Wednesday, 30 May 2012

Album review: LOWER DENS - Nootropics

Highlights: Brains, Propagation, Nova Anthem

Like pretty much everyone else, I’m tempted to compare these guys to Beach House (weather that’s a downgrading insult or a flattering compliment is, of course a different matter). Nootropics (the band's second album) – a good title, by the way – is certainly dream pop, albeit one with a less sweet, darker, more experimental edge to it.

Having said that, it’s surely a pretty inspired, if claustrophobic, ride through empty streets and murky, half-lit rooms. The unassuming, quietly seductive opener “Alphabet Song” sets the mood nicely, but the following “Brains” with its underpinning robotic drum beat and ethereal vocals is a slow-burning triumph. Then clever, almost-playful keyboards of the short instrumental “Stem” give way to another classic, “Propagation”, which moves us further into gothic territory. Might have been woeful were it not for the beautiful, beguiling melodies floating around this thing. The first side is actually near flawless, but Lower Dens seem determined to shrug off any accusations of that sort.

The mood is indeed primarily dark (dreams substituted with nightmares), and seems to get darker and more experimental as the album progresses. The two-part “Lion In Winter” is all shadows and gloom, and the closing “In The End Is The Beginning” is a lengthy, atmospheric epic of somber grandeur and, sadly, little substance.

 I guess I’m supposed to compare it to Bloom, in which case I’d say it loses a bit in terms of sheer melodic delight. However, it does create its own world. Maybe not one you’d want to spend much time in, but definitely an addictive, intriguing one and one well worth exploring. I’d say that Nootropics has grown on me quite a bit. Beach House? Yes, but with a touch of Sonic Youth.


Monday, 28 May 2012

SONG OF THE WEEK #60: The Nightcrawlers - "The Little Black Egg"

One of the lesser known garage bands from the U.S., The Nightcrawlers were nonetheless responsible for one of the jangliest, most original 60's songs. "The Little Black Egg" was released as a single in 1965; it didn't do particularly well, but that wouldn't be telling you a lot. The song is a timeless classic - it sounds like a cross between The Byrds and The Everly Brothers: simple, melodic, but with that irresistible jangly edge. Mitch Leigh's (Joey Ramone's brother) The Rattlers did a great cover on their badly underappreciated 1984 LP.

Friday, 25 May 2012

Album review: PUBLIC IMAGE LIMITED - This Is PiL

Highlights: One Drop, Deeper Water, Terra-Gate

It’s 2012, and when John Lydon starts singing about the dead or dying Britain (which is dead or dying, still), it’s one of the world’s most life-affirming, heart-warming things. In fact, you are all but swallowed by the bittersweet feeling of nostalgia. If taken for what it’s worth, This Is PiL (their first in 20 years) is a welcome return (to form); as cluttered, contrived and bizarrely appealing as you would expect.  

We start on an obligatory introductory note, “This Is PiL”, which does well what it should, but it’s for the following three monsters that you would want to have this album. “One Drop”, “Deeper Water” and “Terra-Gate” are all ugly, difficult, masterful PiL numbers with unlikely/unpredictable hooks and sparkling guitar sections. The whole record boasts terrific production, so even if it’s plodding (and it does become plodding when we get to a more experimental territory – “Lollipop Opera” is expendable), it still sounds both interesting and inventive. Stylistically and instrumentally, we are all over the place, what with all the reggae and club music overtones and acoustic guitars and industrial noises, but more than anything else – the album sounds like your classic Public Image Limited experience. Difficult, maddening, pretentious, but giving you sensations you won’t get anywhere else.

Lasting more than an hour, the album is an exhaustive listen, and there’s absolutely no guarantee your head won’t be burning when the repetitive, almost-10-minute-long “Out Of The Woods” closer is over. Still, there’s no denying that when phrases like “I’m no vulture, this is my culture”  burst out of Lydon’s mouth, it’s bloody fucking effective.


Wednesday, 23 May 2012

Album review: AARON FREEMAN - Marvelous Clouds

Highlights: As I Love My Own, Marvelous Clouds, The World I Used To Know

In the absence of a new Ween album (not even on the horizon, as far as I can see), Aaron Freeman’s solo album will do nicely. Or will it? Hard to say: Marvelous Clouds is actually a lovely, humble collection of country-esque (think “Chocolate Town”) songs written by a renowned American poet/songwriter Rod McKuen. It’s all very hummable, and there’s absolutely nothing to dislike about these songs, but I guess few will leave here satisfied: however lovely and hummable this is, we all wanted those glowing, creative originals.

Aaron Freeman (better known as Gene Ween) is a man of enormous talent and numerous voices. The primary vocalist of Ween, he has always seemed to me the quieter of the two (Moistboyz, “It’s Gonna Be A Long Night” – that’s all Dean’s work). So that the gentle, largely acoustic world of Marvelous Clouds makes perfect sense.

The songs? By turns cheerful and downbeat (loneliness is a popular theme here), they are simple, catchy, instantly likeable, toe-tapping delights. It’s all about tunes, of course, though you obviously can’t go wrong with the warm, lush instrumentation: there’s that banjo on “One By One”, harpsichord on “The Beautiful Strangers” – all wonderful touches. To give you some specific names, “Jean” is a gorgeous ballad, and both “As I Love My Own” and “The World I Used To Know” are perfectly singalongable pop-rockers. In fact, only the banal, spoken-word “Pushing The Clouds” sounds like a totally unnecessary throwaway. The rest is gold of valuable, if decidedly unpretentious sort.

You absolutely gotta be a cynic not to be charmed by Marvelous Clouds (perfect title, by the way). However, you gotta be a complete idiot to let Aaron get away with this. I don’t know; I’m still waiting.


Sunday, 20 May 2012

SONG OF THE WEEK #59: Yeti - "Never Lose Your Sense Of Wonder"

The highly dysfunctional world of The Libertines has spawned a lot of wonderful things - but while people talk a lot about The Babyshambles and The Dirty Pretty Things (and, unfortunately, Razorlight - though the link is so slight it's not even worth mentioning), they tend to forget about this little band. Yeti, formed by The Libertines' bassist John Hassall.
Destined to stay in the shadows of Doherty and Barat, Hassall nonetheless proved to be a brilliant and frustratingly underappreciated songwriter. There's less chaos in Yeti's music, but it sounds almost as glorious in its simple, charming, Ray Davies-esque tunefulness. 
There's not much we have: one studio album (The Legend Of Yeti Gonzales, 2008) and one compilation of singles and stuff (Yume!, 2007). 2005's catchy piece of life-affirming Britishness, "Never Lose Your Sense Of Wonder", appeared on both. This is the single version - will put to shame almost anything on The Libertines.

Saturday, 19 May 2012

Album review: SIGUR RÔS - Valtari

Highlights: Ekki múkk, Dauðalogn, Varðeldur

Apparently happiness doesn’t sell.

Whatever you might think of these guys, cynical grin is inevitable. The cheerful vibes of Með suð í eyrum við spilum endalaust didn’t stick, and we’re back in the sophisticated gloom of the band’s pre-2008 period. Surely no one will have a problem with that; the jolly acoustic rhythms did sound rather effective, but it’s the self-conscious, long-winded soundscapes of beautiful, cold Icelandic sadness you want from this band.

Obviously, when approaching a Sigur Ros album you don’t ask yourself ‘will this be beautiful?’. That is never in doubt. No, it’s all about  how pretentious / transcendental / slow / dirgy / appealing /  boring this beautiful will be. And with Valtari Sigur Ros recorded what might well be the band’s least immediate album of all.  

Valtari is beautiful in a meditative, extremely understated sort of way. Only through patience and calm will these eight songs start revealing Jonsi’s leisured falsetto hooks and meat beneath this epic, sweeping instrumental minimalism. The atmosphere is slow yet seductive, and in the end it’s the singular Sigur Ros atmosphere that will drag you into the beauty of this music.  

Sometimes, however, no amount of patience and determination will help you discern any sort of substance in these songs. Which brings me to that long-gone day when I saw a girl in a record store looking for Sigur Ros records she didn’t yet have. There weren’t any, but the girl was desperate to spend some money on music (no longer a common thing, by the way). She turned to the record store owner, the record store owner turned to me. “The girl likes Sigur Ros, what should she get?” I was nosing around the post-punk section, and without thinking twice I pointed the girl in the direction of some early Siouxsie & The Banshees stuff. The girl took her pink-coloured wallet out. She probably hated me when she came home and played the record, but I’ve never really felt sorry for whatever it was that I did.

Valtari is a genuinely good Sigur Ros album.


Thursday, 17 May 2012

Album review: ALLO DARLIN' - Europe

Highlights: Neil Armstrong, Capricornia, Europe, Northern Lights

There was much praise of Allo Darlin’s self-titled debut released in 2010. However, it was also evident that much of this praise was made up of stuff like “well, there’s nothing wrong with this pretty collection of pop tunes” or “not a bad way to spend your Friday night”. That’s rather telling actually – this must be what worthy, pleasant-sounding, anaemic twee pop does to you. Don’t get me wrong, Allo Darlin’ the album was a nice little thing (however, “Woody Allen” doesn’t have much of a melody, does it) – whose wild praise can only be explained by the existence of people easily excited by a sweet-looking, sweet-sounding girl singing about kissing someone’s salty lips.

So what about this follow-up album? For some random reason, Europe has really done it for me. The songs sound gutsier, catchier, more self-assured – admittedly not by much, but there’s no question that the three opening songs can beat anything on their debut. Three glorious pop creations that don’t even make you ask yourself whether this is twee pop or not.

And twee pop it is, of course. Sound-wise, Allo Darlin’ haven’t changed. Pleasant, non-threatening guitars (occasionally quite jangly), ukulele, some violin. What’s not to like? Particularly when Elizabeth Morris’ voice is as heart and soul melting as it was two years ago. Actually, if there’s a more or less clear-cut difference between this album and its predecessor, it’s the absence of male vocals. Not something I welcome (nothing wrong with Elizabeth’s singing – but that brought some much-needed diversity), but I do of course welcome the melodies and the guys’ consistency. Speaking of the former, it’s just one summary gem after another. The first side is pretty much perfect, with “Capricornia” reaching the melodic heights not even “My Heart Is A Drummer” could. While a little less inspired (or is it just tiredness creeping in?..), the second side offers more of the same – the stripped-down “Tallulah” a possible nod to The Go-Betweens.

In terms of quality, Europe shows Allo Darlin’ getting ever so closer to the genre’s greats, like Field Mice and B&S. As for girl-fronted ones – well, I don’t know. Dolly Mixture have absolutely nothing on Morris and co. Brilliant feel-good, hook-filled way to spend your next Friday night. And, for that matter, the whole weekend.       


Sunday, 13 May 2012

SONG OF THE WEEK #58: Felt - "Trails Of Colour Dissolve"

Felt were obviously one of the greatest, jangliest, most intelligent and underappreciated bands of the 80's, and "Trails Of Colour Dissolve" has always been a personal favourite. The song was released on their 1984 EP, My Face Is On Fire; nice rhythm guitar here, and of course Lawrence's irresistible, somewhat Lou Reed-esque vocals that make the actual melody even better than it already is.
The video might look out of place, but it does work in a completely bizarre way. Reminds me of an exhibition of modern art I once saw in Newcastle. There was a never-ending video with one man lying motionless on the floor and the other tap dancing all over him. Truly mesmerizing.

Saturday, 12 May 2012

Album review: RUFUS WAINWRIGHT - Out Of The Game

Highlights: Out Of The Game, Rashida, Bitter Tears, Perfect Man

I remember reading one of Rufus’s more recent interviews in which he claimed that his new album (produced by Mark Ronson, no less) is going to be different. Different in that it will mark his embracing pop music totally and completely. Not really sure how Mr Wainwright defines pop music, but Out Of The Game holds no surprises. Lush, richly produced, romantic affair – in no way is it different from, say, Release The Stars. For the record, it is a pop record. And a brilliant one at that.

I hear very little of Ronson on Out Of The Game. Not that the whole thing had to be infused with heavy layers of horns (oh yes we have those) or something, but the changes are very slight indeed. Maybe the production is a little more intricate this time, what with all the neat instrumental nuances in the background, but otherwise we’re deep and safe in Rufus’s gorgeous, velvety territory. (Have another look at that cover.)

Which is fine by me. Classy, impeccable collection of regal pop melodies, waves of backup vocals (mostly or all female) and that charming, seductive voice that is as passionate as it is nonchalant. Some of this stuff may be quite playful (the gloriously old-fashioned “Welcome To The Ball”, the funky “Perfect Man”) and some slow and wistful (the acoustic “Sometimes What You Need”, closing “Candles” with its effective bagpipe coda), but it is all imbued with equally stylish and tasteful vibes. "Bitter Tears" is about as good as intelligent pop music can get - making you feel that in the end there really was some truth in Rufus's claims.

Easy 8 for Out Of The Game. Luxurious sounding album that becomes even more priceless on further listens. 


Wednesday, 9 May 2012

Album review: BEACH HOUSE - Bloom

Highlights: Myth, Wild, The Hours, Troublemaker

Some have already proclaimed this the or at least an album of the year, but I’m certainly not going that far. You know that proverbial album where you enjoy every second and every moment, but don’t find a single song you couldn’t live without. For me, Bloom is more or less that sort of album. Dreamy, engaging, melodic – just not gutsy enough. That said, fans of the band and lovers of the genre (mellow dream pop, obviously) will find another gorgeous and leisured world to wallow in. Nothing wrong with that.

Bloom is a very well-written, well-constructed collection of songs. Much like Teen Dream before it. Not yet prepared to say which album is better, but one thing for sure: you can’t beat these guys in terms of consistency. Ten 4 and 5 minute dream pop confections with slow-burning melodies and positive, charming vibes. Picking highlights is a completely random thing here: they are all good. Hey, nice tune, you would think. And then you would think that again. And again.

The impeccable instrumentation proves that the guys have mastered the form to the extent where you could just sit back and admire the whole thing, bit by bit. Songs like “Wild” or “Troublemaker” have such intriguing, hypnotic intros, you almost regret the moment those hazy vocals come to wash you away and take to the world of milk and honey. Thinking, rather cynically perhaps, that those vocals are more lovely and precious than, well, beautiful.

Bloom is a perfect album, that bit is certain. It so clearly was made to sound perfect. My only problem with it – it may just be not great enough. But its musing, infectious tentacles keep growing on and inside of me in a way most irresistible and beguiling. I’m giving it a low 8 now, and feeling a tad uncomfortable about that. Bloom is not much. It’s a bit like plague. But God what a sweet, sweet plague.


Monday, 7 May 2012

SONG OF THE WEEK #57: The Ramones - "She Talks To Rainbows"

Anticipating Joey Ramone's posthumous second album (Do Ya?, released this May), I've been relistening to the whole Ramones catalogue. Thankfully, they sound as fresh and fascinating as ever. What struck me this time is how underrated Adios Amigos (1995) is. Sure, it has its fair share of weak songs ("Cretin Family", "Got A Lot To Say"), but there's a definite feeling that for the very last outing they were desperately trying their best. Joey's two contributions are particularly wonderful: the upbeat "Life's A Gas" and the somewhat depressing "She Talks To Rainbows". Here's the latter:

Friday, 4 May 2012

Album review: OLAFUR ARNALDS & NILS FRAHM - Stare

Highlights: b1

An album of 3 tracks, 25 minutes and song titles like “a1”, “a2” and “b1” is surely (post)minimalism taken to its near extreme point. However, wait till you hear the actual sounds – challenging the usual suspects like Brian Eno and renowned minimalists like Steve Reich and Philip Glass. Pretty, suppressed and understated soundscapes, barely rising above the level when background music stops being background music and becomes a self-sufficient work of art.

But that, of course, is kind of the whole point of minimalism. To barely exist, to barely register, but to somehow remain complete and effective. And Stare does qualify. It doesn’t really overwhelm you the way Nils Frahm’s full-bloodied minimalism of Felt did last year, but both Arnalds and Frahm surely know how to forge beauty out of the most quiet and unobtrusive sort of nothingness.

Considering the two men involved, Stare is part beautiful bleak ambience, part beautiful tinkling piano. Exactly what you would expect. Needless to say, it’s all gorgeous stuff – but only if you are prepared for it. It’s a slow, meditative mood you have to enter in order to appreciate all the subtleties of this music, brimming with loveliest, airiest piano notes and sound effects. Not forgetting the violin appearing in the second half of “b2”, of course, that brings the whole thing to a pleasantly subdued climax.

There’s a rather significant moment when the piano-less “b2” stops abruptly and gives way to Frahm’s raindrop-like playing. It’s a moment of utter magic, and it makes you notice the unexpected break – effectively telling you that what you’ve just heard did actually happen. Honestly, I wasn’t being cynical there. In a post-intellectual, post-human way, I quite possibly understood and definitely enjoyed Stare.


Thursday, 3 May 2012


Seems like a good decade ago. My first exposure to the deeply depressed and fucked up world of David Foster Wallace was his award-winning short story called “Good Old Neon”. A dense, self-defeating, self-pitying monologue that seemed a lot more gripping than it should be. The story doesn’t have much of a plot – just a guy who thinks himself into thinking that he is a fraud. Since this guy is pretty much the author himself (to a large extent in any case), you understand this was the area Wallace didn’t even need to explore. For all his sense of humour and relative success, this was the world he inhabited. Full of hideous men and morose, intense self-deprecation.

It took me some time, as well as Wallace’s untimely death, to get back to the man’s writing. These two books I’m reviewing here, his collection of short stories / sketches titled Brief Interviews With Hideous Men and a set of articles and essays Consider The Lobster, represent two sides of Wallace’s writing: fiction and non-fiction. Although having said that, do they really?..

They say fiction can tell you a lot more about its author than a diary or a memoir can ever hope to. Apparently this is an arguable point, but one very much justified in the case of David Foster Wallace. There  isn’t much fictional value in his 1999’s Brief Interviews With Hideous Men. Do not expect conventional short stories with your climaxes and your denouements. Instead, expect wordy and weedy observations stuffed in the minds and mouths of, well, hideous men. Moody, self-obsessed, withdrawn and just flat out disgusting. All, we now understand, deeply rooted in the author’s complexes and fears.

Since Wallace isn’t bothered with giving us memorable or at least half-tangible stories, much of it seems anaemic and doesn’t really stick with you. You may remember certain details or rather exotic agendas which drive these people into sorry and despicable states (here’s a guy whose father works in a urinal; here’s a guy with a stump for an arm and who walks around causing pity in others; here’s a guy who thinks that in the large scheme of things Holocaust may be a good thing, etc.), but there’s only so much ugliness and depression you may take in one go. Chances are, you will get bored. Or maybe you won’t, but in that case you most certainly are the sort of troubled individual Wallace was writing this for.

Why brief Interviews? Well, quite simply, that’s the form Wallace found most fitting to present the personalities of these people. For instance, you have this guy who is full of spite for men who think they know how to please a woman. So what we get is a rather repetitive (and rather annoying) monologue that’s actually a dialogue with no questions voiced. You just know there is a question, and probably an obvious one, but you don’t see it. This sort of format is effective, and allows you to get involved and perhaps even identify with the hideous man in question. Then again, maybe not.

However, my favourite piece here is not an interview but a lengthy, meditative reflection on growing up called “Forever Overhead”. A simple enough metaphor; the author is observing a young girl about to springboard into the swimming pool. It’s a beguiling, transfixing piece, and the way this girl (it’s her thirteenth birthday) is about to be immersed into this hostile and adult world, you get entangled in Wallace’s unassuming, verbose prose.

Brief Interviews With Hideous Men is not a great book, but it’s occasionally half amusing to read about a guy who is detestable and knows it. Much like that anonymous author of Dostoyevsky’s Notes From Underground.


Consider The Lobster, on the other hand, is wildly entertaining. None of that depressing, self-imposed misery. And where from? The book is a collection of essays, articles and reviews dealing with issues as diverse and intriguing as lobsters (yes), John McCain and pornography. And the good thing is that the contents are as gripping as the themes that Wallace covers.

Part of the book’s appeal lies in the sheer immediacy of its language. Wallace knows no intellectual restraints, he is just giving it all out – much like a modern day blogger. But with a lot more insight and writing chops.

Every piece manages to be addictive in its own way. It’s touching (“The View from Mrs. Thompson’s” is Wallace’s personal experience of 9/11), cynical (“Up, Simba” is a lengthy account of McCain’s presidential campaign that Wallace was commissioned to write for Rolling Stone), and occasionally quite technical and scientific (his exhaustive review of Bryan A. Garner’s A Dictionary Of Modern American Usage). Wallace’s main strength as a non-fiction writer is his ability to find humour or/and appeal in such seemingly dead topics as the Maine Lobster Festival or trashy memoirs of once great sportsmen (in “How Tracy Austin Broke My Heart” the author wanders from Austin’s monosyllabic autobiography to the general problem of sports memoirs).

My favourite essay, though, has to be the one that opens the collection. “Big Red Son”, a totally electrifying article on AVN Awards (sort of Oscars in pornographic film industry). The piece evoked an essay by Martin Amis I once read in Guardian. It was called “A Rough Trade” and it dealt with Amis’s close (too close you might say) experience with American pornographic market. But whereas Amis has successfully explored and exploited the subject in a number of his novels and short stories, Wallace’s writing gives off an appealing odour of innocence and bewilderment (which is only natural). When he calls the Awards “an apocalyptic cocktail party” or “an obscene and extremely well-funded High School assembly”, it’s both hilarious and credible.

“Big Red Son” is a terrific insight into the world inhabited by humourless people with hilarious names. Like critic Dick Filth, for instance. People who nonetheless take the whole pornography thing very seriously indeed. A contrast Wallace makes us enjoy so much.

In the end, you have to admit that it’s precisely non-fiction writing where Wallace excelled. It’s wickedly entertaining pieces on boiling lobsters and adult cinema that disclose his deep, complex, intriguing, insecure personality. 


Wednesday, 2 May 2012

Album review: IAN ANDERSON - Thick As A Brick 2

Highlights: Banker Bets, Banker Wins, Swing It Far, Wooton Bassett Town, A Change Of Horses

There’s no question that Ian Anderson’s unexpected Thick As A Brick rehash is a shameless product of nostalgia. And as such, it should be an embarrassing failure. 40 (!) years have passed since the original work that in this reviewer’s eyes remains progressive rock’s greatest achievement. But against all odds and in a totally bizarre way, Thick As A Brick 2 is an unlikely success. Melodies, instrumentation, riffs, even lyrics – all great, all a testament to the unfading brilliance of the 1972 work.

This album works because it is made from the winning mould and because Anderson is playing to his strengths. The man has taste (we’ll forget some 80’s/90’s lapses, nobody’s perfect) and the man can still compose a memorable, effortless folk melody. Check out the one-minute little ditty called “Give Till It Hurts” that evokes all the classic charm of “Cheap Day Return”.

It also helps that Thick As A Brick 2 is filled with neat little melodic and instrumental ideas. There are compact guitar and keyboard solos when you need them, frenetic flute parts and that adorable fingerpicking recreating the classic Jethro Tull sound. Like they should. You might make a point that it all lacks one truly ecstatic section of the “Do you believe in the day?” caliber, but comparing it to the original thing would be pointless in the first place. Even if, yes, there are numerous references to the original (just take a look at that cover; also, guess how the whole thing ends…), including direct ones. And yes, Anderson actually mentions things like “locomotive breath” and “passion play” in the process. And how could he not?

What counts is that there is not a single moment here I do not welcome. Every second of the 8-minute epic “A Change Of Horses”, complete with accordion riffs and guitar/flute solos, sounds warm and captivating. Few spoken word bits do not overstay their welcome, and the album’s most accomplished song, “Banker Bets, Banker Wins”, has such a classic vibe about it that it is bound to get you back to the good old days of, interestingly, Heavy Horses. Nothing wrong with that.

Oddly, the album works precisely because it is a shameless product of nostalgia. Ian doesn’t deviate, doesn’t get distracted. Having come up with a bunch of new tunes, he is pleasantly wallowing in the sound of his acclaimed classic. One whose legacy he loves too much to let it be destroyed so easily and so carelessly. And from a JT fan, it’s a big and hearty ‘thank you’.