wears the trousers magazine


gossip: music for men (2009)
June 23, 2009, 9:30 am
Filed under: album, review, video | Tags: , , , ,

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Gossip
Music For Men ••
Columbia

This is your wake-up call. The Emperor isn’t wearing any clothes – an appropriate perspective given Beth Ditto’s penchant for rolling around naked in front of the camera. Some will no doubt swear blind that St Beth is unremittingly wonderful, flying the flag for queer sensibility and challenging body stereotypes. Well, look at the flipside. Isn’t it desperately sad that Gossip, as a band, is represented in popular consciousness by Beth Ditto’s naked body and not, say, by their music? Ditto is as relentlessly self-promoting and as much indebted to the consumer society’s addiction to the manufactured image as Britney Spears. However, to put it bluntly, we are supposed to believe that she is subverting that culture simply by virtue of being overweight. You can make up your own mind about that one, but, as The Times candidly pointed out, the person who goes from slagging off Kate Moss to being best buds in the space of a heartbeat is surely following the profit rather than principles.

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beth ditto takes on barbie
April 28, 2009, 1:20 pm
Filed under: news, trouser press | Tags: , , , ,

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Gossip girl joins the Superdoll posse

Over the last couple of years, Gossip frontwoman Beth Ditto has become almost as familiar a sight out of her clothes than in them, having posed butt naked in various brilliantly provocative magazine spreads. Now, with a new fashion line for UK chain Evans due in July, she’s turning her attention to playing dress up with other women with a range of “slouchy, rock-inspired clothes and accessories with enough sparkle to give Barbie a run for her money.” That’s all well and good (and dare we say almost obligatory for major label artists these days), but the real story here is that Beth has been immortalised in poseable plastic by London-based company Superdoll Collectables for the campaign imagery photographed by Philip Rankin. Some people are complaining that the doll is not exactly proportioned to match Beth’s famous curves but we think it looks pretty cute (pic below the cut).

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trouser shorts: lilith fair, the gossip, the knife

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Nettwerk boss Terry McBride has surprised us all by announcing on his blog that Sarah McLachlan’s groundbreaking all-female tour Lilith Fair will make a comeback in 2010 for a fourth season, 11 years since the last. Perez Hilton picked it up too, as a so-called “exclusive” (bless). That really is all the information we have at the moment; there’s no word on whether the Fair will hop over the Atlantic again like it did for one lonely little show in 1999. We’ll be following this story closely so more news when it comes. [UPDATE: from Terry’s Twitter: “lilith fair will look at doing 2 weeks in the UK/Europe in 2010” – whee!]

* * *

The Gossip have announced five UK live dates next month ahead of the June 22nd release of their new album Music For Men. Tickets are on sale now.

10.05.09 Radio 1 Big Weekend, Swindon
27.05.09 Digital, Brighton
28.05.09 Scala, London
29.05.09 Club Academy, Manchester
30.05.09 The Arches, Glasgow 

* * *

The Charles Darwin-inspired opera written by Swedish sibling duo The Knife, ‘Tomorrow, In A Year’ will make its stage debut at the Royal Danish Theatre in Copenhagen on September 2nd. The project sees them collaborating with Bolton-born, Berlin-based electro artist Planningtorock, German DJ Mount Sims, and Danish theatre group Hotel Pro Forma.  After a three-night run at the Royal Danish Theatre (other dates are Sept. 4, 5), ‘Tomorrow, In A Year’ will take itself off to the Geneva Festival in Switzerland (Sept. 10, 11), the European Centre For The Arts in Dresden, Germany (Oct. 15, 16), and back to Denmark for a pair of shows at the Concert Hall in Århus (Nov. 27, 28). Tickets for the Danish shows go on sale on May 11th through BILLETnet.

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Nina Persson’s A Camp will release new single ‘Love Has Left The Room’ on May 18th. The B-sides are covers of Pink Floyd’s ‘Us & Them’ and David Bowie’s ‘Boys Keep Swinging’. The band arrive in the UK for their first UK shows in eight years next week in support of the excellent Colonia.

28.04.09 Glee Club, Birmingham
29.04.09 Academy, Dublin
30.04.09 Spring & Airbrake, Belfast
02.05.09 ABC2, Glasgow
03.05.09 Cockpit, Leeds
04.05.09 Academy 3, Manchester
06.05.09 Kings College, London

FREE MP3: A Camp, ‘Love Has Left The Room’ [live, via RCRDLBL]

Fan-made video for ‘Us & Them’

* * *

Juana Molina has contributed a new song to the soundtrack for ‘Y Tu Mamá También’ screenwriter Carlos Cuarón’s directorial debut ‘Rudo y Cursi’, which reunites ‘Y Tu Mamá También’ actors Gael Garcia Bernal and Diego Luna as two brothers who work at a banana plantation and dream of becoming football stars [trailer]. Two English- and Spanish-language covers of Cheap Trick’s ‘I Want You To Want Me’ aside, all the tracks are covers of regional Mexican songs. The soundtrack album will be released physically in June through Nacional Records, but can be snagged on iTunes from May 5th onwards (May 19th for other digital outlets). Devendra Banhart and Black Lips also feature.

* * *

Alan Pedder



trouser shorts: peaches, the gossip, love is all

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In case you need a reminder why Peaches is just so damn well amazing, the Canadian electro-rocker has conveniently posted a mini-documentary recapping her career so far up on her website. Billed as “A Brief History Of Peaches”, the video features several clips from old TV interviews and plenty of performance footage of Ms Nisker in hotpants and knickers. Classic quote: “All of us have sex appeal and all of us feel sexy; it’s not just people who shave every part of their body, with blonde hair and big tits.”

Watch right to the end and you’ll catch a glimpse of what’s to come when the new Peaches album, I Feel Cream, is released on May 4th.

* * *

As tattle tale goes, this news is so yesterday, but it seems we will have a brand new Gossip album on June 21st. Pointedly titled Music For Men, the band’s fourth album will be their first for major label Columbia. Recorded in Malibu, California, and produced by Grammy-kissed studio boffin Rick Rubin, the album is said to feature, in Beth Ditto’s own words, “a shit-load of love songs”. Speaking to NME.com about the album, she said: “Writing down the tracklisting, we had about 14 songs and seven had the word ‘love’ in the title. I had no idea I was so romantic.”

The first single, ‘Heavy Cross’ will be released on June 15th. Tourdates are coming.

* * *

Fresh from last month’s long overdue UK release of their second album A Hundred Things Keep Me Up At Night, Love Is All have recorded a new covers EP made entirely of classic Swedish pop songs. Bearing the straightforward title Love Is All Play Swedish Covers, it finds the band repeating the formula followed for their Wishing Well +5 tour EP in which each of the five members got to pick one song to record without the input of their bandmates. The EP will be sold in a limited run of 200 copies on the band’s upcoming European tour, packaged with a small fanzine. Taking advantage of the new 10-song Myspace player, you can listen to all five covers here. Currently the band only have two UK dates, both in London:

09.05.09 Proud Galleries, London
10.05.09 The Lexington, London 

* * *

Listen to the new Annie single, ‘Anthonio’, produced by Richard X. Out on May 4th.

* * *

Stevie Nicks is apparently harbouring a desire to form “an all-girl choir” featuring Michelle Branch, Sheryl Crow and the Dixie Chicks’ Natalie Maines, she revealed to WWD.com. Currently in the midst of a lengthy US tour with Fleetwood Mac, Stevie also told WWD that she’d like to “do something crazy with Timbaland and Justin Timberlake” and revealed her love for R&B tunes that move her feet. The singer released her first live album in the UK last week; The Soundstage Sessions features 10 (of 18) songs recorded in front of a small audience in Chicago, including a duet with Vanessa Carlton on Bonnie Raitt’s ‘Circle Dance’ and a solo cover of Dave Matthews Band’s ‘Crash Into Me’.

* * *

Alan Pedder




2005/06 reviews dump: g

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

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Charlotte Gainsbourg
5:55 •••
Because

If the surname rings a bell – and let’s face it, it should – then yes, this is the latest musical offering from the daughter of actress/singer Jane Birkin and her one-time paramour, the legendary Serge Gainsbourg. In many ways, 5:55 could be described as her second debut, coming as it does no less than 20 years after her first, Charlotte For Ever (notable for the controversial single ‘Lemon Incest’), which was entirely penned by her father. She was only 13 when it was recorded. In the interim, Gainsbourg has enjoyed a successful and award-winning career in cinema, appearing in over 30 films – in fact, you will soon be able to see her starring alongside Gael Garcia Bernal in Michel Gondry’s hotly anticipated ‘The Science Of Sleep’ – so it’s a wonder she’s come back to the music again aged 35. That she has is thanks to meeting Air’s Nicolas Godin and Jean-Benoît Dunckel at a Radiohead concert, an encounter that led through a fortuitous chain of events to the involvement of producer Nigel Godrich, string arranger David Campbell and lyrical assistance from Jarvis Cocker and Neil Hannon of The Divine Comedy.

Laidback and jazz-like in spirit, the main comparison that springs to mind when listening to 5:55 is Black Box Recorder. Like Sarah Nixey, Gainsbourg’s delivery is arch and sinister at times, most apparent on the claustrophobic in-flight tale of ‘AF607105′. With Cocker’s lyrics sketching a very ‘Lost In Translation’ sense of displacement, Gainsbourg’s performance is suitably detached yet welcoming and gorgeously creepy. Then there’s the title track, which is a bold way for anyone to introduce an album, let alone someone who’s been away from music for so long. Easily the sexiest song on the album, her breathy Gallic tones interpreting more of Cocker’s sensitively written words over soft drums and rippling piano. Having said that, ‘Tel Que Tu Es’ isn’t far behind in the sexy stakes, helped as it is by Gainsbourg singing mainly in French. Later on, however, ‘Little Monsters’ proves that this was no mere trick of language.

All this sultriness can get a bit wearing over the course of the album’s 40-odd minutes so it’s a relief when Gainsbourg lets her sang-froid cool slip a little on ‘Everything I Cannot See’, but even amongst the Tori Amos hyper-ballad piano stylings lies a heart that’s mostly still. 5:55 is a beautifully arranged album – see how the violins gently usher along the tender vocals of ‘Beauty Mark’ – and it’s wonderfully constructed, too. It’s just that sometimes it appears to be devoid of any real emotion or feeling, and that’s a crying shame.

Russell Barker
originally published September 20th, 2006

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Garbage
Bleed Like Me •••½
A&E/Warner

When it comes to the fortunes of Garbage, this reviewer appears to be in something of a minority. While their decade-long career has witnessed an inexorable fall from favour of their moody para-gothic industrial machinations that, to these ears, was never wholly convincing, for me they have matured like a reasonable cheese. So while they’ve always been on the outer shores of my tastes, this latest release has them fighting the tide and moving further inland.

Making albums has never been easy for Shirley Manson and co. – this is only their fourth in a decade and arrives a full four years after 2001’s unworthy BeautifulGarbage. During that time, Manson’s marriage collapsed and the band themselves were close to implosion. Drummer Butch Vig went so far as to quit the sessions entirely, and was temporarily replaced by old Nirvana buddy, Foo Fighters’ Dave Grohl, before Vig returned just a few months later, seemingly re-energised. Although opener ‘Bad Boyfriend’ retains Grohl’s punishing drums, Bleed Like Me is very much a Garbage record, albeit an older, more attractive proposition. The sequencing is appealingly well balanced and the genres it careens through are less ill-advised than those of BeautifulGarbage. There’s a hint of playful New Wave revivalism (‘Run Baby Run’), metal-tinged power chords (‘Why Do You Love Me’), synth-pop mechanics (‘Metal Heart’) and, most refreshingly, the sinister acoustics and pained whispered vocals of the standout title track. It’s a guise worn well and should be further explored if the rumours are wrong and this isn’t their swansong.

Recovering from the commercial near-suicide of BeautifulGarbage may have seemed insurmountable even to the casual observer, and Bleed Like Me can certainly be criticised for knowing its audience a little too well (or at least assuming it does). But, the terrible Janet Jackson boobgate-inspired ‘Sex Is Not The Enemy’ aside, that’s not entirely misjudged. The album provides a decent quality:guff ratio with its danceable, festival-friendly riffs and, if it is to be their last as a unit, a fitting farewell.

Endre Buzogány
originally published November 7th, 2005 

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Anja Garbarek
Briefly Shaking ••••
Angel-A OST •••
EMI

A decade on from her startling English language debut, Balloon Mood, delightfully quirky Norwegian chanteuse Anja Garbarek returns with not one but two new albums, Briefly Shaking and the ‘Angel-A’ soundtrack. To be fair, the latter contains little in the way of new material and what’s there is largely instrumental. But as the soundtrack to maverick director Luc Besson’s (‘The Fifth Element’, ‘Léon The Professional’) mysterious new film, shot in black and white on the streets of Paris in almost total secrecy, it is more than up to the task. Given that this is Besson’s first film without composer Eric Serra, there was a certain element of risk in taking Garbarek on, but Besson is clearly a fan; five old songs are seamlessly scattered among the newer ones.

Of course, the risk was really very tiny. Not only has Garbarek been consistently excellent throughout her career, she also has an outstanding pedigree for this sort of thing, following as she does in the footsteps of her world-famous jazz genius father Jan, who has often dipped a toe into creating musical moods for fiercely independent European cinema. As they have often done in the past, father and daughter collaborate on a number of tracks, notably on new song ‘It’s Just A Game’ with its jazzy but subdued reassurance that “this is as good as it gets”. Don’t you believe it though. The sublime ‘No Trace Of Grey’ is so convincingly sweet versus sinister that it could well have been recorded at a teddy bears’ picnic in, say, the bathroom of cabin one of the Bates Motel.

Sticking with a murderous theme, the actually quite frightening ‘Can I Keep Him?’ (the only song to appear on both albums) is written from the point of view of serial killer Dennis Nilsen, who lured several young men back to his home in Muswell Hill, north London [just round the corner from Wears The Trousers HQ!], and chopped them into pieces. It’s a towering example of Garbarek’s skill as a writer; she plays with the lost pet interpretation of the title and then, as Nilsen kills, the previously serene instrumentation explodes into beats so harsh and aggressive that it sounds like a trio of typewriters at war. Being taken inside the head of a mass murderer is rarely an attractive listen, but Garbarek’s portrayal is up there with Sufjan Stevens’s John Wayne Gacy Jr. in its almost sympathetic exploration of its subject.

It’s little wonder, then, that Garbarek has since remarked that she should have called the album ‘Beauty & The Beast’ instead of Briefly Shaking. That title comes from the chorus of the excellent first single ‘The Last Trick’ with its dark lyrical content, candied vocals and unsettlingly perky backing. It was written as Garbarek was struggling with her muse after giving birth to her daughter and could well have been her swansong had it not been for the thunderbolts of inspiration found in tales of horror and crime. ‘Sleep’, for instance, tells the story of a woman who was kidnapped and locked in an underground bunker but works equally well as a metaphor for her burdening creative imprisonment.

The most keenly felt difference between 2001’s Smiling & Waving and Briefly Shaking lies in the addition of drums, particularly on songs like ‘Dizzy With Wonder’, a thunderously intense and dramatic number in which Garbarek plays the role of an observer surveying some twisted, post-industrial landscape, and ‘Shock Activities’, with its slightly overblown kickass rock bits and unexpected mid-song shift into a cod-Gwen Stefani breakdown but with far greater charm. Other highlights include ‘My Fellow Riders’, with its piping keys and gently throbbing electro pulses, and ‘This Momentous Day’, an ecstatically unpredictable monster that juxtaposes flute and strings with grinding guitars and coolly passionate vocals.

Having said all that, while Briefly Shaking is easily Garbarek’s darkest album to date, it’s also her most accessible and lavish. Motherhood certainly hasn’t reined in either her knack for telling unusual stories or her beguling way with a drop-dead gorgeous melody. Considering that she doesn’t play a single instrument yet still can pen such epic compositions, her achievements are simply astounding. She may not be the most prolific of artists, but with every release improving on the last, seemingly unbetterable album, it’s only a matter of time before her brilliance is properly acknowledged. File between Laurie Anderson and Björk and play with an alarming regularity.

Alan Pedder
originally published May 7th, 2006 

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Mary Gauthier
Mercy Now •••
Mercury

Within just a few seconds of a soft guitar solo delicately feeding into a slow, slurred drawl, you already know you’re in the safest of hands. Such is the comforting hallmark of prime Louisiana export Mary Gauthier, whose saturnine world has been documented thus far over three sometimes stellar albums, and right from the starting blocks the gentle ear candy of her fourth, Mercy Now, signals no drop on the quality-o-meter. Revelling in its masterful weaving of guitar, percussion, cello, Hammond organ, banjo and an electric guitar with a tear-inducing twang, Gauthier once again delivers the goods with ten solid songs, including two covers (Harlan Howard’s ‘Just Say She’s A Rhymer’ and Fred Eaglesmith’s ‘Your Sister Cried’) and a re-recording of her own ‘I Drink’, offering folk and country in equal measures. As each track uncovers a little bit more of the mystery and history of Gauthier, the end product as a whole whips away the smokescreen to reveal what our genial hostess has been keeping herself busy with since Filth & Fire became the New York Times’s indie album of 2002.

The songs are both intimate and revealing, and are testimony to the art of personal storytelling which is as intact here as it has been on any of her previous albums. Influenced by the truth-telling of Dylan, John Prine, Patti Smith and Neil Young, and at times reminiscent of label buddy Lucinda Williams, Gauthier is in good company and has no doubt been encouraged to keep the stories coming, narrative after narrative. Hers are told in the barest of settings, stripped back and open. The first track, ‘Falling Out Of Love’ is so close to spoken that the listener receives an intimate, seemingly confidential one-on-one recount of a failed relationship. The pained lyrics, memories, anecdotes and post-relationship ache soon rise clear before Gauthier declares her determination in the refrain of “Let me out, set me free.” On the following track from which the album takes its name, the internal has become external and her concerns for both family and country are voiced.

Mercy Now delivers a plentiful dish of family issues, woe, personal trauma, disillusion, longing and addiction; the essential heartache ingredients of any Mary Gauthier record. Yet it is because of this rich bloodied vein of emotional injury, rather than in spite of it, that real beauty exists in her work. ‘Empty Spaces’, a gripping tale of passion gone awry, is the perfect example, rounded out with wonderful harmonies. By consistently pulling down the barriers to let her blood and guts shine through, Gauthier touches on the essence of what it is to live. Rawness, intimacy, reflection and survival are abundant in her songwriting and Mercy Now is a touching creation and a journey worth taking, though be prepared for a somewhat bumpy ride.

Helen Griffiths
originally published August 7th, 2005

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Inara George
All Rise ••••
Loose

When you’re the daughter of a preternaturally-gifted musician, in this case, celebrated Little Feat guitarist Lowell George, there’s a certain sense of destiny at work, and Inara George is certainly no stranger to the industry. Whilst at college she fronted a pair of indie bands, Lode and Merrick, both of which boasted a small but devoted following, despite at first having no intention of following in her father’s footsteps, studying instead classical theatre. In the lead up to this, her debut solo album, George was singing back-up for Idlewild, Van Dyke Parks and Jackson Browne, the latter of whom returns the favour here. Then last year she enlisted the production skills of Michael Andrews, composer of the score to cult film ‘Donnie Darko’, and work on the album began.

The result? All Rise is a graceful, elegant album of mostly downbeat love songs that showcases George as a singer, songwriter and lyricist of considerable depth, carving for herself a distinctive niche without depending on reputation once removed. Most of the songs wrap comfortably around well-crafted melodies and inventive song structures, with George’s vocal always the centrepiece. Comparisons with Suzanne Vega and Cat Power’s Chan Marshall are not too far off the mark; George’s wide vocal range keeps her from sounding sedate yet lends the songs a greater depth of feeling. On the opening combo of ‘Mistress’ and ‘Fools Work’, she sings in the manner of a sultry but delicate coffee house chanteuse, while on guitar-pop numbers like ‘Turn On/Turn Off’ and crown jewel ‘What A Number’, she proves she can rock out as well as anyone.

To her credit, George manages to convey strong emotions in her lyrics without burying the listener with overwrought and angst-filled metaphors. In ‘Mistress’, the narrator wistfully asks, “Will you take me as your mistress? / sure and short of breath / could you carry on your business? / do you already know / the way to my door? / ‘cause you made your way inside / a dozen times before.” On the more upbeat ‘Genius’, she tackles the topic of feeling inadequate in a disarmingly simple manner, singing, “Everybody wants to be a genius / you’re not the only one / yith all the things that you might do, which one of them will you get to?”

It’s not flawless, however; there’s a few minor quibbles that detract from five-star greatness. Though George throws in a hauntingly beautiful and sparse cover of Joe Jackson’s ‘Fools In Love’ to mix things up, there are points in the album where the songs seem to fit and flow together too well, to the point where it’s sometimes easy to get lost in the tracklist. A bit more attention to the sequencing may also have solved the uneasy listening that is the album closer, ‘Everybody Knows’. While this might have better served its purpose as an experiment on a B-side or been allowed more time to grow before recording, here it almost feels like a throwaway. Though it shows a different side to George’s songwriting, it rather unbalances the disc. Yet despite these caveats, All Rise is an accomplished, excellent debut album, and one that generously leaves plenty of room for growth whilst undoubtedly holding its own, with or without the pedigree.

Loria Near
originally published November 11th, 2005 

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Lisa Germano
In The Maybe World ••••
Young God

It’s hard to disagree with Young God Records founder Michael Gira when he claims that Lisa Germano belongs “right up there with the cadre of strong, emotionally raw, challenging and original women singers such as PJ Harvey, Marianne Faithfull, Cat Power and Björk”, though quite why she isn’t, commercially at least, is and isn’t obvious. Like Harvey, Germano makes music that’s more often than not unremittingly intense, sometimes catching you off guard with unexpected shots of humour – a tried, tested and triumphant Björkian trick. Like Faithfull and Chan Marshall, her lulling voice is both narcoleptic and ravaged, deceptively sombre and extraordinarily distinctive. But where the self-professed Emotional Wench truly excels and betters even these mighty pillars of all her peers is in her ability to establish a mood and immerse you so deep inside it that you’re never quite sure whether the gut knots she invokes are down to claustrophobia, fear or rapture.

If this were Germano’s first ever album, hacks would be stabbing each other in the eyes with pencils in a race to coin a brand new genre. But it’s not, it’s her seventh in a 15-year career and no one has quite managed to pin her butterfly down. And really what’s the point? Still, if it’s a label you want, I’m prepared to make the effort and after much consideration have plumped for ‘dreamo’ – sort of like emo through an opiate haze, where snot-nosed woe-is-me’s are banished in favour of sophisticated dreamweavers who far outstrip generic dear diarists with delicately nuanced tales of human nature. Oh, and a little self-deprecation as the reward of actual life experience. That’s always good.

Funnily enough, a few of In The Maybe World‘s dozen songs could easily be shredded into out-and-out rock monsters in the hands of another. Take ‘Red Thread’, for example, whose emo appeal surely lies in its call-and-response telephone exchange of “go to hell”, “fuck you” – you can practically hear the crack as the receiver collides with its cradle. But Germano is too wily a creature to languish in the obvious, twisting the lyric to broaden the moment into a greater realisation that anger is just as valid and healthy an emotion as love, and that one can often drive the other.

Elsewhere, her main preoccupation is death. The fortunately unprophetic ‘Too Much Space’ arose from her fear of losing her dad after a serious health scare; ‘Golden Cities’ arrived on the occasion of her much-loved cat’s death from cancer; while the solo piano elegy of ‘Except For The Ghosts’ is a decade-old number written in honour of her friend Jeff Buckley, exploring his headspace in the moment he accepted he was a goner. ‘Wire’ and ‘Into Oblivion’ are equally affecting, packing more emotion into a single line than Conor Oberst at a wake for his own credibility.

Germano’s charm is incontrovertibly eerie and certainly fanciful enough to put the less enlightened off, but this is her finest work since the dementedly brilliant Geek The Girl and ‘maybe’ just won’t cut it. If you’re asking whether to investigate further, the magic word is yes.

Alan Pedder
originally published July 23rd, 2006 

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Giant Drag
Live at Academy 2, Manchester ••½
February 17th, 2006

It’s fair to say that Los Angeles duo Annie Hardy and Micah Calabrese, collectively known as Giant Drag, have problems. Problems that need to be ironed out if they are to achieve a level of success beyond that afforded to artists of the cult variety and stand on a higher platform. As evidenced on last year’s debut Hearts & Unicorns, both are very talented musicians and it’s hard to argue with their live performaces too; tonight’s support slot for The Cribs sees Annie hit every note perfectly and Micah display his mastery of the art of playing the drums and synthesisers simultaneously. The problems are not in the songs either; these have a wonderful post-grunge feel and tracks like ‘yflmd (You Fuck Like My Dad)’, ‘Drugs’ and ‘My Dick Sux’ reflect the duo’s innate sense of quirkiness.

The problems arise when the audience is blissfully unaware of Annie’s unusual banter, and it can come as a damning blow in the live context. She’s overly perverse and either an obsessive liar or a very bad comedienne, depending on your view. Joking about child paedophilia and incest is hardly the way to the nation’s heart, although a few in the crowd do warm to her, if only out of sympathy. Perhaps trying to capitalise on that, Annie points out the audiences at their two previous shows “didn’t like Giant Drag”, but it’s more than obvious why. Whilst Karen O of the Yeah Yeah Yeahs would simply dismiss the jeers of a faux-macho yell of “show us yerr tits!” or “fuck me!” with a sneering “suck your own dick” when she first came to the country, Annie clearly hasn’t taken any tips from the shrieking New Yorker. Either she tries to join in on the joke and adapt her stories to include members of the audience, or, like most bands, she pretends not to hear the calls. Considering how irritating hecklers are, you could never criticise a band member for doing this, but given their abrupt nature Giant Drag are going to have to get used to such crude shout outs, and, in my opinion, the best way to deal with them is to bluntly put the caller back in their place.

Even so, the duo offer an interesting live show, and to give their music justice it’s worth seeing a gig. At the very least, it will certainly help you to form your own opinion, because like Marmite, you either love, hate, or are allergic to Giant Drag.

Tiffany Daniels
originally published March 6th, 2006 

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Thea Gilmore
Harpo’s Ghost ••••½
Sanctuary

It’s a handsome little irony that staunchly British indie singer-songwriter Thea Gilmore has produced what could be a career-defining album that has Americana running through it to the core. Sonically, Harpo’s Ghost is simultaneously a progression and a departure from her previous releases, melding her unmistakable vocals and ear for a melody with sounds that recall classic American recordings from the West Coast to Greenwich Village via Texas and the Mississippi Delta. The relative commercial success of 2003’s Avalanche afforded Gilmore the opportunity to experience the United States firsthand as a touring partner for Joan Baez, and it’s her experiences of this trip and subsequent bout with depression that dominate the album – even the title is somehow redolent of excess, decadence and decay.

‘The Gambler’ kicks things off accordingly with what initially seems like a plodding, weighty mid-paced ballad reminiscent of those that dominated Aimee Mann’s last album but soon raises the stakes with crashing guitars and Hammond organ riffage set firmly to ‘rouse’ while Gilmore dares everyone to spin the wheel of fortune. Light and shade have rarely been contrasted so magnificently and from hereon in the bar is set at neck- cricking height. Fortunately, songs that fall short are few and far between. On her voyages, Gilmore has clearly enjoyed meeting the multitudinous stuffed shirts that infect the higher echelons of the media industry, and ‘Everybody’s Numb’ bites back in excellent fashion. In a diatribe against the sacrifice of creativity in favour of bottom-feeding mediocrity, Gilmore positively drips with sarcasm as she spits through gritted teeth, “pleased to meet you boys / you know it’s been a while / since I had to fake delight / just to raise a smile”, buoyed aloft by a funky drumbeat. Perfect!

Harpo’s Ghost alternates between philosophical musings and the intimate story songs so beloved of Nebraska-era Springsteen, burrowing even further than she has before into the realms of the dysfunctional psyche. ‘Red, White & Black’ tackles those who refuse to acknowledge life’s inescapable ambiguity, colour and shade – specifically those in “the United States of Emptiness” who are blinkered to their own political environment and its effects on the world at large – while ‘The List’ follows the misadventures of a couple on a downward slide, looking for redemption in all the wrong places. Elsewhere, on platform eight, ‘Whistle & Steam’ shows that when the Gospel train’s-a-comin’ there may just be some who are reluctant to get on board.

Gilmore also excels when mining a rockier seam, tossing liberal doses of fuzz bass and a garage band vibe into the mix alongside more subtle arrangements. ‘Call Me Your Darling’ sees her channelling the spirit of late-‘60s Dylan through the modern filter of the Counting Crows, while ‘We Built A Monster’ (one of two tracks co-written with Mike Scott of The Waterboys) blends West Coast psychedelic guitars with lo-fi attitude in a stinging riposte to our ‘special relationship’ with capitalism and consumerist philosophy. First single ‘Cheap Tricks’ is an obvious choice for a new assault on the charts, being an intelligent, hook-laden, passionate stomper that’s anything but bargain basement.

An unexpected pleasure, ‘Contessa’ successfully combines Mississippi jug band blues with the sort of expansive Eno-esque soundscapes that made U2’s The Joshua Tree so cinematic and captivating, but it’s up to album closer ‘Slow Journey II’ to leave us weeping in the aisles. Slow and doleful, its despairing lyrics of a weary traveller trudging on to an inevitable oblivion are perfectly accompanied by distorted harmony vocals and evocative cello. Except it’s not really the end. Hidden track ‘Play Until The Bottle’s Gone’ blasts away the clouds with a cheery little country- tinged ditty on the cathartic effects of music. Maybe things aren’t all that bad when you’ve got inspiration from a Neil Young record and can “just pick up your plywood and learn to sing the blues”. Gilmore’s very own ‘Always Look On The Bright Side Of Life?’. Maybe not quite, but it’s an appropriately British attitude to close a great, great album.

Trevor Raggatt 
originally published August 22nd, 2006

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Pepi Ginsberg
Orange Juice: Stephanie/Stephanie ••••
Self-released

Philadelphia has long been an underrated hub of creativity where bohemians can feel completely at home, thriving in a town where the rent is so cheap that you can pay all your bills by working part-time. Pepi Ginsberg – yes, that is her real name – appears to be one of those artistic souls doing just that. Her destiny – to become extraordinary to be exact – was laid out early when she was named after her German grandmother who started a school in Palestine and married one of the organisers behind the Jewish refugee ship Exodus, best known through the seven-hour marathon movie of the same title starring Paul Newman. Fittingly, Ginsberg is one of those rare people who seem wise beyond their years, but in an entirely touching way. With a voice that’s filled with an ancient pain, so blue and lazy that it’s sometimes on the verge of being out of tune, she really is a poet in disguise, painting tender, sadly beautiful pictures with words worth framing, all enhanced by her unusual speak-sing style. 

However ambiguous the title, much of Orange Juice: Stephanie/Stephanie burns with spontaneity and truth. A number of songs take a fairly straightforward approach to folk music; the opener ‘China Sea’, for example, takes a delicately played guitar and adds prosaic lyrics to give a stripped down performance that’s emotionally sound and ushers Ginsberg in, closer to her audience. Similarly, ‘Maroon Coats’ and ‘Cool Green Castle’ take the same folk influences and skilfully evoke a feeling of melancholy and nostalgia that’s entirely believable.

On songs where Ginsberg recruits a band, such as ‘Needlenumb’ and ‘Kettle Song’, the structured and fairly ordinary arrangements may make for a fuller sound but occasionally trip up her free-spirited voice, making it seem a little bit clumsy. The starkly emotional ‘Orange Juice: Stephanie/Stephanie Part 1’ and ‘Part 2′ provide a much better framework for her unrestricted singing. That’s not to say that Ginsberg is shy of experimentation. The self-explanatorily titled ‘Zelda’s Song (As Sung By A Young Spanish Woman)’ finds her singing in a Spanish accent all the way through, while ‘You, Your Brother & Me’ has a theatrical tinge that’s reminiscent of Tom Waits.

Most of the time, Ginsberg’s songs feel comfortable but not predictable; her voice pushes over lazy guitar rhythms with the appealing nous of a well-adventured soul. At one point she sings, “if your song wants to be a colour, drink it,” and judging by this debut, that’s exactly what she’s been doing. And there’s plenty of colour to spare; these dozen songs are but a very slim margin of what is floating around this songwriter’s head – apparently she chose them out of 185 songs written in just over a year.

Anja McCloskey 
originally published October 5th, 2006

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Girls Aloud
The Sound Of Girls Aloud ••••
Polydor

Sugababes
Overloaded: The Singles Collection ••••½ 
Island

When some of the top selling (and best) pop singles of the year are built around tribal beats, heavy bass and dirty, muscular synths (yes ok, produced by Timbaland), it’s easy to forget how startling it was to hear a chart-topper as bold as ‘Freak Like Me’ back in 2002. The audacity of a pop act, more importantly a girl group, taking a previously underground bootleg, drafting in its own cutting-edge creator (Richard X, where have you gone?) and then kicking it into touch with their own crude hybrid of R&B and electro, made the rest of the top ten look as dull and predictable as a coachload of Pop Idol contestants on the drive down to London. Borne out of the brief but influential trend for electroclash, ‘Freak Like Me’ was the start of a renaissance, not only for the Sugababes but also for UK pop. It’s unlikely ‘Sound Of The Underground’ would have ever found its way into the hands of Girls Aloud had the Sugababes not set the template. It’s the reason, on their second single, ‘No Good Advice’, they chew up ‘My Sharona’ and spit out the pieces. In fact it’s fair to say that these three records not only sounded the death knell of the boy band, but put the final nail in the coffin and then revved up the hearse.

Listening to Girls Aloud can cause you to wonder at what point does it all go right? Five reality show contestants, a faceless production team, the obligatory tacky videos/costumes/dance routines and the added bonus of having Louis Walsh as your known ‘mentor’. Yet there are few pop acts now capable of producing anything even half as exciting or distinctive as most of the songs here. Whilst it would be easy to attribute their success to Brian Higgins’ Xenomania production team, it’s the execution of that material that makes the band so enjoyable. The girls may have their tongues in their cheeks half the time but they throw themselves headfirst into their performances; ‘Biology’ being one of the best pop vocals of the last few years. By comparison, a band like The Pussycat Dolls are usually too busy posturing to even notice what backing track is playing. In fact, it’s difficult to imagine any of the competition attempting half of these songs for fear of sounding ridiculous, which probably explains the Girls’ appeal – a willingness to experiment and a refreshing lack of vanity. It’s why their best songs, ‘Love Machine’, ‘Biology’, ‘Wake Me Up’, ‘Something Kinda Ooooh’, are so different from one another but so distinctively Girls Aloud. Despite Cheryl Tweedy’s insistence that numerous other bands have aped their ‘sound’ (Charlotte Church, All Saints…The Beatles, probably), The Sound Of Girls Aloud is exactly that, like no other pop act. Only four years in the making, it manages to compile 13 top 10 hits, about two-thirds of which are brilliant, exhilarating pop. It’s a shame, then, that we’re getting this relatively rushed compilation so soon. Okay, so the shelf-life of a manufactured girlband is routinely less than a pint of semi-skimmed but with a new album scheduled for 2007, a retrospective now seems somewhat redundant. Another year and a couple more killer singles could have perhaps bumped off the more tedious inclusions – specifically, a cover of The Pointer Sisters’ ‘Jump’ and an earnest, but misjudged attempt at The Pretenders classic, ‘I’ll Stand By You’. Funnily enough, it’s when they play it safe that they fall down.

The Sugababes, on the other hand, have gotten quite good at playing it safe, or rather playing to their strengths. At this point, they seem quite happy to embrace their diva status, as the two new songs on the collection show. This is no bad thing; ‘Easy’ is bold, sassy pop and ‘Good To Be Gone’ is a glam-rock stomp through ‘Independent Women’ territory. On the whole, the ‘babes have taken a more conventional route through the pop/R&B landscape than the pick ‘n’ mix approach of Girls Aloud but their saving grace has always been their believability – starting out as miserable teenagers; Siobhan Donaghy’s departure; the initial awkwardness of sandwiching smiley Heidi Range between the more knowing Keisha Buchanan and Mutya Buena; even the fact that they share the writing credits, often taking it in turns to write verses. Listening to ‘Ugly’, you find yourself genuinely warming to Keisha. Listening to ‘Stronger’ you realise why Heidi chooses it as her favourite performance. Girls Aloud will never produce something as resonant because they don’t have a back story. Whilst the Sugababes may sometimes come across a little po-faced – ‘Shape’, the duet with Sting, being a particular example – they are at least convincing. Diane Warren’s ‘Too Lost In You’, a song that could have sounded needy and overblown, is tackled with maturity and confidence. In fact, when Heidi’s vocals collide with the strings during the middle eight, it’s one of the most arresting moments on the album.

Perhaps the omissions of the sublime ‘Soul Sound’ and ‘New Year’ from their debut album, One Touch, are because the vulnerability of those tracks jars slightly with the almost Amazonian proportions they’ve risen to. Perhaps they just didn’t want to dwell on the initial line-up for too long. Incidentally, we should be glad that Siobhan Donaghy’s contribution to the group wasn’t removed altogether; initial plans to have new recruit Amelle Berraba re-record her vocals thankfully scrapped at the last stages. As it happens, Overload – the Sugababes’ first single – is the album’s high point, still as fresh and feisty as it was on release. The omissions, whilst upsetting, do at least represent a wealth of choices. Girls Aloud unfortunately seem to be running on empty a good couple of tracks before the closer, ‘I Think We’re Alone Now’. Yes, covering a song still played at every wedding, school disco and Christmas party is such an uninspired choice that you can only presume it’s a pisstake. The Sugababes round out their set with two of their four No.1 singles – ‘Hole In The Head’ (cheers again Xenomania) and ‘Push The Button’, possibly their most assured moment. It’s a clever move that leaves you wanting more and raises one question: with both bands (dodgy covers aside) at the top of their games, whatever next? The answer, as you may already have heard, is joining forces to cover Aerosmith and Run DMC’s ‘Walk This Way’ for Comic Relief. Oh dear.

Matthew Hall
previously unpublished

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The Go! Team / The Grates / Smoosh
Live at Koko ••••
March 1st, 2006

Frankly, it’s been a fantastic year for The Go! Team. Their debut album Thunder, Lightning, Strike has become a major, if slow-burning hit – unbelievably, it was first released back in September 2004 – receiving widespread acclaim and annihilating genre labels left, right and centre… oh, and notching up a nod for the Mercury Music Prize. It should come as no surprise then that the Brighton/London six-piece are in a celebratory mood. This, their biggest UK tour to date, is completely sold-out, including a three-night residency at London’s Koko. Tonight’s line-up is yet another exercise in diversification for the Go! Team; they’ve put together a stellar female-fronted bands bonanza by roping in Seattle’s Smoosh and The Grates from Australia.

In case you hadn’t heard already, Smoosh are sisters Asya and Chloe who are, respectively, 13 and 11 years old. Having already found celebrity fans in Sufjan Stevens, Sleater-Kinney, Cat Power’s Chan Marshall, Death Cab For Cutie (whose drummer has been teaching Chloe) and now seemingly The Go! Team, their premise is a basic one – Chloe plays drums while Asya sings and presses the keys. Surprisingly, the limitations of their instruments by no means inhibits their sound. So while each song may sound different from the last, one thing is consistent throughout – their attitude. There’s something scarily fierce about Asya’s vocal delivery. Even at her tender age, she is showing the angry/uplifting makings of her older mentors in Sleater-Kinney. Equally, Chloe’s rhythms are primal and driving, and the relatively stripped-down arrangement really does showcase their musical abilities.

Their set is comprised of tracks from their excellent debut, She Like Electric, and a whole lot of new songs that amply disprove the doubters who claimed it was a fluke. That said, the uninitiated denizens of the audience clearly don’t know quite how to react to the duo. Obviously aware of their age, they are appropriately supportive and somewhat cautious; are they being exploited by a twisted svengali á la t.A.T.u? Do they write their own songs? Is it fair to take them out of school to tour with older rock bands? Fortunately, Smoosh exercise a much greater degree of control over their career than Richard and Judy’s faux-lesbian enemies, and furthermore are prodigiously talented, with an originality and freshness unrivalled by most other bands so often jaded by the industry and wearing their influences all too plainly on their sleeves. Finishing with the grinding ‘La Pump’, a positively filthy electro-pop tune, Asya and Chloe exit stage right, their curious audience still slightly confused but primarily enthusiastic.

Next come The Grates making a great first impression by bounding cheerfully on to the stage. Singer Patience is a day-glo princess and perhaps a not-too-distant relative of Yeah Yeah Yeahs’s Karen O. Their music is similarly sparse – garage rock guitars, pounding rhythms and ecstatic, if somewhat deranged, vocals. Running from one side of the stage to the other, Patience makes for a manic and energetic figurehead, shaking her hair and pulling faces at the crowd. Though they are undoubtedly effective at warming up the crowd, the similarities with the Yeah Yeah Yeahs are almost too much – the voice and nonsensical yelps are trademark O. But to their credit, even if The Grates do excessively imitate, they at least do it well and with tunes and an energy that other carbon copiers have failed to muster. Happily, their upcoming single, ‘19-20-20′, is an undeniably spiky slice of angular art-pop.

Despite such strong support, the show belongs unarguably to The Go! Team. The balconies of the former theatre are packed with brightly dressed punters, while the band is even more colourful than usual thanks to the special London-only addition of cheerleading backing dancers. It feels like a carnival, and perhaps appropriately, it is the day after Shrove Tuesday and the end of Carnaval in Rio de Janeiro. Their frontwoman Ninja, clad tonight in a yellow cheerleader skirt and a blue vest top, may not even be 5’2″ but she commands the crowd like no other. Indeed, she puts so much energy into the performance that the band’s instrumental tracks are scattered throughout the set to allow her ample recovery time. Each song is properly introduced and Ninja makes each one an opportunity for some kind of crowd participation. Arms are waved, chants are chanted and it all begins to feel a little like a commune – during ‘We Just Won’t Be Defeated’ there’s an irrepressible feeling of oneness.

It would be foolish to argue that The Go! Team’s huge success is purely due to Ninja’s leadership. Their music is like dreamscapes, entirely positive, uplifting and utterly indefinable. In the live context, their show is an exhilarating blast through their album and a handful of new songs. In total, it lasts just over an hour but somehow feels sufficient. The Go! Team see no need in labouring the point, secure in the knowledge that even a short dose of their infectious magic is enough to put smiles on every last attendee as they exit into the slightly grimmer reality of Mornington Crescent. The band themselves may not know what the future holds – Thunder, Lightning, Strike is composed predominantly of samples and getting legal clearance was a long and difficult task – but, for the moment, they seem plenty rewarded by their crowd-pleasing antics and formidable reputation as pioneers of inimitably fantastic pop.

Robbie de Santos
originally published March 18th, 2006 

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Nina Gordon
Bleeding Heart Graffiti ••½
Warner Bros.

Previously famed as one half of the creative force that made up the moderately successful grunge-pop cross-over band Veruca Salt, this second solo album sees Nina Gordon continue to reinvent herself and draw a firm musical line beneath her indie-tastic past. For where Veruca Salt would churn out fast-paced rock with alternative cred and a tuneful, energetic formula, Gordon’s lone singer-songwriter schtick could hardly be more different. It’s as if she’s morphed from early ‘90s Liz Phair into Liz Phair nowadays, or even Sheryl Crow. With heavy production that’s much too big on niceness, gone are the kickass power guitars and in their place comes an almost easy listening, coffee table atmosphere where the only truly sweet stuff to be found is disappointingly coated in sticky mainstream saccharine pop.

Despite coming a full six years after her first solo venture, Tonight & The Rest Of My Life, Bleeding Heart Graffiti carries on almost precisely where that album left off. There’s a sense that she’s more confident in her direction and the tunes are certainly stronger than before, but mostly it’s more of the same. The theme of loves gained and lost permeate throughout with lyrics that are bittersweet and honest, and it’s clear that she’s had to suffer some bad times to get as far as she has. In that respect, Gordon seemingly wants to be taken as a serious pop artist in the vein of Aimee Mann; however, in some places she comes across more like Natalie Imbruglia with chart-friendly songs that could easily soundtrack your weekly shop at Tesco or your Monday morning Starbucks skinny latté with soy milk.

There’s some nice touches though. For instance, the sequencing lets you imagine that there is something of a concept at work here. From the upbeat beginnings where Gordon sings of relationships in bloom to the overwrought emotions of the ending where love’s beyond redemption, the songs gradually get more and more melancholy. Still, songs like ‘Suffragette’ and first single ‘Kiss Me ‘Til It Bleeds’ are winning pop tunes that will lodge in the memory, for a while at least. But then there is heartache, with presumably cathartic, open-wound tales of trying to make sense of it all. Indeed, there is perhaps a little too much of the downside of love and it’s a shame that there isn’t more of the gleeful poppiness of the openers. Indeed, many of the sadder songs were recovered and re-recorded from Gordon’s aborted 2004 release Even The Sunbeams, written during a phase in her life that she has since “snapped out of”.

With a baby on the way and a new-found focus, who knows where her next record will take her. For now though, despite having a clutch of well-written songs to its name, Bleeding Heart Graffiti can only be chalked up as something of a disappointment. Still, given its history, it’s fair to say that Gordon has been paying up on those dues and deserves some solo success. Just don’t look back in anger.

Stephanie Heney
originally published July 23rd, 2006 

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The Gossip
Standing In The Way Of Control •••
Backyard

Meeting The Gossip would be quite an experience if their everyday speech is as riddled with clichés as their unfortunate lyrics. Though certainly both beautiful and powerful, it’s hard to appreciate lead singer Beth Ditto’s vocals when she’s wrapping her tongue round bothersome blandness like “fight fire with fire”, “I’m a fool for you” and “as pure as the snow”, all of which should really be reserved for anodyne boybands. Worse still, the band sees fit to commit the heinous crime of rhyming “crying” and “lying”. Who do they think they are, Oasis?

This grumble aside, there are other problems. At first the album seems fairly unremarkable, a little too reminiscent of your average local don’t-give-up-your-day-jobs who manage to sound quite similar to the music you actually like but leave the nail’s head decidedly un-whacked. The ballad ‘Coal To Diamonds’ may gloriously showcase Ditto’s vocals, which for my money are unrivalled in the genre, but it’s rather monotonous all the same. Situated midway through the album, ‘Eyes Open’ is the first real gem, just as upbeat as you’d expect from The Gossip but with added bluesy soul. ‘Keeping You Alive’ is also a standout, boasting a chorus that would easily fill any self-respecting dancefloor with hand-clapping disco fans.

Okay, so it seems a little unfair to review this album having only listened to it in the comfort of my home. It clearly needs to be accompanied by some alcohol-fuelled shape throwing, somewhere with an audience that doesn’t give a shit how trite the lyrics might be. By all accounts, The Gossip’s live show is an experience not to be missed and it’s easy to see how these songs might come alive. Concurrently, they are immediate and rousing, despite one or two unforgivable blips, and at least half are destined to be favourites of your average dance-punk DJ. Perhaps most exciting when viewed as a pre-show taster, it’s worth a listen, but standing in the way of control? Hardly.

Lynn Roberts
originally published July 14th, 2006 

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The Grates
Gravity Won’t Get You High ••
Universal

This debut album from Australian upstarts The Grates should be subtitled ‘…And Neither Will We’, such is the disappointment with which you may be faced had you caught the foursome while touring with The Go! Team and The Zutons earlier this year. Where their live show is a riotously enthusiastic neon bonanza, their energetic zaniness translates with severely mixed results on record.

There’s a noticeable attempt to sound like a blues-rock band in that same bass-free way as Sleater-Kinney or Yeah Yeah Yeahs, though the sound is tinny and irritating rather than raw and intense. The songs mostly bounce along in a summery fashion and there’s no denying that it’s pleasant at times, particularly with the addition of some third-wave ska-inspired horns in ‘Lies Are Much More Fun’. It’s when they try to sound angst-ridden and angry that things go awry. ‘Feels Like Pain’ is a grunge-lite ditty with its token quiet, sullen verse and screamalong loud chorus, but comes across more like rubbish German rockers The Guano Apes than the more enjoyable likes of Hole. Despite being a fairly respectable slice of raw indie rock, even their breakthrough single, the chaotic ‘Trampoline’, is horribly let down by embarrassing lyrics.

The trouble is that none of it sounds remotely convincing; the album feels like a smash and grab pic ‘n’ mix of various bands The Grates are rather too fond of. Patience Hodgson’s accent changes from Canadian to British to American and back to Australian, a sure sign of someone trying too hard to emulate their idols. Here’s Karen O and there’s Alanis, over yonder’s Corin Tucker and lurking somewhere else is a yodelling Marlene Dietrich. OK, so none of it is really that terrible, it’s just that the reasons to own this album are excruciatingly scant when there are better versions of every song out there already.

Robbie de Santos
originally published July 25th, 2006 

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Jennifer Greer
The Apiary •••½
Little Athena Productions

It would be quite the simplest thing to write a shallow review of Ms Greer’s album…earnest girl at a piano singing deep and meaningful, jazz-tinged songs with relationship, psychological and political overtones = Tori Amos. Review ends. Go make a nice cup of tea. However, to be such a lazy so-and-so would be a gross injustice indeed. Greer’s second album, The Apiary, does bear comparison with other piano-based musicians like Amos, Sarah McLachlan or even Norah Jones, but at their root the songs seem to be drawn from a greater songwriting well that encompasses the likes of Carole King and James Taylor. Her semi-stream of consciousness lyrics plumb the heights and depths of the human condition, acting as an internalised narrative on passing events, fused with invention very much of her own design.

The arrangements are based around a solid jazz trio format of Greer’s piano, Damian Watson’s bass and the drums of Brian Peltier. Other instruments are brought in only to serve and enhance the mood, carefully deployed where they can have the greatest effect. The jazz element is perhaps least pronounced on the opener Invited, which provides a brief, pastoral prelude to the dramas to come. ‘Honey Bee’ lopes along with Mark Knopfler-styled guitar licks and piano runs in a manner that suggests the inevitable progress of life through the mundane, always hoping for the chance of some brief connection to the sublime. ‘Walking Home To You’ continues in a wistful mood, lulling the listener before ‘Darkling’ disrupts the mood, dissected by obscene and menacing distorted guitars. The song’s brooding presence looms through the speakers; an avatar for life’s dysfunctional underbelly denied by the more polite of societies.

Thus, it becomes clear that while Greer’s playing is clearly influenced by jazz, she is not restricted to it and uses the influence to inform the more rock and pop sensibilities of her virtuoso skills. On songs like ‘Stupid People Lost In Eden’, Greer forges a subtly twisted rendering of the jazz sounds familiar from childhood Charlie Brown cartoons but infused with enough incipient terrors to show that real life isn’t the idyll of an over- idealised youth. Indeed, The Apiary‘s second half is equally strong as the first; ‘Satellite’ boasts a driving lefthand riff that’s part boogie woogie, part James Bond theme, but wholly intense and ominous. Propelling the track forward, it perfectly assembles a desperate cat’s cradle of sound around the lyrics of death, decay and inevitability. Other highlights include ‘Downtown Song’ where Greer’s dissonant la la’s contrast with the jaunty melody to underline that “hope is a thing with feathers” and perhaps just as elusive as a bird, tying in nicely with the earlier ‘Origami Birds’ where the sparse piano and cello create a dreamlike backing to musings on fragility and loss, complete with the sound of cowbells tinkling in a distant Vermont field. 

For a self-produced artist resolutely ploughing an independent furrow, The Apiary is nothing if not remarkably assured. Greer is clearly a long way down the road of defining her own voice, and if circumstance should bring her to a broader, international audience, she might one day be cited as a popular critical benchmark herself.

Trevor Raggatt 
originally published March 11th, 2006

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Patty Griffin
Impossible Dream ••••½
Proper

Defeatism is not a word you will find in the vocabulary of 41-year old Patty Griffin, but that’s not to suggest some kind of deluded Pollyanna figure who could shrug off the apocalypse with a blink and an “oops” – she’s tough in the way that a tree is tough. Since her debut, 1996’s Living With Ghosts, that much has been clear. Already a formidable guitarist, this fourth studio album spices things up a bit with brass, piano and organ featuring on several tracks. Interestingly, three of them have been resurrected from her indefensibly shelved third album, Silver Bell, a victim of silly record company bureaucracy. While the album that eventually surfaced in its place, 2002’s 1000 Kisses, remains one of the most exemplary singer-songwriter albums of all time, incredibly, Impossible Dream is better. At once more personal and universal than its predecessor, it’s an intense deconstruction of the struggle of everyday lives. Consequently, some will dismiss it as depressing, but to do so is to bypass completely every subtlety and nuance of hope that infuses the sadness. Originally released in the US a year ago, the album finally makes it to the UK in support of Griffin’s first UK tour dates in years.

The jaunty staccato blues shuffle of the opening track, ‘Love Throw A Line’, is something of a red herring. Stacked with an almost tangible urgency, it’s heavy on the spirituality but light on the palate. ‘Kite Song’, too, is an easily digestible yet plaintive paean to optimism, made all the sweeter by backing vocals courtsey of Emmylou Harris and Julie Miller. Elsewhere, ‘Standing’ takes its cue from gospel artists such as Mavis Staples, but tempers it accordingly to avoid, in her own words, making “bad white blues”. The result is four minutes of being rooted to the spot in reverence.

The emotional core of the album is most evident on ‘Top Of The World’, a Griffin original made famous by the Dixie Chicks on Home, and the heart-stopping seven-minute epic, ‘Mother Of God’, both of which feature exquisite violin from the ever-wonderful Lisa Germano. ‘Top Of The World’ is tailgated by a touching reprise of Impossible Dream from the musical, ‘Man Of LaMancha’, as sung by Patty’s parents. It’s a fitting sentiment for Griffin, whose songs have often voiced the viewpoints of the older generation, that her parents take these reins and allow her own laments to bubble over. Best of all, there’s a moment approximately halfway through ‘Mother Of God’ where her tender, reedy voice cracks beneath the weight of her emotion. It’s these hiccups, these inimitable idiosyncrasies that render Patty Griffin so few of peers.

Holding an alarm clock in one hand while the other demurely hitches up her crinoline as a kite soars in the background, the Patty Griffin on the sleeve appears defiantly hopeful, as if waiting for something real to whisk her away.

Alan Pedder
originally published May 22nd, 2005 

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Patty Griffin
Live at the Lyric Hammersmith
May 31st, 2005

As any singer worth their salt should know, a whisper can be every bit as effective as a scream. In Patty Griffin, a woman who embodies the former but has the fire of the latter, the full range of capability is ours for the absorbing. Disarmingly shy at first, she seems almost embarrassed to have bothered us from whatever our Tuesdays typically bring, but the ice is soon broken after the first song, a stirring take on Bessie Smith’s ‘Backwater Blues’, when she realises that her guitar was unplugged for the entire rendition. To the credit of the Lyric theatre’s acoustics, however, the difference is barely noticeable.

After a stomping ‘No Bad News’, she offers up an engaging suite of songs from her latest album, Impossible Dream, released just the day before in the UK though it has long since been available in the States. Despite only being accompanied by one of her usual band, guitarist Doug Lancio, we miss none of the breezy shuffle of ‘Love Throw A Line’ nor the lightly melancholic ‘Useless Desires’. Moving to the piano, Griffin treats us to a French lullaby once sung to her by her mother. Entitled ‘J’irai La Voir Un Jour (I Will See It One Day)’, her emotive voice conveys every drop of the pensive hope that the title suggests. Staying at the keys, ‘Kite Song’, another cut from the ‘new’ album, charms effortlessly with its poignant imagery of dreaming and holding out for fulfilment.

New song ‘Free’ sounds promising but the real highlight comes next with ‘Top Of The World’, a beautiful and heartbreaking paean to those once loved and lost. The upbeat but lyrically desolate ‘Long Ride Home’ follows before Griffin really lets her hair down and unleashes a surging version of the frantic ‘Flaming Red’. Unfortunately, a residual cough left over from a recent cold begins to trouble the singer in the closing songs of the main set. In fact, her confidence is visibly shaken by wracked renditions of ‘Icicles’ and ‘Making Pies’, two of her most vivid examples of top-notch storytelling. The audience seems not to mind and shouts in encouragement and sympathy. A standing ovation later and Patty, slightly tearful, gracefully returns for an encore during which she road tests another new song, ‘Up To The Mountain’, inspired by the bravery of Martin Luther King, and old fan favourite ‘Mary’. Then she is gone, though we mill around for a few minutes uncertain of whether there will be a second encore. But Patty has other shows to play in the days to come and we’ve been plenty spoiled already.

Alan Pedder
originally published June 17th, 2005 

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Nanci Griffith
Ruby’s Torch ••••
Rounder

This latest offering from folkabilly heroine and nigh-on icon, Nanci Griffith, is an interesting affair. An album of torch songs isn’t perhaps the obvious addition to her folk and country-tinged catalogue. Griffith’s vocal style could not be further removed from the likes of Dietrich, Lenya, Piaf or Lemper but that’s not necessarily a bad thing in this context. That said, the songs here play less on her trademark Texan drawl than usual and her style is perhaps more naturalistic. One thing hasn’t changed, of course, and that’s Griffith’s strength as a musical storyteller. And who has a better story to tell than the subject of a torch song with their wounded hearts and tales of wistful regret? 

Oh, okay, so torch songs are guilty of sometimes lapsing into mawkish self-pity and irksome melodrama, but Griffith’s folk music background and straightforward approach deftly sidesteps those pitfalls. Instead her vocals, devoid of florid overemphasis, infuse the songs with an honesty that speaks of the real heart within rather than a caricature. On her version of Jimmy Webb’s ‘If These Walls Could Speak’ the simplicity of the arrangement – just vocal, piano and a few strings – cannot fail to make the eyes mist over. However, the emotional core of the disc is realised in the exquisite covers of three Tom Waits numbers: ‘Ruby’s Arms’, ‘Grapefruit Moon’ and ‘Please Call Me, Baby’. Griffith’s delicate tones are certainly in contrast with Waits’ whiskey-sodden gravelly snarl but that does little to lessen the intensity or the listener’s emotional engagement with the narrator. 

Elsewhere, on ‘Wee Small Hours’ the strings and snare ‘n’ brushes approach evokes memories of the classic crooners. This could be straight from the soundtrack of some post-war American romantic comedy. You can almost see Doris Day gazing out through a frosted windowpane wondering whether Rock Hudson will fall for her charms by the final reel. Final song ‘Drops From The Faucet’ carries on the same vein with its muted trumpet and draws proceedings to a mellow, wistful close. 

Ruby’s Torch has much to offer the Griffith acolyte and neophyte alike. Simple, open and honest it represents good old-fashioned record making at its best. Beautifully written songs performed with taste and restraint by musicians at the top of their game and fronted by an accomplished vocalist who steps inside the song and inexorably draws you in with her. Just don’t forget the Kleenex.

Trevor Raggatt
previously unpublished

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Grouper
Way Their Crept ••••
Free Porcupine Society

The mysterious waters of the international underground continue to combine in fascinating, ever-changing ways. What may loosely be described as the ‘noise’ scene is currently proving a particularly fertile area of creativity, regularly giving rise to surprising sounds from a fluid network of mavericks and collaborators. Of course, ‘noise’ is really a misnomer in itself, although it’s definitely catchier and less prosaic than ‘sound’ or ‘pure sound’. What links the electric devotionals of, say, US outfits The Skaters and Double Leopards to their UK counterparts like Mathew Bower of Sunroof! / Hototogisu or Phil Todd of Ashtray Navigations – and also to outfits like Merzbow or Wolf Eyes to whom the term ‘noise’ can be more traditionally applied – is a desire to use sound of whatever source to create a unique space, aside and apart from everyday experience. Or, more accurately in the case of Merzbow, to chew up our everyday experience and spit back white- hot shrapnel as a comment on our times. Or something.

Liz Harris, aka Grouper, stands apart even from the above-mentioned and their contemporaries. Hailing from Oakland, Cailfornia, she’s from the same geography as Tom and Christina Carter of Charalambides, both physically and spiritually. But even referencing the ghostly intensity of their music doesn’t convey just how strange and compelling Way Their Crept is. With Grouper having released only a couple of EPs available on infinitesimal runs in the past, this is one of those out-of-nowhere gems that delights on first listen and continues to enthrall and deepen with each hearing.

It’s also a testament to minimalism, of a sort. The opening title track simply hangs closely-miked doppelgangers of Harris’s wordless voice in a huge echoing space, leaving the spectres to converse among the rafters. Unexpected sonorities and harmonics overlap and dissolve like colours reflected in a deep pool, seemingly slowing time to a crawl. ‘Second Skin / Zombie Wind’ slips deeper beneath the surface, the vocals entwined with cracked and echoing electronics and a textured, organic hiss. Even better, the incredible ‘Sang Their Way’ illustrates Harris’s compositional technique perfectly. Glowing strands of electronic notes, tape hiss, and heavily treated vocals are strung across one another, merging and ebbing in a soundscape that’s undeniably alien and haunting, yet simultaneously human and beautiful. Even without recognisable words, it’s Liz’s vocals that anchor these shards of ectoplasm in the emotional realm, giving her music a resonance that much experimentalism sadly lacks. 

Indeed, it would be interesting to hear the result of a collaboration between Grouper and any of her above-named kindred spirits, and given the absurdly high number of short-lived partnerships that drive the evolution of the noise aesthetic, it shouldn’t be a long wait. Way Their Crept is a rare first achievement, a record that represents not only the arrival of a compelling new voice, but opens new avenues for experimentation and cross-pollination in an already exciting field.

Adam Smith 
originally published June 5th, 2006

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Emm Gryner
Songs Of Love & Death ••••
Dead Daisy

For her second album of covers, Canadian self-made woman Emm Gryner once again avoids the pointless celeb karaoke approach of some of her peers, but where 2001’s Girl Versions lovingly emasculated songs by everyone from Thrush Hermit to Blur via Ozzy Osbourne – an eclectic enough selection to rival even Tori Amos’s Strange Little Girls, released the same year but with ten times the marketing budget – Songs Of Love & Death is a nationalistic nod to the Irish. More contemporary than other Irish covers albums (e.g. Sinéad O’Connor’s Sean-Nós Nua, The Corrs’s Home) and with little in the way of traditional Celtic instrumentation, Songs… finds Gryner stripping back each song to its emotional core and working up from there.

Kicking in with chiming guitar and harpsichord arpeggios, ‘Forget Georgia’ sounds for all the world like a long-lost classic Pretenders single, though is actually an obscure cut from Something Happens. It’s not hard to see why the song’s picked up some airplay in the more discerning corners of national radio, but there are finer moments elsewhere. Gryner’s versions of ‘Running Back’, a track from Thin Lizzy’s 1976 album Jailbreak, and The Corrs’s ‘Breathless’ both demonstrate the panache of her deconstruction. Both are sheared to the bone as tender piano ballads wracked with the true desperation of the lyrics. Likewise, Ash’s ‘Shining Light’ benefits from the minimalist treatment; in Gryner’s hands, the disposable punk-pop anthem morphs into a tender hymn to love. Dana Feder’s achingly beautiful cello counterpoints the vocals and piano, with subtle church organ riffing completing the mystical effect. ‘Deckchairs & Cigarettes’ forgoes The Thrills’s Americana stylings in favour of the full Celtic treatment – marching-season pipe and drum backing contrasting deliciously with jangly indie pop.

Perhaps the most obscure and surprising inclusion of the album is ‘Dearg Doom’ from Celtic rock group Horslips’ seminal disc, The Tain. Quite how the casual listener, unaware of the track’s genesis as centrepiece of a concept-album based on pre-Christian Celtic mythology, will assimilate the lyrical content – Irish hero Cu Chulainn taunting the ranks of an army he’s about to slay single-handedly – I couldn’t say, but the electro-pop arrangement with its muted guitar, harpsichord, fuzz bass and distorted vocals is brilliantly compelling nonetheless.

In comparison, Gilbert O’Sullivan’s ‘Nothing Rhymed’ is the straightest cover on the album, but even here there are quirks in the arrangements; pianoforte mixed with the mbira, an East African thumb piano, makes for an effective instrumental duet. Add to that the jaunty, almost Victoria Wood-like delivery, and its the perfect contrast to what comes next. The measured horror of the Virgin Prunes’s ‘Bau-Dachong’ is truly chilling; desperate vocals and grotesque sequenced rhythms build to uncover layer after layer of menace. Never has folk legend Kate McGarrigle’s banjo sounded more disturbing. Unquestionably, this is a true tour de force and the record’s emotional climax. Which is great, except that everything thereafter smacks a little of lost momentum. That’s not to say there’s anything wrong with Gryner’s takes on The Undertones’s ‘Julie Ocean’, Therapy?’s ‘Nowhere’ or the much covered traditional ‘Moorlough Shore’; it’s just that they’ve a tough act to follow. Of the three, however, ‘Nowhere’ is the strongest candidate for radio. Divorced from Therapy?’s muscular style, it becomes a likeable acoustic ditty with a Sheryl Crow-ish vocal.

The renaissance of the covers album as a valid expression of artistry is still quite recent, and there’s no doubt that Gryner owes some small debt to the likes of Annie Lennox, Tori Amos and even Cat Power, but Songs Of Love & Death reasserts the wisdom of the old jazz truism that skilful interpretation of song is an art unto itself. It’s to Gryner’s credit, too, that her artistic input extended to playing almost all of the instruments, including the mbira. Following a successful tour of the Emerald Isle and the recent radio adds, here’s hoping a full UK release for this excellent collection can be organised, and soon!

Trevor Raggatt
originally published January 21st, 2006