Sunday, 28 April 2013

SONG OF THE WEEK #100: Departure Lounge - "The New You"

Departure Lounge is not just another band who should be a lot more famous than they are, etc. They really were responsible for one of the greatest, most intelligent pop albums of last 20 years. Out Of Here (1999) will in no time become a special record for anyone who would care to pay attention. Happiness through melancholy, and nothing gets me like "The New You" that begs you to drop your cynicism and play it each morning as you wake up.


Friday, 26 April 2013

Album review: PHOSPHORESCENT - Muchacho

Highlights: Song For Zula, Muchacho’s Tune, A New Anhedonia

It’s a rare kind of person (and probably not the sort of person you would ever wish to know) who will not be impressed by Phosphorescent’s new single, “Song For Zula”. A soulful, heartfelt ballad with lots of love-sick passion and anguish bubbling underneath, all filtered through striking, atmospheric arrangement that would surely work wonders during lengthy end credits of a good drama. Plus, the tormented lyrics and the equally afflicted vocal delivery that will pull at your heartstrings and will again stress the well-beaten point that perhaps it’s the unhappy people that make good art.

Because Muchacho is a very downbeat album. The simple but effective melody of “Muchacho’s Tune”, for instance, is made even more effective by an irresistible catch line that goes “I’ve been fucked up and I’ve been a fool”. So if you happen to be in that kind of mood already – proceed with caution. But that’s an admittedly halfhearted warning, because good art has nothing to do with your life (or the life of the artist, for that matter). Good art is all about art.

Musically, it’s not too cheerful either, with only the chorus of “A Charm / A Blade” offering something really funky and upbeat. Otherwise, we are deep in the lost love / luckless loser territory, and that is fine if you can come up with a great tune to go with it. Which is exactly what Matthew Houck does on most of this album. There are misfires along the way (the opener and the closer make little sense), parts that are underwhelming (“The Quotidian Beasts” has something good going on, but doesn’t quite get there), and yet the overall impression is that this album is a wholesome piece and should be treated as such.

Muchacho is pretty much its cover art without the smiles. It’s intimate, it’s intensely emotional – even if nothing hits you quite as hard as that “Song For Zula” triumph. High 7.    


Thursday, 25 April 2013

Album review: CRIME & THE CITY SOLUTION - American Twilight

Highlights: Goddess, Domina, Beyond Good And Evil, Streets Of West Memphis

If you thought Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds’ latest was a little too soft, you might want to hear the latest album by this Australian band. And that, mind you, is not a vain reference limited to geography and cheerless band names. Back in the 80’s people like Mick Harvey and Rowland S. Howard used to play for Crime & The City Solution, which should give you some general idea of what you might expect from American Twilight. Particularly if I tell you that the singing of the band’s vocalist (Simon Bonney) is not unlike that of a significantly more dramatic, powerful Mick Harvey.

Dark (don’t you hate the word?), intense stuff. “Goddess” is a perfect opener: pounding, assertive, anthemic. “Riven Man” is one catchy, repetitive groove that works. “My Love Takes Me There” is another song here that contrasts instrumental heaviness with a perfectly lovely melody. “Domina” is a slow-burning (as in burning), highly addictive epic. “The Colonel” with its edgy, ragged guitars/drum arrangement is maddening yet effective. “Beyond Good End Evil” is a truly Cave-esque ballad, beautiful and passionate. “American Twilight”, however, crash lands as soon as it starts: the opening is unnecessarily pedestrian and dumb, as is the actual song. Sadly. But who cares when we finish with the album’s finest song, “Streets Of West Memphis”, that with its violin, haunting melody and female vocals reaches absolutely beguiling heights.

Which means that other than the unfortunate title track, there’s nothing wrong about American Twilight. The whole thing sounds like one powerful, riveting epic. Dark, yes, but glorious. I can’t recommend it enough.


Sunday, 21 April 2013

SONG OF THE WEEK #99: Beck - "Lord Only Knows"

While I've never really rated the critically acclaimed Odelay, I still think that in "Lord Only Knows" it has one of Beck's greatest songs. A terrific piece of countrified folk-rock, it sounds a bit like something a wilder Dylan might have done in mid-60s. Tuneful and charismatic, I wish Beck could offer more of those.

Friday, 19 April 2013

Album review: CAITLIN ROSE - The Stand-In

Highlights: No One To Call, Waitin’, Only A Clown, Silver Sings, Menagerie

I missed out on the lady’s 2010’s debut, but after hearing The Stand-In I realise it may have been a terrible oversight. The Stand-In is such a wonderful album. From sparkling, lush production to masterful, confident songwriting – this is alternative country with attitude. Romantic, but also desperate and bittersweet. 

Above all, though, this is a pop record, and a ridiculously consistent one at that. One catchy, expertly sung (Caitlin’s voice has all the romantic edge you need from this kind of music) track after another. Sentimental, almost old-fashioned ballads like “Pink Champagne” get mingled with uptempo pop gems like the irresistible “Menagerie”. Mostly, though, you get something in between – like my personal favourite, “Only A Clown”, that tightens its grip on you with its opening slide guitar and never lets go. A sad song dressed in upbeat, faux-happy clothing, it’s an undeniable classic. Caitlin does that on “Silver Sings” (which starts like a George Harrison song - or am I confusing it with something else?), another one of the album's numerous highlights. It’s also great to know she penned them both all by herself. Impressive.

Classy, stylish album – just check out the closing, authentic-sounding “Old Numbers” that you could probably hear at a cabaret half a century ago. Hell, maybe earlier. And again, I’m pleased with how consistent it all this. Even the songs that sounded unremarkable initially (“Golden Boy”, for instance) have revealed themselves as strong, memorable, articulate. I really can’t praise this album enough; that’s a high 8. Highly recommended.


Wednesday, 17 April 2013

Album review: EELS - Wonderful, Glorious

Highlights: Bombs Away, On The Robes, The Turnaround, True Original

Frustrating though it may be, you do get tired of Eels. Not sick – just tired. Slightly bored. In fact, only the most loyal Mark Everett fan would feel genuinely excited about a new Eels album. The song remains the same, the changes are nonexistent, but it’s not only that: the absolute worst thing is that you can actually predict the quality of the whole thing. So when I finally sat down to listen to Wonderful, Glorious, I knew exactly what I would get: a worthy, well-written, rough-beautiful album I would give a seven to.

Secretly hoping for an unlikely revelation, that was what I got. If I were to compare Wonderful, Glorious to a past Eels release, I’d compare it to 2001’s Souljacker. The lovely-gruff ratio may have been different, but the contrast it produced was basically the same. Each album is hardly a classic even by Eels’ non-classic standard, but each album includes one song that is among Everett’s best ever. “True Original” has no magnetic power of “Woman Driving, Man Sleeping”, but it is nonetheless a heartbreaking ballad Mark can do so effortlessly well.

In fact, it’s these ballads that keep Wonderful, Glorious from being a letdown. Stuff like “On The Robes” and “The Turnaround”: gorgeous, melodic tunes with powerful vocal hooks. But then you’d also have to sit through decent, by-the-numbers Eels rockers, like, say, “Kinda Fuzzy”. Or, worse, “Peach Blossom”, which is where ‘rough’ turns into ‘ugly’. So it’s not accidental that the best thing about the latter track is that brief, pretty guitar break you get at around 1:15.

Any Eels fan would find much comfort in Wonderful, Glorious, while the rest of the world would probably feel what I felt: this is a very good album written by a songwriter who still has ‘it’, but whose ‘it’ terribly lacks a spark. I enjoyed it, but I really don’t want another album like this. Having said that, one never knows.    


Sunday, 14 April 2013

SONG OF THE WEEK #98: Ultra Vivid Scene - "Mercy Seat"

There’s of course another “Mercy Seat” we all know and love, but let us not forget about one done the very same year by Ultra Vivid Scene (their unjustly forgotten self-titled debut, 1988). Fantastic shoegaze music that is (mercifully, I’d say) more concerned with melody than anything else. And what a lovely melody this one has.

Friday, 12 April 2013

Album review: RICHARD THOMPSON - Electric

Highlights: Salford Sunday, My Enemy, Another Small Thing In Her Favour, The Snow Goose

While I do see why so many people say Electric is Thompson’s best album since Front Parlour Ballads (if not actually 1999’s brilliant Mock Tudor), I only started to really believe it when the album got to track 8. We all know Richard can do a monumentally gorgeous ballad, but what could prepare me for “Another Small Thing In Her Favour”? Heartbreaking lyrics and an absolutely timeless folk melody, surely it has to be his greatest since (drumroll) “End Of The Rainbow”. But do read on.

For however blinded I may be by that one song, Electric offers many more instances of masterful songwriting from one of Britain’s finest. He just sounds so potent and, well, real in the context of modern-day flimsy folkies with beards and weak songs. True legend; the word is being brandished in a ridiculous way these days, but surely it is legitimate in Richard Thompson’s case.

This time I feel particularly drawn to the album’s ballads. Besides the aforementioned one, there’s the disarming, acoustic beauty of “The Snow Goose” (with Alison Krauss) and the chilling and equally timeless “My Enemy”. But trust Thompson to record a number of lush, gutsy rockers that are filtered through all those 1000 years of folk music. Some may rely too much on that unfading folk workshop, but even then the record sounds wonderful, shining as it does through Richard’s charisma and exceptional guitar playing.

Just another jewel in his impressive catalogue, then; absolutely indispensable for the fans and pretty much any music lover with an ounce of taste and self-respect. Electric is a great Richard Thompson album, nothing more to add.   


Wednesday, 10 April 2013

Album review: THE FLAMING LIPS - The Terror

Highlights: Be Free, A Way, Try To Explain, Butterfly (How Long It Takes To Die”), Turning Violent

I guess if I really wanted to be mean to The Flaming Lips’ latest, I’d suggest putting on Soft Bulletin once this thing is over. Because suddenly you will notice that you can be all dreamy and soft and psychedelic and still offer amazing songwriting. Good melodies, you know. Hooks. Substance. And it’s not like The Terror lacks any of those things (the supply is slightly disappointing, however), but somehow one gets the feeling that this long and moody album could do with a little more inspiration.

However, my overall attitude is hardly too negative. The album sets the mood (which is rather inviting, but in a cheerless sort of way) and never lets go, which makes listening to The Terror a wholesome and quite engrossing experience. So that even if there’s precious little going on in the 13-minute and frankly not very eventful “You Lust”, you at least know what they were going for here. Whether you agree with that is a different matter, but you have to admit that that is a well-sustained, reluctantly mesmerising drone. However, if we try to be objective here, we’ll have to grudgingly admit that only a fan or a person who’s heavily into dreams and with lots of free time on his hands would meditative himself into loving this stuff. Having said that, I felt drawn to the exquisite, slow melodies of “Be Free, A Way” and particularly “Try To Explain”. But what do I do with a track like “You Are Alone”? You can’t go by atmosphere alone.  

And still. What you absolutely can’t deny is that these guys still have class and in many ways they did achieve what they wanted with The Terror: a beautiful, atmospheric record filtered through misery, depression and, well, terror. Sounds lovely, and will probably get better with further listens. But all the same – Embryonic was a stronger, bolder, better album.


Monday, 8 April 2013

SONG OF THE WEEK #97: The Cannanes - "Love Only Takes A Minute"

Another great Australian band, The Cannanes. It's been a wild ride for them, with a myriad lineup changes and, more importantly, millions of great pop songs. Twee, indie - that sort of thing. And in one brief period in the 80's they even had an undeniable asset in the form of Randall Lee (later of Nice and Ashtray Boy). The Lee-sung "Love Only Takes A Minute" (I'd suggest getting it on a brilliant 1994 compilation, Witchetty Pole) sees The Cannanes in their rough, lo-fi, melodic glory. The horn was a crazy touch, but it brings the song to a whole new level of awe-inspiring greatness.

Friday, 5 April 2013

Album review: LOW - The Invisible Way

Highlights: So Blue, Holy Ghost, Just Make It Stop

No surprises. Low’s The Invisible Way sounds like a Low album, which pretty much means you have to meditate yourself slightly into a lethargic mood and remember that subtlety, understatement is the spice of life. Or maybe not life, but surely this new Low album. Which is a good new Low album (as any sensible person would guess), but here’s an interesting thing you should know: the fact that these are slow-burning, measured compositions that never scream at you on first listen, doesn’t really mean that they will grow on you later.

Which is somewhat frustrating for a record like The Invisible Way. Because you hear the lovely opener, “Plastic Cup”, and feel that at some point the hidden depth will come through and melt your harsh and irresponsive senses. But, much to your frustration, that never happens. “Plastic Cup” just remains the lovely opener it in fact is. So the best songs really are the ones that strike you immediately. Of which this time there are three: the intense, emotional, piano-based “So Blue”; the exquisite and mesmerising “Holy Ghost” that has a truly timeless feel to it; and the almost-upbeat “Just Make It Stop” which is in all fairness a rather catchy pop song. Slowcore this is not. 

The lowlights are virtually nonexistent, as ever, with only the overlong “On My Own” collapsing into an uninteresting, unimaginative groove and a repetitive chant. Doesn’t quite work. Overall, though, this is a classic case of a very good album that is reveling in its own goodness and neither needs nor wants to be any better. Or worse. A classic 7 then.


Wednesday, 3 April 2013

Album review: MARNIE STERN - The Chronicles Of Marnia

Highlights: Year Of The Glad, Noonan, Nothing Is Easy, Hell Yes

I admit that I’ve occasionally found myself in an uneasy situation when I was supposed to name my favourite female guitarists. Sadly, there has only been one name I could suggest; that of Marnie Stern. But God she’s good. Her approach to guitar playing is creative, inventive – even if some of her chops might seem a little monotonous over the course of a whole album. But you wouldn’t know it from The Chronicles Of Marnia: the album’s songwriting is excellent.

In between Marnie’s whimsical guitar freak-outs you get a bunch of playful, slightly capricious songs that culminate with the frantic pop classics like “Year Of The Glad” (so childish yet so impossibly cool) or “Nothing Is Easy” (one of my favourite songs of the year, with a timeless line “you don’t need a sledgehammer to walk in my shoes”). The songs are shifty and often jump from one mood to another, which might result in something as freakish and volatile as “You Don’t Turn Down” that alternates absolutely brilliant parts with a couple of unnecessarily annoying moments. But such is the nature of Marnie Stern’s songs, and those are rare instances anyway. Plus, it all ends strongly: “Proof Of Life” features some of the album’s most fiery guitar playing, and “Hell Yes” has an epic feel to it, which is what we wanted at the end of this chaotic and appealing album.  

This is not a great comparison, but I’d bring up the name of Jesca Hoop here. I get the same sense of edgy, spontaneous wonder when I listen to them. Which I’ve never really minded. A wild, charming, exciting album. A little all over the place, but in a way that actually works. A strong 8 here.