Sunday, 28 October 2012

SONG OF THE WEEK #79: Frank Zappa - "Camarillo Brillo"

When he allowed himself, Zappa could come up with quite a brilliant, effortless melody. Like the one you can hear on the infectious, Spanish-tinged "Camarillo Brillo" that opens 1973's Overnite Sensation (one of his strongest, most consistent albums from the 70's - just screw that profane and unfunny "Dinah-Moe-Hum" abomination). Terrific, gutsy, rollicking stuff.

Friday, 26 October 2012

Album review: THE FRESH & ONLYS - Long Slow Dance

Highlights: 20 Days And 20 Nights, Presence Of Mind, Dream Girls

This is one of those albums you would rather call well-written than great. It’s not that it lacks an edge (it doesn’t) or memorable hooks (we have them) – it’s the fact that Tim Cohen just doesn’t have the songwriting chops to come up with a truly signature tune. Still, the album has enough taste (oh yes) and smooth, soothing, sophisticated indie pop melodicism to win you over. At some point; if you care to give it a chance.

While Long Slow Dance is essentially a collection of pretty little straightforward pop songs, its impact is not exactly immediate. At first all you feel is unassuming, slow-burning charm; Cohen’s low-key, slightly tortured vocals; lush, non-threatening guitars – but not substance. I guess “20 Days And 20 Nights” is a perfect 3-minute opener, but all that follows just gets away with being, well, nice – in a hazy, Shins-like sort of way. And no, they never reveal themselves to be understated pop classics, but lovely little gems they certainly are. There’s that catchy, delightful vibe of “Dream Girls”, there’s that excellent vocal melody of “Fire Alarm” (that chooses to have the no-not-again riff of “I Can’t Explain” playing in the background).

The album actually gets more adventurous towards the end, but that’s not necessarily something I welcome. “Euphoria” is more complex but also more boring, and the 6-minute trippy epic “Foolish Person” doesn’t really justify its length (the first part is good though).  

I do recommend this album, but with certain reservations. You really have to like your pop music sophisticated and subdued. But the songs are good. Or, to be more precise, good enough. Ah well, just have a look at the cover - will tell you more than any review.


Thursday, 25 October 2012

Album review: GODSPEED YOU! BLACK EMPEROR - 'Allelujah! Don't Bend! Ascend!

Highlights: Mladic, We Drift Like Worried Fire

I believe that writing a book about this album would be a lot easier than trying to come up with a reasonable review. There’s just so much happening here – and yet its drony, repetitive textures might swish past you without leaving any serious impression. It’s pretty – yet never overwhelmingly so, and quite often self-consciously chaotic. It’s expansive and it’s monumental – and yet it’s very calm, quiet, almost unpretentious. Let’s be honest: compared to stuff like The Seer, Allelujah! is tame, smug noodling.

While I have always had a great deal of respect for Godspeed You! Black Emperor, there has never been any passionate love. So I’ll have to admit that I didn’t particularly miss them these ten long years. And even if I did, there was always a good chance to return to, say, Lift Yr. Skinny Fists Like Antennas To Heaven! (awful titles, guys! – like The Flaming Lips with no acid wit), and discover a few new twists, touches and tricks previously overlooked.

Still, there’s no question that it’s good to have them back. ‘Allelujah! Don’t Bend! Ascend! is just what you would expect from the band. Drony, dense, minimalist (in its broadest, loosest sense), well-honed and thought to death. Layers and layers of slow-burning, but intense instrumentation and meticulous musical ideas (ten years is ten years). The two shorts (6-plus and 8-plus minutes each) are lovely, ambient and uneventful, but there’s no denying the charming, beguiling monstrosity of the two centerpieces, “Mladic” and “We Drift Like Worried Fire”. Both are 20 minutes long and both have all one could need from a Godspeed You! song. Lots of brilliant little subtleties, lots of overpowering violin crescendos and delightful guitar arpeggios.  

‘Allelujah! is a worthy come-back, no doubt. It will work equally well both for fans and for newcomers. As for me, I choose to stick to my line: I appreciate this album, I even admire it. I just don’t worship it - which, I'm afraid, is exactly what they ask of you.


Sunday, 21 October 2012

SONG OF THE WEEK #78: Tom Waits - "Falling Down"

An absolute classic, of course, this studio recording was inexplicably released as part of the live album called Big Time (1988). I never cared that much for the actual live performances (they are good though), but "Falling Down" is one of my all-time favourites from Waits. Anguished, touching, waltzy, heart-wrenching belter. You know he can do those. 

Friday, 19 October 2012

Album review: TIM BURGESS - Oh No I Love You

Highlights: White, The Doors Of Then, The Great Outdoors Bitches, A Gain

There’s no question that Kurt Wagner is all over this thing. In fact, Oh No I Love You (nice title, by the way) is like a more pop-oriented version of Lambchop’s latest, Mr. M. A very refined, classy-sounding record drenched in orchestration and exquisite melancholy. Pop music for snobs.

Tim Burgess used to be in the fairly run-of-the-mill Britpop band called The Chameleons (capable but never particularly impressive). His solo career, though (this is his second album), offers something different: it is more about vibes and mood and things like that. Still, the songs are there, and pop confections like the single “White” or “The Great Outdoors Bitches” are sublime. The few country-esque numbers (“The Graduate” and “Anytime Minutes”) are fairly unexceptional and some of the more atmospheric material might sound beguiling but still rather underwhelming (“A Case For Vinyl”). However, it’s impossible to deny the elegant, funereal charms of the 6-plus minute “A Gain” that brings this album to a very calm, tortured, fitting end.

Like it or not, this is impeccable stuff. Impeccably composed, impeccably produced. Oh No I Love You is the sort of album I could recommend to fans of classical music who wish to try pop. As well as to the rest of you.


Wednesday, 17 October 2012

Album review: A.C. NEWMAN - Shut Down The Streets

Highlights: I’m Not Talking, Encyclopedia Of Classic Takedowns, There’s Money In New Wave, Hostages, They Should Have Shut Down The Streets

Shut Down The Streets is A.C. Newman’s own, solo version of Challengers. A quieter, mellower, more understated affair that might seem like a terrible letdown for those with poor attention span. But same as The New Pornographers’ fourth album, Shut Down The Streets never really stops giving away its undeniable melodic charms (Newman is one of the best songwriters in business) slowly and reluctantly.

All very recognizable though: thoughtful vocal melodies, Neko Case, inventive arrangements, tasteful production. And, of course, a number of pop masterpieces too boot. Speaking of which, nothing here shines as brightly as the album’s opener, “I’m Not Talking” that is this year’s most perfect song. From the heartfelt acoustic rhythm to that deceptively simple, hair-raisingly brilliant melody to the effective clarinet riff, it’s one of A.C. Newman’s best songs ever (and that includes his New Pornographers contributions). The ones that come closest to it are the masterfully titled ballad “There’s Money In New Wave”, the classic, flute-augmented pop of “Hostages” (pay attention to the arrangements) and the closing moody charmer, “They Should Have Shut Down The Streets” which has that truly magical, mesmerizing reticence.

No weak tracks here (as further listens prove), but there’s no question that lovely, unassuming things like “The Troubadour” are prime A.C. Newman filler. Still, even those offer more musical and instrumental ideas than most indie artists can dream of.

In the end, you do get the feeling that at some points Newman was going for refinement rather than good old catchiness. And still Shut Down The Streets is a gorgeous, slow-burning wonder (no pun intended). I might prefer Get Guilty overall, but this is an unmissable treat.


Sunday, 14 October 2012

SONG OF THE WEEK #77: The Smiths - "Some Girls Are Bigger Than Others"

Whether this jangly classic is the best song of The Smiths or not is a debatable issue, but there's no question that lyrically it is Morrissey's greatest triumph. Off The Queen Is Dead (1986), of course.

Friday, 12 October 2012

Album review: DINOSAUR JR. - I Bet On Sky

Highlights: Don’t Pretend You Didn’t Know, Watch The Corners, Almost Fare, What Was That

While this is certainly the prettiest grunge you are ever going to get all year, I can only see tried and true Dinosaur Jr. fans getting too excited about this one. I Bet On Sky is a very risk-free, very safe collection of melodic, tastefully noisy indie-rock that makes for a delightful little late-period album. A modest success, but it’s not like they were going for more.

The tunes are pretty (mostly courtesy of J. Mascis, though there are 2 worthy contributions from Lou Barlow) and the guitar tones are pretty (even when they go for something menacing, like they do on Barlow’s “Rode”), so there’s little you could possibly dislike about I Bet On Sky. Mascis’ weary vocals sound like a gruffer Jeff Tweedy (I would argue, though, that these melodies will beat anything on Wilco’s latest – not that it’s a legitimate comparison, of course) and the actual songs are like Teenage Fanclub for people suffering from manic depression. I think I could listen to the charming guitar groove that drives “Almost Fare” for hours on end.

All things considered, this stands well against Bug and You’re Living All Over Me, and further listens are rewarding. You don’t see new fans embracing them as the new heroes, but who would really blame them for sticking to their guns and doing what they know they can do so well?..


Wednesday, 10 October 2012

Album review: AIMEE MANN - Charmer

Highlights: Charmer, Labrador, Soon Enough, Red Flag Diver

Always good to have her back: this lady just isn’t capable of doing wrong, and ten seconds into the title track you feel you are exactly where you should be. It’s classy, it’s tasteful, it’s well-written. And Aimee Mann’s voice is just as charming and resonant as ever; nonchalant yet addictive.

And the songs, of course, are profoundly Good. Certainly not her sharpest set ever (that would have to be either Bachelor No.2 or my personal favourite, Lost In Space), but the genuine, melancholic power of these tunes has been growing on me ever since I first played the album. The aforementioned title-track is arguably the best song here, with an instantly memorable vocal melody and clever use of keyboards. The lovely, piano-based “Labrador” is another highlight, while the collaboration with James Mercer “Living A Lie” is without a doubt the best thing The Shins’ frontman has done in years.

I may have a few problems with side two (with a couple of rather middle-of-the-road songs hiding uninspired tunes behind immaculate taste), but still the album ends on a brilliant note: the lilting country-pop charmer called “Red Flag Driver” is as good a song as she has ever done.

Besides being an amazing little album in its own right, for me Charmer was also a much needed therapy after the murky excuse that is John Cale’s new album. Charmer (perfect title) is like a warm, pleasant winter evening in your favourite armchair: good vibes and a feeling of absolute contentment. 


Monday, 8 October 2012

SONG OF THE WEEK #76: Johnny Flynn - "Tickle Me Pink"

I've already hinted at it a number times on these here pages, but I'll be happy to say it again: Johnny Flynn's debut, A Larum (2008), is the one modern folk album to get. Surely puts acts like Laura Marling or Mumford & Sons to complete and utter shame. Great spirit and great songwriting run through "Tickle Me Pink", one of the album's numerous highlights. Too bad the follow-up album lacked most of that whimsical charisma that made him so great in the first place.

Friday, 5 October 2012

Album review: PETER HAMMILL - Consequences

Highlights: Eat My Words, Bite My Tongue, That Wasn’t What I Said, Constantly Overhead, New Pen-Pal, Close To Me

While I remain a firm Van Der Graaf Generator agnostic, Peter Hammill’s solo career has always seemed strangely appealing to me. Particularly his inexplicable glam-punk-theatre-whatever albums like Nadir’s Big Chance and The Future Now. Consequences may not offer that much bewildering, idiosyncratic brilliance, but it’s still an effective late-period album from a man who has retained it all: style, edge, vision.

Also, it certainly helps that the record’s first side is flawless. “Eat My Words, Bite My Tongue” starts like your typical PŠµter Hammill number, cold, difficult and pretentious, but then the second part kicks in – and suddenly there’s a great groove, there’s an (almost!) articulate melody. And one song after another, one gruesome or pretty guitar line after another, right up to the chilling piano ballad “Closer To Me”, it all works, in a most scary, beautiful, mesmerizing way.

Sadly, the second side is more about artsiness than substance, and, some spontaneous flashes of greatness aside (come to think of it, Hammill’s greatest 70’s albums consisted of nothing but spontaneous flashes of greatness), it is somewhat meandering and not particularly engaging. You’d really have to be a die-hard admirer to get your teeth into such lengthy, abstract tracks like “All The Tiredness” or “Perfect Pose”. The style is there, granted, but only style.

Overall, though, I feel impressed. For all its second-half flaws, Consequences is prime Peter Hammill stuff, bizarre, grandiose and totally convincing.


Wednesday, 3 October 2012

Album review: JOHN MURRY - The Graceless Age

Highlights: Little Colored Balloons, ?No Te Da Ganas De Reir, Senor Malverde?, Southern Sky, If I’m To Blame

Listening to The Graceless Age (note the title) is an overwhelming experience. Right from the start you feel completely bogged down by lush, monstrous waves of sadness and depression. With The Graceless Age – you’re right in the thick of it; and while it’s not the nicest place to be, you have to consider the artistic, aesthetic merit of the whole thing. The album is absolutely fascinating in its raw, suppressed anger that smacks of relationships half-broken and suicides half-committed.

Those who know the beautiful, bruised sounds of John Murry’s World Without End from 2006 (with Bob Frank), will certainly recognize the dark, emotional devastation of The Graceless Age. And – no, I’m not being melodramatic: it really is that miserable.

Not that this stuff can’t be inviting and almost likeable: it’s depressing all right, but it’s depressing in a sort of warm, engaging way; the brooding, mellow melancholy of the catchy “Southern Sky” is case in point. Then there’s the nice, country-esque “Things We Lost In Fire” (has to be a perfectly justifiable nod to Low) and the perversely uplifting chorus of “Penny Nails” (‘this isn’t love but I need it just the same’). However, the edge is most certainly desperate, and when you hear a line like ‘so debonair, so fucking full of shit’ in the crude, gorgeous, suicidal “If I’m To Blame” – it becomes almost unbearable. The only solace being the handsome fingerpicking and the pretty piano lines carrying the tune.

The 10-minute “Little Colored Balloons” is another clear highlight, a thoughtful and brilliantly arranged epic that features, among other things, some inspired violin playing in the background. In fact, the only track I could live without is the somewhat murky and not too strong melodically “California”. Otherwise, I have few complaints about this grand, measured outburst of anger and frustration.   

P.S. Screw that bit about "California". It's brilliant.