Wednesday, 31 August 2011


Highlights: Belong, Heart In Your Heartbreak, Too Tough

The idea of merging different, sometimes diametrically opposite genres into one must look appealing to those artists who aren’t capable of writing a truly impressive tune. They start looking for that stylistic something that can prove as brilliant and artistically successful as Jesus And The Mary Jane marrying The Velvet Underground with The Ronettes.

The Pains Of Being Pure At Heart (I won’t even start discussing that name here) record disco-ish twee songs as played by Sonic Youth. The idea has neither spark nor originality, but they pull it off through sheer self-belief and superior quality of the material.

Belong is the band’s second album, and it’s the same thing they offered on their self-titled debut two years ago – only more polished and with somewhat better tunes. In fact, when the melody is good (“Belong”, “Heart In Your Heartbreak”) I can forgive them even such inescapable silliness as “she was the miss in your mistakes…” and stuff. The arrangements aim for some kind of lush, noisy gorgeousness this type of music demands. But it’s also good to hear those clever guitar lines and synths that keep beating and pulsating through this album. All very nice.

But with that said, I wouldn’t even dream of giving Belong anything higher than a light 7. I’m not a big fan of the kind of cotton-candy vocals this sort of music goes for. Plus, with the level of stylistic deviation approaching zero, this thing gets too monotonous halfway through. I’m actually okay with monotonous greatness – but monotonous pleasantness just ends up grating.


Sunday, 28 August 2011

SONG OF THE WEEK #26: The Chills - "Familiarity Breeds Contempt"

Classic New Zealand pop with an irresistible punkish edge. The Chills recorded the cleverly titled “Familiarity Breeds Contempt” in 1990 for their masterpiece, Submarine Bells (one of the greatest pop albums of all time, of course). This song might not be their defining moment, but in the end it’s just as breathtaking as their seminal "chart-topping" wonder "Heavenly Pop Hit".

Clearly Martin Phillips deserves more recognition for his articulate, confident, hook-filled songwriting. New Zealand's best, definitely.

Friday, 26 August 2011

Album review: TIMBER TIMBRE - Creep On Creepin' On

Highlights: Creep On Creepin’ On, Black Water, Woman, Too Old To Die Young

Canadian songwriter Taylor Kirk writes ominous-sounding, bluesed-down rockabilly songs that sound like they might be a part of a soundtrack to a horror film. But it’s not as if the effect is too creepy (though look at that title or the album's cover) – not as creepy as on Mr. Bungle’s Disco Volante in any case. There’s this nice folk-ish warmth to the whole thing, which makes Timber Timbre sound accessible, odd and oddly comforting.

This is Timber Timbre’s fourth release since 2005 (which makes it one album per two years), but I wouldn’t say that Kirk’s songwriting keeps getting better. No: it basically stays the same, with only the slightly more elaborate production distinguishing it from the band’s previous albums. There’s some orchestration here, the familiar faux-lilting tinkling of the piano, ragged guitar lines, depressing lyrics and Kirk’s deep, almost swampy vocals. And that intense, brooding darkness. Even the album’s most romantic song, “Lonesome Hunter”, sounds ramshackle and cold.

The LP is incredibly even. But while nothing sticks out, there’s nothing that spoils the grim fun either. My favourite moment, though, just has to be that pulsating guitar line that keeps tearing through the intense build-up of “Woman”.

I think I’d still take the band’s brief and perfect self-titled record from 2009 over Creep On Creepin’ On, but that’s mainly because of the three unnecessary (and somewhat out of place, frankly) instrumentals included here. Otherwise, it’s a beautiful if slightly sinister classic.  


Wednesday, 24 August 2011

Album review: ROBYN HITCHCOCK - Tromsø, Kaptein

Highlights: Light Blue Afternoon, Raining Twilight Coast, Dismal City, August In Hammersmith

I have a feeling that Tromsø, Kaptein will go down in history as one of Hitchcock’s least great albums. While no one could quite expect a sonic revolution or anything on par with Eye or I Often Dream Of Trains, there’s no denying that Mr. Hitchcock is most effective and least meandering when quirky and whimsical. Something that isn’t particularly evident on this release.

But with that said, Tromsø, Kaptein is still a masterful record. You just can’t take away the man’s confident Lennon-meets-Barrett songwriting that has never lacked hooks or personality. This time there’s lots of cello and that pensive, brooding mood (which gets more and more inevitable as Hitchcock gets older). There are a couple of quick-paced, instantly catchy numbers (“Light Blue Afternoon”, “Dismal City”), but mostly he goes for these slow, longish songs that start revealing their charm and melodic substance only on further listens. But the substance is there, lots of it – for the passionate and the dedicated (all Hitchcock’s fans are, of course, for who else would buy this?) The fact that Tromsø, Kaptein does not contain Robyn’s best set of tunes can be witnessed in the fact that he redoes Eye’s “Raining Twilight Coast” (a brilliant track cannot be butchered by a man with so much taste) and the more recent “Goodnight Oslo”. With all due respect, the latter wasn’t really necessary. It’s now sung in Norwegian, and in the end it is more like a tribute to the country where this new album was recorded than a brilliant creative idea.

Also, I can’t but praise Robyn’s productivity at this stage of his career. Goodnight Oslo in 2009. Propellor Time (actually recorded earlier, but still) in 2010. Tromsø, Kaptein in 2011. This should certainly count for something. Even if by Robyn Hitchcock’s standards this album is a slight letdown, but by anyone else's it just has to rank among the year’s best. The man can still prove that good songwriting is as irresistible as ever.


Sunday, 21 August 2011

SONG OF THE WEEK #25: Rufus Wainwright - "Going To A Town" (live)

As his recently released expa/ensive velvet-clad box set House Of Rufus testifies, Mr Wainwright likes doing everything with a great deal of style. In fact, when it comes to style and sophistication, his famed relatives just don’t stand a chance.

It would be hard to choose Rufus’ best tune, but the highly celebrated “Going To A Town” off Release The Stars (2007) certainly comes close. Sung in that luxurious vibrating voice and orchestrated to glorious perfection, this might be his most self-consciously gorgeous song to date. A sumptuous chamber-pop masterpiece; my only complaint is that it was meant to be that way.

This version is live and it is taken from The Henry Rollins TV show. 

Friday, 19 August 2011

Album review: THE FEELIES - Here Before

Highlights: Nobody Knows, Again Today, When You Know, Morning Comes, Time Is Right

On the one hand, belated comebacks like this must put an artist under tremendous lots of pressure. But then you of course have to consider the fact that The Feelies never had all that much fame and success even in their day. The pressure must surely go easier on them. Well, they certainly wanted to make a good, positive impression and leave a mark on a new generation of listeners and, quite inevitably, critics, but then they could easily get away with something relatively modest and inconspicuous. Apparently a collection of nice and tasteful songs done in their trademark style would have sufficed. That Here Before happens to be a great collection of nice and tasteful songs is certainly a bonus.

Their typically intense, driving strumming – the one that brought them their cult-flavoured fame throughout their modest 80’s heyday – is back. It’s all very jangly this time, with the band's nervy edges polished by good production and matured songwriting, and may occasionally remind one of Tom Petty's less adventurous records (admittedly a rare thing), not least in vocal delivery. While nothing on Here Before matches the left-field magnificence of “The Boy With Perpetual Nervousness”, the album itself might well be more consistently brilliant than their classic debut Crazy Rhythms. A good song after a good song after a good song. Each with a solid vocal hook and their distinct, guitar-led instrumentation that is equally irresistible on rockers (“Time Is Right”) and ballads (title track). Having said that, the majority of the album is their typically heady mid-tempo material that will definitely please both critics and fans. And possibly some others, too.

Add to this the fact that all through the album the band sounds incredibly tight, and you’ve got a quality comeback record on your hands. Perhaps, the only thing missing is one bloody outstanding classic that would knock you off your feet. But then that is generally the way with comebacks. To quote Pete Townshend in one of his more recent interviews, “if I were to write a hit song now, I wouldn’t even know where to start” (see Endless Wire for further proof). But Here Before prevails: due to its consistency, tunefulness, style, dedication.


Wednesday, 17 August 2011

Album review: COMET GAIN - Howl Of The Lonely Crowd

Highlights: Clang Of The Concrete Swans, The Weekend Dreams, An Arcade From The Warm Rain That Falls, After Midnight, After It’s All Gone Wrong, Some Of Us Don’t Want To Be Saved

Over the years Comet Gain have kept their characteristically low profile with some admirable dedication. But their melodic, Go-Betweens-styled take on C86 has only matured and gained in terms of substance, consistency and personality. This is good. Almost 20 years in business, it is only now that they are releasing their best albums. First, City Fallen Leaves (2005), and now the long-awaited release of Howl Of The Lonely Crowd

The album is Edward Collins’ production, and it shows. Gentle or rough, the record always sounds incredibly crisp and not unlike early Orange Juice. Not in terms of music, though: musically (and I’ve already mentioned this before), Comet Gain sound like a lusher version of The Pastels with no out-of-tune singing. As ever, there are anguished, slow-burning ballads (arguably their best ever) alternated with twee-tinged punk of The Fall circa Cerebral Caustic. And not a weak tune in sight. Well, a couple of tracks do seem slightly half-baked or throwawayish (particularly towards the end), but even those have their redeeming features in short length, emotional vocals or lovely fingerpicking. Perhaps the only song I could do without is the deliberately ugly and relatively primitive punk number “Herbert Huncke Prt 2”. The rest is top-notch, catchy and smart. You haven’t heard a more memorable or gorgeous (and gorgeously  constructed) song than “Some Of Us Don’t Want To Be Saved” all year, I can assure you.

Besides the thrilling melodies, the greatest thing about Howl Of The Lonely Crowd is how confident the band sounds at this stage. And how life-affirming the vibe is (even when they sing about bathroom suicides and stuff). Just fills you with sheer mindless optimism. “Cheap desire to be” indeed.


Sunday, 14 August 2011

SONG OF THE WEEK #24: The Vandals - "Money's Not An Issue"

I’ve never been a particularly big fan of The Vandals, but few things can beat those irresistible, infectious pop-punk thrills of their best and most consistent album Hitler Bad, Vandals Good (1998).

Lyrically, “Money’s Not An Issue” (one of that album’s biggest highlights) might well be the most hilarious song ever written. But musically it’s just as good, what with its never-ending cascade of unforgettable melodies and 60’s-flavoured harmonies. Insanely catchy would be an understatement.  

Friday, 12 August 2011

Album review: ARCTIC MONKEYS - Suck It And See

Highlights: She’s Thunderstorms, Black Treacle, The Hellcat Spangled Shalalala, Reckless Serenade, Piledriver Waltz, Suck It And See

I didn’t see this coming. I didn’t see this coming at all. After three critically lauded albums of unspecified, obscure brilliance (that managed to escape me every time I played them), Arctic Monkeys release a truly excellent album full of maturity and, most importantly, good tunes. Who could have thought Alex Turner had it in him? Who could have thought that the Arctic Monkeys overhyped enterprise was not just about a bunch of smart riffs thrown together?

I will start this review by saying that I absolutely adore Turner’s vocal tone on most of these songs. It’s not that thick, cocky thing of the past. The mellower approach of Suck It And See makes him sound soulful, resonant. I’m talking about stuff like “Black Treacle” or “The Hellcat…”. But Turner’s singing wouldn’t have made that big a difference was he not on some serious songwriting roll here. You can hear distinct echoes of Bowie circa early 70’s or the psychedelic pop of the 60’s. Speaking of the latter, you would also have to consider the sheer naked naivety of the album’s lyrics (“Love Is A Laserquest”, anyone?)… But I’m willing to disregard that. For the melodic splendor of most of these songs is simply dizzying. And it all came out of nowhere. Where before on an Arctic Monkeys record could you hear anything as classic, tuneful and musically deep as “Piledriver Waltz”, whose chorus and whose dark overtones are pure irresistible genius. There are traces of their hard-rocking past, too, like on the hilarious “Brick By Brick” and “Library Pictures”. But they are few and largely effective.

There’s no unnecessary heaviness of Humbug or the exciting, but remarkably unsubstantial swagger of the first two albums – but this time you’ve got songs. And doesn’t that count for something? Here’s a band willing to grow and mature, not the commonest of things these days. So maybe they are great, after all? Maybe NME was right all along? Looks likely, for once.


Wednesday, 10 August 2011

Album review: FLEET FOXES - Helplessness Blues

Highlights: Montezuma, Sim Sala Bin, The Shrine/An Argument

Boy are they all afraid of making a mistake! All these young and hip modern indie bands. Fleet Foxes enjoyed some serious success 3 years ago with their self-titled debut, and it’s as if that success wasn’t so much soul and spirit liberating as this heavy burden tied firmly around their white and refined necks. No, they wouldn’t blow it. They would record that same record again, only less spontaneous, with different tunes and more precision.

It’s all good music, no argument here. Self-consciously gorgeous, Beach Boys-inspired indie folk songs with various degrees of catchiness. Meticulous harmonies and relatively diverse arrangements, hippie-esque vibes, lovely vocal melodies. What’s not to like? Well, nothing, really, except maybe the fact that you feel so much hard work behind these tunes and production you start missing the freshness, the spark. In fact, the only serious punch comes with the pounding section of the album's most memorable and hard-hitting performance, “The Shrine/An Argument”. The moment that reminds you that these are some real artists – willing to impress, not just please.  

I know I keep mentioning this in every second review of mine, but fucking hell: releasing a follow-up to your debut three (!) years later is indeed a sign of tragic times. Because really. There’s no artistic growth here. This is all linear development, imprisonment by style. But good style? All right: good style.


Sunday, 7 August 2011

SONG OF THE WEEK #23: The Go-Betweens - "Karen"

When it comes to The Go-Betweens, the list of great songs I have to choose from is quite endless. For here was a band with not one, but two amazing songwriters; both writing affecting, articulate pop songs, both with their own distinctive styles.

“Karen” was the b-side to their first single ever, “Lee Remick” (1978). Its memorable tune and intense performance (not least vocally – from Robert Forster) proved from the onset that this was the coming of Australia's finest band, delivering the absolute best in classic, charismatic pop music. (Interesting though that it took a girl to tell me what is behind this song...)

Saturday, 6 August 2011

On Amy Winehouse's death

I’ve no intention to sound cynical, but perhaps Amy Winehouse’s death should have been a suicide. If only to go a little bit easier on the world and these times of ours. It’s just that deaths demand explanations; suicides defy them. With suicides, well, we are at least entitled to put some part of the blame on the one who did it. After all – he had to tie the knot, load the gun, find the roof…

With Amy Winehouse – it’s like life had a choice. I remember the day I learned of Heath Ledger’s death and that desolate feeling of standing naked in the middle of the greyest, commonest street in your hometown. Filled with awkwardness and insecurity. For if all that was not an insurance, then what was? Life is unfair, okay, sleeping pills, okay, playing the Joker, okay… It still didn't add up. How come you need no crack addictions or cancers or plane crashes or freak accidents? How come you only need to be there, alive and breathing?

But again: with Amy Winehouse – it’s different, as tabloids and flashy TV reports had always been ready to testify. Tales of her self-destructive lifestyle had long overshadowed her exciting take on Motown and become ordinary, if not mundane. I myself may have many reservations when it comes to her creative output, but there’s just no denying the bright, inescapable force of nature that she was. Amid the flimsy hoards of the wimpy and the whiny here was someone with style, looks, and personality. Who, if nothing else, just kept radiating power and wonderful self-confidence… And the tragedy is that she didn’t kill herself, not quite. Someone else did, someone who had perhaps an option or two.

Yes, on the face of it, Amy Winehouse’s death could not have been more obvious or more explicable. You’ve got the reasons, you’ve seen the photos, you’ve read the stories; she had certainly done her share to justify the sticky outcome. And still there’s something about the whole thing that just feels wrong and makes an old atheist raise his face to the sky and ask “why?” Something that will make you think of Heath Ledger, totally against the logic. This something is age, the only thing we haven’t quite learned to defy or reconcile with.

Friday, 5 August 2011

Album review: R.E.M. - Collapse Into Now

Highlights: Discoverer, All The Best, Walk It Back, Me, Marlon Brando, Marlon Brando And I

Several lapses aside (who can forget the silly rapping on the otherwise brilliant “Radio Song” or the mess and patchiness of Monster?), R.E.M. have always had a great deal of taste to them. Even if on a couple of occasions taste was the only thing they had to fall back upon (the largely tedious and tired excuses like Reveal and Around The Sun)… But even during their worst and most uneventful years there was a feeling they only had to try, put a bit more of that heart into it.

And the harsh, punkish Accelerate from 2008 managed to confirm that feeling: suddenly R.E.M. sounded as involved, exciting and gutsy as during their Document phase. Collapse Into Now, for its part, is a much more balanced, settled affair. And it’s even better. Maybe Michael Stipe didn’t grace the album with great lyrics, but the tunes are mostly clever and memorable. Then there are all these tasteful jangly guitars of Peter Buck that can always make a song better than it really is. For instance, there is nothing particularly exceptional about lovely, introspective tracks like “Oh My Heart”, but Buck’s playing is simply too joyful to be ignored. In fact, Collapse Into Now is quite big on the band’s softer, mellower side, what with all these ballads occupying the larger sections of the record. But there’s not a misfire anywhere in sight, the poignant melody of “Me, Marlon Brando…” being especially strong.

This is what I want my late-period R.E.M. to sound like. Collapse Into Now has maturity and spark. What’s there to say? I want them to go on and keep releasing records this good. If only to “show the kids how to do it fine…”