Sunday, 30 October 2011

SONG OF THE WEEK #34: Bert Jansch - "Angie"

This is a kind of belated tribute (Bert died on October, 5th), but this was coming. I'd admit to never being a particulalry big fan, and I struggle to remember when it was last that I played my Pentangle records, but every time I happen to hear Bert playing his guitar, I tend to wonder what it is that holds me back. Perhaps the fear of overexposure, that blinding subtlety - the kind you wish to preserve?..
If you're new to Bert Jansch, then I'd be hard pressed to come up with a better, more fitting introduction to the man than this recent live rendition of his classic instrumental "Angie" (originally on his essential eponymous 1965 debut). It's exquisite, it's understated, and it's inescapably beautiful.

Friday, 28 October 2011

Album review: VERONICA FALLS - Veronica Falls

Highlights: Found Love In A Graveyard, The Fountain, Bad Feeling

There’s only so much indie one can stomach throughout one year, and these past few months I’ve binned a lot (stuff like Real Estate’s well-written but frustratingly uninspired Days, for instance). This time, though, I listened up. For the London-based Veronica Falls have seemingly done their jangly, twee-pop homework a little better than others. They are hip all right, but they’ve got substance, too.

Perhaps the biggest attraction here is the tasteful and intense guitar sound that combines the rhythmic swagger of The Feelies with the darker Pixies overtones. And it does sound amazing: jangly, rockabilly, grungy parts. In terms of songwriting, they are closer to bands like The Pastels - only more polished, lacking in that crucial extra dimension that could make Veronica Falls a truly timeless album. But then timelessness is not something indie rock is so concerned with. After all, indie rock is a 40-minute pop pill, it rarely lasts longer. Thus, as expected, the songwriting is the main problem. While the vocal hooks of the opening jangly goth-pop epic or, say, "Bad Feeling", are convincing enough, the record’s second side is effort over ease.

However lovely and ingratiating its melody may sound, a song like “Stephen” is fairly routine twee pop, but those guitar lines, that opening bass (even though I’m certain it’s ripped off from some Doolittle song whose name escapes me at the moment)? Or the sheer surfing bliss of the guitar swinging its way through “All Eyes On You”? For the moment, those things lift Veronica Falls above hundreds and hundreds of their peers. Time will tell about the rest.   


Book review: SUCCESS by Martin Amis

In 1978, and I’ve already mentioned it, Martin Amis was charismatic but in the grand scheme of things still anonymous – even despite the huge critical success his first two novels had generated. However serious the subject matter, Amis’ third novel is still pretty much a work of his colourful, brilliantly immature early period. Next would be Other People – a more thoughtful, complete, fully fledged novel, and the one that paved the way for Amis’ golden years as one of the leading (and, naturally, controversial) British postmodernists.

As was the case with The Rachel Papers and Dead Babies, the thing to admire about Amis’ early novels is the sheer youthful confidence and self-belief running through them. Despite the edgy Doppelganger-style narration, Success is among Amis’ most straightforward, one could even say traditional stories – whose twist in the tail is the one you’ve been expecting all along. The short novel is divided into 24 chapters – 12 months multiplied by two rather unreliable narrators, the arrogant and (possibly) handsome Gregory Riding and his plain and clumsy foster brother Terence Service. Martin Amis has noted that it reveals a lot about an author – the amount of effort he puts into inventing the names of his characters. And it is indeed quite revealing, because frankly - I don’t imagine he took much trouble this time, the whole thing (plot, names, etc.) being so blunt and so raw. It’s of course amusing to keep noticing all those discrepancies between Terence’s and Gregory’s accounts of the very same events, and Amis’ brutal black humour, his situational and linguistic witticisms are ever-present, but Success still comes off as rather too hookless and predictable. This aforementioned crudeness, this lack of subtlety could be the reason why the novel hasn’t dated so well. You get it all way too early – not something one would expect from a Martin Amis novel.   

Success is a cruel and undoubtedly quite effective satire on, well, success. Its fickle nature and merciless ways. But I can’t get rid of a feeling that the book is a lot more effective in revealing that in 1978 Amis’ writing was still somewhat sloppy and underdeveloped. Yes, everything's already in place: the style, the witty sex jokes, the dramatic finale. But Success is oddly tame - an apprentice job, however capable and smart. One could of course make a point that he never lost it, this youthful sloppiness, – neither in his style nor in his plots. But by this point he hadn’t quite figured out how to use it for his benefit – as well as ours.


Wednesday, 26 October 2011


Highlights: Dream On, The Death Of You And Me, AKA… Broken Arrow

At some point, and it seems like it happened a while ago, Noel Gallagher became the whipping boy of British rock music. Certainly this LP will get lots of bad press from American and, naturally, UK media (oh but it’s not Definitely Maybe, man, we’ve had it before – but better), and I admit it’s extremely tempting to be sarcastic and even derisive when writing a Gallagher review (especially if you consider the fact that “The Death Of You And Me” sounds so much like “The Importance Of Being Idle”), but let’s be honest: praising Definitely Maybe and Morning Glory and slamming Noel Gallagher’s High Flying Birds is just far-fetched.  

Basically, Noel has written more or less the same batch of songs for every album of his – granted, there were (often) different tunes and (occasionally) different arrangements, but overall the diminishing returns trajectory has always been very relative. Funnily enough, NME earnestly stated in their surprisingly positive review that some of these songs sound very much like Oasis. Huh? The whole thing sounds like Oasis – every chord progression, every vocal intonation, every guitar solo and every hook. Sometimes for better, sometimes for worse. For instance, the soaring and empty “Stop The Clocks” (an Oasis leftover) is expendable, as is “Record Machine” and a few others, but the majority of the album is addictive, well-written and almost numbingly catchy (“Dream On” (aka “The Importance Of Being Idle pt.3”) and the acoustic guitar-based “Broken Arrow” are particularly unforgettable). Nothing to discuss arrangement-, instrumentation- or production-wise (just what you’d expect), but a few gloriously overblown guitar solos are there.

The verdict: Beady Eye win it in terms of energy and overall excitement, but Noel still has more edge as a songwriter than Liam and Co could ever hope to be. There are some obvious clunkers here, but the bulk of this record is good, driving, in-your-face, Oasis-worthy material. It should be mentioned, though, that the album would have definitely benefited were it a collection of ten new songs – rather than an obvious ‘fuck you’ note to Liam.

(The rating should be 6, but I’ve already given it to Beady Eye, so…)


Tuesday, 25 October 2011

Placement of stereo speakers

There’s something truly deplorable about this modern fixation with ‘quality’. And I don’t mean quality as opposed to quantity – I’m talking about the medium by way of which this quality/quantity is transmitted.

There are golden super deluxe editions to be released (Rufus Wainwright’s latest box set is leather-clad, no less), bass guitar to be enhanced, guitars overdubbed, remasters remastered, and – of course! – a new sumptuous set of headphones to be bought. Nothing too bad per se, but there’s something to Luke Haines’ recent remark about a good song being the same good song on a luxurious platinum CD reissue or a scratchy vinyl or even a floppy disc.

You know something has gone wrong when a young girl who’s into German techno starts complaining about the sound quality of her new ipod. And it is actually immaterial whether it is German techno, Mozart or maybe The Rolling Stones. It’s of course nice to get a good quality record, be it a physical or a digital copy, and obviously we all want that, but the A.D.D. generation gets distracted so easily they might end up forgetting what it was all about.

“The ear, too, must be trained, - as Woody Allen wrote in Getting Even, - for it is our most easily deceived organ and can be made to think it is a nose by bad placement of stereo speakers”.

Sunday, 23 October 2011

SONG OF THE WEEK #33: Pete Astor - "Dunce"

On his excellent new album Pete Astor sounds like a cross between a better-singing Leonard Cohen and a more cheerful Luke Haines - certainly not a bad thing. Songbox is a simple but great collection of eleven simple but great songs; and if it's songwriting you are after (like you should be), this one's a must.
The album being so even, it's hard to choose a favourite, but "Dunce" might well be the standout - with its bittersweet melody and charming, heartfelt singing.

Friday, 21 October 2011

Album review: FIONN REGAN - 100 Acres Of Sycamore

Highlights: 100 Acres Of Sycamore, The Lake District, For A Nightingale, 1st Day Of May

It strikes me how people can get all wet about Bon Iver (whose latest is so bland and washed-out it barely exists) and never hear or care about someone like Fionn Regan. But then there’s nothing hip, beardie or neo-folkie-like about this man – just plenty of class and masterful, truly timeless sounding songs.

Fionn comes from Ireland, and his folk music is explicitly cold, desolate, but with a great touch of poignant melancholia and beauty. With song titles like “Woodberry Cemetery” and lyrics like “there’ll be hell to pay in heaven”, it’s all extremely evocative, moody and romantic – strongly reminiscent of Nick Drake in terms of atmosphere and elegant, Bryter Layter-style orchestration. But by far the best thing about 100 Acres Of Sycamore is how it keeps revealing itself with time – all those beautiful piano and guitar lines, understated melodies, gorgeous vocal tones.

I’ve gone a long way with one – from thinking it’s a nice little autumnal record to actually considering it a nice little modern-day folk classic. Even if there’s so little ‘modern-day’ about it.


Wednesday, 19 October 2011

Album review: LINDSEY BUCKINGHAM - Seeds We Sow

Highlights: Seeds We Sow, That’s The Way That Love Goes, Rock Away Blind, One Take

It’s too easy not to care about a new Lindsey Buckingham album in 2011. After all, his best and most productive years were during Fleetwood Mac’s golden period of 70’s and 80’s, and his solo records, while clever and sweet, could not be called particularly impressive. But almost against all odds – Seeds We Sow might well be a little cleverer and sweeter than others.

First of all, the songs are extremely well-written. There’s a full-blown, irresistibly catchy chorus when you need it (the short and funky “Illumination”; the hard-rocking “One Take”; or the brilliant, uplifting “That’s The Way That Love Goes”), there are more subtle, understated moments (“Stars Are Crazy”; a great cover of Stones’ “She Smiled Sweetly”). There’s a couple of adult-contemporary, tired-sounding ballads (“When She Comes Down”, “End Of Times”), but songs as timeless and majestic as “Rock Away Blind” with its fluent, crisp guitar playing can certainly salvage a lot. And speaking of Lindsey’s guitar – it’s as tasteful and intricate as ever.

There’s a sparkling, inspired tunefulness running through this thing, and it has to be cherished. Seeds We Sow does of course lack the formidable commercial appeal of, say, Rumours, but artistically and musically this new album is an absolute triumph.


Sunday, 16 October 2011

SONG OF THE WEEK #32: Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds - "West Country Girl"

"West Country Girl" appeared on Cave's anguished, beautiful album The Boatman's Call (1997), and with its brevity and oddly 'Eastern' violin (played, naturally, by Warren Ellis) it so clearly stood apart from the epic, piano-led rest.  
This stylish, B&W video was shot, inexplicably, by MTV. A great version of a great song.

Friday, 7 October 2011

Album review: DRUGSTORE - Anatomy

Highlights: Can’t Stop Me Now, Aquamarine, Standing Still, Falling Rocks

Anatomy by a little known London-based band Drugstore is the kind brilliant and obscure jewel you stumble upon quite by chance. And feel it unfair that something this masterful and well-written should be so hard to find. Because the record’s seductive autumnal sounds and understated melodies should appeal to many, from Beth Gibbons fans to those who prefer a gentler side of PJ Harvey.

The record consists of 11 finely crafted, expertly executed songs ideal for a calm late-night listening. The mood is languid, relaxed, and sometimes you can even hear pleasant waves softly splashing in the background. The songs are mostly exquisite slow-burning ballads that sound by turns haunting and disarming. The rhythm of “Blackholes & Brokenhearts” could be described as countryish, and the chorus of “Aquamarine” has some distinct Spanish vibes, but the rest of the album sounds not unlike Beth Gibbons’ 2002 moody classic Out Of Season – only this one’s a great deal lighter, less depressive. The lady’s soft, lullaby-styled vocals are terrific; the arrangements are simple yet effective – mostly crystal clear acoustic guitar with some piano and well-used, delicate orchestration thrown in.

While the record does lose me slightly towards the end (tracks like “La Brume” and “Little Prayer” have little to declare except their overall loveliness), Anatomy still leaves the impression of being a charming, understated near-classic. Anatomy is full of tender and anguished dreams - the kind you would want to explore.


Sunday, 2 October 2011

SONG OF THE WEEK #31: Brian Eno - "Driving Me Backwards"

Brian Eno's "Driving Me Backwards" (off 1973's Here Come The Warm Jets) is, in my opinion, one of the greatest songs ever written. It could be as weird as pop music gets. It has an absolutely mad piano chord progression, a maddeningly brilliant vocal melody, atmosphere of most intense paranoia, and I seriously can't think of another song that makes me want to sing along this much.
(Brilliant video, too, that goes perfectly well with the mood of the song.)