Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Album Review: American Music Club – Everclear

Apologies for another AMC post, this blog is rapidly turning into the AMC/Smog related blog! This album represented a bit of a change for American Music Club. Released in 1991, it saw them working with a half decent recording budget, which led to a fuller sound. Bruce Kaphan was now a full member of the band, and he pitched in on production, as well as steel guitar duties. Nothing of the subtlety of this band was lost with this change. It’s compounded by the vivid artwork on the cover, a painting by Jean Lowe.

The album starts with Why Won’t You Stay, a lament for a departed lover which drifts in unassumingly, with some heartbreaking lyrics from Mark Eitzel (“in memory of a little girl who was far too much in love with the world, and who didn’t wanna stick around for the end”). Rise follows, which is a bit more of a self-conscious anthem, with a very definite chorus (the fairly un- Eitzel “make it ri-i-ise”). It’s a good song, though it sounds a little dated.

The understated anthem to apathy, Miracle on 8th Street, follows, drifting along in a similar vein to the opener, but Ex-Girlfriend is less oblique, with a hard-hitting, insistent melody and fairly direct lyrics (“day to day life shouldn’t be what it’s all about”… “I guess you got no one to take care of you”) over some great guitar-hero style playing from Vudi.

The usual AMC curveball follows, Crabwalk, a cheesy country song which totally disturbs the mood, until it’s reined back in by the almost smooth The Confidential Agent, which floats along in a similar vein to Miracle, aided and abetted by the subtle steel guitar playing of Bruce Kaphan and some nice keyboards.

The album seems a little smooth up to now, but Sick of Food is angrier, with more great guitar from Vudi, and Eitzel displaying great passion towards the end. He’s angrier still on The Dead Part of You with the refrain “there’s so little of you left”. Royal CafĂ© is a gentle country-rock song and it’s followed by the beautiful What the Pillar of Salt Held Up, another sad(ish) song based around a fragile acoustic guitar.

The album resolves wonderfully with final track Jesus’ Hands. It’s basically a drinking song, Eitzel singing “I got a thirst that would make the ocean proud”. There is some really nice mandolin on this one, played by Dan Pearson.

Tuesday, March 30, 2010

Live Albums / Tim Buckley – Dream Letter

Live albums are seldom a good idea really. At best they can be a poorer quality version of the recorded version. The songs are often only as good as the bits the band were able to reproduce live. If it’s a document for those who attended the gig well that’s one thing, but often all the so-called energy of the original performance is lost without the missing senses of sight, touch, smell etc.

Even worse, it’s common for bands to re-record some of the instruments, especially the vocals, with the result being a sterile, anodyne ‘live’ album. Then there is the decision of some bands not to include the entire gig, in which case they invariably leave out the track you really enjoyed, or the really interesting one with the bum notes or other mistakes. Worse still, the bands often cheat by recording over a series of nights and releasing the best versions of each song.

At worst they can be a showcase for self-indulgence. There is nothing more boring than extended drum/guitar/bass solos, which if they were that good would have been on the original version in the first place. And often these live albums are dragged out to the even more bloated double live albums, which represented the worst excesses of the 1970s and inadvertently led to punk!

There is a notable exception to this rule: a concert where a singer plays with a band in a unique musical setting which is not captured elsewhere. Two great examples of this:

Tim Buckley – Dream Letter. This concert was recorded in 1968, in London. Buckley had released 2 fairly straightforward folk-rock albums, but much of the material played here was unreleased. Listening to the album, it sounds wonderful. The guitars (played by Buckley and Lee Underwood) sound clear as a bell, and Buckley is really finding his voice here. The performances are atmospheric, yet ballsy, and are often stretched out to great effect (contradicting the earlier part of this article!). Most of his Happy Sad album is debuted here, and often sounds superior to the recorded versions released later.

Some of the tracks from his Goodbye and Hello album are resurrected here, and without some of the cringeworthy studio techniques of the era the songs are given more room to breathe and sound all the better for it. The whole album creates a smoky, late evening atmosphere.

Nirvana – MTV Unplugged in New York. Much has been written about this 1993 gig by better writers than me. Suffice to say that it’s special, but also sad as it stands both as a posthumous document and also what would have been a signpost for a future that was sadly thrown away.

Monday, March 29, 2010

Album Review: Bill Callahan – Rough Travel for a Rare Thing

This is Bill Callahan’s first live album, and is released on vinyl or download only. So no CD. I’m not convinced of the merits of live albums, or downloads for that matter. However it’s a testament to my contrary nature that I purchased this download.

The music contained within is very strong for the most part, Callahan and his band play a tight set, with selections from the last Smog album – A River Ain’t Too Much To Love, and others reaching back as far as Wild Love. The concert took place before Callahan’s last album so nothing from that slab of genius in this set.

Our Anniversary opens the set, which is a strong song based on a repeating guitar pattern. The pace picks up with the toe-tapping Diamond Dancer, which takes a simple refrain and an acoustic guitar and combines them to great effect. Bowery is slower, building up gradually. Bill sounds in great voice here, and there’s something in the melody (and maybe in the lyrical content) that reminds me of Tom Waits.

There is a prominent fiddle right throughout this album which is something of an acquired taste, and it’s never more prominent than on Held. For anyone used to the original Smog version on Knock Knock this will take some getting used to as the electric guitar riff is replaced by the aforementioned droning fiddle.

More successful are some of the later tracks, like In The Pines (which sounds fuller than the original version), Cold-Blooded Old Times (with a touch of Gomez in the guitar riff!) and Rock Bottom Riser. The album finishes up with Bathysphere, which also works well in this context.
All in all it’s a nice-sounding album but inessential in my opinion.

Thursday, March 25, 2010

Album Review: Dakota Suite – Signal Hill

I bought Dakota Suite’s third album many years ago. I thought I'd revisit it after being on Signal Hill in Cape Town. Released in 2000, I was struck immediately by the similarity of the artwork (courtesy of Johanna Hooson) to Red House Painters’ Ocean Beach album. The music contained within is not too dissimilar, albeit a little more jazzy.

Opener The Cost of Living channels this jazz influence quite well. Chris Hooson’s barely there vocals drift over the lurching music, which contains some nice trumpets in the chorus. Close Enough to Tears, is short charming little song based on a fragile guitar line which reminds me a little of American Music Club’s Laughingstock.

The title track is dominated by some pretty miserable (in a good way) piano but contains hope with the line “you won’t let me drown”. The heart of the album is track 6 and 7, which I like to consider as 2 parts of the one piece. Riverside (track 6), begins with the remarkable feat of making the sound of a train passing sound like the loneliest sound in the world, especially when the flugelhorn comes in. The song is brief, with Hooson repeating the lyric “is it true, are you breaking up inside”. It dissolves into Raining Somewhere, an instrumental featuring flanged guitar and piano, vaguely reminiscent of Red House Painters’ Katy Song. Morning Heavy is another brooding piece, with lyrics like "go, go away, I don't need you".

The penultimate track is a classical piece, I Turned Away So That I Might Not See. It’s a good exercise in building tension through cellos and piano. The album then resolves itself with the somewhat hopeful song, When Skies Are Grey, which is about Everton.

The album is a really good introduction to Dakota Suite’s music. Misery is bliss.

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Album Review: The Wedding Present - Seamonsters

This 1991 album is the only Wedding Present album I am familiar with. I had been expecting shambling, jangly guitar along the lines of the NME’s ‘C86’ movement, but the presence of Steve Albini as producer tells a different story. The album by and large features a huge guitar sound along with main songwriter David Gedge’s distinctive vocals, which I can only describe as sounding like somebody stepping on his throat!

Dalliance is the opening track and it starts off quietly, with muted guitars with poignant, bitter lyrics of an ended love affair (“you don’t care now that you’re gone but you know how much I miss you”….. “I still want to kiss you”). The song continues like this until halfway through, when the absolutely massive, driving, distorted guitars come in and dominate for the rest of the song courtesy of Gedge and Peter Solokwa. It finishes up with the wonderfully scathing line "but I was yours for seven years, is that what you call a dalliance?!" - which sounds even better accompanied by the raging guitars and thundering drums.

The rest of the album continues in this vein. Suck is a fine song, built on heavy guitars and a simple chorus, “you suck it all right out of me”. Nothing more needs to be said. Sounds to me like Whipping Boy were listening to this for their 2nd album Heartworm. Blonde takes things down a notch, though the obligatory heavy guitars enter again for the chorus.

Some variety arrives with Rotterdam, which features a nice, somewhat jangly guitar interlude midsong. There are great moments throughout this album, the minute and a half feedback which ends Lovenest, and the loathing with attitude that permeates Heather to name just two of them. If you like your guitars hard and heavy, but fat-free, check this album.

Monday, March 1, 2010

Album Review: the xx – xx

This album got a lot of good reviews in 2009 when it was released. I really didn’t want to like it, the vaguely R&B vocals put me off slightly. But ever one to come late to the party, I have succumbed.

Intro sets the tone for the album, which is sparse, featuring Durutti Column style guitar, snappy percussion and smooth male/female vocals. The album continues in this vein, with poppier tracks (VCR, Islands) telling only part of the story. There are echoes of other bands all over this album: Durutti Column (Basic Space) as mentioned already, Interpol (Crystalised) and even Chris Isaak (Infinity).

Fantasy is a slightly spacier track, featuring very little guitar, mostly the gentle humming of the bass. Penultimate track, Night Time is a little more propulsive than the others, though the album is one of those rare albums which evokes a mood and maintains it, that is a late night driving mood, with a great soundtrack.