Sunday, 30 September 2012

SONG OF THE WEEK #75: Sparks - "When Do I Get To Sing "My Way"

The symphonic version of a Sparks classic that appeared on Plagiarism (1997), this gave us a brief glimpse into their glorious return to form (self-styled 'sonic revolution') in 2002. Strings-ified, chilling monster that gets right under your skin. One of my favourite things in the world.

Friday, 28 September 2012

Album review: SHRAG - Canines

Highlights: Tears Of A Landlord, Show Us Your Canines, Chasing Consummations, That’s Static, Jane With Dumbbells

Shrag’s third album, Canines, is for 2012 what Comet Gain’s Howl Of The Lonely Crowd was for 2011. Gorgeous, lush indie-rock that borrows from c-86 and gutsy twee-pop of The Pastels (with in-tune singing and maybe a little less edge) and the like. I can safely state here that as far as this sort of music goes, Canines is an immaculate album, tuneful and electrifying.

I really can’t find any faults with this one. I might mention that there are a two or three songs here I’m not too mad about (like the funky, repetitive “Devastating Bones”), but those are the inevitable and forgivable result of not bothering with diversity. Instrumentally, too, Shrag are tight as a drum. The guitar tone and terrific bass lines create beautiful, dense chemistry that peaks with that 40-second aural orgasm that ends “Show Us Your Canines”; and the soaring violin of the following track, “Chasing Consummations”, brings the already good song to a whole new level of greatness.

The melodies are uniformly impressive, with the infectious “That’s Static” being the one that will stay stuck in your mind for the longest while (would have been a brilliant addition to Elastica’s classic debut). Also worth mentioning is the sweet, pretty closer, “Jane With Dumbbells” that will make you think fondly of Moe Tucker.   

I know I’ve given a handful of half-assed 8’s lately, but this is quite different. This is the real deal; and the moment you hear that ‘no one likes the tears of a landlord’ line in the album’s opener, you will know that. 


Wednesday, 26 September 2012

Album review: JAMES YORKSTON - I Was A Cat From A Book

Highlights: Catch, Border Song, Spanish Ants, I Can Take All This

I won’t lie: there’s very little I know about James Yorkston, and his recently released I Was A Cat From A Book was my belated introduction. Is it any good? Well, yes: very tasteful, tuneful, slightly understated, folksy pop music from a seemingly literate and (I’m guessing here) underappreciated songwriter.

Carrying on with this ‘under’ stuff, I’d say that my only complaint about this album lies in the fact that two or three moodier, mellower (having said that, it’s all rather mellow) numbers end up somewhat underwhelming. Particularly the lengthiest song here, “The Fire & The Flames”, that reminds me of Elliott Smith’s most brittle, vulnerable ballads. However, it’s mostly in the ‘minor classic’ territory, and you won’t be able to resist such thoughtful, melancholic beauties as “Catch” or “Sometimes The Act Of Giving”.

Still, my absolute favourites are the two ‘rockers’, “Border Song” and “I Can Take All This”, both upbeat and almost unbearably catchy. Pretty, too. The former in particular is among the best songs of the year, with its piano, guitar and violin creating something of an aural delight.

It may be so that I Was A Cat From A Book will waltz past you without leaving any serious impression, but that’s because the whole thing’s so blatantly subtle and modest. The record is flawed, granted, and it’s unlikely to change your life, but it’s a charming, melodic set that has both an edge and a nice flow. I’m stuck somewhere between a 7 and an 8, so it’s a toss of a coin.


Sunday, 23 September 2012

SONG OF THE WEEK #74: The Soft Boys - "Queen Of Eyes"

"Queen Of Eyes" comes from an album that is forever imprinted in my imaginary all-time top ten (Underwater Moonlight, 1980). Charismatic, articulate jangle pop from one of the world's greatest songwriters. Actually, "In this horrible age of abuse and decay, it's good to know that somebody's looking okay" is one of my favourite lines in the whole of pop music. 

Friday, 21 September 2012

Album review: BOB DYLAN - Tempest

Highlights: Soon After Midnight, Pay In Blood, Scarlet Town, Roll On, John

Certainly you may have better things to do with your time. You may have a perfectly understandable aversion to that husky-throaty-hoarse voice of an old man (which – yes, doesn’t get any better with years). And you may be sick and tired of those basic blues bars much of this stuff is based on. Hell, you may even hate this album. The point being – who cares?

You just have to give this one an honest listen. Because it’s Dylan, and you simply won’t have this sort of experience anywhere else. His words are still powerful, and who knows how many more of those he still has in him.

As expected, Tempest is as much generic as it is masterful. Fortunately, it gets away from the tired, uninspired ramblings of Together Through Life, and is a lot closer to the addictive sound of Modern Times. Tempest may lack a song as powerful as the latter’s “Workingman’s Blues #2”, but it does have its share of half-classics (TTL, remember, only had “Forgetful Heart”), including the wistful, charming ballad “Soon After Midnight”, the downbeat, Time Out Of Mind-worthy “Scarlet Town” and the John Lennon dedicated “Roll On, John” that has the album’s strongest melody. Obviously you also get the sort of uneventful, obvious late-Dylan songs/grooves that drag on forever without doing anything for you. But this time around even those sound engaging, like Dylan was really into it.

Say what you want, but a Bob Dylan album is still an event. And if you don’t feel that way – well, that certainly is your loss. No, it’s not the five-star classic music magazines still have the guts (or is that lack of guts?) to call it. And no, the waltzy, 14-minute title track is as far from “Desolation Row” as a Dylan epic can get. But there is something endearing about Tempest. Something that made me think of the title of Shakespeare’s last play. A depressing thought, but who knows?..


Wednesday, 19 September 2012

Album review: HILARY HAHN & HAUSCHKA - Silfra

Highlights: Clock Winder, Krakow, North Atlantic, Ashes

Two things got me interested in this album (other than my considerable admiration for Hauschka’s piano playing), the achingly beautiful “Krakow” heard almost by chance and the song title “Godot” (subject of my literary research for several years now). Was all worth it in the end – Silfra is not always an easy listen, sometimes its artsy minimalism gets a little trying, but overall this album is an outstanding piece of modern classical music.

As is clearly seen above, Silfra is a collaboration between Hauschka (whose Ferndorf should be in everyone’s collection) and the violinist Hilary Hahn. Moody, neurotic, Satie-like piano is countered by some of the most gorgeous, odd and just plain harrowing sounds a violin can produce. The album is really about evocative soundscapes that go from euphoria to despair. My personal favourites are the brief, beguiling gems like “Krakow” and “Ashes” that lovingly remind you of Satie’s timeless “Gnossienne” pieces. As far as my lame, completely unnecessary complaints go, I’d mention that occasionally they get so carried away with their unnerving, atmospheric passages that you start missing Hauschka’s piano playing. However, the way it suddenly emerges from under screeching, clattering noises is absolutely magical.  

Part ambient, part classical, Silfra is the sort of album that manages to be both challenging (the almost 13-minute “Godot” in particular can be quite unsettling) and understated. Which is one of the best things modern classical music can do.


Sunday, 16 September 2012

SONG OF THE WEEK #72: Mr. Bungle - "Pink Cigarette"

One of those 'out there' songs that leave a long-lasting impression on you. "Pink Cigarette" is a brilliantly executed ballad off Mr. Bungle's classic California album. This is the sound of bizarre, fucked-up adult contemporary, and a song that would blend like milk and honey with a David Lynch film.


Saturday, 15 September 2012

Album review: CALL THE DOCTOR - Hands Will Shake

Highlights: Closer To Home, For Your Pleasure, Take It Out, Little Bones

You don’t even need to know that Call The Doctor was the name of Sleater-Kinney’s second album (1996) to get it: Call The Doctor are like Blondie and Sleater-Kinney rolled into one. And that’s the sort of combination you just can’t say no to. Hands Will Shake is catchy, exciting indie rock music that eschews the riot grrrl aesthetics for irresistible pop-punk sensibilities.

Hands Will Shake is a bit like The Bangles if The Bangles had more substance and edge. The guitars sound juicy and tasteful all through the record – whether they’re doing infectious pop-punk anthems (“Wrecking Ball”) or slightly mellower, more atmospheric stuff (“Stood Beside Her”). Though it is definitely the former category where the main excitement lies. Propulsive head-bangers like “Closer To Home” and “Take It Out” are unforgettable, and “Seventeen” beats Sex Pistols’ version by some distance.

Stylistically, there’s very little variation here, and one might find Hands Will Shake somewhat grating after song 5, but the songs are all good. In fact, the only lapse of taste I could detect was the dumb chorus (actually the only moment with male vocals) in the otherwise terrific “Flaws” (irony). The lengthy, multi-part “Little Bones” that closes the album is a clear highlight, though, with the intriguing final chant “I was told I would never be a pilot, I was told I would never be part of it” that sounds a lot greater than it reads.  

Great, confident songwriting makes Hands Will Shake a gutsy, hook-filled gem.


Wednesday, 12 September 2012

Album review: BILL FAY - Life Is People

Highlights: There Is A Valley, The Healing Day, Be At Peace WithYourself, The Coast No Man Can Tell

Sometimes reviews must start with the inevitable: Life Is People is Bill Fay’s first proper album since Time Of The Last Persecution (which was only Fay’s second) from 1971. 41 years then – not something a singer-songwriter should look back on with pride and contentment. However, let’s drop the question of what was keeping him out of studio for this long and concentrate on the music instead. Which is nothing short of quiet, subtle, understated triumph.

While listening to Life Is People you do get a good feeling why Jeff Tweedy is such a fan. You might draw parallels with Wilco’s quieter moments, but I guess it’s mostly about that heartfelt, fragile vocal delivery.

Even after the first listen to these stately, mostly piano-based songs you will hear just what a masterful songwriter Bill Fay is. Not much will jump at you straight away, but the sheer depth of these stately, timeless melodies is simply irrefutable. It’s mostly ballads (in fact, “This World” might be the only upbeat number on the whole record), and aside from a couple of somewhat bland moments, it’s all slow-burning (further listens do pay off), strings-drenched (though occasional guitar lines are also noteworthy) gorgeousness. The solemn, uplifting anthem “Be At Peace With Yourself” is the standout, but you can’t go wrong with the naked, spiritual beauty of “Thank You Lord” or his clever, mature reading of Tweedy’s “Jesus, etc.”

Life Is People is a mellow classic; certainly an album from someone who has had a lot to keep to himself over these 40 years.


Monday, 10 September 2012


I quite like Wes Anderson. Now on to the reviews.

Bottle Rocket (1996)

Bottle Rocket is not a bad film (just awfully not good), but Martin Scorsese’s love for it has to be one of the world’s biggest mysteries. Martin Scorsese – with his gutsy shots and his invigorating intensity. Needless to say, Bottle Rocket has none of that. Essentially, it’s a short student film from 1992 (co-written with Owen Wilson) stretched over an hour and a half. I guess ‘bloodless’ would be the word. And no, it’s not the only film by Wes Anderson where you constantly want to donate blood to his flimsy-floaty characters, but there’s no question that it’s a particularly anaemic, occasionally rather painful experience. The story involves Anderson’s usual ‘hopeless optimist’ line and features his already recognizable style fed on the trademark whimsy and awkward pauses. However, with a plot so hollow I don’t see why anyone would bother. There’s one brilliant scene (bookstore robbery), but otherwise no amount of good Arthur Lee songs can save it from its mildly satisfying (a few chuckles) mediocrity. Even Anderson’s fans would have to meditate themselves into loving it.


Rushmore (1998)

A huge improvement. Suddenly Wes Anderson shows not just good taste in music (British Invasion this time), but in filmmaking, too. College farce Anderson-style: Jason Schwartzman plays a 15-year old student from Rushmore Academy who becomes infatuated with a young widowed teacher. You just know Anderson could pull that off. The ever reliable Bill Murray is here too, the beginning of a long-lasting partnership with the director. Rushmore won’t knock you off your feet, but it’s an entertaining, quirky little comedy. Scenes which in the sorry case of Bottle Rocket would be filled with languid, cringe-worthy mellowness, are preposterously amusing little incidents in Rushmore. It’s not the sort of film you could get your teeth into (which is typical of Wes Anderson), but there’s at least some substance to it. The revenge scene with The Who’s “A Quick One While He Is Away” in the background is an absolute belter.


The Royal Tenenbaums (2001)

You probably have to have a bit of that ‘hopeless romantic’ thing in you to get into Anderson’s style of filmmaking. Cynics will just find it terribly wishy-washy. And since I’m pretty much what you might call a cynical romantic, I’ll be objective here: The Royal Tenenbaums is hilarious twee entertainment that occasionally verges on saccharine and slightly annoying. For me, it’s a little uneven. For instance, while all the scenes with Gene Hackman are wildly enjoyable, most of the scenes involving Luke Wilson range from passable to wince-inducing. Having said all that, The Royal Tenenbaums is still an effective tale of a dysfunctional family made up of the most tender and gentle weirdos, freaks, losers, headcases imaginable. All layered with an almost excessive amount of great music (you get an occasional feeling that Anderson just wanted to cram all his favourite songs into this), from Nico to The Clash.


The Life Aquatic With Steve Zissou (2004)

Wes Anderson’s art is vulnerable. It is so vulnerable that I constantly get this feeling that if you happen to push it or even nudge it slightly, it will crash down on the floor. But crash like a feather. Well, Anderson’s next one was The Life Aquatic With Steve Zissou and in all honesty, that title alone should scare you away. Still, no fan of this here filmmaker would be disappointed; for all its sprawling messiness, it is quintessential Wes Anderson. Just longer and even sillier (I use the word somewhat affectionately) than usual. The film is a Jacque-Yves Cousteau pastiche with Bill Murray brilliantly capturing the character of a half-romantic/half-narcissistic seaman Steve Zissou. In fact, there are lots of great actors here (special kudos to Anderson for reviving Bud Cort of the classic and unfading Harold And Maude fame), and lots of great music, too (mostly David Bowie). Not that it can save The Life Aquatic from occasional tediousness, but some of that absurdist stuff simply can’t be beaten. I give it a six, but you might knock it up to a seven for Cate Blanchett. She is as amazing as ever.


The Darjeeling Limited (2007)

While you wouldn’t find too many people who sympathise, but ten or fifteen minutes into The Darjeeling Limited I already knew that this was going to be Wes Anderson’s best film. I don’t know whether it’s India that can work wonders or the brilliant Adrien Brody, but this looks like Anderson’s wittiest, most fully-fledged work to date. Again, it’s a dysfunctional family, it’s three young men (brothers) embarking on a spiritual journey, it’s Owen Wilson, it’s Jason Schwartzman, it’s Anjelica Huston, it’s Bill Murray, it’s amazing British music (three main songs, “Powerman”, “This Time Tomorrow” and “Strangers”, are from The Kinks’ classic Lola album)… Only it’s somehow better. Anderson’s clever understatements do appear clever; the awkward silence is actually not annoying, but awkward for a reason; the situations are more amusing than self-consciously whimsical. The dialogues are terrific, too, that dining car sequence being my favourite Anderson ever. Minimalist and hilarious. Normally I wouldn’t put ‘Wes Anderson’ and ‘gutsy’ in one sentence, but The Darjeeling Limited doesn’t have a single scene I would call bloodless. Certainly something to do with a strong script.


Fantastic Mr. Fox (2009)

Without a doubt Wes Anderson making a cartoon based on a Roald Dahl children’s story is an absolutely mouthwatering proposition. Anderson’ films have always had those childish, eccentric, humorous vibes about them, so tackling a whimsical little book like Fantastic Mr. Fox seems like a most natural step for him. Still, don’t expect it to be too fresh and challenging: cartoon or not, the cast is still pretty much the same. He keeps adding a new face or two (voice in this case), but all the same: Wes Anderson will not leave his comfort zone. Which is both bad (little artistic growth) and good (style is style). Wikipedia can describe the plot a lot better than I can, so I’ll just say that Fantastic Mr. Fox looks stunning. The stop-motion animation looks old-fashioned and slightly amateurish, but has a truly charming, heartfelt quality to it. Opossum Kylie could be my favourite character Anderson has ever done. Nothing particular to say about music – just that it’s reliably good and features, among others, artists like The Beach Boys and Jarvis Cocker.


Moonrise Kingdom (2012)

And, finally, here it is: Wes Anderson’s long-awaited foray into paedophilia… Well, no, not quite. Moonrise Kingdom, Anderson’s seventh, is his usual mix of whimsy and romantic idealism. This time, however, it’s children who are at the heart of this beautiful, occasionally quite hilarious narrative. Interestingly, while in Anderson’s films you usually have grown up people acting in a blatantly infantile way, here you have kids trying to be adults. Moonrise Kingdom sees two kids, Sam Shukusky (that’s the sort of name Anderson would use) and Suzy Bishop, fall in love and run away into the wilderness (and to a 'distant' place they call Moonrise Kingdom). It all involves a ‘Khaki scout’ summer camp, Bill Murray with an axe, Benjamin Britten, and all those other tasteful and deliciously silly things that make Wes Anderson so singular and so good. As expected, the acting is superb (the film features the likes of Frances McDormand, Tilda Swinton, Bruce Willis and others). Moonrise Kingdom doesn’t quite hit me the way The Darjeeling Limited did, but I’d still rate it as his third, maybe second best. At this point in time, I’d have to say this again: Anderson has found the perfect balance between preciousness and substance


Sunday, 9 September 2012

SONG OF THE WEEK #72: Cockney Rebel - "Sling It!"

All good people know that Cockney Rebel's The Psychomodo (1974) is one of the most maddeningly brilliant albums of the 70's. It combines elements of glam and art rock, Bowie-esque theatricality and melodies worthy of Ray Davies at his peak. Impossible to pick a favourite, but right now I'd go for "Sling It!", the sort of two-and-a-half minute song that would top any pop chart in Hell.

Friday, 7 September 2012

Album review: JESCA HOOP - The House That Jack Built

Highlights: Born To, Ode To Banksy, D.N.R., Deeper Devastation, When I’m Asleep

There are quite a few artists you could compare this stuff to, from Vashti Bunyan to Fiona Apple to PJ Harvey (I can feel a bit of that classic Let England Shake-like vibe here). But equally it’s impossible to deny the identity, the personality behind this oddball collection that owes as much to folk music as it does to contemporary pop. And it’s a real grower, too, filled with the sort of charismatic, original hooks that will keep you coming back for more.

The House That Jack Built is Jesca Hoop’s third, and it certainly is her most accomplished and adventurous album to date. The sheer range of stuff she does here, stylistically, vocally, instrumentally, is just astonishing, and should probably remind you of Kate Bush at her inventive best. The bouncy catchy pop of “Hospital (Win Your Love)”, the reggae of “Pack Animal”, to edgy guitar rock of my personal favourite, “Ode To Banksy”, to classic folk of “D.N.R.”, to the bizarre and unsettling “Peacemaker”, maybe not everything comes out perfect, but you surely won’t find one boring moment on the whole record. And I haven’t even mentioned “Deeper Devastation”, the moment of truly desperate, tortured beauty. That guitar line alone would be enough to make it a classic.

Don’t know about commercially, but artistically The House That Jack Built is a minor triumph. Currently on my top 10 list of 2012’s best albums. My eight being a clear understatement.


Wednesday, 5 September 2012

Album review: SWANS - The Seer

Highlights: Lunacy, The Daughter Brings The Water, Song For A Warrior, The Apostate

While there are quite a few objective reasons why one wouldn’t want to hear a new Swans record, the singular, intriguing nature of that sort of experience can easily outbalance anything. ‘Experience’ being the key word. The Seer offers sensations you simply won’t get anywhere else; it’s a monolithic, maddeningly grandiose statement of intense, unnerving horror and despair from someone (Michael Gira) who knows everything about horror and despair. Every squeak, every little hissing sound.

Drones? Noise? No melodies? Screw all that. While there’s no question that Gira can come up with a most haunting, Nick Cave-worthy tune (The Burning World is case in point), the man is primarily about that gruesome, dreary vibe that is not so much depressing as depression itself. And on The Seer that vibe is, of course, omniscient. No, you won’t think about taking your own life after hearing The Seer, you will simply be too overwhelmed, too emaciated to think of anything like that.

The Seer is a huge album, in its sound, in its scope, in its length. Two CD’s filled to the brim with hellish chants; dreary minimalism; full-blown soundscapes; and the sheer magnetism of whatever it is that Gira is creating here. The variety of instrumentation is truly astonishing, but what is perhaps even more astonishing is that whichever instrument you might hear on The Seer (be it a bagpipe or even a blues harp), it all merges so naturally with Gira’s music. Interestingly, I did not find it too hard to get into this album – even though the short “The Daughter Brings The Water” is the closest we get to ‘relatively accessible’. It’s cold, it’s creepy, it’s monstrous – but it has that power to draw you in. You can even hear some chilling beauty in Karen O’s vocals (she sings “Song For A Warrior”) or in certain parts of some of the album’s sprawling, lengthy epics (the title track alone lasts more than half an hour). Speaking of which – “The Apostate”, this album’s grand final, is a fucking masterpiece from start to finish. Right here and now I proclaim it Swans’ greatest, most perfect creation. It will suck all blood, all breath out of you with its build-up and mind-numbing intensity.

I won’t even mention the lyrics. The lyrics follow suit. However, who needs lyrics with a sound like that?..

And no, I don’t think I will want to listen to The Seer too often. I’m not even sure I could do that once in a while. But more so than anything released this year – The Seer is a consummate work of art. Think what you want about Swans. Love them or hate them, one thing’s for sure: you just have to admire Michael Gira.

8/10   (The rating is irrelevant)

Sunday, 2 September 2012

SONG OF THE WEEK #71: Hauschka - "Morgenrot"

As with that Philip Glass piece, I'm yet again uncomfortable with the word 'song'. All the same - this is the absolutely brilliant "Morgenrot" from the equally brilliant Ferndorf (2008).