Oh Perilous World •••
Rasputina have been called a lot of things in their time: cello rock, gothic and that all-purpose label, ‘alternative’. True, the band doesn’t fit comfortably into any definable genre, a fact that contributed to their years in the vast unsigned musical wilderness. Fortunately for us, Columbia Records eventually snapped them up and Rasputina began their odyssey to transform the cello from orchestral relic into something more dynamic. Indeed, one of the most impressive aspects of Rasputina is their ability to demonstrate the mutability of their trademark instrument. Oh Perilous World bears testament to this: from the almost grating buzz of ‘Draconian Crackdown’ to ‘A Cage In A Cave’s breezy panpipes, it is a genre-spanning collection knit together by the cello.
Filed under: album, review, video | Tags: 2008, hannah fury, music, siobhan rooney
Through The Gash ••••
It’s been seven long years since Hannah Fury stole onto the music scene with her quietly incendiary album The Thing That Feels. Now, after an intermission specked with EPs, she returns with her second full-length Through The Gash, which judging by the sleeve alone promises to be as disconcerting as its predecessor. And she doesn’t disappoint: Fury’s newest release combines her trademark Kate Bush-esque whisper with the electro-pop of Choirgirl-era Tori Amos. However, don’t think she’s merely another pseudo-gothic imitator. Through The Gash is sensitive and imaginative, uniquely vengeful and confiding, marking Fury out as an artist long overdue for some real critical attention.
Filed under: album, back issues, live, review | Tags: andy wasley, chris mccrudden, client, cocorosie, colleen, jill cunniff, judy collins, laura cortese, loria near, mary chapin carpenter, melora creager, neko case, peter hayward, rod thomas, shawn colvin, siobhan rooney, stephanie heney, the concretes, trevor raggatt, vanessa carlton
The following reviews were published on our old MySpace blog in 2007.
Heroes & Thieves ••
Poor piano-popster Vanessa Carlton might have felt the sting of inevitability about her second album, Harmonium. Coming off the back of her smash hit debut it was a relative commercial and critical failure, peaking at a lowly 33 in the US Billboard 200 charts. Part of the problem was that the whole album sounded too much like her debut single ‘A Thousand Miles’; basic, boring piano-pop with no innovation or flair for variety. Carlton soon found herself receiving a cold “thanks, but no thanks” from her record label, A&M. All was not good, until R&B supremo Irv Gotti (Ashanti’s backer) decided to take a chance on her by producing her third album, Heroes & Thieves.
Carlton’s frustration with A&M bubbles to the surface in the album’s first number, ‘Nolita Fairytale’. Immediately recognizable as standard Carlton fare, its lyrics (“Take away my record deal / go on, I don’t need it”) might strike some as being somewhat petulant; sadly, that is by far the least of the song’s problems. Although it is competent, it is certainly nothing special; despite Carlton’s powerful voice (reminiscent of a young Sheryl Crow), her enunciation is so weak that it’s something of a strain to distinguish between words and understand the song’s heartfelt lyrics. This is a shame, because Carlton’s skill as a lyricist is actually pretty good. Next track ‘Hands On Me’s tale of youthful, unrequited love works well with Carlton’s yearning vocals, although it feels somewhat overwhelmed by a intrusive percussion – a common problem throughout the album, as it happens, and something Carlton would do well to avoid in the future.
Although most of the tracks sound rather samey, there are a few standouts. Carlton’s multilayered vocals in ‘The One’ take on a rich close harmony that could tie the Puppini Sisters in knots, and ends the song with a remarkably wistful coda. ‘My Best’ shimmers with a lullaby feel, filled with the sweet chimes of an electric piano to create a very pleasing track, and proving that, when she tries, Carlton can be very impressive. However, what should have been the album’s best number – ‘Home’ – fails to live up to its potential; at first Carlton eschews percussion, opting for a simple, near-perfect combination of piano, violin, harp and voice. Sadly, this quiet mastery is shattered by needless drums for the last two minutes, wrecking what could otherwise have been a welcome recognition that innovation is at least as important as convention.
Unfortunately, it seems that the pull of ‘A Thousand Miles’s success is just too strong, leading Carlton to return to the same, sterile sound again and again. Sometimes this sort of dependence on a tried-and-tested formula works well; it certainly hasn’t done J-Lo any harm. However, she has international fame and a somewhat slavishly devoted fan-base to rely on, whereas Miss Carlton is – for now, at least – dancing at the fringes of being a one-hit wonder.
So, will Heroes & Thieves see her storming back from her long holiday from public recognition with a smash-hit single? Unlikely. Vanessa Carlton might not be over and done with, but if she wants to justify Gotti’s faith – and prove A&M wrong – she will have to throw in a little more variety and forget the winning formula of ‘A Thousand Miles’. It’s had its day; one hopes that Carlton now chooses to look to the future rather than depend upon the past.
Live From Austin, TX ••••
I admit it; I grew up with old school country music. My mother had a coveted collection of Patsy Cline 45s and my father spent Saturday nights attempting to get an old AM radio to tune into a Nashville radio station that would broadcast the Grand Ole Opry. So as I grew up in music, I learned to appreciate that which Austin City Limits has as its beginnings. Fast forward to 2007. Country music has become mainstream pop and the Grand Ole Opry has become somewhat of a caricature of itself. While in recent years, ACL has moved way from being a country and folk showcase into more current and relevant music, it still keeps to its roots of strong performances and is more successful today than ever.
So it was with pleasure that I picked up the live disc from Neko Case at Austin City Limits in Austin, TX. Neko has been something of an indomitable force in music through the last few years, both as sometime accompanist to Canada’s New Pornographers as well a stellar solo artist. Most recently, Case shined with one of the most well deserving critically acclaimed albums of 2006, Fox Confessor Brings the Flood. Selections from three earlier albums, Blacklisted, Canadian Amp and Furnace Room Lullaby are showcased in this set of 14 songs recorded in August of 2003.
Fans of Case will ask, didn’t she already do this with 2004’s The Tigers Have Spoken? Well, they would be partially correct. Tigers… was released with the help of full band, The Sadies whilst this album scales back the performance to a minimal backing band and one backup singer. Where The Tigers Have Spoken showcased a grand scale of musicianship and range, Live from Austin, TX puts Neko herself square into the spotlight.
Not surprisingly, this minimalist formula works extremely well. Neko has one of the strongest set of pipes in the music business, and they soar here. From the moment her voice takes flight on opener ‘Favorite’ to the closing rolling steel guitar in ‘Alone & Forsaken’, she takes control of each note flawlessly. The setlist appears to be chosen specifically to highlight her strengths, including an interesting selection of covers. What might be sacred ground to many artists becomes artistic license to Case, as she takes classics by Dylan (‘Buckets of Rain’) and country legend Hank Williams (‘Alone & Forsaken’) and gives them a tender twist. The band, Jon Rauhouse and Tom Ray with Kelly Hogan on backing vocals, accent Case with sparse yet substantial steel guitar and banjo.
Released as a DVD both in the UK and Stateside in 2006, the disc’s audio companion is slimmed down from the original performance, cutting to 40 minutes from 90. Perhaps it’s this production choice that at times makes the recording feel a bit rushed. With little to no banter between artist and audience, or even artist and bandmates, the recording lacks the depth normally standard of Case’s live performances. The production is at times touch and go as well, with Neko’s overwhelming vocals pushed so much to the forefront it occasionally drowns out everything around it.
Despite these minor problems, Live From Austin, TX shows the depths of an artist who was just coming into her own skin when she stepped on that stage in 2003. It is here you first hear ‘Maybe Sparrow’, which evolved just slightly for inclusion on Fox Confessor…, and gives the listener a hint of just what Neko was to become.
Mary Chapin Carpenter
The Calling ••••
Zoe / Rounder
From the opening piano chords of ‘The Calling’ it’s clear that New Jersey’s finest country export is back. When Mary Chapin Carpenter’s distinctively smoky voice makes its entrance a few bars later it’s clear that she’s back with a vengeance. And vengeance may just be the appropriate word. While sonically the album contains all Carpenter’s signature sounds there’s a distinct change in lyrical content. The songs still inhabit the contemplative side of the psyche that is so typical of her songwriting but with a newfound edge, exploring the big questions which the events of the last few years make increasingly hard to ignore. Faith, racism, commitment, bigotry, the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, the jingoism which led to the Dixie Chicks’s trial by radio, personal responsibility and free will…each steps into the spotlight across the baker’s dozen of songs presented on the disc.
As a whole, The Calling is a magnificently mature statement, demonstrating music’s unique ability to move and evoke a feeling of empathy, however difficult the subject matter. The album also represents a range of watershed moments of the artist. It’s her first album for Rounder Records and her first Nashville-recorded album. In addition, along with her regular collaborators she’s also thrown a couple of Music City studio legends into the mix in the form of veteran and drummer Russ Kunkel and guitarist Dean Parks (allegedly the most recorded guitar player in the history of modern music).
And the quality shows. The Calling is perhaps a little mellower overall than some of her best-known songs – there’s no ‘He Thinks He’ll Keep Her’ nestling among the set. However, the restraint perfectly complements the mood and it doesn’t betray some form of mid-career ennui. Even where the songs do up the BPM count a dignified spirit remains; again, the word ‘mature’ springs to mind. That said, there are still plenty of moments to get the foot tapping – ‘We’re All Right’, ‘It Must Have Happened’, ‘Your Life Story’ and ‘One With The Song’ all supply the janglesome country pop that has become a Chapin Carpenter trademark.
Careful not to leave proceedings on a down, the album closes with a pair of uplifting ballads – ‘Why Shouldn’t We’ and ‘Bright Morning Star’ – which speak of empowerment and hope. A fitting conclusion to this artist’s most mature and thoughtful collection yet.
Back in the mid-1990s, a Yorkshire lass by the name of Sarah Blackwood hit the pages of the NME fronting indie-pop trio Dubstar, whose debut album Disgraceful notched up two Top 20 singles (the rather brilliant ‘Stars’ and ‘Not So Manic Now’) and found them surrounded by weird and wonderful dolls, flowers, dogs and anything else vaguely psychedelic they could put on their artwork without finding themselves on the wrong side of kitsch. Sadly the hits dried up all too soon and the band’s millennial demise went virtually unnoticed.
Not long after, the mysterious Client emerged from the shadows shrouded with intrigue, its two unnamed members referred to as simply ‘Client A’ and ‘Client B’ and their faces left out of the press shots. Still, it was hardly a secret that Blackwood was involved, especially given how distinctive her vocals are. Client are certainly a far cry from Dubstar and who would have imagined such a transition? Gone are the slightly twee stylistics; now it’s PVC, slick photography and black as the new black. Oh, and ‘electro’ displaces ‘indie’ as the prefix to ‘-pop’.
Previous albums Client and City were surrounded by substantial media buzz (in certain circles at least), included collaborations with ex-Libertines members (spawning their only Top 40 hit, the rather uninspiring ‘Pornography’ featuring Carl Barat) but resolutely failed to ignite any real interest in the general public. The problem was that they were marketed as a slightly pretentious electroclash outfit when in fact, they themselves claim they were surprised to “find themselves relevant”. Whether or not their intention was to front this so-called scene, the result was that they didn’t quite deliver what seemingly was promised. Heartland, however, is quite another matter. While earlier songs such as ‘Rock ‘n’ Roll Machine’ or ‘Radio’ were fantastic in essence, but quite sketchily produced, just short of the spark they needed to be surefire hits, the sound on Heartland is much tighter, the vocals infinitely more honed and, on the whole, the songs much stronger. Finally, Client have produced an album that shows them off as a force to be reckoned with.
Successfully aping the ‘80s (and ‘90s come to think of it) and slightly camp, Client’s sound on Heartland is essentially what more of their first release should have sounded like. It’s slick, often catchy and achingly cool. ‘Drive’ and the fantastic ‘It’s Not Over’ are relentlessly hummable, while ‘Monkey On My Back’ and ‘6 In The Morning’ are suitably strange, risqué and provocative, with enough tongue in cheek lines to add a certain edge that keeps them serving the darker side of pop. There are obvious allusions to Goldfrapp on ‘Lights Go Out’, which sounds like a homage to ‘Train’ (although it is in itself rather good), and comparisons with acts that have already achieved success with a very similar sound is unavoidable. It’s a shame that the initial batch of songs in 2003 hadn’t sounded as full as this, as by now Client could have been pretty big.
The album isn’t without its downfalls. As was more evident on previous releases, Client sometimes revert to clichéd lyrics that are lazy and predictable. ‘Where’s The Rock & Roll Gone’ is dull and, bizarrely, lead single ‘Zerox Machine’ is one of the least interesting tracks on the record. Instrumental ‘Koeln’ is an odd inclusion on an album dominated by strong vocal hooks, although not a wholly unwelcome one. Despite its weaknesses, Heartland is a largely good album and even if their earlier efforts left you cold there’s a lot to enjoy here. Blackwood’s vocals are truly back on form, pop gems are in abundance and it makes you feel like dancing. At least just a little bit.
The Adventures Of Ghosthorse & Stillborn ••
Touch & Go
Never an outfit to unify the listening public, CocoRosie may have produced their most divisive album to date with the their characteristically quirky and surreal third album. The Brooklyn sisters appear to have taken a similar turn to fellow eccentric Patrick Wolf in producing a record that simultaneously harbours their most radio-friendly moments (‘Rainbowarriors’ as a prime example) and also their weakest work. Though it’s as varied and obscure as any previous outing and contains a similarly vast array of “instruments” (take this noun as freely as possible – coins, scissors, bicycle bells and pretty much anything else that was close to hand plays the part of percussion), the problem is that it’s just not as interesting third time around. To give the sisters credit, brains have well and truly been wracked in order to orchestrate the songs with as diverse a selection of sounds as possible, but there are other forces at work here.
The main problem with the album – admittedly a standard feature of their work – is the vocals. Now, a certain amount of leniency is allowed for artistic expression, but Bianca’s vocals on ‘Japan’ are, for want of a better word, repulsive. The song itself is an unforgivable assault of unfunny references to rape (“but you like it / so say thank you!”) and pseudo-political views topped off by one of the most excruciating vocal deliveries of recent times with Bianca’s scratchy brat-like vocal, hammed up even further with cod-patois tones, decimating everything in its wake. It’s hard to believe that anyone can naturally sing in such a manner, and the need to adopt this tiresomely impish affectation escapes me. It might seem an unfair point of focus, but now more than ever it’s a very, very thick layer of ice to dig through to appreciate what lies below.
On initial listens, tracks such as ‘Werewolf’ and ‘Promise’ are fine background music if not paid too much heed. Then, when more attention is finally given and lines such as “I suck dick” ruin any ambience created, are we supposed to be shocked? Or impressed at their intelligence? This is the album’s core irritation – that beauty is promised but destroyed at birth by mercilessly contrived lyrics and indescribably grating vocals. I really wanted to fall in love with CocoRosie and so much of The Adventures Of Ghosthorse & Stillborn begins to offer the opportunity before they spin around and spoil it by doing something woefully insubstantial.
Superficially, CocoRosie are incredibly talented as the album’s production values clearly display but their creative vision is riddled with flaws. Their lyrical images are often mundane, and even when more obscure they are predictably so, almost in the manner of a caricature. In a strange way, CocoRosie appear to have embellished the vices of their previous work and positioned themselves as very easy targets for criticism.
As harsh as the evaluation sounds, fans of previous work will likely find moments, even minutes, of beauty in this work. Many songs are decent enough efforts, but for an outfit as self-consciously styled as the Casady sisters, you might expect better. Even the presence of Devendra Banhart’s writing on ‘Houses’ offers little benefit to the equation. Occasionally glorious composition is shot dead by thoughtless lyrics; Sierra’s gorgeous operatics are strangled by Bianca’s painfully overwrought vocals – ultimately, while trying too hard, it is far too lazy.
Live at the Sacred Trinity Chapel, Salford •••½
June 12, 2007
Some artists paint on canvases metres wide with broad brushes, spattering colour and ideas everywhere. Others content themselves with Jane Austen’s “two inches square of ivory”, finding freedom in restriction. French multi-instrumentalist Colleen is very much in the latter camp, teasing intricate songs out of sometimes as few as four or five tones played variously on the guitar, clarinet, the Baroque instrument, the viol, wind chimes and even music boxes.
Her concert at the Sacred Trinity Chapel, a tiny red sandstone church washed up by the ebb and flow of the Industrial Revolution at the edge of Manchester city centre, to promote her new record Les Ondes Silencieuses (‘silent waves’) was a mesmeric rather than exciting experience. Playing to a respectful, if slightly solemn crowd of people scattered over pews and lounging earnestly on jute mats on the floor, her seven-song set brought to mind the incidental music that accompanies a sinister European fairytale, the kind where the princess gets her hand cut off in the spinning wheel and bleeds to death slowly in the forest.
Employing a sound poised somewhere between French baroque composers such as Rameau, electro-pastoral shoegazers Slowdive and the avant-garde minimalism only to be found after 11pm on Radio 3 means Colleen is unlikely to trouble the charts anytime soon. Yet her sonorous, occasionally stiff, looped soundscapes have an undeniable charm, particularly in her guitar and viol-based work. Her painstaking approach to building songs out of tiny fragments using a pedal loop yields results that make a guitar sound like sleigh bells, and can transform her rather ponderous clarinet playing into something rich and strange.
All this, however, pales into insignificance compared to her work layering the sound of chimes or music boxes over one another. Not only do they exemplify her approach to making music, using just a few repeated notes so that the drama and variation in each song emerges at micro level, but the resulting sound is also weird enough to stick in the mind. A single song, in which a distorted music box melody plays backwards and forwards over an Elizabethan-sounding guitar line sums up everything Colleen does best: building wilfully odd art out of fragments.
Sings Lennon & McCartney ••
There’s no denying the pedigree of Judy Collins, a singer as fine as they come with a career that has thus far spanned nearly 50 years and 44 albums. Throughout the 1960s, she earned herself quite the formidable reputation as a masterful interpreter of other people’s songs – early recordings featured songs by Baez, Mitchell, Cohen, Dylan, Seeger and more, all cosseted by her pure soprano vocal. Given that her landmark 1966 album featured, and took its title from, a Beatles track (‘In My Life’), it’s remarkable that Collins has waited another 40 years before attempting more entries in the Lennon and McCartney canon. Set in this context, an album on which Collins explores the Beatles oeuvre in greater depth should be a cause of the hushed anticipation.
Sadly, the reality is a disappointingly lacklustre affair. There’s no denying the pure beauty of Collins’s still-crystalline voice, but the arrangements and interpretations are inexplicably disastrous. The players on Sings… rank among the greatest musicians the session world has to offer, yet, unaccountably, too many of the songs come over as tiresome jazz noodling that would be below par even in some mediocre Manhattan cocktail bar. Imagine the inspired spoof combo which closed each episode of ‘Alas Smith & Jones’ and you have in a nutshell the Collins takes on ‘And I Love Her’ and ‘I’ll Follow The Sun’.
Some, mostly McCartney-penned, numbers fare a little better. The sweetness (or at least bittersweet tone) of ‘Blackbird’, ‘Hey Jude’ and ‘Yesterday’ acts as a sympathetic context for Collins’s trill. But there’s no escaping the fact that Collins simply doesn’t have sufficient grit, world-weariness or cynicism to convince on tracks like ‘Golden Slumbers’ and ‘We Can Work It Out’. Elsewhere, ‘Norwegian Wood’ veers way too close to department store muzak fodder for comfort. And ‘When I’m 64’…? Let’s not even go there.
It’s frustrating that what should have been a glorious canter through one of the all-time classic songbooks is such a disappointment. Perhaps another repertoire (Berlin, Porter, Gershwin…even Coward!) and a more engaging production would have reaped better dividends. As it stands, however, this particular collection will remain the preserve of Collins completists only.
Live at Shepherd’s Bush Empire ••••
June 18, 2007
The Shepherd’s Bush Empire is no easy place to play solo. The gaping maw of the auditorium must be daunting for even the most seasoned pro and bands of any number. So kudos goes to both performers this evening for having the cahones to face up to this alone.
Husky, tousled and bescarfed support Jack Savoretti, only slightly showing his nerves, provides a soundtrack of lilting and earnest acoustic numbers that greet the punters. While he seems to be somewhat thrown by the hushed tones between tracks, this is probably a trick of the acoustics as the audience there to witness his set seem pretty grateful to be rewarded for turning up early by a more than half decent support.
There is no danger that Shawn Colvin is going to be concerned about a lack of appreciation. Decked in a shiny plastic patterned halter-neck, blue jeans and platforms, she looks every bit the part of a Midwestern trailer mom casually strolling onstage with just an acoustic guitar. But this unassuming demeanour disguises one of the finest singer-songwriters, which the audience, in appreciative applause before she even plays a chord, knows only too well.
Opening with one of the less popular numbers from her largely forgotten covers album might not be the most auspicious start, but she follows this up with two songs from last year’s These Four Walls. Excellent on record, ‘Fill Me Up’ and the title track are even more poignant live, stripped of any production, the quality of Colvin’s voice and poetry resonating loud.
Having spent a long time touring live and playing the New York folk scene before making a record, Colvin is completely at ease despite her assertion that this is her largest ever London gig. Apologising if the set recapitulates a Union Chapel show from the back end of last year she says that she can’t remember what she played, to which an audience member calls back that “neither can we”, without pausing for breath she retorts “We’re the same age then”.
Culling a set from throughout her career, Colvin has wide-ranging and nuanced perspectives on life, loves and relationships, from the fatalistic ‘Trouble’, which fizzes with venom, to the mournful, glacial and soaring ‘Shotgun Down The Avalanche’. Colvin’s lyrics are deceptively sharp, and coupled here with the raw immediacy of her live vocals, which effortlessly switch from piercing soprano shaking the cornices of the domed ceiling to a desert parched scratch on demand, she entrances the audience before drawing us back from adulatory rapture with between-track quips.
The glorious lovesong ‘Polaroids’, a list of images making a flickbook animation of a relationship and the triumphant tale of escape that is ‘Sunny Came Home’ elicit two of the greatest rounds of applause of the night. But even lesser known tracks are delivered with such poise that at the end of 16 songs the standing ovation is heartfelt and well deserved.
Returning for an encore of mostly covers, we are treated to an ‘ad hoc’ version of Neil Young’s ‘Birds’ inspired by it being played before Colvin came onstage. A reworking of Gnarls Barkley’s ‘Crazy’ could be embarrassing for someone of Colvin’s maturity, but she manages to breathe new life into a song played to death. And ‘Killing The Blues’, a standard in her live set for many years now, totally floored this reviewer.
For all her Grammys and critical acclaim, it is near criminal that Colvin is not better known and better respected by the public. Anyone who can, without pretence and so confidently, hold such a masterclass in performance deserves to be much much more highly regarded.
Hey Trouble •
As most people will probably remember, Swedish collective The Concretes caused quite a stir a few years back with their self-titled debut and its almost-instant pop classics such as ‘You Can’t Hurry Love’. Fewer will remember the follow up In Colour that failed somewhat to live up to expectations, and even fewer still will be aware that they’re still going, despite losing Victoria Bergsman’s majestic lead vocals to a brief affair with Peter, Bjorn & John and, ultimately, her solo career as Taken By Trees. For those faithful hangers on who’ve been wondering what the band might sound like without her, the wait is over. And the answer is, sadly, really not great. Though it starts off pleasantly enough, it soon becomes clear that Ms Bergsman made a well-timed departure from a once-great musical force now reduced to making dishwater music. What once sparkled now grates – the retro production values, the slightly twee edge and the faux-naïve lyrics; Hey Trouble appears to faithfully adhere to the formula of their debut, but recapturing the chemistry eludes the band completely.
At times the album, or rather the mixing and arrangements of the album, veer towards Belle & Sebastian at their more electronic (‘Keep Yours’), and at other times The Supremes (a major, long-held influence). Certain moments are sufficiently well arranged and lavishly orchestrated, but it’s all bogged down by its chugging monotony. One line in ‘A Whale’s Heart’ (a song whose title is vastly more interesting than the song ever dares become) declares “it’s straight-to-DVD hell”. If this album were a film, this line would be the most apt in the script.
Alarm bells should really have rung upon hearing lead single ‘Oh Boy’, a limp attempt at reintroducing the Swedes into the limelight. Part of the problem is that many bands have jumped on the retro bandwagon since The Concretes first emerged – such as fellow Scandinavians Shout Out Louds, the aforementioned Peter, Bjorn & John, and even The Radio Dept – all of whom have become much more interesting and relevant than them. Hey Trouble is unrelentingly boring from start to finish; not a single track comes anywhere near to rivalling the pure joy of their earlier work, or even matching the energy of their successors. Lisa Milberg, who had the unenviable task of replacing Bergsman on vocals, flounders miserably, rendering any beauty in the songs impossible to hold on to. She lacks any real variety in delivery, and on the whole sounds entirely nonplussed, barely aware of the lyrics she is singing almost robotically.
In theory, the songs are fine, but they are just that: fine. They just about scrape by, but lack any real defining qualities or values that display why this album was made, or even why the band are still together aside from a contractual obligation. The ideas on this record have all been done before, often to death, by countless other bands. As harsh as it may seem, The Concretes have delivered an essentially pointless record. Hey Trouble sounds strangely empty despite the layers and layers of careful instrumentation, and, more’s the pity, achingly insincere.
Blow Out The Candle •••
Laura Cortese: fiddler, singer, dancer, songwriter, polymath, sometime purveyor of dog-house bass for old-timey outfit Uncle Earl…there’s no denying that the woman’s got talent. Her latest release, a mini-album sequel to 2006’s full-length Even The Lost Creek, finds her in pared-back, live and acoustic mode. Recorded straight from the mixing desk at a number of shows across the US and Canada, every one of the seven songs here demonstrates Cortese’s energy and skill.
Drawing heavily on material from Even The Lost Creek, with just one pick (‘I Must Away Love’) from her solo debut Hush and a cover. But the bare-bones nature of the recording – a simple mix of fiddle, guitar and percussion – leaves Cortese plenty of room to breathe. The rock ‘n’ reel style of ‘Mulqueens’ amply shows why her fiddle playing has been so lauded on the Stateside Celtic circuit, while the other excerpts from her previous release are nicely stripped down retreads of the studio material.
This is particularly effective on the raunchy traditional number ‘Jack Orion’ where brooding sensuality rubs shoulders with snare and brushes and spookily cello-like riffing on an octave fiddle. Of course it doesn’t end happily. Traditional ballads rarely do. The real surprise here is a tender cover of Kelly Clarkson’s ‘Breakaway’ (co-written by fellow Canadian Avril Lavigne), as far away from American Idol sk8r punk as you can possibly imagine. But the transformation of the song to fit Cortese’s country-folk style is seamless and the perfect foil to her lyrical fiddle playing.
Being picky, the technical quality of the recording isn’t as smooth as some ‘live’ offerings, but what we lose in smoothness and overdubs is more than repaid in energy, honesty, authenticity and connection between player, listener and music. Which would you rather have?
The old maxim about never starting a band with a woman because she’ll want to go solo has never been tested more than when applied to Melora Creager. Of course, the mythical band of this epithet wasn’t Rasputina, nor was its lead singer the notoriously eclectic Creager who, as the founding member, is the nucleus around which the organised chaos of Rasputina’s ever-shifting line-up revolves. The difficulty of the solo album already becomes apparent: can we extricate Creager from Rasputina when she is arguably the band’s driving force?
There is no doubt that Creager has delivered an accomplished album, replete with the quavering vocals we have come to love. In many ways, Perplexions represents a ‘back to basics’ approach for the singer, showcasing her voice, the cello and piano in arrangements that seem less complex than her collaborations with Rasputina. There are exceptions in ‘Sky Is Falling’ and ‘Krakatowa’, but these rather noisy affairs are dwarfed by simple voice and cello pairings like the mournful ‘American Girl’. Opening track ‘Girl Lunar Explorer’ has a gorgeous string-plucking jazz quality to it that Creager would do well exploring further in other solo projects. The all too short ‘Itinerant Airship’, meanwhile, features layered vocals over mellifluous cyclical cello.
Perplexions is only seven tracks long so seems like a rather embryonic solo effort. An inevitable problem of the album is that many elements, most notably the signature use of cello, hark back to Rasputina and do little to assert Creager’s individual identity as a musician. However, the cello is such an intrinsic part of her repertoire that it may be impossible to fully separate the two entities. For the moment, however, Creager’s work with Rasputina should be more than enough to satisfy her eager fans while she finds her musical bearings.
City Beach •••
Although a lot of musicians can boast an authentic claim to the ‘cool’ moniker, they don’t come much hipper than Jill Cunniff. Born and raised in NYC, at just 13 years old she had her birthday party at the legendary CBGBs; at 14 she taught herself to play the guitar; and at 15 found herself playing in garage underground punk bands alongside future members of the Beastie Boys. When Cunniff joined forces with fellow New Yorkers Kate Schellenbach, Gabby Glaiser and Vivian Trimble, Luscious Jackson were formed and promptly signed to Grand Royale. After five full-length albums and notable indie success, the band amicably called it quits in 2000. So, it’s fair to say that Jill Cunniff has paid her dues, musically and credibly speaking.
Since 2000, Cunniff has worked on some pop projects and worked with Emmylou Harris, continued writing her own material and even found time to learn the art of production, sampling and mixing. The result is her debut solo album City Beach, dedicated to New York’s Coney Island, a faded, atmospheric city beach famous for its lively past. In an attempt to bring the beach to the city dweller, this album is full of hot Brazilian beats, and deliberately laid back breezy tunes. Indeed, on the track ‘Warm Sound’, the listener is urged to start the century again, at a slower pace. The whole album is something of a contradiction, combining genuinely lazy sounds with an urgent and constant message of the need to slow down.
In the same way that a beach rarely belongs in a city, this insistence feels a little out of place here, perhaps consciously so. With a vocal style very similar to Nelly Furtado, the exotic hip hop beats and samba are perfectly accompanied, evoking a real world music feel that touches on several styles, including jazz, soul, Latin, electronica, pop, trip hop, funk and so on. Although essences of Luscious Jackson are evident – mostly in the sampling and beats – this has far less edge and, well, less NYC hipness, compensated for with ambiance. City Beach is a summertime album for sure and the mood is bright.
Of the 12 tracks, Cunniff wrote seven single handed and co-wrote the other five, and while the intended mood is definitely caught, the songs themselves aren’t strong. Themes of lost love come second place to the regular insistence of taking it easy, and the lyrics are simplistic and a little clichéd. It doesn’t help that the true standout number ‘Lazy Girls’, with its danceable upbeat rhythm, is situated right at the beginning.
Perhaps arriving a little too late to capture the chillout or ambient audience, the appeal of City Beach may suffer from not fitting into any particular nook. A little too soft for the indie audience and too mature for the spiritual types, the album may well contain too many disparate elements to pin it down sufficiently. Whether bringing the beach to the urbanite or the hustle and bustle to the coastal dweller, City Beach evokes a time and place unknown to either, where nothing is rushed and the atmosphere is relaxed and blissfully simple.
Filed under: album, back issues, review | Tags: adam smith, alan pedder, alison moyet, amy macdonald, andy wasley, cynthia g mason, danny weddup, eleni mandell, erin mckeown, gem nethersole, helen mccookerybook, hugh armitage, joni mitchell, katie melua, loria near, magenta, mandy moore, martina mcbride, múm, MIA, mostly autumn, nellie mckay, róisín murphy, sam murray, siobhan rooney, trevor raggatt
The following reviews were published on our old MySpace blog in 2007.
This Is The Life ••••
Scotland’s star is rising; home of some of the brightest talents in British music, its recent musical history has been impressive. Think, for example, of KT Tunstall, Franz Ferdinand, Belle & Sebastian, Isobel Campbell and The Fratellis. Now that esteemed cohort is set to increase with the debut of 19-year old folk-loving Glaswegian Amy MacDonald. Since discovering her muse – Travis – at the age of 12, MacDonald’s single-minded determination has been to write songs about the world around her. This Is The Life, then, covers everything from the T In The Park festival to today’s disposable pop culture and the vacuous celebrities who perpetuate it.
The album leaps into life with the optimism of her recent hit single ‘Mr Rock & Roll’, an uplifting number positively bulging with layered acoustics and confidently powerful vocals. Playing to MacDonald’s melodic and lyrical strengths, it’s the perfect introduction and a sure-fire live hit. ‘Let’s Start A Band’, a tumultuous mix of Latino trumpets, atmospheric strings and throaty guitars, is similarly vital, surging forward with the energy and force of a tsunami. MacDonald takes the opportunity to show off her vocal range a little, contrasting crystalline soprano notes with a huskier, Annie Lennox-style croon.
Crowd-pleasing anthem ‘Barrowland Ballroom’, an homage to the Glasgow venue that did much to launch the careers of her favourite bands, is typical of MacDonald’s arena-friendly songs. Combining a bright melody with simple lyrics, it’s sure to move some feet as it swings from a folksy, guitar-based intro to a toe-tapping conclusion, backed with the saloon bar sound of a honky-tonk piano. Gig goers will also be pleased by ‘Youth Of Today’, MacDonald’s impassioned defence of youthful optimism and joie de vivre.
Perhaps the best track of all is the epic ‘Footballer’s Wife’, a withering sideswipe at the ubiquitous WAG mentality. Opening with a dramatic combination of strings and thunderous timpani, the song’s angry lyrics and anthemic chorus are well matched to MacDonald’s rich, expressive voice. The album’s bonus tracks conclude with ‘Caledonia’, a modern folk classic given an emotional performance and a stirring pipe-and-drums coda that’s sure to moisten many a Scottish eye.
Amy MacDonald is one of the most original voices to have emerged from Scotland in recent years, and with this album she has set the scene for a stellar future. KT Tunstall may be losing sleep already. An explosive debut, This Is The Life is a magnificent demonstration of the young star’s talent, and could prove a hard act to follow.
The Singles ••••
As Wears The Trousers is fond of reinforcing, it’s a long-standing misconception that prog rock is just rambling, 27-minute pieces about trolls and wizards or skill Eastern philosophies. Fair enough, there’s a bit of that about but for every ‘Topographic Oceans’ there’s a good old pop tune like ‘Wondrous Stories’. Recent years have seen a move to song-based albums across the genre but none more typified than by neo-prog bands like Magenta.
The tracks here are not so much singles per se as songs selected from Magenta’s back catalogue, or extracted from their early sword-and-sorcery epics. All 11 songs have been re-recorded, giving a chance to showcase the band’s current line-up. However, just because the songs clock in at under five minutes each doesn’t mean that they won’t satisfy their core prog audience. Shifting time signatures, orchestral backing, noodling keyboards and guitars are tastefully employed throughout. However, it’s the writing of Rob Reed and the stunning vocals of Christina Booth that make the songs shine.
Standout tracks include the majestic bombast of ‘Speechless’ and ‘I’m Alive’ where the vocals soar above the backing track as it vaults to increasing levels of intensity. Adding further strings to the Magenta bow, ‘King Of The Skies’ weighs in as a boogying rocker (prog-style of course) complete with a thundering vocal performance that even Anastacia would be proud of. No wonder the UK Classic Rock Society has awarded Booth their Singer Of The Year gong on a number of occasions. Of course, some long-held prog traditions and tricks rear their head; ‘Anger’ in particular utilises that old favourite of a madrigal-esque start leading to a more expansive rock conclusion. Then, in something of a concession to the hardened proggers in their audience, Magenta close the album with three longer bonus tracks that might stretch the patience of a casual listener, introduced by a Rick Wakeman-styled organ toccata.
Magenta’s last album proper, Home, was stuffed with great songs that should have endeared the band to a wider audience. Hopefully The Singles will continue the trend.
Miracle Of Five ••••½
Los Angeles-based Eleni Mandell has developed something of a cult following over the last eight or so years since the release of her debut album Wishbone. Yet the artist the New Yorker once dubbed as “perhaps one of the best unsigned artists in the business” continues to operate quietly under the radar, releasing her sixth full-length album Miracle Of Five with little to no fanfare. It’s a shame really, as this may well be the best work she’s turned in to date. Continuing to mine her strengths in jazz-soaked vocals and smoky undertones, she’s moved away from the harder edged comparisons once made with PJ Harvey and closer to the softer sounds of modern chanteuses Norah Jones and Madeleine Peyroux. But don’t box her in; Mandell owes more to Ella Fitzgerald than her modern peers and is unafraid to boldly swerve into the territories of country noir and folk to stretch her range.
Where the lead track ‘Moonglow, Lamp Low’ revels in its breathy vocals and sultry brass and the immaculate ‘My Twin’ could, in 1960, have easily been sung by the regal Patsy Cline, dig just a tiny bit deeper and you’ll find songs like ‘Girls’, a musical about-turn in the form of a singalong campfire number with amusing lyrics that could be sung by or to any number of individuals – is it a woman singing to her boyfriend? To her own insecurities? To someone she has yet to meet?
There’s no doubt Mandell can write a lovely melody but she also excels in the art of layered meaning with quite a knack for taking the simplest of lyrics and creating a song that at first seems so clear cut and simple, yet upon repeated listenings can mean so much more. Take, for example, the enjoyable ‘Salt Truck’, which at first may appear to be a simple ditty to motorised de-icing, but upon closer listen is deftly ambiguous: “Salt truck, salt truck, mean black eyes / swerving as I’m very nice / I want roads that I can drive on / I want a love I can rely on”.
It may take its time in sinking in but Miracle Of Five is a sturdy release crammed with well-crafted and memorable tunes. If there is a fault, it lies in the downbeat nature of the album as a whole – it’s easy for these songs to run into one another without anyone really batting an eyelid. Still, that only makes it all the more perfect for a reflective rainy day or quiet evening in with a fine glass of red. Hopefully someone out there is paying attention.
Cynthia G Mason
Quitter’s Claim •••
Cynthia G Mason’s heartfelt, grass-roots music speaks to an unpretentious quarter of the soul. Coupling a Joni Mitchell-esque acoustic flavour with the barest hint of country, Mason’s minimalist arrangements and unassuming intensity have won particular acclaim in her native Philadelphia, a city in which she has become something of a local treasure. Quitter’s Claim ends a six-year hiatus for the singer-songwriter during which she graduated from law school and embarked on rather more mundane work; musically, she also experienced a number of professional disappointments, alluded to on the album’s final track, ‘Quit While You’re Misled’. However, a fortuitous meeting with an old collaborator, Larry D Brown, spurred Mason to dust off her guitar, clear out its musical mothballs and record this new CD with a borrowed four-track, all the while putting in her eight hours at the office.
Indeed, unembellished reality is never far away in Mason’s music and it is refreshing to find an artist whose work fits snugly into the pauses in everyday life. Opening act ‘Like A Lifer Out For Good’ deals with disillusionment in love tempered by acceptance of its imperfections, showcasing Mason’s coolly melodic vocals. Lingering uncertainty also litters the wistful ‘Claim’, while ‘The Way The Morning Came’ – a melancholy reflection on lost love – is complemented by a solitary harmonica. Bittersweet is a word that could well characterise Mason’s newest effort, inspired by a store of experiences between albums and also by the actual process of music making. ‘Fits & Starts’, for example, describes recording the album after finishing up at work: “the way it’s designed there isn’t much room for invention”. Meanwhile, the intrusion of Philadelphia traffic at the beginning of ‘Nerve’ reveals just how economical a production Quitter’s Claim was.
Quitter’s Claim is an undeniably lovely follow-up to Mason’s debut, but for some it could be just a little, well, boring. All 10 tracks slide seamlessly into one another with little instrumental variation, suggesting some great background music but failing to reveal any immediately attention-grabbing songs. Subtlety is key: Tori Amos fans beware. Folk enthusiasts will, however, delight in the return of one of Philadelphia’s best-kept secrets. With Mason’s songwriting calibre and talent for evoking all the rushed complexity of life, it is clear the city’s musical legacy is safe.
Waking Up Laughing •••½
Martina McBride may be relatively unknown here in the UK but her reputation Stateside takes some beating. A 12-times platinum selling artist who has won a record-breaking four CMA Female Singer of the Year gongs, it’s hard to argue with her credentials. She’s tucked an impressive eight studio albums under her belt since her 1992 debut, The Time Has Come… and Waking Up Laughing, her ninth release, maintains the status quo. Here, McBride operates as artist and producer and wears both hats with ease with skilful fingers on the faders and a voice that’s as endearing as ever. Engineering duties from husband John McBride keeps it a family affair and a stately one too: every song sounds lovingly crafted.
Of course, it doesn’t hurt that she’s populated the studio with the crème de la crème of Nashville talent. The cast list reads like a roll call for the Modern Country Hall of Fame: Dan Huff, Brent Mason and Dan Dugmore on guitar, Glenn Worf on bass, Matt Chamberlain on drums and supplementary textures courtesy of The Nashville String Machine. Nicole Kidman’s husband Keith Urban crops up on one track, adding harmony vocals and a country rock guitar solo. The songs, drawn from some of Music Town’s finest writers, are uniformly strong despite occasionally veering into well-worn country lyrical clichés. Given that Waking Up Laughing features McBride’s first forays into the songwriting process, teaming up with the Warren Brothers on three of the tracks (‘How I Feel’, ‘Beautiful’ and the emotional, uplifting lead single ‘Anyway’), it’s gratifying that her efforts not only stack up well against her peers but are in fact among the album’s standout tunes.
Waking Up Laughing veers from one fertile commercial territory to another, from power ballads to mid-tempo rockers. McBride’s versatile vocals are perfect for this type of modern country; there’s a rich depth to her singing with just enough earthiness to compliment the twists and turns of the songs with a slight catch and growl. Her accumulated accolades were certainly no fluke. If your personal tastes lie closer to the rootsier end of Americana this may prove too sweet on your palate (you’d be better off exploring something like Patty Griffin’s latest offering), but if mainstream Nashville country is your thing, then Waking Up Laughing will almost certainly put a smile on your face.
Suburban Pastoral •••½
I viewed sitting down to listen to this album with a certain amount of trepidation, having been told by a friend on several occasions that I absolutely had to like it. At the same time I was also intrigued to hear what Ms McCookerybook had to offer. This is a lady who started her career in the late ‘70s as bassist for Joby & The Hooligans (the “worst band in Brighton”); a lady who has recently completed a book about female punk musicians entitled ‘The Lost Women Of Rock’; and a lady who, on the back sleeve, looks a little like an unassuming, sweet middle-aged housewife, and sports a crown of ivy (it’s druid chic, dontcha know). What sort of music such a person might make was impossible to predict.
The opening bars of the first track, ‘Dreaming Of You’, sound a little like something you might expect to hear at a luau, all chilled-out guitars and winsome dreaminess. Then the vocals break in, setting up the first of many little juxtapositions in the album. In contrast to the tropical feel of the music, her voice sounds, for want of a more original phrase, quintessentially English. And yes, also a bit like someone’s mum. It’s difficult to define the genre of this album beyond the vague ‘singer-songwriter’ and ‘acoustic’ labels, though some of the songs wouldn’t sound out of place as part of a lounge act in a smoky little nightclub. The gently swinging beat in songs like ‘Don’t Know Why’ and ‘Once In A Blue Moon’ induce a strong urge to sway slowly in time to the music that has to be consciously fought off.
Of course, no female singer-songwriter worth her salt will navigate such a lengthy career without penning at least one song addressing the Biblical stories of either Eve or Delilah, and McCookerybook is no exception. ‘Temptation’ is a rather quirky take on the theme of Original Sin, complete with a cacophonous introduction in brass, and in possession of a peculiar nursery rhyme quality that is repeated in ‘Swan’, a rather sinister lesson on the danger of beautiful but dangerous things. So whilst the tone of her music is usually either merry or gently melancholy, the lyrics warrant a closer inspection. For all their seeming cheerfulness, I am almost certain that ‘London’ is a song about homelessness and ‘Heaven Avenue’ about suicide. There is often a contrast between the music and lyrics that can grab your attention and make you listen more carefully to what is actually going on.
Though Suburban Pastoral probably isn’t to everyone’s taste, there is something appealing about its simplicity and clarity. McCookerybook may sound kind of motherly and a little bit twee, but the mum in question is one that can definitely sing. There is something refreshing about the way you can understand almost every word she sings. This album won’t blow you away, but it might just charm its way into your lungs.
Pretty Little Head ••••
I have a nagging sense of déjà vu. What’s that? I’ve reviewed this record before? Crikey! What’s going on?
Well. Pretty Little Head in fact first surfaced, in a different form, in January 2006. McKay had turned in a 23-song, double-disc set to her record company, who, in a commercially-minded decision, culled seven songs without consulting McKay and sent the album out as a single-disc promo, entirely without her permission. Understandably, McKay was angry and a lengthy battle ensued, resulting in her parting ways with Columbia. The album ended up stuck in limbo, the record company having stated that they would not be releasing it in any form.
Finally, after what must have been several immensely frustrating and disempowered months, McKay is back and should give herself a triumphant pat on the back. Released on her own imprint Hungry Mouse, set up for this record, she presents the record as she originally intended – all 23 tracks present and correct and sequenced significantly differently in the latter half of the album. In winning this battle, McKay has proven that artistic integrity can prevail over corporate interests, and for this she should be championed (anyone who’s read Tori Amos’s memoir ‘Piece By Piece’ will know that struggles between record companies and artists can be hard-fought and extremely bitter).
As I noted in my previous review, McKay’s first album suffered from being overlong and bloated. But though it’s now a behemoth of an album, Pretty Little Head fares surprisingly well. ‘Lali est Parisseux’ is the highlight of the newly-present tracks, sung in French with a delightfully retro sound, like a transmission from a Parisian radio station of the past. Quite what it’s about I don’t know, my GCSE French having deserted me a while back, though “ce soir” crops up regularly in the lyrics and the song ends with a romantic “mwah!” so I’m guessing it’s about lovin’.
Four of the new tracks are clustered at the very end of the album, including the disturbing ‘Mama & Me’. The intro to this song might well become one of those bits you always skip through, featuring as it does a dialogue between McKay and her mother in which she appears to play both roles, one of which is a crying toddler. Hmmm. The song itself is a gritty spoken-word rap piece about a childhood of urban poverty, deprivation and domestic abuse. It’s socially conscious, reinforcing that McKay is an artist with a political agenda and the intelligence and artistry to get her message across. McKay sings about “wanting to die with your nose broken, heart choking”, and the song is surprisingly hard hitting given its intro. It’s a testament to female strength and the bond between mother and daughter: “with my mom by my side / we’ll never give up the fight”. Even so, the song features a truly bizarre spoken word coda in which mother and daughter have an almighty row, McKay voicing the daughter’s words through choking sobs and wrenching gasps. Only here does the track become a little unstuck, and the excessive theatricality of the exchange means that what had seemed entirely serious threatens to become a joke.
McKay’s desire to take on various different roles works better on the album’s more light-hearted tracks. ‘Pounce’ is a joyous 56-second ode to pussycats and pouncing in general, one of a number of interlude-esque tracks on the album. Those tracks that didn’t quite work on the promo issued last January are still a little redundant here – particularly ‘Pink Chandelier’ and ‘I Am Nothing’ – and the new track ‘Yodel’ is twee to the point of being irritating, but altogether this is a stylistically varied and consistently inventive album. McKay’s ability to pen both vigorous, fierce politically-minded tracks and gleefully playful pop numbers is particularly impressive. And as for the Cyndi Lauper duet ‘Beecharmer’; well, it’s still one of the most fantastic, fun and witty pop songs in recent memory.
Having had the pleasure of seeing Ms McKeown in concert on a number of occasions, the news that our diminutive spiky-haired friend was finally releasing a recording of her indomitably spirited live sets was greeted with smiles aplenty at the Wears The Trousers office. And Lafayette does not disappoint. Named after the New York street upon which Joe’s Pub (the venue where the album was taped) stands, it’s a deliciously careening treat. Kicking off with her brilliant take on ‘Thanks For The Boogie Ride’, a tune so swinging that you’d want to get up and cut some rug even after the hugest of meals, once the old school jiving beats hit the eardrum there’s no going back and dessert will have to wait. It’s the only cover in an 11-song set that runs through each of McKeown’s five albums (six if you count the original versions of ‘Lullaby In 3/4′ and ‘Fast As You Can’ on her self-released Monday Morning Cold) and still finds room to squeeze in a newbie in the form of ‘You, Sailor’.
As a songwriter McKeown seems to have settled in nicely to her own stylistic furrow, with each release since 2000’s disparate Distillation showcasing a stronger, more focused muse at work behind the scenes. The brilliant ‘Slung-Lo’, from 2003’s Judy Garland-inspired Grand, exploits this and slides perfectly into the set sandwiched between two musically less vibrant numbers, allowing it to shine. Elsewhere, Grand is represented again with a rendition of ‘James!’, this time with a noticeably darker groove than that found on the studio take.
Together with her six-piece, take-no-prisoners Little Big Band with the defiantly talented Allison Miller on drums and Todd Sickafoose on bass (both of whom accompanied Ani DiFranco on her recent European tour), McKeown has done well to capture the true essence of her live show. Her exuberant personality shines through with the crowd participation segment in ‘We Are More’ and the band’s dynamic reworking of classic back catalogue favourites. Her energy is certainly present in ‘Melody’ and ‘Blackbirds’ and her emotions in ‘Lullaby in 3/4′ are immediate and true. Indeed, ‘Blackbirds’ is the perfect example of why McKeown is so well loved as it starts out unexpectedly, surprising and pleasing the crowd in equal measure. Playful and engaging, it’s the standout track and clearly the audience favourite, reflecting the glee that Erin and the rest of the band must have had in the practice room as they gave the song a new lease of life.
As a package Lafayette is a must have for McKeown fans and a worthy introduction for any new ears. The camaraderie between McKeown, Miller and Sickafoose sticks the band tightly together, adding a fresh layer of vitality to McKeown’s older songs. Credit must be give too to the song selection and sequencing, both of which keep boredom firmly at bay. And if you don’t want to go and see the lady herself play in the flesh next time she’s in town after listening to this, well, I’ll be surprised.
Take a moment to answer the following question. What do the following songs have in common: ‘Remember You’re A Womble’, ‘A Winter’s Tale’, ‘Bright Eyes’ and ‘Closest Thing To Crazy’? Well, aside from the fact that they can all be loosely described as trite, simple and classically composed, aiming to achieve maximum effect for minimum innovation and technique, and that they’re all well-known, big-selling popular songs, they’re all the work of the phenomenally successful songwriter, Mike Batt. Or should that be unaccountably successful? – his work is often derided for being simplistic and over-sentimental (as those four songs illustrate). Nevertheless it’s worth remembering that he has a bankrolling knack for appealing to an audience unswayed by sniffy critics and poor reviews. ‘Bright Eyes’ was an international number one smash for Art Garfunkel; ‘A Winter’s Tale’ became one of David Essex’s most popular and recognisable songs; and Batt’s work with Vanessa Mae turned her into one of the most successful classical artists in the world.
As the mogul at large behind 23-year old Georgia-born singer Katie Melua, Batt has delivered amazing results: with over 7.5 million albums sold to date, Melua is by far the biggest-selling female artist in Europe, an astonishing achievement given the somewhat stale appeal of her musical output. Thanks to Terry Wogan, Katie’s debut album, Call Off The Search – an insipid collection of simple blues/jazz songs – was propelled to the top spot in the UK charts, ultimately selling a staggering 1.8 million albums in the first five months. Melua’s second album, Piece By Piece has now gone platinum four times, once again based on a recipe of digestible pop-jazz and unashamedly romantic lyrics. No matter how boring her music has been to date, Melua has clearly won a place in the public’s affection; that, surely, deserves a modicum of respect, even if she was recently described by the ‘Daily Telegraph’ as a “national embarrassment”.
As it turns out, Pictures will be Melua’s final album with Mike Batt at the helm and is a compelling indication that ditching her sentimental puppetmaster may in fact be her best possible career move. Melua’s own work is, both stylistically and lyrically, a light-year away from Batt’s increasingly inane outpourings. ‘Mary Pickford’ is typical of his drivel; a spectacularly dull creation full of schoolboy-standard rhyming couplets and a saccharine storyline, it’s as nondescript and MOR as a lowly little traffic island. The execrable ‘Spellbound’ is much the same, while ‘What It Says On The Tin’ seems to use Ronseal as a metaphor for schmaltzy romantic ideals better left to Mills & Boon. The mind boggles, truly. The common thread is Batt’s inoffensive and avowedly unchallenging lyrics, and his old-fashioned, straightforward compositions. This stuff should be played in dentists’ receptions, if only to acclimatise people to having their teeth pulled.
However – and this is Wears The Trousers going out on a limb – Melua’s own work might just indicate that a change of guidance and direction could be fruitful. To be fair to her, she does possess a beautifully clear and versatile voice and her writing has a flair that may just come into its own. ‘What I Miss About You’, for example, could never have come from Batt’s well-worn pen. Melua’s semi-biographical song about a treacherous and hurtful ex-boyfriend swings effortlessly from melancholic reminiscence (“your bashful grin when you asked if I would like your key”) to angry denunciation (“your skill of putting me down in front of everyone I knew”), and she is clearly emotionally involved in her powerful performance. The album’s other standout song, ‘Scary Movies’, is an intelligent and amusingly kooky piece completely at odds with Batt’s pedestrian styling. You could scarcely imagine the author of ‘Bright Eyes’ writing lyrics like “Nowadays I never cry… / when the psychopathic wife kills her husband with a knife”, or “I don’t care when people’s heads end up being torn to shreds”.
Overall, though, Pictures sees Melua stuck firmly on safe ground. It will appeal to Wogan’s listeners every bit as much as her previous releases, it will win no prizes for innovation or daring, and it isn’t likely to win her new fans, but Pictures does provide her with a chance to show what she is capable of. Melua is a talented musician let down by a solidly plain lyricist/composer; she might not be a Diana Krall or Joni Mitchell in the making, but if she has the courage to mark a change of direction with the clarity and skill that makes occasional appearances in her own work, she could well move into newer, better, more interesting territory.
Maya Arulpragasam must be a gift to amateur sociologists, and even the more refined stratum of navel gazers known as ethnomusicologists. Just think of all the theses and dissertations that could be developed about her: a young woman born in Hounslow to Sri Lankan parents, whose family moved with her back to their homeland when she was 6 months old; who experienced the virtual loss of her father when he joined the armed Tamil Tiger separatist movement and she was forced to flee with her family to India, living for a time in a ruined house; who eventually returned to the UK and went to Central St Martin’s art college, met Justine Frischmann and was commissioned to produce the artwork for Elastica’s second album; whose response to encouragement by Frischmann and Peaches, the support act on Elastica’s US tour, to develop her confidence in music was to drop off a tape of what became her first single, the bruising and brilliant ‘Galang’, at the offices of XL Recordings with a note reading, “Trust me, you’ve been looking for me”. Without getting too pointy-headed about it, the deprivation, heartache, politicisation, talent and determination revealed by Arulpragasam’s story makes her current success much less surprising, particularly in the music world where personality hooks are often just as important as musical ones.
But it’s the music that concerns us here, until now encapsulated in her debut album, Arular, named after the pseudonym her father took when he joined the Tigers. That record was a dizzying and enervating conglomeration of grime, dancehall, techno, hip hop and a smattering of unapologetic pop, which garnered drooling praise from critics and several award nominations, not to mention healthy sales. It was genuinely one of the records of 2005: fizzing with energy and ideas, politicised but not in your face – despite MTV doing its boneheaded best to bring her politics to the foreground by banning ‘Sunshowers’ for mentioning the PLO – its slightly unfinished feel only added to its appeal, giving the songs a technoid edge that made her sound even more alien among her contemporaries. All of which makes Kala one of the most anticipated releases of 2007.
Arular was undoubtedly the product of a childhood spent mainly in the UK, a result and mirror of musics absorbed from neighbours and friends in an overpopulated city. One of the key tracks on Kala – this time named after MIA’s mother – is tellingly called ‘World Town’, and is the most obvious statement of how her concerns and vision have expanded in the two years since the first record. In itself, however, it only makes explicit that which is implied throughout what is, in many ways, an exuberant travelogue of an album, recorded as it was in India, Trinidad and Tokyo among other locations. ‘World Town’ is the equivalent of entering a dusty zocalo where a street party is in full swing: a samba band bashes out flurries of percussion above which shouts some unnamed instrument fashioned from a car exhaust, while MIA declaims from a car bonnet, “don’t be calling me desperate / when I’m knocking on the door / every wall you build / I’ll knock it down to the floor”. Only the masked guys in the corner, loading their automatic rifles as the chorus plays, ring a note of concern.
These (defiantly non-government) troops appear again on ‘Paper Planes’, the most summery track on the album, but one that sets out a similarly outspoken agenda: “I’ll fly like a paper get high like planes / catch me at the border I got visas in my name / If you come around here I’ll make ‘em all day / I’ll get one done in a second if you wait”; then there’s the chorus of “All I wanna do is -” followed by three gunshots. It’s pretty obvious that MIA’s sympathies understandably lie with the voiceless and powerless people she’s known throughout her life, but it’s equally obvious from the cartoon methodology she employs that she’s out to deliberately provoke a reaction from the other side of the fence, from the comparatively well-off record-buying fraternity that are most likely to be exposed to her music.
Whatever your opinion of her politics, it never gets in the way of Kala being both joyful and sonically innovative. ‘Mango Pickle Down River’ heavily features rhyming by a group of Aborigine adolescents called The Wilcannia Mob, and is a widescreen slice of (inevitably) didge-heavy sludge-hop with a decidedly environmental slant (“There’s only one ocean that got fish left / one day we’ll have to be a really good chef”). The opening ‘Bamboo Banga’ is bhangrafied techno, one of several songs here to extend her cross-pollinisation into good ol’ white-boy indie as she drawls quotes from Jonathan Richman’s ‘Roadrunner’ in the opening lines. ‘20 Dollar’, a sequel of sorts to Arular‘s ‘10 Dollar’, inserts The Pixies’ ‘Where Is My Mind?’ into its loping groove; and even Happy Mondays get a piece of the action when ‘The Turn’ appropriates a line or two from Wrote ‘For Luck’.
Second single ‘Jimmy’ further enlarges MIA’s already expansive tent by covering an old Bollywood tune about one of its stars, Jimmy Aaja. She chooses not to recontextualise the music, relying on lots of swirling strings and bubbling arpeggios, but transplants the lyrics from India to Rwanda and Darfur. It’s an unexpected left turn, especially after the preceding percussive double whammy of ‘Bird Flu’ and ‘Boyz’, and provides some useful breathing space before ‘Hussel’ brings back the noize with layered African drumming that propels Afrikan Boy’s flow and some evocative FX toward a soaring chorus.
As Arulpragasam herself has said, this album “takes a few listens” to reveal itself entirely. The sheer weight and breadth of the sounds on offer here makes it less immediate, and certainly less immediately charming, than Arular; there’s none of the vocal characterisation that she deployed on ‘10 Dollar’, for example. Kala‘s politics won’t appeal to everyone, and they are far more central to the album’s fabric than previously. But when this brave, fearlessly eclectic and sonically loaded music truly hits, only a churl would fail to put it straight in the box marked Albums Of The Year.
When Joni Mitchell announced in March this year that her comeback album would be based around what she called “the war of the fairytales” it’s safe to assume that no one thought she’d be penning the soundtrack for ‘Shrek The Third’. It’s also safe to assume that no one could have imagined that the sight of a grizzly bear foraging for food in her dustbin would have set aflame her desire to compose her first new songs in almost a decade. Having departed the music industry five years ago with a hefty sting in her tail – the words ‘cesspool’ and ‘slavery’ were bandied about – Mitchell’s heart seemed set on the comparative freedom of painting and a musical life lived through nicely packaged but ultimately unsatisfying Rhino Records compilations. Retiring to her beloved coastal home (her “sanctuary”) in British Columbia where she busied herself with gardening, watching old movies and painstakingly creating the 60-strong mixed media works that would later make up her first art exhibition, an anti-war collection named ‘Flag Dance’, Mitchell’s desire to make music dwindled. Unthinkably, she got out of the habit of playing the guitar, so much so that her fingers had softened and she bled when she tried. So that night, the night the bear arrived, she turned to the piano for the first time in 10 years.
Kicking off a 10-track album with an instrumental, particularly one as feverishly awaited as Shine, may seem on the surface an ungenerous gesture. It’s not. It’s perfect. ‘One Week Last Summer’ is divine anticipation in itself, a languorous delight that slowly unfurls beneath Mitchell’s ponderous, sensitive piano. It’s a stark reminder that, for all her detractors who bemoan the loss of range from her singing, Mitchell doesn’t need words to make a song her own. The sensuous, evocative phrasing of the chords keeps attention rapt throughout all seven ‘verses’, one for each day of the week, and when the bear shows its hungry muzzle on the Thursday there’s no low-end booming drama, no overly dramatic toots on the sax. As the whole of Shine attests, at 64, the music of Joni Mitchell is the fiercest calm you’ll find.
The bear makes another appearance on ‘This Place’, one of only a small clutch of guitar songs, inspired by the demolition of a mountain behind Mitchell’s sanctuary that was sold to Californian developers as gravel. You couldn’t make it up, really. With its lyrical lament about disappearing tree lines and money making them topple, it’s sort of like an updated version of ‘Big Yellow Taxi’, if there weren’t an updated version of ‘Big Yellow Taxi’ already on the album. The voice, when it comes in, sounds richer and more full, luxuriant even, than it has done for years. And for anyone thinking that Mitchell has become entirely humourless, there’s kudos for the line about making mountains into molehills.
The aforementioned retread of perhaps her best-known song is given added colour by a surprising use of accordion atop the familiar strutting guitar line. Taking in both the fiscal and corporeal implications of modern life, Mitchell foregoes Amy Grant’s 25 buck entry fee to the tree museum; here it’ll cost you “an arm and a leg”. How’s that for inflation? Having been overlooked for the orchestral reworkings that made up her last album Travelogue, it’s nice to see this classic finally get a huskier makeover among thematically relevant material. Interestingly, it’s also her first entirely solo performance since 1998’s ‘Tiger Bones’. Still, isn’t it about time that someone realised that DDT hasn’t been used as a crop pesticide in years? If you’re going to change one lyric…
With the notable exception of ‘Woodstock’, which, famously, she never actually attended due to a conflicting work schedule, and 1977’s spookily pre-emptive ‘Otis & Marlena’ that sang of Muslims sticking up Washington, until the late 1980s Mitchell had mostly eschewed the political songwriting of Joan Baez, Bob Dylan and the like – a fact she’s making up for in 2007. War and the ecological scourge of humankind are Shine’s raison d’être. From the opening salvo of the disarmingly tender ballad ‘If I Had A Heart’ to the almost hymnal title track, which contains the piercing lyric “shine on dying soldiers in patriotic pain”, Mitchell lays into modern consumerism (mobile phone users get a double dressing down), self-serving politicians and senseless killing in the name of religion. But these are not protest songs in the ‘60s tradition; Mitchell is too smart for that. She sings with a knowing weariness, an acceptance that the times when people truly believed that art could change the world are long dead and buried. It’s unsettling and strange, proving that the time spent away hasn’t tempered her mystery.
Mitchell even goes so far as to spell it out for us in ‘Hana’ where the female protagonist, a kind and resilient do-gooder, who tells us “This is no simply Sunday song / where God or Jesus come along / and they save ya,” asserting that “you’ve got to be braver than that / you tackle the beast alone / with all its tenacious teeth”. As Paulinho Da Costa’s brash percussion propels the song forward, there’s a hint of the experimentalism that marked Mitchell’s under-regarded 1980s output, and it crops up again on another classic Joni story-song, ‘Night Of The Iguana’, a lyrical adaptation of the Tennessee Williams play of the same name about a priest who falls spectacularly from grace and into tragic love. Elsewhere, ‘Bad Dreams’ takes its key lyric from Mitchell’s new grandson (“bad dreams are good in the great plan”) and talks of life “before that altering apple”, before we lived in towns that are little more than “electric scabs” on the Earth, while ‘Strong & Wrong’ takes a somewhat heavy-handed swipe at the Bush Administration and its ilk.
Shine is so much more than just a protest album, it’s a spiritual awakening. Indeed, as a protest album, it largely falls flat and, let’s be honest, mostly on deaf ears. And whilst this is her first organic-sounding new material in a long, long time, it carries a heady but inescapably dated scent. The fire is not in the music – often a smoky background haze – it’s burning in the wisdom of her voice. Mitchell has pared back everything as she urges us to snap out of our stupors and feel our surroundings. For all her chastising and didacticisms, Shine ends on a beautifully hopeful note. An adaptation of Rudyard Kipling’s famous poem ‘If’ is gorgeously rendered, pertinent both to Mitchell’s own experience and the world at large, and is given an extra poetic flourish at the end from Joni’s own pen. “If you can fill the journey of a minute / with sixty seconds worth of wonder and delight / then the Earth is yours / and everything in it” sounds almost like a challenge. Happily, despite its few flaws, Shine proves that Mitchell herself is up to the task.
Wild Hope ••••
Granted, the name Mandy Moore is not usually synonymous with musical integrity but bear with us here. Wild Hope finds the young actress/singer in a place that’s light years away from the studio-moulded bubblegum popstrel that released So Real. Perhaps we can accredit her newfound maturity to the fact that she’s been forging friendships with the likes of Susan Sarandon and other creative geniuses, or maybe she’s simply gotten older and wiser (she’s still only 23, mind). Whatever force she’s harnessed, the new Moore is a singer who delivers her material with a belief and fervour that reinforces the fact that she’s now in a position to choose the songs she loves rather than those that will sell to a core demographic. Kicking off with ‘Extraordinary’, Moore’s conviction demands that every preconception of her sound be shed. It’s a startling reintroduction that wraps around a lyrical manifesto that’s almost therapeutic – affirmations of self-belief and embracing the opportunity to be yourself with no pretensions of doing more than appreciating the day, the life and the person for its own merits.
As co-writer on every track, Wild Hope is Moore’s most personal effort to date and seemingly forms a narrative, tracing her thoughts through the stages of relationships and self-discovery, beginning to end. The slightly acerbically titled ‘Looking Forward To Looking Back’ is the album’s pivotal moment in that context, marking the point where the realisation comes that the fun has gone and really the relationship has become a chore. Intriguingly, as the stories of the songs wax and wane so does Moore’s voice, as if she were vocally echoing the changes that she sings about; the opening tracks don’t showcase a spectacular voice, but as the narrator becomes more empowered – notably on the stunning, piano-led closer ‘Gardenia’ – Moore might just take your breath away. The voice and the person behind the songs has metamorphosed immeasurably.
Of course, there are credits to be given elsewhere as Moore has collaborated with a range of respected artists to create the songs that mark this transitional album. ‘All Good Things’ welcomes the talents of The Weepies for a song about ultimate healing and acceptance, while ‘Most Of Me’ was written with Lori McKenna and slowly gets under your skin with its melancholy leanings and lyrics. It feels like an insight into a private moment of self-revelatory optimism as Moore sings about realising that she wants to find a place of wholeness where she can be vulnerable for her new relationship, but that it’s starting at a point where it’s “crossing paths with the way he left [her]”, and so for a while all she can give is “most of [her]”; as with nearly all songs on the album, it’s the imagery that remains after the song has faded. The aforementioned ‘Gardenia’ is a collaboration with Canadian singer-songwriter Chantal Kreviazuk, and, in the tradition of saving the best for last, is the album’s peak both lyrically and in terms of performance. If you turn it up loud enough, you can even hear the creak of the piano pedal.
‘Can’t You Just Adore Her?’ is a sweet little tribute to being female and wanting to be adored for every quirk and individual trait; it’s for every woman who has eaten chocolate for breakfast, cancelled work to shop or made being late part of her personality. ‘Nothing That You Are’ and ‘Latest Mistake’ are similarly empowering, for different reasons, and provide a needed boost after the soft and introspective title track whose gentle calm barely raises the pulse. Cellos lend a beautiful depth to ‘Ladies’ Choice’ alongside the delicate keyboards and goodbyes as Moore toasts “to us at the end of the line,” realising that she’ll always miss the version of her lover that she loved but not the one that she’s leaving.
Though it doesn’t push any envelopes in the grander scheme of things, Wild Hope is nevertheless a towering achievement for someone who rarely gets credited for her musical talent and who, by her own admission, would have refunded what people paid for her earlier records. As she sings on ‘Gardenia’, “it’s been good getting to know myself more”, and after a few listens to Wild Hope you’ll most likely concur. Suddenly Moore has a chance to establish herself as a singer-songwriter of true mettle. It may take a while for people to grow accustomed to that, but it seems assured that Moore will continue to develop her talents while the world catches up.
Heart Full Of Sky ••½
Heart Full Of Sky is the eighth studio album from British prog band Mostly Autumn and sees them rack up their 10th year in the business. As is becoming fashionable (or should that be “increasingly necessary”) in the prog world, the band have followed Marillion’s lead in funding the album recording through subscription and fan pre-orders. This has allowed them to produce the album without major label support on their own Mostly Autumn Records imprint. The bonus for fans who stumped up in advance is a special limited edition with eight exclusive extra tracks.
Among the 10 songs on the regular release, the writing credits are shared between lead guitarist Bryan Josh and singer Heather Findlay, with a couple of tracks contributed by keyboard supremo Chris Johnson, and it’s this triumvirate who form the band’s creative centre. Overall, the album takes a more mainstream approach to prog rock than the likes of Yes, Genesis or King Crimson. Rather, the music bears comparison with a rockier version of bands like Pink Floyd, mixing a strong pop sensibility with their prog pretensions. Mostly Autumn layer this with an occasional folky overlay provided by the flute, clarinet and recorders of Angela Gordon and guest musicians Peter Knight of Steeleye Span and Troy Donockley from Iona.
While this would suggest that the band is aiming for a quality product, these ears found the resulting album more than a little lacklustre. In fact, the overall impression by the end of the album’s 60-odd minutes is a journeyman effort. Findlay’s vocals are excellent throughout but someone needs to tame drummer Andrew Jennings’s love affair with his cymbals. The lack of melodic hooks is doubly disappointing. Most effective are the mellower, folkier songs, where the vocals and Gordon’s flute shine through.
Listening back to the songs on Heart Full Of Sky one can’t help but wonder whether this is a CD which will please the existing fans – particularly those invested in the project – but which will do little to spread the word beyond that. That’s a shame because, if the band were to produce an album that added up to at least the sum of the parts, Mostly Autumn and their fans could be on to a commercial winner. Sadly not this time though.
The Turn •••••
Among the various artistic epochs of the 20th Century, the 1980s have much to answer for. That faded decade was guilty of some of the most heinous crimes against taste in living memory (leg warmers, anyone?), but it did also produce some little nuggets of joy; it was, lest we forget, the decade that saw the arrival of the CD, the animation of Danger Mouse, and the birth of charitable juggernauts of the likes of Live Aid. It also produced some pretty darn good musicians, forged in the bass-soaked glory of post-punk, faux-glam electropop bands of the likes of Wham! and Yazoo. Although both of those bands have long since folded, their brightest stars – the increasingly off-the-rails George Michael and stage-loving blues supremo Alison Moyet – seem to have maintained a certain sort of magnetism.
It is, perhaps, that vital magnetism that keeps drawing Ms Moyet back to the studio to produce magnificently symphonic albums every few years. It’s pretty clear that some force has to be at work to drag her away from a critically-acclaimed stage career that has seen her playing in shows as wildly different as glamorous jazz-fest ‘Chicago’ and the more downbeat tragedy, ‘Smaller’ (the latter with her close friend Dawn French). That stage experience is becoming increasingly evident in Moyet’s studio albums, and never more so than in her newest effort, The Turn.
It was probably inevitable that The Turn would take on a more theatrical tone than Moyet’s last album, 2004’s Hometime. Signed to new Universal label W14, Moyet has found herself far removed from the pop-loving influence of her ‘80s/’90s Sony contract, and better able to concentrate on turning out music that appeals for its artistry rather than its simplicity. The Turn is full of such music, co-written with Moyet’s long-time collaborator Pete Glenister. The album opens with the theatrics of ‘One More Time’, a complex piece that enables Moyet to show off her famously warm voice and its stage-acquired, ground-shaking vibrato. Similarly theatrical, ‘The Man In The Wings’ is full of drooping legato strings, with Moyet’s earthy, emotional vocals matching the song’s lyrical poetry perfectly. Funkier stuff is in evidence in the jazzy, snazzy stylings of ‘It’s Not The Thing Henry’, full of strutting guitars and belting vocals; Moyet is in near-gospel territory here, and comes even closer in the Hammond-fuelled funk of ‘A Guy Like You’.
The real standout track, though, is one of three that have made it to the album from ‘Smaller’. ‘Home’ is an almost absurdly theatrical tango, which marries Moyet’s masterful histrionics with the dizzying skill of virtuoso accordionist Marcel Azzola to create one of the most striking pieces of music this year. Visit Moyet’s blog (http://alisonmoyet.wordpress.com) for the background story: suffice to say, her excitement at working with Azzolo burns through the song with an incredible intensity. Stunning stuff, truly.
The Turn is easily Moyet’s best album to date. A perfect vehicle for her songwriting prowess, it also enables her to show off one of the most unique, powerful and expressive voices in Britain. If that special magnetism continues to draw her back to the studio, she might have a hard time beating her own performance; one has to hope that she would relish the challenge.
Go Go Smear The Poison Ivy ••••
I have to own up here and admit that I’m not at all familiar with Múm. All I know, or knew prior to the extensive (ahem) research necessary for this review, is that they’re Icelandic, there used to be four of them and now there are three, and that they mix electronic and acoustic elements in their music. Indirectly, it’s the latter aspect that has put me off them most, as it has led to critics describing Múm as ‘folktronica’ artists.
Now me, I hate folktronica. I even hate the name, a lazy conflation of two hitherto innocent and respectable words, presumably invented by a hack on a deadline to describe computer-based music that includes things like acoustic guitars and vocals, often in the service of song instead of texture or beats. (God knows what would be better, before you ask – ‘laptop folk’ is both clunky and inaccurate and anyway, genre tags are the province of dullards.) I really have tried to like…this type of music – I refuse to use the benighted word – but have come away burned, or rather bored, by the self-important dullness of Gravenhurst, the pleasant tedium of Tunng and the aural overthink of The Books. It’s like someone with a lifetime’s aversion to olives, who eventually gives up trying “just once more” in the hope of dislodging the Damascene scales on their tastebuds, because, to himorher, they really do taste like the devil’s haemorrhoids.
But it’s nice to be wrong sometimes. Better, even, than the feeling when an album that’s been anticipated for weeks, months, maybe even years exceeds all fevered expectations, are those times when something for which you have no great hopes plays your favourites off the pitch. For much of Go Go Smear The Poison Ivy, we’re holding one such beauty in our mortal hands. ‘Blessed Brambles’ opens with a rusty banjo being plucked, before drizzling on all manner of parps, trills and interlocking percussion and allowing airy boy/girl vocals to waft in. The sheer fecundity of the whole thing only becomes apparent when the vocals drop out again, revealing something akin to Tom Waits’s junkyard orchestra being conducted by the little Haribo cartoon boy. It’s colourful, almost painfully so, but experimental, tuneful and fun at the same time – not an easy balancing act. Even better is ‘A Little Bit, Sometimes’, which refracts music-box chimes, accordions and fragments of piano through a bass-heavy gauze of electronics, topped off with a weary, elegiac vocal melody.
It’s particularly impressive that Múm repeat this trick throughout the album, chucking in everything but the kitchen sink in a spirit of gleeful experimentation while retaining a controlled and tunesome sound. Even more so since their last album, Summer Make Good came from a far more crepuscular and forbidding neighbourhood. Elsewhere, lead single ‘They Made Frogs Smoke ‘Til They Exploded’ nearly matches its glorious title with a meditation on either pet care or animal cruelty (“If you break a kitten’s neck / you must shake its body and check / if it’s still alive, be gone to sleep”); ‘Marmalade Fires’ hides a cry for cleansing flames under a swooning confection of harps and strings; and ‘Moon Pulls’ is a piano ballad to a faraway love played on a silvered beach at evening.
Indeed, if it wasn’t for a few pointless throwaways like ‘Rhuubarbidoo’ or ‘I Was Her Horse’ (both mercifully short) – and for the fact that listening to it in its entirety leaves one with a feeling akin to eating too much candyfloss – this album would be a revelation. As it is, it’s merely great. Múm can consider themselves one more fan to the good, and I’ll be checking out their back catalogue as soon as I can.
“When I think that I’m over you, I’m overpowered” tease the opening seconds of Róisín Murphy’s disco-tinged second solo album. Following the critically acclaimed but commercially ignored Ruby Blue, Overpowered has been hotly tipped as a modern disco classic, and armed with decadent costumes, lavish production from Richard X, Seiji and Andy Cato, two incredibly infectious über-cool singles, as well as inextricable links with the fashion world, Murphy appears at last to be on an infallible path to greater recognition.
The album’s title, however, proves an unwitting indication of what to expect. There is no denying that Murphy has talent in abundance: each of Moloko’s albums bore incredibly well written, edgy and interesting tracks, and Ruby Blue (produced by Matthew Herbert) was an intriguing collection of leftfield art-pop. Here, the focus on disco and fashion – almost painfully displayed by the album artwork which perhaps demonstrates that the songs are swathed in too much artifice – somewhat distracts from Murphy’s majesty. So while ‘Let Me Know’ is undeniably one of this year’s best pop moments, and one that in itself almost makes up for what the rest of the album lacks, still Overpowered misses something crucial. It has energy, it has hooks galore and it’s certainly incredibly cool, but there’s a sorry lack of depth. Perhaps in irony, the words ‘babe’ and ‘baby’ crop up too often to allow the songs to be taken too seriously, and every so often songs sound far too ‘80s, and it’s too unclear where pastiche and irony begin or end.
The main problem is that, on some songs, Róisín is indeed ‘overpowered’ and somewhat drowned by the emphasis on cutting-edge production; there is frustration that the sound is not organic enough to let her breathe. Whereas on ‘Let Me Know’, ‘Overpowered’ and the quite wonderful closer ‘Scarlet Ribbon’, Murphy’s vocals soar, her lyrics and delivery are spot on and the production does not overshadow the content, much of the rest of the album borders on style over substance. ‘You Know Me Better’ is incredibly catchy, and surely must be a future single, but lies dangerously on the cusp of being too much an ‘80s revisit with its electro-handclaps and bizarre synth effects. Elsewhere, ‘Movie Star’ and ‘Checkin’ On Me’ (with unnecessary apostrophe; Róisín is far from urban) miss the mark quite substantially, suggesting that working within the confined of being retro-cool and club friendly proves to be a somewhat limiting vehicle for her talents.
Despite this criticism, Murphy has delivered a competent, accessible and energetic release. While certain songs are below par for a musician of her ilk, the standout tracks really do demand repeated listening, and are some of her best-penned moments. Still, Overpowered is far from being her most impressive work and is in no way Murphy’s most ambitious release. Perhaps the singles will at least finally convince the general public of her worth as a pop star in her own right and grant some chart success, but hopefully by her next album the good stuff will be surrounded by less superfluous material that should really have been shed along the way.
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, amanda farah, andy wasley, anja mccloskey, claire robinson, hugh armitage, lisa ono, ollabelle, oom, over the rhine, paramore, ping pong bitches, po' girl, puppini sisters, scott millar, sinead o'connor, siobhan rooney, the phonemes, trevor raggatt, yoko ono
The following reviews were published on our old MySpace blog in 2007.
From the beginning of her career, Sinéad O’Connor’s name has been synonymous with risks, the controversy surrounding her sometimes gaining as much, if not more, attention as her voice. But Theology – released 20 years after her multi million-selling debut The Lion & The Cobra – sees her taking a different kind of risk in the by now familiar arena of religion. Indeed, religion has long been an obsession of the O’Connor rumour mill, ever since that infamous moment when she tore up a photo of the Pope live on American TV. Since then she’s become an ordained minister in an off-shoot of the Catholic church and, later, wholeheartedly embraced the Rastafari faith (culminating in the woeful reggae excursion Throw Down Your Arms). In 2005 she even went so far as to claim that her mission was to “rescue God from religion”.
Theology, then, is O’Connor proclaiming her conflicted feelings for all to hear, should they still care. Theology, too, gives us reason to still care: O’Connor has tackled her subject matter very successfully, neither overly pious nor accusatory. And though it has its shortcomings – a cover of ‘I Don’t Know How To Love Him’ from ‘Jesus Christ Superstar’ is, unfortunately, as cheesy as it sounds – the album, for the most part, maturely and comprehensively addresses the idea of faith in a way that is easy to relate to. It is not only declaring that one has faith, but also questioning why one has faith, what that faith is, and in troubled times, how one can continue to have faith.
And that’s not all. If an album with religion as its central theme were not risky enough, Theology is a double album. The first disc, recorded in Dublin, and the second, recorded in London, have almost identical tracklistings, the difference being in the songs’ accompaniment. The first disc is essentially O’Connor alone with an acoustic guitar, while the second couches her in the studio with a full band. It keeps things interesting, and long-time fans will no doubt be delighted with the opportunity to find each and every little difference in the recordings. For the rest of us, the second disc may seem superfluous given how well O’Connor shines in the solo context. Download both versions of the brilliant ‘If You Had A Vineyard’ and see what I mean.
Rounder / Me & My
It’s a crying shame that it’s taken a full three years for Ollabelle’s eponymous debut to get a domestic release. Rounder Records once again prove themselves to be Americana heroes, for if there’s one thing Ollabelle has that this country has been missing, it’s soul. Serious soul.
Formed at an East Village blues and gospel jam night, Ollabelle comprises five members (the female contingent being Fiona McBain and Amy Helm – daughter of The Band’s Levon Helm) of diverse backgrounds but a singular passion for the music they create. Discovered by T-Bone Burnett, he wisely signed them to his own label. From the first a cappella notes, handclaps and washboard percussion of opening number ‘Before This Time’ it’s clear that Ollabelle are something special. Rootsy touches abound throughout the album, with Hammond, slide and dobro all making their presence felt among the acoustic guitars, rhythm section and dripping-honey harmonies.
For the most part, the tunes are drawn from the classic blues and gospel songbook with songs such as ‘Jesus On The Mainline’, ‘Get Back Temptation’ and ‘No More My Lawd’, though a few self-penned inclusions are thrown in for good measure. All are delivered with a tone that strikes a perfect balance between the traditional and contemporary. Respect for the music remains paramount; this is truly soulful and heartfelt stuff, not some sort of gospel-lite R&B knock-off. Where the band attempt to stretch their legs and cut loose, a psychedelic flavour creeps into the tonal palette: ‘Elijah Rock’ and a louche updating of the Son House classic, ‘John The Revelator’ are simply perfect recordings in this respect.
Ollabelle is a truly stunning debut and should really be a centrepiece in the CD collection of any lover of blues, Americana, gospel or roots music. Here’s hoping a UK release of the follow-up, Riverside Battle Songs, won’t be too far behind.
Soul & Bossa ••½
Japanese culture is famously diverse – some blinkered commentators might say bizarre – and, on occasion, somewhat opaque to Western observers. How, for example, can a country that is home to some of the world’s most ancient and beautiful art also be home to that perennial ‘Tarrant On TV’ favourite, the comically sadistic game show ‘Endurance’? How can a nation with one of the world’s most effective healthcare systems also dine on fugu, the puffer fish dish that, although exquisitely tasty, can apparently be 1200 times more toxic than cyanide? To this list, add one more question: how can a nation with such variety and colour as Japan be hooked on a singer as unexciting as Lisa Ono?
Perhaps that is putting it a little too strongly. Lest we forget, Ono, a Brazilian expat, is one of the most popular bossa/jazz artists in the world and almost certainly the most popular in Japan. Like Brian Eno, Kenny G et al, she has made her home in the card shop-friendly world of pleasant background music; the problem is that when listening to Ono one senses that, like an undiscovered seam of gold beneath a Californian hill, there are riches under the surface waiting to be exploited.
Soul & Bossa, Ono’s latest collection of covered songs, might just shimmer with the odd fleck of gold. However, they are few and far between; there is nothing inherently awful about the album, but it is hard to pick highs and lows because it is crushingly average. ‘I Got You (I Feel Good)’ is a decent enough example; Ono tames James Brown’s classic into a pleasing enough bossa, but in the process strips it of its rawness and power. ‘I Feel Good’ without Brown’s exuberant barking and shrieking is rather like a tiger without its teeth and claws; pretty enough, but lacking excitement and just…well…nice. ‘Georgia On My Mind’ is similar in style and in effect; previously performed by Ray Charles (epic, emotional, intense) and Ella Fitzgerald (sultry, languid, warming), Ono’s version (nice, nice, nice) might just leave the listener wanting to choke a jazz flautist.
There is, however, gold in them thar hills. Ono’s sensitive performance of ‘Nada Mais Lately’ is powerfully redolent of Charlotte Gainsbourg’s throaty, sultry style, and thoroughly outshines the bland quality of much of Ono’s work. Another Portuguese piece, ‘Eu Você’, sounds bright and sophisticated and sizzles with Latin intensity. Elsewhere, ‘You’ve Got A Friend’ is a clever piece of work, mixing a refrain from Delibes’s ‘Flower Duet’ with a low-down, pleasing bossa that, thankfully, is a long way from the AA’s saccharine-sweet use of the song in its most recognisable format.
Listening to Soul & Bossa isn’t as painful as ‘Endurance’; nor is it as exciting as fugu. It’s a perfectly nice, perfectly average, perfectly innocent album that will suit anyone who wants to put on the headphones and relax for an hour. It is, perhaps, the “nice cup of tea” of current jazz.
Yes, I’m A Witch ••••
As the Beatles-Lennon furore recedes into the mists of pop culture past, the much-maligned Yoko Ono has emerged from the scrum to be recognised as an important avant-garde artist “in her own right” (to coin a condescending phrase). The re-evaluation of her challenging music continues with this engaging album, a collection of remixes by some painfully hip contemporary musicians (among them Peaches, Le Tigre, Antony, Spiritualized’s Jason Pierce, The Flaming Lips, the Polyphonic Spree and The Apples in Stereo) that pays homage to her influence and clearly aims to introduce her work to a new generation. (A similar compilation of dance mixes of her songs is also available.) The choice of material on Yes, I’m A Witch spans Ono’s career from her early experimental work with Lennon to her solo albums of the 1970s and ‘80s, with the artists retaining Ono’s original vocals and creating new backing tracks for them. The result is a predictably uneven but nonetheless highly enjoyable album that makes a compelling case for the accomplishments of a composer who was clearly way ahead of her time.
Following Public Enemy producer Hank Shocklee’s brisk ‘Witch Shocktronica Intro’, proceedings get off to an energetic start with busy, electro-techno reworkings of ‘Kiss Kiss Kiss’ and ‘O’oh’, from Peaches and Shitake Monkey, respectively, the latter benefiting from a judicious sample of the opening riff of Grover Washington Jr.’s ‘Mister Magic’. Blow Up effectively transport ‘Everyman…Everywoman’ into the realm of psychedelic rock, and though the already-unsubtle empowerment anthem ‘Sisters O Sisters’ doesn’t really profit from Le Tigre’s addition of a little megaphone agitation (“Women united will never be defeated!”), the song remains a pleasing rabble-rouser. However, it’s Porcupine Tree’s sparsely atmospheric take on ‘Death Of Samantha’ – and the chilling shudder in Ono’s voice as she sings “Every day I thank God I’m such a cool chick baby” – that moves this album into more emotional and rewarding terrain.
Those more familiar with the (arguably sexist and racist) media image of Ono than her musical output will be surprised to find that there’s very little which is scary or forbidding about this music. The record may open with the heavy irony of Ono declaring “Yes, I’m a witch / I’m a bitch… / I don’t care what they say”, but much of the material is appealing, inviting and even consoling, many of the lyrics featuring positive statements that sometimes veer perilously close to a Hallmark greeting card. This is particularly true of ‘Revelations’ with its succession of positive-thinking mantras and earnest benedictions: “you are a sea of goodness / you are a sea of love… / bless you for what you are.” But the elegant sparseness of Cat Power’s treatment transcends the banality of the sentiment and turns the song into a powerful piano-led duet.
Other highlights include The Apples in Stereo’s soaring, majestic take on ‘No One Can See Me Like You Do’ and Jason Pierce’s feedback-drenched makeover of ‘Walking On Thin Ice’. Elsewhere, Antony and Hahn Rowe do well by ‘Toyboat’, while The Flaming Lips take on ‘Cambridge 1969′ with characteristic brio. The album ends on a reflective note with Craig Armstrong’s reworking of ‘Shiranakatta (I Didn’t Know)’, a song of poignant regret punctuated by Ono’s heartrending inquiry: “why didn’t you tell me you were in pain? / I would have come to you so quickly.”
Throughout Yes, I’m A Witch there’s a directness and immediacy to Ono’s writing and singing that pierces your defences. If you’re a fan already then this album – an amalgam of remix disc, tribute record and collaborative project – will provide you with the pleasure and excitement of rediscovery. If you’re a newcomer, it will challenge any lingering prejudices you may have about Ono’s work and leave you eager to hear more.
Dead Analogue ••
“Like a grunged up Portishead with Björk on vocals,” Radio 1 DJ Zane Lowe exclaims of Brighton-based quartet Oom, who offer up their debut album, Dead Analogue. Hmm. There is much to be suspicious of when hearing things described as ‘the new this with a touch of that and a smidgen of whatever’. Such statements are invariably either completely meaningless, or suggest something so lacking in originality that it can only be described by the things it tries to emulate. I fear the latter is indeed true of Oom.
Mr Lowe is at least partly right – Oom does indeed sound like Portishead (though where the Björk comparison came from we will never know). Indeed, that’s the first thing that strikes you when the vocals kick in on the first track, ‘Poison’. If you weren’t paying full attention it would be easy to think it was Portishead. This is all that most people would bother to say about Oom – that they sound like Portishead. Unfortunately, it is my duty to give a comprehensive review of Dead Analogue, so it falls to me to find more things to say about it.
Here goes. Before the Oom’s Debbie Clare breaks in with her best impression of Beth Gibbons’s vocal style, ‘Poison’ begins with a strange pulsing intro. This noise is irritating and somewhat dirty sounding, which may be where Mr Lowe’s “grunged up” comment comes from. These strange computer-generated baarps and blatts are distributed generously throughout the album, and make for something that is less musical and more downright annoying (though ‘Paranoia’ does offer some variation by containing what seems to be the whining of a poorly tuned radio instead).
Lyrically, Oom take their cue from Portishead as well and are suitably dreary. Witness such fine examples as “you left me for dead” (‘Black Heart’) and “I am the eye of the storm when there’s nothing left to see” (‘The Storm’). Ms Clare makes an admirable attempt at drawling them out in as sultry and suffering a manner as she can, but there are times when it sounds that, vocally, she is taking on more than she can handle. Some notes are rather strained.
This album isn’t irredeemably bad. There are no particular points of blood-curdling horror. I’m sure that people who enjoy strange blatty and baarpy music might find it quite pleasant. The real problem with Dead Analogue is that it sounds like nothing more than an inferior copy of something else. If I saw someone eyeing it in a shop I would point them towards Portishead’s Dummy instead. Dead Analogue simply has no oomph (sorry, it had to be done), no originality. And who wants to listen to a bad imitation of a better band?
Over The Rhine
The Trumpet Child •••½
Great Speckled Dog
Blending elements of country, jazz, soul, swing and torch song, The Trumpet Child, the umpteenth album by Ohio natives Over The Rhine, plays out like a primer to American roots music. Centred around the wonderfully named husband-and-wife team of Linford Detweiler and Karin Bergquist, the band have gone through several line-up changes in the 16 years that they’ve been recording. This time around, however, the central duo have surrounded themselves with a piano-and-brass ensemble whose contributions give many of the songs a delightfully woozy, loose, late-night barroom ambience. The result is an appealing album that, though firmly rooted in tradition, feels thoroughly fresh and contemporary.
Mixing some pleasingly surrealistic imagery with more traditional lyrical approaches, the eleven songs are well served by Bergquist’s compelling vocal style, a luxuriant croon that sometimes suggests a homelier Billie Holliday mated with a less abrasive Lucinda Williams. The haunting, jazzy title track, the propulsive ‘Entertaining Thoughts’, the rollicking Tom Waits homage ‘Don’t Wait For Tom’ and the delicious domestic reverie ‘Let’s Spend The Day In Bed’ are among the highlights of the set, but it’s the brilliant ‘If A Song Could Be President’ that arguably emerges as the standout. The track is a wry but heartfelt speculation on the consequences for America if its media and politicians were replaced by its music. Paying affectionate lyrical homage to Steve Earle, Lightnin’ Hopkins, Patsy Cline, Emmylou Harris, John Prine and Neil Young (“even though he came from Canada”), the song is at once a subtle critique of “where our country went wrong” and a proud, loving celebration of the America’s rich cultural heritage. The lyric “pass it around on an MP3” couldn’t be more appropriate; this is the kind of track you instantly want to share with everyone you know, one that already sounds like a classic.
At its least good, The Trumpet Child wears its influences a little too heavily, sometimes allowing its penchant for homage to slip into pastiche. But taken as a stylish synthesis of a range of music traditions, the album is a very enjoyable experience. “I don’t want to waste your time with music you don’t need,” Bergquist sings, and, for the most part, Over The Rhine make good on that statement.
Fueled By Ramen
Southern pop-rockers Paramore are the kind of band that err on the digestible side of rebellion. Like ‘emo’ rockers Jimmy Eat World before them, Paramore’s music falls along the teen-friendly punk spectrum but, uniquely, they remain credible in a way that eludes similar bands. This may be thanks in part to the inclusion of ketchup-haired frontwoman Hayley Williams whose voice, an effervescent yet gritty coupling, hits all the right notes and gives Paramore a female edge over all-male competitors without the empty bravado of Avril Lavigne. Despite being voted Kerrang! magazine’s #2 Sexist Female, a dubious if lucrative honour, Williams has dismissed the importance of her gender, claiming that Paramore’s only aim is to produce good music. Indeed, one thing is certain: they know how to make some damn catchy songs.
Riot!, the band’s unambiguously named follow-up to their debut, All We Know Is Falling, lives up to its name within seconds of pressing play. ‘For A Pessimist, I’m Pretty Optimistic’ spurts into being, breathlessly introducing Josh Farro’s lead guitar and brother Zac Farro’s signature crashing drums. The title of the track, referring to Williams’s moral victory over a disappointing ex, could well be regarded as a summation of the band’s take on the ostensibly doom-laden emo genre, which seems rather perky if compared to anything by The Cure. Oddly enough, Williams has cited the gothic quartet as a personal influence, though Paramore’s youthful, confrontational style owes little to Robert Smith’s more lyrical brooding.
‘Misery Business’ and ‘Crushcrushcrush’, two of the album’s singles, promise to have listeners fumbling for the repeat button. The former, a brilliantly cathartic song inspired by a manipulative girlfriend, explodes into frenetic guitars punctuated by Zac Farro’s drums about a minute from the track’s close before Williams successfully wrests the spotlight back to her vocals. Similarly, ‘Crushcrushcrush’ exhibits some masterly drumming and equally defiant lyrics but with a subtlety that is perhaps more accessible to newbie rockers. Skipping the sickly ‘We Are Broken’, the jaunty ‘Fences’ has a whiff of bluegrass and a warning about the perils of fame, all while hinting at the band’s genesis as a funk covers outfit. ‘Hallelujah’, meanwhile, is a radio-friendly but not unappealing guitar-flecked tune.
With the exception of Paramore’s rather un-rock ‘n’ roll stance on using the Lord’s name in vain (Williams apologised to fans for the use of ‘god’ in ‘Misery Business’), the album’s only faults arise from the limitations of its genre. Though producing some infectiously memorable tracks, it is questionable whether the band would remain sufficiently distinctive were they fronted by a man. Inevitably, too, Paramore’s brand of punk is rather teen-centric, so for those of us who have graduated from uncomfortable adolescence into perhaps more experienced forms of angst, Riot! could be a miss.
There’s Something We’ve Been Meaning To Do •••½
Blocks Recording Club
On their debut album, Toronto’s The Phonemes unveil their own version of an indie film soundtrack full of lovingly assembled acoustic harmonies and ear-catching sounds. When a record opens with the lyrics “oh I met a man who thought he was a tree” (‘Tree’), a certain fascination with what is to come is pretty much guaranteed. With only a few simple chords filling the spaces between what is almost a completely vocal number, it makes for an affecting start to an album that sweetly enchants and ensnares your attention.
As ‘Tree’ merges almost seamlessly into the beautiful, lyrically inventive ‘Pain Perdu’, The Phonemes continue to impress with elegant melodies and a liberal sprinkling of surprising touches. Take ‘Easter Suit’ and ‘Wedding Suits’, for instance; the former’s savvy a cappella breaks and feisty protestation lead into the latter’s vividly descriptive lyrical tale with barely-there backing. Then, if the softness of the preceding songs has lulled you into a false sense of security, be prepared for the comparatively rough-edged ‘Municipality’. Vocalist Magali Meagher (former guitarist for The Hidden Cameras) unleashes her best raspy vocal for ‘Kim Rogers’ with splendid results.
Further surprises await with ‘Lewis’, a much more instrumental song that effectively conjures the colourful image of a Spanish dance troupe commanding the floor, and the angelic Anglo-French delight ‘Plate Dance’. With its gently alluring pull ‘Oh Sleep’ brings proceedings to a perfectly apt conclusion. If this is what The Phonemes have been meaning to do, be glad that they’ve finally gotten around to it and hope that procrastination doesn’t get the better of them again.
Ping Pong Bitches
It’s nigh on seven years since Malcolm McClaren protégés Ping Pong Bitches released their self-titled debut EP on Alan McGee’s Poptones label. In that time the Bitches have parted company with McClaren, Poptones and original member Mandy Wong and reinvented themselves as a four-piece. Why it’s taken them so long to release their first full-length album is a mystery, and what’s also somewhat surprising is that a couple of songs from that first EP are still knocking around, albeit apparently re-recorded (although ‘Rock Action’ still features the original guitar riff by the presumably McClaren-recruited Steve Jones).
Okay, so ‘Rock Action’ and ‘Beat You Up’, the other oldie, are among the best track on the album and provide the finest examples of the electro rock/techno punk that was the Bitches’ original ethos. The rest of the album, whilst retaining the electro feel, is often rather more pop than punk – perhaps the influence of the owner of their new label, Mark Moore, formerly of S’Express, who signed the Bitches as his first artists.
That’s not to say that Alphadog is a bad album by any means. Founding members Emily Hell and Louise Prey share the lead on the majority of tracks, their voices complimenting each other and the eclectic backing with seemingly little effort. They spout their abject nonsense with a conviction and apparent glee that rapidly becomes infectious. Once you’ve established that the Ping Pong Bitches are, hopefully intentionally, a great long string of clichés and definitely not to be taken too seriously, thus allowing yourself to hear lyrics such as “Feel the beast, feel the beast in me / come on baby won’t you set me free” (‘The Beast’) or “Gimme gimme gimme your rock action / harder harder harder” (‘Rock Action’) without guffawing, you can then settle down and begin to feel the throbbing – see they’ve got to me – bass riffs and disturbingly catchy synthesisers to full effect and start to think to yourself, perhaps slightly grudgingly, that this is actually pretty good. Even a cover of Honor Blackman and Patrick MacNee’s 1990 chart hit ‘Kinky Boots’ succeeds against the odds.
Overall, it’s a well-produced record with a full sound that never seems cluttered despite the vast array of instruments and sounds (including a touchtone telephone on first single ‘Roc Ya Body’) and if you can ignore the rock clichés, cartoon schoolgirl innuendo and the fact that you have no idea if this is post-modern disco, futuristic dance punk, retro techno rock or some hitherto unknown but entirely obvious new genre, it’s at worst inoffensive and at best thoroughly entertaining.
Home To You •••
Diesel Motor / Nettwerk
A maxim of reviewing is not to come to an album laden with preconceptions, especially when they’re positive ones. It’s doubly galling when they end up being dashed. Canadian alt-folk, punk-bluegrass combo Po’ Girl, who number Trish Klein of The Be Good Tanyas among their ranks, come with a favourable prejudice-inducing reputation as a kickass live act. Indeed, I found myself expecting Home To You, their third album, to be a smiliarly high-energy mix of modern Americana.
The reality, however, is somewhat lacklustre. ‘Shades Of Grey’ opens on a promisingly laidback country footing, containing touches of all the genre’s best elements – great songwriting, affecting harmony vocals, subtle banjo and fiddle. ‘Drive All Night’ is less encouraging, and it’s here that we identify a number of problems that recur throughout the album.
It’s understandable that a band like Po’ Girl might want to keep their music on the raw side. But there’s a thin line between raw and just plain rough. Too many songs on Home To You fall the wrong side of that line. Vocals that might have harmonised with a bit more work seem to clash, competing rather than complementing. And, sure, clarinet is an odd choice of instrument for a solo but that’s something I can go with – what’s less appealing is the mistimed pizzicato of Diona Davies’s violin, suspect tuning and the “let’s just stop” endings.
Over the course of the album the couldn’t-care-less vocal delivery on songs like ‘Nine Hours To Go’, ‘Angels Of Grace’ and the title track becomes a little tedious. More songs like ‘Shades Of Grey’, ‘To The Angry Evangelist’ and ‘Ain’t Life Sweet’ would have been welcome. Home To You is a good, if patchy, album, but a band as interesting and gifted as Po’ Girl should have delivered so much more.
The Puppini Sisters
The Rise & Fall Of Ruby Woo ••••
Universal Classics & Jazz
Little over a year since they set concert halls the country over alight with their quirky, close-harmony covers of well-loved 1940s numbers and bold adaptations of more modern classics such as ‘Wuthering Heights and ‘I Will Survive’, The Puppini Sisters are back with a back. With a new look, a new sound and even a few self-composed Puppini belters, the ever so stylish trio of Marcella Puppini, Kate Mullins and Stephanie O’Brien have clearly put a lot of energy and thought into their second release. The Rise & Fall Of Ruby Woo (named after the favoured shade of lipstick of Cure singer Robert Smith) is a much more daring venture than their debut Betcha Bottom Dollar, concentrating on the ups and downs of amour, besotted bliss and disintegrations.
Over several listens it becomes clear that the sequencing of the songs holds a genius all of its own, reflecting a twisted and fascinating storyline, the interdependence of the songs adding to the moody and authentic feel of the album. We are straight in with ‘Spooky’, known to most through Dusty Springfield’s version. A prominent and urgent double bass sets the haunted scene before the Puppinis chime in with those signature tight harmonies. The pace is fast and the band clearly revel in the uptempo swing with drum solos, close-mic’d string arrangements and a whole lot of attitude from the girls. Double bass is also prominent in the Bangles cover ‘Walk Like An Egyptian’, accompanied by subtle, almost lingering drums. The thrillingly different arrangement – unusual harmony intervals, Eastern-sounding instrumental interludes with a Jewish tough, obstreperous vocal interplay with a male choir – gives this girlgroup classic a whole new touch. The rather old-fashioned ‘Old Cape Cod’ is tackled at a much slower pace, complete with legato accordion chords, and is much more in line with the work we know from Betcha Bottom Dollar. The Puppinis trill in perfect harmony with dynamics worked out to the tiniest details. Impressive stuff.
As promised in last year’s Wears The Trousers interview, the girls have started to pen their own songs. ‘Soho Nights’ is the first of five self-composed works on the album and features some interesting chord and harmony choices as the fast-moving guitar and rhythmical double bass gives the song a Spanish flavour. It’s a quick-witted composition, recorded in such a way that puts the listener directly into the room, making them feel the beat of the pounding drums. The brilliant ‘I Can’t Believe I’m Not A Millionaire’ picks up the same close-mic’d delicate feel. Much bluesier, with lazy, sexy vocals, it has a sarcastic tone and oozes comic despair: “Look for my limousine / once more it’s not there / I can’t believe I’m not a millionaire”. ‘Jilted’, ‘And She Sang’ and ‘It’s Not Over’ are equally worthy and show a great deal of attitude, bent notes, sporadic percussion and, most importantly, strength.
There are some genius covers on this album, old and new. Certainly worth mentioning is the adaptation of Beyoncé’s ‘Crazy In Love’. The Puppini Sisters have managed to turn an instantly recognisable song into a musical Puppininised wonderland. Jazzy drums, tight vocals and a touch of Argentinian tango flair make for a bold but clever arrangement. All in all this is another great album from the London-based trio. It’s great to see the Puppinis heading into trickier territory, writing their own songs, implementing bolder arrangement and recording techniques, and moving away from what some people might see as a cabaret version of the Andrews Sisters. Because, really, these girls are so much more.