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albums - june 2014


Guided By Voices - Cool Planet

After 21 albums (5 since their 2010 reunion) does the world really need another Guided By Voices Album?

Cool Planet is number 22 of a discography most artists would give their right arm for. So let’s address the elephant in the room… “No” it doesn’t reach the heights of the seminal Bee Thousand. There we go. So, moving on what do we have? Well in all honesty we have one of the best alternative rock records I’ve heard so far this year.

While it might not be able to look some of its older siblings squarely in the eye, there are some great songs to be found on Cool Planet, “Ticket to Hide” is as good as it’s title suggests, “All American Boy” and opener “Authoritarian Zoo” are also highlights. There are of course some less spectacular moments, if anyone can explain to me how the dreary “Cream of Lung” made the cut I would be most grateful. Due to the classic brevity Guided By Voices have toward song length, the lows don’t last too long; “Cream of Lung” is quickly followed by the joyful “Males of Wormwood” for example.

Cool Planet is standard Guided By Voices fare, quirky songs, pop sensibilities, lo-fi sounds, cobbled together arrangements that work in a way others just couldn’t get away with. The band often verge on the brink of disaster, like a rickety stage coach being dragged up a step winding mountain pass by two crazed stallions, threatening to tip over at any second and be dashed on the jagged rocks below… but they just somehow always manage to keep it together to make it to the next track.

That’s what makes Guided By Voices so exciting to listen to, and what makes them still relevant 30 years on.



The Voluntary Butler Scheme – A Million Ways To Make Gold

Manufactured pop always threatens to take its place alongside the pantheons of pop history, but generally ends up gathering dust in a jukebox, bargain bin or record collection some place. At one end of the spectrum you've got the surreal amusement of Eurovision, hardly a credible art form although a perfect ruse for aliens searching for intelligent life on earth, while at the other the music provides a great object for artists to rebel against, as the Monkees demonstrated in their stand-off with Columbia producer Don Kirschner in 1967. Inconsequential or not, bubblegum certainly keeps the wheels of pop music turning.

Since 2008 Birmingham singer-songwriter (possibly also frustrated producer?) Rob Jones has cut and pasted his way through the pop vernacular of the last 50 years to craft quirky and thoughtful songs under the monika The Voluntary Butler Scheme. The lo-fi sonic explorations of 2011's The Grandad Galaxy are a modern-day equivalent of Joe Meek, the undeniable pop hooks at the centre of his compositions occasionally rather skewed with all the oddball 'effects', samples, loops and other recording gymnastics. One-man-bands seem to be doing the rounds again, with notable releases this year by Liam Fin (The Nihilist) and Connan Mockasin (Caramel), and Jones' latest album is another one worthy of your attention. A Million Ways To Make Gold is a more even collection of songs than its predecessor, lean pop and blue-eyed soul backed with R&B-influenced horn playing.

It's hard to say where homage spills over into pastiche, but Jones clearly knows his stuff and treads carefully. Surely I'm not the only one who can hear The Cure's 'Lovecats' in 'Looking For Nearby Water', for example, or The Righteous Brothers' Stand By Me' in 'So Tired'. Pop Will Eat Itself is obviously more than a band name, but Jones never set out to re-invent the wheel with The Voluntary Butler Scheme. There's also some delightfully dreamy orchestration on the title track which closes the album, surely a nod to the great Brian Wilson and Van Dyke Parks with its 'hidden' Calypso sound.

A Million Ways for the most part delivers good songs. Cheesy-sounding electropop opener 'The Q Word' appears whimsical at first, a sort of Hot Chip souffle with a party conga line, but then the brass comes in and breathes a little soul into its heart. 'Brain Freeze' is harder-edged with some nice scratch funk guitar playing, but again it's the Dexy's-like horn sound that really brings it to life. There's more of a foot-shuffling dance sound to 'The Regulatory Format', while 'Quinzhee' is poppy and doo-woppy like some of Jim Noir's material. The refinements he's made to his sound also show off Jones' vocal style, subtle like the blue-eyed soul of Simon Aldred and Cherry Ghost.

However, the album's finest moments occur when Jones' manages to strike the right balance between all these pop elements. 'Honey In The Gravel Mixture' captures some of the zaniness of The Divine Comedy's 'National Express' as he sings: “It's hard to be in love when you put a little honey in the gravel mixture”. Backed with those Mariachi horns again, he's certainly better at mixing songs than concrete! More uptempo 'No Easy Way Out' has that quintessentially Northern Soul feel about it, while on serenading ballad 'That's How I Got To Memphis', for me the album's standout track, Jones is quite at home being the Lee Hazlewood lonesome cowboy singing about trailing his true love all the way to Memphis.

So from Birmingham to Memphis, on A Million Ways To Make Gold Rob Jones collects together some of the elements that make a great manufactured pop album: nice hooks, soulful vocals, some shuffling dance rhythms and instrumentation, and the harder edge when it's needed. He's also learned the virtues of holding things back in the mix slightly, offering us something more even-handed and mature than The Grandad Galaxy. It ain't exactly the R&B of Geno Washington or Curtis Mayfield, but hey! The Voluntary Butler Scheme is getting there!

Matthew Haddrill


Brigades – Crocodile Tears

I remember hearing stuff like this for the first time and I remember feeling wonderful. I still listen to stuff like this and I remember writing reviews about how it is good to have bands working within genres. I still love this type of music and I'm still happy that I got happy listening to this stuff.I root for Funeral for a Friend and I still think Adam Lazzara is cool. That's because FFAF are in a rich vein of form and Adam Lazzara is cool and Taking Back Sunday are freaking brilliant. If you agree with me on these points then you will like this. I enjoy how narrow my comprehension becomes at moments like this. I'd swear that everyone'd like this because why wouldn't you? I think it's great. I hope I’m revealing something to you there, but you should also listen to me when I suggest we take the left turn to watch Brigades play on the second stage instead of that band you quite fancied checking out and had also heard previously. I look forward to trying to convince you in a back room somewhere, I look forward to spinning microphones and songs about pronouns still.

So if I don't bump into you, if I'm not there to convince you and grin my way into making you think that maybe it'd be a good time to go see Brigades, if I'm not there when you get to the door, imagine I am and go have a look. I would try and convince you but I'd never lie and say they'll change your life. I'm too much into this genre for that kind of thing.

Christopher Carney


Chain and the Gang – Minimum Rock N Roll

When an album has a title that seems to work in antagonism with another album title, I always want it to be an actual attack on it's opposite. Overt and direct.

I'll settle for Ian Svenonius's music nearly most all of the time.

But I'll always be a little disappointed. Nation of Ulysses were brilliant, which isn't to say that this isn't just that if I'm thinking about other bands Ian has a slight curse to go with his blessing and I'm distracted by something else.

There's a mistake at the start of the fantastic I'm A Choice which makes everything better and there is nothing boring about anything on the album. It's achieved more than you often get but somehow that still isn't enough. It's fine when people who have shown that they are capable of brilliance sometimes fall short of brilliance but it's also good to expect brilliance from the brilliance and while I'm not disappointed too much, I haven't had my expectations met. I had an excellent time figuring that out though, and if more bands embraced short songs, everything would be better.

Christopher Carney


Dan Sartain – Dudesblood

Artistically brave or throwing it all to the dogs … it's hard to tell which side of the line Dan Sartain's latest album Dudesblood falls? Is this really the same lean and bequiffed Sartain who rode into town on the back of The White Stripes pony (perhaps it was a Zebra?)? Not that many years ago, the Birmingham Alabama singer-songwriter fused punk, rockabilly, blues and garage so effortlessly you'd be hard-pushed to find a join, in what appeared to be a fully-formed homage to the lost 60s classics featured in series like Nuggets, Pebbles and Back From The Grave!

Admittedly, the initial splash owed something to John “Speedo” Reis of San Diego punks Rocket From The Crypt. Reis produced and assisted on Sartain's impressive triumverate of albums recorded for Swami Records (Reis' own label) between 2005 and 2010. Dan Sartain vs The Serpientes (2005), Join Dan Sartain (2006) and Dan Sartain Lives (2010) (noticing any pattern here …?) were packed with dark sleazy punkabilly gems which while certainly taking a step back in time also made perfect sense in the present. Occasionally he'd throw in a curveball, some mariachi, lounge or classic 60s pop motifs, spice things up a bit, but you knew where you stood with Dan Sartain. 2012's Too Tough To Live was more conventional, punk rock hammering out Ramones and Clash thrashes in its 'economical' 19 minutes, but still no need to panic.

Wowee Zowee! He's certainly wrong-footed us with Dudesblood! It's genre-busting, but where's he busting out to exactly? To be fair, there's at least a good ep's worth of punk rock, from the straight snarling Pistols-like 'Smash The Tesco' (sure to raise a smile, but a bit strange coming from Alabama, surely?), and Ramones-style 'Love Is Suicide' taking a leaf out of Black Lips recent deconstructions. The protopunk title track opening the album also engages, with its odd electro-beat and chorus slightly mimicking the Spizz Energi classic 'Where's Captain Kirk?' The homage left over from the last album is sweetened with more poppy 'You Gotta Get Mad To Get Things Done', lurid rebel-rouser 'HPV Cowboy' is also no slouch, and he's rolled-out some rockabilly in the shape of 'Rawhide Moon', certainly one of the album's standouts with its twanging guitar and crazy whipping sounds.

If only I could stop there … for every sinewy beanstalk of a rocker, Sartain's planted a gentle ballad seedling destined to be blown away like thistledown in the desert. There's the Hawaiian-sounding 'Pass This On' (originally by Swedish electronic duo The Knife), with marimba and drums provided, amazingly, by DJ Don Bonebrake, former drummer of Los Angeles punks The X. Even stranger is the horse-clopping John Ford-inspired C&W 'Marfa Lights', and the odd choice of 1957 Anthony Perkins novelty hit ballad 'Moonlight Swim'. Somebody must have spiked the drinks? Dan Sartain surely still lives?

It may all be part of some clever ruse, but is Doobieblood (sorry, I mean Dudesblood!) the sound of a promising artist taking stock of his career, or one just losing the plot? There's still that great rasping voice holding up at the punkier end of his oeuvre, but this mish-mash of songs leaves you feeling puzzled, disoriented and ultimately disengaged. After several plays of Dan Sartain's latest album, I'm tiring of all the filler and just want to get back to the glorious garage 'nuggets' of his earlier material.

Matthew Haddrill