Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Album Review: Whiskeytown – Pneumonia

This turned out to be Whiskeytown’s final album. Its release was delayed till 2001 due to record company politics, by which time singer Ryan Adams had already embarked on a solo career.
The album itself has been described by people who have too much time on their hands as the “alt-country ‘Rumours’”, possibly due to the fact that there were a couple of relationships going on in this band. It’s not particularly country sounding, particularly in comparison to their early stuff, but there are enough steel guitar twangs and good ol’ boy drawls going on here to place it in the ballpark.

All flippancy aside, it’s both an accessible and strong collection of songs. They try their hand at a variety of styles, from soul ballads (Ballad of Carol Lynn, Easy Hearts), to REM-style folk-rock (Don’t Wanna Know Why, Don’t Be Sad, Bar Lights) to rockers (Crazy About You). Jacksonville Skyline is one of the more country sounding tracks, all pedal steel and yearning about his hometown, and is one of many fine songs on this album. The playing on this album is subtle, no instrument allowed to dominate, and it works beautifully on understated ballad Reason To Lie.
Sit and Listen To The Rain is a sprightly, widescreen moody rocker about the joys of… you’ve guessed it, sitting around. There are one or two missteps: Mirror, Mirror is too poppy for its own good in a Beatles kind of way, while Paper Moon is dangerously close to lounge cheese. So after these 2 tracks they redeem it all with some strange Nick Drake style number (What The Devil Wanted) and a great facsimile of a Bruce Springsteen ballad, even down to the title (My Hometown).
It’s all so effortless and listening to it now, I can’t help feeling that it blows away Ryan Adams’ more recent output. If any of these Whiskeytown tracks were on one of Ryan Adams’ recent albums it would be the strongest track on it.

Saturday, January 15, 2011

Album Review: Gillian Welch - Time (The Revelator)

Gillian Welch is someone I'm not very familiar with, but I have been enjoying her third album, 2001's Time (The Revelator). The inclusion of "The Revelator" in the title evokes The Book of Revelations while simultaneously conjuring up visions of old bluesmen.
The actuality of the music is more of a late-night, country-tinged, gentle folk. Opening track Revelator is a downbeat folk tale, over ringing acoustic guitars which drift along in a stately fashion. It's quite jarring when just before the end she sings "leaving the valley, f**king out of sight." There's a great electrified version of this song on Ryan Adams' Destroyer bootleg, but this version is good in its own right.
Much of the rest of the album is quite bluegrass. We get banjo romps (My First Lover), glacial bluegrass (Dear Someone, Elvis Presley Blues), as well as the sparse folky tracks which really grab me. David Rawlings' contribution should also be noted, as he chips on guitar, backing vocals, not to mention co-writer and producer.
April 14th, Part I starts off quite beautifully with gentle acoustic guitar and Gillian Welch's drawling, yearning vocal. It evokes insomnia on a warm summer's night, like most of the material here. Its sister piece, Ruination Day, Part II takes the same lyrical theme in a similarly sparse musical setting.
Everything Is Free is another sparse gem, but I Dream A Highway is another thing entirely. It sounds like a kind of folk mantra, though at 14 and a half minutes it will probably lull you into a stupor. It's better than I make it sound. In fact it's a charming album, not just for ardent bluegrass fans.

Friday, January 14, 2011

Album Review: Lloyd Cole & The Commotions – Mainstream

Lloyd Cole made his name with the Commotions on 1984’s classic debut Rattlesnakes, a perfect synergy of jangly guitars and pretentious literary references. After a more commercial follow-up Easy Pieces, they returned with 1987’s ‘difficult third album’, the presumably ironically titled Mainstream. It turned out to be his last with the Commotions.

The late 1980s was a bad time for music production, and the first track on this album My Bag (my bad) reinforces this. The song isn’t particularly poor but musically it’s all choppy guitars, drum machines and staccato vocals. Lloyd does a nice line in stream of consciousness lyrics though. This is followed up with 3 slower, gentle tracks which survive Lloyd Cole’s somewhat forced vocal delivery. These are helped by less reliance on forced literary references than previous material. From the Hip is a kind of gentle musing, but 29 is more substantial, with the subject being that of impending thirtiedom. The music builds to a nice mope-along plod of a song (in a good way).

The last of these 3, the title track is a little more scathing (“all you have to do is crawl”) and the guitar work is quite Lou Reed-ish. Following track Jennifer She Said is a great American style rock song, all twangy guitars and Elvis style vocals, and it works well.
Unfortunately from there the album takes a turn for the worse. Mister Malcontent is their attempt to do U2 with a big rock song and a kind of predictable chord progression, while Sean Penn Blues is better, another stream of consciousness type track. The rest veers from faux-jazz (Big Snake) to another ‘big’ U2-ish anthem (Hey Rusty) before petering out with These Days, a kind of electronic ballad.
It was time for reinvention and Lloyd’s solo career would do just that…

Thursday, January 13, 2011

Album Review: Neil Young – Hawks & Doves

Neil Young was almost peerless in the 1970s with a string of really strong albums, embracing acoustic and electric styles (with Crazy Horse). His stock was particularly high after 1979’s Rust Never Sleeps.

Very little has been written about 1980’s Hawks & Doves. It’s an odd little album. It’s split into 2 sides, Side 1 (or the first 4 tracks) being mostly acoustic – the Doves side, then Side 2 (the final 5 tracks) – the Hawks side, which is dubious country-rock of which more later.

It seems the first 4 tracks were leftovers which didn’t make his albums in the 70s, and it shows, as they are strong acoustic Neil Young songs which could have fit on any of his albums back then. Little Wing, nothing to do with the Jimi Hendrix song of the same name is a fairly slight opener. Although it’s only 2 minutes long the plaintive acoustic strum and harmonica makes it sound instantly like safe territory for the writer.

The opening 4 tracks are kind of downbeat, which suits him quite well. The Old Homestead is seven and half minutes of minimalist acoustic strum, which doesn’t change much yet it doesn’t become boring, there’s a strong melody, which evokes many of Young’s other tracks without sounding too similar too any of them. The eerie whine of an odd sounding theremin wheezes in and out of the track at intervals, with a little bass and drums here and there.

Lost In Space is a little cloying, sounding like a fairly straightforward love song. This one is a little more fleshed out, with dobro and backing vocals added to Neil’s acoustic, while Captain Kennedy is another round of acoustic picking in the vein of The Old Homestead, if significantly shorter. It was held over from the unreleased Chrome Dreams album.

It would have been great if he stopped there but oh no he didn’t. He recorded 5 desperately gung-ho cheesey country-rock tracks with a full band. These tracks have very little to recommend themselves, either musically nor lyrically. Stayin’ Power is like a countrified version of the hoary old Phil Phillips track Sea of Love. No amount of fiddle and steel guitar can rescue these trite songs. If these songs were my introduction to Neil Young, I’d be DNA testing them. He might have been trying to go for a Comes A Time style feel, but it didn’t work. The title track is a cheery stomp-along country rocker which is even worse than that sounds, especially with a chorus of “USA, USA”.

It feels unfinished at just under half an hour. And I could have done without the last 13 minutes. Pity he didn’t scrap this album and hang onto the first 4 tracks a bit longer.

Wednesday, January 12, 2011

Album Review: LCD Soundsystem – This Is Happening

In these days of 13 or 14 track albums it’s a relief to see that 2010’s LCD Soundsystem has only 9 tracks, albeit lengthy ones. So how would James Murphy follow up Sound of Silver?

Well he hasn’t done anything too different in the main, though opening track Dance Yrself Clean is a brave opener. The instrumentation is very muted for the first 2 or 3 minutes till it mutates into an electro dance track. I would say interesting rather than hugely successful.

Drunk Girls has a whiff of David Bowie off it, as do several tracks on this album. In this case it’s Boys Keep Swinging. It’s a little repetitive and juvenile, just like the Bowie song! This track though is a real case of spot the influence, with Velvet Underground’s White Light White Heat very pervasive, along with a little Talking Heads and Blur thrown in.

One Touch is more of a dancefloor type track, though very 2010 sounding, until the Bowie influence returns on All I Want, which takes the same treated electric guitar from Heroes and channels it through the song. I Can Change is a hedonistic sounding dance song, a real electro stomper with hints of Kraftwerk, and it’s bloody marvellous.

Murphy’s lyrics are often worth listening to, and this album is no different, notably on the Japan-influenced You Wanted A Hit (“you wanted a hit - but maybe we don’t do hits”). After Pow Pow, akin to Watch The Tapes from his last album, Somebody’s Calling Me takes the Bowie theme and gives it a twist, this track dragging itself along in the exact same manner as Iggy Pop’s Bowie-produced Nightclubbing. He finishes off back on home ground with the typically LCD sounding Home.

Bored with all the references? Despite all the similarities to other artists, the album is actually really enjoyable. James Murphy has said this would be his last album as LCD Soundsystem and if so, he exits proudly through the front door.

Tuesday, January 11, 2011

Album Review: David Bowie – Low

As well as having one of the coolest album covers ever, David Bowie’s 1977 album Low is very much an album of sides. Before CDs, albums came on double sided vinyl/cassette and were often considered as such. I’ll focus on the music rather than the Berlin-inspired backdrop to the making of this album, of which much has already been written.

The first seven tracks are made up short zippy little songs, bookended by 2 instrumentals. Apart from the hit single Sound and Vision, none of the melodies are as strong as his ‘classic’ early seventies tracks yet they worm your way into your brain. Opening track Speed of Life has a strong melody, with soaring keyboards and pounding drums. Some of it can sound a little dated, the ‘video-game’ style noises back up What In The World can be a little annoying but in the main it still holds up.

At its best it sounds pioneering, in the case of Always Crashing In The Same Car, where he lays down the template for Gary Numan’s career and some of U2’s work on Zooropa. Be My Wife on the other hand is the most anthemic track here, with a fine vocal from Bowie as he croons “sometimes you get so lo-nely”.

The other side of this album is something else entirely. Bowie and Brian Eno linked up here to create a kind of ambient, Teutonic chilly classical electronic music, without any conventional singing from Bowie. The first of these, Warsawa, perfectly evokes a kind of wintry, Cold War-era Eastern European landscape with gloomy keyboards and some wordless chanting from Bowie in the middle. Art Decade fairs less well as the melody is somewhat meandering, sounding somewhat like the type of music that TV stations used to play many, many years ago over the test card.

Weeping Wall is less obviously melodic, and sounds like it could be used over a documentary charting the progress of recession-bitten immigrants, while Subterraneans sounds darker still, yet uplifting. Bowie chants some very strange sounding wordless vocals, yet it avoids the ambient music clich├ęs and works. Even the saxophone manages not to ruin it. It’s very much night time music, best heard in darkness.
These instumentals gradually reveal themselves over time as hidden melodies come to the fore on repeated listens, and of course were hugely influential in terms of electronic music. Then again Bowie had been a pioneer for some time, right back to Space Oddity. Low is a timepiece frozen forever in a Berlin Wall era moment.

Monday, January 10, 2011

EP Review: And So I Watch For You From Afar – The Letters

2010 saw the release of this EP from my current obsession And So I Watch You From Afar, and this review is a little late but here goes:

S is for Salamander is a typically brutal ASIWYFA track, slaying all before them with heavy guitar riffs and impressive changes in tempo. There’s a neat line in machine-gun percussion in the midsection of the track.

D is for Django the Bastard is a real rabble-rouser. The pay-off comes early in this one as some melodic guitar leads into a sledgehammer mayhem-style riff. They go a little power metal in the midsection, with even a slight jazzy feel thrown in, till the powerful riff returns again, closing out the track with a wallop.

B is for B-Side is not quite as strong as the opening 2, rendering its title somewhat appropriate but K is for Killing Spree, which follows is another matter. Quite apart from being the archetypal ASIWYFA song title, the boys throw the kitchen sink at this one. It’s like a mixture of every one of their riffs inside 6 minutes, though it has the overall effect of sounding less post-rock, more metal, and thus less distinctive as a track from this band. It still rips along nicely, and the midsong collapse has me thinking of Sonic Youth.

Perhaps ASIWYFA actually work better on an EP as it’s hard to maintain the thrill levels over the course of a whole album, you have to reduce the intensity at some point. But no need to over 4 tracks.

Tuesday, January 4, 2011

Mick Karn RIP

Sad news today that Mick Karn has lost his battle with cancer at the age of 52. Best known for pioneering fretless bass playing as the 70s became the 80s, some might say he bears considerable influence... and responsibility for this, as he spawned many dubious imitators.
He came to prominence playing bass in Japan, and his talent flourished more on each of their albums, culminating on Tin Drum, where his atmospheric bass playing formed the framework for such tracks as Ghosts, Canton and Visions of China.
After a falling out with David Sylvian over his girlfriend Yuka Fuji, the band split. Karn worked with ex-Bauhaus singer Peter Murphy in their project Dalis Car, and other projects including solo work, before regrouping with his ex-Japan bandmates for Rain Tree Crow. In my mind, this was his finest work, taking the atmospheric leanings of Tin Drum to the logical next step on tracks like Every Colour You Are.
For the remainder of his life he worked with a variety of artists, but mainly solo before his untimely passing. As I write this I'm listening to Sons of Pioneers off Tin Drum, as fine an example as any of his bass playing, and one of the few Japan tracks he was given a co-writing credit for.

Live Review: And So I Watch You From Afar - Whelans, Dublin, December 31st 2010

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