phenomenon. Possessed of a unique voice – and oft said that rarely accurate statement – Wears The Trousers would challenge anyone to listen to the five tracks on True Speaker and not be deeply affected. The a cappella ‘Hear Me Now’ starts things off with a haunting prayer of desperation made all the more powerful by its simplicity and intimate honesty. It’s hard to draw comparisons to other singers, although a subtle blend of Joan Armatrading and Tracy Chapman is perhaps the least inadequate.

Brooks’s voice is astonishingly deep, with a richness to it that envelops the listener in a comforting blanket of honey-tinged…hmm, I might as well admit it, I’m lost for even haltingly adequate editors and similes. She really is ‘that good’. The rest of the tracks on the EP take a similarly folksy form. Acoustic guitars and bass are joined by plaintive violin in sympathy with the vocal, all the evidence suggesting that Brooks’s talents as a writer are as well developed as her singing. Each song is quietly contemplative and perfectly complements the half-swallowed vocal performance, never overshadowing the singer.

It’s so rare to come across a singer who contributes something genuinely new these days. So often such a claim merely presages yet another cookie cutter starlet and a depressing anticlimax. For once, that isn’t the case; Katey Brooks is one of those rare exceptions and someone whom Wears The Trousers will be watching carefully as she continues to bloom as an artist. She’ll be performing alongside Mara Carlyle at our artist showcase in November; you won’t want to miss it.

Trevor Raggatt

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Carla Bruni
No Promises •••
Naïve

Italian heiress Carla Bruni may have an illustrious, almost storybook past as a supermodel fashion icon but don’t let it cloud your judgement on her actual talent. What would typically be a healthy cynicism of someone making such a leap (have you heard Kate Moss sing? And what about Naomi Campbell’s ill-starred pop flirtation?) would, in this case, be entirely wrong. Bruni is a decent guitarist and is in possession of a very unique, intimate and engaging – and yes, not a little sexy – vocal style that makes her folksy chansons so appealing. Her 2002 debut, Quelqu’un m’a dit, was a Franco-Italian delight and made a dent in the English cool circles despite the language barrier.

No Promises sees Bruni take up the challenge of competing in English with a similar approach. The genius part is using texts from famous dead poets that really allow her unusual accented phrasing to bring something special to the predominantly guitar and brushed drum-supported melodies. A peek at the songwriting credits reveals a none-more-venerable cast that includes WB Yeats (‘Those Dancing Days Are Gone’, ‘Before The World Was Made’), WH Auden (‘Lady Weeping At The Crossroads’, ‘At Last The Secret Is Out’), Emily Dickinson (‘I Felt My Life With Both My Hands’, ‘If You Were Coming In The Fall’, ‘I Went To Heaven’), Walter de la Mare (‘Autumn’), Dorothy Parker (‘Afternoon’, ‘Ballad At Thirty-Five’) and Christina Rossetti (‘Promises Like Piecrust’). Bruni gives a real personal interpretation of these poems with melancholic romanticism, and whilst the writers have been set to music before – Joni Mitchell has drawn on Yeats’s verse, while composer Benjamin Britten collaborated with Auden himself – Bruni’s half-spoken, half-sung style is unique in a Françoise Hardy meets Jane Birkin manner, though not as obvious as such a comparison seems.

That Bruni appears to have that ethos of doing well at whatever she focuses her attentions on is all the more impressive given that she might easily have chosen never to work in her life with all her privileges and status. Not to mention her beauty – she’s been romantically linked with everyone from Mick Jagger and Eric Clapton to Donald Trump and Kevin Costner. Next year sees the 10th anniversary of her retirement from the fashion world and her 40th birthday, and Bruni sounds more authentic than ever. No Promises may well seep beneath your skin if you give it time to grow. Then go get her first album too.

Sara Silver

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Mutya Buena
Real Girl •
Island

The media like to make a big deal about Amy Winehouse’s drinking habits. Every second day we are subjected to stories about how she has had to cancel a gig or reschedule a TV appearance because she’s been hitting the bottle too hard. With these kinds of exaggerated stories it’s never quite clear whether or not the whole thing is the creation of an over-zealous PR team, or the actions of a self-destructive nymph who figures she doesn’t really need a liver. After listening to ‘B-Boy Baby’, Amy’s duet with Mutya, which also happens to be a rehash of the classic Ronettes’ song ‘Be My Baby’, it’s quite clear that the latter is, in fact, true. There is no other logical explanation as to why Amy would lend her lungs to this tune, AKA the worst song ever committed to plastic, other than the fact she was completely hammered on the day of recording.

But, let’s get to Mutya, who is the star of this here record. You may be aware that Mutya jumped ship on the Sugababes in 2005, leaving the band to look after her baby and start up a solo career. Many felt that with her she took the ‘voice’ of the band, and without her their edge was lost (they do, after all, pride themselves on being the ‘edgy’ girlband). It’s true that she has a not unlistenable tone which often wraps itself around her subject quite nicely, but, with material like that which appears on her solo debut it’s nowhere near time for her ex-bandmates to hand in their kitten heels and black eyeliner.

For those not in the know, Mutya was, to delicately put it, the bitch of the Sugababes. Staring blankly from CD sleeves and coming across aloof as can be in interviews, she was the member who dripped with cool. She was the girl who would steal your lunch money and sit at the back of the class, smoking cigarettes and taking swigs from a bottle of vodka. So, as you would expect her album is full of…sappy ballads with no personality. Hmm.

Every quirk and shred of character has been ironed out in order to make an album which is as inoffensive as possible. Even potentially interesting songs such as ‘It’s Not Easy’, with the knowing line ‘It’s not easy being right all the time, you know someone has to be’ have been airbrushed to the nth degree, making a spunky song bland and unlistenable. The only beacon that shines in this mess of songs is ‘Song 4 Mutya (Out of Control)’, Mutya’s collaboration with Groove Armada, which was recorded for their album ‘Soundboy Rock’ earlier this year and wasn’t even intended for inclusion on ‘Real Girl’. 

As far as solo albums by ex-members of girl bands go, this effort should be filed somewhere between Victoria Beckham’s VB, and Kelly Rowland’s Simply Deep – one semi-decent song and 40-odd minutes of additional sounds.

Keith Anderson

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Basia Bulat
Oh, My Darling •••½
Rough Trade

Since, and perhaps because of, the ‘90s tyranny of Alanis, Céline and Shania, every musician in Canada seems to have been hell bent on becoming the best folk-rock artist the world has to offer. From Broken Social Scene to The Be Good Tanyas and many others in between, Canadian music has achieved global credibility and prominence and even spawned “the best band in the world right now” (Arcade Fire, in case you have been asleep for the past two years). Maybe just once it would be a refreshing change to hear someone say “here’s a new folk-influenced Canadian artist and actually they’re a bit average”. No such opportunity with Basia Bulat, whose debut album fizzes with folksy assuredness.

Armed with an acoustic guitar and a voice like warm molasses, Bulat laces Oh, My Darling‘s collection of waltzes, ballads and gentle Spanish-influenced dances with tinges of jazz and lounge. Bulat’s approach to folk music is very reminiscent of founding Be Good Tanya, Jolie Holland, although Basia’s songs lean much more heavily on pop…in a good way. ‘Before I Knew’ is a sleepy, short number that drifts lazily into the effervescent ‘I Was A Daughter’, in which suburban streets turn into dirt tracks and Bulat finds herself in adrift in a wilderness. An approach to songwriting described in the press release as picking ideas from trees in the forest immediately sets the twee alarms ringing, but, rather than armfuls of feathers, pretty leaves and blossom, you get the idea that she came back with birds’ nests, interesting lichen and soggy socks and shoes.

The title track starts with the promising line “there are two things I will carry in my pockets at the end and you are one of them / and the way you look when you have a story to begin, that’s the other half”, but is over all too soon. ‘Little Waltz’ recalls Jolie Holland’s perfect evocation of times past and could be the soundtrack to a barn dance in an era when men wore dungarees and workman’s boots and women wore gingham pinafore dresses. But it’s not all old-timey bucolic charm and peat bogs. ‘Snakes & Ladders’ is a relationship deconstructed, an indictment of the games lovers play, and is laced with frenetic strings and a killer ukulele hook; this is, however, as fierce as the album gets. ‘Why Can’t It Be Mine’, a moving story of longing sparkles with Latin rhythms and begs to be the soundtrack to a thousand movie break-ups.

Throughout, the album the instrumentation is flawless, though sometimes predictable and heavily influenced by acts such as The Be Good Tanyas. The songs are classy, and Bulat should be applauded for the variety of styles she artfully ties together while keeping one eye on pop sensibilities, although perhaps only two or three songs really tug at the heartstrings. Nonetheless, the whole album is held together by Bulat’s sumptuous voice – warm, smoky, emotive when she needs it to be, and subtly understated at all the right times.

Her intimate, heartfelt songs have garnered Bulat quite a following in her hometown of London, Ontario, though the album’s not yet in the shops there. Certainly it is to Rough Trade’s credit that they have scooped North America with their European release and it can only be a matter of time before her home country and their southern neighbours are able to appreciate Oh, My Darling‘s many charms. It’s a consistently good (if not consistently great) and endearing effort in the tradition of the Canadian folk revival. The title track and perhaps a couple of others could have been developed further, rather than left as pleasing ditties, for at just 35 minutes the album really leaves you wanting some more. Then again, that’s not necessarily a bad thing.

Peter Hayward

 



2007 reviews dump: g

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

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Katiejane Garside
Darling, they’ve found the body: an exhibition ••••
Woom Gallery, Birmingham

For those of you who have followed her from the early days of Daisy Chainsaw through to her current band, Queenadreena, Katiejane Garside’s debut art exhibition, ‘Darling, they’ve found the body’ is not to be missed. Currently on display at Woom in Birmingham’s famous Jewellery Quarter, ‘Darling…’ presents a whole new side to one of rock music’s most underrated frontwomen. Despite already boasting an enviable array of talents, Garside recently decided to throw her hat into the ring of the art world. Having often been the source of great speculation and controversy in the media, she has always seemed enigmatic, eccentric, and, according to her more cynical critics, utterly mad. ‘Darling…’ offers the chance to learn more about what makes Garside tick and what has propelled her this far into what has been a fascinating career to date.

Firstly, if you’re planning on going, there is the issue of getting to the venue. Unless you’re familiar with the city, it can be a long and confusing walk to the exhibition, so I recommend that you take a taxi or train there. The distance from Birmingham New Street Station and Woom is reasonable, so a taxi should not cost any more than four to five pounds, and is the quickest option by far. You will find it next to the jewellery college in Vittoria Street, where you are given a friendly greeting by the owners upon entry. Admission is free, but they have a wide selection of related merchandise at agreeable prices at the front desk should you wish to have something to remember your visit by.

Coming to the first room of the exhibition, you are immediately greeted with facets of Garside’s life and mind, hanging from every wall, in every corner, as clips from her recent solo musical project Lalleshwari play in the background. Although it’s not overwhelming, you immediately realise that you are seeing a sizeable part of Garside’s personal life laid wide open for others to see. At first it feels slightly voyeuristic but you soon become accustomed to it, knowing that she would not display these things if she didn’t want people to see.

Among the first things you will notice as you get your bearings are the displays on the walls of letters, bills, journal entries on old, torn paper and negatives, home-made dresses displayed on surreal mannequins, personal effects arranged in a fireplace, along tables or suspended from the ceiling. She has added to most of the letters with sentences and sketches and self-portraits, showing an impressive and seldom-seen skill for drawing; artefacts in display cases, the most memorable being an old set of scales to which she has stuck taxidermied butterflies, one for each year of her life so far. You’ll see photographs both large and small, depicting her in the middle of various moments, some more directly artistic, some candid, each showing subtle glimpses into her private world, past and present; polaroids of her daubing walls with verse in red paint, posing with shop mannequins, some of her in her kitchen or bathroom, blown up to a larger scale – the latter with Garside as nature intended, a mask being the only exception to her nakedness. There is a definite sexual element to them, and the exhibition as a whole, but it’s not to make you uneasy. This is Garside being as open and honest as she wants to be. She is somehow simultaneously androgynous and feminine, exuding the aura of one eternally young and pretty.

The videos – one for the exhibition itself and the other a promotional clip for her forthcoming album Ruby Throat – sit at the very end of the exhibition. The first is very much a dark, surreal affair that’s centred on a pair of ‘dreamdolls’ she created: Genica Pussywillow and Sleeplikewolves. It’s hard to describe and do justice – watch very carefully and you’ll understand what I mean. The Ruby Throat promo, meanwhile, exudes a different kind of mystery and peculiar fragility as Garside moves like a grown-up ragdoll in an overgrown plant-strewn midnight garden, inviting you to come out and play alongside her.

All of these things, though separate little works in their own right, come together to form a window. A window that Garside has put together to allow us to see a little of her world, and, whether or not it was her intention, see that she is as human as any of us. You will walk away feeling you have got to know her, the real her, a little better.

Sean Hudspeth

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Mary Gauthier
Between Daylight & Dark ••••
Lost Highway

There couldn’t be a more apt title for this fifth release from Louisiana-born singer-songwriter Mary Gauthier. It’s plain from a cursory listen that the human dramas set out in these songs inhabit that moral and emotional twilight of the soul implied by the four words – Between Daylight & Dark. Gauthier (for the uninitiated that’s pronounced go-shay – no stripy-shirted Gallic fashion pixies here!) and her music are polar extremes to the mullets and Stetsons country of CMT. Not for nothing has her output been labelled ‘country-noir’. Each tune is a small window on a real life full of hope and pain, dignity and disappointment.

If this all sounds a little dour and depressing don’t be fooled. This might not be your average party music but sit tight and be rewarded with an authentic emotional experience. Recorded live in the studio with minimal overdubs it’s the passion of Gauthier’s performance that shines through each rootsy track, producing a surprisingly uplifting and energising result – particularly considering some of the subject matter.

Closing track ‘Thanksgiving’ is a case in point. A story of visiting relatives in prison on that most family-centred of US holidays it is filed with conflicted poignancy and insight into the dignity of the human soul. Gauthier is quoted as saying “It’s absolutely about the words.” With lines like “My Grammy looks so old now… / her hands tremble when they frisk her from head to her toes / they make her take her winter coat off and then they frisk her again / when they’re done she wipes their touch off her dress, stands tall and heads in”, who would dare to argue?

Between Daylight & Dark is the very definition of a grower. A little difficult to like at first listen, but impossible not to love in time.

Trevor Raggatt

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Bebel Gilberto
Momento •••½
V2

Given the principles of nature and nurture it’s understandable that Bebel Gilberto, youngest member of the Gilberto bossa nova dynasty, has a remarkable voice. Whether that statement is applied literally to her seductively silky vocals or figuratively to her music’s unique blending of trad-Latin rhythms with chillout pop sensibility, it’s no less true. Bebel Gilberto has a remarkable voice.

On Momento, her third solo album, Gilberto looks set to cement her place at the leading edge of contemporary flavoured Latin music. The opening track sets the agenda in the clearest terms. This isn’t the Rio de Janeiro of carnival – rather the sounds conjure up a reverie composed of a heady mix of laidback Brazilian fragrances. This is a tranquil moment(o) sitting atop the summit of the Sugar Loaf Mountain, soaking in the view of the city nestling amid the forests with a golden beach arcing away into the distance. Or perhaps it’s a late afternoon resting on that same strand before wandering into a sophisticated nightclub where the beautiful people slink the night away. The hints of odd electronic noises layered amongst the music only serve to further heighten this otherworldly dreamscape. Blissful!

So intoxicating is this Brazilian cocktail that it’s hard to believe that large parts of the disc were recorded in New York and London with avowedly Western producer Guy Sigsworth’s fingers on the faders. Still, the music here is 100% Brazilian and 100% designed for the supposedly more sophisticated palate of the Northern Hemisphere. Perhaps the wisdom of involving her regular band members alongside Sigsworth’s swirling keyboards was the masterstroke needed to lend the required authenticity and consistency in Latin feel and sound. Whatever the reasons, it works in spades.

The original compositions are blended with three inspired covers, ‘Caçada’ (written by Gilberto’s uncle and famed Brazilian songwriter Chico Barque), ‘Tranquilo’ (by the young Rio-based producer Kassin) and finally the Cole Porter classic ‘Night & Day’. This latter track takes on a particularly languid bossa nova feel as Gilberto’s voice is supported by simple acoustic guitar and percussion before opening out into a smokier jazz club feel. This, of course, is one of the few English language tracks, but so captivating are the performances across the album that the Portuguese lyrics on the majority of songs go unnoticed. Somehow, sinking into the warm arms of Momento we know Gilberto’s seductive meaning all too well.

Trevor Raggatt

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Thea Gilmore
The Threads EP ••••
Self-released

Gilmore’s second EP comes six years after the brilliant As If and is her first release since the birth of her son Egan last November. Originally available exclusively from the merchandise desk during her acoustic tour this past Spring, a limited run of The Threads is now available to purchase from http://www.theagilmore.net. And the good news is that it’s more than just a half-hearted collection of acoustic demos or dubious outtakes from her last album proper. The distorted opening chords of ‘Teacher Teacher’ dispel both assumptions as electric guitar adds some bite.

This is clearly not acoustic and it’s much more English sounding than 2006’s Americana flavoured Harpo’s Ghost; it feels like something from the Avalanche sessions, perhaps a bit less glossy. ‘Are You Ready?’ continues this feel with one of those strangely compelling, hypnotic choruses that Thea writes so well, perfectly offset by Nigel Stonier’s swirling guitar and counterpoint vocals. With its typically politicised lyrical bent it’s pretty much a classic Gilmore tune.

The sumptuous ‘Icarus Wind’ brings the mood right down as Gilmore turns her gaze inwards with perhaps her most tender composition to date. She sounds suddenly vulnerable and emotionally raw, picking out a sparse piano motif and singing slightly higher than usual. It’s a trick that worked so well for PJ Harvey recently and Gilmore is almost as convincingly ghostlike. The EP draws to a close with 18th Century traditional Irish ballad, ‘The Parting Glass’, again delivered nigh on perfectly with subtle guitar textures and Gilmore’s intimately rendered vocal. A church-like ambience adds a welcome tenderness as she creates a holy moment of rejoicing in present company and a remembrance of friends past. Truly gorgeous stuff.

Like As If before it, The Threads EP is a more than worthy addition to Gilmore’s already thoroughly impressive canon. And with no plans to ever re-press it once the first limited run is gone, our advice is to grab a copy now or be forced into an eBay bidding frenzy later when you realise you really need this disc. You have been warned.

Trevor Raggatt

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The Go! Team
Proof Of Youth ••
Memphis Industries

Energetic, noisy and hard to ignore, The Go! Team certainly made a name for themselves the first time around. Beginning as the kitchen project of founding member Ian Parton (clearly far too cool for a bedroom project like many others made by one man with no budget) in his mum’s house, their 2004 debut Thunder, Lightning, Strike went from being an underground and critical favourite to a Mercury Music Prize nominee through the unbeatable power of word of mouth (albeit with flirtations with major labels along the way). Endless touring, numerous festival appearances and a clutch of EPs later, Parton and his troop of multi-instrumentalists greet us with their second full-length offering Proof Of Youth. Unfortunately, the title is the only thing of any vigour or freshness about the album. What’s the difference between this and their debut? Um, very little…really. Proof Of Youth follows the blueprint of Thunder, Lightning, Strike almost step by step, but forgets to bring the spark.

Lead single ‘Grip Like A Vice’ is a perfect illustration of what’s gone wrong. Where The Go! Team used to excel at mixing well chosen samples and live instrumentation, here it sounds more like they have sampled their previous record than anyone else’s. Exactly the same guitar sounds float above identical brass and drum loops, everything seemingly sticking to an if-it-ain’t-broke blueprint until even the vocal raps over the top appear identical in tone and arrangement. A weak comeback single that fails to get into gear paves the way for a similarly limp and soulless album. The Avalanches, whose debut album received huge critical and public acclaim, had the sense to leave their cut-and-paste musical efforts confined to one cherished album, presumably because they recognised the limitations of a fun, but ultimately constricting format. By constructing album number two in the same fashion as their last, The Go! Team have left little room for experimentation and have made a record that is, by all accounts, alright, but utterly pointless.

That’s not to say it’s unpleasant as such; ‘The Wrath Of Marcie’ is a sweet track, possibly the album’s highlight, but it’s really only ‘Feelgood By Numbers’ part two. Or part one, but rehashed. There is little shift in the album’s tone from start to finish, and at this point in time, the lo-fi production values and slightly too trebly EQ balance begin to grate. Lots of artists and outfits have done this now, particularly in the three years between Thunder, Lightning, Strike‘s release, re-release and succession. If Parton et al. wanted to repeat the tone of their earlier work, the songwriting should have at least moved on, but it hasn’t, and even at it’s strongest Proof Of Youth falls flat.

It is less a proof of youth than an admission of immaturity. The Go! Team are still stuck in their career of three years ago, and the only thing really ‘young’ here is the level of craftsmanship as the songs are ultimately hollow, lacking either direction or development. Very disappointing.

Rod Thomas

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Holly Golightly & The Brokeoffs
You Can’t Buy A Gun When You’re Crying ••••½
Damaged Goods

Holly Golightly is a true, if underappreciated, icon of women in music, having co-founded the all-girl garage band Thee Headcoatees in the early ‘90s (associated with Thee Headcoats and the twisted lyrical world of Billy Childish), and, 13 solo studio albums later, is still producing gems under her own terms. But who the hell are The Brokeoffs? Why they’re essentially an ever-revolving band of musicians orbiting around one man, the mysteriously titled Lawyer Dave (real name David Drake, or weren’t we supposed to know that?), whose self-released 2005 album Rest Stop marked out a natural collaborator for Ms Golightly – an exquisite piece of musical matchmaking.

Much of Golightly’s riotous appeal lies in that she recognises the beauty of blues and rockabilly is that the most important aspect is conveying the essence of borrowed musical roots, not playing it to perfection or being to the manner born. On You Can’t Buy A Gun When You’re Crying she invites us all to enter her echo-filled room, kick the boxes, tap on every available saucepan and pot and away we go with ‘Devil Do’, a hypnotic chant to that ol’ horndog Satan. But make sure you listen all the way through as you kick off your shoes to companion piece and closer ‘Devil Don’t’, a slice of sheer abandon to shambolic sonic joy.

Along the way you’ll go ‘Just Around The Bend’ as the madame sashays around the saloon with a light fatigue dogging her heels and a tinge of 1930s cabaret chic. Your journeywoman will then lead you through a land of whiskey slouches where ‘Everything You Touch’ pays close heed to the sound of Exene Cervenka (former wife of ‘Lord Of The Rings’ actor Viggo Mortenson) from The Knitters, X and, more recently, the Original Sinners, with lashings of slide guitar and lilting atmosphere. A run-in with the cops will reiterate the album title (apparently a genuine law in the USA) but it won’t matter as the song just oozes country cool with its pervading loved and lost scenarios so brilliantly described in the lyrics.

Elsewhere, ‘So Long’ is finger-pickin’ good with meandering sad lyrics sung as a duet, while ‘Time To Go’ maintains the same atmosphere with a train-like chugging rhythm. You’re still travelling at this point, no matter what the destination may be. The most haunting locale you’ll visit has to be ‘I Let My Daddy Do That’. Golightly takes us to the deeper than deep South and is the most delta-wistful track on the album. Hopeless can be cool after all.

Every bit the rebellious southern belle (one suspects with the heart of a tomboy) and less her alter ego image of the protagonist in ‘Breakfast At Tiffany’s’ with whom she shares her name, may Golightly long continue to kick up the dust and the southern blues. Everyone who’s prone to a hard luck mood and wants something to sink beers to without feeling tragedy should buy this record post haste for a deliciously languid, lost weekend.

Sara Silver

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Lesley Gore
Ever Since ••••
Engine Co.

You’ve gotta feel for Lesley Gore, the ‘It’s My Party’ girl who insisted that she’d cry if she bloody well wanted to thankyouverymuch. After four years in the glaring spotlight in the mid-1960s, she was all but washed up come her early 20s. Even the release of two Carole King-inspired albums couldn’t save her career, and she was forced into virtual retirement by the end of the decade, resurfacing sporadically to perform on Golden Oldies tours and talk about how she used to be famous. Now, in 2007, not having released a single note on record since a dodgy collection of covers 25 years ago, Gore has decided it’s high time for a comeback.

Of course, comebacks are tricky affairs. One of Gore’s peers, Mary Weiss, the innocent, clear-cut voice of The Shangri-Las, unleashed her debut solo album earlier this year more than 40 years on from her last release with the group. It was a mess. The album, recorded as an homage to the era she first fame in, lacked the purity and spark of the original records. Her sound had scarcely progressed one iota and Weiss wound up sounding more like a hokey tribute to herself than the genuine deal. And therein lies the dilemma of the comeback: do you carry along the same route or try and catch the coattails flapping from the top of the nearest passing bandwagon? Should Gore have hired the hitmaker of the moment and sluttily vogued over beats, possibly replicating Cher’s success from the late 1990s? No, probably not. Still, it would have been a sight to behold.

Instead, what you will find on Ever Since is thoroughly sensible, middle-of-the-road pop. Which really isn’t a bad thing, no matter what the NME might tell you. There is much that will seem familiar on this album, from the warmth of the production (courtesy of one Blake Morgan) to the knowing lyrics. While the arrangements are mostly tasteful and adult contemporary, Gore gives a nod to her past life with the kind of doo-wop harmonies found on her earlier hits. There’s even a smart lyrical reference to ‘It’s My Party’ on the title track, where she coos “All the parties I’ve been to you were missed”, romanticising all those missed opportunities for love.

Also harking backwards, Gore recreates her past hit ‘You Don’t Own Me’ and the song she co-wrote for ‘80s flick ‘Fame’, ‘Out Here On My Own’, surprisingly effectively. Elsewhere, the benefits and wisdom of age come to the fore on ‘Not The First’, where she caringly chastises a misguided, naïve woman pursuing the wrong guy, delivering lines like “you’re not the first to think you’ll be the last” with a motherly concern. Ever Since may not be cutting edge but Gore’s world-weary vocals, which make her sound like a more accessible present-day Joni Mitchell, are what gives the album a magical touch. Always direct, Gore isn’t trying to be something she isn’t, or someone she once was, and that’s the glue that binds this set together so well.

Keith Anderson

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Patty Griffin
Children Running Through ••••½
ATO

It’s a real injustice that the name of Patty Griffin does not reside in the category called ‘household’. Of course this isn’t the case for those in the know – Griffin’s music has been covered by artists ranging from Emmylou Harris, Mary Chapin Carpenter and The Dixie Chicks to Bette Midler, Jessica Simpson and Solomon Burke – but recognition beyond the cognoscenti is long overdue.

Griffin’s music resides in that American folk, pop, country, rock nexus exploited so effectively by Sheryl Crow and many others (although her sensibilities are decidedly more folk and country than that particular wildflower). In fact, the loping talkin’ feel of ‘Stay On The Ride’ is reminiscent of some of the best of Crow’s songs. Having said that, I suspect that the converse is a more accurate statement since the strange, existential tale of a mysterious old man taking a bus ride into destiny could easily have served as a skewed blueprint for Crow’s stream of consciousness breakthrough hit, ‘All I Wanna Do’. This strangeness serves to heighten the heartbreak contained in track which follows, the equally chilling and heartwarming ‘Trapeze’ – a down-home story of lost love in the circus.

Across the album arrangements are generally sparse, throwing the listener’s attention squarely on to Griffin’s arresting voice and haunting lyrics. Where fripperies such as strings and horns are applied it’s with taste and discretion. One such instance is single ‘Heavenly Day’ which also features guest vocals from Emmylou Harris and luscious grand piano from Ian McLagan of The Small Faces. It’s a testament to the varied sounds on the album that this is followed up by the jangling dobro, autoharp and Tex-Mex horns of ‘No Bad News’ and the stripped back folk of ‘Railroad Wings’.

From the naked opening double bass notes of ‘You’ll Remember’ to the wistful closer ‘Crying Over’, Griffin’s pure country tones drill down to the emotional core of the songs, revealing a new dimension of philosophical and metaphysical depth to the American folk-country genre and moving the story-song far beyond simple narrative. Griffin’s career to date, has never shown less than brilliance in both in writing and performance but Children Running Through looks set to be a coup de grace, taking her music to new heights and establishing her as another National Treasure of the 50 States.

Trevor Raggatt

 



2007 reviews dump: s

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

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Sahara Hotnights
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.

Claire Robinson

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Santa Dog
Kittyhawk
Quince

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.

Trevor Raggatt

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Patti Scialfa
Play It As It Lays •••½
Columbia

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.

Alex Ramon

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Sally Shapiro
Disco Romance ••••
Klein

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.

Chris McCrudden

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She’s Spanish, I’m American
She’s Spanish, I’m American EP •••
Nettwerk

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.

Paul Woodgate

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Shivaree
Tainted Love: Mating Calls & Fight Songs •••
V12

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.

Sharon Kean

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Sia
Lady Croissant ••••
EMI

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’.

Chris McCrudden

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Lucie Silvas
The Same Side ••½
Mercury

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.

Sara Silver

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Mia Silvas
A Lot Like Me •••
Self-released

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.

Andy Wasley

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Carly Simon
Into White •
SonyBMG

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.

Trevor Raggatt

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Nina Simone
Remixed & Reimagined [reissue] ••••
SonyBMG

Diana Ross & The Supremes
The Remixes ••
Universal

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.

Andy Wasley

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Jessica Simpson
A Public Affair •
RCA

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.

Anna Claxton

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Sister Vanilla
Little Pop Rock •••½
Chemikal Underground

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.

Hugh Armitage

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Solveig Slettahjell
Domestic Songs •••••
Act 

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.

Andy Wasley

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Patti Smith
Twelve •••
SonyBMG

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.

Hugh Armitage

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The Softlightes
Say No! To Being Cool. Say Yes! To Being Happy ••••
Modular

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.

Rod Thomas

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The Sounds
Dying To Say This To You ••••
Warner Bros.

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.

Russell Barker

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Britney Spears
Blackout •••½
SonyBMG

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.

Thomas Atkinson

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Spice Girls
Greatest Hits ••••
Virgin

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?

Andy Wasley

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Mavis Staples
We’ll Never Turn Back •••••
Pinnacle

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.

Andy Wasley

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Stars
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.

Sharon Kean

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Stars
In Our Bedroom After The War ••••
City Slang

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.

Sharon Kean

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Marnie Stern
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.

Scott Millar

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Sugababes
Change ••••
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.

Andy Wasley

 



2005/06 reviews dump: l

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

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Ladyfuzz
Live at Carling Academy, Bristol ••••
June 30th, 2006

As is usually the case with Bristol’s indie-funk-electro night Ramshackle, the band that is playing have not been promoted well. In fact, I’d go so far to say they’ve not been promoted at all. I’m a fairly loyal Ladyfuzz fan and the first time I heard of this gig was when I was half-walking, half-falling down the lethally slippery steps in the venue. My friend in front of me stopped dead, stared in disappointment and exclaimed, “oh no, a band are playing!”

You can forgive the reaction; a live act is the last thing the sweaty, intoxicated audience want right now. It’s 11:30pm and everyone is ready to dance. The arrival of a band would usually mean hardcore supporters cheering at the front, drunk misplaced souls falling over themselves in the centre of the dancefloor wondering where they are, while the majority of the crowd sulk and wait for the performance to end. But hallelujah! The venue is comfortably empty, the drunk people are slumped against a wall, and the sulkers? There are no sulkers, because Ladyfuzz are fantastic!

Launching into ‘My Summer Of Fun’ and ‘Monster’, singer Liz Neumayr rocks the electro look and it’s not long before the large crowd that’s gathered to watch these unexpected guests are dancing like mad. The addictive chorus of single ‘Oh Marie’ is adopted and repeated at random intervals by those present throughout the night and the band look genuinely pleased. Rightfully so, this was the night a small three-piece band conquered an area of entertainment few other bands have conquered before: they pleased a Ramshackle audience.

Tiffany Daniels
originally published June 30th, 2006 

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Lampshade
Because Trees Can Fly ••½
Glitterhouse

Part-Danish, part-Swedish combo Lampshade first formed in 2000, but it was not until singer-songwriter Rebekkamaria joined a year later that the band began to make headway. Since then they’ve had a hit single in Denmark with the title track of this, their debut album, and become the toast of the indie music press, radio and national TV. The album’s unusual title comes from a poem by Danish author Martin A Hansen and is supposed to reflect their solid and simple yet grandiose music.

On first impression, Because Trees Can Fly is thickly layered with intensely repetitive and atmospheric soundscapes, mainly constructed through judicious use of electric guitar and drums, with the occasional sounding of a trumpet, keys or glockenspiel melody. Most of what’s on offer are fairly predictable, basic post-rock compositions, choosing to work with dynamics and impact rather than taking the listener on an expressive, rewarding and melodic journey.

Certainly, there is little doubt that the band’s wild card (if not meal ticket) is the voice of Rebekkamaria, a Björk-like (or rather, Björk-inspired) wonder that both anchors and elevates the band. Her light and frail vocals make for an appealing contrast with the heavy, driving guitars, although sometimes her singing is embedded within the sound, rendering it more of a melodic instrument than a conduit of intelligible words. However, she sometimes has a tendency to overemphasise her vocals, excessively emoting and coming across as slightly contrived.

Though Lampshade clearly know how to rack up the intensity with dynamics and layers of sound, their repertoire and instrumentation does lack variety. Whenever they do take an alternative approach or slightly alter the instrumentation, authentic emotion and creativity shimmers through the guitar and drum-crammed surface like delicate sunbeams. Essentially a sometimes impressive guitar act fronted by a little girl with a sweet, soft voice, if they’re given time to develop, Lampshade might well be worth looking out for in the future.

Anja McCloskey
originally published November 7th, 2005

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The Last Town Chorus
Wire Waltz •••
Loose Music

The Last Town Chorus used to be a duo – lap-steel guitar playing singer Megan Hickey and vibrato guitarist Nat Guy released their eponymous debut album in 2002 and performed all over the world until Guy departed in early 2004. Since then, Hickey has been fronting The Last Town Chorus alone, working closely with an ever-revolving ensemble of musicians. Despite living in Brooklyn, surrounded by canal traffic, aircraft noise, subway rumbles and sirens, Hickey somehow manages to shut out the racket. Almost without exception, her songs are slow and dark and played on a sixty-year old cheap lap-steel guitar. She probably performs with her eyes closed. Certainly, Wire Waltz is a very quiet album for a city girl; if you hadn’t read otherwise, you might easily imagine her sitting on her front porch in Midwest America, on a rocking chair, clutching her guitar, rather than the floor of her buzzing urban apartment.

The title track is a perfect example of Hickey’s vision. A dreamy but fairly fast-paced intro is soon followed by long, almost dragged out vocals, giving the song a certain edge and sudden mood change. In a densely layered arrangement, a lonely violin is the only approachable and natural sound in a sea of clouded pedal steel and it works like a charm. ‘You’ is equally affecting; Hickey’s simple, soothing vocals are accompanied by stop-start instrumentation, as if all the musicians were taking a breath at the same time and thoughts were put on hold. 

Elsewhere, the songs sometimes lack an interesting angle, suffering from predictable arrangements and offering few, if any, surprises to the listener, ‘It’s Not Over’ and ‘Understanding’ being the worst offenders. It’s only when The Last Town Chorus get more experimental that the attention doesn’t wander. In a way, these songs are more authentic and make for comfy listening. ‘Caroline’, for example, is a playful little number with its upbeat tempo and layered vocals making it one of the more memorable inclusions. ‘Wintering In Brooklyn’ is similarly perky and has an optimistic, more melodious feel.

Hickey has a vulnerable side, too, and this comes across in ‘Boat’ and ‘Huntsville 1989′, both very intimate and personal affairs. It’s a shame, then, that the recording lets her down, her detached and distant vocals failing to do justice to the songs. Oddly enough, it’s the cover of David Bowie’s ‘Modern Love’ that really shows what The Last Town Chorus can do. The colourful arrangement and clear song structure really helps to bring out the emotion in the song. ‘Foreign Land’ is equally interesting. Here, Hickey has taken a much angrier, darker approach. It’s an attitude that really suits and her vocals are honest and close.

Although Wire Waltz has one or two hidden jewels, overall it lacks spark; the dearth of variation and repetitive motifs bring it down. When Hickey plugs in to her more instinctual side musically and wrings out her emotions, that’s when things get interesting and if she can do that more, The Last Town Chorus will be ones to watch in the future.

Anja McCloskey 
originally published October 5th, 2006

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Cyndi Lauper
The Body Acoustic •••½
Epic / Daylight

It’s a little known fact that Cyndi Lauper and Madonna both had their first UK chart hit in the very same week back in January 1984, and while Lauper won the battle and that year’s Grammy for Best New Artist, Madonna has undisputedly trounced her in the war. Though both are peas from the same tenacious pod, Lauper’s sorely underrated vocals and songwriting skills never quite broke into the grounds of longstanding popularity. Her highest-charting album was her greatest hits collection, 1994’s Twelve Deadly Cyns… & Then Some – surely a sign of someone primarily regarded as a ‘singles artist’. It’s a shame too that 2003’s covers collection, At Last, failed to even chart in this country, as it was an eye- opening and never before seen showcase of the depth of Lauper’s emotional intensity, proving that her voice and creativity were considerably more potent than critics originally believed.

Lauper continues in this vein of switching creative gears with new album The Body Acoustic, a collection of unplugged revamps of some of her best known songs. It’s a dangerous concept, and one that risks the emotional evisceration of her bona fide classics – see Alanis Morissette’s Jagged Little Pill Acoustic for a prime example of how not to do it – but surprisingly enough, while never actually surpassing the originals, The Body Acoustic presents Lauper in a new and interesting light. The most striking difference here is the depth of Lauper’s singing. She was always able to hit the upper register in the ‘80s, but this time around she ditches the kitsch vocal stylings and lets her true talent shine. The county and western warmth of ‘Money Changes Everything’ sees her getting good and gritty before culminating in some eye-popping high notes, while the quasi-blues take on ‘She Bop’ (the original female masturbation anthem, predating The Divinyls’ ‘I Touch Myself’ and Tori Amos’s ‘Icicle’ by several years) has Lauper channelling sex and loneliness with sobering effectiveness.

Indeed, the only real weak point of the album is the overabundance of guest vocalists; Lauper’s impeccable vocals do not call for back-up. That said, some of the collaborations work well, such as Ani DiFranco and Taking Back Sunday member Vivian Green’s raucously funky contribution to ‘Sisters Of Avalon’. At the other end of the scale, the classic pop archetype of ‘Time After Time’ fares less well with the weightless vocals of Sarah McLachlan letting the side down. The worst offender by far, however, is Shaggy, whose clogged-up throat warbling almost butchers an otherwise wonderful rendition of ‘All Through The Night’. Happily, the two new compositions, ‘Above The Clouds’ (featuring Jeff Beck) and ‘I’ll Be Your River’ (also with Vivian Green), sit comfortably among the more familiar material and are rather pleasant indeed.

Given the dismal reception afforded to her more recent work, a domestic release for The Body Acoustic is almost too much to hope for. But, as a whole, the album really works on its own and doesn’t dilute the songs it borrows its inspiration from, proving that Cyndi Lauper, even after all these years, still just wants to have fun.

Aaron Alper
originally published February 6th, 2006

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Lavender Diamond
The Cavalry Of Light EP ••••
Self-released

When the lovely Dévics namedropped this Los Angeles-based quartet in last issue’s interview, Wears The Trousers knew we had to investigate further. What we found was this sparkling jewel of an import – 16 minutes of some of the most evocative music ever committed to disc. Fronted by ‘70s songstress throwback Becky Stark and featuring former Young People singer/guitarist Jeff Rosenberg, composer Steve Gregoropoulos and percussionist/visual artist Ron Regé Jr., Lavender Diamond make pastoral chamber-folk with a spiritual bent that steers away from being fiercely didactic, just gently inspirational. Stark in particular is a keen advocate of the healing power of music and making every second sacred.

The daughter of a would-be minister mother (she was kicked out of ministerial school for rock ‘n’ roll tendencies), Becky and her sister would often attend their mum’s own ‘Church of Popular Culture’ where they would debate the metaphysical meanings of songs by Madonna and Culture Club, before graduating to the likes of Fugazi and Chisel. None of which really give you any idea of how heavenly this EP is, so moving swiftly on…

The thing about singing of a broken heart is that everyone’s doing it. The theme is so prevalent, so universal that it’s hard to really give that much of a damn unless it’s being done with fresh invention. Clearly, Lavender Diamond have collectively preempted such a jaded, grumbling worldview, and with a sense of humour too. If anyone had told me last week that I would soon become obsessed with a song as bluntly named as ‘You Broke My Heart’, in which it takes a full sixty seconds before any other lyric is uttered, I never would have believed them. Yet here I am with the song on its umpteenth repeat thinking it could well be the greatest piece of music since, well, almost anything on Joni Mitchell’s Blue. Rarely has anyone sounded so simultaneously mortified and overwhelmingly thrilled at getting the boot. Stark’s angelic, escalating vocal soars and swoops like a repentant bird of ill omen over a janglefest of acoustic guitar, tambourine and radiofriendly staccato piano riffs. It’s an ecstatic revelation that works far better in practice than it ever could on paper.

While just as brilliantly conceived, nothing else is quite as good. The sleepy, weeping strings and plaintive piano of ‘Please’ touch on a rainy-day Carpenters vibe and would sound perfect if it were played as the credits roll on some devastating indie flick (that is, if Aimee Mann were too busy). ‘In Heaven There Is No Heat’ starts off like a subdued Josephine Foster outtake then suddenly there’s sunshine – irresistibly bursting through the gloomy repetitive verses comes the biggest, shiniest, multi-part harmony chorus this side of The Magic Numbers. Inspired! Then, like Vashti Bunyan on valium, ‘Rise In The Springtime’ arrives a fully-formed mini-Britfolk epic that’s so airy and gossamer-light that not even its worshipful lyrics can cloy. It’s sweet, strange and a little bit squidgy, like aural Turkish delight for slimmers.

Herbalists claim that extracts of lavender can be used to soothe headaches, to aid your sleep and even to help cure acne. I’m making no promises on that last one, but The Cavalry Of Light seems equally potent. Seek it out on editor’s orders.

Alan Pedder
originally published May 22nd, 2006 

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Les Georges Leningrad
Sangue Puro ••••
Tomlab

Les Georges Leningrad came into being in 2000 and have an illustrious history of releases of handmade CDs, 7″ singles, and two albums – Deux Hot Dogs Moutarde Chou (‘two hot dogs mustard cabbage’) and Sur Les Traces De Black Eskimo, for which they purportedly travelled to the North Pole to get in touch with nature and chanced upon a black Eskimo population. In the bare-all, behind-the-scenes world the rest of us live in, where mystery and magic are mangled into media mush, stumbling into the strangeness of the Les Georges Leningrad outré existence is a welcome injection of swirling emotional charges.

In the flesh, the story of Bobo Boutin, Mingo L’Idien and Poney P is one of love and hate, having been introduced to one another by way of a fight in Ontario street tavern, la Terrasse Bellehumeur. Boutin was at the time a bohemian singer, L’Idien a contemporary music student at University of Montréal, while Ms P was busying herself with writing hundreds of songs in a gigantic schoolbook and dreaming of sharing a stage with the art-rock greats: Plume, Duchess Says, Sun Ra and Felix Kubin. Musically, their tale can be summarised as follows: eight-note, F2-undulating synthesiser riffs, an explosive rhythmic drive inspired by the sambo (a Russian self-defence technique invented in the 1930s) and the sexy voice of their ‘South Central Li’l Amazon’ immersing us in the eerie and unforeseeable universe of Petrochemical Rock…their terminology, yes, but it works just fine.

Third album Sangue Puro proves that art installation music is alive and well and that Les Georges Leningrad are only too ecstatic to serve up even more Franglais power-punk/scary electro tunes for our edification. The title track gets an industrial electronic ambient shock treatment with drum rolls and finishes with what might well be the sound of electronic crickets rubbing their legs together in frenzy. Nine-minute epic ‘The Future For Less’ is built upon a Kafka-esque electro soundbed that’s so unnerving you might prefer to face an angry horde of Daleks entering stage left. It’s not as bleak as it sounds; humour is everywhere between the musical lines of intense expressionism. Take ‘Lonely Lonely’ for example. It starts like a fairly typical punk tune with rhythmic power drumming but once the grunting Neanderthal vocals kick in with “un, deux, trois” and “la la” lyrics, you’ll be forced to reassess as any semblance of normality slides away. 

Things are at their punk-poppiest on ‘Mange Avec Tes Doigts’ (‘eat with your fingers’) with a heavy guitar riff and Poney P’s Nina Hagen-esque punk vocal, but LGL soon turn up the rage. Later, she raps over ‘Sleek Answer’s rhythmic bass synth and shrieks along with eerie speed rhythms on Germanic wundersong ‘Ennio Morricone’. Elsewhere, ‘Eli, Eli Lamma Sabbacthani’ (‘my God, my God, why hast Thou forsaken me?’ [Matthew 27:46]) may borrow its title from the words of the cross but it comes across as a Latino-style political rant that segues into a Native American chant with bongos to finish and might well have you reaching for the magic mushrooms.

With Sangue Puro, Les Georges Leningrad bring real hope that we haven’t quite washed out all the world’s colour just yet, and for that they should be commended. Not for the fainthearted but well worth investigating for those of a sterner constitution, anyone wanting to know more should steel themselves and check out clips of Les Georges Leningrad’s live show on YouTube or simply splash some blood around on their website.

Sara Silver
originally published November 23rd, 2006

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Jenny Lewis with the Watson Twins
Rabbit Fur Coat •••½ 
Rough Trade

Probably the first thing you’ll notice with this album, perhaps with a pang of initial apprehension, are the two neatly accessorised yet slightly sinister characters loitering in the background on the Shining-esque sleeve. Say hello to The Watson Twins, with whom the moonlighting Rilo Kiley frontwoman Jenny Lewis generously shares the credit for Rabbit Fur Coat. It’s surprising really, for though they are ever-present in the mix and undoubtedly talented, the twins are essentially only backing singers to Lewis’s distinctive vocals. The unrivalled star of the show, she drifts, snarls and soars her way through witty and occasionally uncomfortable lyrics, leaving the Watsons to fill in the gaps wherever they can. Even the instrumentation is kept to a minimum, in keeping with the highly personal manner in which Lewis wrote these songs.

Supposedly recorded in six days flat, Rabbit Fur Coat is intended as a tribute to Lewis’s relationship with her mother and Mrs Lewis’s favourite singer, Laura Nyro – specifically the 1971 Nyro/ LaBelle collaboration, Gonna Take A Miracle. That’s quite an ambition, but luckily Lewis boasts a sensational resume that proves she possesses more than enough countrified white soul to carry it off, and there are touching moments aplenty. Take the gospel/bluegrass opener ‘Run Devil Run’, for instance, a short a cappella vocal workout in which Lewis immediately gives the Watsons a run for their money. But while the lush harmonies contained therein is surely what the twins were hired for, a few songs down the line they soon start to grate a little, popping up unawares to embellish a chorus or three in their rather dated style (occasionally reminiscent of Mary Ford’s multi-tracked crooning on 1950s Les Paul records).

Luckily, no amount of excessive cooing can entirely distract from Lewis’s expressive and compelling vocals, and the talents of the twins admittedly compliment these well, teasing out and reinforcing the melodic subtleties throughout, no matter how occasionally mawkish. No better is this demonstrated than on ‘You Are What You Love’ (“not what loves you back”), an exuberant, wholesome pop confection that you can practically taste. Twinkling keyboards, a shuffling rhythm and an addictively relentless chorus all combine perfectly, rounded off with possibly the most satisfying ending imaginable in a culture of lazy fadeouts and over-indulgence. Also rather incredible are the seductive first single ‘Rise Up With Fists!!’ and the title track, the first of the twelve to be written. Lewis’s echoey voice is accompanied only by a tentatively plucked acoustic guitar, creating the impression of eavesdropping as she strums alone onstage, long after her audience and band has gone home. ‘Rabbit Fur Coat’ is the undisputed centerpiece of the record, best exemplifying Lewis’s sugar-sweet singing (thankfully shed of Watson warblings in this case). It’s a crafty little number, however; the nursery rhyme simplicity of the melody belies a chilling fable of how a cursed garment takes a family from rags to riches to rags again – a metaphor that, according to Lewis, runs throughout the album.

A cover of ‘80s OAP supergroup The Travelling Wilburys’ ‘Handle With Care’ makes for a dramatic change of pace and reveals itself to be a delightful surprise. The benefits of being one of the most well-connected women in the business are clearly laid out, with Death Cab For Cutie / The Postal Service’s Ben Gibbard contributing a chiming 12-string guitar and Roy Orbison’s parts, co-producer M. Ward doing Jeff Lynne and Conor Oberst of Bright Eyes croaking his way through the Dylan lines. Elsewhere, Lewis’s boyfriend Johnathan Rice and Saddle Creek producer extraordinaire Mike Mogis are among the 16-strong player count. Overall, Rabbit Fur Coat is a captivating, delightful and reassuring album that, although it lacks some of Rilo Kiley’s broad scope and musical versatility, offers an endearing glimpse into the heart and mind of a very special talent. The world should know about Jenny Lewis. Spread the word.

Alex Doak
originally published February 6th, 2006 

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Sylvie Lewis
Tangos & Tantrums ••••
Cheap Lullaby

Enchanting right from the outset, Tangos & Tantrums boasts a beautiful blend of eccentric music hall-style backing and a voice that sounds as though its been classically trained and then eloped to New Orleans with a bluesy jazz band. Surprisingly upbeat considering its invariably dark subject matter and melancholic minor chord leanings, each track is a snapshot of a world that only Lewis seems to inhabit, her sepia-toned memories elegantly floating along. Fittingly, the sleeve bears no lyrics and is filled instead with anecdotes connected with each song, including musings by the artist and, in one case, a recipe for the cocktail imbibed at the time of writing.

‘By Heart’ sets the mood of the album perfectly; Wurlitzer, piano and percussion chime along nicely, invoking the feel of a gently turning carousel. As the lament unfurls, Lewis comes to the painful realisation that, although the relationship in question is not on her terms, she will stay the course until her beau decides to end it, whilst in the interim she learns to read his every move. Lines such as “your eyes are always straying, you want whatever’s far” form simple but jarring contrasts with the playful accompaniment.

Such stunning mini-stories are woven throughout the album, tackling different stages of relationships with a distinctly elegant and unusual take on every aspect. For example, in ‘All His Exes’, Lewis is seemingly possessed by the spirit of a 1920s flapper, asserting her individuality away from the titular cast-offs. Many of these songs are steeped in atmospheric melancholy, for example, the waltzing ‘When I Drink’. In fact, so often does Lewis discuss drinking and tragedy that if you gave her a dobro, more twang in her voice and a pair of very delicate cowboy boots, she would not be out of place in country music. ‘Promises Of Paris’ tells the tale of a man who’s liable to drink himself to ruin and death while believing his own deranged whisperings of the capital’s majesty. Musically, the song possesses a climate all of its own, with a saxophone solo so richly textured that it feels as though you could step inside the scenario and find the afternoon sunshine streaming through slatted blinds and a chrome fan ticking in the background, hardly moving the hot, sticky air.

Despite its glorious lyrics about being unable to awake from “daydreams of blue roses you used to bring”, ‘Love Songs’ is a slight disappointment and ‘New York’ could feasibly be skipped altogether to get to the fabulous ‘Conversation Piece’ where Lewis is joined in a duet by Richard Swift, their voices seductively blending in a tale of love punctuated with allusions to war. ‘Valentine’s Day ‘slows the pace to a cynical crawl before picking up once again for the delightfully dramatic bitterness of ‘My Rival’, inspired by Rudyard Kipling’s ‘Other Than That’, and the poignant ‘Old Friends’, which serves as a fitting finale for the album, as though bidding farewell to the listener with promises of a far-off reunion.

If given the attention it surely merits, the sensual, heart-sick world of Sylvie Lewis will transport you back in time and may even help you deal with a modern-day dilemma or two. Perfect for a lazy Sunday or an afternoon when you need to take time out from the world or perhaps to mend a wounded heart.

Gem Nethersole
originally published April 26th, 2006 

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The Like
Are You Thinking What I’m Thinking? •••
Universal IMS

Nepotism has never been cuter thanks to this Los Angeles trio. All daughters of famous musical fathers (Mitchell Froom, Pete Thomas and Tony Berg), The Like’s punk-chic good looks and sassy sense of style make for great eye candy, but considering their connections, talent was not necessarily a prerequisite for a record deal. Luckily The Like do have talent and have inherited some musical inclinations from their prominent poppas. Are You Thinking What I’m Thinking? is quality girl-rock fodder that, whilst not being stellar under any circumstances, presents them in a promising enough light.

Mostly, the album employs the archetypal pop formula, portrayed with just a hint of girl power, and is utterly soundtrack prone. ‘Once Things Look Up’ delivers a shimmering MOR vibe, with vocalist Z Berg sounding like a teenaged Sarah McLachlan. ‘The One’ is an uptown take on the 1980s, its warm orchestration reminiscent of Modern English’s ‘Melt With You’, while both ‘Falling’ and ‘Too Late’ share a lite feminine swagger. The only true misdirection lies in Wendy Melvoin’s sometimes overcompensating production. The droning guitars and faded drums don’t mix well with Z Berg’s soft soprano, and as a result, many of the songs never gain momentum; in particular, album closer ‘Waves That Never Break’ and ‘(So I’ll Sit Here) Waiting’ seem to stop before they start. The music itself is not bad; it is simply presented in a less than ideal way.

Ultimately, both the album and The Like themselves come off as a bit average, but unlike many pop acts today they have talent and are never disingenuous in their music. Factor in their youth and the fact that most bands never nail their sound on their debut, and Are You Thinking What I’m Thinking? is more a step in the right direction than a defining moment in The Like’s career. Perhaps one day they will make the shift from eye candy to ear candy, and make music that allows them to step outside the shadows of their famous fathers.

Aaron Alper
originally published December 19th, 2005
 

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The Like
Live at Camden Barfly ••••
March 8th, 2006

It is midday on a Sunday and three young women are standing on a street corner in Camden Town. Wrapped up against the March chill, they could be any late teens/early twenties trio, and the fact that they haven’t seen a bed to lie in in over 24 hours is not so odd for their generation. However, the fact that only six or so hours ago they were stood on a street corner in Paris not entirely unlike this one is. Freshly Eurostarred back from playing at a fashion show, The Like are about to do an afternoon show at Camden’s Barfly, part of a bewilderingly heavy itinerary to purportedly break them in the UK. Either that or break them full stop.

Not that they are whinging about it. Later, Tennessee Thomas is proud to display her drumstick blistered hands to anyone who wishes to be appalled by the mess they’re in, while Charlotte Froom is endlessly enthusiastic and slips easily into her coolest-personto-ever-pick-up-a-bass poses within an instant of arriving onstage. Straight after the set, she just as happily works the merchandising stall – “We sell more t-shirts if the girls do it themselves” explains their affable tour manager. Z Berg also shrugs off the crazy pace with the detachment of a dreamer who has written songs in her teens that many so-called mature writers would find hard to match in terms of their remarkable depth and passion.

A few days earlier at Nottingham’s Rock City, a throng of fans cheered, screamed and sang every word of ‘Too Late’, while The Ramones-meets-The Cure hybrid of ‘What I Say & What I Mean’ was greeted as if it were already a greatest hit. The stream of interviews, the TV shows they barely know the names of, the mad yo-yoing back and forth to London are all about this moment where The Like are, as an entity, a perfect, classic indie pop-rock trio with a masterful grasp of the epic and the intimate, often within the same song as is superbly displayed in ‘You Bring Me Down’ and ‘(So I’ll Sit Here) Waiting’.

In London, there is a sense of exposure in daylight for both the band and their audience, creating a true dramatic tension and blurring of the line between performer and listener; the venue is rammed to the edge of the curved stage. As Froom’s basslines bop over Thomas’s relentless beat, the finest swirls of shoegaze guitar since Lush emit from Berg’s twin Orange amps. Already overtired, Z has an uphill struggle to keep her voice, but one has to marvel at the sheer grit of her performance as she lives out every raw emotion threaded through her lyrics.

Coming just at a time when the UK rock scene is all laddish boys-will-be-boys predicting a riot in the takeaway kebab house, The Like are surely the band that many have been waiting for; one with a pure, warm sound that goes straight for the heart. After today, they face another week of touring the country before heading back to Los Angeles for just one day off, then flying off again for an industry showcase in triplicate at SXSW in Austin. Both loving and laughing at it, The Like uncomplainingly thrive on the pace. And that pace will surely only increase as their message gets across to more and more potential fans.

Kevin Hewick
originally published March 18th, 2006
 

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Lisa Li-Lund & Friends
Li-Lund Ran Away ••••
Smoking Gun

Lisa Li-Lund likes panda bears, wants to sleep with Mick Jagger as he was roughly 20 years ago and lives in a fantasy world somewhere between Paris, NYC and Scandinavia. What’s more, she is little sister to the two hairy men of the amazing Herman Düne, which, after hearing her first proper solo effort, you would instantly be able to tell. Written by a long-time hip-hop fan on a cute little Casio, this surely essential latest chapter in the somewhat incestual, and therefore obviously influential, antifolk movement was recorded in one week, a raw testament to the real creative talent of someone who would at first appear to be a quirky, whimsical songwriter (though those are two words that Li-Lund would probably never want to be associated with).

It all makes for a meaningful and surprisingly deep collection of songs. Childlike and innocent on the surface, yet, in places, brooding with angry femininity and emotion, Li-Lund’s sweet and soothing vocals are wonderfully complimented by minimalist instrumentation. Incredibly effortless, mind-bogglingly spontaneous, the songs flit between the playful romps of The Moldy Peaches, the sloppy DIY riot-grrl phenomenon and the dark edge of The Breeders or PJ Harvey without the Dorset accent. Then there’s the constant of her European charm and distinct sense of mystery. Each of Li-Lund’s stories is a unique glimpse into a magical land filled with pigs the size of your finger and miniature rabbits, as she first laments and then joins in the party. And if that’s not bizarre or wonderful enough to tempt you to give her a chance, tune in simply to hear Herman Düne’s Neman howling at the moon dramatically in the distance.

That said, although the fanciful stuff is hugely appealing the most stunning tracks are the more mature, spine- tingling lullabies of resignation, particularly ‘Drop My Tears’ and the haunting Emmet Kelly collaboration on traditional number ‘All My Trials’. It‘s a tragically gorgeous end to an album that bravely spans the yearning to the erratic to the downright daft, the best thing about it being that it fits into so many genres but, at the same time, not fitting in at all. Simply put, Li-Lund Ran Away is absolutely too cool for school. I dare you not to fall in love with it.

Anna Claxton 
originally published September 17th, 2006

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Rachel Lipson
Pastures ••••
Mecicco

The reasons why most singer-songwriters would balk at and rail against the adjective ‘sweet’ appear to be self-evident. The term seems almost a nullification of having something to say, a catch-all for the mild, meek and soon forgettable. Then, as with every rule, an exception sometimes happens along, twirling fancy free and twee beyond belief but utterly astute and devastatingly relevant. Rachel Lipson is one such exception, coming on like an amalgam of Kimya Dawson, Rosie Thomas and shades of Suzanne Vega. The sheer simplicity of her laconic, almost deadpan enunciation is the stuff that either steals your heart or sends you running feeling too pure back to The Teaches Of Peaches. But graze awhile in Lipson’s quiet acres and you’ll find the lectures of Pastures equally appealing. With a finely detailed wisdom that never trips the homily detector, Lipson’s minutiae are everyone’s minutiae, but told with a worldview that’s all her own.

Whether on the seemingly George “God made me do it” Bush-bashing ‘A Blessing’ or the advisory ‘Oh Little Sister’, she is constantly disarming and aware. But Pastures works best when Lipson deals in heartbreak, the triptych of ‘What Won’t Wait For You’, ‘I’ve Sat At The Table’ and ‘He Knows The Way To The Golden Road’ providing an exquisite lesson in the dispassionate delivery of a raw and deeply-felt subject. Cropping up on the first of these songs and again on ‘The End Of The Summer’ is David Herman Düne, to all intents and purposes antifolk royalty, chiming in with gorgeous ukulele and perfectly imperfect, tender harmonies. Also adding his voice and credibility is good friend Jeffrey Lewis, who shared the album’s only co-writing credit for the childlike duet, ‘The Eagle’. It’s followed by the heartwarming, home-recorded album closer, ‘Will They Remember Your Name’, on which Lipson lapses into fits of giggles while trying to get some children singing a round.

While it’s true that Lipson’s vocals are a little one-trick pony and that it simply wouldn’t work if the music itself were more convoluted, the overwhelming innocence inspires. As a snapshot of a deceptively rich, modern fable-teller, Pastures really works. Definitely one to watch then, she may put Cadbury out of business yet.

Alan Pedder
originally published December 5th, 2005
 

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Lisa Loeb
The Very Best Of •••
Hip-O

Twelve years ago, a little known unsigned singer-songwriter from Dallas redefined what it means to hit the ground running. A rogue release from the ‘Reality Bites’ soundtrack, her debut single ‘Stay (I Missed You)’ took off entirely on its own merits, its unadulterated pop archetype and Loeb’s girl next door persona striking a chord with radio listeners and propelling her to the summit of the Billboard Top 100 and peaking at #6 in the UK. Of course, a sparse video directed by ‘Reality Bites’ star Ethan Hawke didn’t harm its chances, and Loeb was quickly signed to Geffen Records soon after. Her debut album Tails was released the following autumn and quickly went platinum. Although her songwriting has never quite achieved the same tenacity as it did on ‘Stay’, Loeb’s skills as a pop singer-songwriter are unmitigated and this career retrospective offers a good mix, albeit with some bias towards her earlier years; 12 of the 18 selections originate from the first two of her four releases. Sadly, there’s nothing from Catch The Moon, her entertaining album of music aimed at children.

Loeb is best when she tackles darker material, such as ‘Sandalwood’s stark declarations of obsession, the mournful ‘How’ and the relationship autopsy of ‘Do You Sleep?’, which by all rights should have equalled the success of ‘Stay’. Her lighter material, such as the minor Stateside hits ‘I Do’ and ‘Let’s Forget About It’ and the reggae-lite ‘All Day’ – Loeb’s contribution to 1998’s ‘The Rugrats Movie’, in which she also provided the voice of a newborn baby – manage to hit the marks they should despite being a little less majestic. It’s a credit to her likeability and craft that songs like ‘Bring Me Up’ would come off on the wrong side of tame if placed in the hands of almost any other artist, while Loeb’s sweet vocals and nebbish lyrical honesty elevate the song above the dreaded MOR mark.

In fact, what is apparent in each of these songs is that Loeb’s personable nature and unflinching truth-telling, even when looming in the face of cliché, has given her a kind of staying power that’s wholly of her own making and not a commercial commodity. But while she may finally be showing signs of some questionable decision-making see her reality dating programme ‘#1 Single’ that recently aired in the States and is represented here with the passable theme tune ‘Single Me Out’ – the only new song included – Loeb’s integrity as a solid pop musician remains untarnished and The Very Best Of showcases both her and her catalogue as an underappreciated but smiling success.

Aaron Alper
originally published March 21st, 2006  

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The Long Blondes
Live at UEA, Norwich ••••
May 18th, 2006

With a little help from Rough Trade, The Long Blondes have recently blossomed from Britain’s best unsigned band to Britain’s best signed band and are finally able to give up the day jobs and start touring the length of the country, spreading their perfect escapist pop. Having won the Philip Hall Radar award for new bands at February’s NME ceremony awards (and been the only band with a single female, let alone three, to win an award), The Long Blondes have been waiting in the wings for long enough. They were subsequently invited to open up the NME New Music Tour while three identikit emo indie bands secured the more coveted later slots, but you’ve gotta start somewhere, right?

Daylight was still shining through the upper windows as The Long Blondes elegantly took to the stage in the University of East Anglia’s gym-like student union. Their quirky, secondhand glamour rested uneasily in the cavernous setting, the MySpace teens who comprised the sell-out crowd still blathering away. But as the opening bars of single ‘Appropriation (By Any Other Name)’ chimed out and singer Kate Jackson started her now trademark stilettos-and-drainpipes angular shimmy, the crowd were transfixed. During their half-hour set, the band churned out would-be-hit after would-be-hit and many of their strongest songs didn’t even get aired in a performance that should leave any band three albums into their career feeling more than slightly insecure. They embody the escapist songwriting spirit of Burt Bacharach mixed with the British realism of Pulp and the classic dancefloor/rock club versatility of Blondie, and they’re prolific at it too.

They played three new songs, all of which received the same excited response as by-now cult classics like ‘Separated By Motorways’ and ‘Once & Never Again’, most notably the new B-side, ‘You Could Have Both’, which features a spoken-word breakdown between Dorian and Kate detailing the post-university crisis that hits us twentysomethings so hard, admitting “I’ve only got a job so I don’t disappoint my mother” before chanting “What about us?”. The crowd may not yet have taken their AS-level exams, but the universality of The Long Blondes’s themes, clever lyrics and classic tunes ensure that their appeal is widespread.

It’s the penultimate song, ‘Giddy Stratospheres’, that best sums up what The Long Blondes are about; it’s an epic 4:54, but so completely perfect you’ll wish it wouldn’t end. With its soaring choruses and Shangri-la-esque chants from guitarist Emma and bassist Reenie, the song has a certain snotty charm and a middle-eight so yummy you won’t know whether to laugh or cry. As they walk off-stage 30 minutes after their humble entrance, they can sleep soundly in the knowledge that they have once again shown the boys that their hegemony won’t last forever.

Robbie de Santos
originally published July 23rd, 2006  

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Love Is All
Nine Times That Same Song ••••
Parlophone

Love Is All may hail from Sweden but they could never be accused of sounding like any of their compatriots; nor do they sound like any other band, ever. Spawning from the wreckage of indie-popsters Girlfriendo, the band strove to cultivate their sound through a number of guises. As such, their debut album Nine Times That Same Song is an unclassifiable, romantic half hour of noisy, wistful and inexplicable music, characterised by fuzzed-out guitars, pounding rhythms and saxophones leading the melody. Then there’s singer Josephine Olausson’s idiosyncratic voice, which seems to be treated as any other instrument and is subjected to the same distortion, echoes and levels.

Lyrically, the album’s themes are fairly abstract, if not in their actual content then by virtue of their depth in the sheer cacophony of the songs’ instrumentation. ‘Make Out Fall Out Make Up’ is one exception and has the makings of an anthem for the modern romantic, the order of the title explaining the banal but somehow enjoyable nature of going-nowhere relationships. The lyrics here are more descriptive than personal, setting a scene rather than telling a story, but the music with its bursts of ecstatic saxophone-led noise shouts of sheer excitement. Elsewhere, ‘Felt Tip’ is the album’s killer ballad, though it’s somewhat open to interpretation; the lyrics “felt tip hip kids / click your fingertips / black hat, cool cat / come on and show me that” may not mean much on their own but the desperation in the vocals brings out the dark, dramatic subplots.

The rest of the album has a more manic quality; recent single ‘Busy Doing Nothing’, for example, is a weird dance- floor filler with its pounding orchestra, clear bass and drum rolls. It feels like it’s inspired by films rather than other music, soundtracking imagined dark situations and filmic sequences. Oddly then, Love Is All command us to ‘Turn The TV Off’ as well as the ‘Radio’, the two songs describing a hopelessness and apathy toward the modern world, or perhaps that world as a device for modern romance and a longing for something extra. Album closer ‘Trying Too Hard’ is anything but, bouncing along like a third-wave ska song, boundless enthusiasm in check, though happily absent of cheesiness and fat men with tattoos.

Nine Times That Same Song is not an instant album; as with The Raveonettes, many listeners will find it hard to get used to the slightly chaotic production, but once you’ve adjusted it rewards very well, with each successive listen unearthing fresh harmonies and unexpected quirks. Thoroughly exciting, emotional and complex, it may well leave you gasping for breath. 

Robbie de Santos
originally published August 30th, 2006