Wednesday, December 23, 2015

Elliott Smith - From A Basement On A Hill

Elliott Smith's final album was released posthumously in 2004.  He was working on this right before his death and it couldn't be more different from his early work in the mid to late nineties.  It's a sprawling, 15 track affair, opening with Coast to Coast, which lays down a marker that things here are... different.  It opens with slightly off electric guitars, almost playing on top of each other.  On this track Smith sounds woozy, yet the music is largely energised, belying the sadness of the lyrics - "anything that I could do would never be good enough for you".  As the track's final seconds ebb away, we here dislocated babble, which adds to the overall weirdness of the track.

For those who prefer Smith at his simplest, fear not.  Let's Get Lost is a classic simple guitar ditty with dreams of escaping ("find some beautiful place to get lost"), yet self-loathing permeates this track ("I had true love, I made it die, I pushed her away").  Later, The Last Hour and Memory Lane have a similar stripped-down feel.  But the order of the day here is weariness, and tracks like Pretty (Ugly Before), Don't Go Down and Strung Out Again have this in spades, in a sort of late 60s Beatles kind of way.

A Fond Farewell is a kind of 'more-filled out' version of the unadorned Elliott Smith sound, and is quite pleasing to the ears.  On the other hand, the Christmas-themed King's Crossing is largely unsettling, with its bursts of static-tiinged instrumentation and Smith's ghoulish proclamation ("give me one good reason not to do it").  Later, Shooting Star is as close as Smith gets here to sprawling, messy rock.  That's just a handful of the fifteen tracks contained here.  It's not the tacky cash-in one might fear, but a worthy line drawn under Elliott Smith's musical career.

Sunday, December 20, 2015

Songs: Ohia - The Lioness

For Jason Molina's fourth album as Songs: Ohia, The Lioness, he decamped to Scotland and recorded with Alasdair Roberts and David Gow and Aidan Moffat from Arab Strap.  The results were released in 2000, and from the opening chords of The Black Crow it's clear things his outlook has darkened a little.  Molina sings a long, bleak tale of dead crows and getting weaker over simple, descending chords. The track builds gradually, developing into a pounding rhythm towards the end.  Tigress shows that he can still do slinky, and this one harks back to previous albums like Impala or Axxess & Ace.  The sound of the album is pretty consistent throughout, tracks like Nervous Bride, Coxcomb Red and the title track work as a song cycle, rather than a bunch of songs just bundled together.  Being In Love sounds like it's using one of Arab Strap's drum machines as Molina sings "being in love means you are completely broken".  Later, Back On Top and Baby Take A Look are two of the sparser, slower moments here, with echoes of Smog thoughout both.

Definitely stronger than its predecessors, The Lioness shows a major leap forward Jason Molina, setting him up for future, fuller albums.

Saturday, December 19, 2015

Robert Forster - Warm Nights

Robert Forster's fourth solo album was released in 1996.  It's quite the groovy affair kicking off with the slinky pairing of I Can Do and the title track, which feature some great guitar soloing from what could be Edwyn Collins (he's credited on the sleeve).  Cryin' Love is more of a vocal tour de force, a sort of arch, egotistical ballad where Forster sings about how "he cannot be as good looking as me", while Snake Skin Lady is slower, a picked acoustic track harking back to his Danger In The Past material with a hint of Springsteen.

Further into the album it gets more uneven.  Songs like Jug of Wine, Fortress and Rock n Roll Friend are fairly ordinary.  However the album finishes with two decent songs, the sparse, acoustic guitar and cello combination of On A Street Corner, and I'll Jump - a jerky yet relaxed guitar song.  I'd say this one is positioned oddly on the album, it doesn't sound like a closing track on an album, more like track 2 or 3.  Like some of his best material, the album sounds like nothing initially but gradually grows on you...

Thursday, November 26, 2015

Songs: Ohia - Axxess & Ace

Album number three from Jason Molina was released in 1999.  It opens with the playful, prancing Hot Black Silk, one of a pair of upbeat tracks on this album, the other being Captain Badass.  Trouble is, they don't really suit Molina.  The slower build of Love & Work and Love Leaves Its Abuser are more comfortable for him.  The miserable, molasses-paced Redhead and final track Goodnight Lover have their charm, especially if you like early Smog, as do the countrified fiddle and strum of Come Back To Your Man and Champion.  It's an odd enough album, not a bad one, but kind of... odd.

Wednesday, November 25, 2015

Elliott Smith - Either/Or

Although Elliott Smith's third album, released in 1997, is a little more fleshed out than his first two, yet it doesn't lose anything quality-wise.  That's due largely to the fact that the songs are generally very strong, and don't outstay their welcome, the whole album lasting just under 37 minutes.  Certainly the opening track Speed Trials, while guitars are accompanied by bass and drum, there's nothing slick about this downbeat little beauty with a lovely, keening vocal from Smith.  Alameda is close as he ever got to strutting, with a loping beat and an almost sprightly guitar solo in the middle.

The next two tracks might well represent the 'heart' of the album.  Two 'soft' tracks, Ballad of Big Nothing has a Beatles gone fatalistic feel about it while the whispered Between the Bars a slow, muted tune that wraps itself around you late at night.  The guitar playing on these songs is recorded fantastically, it's one for the headphones.  After this Pictures of Me is more propulsive and darker, Smith spitting out lyrics about being "so sick and tired of all these pictures of me", and later "who'd like to see me down on my fucking knees".  There's a sort of decaying weariness at the heart of many of these songs.  No Name No. 5 sees him crooning about how "everybody's gone at last".  Later, Cupid's Trick has a similar feel, Smith sounds blasted and shattered singing "it's my life, should've lit me up"

Rose Parade is totally different, sounding more upbeat, you could imagine this one on daytime radio.  Angeles and the appropriately named 2.45 AM are pure late night listening.  Consisting mostly of Elliott Smith's guitar picking, they're the closest thing here to anything on his first two albums.  Overall this album works really well, it won't upset anyone who likes the early stuff but it acts as a bridge between that and his more fleshed out, later material.  Essential.

Wednesday, November 18, 2015

Songs: Ohia - Impala

Impala is Jason Molina's second album as Songs: Ohia.  Released in 1998, it starts out with its bleakest, slowest moment.  An Ace Unable To Change is an account of a long dark night, Molina singing an account of "gambling with my sentiment" where "tonight I am down to my soul" over seven fairly downbeat minutes where a guitar strums glacially over a chilling organ part, and er, that's about it really.  So obviously it's really good.  After this, however, the pace picks up.  Easts Heart Divided is relatively pacy thanks to the addition of Geof Comings' drums, while This Time Anything Finite At All is almost funky.  Elsewhere it's very much Molina at his most rudimentary.  So we get the manic, one and a quarter minute strum of One of Those Uncertain Hands and the Will Oldham-sounding The Rules of Absence and Just What Can Last.  Songs like A Humble Cause Again only briefly spark into life before being abruptly ended.  Later, there's a dark, sparse beauty to Program: The Mask and Separations: Reminder.

Hard work?  Perhaps.  But a dense and mysterious album.

Monday, November 16, 2015

Elliott Smith - Elliott Smith

Elliott Smith's second album, released in 1995, is very much in the mould of his first (Roman Candle), consisting mainly of stripped down, acoustic based songs.  It opens with the scratchy, whispering Needle In The Hay, a tense, uncompromising acoustic song.  The empathetic, downcast guitars of the almost vengeful Christian Brothers follows.  Tracks like these are, if anything, stronger than anything on Roman Candle.  This album, however is less consistent, not maintaining such high quality right through.  That's not to say there aren't strong songs - the rolling, enchanting guitars of Single File complement the slow drift of Satellite.

The songs are kind of equal parts wide-eyed innocence and deeply troubled, and if that sounds like a contradiction it probably is.  Lyrics about how "the moon is a sickle cell, it'll kill you in time" (Coming Up Roses) are a prime example of this.  St Ides Heaven feels a little like Nirvana at their most basic and stripped down, while Good To Go has a more seventies singer/songwriter feel.  Towards the end, The White Lady Loves You More is a bit of a departure, feeling almost symphonic, despite the troubling subject matter.  But a really strong album for the most part. 

Thursday, November 12, 2015

Yo La Tengo - And Then Nothing Turned Itself Inside Out

Yo La Tengo had done mellow before, but not quite like this.  In 2000 they released an entire album of mostly original, 'quiet' material.  The similar pacing of the album throughout means songs don't really stand out.  Georgia Hubley and Ira Kaplan's ghostly duet on the eerie opener Everyday is a fine six and a half minutes of droning unease.  It's followed up with Kaplan's whispered Our Way To Fall, which floats along serenely, in common with much of the album.  Therein lies the problem: some songs (Let's Save Tony Orlando's House, You Can Have It All) veer uncomfortably close to cheesy, easy listening territory.  Others (Last Days of Disco, The Crying of Lot G) are generally a bit sleepy and not hugely engaging.

There are exceptions to this.  The bashfully slow Tears Are In Your Eyes features a fine icy vocal from Hubley.  On the other extreme, the totally out of place rocker Cherry Chapstick barrels along in the manner of their earlier, harder-edged material ie it's a bit like Sonic Youth.  In fact the stronger material is towards the end of the album, From Black to Blue and Madeline are quite dozy but they noodle along in a sort of interesting way, with decent almost-choruses.  The furtive organ piece Tired Hippo sets the scene nicely for the final track Night Falls on Hoboken.  Starting with a gentle strum it builds gradually for seven minutes, becoming a full on drone piece for the remaining ten minutes.  It's hugely self-indulgent but kind of cool all the same.

Some of Yo La Tengo's other albums are more varied, and in many ways more enjoyable, but this one has a lazy charm.

Wednesday, November 11, 2015

EP Review: Songs: Ohia - Hecla & Griper

This brief EP, released in 1997, opens with the brisk one and a quarter minute strum Pass, which kind of stops before it gets going.  The material here is oblique, not easily penetrated.  Defenders is the most funereal, slow-paced tune imaginable, Jason Molina wailing intermittently over the sparse chords.  The dusky, strutting Declarer evokes early Smog, and is one of the better tracks here.  The sparse nature of the material allows subtle musical touches, such as the piano part at the end of Easts Last Heart, to stand out.  Penultimate track Advice to Aces, is a fine downbeat strum, almost harking back to early Cure as Molina muses "winter is over...", before it ends abruptly.  He finishes with a very country Conway Twitty cover of Darling.

Probably not the ideal place to start with Molina.

Monday, November 2, 2015

Album Review: Songs: Ohia

Songs: Ohia was the brainchild of the late Jason Molina.  He released a debut album in 1997.  Known to some as "the black album", it consists mainly of a bunch of downbeat strums over which Molina yelps morosely.  Kind of like Neil Young on downers, it's mostly Molina and his guitar with the odd embellishment, such as the slight banjo on opening track Cabwaylingo which lifts this album out of the morass it occasionally threatens to sink into.  Crab Orchard is like Neil Young's Cortez the Killer stripped back completely and slowed to a crawl.

The wintry, backwoods feel of Gauley Bridge and Tenskwatawa brings to mind kinsmen such as Bonnie Prince Billy and early Smog and many of these tracks are quite brief, around the two minute mark.  The brooding Blue Jay introduces an uncredited wind instrument which may be a saxophone, played tastefully, while Our Republic has the stripped back sound Smog were perfecting on Red Apple Falls, with more added saxophone.  

It sure is a one-paced, repetitive album, difficult to get to know but it has a charm that's hard to define.  When you listen to it first it seems like there's not much there, but then you find yourself listening again... and again...

Sunday, November 1, 2015

Album Review: Elliott Smith - New Moon

I have to admit I approached this one with caution.  Posthumous releases reek of exploitation, as memorably detailed in The Smiths' Paint A Vulgar Picture.  However for anyone enthralled by the earlier, more stripped down Elliott Smith releases this is a wonder.  Twenty four unreleased tracks is a treasure trove in any fan's language.  It opens with the slow deliberate guitar picking of Angel In The Snow, where Smith sings in a ghostly whisper.  Talking To Mary and Looking Over My Shoulder are in a similar, unhurried vein.  None of this would be particularly interesting if the melodies weren't so strong.  Any so-called 'pop' band would kill for these tunes, they are consistently original and unpredictable.  High Times builds gradually to an intense climax of Smith croaking "high times" over urgently strummed guitar.

It's not all quiet, acoustic tracks.  New Monkey is one of the more fleshed-out tracks here, featuring electric guitar, bass, drums and a soaring, singalong chorus,   One track which has appeared elsewhere is an early embryonic version of Miss Misery.  And the one cover here, Big Star's Thirteen is rendered in a faithful, almost child-like version.

The second CD is arguably not as strong but still has its fair share of gems.  The impassioned strum of Georgia, Georgia would have fitted on Smith's earliest albums, while the frantic strum of Big Decision and the introspective sleigh-bells (!) of Seen How Things Are Hard are a less than comfortable listen.  Elsewhere there are the fragile, fingerpicked Placeholder and New Disaster, along with fuller, band tracks like Fear City and Either/Or.  Towards the end, Almost Over showcases his guitar dexterity, here he manages Nick Drake-like skills on one of the finer tracks here, all dispatched in two minutes.  

It's a great service to Elliott Smith fans that these tracks were unearthed, and this collection is as worthwhile as anything else in his catalogue.

Wednesday, October 7, 2015

The War On Drugs - Lost In The Dream

The War On Drugs' third album, released in 2014, is an extraordinary beast.  On first listen it seems to drift by, each track running into each other with little variation.  Similarly on subsequent listens.  However after some time it burrows its way into your brain BECAUSE each track runs into each other with little variation.  Ok, enough of the smart-assery.  The album opens with the tone setting Under The Pressure, all ringing, liquid guitars and a positively euphoric sounding Adam Granduciel on vocals.  A huge anthemic sound.  Even more anthemic is the following track Red Eyes, with soaring keyboards washing across the track.

Suffering is slower, sparser, like a slowed down spaced out version of the first two tracks, with the palette of sound very much drawn from Under The Pressure, featuring some gorgeous shimmering keyboards.  By the net track An Ocean In Between the pace has picked up to sort of mid-eighties Don Henley standard (think: Boys of Summer).  All of this is quite unremarkable except for the actual playing, the musicianship in this album is superb.  On the aforementioned track lies a guitar solo that really lifts it to the heights of the rest of the album.  Disappearing is the centrepiece.  It's nearly seven minutes of absolute lushness, a laid-back atmosphere, beautiful keyboards and gorgeously simple chord changes.  At seven minutes it's just not long enough.

Eyes To The Wind and the title track are more rootsy, Granduciel doing his best Bob Dylan impression but the sound is full and uplifting.  On the other hand The Haunting Idle is more mood setting atmospherics than any of the previous tracks  Burning is like U2's Bad on speed, crossed with some guitar out of The Cure's Disintegration, and the album finishes with the Tunnel of Love era Springsteen of In Reverse.

It's the stadium rock it's ok to like.  Built from some arguably pedestrian influences, they are blended to thrilling effect.

Monday, October 5, 2015

Supergrass - In It For The Money

Prior to the release of Supergrass' second album in 1997, it seemed that they were almost a novelty act with upbeat perky tunes.  However In It For The Money showed a band who had grown hairs on their chest and were prepared to rock, and rock hard.  After the brief title track which introduces the album the cobwebs are obliterated by the hard-riffing Richard III, which is almost like Nirvana in comparison to earlier tunes such as Caught By The Fuzz or Alright.

From here on the album settles into a rocky groove with tracks like Tonight, G-Song and Going Out which are built around a steadily repeated riff.  Late In The Day starts off acoustic but builds to a soaring electric guitar solo at its climax, the aural equivalent of the sun rising over the hills.  Sun Hits The Sky is another hard riffer with some superb guitar work by singer Gaz Coombes.  Some of the latter tracks could be classed as filler - It's Not Me, Cheapskate, Hollow Little Reign.  You Can See Me is a late highlight, opening with a pulsing keyboard it builds to a barnstorming track.  But overall on this album, they sound like a proper 'rock' band, who CAN be taken seriously.  One of the better 'Britpop' era releases.

Saturday, October 3, 2015

Album Review: The Cowboy Junkies - The Trinity Session

The Cowboy Junkies' second album, released in 1988 was recorded in an old church in Canada ,which gives it a sort of open, spacey sound.  It starts off with the acapella Mining for Gold, which works due to Margo Timmins' fine voice.  It settles into a drowsy country vibe over the likes of Misguided Angel, but some of the high points on this album are actually cover versions, with three particular high points.  The first of these is Blue Moon Revisited (Song for Elvis), which uses the Elvis Presley version of Blue Moon as its base.  Michael Timmins' sparse, echoey guitar provides the backdrop for a fine Margo Timmins vocal.  Hank Williams' I'm So Lonesome I Could Cry is another, it's certainly the best cover of this song.  With subtle, hesitant phrasing, the song creeps along at a snail's pace, with a gorgeous, lazy pedal steel guitar midway through.  

Another high point is a cover of The Velvet Underground's Sweet Jane.  Again, it's slowed right down to narcoleptic pace with a soaring vocal, which arguably betters the original.  It's not all covers, the dark lament To Love Is To Bury conveys enormous yearning in an understated vocal.  200 More Miles is sassier, a kind of bluesy sway with a sort of a bitter tinge, as Timmins sings "there'll be no warm sheets or welcoming arms to fall into tonight".  One or two tracks drag towards the end, but otherwise it's a pretty special album.  Even many years on, its one of the finer exponents of spooked-out country.

Saturday, August 29, 2015

Album Review: The Posies - Frosting On The Beater

The impression I had of The Posies is that of a slightly fey, strumalong band who listened to a bit too much Big Star and Teenage Fanclub.  But their third album Frosting On The Beater, released in 1993 is a dirtier, heavier beast.  It gets rid of the jangly guitars, replacing them with heavy riffs.  It works really well.  From the opening track Dream All Day. the drums hit harder and the guitars rock more, while maintaining a catchy tune.  In fact the likes of Solar Sister and Flavor of the Month aren't too far off Teenage Fanclub's debut album A Catholic Education.

The album is definitely informed by the prevailing musical mood at the time in America, which was grunge, hence it was produced by Don Fleming (Sonic Youth, Screaming Trees, TFC etc).  But it works terrifically - the rollicking Definite Door is absolute gold.  Opening with a defiant guitar flourish, the track barrels along with a killer melody batted back and forth by hard-riffing guitars.

Some of it can be self-indulgent, Burn & Shine goes on a bit with an extended guitar outtro, as if they were trying a little too hard to show off how well they can play their guitars, while later Lights Out can be a little repetitive.  The album actually improves in the latter half, many of the better tracks have been squirrelled away here.  20 Questions could be something off Neil Young's Ragged Glory, the Posies cranking out the riffs in a very Crazy Horse manner with Mike Musburger pounding the drums as if his life depends on it, and How She Lied By Living is in a similar vein, almost grunge-like in its intensity.  The album finishes with the downcast, bluesy Coming Right Along.

This is an album that defines that over-used term, power pop, as there is plenty of both here.  Anyone who likes Teenage Fanclub will surely enjoy this.

Monday, August 24, 2015

Golden Void – Berkana – Album Review

Review for

True Widow: As High as the Highest Heavens and From the Center to the Circumference of the Earth

This is True Widow's second album released in 2011.  For the uninitiated, they combine Nicole Estill's ghostly, detached vocal with Dan Phillips' bleakly heavy guitars on tracks such as Jackyl and Skull Eyes.  The latter of these is one of their shortest tracks and one of their most accessible, with some fine harmonies over bludgeoning riffs.  The Phillips-sung Blooden Horse is one of the rockier tracks here, while his guitar on NH sounds particularly ragged.

Wither features some really fine guitar playing, Phillips unleashing economic yet effective braincrushingly heavy riffs.  Later, the lengthy Boaz builds up gradually, with the full onslaught holding off for four minutes or so before guitars take flight, while Night Witches and Doomser are practically metal on ketamine, trudging along with huge riffs.  If you like your guitars heavy yet controlled, this is worth checking out.

Sunday, August 23, 2015

Midlake - The Courage of Others

2010's The Courage of Others is the follow up to the critically acclaimed Trials of Van Occupanther, and it's even mellower than its predecessor.  Soft, folk-rock abounds, beginning with Acts of Man and continuing through tracks such as Winter Dies and Small Mountain.  Standard rock instruments are joined by flute, recorder, dulcimer, autoharp and even bassoon!   The slightly heavier guitars of Core of Nature are a welcome interruption to the soporific atmosphere.

But at its core this album proclaims its love for seventies soft rock like Crosby Stills and Nash (Fortune, Children of the Grounds), Blue Oyster Cult (Rulers, Ruling All Things, The Horn) and Fleetwood Mac (the title track).  It's not all hoary old dinosaur music, Bring Down could be early Radiohead wearing flower garlands, and there's enough variety with the guitar playing to prevent Midlake from being total retreads, the Marr-like picking on closing track In The Ground being a fine example of this.

The album suffers a little from lack of variety, it's a little one-paced.  Although the musicianship, playing and the overall sound of the album is excellent, the odd burst of noise here and there wouldn't go astray.

Saturday, August 22, 2015

Alice In Chains - Black Gives Way To Blue

Alice In Chains' first album in 14 years came out in 2009.  With Layne Staley having passed, it seemed heresy to hire a replacement, but they did in the shape of William DuVall.  However on listening to opening track All Secrets Known, any fears seemed unfounded.  Jerry Cantrell's slow heavy riffs dominate, with his and DuVall's voices combining superbly on some twisted harmonies.  Second track Check My Brain has a seriously catchy, yet heavy riff and a killer chorus, up there with vintage AIC.

Such an opening is hard to sustain, and they don't quite manage it.  There isn't much wrong with heavy riffing tracks like Last of My Kind, A Looking In View and Acid Bubble.  Elsewhere they trot out a few moody ballads such as Your Decision, When The Sun Rose Again and the title track.  Again, nothing wrong with these but they aren't especially distinctive.  Later tracks Lesson Learned and Take Her Out growl along very agreeably over heavy guitars.  But overall, for those who badly missed Alice In Chains in 2009, this album recreated their sound perfectly.