albums - october 2013
Good to 'discover' bands like The Chills (you might have missed them first time round?), mercurial pop sensations emerging from New Zealand's influential Flying Nun label in the 80s. The band were essentially the musical vehicle of awkward Dunedin pop genius Martin Phillipps, and were active until the mid-90s in various incarnations (David Kilgour whose band The Heavy Eights Phillipps recently joined is one of the many who passed through). The band produced hook-laden guitar-chiming pop music in much the same way as Echo And The Bunnymen or The Las in the UK, but with the big Antipodean choruses like Midnight Oil or Crowded House. Phillipps reconvened the band to record the mini-album Stand By in 2004, but with just that and a collection of rarities in 2000 (Secret Box) and the songwriter's home demos in 1999 (Sketch Book), things have been fairly quiet recently with regard to The Chills. Fire Records might be about to change all that with the release of a triple live album recorded in Queenstown, South Island, NZ, on New Year's Eve 2011. On Somewhere Beautiful, the latest version of the band sound revitalized.
The “buzzing” live atmosphere gives these recordings a punk energy which reflects Phillipps musical origins, particularly on the band's early songs like the driving 'Lost In Space' (one of the standouts, and surely owing something to The Stranglers 'Toiler On The Sea'?), the gorgeously creepy 'Pink Frost' and classic pop of 'Rolling Moon'. The band sound in fine form as they run steadily through The Chills back catalogue, mainly concentrating on the earlier material and first 2 official albums Brave Words released in 1987 and Submarine Bells from 1990. Most of the set is guitar-driven (I think Phillips switches to piano to play a few ballads somewhere in the middle), although Erica Stichbury's fiddle playing on songs 'Night Of Chill Blue' and 'The Other' gives the band a feistiness like The Waterboys.
Phillipps belts the songs out in a fluid tenor voice that shows the life and energy of somebody 30 years his junior. 'The Male Monster From The Id' is another musical highlight from the set with its lovely gliding riff and hook change in the middle (the only track with a recording 'glitch' on it, the sound quality elsewhere is exceptional). 'Effloresce & Diliquesce' is also a joy to behold with its sugary high notes like The Cure, and the singer has a real blast on 'Canterbury Go'. To the uninitiated, these songs are like a breath of fresh air, and would grace any band's set. Old favourites were featured towards the end, like the exquisite 'Heavenly Pop Song' and older beloved 'I Love My Leather Jacket'.
This release will surely fuel expectations about more new material like the song 'Molten Gold' which was issued digitally earlier this year. The Chills have a new generation of admirers all over the world (artists like Peter Bjorn and John, The Go Find, The Shins and Panda Bear), and after a quiet period, partly recovering from illness, their songwriter and visionary Martin Phillipps turned 50 and seems ready to take up the mantle again. The triple album gatefold sleeve for Somewhere Beautiful is beautifully illustrated with Maori iconography by New Zealand artist Shane Cotton.
Bardo Pond's own special brand of sprawling psychgaze continues with the release of occult-influenced Peace On Venus on Fire Records. Emerging from Philly's “Psychedelphia” space rock movement in the 90s, the band's sound has been honed over the years by using many kinds of improvization in their Hawkwind-inspired space jams. Song titles are littered with references to drugs and the almost endless list of side-projects of individual band members (Alumbrados, Hash Jar Tempo, LSD Pond and Moon Phantoms, to name but a few) sounds like an almanac of mystical experiences, not to mention a chemistry set! During their 20-year tenure, Bardo Pond have cemented themselves as supreme purveyors of the free-formed psychedelic experience …
Sonically, Peace On Venus has more of a raw edge to it than the starlit wanderlust of 2006's Ticket Crystals or their spaced-out eponymous release (also for Fire) in 2010 (there aren't any 20-minute opuses like 'Undone' here!). Singer Isobel Sollenberger's presence is a useful counterpoint to the band's uncompromisingly dense atonal noise, heading off into the eye of the storm with her ethereal vocal style (and flute playing, with occasional viola). This time, however, Bardo Pond seem happier to ride out the storm. The cover of the new album suggests the occult, and the singer sounds like she's summoning up the spirit world in her circular chanting.
The album is conceived in the old vinyl format, with two distinct 'sides'. The 'outward' journey is hard and riff-heavy. Sollenberger fights to be heard on opener 'Kali Juga Blues', singing “it's gonna be different this time, it's gonna be alright” as the song sizzles and crackles with a great sustained acidy guitar break, some heavy trip abating only slightly at the end. 'Taste' is slower and more pastoral, the growling guitar toned down slightly over its relatively brief 5 minutes, the singing echoey and melodic, and the flute-playing set alongside a booming bass line before a late visceral surge. 'Fir' is unequivocally doom-laden, the riff crashing in at the beginning hangs in the air like some great bird of prey, the low-end tonality like the dread of an early Sabbath riff.
With the shorter and heavier songs out of the way in the album's first 20 minutes, the 'return' journey is mellower and more atmospheric. 'Chance' is the super-slow-burner of the pack, with acoustic guitar like a sparse Six Organs Of Admittance opening, but then sounds are steadily layered on top of each other before a more intense explosive psychblaze at the end. 'Before The Moon' also builds slowly around the brooding intensity of more steadfast riffage, although the flute and coven-like chanting give it the quality of Tara Burke/Fursaxa's witchiness as Sollenberger sings “A night like this, stormy night”
The earth certainly shook, but without breaking any new ground. That would be slightly missing the point with a band who stand out for their willingness to embrace different musical styles and simply run with them. There are elements of their intense 1997 album Lapsed, but the storm subsides later with the slow-burning embers of the last two songs. With each release, Bardo Pond create magnificent new brush strokes, and Peace On Earth is indeed one of these.
You should be aware of Her Name is Calla because they are fantastic and their work made me very excited to hear of a solo album from their leader.
There is a certain type of knowledge which makes it possible to translate thought. There is a certain type of understanding which makes explanations simple and clear and this kind of skill means that you can tell when someone is accomplished not because you notice the skilfulness of the work, but because you notice the beauty. Intricacies seem as apt as simplicities and light is pointed out to be the brother to shadow. This is rare. Find it, encourage it to spread, because it is very hard to get bored of the inventive and the skilful thought transposed effectively to deed.
The eclecticism of Morcheeba's latest offering Head Up High is a bit of a stretch. The unwitting torchbearers for groove music, particularly with their celebrated debut Who Can You Trust? in 1996 and equally hip sophomore Big Calm in 1998, provided the perfect soundtrack for the whole post-chillout electronica circuit, showcasing Skye Edwards' flowing soul diva voice set to the Paul Godfrey's smooth dance beats and scratching sounds, and his brother Ross's neat blues guitar 'colouring'.
Always best chilled, just like a good Chardonnay, Morcheeba and their like put a spacey twist and downbeat on the trip hop experiments of Bristol bands Massive Attack and Portishead. Ironically though, it's probably the Godfrey brothers' superb compilation of other artists for the Back To Mine series in 2001 which got everyone grooving the most. The cracks began to show with the watered-down Philly soul of Fragments Of Freedom in 2000. Charango in 2002 reassured the faithful, but relied heavily on outside influences and guest vocalists. After Edwards departed in 2003, Morcheeba struggled to fashion a strong new identity.
No surprises to see the singer return in 2010's Blood Like Lemonade to tweak the brand. That album was quite tepid, although a more varied mix of music was enhanced with an experimental edge on songs like 'Cut To The Chase' and the big John Barry-like production of 'Self-Made Man'. Creative tensions to one side, you wonder if Morcheeba are back together for the right reasons? Frustratingly, their latest album Head Up High doesn't provide many answers, although it's a great invitation for headphones!
They still sound good together, technically brilliant with Paul Godfrey's production wizardry, some delightful noodling by his bro. on guitar and Edwards is right back in her element. Head Up High lacks consistency though. Brisk opener and featured track 'Gimme Your Love' swirls with its off-centric bass and party grooves. 'Face Of Danger' (with guest rapper Chali 2na) is equally strong, Edwards voice conveying a sense of urgency like Grace Jones, picking up the pace again and threatening to break out in a way the group never quite achieved on their mis-firing Fragments album.
So it's an odd jump then to the urban blues of 'Call It Love'. A tantalizingly slowburner with a truly smoking vocal from James Petralli of White Denim, the song would surely be the album standout in any other context. Ballad 'Under The Ice' is a coming-of-age tearjerker, nice sparce strings at the beginning with Edwards soulful voice shining through, as it does on piano torchbearer 'I'll Fall Apart' and 'Make Believe', with its effects and post-dubstep production. But is it an eclectic mix … or just a rather uneven selection of songs?
There are so many guest appearances on Head Up High, it's hard to keep up. The pace is raised again with 'Release Me Now' and 'To Be', which both feature British hip hop duo Rizzle Kicks, but after the album's early promise, things seem to taper off. 'Hypnotized' sounds like it's going through party motions, briefly lifted by the appearance of French-Chilean rapper, Ana Tijoux, and 'To The Grave' and 'Do You Good' make the right noises, electro cool, but Alison Goldfrapp it certainly ain't. Groove is in the heart, remember, but I wonder where Morcheeba's heart really is? 'Finally Found You' (actually with Petralli's second cameo) restores some of the earlier impetus, Edwards holds back on the vocals long enough to allow the melody to flood in and there's a nice chilled sunset flourish on Godfrey's guitar at the end.
So the eclectic approach on Head Up High doesn't measure up to the consistency of the band's earlier material. You won't find anything here like the trip hop of 'Minnie Moog' or 'Tape Loop', nor the epic chillout of 'The Sea' or grooving 'Part Of The Process', but with some neat new songs, a stellar guestlist and the usual solid performances from Edwards, Godfrey and Godfrey, Morcheeba's latest album is a reasonable stab at the limelight again.
I have, in lieu of reviewing the start of this album, provided for you my thoughts as I listened:
Track one is a meandering instrumental. It could lead to great things...
I read the brief promo note for this with expectant enthusiasm. I have a tendency to enjoy albums that are described as triumphant, overwhelming and promise to try and be as inventive as Brian Wilson and Syd Barret. I think I misread the prom though, because The Fall and Rise Of... sounds like someone has tried to do covers of all their favourite prog songs in the style of all their favourite Brian Wilson, The Beatles and Syd Barret songs. It manages to do this without disguise. The lack of guile is admirable and hellish. I keep identifying songs, choruses, chord progressions, even backing, and I don't want to feel the way that makes me feel.
Track eight sees the ditching of the piano whimsy and there is more to enjoy and listen to in eight plus minutes than there has been in the previous seven tracks. Then track nine starts and the break just seems to act like drinking water during a curry. Tthe piano is back and on and on and on. This is the grandpa from provincial theatre's version of prog-whimsy and as I listened I began to loathe it.
There are definite failings to all of these tracks, in isolation they could still charm. Alone or nestled within an album of different songs, I believe it would be possible to gloss over the failings, but as an album they grate and cloy. There just isn't enough enthusiasm here to carry this off. There are too many things that have gone before that have been similar and too many things that have actually been the same.
I keep fearing that I've heard too much and that nothing can excite me. It comes round at what I thought might be a regular interval and I was often worried I was plotting a tightening spiral of hope and disappointment that would eventually see me tangled and sad, caught in the awful thought that there is nothing new that I'd like.
Well, that's still something I can fight off, but albums like this don't help.
And I'm all for thought and trying and good Lord, the world would be poorer for fewer labours of love. Try and make them good though. I'd feel like I was insulting whoever this is by giving them marks for effort, but I at least appreciate that effort and love went into this. It shows. I'd adore it if that kind of love always bore the sort of results they deserve.
Mathew Sawyer is a London-based conceptual artist and musician. You're just as likely to see him dropping bits of paper with David Bowie songlines into the pockets of total strangers on the Tube, or read miniature stories he's written off the back of ping-pong balls (installations which have earned him various artistic awards) as hear him playing music. However, he plays drums with the British art-punks Television Personalities in his spare time (although he has a phobia of public performances) and has kept his own sporadic recording career going with Mathew Sawyer and The Ghosts. His latest album Sleep Dreamt A Brother is a solo outing for Sawyer, although to all intents and purposes the follow-up to The Ghost's 2011 How Snakes Eat (also on Fire Records).
The artist's own work on the cover depicts the figure images of 'life' and 'death' mirroring each other in a dream. Sleep Dreamt A Brother refers to the story in Greek mythology of Hypnos the personification of sleep who dreams Thanatos his half-brother into being. However, the sibling embodies death, a theme which Sawyer returns to throughout the album. Compared with the delicate chamber pop (classical guitar, viola and piano blended with Sawyer's bare voice) of the title track, 'Death Is Like A Dream We'll Have' is more country-tinged, this time the viola gently meandering over a metronomic beat as he sings over and over “Love seems like a dream we've had/Death seems like a dream we're gonna have”. 'Another World' is spookily backed with home recordings of his voice, recounting a seance-like meeting with a friend in a dream. On 'The Golden Heart', he remembers the recent passing away of a friend and the events which followed. The long and drawn out strings and piano accompany some strange sound effects as he sings: “Getting away from the moonlight of the day/Sadness has a way of settling in”. Sawyer keeps running into death at every turn on Sleep Dreamt A Brother, in much the same way Black Heart Procession do on their starker post-folk outings.
The singer's cracked vocal delivery seems to 'fit' his subject material, sounding a bit like urban folk artist Darren Hayman on his recent Essex trilogy of historically-inspired stories. The gently orchestrated chamber pop of 'New Bird To Be' is a confident opener, its odd animal calls and footsteps pacing up and down the room adding to the whole ramshackle charm. Background sounds like the chanting on 'Feeeeling' achieve a surreal effect. 'October All The Time' stumbles at the beginning, but glows fairytale-like with its references to rings and slough berries and people finding things. A mythical dreamlike picture emerges and the musical accompaniment is always kept to a minimum, giving the album a sparse folk feel.
Sawyer has said he wants his music to go beyond the mere representation of feelings, that talk of death or loss should really 'own' the feeling. For live performance he has put together a makeshift chamber ensemble: Vasso Ana on piano and various other instruments, Alison Cotton from The Left Outsides on viola, Theo Hall from Le Volume Courbe on bass and Steve Dore from Freakapuss on drums. His latest album Sleep Dreamt A Brother is very listenable, and songs like 'Another World' magically blur the lines between dreams and reality, probably something happening since the earliest cave dwellers. Album closer 'How To Work' sounds like it took a wrong turning somewhere and ended up in the wrong dream, very oddball indeed, but with Mathew Sawyer I would expect nothing less!
No surprises to hear the motorik Krautrock-like rhythm driving Traams' impressive post-punk debut, but with so many things going on with Grin, like it's Wire-like menace, psychedelic and scuzzy garage-punk overtones and singer Stu Hopkins' shrill and manic delivery like some modern take on Pere Ubu, it's easy to forget what a damn fine pop record it is.
The band originally from Chichester, Sussex, are hardly Wire acolytes, but there's certainly a nod in the general direction of the doyens of British post-punk. 'Swimming Pool', 'Reds' and 'Grin' all glide along effortlessly, the former a really powerful opener for the 11 songs here, with Hopkins' long growling guitar riff matched with a John Lydon/PiL-like howl. Driven by the group's dynamo-like rhythm pairing of Leigh Padley (bass) and Adam Stock (drums), the song pulls off that great trick of post-punk composition with its menace constantly threatening to break out. The melodica and drum-to-stop ending hint at the early recordings of New Order, particularly with the Stephen Morris' metronomic beat and the Martin Hannett production. Yes, 'Swimming Pool' certainly sets the tone, but let's not forget Grins is a 35-minute rollercoaster ride.
Traams do pop pretty well, but with odd and subtle hooks. 'Demons', however, isn't one of those, sounding like early Arcade Fire with its euphoric chorus (“cos you've been moving so fast and you've got to past all the people that are pulling you down/but it ain't that funny when you're out of money and the devil's trying to buy you out”), a great dangling bass slowing the song down before it turns on its head and returns to the refrain. 'Sleep' rages with surf-guitar before Hopkins launches into another breathless broadside, with the memorable line: “The promises we keep … I plan to kill you while you sleep”.
Pacing is important. 'Loose' and 'Flowers' raise the tempo slightly, sounding like forgotten indie-pop classics: The Wedding Present, Magazine, New Order, even The Kinks. Hopkins sings with the same manic energy of Isaac Brock of Modest Mouse or David Thomas of Pere Ubu. He packs a rare punch in 'Fibbist', which straddles along like Stephen Malkmus and Pavement, once more with the big chorus, but leaves a tiny bit more space in 'Hands', graced with a lovely wonky guitar line, tremolo and twang, this time taking a little longer to build.
When Traams get right into their motorik stride they push things further. 'Head Roll' starts out sounding like The Strokes 'Modern Age', but then just keeps going, an odyssey of Can-like relentlessness over its 7 minutes. Album closer 'Klaus' is a lovely slow-burner, moody and atmospheric like an early Cure record, the band taking the music out somewhere different again before bringing it back in the general direction of electronic prog. greats Neu!
Grin is produced by singer and frontman of Hookworms MJ (his band's debut sprawling psychgaze debut Pearl Mystic is one of the standouts of the year), most of the songs on the album are reined in at 2-3 minutes, although allowing for the possibility of live expansion, surely a treat! Sonically, there's more than a hint of Wire in these 11 tracks, but enough adventure and energy to be won over by Traams … best foot forward!
Agnes Obel the young singer/songwriter/chanteuse originally from Copenhagen, Denmark, has followed-up her award-winning 2010 debut Philharmonics with a sonically more even sophomore which combines piano-driven ballads with chamber pop to create songs of an ethereal and magisterial quality.
Those lucky enough to witness the gothic-like spectacle of Obel's preview show for the album a few weeks ago in a candle-lit St Pancras Old Church would have heard these songs performed in surroundings they were superbly suited to. She was joined on that occasion (as she is on the album), by Anne Muller on cello (who has played recently with Nils Frahm) and Mika Posen of Canadian band Timber Timbre on violin/viola.
Aventine is named after one of the seven hills of Rome, but the sound on the album reminds me more of the gothic imaginings of Bram Stoker's Transylvania. Closely-miked piano and vocals seem to trap atmospheric silences into the music. Rather like its predecessor, this album of hidden depths reveals itself gradually over several plays. Instrumentals like opener 'Chord Left' and 'Tokka' are very misty and showcase the piano-driven nature of the album. However, the instrument is largely absent on featured track 'The Curse' which starts with stacatto strings accompanying an eerie gliding cello. A beautifully crafted piece of chamber pop, with Obel's vocal reminiscent of early Tori Amos, the odd vapour trail left by the cello at the end leads finally to a nice piano refrain. Anne Muller's cello soars on the title track as the plucked strings are again used for hypnotic effect, and instrumental 'Fivefold' is driven with Mika Posen's long meandering viola.
'Dorian', 'Words Are Dead' and the album's closer, the lullaby-like 'Smoke & Mirrors', are all driven with the same kind of atmospheric sound, with just the occasional hint of a rhythm in the background.
It occasionally pays to stray from the beaten track to enjoy Aventine fully. In the same way that tracks like 'Riverside', 'Wallflower' and 'Beast' were worthy of note from Philharmonics, less well known songs like 'Avenue', 'On Powdered Ground' or the John Cale classic 'Close Watch' were the ones that struck a deeper chord. This is Obel all over: it's the still waters that run deep through Aventine which are truly worth savouring. This time round, lyrically complex 'Fuel To The Fire' and the astonishing vocal on 'Run Cried The Calling' show off the great range and sophistication of the artist and demonstrate that her debut was no flash in the pan.
The close almost 'symbiotic' relationship Agnes Obel has developed with players Muller and Posen, along with her growing songwriting prowess, give her sophomore release a more even sound than its predecessor. The artist who now bases herself in Berlin sounded very self-assured during the recent concert, and so she should. She rolled out the songs from Aventine that night without any need for introduction, as if they'd been around for years. Obel has consolidated and deepened what she started on her 2010 debut, and these moody and atmospheric arrangements should receive growing acceptance over the coming months.
Recent research has shown that as the human ear is subject to an increasing amount of surrounding noise, hearing distance becomes progressively shorter and shorter. Enter New Zealand noise rock legends Bailterspace, whose live shows are celebrated for ratcheting up levels of resonant distortion to deafening volumes sure to shut down listening distance. Sounds hang heavy in the air like some kind of electrical storm brewing, as John Halvorsen's pulsing bass and Brent McClachan's incisive drumming are taken to task by Alister Parker's multi-tonal and brutally incisive guitar playing.
The band's overpowering sound is often compared with great open landscapes, and the three core members have been excavating these sonic structures since the mid-80s. Bailterspace herald from Christchurch, New Zealand, formed out of post-punk/industrial band from the same city The Gordons. Following their debut ep Nelsh Bailter Space in 1987, the band subsequently became known as Bailter Space (later shortened to one word) and released a string of albums in the 80s and 90s, a lot of them released on celebrated New Zealand label Flying Nun. They moved north to Wellington, before switching hemispheres and locating to New York in 1993, around the release of Robot World. A career-spanning retrospective Bailterspace was issued in 2004 on Flying Nun before the band went on hiatus.
Individual members continued to stockpile ideas and play select shows, and last year saw Parker and Maclachan working together again with the release of Strobosphere. It's been something of a rebirth for the band and you can't help but notice the similarity in the overall sound between songs like 'Things That We Found' and 'Blue Star' and early Oasis recordings 'Shakermaker' and 'Supersonic'. On 'Meeting Place' Parker's uncharacteristically drops an Iggy-like vocal, evoking early Stooges records and revealing yet another side to the band's oeuvre. Now they have been rejoined by Halvorsen for their latest album Trinine, which is very much a companion piece to its predecessor and shows the band fully restored to the former glories of it's 1994 Vortura album.
Parts of Trinine unmistakably hark back to the earsplitting volumes of the shoegaze era. 'Plan Machine' could easily have come out of The Jesus And Mary Chain or MBV's top drawer, and the title track contains traces of noise-blazers Hawkwind, spacerock as Parker's vocal heads out to the stratosphere. 'Tri5' is gloriously post-metal and driven relentlessly by the Halvorsen and McClachan bass and drum pairing.
However, Trinine sounds more pyschedelic than Strobosphere. 'Gamma Tram' is a masterfully atmospheric prelude to Ride/Oasis-sounding 'Films Of You', with Killing joke-like synthesizers, Parker's subvocalized voice submerged among a great wash of pyschgaze. Sonically, 'Painted Window' and 'Today' follow suit, riding out waves of distortion with classic wah-wah guitar pedal effects.
'In The World' is a song that holds back with unease and menace. 'Open' and 'Silver' convey a similar feeling of chaotic anxiety, the latter unearthing a glorious guitar rippling effect, the former sounding like Graham Coxon's uncaged punk rock guitar on Blur's 1999 13. Parker's vocals fight to be heard on 'Together', something characteristic of the underlying tensions in most Bailterpace recordings, the different sonic elements all vying for position.
The 'louder than thou' attitude among elements of metal fraternity reminds me of Disaster Area, the plutonium rock band from Douglas Adam's glorious spoof 'The Hitch Hikers Guide To The Galaxy'. Unlike Disaster Area, Bailterspace don't confine their audience to concrete bunkers 37 miles from the stage, and to my knowledge Parker, Halvorsen and McClachan have never played their instruments by remote control from a space ship. What they do, however, is meld together some of the most intensely powerful psychgaze on both sides of the equatorial divide. And with all the chaotic dissonance and distortion, there are certainly songs on Trinine worth excavating.
Bailterspace - Trinine
Out of everything I’ve listened to this month *this* held the most
promise from the get go. Opening and titular track Trinine brims with
confidence and attitude. Dirty guitars, reverbed distant vocals with
just a tight beat holding them together… It’s like Mud Honey trying
to sound like Joy Division, a joyous combination creating a Shoegaze
Shoegaze works best when there’s dynamics, melody and/or discord, Trinine as a whole has neither.
On a more positive note, I do love the aesthetic (the album plays much better on headphones) they have a great sound, the guitars are FIERCE and there are glimpses of potential littered here and there, it’s just such a shame it’s surrounded by the rest of the record. This review probably would have been a lot more positive if this had been cut down into an EP... as it is, there are not enough songs here to fill an entire album.
Saint Max’s sound owes a lot to both the Libertines and the Clash. It’s a joyful and upbeat, debut.
It evokes memories from me of when I first got into music, listening to Britpop bands like the Bluetones, Dodgy, Kula Shaker and Shed 7. It’s a thick slice of indie heaven… but not wet indie, it’s smart, urgent and a little bit artsy. With a sprinkle of horns it’s a really great British summer album (just in time for the winter).
It’s lyrically engaging too, with ear catching phrases that turn a smile: “weird things come to those who wait” / “life is duller than a disco” / “you’re a teenage heartthrob and you’re growing up too fast” / “this is the underworld, take off your shoes before you muddy up the carpets of the dammed”… brilliant, and these lines are delivered by a vocal that’s both ugly and sexy (ugly and sexy in equal measure). It’s not all smiles though ‘sadsong ‘ is as heartfelt as they come “I wish I’d told you things I’d regret, as now you’re gone they’re all stuck in my head”
The songs are hooky, the guitars often frantic and y’know what’s really great about it? It’s the variety of the thing.
When you look at something like The Beatles’ Revolver, it’s a record that doesn’t stay still. You have driving guitar tracks like Taxman/She Said, then melancholy classical moments with Eleanor Rigby, fun throw-a-way moments with Yellow Submarine and even psychedelic dance tracks in the shape of Tomorrow Never Knows… all that scope yet it all works together and it’s undoubtedly the same band. Now don’t get me wrong, this is no Revolver, but my point is, as Saint Max is Missing and the Fanatics are Dead flows, there are plenty of stops along the way and each of them are as pleasant and different as the next.
An album I’m sure I’ll be revisiting in the future and a band I’ll be keeping an eye on.
Fairport Convention's Rising For The Moon was released in 1974, and although the album's not usually considered one of the group's stonewall classics, it's noteworthy for bringing together some key players, notably singer-songwriter Sandy Denny who penned 7 out of its 11 songs, and fiddle player and singer-songwriter Dave Swarbrick who had become the group's de facto leader at that point. The history of Fairport Convention is fairly well documented, and can be reviewed in BBC4's excellent film Fairport Convention: Who Knows Where the Time Goes?
Fair to say the 70s hadn't been very kind to the band. There were all the problems associated with personnel changes, particularly after Denny and Richard Thompson had left to pursue other projects, not to mention agreeing on the musical direction, which often proved a major headache with all the different personalities involved. Although many believe 1969's Liege And Lief is Fairport Convention's opus magnum, its influence is divisive: some fans feel that by playing traditional arrangements the band were ignoring the songwriting capabilities of their respective players. After the departure of the last remaining original member guitarist Simon Nicol in 1971, Swarbrick took the reins and the group followed a more a traditional folk route, with albums like folk rock opera Babbacombe Lee (1971) and Rosie (1973), which while earning the band many plaudits and respect, didn't please everyone.
Events almost conspired to produce an album like Rising For The Moon. Guitarist Robert Donahue and singer-songwriter Trevor Lucas had joined Fairport in 1973 from Fotheringay, the band Denny had formed when she left in 1970. Denny was also then asked to re-join, appearing on stage during a 4-night stint which Fairport played at LA's Troubadour in February 1974. There was a lot of commotion among the music press at the time, as Denny was a poster girl for the progressive folk movement, the Brits seeing her as their Emmylou Harris! Eventually their label Island Records got on board and brought in legendary rock producer Glyn Johns for what was to be the band's 10th official studio release.
So you had all these key players: Swarbrick, Denny, Johns, The Island Executive … what could possibly go wrong? The project was beset with recording difficulties as the producer put everybody through their paces, but the results he achieved are quite striking and the album is well put together. Denny brought 7 songs to the table, out of the eventual 11 that were recorded, many of which would have been good enough to grace her solo material. Swarbrick toned down the traditional elements, so there is plenty of fiddle and he sings on several songs, but no jigs or reels. The song closest to what people expected Fairport to sound like at the time was 'Night-time' girl which he penned with Dave Pegg. Songs like the title track and 'Restless' sound more country rock like The Eagles, probably down to John's influence, and the Lucas composition 'Iron Lion' has been compared with the Stones' 'Dead Flowers'.
The album was a qualified success, reasonably successful commercially and it brought together the great creative forces that were Sandy Denny and Dave Swarbrick. There must have been some tension, and you can hear the musical fault-lines tearing the band this way and that. The beautiful ballad 'White Dress' was actually written by Swarbrick, but sung by Denny, and was featured as a moderately successful single at the time. The recordings for Fairport at this juncture represent another important part of the Denny canon, jealously guarded by her legions of fans. Thea Gilmore describes her as the “voice of heartbreak” on the BBC documentary, which songs like 'Dawn' (with Swarbrick's beautiful playing alongside), and 'After Halloween' would tend to underline. The 8-minute closer 'One More Chance' is another pivotal moment, John's production drawing on many different strands – notably Denny's dramatic delivery, something of a repeat of her performance on Led Zeppelin's 'The Battle Of Evermore' in 1971, and Donnahue's astonishing guitar playing which the band hadn't really seen since Thompson's departure that same year - to deliver an epic rock song, something almost like Pink Floyd or Fleetwood Mac. It was a hint of where Fairport could have ended up with a Transatlantic change of direction.
The UMC deluxe release includes the original album plus some rare out-takes, but more importantly the second CD in the package features one of the performances at the Troubadour back in February 1974. It's a wonderful snapshot of the band, with the 6 musicians obviously enjoying the time together. Sandy sings some of her solo material, including 'Solo' and 'Like An Old Fashioned Waltz', Lucas steps up with Fotheringay's 'The Ballad Of Ned Kelly', and Swarbrick sounds like he's on fire with songs like 'The Hen's March Through The Midden', 'The Hexham Lass' and accompanying Denny on an early Fairport number 'She Moves Through The Fair'. The Dylan covers 'Down In The Flood' and 'Knocking On Heaven's Door' are excellent, and the band run through the Fairport gears with classics like 'Who Knows Where The Time Goes?' and 'Matty Groves' before ending with 'That'll Be The Day'. The package also features an essay by Patrick Humphries and some rarely seen artwork for the album featuring photos of the band.
Sadly, Rising For the Moon became a landmark album for probably all the wrong reasons. Dave Mattacks left the group before the recordings were complete (replaced by Bruce Rowland of The Grease Band) and the revolving door policy continued with Denny, Donnahue and Lucas all moving swiftly on to other projects shortly after the album's release. It almost certainly marks the point at which Fairport ceased to be a contemporary rock band and became folk revivalists, something they have remained to this day. The album's rehabilitation is long overdue, and the excellent live recordings in this deluxe version will sway any waverers to join the fold.
Mark Mulcahy's songwriting consistently touches people. He's the sort of artist who might slip through the cracks if you're not careful, a pity because there's a lot of great songcraft in his work. It's that rare ability to turn a phrase, make a wry comment in passing or tug at a heartstring, combined with an ear for a decent tune, which has drawn many to his music. The biscuit and jam metaphors on 'Cookie Jar' from 2005's In Pursuit Of Your Happiness are just a clever ruse to reflect on a faded friendship, the true nature of the song hinging on the line where he admits he kept his cookie jar out of reach. Or there's the despairing honesty of 'Bill Jocko' from 1997's acclaimed Fathering album, the suicide ride that ends with an ugly twist of fate. Frank Black turned the song inside out on the touching tribute album Ciao My Shining Star, released in 2009 after the unexpected death of Mulcahy's wife Melissa. I wonder if the New England-based artist had anticipated Thom Yorke's 'Idioteque' treatment of 'All For The Best' on the same album, or the conspicuous live tributes?
It may seem a bit over the top, especially if like me you're unfamiliar with the Mulcahy oeuvre. The compilation is a good place to start, although Dear Mark J Mulcahy I Love You would surely be your next port of call. The former Miracle Legion frontman has had to constantly adapt his musical career since the demise of the Connecticut-based college circuit band, writing musical scores for theatre and opera, as well as forming the house band Polaris for the Nickolodeon series 'the Adventures Of Pete & Pete'. His latest album is an impressive return to form, a collection of songs which showcases his abilities as a songwriter and enables Mulcahy to step back into the limelight after a brief absence.
The songs were composed on guitar, but crafted together with the help of arranger Henning Ohlenbusch. The final mix also involved producer Paul Q. Kolderie, who has worked with artists like Radiohead, The Pixies and Dinosaur Jr. Miracle Legion never reached the heights of Wilco or REM, but interestingly Mulcahy's output is somewhere else musically. I'd place him closer to Bowie with his Hunky Dory/Life On Mars period, Lou Reed circa '72, or even somebody like Graham Parker, taking nothing away from the songwriter himself, of course, who sounds like he's steadily running through the gears on Dear Mark.
The musical arrangements are fairly conventional, but the words draw you in. He's got that jaded hustler in his voice On 'I Taketh Away' ,waiting on his man like some sort of mid-career 'Street Hassle' Lou Reed, all wound up by the people around him until he's just about had enough: “Set your own speed man/Drive like you vanish/Sometimes you can't get around it /That's when you SMASH SMASH SMASH!” Then there's the woman (man?) on 'Everybody Hustles Leo' who “could get milk from a crowbar”. He sings “She tried to sell me some sky/She kept it in her Wonder-Bra/She put everything in the same bag/But who cares, as long as it's white and you can snort it?”, but the gender of the protagonist is left open at the end of the song, shades of Bowie's glam period. Mulcahy's vivid lyrics put you right in the thick of things, I'm sure he's sitting in a downtown bar somewhere sketching out notes for the next project!
There's imaginative banter from the wordsmith, too. The discovery of a fly in his soup on 'Let The Fireflies Fly Away' precipitates a whole series of amusing animal metaphors. He can have a lot of fun with words, or alternatively spike back, like on 'My Rose Coloured Friend', where he describes an old friend as a ghost and someone not to be counted on (“I expected less, got even less/she's about as dependable as a pussycat/that one's a ghost/this one's so familiar/tears on the proclamations were maybe well intentioned/but the time to cry has passed him by”).
It's not all downcast, there's also a lot of heart and warmth in his writing. Many of the elements sound autobiographical, but the trick of a seasoned writer is always to keep you guessing? 'Bailing Out On Everything Again' is confessional and shows off the poppier end of his music, while 'Where's The Indifference Now?' is a curious appendage: a pop song describing his reaction on hearing about a friend's suicide, as he turns the whole thing over in his mind. The TV seems to choreograph his thoughts … it's a theme I'm sure Thom Yorke would warm to?
These may be devices to leave the songs in their undissected form. Mulcahy mulls over ideas and rarely gives the whole game away. 'The Rabbit' is another intrigue, one of the album standouts with its gentle melancholy strumming, he asks continually “Where's the rabbit?”, a song about “wicked trickery” or simply “a sucker for magic”?
Rather shamefully, Ciao My Shining Star has left me scrambling round for more of this artist's output. Those paying tribute on that compilation were clearly looking after one of their own, and with Dear Mark J Mulcahy I Love You, he's now returned to the fold. He is supporting his latest album with low-key gigs in both America and Europe over the coming months.
Riot Grrrl takes the form of a heart-shaped box, courtesy of Buenos Aires trio Las Kellies. You can hear the influence of early post-punks like The Slits and The Gang Of Four as well as New York hybridists ESG, but the Argentine girl band combine these with modern reggae and hip hop styles to create a really infectious energy on their latest album Total Exposure.
Las Kellies are three 'sisters', Ceci (guitar and vocals), Sil (drums and vocals) and Betty (bass), and they've come a long way from the uncluttered DIY ethos of their Shaking Dog debut in 2007 to Kellies in 2011 which saw them step up with more playful funk and dub influences (the whooping, yelping and general merriment behind 'Pero Rompebolas' and 'Scotch Whisky' would improve anybody's view of 2011, while instrumental 'Awenture' hinted at exciting new directions). Legendary reggae producer Dennis Bovell took the controls, and he is also a presence on Total Exposure.
Their latest album sees Las Kellies refining their sound while maintaining the edgy live feel, something you can experience directly on their current tour. They've brought in widely-recognized dub producer and native of their city Iván Diaz Mathé ('Ivi Lee'), along with Bovell and The Make Up/Chain And The Gang frontman Ian Svenonius. The album title refers to Ceci and Sil's immersion in the creative process, and the band's fuller and richer sound must owe something to ION Studios in Buenos Aires, which has catered for great Argentine artists from the worlds of rock and tango.
At times, Total Exposure takes me back to the artpunk and gliding funk rhythms of early Talking Heads, like the classic 1979 Fear Of Music album. Opener 'Boy, Sweet Boy' showcases Las Kellies new style, while 'Go V!' punks it up slightly, a take on Stereolab's 'French Disko' with Ceci and Sil playfully singing about the revenge of the octopus, cow and a multitude of other beasts (a veiled reference to The Slits 2006 return ep 'Revenge Of The Killer Slits', perhaps?). Instrumentals like 'Hit Me Once', 'Mistico' (with surf guitar) and 'Post Post' add to the atmosphere.
The album's not without its curiosities. Bizarre and punky 'Illa San Simon' relates some kind of teen horror story, and featured track 'Jealousy' sees Bovell toasting in a raga dancehall stylee backed with siren-like voices joining the big funky beat.
The tempo slows on tracks like 'A Youth', sweet modern reggae with a rocksteady beat and nice dubbed-out bass to go with its spacey electronic syndrums. 'La Fiesta' celebrates their South American roots, but in Las Kellies music you're just as likely to hear a song like 'Typical Bitch', with its sinewy and rootsy abrasiveness, or the Slits-like 'King Lion', some direct nods to riot grrrl, only to be followed with the more laidback and sumptuous 'Golden Love'. Sil's driving beat maintains this infectious energy throughout Total Exposure.
Music is going increasingly global as bands outside the UK and US unscramble the various punk and post-punk influences of the past 30-40 years and bounce them back with revitalized energy. Occasionally the accents raise a smile, but truth be told they speak better English than we do! A great pop song like Las Kellies 'Melting Ice', with Blondie-like vocals and Tom Tom Club rhythms, has more of a sensual allure than any other kind of distraction. Total Exposure is one of those enjoyable funky romps as the girls mix it all up, and it certainly cries out for your attention.
Kill the Captains describe themselves as “Sheffield’s best kept secret”. I wish they were still a secret to me.
I’m not sure why Armellodie Records* has chosen to put ‘Sounds Mean’
out (Kill the Captains’ second album), as off the back of this you
will find scores of “Kill the Captains” playing on any given night,
at local clubs across the country. Which is great and I’m all for
live bands playing their own songs, I’m sure these guys love doing
it, and may even put on a great show… but as record/piece of work,
this is sub-demo standard.
I’d like to say they get better but track 4 ‘Share the Load’ has the honour of being the first song to make me unintentionally (but quite literally) laugh out loud. It’s cringing and repetitive chorus is “share the love by the payload”. Typical line: “You are the uncultured of our democracy let’s take a vote you’ll see, you can buy our planes, might let you fly them, share the love by the payload…”. At first I hoped it was done for comedy value and not a serious metaphor, but it’s sung with so much sincerity it’s hilarious for all the wrong reasons. Quite a shame as musically it’s the most accomplished track on the album, with some really pretty/jazzy guitar work and an interesting distorted build up and electro-sonic freak out to finish it off and lead it into the next song.
Lyrics aside, musically there is nothing here that shines, it all just passes you by. Their press release compares them to The Strokes “after they’ve necked a load of psychotropic drugs”… I’d say they sound more The Doves after a seriously long nap. Even when they kick in the distortion and it gets a bit heavy on ‘Nowbiter’ it’s still uninspired and instantly forgettable.
Kill the Captains are probably the kind of band I’d enjoy watching at my local live music venue, but Sounds Mean is the kind of album that’s destined for my bin.
This eponymous album is the debut LP from London alt rockers Zoo Zero. Having “turned down few distribution deals and management interest” they went down the self-financed and self-rereleased route, with, it has to be said, really impressive results. It’s a tight, dynamic and engaging record. They list a wide range of influences like krautrock, psychedelic pop and alternate rock… but in all honestly it’s clear as a bell their biggest influence is Sonic Youth.
So much so, with a Thurston Moore vocal, you would swear you *were* listening to Sonic Youth (circa Washing Machine). This is high praise and deservedly so, but it also make this record hard to review as (vocals aside) they’re verging on tribute territory.
I like this record a lot, it sounds excellent, there’s far away Mansun-esque vocals, gritty guitars and every track is solid. I even had the too catchy for its’ own good, vocal/guitar melody, to album closer (and my personal favourite) Spinning Pretty, stuck in my head on the drive to work this morning.
Will I be listening to it again? Yes. On a regular basis? No, not when I’ve got Daydream Nation, Goo, Dirty, Rather Ripped etc. already on my shelf. I’ll will though be really interested to see where Zoo Zero go from here.
The release of Muswell Hillbillies in 1971 represented an artistic peak in the songwriting talents of Ray Davies and a rejuvenation of his band The Kinks. It came off the back of the 1970 rock-orientated release Lola vs. the Powerman and the Money-Go-Round, Part One, an album which restored their popularity in America. It was also the first of a series of albums on RCA, and with the new record deal there was a great deal of optimism from fans and band alike about what they could achieve. The record company almost certainly wanted a big commercial album to start with, but in characteristically unpredictable fashion The Kinks came up with something rather more messy, claustrophobic and schizophrenic-sounding. Muswell Hillbillies is an introspective collection of roots music ballads and blues numbers, combining musical influences on both sides of the Atlantic with some biting satire and social commentary. The 'classic' Kinks line-up of 1971 was Ray Davies (guitar and vocals); Dave Davies (guitar and vocals), John Gosling (keyboards), John Dalton (bass), Mick Avory (drums).
'20th Century Man' attracts a lot of attention, Davies signalling
his distaste of the times, singing over and over: “I'm a 20th Century
man, but I don't want to be here”. The classic R&B opener sets
the tone for the rest of the album with a great driving blues break
in the middle and the vocal refrain probably giving the clearest idea
of where Davies' headspace was at:
The Vaudevillian charms of 'Acute Schizophrenia Paranoia Blues'
expresses a similar unease:
The Kinks are at their most magnetic when Davies is sentimentalizing British life, whether in the biting satire of 'Alcohol', describing a 'rags-to-riches-and-back-to-rags' story set to Brechtian music hall, on the one hand, or the rather stark heart-wrenching 'Oklahoma USA', with the imaginings of a British suburbanite, work-weary and longing to be far away in the Vaudeville USA, on the other. The songwriter's sense of theatre is quite palpable and a clear sign of where his heart is headed.
The Kinks took the circuitous route. Perhaps not as innovative as the Beatles, certainly never achieving the commercial success of the Stones, their peculiar sense of 'Britishness' was actually a strange quirk of fate: bad behaviour during an early tour of the US led to a performance ban imposed for 4 years until 1969. Forced into a kind of house arrest, Davies' songwriting turned inwards and tended to reflect his own sense of culture, reflected in songs like 'Waterloo Sunset' and 'Sunny Afternoon'.
After several commercial flops following the release of Muswell Hillbillies, Davies concentrated on musicals, although the Kinks kept touring and recording until 1996 when creative and personal differences between the Davies brothers made working together too difficult. The band and its songwriter returned to prominence following hi-profile tributes from artists like Paul Weller, Noel Gallagher and Damon Albarn, their music hailed as one of the foundations of the Britpop movement in the 90s. Most will remember The Kinks for their singles, but it's the great concept albums that appeared towards the end of the 60s and early 70s which record companies want to rehabilitate with a series of deluxe package releases. The Village Green Preservation Society (1968), Arthur (or the Decline and Fall of the British Empire) (1969) have both been re-issued in enhanced formats and 're-discovered' by new generations of listeners.
Now it's the turn of Muswell Hillbillies, which is accompanied by an extra CD with 5 unreleased tracks and alternative versions of songs on the album. The collection was re-mastered and put together by Andrew Sandoval, archivist for the band, and features a booklet with art works and information about the album. 'Lavender Lane', following the same melody as 'Waterloo Sunset', and 'Nobody's Fool', Davies' paean to London sounding very much like The Beatles' 'Eleanor Rigby' with all its references to unknown places, are particular standouts. How nice it is to sit back and listen to the battered and weatherworn voice that defines much of way modern British music is listened to … and is surely as familiar to Londoners as double-decker buses and the rain!