Thursday, 12 July 2012

Album review: FIONA APPLE - The Idler Wheel Is Wiser...

Highlights: Every Single Night, Jonathan, Left Alone, Anything We Want

Obviously that is not the whole of this album’s title, but I would feel like an idiot if I spent half a minute typing all those words…

I will start this by saying that the first listen to Fiona’s newest makes absolutely no sense. It just sounds like a pretentious, wordy, fairly stylish but somewhat unengaging mess. Bizarre vocal hooks do not jump at you, and the twisted, jazzy melodies just go nowhere. And it’s not like the second listen drastically changes your perception – it’s just that bit by bit, second by second, you start disclosing all the intricacies, craft and Fiona’s amazing ambition behind this album. Suddenly it all starts falling into place: vocal hooks, melodies, everything.

The first song is the best. Instrumentally, “Every Single Night” is pretty minimalist, but vocally Fiona is all over this thing – reminding you perhaps of the stuff Kate Bush did so masterfully on albums like The Dreaming. The Idler Wheel… is all jazz with an experimental twist – some of it is more difficult (the lengthy, dark “Regret”; “Jonathan”) and some of it almost easily accessible (slightly waltzy “Werewolf” that sounds like a contemporary ballad written by someone who is too smart and talented to do that sort of thing). 

Besides that remarkable voice, piano is Fiona’s main instrument, and she makes great use of it – playing seemingly random notes that keep revealing themselves as clever, creative and completely cohesive. The whimsical, faux-playful mood of the record is masterfully accentuated by inventive, intense percussion.

So how does The Idler Wheel… live up to its long title and raving reviews? Well, it really is an exceptional piece of work, one that you are bound to come back to. Granted, it may put you off if you’re not in the mood for such a demanding, challenging experience. Whatever the case, you certainly shouldn’t give up – rich layers of sound and Fiona’s restless emotions are well worth your attention.


Monday, 9 July 2012

SONG OF THE WEEK #66: The Magnetic Fields - "Papa Was A Rodeo"

Classic song off their classic 69 Love Songs album. When you hear stuff like that, song after song after song, you just think that Stephin Merritt can do no wrong. Which, in a way, is completely true. The man can be slightly underwhelming on occasion, but that gift for gorgeous, understated melody cannot be denied.

Friday, 6 July 2012

Album review: DAMON ALBARN - Dr. Dee

Highlights: Apple Carts, The Marvelous Dream, Cathedrals

Maybe that’s what the world really needed after all: an opera about the famed Elizabethan scientist Dr. Dee, recorded by Damon Albarn. Having said that, Albarn has actually done more weird, edgy things than a Brit-pop artist should. Gorillaz alone (whatever you might think of them) would be enough to prove that it’s not your typical talent we’re dealing with here. Alan McGee may have gone too far with that ‘genius’ tag, Albarn may have kicked Graham Coxon out of Blur (which resulted in the lifeless, uninspired Think Tank), he may have been partly responsible for lots of bad hip-hop with all those post-Blur collaborations, but you just can’t take it away from him: the man is a major talent.

And for all its operatic embellishments (which are actually quite masterful), Dr. Dee has songs. Good songs, some of Albarn’s best since Blur’s 13 from 1999.   

You just find it so hard to criticize this album. That bit is boring? That is not much of a song? That’s too short? Well, okay, but that’s an opera. Grand, sweeping arrangements, choral singing, parts that make little sense outside the actual stage… Still, like I said – it’s effective and really well-done. And crucially, Dr. Dee is also filled with those charming, languid Blur-ish ballads that Albarn and Coxon could do so well. Tunes of “Apple Carts” and “The Marvelous Dream” greatly emulate that classy, lazy vibe of “Miss America” and “He Thought Of Cars”...

It’s not much, really, but even if you hate opera, there’s no reason why you should hate any of it. The tracks are all short, and Albarn has enough good musical ideas to sustain your interest. And then once in a while you stumble upon something as brilliant and bizarre as “Watching The Fire That Waltzed Away”… Oddly, the best thing about Dr. Dee is that it’s an opera made by a pop artist. With pop being the key word. You just sort of wish pop was the only word here…


Wednesday, 4 July 2012

Album review: REGINA SPEKTOR - What We Saw From The Cheap Seats

Highlights: Oh Marcello, All The Rowboats, The Party

Choosing between this one and Fiona Apple’s new outburst of precious, jazzy verbosity, I just had to settle for the former. For now. There’s no question that there’s something similar between the two ladies (vocal mannerisms, stylish arrangements), but Regina Spektor’s songs are by far more immediate and accessible. Some of that Kate Nash in there, I guess. Fiona’s latest needs 5 full, selfless listens at the very least, while What We Saw From Our Cheap Seats is essentially a sweet, lush pop record.

However, with that charming, slightly quirky edge of hers. Regina does cut a sort of Kate Bush-like figure, albeit somewhat too sugary and one-dimensional (admittedly Kate Bush could seem sugary on her first two albums, but never one-dimensional). Not that you can ever go wrong with Regina's childish, disarming tunefulness and her playful piano that is one half classical, one half twee.

Perhaps the best thing about this album is the dark, upbeat single “All The Rowboats”, but I also feel guiltily addicted to the second single, the infectious and reggae-ish “Don’t Leave Me Now (Ne me quitte pas)”, all so silly and adorable. In fact, the more inventive and eccentric she gets, the better; “Oh Marcello”, for instance, is another personal favourite, with that timeless “I’m just a soul whose intentions are good, oh Lord please don’t let me be misunderstood” line. Great quote, amazing tune. 

Sadly, What We Saw… is just not your classic example of consistency. Half of the album is made up of Regina in her pretty piano ballad mood, and it’s not necessarily a good thing. Some of it may work (like the opener “Small Town Moon”), but it may also sound bland and fluffy. I inevitably get bored by the uneventful “How” (as well as a few others) that chooses to go for beauty rather than substance.

We end on a very good note, though, with the brief, gorgeous, ‘educational’ guitar ballad called “Jessica”. A call for maturity, and a very fitting way to finish things off. I don’t know, though, that it's maturity that I want from Regina Spektor. She has charm, she has personality. She has songs, too – just not enough of those, I'm afraid. So in the meantime I'll have to settle for a 7.


Monday, 2 July 2012

SONG OF THE WEEK #65: Ween - "Flutes Of Chi"

Ween have released quite a few terrific albums, but they undoubtedly hit their peak with The Mollusk (1997) and White Pepper (2000). It's here that they matured as songwriters and came up with some of the most astonishing songs I've ever heard. So sad to know they've just broken up.
"Flutes Of Chi" opens White Pepper, and it's so mind-blowingly good you won't believe they once started their career with fart noises and gross jokes...