Saturday, December 12, 2009

Concert Review: Depeche Mode / Soulsavers - live at the O2, Dublin


This was my first visit to the O2 (formerly known as the Point). The Point was never one of my favourite venues. Eddie Vedder commented about it on stage at a Pearl Jam gig circa 2000, when he told a long and rambling story and then said "what's the point? It's a great place to play in Dublin." But the truth is it was little more than a large warehouse with poor sound and tortuous queues for bar and toilets.

The new venue is completely opened out, which has the effect of the gig being visible (and audible) from the bar. Discovered it's way too easy to get beer. Disturbingly, they also sell buckets of popcorn, just like the cinema. That's entertainment?!

Anyway, enough of the venue and on to the music. Soulsavers were on stage when we arrived. Lanegan was wearing a suit and surrounded by musicians, there must have been more than 10 on the stage (including backing singers). The set was a mixture of their last 2 albums, solo Mark Lanegan (Hit The City and Kingdoms of Rain were highlights) and they finished with a Spacemen 3 cover, Feel So Good. They were pretty good, though would like to see them in a smaller venue - the sound in the O2 is still a bit muddy. Lanegan was his usual compelling presence, standing still at the mic stand, and the band played well, though the backing singers were a little OTT, over-'gospelly', maybe?

Depeche Mode followed up which was a completely different experience. Last time I saw them was in 1994 in the same venue when singer Dave Gahan was in his 'rock god' drug phase, and they were very impressive. They began with tracks from their most recent album, Sounds of the Universe which got an OK reception but most fans were here for the older stuff. I had forgotten how small Gahan is, he's really tiny. The sound was too polished for my liking, it was hard to pick out the instruments, it just sounded like one mass globule of sound. Maybe that was deliberate?

Anyway they rolled out many of the 'classics' - A Question of Time, Personal Jesus, Walking In My Shoes, and both Gahan and Martin Gore were in fine voice, but the experience was a little like watching a video or listening to a CD. Perhaps the venue was too big for me? One of the songs they played was Miles Away. It felt like it.

Have to have a word about the merchandise: €70 for a Depeche Mode hoodie was almost as amusing as the popcorn sellers!

Thursday, December 10, 2009

Top 30 of the Decade: 10-1

10. THE NATIONAL – Sad Songs for Dirty Lovers (2003)
This is the album where the National really established their sound. It begins with the brooding Cardinal Song, then moves into more upbeat tracks like Slipping Husband, before letting rip on highpoint Available where the guitars are turned up and singer Matt Berninger is reduced to screaming at the end of the song.

9. INTERPOL – Turn on the Bright Lights (2002)
Yes, it’s heavily influenced by Joy Division and late 70s/early 80s bands. But the band just get it so right. A lot of it is quite atmospheric (Untitled, Hands Away, Leif Erikson) but it also contains its fair share of anthems like Obstacle #1 and PDA. They tried for the rest of the decade to live up to this but didn’t quite manage it.

8. THE NATIONAL – Alligator (2005)
A great progression from Sad Songs for Dirty Lovers, the album is full of great songs like Karen, Lit Up and emotional songs like The Geese of Beverley Road. Most of the songs are downtempo, dominated by Matt Berninger’s baritone but also featuring great guitar work. You either buy into this or you don’t. It’s essentially a drinking album for those of us with a past…

7. QUEENS OF THE STONE AGE – Songs for the Deaf (2002)
A chaotic collection of metal, hard rock and heavy blues. It’s driven by Josh Homme but there’s a great mix of his songs and others sung by Mark Lanegan and screamed by Nick Olivieri. The songs are punctuated by snatches of radio which can be a little annoying, but at it’s best it’s driving rock that demands to be listened to.

6. EDDIE VEDDER – Into the Wild OST (2007)
On a personal level, this is the album I’ve been waiting for some time. I’ve always felt that Eddie Vedder had a way with a slow song and in my opinion he delivers them with pathos, along the lines of Bruce Springsteen. I’d love to hear Vedder’s version of Springsteen’s Nebraska album. While this is not the most varied collection it perfectly invokes Jon Krakauer’s novel.

5. SONIC YOUTH – Rather Ripped (2006)
This is the album where Sonic Youth left noise behind and turned in an album full of really good songs. Even Kim Gordon was somewhat tamed on this album which turns the noise down but the guitars up. The album is just great song after great song, many of which I feel justified in calling anthems.

4. RYAN ADAMS – Love Is Hell (2003)
On this album Ryan Adams largely left alt-country behind and recorded album of rainy day mid-tempo downbeat anthems, drawing on The Smiths, Radiohead, Lloyd Cole and even Prince. Lost Highway did their best to sabotage it – they didn’t feel it had commercial appeal so they asked him to try again (he came back with Rock N Roll, possibly his weakest effort) and released Love Is Hell is 2 separate EPs. However a few months later the released it ‘as the artist originally’ intended, as one album. It hangs together well as an album, apart from his stripped down version of Oasis’ Wonderwall, a series of slightly mopey songs for those days when your nerve endings are a little frayed.

3. SUN KIL MOON – April (2008)
A great return to form for Mark Kozelek, who had got bogged down earlier in the decade with cover albums. This one is a great mix of acoustic guitar led ballads ie Lucky Man, Unlit Hallway, which features a nice touch of banjo and the beautiful Blue Orchids; and electric guitar workouts, the best of which being the 10 minute long Tonight the Sky which is very self-indulgent but also very good. It won’t convert a new generation of fans, but it definitely pleased this loyal fan.

2. THE NATIONAL – Boxer (2007)
The first thing that struck me with this album is they appear to have made the musical arrangements more complex. Everything from the guitar, bass, piano, drums and the brass featured on the album avoids the obvious route which works to the benefit of the songs. It’s not a huge departure from Alligator but the songs are exceptionally strong. Of the faster ones, Mistaken for Strangers, Brainy and Slow Show are very strong but the heart of the album for me is the last 4 tracks, which are mostly slow.

1. MARK LANEGAN BAND – Bubblegum (2004)
Lanegan probably had the most diverse career of the decade, with a plethora of collaborations, but this album showed his talents to the full. His great strength is that wonderful deep, gravelly voice, which dominates any of his songs. What was great about Bubblegum is it signalled a departure from previous solo albums, which are all kind of blues-folk in nature. This album also had some ‘blues-folk’ but mixed it up with some heavier tracks and also featured samples and electronics. It was as if the collaborative work he had been doing rubbed off. Some of the highlights are: Hit the City, a driving duet with PJ Harvey, the slinky Wedding Dress and emotional highlight One Hundred Days.

Top 30 albums of the Decade: 30-11

So here goes. In a month’s time this list could look a lot different:

30. LOW – The Great Destroyer (2005)
29. ISOBEL CAMPBELL & MARK LANEGAN – Ballad of the Broken Seas (2006)
28. JOHNNY CASH – Solitary Man: American Recordings III (2000)
27. TINDERSTICKS – Waiting for the Moon (2003)
26. RYAN ADAMS – 29 (2005)
25. RICHMOND FONTAINE – Post to Wire (2004)
24. SONIC YOUTH – Murray Street (2002)
23. ROBERT FORSTER – The Evangelist (2008)
22. RADIOHEAD – In Rainbows (2007)
21. QUEENS OF THE STONE AGE – Rated R (2000)
20. THURSTON MOORE – Trees Outside the Academy (2007)
19. SOULSAVERS – Broken (2009)
18. MORRISSEY – You Are The Quarry (2004)
17. THE GO-BETWEENS – Oceans Apart (2005)
16. STUART A. STAPLES – Leaving Songs (2006)
15. RADIOHEAD – Kid A (2000)
14. DOVES – Lost Souls (2000)
13. DAKOTA SUITE – Signal Hill (2000)
12. AMERICAN MUSIC CLUB – Love Songs for Patriots (2004)
11. SONIC YOUTH – Sonic Nurse (2004)

Top 10 to follow

Top 10 of 2009: 5-1

5: Richmond Fontaine – We Used To Think The Freeway Sounded Like A River

Now that the aforementioned Morrissey has renounced unwieldy song titles, Richmond Fontaine have ‘stepped up to the plate.’ Here’s my review:

http://sacredcowpats.blogspot.com/2009/09/review-richmond-fontaine-we-used-to.html

4: Pearl Jam - Backspacer

I love Pearl Jam. Well, it’s probably the idea of Pearl Jam I love more than the actuality, but I love what I think they are. They are like the last, old-school bit rock band who are ok to like. Their last few albums had been somewhat patchy, but Eddie Vedder released a solo album soundtrack to Into the Wild 2 years ago where he absolutely nailed the essence of the film. It made me wonder why he hadn’t released a quieter album years ago.

Anyway, enough of that, Backspacer was billed as the ‘Pearl Jam having fun again’ album. They sound ‘alive’ (boom boom) and revitalised on the faster numbers, but the slower ones are generally more memorable. Not just the wonderful Just Breathe, an acoustic ballad with strings in the vein of Into the Wild, but also the mid-paced Speed of Sound, a kind of slow-burning anthem which only a band like Pearl Jam could pull off. The final track, appropriately named The End is almost a little much, but Vedder’s vocal, where his voice almost cracks, makes the hairs on the back of my neck stand out. The final line of the song “I’m here, but not much longer” is a downbeat note to end on. Some have interpreted it as the end for Pearl Jam??

Note: the album also came with a code which gives access to 2 full concert downloads, which is nice touch for the rabid fans.

3: Mark Eitzel – Klamath

Mr American Music Club’s latest album was almost entirely created using his laptop and a guitar. It sounds very insubstantial when you hear it first, and drifts by almost unnoticed. But I’ve come to the conclusion that it’s the slowburner of the year. Given time the songs (as opposed to the 2 instrumentals) gradually reveal themselves. Blood on My Hands is a strong, self-deprecated waltz, while I Live In This Place is classic Eitzel, with the memorable line “I know I’ll be doing this for the rest of my life” (here’s hoping). Why I’m Bullshit is another strong track, which is a little more self-flagellation from Eitzel. All of the above would be tiresome except for the fact that the music is generally very strong. His vocals are a little low in the mix, would be great to hear him more prominently (a la his live shows) but after a few haphazard electronic experiments, he appears to have finally mastered it with this album.


2: Sonic Youth – The Eternal

Sonic Youth’s albums of this decade are arguably up there with their strongest work. Advancing years seems to suit them. The Eternal is a strong collection of songs, probably a little heavier than the likes of Sonic Nurse and Rather Ripped but no real noisy freak-outs. Kim gets her quota of songs, with mixed results (God bless her she likes to shout), but she’s a little more tuneful on Malibu Gas Station (which reminds me of Juliana Hatfield of all people) and Massage the History. Thurston chips in with some strong songs, the best of which being Antenna, while Lee’s 2 tracks – What We Know and Walkin Blue are among the strongest on the album.

1: Soulsavers - Broken

See my previous review:

http://sacredcowpats.blogspot.com/2009/10/review-soulsavers-broken.html

Tuesday, December 8, 2009

Top 10 of 2009: 10-6

In my view, not a vintage year for music. I’ll get deeper into this when I scribble up my albums of the decade. Nevertheless here are my albums of 2009:

10: David Sylvian – Manafon


9: Iggy Pop – Preliminaires

A bizarre little album which saw Iggy abandon punk-rock and write contemplative songs and spoken word pieces, some inspired by the writer Michel Houllebecq which mostly used a muted, jazz-tinged backing. It’s in a similar vein to 1999’s Avenue B, though more pretentious and ultimately less successful. I could have lived without Iggy crooning in French on Les Feuilles Mortes (repeated twice on the album). The album feels more like a soundtrack with musical motifs recurring over different tracks on the album.

8: Them Crooked Vultures – Them Crooked Vultures

Have only just got hold of this and I suspect if I’d heard it months ago it’s be higher up the list. For those who don’t know this is a collaboration between Josh Homme (Queens of the Stone Age), Dave Grohl (Foo Fighters) and John Paul Jones (ex-Led Zeppelin). And it rocks its considerable socks off. It’s a little daunting listening to this, 13 tracks, some of which are 7 minutes long. If it had been trimmed down it could have been really great. It’s very much driven by Homme, but at it’s best (Dead End Friends) it’s fat-free, straight down the line rock in a QOTSA vein. Scumbag Blues invokes Cream in their prime (a good thing), while on Bandoliers, Homme does his best Mark Lanegan impersonation to terrific effect. Not so successful is the Led Zep like Elephants with its shifting time signatures, it comes across as excessive and bloated. It’s a little exhausting listening to all of it. 8 four minute tracks would have been superb.

7: Alice in Chains – Black Gives Way to Blue

Now this is a surprise. On paper it really shouldn’t work. How dare they release another album without Layne! However, this album is dominated by guitarist and co-vocalist Jerry Cantrell, who clearly had a bigger influence on their sound than I realised in the 90s. Indeed, it’s as if this album is a natural progression from 1995’s self-titled album (their last studio album with Layne). Replacement William DuVall by no means embarrasses himself and fits in seamlessly, especially on the heavier numbers like All Secrets Known and Check My Brain. The slower numbers are a little embarrassing, mostly sung by Cantrell, they come across as clich├ęd grunge ballads. Still, not a bad effort.

6: Morrissey – Years of Refusal

All the hype in advance of this album said that it would be Morrissey’s best effort yet. I should’ve known that this would set me up for a fall. The single (Morrissey still believes in singles, and is prone to complaining on stage when the local record shops don’t stock his) I’m Throwing My Arms Around Paris is wonderful, and his voice has seldom been in better shape. Unfortunately the rest of the album doesn’t follow in this vein. The music is busy, there’s almost too much going on, between Spanish guitars, mariachi horns (and that’s just one song) and a lot of heavy guitars, which leaves our hero straining to keep up. The songs are still Morrissey songs, which makes them pretty strong, but there are too many forgettable ones to make it a real classic. Some of the songs are a bit Morrissey-by-numbers (I’m OK By Myself). Having said all that, he remains a great singer and a good songwriter, but I think he needs to keep the band out of the studio and experiment a little. Just allow his songs to breathe.

Review of the Decade - Part 5: RIP

Layne Staley: 22nd August 1967 – 5th April 2002
There was a depressing inevitability about Layne’s death. As the singer with ‘grunge’ band Alice in Chains, he had struggled with heroin addiction for many years, indeed wrote about it openly on their 1992 album Dirt. He had retreated from the spotlight in his latter years, his last high profile appearance was on MTV Unplugged in 1996 where he appeared to be struggling. He was found two weeks after his death, when police broke into his apartment. Cause of death was adjudged to be an overdose. He contributed vocals and lyrics to all of Alice in Chains albums in the 1990s. Strangely the band reformed in 2008 with a replacement singer, William DuVall. It’s worth checking out the album Dirt, if you like their heavier side, or Jar of Flies for moodier acoustic music.

Nina Simone: 21st February 1933 – 12th January 2003
Nina Simone died of breast cancer in 2003. A giant of the jazz/blues scene, she had not recorded for 10 years or so, yet has a strong body of work which belongs in anyone’s music collection. Hard to distil her career down into highlights, but Feeling Good will probably become her signature tune. A comprehensive ‘best of’ is definitely worth seeking out.

Johnny Cash: 26th February 1932 – 12th September 2003
Cash died in 2003 four months after his wife. While best known for country music, his deep voice and black apparel caused him to be adopted by younger followers in the mid-90s, when he recorded a series of stripped-down, largely acoustic albums known as the American Recordings, which interspersed original songs with unusual covers of artists like Beck, Depeche Mode, Nine Inch Nails and Soundgarden.

Elliott Smith: 6th August 1969 – 21st October 2003
Primarily known for guitar-based acoustic music, Elliott Smith recorded a series of albums in the 1990s and early 2000s. Earlier albums were largely acoustic, though later albums saw him achieve a degree of success and an Oscar nomination with a more-fleshed out sound. He did however struggle with depression and drug addiction, and took his life in 2003.

Grant McLennan: 12th February 1958 – 6th May 2006
Played in the Go-Betweens, main songwriter and guitarist along with Robert Forster. His songs tended to be more upbeat than Forster’s, and generally had a more commercial sound (though little commercial success). The band released several albums in the 1980s but split in 1990. He released solo albums in the 90s before regrouping with Forster in 1999 for 3 further Go-Betweens albums. The band’s reunion was brought to an abrupt end due to McLennan’s death of a heart attack.

Ron Asheton: 17th July 1948 – 6th January 2009

See previous entry: http://sacredcowpats.blogspot.com/2009/02/ron-asheton-rip.html

John Martyn: 11th September 1948 – 29th January 2009
John Martyn had a long musical career from the late 60s till the 2000s, with his albums straddling folk, jazz and blues and a slurred vocal style. His 1973 album Solid Air contained his best-known songs, the title track (a tribute to Nick Drake) and May You Never. Much of his work was experimental as he explored ambient sounds, however alcohol and drugs became the ruin of him. He was forced to have his right leg amputated in 2004 and died in 2009 of double pneumonia.

Monday, December 7, 2009

Concert Review: Sonic Youth – live at Vicar Street 6th December 2009


Finally fulfilled my long-held desire to Sonic Youth live last night! (Shock horror! Concert review appears on time!) Had previously been to a Thurston Moore solo gig 2 years ago which was seriously good, so this had a fair bit to live up to.

Got a bit delayed on the way there so missed the support act. It was a seriously packed gig, no room to move, with an interesting mix of people – purple-haired weirdo – check! Guy who looked like Thurston Moore’s son – check! Incongruous person you wouldn’t expect to find there – check! (author Roddy Doyle)

The band came on and pretty much blew my socks off. The set was dominated by tracks from recent album The Eternal, which for the most part were improved upon live. The sound was seriously powerful, I suppose that’s what results from 3 people playing guitar at the same time. Kim Gordon was centre-stage, bawling out numbers with her usual ‘attitude’. There seems to be a distorted Dorian Gray thing going on with the band, Kim, Thurston Moore and Steve Shelley look a lot younger than the 50 years that they must be at this stage, but Lee Ranaldo looks almost a generation older with his grey, almost white hair. Thurston had the ‘rock star’ poses off to a tee, which he managed to pull off despite being about six and a half feet tall. Watching him playing guitar was never short of excitement, with Lee and Kim also ‘giving it loads’. Some of the Eternal album tracks which hadn’t previously grabbed me sounded superb live, especially Calming the Snake, which was very powerful with its giant riff and Kim’s chaotic vocals.

It wasn’t easy to discern much vocals with the guitar assault, and Lee in particular was hard to make out. Conversely, his 2 songs, What We Know and Walkin Blue were some of the stronger songs of the night. The rhythm section, Steve on drums and Mark Ibold looking like an overgrown schoolboy on bass gave sterling support. There were a few older tracks thrown in, mostly their older 80s material like Tom Violence.

They finished with Kim’s long drawn out Massage the History before returning to do a couple of songs off Daydream Nation and then finally ending with the nihilistic Death Valley ’69 which always disturbs and charms in equal measure.

It was great to see a band who, despite being around more than 25 years, have unmistakably got what it takes live. Watching and listening to a really noisy, loud, life-affirming bands is one of the most exhilarating musical experiences this music fan can have. Long may they continue to be both a creative and powerful force, on CD and on stage.

Friday, December 4, 2009

Review of the Decade - Part 4: Splits

The Screaming Trees called it a day in 2000. They had begun recording a follow-up to 1996’s Dust but there was no interest from any record company. After a 15 year career where they moved from a punky sound to a more classic rock sound in the 90s, they provided a vehicle for Mark Lanegan to refine his vocal talents. Accompanied by the Conner brothers and Mark Pickerel on drums, they recorded 7 albums, the best of which being the aforementioned Dust and 1992’s Sweet Oblivion. Pickerel tired of the notorious infighting in the group (who often brawled on stage) and left in 1992 to pursue other musical projects, with Barrett Martin replacing him.

While never approaching anything like a ‘hit’, the track Nearly Lost You featured on the Singles soundtrack which saw the band lumped in with ‘grunge’, as they hailed from Ellensburg, near Seattle. Interestingly Josh Homme had been playing live with them, would have been great to have heard how he would fitted in with the band on an album. Lanegan went on to a solo career punctuated by collaborations, Van Conner plays with Valis, Gary Lee Conner lives in Texas while Barrett Martin became a Zen monk and artist.

Red House Painters had in truth been over for some time, as their final album, Old Ramon was recorded in 1998 but due to record company politics wasn't released till 2001. The band had evolved into a vehicle for Mark Kozelek, though he dissolved it after this album and re-emerged, with RHP drummer Anthony Koutsos in tow, as Sun Kil Moon.

16 Horsepower was the bible-driven, fire and brimstone preacher band of David Eugene Edwards, who released what I would consider to be modern Goth, in a similar vein to Nick Cave. Latter albums emphasised the moodier side of the band, getting away from stomping anthems and they split in 2005, leaving Edwards to concentrate on his new project Woven Hand.

Arab Strap were a Scottish duo who specialised in sordid tales of drinking, misogyny and squalor over moody, sometimes acoustic backing accompanied by electronic beats. There was only so many times they could continue this formula without repeating themselves and they split in 2006, with Malcolm Middleton releasing solo albums and Aidan Moffat recording under the name Lucky Pierre.

Review of the Decade - Part 3: The truly strange

In 2000, Mark Kozelek broke a near on 4 year silence to put out a 7 song mini-album, Rock n Roll Singer, which featured 3 ACDC songs done in his own stripped down acoustic style. Not content with that, the following year he put out a whole album of ACDC songs, What’s Next to the Moon. He proved himself to be the king of cover versions in the ‘noughties’ as in 2005 he released an album of Modest Mouse covers (Tiny Cities) under his Sun Kil Moon bandname.

Mark Eitzel went from returning from a 3 year silence with an album of electronica (2001’s Invisible Man) to a dreadful album of covers (2002’s Music for Courage and Confidence), then an album of his songs recorded with a Greek orchestra (2003’s Ugly American), reformed American Music Club in 2004 as mentioned earlier, returned to electronica on 2005’s Candy Ass (terrible title), brought out another band album in 2008 and finally nailed electronica on 2009’s Klamath.

Lou Reed recorded an album of spoken word and songs based on Edgar Allan Poe – The Raven, which was available as a single or double album.

David Sylvian left melodic pop behind with his ‘difficult’ solo albums Blemish and Manafon, though his collaborative Nine Horses project was a little more accessible.

Review of the Decade - Part 2: Reformations

The Go-Betweens kicked off a trend of bands reforming in 2000. The Go-Betweens had sat out the 90s, leaving Robert and Grant to release solo albums. When The Friends of Rachel Worth came out in 2000, it signified a rebirth for the band, not aping former glories but peddling a brand of world wise melodies which easily stood up with previously released material. After 2 more strong albums (Bright Yellow, Bright Orange and Oceans Apart) the band came to an abrupt end with the passing of Grant McLennan.

American Music Club also (improbably) reformed in 2004. The Love Songs for Patriots album contained a number of great Eitzel songs and bettered any of his solo albums, which served only to prove that he needed the band more than he thought! The band reformed without steel guitar player Bruce Kaphan, and for the follow-up album, The Golden Age, which was a lot smoother-sounding, the only 2 original members were Mark Eitzel and Vudi. Eitzel has continued to put out solo albums also, but the band still appears to be a going concern. Which is a good thing.

The Lemonheads reformed in name but in reality was just Evan Dando plus assorted guests. Their self-titled album in 2006 was a little punkier than their 90s albums and contained some pretty good songs, along with some fairly indistinctive ones, but for the most part it worked. Unfortunately Dando went and blew it all with a pretty useless follow-up album, Varshons, which consisted of some pretty bizarre (in a bad way) covers.

Tindersticks went on a short-term hiatus after 2003’s Waiting for the Moon, during which time singer Stuart Staples (or as he calls himself Stuart ‘A’ Staples) released a couple of solo albums. These didn’t differ greatly from Tindersticks, a little more stripped-down, but dominated by Stuart’s morose croon. 3 of the 6 members of the band regrouped for 2008’s The Hungry Saw which is every bit as good as previous albums, and plans are in place for another album, Falling Down a Mountain, early next year.

Most bizarrely of all, given the untimely death of singer Layne Staley, Alice In Chains reformed with a new singer, William DuVall, and released an album, Black Gives Way to Blue in 2009. And the funny thing is the album sounds like it could have been released a year or two after 1995’s self-titled album. The combination of DuVall and guitarist Jerry Cantrell’s vocals are incredibly close to the Staley/Cantrell combination of before, which is really quite odd when you think about it. Many of the heavier tracks (All Secrets Knowns and Check My Brain) stand up well against the older material, though the slower, less heavy material is a little dull. Word is that pop-grunge kings Stone Temple Pilots, who reformed for touring purposes in 2008 are recording an album, let’s hope it’s not an embarrassment.

Wednesday, December 2, 2009

Review of the Decade - Part 1: New names

Here I go then, jumping on the end of decade/best of articles, just like everyone else. Here is a snapshot of new bands in this decade.

The older I get the less easily I discover new music, but the early part of this decade threw up a few. Doves released their debut, Lost Souls in 2000, a welcome dose of widescreen Manchester misery, following in the downtrodden footsteps of Joy Division and the Smiths. In a similar vein, Elbow released their debut, Asleep in the Back in 2001. Though Doves’ album was the more impressive, by the end of the decade it was Elbow who had gained the plaudits, helped in no small way by their Mercury Prize win in 2008. In my view neither has surpassed their debut, indeed, Doves’ subsequent albums seemed to consciously move away from it.

On the Irish front, David Kitt emerged in 2000 with a series of low key, goose-bump inducing gigs and a wonderful mini-album, Small Moments, showcasing his soft vocals, acoustic guitar and electronic beats. Subsequent albums (and gigs) went for a bigger sound, and ultimately diminishing returns. Word is that he is playing with Tindersticks now.

Gemma Hayes’s debut album Night on my Side was an interesting blend of Nick Drake-esque acoustic folk and rougher pop with shades of My Bloody Valentine. Unfortunately the record company got hold of her and airbrushed any roughness out of her music, and her follow-up albums concentrated on smooth pop, much less endearing.

Mark Kozelek junked his Red House Painters band name and re-emerged under the name Sun Kil Moon. It wasn’t a major departure from RHP, though it did give him the freedom to be even more indulgent, with long-drawn out Crazy Horse style rockers and pretty acoustic tracks on the albums Ghost of Great Highway and April. His songwriting remained as strong as ever, which is why it was somewhat of a surprise to hear his cover album of Modest Mouse tracks, Tiny Cities. I guess it can be filed alongside his ACDC cover albums.

Mark Lanegan evolved from tortured solo artist to serial collaborator. Apart from 2 solo albums, he also found time to guest on Queens of the Stone Age albums, record 2 albums of largely folky tracks with Isobel Campbell, collaborate with Greg Dulli as the Gutter Twins, and interestingly appear as lead vocalist on 2 albums by electronica duo Soulsavers. His singing remains as strong as ever, irrespective of the backing, truly a great voice of the decade.

The National began life in 2001 with an unremarkable country-tinged self-titled album. Happily, this template was blown out of the water by 2003’s Sad Songs for Dirty Lovers. The title says everything to me about their music, describing it a lot better than I can. While they have been compared with Tindersticks, Morrissey and other ‘miserabilists’, singer Matt Berninger proved a more varied vocalist on this album, letting rip on a couple of songs. They fine-tuned this further again on the follow ups, Alligator and Boxer. In my view, best new band of the decade.

The Strokes got a lot of attention for their debut, 2001’s Is This It, which distilled a New York attitude, reminding many of Television’s Marquee Moon. And pretty damn good it was too, 11 shortish songs delivered in half an hour. Their follow up albums didn’t quite deliver on the first. It was a similar story with Interpol – Turn on the Bright Lights, their debut released in 2002 was a great collection of songs, drawing heavily on Joy Division. They also spawned a series of imitators of the imitators (Editors, Boy Division, can’t believe it’s not Ian Curtis… ok I made the last 2 up but they’ll probably mean more than the bands who did actually surface).

After the demise of alt-country band Whiskeytown, Ryan Adams launched his solo career with the critically acclaimed Heartbreaker. He spent the decade recording and releasing as many albums in as many different styles as he could, some brilliant (Love Is Hell, 29), others less so (Rock N Roll). Although he was inclined to annoy with his interviews, erratic live shows and general attention-seeking, he has proved himself above all else to be a talented songwriter.

Woven Hand sprung from the ashes of 16 Horsepower. While not a huge departure, if 16 Horsepower were fire and brimstone, Woven Hand were burning embers for the most part. It sounds like it shouldn’t work, essentially Bible bashing Goth with Americana overtones but it does. Their self-titled debut set the template for future albums, all in a similar vein.

Towards the end of the decade, Peter Broderick emerged from the shadow of Efterklang, releasing beautifully crafted albums of alternately classical and acoustic music, though I suspect the next decade will see him release something definitive.

Friday, November 20, 2009

Concert Review: Mark Kozelek - Andrews Lane, Dublin, July 2009


Catching up with my concert reviews again! We had previously seen Mark Kozelek last year with his wonderful band Sun Kil Moon. It was a full band show, the sound was wonderful and the band evoked Crazy Horse in their prime with long drawn-out indulgent numbers.

This time it was just Kozelek solo, with a guitar. Anybody who's seen him before knew what to expect, and he was no different this time. He treated us to solo versions of mainly Sun Kil Moon songs (Blue Orchids in particular being a highpoint), while staying away for the most part from Red House Painters songs, barring one or two of their less celebrated songs. His voice as usual was treated with masses of reverb, which was disconcerting for a few first-timers I ran into.

He played a couple of new songs which were met with rapturous applause, after which he said "it wasn't THAT good". His between song chatter was, as usual, dripping with attitude. It's as if he has to be like that otherwise people would mistake him for a sensitive soul considering how emotive many of his songs can be. He also found time to pay tribute to Michael Jackson, playing I'll Be There in his own inimitable style, where he takes a song and transforms it into his own acoustic style.

Enjoyable, though not for the uninitiated.

Concert Reviews: Morrissey – April/May 2009


I’ve had a long history of listening to Morrissey, ever since I discovered the Smiths in the 1980s. Although he’s playing in Dublin next Monday, I can’t justify shelling out to see him again, having seen him twice in 2 provinces in Ireland this year!

Despite his disappointing Years of Refusal album, I eagerly headed west to Leisureland in Salthill to see Morrissey live once again. On approaching the venue we were met with the overwhelming smell of… chlorine! (Leisureland has an amusement park, gym and swimming pool on the premises). The venue was a bit rough and ready but we were not disappointed by the band, though they absolutely bludgeoned through the opening song, This Charming Man. Most of the songs were rendered in a semi-rockabilly style, which worked excellently on all the rest of the songs.

Predictably, Morrissey was adored by all and sundry. Not for him the old “I am sick and I am dull and I am plain”, he’s quite fond of himself these days, and it shows. The highpoint of this was when during ‘Let Me Kiss You’ he opens his shirt and removes it at the point when he sings “and then you open your eyes and see someone you physically despise”. Theatre in the extreme, yet it works. The set was sprinkled with a few Smiths classics, apart from This Charming Man they played How Soon Is Now, Girlfriend In a Coma, Ask and Some Girls Are Bigger Than Others.

Morrissey’s voice is in fine form these days, and really shined on the slower songs like Seasick, Yet Docked. I was lucky enough to get to go to Belfast a couple of days later. The venue this time was in the Waterfront which was a lot posher! The set was similar though it was great to see him again. Later that night we had a few drinks in the hotel bar and ran into Boz Boorer, guitarist and collaborator with Morrissey. As we were heading to bed that night at about 4am, he teased us, calling us lightweights!

Making Lists and Ranking Music – Sad or Sound?

Around this time of year, magazines and websites heavily feature music lists, discussing albums of the year and the like. It’s especially prevalent this year as we examine album of the decade etc. But the question is : is the concept of ranking music fundamentally flawed? Who is to decide that, for example, Gillian Welch is ‘better’ than Interpol?

In my view it’s a question of mood. It might seem obvious, but the albums that suit a winter’s evening seldom work on a Friday in summer. Also psychological factors come into play, sometimes one might listen to celebratory music but other times we need something to give us solace from the desperation we feel. Different albums to do these disparate jobs.

The concept of ‘star rankings’ or marks out of 10 for albums is slightly different. The reasons for giving Gillian Welch 8 out of 10 will differ from giving Interpol 4 stars out of 5. However what’s important in my view is getting a high or low score, far too many reviews award the ‘on the fence’ score of 3 stars out of 5. What does this tell as about the reviewers opinion? That he or she didn’t notice the album playing? Or if they did, that it didn’t move them in any way? Doesn’t the most innocuous, inoffensive music actually fail completely due to its inoffensiveness?? (It should be noted that none of my reviews contain ratings – double copout by me?)

Anyway, back to list-making. I have to be honest and say that, allowing for my previous reservations, I love reading these meaningless music lists. Checking through the Top 50 and seeing which albums I own, looking for vindication, and identifying the overrated perennials. The lists also act as a reminder of overlooked gems which I already own, but haven’t listened to in a while, and also a signpost of future purchases.

All this article is really doing is making a long-winded excuse for me to predictably follow every other magazine and website and list my personal favourites of 2009, and also of the decade. I can feel the internet buzzing with anticipation.

Thursday, November 19, 2009

Concert Review: Mark Eitzel in the Village, Dublin - 11th November 2009


I'm shocked and ashamed to discover that this is my first Eitzel/AMC related post on this blog. I'd better come clean and admit that I have been a fan of American Music Club for 10-15 years and happen to think Mr. Eitzel is a bit of a genius. Or some might say, sad b**t**d music.

Was really and truly in the mood for this gig. I'm enjoying his latest album, Klamath which is very much framed by electronics (more about this in a future post). This gig promised to be a rather different affair, as it featured just him and a piano player (Marc Capelle?).

It was a dark, November rainy night, perfect for this gig. The Guinness was flowing and anticipation was high. The support was a fairly nondescript guy playing guitar, but Mark followed shortly afterwards. He was in fine voice, starting off with 'I Left My Heart in San Francisco' which set the mood quite nicely. The music was great, but the inter-song rambling was equally entertaining, though he seemed to have gaybashing on his mind (!) as he swigged his pint of lager. It was heartening how well his guitar-based songs transferred to just him and a piano. One great song after another followed, some of the highlights were Myopic Books, Last Harbour and the newer songs - Blood On My Hands and I Live In This Place, which stood up well amongst the classics.

Thankfully he came back out and did 2 more songs, the last of which he introduced as wanting the audience to go home happy and have the best sex of their lives. Then he said 'this is a song about my mother who died of cancer,' and played Nightwatchman.

I was really and truly, charmed. One sad aspect, which was commented on elsewhere but needs to be repeated here, is that there was a table right in the middle in front of the stage which had a 'Reserved' sign on it. Nobody sat at it.

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Concert Review: Hope Sandoval at Vicar Street in Dublin


For once, this was a gig I wasn't particularly looking forward to. It took place on Halloween night, which meant braving Dublin city centre on a Saturday night, not something I'm fond of.

The gig was relatively full, which surprised me a little. The support band were exactly what you would expect sound-wise, very mellow and country tinged, though not bad. They were called Dirt Blue Jeans, though somebody said later they looked more like refugees from Almost Famous!

In fact, the support band was made up of members of Hope's band, the Warm Inventions (who played the first song with Halloween masks!). The gig failed to spark really. Hope Sandoval looked the part but she refused to engage with the audience and spent much of the gig not even looking at the audience. The music was very same-y, mellow, drifting along quite pleasantly. However the set was dominated by her new album (Through the Devil Softly), which doesn't grab me very much, with very few standout tracks at all.

She spent most of her time studiously ignoring the audience while intermittently bashing away at a xylophone (quite good actually) but the whole thing left me cold. Though I must admit, I was in the minority. I had hoped that seeing her live might pull me into the album, but it hasn't happened.

Monday, October 26, 2009

Album Review: The Go-Betweens - The Friends of Rachel Worth


This is the first of the Go-Betweens reunion albums. Released in 2000, it finds Robert Forster and Grant McLennan (RIP) backed by the band Sleater-Kinney, who I am not really familiar with.

The material is generally mellower than their 80s material but it does contain some trademark jangly guitars and some very wistful numbers. Grant was always the poppier songwriter, and so it follows here, the album opening with his Magic in Here. Anchored by a brittle yet beautifully constructed riff, it ambles along nicely before leading into Robert's wonderful Spirit. It has a simple but utterly addictive guitar figure powering this mellow, elder-statesman like song. The flamboyant Robert Forster persona of yore has been replaced by a world-weary, wistful storyteller, and it suits him well.

2 more uptempo tracks follow, where the guitars have been beefed up a little, particularly on German Farmhouse, which is a Lou Reed-like rocker talking of his years of seclusion(!).

Most of the rest of the material is mellower though in general more downbeat than their previous material. It still contains 'sunshine', though it's more like winter sun breaking over a frosty landscape.

It's a very pleasant listen which should appeal to fans of the band and any new listeners wondering if they should check them out. Yes you should.

Album Review: Soulsavers - Broken


Mark Lanegan has become the king of collaborators. This is his 2nd collaboration with electronica duo the Soulsavers (and their 3rd album). Their last was surprisingly successful, so this was a tough act to follow.

The album kicks off with a beautiful piano-led piece, The Seventh Proof, before crashing into the most uptempo track, Death Bells. This is a kind of standard-issue Lanegan rocker, searing along nicely with Lanegan singing like his life depended on it. Following this is the real meat of the album.

Unbalanced Pieces is a slow-burning, loping track which bops along nicely in the manner of Paper Money from their previous album but then kicks into a great melodic chorus, driven by female backing vocals. Following this is the desolate You'll Miss Me When I Burn, a cover of a Palace Brothers song. Lanegan delivers the performance of his life delivering lines like "when you have noone, noone can hurt you" over a sad piano backing.

Some Misunderstanding follows, a Guy Clark cover with again a wonderful vocal from Mark Lanegan. He sounds bruised and beaten, yet the overall effect is life-affirming and uplifting.

The next 4 songs are also Lanegan-sung and all the better for it. Each one of them would be a standout on a different album, and each one is heavy with emotive power. Shadows Fall, for example is a soaring string-led song with exquisite backing vocals which takes a sharp left towards the end of the track into another fantastic melody. The melodies on this album are in general stronger than those on their previous album, It's Not How Far You Fall, It's The Way You Land.

The album then introduces a female singer called Red Ghost, who covers Lanegan's own Praying Ground. She does this one and 2 other tracks reasonably well, though her tracks are not as strong as Lanegan's.

Also, there are a host of collaborators on other tracks (Gibby Haynes, Mike Patton, Richard Hawley and Jason Pierce) yet all of them suffer in comparison with Lanegan's dominant voice, rendering them barely audible.

Nevertheless, this album is in my book a strong contender for album of 2009. I'm lucky enough to have a ticket to see them support Depeche Mode in December.

Album Review: David Sylvian - Manafon


David Sylvian continues his retreat from the mainstream with his latest album. Entitled Manafon, which is a parish in Wales, the music within is unconventional to say the least. Almost all of the 9 songs take the same form, sparse instrumentation, made up of some brief snatches of classical music, occasional acoustic guitar and other random noises, with Sylvian's voice centre-stage on all but one of the tracks. Upon repeated listens, his voice becomes almost intrusive in parts. The music is compelling, in that it does not follow linear, 'song-like' forms, though it's a stretch to say it's thoroughly enjoyable.

The overall effect is that of Sylvian warbling over almost random music (all the backing tracks were improvised with a large cast of collaborators). It's possibly his most difficult album, you need to be in a certain frame of mind to listen to it. It's light years away from his solo work of the 80s and 90s. I can't honestly say it's a success as after about 5 weeks of listening I'm no further into it.

Thursday, September 10, 2009

Album Review: Richmond Fontaine - We Used to Think The Freeway Sounded Like A River


Richmond Fontaine are a sort of "alt-country" band and have been going since the mid 90s. Largely the vision of singer, frontman and main songwriter Willy Vlautin, they have 7 previous albums under the belt. Vlautin ia also a published author and his songs, like his accomplished novels, are largely downbeat, focusing on drifters, deadbeats and losers trying to find their way out of desperate situations.

Vlautin's voice can grate a bit and some of the overtly country songs I can take or leave. One of the main problems with some Richmond Fontaine songs is they work well as stories but feel forced into songs with the music grafted on. Vlautin is, however, an excellent story-teller (his 2nd novel, Northline is a must-read).

This album opens with the title track, a gentle song, very relaxed where he depicts a crummy lifestyle, where they lived next to an abandoned house with a broken pool full of shopping carts, and they pretended it was their swimming pool. After a short instrumental (Northwest), there follows one of their more upbeat songs, You Can Move Back Here, which sounds a little like REM. This is followed by the unsettling The Boyfriends, where the protagonists realises his new girl has a child, and he imagines how the kids feel, all to the accompaniment of a sad mariachi trumpet.

The Pull is an another sad story delivered over relatively quiet backing, and is followed by a barely audible instrumental. Maybe We Were Both Born Blue is, despite the title, one of the more upbeat numbers with a kind of wistful countryish backing. Watch Out is another quiet song, consisting mainly of Vlautin whispering 'watch out' but the next track 43 is more intense, possibly the most intense on the album.

Lonnie is as close as they have come yet to mainstream rock, while towards the end of the album Two Alone is another intense moment, with a simple but driving melody. The final track, A Letter to the Patron Saint of Nurses (great title) is a spoken word piece over a quiet backing which is surprisingly effective.

Overall this won't convert anyone, but is a good addition for fans of their music.

In Defence of the CD

A lot has been written recently about the demise of the CD and talking about what an unloved format it really is.

I started buying music on vinyl. Mostly albums, never had much time for singles. I liked the large sleeves with the intricate artwork, but buying records in Dublin was an experience fraught with uncertainty. Assuming the shop put the right record into the sleeve (this did actually happen several times), there was always the chance of some slight damage. This then played havoc with the family record player, which I was allowed use sparingly. Was always handier to immediately tape the album. Though there was nothing like the status attached to a Freebird Records bag (great Dublin record shop), always the bag of choice when loaning out a record.

Amongst my peers there was a culture of taping records for people. I was unwilling to buy The Cure’s album Pornography myself as the drama it would have caused at home wouldn’t have been worth it. One of my classmates had it. He was dubious about my ‘Cure-credentials’ but eventually relented. Imagine my surprise when I got the tape home to hear Glenn Miller!

It got to the stage where I graduated to just buying tapes. They were portable and handy for me, being the owner of a tape recorder where much of my formative listening was done and then also a walkman. The problem with this was the fast forward and rewind element, alien to many under 30s! To skip the dodgier tracks, you had to fast-forward the tape and guess when the next song would start. A skill perfected by many but lethal for walkman batteries. And with purchased tapes there was always the situation where both sides of a tape were of unequal length, so you invariably had to fast-forward one side or another. Though it did make you actually listen to a whole album, rather than skipping around, mainly due to my laziness in fast-forwarding!

There was also the tape eating that went on with tape recorders. Basically tape recorders would chew up a tape randomly, in the middle of playing it. There was no particular genre my tape player liked more than others, though it liked a bit of goth now and then. Repairing a tape was a real science. Invariably the tape would have snapped so it was a case of unravelling the tape from the player, smoothing out gently and surgically applying some sellotape to the underside of the tape. A skill at which I became adept.

Towards the end of the 80s, compact discs (CDs) started to appear in Irish record shops. At this stage we had only one CD player in the house, purchased at huge cost. CDs were a good bit more expensive than records and tapes at first. They were supposedly indestructible, though as most people know, they scratch just as easily as records or anything else. And the smaller format meant reduced size artwork inside a plastic box, which are irritating in that it’s incredibly easy to break the little hinges which holds the package together.

Some bands used the new format to their advantage. Artwork has involved into little booklets, which can offer contain an array of images, photographs, lyrics etc. Though many avoid the plastic cases and produce a cardboard digipack. These work well as long as they avoid taking a big drink (!), something from which they never recover. The rounded edge CD cases look awful though, no time for those!

The beauty of a CD is, apart from the digital sound, is the ease and convenience with which they can be used. Skipping from song to song is taken for granted now but was revolutionary for those of us used to tapes. Works really well when you are playing DJ while having a few drinks, though the aftermath can often consist of a carpet of CDs and open boxes! CDs can also hold up to 80 minutes of music, which usually means more tracks and more value for your money.

But the real plus with CDs is a convenient physical package. I can’t warm to mp3 files, they are hard to love and harder to hold. They seem like a transient format to me, one wrong-click and it’s gone forever. The ultimate disposable format. To me music should not be disposable like this, but cherished. And I really don’t want my music collection to be solely based around a computer. Where are the joys of flicking through a CD rack on a computer? A CD collection says a lot about a person, what music is contained there, how it is sorted etc. Imagine going over to somebody’s place and just clicking though files. Joyless.

Listening to a CD, while flicking through the booklet is part of the experience in my book. It’s too hard to care about mp3 files. Though they are convenient and mobile, I will admit that. Purchasing a CD is a lot more satisfying to me than purchasing a download, which I just burn on to CD anyway. CDs are not perfect, but I'll stick with them.

Bah humbug.

PS I’m afraid I never embraced Minidiscs, so no comment there I’m afraid, though when’s the last time anyone came across one?

Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Album Review: Hope Sandoval - Bavarian Fruit Bread


In the 90s, Hope Sandoval sang in a band called Mazzy Star. Their music consisted mainly of drowsy, langurous songs with a slight tinge of country. While they had their moments (1993's So Tonight That I Might See) I was never a huge fan.

In 2001 Hope Sandoval released an album under the banner Hope Sandoval and the Warm Inventions. Bizarrely, it was entitled Bavarian Fruit Bread and largely featured a collaboration with Colm O'Ciosoig, ex-drummer with the wonderful My Bloody Valentine. There's minimal percussion here though. The sound of the album, while not a major departure for Sandoval, was a lot more stripped back than Mazzy Star, featuring a lot more acoustic guitar and touches of cello, bells, harmonica and xylophone here and there. Hope sounds totally unenthused, but in an utterly bewitching way.

The album begins with Drop, a Jesus and Mary Chain cover (she used to go out with William Reid) and Hope's voice is centre stage over a strummed acoustic guitar. It's followed up by the narcoleptic Suzanne. This and Butterfly Mornings are perfect sunny Sunday morning music. On the Low picks up the pace a bit and reminds me slightly of less cringe-y Serge Gainsbourg (without the male vocals). Feeling of Gaze doesn't quite work. Hope's singing is great but the cello and piano competes rather than complements leaving the track sounding disjointed.

The stronger melodies are actually backweighted towards the second half of the album. Charlotte is another sleepily graceful track, while Clear Day is a quiet triumph. The vocals here are particularly enticing, lines like "gonna take all your troubles, gonna send them away"wouldn't work with other singers but they suit perfectly here. Around My Smile is probably the strongest track, a slow-burning torch song with Hope Sandoval at her most alluring. The chorus is like a ridiculous come-on, the line is "I got going on". Writing about it doesn't do it justice. The final track is an extended shoe-gazey type piece, Lose Me On The Way.

Avoid this album at all costs if you prefer rockier stuff or like your music to actually go anywhere. It seems like she has returned to music after 8 years. She is set to release Through The Devil Softly in September 2009.

David Sylvian Part 3 - Nine Horses 2005-


David Sylvian teamed up with Steve Jansen and Burnt Friedman for his next project, Nine Horses. While it was again electronica-based it was far more song-based and accessible than his Blemish solo album. Their album, Snow Borne Sorrow, featured wintry classical stylings fused with chilly electronica. The songwriting was strong, from the jazzy Wonderful World (featuring a guest spot from Stina Nordenstam), to the somewhat rocky Darkest Birds. It even featured a gorgeous acoustic piece The Day the Earth Stole Heaven where David sings over a sparse, acoustic guitar-led backdrop. As his music develops and becomes more intricate, it's these moments of simplicity that stand out for me.

They followed this up with the Money for All EP, which was far more rhythm based. It featured a couple dance-inflected new songs (the title track, Get the Hell Out) and remixes of material off the Snow Borne Sorrow album. There was also an interesting cameo from Stina Nordenstan on the track Birds Sing For Their Lives where her child-like vocals over muted electronic backing provide a contrast with the rest of the music on this EP.

David Sylvian is apparently about to release his next solo album, Manafon, in September 2009 which will feature contributions from Fennesz amongst others.

David Sylvian Part 2 - Solo 1982-2004


Having finally achieved some success, Japan called it quits and their members went their separate ways. David Sylvian collaborated with Ryuichi Sakamoto to produce the wonderfully evocative theme tune to the movie Merry Christmas Mr. Lawrence. The song Forbidden Colours featured a great keyboard arrangement from Sakamoto and Sylvian's distinctive croon.

Sylvian began his retreat from the mainstream with his first solo album, Brilliant Trees. Although there were only 7 tracks, the album marked a departure from the pop-funk of Japan. The first track, Pulling Punches was a slight mis-step, a funky song punctuated by stabs of brass, it was the closest thing on the album to Japan. The rest of the album was far more laid-back. Sylvian sounds a lot more comfortable with this style and his vocals are very strong across the album. It's full of great mellow pieces like The Ink in the Well, Red Guitar, Brilliant Trees and Nostalgia. Nostalgia is a particularly strong track with dark keyboards and a lyric about 'drowning in my nostalgia'. The whole album has a jazz influence to it, with many tracks featuring trumpets from Jon Hassell and Mark Isham.

There was an increased focus on ambient work, and he recorded a series of collaborative pieces with other artists, which were mainly minimal instrumental pieces. His next solo album was Gone to Earth, a double album (in those old vinyl days) featuring in equal parts mellow song-based pieces plus ambient instrumentals. A couple of the tracks were co-written with Robert Fripp. The more conventional songs are generally pretty good, continuing in the vein of Brilliant Trees with jazz overtones. Laughter and Forgetting is one track where he sounds almost desperate, whereas Silver Moon is breezier and more upbeat. There are some longer, 9 minute songs (Before the Bullfight, Wave) which can drag a little. The title track is a kind of atonal, almost random affair with Robert Fripp's guitar clanging across Sylvian's vocals. The instrumental pieces are all very pleasant, almost 'chill-out' in atmosphere, consisting mainly of a single melodic motif, repeated throughout. The titles give the game away as to where his head was at (The Healing Place, Answered Prayers, Upon This Earth) as he was exploring the teachings of Buddhism. To my untrained ears it sounds like he had listened to Brian Eno's Another Green World.

After this he returned to, for want of a better description, singer-songwriter territory on Secrets of the Beehive. Possibly his finest hour, the album starts with a short piano ballad, September which draws you into the album with great lyrics (Sylvian is not always the best lyricist in the world), which conjure up an autumnal atmosphere. Most of the songs that follow are moody pieces, dominated by Sylvian's voice. In the best of these he sounds lost, searching for something. Orpheus is one of his finest ever songs, the musical accompaniment of which reminds me of the sun rising. Hilariously, one of the singles released from this album was Let the Happiness In, which sounds like it's doing anything but! It drifts along at an almost plodding pace, yet it works brilliantly as he croons about "waiting for the agony to stop". It's followed by On the Waterfront where he sounds even more forlorn, managing to get away with a line like "the rain is pouring in my heart" and yet it works, which is some achievement. It's probably his most conventional and accessible solo album, but there was nothing else around like it in 1987.

Despite the artistic success of Secrets of the Beehive, it didn't set the charts alight, not that it was his intention to do so, as by now he was shunning the mainstream. Yet EMI were still hopeful of a commercial piece so he supplied a one-off single, Pop Song. It was anything but. The song bounced along at a reasonable rate but the instrumentation was distinctly offbeat and esoteric, and though it featured an identifiable chorus, there was no climb up the 'pop charts'.
Around this time he had spoken to his old Japan bandmates about working together. The end result was not the 'new Japan album' some expected. Apparently they had run out of money, and the record company agreed to fund the remainder of the costs if they released it under the Japan named. Instead of this, Sylvian funded it himself, and reworked the album alone. It was released under the name Rain Tree Crow, much to the disappointment of his ex-band colleagues, who did not speak to him for 5 years after this. The cover of the album features a storm over a stark landscape, and the music that lies within reflects the barren cover. Personally I find it far superior to Japan's pop funk.

The music itself is close in sound to Sylvian's solo music, a mixture of slow songs and ambient instrumentals. Some of the stronger songs include Every Colour You Are, Pocket Full of Change and Blackwater. The playing on these and other tracks is wonderful. The music is relatively simple and Sylvian's singing is stronger than ever.

A complete departure followed this with the album The First Day, released under the name of David Sylvian and Robert Fripp. There are vaguely funky tracks (God's Monkey, Jean the Birdman), incongruous guitar workouts (Firepower, 20th Century Dreaming) and then the bizarre (the endless dance-trip Darshan). It all sounds like they are trying too hard. Being a Sylvian album it ends with the ambient instrumental Bringing Down the Light. Mercifully there are only 7 tracks!

Following a period of silence (he had embraced domestic bliss) he returned with the solo album Dead Bees on a Cake. Playing more to his strengths, the album was quite diverse. It featured the slow brooding numbers he had become known for (I Surrender), along with ponderous instrumentals (All of My Mother's Names) and a few new departures (the slow blues of Midnight Sun). There were funky work-outs (God Man, Pollen Path), and some forays into easy-listening territory (The Shining of Things, Cafe Europa). Two excellent tracks lurked towards the end of the album: Wanderlust was a beautiful shifting ballad, showcasing Sylvian's vocals and Darkest Dreaming was a signpost for the future, a slow, earnest pleading song with a backdrop of electronic bleeps.

After an ambient instrumental album with Robert Fripp (Approaching Silence), a solo retrospective (Everything and Nothing) which collected up solo album highlights and some hard to find tracks, and then a compilation of instrumental pieces (Camphor) it appeared David Sylvian was attempting to draw a line under this work to enter a new phase in his musical development.

His next album, Blemish, was unlike any previous album. It largely featured atonal pieces, featuring Sylvian's voice upfront and a randomly struck guitar (Blemish, The Only Daughter). Probably his most inaccessible album, it is said to be 'inspired' by the collapse of his relationship. Of the 8 tracks only 2 of them were (relatively speaking) conventional. Late Night Shopping is a series of seemingly banal observations over brooding instrumentation with slow handclaps. For some reason, it sounds like he's stalking somebody. The last track, A Fire in the Forest, is a glimmer of sunlight as he sings about 'there is always sunshine above the grey sky' over an electronica background featuring Christian Fennesz. It's the type of album you want yourself to like more than you actually like it (not that much in my case).

There followed a contribution to a Ryuichi Sakamoto track, World Citizen, an electronic almost protest song featuring Sylvian.

The next post will deal with Nine Horses, Sylvian's next project.

David Sylvian Part 1 - The Japan Years 1978-1981


Japan started out as a sort of ropey glam-funk band, releasing 2 albums in that style, Adolescent Sex and Obscure Alternatives which had little in common with the punk/post-punk scene of 1978. David Sylvian showed definite signs of having listened to David Bowie in his vocals. There was one interesting track, The Tenant. A keyboard-led slow song, it has more in common with Low-era Bowie, and also signposts the future for Japan.

They completely retooled their sound for their 3rd album, the Quiet Life, drawing much more on Roxy Music with a dash of Bowie and providing the template for the new-romantics of the early 80s. The title track is very keyboard-based and poppy. On this album Sylvian's are a lot more recognisably him, though there is an awful moment during Despair when he sings it in French. Pretentious?! Totally. However this is a decent album, most of the tracks are very listenable if a bit samey. They reach out for alt-cred with a cover of All Tomorrow's Parties by the Velvet Underground which adds little to the original so it's hard to see the point. One of the better tracks is The Other Side of Life, the final track, which is a nice keyboard-based song.

Around this time David Sylvian was very much playing the pop-star game and had a very recognisable image. Indeed despite the fact that most of his work (and best work) is post-Japan, it is this era (early 80s) that he is probably best known for. Unfortunately it kind of overshadowed the music at this time.

Japan's next album was Gentlemen Take Polaroids, which was very much a product of its time, a lot of synthy, slightly funky intelligent pop. There were lots of examples of this on this album, such as the title track and Swing, though they peppered this with ambient moments such as the Experience of Swimming. Much of this stuff sounds somewhat dated now, and very much a product of its time. Night Porter is probably the best track here, a sparse keyboard-based piece and a fine example of Sylvian's balladry.

Japan reached their zenith with their next and last album, Tin Drum. Unmistakeably drawing on Far Eastern imagery, the cover featured David Sylvian with a bowl and chopsticks, it became their commercial breakthrough. Ghosts became their biggest hit and signature tune. Ironically it's their doomiest and least commercial song. It proceeds at a funereal pace, with minimal percussion and a strong Sylvian vocal and a haunting keyboard arrangement. Canton also features here, a strong instrumental evoking China. They could still do good pop songs with tracks like Visions of China with strong drumming from Steve Jansen and also Cantonese Boy (which had a distinctly offbeat time signature). Somebody in Duran Duran was definitely listening to this and Japan's previous album judging by Duran's early stuff. Sons of Pioneers was a slower paced track, again funeral-paced but this time featuring drums (not tin ones!).

A future post will look at David Sylvian's solo career which to my ears is far superior to Japan.

Monday, March 23, 2009

Tindersticks - Just a simple pleasure?


Tindersticks arrived fully formed with their trademark sound in 1993. Their self-titled debut album defined their sound for pretty much the rest of their career. Vaguely melancholic music but containing sweeping dramatics, and featuring Stuart Staples' slurred croon. When I heard them first it sounded to me like Nick Cave on valium. The Spanish painting on the cover makes one think that something special lies within.

Their first album contains some classic songs, interspersed by moody pieces and instrumentals. It's a masterclass in mood creation, and the opening track Nectar does this perfectly. It's quite an insubstantial song in itself, but it works perfectly to open the album. Impossible to understand the lyrics, but there you go! Sweet Man is broken into 3 parts and spread over the 21 track album. The 2nd part, right in the middle of the album is particularly good, with wonderful lyrics like "I lay awake that night, listening to her breathing, thinking how strange it would be if I awoke and she wasn't there..."

There is a run of classic Tindersticks songs, beginning with City Sickness which for a long time was my favourite of their songs. Driven by a sweeping string section, it swoops in and out capturing urban ennui superbly. It leads into Patchwork which starts with a simple guitar figure and is a wonderful little tune, enhanced by some horns at the end. Marbles follows, which is mostly spoken, vague lines like "you knew you lost her as soon as you saw her, you saw your life as a series of complicated dance steps". The organ-driven music underneath for some reason reminds me of the Velvet Underground. Other tracks include Her which has a spanish feel to it with strummed guitars and mariachi-type horns.

The album is long and initially, somewhat overwhelming. It reminds me of dark, wet nights wandering cobblestoned streets in a small town in France while smoking Gitanes. But the album sets the template for the Tindersticks sound.

They followed this up with another self-titled album. Track 2, A Night In, opens with the line 'I had shoes full of holes when you first took me in' so instantly the mood is set as a continuation of the first album. My Sister follows, which is reminiscent of Marbles from the first album, with an atmospheric tale spoken over some coolly understated music featuring horns, xylophones, piano and none of it ever rising above a gently whisper. Tiny Tears is a little more dramatic. It starts off fairly bare with Stuart crooning over an acoustic guitar before the other instruments gradually arrive, swelling to a jaw-dropping chorus accompanied by strings.

No More Affairs is classic Tindersticks gloom. It feels like the protagonist is sitting drinking in a dark bar. Travelling Light on the other hand is the first of Stuart's occasional duets, trading lines with Carla Torgeson of the Walkabouts. Again orchestral in feel, it's probably their most recognisable song.

They followed this album with Curtains, which was a little disappointing, sounding like a pale imitation of the first 2 albums. Tindersticks-by-numbers, maybe? It was clear at this stage that the band were running the risk of becoming a parody of themselves. Although they sound consistently classy, how many Tindersticks songs could not be used to soundtrack a black and white French movie?

Something had to change and it did. Simple Pleasures was a dramatic change, from the nude on the cover to the the soul-infused music contained within. The first track, Can We Start Again, is startlingly upbeat, featuring handclaps and a jaunty melody bopping along breezily. A dramatic change in direction! The next track, If You're Looking For A Way Out, is a cover of an old soul tune and is rendered respectfully by the group. Staples' vocals are as tender as he gets, with a strong fade-out at the song's end. The rest of the album mines a similar vein, quite a departure from previous albums, full of gospel backing voals, soul horns and strings.

The follow-up album, Can Our Love... kicked off with a slab of old-school Tindersticks. Dying Slowly, from the title to the orchestral dramatics was a return to the Tindersticks I know and love. It's a bit of a red herring as the rest of the album is quite different, and indeed diverse. People Keep Comin' Around is a slightly Doors-influenced song, while the rest of the album is a return to the soul of Simple Pleasures, with arguably stronger songs. Don't Ever Get Tired is a standout with langorous guitar underpinning a strong melody. The guitar in the bridge is particularly effective.

Having got the soul out of their system, around this time they also released a soundtrack album to the harrowing Claire Denis movie, Trouble Every Day. The music is mostly instrumental and stands up quite well as moody background music. The main vocal track, Trouble Every Day is a strong Tindersticks song which stands up with the rest of their catalogue. Killing Theme is also a particularly evocative instrumental. In common with a lot of soundtrack albums there's a lot of 'incidental' music where not a lot happens.

Their next album proper (and last for 5 years) was Waiting for the Moon. The opening song is actually sung by the less distinctive (but more soulful) Dickon Hinchcliffe. The album is quite under-rated, it's kind of an overview of all the different styles Tindersticks have tried. Say Goodbye to the City is more of a classic Tindersticks type song, and is followed up by the wonderful soul song Sweet Memory. Again sung by Hinchliffe, it runs at a snail's pace. 4.48 Psychosis is based on a play of the same name written by Sarah Kane, inspired by the time of night which is apparently the darkest and one is most susceptible to suicide. The vocals are spoken rather than song while the music rages underneath. Most of the other songs on the album are quite lovely, Trying to Find a Home is quite soulful, as is Sometimes It Hurts, a great duet with Lhasa de Sela which builds nicely to a great chorus featuring prominent backing vocals. But for me the strongest song is the 7 minute My Oblivion which features strings, and vibraphone. It's hugely melodramatic and deeply lovely. A complete change of mood descends for the jaunty Just a Dog, then the album concludes with Running Wild, more dramatics enveloped by the string section which becomes more prominent as the song progresses.

Stuart released 2 solo albums, the erratic Lucky Dog Recordings, followed by Leaving Songs, a concept album about departure. It's really not a million miles away from Tindersticks, especially the opening track Goodbye to Old Friends. Most of the rest of the album is a bit lighter and sparser, and is notable for two duets, with Maria McKee and Lhasa de Sela. There is one accapella track, Dance with an Old Man, which doesn't really work.

After a gap of 5 years since their last album, Tindersticks reunited (albeit minus 3 of the original members) for the Hungry Saw. I've never been a fan of bands getting back together, it's seldom as good as the original stuff but Hungry Saw is just as good as their other albums. It starts off very strongly with an instrumental which leads into Yesterday's Tomorrows which is a strong, upbeat, soulful song. It's never going to be quite as intense an album as the first 2 but there is a lightness of touch which is, for want a better word, warm, and some strong songs also. The closing song, The Turns We Took, is really quite special. In a similar vein to Running Wild (the closer on Waiting for the Moon), it's like the end of something more than just a CD. It's highly emotive but on the other hand quite simple.

I finally caught them live in Vicar Street in Dublin in November 2008. There was a minimum of between-song chat but they seemed relaxed and the music was superb. Even the drunken idiot in front of us who kept calling for Tiny Tears didn't spoil the gig (she got chucked out eventually).

All in all, you either get it or you don't with this band. But if you do like their mood you'll seldom be disappointed by any of their music.

Wednesday, March 18, 2009

Album Review: Radiohead - Amnesiac


Have recently been listening to Amnesiac by Radiohead. Derided as Kid B when it came out, I never got around to listening to it until very recently. Kid A was an album which I struggled with at first but has grown on me enormously to the point of near obsession. The first few bars of Everything In Its Right Place take me into a wonderful, airlocked space.

I'm not a huge fan of Radiohead, Thom Yorke's voice grates after a while and also they are completely overrated, belonging to the canon of bands who seem to defy criticism (Velvet Underground, Smiths, Pixies, Stone Roses, Nirvana etc). This album is possibly more accessible than Kid A. The opening track, Packt Like Sardines in a Crushed Tin Box, is a thoroughly original piece of music, driven by a wonderful bassline and a great chorus of 'I'm a reasonable man, get off my case'.

This momentum is spoiled a little by the next track, the funereal 'Pyramid Song'. Not a bad song in itself, but the plodding pace of it jars after Packt. And the less said about the next track, Pull/Pulk Revolving Doors, the better. It's kind of a drum 'n' bass experiment with some warped vocals thrown in, minus any melody worth speaking about. You and Whose Army comes as a welcome relief, which starts with Yorke singing over some sparse electric guitar, before the rest of the instruments come in and build to a great little climax. I Might Be Wrong grooves along nicely, leading into Knives Out, the most 'normal Radiohead' sounding track on the album. It's a great tune, all long drawn-out syllables and jangly guitars.

Morning Bell is reprised from Kid A, but with a totally different arrangement. The serene Kid A arrangement is replaced by an almost child-like arrangement. It sounds a little throw-away until you realise that you can hear the lyrics even more clearly as Yorke's voice is right out front, giving more emphasis to lines like 'cut the kids in half'.

It's followed by Dollars and Cents which to my ears is less interesting and a bit more old-school Radiohead. Hunting Bears is a nice instrumental led by electric guitar which builds a nice healthy bit of tension before the warped sounding Like Spinning Plates, where it sounds like the keyboard line was played backwards.

Life in A Glasshouse is the closing track and it sounds like an old jazz band after taking a load of downers. Yorke sounds almost too bleak on this one before becoming somewhat dismissive at the end ('of course I'd like to sit around and chat'). It's an unsettling way to end the album. Nevertheless the album rewards repeat listening. It's less of a cohesive listen than Kid A, but probably contains more impressive individual songs.

Monday, March 16, 2009

Ryan Adams - a riposte


Some time ago I wrote scathingly about Ryan Adams. I feel I made some valid points. However I omitted an awful lot more about this vital artist.

He broke into the music scene first as frontman of Whiskeytown. Their debut album, Faithless Street is, for some, Ryan Adams' finest hour. If you have any taste at all for country or alt.country you will not believe how perfect this album sounds. It lurches from REM style jangle (Midway Park), to Replacements trash-rock (Drank Like a River) to plaintive ballads (the title track and many others). I could write for ages about this album, it's a real underrated classic. None of the songs are particularly original, they are all vaguely country but they all sound SO good. The 21 track version is a must as the extra tracks are well worth it. There are some great lyrics about wanting to play country but being in a rock n roll band (Faithless Street / Lo-Fi Tennessee Mountain Angel). In fact, the best thing about these songs is they sound effortless, almost 'tossed-off'.

They issued a stop-gap mini-album, Rural Free Delivery, which is of almost as high a standard (especially Pawnshop Ain't No Place for a Wedding Ring). Their next album Strangers' Almanac is much loved by the critics but I failed to warm to it. All the rough edges have been smoothed away, leaving some good tunes, but there's a smoothness and sameness to this release which doesn't move me.

The follow-up, Pneumonia, got lost in between record companies for years before finally being released in 2001. It's a decent collection of songs, with plenty of mope and lope along songs (Jacksonville Skyline, Sit and Listen to the Rain), along with poppier ones like (Don't Wanna Know Why, Bar Lights).

At the same time, Adams' solo career was kicking off. Before he released his proper debut, he recorded a collection of songs with Gillian Welch and David Rawlings known as the Destroyer Sessions, which I 'stumbled upon'. It's largely acoustic with some nice touches of glockenspiel etc, and most of the songs are unavailable elsewhere. It finishes with a hard-rocking version of Revelator, which Gillian Welch went on to record acoustically and it formed the title track of her third album. The prima-donna Ryan Adams is completely absent here.

His first official solo album, Heartbreaker is very good in patches though completely overrated. There are, however, some wonderful songs on it, apart from the much played Oh My Sweet Carolina and Come Pick Me Up, namely, My Winding Wheel which is like a modern-day Dylan song (and that's a good thing) and the downright lovely AMY.

The follow-up, Suicide Handbook was rejected by his record company for being too depressing. Having heard it, it's a little one-paced for my tastes, but some of the better songs (Dear Chicago, Answering Bell) were salvaged for future releases. Gold was released instead, a sprawling, commercial collection which seemed a little calculated to make Mr. Adams a star. The Springsteen-esque pose with the US flag on the cover was a little much. The material contained within is like a fascinating game of spot the influence, everybody from, Springsteen, to Neil Young, to Elton John, Who and Rolling Stones referenced. It's a good collection of songs if a little too knowing.

There were stories flying about in the aftermath of this release of a whole load of albums ready for release. As well as the aforementioned Suicide Handbook, 48 Hours was a country collection apparently inspired by Alanis Morrissette, and there was the Stockholm (or Swedish) sessions and also a 'rock' album with a band called the 'Pinkhearts', and he was even rumoured to have recorded an acoustic, country version of the Strokes debut, Is This It. What was becoming clear was that being an alt.country prodigy was not enough for Adams, but his record company couldn't keep up. Most of the material was not released, though a collection of highlights from all of these came out, entitled 'Demolition', which doesn't really work as a cohesive listen, going from AOR rocker (Nuclear) to sensitive ballad (Dear Chicago).

Notwithstanding all of this, his next solo album proper, Love Is Hell, was rejected by his record company Lost Highway. Instead he produced a whole new album of rock songs, Rock N Roll, which for the most part didn't convince. At this stage, I, like many others was rapidly reaching Ryan Adams overload. The last thing I wanted to hear was that Love Is Hell was now also coming out, in the form of 2 EPs.

I relented, however, and purchased them. Supposedly inspired by Smiths (and subsequently re-released as one album), it's arguably his best stuff. A great big slab of rainy mope-rock, drawing from the Smiths, Lloyd Cole, Radiohead, Jeff Buckley along with nuggets of 'country goodness', the playing and songwriting on this album (or EPs) is terrific. Too many highlights to list, his singing ranges from angsty, to regret, to resignation and finally redemption. It's not all great, the Oasis cover, Wonderwall, gets tiring after a while, and the Purple Rain inspired Hotel Chelsea Nights is a little much but all the rest is really good. Some of the songs seem quite ordinary at first (This House Is Not For Sale, World War 24, City Rain,City Streets) but slowly reveal themselves to be charming strum-alongs. On ballads like My Blue Manhattan and I See Monsters he is on top form. He seems at his best when he doesn't sound like he's trying too hard (Gold, Rock N Roll).

But the story doesn't stop there. A year later (2005) he released 2 country-rock collections (Cold Roses and Jacksonville City Night). To my ears, these seemed like a deliberate return to his country roots. Far better was the 3rd (!) album he released that year, 29. Billed as one song for each of his 20s, it was back to his more singer-songwriter type songs. Apart from the chug-along title track, the album contains some of his most sensitive songs (Night Birds) and some more effortless country (Carolina Rain).

Since then he has concentrated on his work with his band, the Cardinals. My previous post will tell you I'm not so fond of them. Easy Tiger had it's moments though, mostly the more acoustic ballads, though it and the follow-up Cardinology seemed like a triumph of craft over art. It's very MOR to my ears. I don't relish him churning out album after album of this kind of 'contented' vaguely country-rock, so here's hoping he'll lose the plot again with another glorious experiment.

Greg Dulli - The Emperor's New Clothes?


Greg Dulli is somebody I've struggled with, no matter what moniker he has recorded under (Afghan Whigs, Twilight Singers, Gutter Twins). Always well regarded by the critics, here was somebody that I was determined to get into. None of the Afghan Whigs stuff I heard particularly grabbed me. My main criticism, and it's not unique to Dulli, is that it all sounds the same. I'm not particularly fond of this voice and he tends to 'Dulli-cise' everything, no matter who he works with.

My ears pricked up when I heard he was to collaborate with Mark Lanegan, who I must admit I have slavishly followed for many years. The second Twilight Singers album, Blackberry Belle, was kindly given to me by a good friend of mine (a long-time Dulli fan). It's probably my favourite of all of Dulli's incarnations. The opening track, Martin Eden, sets the tone perfectly, with a great opening line - "Black out the windows, it's party time", accompanied by a foreboding arrangement. The next song, Esta Noche, turns a ringing phone into the basis for a song, and surprisingly, it works.

Teenage Wristband, is a thinly disguised Who homage and works quite well as a Baba O'Riley inspired anthem. It's at about this stage I find myself thinking about everything I had read about this guy and started to wonder where is the depth? I mean, the music is perfectly listenable but it doesn't really move me. And his voice doesn't do much for me either.

Other highlights of this album include Papillon, which glides along nicely on the wings of a banjo. The last track, Number Nine, features guest vocals from the aforementioned Mark Lanegan, and to my ears, stands apart from the rest of the album. Lanegan's unmistakable rasp gives this song real weight (and depth), and in fact he seems to get Dulli to raise his game as Dulli's vocals are probably the best on this album.

I was lucky enough to see the Twilight Singers around this time in Whelan's in Dublin and I found them quite refreshing. Greg was in a good mood and the gig was, for want of a better word... fun.

So it was with great anticipation I bought the Twilight Singers's follow up, She Loves You, a covers album featuring more contributions from Lanegan, and covering songs from Hope Sandoval, Bjork amongst others. The album is actually quite disappointing. Lanegan's contributions are barely audible on all but one track, Hard Time Killing Floor, which succeeds because it sounds like a cross between an old blues song (which it is) and a Lanegan solo track. It's different from anything else on the album, which is largely Dulli-led. The album splits between two types of song. Contemporary type songs (Feeling of Gaze, Hyperballad), which are kind of ok, but you wonder why they bothered, especially Feeling of Gaze, where Hope Sandoval's wonderfully langurous track is transformed into an acoustic dirge. Dulli also takes on traditional type songs (Strange Fruit, Black is the Colour of My True Love's Hair, Summertime) where you wish they didn't bother. The nicest thing I can say is that they bring nothing to these songs. Strange Fruit suffers most at their hands, but it's a song which should never be covered, nothing can top Billie Holiday's chilling version.

Traumatised by this album, Dulli and I remained on hiatus till I discovered the Stitch in Time EP, released some years later. It's dominated by a fantastic version of Live with Me by Massive Attack. This song features lead vocals from Mark Lanegan and is a wonderful plea to a lover which makes the hairs on the back of one's neck stand up. The other track on the EP aren't bad either.

This brings me to the much-talked about, much anticipated Gutter Twins album, Saturnalia, a full-scale collaboration between Dulli and Lanegan. Before you even get to the music, the album has a great cover, two deserted chairs and a stormy sky. This perfectly reflects the excellent music contained within. The album kicks off with The Stations, a foreboding Lanegan song which builds and builds to a climax and then dies gently away. God's Children gives Dulli a turn at the mic and picks up the pace a bit. All Misery / Flowers keeps up the intensity till The Body provides calmer fare, clearing the way for the massive rocker Idle Hands. Lanegan's robo-blues growl drives this track which is one of the heaviest things either of these guys have done in years. After this the album starts to tread water a little bit (relatively speaking) before picking up with I Was in Love with You, a Beatles-esque track sung by Dulli which works very well. Bete Noire is like a long-lost late period Screaming Trees track with Lanegan's voice backed up by accompanying vocals which are very reminescent of the Screaming Trees.

Each to Each, the second last track seems out of place here with it's cheesy keyboards, but the last song, Front Street is an emotional punch to the gut. Opening with birds singing, it's dominated by Dulli's vocals framed by an acoustic guitar, then little by little the other instruments come in to bring the song and album to an exhilarating end.

Seeing these songs live did not disappoint either, it was a great concert, but don't ever expect much on-stage banter from Lanegan! Their next gig is reviewed elsewhere on this blog.

Adorata, an EP of covers and other odds and ends followed, which for the most part is excellent. The Jose Gonzalez cover, Down the Line, is not one of the better ones, with it's Bonnie Tyler style keyboards, but Deep Hit of Morning Sun (Primal Scream cover), Spanish Doors and We Have Met Before (the two originals) are excellent.

This post betrays my Lanegan obsession, and Dulli can only suffer by comparison. Good in small doses, maybe?

Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Unknown Pleasures: Dakota Suite


Dakota Suite is not so much a band, more the brainchild of Chris Hooson, a social worker from England. He manages to hold down a full-time job while also producing some affecting music.

Their early singles were compiled on an album entitled Alone with Everybody. That title alone should give an indication of the music contained within, it's not the most cheerful. Hooson conveys resignation more than angst. It's been said before that his music is very informed by American Music Club and Red House Painters, and that is undeniably true of his 'singer-songwriter' material. This compilation is quite varied, with some singer-songwriter type material, slightly countrified rock, and some jazzy / classical instrumentals. All the songs are uniformly slow, some feature deep strums of an acoustic guitar, whilst others are piano-based. One of the finer piano-based songs is Autobiography, which is nicely underpinned by some cello.

Their first full album proper is, to my ears, somewhat disappointing. Entitled Songs for a Barbed Wire Fence, it presents a slab of grimness, though not in a good way. The vocal songs are punctuated with instrumentals, and the album was followed up with Dakota Suite's first instrumental album, Navigator's Yard, a series of chamber pieces strongly featuring piano. In other words, classical music. It's quite soothing and tranquil to listen to.

In 2000, they released Signal Hill, a major step forward. The album is back to mostly vocal songs, with some excellent mood-piece style instrumentals. Close Enough to Tears is a fragile, plaintive ballad, begun on acoustic guitar around Chris gently singing 'never let me go'. Other highlights include the wonderful pair of songs: Riverside, recorded beside a train station and consisting only of acoustic guitar and Chris repeating the phrase 'is it true, are you breaking up inside', he is then joined by some trumpets. It sounds awful but works wonderfully, then leads into Raining Somewhere, an instrumental played on electric guitars, somewhat reminescent of Red House Painters' Katy Song, it creates a lovely autumnal Sunday afternoon mood. It's the sound of loneliness. The album ends on an upbeat note, with When Skies Are Grey which Chris says is about football, specifically Everton.

They then released a mini-album, Morning Lake Forever, which was dominated by Chapel Rain, a lengthy piece with the refrain 'I must be evil' (another RHP reference?). The album also contained some experimental type pieces. Lesseps is almost completely electronic, a nice departure for them, incorporating some new sounds. Turk 1 is a propulsive (for them) instrumental with jazz overtones.

They then released another instrumental album, this time using an orchestra, The Way I Am Sick. This River Only Brings Poison, followed. This album featured contributions from ex-American Music Club members, Bruce Kaphan on steel guitar and Tim Mooney on drums. The album featured some of Chris' loveliest songs, the duet featuring a female vocalist (Laura Donohoe?) on How Safe We Must Seem being a particular high point. It's very chilled out and mellow.

A four-year silence followed. I had some email correspondence with Chris around this time, and he was disappointed with how This River was received and the whole process of releasing an album. He spoke about not releasing any more music. I was glad to hear then that he was releasing Waiting For The Dawn to Crawl Through and Take Your Life Away. The album is a mixture of singer-songwriter oriented songs and some instrumental pieces. It came with a free DVD, Wintersong, which was a documentary about the band, and contained some interesting observations from Chris and his life.

Which brings me to their latest album, The End of Trying. The title is so resigned, and this follows through to the music. It's an instrumental album for piano and cello where he collaborates with notable cellist David Darling. The album works well as a mood piece. It's hard to pick out individual tracks. I ordered mine directly from Chris.

Dakota Suite are not the first band in the world to play somewhat slow, sad moody music. But I think the jazz / classical influence gives them a fresh twist. Their distaste for live performance means they will probably remain underappreciated by most.

For more about the band, check out http://www.dakotasuite.com/