Wednesday, 29 June 2011

Album review: PJ HARVEY - Let England Shake

Highlights: The Last Living Rose, The Glorious Land, The Words That Maketh Murder, In The Dark Places, Hanging In The Wire 

Catching up with those early 2011’s albums I haven’t reviewed so far… PJ Harvey’s Let England Shake is not simply one of them – it is one of the most satisfying, truly original artistic statements in recent memory. The hurt emotion (as well as Polly’s equally vulnerable vocal delivery), the inventive arrangements and the intense, folkish vibe of these melodies pretty much guarantee Let England Shake its ‘instant classic’ status. 

Interestingly, I don’t even like PJ Harvey all that much. I don’t like PJ Harvey when she is this force of raw, ruthless emotion like she was on Dry or Rid Of Me. And the much-loved Stories From The City… sounded generic and predictable to me. Never got into those. But when she tries something different (like 2007’s eerie, haunting White Chalk LP, for instance), I immediately respond and start finding her music interesting. 

So: what’s the universal love for this album all about? My guess is that it has to do with the fact that on Let England Shake Harvey finds this perfect, rarely found balance between being the original artist she is and remaining all so adorable and accessible. There’s nothing difficult about any of these songs (well, some might find the high-pitched, bare-bones quality of “England” slightly off-putting), and yet the album keeps revealing these spine-tingling horns, pianos, effective backup vocals that make this something more – something approaching a true artistic triumph. I could talk for hours about the ominous, creepy brilliance of tracks like “The Glorious Land” or “In The Dark Places”, but for me the single most breathtaking moment is the second part of “The Words That Maketh Murder”, from 2:43 onwards. The chilling slide guitar underpinning that politically-charged chanting – it should really be heard to be believed. And even though the album gets slightly less fantastic towards the end, my admiration for what PJ Harvey is doing here doesn’t subside for a second. 

Actually, political albums should not be this good. They are usually about words, not melodies; they are primarily concerned with the message, not with how this message translates into music. But Let England Shake suffers from no such problems. It’s a classic record – its grip is tight on your chest, and it simply refuses to let go. I won’t be surprised if this turns out to be the year’s best album. A top 10 list seems barely enough for this.


Monday, 27 June 2011

SONG OF THE WEEK #17: The Plimptons - "Lonely Old Man"

The Plimptons (rarely have I heard a name that matches the sound so perfectly) are a little known Scottish band that play exciting, tongue-in-cheek music of various styles and moods. There’s a little Madness there, a little Pogues, a little everything  – in fact, it is precisely this diversity that makes them so good. Ska, Brit-pop, Celtic punk, pop punk, music hall (I could go on) – all done with great humour and taste, all filtered through this very Glaswegian pop sensibility. 

Their latest (3rd) album, 00’s Nostalgia With The Plimptons (2010) is well worth anybody’s time. The album's single, “Lonely Old Man”, is a classic piece of infectious Celtic punk, and with brilliant lyrics to boot. This is wild, intelligent fun. 

(You can download the album almost for free here:  I certainly advise you to do so – they don’t get lots of money for selling records these days, you know.)

Saturday, 25 June 2011

Album review: JONNY - Jonny

Highlights: Candyfloss, Circling The Sun, English Lady, I Want To Be Around 

God, it’s easy to describe bands you don’t even need to describe. Jonny (a silly name, but what can you do; also, I've seen better covers) is a duo of Norman Blake from the Scottish indie darlings Teenage Fanclub and Euros Childs from the Welsh, folksy and overlooked Gorky’s Zygotic Mynci (speaking of silly names). Jonny sounds exactly like a cross between TF and GZM – doing something light-hearted and slightly throwawayish. 

So Grand Prix or Barafundle it is not. But both men being so talented (I’ve already hinted somewhere that Blake has to be Teenage Fanclub’s best songwriter), Jonny turns out to be a very nice, catchy, humble and feel-good album full of good vibes and sunny tunes. For all their fluffiness “Candyfloss” and, say, “I Want To Be Around” have vocal melodies to kill for. Plus – lots of lovely piano and tasteful acoustic guitars could not hurt anyone. 

As a downside, I just have to mention the 10-minute long “Cave Dance”. It starts normally, as a decent enough pop-rocker, but then it turns into this totally unnecessary, monotonous, keyboard-based groove (Childs’ idea, definitely) that just doesn’t know where to end. I’m also not a fan of the straight-faced country send-up “I’ll Make Her My Best Friend” and the charming but a little annoying “Bread” (nice harmonies, though).  

So: if you want to sing along, hear something non-pretentious and just feel nostalgic – get this one. My version has a free EP attached as a bonus. Needless to say, it’s more of the same. “Gloria” is amazing. 


Thursday, 23 June 2011

Album reviews: TOM VEK - Leisure Seizure

Highlights: Aroused, A Chore, A.P.O.L.O.G.Y., On A Plate

Tom Vek plays stylish, highly inventive music that is nevertheless very much in the ‘pop’ department. It’s all very elaborate, very meticulously done – and the fact that this is only his second album in 6 years (the debut, We Have Sound, was released in 2005) reflects just how much craft and thought Tom puts into it. 

But however elaborate and meticulous it may be in terms of sound and arrangements, song-wise Leisure Seizure is a very spontaneous, adventurous record. The tracks are mostly based on jerky, wild drum patters, clever, fearless synths and guitar lines (everything’s played by Tom Vek himself) that – and here’s the catch – have nothing to do with the album’s vocal melodies. Because on top of all that instrumentation you’ve got these effective, (mostly) perfectly accessible tunes that are clever and memorable. Songs like “A Chore”, “Aroused” or “A.P.O.L.O.G.Y.” are as catchy as I’ve heard this year. Some have difficulties with Tom Vek’s voice, but I personally find his vocal style to be quite effective and charismatic. It only gets slightly grating over the course of his more experimental songs – like “Seizemic” or the lengthy, atmospheric “Close Mic’ed”. 

It’s all really interesting, and really hard to describe. Songs made up of numerous disjointed elements that are layered on top of each other – yet it all hangs together perfectly. Not everything works – but when it does, it’s pure aural delight. 


Monday, 20 June 2011

SONG OF THE WEEK #16: Patrick Wolf - "Bluebells"

Patrick Wolf’s invenitve ways with pop music strongly remind me of Kate Bush. He seems to be an idiosyncratic perfectionist, a pursuer of romantic, sentimental whimsy – but it’s not as if he fakes it. I feel sincerity there, as well as genuine talent. Occasionally his music might come off as pretentious and overbearing (mostly in the production department), his lyrics might sound raw and silly, but there’s always a good melody, a brilliant hook and a great deal of that thick, charismatic croon to justify anything.

This here is his in-home take on “Bluebells”, an achingly beautiful ballad off The Magic Position (2007). While the original was good, these purer, acoustic arrangements seem to match the song’s haunting atmosphere a lot better. And the melody is inspirational.

On a related note, Patrick’s new album, Lupercalia (how else?), is out tomorrow.

Thursday, 16 June 2011

Album review: FRANKIE & THE HEARTSTRINGS - Hunger

Highlights: Photograph, Ungrateful, Fragile, Tender, Want You Back

This is simple. A band influenced by Dexys Midnight Runners with the energy rush of Franz Ferdinand and produced by Edwyn Collins of Orange Juice. That gives a more or less perfect description of Frankie & The Heartstrings’ music and, indeed, their debut album. 
Last year’s promising Ungrateful EP showed a very capable band playing soulful, melodic post-punk music with great retro feel. But with all the influences Frankie & The Heartstrings fell for, Hunger is still full of the kind of identity-lacking personality that is very characteristic of contemporary art. It’s all very self-assured, very insistent. There’s lots of pulsating bass, gutsy and tasteful guitar (including some excellent solos), and soulful, intense singing – all those things that thanks to Collins’ smart production blend into an absolutely charming, good-spirited mix.

The Heartstrings’ signature single “Ungrateful” is particularly noteworthy. Expertly structured, it really is the ideal representation of Hunger: full of heartfelt, dramatic vocals, unforgettable hooks, and the band’s terrific chemistry. But besides the great harder-edged tracks (the opening outburst of “Photograph” or the punkish, jerky “It’s Obvious”), Hunger also delivers great slower, more soulful numbers like the lengthy “Fragile” or the horn-filled “Want You Back” that is especially indebted to the music of Dexys.

No idea what this year will amount to in the end, but this feels like 2011’s strongest debut so far. A real riot of catchy, danceable melodies and intelligence. Even if Hunger does sound like the 80s.


Monday, 13 June 2011

SONG OF THE WEEK #15: The Church - "Hounds Of Love"

The Church are of course one of Australia’s all-time best. Of the three bands from that great Triad (the other two being The Triffids and The Go-Betweens, of course), Steve Kilbey’s act is the only surviving one, the only one that keeps going strong and releasing amazing records. That’s some dedication. 

This one's a rather rare performance of theirs, a cover of Kate Bush’s “Hounds Of Love”. The Church covering Kate Bush… sounds as dreamy, jangly and gorgeous as you would imagine. Can be found on the band’s recent Coffee Hounds EP (2009).

Thursday, 9 June 2011

Album review: DESTROYER - Kaputt

Highlights: Chinatown, Savage Night At The Opera, Suicide Demo For Kara Walker

For me Dan Bejar's music is most effective when least meandering – like Destroyer’s classic Streethawk: A Seduction (2001) or his consistently great contributions to The New Pornographers. On Kaputt, though, he goes for this reflective, sax-filled night-time mood that doesn’t necessarily mean sharper songs. To say nothing of more straightforward - but then Bejar has never been about conventional songwriting... 

Dan's main strength is his affluent way with vocal hooks; I’m talking about those catchy, whimsical lines that keep springing and creeping up like crazy. That “I heard your record it’s all right” lyric from “Savage Night At The Opera”, for instance. But Kaputt could be Destroyer's most expertly, elaborately produced album, so it also offers a number of brilliant instrumental passages. Among those I could mention the pretty flute lines in the slow, atmospheric “Suicide Demo For Kara Walker” (one of the record's highlights) as well as those saxophones, of course, that dominate huge sections of the record. 

And yet I feel slightly underwhelmed. By occasional lack of tunefulness, substance – best heard on the lengthy part-ambient/part-the usual epic closer, “Bay Of Pigs”. It suits the album’s mood fine, no doubt, and it still has plenty of Dan Bejar’s verbose, charismatic melodicism, but overall I guess that’s just a little too long-winded and yes, somewhat meandering. 

Still, I rather welcome this slight conceptual change. After all, if you love Bejar’s style, Kaputt will just keep oozing its poetic, stream-of-consciousness hooks and enchanting you with its nocturnal vibe. 


Monday, 6 June 2011

SONG OF THE WEEK #14: Half Man Half Biscuit - "For What Is Chatteris..."

Whenever a Half Man Half Biscuit record is on, a certain part of me keeps insisting this is the best band in the world playing. Pure energy, hooks, intelligence, guts. Obviously there’s this second, more reasonable part of me resisting that call, but if a band manages to trigger that kind of admiration, even for a minute or two, it makes it all worth it.  

There are loads of fantastic live versions of “For What Is Chatteris…” (off the greatly titled Achtung Bono, 2005) around (HMHB are, needless to say, a hugely entertaining live band; I’m speaking from experience – saw them in Brampton a couple of years ago), but I picked the original simply because the video is so hilarious. Same goes for the song - of course.

Thursday, 2 June 2011

Album review: THE UNTHANKS - Last

Highlights: Gan To The KyeThe Gallowgate Lad, Give Away Your Heart, Starless

Of all the folk revivalists of today, The Unthanks (sisters Rachel and Becky, basically) offer the biggest deal in terms of authenticity. With their poignant, sophisticated arrangements and heartfelt vocals, they make it sound truly genuine. 

Having loved their previous album, the acclaimed Here’s The Tender Coming (2009), I of course had no desire to be let down by Last. I was not; the deal is the same: moving, ancient-sounding English ballads with haunting tunes, delicate piano lines (I particularly love “Give Away Your Heart”), sorrowful cellos and violins, occasional acoustic guitars. My favourite is probably the slow waltz of “The Gallowgate Lad”, but once you are soaked in their mood, The Unthanks don’t really fail. I even feel mesmerised by the sparse, mysterious “Close The Coalhouse Door” (well, this being Tyneside, of course…).   

Besides the obligatory traditional songs and rather predictable covers, they also offer a couple of big surprises. For instance, they cover Tom Waits’ “No One Knows I’m Gone” (from the equally cheerless Alice) and even (gasp) King Crimson’s “Starless”. But unless you look in the sleeve notes or know those songs (which you should), you won’t believe they are in fact covers. The Unthanks make them their own, age-old but timeless. 

For me, this is traditional English folk music as it should be done. If you are in a melancholy, brooding mood, that is.