Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Album Review: Smog – A River Ain’t Too Much To Love

At this point in 2005 Bill Callahan had fully excised the ‘rock’ from Smog’s music. This album is not a radical departure from previous ones, however, Bill’s voice has completely lost any residual weediness, and the music is kind of rootsy, and not ‘lo-fi’ at all. Possibly around now he had realised that he was actually quite good, and here he sings with more confidence than ever before.

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

Album Review: Peter Broderick – How They Are

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

Album Review: Interpol

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: 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

Album Review: Low – I Could Live In Hope

Low’s debut album was released in 1994, at a time when heavy guitar grunge ruled the land. Low took an entirely different tack, playing very slow and quiet songs, setting the template for their subsequent albums.

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

Album Review: Soundgarden – Superunknown

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

Album Review: Neil Young – Comes A Time

At this point in the mid to late seventies Neil Young was on fire creatively, releasing a string of excellent albums (not to mention the bootlegs). However, most of these were relatively uncommercial, and ‘rockier’ than albums like After the Gold Rush and Harvest. I went through a phase of dismissing these more accessible albums, thinking ‘rockier’ = better. This was short-sighted of me. Neil Young can groove mightily with Crazy Horse alright, but he can also write straightforward yet deeply affecting heartfelt songs. His best albums are probably the ones where he mixes the two styles.

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

Album Review: Arab Strap – The Last Romance

Arab Strap continued their return to form with the Last Romance, which came out in 2005. However it turned out to be their last album. The band continued where they left off with Monday at the Hug and Pint by tightening their sound further, making this album their most concise of all at 10 tracks and only 36 minutes.

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

Album Review: (Smog) – Supper

After the somewhat disappointing Rain On Lens album, Bill Callahan went back to basics and ‘headed back to the country’ for this 2003 album, which has a definite country feel.

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.