Thursday, August 26, 2010

Concert Review: Mark Lanegan – The Academy, Dublin, August 25th 2010

Mark Lanegan has been spoiling his Irish fans, this was his second visit here in 4 months! I was sceptical about how different this show would be to the one in April, but I couldn’t let it pass without checking it out.

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

Album Review: Isobel Campbell & Mark Lanegan - Hawk

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

Album Review: (smog) – Accumulation: None

This is not quite a new album for (smog) but a collection of old and hard-to-find tracks. There’s actually some pretty unlistenable noise experiments here (Astronaut, Floating, Hole In The Heart), with very little redeeming features. Thankfully there are some actual proper songs here.

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

Album Review: American Music Club – Love Songs for Patriots

American Music Club surprisingly reformed in 2004 and released this album. I’ve gone on record to say that in general, I don’t really like the idea of bands reforming. The band were never particularly successful before they split, but at this point in time after the initial split, singer Mark Eitzel had released a haphazard series of solo albums, and the other members had some fairly low key musical projects, so it’s understandable that they would regroup. But would this album live up to their former glories: California, United kingdom et al?

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

Album Review: Robert Forster – The Evangelist

This 2008 album was Robert Forster’s first solo album in 12 years. It should have been a Go-Betweens album, but for the death of Grant McLennan. It’s very much in the vein of the post-reformation Go-Betweens albums, and can definitely stand beside them.

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

Album Review: Mogwai – Mr. Beast

Writing about Mogwai rarely does justice to the music contained within. Or maybe it’s my chronic inability to write about (mostly) instrumental music. Either way 2006 saw the first Mogwai album for 3 years, which starts gingerly with Auto-Rock, entering on a piano sequence which builds, adding drums into a crescendo. It would be the perfect ‘walk-on stage’ music for the band. The album then bursts forward with the explosive Glasgow Mega-Snake, which is pretty much like Mogwai gone heavy metal.

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

Album Review: Arab Strap – Monday at the Hug and Pint

Possibly the quintessential Arab Strap album title. 2003’s Monday at the Hug and Pint. After the somewhat hard-to-get-into Red Thread album, my expectations weren’t high for this. However any thoughts of self-parody were dismissed by the sprightly opener The Shy Retirer, which zips along in a way unheard before on any other Arab Strap album with some wonderful synth-based instrumentation by Malcolm Middleton, while Aidan Moffat spits the lyrics out. It’s a most unusual combination of instruments, an almost disco beat pulsing though gentle guitar flourishes and synthesised strings and horns. It’s as close as they get to a “choone” type anthem.

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

Album Review: Neil Young – On the Beach

Amazingly this Neil Young album, originally released in 1974 was not released on CD until 2003! It’s a more sombre album than his other early 70s albums. As the natural follow-up to best-selling Harvest, it must have been confusing for fans weaned on those pretty country-style songs which made up the majority of that album, as this gloriously bleak album sees a man who is jaundiced, sick of the rock star culture of the 70s and the acclaim that goes with it. And yet, it’s not a bore to listen to as Neil Young made an album which has definitely stood the test of time.

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

Album Review: Sun Kil Moon – Admiral Fell Promises

Mark Kozelek is a treasure. He has been ploughing an individual furrow for 20 years, through Red House Painters, solo albums and now Sun Kil Moon, with little deviation from the original template set out by 1992’s Down Colorful Hill. Indeed I would call this admirable dedication to the cause. He is also one of the most talented guitarists around.

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.