Wednesday, 30 November 2011

Album review: KATE BUSH - 50 Words For Snow

Highlights: Snowflakes, Misty, Wild Man

When I was writing my review of Director’s Cut half a year ago, I had a sad but insistent feeling that I wouldn’t have to write about a new album by Kate Bush for five, ten years at least. But then of course: technically, Director’s Cut wasn’t even a new album in the true sense of the word. So however unexpected, the release of 50 Words For Snow wasn’t all that shocking.

Out of all Kate’s albums, 50 Words For Snow is by far the least immediate. The long-winded, elaborate, wintry songs are not exactly what one would crack over the course of one or two listens. It’s all mature, somber stuff that demands time and patience – like true art should. Hooks are there; vocal and instrumental, they will keep seeping through your mind with all those slow, delicate piano lines and Kate’s deep, intricate voice.  

“Snowflakes”. A duet with her son (who sounds a lot like her) Stately piano and brilliantly evocative lyrics.

“Lake Tahoe”. Easily the weakest, most over-worked song here. And the tune is a little too vague. Still, the chilling atmosphere and Kate’s perfectionism make it a totally singular experience.

“Misty”. The longest song here (more than 13 minutes), “Misty” is both enigmatic and enchanting. The lyrics are a sexual fantasy that involves a woman and a snowman, which is a whim only Kate Bush could pull off so gracefully.

“Wild Man”. The single. This one’s an instantly memorable, beautiful ode to the Yeti. Based on a terrific synthesizer riff, it’s both ominous and touching.  

“Snowed In At Wheeler Street”. A duet with… Elton John. God, I wish I didn’t have to say this, but aren’t the lyrics a little bit pedestrian? And it all sounds terrific when Kate sings her part, but Elton John just doesn’t have the edge that a Kate Bush record demands. The melody is good, though. Simple yet hard-hitting.

“50 Words For Snow”. And yet another duet, this one is a particularly unlikely one – with Stephen Fry. But then Stephen doesn’t even sing anything, he just narrates… well, 50 different words for snow. It’s charming and deeply addictive, even if musically the song offers very little in terms of variation.

“Among Angels”. Almost brief (just short of 7 minutes!), this is a fitting close to the whole thing. We are back in “Misty”/”Snowflakes” territory: piano-based, haunting, atmospheric.

Listening to 50 Words For Snow is certainly one special experience. So cold, distant and yet so passionate and engaging, you just know you won’t find it anywhere else. So much thought, so much craft, so much artistic imagination inside these 7 songs, it beguiles and mystifies even when the material isn’t too strong. 50 Words For Snow hasn’t overwhelmed me yet, but there’s a feeling that presently I’m not even halfway through with this thing.  


Wednesday, 23 November 2011

Album review: THE LADYBUG TRANSISTOR - Clutching Stems

Highlights: Clutching Stems, Light On The Narrow Gauge, Breaking Up On The Beat

Clutching Stems is certainly one of the lesser indie-pop records of 2011, but that’s not saying it’s weak or anything. It’s just ridiculously, almost painstakingly understated, and if you don’t listen closely, there’s a great chance it will pass you by completely. If you do hang on to it, though, you’ll start noticing refined, well-written melodies and exquisite, heartfelt hooks that the band has always been so good at.

It’s interesting that The Ladybug Transistor is sometimes compared to The Go-Betweens. While I think I see where that comes from (there’s this unmistakable poetic tunefulness running through all their records), it also reveals The LB’s main deficiency: lack of charisma. Because no amount of beautiful tunes can infuse your music with the kind of personality those two Australians had (Forster still has it, of course). But then again: if you enjoy Clutching Stems for what it’s worth, you’ll hear worthy, tasteful songwriting that will keep disclosing its understated, unobtrusive power with each new listen. The instrumentation is as lovely as ever: cozy acoustic guitars, clever piano/keyboard/organ lines, occasional brass. Nothing jumps out, but gentle, lilting songs like “Breaking Up On The Beat” are catchy in a most classic indie-pop, slightly twee way.  

Several listens into this album, I can safely state that the band hasn’t lost any of its pop sensibilities: it’s just that these sensibilities have been toned down, made less palpable (The Albemarle Sound, their best album, was a lot more immediate). Charm over edge occasionally, true, but as long as it's clutching 'stems' and not 'at straws' - I'm fine.


Sunday, 20 November 2011

SONG OF THE WEEK #37: Donovan - "Sunny Goodge Street"

Another all-time favourite of mine, Donovan's "Sunny Goodge Street" is one of the most exquisite and evocative 60's pop singles (released in 1965). The song has this brilliant jazzy vibe, gorgeously laid-back vocal delivery and a melody that is both timeless and mysteriously moving. 

Friday, 18 November 2011

Album review: MARY HAMPTON - Folly

Highlights: The Man Behind The Rhododendron, Benjamin Bowmaneer, Forget-me-not, Honey In The Rock

Brighton’s Mary Hampton is an idiosyncratic singer-songwriter whose take on folk music is edgy, mysterious and even somewhat unsettling . Folly, her second LP, sounds like a collection of pretty but disturbing lullabies steeped into traditional English ballads.

Mary’s first album proper, My Mother’s Children, was an unlikely and unjustly overlooked classic, and Folly seems a logical continuation of that sound. It’s been 3 years, and it’s only 8 songs – and still, it doesn’t sound like laziness. More like thought and craft. And the more I listen to Folly, the more thought and craft there is to it. Behind her slightly childish, high-pitched vocals, haunted moods and haunted piano chords, there are amazingly charismatic performances of amazingly eerie and beautiful songs. When you’re dealing with this kind of songwriting, it’s mostly about weird hooks than catchy melodies, but I could swear the opening song, “The Man Behind Rhododendron”, has a truly lovely tune I can imagine one singing along to. It gradually gets more odd from there, though.

The atmosphere is that of darkness – but darkness of a gorgeous, non-scary, otherworldly sort. In fact, Folly would have been almost unbearably otherworldly – were it not for something whimsical about Mary’s songs. Best suited for quiet, stately, late-night listens in headphones, Folly is for those who like their folk music with a twist.


Wednesday, 16 November 2011

Album review: THEA GILMORE & SANDY DENNY - Don't Stop Singing

Highlights: Frozen Time, Goodnight, London

This is the second album I’m reviewing this year that is based on original music and ‘borrowed’ lyrics. Only whereas Mike Scott of The Waterboys took his inspiration from a modernist poet, Thea Gilmore had a somewhat easier task: after all, British folk legend Sandy Denny obviously shaped these lyrics with chords in mind. As you would expect, Thea Gilmore does a fine job here: she makes these songs sound like her usual brand of contemporary folk – but occasionally with that unmistakably English, traditional feel.

Needless to say, these lyrics and these melodies blend like milk and honey, and most of these tunes could be easily mistaken for Gilmore’s own. Brooding, gorgeous, melodic songs like “Frozen Time” and “Long Time Gone” wouldn’t have been out of place on Avalanche or Harpo’s Ghost, and it’s only when the Fairport Convention spirit/instrumentation kicks in (“London” is particularly noteworthy here) that you start noticing Denny’s presence. It’s all done with great love and taste, and even though the record’s second side is slightly underwhelming (tracks like “Sailor” are a little too vague musically), Don’t Stop Singing is as cozy and profound as a warm summer night – good to have it in the middle of November.

While starting out as a serious songwriter in mid-60’s, Lou Reed often asked Andy Warhol to give him a couple of lines so as to build a song around them. That so many classics were written that way is a testimony to Reed’s great talent. And this is something I can see here: an artist finding her voice amid someone else’s images and ideas. Her first album this year was a pretty straight-faced album of covers (John Wesley Harding), but this is something different and, in the long run, more satisfying.


Sunday, 13 November 2011

SONG OF THE WEEK #36: Keith Relf - "Mr Zero"

"Mr Zero", Keith Relf's 1966 single, made a truly profound impact on me when I was 15 or 16, and each time I hear it now - it brings on a special kind of feeling. An evocative waltzy tune sung in that deeply soulful voice, the song is both wistful and mysterious. A forgotten classic.

Friday, 11 November 2011

Album review: MAGAZINE - No Thyself

Highlights: Do The Meaning, Hello Mister Curtis (With Apologies), Of Course Howard (1979), The Burden Of A Song

Fortunately, with No Thyself, Magazine’s first album in 3 (!) decades, Howard Devoto is back to his peculiar, inventive best. It’s still Kafka after all these years. I wouldn’t say the album is quite on par with the band’s classic debut from 1978 (Real Life - one of my favourite albums ever), but it is certainly better than Magic, Murder, And The Weather.

Adventurous arrangements, off-kilter melodies, unlikely hooks, pretentious lyrics, paranoid atmosphere and Devoto’s edgy vocals (he sounds like a neurotic version of Bryan Ferry) make No Thyself everything a Magazine fan could ever wish. Speaking of the lyrics, you’ve got to admit: it’s not too often that you encounter lyrics as disturbing as the ones you hear in the funky single “Hello Mister Curtis” (‘Hello Mr Curtis, hello Mr Cobain; you are so much braver than me; so do it again, so do it again, so do it again…’. Huh?..). I guess there are parts here one could consider catchy (i.e. the chorus of “The Burden Of A Song”), but overall it’s way too artsy and atmospheric to be bothered about something as earthy and obvious as that. Still, Devoto has always known how to make artsiness appealing (his specialty): there is a seemingly endless supply of hooks that are as creative as they are bizarre.

Take a song like “Of Course Howard”. Explaining its appeal would be pointless and would likely cause a bad headache, but this might be the biggest thing about No Thyself  (and, indeed, Magazine): it gives you sensations you won’t get anywhere else. Dark, claustrophobic – yes, but, much like a Kafka book, incredibly powerful and oddly cathartic.


Wednesday, 9 November 2011

Album review: THE STRANGE BOYS - Live Music

Highlights: Me And You, Punk’s Pajamas, Hidden Meanings

If things like indie-rock and indie-folk  seem barely enough, how about such novelties as indie-blues and indie-country (not to be confused with I do of course realise that those kinds of ‘genres’ might seem somewhat far-fetched, but this is my only chance of pigeonholing whatever it is that The Strange Boys are doing here.

My knowledge of the band is pretty scarce. The Strange Boys are a Texas-based garage rock band that specializes in a particularly slapdash, ramshackle take on the 60’s. And, as far as I can gather, Live Music is their most settled down, mellow affair so far. It’s still fairly all over the place, and you can feel that they don’t take themselves too seriously, but it’s precisely those things that make this music so charming. The melodies are lovely, whimsical and relatively easy on the ear, but it’s the vocals issue that has to be addressed here. The vocalist of The Strange Boys sounds like a particularly whiny, bleating version of Pete Doherty. Apparently there are lots of less promising descriptions, but you’d really have to be a fan of this kind of stuff to get through to track 14 in one listen with no headache, curse words or at least some distant feeling of annoyance. The piano-based, classic-sounding opener, “Me And You”, has the best tune, but I absolutely adore the brief and bluesy “Right Before”, the catchy and upbeat “Punk’s Pajamas”. Though admittedly some of their music comes off terribly muffled and inarticulate – particularly slower songs like “You And Me” and “Saddest”.  

You can hear they are having fun, and as long as they are not too self-indulgent, why complain? Occasionally Live Music sounds half-baked. Occasionally it seems like the whole thing is on the verge of falling apart. But it never really does fall apart, and for all its hit-and-miss nature, you do feel intrigued and rewarded. Not the highest of sevens, but I can see no other rating here.


Sunday, 6 November 2011

SONG OF THE WEEK #35: Whipping Boy - "When We Were Young"

Whipping Boy, one of Ireland's all-time best, have already appeared on these pages (in my Best Irish Albums feature). But they so clearly deserve a song of the week, too. "When We Were Young" is taken from their undisputed masterpiece, Heartworm (1995), an album of such craft and emotional power that it can almost leave cuts, scars and bruises. Musically, the song itself is an intense, anthemic rocker that U2 could never even dream of. Lyrically, this is pretty much untouchable. One of the best, most hard-hitting songs ever written about youth. "Nobody had a past that catches up on you..." And don't even get me started on that last verse.  

Friday, 4 November 2011

Album review: TOM WAITS - Bad As Me

Highlights: Pay Me, Bad As Me, Last Leaf, Hell Broke Luce, New Year’s Eve

There’s something both comforting and disconcerting about the fact that there are artists who reach this certain level where it doesn’t really matter anymore what anyone thinks about them or their art. There’s a default understanding that Tom Waits is a national treasure, this idiosyncratic genius, this oddball troubadour – so who fucking cares? 5 out 5 and 10 out of 10, next please. While it is inevitable, and Tom Waits has no doubt deserved all this blind admiration, it has a tendency to have a disruptive influence on one’s art.

Bad As Me is one of Waits’ smoothest, most polished albums ever. It’s still pretty rough, of course, musically, lyrically and vocally, but in terms of adventurousness and nerve the production is at its slickest. With his influences (Captain Beefheart, William Burroughs, Harry Partch) and his unfading charisma, he is of course in no danger of losing his edge any time soon, but there might be some signs of settling down in songs as unexceptionally good as “Chicago” or, say, “Back In The Crowd”. But when Tom Waits hits it, he can still hit it pretty hard: the uproaring, thunderous numbers like “Bad As Me” and especially the evocative anti-war screamer “Hell Broke Luce” are as gutsy and colourful as anything on Real Gone. The diversity of instrumentation is pretty wild, but for me Tom is at his most effective here when backed by guitar and accordion on the chillingly melodic and gloriously sad “Pay Me” that should take its rightful place among such Waits classics as “In The Neighborhood” and “Cold Cold Ground”.   

Also, however beautiful “New Year’s Eve” is, “Last Leaf” should have been the last song here. Lyrically, this bare-bones anthemic ballad finds Waits at his most personal and emotional. ‘Last leaf’ he truly is, even though he shouldn’t really think about it too much. He probably won't, and Bad As Me is still a terrific record, one of the year’s most compelling listens – even if there’s a feeling that Tom Waits isn’t quite bad enough here.


Wednesday, 2 November 2011

Album review: SOUTHERN TENANT FOLK UNION - Pencaitland

Highlights: If You’ve Got The Heart, The Rights And Interests Of The Labouring Man, Labour Season

While I have nothing against modern folk artists like Laura Marling or Mumford & Sons, their music seems too compromised, too hipped-up, too safe and polished. Folk should come with a little more roughness and edge. That is why I’m more drawn to people like Mary Hampton (whose newest, Folly, is well worth checking out) and Johnny Flynn (mostly his terrific first album, A Larum). Southern Tenant Folk Union seem to work for me, too, with their addictive, authentic take on bluegrass and pub music that so expertly combines raggedness and beauty.

Southern Tenant Folk Union come from Edinburgh, and they’ve been around for some time now – the inconspicuously released Pencaitland happens to be the band’s fourth LP. On the face of it, there’s little here that distinguishes them from hundreds of others playing this kind of music: same mandolins, same fiddles and same obligatory but not overly exciting instrumentals. But the level of songwriting is, while not particularly outstanding, high enough. The songs I singled out (see highlights above) are all stellar, gutsy folk compositions – with the lazy, memorable “Labour Season” being my personal favourite. Plus, they do a fine upbeat interpretation of a Yeats poem, “An Irish Airman Foresees His Death”. The Waterboys they are not, obviously, but a good, healthy dose of literacy surely won’t hurt.

Sure, bands like this can only reveal their full power and glory in a live performance, but Pencaitland still has enough energy and tunes to warrant an engaging, rewarding listen. A fairly straightforward, but superior folk album.