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.