Filed under: album, back issues, review | Tags: alex ramon, amanda farah, andy wasley, anja mccloskey, claire robinson, hugh armitage, lisa ono, ollabelle, oom, over the rhine, paramore, ping pong bitches, po' girl, puppini sisters, scott millar, sinead o'connor, siobhan rooney, the phonemes, trevor raggatt, yoko ono
The following reviews were published on our old MySpace blog in 2007.
From the beginning of her career, Sinéad O’Connor’s name has been synonymous with risks, the controversy surrounding her sometimes gaining as much, if not more, attention as her voice. But Theology – released 20 years after her multi million-selling debut The Lion & The Cobra – sees her taking a different kind of risk in the by now familiar arena of religion. Indeed, religion has long been an obsession of the O’Connor rumour mill, ever since that infamous moment when she tore up a photo of the Pope live on American TV. Since then she’s become an ordained minister in an off-shoot of the Catholic church and, later, wholeheartedly embraced the Rastafari faith (culminating in the woeful reggae excursion Throw Down Your Arms). In 2005 she even went so far as to claim that her mission was to “rescue God from religion”.
Theology, then, is O’Connor proclaiming her conflicted feelings for all to hear, should they still care. Theology, too, gives us reason to still care: O’Connor has tackled her subject matter very successfully, neither overly pious nor accusatory. And though it has its shortcomings – a cover of ‘I Don’t Know How To Love Him’ from ‘Jesus Christ Superstar’ is, unfortunately, as cheesy as it sounds – the album, for the most part, maturely and comprehensively addresses the idea of faith in a way that is easy to relate to. It is not only declaring that one has faith, but also questioning why one has faith, what that faith is, and in troubled times, how one can continue to have faith.
And that’s not all. If an album with religion as its central theme were not risky enough, Theology is a double album. The first disc, recorded in Dublin, and the second, recorded in London, have almost identical tracklistings, the difference being in the songs’ accompaniment. The first disc is essentially O’Connor alone with an acoustic guitar, while the second couches her in the studio with a full band. It keeps things interesting, and long-time fans will no doubt be delighted with the opportunity to find each and every little difference in the recordings. For the rest of us, the second disc may seem superfluous given how well O’Connor shines in the solo context. Download both versions of the brilliant ‘If You Had A Vineyard’ and see what I mean.
Rounder / Me & My
It’s a crying shame that it’s taken a full three years for Ollabelle’s eponymous debut to get a domestic release. Rounder Records once again prove themselves to be Americana heroes, for if there’s one thing Ollabelle has that this country has been missing, it’s soul. Serious soul.
Formed at an East Village blues and gospel jam night, Ollabelle comprises five members (the female contingent being Fiona McBain and Amy Helm – daughter of The Band’s Levon Helm) of diverse backgrounds but a singular passion for the music they create. Discovered by T-Bone Burnett, he wisely signed them to his own label. From the first a cappella notes, handclaps and washboard percussion of opening number ‘Before This Time’ it’s clear that Ollabelle are something special. Rootsy touches abound throughout the album, with Hammond, slide and dobro all making their presence felt among the acoustic guitars, rhythm section and dripping-honey harmonies.
For the most part, the tunes are drawn from the classic blues and gospel songbook with songs such as ‘Jesus On The Mainline’, ‘Get Back Temptation’ and ‘No More My Lawd’, though a few self-penned inclusions are thrown in for good measure. All are delivered with a tone that strikes a perfect balance between the traditional and contemporary. Respect for the music remains paramount; this is truly soulful and heartfelt stuff, not some sort of gospel-lite R&B knock-off. Where the band attempt to stretch their legs and cut loose, a psychedelic flavour creeps into the tonal palette: ‘Elijah Rock’ and a louche updating of the Son House classic, ‘John The Revelator’ are simply perfect recordings in this respect.
Ollabelle is a truly stunning debut and should really be a centrepiece in the CD collection of any lover of blues, Americana, gospel or roots music. Here’s hoping a UK release of the follow-up, Riverside Battle Songs, won’t be too far behind.
Soul & Bossa ••½
Japanese culture is famously diverse – some blinkered commentators might say bizarre – and, on occasion, somewhat opaque to Western observers. How, for example, can a country that is home to some of the world’s most ancient and beautiful art also be home to that perennial ‘Tarrant On TV’ favourite, the comically sadistic game show ‘Endurance’? How can a nation with one of the world’s most effective healthcare systems also dine on fugu, the puffer fish dish that, although exquisitely tasty, can apparently be 1200 times more toxic than cyanide? To this list, add one more question: how can a nation with such variety and colour as Japan be hooked on a singer as unexciting as Lisa Ono?
Perhaps that is putting it a little too strongly. Lest we forget, Ono, a Brazilian expat, is one of the most popular bossa/jazz artists in the world and almost certainly the most popular in Japan. Like Brian Eno, Kenny G et al, she has made her home in the card shop-friendly world of pleasant background music; the problem is that when listening to Ono one senses that, like an undiscovered seam of gold beneath a Californian hill, there are riches under the surface waiting to be exploited.
Soul & Bossa, Ono’s latest collection of covered songs, might just shimmer with the odd fleck of gold. However, they are few and far between; there is nothing inherently awful about the album, but it is hard to pick highs and lows because it is crushingly average. ‘I Got You (I Feel Good)’ is a decent enough example; Ono tames James Brown’s classic into a pleasing enough bossa, but in the process strips it of its rawness and power. ‘I Feel Good’ without Brown’s exuberant barking and shrieking is rather like a tiger without its teeth and claws; pretty enough, but lacking excitement and just…well…nice. ‘Georgia On My Mind’ is similar in style and in effect; previously performed by Ray Charles (epic, emotional, intense) and Ella Fitzgerald (sultry, languid, warming), Ono’s version (nice, nice, nice) might just leave the listener wanting to choke a jazz flautist.
There is, however, gold in them thar hills. Ono’s sensitive performance of ‘Nada Mais Lately’ is powerfully redolent of Charlotte Gainsbourg’s throaty, sultry style, and thoroughly outshines the bland quality of much of Ono’s work. Another Portuguese piece, ‘Eu Você’, sounds bright and sophisticated and sizzles with Latin intensity. Elsewhere, ‘You’ve Got A Friend’ is a clever piece of work, mixing a refrain from Delibes’s ‘Flower Duet’ with a low-down, pleasing bossa that, thankfully, is a long way from the AA’s saccharine-sweet use of the song in its most recognisable format.
Listening to Soul & Bossa isn’t as painful as ‘Endurance’; nor is it as exciting as fugu. It’s a perfectly nice, perfectly average, perfectly innocent album that will suit anyone who wants to put on the headphones and relax for an hour. It is, perhaps, the “nice cup of tea” of current jazz.
Yes, I’m A Witch ••••
As the Beatles-Lennon furore recedes into the mists of pop culture past, the much-maligned Yoko Ono has emerged from the scrum to be recognised as an important avant-garde artist “in her own right” (to coin a condescending phrase). The re-evaluation of her challenging music continues with this engaging album, a collection of remixes by some painfully hip contemporary musicians (among them Peaches, Le Tigre, Antony, Spiritualized’s Jason Pierce, The Flaming Lips, the Polyphonic Spree and The Apples in Stereo) that pays homage to her influence and clearly aims to introduce her work to a new generation. (A similar compilation of dance mixes of her songs is also available.) The choice of material on Yes, I’m A Witch spans Ono’s career from her early experimental work with Lennon to her solo albums of the 1970s and ‘80s, with the artists retaining Ono’s original vocals and creating new backing tracks for them. The result is a predictably uneven but nonetheless highly enjoyable album that makes a compelling case for the accomplishments of a composer who was clearly way ahead of her time.
Following Public Enemy producer Hank Shocklee’s brisk ‘Witch Shocktronica Intro’, proceedings get off to an energetic start with busy, electro-techno reworkings of ‘Kiss Kiss Kiss’ and ‘O’oh’, from Peaches and Shitake Monkey, respectively, the latter benefiting from a judicious sample of the opening riff of Grover Washington Jr.’s ‘Mister Magic’. Blow Up effectively transport ‘Everyman…Everywoman’ into the realm of psychedelic rock, and though the already-unsubtle empowerment anthem ‘Sisters O Sisters’ doesn’t really profit from Le Tigre’s addition of a little megaphone agitation (“Women united will never be defeated!”), the song remains a pleasing rabble-rouser. However, it’s Porcupine Tree’s sparsely atmospheric take on ‘Death Of Samantha’ – and the chilling shudder in Ono’s voice as she sings “Every day I thank God I’m such a cool chick baby” – that moves this album into more emotional and rewarding terrain.
Those more familiar with the (arguably sexist and racist) media image of Ono than her musical output will be surprised to find that there’s very little which is scary or forbidding about this music. The record may open with the heavy irony of Ono declaring “Yes, I’m a witch / I’m a bitch… / I don’t care what they say”, but much of the material is appealing, inviting and even consoling, many of the lyrics featuring positive statements that sometimes veer perilously close to a Hallmark greeting card. This is particularly true of ‘Revelations’ with its succession of positive-thinking mantras and earnest benedictions: “you are a sea of goodness / you are a sea of love… / bless you for what you are.” But the elegant sparseness of Cat Power’s treatment transcends the banality of the sentiment and turns the song into a powerful piano-led duet.
Other highlights include The Apples in Stereo’s soaring, majestic take on ‘No One Can See Me Like You Do’ and Jason Pierce’s feedback-drenched makeover of ‘Walking On Thin Ice’. Elsewhere, Antony and Hahn Rowe do well by ‘Toyboat’, while The Flaming Lips take on ‘Cambridge 1969′ with characteristic brio. The album ends on a reflective note with Craig Armstrong’s reworking of ‘Shiranakatta (I Didn’t Know)’, a song of poignant regret punctuated by Ono’s heartrending inquiry: “why didn’t you tell me you were in pain? / I would have come to you so quickly.”
Throughout Yes, I’m A Witch there’s a directness and immediacy to Ono’s writing and singing that pierces your defences. If you’re a fan already then this album – an amalgam of remix disc, tribute record and collaborative project – will provide you with the pleasure and excitement of rediscovery. If you’re a newcomer, it will challenge any lingering prejudices you may have about Ono’s work and leave you eager to hear more.
Dead Analogue ••
“Like a grunged up Portishead with Björk on vocals,” Radio 1 DJ Zane Lowe exclaims of Brighton-based quartet Oom, who offer up their debut album, Dead Analogue. Hmm. There is much to be suspicious of when hearing things described as ‘the new this with a touch of that and a smidgen of whatever’. Such statements are invariably either completely meaningless, or suggest something so lacking in originality that it can only be described by the things it tries to emulate. I fear the latter is indeed true of Oom.
Mr Lowe is at least partly right – Oom does indeed sound like Portishead (though where the Björk comparison came from we will never know). Indeed, that’s the first thing that strikes you when the vocals kick in on the first track, ‘Poison’. If you weren’t paying full attention it would be easy to think it was Portishead. This is all that most people would bother to say about Oom – that they sound like Portishead. Unfortunately, it is my duty to give a comprehensive review of Dead Analogue, so it falls to me to find more things to say about it.
Here goes. Before the Oom’s Debbie Clare breaks in with her best impression of Beth Gibbons’s vocal style, ‘Poison’ begins with a strange pulsing intro. This noise is irritating and somewhat dirty sounding, which may be where Mr Lowe’s “grunged up” comment comes from. These strange computer-generated baarps and blatts are distributed generously throughout the album, and make for something that is less musical and more downright annoying (though ‘Paranoia’ does offer some variation by containing what seems to be the whining of a poorly tuned radio instead).
Lyrically, Oom take their cue from Portishead as well and are suitably dreary. Witness such fine examples as “you left me for dead” (‘Black Heart’) and “I am the eye of the storm when there’s nothing left to see” (‘The Storm’). Ms Clare makes an admirable attempt at drawling them out in as sultry and suffering a manner as she can, but there are times when it sounds that, vocally, she is taking on more than she can handle. Some notes are rather strained.
This album isn’t irredeemably bad. There are no particular points of blood-curdling horror. I’m sure that people who enjoy strange blatty and baarpy music might find it quite pleasant. The real problem with Dead Analogue is that it sounds like nothing more than an inferior copy of something else. If I saw someone eyeing it in a shop I would point them towards Portishead’s Dummy instead. Dead Analogue simply has no oomph (sorry, it had to be done), no originality. And who wants to listen to a bad imitation of a better band?
Over The Rhine
The Trumpet Child •••½
Great Speckled Dog
Blending elements of country, jazz, soul, swing and torch song, The Trumpet Child, the umpteenth album by Ohio natives Over The Rhine, plays out like a primer to American roots music. Centred around the wonderfully named husband-and-wife team of Linford Detweiler and Karin Bergquist, the band have gone through several line-up changes in the 16 years that they’ve been recording. This time around, however, the central duo have surrounded themselves with a piano-and-brass ensemble whose contributions give many of the songs a delightfully woozy, loose, late-night barroom ambience. The result is an appealing album that, though firmly rooted in tradition, feels thoroughly fresh and contemporary.
Mixing some pleasingly surrealistic imagery with more traditional lyrical approaches, the eleven songs are well served by Bergquist’s compelling vocal style, a luxuriant croon that sometimes suggests a homelier Billie Holliday mated with a less abrasive Lucinda Williams. The haunting, jazzy title track, the propulsive ‘Entertaining Thoughts’, the rollicking Tom Waits homage ‘Don’t Wait For Tom’ and the delicious domestic reverie ‘Let’s Spend The Day In Bed’ are among the highlights of the set, but it’s the brilliant ‘If A Song Could Be President’ that arguably emerges as the standout. The track is a wry but heartfelt speculation on the consequences for America if its media and politicians were replaced by its music. Paying affectionate lyrical homage to Steve Earle, Lightnin’ Hopkins, Patsy Cline, Emmylou Harris, John Prine and Neil Young (“even though he came from Canada”), the song is at once a subtle critique of “where our country went wrong” and a proud, loving celebration of the America’s rich cultural heritage. The lyric “pass it around on an MP3” couldn’t be more appropriate; this is the kind of track you instantly want to share with everyone you know, one that already sounds like a classic.
At its least good, The Trumpet Child wears its influences a little too heavily, sometimes allowing its penchant for homage to slip into pastiche. But taken as a stylish synthesis of a range of music traditions, the album is a very enjoyable experience. “I don’t want to waste your time with music you don’t need,” Bergquist sings, and, for the most part, Over The Rhine make good on that statement.
Fueled By Ramen
Southern pop-rockers Paramore are the kind of band that err on the digestible side of rebellion. Like ‘emo’ rockers Jimmy Eat World before them, Paramore’s music falls along the teen-friendly punk spectrum but, uniquely, they remain credible in a way that eludes similar bands. This may be thanks in part to the inclusion of ketchup-haired frontwoman Hayley Williams whose voice, an effervescent yet gritty coupling, hits all the right notes and gives Paramore a female edge over all-male competitors without the empty bravado of Avril Lavigne. Despite being voted Kerrang! magazine’s #2 Sexist Female, a dubious if lucrative honour, Williams has dismissed the importance of her gender, claiming that Paramore’s only aim is to produce good music. Indeed, one thing is certain: they know how to make some damn catchy songs.
Riot!, the band’s unambiguously named follow-up to their debut, All We Know Is Falling, lives up to its name within seconds of pressing play. ‘For A Pessimist, I’m Pretty Optimistic’ spurts into being, breathlessly introducing Josh Farro’s lead guitar and brother Zac Farro’s signature crashing drums. The title of the track, referring to Williams’s moral victory over a disappointing ex, could well be regarded as a summation of the band’s take on the ostensibly doom-laden emo genre, which seems rather perky if compared to anything by The Cure. Oddly enough, Williams has cited the gothic quartet as a personal influence, though Paramore’s youthful, confrontational style owes little to Robert Smith’s more lyrical brooding.
‘Misery Business’ and ‘Crushcrushcrush’, two of the album’s singles, promise to have listeners fumbling for the repeat button. The former, a brilliantly cathartic song inspired by a manipulative girlfriend, explodes into frenetic guitars punctuated by Zac Farro’s drums about a minute from the track’s close before Williams successfully wrests the spotlight back to her vocals. Similarly, ‘Crushcrushcrush’ exhibits some masterly drumming and equally defiant lyrics but with a subtlety that is perhaps more accessible to newbie rockers. Skipping the sickly ‘We Are Broken’, the jaunty ‘Fences’ has a whiff of bluegrass and a warning about the perils of fame, all while hinting at the band’s genesis as a funk covers outfit. ‘Hallelujah’, meanwhile, is a radio-friendly but not unappealing guitar-flecked tune.
With the exception of Paramore’s rather un-rock ‘n’ roll stance on using the Lord’s name in vain (Williams apologised to fans for the use of ‘god’ in ‘Misery Business’), the album’s only faults arise from the limitations of its genre. Though producing some infectiously memorable tracks, it is questionable whether the band would remain sufficiently distinctive were they fronted by a man. Inevitably, too, Paramore’s brand of punk is rather teen-centric, so for those of us who have graduated from uncomfortable adolescence into perhaps more experienced forms of angst, Riot! could be a miss.
There’s Something We’ve Been Meaning To Do •••½
Blocks Recording Club
On their debut album, Toronto’s The Phonemes unveil their own version of an indie film soundtrack full of lovingly assembled acoustic harmonies and ear-catching sounds. When a record opens with the lyrics “oh I met a man who thought he was a tree” (‘Tree’), a certain fascination with what is to come is pretty much guaranteed. With only a few simple chords filling the spaces between what is almost a completely vocal number, it makes for an affecting start to an album that sweetly enchants and ensnares your attention.
As ‘Tree’ merges almost seamlessly into the beautiful, lyrically inventive ‘Pain Perdu’, The Phonemes continue to impress with elegant melodies and a liberal sprinkling of surprising touches. Take ‘Easter Suit’ and ‘Wedding Suits’, for instance; the former’s savvy a cappella breaks and feisty protestation lead into the latter’s vividly descriptive lyrical tale with barely-there backing. Then, if the softness of the preceding songs has lulled you into a false sense of security, be prepared for the comparatively rough-edged ‘Municipality’. Vocalist Magali Meagher (former guitarist for The Hidden Cameras) unleashes her best raspy vocal for ‘Kim Rogers’ with splendid results.
Further surprises await with ‘Lewis’, a much more instrumental song that effectively conjures the colourful image of a Spanish dance troupe commanding the floor, and the angelic Anglo-French delight ‘Plate Dance’. With its gently alluring pull ‘Oh Sleep’ brings proceedings to a perfectly apt conclusion. If this is what The Phonemes have been meaning to do, be glad that they’ve finally gotten around to it and hope that procrastination doesn’t get the better of them again.
Ping Pong Bitches
It’s nigh on seven years since Malcolm McClaren protégés Ping Pong Bitches released their self-titled debut EP on Alan McGee’s Poptones label. In that time the Bitches have parted company with McClaren, Poptones and original member Mandy Wong and reinvented themselves as a four-piece. Why it’s taken them so long to release their first full-length album is a mystery, and what’s also somewhat surprising is that a couple of songs from that first EP are still knocking around, albeit apparently re-recorded (although ‘Rock Action’ still features the original guitar riff by the presumably McClaren-recruited Steve Jones).
Okay, so ‘Rock Action’ and ‘Beat You Up’, the other oldie, are among the best track on the album and provide the finest examples of the electro rock/techno punk that was the Bitches’ original ethos. The rest of the album, whilst retaining the electro feel, is often rather more pop than punk – perhaps the influence of the owner of their new label, Mark Moore, formerly of S’Express, who signed the Bitches as his first artists.
That’s not to say that Alphadog is a bad album by any means. Founding members Emily Hell and Louise Prey share the lead on the majority of tracks, their voices complimenting each other and the eclectic backing with seemingly little effort. They spout their abject nonsense with a conviction and apparent glee that rapidly becomes infectious. Once you’ve established that the Ping Pong Bitches are, hopefully intentionally, a great long string of clichés and definitely not to be taken too seriously, thus allowing yourself to hear lyrics such as “Feel the beast, feel the beast in me / come on baby won’t you set me free” (‘The Beast’) or “Gimme gimme gimme your rock action / harder harder harder” (‘Rock Action’) without guffawing, you can then settle down and begin to feel the throbbing – see they’ve got to me – bass riffs and disturbingly catchy synthesisers to full effect and start to think to yourself, perhaps slightly grudgingly, that this is actually pretty good. Even a cover of Honor Blackman and Patrick MacNee’s 1990 chart hit ‘Kinky Boots’ succeeds against the odds.
Overall, it’s a well-produced record with a full sound that never seems cluttered despite the vast array of instruments and sounds (including a touchtone telephone on first single ‘Roc Ya Body’) and if you can ignore the rock clichés, cartoon schoolgirl innuendo and the fact that you have no idea if this is post-modern disco, futuristic dance punk, retro techno rock or some hitherto unknown but entirely obvious new genre, it’s at worst inoffensive and at best thoroughly entertaining.
Home To You •••
Diesel Motor / Nettwerk
A maxim of reviewing is not to come to an album laden with preconceptions, especially when they’re positive ones. It’s doubly galling when they end up being dashed. Canadian alt-folk, punk-bluegrass combo Po’ Girl, who number Trish Klein of The Be Good Tanyas among their ranks, come with a favourable prejudice-inducing reputation as a kickass live act. Indeed, I found myself expecting Home To You, their third album, to be a smiliarly high-energy mix of modern Americana.
The reality, however, is somewhat lacklustre. ‘Shades Of Grey’ opens on a promisingly laidback country footing, containing touches of all the genre’s best elements – great songwriting, affecting harmony vocals, subtle banjo and fiddle. ‘Drive All Night’ is less encouraging, and it’s here that we identify a number of problems that recur throughout the album.
It’s understandable that a band like Po’ Girl might want to keep their music on the raw side. But there’s a thin line between raw and just plain rough. Too many songs on Home To You fall the wrong side of that line. Vocals that might have harmonised with a bit more work seem to clash, competing rather than complementing. And, sure, clarinet is an odd choice of instrument for a solo but that’s something I can go with – what’s less appealing is the mistimed pizzicato of Diona Davies’s violin, suspect tuning and the “let’s just stop” endings.
Over the course of the album the couldn’t-care-less vocal delivery on songs like ‘Nine Hours To Go’, ‘Angels Of Grace’ and the title track becomes a little tedious. More songs like ‘Shades Of Grey’, ‘To The Angry Evangelist’ and ‘Ain’t Life Sweet’ would have been welcome. Home To You is a good, if patchy, album, but a band as interesting and gifted as Po’ Girl should have delivered so much more.
The Puppini Sisters
The Rise & Fall Of Ruby Woo ••••
Universal Classics & Jazz
Little over a year since they set concert halls the country over alight with their quirky, close-harmony covers of well-loved 1940s numbers and bold adaptations of more modern classics such as ‘Wuthering Heights and ‘I Will Survive’, The Puppini Sisters are back with a back. With a new look, a new sound and even a few self-composed Puppini belters, the ever so stylish trio of Marcella Puppini, Kate Mullins and Stephanie O’Brien have clearly put a lot of energy and thought into their second release. The Rise & Fall Of Ruby Woo (named after the favoured shade of lipstick of Cure singer Robert Smith) is a much more daring venture than their debut Betcha Bottom Dollar, concentrating on the ups and downs of amour, besotted bliss and disintegrations.
Over several listens it becomes clear that the sequencing of the songs holds a genius all of its own, reflecting a twisted and fascinating storyline, the interdependence of the songs adding to the moody and authentic feel of the album. We are straight in with ‘Spooky’, known to most through Dusty Springfield’s version. A prominent and urgent double bass sets the haunted scene before the Puppinis chime in with those signature tight harmonies. The pace is fast and the band clearly revel in the uptempo swing with drum solos, close-mic’d string arrangements and a whole lot of attitude from the girls. Double bass is also prominent in the Bangles cover ‘Walk Like An Egyptian’, accompanied by subtle, almost lingering drums. The thrillingly different arrangement – unusual harmony intervals, Eastern-sounding instrumental interludes with a Jewish tough, obstreperous vocal interplay with a male choir – gives this girlgroup classic a whole new touch. The rather old-fashioned ‘Old Cape Cod’ is tackled at a much slower pace, complete with legato accordion chords, and is much more in line with the work we know from Betcha Bottom Dollar. The Puppinis trill in perfect harmony with dynamics worked out to the tiniest details. Impressive stuff.
As promised in last year’s Wears The Trousers interview, the girls have started to pen their own songs. ‘Soho Nights’ is the first of five self-composed works on the album and features some interesting chord and harmony choices as the fast-moving guitar and rhythmical double bass gives the song a Spanish flavour. It’s a quick-witted composition, recorded in such a way that puts the listener directly into the room, making them feel the beat of the pounding drums. The brilliant ‘I Can’t Believe I’m Not A Millionaire’ picks up the same close-mic’d delicate feel. Much bluesier, with lazy, sexy vocals, it has a sarcastic tone and oozes comic despair: “Look for my limousine / once more it’s not there / I can’t believe I’m not a millionaire”. ‘Jilted’, ‘And She Sang’ and ‘It’s Not Over’ are equally worthy and show a great deal of attitude, bent notes, sporadic percussion and, most importantly, strength.
There are some genius covers on this album, old and new. Certainly worth mentioning is the adaptation of Beyoncé’s ‘Crazy In Love’. The Puppini Sisters have managed to turn an instantly recognisable song into a musical Puppininised wonderland. Jazzy drums, tight vocals and a touch of Argentinian tango flair make for a bold but clever arrangement. All in all this is another great album from the London-based trio. It’s great to see the Puppinis heading into trickier territory, writing their own songs, implementing bolder arrangement and recording techniques, and moving away from what some people might see as a cabaret version of the Andrews Sisters. Because, really, these girls are so much more.
Filed under: album, back issues, review | Tags: alex ramon, andy wasley, anna claxton, britney spears, carly simon, chris mccrudden, claire robinson, hugh armitage, jessica simpson, lucie silvas, marnie stern, mavis staples, mia silvas, nina simone, patti scialfa, patti smith, rod thomas, russell barker, sahara hotnights, sally shapiro, santa dog, sara silver, scott millar, sharon kean, she's spanish i'm american, shivaree, sia, sister vanilla, softlightes, solveig slettahjell, spice girls, stars, sugababes, the sounds, the supremes, thomas atkinson, trevor raggatt
The following reviews were published on our old MySpace blog in 2007.
What If Leaving Is A Loving Thing? ••••
Stand By Your Band
Over the course of their three-album career Sahara Hotnights have steadily perfected their craft, growing more confident in their playing, performance and their subject matter. Now, more than ever, the girls are mixing it up. By not having written with a specific audience or genre in mind and instead just seeing where their songcraft might take them, they’ve become an altogether more tantalising prospect. Lyrically, too, their growth is not just noticeable but pretty impressive. The writing on What If Leaving Is A Loving Thing? is by turns as playful, allegorical and sensitive as you could ask for from a pop-rock outfit, and always appropriate to the feel of the music.
Sahara Hotnights have clearly done their homework this time around, tapping into the 1980s with enthusiasm and retrieving polished gems like the ditty-like ‘No For An Answer’ with its killer intro and the focused, Blondie-esque ‘Static’. Updating to a more contemporary pop template, first single ‘Cheek To Cheek’ stands out as a commercially viable dancefloor hit and mark the band out as a Gossip-like success story waiting to happen. ‘Salty Lips’ and ‘Neon Lights’ accentuate the band’s willingness to experiment in the noble name of fun, the former even throwing in some country stylings for good measure. If the premise of ‘Puppy’ – using the life of a dog to describe a relationship – sounds a little cheesy, try to let it slide and you’ll soon fall for the song’s catchy charms.
Of course, for all their new-found lightness of touch the girls have not forgotten how to rock and they make their point from the very beginning; opening number ‘Visit To Vienna’ builds upon a classic pop-rock melody to reach a noisy, climactic finish before the band change gears and smoothly transition into ‘The Loneliest City Of All”s calmer, more lyrical climate. If by the time the closing number ‘If Anyone Matters It’s You’ rolls around you’re still not impressed, this suspenseful, touching ballad might well change your mind.
If leaving really is a loving thing be prepared to revisit this well-crafted album often, if only for the sweetness of every small departure.
Bristol quartet Santa Dog could be – actually, make that ‘should be’ – luxuriating under a confident next-big-thing banner. In their relatively short lifespan the band have developed quite a knack for savvy, sparkling indie pop over a series of well-received EPs. Unsurprisingly the cream of the EP tracks have made the step up onto the full-length album, and it certainly doesn’t hurt that they’re laden with more hooks than an angler’s rucksack.
‘Belle De Jour’ is a luminous celebration of young love but with words more insightful than is usually lavished on this type of song, while the janglesome ditty of ‘Chemical’ is given an undercurrent of darkness with its chilling and unsettling lyric. The new songs, too, are pretty stellar. ‘Big Bang’, ‘Yeah Yeah Yeah’ and ‘Are You Tough’, for instance, shine just as brightly as what has come before, boasting choruses guaranteed to get you singing along or absent-mindedly humming at the bus stop.
The jewel in the Santa Dog crown of excellent writing and infectious, inventive guitar is lead singer Rowena Dugdale’s vocals. Her strong sassy delivery is pitch perfect in tone and attitude, inhabiting the songs and granting them life. Where she pulls the mood down on songs like ‘Rosa’ or ‘West Coast Boy Racers’ it’s a voice which still holds the listener’s attention front and centre; just estuary enough to claim Britpop authenticity.
With Kittyhawk, Santa Dog have offered up a welcome alternative to the increasingly derivative, male-dominated indie pop that has dominated the charts in recent years. With a shimmer evocative of Belle & Sebastian via Blondie, with a little bit of Echobelly to boot, this is excellent, honest guitar pop that, like any good dog does, deserves its day in the sun.
Play It As It Lays •••½
While her husband’s latest dose of Magic (on which she features as a member of the venerable E Street Band) has been released to the usual flurry of publicity – though not universal critical acclaim – Patti Scialfa’s third solo album Play It As It Lays has slipped out quietly, without fanfare. This is a genuine shame. Scialfa seems destined to be identified solely as Mrs. Springsteen, but the solo albums she’s produced since 1994 – Rumble Doll, 23rd Street Lullaby and now this one – have each been classy, intelligent, well-judged efforts deserving of much greater recognition than they’ve received. Play It As It Lays may be a somewhat tamer, more subdued affair than the funky and consistently strong 23rd Street Lullaby, but it remains an elegant and engaging collection that sees Scialfa continuing to establish herself as a vocalist and songwriter of note.
Co-produced by Scialfa, the album favours a classic rock sound, with soulful and bluesy touches, based around electric and acoustic guitar, organ and drums. There’s some weaker material amongst the ten tracks – in particular, ‘Rainy Day Man’ and ‘Bad For You’ fail to catch fire – but there are also several genuine gems. Opener ‘Looking For Elvis’ turns potential cliché – “I’m looking for Elvis down a Memphis road” – into a compelling existential quest, with Scialfa’s disillusioned narrator seeking a way “to rise up from these ashes”. Augmented by pleasing girl-group harmonies, ‘Like Any Woman Would’ is the album’s slinkiest, most 23rd Street Lullaby moment, and the infectious, rocking ‘Town Called Heartbreak’ is an immediate standout. Elsewhere, the deceptively gentle ‘Play Around’ bids a sharp farewell to a lover and the graceful title track finds Scialfa relinquishing her quest in favour of mature acceptance and resolve. Closing the album is the short, spare ‘Black Ladder’, a touching reaffirmation of long-term-relationship bonds.
Even when the music tends towards the derivative or uninspired, Scialfa’s expressive and inviting vocals draw you in and her lyrics remain extremely perceptive throughout. She’s an observant, skilful songwriter, as well as a wonderfully literary one, unafraid to drop references to Tennessee Williams’s ‘The Rose Tattoo’, Sylvia Plath’s ‘The Bell Jar’ and John Steinbeck’s ‘East of Eden’. (The album also takes its title from a Joan Didion novel.) Alongside her compelling lyrics and distinctive vocals, her awareness of American traditions – both musical and literary – helps to elevate Play It As It Lays beyond pleasant AOR and makes it an album that’s more than worthy of your attention.
Disco Romance ••••
The latest fragile voice to contrast Scandinavian glumness with a thumping four-to-the-floor beat, Sally Shapiro is following in footsteps left in the snow by artists such as ABBA, The Cardigans and Bertine Zetlitz. Her debut, Disco Romance, is no surprise in this respect, being an album of plaintive synth-pop marked out by barely-there vocals that have invited liberal comparison to Annie, pop-bloggers’ hot tip of 2004.
Unlike the cute but resolutely individualistic Annie, however, Shapiro’s music is much easier to peg within a wider movement: Italo-disco. This micro-genre brought us, at one end, Italian producer Giorgio Moroder’s peerless experimentations with European proto-dance music with Sparks, Donna Summer and even The Three Degrees, and ‘Boys Boys Boys (Summertime Love)’ at the other. Disco Romance is, fortunately, closer to Italo-disco’s beginnings than its end: pop music that manages to be both sweet and synthetic without ever being saccharine.
Opener ‘I’ll Be Your Side’ sets the scene, with its icy, almost menacing electronic backing offset by Shapiro’s delicately balanced vocals. The muted hi-NRG beat and sprinkling of vocoder strongly recalls Giorgio Moroder’s early work. ‘Time To Let Go’ flirts with Euro pretension with a French spoken-word intro before ripping its backing straight out of Visage’s back catalogue, though once again the vocals are calculated to charm rather than unsettle. ‘Anorak Christmas’, a title that could have been stolen straight from a Saint Etienne album, also borrows heavily from the lexicon of synth pop, yet does so without feeling secondhand, while ‘I Know’ could be fellow Scandinavians Röyksopp having donned their dancing shoes.
As an album which nods so wholeheartedly to a genre’s past and encompasses so many direct references to its contemporaries, Disco Romance could never be described as groundbreaking. Its ability to synthesise so many different voices in the course of just over half a dozen songs in a way that never appears crowded or contrived is, however, still impressive. The fact it numbers just seven original compositions padded out with remixes is less praiseworthy. While a glut of US-style bonus tracks tacked on to the end of the album would be unwelcome, the overall package does feel thinner than it should. Furthermore, although much is made of Shapiro’s crippling shyness (she refuses to perform live) in publicity material, as a physical body of work Disco Romance begs the question of whether she is a tortured artist or just plain idle.
Work ethic gripes notwithstanding, Disco Romance remains an accomplished example of contemporary pop music that shows European miserabilism can still hold its own on the dancefloor against the onslaught of American booty shaking tunes. The fire-and-ice binary opposition of Scandiavian pop music may be a cliché, but this record shows that it – like many other well-worn phrases – contains a lot of truth.
She’s Spanish, I’m American
She’s Spanish, I’m American EP •••
It’s perfectly understandable; you up sticks from Nashville, immerse yourself in the Spanish lifestyle and release a quirky (and brilliant) album called Subtitulo on which your new better half, the native singer and artist Paz Suay gets a bit part. You drink a little more sangria, sleep through a few more siestas, take your girl on a tour of the States and, hey, what about a side project? Go on, just a little EP? It has disaster written all over it, or it would have if it wasn’t for Josh Rouse’s quality control, which rarely lets him down. Let’s not ignore the truth here; this is a vanity project, a classic case of ‘we can, so ner’, but thankfully Rouse doesn’t blot his copybook and Suay does have a lovely voice.
The songs are immediately identifiable as Rouse; slow-burning, beautiful verses that explode into middle eights and choruses that you can’t help but smile and tap your feet to. The percussion is subdued, guitars are locked tight into a ’70s groove and the humour is upfront but subtle. The usual element of melancholy appears lacking; it must be love.
Opener ‘Car Crash’ relives the couple’s ordeals at the hands of New York cabbies, something those of us lucky enough to survive similar experiences can attest to. ‘Jon Jon’ is Suay at her beguiling best, and it’s not difficult to hear why Rouse would want to sing with her. But the real clinchers are the third and fourth tracks. ‘The Ocean Always Wins’ opens with Spanish chords and that classic Rouse drum sound; at 1:26 a string flourish rolls you into a chorus propelled by single bass guitar notes before plunging back into Suay’s repeated “la la”s – it’s all there and it’s all good. ‘These Long Summer Days’ sounds exactly like its title. Harmonies weave through a prominent hi-hat and pulsing keyboard and Rouse waxing about being sick of “all this jive jive talking” before we “head down to the beach and escape”. You can almost see the kids playing in the broken fire hydrants.
‘Answers’ finishes on a faster note and your 17 minutes is up. It’s fun, it’s melodic and neither artist disgraces themselves. Those of us who already follow Josh Rouse will wonder whether this marks another habitual change in musical direction and what the new album (released later this year) might have in store. Those new to both Rouse and Suay will put ‘These Long Summer Days’ on their summer holiday playlist and envy their seemingly effortless alliance. File under fun, but hope it’s a one-off.
Tainted Love: Mating Calls & Fight Songs •••
It’s not often that songs by R Kelly, Gary Glitter and Mötley Crüe are found on the same album. Collecting the hits of controversial rock ‘n’ roll stars and transforming them into love songs is a bold move, and the result is interesting to say the least. It’s clear from this collection of covers that the Shivaree concept of what constitutes a love song isn’t particularly traditional – singer Ambrosia Parsley’s dulcet tones mould this eclectic lot into something unique. And with a voice that alternates between honey-sweet tones and a demeanour that’s as calculating and cool as the wickedest of witches, the overall effect is a bit unnerving.
Parsley’s wicked glint is surely present in the choice of a love song from recently disgraced paedo-rocker Gary Glitter. Equally unsettling is the presence of Ike Turner’s ‘My Heart Belongs To You’, given the notoriety of his relationship with Tina. Glitter’s ‘Hello! Hello! I’m Back Again’ is probably the most recognisable of the cover versions on the album, which isn’t saying much – even the most dedicated fan would struggle to extract the original from the Shivaree version.
Mötley Crüe’s ‘Looks That Kill’ is almost unrecognisable after its revamp, which exchanges power rock for an enchanting spaceman orchestra effect. Elsewhere, Michael Jackson’s ‘Don’t Stop ‘Til You Get Enough’ sounds like it’s being played underwater, with Parsley’s floaty vocals bubbling up to the surface every now and then as the song is slowly drowned. It’s all rather sinister. Fortunately, Chuck Berry’s ‘I Wanna Be Your Driver’ is a more light-hearted affair – a punk rock rampage that lets off some Shivaree steam.
Parsley is perhaps best known for her stint on the Air America radio station where she hypnotically read the news for a while. Her eerie vocals will also be familiar to anyone who made it through to the end of the ‘Kill Bill’ films – Shivaree’s darkly brilliant ‘Goodnight Moon’ from their memorably-titled debut I Oughtta Give You A Shot In The Head For Making Me Live In This Dump plays over the closing credits. As clever and kooky as this oddball collection of covers may be, it isn’t going to redefine Parsley, or her band. Ultimately, this album is barely a patch on the three that came before it but still worth spending some time with.
Lady Croissant ••••
Pity the poor chillout diva. Scorned by everyone but sofa commercial directors and the Ministry Of Sound mixers who mangles her efforts to make second-rate compilations, she is, unless she can disco dance her way out of the dumper Goldfrapp-style, an underrated creature. Shara Nelson, Martina Topley-Bird, Róisín Murphy: the list is longer than the tracklisting of a Ministry comp and twice as depressing. Sadly, we can also add Sia Furler’s name to the list.
Perhaps best known for her collaboration with downbeat dance maestros Zero 7, Sia has had the misfortune to have been crowned a pop queen-in-waiting several times since her debut, Taken For Granted, in 2000. Widespread fame, however, has not followed acclaim for Furler, whose rawly melancholic records are ill at ease in a mass market that prefers the Katie Melua brand of ‘reheat and serve’ sadness.
Recorded live at The Bowery Ballroom, New York, in front of the maniacally enthusiastic crowd that is the sad hallmark of an ‘under-appreciated’ artist, Lady Croissant is very much a fan record, though no worse for it. Over a brief nine-song set, Sia’s expressive, if occasionally muddy, vocals hold their own over a lush backing that swaps electronica for old-fashioned strings and guitars. The result, like so many of the better live albums, captures an artist with a past and a back catalogue to plunder at a moment of reflection.
The record opens with a studio recording of ‘Pictures’, a number whose Sesame Street-like jauntiness sets an odd tone until it becomes clear that its major key coats a story of everyday heartbreak. First live track ‘Don’t Bring Me Down’ – a standout number from Colour The Small One, Sia’s most garlanded and personal album – brings us back to more familiar territory. One of those rare songs that makes misery magnetic rather than depressing, it tears up the dual-voiced delicacy of the recorded version in favour of a reading ripped straight out of the torch song rulebook.
This atmosphere of emotional smoke stays with us for the rest of the set, which includes a straightforward if well-received version of Zero 7 collaboration ‘Distractions’ and a rather more impassioned ‘Destiny’. The show’s real star turn, however, is its three-song coda, where lullaby ‘Numb’ gives way to a brave cover of The Pretenders’ ‘I Go To Sleep’, which exchanges Chrissie Hynde’s urgency for something more bruised and aching. ‘Breathe Me’, the song used to such dramatic effect as a ‘Six Feet Under’ season closer, completes the cycle as its hymn-like poise disintegrates into an impassioned conversation between voice and cello.
As an adult pop artist cast adrift in a music business that prefers 21 year olds to serve us up low-calorie heartache, Sia will probably never reach the mass audience she deserves. On the evidence of Lady Croissant, however, this could be a blessing, leaving her free to explore richer, more resonant territory in the company of an appreciative cult. For once, there might be something in being a ‘best-kept secret’.
The Same Side ••½
Lucie Silvas is young, gorgeous, talented and creative – a UK pop aristocrat in a world belonging to Simons Fuller and Cowell. Just take a look at her extracurricular songwriting credits: Will Young, Rachel Stevens, Gareth Gates and others. Discounting 2000’s abortive attempt at starting her own pop career, The Same Side is Silvas’s second official album, the follow-up to 2004’s platinum-selling Breathe In. But wait, there’s something a bit odd going on. Originally slated for release last autumn, The Same Side has taken quite some time in reaching our shores. A test run in The Netherlands saw a number one hit single with ‘Everytime I Think Of You’, a gargantuan power ballad duet with Marco Borsato, winner of Best Dutch Artist at the TMF awards for 11 (!) consecutive years (not included here). But the first UK release ‘Last Year’ sank without so much as a whimper while second single ‘Sinking In’ couldn’t live up to its title in the consciousness of the great British public.
Without the duet’s full-frontal dual high rock vocals, the rest of the album is full of gentler pop songs coaxed along by the lush production of Denton Supple (Coldplay’s X&Y). We see that Silvas is a fine pianist and is clearly in possession of a great voice, but there is something strangely lacking here. ‘Something About You’ stands out, as does ‘Counting’, but the generic adult pop tag is inescapably stamped all over the album in a Kelly Clarkson’s big sis type of way. [As an aside, for the perfect illustration of quite how straight Silvas pens a composition, check out her version of the Metallica song ‘Nothing Else Matters’ on YouTube. It’s all plodding piano, terribly tasteful strings and wiser-than-her-years warbling].
Ultimately, Silvas’s dilemma is to decide whether she’s a twentysomething or a thirty-plus because The Same Side comes down on neither, sitting on the white picket fence that runs right down the middle of the road. Our pop seamstress must watch out for the credible Lily’s and Natasha’s these days and finally deliver some no-messin’ hits. Silvas has got what it takes but someone needs to be tougher on the songwriting as this is no Breathe In. Perhaps she should have called on her ex-boss Gary Barlow for whom she used to sing backup. He’s doing a bit alright these days. Then again, perhaps the UK music world has simply moved on and left young Lucie to enjoy her huge success in Europe, for now.
A Lot Like Me •••
The music industry, sadly, is not democratic, eschewing the all-too-soft principle of providing freedom of access for artists for the more financially rewarding principles of heavy marketing, tight management and ruthless selection (or suffocation) of performers. Thankfully, every so often someone pops along and bucks the dominance of the majors by releasing an album with a plucky little independent label, or even off their own back. Most sink without trace; some persist; others are eventually snapped up by the big companies. It’s hard to say which category Mia Silvas will fall into, having recently negotiated the release of her debut album, A Lot Like Me, through the iTunes store before she has been signed to any label at all.
If the name sounds slightly familiar, you’re probably thinking of Lucie Silvas, who scored a couple of top 10 hits in the UK a few years ago (and is now ‘big in Holland’). Mia is Lucie’s older sister and, although she has not yet hit the charts, she does have considerable musical experience as a session singer and percussionist. Her blog (http://miasilvas.vox.com) makes interesting reading as she works her way through the difficulties of tying down a temping job in a Soho TV post-production company, producing her album and going on her first tour. It’s interesting stuff, and it’s clear that she has invested an enormous amount of effort into her album.
Mia’s main experience is in soft jazz, and A Lot Like Me reflects that. The title track, for example, has a sweetly lilting bounce reminiscent of the Kinks classic ‘Sunny Afternoon’ and is quite typical of Silvas’s relaxed style, ending with a cheeky laugh that almost – almost – sounds unplanned. Her voice is pleasingly versatile, with a considerable alto-soprano range, enabling her to tackle sweetly emotional ballads such as ‘Cry’ and jazzier numbers like ‘Trouble All The Way’, whose chunky bass riffs and jazz organ kicks match Silvas’s warmly husky voice.
The clearest thing that springs from Mia’s debut is potential; with the backing of a sympathetic label and the luxury of larger musical ensembles and more studio time, she could make a serious impact. Sadly she doesn’t have them, and the result is an album that is impressive and refreshingly original, but unlikely to achieve commercial success – if, indeed, that was what she wanted. Perhaps a passing talent scout will pick up on this release and give Mia Silvas the attention she deserves.
Into White •
It’s a double disappointment when an album you’ve been hotly anticipating turns out to be a dud, particularly when it’s from an artist who can usually claim that “nobody does it better”. That’s the case with veteran singer-songwriter Carly Simon’s latest effort, Into White. The concept is promising enough: to revisit some well-loved folk tunes and covers and give them the benefit of Simon’s gorgeous vocals and interpretive skills. After all, it’s a route that’s served her former husband, James Taylor, rather well over the years. Sadly it simply hasn’t worked here. Key to the success of such a project is a killer performance and a sensitivity to the material; here the sounds are either irritatingly cloying and poorly judged. In fact, it’s barely listenable.
Kicking things off with the twee and twinkly title track, Simon more than adequately sets the scene for what follows – a vista that isn’t particularly appealing. That’s not to say that Simon hasn’t tried to mix things up with some bold choices; some songs juxtapose style and content in a move that might well have been a masterstroke had she been more careful. Take ‘Oh! Susanna’ and ‘Jamaica Farewell’, for example. The former combines a nursery rhyme vocal performance with m’biri and marimba and adds what sounds like poorly sampled Irish low pipes on top; rather than a refreshing take on an old traditional standard it better resembles New Age “relaxation” music cobbled together on a Bontempi keyboard. The latter is calypso masquerading as highly strung 1970s folk with some dobro slide thrown in for fun. ‘Scarborough Fair’ suffers a similar fate and, oh dear, it’s not looking good.
‘Blackbird’ is a competent enough Beatles cover, while not even coming close to matching Sarah McLachlan’s ‘I Am Sam’ soundtrack contribution, while ‘I Gave My Love A Cherry’ and ‘You Are My Sunshine’ are simple and warm but excessively sugared. Mercifully, it’s not a total write-off. ‘You Can Close Your Eyes’ features beautiful harmony vocals from Simon’s children, Ben and Sally Taylor, albeit battling against an overly busy piano part, and is probably the only song on the album realistically competing for your 79p. Overall, Into White is a depressingly poor affair with so many vocal performances seemingly phoned in. By the end of the set it’s a struggle not to lose faith in creativity or even the will to live. File under ‘uneasy listening’. Or ‘career suicide’. Whatever.
Remixed & Reimagined [reissue] ••••
Diana Ross & The Supremes
The Remixes ••
During times of political turbulence music can be tremendously demonstrative, effectively identifying the struggles and fashions of its era – one need look no further than the nakedly optimistic songs of wartime Britain to see how music can reflect society’s moods. It should be no surprise, then, that the febrile atmosphere of 1950s America and the struggles of the Civil Rights Movement dominated some of the 20th Century’s most enduring and recognisable musical genres.
Two of those genres – soul and jazz – were great social levellers. In an era when it took a Supreme Court decision to point out the absurdity of racial segregation, and when women were still treated as economically and politically inferior to men, those genres probably did more to promote popular awareness of racial and gender inequality than any number of court cases, books or marches. In the face of the Civil Rights Movement and second-wave feminism, some artists – such as The Supremes and Nina Simone – were already proving that African-American women were every bit as talented and influential as their white male compatriots.
Nina Simone was, lest we forget, a civil rights activist in her own right. In an early example of the defiance that would later catapult Rosa Parks to the forefront of the Civil Rights Movement, in 1943 – at the age of 10 – Simone refused to sing at a school recital until her parents were allowed to take seats on the front row, which they had had to surrender to a white couple. This act of youthful rebellion could all too easily be written off as emotional naiveté, but Simone’s subsequent career consistently proved her emotional commitment to the Movement. Her most enduringly popular song, Billy Taylor’s ‘I Wish I Knew How It Would Feel To Be Free’, encapsulates her views; spiritual, optimistic and unashamedly defiant, it was one of the Civil Rights Movement’s most recognisable and powerful anthems.
While Simone was popularising jazz (she preferred to call it “black classical music”), The Supremes were making waves as Motown’s single most successful group. Signed to the label in 1961, the trio had a profound impact on music in the ‘60s. Hitting the Top 10 for the first time in 1964 with ‘Where Did Our Love Go’, they went on to become the most successful American musical group of the decade, second only to The Beatles as the most successful group in the world. Despite The Supremes’ success, Diana Ross’s secession from the group proved immensely profitable for her and for music in general; between 1969 and 2005 she scored 24 top 10 singles and 11 top 10 albums in the UK and US, becoming one of the most successful female artists of all time.
When performers such as Nina Simone and The Supremes achieve iconic status, remix albums become almost inevitable. This can all too easily prove to be a recipe for short-lived and quickly forgotten collections that add little to the artist’s profile. Sometimes, however, a remix can breathe new life into the artist’s career, introducing the music to new fans and wider audiences.
Nina Simone: Remixed & Reimagined is likely to succeed in this enterprise. Covering some of the High Priestess of Soul’s greatest hits, it’s a clear demonstration of how the distinctive timbre of Simone’s voice can lend itself to a variety of interpretations. From the cavernous sound of the Daniel Y remix of ‘I Can’t See Nobody’ to the intensely sensual Organica remix of ‘Westwind’, full of unsettling augmented chords and a restless rhythm, most of the tracks on this album really do add something to Simone’s exquisitely emotive voice. ‘Go To Hell’ stands out as a particularly powerful track: Mowo’s accomplished remix cultivates this angry song into a magnificently funky opus, treating Simone’s voice with the reverence and panache it deserves. Groovefinder’s remix of ‘I Got No (I Got Life)’ is similarly successful, inflating the song’s optimism with a rich combination of brass and jazz organ layers to create a track whose distinctively festive sound will put a smile on many listeners’ faces. A couple of the tracks – ‘Obeah Woman’ and ‘Turn Me On’ – are simply banal, but most of the remixes are as engaging as they are unique. Only a purist could fail to find something positive to say about this masterful collection.
Alas, Diana Ross & The Supremes: The Remixes fails to reach similar standards. An overwhelmingly average collection of dance-style remixes, the album tends to rely too much on re-sampling and cutting the vocals rather than trying to add new dimensions to the classic performances. ‘Stop! In The Name Of Love’ is typical of this reliance on tired techniques; beset by stuttering drums and needless looped cuts, it cannot match the intelligence or emotional intensity of any of the Simone remixes. ‘Baby Love’, a tooth-rottingly sweet Halfby More Shambles remix, has more bounce than a trampoline and really ought to be consigned to a doomed future in school discos. It’s not all bad, though; the Readymade re-edit of ‘You Can’t Hurry Love’ ensures that the group’s signature tune retains a distinctive Motown sound while still injecting some originality, and DJ Fumiya’s remix of ‘You Keep Me Hanging On’ lends a sophisticated edge to the song, mixing urgent sounding synths with edgy wah-wah brass hits to create a futuristic track that should intrigue even the most ardent of Motown fans. These two tracks cannot rescue the album, however, for although some are superficially interesting the bulk of the remixes here tend to irritate rather than to inspire.
It’s a shame, really. Inspiration is what both Simone and The Supremes were all about. Trendsetters in their own genres, civil rights heroines and ground-breaking musicians, their music deserves to be heard and to be treated with respect. Good or bad, these albums might just introduce the artists to a wider audience and for that reason alone are worthy inclusions in their canon.
A Public Affair •
Can you imagine what a song called ‘Push Your Tush’ might sound like? Perhaps a little disco homage to line dancing? You thought so? Then I suggest you hotfoot it down to ‘the mall’, buy this CD and read no further. You will only be offended, and I get enough hate mail as it is.
Let’s face it. This was never going to be pretty. Even those unfortunates who were once suckered into Simpson’s world have turned against her on the basis of her latest effort. Surely this is a sign that enough is enough. Someone let this mass of big, blonde hair and low necklines release four albums before this one and it’s scarcely believable that she’s back for yet another round of trying to convince the world (or pubescent boys at least) that a tight arse in a pair of hotpants is a substitute for real talent. True, on the premise of being a role model, she may have nice white teeth, ‘pioneer’ the fashion and film industries and even take her multi-tasking skills to volunteer in Kenya, but give us booze hound Britney any day. At least she’s real.
Seriously, though, the spectacle of A Public Affair is utterly repulsive. I’m all for using femininity for getting what you want out of life, but here is a woman who generally epitomises all that is dated about the fairer sex. The kind of rubbish you might expect from an album largely inspired by a post-reality TV divorce settlement, A Public Affair is the sound of hormonal pre-teen girls everywhere cracking open the Ben & Jerry’s and smearing it miserably around their faces as the dream of holding a man with a six-pack slips out of consciousness for another night.
Simpson’s warbling and terrible diction might seem like a lesser concern in the face of all that, but for the rest of us it’s an excruciating chore. From the title track’s naff imitation of the Madonna classic ‘Holiday’ to the heinous ballad ‘Back To You’ – the latter pondering the woe of no longer having a “porch swing for two” – there’s precious little worth paying the slightest bit of attention to.
Unlike Gwen Stefani, who got all funky with her electro/hip-hop master class, or Nelly Furtado who made us go ‘woah!’ with her melodic and fresh take on modern R&B, Ms Simpson’s weapon of choice is, sadly, not her producer but the autotune button. She has an uncanny knack for making many different musical styles sound exactly the same. A Public Affair is alarmingly akin to all the colours of a cheap cocktail pitcher thrown up on the pavement outside and trodden through the bar on the tottering heel of an underage patron.
Little Pop Rock •••½
Sometimes, ‘nice’ can be a curse. ‘Nice’ is forgettable, easily ignored, and will always be overshadowed as soon as anything either great or horrendous rears its head. Little Pop Rock‘s greatest fault is that it is ‘nice’.
Sister Vanilla is first and foremost the brainchild of Linda Reid, sibling of Jim and William Reid, who themselves hail from quasi-famous indie outfit The Jesus & Mary Chain. Rather than stepping out from the shadow of her brothers, Reid has embraced their shade and Little Pop Rock is the result of a collaboration between the three siblings and various friends. It’s ambient. It’s chilled out. And it has more than a hint of Tilly & The Wall, minus the tap dancing gimmick.
Indeed, Ms Reid’s vocals are not unlike those of the Tilly ladies, though perhaps a little stranger and more ethereal. In places, the backing vocals of brothers and friends alike lend a touch of the indie of yore, and, on ‘Delicat’, a quality that is strangely reminiscent of the Beach Boys. Also akin to their Wall-y brethren are Sister Vanilla’s lyrics, which are utterly charming in their quirkiness – “I stuck my finger in a digital pie” sings Ms Reid, somewhat obliquely, on ‘TOTP’. Needless to say, it’s a welcome change from your standard predictable lyrics and mile-long lists of words that rhyme with ‘you’.
Super-limited single release ‘Can’t Stop The Rock’ asserts itself as the strongest track on the album, befitting its Guardian Single of [that particular] Week award. It helps that the lyrics and sentiment are lovely; numerous things might happen to you – “church and state may chase you to the grave” or “you can go broke on your gold credit card” – but you just can’t stop the rock. While it’s never entirely clear what ‘the rock’ is exactly, it makes for a beautiful song. Elsewhere, the sweetly appealing ‘K To Be Lost’ and ‘Pastel Blue’ are among the album’s gems.
Still, as quirky and pretty as Little Pop Rock is, it all comes back to that dread word – nice. You could easily listen to this unassuming album a few times, shrug, say it’s ‘nice’ and forget about it forever more thereafter; it just isn’t engaging enough. More than once during writing this review I actually half-forgot I was listening to it – my own thoughts were enough to drown it out. A really great album has to grab you, to demand attention, and not necessarily by being loud or pretentious either. Sister Vanilla can slip by unnoticed far too easily.
Give it a chance though; it’s something of a grower.
Domestic Songs •••••
Solveig Slettahjell is probably the best jazz vocalist you’ve never heard of. Her three albums to date have drawn plaudits both in her native Norway and around the world, from critics completely under the spell of her sultry voice. New album Domestic Songs (as in literally recorded in her living room) should achieve no less recognition, as Slettahjell purrs and soars through 15 magnificently poetic songs.
Opening track, ‘4.30am’, sets the tone immediately; Slettahjell’s beautifully nuanced performance is imbued with passion and longing, her hypnotic voice and restrained piano set sweetly against occasional light bursts of glockenspiel, all combining to create one of the most faultless pieces of jazz you’ll hear this year. While most of the tracks are pleasingly simple, combining nothing more than piano and voice, some benefit from the rich stylings of the Slow Motion Quintet. Their unsettling interpretation of John Lennon’s ‘Because’ is an excellent point in case: the Quintet’s somewhat sinister performance is set perfectly against Slettahjell’s emotion, with the thrumming accordion foundation, rattling drumstick percussion and freestyle bass all complementing her involved performance with absolute perfection.
There are so many striking elements in this album that it can be difficult to identify its key strengths. The most apparent of these, however, is the intense (and at times tearful) poetry of the lyrics. Nature dominates Slettahjell’s songs, with the vivid descriptions of her community in ‘This Is My People’ painting a magnificently clear picture of her homeland. The sweet lullaby version of the Dorothy Parker poem ‘Inscription For The Ceiling Of A Bedroom’ mixes Slettahjell’s talent for conceptualism with her prowess on the Steinway, creating the first of a trio of bed-themed songs (including the traditional ‘Bed Is Too Small’, aka ‘Lord, Blow The Moon Out Please’, and ‘Baby’s Bed’s A Silver Moon’), each progressively more poetic than the last.
Another strength – indeed, one of the foundations of her skills – is Slettahjell’s judicious use of the Slow Motion Quintet to add just enough variety to her music to achieve precisely the kind of reflective, dreamlike atmosphere she wishes to create. Whether the Quintet dominates a piece – as in the intensely funky ‘Snowfall’ – or whether a smattering of glockenspiel adds a playful touch to a ballad, they are fundamental to Slettahjell’s distinctive style. Few artists can create as fantastical and dreamy a soundscape as Slettahjell, but Charlotte Gainsbourg comes close; that her husky, expressive voice is similar to Slettahjell’s is perhaps indicative of how important that peculiarly seductive timbre is for both of them.
The album’s two standout tracks are more than enough to prove that Slettahjell must rank alongside Diana Krall as one of the most important jazz performers today. ‘Oh, Sweetly’, a close harmony a cappella duet with her brother Olav, impresses with its folksy, hymnic tones, while her version of the Tom Waits ballad ‘Time’ is, quite simply, one of the most stunningly beautiful interpretations I’ve ever heard. If you buy just one album this Christmas, ‘Time’ is more than enough justification for you to choose this one.
Slettahjell places great stock in developing a highly individual style, mixing traditional jazz and blues with some outstanding conceptual work to show off her formidable talent. Blessed with one of the most mesmerising voices in jazz, her emotional range is as impressive as her musical ability. Domestic Songs is a compelling addition to her repertoire; reflective, poetic, and constantly impressive, it is one of the most outstanding jazz albums of the year, and will make a stunning, sophisticated backdrop for the coming winter.
What is there to say of that unpredictable and unstable creature, the cover? On one hand we have unparalleled stinkers from the likes of Atomic Kitten and their heinous ilk, songs that add nothing and detract so much from some once great tracks. Conversely, some of the most beautiful and anthemic songs in existence are covers and offer something that is unique and sometimes even superior to the original (Johnny Cash’s ‘Hurt’ being a fine example). What then can we expect from Twelve, the legendary Patti Smith’s latest studio album and one comprised entirely of covers?
Smith quickly lays to rest any fears there might be that she is past her prime. Her vocals are as good as they have ever been – strong and clear and evincing none of her 60 years. No problem there. The real interest lies in the tracks she has chosen and how she has executed them. In that respect, Twelve is a bit of a mixed bag. Two of her choices are favourites of mine – Jimi Hendrix’s ‘Are You Experienced?’ and Paul Simon’s ‘The Boy In The Bubble’. The first is a pleasant enough rendition, but her attempt to put a different spin on the dulcimer-based latter involves a rather strange cadence that is quite frustrating. Ultimately, both tracks leave you wishing you were listening to the originals instead.
Elsewhere, Smith comes out on top with a truly creepy version of Jefferson Airplane’s ‘White Rabbit’ (featuring Red Hot Chili Peppers bassist Flea) and a creditable rendition of Bob Dylan’s ‘Changing Of The Guards’. Her porch-style version of Nirvana’s ‘Smells Like Teen Spirit’ was always going to divide opinions. I personally rather like it; it’s very different, of course, but manages to capture some of the original’s frantic energy.
Twelve is ultimately let down by some uninspiring renditions of rather predictable covers. Tracks such as Tears For Fears’s ‘Everybody Wants To Rule The World’ and Stevie Wonder’s ‘Pastime Paradise’ aren’t unpleasant to listen to; they just have a habit of washing right over you without making much of an impression. There are no real horrors (á la Joss Stone’s ‘Fell In Love With A Boy’), but nor are there any ‘Hallelujah’s waiting quietly in the wings. The majority of the album simply fails to attract your attention and it’s over before you even realise. We’re a long way from the wild thrill of the seminal Horses. Twelve is not a particularly bad album, just a lacklustre and slightly disappointing one.
Say No! To Being Cool. Say Yes! To Being Happy ••••
Maybe you should never judge a book by its cover but in this instance you can most certainly judge an album by its title; the collection of songs on The Softlightes’ debut album almost equal the inspired magnificence of its sloganeering: Say No! To Being Cool. Say Yes! To Being Happy. But getting past that, the West Coast outfit offer up an album that flits between twee, morose and – despite their proclamations – quite cool, as well as charming to the core.
From the opening moments of ‘The Ballad Of Theo & June’, the Shins comparisons the band have picked up instantly make sense with the slightly sentimental, reflective lyrics and tone, although perhaps the echoes of Death Cab For Cutie and Aimee Mann resonate more. Lead single ‘Heart Made Of Sound’ (which sparked a lot of attention thanks to a brilliant video by director Kris Moyes) follows on perfectly and acts as a great summation of the band and its ideals, effortlessly mixing joyful pop melodies with a wistful delivery and sensitive arrangements.
The Softlightes’ strength lies in creating music that borders on anthemic while still retaining a genuine level of fragility that doesn’t reek of cliché. Throughout Say No!… there’s an underlying conviction that saves certain moments from becoming sickly sweet. At their most twee, The Softlightes deliver album standout ‘Untitled Duet 3′, which nods towards The Guillemots’ breakthrough single ‘Made-Up Love Song 43′ in both name and sound. Notably their least ‘cool’ moment, it is nonetheless a perfect pop song, with a fantastic but simple male/female vocal harmony floating above acoustic guitars and drum machine. More instantly upbeat than even ‘Heart Made Of Sound’, it still retains its touch of heartbreak narrating the tale of two mismatched lovers-to-be. Then, at their most fun, the band pound out the also excellently titled ‘The Robots In My Bedroom Were Playing Arena Rock’ with its tongue-in-cheek use of vocoder and playful jabs at a cod-rock stadium sound. There’s no denying it’s fun or that it bristles with energy and a great sense of humour, but couched among the album’s other, softer songs you might just want to skip it after the first few listens.
The songwriting on display is deceptively catchy with melodies that hang around in the recesses of the mind, combined with lyrics that are uncomplicated, instantly allowing for great singalong moments. That’s not to say that their writing lacks standout lyrics; inside the simplicity are some wonderfully crafted images that really bring the songs home. A careful balance of lack of pretension and musical gift makes Say No!… a land with plenty of gems to mine. This is an album that allows for many listens as the band court your ears for a long-term love affair. Delicate arrangements (save on ‘The Robots…’), subtle but effective programming and an understated electronica edge keep The Softlightes on the right side of soppy. They are gentle, granted, but key moments demonstrate that, given the chance, they still pack one hell of a punch.
Dying To Say This To You ••••
On their second album, Sweden’s The Sounds are here to prove that Europop isn’t an entirely meritless genre, despite the dread the word might fill your heart with. It may be executed pretty clinically, but it’s done with enough style and panache, and more importantly tunes, to avoid an instant rubbishing. As rare as it seems these days to come up with ten consistently good pop tracks destined for the same CD, The Sounds have come up trumps. As is almost imperative with Europop, Dying To Say This To You heavily bears a 1980s influence, and while some people are going to hate it for its polish and efficiency they’re probably the same heathens who moan about the Pet Shop Boys’ lack of soul.
The ideally pitched, vaguely petulant vocals of Maja Ivarsson gives ‘Queen Of Apology’ bite as the band unashamedly mainline the ‘80s best electropop with a brief flash of a Cameo influence, while hi-NRG airplay hit ‘Tony The Beat’ is gloriously over the top with its proto-girl rap of premium entertainment value. Elsewhere, ‘24 Hours’ is singalong pop of the kind Avril Lavigne might make if she were Swedish, revelling in the beauty of its shameless appeal and the pumping beats and piano of ‘Painted By Numbers’ also impresses. The only error of judgement is ‘Night After Night’, that song being far too windswept and grandiose to sit comfortably among the rest of the material
Like fellow Swedish export Robyn, The Sounds have been blatant and upfront about their intentions with this album. That fact that it’s pretty bloody brilliant is a sure sign of a job well done.
Is there anyone left alive who hasn’t been dripfed every last detail of the life of Britney Spears in the last 12 months? I’m starting to doubt it, but in case you’ve been living under a rock or dwelling in caves, or (quite sensibly) just avoiding the world’s media – enjoying your own blissfully ignorant blackout, you could say – here’s a quick recap: a revolving-door attitude to rehab that would make Amy Winehouse dizzy, divorce and ugly custody battles with professional moron Kevin ‘K- Fed’ Federline, a hysterical head-shaving incident, a disastrous TV appearance, attacking people with umbrellas, crashing cars and sending members of the press out to fetch her tampons…things that make you go hmm.
Impressively, Spears has somehow managed to find the time to actually do some work and Blackout, her fifth album coming a whopping (in pop terms at least) four years after the last, is the surprisingly effective result. As befits someone who has, at times, seemed to have a rather tenuous grip on her sanity, Spears has switched to a mad, bad and quite thrillingly dangerous to know brand of electropop. Kicking off with the lead single ‘Gimme More’ (remarkably her biggest Stateside chart hit since ‘…Baby One More Time’), she immediately sets a fairly confrontational tone with the by now infamous greeting “it’s Britney, bitch”, before launching into eleven other tracks that similarly twist and stretch the notorious Spears vocal into something threateningly catchy and really rather good.
Of course, she’s still flogging us that semi-orgasmic nasal sound that now afflicts ‘X Factor’ auditions like the bubonic plague, but Spears remains the original and best at this kind of thing, and with tracks such as ‘Piece Of Me’ (co-written with production team Bloodshy & Avant, writers of ‘Toxic’, and the man behind the recent Robyn album) and ‘Radar’, where she presides over a bouncy electronic waltz with glee, she has two future hits to rival the Britney of old. As ever, Spears’s lyrics rarely tax the listener and there’s nothing’s really changed on that front. Even so, she gets a little nastier with the odd bit of swearing here and there and she has plenty to say about the constant press attention (“I’m Miss Bad Media Karma / another day, another drama” – ‘Piece Of Me’) and her grubby ex-husband (“they couldn’t believe I did it / but I was so committed” – ‘Why Should I Be Sad’, written especially for her by old pal Pharrell Williams), but, above all, she just wants to take her clothes off.
While there’s no denying the still-intact charms of one of the most photographed women in the world in spite of her increasingly erratic behaviour and worrying predilection for velour tracksuits, it seems a little incongruous to try and act the tease after so many pap shots where knickers really would have been a virtue. Even so, it’s good to see Spears eschewing the album-filling ballad of old for a sexier sound that’s a definite step forward for an artist who seemed destined for the scrap heap. Now if she can only combine this return to form with some semblance of normality, while maintaining the impression that she could bite at any time, then she really will have won us over.
Greatest Hits ••••
Let’s get the introduction out of the way. The Spice Girls are the biggest-selling girl band of all time, with over 55 million certified sales worldwide. During their four-year career at the end of the ‘90s, they topped the charts in dozens of countries, challenged the dominance of the increasingly stale sound of Britpop, and sparked the global renaissance of Cool Britannia. Their unique sound inspired scores of bands that followed, contributing a huge influence to the musical backdrop to the lives of a generation of adolescents and young adults. Clearly, their profound influence on British and global musical culture in the mid-to-late ‘90s has given the Girls outstanding nostalgic appeal, proven by the phenomenally quick sale of tickets for their ongoing long-overdue reunion tour.
Like ‘em or not, the Girls are back, hurling that familiar Girl Power philosophy at fans old and new, and spicing up today’s music with a little dose of ‘90s attitude. But, unlike the era’s other comebacks, Take That, the Spices do not intend to reform permanently, instead choosing to offer their millions of fans a true farewell tour with a retrospective of their most enduring hits, both on stage and on vinyl: yes, folks, its finally time for that essential tool of dewy-eyed nostalgia, a greatest hits record.
Showcasing all of the group’s number ones, along with other hits and a pair of new tracks, Greatest Hits is sure to bring memories flooding back for those who can recall the Girls’ unshakeable chart domination. Remarkably, few of the singles seem to have dated all that much; it’s actually quite hard to believe that ‘Wannabe’ first hit the top spot over a decade ago – it sounds as fresh now as it was then. While ‘Say You’ll Be There’ sounds a little more of its time, it too retains the Girls’ distinctive attitude. Even the dreadful harmonica bridge is forgivable. ‘Mama’ and ‘2 Become 1′ will almost certainly chime with those who remember the rite of passage that is the school disco slushy, hormonal slow dance, and some might even remember the Girls’ first foray into advertising with the funkier ‘Move Over’ (Pepsi’s Generation X song), a futuristic tour-de-force full of power chords and snappy lyrics.
It’s hard to choose the best track, but ‘Spice Up Your Life’ has to be a strong contender: its intense Latino rhythm and clarion calls to the nations of the world to spice up their existences provides the Girls with a chance to show off their cheeky characters and distinctive sound, far surpassing much of the samey-samey music becoming increasingly prevalent today.
Sadly the same cannot be said for the new material. Why five women who theoretically have the world’s absolute best pop writers and producers at their disposal would choose to record the likes of ‘Voodoo’ and ‘Headlines (Friendship Never Ends)’ is nothing short of mystifying. Although both are traditional Spice Girls fare, they’re very hard to describe as special. The former, in particular, falls flat thanks to shoddy lyrics and pedestrian club sound. Even Mel C’s familiar Scouse wailing can’t pep it up.
On the whole, though, Greatest Hits is a great platform for a group that may yet have some steam left in them. A rich showcase of arguably the most influential musical phenomenon of the ‘90s, it’s a great addition to anyone’s collection. Let’s face it, we all like a bit of nostalgia; why not try the spicy stuff?
We’ll Never Turn Back •••••
At 10:25am on September 15th, 1963, a bomb exploded at the 16th Street Baptist Church, Birmingham, Alabama, killing four young girls. The atrocity, perpetrated by the Ku Klux Klan, was one of the defining moments of the Civil Rights Movement, an action that galvanised ordinary US citizens of all races and religions into supporting the struggle for freedom and equality. Less than a year later, the murder of three farm hands by KKK thugs in Mississippi caused similar outrage; later the deaths of Civil Rights pioneers such as Malcolm X, Senator Robert F Kennedy and Rev Martin Luther King, Jr., had the same effect. It is sometimes too easy to forget that the Movement paid a price in blood to achieve its goals; Mavis Staples is determined to prevent us from forgetting about it.
Staples is one of America’s most revered female artists, an untouchably talented gospel and blues performer whose soulful contralto voice carries with it the authority of an experienced and determined activist. We’ll Never Turn Back, the follow-up to 2004’s triumphant Have A Little Faith, is her newest attempt to energise ongoing debates about civil rights. Staples has opted for a mix of traditional anthems and modern songs, all supported by no less a backing choir than Ladysmith Black Mambazo.
Mambazo’s rumbling bass proves a perfect foil for Staples’s own virtuoso singing, as she slips effortlessly from high, impassioned notes to guttural growls. ‘Eyes On The Prize’ is a perfect example of how wonderful this vocal matchmaking is; powerful, emotional and spiritual, the song’s exhortation to continue the struggle for equality is a telling choice for an artist whose main market is in a country that seems – recently, at least – to be ignoring such calls. But that’s precisely what Staples wishes to challenge. Her unsettling rhythm ‘n’ blues piece, ‘99½’, brings the Civil Rights Movement right up to date, angrily lamenting the broken levées and homeless babies of post-Katrina New Orleans, and the ineffective response by the Bush administration. The Big Easy makes another appearance in Staples’s longingly hopeful ballad, ‘My Own Eyes’, a clarion call to the Movement to recall the stirring leadership of Martin Luther King.
Of course, no album can be entirely dark and mournful; some judicious use of more cheerful tracks ensures that Staples’s efforts maintain a balance between reflection and celebration. Traditional number ‘This Little Light Of Mine’ makes excellent use of a bright Hammond organ and gospel melody to contribute a welcome note of optimism to the album, while the stirring ‘We Shall Not Be Moved’ recalls the camaraderie and hope of the landmark March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom on August 28th, 1963.
However, the most thoughtful and impassioned piece, ‘I’ll Be Rested’, is solidly reflective, effectively outlining a litany of those who were slain by white supremacists during the struggle, including those who died at the 16th Street Baptist Church. It is dark, to be sure, but Staples ensures that it ends on a hopeful note: those deaths contributed to the momentum that led to freedom for millions of African-Americans. The American Dream, it seems, can come at a great cost.
Dark, optimistic, inspirational and deeply, deeply moving, We’ll Never Turn Back could well be the most important album of its kind to have been released since the turn of the century; the struggle continues, alas. Thank goodness we have the likes of the redoubtable Ms Staples to articulate it in such a powerful way.
Do You Trust Your Friends? •••
Arts & Crafts
Inviting a bunch of talented fellow indie musicians to remix your already excellent album could be perceived as being a bit try-hard. Cynics might even go so far as to say commissioning your own tribute album is a little arrogant. However, there’s no doubt that Stars created a modern masterpiece with their 2004 album Set Yourself On Fire, so why not make the most of it? Or not as the case may be…
Final Fantasy (aka Owen Pallet) ties his violin strings round the original’s standout track and previous single ‘Your Ex-Lover Is Dead’ making it sound like something from Walt Disney’s ‘Fantasia’. While this is admittedly very dramatic it somehow lacks the punch of the original – delicate pianos replace the foreboding double bass and make the whole thing sound overly fragile. The delicate vocals float in mid-air rather than riding the crest of the bass, and much of what made the original such a work of art is lost. It’s not the best start.
Fortunately things get better, although The Dears’ two-part version of ‘What I’m Trying To Say’ seems rather greedy. The first is a crashing rock/synth effort akin to something that Muse might cook up but leaves the drums and echoing vocals rather detached. Then, by the time you get to ‘Part 2′, The Dears have stripped the song down to it’s synth simplicity and taken it upon themselves to add a few of their own instrumental jams, with questionable success. The Stills’s cover of ‘Soft Revolution’ is better – the Wild West hold-up chords and space-age riffs render the song almost unrecognisable. Even the vocals are redone, making the song sound like Pink Floyd at the rodeo.
Elsewhere, Jason Collett (of Broken Social Scene) delivers an excellent bluesy rendition of ‘Reunion’. His deadpan vocals provide a unique slant on the original. Think ‘Sweet Home Alabama’ meets 1980s pop and you’re getting warm. Then there’s Montag’s take on ‘Set Yourself On Fire’, an equally brilliant multi-instrumental filmic piece loaded with drama as it nips in and out of a psychedelic, orchestral trip-hop backing that swirls around Torquil Campbell’s original vocals.
The best remix albums tend to come from collaborations between distinctly ordinary bands, who, by getting together, manage to complete the picture and produce something great. The trouble with Stars is that they already had a brilliant album in Set Yourself On Fire, and giving that to a bunch of their talented indie-geek friends to mess around with really wasn’t necessary. That said, leaving the track listing as per the original was a nice touch, lending a welcoming element of familiarity. It’s just a shame that somewhere in among all the clever tweaks and manipulations many of the songs lose the romance and grandeur of Stars’s own creations.
In Our Bedroom After The War ••••
Following a career-defining album like 2004’s Set Yourself On Fire is a tough proposition for anyone, even for a band with as much talent and originality as Stars. Perhaps that’s why the band’s fourth studio album seems to have been such a long time coming, that and the fact that co-lead vocalist Amy Millan took some time out to record and tour last year’s bruised collection of whiskey-soaked ‘country’ laments, Honey From The Tombs. Happily it seems that the wait has been worthwhile. Although it’s fair to say that In Our Bedroom After The War lacks the unrefined charm and sheer emotional openness of the Stars back catalogue, it nonetheless boasts a fine clutch of angst-ridden songs from the Canadian romantics.
Stars have clearly honed and matured their unique sound during their absence, and perhaps rightly so; the band members now have an average age of well over 30. Maybe that’s why they are a clear cut above most of the teenage indie scamps dominating the current music scene. Millan and her vocal counterpoint Torquil role play the finer and not-so-finer points of falling in and out of love with a convincing reality only available to those who have actually been there, done it, got the blood-stained t-shirts and washed them so many times they’ve become retro. They even poke fun at this fact in the self-deprecating ‘Personal’ with lyrics like “Wanted single F / under 33 / must enjoy the sun / must enjoy the sea”. Here, the band’s trademark dual vocals are at their finest with Campbell’s cold deadpan chant meeting Millan’s plaintive, open-hearted soul in a melancholic tale of love gone grimly wrong – it’s everything you would expect from Stars at their very best.
Although some of the impulsive gung ho lust of Set Yourself On Fire has been ironed out, Stars make up the shortfall with some crushing paeans to tortured romance that take you on a whistle-stop tour of the trials and tribulations of a pair of ponderous, over-thinking lonely hearts. Elsewhere, ‘My Favourite Book’ allows the band a shining moment’s optimism, and there’s no shortage of rocking out either with ‘Take Me To The Riot’ and ‘Bitches In Tokyo’. Nor is there a lack of soul to be luxuriated in- at times it feels as if you could be watching this album projected onto a screen, which is perhaps not so surprising given Campbell’s extensive acting CV.
On the whole the album seems less orchestral than their previous opus – there’s none of the dramatic double bass melancholy of the superb ‘Your Ex-Lover Is Dead’ – and the childish synth flourishes of ‘The First Five Times’ are absent. Never mind. This leaves some wonderful, finely crafted pop tunes and some very delicate ballads that weep like open wounds. Stars, it seems, have opened their musical hearts once again.
In Advance Of The Broken Arm ••
Kill Rock Stars
Marnie Stern is an artist who might loosely be described as a singer-songwriter, but she definitely doesn’t produce the sort music that most often springs to mind from that description, nor from perfectly applicable phrases such as “songs formed in her bedroom over two years”. However, add in the fact that the New Yorker’s debut was produced by Hella’s Zach Hill (who also provides the drums on the album), your expectations might be a little closer to the mark.
In Advance Of The Broken Arm starts as it means to go on with opener ‘Vibrational Match’; after a short, accidental-sounding snippet of chord, Stern kicks in with a frenetic hammer-on based riff that initially makes you sit up and take notice, quickly followed by some equally feverish drumming that sound like Hill’s attempt to apply an equivalent technique, which occasionally toys with the drummer’s traditional role of actually keeping time. When at least three Stern’s worth of vocals join the fray (she provides her own backing vocals throughout the album) you begin to think you’re onto something good here. But …The Broken Arm starts at the top and very quickly descends into more of the same and the quality declines just as rapidly.
By track five, the fantastically titled ‘Put All Your Eggs In One Basket & Then Watch That Basket!!!’, you could quite happily never hear another hammer-on in your life. Although Stern never quite stoops to the fret wankery of ‘80s guitar torturers such as Yngvie J Malmsteen, it nonetheless carries a strong element of concept over songwriting. If this wasn’t enough, Hill’s drumming makes ever more desperate sounding attempts to match Stern’s guitar when perhaps it would all hang together better if he provided a more grounded counterpoint. A final problem is that, once in a while, you make out a snippet of lyric that suggests there’s something worth listening to there; sadly for the vast bulk of the album those lyrics are lost as Stern’s voice struggles to compete with the guitar and its multi-layered self.
Some might hail this album as avant-garde, but ultimately the whole affair is, in reality, somewhat derivative. Besides, there’s a fine line between experimental and unlistenable, which …The Broken Arm too often crosses. If one woman’s attempt to recreate what might happen if Clap Your Hands, Say Yeah collaborated with Stevie Vai after suffering a serious concussion and recording the result in a wardrobe sounds interesting to you, you may well disagree.
Universal / Island
Oh, how we love the Sugababes. Their man-hungry songs; their frequent appearances in the sticky print of red-top gossip columns of the calibre of 3am and Bizarre; their hilarious off-stage internecine bitching and their legendary strops, tantrums and sulks, beloved of Popbitch and its vicarious readership. Love. Them.
Indeed, it could be claimed that the Sugababes owe as much to their soap opera reputation as they do to their prize-winning music for their popularity and – we use the term with a due sense of irony – longevity (only one of the band’s original 1998 line-up remains). Their music has won an astonishing array of trophies and hit singles, including seven number one singles in as many countries, three triple-platinum albums and countless miscellaneous prizes ranging from Capital FM’s 2001 ‘Best Known Secret’ award to Virgin’s 2006 award for ‘Most Fanciable Female’ (for Amelle, the latest newcomer). All pretty astonishing for a manufactured band whose simple, if occasionally suggestive, lyrics and basic electronic sound could easily have led to an eminently forgettable career.
New album, Change, seems set to win new prizes. Among them, an award for ‘Most Apt Title’ should be a sure bet, for it marks a considerable change in direction for the band. The songs’ lyrics have shed their traditional hormonal, boy-obsessed quality, instead taking on a more mature, emotional and, in places, elegiac character. The music, too, sounds more worldly wise. Notwithstanding these tweaks, the Sugababes succeed in retaining their club-friendly, catchy and accessible sound, qualities that they have worked hard to establish and cannot afford to lose.
The Cathy Dennis co-write ‘About You Now’ – the first UK single to hit number one on download sales only – is a fine example of where the girls are at. Although its catchy choruses and basic composition are familiar Sugababes stuff, its heavily bass-laden sound has a more powerful and grown up quality than their last club hit, 2005’s ‘Push The Button’. Similarly, the Xenomania-produced ‘Never Gonna Dance Again’s surging wall of sound and ‘Denial’s persistent bass ostinato and earworm-inducing melody will both find a safe home in clubland, alongside similarly complex work from the likes of Girls Aloud. For those seeking evidence of something a bit out of the ordinary, ‘Back Down’s lush, reggae-inspired sound – oddly redolent of hard-nosed electronica legends, Leftfield – are definitely not the normal ‘Babes fare.
Of course, the Sugababes wouldn’t be who they are without a bit of bubblegum pop trash and Change still sags a bit with forgettable schoolgirl fodder in the form of ‘Back When’ and ‘Undignified’. Overall, though, it’s a welcome addition to the Sugababes’ already formidable repertoire; it is to them as Confessions On A Dancefloor was to Madonna – a pop opus of tub-thumping anthems and refreshingly mature club tracks, and an almighty defence of the band’s claim to be the best-selling female pop group of the 21st Century. Girls Aloud must be quaking in their PVC catsuits.
Filed under: album, back issues, review | Tags: alex ramon, avey tare, chris mccrudden, holly throsby, hugh armitage, june tabor, kria brekkan, kt tunstall, linda thompson, peter hayward, priya thomas, ruth theodore, scott millar, tracey thorn
The following reviews were published on our old MySpace blog in 2007.
An artist who can never be accused of prettifying the darker aspects of folk music is June Tabor. Like Eddi Reader, Tabor has profitably mined the rich seams of traditional and contemporary song over the years, and has recorded her fair share of Burns material; indeed, her new album Apples includes one Burns song, ‘Speak Easy’, in Tabor’s words “an eloquent plea for tolerance and understanding”. But, despite such similarities, the differences in Reader’s and Tabor’s styles are marked: while Reader embroiders her sound with generic folk accoutrements – acoustic guitars, fiddles, pipes – and some smooth poppy filigrees, Tabor has developed a minimalist ‘chamber-folk’ approach – piano, viola, accordion, double bass – which sounds quite unlike that of any other contemporary folk artist and seems to draw from a deeper well. While Apples sees some (very) minor shifts in line-up – with violin/viola virtuoso Mark Emerson replacing Huw Warren on tremulous piano and Andy Cutting’s fabulous accordion playing getting greater prominence – it continues the Tabor tradition of combining an excellent selection of material with exquisite musicianship that provides the perfect setting for her remarkable vocals.
Channelling both ‘Midnight On The Water’ and Richard Thompson’s ‘Waltzing For Dreamers’ – and supplemented by a gorgeous Cutting tune titled ‘Miss Lindsay Barker’ – Andy Shanks and Jim Russell’s ‘The Dancing’ makes for a stunning opener, a deeply evocative portrait of a Saturday night dance and the respite it offers after a hard week’s work at the factory or mill. The Vaughan Williams-collected ‘The Old Garden Gate’ mixes gentle pastoral with startling images of emotional torment, while Lester Simpson’s ‘Standing In Line’ builds a poignant World War I narrative from the image of a “half-empty washing line”. Both ‘I Love My Love’ and the celestial ‘The Rigs Of Rye’ play out tricky tensions between familial duty and romantic opportunity.
Two excellent French-language tracks – ‘Au Logis De Mon Pére’ and ‘Ce Fu En Mai’ – are good value, as is ‘Soldier’s Three’, on which Tabor, accompanied by Cutting’s biting accordion, sounds positively murderous. But people are inclined to forget how much fun Tabor can be, and for proof witness her gleeful delivery on ‘The Auld Beggarman’. Still, there’s no denying that love-gone-wrong remains her favourite theme, as a devastating interpretation of Patrick Galvin’s ‘My Love Came To Dublin’ attests. Christopher Somerville’s haunting ‘Send Us A Quiet Night’ – a sailor’s plea for gentle weather – brings the album to a graceful close.
Approaching her 60th year, Tabor just gets more powerful; there’s not a moment on Apples when you feel that she’s skating over the meaning of a lyric or is less than fully committed to communicating the emotion of a song. The mixture of cool detachment and burning passion that defines her style is extraordinarily compelling. It’s a genuine shame that her wonderful music has been somewhat overlooked in the rush to excavate the work of obscure 1970s folk singers with just a couple of albums between them. Apples is not a smooth or easy record, but it’s a starkly beautiful, endlessly rewarding one that grows richer with each listen.
Avey Tare & Kría Brekkan
Pullhair Rubeye •••
Love may be the inspiration behind more music than can ever be measured, but records made by married couples have something of a chequered history. For every Birkin and Gainsbourg there’s a Lennon and Ono, proving somehow that the intensity of feeling that binds two people together isn’t the same as that which makes for 45 minutes of listenable music. So, given that Avey Tare and Kría Brekkan (otherwise known as Dave Portner of Animal Collective and Kristín Anna Valtýsdottír formerly of Múm) dreamed up Pullhair Rubeye shortly after their nuptials, is the outcome a ‘Je T’Aime (Moi Non Plus)’ or something rather less lovable? The answer is probably a bit of both.
Much of the publicity surrounding the album has centred on the couple’s bizarre last minute decision to reverse the original songs and speed a few of them up, apparently inspired by David Lynch’s ‘Inland Empire’. Those who don’t approve of such whimsy look away now because Pullhair Rubeye is very much the product of two musicians speaking a private, lovers’ language. This is a sonically dense and inward-looking record that eschews anything so conventional as hooks and the foot-stomping psychedelia that marks out Animal Collective’s back catalogue in favour of a sense of twisted domesticity. Throughout these eight tracks recorded in their practice space in Brooklyn, Tare’s skittering guitar converses with Brekkan’s more hesitant piano as sometimes whispered, occasionally squeaky vocals bubble over the top.
The result, when it’s right, is compelling. Tare’s plaintive voice and Brekkan’s simple arpeggios make ‘Opís Helpus’ and ‘Was Ónaíp’ hypnotic and affecting. Elsewhere, ‘Who Wellses In My Hoff’, in which guitar and piano and husband and wife indulge in a kind of musical pillow talk, succeeds in being simple and intricate at the same time. It’s a shame the same couldn’t be said of ‘Palenka’ and ‘Sasong’, which can only be described as a questionable attempt at crossing New Weird America with Alvin & The Chipmunks.
The reversal of the original songs notwithstanding, Pullhair Rubeye teeters on the wacky side of odd. Yet it also showcases the talents of two musicians who, when they apply enough self-discipline, make arresting work, particularly if you re-reverse the tracks (a tactic Tare himself has openly approved of; indeed, four of the re-reversed songs are currently streaming from the duo’s MySpace). With this record, Tare and Brekkan make a valiant stab at becoming the psych revival’s equivalent of Sonny and Cher. It’s good, not great, but nonetheless holds the promise of better things to come.
Worm Food ••••
Ruth Theodore is confused, and a bit angry. People are “packaging and labelling and branding” everything in sight, mobile phones are constantly ringing in her ears, the world is on the fast track to “a new form of Hell” and meanwhile she’s developing a rather nasty allergy. Petite and elfish, Theodore comes across like a righteous woodland spirit writing love songs to trees and railing against the modern mayhem. Her debut album Worm Food is in part a polemic against our miserable capitalist lifestyles, and part a celebration of old school romanticism. Often it’s difficult to tell where one part ends and the other begins.
A rising star of London’s acoustic singer-songwriter scene, Theodore is abundantly talented and, seen live, utterly astounding. She picks away at her six-string at an unbelievable speed, never missing a note, and manages some pretty amazing feats with her voice at the same time. Her lyrics are funny and charming; her music stylistically varied and often surprising. I’ve got a little EP of hers somewhere, but I never thought it captured the brilliance of her live performance and lost it somewhere in my disappointment. Worm Food does much better justice to Theodore’s talent. The recording quality is miles ahead of those homemade demos; you can pick every note out of the gentle but persistent flow. The album’s all-acoustic nature is a fine reflection of her obvious dissatisfaction with the modern world. The styles she experiments with are diverse: some are fun, like ‘Overexpanding’s Spanish-style guitars and the accordion-punctuated, sailor song-like parts of ‘Grounded’ and ‘CO2′. Rash is surprising by the sheer fury and dirtiness Theodore is able to whip up without the help of effects pedals and lashings of distortion. Other tracks are quiet and gentle affairs, perfectly sweet and beautiful songs about love.
Theodore’s voice is distinctive, a very English sounding voice, that sits somewhere between song and speech. It is soft and quite low, but also makes a casual display of hitting all the high notes of ‘Grounded’. Indeed the entire album seems almost effortless. She makes it sound as if making music of this quality is the easiest thing in the world. Perhaps for her it is. The lyrics, though peculiarly phrased, match those familiar thoughts that we have every day, thoughts about love and life and how shit things can be. Her themes, as I said before, cross over in unexpected places. ‘Rash’ and ‘Overexpanding’ are clearly songs of protest, but ‘Grounded’, which initially sounds like a love song, seems to be asking why people can’t just get along with each other. The title track and ‘Home’ might be about either, take your pick.
If this album has a flaw it would not be with the music but the content. One might consider the overarching theme of ‘look at what a mess our world is in’ to be a bit preachy – we don’t need our faces rubbed in it all of the time. But maybe that’s exactly the problem that Theodore is singing about – the ease with which we turn a blind and irritable eye away from the problems we are faced with. Personally, I’m just pleased to finally have a recording that does this wonderful songwriter justice. Worm Food is an essential collection for anyone with a social conscience, all the while enchanting and amusing and causing the listener to fall head over heels for its fey creator.
You & Me Against The World Baby ••••
You & Me Against The World Baby may be the first domestic release from Canadian noisenik Priya Thomas, but it’s actually her fourth album in 10 years back home. Things get off to a rocky start, in both senses of the word, with opener ‘Anything I Want I Can Get Me Some’, a track so generic that you’ll likely be convinced that you’ve heard it before. As loud and raucous as it is formulaic, it may well prove to be something of a live favourite, but here it is fairly forgettable. Fortunately you can do just that if you so desire as the rest of the album reveals a great deal more imagination and talent. That much is clear from just the opening refrains of the deranged and brilliant ‘Motherfucking West’, which, radio-unfriendly title aside, makes for the perfect choice for her first UK single.
Though she rarely strays far from the realms of rock, Thomas demonstrates a far greater range than that particular pigeonhole might at first imply. Her songs are full of enough hooks, melodies and crashing guitar riffs to keep other acts going for several albums. Moving through the trashy sleaze of ‘She Said (Why Were We Born)’ to the pretty pop rock ballad of the title track, Thomas makes damned sure we know what she can do. Perhaps that’s what that first track is all about, almost as if she were saying “sure, I can do this rock-by-numbers stuff if that’s what you want, but wouldn’t you rather have this?”
Wears The Trousers, for one, most certainly would, and with a follow-up album touted for release in the autumn, we won’t have to wait long to see where she’s headed.
Versatile Heart ••••
Despite the persistence of the vocal problems which have made both studio recording and live performance a recurrent challenge over the years (and that throughout the ‘90s seemed to have curtailed her career altogether), Linda Thompson has kept herself remarkably busy since the release of her long-awaited and well-received comeback album, Fashionably Late. Guest spots on records by son Teddy Thompson and Rufus Wainwright and appearances at live shows, including the Leonard Cohen ‘Came So Far For Beauty’ tribute concerts and her own evenings of homage to the Music Hall tradition, have allowed Thompson to build on the momentum created by Fashionably Late and to forge a solo identity distinct from her work with ex-husband Richard on the classic albums they made together in the ‘70s and early ‘80s. The excellent Versatile Heart continues her heartening creative renaissance.
In mood, tone and the warmth of its acoustic trappings, the new album feels very much like a companion piece to the last, and continues the strongly collaborative ethos established by its predecessor. Martha Wainwright, accordionist John Kirkpatrick, and Martin and Eliza Carthy all make appearances, alongside Thompson’s daughter Kamila, and, most prominently, son Teddy, who contributes vocals and guitar work and gets co-writing credits across the album. Combining original material with songs by Tom Waits and Rufus Wainwright, and book-ended by two gentle instrumentals entitled ‘Stay Bright’ (a statement of intent if ever there was one), the album feels all of a piece: the songs are united by the palpable love and respect of the players and by Thompson’s own deliciously sepulchral tones.
The delightful title track begins with Kate Rusby-esque brass and moves into a spry acoustic strum that’s immediately inviting. “Will you write me a letter of recommendation?” Thompson inquires of an unworthy lover. “Say what you think, but please don’t stint on the praise.” The line encapsulates the disarming mixture of emotional candour and dry wit that characterises her songwriter and that of Teddy’s. Their lyrics teem with direct but delicately delivered emotional insights. “Nothing’s worth the holding if you can’t let go,” she muses on ‘The Way I Love You’, a stately ballad that pivots on the narrator’s recognition of her own neediness – “Father, brother, son’s too much for any man to do” – and benefits from Martha Wainwright’s lovely harmonies. Other originals such as ‘Blue & Gold, Give Me A Sad Song’ (penned with long-time collaborator Betsy Cook) and ‘Go Home’ are carefully crafted, boasting strong melodies and yielding more and more on each listen, while ‘Do Your Best For Rock ‘N Roll’ – which commences with the wry command “Take me to a bar and leave me there to die” – adds a pleasing dose of country twang to the proceedings. The tense ‘Nice Cars’, written by Kamila (who also contributes fine harmonies), finds the narrator trapped in a broken down vehicle that may or may not stand for a stalled relationship. “Ladies shouldn’t drive nice cars,” Thompson intones. “They’re only gonna break our hearts.”
Two particularly memorable tracks demonstrate Thompson’s special skills of interpretation. Plaintive strings usher in the elegant, Rufus-penned ‘Beauty’, a bespoke composition that offers a timely disquisition on the title concept, with Thompson wondering “Beauty, what is your face? / what has it given the human race? / all that it has given me is a longing for / pople and things I could never afford.” Halfway through the song, Antony Hegarty (who must surely have broken some record or other for the sheer number of guest appearances in the past year) shows up to add his ubiquitous quavering contribution, one that, unfortunately, is already in danger of beginning to sound somewhat phoned-in. It doesn’t help that his cameo occurs on what is arguably the song’s weakest lyrical moment, as Wainwright’s writing breaks the mood of reflection with some jarring references to Oscar Wilde and Michael Jackson. Nonetheless, the song remains one of the most immediately striking tracks on the album. Tom Waits and Kathleen Brennan’s ‘Day After Tomorrow’ also gets an arresting reading; the song is a heart-wrenching letter home from an American soldier fighting in an unspecified foreign war and beautifully juxtaposes the protagonist’s loss of faith in the conflict with nostalgic memories of hometown routine, and his anticipation of homecoming. Thompson’s spare interpretation gives the song the quality of an ancient prayer.
Despite the formidable art-rock credentials of much of the company she’s keeping here, Thompson is certainly unafraid of showing her folk roots, as evidenced by the “fiddle-da-day” flourishes on her biting rendition of the traditional ‘Katie Cruel’ and especially by the original number ‘Whisky, Bob Copper & Me’, a beautiful homage to English folk traditions that namechecks not only the Brit-folk patriarch of the title but also revival luminaries Shirley Collins and Davey Graham. Here (unlike on ‘Beauty’) the name-dropping sounds easy and natural, and as the unmistakable voice of Eliza Carthy swoops in on one of the verses, a host of English traditions seem to come full circle. It’s a sublimely warm and moving moment, one of many on a very fine record. Ultimately, though, it’s the sound of Thompson’s own voice, with its lovely, sincere, grave quality and subtle expressive power, that makes Versatile Heart such a compelling and enjoyable album.
Out Of The Woods •••½
Change is as good as a rest, right? Hold that thought.
Those of us not afraid to admit to being of a certain generation have been subject to a glut of nostalgia-pricking TV over the last couple of years; think day-glo clad lads messing about on boats in glossy videos, Casio keyboards and message t-shirts. Where the goggle-box goes, the rest of the world usually follows, so welcome back into the musical fold our Tracey, 50% of Everything But The Girl and the voice that lit up a thousand college bedsits with her solo debut A Distant Shore in 1982. Sterling work with Mr Watt, guest spots with Massive Attack and Deep Dish and three children later, and we have…well, we have a follow-up that could have been written in 1983.
Granted, the production values are better and the stories imbued with the additional spice of experience, but bless her, Ms Thorn has taken her own baton seamlessly and provided us with a 44-minute wallow in yesterday. On first listen I scribbled down the following: “Gary Numan, Kraftwerk, Pet Shop Boys, Eurythmics, Alison Moyet (when she was Alf), sunrise chords from Ibiza circa ’84” – a heady mix and a roll call anyone would be justly proud of. Make no mistake, the sound is derivative for those of us who were ‘there’, but we wouldn’t have it any other way because the music is excellent, the lyrics playful and poignant, and a voice that sounds like coming home to familiar faces after an extended business trip.
Name-dropping Siouxsie Sioux and Edwin Starr, laced with quintessentially English melancholy and pulsating dance beats, Out Of The Woods gets better as it progresses through the attics of Thorn’s mind. The single ‘It’s All True’ is fleeting, all tinny synth (Trevor) horns and a clever, Kraftwerk-lite dance video that drives the simple message home. ‘Hands Up To The Ceiling’ is a beautiful shout out to the music of her youth. The opening piano run on ‘Easy’, reminiscent of Ultravox, blurs swiftly into a couplet Thorn delivers with such restrained anguish you want to make her cocoa: “I love the way you breathe / I hate the day you leave / it’s easy to forget / we haven’t even started yet”.
The highlights are kept almost ’til last in ‘Grand Canyon’ and ‘By Piccadilly Station I Sat Down & Wept’. The former will have you attempting to throw shapes on the living room floor to the stomping beat and mantra “…everybody loves you here”; the latter, all the more delicious for its song title (surely a contender for best of 2007), is 2:27 of break-up song that’s both knowing and innocent at the same time. Finally, on closer ‘Raise The Roof’, when Thorn sings “all of those years I wasted / sitting on my own,” I’m not sure who she thinks she’s fooling; she’s been busy alright, and the results are an early contender for the soundtrack to the summer.
Under The Town •••½
Sydney-based singer-songwriter Holly Throsby’s second album Under The Town is very much a companion piece to her debut, last year’s spare and beguiling On Night. Produced, like its predecessor, by Tony Dupe, the record once again places Throsby’s hushed, breathy, intimate vocals in a sympathetic acoustic setting, with guitar, dashes of piano, fiddles and a few jazzy touches fleshing out the sound. Even so, Under The Town is a somewhat more consistent and confident album and one that should see Throsby’s star continue to rise on the alt-folk circuit.
Throsby’s songs remain suggestive, delicate and fragmentary; sketches rather than portraits, they allow the listener to fill in the gaps. As with On Night, the tracks are conjured from a palette of recurrent images, allusions and word-sounds. There are lots of cups, lots of animals (dogs and birds are back, joined by rabbits, horses and deer this time), lots of references to youth and winter, as well as quite a bit of driving. But where On Night‘s songs tended to blur into one another, these tracks develop distinctive personalities more rapidly and linger longer in the mind. The title track continues where The Be Good Tanyas left off with a song about dead dogs, opening with the image of an “old hound sleep[ing] in the ground”.
‘Making A Fire’ transports the listener to a wintery location where “the wind and the woods are warring” but companionship offers respite: “I’m here and you’re here / We’re here!”. Indeed, relationships remain the principal thematic focus and Throsby’s songs find reasons for both hope and despair in the interactions between lovers, family and friends. The piano-led ‘On Longing’ is an emotionally complex apology to a lover, while ‘Come Visit’ entertains speculations about the possible outcomes of an invitation before recognising that “maybe you won’t come visit at all”. Elsewhere, ‘Swing On’ accepts both the universality of romantic disappointment and the ability to overcome it, while ‘The Shoulders & Bends’ equates a relationship with the danger, uncertainty and excitement of driving at night. These songs feel slight at times but retain a hypnotic quality and grow in stature with each play.
Throsby can be precious, and, at worst, there’s a somewhat random quality to her imagery, as well as a notable self-consciousness. At her best, though, she can write songs that resemble little journeys with unforeseen twists and turns in the road. Her music has a deceptive gentleness, lulling you into a reverie before pulling you up sharply with a surprising image: when she describes “a new love” as being “as warm as a gun / or a knife that I fell on” (on the excellent ‘What Becomes Of Us’) you realise just how powerful she can be. Such moments make Under The Town an album worthy of attention, particularly for fans of her debut.
Drastic Fantastic •••
‘Star’ is the word that springs to mind when first clocking the cover to KT Tunstall’s new album Drastic Fantastic. Framed like a classical interpretation of a constellation, with her face in profile, Tunstall brandishes a mirrored guitar with the same purpose a warrior might hold a sword. For an artist with four million sales under her belt (not to mention a Grammy nomination and a Brits nod in triplicate) such posturing can be forgiven. But does the follow-up to the leviathan Eye To The Telescope justify this confidence? Anyone seeking songs that live up to the anthemic bliss of her Patti Smith tribute ‘Suddenly I See’ won’t find them in the album’s rockier tracks, although lead single ‘Hold On’ comes closest to this buoyant joy. The most memorable moments on Drastic Fantastic are provided by the ballads and the straight-up pop songs.
In the enviable position of enjoying both critical and commercial success, Tunstall is best known for a pop-rock hybrid that recalls Sheryl Crow, and this is never more apparent than on ‘Little Favour’, which kicks off the album with strident guitars and a snarling vocal pertaining to a feral love. The pace is slackened only slightly for ‘If Only’, a break-up song from the point of view of an empowered victim on which the excellent backing band, particularly the backing vocals, and an inspired and obtuse melody disguise the slightly lacklustre lyrics: “If only you could see me now / if only you could hear me now / if only it was only me now”.
Given her involvement with the Fence collective alongside artists such as King Creosote, James Yorkston and Lone Pigeon, and the decidedly folkish lyric of ‘Black Horse & The Cherry Tree’, the breakthrough single from her debut, it’s a surprise that ‘White Bird’ is the only folk-tinged number on this album. Despite being fairly pleasantly delivered, it smacks a little of contractual fulfilment to satisfy those punters who might stick with her simply because of her folk connections and credentials. A particularly affecting inclusion is ‘Funnyman’, a touching, amusing and poignant song written about her friend Gordon Anderson (Lone Pigeon, The Aliens) and his fight with mental illness/demonic possession. This truly heartfelt song is one of the signs that Tunstall has more to her than other mega-selling artists of recent years, balancing perfectly her black humour and concern.
Elsewhere, the songs stick very closely to the credible pop standard, with ‘Saving Face’s “I’m all out of luck / I’m all out of faith… / losing my memory, saving my face” in particular bringing to mind Natalie Imbruglia’s Torn. Then there’s ‘I Don’t Want You Now’, which could easily be a poor Pretenders number, while ‘Someday Soon’ sounds for all the world like a dusted-off Edie Brickell & The New Bohemians track. The meandering ‘Beauty Of Sound’ recalls the chart-friendly end of Tori Amos or recent PJ Harvey, but once again sounds like a calculated attempt to satisfy yet another subgroup of her potential audience. The standout tracks are those where Tunstall find her own voice, as she does on ‘Hold On’. ‘Hopeless’ is a jaunty pop number pitched somewhere between Aimee Mann and Chrissie Hynde, which is no bad place to be (although not quite as good as that sounds), while the closer ‘Paper Aeroplane’, is perhaps the best track of the album: a radio-friendly, idiosyncratic and touching ballad.
Tunstall continues to stand astride the Radio 1 and 2 playlists – the pillars of UK music output – like a Scottish colossus, and in the US these tracks should provide the perfect accompaniment to teen break-ups in California and tough medical decisions in Seattle. Gargantuan sales for Drastic Fantastic seem guaranteed. However, for all its accomplishment and polished pop-rock, the album sits too comfortably among the mainstream, occasionally slipping into trite pop conventions and anodyne lyrical construction. Someone with Tunstall’s background, knowledge and charm can surely do better. Perhaps next time she will not play it so safe.
Filed under: album, back issues, review | Tags: adam smith, alan pedder, ani difranco, cara dillon, catherine anne davies, danny weddup, dévics, deerhoof, dixie chicks, dresden dolls, gem nethersole, helen ogden, hilary duff, kimya dawson, liz durrett, matthew hall, paul woodgate, pete morrow, peter hayward, robbie de santos, sandy dillon, scott millar, simon wilson, tanya donelly, the duke spirit, tina dico, trevor raggatt
The following reviews were all published on our old website between May 2005 and December 2006.
Catherine Anne Davies
Songs For The Boy Who Wouldn’t Read Rilke EP •••
If an artist’s output can truly be taken as an expression of their psychological landscape, the furnishings inside Ms Davies’s head may be lush and velvet but they are certainly deep crimson and black. Songs For The Boy Who Wouldn’t Read Rilke is the second of a pair of limited edition EPs from the London-based singer who recently signed to the humorously named Folkwit stable. Hers is a dark muse, embroiled in swirling currents of brooding mystery. Like its predecessor Long Day, much of the music found on ...Rilke is reminiscent of the more sombre and sepulchral elements of goth-folkies All About Eve. On a soft cushion of acoustic guitars blended with echo-drenched piano and heady flourishes of cello, Davies’s mournful vocals intone the agonies of the less illuminated reaches of the human soul, the pain of a blues singer’s Weltschmerz filtered through the spyglass of a gothic spirit; these are deeply affecting tone poems.
‘The Heart Is A Lonesome Hunter’ drips with loss and regret, with Davies’s sparse piano joining plaintive cello and acoustic guitar as the intensity racks up before the song inches toward its slow and exquisite petit mort. ‘Bury Me’ explores love both unattained and unattainable, the richness of Davies’s vocal perfectly conveying the song’s emotion, sweeping up to a pure but fleeting ecstasy on the higher ranges. At first, ‘Crave’ appears to set the sepulchral tone aside with its gentle chiming introduction, but the dissonant vocal lines soon drag us back to the realisation that perhaps all is not quite right with the world. The track also allows Davies to flex her multi-instrumentalist muscles as she drifts subtle flute lines over the refrain as if to mock the intensity below. Closing number ‘It’ll Get Said’ begins with a slow, twisted variation on what could possibly be the James Bond theme, but the mood is ripped apart by squalling, distorted electric guitar. At certain points, Davies sounds uncannily like All About Eve’s Julianne Regan, while the guitar sounds recall those of the band’s Tim Bricheno.
Both the Long Day and …Rilke EPs come dressed in sumptuous, handmade paper jackets fastened with dusky wine-coloured ribbon – the product of the auteur’s own porcelain-fair hand. This deeply romantic yet somehow archaic dressing is completely appropriate for the music that lies within its embrace. And while the songs work well within the EP format, if their appeal is to last the distance of a full-length album, more dynamics and light/shade interplay is needed. As it is, this short-form offering provides a deeply lush landscape in which the listener can totally immerse themselves. Those who have a nervous disposition need not enquire within, but for listeners whose hearts are made of darker, sterner stuff, there is much here to admire.
originally published March 25th, 2006
Remember That I Love You •••½
Sometimes she’s your best friend cooing softly into your ear; sometimes she’s a street loon babbling on while you nervously back away; both stand-up comedienne and tragic heroine, on-hiatus Moldy Peach Kimya Dawson comes at you uncensored and unapologetic. Certainly, she doesn’t flinch at penning lyrics that other artists might shy away from for being too extreme, too brazenly political and – particularly here on her fifth solo record in four years – a little too close to home.
‘My Mom’ is a deeply personal and affecting song that sounds like a diary transcript – you almost feel guilty for listening, earwigging on her private thoughts. There is something entirely childlike about Dawson’s description of her mother’s illness that conveys how difficult it is to deal with the sickness and impending death of a parent, regardless of our age. Such events bring out the bewildered child within everyone, and it’s this child that sings “And there’s something in her blood / and there’s something in her leg / and there’s something in her brain / my mom’s sick, she’s in a hospital bed”. This topic recurs elsewhere on the record; on ‘Caving In’, Dawson attempts to imagine the death of her mother and the subsequent dissolution of her family in an attempt to cope better when the event arrives.
Dawson’s interest in personal tragedy is not a self-involved one, however; on ‘12.26′ the view expands and Kimya places herself in the shoes, or the bare feet, of a tsunami survivor who has lost literally everything. The song is a heartfelt elegy that analyses the world-wide response to the 2004 Boxing Day disaster and damns American complacency and selfishness: “We’d have 12.26 tattooed across our foreheads / If something this atrocious happened on our coast instead.” Remember That I Love You may be a rough, ramshackle and underproduced record, but somehow any other production style would seem entirely wrong. The lo-fi homemade quality is intrinsic to the Kimya Dawson ethos; on ‘Loose Lips’, when a whole host of voices join Kimya for the chorus, it matters less that some of them are out of time than that they sound like a gang of friends having a good time. Technical virtuosity is not the point; besides, the lyrics take centre stage to their musical base – consistently her trusty acoustic guitar.
Occasionally, the album makes for frustrating listening. When ‘I Like Giants’ turns into a paean to a friend of Kimya’s called Geneviève, if you don’t know who that is (and I don’t) it can feel like you’re on the outside of a private joke, or listening in on banter that goes over your head. But on the whole this is a very charming album, and this is the only place on the record where witty irreverent humour becomes irksome silliness. For better or worse, Kimya Dawson is unafraid to pour her heart onto the page and for that she should be saluted. Remember That I Love You veers from political idealism (when Kimya rails against George Bush on ‘Loose Lips’) to surreal humour and truly affecting personal revelations, often in the course of one song, but its voice is always honest and brave. This is an empathetic, comforting record whose aims are summed up in the lyrics of ‘Competition’: “Different voices, different tones / All saying that we’re not alone.”
originally published June 5th, 2006
The Runners Four ••••
More than almost any other band you care to mention, Deerhoof take an obvious, unfettered joy in what they do. In a career spanning over a decade, the band have applied a particle condenser to pop and noise forms, creating albums populated by dense song-nuggets that turn so many corners, throw so many shapes and spit out so many ideas that one wonders what some of their peers do all day. Take ‘Running Thoughts’ from this latest opus; after a jangly cycle down a ‘60s country lane, the wheels abruptly come off and the tune dissolves into humming keyboard drones overlaid with spooky, fried guitarwork. That this is Deerhoof’s most focused and cohesive, even straightforward, effort thus far gives an idea of the fractured sensibilities on offer.
It’s undoubtedly true that a more stable line-up in recent years has tamed the wilder fringes of the group’s approach; formed in 1994 by the only constant member, drummer Greg Saunier, Deerhoof’s revolving line-up has settled around Saunier, bassist/vocalist Satomi Matsuzaki and guitarists John Dietrich and Chris Cohen. With this new constancy have come albums such as 2004’s Milk Man – a concept album about an evil milkman who kidnaps children and hides them in the clouds – that have eased up on their wilder tendencies in favour of heavily skewed guitar pop laced with a sugary sweetness and gnarly crunch. Both have always been important facets of their sound, but with less of a ten-cats-and-a-firework-in-a-sack approach, the music of Deerhoof has become more assured and less unpredictably dizzying.
The Runners Four continues this trajectory, and there’s an immediate inkling that Deerhoof are consciously developing. There are 20 songs and 57 minutes here, nearly twice the white-dwarf density of any of their previous efforts. But the way the guitars circle and shimmer around Satomi’s candy-cloud vocal on the beatless opener, ‘Chatterboxes’, serve to allay fears of any newfound flabbiness. By the time the lumbering groove and sunny ‘60s pop sheen of the ensuing ‘Twin Killers’ and aforementioned ‘Running Thoughts’ have gone by, it’s becoming obvious that whatever their new modus operandum may be, the band are more than comfortable with it.
Funnily enough, given their burgeoning fascination with the flowerier reaches of 1960s music and Satomi’s airy vocal style, it’s only when singing duties are shared by the, er, stags that the sweetness of their sound starts to grate. ‘You Can See’ and ‘Odyssey’ are the worst offenders, the latter saved somewhat by slyly needling harmonics. Elsewhere though, along with a couple of trademark sugar-rush songlets, are some of Deerhoof’s finest moments. ‘Siriustar’ is the trad indie quiet/loud dynamic rewritten by Willy Wonka, surging from not a lot to technicolour fuzzout with a cute smile and a chocolate kiss. ‘You’re Our Two’ raids the sharps cabinet once more to set Satomi’s paranoiac vocal against multiple stinging guitar lines, and the closing ‘RRRRRRight’ is a chipper, garagey adieu.
Describing Deerhoof is a bit like nailing jelly anyway, which is one of the things that makes them so unique. All you need to know is that you should go and buy this album and listen to it lots, because it’s really good. Couldn’t be simpler.
originally published December 19th, 2005
Push The Heart ••••
In the five years since signing to Brit indie label Bella Union, Sara Lov and Dustin O’Halloran have produced two highly-rated albums – 2001’s My Beautiful Sinking Ship and 2003’s heavenly The Stars At Saint Andrea – both of which marked a clear shift away from their earlier, more post-rock oriented self-released efforts. Calmly melding a variety of influences, the Dévics were showered with plaudits from critics and fellow musicians alike, partly because of their refusal to easily conform to any particular rulebook. Their commitment to maintain this very special brand of elusiveness led the twosome (without their formerly full-time members Ed Maxwell and Evan Schnabel) to relocate to a farmhouse hidden deep in rural Italy where they moved into their current lush and wistful sound space, a dreamy and atmospheric terrain with folk-rock influences and frequent overtones of cabaret melancholy.
Third album Push The Heart is, emotionally at least, a more straightforward affair than The Stars At Saint Andrea. The songs are simpler and more direct, with less emphasis on the smoky, late-night bar ethos that drew sideways comparisons with Portishead, or perhaps Beth Orton via Goldfrapp, and more on an overall sense of bittersweet reflection. What the Dévics do share with the likes of Portishead and Goldfrapp is a fine sense of structure and technology-led production in spades. In fact, the production (which by all accounts was a slightly disjointed affair) almost threatens the album’s credibility, but is too carefully stewarded by O’Halloran to really overwhelm; when the melodies are this sweet and Lov’s tender voice even sweeter still, it’s impossible to avoid getting pleasantly lost in some of the loveliest moments, particularly on the album’s central triptych of ‘Song For A Sleeping Girl’, ‘Distant Radio’ and ‘Just One Breath’ (all of which first appeared on last year’s exquisite Distant Radio EP).
Lyrically, the album is accessible and engaging, playful yet plaintive. Lov’s doeeyed yearnings on album opener ‘Lie To Me’ and the charming ‘Secret Message To You’, which concerns the futile construction of a boat from too few parts to bring her love back, are inspired and give the songs a depth far beyond her pretty voice. And it would certainly be remiss of me not to point out that it is a very pretty voice indeed, whether she’s singing softly into a mic with her eyes to the floor, or opening up and expanding to cover whatever sonic bed O’Halloran constructs for her. More a request than a gripe, but it would be nice to hear a few more tracks along the lines of the latter in future. O’Halloran’s balanced, reassuring voice adds a warm and comforting counterpoint on just two of the tracks – the aforementioned ‘Song For A Sleeping Girl’ and the also excellent ‘If We Cannot See’, which comes closer to lighters-aloft anthem territory than anything they’ve done in the past.
The Dévics are unlikely to fill our stadiums just yet though, and in truth I doubt they would want to. But Push The Heart can only help their cause and win them new fans looking for something fresh and convincing to see in the spring. More power to them.
originally published March 21st, 2006
In The Red •••
You can’t deny the popularity of Tina Dico in her homeland of Denmark. When the domestic version of In The Red hit the streets last July, it slotted in at the top of the charts, outselling the likes of Coldplay and U2. Dico (or Dickow if you’re Danish) herself was up for consideration in three categories at the 2006 Danish Music Awards; but is ‘big in Copenhagen’ like ‘big in Japan’ or can she cut it in the crowded international pop market? Though she’s better known in the UK as a vocalist for chillout maestros Zero 7, she no doubt hopes that In The Red will bring her recognition in her own right. Certainly, the overall impression of the album is of a perfectly respectable piece of Scando-pop, with darker, more brooding overtones than the likes of Norway’s Lene Marlin or Sweden’s Sophie Zelmani. But the sticking point here is a noticeable lack of spark to elevate the songs above the realms of the mundane.
Credit where it’s due though – the production is excellent. Chris Potter, who’s better known for his work on The Verve’s Urban Hymns, clearly knows his way around a mixing desk and, comparing the UK release with the Danish original, it seems that some additional remixing has been done over the autumn to prepare for its wider release. The songs are skilfully layered with lush samples, strings and orchestral instrumentation, all adding up to a luxuriant aural vista. Dico’s voice is strong and carries the melodies well, sometimes cracking attractively on the quieter, more emotional sections. Again, nothing to fault here, and when aligned with better material it makes for an effective mix. There’s no doubt that there is a good deal of talent here, although Dico’s Gen-X couldn’t-care-less delivery occasionally grates, particularly on the otherwise enjoyable ‘Nobody’s Man’. Likewise, the title track slips beneath the surface from languorous to simply dragging its heels and ‘Use Me’ seems just a little too ponderous.
Perhaps the most disappointing thing is that there are some excellent songs scattered among the album’s more average fare. Had all the tracks been of the same standard, In The Red would be a significantly more involving album. ‘Losing’ sets the disc off to an encouraging start with its big Beatles-esque choruses evoking Tears For Fears in ‘Sowing The Seeds Of Love’ mode (in a good way!). ‘Give In’ rolls along smoothly like a chilled out drivetime classic, while first single ‘Warm Sand’ is the clear standout with its moody, building verses and hummable yet majestic refrain and ‘Room With A View’ sets a gentle acoustic mood, enfolding the listener in a melancholy reverie. In the end though, this is a candidate for selective downloading. At least that way you’ll be left in the black rather than overdrawn.
originally published February 12th, 2006
Knuckle Down ••••
Though never one to pass the responsibility buck, it is gratifying at least to see Ani DiFranco set aside some of the duties on this, her 15th studio album since her self-titled debut in 1990. Having enlisted the estimable wiles of co-producer Joe Henry on this follow-up to last year’s self-everything’d (including, perhaps, self-indulgent) Educated Guess, Knuckle Down sees Ani return in part to the more rewarding musical territories mapped out on each album up to 2001’s sprawling Revelling/Reckoning.
Inevitably, there will be those who bemoan the relative absence of DiFranco’s almost legendary leftism here; the only overtly political song, ‘Paradigm’, still resonates with an inward-looking personal relevance that stitches the emotional seams of the album and mines them to stark lyrical effect. But to complain about this seems a little hard-bitten in light of DiFranco’s recent personal upheavals. Both the dissolution of her marriage and the death of her father, Dante Americo DiFranco, to whom the album is dedicated, figure highly in these respectively bilious and brow-beaten compositions. The Bush Administration need not count their capitalist chickens just yet, however, as DiFranco has already signalled her intent to release a second album at the tail end of the year in which they may not come off so lightly.
As it is, Knuckle Down is yet another credit to DiFranco’s famed survivalist mentality. The title track grittily eschews the faintly ridiculous self-help stranglehold that grips America like a pill, instead asserting the mantra “I think I’m done gunnin’ to get closer to some imagined bliss, I gotta knuckle down and just be ok with this.” Happily, the following two tracks, ‘Studying Stones’ and ‘Manhole’ are easily among her best – the latter also featuring some charming whistling from recent Righteous Babe signing, Andrew Bird, who also contributes violin and glockenspiel elsewhere. It’s no surprise then that the more liberated radio programmers stateside have embraced these songs, giving DiFranco perhaps her best commercial chance since Little Plastic Castle. Other album highlights include the Out Of Range-y ‘Modulation’, the bluesy clunk of ‘Seeing Eye Dog’ (a memorable chorus also helps its cause), the taut slam poetics of ‘Parameters’ and the lyrical vulnerability of the closing track, ‘Recoil’.
After the chugging claustrophobia of Educated Guess and the often unlovable jazz forays of Evolve, DiFranco seems comfortable (and perhaps even comforted) to be back on familiar ground, if not entirely back to her roots. The promise of less digging for greater reward should entice both new prospectors and the DiFranco converted alike.
originally published May 13th, 2005
The Chemical Brothers once said of Beth Orton that if your soul could sing, she is what it would sound like. By this reckoning, Ani DiFranco is like the voice in the back of your head, not always telling you things you want to hear but telling it like it is nonetheless, and this time perhaps more than ever she means business. “I ain’t in the best shape / that I’ve ever been in / but I know where I’m going / and it ain’t where I’ve been,” she sings on ‘Subconscious’. As always with DiFranco, it’s a believable manifesto, one that takes on extra resonance with the recent announcement of her first pregnancy. Sonically, however, we’re in familiar surroundings.
Reprieve‘s closest cousin is 2004’s self-played, self-produced Educated Guess, but whereas that record had a swagger that reflected DiFranco’s freedom in the studio, Reprieve is altogether a more considered affair. The ghost of Hurricane Katrina hangs over proceedings, having famously halted the recording sessions when the resulting floods damaged her New Orleans studio. Forced to decamp to her other home in Buffalo, New York, DiFranco found herself continuing the recording on an old synthesiser.
The resulting album resonates as an unwitting tribute to the dislocation felt by the millions affected by the tragedy. Though it’s not explicitly referenced, aside from the oddly prophetic ‘Millennium Theater’ which ends on the line “New Orleans bides her time” (the material was written long before the hurricane hit), lines like “the stars are going out / and the stripes are getting bent” (‘Decree’) seem to say it all. Elsewhere, much of the album is classic DiFranco. Opening track, ‘Hypnotize’, recalls one of the most arresting moments of her career, ‘You Had Time’, a song that emerges out of nowhere, a meandering piano intro that eventually finds its way into a melody. A similar technique is used here, the sound of the artist working out a way to articulate an emotion she’s not entirely comfortable with: “you were no picnic / and you were no prize / but you had just enough pathos / to keep me hypnotized”. It makes for a sombre opening but, to quote Joni Mitchell, there’s comfort in melancholy.
Reprieve is perhaps DiFranco’s most cohesive record to date, never really feeling the need to shift out of its plaintive mood, which is both good and bad. Aside from the fantastic ‘Half-Assed’, surely soon to be regarded as an Ani classic, there is little here to truly stir you out of your seat. Perhaps I miss the band. Perhaps I miss the point. Check out righteousbabe.com for an explanation of the cover art and a clearer idea of what she’s trying to say. For now though, there may not be much time for dancing but Ani DiFranco is still standing, still singing and that, for us, is the most important thing.
originally published August 10th, 2006
After The Morning ••••
With her unique blend of traditional and contemporary folk, Cara Dillon has garnered truckloads of awards and comparisons with everyone from Kate Bush to Joni Mitchell, and often with the charming Kate Rusby, whom she replaced as a member of the so-called brat pack folk-rock group Equation. This remarkable third solo album should see her finally coming out from behind the shadow of Rusby, not least for its bold use of blue- grass, and is easily her most confident statement of intent to date.
Recorded with her husband Sam Lakeman (brother of critical favourite Seth), guests include her sister Mary, influential folk veteran Martin Simpson and Paul Brady, who duets on the traditional number ‘The Streets Of Derry’ (which also goes by the name of ‘After The Morning’, depending on who you ask). Despite the presence of such luminaries, it’s Lakeman’s skilful, textured playing that really colours the backdrops to Dillon’s stunning vocals. Piano, accordion, mandolin, guitar and fiddle – you name it, he plays it, and plays it well. The shivery ‘October Winds’ is an exquisite example, the music carrying along Dillon’s rich, warm vocals in a heartfelt tribute to her dead father.
Even so, the strongest tracks are the stripped-down acoustic numbers such as ‘Here’s A Health’, ‘Bold Jamie’ (one of Cara’s own) and her near-definitive version of ‘The Snows They Melt The Soonest’ with its sumptuous arrangement of piano and strings. Despite an occasional, presumably deliberate stab at getting some commercial airplay, the treasure to disappointment ratio is extraordinarily high. There’s a timeless feel to the proceedings as a whole; Dillon’s ability to really draw out the spark of traditional folk songs is almost unparalleled and much of the album’s beauty lies in the words and the perfection of her delivery.
Forging a genuine connection with the listener is something that many traditional folk artists fall short of. Sure, they might sound pretty but they’ll sometimes leave you cold. In this respect, Dillon is firmly in the premier league, ensnaring her audience with consummate ease. Indeed, her dedicated fanbase is something that many of her rival folkies would give their right arms for and After The Morning only serves to cement her elevated status. Three albums into her solo career, she might no longer be the next big thing but this is a real gem, an appealing collection full of confidence and a finely- honed sense of musicality.
originally published August 23rd, 2006
Pull The Strings •••½
One Little Indian
For over 20 years, the career of Sandy Dillon has been one hell of a frightening fairground and somewhere along the line our gravel-voiced heroine must have smashed an entire hall of mirrors, such has been her god-awful luck. Incredibly, even her earlier struggles – two shelved albums and a terminated contract with Elektra – pale in comparison with the trials of the last five years. After losing her beloved husband and musical partner to a heart attack in 2001, Dillon has battled with cervical cancer and a terrifying ordeal with the MRSA superbug. That’s a lot of black cats crossing hundreds of paths, each one dusted with a tonne of spilled salt, but instead of slinging it over her left shoulder into Beelzebub’s eyes she’s gargled it defiantly, refusing to be a martyr to ill health. Indeed, on the evidence of Pull The Strings, her most desolate, injured and grim recording yet (and that’s saying something!), truly the woman could unseat the four horsemen and circumvent the apocalypse. Of course, some people would rather listen to a symphony of air raid sirens than to Dillon’s serrated, half-strangled vocals, but frankly that’s their loss. The sheer feral beauty and menace at work here adds a sometimes exquisite, always interesting texture that’s totally unique.
Of the many moods and dense emotions captured throughout, the one that resonates most clearly is a longing for escape – escape from loneliness, escape into death, you name it. Though it may not sound like it on first listen, the vibrant and sinisterly sexual title track is actually a manifesto of atonement to the (wo)man upstairs. Joined on vocals by Alabama 3’s growly Robert Love, Dillon’s third-person tale of repentance becomes more akin to what the sound of mating basilisks must be like – full-blooded, throaty and raw above all else. The jaunty but creepy ‘Documents’ and Dillon’s remarkable turn on ‘Over My Head’ are similarly sultry, while the raucous ‘I Fell In Love’ is a darkly humorous swamp-blues stomper that returns her to the glass-eating Bessie Smith-inspired sound of her One Little Indian debut, Electric Chair. That she howls and wails as if having a grand mal seizure is really all just part of the fun.
Anyone who has followed Dillon’s career will know that for all her impressive vocal extremities, her real forte lies in torch song balladry. Fortunately, Pull The Strings does not disappoint on that front either, from the traditional number ‘Motherless Children’ and the sumptuous cover of Hoagy Carmichael’s jazz standard ‘Baltimore Oriole’ to the exhausting, occasionally morbid but beautiful tributes to her husband (‘Enter The Flame’, ‘Wedding Night’) and her own lost innocence (‘Play With Ruth’, ‘Broken Promises’). Throughout these heartfelt weepies run subtle flourishes of organ, electric piano and softly brushed snare, not to mention musical saw for that added tearjerk factor. Dillon even wheels out a harmonium on ‘Why?’, a sweetly-sung duet (again with Robert Love) that’s almost vaudevillian and slightly but nicely cheesy. ‘Who’s Answering’ follows the theme of accepting destiny as Dillon implores whoever or whatever lies beyond the grave to see her in safely and with a little comfort – “give me a lover, a bed and some gin / I beg the one who’s answering” – delivered with poignancy, believability and soul.
Doing justice to a Sandy Dillon album is an impossible task; like the music itself, it takes a lot of perseverance, repeated listens and an open mind, and you may still end up not knowing what to make of it. Certainly, those who are faint of heart should steer clear, but if you’re the sort who worships Captain Beefheart, Tom Waits or just loves a challenge, there’s much to enjoy here. It’s a little over-long, however, and making it to the conclusion of ‘Carnival Of Dreams’ in just one sitting guarantees an arduous listen. That said, in the triumph over adversity stakes, it’s a truly remarkable statement from one of our finest, most uncompromising artists.
originally published May 26th, 2006
Taking The Long Way ••••
Taking The Long Way is the Dixie Chicks’s fourth studio album, produced by man of the moment Rick Rubin. The girls share writing credits on all the tracks – a first for them – with such songwriting luminaries as Sheryl Crow, Neil Finn and Gary Louris of The Jayhawks. There’s a conscious effort to expand upon the acoustic, bluegrass feel of 2002’s Home. Driving rhythm guitar and threepart harmonies abound in a nod to the ‘rockier’ side of country. Fear not Chicks fans, the banjo, mandolin and fiddle still play a major part. It’s clear that Maines, Maguire and Robison haven’t totally abandoned their Nashville cousins, but be under no illusions – this is the sound of three competent songwriters with a wealth of experience cutting loose, both musically and lyrically.
Yes, they have bones to pick. Yes, they choose to do so with a certain lack of subtlety, but who can blame them? Their run-in with Dubya received more column inches of newsprint than can possibly be deemed healthy in a world where unspeakable horrors occur on a daily basis. But don’t be fooled by the media backlash; the Chicks were courting controversy way back on 2001’s ‘Goodbye Earl’ and the acerbic ‘White Trash Wedding’ from Home. If you think these girls are a manufactured country-pop wet dream, think again – they’ve always had the chops, the humour and, yes, the intelligence to shake it up with the best of them.
Taking The Long Way opens with ‘The Long Way Round’, a road movie Don Henley would be proud to have written. It’s a fine way indeed to say ‘we’re back!’ with the nice addition of some clever lyrical nods to earlier Chicks songs. ‘Easy Silence’ follows with swathes of harmony and a plea for the simple things in life to keep you sane. Key talking point and canny first single ‘Not Ready To Make Nice’ is Maines’s response to the CD burning and radio boycott the band endured as a result of her London outburst; it rocks, it says what it has to, and it’s followed by ‘Everybody Knows’, a lovely melody and an introspective look at how the last two years has affected the close-knit trio.
It goes on. Each cut has merits, carefully constructed to achieve an emotional response and most hitting the right buttons. Maines courts the ire of her hometown with ‘Lubbock Or Leave It’, which has the classic line “…this is the only place, where as you’re getting on the plane, you see Buddy Holly’s face…” Others worthy of multiple plays are ‘Favorite Year’, a wistful look back at love gone wrong, and ‘Bitter End’, which eloquently dissects the true meaning of friendship, but really, they’re all pretty good. The Chicks have consistently improved with every album, and this is their best offering yet.
Unafraid to experiment, unafraid to steer their own path, the Dixie Chicks deserve a hearing. Forget the country tag and your own prejudices, this is a band at its peak; tune in or miss out.
originally published July 10th, 2006
This Hungry Life ••••
As a member of Throwing Muses, The Breeders and Belly, Tanya Donelly helped construct the blueprint for American college rock, writing soaring, breathless pop songs that belied dark, complex lyrics and a twisted world view. With a knack for writing the aural equivalent of a beehive – songs dripping with honey but packed with stings – Donelly was achingly vital to the 1990s but maintaining people’s interest over three acts proved a little too tough. Belly’s second album King, in no way a poor piece of work, fell on deaf ears and Donelly struck out on her own. Since then, marriage and motherhood have seemingly tempered her solo work, with each album becoming more laidback than the last, to the point where 2003’s country-laden Whiskey Tango Ghosts was practically supine.
On This Hungry Life, Donelly sets the hall of mirrors perspective that made her early work so exciting to the more traditional approach to songwriting that she has perfected. Opening with the line “it’s June and I’m still wearing my boots”, Donelly sings her sweet complaint in homage to New England. It’s this playful contrariness that gallops through the album and makes for an enjoyable listen, coming furthest to the fore on the superb ‘Littlewing’, a dark and unsettling song about falling in love.
Recorded in front of an audience in the bar of a deserted hotel on a sweltering weekend in 2004, This Hungry Life is one of those rare albums that are recorded live without being ‘live albums’ per se. The live band – including Catholic (in the Frank Black sense) Rich Gilbert, Dean ‘Mr Donelly’ Fisher, Bill Janovitz and (almost inevitably these days) Joan ‘As Police Woman’ Wasser – provide excellent accompaniment to Donelly’s liquid glycerine vocals. The heatwave conditions and setup of the recordings certainly worked for this line-up; no amount of studio time could ever improve the title track, a pedal-steel extravaganza that’s bound to break hearts. Elsewhere, the title of ‘Kundalini Slide’, one of the album’s standouts, sounds a bit like an attempt by Rory Bremner’s George Bush to pronounce the name of Condoleeza Rice, which may not in fact be all that coincidental as the lyrics represent a politically charged attack on intolerance and violence.
If a couple of the tracks retread the same matronly ground of the past two albums, Donelly’s mellifluous singing saves them and other tracks more than make up for any slight failings. This Hungry Life is a vibrant collection of songs through which a love of life and of live performance shines. If this is Donelly’s hungry life, is it wrong to kinda hope that she never ever gets a square meal?
originally published December 17th, 2006
The Dresden Dolls
Yes, Virginia ••••
If one thing sets the Dresden Dolls apart from pretty much anyone else around right now, it’s their confrontational and discomforting honesty. It’s something they practice in life as well as in their music – the blogs Amanda Palmer posts online dissect her insecurities and anxieties in detail. Take this for example: “i prefer sleeping alone nowadays. i barely think about love. i have plenty. i haven’t had a boyfriend in so long i’ve forgotten what it’s like. honestly.” The band also publish the wonderfully inarticulate hatemail they receive on their site (sample: “could you plase do something like kill yourselves,before you come to toronto, seeing you would probabnly ruin my life” – spelling mistakes author’s own – or “if you ever come to atlanta call me up 678-XXX-XXXX and i’ll fuckin beat your ass”) as well as collecting together some of the savage and abusive reviews they’ve received.
It’s this honesty that makes their music so entirely compelling, and Yes, Virginia – the follow-up to their 2004 self-titled debut – makes for truly startling listening. Building upon the dark themes and manic yet melodic style of their debut, it represents an artistic progression on every level – musically, lyrically and vocally. Palmer has extended her vocal range to incorporate a whole new palate of sounds, and, in places, sounds more aggressive than ever before. The songs are powerful and muscular, tempered with moments of tenderness made all the more affecting by the tempestuous menace that surrounds them. The Dolls have grown more confident, too, adding layer upon layer of insistent, pounding pianos and cascading drums to create a driving and sometimes frantic sound.
The insistent piano riff that opens the record is extremely ominous – like listening to the first rumbling tones of a coming thunderstorm – and it’s not long before a shout from Amanda heralds the entrance of Brian Viglione’s pummelling drums. Songs turn from tender to vicious in the space of a couple of lines. ‘Delilah’, one of the album’s highlights, describes the frustration of watching a friend wilfully enter a violent relationship: “He’s gonna beat you like a pillow / you schizos never learn / and if you take him home / you’ll get what you deserve”. From a hushed, piano and vocal opening, the song builds until the frustration and powerlessness in the lyrics is reflected in the epic, operatic music. Lyrically, the album is often violent and disturbing, with images of mutilation and surgery recurring throughout without ever sounding like they’re merely out to shock. Perhaps this is because Palmer’s writing is shot through with dark humour and a rare wit. ‘Shores Of California’, for example, is a clever dissection of male and female coping mechanisms for being single, with lyrics like “all I know is that all around the nation / the girls are crying, the boys are masturbating”.
There are occasional moments where the lyrics veer close to self-parody, but the Dolls are too knowing and self-aware to succumb to such pitfalls: on ‘Dirty Business’, Amanda sings “Am I the poster girl for some suburban sickness?” while the unmitigated stream of aggression running through the chorus of ‘Backstabber’ (“Backstabber, backstabber / greedy fucking fit-haver”) would seem ridiculously emo were the lyrics not married to the catchiest melody the band have ever penned. Furthermore, the song ends with a demented cackle as if to tell you the band know exactly how closely they’ve been flirting with the ridiculous.
Yes, Virginia is not an easy listen, but it’s an exciting, raw and emotional one. However you might categorise the Dresden Dolls – and they have been variously labelled as theatrical rock, punk cabaret, manic-musical, neoglam-torch etc. – one fact remains: their music is really damn good.
originally published April 10th, 2006
The Dresden Dolls
Live at Spiegelzelt, Berlin ••••
May 14th, 2006
“We were so excited when we heard we could play in a mirrored tent” exclaimed Dresden Dolls singer Amanda Palmer as she took to the stage of the Spiegelzelt, erected temporarily for a nomadic mini-festival taking place all over Germany. But as the sunset glowed through the stained-glass windows of this curiously decadent, wood- and velvet-laden construction next to the railway tracks at East Berlin’s former main station, what place could be more suitable? After all, The Dresden Dolls describe themselves as ‘Brechtian punk cabaret’ and are clearly thrilled to introduce their new album, Yes, Virginia, to the country that gave them their name, as well as Bertolt Brecht and his weird and wonderful theatre.
Since the release of their eponymous debut, the Boston duo has accumulated a dedicated, passionate and numerous following without attracting too much hype or mainstream press, mainly on the back of word-of-mouth praise and blistering live shows. Tonight was no exception. Though the sun was still illuminating the tent from all sides and The Dresden Dolls are a band best served in eerie, smoky darkness, Palmer and drummer Brian Viglione conjured up such dark intensity that it could have been on a Caribbean beach and still been just as impressive. Like The Kills, the sparseness of the arrangements (i.e. only keyboard and primal drums against Amanda’s rich and frantic vocals) makes the drama so much more affecting and severe. As they look at each other across the stage, all the fierceness that’s found in a band of five members is concentrated into a single, manic gaze. As with all things cabaret, however, it’s not all entirely serious. Early single ‘Coin-Operated Boy’ is a cheeky crowd pleaser and their cover of Grauzone’s ‘Eisbär’, a Swiss new wave band’s ode to the polar bear, had the crowd waving arms and singing at the top of their voices.
Perhaps fittingly it was not one of their own songs that captured the evening, but a cover of Jacques Brel’s ‘Port Of Amsterdam’ – a wistfully sexy black-hearted tale of a long gone time of swashbucklin’ filthy cabaret bars frequented by a shady clientele. The Dresden Dolls romanticise and capture this decadent and dangerous world and their concerts make it real for people disillusioned by their oversanitised, modern existence.
Robbie de Santos
originally published June 24th, 2006
Most Wanted •••½
In the sometimes scary land of teen pop there is a boxing ring, with Hilary Duff in the red corner and Lindsay Lohan in the blue. Whilst not quite delivering a knockout punch with this release, Hilary at least shows that she has the edge and will stay standing for quite a few more rounds. The cliché of the difficult third album is not easy to apply to Most Wanted, as it more closely resembles a greatest hits with a few new tracks thrown in. Coming in an attractive two-piece case, the Collector’s Signature Edition contains 17 slices of Duffness, of which just four are new. The remainder are remixes of songs from previous albums, although a collaboration with sister Haylie on The GoGo’s classic ‘Our Lips Are Sealed’ is carried off with dignity, showing that it is possible to cover a well-known song without leaving the original artists turning in their graves (or, in this case, mansions).
Hilary’s move into more soulful and lyrically complete tunes in her second album is less apparent in this latest offering, which walks the line between rock and pop. US radio programmers have swooped upon first single ‘Wake Up’, which flaunts a killer hook and is one of her best to date. However, the standout track is the super slick ‘Break My Heart’, which borders on a Blink 182-esque anthem pitched around a superb middle eight. This comes as no real surprise, as song was co-written with the Madden Brothers from pop/punk band Good Charlotte and John Feldmann from Goldfinger. Club DJ Chris Cox does a good job of turning the previously likeable ‘Come Clean’ into an irresistible floor-shaking house mix, building up from the simple melody of the original with big beats and delivering the goods.
Perhaps more than simply a greatest hits, this album is a showcase of some of the more unique songs from her repertoire, such as the raucous ‘Mr James Dean’, from 2003’s self-titled second album. Duff certainly has a unique voice, clearly identifiable amongst the often faceless pop crowd. ‘So Yesterday’, the signature track from her 2002 debut Metamorphosis, makes a welcome return. Although perhaps more polished than even the crown jewels, it’s pure pop perfection. The standard edition of the album, running at a more bite-sized 13 songs is an attractive option for Duff’s doubting thomases or newcomers to her music.
originally published September 4th, 2005
The Duke Spirit
Cuts Across The Land •••½
After 18 months in the making, it’s not surprising that Cuts Across The Land is a fairly polished, well-produced and suitably promising debut. It’s an adept and listenable dark-edged rock ‘n’ roll album. The problem arises when you start to wonder what exactly it is you’re listening to – it would be fair to say that the London-based five-piece wear their influences on their sleeves. Sadly, these are rarely combined into any new, innovative or interesting sound; rather, they are too often laid out bare in quick succession for all the world to ear, particularly in the Sebadoh-esque riffing in the chorus of the title track to the alarmingly ‘Anarchy In The UK’-like opening chord of first single, ‘Lion Rip’, although in the latter this quickly dissolves into one the album’s standout tracks.
When their influences aren’t so apparent, such as on the interminable bore that is ‘Hello To The Floor’, neither is the passion that could have made this reasonable album into a really good one. In fact, this track, and to a slightly lesser extent, ‘Bottom Of The Sea’, smack of a by-the-numbers “every rock album needs a couple of ballads” approach to recording, which fails to showcase properly any of the bands talents, except possibly an ear for a nice couplet, as the frequently well-crafted lyrics are dribbled out by singer Leila Moss with less enthusiasm than is found at your average Saturday night karaoke, which is made all the more disappointing because elsewhere on the album you discover that she can do so much better. For example, there is infinitely more zeal on ‘Win Your Love’, a high point of the record, especially if the prospect of Polly Harvey fronting Sonic Youth is one that excites you. But PJ isn’t the only vocal influence Moss parades – Patti Smith and Nico are never far from mind. Indeed, the Velvet Underground themselves are one of the more pervading influences of the guitar sound throughout.
However, it seems somewhat mean spirited to continue to run through the tracklist namedropping the many earlier, often seminal, acts that are brought to mind when listening to this record. Perhaps in this era where exceptional debuts seem to be the norm, promise is no longer enough, but Cuts Across The Land is full of it. If future efforts can use these diverse influences as exactly that and not as such obvious templates, as well as capturing some of the fervour and excitement that most reviewers and music fans alike agree that the band exhibit when on stage, then they are certainly an act worth keeping an ear out for.
originally published July 16th, 2005
The Mezzanine ••••
Deliciously layered with meaning as though it’s a direct line into her soul, Liz Durrett’s distinctive voice will utterly transfix you; this is a good thing, for then you’ll be struck by her striking, pared-down lyrics and wonder how on earth she’s been such a best kept secret. It took her 10 years to get comfy with the idea of releasing her own material, beginning with last year’s Husk, not least because of a crippling anxiety that she wouldn’t live up to her own high standards and her familial connections (she’s the niece of singer-songwriter Vic Chesnutt, who’s on board here as producer). Luckily for us, she hasn’t let that overwhelm her and the light once hidden by that mighty bushel of doubt is finally beaming into these warmly grateful ears.
With its beguiling nursery rhyme-esque introduction, opener ‘Knives At The Wall’ lulls and soothes into an early reverie that grows ever darker as the song progresses. It’s one of the least remarkable songs of the collection, yet it serves as a perfect introduction to The Mezzanine‘s suggestive, haunting power. The similarly minimalist ‘All The Spokes’ is swiftly followed by the curiously upbeat ‘Cup On The Counter’, whose delightfully discordant atmosphere and accusatory lyrics (“I’m not a child, I know what I’ve seen”) are accompanied by the startling addition of a child in conversation. An equally evocative harmonica solo and double-tracked vocals make ‘Shivering Assembly’ the shining example of how Durrett successfully pulls off disarming little touches and effects, adding to the tone and theatricality of the music without falsifying its ambition and meaning.
This, and other songs, may tempt you to place Durrett firmly in the gothic fold, but The Mezzanine as a whole is a hopeful creature, as is the empowering track that gives the album its name. Here, Durrett’s “they” refers to unnamed oppressive influences lurking nearby. Yet while the album certainly revels in its darkness and is accordingly beautiful for it, such a mood is not its focus, merely a tangible influence that belies her upbringing in the oppressive humidity of Georgia, as well as her battle with depression. The rawness of ‘Marlene’ is both deeply personal and astounding; Durrett’s quivering vibrato gives an ethereal, wispy quality to the song and is neatly complemented by the off-key piano instrumental ‘Silent Partner’ that follows.
It’s not all easygoing, however. An eerily muffled screaming guitar slightly overwhelms ‘No Apology’, but once your ears have adjusted, simple unpleasantness quickly becomes intriguing unpleasantness and perseverance is definitely required. ‘In The Throes’ thankfully marks a return to the style of the earlier songs and brings things to a worthy close, combining all the best aspects from the previous ten tracks – introspection, a gently powerful voice, fabulous guitars and a stunning combination of orchestral and electric instruments. A trip through Durrett’s (under)world may not be appropriate for everyone but the devil’s in the details and we all know by now who has the best tunes.
originally published August 10th, 2006
Filed under: album, back issues, film & dvd, review | Tags: alan pedder, dana immanuel, ill ease, immaculate machine, innocence mission, iona, kevin hewick, natalie imbruglia, scott millar, tiffany daniels, trevor raggatt
The following reviews were all published on our old website between May 2005 and December 2006.
Miami & The Siege Of Chicago EP ••••
Ill Ease is the project of Brooklyn-based musician Elizabeth Sharp, formerly the drummer for New Radiant Storm King. Having tried her luck signed to Too Pure for 2003’s The Exorcist, Sharp returned to her DIY roots for last year’s excellent The After After Party Party EP and she’s clearly still in her element. Considering the intricacy of the drum lines and guitar parts, not to mention the suited American rasp behind each song, this selfmade musical achievement is exactly that, and a revelation to boot. This is no antifolk record; Sharp has venom and hatred so pure that she propels herself away from that scene entirely and into a league of her own.
To fully appreciate this record, it’s necessary to understand the history surrounding ‘the siege of Chicago’. Like The Doors and MC5 before her, Sharp has focused on the after effects of the 1968 National Democratic Convention where pro-war Hubert H Humphrey and anti-war Eugene McCarthy were both campaigning for a nomination to become the country’s next President during the Vietnam War. The vote was arguably rigged for Humphrey to win, which he did, and the McCarthy voters and peace activists protested. The confusion that followed is highlighted in ‘Two Party System’ through grinding guitar loops and lyrics that don’t pull punches (“we’ve all been fucked by the two party system” being a prime example).
This feeling of wrongdoing towards the people and popular culture of America is a recurring theme, although Sharp concentrates on the hypocrisy of musicians and their fans in the other songs. Opener ‘Too Much Sucky (I Hate Drum Machines)’ throws references to Devo into the mix and shapes some crazy, conservative musician screaming over bass-heavy riffs worthy of Death From Above 1979 about the influence of new wave in New York, while ‘New York No Wave’ gives a shout out to the antifolk movement. Both ‘New York – London – Paris’ and ‘The New You’ sound like Whirlwind Heat out on the prowl, pickaxe in hand, looking for the next fresh scenester killing.
Of course, whether you understand the complicated American history and the even more complicated political system is not the be all and end all, it simply makes the songs more interesting and adds value to Sharp’s lyrics. The music itself, with its continuous thump and ingenious post-grunge structure is ample enough evidence to make this a priority on your ever burgeoning ‘to get’ list. You’ll only be shaming yourself if you don’t.
originally published June 24th, 2006
Counting Down The Days •••½
The passive-aggressive faint praise brigade have had a field day with this, the third album from Australian singer-songwriter/actress/skincare pin-up Natalie Imbruglia. Four years after the patchy White Lilies Island, a record that so earnestly wanted to be taken seriously that it only could manage to be seven shades of dull, Counting Down The Days arrives with the benefit of considerably lower expectations and is all the better for it. In fact, it’s something of a triumph.
Featuring a raft of producers and co-writers, including her husband Daniel Johns, Ash Howes (aka Mr Sarah McLachlan), Eg White (Emiliana Torrini) and Ben Hillier (Blur), Imbruglia nonetheless manages to make the album sound coherent and it’s clear that the endeavour has been a three-year labour of love. Lead single ‘Shiver’ is as fresh-sounding as ‘Torn’ or ‘Big Mistake’ seemed in 1997 and deservedly became one of UK radio’s most played songs earlier this year. Other highlights include the Johns-penned ‘Satisfied’, which will almost certainly be another radio favourite. Similarly with ‘Sanctuary’, which features jangly indie guitar-work, discreetly wailing sirens and throbbing assertive drumbeats bubbling beneath her best rock moment since ‘Big Mistake’.
After a noticeably sagging second half, the real surprise of the album lies in ‘Honeycomb Child’, an appealing little gem with undeniably Vespertine-era Björkian influences (music box? check! burbling electronica? check!). Like Madonna’s spooky ‘Mer Girl’ at the end of Ray Of Light, it hints at a direction she might do well to explore. All in all, Counting Down The Days showcases a pleasing progression and unmistakeable maturation in Imbruglia’s sound. By sticking to her organic, level-headed and famously pernickety approach to songwriting, she has pulled off an applaudable feat in reversing the (mostly exaggerated) decline of her fortunes. The fact that the album became what even Left Of The Middle couldn’t – a #1 bestseller – is surely encouraging news. Let’s hope it gives her the confidence to make a speedier follow-up.
originally published June 12th, 2005
Ones & Zeros ••••
It seems like they’ve started putting something in the water in Canada, as the last year or so has seen bands like Wolf Parade and Broken Social Scene come to the fore and begin to erase memories of Bryan Adams and Celine Dion. Another recent export receiving both great critical acclaim and popular attention is Vancouver’s The New Pornographers, to whom labelmates Immaculate Machine are inextricably linked. Not only is IM’s keyboardist and vocalist Kathryn Calder the long-lost niece of New Pornographers frontman Carl Newman, her voice and piano skills can be found littered across his band’s recent offering Twin Cinema.
But, whereas The New Pornographers’ sound is created by anything from six to ten musicians at a time, Immaculate Machine need only three: Calder, guitarist/vocalist Brooke Gallupe and drummer/vocalist Luke Kozlowski. Not that you’d know it from listening to their debut album. Ones & Zeros boasts a sound as full and as rich as any five-piece can manage, helped in large parts by the multi-instrumental talents of the band members, most notably Calder herself, who not only sings but plays lead keyboards with one hand while making up for the lack of a bassist by providing accomplished bass lines with the other. It seems perfectly possible that she’s also providing additional percussion with her feet.
All of this results in a thoroughly wholesome album of likeable, power-pop tunes littered with scratchy guitars and adroit harmonies combined with lyrics that, if not exactly inspired, are intelligent and well crafted. There’s an overriding sense of joy carried throughout Ones & Zeros, even when the song’s subject matter is less than joyful (such as instantly catchy opener ‘Broken Ship’), that makes it easy to enjoy right from the opening chords. That’s not to say that they can’t drop into touching melancholia at a moment’s notice, it’s just that they somehow manage to remain uplifting while doing so.
Each song seems to have been invested with every ounce of enthusiasm and desire to entertain that the band could muster, and because they succeed in that desire almost every time, it’s hard to pick out a standout moment. That said, the aforementioned ‘Broken Ship’, and the track whose lyrics provide the album title, ‘No Such Thing As The Future’, would make for brilliant singles. However, it seems that that honour will go to ‘You’re So Cynical’, a simple and powerful song that draws the ear for having a chorus that sounds a bit like Clap Your Hands Say Yeah, though thankfully far less brain-wrenchingly discordant).
Although it’s hard to see this being anyone’s favourite record of all time, it’s almost impossible to believe that anyone could dislike the industriously wrought, energetic and beautiful indie-pop of this, almost, immaculate piece of engineering.
originally published May 1st, 2006
Dana Immanuel EP ••••
Let’s not beat around the shrubbery people, Dana Immanuel is a star and anyone who describes themselves as the sound of the “Cadbury’s Caramel bunny having a very bad day, in a swamp, somewhere in North London” quite frankly deserves to be. There was always something decidedly hypersexual and wrong about Miriam Margolyes’s wascally wabbit and it’s these and similar elements of life’s pink fleshy underbelly that Immanuel taps into with undeniable brilliance. It’s only fitting, then, that she was discovered by awestruck producer Tim Shoben whilst busking on the London Underground, possibly scaring the tourists. This all-too-brief EP truly does shine under his tutelage, an ugly-beautiful hit-and-run where poptastic knob-twiddling hero collides with dryly observational antifolkstress and both bounce off all the healthier.
Though sadly not a messed-up lo-fi cover of the Dobie Gray supermarket soul compilation classic, ‘Drift Away’ beats even that most tantalising of prospects hands down and then some. With its snappy lyrical prowess, stop-start stuttering hooks and Dana’s husky, whiskeyfied croon, it’s an absolute gem. Her impeccable timing is key but she still can’t resist cheekily enquiring “am I going too fast? / I know you can muster much more than half-assed” and who is anyone to argue with that? With its gentle rolling percussion, ‘Time Flies’ takes five minutes out from a daydream to revel in the glow of creamy melancholia, its slightly woozy melody instantly hummable and stick-in- your-head-for-days fantastic. Call Fiona Apple, call Ani DiFranco, their musical lovechild has been located.
In the grand tradition of saving only the best for last, the finest track here is undoubtedly ‘Banjo Song’, or to use a slightly politer version of its alternative title, ‘Mo Fo Ho’. A feast of finger-picked banjo, sinister keys, spaghetti western electric guitar and a filthy great bassline right out of a PJ Harvey song circa Is This Desire?, it’s a genuine tour de force. Taking the Martha Wainwright route one approach to notoriety surely won’t hamper Immanuel’s cause and the Janis Joplin-style wailathon in the middle is torturously inspired. The lady herself knowingly intones “you can’t resist its pull / so go ahead and bow to the inevitable” and that, my friends, is prophecy.
originally published May 17th, 2006
The Innocence Mission
Birds Of My Neighborhood [reissue] ••••
The Innocence Mission are the kind of band that can make you feel like you’re the only person who knows them. It’s hard to believe that the first time I heard them was once upon on a Saturday afternoon in the dim and distant late ‘80s playing live on Radio One, of all places. Then promoting their debut album, it seems they swiftly dispensed with playing the game in terms of conventional promotion and so forth, and pre-internet at least, they were certainly an elusive bunch. Every now and then an album just seemed to magically appear from their world of love and beauty. I felt quite selfish about it actually, like they were my own secret band. But they even made albums that I didn’t know about; such lovely mystery! For years, I thought that main songwriter Karen and guitarist Don were brother and sister when they are in fact Mrs. and Mr. Peris. Nowadays though, even they have a website, a fact that just doesn’t seem right somehow. And now, presumably still riding on the tidal wave of critical acclaim they’ve received in recent years – not least for 2003’s heavenly Befriended – they’re reissuing a fully remastered version of their 1999 cult classic Birds Of My Neighborhood. So while I was quite possibly the only person to ever buy a copy of the original, now any Tom, Dick or Harriet will be able to. Bah!
But you can’t keep something this good to yourself forever. Birds Of My Neighborhood is a deceptively simple-sounding collection with minimal overdubs, the couple joined only by longtime Mission-ary and double bassist, Mike Bitts. Karen has something of a Marmite voice; some may love it while others may find it impossible to get past and that’s fair enough – her sweetness makes Melanie Safka sound like a member of Slipknot. But in my opinion, hers is a gorgeous and heartrending talent, and never more so the latter than on a deeply personal song like ‘July’, perhaps the most explicit reference to a difficult time in the Peris’s marriage when they had serious problems in conceiving a much longed-for child (something that has since been happily resolved). The seasonal details here, of snow and rain, of nature, trees and lakes are vividly realised. When Karen sings “we will walk on a hill / red hats and blue coats and everything still”, you are all but right there with them on that cold snowy day.
The one cover version, a rendition of John Denver’s ‘Follow Me’, is so exquisite that it will quite possibly haunt you to the end of your days; frankly, it turns me to jelly every time I hear it and is a pertinent reminder that Denver was a far better writer than people give him credit for. Spiritual and childlike, mysterious and sparse, Birds Of My Neighborhood is too special an album to be one that gets away so be glad for a second chance to own it. Celebrity fans Joni Mitchell, Sufjan Stevens and David Gray have raved about The Innocence Mission, I’m raving about them and you will rave about them too, but it’s a very hushed and churchlike kind of raving so sssh! That way, they may even grow to feel like your very own secret band too.
originally published March 19th, 2006
Journey Into The Morn [reissue]
Open Sky / Voiceprint
An ancient Celtic truism states that a three-stranded cord is strong and, stylistically, this is also true of Iona. Their output falls squarely into three clear categories – Celtic-tinged pop, ambient sounds and extended, distinctly prog-leaning musical workouts. While their more ambient works often draw lazy comparisons with the likes of Clannad and Enya, Iona’s strength lies in a depth of focus that avoids the over-reliance on texture and arrangement (to the detriment of melody and song structure) that taints some of the Brennan family’s oeuvre. This same focus and musicality also keeps their more progressive tracks safely shy of meandering pretentiousness.
The mid-1990s were something of a transition period for the band, with the exit of co-founder Dave Fitzgerald and ex-Kajagoogoo bassist Nick Beggs and the temporary recruitment of Steeleye Span’s Tim Harries and Australian woodwind player Mike Houghton. Yet, ironically, this time of upheaval produced one of their most coherent and accomplished albums, Journey Into The Morn. A key factor in this was the addition the now permanent Troy Donockley. Although he had contributed uilleann pipes and low whistles to previous Iona albums, full-time membership helped steer the group in a more authentically folk and progressive rock direction, all the while retaining their accessible sound. This welcome reissue on the Voiceprint label gives listeners a timely opportunity to re-examine this important phase in their career.
After the gentle prelude of ‘Bí-Se I Mo Shúil’, a pair of joyous, upbeat pop songs presents itself in the form of ‘Irish Day’ and ‘Wisdom’, both of which are complemented by traditional Celtic instrumentation. The more trance-styled ‘Everything Changes’ follows, before the tender, acoustic guitar-driven ‘Inside My Heart’ raises the stakes, with singer Joanne Hogg interweaving sublime self-harmonies and countermelodies before the intensity builds and the electric guitar of Dave Bainbridge enters and soars above it. The album’s symphonic centrepiece, ‘Encircling’, is an astonishing piece of modern prog rock spanning eleven minutes with three separate movements: the ethereal ‘Lorica’ takes as its basis the Celtic ‘breastplate prayer’, while the traditional instrumentation and rock backing of ‘Tara’ evokes the ancient stronghold of the kings of Ireland. ‘Caim’, the ‘encircling charm’, symbolises an all-encompassing religious love, spiralling down to a tranquil conclusion.
A further thematic thread runs through the second half of the album, with many songs inspired by the 8th Century Irish hymn, ‘Be Thou My Vision’. Final track, ‘When I Survey’, acts as a coda, melding sacred 18th Century lyrics with the American folk tune better known as ‘The Water Is Wide’, hinting towards the source of the morning to which the journey takes us. This final song, an enduring live favourite, once again highlights the impressive strength and beauty of Joanne Hogg’s vocals and the power of her performance. Backed only by djembe, keyboard and e-Bow pads, she wrings every drop of meaning out of the words and tender melody.
Journey Into The Morn also features some notable guest appearances from Clannad vocalist Máire Brennan, who contributes Celtic harp to the title track and vocal loops to others alongside King Crimson founder Robert Fripp’s guitar synth and ‘Frippertronics’ effects. A decade on, Journey… remains a stunning piece of work that almost defies classification by being neither folk, pop, prog or rock, whilst blending elements of all four; remastering has only enhanced its sonic sheen. Iona have that rare ability to seamlessly transcend many diverse styles and Journey… offers plentiful and rich reward for those seeking to expand their musical and spiritual horizons beyond the everyday.
originally published November 11th, 2005
Live In London ••••
Open Sky / Voiceprint
It’s been a long time coming but this double-disc live DVD set from Celtic rock band Iona has been well worth the wait. In fact, it has been six years since fans of the band have had any new Iona product to get their teeth into – 2000’s studio album, Open Sky. This partial exile, during which the band has made only occasional live forays, has been partly self-imposed since it allowed, amongst other things, time for lead singer Joanne Hogg to start a family. However, with new studio album The Circling Hour due for release in the autumn, Live In London serves to whet expectant appetites, not least because three of the songs here (namely ‘Wind Off The Lake’, ‘Strength’ and ‘Factory Of Magnificent Souls’) are new and tasty entrées. The remainder of the songs are culled from the band’s five studio albums, with all phases of their 16-year career represented, with a few cuts from Iona’s multi-instrumentalists Dave Bainbridge and Troy Donockley’s duo project that has kept them busy during the downtime.
Filmed in November 2004, the concert is presented as something of a comeback, and it’s a joyous affair; the mixture of party atmosphere and adrenalin-fuelled nerves are in evidence, all of which add a sense of energy. The music is presented in two sections – the main programme providing over 90 minutes of the band in full flow and a half-hour acoustic set. It’s crowd-pleasing too, as is clear from the vociferous reaction. The music and visuals are both well presented, with only a few digital artefacts on the faster motion betraying the fact that the budget for the project was hardly that of Kylie or Robbie’s latest DVD.
The producers make very good use of the five-camera film crew and all the angles available, with occasional monochrome fades and inserts adding a touch of class. That it comes in proper widescreen format is simply an additional bonus, but an excellent one. Why so many music DVDs still seem to come in 4:3 ratio is beyond me, but that’s another story. The audio, too, is exemplary with both the stereo and 5.1 surround sound mixes vibrant and lively. As ever, Hogg is in fine voice, dishing up a bewitching concoction of crystalline purity and rich, breathy intimacy. The range of instruments shared between Bainbridge and Donockley is staggering, from the conventional rock armoury of electric guitars and keyboards to more traditional instruments like bouzoukis, acoustic guitars, low whistles and uilleann pipes. This more antiquated arsenal may seem to peg them in the ambient Celtic and folk-rock categories, but comparisons with Clannad at one extreme and Fairport Convention at the other fail because of the other elements Iona bring to the table.
Many of these songs possess definite prog rock leanings with their extended instrumental passages in which duetting uilleann pipes and electric guitar is something of an Iona signature. However, a keen pop sensibility never allows them to regress into the sort of navel-gazing self-indulgence that has so often marred music of this type. The playing is never anything less than tight and the music is always accessible and focused yet multi-layered and textured. It’s a heady but satisfying mixture that draws deep from both traditional and modern music and infuses that with a soaring Celtic spirit.
All told then, Live In London is an excellent record of a supremely talented band relishing the opportunity to share a passion for their music on stage. It succeeds as both a memento for existing fans and a great introduction for those who are new to the band. If your taste for Celtic music stretches beyond the MOR ambient washes of Enya and the like, or if you’re a fan of classic rock who’s willing to go beyond familiar constructs, there is much in this set that will reward your attention.
originally published June 8th, 2006
The Circling Hour •••••
Open Sky / Voiceprint
As 2006 slips onward into its darkening days so completes the busiest year in a long while for Iona and with it comes the greatest reward for their fans: a brand new studio album. It has certainly been a long time coming – their last album proper was 2000’s Open Sky – and follows this year’s teasers of a live DVD and tour. The wait was more than worth it; The Circling Hour is perhaps the finest statement yet from the band whose distinctive sound straddles genres as diverse as rock, pop, prog, Celtic and chillout. Too often a band’s return from an extended hiatus leads to disappointment and a sense of anticlimax, the anticipation far outweighing the event.
Right from the fragile opening of ‘Empyrean Dawn’, where Joanne Hogg’s delicate and halting intonation of lines from an ancient hymn cast a riveting spell, it’s palpable that something special is happening – underlined just seconds later when the rest of the band crash into the song with electric guitars, drums and Troy Donockley’s sublime uilleann pipes. Where Open Sky was perhaps a little too ambient and rambling, The Circling Hour is a leaner, meaner prospect. Pointedly focused and gloriously song-centred, it’s a driving, purposeful record that revels in its rhythmic elements.
Though the traditional slant to Iona’s music provides a solid grounding and a love affair with Celtic instrumentation, their pop sensibilities should not be underestimated and really come to the fore on tracks like ‘Strength’ and the marvellously titled ‘Factory Of Magnificent Souls’. Here, the band create a Celtic pop blend that The Corrs would kill for but add to that a political savvy that the Dundalk siblings could never approach. Where The Circling Hour does delve deeper into more progressive and traditional material, the symphonic and ambient moods it invokes avoid stylistic excess. See ‘Wind Off The Lake’ for a perfect example. Best of all, however, is the epic triptych of ‘Wind’, ‘Water’ and ‘Fire’; built around percussionist Frank Van Essen’s lyrical violin and Hogg’s ethereal voice, it provides a pastoral interlude that nestles between its more frantic surrounds. Evoking an Elgar serenade, the band conjures up a brief adagio before culminating in the frenetic con brio climax of ‘Fire’.
Once again, Hogg proves herself to be one of this country’s most stunning vocalists; her always-pure tones skilfully encapsulate every cool texture and deep emotion required. For that and any other reason you might care to think of, The Circling Hour is a dazzling album that politely stamps all over any notion of a slight return.
originally published November 23rd, 2006
Filed under: album, back issues, live, review | Tags: aaron alper, alan pedder, alex ramon, andrzej lukowski, anna claxton, beth orton, bryn williams, ciccone youth, dani siciliano, danny weddup, ember swift, endre buzogany, helen griffiths, jane siberry, jennifer hall, kristin hersh, loria near, marianne faithfull, marsha swanson, miranda richardson, patti smith, paul woodgate, rachael sage, rachel stevens, regina spektor, robbie de santos, rod thomas, russell barker, saint etienne, santa dog, scanners, scissor sisters, scott millar, sinead o'connor, sing-sing, skin, sleater-kinney, smoosh, sonic youth, sons and daughters, spider, stars, stephen collings, the sailplanes, the slits, tilda swinton, tori amos, trevor raggatt, yoko ono
The following reviews were all published on our old website between May 2005 and December 2006.
The Blistering Sun ••
Though anyone this side of the Atlantic is unlikely to have noticed, The Blistering Sun is, believe it or not, the seventh album by award-winning US singer-songwriter Rachael Sage. Sadly, longevity is rarely ever a cast iron guarantee of quality and the album finds Sage in something of a comfort zone and is immediately both shaky and derivative. It’s not even a particularly good derivative either. Sage’s compositions, whilst showing a grand affinity for traditional pop composition, barely register verifiable emotion and leave her sounding a step above the likes of Jewel and a step below the increasingly anodyne Sarah McLachlan.
The Blistering Sun works best when it gets quirky. For instance, the uptempo sass of ‘Hit ‘ – a parody of music industry shmoozaholism – finds Sage playing a slightly awry coffeehouse poet, while ‘Lonely Streets’ slightly ups the pulse with an appealing back alley ambience. Even ‘Proof’ is unashamedly pretty in its sweet, if a little bland, adult contemporariness. But everything else wears thin much too quickly. In particular, ‘Calypso’ and the Melissa Ferrick cover ‘Anything, Anywhere’ are fairly unremarkable and their chord progressions sound almost identical. Even Sage’s lyrics, which for a long time have served as her strongest asset, are lost in the humdrum of the arrangements and, like Jewel and McLachlan, make no argument against sounding dull and anonymous. Even the amassed ensemble of talented musicians, including the likes of Julie Wolf, Julia Kent, Todd Sickafoose and Rufus Wainwright’s guitarist Jack Petruzelli, never quite let the songs catch fire.
Despite the album’s inescapable aura of disappointment, Sage is far from a doomed soul by any means. She obviously has enough theatrics in her to go up against the likes of Regina Spektor (check out the lovely Ballads & Burlesque for example) but The Blistering Sun just doesn’t click into place in the same way that her earlier albums seemed to. It would be a shame to see Sage’s promise fizzle away and there’s every chance that this is merely a blip in her thus far consistently fruitful and ambitious career. Investigate her back catalogue first.
originally published July 14th, 2006
The Deepest Red EP ••••
As with many stupendous live acts, the studio version of London’s The Sailplanes doesn’t quite have the same impact, but when the songs are as strong as they are on this latest EP it hardly seems to matter. Packed with stark and scratchy, paranoid and jerky numbers very much in thrall to early Sonic Youth, The Deepest Red reveals a band that’s on to a very good thing. After all, there are far worse things they could be doing than channeling the energy and zest of the Youth into these excellent, ramshackle songs.
‘Seven Ships Lost’ makes for an intense, rumbling start with plenty of needling guitars and a lightly melodious feel that marries well with a crisp delivery from singer/ guitarist Stacey Hine. Next, ‘Underwound’ jolts you out of your seat with a short sharp shock as co-vocalist Tim Webster blasts the song into your skull. ‘Killing Time’, whose lyrics give the EP its name, is the clear standout – it’s a little bit second-wave punk, quite a lot riot grrrl and all fantastic. Much darker and sinister than the rest of the EP is ‘The Wild Huntsman’, which rounds off proceedings with a memorable mid-section where the song fades out until its almost inaudible, then after what seems like an eternity springs back into life.
Grab a copy of this and if you like what you hear just a little, go and see them live. You won’t be disappointed.
originally published October 5th, 2006
Tales From Turnpike House ••••
Thank the blue expanse above for Saint Etienne, perennial vanguards of fair Londinium, and their inimitable eye for a sorry mundanity in need of a paean to its ordinary glory. Clearly, whoever in radical Islam wants the capital on its knees hasn’t reckoned with Cracknell and co. Their latest feat of escapism, Tales From Turnpike House, is a concept album so familiar in its themes of inner city struggle and on the point of bursting bubbles of esteem that it’s utterly engaging for the most part. Over the course of the 12-track song cycle, the Ets unravel a day in the life of the residents of an East London high-rise, the titular Turnpike House. As such, the album opens with the breezily optimistic twosome of ‘Sun In My Morning’, a gentle strum that lazily blossoms with winsome Beach Boys harmonies and a gossamer-light flute solo, and ‘Milk Bottle Symphony’, which, quite simply, may well be their finest moment yet in a 15-year long career. Serving as more than just an introduction to the denizens of Turnpike House (one of whom, Gary Stead, appears in no fewer than three songs), it’s an irony-free and poignant glimpse into the morning rituals of the plateau’d and downwardly mobile.
Elsewhere, the work of Girls Aloud producers Xenomania yields that rare beast, an emotional dance number (!), in the guise of ‘Lightning Strikes Twice’, which recounts the laments of a failing new-ager. They also crop up to polish the charm offensive of ‘Stars Above Us’, a sweetly gratifying floor-filler extolling the simple virtues of a roof garden in this reverse oasis of concrete. Other highlights include the sultry first single, ‘Side Streets’, a tune that swings so unapologetically that it’s easy to overlook the urban paranoia / violent crime lyrical bent, and ‘A Good Thing’, a hefty slab of disco Etienne at their finest. The mostly spoken word ‘Teenage Winter’ mines a similarly rich seam of nostalgia as the glorious ‘How We Used To Live’ from 2000’s Sound Of Water, this time with an added twist of the inevitability of change and the futility of resistance. Album closer ‘Goodnight’ is also worthy of a mention, with its soothing backdrop of wistful boy-girl harmonies drawing the cloak of evening around the humble tower block.
Where Saint Etienne have been less successful in the past, it’s almost always been the fault of being just that little bit too knowing, a fault repeated here on the stilted and silly Relocate, a marital wobbly about moving to the country featuring none other than David Essex as the reluctant husband. It’s as if the Tom Jones/Cerys Matthews duet on ‘Baby, It’s Cold Outside’ never even happened. Even William Shatner managed to mostly avoid such cringesome pitfalls on last year’s Has Been. Nevertheless, Tales... is a dignified return to form after the mostly disappointing Finisterre, and one that will ensure that their legacy remains intact if, as the abounding rumours suggest, it does indeed turn out to be their last album together, at least for grown-ups that is – September’s Up The Wooden Hills will be aimed at, though by no means restricted to, those who’ve recently mastered the feat of walking from the high chair to the potty.
At a time when London is reeling from the first blood of a psychological turf war, Tales From Turnpike House is not just another album from the city’s most enduring musical champions, but also an affectionate tour of an instantly recognisable but altogether less harrowing reality. Get lost in it.
originally published July 26th, 2005
Belle de Jour EP •••
The Belle de Jour EP is the third release from Bristol-based indie-pop hopefuls Santa Dog (where did they get that name?) in little over a year, and it’s certainly a likeable offering that demonstrates a definite progression from their previous EP. Released in October 2005, the Chemical EP suffered from a flat production job that all but buried the vocal in the mix, yet contained the requisite amount of shoegazing introspection to maintain a degree of appeal. No such regrets to be found on this follow-up, however; Belle de Jour sparkles with a clarity of sound that allows the guitars to jangle as intended. This pleasing development shows a clear and confident step forward in the intervening six months and suggest that the band are growing in confidence. So whilst their indie intensity stays intact, the sound and delivery presents a more accomplished package.
Each member has their own role to play and does so with aplomb. Jojo Harper’s bass drives proceedings along, effectively melding with genuinely scary looking drummer Martin Maidment’s rhythms, while guitarist Rob Williams liberally layers jangly arpeggios and riffs throughout, his occasional squalls suggesting that his influences are wider than the Squire/ Marr/Butler triumvirate to encompass rather less textbook sources like Steve Howe or Bill Nelson. Perhaps their greatest assets, however, are those they exploit most effectively here – good tunes and an even better singer in Rowena Dugdale, whose vocals are just sufficiently ‘estuary’ to perfectly suit the music, with more than a touch of Kirsty MacColl around the edges. Dugdale pitches her performance well, giving a sense of strength and also vulnerability.
Musically, the title track skirts pleasingly along the perimeter of Belle & Sebastian territory, occasionally adding in shades of Teenage Fanclub, The Divine Comedy and the aforementioned Electric Landlady. It weaves an all-too-relevant story of finding significance in meaningful relationships in a society in which we are systematically brainwashed by daytime TV and reality gameshow banalities. Elsewhere, ‘Rosa’ is a parade of sunny summer hooks that risks being rained on by an undercurrent of sadness and desperation, while ‘Pop-Coloured’ is a power-chord confection that visits The Boo Radleys via Franz Ferdinand with its pounding snare driving along the jaunty, choppy guitars. Finally, ‘1000 Cranes’ brings things to a close with a gloomy yet luminous evocation of lost love in post-industrial Britain. On this evidence, it seems that Dugdale and co. are on a serious upward trajectory, and if things continue apace, this Dog may yet have its day.
originally published March 19th, 2006
Violence Is Golden ••••
Though having a name that’s pretty much Google kryptonite probably hasn’t helped Scanners’ cause, it’s hard not to feel this fledgling London quartet have been dealt a slightly unfortunate hand. A domestic deal hasn’t been forthcoming, and while US indie Dim Mak snapped them up Stateside some months ago, doubtless thanks to the magic of the internet, this isn’t as rosy as it sounds. A couple of LA showcase gigs aside, Scanners are in the somewhat Catch 22-ish position of being too skint to tour the only country their record is out in, instead gigging almost exclusively in London where no bugger can buy the album.
This deserves to change, as said album, Violence Is Golden, is as invigorating a record as you’ll hear all year. The lynchpin is singer Sarah Daly, whose vocals lie somewhere between Polly Jean Harvey and glam-era Bowie – eerie and off-kilter, but delivered with too much arch panache to ever drift into woe-is-me territory. But it’s the music that really makes the album; on a budget of what must have been about 5p, the band appear to have compressed all the best bits of the ‘70s and ‘80s into eleven slick, tuneful blasts. From the faintly ribald electro-avalanche of opener ‘Joy’, through the New Order-esque melancholy of ‘Lowlife’ and the rabid camp of ‘Air 164′ and ‘Raw’, Violence Is Golden smacks into you like Zinedine Zidane on happy pills, a Technicolor beast gleefully devouring glam, new wave, punk and a half-dozen other genres.
That it occasionally lacks depth and is generally a touch incoherent does little to diminish the album’s appeal – after all, lack of depth and shallowness are classic signs of a good time, and Violence Is Golden is more fun than snorting a tequila slammer.
originally published July 23rd, 2006
Drawing inspiration from 1970s disco, glam and the club culture of their native New York City, the Scissor Sisters stormed the nation in 2004, selling over three million copies of their eponymous debut. Exuberant and enjoyably brash, they fabulously forged their way, feather boas and all, into the hearts of everyone from hipsters to suburban housewives. It stands to reason, then, that the follow-up might be greeted with hesitant scrutiny. Would they manage to carry their signature sound across another album or quickly snuff out of the spotlight, their proverbial 15 minutes exhausted?
Interestingly, Ta-Dah almost seems to be something of a cautious response to their success. Where Scissor Sisters danced saucily all over with themes of freedom and parties, Ta-Dah delves into the psyche with songs about the love, relationships and death, without being a million musical miles from its predecessor with more of the same dance-infused pop that made the band so famous. Take the first single ‘I Don’t Feel Like Dancin’ for example. It’s just as catchy and radio ready as ‘Take Your Mama’, with the added gloss of being co-written by Sir Elton John himself, yet it’s a song about Sunday morning, not Saturday night – the first of many tracks where the music belies the sentiment woven into the lyrics. “Wake up in the morning with a head like ‘what ya done?’ / this used to be the life but I don’t need another one.”
And it doesn’t stop there. As the album wears on, it’s obvious that the songs are strong and danceworthy, with several hits in waiting. But pay attention to the lyrics and a darker element emerges. In the David Bowie-esque Intermission, lead vocalist Jake Shears sings wistfully that “tomorrow’s not what it used to be / we were born to die”, while ‘The Other Side’ shows he’s not just a Barry Gibb clone as he really milks the slowie by crooning softly of a lover’s passing, “if it takes another life / I’ll wait for you / on the other side.”
If the album lacks anything in particular it is the rich voice of Ana Matronic, the self-described “drag queen stuck in a woman’s body”. Notably a strong force in the Sisters’s live shows, her voice is buried here, only coming out from the shadow of Shears’ overwhelming falsetto to shine on the infectious dance track ‘Kiss You Off’. Channeling a pissed off Debbie Harry, Matronic doesn’t just take the lead, she takes complete centre stage with a soaring voice that bites back with lyrics like “spare this child your sideways smile / that crack in your veneer / some blue broad will spoil your rod / it just takes patience dear.”
If you haven’t been a fan of the Scissor Sisters before this point, Ta-Dah isn’t likely to change your mind. Despite strong lyrical development and inventive songwriting, the band has a proud image that it’s highly doubtful to shed any time soon. And who would want them to? They’ve done well for themselves and despite a few weak points here and there, Ta-Dah is a solid album that recalls why the ‘70s are so much fun to remember.
originally published December 17th, 2006
Love Is Everything: An Anthology [reissue] ••••½
From Joni Mitchell to the McGarrigles, Sarah McLachlan to kd lang, Canada has produced a significant number of accomplished and influential female singer-songwriters. Mitchell is the undisputed foremother, of course, setting the bar almost ludicrously high in terms of innovation, musicianship and lyrical dexterity. But the artists who have followed in her wake have also made their own distinctive contributions to Canada’s musical mosaic. Though extremely diverse and individual, their work is characterised by emotional fearlessness, a willingness to experiment and an often-breathtaking ability to fuse elements of pop, folk, rock and jazz in creative ways – sometimes in the space of a single song.
Jane Siberry is one such artist. Blessed with a playful sense of humour, a protean voice that can both soar and confide, and the ability to turn a song about a missing cow into an aching expression of loss, she has a devoted following in Canada and elsewhere. In the UK, however, she has seldom received the recognition she richly deserves. In recent years, her decision to release new material only through her own Sheeba label has not helped to raise her profile, and when kd lang covered two of her songs on her 2004 covers album of classic Canadian songcraft, Hymns Of The 49th Parallel, British listeners could perhaps have been forgiven for asking “Jane who”? For the uninitiated, then, this 2-disc, 30-track retrospective (first released in 2002) serves as the perfect introduction to an idiosyncratic and endlessly rewarding body of work. Drawn mainly from Siberry’s early 1980s folk-based releases, her experimental No Borders Here, The Speckless Sky and The Walking trilogy, 1989’s Bound By The Beauty and 1993’s When I Was A Boy, the choice of material on the first disc could not be bettered. Given the extraordinary level of quality control, it’s almost churlish to pick favourites, but the inviting piano ballad ‘In The Blue Light’, the spry ‘Red High Heels’, the unearthly ‘The Walking (& Constantly)’, the hymnal ‘The Lobby’ and the rapt ‘Bound By The Beauty’ are all particularly captivating expressions of Siberry’s unique gifts. The disc also gives a clear sense of her creative development, from her spare apprentice material to her exhilarating experiments with studio trickery throughout the 1980s.
This is not to suggest that the compilation follows a slavishly chronological path through Siberry’s work, however. Instead, several thematically connected songs from different periods are linked together to form mini cycles and suites. Thus, ‘Bessie’ (from her 1996 album, Teenager) is paired with its 1981 ‘prequel’ ‘The Mystery At Ogwen’s Farm’ to tell the tale of a flying bovine from two contrasting perspectives. Placed side by side, the songs sound especially striking, the former a buoyant acoustic strum full of Chagall-esque imagery, the latter an exquisite lament in which the narrator of ‘Bessie’ features as a mere bit player. The same trick occurs on the second disc, whereupon Siberry’s classic ‘Mimi On The Beach’ is followed by the live recording ‘Mimi Speaks’, a cheeky spoken-word piece in which the objectified title character is finally given the chance to “have [her] say”. Such thoughtful sequencing reveals Siberry’s heartening commitment to the fullest possible development of her stories and characters, and is a valuable feature of this compilation. Siberry trades immaculate harmonies with lang on ‘Calling All Angels’, one of her best-loved songs and also one of her most beautiful, pitched in some galaxy midway between despair and consolation. Yet Siberry does not fear bold exuberance; ‘The Life Is The Red Wagon’ is a dose of happiness, its “you pull for me… I pull for you” refrain serving as the ultimate antidepressant.
The second disc is patchier and gives the impression that Siberry’s work has become somewhat less compelling in recent years. There are, of course, some heavenly moments; the sublime, minutely-detailed pop of ‘Mimi’ and the skewed piano ballads ‘Goodnight Sweet Pumpkinhead’ and ‘Barkis Is Willin’. However, the bizarre ‘Peony’ is a piece of woeful, substandard experimenta, and the best that can be said of her treatments of traditional material such as ‘All Through The Night’ and ‘The Water Is Wide’ is that they’re pretty. But ‘pretty’ feels like a considerable letdown after her complex and daring earlier work, and there are times when these songs veer perilously close to schmaltz. It’s left to her closing cycle of ‘Map Of The World’ tracks – presented together in sequence for the first time here with a new (and not very satisfying) ‘Part IV’ – to regain some of the lost momentum.
Siberry shares with Kate Bush an ability to combine unconventional lyrical subject matter with intricate, densely layered yet accessible melodies and arrangements. The work of both also expresses an unabashed femininity and an emotional openness that can sound surprisingly close to toughness. The relative paucity of rarities or new material on this collection means that it has less to offer long-time devotees of Siberry’s music. But Rhino have done a typically impeccable job on it, and it will undoubtedly inspire those new to her work, and leave them eager to hear more.
originally published March 25th, 2006
Dani Siciliano is an artist with a rather impressive CV, having worked extensively with ex-husband Matthew Herbert and charmed all the critics with her acclaimed solo debut, 2004’s Likes…, which featured reworkings of her favourite tracks, including a brave and overall successful take on Nirvana’s ‘Come As You Are’. My first reaction on listening to Slappers, however, is that her musical past is more hindrance than help to her current material. Comparisons are inevitable and, unfortunately for Dani, Slappers is simply not a patch on her past achievements. Although that might strike you as rather a crude statement to make as an intro, it’s not just an easy dismissal. The production values of Slappers vary very, very minutely from Herbert’s Bodily Functions and though the latter saw Siciliano’s vocal transport the music onto another level entirely, allowing her talent to shine, here her voice is simply not enough and is, in all honesty, sorely underused.
While always slightly understated, the melodies and stylistics of Siciliano’s previous work have allowed her voice to be a constantly powerful presence, you’ll struggle to find a track on Slappers that showcases any vocal prowess. The overriding problem is that the album is painfully flat; it merely meanders along without any real driving force. With so little real variation between songs, there’s something crucial lacking. Only the single ‘Why Can’t I Make You High?’ differs in style, but it’s messy – a little bit Goldfrapp in terms of beat but with acoustic bass, a melody extremely reminiscent of many other songs, and a terrible, terrible chorus. Though it pains me to say this, it sounds like Rachel Stevens at a hoedown, a quirky throwaway and the album’s weakest moment by far.
Slappers is not a total failure by any means, it’s just a bit boring. Its dynamics rarely change, so much so that the few stronger moments such as ‘Too Young’ only emphasise the underachievement elsewhere. I found myself confused by Slappers; I just don’t understand what it’s trying to do – it is neither well written enough to be a commercial success or intelligent enough to be a word of mouth classic.
The main problem that Siciliano faces, and most probably will continue to face, is that people expect more of her. Anyone aware of her working history will see very little progression in the music on offer here, and I cannot see Slappers winning fans of anyone not already on board as the songs simply aren’t strong enough. In a music scene where production values are becoming much more the point of focus, and where electronic acts are either achieving massive underground success or, from time to time, commercial glory, this collection of songs is far too weak to be of any real challenge or significance.
originally published September 17th, 2006
Vanishing Girl [reissue] •••½
Angelic Music is the brainchild of London-based singer-songwriter Janice Haves; more than just a simple indie label, it looks to provide a platform and a resource for female musicians. Angelic’s first signing is fellow Londoner Liz Simcock and their second release (after Haves’s own Big Front Door) is a very welcome reissue of 2005’s Vanishing Girl.
Simcock has passed the last few years plying her trade around the country’s folk club circuit, ably assisted by regular cohorts Ian Newman and Warwick Jones on bass and guitar, both of whom appear here along with drummer Pete Abernathy. The musical maturity that comes from entertaining such a notoriously difficult-to-please audience is certainly evident on the recording. But Simcock is not some twiddly, finger-in-the-ear folkster – her palette is much broader than that. Sure, there are winsome acoustic-based numbers and Joni Mitchell is a notable influence – ‘The Sand That Makes The Pearl’ is a gently personal tribute to the great lady, inspired by the 2003 TV documentary ‘Woman Of Heart & Mind’. Even the lyrics are populated with a patchwork of Mitchell’s thoughts and quotations, adding an additionally moving and poignant dimension to the song. On other songs, Simcock draws from more diverse sources – ‘Scissors Cut Paper’ rocks quietly along whilst musing about the futility of the conflicts which beset this troubled world and ‘Home To You’ is a country boogie that Mary Chapin Carpenter herself would be proud of. Elsewhere, there are nods in the direction of some of the last century’s greatest songwriters, from Paul Simon to Cole Porter and various points in between.
Like Mitchell, Simcock invests a good deal of well- judged humour in her music, scattering the ticklers among the more contemplative numbers. Most notable of the former variety is the sublime ‘Letisha Boccemski’, on which Simcock wonders what it would be like to inherit a greater sense of devil-may-care centeredness and self-confidence (fans of Channel 4’s ‘Countdown’ will instantly recognise the identity of Ms Boccemski’s mild-mannered alter ego). Lyrically, it’s witty and urbane and carried along on a jaunty, almost trad-jazz soundtrack (with Simcock manning the clarinet too). Imagine Aimee Mann singing from the Peter Skellern songbook, or even vice versa, and smile.
All this focus on the quality of the writing risks neglecting the beauty of Simcock’s voice. Blending a mellow richness with clarity and genuine emotion she produces a beautiful tone that perfectly complements the songs. Similarly, she is no slouch on the acoustic guitar either, mixing some excellent finger picking and riffing with Jones. On this evidence, Simcock is a singer to watch out for and with the backing of Angelic and a healthy dollop of luck she won’t be disappearing any time soon.
originally published October 27th, 2006
Sing-Sing & I •••••
At the turn of the millennium, a bright pop phoenix arose from the ashes of Britpoppers Lush in the form of the shiny Sing-Sing, a whip-smart collaboration between songwriter/guitarist Emma Anderson and former Mad Professor associate, Lisa O’Neill. Released on their own Aerial imprint through Sanctuary Records, their debut album The Joy Of Sing-Sing inexplicably vanished, even with a second push when signed to Poptones. Five years on, the duo are back with an astonishingly strong set of modern, intelligent pop that takes no prisoners.
‘Lover’ gets proceedings off to a flying start with a slab of Blondie-meets-The Bangles punk-pop combining driving drums and bass with an insidiously memorable chorus set off with luscious background harmonies. ‘Come, Sing Me A Song’ successfully blends Bond villain strings and horns with perky acoustic guitar to create a flawless pop song with a lightness that never grows cloying, while ‘A Modern’ Girl encapsulates the best ‘80s and ‘90s pop; coming on like the Lightning Seeds with Associates-style piano chops, it sets out a manifesto for the Bridget Jones generation. The quirky ‘Mr Kadali’ lopes along wistfully contemplating a quick fix for life’s little hassles, punctuated with voiceovers from the eponymous spiritual healer. Then, just when you think you’ve got the measure of the girls, Sing-Sing try to wrong-foot you. ‘Ruby’ kicks the door of assumption to the floor and throws around the furniture with a louche and sleazy slice of disco metal that the Scissor Sisters would kill for.
Normally with a ‘side one’ this strong, the fear of anticlimax kicks in, but thankfully Sing-Sing & I completely assuages. ‘I Do’ and ‘Going Out Tonight’ retain the Lightning Seeds pop feel but add in the indie and electronica influences that reflect their musical backgrounds. After a mellower moment provided by ‘Unseen’, ‘The Time Has Come’ is a rites of passage drinking song with a boozy sing-a-long chorus, complete with bierkeller ambience, contrasting nicely with Lisa’s tender and vulnerable verses. The album rounds off with ‘When I Was Made’ and ‘A Kind Of Love’; the former a joyous pop song recalling the likes of Belle & Sebastian or even the Divine Comedy, complete with harp ‘pling’s and an instrumental coda, and the latter a complex, beautiful and contemplative song that echoes O’Neill’s work with the Mad Professor.
It’s hard to praise Sing-Sing & I highly enough – every song is a potential hit single. O’Neill’s vocals are pure and sit well in the mix, at times conjuring a looser Kate Bush and at others Isobel Campbell, and are woven into an effective, harmonious web with Emma’s graceful backing coos. Despite the use of synths, samples and electronic effects throughout the album, the production is never permitted to steal the show, but serves the songs and coaxes out their subtleties. Perhaps the most striking thing about Sing-Sing is that the songs burrow into your consciousness, quickly becoming your internal soundtrack. After just a couple of listens, they seem so utterly familiar that it’s almost inconceivable you haven’t known them for years. Sing-Sing are precisely the type of talent required to rescue the UK pop charts from the turgid, manufactured product that currently holds them in thrall.
originally published November 28th, 2005
Fake Chemical State •••½
Following the dissolution of Skunk Anansie in 2000 after three albums that successfully blended punk and metal with anthemic pop and soul and a 1999 headline slot at Glastonbury, a solo career was almost inevitable for Skin, their charismatic incendiary frontwoman. However, her first solo effort, 2003’s Fleshwounds, was a sparse, lo-fi and introspective record that dismally failed to register in the public consciousness and quickly dropped off the radar. Fast forward three years and it’s no surprise that solo album number two, Fake Chemical State, heralds a return to our heroine’s rock roots. From the cover art depicting her collapsed on a ceramic floor, face painted in junkie chic (a none-too-subtle literalisation of the album title, perhaps?), the self-proclaimed leader of clit-rock is evidently keen to reaffirm her territory, changing record labels to V2 and bringing Strokes producer Gordon Raphael on board. Always defying expectation – after all, how many black skinhead lesbian singers are there in the white boy rock world? – and without any real comparison, Skin only needs to live up to her own high standards.
For the most part she succeeds. After the radio-unfriendly Fleshwounds, Skunk Anansie fans looking for a fix of nostalgia will not be disappointed by Fake Chemical State, which comes complete with softly softly verses that suddenly break into bombastic choruses – the aural equivalent of shaking your hand before slapping you square in the face. ‘Alone In My Room’, one of four co-writes with former Mansun frontman Paul Draper, is a flashback to 1997 and Mansun’s own particular brand of pretentious prog-rock. It’s the perfect album opener, full of dirty chords, clipped post-punk vocals and a glorious pop chorus. The latest single release, ‘Just Let The Sun’, another Draper co-write, also comes complete with crunching post-grunge guitars layered with multi-tracked vocals that makes for an unmistakeable, but perhaps too familiar listen.
What mars the album slightly is a sense of identity crisis; like a nasty neighbour with 20ft Leylandii, the edgier tracks leave the sensitive songs in the shade, which is especially a shame with the dreamy swirling riffs of album closer ‘Falling For You’, a song that reveals Skin’s vocals at their best, honest and pure. Like former labelmate Björk, Skin can make effortless octave leaps that would leave lesser singers breathless, and her patented wind-tunnel scream is in full force here, meaning the catchier songs like the slow building ‘Don’t Need A Reason’ have all the necessary ingredients to become live favourites. Lyrically, Fake Chemical State is a demanding listen, balancing youthful petulance and bittersweet reflection. The cut-and-paste words of the punkier songs seem strung together solely for musical effect, while the sensitive numbers display a lyrical heart-on-sleeve intensity. Most poignantly on the Linda ‘1 Non-Blonde’ Perry-produced ‘Nothing But’, Skin sings of a lost love who has since moved on: “please ignore the particular way I smile / take no notice of the blood on the lip I bite / I am still your friend”.
Wisely, Fake Chemical State is not simply an attempt to repeat the formula of her past successes, and there is enough here to suggest that Skin is finally moving in a direction where she feels comfortable and confident. Clocking in at just over half an hour, the album hints at finer things to come and the fact that it also makes for an enjoyable listen is simply a happy coincidence.
originally published March 29th, 2006
Mind How You Go ••••
Most people will already be familiar with Skye Edwards from her days fronting trip-hop heroes turned coffee table adorners Morcheeba and, inevitably, your liking or loathing of her origins will prejudice opinions of this, her debut solo outing, right, left and middle of the road. But wipe away those preconceived ideas, for now is Edwards’s time to at last be appreciated as an artist in her own right. A richly layered musical approach gives Mind How You Go a sublime, multi-sensory texture that, when combined with Skye’s distinctive voice, produces an album with highly individual characteristics. With its prevailing sense of the hazy dog days of summer, not explicitly expressed until the closer ‘Jamaica Days’, Skye makes the most of the contrast between inherently grey urban environments and sprawling, idle, sun-drenched days. Guaranteed to effectively enrich your day, it’s ideally suited to life in the city for those with escapist tendencies.
‘Love Show’ is a perfect introduction, allowing you to gently descend into Edwards’s world, cushioned by her light and breathy but infinitely listenable vocal. Love is usually unrequited, tumultuous or passionate in song, so when Edwards sings “it’s painless letting your love show”, it’s a minor revelation. By ‘What’s Wrong With Me’, these refreshingly unusual insights are a regular feature but not all are effective. Mentions of mortgages and emails are hardly the kind of thing that most of us would relish being reminded of when indulging in idealism. Elsewhere, ‘Stop Complaining’ contains a jarring reference to driving “down to the rodeo”. But for the occasions where things don’t quite work, there are just as many where her slightly left of centre worldview makes you listen harder and appreciate the work all the more.
Gossamer-light and gorgeous, ‘Solitary’ jostles into the memory with a well-executed staccato approach and is a nice example of when the more synthetic sounds at work on the album are at their most effective. ‘No Other’, on the other hand, could perhaps rely less heavily upon them as the exotic beach-inspired sounds seem unnecessarily fake. The conversational ‘Tell Me’, with its Disney-esque introductory motif, is reminiscent of a postcard or phonecall home in which the overall message is positive but there are moments when the realisation hits that “all the distance spoils the view”, that to be sharing the experience rather than trying to live and re-tell the adventure would make the journey more authentic.
Certainly, what makes Mind How You Go that little bit special is Edwards’s way with a lyric. So while on the first listen you may be fooled into finding superficial similarities with Dido or Katie Melua – the vocal tone is comparable – the more you listen, the richer and more unique it becomes. ‘All The Promises’ is the definitive song in that respect, with unusual snippets like “we broke the chain and left the cross behind” and “love’s a stain on a shirt like old red wine” that haunt you long after the song has ended. Rather than reinterpret a traditional perspective, she’ll take each subject and give it a personal twist, sharing the benefit of her own experience.
The island voices feel to ‘Jamaica Days’ complements nicely the lyrical hymn of desire for sunshine, propelling the album towards that which it and perhaps Edwards herself has been seeking from the beginning – an entwining of the new and traditional, an identity carved from many influences and a sense of individulity that allows for fresh starts and beautiful changes, the most enduring part of which is that Skye is taking us all with her for the ride.
originally published June 12th, 2006
The Woods ••••
I have no intention of clogging the page with ruminations on band set-up, record labels, history, tour dates, and downloads etc. You can find all that on http://www.sleater-kinney.com or http://www.sleater-kinney.net, written with more care and aim to please than I could ever be bothered with. While to Sleater-Kinney newbies, the trio’s name might conjure up thoughts of a solicitors’ office or city financial advisors, fortunately nothing could be further from the truth. If the metaphor is to be persevered with, Sleater-Kinney are, if anything, more like a construction company, complete with all the heavy earth-moving machinery that any local area regeneration scheme would be rightly envious of.
Seventh album The Woods contains everything from high-energy melodic grinding (‘The Fox’) to raw and impassioned rock (‘What’s Mine Is Yours’ and ‘Entertain’). Even the instrumental sections on the epic 11-minute ‘Let’s Call It Love’ lift you up, let you float happily awhile, before throwing you down from a very great height. Add to that the range of Corin Tucker and Carrie Brownstein’s duelling vocals, which gloriously hurtle from sweet-sounding harmonies on ‘Night Light’ to the howling roar of a B52 bomber found almost everywhere else, and you’re on to a winner.
Although you cannot fail to recognise some of their grunge influences and PJ Harvey-esque deliveries, Sleater-Kinney pull it off by exuding a more natural and unforced cool. While the cynics amongst you might say it’s all been done before, I say not recently and certainly not as well as this. The Woods is unadulterated, fresh, fun and very cleverly composed. The sequencing of the tracks ensures an invigorating flow that maintains a certain sense of urgency and keeps the listener wanting more. Want proof? It’s a rare thing indeed that most tunes on an album would force me to wriggle to the rhythm and shake a leg discreetly under the desk, but it happened here alright. The Woods has plenty to offer and stands up to repeated listens. It seems to me that the interpretation of each tune will also depend on your mood. A song that made you air guitar with your mates on first listen might later make you want to drive out onto the interstate to lock horns with a tornado. Alone. At night. Wearing nothing but your shades.
originally published ??, 2005
Revenge Of The Killer Slits EP •••
It’s been 28 years since The Slits’ ragged debut Cut, 28 years since they greeted the world at large whilst smeared in mud and wearing nothing but loincloths and over 30 years since their first ever gig, a riotous performance of their anthem ‘Shoplifting’ in Selfridges. Here in 2006, only two of the band’s original line-up remain and this hotly anticipated new EP has everyone begging the question: do The Slits still have it?
Beginning with ‘The Slits Tradition’, a self-mythologising big-up that recaps the band’s history and charts their influence on the punk scene, The Slits commendably waste no time in putting forward their gender-political views. Though it sounds like a rather embarrassing prospect, surprisingly they still have the nous to carry it off. Admittedly some of the spoken word segments do sound like they’re being read directly from a feminist textbook, but their sentiment is admirable. Backed by rumbling, distorted bass and Peaches-esque electronics, the band sound fired up and fiercely committed. Disconcertingly, the opening lines are sung in a girl group-esque chant that immediately and disturbingly recalls All Saints rather than Ari Up, but any claim on that band’s behalf to be “the first of our kind / way ahead of our time” would be laughed off the stage, and quite rightly so.
It’s refreshing to see that The Slits still refuse to allow the cocky arrogance of punk to be solely the preserve of the male: this has always been one of their major aims and they continue to convince at it. That said, it seems a little incongruent at best to place this manifesto, a mission statement that makes great claims, as the opening number of such a brief EP; ‘The Slits Tradition’ would fit better as the opening salvo of a full-length album where there ought to be more evidence to support its grand statements. The clues do lie in The Slits’ back catalogue, but many (especially younger) music fans might not be familiar with their work and find the self-aggrandising statements of the track a little puzzling.
Next up, ‘Number One Enemy’ is reportedly an unrecorded track from back in the day, and it certainly sounds like its been beamed direct from 1978: it’s aggressive and confrontational, with an old-school punk riff far removed from the more modern sound of the first track. The scattergun anger of the era comes across in the snarled lines, “I’m gonna be your number one enemy / all for the hell of it”. Final track ‘Kill Them With Love’ is a dub reggae affair in a similar vein to Ari Up’s most recent solo outing, but is easily the weakest inclusion. It’s not bad exactly, but after the ballsy energy of ‘Number One Enemy’ it feels a little wan. Fact fans might jump for trivia joy when they spot ex-‘Popworld’ presenter Miquita Oliver on backing vocals, but that’s about as surprising as it gets.
There’s no denying that Revenge Of The Killer Slits is a strange little project; the three tracks are so incohesive and brief that they’ll almost certainly leave you to wonder whether Up and co. just couldn’t pen enough good tracks to fill a decent album. Still, it makes for an interesting soundclash between 1978 and 2006, serving both as a time capsule that demonstrates why the band must have been such a startling, anarchic presence back in the late ‘70s and as a pleasing reminder that they’re still relevant now.
originally published December 17th, 2006
Patti Smith’s Meltdown: Songs Of Innocence
Live at the Royal Festival Hall ••••
June 18th, 2005
It’s 7:30pm and already tonight’s instalment of the 2005 Meltdown Festival is lingering a little too close to the literal for my liking; the temperature at the rear of the Royal Festival Hall is enough to make the blood boil. All of a sudden, I feel sorry for lobsters. Luckily, such empathy fits snugly into the theme of the evening. Patti Smith, punk’s most judicious high poetess, has seen to it personally that this year’s festival is no mere excavation cum shindig with cronies (à la Morrissey’s 2004 effort) or disappointingly macho all-male love-in (e.g. David Bowie’s stint as curator in 2002).
Instead, she has opted for a typically many-layered production, drawing together the themes of war, politics, art, the working class, literature, experience and tonight’s raison d’être, the innocence of children. More specifically, the theme of the evening is an extension of Smith’s love affair with the works of poet William Blake, and in particular with his late 18th Century classic, ‘Songs Of Innocence & Experience’. The book was originally published in two volumes, the first of which is tonight’s inspiration and the second will close the festival on June 26th during a neat tie-in with the work of Jimi Hendrix, featuring the likes of Joanna Newsom, Jeff Beck, Robert Wyatt and Patti Smith herself. Tonight’s cast is no less stellar. In fact, it’s deliriously brilliant. A once-in-a-lifetime bringing together of some of the world’s greatest female performers, plus a few token males and Yoko Ono.
After a comedic short film of a lunatic dancing boy plays on the big screen, the stage goes dark until actress Miranda Richardson steps out of the shadows to read Blake’s pastorally charming ‘The Lamb’. Patti Smith and her band then take to the stage for an utterly engrossing and powerful rendition of ‘Birdland’ from her near-sacred debut Horses. The song is a discourse on the loss of a young boy’s father and the desire the child feels to be reunited with his dad. Given that tomorrow is Father’s Day, it’s inevitably uncomfortable listening for some. Patti later returns to sing a sweet but drippy ditty written for her son Jackson by her late husband, Fred “Sonic” Smith of MC5, and then another with her daughter Jesse on piano. She also takes time out to introduce us to her favourite childhood toy, little green Gumby, the “clay man you can trust” who’s fast becoming the unofficial Meltdown festival mascot.
In that moment, the notion of Smith as tortured artist and sullen elder stateswoman is banished forever and rightly so. If only Tori Amos were as endearing. As exemplary as her performance is, the empathy factor is lacking. In a four-song set drawing heavily on her earlier albums, her finest moment is in fact a stirring take on ‘Mother Revolution’ from 2005’s The Beekeeper. For someone who struggled so hard to be a mother and is so proud to finally be one, that she doesn’t engage the crowd with onstage banter or even acknowledge the purpose of the show smacks of lost opportunity, though you can’t really argue with a standing ovation. The notoriously self-effacing Beth Orton fares better with the endearment factor – her sweet reedy voice cosies up to the songs like old friends, and she ends each with a somewhat overexcited yelp of thanks. Best of all is a cover of Fred Neill’s ‘Dolphins’, but a fine version of Woody Guthrie’s ‘Don’t You Push Me Down’ is an unexpected joy. It is in fact the second Guthrie song of the night, following Billy Bragg’s hilarious take on ‘Dry Bed’, a charming ode to no nocturia. Kristin Hersh later extends the night-time subplot, performing traditional songs about death and despair that her father lulled her to sleep with as a child. Other highlights are Eliza Carthy’s enriching a cappella folk songs and Marianne Faithfull’s boisterous rendition of The Beatles’s ‘Working Class Hero’. Additional readings from the works of Blake come courtesy of a hushed and spooky Tilda Swinton, although she doesn’t join Miranda Richardson in indulging us with a simple pretty folk song that Eliza herself would be proud of.
It’s not all quite as successful, however. Tim Booth of now-defunct indie stalwarts James performs an awfully trite song about child abuse before plundering the past for an acoustic version of ‘Sit Down’, his former band’s biggest hit, with a sorry sense of ‘so what?’. The same can be said of The High Llamas, whose sole contribution, a song based on an imagining of Blake’s own childhood, is surprisingly dull for one with such a glorious premise. Sinéad O’Connor, too, is equally unexciting, though more unexpectedly so. Granted, she isn’t aided by the sound problems which render her rudimentary acoustic plucking all but inaudible, but for someone so famously impassioned her set is devoid of emotion. Only ‘Scarlet Ribbons’ from her Am I Not Your Girl covers album seems to raise her out of a stupor.
Then there’s Yoko Ono, in a giant hat, providing a timely reminder why the most derided 72-year old woman in ‘music’ is so utterly unlovable. Screeching “Follow your heart, trust your intuition” for ten solid minutes would test the mettle of anybody’s audience. It actually seems like an hour, thereby allowing far too much time to contemplate how on earth we are all still breathing in this sauna. In fact, the performance is so lacking in redeeming features that it’s a relief when Ono departs to a bizarrely rapturous round of applause. The same people were sniggering just seconds before. Maybe I just didn’t get it.
Such a disparate line-up was guaranteed to raise a few eyebrows, but none arched higher than during the finale, a bizarre attempt to sing rounds beneath Patti’s pulsing Blakean verse. The song – ‘Inchworm’ from the Hans Christian Andersen biopic – is a cute choice, and after a faltering start the entire cast of the evening finally get the harmonies right. A moment of indefinably beautiful uplift ensues before the tired, hot but mostly exhilarated audience spills back into the muggy London streets singing “Inchworm, inchworm measuring the marigold, you and your arithmetic, you’ll probably go far…”
originally published June 24th, 2005
She Like Electric •••
Just in case you haven’t heard about the mini phenomenon that is Smoosh, here’s a brief recap: two sisters from Seattle – Asya, 13, and Chloe, 11 – who play drums and keyboards and have been creating quite a stir amongst the alternative rock press both here and at home, whilst also garnering praise from many a respected musician. But can they really be any good? For me, the alarm bells started ringing when I read people on certain music forums going on about how great the band are. These are the sort of people that I’ve always maintained are constantly on the search for something more challenging, more obscure and hey, maybe more unlistenable than what anyone else is ‘listening’ to. They want to be the first on the block to uncover something new, something to impress their peers with just how avant-garde they are. Mind you, if Everett True likes them, there must be something worthy going on.
For a start there are some great musical moments; She Like Electric has ideas a-plenty. After the Money Mark-style lo-fi of ‘Massive Cure’, the rolling Ben Folds-y piano of ‘It’s Cold’ and the infectiously jaunty ‘It’s Not Your Day To Shine’, ‘Rad’ is the first moment that knocks you sideways. Eighties-style ‘hip-pop’ is the best way to describe it, with Asya and Chloe’s youthful exuberance really coming to the fore through incessant chants of “yo guys”. Early signs of teenage angst are apparent on two of the best songs here. ‘La Pump’ is a deceptively chugging petulant number with a stroppy riot grrl chorus, and ‘Bottlenose’ has a shouty, close to irritating intro but settles for some fine Bis-style screaming and space age keyboards. ‘Make It Through’ once again spins the album on its head, with Asya’s echoing vocals floating over a rumbling tune that’s closer to Joy Division than anything else. Then ‘I’ve Got My Own Problems To Fix’ manages to make riot grrl sound ethereal. The wonderfully titled and brief ‘The Quack’ clocks in at under a minute and is a ‘Monster Mash’ for the Buffy generation. Smoosh have quite a way with song titles – there’s another on here called ‘Pygmy Motorcycle’.
But while there are many good points to the album, Asya’s vocals are exactly how you’d expect a young kid to sound. It may be an unfair criticism, but it’s a bit like going to see your child singing in the school play. Of course they sound wonderful, but then you’re forced to sit through all the other kids’ performances too. Which begs the question, who would choose to listen to this? But the main impression I’m left with is that She Like Electric is the sound of a band warming up for something special. The ideas are bursting out of this album and one suspects that come album two they will be better, if not fully, formed.
originally published March 7th, 2006
The Bells Of 1 2 •••••
Is Sol Seppy a faerie queen? Did she make this as a soundtrack to her magnificent transfiguration? I only ask because, from the atmospheric opener ‘1 2′ onwards, one cannot help but be enchanted, nay, mesmerised by what has been achieved here. Often womblike in its comfort, like taking a big floaty bubble bath with Sigur Rós or diving by moonlight to the ocean’s murky depths with Stína Nordenstam, The Bells Of 1 2 heralds the arrival of a preternatural talent. Alas, the faerie bit is a touch of truth economy.
Sol Seppy’s alter ego is actually a woman of mere flesh and bone, a woman known as Sophie Michalitsianos, who happens to be something of an allsinging monopoly; a woman with one foot in England and one in Oz, who began to write songs when she was only five years old, who found time to become a classically trained musician, build her own studio, tour with Radiohead and make special sounds with Sparklehorse in the U S of A. She’s a multi-faceted and shimmering creature who seemingly can’t help but lay herself bare, capturing the sound of an unpretentious drifter who is unsure of where she’s been but is definitely aware of where she’s headed. She’s someone who wants to share with you what she’s seen. What she’s seen is sadness and hope, sex and confusion, simultaneously powerless and powerful.
Her music is devastating where it’s touching and uplifting, heart-wrenchingly human in the most basic way, but a story told with a supernatural quality that belittles all that. Gracefully innocent piano, sitting amidst unaffected hushed vocals and soft orchestration, is wonderfully contrasted by a darker attitude, where the likes of Lamb or Ruby flit between the sombre moodiness of Gorillaz’s ‘El Mañana’ and the twisting of pretty homemade lo-fi knives into beats that border on trip-hop; each part of this vast spectrum illustrated with magical poetry like a modern day spell.
Consider me under it. This is utterly breathtaking stuff and deserves to be immersed in for quite some time to come. Quite simply, a twinkling debut from beginning to end.
originally published June 24th, 2006
Sonic Youth [reissue] •••
The Whitey Album [reissue] •••
Picture the scene: it’s the UK in the early 1980s and, bruised from the onslaught that was punk, the mainstream musical scene is on the cusp of gentrification – the time of the dandy is at hand. When Sonic Youth released their eponymous debut in 1982, the UK charts were dominated by the likes of Bucks Fizz, Dollar, Tight Fit and Charlene, all of whom, in their own way, made a success of their fifteen minutes, but are unlikely to be spoken of in the same reverential hush afforded to Kim Gordon and her atonal chums when musos sit down to discuss the popular canon. By 1983, Duran Duran would be all over the airwaves like a rash and English pop would enter its wilderness years, culminating in the hegemony of Stock, Aitken and Waterman. In New York, Madonna flirted with a real band and pranced about in leotards (proving that what goes around…), before crossing the ‘Borderline’ and going on ‘Holiday’. More of her later. Time has repeatedly shown that mediocrity often precipitates revolt, and while Sonic Youth cannot be called upon to shoulder full responsibility for what happened next, their coming together, and subsequent success, influenced the greatest of the ‘80s guitar bands and the ‘90s grunge-athon. They didn’t so much storm the barricades as sneak round their edges and lay the enemy flat with their own walls of dissonance; this wasn’t revolution, it was renaissance.
Twenty-five years after its initial release, Universal are reissuing not only their debut mini-album, but also their 1988 off-the-wall oddity The Whitey Album (recorded under the affectionate moniker Ciccone Youth) and Thurston Moore’s 1995 solo effort Psychic Hearts, in preparation for a new album in the summer – all come remastered with extra studio and live tracks. Leaving aside the argument that a remastered Sonic Youth album rather contradicts their rationale, the recent recycling of art-rock/pop and post-post-punk in the forms of Franz Ferdinand and The Strokes et al. is an ideal time to revisit the daddies of the anti-melody scene. After all, without them, it’s highly unlikely that students would have anything decent to get drunk to.
The good news is that Sonic Youth sounds just as contemporary now as it must have sounded young, fresh and new in 1982. It’s not a welcoming sound, however. You don’t listen to Sonic Youth for relief from the world; this music is a relentless test of your mental capacity, an extended middle finger to your ears and melodic sensibilities. This is the sound of musicians building whole cities from concrete slabs of bass and jackboot guitars, extending jams on one note for five minutes before firing up the Sherman tanks and blowing structure and sense into smithereens. On ‘Burning Spear’, Moore intones “I’m not afraid to say I’m scared” and you would do well to admit the same, or turn the CD off and go listen to The Carpenters. ‘I Dreamed I Dream’ is a slow Motörhead bass riff over a scattering of dissonant guitar notes and random, half-whispered Gordon vocals that would give Martin Luther King a sleepless night. The extended outro to ‘I Don’t Want To Push It’ is a torture device; loop it, turn it up to eleven and watch your victim beg for clemency within ten minutes. ‘The Good & The Bad’ picks up where it leaves off and goes on. And on. And on. As a teenager in a dark basement club off Bleeker Street with 200 of your mates and no lectures tomorrow, it must have approached aural nirvana (a term I use not wholly without irony). Emerging into a Manhattan morning, the world would have been a different place.
Only five tracks long, Sonic Youth had ‘cult’ written all over it. Creativity and experimentalism of this quality is never meant to last, but should implode as quickly as each of the compositions grabs you by the throat and screams for attention. That Sonic Youth are still a potent force is testament to their ability to ride the edge of commercial success and critical acclaim and find succour in both. Nothing in their latter (and large) catalogue comes close to the exuberance and couldn’t-give-a-fuck attitude of this debut. Listening to it from start to finish is like being stabbed slowly. By someone you love.
The Whitey Album was the product of a collaboration between Sonic Youth and Minutemen bassist Mike Watt. If the Youth’s catalogue to this date had cemented their place in the art-rock heavens, this album, released under the name Ciccone Youth and named in honour of The Beatles’s double from 1968, proved that art for art’s sake was still a viable proposition in the blossoming, style-over-substance MTV era. Short pieces (to call them ‘songs’ would be stretching it) with little structure, less melody and lots of humour, The Whitey Album was the arch-experimenters freed from even the loose strictures of their ‘day job’ and deciding to go play in the traffic. Pity the traffic – this is disco for the disturbed, with techno rhythms and noise that would ably soundtrack Orwell’s ‘1984′ or perhaps a darker ‘Blade Runner’. It’s dystopian pop.
‘Me & Jill/Hendrix Cosby’ sounds like someone’s let Hunter S Thompson man the decks after a raid on the local pharmacy. ‘Macbeth’ is a circular road trip at 33.3 rpm, four flat tyres and a Casio keyboard. It might be better to be stoned when listening, but I couldn’t really say. Where any semblance of song pokes its head above the parapet, it’s a cover, and finds Ciccone Youth at their funniest. Madonna’s ‘Burnin’ Up’ is given the out-of-tune treatment, cleverly mixing the original chorus with Moore’s laconic drawl. And when Gordon later rampages through Robert Palmer’s ‘Addicted To Love’, it’s almost respectful yet stupidly hilarious. Other tracks that stand out are ‘Platoon II’, ‘Two Cool Rock Chicks Listening To Neu!’ and ‘March Of The Ciccone Robots’, all titles that indicate the playful levels to which Ciccone Youth descended in their efforts to massage the boundaries. The ‘90s would see Sonic Youth move to a major label and release ever-more mainstream albums, albeit retaining artistic control. In this way, they would expand their fanbase whilst maintaining their role as the spearhead of late 20th Century art-noise. The Whitey Album, their affectionate lampooning of the music they originally revolted against, stands as the last time they could conceivably be called ‘alt-‘ and not be accused of hypocrisy.
So, Sonic Youth – are they (not very) melodic masturbation of the highest order, or ground breaking experimentalism on a scale not seen since Schoenberg? Actually, they’re both. This is music that marries the requirements of no-wave New Yorkers in need of a noise fix, with the band’s genre-busting lust for creativity amid respectful nods to The Stooges, Velvet Underground and contemporaries like Joy Division, Dinosaur Jr and My Bloody Valentine. Or, as a friend and fan told me when I asked for his opinion, it’s Kim Gordon on stage, playing the bass and making a noise. Sometimes that’s enough.
originally published March 31st, 2006
Sons & Daughters
The Repulsion Box •••••
The Repulsion Box is the first full album from hard-edged Glaswegian indie rock band Sons & Daughters, formed in 2003 by ex-Arab Strap bit-parters, Adele Bethel (vox, guitar, piano) and David Gow (drums, percussion). Alongside bassist Ailidh Lennon and guitarist/co-vocalist Scott Paterson, they released their debut seven-track mini-album, Love The Cup, in July 2004 to widespread critical acclaim. In fact, the Strap connection provides two key elements in the Sons & Daughters equation – a penchant for the darker things in life and a willingness to sing in their native Glasgow accent, the latter of which only adds to the overwhelming sense of menace that runs throughout this album. It almost badgers you into appreciating it, conjuring up an image of Bethel leaning down, spitting and sneering in your face as her bandmates draw in ever closer, backing her up with a relentless wall of drums and guitars warning you that you’d better like it, or else.
Some comparisons have been drawn between Sons & Daughters and now-defunct fellow Glaswegians, The Delgados, mostly due to the male/female singing patterns. Frankly, that’s ridiculous, the hometown and the gender balance are the only similarities here. The Delgados are sorely missed, but Sons & Daughters are not here to provide a stopgap. On the subject of dual (or duelling) vocals, whilst Paterson is nominally the co-vocalist in Sons & Daughters, in reality he’s more the dark, deadpan backing vocal to Bethel’s more varied, more passionate and ultimately more frightening lead. This is how it should be; Paterson’s not a bad singer by any means, but it’s clear when he takes to the front – such as in the second verse of ‘Monsters’ – exactly who it is that makes this record outstanding.
That said, the Paterson-fronted ‘Rama Lama’ is one of the best tracks on the album. A slower-paced, stomping, chanting verse that bursts into an energetic, derisive Bethel-screamed chorus, alternately cresting on waves of quiet menace and passionate anger – it’s a deadly combination. That’s not to say that Sons & Daughters don’t have a pop sensibility to go with it; tracks such as ‘Dance Me In’ and ‘Taste The Last Girl’ disprove that theory. However, it’s pretty unlikely that these will lead to a slot on Top of the Pops just yet.
The final part of the jigsaw is provided by producer Victor van Vugt, who has previously worked with PJ Harvey and Beth Orton, though his long-standing collaboration with Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds is a more fitting reference point in the context of this album. You can certainly pick out some of the Australian’s dark glaring foreboding, brilliantly helped along by the death-, break up- and murder-inspired lyrics. Indeed, Bethel is positively pant-wetting in the closing track, ‘Gone’, shrieking “I’ll cut you out of every photograph to within an inch of your life!”, channelling the spirit of a bunny-boiling psychotic.
The relentless musical assault might make this album difficult for some listeners to stick with all the way through without wanting to hide in a corner, but track by track it will insinuate itself into your playlists until everything else begins to feel almost unimportant and trite in comparison. In a word, essential.
originally published August 15th, 2005
The Last Of The Rock Stars •••
Since the original line-up of The Ronettes disbanded way back in 1966, the trajectory of Ronnie Spector’s career has been spectacularly steep in the wrong direction. For this, her first album since 1987 and only her third solo full-length altogether, she returns to the fold both older and wiser and trying to break free from her dogged bad luck and the stigma of her allegedly homicidal ex-husband. The self-congratulatory (or is it self-mocking?) title aside, The Last Of The Rock Stars is a qualified success, against all the odds and in spite of a few wobbly moments.
It’s a touch unfortunate that the album starts with one such dodgy inclusion, ‘Never Gonna Be Your Baby’ coming across like a craggy Cyndi Lauper impersonator singing a third-rate Roxette number. Her once glorious voice sadly sounds a little strained, even on ‘Ode To LA’, her collaboration with The Raveonettes in which the old girl group vibe is back in full effect. Her cover of Amy Rigby’s ‘All I Want’, however, is right on the money, both lyrically and musically with its country-ish theme and perky backing vocals. Other highlights include ‘Hey Sah Lo Ney’, with its nonsense lyrics providing a dose of pure dumb fun, and ‘Work Out Fine’, a cool-as-you-like rock ‘n’ stroll number with spoken word interjections and guitar courtesy of none other than Keith Richards. ‘Won’t Stop Saying Goodbye’ is a glossy, seemingly effortless shimmy with appealing “ba ba ba” bits, while ‘Out In The Cold Again’ pulls out all the stops for a grand, jazzy lounge number that makes for a welcome change in style.
Given the events of recent years, casual listeners will perhaps be most interested in ‘Girl From The Ghetto’, a thinly veiled attack on her ex-husband set to a jaunty 10,000 Maniacs-style tune. Here, Spector extols the virtues of believing in karma and how things are finally balancing out for her. What could well have been a car crash of a track is actually so touching that you can’t help but be affected by the sentiment, especially when it contains lines like “I hope your hell is filled with magazines / and on every page you see a picture of me”. Ouch.
Despite the occasionally poignant lyric, the degree to which the success of the album rests on Spector’s vocal is clearly apparent. When she finds the right song for her pipes, as she has with ‘All I Want’, everything else falls into place and it all seems so effortless and the song so expansive. When things go awry, however, they really get ugly. Ramones cover ‘Here Today, Gone Tomorrow’ is stodgy blues rock with little to recommend it to anyone, while her inclusion of yet another version of Johnny Thunder’s ‘You Can’t Put Your Arms Around A Memory’ is a bit of a mixed bag – the verses are quietly affecting in their tribute to the late Joey Ramone (who sings backing vocals), but the sentiment is lost when the chorus explodes in overblown pomp.
It’s a shame that a greater degree of quality control was lacking given the album’s lengthy gestation period, but in spite of its blips, The Last Of The Rock Stars is a timely reminder of how great Ronnie Spector once was, and how great she can still be given the right tune.
originally published August 23rd, 2006
Live at AR2, Bristol University ••••½
November 19th, 2005
The AR2 at Bristol University is a minuscule venue and one that is frankly inhospitable to whomsoever graces its dingy little stage. Just to even get there, Regina Spektor must climb through a crowd of adoring fans who’ve been eagerly waiting for two hours, and in the atmosphere of heady devotion and anticipation one fears a little for her safety; the French boy I’ve been talking to has just informed me that if he gets to meet her afterwards he will cry and, if by any chance she hugs him, he will die.
Thankfully, Spektor’s burly tour manager and assorted security men clear her a path, and when she finally mounts the stage, she beams at the crowd and looks very happy to be here. Swiftly launching into ‘Ain’t No Cover’, a lovely a cappella ditty, her voice swoops in a manner so soulful that it recalls the great jazz singers like Nina Simone and Billie Holliday as she taps the microphone gently with her finger to form a beat. The song is about death – not an uncommon topic for Spektor – and yet she sings and inhabits the lyrics in a way that celebrates every aspect of living.
As on her records she is irrepressibly playful, and what shines through the entire performance is an undeniable wit. Even when playing songs that are new to many audience members – Spektor has two albums, 11:11 and Songs, yet to be released in the UK, plus a truckload of others so far unrecorded – she elicits genuine laughter from the enthusiastic crowd. Nowhere is this more true than on ‘Baby Jesus’, which, in a pre-emptive strike, Regina warns the crowd not to be offended by. Ostensibly about her fear of fanatical right-wing Christians, the chorus of “All the non-believers, they get to eat dirt / and the believers get to spit on their graves” simply reaffirms that Spektor is a brave, sardonic and original lyricist.
The evening’s excitement doesn’t stop there either. For ‘Poor Little Rich Boy’, Regina plays keyboard one-handed while simultaneously bashing a chair with a drumstick so vigorously that chips can be seen flying into the audience. When she launches into ‘Us’, also from 2004’s Soviet Kitsch, the reverence with which the crowd sing along and faithfully recite each word gets Regina’s infectiously wide grin of approval. Later on, when a lady briefly faints at the front, Spektor stops playing in order to help her up and, after easing her into a seat on the stage, hands her a bottle of water and allows her to sit there for the rest of the show.
Clearly, this is an artist who truly cares for her fans. Indeed, following a rapturously received encore of ‘Samson’, one of Spektor’s most affecting and simple songs that spins the yarn of a tender love, she announces that she’ll attempt to meet any fans who want to say hi at the merchandise stand. She tells us that she fears this plan is overly ambitious, and the fans do indeed flock to meet their idol, but Regina remains until every last one has queued, blushed and gushed their thanks (myself included). For not only is she one of today’s most unique, creative and playful artists, but also one of the most humble and generous.
originally published December 6th, 2005
Mary Ann Meets The Gravediggers & Other Stories ••••
Despite the lazy comparisons that journos often make – “She’s got red hair, she must be the new Tori Amos!” – the songs of Regina Spektor sound like noone else on Earth. This is conclusively proven by this new compilation, which collects together selected tracks from her three previous albums under one overarching theme. Mary Ann Meets The Gravediggers… privileges Spektor’s narrative-driven songs, which are conveniently often the strongest cuts on her albums. Many of them have a literary lyrical bent, making reference to Greek tragedies (‘Oedipus’) and Hans Christian Anderson (‘Prisoners’), alongside sparkling stories of her own creation. The cast of characters is eclectic and colourful, but not all of the songs feature fictional constructions – Spektor is not afraid to place herself centre-stage.
On a sonic level, the record is striking; Regina has a playful attitude to words and a clearly apparent delight in their sound, or rather the unusual sounds she can draw out of them. This is evident throughout, but most of all on ‘Consequence Of Sounds’. The lyrics directly contradict the melodic stream that leaps from Spektor’s mouth. So while the song begins “My rhyme ain’t good just yet / my brain and tongue just met” and goes on to discuss the problems caused by consonants and vowels, every line is delivered with stunning verbal dexterity. Furthermore, many of her songs are punctuated by bursts of foreign language and surprising sounds that play a part in their respective narratives – a sneeze on ‘Mary Ann’, hawking spittle on ‘Daniel Cowman’. Regularly swooping from pop to rap to jazz stylings, often in the space of two lines, Spektor displays an inventiveness that sets her way above the majority of her peers. But one comparison does stand true; the energy and elasticity of her vocals are reminiscent of Ani DiFranco’s riotous live shows.
What this collection also proves is that Spektor can communicate whimsical humour (‘Love Affair’, ‘Sailor Song’) and affecting tragedy with equal skill. ‘Daniel Cowman’ (“a man destined to hang / a man destined to fry”) is about a death row inmate’s desire to take a final bath before his execution. ‘Chemo Limo’ is the album’s most lyrically complex and brilliant song. It presents us with the dream narrative of a mother diagnosed with cancer, her anxieties about dying and leaving her children behind revealed through the coded images thrown up in her dream. In the lyrics “I had a dream: crispy crispy Benjamin Franklin came over and babysat all four of my kids”, her financial concerns and worries about the welfare of her children are conflated with the precision and economy that characterises the best poetry. Meanwhile, the character’s outrage at the financial burden of paying for chemotherapy is expressed in the song’s impassioned chorus: “I can afford chemo like I can afford a limo and on any given day I’d rather ride a limousine.”
The album culminates with recent single, ‘Us’, a dramatic, stormy number that finally began to attract the sort of press and radio attention that Spektor more than warrants. She is an artist who improves with each release – the finest songs here are taken from 2004’s Soviet Kitsch – and she has already completed her next album, scheduled for release later this year. With that in mind, it looks increasingly likely that 2006 will be the year in which Regina Spektor Meets Chart Success & The Acclaim That She Deserves.
originally published January 23rd, 2006
Begin To Hope ••••½
The moment when any semi-established artist braves that most perilous of career moves and delivers their first major label release is always a worrisome one. Though it’s hard to imagine that fans who invested in Regina Spektor’s formative albums – the self-released 11.11 and Songs and 2003’s breakthrough Soviet Kitsch – would begrudge her finally getting the deal she justly deserves, it’s bound to ruffle some feathers.
Born in the former Soviet Union and having moved to New York City aged seven, Spektor has been playing bars the size of broom cupboards for years. Primarily a word-of-mouth phenomenon, her dramatic rise in fame has led to sold-out concerts in more spacious surrounds and, as a result, Begin To Hope has clearly had a whole wad of money hurled in its direction. With over two months spent recording compared with Soviet Kitsch‘s brisk ten days, Spektor has been given a chance to experiment with production and instruments that she’s never been able to before, with beats, drums and bigger arrangements that her previous albums only ever dreamed of.
The result is an album that feels rich and cared for, but one that has already alienated some hardcore fans with cries of “Regina’s gone pop!”. It’s certainly true that some of these songs sound completely different to the girl-and-a-piano affair that is Spektor performing live. But would an album of purely piano-based songs really be as varied and exciting as Begin To Hope is? I doubt it. Regardless, nothing is able to detract from Spektor’s obvious talent for songwriting and performing.
Each song has its own story to tell, both musically and through Spektor’s fascinating way with words. Her lyrics are at times haunting and moving, such as ‘Field Below’s evocative refrain: “darkness spreads over the snow / like ancient bruises”, and at other times laugh-out-loud funny: “Hey remember that month when I would only eat boxes of tangerines / so cheap and juicy!” (‘That Time’). Fittingly for that commanding title, many songs on Begin To Hope are uplifting and invigorating, such as opener ‘Fidelity’, with its bouncy plucked-strings beat, and the rock-out thrill of ‘Better’. Recent single ‘On The Radio’ seems to almost parody the sound of your average radio hit, but the lyrics are thought-provoking and somehow it works. Elsewhere, a number of other songs on the album are kept sparse, with Spektor’s talent for the piano the main focus. The best of these is ‘Samson’, a soulful weepie, while the Russian gothic of ‘Après Moi’ is suitably dark and epic, complete with the atmospheric effect of clocktower chimes.
There are a couple of songs that aren’t so successful, such as the strangely unmelodic piano splurge that is ‘20 Years Of Snow’ and ‘Edit’, which might lead you to wonder whether Spektor has been having a little too much fun with ProTools. On the whole, though, Begin To Hope is an outstanding album of substance and thought, a comprehensive delve into one of the greatest young musical talents around who is carving out trends, not following them. May her fame continue to soar so that she has more chance to experiment with her passion and her art.
originally published July 10th, 2006
The Way To Bitter Lake ••••
Old wives once foretold that a fever could be cured by wearing around one’s neck a spider in a nutshell. In a nutshell, that’s poppycock, but many a fetid sweaty furrowed brow could be soothed by a spin of The Way To Bitter Lake, the debut mini-album from Brooklyn-based artist Jane Herships. Quite where she’s hiding her other four limbs is anybody’s guess, but with Herships less is unquestionably more. She may be yet another Sidewalk Café alumnus, having stolen the show at a November 2004 open mic night, but Herships stands out on the antifolk periphery by virtue of having a classically beautiful, bittersweet voice. Some comparisons ring true, but only fleetingly; a first listen brought to mind a less twangy Jill Barber or Victoria Williams, while a second conjured a slightly less deathly Julie Doiron supping a herbal tea with Nina Nastasia. Then just when you think you might have nailed her down, Herships will gleefully give you the slip.
Opener ‘The Clearing’ is deceptively textbook, lo-fi finger-picked loveliness; “now is the time to behave” she opines a little mischieviously, but the undulating melody and perfectly timed harmonies of Louis Schwadron (who was, until recently, the Polyphonic Spree’s French horn supremo) are ecstatically cracked and lovelorn. ‘Don’t Be Afraid, I’ve Just Come To Say Goodbye’ is what Múm might sound like if they spent less time on their laptops – gorgeous flourishes of flute and Schwadron’s horn are woven sparingly through hushed double-tracked vocals, sweetly intimate guitar and unintrusive electric piano. Herships clearly knows a thing or two about subtlety, resisting too the temptation to overegg the lyrics; “and should I beware / your nights and your mares” in particular is devastatingly simple and suggestive. The intriguingly-titled ‘I Don’t Know If She Had Any Teeth Because She Never Smiled’ offers up more of the same, this time coated in black treacle drones, while ‘The Bitter One’ is blessed with a crisper guitar sound, bolder vocal and weeping, evocative strings.
But it’s when Herships plugs in that things get truly exhilarating. The cool countrified lament of ‘Cold Eyes’ is a long-lost Edith Frost song, circa Telescopic, or at least it shimmers so finely that it very well could be. The prettiness of ‘Maggie’s Song For Alice’ is torn completely asunder by a jagged wedge of electric guitar that at first might seem woefully misjudged, but just ten seconds later may just be the most wonderfully pained Stratocaster solo that’s ever pierced your armour. And after the summery stroll of ‘Midnight On The Nile’ lulls you back into calm, ‘End Song’ briefly erupts with a quietly fierce farewell, the feedback so thickly caked on that the lyrics are all but obscured and indecipherable.
For disambiguation’s sake and a handy bit of useless trivia, there are in fact three Bitter Lakes in Herships’ native land, and which of them this captivating song suite points to, who really minds? If further fruits of her labour are this truly scrumptious, Herships herself may find the path to success rather well signposted too.
originally published February 26th, 2006
Set Yourself On Fire •••½
Set Yourself On Fire is the third full album from talented Canadian indie-pop quintet Stars, although only the second to get a domestic release, and over six months late at that (and with an inexplicably hideous new sleeve). Whilst they haven’t moved far from the keyboard-driven electropop of Heart, there’s a deliciously fuller sound at work with some beautifully crafted orchestral additions that never overpower or become pompous, as can often happen when rock bands try to add a string section (are you listening Oasis?).
Of course the real fuel to Stars’s fire is the vocals, and there’s eerily tight harmonising aplenty from Amy Millan and Torquil Campbell, sometimes to the point where it requires a finely-tuned ear to even tell that two people are singing. While the gentle, melodic opener ‘Your Ex-Lover Is Dead’ seems to be more of an intro than a song, recalling The Delgados in places, its string-soaked self-help mutterings could well put off some listeners worried that the rest of the album may be as dreary or, worse, unpleasantly saccharine. It’s a strange choice for second single and certainly doesn’t live up to the great title, but if you take Millan’s breathily delivered assertion that “live through this and you won’t look back” as a plea to stick with it, you’ll be taking good advice.
The reward comes swiftly as the band shifts up a gear or two for the title track, a masterful slab of quirky pop that crests along beautiful soundscapes while successfully avoiding the perennially attendant pitfall of dullness. The only criticism is that Stars seem overly keen on excessively long outros that often so completely change the mood of the piece that you forget what the main part of the song was like. In this case, two minutes of Campbell languidly repeating “20 years asleep until we sleep forever” over tired piano and slide guitar, whilst undoubtedly lovely, simply does not thrill.
First single ‘Ageless Beauty’ is something of an insidious toe-tapper. It may not impress on the initial listen or two, but your head will surely nod without you knowing and, like me, you may even find yourself typing in rhythm and your feet competing to be most active. Providing rare relief from Stars’s favourite theme of broken hearts and failed relationships, this one’s actually about getting together. Another highlight comes successively with ‘Reunion’, the chorus of which is an uplifting joy as Campbell chimes “all I want is one more chance to be young and wild and free”. Don’t we all. Elsewhere he sighs, “I had six too many drinks last night”, but if this is what happens when the man is hungover, I shall personally take him out on a massive bender before the next album.
Thematically on another level entirely, ‘He Lied About Death’ is an edgy, spiky anti-Bush song. It’s slightly out of keeping with the tone of the rest of the album, but nonetheless stands out for the right reasons as a great little rant that deals more with political passion than reasoned debate with lines like “I hope your drunken daughters are gay!”. Its second half verges on a discordant noise assault, but never becomes unlistenable and certainly sustains the mood of the track. Perhaps this is where the record should have ended, however, as it leaves the concluding trio of songs feeling somewhat hollow and even a little boring.
Stars produce well-realised, enchanting, pretty indie pop-rock mostly dealing with the endlessly engaging subject of the battle of the sexes, and in doing so have produced a listenable, likeable and often affecting record, only slightly let down by a few too many unnecessary fillers, which would have been better placed as B-sides, and those occasional off-topic outros.
originally published October 25th, 2005
Come & Get It •••
Take seven unnaturally polite post-pubescents, add generous helpings of hit factory pop droppings and garnish with guidance from Simon ‘Svengali’ Fuller. Leave mostly uncovered for a few years before separating the mixture and leaving to cool. Seize a generic pop princess cookie cutter and voila! you too can make yourself a Rachel Stevens. With so little of her debut solo outing Funky Dory clinging favourably to the tastebuds, Stevens has everything to prove with this second dish, and while it’s still no eureka moment in the evolution of pop music, she succeeds at least in dispensing with flogging the now lifeless S Club horse. With Funky Dory essentially just a retread of her days of sharing the limelight, Stevens’s solo career looked dead in the water. Cue a hasty reinvention and a few ‘borrowed’ ideas from the likes of Goldfrapp, and all of a sudden there was life in the proverbial old dog yet.
The ‘frappian single ‘Some Girls’ is repeated here for the benefit of fans not willing to shell out for the bolstered reissue of its predecessor. Indeed, this feels rather less like an album than a meticulously planned strategy for total chart domination. How often is it these days that you get four singles released in the run up to a record? It’s just as well then that the songwriters and producers behind it (including Karen and Shelly Poole, Richard X, Rob Davis and former S Club hitmakers Jewels & Stone) have managed to conjure up some tunes well worthy of attention.
In particular, Richard X’s ‘80s retro-electro influence really makes its mark. In a similar vein to Goldfrapp’s ‘Ooh La La’, most recent single ‘I Said Never Again (But Here We Are)’ calls on late ‘80s glam-a-likes Adam & The Ants and combines their influence with some rather dubious but entertaining lyrics. Elsewhere, ‘Je M’Appelle’ is a spiky mid-tempo R&B number that suits Stevens well, while the pseudo nursery rhyme ‘Secret Garden’ displays a vocal style heavily borrowed from Kylie Minogue’s ‘Chocolate’ – although this may have been intentional given that both songs sprang from the pen of Karen Poole. Making an unapologetic play for the fantasies of Stevens’s young male fans, ‘Crazy Boys’ teases with its chunky beats and solid bassline underpinning her moans and groans.
While the songs are, for the most part, amply strong enough to carry her, Stevens’s struggle for success has always been marred by the music coming second to her image. Sure, it’s worked for others, but somehow she lacks the likeability factor that separates Kylie from Dannii and Robbie from Gary. Targeting the loins of the boys won’t necessarily translate into healthy sales if she cannot endear herself to the sisterhood also. Even with some of the finest songwriters in pop putting rockets under Rachel, you can’t help feeling that some of Come & Get It has gone to waste on something of a damp squib.
originally published October 10th, 2005
Marsha Swanson / Jennifer Hall
Live at CB2, Cambridge •••
May 11th, 2006
Jennifer Hall is fashionably late this evening, soundchecking in front of the few people cosily spread out on rugs and floral cushions before her. She’s small and cute and extremely apologetic about travelling all the way from Bath. After being introduced by a strange man in a smoking jacket, she begins perhaps a little nervously, but with each song forces her listeners to fall in love with her slightly more as her tiny hands skilfully pluck at her acoustic guitar. If there are any imperfections tonight, I personally find them endearing. And even if I didn’t they’d be cancelled out regardless by the sheer size and quality of her voice, a noticeable salute to Tori Amos through its journey from soothing to searing.
There is certainly more to this girl than meets the eye, too. As much as she and violinist Mari Dackevych may look like carefree young women for whom it’s all about the handbags and the gladrags, there’s a beautiful and surprising honesty in these stripped down, rawly emotional songs of loss and love. In fact, when Miss Hall performs an a cappella version of the title track from her Mostly Grey EP, it was all I could do to contain myself. My only quibble is that my arse went dead halfway through the set. A great new talent.
Which is more than I can say for the headline act – London-based singer/songwriter Marsha Swanson and her Nickelback-influenced guitarist. I can barely believe she’s actually landed a record deal. Although sincerity and a strong conviction can sometimes atone for a lack of tunefulness, I almost wee my pants when she soberly introduces a song about dyslexia – an apparent affliction that affects 10% of the population – a song named ‘Johnny Can’t Read’. And, as much as you claim to be influenced by Carole King and Beth Orton, you, Marsha my dear, can’t write songs. Or sing very well. I had to run away by this point but I wish I hadn’t. Apparently dyslexic people write their j’s upside down. And I missed her singing about hoovering the sky or something. Damn.
originally published May 18th, 2006
Few’ll Ignite Sound
The dark heavy boot and brightly striped sock featured on the sleeve offer only a suggestive shade of the intensely gritty grass roots, independent musical and energetic thrust of Ontario native Ember Swift and her band. On this, her eighth release since 1996, the trio proudly parades their musical dexterity. Charging through a musical mélange of jazz, punk, feisty blues, folk-rock, pop and Middle Eastern tunes, they carefully weave together rich acoustic guitar with layers of bass, drums, electric violin and harmonies. Some may sense a little too much activity on a musical level, leaving a wake of disjointed tracks in its ambitious path. However, do not be turned off by how different Ember sounds. Beyond the unusual mish-mash of songs and wandering vocal style lies a lyrical truth, a beautiful voice and forceful maverick passion. Released on her own indie label, Disarming leaves the listener in no doubt that Swift is freely and happily “independent by identity not by default.”
Opening with ‘Tapped & Wired’, Ember swiftly welcomes and energetically lures the listener into her consciously aware and politically active world. A poignant commentary, the song champions the enlightenment of the masses, unreservedly noting the dodgy dealings and twisted priorities of politicians. It is a positively intelligent kickstart to a unique musical journey, treading a path through political and personal ideology. You’ll want to join in. You’ll want to believe in these tunes with their soaring jazz vocals and sweetly soft sounds. Other highlights include the title track and ‘FAQ’, which Ember describes as “a reggae-driven pop quiz”. It’s the perfect Q&A session song to get to know the girl behind the music.
To dismiss Disarming as disjointed and lacking concept would be a rash decision and one that misses the purpose of her songwriting as truthful expression and storytelling. It is immediate, uncalculated on a corporate level, full of passion and revels in revealing her truth. As the title track accentuates, “I think it’s sad if you find me alarmingly disarming, and I look for those who align, and who find the honesty charming.”
When ‘Breath’ draws to a close and the album stops spinning, the listener may reflectively appreciate the slightly funkier feel to this release compared with previous discs, and if time allows, they may also reach over and press repeat to absorb more of the plentiful lyrics and audacious grooves. Swift will have made them smile in musical bliss for long enough to open their mouth and poured in little truths of the world outside their headphones.
originally published June 17th, 2005
Filed under: album, back issues, review | Tags: lisa komorowska, scott millar, yeah yeah yeahs, you say party we say die
The following reviews were all published on our old website between May 2005 and December 2006.
Yeah Yeah Yeahs
Show Your Bones •••½
Chances are you won’t have easily forgotten the cacophony known as the Yeah Yeah Yeahs, a triumvirate of college friends who really made a name for themselves in 2003 with a debut album that shifted half a million copies. And before you even had time to ask whether Karen O’s outfits were Betsey Johnson vampy chic or thrift-shop ghetto fabulous (or, more importantly, where you could score those threads), O and co. were centre stage in Central Park with some 3,000 spectators stupefied by their noisy charisma. The music was atypical, vociferous and assertive; the singer a captivating, fashionably iconoclastic wideeyed post-punk queen. Critics swooned en masse, saving their sweetest praise for the single ‘Maps’, a cooing, ballad-esque love song where heavily distorted guitar riffs met with O’s vulnerable and softly echoing vocal.
It’s no surprise then that the band had some anxieties about the follow-up, fearing a carbon copy could signal their demise. “It would be pretentious if we did the same thing twice,” said O in an interview with The Times. “We knew we didn’t want the same sound or musical paradigm.” And sure enough, Show Your Bones is largely divergent from their clamorous debut, and in many ways even its polar opposite. Sonorous melodies and acoustic guitar are the most apparent change, while O herself reveals more than just a lyrical maturation, no longer loudly howling unabashed but actually singing.
Despite this stylistic overhaul, fans should still appreciate the heavily distorted, growling guitar riffs regularly alternated with fun, and sometimes sombre, reverb-drenched guitar picking. ‘Cheated Hearts’ is a light and catchy number that starts out in a delightfully poppy vein before arriving at an apex of robust electrifying riffs and O’s insistence, “I think that I’m bigger than the sound”, while the resplendently mellow acoustics and haunting minor chords of ‘Turn Into’ are attested to by Nick Zinner’s beautifully spooky oscillating solo. Elsewhere, ‘Way Out’ alternates between simple, pretty acoustics and raucous electric guitar; the heavy metallic riffs and aggressive thunderous drums of the bridge relieving what could have otherwise been a potentially flat and repetitious song.
But the best songs here are ‘Dudley’ and ‘Phenomena’; the former full of melody, lullabic verses and pleasantly rudimentary choruses filled with reverberating notes that compliment the delicate vocal as O ruminates on love (“I lost all reason from playing your games… / can love really steer us?”), while the latter must be the embodiment of whatever O meant when she said “Show Your Bones is what happens when you put your finger in a light socket”, aside from a killer 240-volt shock, of course. Perhaps the most exuberant and fragmented song of the album, ‘Phenomena’ offers bizarre spaceship synth sounds mixed with classic heavy-duty rock ‘n’ roll riffs with a chorus that borrows the Grandmaster Flash line “Something like a phenomenon” and comically transmutes it to “Something like an astronomer”.
There are duff tracks too; ‘Honeybear’, for example, is rather monotonous and dry, falling consistently short in its attempts to be fun, while the pace of ‘The Sweets’ is slightly too slow to match the momentum of the rest of the album. There’s no question, however, that the Yeah Yeah Yeahs have achieved what they intended – to record a follow-up that borrows the excitement, energy and rawness of Fever To Tell and top that with a touch of grown-up sophistication. Show Your Bones is ultimately optimistic; the sound of a band who might just have found their niche, somewhere a little further away from art-party cooler-than-thou-ness and a little closer to unassuming accessibility.
You Say Party! We Say Die!
Hit The Floor! ••
Hit The Floor!, the debut album from Vancouver quintet You Say Party! We Say Die!, is a fairly relentless barrage of punk-pop underscored by a Hammond-esque synth sound that’s popular with the Canadian indie scene right now, a kind of contemporary retro sound that doesn’t quite work here as well as it does for some of their countrymen. It doesn’t help that the overbearing straight-from-the-box leftist politics on several tracks do not, as the band probably think, elevate them to some sort of worthy agit-pop outfit with something to say, but rather display an immaturity or naïvety that needs to be conquered if YSP!WSD! are to reach their potential. This is especially evident on ‘The Gap (Between The Rich & The Poor)’, which repeats to distraction the lines “We’re gonna take them down. We’re gonna take them down in numbers. One by one!” – a fine sentiment perhaps, but this track manages so much less sincerity than even, say, the comedy socialism of Motörhead’s ‘Eat The Rich’.
That’s not to say there’s a lack of potential here. Many of these songs are catchy and well-crafted, and drummer Devon Clifford can set a foot tapping with consummate ease. Unfortunately, however, even when she’s not just shouting, singer Becky Ninkovic sounds like she recorded her vocals from very far away, creating a sense of physical distance that ends up feeling like an emotional distance, leaving the listener struggling to relate to the music.
It’s probably clear by now that YSP!WSD! love a good exclamation mark – the song ‘He!She!You!Me!They!We!Us!OK!’ has a full eight, which is surely some sort of record. And although this is actually one of the best tracks on the album, ultimately these endless punctuations end up being used in the same way as any chronic exclamation mark abuser would use them. That is, attempting to portray a sense of fun, excitement or immediacy that isn’t really there. The towering impression is that YSP!WSD! could do better, but perhaps, having lumbered themselves with a name that even in its abbreviated form is becoming wearing to type, they will leave us, and themselves, wanting.
This record wants to be unique; but it’s not!
This record wants to be important, but, really, it’s not!
originally published May 18th, 2006