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albums - july 2012


   
 

Here We Go Magic – A Different Ship

Luke Temple's Here We Go Magic (a band he fronts with Kristina Lieberson (keyboards), Michael Bloch (guitar), Jennifer Turner (bass guitar), and Peter Hale (drums)) build their songs up from the floorboards, layering one sound on top of another until they all coalesce into some kind of shimmering whole. The secret is to keep moving and never look back, just add ideas as they come along and march on in serendipity. It's the same kind of intuitive approach to recording used by 70s legends Can, or more recently The Beta Band, and Temple and his musical padres spill a similarly diverse range of influences, world and ambient music mixed with contemporary folk and more conventional indie-rock, with large helpings of of Krautrock and 70's angular chord bands thrown in for good measure. On their latest album A Different Ship, producer Nigel Godrich is at the helm delivering an assured sense of space to the band, in much the same way he did on Beck's Sea Change or Pavement's atmospheric finale Terror Twilight. On this album, he allows Here We Go Magic to create their own musical landscapes, like Talking Heads did with Bryan Eno on 1979's Fear Of Music. The results here are similarly staggering: A Different Ship is a modern-day classic!

Temple has been criticized for being rather indecisive and uncommitted as a songwriter, but on his band's latest album he subverts these concerns in an exploration of ambiguity. It's not always immediate: remember the impossibly jangly 'Collector' from its predecessor Pigeons where he describes his interest in people who fixate on an idea as 'mild fascination'! With similarly understated irony, he's now writing songs about believing and taking action, but somehow he still ends up out there in space. 'Make Up Your Mind' drives along with scratchy guitar and motoric Krautrock synthesizers (aka classic Neu! 'Negativland' etc.) as he wrestles with a list of choices. He tries to break the impasse with 'I Believe In Action', similarly strident, and where “nobody wants to be left alone” and “not moving does not mean you don't move”. But then he's 'Alone And Moving', a song that hangs in the air like a bird in flight looking down on the crowds below. On 'Hard To Be Close', Temple swoons over a Django Rheinhardt-like guitar about how it's equally hard to be with somebody as it is to stay alone. A Different Ship is full of these apparent paradoxes: moving and not moving, deciding and not deciding, believing and not believing.

Sonically, this album is a moveable feast, switching tempo on a musical whim, with songs which divide conveniently between the progressive and the hypnotic. Here We Go Magic create a massive musical collage of ideas, so you can either listen in short bursts, say a song or two, or let the whole thing wash over you. Temple is determined to leave us with choices: sometimes it's music for mood, other times he supplies a more conventional song structure. Either way, there isn't a dull moment on an album that draws you and leaves you hanging in the same suspended airspace that a lot of its songs seem to inhabit! Let me highlight 2 of them.

'Over The Ocean' swims in its watery spaces with “reflected voices”, Temple's falsetto meeting fluttering synth and siren-like choral wailing. Like 'Alone And Moving', it's another nice breathing space before getting back on track with the grand master plan. Was Tom Verlaine joined by a group of angels, 'How Do I Know?' The repeated guitar line of the next track becomes almost shamanic as it now drives the music along an axis of frenzied excitement. Meanwhile the singer ponders a question or two, like “How do I know that I love you?” and then answers mysteriously that “some men die in the fall without trusting their noses”. Paddy McAloon once famously said “words are trains for moving past what really has no name” Temple's words are a useful distraction to help us get beyond labels and let the driving hypnotic beat sink joyfully into our subconscious as we dance the moment away ...

Two 'pinch yourself' moments then, on an album that delivers many more. Here We Go Magic's A Different Ship begins and ends somewhere out there in space, but between-times they've built a multi-layered sonic soundscape which lives and breathes every moment. Luke Temple cleverly fudges his personal indecision by providing a snapshot of life's funny little juxtapositions: the feeling that we're alone but also connected, strong at times and then brittle, moments of happiness and euphoria clash with others of sadness and reflection. Sometimes, we need to commit to something, to make up our minds and take action, but in Here We Go Magic's sonic exploration of major to minor chords we're get caught in the middle somewhere, and as bands like Bon Iver and Real Estate have very amply demonstrated this year, musically it isn't a bad place to be.

Matthew Haddrill

 

Metric - Synthetica

Metric’s fifth studio album opens with the synthetic soundscape that is “Artificial Nocturne,” two minutes of hazey synths and Emily Haines’ soothing vocal that eventually join with a steady beat and a dangling guitar riff. It takes almost six minutes to get through the track which is quite a lot considering it doesn’t actually get anywhere.

The second track is the debut single “Youth Without Youth” - with a slightly Muse-esque cheesy feel about it. From the Uprising-like drumbeat to the corny synth sweeps, juxtaposed with Haines’ serious vocal. Onwards to the second single “Speed The Collapse”, the verses of which are led by a prominent beat, bass, distant tremolo tremors and of course, vocal. It’s slightly dark in feeling, with the reverb from the vocal and distant guitars only adding to the mystery. The chorus retains the pace of the verses and in all honesty doesn’t quite deliver the anthemic explosion I anticipated – but still ticks plenty of boxes as it bleeds into a melodic post-chorus vocal routine.

The album continues to offer up similar tracks that build slowly with layers of synth and are oh so tuneful, but seem to lack the singalong choruses of 2009’s album “Fantasies”. There are glimmers of the punchy indie they do best in “The Void” and the excellent “Synthetica.”

All in all, it’s a fairly promising and well-rounded album on the whole, but I can’t help but feel it could be a little more explosive in places. Maybe it’s the lack of guitars, but then again they’ve been disappearing for a while. Still, well worth a listen; there is a track on here for everyone.

Thom Curtis

 

Paul Heaton – Presents The Eighth

Paul Heaton was always willing to put his music where his mouth was, but did anybody really see this coming: his latest release The 8th is a gospel musical about the deadly sins and redemption but told through a gritty urban crime drama like 'The Wire'?

There were plenty of political causes worth fighting for when Heaton formed The Housemartins in the 80s. With The Smiths (who also struggled to break the American market in spite of a devoted fanbase), they became one of Britain's quintessential indie pop bands of the period, with some trendy left-wing politics thrown in for good measure. But there was obviously a lot more than just sloganeering behind songs like 'The People Who Grinned Themselves To Death' and 'Think For A Minute', Heaton's politics always suggested a more thoughtful approach … well, the odd exception, of course, who can forget 'Happy Hour' and all those plastic models? His next band The Beautiful South took the personal politics a stage further, satirizing Norman Tebbit's idea that northerners should all get on their bikes and move down to the south of England. The sound and mood of the band was now gentler, pop songs embracing jazz, soul and R&B and country, dipping his toes in the mainstream, Heaton's lyrics played out kitchen-sink dramas with a bittersweet twist to them, like on hits 'Keep It All In' and 'A Little Time'. He also shared the singing, distancing himself from the laddishness of the Housemartins with a series of strong female vocalists, Briana Corrigan, Jacqui Abbott and Alison Wheeler.

By his own admission, musically Heaton hasn't strayed much from the conventions of pop, and the steady trickle of solo material since The Beautiful South disbanded in 2007 hardly suggests any major shifts of gear. That's probably all about to change with The 8th , as this modern-day gospel musical, co-written with actor and playwright Che Walker, is set in a black ghetto in some imaginary place, but let's call it Baltimore for the sake of argument … he's even drafted in actor Reg E. Cathey (from The Wire) to deliver earthy gospel-like orations and narrate the whole story like some sort of Reverend Al Sharpton character. The story is loosely inspired by the black crime fiction of American writers like Donald Goines, Iceberg Slim and Clarence Cooper Jr (Heaton claims the idea came to him in a dream after being heavily immersed in the literature for several months!), but it's hard to escape a modern-day idiom. The main characters of the story Duane and his father are visited by each of the deadly sins as their life is turned upside down, with a spell in jail and other brushes with the law that all add to their personal problems. In characteristic story mode, the pair eventually come through their trials and tribulations to find some kind of redemption. The writers cleverly weave social commentary into the fabric of story as the 'victims' become socially aware and turn their lives around. Heaton has moved away from party- and personal-politics and brought things round full circle into social and political emancipation.

In the performance of the musical, each sin is delivered by a different singer, initially masked but then revealing their identity. When the masks come down there are some familiar musical faces amongst the cast. They deliver a music-hall variety to the songs, ranging from Wayne Gidden's soulful rendition of 'Lust' to singer-songwriter Aaron Wright's full-on emotional 'Wrath' and Mike Greeves rustic folk for 'Pride'. There's something a bit odd about setting Heaton's very English pop songs set against an urban backdrop, but imagination is best suspended to let the songs help the story unfold. Each sin is a lesson learned and a chance for the reverend to admonish his flock until the valedictory sermon finale 'There Is Light In The Air'. Originally, the idea was to create one long song, actually the longest in history, but when Heaton and Walker came up with an inspired narrative they settled for a musical instead.

There are some nice additional surprises in store: former Beautiful South singer Jacqui Abbott (she of the sultry jazz voice and 'Rotterdam' and 'Don't Marry Her' fame!) re-unites with Heaton for her contribution on 'Envy' and really sounds like she never left his side, Simon Aldred of Cherry Ghost shines on 'Greed', and Kenny Anderson's (King Creosote) account of 'Gluttony' is comical almost Chaucerian in its banter, and again testament to Heaton's wit as a writer:

“fat was the ass that was sitting on the seat
wide was the mouth as it prepared
wet were the lips waiting in anticipation
for the latest thing desire had ensnared
take this good said the mouth to the stomach
swallow it and make yourself a friend
chew real good said the stomach to the mouth
make sure it ain't alive or you'll be sad”

The 8th (sin!) is mysteriously referred to throughout the musical, as “a maggot eating away at the brain”, or suspicion between the protagonists who are “running away from a fear they call the eighth”, but is finally revealed by Heaton as 'Gossip', the sin that tricks all the other sins:

“Finally, penny drops, the 8th was just the cops
that man had devised a cunning plan
take the ravenously poor and mix with the unsure
make them think the other works for The Man

The seven deadly sins had all been taken in
didn't realize the full extent of the plan
with a shrapnel of poverty and a minefield of gullibility
the eighth just turned their place into the sun”

The 8th was commissioned by The Manchester International Festival, and performed in July 2011 at the Festival Pavilion Theater in Albert Square Manchester. With its release in album format a year later, the musical is now set to be toured again this July. In the 80s and 90s, Paul Heaton was always Britpop's unlikely outsider who never seemed particularly comfortable with the popularity and fame. It's nice to see the return of an artist who these days busies himself with projects and charity work that he's passionate about (in 2010, he embarked on a 'Pedals And Beer Pumps' tour to promote the British pub and cycling along with his latest solo album Acid Country', more recently he played a similar series of gigs to celebrate his 50th birthday!), although there's little prospect of a Housemartins reunion. The 8th sees him striking out in an unusual and original direction, a possible 'pilot' for future musical projects. Ben Elton, eat your heart out!

Matthew Haddrill

 

Duke Special – Oh Pioneer

Oh Golly. Really. This is beautiful. This first song is every type of happysad I like. I'm a sucker for songs using stargazing as an umbrella term for the wide eyed, the lovers, the kind and the gentle. It is probably a particularly sappy kind of vanity. I don't care. Stargazers of The World Unite is one of the prettiest album openers I've heard in a while.

You have to take into account that musical preference is entirely subjective. I am pretty fond of stargazing and all that it can be synonymous with, so it is of no surprise that I single a song like that out. The rest of the album is equally pretty and tender of intent. That I am particularly fond of the opening track should not and does not diminish the quality of the rest of Oh Pioneer.

Do you know when someone starts singing and instead of muttering profanity you look in their direction? I get the impression that Duke Special is capable of the latter. I am wary of descending into hyperbolic eulogism (fnar) in this review, so excuse me. I find each song on this album to make me want to listen, they prick up my ears and it has been a while since I have heard anything that conveys the intended tenderness quite so much as these songs.

The otherworldly, unimaginatively, the elfin, and more importantly the sense that some things elevate us to the places where perhaps there is magic. That is what I think about when I listen to this album. Even if you don't believe in magic, the possibility of magic must surely be wonderful. Have I got it wrong? Is it especially wonderful to find that something exists when you thought it impossible? Great Scott.

Christopher Carney