wears the trousers magazine


wears the trousers albums of the decade #100-76

part twopart three | part four

As other people have already noted, among the rash of lists proclaiming the best albums and artists of the ’00s, the majority all had one thing in common: a distinct and depressing lack of albums by solo female artists and by female-fronted bands. We had anticipated a representation rate of between 20% and 30%, but it turned out to be even lower. NME and Rolling Stone awarded a lousy 12–15% of spots to women, and even Paste magazine, who often champion many of the artists Wears The Trousers holds dear, could barely scrape 14%.

In mid-November, eight Wears The Trousers writers and editors gathered around a table at the Candid Arts Centre in Islington, where we spent a long afternoon debating the 300+ nominations for albums of the decade gathered from all our contributors. More than six hours later, we had come up with a rough outline of the 100 albums we thought were worthy of championing. Inevitably, some painful sacrifices were made, evident in the fact that only three artists were permitted to have two entries in the list, and some additional fine tuning was required.

This week, we’ll at last be counting down those 100 albums, 25 at a time. Here are albums #100–76. Voice your agreement/disagreement/outrage in the comment box if you please.

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indigo girls: different strokes
March 28, 2009, 12:00 pm
Filed under: feature, words in edgeways | Tags: , , , ,

The new Indigo Girls album Poseidon & The Bitter Bug has just come out in North America but, as usual, we Brits will have to wait a while longer for it. Wears The Trousers interviewed Emily and Amy back in 2007 but it never made it to the website, so we thought we might as well post it now to tide you over lest it forever be lost. Enjoy!

wie_indigogirls

words in edgeways with amy ray and emily saliers

Icons of the lesbian/gay community; Grammy-winning recording artists; champions of environmental and civil rights issues; scourge of the conservative right; indie label boss and restauranteur; damn fine singer-songwriters; mesmerising live performers – the Indigo Girls manage to wear a dazzling range of hats! In the week that their tenth album hit the shops in the UK, Trevor Raggatt stole a few moments with Emily and Amy…

Despite Our Differences has just come out in the UK. How do you feel about the new album?

Emily: I think it’s my favourite record that we’ve made, honestly. I sometimes wonder if I think that about every record but I really think this one will stand the test of time. If it’s not our best, it’s one of our strongest, partially due to the fact that Mitchell Froom produced it and that Amy had a great bunch of songs. And I felt really good about my stuff too, the material was there.

Mitchell was in on the process from the beginning, helping us arrange, or at least bouncing off ideas about arrangements. He had input from the very beginning, from pre-production right on through. We developed a really trusting relationship with him because usually people don’t mess with the harmonies or the structure, but he had great ideas. We’d be in the studio and he’d say, “I don’t think that harmony note’s quite the right one; I think you could find a better one!”,  and you know, he’d always be right. We recorded in his home studio and we had a new engineer in, David Boucher, a new team, a new record label… I think there was just lot of life infused in the project.

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rickie lee jones: prophet margins
October 16, 2008, 7:20 pm
Filed under: feature, words in edgeways | Tags: , , , ,

This is one of the ‘lost’ interviews from the would-be issue five. Back in 2007, Wears The Trousers’ then deputy editor Trevor Raggatt was granted an audience with the incomparable Rickie Lee Jones. We were so bummed not to get this out when it would have mattered the most; she’s a fascinating woman and a true artist. Enjoy!

 

words in edgeways with rickie lee jones

For the average person listening to their iPod on the Clapton Pond-bound bendy bus the name of Rickie Lee Jones, where it’s recognised at all, is probably synonymous with her 1979 breakthrough single ‘Chuck E’s In Love’. Wears The Trousers readers may well be more au fait with the auteur’s musical canon, so perfectly surmised on 2005’s retrospective The Duchess Of Coolsville, but The Sermon On Exposition Boulevard, released back in February, is perhaps her most unusual record to date. A collaboration with an old friend on a largely improvised musical interpretation of the teachings and words (or ‘Words’ as Ms Jones maintains in her emails) of Jesus Christ, it’s an extraordinary piece of work that rightly has a place on our Albums of the Year list.

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the swell season: live at the artists den /// cara dillon: the redcastle sessions (2008)

 

The Swell Season
Live At The Artists Den •••½
The Artists Den

Cara Dillon
The Redcastle Sessions ••••
Proper Films

The parallels between these two DVD releases extend a little beyond the tenuous link of Irish blood and a folksy sensibility. Both films present their subjects in intimate acoustic mode – The Swell Season (aka ‘Once’ couple Glen Hansard and Markéta Iglová) in a historic church and Cara Dillon in an old converted hospital on the shores of Lough Foyle in Co. Donegal – and both are based on a familiar format. Following in the wake of Patty Griffin’s emotional tour de force, Hansard and Iglová pay a visit to the Artists Den in Seattle, while Dillon succeeds in recreating the formula of BBC4’s ‘The Transatlantic Sessions’ with her idyllic surroundings and liberal scattering of instruments and musicians around a beautifully decorated room.

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nanci griffith: “it’s just business as usual”
July 28, 2008, 6:41 pm
Filed under: feature, words in edgeways | Tags: , , ,

words in edgeways with nanci griffith

It’s been thirty years since a young schoolteacher from Lubbock, at that time a rather unregarded part of Texas, put away her marking for the last time, picked up her guitar and headed out on tour. Eighteen albums and numerous compilations later, Nanci Griffith is still on the road, her enthusiasm for music undiminished by record company wranglings, divorce and two bouts with cancer. This remarkable woman rolls into London town this week for a two-night residency at the plush Pigalle Club in Piccadilly, and Wears The Trousers was delighted to get the chance to talk to her. Trevor Raggatt tells a very personal story.

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hummingbird: “we’re not a girl band, we’re a lady band!”

interrupting yr broadcast: hummingbird

The life of a lone troubadouress pounding the miles between gigs up and down the nation’s motorways is a solitary one. It’s hardly surprising that three singers who have experienced that life over the years might seek safety in numbers. However, the combination of Amy Wadge, Edwina Hayes and Cathy Burton – the triumvirate that makes up Hummingbird – is anything but a good few women huddling in a corner; it’s three talented singers pooling their collective experience, entertaining audiences across the country and having a blast in the process. Trevor Raggatt caught up with them to hear their thoughts on the viable alterative to “girl bands”.

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catherine feeny: “america? it’s very unfortunate”
July 1, 2008, 8:39 pm
Filed under: feature, interrupting yr broadcast | Tags: , , ,

interrupting yr broadcast: catherine feeny

Our rendezvous with Philadelphia-born, Norfolk-based singer-songwriter Catherine Feeny on the Brighton seafront was looking a little dubious before she and musical cohort Sebastian Rogers finally managed to extricate themselves from the coastal cultural Mecca’s mercurial traffic system and the notorious bottleneck known as the A23. Having confirmed that it was still going to be some time before she was needed for soundcheck, and with numerous apologies for her (only just) lateness, it was decided that what was needed was a nice cup of tea and a sit down. A quick stroll along the colonnades soon turned up an establishment with the prerequisite kiss-me-quick seaside ambience. So, just how the devil does a girl from Philly end up living in the wilds of Norfolk?

“Yeah, that’s a long story,” says Feeny with a wry smile. “I was living in L.A. playing music; there’s a place called the Hotel Café in Hollywood which a whole lot of singer-songwriters frequent. I met Sebastian there, who was a singer-songwriter as well at the time; he was a big fan of my stuff and he convinced me to come over to England. So I did and that kinda just kept growing. I got a publishing deal and there was just so much more happening for me in England so I just stayed over.”

Even from a very young age, Feeny had decided she wanted to sing for a living and would often serenade guests at family parties and gatherings (“whenever I was able to get the spotlight I wanted to be in it,” she grins); on the cusp of adolescence she began to play guitar and pen her own songs, inspired by her dad’s love of Simon & Garfunkel and The Beatles, and by doggedly tuning into the Top 40 hit parade every week. She became an “obsessive” music collector and her determination to make it grew…but then something happened. She lost faith. “When I got a bit older and went to university I thought, okay, it’s time to settle down and think about what I really want to do. Then when I got out of university and got a regular job as an editorial assistant at a magazine, I was really unhappy, thinking ‘is this all there is?’. So at that point I realised I needed to do what really was my passion and got back to music. By that time I had sort of drifted away from it and wasn’t playing as much. But I really got back to it then.”

She has no regrets about it either. With renewed determination, Feeny has taken things further than she’d ever imagined. After years of paying her dues in tiny dives and coffee shops, she’s begun to rack up some seriously impressive support slots, from Dr John to Tim Finn via Martha Wainwright, Suzanne Vega and the Indigo Girls, as well as starting to sell out her own headline shows. Her second album Hurricane Glass, originally issued last year by small indie label Tallgrass Records, earned gushing reviews and praise galore, bringing her to the attention of EMI subsidiary Charisma, who re-released the album with stunning new cover art, a new song and a pair of re-worked tracks on Monday.

Of course, nearly every tale of good fortune in this business begins with a lucky break and Feeny’s story is no exception, albeit a touch more glamorous than most. She has one song to thank in particular: ‘Mr Blue’. One of the first songs she and Sebastian completed for the album, Feeny mailed a CD-R to DJ Nick Harcourt at tastemaker college radio station KCRW and they leapt upon it with haste. It just so happened that one of the song’s spins reached the ears of Ryan Murphy, director of the recent Gwyneth Paltrow movie ‘Running With Scissors’, as he was driving into work. “That was really lucky!,” Feeny recalls excitably. “He emailed me saying ‘We need this, pronto. Get in touch with me.’ Of course, it wasn’t nearly the rush that he said it was but it was still really exciting.

“The film came out last October and my hits on MySpace and downloads on iTunes went way up. The same thing happened when they played it on ‘The OC’, too. I went to see the film recently and really enjoyed it. It’s quite quirky and probably not everybody’s cup of tea, but hearing your music with the film, I think that’s just every songwriter’s dream. So that was just so cool!”

The song, rapidly becoming something of a signature number, has something of a Jon Brion-meets-Aimee Mann feel but it’s no rip-off. “I guess a lot of that is the jangly piano,” Catherine shrugs. “We recorded that out on a farm in Norfolk in the bottom of this old windmill. At the time the studio didn’t have a piano, but the farmhouse did. So we went down to the house to retrieve it. Then when we got it back to the studio we realised it was about a key and a half out of tune. So we had to tune it and it ended up being in, like, B-flat when the song’s actually written in C. So it was a very strange process, but that worked out the best because the horns…of course, B-flat is a great tuning for horns, which we hadn’t thought about before. But I wouldn’t say that Aimee Mann’s a big influence. She’s an amazing artist and I feel she’s just a million miles away from where I am as a writer…she’s such a thing unto herself. She’s just remarkable.”

As if to underline that an acquaintance with one song doesn’t define what this artist is about, the rest of Hurricane Glass proudly displays a diverse range of sounds and textures. Both Catherine and Sebastian had a good idea about what they wanted to achieve when they set out to make the album. Both were fans of artists like Cyndi Lauper, artists who would vary the instrumentation as much as possible between songs yet somehow maintain a cohesive feel to each record. “I always felt that was the way my music would need to be because I tend to vary quite greatly in mood and so on. Although Sebastian and I disagreed on some things at first, we definitely agreed on that; that we carry that on throughout the album. It was a process; a mixture of deliberate and happenstance. Sebastian really determined the sound for ‘Mr Blue’ almost wholly himself. He loves stuff like brass bands and that sort of Ringo Starr drum sound…so that’s his brainchild. But a lot of the stuff we thought about and worked on together.”

Even the most cursory listen to Hurricane Glass prompts recollections of several classic artists; people as diverse as the Rolling Stones and Ry Cooder, Steve Earle and Sheryl Crow. And, of course, a touch of Joni Mitchell. But Feeny’s nods to her numerous influences are stylishly done without a hint of laziness about them; Hurricane Glass is an extraordinarily well thought out and immaculately constructed gem. The strings are luxurious and the depth of the recording impresses throughout. “Sebastian loves strings,” Feeny explains. “I came to the project sort of thinking ‘oh, I don’t know about strings…’, but the way we’ve used them really amazes me.

“Actually, we managed to make the album really quite inexpensively when you compare that to the richness of the sound. Sebastian called in every favour that he possibly could and everyone got paid kinda after-the-fact. So I think that helped fuel the positive feel of the album, because everybody that was involved with it had goodwill towards it and was giving something without necessarily knowing that they were going to get something back. That’s a really powerful thing when you’re working on something creative.”

As with most singer-songwriters in the post-9/11 environment, Feeny has global strife on her mind, a concern most plainly addressed in the song ‘Unsteady Ground’. Inspired by the war in Iraq, the song was hard to write. After the chorus first popped into her head when out driving in L.A. (“I did a lot of driving when I lived there!”), Catherine found herself wrangling with the verses, going through several iterations, trying to accurately capture her feelings on the matter. “I was talking to a lot of people, trying to figure out how it was that the press and the administration were pulling the wool over everyone’s eyes. It seemed so obvious and was such a depressing thing to witness. It’s really difficult to write political songs without being preachy and clichéd. And of course I wanted to avoid that at all costs.”

‘Unsteady Ground’ successfully circumnavigates the usual ‘war, what is it good for?’ sloganeering and, as a very personal reaction to a much wider issue, finds the narrator seemingly yearning to detach herself from her own nationality. There’s a palpable sense of not wanting to be part of the occupation, of frustration with the American people, and of wanting to object to the war but not wanting to be disloyal to the US or the troops serving in the Gulf. “There was definitely a time when people, even in Congress, would be called traitors if they said, ‘You know, maybe we shouldn’t be in Iraq.’ And that was a very dark and sort of scary time to be in America. You know, I think the Dixie Chicks thing kinda showed that…yeah, great, America! The home of the free…aren’t we supposed to be allowed to talk about these things? I think everyone went into crisis mode and denial. It’s very unfortunate.”

Anti-war sentiments aside, much of Feeny’s writing seems to reach into the internal landscapes of the psyche and resonate with an autobiographical honesty. And while she never used to think that exposing her innermost thoughts to a room of strangers was an odd thing to do, as her audience has grown so has her perception of the strangeness of the set-up. “It is kind of weird, almost like meeting someone at a party and just pouring everything out to them…’well, you know, I just broke up with my boyfriend, and life is terrible, and blah blah blah.’ So I imagine that your relationship with the audience must develop over the years and you must feel differently about it at different times, depending on your state of mind. But sometimes it just feels so strange that all these people looking at you and listening to what is coming from your mouth, wondering what it all means.”

The transition from little clubs to grander theatres is a real adventure for Feeny. She recalls one night back in February on tour with the Indigo Girls when she found herself on stage at Shepherd’s Bush Empire. “It was amazing, I had a great time. Number one, it was my birthday, which was very exciting, and number two, I’d been to see John Prine at that venue, and Mindy Smith too, and thought it was just the best venue ever. Playing there was just like a dream come true. It was fantastic. Plus the audience was really warm and supportive. But the intimacy of playing in a really small place where you can chat with person in the front row is really fun too.

“I don’t really have a masterplan. Hopefully the re-release of Hurricane Glass will give it a bigger marketing push and some more exposure. I’ve already been working on the next album; it’s probably more than two-thirds of the way done, actually. But it’ll be a good while before that actually comes out. I think the most important thing for a songwriter and musician is to just keep writing and I intend to do that as much as possible.”

An ideal philosophy for a singer-songwriter, no doubt about that. And with a last sip of her warming cuppa, the plucky traveller puts her gloves on, bids us a cheery goodbye and heads back out into the chill of the salty seaside breeze. With the British weather acting unseasonably oddly as it is, what with random patches of torrential rain and flash floods all over the place, keep an eye out for Hurricane Glass – it’s whipping up a quiet storm.

Trevor Raggatt
originally published June 19th, 2007

 

‘Mr Blue’

‘Hurricane Glass’



2007 reviews dump: a

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

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Esther Alexander
Last Of The Hopeless Romantics EP ••••
Self-released

Derby-based Esther Alexander has been a regular on the circuit around her hometown and London for a number of years now, paying her dues both there and with session work for the likes of Steve Winwood, Ruby Turner and the London Community Gospel Choir. Her first album, a pop and R&B-tinged affair, was released on an independent imprint in 2003 so new recorded material has been long time coming. It’s heartening, then, that the hours spent writing and treading the boards have reaped dividends aplenty.

The five songs presented here – strictly four if you take into account radio and album mixes of the title track – demonstrate what an accomplished singer and songwriter Alexander has become. Although this EP (she sweetly calls it an ‘albumette’) sees her flirt increasingly with the mainstream pop of her debut, perhaps wisely casting aside any R&B tendencies, the songs are strong enough to connect and engage. Okay, so the title track’s classy mid-tempo pop has ‘Radio 2 playlist’ written through it like a stick of Brighton rock, and the fact that it has been picked up by Caffé Nero for repeated in-store plays only lends credence to the coffee table tag, but it’s not the be all and end all.

Production duties fall to Kipper – best known for his Grammy award-winning work with Sting – who succeeds in presenting a shimmering context in which to appreciate Alexander’s delicate vocals. He also contributes to the co-penned ‘Safe House’, which, alongside ‘Come & Find Me’ is a tender ballad where the pop approach gives way to a cocooning sound in which cello, muted trumpet and flugelhorn (!) weave subtle countermelodies to the voice. ‘Other Side of Winter’ showcases the quality of the Alexander’s voice unencumbered by slick production. Only the unproduced sound of the twin acoustic guitars and the applause that closes the song betray its live origins.

Initially some of the slower songs are not as immediate as they might be but they’re well equipped to grow on you. The EP closes with an album version of the title track. Well, here’s hoping that album comes soon even though, on the basis of this ‘albumette’, it should be worth waiting for too.

Trevor Raggatt

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Amerie
Because I Love It •••
Columbia

Let’s get one thing clear from the very beginning – the only track you are going to find here that’s anywhere near as mammoth as her international calling card ‘1 Thing’ is, er, ‘1 Thing’, which has been tacked on to the end of this collection to remind people that, yes, this girl ‘has’ had a hit song, thank you very much. That’s not to say that Because I Love It is a bad album. It’s not. It’s just that matching or exceeding the sheer excitement of her 2005 single is a tall order and one that Amerie’s team has not quite managed to fulfil.

As far as pop albums go it’s the same old story – the label wants to appeal to as many people as possible so they ensure that there are a few songs to dance around a handbag to, some mild-mannered sing-a-longs, and – brace yourselves – a few Mariah-robbing heartbroken ballads. Still, there’s something genuinely likeable about Amerie, and, for the most part, she pulls it off. Beyoncé and Christina may have fallen victim to their own hype, churning out unlistenable pap, but Amerie has bounced around in the background and so retains some of the zeal displayed on the earlier work of her contemporaries. Even the most mundane of lyrics are given some degree of believability when injected with the enthusiasm and passion of her performance.

Amerie shines on the brass-fuelled, upbeat tracks ‘Take Control’ and ‘Gotta Work’, and even impresses with her slinky delivery on cheeky ‘80s pastiches ‘Crush’ and ‘Crazy Wonderful’, but things start feeling hollow and clunky on obligatory sob story ‘When Loving U Was Easy’, which even Amerie does not have the personality or voice to elevate from anything but dire and unnecessary. Of course, if you are au fait with albums by R&B divas, you’ll be well acquainted by now with the dreaded phenomenon of filler tracks padding out the second half. None of Amerie’s slushy ballads or slow ‘jams’ will bother you all that much, and besides, the aforementioned pasting-on of ‘1 Thing’ and bonus track ‘Losing You’ rebounds Because I Love It into listenable territory.

Amerie is certainly somewhere near the top of the pile when it comes to the glut of female R&B singers we’ve enjoyed/endured (delete as applicable) over the last few years. The only problem is, whilst largely enjoyable, it’s unlikely that the album will spawn another major hit to propel our plucky ingénue into the big league.

Keith Anderson

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Architecture In Helsinki
Places Like This ••••
Tailem Road

The recent swathe of bands determined to bring a hefty dose of fun back into music cannot have escaped unnoticed by even the most casual of observers. CSS and Gogol Bordello are just two of the acts propelled into the higher echelons of indie greatness, not just because they are musically rather brilliant but also because they’re so full of energy that they shine amidst a sea of more po-faced generic ensembles. Architecture In Helsinki is another one of these bands. The Australian collective’s debut album Fingers Crossed emerged in 2004, with In Case We Die arriving the following year and thrusting the band into the public’s consciousness with its pure and joyful blasts of riotous fun. The accessibility and appeal of their sound was highlighted by 2006’s remix compilation where acts like Hot Chip fell sufficiently in love with their sound that they couldn’t leave it alone.

Places Like This not only keeps the pace but also ups the ante as a collection of slightly unhinged, kinda disturbed, but quite magnificent tunes. A few songs trimmer than its predecessor (and the band with two fewer members), it seems that the madness has come more into focus with energy levels going through the roof. Lead single ‘Heart It Races’ is as edgy as it is simplistic, and catchy as you like thanks to the Cameron Bird and Kellie Sutherland’s unified cries that soar above a backdrop of steel drums, bongos and synths. From start to finish, each song is orchestrated by a vast array of instruments – trumpets, drums of all ilk, glockenspiels, wind chimes, as many synth sounds as you can name, and of course the more traditional guitar, all make appearances through the course of ten songs. Adding a bewildering, kaleidoscopic feel to the album, Architecture In Helsinki veer between sounding like a calypso troupe, an ‘80s tribute band, a pack of scraggly alleycats and an experimental chamber choir.

‘Hold Music’, arguably the album’s highlight, is Architecture In Helsinki at their bonkers best; here, the vocals sound almost like the cast of ‘Fraggle Rock’ have formed a school choir and are banging out renditions of all their favourite tunes at once. It’s insanely poppy and outrageously over the top, but absolutely brilliant. This willingness to experiment with their vocal arrangements sets the band apart from many of their contemporaries as they skip between styles, harmonising in the most inventive of ways and using the voice as the ultimate instrument. The singing may frequently seem feral and untamed (‘Debbie’, ‘Hold Music’, ‘Nothing’s Wrong’) but in fact it is immaculately ordered. Both leads intertwine in a flirtatious and complementary manner that, when combined with the musical arrangement, makes for something quite astonishing overall.

As crazy and unleashed as their music becomes, Places Like This makes room for moments of a more subdued beauty. ‘Underwater’, for example, is more of a bubbling pause for air, and displays the band’s aptitude for production and arrangement. Of course, the mention of a cartoon-like energy and entertainment aspect of their music might suggest that the songs, beneath the surface, have little more to offer. This is far from the case. The album is littered with wonderful anecdotes such as “ignore me in the parking lot, I’m petrified by conversation” (‘Nothing’s Wrong’), or “your foot’s on the clutch / your hand’s on my crotch / slow down!” (‘Feathers In A Baseball Cap’).

Although it’s definitely not everyone’s cup of tea and, despite their protestations to the contrary, perhaps not a drastic move forward from their last release, Places Like This is nevertheless a wonderful collection of silly yet thought-provoking songs that will make you dance just as much as they will make you think, listen after listen.

Rod Thomas

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Joan Armatrading
Into The Blues •••
Hypertension

An appealing aspect of Joan Armatrading’s work is the way she tempers the earnest and personal nature of her lyrics – otherwise known as the curse of the confessional singer-songwriter – with a warm earthiness and sense of humour. Into The Blues is no different; she comes across as both intimate and playful in ‘Play The Blues’ as she observes that the teeth of her lover are “yellow like the sun… / but baby, when you sing the blues / I take off all my clothes for you”. Darker tracks such as the desolate ‘Empty Highway’ and intense finale ‘Something’s Gotta Blow ‘rub shoulders with the likes of ‘There Ain’t A Girl Alive (Who Likes To Look In The Mirror Like You Do)’, a sort of cheeky lesbian reworking of ‘You’re So Vain’. It’s a well-rounded album deliberately sequenced so that any given mood is not allowed to outstay its welcome.

‘A Woman In Love’, the album’s opener, is the obvious choice to get a promotional airing with its smooth groove underlying one elegantly crafted hook after another. It serves as a four-minute showcase for Armatrading’s rich voice, as well as her skilful command of piano, bass and the searing blues guitar that dominates the record. In stark contrast, ‘Deep Down’ is a messily indulgent exercise that should never have made the cut; it’s a bloated, clattering blues jam with Armatrading repeating the two words of the title ad nauseam. A more conventional clunker is ‘Liza’, which simply isn’t distinctive or appealing enough to stand up against the other material.

Much better are ‘Secular Songs’ and ‘Mama Papa’, which draw on funk and gospel influences and add flavour to an already unusual album. The sounds are consistent despite this cheery eclecticism. Armatrading’s self-production is endearingly awkward as ever, with unfashionable whirring synth pads and cascading vocal layers seeming ill at ease in contrast with the grittier elements. However, it also serves as a reminder of her pop sensibility; while the blues-inspired compositions highlight her chops as a guitarist and an adaptable songwriter with a clear appreciation and understanding of the genre, it’s tracks like ‘Baby Blue Eyes’ and ‘DNA’ – where Armatrading puts her trademark way with melodies front and centre – that really shine. The whole album turns on this compromise. It is by no means an authentic blues record, but Into The Blues stands as a strong addition to Armatrading’s admirable body of work.

Callum Sinclair

 

 

 



2007 reviews dump: b

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

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Meg Baird
Dear Companion ••••
Wichita

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

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

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

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

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

Peter Hayward

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

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

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

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

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

Trevor Raggatt

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

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

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

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

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

Andy Wasley

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Natasha Bedingfield
N.B. •
RCA

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

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

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

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

Hugh Armitage

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

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

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

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

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

Danny Weddup

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

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

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

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

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

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

Hugh Armitage

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The Book Of Knots
Traineater •••½
Anti-

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

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

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

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

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

Hugh Armitage

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

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

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

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

Trevor Raggatt

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Carla Bruni
No Promises •••
Naïve

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

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

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

Sara Silver

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Mutya Buena
Real Girl •
Island

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

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

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

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

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

Keith Anderson

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

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

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

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

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

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

Peter Hayward

 



2007 reviews dump: c

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

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Vanessa Carlton
Heroes & Thieves ••
Universal

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.

Andy Wasley

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Neko Case
Live From Austin, TX ••••
New West

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.

Loria Near

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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.

Trevor Raggatt

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Client
Heartland ••••
Loser Friendly

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.

Rod Thomas

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CocoRosie
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.

Rod Thomas

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Colleen
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.

Chris McCrudden

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Judy Collins
Sings Lennon & McCartney ••
Wildflower

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.

Trevor Raggatt

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Shawn Colvin
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.

Peter Hayward

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The Concretes
Hey Trouble •
Licking Fingers

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.

Rod Thomas

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Laura Cortese
Blow Out The Candle •••
Self-released

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?

Trevor Raggatt

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Melora Creager
Perplexions ••½
Filthy Bonnet

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.

Siobhan Rooney

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Jill Cunniff
City Beach •••
Militia Group

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.

Stephanie Heney