Sunday, July 31, 2011

Album Review: Pearl Jam – Riot Act

The much maligned Pearl Jam released Riot Act in 2002, to the welcome of significantly fewer waiting fans than in their early 90s heyday. What has happened to this band is that, free of the shackles of the weight of being ‘voice of a generation’ is that they have loosened up (a little) and become possibly more enjoyable.

Not that they are ever exactly a barrel of laughs. Can’t Keep builds up but never quite reaches a climax but Save You is a loose and ragged rocker, leaving bits of itself over the place as it rampages along.

Things get darker with the solemn yet awfully titled Love Boat Captain, which starts quietly before building into a classic Pearl Jam anthem, referring to the tragic death of some of their fans at a concert in Roskilde. Cropduster is a mid-paced rocker with a big chorus, and I Am Mine is a kind dark, sea-shanty which sways to and fro nicely.

Pearl Jam always find time for a sensitive Eddie Vedder moment, and here it’s no different. Thumbing My Way is a beautifully sung lament that Bruce Springsteen would kill for. On the other extreme they bring in some machine-processed guitars for You Are. Here Vedder sounds as dismal as only he can as he groans “you are a tower of strength to me.”

Green Disease sounds like they were listening to The Strokes, while Vedder’s Lion King moment Arc is best forgotten. They save the best for last as they so often do with the bleak as f**k All Or None. “It’s a hopeless situation,” Vedder croons and you really believe him. Like the best Pearl Jam album closers, there’s a sense of finality to it.

Not necessarily a starting point for Pearl Jam. There are some strong songs here on this somewhat patchy album. This Riot Act’s not for reading, but not a bad listen.

Saturday, July 30, 2011

Album Review: Richmond Fontaine – Winnemucca

Richmond Fontaine’s fourth album, released in 2002, is an altogether less frantic affair than its predecessor, the damaged Lost Son. From the opening track, Winner’s Casino, the feeling is fairly relaxed and very country-rock, thanks to Paul Brainard’s prominent pedal steel guitar. Out of State emerges from the murk of the previous track with a brightly, picked guitar over Willy Vlautin’s miserable lyrics (“shut the curtains, put a blanket over them…. no one knows where we are, we could stay like this for days”).

Northline (which also became the title of Vlautin’s second, exceptional novel) is an anthemic lament of a girl whose “letters turned to postcards and then never appeared”. The band change tack later with two instrumentals back-to-back, the country-rocking Twyla and the atonal, ambient and atmospheric Patty’s Retreat, which acts as a musical dust settling before the second half of the album.

The optimism of the music contrasts directly with the heavily downbeat lyrics, particularly on final two tracks Five Degrees Below Zero, possibly the cheeriest thing on the album. Western Skyline offers a little hope, like a new dawn “where golden light shines down upon everything”.

Vlautin is a great writer but not a particularly strong singer, however his band provide an empathetic backing.

Friday, July 29, 2011

Album Review: Lloyd Cole – Etc (lost songs, tunes 1996-2000)

This album, released in 2001, is billed as a collection of odds and ends, but in reality it hangs together like a ‘proper’ Lloyd Cole album. It opens and closes with the instrumental Backwoods, a wistful, acoustic piece of music which sets the tone nicely. What follows is prime Lloyd Cole. Old Enough To Know Better is a classic sounding Lloyd Cole song with Neil Clark’s steel guitar giving it a country feel. Another Lover and 39 Down are jangly, more uptempo country rock songs, albeit loaded with regret.

Cover versions are the last refuge of the scoundrel, and Lloyd Cole has never been terribly comfortable in this territory. After the pretty instrumental Sunburst, Etc serves up not one, but two cover versions. Karen Black’s Memphis features backing vocals from The The’s Matt Johnson with a wonderful performance from the band. Even Lloyd Cole’s countrified attempt at Bob Dylan’s You’re A Big Girl Now fares well with great twangy guitars.

The country influence continues throughout the album, perhaps at its strongest on Alright People, another strong song on an album full of them. After another brief instrumental, Santa Cruz, the quality doesn’t let up with the stomping Love Like This Can’t Last, and the highly likeable Went To Woodstock, Fool You Are and the harmonica-led Weakness.

Special mention to Lloyd’s voice on this album, he’s not affected or strained, but utterly natural, which works really well here. What’s great about all these songs is that they all sound so effortless, almost carefree, when by all accounts at the time, their creator was clearly not. An essential album for Lloyd Cole fans.

Thursday, July 28, 2011

Album Review: Dakota Suite – Alone With Everybody

Not strictly speaking a cohesive album, it’s actually a collection of EPs from 1996-1998 released by Dakota Suite. It works well as an introduction to Chris Hooson and co. On this collection we are treated to the various melancholic styles the band is capable of. Mood Indigo is almost alt-country with a melody that sounds so perfect you’ll swear you heard if before, underpinned by Richard Formby (ex-Spacemen 3) on lap steel and organ.

On the opposite end of the spectrum, Episode is a piano instrumental, foretelling the band’s evolution away from singer-songwriter material towards a more classical palette. Colin Dunkley’s piano works beautifully on the gorgeous Autobiography, Chris Hooson’s whispered vocals and acoustic guitar filling out the song nicely along with some violins.

The band do more conventional (for them) electric guitar based songs also, Divided and Just Like Jesus are fine downbeat tracks. Somewhere has a fine clarinet featuring prominently throughout and a gorgeous violin coda. More austere is News From Nowhere, with dark harmonium and organ dominating amidst the ominous ringing of bells.

There are fine instrumentals on this collection, the piano and metronome (?) combination of To Have Wondered also worthy of note, before the sweeter sounding Colder, which echoes Mood Indigo with intricate guitar and some wonderfully dippy “ba ba”s from vocalist Chris Hooson. Although the band is not fully formed on these recordings, there is some really fine music lurking within.

Wednesday, July 27, 2011

Album Review: Pulp – This Is Hardcore

Pulp were faced with a quandary in 1998. They had just achieved huge success, piggybacking on the Britpop movement.

Their follow up to Different Class was This Is Hardcore. Bearing little resemblance to its predecessor, Jarvis Cocker kicks off the foreboding opener The Fear, singing “this is the sound of someone losing the plot.” Which is probably what Island Records said to him when the band presented this album to them. Where are the catchy tunes?

It’s not a tune-free zone by any means. The Fear is a kind of statement of intent, a five and a half minute slab of sinister melodrama, finishing in a haze of feedback. It’s an exhilarating way to start the album. Different class indeed. Next track Dishes sees the band back on more familiar territory, Jarvis opening a rather muted track with the line “I am not Jesus, though I have the same initials” and further on singing about wanting to “make this water wine”. Aside from the lyrics, it’s a pleasant little ditty that could have worked on previous albums.

A total change of tack for Party Hard, which sounds like an excellent Bowie track from the mid 90s. Jarvis an extraordinary Bowie impersonation over a grinding beat and squalling guitars. It goes beyond mere homage, as it’s a fine anthem and a highlight of the album. Help the Aged is, yet again, different, a soaring anthem which leads nicely into the title track, returning to the territory of The Fear, all sinister keyboards and brass.

After the almost folky TV Movie, A Little Soul is a fine, soaring soulful ballad which Pulp seem to turn out effortlessly. I’m A Man starts out like the Wedding Present before becoming a somewhat overblown number along the lines of Arcade Fire.

By now the listener is exhausted by the sheer breadth and scope of this album. Penultimate track Glory Days is not, as the title might suggest, a Springsteen-inspired folly but an attempt at a Different Class style stomper before the album finishes with the sentimental, cathartic sounding The Day After The Revolution, complete with statement “The Fear is over”, and a final note which lasts 10 minutes!

There’s a strange note on the CD booklet, after the lyrics are printed it reads: “NB Please do not read the lyrics whilst listening to the recordings.” Pretentious, glorious failure? Quite probably, but an enjoyable one at that.

Tuesday, July 26, 2011

EP Review: Low – Transmission

For this 1996 EP, for the opening and title track Low take Joy Division’s Transmission and slow it down to a snail’s pace. Which is not to say their version plods. Oh no, it builds up from a quiet opening to an anthem of sorts with some strong guitar work from Alan Sparhawk. It’s a risky track to cover but it pays off in spades, this cover version is positively inspired.

What follows is a little mixed. Bright is a meandering Mimi Parker sung track, and Caroline 2 is an even slower minor-key version of the track off Long Division.

Hands is a dark, almost threatening song, with a sinister lyric about taking “two hands to cover your ears”. After the brief Jack Smith there follows 5 minutes of silence before a lengthy, ambient, untitled, instrumental bar an occasional snatched Sparhawk lyric here and there, laying the groundwork for future forays into this area.

Monday, July 25, 2011

The Stunning at Buncrana Music & Arts Festival

Review for

Lisa Hannigan at Earagail Arts Festival

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Album Review: REM – Green

REM continued their graduation from jangly indie band to alternative rock gods with 1988’s Green. The album opens with the upbeat Pop Song 89 which takes a clever riff and some seemingly disparate parts and moulds them into one song. Get Up is similarly upbeat before You Are The Everything, a gorgeous song leaning heavily on Peter Buck’s mandolin and a strong vocal from Michael Stipe. The mandolin comes out again later on the album with The Wrong Child and Hairshirt.

Of course at this stage REM were becoming adept at writing insanely catchy songs. On this album we get 2: the slightly cheesy Stand and fine rock anthem Orange Crush. They also laid the ground for what would come afterwards with the midtempo and less well known World Leader Pretend, aided and abetted by some memorable cello and steel guitar parts and a chorus of intent: “I raised the wall and I will be the one to knock it down”. Turn You Inside Out is another fine rocker and penultimate track I Remember California has a darker tone to it.

It’s hard to imagine now how rare this sort of stuff was in 1988. While it’s probably nobody’s favourite REM album, it’s one of their better ones.

Tuesday, July 12, 2011

Album Review: The Horrors | Skying

Album Review: Lloyd Cole – The Negatives

What a breath of fresh air this Lloyd Cole album is. After the muted Love Story, this album, released in the year 2000, was his first to see the light of day in 5 years. Here Lloyd re-emerged with a new band, the Negatives.

Opener Past Imperfect is a bright, anthemic driving tune with special mention to self-referential lyrics (“what on my mind in Amsterdam in 1984, what did I want from the pouring rain… why was my head in the unmade bed”) and a wonderful guitar solo. It’s followed up by the acoustic Oasis-style strum of Impossible Girl, and then the moody No More Love Songs, all muted keyboards and guitars and the merest (and welcome) hint of steel guitar.

But the uptempo tracks are the real winners here: What’s Wrong With This Picture is another bright anthem in the vein of Past Imperfect, with jangly guitars and a great big catchy chorus. Negative Attitude is a tough, Lou Reed style rocker, recaptured later on the driving rock of Too Much E.

Vin Ordinaire will delight devotees of The Smiths with its chiming guitar arpeggios and soaring, yearning melody in the vein of No Blue Skies, while Tried To Rock sees Lloyd mine late-period Beatles territory with a putdown aimed squarely at himself.

A great collection of songs and a resounding return to form for Lloyd Cole.

Monday, July 11, 2011

Album Review: Neil Young – Silver and Gold

For his first studio album in 4 years, released in 2000, Neil Young is firmly back in his country mode for the first time since Harvest Moon. And it fits him like a comfortable pair of slippers. Which is kind of like an analogy for how this album sounds. Right from the opening track, Good To See You, we get the plaintive acoustic guitar, harmonica, Young’s warm croaky voice and Ben Keith’s yearning steel guitar. It’s almost like the title of the song is welcoming him back to the type of territory where he achieved his greatest commercial success.

There’s very little wrong with any of this, particularly when it’s done so well. The title track follows in a similar vein with a nice lyric about how “our kind of love never seems to get old.” This sort of thing gets a little corny, cropping up again and again over the course of the album.

Daddy Went Walkin’ is a little hokey for my tastes, though it’s redeemed by piano, while Buffalo Springfield Again harks back his old band with a fuller sound.

The chord progressions throughout are all very pleasant and some of them are a little familiar, harking back to his work from the early 70s. Horseshoe Man starts with a piano motif that could have been lifted from After the Gold Rush and more lyrics about “love, I don’t know about love”, while later Distant Camera starts off sounding like a dead ringer for Old Man, yet becomes something akin to Green Green Grass of Home, with yet another lyric about wanting “a song of love”.

To round out the nostalgic feel, Emmylou Harris and Linda Ronstadt provide backing vocals on Red Sun and a rustic sounding acoustic guitar solo. Final track Without Rings is a little different, with Neil Young singing in a lower register. It sounds resolved, like the end of something, and not just an album either.

For anyone who enjoys Neil Young’s more acoustic material, this compares favourably with After the Gold Rush, Harvest, Comes A Time or Harvest Moon.

Sunday, July 3, 2011

Album Review: Dirty Three – Horse Stories

Dirty Three are an Australian instrumental trio, featuring Warren Ellis’ at times unhinged violin playing ably supported by the tasteful guitar of Mick Turner and Jim White on drums.

This album, released in 1996 was their third, and is a real mood piece. After the tranquil opener, 1000 Miles, Sue’s Last Ride is an early highlight. Building up from Turner’s gentle guitar part, the music has plenty of space in it for Ellis’ violin to rampage through the song, quickening throughout the piece. Hope is more downbeat with hints of Arab Strap’s instrumentation in the guitars, but I Remember A Time When You Used To Love Me is a rollicking, sway-along romp, and the first indication that the band is capable of rocking out.

At The Bar sees the pace slacken once again before the furious rocker Red, which eschews subtlety from the start in place of pounding drums, bashed guitars and demented violin from Ellis at its core, and doesn’t let up.

Warren’s Lament is surely the centerpiece, it’s like a microcosm of everything Dirty Three do over the course of eight and half minutes, with an especially lonesome violin part. It finishes with the somber, funereal I Knew It Would Come To This, with Ellis’ violin appearing to reference The Smiths at one point.

A whole album of violin playing takes some getting used to but for those who enjoy instrumental music in the Mogwai vein, this should be investigated.