Friday, December 31, 2010
Friday, December 24, 2010
This was a huge departure for Mark Lanegan in 2003, up till now he had released 5 solo albums of consistently moody dark folk-inflected blues, using mainly traditional instruments, as well as his considerable body of work with the Screaming Trees.
Here he threw out the formula, and rather than working with usual collaborator Mike Johnson he got Josh Homme and Nick Oliveri of Queens of the Stone Age involved, as well as Greg Dulli. Methamphetamine Blues is an arresting opening to the EP, featuring clanking percussion, loops and a driving rhythm for a great big heavy number. After the moody short interlude that is On The Steps Of The Cathedral, we get a blacker-than-black cover version of Captain Beefheart’s Clear Spot.
Message to Mine opens with Homme singing before kicking into a driving rock song with a Screaming Trees style singalong chorus, while Lexington Slow Down is a more traditional Lanegan piano song, featuring a great lead vocal. Then things get really messed up for Skeletal History: “An artery is not a vein” growls Lanegan on this QOTSA influenced track which lurches unpredictably from one riff to another.
Final track Sleep With Me is probably the most anthemic on this EP, featuring a powerful vocal from Lanegan. This was a very important album for Mark Lanegan as it’s where he tore up the ‘formula’ of his previous solo albums and used the influence of his collaborations to come up with this EP. The results are quite unlike anything he had done before.
Thursday, December 23, 2010
The production is really good on this one, with bells, violins and cymbals and gorgeous strings on And She Would Darken The Memory all giving added frostbite type effects. Singer James Graham should not be forgotten here either. On Cold Days From The Birdhouse he is in fine voice, rolling his ‘r’s deliciously, bellowing out lyrrrics like “and your rrred sky at night won’t follow me now”.
The title track was written with this format in mind, with some pathos-inducing organ keeping it in a similar mould to what has gone before, and lyrics like “are your hands cold, cos your fingers feel like snow”. It can be a bit same-y, Mapped By What Surrounded Them is almost pure MBV underwater-style backing track, with James Graham singing over the top which has the feel of two disparate parts being grafted on to each other. However none of the songs outstay their welcomes.
Walking for Two Hours even features sleigh bells and the Daniel Johnston cover Some Things Last A Long Time features accordion. It’s a bit of diversification from The Twilight Sad and shows they can turn their hand to something else, apart from the noisy stadium rockers of their main albums.
Wednesday, December 22, 2010
Friday, December 17, 2010
Dakota Suite & Emanuele Errante – North Green Down
This is scheduled for release on January 14th, so first out of the blocks for this one. It’s another album of classical pieces. I have heard the title track (which also featured on live album Vallisa) which is a filmic, piano-led piece perfect for January contemplation. Would be nice to get a ‘singer-songwriter’ album with Chris Hooson playing some guitar. As far as I know there is one in the works, You Can Leave But You’ll Never Make It Home Again, due next autumn. Also in progress are The Hearts of Empty, an ambient/late night counterpoint to 2008’s The End of Trying, recorded with David Buxton, and The Side of Her Inexhaustible Heart, four pieces to be recorded with composer Quentin Sirjacq featuring string quartet, clarinet and celeste. Looks to me that Chris’ heart is really in the classical side of his work at the moment.
Mogwai – Hardcore Will Never Die, But You Will
Due out February 14th (how romantic) the next Mogwai has a typically uncompromising title. They have released Rano Pano for fans like myself to have a listen. This one is rather upbeat, in the mould of The Sun Smells Too Loud from their last album, The Hawk Is Howling, though there’s some healthy distortion going on. Hopefully the whole album won’t be in the same vein, as I do like to use Mogwai to soundtrack a good brooding session.
Low – C’mon (?)
It’s been a while since Drums and Guns, Low’s last album, released in 2007. This one was a major departure for the band, with percussion and sampling a lot more prominent. What’s good about this band is that, having looked a few years ago like they were in danger of painting themselves into a corner, they now have torn up the formula with 2 very different albums, The Great Destroyer and the aforementioned Drums and Guns. Alan Sparhawk has also been indulging his classic rock side on his work with Retribution Gospel Choir.
High expectations of these Scottish guys after 2009’s storming second album, the MBV-influenced Forget the Night Ahead. Personally I’d be very happy with more of the same, but it looks like they have moved on a bit with 2010’s epic Eastern influenced The Wrong Car single. They have also done some interesting remixes of older material with fellow Scots Errors and Mogwai. I just hope they don’t stray too far into the epic, stadium-oriented territory that The Wrong Car dips its toe into.
And So I Watch You From Afar
Next year is shaping up to be a big year for Derry’s finest, capitalizing on the excellent Letters EP and some chaotic live shows. Recent single Straight Through The Sun downplays their heavy distorted side, leaving them sounding like A Little Solidarity Goes A Long Way off their first album or a proggy Queens of the Stone Age. I expect more brain-crushing riffs on their second album.
Next year should see the delayed (through injury) follow up to 2008’s Home. Broderick can turn his hand to piano pieces, acoustic folk, classical and experimental music. Previously these elements were kept apart on separate albums and side-projects, but hoping to see them all coalesce on his next.
Others of note: Mark Eitzel will be doing a ‘strictly acoustic album’, the Horrors are recording their third album. Thurston Moore is recording a solo album Benediction with doppelganger Beck. Hopefully it’ll be in the vein of excellent previous solo album Trees Outside the Academy, which had an acoustic feel but still allowed for some electrics.
Lloyd Cole will be recording an instrumental album with Joachim Roedelius of Cluster, probably in the vein of 2001’s Plastic Wood and Queens of the Stone Age are going into studio to record a hopefully much improved follow up to Era Vulgaris, though Josh Homme may be distracted with his non-involvement in the Kyuss reunion.
On the reissue front, Neil Young is planning to release Archives 2, which hopefully will contain some of his unreleased albums from his prolific mid-seventies period. Rumoured are Homegrown, a somewhat downbeat album which was shelved in favour of Tonight’s the Night; Oceanside-Countryside, an acoustic version of 1978’s Comes A Time; and Chrome Dreams, some of which surfaced on the second side of American Stars n Bars. Hopefully they will be available on a reasonably priced CD set rather than some expensive box format.
And I haven’t mentioned Radiohead!
Thursday, December 16, 2010
10. Warpaint - The Fool
9. The Phantom Band - The Wants
8. Nick Cave & Warren Ellis - The Road OST
7. Peter Broderick - How They Are
6. Tindersticks - Falling Down A Mountain
5. Neil Young - Le Noise
Who'd have thought that this feedback drenched solo album would be a return to form for Neil Young? Even when the noise is off for a track or 2, it works.
4. Isobel Campbell & Mark Lanegan - Hawk
Look past the dull title to another strong chapter in this pair's collaboration.
3. Lloyd Cole - Broken Record
The comeback of the year. Edge is gone, but an addictively relaxed collection of country-rock.
2. Sun Kil Moon - Admiral Fell Promises
An austere collection of icy finger picking, perfect for wintry mornings.
1. The National - High Violet
Not an original choice. But unignorable. Any doubts were dispelled by an incendiary live show. A collection of songs which on paper shouldn't instill euphoria but actually do.http://sacredcowpats.blogspot.com/2010/05/album-review-national-high-violet.html
Friday, December 3, 2010
Thursday, December 2, 2010
Tuesday, November 30, 2010
Sunday, November 21, 2010
Wednesday, November 17, 2010
The album doesn’t let up from there, offering visceral thrills not heard on an Irish album for some time. A Little Bit of Solidarity Goes A Long Way barrels along for all of 3 minutes.
They remind me of Mogwai with the metal turned up and a little Sonic Youth, Queens of the Stone Age and a bit of the doomier side of The Cure added in for good measure. A good example of this is Clench Fists, Grit Teeth… GO!, six minutes of pure metal carnage. They do take the occasional breather, allowing some tracks such as I Capture Castles to build up gradually, and even take something of mid-song siesta in Start A Band, which itself is almost like 3 songs in one.
Later on the album Tip of the Hat, Punch in the Face reminds me of forgotten Irish band Coldspoon Conspiracy. There’s a lovely Sonic Youth style mid-song break with lots of ringing trebly guitars in Don’t Waste Time Doing Things You Hate, before some “na na na” vocals, one of the few vocals on the album. Final track Eat the City, Eat it Whole perfects the art of the slow build.
It’s the kind of music that influences behaviour, you’ll definitely want to be hell-raising after getting THIS into your ears. Or breaking something. I think you can still get tickets to see them in Whelans this Saturday with Jape and Fionn Regan. So… stop what you’re doing, go and buy this album immediately and get down to Whelans this Saturday. Though by the sounds of things they’ll smash the place to bits.
Thursday, November 4, 2010
Broderick is classically trained and plays all the instruments and provides all vocals here. Second track, And It’s Alright is typical of most of the songs here. It gently unfurls, with a deceptively simple melody over a gorgeous picked guitar. With The Notes In My Ears, Below It and Not At Home are also examples of this style, and equally good.
He also does a couple of instrumentals which use similar elements. The best of these is probably the six minute Sickness, Bury which starts with sparse, picked guitar before being joined by banjo and keyboard. The tune creates an unsettling atmosphere, sounding like it could soundtrack a journey over a wide expanse. Shards of electric guitar and percussion are thrown in, and even when the brief, wordless vocals come in, it maintains the tense atmosphere.
Later in the album, Maps is a bit of a departure in that it starts out as a plainly sung acoustic track before adding electric guitar midway through and building up to a choral climax, all celestial vocals and crashing cymbals.
It’s a charming bunch of songs, which I think holds the key to why this album stands out – songwriting.
Tuesday, November 2, 2010
The opening track A Glamour is a perfect example of this. It opens with the sound a blunt knife scraping on a piece of wood, then some African-sounding percussion leads into a stomping beat with high-pitched whoops before the singer comes in, sounding foreboding as his deep voice croons “I was foraging…” O continues in a similar vein, with an almost electro beat seeming almost incongruous with a singer who sounds like Nick Cave’s Scottish cousin.
After the playful sounding Everybody Know It’s True, the pace slows down for the epic The None Of One. It starts off with gentle folky guitar and banjo for 3 minutes or so before exploding into life with propulsive beats, synths and vibes. The most straightforward and shortest track is Come Away In The Dark which is a very pretty song, all longing vocals, picked guitars and piano.
One of the strongest tracks comes later in the album. After starting with what can only be described as ‘squelching noises’, Into the Corn is a brooding track slightly reminiscent of the National, with the regretful refrain “into the corn I fled… everyone I knew there was dead” building towards a climax at the end.
The album finishes with Goodnight Arrow, which starts out serenely, evolving into a floating before ending on a nice crescendo. There’s a lot going on these songs, and at times it’s more a case of standing back and admiring them, rather than loving them, but nevertheless I think people are going to be hearing a lot of these guys.
Friday, October 29, 2010
I have chequered memories of my own experience of the Walkman. I’m not sure I ever had a Sony Walkman. My first walkman was a cheaper imitation, a sort of ‘no name’ walkman. Or personal stereo, to be strictly accurate. It had large-ish, ‘over-ear’ headphones and took 4 x AA batteries. As you can see above, a designer’s dream. They were quite clunky, generally too big for a pocket. Many’s the jacket pocket I ripped trying to wedge it in.
The headphones were seldom good quality. After a time, usually one headphone would stop working. This sometimes gave a whole new sound to older music, memorably the Rolling Stones’ Brown Sugar, where I lost the saxophone side, so just had Keith Richard’s dirty guitar riff. I always liked hearing it that way. For other albums, a strategically placed finger resting beside the headphone jack would allow stereo sound to resume for the most part.
The cheap nature of the headphones led to serious leakage, ie on a bus journey the whole bus would hear a tinny version of whatever you were listening to. My brother used to be quite disdainful of whatever nonsense he would inadvertently hear spewing put of my headphones when we got the bus to school. Still it wasn’t as bad as the guy with the crimped hair who used to get the same bus who used to listen to P0rn0gr@phy by The Cure every day, at the same point. Thus you’d hear him coming, announced by the dismal riff of One Hundred Years and Robert Smith groaning out “it doesn’t matter if we all die” (and I like The Cure!).
Batteries were a huge issue. As I said my first walkman took 4 of them. Not to put too fine a point on it, it ate batteries. Particularly fast-forwarding a tape (cassette) used up a lot of batteries. Early versions had no rewind button, so if you wanted to go back, you had to turn over the tape and fast-forward, guessing the point in the tape that you wanted to hit. On the other hand, this difficulty meant that you really listened to an album, with no option to skip tracks, and those lovingly assembled tapes became the soundtrack to growing up.
One of the ways of getting around the battery eating problem was to spend a dull class winding the reels of tape with a pen. Or another way was to carry around a ‘fast-forwarding set of batteries’, ie. batteries which were almost used up. This was because when your batteries started running down, the tape would play slooowwwer, with unintentionally hilarious results (everything sounded goth!). Later versions only needed 2 batteries, a major leap forward.
There was a certain art to avoiding having to fast forward on a walkman, you had to make sure that every minute of your C60, C90 or even C120 tape was full of music. The ideal was to have a 45 minute album on each side of a C90. Invariably I ended up carrying around 4-5 tapes with me at all times. Several variants were launched, I seem to remember a Walkman Sports, which was distinguished by having curved edges and being yellow. Very sporty.
It was revolutionary though at the time, being able to hear your music on the go. It brightened up a dull bus-ride and blazed a trail for the mp3 players of today. Other versions had a radio as well as tape player. Some tried to listen to music in class, courtesy of a single headphone up a sleeve! In later years, the CD walkman (of Discman) was launched. I never really took to it, as CDs are not the most portable things and one CD was seldom enough.
So long, walkman, you served me well. After all how many other devices were immortalised in song by Morrissey (“as the flames rose to her Roman nose and her walkman started to melt” – Bigmouth Strikes Again by The Smiths).
Wednesday, October 27, 2010
Unfortunately most of the album continues in the very same way, with little deviation. Vaguely danceable beat? Check. Twanging guitar? Check. Dancing girls cooing. Check.
There are a couple of covers here. Tim Buckley’s Song to the Siren is completely sunk here by an MOR arrangement and way too many musicians. Traffic’s No Face, No Name, No Number on the other hand survives the stifling arrangements and showcases Ferry’s world-weary croon to good effect.
Indeed the more stripped down arrangements (relatively speaking) are the best tracks, here, with Reason Or Rhyme and Tender Is The Night allowing Ferry’s vocals to breathe, as opposed to burying them in studio trickery.
It’s a pity Ferry wouldn’t move a little more in this direction. His 1999 album As Time Goes By featured orchestral arrangements, and although it was all covers, the subsequent tour saw him recasting his own material in this vein to great effect. Otherwise I’m not sure how long he can keep going as he is.
Tuesday, October 26, 2010
It’s essentially classical music and sees Chris Hooson sharpening his craft, with some of his strongest attempts at this present on this album. Some of the tracks come from his last album The End of Trying, and are enhanced by Darling and Sirjacq’s contributions. The music in the main is quite minimalist. Very Early One Morning is a gorgeous piece for piano and cello and is a good indication of the rest of the album. North Green Down has a lovely piano melody, full of regret, while later on A Worn Out Life sees Chris playing a sparse, jazz-tinged guitar with some great piano touches and plucked cello.
Both collaborators get an opportunity to play one of their own tracks. Quentin Sirjacq plays a fine piano on Des Etres Disparus, which sounds like it could be a soundtrack from a French movie. David Darling goes one better on Remember, not only deftly plucking his cello but also singing a wordless vocal, sounding all worn and weary, like wise old sage-like figure. After listening to the rest of the album, the presence of a vocal is arresting and makes the hairs on the back of your neck stand up.
It’s a tranquil and relaxing concert recording, worth checking out if you enjoy classical music. Best to do nothing while listening to it, and just absorb it.
Monday, October 25, 2010
It suits him reasonably well, opening track Like A Broken Record is a gentle charmer, all steel guitar and self-deprecation (“I’m beginning to sound like a broken record, not that I had that much dignity left anyway”). The uptempo tracks aren’t bad either. Writers Retreat bops along nicely on a bed of harmonicas, slightly reminiscent of Whiskeytown, then the pace is taken down a notch or two on The Flipside, which sounds like any of the slower tracks from Lloyd’s 90s solo albums.
Why In The World could be something off Springsteen’s Tunnel of Love with its regretful tone (“maybe I’m not built for these times”) over a soaring keyboard-led melody. Westchester County Jail repeats the trick of Writers Retreat with added steel guitar. A bit of pace in the songs suits him quite well, That’s Alright has a nice REM-style midtempo groove to it while Oh Genevieve (classic Lloyd Cole title) is another song to add to his long list of odes to various girls.
Later, Rhinestones is a sprightly, banjo-led stomp, before closing track Double Happiness keeps up the pace, stretching out a little musically on the guitar before the end. All in all, Lloyd’s “edge” is almost completely absent here, but it’s a pleasant enough collection of tunes, very enjoyable for fans of Lloyd Cole.
Sunday, October 24, 2010
This album mainly consists of covers, from Los Lobos to Low via Richard Thompson and Townes Van Zandt. Angel Dance, the opener is a kind of sprightly folk, while House of Cards is more a lumbering, slow-burning rock track. Plant covers not just one Low track but 2! Silver Rider is the more successful of the two, as Plant allows the band to stretch out with some superb guitar. Monkey on the other hand struggles to match the visceral intensity of the original. Nevertheless, they are great songs, and Plant does a decent job on them.
On the other end of the spectrum, You Can’t Buy My Love is a kind of early 60s stomp, and we get some bluegrass in Cindy, I'll Marry You Someday and Satan Your Kingdom Must Come Down. Townes Van Zandt’s Harm Swift Way is transformed into country rock, working quite well.
Overall the album is a little hit and miss, but at least he’s pushing himself creatively.
Thursday, October 21, 2010
Monday, October 18, 2010
This is Mogwai’s first live album, a recording of a gig in Brooklyn last year. It’s a very lavish package, with a live album, the Burning live DVD, and also downloads of additional material.
There’s a spread of material here from all their albums. The quality of the recording is very good, you can hear every scrape of guitar string even amidst the inevitable onslaught that comes in many of their songs. If anything, some of the tracks are even more embellished, I’m Jim Morrison, I’m Dead in particular benefits from additional keyboards. Later, Hunted By A Freak emerges as one of the strongest of the bunch. The roar of appreciation when its off kilter guitar picking starts up is quite something to behold for an instrumental!
The track Cody contains some slightly thin vocals from Stuart Braithwaite and is a little jarring. The other tracks draw from all Mogwai’s repertoire of talent, the slow-builders (Friend of the Night, I Love You, I’m Going To Blow Up Your School), the elephant-on-the-loose (Glasgow Megasnake), and the epic mindblower (Like Herod). For this last one especially it’s well worth watching the ‘Burning’ DVD (tastefully shot by Vincent Moon). When the sudden guitar assault comes mid-song the camera is on the crowd. You can feel their exhilaration as they simply scream and roar with a combination of fear and elation, which sums up Mogwai’s live experience.
Sunday, October 17, 2010
Leaving those aside, there are a couple of great songs here which restore my faith in Sylvian and his muse. Ballad of a Deadman is a gorgeous bluesy duet with Joan Wasser, with a sort of marching band tempo and a nice string part in the middle.
Ryuichi Sakamoto is someone who Sylvian has a history with, and on World Citizen – I Won’t Be Disappointed they marry a somewhat simplistic lyric concerning the environment with a soothing electronica piece. It’s a roaring success. There are a couple of tracks he made with Nine Horses here, the best of them being the relatively sparse The Day The Earth Stole Heaven. Based on an acoustic guitar and some ‘la la la la’ backing vocals, and a great lead vocal, it was the prettiest track on Snow Borne Sorrow, and it’s worth catching here.
After the brief piano ballad Playground Martyrs, a sweetly played acoustic guitar kicks off the next track Exit / Delete, a collaboration with Takagi Masakatsu featuring a strange tale of Caroline (a recurring character in Sylvian’s more recent work) and deleted files, but it’s a gorgeous summery piece of music.
Some of the more experimental pieces work well also, Transit is a collaboration with Christian Fennesz which takes glitch electronica textures, low feedback, distortion and blends them into a very 21st century European ballad.
This collection comes as a welcome relief after Manafon. Although quite a lot of it doesn’t really work, it’s nice to hear many of the more playful tracks gathered together in one place, and in even the less successful ones offer plenty to return to.
Saturday, October 16, 2010
On the electric songs his guitar sounds immense, though without any other instruments the effect is a little disorientating, until you get used to it. In actual fact a lot of the songs sound like they would transfer well on to an acoustic guitar. Although it’s the strongest collection of songs for some time from Neil Young, he doesn’t frontload the album, and the opening 2 tracks are 2 of the weaker ones.
Walk With Me is a reasonable enough track which showcases Young’s guitar sound and Lanois’ production, which relies on the use of loops, bleeps etc, which occupy the last minute or so of the song. Sign of Love references Drive Back, which is to my ears, the least successful track on Zuma. Similarly on this album, this track is relatively pedestrian.
Someone’s Gonna Rescue You takes a little inspiration from the midsection of The Doors’ The End. While it sounds unremarkable at first, its overall ‘spaciness’ creeps up on you, though Neil Young’s high-pitched vocal doesn’t quite suit the song. Still it’s an improvement on the opening tracks. There’s a hint of Old Man in the melody, though it’s well buried by guitar and studio trickery.
The 2 acoustic tracks Love and War and Peaceful Valley Boulevard are as strong a pair of song as anything in his back catalogue. Love and War sounds like a classic Neil Young acoustic track. Without making it sound like this album is playing spot the old song reference, the melody is a little reminiscent of Hey Hey, My My. There’s a Spanish feel to the middle of this track, along the lines of Freedom’s Eldorado with some wonderful guitar playing.
After the return of the loops and heavy guitar that is Angry World, Hitchhiker is probably the strongest of the electric tracks, with a powerful vocal over a vintage Neil Young guitar progression. The aforementioned acoustic Peaceful Valley Boulevard is excellent, with echoes of Pocahontas running through it. The similarities are subtle, none of these tracks sound overly like anything else in his catalogue. Only with repeated listens do some of the melodies start to evoke older tracks. The guitar playing in this track gives it a particularly lonely feel, aided by excellent production.
Rumblin’ is the final track, and has another fine melody as Neil Young exhorts himself, singing “when will I learn how to listen”. Though the album’s initially a little difficult, it sounds better and better the more you listen to it, and there’s no real precedent for it in Neil Young’s vast back catalogue. It’s great that he’s pushing himself to do something new.
Thursday, October 7, 2010
The album continues to follow the same pattern as Mr Beast with Danphe and the Brain, one of many lumbering giants on this album, and it, like the others lumber along pleasantly for the most part, with occasional distortion. This one in particular reminds me of the Cure circa Faith / Carnage Visors, though without Robert Smith obviously as the entire album is instrumental.
There is one track on this album which has no precursors, The Sun Smells Too Loud, which is a bright, poppy tune with a strident beat. Not really sure about it to be honest, hope it’s just an experiment rather than a new direction.
In general though this is another strong album from Mogwai, though not a great one in comparison with previous work.
Wednesday, October 6, 2010
The album doesn’t represent a major departure from these, as the 8 songs contained within are all framed by Hollis’ fragile, quivering voice. After 20 seconds of silence, opening track The Colour of Spring starts off sounding reasonably conventional before retreating in on itself with a beautifully quiet Satie-esque piano part. It’s like REM’s Everybody Hurts turned inside out and stripped down to bare bones. Watershed is more fleshed out, with more instruments but never so much that the instruments overwhelm the music with each individual instrument line given a chance to breathe in this setting. The merest flaws, strings squeaking and background noise can be picked out in these songs.
Inside Looking Out is rather sombre, almost forbidding. You nearly hold your breath listening to songs like these, as if even breathing could disturb the mood. Hollis sings in a gossamer-like voice words which are not lyrics in the conventional sense but more impressionistic (“left no life no more”). The song is dominated by the sparsest of piano progressions, with a little guitar and keyboards here and there, and production so bare you can here occasional creaks here and there. It’s breathtaking.
The Gift is busier, along the lines of Watershed, and tinged with regret with some wonderful acoustic guitar peeking in and out of the track before ending with woodwind. A Life (1895-1915) opens with clarinet and is light years away from conventional rock music, with parts of it very silent indeed, until after 3 minutes a piano part enters to carry the song for 2 minutes, along with some spectral backing vocals.
Westward Bound has a ratcheting guitar figure along the lines of Runeii from Talk Talk’s Laughing Stock, while The Daily Planet reaches back further (after a cor anglaise opening) to Talk Talk’s Spirit of Eden album. Guitar, some lovely piano and harmonica blend together to create a muted epic.
Final track, A New Jerusalem is the sound of music being put away. Funereal in tempo, it’s blissfully bleak. The album finishes as it starts, with silence. It takes an age to get into this album, but it does reward. This really is a modern form of that age old genre, the blues. However it’s hard to see where Hollis can go from here, and I understand he has retired from the music business.
Tuesday, October 5, 2010
I saw Beth Gibbons touring in 2003, and I must admit she was a little precious, shutting the bar during the performance, which had the effect of trying the audience’s patience, only thinking of when would the gig end and where would they go afterwards?!
How relevant would Portishead prove to be, 14 years on from Dummy in 2008? Opening track Silence starts with some disembodied voice speaking in Spanish (I think) before a cacophony of sound is unleashed, dispelling any preconceptions that this was to be anything like Dummy. It’s a skittering, claustrophobic, dark block of sound which sets the tone for the album. Two minutes later Gibbons’ tortured voice enters the mix, battling against eerie keyboards, stabs of distorted guitar and insistent percussion. It’s a breathtaking track and anything but ‘chill-out’, with a forlorn guitar joining the maelstrom before it ends abruptly.
Hunter is a sort-of torch song, reminiscent of Beth Gibbons’ Out of Season album, and on more conventional ground for older fans of Portishead, though it’s interrupted by sound effects searing through intermittently which conjure up a plane taking off. All the while Gibbons sounds as anguished as ever, and strangely enough it works beautifully.
Nylon Smile is not quite as strong as the opening 2 tracks, consisting mainly of pulsing electronica, but The Rip is a highly engaging lament built around a guitar figure which evolves into a keyboard progression. Gibbons sings “White horses, they will take me away,” and it sounds kind of menacing till the keyboards take over the track, concluding it pleasingly.
Plastic features what sounds like a machine rotating and stop-start rhythms, but then We Carry On takes the pace up several notches, insistent electronica with a pounding beat punctuated by some almost Sonic Youth-ish guitar riffs and effects. It’s an alarming track, almost military with its relentless march, and light years away from Dummy. I can only imagine what it’s like live.
Deep Water which follows is totally jarring. For one thing it’s only a minute and a half long and sounds a whole lot quieter than anything else on the album. It features Beth Gibbons voice and what might be a ukulele, and she’s joined by a kind of doo-wop chorus, making it sound like a relic from the early part of the last century.
Blowing this out of the water is the completely bonkers Machine Gun, which has drums and keyboards combining to produce a machine-gun-like rhythm with Gibbons’ voice bolted on and air raid siren-like keyboards. It’s probably the hardest track to get into and I’m not sure it entirely works, though it’s interesting nonetheless.
Small sounds like a quieter, downbeat track until keyboards crash in after two and a half minutes as the song grimly lurches along. Magic Doors ominously follows, before the closing Threads, which is maybe a little reminiscent of the better tracks from Dummy where Beth Gibbons sings her little heart out about how she’s “always so unsure”. The whole thing ends with more air-raid siren style keyboards.
I couldn’t listen to this album at first. I put it away and revisited again later. So glad I did. Forget ‘trip-hop’, this album is wonderfully inventive, and if anything the band are closer to Radiohead circa Kid A. It’s a thing of wonder.
Wednesday, September 22, 2010
Palimpest sounds quite bleak, in a good way, with a gingerly plucked guitar and Callahan’s blacker-than-black vocals combining for a fine little tune, although at less than 3 minutes it’s a little short, leaving this listener wanting more. The album settles into its groove with Say Valley Maker, which like many of the tracks here ambles along in an unhurried fashion, with deftly plucked guitars and brushed drums.
The Well is faster, with a fairly simple repeating guitar figure and some almost jaunty fiddle. There’s a real spring in the step of this one, with a change of pace here and there for good measure. Rock Bottom Riser is the emotional heart of the album. It sounds like an instant classic, with a simple descending guitar pattern and a great vocal from Bill. There’s some lovely piano by Joanna Newsom round the edges of this one.
I Feel Like The Mother of the World comes next featuring what sounds to me like banjo in a fairly unstructured song, that works nonetheless. In The Pines is a cover of an old folk song, and it’s an interesting version in that rather than a straight cover version he sings kind of around and off the beat, supported by some eerie whistling and fiddle.
Drinking at the Dam is a kind of calm, relaxed song with plenty of room to breathe in it. I first heard this when I was driving away from Dublin, listening to the radio on a Sunday morning. I remember how calm it was and how it perfectly reflected a quiet Sunday on the roads, and also how much I hoped the signal of the radio would last till the end of the song (was well outside Dublin). Musically it is quite an airy track, with a little guitar here, a little piano there, and some lovely wordless ‘aah’ backing vocals which really make the song. There’s a great line about “for the first part of my life I thought women had orange skin”.
The playing is really very fine on this album, which Bill Callahan produced himself and did a fine job, with each instrument given room to do its own unhurried thing. Later on the album I’m New Here is another idiosyncratic track, consisting solely of plucked guitar strings and a boastful lyric: “met a woman in a bar, I told her I was hard to get to know and near impossible to forget.” Her response? “She said I had an ego on me the size of Texas!”
The album alternately evokes cold clear days and hot sticky ones. Not quite sure how the music achieves this! It’s one of the finer Smog albums, though it’s light years away from the 90s Smog albums like Doctor Came At Dawn and Red Apple Falls.
Sunday, September 19, 2010
Peter Broderick is an American musician/composer in his early twenties who has played with Efterklang but also has released a considerable amount of music. Some of it is classical pieces, and some is fairly conventional singer-songwriter stuff. This is more of a ‘mini-album’ as it features only 7 tracks.
The first track, Sideline, opens with just his voice for the first 2 minutes. His singing voice is somewhat unremarkable, making the moment when the piano joins quite welcome! Actually it’s a good track, which works well as does following track, the oddly titled Human Eyeballs on Toast, which is also piano-led, and a deceptively cheerful vocal from Broderick, as the subject matter sounds far from cheery! His vocal reminds me of Nick Drake, or Irish singer-songwriter Paul O’Reilly.
He has a wonderful light touch which makes his songs sound kind of slight and simple at first, but they pull you in. He puts this into play with a great, ‘sketchy’ guitar on Guilt’s Tune, which also features piano but no actual singing, he merely speaks the lyrics on this one. When I’m Gone and Pulling the Rain are piano instrumentals, very fine pieces indeed, particularly the latter, which is as stately and refined a piano piece as one could hope to hear in 2010.
Final track, Hello to Nils has no piano, just Broderick’s guitar, which is a nice closing track, probably the most conventional on the album with a proper chorus (“I say goodbye too often”).
The whole album has a kind of onset of winter feel to it. It’s fine music. If you like his album Home, which is one of his more accessible albums, this is almost as accessible.
Saturday, September 18, 2010
I was very taken with Interpol’s debut album, Turn On The Bright Lights. Sure it was very reminiscent of Joy Division and The Chameleons, but they did it so well. They distilled the essence of those bands into some snappy, soaring anthems. The album sounded fresh, and compulsive, and let’s face it most music originates from somewhere, right? However subsequent albums Antics and Our Love to Endure (ok, it was admire, but you get the point) delivered similar music with diminishing returns.
Black mark against them for the lazy self-titling of their album (see Stone Temple Pilots review: http://sacredcowpats.blogspot.com/2010/05/album-review-stone-temple-pilots.html). However, perhaps this was a sign of ‘back to basics’ style reinvention? Not so in my book.
Frankly I’m surprised it took them 3 years to come up with this. It sounds to me like Interpol have run out of steam. Paul Banks was never the most varied vocalist in the world, but here his vocal range is narrower than ever. Almost every track has him singing in the same semi-dramatic, slightly dark and slightly bored tone.
The rest of the band don’t really mine new territory, but even when they do, it’s mainly the addition of skittery keyboards which really don’t work at all. In fairness the more uptempo tracks aren’t bad (Barricades, Safe Without) but they aren’t particularly exciting. Barricades is probably the best track here as Banks sings with actual passion, as opposed to ennui. The slower ones plod like Interpol have never plodded before. Even the titles plod (Always Malaise, All of the Ways).
Apparently bassist Carlos Dengler has quit the band and has been replaced by David Pajo (Slint, Aerial M etc) which bodes well for a badly needed new direction. This musical avenue has proved to be a cul de sac. Maybe I’ve just grown tired of this band. Or maybe it’ll be better live (seeing them in December).
Saturday, September 11, 2010
Even now, this album sounds fresh. The whole package is very minimalist, both with the music and the song titles. Each song has a one-word title: Words, Fear, Cut etc. Opening track Words starts with a sparse bassline and low-tuned echoing electric guitar, underpinned by Alan Sparhawk and Mimi Parker’s otherworldly harmonies. It sounds bold and arresting, and it becomes a groove that the band settles into.
The harmonies in particular are very good, especially on tracks like Fear and Sea. They sound a bit like Simon and Garfunkel with the Cure on backing vocals. Actually that only tells part of the story. If that was it they would merely be derivative but in fact they sound like noone else sounded before. Every note is distinct, even down to Sparhawk’s fingers sliding over the fretboard. Yet the songs sound cohesive, almost like hymns with vocals are shared fairly evenly between Sparhawk and Parker. On Lullaby (Cure influence again?) the band stretch out, the track building from a sparse almost lifeless beginning to a full band performance in the middle, before ebbing away again as the song fades.
However, isolating individual tracks is futile here. The album works best as a complete unit, as each track flows into the next, making for a redemptive and soothing listen for those long, dark nights.
Note: no copies of Disintegration or Carnage Visors were harmed in the making of this album!
Thursday, September 9, 2010
Forget the joke figure that Chris Cornell turned himself into. Back in 1994, Soundgarden with Cornell on lead vocals released their masterpiece. He was one of the great grunge voices of the era. His voice soared over the bludgeoning, guttural riffs of Kim Thayil, especially on this album.
Previous albums had impressed, but Superunknown was a bold statement. 70 minutes and 15 diverse tracks was quite a lot to take in. Were they aiming for a White Album of grunge, maybe? The bottom line with this album is it is full of great, heavy songs, many of which were quite anthemic, and a lot of it is more metal than grunge.
Fell On Black Days, starts with a great, driving low riff and a superb vocal from Cornell. Mailman, is heavier, almost draggier (in a good way), as Cornell sings about “heading for the bottom”. The title track follows which races along at breakneck speed, sounding enormous. Thayil plays not one but 2 guitar riffs and Cornell belts out the lyrics as if his life depended on it.
There is room for moodier introspection (with a degree of heaviness) on tracks like Head Down, The Day I Tried To Live, both of which feature unusual, exciting chord progressions. Along similar lines Black Hole Sun made a huge impression on MTV, being both a moody anthem, and being radio-friendly.
At the opposite end of the spectrum Spoonman is a heavy anthem featuring jackhammer drums, rampaging riffs and a spoon solo (!) in the middle (failed to start a musical trend), while Kickstand is a short, sharp, punky shock to the system.
On Half they try their hand at Eastern stylings while 4th of July drags a little on sludgier than sludgy riffs, but in the main the ten tonne, 20 metres below sea-level guitar riffs and vocal pyrotechnics win the day here. It’s one of the essential albums of the grunge era.
Wednesday, September 8, 2010
He returned to the countrified, acoustic sound used on Harvest for this 1978 album, and from the opening bars of the aptly titled Goin’ Back, it fits him like a glove. The moment you hear the plaintively strummed guitars it feels comfortable, like an old sweater, enhanced by the beautiful string section. We’re definitely in country territory here, almost too much so as the fiddle on the title track is a little ‘hokey’. Behind the fiddle is another excellent melody.
Look Out for My Love and Lotta Love were done with Crazy Horse, so don’t share the warm, fuzzy feeling of the opening 2 tracks. Yet these tracks have their own charm, in a slightly less polished sort of way. The presence of electric guitar on the former is quite welcome, and the almost clumsy piano and harmony on Lotta Love work well.
Peace of Mind sees the return of the strings, like the sound of sunset in August. Like the rest of the album it’s a very relaxed song, all steel guitars and harmonies. Human Highway picks the pace up a little, adding banjo, and Already One is a nice, sentimental song without being mushy.
The final 3 tracks are not quite as strong as the opening 7. Field of Opportunity comes riding in on a tractor with a piece of hay in its mouth, Motorcycle Mama doesn’t quite work, despite the prominent vocals of Nicolette Larsson, while Four Strong Winds is just a little dull. This album doesn’t get the plaudits of Harvest, perhaps because it’s lacking a true standout track in the vein of Old Man or Needle and the Damage Done. Nevertheless it’s essential for fans of Neil Young’s work.
Saturday, September 4, 2010
It’s straight down to business with Stink, which bursts forward with Malcolm Middleton’s downbeat guitar riff, over Aidan Moffat’s growling tale of a lost weekend. “Burn these sheets that we’ve just…” spits Moffat, singing with more venom than ever. What sets this apart is that the details listed here are not what they got up to but Moffat’s description of the girl he’s with: “it’s your skin and your breath and your sweat and greasy hair” over Middleton’s coruscating guitar. The old romantic’s at it again. The barrage of torrid imagery continues “empty cans and makeshift ashtrays everywhere, strangers waking up in the Monday morning stink.” It makes for a powerful opener, the whole thing is over in less than two and a half minutes!
The pace picks up further with (If There’s) No Hope For Us which barrels along with thumping drums and driving guitars, probably Arab Strap’s fastest song. Moffat dissects a relationship like noone else: “we never used to let just one spare moment go to waste, but now you’re hardly here and when you are you’re bored and chaste.” Later in the track female vocals from Nicola MacLeod provide a counterpoint: “that’s me then, I’m all packed, you know I need some time to think” but Moffat answers “you take what you think you’ll need I think we both might need a drink.”
Don’t Ask Me To Dance is similarly economic, yet it still skips along quickly, over deftly picked guitar and a cutting chorus: “and maybe I’m not very vocal ‘cos I’ve used the words before, and the more they were repeated the more they were ignored.” A whole album of this can be a little heavy, and the more stripped down tracks like Confessions of a Big Brother and Come Round and Love Me provide some light relief (though the former contains the crushing revelation that “sometimes there’s nothing sexier than knowing that you’re doomed”).
It doesn’t all work, the cry in your beer Chat in Amsterdam, Winter 2003 should have stayed in the pub and Speed-Date is a little too similar to No Hope For Us. The music continues to excite later on the album, Dream Sequence features some fine piano playing from Barry Burns of Mogwai, and Middleton plays a lovely fragile guitar part on Fine Tuning.
This grubby (in a good way) thing ends with There Is No Ending, an upbeat, trumpet led track form which there is no coming back for these guys, but a fine album to finish up their career as Arab Strap with. A perfect combination of acerbic lyrics and wonderfully brooding music.
Friday, September 3, 2010
The steel guitar is prominent from the first track, Feather By Feather, which would have fit in well on Red Apple Falls. The track has a relaxed, unhurried feel about it, reinforced by Sarabeth Tucek’s backing vocals. The pace picks up with Butterflies Drowned In Wine, which takes the VU inspired chug of the previous album and marries it to the aforementioned steel guitar, by way of numerous changes in tempo and a vocal that sounds more like Lou Reed than ever. It should sound like a complete mess but weirdly, it doesn’t. Maybe it’s Tucek’s backing vocals? It beats the hell out of most of the Rain On Lens material, that’s for sure. If it appeared on a Lou Reed album it would probably be the best track.
Morality is another uptempo track, though less successful. Things improve with the understated, wary Ambition, which floats in on some eerie organ, accompanied by nicely picked guitars. Vessel in Vain is a more stripped down, rootsy track. It’s a relatively simple melody which climaxes in an almost sing-along chorus, as he sings “my ideals have got me on the run”.
Later, Truth Serum is another fairly unrushed, lazy melody which has the feel of a vintage Van Morrison track about it. The playing on this is wonderfully light, though it has to be said that this and most of the other tracks take a few listens to grab you. At its core this one is an unashamed romantic duet, and though it lasts seven and a half minutes, you don’t want it to end. Which actually makes it better than some of the overlong tracks on Van Morrison’s Astral Weeks.
Our Anniversary is another fine lengthy melody, a little sparser but again the playing here has a great light touch to it. Driving on the other hand is a bit of a mess. I think he was aiming for a sort of repetitive mantra effect but it disrupts the flow of the album a bit. Final track Guiding Light is better, it’s a darker and shorter track, reminiscent of some of the stripped down closing tracks on older Smog albums. He sings about the sun sinking, and “staying up long into the night” over ringing electric guitar and minimal percussion. Nice to end on a down note. (!)
This is a fine album though it’s a real grower, requiring multiple listens, though if you have patience it will be rewarded.
Thursday, August 26, 2010
The gig was in the same venue as four months ago, but in the main area this time, which was just as well as the gig was jam packed. There were 2 support acts. The first was Jim McKee, a big haired northerner with a guitar and harmonica who was backed up by a girl playing an inaudible cello. He was somewhat unremarkable, not irritating, but not engaging. Ryan Sheridan followed, playing guitar with another guy playing a sort of ‘percussion’ box. There was great energy and enthusiasm on the stage, and the music wasn’t bad either, though he was let down by his ‘generic indie’ voice.
Anyway mainman Mark Lanegan came on stage soon after, with guitarist Dave Rosser, who replaced his acoustic guitar of 4 months ago with an electric. I’m not going to continue the hair motif, anyone else who was there can do that…
The early part of the set drew heavily on Field Songs, with I think 5 of the first 7 tracks coming from this album. Little Willie John was an early highlight, sung here in a lower, more understated style than the recorded version. As the gig went on it was hard not to fixate on Lanegan’s voice, sounding as powerful and as tuneful as ever, he really is in fine voice these days.
There were few major surprises, a Kinks cover sounded good but his own solo tracks really shone in this setting, especially One Hundred Days, a wonderful song, full of regret and a great big sad vocal.
They did quite a long encore, throwing in Screaming Trees tracks (Traveller, Shadow of the Season, Halo of Ashes) which left most of the audience bemused, and Queens of the Stone Age’s Hanging Tree, which got the best response of the night.
The faster tracks left part of me hankering for a heavier set up, drums, bass etc, though with just electric guitar Mark’s voice was given plenty of room to breathe. This was as good a Mark Lanegan gig as I’ve ever been to.
Monday, August 23, 2010
Regular readers of this blog (yes, both of you) will know that I have a penchant for pretty much anything Mark Lanegan does. Of late he has become a serial collaborator, and this latest collaboration sees his third album with Isobel Campbell. I must admit that I am surprised that they have done 3 albums together. Not that I don’t enjoy their albums, but in the last 10 years Lanegan has tried his hand at whole range of collaborations, from the hard-rocking Queens of the Stone Age to the electronica-based Soulsavers, yet this relatively conventional coupling is the one he has returned to most. Campbell is the main driver of this project, writing most of the songs, but these albums wouldn’t have the same without Lanegan’s voice.
This is an extremely accessible album, as they try out lots of different styles. We Die and See Beauty Reign is a fairly slight, spooky duet but it’s followed by You Won’t Let Me Down Again. This is a confident, striding track built on a James Iha riff with a great melody and a really good vocal from Lanegan.
Townes Van Zandt casts a long shadow over this album, as 2 of his songs are covered here, Snake Song and No Place To Fall. The first of these is a fairly faithful interpretation. Van Zandt’s music has been cited as an influence on Lanegan’s solo albums, and this comparison may go some way towards explaining why he chose to sit out the second of these tracks, allowing Willy Mason to take the vocals. Some might find his vocals jarring but he fits in fine here in my opinion, adding a sort of curveball into the mix. His voice is not too far removed from Van Zandt’s, and there is a nice fiddle part here also.
In between these tracks is Come Undone, which is like a mixture of Come On Over (Turn Me On) from previous album Sunday at Devil Dirt, and James Brown’s It’s A Man’s Man’s World. So an unashamed big ballad then, featuring strings and a kitchen-sink style arrangement, and wonderfully tender vocals from Campbell and Lanegan.
The moods shift and twist throughout this album, as Get Behind Me is a kind of bluesy stomp, as is the title track. Time of the Season, however is a gorgeous duet, more akin to Honey Child What Can I Do (off Ballad of the Broken Seas) with sweeping strings and harmonies.
Without the counterfoil of Lanegan, Isobel Campbell does not fare so well, Sunrise and To Hell and Back Again, which she handles on her own are a little precious, straying into Hope Sandoval territory. Perhaps Sunrise is her way of writing a Lanegan song (a lá Sunrise off 1994's Whiskey for the Holy Ghost), though she doesn't quite pull it off.
Cool Water sees the return of Willy Mason, and it’s a wonderfully understated, relaxed ballad, sounding like it could have been recorded any time in the last 50 years, with charming car horn honks. Eyes of Green is like a traditional Irish jig (!) while Lately is an optimistic Dylanesque closer, sung by Mark Lanegan, helped along by a gospel choir, overcooking the song somewhat.
The album is a little hit and miss but in general it works pretty well, with the odd surprise here and there. Although with this collaboration spanning 3 albums it has probably run its course, with little else left to said between these two. Time for a solo album Mark?!
Tuesday, August 17, 2010
A Hit uses heavy distorted guitar to deliver a kind of slacker anthem (“it’s not gonna be a hit so why even bother with it”). It’s really not as good as it sounds (which isn’t that good really) and not one which I’ll listen over and over to. The rest of the tracks are of varying quality. Spanish Moss is a fairly slight, acoustic strum, while Chosen One is a fuller sounding track, built around a piano. It’s interesting to hear how weedily Bill Callahan sings on these older tracks, light years away from his more recent material.
For those unfamiliar with Smog, listening closely to some of these tracks can make them seem disturbing. Real Live Dress features a great bit of guitar picking, sounding foreboding, like something off Doctor Came at Dawn. Musically it’s great, though the subject matter is creepy in the extreme. Came Blue has a going nowhere melody and creepy, drab atmosphere, but Little Girl Shoes is creepier still, as Bill Callahan sings deadpan about being “attracted to your little girl shoes” over some barely there, sparse music. Em, okay?
Later on there is an acoustic version of Cold Blooded Old Times (off Knock Knock) which is just bill and his rickety guitar, and it doesn’t really work, it’s like the song has had the life sucked out of it, they type of version that “turns your bones to glass.” It doesn’t work as well as the full band original version. On the other hand, White Ribbon is a song that was recorded for this collection and sounds pleasingly off-kilter. The melody is quite odd, and Bill’s phrasing is unconventional, though he is in fine voice, and the guitar playing on this one is really good. So against the odds the track works really well.
I Break Horses, featured here is a BBC session version of this track (originally on Kicking a Couple Around). It’s more fully realised than the original, though it starts out very sparsely, before building up to an almost anthem with the chorus, aided and abetted by some fine piano-playing.
It’s definitely not Bill Callahan’s best stuff, but worth checking out if you’re a fan for a handful of quality tunes.
Friday, August 13, 2010
Opener Ladies and Gentlemen is quite unexpected, sounding not like one of their older tracks but a whole different thing. In fact it sounds like a ‘call-to-arms’ as Eitzel sings “ladies and gentlemen it’s time for all the good that’s in you to shine” over an unsettling distorted guitar growl, before becoming a sort of abrasive smoky jazz track. It doesn’t really work in my view but it’s an interesting opener. Another Morning follows which is a much more familiar sounding track, with a jangly guitar and a fairly commercial melody. Indeed if they had put this out in the early 90s it might have given them a commercial breakthrough but that ship has long, long sailed. Lyrically it’s another song about his muse Kathleen Burns (deceased at this stage) with some great imagery like “when you laughed like water breaking over a broken land”.
Patriot’s Heart is another smoky jazz track, which is probably better executed than Ladies and Gentlemen, but again I’m not too fond of it. The album in general is a lot denser and complex than their other albums, with a lot going on in many of the tracks. Job To Do on the surface is a simple enough song with a carefully picked guitar in the verses until heavy drums kick in for the chorus, followed by some extraordinary squalling feedback from Vudi.
Later tracks such as Mantovani the Mind Reader and America Loves The Minstrel Show sound pleasingly offkilter, almost like conventional tunes that have been slightly warped. Myopic Books is a lovely tale about wanting to visit a bookstore in winter where “the music they’d play there would be Dinosaur Jr, and the people who work there would be superskinny and super-unfriendly, and that would make me happy.” This heartwarming tale turns to memories of the protagonist’s mother, and all this takes place over some plaintive guitar, gentle percussion and keyboards, before drawing the conclusion “maybe the worst is over”.
After the jaunty mess that is Your Horseshoe Wreath In Bloom, Song for the Rats Leaving the Sinking Ship is like the flipside to Myopic Books, in that it’s acoustically based but more sombre (“you can laugh, you can cry, you can even bitterly grieve”), with a more austere guitar pattern.
Final track The Devil Needs You is arguably the most ambitious. It starts off simply enough with a straightforward descending guitar pattern, until halfway through Marc Capelle’s horns enter the mix, playing out an instrumental coda which is as ambient as this band has ever got. You find yourself wanting the track to outlast the seven and a half minutes running time, it’s a great way to end the album.
There are some albums which flow along nicely, one track running into the next. This is not one of them. It weaves and winds through different directions from track to track, and with several layers within many of them which reward repeated listening.
Thursday, August 12, 2010
Opening track If It Rains is a pretty calm, slow number, in the vein of the Velvet Underground’s Pale Blue Eyes (especially the guitar solo in the middle). The playing on this is really pretty, and it has an air of a lost Lou Reed classic, and even the storm sounds towards the end work well.
Demon Days which follows is the centrepiece. Written with Grant McLennan a few days before his death, it displays a hitherto unheard Neil Young influence, sounding like an instant classic, which would fit in seamlessly on any of Young’s more acoustic albums. Forster sounds like a worldly wise Neil Young on his vocals with a simple chorus of “something’s not right, something’s gone wrong”, as the music becomes ever more lovely, with the guitars joined by violin, cello and even celeste. Despite this, it’s a beautifully simple song.
Pandanus picks up the pace a bit with a simple jangly guitar/bass/drums arrangement and arrives in time to stop the album from sinking in a sea of morbidity with some particularly fine guitar on this one. Did She Overtake You follows in a very similar vein, also uptempo before the pace slows again with the title track. This one is a classic dreamer type song, about taking a girl “out of her world and put her into mine… let’s sail away baby, please try and follow me”. Later there’s a lovely image about how “she drove a Golf white diesel… she took me into her world of parks and wooden seats”. Indeed it’s these little details that make this romantic song work, without them it would probably be fairly unremarkable.
Let Your Light In, Babe and It Ain’t Easy were also worked on with McLennan, and are kind of countryish skiffles, with the former featuring jaunty mandolin. But the final track From Ghost Town is another tear-jerker, again in the vein of Neil Young, with plaintive piano. The lyrics however are all Forster, presumably singing about McLennan: “and he knew more than I knew, and I hated what he hated too”, and also “it’s gone, yes yes yes it’s wrong”. It’s deeply sad, yet goose-bump inducing and is then punctuated by a Neil Young style harmonica at the end. It could have been mawkish and sentimental but it’s handled with self-deprecation and sensitivity. It’s powerful stuff.
Wednesday, August 11, 2010
Acid Food features electronic beats and steel guitar, and Stuart Braithwaite’s vocoderized vocals. These elements should clash horribly but coalesce to produce a decent track, reminiscent of some of the tracks on Rock Action.
What’s noticeable about this album is that the tracks are shorter, and more concise, none of running longer than 5 and a half minutes, and most of them less than 4. This is not necessarily what you want from Mogwai, as one of their main strengths is their command of pacing and dynamics, in allowing a piece of music to carefully unfurl and evolve into something.
Case in point is the track Travel Is Dangerous, which has the raw materials required to be an absolute epic, containing the classic Mogwai build up to heavy guitars, though it all happens rather quickly and the track ends in just 4 minutes.
After the piano-led Team Handed, also 4 minutes but conversely, doesn’t really need to be, we get Emergency Trap which pleasingly is 5 and a half minutes, with a nice build up and some stately piano parts with the help of some distorted guitars and heavy drums (hooray!). It’s the track Travel Is Dangerous should have been.
Emergency Trap has a blessed-out atmosphere and drifts along serenely, but this is shattered by Folk Death 95 which pounds along most pleasingly in a classic Mogwai vein with some very metallish guitars. This track also benefits form a proper build up as we are led into metal mayhem gradually, rather than dumped straight into it. I’d still like a longer version of this one though, as the heaviness ebbs away almost as soon as it starts. No Mogwai track should be only 3 and a half minutes long!
I Chose Horses features Tetsuya Fukagawa from a Japanese hardcore band Envy reciting Japanese over a keyboard arrangement by composer Craig Armstrong but the overall effect leaves me a little nonplussed. However final track We’re No Here is a nice heavy blast to end the album.
It’s a very solid album, for sure, but I wouldn’t have complained if many of the songs were a lot longer. However the shorter nature of the songs might act as a handy starting point for those looking to discover this band. And, let’s face it, who needs Sigur Ros, with these guys around?
Tuesday, August 10, 2010
Meanwhile, at the Bar, a Drunkard Muses is the second track. If the album is the quintessential Arab Strap album title then this track sums up what Arab Strap do in its title. It’s a quieter track with mainly acoustic guitar which builds like a Red House Painters song to an imagined climax which never arrives. The music is quite pretty, with some gentle backing vocals, and Moffat singing very sweetly indeed.
This atmosphere is smashed to bits with one of the heaviest tracks Arab Strap have ever recorded. Entitled Fucking Little Bastards, of all things, it starts with a pounding drum pattern and Middleton’s distorted, almost shoegazy heavy guitar, and Moffat on fine, bitter form singing about how “I don’t like the words that the birds are singing. I hate their ugly voices and the messages they’re bringing.” The song climaxes with some fiddle, of all things in the middle, all the while the sledgehammer guitar and heavy drums rage away. Maybe I should start a campaign to get it in the charts.
Flirt features steel guitar which doesn’t really suit Arab Strap at all, yet the song drives along with quick drums, piano and guitar just about holding the proceedings together. Who Named The Days? is quieter, Moffat singing “I never slam the door these days, then again I’m never here” over muted guitars sounding like a leftover from Elephant Shoe, while after a bagpipe (!) intro, Loch Leven about rain ‘pissing’ down on the aforementioned shore.
Glue features Moffat’s hilarious relationship theory (“Sex without love is a good ride worth trying but love without sex is second only to dying”) over standard issue brooding Arab Strap music. Further on, Serenade features a cheesy beat which luckily doesn’t ruin the music and more of Moffat’s observations: “I only go for girls I’ve got no chance with”, before the folky The Week Never Starts Around Here, which is the drunken singalong of this album.
The album is a definite return to form after the meanderings of previous album The Red Thread, with as strong a set of songs as the band have had since Philophobia.
Ideal circumstances to listen: Something for the weekend?? No I guess it’s the aforementioned Monday night pints in a dingy watering hole.
Monday, August 9, 2010
For this album he assembled a motley crew of musicians, with the likes of David Crosby, Graham Nash (of CSN and sometimes Y fame), along with Ralph Molina (Crazy Horse), Rusty Kershaw, Ben Keith etc.
Walk On is a somewhat unremarkable opener, a standard issue Neil Young lope-along track, but second track See the Sky About to Rain is a wholly different kettle of fish. Notable for the heavy use of keyboards in it, it’s a slow-burner of a song, with Young singing “played a silver fiddle, played it loud and then the man broke it down the middle. See the sky about to rain.” It’s kind of foreboding, but nothing like us foreboding as Revolution Blues. This song reportedly freaked out Crosby, Stills and Nash, with its insistent guitar pattern and ‘call-to-arms’ style lyrics, lacerating the big stars of the period (“I see bloody fountains, And ten million dune buggies comin' down the mountains. Well, I hear that Laurel Canyon is full of famous stars, But I hate them worse than lepers and I'll kill them in their cars”).
After this, the rootsier For the Turnstiles comes across as a relief, though again it’s an uneasy listen, with Young’s high-pitched, almost cracking vocals over banjo and dobro.
We settle into the second half of the album with Vampire Blues, another ‘lop-along’ like Walk On, with a basic blues progression, and a sparse, one note guitar passage in the middle section. Young sings about how “good times are coming, but they sure are coming slow.” The title track follows which is a much bleaker piece, featuring slow hand drums from Ben Keith, and great hesitant guitar from Young himself. He sounds totally bereft on this track, singing “though my problems are meaningless, that don’t make them go away.” The playing on this track is wonderful, it’s perfectly paced with a wonderful sparse guitar solo in the middle.
Motion Pictures features Neil Young singing in a much lower register than usual, and it suits him quite well, over a simple descending guitar riff, accompanied by some nice harmonica. He carries this singing style through to the last track, the nearly 9 minute Ambulance Blues, which is a kind of low key epic, featuring a simple folky guitar part , joined by harmonica and Rusty Kershaw’s rusty fiddle (don’t know if it actually was, but I imagine it to be). There are some lovely touches here, like when the lyrics wonderfully reflect the music. He sings “burn-outs stub their toes on garbage pails” as he deliberately plays a deep note loudly on guitar that could be a bum note, except that it’s in tune.
It’s criminal that these songs are not better known, or indeed this album, as it’s one of Neil Young’s finest.
Sunday, August 8, 2010
This album consists of virtually nothing but Kozelek’s voice and nylon acoustic guitar, played classically. Opening track Alesund starts out like Duk Koo Kim but becomes folkier and more austere, with a beautiful melody. There are subtle keyboard touches which don’t detract from this masterclass in guitar picking, as his playing on this and all the other tracks has reached new levels of excellence. After 5 and a half minutes or so we get an instrumental coda, a format that many of the other tracks follow. The song is jawdroppingly good, and a breathtaking way to start the album.
Maintaining a sombre mood is the following track, Half Moon Bay, with an equally pretty fingerpicked guitar pattern and Kozelek’s reverbed vocals, singing about “wandering in a dream”. Some of the ‘guitar runs’ on this track are particularly impressive, though borderline show-off territory! Sam Wong Hotel is similarly brooding.
Third and Seneca is a little more cheerful sounding, with a seriously impressive middle section, before the guitar picking becomes even more intricate. The mood lightens further with the relatively straightforward You Are My Sun, as close as this album comes to a simple love song, with a chorus that simply sees him dragging out the name ‘Leona’ (“Leeeooonaaa”). It works pretty well!
The album is a series of gorgeous musical passages. The Leaning Tree features a lovely middle section, echoing April’s Blue Orchids where Kozelek sings “you came to me in a dream…. I long for one more day with you in my life.” Later in the album, Australian Winter returns us to austerity with a suitably chilling Spanish guitar pattern. Amazingly, the album doesn’t peter out as Church of the Pines has another fantastic melody. It sounds devastatingly sad, which really is Kozelek’s speciality, before ending on a somewhat hopeful note with Bay of Skulls.
A criticism I have of this album is that most of the tracks are pretty similar, with no electric workout to balance the album. Also many of the songs are quite long, and some are a little drawn-out with lengthy instrumental guitar passages. Luckily I love acoustic guitar played like this. And this album is unremittingly lovely.
Friday, July 30, 2010
Reviewing 2009’s Primary Colours is a bit like playing “spot-the-influence”. There are a whole lot of influences thrown in here, but I suppose the base material is Interpol twisted through a My Bloody Valentine sieve. Also the fact is that these guys are clearly posh boys. It shouldn’t really make a difference, I am one myself, but it’s harder to empathise with anguished, over-privileged doom-mongers.
The first track Mirror’s Image starts off with some esoteric keyboards and funnily enough is reminiscent of the beginning of U2’s Zooropa album. This is dispelled by the entrance of a confident bass line, a wonderful progression of notes that sounds effortless and this is joined by the guitar doing the Kevin Shields / My Bloody Valentine “waaiirr”. “Is it the way,” he sings, “is it the way she looks at you” and it isn’t, it’s the bassline, the guitar and the synths. It’s a thrilling and exciting way to start the album.
However, it’s a hard trick to repeat over a whole album, as it soon becomes clear that the MBV effect is going to repeated over and over throughout the album, as next track Three Decades illustrates. Who Can Say races along on a bed of Jesus and Mary Chain style guitars and fairground-style keyboards, and is ‘distinguished’ by a cringe-worthy spoken word bit in the middle (“and when I told her I didn’t love her any more… she cried”).
The singer is capable of a whole range of vocal stylings. Brett Anderson is his inspiration on Do You Remember, which doesn’t sound a million miles away from Suede. New Ice Age starts off ominously, with foreboding bassline and synths, building up into a crescendo, bursting into a Chameleons-style number. It’s somewhat ruined by the brattish, strangled vocals though (exhibit A: his howl “the AGONY!”).
Scarlet Fields sounds a lot like a coupling between Joy Division’s Love Will Tear Us Apart and Pretty In Pink by the Psychedelic Furs. The bass line is a dead ringer for the morose Mancunian’s track while the singer does a fantastic impression of Psychedelic Furs’ Richard Butler. It works really well. Next track, I Only Think Of You (they’d been scanning Loveless for song titles as well as guitar effects!) sounds like NYC by Interpol but stretched out and ran through the MBV sieve to seven minutes in length.
After the insistent, Spiritualized knock-off I Can’t Control Myself, we are back on steady ground with title track Primary Colours, which has a nice pace and tempo to it, a bit like The Cure with Andrew Eldritch on vocals. Sea Within A Sea is the final and longest track, and is possible the most interesting. It starts quite simply with a simple, repeating bass note which shifts up slightly in line with the vocal melody, then halfway through adds a muted Morricone-style guitar part, before evolving into a Depeche Mode synth track. It actually works pretty well and is a good way to finish the album.
But will I be listening to it in 18 months?
Ideal circumstances to listen: A dingy basement rock venue, full of sweaty bodies and ne’er-do-well’s, while drinking Snakebite. While pretending to be a 20 year old.