Sunday, 26 May 2013

SONG OF THE WEEK #104: Gabriel Bruce - "Sermon On The Mount"

Quite simply, my favourite new artist. Overblown, but oh so good. "Sermon On The Mount" finishes off Gabriel's brilliant debut album (Love In Arms, out now), but really - it feels like it finishes off an era. Don't walk - run.

Friday, 24 May 2013

Album review: MICK HARVEY - Four (Acts Of Love)

Highlights: Glorious, I Wish That I Were Stone, The Story Of Love, Praise The Earth

The long-term association with Nick Cave must be a burden as well as a bonus. Everybody considers Mick Harvey an almost ideal instrumentalist/arranger/sideman, many consider him a brilliant interpreter of other artists’ songs, and surprisingly few consider him a great songwriter. The man remains vastly underrated, and the low-key nature of this new album (which is a humble melodic gem) only proves my point.

Four (Acts Of Love) is something of a concept album dedicated to you-know-what. Its release slipped by so quietly that I almost missed it. Wouldn’t have done anyone too much harm, granted, but there’s something irresistible and positively mesmerising about Harvey’s soft croon and these dark-edged, gentle acoustic melodies that are a little sinister and a great deal charming. The arrangements are tasteful, pretty and to the point. Besides, you can’t deny the consistency; I can only complain about the repetitive and slightly out-of-place cover “Summertime In New York” – the rest works fine, in particular PJ Harvey’s unreleased “Glorious” that sounds… like a damn good PJ Harvey ballad.

I rate Mick Harvey. I rate him very highly indeed, and not just as an interpreter of others’ songs (his two Serge Gainsbourg albums are essential), but as a songwriter in his own right. I’d argue that his previous album, the masterful Sketches From The Book Of The Dead, is more melodically compelling than Nick Cave’s latest. And I loved Push The Sky Away. Yes, instead of striving for greatness Mick decides to settle on goodness, but what a brilliant little album this one is.


Wednesday, 22 May 2013

Album review: GUIDED BY VOICES - English Little League

Highlights: Islands (She Talks In Rainbows), Send To Celeste (And The Cosmic Athletes), Noble Insect

The facts: last year we had three new Guided By Voices releases, this year it’s just one. Which, if you care to think about it, actually sounds like a good idea. Granted, I ended up enjoying all three 2012 albums (last one in particular), but I also thought a little restraint could do them good: Robert Pollard and Tobin Sprout are good songwriters, they are on a roll, they will drop the filler, and we will have something like a seedless indie-pop watermelon on our hands…

Well, what a silly thought.

Nothing, it seems, will induce Pollard to go for consistency. Which maybe has a point: inconsistent greatness, patchy flashes of brilliance are the very essence of Guided By Voices. However, English Little League does sound like a mild disappointment. You get the usual: catchy garage-rockers (“w/Glass In Foot” is a quality Who outtake), gorgeous folk-pop masterpieces (my favourite songs here), half-baked curios and oddities (some of which are particularly expendable this time). But, and I fully realise the oddness of the notion and the obviousness of the pun, this is too much of a Guided By Numbers thing. Prepare to get your loyalty tested.

I did pretty well, even though I would still argue that even their weakest 2012 album, Let’s Go Eat The Factory, has a slight edge over this one. Yes, Factory was erratic to the extreme, but there was a songwriting spark I’m missing here. It had killer hooks, which are in relatively short supply on English Little League. Make no mistake, it is still classic Guided By Voices: it’s just that the songs could be a little more inspired. So maybe they should take a break after all. Inconceivable though it may sound.


Sunday, 19 May 2013

SONG OF THE WEEK #103: Aimee Mann - "How Am I Different"

The recent experience of watching Magnolia (I don't even need to mention how good that one is) made me think of Aimee Mann and what a great songwriter she's been all these years. I'm still undecided as to what is the lady's best album, Lost In Space or Bachelor No.2, but surely she has written few songs that are more perfect than the latter's masterful opener, "How Am I Different". Sombre (that piano line!), glorious - and classic Aimee. In every way.

Friday, 17 May 2013

Album review: GUMS! - Antipathy EP

Highlights: Willow Café, New Year, Luckless Days

First, we have to bring up the question of The Plimptons, a brilliant and overlooked Glaswegian band that called it quits earlier this year. The Plimptons may have lacked identity, but it’s not like it mattered when their albums had so much melodic bliss going for them; their genre-hopping was hilarious and exciting (imagine early Dickies that were open to anything), but might have also been symbolic of the fact that they never really managed to settle down and take it all seriously. The Plimptons’ farewell EP (also independently released this year) is well worth hearing. Here’s the review, and here’s the actual thing.

Well, anyway. GUMS! are an offshoot of the now deceased Plimptons, and Antipathy is their second EP. Thankfully, whereas the first one (A Glaswegian Summer, 2012) sounded bleak and, in all honestly, not particularly inspired, Antipathy is the sort of ecstatic but obscure pop record you want to tell your friends about.

While basically preserving the diversity of the original band, GUMS! are doing it in a less erratic manner. The insane catchiness is there, of course, and the pop punk of “Dancing In Your Room” is The Plimptons all over (however, with an ounce of female vocals), but overall this is a somewhat sweeter (I swear there are hints of twee pop in a couple of songs), more charming and less fucked-up (I’m using the word affectionately) affair. Particularly good are the first three tracks, instantly memorable pop confections which offer that lush tunefulness Scottish bands can do so well. “New Year” is an instant hit in the pop charts of my world.

I would urge any music fan to get Antipathy (can be done here, and for free, too), I swear that sonically it makes more sense than most of what is released these days. As long as it’s a strong, articulate melody you care for and not some masturbatory ambience that goes on for 20 minutes.


Wednesday, 15 May 2013

Album review: YEAH YEAH YEAHS - Mosquito

Highlights: Sacrilege, Subway, Under The Earth, Despair

Another contender for the year’s worst, most tasteless cover, but that is not even what frustrated me so much about Mosquito. No, it has to be the actual music that is a most disturbing combination of the band’s greatest and most appalling songs ever. Which is a shame – because with a little self-restraint this could have been a classic and Yeah Yeah Yeahs’ undeniable artistic triumph.

They fucked it up, miraculously. Because the album’s first two songs are the best opening we could hope for. There’s the pummeling, anthemic “Sacrilege” that challenges you with Karen O’s powerful gospel-like singing set against the band’s trademark punk energy and swagger. Perfect single. “Subway” is different: it’s an understated melodic groove with an effective railway rhythm. And then the patchiness sets in. I’m honestly all for the title track that may be ridiculous and over-the-top, but is nevertheless extremely catchy and never too irritating. On the other hand, though, nothing can save the hopeless trash of “Area 52” that is actually physically embarrassing. As is the wasteful and pointless “Buried Alive” (featuring Dr. Octagon – I honestly have no idea). The rapping? Really?

The wicked thing is that it’s all like that. For every breathlessly brilliant and sinister “Under The Earth” you get a bland “Wedding Song” that wouldn’t be out of place at a Eurovision song contest (sorry about that). So frustration indeed; the good points are fantastic, but the bad points are just crap. So add ten to four and divide that by two. Mosquito is an intriguing album, but this time I’m not so sure it’s actually a good thing.


Sunday, 12 May 2013

SONG OF THE WEEK #102: Baader Meinhof - "Baader Meinhof"

Luke Haines has mentioned somewhere that the album he pulled off in 1996 (dedicated as it is to the German terrorist group) could not be done today. Which maybe goes to show that we're not living in the most exciting of times, but then the classic sounds of Baader Meinhof have not become any less edgy or intriguing. If anything, they are making even more sense now.

Saturday, 11 May 2013

Album review: PHOENIX - Bankrupt!

Highlights: Entertainment, The Real Thing, Bourgeois, Oblique City

Even though Bankrupt! does grow on you with time, this growth is fairly unimpressive. This is a good pop record, make no mistake, but where Wolfgang Amadeus Phoenix was irresistible lush exuberance, this one feels a little too lightweight and hollow. Don’t expect Bankrupt! to punch you in the face – it will merely tickle your senses. Stylish, clever tickling though it is.

The whole album is synths-based to the point where you would forget what a guitar-based song sounds like (not that there is no guitar here). But that is not where the problem lies, I can assure you. And it is not even the songwriting. The problem is that parts of this album sound shallow, synthetic and totally devoid of real emotional presence. And they are French, for Christ’s sake. Unforgivable. For instance, before we get to the perfectly lovely melody of the title track, I have to sit through more than four minutes of keyboard tomfoolery that has no value whatsoever at all. Not too exciting, to be honest. Still, I admit that at some point (say, third listen) the smart vocal hooks will start jumping at you like mad. So far only the catchy but pedestrian “Don’t” hasn’t managed to disclose its charms.

Bankrupt! is pretty much the poppier side of The Strokes’ latest. An inevitable disappointment after the overwhelming success of Phoenix’s previous album, but when all is said and done, fuck guitars and fuck emotions: in pop music, a good pop hook is a good pop hook. If you stick to that winning philosophy, this album delivers.


Wednesday, 8 May 2013

Album review: THE STROKES - Comedown Machine

Highlights: Tap Out, Welcome To Japan, 50/50, Happy Ending, Call It Fate Call It Karma

Hype is never free. Everyone knew (though probably not in 2001) that there would be a price, but no one could quite figure out that the price would be so inexplicably, so ridiculously high. When I first listened to The Strokes’ acclaimed (and that’s a mild word) debut, I naturally put that inescapable question mark after the title statement. Presently, however, I see no point in fighting against it. The amount of flak Comedown Machine is getting is truly staggering. Because, and I want to stress my point again and again, these songs are not in any way worse than the ones that made up Is This It.

Interestingly, for me Comedown Machine does what that patchwork-cum-album, Angles, failed to do: show diversity, show that they are no longer stuck in their all-too-successful past, and remain coherent. Angles wasn’t a bad record (for instance, “Under Cover Of Darkness” and “Taken For A Fool” were brilliant songs), but it was all over the place and made little sense. Now I won’t deny that Comedown Machine is all over the place, too, but I would insist that musically it makes perfect sense.

Because the songs are so good. I won’t be getting into lyrics (though I would admit that “Welcome To Japan” has some interesting stuff going on), but it’s astonishing how much songwriting craft went into this record. Vocally and instrumentally, it’s a barrage of terrific hooks piled on top of each other. The aforementioned “Welcome To Japan” is case in point. From its intricate guitars to its instantly memorable melodies (that has to be plural) to Casablancas’ ludicrous yet fascinating ‘welcome to Japan’ line in the middle of the song, it’s all infectious, delicious fun. So is the opening “Tap Out” and so is most of this fine album. Very lush sound, great production, and lots of sonic variety; Phrazes For The Young with restraint and as played by The Strokes. I still don’t know what to think of Julian’s falsetto in the obviously A-ha-esque single “One Way Trigger”, but everything else certainly works.

I guess the bottom line here would be that they are just great songwriters. They really are. So – no, this is not an awful album. Awful is what the hype-prone world has done to them. And, funnily enough, nothing seems to bother this world more than the closing song on Comedown Machine, the faux-retro “Call It Fate Call It Karma”. It’s actually a lovely, exquisite piece gently oozing out of your local late-night 50s radio station. It really is a perfect end to this masterful indie pop album you could probably dance to.


Sunday, 5 May 2013

SONG OF THE WEEK #101: Wire - "Outdoor Miner"

Well, since I've just done the new Wire album (which, I have to admit, is getting better with each new listen), it would be natural to post their 1979 single "Outdoor Miner" (also on Chairs Missing). A pop gem if there ever was one.

Friday, 3 May 2013

Album review: WIRE - Change Becomes Us

Highlights: Doubles & Trebles, Keep Exhaling, Magic Bullet, Love Bends

Change Becomes Us is that same witty, artsy post punk Wire have been doing since their classic 1977 debut. It’s just that it has become a lot more artsy and atmospheric over the years, the songs have become longer, the songwriting a little less sharp and, try as you might, you won’t find an “Outdoor Miner” amid these 13 potent, clever, tasteful additions to their extensive catalogue.  

Not that it’s the end of the world, of course: the band still sounds inventive and intriguing, and if there’s one sensible reference point I can make here, it would be Brian Eno’s non-ambient, mid-70’s stuff. Colin Newman even sounds (it’s not just me, right?) a bit like a younger Eno here.

“Doubles & Trebles” is a brilliant opener, cold and assertive piece of smart post-punk, made even more effective by Newman’s almost robotic vocal delivery. There are softer, more melodic tracks like “Keep Exhaling”, and then there’s stuff like the edgy “Adore Your Island” which alternates mellower parts with noisy, non-threatening hardcore outbursts. You get things in that vein throughout most of Change Becomes Us (a fairly long album, I should note), and apart from occasional washed-out, uneventful moments, it’s certainly an exciting listen.

My point being: they are still good songwriters. Maturity is understandable. Not a remarkable album by any means, but there’s just so much confidence and brain in these songs that I know I'll be coming back to it again and again. They know exactly what they’re doing, and it shows.


Wednesday, 1 May 2013

Album review: THEY MIGHT BE GIANTS - Nanobots

Highlights: You’re On Fire, Lost My Mind, Stone Cold Coup d’Etat, 9 Secret Steps, The Darlings Of Lumberland

The first thing I should mention is that it’s one awful cover. Whatever their idea was, it looks atrocious – even that cartoonish pink truck on 2011’s Join Us made more sense. Or, at the very least, was easier on the eye. Well, never mind; nothing wrong with the actual music. Nanobots is a perfectly adequate They Might Be Giants album. Catchy, playful, slightly ridiculous. And when it’s not too ridiculous – it works.

Like pretty much any other album from the band, this is filled with fine tunes, all memorable and quite inventive, even if there’s precious little here I would include on my imaginary They Might Be Giant playlist. “Lost My Mind” would probably qualify; a pretty standard pop number for the band, but there’s just something particularly inspired about that stop-start melody. Many others are just as infectious, of course, like “Stone Cold Coup d’Etat” or the album’s most interesting and intriguing piece, “The Darlings Of Lumberland”. Plus, lots of their trademark quirkiness, which can be both annoying and entertaining. For instance, I find “Black Ops” well-done and creative, but vocally irritating; on the other hand, all those short under-minute bits and breathers make sense and show the duo’s great care for melody.

I don’t regard Nanobots as an improvement over Join Us, but I’ve warmed up to it a lot. In the end, it’s just another solid They Might Be Giants album. Solid, reliable stuff, even if Nanobots would probably only appeal to the fans.