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.