Sunday, 30 March 2014

SONG OF THE WEEK #141: The Modern Lovers - "Hospital"

The Modern Lovers' 1976 debut is all gold, of course, but "Hospital" is something else. Richman's vocal intonations ('your... world') are physically impossible to resist. And the organ at the end is devastating. 

Friday, 28 March 2014

Album review: BRUNO BAVOTA - The Secret Of The Sea

Highlights: Me And You, Les Nuits Blanches, Plasson, The Secret Of The Sea          


This is the bright side of modern classical.

Rainy, too, but mostly bright. Bruno Bavota is an Italian composer who is like a breath of fresh air after Hauschka’s latest exploits. It’s what you get after spending too much time sitting at home in a stuffy, cluttered room. It’s what you see on the cover. I would call it unabashedly beautiful.

The Secret Of The Sea, Bruno’s third album, has a lush and opulent sound that is sentimental and never cheesy. What makes it good is the fact that it has impressive melodic substance. What makes it distinguishable is the extensive use of classical guitar (rather reminiscent of what you might hear on one of those mood-setting ‘tranquility’ records). The guitar is good and adds to the sound, but it is primarily an embellishment. It’s these thoughtful, elegiac piano lines that carry Bruno’s tunes. “Les Nuits Blanches”, my favourite piece here, is completely guitar-free. The buildup is lovely, and the intense rain-dropping climax is what I will surely come back to again and again this year. 

What a genuinely beautiful modern classical record. Painstakingly created and seemingly effortless. All sweet rain, gently whooshing sea waves and charm. May lack that vital wrong chord on occasion, but I guess that’s irrelevant. This album’s prettiness is its edge. Something you can understand when you learn that Bruno Bavota is from Naples. 

Wednesday, 26 March 2014

Album review: HAUSCHKA - Abandoned City

Highlights: Elizabeth Bay, Agdam, Craco, Bakerville


This is the dark side of modern classical.

Hauschka can do the bright side, too (personal favourites being Ferndorf and parts of Silfra), but the concept of Abandoned City begs for something more gruesome and subversive. Which is what you get. The record tries to recreate the chilling feel of abandoned places. It works so well that the cover looks almost cheerful.

“Elizabeth Bay” opens with a heavy, frightening, near-robotic sound that evokes industrial ruins and, naturally, desolation. The piece has terrific dynamics, constantly grows in intensity and occasionally drowns in pounding piano. “Pripyat”, while having more of a bare-bones, unnerving quality to it, is in the same mould. Abandoned City consistently mines accidental beauty in what is essentially frightful and ugly. That it works is especially evident in the slightly more accessible second half of the album. There’s a clearer and more melodic piano sound there, and “Craco” is genuinely pretty. Experimental, too, but mostly pretty. 

Imagine a much more ghastly, cluttered version of Steve Reich’s Music For 18 Musicians. Abandoned City is industrial minimalism mixed with piano elegance and steeped in a genuinely dark vibe. It’s a great work, inspired and intense. Recorded, reportedly, in 10 days.

Sunday, 23 March 2014

SONG OF THE WEEK #140: Roxy Music - "In Every Dream Home A Heartache"

Any talk of the greatest song of all time is completely pointless, because you could never tell what is better, "Cop Shoot Cop" or "Be My Baby". So maybe it's "In Every Dream Home A Heartache". Imagine visiting a glammed-up decadent funeral. This is unspeakably brilliant, Roxy Music at their absolute peak.

Friday, 21 March 2014

Album review: BLANK REALM - Grassed Inn

Highlights: Back To The Flood, Baby Closes The Door, Reach You On The Phone


Oddly enough, I first misspelled the title as Grassed In. Would have been a nice idea. Too bad they went for something so dull and decorative. Grassed In describes the album’s sound perfectly. I don’t know how, but it does.

Blank Realm is an Australian band, which is in itself a bonus point. “Falling Down The Stairs”, the album’s second song, has the kind of silly keyboard line that resembles the one in The Clean’s immortal “Tally Ho!” (incidentally, one of Martin Phillipps’s greatest gifts to the world). It’s a great song, monotonous yet groovy. Not quite New Zealand, but close enough.

Overall, what we are talking about here is psyched-up rock music of very intense variety. The whole thing is definitely melodic, but also messy and never too subtle. Noisy grooves are based on catchy guitar lines (the opening “Back To The Flood”) and charismatic songwriting (“Baby Closes The Door” is so cool you will want to chain-smoke into the passing faces) and go on for five minutes (on average). Sometimes they go nowhere (“Even The Score”, though typical, fails to engage), but usually it works. Take the closing “Reach You On The Phone”, for instance, which is addictive and is filled with that youthful desperation we can all recognise. 

Lumpy groovy, as Frank Zappa once (almost) put it. By the end of it, you will feel positively grassed in. And you will know exactly what I’m talking about. 

Wednesday, 19 March 2014

Album review: PIXIES - EP2

Highlights: Magdalena, Greens and Blues


Frank Black is understandably full of caution. His songwriting, is it good enough? Are critics happy? Are fans receptive? (Short answer to most of those questions: no.) You sympathise. With a discography so perfect, releasing a bad album would be horribly bad taste. In fact, considering the lukewarm reaction, you have to wonder if releasing any new Pixies album would be a good idea.

The general consensus is that EP2 is slightly better than EP1, but I just don’t hear it. To get into the maths of it, the first one had three good songs out of four, the second one has only two. Besides, if you look at this stuff from a certain angle, you will see that the identity is getting slowly but steadily dissolved into a million other bands you may or may not care about.

The lead-off “Blue Eyed Hexe” is downright embarrassing. It makes “What Goes Boom” sound like a good song. AC/DC-like macho music that I don’t need from anyone, never mind Pixies. The hooks are there, but they are dull, generic and make me wonder what am I doing listening to this shit. Thankfully, “Magdalena” is brilliant. Classic Pixies, Bossanova-worthy – just slightly more polished. File alongside “Ana” and “Velouria”, not a bad place to be. “Green and Blue” is very sweet. Close to mainstream, but the edge is definitely there. Finally, “Snakes”. It’s okay. The opening guitar line is good and some sections work. The chorus, however, is way too straight-faced for a band that used to be so good at finding unconventional chord structures. 

To be completely honest here, I don’t see a great Pixies album coming out of this. I hear some good music, but so far nothing to throw away Kim Deal about. Thus, a slightly disappointed six.

Sunday, 16 March 2014

SONG OF THE WEEK #139: Mayo Thompson - "Horses"

As you would probably guess from the title, Corky's Debt To His Father (1969) is one of the most unconventionally wonderful albums of the 60's. The vibe is lovely, but the melodies don't sound correct - they sound wrong. The effect is both quirky and brilliant.

Saturday, 15 March 2014

Album review: THE NEW MENDICANTS - Into The Lime

Highlights: Sarasota, Cruel Annette, Lifelike Hair


One fifth of Teenage Fanclub. One half of Jonny. One sixth of Slipknot. One of the above is not true. So says Norman Blake's twitter account. 

Good idea, and now he can also add 'one third of The New Mendicants'. Because this is another very sweet outing for Norman Blake. Last time it was the lovely and throwawayish Jonny (with Euros Childs of Gorky Zygotic Mynci) and this time it’s the equally lovely and equally throwawayish The New Mendicants (with two members of Pernice Brothers). I’m only reviewing it because this is the sort of derivative that is too damn good to turn down.

Fluffy 60’s flavoured songwriting rules the day. At first it’s just fluffy and unsubstantial and why would anyone even care, but then the cute, well-meaning melodies start shining through. The opening “Sarasota” is such a sweet little pop song, infectious and filled with irresistible starry-eyed optimism. “Cruel Annette” is a lost 60’s classic, something Honeybus or pre-‘64 Beatles could do so effortlessly. “Shouting Match” is good power-pop. Folksy ballad “By The Time It Gets Dark” is somewhat weightless, but the ‘heavy’ “Lifelike Hair” is a Nuggets-styled gem. 

Into The Lime is the sort of album that shouldn’t exist but it does so why not be happy about it. It’s lilting, tasteful and full of sweet delights. I don’t have much to say about Pernice Brothers (who are okay), but my point that Norman Blake is the best songwriter in Teenage Fanclub still stands. The New Mendicants must be a one-off thing, so all the more reason to spend a little time (or money?) here.      

Wednesday, 12 March 2014

Album review: SUN KIL MOON - Benji

Highlights: Truck Driver, Pray For Newtown, Richard Ramirez Died Today Of Natural Causes, Micheline, Ben’s My Friend


Latest 10-minute epic from Mark Kozelek is called “I Watched The Film The Song Remains The Same”. Lyrically, it is what its title suggests. Musically, it is pretty, charming and disheveled. It is also the quickest way to know where you are with this guy: are you bored with admiration or are you bored with solipsistic self-indulgence? But bored you are, that’s the point.

No signs of slowing down from one of the most prolific songwriters currently in business. Benji is Mark Kozelek’s fifth album in less than two years. Some feat – considering that each and every one of those mines similar depths of mumbling, world-weary greatness. If he doesn’t stop now, this might go the distance.

Obviously, it’s the same old thing. You don’t really expect the man to change: years ago he found his niche and is very much happy sticking around in the same place. It’s called slow-core (no, not like Nymphomaniac), but it has definitely gotten more upbeat with time. Kozelek’s 90’s records (as Red House Painters) were ambient funeral music compared to this. “Jim Wise” is joyful, “I Love My Dad” is one driving rock’n’roll groove, not terribly eventful but befitting Kozelek’s wordy, storytelling approach. His typical song would start something like this: “I was a junior in high school…” And then it goes on and on (and on). Usually it works, though I begin to sense dangerous signs of self-parody in stuff like the afore-mentioned 10-minute epic. Thankfully, the last three songs restore my faith completely, as they are among the best Kozelek has ever written. You will even hear some classy saxophone complementing the largely acoustic guitar ballads. As for “Richard Ramirez Died Today Of Natural Causes”, it is intense and evocative and one of the best songs we will hear all year. 

Well, what else? Mark sounds like Neil Young on “Dogs” and Benji will probably end up on many end-of-year lists. Two separate facts. For me, it doesn’t quite reach the heights of Kozelek’s 2013 albums, but if he can go on like this – God knows I won’t mind.

Sunday, 9 March 2014

SONG OF THE WEEK #138: Tune Bureau - "Cheap Thrills"

I used to call this obscure little song from Pop On Top! The Cream Of Australian Powerpop Crop! the greatest thing ever done in that genre. Probably a stretch. But it is up there; two minutes of dizzying powerpop perfection. 

Friday, 7 March 2014

Album review: STEPHEN MALKMUS & THE JICKS - Wig Out At Jagbags

Highlights: The Janitor Revealed, Lariat, J Smoov, Chartjunk


If I were Stephen Malkmus, I would flat out hate my 90’s catalogue. All those Pavement albums everyone loves? The beautifully crafted songs of Terror Twilight? The melodic edginess of Crooked Rain, Crooked Rain? The taste and consistency of Brighten The Corners? The exultant Fall-esque lushness of Slanted & Enchanted? The maddening, over-the-shop charm of Wowee Zowee? How exactly are you supposed to beat that? And who actually beats that?

You measure Malkmus against his Pavement years, you just do. Wig Out At Jagbags stands pretty well against other Jicks albums, no question about that. It’s when you drag things like “Shady Lane” into consideration that you realise only two or three songs here would have been okayed by a younger Stephen Malkmus.

Should we, though? Drag “Shady Lane” into consideration? I would say yes, because that’s how you assess this stuff and that’s how you know that “Lariat” and “Chartjunk” are so good.  But it’s Malkmus all around, of course, spontaneous, whimsical, melodic, constantly spitting out vocal and instrumental hooks. Always ready to give an inspired guitar solo (the last minute of “Chartjunk”) and occasionally prone to giving one hell of an annoying tune (“Cinnamon and Lesbians”, which is either very good or very bad). The relative surprise comes by way of the jazzy and loungey “J Smoov” that sees Stephen’s voice do a rather sophisticated brand of falsetto. 

Final words. Wig Out At Jagbags isn’t his strongest batch of songs by any means, but Stephen Malkmus’ songwriting remains one of the most intriguing and unique things around. And you just have to care for an edge in a world where every rock critic gets hots for a new Elbow album.  

Wednesday, 5 March 2014

Album review: BECK - Morning Phase

Highlights: Blue Moon, Unforgiven, Don’t Let It Go, Turn Away


Not to let a weak pun slip by: this may be Beck’s Morning Phase, but this is perfect insomnia music. Essentially, Sea Changes vol.2, which means you will either see this as a dull exercise in tasteful tedium or Beck’s latest songwriting triumph.

I’m a Midnite Vultures sort of person, so I have to be in the former category. Beck is good when he is bold and adventurous, when he is foul-mouthed, sloppy and bad taste. Even when the edges are only a little rough (Modern Guilt), he still manages to come off interesting. It’s not that I don’t want him to grow up and mature – I just want him to retain that edge.

On first listen, this is just bland. It’s only later that it becomes clear that Morning Phase is a genuinely good album, with strong blurry tunes and hazy vocal hooks that reveal themselves with time. This is languid, lazy acoustic music that is so solemn and homogeneous (monotonous) that I don’t feel like highlighting anything. “Blue Moon” is probably the best; it features a hypnotic melody and a wistful vibe which manages to be both depressing and optimistic. So typical of the whole album. Also, I’m certain he steals the brilliant vocal hook of “Turn Away” from some 60’s song, but I can’t quite remember what that song is. 

A decidedly straight-faced, intentionally humourless affair. If you tell me this is when Beck can show-off his songwriting abilities to the fullest, I won’t believe you. But it’s been 6 years, so it’s nice to have him back. This is a low 7, mind.

Sunday, 2 March 2014

SONG OF THE WEEK #137: Connie Stevens - "Sixteen Reasons"

This was not the girl, sadly. You can't not fall in love with this classic scene from a film that has nothing but classic scenes. Connie Stevens' best song - by roughly a country mile. 1960. 

2013 films: ROUND-UP

A few others that were good but maybe not always too good.

ONLY LOVERS LEFT ALIVE. Tilda Swinton walking down the narrow streets of Tangier to a lovely acoustic melody. Tim Huddleston with a naked torso examining rare guitars. John Hurt high on blood. Impressive stuff. There isn’t much of a plot here, but Jarmusch is the kind of director who can seduce you with style. ‘Crypto-vampire love story”, this film has beautiful bloodsuckers that swear too much. A-

PHILOMENA. Catholic church, bloody hell. The story is intriguing enough, but what makes Philomena so good is the awkward relationship between its two main characters – played by Judi Dench and Steve Coogan. A gullible, kind-hearted woman and a cynical journalist who is after a human interest story. B+

ENOUGH SAID. James Gandolfini’s last performance, and a bloody good one at that. Enough Said is a romantic bittersweet comedy that is ultimately more sweet than bitter. Also note: if you enjoyed this film, you must be getting old. B+

UPSTREAM COLOUR. Shane Carruth’s second film is stylish mindfuck about a parasite that lives in pigs, orchids and humans. It’s all very intricate, but you hold on – because the vibe is pleasantly dreamy and the story is mesmerizing in its own odd way. Is this indie sci-fi for people who know how to wear scarves? B+

SIDE EFFECTS. A very effective pharmacological thriller from Steven Soderbergh. Many people seem to have a problem with the unbelievable plot and the confusing onslaught of crazy twists, but personally, I don’t mind that in a thriller. Jude Law gave a very good performance. A-  

BEHIND THE CANDELABRA. Steven Soderbergh again, in a year that was supposed to be his last. This one is about pianist Liberace (Michael Douglas is outstanding): love, money, fame, betrayal, plastic surgery. Not a classic by any means, but an interesting study of gay eccentricity and lush extravagance. B+

CAPTAIN PHILLIPS. Another true story (maybe too many of those?) and another good thriller. Tom Hanks is masterful as a gutsy captain of a container ship attacked by Somali pirates. I don’t know how this got Oscar nominated at the expense of Inside Llewyn Davis and Blue Jasmine, but ah well. B

THE CONJURING. Maybe it’s the fact that The Conjuring is said to be based on real events. Maybe it’s the fact that it doesn’t take much to scare me. Maybe it’s demons. But I believe this was the single most frightening experience in my life. There were lots of teenagers laughing at the beginning; by the end of it, they were either gone or completely creeped out. B

THE HOBBIT: THE DESOLATION OF SMAUG. Brilliant entertainment from Peter Jackson – as ever. This is no longer Tolkien we are talking about, of course, this is Jackson’s fanboy imagination going obsessive, adventurous and a little insane. Honestly, I don’t see one reason why I should mind any of that. Besides, Tauriel was extremely attractive. Even for an elf. A-