Wednesday, 24 July 2013

Album review: MARK KOZELEK & JIMMY LAVALLE - Perils From The Sea

Highlights: Gustavo, Ceiling Gazing, Caroline, Somehow The Wonder Of Life Prevails

Is it about me or about Mark Kozelek that his latest records sound so brilliant? I’m not saying that the man has peaked as a songwriter (though maybe I am), but both last year’s Among The Leaves (under the Sun Kil Moon moniker) and this rather unlikely collaboration with Jimmy Lavalle make a lot more sense to me than any of those acclaimed Red House Painters albums. Perils From The Sea is mumbling minimalism at its catchiest.

John Grant. This is the name that sprang to my mind the moment the slightly alarming electronic beginning of “What Happened To My Brother” died down and we got into the actual melody of the thing. The melody is lovely, and, mercifully, it takes the central stage. Overall, Jimmy Lavalle’s electronic background is subtle and reasonable and doesn’t in any way make Mark sacrifice good taste. Something that totally destroyed Pale Green Ghosts (Grant’s latest) for me.

As you would expect, a very homogenous and calm album full of long-winded, cheerless ballads that are nonetheless absolutely mesmerising. Mark’s world-weary croon works perfectly with the disarmingly simple and memorable vocal melodies and sparse arrangements. Take the poignant final song of the album, “Somehow The Wonder Of Life Prevails”. You are supposed to treat titles like that with great suspicion, but the repetitive groove is so captivating I could easily go one for another 10 minutes.

I can understand how one would say this stuff is way too monotonous and depressing, but then there’s no point in accusing Mark Kozelek of sounding monotonous and depressing. Besides, for all its sadness, the tunes are perfectly appealing. “Ceiling Gazing” is actually one of the most gorgeous things I’ve ever heard.


Sunday, 21 July 2013

SONG OF THE WEEK #110: Jacobites - "Big Store"

Jacobites are Bolan's acoustic folk filtered through glam rock sung by Peter Perrett and augmented by the loveliest jangle. If that description doesn't make your heart prance orgasmically, I don't know what will. One of my favourite 80's bands. "Big Store" opens Robespierre's Velvet Basement (1985), surely Sudden and Kusworth's greatest album.

Friday, 19 July 2013

Album review: THE BITTER SPRINGS - Everyone's Cup Of Tea

Highlights: (CD 1) A Better Offer, My Life As A Dog In A Pigsty, Hail The Lifeboat Man, Harry Hippie, Don’t Write A Song (CD 2) Our Ghosts, Free To Kill Again, The Hospital Run, White Noise (And Even Now), TV Unplugged

Yes, that’s a lot of highlights for an album, even if it is a double one. But this is that sort of record: sprawling and vast. I don’t expect that there are many people who have heard of The Bitter Springs, but count me happy if this review succeeds in bringing them a few new fans. First: this album is fantastic. Second: they deserve it. It may be an awful cliché, but The Bitter Springs are Britain’s best kept secret. 

Everyone’s Cup Of Tea is two CD’s filled to the brim with songs of such undeniable greatness that you might as well start hating yourself for coming so late to the party.

Disc one is a near-flawless collection of whimsical, clever pop & rock tunes and lyrics that go to unbelievable heights: “I broke up with my fiancée, she caught me in bed with Beyoncé (Beyoncé was our dog’s name)…”. Mentioning all the titles is pointless, but “Hail The Lifeboat Man”, my personal favourite, is such a perfect marriage of The Fall and Britpop that I can barely make it to the end of the chorus without starting to bounce all around the place.

Disc two is a lot more downbeat and is in many ways a natural follow-up to the band’s previous album, That Sentimental Slush (with – arguably – stronger songs). The songs are long-winded but never meandering and generally need some time to sink in. “Our Ghost” is sparse and achingly pretty. “White Noise (And Even Now)” sounds like a slowed-down anthem of epic proportions. “TV Unplugged” is an acoustic reworking of side one’s “TV Tears”, and I happen to love it even more.

Clearly this is their peak as songwriters. If anything, Everyone’s Cup Of Tea sounds like an anthology of a band. Except that this is not a best-of thing. This is not a compilation. This is all new material plus a couple of recent Internet-only singles and EPs. It is physically impossible to be any more impressive and still remain this obscure. A classic, and and one of this year’s best albums so far.


Wednesday, 17 July 2013

Album review: PEDALJETS - What's In Between

Highlights: Terra Nova, Conversations, Change, Goodbye To All That

If the name of this band pops up in a conversation (a highly unlikely conversation, one might think), soon enough you will start talking about The Replacements. Which is kind of inevitable. Back in the 80’s, Pedaljets released two albums full of songs that an uninspired Paul Westerberg could have come up with. Still, I had high hopes for this comeback, and I’m happy to report: 25 years after 1988’s Today Today, Pedaljets finally prove that they may have been great songwriters all along.

“Terra Nova” is an effective lead-off single that balances the band’s rougher, Detroit rock side, with a terrific vocal hook. “Riverview” is more of the same, only minus the hook, which makes it a bit generic. Thankfully, we then have a major highlight in the delightfully melodic “Conversations”, whose piano and acoustic guitar rhythm rolls on in a truly classic, slightly Bowie-esque way. The middle eight is unmistakably Beatlesque. Then the opening organ of “Change” reinstates your suspicion that the long wait has been worthwhile. This is strong songwriting. You do stumble upon a rather predictable rocker once or twice, but the overall impression is great. The riff of “Nature Boy” is tastefully rough and memorable. The anthemic “Goodbye To All That” has a tune to kill for.

In a recent interview with Pedaljets, I’ve read that they actually consider What’s In Between their best album. No argument here. All the best sides of the band are represented, and the album is simply a joy to listen to. Stylistically, nothing has changed, but that’s not really an issue when the songs are this good. So that next time my hand might reach for Tim or Pleased To Meet Me, I will think twice.


Sunday, 14 July 2013

SONG OF THE WEEK #109: Tobin Sprout - "To My Beloved Martha"

Moonflower Plastic is unquestionably Tobin Sprout's greatest album. Hell, it's one of the most immaculate (and immaculately underappreciated) pop albums I can think of. However, you can't go wrong with Tobin's debut either. Carnival Boy was released in 1996, the year he left Guided By Voices for the second time. Needless to say, it's a gem, not least because it is full of songs like "To My Beloved Martha". Infectious indie pop nirvana. 

Friday, 12 July 2013

Album review: SIGUR ROS - Kveikur

Highlights: Brennistein, Isjaki, Stormur, Kveikur

It’s one of the two: either the last couple of Sigur Rós albums were not that good (and my liking them was totally delusional) or Kveikur really is so brilliant. I’m currently leaning towards the latter option. This album gives me the same sort of intense joy I was getting while listening to Ágætis byrjun and Takk…  Kveikur is like Með suð í eyrum við spilum endalaust with all past depth restored and like Valtari with substance.

There’s a sense of urgency and importance in these nine lush, meticulously executed songs. This is evident on the opening “Brennistein” which is noisy, pretty and catchy in that ephemeral way that this band has always so effortlessly strived for. This song, like pretty much every other song on Kveikur, has an occasional ambient moment, but this time the ambience is actually full-blooded and powerful. There’s a rather bland ballad “Yfirbord” that I still can’t wrap my mind around, but it is immediately followed by the brilliant, Arcade Fire-like intensity of “Stormur” and the propulsive, anthemic title track. In more than one way, this is Sigur Rós heaven.

A perfect starting point for newcomers, and one of those albums that sound like a comeback of a band that hasn’t really been away. I almost gave it a nine, but Kveikur is not quite there. Besides, when the brief and beautiful “Var” ended, I decided to play Bowie’s Heathen, and there’s no way those two albums could share the same rating. But clearly a 2013 top ten contender.  


Thursday, 11 July 2013

Album review: THESE NEW PURITANS - Field Of Reeds

Highlight: Fragment Two, V (Island Song), Organ Eternal, Field Of Reeds

It is wonderful that there is a modern indie band that is ready to treat music as a form of art. These New Puritans do it for those who are ready to invest a little time, effort and patience into their listening experience. Which is not to say that Field Of Reeds is a difficult album. It is not. It’s beautiful and subtly captivating. Just don’t make the mistake of approaching it as a regular pop record.

First thing you hear is minimalist piano, very Satie-like. What follows is a masterful, exquisitely crafted suite of songs and moods. The sounds are often a little jazzy (like I say, pop is in very short supply), the piano can occasionally veer into modern classical territory. Still, amid the classy mannerisms and orchestration (which becomes almost transcendental on “Organ Eternal”), I do welcome an almost unlikely appearance of drums. “V (Island Song)”, with its freakish vocal melody, is as bizarre as it is irresistible. Then there’s a mesmerising Sigur Rós vibe in “Spiral”. And then there’s the choir of the title track that hasn’t yet failed to send shivers down my spine... Chilling, challenging stuff. Gorgeous, too, but with an unmistakable edge constantly lurking nearby.

Field Of Reeds is such a complete work that I will have to forgive the few boring moments that appear now and then. It is easy to write these guys off as way too artsy for their own good, but this is such a wonderful musical experience that I don’t have one cynical thought in my head. Artsy? Let’s just settle for ‘art’. Field Of Reeds is flawed. But it is a flawed triumph.


Sunday, 7 July 2013

SONG OF THE WEEK #108: John Cooper Clarke - "Conditional Discharge"

It's a shame John Cooper Clarke hasn't had a new album in more than 30 years. All the more reason, then, to keep getting back to 1980's Snap, Crackle and Bop, arguably his greatest, most consistent LP ever (well, to be fair, he only had a few). The bouncy "Conditional Discharge" is, in essence, a brilliant pop song - with fantastic lyrics and just as much charisma as Mark E. Smith. But more... sober?..

Friday, 5 July 2013

Album review: SMITH WESTERNS - Soft Will

Highlights: 3am Spiritual, Idol, White Oath, Varsity

I should start by saying that Dye It Blonde, the band’s second album, was one of my personal favourites from 2011. It was such a brilliant collection of lush indie-pop songs filled with some of that year’s greatest hooks and sung in that slightly overexcited voice of youthful optimism. Mercifully, the production was much more polished than on their deliriously lo-fi debut (melodies buried ten feet underground), and the process of refinement shows no signs of subsiding on Soft Will.

Remember the glorious, criminally infectious chant at the end of “All Die Young”? Well, it sounds like they don’t have much time for that anymore. Upbeat moments are few, and if there are some, they just don’t come off all that upbeat. It’s a lot more stately, a lot less spontaneous, and the tunes take some time to seduce you. Eventually, though, seduce you they do. Classy vocal hooks shimmer through delicious slide licks or tastefully strummed acoustic guitars, and the melodies are uniformly excellent. Just a bit more calculated this time. “Glossed” is a little too glossed. Lovely, well-written, but I just miss the punch. “XXIII” is a smart instrumental that certainly has a stylish hint of Dark Side Of The Moon to it, but I’m not sure it is smart instrumentals that I need from Smith Westerns. Thankfully, most of the other songs deliver. The bookend tracks in particular: the opening “3am Spiritual” is gorgeous and heartfelt (would have been a terrific closer) and the closing “Varsity” is just a classic pop single (would have made a terrific opener).  

This album reminds me of last year’s Shut Down The Streets by A.C. Newman. Its effect on you is not immediate, but each new listen proves that you really are dealing with great songwriting. I’d just like a little more fun, a little more excitement on album number four.


Wednesday, 3 July 2013

Album review: GABRIEL BRUCE - Love In Arms

Highlights: Dark Lights, Shine Loud, Greedy Little Heart, Cars Not Leaving, All That I Have, Sermon On The Mount

There’s nothing easier (or, for some, more natural) than accuse a young new artist of not being unique. And it’s true that there’s nothing particularly original about Gabriel Bruce. Love In Arms is full of reference points: there’s a little Nick Cave, a little Leonard Cohen, a little Tindersticks along the way. And yet, despite all that, there’s not a second on the whole album that lacks ambition or sounds in any way derivative.

It’s not a particularly intricate album, but Gabriel Bruce knows what he’s doing, and he does it with great authority. There’s a lot to go for here. The stomping “Honey Honey Honey” is catchy, the slow “All That I Have” has a few brilliant lyrical lines of pain and heartbreak, the penultimate “Perfect Weather” has an effective French horn hook, etc. So much to love, and in the end I ended up enjoying every single song here. I did at first think that the surprisingly lightweight “Zoe” was out of place and should have been replaced by the beautiful acoustic non-album ballad “Only One”, but then it has revealed itself as a charming little thing that brings a certain diversity and helps you take a short breath before the booming, suffocating and impassioned onslaught continues.

Granted, a record this expressly emotional can get a little over the top on occasion. And it does, particularly on the album’s Tom Waits-esque grand finale (almost overrides the scope of “Come On Up To The House” or “Anywhere I Lay My Head”), “Sermon On The Mount”, with its overpowering vocal delivery and crashing piano chords. Thankfully, it all works – with flare. Might be a somewhat superficial thing to say, but it works because it has great songs. I can get even deeper than that: the songs are so good because they are carried by articulate tunes and Gabriel’s charisma.

Love In Arms is not simply the year’s best debut so far, it is one of the most inspired and impressive British debuts in recent memory. There’s a powerful moment during “Sleep Paralysis”: about halfway through, completely out of the blue, the instrumentation gets louder. Nothing else changes – it just gets louder. And, quite miraculously, it works.