I diligently prepared for this review of Yeasayer's new album 'Odd Blood' by re-listening to their debut 'All Hour Cymbals'. The Chimp in charge assigned that disc a mediocre 2.5 stars. Unfair I think, since it struck me as an upbeat collection of songs - melody driven, varied and full of eclectic, instrumental experimentation... otherwise described as ‘World Music’ overtones. The last three tracks in that album are particularly strong and Chimpomatic signed off the review with; 'It's hard to say where this band will take their sound next but they will be worth keeping an eye on.'
So it was with some anticipation and an ear-full of growing acclaim that I clicked 'Play' on 'Odd Blood''. 5 tracks later, however, I found myself nodding in agreement to the lyrics of 'O.N.E.'; 'You don't move me anymore... I can't take it anymore'. What the hell happened?
Where 'All Hour Cymbals’ was rich in sound, layering a broad range of instruments and vocal harmonies to create songs that had real originality, 'Odd Blood' has gone through the looking glass into a strange world of bland electro-pop.
The first three tracks passed by entirely unremarkably until I sat up with a jolt during 'I Fear', convinced that Dave Gahan had suddenly joined the band. It's a 'Stars in their eyes' moment as the vocal impersonation of Depeche Mode's lead singer comes amplified by the tune's looping synthesizer/ electronica clamour.
For a band that can be so musically inventive the numbing dullness of the lyrics on 'Odd Blood' provide even greater consternation. 'Don't give up one me I won't give up on you'... 'Control me like you used to... I like it when you lose control', stand out as particularly inane. Yeasayer, however, clearly don’t agree and make endless repetitions of said self-lobotomising lyrics, integral elements of their songs.
By track 7, 'Rome', the Depeche Mode influence cedes way to the Scissor Sisters. With a chorus of testicle crunching altos; 'It's just a matter of time/ There's no mistaking that!' the album lurches on towards electro-mash-up oblivion. There is some relief in the closing track where some of the old lyricism returns but it’s too little too late.
Thank god for bands that won't be pinned down and Yeasayer's energy is undeniable and laudable. There's no reason that 'Odd blood' should echo the character of their debut album but having seen where this band has taken its sound next I'm not sure I'll be keeping an eye on them after all.Read more 2 star reviews
My initial reaction to 'Dag för Dag', was to obsess inappropriately over the umlaut at the centre of the band's name. I can now confirm that 'Dag för Dag' translates literally as 'Day by Day' (not some marketing executive's idea of a promotional tool) and that not only in name but in music too, these guys are the real thing.
American-Swedish-brother-sister team, Dag för Dag, released their first EP in May '09 and now come back at us with debut album, 'Boo'. For the most part these thirteen (excepting the bonus, previously unreleased) tracks brood and boil with the intensity of a Nordic winter. Things dip at the album's centre and a little preening could have shorn off the dreary, introspective gloom that infects tracks like 'Silence as the verb' and 'Light on your feet'.
Parthemore Snavely and Jacob Donald Snavely exchange vocals throughout the album, but it is Parthemore who really drives the sound. Her voice tussles with the guitars and, at its best, explodes with a Siouxsie-like energy.... (at its worst there are a couple of dangerous 'Cranberries' moments lurking in there, when the female vocals wail a little too sincerely....)
'Boo' is most successful when the raw sentiments expressed in the lyrics are complimented by boisterous guitars and some determined drumming. Along the way it steps on a few toes; BRMC are in there, the Cure too and most blatantly Arcade Fire when on the (excellent) 'Animal', Parthemore shrieks 'Let's Go!' repeatedly as a counterpoint to Jacob's lead vocals. It's to their credit that 'Dag för Dag' have enough personality to make the music stand out inspite of these comparisons. I'm guessing that Live, these guys should make for a dag gawn good show....Read more 3.5 star reviews
"Great Gods Marty! We're in Hackney in the year 2010!"
All My Friends Are Funeral Singers
'All my friends are funeral singers', declares the title of the new album by Califone and maybe it's me, but I don't see this as something to shout about. The prospect of 60 minutes of morbid whining seems none-too enticing and a glance through a track list which includes 'A wish made while burning onions will come true' and 'Krill' doesn't leaves me any more enthusiastic.
This is the sixth album from the American-electro-folk-pop-combo; and it sounds a lot like they've been let loose at the ironmongers. There are fiddles, banjos and plenty of drawling twang to the vocals but listen carefully and you'll note the rousing clatter of metal objects being struck in the background. I tallied up steel drums, marimbas, jangly necklaces, xylophones... and surely a hint of more cowbell.
The album delivers on its title's promise with a surrealist unease filtering through each of the songs. 'Giving away the bride' and 'Evidence', throb with brooding melancholy and although there are some HooHa! moments, for the most part '...Funeral Singers' holds to a downbeat course.
Which isn't to say that the music is as deathly as I feared. Although not as involving as 2006's 'Roots and Crowns', this new album contains music of depth and subtlety. The sound is rich and increasingly layered with electronic distortions, effects, loops and mixing. This kind of intricate production however, is sometimes at odds with the homespun simplicity of much of the songwriting.
Generally diverting, occasionally moving, often unsettling; the album's lasting impression was like being stuck in a shack in some Appalachian backwater with four bearded, funereal-folk musicians and a laptop. And maybe it's me but...
It was always going to be a hard act to follow. The title of Yo La Tengo’s 2006 LP, I Am Not Afraid Of You And I Will Beat Your Ass, sits at the pinnacle of my exhaustively researched; top-ten-album-titles-in-history-EVER-super-chart.
I.A.N.A.O.Y.A.I.W.B.Y.A was also noteworthy given that Yo La Tengo’s sound might best have been associated with a kind of low-key, shoe gazing dreaminess. They were certainly not obvious candidates for the brilliant wall of aggressive guitar which opens that album, under the moniker ‘Pass the Hatchet’.
The reason I’m banging on about I.A.N.A.O.Y.A.I.W.B.Y.A is not just because the New Jersey 3 piece's new release clearly doesn’t make the cut for my chart. It's also that the album is not as good as its predecessor, period.
But that’s as far as the criticism goes. The album title may indeed redeem itself after all in terms of accuracy; much of the music here deserves to be popular. The songs are good, by turns romantic and melancholy but generally minus the rocking teenage swagger of 2006.
There are exceptions, Nothing To Hide, and the album’s closing track (a 15 minute guitar jam) And The Glitter Is Gone, dish out plenty of energy and angry chords. For the most part, however, the band act their age (this is their 12th studio album). On stand-out tracks When it’s Dark and More Stars Than There Are In Heaven, they stick to reflective and wistful; plenty of harmonies, strings, organ and gentle acoustic guitars.
Whereas I.A.N.A.O.Y.A.I.W.B.Y.A was bookended by the band’s trademark long playing epics, Popular Songs saves both until last; And The Glitter Is Gone preceded by, The Fireside. The latter track may remind you a little too much of the busker in the high street you’ll have heard, riffing chords and peddling the reverb on his slide guitar. Regardless, this is a haunting instrumental clocking in at over 11mins and entrancing for every one of those.Read more 4 star reviews
Person To Person
Los Angeles based ‘Foreign Born’ release their new album, ‘Person to Person’- and it’s worth getting to know. This band’s sound is weighty and complex, with each song opening up like a landscape; building and growing, widening out into anthemic musical plains of guitar and synth.
'In the summer we survive the heat', drawls Matt Popieluch in the first track, ‘Blood Oranges’ - all tumbling riffs and a pulsing percussion heart. And that’s how it continues for the next nine tracks; guitar driven melodies and overlaid orchestration of strings and brass that invariably lend the songs real sonic depth.
There’s U2 in the mix, more than a hint of Modest Mouse and traces of the ubiquitous Arcade Fire. This music feels determinately optimistic - the cheerful guitars on ‘Early Warnings’ come out of the blue like a sudden interruption from some gig in downtown Lagos and bring a smile to your face. However across the album Foreign Born’s mood oscillates between hazy, summer warmth and the kind of melodramatic grandeur that comes with watching approaching storm clouds.
There are no rainbows without showers and the latter half of ‘Person to Person’ brings with it a soft melancholy in the more reflective songs: ‘It Grew On You’ and ‘See Us Home’. But even here, each track’s increasing momentum is driven along by Garrett Ray’s drums and the band’s enthusiasm that keeps insisting on something golden over the horizon.Read more 4 star reviews
‘Ohbijou’ (literally ‘Oh, jewel!) is a sparkling confection crafted by Canadian singer Casey Mecija and her 6-strong ensemble. 'This is what an album would sound like if it were made by your girlfriend...' was my friend’s response to a selection of songs from ‘Beacons’. Further interrogation elicited this description of his generic, ‘Girlfriend’; a sort of anti-‘Weird-Science’ concoction whose DNA profile reads ‘Highly-strung victim of Romance Trauma’. I guess he might have been picking up on the weary sighs and wistful instrumentation which give the music of ‘Ohbijou’ a low-fi, mournful sincerity.
I’m more of the opinion that this is what an album would sound like if your girlfriend were an elf. An elf, in fact, with a penchant for the songs of Feist and Kate Bush. Casey Mecija deploys a gnomic voice whose unusual timbre and fragility ultimately charmed me. Top tracks ‘Cliff Jumps’ and ‘Cannon March’ work a nice exchange between synth and strings; cellos, mandolins and keyboard. You are never quite sure what Casey is singing about but apparently she ‘pens songs wrought with the Romantic afflictions of big city life’. What I heard were alternately cheerful melodies, with bounce and verve, fine instrumentation and a gentle sparkle.
Less successful when emulating the building, orchestral crescendos of Arcade Fire, ‘Beacons’ is, for the most part, delicately spun and moving. I suspect Casey’s boyfriend isn’t worried.
Read more 3 star reviews
'Mythomania' is the follow up to Cryptacize’s 2008 debut, ‘Dig That Treasure’. Nope, I don’t know what they’re on about either, however subterfuge and mysteriousness seem to be part of the ‘Cryptacize’ brief . Their sound slips between definitions; part Calexico’s brooding folk and part Nico’s vulnerable female vocals. Throw in the use of an ‘autoharp’ and there’s even a curious dash of John Barry’s ‘Ipcress File’ soundtrack to much of the album.
The songs lurch along erratically, off-beat and off the beat; you’re never quite sure where you’re being led. It starts on a high; ‘Tail & Main’ manages to be cheerful and bittersweet . ‘If I could find my way back to you’ sings Nedelle Torrisi, repeating her plaintive call over a bouncy ensemble of guitar, drums and the manic reverberations of that autoharp.
It’s an enchanting start - shame that the lyric ends up as a bit of a premonition. It’s not until late tracks ‘I’ll Take The Long Way’ and ‘New Spell’, that Cryptacize really hit the same heights. In between, the songs are varyingly successful. They stick to the same direct sound throughout; simple, naïve almost - electric guitars and echoing vocals, all bound together by Michael Carreira’s distinctive syncopation on the drums.
Mythomania is a refreshing sonic mystery, worth the time spent unravelling.Read more 3 star reviews
Good things have been emerging from the Canadian music scene over the last few years; Arcade Fire, Broken Social Scene, Wolf Parade… Nickelback. This month sees the arrival of Gentleman Reg (Reg Vermue), whose debut UK album, ‘Jet Black’ arrives here on Broken Social Scene's Arts & Crafts label.
‘Jet Black’ opens with plenty of cascading guitars, honky-tonk piano and thumping percussion, which initially brings to mind something of Ben Folds. As the album progresses, however, things take a few abrupt turns. At intervals Reg seems to invite the likes of Belle and Sebastian, Rufus Wainright and even the Scissor sisters along to the party.
At the heart of this album two songs settle Gentleman Reg most comfortably into a landscape of synthesiser heavy, electro-pop. ‘We’re in a Thunderstorm’ and ‘Falling Back’ had me convinced I was listening to the confections of Gallic-pop-combo, Phoenix. Even the lazy way Reg slurs his lyrics suggests a fraudulently French approach to the art of singing in English.
Apparently Reg, ‘has made his sexuality a matter of public record’ and is ‘regularly involved in Gay Pride events’, which strikes me as a curious thing to feel the need to emphasise in pre-release publicity. Half the time, I admit, I didn’t have a clue what the record was making public through its garble of mumbled lyrics, but the music can be dangerously catchy. Occasionally whimsical, more often upbeat, it’s sweet tasting and fluorescent. Certainly not ‘Jet Black’.Read more 2 star reviews
DM Stith’s debut album, plays like the soundtrack to an unmade film by Tim Burton. The title, ‘Heavy Ghost’ seems apt, since each track unleashes a whine of spectral voices from your speakers. Once unshackled, they whip round the room like the ghouls from ‘Ghostbusters’, often to the bleak accompaniment of hammered-out minor chords and experimental jingle jangling.
Stith’s EP ‘Curtain Speech’ garnered much praise and saw him being compared to Jeff Buckley and Andrew Bird. ‘Heavy Ghost’ takes his delicate voice and weaves it through a series of songs that are sometimes very beautiful. ‘Thanksgiving Moon’ and ‘Braid of voices’ are wistful and elegant, occasionally even optimistic.
For the most part, however, the Ghost gets too Gothic. Songs follow a similar journey, starting out gently before thumping a path through portentous wailing and climactic piano chords to… well, nowhere in particular. Smith comes, we are told, from an intensely religious family. Opening track ‘Isaac’s Song’ certainly aggresses the listener like a particularly virulent sermon. In the end too many of Smith’s songs sound like experiments, sketches from a sound effects studio; full of clicking typewriters and clanking chains but with no conclusion.
Despite the grand orchestration and the pleasing weirdness of it all, ‘Heavy Ghost’ never quite sees the light.Read more 3 star reviews
I first encountered Vetiver whilst trying to catch some sleep on an overnight flight. Within two songs of 2006 album ‘To Find Me Gone’, I was tranquilised into as peaceful a state as it is possible to achieve whilst contorted into your economy seat.
Vetiver’s sound is a gentle, acoustic collective of guitar, piano and percussion. Their new album, ‘Tight Knit’, follows the template previously established; simple songs flavoured by a West coast breeziness reflecting the band’s San Francisco home. There is an undercurrent of hippy carelessness that charms without ever choking you on flower petals.
‘Tight Knit’ is a lovely album, layered with tumbling guitar riffs and vocal harmonies that kick credit crunch blues into the long grass. Achieving this without ever being saccharine is impressive. With the added tonic of cheerful, upbeat interludes like ‘Everyday’, Vetiver leave you as refreshed as a morning dip off the coast of Big Sur.
Read more 4 star reviews
I've been trying to come up with a 2008 top five, I hardly thought I'd bought five albums this year. Pathetic. However, here goes;
1. Bob Dylan; 'Tell Tale Signs'
2. Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds; 'Dig Lazarus Dig!'
3. Sons and Daughters; 'This Gift'
4. Bonnie 'Prince' Billy With Harem Scarem & Alex Neilson; 'Is It The Sea?'
5. Silver Jews; 'Lookout Mountain, Lookout Sea'
Is It The Sea?
‘They’re really great live…’ people often insist, when I appear unconvinced by their particular musical offering. It is true that a live recording often reveals the real character of a band; there is an immediacy which can lift the music above an album template. There is always the risk, though, that a live performance can expose the over-produced limitations of a band’s music.
No one could ever accuse Bonnie Prince Billy of being ‘over produced’ and Is It The Sea? confirms his natural habitat as the stage rather than the studio. This is a brilliant record which bears witness to one night on BPB’s 2006 tour of Scotland and Ireland. He is joined by Edinburgh’s Harem Scarem on close harmonies, fiddle, flute, banjo and accordion and Glasgow’s Alex Nielson on drums and percussion. Much of the vitality of this recording comes from the contribution which these collaborators have to make. The highland lilt of their fiddle, accordion and flute accompaniments give BPB’s primal tales of love and loss, a real sense of depth. Their harmonies are always pure and direct; there is no great elaboration, only a mainlining of the musical heritage that BPB's revised American folk stems from.
Particular high points include Birch Ballad, a mesmeric Is It The Sea and an increasingly demented version of Cursed Sleep. In the act of performance many of the songs have been turned and twisted from immediately recognizable favourites.
Billie’s music has always carried a kind of medieval foreboding which is dramatically amplified here. In the case of Molly Bawn, the song’s minor key and archaic language are given an extra twist of Celtic wailing. The result is that the balladic tradition from which this song springs, appears alive and well in the hands of Bonnie Prince Billie.
There is a real authenticity to these recordings and a genuine fervour in the audience’s response. We are as far removed from the boot-tapping folksiness of American country as is possible. Instead the backdrop to these performances is that of a European heritage, an aural culture where tales were passed from generation to generation by firelight. Bonnie Prince Billie has appeared to us in many different guises but on Is it the Sea? he is at his most convincing as a kind of musical emigrant brought back to his roots.Read more 4 star reviews
Youthmovies are an Oxford based quintet put together by Al English and Foals founding member Andrew Mears. After a series of well received EPs comes their debut album Good Nature, a distillation of the band’s various incarnations and the long graft of touring and festival playing.
The band cites King Crimson, Steve Reich and Sonic Youth as their official influences but there’s a lot going on in here and straightening out some kind of musical heritage is pretty pointless. In today’s musical landscape of retro-mania it’s refreshing to find myself perplexed and this is both the band’s strength and stumbling block.
There’s innovation aplenty here, songs that build and fragment, tease and frustrate; shifting from squalls of guitar, brass and heavy drumbeat to sudden, becalmed stillness. 8 minutes is a long time though and Youthmovies don’t shy away from extending their template of alternating (often conflicting) musical movements over such lengths. The effect is idiosyncratic and unpredictable but can be tedious in the same measure.
At it's most successful, on tracks like If You’d Seen A Battlefield, the band concede that melody is not a bad thing. The music slips between cascading guitars and rhythm driven brass, then erupts into a baroque guitar crescendo. It’s exciting. But the band’s habit of reducing lyrics to short phrases, repeated like mantras, expose a problem and in this particular song - a dangerous truth. ‘It’s not going well and it’s not going badly, it’s just going’, repeats Andrew Mears and he’s got a point.
Something for the Ghosts begins a 9-minute run by mesmerising you; shifting from wistfully repeated lyrics to tumbling guitar chords and building drumbeats. In many of these tracks, the changes of tempo and pace can become exhausting and ultimately a bit aimless. Here the song avoids becoming fractured and drives on, building ominously and with a kind of savage determination. It’s a shame then, when it hits the closing lines; ‘Motorway crash-barriers make me feel like we’re going to crash’. It’s not just that the words claim a kind of minimalist, poetic potency which is clearly beyond them but that in their delivery, Mears once again veers the sound dangerously close to Bloc Party territory.
Youthmovies tackle the label of prog-rock head on in their promotional material, then kind of do a little shimmy to avoid it sticking. They declare that it’s only ‘prog-rock’ to the ‘initiated’ but then spend the album trying to convince you that ‘progressive’ isn’t ‘a dirty word’. They’re right it isn’t and Good Nature does manage to get you onside. But equally they’re wrong to suggest there’s nothing pretentious about the swelling bombast and lyrical misjudgement which occasionally undermines the album. 6 tracks in, Good Nature hits it's stride and the journey’s well worth going on. There’s plenty more to come from Youthmovies I’m sure.Read more 3 star reviews
What do you look for in a new record?
The list might include a band's enthusiasm for the act of making music; being provoked by their lyrics; surprised by a sound, a riff, an unexpected instrument or chord. Anything that makes you sit up and think, 'I could never have done that, I wouldn't even know where to start'. Music making, though, has been liberated and people are no longer constrained by the mere inability to play an instrument. Who cares! Given a laptop, a vague rhythmic sense and the ability to sample a few bars played by someone else (possibly immeasurably more talented than you'll ever be) and you've got all you need. And thousands of you are at it.
The Superimposers are not musically incompetent in this way. They're just a little bit dull. There's no real surprise, no provocation, little of the unexpected. Sure, there's plenty of musical enthusiasm, but it's of the irritating kind for 'Fender Rhodes, harps and the mysterious Omnichord - a kidney-shaped Suzuki synthesiser played by strumming a touchplate'. I don't know about you but I don't think kidney-shaped synthesisers are a substitute for original sounding music and I'm tired of watching guys on stage hitting a multicoloured kid's xylophone or toy drum like they've just turned the music world on its head.
'Harpsichord Treacle' aspires to being the bastard child of The Beach Boys and Lemon Jelly. The music is determinately sun-shiny and warm, 'sound oozing from your i-Pod like treacle from a Harpsichord with plenty of peace, love and harmonies going on. Sounds delicious eh?' This is a direct quote from the band's promotional material and since Miles Copeland and Dan Warden, the duo behind Superimposers, released the album on their own record label: it's a direct quote from the band. Sounds delicious? Sounds sticky to me and just a little bit creepy. If someone turned and sold me their album on the strength of its 'peace love and harmonies', I'd run screaming for the Black Sabbath.
Miles and Dan are well intentioned, eager to be laid back and to grin inanely through a haze of good vibes. The first track on the album, 'Anymore' is apparently 'Glen Campbell-esque'. It sounds like the incidental music to a 1950's Western, which is no slight since I love 1950's Westerns. The rest of the album seems more unified, given direction by the band's self-posed query, 'How do they get that authentic 60's sound?’ A more pertinent question would appear to me to be, why would they bother?
It's not an unfamiliar problem, but listening to the eleven tracks on this album is like wandering through a sort of Musical Madame Tussaud's. They get the 'authentic 60's sound' by creating phonic waxworks which bear a questionable similarity to elements of the Byrds, through Serge Gainsbourg, the Kinks, the Mamas and Papas; all with added reverb and digital trickery. There's plenty of harmonising and humming. Miles and Dan 'met in an English seaside town', but they harmonise and hum like they're the Beach boys, goofing around at Baja. Then there's the sampling, every-so-often a few truncated bars of string instrumentals, looped and re-appearing as the tracks meander aimlessly. The ghost of Lemon-jelly drips off of many of these songs but there just isn't the same subtlety or eclectic humour. Dan and Miles may be musically proficient, talented even (unlike the lap-top crowd), but that doesn't stop many of the songs coming across as empty vehicles; showcases for the musical effects they have at their mixing-desk-fingertips.
The band's name was born apparently of their love for superimposing their music on other peoples and vice versa. They'd be better of spending less time 'plugging in space echoes' and instilling some conviction into the music. Some of the songs are brilliantly accomplished musical pastiche. 'Autumn falls' and 'Twilight' expertly mix musical tributes with seductive orchestration, rippling behind the vocals. But in hackneyed lyrics like 'I will make it all better' and 'no one said it was easy', I hear the band's own subconscious telling them to push a little harder at the musical coal-face.
If I were to pick one waxwork, this album would resemble Doris Day; remastered, re-looped, re-engineered by their 'way-back machine'. It's not a great resemblance but it's kind of freakishly there.
Read more 2 star reviews
It is unfortunate that the performance I saw given by Sons and Daughters on last week’s Culture Show of their new single ‘Darling’, was so dire. Unfortunate because, having never seen S+D live, I would have thought them to be naturals on the open stage. Their shtick is, after all; Scottish, spiky, raw, guitar and drums combo, fronted by the vocals of Adele Bethel and Scott Paterson. No flourishes, a perfect live proposal.
In spite of the way Adele’s voice strained ever to match the range and quality displayed on their new album, ‘This Gift’, I’m still convinced that live they must be worth the price of a ticket. This is the band’s third album and builds on foundations laid by 2004’s ‘Love the Cup’. To my taste the paired down, Presbyterian joylessness of that first album made listening to it feel like a bit of a duty; I knew I should probably like it but could rarely be bothered with the effort.
With ‘This Gift’ however, the band combine the Gothic gloom of their lyrical landscape with an energetic new pop sensibility. West Coast Scots have always had an instinctual leaning towards American folk, Country and Soul and the land over the horizon can certainly be felt in the roots of this band’s musical origins. But with the aid of producer Bernard Butler, there is now a lightness of touch and eclecticism to the band’s range which helps show off the smooth Glasgow burr of Bethel’s voice.
The songs still talk of desperation, anger and sexual hunger but with a springing dynamism that doesn’t leave you feeling you’ve been beaten on the head with a frying pan for forty minutes. If you’re struggling to get up on these dull January mornings, stick this on and you’ll be given a jolt, a double shot of musical espresso. ‘House in My Head’ pounds out an urgent alarm call but manages to smooth the raw sound with guitar riffs that would delight Johnny Marr. ‘Goodbye service’, ‘Chains’ and the fabulous ‘Iodine’ make musical reality out of their lyrics. Lines that speak of ‘Trains in the distance’ and ‘High tension lines’ are driven with the momentum of a rampaging railroad engine. And when 60’s stomp ‘Darling’ urges you on with ‘twistin in, twistin out the night’, I dare your foot not to be tapping.Read more 4 star reviews
I Can Hear Your Heart
‘Fuck.. Cock.. Shag.. Willie’; it’s all there in ‘I can hear your heart’. A fine distillation of the Scottish lexicon or, alternatively, the Scot’s default reaction to life; swearing.
After Moffat’s introductory voice over, explaining the concept behind the two-part album, ‘Poop’ and ‘Loop’ [Poop, a short story and Loop?????], it all starts ominously enough. A growling voice intoning, ‘I can hear your heart’, which a first listen had me convinced was saying; ‘I can hear you fuck’.
My mishearing turned out to be a premonition of what was to come. A kind colleague suggested playing the album over dinner with my girlfriend, an experience I will not be repeating. I don’t know which level of hell Moffat will be consigned to after this album, but I guess he’ll be nursing a few exotic STDs amidst the flames; Think of Tom Waits crossed with Rab C Nesbitt and Michael Douglas. Pre the treatment he received for his addiction to sex.
It’s not entirely accurate to call this an album, more a collection of poems, accompanied by music. And it’s not entirely accurate to evoke the traditional idea of poems either when what we’re dealing with is a kind of urban ode to casual sex and squalid romance. Moffat is the inebriated protagonist, guiding us across the streets of a Glasgow slicked in alcohol. There’s (frequent) cheating on his girlfriends; borderline sex with a minor; bagpipes; music hall sing-alongs and collapsed nights in bus shelters. There are threesomes; dirty panties: prank phone-calls and an expose of racist abuse. Involving a lot of racist abuse. It ain’t pretty. In fact, like last night’s dirty ashtray, I don’t see myself returning to this collection enthusiastically.
On the other hand it is occasionally very funny, structurally imaginative and the orchestral sampling is often mesemeric in a manner reminiscent of Moffat’s alter ego, Lucky Pierre. These gentle musical themes make a poignant contrast to Moffat’s potty mouth as he mournfully lists last night’s soiled conquests and there are glimpses of real tenderness and loss gleaming amidst the horrors of his tale.
Overall it’s a nihilistic experience. When Moffat finds himself doing a lugubrious cover of Springsteen’s ‘A Hungry Heart’, you are glad of the musical coherence. But it didn’t leave me begging for more.
Three stars? Again? For swearing. Three stars for swearing.
OK, OK. I'm about to get on a plane, so here you have it:
1. Radiohead - In Rainbows
2. Arcade Fire - Neon Bible
3. The National - Boxer
4. Wilco - Sky Blue Sky
5. LCD Soundsystem - Sound of Silver
Tough choice for third, as I actually think the Wilco album will last longer, but hey... Totally unoriginal list, but I've been out of a lot of the year. Have a great xmas.
Anthony Reynolds doesn’t like going out. In his third album, British Ballads he looks out at a world of ‘buses, cafes, people’s dead faces’ and says ‘no, no thanks’. ‘What’s the point of going out?’; well not a huge amount if it’s to experience Reynold’s gloom ridden landscape.
This singer-songwriter prefers to stay at home. He proudly announces that he doesn’t read the papers or watch TV and experiences life through the pages of his library. So far so misanthropic. The opening track to this album, however, defies expectations with its bouncing musical optimism. ‘I’ve been around but I’ve got myself nowhere’, he sings in ‘I know you know’ and there is a bittersweet edge to the way the lyrics are coupled with lush orchestration, free flowing keyboard and staccato hand claps. Reynolds has a honeyed voice which is a pleasure to listen to. It’s a shame then, that clunking lyrics and tired metaphors undermine much of the rest of the album.
‘Love feels like stealing and stealing is a crime’. What the hell does that mean? ‘The last bar on lonely street’? God no. I can see the misty eyed sincerity with which these songs were composed but the result feels heavy handed. ‘I’ve never loved like I love you’; ‘a girl and a boy’; ‘noisy city streets’; ‘I'm down and keeping count’; there are hackneyed phrases and analogies which glow radioactively at the heart of too may of these songs. The ambition is laudable but instead of perceptive social commentary, you’re left with the bed-sit sincerity of a guy who rejects the world and probably doesn’t wash himself.
The melodrama of Reynold’s vision comes complete with tolling bells and disjointed piano solos. It aspires to the painful beauty of Jeff Buckley at his most introverted but leaves me thinking instead of 80’s singer songwriters Nicks Heyward and Kershaw. There is even an inkling of the album Regeneration; the Divine Comedy at its least comedic.
The Lost Pages
New Cross four-piece The Violets have been described as having a talent for ‘Hunky Dory-esque Classic song writing’. When will they learn that racking up a new band’s tentative efforts with some of the greatest achievements of musical genius is a big height to fall from? I am happy to report that Lost Pages is 35 minutes of tightly knit and tautly paced, good music. However, the fact that the last track is entitled Nature of Obsession will come as no surprise once you’ve had a listen. I’m not so sure about 'Hunky Dory,’ but Siouxsie and the Banshees, The Cult, Yeah Yeah Yeahs and The Sisters of Mercy are all present in a shameless display of fusion-pastiche. Try listening to In the Temple of Love by the Sisters of Mercy after the Violet’s Foreo and you’ll see what I’m getting at.
I like this album; I liked the spiky persistence, the overlaid vocals and synthesizer aggression. A lot of work has clearly gone into giving the sound a convincing breadth and ensuring that each track hurries you along enthusiastically in a Goth-dyed angst of ‘Seeping rituals’, torch-lit ‘Circle[s] of red’ and Siouxsie wails . The one thing I couldn’t run away from is that the reason it sounded good, was that it had all sounded even better the first time round.
I love The National, I do. On Friday 2nd November, however, I heard them play live in Glasgow at the ABC and have to admit to being worried. Having heard a disastrous set played by the band at the Latitude festival this summer, when they arrived with no instruments and a bad mood, I was hoping Friday night would be a redeeming event.
I could blame my disappointment on the psychotic Glaswegian next to me who kept spilling his beer and attempting to snog his mate’s girlfriend or the couple in front who insisted on screaming a conversation at each other for the duration of the whole gig. But unfortunately the real cause of my uncertainty was The National’s front man, Matt Berninger. I couldn’t help thinking his voice, underplayed and lethargically seductive on the albums, feels a bit strained on stage. Competing with the great rhythmic build up of guitars, violin and percussion, I could hardly make him out and felt constantly nervous that his rasp would finally snap a vocal chord and disappear altogether. Nothing so dramatic would ever happen of course, at the end of a song he would bashfully wonder around the stage, pick up his pint and look a little overwhelmed at the crowd.
‘Fake Empire’, ‘Looking for Astronauts’, ‘Mr November’ were all fantastic with extended climactic assaults on the ear, overlaying a cacophony of drum thumping, feedback and violin screeching. Even here though I wasn’t totally convinced. The band, holding their guitars up against the amps and whacking the symbols, didn’t seem anywhere near as angry as the noise suggested, looking instead very sincere and just a little bit self conscious. It all sounded a bit like the acoustic attack unleashed by Wilco in the final, exhausting crescendo of their live set. Just a little more polite.
You owe me a debt of gratitude. In reviewing ‘BFI’, I have saved you from losing a precious forty-five minutes of your existence to the misery of phonic drivel. ‘BFI’, short for ‘Blue Forces Intelligence’ is an album by The Dragons, recorded in 1970 and released for the first time this month by Ninja Tune.
The pre-release hype describes the ‘Great Story’ that lies behind the album’s creation: The three brothers Dragon, (Doug, Daryl and Dennis) are unveiled as a trio of tripped-up surfer-dudes living in Malibu and working furiously after-hours to record their ‘psychedelic soul/ rock masterpiece’. I mean that says is all doesn’t it. If you weren’t getting the heebie-jeebies from the album title, then surely the proposal of a ‘psychedelic soul/ rock masterpiece’ sends you screaming for your Spinal Tap box set.
Anyhow, these ‘multi-instrumentalist sons of a symphony conductor and an opera singer’, have a great deal of trouble selling their album to a label. Which is strange really since you’d have thought an album as morale-crushingly average as this would have found a use in some Vietnam-era Abu Ghraib, destroying the resistance of its Viet Cong inmates.
The three DD’s get disillusioned because all these straight record execs, keep telling them their ‘spacey and weird, but also funky’ album is utter crap. They lope off into session work and, if you believe the myth, they all go on to be in the Beach Boys backing band. And ‘you can kind of hear that in their own sound’, as the press would have you believe. Yeah, ‘kind of’ being crucial to how you interpret that statement.
Then again, maybe I’m wrong and maybe it’s the reason that Brian Wilson has spent a good chunk of his life monumentally depressed, off his face on psychotropic drugs and hearing voices in his head. All of them presumably repeating, ‘Hey Brian, isn’t it strange how you can hear that way-out Dragons sound behind some of the most inspired and uplifting masterpieces of the Beach Boys?! Kind of’.
37 years later and the source of all this horror, the BFI master-tapes, lie quietly pulsating in rightful oblivion in the basement of Dennis Dragon’s home. Hidden, that is, until the day that Kev of DJ Food gives him a call and, ‘being a fan of all possible food-based puns’, asks if he can include the track ‘Food for my soul’, on a future ‘Solid Steel’ mix for Ninja tunes. And there you have it, as if at the opening of the musical Ark of the Covenant, we must look away from the eruption of screaming demons and evil sonic harpies pouring forth from the speakers. All because of a love of food-based puns.
‘BFI’, represents everything that went wrong musically in the late sixties and seventies; bloated ambition, walls of over-layered instrumentals, swelling chorals and pretentiousness disguised as a trippy careless, ease. The album reeks of musical shop-lifting with its cod-Doors allusions and could have done with a strong editorial hand in order to stop other parts sounding like a BBC sound effects tape; ‘Doctor Who/ 60’s psychedelica’. If you press me I’ll say the first two songs lead you into a false sense of security, and ‘Mercy Call’, the ninth track, does serve its purpose by providing some relief from the misery. However, other than that, the rest sounds like a struggle between Count Dracula and Austin Powers, wrestling for control of the Hammond organ.
Sifting through the compressed layers of dire lyrics on ‘BFI’ produces a few gems, but none shares the pertinence of; "I can’t believe that hate is real". Well Dragons, it is - and you too, reader, can share in this mind blowing revelation by popping on The Dragons and sampling a little of this ‘lost classic of psych-whimsy, Westcoast sexiness and serious musical chops’.
The Early Learnings Of...
Hailing from Northern Ireland (via Liverpool and London apparently, whatever that means) the 21 year old Eugene McGuinness follows hs single 'Monsters Under The Bed' with his first album, ‘The Early Learnings Of…’, on Domino's new publishing off-shoot Double Six.
Eight tracks clock in at a compact half-hour and take the listener on a brightly coloured trip through the nocturnal anxieties of McGuinness. The journey is peopled by Vampires and ‘Monsters Under The Bed’ and pleas to ‘Turn Up The radio’ and drown out the troubled voices in his head.
Sounds traumatic, but McGuinness works in the same vein of musical whimsy as label alumni The Magnetic Fields. In fact, album opener ‘High Score’ has a bouncing, bittersweet quality which mines dangerously close to former band’s particular sound. There is plenty of layering to the melodies, switching between acoustic orchestration and synthesised keyboard in a manner similar to Gulag Orkestar.
‘English Rain’ and ‘Big Issue Salesmen’ feature in McGuinness’s pitch to wrestle the title of suburban, lyrical laureates from the likes of Belle and Sebastien. In ‘Bold Street’ we veer across a streetscene of buskers and schoolboys and late-night vomit before skipping into a rendition of Twinkle-twinkle little star. The displaced, alienation of Morrissey is always in McGuinness’s sights, but there is none of the raw bite to it. Eugene is a young, middle-class, street-poet whose strolls through the city always lead him back to the comfort of his TV set, internet connection and a pot noodle. You sense his gentle, metropolitan paranoia will never take him anywhere really challenging.
Highlights like ‘Monsters Under The Bed’ and ‘A Child Lost Tesco’ seize you with their chirpy restlessness and lyrical flair. It’s all bit of a musical fairground, bright lights and ghost-trains, but you’re never in any real danger as Mc Guinness busily fills his notebook with new things to worry about.
Henham Park, Southwold, Suffolk
I have always been of the opinion that dysentery is a disease best avoided. After attending the Latitude Festival however, which took place last weekend in Henham Park, Suffolk, I realise that there may be many of you who are not so fastidious.
By all accounts last year’s festival, the first ever Latitude, was a grand affair; 10,000 people, families welcome (encouraged even), beautiful country park and good music. Seduced by this proposal I followed a group of friends up the A12 and spent four days in an authentic, if slightly more squalid recreation of an earthquake refugee camp.
I have reached a respectable age and had thus far managed to avoid ever attending a music festival. As someone who is mildly agoraphobic and plagued by an autistic need to bathe myself once a day, it may not have been a good idea to change the habit of a lifetime.
With a gleeful wringing of hands the organisers announced on the eve of kick-off that all tickets had been sold. 20,000 people this year but apparently no proportionate increase in the facilities or the size of the arenas. An excrement mountain due to an inadequate number of toilets; a complete collapse of water pressure and thus showers and overcrowding in several venues was the result. The heavens took pity and, apart from a couple of heavy showers, blessed the reeking campers with sunshine and merry weather.
Day one; It was all about Wilco. Two Gallants, Midlake, The Fields, began slowly cranking up the afternoon, but I was already worried that the weekend’s line-up which had looked so promising, might have been a bit heavy on whining and men sincerely frowning over their guitars. Now Wilco are ostensibly a band of men who frown sincerely over their guitars, but they are also schizophrenic and utterly compelling.
Before they got on stage I was bored; bored by the many children running around, bored by not being able to bring your own booze into the arena, bored by the crowds packed solidly into the comedy arena sheltering from quite a few boring performances. The Magic Numbers had bounced the audience around a bit, but I just can’t take the whole beard and siblings thing. It’s all a bit creepy, inspite of the smiley faces.
Then Wilco walked out and with a great white burn of lights, a heave of the crowd and a wall of guitars, they gave a performance to wake everybody up. I had seen them in May at Shepherd’s Bush Empire and the hour-long set they played at Latitude shared all the highlights from that night but seemed even more determined. New album ‘Sky Blue Sky’ got a good outing with storming renditions of ‘Walken’ and ‘Shake it off’. Albums ‘Yankee Hotel Foxtrot’ and ‘A Ghost Is Born’ also got their hits out; teasing the audience with their gentle melodies before snapping into trademark guitar tsunamis and feedback. Inspired.
Like a musical dose of Valium, Damien Rice must have been back-stage anxiously waiting to numb the crowd from their Wilco-induced high. His presence in this otherwise exhilarating line-up was inexplicable and who in the world stayed to listen to him I couldn’t stay - but boy, the rapturous noise they made when he’d finished echoed across the campsite. Most disturbing.
Day two; Bit of a slow builder again. Herman Dune and Bat for Lashes on the main stage competed for ‘Sound-alike of the day’. The Cretin who compared the former ‘to the likes of Bob Dylan’ should be strung up with guitar wire; this blatant Jonathan Richman tribute band are within a Nordic-facial-hair’s breadth of copyright infringement. As for ‘Bat for lashes’, again the literature describes her as having been ‘compared to Bjork, Cat Power and Tori Amos’. ‘Derivative of’ might be more accurate.
Prize for most enthusiastic performance of the festival goes to The Hold Steady’. They run on stage like a bunch of college jocks and front man Craig Finn, announces, ‘We’re the Hold Steady and we’re here to have a good time!’ It’s the last day of their tour and they are clearly over-excited. ‘Stuck between stations’, ‘Massive Night’, ‘Party Pit’ all provoke a lot of finger pointing form the crowd of forty-something-blokes enjoying some healthy man-rock and working themselves up to a belching coronary. The band strings out every guitar crescendo and look like they never want to leave. As Craig says, ‘When we started out it was so we could all meet a couple of nights a week and drink some beer. This is beyond our wildest dreams’.
If Clap Your Hands Say Yeah, who followed, had had a modicum of The Hold Steady’s energy they would have avoided my nomination for Biggest Disappointment of the weekend. As it was, my own hands were reluctant to celebrate contrived, gurney, vocals and a dull performance. If they’d played the CD’s of their two albums I’d have had a great time.
And so it was that CSS brought their balloons onto the stage of the Obelisk arena and revived a sagging day. The crowd needed relief and their vacuous dance-pop perked it up like effervescent vitamin C. ‘Let’s make love (and listen to death from above)’ closed the set. With helium in her lungs Lovefoxxx squealed out her appreciation to the audience after an hour of cat suited carnival.
The Good the Bad and the Queen had to headline I guess, but it was another strange change of tempo when they ambled on. ‘History Song’ and ‘Herculean’ are unexpectedly ballsy, in no small part due to the contributions of Clash Bassist, Paul Simonon. He takes control of the stage with loping strides and a brooding presence, plucking at his guitar and sending his deep bass across the crowd like a defibrillator. A Dickensian London backdrop and a top hat for Mr Albarn seem to court great Blakean comparisons; Songs of Innocence and Experience. And although he’s a very clever boy, Damon’s a right annoying twat with it. ‘Soldier’s Tale’ comes with a sanctimonious nod to the ‘Soldier I met who was going to Iraq’ and when he brings on MC Eslam Jawaad for the encore I’m squirming at the smug self-consciousness of it all.
When the band plays ‘80’s life’ I can’t help but think of the last Blur album, and clearly I’m not the only one musing on this. In the audience there are a lot of girls grinning. Occasionally I hear one of them shouting, ‘I want to fuck you Damon’… which suggests that something less than raging Anti-war sentiments were rousing the crowd’s passions.
Day three; My limbs are crippled, caked with filth resulting from the lack of shower facilities. An internal build up of noxious fumes as I attempt to avoid going to the toilet and asphyxiation by medieval stench when I finally do, have all left me in a bad way. So far this whole Festival bollocks is proving no substitute for a good three-hour gig at the Brixton Academy.
But that’s ok because today’s line up is looking good. I was annoyed to miss most of the Andrew Bird set after collapsing with exhaustion from my third toilet trip of the day. All this hovering above the chasm and straining is traumatizing me. What I eventually do hear sounds bewitching in the summer afternoon. The drummer, Dosh (accomplished electro-musician himself), gives fine support to Bird who provides vocals, looping violins, guitars, glockenspiel and goddam fine whistling.
Next up The National, whom I’ve been anticipating like a child waits for Christmas. But Oh No! What’s this?…. there appears to be confusion on stage. Look, there are Messrs Dessner, Dessner, Devendorf and Devendorf, but what are they doing spending so long tinkering with their instruments and sticking tape onto everything? It transpires that The National arrived at Henham Park ten minutes ago and came empty handed. None of their instruments deigned to suffer the stench of Latitude so they’re having to borrow everything off the Cold War Kids and Andrew Bird.
It shows. The band look ravaged and uneasy with their purloined Orchestra. There are great songs in there somewhere; ‘Mistaken for Strangers’ (from their latest album ‘Boxer’), ‘Karen’ (off of ‘Songs for Dirty Lovers’) and ‘Mr November’ (from ‘Alligator’) but there is no subtlety to the sound. Lyrical contributions from keyboards and violins that make the albums so symphonic and full are totally swamped by the guitars. Lines like ‘I used to be carried in the arms of a cheerleader’ or ‘The English are coming!’ should by rights swell this audience to a festival frenzy and the lead singer is trying hard. He rasps ‘I won’t fuck us over!’ with a kind of tortured mania that seems ironically relevant to the shitty day they’re having but it feels like a bit of a lost cause. Two songs from the end of this too-short set they kick into ‘Fake Empire’ and it’s almost like they get their conviction back. I get goose bumps with the rhythmic build and the crowd responds, maybe they’ve just warmed up?! Well they have, but now they’ve got to get off; ‘Thank you very much! I’m glad we got here because half an hour ago it looked like we wouldn’t make it’. I feel cheated.
The Cold War Kids do well next and The Rapture, like CSS last night, provide a poptastic interlude which the crowds devour. I sense that a lot of people are getting a bit tired of some of the slightly dour singer-song writing going on and want a sugar rush. ‘Get myself into it’ and ‘Whoo! Alright-Yeah… Uh’ do the job and you have to hand it to them, Matt Safer and Luke Jenner know how to handle their audience. They tease us by walking on and off stage, bounce off each other vocally and insist on being resiliently up beat.
Jarvis Cocker is on stage next as the sun begins to sink and if you haven’t been able to make it to the Comedy tent, Jarvis provides plenty of star cabaret. Again, however, there is the sense that everyone would probably rather be watching Pulp, just as last night they would have much preferred Blur to the drones of Damon and his crew. But Jarvis encapsulated his previous band more singularly than Damon ever did, so if you close your eyes you can almost daydream that…
‘I stand astride these two monitors like the Rock Colossus that I am’, claims the lanky one as he bemuses the crowd with surreal commentaries on the weather. He then gains our instant favour by empathising with the epic efforts required to have got this far into the Festival. ‘The world is still run by cunts’, brings his set to an end and those of us who weren’t expecting much are impressed by a run of songs which have never been less than engaging. Just as I finish clapping and start to, mentally prepare myself for the festival finale with the Arcade Fire, Jarvis reappears;
‘We were going to end there but I just want to play you one more song which I promise this band will never play again’.
‘What? A golden slice of Pulp!’, the crowd wonders eagerly, ‘Common People’, ‘Disco 2000’?!…
‘It’s called, the Eye of the Tiger’.
And so off they go. Jarvis and his band play themselves out with a sparkling cover of Eye of the Tiger and the exhausted crowd smile and cheer their appreciation.
If day one had been all about Wilco, then I guess the whole festival was really about the Sunday night headliners. I’m sure that anyone reading this would probably take the credit for introducing their friends to the Arcade Fire, probably the most exciting band in the world at present. But to find yourself in a field with 20,000 people equally convinced that the band are their own private discovery, throws you a little.
The scene is set with a great red velvet backdrop, several oversized Victorian camera props onto which are projected surreal faces in black and white and a lot of red neon. Tantalizingly the stage is covered with all manner or paraphernalia; hurdy-gurdies, cymbals and the pipes of a great organ. In the hands of an army of musicians each gets its moment in the limelight during a performance which just keeps getting better.
The husband and wife pairing of Win Butler and Regine Chassagne take it in turns to lead the way on a comprehensive journey through their two albums, Neon Bible and Funeral. From the pounding urgency of ‘No cars go’ to the swelling Mariachi trumpets of ‘Ocean of Noise’ there is no escaping the band’s persistent inventiveness and passion. Highlights were aplenty but the Bruce Springsteen coloured tracks ‘Antichrist Television Blues’ and ‘Keep the car running’ were blistering. Projected onto the backdrop was footage taken from a camera apparently embedded in the snare drum. Watching a giant drummer beating the rhythm out so relentlessly was mesmerising as the music continued to build, crescendoing in the ‘Power out’ and as a finale, ‘Rebellion (Lies)’. As the performance came to a close fireworks showered over the back of the audience and someone lit a series of paper lanterns that billowed softly up into the night sky. The band seemed just as entranced by the moment as they looked out over 20,000 arms clapping in time to the music; ‘Every time you close your eyes’ they sang but we didn’t dare.
If I’m honest I’d have to say that Butler’s voice repeatedly got lost in the roar of the music and I found myself anxious that he was straining to meet the range which his songs demanded in a live performance. Perhaps I was just distracted by the tuneless moron next to me who insisted on droning loudly and inanely along with the music: and there are a lot of opportunities to accompany the songs of the Arcade Fire with a choice bit of off-key humming.
Latitude 2007 will be the first and last festival I ever attend. Three days of crowds, camping and mountains of faeces, book ended by two fantastic performances by Wilco and the genius of Arcade Fire. If anything it has convinced me to spend a lot more time in the Shepherd’s Bush Empire enjoying whole-hearted performances by some of the great bands who were compromised by poor organisation and shorter sets. To my mind learning that may have made the whole experience worth it.
Overall experience - 2
Music in general - 3.5
Arcade fire and Wilco - 4.