albums - august 2013
Mike Kinsella is a seasoned music survivor. After making it through the break-ups and make-ups of a variety of seminal Illinois emo and folk bands (namely Cap N’ Jazz and American Football) since 1987, he’s now been releasing records under the solo moniker Owen for twelve years. Perhaps the key to his longevity is within the particular brand of raw, often agonizingly intimate nature of his output, in that it’s clear this survival is largely ensured through the music itself, and its cycles of crisis, confession and catharsis.
This is emo in the literal sense of itself, free of mid-2000s associations: emotional music, with Kinsella’s typically serene, tender vocals delivering tales punctuated by the strains of romance, anxiety about youthful naivety and fatherhood, and most particularly with this latest record, fears surrounding life and death. Even every instrument present here is finely tuned to pluck at the heart strings as much as possible, from the predominant acoustic guitar, to the plethora of violin strings and even the melodica of ‘Coffee Companions’.
Indeed, for Kinsella himself the instrumentation is the key site of creativity and the draw of intrigue to the record, and he has heralded the release of L’Ami du Peuple as a chance to expand his palette, with tracks such as ‘Blues to Black’ and ‘Bad Blood’ encompassing a renewed propensity for electric guitar-based ruckus that had grown more subdued over the last decade. Even with this proviso in place though, there is a definite sense of an essential comfort zone of one man and his guitar, and on the former track especially, the new instrumental excursions can often feel more like a segue, a short, relatively unchallenging but nonetheless compelling release of energy before a return to more quintessentially subdued fare.
This is not necessarily a criticism though, even if it does feel disingenuous to term the album a sonic sea change, as the presence of a clear self-awareness of where his strengths lie in order to best express his weaknesses feels particular vital. ‘Love Is Not Enough’ for example, is a spare and brutally frank treatise on the trials and tribulations of marriage, but it’s the delicately poised final track that is perhaps the most devastating instance of Kinsella’s capacity for intense expression. Whilst elsewhere some of the lyrics flirt with the inadvertently cringeworthy, twee, or trite (“Here lies the King and Queen of the Self-Medicated” from ‘Coffin Companions’ completes the bingo-card of teen-melancholy jackpot, by instigating the ground-swallow-me-up sensation of falling up an escalator on the tube), the lyrics of ‘Vivid Dreams’ are masterfully heart-rending. The gut-punch simplicity of lines like "How long have I been sleeping? / I'm a dad and my dad's dead", somehow capture and conjure the ultimately inescapable and universal sensation of life catching up with you, of change sneaking up from behind and turning worlds upside down, of being overcome by the shock of what has been lost and what has yet to be found dawns.
It’s a brilliant track to end a highly accomplished record on, both encapsulating the predominating mood of the melancholy that accompanies maturation, but also holding at its very core an open-hearted warmth that comes with a shared counting of blessings.
Victoria and Jacob are a Cambridge born duo who have recently joined
the ever growing electronic/dream pop bandwagon which is taking over
2013. And they couldn’t have chosen a better time for action as summer
sets in and seasonal, dreamy pop is craved by the masses. But don’t
be fooled if bands such as Swim Deep and Tame Impala pop into your
mind, because that’s not quite the case – Victoria and Jacob are of
a slightly different nature; less greasy hair and baggy t-shirts,
more clean-cut and sophisticated. They give off an image of being
much less immature and free living compared to other groups who share
the genre. And this isn’t just for how they look, as it also reflects
on their music.
Craig Dermody is still very much in the gutter looking up at the stars on Scott & Charlene's Wedding's sophomore Any Port In A Storm.
Jangly chords and garage-punk hark back to classic 70s era Velvets/ Stooges outsider rock, music combined with a strong DIY pop aesthetic and personal-confessional songwriting which bear the hallmarks of Jonathon Richman or Robert Forster (The Go-Betweens). He's got his own style though, the Aussie frontman of Scott & Charlene's Wedding (yes, the band really did get its name from THAT 80s soap opera!), cutting himself plenty of slack on the band's latest release to relate everyday tales of life in New York, where he moved shortly after debut album Para Vista Social Club in 2010. We got an inkling of what to expect from the 5-track 'Two Weeks ep' released earlier this year, also on Fire Records, and Any Port In A Storm gives us the lowdown on his progress in The Big Apple. It's a solid album that works on a number of levels.
The singer continues to charm his way through. If he sounded hard done-by on songs like 'Born To Lose' and sombre and reflective on 'Epping Line', relating some of the daily struggles of his previous life in Melbourne from the band's debut, it hasn't exactly abated on Any Port In A Storm. This time he's faced with all kinds of new trouble. On the wonderfully upbeat scuzzy jam 'Jackie Boy', he's still putting up a fight: “Sometimes you get your heart broken some of the time/Sometimes you've got heavy bills to pay some of the time/If it don't make you tougher it makes you dumb/The last thing I am is dumb! Yeah, I'm only getting started”. But on slacker anthem 'Fakin NYC' he sounds more resigned to his fate, admitting he doesn't know what he's doing most of the time and finally declaring: “Just keep it between me and you and I'll be fine”.
So with a conspiratorial wink that's what we'll do. There's certainly robust musical feel about this album, grungier elements taking a backseat to more melodic surf rock. The solid musicianship behind him includes a lead guitarist who artfully 'sings' under the vocal with the same sort of rhythm/lead harmonic effect Tom Verlaine achieved on the early Television recordings. So when the Aussie rants away on opening track 'Junk Shop', the band rip it up like The Troggs' 'Wild Thing'. Confidence continues to build with album standout 'Lesbian Wife'. Another strange juxtaposition, the songwriter hangs out in a New York parking lot after the city's worst ever natural disaster. The superhuman scale of last year's Hurricane Sandy is mindblowing, but the hapless singer contemplates barbecuing a sausage on his campstove! This is Dermody all over, no detail too small, as he imagines what his buddies down under would be doing under such surreal circumstances!
On Any Port In A Storm, the tragic-comic series of events unfolds like a series of blog entries as the singer-songwriter examines his current life situation. There's soul-searching on '1993' as admits his ideas about love haven't changed since he was 12, while on 'Spring Street' and 'Clock Out And Leave' he reflects on the bad breaks love can throw in your direction. Love may find a way, but he may have to enlist the services of a guardian angel.
On 'Downtown', the band pick up the tempo again, Smiths-like indiepop and heaven knows Dermody is miserable now: “Time is a long-lost friend of love/I’m losing my steam/With the lovers and drifters and the poor you’ll find me/You can go on doing whatever you want/It don’t concern me”. On 'Gammy Leg' he can't understand why a work injury takes so long to heal, but becomes the architect of his own comic demise as a basketball game goes spectacularly awry. Again, the devil is in the detail, something Stephen Malkmus of Pavement would surely concur with
So heartbreak is always just a beat away on Any Port In A Storm, but 'Charlie's Down In The Gutter' is more sombre and reflective. Craig Dermody's ode to New York evokes the spirit of some of Lou Reed's street classics. On songs like 'Sweet Jane' 'Rock'n'Roll', and particularly 'Oh! Sweet Nuthin', the city's punk poet painted a picture with his colourful stories about various gutter characters. The singer of Scott & Charlene's Wedding has rather rolled Joanna Love and all the others into one: “Say a word for Joanna Love/She ain't got nothing at all/'Cos everyday she falls in love/And everynight she falls when she does”
At least on album closer 'Wild Heart', he sounds more philosophical. The song's message, indeed one that resonates throughout the album, is that big dreams always get knocked out of us, but hey that's just rock'n'roll, so we carry on!