albums - march 2014
Norway is almost as famous for it’s metal as for it fjords. Emperor, Mayhem and of course Varg Vikernes’ Burzum head the endless list of famous Norwegian giants. Oslo’s Wolves Like Us have built a reputation as one of the most exciting bands in Norway’s present day scene. But in truth, and probably for the better, the band shows more influence from modern American metal titans than their fellow countrymen. Wolves Like Us show the kind of song craft that could thrust Norwegian metal to new heights of commercial success.
Their second full-length album Black Soul Choir is as tight a collection songs as you’re likely to find. It quickly becomes obvious that this is a band enjoying themselves, about to enter their prime. The album hinges on it’s pounding drums and deafening bass lines (just listen to Your Word Is Law). They’re the solid foundations laid for the cavernous guitar grooves. The instrumentation is so good that as with a lot of modern heavy metal the singing takes a back seat. But it is so excellent you’ll just find yourself lost within the music.
I Don’t Need To Be Forgiven and Thantos Wins Again are sprawling pieces of dazzling prog mastery, deep with emotion. While there’s also the faster paced onslaught of Days of Ignorance that’ll satisfy fans of metalcore gods like Converge. Acoustic number Lovescared is a welcome change of pace from the exhaustion of the preceding tracks. And though the musical interludes A Wish of Fools and Under don’t really add anything to the album as a whole, there’s enough in the other nine tracks to blast away any reservations about Wolves Like Us. They’ve got what it takes to become one of the genres biggest stars.
Second albums are often difficult propositions, especially after a promising debut. But with Black Soul Choir, Wolves Like Us have shown why they were held in such regard in the first place. Growing from their previous work. Wearing their influences firmly on their sleeve, they might have produced the first great metal album of 2014.
As has been proclaimed with the 2012 single 'Keep it in Motion', Guided by Voices' second coming has been steeped in only forward progress (indeed, as last year's English Little League depicted in its cover, one of Pollard's typically abstract collages; a child running across beams of light), and Motivational Jumpsuit is further testimony to that fact.
Where their reunion originally served as an opportunity to hit the road, play the hits and tap out, the ensuing LPs proved that there was more to offer than many would have thought. We're now four years down the line, and the fifth reunion record is here. Undoubtedly, such reformations from various other indie rock demigods have been considerably short-lived in comparison. There is clearly more work to be done, and Motivational Jumpsuit is just that. On first impression, it appears as a turnaround in sound, a hell of a lot more dirgey and riff-ridden than their last outings, English Little League and 2010's Bears for Lunch, which both carried their highs with a side of melancholy, absent here. The playful 'Littlest League Possible' gets things off to a rousing start, in a concentrated dose of pop imperfection (arguably what these guys do best), which continues over twenty tracks lasting just shy of forty minutes, something incredulous considering the amount of hookladen melodies tightly packed in.
Like all of the post-reunion output, Tobin Sprout's contributions offer welcome respite from Bob's heavier, more audacious numbers. The sugary balladry of 'Record Level Love' and 'Shine (Tomahawk Breath) balances out songs like 'I Am Columbus' and 'A Bird With No Name', so that the sequencing here flows just as it did on Bee Thousand and Alien Lanes. Jilting basement lo-fi moments can suddenly be complemented by a heartwrenching acoustic number ('Go Without Packing'), or conversely, an out and out power-pop classic like 'Vote for me Dummy'. Elsewhere, there is the explosive 'Zero Elasticity', in which Pollard spouts his surrealistic jargon like a batshit professor, and 'Alex and the Omegas', a suitably chugging closer whose second half is infectious to say the least.
By now, it seems redundant to draw attention (as surely every article written about the man does) to Pollard's prolificacy and the abundance of material that has the ability to both envelop and repel first time listeners. It pleases me then, to say that Motivational Jumpsuit may be the first of the post-reunion albums that could be comfortably served up as an introduction for the uninitiated, just as anything from their treasured 90s output. Magnanimously, the GBV (which should by now be inclusive of Pollard's many side projects) discography is one of the greatest gifts in music we have, and miraculously, it seems the well is still very, very deep.
When Bryan Eno was asked why he'd left Roxy Music after just 2 albums, he replied that he'd done all he wanted to do at the time. It's a difficult choice which few artists are prepared to make. Take Suzanne Vega, for example. Her eponymous debut in 1985 and it's follow-up Solitude Standing two years later set the template for folk-pop albums of that period; in fact, the era of female singer-songwriters she ushered in (the likes of Tracy Chapman and Sinead O'Connor), is still very much alive today (Laura Marling, Feist and Joan As Policewoman, to name but a few luminaries). Vega's sophomore was arguably one of the most accomplished albums of the decade, the songs 'Luka' and 'Tom's Diner', obvious stand-outs, but the depth and sophistication of the writing as a whole are what makes it such a wonderful companion to the icy folk simplicity of its predecessor. So what if the songwriter had stopped there?
Well, we wouldn't have had 99.9F in 1992, for starters. Embracing the electronic and experimental studio techniques of her ex-husband producer Mitchell Froom, the album proved to be a 'blip' on the artistic radar for Vega, but the stream of albums that followed are shadows of the earlier releases. The recent gargantuan Close-Up series of acoustic re-workings underline Vega's need to 'own' her work, but what did the corporate world actually take from her? By a strange twist of fate, by walking away from their earliest recordings, artists in the 60s like Vashti Bunyan and Shelagh McDonald left their folk music fully intact, preserved in its own special 'time' and 'place'.
Wordily-titled Tales from the Realm of the Queen of Pentacles is Suzanne Vega's first release of original material since 2007's Beauty & Crime. Lest we forget, she is cut from the finery of New York's Greenwich Village, where 'work' is seen as art, but while the album shows off the quality of Vega's songwriting, particularly her skills as a lyricist, this collection of largely folk-rock songs will do little to dent the artist's legacy.
The problem is typified in a song like 'Don't Uncork What You Can't Contain'. The use of a sample of 50 Cent's 'Candy Shop' is actually Vega's first, odd when you consider all the remixes of 'Tom's Diner' after the rap duo DNA's hit. The song combines literary references (Pandora's Box and Arabian Knights) with a modern storyline (including a mysterious reference to rapper Macklemore), a pattern repeated throughout Queen Of Pentacles, and the sample certainly gives it an 'eastern' flavour. but even with all these embellishment somehow it doesn't spark much interest!
Musical complexity can get in the way of a good story, it seems, as it does on de facto title 'Fool's Complaint', which would probably make an interesting fable about a tyrannical queen if it weren't swamped with 80s-style folk-rock. Both 'The Song Of The Stoic Part One' and 'Laying On Of Hands (Song Of The Stoic Part Two)' update us on the story of Luka. He faces down his father, finds a woman but still can't find love. It's a shame the songs suffer a similarly over-produced fate. Vega's epiphany came when she saw Lou Reed live in the 80s, and her latest songs could use a bit more of the punk poet's raw musical simplicity. The blame probably lies somewhere between mixer Kevin Killen and producer Gerry Leonard, and the vast array of musicians Vega surrounds herself with, but did the songwriter sign off on this one?
Much better is the album's opener 'Crack In The Wall', harking back
to treasures from the debut like 'Marlene On The Wall' and 'Undertow'.
This time, the Alice-Through-The-Looking-Glass storyline (“A crack
appeared inside a wall,
There's a similarly rolled-back production on 'Jacob And The Angel' and 'Silver Bridge', handclaps melting into a nice drawn-out ending on the former, while the cleancut 80s style of guitar on the latter hangs nicely behind the vocal with a lilting twist at the end (it almost makes you want to forgive the accordion solo!). Unfortunately, these songs still sound like hollowed-out versions of the Solitude Standing era; in other words, they blend in rather than standing out. The tribute to Vaclav Havel 'Horizon (Road Beyond This One)' whilst touching closes the album in similarly nondescript way.
So Queen Of Pentacles once again takes us through the motions of a great songwriter. Perhaps it's a precursor to something more exciting, a musical about Vaclav Havel's life, or a tribute to her mentor Lou Reed, but Vega's enduring charm is in what we already know about her songwriting. Nothing (I hope!) will diminish that greatness!
Hard to tell if he's punk, rocker or folkie, Henry Priestman has certainly had a colourful life. The Liverpudlian singer-songwriter opened for the Sex Pistols with his band The Yachts in 1977(something he refers to in 'Did I Fight In The Punk Wars For This?', from his acclaimed debut solo album Chronicles Of Modern Life in 2009). With the sort of spiky new wave of bands like XTC or Richard Hell and The Voidoids, they also opened for The Who in 1979, and inevitably, became big in Japan! Priestman was also part of Its Immaterial who had the hit 'Driving Away From Home' in the 80s, but his moment finally came when he enjoyed success with The Christians in the 90s (he wrote all the songs on their eponymous platinum-selling and award-winning debut in 1997).
Chronicles put Priestman back on the map, a charming collection of rueful missives railing against everyone from corporate bosses on 'Don't You Love Me No More', bankers ('It's Called A Heart') and climate change sceptics ('The Idiot'), but also reflecting on past glories with 'Punk Wars', matters of love ('Grey Is The New Blond') and giving The Yachts 'Suffice To Say' a re-run. The songwriter's endearing return matched catchy tunes with an acerbic biting wit (something emphasized with the front-of-the-mix vocal: he clearly wanted his audience to hear what he had to say!)
Some of these sparks are missing on his latest release. There are quite a few similarities with the debut on The Last Mad Surge Of Youth, particularly in the lyrical content, but this one took much longer to record (3 years rather than 3 weeks!) and the more folk-oriented production with some curious musical choices has taken the sting out of Priestman's delivery. Opener 'At The End Of The Day' is fairly typical: an orchestrated ballad, co-written with songwriter Lotte Mullan and dedicated to Priestman's mother who died recently. The singer's voice warbles like Willie Nelson, the sentiments undoubtedly sincere and heartfelt, but why would you start an album with such a sad downbeat song? 'True Believer', 'Goodbye Common Sense' and 'Rant'n'Rave' don't fare much better, the folk musicians smothering what Radio 2 DJ Johnnie Walker once charmingly referred to as Priestman's “music for grumpy old men”. The ballad 'Valentine Song' has a great choir and sophisticated musical arrangement, but its sentimentalism borders on the insipid and sounds out of place. I'll be honest, I want the old Henry Priestman back!
There's more of a country music feel to 'Same Circus, Different Clowns', the pedal steel helping Priestman cry into his beer like Johnny Cash (“And the bright city slickers are still playing with the figures as we bleed”). Is that what they wanted to achieve? The ballad 'I Cried Today' also works better, the backing like Matt Elliott's or Michael Hurley's raw blues. If you're gonna cry, you may as well go the whole hog! In fact, Last Mad Surge works best when the soul outpouring is matched with this minimal musical arrangement, the only possible exception being the solid closer 'A Pint Of Bitter And Twisted Please'. Proper Records labelmate Richard Thompson's influence may have rubbed off on the Liverpudlian as he reflects: “as we march towards the brink, there's surely time for one more drink” and once more delivers a catchy rock-driven chorus. Happily, right at the end the songwriter finds his voice again after fighting the “production wars”.
Songs like 'We Used To Be You', 'In My Head' and the title track of Last Mad Surge all seem full of good intentions, the former the thoughts of a father as his children grow and fly the nest, but musically they fall flat. Perhaps it's a case of “too many cooks spoil the broth”, but too much of Henry Priestman's latest album sounds like over-produced middle-aged folk-rock. Disappointingly, Grumpy Old Man has become MOR folk-rocker.
A great aural sculptor shaping other artists' musical clay, the producer and engineer Howie B has genuinely influenced mainstream music in the last 2 decades, particularly with artists like U2, Tricky and Bjork. The svengali has become one of electronic music's great shape-shifters, in much the same way as Ulrich Schnauss. U2 credited him enigmatically with “DJ and Vibes” on their club-influenced 1997 Pop album. While a song like 'Mofo' is unmistakably the Irish band's own, their signature sound is refracted through a techno prism to achieve a massive hi-energy rush. It ain't exactly 'Born Slippy. NUXX', but it took them as far as they wanted to go with that kind of music.
His massive collection of remixes reveals a catalyst for other artists,
but the influence works both ways, as you can hear on the many collaborations
in his own solo career (on 2000's dub-inspired Strip To The Bone he
was joined by reggae legends Sly & Robbie, for example). Howie
B's latest album Down With The Dawn again shows that while certainly
instrumental in directing electronic music's interiors, the producer/engineer
is quite capable of stepping out from behind the mixing desk. Sauntering
opener 'Frankies City' (made with engineer/collaborator Joe Hirst)
with its whipping robotic beat and flanger-generated sounds demonstrates
immediately that electronica is safe in this sculptor's hands.
There's a strong element of the cinematic in Howie B's oeuvre. Music bios tend to gloss over the brief time he spent at Lillie Yard film studios in the 80s under the tutelage of legendary film composer Hans Zimmer. But it really shows on Down With The Dawn: listen carefully and you'll hear a mini soundtrack on each recording. The title is shadowy and drawn-out, its bubbly electronic beats in all the right places, but a guitar is also lurching in the background. Only the best can stylishly mimmick the Mezzanine-period Massive Attack with their 2-in-1 'Group Four', the mainstay of many dark dub records of the last 20 years.
Lo-glitch 'Ganzi' moves up the gears with some odd fruit machine noises introducing a stonking techno beat, very evocative of Simple Minds' classic driving 'I Travel'. 'Authentication' moves things in another direction, its hovering strings something like a Philip Glass minimalist sinfonietta. Celestial 'Heaven Part 1' takes things down another notch, the classic ambient piano with something of Eno's Ambient 2 The Plateaux Of Mirrors (featuring Harold Budd) in 1980.
The switch of genres is pretty seamless, the oddball 'Kazoo' sounding quite poppy and 'Master Inch Mile Haunch' bobbing around like a Yello anthem. 'Can I Close My Eyes' takes a leaf out of Gorillaz' book, the Damon Albarn-like lead-in going on to draw some strange shapes out of its epic trance fit.
Howie B's solo career has taken many interesting twists and turns since Music For Babies as far back as 1996. To call him 'eclectic' doesn't quite cover it. A dynamo of creativity, when not busy working with other artists he's writing scores for films and experimenting on a multitude of projects for his new label HB Recordings. Down With The Dawn is a delightful taking stock of all the music processing which must go on in a producer's mind, and it should allow this artist to receive some direct credit for a change. In the 90s, club-inspired ambient/electronica supergroup Skylab became a great vehicle of musical expression for Howie B. It will be interesting to see what he does in the live arena with this eclectic mix of electronic gems.
Annie Clark (aka St Vincent) is back with the eponymous follow up to her phenomenal 2011 album ‘Strange Mercy’. In between albums she took time to co-write and tour the warmly received ‘Love This Giant’ with David Byrne (yup, that one).
I have to admit a certain bias, ‘Strange Mercy’ is easily one of my favourite albums of the last few years (I even just used the word “phenomenal” to describe it), but that said, with such a cherished predecessor, it means ‘St Vincent’ has a lot to live up to… does it deliver?
‘Rattlesnake’ opens with an electro-funk beat and the line “Follow the power lines back from the road, no one around so I take off my clothes. Am I the only one in the only world?”. It sets the tone of the album perfectly. Each one of St Vincent’s albums has been an evolution from the last and the 4th, ‘St Vincent’ is the first to brim with so much confidence and self-assurance. It’s an absolute pleasure from start to finish.
Electro-funk is actually probably the best way to describe the record, imagine a 70’s funk soul band, playing through 80’s electronic instruments fronted by a 21st century rock guitarist. This is the sound of ‘St Vincent’.
I love Clark’s guitar playing, and dare anyone to watch her 4AD
Session* and not be seduced, she’s got style and flare to rival Hendrix
(in fact there is a “Purple Haze” nod in the introduction to track
2 - “Birth in Reverse”).
Where ‘Strange Mercy’ was a brooding, sexy and beautiful rock record, ‘St Vincent’ is a joyful, confident pop record, perfectly personified in my favourite ‘Digital Witness’. With its constant steady kick drum beat, horns, playful “yars”, powerful chorus and cat/wah guitar. Yes cat/wah guitar. Hendrix did many things with his guitar but he never made it sound like a cocky harmonising cat.
St Vincent – 1
No doubt influenced by her ‘Love this Giant’ collaborator, ‘Digital
Witness’ also gives a great big nod and wink to Talking Heads - “I
want all of your mind”.
There are also softer notes on ‘St Vincent’, noticeably with the gorgeous melancholy ‘Prince Johnny’, a personal, pretty and importantly, platonic love song, about hope and redemption for hedonists “don’t mistake my affection for another spit and penny style redemption, ‘cause we’re all sons of someone’s”. It’s one of those songs you’ll sneakily repeat before carrying on.
The real pleasure of listening to ‘St Vincent’ though is though how it marries its influences with such style. This is a pop album. A pop album written by a rock artist (Her rock credentials? How about this quote from Steve Albini “I thought the St Vincent cover was pretty good” – when asked about their performance of Big Black’s “Kerosene”). The result of St Vincent’s dive into the world of pop is sound that’s surprisingly fresh. How often can that be said these days of a pop record?