albums - september 2014
“A theme running through my work is not fitting in…I always feel slightly alienated” – Martin Carr
Flirting with critical acclaim, commercial success, audience-shedding experimentation and, ultimately, mass indifference, The Boo Radleys were the perennial wallflowers at the ‘90s indie love-in. Even now, there seems to be little demand for a reunion and while Carr has been quietly releasing albums as bravecaptain and then under his own name, The Breaks only saw the light of day thanks to the intervention of Hamburg-based label Tapete. Perhaps that’s why he seems so pre-occupied with his place, or lack of, in the (musical?) scheme of things, but, whatever the reason, it makes for some lovely and poignant moments.
Frontloaded with its strongest material, the album peaks early on with “Mainstream”, a ruminative acoustic strum where, backed by female harmonies, Carr declares “Here I am swimming in the mainstream/I tell my friends I subvert it from within”. It’s difficult not to read this as a reference to his former band’s fleeting occupation of the pop charts, a moment that their songwriter’s wry sense of humour and slightly depressive worldview couldn’t sustain. Yet later, on the title track, as he sings of “Suits at the door/babies on the floor…and if the breaks don’t come/we’ll just get by without them”, there’s a palpable sense of contentment.
It’s not all low-key balladry, by the way, and if The Breaks sags somewhat in the middle, it’s still Martin Carr’s “most immediate and accessible record” for some time (according to the man himself), as demonstrated by the pop stomp of “St Peter In Chains”, “Senseless Apprentice” and “Mandy Get Your Mello On”. “The Santa Fe Skyway~ also adds a dash of funk for good measure but not in the Jamiroquai sense, thankfully. It’s not a record that takes risks – you get the feeling Carr could churn this stuff out in his sleep – but it’s nice to know he’s still around and, on this evidence, happy.
Now there's nothing quite like having a very famous 19th century
ancestor, and the Lovell sisters Megan and Rebecca, whose band Larkin
Poe is, are somewhere back in the day relations of the influential
and spookily revered gothic storyteller Edgar Allan Poe, whom even
today is said to have a mysterious visitor to his gravesite each year
on the anniversary of his death. If this piece of info leads you to
expect gloom, morbidity and songs about ravens on the 12 tracks that
make up 'Kin' then you are in for something of a disappointment as
what the album really sounds like is a very cool Sheryl Crowe record,
perhaps it isn't entirely the work of the Lovell sisters but quite
honestly, if you're in the mood for gloriously crafted and verging
upon anthemic bluesy. folksy, country tinged and glossily committedly
performed songs that echo some of those other songs that you still
really like although you can't quite remember who sang them from a
decade or so back, then you'll enjoy 'Kin' tremendously, from its
floor shaking opener 'Jailbreak' to the wistful ballad 'Overachiever'
that ends the album. You don't even need to know that the band take
the name of Edgar's fifth cousin twice removed from whom the Lovell
family tree somewhere originates to like 'Kin' in its entirety. Megan
and Rebecca, your stadium awaits.
No, this isn't the Red Army Choir whistling and chanting the morale lifting melodies of the Soviet 1950s, Mostly, 'Left' is a thoughtfully conceived guitar album with a lot going for it, monochrome sleeve photo of Stalin notwithstanding. Starting with the epic lost weekend tale of 'The Day I Went To Bed For Ten Years' in which songwriter Robert Jessett's cider drinking episodes lead him through the seamy underbelly of south London to domestic bliss via a stay in hospital, and which seems like an odd choice for a first track given what follows it, the grimy electronica of 'Chaps', the dreampop balladry of 'Clouds', and then the two part tale of 'Old Punks', the first part a delicately phrased flamencoesque tune followed by 40 or so seconds of untranslatable noise perhaps recorded at long gone new wave venue The Vortex in 1978.
So far so confusingly eclectic, and as the folksy tones of 'Annie
McFall' bring an altogether more mellowed vibe to the proceedings
(sung not by Jessett but by other vocalist Anne Gilpin), you might
get the idea that under all the existential crises and social commentary
there's a quite accomplished album of songs attempting to make itself
heard. Then 'The Return Of Lola' reveals what is really driving the
Valence engines, a really quite clever and fitting follow up to that
Kinks song that everyone has heard at least 400 times of which Ray
Davies would surely approve and 'Left' makes a lot of sense if you
consider that it takes its blueprint from the Kinks best album, 1972's
'Muswell Hillbillies'. Quoting Randy Newman as an influence and covering
his song 'In Germany Before The War' (wasn't that a Brecht lyric or
something?) provides a dour reminder of that scene in Frankenstein
where Boris Karloff throws a small girl into a lake. By this point
an afternoon spent round at Morton Valences is beginning to seem like
a less than very cheerful occasion, and the clue to everything about
'Left' is somewhere in the 50 second 'Instrumental # 2' which sounds
as if it was recorded outside a Carter USM gig in 1990. There is a
constant (consults Google translator) angst? weltschmerz? (consults
Proust) remembrance of things past throughout 'Left', a nostalgia
for the world of two decades ago when phoneboxes still worked, MTV
actually showed music videos and that world wasn't a safer or happier
place than where we live now, runs the subtext, it just looked a bit
more colourful. I can't quite make the connection between the album
and its cover photo of Uncle Joe looking at his moustache though,
maybe wondering if he approves of Morton Valence or is sending them
down the salt mines. Let's hear that cover version of 'Kalyinka',
dance moves optional.
Friends, Romans, Countrymen, lend me your hears ... Loudon Wainwright III is more of a musical diarist than just any old folk singer, engaging his audience with witty banter and amusing observations on life, but don't let the satire distract you from a long and distinguished career in which his artistic credibility is still very much intact. The popularity of novelty record 'Dead Skunk (In The Middle Of The Road)' in 1972 made it hard to be taken seriously, but it seems Wainwright loves a challenge! The flower-power hippie New Yorker has always maintained an odd balancing act between his more 'serious' music and the unfolding 'circus' of his celebrity life, not to mention the acting sideline (Wainwright has appeared in many film and stage productions, and even played the "singing surgeon" in the third series of M*A*S*H).
So it's easy to forget he was hailed as "the new Dylan" in the early 70s, the 4-cd anthology 40-Odd Years released in 2011, a career retrospective, a useful reminder of the depth and breadth of the music he's amassed over the years. Wainwright is the classic 'eclecticist', willing to give everything a go, from folk and old-time music in all its various shades, through jazz and blues, gospel, and the rock'n'roll staple, of course. His very public life, the marriage to folk singer Kate McGarrigle and the recent success of their children Martha and Rufus Wainwright in their own respective musical careers, has also fed back into the writing process of this intrepid social commentator.
While Wainwright's last album Older Than My Old Man Now in 2013 was his "death'n'decay opus", this time round he's freed himself from any such restrictions. There's certainly something of the eclectic on Haven't Got The Blues Yet, a range of themes and songs recorded with his long-time musical collaborator David Mansfield (the 2 combined to great effect on Wainwright's 2009 tribute to early country musician Charlie Poole High Wide & Handsome) who seems to play just about every instrument under the sun, from banjo to bouzouki. But is his latest album a bunch of leftovers he just wasn't able to engineer into a concept?
The cover photo of the famous "depression-era" clown Emmet Kelly provides a useful starting point, as the album's title track evokes the spirit of the blues, while standout track 'Depression Blues' is a nod to old bluesmen like Blind Lemon Jefferson and Sleepy John Estes, along with references to Shakespeare and "old Sigmund" on account of Wainwright's experiences with therapy. The mood starts out differently though, with some lively rock'n'roll on opener 'Brand New Dance' (Wainwright reflects on the emotional pains of diminished physical stature, so echoes of his last work), and 'Looking At The Calendar' is also rock-driven, not unlike something from Richard Thompson and Fairport Convention. Stepping away slightly, into country music, there's cajun-sounding 'The Morgue', and banjo-infused 'Man & Dog', the latter amusingly written about the trials and tribulations of dealing with man's best friend ("man has to carry a plastic bag on his person at all times"), and then back to folk again, with 'In A Hurry', a modern commentary on commuterville, and Dundee bard Michael Marra's 'Harmless' is one of the few covers on the album.
Ultimately then, Haven't Got The Blues Yet feels like a bit of a patchwork, friends invited over one evening to try out a few different arrangement, but there's an undeniable quality and energy about these recordings, perhaps an effort to put some distance between this one and its predecessor. Lest we forget the guy is folk royalty, Aoife O'Donovan of Crooked Still pops up on majestic bluegrass duet 'Harlan County', including a lovely Irish jig at the end, and Wainwright's daughter Martha provides backing vocals on the (auto)biographical 'I Knew Your Mother'.
With a career byoyed by satire and caricature (who could forget his stints on Carrott's Lib and his 'residency' on many of John Peel's shows?), Loudon Wainwright III's current writing is more about his songcraft, something which no doubt made him a big draw at the Cambridge Folk festival recently. He's adding a little bit more to the already impressive canon of work on his 26th studio album. He's still got plenty to say, balancing the amusing turns of phrase (the Klezmer-influenced standout 'Spaced', for example, actually a song about finding a parking space among New York's odd alternate street parking!) with more serious amblings ('I'll Be Shooting Folks This Christmas', a personal reflection on the recent Newtown shootings in Connecticut). Loudon Wainwright III still rocks (although he'd have you believe it's from a rocking chair these days), and there's enough to be going on with to lend him your ears once again!
There's a lot going on with Tom Vek's inventive post-80s electro-rock, and his rather 'lean' output since 2001 probably owes more to the sort of challenges facing today's recording artists than any lack of ideas on Vek's part. Both his emo-inspired debut We Have Sound in 2005 and the more polished electronica follow-up Leisure Seizure released 6 years later are both built ground-up from patient studio experimentation. You can hear the influence of well-known bands like Smashing Pumpkins or Japan (certainly the Sylvian/Karn Tin Drum-era Japan sound on later songs like 'Aroused', for example), but Vek generally digs a bit deeper to make some waves ... chill-wave, new-wave, no-wave etc. Given a helping hand by his father, himself a musician and producer, he worked from home to begin with, before creating a production space of his own out of premises he discovered in East London (established as PALLET Recording Studios in 2008). Customized with his own gear, over 2 or 3 years he taught himself many of the production techniques he would use on his sophomore and steadily built a reputation by touring his sound successfully with a full band and playing some well-received TV and radio slots.
On his latest album Luck, the musical dream seems to be hanging in the balance after a recent eviction from PALLET. Vek had to scrape around for studio space to finish off album number 3, and so turned things around by writing about his precarious musical existence, a case of art immitating life! The album's bookends, fascinating in themselves, tell their own stories: opener 'How Am I Meant To Know' sounds tense and fraut as Vek tries to make order out of the chaos, while at the other end 'Let's Pray' calls on faith to finally settle matters: "Let's pray to all of the gods/Let's pray they all have a point/Let's pray that one of them is real/Let's pray that they're not offendable". Vek uses repetition powerfully throughout Luck as he lets the big overall 80s-inspired sound spiral (think John Leckie-produced 1979 Simple Minds album Real To Reel Cacophony, or a more contemporary flavour like Warp or Ninja Tunes) spiral. There's a feeling of driving uncertainty running through these songs, a little of the paranoia of unique band Suicide, but Vek's musical palette is sonically rich and sophisticated, infusing his electronica with eastern motifs ('Broke') or post-punk Stereolab-sounding Moog synthesizer ('Ton Of Bricks'). He often cuts a lonely frustrated figure, although 'Sherman (Animals In The Jungle)' works the other way, pretty solid riff-wise and a defiant call to action, and 'Pushing Your Luck' refreshingly funks it up as he reflects "You'd better think how not to suck". There's a lull in the middle with the very peculiar 'The Girl You Wouldn't Leave For', the singer strumming his acoustic guitar aimlessly and mumbling the line over and over, something of Matt Elliott's recent drinking songs, or even David Bowie's 'Rock'n'Roll' suicide, a sort of musical re-birthing moment.
Surely Luck is meant ironically. Put the product out there, but will anybody actually listen? Vek sounds like he's been cut adrift from any clearly-defined musical community, but it's worth listening to his honest self-refection. There's the Devoto-esque soul-searching on 'Trying To Do Better', very heartening, the need to keep looking for answers on 'You'll Stay', and as he admits on peculiarly-titled 'The Tongue Avoids The Teeth': "No time for an existential crisis/I just can't provide any answers for this/I'm a nervous man in awe of everything/I'm an awesome man". And isn't the thundering 'Let's Pray' the sound of an artist burying his soul in spiralling synths and an admonition of faith? He may not have all the answers, but what was the question again ...?
Something stirring over Dundee's silvery Tay on The Hazey Janes' Language Of Faint Theory, the dashed hopes singer Andrew Mitchell alludes to on dreamy opener 'Iwan' are washed away with some delightful Beatles-like harmonies, leaving a trail of subterfuge and 70s fuzz guitar. The song reels you in, but the band keep their powder dry for the fireworks that follow, current single 'The Fathom Line', with its guitar-laden power pop emblazened with bold Chicago Transit Authority brass. The immediate contrasts in style give you a nice flavour of this album: musically brave and passionate, and the sort of misty-eyed nostalgia that often goes with a homecoming. Ironic, when you think the recordings were actually made in the south-west of Spain towards the end of 2012, the Scots re-uniting with production team Paco Loco and John Agnello who handled their debut Hotel Radio in 2006, but on The Hazey Janes' latest album, home is clearly where the heart is.
Gently-meandering folk-tinged c&w 'In Shadows Under Trees' and the title track (written and sung by guitarist/keyboardist Alice Marra) are balanced nicely with the more rock-driven stuff like the single, as well as equally explosive 'The Genesis'. Mitchell's brooding tenor on folorn ballad 'All Is Forgotten' has a similar warmth about it to Paul Buchanan of The Blue Nile, as he turns over in his mind some of the apparently crushed dreams of his surroundings. The outpourings on 'Beyond The Heath' are equally wry and melancholic, as the song's protagonists dream of escape from their mundane existence. 'If Ever There Is Gladness', on the other hand, is more upbeat, a shiny gem of a pop song, Travis-like in its vocals and some nice atmospherics sensibly left on the end of the song.
Some nice surprises, too. Catchy 'I'm Telescoping' has a classic 70s west coast sundrenched feel to it, penned and sung by drummer Liam Brennan, with just a 'pincho' of lovely Spanish flamenco guitar at the end, and on the piano ballad 'Bellefield Moon', Mitchell has gone all dewy-eyed again: “We were only trying to make a little fun/Take in the morning sun/Though cruel maybe reckless, virtuous/There's a love that finds you in the end”. We'll forgive him because he's not the only one crying, I have to admit, as this touching end to the album trails off with trains rattling in the distance, no doubt over that great bridge over the Tay estuary.
We're approaching that time now ... will they or won't they leave the union? Truth is, whatever the outcome on 18th September, Scots will keep making rousing and passionate music that digs a little bit deeper into the soul, something about that great nation ... their extensive touring schedule has taken them all over the globe (with bands like Elbow, Wilco and Idlewild), but The Hazey Janes' Language Of Faint Theory sees Dundee's cultural ambassadors finally coming home on what is surely their strongest material to date.