Thursday, December 29, 2011

Album Review: The Black Swans – Don’t Blame The Stars

The Black Swans are an American band and this album released last May is their fourth. A bit of background required here: the album was recorded just prior to violinist Noel Sayre’s death in 2008, and his final recorded work with the band can be heard here. What will polarize many about this band are singer Jerry DeCicca’s vocals, which are a decent substitute for Stuart Staples. This has the effect of making the band sound like a more country and soulful version of Tindersticks. Also polarizing are DeCicca’s spoken word introductions to many of the songs, which are a little annoying, talking about his soul heroes (Joe Tex), his childhood memories and his dreams. So what of the music? Opener Boo Hoo sounds like the band had been listening heavily to Neil Young’s Comes A Time, but most of the rest of the album is pretty much soul music, down to the call and response backing vocals and Jon Beard’s organ. This applies to the aforementioned Joe Tex, the title track, and the semi-pisstake I Forgot To Change The Windshield Wipers In My Mind, as close to Tindersticks doing country as you can get. Later, Mean Medicine crawls along pleasingly. The most enjoyable tracks are the ones where they deviate from this formula. Sunshine Street, dominated by Sayre’s violin sounds like something off The National’s Sad Songs For Dirty Lovers, and is darker than most of the material here with some downright raunchy guitar. Less successful is the jaunty Worry Stone featuring a ‘gargle solo’. Yes, you read that right. Blue Bayou rescues proceedings with a fantastic clean electric guitar lick running through the song, which survives a spoken word dedication to Roy Orbison, Iris De Menthe et al midsong. Despite singer Jerry DeCicca’s pretensions, this is not a bad effort. It’s all tastefully unhurried, great if you like that sort of thing.

Wednesday, December 28, 2011

Album Review: Ryan Adams – Suicide Handbook (unreleased)

A man whose record company couldn’t keep up with his output, Ryan Adams recorded this double album, The Suicide Handbook in early 2001. It appears to be an almost entirely solo collection (some accompaniment from Bucky Baxter here and there), stretched over 21 songs, all with a quite similar mood. This can make it seem rather daunting to listen to. Some of the tracks here ended up on Gold, such as Wild Flowers, La Cienega Just Smiled, Just Saying Hi (aka Answering Bell), while others were held back for Demolition (She Wants To Play Hearts, Dear Chicago) and Off Broadway wasn’t released till 2007’s Easy Tiger. As far as I’m concerned, the versions here are superior to the ones on Gold. While that album suffered from over-production, here the songs are sparse, mainly just voice and guitar and they thrive. At least 11 of the other songs have not appeared on any official release, and they are well worth seeking out. Ryan Adams sings and plays guitar with real sensitivity, very much in ‘troubadour’ mode. Some of the stronger ones include For No One (aka Long and Sad Goodbye) and Cracks In A Photograph, helped by some piano touches, and You Don’t Know Me which features great slide guitar from Bucky Baxter. Piano ballad Idiots Rule The World has something of the feel he realized more fully on Love Is Hell. The better known tracks are equally strong, La Cienega Just Smiled, one of the stronger tracks on Gold, works well in almost demo form and final track Dear Chicago, sounding indistinguishable from the Demolition version sounds great with its ringing guitars and breathy vocals. Might be worth giving this one a proper release?

Monday, December 26, 2011

Album Review: Sonic Youth – Dirty

As grunge took off in the early 90s, Sonic Youth got Butch Vig to produce 1992’s Dirty. Opening track (and first single) 100% is a somewhat sludgy track. It’s followed up by Kim Gordon singing a sort of riot grrrl anthem Swimsuit Issue. Far better is the slow-building Theresa’s Sound-world, perfectly paced guitars over a moody Thurston Moore vocal in the ‘verse’ portion of the song which builds to a climax as Steve Shelley pounds the drums and the guitars go apeshit before returning to the opening motif. It’s a perfectly constructed song, almost like a 90s Velvet Underground.

Shoot is a relatively low key track with a (mostly) understated Kim Gordon vocal, before Lee Ranaldo gets his curtain call on Wish Fulfillment. Sugar Kane pounds its way along with heavenly riffs and a nice freakout in the middle, while Youth Against Fascism growls along nicely.

On The Strip returns to Theresa’s Sound-world territory, Gordon on vocals this time, while later Purr kicks up a real storm, riffing along at breakneck speed.

Although overlong at 15 tracks and 59 minutes, and a little patchy, the actual musicianship on these songs, with some superb midsections (Chapel Hill amongst them) that set them apart from their contemporaries.

Sunday, December 25, 2011

EP Review: The Redneck Manifesto – Cut Your Heart Off From Your Head

Dublin band The Redneck Manifesto’s 2002 EP, following fast after their debut is a bit of a mixed bag. Opening track Cut Your Heart Off, features mainly acoustic guitars and some plucked banjo, creating a pleasant Sunday afternoon atmosphere. This is shattered by the pounding drums and almost metal riffs of Please Don’t Ask Us What We Think Of Your Band.

You Say Tomato, I Say Tomato (interesting title for an instrumental band!) and Dillon Family Dancers are fine pieces of music with great playing and original melodies. They are less successful on the more repetitive, ambient tracks like Make Yourself Comfortable and …From Your Head which are built mainly on loops and keyboards, serving mainly to lull you into a stupor.

Stick to the guitars guys!

Saturday, December 24, 2011

Album Review: Low – Things We Lost In The Fire

2001’s Things We Lost In The Fire, Low’s fifth album (or sixth if you count the Christmas EP) feels like a kind of leap forward. Which is not necessarily a good thing!

It opens with Sunflower, which has a simple, descending melody overlaid with pounding drumbeats. What saves it is that the actual playing, singing and instrumentation is so good, it’s hard to ignore. The album takes a sharp left turn with the sinister, almost threatening Whitetail, with the deathly slow lines “stay… up… all… night… waste… time… waste… night…” And that IS as good as it sounds.

They change tack again with Alan Sparhawk’s heavy riffs on Dinosaur Act, which almost sounds like a ‘standard’ alternative rock song. Mimi Parker gets to do her ghostly shimmering thing on Laser Beam and Embrace, where her wobbling vocals are given gloriously sparse settings.

Although the album slows to a crawl with tracks like Whore and Kind of Girl, Like A Forest picks up the pace dramatically, before one of Low’s warmer tracks Closer, which, like July earlier on the album, features a gorgeous string section.

Many consider this one of Low’s more accessible albums. I’m not so sure. There are accessible tracks (Sunflower, Dinosaur Act) but also foreboding tracks like Whitetail and Embrace. But it’s a strong album, and it stacks up well with Low’s other releases.

Friday, December 23, 2011

EP Review: Mark Kozelek – Rock ‘N’ Roll Singer

Mark Kozelek released this EP in 2000, his first non-Red House Painters release and his first release for 4 years. It came as something of a bolt from the blue. The emphasis here is very much on his guitar playing, showing the way for future releases.

There are only 7 songs here, less than half an hour’s worth, and only 3 tracks were written by Kozelek. But some artists have just got it. Opener Find Me, Ruben Olivares has a sunny, intricate guitar pattern, and is probably one of the more fleshed out tracks here.

The EP also saw the beginning of his ACDC fixation. Three of the tracks covered here are ACDC songs (Bon Scott period). They are pretty much unrecognizable from the originals, like most of Kozelek’s cover versions. Rock ‘N’ Roll Singer, the title track, is the only track here that qualifies as anything like an anthem, albeit a downbeat and dirty brooding anthem.

The other 2 ACDC tracks (You Ain’t Got A Hold On Me and Bad Boy Boogie) are stripped down acoustic gloom tracks, the first of which features Kozelek’s falsetto. It’s kind of amusing to hear the Young brothers and Bon Scott’s rock lyrics in this setting (“being bad ain’t that bad, I’ve known more pretty women than most men have” from Bad Boy Boogie).

He also covers John Denver’s Around and Around, and finds time for originals Metropol 47 and Ruth Marie, which have deceptively simple melodies, almost sounding underwritten. What rhythm is here is provided completely by Mark Kozelek’s guitar playing.

What seemed like a quite baffling EP at the time actually set the tone for his post-Red House Painters career, as he painted himself out of the corner he appeared to be in, and with Sun Kil Moon or as himself, did whatever the hell he liked.

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Preview: Most anticipated albums of 2012

I’m very excited about the year ahead, particularly the few weeks between late January and February which are going to make me very poor indeed. In no time at all this is bound to be wrong, but here goes:

Barry Adamson
The new year looks set to kick off with a bang with Barry Adamson’s new album, I Will Set You Free due on January 30th. The ex-Magazine and Bad Seeds bassist has previewed one track, Destination which sounds just like Berlin period Iggy Pop, and that’s good enough for me.

RM Hubbert – Thirteen Lost and Found
Due out on January 30th, RM Hubbert’s second album Thirteen Lost and Found sounds like a real Scottish collective, produced as it is by Alex Kapranos and featuring guest appearances from Aidan Moffat amongst others.

Leonard Cohen – Old Ideas
Leonard Cohen’s first album in 8 years, Old Ideas recorded last year should be worth hearing judging by the previewed Show Me The Place, Cohen’s voice has deepened to Tom Waits proportions. It’s due Jan 30th.

Mark Lanegan Band – Blues Funeral
Mark Lanegan has been a serial collaborator over the last 8 years but 6th February will see his first solo album since 2004’s Bubblegum, Blues Funeral (a satirist’s choice for a Lanegan album title), featuring contributions from regulars Josh Homme and Greg Dulli. Lead single The Gravedigger’s Song appears to be fairly standard issue Lanegan, both in sound and title, with added electronic pulsing. In related, but not strictly speaking Lanegan news Soulsavers are supposed to have a new album out next year with Dave Gahan of Depeche Mode doing vocals. This is not as big a surprise as you might think, given that Soulsavers supported Depeche Mode on their last tour.

The Twilight Sad – No One Can Ever Know
The Twilight Sad eject the baby and the bathwater for No One Can Ever Know which judging by first single Sick is a total change in sound, relying less on heavy guitars and more on programmed beats. This one is due out February 6th.

Tindersticks – The Something Rain
Tindersticks have a new album landing on February 20th, and judging by one of the tracks, the bossa-nova style Medicine, it’s well in keeping with previous material without being reheated leftovers.

Peter Broderick –
After 2011’s Music for Confluence, Peter Broderick has a song-based album due on February 20th also, the bafflingly-titled Could this be the first album with a URL as a title? The link will have artwork, lyrics, credits etc for the release.

Queens of the Stone Age expect to have an album ready for release “early next year”, and Morrissey is said to have a new album ready for release once he hooks up with a record company. A song-based album from Dakota Suite, You Can Leave But You’ll Never Make It Home will hopefully emerge and Mark Eitzel has an acoustic album The Bill Is Due in the works.

The National are writing “more immediate and visceral” material according to singer Matt Berninger, Lloyd Cole is collaborating with Roedelius on an instrumental album (Plastic Wood 2?) and is also talking about another Negatives album which would be very welcome. Aidan Moffat says he has “at least two albums planned for next year”, while Portishead will be working on a new album. Pearl Jam should start work on a follow-up to Backspacer and you never know, Neil Young may finally release another instalment of his Archives series. But I'm not holding my breath.

Sunday, December 11, 2011

Album Review: Richmond Fontaine - Miles From

Richmond Fontaine’s second album, released in 1997 has fewer distinct tracks than their debut, and a more pronounced country feel, with the addition of Paul Brainard’s steel guitar.

Opening track Trembling Leaves is a midtempo electric strum in the vein of the material on Safety, while Give Me Time is an optimistic sounding tune. You can hear early signs of how the band would develop on albums like Post to Wire on this one, with Willy Vlautin’s odd chorus of “give me boiler makers, give me time.”

The title track is a somewhat darker, brooding affair but in truth none of the lyrics indicate that the protagonists are having anything other than a rough time. Instrumental Grandview comes as something of a relief, and a pause for breath, giving Brainard’s wonderfully evocative steel guitar a chance to take centre stage.

Elsewhere, the hesitant Collapse stops and starts uneasily before the mood is lightened with the breezy Lemonheads-style Calm. Later tracks like Blinding Sight, White Out and Concussion are a little indistinguishable from each other, though the latter features some fine six-string abuse.

Not sure how this one stands up with Richmond Fontaine’s later albums.

Friday, December 2, 2011

Top 10 albums of 2011

I may regret doing this now, but here goes:

10. Remember Remember – The Quickening

A new name to me and another excellent Scottish album in a good year for Scottish albums.

9. Belong – Common Era

Darkly addictive, shoegazing stuff.

8. Anna Calvi

Believe the hype.

7. Bill Wells & Aidan Moffat – Everything’s Getting Older

Marvellously miserable musings.

6. Ryan Adams – Ashes & Fire

That old clich̩ Рthe return to form.

5. Richmond Fontaine – The High Country

Could have been a real failure but wasn’t.

4. Gillian Welch – The Harrow & The Harvest

Her albums don’t come around too often but they are worth waiting for.

3. Mogwai – Hardcore Will Never Die, But You Will

Great title.

2. Bill Callahan – Apocalypse

Someone has to chronicle the apocalypse.

1. Low – C’mon

Terrible title, but a fine album.

Saturday, November 26, 2011

Album Review: Lloyd Cole – Antidepressant

Lloyd Cole’s 2006 album Antidepressant follows previous album Music in a Foreign Language’s muted template. The songs here take their time to reveal themselves and standout.

Lyrically, it finds Lloyd in wry form here, right from the start with the acoustic strum of The Young Idealists – “I know I said I favoured peaceful resolution but that was when we were the young idealists… young idealists raging through the coffee shops and bars”. The idea of Lloyd and his ilk raging is amusing and somewhat unlikely, particularly on this bed of soothing keyboards, guitars and programmed beats.

The production is quiet and dampened down which means many tracks (Woman In A Bar, and the appropriately named I Didn’t See It Coming) drift by barely noticed. New York City Sunshine makes a greater impression with a pleasing string arrangement and an acoustic solo midway through. The title track sees him rock out in his Negatives mode, singing “with my medication I will be fine” and later some wonderful lyrics: “first she’s gonna tire of my fixations, then she’s gonna tire of my face".

How Wrong Can You Be? has an unhurried tune, a perfect song to brood to over a cup of coffee. A pair of country shufflers feature here, Everysong and Travelling Light, the latter of which has hints of Johnny Cash’s I Walk The Line.

In a similar way to his previous album, this one finishes with a downbeat, moody track, in this case Rolodex Incident. It’s an album worth paying attention to and persevering with, which is required for the better tracks here to shine.

Friday, November 25, 2011

Concert Review: Anna Calvi at Vicar Street, Dublin

Album Review: Gillian Welch at Grand Canal Theatre, Dublin

Album Review: Bonnie Prince Billy – Master and Everyone

The many-monikered Will Oldham’s 2003 album is one of his sparsest works, mainly consisting of skeletal folk, mainly Oldham’s voice and guitar.

Opening track The Way has a simple, wintry Nick Drake style melody and chorus imploring “love me the way I love you”, with a cello part which carries the song. Little else deviates from this template of gloriously depressed folk. With close up mics, you can here Oldham’s fingers sliding from fret to fret. There are some fine melodies here, especially Joy and Jubilee (where Oldham sounds anything but joyous) where he self-harmonises to great effect.

The proceedings are broken up with some backing vocals from Marty Slayton on several tracks (Ain’t You Wealthy, Ain’t You Wise?, Lessons From What’s Poor), but it’s very much a single-minded vision, with a consistent sound throughout. No superfluous notes are played here, every note has its place.

The hesitant, foreboding Even If Love evokes a dark night in the woods, while the coda of Hard Life rounds things off with some uplifting clean, electric guitar. For those who like their music austere and barely adorned, this is for you.

Thursday, November 24, 2011

Album Review: Neil Young – Chrome Dreams II

It would take an artist like Neil Young to release a follow-up to an album that never made official release… yet (was recorded in 1977 at a time when he was arguably at his peak). Thirty years on, Chrome Dreams II is a real mixed bag. Some Neil Young albums stick to one particular style, but some of the best ones mix up his rockers and his acoustic songs, as found here.

Opening track Beautiful Bluebird is Neil in his country-folk mode, and in truth it’s a little mawkish. Boxcar is a sprightly banjo tune, written originally for Times Square, which became 1989’s Freedom and this one missed the cut. It’s an improvement on what went before and it leads into the 18 minute Ordinary People. This one features the kitchen sink, riffs, trombones, saxophone but it’s a somewhat plodding track that really doesn’t need to be so long!

The rest of the album is a mix between cloying sentimental songs (Shining Light, Ever After, The Way), soul ballads (The Believer) and heavier work-outs (Spirit Road, Dirty Old Man, No Hidden Path) which are preferable to the others. Spirit Road has a decent dirty riff and is mercifully only six and a half minutes long, while Dirty Old Man echoes 1994’s Piece of Cr@p. In all ways. No Hidden Path eschews brevity and riffs along a la Crazy Horse for 14 and a half minutes without really going anywhere.

Elsewhere Ever After is a very sentimental country tune, and piano ballad The Way features a children’s choir, never the best idea. Despite my reservations, it’s still a Neil Young album, and at times even an enjoyable one.

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Album Review: The Redneck Manifesto - Thirtysixstrings

Irish instrumental group The Redneck Manifesto released their debut album in 2001. Opening track You Owe Me Five Potatoes introduces their sound – intertwining, ringing guitars and stuttering drumbeats, with thrilling changes of tempo and several melodies rolled into one song. Sweet Pot is almost metal with heavy guitars stomping all over the place.

Richie Egan and co show themselves to be fine musicians, Slow On The Uptake does what the title suggests ie builds up slowly while Sounds Better Than It Looks has a rather pensive guitar part. There are few straightforward chords here, everything is intricate and delicate, while at the same time propulsive and heavy.

Clue Out Puzzles hits the heavy notes again but more typical are moodier tracks like Speaking Of Clowns and I Don’t Speak The Monkey Language which wait till midway before unleashing a searing riff. Soundscapes Over Landscapes is reminiscent of early Mogwai without the massive pay-off.

You can see how the likes of And So I Watch You From Afar have drawn inspiration from this. It still stands up ten years on.

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Album Review: Dakota Suite & Quentin Sirjacq | The Side of Her Inexhaustible Heart

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EP Review: Low – Bombscare

This EP is a collaboration between Low and electronic duo Springheel Jack and was released in 2000. Some unsettling, chilly keyboard sounds open the glacially paced title track, a duet between Alan Sparhawk and Mimi Parker. Hand So Small is a graceful tune sung by Parker over a simple, unadorned piano part. Not to be outdone, Sparhawk sings the foreboding So Easy So Far, while final track Way Behind ends on a somewhat repetitive note. Well worth checking out if you like Low.

Monday, November 21, 2011

Album Review: Richmond Fontaine – Safety

Richmond Fontaine’s debut album Safety, released in 1996, shows some early promise, which they realized more fully on later work. Listening to it now, it’s not a million miles away from the likes of Whiskeytown.

Opening track Dayton, Ohio is akin to a ramshackle Lemonheads, as are the midtempo strums of Novocaine and Wagonwheel Motel. There are some 100 mile an hour tracks like Harold’s Club, Riverhouse and 1968, which have plenty of punky energy but don’t suit Willy Vlautin and co so well.

They are better when they slow things down, on the acoustic Settle and Safety. White Line Fever is again reminiscent of Whiskeytown, while the aforementioned Novocaine is a fine strum with the refrain of “17 reasons that I can’t explain.”

Later the 96 second Kid Steps Out Into The Road takes a bleak subject matter where this kid “duct-tapes 3 M-80s to his head and lights them” and combines it with a jaunty melody with a wonderful banjo part, concluding that “it’s the luck of the Irish in Reno, Nevada.”

All in all it’s a decent debut, with signs of what the band would become on future albums.

Sunday, November 20, 2011

Album Review: Pearl Jam – Yield

By 1998, Pearl Jam had become more or less the last band standing of the so-called grunge bands. Their sound was always a more classic rock sound and this informs Yield.
It comes roaring out of the traps with Brain of J, which has one of those classic chord changes for the chorus at which this band excels. This track is not really reflective of the rest of the album which settles into a more mid-tempo groove with Faithfull (sic) and No Way, the latter of which has a sort of late period Led Zeppelin feel to it.

This is reinforced by first single Given to Fly, which uses the tune and tempo of Zep’s Going to California before rocking it up a little. Wishlist is a very simple mid-tempo melody, with an anthemic chorus and a soaring, clean guitar solo midway through, while Pilate is more akin to REM’s classic Perfect Circle.
There is some experimentation here which doesn’t really work with track 8, an untitled garbled mess of percussion and chanting which thankfully only lasts a minute, and later Push Me, Pull Me is a spoken word track which again, doesn’t really work.
It works better when they play it straight. MFC zips along nicely, and Low Light has a pleasing acoustic feel to it. The anthemic In Hiding plays it a little too straight, and All Those Yesterdays sees them aim for a Beatles-type song, complete with brass etc. Less said about the hidden track, Russian dance (hummus?) the better.
It’s uneven but an enjoyable mixed bag.

Friday, November 18, 2011

Album Review: Wilco – Being There

Or rather, Exile on Wilco St. Wilco was formed by Jeff Tweedy from the dying embers of alt-country pioneers Uncle Tupelo. Their first full length, Being There is an ambitious double album, with an ebb and flow feel along the lines of Rolling Stones’ 1972 double album Exile On Main Street.

They throw down a take-nothing-for-granted marker with opening track Misunderstood, a six minute epic which alternates between periods of calm and noise wig-outs with Tweedy roaring at the top of his voice. Not a whit of country to be found here. However they change tack completely with Far, Far Away, a casual Johnny Cash country strum with an easy feel to it.

The album is a real treasure trove of styles, veering from one to another. There are Stones-y rockers (Monday, I Got You), banjo-strums (Forget the Flowers, Someday Soon), downbeat laments (Red Eyed and Blue, Someone Else’s Song), not to forget noisier tracks in the style of the opener (Sunken Treasure), and the whole thing finishes with the Faces-style all over the shop boogie of Dreamer In My Dreams.

The album has a very classic early 70s feel to it. They would never sound quite so straightforward again.

Thursday, November 17, 2011

EP Review: The Sisters of Mercy – Reptile House

The Sisters of Mercy released the Reptile House EP in 1983. Their previously brisk and uptempo songs were replaced by a slow, dingy grind. Opening track Kiss The Carpet starts off with a slow, long, build up before Gary Marx plays the main riff and Andrew Eldritch’s doomy vocals come in. It’s a decidedly unsettling piece of music.

Lights, which follows, is more conventional with a repetitive drum pattern and riff. The arrangement here is relatively sparse giving Eldritch’s vocals plenty of room to breathe. His voice grows in intensity towards the song’s conclusion where he bellows “until the emeralds glisten in the RAIN, RAIN, RAIN, I’m happy here in the RAIN!” After the sinister murk of Valentine, Fix has an even slower, longer build up than before with a sleazy, grinding guitar riff, and an almost whispered vocal.

Final track Burn has a vaguely oriental riff and some seriously distorted vocals. The punishing guitar work here is very effective. This EP distills the essence of early period Sisters of Mercy.

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Concert Review: Fountains of Wayne at The Academy, Dublin

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Album Review: Bill Ryder-Jones | If

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Album Review: Pearl Jam – No Code

After Vitalogy and their battle with Ticketmaster there was a sense of exhaustion about Pearl Jam. Something had to give and it did. There was a palpable sense of pulling back about 1996’s No Code. Aside from the beautiful packaging, it starts out with the very understated Sometimes, a slow, creeping number in which Eddie Vedder croons about being “like a book amongst the many on the shelf”. It’s hard not to see this as a metaphor for where Pearl Jam wanted to go, to fade away from the limelight.

The influence of Neil Young was all over this album, particularly on the loping Crazy Horse like Smile and Red Mosquito. Lead single Who You Are was a real departure for Pearl Jam, a kind of uptempo campfire strum. There are more standard issue rockers like Hail, Hail, which rocks along at 90 miles an hour, and also Habit and the 60 second Lukin. These tracks pack as much wallop as anything in the Pearl Jam catalogue.

But it’s the stripped-down tracks which work really well here. Off He Goes is a really affecting song, sensitively sung by Eddie Vedder which has real impact. Equally successful is Present Tense, a real brooding number which explodes into life briefly midway through before settling back into contemplation mode.

Mankind has Stone Gossard on lead vocals, and he suffers in comparison to Vedder, which renders the song as something of a failure. They embrace their weirder side with I’m Open, a dark spoken word song before finishing with the really stripped-down Around the Bend, displaying a side of Pearl Jam which hadn’t previously been heard.

As Pearl Jam albums go, this one is quite experimental (for them), though in some ways it endures as much as their better known works such as Ten, vs etc.

Thursday, September 29, 2011

Album Review: Anna Calvi

Despite seeing Ms Calvi earlier in the year, it’s taken me till now to give her album a ‘spin’. It’s hard to listen to this album without thinking of PJ Harvey, and it’s certainly in debt to her, but how many albums are not influenced by something.
The album is built Anna Calvi’s strong guitar playing and powerful voice, though opening track Rider to the Sea features just Calvi’s surf guitar. It’s a dramatic way to open the album, building the tension with wordless backing vocals. No More Words follows, one of the more low-key, muted tracks on the album before Desire, which it has to be said, sounds like a perfect facsimile of classic PJ Harvey.
The album is well-sequenced, she avoids the temptation to start with her strongest songs. Suzanne and I is more dramatic than what has gone before with a powerful guitar fusing perfectly with Calvi’s somewhat Siouxsie-esque vocal.
Later, The Devil is more stripped down, relying mainly on the vocals, while Blackout is that rarity, a radio-friendly tune which avoids blandness. Final track, Love Won’t Be Leaving is an absolute powerhouse of a track, hugely dramatic with dark riffs, femme fatale vocals and crashing percussion, conjuring up snake charmers and David Lynch-ian weirdness. The midsection is particularly thrilling, with some excellent guitar work.
Anna Calvi, though certainly in thrall to PJ Harvey, avoids pastiche, with an immensely enjoyable collection. It’s an intensely late night album, made for dark nights with a bottle of red wine.

Thursday, August 25, 2011

Album Review: Bill Callahan – Woke On A Whaleheart

Bill Callahan’s first album released under his name in 2007 is a curious affair. Callahan has been honing his songwriting craft gradually as Smog (and also (Smog)), culminating in the dark Americana of A River Ain’t Too Much To Love.

On this album however he experiments with a whole bunch of musicians, instrumentation, backing singers and Neil Hagerty on production. From The Rivers To The Ocean starts with a quiet piano part before morphing into something not too dissimilar from his last album as Smog with Bill’s tar-black vocal coating over a piano-led tune, joined by “blonde violins” (as per the sleeve notes).

A total change of tack for Footprints, a stomping freak-out with barmy backing vocals. It’s quite unlike anything else Callahan has done, as is the funky Diamond Dancer, a more successful attempt at a strutting guitar-dance track.

Sycamore is a more relaxed groove, an easy melody allowing plenty of space for Bill Callahan’s croon, while The Wheel with its slightly off guitar harks back to his Smog days. Honeymoon Child is, well, slinky is the word, a kind of bluesy, funky ballad.

Later, Night takes a pretty piano part in the fashion of early Smog and turns it into a soaring, reflective number. The album finishes with the bafflingly-titled A Man Needs A Woman Or A Man To Be A Man, a toe-tapping, finger-clicking early Johnny Cash style number.

The album has a cluttered, fussy feel, lurching from style to style. An idiosyncratic and intriguing diversion for Bill Callahan.

Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Album Review: Ryan Adams & The Cardinals – Jacksonville City Nights

This was the second of 3 albums released by Ryan Adams in 2005, and it sees him team up with the Cardinals to produce his most country effort yet. The opening 2 tracks A Kiss Before I Go are enough to send all but the most committed country-phile running screaming from the barn. The opener with its lyrics of “one shot, one beer and a kiss before I go” are blended with a somewhat cheesy country melody. Mercifully it’s only 2 minutes long. Second track The End(!) is a country waltz about “cotton fields” and “Jacksonville”. The question is: is he being serious here? It’s dangerously close to pastiche.

Later, Peaceful Valley has the strangulated vocal from his Cold Roses album, while My Heart Is Broken has to be a piss-take, it’s almost too much with its honky-tonk steel guitar and strings. So that’s the dodgy tracks out of the way. I’m happy to say the rest of the album is a distinct improvement, starting with Hard Way To Fall, like a cross between Bob Dylan’s Tonight I’ll Be Staying Her With You and Ryan’s own Answering Bell. It’s still very country, but without any cringe factor.

He collaborates with Norah Jones on the ballad Dear John, which would be one of the more tender songs on the album except for their vocals which are a little over-cooked. The less self-conscious songs are what he does best, tracks like The Hardest Part and Withering Heights are sprightly, rootsy finger-picking songs with the merest hint of country. Special mention for a great piano part on Withering Heights.

Silver Bullets is a beautiful piano and strings ballad like something off his superb Love Is Hell. This is Ryan at his most tender, a voice full of regret singing “cause I can’t see the sun, but I know it’s going away, and I can’t make you love me”.

September is a sparse, brooder like something off the 29 album as is Pa, a dark tale about “Pa drove to town yesterday to pick out her grave”. It’s not all maudlin laments. Trains is a quick-stepping, chugging Johnny Cash like number which suits him quite well and my version has a bonus track Jeane, a sprightly banjo strum, followed by a somewhat unnecessary version of the hoary old chestnut Always On My Mind.

Definitely one of Ryan Adams’ weaker albums and definitely over-long, there are still some songs here worth investigating.

Tuesday, August 23, 2011

Album Review: Lloyd Cole – Music in a Foreign Language

2003’s Music in a Foreign Language saw Lloyd Cole’s first self-recorded effort. It’s a fairly muted affair without percussion or electric guitars. Lloyd pitches in on guitar, bass, piano and of course vocals, with contributions from Neil Clark on guitar and Dave Derby on lap steel.

The title track introduces proceedings, setting the tone for the album with gently picked guitar and soft keyboards. Behind the soft, almost easy-listening instrumentation lies a dark, brooding heart, which reveals itself in the lyrics of many of the songs, chief amongst them My Other Life (“clearly you can see my clothes are torn, clearly this demands an explanation”).

Proceedings here are, for want of a better word, “mature”. This is never clearer than in a new version of No More Love Songs, Lloyd driving the point home by re-recording the song. It’s a fuller, more-realised version with keening steel guitar which for my money, works a little better than the more stripped-down original recording.

Lloyd takes on the challenge of Nick Cave’s People Ain’t No Good, and falls marginally short, though it’s still a relatively pleasant version. The inclusion of this song is perhaps Lloyd’s way of making a point? He saves the best for last with Shelf Life, a deeply moody lament about how he is “consumed by delusions of grandeur” over a softly picked guitar and a bright keyboard part, making this an almost stately kind of ballad, a perfect accompaniment to shortening evenings as “the night’s drawing in”.

It’s fairly different to any of Lloyd’s previous work. Very tasteful without any blandness, this is the type of thing the likes of Leonard Cohen should be doing now.

Monday, August 22, 2011

Album Review: The Minutes - Marcata

Dublin rockers The Minutes have one thing that separates them from the rest: the Moustache. Singer Mark Austin unashamedly sports this whopping piece of facial foliage, and on their debut album, Marcata, you can almost hear it.

The Minutes are a good old-fashioned rock and roll band, and this album is full of stomping anthems designed to be performed live. Black Keys is a swaggering, rock tune with added horns, while Gold is a White Stripes style number, with Robert Plant-like vocals. Later, Heartbreaker pounds along at break-neck speed like Led Zeppelin (funny that) filtered through the Stone Temple Pilots.

It’s not all 90 miles an hour stuff. Black and Blue is a fine mid-paced anthem with some great dirty guitars, with attitude oozing out of the speakers. Guilt Quilt has a wonderfully nasty riff, reminiscent of Nirvana’s On A Plain with added cock-rockisms.

They also find time to bash their way through old blues standard popularized by Led Zeppelin, In My Time of Dying , or I.M.T.O.D. as it is here. Austin’s insistent vocals power the song along over great riffs and wonderful drumming.

The album is a short one at 34 minutes, refusing to out-stay its welcome. Yes, you may think you have heard it all before. But it’s refreshing to hear it done with such honesty and energy. Turn this one up loud folks!

Sunday, August 21, 2011

Album Review: Various Artists – Fifteen Minutes: A Tribute to the Velvet Underground

The early 90s saw US underground rock godfathers the Velvet Underground finally receive the full-blown tribute by some of the early 90s European and American indie fraternity.

The album kicks off with a bang with Nirvana’s powerful version of Here She Comes Now where Kurt Cobain and co build up from a low growl to a visceral roar, vocally and musically finishing in a haze of distortion. Forgotten shoegazers Swervedriver take the once muted Jesus and transform it into a blissed-out, distorted anthem, all mumbled vocals and searing guitars.

Lee Ranaldo sounds unrecognizable from his dayjob in Sonic Youth as he slide-guitars his way through Stephanie Says. Things get really demented with Fatima Mansions’ electro-pop version of Lady Godiva’s Operation, Cathal Coughlan barking the lyrics like the inmate of a correctional facility, as chainsaws perform the ‘incisions’ in the lyrics!

Some of it doesn’t quite work, Echo and the Bunnymen turn Foggy Notion into one of their latter-day chug-along rockers. Stronger are the Wedding Present’s faithful homage to She’s My Best Friend and at the other extreme, the Screaming Trees’ desecration of What Goes On .

Like any tribute album, it’s an uncohesive and at times incoherent listen. But like any good tribute album, this makes you dig out the original material so in this regard, it succeeds.