Friday, 30 March 2012

Album review: THE CHAP - We Are Nobody

Highlights: What Did We Do, We Are Nobody, Hands Free

We Are Nobody may or may not be a modern art-pop classic, but I can safely say that the second I hear that pulsating electronic beat at the start of “What Did We Do”, I’m wistfully overjoyed. A terrific feeling, and reminiscent of the one I got when I first listened to The Postal Service’s brilliant “Such Great Heights”. Electronic indie of highest quality, smart and intricate.  

While the rest of The Chap’s fifth album does not quite recapture the brilliance of its single, We Are Nobody is a consistent, thoroughly engaging listen. The opening “Rhythm King” can hardly rival Sparks’ magnificent “The Rhythm Thief”, but it sets the tone quite nicely. Songs-wise it’s all pretty even (if somewhat unspectacular on occasion), but I would just love to mention the fast, glammy “Hands Free” that is about as catchy and nonsensical as anyone will get this year. 

Still, however interesting these melodies might be, this type of music is mostly about arrangements. Speaking of which, that underpinning guitar line (well, I presume it is a guitar line) in the aforementioned “What Did We Do” is pure bliss.

I don't really know what the album cover is supposed to tell us and I’m certainly not an expert on electronic indie-pop (or whatever), but there’s no question that The Chap know how to make their beats and bass lines witty, addictive and irresistible. We Are Nobody is not exactly a classic, but I honestly can’t find anything wrong about it. High 7, low 8.


Wednesday, 28 March 2012

Album review: PAUL WELLER - Sonik Kicks

Highlights: Kling I Klang, By The Waters, When Your Garden’s Overgrown

I don’t know, I just find it so hard to look forward to a Paul Weller album. The man is not a bad songwriter, and his back catalogue, while uneven, is still impressive. Everyone needs a couple of classic Jam albums as well as a decent Style Council best-of in their collection. Now when it comes to Weller’s solo records, I always get a feeling something vital is missing. Sonik Kicks, like all of its perfectly fine predecessors, gives away the answer: what is missing is a fucking good hook.

And the problem is that you do need a good hook in your pop music, there’s simply no getting away from it. No one’s questioning Weller’s excellent taste or influence on British music scene, but sometimes it’s too hard to find inspiration behind all that effort and hard work.

Sonik Kicks is a nice little album of 14 well-written and well-produced songs. From the range of genres, styles and influences running through this thing you get the idea that Weller is in an inspired mood here. Krautrock (particularly in the opener “Green”), pub rock (the catchy “Kling I Klang”), his usual soulful balladry (“Be Happy Children”), funk (“That Dangerous Age”), a little dub (the final groove of the frankly overlong “Study In Blue”), etc. My favourite is probably “When Your Garden’s Overgrown” – which has one Weller’s best and most charming choruses in recent memory.

In truth there’s something good to be said about each and every song on Sonik Kicks. Even the two or three duller numbers actually work in the context of the album – or are perhaps saved by a brilliant bass line or lovely orchestration. Overall – good stuff. Not too impressive, but too good to ignore while it’s on. Well, as long as you can bring yourself to preferring this to another run of “Going Underground”…


Sunday, 25 March 2012

SONG OF THE WEEK #51: The Waterboys - "Be My Enemy"

I guess I love The Waterboys for that passionate, wild intelligence that Mike Scott brings into his music. Last year's An Appointment With Mr Yeats is case in point. 
"Be My Enemy" appeared on the band's first classic album, This Is The Sea (1985). An absolutely irresistible outburst of rip-roaring instrumentation, adrenaline and spite.

Friday, 23 March 2012

Album review: DODGY - Stand Upright In A Cool Place

Highlights: none – but no lowlights either

If I were to describe the songs on Stand Upright In A Cool Place in just three words, the words would be: long, plodding and well-written. Over the course of the first listen there were moments I felt so underwhelmed I just wanted to shut this thing off. But it was never that simple, because the songs are good: nice, slightly country-ish power pop things with the “power” element seriously underplayed.

Dodgy are the Britpop has-beens whose comeback, let’s face it, wasn’t exactly on our ‘anticipated’ list. After all, they were not particularly impressive even in their mid-90’s heyday – they were competent and even half-exciting, but their songwriting would never have gotten them through a more challenging time period. 90’s, Britain – with an ounce of talent and self-belief you could easily make it happen.

While there’s not a single song here that would knock you off your feet, you feel they put some considerable effort and working hours into this record. The breezy, America(the band, of course)-like beginning of the album’s opener, “Tripped And Fell” will indicate that this is going to be a tasteful, melodic affair. But even for all the lovely little intricacies in the arrangements, there comes a point when you just wish them to dump all their schoolboy diligence and politeness and put some rip-roaring spark into the whole thing. The trouble is, they can’t do that. The problem with all these Britpop has-beens is total lack of charisma.

However, it’s hard to be cruel to Dodgy. They clearly did all they could with their talent and their self-belief. Yes, with most of the songs exceeding the 4-minute mark, Stand Upright... will hardly satisfy anyone other than the loyal fan (and in Dodgy’s case – it has to be a really loyal one), but you can’t deny their mellow hooks or the band’s incredible dedication. For those things I’m giving this one a strong 6.


Wednesday, 21 March 2012

Album review: ANDREW BIRD - Break It Yourself

Highlights: Give It Away, Eyeoneye, Lazy Projector, Sifters

The best thing about Andrew Bird’s albums (latest in any case) is that they feel like a true musical journey. There’s something in that scope, that subtle diversity, that intricate instrumentation that makes the songs on Break It Yourself inhabit their own special world. Somewhat whimsical and almost self-consciously tasteful and sophisticated – but always incredibly addictive and compelling.

Beautiful stuff – as long as you get past that cynical stage where you consider these songs boring, samey, monotonous. Maybe all it takes is an extra effort to acknowledge the resonance of Andrew’s voice and discover the understated, fragile brilliance of these melodies. But it’s all in there, amid the gentle fingerpicking of guitars, delicate violins, whistles, exquisite sound effects, etc. I wouldn’t say there’s any prevailing mood here, but the fact that the albums feels so different (you could even say sprawling) is certainly a bonus.

14 tracks this time, including 3 instrumentals. And the more I listen to Break It Yourself, the more charm these songs reveal. The tropical, free-floating, Astral Weeks-like loveliness of “Danse Carribe”, the bluesy, lazy charm of “Lazy Projector”, the ecstatic toe-tapping cheerfulness of “Give It Away”, the poetic, expressive folksiness of “Sifters” (which greatly reminded me of Johnny Flynn’s amazing debut from 2008). There’s probably just one song here that hasn’t won me over yet – sadly, it’s also the record’s longest track, the 8-minute long atmospheric, violin-based ballad called “Hole In The Ocean Floor”. There’s something quite lovely going on there, obviously, but it’s all too watery and uneventful.

But overall it’s another quiet, seemingly unassuming triumph from Mr Bird. No, Break It Yourself doesn’t quite reach the songwriting heights of his 2005 indie masterwork, The Mysterious Production Of Eggs, but all the same: it’s a clear contender for that inevitable end of year list.


Monday, 19 March 2012

Book review: HOUSE OF MEETINGS (2006) by Martin Amis

Well, of course, the general rule would be to stay away from Western books dealing with Eastern issues. Particularly when the issues are as sensitive as war, gulag, Stalin’s regime, etc. I was wary, obviously. In fact, I only got into House of Meetings after all the others had long been read – or reread. And that, yes, that includes Yellow Dog.

But of course House of Meetings is better than Yellow Dog, even though I have a feeling that the critical response would have been a lot tougher had it not been for the heavy artistic flop that was the 2003 novel (and I of course completely dismiss Amis’s forced claims that he considers Yellow Dog one of his three of four best books – that’s just ridiculous). House of Meetings is a good little novel. Not overwhelmingly good, and by Amis’s past standards it’s a mere trifle – but what a compelling, thoughtfully conceived and exquisitely crafted trifle it is.

I don’t really know how it is for an Englishman, but I guess what I was looking for as I was going through the novel – was a different, Westernized, ‘corrupted’ angle on the things that have long looked kind of monochrome to me. So the insights are actually pretty exciting – Amis cleverly calling Chechnya ‘organically insane’, Amis on those classic Russian novels (where each chapter begins with a family story), Amis presenting a roundup of national traits (all negative, but here you’d have to consider the twisted, broken morality of the book’s main character):

- ‘freedom from all responsibility and scruple’

- ‘the energetic championship of views and beliefs that are not only irreconcilable but also mutually exclusive’

- ‘the weakness for a humour of squalor and cynicism’

- ‘the tendency to speak most passionately when being most insincere’

-‘ thirst for abstract argument - abstract to the point of pretention at unlikely moments (in the middle of a prison stampede, at the climax of a cholera riot, in the most sepulchral phase of a terror famine)’.

I think I would find it impossible to disagree with any of those.

A couple of words about the plot. The novel is presented in the form of a memoir written by a former inmate of an Arctic gulag (the person who now, we understand, is an American citizen). But it’s not even the camp miseries that are at the heart of House of Meetings (the book is certainly not as bleak or desperately detailed as a Solzhenitsyn novel). It’s more about a peculiar love triangle of the narrator, his brother and a rather salacious Jewish girl named Zoya. The triangle that is filtered through the biting and bitter experience of Stalin’s rule (it’s worth mentioning that back in 2002 Amis had a book on Stalin’s Russia, titled Koba the Dread: Laughter and The Twenty Million – the one that caused some fiery arguments between Amis and Christopher Hitchens). The bitterness that in a completely twisted, perverted way makes the book’s fictional author look on the bright side at the end of the novel – and, typical Amis here, enjoy the image of his homeland dying.

At just under 200 pages, House of Meetings is one of Amis’s shorter novels. Think Time’s Arrow in terms of the theme and overall atmosphere; think Night Train in terms of presentation. Also, lacking his usual postmodern mind games and oddball witticisms (well, plenty of those, of course, but not nearly as oddball as before), House of Meetings is also one of his more accessible and, dare I say it, more straightforward creations. Which in a way makes its impact even more powerful and emotional. You feel the unfathomable, boundless anguish writhing inside the narrator; lost chances he never had. “They not only took our youth away, he writes, they also took away the men we were going to be”. Words all the more poignant when coming from a fucking Westerner who doesn’t have a fucking clue.


Sunday, 18 March 2012

SONG OF THE WEEK #50: The Pastels - "Ditch The Fool"

I've so many times mentioned these lovely c-86 Glaswegians on these here pages that it's probably time to include their song on this Song of the Week list. Number 50 will do nicely. 
The Pastels have often been labelled/dismissed as twee, but that would be oversimplifying it. They were many other things, too. "Ditch The Fool" is their classic noise-pop epic off 1989's Sittin' Pretty. Featuring all that unmistakable teenage anguish and desperation, the song is both intense and strangely enigmatic.   

Friday, 16 March 2012

Album review: THE MENZINGERS - On The Impossible Past

Highlights: Good Things, Burn After Writing, The Obituaries, Nice Things, Freedom Bridge

Once in a while we all need a record like On The Impossible Past in our lives. Swaggering attitude, catchy, anthemic tunes, a true riot of juicy, tastefully distorted guitars. The Menzingers’ third is a flawless collection of prime, propulsive, punkish energy. Irresistible.

And here’s the catch: it’s not dumb. It’s your angry, desperate punk anthems with rousing choruses and power chords – but it’s not dumb. It may seem that on occasion, it probably tries to be that on some of these songs (the beautiful chorus of “The Obituaries” goes like this: “I will fuck this up, I fucking know it!..”), but you get the impression that On The Impossible Past is a thinking man’s punk rock album. It’s smart – and quite possibly as subtle as you are ever going to get on a record like this.

The whole thing is incredibly consistent. Whether it’s aggressive rockers (with quite a bit of that hollering, too), mid-tempo material, or mellower moments (a couple of those), it is all tuneful, expertly arranged and possesses the urgency of any of your punk heroes. I mean I have my personal favourite songs here, of course, but there’s not a bad idea anywhere in sight. Yes, so it’s all kind of samey and stylistically the band offers very little in terms of variation, but you’d have to consider the genre.

It’s been a while since I had this much fun listening to a punk record. Tight, spirited, catchy. The only problem with it is that it might seem a little too addictive for its own good. You might have problems getting into that new Andrew Bird album afterwards. Which, interestingly, is exactly what I’m going to do next. An easy 8.


Wednesday, 14 March 2012

Album review: THE MAGNETIC FIELDS - Love At The Bottom Of The Sea

Highlights: Andrew In Drag, God Wants Us To Wait, I’d Go Anywhere With Hugh, All She Cares About Is Mariachi

Well (making an inevitable allusion here), the new Magnetic Fields album is 15 love songs, and this time the gimmicks are as follows: each track is under three minutes (and what can beat a good Stephin Merritt song under 3 minutes?); cartoonish vocals; the love stories behind these songs are decidedly, deliberately quirky. Imagine Sparks’ Exotic Creatures Of The Deep, but filtered through the Magnetic Fields aesthetic.

But by far the most important gimmick is the songs’ presentation. With this album Merritt clearly tries to get away from the much-maligned (I’d say unjustly) folk-ish, acoustic sound of his more recent albums. On Love At The Bottom Of The Sea The Magnetic Fields return to the whimsical, keyboard-based sound of their pre-69 Love Songs years. A move every true and dedicated fan would appreciate.

And it is indeed a lovely sound. Catchy little pop songs, too. Quirky but occasionally witty lyrics. As for the latter, the two most notable examples are “Andrew In Drag”, an impossibly infectious and twisted tale of accidentally falling in love with a boy, and that cynical and hilariously arranged ditty with the unforgettable chorus “I love you, baby, but God wants us to wait”. You can figure out what that one is about. There’s also the wistful, romantic “I’d Go Anywhere With Hugh”, the trashy and almost moronically catchy “My Husband’s Pied-a-Terre”, the dramatically crooned “I’ve Run Away To Join The Fairies”, etc. Overall sort of hit and miss. The bad thing is that hits are rarely particularly overwhelming, but the good thing is that the misses are all short and have decent (if throwawayish) melodies all the same. Which makes Love At The Bottom Of The Sea a perfectly charming but slight affair. Could use a little more effort from Merritt.

Well, see how loyal you are. If you believe that even a bad Magnetic Fields song is still a good song (because you can’t deny Merritt’s taste), you’re going to love this stuff. While I tend to more or less agree with this idea, there’s no question that a lesser Stephin Merritt song is, well, a lesser Stephin Merritt song. A 7 here, but I can see why one would wish to go lower.


Sunday, 11 March 2012

SONG OF THE WEEK #49: The Beautiful South - "Prettiest Eyes"

With this band there's just so much to choose from. The Beautiful South were Paul Heaton's second band (after the rather bland, mediocre Housemartins), and it revealed the duo of Heaton and the band's lead guitarist David Rotheray as top-notch songwriters. Beautiful, soulful, tasteful pop confections - but with a certain witty, occasionally cynical twist in the lyrics.
"Prettiest Eyes" appeared on their fourth LP, Miaow (1994), and was later included into what I consider to be one of the most essential compilations of all time, Carry On Up The Charts: The Best Of The Beautiful South (1994). Not the greatest video, granted, but music-wise this is tear-jerkingly gorgeous.      

Friday, 9 March 2012

Album review: SHEARWATER - Animal Joy

Highlights: Animal Life, Breaking The Yearlings, You As You Were

I guess that at this stage one can no longer feel induced to mention Okkervil River in a Shearwater review. Granted, the leader and co-founder Jonathan Meiburg is there and all over this thing, but otherwise the band is now an independent indie-rock outfit whose fan-base stretches beyond Okkervil followers.

As expected, Shearwater don’t do anything new (or wrong) here. Animal Joy is your superior indie-folk, inspired but also calculated. Which you will not at all mind on the album’s excellent opener, “Animal Life”, its gorgeous melody and lovely buildup clearly pointing to what could well be the perfect follow-up to 2008’s Rook. Meaning exactly the same thing – but with guts. The next few tracks are almost as good (which is: better than I Am Very Far), but the beautiful boredom that sets in with track 5, “Insolence”, can hardly be salvaged by Meiburg’s heartfelt voice and immaculate production. Side two is more of the same. Thoughtfully smooth, rough, then smooth again, with the exquisite anthemic drama of “Run The Banner Down” being the standout.

However, for all the criticism Animal Joy might be my favourite Shearwater album. I’ve already mentioned this numerous times, but whenever I listen to an Okkervil River record, I always feel there’s still lots of room for improvements. Songs could be sharper or at the very least catchier. Interestingly, in terms of songwriting, production and arrangements Animal Joy seems like the best thing Shearwater could do. Which is decent, beautiful, even impressive in its own way, but in the large scheme of things – not much.

So the bottom line doesn’t change: Meiburg is not a great songwriter. However, that’s not to say he can’t come up with a great song. Sign of times, I guess.


Wednesday, 7 March 2012

Album review: BRUCE SPRINGSTEEN - Wrecking Ball

Highlights: We Take Care Of Our Own, Wrecking Ball

In all honesty I shouldn’t be reviewing a new Bruce Springsteen album in the first place. I’m a devout Springsteen agnostic, and, a couple notable exceptions aside (The Wild, The Innocent…; Darkness On The Edge Of Town; an odd song here and there), his working class songwriting has always left me cold. I don’t really actively dislike the man (though stuff like Born In The USA is actually awful – five seconds of the synth riff of “Glory Days” can make your IQ shrink considerably), but there’s something you can’t salvage with passion and dedication. Still, I decided to give Wrecking Ball a try. It’s okay.

The reviews are glowing, of course. In Springsteen’s case they always are. And yet after track eight I felt exhausted (I wanted to say ‘bored’, but let us not be cruel), and titles like “Rocky Ground” and “Land Of Hope And Dreams” still lay ahead of me…

Each song has its direct prototype in Springsteen’s back catalogue. There’s a new “Born In The USA” here. A new “Thunder Road”. A new “Atlantic City”. Not necessarily a bad thing. The problem is that for all its surprising diversity (we even have some Irish overtones) the songwriting lacks a spark (I wouldn’t say subtlety – he never had any). It’s masterfully grinded out – or that’s the feeling I get. Still, Wrecking Ball is packed with that unwavering (if generic) anthemic power that can come off both effective and affecting. Almost against all odds the familiar overblown drama of tracks like the opening “We Take Care Of Our Own” and particularly the title track provides a punch you can’t resist. Plus, the 6-minute “Jack Of All Trades” is a nice’n’bluesy piano ballad – though on occasion Springsteen’s obvious lack of lyrical wit may render it monotonous. The rest is quite good, but desperately unspectacular. Okay, so “Shackled And Drawn” is catchy and dumb – still, I’d rather re-listen to “Hungry Heart”, thank you very much. In its defense, the album’s lone true disaster is the preachy and bloodless “Rocky Road”; as if the annoying backing vocals were not enough, the rapping section is just fucking disgraceful.

It’s quite good at places, and the amount of work and love Bruce puts into his music cannot be denied, but this has long turned into a parody. I can give you the song titles of his next album right now, as well as a critical review of it. But of course: a fan can trick himself into anything. Still, I insist that every critic who gave Wrecking Ball 5/5, 9/10, 10/10, etc. should stop embarrassing himself and take up another job. Because this is getting pathetic. A low six.


Monday, 5 March 2012

Book review: PULSE (2011) by Julian Barnes

Literature can offer very few thrills that can beat a good short story collection. A short story is about being sharp and specific. Sometimes a short story is the best way an author can assert his artistic powers (John Updike), sometimes it’s the only way (Raymond Carver). And sometimes we are talking about collections like Dubliners, Heavy Water & Other Stories, May We Borrow Your Husband?, etc. These offer a new, different, exciting angle on the greatness of their author. It’s to this latter category that Pulse belongs.

Pulse was published last year, which makes it two classic books in the course of one year for Julian Barnes. The other of course being his masterful Booker Prize-winning novel A Sense Of An Ending.

Pulse (which collects the most recent of Barnes’ short fiction) is the writer’s third short story collection. And if there’s something that distinguishes it from 1996’s brilliant Cross Channel, it’s a sense of overwhelming, occasionally almost desperate maturity. Maturity that tends to be a trap for the book’s characters, and so rarely an asset. We’ve got sad old ladies not realizing how sad they are, we’ve got people waking up to the world’s commanding cruelty, we’ve got marriages broken or doomed (sometimes, ironically, doomed to longevity).

The collection is divided into two parts. The first one has to be my favourite, not least because it contains these four witty, upbeat conversations, breathers to brighten things up a bit. They are called “At Phil & Joanna’s” and feature a group of house guests discussing random topics – from sex to politics to philosophy. It’s amusing, and is brimming with ‘spontaneous’ aphoristic delights, and overall is a welcome refreshment amid densely depressing stories like “Marriage Lines” and “East Wind”. These are populated by restless people, haunting pasts and haunted memories. The Chekhovian “Marriage Lines”, for instance, tells of a man trying to make peace with the loss of his wife by going to a remote Scottish island they had both visited together numerous times. Reliving the memories to try to let go of the past and the gruesome, suffocating feeling of grief and dismay. These stories tickle you with senses, emotions – they rarely have much of a plot.  

The second part is not necessarily weaker – it’s different. While the title story and “Complicity” are more of what we have already seen in the first part, stories like “The Limner” and “Harmony” are set in older times. The former is about a portrait-painter who can’t hear, and the latter is about a young piano player who can’t see. It’s interesting that this way or another this second part of the collection revolves around human senses. We’ve got wine tasting in “Carcassonne”, we’ve got the importance of touching in “Complicity”, we’ve got smelling problems in “Pulse”. Coupled with the memories of the first part, Pulse masterfully presents a full, compelling picture of a man’s universe. And, to paraphrase one of the book’s best lines, sometimes life’s clich├ęs are literature’s astonishments.  

Pulse is a bit like A Sense Of An Ending broken into pieces. With perhaps a little more humour thrown in. Written in Barnes’ exquisite yet practical style, Pulse is very adult entertainment – but that does not necessarily mean that I stress the first word. It’s both.


Sunday, 4 March 2012

SONG OF THE WEEK #48: Peter Perrett - "Woke Up Sticky"

They say a new album by The Only Ones will be released some day soon, but I almost don't believe that anymore. The Only Ones were like a more melodic version of The Adverts or like a less punkish take on The Buzzcocks. Terrific pop-punk/power-pop hooks and Peter Perrett's resonant, slightly whimsical vocals. Sadly, the discography isn't too huge: we only have two classic late-70's albums (plus one mediocre 1980 one), and Perrett's brilliant, unjustly forgotten solo release, Woke Up Sticky (1996). Which, in addition to the irresistible "Falling" (which could easily rival "Another Girl, Another Planet"), features this soulful tale of alien abduction. Or was that a wet dream?..

Saturday, 3 March 2012

Album review: THE DOOZER - Keep It Together

Highlights: Burning Bright, The Island

The comparisons are inevitable. The Doozer’s Keep It Together sounds like Syd Barrett who’s never heard of LSD. Now that I’m considering this, there’s no question that the idea seems enticing. Less maddening but just as charming, whimsical and maybe even a little odd. Well, yes, but that way you also have to do away with Barrett’s charisma. Which is exactly what made stuff like “Octopus” or “Matilda Mother” so good and so unique.

That said, there’s no reason why one shouldn’t enjoy Keep It Together for what it is. Lovely little acoustic melodies livened by an occasional cello, sitar, trumpet. Very simple but tasteful arrangements, cozy atmosphere of light psychedelic haze. Sadly, even with a gun to my head I would not be able to say anything specific about these songs. They are all catchy, I guess, but with so little variation and personality they sort of merge one with another. In fact, the only song that sticks out of this set is the five-minute epic called “The Island” that features beautiful melancholic piano and a welcome sense of mystery. The rest is much less remarkable. No, the edge is there, I guess, but by the end of the record you’ll have to wonder whether this is not because of the fact that the singer’s Simon Loynes’ vocals sound exactly like Syd Barrett’s.

What’s there to add? Well, nothing, except that at moments the melody of “Fen Drayton” is so just like that song from The Madcap Laughs it seems almost too much. 

Good but underwhelming.