Friday, 30 September 2011

Album review: NICK LOWE - The Old Magic

Highlights: House For Sale, Sensitive Man, You Don’t Know Me At All

With a name The Old Magic, with song titles like “I Read A Lot” and with a cover like that – you know you are in for a hugely old-fashioned record. Nick Lowe, now 62, the man who was originally associated with British punk and new wave (he produced early Elvis Costello as well as the debut of The Damned), releases a collection of smooth and soothing old-time numbers that sound like a soundtrack to a romantic comedy by Woody Allen.

But apparently this is what he wants to do at this point, and it’s absolutely fine by me. The Old Magic may lack the cheeky, ambitious pop genius that was Jesus Of Cool, but this is still a profoundly good record. The sounds are jazzy, country-ish, and mostly very laid-back. Lowe’s voice is clean and clear, and it suits these stripped-down, instantly memorable melodies perfectly. It’s difficult and, frankly, quite pointless to talk about the album’s highlights, it being so even, but I did single out three (see above) that seem to have a little more edge than others.

Newcomers and hipsters shouldn’t bother. The Old Magic is for loyal followers and those who just feel nostalgic. It’s not a classic – nor needs, nor tries to be. It’s a very safe-sounding album with lovely tunes and pleasant vibes. And somehow – it seems enough.   


Wednesday, 28 September 2011

Album review: WILCO - The Whole Love

Highlights: none

That’s a ‘none’ over there and that’s a ‘seven’ down there. Which might sound controversial – except it shouldn’t. In fact, this constitutes the biggest problem of later-period Wilco: Jeff Tweedy can no longer pen a really inescapable, breathtaking classic, but he can still write an album full of consistently nice, pleasant sounding tunes. These tunes will still satisfy the fan or the loyal critic (some even called this stuff adventurous!), but they will mean little to everyone else.

In places The Whole Love sounds like Yankee Hotel Foxtrot vol.2, where the mere loveliness of the songs was compensated with that ‘edgy’ coating of electronic effects (check out the opening epic “Art Of Almost”). The only difference being, the melodies of The Whole Love are somewhat  weaker. While there’s no denying the mellow, acoustic pleasantness of tracks like “Open Mind” or, say, “Capitol City”, in the end they just come off underwhelming. It’s diet, and it’s diet Wilco. But there are painfully good moments, too, not least in the aforementioned “Art Of Almost”, the bouncy organ-driven “I Might” or the lilting title track. But there’s not a single song on The Whole Love I couldn’t live without. Anything on par with “Forget The Flowers”? “Outta Mind (Outta Sight)”? “She’s A Jar”? “Jesus Etc.”? “Theologians”? Hell no.

If Tweedy is your personal hero, and you don’t mind lowering your expectations, who knows, you might end up loving it. The Whole Love is certainly very enjoyable, and it is certainly better than their last couple of albums. But the fact remains: Jeff Tweedy should listen to the recently released comeback of The Jayhawks. He might learn something.


Sunday, 25 September 2011

SONG OF THE WEEK #30: Material Issue - "Valerie Loves Me"

Material Issue were an early 90's band whose first LP, International Pop Overthrow (1991), was a true power pop classic. Unfortunately, their later albums were seriously lacking in subtlety - even if their fine Cheap Trick-styled assault Freak City Soundtrack is considered by many their best work.
"Valerie Loves Me" opens their aforementioned Pop Overthrow album, and it's a gutsy, well-constructed, catchy offering that's full of passion, brilliant melody and that unfading teenage anguish.

Friday, 23 September 2011

Album review: THE WATERBOYS - An Appointment With Mr. Yeats

Highlights: The Hosting Of The Shee, News For The Delphic Oracle, Sweet Dancer, September 1913, Politics

The prospect of The Waterboys’ Mike Scott putting W.B.Yeats’ poetry into music would seem mouthwatering to many (I know it does to me). For Mike Scott might well be the kind of passionate, literate songwriter who could find his way around Yeats’ imagery and imagination. Thankfully, the very first chords of the opening rip-roaring “The Hosting Of The Shee” give you a resounding yes, and you know you’re in for a wild, elegant, affecting journey. This journey takes you through two forms of art that, remember, don’t often work together on a rock’n’roll record.

When it comes to arrangements, Mike Scott is a Roy Wood-type character. He has always been ready to go for as many instruments as he could lay his hands on, and make it all sound incredibly affluent and overblown. But as it is (it was) with Wood, there’s enough roughness, subtlety and edge to make it work on any level (even commercial, though I very much doubt it this time) – even when you are dealing with something as intricate and nuanced as Yeats’ poems. Take what might well be the greatest, most quintessential number on this album, “News For The Delphic Oracle”. The actual poem consists of three verses, and Scott gives each verse its own musical part, emotional substance and mood – my favourite being the central driving section that is simply ecstatic in its melody and instrumentation. There are moments of catchy pop (“Politics”), gorgeous folk (“Before The World Was Made”) and even some dramatic, operatic balladry (“Let The Earth Bear Witness”). And it’s all brimming with hooks, adventurous ideas, celtic spirit, and a most inventive mix of pianos, brass, violins…

Now that I think of it, it’s a real blessing to have a record with this much thought and imagination in 2011. And if it takes Yeats’ poetry to take Mike Scott's songwriting back to his greatest albums (Fisherman’s BluesThis Is The Sea), then so be it. An Appointment With Mr. Yeats is an absolute artistic triumph: it’s both literate and, yes, extremely passionate. And a rare case of poetry working on a rock’n’roll album.


(I’d also suggest watching this brief interview with Mr. Scott. You’d have to sit through miserable questions of two journalists who obviously don’t have a clue, but Mike does explain here a thing or two about Yeats’ poetry and its musical potential. Also, a couple of great snippets from The Waterboys’ latest live performances of An Appointment Of Mr. Yeats.)

Wednesday, 21 September 2011

Album review: BIRDENGINE - The Crooked Mile

Highlights: Phantom Limb, No Arms And No Friends, And Accidents Fell From The Sky, Make Happy

Well, technically, this album came out in 2010, so I shouldn’t really bother in the first place. But then The Crooked Mile got its proper release only this year; thus, I believe we can easily consider this a 2011 record – or that’s what I’m going to do anyway.

Birdengine is a mad-folk brainchild of a certain Lawry Joseph Tilbury, with The Crooked Mile being his second LP. The Crooked Mile is a collection of finely written, disturbing lullabies for the crazy. What lifts it above pretentious gothic obscurity these young ‘avant-folkies’ keep giving us is the great melodic menace of these tunes. Somehow beneath these creepy, eerie stories about ghosts and losing your mind hides a classic, articulate songwriter with substance and style. It’s all drenched in tasteful acoustic guitars and Tilbury’s distinctive vocals – vulnerable and heartbreaking one moment, confident and powerful the next. The melodies also have a tendency to veer from gentle, moody and slow to almost upbeat (often all that in one song).  

Some bland, atmospheric moments aside, there is nothing difficult about this stuff: for instance, the album’s undisputable high point, as well as its most full-blown song, the ominous and terrific “No Arms And No Friends”, is downright irresistible. Overall, the hooks – bizarre, classic, unpredictable – are in high supply here. A vocal melody, a clever guitar line, some brilliant accordion in the background…

The Crooked Mile is a dark, often unsettling album that is both odd, and oddly accessible.


Tuesday, 20 September 2011

What's the best "Hallelujah"?

There are numerous versions of Leonard Cohen’s classic “Hallelujah” out there – in fact, it looks like every artist with a half-decent (not necessarily, of course) voice simply had to record it at some point. Which is: unfair to Cohen, unfair to the song, unfair to us listeners. Out of a hundred or so versions I’ve heard so far, only five or six are worthy of the gorgeous, anguished brilliance of “Hallelujah”. And one of those happens to be Nick Cave’s track off No More Shall We Part – doesn’t count, obviously.

What is it that makes the song so special (besides the fact that it’s a good showcase for one’s vocal abilities)? Apparently it’s the song’s lyrics. The gloriously haunting melody is magnificent, no doubt, but it’s the decidedly non-trite lyrics that make it miles ahead of other love ballads. The lyrics of “Hallelujah” are totally devoid of clich├ęs – it’s a true work of a true poet (Cohen) who knows his way around substance, edge, and imagery. The imagery is affecting, engrossing, with the ‘cut your hair’ line being particularly priceless. It's delicate, it's highly artistic - and yet it has that amazing power to gnaw its way through any heart.

And here it is, my top 5 of the world’s greatest “Hallelujah”s:


The band that is known for its hipster take on Balkan folk music recorded a thoroughly original version of the song several years ago. What is interesting – it’s good. Interesting, because in my experience with “Hallelujah”: the more you deviate, the worse it sounds. But they succeed, against all odds.


A very well known version, of course, not least because of Shrek. It’s a terrific version – very lush and, as it often goes with Rufus, very rich-sounding.


Now definitely the great man himself doesn’t possess the greatest of voices – after all, Cohen is primarily a poet. And there are many versions where he completely butchers what might well be his greatest musical creation. But this live rendition bursts with the feeling, intimacy and understanding only he could provide.


Yeah, not number one – even if Buckley’s tortured, sweeping “Hallelujah” might well be the world's most well-known and beloved. But I love it as much as anyone, and the sheer heartbroken grandeur of his vocals never fails to nail me to my chair and make my heart beat a great deal faster than it should. 


My personal favourite version, this ends Cale’s beautiful live album Fragments Of A Rainy Season (1992). This "Hallelujah" is certainly more understated than Buckley’s, and it just happens to hit me hardest. It's simple, elegant, perfect.

Sunday, 18 September 2011

SONG OF THE WEEK #29: The Ladybug Transistor - "Meadowport Arch"

It's a mystery how a band can come up with a name like The Ladybug Transistor; but apparently this was the best they could think of. Okay, never mind - their music is good. Their music is classic, understated twee pop that might be completely lost on you if you're not patient enough. For instance, the band's latest album, this year's Clutching Stems, starts revealing its strong melodic substance on third or fourth listen at best. They've certainly grown less articulate of late. 
This one, though, called "Meadowport Arch", is among their most immediate numbers (it appeared on their masterful The Albemarle Sound album (1999)). It's a perfect, beautifully produced baroque-pop song that boasts an absolutely timeless chorus whose main strength is that it... literally comes out of nowhere. Pretty much defines 'charming'.

Friday, 16 September 2011

Album review: SARAH NIXEY - Broken Tin Soldiers

Highlights: Silk Threads, Gathering Shadows, Frost At Midnight

As expected, Sarah Nixey’s second album holds no surprises. Broken Tin Soldiers is a well-written, worthy if watered-down version of Black Box Recorder. Still, it’s good to know that she is not merely a fragile singer of dark, sophisticated pop songs (with the emphasis on ‘pop’). The level of songwriting presented here is quite good – even with no Luke Haines (and John Moore?) around.

The main problem with Nixey’s first solo record, Speak, Memory (2007), was her inability to come up with an inspired collection of tunes. With enough darkness and style but not enough edge, those songs sounded way too bland to compensate for the absence of a new Black Box Recorder album (according to Haines’ interviews, the band will never be reformed – same with The Auteurs, of course). Here, though, the edge is aplenty. Granted, there’s not a single tune here that could pass for something more than a decent BBR b-side, but let’s take it for what it’s worth: an atmospheric, gentle, tastefully arranged, dark suite of songs that retains its sinister charm from the memorable “Silk Threads” to the eerily beautiful “Frost At Midnight”.

So while there are moments where you could accuse Broken Tin Soldiers of being a little too diluted, there’s always that dark, understated melodic twist to save it from obscurity. If you ever cared for her style (or her style of singing, for that matter), there’s no reason why you would want to miss this one. It’s quite thrilling – if you pay attention.


Wednesday, 14 September 2011

Album review: THEY MIGHT BE GIANTS - Join Us

Highlights: Can’t Keep Johnny Down, Canajoharie, Celebration, When Will You Die

After a number of albums for kids (decent enough, but with fairly limited appeal), They Might Be Giants are back with a proper/‘mature’ release. As ever, Join Us is filled with their trademark nerdy pop, infectious but with that unmistakable novelty, cartoonish feel to it.

18 songs this time, and at least 7 of those will get stuck in your head for a week or two. These would include the driving, intense pop-rockers like “Can’t Keep Johnny Down” and “You Probably Get That A Lot” as well as more vocally complex melodies (the chorus of the brilliant “Canajoharie” is particularly noteworthy). There are some successful jazzy numbers and some flat out novelty moments (interestingly, I could well imagine “The Lady And The Tiger” or the slightly annoying “Dog Walker” performed by Ween). In terms of vocals/arrangements/instrumentation/lyrics, there’s virtually nothing that could distinguish Join Us from those glorious 90’s albums. A good thing, I recon – after all, a change of direction is akin to a suicide in this case. Actually, speaking of lyrics, the most memorable song has to be “When Will You Die” (could be dedicated to Belarus) – which is so full of raging, uncompromising hatred – the effect is most hilarious.

In the end, Join Us might not be as good as John Henry or Lincoln (that cover won't help either), and probably won’t make you join them if you haven’t done that yet. But a nice addition to your They Might Be Giants collection. After all, a good TMBG song is about as irresistible as this world gets.   


Sunday, 11 September 2011

SONG OF THE WEEK #28: The Triffids - "Stand Up"

At some point The Triffids were considered the greatest band of the 80's, but "Stand Up", the band's 1981 single, clearly hearkens to the good old 60's and, specifically, the early and joyful Beatles records. The song is simple (those timeless lyrics!), short and just about criminally catchy. One of the greatest songs in the whole history of pop music, no question about that.  

Friday, 9 September 2011

Album review: BILL WELLS & AIDAN MOFFAT - Everything's Getting Older

Highlights: Let’s Stop Here, A Short Song To The Moon, Ballad Of The Bastard, (If You) Keep Me In Your Heart, The Greatest Story Ever Told

Everything’s Getting Older is art of relentlessly mature, adult sort. Created by Bill Wells and Arab Strap’s Aidan Moffat, the record is a gorgeous suite of elegant melodies, bitter-sweet lyrics and vibes, and palpable, real-life emotions.

The album’s theme is, naturally, growing old, and it is conveyed with great feeling and conviction. The mood, naturally, is bleak and cheerless. Some of the songs are sung and some are narrated in Aidan’s deeply authentic Scottish accent that gives this album so much personality and charm. Everything’s Getting Older is mostly made up of haunting, stirring piano ballads/instrumentals. But even when Wells and Moffat go for something different, like on the spiky, funky “Glasgow Jubilee”, the results are largely effective (the groove in that one is almost as addictive as it gets). My bet for the best song would be the poignant, affecting “Ballad Of The Bastard” – which is both dirty and deeply, mercilessly moving.

A triumph of delicate and depressing beauty, Everything’s Getting Older is certainly a mood piece. But it’s fantastically tuneful too – a bonus you obviously can’t write off. Terrific stuff.


Wednesday, 7 September 2011

Album review: THE CROOKES - Chasing After Ghosts

Highlights: Chorus Of Fools, I Remember Moonlight

There’s no question that The Smiths are an inescapable influence on the whole British indie scene. But it looks like some bands have to get a little bit closer to the source than others. The Crookes write the kind of songs The Smiths could have written were Morrissey less depressed and Johnny Marr a merely capable guitarist. And (and this goes without saying) were they seriously lacking in memorable, articulate tunes.

Chasing After Ghosts is The Crookes’ debut, and , sadly, it commits the worst crime a debut album might commit: it’s rather boring. Where’s the punch, where are the gripping, inescapable hooks? It all gets lost amid that grey, jangly sadness of theirs. “Chorus Of Fool” is the standout, but it’s not as if it’s such a smashing classic or a potential hit single. It’s just that its lilting melody might be the album's strongest offering. I could also single out the choruses of “I Remember Moonlight” or “By The Seine”, but then... there’s nothing particularly wrong about the other songs. They are well-written, well-played and well-mumbled in that famed Morrissey-styled way. But… so what?

Intelligent, moderately catchy album. Good album. But so relentlessly NOT GREAT that you would have to wonder why anyone would seriously give a damn.


Sunday, 4 September 2011

SONG OF THE WEEK #27: Eleanor Friedberger - "Inn Of The Seventh Ray"

I’d always had a feeling Eleanor could do better and it was only her brother who kept dragging her into those jerky, Zappa-esque experiments they were (and are) making as The Fiery Furnaces. And even though their recent I’m Going Away (2009) record was The Furnaces at their poppiest and most accessible, it could not quite prepare me for Eleanor’s first solo record, Last Summer

Its second song, “Inn Of The Seventh Ray”, is memorable, beautifully arranged, and full of mystery of non-cheap sort. But it might be her soulful vocals that really make it so special.

Friday, 2 September 2011

Album review: MICK HARVEY - Sketches From The Book Of The Dead

Highlights: October Boy, The Ballad Of Jay Givens, Rhymeless, Frankie T And Frankie C, The Bells Never Rang, How Would I Leave You,

I guess if you’d worked with Nick Cave for more than 30 years, you’ll know a thing or two about death. Sketches From The Book Of The Dead is Mick Harvey’s take on Murder Ballads, and it ends up being not simply Harvey’s strongest set of tunes so far, but one of the best, most thoughtful and artistic statements of the year.

When writing about death, there’s a danger one would get carried away with atmosphere and vibe. And while that is certainly something Harvey is good at, the level of songwriting is unprecedentedly high. Plus, you’d have to consider the fact that unlike some of his previous records when Harvey was interpreting the music of Cave, Gainsbourg and others, Sketches… is all original material. The downbeat melodies are understated yet uniformly poignant, edgy, thrilling. The mood is obviously quite grim and pessimistic, but that’s a given. There’s lots of acoustic guitar and elegant piano, and it’s all sung in that low, soft voice of his. Highlights are numerous, but “Rhymeless” has to be my personal favourite. He does borrow a lot from Cave here (mood of “Sorrow’s Child”, verses of “O Children”), but I wouldn’t take it against him. With a tune so startling.

A dark, beautiful collection of death ballads that is bound to fill your head with imagery and sadness. But that’s a work of art, and Mick Harvey is not here to cure any souls.


Thursday, 1 September 2011

Book review: MIDDLESEX by Jeffrey Eugenides

“As a rule people don’t notice much”, says Cal Stephanides, the protagonist as well as the narrator of Jeffrey Eugenides’ second novel. A point one would find hard to dispute. But then it certainly isn’t something one could accuse Cal of: the strength of the book is in the detail. The detail rips through the book’s rather conventional narration (some glimpses into Cal’s Berlin future notwithstanding), and makes the whole thing so rich, full, and appealing. 

Middlesex reads like a cross between a saga, a fairytale, and a Bildungsroman. In that sense it is not unlike Salman Rushdie’s seminal Midnight’s Children. Centered around Cal/Callie, the book tells a story of a Greek family and all the numerous hardships and calamities it endures: the Greco-Turkish War, immigration, Depression, riots in Detroit... But that is hardly what gives the novel its edge: it has to be the inclusion of all those whimsical and amusing characters and situations (much like in Midnight’s Children) and, of course, the fact that it is all processed through the sharp, restless eyes of a hermaphrodite. Hence the title.

The novel came almost ten years after Eugenides’ acclaimed debut, The Virgin Suicides (1993; also a successful film by Sofia Coppola). But considering the epic aspect of the book, both quality and quantity considered, this was perhaps fully justified. When it comes to a tale of this density and proportion,  everything has to be thought through and nothing can be overlooked. But this perfectness of the plot (subplots, coincidences, etc.) isn’t in any way grating. Middlesex never seems polished or soulless; on the contrary, it makes for a thoroughly entertaining read. The focal point is the child birth, and it was anything but straightforward. Since Cal’s parents wanted their second child to be a girl, they took all scientific precautions to ensure the right sex of the child – which consisted in a carefully timed intercourse too complicated to comprehend. The trouble was Desdemona, a granite, immovable monument of a grandmother who’d never failed in predicting a child’s sex with her silver spoon (which somehow brings to mind Rushdie’s spittoon). The silver spoon, science against God and modernity against tradition, indicates it will be a boy. Naturally.

The detail I was speaking of earlier comes courtesy of the fact that a hermaphrodite has a chance of seeing a fuller, more vivid picture of the world. And in his reminiscences Cal, a girl who grew into a man, plunges into it all with lots of spirited gusto and sincerity. The downside of it is that you also have to go through numerous medical data that can enhance Middlesex’s credibility but hardly the actual enjoyment of the book.

Throughout Eugenides touches upon a number of sensitive issues: incest, child abuse, teenage sex, etc. , but there’s so much humour and warmth rushing through this thing, that it only adds a great deal of thrilling, irresistible colour to the novel. Having missed too many American novels from 2002, I’m in no position to judge whether The Pulitzer was justified (I can vouch for it being well-deserved, though), but in Middlesex Eugenides managed to create a deeply intelligent page-turner that maybe doesn’t teach us much. But does disclose what it takes to be different.