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.

Sunday, August 7, 2011

Album Review: Low – Secret Name

1999’s Secret Name was where Low started to get a whole lot more accessible. Without compromising the quality of song. Having said that, it’s hard to imagine a less accessible opener than I Remember with an eerie synth pattern topped off by an almost inaudible vocal from Alan Sparhawk and some muted static. It’s a somewhat bewildering way to open the album.

Starfire is a whole lot more melodic despite Sparhawk’s again off-kilter vocals, with added heavenly harmonies and Mo Tucker style drumming from Mimi Parker, before the first real keeper on this album, Two-Step. It starts off quietly with a delicately strummed electric over Sparhawk’s whispered vocals before the melody kicks in after a minute and a half, ushering in celestial vocals from Parker. The subtle melody winds its way round your ears, making it a classic Low track.

The standard is maintained by the Parker-sung Weight of Water, featuring a soaring string section and a glacially paced melody. Don’t Understand is darker, with a sinister, tense opening before the somewhat angry track commences, like a dry run for later, noisier material.

Soon is a real epic, evolving from a muted strum to a brooding, string-led Velvet Underground style midsection. It’s almost unbearably grim, and unbearably great. The tension is punctured by Immune, which comes as something of a relief as it’s a relatively conventional song, very sweetly sung and played by Parker and Sparhawk in all its beautifully played glory.

Penultimate track Will The Night is something of a show-stopper. There’s no percussion this time until halfway through, only a gorgeous, almost hymn-like melody sung over soaring strings. It’s all over in less than two and a half minutes.

The album is almost like the quintessential Low album which reflects their entire discography, it’s opaque and off-putting to begin with, but when persevered with the rewards are immense and addictive.

Saturday, August 6, 2011

Album Review: Neil Young – Prairie Wind

Which Neil is it this time in 2005? Ah, acoustic countrified Neil. Time to sit back, relax and let the sunshine lull you into the ‘harvest’. It opens with the plaintive The Painter, featuring Neil Young’s acoustic and producer Ben Keith’s pedal steel touches over a very pleasant melody.

Many of the tracks echo Neil’s previous work. No Wonder opens a little like The Old Homestead (from Hawks & Doves) before evolving to become a more realized, fuller-sounding song, complete with fine electric guitar and fiddles. Falling Off The Face of the Earth is more muted, but has a strong melody. Unfortunately he revisits the soul territory mined on Are You Passionate? on Far From Home, He Was The King and the title track.

It’s A Dream is a piano-led almost sickly sweet ballad which narrowly avoids becoming total schmaltz, despite the syrupy strings, while the harmonica-led Here For You is almost Harvest pastiche, with acoustic, steel et al, all in the right places.

One of the finest tracks is This Old Guitar, which sounds like Harvest Moon (the song) on a comedown, all bleached out with Neil Young sounding parched, and the unmistakeable backing vocals of Emmylou Harris. The album ends with the hokey gospel of When God Made Me.

Far from essential but enjoyable.

Friday, August 5, 2011

Album Review: Richmond Fontaine – Post To Wire

Something of a critical, if not commercial breakthrough for Richmond Fontaine, 2004’s Post To Wire certainly made impact in the glossy music monthlies. And with good reason too – it’s probably the most melodic of their albums.

After The Longer You Wait which sets the tone, second track, Barely Losing has a gorgeous guitar and piano combination, topped off by the pleasing groans of Willy Vlautin (“we’re walking on the railroad tracks at 5 in the morning).

Montgomery Park takes a different approach, it’s a ragged, bat out of hell rocker, yet still melodic amid the raging guitars. The songs are punctuated by spoken-word interludes detailing the trials and tribulations of the protagonist Walter, a troublemaker by the sounds of this.

But the real strength of this album is the number of strong tunes contained within. Through and Two Broken Hearts are classic sounding midtempo country-rockers. However, the album is never allowed to get too comfortable before the darkness returns in the towering tale of a siege in Hallway.

Deborah Kelly provides a fine duet on the title track, another bright country-rock tune, and also on the more downbeat Polaroid of the girl looking for her dad who “don’t know where he lives anymore.”

Penultimate track Willamette sees the band unleash their full power as Vlautin rages at a missing brother, referencing their dreams by the aforementioned river. It’s a huge sounding cathartic track, all pounding drums, snarling guitars and an incongruous steel guitar, which miraculously fits into the mix.

The album is a perfect starting point for Richmond Fontaine.

Thursday, August 4, 2011

Album Review: Screaming Trees – Last Words: The Final Recordings

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Album Review: Whipping Boy (self-titled)

One of Dublin’s great lost bands, Whipping Boy released their masterpiece Heartworm in 1995. When this album failed to make a breakthrough they recorded a follow-up which was finally released as this self-titled album in 2000, at which point this incarnation of the band was as good as over.

Undoubtedly none of these songs have the visceral impact of anything on Heartworm. The mood is different, more reflective right from opener So Much For Love. “All she wants is to be remembered,” croons Feargal McKee over Paul Page’s almost jangling guitar. The brooding Bad Books continues in a similar vein though McKee doesn’t quite manage the misogyny of Heartworm.

Pat the Almighty has a coruscating chorus like the stompers of their heyday, while later Ghost of Elvis recaptures the mood of Tripped (again from Heartworm) with added piano touches. The album is patchier than their previous work, That Was Then, This Is Now has little more character than its title while some of the slower tracks like Fly and Who Am I drift along without making a huge impression. More successful of these is One To Call My Own which recaptures the downbeat longing of The Honeymoon Is Over.

Unfortunately this album appears to be no longer available. This is a crying shame as while it’s by no means perfect the better songs here deserve to be heard. Some of the original members of the band have regrouped and are currently touring.

Wednesday, August 3, 2011

Album Review: Lloyd Cole – Plastic Wood

Brian Eno has a lot to answer for. Having created what is now known as ambient music in the 1970s, Lloyd Cole was inspired to try his hand at the genre in 2001 with Plastic Wood.

It’s far away from Rattlesnakes - there’s no place for Lloyd’s voice, wry observations or jangly guitars here, the music is all electronically-based instrumentals. It has a kind of late night, almost soporific feel to it. Tracks like 4 Train and Headlights have soaring melodies but are mainly static in terms of propulsion. The latter of these tracks reminds somewhat of The Blue Nile. All the tracks are very brief (bar final track Machinist), so are over before they really go anywhere.

Some of it (On Ice) sounds like the first few seconds of Mr Malcontent from Lloyd Cole and the Commotions, stretched out over a whole album. Park West has a fuller, almost orchestral sound.

As an exercise, there’s nothing wrong with this but it’s hard not to think Lloyd Cole’s talents are better used in the guitar-oriented material he made his name with. Best listened to alone in the so-called small hours.

Tuesday, August 2, 2011

Album Review: Low – The Curtain Hits The Cast

1996’s The Curtain Hits The Cast is one of the more difficult Low albums. Few of the songs are particularly accessible. In addition, vocalist Alan Sparhawk sings in a higher register for many of the tracks, which doesn’t particularly suit him.

Opening track, Anon has the sound of somebody falling in pain but its followed by The Plan and Over the Ocean which are more soothing. Mimi Parker takes lead vocals on The Plan which has Low’s trademark gingerly picked clean electric guitars, while on the latter track Parker and Sparhawk’s voices intertwine.

The following tracks are funereally-paced and downbeat (Mom Says, Coattail). Standby has a stronger melody and features a fine build up in tempo and tone mid-song, while Laugh is one of Sparhawk’s earliest incursions into distorted guitars.

Penultimate track Do You Know How To Waltz? is 14 and a half minutes of guitar effects, drawn out shoegazing washes of guitar and precious little that resembles an actual song. Despite this, it’s one of the best tracks here, on what is one of Low’s more challenging albums.

Monday, August 1, 2011

Concert Review: Morrissey at Vicar Street - 30th July 2011

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Album Review: Neil Young & Crazy Horse – Greendale

After the lacklustre Are You Passionate, Neil Young regrouped with Crazy Horse for 2003’s Greendale, an album, DVD and book(!). This was billed as a ‘rock opera’. Good grief.

As it turns out there’s not a whole lot wrong with this album in theory. The guitar sound is as dirty as any Neil Young fan would desire. No, the problem is the cringey lyrics about Grandpa etc are accompanied by not particularly strong melodies, most of which go on FAR too long. There’s very little about opener Falling From Above’s growling riffs that couldn’t have been done in less than seven and a half minutes.

Leave The Driving is a more muted, midtempo, melancholic brand of Neil Young, again stretched to more than seven minutes. Carmichael has a nice growling riff though it is also too long (10 minutes!). The one acoustic track here, Bandit cleverly incorporates a buzzing string into the song with a very hushed vocal. It sounds very refreshing coming midway through this album, but unfortunately the album returns to the lengthy, characterless songs of before.

Special mention to Grandpa’s Interview for stretching a riff to almost 13 minutes. The pump-organ of Bringin’ Down Dinner isn’t bad either. However it’s an album that demands a lot of patience, even for the committed Neil Young fan.