Friday, 30 August 2013

Album review: PHIL MARTIN - Don't Be Afraid Of The Dark

Highlights: Grateful, Dearly Departed, High & Lonesome, Lady Of The Lager

A mere month ago I was gushing all over The Bitter Springs’ new album, and here I go again; Don’t Be Afraid Of The Dark is the second LP by that band’s Phil Martin. Basically, it is Everyone’s Cup Of Tea part three, in which the upbeat nature of disc one is successfully merged with the more moody sounds of disc two to create something equally charming, witty and eccentric. The sort of combination The Bitter Springs have mastered so well.

Perhaps the first thing that hits you when listening to Don’t Be Afraid Of The Dark is how diverse the whole thing is. The rough-edged melodicism of the upbeat and anthemic “Grateful” is rooted in punk, but for an album that goes over an hour this is just a start. Quite effortlessly, the record moves from funky to jazzy to music-hallish to god knows what else. The good thing is that it rarely sounds patchy or all over the place – for all the impressive style-hopping, I still hear a very focused and tight album, which obviously underscores the quality of the songwriter we are dealing with here. The instrumentation is also impressive and varied – with saxes, violins, electric and acoustic guitars, harmonicas, pianos and even, quite inexplicably, some tap-dance (? – in the wistfully catchy “Dearly Departed”) all coming into play when play they must.

While I still can’t put my finger on a few songs here (“Frontline” is lovely but underwhelming), all is forgotten when I hear something as amazing as the beautiful, soulful six-minute epic “High & Lonesome” that in all honesty beats anything the softer side of Everyone’s Cup Of Tea had to offer. The prize for the most confusing track of the album has to go to the bizarre “Lady Of The Lager” which has that hypnotic groove you could hear on Brian Eno’s brilliant Taking Tiger Mountain (By Strategy). In fact, I can easily imagine the 70’s Eno singing this one.

Don’t Be Afraid Of The Dark is an extremely addictive album, one that is probably destined to be criminally overlooked. Which, if anything, should make your listening to it even more special than it already is.


Wednesday, 28 August 2013

Album review: ELEANOR FRIEDBERGER - Personal Record

Highlights: When I Knew, Tomorrow Tomorrow, You’ll Never Know Me, She’s A Mirror, Other Boys

I still refuse to believe this is the Eleanor Friedberger who was once part of The Fiery Furnaces. Can’t be. In fact, I’d rather believe this is Chrissie Hynde doing a clever undercover act. It’s not about ‘better’ – it’s about ‘different’. Her brother Matthew, for instance, hasn’t changed one bit, and you only need to take a quick look at his discography from two past years to see what I mean.

Well, enough with the dramatics. Eleanor’s second album is a personal record indeed – even more so than the already personal Last Summer. Here her lyrical punches are more fragile and direct. There’s no sexual vagueness of “Inn Of The Seventh Ray” (still one of my favourite songs of 2011) – she basically lets it all out; all the remorse, anguish, frustration of her past relationship(s). One of the songs is actually called “I’ll Never Be Happy Again”, for Christ’s sake.

Musically, it’s more of the same. Eleanor does a more soulful version of Chrissie Hynde, and I’m happy with the arrangement. The voice is that sexy combination of jazzy and playful, and it works perfectly against the handsome guitars that go from gentle (“I Am The Past”, “Other Boys”) to bouncy and lush (“She’s A Mirror”, “Stare At The Sun”). There’s some brass and piano – but more like pretty augmentation than the actual backbone. Also, speaking of piano, that terrific piano line from “Echo or Encore” was definitely stolen from a Nick Cave song – not that you should mind, of course. Most of all, however, I’m impressed with Eleanor’s melodies. The catchy “Tomorrow Tomorrow” and “She’s A Mirror” are both classic pop songs, but her more soulful, oblique stuff (like the wonderful “You’ll Never Know Me”) is just as gripping.

I don’t mind personal records – as long as the person in question is interesting enough. Eleanor Friedberger is. A very stylish album and a sure top ten candidate. My only fear is that with this kind of accomplished songwriting there might be little room for improvement… Anyway, let’s see what this Alex Kapranos guy has to say for himself.


Monday, 26 August 2013

Book review: IAN McEWAN - Sweet Tooth (2012)

It’s a good thing art is not what you watch in a cinema with a huge bowl of popcorn on one side and a plastic cup of Coke on the other. Because if that was the case, I would swiftly dismiss Sweet Tooth as the dullest, weakest novel of McEwan and be done with it. And maybe that is exactly what I would have done were I to write this review while still reading the novel or a week after finishing it. Good art, however, is different. It hijacks your attention and your time. And, most importantly, it has that insidious staying power that keeps working its way into your brain soon afterwards.

Having said that, Sweet Tooth is not a great novel. It is topical, it is clever, it is well-written. The problem is – it rarely goes beyond that.

In fact, I would still stick to my initial point that McEwan’s new novel is a merely good book written by a great writer. You only need to read one page of Sweet Tooth, aloud or otherwise, to feel that simple yet masterful pulse of a perfect English sentence. And, as it always goes with McEwan, you will hear your brain purring in satisfaction when, for instance, having a new sex partner is compared to learning a new card game. So no, it is not about the writing (McEwan’s style is still that recognizable and highly effective combination of ‘no-nonsense’ and ‘subtle’); it’s the substance I’m after.

Serena Frome is the one telling the story. From her family background to her taste in literature to her  academic achievements, the girl is so ordinary it’s exasperating. And yet she does have an Anglican bishop for a father. She does read an absolute monstrous amount of books. She does show some modest talent for maths. All of which adds up to an irrevocably one-dimensional character who, nonetheless, gets to work as the lowest of the low in MI5 thanks to a rather unlikely love affair with an elderly Cambridge professor. British Security Service is a cold and alien organization that is supposed to swallow Serena up with all the paperwork and icy, high-brow indifference. Unlike her only female friend, Shirley, she simply doesn’t have enough healthy cynicism or sense of humour to fight off any of that. Something changes, however, when Serena is included into a secret project codenamed Sweet Tooth, which is where Serena’s good looks and love for literature really come into play.

A spy novel then. Interestingly, Sweet Tooth does for the genre pretty much what Martin Amis’ (who actually appears in this novel) Night Train did for the detective story genre: it skims it and plays with it and then condenses it into a smart little thing that ends up being neither here nor there. The characters are so flimsy and uninteresting they barely exist (women in particular) – so much so that when you feel McEwan is making a comment on feminism, it comes off feeble and quickly gets sucked back into sand. Serena Frome, for her part, is a very unlikable main character. I could of course spend a few tedious hours justifying why she had to be so bland and mundane, but can that really justify the rather bland and mundane plot that wants to get by on the premise that there is a twist at the end (because otherwise this would be a real downer), one that is supposed to put things right? I don’t have to mention any of the genre’s biggest names here (“we live in the shadows of giants”, according to McEwan’s own words), but for a spy novel this is unforgivably dry. And even when the twist finally arrives (and it’s an arrival, not a spine-tingling snap), my excitement quickly vanishes under the heavy, plodding weight of 300 pages that proceeded it. I feel shortchanged.

To be completely fair, McEwan hasn’t properly intrigued me since the hugely underrated Saturday, and the odd retelling of his own old short stories throughout Sweet Tooth only proves that there’s now some kind of void where new plots have to be. This novel, remember, is dedicated to Christopher Hitchens, and while that can only be viewed as a great gesture, Sweet Tooth just lacks the exhilarating drive of that late, great man. Because style or not, take away the name, and what you are left with is a moderately successful novel that (with some luck) could be made it into a modestly successful film.

Regardless of all my criticism, though, the novel did leave a good taste in my mouth. Sour taste, not sweet, but that I guess makes sense. McEwan’s great status is not in doubt, and he manages to end it all beautifully and make every word you’ve read painfully meaningful: in this post-Snowden world, how small is a man? And how small can a man really be? It’s one of those books: you don’t get too much pleasure while reading it, but after time its tentacles are felt well deep inside. It’s that staying power. God knows, maybe it is all about that brief final sentence, full of desperate and anguished hope: “Dearest Serena, it’s up to you”. This is it, I guess, that spine-tingling snap you’ve missed earlier.


Sunday, 25 August 2013

SONG OF THE WEEK #112: Furniture - "Love Your Shoes"

I wouldn't normally go for a band whose name is Furniture, but these guys did put out one of the most interesting post-punk/new Romantic albums of the 80's. Jazzy, soulful, catchy, adventurous, The Wrong People was released in that poor old 1986. Think The Associates without the eccentricities. "Brilliant Mind" might be one of the greatest pop singles of all time, but the album had plenty more to offer; like "Love Your Shoes", for instance, which goes out to all brilliant and delusional people out there.

Friday, 23 August 2013

Album review: LUKE HAINES - Rock And Roll Animals

Highlights: Magic Town, Rock And Roll Animals, Gene Vincent, The Angel Of The North, From Hersham To Heaven

With Luke Haines, I don’t even have to wonder anymore. A concept album about 70’s wrestling? Fine. A collaboration with Cathal Coughlan on a fake history of the British Isles? Fine. A children’s (well, not quite, but…) record about three rock and roll animal friends (Nick Lowe the badger, Gene Vincent the cat, Jimmy Pursey the fox) fighting against an admittedly ugly Tyneside statue? Jesus Christ, but okay – fine! The point being, you can often hear critics say that at this point this or that artist can do whatever the fuck he wants. Which often doesn’t really mean anything. Luke Haines, on the other hand, does exactly that: whatever the fuck he wants.

And with songs this good – who cares about a daft plot?

While this is indeed a whimsical fairy tale involving a bunch of furry creatures, calling it a children’s record might be a stretch – even if the whole thing does feature quite brilliant narrative sections from Julia Davies (good call, Luke!). I can certainly imagine the odd child enjoying this album, but considering the characters and the allusions involved, quirky adults with a strong sense of self-irony are more than welcome.

Needless to say, Luke Haines’ songwriting genius is not in doubt. Side one is particularly priceless, with the infectious chorus of “Gene Vincent”, the folksy prettiness of “A Badger Called Nick Lowe” and the irresistible melodic whimsy of the single “Rock And Roll Animals” being further proof of Haines’ undeniable pop sensibilities. Side two is not as strong (while perfectly lovely and melodic, “The Birds… The Birds” and “…We Do” are not really up to Luke’s best standards), but it does contain the album’s strongest tune in the updated, slightly slowed down version of “The Angel Of The North”. If you are into bizarre lyrical excesses, I recommend the closing “Rock And Roll Animals In Space” that should really be heard to be believed.

In the end, Rock And Roll Animals is a great little folk-rock record that is actually on par with Small Faces’ classic Ogdens’ Nut Gone Flake, another concept album it so clearly resembles. But with all that said, this is Luke’s first album I’m rating lower than a 9. A few songs on side two and the fact that the album’s biggest highlight is an update of an older song (“The Angel Of The North” first appeared a few years ago, on the 50-copies-only project Outsider Music) can hardly be considered dangerous signs, but I would just want to mention that at this point I want Luke Haines to record a fucking normal album. In the vein of 21st Century Man or Off My Rocker At The Art School Bop. Just as a sort of breather before a concept album about the final days of the French Revolution of 1789-1799. Or whatever.


Wednesday, 21 August 2013

Album review: JOHNNY BORRELL - Borrell 1

Highlights: Joshua Amrit, Pan-European Supermodel Song (Oh! Gina), Cyrano Masochiste, Erotic Letter

Barring those who don’t have a clue, there are two kinds of people: those who think that Johnny Borrell is a cunt and those who think that Johnny Borrell is a talented cunt. Since Razorlight’s albums were okay at best, it took Borrell’s first solo album to tell me which side I’m on. And considering that Borrell 1 was met with such deadly, hostile indifference, I’m only too happy to report: there’s a great songwriter in there, behind the arrogance, narcissism and all those other things I don’t even mind seeing in an artist.

Also, I applaud The Guardian for their unintentional PR campaign. Back in May they ran a quirky little article that was supposed to mock Borrell’s song titles from the new album: “Ladder To Your Bed”, “Erotic Letter”, “Cyrano Masochiste”… Christ, they even had a vote regarding which title is the most ludicrous. Thus, I not only learned about the release of Borrell 1, I instantly became hooked. Because God knows these song titles are brilliant.

However – we all knew Johnny Borrell could present himself, so what about the songs? Well, I actually found this album absolutely delightful. Based mostly on piano and saxophone (there’s almost no guitar here), the songs come strong and gutsy. The hooks are good, the backing vocals are copious and effective, the instrumentation is sharp and powerful, and even if a few slower tunes aren’t as hard-hitting as Borrell thinks they are (“Ladder To Your Bed” certainly lacks that central punch), the swirling piano groove of “Cyrano Masochiste”, the sheer catchiness of the single “Pan-European Supermodel Song (Oh! Gina)” or the carnal, tongue-in-cheek charm of the closing ballad “Erotic Letter” are worthy of more than the whole catalogue of most of your favourite indie bands.

Still, if anything, you are mostly going to hear bad things about this album. Borrell will be dismissed as that one-time-Libertine cunt who once dismissed Dylan. Many will actually do that without even paying too much (or any) attention to the songs. Worse still, they will tell you how fucking great those xx albums truly are. Me, I will do my happy toe-tapping to the irresistible singalong that is “Each And Every Road”, thank you very much. Believe you me, this is confident, classy songwriting all around. Johnny Borrell! Who could have thought?..


Sunday, 18 August 2013

SONG OF THE WEEK #111: Babyshambles - "Nothing Comes To Nothing"

Admittedly I feel like I'm 15 when I listen to Babyshambles' first new song in God knows how many years (six). Which is what it is all about, of course. Doherty is a great songwriter (just don't let them tell you otherwise), and my hopes for Sequel To The Prequel are very high indeed.

Friday, 16 August 2013

Album review: THE LEISURE SOCIETY - Alone Aboard The Arc

Highlights: Another Sunday Psalm, Fight For Everyone, The Sober Scent Of Paper, We Go Together

This may have nothing to do with nothing, but the name The Leisure Society is perfect for this band. Alone Aboard The Arc sounds exactly the way an album by an indie pop band called The Leisure Society should sound: laidback, summary and charming in that good old chamber pop way. Extremely hummable, too, which is the direct result of strong, thoughtful songwriting.

There is an irresistible old-fashioned edge to some of these songs, and I swear the jazzy, orchestral arrangements of languidly pretty “We Go Together” take me to the first half of the previous century. Add a brilliant vocal melody to that, and you have a song Neil Hannon would be proud of. The album is split more or less evenly between bouncy (catchy is the word) and downbeat (not to be confused with cheerless) pop tunes. As for the former, “Another Sunday Psalm” and “Fight For Everyone” offer a true barrage of quality hooks. The latter are no less consistent, and all of them, “A Softer Voice Takes Longer Hearing” and the aforementioned “We Go Together” in particular, have such perfect vibes for a late August evening that I don’t have much in terms of complaints.

Whatever this album was set out to do, it did for me. Listen to the main vocal hook of “One Man And His Fug” and tell me what you think. It’s light, its staying power may be limited, but I’ll be damned if this is not a great little pop album. Recommended.