albums - april 2014
Write a song that explains. Write one that tells someone else how you are feeling. Do it. Play it to someone else. Are you sure it did what you want? Has it done anything good? It's hard to do. It's hard to write a simple song and it's hard to use song to explain. Anyone can express their feelings. We all have screams, laughter, profanity and analogies about blue skies so we can all let others know.
It's something else to explain these things so that others understand and think about the way it may explain things that they have felt or feel. To put into words or music what others haven't found a way to is something else. It isn't new but it means that you can be the first thing that someone hears that gives them access to some of their own closed rooms.
There are times when I'm listening to this record that I stop only listening and look at the thing I'm playing it through. I look at a playing song. There are times that further catch my attention that I feel the need to dedicate a further sense to it.
Her Name is Calla are, I must disclose, near to my heart for lots of reasons. The main reason is that they've always been wonderful and seem to be getting better as they go.
All I can really do with the reviews I write is point out what strikes me about the things I'm given to listen to. All I can really say is what effect they have on me. I hope that you read that I had all of my attention grabbed by this record, that it took me with it and that I find it beautiful and then I hope you see if it does something like that to you too.
The Tablets (the music of Brooklyn resident and Mexican born Liz Godoy) present a great big slice of 80’s electro pop with their self-titled debut. It’s been self-financed, produced and released independently by Godoy and co-producer/bandmate Brenden Beu.
The album is quite subtle and lends itself much better to listening through headphones, so you can pick up Godoy’s delicate vocals and all the harmonious bells and whistles she has meticulously composed. The first few listens I gave it where in the car and in the background at home, and in all honesty it didn’t really grab me. It wasn’t until I sat down to listen to it properly I picked up on the pretty synth lines and vocal harmonies.
Opening track "tablets" has a perky organ riff and brings to mind the dark optimism of Eels. Musically the rest of the album is a tad more downbeat and though there is a sadness to the vocals there’s also a lot of hope and optimism.
Godoy studied piano and ballet and had a stint as a dancer in Cuba, it could be because I was pre-armed with this knowledge (as you now are) but there’s certainly a dancers delicateness to the Tablets, there’s no urgency it’s all contained and graceful, with simple melodies that are both sweet and sad.
Herman Dune's live shows always had a reputation for alcohol-fuelled chaos, so quite fitting that Andre Ivar, half of the anti-folk duo, or Stanley Brinks as he is known these days, names his latest album after the legendary juniper-distilled spirit drink. It's Brinks third album with Leicester indie band The Wave Pictures, although with associated artists like Darren Hayman, Jeffrey Lewis, Daniel Johnston and The Mountain Goats, they have cropped up on many recordings together. In fact, Stanley Brinks' output as both soloist and musician is said to run into triple figures. Gin was all wrapped up on a sunny day in May 2013 at Soup Studio, London, with the technical expertise and general encouragement of producer Simon Trought and engineer Giles Barrett. The songs were recorded live and many parts improvised, no doubt gin-inspired, which gives the music a warm jazzy playful quality, but you do wonder whether they're taking it entirely seriously?
Brinks relies on good old-fashioned narrative to get his message across, in songs reminiscent of Jonathan Richman and The Modern Lovers, or the post-punk of David Thomas and Pere Ubu. 'One Minute Of Darkness' details amusingly some sexual fumblings, the upbeat opener crowned nicely with a Marc Ribot-style screeching guitar break at the end. The singer relates further awkward intimacies on 'I Wanted You' with its neat little one-liner “I was ready … and you read me” as he describes the perils of rejection (“You burned out all your candles, your life was all in shambles/You tucked away your wounds and scratches all in a book of matches”) before some more inspired guitar playing.
So the band certainly hold it together, and the musical production is pretty solid, but after a few 'shots' of Gin, it all begins to sound a bit one-dimensional. No doubt a lively session, but somewhat in need of a gear-change or two. Meandering 'Parking Lots' is a curious philosophical ode to the car (“What are we to do with our days in a land of parking lots and highways?/And what'll we do with our thoughts on these highways and parking lots?/Maybe fall in love, maybe just fall, maybe hang around with one and all ...”), its even-paced singalong chorus broken up slightly by more nice staccato guitar soloing and Brinks' alto sax. In fact, it's this instrument that breathes vitality into songs like 'Light And Slow', played like a snake-charmer's pipe to go with Brinks characteristically “over-enunciated English” accent. The guitar harmonizes nicely with the sax, before another cracking solo, followed by some equally raucous playing by Brinks again. Gin certainly isn't without it's 'highs' and 'lows'.
'Spinola Bay' and 'Max In The Elevator' are more story-related, the former introducing 'guest' speakers describing various 'colourful' characters all of whom drink themselves to laughter the whole day, and the scenario continues on the latter, a couple leaving a railway station and waltzing off into the rain of the night. It gives a clue to Stanley Brinks' charms, the warm and inviting mood of the happy drunk with the band creating some nice blue tones of jazz. But when you weren't invited to the party, you can tire of all this. The notable exception is 'No Goodbyes' when the mood suddenly changes. Brinks sings with a bit more bite and menace (“Now we are gonna have heaps of fun/We're gonna drive Brighton run/We're gonna be hard to locate/No goodbyes, it's too late it's too late ...”) and the band play on relentlessly, some definite dark shades of The Velvet Underground. Finally some urgency, and even the sweet-serenading 'Not To Kiss You' to finish signals the party is well and truly over!
So generally Gin is an exercise in playful avant-garde, with warm-hearted songs and occasionally intriguing stories. Nothing too serious, it would appear, but when groups like Pere Ubu stray into darker territories that's when people really start taking note. The gripping tension of 'No Goodbyes' suggest Stanley Brinks and The Wave Pictures should dig a little deeper. In all the alcohol-soaked jazz-infused haze, their latest album seems like a missed opportunity.
The opening bars of A Trip To The Coast transport you back to the jangly guitar bands of the 80s and 90s, like Lloyd Cole & The Commotions, The Smiths, or the early Postcard label (Orange Juice, Josef K and Aztec Camera etc.). The music of Bill Pritchard is similarly guitar-driven, with conventional song structures and catchy pop hooks. Not altogether surprising, as the British songwriter is actually a veteran of that era, his eponymous debut released all the way back in 1987. The voice also has that familiar Edwyn Collins-cum-Robert Forster lilt to it, as he takes a trip down memory lane on his latest album, his first for nine years, with “songs about love, loss and Stoke-on-Trent”.
The album's uptempo opener 'Trentham' makes ripples rather than waves, but it's a pleasant enough stroll in the famous Italiangate park just outside Stoke for Pritchard, as he reminisces about filming ducks on the lake there. The song is in good company with 'Yeah Yeah Girl' where he wistfully reflects on his career thus far: “I sometimes wonder how it could have been, if I'd been more commercial and you less twee”, and the French-spoken 'Tout Seul', all three with decent pop hooks which emphasize his abilities as a songwriter and rather contradict his own thoughts.
The strong narrative thread that runs through songs like 'Posters' with its stream of conscious references to people and places keeps you guessing, and there's further obliqueness in the emotionally-charged highs and lows of the 'Almerend Road'. He even rocks out a little on 'In June' but still won't let us in on his secret (“In June everyone saw you as the happy man in your string of beads”). The style is poetic and expressionistic, as Pritchard conveys his private world of memories like a beautiful dream sequence.
For me, he's best when he's singing forlorn ballads. The world-weary tone on 'Truly Blue' wryly observes the eccentricities of a friend, and there's more mystery with mists forming, sleeping through and peppermint tea on a Friday morning on 'Paname'. The more I read the lyrics, the less I understand, but the clue to all these puzzles may lie in the title track to finish, with its strange references to laying ghosts to rest, rolling over memories and three friends taking something back to an island ...
So it must have been an inspirational trip to produce such beautiful songs, the sort that grow on you gently as you listen over and over. Pritchard was re-joined for this album by his long-time friend and musical collaborator guitarist and keyboard player Tim Bradshaw. There's a nice musical harmony running right the way through the album, which also benefits from its understated production. Don't expect a follow-up any time soon, as the songwriter has become legendary for his 'disappearing acts', leaving several years between projects. “Fancy the idea of a trip to the coast …?”
Hot on the heels of many a nineties alternative reunion, the Afghan Whigs’ Do to the Beast cements their reputation as perhaps the most peerless out of the bunch. Greg Dulli has long kept himself busy with the soul drenched Twilight Singers since the Afghan Whigs’ dissolution in 2001, but stacked next to the Whigs, it lacked the vigour of such heady grunge balladry. Dulli always flew highest next to John Curley and Rick McCollum. As the first post-reunion full-length (with the omission of McCollum) from them since reforming in 2012 for a spate of shows, Do to the Beast is decidedly confident and forthright.
Thankfully, all the melodrama of Black Love and Gentlemen is retained, and reminiscence rears its head throughout the album. ‘It Kills’ recalls the raucous backup singing of 1965 and ‘Royal Cream’ brings to mind the relentless momentum of Black Love’s ‘My Enemy’. Maturity is emphasised also, on the subdued ‘Can Rova’ which leads its latter half into lightly pulsing electronica. Elsewhere, the bombast of closer ‘These Sticks’ tellingly confirms that none of what made the Whigs so memorable has diminished over the years.
While the nineties throwbacks are still going strong, it’s surprising that there’s no sign of a quasi-Whigs. Does the lack of emulation mean their reputation has waned? I was lucky enough to see them in London at All Tomorrow’s Parties in 2012, the show that sparked the reunion, and it was a celebratory affair, with Dulli all smiles. On the way back, down the hill from Alexandra Palace, I was chatting to some young guys a little worse for wear. I didn’t manage to catch a lot of what they said, but they both agreed with sudden gravitas (in heavy scouse) that the Afghan Whigs were ‘emotional, man.’ Such gravitas can only be inspired by Dulli et al. Here’s hoping they don’t float back into absentia.
Experimental music is really about shared musical experience, so writing about it, rather like describing a good wine, a search for more and more exotic-sounding vocabulary, would seem rather redundant. Anyhow, with this in mind, slightly misleadingly-named Golden Retriever (check all images of twee indie pop at the door!), a duo from Portland, Oregon who use an unusual combination of instruments to create rich and colourful sound collages, are definitely worth hearing. Jonathan Sielaff's bass clarinet is skewed like a “dark” saxophone and places Matt Carlson's exploratory use of synthesizers somewhere between the far reaches of experimental Krautrock, Miles Davis and Talk Talk. Indie pop they are certainly not!
Seer is Carlson and Sielaff's second major release on Thrill Jockey Records. After an early ep of alien soundscapes and cosmic loveliness, Light Cones recorded for Root Strata in 2011, the band's 2012 debut for the Chicago-based label Occupied With The Unspoken widened their musical palette to embrace free jazz and the avant-garde, along with classical motifs, noise, minimalism and musique concrete. The duo have had 2 years to advance their oeuvre, and the earlier odd drone fantasias created with a mixture of electronic and acoustic sounds are now suffused with lovely references to classic kosmischer musik. Golden Retriever's latest album is a challenging listen, but warm and emotionally-inviting.
According to the press release accompanying the album, opener 'Petrichor' “shows Carlson using an 11-limit just intonation system and can, if listened to at a significant volume, create otoacoustic emissions: the generation of new resonance within the inner-ear as a rectification of two perfectly toned and opposing frequencies.” (not a lot of people know that …!). Aside from the technical jargon, what you notice most is how beautifully the sounds merge to create a lovely atmospheric drone. In the same sort of way, the piano tinkling at the beginning of 'Sharp Stones', like pebbles rubbing together, creates an unusual backdrop for the melodic free jazz-sounding clarinet solo. The electronic textures at the end of the song, like dashes of colour on a painting, seque into birdsong for the next track 'Archipelago'. The latter's pastoral sounds are eventually reigned in with more machine-generated bubbling noises, evoking symphonies of artists like Jean Michele Jarre or Klaus Schulze.
'Flight Song' also shimmers with kosmischer patterns, this time the clarinet acting like a mantra with its long sustained solo on one note. Seer is more about music on a steady musical trajectory than any radical shifts in mood or texture. The epic 12-minute finale 'Superposition' eases itself in with another searing “bow” of the reeded instrument joined by cascading celestial sounds pressing right up against the ears. The close is as bright and beautiful as Sun Ra's Space Probe of 1970!
Carlson and Sielaff recorded their latest album over 2 years in their own 'Worksound' studio. Their improvized music is all about trying out new sounds and melding together influences, so editing becomes an equally important compositional tool. The complexity of Seer will no doubt keep the critics happy, but it's the emotional depth and unusual soundscapes worming themselves into your ear that make Golden Retriever such a worthy listen.
Since their eponymous debut in 2003, Black Lips have kept their garage punk interesting by combining lively thrash with some soulful tunes and throwing in a few wild antics for good measure. However, it's the band's relatively stable line-up, their extensive touring (they think nothing of playing over a hundred shows a year, and in 2012 their itinerary even took in Iraq!) and a willingness to try out new things in the studio that have really cemented their reputation. The Atlanta band have a confidence and swagger which allows them to move creatively from one project to the next. The unusual choice of producer in Marc Ronson for 2011's spooky-sounding Arabia Mountain was a masterstroke, songs like the classic punk rock 'Raw Meat' matched with the more Stonesy 'Go Out And Get It' and more psychedelic 'Bicentennial Man'. They're mixing it up again on their latest album (their 7th to date!), with the help of producers Tommy Brenneck of The Budos Band and The Black Keys' Tim Karney. Underneath The Rainbow has an exciting if somewhat schizophrenic feel about it.
Catchy songs like 'Smiling' and 'Make You Mine' are stripped-back
and live-sounding, simple pounding drum and handclaps with few musical
embellishments sounding like hollowed-out versions of early Damned
or Modern Lovers records. On the former, bassist Jared Swilley sardonically
recounts some jail time he did last year, trying to sleep under fluorescent
lights and admitting his shame to his mother. 'Dorner Party' and 'Waiting'
proceed in a similar musical vein, some good old-fashioned punk with
the sort of hooks the Ramones customized on their classic early material.
The album loses momentum slightly by the end, the closing songs pulling in different directions. Contrast the punk thrash of 'I Don't Wanna Go Home' with the stomping glamrock of 'Dandelion Dust' and Heartbreakers'-like rock of 'Dog Years'. The shared vocals of the band generate an interesting energy and dynamic, hinting at early Clash recordings, but these different styles are slightly disorienting and it may not be the best way to round things off.
How do you keep the raw energy of punk rock burning? They admit in interviews it doesn't seem to get easier. Neil Young once wrote “It's better to burn out than to fade away”, but Curt Cobain's death left a gaping hole, and nobody wants to see a great band like the The Ramones imploding amidst petty in-fighting and self-loathing. Underneath The Rainbow lacks some of the invention of its predecessor, but re-positions and revitalizes Black Lips with some southern-rock infused garage flowers ready to pick for the spring time!
Proto-punk, Detroit legends Death have got one of the greatest stories in rock ‘n’ roll to their name. The tale of their 1976 LP …For the Whole World to See, which went unreleased until 2009, has now been immortalized in the incredible documentary A Band Called Death. Under the influence of their motor city neighbours The Stooges and the MC5, the three Hackney brothers were trailblazers of punk before it even existed.
After 2011’s decidedly lazier release of Spiritual, Mental, Physical, III claims to be the full circle of Death. It is compiled of songs from the mid Seventies and early Eighties as well as two recordings from when the Hackney brothers reunited in 1992. Eight years before David’s untimely death.
The album begins with David’s voice over an improvised guitar line. One of the musical themes of the albums is the seemingly offhand, dreamy guitar playing. Part Floyd, part Funkadelic. III is certainly less riff orientated than its predecessors. That’s not to say there isn’t some punk swagger thrown in for good measure. Take the admirable North Street or the even better Restlessness.
The emphasis is definitely shifted onto the sensitive, soulful R&B music that the band so obviously reveres. It feels a bit like a long overdue goodbye to the late David. The penultimate track, First Snowfall in Detroit, is beautiful. While the albums final opus, the aptly titled We’re Gonna Make It, is a wonderful song about brotherly love.
If you put all three Death albums together you’d probably have masterpiece on the scale of Raw Power, Maggot Brain or Kick Out the Jams. But as it stands they’ll probably be remembered primarily for the story of their late rise to fame. It is a real shame David never got to witness it. There’s enough on their three albums to suggest they’ll be a very interesting live proposition. While anyone wanting to gain further insight into the roots of punk should definitely take a listen.
Family holidays and dirty weekends, fear of hairdressers and a vision of John Cooper Clarke joining The Beatles … these are a few of Vinny Peculiar's favourite things! The Salford-based singer-songwriter (real name Alan Wilkes) has been gracing British indie music with his signature blend of art-pop and philosophical musings for about 15 years, and he's already on his 10th album. Alas, Wilkes' profile remains stubbornly under the radar, but The Root Mull Affect, a well-timed retrospective on Cherry Red Records, may help to change that. It's a stepping-stone release, between last year's Parlour Flames collaboration with Paul 'Bonehead' Arthurs (formerly of Oasis) and the next Vinny Peculiar album proper which should be available later this year. It's a good time to get to know this guy's music.
The title comes from a song on 2004's Growing Up With Vinny Public about a graffiti artist who ran amok in the village where Wilkes grew up. They never discovered the artist's true identity, but it was a 'lightbulb' moment for the young boy: he realized art was something that could change the world … and annoy your parents at the same time! For those unfamiliar with his oeuvre, Vinny Peculiar is a sort of “musical” John Cooper-Clarke who writes charming off-the-wall vignettes backed with catchy pop melodies. There's also something quintessentially English in his songwriting, rather like Jarvis Cocker of Pulp or Ray Davies of The Kinks. 'A Vision' opens The Root Mull Affect with the psychedelic imaginings of a nurse on the way to a mental hospital in Selly Oak, and sounds almost autobiographical. 'Playing On the Pier' is equally vivid, Wilkes describing everything in the first person, a “postcard” beautifully recollecting family holidays at the seaside.
There's an element of the surreal, and of course, the devil's in the fine detail! 'Jesus Stole My Girlfriend' is about a man coming to terms with his spouse's conversion to born-again Christianity. He prays for her to be born back (“God, I know you're up there listening/So go ahead and do the decent thing and perform a miracle/I much prefer her cynical, miserable, impossible, hysterical, illogical … despicable!”). On 'Confessions Of A Sperm Donor', Wilkes takes genetic engineering as his unusual starting point and begins: “I used to be a feminist, I used to be a freak/Sold my sperm for bus fare, got 15 quid a week”.
On 'Flatter And Deceive', the singer muses on his failings as a parent, and 'Sometimes I Feel Like A King', an acoustic version of the title track of the 2009 Vinny Peculiar album (sounding uncannily like Tim Booth of James), muses on the simple pleasures of life, like making late-night recordings, taking the kids to the park or reading a good book. Nice personal touches we can all relate to, but there's a taste for the bizarre, too. 'Everlasting Teenage Bedroom' (a live recording with Andy Rourke and Mike Joyce formerly of The Smiths) is all about hiding away like a teenager, “for freedom”. 'Hairdressers' has a slightly sinister air as he reveals his trichophobia, and 'Dirty Weekend' is graced with lots of sweaty salacious hotel room details. Poetic and thoughtful, but also tender and beautiful, the songwriting reminds me of Robyn Hitchcock with its surreal twists and turns.
The Root Mull Affect is very much a compilation, with a number of remixes from David Marsden who produced the Parlour Flames album last year. Towards the end, 'Egg Incident' and 'Judy Wood' (a David Ditchfield remix) show off a more experimental and psychedelic side to Vinny Peculiar, but references to British music of the last 30 or so years are scattered throughout. 'Man About The House' celebrates D.I.Y. sounding like Alan Parker And The Rumour, 'Lazy Bohemians' strikes a blow for eccentricity, with the bounce of The Small Faces 'Lazy Sunday Afternoon' and he flags the aging babyboomers in 'My Generation (I Said Goodbye)'. Although the 50+ minutes are a bit of a sprawl, these cherry pickings are a useful introduction, and ready us for the next album of original material coming very soon from this undervalued son of Salford.
Cutting something of a tragic Gram Parsons-like figure, Micah P. Hinson has already had to weather several storms in his life: addiction, homelessness, jail time and bankruptcy … and those were just the ones before his 20th birthday! With his smouldering whisky-and-cigarettes voice and impassioned dark Americana songcraft drawing on a whole of raft of influences, God may just have burdened the Texan singer-songwriter with too much talent. Hinson has come a long way relatively quickly since his debut Micah P. Hinson And The Gospel Of Progress in 2004. 5 more well-received albums in as many years, and music which gravitates towards like-minded artists Iron & Wine, Will Oldham and Calexico have kept things moving along. His latest album, eagerly anticipated, hasn't proceeded as smoothly, however. Recordings were set back by a car crash Hinson was involved in during a tour of Spain in 2011. A lot of the songs for the new album had already been written, but understandably shaken (he actually lost the use of his arms temporarily), the album was assembled piecemeal with demos being sent off to friends. The final recordings were made in Santander, Northern Spain a year later, for the French label Talitres, with local musicians including the city's Aqquatro String Quartet. Inviting other artists to perform on the album seems to have given it a new lease of life and revitalized Hinson's career. However, don't expect any laughs on Micah P. Hinson And The Nothing: these songs sound like they're coming from a very dark place indeed.
'How Are You Just A Dream?' and featured track 'On The Way Home (To
Abilene) are conventional enough, the full-on guns-blazing Alt. Country
opener is followed by a more laidback Country & Western ballad,
delivered with the customary husky Johnny Cash-like vocal and ending
in a cacophony of strings shredded. In both songs Hinson sounds crazed
and despairing (“You know I've been down this road before … and I
seem fine”/“it's falling apart at the seams … I see what all of this
means”), his state of mind setting up the mood for the rest of the
The mood though is unrelentingly dark on The Nothing. Like Ryan Adams, Hinson likes throwing in musical quirks, like the Joy Division 'Atmosphere' keyboard on the strange yarn 'Sons Of The USSR', very Born In The USA Springsteenesque. 'God Is Good' is also a story-piece, gospel-infused vocals accompanying twangy guitar and pedal steel, as a man describes how his faith crashes down around him. Piano-driven ballad 'The Quill' tucked away towards the end articulates the lonely heartache of a writer, and with its lo-fi orchestration and a vocal of raw emotion is another standout: “The quill holds the paper still/The ink draws nothing from this lonely heart/The quill holds the hand still/The paper draws nothing from this lonely heart/Keep the gun cocked, keep the pine chair/Our lord was thinking that he'll come back to kill me”
So after its shaky beginnings, The Nothing has turned out to be a powerful return for Micah P. Hinson, stepping to one side of the noisier and slightly more bustling sound of his 2010 Pioneer Saboteurs album. Beautiful whisky-soaked Americana ballads that cut so deep they draw blood. The angst contained in the lyrics all speaks to a wavering state of mind (if you allow for artistic license etc.). His personal life may have calmed down since marrying Ashley Bryn Gregory in 2007, but the outspoken right-wing comments reported in 2010 and the career-threatening crash a year later suggest that, like a great many others before him, trouble will keep finding a tortured soul.