Saturday, December 28, 2013

Album Review: Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds - The Boatman's Call

Nick Cave released a stripped down, practically solo album, The Boatman's Call.  Not quite Bad Seed-less, the prominence of Cave's piano relegates them to very much support act status.  It opens with Cave crooning "I don't believe in an interventionist God" on piano ballad Into My Arms, a very familiar track followed up by the Doors-lite of Lime Tree Arbour, all doomy bass and creepy organ and piano.
The mood continues on People Ain't No Good, Cave sings ruefully of "to our love send a coffin of wood" over piano and Warren Ellis' deft violin.  It's probably Cave's prettiest, most romantic collection of songs.  Gorgeous ballads like There Is A Kingdom and Where Do We Go Now But Nowhere are the order of the day.  Mick Harvey's achingly soft bed of guitars on (Are You) The One That I've Been Waiting For? really convey the longing contained in it.
Just when the album threatens to sink into over-sentimental wallowing, the strum with attitude of West Country Girl shifts the mood to Cave snarling about "her glove of bones at her wrist that I have held in my hand".  Later, Harvey's guitar and Ellis' violin combine well on Idiot Prayer.  It's all very... tasteful, if à little unvaried.  Mostly light, with little shade.  But it's an album where any of 12 strong songs could be singled out.

Friday, December 27, 2013

Album Review: Morrissey - You Are The Quarry

Morrissey returned from seven tests of silence in 2004 with You Are The Quarry.  It opens with the shimmering keyboards of America Is Not The World.  Morrissey is on fine voice here, and indeed across the album.
The album got a preview in the shape of barnstorming single Irish Blood, English Heart.  It's a fine song in its own right, fitting in well into the (long) catalogue.  The whole album is a succession of strong songs.  I Have Forgiven Jesus sees Morrissey sing with real passion and feeling over Boz Boorer's subtle bed of guitars.  A Morrissey album wouldn't be a Morrissey album without quotable lyrics.  On I'm Not Sorry he confesses: "the woman of my dreams, there never was one."
He truly has a way with a songtitle, but the good news here is that The World Is Full of Crashing Bores, How Can Anybody Possibly Know How I Feel etc measure up to those titles.  First of the Gang To Die is a proper, swooning, singalong anthem to file alongside Everyday Is Like Sunday and even There Is A Light??  Let Me Kiss You features jangly guitar from Boorer and Alain Whyte and à classic self-deprecating chorus: "close your eyes and think of someone you physically admire".
At times the Jerry Finn's production can get a bit much, classic pop song I Like You nearly drowns under a sea of bleeps.  You Know I Couldn't Last feels like a seventies era David Bowie album closer, a fine cocktail of keyboards and descending guitar riffs, ending a great collection of songs.

Thursday, December 26, 2013

Album Review: Lou Reed - Ecstasy

Lou Reed released possibly his last great album, Ecstasy, in 2000.  Gone is the gloom of his early 90s work.  Opener Paranoia Key of E has a restless guitar driving the song along, and a 'street feel' akin to his New York album.
The bulk of the album however is some rather fine downtempo, reflective tracks.  Several of these (Mad, Tatters) feature brass which gives them a little soul, but they are quintessentially, fine exponents of being what they are: Lou Reed songs.  Tatters features a tender vocal and lyric, "I know you don't care but here's my last thought", before turning sour "our little thing is lying here in tatters".  It's one of many little triumphs on this album.
One of the standout tracks is the title track.  A gently pulsing guitar combines with a soaring melody, taken to further heights by a gorgeous Fernando Saunders bass part right at the outtro.  Uptempo tracks Mystic Child, Future Farmers of America and Big Sky by contrast feel rushed and throwaway.  Reed is better when hé does, as he says a "Modern Dance".  It's a kind of poppy rock song with a classic Lou Reed vocal.
On the ballad Turning Time Around, Reed's companion asks "what do you call love?". Reed answers, deadpan: "well I call it Harry.". There's no coming back from this.  White Prism prevents the album from sinking completely into wry, couch-sitting musings by injecting heavy guitars and drums yet NOT at the expense of the song, one which knows how dial up and down the intensity at will.  A "Rock Minuet" sounds like a truly pompous thing, and so it proves here, though Reed just about gets away with it on an oddly interesting song, thanks in no small part to some excellent guitar work.  Baton Rouge follows, a classic strum featuring more humour ("I once had a car, lost it in a divorce, the judge was a woman of course").
The ultimate folly though must be the EIGHTEEN minute Like A Possum which consists of little more than Lou Reed, poet of New York, roaring lines like "Possum shots! Possum runs!" over growling guitars.  That's not as good as it sounds.  It's followed by brief, palette-cleansing instrumental Rouge.  So not necessarily a smooth, cohesive listen, but an album full of well-crafted songs.

Wednesday, December 25, 2013

Album Review: Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds - Murder Ballads

1996's Murder Ballads seemed like a logical album for Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds to end up recording.  Many of their previous songs could certainly be described as this.  In truth, this album is a bit hit and miss.  Song of Joy conjures a suitably macabre atmosphere to open the album, and this continues on the creeping Stagger Lee.  Many came to this album via the two duets.  PJ Harvey teams up with Cave to great effect on Henry Lee, while Kylie Minogue does equally well on Where The Wild Roses Grow.
Lovely Creature is a little Cave-by-numbers, and O'Malley's Bar is practically interminable at over fourteen minutes.  The Kindness of Strangers is tender and sadder, seeming to lay the path for where Cave would go next (The Boatman's Call).  Crow Jane has an almost jazz feel, while Bob Dylan's Death Is Not The End provides an appropriate finale.  So something of à hit and miss Nick Cave album then.

Tuesday, December 24, 2013

Album Review: Smashing Pumpkins - Siamese Dream

Smashing Pumpkins were the least-punk influenced and therefore the proggiest band of the grunge era.  Their second album, Siamese Dream, released in 1993 was a huge leap forward from previous album Gish, where only Rhinocerous hinted at the sheer power of this album.
It sounds absolutely immense, brilliantly produced by frontman/control freak Billy Corgan and Butch Vig.  The guitars and Jimmy Chamberlain's drums sound immense on opener Cherub Rock, bursting out of the speakers.  Quiet continues in this vein with a bludgeoning, powerful riff.  It has to be said that Corgan's voice hasn't aged well, it has a rather grating tendency across the album.  But he is forgiven when his and James Iha's guitars are so good.
The intricate, picked guitar intro to the anthemic Today still thrills, while Hummer is an absolute lesson in band dynamics and pacing on a song, as guitars ebb and flow from gentle, blissed-out ripples to molten riffing, and back again.  The lyrics, however, are ridiculous: "life's a bummer, when you're a hummer".  Indeed.
The massive riffs of Rocket could almost be the Screaming Trees if Corgan's voice dropped an octave or seven, and this gives way to the tense strum-with-bells on of Disarm, another early 90s anthem which hasn't aged badly at all.  Once again it's brilliantly recorded, adding touches of strings here and there.
The faraway guitars of Soma signal another epic, beginning quietly, building gradually till the slabs of heavy, air-punching guitars crash through the song, spitting fire every which way, managing to overcome some fairly rotten lyrics: "I'm all by myself, as I've always felt".  We return to an uneasy peace at the end of the song before following track Geek USA barrels in, only letting up briefly midsong before Corgan's guitars pick up the pace again, becoming almost Black Sabbath in places.
The intensity lessens a little towards the end of the album.  But only a little.  Mayonaise is a fine midtempo rocker, while Spaceboy has a kind of classic rock ballad feel to it.  The only misstep is the longest track, the almost NINE minutes of pounding drums and guitars of  Silverfuck.  There's only so many times I can listen to Billy Corgan whine "bang bang you're dead".  The album ends with the blissed out Sweet Sweet and Luna, two relatively low key tracks. 
It's pretty much a seventies rock album updated for the early nineties.  But it still sounds superb, great melodies with towering guitars.  Dust it down and blow the cobwebs away.

Monday, December 23, 2013

Album Review: The Jesus and Mary Chain - Barbed Wire Kisses

In 1988 the Jesus and Mary Chain put out a collection of B-sides, Barbed Wire Kisses.  It's an abrasive collection of brattish, guitar songs.  It starts out with the raucous Beach Boys-style Kill Surf City, a perfect combination of William Reid's scratchy guitars and Jim Reid's bored vocals. 
Really the rest of the album is not a lot different.  Rider, and Swing have a sort of strut to them that narrowly avoids cock-rock.  On the other hand, the guitars and vocals on Hit are positively guttural.  They allow in a little sunshine into Don't Ever Change, with blissful guitars and a really uplifting melody, and the mood is continued on the pounding Happy Place and the acoustic, heartfelt Psycho Candy.
Sidewalking signals a gear shift as the Reid brothers stick back on their shades.  It's not a particularly crafted song, just a cool-sounding one.  The Beach Boys' own Surfin' USA gets 'Jesused' and Everything's Alright When You're Down makes a fair stab at being an anthem.  The inclusion of debut single Upside Down is a welcome one, a blast of noise that still rattles the cages.
Some of it is (intentionally?) hilarious.  Cracked features ingenius lyrics "crack Johnny crack, walk Johnny walk" which "becomes f**k Johnny f**k" and then Jim Reid just spits out "f**k! f**k! f**k!".  It's a collection for those who thought Darklands was a little soft following on from Psychocandy.

Friday, December 20, 2013

Looking forward to 2014

First out of the blocks will be Mogwai with Rave Tapes, which will be released on Jan 20th.  Based on Remurdered, the track released off it so far it's going to be electronic in feel, in a similar vein to their Les Revenants soundtrack. 
Mark Kozelek is releasing his first album in, oh, at least five months, this time as Sun Kil Moon.  It's entitled Benji and I really hope that's better than it sounds.  Based on the acoustic tracks released to date it's up to scratch but not as strong as his last 2 albums.  It's due out Feb 11th.  In November he is, believe it or not, releasing Mark Kozelek sings Christmas Carols about which I am stunned into silence.
Beck is releasing what for him sounds like a fairly conventional album: Morning Phase on Jan 20th.  Apparently it's a follow up of sorts to his downbeat, song-based Sea Change.  Bill Callahan is releasing a dub version of Dream River on Jan 21st - Have Fun With God, and presumably God knows what THAT will sound like.
Dakota Suite have been recording with Quentin Sirjacq and have an album, There Is Calm To Be Done due for release in June.  Fraser McGowan will most likely release a song-based album as Caught In The Wake Forever some time in 2014.  Willy Vlautin's fourth novel The Free is due out in February and at some point his soundtrack to The Fighting Heart may surface.
I neglected to mention the Mark Lanegan Anthology - Has God Seen My Shadow? which is coming out in early January and will have unreleased material on it.

Wednesday, December 4, 2013

Album Review: Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds - Let Love In

1994 saw the release of Let Love In, what I believe to be THE quintessential Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds album.  Do You Love Me? opens the album and it's Cave and co on classic form, the operative question is not "do you love me" but - "do you love me like I love YOU".  It's a subtle difference, and for me it's the key to this track, as Thomas Wylder's drums march, Cave's piano tinkles, and Mick Harvey and Blixa Bargeld produce incidental guitar licks.

There is fire and brimstone contained here, Loverman is a full-on, guns blazing rave-up where Cave spells out his plea for L.O.V.E.  But there are some great Cave ballads here also, more refined than ever on Nobody's Baby Now, Ain't Gonna Rain Anymore and the title track.  Red Right Hand is another key song, creepy organ and pounded bells create a spooky atmosphere on the brightest of days, and there's a clever Neil Young steal in the lyrics ("you'll see him in your nightmares, you'll see him in your dreams" - Barstool Blues).

Jangling Jack is an unhinged pounder with Cave squealing and whooshing, and Thirsty Dog is another in a similar vein.  All the songs here are really strong.  In case the point was missed, the album finishes with a slowed-down Do You Love Me? (Part 2) arranged for strings.  It's a must-own if you like Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds.

Tuesday, December 3, 2013

Top 10 albums of 2013

This list will be more controversial for what I'm leaving out.  So no Bowie, National or Queens of the Stone Age:
10 My Bloody Valentine - m b v
Never thought I'd be including Kevin Shields and co in a list like this.  This album succeeds by simply doing what MBV are good at.  It sounds like it could have come out in 1993 as opposed to 2013, yet it's not dated.
9 Low - The Invisible Way
A remarkably consistent band.  This album is more stripped down than of late for them, allowing Sparhawk and Parker's harmonies lots of room to breathe.
8 Bill Callahan - Dream River
Callahan is on fairly opaque form here, and it's an album that I suspect still has to fully reveal itself 3 months on.  Still, you can't argue with that voice or his band.
7 Mark Kozelek & Jimmy Lavalle - Perils From The Sea
A brave move for Kozelek to leave his voice completely at the mercy of Lavalle's lush, electronic soundbeds.  The end result is an undoubted triumph, unlike anything else in his back catalogue.
6 Chequerboard - The Unfolding
A beautiful guitar instrumental album from John Lambert aka Chequerboard.
5 Boards of Canada - Tomorrow's Harvest
An unexpected return from BoC to produce an addictive soundtrack for dark, uncertain times.
4 Mogwai - Les Revenants
The soundtrack to the TV series of the year, it works beautifully with the programme.  But on its own it works really well, pushing Mogwai's music in an understated, keyboard heavy direction.
3 Mark Kozelek & Desertshore
Kozelek returned to a classic guitar, bass, drums combination.  There's nothing earth-shattering here, but some of the songs contained are among his strongest in many years.
2 Mark Lanegan & Duke Garwood - Black Pudding
Lanegan show his more rootsy side on a collaboration that echoes his early 90s solo material in a really good way.
1 Nick Cave and The Bad Seeds - Push The Sky Away
Nick Cave and co have had an extraordinary career, yet this album, 10 months on continues to astound, revealing hidden qualities as it goes.  Wonderful stuff.