Saturday, 30 June 2012

Album review: DEXYS MIDNIGHT RUNNERS - One Day I'm Going To Soar

Highlights: Now, Lost, She Got A Wiggle, You

It would be true to say that for me One Day I’m Going To Soar is the most wildly anticipated album of 2012. I rate the Dexys’ three 80’s albums as some of that decade’s absolute best, so I approached this fourth one with that unforgettable, slightly dizzying feeling... And no, it isn’t quite Searching For The Young Soul Rebels, and yes, it is gloriously out of time, but even if we forget all about that cheap nostalgia thing for a while – the songs are still fantastic. Soulful, crazy, romantic, and absolutely addictive.

“Now”, which opens this album, is a perfect introduction. It starts like a fairly old-fashioned, romantic piano ballad before splashing all over your speakers with its intense soulful groove, effective brass and Kevin Rowland’s passionate, charismatic voice. Brilliant, the band so effortlessly meeting our loftiest expectations. But then “Lost” is almost as good, a string-drenched, exquisite beauty. It’s only 3 minutes long, though (the shortest song here), and then things look a lot more settled and low-key on “Me” (which has a bit of that Dexys talking/bantering I actually find quite engaging). “She Got A Wiggle” and the joyful, feel-good “You” are other highlights – classic Dexys material.

The second side is the more adventurous, improvisational (I’m using the term loosely), Don’t Stand Me Down-styled territory (with slightly weaker songs). Here the Dexys rely more on terrific lengthy grooves and quite a bit of that old-school bantering (on “Incapable Of Love”, as well as the elegiac “It’s O.K. John Doe” that closes the record). I see how it can annoy some, but that wouldn’t be me: they use it with so much intelligence, imagination and taste. Instrumentally, too, this stuff is top-notch.

Make no mistake about it, One Day I’m Going To Soar is a record taken straight out of the 80’s. You won’t find any traces of 2012 here, but isn’t that the way we all wanted it to be?.. The album is actually as addictive as 2012 can ever hope to be.


Thursday, 28 June 2012


It’s got to count for something when the most upbeat story in your first published book is called “Cocker At The Theatre” and tells about the staging of a pornographic play during which one of the ‘actors’ suddenly starts doing it for real. Much to the dismay and amazement of the director. This is a breath of fresh air (or you might call it laughing gas) that you should cherish. Because moments later you are once again dragged into bizarre lives and incidents involving perverts, lesbians and cupboard men. All to be featured in the disturbed and disturbing world of McEwan’s novels.

McEwan’s first short story collection, First Love, Last Rites (1975), is clearly an apprentice job (finding his voice, perfecting his craft, establishing his identity – that sort of thing), but you wouldn’t dare call it humble beginnings. ‘Humble’ would be the wrong word. It’s outré, it’s bold, it’s risqué, and it’s dead serious. That might be the thing about McEwan, one that so discretely separates him from that other conspicuous exponent of his generation (as well as his friend), Martin Amis. Sex doesn’t take farcical, grotesque proportions in his prose (like it does in Amis’s writing): instead, it’s depressing, painful and inescapably real.

“Homemade” opens this collection, and it tells you exactly what to expect. It’s a coming-of-age story with a characteristically warped edge to it, its incestuous climax a direct precursor of McEwan’s first novel, The Cement Garden. It’s powerful and unforgettable, and the unlikely happy, even triumphant ending will surely leave a sickly taste in your mouth. It was meant that way.

McEwan doesn’t mind getting surreal on occasion, and whereas in “Solid Geometry” it comes courtesy of a supernatural, somewhat Kafka-esque twist, in “Disguises” it’s that quizzical, elusive atmosphere of the last few pages. Otherwise, First Love, Last Rites is our very real world blown off to its most marginalized, morose, despicable proportions.

For me, the most striking stories are “Last Day In Summer” and “Butterflies” (largely due to the sticky shock value). For all its undercurrent nerve, the former might look like one of McEwan’s brighter, lovelier, more romantic stories – but then of course, you knew it all along: it’s not going to be, it’s just not going to be. “Ian Macabre” was his nickname, and it wasn’t given for nothing. As for "Butterflies", it is McEwan at his most disturbing and engrossing. It’s a story of a pervert (who doesn’t know he is a pervert, up to a point) and a little girl (who wants to see butterflies, also up to a point). It’s depressing and disgusting, all the more so because it also happens to be so simple and so mundane.

Dysfunctional families, bleeding rats, paedophilia – it’s all in there. It’s all on the outskirts of your favourite town. You don’t want to see it, you don’t want to hear a word of it, and you only read it because it is written so masterfully and with such an intelligent, if grim, insight.


In Between The Sheets (1978) was published three years later, and it finds McEwan deep in that very same area. It’s the same edgy subject matter, same writing style, same mood, similar characters, but it is also evident that there is a certain drop in consistency here that results in a couple of confused stories that I will get to in a minute.

As if First Love, Last Rites wasn’t shocking enough, In Between The Sheets spices things up even more, this time with midgets and zoophilia. I’m only mentioning the details because at some point you start having a distinct impression that if you take them out, those sick details, some of McEwan’s short stories would be reduced to almost nothing. It may be his dark artistic vision, but it also seems that he is sometimes macabre for the sake of being macabre. (Not that the book is not enjoyable in its disgusting, odd, twisted way.)

So what’s good? Well, “Pornography” is good, telling of a pornographer who is dating two women simultaneously. Both women are nurses working at the same hospital, and when they learn of his venereal disease (which he may have passed on to them), they know exactly what to do about that. It’s a twist-in-the-tail story, McEwan-style. Another favourite would be ‘Dead As They Come” about a successful businessman who falls in love with a mannequin. The story has an intricate, intriguing buildup, and gives McEwan a great opportunity to express the ordinary in what is essentially perverted and completely ludicrous.

However, some of these stories are just plain weak. “To And Fro” is a surreal collage that is neither comprehensible nor engaging. In fact, the only good thing about it is that it is too brief to become annoying. “Two Fragments” is futuristic and intriguing, but is still what it says: two fragments. The closing “Psychopolis” is well-written but meandering. It threatens to be great in places, and offers a couple of strong leads and ideas, but the overall impression remains very fuzzy and vague.

McEwan’s fans should not be disappointed, but I’d recommend starting with First Love. Still, In Between The Sheets is filled with what McEwan does best: he discloses things about your nature you never wanted to know, he drags out those black dogs from the deepest reaches of your subconscious and imagination. And however intimidating that might sound, it is a most unforgettable experience.


Album review: THE WALKMEN - Heaven

Highlights: Heartbreaker, The Witch

Heaven is the sort of indie rock album I can only appreciate while it lasts (though only fragmentarily), and then I will forget all about its handsomely ringing guitars, sweet but unexceptional melodies, and perfectly decent vocals that don’t have an ounce of personality about them. I have a hard time thinking of two reasons why anyone would find time to obsess over this stuff, but at the very least it’s all really well-done – so I’ll give them that. Still, the fact remains: this is indie music with no identity.

Guitars really are the best thing about this album. They are clear, crisp, jangly, bluesy, folksy, rippling, and just plain gorgeous. And when the melodies are good (“The Witch”, which is a unique song in that it has its Nick Cave moments mixed with its Shins moments; the infectious single “Heartbreaker”), it all makes for a very enjoyable listen. Most of the upbeat songs are actually quite effective – it’s when they go for the atmosphere, dreaminess and minor chords (“Southern Heart”, “Line By Line”) that I start losing them completely. What am I supposed to make of the closer, “Dreamboat”, that for all its outward prettiness has very little in terms of substance? It’s just poor. The more upbeat tracks do not outstrip this 
bland balladry by a mile, but they are at least moderately catchy.

Heaven is never annoying: it’s frustrating. It’s good but faceless. Sadly, The Walkmen are from that all-familiar story in which an excited friend gives you a record saying this is the shit. You go on a listen to it and then come back to your friend saying well, okay, but have you heard…?

Think a nice little indie-rock band run over by Fleet Foxes.


Monday, 25 June 2012

SONG OF THE WEEK #63: The Byrds - "What's Happening?!?!"

Out of all the 60's bands, The Byrds have always seemed the most special to me. And when I say "What's Happening?!?!", I'm not in any way choosing their best song. It just happens to be a personal favourite from what could well be the band's greatest record (Fifth Dimension, 1966). Crosby's soulful classic, it's beguiling and intriguing to an almost dangerous point.

Saturday, 23 June 2012

Album review: PATTI SMITH - Banga

Highlights: April Fool, After The Gold Rush, Just Kids (bonus track)

New album by Patti Smith, no less. Named after Pontius Pilate’s dog (from Bulgakov’s novel), containing song titles like “Seneca” and “Tarkovsky”. Plus a 10-minute spoken word epic called “Constantine’s Dream”. If that doesn’t sound pretentious or at least mildly intimidating, I don’t know what will. As you would expect, Banga is an expansive, impressionistic monster of an album, every bit a product of the artist who came up with Horses way back when. Whatever you might think of it, Banga is a success. The frustrating part is that way too often it comes at the expense of that intriguing but rare and elusive (in Smith’s case) element: strong melody.

Hints of certain creative stagnation can easily be noticed in the 8-year gap (for all the good it did, 2007’s Twelve was an all covers record). Smith’s previous collection of original songs was Trampin’ from 2004 – a surprisingly brilliant album with some of her most gripping and inspired tunes in quite some time.

But guts, intensity, confidence, clarity of vision – those things cannot be forfeited. Not in 8 years, not ever. And Banga sounds so good – vocally as well as instrumentally Patti and her band (Tony Shannahan, Lenny Kaye, others) are in fantastic shape. The album drifts masterfully from rocking and driving (title track with its see-sawing guitar, “Fuji-san”) to ruminative and downbeat (cover of Neil Young’s “After The Gold Rush” is gorgeous, and so is the Amy Winehouse-dedicated “This Is The Girl” – Mulholland Drive, anyone?). It has its poppy moments (like the lead single “April Fool”, easily the catchiest, most immediate song on the album), but can also get meandering and just plain boring (“Tarkovsky (The Second Stop Is Jupiter)” is expendable). And then of course there’s the centerpiece, “Constantine’s Dream”. Which is actually quite amazing: it starts like a lovely ballad and then expands into this pretentious, improvisational, propulsive poetry piece that in all honesty sounds less gruesome and a lot more magnetic than it should. 

Banga is a complete album by a fulfilled artist. I doubt that it will add much to her legacy (but then neither did Trampin’) or bring her new converts, but you just have to admire this album. Its missteps are actually so organic that saying no to one second or intonation on the album would be akin to saying no to Patti Smith. High 7, low 8. Will definitely come back to it at some point.


Wednesday, 20 June 2012

Album review: GUIDED BY VOICES - Class Clown Spots A UFO

Highlights: He Rises! Our Union Bellboy, Forever Until It Breaks, Class Clown Spots A UFO, Keep It In Motion, Starfire

Talking about a work of art. There’s something disconcerting about knowing that an album you enjoy was written over breakfast. Well, exaggerations aside, this still looks slightly preposterous: Class Clown Spots A UFO is the second album out of three Robert Pollard releases over the course of one single year under the Guided By Voices moniker. Pretty much like Let’s Go Eat The Factory, Class Clown is a kind of predictably good album I love and then hate myself for it.

It’s obvious that at this point in time being a GBV is a bonus and a blessing. Pollard just keeps knocking them out, 20-song outbursts of melodic, half-baked, DIY delights we all keep expecting from him. And so what if his newest only has about three songs you would find indispensable and would immediately want to include on that imaginary Guided By Voices best-of that will never happen (for objective reasons) – it’s all consistent, well-written stuff. Class Clown has time for both: for showcasing Pollard’s excellent guitar playing and, most importantly, the man’s amazing songwriting skills. Melodically, this stuff is rooted in the 60’s pop music, and Robert manages to make the most of it, moving from beautifully orchestrated and absolutely gorgeous (if brief; “Chain To The Moon”, “Starfire”) to all rough and garagey (“Hang Up And Try Again”, “Jon The Croc”).

As ever with Guided By Voices, picking highlights is a gruesome task. This time I went for the ones that hit me particularly hard on the third listen. I should probably give this one a 7, but then it’s not any worse than Let’s Go Eat The Factory… Am I ready to take on Pollard’s third in a year? Well, maybe not right now, but ask me again in a month or two.


Sunday, 17 June 2012

SONG OF THE WEEK #63: Wayne County & The Electric Chairs - "Trying To Get On The Radio"

While overall I prefer Wayne County & The EC's second album, Things Your Mother Never Told You, "Trying To Get On The Radio" off the band's debut (Storm The Gates Of Heaven, 1978) remains my absolute favourite song of theirs. Not punk rock, just a delightful pop anthem (that chorus is simply ecstatic) that is either too honest or too ironic. Regardless of that, I love it.

Saturday, 16 June 2012

Album review: ЛЕОНИД ФЕДОРОВ - Весна

Лучшие песни: Весна, Конь, Трон, Элегия

(For a change, and considering that this is Leonid Fedorov, the review is written in Russian)

Можно долго и нудно рассуждать о том, что не так с русской рок музыкой (а многое не так), но куда приятнее поговорить о Леониде Федорове и об Аукцыоне. Вот они – это все, что так в русской музыке. Вполне можно забыть обо всех остальных – тех, у кого нет чувства юмора, а также о тех, у кого кроме юмора ничего нет.

Аукцыон всегда казался особенным. Замечательные, харизматичные музыканты (одних телодвижений Гаркуши и голоса Федорова хватило бы на всю остальную русскую рок сцену), самые невероятные тексты (на которых они, кстати, никогда не зацикливались), свежие и яркие мелодии (неодномерные, без предсказуемого советского/русского привкуса), изобретательные аранжировки (я до сих пор открываю в Бодуне новые и удивительные вещи).

Но Федоров. Пусть Федоров и был основным композитором Аукцыона, его сольные альбомы – это все же несколько другая история. Достаточно сказать, что там нет того неотразимого, буйного аукцыоновского звучания. Однако есть все же довольно чувствительная разница между его альбомом Анабэна 2003 года и Весной 2012. Здесь более полные, более продуманные аранжировки (несмотря на кажущуюся небрежность, в инструментальном плане, в Весне есть изысканнейшие моменты), что, правда, вовсе не отменяет удивительной непосредственности Федорова.     

На альбоме действительно много чего происходит. В замечательном «Коне» девочка пионерским голосом читает стихотворение о боге, откуда-то берется тяжелая гитара в привычно одиозном «Баньщике», а «Думал», в смысле музыки и в смысле текста – вещь вообще гаркушинская. Конечно, есть этот причудливый, неповторимый голос, но я всегда особенно любил мелодии Федорова. И вполне определенно могу сказать, что такие вещи, как «Трон» или «Весна» (он повторяет мелодию «Весны» в последней «Элегии»), очень здорово бы смотрелись на любом альбоме Аукцыона.

Весна – один из тех альбомов, которые всегда приятно переслушивать заново. Он вычурно неидеальный, но в этом и весь он – Федоров. С его талантом и с его самоиронией.


Wednesday, 13 June 2012

Album review: CITIZENS! - Here We Are

Highlights: True Romance, Reptile, Caroline, (I’m In Love With Your) Girlfriend

If you’ve heard of this album, chances are it’s because this album is produced by Alex Kapranos. But before I get to Here We Are (which is delightful), a couple of words about Alex Kapranos. Now whatever you might think of Franz Ferdinand and their last album, you just have to admit that back in 2004-2005 Kapranos was writing some of Britain’s most distinctive indie pop songs. Where has it all gone, one has to wonder, and rightfully so: 2 great albums in 2 years, 1 okay album in 7. If nothing remarkable happens, Kapranos might end up one of the most frustrating talents of his generation. Another potentially classic songwriter now wasted and lost… (hopefully not)

Well, for all its gratuitous drama, that wasn’t a random rant. I only mention all that because Here We Are, the debut album by a London-based band Citizens!, manages to capture some of that irresistible excitement of Franz Ferdinand’s best songs. What is more, Here We Are gives us a great opportunity to hear Tonight that actually worked.

Citizens! play catchy, convincing electro-pop/rock music that borrows from 80’s synth-pop and, naturally, Franz Ferdinand. Speaking of the latter, the influence is particularly palpable on the funky, infectious “(I’m In Love With Your) Girlfriend” that is one of the album’s biggest highlights. While you just feel that Citizens! took great care not to record anything subpar for their debut, the best tunes are all concentrated at the very beginning: the first 3 tracks are delicious pieces of intelligent electro-pop, with “Caroline” (one of the year’s most irresistible choruses, obviously) worthy of any classic Sparks song of the 80’s (think better parts of In Outer Space).

The record never quite recaptures those heights again, and some of those second-side tracks are rather unexceptionable (if well-written and well-produced), but there’s great spirit and self-confidence there that you can’t deny. Citizens! know what they are doing, and they are doing it well. Dancey grooves, catchy beats? Derivative, I hear you say, but I don’t know: with songs this good, I just couldn’t care any less. Sounds a lot gutsier and, hell, better than Hot Chip. If that counts for anything.


Monday, 11 June 2012

SONG OF THE WEEK #62: Gorky's Zygotic Mynci - "Patio Song"

You just don't come up with more ridiculous band names than Gorky's Zygotic Mynci. However, you can't take it away from them: back in the 90's the Welsh band created a number of lovely/quirky indie-folk songs and albums. 
Sung partly in English, partly in Welsh, "Patio Song" was perhaps their best song - and, fittingly, it appeared on their best album, Barafundle (1997). This is like sipping cool lemonade in the hot midday sun. Classic tune, and a very good live version from a 1997 Festival set.

Friday, 8 June 2012

Album review: THE MONOCHROME SET - Platinum Coils

Highlights: Hip Kitten Spinning Chrome, I Can’t Control My Feet, Mein Kapitan, They Call Me Silence

Much like 2011’s Here Before, Platinum Coils marks a brilliant return from a largely forgotten post-punk outfit. And much like The Feelies did last year, The Monochrome Set not so much deviate from the sound of their relatively low-key heyday as make it somewhat more commercial, more lush, more appealing. Fine with me: most of the songs on Platinum Coils are superior to almost anything off Strange Boutique (their acclaimed debut from 1980).

So is the band’s signature quirkiness absent from this album? Well, not entirely, though we certainly have less of that, and with songs as amazingly catchy as the opening double attack “Hip Kitten Spinning Chrome” and “I Can’t Control My Feet”, you wouldn’t really mind (though I have a feeling that swinging hook line in the two songs is rather similar – however, what a classic hook line that is!). Actually, the album’s melodies are largely excellent, whether they go for Caribbean intonations (“Waiting For Alberto”) or predictably country-esque ones (“Les Cowboys”). The whole thing sounds memorable, charming and utterly convincing.   

Still, for all its consistency, Platinum Coils does lose me towards the end. “I’m Happy To Be Here” is an excellent proof of the point Robert Forster of The Go-Betweens makes in his terrific 10 Rules of Rock’n’Roll book. Meaning that the penultimate song on an album is also the weakest one. You could of course give me dozens of cases when that is not true, but “I’m Happy…” is so frustratingly unremarkable that you would have to fall for Forster’s preposterous/brilliant theory.

Sadly, the closing instrumental “Brush With Death” is no great shakes either. Just a perfectly decent, perfectly average, leisurely end to a great album from a forgotten, but reinvigorated band – that gave it another shot and didn’t miss it. Certainly not artistically.


Thursday, 7 June 2012

Album review: COLD SPECKS - I Predict A Graceful Expulsion

Highlights: Heavy Hands, Winter Solstice, Hector, Blank Maps

“Doom soul” is the way the lady herself (singer-songwriter Al Spx) describes her style, and it would be hard to argue with that. Whatever is going on musically as well as lyrically on I Predict A Graceful Expulsion comes off extremely resonating – but intensely, insistently cold (hence “Cold Specks”). Cold and gloomy. If this description doesn’t sound too exciting (and it shouldn’t), let me just tell you that this is one of the most original, singular debut albums you will hear all year.

Even though the LP is filled with most gorgeous, affecting tunes, the whole thing is largely about the singing. Which is, in a word, remarkable. Not easy to pin down, it’s somewhat reminiscent of people like PJ Harvey and, amazingly, Tom Waits (obviously I’m talking about her manner of singing, not her actual voice). Soulful and possessing some unmistakably creepy, creeping, deep undertones that really get under your skin. Especially when drenched in haunting piano lines and effective, understated violins. It’s hard to overlook such beguiling, mesmerizing intros like the ones on “Hector” or “Blank Maps”.

I Predict A Graceful Expulsion is a near-perfect collection of eleven dark, slightly bluesy ballads. Not spooky, just moody and dark. And sounding quite unlike anything that is released these days. I’d go for a nine if it contained another two or three songs as outstanding as “Winter Solstice” (which could almost beat Nico’s “Winter Song” in terms of those windy, wintry vibes), but this is a fantastic achievement. 


Sunday, 3 June 2012

SONG OF THE WEEK #61: The Monochrome Set - "Hip Kitten Spinning Chrome"

Platinum Coils (out now - soon to be reviewed) is a very worthy comeback from The Monochrome Set, another one of those forgotten post-punk also-rans. Too early to say, of course, but I wouldn't be surprised if this one ends up the single catchiest (we're talking catchy and intelligent) song of the year. I adore both the vibe and the tune.