Thursday, April 27, 2017

BNQT - Volume 1

So it seems the soft-rock mid-70s are well and truly back, with bands like Midlake, Fleet Foxes etc, but not only that we have a supergroup in the shape of BNQT.  It's really a project led by Midlake's Eric Pulido, Jason Lytle from Grandaddy, Ben Bridwell from Band of Horses and, a little incongruously, Alex Kapranos of Franz Ferdinand and Fran Healy of Travis.  With each singer being given 2 songs each this could have come across an incoherent mess but, anchored by Midlake as the backing band it gels together well.  Pulido opens up with the propulsive, catchy Restart.  Bridwell's relaxed, borderline cheesy Unlikely Force follows.  It's like something ripped straight out of Crosby Stills and Nash's 70s songbook and it works really well, Bridwell singing "you and me make such an unlikely force" with gorgeous harmonies from the other singers.  The track is so evocative you'll feel your trousers flaring and your hair growing longer.  100 Million Miles has the cosmic essence of Lytle's band Grandaddy with strings to give it added grace.  Healy's Mind of A Man is takes a heavy spoonful of Fleetwood Mac's Rumours with a tempo and atmosphere that conjures up that band's Dreams.  Kapranos sounds a bit out of place on the oddly titled Hey Banana, neither gelling totally with the band nor sounding particularly distinct.  That's not to say the track doesn't work, it just comes up short in comparison to what precedes it.  The poppy and upbeat Real Love is more of a band effort, featuring what sounds like all singers.  In fact the second half of the album is less impressive than the first, Lytle's plodding Failing at Feeling is practically MOR, while the Stones-lite of Healy's L.A. On My Mind, Bridwell's foul-mouthed yet chirpy Tara and Kapranos' slow-burning keyboard don't really ignite.

Definitely recommended for fans of Midlake, or any of the bands referenced above.

Wednesday, April 19, 2017

Stephen Malkmus & The Jicks - Real Emotional Trash

2008's Real Emotional Trash is the album where Stephen Malkmus finally casts off the shackles of his former band Pavement.  It opens in somewhat lumbering fashion, with the heavy riffs of Dragonfly Pie and the Doors-isms of Hopscotch Willie.  Very much a guitarist album, the ten minute title track is, despite its long-windedness, something of a highlight, taking its time to unfurl some seriously impressive guitar work by Malkmus.  Muscular, riffy rock is the order of the day on tracks like Out of Reaches and Baltimore, which are a long way from the indie sound Pavement were known for.  In other words if intricate fretwork is not your bag, don't come anywhere near this album.  Many of these songs are pretty unfocused.  The terribly titled Elmo Delmo is certainly that, but it works well, albeit in a late 60s/early 70s rock way, ie 'pass the joint' and all that.  Following this, We Can't Help You is practically The Band.  It comes as something of a relief after so much bluster when final track Wicked Wanda starts in relatively quiet fashion before the mighty riffs kick in, in fairness, to pretty excellent effect.  The real question is: is this Malkmus pretending to do a 70s rock album, or is this the real deal?

Sunday, April 16, 2017

Magnolia Electric Co - Sojourner

Magnolia Electric Co's 2006 album Fading Trails proved to be just a taster for 2007's Sojourner box set, a treasure trove containing FOUR albums.  The first, Nashville Moon has Jason Molina and co gone full-on country rock with rockers Lonesome Valley, Montgomery and Don't Fade On Me, each of which appeared on Fading Trails.  Elsewhere?  We get a ragged, rocking take on Hammer Down, followed closely by No Moon On The Water, again rocking pretty hard leading nicely into the country soul Stones-y title track.  There are plenty of uptempo tracks preventing the pace from becoming too plodding, such as the bluesy strut of What Comes After The Blues or the country swing of Don't This Look Like The Dark.  North Star is a honky tonk ballad which gathers momentum throughout the song, swelling to a fine brew of sound.  This music truly is equal parts messy rock and honky-tonk country.

However it has nothing on the second disc, Black Ram.  For me this is everything that Neil Young's Tonight's the Night was made out to be, a dark, mellow yet angry night time rock album.  In The Human World has a simple, descending melody before the addition of strings sweeps the track along providing a perfect introduction.  Austere, grim guitars open the title track which just gets more beat down and heavier as the track progresses.  What's Broken Becomes Better and Will-O-The-Wisp are fine, doleful laments with hard electric guitars.  Gentle banjo introduces Kanawha which builds to a guitar solo that cold only be described as 'stonking'.  Which in the context of this, is a good thing.  The wounded Neil Young-isms are present and correct on the towering A Little At A Time.  Many songs, such as Blackbird and And The Moon Hits The Water would be quite ordinary but for the way the guitars are recorded, with such clarity and bite, they really lift each track to great heights.  It's a definite highpoint in the extensive catalogue of Jason Molina.

The third disc, Sun Session is the shortest at only four songs.  No let up in quality here - Talk to Me Devil Again takes a prime Neil Young sounding delicate riff and combines it with a little organ for Molina to sing his lament.  The other 3 tracks are equally strong, including a rootsy rendition of Hold On, Magnolia.

The final disc, Shohola, is something else entirely.  The bleakest, most-stripped down set here, it features Jason Molina alone with a guitar, as he wails softly through laments like Steady Now and Take One Thing Along.  Night Country and The Spell are grim, resigned and life-affirming, sharing the tone of Gillian Welch's most downbeat material.  Shiloh Temple is classic country folk of the kind that Townes Van Zandt used to play.  The Lamb's Song features such soft guitar playing you actually lean in to listen harder.  This collection is even more downbeat than Molina usually is, one for those long dark nights of the soul.

Possibly Jason Molina's defining project, and definitely one his most ambitious.  It contains some of his best work and is essential for anyone interested in his music.

Thursday, April 13, 2017

Wilco - A Ghost Is Born

Wilco's fifth album came out in 2004, and was instantly pegged as their 'experimental' album.  This it definitely is.  But it's also enjoyable to listen to, more so than its predecessor Yankee Hotel Foxtrot.  It opens quietly with At Least That's What You Said, initially with just piano and Jeff Tweedy's voice, before he unleashes Neil Young-style guitar licks after a couple of minutes.  And what towering guitar licks they are, on an album where Tweedy's guitar playing really comes to the fore.  It's followed by a change of tack with the understated piano soft-rock of Hell Is Chrome, before shifting again with ten minute epic Spiders.  With a pulsing beat and repetitive keyboard motif, it sounds a long way from what you'd expect from Wilco.  The tension builds for a few minutes before a joyous, riffing guitar breakdown with a hint of Sonic Youth.  They stretch this out over ten minutes, yet it doesn't ever feel boring, though it eventually ends quite abruptly.  

Muzzle of Bees is a gentle, rootsy strum for the most part with occasional fretwork interludes.  Tweedy's Beatles fixation comes to the fore on piano-dominated tracks like Hummingbird and Theologians.  In the main, fine pop/rock songs like Handshake Drugs and Company In My Back abound on this album.  

The most polarising track for most people will be the 15 minute Less Than You Think.  For the first three minutes it's a soft piano ballad before giving way to 12 minutes of maddening machine drone.  It's total self-indulgence and depending on your mood that's either good or bad.  But rather than finishing with this, we get one final song, the enjoyable Faces-style throwaway The Late Greats.

But it's an album that, once you get into it, is most enjoyable.

Wednesday, April 12, 2017

Cian Nugent - Night Fiction

Night Fiction is the third album from Cian Nugent.  Released in 2016, it's the first to feature his languid vocals over his... languid guitar playing.  Actually his guitar playing is very accomplished, right from the opener Lost Your Way.  We're very much in Steve Gunn/Ryley Walker territory here.  Lengthy songs like Night Run and Shadows very much act as a relaxed springboard for Nugent to unleash his excellent guitar playing.  Nugent is by no means a great singer, but it's more than compensated by his seemingly effortless sounding but actually complex guitar playing.

A short, pastoral, fingerpicking instrumental Lucy divides the album neatly in two, but the lazy, hazy vibe very much remains the same on Things Don't Change That Fast and Nightlife.  It's left to eleven minute closing track Year of the Snake to provide a sense of ebb and flow, the track building from slow beginnings to an almost LA Woman style rave-up.

Tuesday, April 11, 2017

Wilco - Yankee Hotel Foxtrot

Wilco's fourth album is an odd oul beast.  In 2001 Reprise Records refused to release it, and it eventually came out in 2002.  It's seen by some as their Kid A.  While it's not that, it does mark the point where Wilco moved away from their alt-country roots and established their own sound.  Opener I Am Trying To Break Your Heart won't jar with anyone familiar with Misunderstood, the opener on Being There - it's a slowbuilding track, melodic for the most part but containing noisier passages.  In truth the album is a kind of enjoyable mess, which, perhaps due to its background, received far more praise than merited from critics.  It has many softly strummed, accessible songs such as Kamera, the repetitive War on War and the Cure-referencing Pot Kettle Black.  Any of these would not have been out of place on Summerteeth, nor would Heavy Metal Drummer, the most uptempo and 'knowing' lyrics here ("shiny, shiny pants and bleached blonde hair, double kick drum by the river").  I'm The Man Who Loves You is a bit like the Beatles played by Crazy Horse while the jaunty folk of Jesus Etc is downright odd.

Far more interesting are the deathly slow crawls.  Radio Cure is the one song here you could imagine Thom Yorke singing.  Instrumentation is minimal, percussion barely there at all, yet this song gets under the skin.  Ashes of American Flags is pure Beatles' White Album.  And not Obla-di Obla-da either, especially the final minute or two of noise.  Better still, the final twelve and a half minutes of the album are occupied by two slow crawls.  The first of these, Poor Places, is a fairly definitive slow march towards nowhere in particular.  Reservations on the other hand is more of a funereal drift into nothingness.  Or if you prefer, a plaintive love song ("I've got reservations about so many things but not about you").  And it is that which sums up the album, it can be taken in more than one way.

Monday, April 10, 2017

Will Oldham - Joya

Joya was released in 1997 under the Will Oldham name.  From the opening track O Let It Be, the album features a much fuller sound than any of the Palace material, with prominent electric guitar from David Pajo and more of a band feel.  The creeping, lurching Antagonism is muted and interesting but doesn't really go anywhere.  And so it goes for the album.  New Gypsy has a bluesy backwoods tone to it but Under What Was Oppression and Open Your Heart are more like what you'd expect from him but leave little impression.

Be Still and Know God is almost strident, with a straightforward guitar lick propelling the song along.  But for the most part this music is solipsistic and unremarkable.

Wednesday, April 5, 2017

Palace Music - Lost Blues and Other Songs

This is a compilation of singles and rare tracks from the various incarnations of Will Oldham as Palace/Palace Brothers/Palace Music etc.  As many collections like this can be, it's a bit all over the shop.  It opens with the dead slow but effective folk march of Ohio River Boat Song.  Many tracks here are, let's face it, hard going: the rough-as-fuck version of Riding, the completely out of tune singing on Stable Will to name but two.

But mostly downbeat folk is the order of the day on tracks like Valentine's Day, Trudy Dies and Come In.  Some of the stronger material is towards the end: O How I Enjoy The Light is a fairly typical Oldham lament with a neat line in warped guitar.  The two essential tracks are the relaxed, warm West Palm Beach which features some gorgeous electric guitar lines, and then the Stones-y lazy blues Gulf Shores, a bit like an updated No Expectations.  This latter track actually features soothing vocals from Will Oldham and a nice bit of piano.  But overall, not a collection for the fairweather fan.