Matador Records are celebrating their 21st birthday in style - with a 3 day blow out at The Palms in Las Vegas. Highlights include a Guided By Voices reunion ("The classic '93-'96 line up"), Superchunk, Spoon, Chavez and Kurt Vile.
I'll be honeymooning in LA at the time, so will see if I can trick Mrs CSF into attending.
Update: The tour is expanded, and GBV will be playing in LA. Too tempting.
The Snow Leopard EP
It seems that having gone their separate ways Jonathan Melburg and Okkervile River's Will Sheff have become two of the hardest working and most prolific songwriters on the Americana underground scene. This year saw the release of Rook, Shearwaters mighty and deceptively impressive follow up to Palo Santo and just as the year draws to a close they sneak in this EP, The Snow Leopard. Named after probably the most stunning track on Rook, this EP rounds up many of the non-album B sides and giveaway tracks from the year and also some quite striking recordings from various radio sessions over the summer.
The title track just swells with a power that has become, over the last 2 albums, an expected element in this bands sound. Melburgs sweet voice quivers with all the vulnerability of a flickering flame but then rises with the music to below with dazzling confidence. There's a glimmer of madness in his voice as it reaches its peak only to fall to the floor and quiver once more. Much of this EP demonstrates Melburgs ability paralise the listener with an intimacy that can both freeze you with an icy chill and breath through you with unbelievable warmth. His radio K session performance of Rook, a song that flexes the muscles of this songwriter is stripped of it's strength and whispered with lonely acoustic accompaniment to great effect. Two of the tracks are covers, So Bad, originally by Baby Dee and Henry Lee, a traditional American folk song. They sit perfectly amongst the original Shearwater material and altogether form yet another valuable entry in this bands catalogue. They are an endlessly rewarding group who are really starting to master the many facets of their sound.
Read more 3.5 star reviews
The Dark End Of The Street (EP)
Another round of mix-tape ready covers from Cat Power - with these leftovers from the Jukebox album sessions taking in Creedence, Otis and The Flying Burrito Brothers amongst others.
As with Jukebox itself, this record provides something of a mystery. While the song choices are more in keeping with my personal favourites than the previous album, the delivery is just plain predictable. Marshall gives a perfectly acceptable delievery of every song, but adds little personality to the originals and just sounds like a lounge room crooner - leaving you to think, "what's the point?".
Like watching X-factor, you occasionally are struck with how difficult that last high pitched warble might have been, and although you know Simon Cowell won't be giving her any grief there's just not much future in it past that Christmas number one.
Read more 2 star reviews
Matador Singles '08
I'm not going to bother with the back story to this prolific punk maverick as it wasn't that long ago that he put out the more than cohesive compilation for his In The Red Records releases. Reatard is a new signing to Matador records and for the last six months they have been putting out a limited 7" which. Each release has been put out in a progressively more limited run, starting with 3,500 worldwide for single No. 1 and ending with only 400 for No. 6. They experimented with multiple formats from picture discs, split 7" and colour vinyl and together they really show Reatard's love for this format and the freedom it brings.
As you'd imagine this collection covers a smaller timescale than the previous one and so sounds a whole lot more coherent. The fierce power-house bursts like It's So Useless have disappeared and the whole sound has changed in an interesting way. It hasn't mellowed, but Reatard has managed to morph his energy into fully-formed rock songs - but still shoehorns them into punk-length packages. So what you get is verse, chorus and guitar solos but all at breakneck speed like each song really has to be somewhere else, like, yesterday. The exception to this general rule is the Deerhunter cover version Florescent Grey which appeared on the split 7", the other song being Deerhunter's returning the favor with a version of Reatard's Oh, It's Such A Shame.
This collection will more than fill the gap for those eagerly awaiting Reatard's follow up to Blood Visions as it plays out like an album. He has experimented with his sound and spans a wide range, from the punk stab of Screaming Hand to the psychedelia of the Deerhunter cover to the full on pop of An Ugly Death. These new strings to his bow and the willingness to experiment are turning Jay Reatard into a power-house of an act that is always guaranteed to surprise. He displays a wealth of of ideas and an exciting lack of preciousness about releasing them. As a compilation this works very well but the real winner here is Reatard's resurrecting of the magic that goes along with the 7" release. It's a dying form, but since joining Matador he has shown that there's plenty of life in it yet.Read more 3 star reviews
Take Me To The Sea
Fans of disbanded Seattle bands Blood Brothers or Pretty Girls Make Graves , may be excited to know that certain members of each (Cody Votolato and Johnny Whitney from BB. Jay Clark from PGMG) have joined forces, relocated to Portland, formed Jaguar Love, signed to Matador records and now released their debut album "Take Me To The Sea". Those same fans might also like to know, that while the complex and creative intesity that marked previous incarnations remains in place, the hardcore brashness has been smoothed down into something altogether more melodic. Not too melodic mind, as they have already snagged a support slot for leading rockers Queens Of The Stone Age in the States. Those fans need fear not either, Johnny Whitney's unique vocals are certainly present, correct and unique as ever.
And here's the crux of the matter; personally I've never engaged with either of those two former bands - so I'm taking no emotional currency with me into "Take Me To The Sea". The tunes are indeed complex, interesting, well put together, energetic and all the rest of it - but there is no escaping those vocals. Some of the more favourable critical comparisons out there include "pure Bolan-esque glam" or "Robert Plant on Steroids". Some of the less favourable "...like Perry Farrell after a sex change" or this gem..."..like a child being tortured". I'm in the latter camp - and while the music maybe "At The Drive-In', the vocals are definately more "Alvin The Chipmunks", which unfortunately makes the album pretty much unlistenable.Read more 2.5 star reviews
2006's Palo Santo marked a bit of landmark for Shearwater with Jonathan Meiburg taking center stage as lead vocalist and the result was a much fuller sound that was way more ambitious than any of the bands previous work. The followup Rook has much work to do to keep up with its predecessor and despite a few bumps I'm pleased to report a worthy successor has taken up the crown.
The arresting cover image depicts a dark figure of a man with arms outstretched and cloaked head to foot in a swarm of rooks, His face is unrecognizable through the mass of feathered bodies and as you make your way down his solemn frame birds burst through his coat and emerge from pockets. He stands on a barren shoreline and the pallet for this scene is somber and dark with no hint of colour. While listening to the 10 tracks within, this image starts to take on new resonance and meaning. Rook is very much concerned with man's intersection with the natural world in all its facets from hunter to prey to the eventual extinction of species including mankind itself. Much of the record seems to come from a place so barren and wild that the very existence of human beings appears as nothing more than a haunting memory. Much like Palo Santo the music here can shift violently from a frail whisper to a calamitous boom and with Meiburg's unmistakable guidance Rook becomes a record of great visual power.
Though this record starts and finishes with two fine songs they don't seem like the right choices and had they been put in a different order Rook would work better as a complete concept. On The Death Of The Waters breathes life into the record with the faintest of breaths. Meiburg's vocals are as grey and as still as a winters day until the crashing waters change the scene in the form of a cacophonous orchestra. The violence of the two halves do seem to jar this early on in the record and it's not until the warmth of the opening guitar chords of the next track the we really start to settle in. Rooks is a glorious piece of work and one that we have come to expect from this band of late. With a steady drum pace and glistening musical rhythm section Meiburg's sweet tones drift gently throughout but show signs of teeth at just the right point. For me this feels like the album opener and it heads up a run of songs that form the spinal chord of this album and it's from these five songs that the structure and strength radiate.
Leviathan, Bound is a slow building song based around a gentle rhythm that ends in magnificent strings and ever increasing percussion subtleties while Home Life employs a similar structure originating from crackling drum taps and working towards an orchestral middle section that takes flight amid the soaring vocals of their captain. The music simmers like brooding weather patterns and changes direction with a glorious unpredictability, rising and falling, swirling and trickling.
Lost Boys struts proudly to a marching rhythm and triumphant horns tapering off slowly to the boiling might of Century Eyes. This is the first time the guitars have been given a proper run and they beat their fists with an energy of a force that has been kept under wraps for too long. Unfortunately the momentum that has been gathering ever since Rooks is somewhat dampened by some of the later tracks. I Was A Cloud seems to revisit this bands past at a time when the record was bravely conquering new territory and South Col's conceptual insistence might play to the theme of this album but slows things right down here.
Thankfully the shear scale of The Snow Leopard gathers these stragglers up in its all-encompassing arms and carries them away. It's often the case that a voice's true nature is found in its extremities and though Meiburg's vocal range is certainly extensive it is often held back like a force too powerful to unleash. Well there are fantastic glimpses of it here and it is only matched by the titanic mariachi horns that rise from the depths to accompany it. It's a colossal song and should really end the record. It feels like the band are giving it their all in a last chance show of power and the gentle melody of The Hunter's Star, achingly beautiful though it is, whispers in its wake like something of an after thought. It hurts to criticize as this song, had it appeared anywhere else in the record, would pierce you to the core with it's melancholy. But if song-order is the only thing that tries to drag this down then so be it, for at the beating heart of this album are some of the richest musical moments this band have created.Read more 3.5 star reviews
Rip It Off
There's lo-fi, and then there's TNV. I can't see the point, really. There might be some good tunes buried in this collection somewhere, but who's to say? I simply can't get past the TRULY APPALLING sound. The way I understand it, lo-fi is more of a musical ethic rather than a description of sonic qualities, but in the case of TNV it's taken much more as a literal way of life.
It's like being played a demo recorded on a cassette tape by someone who didn't know how to set the input levels. The entire signal is broken up and overloaded across the whole mix, thereby reducing the definition of any single instrument - you can't hear any bass frequencies for example. It's like being shouted at for half an hour, or played a sex pistols bootleg down a bad phone line. So much so, in fact, that it's just too wearing to pay close attention to. I don't want to have to wade through a river or crackle to reach the music, after all, it's supposed to be about the songs isn't it?
Perhaps TNV would be pleased to hear me say all this - yeah! Punk Rock! You know, if this stupid reviewer can't be bothered to extract the tunes, then he's missing the point and we don't want him as a fan. Well, if that's the case then fair enough. But folks, since someone's gone to all the trouble of releasing this record it might have been better to put something out that people might want to listen to more than once. Any chance of remixing it a bit cleaner...?Read more 1 star reviews
Like an England early goal, a January love affair with an album almost certainly spells the inevitable slump into obscurity and defeat when it comes to the final whistle at the end of the year. Seattle's Cave Singers provided me with my first job of the year and though we all look set for a steady economic decline and general misery in the coming 12 months Invitation Songs has taken up the slack with its generous supply of much needed warmth this winter and only time will tell if it's still emitting this warmth come the end of play but I sincerely hope it is.
Cutting their teeth on a post-punk background and name-checking such bands as The Replacements, The Pixies and Fleetwood Mac as their influences this 3 piece has shocked everybody including themselves by creating what can only be described as a folk album. They never listen to folk music, they never intended to make folk music and until recently the guitarist had never even picked up his instrument. But all this can be seen to contribute to the honesty of this music and in this honesty comes its warmth, charm and power.
The music is uncomplicated with gentle guitar melodies being padded out with brushed and slapped drum beats and singer Pete Quirk's nasal drawl provides this music with the abrasion that is often missing from similar artists. Effortless stompers like opener Seeds Of Night (mp3) and Dancing On Our Graves recall Civil War marches with their relentless rhythm, while Helen is a tortured tale of lost love that swells slowly but then fades to nothing. This is the power of these songs as they hold in their repertoire the latent ability to freeze you with a sparse chill or scoop you up and cary you away on a thermal sky rocket, and they do all this without you knowing. This album makes no mission statements so it's effects are not easily spotted but deeply felt. This is very physical music and conjures up a whole host of landscapes around you as it plays. Called swirls around in a barely visible darkness with haunting cries looming out at you while Royal Lawns expands into cavernous halls that echo its melancholy. Elephant Clouds is the backbone of this record and is a curious affair indeed. It bears a strange resemblance to Richard Marx's Hazard and is still a corker. It tip-toes along on what is by now a trade mark nervous tension but then picks up into a galloping torrent of emotionally soaring awesomeness, but as is also a trademark it never fully puts out and leaves you breathless and wanting more.
The aptly named Invitation Songs has welcomed me into this musical year. It is an album dripping with mystery, its melodies are ghostly and empty and yet can turn with dazzling ease into foot-stomping rousers or delicate heart-warmers. Its humility will make it a slow burner but it has the power to seep into every corner of your life and once it does your life will be a better place.Read more 3.5 star reviews
Following her recent mainstream success with The Greatest and her rollicking cover of Stuck Inside of Mobile on last year's I'm Not There soundtrack, Chan Marshall AKA Cat Power returns with a whole album of covers - something of a sequel to 2000's aptly titled The Covers Record.
This swirling unfocussed blur of technically prefect renditions ranges from the bonifide classics like New York, New York through Hank WIlliams' Rambling (Wo)man, Dylan's christian-era I Believe In You and even including a re-working of her own Metal Heart from the album Moon Pix. The backing band pulls together another list of legendary performers - including Spooner Oldham, Teenie Hodges and Larry McDonald, as well as more contempaorary players like Matt Sweeney and Jim White.
With Cat Power's appeal seemingly moving beyond music and into fashion and celebrity it all feels a bit like an indie version of X-Factor. Like someone at the Karaoke bar with a bit of talent, it's impressive but not as fun or impassioned as a group singalong to Freebird ...and certainly doesn't fulfill the promise of hear earlier records, or the power and subtlty of songs like Cross Bones Style. WIth the low-key ethic of earlier albums like You Are Free polished away into oblivion, Chan Marshall could well be heading towards a 200 night stint in Vegas, especially now that Celine Dion has called it a day.
Marshall often adds her own lyrics to covers - as Dylan would do and even Led Zeppelin would to to Dylan with In My Time Of Dying. While this can inject a more interesting twist, it only highlights what's wrong with this record. While covers have always been an integral part of Cat Power's repertoire - and undeniably part of her live presence - it's the original material that works best here. With Song For Bobby, she tells of meeting long-time idol Bob Dylan and it's that personal touch that gives the song something more than just being an interesting rendition.
Seeming little more than a minor diversion as Chan runs for President, this album might just tide you over until she gets back to the main event.Read more 2 star reviews
Palo Santo (Expanded Edition)
For those slackers who missed 2006's dazzling fourth album by Shearwater, Matador are here to save your bacon with a pimped-up re-release consisting of 2 discs and new deluxe packaging featuring some stunning artwork. Palo Santo is the bands first album where Jonathan Meiburg assumes full vocal duties and the result is a grander, more rounded sound that sees them rise like a phoenix from the thick melancholy that engulfed their earlier work. This isn't to suggest that this isn't melancholy. The record is inspired by the life of Warhol muse Nico so it isn't going to be a bag of laughs but while they keep to the icy chill that has become their trademark Palo Santo serves up many moments of awesome grandeur only hinted at on previous records.
Formed in 2001 by Meiburg and Will Sheff, Shearwater was meant to be a vehicle for the quieter songs penned by the two musicians while working on their principle collaboration, Okkervile River. But after the addition of new multi-instrumentalists Shearwater soon grew way beyond initial intentions and Palo Santo is their crowning glory.
La Dame Et La Licorne opens the album and actually mirrors the career of this band quite nicely. It creeps into view with Meiburg's frail, quivering voice barely audible but gradually swells to thumping piano and howling declarations. And this sets us up for Red Sea, Black Sea, one of the albums many highlights. This takes no time to pound with all its heart on the galloping rhythm that dominates this song. It's these moments of real muscle that make this record pull away from the bands back catalogue and race forward with renewed energy and confidence. Seen again in White Waves' gritty electric guitar and Seventy Four, Seventy Five's pounding piano. Having said that, there's still plenty of room for the feather-light delicacy of the title track and the achingly beautiful Failed Queen where hollow landscapes are created with sparse acoustic guitar and the frail musings of Meiburg.
This element is explored in more depth on the second disc where we get demo versions of four of the original tracks. These are drastically stripped down renditions showing the extent to which this vocalist can vary his delivery. Having seen the heat of this voice on the first CD we now get the drifting whisper like a feint trail of smoke from a newly extinguished flame. There are also 4 new songs on this bonus disc including a cover of Skip James' Special Rider Blues.
This is an expansive album from a band who started from humble beginnings but are now evolving into a great rock outfit. Shearwater have always fitted into a tradition of songwriting that seems to capture the great American landscape in all its sparse, lonely beauty but with Palo Santo they have started to evoke the power and strength of this landscape and this refurbishment only serves to enhance that.
I went to see The New Pornographers a couple of years ago at London’s Borderline. I hadn’t really heard many of their tunes, but this Canadian 7/8 piece came highly recommended. I can’t say every one of their hard driving indie pop tunes clicked with me, but I was certainly impressed and puzzled by their style. There was something about the structure of their tunes that was odd and original and very compelling. (Plus, their drummer was mental and who doesn’t like to see that?).
Their fourth album, “Challengers”, is similar – there’s such variety in the way they build songs, and some great riffs dotted throughout, that on my first listen I kinda knew I liked it but at times I was perplexed as to why.
“My Rights Versus Yours” is a brilliant catchy opener that builds from a mellow folky start to flourish into an air-punching, foot stomping tune. This is followed by the equally ace “All the Old Showstoppers” which houses some great hooks and again made me do a little jig when it hit the heights. “All the Things That Go to Make Heaven and Earth” is where they sound closest to fellow Canadians Arcade Fire, but the next two tunes, “Failsafe” and “Unguided”, are battling it out as my favourite on the album.
"Myriad Harbour", is another cracking tune where the singer starts the lines only for the rest of the band, like an annoying girl I once worked with, to finish his thoughts for him. This song also heralds the first of a couple of moments on the album, as the vocals get a bit Tenacious D (he asks his local record store for “an American music anthol-low-geeee” – Jack Black stylee), where I’m not sure if they’re having a laugh or being deadly serious.
Singing duties are, however, swapped around four band members (lady singers Kathryn Calder and Neko Case have - I can exclusively reveal - nice voices) and they pepper songs with some pleasant harmonies. These come through strongest in the splendid “Mutiny, I promise You” and the sparse “Adventures in Solitude”.
The main man of this side project (all band members release records as solo artists or with other bands), A.C. Newman, says “Over the years I’ve just learned how to write better songs”. It certainly seems apparent here as it feels like there’s more depth and diversity than on their previous albums. While it might not be as constantly full on as, say, Electric Version (their 2nd album from 2003) - which some of their fans may not thank them for - I think with repeat listens you’ll reap the rewards of this interesting and enjoyable album.
- The New Pornographers name, its suggested, was inspired by a quote from American Pentecostal Televangelist, Jimmy Swaggart, who declared that music was, yep, the ‘new pornography’.
- Jimmy Swaggart also hated gays: “'I’ve never seen a man in my life I wanted to marry. And I'm going to be blunt and plain: if one ever looks at me like that, I'm going to kill him and tell God he died.”
- Jimmy Swaggart also publicly exposed one of his buddies for having an affair - claiming his mate was a "cancer in the body of Christ."
- What goes around comes around… Jimmy himself got busted – twice - for sleeping with prostitutes, but was less forthcoming in criticism on this one: "The Lord told me it's flat none of your business."
Love Of Diagrams EP
Melbourne band Love of Diagrams are a band that instantly conjure up a dozen influences, and while I can't put my finger on exactly what they most sound like, Blondie, Gang of Four and Yeah Yeah Yeah's are certainly a handful of suggestions. For once however the strong comparisons are not a criticism of unoriginality - instead giving their music an instantly recognizable feel that makes the songs seem like old favourites that you haven't heard in a while.
Pace of the Patience has catchy interplay between singers Antonia Sellbach and Luke Horton, with the girl/boy contrast giving them a sound like the mathematical punk of Gang of Four. The Pyramid is where the Blondie influence is most obvious - although mainly in Antonia Sellbach's voice rather than the actual sound of the music or song structure, which is often less traditional that the more obvious Blondie hits.
The production could do with a bit of sharpening up in places - as the muddy vocals are a bit low and sometimes that undermines what seems to be crisp pop-rock trying to get out. although No Way Out does address this problem a bit - using that mathematical rhythm to create a track like a beefed up version of Bis' Eurodisco. I'm sure the band are sick of the Gang of Four and Blondie comparisons by now, but having "One way or another" as the hook in your song was just asking for that.
Turn The Lights Out
Flying in the face of Chinese Wisdom, 2007 could well turn out to be the Year of the Horse. Chimp favourites Band of Horses are in the studio and on the European road, and now their equine-ly named contemporaries The Ponys release a strong album - that is setting the early pace for my Album Of The Year awards. Recently signed to Matador, Turn the Lights Out is the 3rd album from the Chicago 4 piece and is assured and promising in equal measure.
Theirs is a confident, multi-layered guitar sound that recalls Goo-era Sonic Youth and the Jesus and Mary Chain, but The Ponys aren‘t simply a fawning tribute band, there are enough ideas across the whole album to ensure that no lame tracks appear.
Out of the gates strongly and I’ll tip ‘em to remain ahead of the pack for the year to come. Good stuff.
Live Session EP
The on-form Yo La Tengo deliver a nice live set to complement their recent studio release. Great renditions of "Pass The Hatchet" and "The Weakest Part" are accompanied by Arthur Lee cover "Lucy Baines" and surf-rock jam "El Es Gay".Read more 3 star reviews
Matador Records have a nice little Quicktime sampler to round up this year's releases. Check it out here.
We'll be rounding up our best-of-2006 lists soon. Send them in please team.
Human Amusements At Hourly Rates: The Best Of Guided By Voices
If you remain unconvinced by Guided By Voices:
1) You are wrong
2) This is the album to convince you
Putting together the best Greatest Hits album since Decade is no mean feat, and I don't make the comparison lightly. Hitting the rare mark of a Greatest Hits record that functions on it's own level, Human Amusements At Hourly Rates collates one or two tracks off nearly every official Guided By Voices release into one easy-to-use package, without losing a second of GBV's charm. It doesn't get much better than this.
I Am A Tree, Shocker In Gloomtown, Watch Me Jumpstart, Game Of Pricks, My Valuable Hunting Knife, Teenage FBI ...don't make me spell it out for you.
5 stars. All time top ten.