Monday, October 9, 2017

The Stars of Heaven - Sacred Heart Hotel

Dublin band The Stars of Heaven released their debut album in 1986.  This was surely the era of the jangly guitar, even more so than the sixties.  It opens with the hushed clear, crisp guitars of the title track and Stephen Ryan's spooked-out vocals, with a very countrified feel which rocks a little towards the end.  Talk About It Now is a gently swaying country-rocker with a gorgeous guitar solo.  Admittedly there are echoes of what early REM were trying to do at the same time, (as does the faster You Only Say What Anyone Could Say) but it's still a great song.  A slow build up introduces the almost Meat Puppets-style country stomp of Moonstruck, a theme they revisit later on Man Without A Shadow which may be a little too much of a hoe-down for some.  The songs are brief, mainly 2 or 3 minutes long.  So You Know rocks harder than anything else here, while maintaining a little debt to the Byrds.  These songs (especially Folksong) are late night classics, downbeat jangly guitar songs.  

CD versions of this feature the Holyhead EP which is just as good.  Opening with the heavily acoustic country-rocker Never Saw You we get similar variations on the palette established by the album.  After the brief, guitar picking instrumental Before Holyhead, they get a bit more ricking on Widow's Walk and Someone's Getting Tired of You.  But such sharp, crisp guitars, this band definitely deserves more acclaim.  Beg, borrow or steal this one, it seems to be impossible to find.

Sunday, October 8, 2017

The Go-Betweens - Liberty Belle and the Black Diamond Express

The Go-Betweens released their fourth album in 1986.  At that time, arguably their finest album to date, it begins with Robert Forster's clarion call Spring Rain.  A perfect jangly guitar part introduces Forster's lyric of being "dressed in my white shirt with my hair combed straight", over a beat that can only be described as bouncy, until he gets to the chorus: "falling down like sheets... just like spring rain".  Accordion opens The Ghost and the Black Hat, leading nicely into the slow interlocking guitars of Grant McLennan's The Wrong Road with him lamenting over lyrics like "what was that phase, grace under pressure".  To Reach Me has a very mid-eighties chord progression, one that could almost feature in a John Hughes movie but for Forster's idiosyncratic voice.  Which is not meant in any way to denigrate the track, it has a fine melody and guitar work.

Forster is on fine form on this album and the centrepiece is probably the tense, late night Twin Layers of Lightning.  The song is almost like a reflection of Forster's doomed dramatic on stage persona in those days, with keyboards creating suspense and cool, understated but incredibly intricate guitars over Forster's detached singing.  It's an almost Smiths-like slowburner.  The mood dispelled by McLennan's dramatic In The Core of the Flame, all sweeping violins and swooping basslines and a cracking and yes, jangly guitar solo midway through.  It really is guitar heaven on this album with the likes of Head Full of Steam and Bow Down featuring not a note more than necessary, the latter featuring a particularly lovely violin part.

Final song is Apology Accepted.  Generally simpler and more direct than what precedes it, again the guitars here are just pristine with a simple plea from McLennan ("I gotta wait to see is my apology accepted").  Nobody really cared at the time.  Perhaps their tunes were 'too melodic'?  Anyway this is a great one for fans of intelligent guitar pop.

Thursday, September 7, 2017

DIIV - Oshin

The debut album from the band DIIV came out in 2012.  It's a kind of blend of shoegaze, The Cure and indie rock in general.  Everything is kind of indistinct, yet the album pulls you in, right from the instrumental opener (Druun).  Past Lives is the first song proper which continues in this vein, Zach Smith's vocals blending into the overall mix.  The liquid sounding guitars on here work really well across the album.  The appeal of the album is really odd, it challenges your set of values.  None of the admittedly fine songs are what you might call memorable, and they are all broadly similar.  Songs like Human, Air Conditioning and How Long Have You Known? all draw from the same palette.  Yet this collection of songs, though somewhat indescribable, is completely addictive.  And such shimmering guitars.

Wait is more keyboard dominated, while on the other hand Follow sounds like fast Slowdive.  Later, the title track is a bit more forceful and propulsive than the rest and Doused has a kind of frantic, post-punk pulse.  But really it's all about the sound here.

Wednesday, September 6, 2017

The Amazing - Gentle Stream

The Amazing released their third album in 2011.  It's a highly melodic, proggy mess of a thing, full of well played instruments and soft vocals.  The title track feels a little like Led Zeppelin's softer moments mixed with Neil Young.  Flashlight follows, at once folkier with rolling acoustic guitars and woodwind.  The very soft-rock International Hair is naggingly catchy without being especially memorable.  The somewhat overblown six and a half minute Dogs attempts a rockier feel but doesn't quite pull it off.  The band sound better on closing track When The Colours Change, a relatively uncomplicated song, with female backing vocals and electric guitar fills rounding out the sound.  Some versions contain the 'bonus' track Ghosts, a simpler acoustic track that harks back to the Red House Painters.

It's kind of a glorious failure of an album, full of ambition and complicated songs.  They would refine this formula after this.

Tuesday, September 5, 2017

Stephen Malkmus and the Jicks - Mirror Traffic

Stephen Malkmus released his fourth album with the Jicks in 2011.  Produced by Beck, it's a fairly sprawling album encompassing 15 tracks of varying styles, opening with strummy pop song Tigers which is a fairly catchy tune bursting with ideas in two and a half minutes.  No One Is is more relaxed, featuring quiet guitar picking, occasional piano and brass.  It's one of the more enjoyable tracks here, with each instrument given room to breathe and occupy the space.

Those who miss Pavement are catered for here also with the trashy Senator, bashed guitars and dodgy lyrics ("what the senator wants is a blow job").  But mostly we get muso-Malkmus showing off his (considerable) talent on guitar on intricate, jammy songs like Brain Gallop, Spazz and the rocky Share The Red.  That's not to say they are without merit, the easy, melodic Asking Price and the pedal steel drenched Long Hard Book.  We also get poppier moments like the strummy Stick Figures In Love, the almost Ziggy-esque Tune Grief and the sixties-evoking Forever 28.  But at 15 tracks, admittedly for the most part, brief ones, there's a LOT to take in, making the album quite a dense listen.

Saturday, August 12, 2017

The War on Drugs - Future Weather

This EP was the second release from The War on Drugs, and came out in 2010.  The whole EP is a kind of wash of sound, introduced by opening intro Come to the City #14.  The second track, Baby Missiles is kind of polarising, some will find this anthemic but too often it comes off sounding like the cheesier moments of Bruce Springsteen.  Comin' Through is more relaxed, and far more enjoyable, a medium paced strumalong track with guitars you could melt into, and this one could go on forever such is the lazy, amiable groove created.  Later, Brothers emulates this kind of feeling, you can almost hear Adam Granduciel and co drawing up their template for later work.  The band sound so... optimistic and wide-eyed on tracks like this, like the sondtrack to endless possibilities.

A change of tack arrives with the folky, Dylanesque A Pile of Tires, but mostly here it's gorgeous, echoey stuff like Comin' Around, Missiles Reprise and the glacial final track The History of Plastic.  Definitely one worth picking up if you like the band, for everyone else proceed directly to 2014's Lost In The Dream.

Monday, July 31, 2017

Wilco (the album)

Wilco released their self-titled album in 2009, just 14 years after the debut.  It starts with an actual song called Wilco, something of a throwaway chug.  Tracks like Deeper Down, Country Disappeared and I'll Fight have a strong production, giving it them slightly easy-listening feel.  The Leslie Feist duet You and I, and You Never Know are poppy, Beatles style numbers but aren't that memorable.  The driving, progressive One Wing is an improvement, still quite catchy but less... predictable.  Bull Black Nova is a sop to fans of their Jim O'Rourke period.  Built around a repeating one-note keyboard pattern, adding guitar, bass and drums where they see fit, again it's melodic but not as 'safe' as the rest of the album, getting noisier as it builds.  On the other extreme, Solitaire is like an acoustic version of the sadder end of the Beach Boys, which is a lot better than that sounds, all whispered, breathy vocals and deftly picked acoustic guitar.  The album finishes with Everlasting Everything, a kind of John Lennon-y piano ballad with a bit of drama thrown into the chorus with a clanging chime rounding it off.  

So most likely Wilco's pop album then.  But certainly, not their best.

Friday, July 21, 2017

Kurt Vile - Smoke Ring for My Halo

Kurt Vile released his fourth album in 2011.  It's an interesting mishmash sounding album, opening with the gentle guitar picking of Baby's Arms.  Vile's vocals are something of an acquired taste, and definitely have the capacity to annoy some listeners at times.  His over-accented faux-Dylan vocals don't ruin some fine music, such as the sunny, propulsive Smiths-like guitar licks of Jesus Fever.  Charming music abounds, whether it's the electric, Stones-y Puppet to the Man, or the acoustic On Tour.  A lot of the melodies on tracks like Society Is My Friend and Runner Ups feel vaguely familiar (stop me...) but Vile brings these songs somewhere else.  Classic rock influences abound, the car stereo anthems In My Time and the title track reek of Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers, while he also fits in folkier stuff like Peeping Tomboy, but who can quibble when the songs are put together so well.  He finishes with the six minute epic Ghost Town.

Overall, a fairly impressive piece of work.

Thursday, July 20, 2017

Molina and Johnson

Molina and Johnson was a collaboration between Jason Molina and Will Johnson of Centro-matic.  Although billed as a collaboration they tend not to sing together, mainly taking a song each on the album.  Nevertheless it hangs together well as an album.  Johnson's contributions are generally more accessible, tracks like Twenty Circles to the Ground, Don't Take My Night From Me and Lenore's Lullaby are decent quality, if fairly standard alt-country singer-songwriter fare.  All Gone, All Gone is a dark country-blues duet with Sarah Jaffe and is something of a highlight.

Molina on the other hand brings a more haunted, austere quality to his songs, more akin to his work as Songs:Ohia rather than Magnolia Electric Co.  All Falls Together features dead slow, spacey guitar and Molina's spooked-out wail.  The downcast strum Almost Let You In is the one true duet featuring both Johnson and Molina trading verses and it's pretty fine.  Later into the album, Now, Divide is mainly just the pair of them harmonising wordlessly over guitar rumbles.  For As Long As It Will Matter features a fairly forlorn keyboard part and Molina's broken-hearted lyric about "all my mistakes right where you'd hope for them to happen".  34 Blues is even sparser, just Molina and a lightly strummed guitar in the dead of night.

So although the album gives both artists equal billing, the further into the album we go, having started out like a Will Johnson album, later Jason Molina comes more to the fore.

Wednesday, July 19, 2017

Bonnie Prince Billy - The Letting Go

The Letting Go, released in 2006 is perhaps the lushest album in Will Oldham's career.  Recorded in Iceland, it features sweeping melodies and sumptuous strings, not something you'd usually associate with him.  The strings that open the album on Love Comes To Me threaten to be overpowering on what is (on the surface) a relatively 'sweet' song, but Dawn McCarthy's high-pitched backing vocals and Emmett Kelly's guitar keep things on an even keel.  Indeed Kelly's guitar is what really lifts the following track Strange Form of Life from being just another run-of-the-mill Bonnie Prince Billy track, with some really fine, clean guitar licks.  Wai appears to be a return to the austere folk of Master and Everyone.

The centrepiece is undoubtedly the five and a half minute Cursed Sleep, with a guitar figure and string arrangement that is highly evocative of Nick Drake's Bryter Layter.  It's definitely the track on the album that showcases Nico Muhly's string arrangements to the greatest effect, but it's not a particularly relaxed track, more an exercise in building tension.  No Bad News is more stately folk, with gently plucked guitars, muted drums and a low undercurrent of strings.  After this the album does a complete about turn with Cold & Wet, a slice of throwaway blues.  Later into the album, almost title track Then The Letting Go is a highlight, chiefly due to McCarthy's exquisite, almost 'Call of the Wild' backing vocals and wintry, picked guitars and lyrics.  God's Small Song, is more impressionistic, a bit like something label-mate Bill Callahan might do in his looser moments.

A fairly atypical Bonnie Prince Billy album, but a pretty strong one.

Tuesday, July 18, 2017

Wilco - Sky Blue Sky

Wilco released this 'back-to-basics' album in 2007.  They had completely left behind the avant-garde feel of A Ghost Is Born.  In its place are soft-rock guitar stylings, exemplified by the lush, if a little bland opener Either Way.  You Are My Face throws in a bit of heavy guitar halfway through, as if the band are saying 'hey we can still rock'.  But mainly the default setting is 'amiable country shuffle' mode, and the album delivers this in spades on tracks like the aforementioned Either Way, and the title track.

Elsewhere, Side with the Seeds and Shake It Off allow the band to stretch out a bit with Nels Cline and Jeff Tweedy's guitars duelling.  The more hushed likes of Please Be Patient With Me also impresses with its wonderfully subtle playing, Hate It Here successfully channels late 60s Beatles, and What Light even evokes early Dylan.  At times all this bonhomie gets a bit much, Walken is a bit perky for its own good.

The standout track is Impossible Germany which opens with intricate, Television-like guitars, before unleashing epic guitar soloing courtesy of Cline.  It's a highlight, not just of the album but of Wilco's entire career.

All in all, those who enjoyed A Ghost Is Born might feel this is the sound of Wilco treading water.  They'll be listening out for the 'twist', and when it doesn't arrive (which it doesn't) that might feel like the biggest twist of the lot.  Songs go in unexpected directions, sure, but there are no noise freakouts to contend with.  Which makes it an album fairly easy to listen to, without being dull.

Thursday, July 13, 2017

Loose Fur - Born Again In The USA

The second album from Jeff Tweedy and Jim O'Rourke's Loose Fur side-project was released in 2006.  If anything, it's less cohesive than the debut.  Instead of going for a purely immersive effect, they've decided that rocking out might be worth a try.  Hey Chicken swaggers in on Stones-y rock riffs, and rocks out for a solid three minutes before checking out.  The Ruling Class follows, all country strumming and good-natured whistling.  Stupid as the Sun is a kind of boppy rock song, sung by O'Rourke, it's not unpleasant but a bit forgettable.  The clattering Apostolic and Pretty Sparks are less pleasant, you could live without them.  Thou Shalt Wilt and Wanted are easy enough to listen to, if a little anonymous.

For those who enjoyed the first Loose Fur album they are best directed to the more introspective tracks here.  Answers To Your Questions sounds more like a Jim O'Rourke track than anything else here.  A gentle ballad sung by O'Rourke, it's a quiet beauty with a fine touch of steel guitar.  The instrumental An Ecumenical Matter, has gorgeous summery guitar licks and nice bit of piano.  At eight and a half minutes, Wreckroom is the longest track here, and its ebb and flow would not have been out of place on Wilco's A Ghost Is Born album, with fine guitar work ranging from lazy licks to full-on pounding riffs.  The last four minutes of the track or mainly a muted, piano coda with a hint of percussion.

So a fairly mixed, and mixed-up album, one that doesn't hang together particularly well but has its moments.

Wednesday, July 12, 2017

Matt Sweeney and Bonnie Prince Billy - Superwolf

For this album, released in 2005, Bonnie Prince Billy teamed up with Matt Sweeney, who had recorded with Zwan.  The results are among the fullest sounding, and most musical produced by Oldham.  My Home Is The Sea is a kind of rollicking, rock song, lurching back and forth across riffs.  It's followed up by the gentle, melodic, shimmering Beast for Thee, then more moody guitars introduce What Are You?.  This latter track contains lyrics with 'ear-grabbing' lines like "to take you over my knee and spank you mercilessly", sung so sweetly by Oldham and Sweeney you end up doing a WTF, a kind of double-take.  It's a hugely tuneful and melodic opening three songs.

After this the quiet lulls and crashing guitars of Goat and Ram move the album in another direction momentarily.  The musicianship on this album is a joy, Lift Us Up features a terrific guitar solo, while the harmonies on Rudy Foolish, unlike Oldham's work as Palace, are almost wilfully in tune.  Only Someone Running is more rustic, featuring country fingerpicking, with some jaunty whistling thrown in.

Towards the end, Blood Embrace, the penultimate track on the album is something of a centrepiece.  At nearly eight minutes long, its creeping, tension-building guitar figure gently unfurls in a manner evoking Neil Young's Down by the River.  The album finishes with the blues-folk of I Gave You.

Highly recommended for anyone curious about Will Oldham, definitely one of the more 'musical' albums he's been involved with.

Tuesday, July 11, 2017

Mark Eitzel - West

For Mark Eitzel's second solo album, released in 1997, he teamed up with REM's Peter Buck.  Both artists were riding high at the time, in their own particular way, having come through an imperious decade from the late 80s through to the mid 90s.  The album opens promisingly with what turns out to be it's best track, If You Have To Ask.  Dominated by strings, it features a really strong vocal by Eitzel and a clever lyric about lighting "a fire in your brain".  It's a really lush arrangement, and it suits Eitzel down to the ground, it's one of the finer songs in his solo work.  After that, we come (relatively) down to earth.  Songs like Free of Harm, Stunned and Frozen, and In Your Life are fairly straightforward, sub-REM pop-rock songs with bright guitar lines and catchy, repeated choruses.  Mark Eitzel will surely never sing a simpler chorus than "I live in your life".  The moodier side is well represented here too on Helium, Then It Really Happens and the almost apologetic Lower Eastside Tourist, any of which you could nearly imagine Michael Stipe singing.  Which is kind of the problem with this album: it's not distinctive enough, not Eitzel enough.

Chirpier moments like Three Inches of Wall and Move Myself Ahead don't suit Eitzel that well, and even when he wallows, on Old Photographs and Live or Die it seems simplistic.  The chorus of the latter is flat and obvious ("no-one cares if I live or die").

It's one album in Mark Eitzel's back catalogue that you could pop on in the background and it wouldn't really upset anyone.  Which isn't really the point with Eitzel.