Monday, 30 April 2012

SONG OF THE WEEK #56: The Fall - "Janet, Johnny And James"

Choosing a favourite Fall album is a task both ridiculous and impossible. There would simply be too many to mention: Live At The Witch Trials, Grotesque, Bend Sinister... The list could go on. Yet there is something to the popular belief that the band's album from 2003, The Real New Fall LP: Country On The Click, is one of their finest ever. The production is crisp and rejuvenated, the material is extremely consistent, Smith sounds involved, and it has the band's best set of melodies since late 80's/early 90's. By The Fall's standards - a hell of a long time.
John Peel's favourite "Theme From Sparta F.C." might be the most celebrated song on that record, but I've always had a particularly soft spot for "Janet, Johnny And James". Folk music as understood and played by The Fall. Priceless.

Saturday, 28 April 2012

Album review: JACK WHITE - Blunderbuss

Highlights: Missing Pieces, Sixteen Saltines, Freedom At 21, Love Interruption

While there’s no denying that riff or the melodic prettiness of, say, “Truth Doesn’t Make A Noise” (among other things, of course), I’ve never been a particularly huge fan of The White Stripes’ garage-y and hipped-up take on blues. Don't take me wrong, De Stijl and Elephant are both strong albums, we all pretty much agree on that, but it’s as if something was always missing from that raw, self-consciously cool sound. I believe it was the songwriting. The kind of songwriting you could get your teeth into.

So is there that missing spark on Jack White’s feverishly anticipated debut? Well, it's both yes and no. Blunderbuss certainly sounds more interesting, more full-bloodied than any WS album; its arrangements are rich and its songwriting is so much deeper than that of Icky Thump that the first listen is a lot more joyful than it probably should be. And yet, try as I might, I just can’t get too excited about the actual tunes. Especially some of the album's slow and mid-tempo material (for instance, without that melodious line “On And On And On” would just be faceless and dull).   

I guess it’s a good thing that Blunderbuss is so diverse stylistically. Yes, it is mostly rooted in blues (White would be pleased to hear that), but there’s a difference between the slow and mellow title track and that rip-roaring guitar work of “Weep Themselves To Sleep”. Interestingly, my favourite songs are all concentrated at the very beginning: “Love Interruption” is an intense ballad, all broken knees and raw emotions; there’s great heavy riffage throughout “Sixteen Saltines”; the funky “Freedom At 21” makes wonderful use of the playful arrogance of White’s voice. All good stuff. And even if some of these tunes don’t sound too inspired/inspirational, there are certain instrumental touches and delights to make up for that. Like that lovely piano opening “Hypocritical Kiss”…

No problem with giving this one a good 7. I just honestly can’t expect Jack White to record an album much better than this. He is talented, he is audacious, he knows his music – however, the bottom line would be this: he is not a great songwriter. He just isn’t.


Thursday, 26 April 2012

Album review: LOUDON WAINWRIGHT III - Older Than My Old Man Now

Highlights: In C, All In A Family, The Days That We Die

As you would probably guess from the title, Loudon Wainwright III’s latest is about things like death and getting older. In terms styles, in terms of the actual music, the album is predictably all over the place. Wainwright is this old-time, old-fart (that’s totally affectionate) singer-songwriter who is stuck so beautifully and comfortably in his comfort zone: rootsy charm, redneck humour, piano ballads.

Of course, with no less than 15 songs Older Than My Old Man Now is, while not necessarily erratic, a mixed bag. However, there’s no question that you’ll end up loving at least three or four of these songs. It’s a very warm, cozy record, made even more so by the presence of his super-talented kids: Lucy, Rufus and Martha are all here.

Unfortunately, every time one of these songs sounds good to my ears, I end up wondering why can’t he make a whole album like that. There’s “In C”, a beautiful, introspective piano ballad with a simple but truly inspirational melody. There’s a strangely McCartney-esque pop of “All In A Family”. A few others. But it’s all good, the kind of no-great-shakes good would expect to get from Wainwright. I do actively dislike songs like the opening “The Here And The Now” (annoying and pedestrian) and particularly “I Remember Sex” (annoying and embarrassing), but they don’t overshadow the rest of the album.

At just a little under one hour, the album tires you a little, but does well to showcase different facets of Wainwright’s personality and songwriting. Overall, a deeply satisfying listen – however, I do find myself coming back to just those three or four songs I ended up loving the best…


Sunday, 22 April 2012

SONG OF THE WEEK #55: Pulp - "Dogs Are Everywhere"

I believe that out of all the British songwriters working in the 90's only Luke Haines and Lawrence Hayward could rival Jarvis Cocker at his peak. Obviously Pulp are mostly remembered for that breathtaking triad of His 'n' Hers, Different Class and This Is Hardcore, but both prior and after that Cocker came up with some absolute gems. For instance, I've always felt strangely addicted to this bizarre, misanthropic song from 1986, "Dogs Are Everywhere". It originally appeared on the eponymous EP, but this here is an acoustic version from 1994. There's got to be something about that lazy groove and, of course, those odd, witty, hilarious lyrics.
(Be sure to check out the original as well)

Friday, 20 April 2012

Album review: EVANS THE DEATH - Evans The Death

Highlights: Telling Lies, Morning Voice, Threads, Wet Blanket

In a way, it’s rather disheartening to listen to Evans The Death’s debut album. Not because its songs are poor (I can’t find one bad song here), but because by the 10th second you realise that there won’t be a single person in the whole world who would be able to find his new favourite band here. Tragic, isn’t it? But this is what happens when you record a collection of solid twee pop songs devoid of truly impressive songwriting chops.

The album’s first four tracks are so insistently good but unspectacular that these young Londoners do come off as your aspiring fans of Dolly Mixture and The Pastels from the garage down the street. Sort of lovely but why would anyone care?..

However, right when you are about to lose your interest and turn this thing off, Evans The Death improve. Marginally or a great deal is not an easy question to answer, but the charmingly clumsy guitar jangle that opens “Telling Lies” is a delight. The melody is not half bad either, and the same goes for the noisy-one-second-pretty-the-next “Morning Voice” and the just noisy “Threads” (the album’s first single). The songs that come next are mostly your good, moderately catchy, garagey, c-86-like twee pop by the numbers – with only the chorus of “Wet Blanket” being irresistible enough.

Certainly Evans The Death is not the classic you so wanted it to be (and you have definitely heard enough bands who do this stuff a lot better), but the flashes of half-brilliance spread across this album can’t be denied. Strictly for critics and fans of the genre. I’ll go with a low 7 here.


Thursday, 19 April 2012

Album review: JIM MORAY - Skulk

Highlights: The Golden Glove, Lord Douglas, Hind Etin

Jim Moray’s fifth is a traditional-sounding folk album of superior quality. Smooth, milky stuff, handsomely sung and tastefully arranged. From Fairport Convention to The Albion Band, the suspects are the usual lot, but folk music (not folk-rock, mind you, mostly folk-pop here) is the one art institution that allows a certain lack of identity. As long as it is done so expertly and with this much charm.

As far as the album’s problems go, I’d say that Skulk seems somewhat frontloaded. Actually, the first six songs (bar maybe the slightly overdramatic “If It’s True” – interestingly, quite reminiscent of Patrick Wolf’s latest) are all impeccable. Just don’t expect diversity. We have an effective a cappella number (“Horkstow Grange”), “Matty Groves”-styled drive (“Hind Etin”) and gorgeous epic balladry (“Lord Douglas”), but Skulk basically remains faithful to its unadorned folk roots. On side two Moray indulges in his love for pop music (there’s an interesting banjo-driven take on Fleetwood Mac’s “Big Love”), and contains, among other thing, a rather uninspired, commercialized take on Nic Jones’ brilliant “Courting Is A Pleasure”.

Overall, a little more edge would be appreciated, but this is pleasant, appealing stuff. In a cynical mood you could in all probability consider this yet another folk sellout… Except it’s good. Oh and as a bonus track we have Jim’s energetic, Elvis-esque “Hogeye Man” (“Hound Dog” with barely audible folkish vibes). Not much, but lovely.


Monday, 16 April 2012

The Beatles vs The White Album

I had my doubts at first, but The Beatles’ 2009 remasters are indeed worth it. The sound is richer, crisper, and it gave me a wonderful opportunity to yet again delve into that wonderful world of effortless pop genius. Obviously the songwriting has never been in doubt, but it’s both comforting and somehow reassuring to hear tiny (and not so tiny) guitar delights and McCartney’s busy bass lines that had previously escaped my attention.

However, for me it’s been all about that huge, classic, sprawling 1968 self-titled monster. The White Album. Adhering to the principle that the more great songs there are on a record, the better, lots and lots of people have proclaimed it The Beatles’ greatest achievement. After all – 30 songs, surely more than 14 of those would be nothing short of amazing (I say 14 because that’s the standard number of songs on a Beatles LP; up to 1967 in any case).

So it may be, but even with all the irresistible twang of this remastered sound I can still count only (that’s a relative ‘only’, mind you) 5 out of these 30 songs that make my brain and heart tingle ecstatically. Those would be “Happiness Is A Warm Gun”, “While My Guitar Gently Weeps”, “Sexy Sadie”, “Savoy Truffle”, “Cry Baby Cry”. Shamelessly subjective, I understand, but there you go. Out of the remaining 25 songs, five or six are no good at all (of which more later), and most are your minor, average Beatles classics. Average but classics. Classics but average.

It has never really worked out between me and this record. On The White Album Lennon and Co show off their confident songwriting and maturity, but at the expense of a true magical spark. For this here listener, too few moments on the album come close to the chorus of “If I Needed Someone” or the harmonies of “And Your Bird Can Sing”. So here goes a list of 15 songs I would have gladly dropped and relegated to a nice and solid little compilation of rarities, outtakes, etc. For in all honesty – it’s there that they belong.

“Glass Onion”. An excellent, driving song by Lennon, but it’s as if something is missing about that melody. Maybe one true, Beatles-worthy hook?

“Ob-la-di Ob-la-da”. Knocking this piece of infectious pop silliness from McCartney would be foolish, but you inevitably grow tired of it. It has no staying power - by The Beatles' standards, that is.

“Wild Honey Pie”. 50 seconds of Paul having fun. Harmless, but doesn’t amount to anything.

“The Continuing Story Of Bungalow Bill”. I absolutely adore the verse melody, but the chorus is way too cheesy and embarrassing. Yoko Ono on the background vocals doesn’t help things either.

“Rocky Raccoon”. I do like this catchy country-western number, and sing along like an idiot while it’s on. Still, it feels too much like a throwaway, however funny and amusing.

“Don’t Pass Me By”. Written by Ringo Starr and not called “Octopus’s Garden”. Need I say more? Capable, but not something I need to hear on a classic album by The Beatles.

“Why Don’t We Do It On The Road”. Another novelty offering from McCartney. Interesting for one listen or two, but it’s not really much of a song. Is it? In the context of the album, it just messes the whole thing up even more. Organically, you could say.

“I Will”. Depends on how much sugar you are prepared to take with your pop. Lovely lilting tune, but somehow “Martha My Dear” had an edge. This one doesn’t.

“Birthday”. A pretty straightforward rock’n’roll screamer from Paul. We knew they could do those. The energy and the guts are appreciated - sadly, though, the actual melody is nowhere near as exciting.

“Mother Nature’s Son”. An acoustic ballad from McCartney. Not as good as “Blackbird”. Very pretty, but his early “I’ll Follow The Sun” sounded so much more inspired.

“Everybody’s Got Something To Hide Except For Me And My Monkey”. I love this one, and it shouldn’t really be on the list. However, you can’t get away from the fact that this is just not top-drawer Beatles material.

“Long Long Long”. Once again, a strong tune. Harrison couldn’t contribute too many songs to The Beatles’ albums, so he took great care that the ones he did contribute were good. But why is it so inaudible?..

“Honey Pie”. Typical McCartney’s country-esque pop. Too sugary, schmaltzy and pedestrian this time.

“Revolution #9”. If you listen to this on its own, and take it as an experiment, you will be amazed at what a successful experiment this is. Mozart compared to Lennon’s first solo records with Ono. Sadly, I don’t have much use for it on a Beatles album.

“Good Night”. And, probably fittingly, they end it all on an orchestrated, sentimental, oversweetened note. Interestingly, composed by John. For an album like that, it’s just what the doctor ordered, but ‘an album like that’ is exactly what I’m opposing here.

So overall much of The White Album feels like diversity for the sake of diversity. Take these 15 songs out, and you get yourself a brilliant precursor to Abbey Road. As it is, the album is a worthy, entertaining mess. Much as I hate to admit it.

And don’t give me that shit about an album being bigger than the sum of its parts. Clearly this is not the case.

Sunday, 15 April 2012

SONG OF THE WEEK #54: Spiritualized - "So Long You Pretty Things"

Take from Jason Pierce's new album, Sweet Heart Sweet Light, and it's the year's best so far and by far. A brilliant collection of sweet anthems, brought to an end by this grand, epic beauty with one of the most ecstatic codas I've heard in a long time.

Friday, 13 April 2012

Album review: ZAMMUTO - Zammuto

Highlights: Groan Man, Don’t Cry, F U C-3PO

Zammuto is the work of a guy named Nick Willscher Zammuto (also of The Books), and an album I had a rather odd urge to check out. Something of a challenge, this being glitchy electronic pop that tends to leave me cold for various reasons (lack of any emotional connection being one of them). In a way Zammuto is as accessible as the genre allows, and further listens reveal melodic substance and layers, literally layers of all kinds of cute intricacies for which you turn to this kind of music in the first place.

On the first listen – an interesting collage-like concoction of protean musical idea, diverse and bizarre instrumentation and occasionally no less bizarre lyrics (the title “Zebra Butt” must speak volumes). However, you do feel sufficiently intrigued to keep investigating. The second time this is still kind of messy and confusing, but on the third listen it starts to make perfect sense. Well, not really perfect, but keep in mind that these things demand patience.   

You could probably write a book about everything that is going on here. Even though the record gets somewhat slower, mellower towards the end, it never for a second loses its inventive edge. Which obviously makes it a difficult, demanding listen. After all, there is only so much weirdness you can take in one go. So whereas I’m duly impressed by the folksy, violin-heavy “Idiom Wind” and particularly the lush acoustic guitar and psychedelic tunefulness of “F U C-3PO”, the plodding, auto-tuned “Harlequin” might sound like too much.

Still, there’s no question that Zammuto is one totally rewarding experience. Addictive and frustrating, too.


Wednesday, 11 April 2012

Album review: GENTLEMAN JESSE - Leaving Atlanta

Highlights: Eat Me Alive, Take It Easy On Me, Careful What You Wish For

Derivative? Fuck derivativeness. Gentleman Jesse’s second album, Leaving Atlanta, is simply too good to be written off that way. Infectious, gutsy music of early Beatles playing garage rock in an age of power pop. In a word, irresistible.

I still play the band’s glorious debut from 2008 on a more or less regular basis. For the hooks and for that feeling of exhilarating, rip-roaring optimism. Leaving Atlanta is no different, even though after three or four listens I have to admit that on the whole this is a slightly weaker collection. Also, however good the opening “Eat Me Alive” may be, Leaving Atlanta lacks a truly breathtaking classic like 2008’s “All I Need Tonight (Is You)”.

But with the first sounds of harmonica and crisp power pop jangle – you know this is exactly what you expected. I won’t even be getting into specific songs here, suffice it to say that all feature tastefully rough (and basic) instrumentation, intelligently catchy melodies and lyrics glorious in their 60’s-flavoured beat anguish. And no ballads, of course.

I love Gentleman Jesse for the prime rock’n’roll spirit that, if infused with good tunes, is still very much alive and well. In all honesty Leaving Atlanta deserves no more than I’m giving it, but I almost ended up awarding this stuff an eight… I just love the style.


Monday, 9 April 2012

SONG OF THE WEEK #53: The Sleepy Jackson - "This Day"

Luke Steele. I've really no idea what is going on with this guy and what kind of label/creative problems he is having, but there hasn't been an album from him since 2008. Which might not sound like much of a hiatus (by today's standards, that is), except there was talk a year or two ago of Steele releasing a whole handful of new records...
Sad, because I hold Steele's songwritig in rather high esteem. I didn't much care for his second project, Empire Of The Sun, but his first band, The Sleepy Jackson, was terrific. Particularly their debut from 2003, Lovers (in retrospect, a true Australian classic; Steele's charismatic melodicism evoking early Dave McComb as well as Grant McLennan - naturally!). "This Day", one of that LP's singles, has a totally irresistible, infectious, inherently sunny tune. Tunes, in fact!  

Saturday, 7 April 2012

Album review: GABRIEL & THE HOUNDS - Kiss Full Of Teeth

Highlights: What Good Will That Do?, Wire And Stone, The World Unfolds, Talk Of The Town

A young musician from Brooklyn, Gabriel Levine, is the driving force behind this one. The question is, why the hounds? Well, apparently the hounds come from Levine’s fascination with Kate Bush and specifically her classic 1985 album, Hounds Of Love. But before you dismiss this half-assed allusion, I would just like to say that the allusion makes perfect sense. 

This is pop music filled with intricacy and slow-burning intensity – the kind every Kate Bush admirer would appreciate.

Now speaking of the actual music, Kiss Full Of Teeth has a peculiar sound. Almost every track features an acoustic guitar and a pretty, but somewhat elusive melody. But that’s not all – the album’s special charm/edge comes courtesy of tasteful orchestration which underpins the larger portions of the album. 

It’s a lovely, strangely deep sound, and the melodies are always more than they seem. Mostly folk-ish, complex-sounding ballads, but there’s also a brilliant Velvets-like groove on the driving “The World Unfolds” that brings some necessary diversity.

My biggest complaint is the album’s length. It’s short. 11 songs, including 3 brief (if nice) instrumentals. But in truth it only means that Kiss Full Of Teeth is totally devoid of filler; the whole thing is just a lovely little artsy outing.


Thursday, 5 April 2012

Album review: SOAP&SKIN - Narrow

Highlights: Vater, Voyage Voyage, Cradlesong, Wonder

It has to be said that Soap&Skin is a remarkably silly name for grim, glorious piano music like this. Narrow is the second album by this young Austrian lady (goes by the name of Anja Franzisca Plaschg – on the cover), and I wouldn’t really say it’s much different from that lovely debut (Lovetune For Vacuum, 2009). Confident, emotional songwriting with certain gothic undertones.

PJ Harvey’s brilliant album from 2007, White Chalk, would be a good reference point – only imagine it recorded by Nico. This should give you a good idea of the album’s sound. The opening “Vater” is sung entirely in German, but even if you don’t get the words – the overpowering, emotional vocal delivery and piano playing will get to you in no time. Next is “Voyage Voyage”, and it’s a bewildering, unlikely triumph. We all know that silly French hit, but on Narrow it is transformed into something else: an atmospheric, somewhat mysterious sounding piano ballad. Suddenly, that trite excuse for a pop tune becomes… art.

However, it’s not all about gorgeous piano patterns – there’s also some experimental, ‘difficult’ stuff like “Deathmental” with its gruesome, deliberately ugly beat. Like Nico at her most Aryan. Still, it’s for gorgeous, heartfelt confections like “Wonder” that you would need to hear this. Subtle orchestration, and that majestic chorus will surely make you deplore the length of this album - which doesn’t even reach the 30-minute mark.

A couple of unnecessarily operatic tracks on side two prevent me from giving it an even higher rating, but what do numbers have to do with anything?.. Apparently ‘gothic’ can mean many songs, but these days it so rarely stands for substance. Soap&Skin, however, is that wonderful exception.     


Monday, 2 April 2012

SONG OF THE WEEK #52: Philip Glass - "Metamorphosis One"

I dread to use the word 'song' in this case, but then again... we're talking MODERN classical here. "Metamorphosis One" is the first piece on Philip Glass's terrific Solo Piano collection from 1989. It's one of my favourite compositions from the man, and a good indicator that Glass, when he allows himself, can create some of the most moving minimalist music out there.
As played by Branca Parlic, on the 27th of October, 2004.