Sunday, January 31, 2010

Album Review: Neil Young with Crazy Horse – Zuma

Zuma is seldom mentioned as one of Neil Young’s best, somewhat overshadowed by the likes of On The Beach and Tonight’s The Night. Released in 1975, it kicks off with Don’t Cry No Tears is a groove that Young and Crazy Horse made their own in the mid-seventies, and it lurches agreeably along in a vaguely countryish fashion. Danger Bird is a slower, more ponderous track featuring some superb guitar soloing in the mid section. It’s a bit like a dry run for Cortez the Killer. Pardon My Heart is for those lovers of acoustic Neil and is a fine example of this, Neil sings it in a restrained fashion, almost apologetic over an intricate acoustic guitar pattern.

Looking for a Love is a kind of poppy country song, and Barstool Blues is pleasingly messy, at one point Young can barely be bothered to sing properly and totally drops the melody for the line: ‘I might live a thousand years before I know what that muuuuhns (means)’. The aforementioned Cortez the Killer is the centrepiece of this album and it enters on some slow but seriously good guitar which lasts for the first 3 and a half minutes of this song before the vocals enter. This was a serious influence on Mark Kozelek, amongst others. The album ends with Through My Sails, recorded with Crosby, Stills and Nash which is a pleasant acoustic song with congas.

Saturday, January 30, 2010

Album Review: Peter Gabriel – Birdy (soundtrack)

Before his mega-selling album So, Peter Gabriel released the soundtrack to the movie Birdy in 1985. I haven’t seen the movie so I came to the soundtrack without preconceptions. It’s a highly atmospheric set of tracks, largely instrumental with occasional vocals. With titles like At Night and Quiet And Alone, it’s a contemplative work, mainly keyboard led with flute and drums, not too far away from Eno. Apparently some of it is reworkings of Peter Gabriel’s older work, though I’m not familiar enough with it to detect this.

It’s difficult to isolate any one track though Dressing the Wound stands out a bit, which starts out quite sparse until some wordless vocals from Gabriel come in. The whole thing is very serene, but the next track Birdy’s Flight totally changes the mood with feverish percussion right through it. Most if it is classic mood music. The final track, Powerhouse at the Foot of the Mountain is very Zen, and probably the most Eno-like track.

Friday, January 29, 2010

Album Review: The Twilight Sad – Forget the Night Ahead

Bands that really make an impression on me don’t come along that often these days, but when one hits me, it hits hard. This is another album which is badly missed from my Top 10 of 2009! This Scottish band is new to me. The name is a bit poor really, but the artwork is absolutely great. So how then to describe their sound? It’s a raging wall of guitars, in the vein of My Bloody Valentine, Jesus and Mary Chain or a noisy National fronted by a singer with a strong Scottish accent (I’m hesitant to say Arab Strap because it’s a little obvious), which is something of an acquired taste. They’ve been dubbed as shoegaze (or ‘nu’gaze!). But the songs are very strong, with nagging insistent refrains that bury themselves in your brain.

The opening track, Reflection of the Television is a perfect case in point. It sounds unremarkable at first, with a somewhat dull drumbeat but after a few listens it lodges itself in your head, thanks in no small measure to the wonderful noisy guitars which bleed into this track towards the end. The following track, I Became a Prostitute, is even better. It’s a little more uptempo, and the lyrics contain phrases ‘she’s bawling her eyes out’ before exploding into the chorus.

And that’s just the first 2 tracks. The rest of the album doesn’t disappoint. Sure they wouldn’t sound like this without listening to My Bloody Valentine, but who cares when the songs are this good? They do seriously noisy soaring choruses (Made to Disappear, The Neighbours Can’t Breathe), weird, scratchy instrumentals (Scissors), piano-led heavy pop (The Room) and rampaging rackets (That Birthday Present).

In other words, it’s bloody brilliant. Get it, listen to it, obsess over it.

Thursday, January 28, 2010

Album Review: Woven Hand – Mosaic

Woven Hand is the brainchild of David Eugene Edwards (ex-16 Horsepower). He is a devout Christian, and his band’s music is Old Testament quoting modern Goth music, delivered with an American twist (ie a banjo features prominently). This 2006 album is a prime example of their sound. After a short interlude the album starts proper with the epic Winter Shaker which comes on like the grim reaper coming over the horizon. It sounds enormous, all crashing percussion and chants of ‘Alleluia’ and ‘all His glory’. It’s like nothing else in contemporary music. Turn it up very loud. Swedish Purse follows, with a funeral organ accompanied by banjo. It’s an exercise in tension-building, which Edwards excels at. There are subtle percussive touches which drive this track along.

The music is really beautiful in Whistling Girl, with its references to flocks of sheep keeping the Biblical imagery going. Edwards is really good at creating a foreboding atmosphere. After a short folky interlude, Bible and Bird, we get Dirty Blue, which is a great example of this. It has a Gothic guitar line accompanied by a fiddle, along with sound affects that sound like a coffin creaking… or a rack turning? You’ll want the wind blowing when you listen to it. Things get a little weird with Slota Prow, a long drone-filled song, but Truly Golden brings the album back on track, a slow brooding number with a sort of ‘Western’ feel to it.

The final two tracks are a little underwhelming, but overall this is a fine album. Its only musical ancestors would be the likes of the Mission and the Sisters of Mercy but this is Goth without the black clothes, make-up and dodgy hats.

Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Album Review: Nick Cave & Warren Ellis – The Road (Original Soundtrack)

Having read the Road a few months ago in anticipation of the movie, I was pleased to discover that Nick Cave and Warren Ellis had recorded the soundtrack. I greatly enjoyed the book, and the music absolutely complements it. The music is all instrumental with piano and cello mainly featuring. It’s pretty grim, but in a good way. The title track is fairly typical of the album. Percussion is almost entirely absent, and a lone piano leads in to a wasteland-evoking string section. Much of the soundtrack is in this vein, though it is punctuated with some harsher tracks (The Cellar is a prime example) which are a little hard to listen to, and disturb the mood a little.

The better tracks feature the least percussion (Storytime, The Real Thing, Memory) and are quite simply mood pieces. And what a mood it is. It is the sound of a wintry landscape: beautiful, if a bit forbidding.

I also thoroughly recommend their compilation of soundtrack works – White Lunar, which features music from their soundtrack work for The Proposition and the Assassination of Jesse James, along with some obscure documentary work.

Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Album Review: Morrissey - Swords

Swords is an album of B-sides from 2004 onwards. Morrissey has a long history of rounding up his harder to find tracks into a neat package and this is a welcome one.

In my view, Morrissey’s voice has never sounded better than his most recent work, though his songwriting can be a little hit and miss at times. It starts out with the uptempo Good Looking Man About Town, which is a very Morrissey title. Indeed a lot of it can be described as Morrissey-by-numbers, ie not remarkable, but generally very, very good.

It’s a nicely produced collection of songs. Only Sweetie-Pie is a misstep, quite an odd sounding song dominated by Morrissey’s blurred sounding voice. Some tracks suffer from the ‘kitchen sink’ production that marred Years of Refusal (If You Don’t Like Me, Don’t Look At Me). Others are like a not so good revisiting of former glories (Ganglord echoes How Soon Is Now). Yet some of the slower tracks (The Never-Played Symphonies, Christian Dior) see Morrissey in fine voice, aided by the fact that the music on these tracks gives his voice a chance to breathe.

Shame Is The Name features Chrissie Hynde on backing vocals and reminds me for some reason of November Spawned a Monster, while Teenage Dad On His Estate and Children in Pieces handle challenging subject matter (children out of wedlock and clerical abuse respectively) in an engaging way. My Life Is A Succession of People Saying Goodbye is another quintessential Morrissey title, as is the performance. Here Morrissey ruefully sings about the aforementioned subject matter with a soaring melody. He also covers Bowie’s Drive In Saturday which is a decent version, though not dramatically reinvented.

So not quite A-list Morrissey, but quality tunes nonetheless.

Monday, January 25, 2010

Album Review: The Return of the Durutti Column

The Durutti Column is the work of guitar virtuoso Vini Reilly, aided by legendary Joy Division producer Martin Hannett. This album, released in 1980, was his first, and is the only one I am really familiar with, but it’s a small hours classic. The first track, Sketch for Summer starts off with the sound of birds chirping, and leads into a rhythm track with a wonderfully spooky electric guitar echoing though it. These seemingly disparate elements mix into a hugely engaging track. This sets the template for the rest of this entirely instrumental album which follows in a similar vein, delicate electric guitar, minimal rhythm tracks and occasional keyboards. Sketch for Winter is a slight departure, featuring Reilly’s guitar on its own.

(Note: vocals do feature on one of the extra tracks, Sleep Will Come, though they are unobtrusive and don’t break up the flow.)

It’s the perfect soundtrack to driving around on a Monday night at about 2am in the depths of winter. Imagined or otherwise. Unfortunately, it seems to be impossible to get anywhere, so grab it if you see it.

Sunday, January 24, 2010

Album Review: Queens of the Stone Age - Rated R

Released in 2000, the second Queens of the Stone Age album was my first introduction to the band. I have to admit, I didn’t really want to like them. I thought the name was stupid and wasn’t really into heavy music in the early noughties.

The album begins with the ‘drug anthem’ – Feel Good Hit of Summer, which is basically a head-banging chant along list of drugs. Yet, it’s good. However it’s the less frantic songs which shine here: The Lost Art of Keeping a Secret displays a great sense of band dynamics. It’s a fairly mid-tempo number with a heavier guitars in the chorus.

Even so called ‘lesser tracks’ like Leg of Lamb still sound better than most heavy rock. Auto Pilot, the 4th track is one of the highlights. The song struts along with some great singing from mainman Josh Homme and a really tight band performance where not a note is wasted. It’s probably one of the poppier numbers but it’s a real classic.

The album picks up a bit after this with Better Living Through Chemistry which is a perfect vehicle for Homme to do his slightly sneery, slightly geeky rock god routine. The song lurches from tight, snappy verses and chorus to heavier guitar breaks. Monsters in the Parasol is an unremarkable song, and then there is a short Nick Oliveri song (ie screechy), Quick and to the Pointless which the title perfectly describes.

In the Fade features vocal contributions from Mark Lanegan, in fine voice here as always on one of the jauntier numbers on the album. After a brief interlude (another chorus of Feel Good Hit of the Summer!) we get onto Tension Head. This is another Oliveri track but it’s absolutely gripping. One of the heavier tracks on the album, it belts along at a rate of knots, while Oliveri screams his head off, culminating in the chorus where he roars “I’m feeling so sick, I’m feeling so f**king sick”, and it’s hard to get across in words how brilliant that sounds.

A two minute acoustic interlude, Lightning Song relieves this ‘tension’ before the final song on the album proper, I Think I Lost My Headache. This is a slow, vaguely heavy track, which goes on for quite a while before descending into a horn-filled, repetitive ending.

There are 3 extra tracks on the UK version, the best of these is You’re So Vague, a wonderful twist on Carly Simon’s You’re So Vain, which is catchy and delightfully heavy.

All in all, it’s a great album, and one which declared Queens of the Stone Age as having well and truly arrived. From here they became one of the most consistent heavy band of the ‘00s.

Monday, January 11, 2010

Album Review: The Velvet Underground

The Velvet Underground’s 3rd album is an underrated gem. After the intensity of their first 2, it’s a much lower-key experience. The artwork is predominantly black with a cool-looking black and white photo. It creeps quietly into the room with the opening track Candy Says, which is sung by Doug Yule who replaced John Cale in the band. The playing on this and most of the rest of the album is spare and simple. On the face of it, it’s a quiet poppy album, but there are moments when things are just a little off (a little guitar distortion here and there) which makes the album a little messed-up, in a good way.

The pace picks up a bit with What Goes On which jumps along nicely, Lou Reed taking vocal duties and a great guitar solo. In fact, the guitar all over this album is really good and blends in well with the quietly sung vocals. Some Kinda Love has a bit of swagger to it before 2 very quiet songs – Pale Blue Eyes and Jesus (even quieter). If there is any kind of slow anthem on this album, Pale Blue Eyes is it. It has probably the most conventional structure here, with a proper verse and chorus. Jesus is the quietest song on here, and is a kind of odd song with lyrics like “Jesus, help me find my proper place”.

The album is thrown in a different direction by the more propulsive Beginning to See the Light, which features quick-strummed guitars and some fairly unhinged vocals from Reed. It’s followed by 2 more quietish songs, I’m Set Free and That’s the Story of My Life. These, like most of the rest feature some really clean-sounding jangly guitar, quite influential on the jangly guitar bands of the 1980s.

The second last track, The Murder Mystery is a departure. Featuring more words in it than the previous 8 tracks combined, sonically it’s also quite different. If anything it harks back to Cale-era VU, with a torrent of lyrics cascading through each side of the stereo (try it with headphones, different lyrics left and right!). It sounds more eerie than the rest of the album, with ghostly-sounding guitars and thrilling stops and starts. The ending of this track is a little disappointing, with a seemingly random piano playing accompanied by yet more random lyrics. It’s not like anything else I’ve heard, that’s for sure.

Unfortunately I really don’t enjoy the closing track, After Hours, which features drummer Mo Tucker on cloying vocals. The whole tune is to my ears a little cheesy.

Overall the rest of the album is great, it’s one of those albums I dig out every so often and never get tired of it. Each time I listen to it, a little more of it reveals itself. Although it’s overshadowed by its 2 predecessors, this album endures and does not suffer with age (was released in 1968!). It's very much an album to sit and listen to in a room rather than a party album.

Friday, January 1, 2010

Album Review: Bill Callahan - Sometimes I Wish We Were An Eagle

Bill Callahan has abandoned the Smog moniker he used to release albums under. His second album under his own name, Sometimes I Wish We Were An Eagle, is recognisably him, but the instrumentation is a lot more realised than the Smog albums I’m familiar with, and is really quite warm.

The opening track, Jim Cain, is like a perfect Sunday afternoon song. Dominated by Callahan’s vocals (once described as being like tar!), it’s an easy, relaxed song, with some great lyrics like “I used to be darker, then I got lighter, then I got dark again.” The following track, Eid Ma Clack Shaw, is a little more uptempo, driven by a string section. It’s essentially about his attempt to write a song mid-dream, but when he awoke all he was left with was the nonsensical phrase, Eid Ma Clack Shaw.

After such an upbeat beginning, the next track, The Wind and the Dove, is a little darker (sorry couldn’t resist), but the playing on this, and all the other tracks is really superb. Rococo Zephyr is a kind of duet, and is a little bamboozling lyrically apart from a clever play on the 'I was blind, now I can see' lyrical cliché (much beloved of Primal Scream amongst others) by the simple use of the words 'sort of'. Too Many Birds again has a very relaxed feel.

My Friend contains an acoustic guitar figure driving the song along, with Callahan’s dark as night delivery of the title. All Thoughts Are Prey to Some Beast reminds me musically of Arab Strap (a good thing) and the strings on this one render it compulsive listening. After the short interlude of Invocation of Ratiocination (?) the album comes full circle back to the feel of the opening track with the nine minute Faith/Void, which consists of beautiful music and little more than Callahan singing “It’s time to put God away” over and over. It’s almost like the sound of the eagle mentioned in the title, soaring and graceful.

All in all, a great album for a lazy Sunday afternoon, and one I fear is going to lead me back to all those Smog albums lurking in my collection…