Thursday, 31 October 2013

Album review: PREFAB SPROUT - Crimson/Red

Highlights: The Best Jewel Thief In The World, The List Of Impossible Things, The Songs Of Danny Galway, The Old Magician

First Paul McCartney, and now it’s Prefab Sprout. If you think about it (not that you should), it might make some weird sense. As far as I can/could see it, and I’ve never paid too much attention, the ‘fab’ element in Paddy McAloon’s band was seriously downplayed even at the time when they were cult-prone underachievers putting substance into Spandau Ballet’s slick, soulless mush. They were good, competent and they were clearly ‘into art’, but I don’t know – even in my most hopeless 10cc days I always preferred “Silly Love” to “I’m Not In Love”.

And yet it’s indeed love that I feel for this album. God knows how it came about, but isn’t this McAloon’s best, most consistent collection of songs ever? Steve McQueen and all? With strong hooks and gutsy melodies? With an undercurrent, apprehensive feeling that this might, well you know – might be that all-important last outing?

Crimson/Red is a modest triumph from start to finish. It opens with “The Best Jewel Thief In The World”, 80s pop at its finest, instantly memorable and what they used to call ‘sophisticated’. The production is immaculate. The chorus is pure bliss, special kudos for squeezing the word ‘asshole’ in there. Sounds lovely. My main concern had been that the ballads would induce sleep rather than delight, but I personally found stuff like “The List Of Impossible Things” and “The Dreamer” beautiful and engaging to the extent where I actually felt an urge to re-listen to Prefab Sprout’s entire back catalogue. As for those potential hit singles for a different time, universe and age, the unforgettable and anthemic “The Songs Of Danny Galway” is a personal favourite.

The songs are lovingly bound by the same sound, vibe and more or less the same quality. It's all either crimson or red. Like I said, McAloon’s songwriting is at its absolute best, and I would ridiculously compare Crimson/Red to Pete Astor’s recent Songbox. Which, incidentally, had Pete’s greatest songs on it. Same irrelevant but adorable late-career bloom can be witnessed here. Crimson/Red won’t top any of those end-of-year lists, but it doesn’t even need to. It exists in its own universe. In its own time and age.


Monday, 28 October 2013

Lou Reed (1942-2013)

Jesus - no. Some things just don't add up. This is the single worst thing you could learn on a Sunday night... Rest in peace, Lou Reed.

Sunday, 27 October 2013

SONG OF THE WEEK #121: Angry Samoans - "They Saved Hitler's Cock"

Most hardcore punk albums get annoying or just plain boring after a while - not Back From Samoa (1982) though. Throughout its absurdly brief 18 minutes it says it all. Or maybe it says nothing, who cares. "They Saved Hitler's Cock" is immortal. Those lyrics.

Friday, 25 October 2013

Album review: PAUL McCARTNEY - New

Highlights: Alligator, Queenie Eye, New

It really does my head in, and I can almost forgive the ridiculous album title (because it should already be Recent, and it will soon be Old), the oddly spelled ‘N’ (more like Mew), the general tastelessness of the neon-lit cover and even the fact that the album is so shamelessly front-loaded. This generosity is easily explained: Paul McCartney can still write a pop tune. Not just a catchy pop tune of general variety, but one the modern radio wouldn’t spew out like a piece of old, hardened gum. No, not like “Paperback Writer”. Not that. But then again – what would “Paperback Writer” mean to the modern radio?

Let’s get this straight. Compared to Chaos And Creation In The Backyard and even Memory Almost Full, McCartney’s latest doesn’t sound particularly inspired. None of the new songs are bad; McCartney is still McCartney – even when his songwriting lacks that vital spark, he can still string together a few good chords to make it sound reasonable and intelligent. Catchy, too.

The first side seems to know what it's doing. The opening “Save Us” is a pretty routine McCartney melody (I mean that in a good way) set to contemporary production (not necessarily a great decision), but take nothing away from what comes next. “Alligator” is an instant Paul McCartney classic – which goes to show that there’s nothing clever vocal hooks and a few melodic twists won’t do. “On My Way To Work” is no “We Can Work It Out”, but it’s a good late-period Paul McCartney number. No imagination of, say, “Mrs. Bellamy” (Christ how great that one sounds right now), but we shall take what we can. Like I will take “Queenie Eye”, which is insanely infectious. Like I will take the bouncy, Beatlesque (yeah I know) title track, not least because of those vocal harmonies. Sadly, most of what follows is largely a miss. Sweet and serviceable, but still a miss. Stuff like "Appreciate" and "Hosanna" is just bland. And while I can enjoy the anthemic “Everybody Out There” (good guitar work on that one), the rest rolls by in an anemic fashion. Pardon the intended pun, but the closing "Road" is long and not very winding; in fact, I’d rather he replaced it with the half-baked, but lovely piano melody of the last bonus track, “Scared”.

Still, it’s like Dylan once said: Paul McCartney thinks in melodies. Everything that comes out of his mouth is essentially coated in tunes and catchy chord progressions. And for all its numerous flaws, that still holds true for New. I mean, could the modern-day Pete Townshend write a pop song? Could Mick Jagger? Could Ray Davies? Well, maybe Ray Davies, but I very much doubt it would sound quite this effortless. Still, side two is there looking at me with its washed-out, half-blind eye. Hence the seven.


Thursday, 24 October 2013

Album review: of MONTREAL - Lousy With Sylvianbriar

Highlights: all of them  

Your mother hung herself in the National Theater
When she was four months pregnant with your sister
Who would have been thirteen years old today
Does that make you feel any less alone in the world?

There’s no question that Kevin Barnes’ mind is one of the most exciting things on Earth. However, these opening lines from “Colossus”, sung in a disarmingly pretty and deeply melodic way, are the sound of an exciting mind going completely off.

Gaudy cover, nonsensical titles, lyrics from a ‘Depressed & Deranged Anonymous’ cocktail party – that’s of Montreal’s new album. Easily, easily – their richest, most rewarding and engrossing ever.

Essentially, this is Kevin Barnes riding a time-machine - even if I still hesitate to compare it to the band’s first few albums: Lousy With Sylvianbriar is so much more than a bunch of nicely derivative melodies low on guts and imagination. These melodies are timeless from the off (those heavenly verses of “Amphibian Days”); what is more, they are all densely soaked with that lush, all-over-the-map spirit of the band’s post-2004 period. Consider last year’s Paralytic Stalks as a decent enough reference point; but take away wild psychedelic excesses, take away Prince, and leave that swirling, kaleidoscopic pop music running you over like a giant, inflatable, multicoloured bulldozer.

Lyrically, it’s tortured and entertaining. Often both. Believe me, there are enough lines here that will make you go ‘no?’, ‘clever!’, ‘huh?!?’ – particularly if you are new to the wonderful and frightening world of Kevin Barnes. Musically, it’s what Hell would sound like if Hell allowed pop music. Let’s just take “She Ain’t Speaking Now”. A brief 7-second instrumental blast gives you the infectious taste of the chorus; then comes the elegantly folksy verse that would on its own make any song great; then the colourful chorus growing in size until the moment it flies off the cliff with a sliding vocal hook; then the intense middle-eight that keeps piling up the energy; then the brilliant chorus again…  This is too good. There are tracks that are just downbeat (the musically gorgeous and lyrically sinister “Obsidian Currents”) and there are tracks that remain pumped-up and supercharged all the way through (“Hegira Migr” is pure glam-rock), but mostly there's stuff like "Belle Glade Missionaries” where right in the middle of Barnes’ delicious rage you get the loveliest moment on the whole album – the ‘female Henry Miller” moment.

Listening to Lousy With Sylvianbriar is a lot like standing in the sweetest, warmest torrential rain that just wouldn't stop. And you are umbrella-less and tragically naive - quite possibly, just like Kevin Barnes. Lousy With Sylvianbriar is a triumph. Quite simply, this album has it all.


Sunday, 20 October 2013

SONG OF THE WEEK #120: Morrissey - "Speedway"

Call him a wanker, a twat, a narcissistic bore, but you can't deny Morrissey. He stole this whole fucking week. There were moments where his memoir's anticipation/aftermath threatened to overshadow such silly issues as England vs. Poland and the US shutdown. Still, he won in the end. And rightfully so. I loved the Penguin Classics takeover (he is an artist, so he can do whatever he wants - though don't let Miley Cyrus read too much into that) and I'm currently loving the book. "My childhood is streets upon streets upon streets upon streets..." You just knew it would be good, didn't you? Also, let's put an end to the tiresome 'but he's been shit since the Smiths' breakup' rumour. Nonsense.Vauxhall and I is a classic and every bit as good as The Queen is Dead. And while we're at it, "Speedway" is the greatest song the man has ever sung.

Friday, 18 October 2013

Album review: BILL CALLAHAN - Dream River

Highlights: The Sing, Javelin Unlanding, Small Plane, Winter Road

If you want to get into the technical aspect of it, let’s put it like this: were I to rate this album on a track-by-track basis, nothing would change. What is more, were I to rate these songs individually, I would give each of them the exact same rating of ‘bloody good, great if you’re in the mood’. Which is just another way of saying that Dream River is almost clinically consistent and homogeneous. Clearly the sound of an artist who has long found his creative niche and feels relaxed and confident exploring it. 

‘Exploring’, however, is a wrong word.

More like naturally inhabiting it. Bill Callahan’s newest is the usual: slow, pleasingly meandering melodies wrapped in wistful atmosphere and Bill’s cozy baritone. The sound is warm, just like the washed out colours on this album's cover. Instrumentally, there are no big revelations: Bill's guitar and economical, affecting orchestration. Dream River sounds so effortless, it’s like he isn’t even trying. Songs seamlessly blend into each other like faces of old best friends, creating a really engaging experience. Nothing stands out, so I just typed the first three tracks as highlights (because they come first and also because they are really good; besides, the chorus of “Javelin Unlanding” is distinguishable for its near-upbeat nature) – as well as the sleepy, violin-driven beaut of “Winter Road” (because it comes last, but also because … well, you know).

Dream River is both a mood piece and a rather compelling collection of songs. The songs are not particularly memorable or ear-catching, but they are also addictive in a very understated, October-like way. Bill Callahan isn’t doing anything remarkable here (and has he ever?), but equally – I almost can’t imagine a better album from the man. It doesn’t even matter whether you like this album or not – Dream River is good. It’s beyond tastes and opinions, by this point it’s almost a physical fact. Likewise, my predictable rating is just as immaterial.


Thursday, 17 October 2013

Album review: ROY HARPER - Man and Myth

Highlights: The Enemy, Time Is Temporary, January Man, Heaven Is Here

You learn as you go along. Previously to this album, my exposure to Roy Harper (who is righteous, according to Luke Haines’ Twitter) had been limited to the leading vocal on Pink Floyd’s “Have A Cigar” (anything but a popular view, but I’ve always loved the song) and, ironically, that song title from Led Zeppelin’s third LP. “Hats Off To Roy Harper”. Well, judging by this album as well as the acclaimed, hurriedly-listened-to Stormcock – hats off indeed.

I’ll admit that these days the idea of a lengthy track seems rather scary. Right away I think of something plodding and pretentious. And admittedly Roy Harper’s track list for Man and Myth looked alarming. One song in particular, “Heaven Is Here”, is longer than 15 minutes. And in folk music, you pretty much have to be Dylan in his prime to pull that off.

But the very first song, “The Enemy”, tells you that you are in good hands. The guitar sounds masterful, just as that first hookline. The song never sounds monotonous, Roy is always there to spice things up a bit with a witty guitar line or a rockier section. Next up is “Time Is Temporary”, which opens like a classic ballad off an early Leonard Cohen album. This song as well as “The Stranger” have that slightly dark, autumnal vibe of “Master Song”. Never a bad thing. “Cloud Cuckooland” opens non-typically, with a saxophone, and I just love the anthemic diversity that was probably needed at this point. The centrepiece is of course “Heaven Is Here”, and let's get this straight: there isn't one part in it that sounds remotely expendable. Even the instrumental passages, with orchestration or with Roy gently fingerpicking the acoustic guitar, sound compelling and flow into the singing sections with convincing ease.

Granted, Roy’s voice has gotten more fragile with years, but that never really bothered me. Some notes might be eluded, but he sounds completely in charge all the way through. His guitar playing is great, his songwriting is arguably as strong as ever. In a word – the whole thing is masterful. If I have to thank Joanna Newsom for that, I will. But mostly let's be grateful to Roy Harper himself for keeping it up and, in the process, recording one of the best albums of 2013.


Sunday, 13 October 2013

SONG OF THE WEEK #119: Grant McLennan - "The Dark Side Of Town"

Odd that it took me 118 songs to do this; "The Dark Side Of Town", off Grant's second solo album (Fireboy, 1992). What is there to say? Arguably it's the most beautiful song by one of the world's greatest songwriters. I'm in tears.

Friday, 11 October 2013

Album review: JOHNNY FLYNN - Country Mile

Highlights: After Eliot, The Lady Is Risen, Einstein’s Idea, Bottom Of The Sea Blues

Like I’ve mentioned a hundred times already, if after listening to Johnny Flynn’s 2008 debut A Larum you still want to hear Laura Marling or, Heaven forbid, … & … (I hope not), you should take a really hard look at yourself. Somewhere along the way you may have taken a wrong turn.

A Larum was that rare case when ‘timeless’ and ‘contemporary folk’ could actually coexist in one sentence. Which is why it was really sad to see Johnny screw all that whimsical, misty-eyed brilliance in favour of the rather generic and big-sounding Been Listening in 2010. That was a huge letdown. Even that beautifully frayed, romantic-eccentric voice was hopelessly buried in the misguided attempt at losing identity.

A deep sigh of relief here: Johnny Flynn of A Larum is back. I can forgive him the slightly weaker songs, I can forgive him a couple of misfires: the main thing is that we’re back to that poetic, lost-busker-with-an-edge vibe that made him so good 5 years ago. And the drop in songwriting is in fact not too significant. True, the title track has so far failed to engage me (it’s okay – if not quite there), but a song like “The Lady Is Risen” is an absolute knockout. It would have been brilliant as a simple, swiftly fingerpicked folk tale, but that swirling organ just brings it to a whole new level. All through Country Mile, Johnny does them catchy and playful (“Fol-de-rol”)  and pleasantly meandering (“Einstein’s Idea” could easily go on for another 6 minutes without me uttering one complaint). The man just feels so comfortable; and sounds that, too.

So thankfully – Johnny Flynn is back to his poetic, romantic, whimsical best. Country Mile is the true follow-up to A Larum. And the way he breaks into that fluent section towards the end of “Bottom Of The Sea Blues”? Amazing. If you are still, inexplicably, stuck with Laura Marling or, Heaven forbid, … & … (I hope not), please reconsider. And do get a copy of Johnny Flynn’s new album. It’s really bloody good.


Wednesday, 9 October 2013

Album review: JULIE FEENEY - Clocks

Highlights: Dear John, Moment, Worry

Pop music!

It’s not often that you get a chance to review a really good pure pop album. Over the past two years I’ve tried and failed on too many occasions. Some time ago I started writing about Norah Jones’ latest, but got bored halfway through. It was a decent enough little album, but not nearly as good as a few others released in that particular week. Then there is of course Lana Del Rey. Born To Die? “Video Games” remains a great song, the title track is half-good, the rest is about as interesting as colourless nail polish. Style doesn’t equal edge. And I’m not even mentioning things like The 20/20 Experience. Not even if my rave review would let me get a share of Timberlake’s royalties. Bad is bad.

And with Julie Feeney’s Clocks – I almost gave up 14 minutes into the album. It’s not enough that her covers are becoming less and less sexy (no, honestly – 13 Songs was terrific), there’s also a handful of songs that sound unforgivably bland. “Julia”, “If I Lose You Tonight” – lovely orchestration or not, these songs go on for more than 4 minutes.

However, three or four tracks aside, there are enough sparkling pop moments scattered throughout Clocks to keep me intrigued. One of the biggest is of course the opening single “Dear John”. The chord progressions are so obvious I don’t even know whether it’s okay to mention the source. I will – because more contemporary musicians should be encouraged to spice their mush with Pachelbel’s genius. “Dear John” is of course Canon in D Major, and it works. I think it would take some serious effort to screw it, and if you played that damned Vitamin C song for me right now – I would probably cry. Elsewhere, “Worry” is my bet for the album’s best song. A perfect three-minute pop song, it has vocal hooks you could imagine on some of those classic Kate Bush albums. I don’t think I’m physically capable of a better compliment.

I actually only learned about Julie Feeney’s existence two months ago, when I was in Dublin Concert Hall waiting for the performance of Ladies And Gentlemen, We Are Floating In Space. Portraits of Julie were everywhere, apparently she is one of Ireland’s biggest pop stars at the moment. Good for them: Ireland could do a lot worse (just think of two underage nitwits jumping all over the place). There is a certain lack of substance on Clocks, but all the same: this is orchestrated pop with an edge. Coming from Galway, one of the world’s loveliest places.


Sunday, 6 October 2013

SONG OF THE WEEK #118: The Verlaines - "Death And The Maiden"

Do you like Paul Verlaine? Never been a huge fan of their regular albums, but "Death And The Maiden" (1983) is one of New Zealand's finest ever singles. I'm not sure what that deranged, circus-like middle section is doing there, but it all adds up I guess. The chorus is... well, if you close your eyes while listening to it, you might actually see a dozen flying nuns sweeping past you. That chorus is insanely good.

Friday, 4 October 2013

EP review: PIXIES - EP1

Best song: Another Toe

As you would expect, there is no difference between a Frank Black record and a record by post-Kim Deal Pixies. Having listened to EP1, the original band’s trimmed comeback, I have to say I actually don’t have a problem with that.

And even if I did – the chorus of “Bagboy”, Pixies’ new single released earlier this year, features such preposterously Kim Deal-esque vocals that even a rabid fan would mistake for the real thing. Speaking of “Bagboy”, it was a promising enough single, subversively catchy and sliced through by a classic Pixies guitar line. If anyone had any doubts, this 15-minute, 4-song EP delivers on that promise.

It opens with the non-threatening and surprisingly mellow “Andro Queen” whose delightful melody is not quite commercial pop and not quite underground. The usual, then. “Another Toe In The Ocean” is Black at his catchiest and thus an instant power-pop classic. Trompe Le Monde level material, just more polished. “Indie Cindy” alternates rough, spoken-word verses (“you put cock in the cocktail”) with a sweet, sweet chorus that so comfortably borders on fey and even twee. The guitars sound punchy, assertive, but that becomes a bit of a problem on the closing track, “What Goes Boom”. This is the EP’s only relative misstep. The actual tune is all right, but I certainly don’t need the metallic sheen of Motรถrhead-styled riffage on a Pixies record.

However, that one mistake doesn’t spoil the overall impression – particularly if you attach “Bagboy” as track number 5. All is in place, including Spanish singing. Unquestionably EP1 is the sound of mature Pixies. And if that beats the purpose, I don’t care. The music is great. Just please tell the whining fans ‘here’s Doolittle and there’s the door’.


Wednesday, 2 October 2013

Album review: MANIC STREET PREACHERS - Rewind The Film

Highlights: This Sullen Welsh Heart, 4 Lonely Roads, As Holy As The Soil (That Buries Your Skin), 30 Year War

If there’s such a thing as a proper Manic Street Preachers fan, that’s not me. Richey Edwards was (is that a ‘was’?) an intriguing individual, but I don’t see him as a personal hero. I do enjoy an odd Nicky Wire interview, but most of his lyrics are wasted on me or else leave me cold. There’s no question that The Holy Bible is a great LP and I do think 2009’s Journal For Plague Lovers was a remarkable comeback, but the ugly truth is that if my iPod had space for just one Manics-associated album, it would have to be James Dean Bradfield’s The Great Western from 2006.

The Great Western. How in God’s name can an intelligent pop classic like that be so underrated? Big melodies, big hooks – every second makes you feel that Bradfield was no longer restrained by Wire’s lyrics (no offence there) and must have experienced much-needed liberation writing and playing all that. 

The good news is that Rewind The Film seems to inhabit a similar world.

The album has been described as the band's most personal statement. True: political concepts barely appear in any of these songs (other than the closing “30 Year War”), which is a nicer change than many could imagine. It’s a very tuneful, beautifully crafted collection of anthems and ballads that often coexist in one song. “This Sullen Welsh Heart” is worthy of any Manic Street Preachers classic. It may seem too soft, but it has the sort of powerful, articulate melody Bradfield does so well on a good day. The sweet, short, Cate Le Bon-sung “4 Lonely Roads” is another understated triumph. As is the solemn, slow-burning title track. Only the rather lengthy instrumental “Manorbier” should have remained an outtake.

Few songs here scream ‘greatest hits’ at you, but my overall feeling is that it’s a very satisfying late-period album by this Welsh band. They don’t want to set the world on fire, not anymore, they just want to release a few great albums. I don’t know what a proper Manic Street Preacher fan would say to that, but count me in. Also, a solo follow-up from Bradfield would be nice.