Sunday, 31 July 2011

SONG OF THE WEEK #22: John Cale - "Dying On The Vine" (live)

Whereas John Cale’s 1985 LP Artificial Intelligence could well be the lowest point in his discography, in “Dying On The Vine” it contained one of his loveliest tunes ever. Thoughtful and gorgeous, it could easily make it into Paris 1919 or Music For A New Society – but the spare, cold arrangements were simply too emotionless, too distant, too uninviting.

When he played it later, though, on his brilliant live album Fragments Of A Rainy Season (1992; Cale's gentle side, as opposed to the rage and headless chickens of Sabotage) or elsewhere around the period, it bloomed into the true, deeply moving classic it really was. And is.  

This version is taken from a 1992 TV show.

Friday, 29 July 2011

Album review: RADIOHEAD - The King Of Limbs

Highlights: Little By Little, Lotus Flower, Codex

Whatever you might think of The King Of Limbs, you just have to admire their cheek. Just as everyone was expecting a masterpiece on par with In Rainbows, Radiohead release this humble, (almost) unpretentious collection of 8 (!) songs that don’t even reach the 40-minute mark. A trick close to the one they pulled back in 2000 with the release of Kid A (initially not much loved either) after OK Computer.

Except that The King Of Limbs is more of an Amnesiac. A worthy but totally unambitious affair that knows it won’t match the expectations and so won’t even try. Sonically, the closest thing to TKOL would be the disjointed atmosphere and the pulsating electro-beats of Thom Yorke’s solo album, The Eraser. Sometimes it’s just atmosphere (“Feral” is expendable, but the lethargic, piano-based “Codex” is a standout), but sometimes they don’t forget to put a good tune into the background (“Little By Little”; “Lotus Flower”, which has one of the strongest vocal melodies I’ve heard all year). Vocally and instrumentally the band is in good form – even though Johnny Greenwood’s guitar is severely underrepresented.

Perhaps the best thing about this LP (and the same holds true for the majority of Radiohead’s albums) is that it improves upon further listens. Still, there’s no escaping from the fact that The King Of Limbs is one of the band’s weakest efforts. And for once the answer is quite simple: the songs are just not that good. Even though those saving graces just keep popping up like crazy...


Sunday, 24 July 2011

SONG OF THE WEEK #21: Zumpano - "The Party Rages On"

Canada’s Zumpano is A.C.Newman’s second band (after an even obscurer Superconductor). The sound is that of The Zombies playing power pop. Zumpano managed two albums in the 90s, Look What The Rookie Did (1995) and Goin’ Through Changes (1996), both ridiculously overlooked gems, both a must-have for any admirer of intelligent pop music or, indeed, The New Pornographers.

“The Party Rages On” appeared on the album’s 1995 debut. The song is a perfect of example of what Zumpano were about. An absolutely breathtaking set of unforgettable melodies and uplifting spirit that is bound to make you dance and sing along..

Wednesday, 20 July 2011

Album review: THE STROKES - Angles

Highlights: Under Cover Of Darkness, Taken For A Fool, Gratisfaction, Life Is Simple In The Moonlight

In the days of giant egos and mindless narcissism it’s not often that you hear an artist/band renounce its own work. The Strokes’ case is particularly odd: Casablancas and Co unanimously rejected Angles already prior to the album’s release date. As an unabashedly lame excuse they blamed it all on the recording process. The band, it transpired, couldn’t even gather together in the studio, and so the vocals and the instruments had to be recorded separately. So much for the inspiring unity of the gang they allegedly brought back from the ashes in 2001…

You certainly hear where that dissatisfaction comes from. Strictly speaking, Angles is not even an album of songs – it’s a collection of good, interesting ideas patched together. Take “Taken For A Fool”, for instance. Its verse melody has very little, if anything, to do with that brilliant pulsating chorus that might well be the album’s most cathartic moment. But this example only goes to show that in spite of the general lack of cohesiveness the album’s best moments (largely Julian’s vocal melodies) manage to salvage a lot.

Basically, Angles is the Strokes’ trademark sound (with slightly more ambitious guitar solos) filtered through the lush electro-pop vibe  of Casablancas’ Phrazes For The Young (2009). All quite inventive, really, and the ideas are good. Was it worth the wait? Hard to say, but it’s interesting to have them back. Particularly now that they will have to better it – difficult though it may seem with those three other unnecessary, bothersome characters dangling nearby in the studio and trying to prove that they also know a thing or two about music. 


Sunday, 17 July 2011

SONG OF THE WEEK #20: Thea Gilmore - "Mainstream"

Everyone who’s heard Thea Gilmore keeps wondering what’s wrong why the world doesn't recognize such a bright and obvious talent. Thea Gilmore is a brilliant singer-songwriter who must appeal to fans of Aimee Mann (similar vocals, I guess) or, say, Neko Case – only Thea Gilmore comes with a significant British folk twist. She writes consistently wonderful pop songs that have enough roughness, guts and edge never to sound bland or threaten the charts.  

Well, so when will the world care? You might want to hear her biting, blistering “Mainstream” (from Avalanche (2006), arguably her best album) to get an answer to that.

Friday, 15 July 2011

Album review: OKKERVIL RIVER - I Am Very Far

Highlights: Lay Of The Last Survivor, White Shadow Waltz, Your Past Life As A Blast, Wake And Be Fine

Interestingly, every time I hear a new Okkervil River album, I can’t get rid of a feeling that they could do better. Having heard some of their earlier records, I know they could – they just lack consistency, the songwriting chops to fill an album with songs as affecting and tuneful as, say, “John Allyn Smith Sails”. So they end up patchy. In places, boring; in places, overdramatic.

I Am Very Far is Okkervil River’s usual indie drama. Stuffy production, anguished melodies, and Will Shelf’s equally anguished, emotionally charged vocals. When it works – it’s extremely effective, intense, and might even sound heartbreaking (without giving you the vaguest idea why). Songs like “White Shadow Waltz” or “Wake And Be Fine” are both lovely and unforgettable. The boring bits include a couple of obscure, faceless tracks like “Show Yourself” or “Piratess” that go for atmosphere and general loveliness rather than some more earthly melodic delights. The majority of the record, though, sounds a great deal better than that cheap cover would suggest.

But overall I Am Very Far is a good record. Not exceptionally good – just worthy, ‘no new fans needed’ good. Makes you believe that their masterpiece is still very much a possibility. In the meantime, I’ll enjoy this for a day or two.  


Wednesday, 13 July 2011

Album review: EMA - Past Life Martyred Saints

Highlights: Grey Ship, California, Butterfly Knife

In three words, Past Life Martyred Saints is raw, fucked-up and beautiful. It is a very disturbing, occasionally unsettling folk album recorded by Erika M. Anderson (aka EMA), a young lady who used to be in little known (if ‘known’ is a suitable word here) bands like Amps For Christ and Gowns. Having decided not to reinvent herself, EMA carried all the noise and psychedelia associated with those former acts into her own brand of pained, hurt, grungy folk music.

The first thing you notice is how intense it all sounds. Erika’s fragile, raspy, sometimes PJ Harvey-like vocals are constantly on edge – to say nothing of those lyrics full of lines like “I’m just twenty-two, I don’t mind dying” or “I wish that every time he touched me left a mark” or “you don’t love me – someone will”. I’m generally not a fan of that kind of confessional, ‘look at me I’m bleeding (and I like it)’ approach to music (or any kind of art, for that matter), but this is a very good set of songs – with strong tunes and clever, inventive arrangements. The single, “Grey Ship” might not sound like much at first, but the moment the whole thing stops and that guitar line appears, quite out of nowhere, the effect is almost magical. And it only gets better from there – the head-spinning viola bringing it all to an absolute catharsis. The centerpiece, though, is certainly the mesmerizing “California” which cleverly alternates its rough, downcast lyrics with glorious piano chords.     

Sometimes there’s not much music-wise behind all those pain and anguish, and her singing does get rather annoying in places. Still, there’s something deeply satisfying about the album’s imperfectness – which makes you cherish the truly gorgeous endings of songs like “Marked” or “Breakfast”.  But then EMA is way too edgy and original to be perfect.


Sunday, 10 July 2011

SONG OF THE WEEK #19: Gentleman Jesse & His Men - "All I Need Tonight (Is You)"

Gentleman Jesse & His Men play rip-roaring, infectious power pop that takes us back to the good old days of the 60s in all their beat glory. Their self-titled debut (2008) is, sadly, their only release to date. The anthemic “All I Need Tonight (Is You)” is a classic – from its confident singing to its gloriously silly lyrics. 

Friday, 8 July 2011

Album review: THE DECEMBERISTS - The King Is Dead

Highlights: Rox In The Box, Down By The Water, June Hymn, This Is Why We Fight 

It's hard to understand some wild criticism this album has managed to generate. Hard, because there's nothing here that The Decemberists hadn't done before. Well, they've slightly countrified their lush, tuneful folk-rock for The King Is Dead, but it is not as if it led to some dramatic changes in sound or Colin Meloy's songwriting. They are as good as ever - only slightly more upbeat, slightly more straightforward. 

In fact, this may well be the band's most immediate album to date. There are no Hazards Of Love styled progressive leanings this time around, no conceptual faux-intellectual pretensions - just a collection 10 perfectly accessible, perfectly catchy songs. I wouldn't consider myself a big fan of the rather too predictable country send-up "All Arise!" (still a lot of fun), but otherwise it's pretty much all I would wish from a Decemberists album. Tasteful acoustic guitars, cellos, accordions, lots of harmonica memorable tunes - what's not to love? The rocking lead-off single, "Down By The Water" (featuring Peter Buck on guitar), is particularly good - with its inspired melody and brilliant harmonies from no other than Gillian Welch. Also, I absolutely love the insanely catchy "Rox In The Box" that contrasts its nursery rhyme-like joyfulness with Meloy's typically grim-yet-amusing lyrics. And then there's the gentle, pastoral "January Hymn", which sounds like Fleet Foxes with a little bit more substance. 

So overall The King Is Dead is a good, worthy addition to the band's catalogue. They dumbed it all down a bit, made it simpler - but not to an extent where they would have to lose their style or intelligence. 


Wednesday, 6 July 2011

Album review: KATE BUSH - Director's Cut

Highlights: Flower Of The Mountain, Song Of Solomon, Lily, Deeper Understanding, Top Of The City

It’s tempting to believe that it is the consent finally granted by the James Joyce estate (to quote Molly Bloom from the last chapter of Ulysses) that inspired Kate Bush to record Director’s Cut. But however beautiful, however exciting this idea may sound, it is not necessarily true. Because think what you will, but these are still very exciting times for an artist to work in. And Kate gave it another shot.

Director’s Cut is Kate Bush’s first album in 6 years – a trifle compared to her previous 12-year hiatus. Well, there are no new songs here, these are just re-recordings of her older songs… But as it always is with Ms Bush, once you hear the music, you stop complaining: re-workings or not, you certainly do get a perfect idea of how much time, thought and talent she put into it. It may be precisely this perfectionism of hers that makes her records sound timeless and non-finite to me: there always seems something more to discover. New layers of sound, new vocal undertones, new meanings. For instance, it is only now, on listening to Director’s Cut, that I finally realised “Top Of The City” is actually about female orgasm. And the brilliant metaphor, the sheer eloquence of her imagery put Carole King’s excellent “I Feel The Earth Move” to shame.

The Molly Bloom song is now called “Flower Of The Mountain”, and it opens the record on a sensual, slightly mysterious note. It’s not much changed from the original (“The Sensual World”), apart from the lyrics, of course, but it’s now given an even more elaborate, more affluent treatment. In fact, all of these 11 songs sound a lot like they used to – yet they all give a very welcome impression of being different and somehow… new. Even though new arrangements aside, all I could say is that “Lily” sounds a bit more aggressive now, and “This Woman’s Work” sounds a little softer, gentler… The song that is changed most drastically, though, is “Deeper Understanding”, Kate’s prophetic tale of computers and addiction. The chilling, haunting melody stays unaltered, but the lyrics of the song must have screamed ‘NOW’ so hard that she just had to add that computerized voice (of her son) to the whole thing – if only for the sake of authenticity. I’ve grown to like it. And I absolutely adore the song’s lengthy coda, wild and paranoid, with its restless, crude harmonica cutting it through like an electric razor.  

Given the ubiquitous character of our time, as well as our incurable, hopeless case of A.D.D., it is both easy and hard to leave your mark in postmodern society. And Kate Bush gave it a shot: she made an album where she covered her own songs so as to make them sound contemporary. But Kate’s greatness is not about that – Kate’s greatness is about the fact that she managed to do it without in any way throwing art into the bargain.


Book review: THINKS... by David Lodge

It probably takes a special kind of writer to produce as many campus novels as David Lodge has done over the years. A campus novel, come to think of it, is quite a non-ambitious institution. Of course there are always ways to infuse it with grave, heavy issues (see Coetzee’s Disgrace), but generally it seems more like a detour than a specialty. If you take writers of some eminence and recognition, you will notice that many have tried it, some succeeded, but few have displayed Lodge’s level of sheer commitment. Yet sticking to the well-trusted way of writing about what you know best, in Thinks… (published in 2001) David Lodge produced another work of intelligent, intellectual entertainment.

Considering the genre’s rules and limitations, you are in no position to complain about the fact that the plot looks more or less transparent several chapters into the novel. You have the University of Gloucester. You have Ralph Messenger, a promiscuous cognitive scientist. You have Helen Reed, a bereaved novelist (still grieving over the sudden death of her husband) who needs a distraction and thus comes to Gloucester to teach a course in creative writing. You certainly know the rest. Still, Lodge has clearly mastered the conservative restraints of campus ways to an extent where he can make even the clich├ęd and all-too-familiar struggle between sciences and arts work. His dialogues are witty and smart, and there’s enough practical cynicism in the novel’s characters to steer clear of cheap romance traps and give the whole thing this very necessary modern edge.

According to Dryden, the two main goals of literature are to instruct and delight. Lodge has a go at both. The former goal is achieved through the numerous (and sometimes quite overbearing) arguments about consciousness, and the latter through the rather intricate, sexed-up plot. This plot may lack the freshness and immediacy of, say, Lucky Jim, and may sometimes look like it came from an academic novel workshop, but it is still gripping enough – mainly due to the ever-present problem of choice as well as this constant moral ambiguity that seems to never leave Lodge’s characters alone.

There’s always something deeply satisfying about a menu having the same dish you enjoyed last time. And Thinks… is certainly that kind of dish. And even if David Lodge does spice it up with a great deal of satire, sex and stream of consciousness, you still feel drawn to the novel’s last paragraph. In which we learn that Helen Reed came to write a new book called Crying Is A Puzzler. ‘So old-fashioned in form (wrote one reviewer) as to be almost experimental’. I would rephrase it for Thinks…: the book is so experimental in form (for a campus novel, that is) as to be almost old-fashioned. It’s a good book. Its only sin is that it doesn’t try to be anything more.


Sunday, 3 July 2011

SONG OF THE WEEK #18: Honeybus - "(Do I Figure) In Your Life"

Honeybus are now largely forgotten. And if someone somewhere somehow still remembers them, it’s probably because of their Pete Dello-penned UK hit “I Can’t Let Maggie Go” (1968). Fantastic song, no doubt about that, but if anything, their previous single was even more fantastic.

It’s called “(Do I Figure) In Your Life” (also by Dello) and it takes my vote for the greatest pop single of all time. Gorgeously sung and full of those affecting, poignant strings, it gives me a delightful heartbreak every time I play it. Here is this song in glorious vinyl – which is how I first heard it, back in 2003.

Also, contrary to general belief, Honeybus were not merely a singles band. In fact, their 1970 LP Story is quite on par with such precious pop classics as Odyssey & Oracle and Walk Away Renee/Pretty Ballerina. No joking.  

Friday, 1 July 2011

Album review: BEADY EYE - Different Gear, Still Speeding

Highlights: Four Letter Word, The Roller, For Anyone 

Needless to say, this album sounds exactly like everyone thought it would. While essentially Noel Gallagher was Oasis, you would not expect Beady Eye to fall completely flat. After all, Liam did contribute a couple of good songs to Oasis, and those other band members couldn’t be too incompetent. At first I thought they were bound to lose some subtlety with Noel gone, but then I of course had to cut myself short: what subtlety??? 

The good thing about Different Gear, Still Speeding is that Liam and Co manage to infuse the whole thing with some prime energy missing from many of Oasis’ latter-day albums. Naturally: Liam had a lot to prove. But once you cut through all those balls and swagger, you realise that the songs are actually… not too inspired. Well, I guess “Four Letter Word” (the album’s “Rock’n’Roll Star”) does open the whole thing perfectly. “The Roller”, with Liam at his most Lennon-esque and melodic, also rolls on nicely in that classic, overblown Oasis fashion . Then there’s the brief “For Anyone” that brings fond memories of “Songbird”. 

But a good half of these songs are your familiar Oasis mess. Decent, colourful, cocky Oasis mess. Predictable as hell, catchy in its own trashy way. And “Beatles And Stones”? My God, Liam. But at least you gotta admire his commitment. 

I believe that what Beady Eye set to achieve here was the glorious recreation of Definitely Maybe. Ridiculous, of course, but they pull it off – if only in spirit. Musically it sounds like second-hand Oasis... But then: Oasis themselves sounded like second-hand Oasis for the most part of their career…