Sunday, 25 November 2012

SONG OF THE WEEK #83: Ashtray Boy - "Observatory Hill"

Never an easy band to track down, Ashtray Boy are (were?) certainly worthy of anyone's time. "Observatory Hill" was one of the numerous highlight's on the band's debut (which you can still find if you look carefully), The Honeymoon Suite (1993). A subtle, elegant little melody with the sort of lyrics that only confirm my belief that Randall Lee is one of rock music's greatest and most underappareciated lyricists.

Friday, 23 November 2012

Album review: MARTHA WAINWRIGHT - Come Home To Mama

Highlights: Can You Believe It?, Radio Star, Proserpina, Four Black Sheep, Everything Wrong

This is the sort of album you are supposed to put in a certain context; grave one, in this particular case: death of one of folk music’s most revered and celebrated figures, Kate McGarrigle (Martha’s mother). Obviously it’s not just the album’s title. And it’s not just the album’s first single, the poignant and soul-shattering lament “Proserpina” (actually written by Kate McGarrigle). It’s clear that the whole thing, from song 1 to song 10, is informed by this desperate, gut-wrenchingly emotional state Martha was going through.

But even if you take Come Home To Mama out of all possible contexts – this is without a doubt Martha Wainwright’s strongest set of tunes so far. She had the voice and she had charisma. She has lost neither, but now she has the songs, too.

In fact, the first six songs are all brilliant. Gorgeous, penetrating melodies filtered through Martha’s most inescapable vocal intonations: the simple, bare “Proserpina”, with its violin, piano and chilling choir, is of course the centerpiece, but you can’t go wrong with the powerful, effective “Rock Star” that goes from rock to jazz in a truly awe-inspiring way, or with the electronically driven “Four Black Sheep” that has a vocal melody to kill for. I’m a bit let down by the rather unremarkable “Some People” and “I Wanna Make An Arrest”, but she is back to her emotional best on the slow-burning closer “Everything Wrong”.

‘Impressive’ would be an understatement. Come Home To Mama is a revelation. Contexts, lyrics and voices are all nice and good, but my god how it all comes alive when the songs are this strong.


Thursday, 22 November 2012

Album review: KING DUDE - Burning Daylight

Highlights: Barbara Anne, Jesus In The Courtyard, My Mother Was The Moon, Lorraine

I most certainly enjoyed King Dude’s debut album from last year, but equally I found it somewhat hard to concentrate: Love just sounded like Death In June. And I would be okay with that – the problem was, it sounded too much like Death In June. While the aesthetics largely remain the same on Burning Daylight (darkness, more darkness and an acoustic guitar), T.J. Cowgill did something about his voice: suddenly it’s all brutal, rough, chesty – in fact, very much like a Satanic version of Timber Timbre (which I don’t really mind). No, I wouldn’t say that the songs are better than those he recorded for his debut, but I welcome the change.

After an obligatory (though unnecessary) introduction, we get straight into it: the noisy and effective “Holy Land” is perfectly summarized by the album’s cover. It’s that sort of Holy Land. Then comes the murderous, morose ballad attractively titled “Barbara Anne”. A simple, repetitive guitar rhythm and a simple, repetitive vocal melody – and yet I’m absolutely mesmerized. The rest is more of the same, and it’s all good. The cold, sinister groove of “Jesus In The Courtyard”, the black, psychedelic, smoothly sung dream-pop of “My Mother Was The Moon” (a bit like Damien Youth at his best), the sweet and fucked up “Lorraine”, the deceptively uplifting closer “Lord I’m Coming Home” (you can imagine the lyrics) which is like Johnny Cash singing for the dead.
Overall, this is very lovely folk music given a doomed, Gothic, ugly makeover. Burning Daylight is a relatively short album, clocking in under 34 minutes. However, with the mood so intensely miserable you will feel you’ve heard enough. I guess if I saw this one lying in a record store, I would just ignore it. And would be wrong. Never mind the stupid fonts that belong in an unimaginative death metal album – this is just great, well-written music. Neofolk or whatever it’s called. Listening to it is a bit like being lost in the woods at night and actually enjoying it.


Sunday, 18 November 2012

SONG OF THE WEEK #82: Guided By Voices - "Drag Days"

With another winner in Pollard's ridiculous catalogue, The Bears For Lunch (out now), it's Guided By Voices time again. Arguably "Drag Days" from Under The Bushes Under The Stars (1996) is one of Pollard's greatest pop songs, but you'd have to realise that that is out of a hundred that are about as good. 

Saturday, 17 November 2012

Album review: DAN STUART - The Deliverance Of Marlowe Billings

Highlights: Gonna Change, Love Will Kill You, What Are You Laughing About?, Gringo Go Home, Gap Toothed Girl

Since we’re past the stage when it’s too early to say: The Deliverance Of Marlowe Billings is certainly an album of the year. Nothing can change that. It’s a piece of rough, slow-burning beauty that only gets better with future listens. To me this sounds like a complete artistic triumph.

At this point in time Dan Stuart is primarily about pretty, emotionally-charged ballads which he sings in a voice reminiscent of both Tom Petty and Jason Pierce – but with a touch of good old gruffness. Lyrically, he is both desperately mature (the achingly gorgeous “Love Will Kill You”) and playful (“Gap Toothed Girl”, the album’s pop hit that never was and never will be) and melodically, well, melodically he is at his absolute best.

And I admire the diversity. Amid the poignant balladry Stuart has time for an anthemic rocker (“What Are You Laughing About?”), for catchy, bouncy pop (“Love So Rare”), for a sinister, C&W drama (“Gringo Go Home”). Mostly, though, it’s the sort of disarming, heartbreaking stuff that could have well ended up on Spiritualized’s latest. And considering the quality of Pierce’s latest – it’s hardly a bad thing. 
Interestingly, I don’t really know much about Dan Stuart. While I thoroughly enjoyed The Lost Weekend LP by Danny & Dusty (collaboration with Steve Wynn), I don’t know his first solo record (The Deliverance is Stuart’s second), Can O’ Worms, and I’ve heard exactly one album by Green On Red (Gas Food Lodging). But this was a revelation. Just great songs covered in real-life drama. A high 8.


Wednesday, 14 November 2012

Album review: THE DISTRACTIONS - The End Of The Pier

Highlights: Girl Of The Year, The Summer I Met You, The Last Song

Two feelings at work here. One: The End Of The Pier sees The Distractions doing the absolute best they can. Two: however ridiculously consistent, well thought out and well-written this album may be, the songwriting just never threatens to raise them above ‘well, another good band from Manchester’. Lovely melodies, decent hooks, pleasant vibes. It is just that the excitement is way too measured and moderate.

You can imagine them coming to the studio 32 years after their previous (and debut) album, Nobody’s Perfect, with a clear intention of recording 10 perfect Distractions songs. No filler. And the interesting thing is – they succeed. They achieve that. It is just that you wanted more.

In some way, this record reminds me of Whipping Boy (particularly their eponymous, posthumously released third) – the main difference being the lack of that sweeping emotional edge the Irish band was so good at. But while this is a lot more placid and understated, eventually slow-burning tracks like “Too Late To Change” or “When It Was Mine” will charm you with their soft and pretty guitar lines and gentle, unobtrusive vocal melodies. Some of it may be more immediate, like the masterful pop-rocker “The Summer I Met You” (nice bass line!), but overall it is all quite mellow. The sad, quietly desperate “The Last Song” sounds like a fitting closer.

In the end, The End Of The Pier leaves a very pleasant aftertaste. There’s no getting away from it: it’s a very good album. And way too good to be great.


Sunday, 11 November 2012

SONG OF THE WEEK #81: Danny & Dusty - "Song For The Dreamers"

Steve Wynn has done many things throughout his career, things that range from fairly mediocre (I'll admit that I've never been a huge fan of The Dream Syndicate) to quite brilliant. Danny & Dusty's 1985 album, The Lost Weekend, is pretty much a mix of both. But it has "Song For The Dreamers", so who cares? The song is absolutely ecstatic. In fact, you'll be a fool not to sing along to this piece of infectious, rollicking brilliance.  

Friday, 9 November 2012

Album review: DONALD FAGEN - Sunken Condos

Highlights: Slinky Thing, I’m Not The Same Without You, Out Of The Ghetto, Miss Marlene

Sunken Condos is, of course, all about taste. How else? The stylish, slick experience is as brilliant as it is unrevelatory: in fact, every bit the album you would expect from Donald Fagen, now or ever. Think Morph The Cat, think The Nightfly, think Aja, think Everything Must Go. Old-fashioned, polished, delicious – something you would have to take in over a period of time, late at night, preferably through good headphones.

Saying Sunken Condos is uneventful and sterile would just be missing the point. It is sterile (certainly) and in melody department it is relatively uneventful and has nothing on those first few classic albums by Steely Dan. But come on: you don’t go to Donald Fagen for catchy singalongs. You go for the style. With its immaculate production, rich and intricate instrumentation (the usual: funky basslines; super-clean, jazzy guitars; cool brass; smooth piano; even some terrific Eastern-flavoured violin towards the end of “Out Of The Ghetto”) and nocturnal grooves, it will entangle you like a favourite old movie.

Quality-wise, the album is very even, with maybe only the rather routine, predictable “The New Breed” falling somewhat short. The others are uniformly stellar Fagen creations, in luxurious frames, straight from a museum wall.

So overall – a near-perfect Fagen experience. Lazy, slick, slinky (hell yeah), amazingly addictive. And you have to love that title. Sunken Condos. Perfectly captures the mood and the sound of the whole thing.


Wednesday, 7 November 2012

Album review: MARK KNOPFLER - Privateering

Highlights: Haul Away, Privateering, Radio City Serenade, Dream Of The Drowned Submariner

It’s telling and rather sad that the first thing you want to say about the new Mark Knopfler album is that it doesn’t have one bad song on it (and for a double, 20-track LP, that is certainly quite impressive). However, it’s all about another question: just how great is the whole thing? Well, not too great, of course (Knopfler doesn’t do those). As expected, Privateering is yet another thoughtful, well-written, profoundly good Mark Knopfler album. As cozy and reliable as the chilly, drizzly November rain outside your window.

So I guess it all comes down to just how much edge Mark’s latest has. No surprises here either: the usual amount. Doesn’t quite compare to Kill To Get Crimson (still my favourite album of his), but with some serious editing Privateering could be a minor classic. Drenched in his laidback, effortless guitar playing, velvety voice and tasteful melancholy, the album has enough solid material to make it indispensable for anyone with a remote interest in the man. Gorgeous ballads are among his all-time best: songs like “Seattle” or “Radio City Serenade” are as weary and understated as they are poignant and heartbreaking.

Interestingly, the problem with Privateering is too much blues. And one could of course argue that Mark Knopfler’s songs have always had that bluesy (sometimes waltzy) flavour to them… So what’s the big deal this time? Well, this time at least one half of these songs are just straight-up, totally anonymous blues numbers that could have been composed by anyone. They are tasteful and expertly played, granted, but where’s the identity?

Still, there’s just too much good stuff here to be disappointed. So even if I do want to cut this thing in two – I still give Privateering its beautiful, well-deserved 7 without any doubts or second thoughts. Another worthy addition to Knopfler's worthy catalogue.


Sunday, 4 November 2012

SONG OF THE WEEK #80: The Band Of Holy Joy - "When Stars Come Out To Play"

This accordion-driven, circus-like waltz of a song appeared on one of the greatest, most underappreciated albums I've ever heard, More Tales Drom The City (1987, the band's second full-lengbth LP). Grab it when you see it: this is emotional, dark, deeply bizarre stuff.

Saturday, 3 November 2012

Album review: JIM NOIR - Jimmy's Show

Psychedelic pop. Don’t you absolutely detest the idea of another humourless revivalist act doing it all over again?.. We all do. However, it’s not all that sad, and once in a while a record like Jim Noir’s Jimmy’s Show might actually seem somewhat… refreshing. The album takes its cue from Britain’s whimsical psychedelic pop of the 60’s (how else?), and has unmistakable echoes of bands like Tomorrow and Nirvana (no, not that Nirvana).

All very nice. Decent pop melodies wrapped into stylish psych haze. Plus lots of pretty harmonies, pleasant keyboard grooves, non-threatening guitar solos and, last but not least, chirping of birds. Nothing rip-roaring or garage-y – Jimmy’s Show is very tasteful, stately and reserved. Almost subtle (not least in the instrumental department).

In terms of songs, little strikes me as particularly impressive here – though it’s certainly a very well-written, well-honed collection. Some of the tunes sound like lovely, half-forgotten little clich├ęs (the tune of “Praise For Your Mother”, for instance, just sounds like something you’ve heard too many times already – even if that is not the case), while others do get by thanks to classic melodies (the two harmony-filled delights, “Sunny” and my personal favourite, “Driving My Escort Cosworth To The Cake Circus”, are the standouts).

Overall, a wholly satisfactory, intriguing listen. Not overwhelmingly great, granted, but a very homely, cozy reminder of that awful (I’m using the word affectionately) decade that will never cease producing this sort of nostalgia. Like I say, lovely.


Thursday, 1 November 2012

Album review: CLOCKWORK ORCHESTRA - Friends Without Names

Highlights: The Book That Won’t Be Read, Accident, Mummer

Friends Without Names is the sort of left-field release that gives ‘left-field’ a good name. A clever (maybe too clever) synthpop record that has tested my senses in a way no other 2012 record has. It’s self-consciously edgy, it’s weird and, on occasion, just flat out disturbing. Not that you would mind, of course, for most of these songs are brimming with confidence, clever details and a seemingly endless array of whimsical, bizarre, totally irresistible hooks. Certainly not something you could wrap your head around.  

Clockwork Orchestra is the project of Ireland’s Paul Mangan, and Friends Without Names is his band’s debut. And like a good debut should be – it comes crammed with an absolutely maddening cascade of tricks and ideas. In fact, there’s a danger that one might get scared away by the sheer intensity and, well, oddness of the whole thing (quite frankly, the album is all over the place – albeit in a good way). 

The songs are generally complex, dense, multi-layered things – meticulously produced and featuring a number of different, sometimes completely different, sections. For instance, “Accident” (one of my favourites here) has a brilliant, propulsive synths groove that at some point fades away into a lovely flute part – the effect being both confusing and fascinating. This stuff is quite elaborate instrumentally; synths (often charmingly cheap and deliberately dated) might dominate the sound, but there’s some terrific violin and piano work here, too. Speaking of the latter, I’m particularly fond of the album’s penultimate instrumental track, “Mummer”, which sounds like Erik Satie kicked into the modern age.

It’s not an easy listen, and for all its relative diversity (techno pop, Krautrock, classical piano), your head will explode by track 8 – simply because there’s only so much art-pop whimsy you can take in one gulp. So no, emotionally you won’t connect with this stuff: it’s way too cold and clever for that. Which means that Friends Without Names is that proverbial ‘easy to admire, difficult to love’ album. But at this point in time – admiration is good enough. The verdict being: recommended. This is one rewarding, singular experience.