Filed under: album, back issues, review | Tags: adam smith, alan pedder, chris mccrudden, dana falconberry, eisley, electrelane, feist, fields, fursaxa, gem nethersole, keith anderson, lily fraser, rod thomas, sharon kean, sophie ellis-bextor, the fiery furnaces, trevor raggatt
The following reviews were published on our old MySpace blog in 2007.
Despite the fact that two of their number aren’t yet out of their teens and that their eldest member is just 25 years old, the Texan family affair that is Eisley celebrates its tenth year of existence with the release of Combinations, their second album for major label Warners. One thing is clear right from the outset; it may have only been two short years since their sparkling debut Room Noises charmed its way into the hearts of a predominantly adolescent audience with truckloads of fanciful quirks, but the five DuPree kids are no longer ingénues – the band are growing up fast.
Having taken their name from Mos Eisley, a spaceport in the ‘Star Wars’ films, the band are no strangers to sci-fi and the chance to be produced by ‘Battlestar Galactica’ score composer Richard Gibbs was almost certainly leapt upon – a brave move, sure, but one that has paid some handsome dividends. Though Gibbs occasionally lapses into clichéd territory (the rainfall that fades in and out of ‘If You’re Wondering’ being the number one offender) and the band stick mostly to the safe side, Combinations contains sufficient variety to keep appreciation levels at a near constant high.
The vocals, as ever, are resplendent and glorious; Sherri’s malleable, exquisite soprano mingles with sister Stacy’s slightly deeper tones in a manner recalling a poppier, more widescreen version of ‘90s duo Pooka. Opener ‘Many Funerals’ sees the two trading lines as they flutter and charge over snarling electric guitar, a clear departure from the gentler, more whimsical pop-rock of Room Noises. Themes of death and sci-fi collide on the driving first single ‘Invasion’. Inspired by the Jack Finney novel ‘Invasion Of The Body Snatchers’, its unnervingly catchy indie-pop clatter is accentuated nicely by Eisley’s trademark harmonies, packaged here as an impressively soaring rock vocal.
For the most part Eisley succeed when stepping outside of what has come before. The brilliant ‘Ten Cent Blues’ is a love rival story song that Rilo Kiley would be proud of (“she is cheesy, she is scrawny, with her uncanny styling / I’m teasing, she is pleasing, she just has no wit”), while ‘Come Clean’ is perhaps their most sumptuous, elegant composition to date, the tail end of which is given added oomph by the unexpected arrival of third sister Chauntelle, brother Weston and cousin Garron on backing vocals. The title track is a straight up love song, given a mystical twist, with ‘Taking Control’ and the commanding ‘A Sight To Behold’ also worthy of attention.
Combinations sags a little early on with the side-by-side pairing of ‘Go Away’ and ‘I Could Be There For You’, the former being overly repetitive and the latter excessively bland, but for the most part Eisley pull it off with style. Fans of their debut might miss that album’s more childish and playful elements, but (in the UK at least) compensation arrives in the form of two bonus tracks, ‘Golly Sandra’ and ‘Marvellous Things’, both of which have previously appeared on Eisley EPs. While these more frivolous inclusions could threaten to detract from the album as a whole, the country twang of ‘Golly Sandra’ is at the very least thoroughly enjoyable and the quality of the ‘Alice In Wonderland’-inspired ‘Marvellous Things’ speaks for itself.
No Shouts No Calls •••
No Shouts No Calls is the fourth studio album from the Brighton-based low-fi ladies and, in typical Electrelane fashion, doesn’t deviate far from what has gone before. In fact it doesn’t deviate at all – if there’s one word that best describes this band it’s ‘subtlety’. There are muffled vocals, crunchy guitars, buried organs and the occasional ukulele – nothing sounds clean or polished. But that’s just you’d expect from the band who are forever the queens of understatement.
There’s a sense of greatness about many of the songs, many of which feature a near-orchestral climax, yet impending doom continues to flow through most of the music. Verity Susman’s deadpan vocals do nothing to dispel the air of foreboding that wafts from the organs and fuzzy guitars. Yet this is a funeral dirge with a lift – in a similar vein to the way Arcade Fire rejoice in how bad everything is in the world right now. How appropriate that the mighty Fire have invited Electrelane to support them on their US tour.
As usual the minimalist lyrics are notoriously hard to understand, allowing little insight into the stories behind the angst present in much of the music…unless you listen very carefully. ‘The Greater Times’ is yet another tortured Electrelane lament of unrequited love, continually threatening to break out into a raucous chorus of elation but never quite making it. And with lyrics like “there’s no meaning now” and “I’m tearing down the walls without you”, it’s easy to see why.
It’s also clear that Electrelane will probably never quite shake off the Stereolab comparisons, and there are plenty of nods to their low-fi cousins here. The crescendo-ing organs on ‘Tram 21′ are eventually joined by ghostly backing vocals and the thrashing guitars rage throughout, all making for great background music but tends to lack the punch of something you’d find yourself naturally humming along to. That said, the hauntingly beautiful ‘In Berlin’ has some ‘proper vocals’ as Susman goes all choirgirl and angelically sings to her lover. The usually unintelligible lyrics are ditched in favour of deep felt dedications of love and outpourings of angst, making this a love song to charm even the coldest of hearts.
Elsewhere, ‘Between The Wolf & The Dog’ also threatens to be catchy but retreats into its shell of raucous guitar-distortion jamming, with murmurs of Susman’s voice cooing along with the vaguely ‘80s synth tune buried deep within. It’s subtly brilliant and will no doubt delight the band’s existing fans, but the lack of anything ‘new’ means it’s unlikely to win them any new supporters.
The standout track is without a doubt ‘Cut & Run’ – starting calmly with ukuleles and tambourines and blossoming into yet another love song, with desperate cries for the lover that Susman can’t bear to lose: “It’s the end I need to know / before I have to let you go / just not ready to be alone”. It’s beautifully simple and folk-rock at it’s finest. ‘To The East’ is another fanbase pleaser, an organ-filled, Krautrock-inspired jam, it’s not surprising that this was the album’s first single and not ‘Cut & Run’. This is what Electrelane (and No Shouts No Calls) are really all about.
Trip The Light Fantastic ••
Sophie Ellis-Bextor (don’t forget the hyphenation) is an interesting proposition. Starting out in indie band theaudience (don’t forget the lack of space) in the late 1990s, our girl Soph made it common knowledge that she was not so fond of pop and dance music. A few short years and one big musical U-turn later, she scored a #1 hit providing vocals for Spiller’s ‘Groovejet (If This Ain’t Love)’ (don’t forget the brackets) and went on to churn out two solo albums full of disco-pop stompers that presented her as the ‘du jour’ posh-girl singer with the odd-shaped face. So, was the whole campaign a cynical marketing ploy to capitalise on her unexpected chart success, or was it simply an affectionate deviation to the pure pop sounds she no doubt listened to during her youth? Really, it’s hard to be sure.
Ellis-Bextor’s career somewhat hit the skids when her second, more adult, album Shoot From The Hip failed to rouse much interest and tumbled from the charts almost as quickly as it had appeared. Taking no chances, Trip The Light Fantastic ticks all the appropriate boxes and sets out to guarantee pretty much what you’d expect from someone trying to resurrect her inner popstrel – a careful retreading of the winning Kylie blueprint. Any pop princess worth her salt would scratch out the eyes of her closest competition to get her hands on a Cathy Dennis song, and ‘Catch You’ is a blistering slice of pop confection, with clever lyrics and jaunty choruses. The fee for Dennis must have been too high, however, as the rest of the album flags beneath the weight of cloying, calculated numbers like ‘New York City Lights’ and ‘Today The Sun’s On Us’.
It doesn’t help that Ellis-Bextor seemingly comes from the moon/June/spoon school of songwriting and, unfortunately, lyrics as banal as “I’ve become fond of having you near / the way I’m fond of breathing in air” can’t be improved with the gloss of the world-class, occasionally inventive production. And there are more lyrical gems where that one came from; “every night before I sleep / I hope and pray you’re mine to keep” and “I have been storing all my devotion / it flows like an ocean” helpfully pad out the cringe-inducing moments on offer.
Three albums into her pop career, Ellis-Bextor fails to convince that she is producing the music that she’s genuinely enthused about. Whether this is because of her trademark deadpan delivery (that’s what makes her posh, you see) or the fact that most of the album’s material wouldn’t even make it to the shortlist for Hilary Duff’s next project is not immediately apparent. Pop music is supposed to be jubilant and thrilling, but, with the exception of a few highlights, Trip The Light Fantastic dismally fails to live up to its promise.
It’s a shame, for Sophie surely has it in her to be a true icon, her calculated swagger often reminiscent of a young Debbie Harry. The moments of genius on Trip The Light Fantastic, however, are too few and far between to really recommend it. Maybe one day, Soph (but next time, please, don’t forget the tunes).
Paper Sailboat EP ••••
Released last year but only recently coming to the attention of Wears The Trousers courtesy of the brilliant emusic.com, Dana Falconberry’s debut solo EP comprises a tantalising sextet of songs of wonderful musicianship and lyrical excellence. From melancholy Gallic folk to ravishingly jaunty, sultry numbers, Falconberry covers it all. Opener ‘My Sweetheart, My Dear’ lulls and cossets you into dreams of balmy nights filled with fireflies and the sighs of fading love. An accordion blusters low in the mix as Falconberry’s mesmerising acoustic plucking wraps around and squeezes you tightly. Then, just as you’re cosying up to it, ‘Leave In The Middle Of The Night’ dances onto the scene like a spontaneous tango in a Mediterranean plaza. Within moments, Falconberry transports us to a velvety, seductive world, albeit one where an edge of sadness is never entirely out of earshot and there’s no time for getting cold feet.
At this point you might expect the magic to stop since EPs so frequently contain two standalone songs coupled with a few hurried afterthoughts. In this case the diamonds continue to sparkle with no rough in sight. If there’s a full-length release of this remarkable quality waiting in the wings, it’ll be stunning. Falconberry clearly has some good friends to call on; the musicians involved in this recording read like a who’s who of independent artists with immense gravitas. There’s Patty Griffin on piano, Luis Guerra on bowed bass and Michael Longoria on percussion, amongst others. Falconberry is the undisputed star of the show, however, with her tender and intelligent lyrics holding each song aloft. As the title track unfolds, letters become vessels, ink begins to run and time moves backwards; it’s a Salvador Dali painting in an aural incarnation.
The Gallic sounds of ‘Sadie’ conjure up a darkly sleepy waltz accompanied by muffled drums, gentle and then discordant clamped vibraphones and stomach-hitting bass notes. Fans of famed whistlers Andrew Bird and Otis Redding will enjoy the song’s atmospheric tweeting coupled with the understated power of Falconberry’s croon. Sadie is a heartbreaking ode of longing and regret, of history and unending space. It’s a fitting closer to an EP that is partly a desolate exploration of emotion and character and partly a hazy riverbank fiesta.
The Reminder ••••½
Canadian chanteuse Leslie Feist is no stranger to the highest of praises. For those with their fingers firmly on the pulse, her name has long been associated with scenesters such as her one-time room-mate Peaches and the multi-talented, multi-guised Gonzales, who featured her heavily throughout his career before helping her to mould her own. Others will be aware of her involvement with Broken Social Scene who, like Feist herself, have gained a huge cult following but evaded mainstream success. For the more casual listener, 2004’s sublime Let It Die (co-written and produced by Gonzales) would have been their first introduction, and after extensive touring of her debut album proper, The Reminder arrives as a weighty demonstration of how much her presence has been missed.
Let It Die was a half originals, half covers collection that provided the ideal playground for her most powerful asset – that astonishing voice. Switching between languages, styles and octaves, her vocal performances were seldom short of breathtaking. The Reminder goes further, cementing Feist’s reputation as a sensitive composer. Here she delivers an impressive catalogue of well-crafted, deceptively brilliant songs, once again working with Gonzales and enlisting outside help from Mocky and UK soul/techno darling Jamie Lidell. The result is an album that seamlessly spans a variety of styles, eras and moods.
Lead single ‘My Moon, My Man’ is regarded by some as her most commercial sounding song to date, but despite its undeniable pop sensibilities it comes snugly wrapped in a thick sultry blanket and effervesces with passion. ‘1234′ is similarly radio-friendly, but still so touching and so completely organic that by no means could her work be seen as ‘sell-out’ or hollow. In interviews, Feist has described the recording process where musicians all taped their parts in a room together (particularly on ‘1234′), letting the sounds bleed between microphones for a warm, collective sound, and this decision breathes real life into the recordings, escaping the often stifling ‘studio’ sound.
Feist rocks the dancefloor harder than ever with tracks like the Nina Simone reworking ‘Sea Lion Woman’, ‘I Feel It All’ and ‘Past In Present’, all of which shimmer with vibrancy and energy. Of course, this being Feist, even these songs contain a touching sentimentality; ‘I Feel It All’ bristles with hope and strength as she boldly declares, “I’ll be the one who breaks my heart.” On the flipside, her vulnerability comes to the fore. ‘The Park’ aches longingly as she sings, “It’s not him who’ll come across the sea to surprise you / not him who will know where in London to find you,” while ‘The Water’ bubbles beautifully and ‘Intuition’ is literally heart-stopping.
For each of The Reminder‘s songs, the judgement of the right production values to tease out the character is impeccable. ‘The Limit To Your Love’ and ‘How My Heart Behaves’ in particular are staggering, the latter aptly ending an album that documents both a triumphant celebration of success and a wistful acknowledgement of weaknesses and failures. Perhaps the running order could use some fine-tuning; just as energy builds into ‘My Moon, My Man’, the drift into ‘The Park’ sombres the tone a touch too soon, but from ‘Sea Lion Woman’ onwards, the chronology of songs is well judged. Also, in a long programme, ‘Brandy Alexander’ pales next to the album’s stronger moments, so possibly some harsher editing could have been exercised.
Minor quibbles aside, The Reminder is a startling piece of work. True to its title, it marks the powerful return of a unique talent and a definite indication that the last thing anyone should ever do is to let this incredible artist slip from their memory.
Everything Last Winter •••
Things you never thought you’d hear in 2007 #1: Kylie’s hairdresser has made an album of baggy-influenced shoegaze folk.
Highly tipped for mainstream success, publicity surrounding Fields has centred on the aforementioned hairdresser (bassist Matty Derham), the striking appearance of co-vocalist and keyboard player Thórunn Antonía (also of The Honeymoon), several well-received EPs and liberal comparisons to My Bloody Valentine. Feedback-phobics can, however, rest assured that Everything Last Winter is a more pastoral affair than its early ‘90s antecedents. While the Anglo-Icelandic four-piece have been heavily influenced by the widescreen soundscapes of shoegaze, their bittersweet, if sometimes winsome, boy-girl vocals nicely offset any guitar noise.
The band are at their best when at their most muscular, however, with opener ‘Song For The Fields’s vocal lines given added body by guitars that recall The Smashing Pumpkins’ more melodic moments. ‘If You Fail We All Fail’ takes them into more avant-garde territory, with distorted vocals and military drumming intertwined round a guitar line reminiscent of M83’s work on Before The Dawn Heals Us. Elsewhere, songs like ‘You Don’t Need This Song (To Fix Your Broken Heart)’ or ‘Skulls & Flesh & More’ seem to echo with the clear-eyed optimism familiar to anyone with a record by Fairport Convention or short-lived ‘70s collective Agincourt in their collection.
Ultimately, though Everything Last Winter is a promising record with a pleasantly wide frame of reference, it leaves the sensation that Fields have not quite succeeded in offsetting their musical debts. Perhaps this can only be expected of a band formed little over a year ago and rushed headlong into recording a full album with little time to turn a distinctive sound into an original voice. Perhaps if the hype pays off enough to buy Fields a year away from the spotlight, they might make the genre-busting record Everything Last Winter could have been. As it is, this album imitates instead of innovates, which is a shame. Watch out for their third album though, because – if the business lets them get that far – it may well prove worth the wait.
The Fiery Furnaces
Widow City ••••½
Five albums into their career, and there’s general blogospheric consensus that The Fiery Furnaces’ duo of sister and brother Eleanor and Matthew Friedberger are undergoing some kind of artistic renaissance. Never having gotten round to listening to any of their past material, though, I have to take Widow City on its own merits, but what merits they are! The band revealed on this album sound (re)invigorated, possessed of sprawling ambition and the restless, inventive energy needed to pull off those conceits.
Having said that, it’s lucky that first impressions are neither indicative nor lasting. ‘The Philadelphia Grand Jury’ opens on a rinkydink drumbeat intercut with 1970s AM radio guitars – a combination that just screams out ‘novelty’ and not one designed to get the juices flowing – but quickly morphs into something far more interesting, a kind of suite where distinct styles of engaging noodling bookend a leftfield pop song about being sentenced to death by the aforementioned good men and true. No, I can’t think of another band who would pen a ditty with a vocal hook as clumsy-sounding as “I hope they notarise my will” either, but hey, it works; and it’s by no means the only time on the album where you’ll find yourself singing along to lyrics that read as though they should never be sung.
In fact, it’s pretty safe to say they should definitely not be sung unless by a vocalist as capable as Eleanor. She’s able to carry off songs like ‘The Philadelphia Grand Jury’, the driving, skittering ‘Navy Nurse’ (hook: “She’s a nurse / she’s open-minded / she’s involved”) or the frantic ‘Uncle Charlie’ where knotted streams of verbiage like “make my wish for the day / no more revenge cobbler, whisky pie / my cheeks were the colour of dead jellyfish / lying on the beach” fly past amidst a whirl of instrumental shards. Impressively the siblings carry it off without sounding either whimsical or affected, but always tuneful and even catchy. The melodies communicate on a far more direct level than the words, which revel in hyper-literate streams of consciousness or picaresque stories. ‘Right By Conquest’, for example, may be a conversation between a conquering lord and his underling, or it could be an oblique ode to a promised seduction.
It makes perfect sense that Eleanor’s foil in the Furnaces’ musical crucible is her brother, as the instrumental backdrops he creates are incredibly sympathetic to the character of her voice and words. It’s a parallel universe they inhabit, but without the preciousness of, say, CocoRosie; within their baroque arrangements beats a heart of pure pop. Even though the main melody in ‘The Old Hag Is Sleeping’ is built from children’s laughter, whistles, accordions and static, the song sets out at a joyful lope, declaiming its story of a wife spurned with a rueful grin.
I’ve been listening to this album for a week now and it feels like I’ve only scratched the surface of what these 16 songs have to offer. The Furnaces’ back catalogue now waits tantalisingly in my future, but for now Widow City is an absolute triumph that’s plenty to be getting along with.
Shadow Walking ••••
And the winner of the 2007 Grammy Award for ‘Best Opening Line On A Debut Album is…Lily Fraser! It’s a real category, honest, I checked. And with “I’ve got fear of housewives / of patient mothers and quiet lives / I’ve got fear of disappearing / of engineering my own demise,” Shadow Walking is a shoe-in! Better than that, the slightly unhinged, eyelid-twitching sentiment expressed in the lyric perfectly sets the scene for the dozen tracks to come. The whole album is shot through with a barely restrained mania that threatens at any moment to brandish a carving knife and whip out a bunny-filled saucepan.
Several the tracks on Shadow Walking also appear on Fraser’s previous, self-titled CD, but that was in many ways more of an extended demo than a true album. Here, they are presented in a slightly more restrained mood – just a touch of brilliantly demented energy. And this just serves to underline the ominous and brooding undercurrent that runs through them like a seam of black rock, a creepily satisfying bed on which to lay the angels-and-demons vocal delivery. Fraser expresses her psychodramas like a pro, sweeping effortlessly between crystal purity and a powerful single-mindedness.
Songs like ‘Exposed’ and ‘Shout It Out’ inhabit the insecurities which plague our 21st Century lives, the riffing cello and guitar giving oomph to the angst of the lyric. Elsewhere, the use of the harp in place of conventional keyboard backing provides a sense of disjointedness from the real world, which, again, reflects the tone. But it’s not all wild-eyed histrionics. ‘Wake Up Sweetheart’ and ‘The Time Has Come’ occupy a more comforting place. And for all her soul-searching intensity, Fraser doesn’t take herself too seriously. On ‘Untapped Violence’, a tremolo-drenched guitar line adds just enough Addams Family absurdity to beautifully counterpoint the manic darkness of the words.
Seek her out if you dare.
Alone In The Dark Wood •••
First visit: this album, Tara Burke’s fifth as Fursaxa, does so many things that any right-thinking person would love that it’s impossible not to fall for it instantly. It immediately draws you into its soundworld, for one, the repeated descents of the brief ‘Introduction’ leading the listener, white rabbit-like, into a shadowed, rarefied place. When ‘Lunaria Enters The Blue Lodge’, woody drones seep from the halls and alcoves to create a hallowed atmosphere that seems set to envelop with misty fingers, before an abrupt tack leftward ends on unsettling voices circling a disjointed strum. There’s some impressive alchemy performed here from frugal beginnings, like the ghostly chorale of ‘Nawne Ye’ that consists of nothing but Burke’s voice layered and curling around itself, or the title track’s simple mandolin figure that flickers behind a crystal screen of wordless song. If the title’s meant onomatopoeically, the midnight forest is a wonderful place to be.
First return: Fursaxa’s music has always been about atmosphere and intimation, weaving simple layers of organ drone, acoustic guitar and percussion into dense tapestries threaded with her multitracked vocals. Her reliance on vocals and the pure, circular nature of the melodies they sing give the music a spiritual air, occasionally evocative of plainsong. But even compared with its immediate predecessor, 2005’s Lepidoptera, Alone In The Dark Wood relies less on traditional melody or structure. The lunar humming of ‘Cle Elum’ recreates with sourceless acoustics the shimmering lunar soundscape breathed out by Biosphere’s Geir Jenssen on Autour de la Lune. Or there’s ‘Bells Of Capistrano’, where a cloud of flutes hovers around churchly chimes.
Diminishing return: something else that Burke has opted to change on this album is the employment of length to maintain her carefully wrought atmospheres. Many of these 13 songs can most usefully be described as tone poems, snippets of sonic environments that drift apart before leaving a mark. Which is all very well, but I don’t think I’m being selfish in wanting to spend more time being silvered by the moon of ‘Cle Elum’. Longer spent ‘Drinking Wine In Yarrow’ would also be good, its plucked guitars, banjos and assorted shakers talking together like the No Neck Blues Band, but it’s as if those revered heads developed ADHD and gave up after a minute or two. Upon repeated listening, even the longer songs like the title track and the witchy ‘Black Haw’ seem to break their embrace too soon, and a little frustration creeps in.
Slight return: the music on Alone In The Dark Wood is often mesmerisingly beautiful, but it has to be considered something of a failure on its own terms. Fursaxa sets out to cast a spell, to entrance and hold the listener in her sonic universe; but by trying to tease out so many dimensions of her sound, she seems to have diluted its essential impact. These songs need more time to unfurl, to truly seep in and transport. Bear this in mind, though, and there’s plenty to marvel at here.
Filed under: album, back issues, live, review | Tags: amadeep chana, anja mccloskey, beth nielsen chapman, chris mccrudden, jim white, joanna newsom, kate nash, marissa nadler, michelle ruda, nightwish, nina nastasia, northern state, peter hayward, rod thomas, sarah nixey, scout niblett, sharon kean, siobhan rooney, stephanie heney, stevie nicks, the noisettes, trevor raggatt
The following reviews were published on our old MySpace blog in 2007.
Live at the Phoenix, Manchester ••••
May 9, 2007
As the poster girl for a new wave of American Gothic, Marissa Nadler is evidently an artist who believes in appearances. The singer-songwriter, raised by a clairvoyant in the same Massachusetts countryside that brought us the Salem Witches and Stephen King, wears her hair as black and long as her songs are dark and languorous. Her singing voice, piercing but never shrill, is a stark contrast to the barely-there drawl with which she introduces herself. She’s here, in the drab surroundings of Manchester’s Phoenix Club – the weekend home of Tangled, the city’s one remaining outpost of hard house – to promote her new album, Songs III: Bird On The Water, and this is what she gives us.
From her opener, ‘Dying Breed’, the comparisons to magic, black or otherwise, are unmistakable. She doesn’t so much write songs as use her bell-like picked guitar playing, echoed vocals and lyrics to evoke moods and visions. There’s the “reliquary eyes and diadem crown” of the fallen woman in ‘Diamond Heart’ and Daisy and Violet Hilton, the superannuated vaudeville Siamese twins working at the store for their bus ride home from Florida in ‘The Story Of Daisy & Violet’. Her effect is hypnotic rather than memorable, though occasional images strike home with bird-like precision – notably the electrifying hook “with eyes as deep as brandy wine” from ‘Feathers’.
With a sound and source material that often treads on the purple crushed velvet skirts of goth rather than the gothic, not every song succeeds. Indeed, her material that focuses more on personal matters of the heart rather than laudanum-fuelled fancy can plod, suggesting she’s at her best when she draws inspiration from a New England Goblin Market world of raven-haired maidens and deformed circus clowns. Yet she recovers from a mid-set dip to finish with an audacious cover of Leonard Cohen’s ‘Famous Blue Raincoat’, which teases out the sisterliness beneath this densely written account of a menage á trois. Triumphant, but quietly so, it shows how Marissa Nadler’s principal talent lies in allying the aural to the visual. She sounds exactly how Tim Burton’s best films look: dark, playful, intensely felt.
Made Of Bricks ••½
Seemingly it’s now quite the thing to be a Cockney, even if one’s been born with a musical silver spoon in one’s mouth. Just look at Lily Allen, who recently predicted Kate Nash would be ‘the next big thing’. Kate duly obliged – she’s already been in Vogue and Elle, and NME made up a music genre just for her: ‘chavtronica’. Oh, and she’s also had a number one hit with the annoying catchy, ‘Foundations’.
Unsurprisingly, this means almost everyone is very excited about Kate Nash and her debut album Made Of Bricks. But is it any good? It’s certainly all about Kate with tales of rubbish boyfriends, getting drunk with mates and that old chestnut, the crumbling relationship. So it seems that there’s something here for everyone, so long as you can put up with 40 minutes of La Nash’s irritatingly OTT accent. As Kate herself freely admits, “I’ll use that voice that you find annoying,” and she sure isn’t lying. The whiney faux-Lahndan vocals are there on every track, but so – to varying degrees – are the catchy tunes and toe-tapping beats that hold her songs together.
‘Shit Song’ sounds like a schoolgirl rapping (badly) over the top of a pre-programmed tune from an old Casio keyboard. ‘Pumpkin Soup’ is a bit more elaborate – with brass and echoing vocals – and has a girl group feel (think Eternal spliced with All Saints and shudder). And ‘Skeleton Song’ is a good tune with its multi-instrumental layers but suffers from terrible lyrics. ‘Merry Happy’ has the opposite issue, being pretty clever lyrically but with a tiresome staccato piano motif providing the ‘tune’.
Kate Nash is undeniably a talented girl, and if self-indulgent whining is your thing then you’ll enjoy this catalogue of the not-so-finer aspects of Cockney Kate’s existence. It’s a bit like listening to your mate who just got dumped ranting about how bad everything is for them, in a really grating voice. Song titles like ‘Dick Head’ and ‘Shit Song’ might work for Blink 182, but they make Kate sound even more self-pityingly simple than she should. That said, there is plenty of dry wit buried in the chav-speak, and anyone who can bring themselves to listen to this album more than twice will probably appreciate that. Basically, if you really, really like ‘Foundations’, a lot, then you’ll love this. Otherwise, it will drive you mad after three songs.
She may be the least authentic cockney since Guy Ritchie – Nash wouldn’t know the Bow Bells even if they were her mobile’s ringtone – but that doesn’t entirely extinguish her appeal. Listening to Kate Nash may be like simultaneously listening to your iPod and a loudmouth girl-chav’s inane but punishingly fascinating phone chatter, but at least the playlist is actually not that bad.
Nina Nastasia & Jim White
You Follow Me ••••
With each of her first four albums Nina Nastasia further cemented a glowing reputation as one of the most consistently worthwhile singer-songwriters working today, as recognised by DJ John Peel who had her in for six sessions in less than four years. Though traditionally known as something of a miserablist, 2006’s On Leaving was her lightest and brightest album to date. You Follow Me, a collection of songs co-written with long-term collaborator Jim White (Dirty Three, Sonic Youth), sees a return to her dark roots with a glorious set of fevered, skittish songs arising from a brutal collision of White’s frantic, intricate drumming and Nastasia’s soaring, anguished vocals.
Since the incredibly sparse charms of her debut, Dogs, Nastasia’s work has become increasingly orchestrated, with simply picked guitars giving way to piano and strings. On You Follow Me she bucks this trend but instead gives White free rein with the drumming. As you might expect, the result is entirely fitting for Nastasia’s anguished, ugly-beautiful voice and evocation of a small world relentlessly falling apart. Certainly anyone who’s familiar with Nastasia’s music is no stranger to the subjects of loss, death and doomed relationships. In the gothic tradition of Nick Cave and Marissa Nadler, Nastasia’s voice gives a drunken, strained and measured theatricality to her songs. At times fragile and wistful such as on ‘Odd Said The Doe’, in which a dog that visits her yard becomes the focus of her grief for a lost lover, Nastasia is able to turn her New York brogue to a sinister cry (witness ‘Late Night’s wretched howl of “there’s blood on your face”). Her undisguised accent sets the songs firmly in America, enough to make songs that could be about anyone anywhere seem like strongly rooted Americana.
At times White’s drumming threatens to overpower the songs; ‘Odd Said The Doe’ is swamped by a mess of free-noise drumming that even Yellow Swans would find confusing. But more often than not the combination works. ‘I’ve Been Out Walking’ and ‘In The Evening’ in particular are driven by White’s contribution. At it’s best, White’s contribution is startlingly smart; on ‘Our Discussion’ the percussion rumbles like a storm and pitter-patters like rain beneath a tale of a late night talk between partners in the faltering, stumbling stages of a failing love. Even so, you almost want to hear two other versions of the album – one without the drums and another without the guitar.
You Follow Me is doubtless Nastasia’s darkest album so far, and that’s no mean feat. The songs have been eked out from the bourbon-soaked, drug-hazed night-time of human experience. If the contribution of the drums doesn’t always seem necessary, only rarely does it cause detriment to the songs, and more often it adds muscle to Nastasia’s minimal and fraught acoustic style. Definitely not an album to put on before you go out, it’s the perfect soundtrack to drunken, sorrowful and shameful break-up sex, which perhaps Nastasia had in mind when she called the closing track ‘I Come After You’. The only problem with this scenario is that at close to just half an hour long, it is much too short.
Joanna Newsom & The Ys Street Band EP ••••
As is by now almost expected from Miss Newsom, this EP (with its titular nod to The Boss) is a slightly strange release comprising a track triumphantly performed throughout January’s much-celebrated European tour (‘Colleen’), a reworking of ‘Clam, Crab, Cockle, Cowrie’ and, somewhat unbelievably if you own the wonderful Ys, an extended version of ‘Cosmia’. Two things become immediately apparent when listening to this record, namely how the childlike element of Newsom’s voice has been tempered between albums, and the sheer power of her live performances. ‘Colleen’ is a magnificent song driven by a great beat – an odd thing to say for a folk song – and captivating rhythm. Very haunting and brought to life by a beautiful arrangement, it’s a powerful lead for the EP and exemplary of just how mesmerising her songs can be.
That said, ‘Colleen’ is also evidence of the shortcomings of studio recording. There is a certain something missing in the recording (concerning vocals mainly) that was very prominent on stage. I can’t put my finger on what exactly is absent, but something that made the song unavoidably arresting on stage isn’t quite captured on this recording. Still, it’s unfair to compare an EP to a live performance, especially for those who missed the tour (apologies!). Still, ‘Colleen’ is a wonderful reassurance that new material from everyone’s favourite harpist is just as strong, if not stronger, than that of her very fine album, and for those who haven’t already heard it, an absolute treat.
It’s not the easiest thing to persuade you into the purchase of an EP when the other two tracks are simply reworkings of older numbers. That said, though the new version of ‘Clam, Crab, Cockle, Cowrie’ might seem unnecessary on the surface, it makes its case incredibly well. Highlighting the changes in her singing style, Newsom’s vocal delivery on this version is astounding and the addition of backing vocals an excellent decision. It sounds grown up, giving the illusion that it could be a timeless standard sung by hundreds of others through the years. Having lived with it through all of her touring and writing, Newsom now presents us with the song updated as it means to her in the present day. It’s nothing short of gorgeous, but a word of warning; it might break your heart.
Finally, the sprawling new version of ‘Cosmia’ is double the length (!) of the original, but it’s much more fresh. Slight alterations to the instrumentation of the song give it a completely different feel. Although at times the instrumental movements drown out the beauty of the vocals (especially when the little squeals of “And I miss…” kick in – more of a mixing issue than anything else), on the whole it sounds cleaner and fuller in its new form. It’s interesting that Newsom has chosen to rework the two closing tracks from her albums. Sort of like unravelling the ends that initially tied up two very different pieces of work as if to say that there is no definite ending to them; that her work continues to change and breathe.
Not an essential EP in the sense that it offers enough new material, but absolutely necessary in that it is indicative of the growth and vision of a very important artist. Plus, with all its changes, ‘Cosmia’ is almost a new track. Something to fall quite in love with.
Live at Shepherds Bush Empire ••••
February 11, 2007
For this evening in Shepherds Bush, dear Scout Niblett (or Emma to her mother, though possibly Em) is opening for Bonnie ‘Prince’ Billy (Will to his mother, possibly Bill) and for the first few songs, it seems like an apt choice. She meekly takes to the stage, plugs in, and as the murmurs die down towards the back, woos the sold-out audience with her gentle, awkward strums and fragile delivery in her songs of woe while standing in front of a vacant drumkit.
The crowd hang on her every word as she swoons through selected material from her wondrous album I Am and more recent offering Kidnapped By Neptune. She creeps out ‘No-One’s Wrong (Giricocola)’ which sounds utterly heart rending as she pleads that we all just “reach out for a song!”. This is recited over and over with a restrained growl, almost as if she were partially possessed by the spirit of a certain Mr Cobain.
And it appears that it’s in this direction where the set progresses with Scout turning to her undying appreciation for grunge; the drums are occupied by Kristian Goddard, giving Niblett the freedom to indulge in some unadulterated crazed rock action. Like a wolf in sheep’s clothing, she allows the audience (who are mostly of the chin-stroking beardy variety) a comfy sense of familiarity that she absolutely marvels in turning on its head. The guitar blares out something rotten and just plain filthy, distorted and fuzzed, and accompanied with some deep and heavy primal drumbeats. ‘12 Mile’ ploughs a low-slung, sleazy furrow of caterwauling drums ‘n’ guitars, over which her haunting voice yelps and coos.
Niblett then gives the crowd a glimpse of another feather in her cap full of talents, taking over for a solo drum rendition of some of her personal favourites. ‘Your Beat Kicks Back Like Death’, which infamously includes the fatalistic mantra “we’re all gonna die! / we don’t know when / we don’t know how” – it’s cheerfully delivered and constantly repeated. People don’t know whether to laugh or cry. They seem mostly intrigued and confused, but they don’t turn away for a second. Maybe because it’s true. Or maybe because the sound of Scout’s voice dancing skittering along an infectious drumbeat just sounds so good.
We are all going to die at some point, though. Deal with it, yeah.
This Fool Can Die Now ••••
Nottingham-born maverick Emma ‘Scout’ Niblett is famed for spiky songs, eccentric accompaniment, an acquired-taste voice and a brilliant cover of Althea and Dorothy’s ‘Uptown Top Ranking’. Her three albums to date have showcased a mercurial talent for lunatic storytelling and melodic innovation. This Fool Can Die Now once again sees Steve Albini on production and features the inimitable Will Oldham on guest vocals on four duets.
Not so much kicking the album off as nudging it gently into life with the pointed toe of a cowboy boot, ‘Do You Wanna Be Buried With My People’ is a sprawling country duet, Oldham’s cracked vocals matched by Niblett’s plaintive warmth in a gloriously morose love song. Kiss also finds the two voices playing off each other in mellifluous harmony, until discord stalks up on the song and Niblett unleashes a Minnie Mouse howl while Oldham’s singing turns to barking in response. Intense and loving, it’s just begging to be used in a David Lynch film to soundtrack a late-night bar scene. Then, as you begin to worry that Portland, Oregon, to where Niblett has relocated, has changed her completely, ‘Moon Lake’ reprises the just-drums approach to accompaniment for which she is well known. And ‘Let Thine Heart Be Warned’ is Helium meets Bikini Kill in a mediaeval-flavoured homage to early ‘90s alternative music.
Comparisons with Cat Power have dogged Niblett throughout her career, most notably with the former’s first two dark, violent and feverish albums Dear Sir and Myra Lee. But while Chan Marshall has drifted away from the tortured grunge, Scout Niblett has rarefied the idea. Although at times the results are not a million miles apart – a couple of tracks on This Fool Can Die Now, most notably ‘Baby Emma’ and ‘Yummy’, sound very similar musically to tracks on Moon Pix or You Are Free. Overall, though, Niblett rises above such parallels this time. Simple accompaniments to strained and forced crone-like vocals make for highly affecting songs, such as the intense and brooding ‘Hide & Seek’, whereas sweet strings and straight, unaffected duetting on the cover of ‘River Of No Return’ (first made famous by Marilyn Monroe in the 1954 movie of the same name) make for an utterly charming frontier lullaby.
Quite how Niblett manages to reconcile such sweet homefires songs with her skewed take on grunge on one album is anyone’s guess. But she does. The only really jarring moment is ‘Dinosaur Egg’, quite possibly the most lunatic song you’ll hear this year. It won’t surprise anyone to learn that such lyrical gems as “dinosaur egg, when will you hatch / because I’ve got a million people coming on Friday / and they expect to see a dinosaur not an egg” could only come from the mind of one David Shrigley. But as the song progresses to a plea to her tortured soul to stay hidden for the million visitors, not only does the song begin to make sense in relation to Niblett, but also Cat Power once again comes to mind.
The less notable tracks such as ‘Nevada’ and ‘Yummy’ serve to carry the listener between the standouts, and after ‘Dinosaur Egg’ and ‘Hide & Seek’ the album seems to coast to a close with the final two songs. For the Niblett uninitiated, This Fool Can Die Now serves as a great introduction to her unique and diverse talents. If it loses pace from time to time, that can be forgiven. Some of these songs are the best of her career.
Crystal Visions: The Very Best Of ••½
One of the first women ever to receive the ill-starred title ‘Queen Of Rock ‘n’ Roll’ from Rolling Stone magazine, Stevie Nicks’s long career in the music business has mirrored its own progress from Summer of Love innocence to corporate experience. Going from folky idealism to mainstream success (and excess) as part of troubled behemoth Fleetwood Mac, she emerged as a solo artist in the ‘80s with a series of solo albums which trod a fine line between inspired and naff.
Crystal Visions is Nicks’s third career retrospective in just over a decade and, while it seeks to avoid repetition by mixing familiar hits with newer and live material, the result feels oddly compiled. Dating from a time when age and a combined cocaine and synthesisers habit had started to turn her kittenish voice into a rasp, ‘Edge Of Seventeen’, ‘Stand Back’ and ‘Rooms On Fire’ mould thrilling music from the unmalleable clay of soft rock. More recent efforts such as ‘Planets Of The Universe’ and ‘Sorcerer’ feel joyless in comparison, however, swapping fuck-you self-importance for her rather chewy brand of earth-mother songwriting.
The value to fans of live and re-recorded versions of Nicks’s classics is also a mixed blessing. The addition of Mac songs ‘Rhiannon’ and ‘Dreams’ may be a welcome reminder that few artists could be as haunting, yet it also suggests that the multi-songwriter line-up that caused so much personal tension within Fleetwood Mac made for better quality control than Nicks ever showed on her own. ‘Dreams’ makes it onto the disc in its 2005 re-recording with Deep Dish which ditches the original’s mystery and sensuality in favour of a limp trance makeover. ‘Rhiannon’ fares better, however, in an extended live version which shows that, while she might have lost more than a few top notes, Nicks is still capable of putting on a good show.
Now that vast tranches of ‘80s rock are seen as little more than legends disgracing themselves before they ‘rediscovered their roots’ or a ready source of ironic samples, it would be easy to dismiss Stevie Nicks as an icon of bloated times. Yet for all the attendant self-indulgence, her voice, talent as a writer of memorable pop songs and determination to equal the genre’s big boys – instead of singing backup for them – marks her out for posterity. Her influence on artists as diverse as Courtney Love, Destiny’s Child and The Dixie Chicks shows her mettle, even if this compilation doesn’t.
Completists will appreciate the live recordings and various video clips bundled with Crystal Visions‘s bonus DVD: everyone else, scour the bargain bins for her infinitely better ‘best of’, Timespace.
Beth Nielsen Chapman
Beth Nielsen Chapman’s sixth studio album, Prism, comes three years after her CD of ancient Latin liturgical music, Hymns, was released to critical acclaim and a mixture of awe and rapture from a devoted fan base. However, this new album is more than a collection of songs composed over the last three years; it’s the culmination of a project which had its gestation a decade ago.
Always a deeply spiritual writer and performer, Chapman has taken the soul of her previous album and grounded deeply in a global village of faith and belief. Prism was inspired by the words of the likes of Archbishop Desmond Tutu, Jody Williams and other campaigners of peace and tolerance in an increasingly troubled world. However, it was Tutu’s post-9/11 speech at the Washington National Cathedral that provided the project with its focus – a call for people of all faiths and cultures to embrace their place as members of one human family, ‘The Rainbow People of God’. That humanitarian, multi-faith ethos runs as a constant theme across the album’s two discs.
Prism‘s first CD is a collection of original songs interspersed with two traditional hymns – ‘The Beauty Of The Earth’ and ‘Be Still My Soul’ – both glorious in the simplicity of their arrangements allowing Chapman’s always beautiful and affecting voice to wring every drop of meaning from them. The other tracks take a pleasing folk pop approach but still throw up surprises such as the rap duet on ‘My Religion (Sweet Love)’, written around Atoaji Radellant’s hip hop lyric. Other highlights include the single, ‘Shine All Your Light’, and the poignant ‘Prayers Of An Atheist’, first heard on her recent live DVD.
However, it’s on the second CD that things start to get interesting. Across the dozen tracks Chapman sings in nine different languages, each song reflecting a different faith tradition. Here, English stands alongside Sanskrit, Latin, Hebrew, Zulu, Tibetan, Navajo and Welsh, while Farsi chant makes its presence felt on ‘Bad-E-Saba’ (backed by Persian Tar and Tombak). That the disc remains compelling and absorbing across its eclectic length rather than descending into awkward world music indulgence is testament to the singer’s mesmerising voice. The second disc truly represents a fascinating project on Beth Nielsen Chapman’s part. It’s perhaps a shame that, of Prism’s two sides, it is this one which will inevitably get less airplay and less auditioning time.
Dark Passion Play ••••
Nightwish very nearly disqualified itself from Wears The Trousers in 2005 with the unceremonious firing of lead singer Tarja Turunen. However, two years and a spate of auditions later, Finland’s most popular non-Eurovision export return with a new vocalist and a whole slew of violins for the eighth showcase of their trademark symphonic metal. In their newest incarnation the band skimp on neither ambition nor expense: Dark Passion Play is reportedly the most expensive Finnish album ever made, racking up a cardiac-inducing 500 thousand euro bill via recording sessions at Abbey Road. But is it money well spent?
The album blinkers into life with ‘The Poet & The Pendulum’, a real metal magnum opus in the vein of Pink Floyd’s ‘Shine On You Crazy Diamond’. New lead Anette Olzon warbles beatifically for several seconds before being interrupted by an orchestral crash, signalling the beginning of the band’s more familiar rock theatrics. The song ebbs and surges over 14 inspired minutes, with a frenetic string sequence evoking the hurried melody of Oceanborn’s ‘Moondance’ about seven minutes in. The influence of film scores, which the band’s lyricist Tuomas Holopainen has cited, also becomes evident via a brass section that channels the ‘Lord Of The Rings’ soundtrack.
After this ambitious beginning, Dark Passion Play struggles somewhat to match the quality of its first enterprise. The orchestra is largely put to bed and out come the guitars, diluting the album’s epic quality. However, the remaining standout tracks really are first rate: ‘Bye Bye Beautiful’ is a pleasingly upbeat offering with oddly bleak lyrics, albeit one that features some disconcertingly Van Halen-esque synthesisers. ‘Amaranth’, the album’s second single, is suitably commercial and sticks in your head like a limpet on a West Country beach. ‘Sahara’ is a competent return to heavy metal form with Egyptian nuances while ‘The Islander’ reveals a compelling vocal-driven folk ballad. On a similar theme, the instrumental ‘Last Of The Wilds’ is pure ceilidh with guitars.
Concerns that Olzon would fail to measure up with Turunen appear to be unfounded, though indeed Nightwish have chosen an entirely different direction with the appointment of their new vocalist. Olzon has a softer, less operatic voice than classically trained Turunen, which is often employed to gorgeous effect, particularly during duets with the band’s bassist Marco Hietala. However, the effect can also be less complementary, specifically in the sickly ‘Meadows Of Heaven’ and the near-pop of ‘For The Heart I Once Had’, which could have been salvaged by more powerful vocals. Yet despite these blips and a couple of pedestrian tracks such as ‘Whoever Brings The Night’ and ‘Eva’, Dark Passion Play remains an assured, if predictably unsubtle, addition to the band’s repertoire.
Sing, Memory ••½
Most famous for being the face of a Luke Haines side project for seven years, Sarah Nixey has bided her time and earned a loving fanbase in preparation for Sing, Memory, her debut solo outing. Although Nixey was very much the focal and vocal point of Black Box Recorder, it is generally considered that the real talent behind the band were Auteurs founder Haines and John Moore, formerly of The Jesus & Mary Chain. Although a split has never been official, the band is pretty much defunct these days; their last album Passionoia received lukewarm reviews, Nixey and Moore have married and divorced, and Haines has seemingly moved on with last year’s solo effort, Off My Rocker At The Art School Bop. So, whilst the songwriting talents of Moore and Haines are undisputed, the question remains: does the muse have any talent of her own?
Nixey co-wrote Sing, Memory with producer James Banbury (also a former Auteurs member) and gone are the indie arthouse sounds of Black Box Recorder. Sing, Memory is an electro-pop collection of synth-based songs, half-sung and half-spoken by Nixey. It seems she has been unable to completely abandon her trademark upper class English spoken vocal style that instantly identifies with her former band. Then, when she does sing in the proper sense of the word, the vocals are weak and fail to carry the songs.
Although the tunes are sugary, the themes are bittersweet and noir, giving the album a grown up, if icy, feel. Nixey’s songs of limbo, obsession, psychopaths, liars and the human condition, while arty, lack the satire of Haines’s writing and comparisons that highlight this missing element are inevitable. Sound-wise, we are reminded of Saint Etienne and early Goldfrapp…even Kylie Minogue’s weaker moments. Former single ‘Strangelove’ is the poppiest track, appearing here in a remixed form, with other highlights being the glam sounds of ‘Hotel Room’ and the rather creepy ‘The Collector’. Two covers put in an appearance – the Human League’s ‘Black Hit Of Space’ and John Peel favourites The Names’s ‘Nightshift’. The former closes the album on an upbeat note and the latter is an oddly bleepy version that, while inventive, doesn’t really add to the album as a whole. One would expect a Depeche Mode cover to be more appropriate, given Sing, Memory‘s predominantly dark, 1980s electronica feel.
For a debut album this is a considerable effort, even moreso given all the assumptions that Nixey was merely a singer. However, Sing, Memory isn’t strong enough to be a dance contender and is too austere to attract the chart listeners that Sophie Ellis-Bextor did with her stylish yet fun take on pop. There’s a little too much subtlety here to keep things interesting throughout, and Nixey’s detached ice queen demeanour obstructs a more gleeful poppy approach. That said, given the current trend of post-mod and retro ‘80s sounds, to write the album’s commercial prospects off entirely would be a mistake.
What’s The Time Mr Wolf ••••
London-based indie rock trio The Noisettes have really been making a name for themselves this year. Pushed by the media, hailed by the likes of E4 and NME, they are in for a shot at rock stardom. And not surprisingly; their post-modern, energetic and individual debut What’s The Time Mr Wolf can be counted among the best releases of 2007 so far. With her dynamic bursts of rock kinetics and theatricality, lead singer and bassist Shingai Shoniwa could arguably stake a claim in the pantheon of truly great rock frontwomen, though it’s clearly early days yet. And indeed, why rush? There’s plenty of fun to be had here as, together with lead guitarist Dan Smith and drummer Jamie Morrison, Shoniwa takes us on a noisy and original journey.
Bluesy opener and Noisettes anthem ‘Don’t Give Up’ provides an immediate foot-stomping introduction to their trademark sound. Shoniwa’s vibrant and dramatic vocal intro announces itself as a force to be reckoned with. Her musicianship, too, is unquestionably accomplished. Her bass is cleverly utilised, weaving closely with the guitar line and dropping in and out of the song for maximum power effect. Previous single ‘Scratch Your Name’ is equally strong, despite its fairly traditional rock intro with syncopated drums. Shoniwa’s delicate but angry vocals dramatically propel the song onwards and upwards into more theatrical territory. The Noisettes may be fairly restricted when it comes to instrumentation, sticking to a palette of guitar, bass, drums and vocals, but they deliver impressive variety with effective use of dynamics and rhythm. They certainly know how to rock, and, more importantly, to be unpredictable in the most refreshing way.
Speaking of unexpected twists, ‘Count Of Monte Christo’ surprises with its stripped-down acoustic approach showing a completely different side to the band, exposing Shoniwa and Smith’s vocals in an affecting call-and-response arrangement. At one point all instruments magically fade out to leave just the softly interacting vocals. Recent single ‘Sister Rosetta (Capture The Spirit)’ ups the ante once more with a nod to Goldfrapp’s stomping glamour. It’s a simple song, sure, but one with a powerful chorus buoyed by Shoniwa’s closely-miked vocals. ‘Bridge To Canada’ is a tightly-wound, thespian speak-sing number with abstract lyrics, chaotic instrumentation and plenty of good old-fashioned rhythm. ‘IWE’, too, is stuffed full of random chord structures and organised mayhem with Shinowa’s screamy yelping lending an urgent but playful edge.
Elsewhere, ‘Cannot Even (Break Free)’ and ‘Hierarchy’ are well worth a listen. The former is an intimate, abstract jazzy track that’s cathartic and yet positively lost, while the latter is a much more melodic and surprisingly mature recording than most on the album, even throwing in a bit of an experiment with vocal panning. A hidden outro provides an emotional exit and, all too suddenly, the party’s over. A word to the wise though, as convincing as The Noisettes may be on record, they are triple energetic on stage. Do not miss the chance to see Shoniwa and co. live if theatre-rock is what you’re after.
Can I Keep This Pen? ••••
Emerging in 2002 from the ‘city that never sleeps’, underrated NYC rappers Northern State have climbed another step or two on the ladder of success with third album Can I Keep This Pen?. The all-girl trio (Spero, Sprout and Hesta Prynn, seriously!) manage to combine guitars, funky drumbeats, synth sounds and high school rap to create an all-round great album that gets better with every listen. Initially they sound like they’re clowning around with a silly take on ‘The Fresh Prince Of Bel-Air’, but on closer inspection this is, both lyrically and musically, a real triumph. The variety of instruments and sounds put to use on this album confounds expectations, pushing boundaries with glee. You’ll hear your classic indie guitar and drums, you’ll hear your sprinkled electro sounds, and then the icing on the cake is the rap. Though defiantly of the bubblegum variety, Northern State out-feist the best of their contemporaries with a sound that bitchslaps Gwen Stefani’s ‘Hollaback Girl’ and then some.
Opening with ‘Mic Tester’, the album explodes with drums and Spero’s energetic rapping before the imaginative synth sounds start to appear. This, alongside the trio’s boisterous, big-upping lyrics makes for a track so catchy it’s almost pure pop and paves the way for the rest of the album. ‘Sucka Mofo’ and ‘Oooh Girl’ benefit from the distinctive production of Beastie Boy Ad Rock, while ‘Better Already’ stands out most as the star inclusion with its electric guitar intro and crashing chorus. After thirteen exuberant songs, closing number ‘Fall Apart’ (which features a guest appearance from the astonishingly talented guitarist Kaki King and, get this, a harp!), proves that Northern State can do slower ballad-ish rap with panache, never sounding too mushy or losing their distinct sound.
Anyone who thought they knew rap, think again. Northern State don’t play the game the way we’ve grown accustomed to. Instead of abiding by the rules that people paint for rap – gangsters, life in the hood, violence, guns, hefty men with heavy bling – Can I Keep This Pen? is quirky and endearing, sounding just like three girls who’ve just stepped out of high school and reckon they can take on the world. Upon your first hearing you’d be forgiven for thinking that the whole thing was a joke. It’s not every day you hear a rap about how “your mom drives an ice cream truck,” but that’s the charm of this album. You don’t hear music like this every day on the radio or TV. Can you name all the girl groups on the UK rap scene? No?
It’s clear that Northern State is just what music needs, on both sides of the Atlantic. They rap about politics, friendship and being the coolest kids in school; they have all the attitude and American funk befitting of New Yorkers, and its influence is inescapable throughout the album, seeping through perfectly on every track. Can I Keep This Pen? sounds raw, fresh off the street and, above all, truly original. It’s a grower, yes, but deserves to be heard by anyone with an open mind about music.
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.