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.