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albums - January 2015


The Monochrome Set - 'Spaces Everywhere'

Yes I know it's pretty well unbelievable but The Monochrome Set are back, over thirty years since 'Jet Set Junta' and 'Jacob's Ladder' were setting the indie charts aglow and longer than that since 'He's Frank' introduced them to us. This is only revealing my own lack of knowledge as Bid and his assorted cohorts didn't vanish completely in the mid 80s, the Monochrome Set released a load of music in the 90s and more recently, with 2012's 'Platinum Coils' and 2013's 'Super Plastic City' somehow escaping my attention. So much for what I know. Anyhow I was quite pleased to get 'Spaces Everywhere' to review as there isn't quite enough jangly indie guitar music about and it always gets a reaction from me, and inevitably a positive one.

First off, the Monochrome Set have worn a bit better than some other 80s survivors (eg: Robert Pollard) and are making music now that's as smartly attuned and tightly played as anything they did in their 80s heyday, although that is potentially an even scarier prospect than them going plain stir crazy with age and lifestyle issues while continuing to make disturbingly listenable albums, and 'Spaces Everywhere' is very listenable, its tales of ordinary eccentricity are sharply worded and the music matches their every turn. If the tone is relentlessly upbeat and the pace never slackens, and the actual inspiration never seems to either, then that just confirms that the Monochrome Set might've been the nearly men of three decades ago, the Freddie & The Dreamers of the New Romantic age, but they've made up for that ever since. In buckets. The award for 'fittest pensioner still able to play guitar in a straight line' is just about yours for the taking, Bid.



Ricked Wicky - 'I Sell The Circus'

Guided By Voices, we are informed, recently chucked it finally after about three decades of ploughing their idiosyncratic offbeat indie furrow, a sort of low budget REM, and I among others will miss them, what with their continually inventive musicianship and Robert Pollard's inscrutably literate lyrics. Robert Pollard isn't throwing his much worn towel in just yet though, Ricked Wicky is his pseudonym for what isn't his first solo project and he obviously has a lot to tell us even yet.

Guided By Voices fans won't be disappointed, although Pollard is sounding in a bit of a bad mood for some reason, his GBV muse having departed, leaving him to grimace malignantly at us from his bar stool as he rails against the dying of the light with a brutal honesty that is, at times, a bit painful to listen to. 'Crackling mousetrap speaker / wallpaper women bide for home / void of grip / impressionable sluts' he intones hoarsely over the thudding chordage of second track 'Guts', and we can suppose that the GBV breakup has put him over the edge a bit, artistically. 'Cow Headed Moon' is a more reflective and less embittered sounding performance, with a swaying string quartet to soften the assorted blows that Pollard has recently endured and while tracks such as 'Intellectual Types', 'Uranus Flies' and 'Mobility' show that Pollard can still equal the songwriting of GBV's probable peak of 12 years ago, the 'Universal Truths And Cycles' album, this latest song collection shows us a disturbingly still unfulfilled songwriter venting his actual spleen regardless of consequence. GBV completists will lap it up but the rest of us might just feel a bit sorry for old Bob, or actually scared of him.



The Persian Leaps - 'Drive Drive Delay'

Heads down no nonsense emo tinged guitar rock from Minnesota on this five track mini album, The Persian Leaps manage to sound like several bands playing simultaneously and these are : the Ramones (I recognise several of those guitar riffs), the also from Minnesota emo originators Husker Du (I recognise several of those guitar riffs) and Nirvana (I recognise several of those guitar riffs when played backwards, or is that forwards as Kurt was a noted backwards guitar riff player in his day). So far, so generic soft rock, but I actually like the Persian Leaps the same way I like the Vaccines, they just sound like they know what they're about and make the right noises without overdoing it or sounding contrived, and if like me you've always rated Husker Du you're going to like the Persian Leaps quite a lot, or at least acknowledge their way with an expansive definitely-more-than-three-of-them-in-the-studio wall of noise and their more than convincing pop punk chops.



Jack Name - 'Weird Moons'

Sometime Ty Segall sidekick Jack Name isn't someone I've ever heard of although I know a lot about Mr Segall, not all of which I've always been very keen on. Anyhow, I approach Jack Name with an open mind, prepared to give the expected overwrought debauchery a detached appraisal. Frank Zappa and the Tubes, and Devo are the first signposts I encounter and that'll just about do it. Zappaesque keyboards, some of the double entendres of Fee Waybill and associates and the fuzzy obscurity of Devo getting a bit excited. Even the Residents are about 'Weird Moons' somewhere, it's an album that works because Jack Name knows what stuff like this is supposed to sound like, a bit muddy, claustrophobic, the kind of music you'll never hear properly the first time and that's slightly too cool to ever appear on a Grand Theft Auto soundtrack.

Whether Jack Name is going to emulate his better known accomplice or remain a shadowy figure, lurking in the background of Ty Segall's reputation, isn't for me to say although it's likely, given that 'Weird Moons' is just a little too abstract to really get a lot of coverage and is only really going to appeal to those whose album collections already include the works of some or all of those already quoted influences, slightly too self conscious in its appropriation of those influences but it's done really really well and I'm liking it quite a lot for all of the above reasons. Probably the results of several years of studio experimentation, 'Weird Moons' is a sprawling, overproduced mess of an album and the sound of the people involved with it finally getting the result they wanted. You probably already know if you'd even want to listen to it.



Menace Beach – Ratworld

Do you know that you should always start a mix-tape with some fuzzy alt-rock? You should, there's a guide book you can't buy. It says so.

That isn't true. It's something I made up to say at the start of this review. It is possible to say all sorts of things that aren't true. It's called making things up. Or lies.

Does this mean that you can no longer trust what the author of this review is saying? Are you uncomfortable and a little scared? Please don't be. There is nothing to be scared of.

Do you want to be scared? Would you like to feel like things might fall apart? Would you prefer it if when you listened to a band you surmised that if you met them, they'd steal your wallet? Would you like Motorhead to move in next door and for your lawn to die?

I think very few people would, but the descriptions are exciting. I've been listening to a lot of Die Antwoord this weekend and they're genuinely exciting and I bet if you went for a beer with them, you'd end up losing your job. That sounds fantastic actually, but there's no need for everything to end in smashed cars, empty wallets and apologies. There's more than one way to be exciting. If there weren't everything would now be boring already. If there was only one way at a time to be boring, we'd all lose any claim we had to being intelligent or fun. So be sure to be intelligent and fun.

Beware, cynics! Menace Beach have one of those names where they've taken something that exists and changed on letter of its name to make their name. They are the “The...” bands and the emo-bands with paragraph length names. You may not be into listening to them purely for that.

Everything so far written here suggests that I am in no way engaged with this album, that I've seen all this before and want no further part of it. The truth is that I think Ratworld is terrific. I wanted to see what they sounded like and I wanted to hear a band I'd not yet checked out. This is an example of that paying off, and there are hundreds more examples of that paying off.

Ratworld's not especially original, but I'm aware enough to know that I've listened to a lot of stuff, so it's no surprise when there are times when this sounds a little 90's indie re tread, but it's always good. At least they were listening to the really good stuff, at least they knew to be influenced by the really good bands.

I'll continue to love the bands that attempt to break the cyclical nature of musical trends but I won't hate the things that are still locked into the cycle when they're as good as this. It was pleasing and a testament to Menace Beach that any cynicism evident above was quickly dissipated because of the quality. I'm glad that I'm still capable of that. It makes me want to keep looking for new music.

Christopher Carney


The Chemistry Experiment – Gongs Played By Voice

I'm going to make a joke I've made before.

I'm not disinterested in this album, nor am I uninterested. In the interests of transparency, I'll point out that I'm friends with this band's flautist. Can you spot the joke? It's to do with two words that some people think mean the same thing. I do not currently write jokes for a living.

I have mentioned elsewhere that maybe genres are a dead scene. Do you recall how broadly the term 'pop' has been applied? It is a term where this is particularly likely, as all it means is popular, so mostly you just get people adding “but not necessarily good” and feeling pleased with themselves. Well there are some things described as pop that are stone cold amazing. The Cure are pop. Scott Walker is pop. Scott Walker. So, I want to ask you some questions and then answer them for you because this is what passes for journalism.

Have you ever listened to albums that sound fantastic, that are popular and rightly so? They shimmer and people of all musical tastes can get something from them. It's why some albums sell millions of copies. Millions. Why they keep selling and generations will continue to find them. There's the possibility that hyperbole kicks in and people start buying albums they've been told are albums they need, but sometimes they've been done a favour, even if the album itself is not 100% great all the way through. Pet Sounds has Good Vibrations, God Only Knows, Wouldn't It Be Nice and Caroline, No on it. These alone are the argument you need to go buy it. You can still listen to all of Lateralus and Appetite for Destruction in one go; Paul's Boutique makes everyone feel cooler by being amazing; The Blue Album and Pinkerton are amazing (even if you start to think that Pinkerton might be a bit creepy). They're liked by so many because they hit on something that clicks. I've deliberately chosen albums like that because they were never the albums bought by people who don't buy albums, they were also that. Quite often, the albums worked as a whole. Some of them never even really had “singles”.

I get the impression, that this could, with the right wind behind it, be an album like that. Pop in the best sense and universal in an entirely complimentary way. An album you listen to all the way through. A really really good time. If anything I may think that this album would have killed in the era of Scott Walker et al. But some of those albums are genuinely timeless and timeless is pretty great thing to achieve.

Christopher Carney


Justin Townes Earle – Absent Fathers

If you want your kid to be writing Country songs, I reckon you up the chances when you put the name 'Townes' into the mix.

Good, because in-between bouts of frantic, thirsty, raucous searching for the next thing that absolutely changes how I think about music and makes me as excited as I have been in the past, I want to drink coffee and listen to songs like this.

Country music is such a broad term though. So is alt-country. Genres are a dead scene, I guess. This album? There's lap steel and the songs are about the blues and girls and day and night and the guitars sound how you'd expect and all this means that you'd want to keep listening if you want to remember or want to think about your particular sadness.

If nothing else, Country music is the music of pain. Xander from Buffy knew and so should you. It's there for when you want to hear that other people have heartbreak, that things end even when you definitely do not want them to and that staring at the sky or a clock on a wall is an option chosen by others. There are a lot of albums which are excellent examples of particular kinds of music. That's not the epoch shift I'm so often searching for, but that's nothing to hold against anything. The mistake so many many people seem to make is to think that something should always replace something else. It's not always the case. No one buys an album and immediately throws out another. I'm glad I've got this one, but for lots of reasons I'm still going to keep my Flying Burrito Brothers, Ryan Adams and Bright Eyes records. I'm going to keep this as well. There is no shame in joining the pile when there's no reason to burn it down. When the world changes, it just gets bigger.

I want to hear songs about when the one I love loses faith in me. I want to hear songs about jumping and it turning into flight too. There's time for both and I'm glad that there's this album for when it's the former.

Christopher Carney


Alasdair Roberts – ‘Alasdair Roberts’ (Drag City Records)

Here is a rare thing of wonder and exquisite beauty, a new, self-titled album from Alasdair Roberts, almost two years to the week since his last solo release, ‘A Wonder Working Stone’.

In that intervening period he has toured with the band of friends and fellow musicians who guested on that last album, played solo gigs back and forth across the globe, released ‘Hirta Songs’, a musical and poetic celebration of the St.Kilda Islands, in collaboration with fellow Scot, the poet Robin Robertson, devoted time to recording and touring with Lucy Farrell, Rachel Newton and Emily Portman in the Scottish / English folk quartet, The Furrow Collective; whose debut album, ‘At Our Next Meeting’ gathered numerous awards, accolades and nominations as one of the outstanding records of last year, as well as busying himself with more collaborations and guest appearances than one can realistically keep track of, including a memorable performance on Naomi Bedford’s most recent record, ‘A History of Insolence.’

In general, Alasdair Roberts’ work follows two parallel strands; interpretations of traditional folk songs and ballads from Scotland and further afield, alongside his own self-written, more personal material. This new collection, his eighth album, is a consummate example of the latter. Noticeably sparser than his last, perhaps more concise, still as melodic and lyrically rich, but with pared down additional instrumentation, and occasional guest vocal accompaniment, that nevertheless still superbly compliments his own adept guitar playing and singing.

Writing without access to sleeve notes or a press-release I can only be certain that it is the equally remarkable, The Crying Lion (featuring members of Trembling Bells and Muldoon’s Picnic) providing harmonies on Artless One. Regardless of the absence of information, Alasdair’s fine, finger style guitar, is supported throughout by a subtle range of woodwinds, whistles, accordion and occasional electric guitar notes, providing counterpoint to the cadences and Gaelic tonalities of his voice.

As one of the finest songwriters currently working within the ‘folk-tradition’, Alasdair Roberts has the knack, as demonstrated on songs such as ‘Honour Song’, ‘The Problem Of Freedom or ‘The Final Diviner’, of universalizing his subjective experience, and at the same time, lyrically assists us in “Remembering a time when it all was so fine and the world seemed to gleam with new meaning.”

Without exception this is a fine set of songs that grows with each listening; songs of substance, songs of evocation, of warp and weft, intricate interweavings of word and tune, intimate, melancholic, wise, cryptic, mythic, timeless, syncretic, and quietly, poetically unique. This album is already destined to be one of the finest releases of the year.

Bill Howe