Friday, 31 August 2012

Album review: LAWRENCE ARABIA - The Sparrow

Highlights: Travelling Shoes, Lick Your Wounds, The Bisexual, Legends

Not enough people realize it, but New Zealand has had a really powerful intelligent pop scene spanning over several decades now. From The Clean to Garageland to (more recently and to a lesser extent) Flight Of The Conchords, it’s been brilliant, weird, inventive, erratic. And James Milne (here under his inexplicable T.E. Lawrence moniker) is without a doubt among the most interesting New Zealand songwriters working today. Not yet in the Martin Phillipps league, but getting there.

The Sparrow, this group’s third full-length, is an indie pop album played in a very classy, self-consciously non-indie style. No modern technologies, no fuzz, no nothing – just a very tasteful, very stylish collection of beautifully executed, elegant baroque pop compositions. With classical violins, pianos, thumping bass and James’s lovely, slightly Lennon-esque vocals (occasionally adhering to falsetto).

The opening “Travelling Shoes” with its irresistible vocal melody is a clear highlight, but you can’t go wrong with aural delights like “Lick Your Wounds” (imagine Erik Satie playing in a modern rock band) and the mystical, intriguing “The Bisexual”. “Bicycle Riding” is sheer understated magic, too. There are a couple of weedy moments in the middle, but the Paris-in-the-20’s instrumental “Dessau Rag” (which is more nice than great) is the only one I find somewhat expendable. 

Because the overall impression is quite amazing. You could make a point that The Sparrow is pop music for snobs – there really is something high-class about this sound and these tunes. Very highly recommended.


Wednesday, 29 August 2012

Book review: THE FRY CHRONICLES by Stephen Fry

Stephen Fry as a mythbuster. All our myths about him – he busts them. Forget about tweedy self-confidence and self-assured looks of the most comfortable man in the Establishment – no, actually, it’s all about awkwardness, unwieldy appearance and millions of insecurities, big and small, bugging him every day (and night). Would be interesting if somebody actually took the pains to count how many times Stephen uses the word ‘embarrassing’ and ‘embarrassed’ throughout The Fry Chronicles. I’m embarrassed to admit… I know how embarrassing it sounds… That sort of thing. Indeed, some readers/critics of more cynical disposition (and those most probably include me) would be reminded of a question once asked by Fry’s dear friend, Alan Bennett: “Who can measure the self-servingness of self-effacement?”

Nah, don’t mind me. I love Stephen Fry (how can you not?), and God bless those myths. For me, Stephen has always seemed this formidable, warm wave of wit and intelligence you could always relate to. There’s no arrogance there, no snobbery. And with this colourful, absorbing memoir, you can probably understand why, and, as Nabokov put it, get to the architecture of it. Which may not necessarily be the thing you most wanted – do we really need sincerity from celebrities (awful word, I know)? – but it is an extremely engaging read, and a brilliant way to see what a great man is made of.

And Stephen Fry is most certainly a great man. Wikipedia could give you a rather long list of things he is, from writer to comedian, and if you disregard for a moment the not too credible ‘master of none’ motif that Fry never tires of repeating, you will have to admit that he pretty much excels in all those. Also, who else can boast of having both Christopher Hitchens and Ben Elton as a friend?..

The Fry Chronicles is his second autobiography. The first, brilliantly called Moab Is My Washpot, was published in 1997, and tackled his early rebellious years. This one picks up where Moab left off and ends with the launch of A Little Bit Of Fry And Laurie. If you’ve read anything by Stephen Fry, anything at all, you will definitely recognize his style – pleasantly stodgy, verbose, literate and self-consciously full of alliterations. Speaking of the latter, this autobiography concentrates on Stephen’s fixation with the letter ‘C’. Which means that the title of each chapter (and, indeed, the whole book) sounds something like this: Candy, Cambridge, Cellar Tapes, Computer… His obsessions and whatever it was that crossed his path at this or that point.

I’ll say it again: it is an extremely (sometimes painfully) sincere book. From his homosexuality to his constant sense of uneasiness and inferiority to his loose way with money (precious little about his religious views though), he lets it all out. And being the stellar storyteller he so clearly is, he knows just how to present it: from a comic angle, with loads of self-irony.

It’s been a long and eventful ride for him, and much of it is understandably lost and forgotten. So that what is left is a bunch of unforgettable events that stick out from Fry’s quite impressive memory. There are lots of great little stories here, like the nerve-wrecking auditioning for an Alan Bennett play or the heartbreaking participation in the University Challenge show. Some of these stories are actually downright eccentric, particularly the one where Stephen tries to insure the Cambridge May Ball in the event of the Queen Mother’s untimely death. Also, you get to hear some quirky details about certain illustrious personalities he had to deal with. Having said that, Stephen is mostly generous, what with his life-long dread of offending people.

As for those fits of modesty, insecurity and embarrassment, they are absolutely vital to the book; in the sense that if it were not for all his complexes and insomnias, his life would seem one of the most invigorating success stories imaginable. However, Stephen is quick to note, God doesn’t give a fig about talent: it all comes at a price. But Fry doesn’t have time for God: “Man’s reach should exceed his grasp, or what’s a heaven for?”

With this book, Stephen Fry doesn’t make himself more down-to-earth, more like everyone else (which, if I understand the memoir’s confessional introduction correctly, wasn’t exactly the last thing on his mind). But it does make him appear more complete, which in all honesty is all we could really ask for. Stephen hints at the next installment at the very end of the brief, intriguing final chapter, simply entitled C. He thanks you for the company, but you inevitably want more. Out of all the famous people in the world, whose company would you most wish to share? I’m confident that quite a lot of us would nominate a certain Stephen Fry, and who would really mind if the famous man in question might feel embarrassed about it. And (oh God no!) have sweaty palms.

I began reading The Fry Chronicles while sitting in a cozy little café in Moscow. Outside I could hear muffled city noises, hissing traffic and clicking heels, but inside there was this beautiful vibe. It was almost idyllic: deep armchair, green tea and a chocolate pancake. I finished the book at home, amid the disarray of books, socks and whatnot. Interestingly, the vibe was much the same.


Album review: RICH HOPKINS & LUMINARIOS - Buried Treasures

Highlights: A Stone’s Throw, Friend Of The Shooter, Buried Treasures (It’s Not Out There), Sweet Dreams, Lisa

This is a brilliant album, vast and expansive, steeped in the Arizonian sound they tend to call ‘desert rock’. Huge sound, full of rough, Crazy Horse-styled guitar workouts and undeniable melodic substance. Interestingly, Hopkins’ voice occasionally reminds me of Tom Petty. Only the sort of gruff Tom Petty who was born in the dusty desert and has no time for those sophisticated vocal mannerisms.

Buried Treasuries sticks to its sound right from the start and never lets go, and since it is such a winning sound, gutsy and lush, – why not. For some random reason I’m not too interested in the flashy opener, “Dark Side Of The Spoon”, which sounds like a somewhat pedestrian take on a psychedelic rocker from the 60’s. Also, “Good Morning” is basically a five minute (well, almost) noise freakout – and I treat people who admire things like that with a great deal of genuine suspicion.

But the rest of the songs are uniformly stellar. Stuff like the title track or “Betcha Gotcha Now!” are catchy as hell, and you won’t hear a better epic than the guilt-by-association classic called “Friend Of The Shooter” in the whole of 2012. Hair-raising and awe-inspiring, quite reminiscent of Neil Young’s “Like A Hurricane”.

Buried Treasures is a rock solid, no-nonsense monolith of an album, and it covers you like an enormous sheet of thick desert sand. There’s also a bonus CD, but it’s mostly made up of 30-second throwaways and pointless 15-minute jams. Stick to the main thing.


Sunday, 26 August 2012

SONG OF THE WEEK #70: A.C. Newman - "There Are Maybe Ten or Twelve..."

These days, when I hear people discussing AC's new album, I get all excited: A.C. Newman's new album (Shut Down The Streets, out in October) is certainly quite high on my 2012 wishlist. However, it soon transpires that what is meant is not New Pornographers' primary songwriter, but (an intellectual, respectful, perfectly post-modern yawn) Animal Collective. That's what AC stands for
I admire both of Newman's solo albums; sparkling, clever, inventive power pop. Both are exactly what you would expect: New Pornographers with no Dan Bejar and less Neko Case. "There Are Maybe Ten or Twelve..." opens 2009's Get Guilty on a truly glorious note, one making me wonder why anyone would really care for that new Animal Collective's album.

Friday, 24 August 2012

Album review: DIRTY PROJECTORS - Swing Lo Magellan

Highlights: Offspring Are Blank, Gun Has No Trigger, Swing Lo Magellan, Unto Caesar

Since 2009’s acclaimed Bitte Orca bored me much too quickly, I wasn’t investing any serious hope into Dirty Projector’s new one. In fact, I would have gladly passed it by were it not for a totally accidental listen to “Gun Has No Trigger”, which is the sort of track that will be growing on you right till you succumb to its sheer brilliance. Sadly, the same does not hold true for the whole thing, but further listens do reveal something close to a Dirty Projectors’ most satisfying album to date.

There’s no such thing as a first listen to this band’s albums. The first listen to Swing Lo Magellan is supposed to be frustrating and complicated. Erratic, edgy song structures, absolute sonic uneasiness. All very artsy, to the point where you would want to snort contemptuously: do they have to keep doing it (changing tunes, switching tempos) simply because they can’t come up with one great fucking melody?..

However hard you may try, you probably won’t be able to answer that question. As for general appreciation, I’m afraid the key to that would be to try to get into the groove of their fidgety, jittery songcraft. In fact, this stuff, though offputtingly unbalanced on occasion, is incredibly well-written and meticulously arranged. The opening “Offspring Are Blank” changes its moods quite drastically, but both flashy, ferocious guitar solos and soulful mellowness work perfectly. There’s a stretch of rather uncharismatic songs after the title track, but quieter, more ballad-oriented stuff like “Impregnable Question” or the strings-laden “See What She Seeing” are as impressive and inventive as you would expect from these guys.

Swing Lo Magellan is filled with what I would call random (could be incidental) greatness. But greatness nonetheless. It is your ultimate grower. Interestingly, the moment it ceases to grow on you – the charm is almost entirely gone. But then it’s not the sort of record you would wish to hear too often.


Wednesday, 22 August 2012

Album review: OLD CROW MEDICINE SHOW - Carry Me Back

Highlights: Levi, Ain’t It Enough, Genevieve

There’s a great chance that had it not been for that song (which is every bit as ‘classic’ as ‘classic’ ever gets), the world would care as much (little) as it did before 2004. But since the world does indeed care, since Old Crow Medicine Show are among the most exciting bluegrass bands in business and since Carry Me Back sounds like the band’s greatest achievement, why not give it an honest, objective (subjective) review?..

Obviously bluegrass as a genre has a fairly limited appeal and what sounds fun and invigorating at a festival does not always translate into exciting studio releases. Plus, there’s no getting around it: a generic melody is a generic melody. All of the above are pretty much default issues I have with this album – and yet Carry Me Back is a fiery, brilliantly executed Americana delight. Old Crow Medicine Show try to bring a certain edge, certain roughness to this music, free it from its conventional bluegrass jail. All the instruments (fiddle in particular) are taken to their blood-raising limit, which makes you enjoy such (un)forgivable O Brother Where Art Thou? clichés as “Steppin’ Out” or “We Don’t Grow Tobacco”.

Still, Carry Me Back sounds best when it comes with a great melody, and both the elegiac “Genevieve” and especially “Ain’t It Enough” (almost “Wagon Wheel”-worthy, no less) qualify as sure contenders for the band’s future compilations.  

In the end, what makes the album this good is the fact that a couple of ballads aside, it is traditional bluegrass played with an irresistible punk spirit, daring and defiant. For that alone Carry Me Back can be recommended to anyone with a passing interest in American music.


Monday, 20 August 2012

SONG OF THE WEEK #69: The Move - "Useless Information"

There were times when I considered "Useless Information" to be the embodiment of pop perfection. Still do. One of several highlights from The Move's self-titled debut (1968). And as if that tune wasn't already timeless, Roy Wood came up with quite a brilliant set of lyrics (awfully relevant, too).

Friday, 17 August 2012

Album review: SUN KIL MOON - Among The Leaves

Highlights: Sunshine In Chicago, Among The Leaves, Track Number 8

As you would probably expect, Mark Kozelek, that sad-eyed purveyor of elegant gloom (sometimes labeled ‘slowcore’), doesn’t change all that much. Well, granted, if you compare this new Sun Kil Moon stuff with his celebrated (I’m using the word in its least overblown sense) Red House Painters records from the 90’s, you will get something dangerously close to a happy, upbeat sell-out. Which, of course, Among The Leaves is not.

Among The Leaves is a superior folk album by an artist who stays true to his long and well-honed aesthetic. It’s depressing (even when it isn’t), it’s slow (even when it’s actually quite pacey), it’s monotonous (even when Mark tries some diversity), and it’s extremely lovely. All through these 17 songs you wallow in that monochrome cascade of hazy, woozy loveliness and try to decide whether they are all brilliant or all rather mediocre. Then blurry, uncertain outlines of Kozelek’s classics begin to peep out – slowly, reluctantly. Like the memorable, beautifully orchestrated title track; the dark, waltzy “Track Number 8” (which is, of course, track number 11); the fluid, lilting folk ballad called “That Bird Has A Broken Wing”.

Fans might consider it Mark’s White Album or something, but I would insist on some editing. Yes, it’s essentially a pop record and there’s not a bad song anywhere in sight, but this stuff is still much too samey not to become slightly tiresome after 40 minutes or so. The voice is lovely though, weary but lovely.

Self-indulgent. Having said that, ‘guys in tennis shoes’ surely won’t mind.   


Wednesday, 15 August 2012

Album review: THE SOUNDTRACK OF OUR LIVES - Throw It To The Universe

Highlights: You Are The Beginning, Reality Show, What’s Your Story, Shine On (There’s Another Day After Tomorrow)

Sweden again, but this time it’s a bunch of clever Britpop could-have-beens from Gothenburg that go by a completely unnecessary name of The Soundtrack Of Our Lives. Could be the best band you’ve never heard of, could be not, but there’s obviously a reason why Noel Gallagher loves them so much: this is the sound of a less ambitious, more subtle Oasis. They don’t do anything exceptional on Throw It To The Universe (which, according to the band’s lead singer, is their final album), but they are still better than hundreds of others doing the same thing. They’ve got the songs.

Throw It To The Universe does many things, from jangle to power pop to 60’s psychedelic whimsy (“Busy Land” strongly reminds me of some Tomorrow song that presently escapes me). Lots and lots of influences that just keep bursting through the tasteful, immaculate, guitar-drenched surface: there’s a touch of “Brown Sugar” at the end of the driving, intense title track, a touch of ABBA (yes) in the second half of the jangly “You’re The Beginning”, one of this album’s instant classics.

While I would argue that this is a more or less flawless record, there are a few songs in the middle that sound like Britpop by the numbers, worthy, catchy, well-written but somewhat uninspired. However, any criticism will have to cease the moment the gorgeous “Solar Circus” gives way to the slow-burning, anthemic glory of the two final tracks. Both are timeless sounding singalongs. Both impossibly sad, both somehow uplifting.

You just can’t think of a better way to say goodbye to your fans. Throw It To The Universe is quietly fantastic stuff. “Wonderwall”, “Don’t Look Back In Anger” – it’s all in here, just without the ego or the cheek. This is a very high 8.


Sunday, 12 August 2012

SONG OF THE WEEK #68: Foxygen - "Middle School Dance (Song For Richard Swift)"

Foxygen's Take The Kids Off Broadway is currently my bet for the album of the year: an exciting, volatile 7-track classic filled with a most brilliant mess of 60's influences, from the Stones to Frank Zappa. This is the sound of creativity, no less.
"Middle School Dance" is, as is seen from the title, a nod to Foxygen's musical hero, the criminally underrated Richard Swift. 

Friday, 10 August 2012

Album review: THE TALLEST MAN ON EARTH - There's No Leaving Now

Highlights: To Just Grow Away, 1904, Criminals

I’m not saying that with a voice less whiny he (Sweden’s Kristian Matsson) could be the next Nick Drake, but there’s definitely an intriguing, timeless element to this music, best heard in those contemporary, if old-fashioned, folk melodies or the gorgeous guitar playing. On occasion. On occasion it is every bit as tedious and annoying as your Bon Iver record.

That voice. It’s as if that voice has become an inevitable part of indie-ing up folk music. Nothing you can’t get used to, of course, and once you do, there’s no stopping you from appreciating much of this stuff. Particularly on the first half of the album, when his indie update of Dylan doesn’t get too grating. “1904” being a mysterious, classic-sounding ballad. Then Kristian switches to piano on the endless title track (only four and a half minutes in fact, but they just wouldn’t end), and it all starts falling apart. There’s no reason why anyone would want to sit through spineless tracks like “Little Brother” or the closing “On Every Page” that lack any edge. Speaking of side B, the fluid, fingerpicked “Criminals” is a successful impersonation of an early Dylan song, but that’s about it.

Overall, There’s No Leaving Now is a listen both brilliant and frustrating. The most frustrating thing being that this stuff could have been so much better. The guy obviously has talent, but I can’t see myself giving this more than a high 6, low 7.


Wednesday, 8 August 2012

Album review: ADELE & GLENN - Carrington Street

Highlights: Grey Suits, Auntie Nelly, Rescue, Earthly Air

Adele Pickvance and Glenn Thompson are mostly known for being part of one of the greatest pop bands of all time, The Go-Betweens (specifically, the three reunion albums). So if you have ever listened to a Go-Betweens record, you will more or less have a clue as to what to expect from Carrington Street even before you give this thing its first spin. Slightly understated melodic charm and a sheer abundance of taste. Don’t expect the charisma of Forster/McLennan, but God is this an amazing listen.

If I had to label this stuff, I’d probably say that Carrington Street is lush folk-pop, what with the precious, fragile floatiness of the opening “I Dreamt I Was A Sparrow” or the brilliant melancholic ballad called “Auntie Nelly” (that somehow evokes Damien Youth’s haunting classic “Through The Eyes Of Molly”). There are small bits and pieces of diversity here, like the punchy, punkish energy rush of “City Of Sound”, but they mostly play it safe. Which I honestly don’t mind, particularly since their glorious influences are so transparent.

There’s a lovely, loving ghost of McLennan in pretty much everything they do, and you will surely notice that the brilliant “Rescue” owes its existence to “Let Your Light In, Babe” off Forster’s masterful The Evangelist (how fitting that the latter was actually a song started by Grant before his untimely death). I don’t much care for the lilting, country-esque and anonymous “Happiness”, but as long as they have “Earthly Air” there at the end… Imagine a ballad by Forster (think “He Lives My Life”) as sung by Grant. Irresistible.

The album is brief, it lasts little over 30 minutes, but there’s no question that Carrington Street is one of the most delightful and subtle albums of 2012. I got it in a Glasgow record store for a mere £1.99, and it was somewhat embarrassing: it is worth so much more.


Sunday, 5 August 2012

SONG OF THE WEEK #67: Aztec Camera - "Get Outta London"

Stray (1990) may or may not be Aztec Camera's best album, but it certainly contains Roddy Frame's strongest songs ever. First and foremost I'm talking about "Crying Scene", the Mike Jones co-sung "Good Morning Britain" and my personal favourite, "Get Outta London". Best described as an inspired, super-charged outburst of British frustration.

Saturday, 4 August 2012

Album review: LIARS - WIXIW

Highlights: No.1 Against The Rush, III Valley Prodigies, WIXIW

Something about the times, I guess. Liars are yet another one of those brilliant contemporaries that know how to do their thing and do that thing well. WIXIW is so masterful, so immaculate in its stylish, robotic melancholia that you might wish to put in a glass casket and exhibit in a museum alongside something as timeless as Closer. Too bad most of these songs don’t have nearly enough class to elevate them above ‘a very good indie album’.

This album (Liars’ 6th full-length release, I’m told) is an excellent collection of nocturnal post-punk grooves with an experimental, Can-like edge to it (forget about Tago Mago). The songs are dark, cold monoliths that make for an extremely engaging listen. Rewarding, too, because production-wise this stuff is so nuanced and complicated.

As for the melodies, they are definitely there (the brief “III Valley Prodigies” is a thing of beauty), but for all its inventiveness and undeniable quality, the only time when WIXIW threatens to be timeless is when the title track arrives. The structure, the melody, the instrumentation – it all falls in place, and with its delightful, swirling groove and world-weary charm, “WIXIW” sounds not unlike a superior modern-day Radiohead song. Truly this album’s “Decades”.

Liars are a good post-punk band, certainly a lot more interesting than Interpol, but at the end of day you’re left with one lingering thought that just won’t go away: WIXIW is more about execution than inspiration. Much as I hate to admit that. Because I genuinely quite liked the album.