albums - july 2015
14 years after Insignificance, his last album with vocals, Jim O’Rourke casually releases Simple Songs and a very small faction of the indie community tries not to soil its collective underpants. If you’re a Sonic Youth fan or admire the cold, spacial charms of Wilco’s Yankee Hotel Foxtrot, you’re probably aware of O’Rourke, but perhaps not the fact that he’s released almost 50 albums of avant-garde, experimental music (sometimes only on cassette) since the late ‘80s. I wasn’t, and that’s just his solo output. If you don’t want to feel like an unproductive fool, stop reading now.
Apart from helping the Youth rediscover their mojo and Wilco uncover their melodies, multi-instrumentalist O’Rourke also founded the influential post-rock group Gastr Del Sol and put out a couple of LPs with Jeff Tweedy and Glenn Kotche under the name Loose Fur. Yet it’s his self-production work and run of solo albums on the Drag City label (of which Simple Songs is the latest) for which he is most highly regarded. Occupying the sweet spot between Brian Wilson’s melodic perfectionism and fellow Chicagoan Steve Albini’s “real instruments in a room” and anti-compression aesthetic, O’Rourke crafts multi-layered, multi-sectioned songs that sound as though every note has earned its place…meticulous but in a good way.
Bad Timing, the first of three albums to be named after a Nicolas Roeg film, was released in 1997, a purely instrumental affair. Eureka followed, a beautiful and pristine homage to chamber pop and Burt Bacharach that O’Rourke has subsequently dismissed as “the one record I can’t fucking stand”, although he performed the whole album at ATP in 2012. For ‘70s rock lovers, the best was saved until last with Insignificance where the electric guitars and pounding drums were out in force, and wry, misanthropic lyrics were the order of the day (sample: “Why do you hide behind somebody else / There's one too many in this room and I think it's you).
Simple Songs shows that, lyrically, old Jim hasn’t moved on much. 15 seconds into “Friends With Benefits” and an old friend is dismissed with the line “It’s been a long time…since you crossed my mind at all”. O’Rourke even has his back to us on the front sleeve, nonchalantly smoking a cigarette…he’s not trying to please anyone, let’s put it that way. Vocally, his voice is less nasal and has a more assured delivery – the O’Rourke of 2001 would never have attempted the upward swoop that appears two-thirds into “Hotel Blue”. The songs, meanwhile, are still multi-layered and multi-sectioned but more organic, as if to draw a dividing line between his “pop” output and everything else, with most centering around piano and then augmented with guitar, horns and strings.
There’s nothing here as captivating as “Women Of The World” or as catchy as “All Downhill From Here” (although “That Weekend” tries its best), and it’s probably not the best starting point for newcomers, but, as the triumphant coda to “All Your Love” demonstrates, O’Rourke is still a master musical arranger. I’ll wait 28 years for the next installment if I have to.
You sort of know what to expect with 'Universal Road'. Robin Guthrie's musical career long ago took him beyond the work of the Cocteau Twins, as a remixer and instrumentalist, film soundtracker and all round useful person to have in the studio if you were doing anything ambient. Formerly of early 90s Shoegaze originals Ride, who have recently reformed for a series of shows and a probable new album sometime next year, Mark Gardner's own personal muse appears to have returned entirely and 'Universal Road' is very much his (and by extension Ride's) album. Or so it seems, with only one of the tracks very much resembling the recognisable sound of the Cocteau's. This is, I'd freely admit, probably a lot to do with my own lack of knowledge of Robin Guthrie's more recent solo work, some of which I have heard although that is most usually music that has him in a production or remixing role. Anyone wanting to hear a new track that sounds a lot like the Cocteau's is directed to track 5 on 'Universal Road', the reminiscent of the 1994 single 'Bluebeard' song that is 'Yesterday's News'.
It really is a bit of a Mark Gardner album though, with the influence of Ride more obvious throughout the 10 tracks. There's a definite air of 90s nostalgia, of memories and regrets being aired in public, of one or two scores being settled. Opening track 'Universal Road' sets the tone of the album, and it's a deliberately mellow and even dour one. 'Keep it simple. keep it slow / this crazy scene will make your head explode' sings Gardner, over a backing that's nearly a country and western ballad. These are, it doesn't really need explaining, two very influential figures in the Indie world and, choosing their words and riffs carefully, 'Universal Road' is a catharsis of some kind, for both Gardner and Guthrie. With songs of the quality of 'Vapour Trail', Aikea-Guinea', 'Dreams Burn Down', 'Lorelei' and literally dozens of others in their combined back catalogues, there must have been an element of nervousness in the studio, given the expectations that a combination of these talents would inevitably raise amongst anyone that has ever heard a Ride or Cocteau's album and there is a sense of caution both Gardner and Guthrie's parts, at least musically. The opening track won't have you leaping around the kitchen in raptures of disbelief at the levels of genius on display, and while Gardner's lyrics have a note of Britpop cynicism throughout, the overall mood is a mellow and reflective one. 'Keep on the sunny side / those years can knock at your door' sings Gardner on 'Cry For Survival' sounding a bit blasé about the entire thing, and certainly lacking the urgency of anything on Ride's 'Carnival Of Light' album, which (my opinion) is perhaps their best work.
I ended up listening to 'Carnival Of Light' and some individual Cocteau's
tracks while writing this review. I'll go back to 'Universal Road'
again, but with Guthrie seeming purposefully somnolent and Gardner
sounding just on the wrong side of embittered, listening to it began
to seem like eavesdropping on some stranger's conversation, and one
that's maybe best left to those participating in it.
Water has several important functions in the world of Malpas. With track titles like 'Sea Decide', Us Afloat', 'Under Her Sails' and 'Here Comes The Raint' there's a definite theme emerging alongside the album's aqueous title. And 'Under Her Sails' is the first track so when the sound of Malpas reveals itself as a lightly played alt.folk one, with electronics and strings and Malpas sound, while it begins with a minimal guitar and woodblock theme, gets resolutely larger as the track progresses, with blasts of synth threatening to overwhelm the song itself. Something like Turin Brakes remixed by Aphex Twin is my own first impression, and Malpas also bring reminders of others. There's a definite early 80s electro pomp boosting their acoustic guitars and tambourines, and the synths take on the gigantic proportions of the (pre chart success) Human League and John Foxx's 'The Garden' and just when you think they've gone completely Thomas Dolby, the folk guitars and shakers take the songs over, as on 'Sea Decide', and Malpas are definitely a band of two halves, as the saying goes.
'Rain River Sea' is, without the Korgs and sequencers, a credible acoustic based album, and the keyboards aren't exactly intrusive but you may start to question exactly where all of this is going, the choppy, incisive percussion sounding somewhere at odds with the gleaming synth runs and sometimes corrosive backlines. Fifth track 'Promise' brings it together, yes Malpas are a bit like Turin Brakes and that synth verges on blowing a thunderous raspberry right across what's their most accomplished song so far. The banjo intro to 'Us Afloat' and keening vocal, and Malpas, I realised around this point, are a band that revel in contrasts, the jittery banjo playing answered with a series of smoothly pitched bass notes. The aquatic metaphor isn't applied to every track on the album, and 'Spiders' is a song about, yes, actually spiders. Very big and threatening looking ones from the sound of it, and at under two minutes it's the shortest track on the album. 'Charlemagne' isn't about a mediaeval French emperor, rather it's a song about a broken relationship and I can't quite get a handle on where the lyric is taking its story. Lyric sheet needed to really appreciate what Malpas are getting at by around this stage of the proceedings, although 'Here Comes The Rain' is a bit more obvious in its intentions, a jug band blues with a convincing blend of the folk and electronic sides of Malpas' sound, right up to the bit at the end that has a synth making a sound that really does sound like rainfall.
'June Exit Strategy' is an epic, lyrical, sonorous and very accomplished
finale to 'Rain River Sea', and it's also a hint of the album that
Malpas are wanting to make, one that is more of an elegiac dreampop
sound and less of the alt.folk that much of Malpas' music is based
upon. It's a verging on spectacular ending to the album although also
a bit at odds with much of what has preceded it, although while the
Malpas technique of mixing folk and electronics doesn't always make
for an entirely successful experiment, there's a lot to appreciate
in the instrumentation and Malpas's own enthusiasm for their music
It's a while since I had an album from what is probably Australia's foremost post rock/ ambient label, the Perth based near neighbours of Tame Impala that are the Hidden Shoal label, always a source of very interesting and innovative music (Gilded, My Majestic Star, City Of Satellites) and while they've been a bit quiet recently, Erik Nilsson is reactivating things with his first release, eight tracks of the kind of electronica/ambient crossover thing that is almost a Hidden Shoal trademark, and 'Hearing Things' is an accomplished first album from a Swedish musician about whom I've little info, aside from one or two short paragraphs.
First track 'Ex Nihilo' opens with the sound of crickets chirping in the Stockholm dusk before going off into a series of guitar explorations, a bit of a soporific album opener but second track 'Altitude', with its deceptively wayward intro and sound effects, takes things past the experimental format as the generated tones are joined by a purposeful sounding drum pattern and guitar run and this, I think, is what we want to hear, the post rock / ambient blueprint given an added impetus and as third track 'On And Onward' more than hints at Nilsson's other job as a club music producer, it seems that there's a bit of a balancing act going on between the differing strands that make up his music. Certainly 'On And Onward' could have been titled 'Altitude Pt 2' without difficulty as that guitar abd bass drum kick in again. 'Moksha Can Wait' has a hint of Tame Impala about it and it's a different sounding track to much of what precedes it, with Nilsson sounding more adventurous in his choice of sound and rhythms. Gilded's 2013 album 'Terrane' is a real highlight of the HSR back catalogue and Nilsson has perhaps taken one or two tips, even samples, from that album. 'Mood Swings' is a more pensive keyboard piece, and the theme carries over into 'Distance, Wind And Heat', the piano more focused here and with the guitar and synths trailing the piano motif into what sounds like the taped sound of a railway carriage or elevator and as the track lurches towards its guitar and brass conclusion it brings an oddly paced grandeur to what began as a randomised series of notes. 'In One-Fifth Of A Second' breaks up the keyboard parts sequentially and is the most electronic composition on the album, jarring drum notes behind a jagged synth pattern, and it's an accomplished performance that Nilsson could extend into a much longer piece. Lastly, 'Drawing/Dreaming' is a recognisably ambient sound that's a reflective rejoinder to the frantic electronics that have gone before it.
Over the 40 or so minutes of 'Hearing Things' Erik Nilsson covers
a lot of ground musically, ranging from the experimental to more conventional
styles and then towards more challenging combinations of playing and
instrumentation. It is, as Hidden Shoal albums often are, a bit bewildering
at times as Nilsson refuses to allow himself to be constrained in
one particular format and it's an album densely packed with ideas
and a continuing innovation in how Nilsson presents his music to the
listener, and that only adds to the overall effect of 'Hearing Things',
which is a resonant and impressive one.
Sometimes reviewing a record is a totally pointless job. That's not my excuse for having had this record for about 5 months mind. Oh no. Sometimes a record is so full of ideas and non-ideas at the same time, like free jazz kicking the shit out of chiptune, followed by doom metal shagging a noise artist. Turntableism, Scotch Egg style glitch madness, Melt Banana but longer, the lazy attempts creep onwards. No piece has an identifiable start or end, and David Novak might question what he is listening to. Let's sum it all up. This record is "quintesentially" Japanese in its non-restriction, borrowing African free jazz, dub, Western noise art and avant garde and topping it all off with a large helping of "what the fuck is going on here then?". In other words, an essential addition to your collection. You now know what to do.
NYC and London-based singer-songwriter/musician Louise Aubrie is set to release her 3rd indie rock/pop album, Late 44, mid-July. Louise mixes gritty rock sonics and pop song structures with ease, creating direct, but tuneful numbers that recall the style of bands like Elastica, The Pretenders, and The Go-Gos. For Late 44 she’s surrounded herself with the talented collaborators Tom Edwards (guitars), Boz Boorer (additional guitars), Joe Holweger (bass), David Ruffy (drums, percussion), and James Knight (piano, keyboards). The album was produced at legendary Abbey Road Studios and mixed and produced by James Knight at Knight Time Studios.
The result is a polished, catchy, and accessible batch of mostly upbeat indie rock/pop tunes that follow a ‘verse, chorus, verse’ structure. While the songs may lack stylistic and lyrical complexity on the whole, they are generally engaging and anchored by London-born Louise’s pleasantly spunky vocal tone. The most (punk-)rockin’ track off the album, ‘Too Late’, would be a perfect addition to a summer-themed mix-tape to be blasted at full volume. The driving ‘Tearjerker’ comes across like a 60s garage-pop number with its backing harmonizing vocals and distorted guitar buzz.
‘Masterstroke’ features a thumping drum beat and angular guitar lines that intertwine with Louise’s warbling, at times cooing, vocal tone as she sing-talks in a swaying tempo that “I watched you stumble / Waiting to go / Feeling troubled”, but that “I’ll always be here / loving you…” ‘Next To Nothing’ plies a rhythmic groove, romping drumbeat, and lightly strummed guitar riffs, while Louise sing-talks clearly “Here I stand / living a world apart”, admitting ruefully that “a lifetime slipping by / I know next to nothing.” Her lyrics are many a time observant and trenchant, revealing the universal truths of our daily lives.
The more subdued and delicate ‘Candlelight’ displays Louise in a
softer light, as she sings in a more hushed, yearning tone “When I
fall / will you carry me home?” amid contemplative guitar plucks,
an unobtrusive bass line, and low-key drums and cymbals simmer. A
deep, insistent drumbeat and thumbed bass line run through ‘Don’t
Touch Me’ while sharper guitar riffs carve out pointed edges. Louise
sings in a trembling, emotionally uncertain tone, alternating between
‘keep away’ and ‘come hither’ signals that “Now it’s late into the
night / Please don’t touch me / Let me walk away / just for tonight.”
This is looking a bit gloomy, depressing even. The loss of happiness, perhaps occurring when whoever's on that swing on the album sleeve falls off and grazes their knee. I'm already getting morbid despondency and growly JD basslines before I've even listened to the album. Wrong, thankfully. Sorority Noise are an Emo band that have dropped the larky humours we came to associate with those bands and gone right back to the angsty and poetic lyricism confessional style that (my opinion) originated with Husker Du before some of Sorority Noises' parents were born. They're also, this is what makes 'Joy Departed' as good an album as it is, really finely tuned musicians and know how to write a memorable lyric, starting with first track 'Blissth' and its 'l want to be the water in your lungs / that lets you know you're drowning' theme that either has you reaching for the basin or thoughtfully impressed by its grasp of imagery. I'm going with the latter approach as, for all its overreaching verbosity 'Joy Departed' is just too well put together to find itself puking in an alleyway at 2am.
It's also really well performed and second track 'Corrigan' is the
work of a band that has something coherent to say for itself and not
merely rejigging its influences. They've got a thing about lungs though,
parts of the human body that don't often figure greatly in band lyrics
and Sorority Noise bring the breathing apparatus again (and the drowning
metaphor) on third track 'Fluorescent Black', and I'm searching for
the lyric insert to keep up with the wordage of Sorority Noise as,
if you keep listening, you'll inevitably want to be able to appreciate
what they're singing about. The music veers between thrashy skate
punk and, more often, slowly played and intricate guitar parts and
I need to say that Sorority Noise are a bit better than average at
this, making 'Joy Departed' less of a misery fest and more of a harder
edged alt.folk album, and one that, as I listened, began to resemble
the sound of a band I remember from over a decade ago, Longwave, whose
'The Strangest Things' album was produced by the awesome Dave (MGMT)
Friedmann and whom I even got to meet when they toured here in 2003.
This probably isn't a coincidence, if you know that Longwave album
you'll notice the resemblance on tracks like 'Nosley' and 'Your Soft
Blood', perhaps Steve Schlitz is involved with Sorority Noise somewhere.
'Joy Departed' is, as it develops, an album that requires more than
one listen to really get what Sorority Noise are about. It isn't an
easily classifiable record, one with a folk rock backbone that has
them sounding like a metal version of Mercury Rev. Right noise for
this rainy summer afternoon anyhow.
Now, I'm as tolerant as the next Joe, but I would question Ezra Furman's choice of outfit for the sleeve of his newest album, if only because of what a similar decision did to Kevin Rowland's career in the late 90s. His 'My Beauty' album supposedly only sold about 500 copies and 'Perpetual Motion People' will probably sell more copies than that in our more tolerant society of today. Ezra Furman probably thinks that it will and, as he hasn't the career baggage of having been a 1980s chart topper, he'll probably at least break even on his 13 track difficult third album.
Thing is, Ezra Furman could get away without the black minidress and lipstick as 'Perpetual Motion People' is an above average work by a few people's standards. Not too many singers could give the lyric 'I've got a bus pass / to get me around' the kind of venom that Ezra Furman gives it on opening track 'Restless Year', an authentic sounding tale of urban angst and alienation if you've ever heard one. If (wait for it) Jarvis Cocker were from the suburbs of Chicago ... Ezra Furman, archly ironic commentator on the mores of the Windy City's public transport system and full blown 21st century punk rocker. He even sings 'we're all gonna die' on third track 'Hark! To The Music' which at 1 minute and 25 seconds is the shortest track on the album. There's a recurring theme of 1950s doo wop in the music, such as second track 'Lousy Connection' with its 'shoo doop doop' backing vocal and saxophone carrying the tune under Furman's lyrical gymnastics, rhyming 'Indian headdress' with 'letter to Congress', perhaps complaining about local transport issues around greater Illinois in a way that should deserve a reply from the council.
More doo wop introduces 'Haunted Head', where Ezra makes his breakfast
in a probably futile bid to 'get his mind turned off' after another
late night driving around looking for a 24 hour garage. 'I'm learning
what it means to really pray' he sings and we're getting a bit concerned
by this point, just what is it that Ezra really wants to say to us,
away from the archly turned musicality and often very funny lyrics?
'Hour Of Deepest Need' is slightly more serious, as Ezra writes a
whisky soaked letter to a lost love, like a teenage Tom Waits raiding
his parents drinks cabinet. It goes on. 'I'm sick of this record already'
is the opening line of 'Ordinary Life' which Ezra is, take it from
someone that has heard the track, very sick of. In a slightly different
or indeed parallel musical universe, 'Perpetual Motion People' is
an above average pop punk record except that Ezra has sacked the rest
of the band, started dressing up a bit like that girl from 'Slap Her,
She's French' and probably left Chicago in a hurry to pursue his literary
ambitions. Just applaud, his next album is very likely going to turn
up in the 'best of the 10s' listings in four or so years from now.
If there's a next album.
Something that occurred to me when listening to the music of Bhutanese guitarist Tashi Dorji is that, when a musician or musicians are working in a very experimental format, as the progenitor of 'Blue Twelve' is, that a lot of what makes that music listenable even if the musicians are going off at as surreal tangents as their instruments will allow is the actual sound of the instruments. If you aren't very keen on the free form improvisational styles that Dorji presents to us then you'll probably last around a minute and a half as he takes his instrument out of its case, falls over it once or twice and then starts tuning it up. Which is what the intro of 'Blue Twelve' could sound like to the untutored ear and risking allegations of elitism, I kept listening, partly as the sounds Dorji is drawing from his instrument take on a percussive tone that, if you hear it, could also keep you listening. Very much the stuff of R3s 'Late Junction', and number twelve in a series of releases from the Blue Tapes label, 'Blue Twelve' is the sort of music that requires a certain amount of stamina to appreciate and is often either very successful within its own terms or really, really bad although the musicians that perform it tend to know what they're doing.
Another reason to keep listening to Tashi Dorji is, he's from Bhutan,
and when did any of us hear the traditional Bhutanese folk music that
Dorji continually hints he could break into at any moment? There seems
to be a percussionist playing alongside him and, about seven minutes
into side A I really began to think that, as the string scraping and
fretboard tapping started to take on a structure and the second part
of side A has a rhythmic quality which when Dorji breaks into what
is definitely (to my mind) a blues based riff that's timed around
a probably traditional Bhutanese drum of some sort, then it's just
one of those moments when a musician comes up with something that
you've probably not quite heard before. And the other thing about
Dorji's music is his way of timing the resonance of his instrument,
pulling feedback out of an electro acoustic guitar that you can actually
hear. The second part of 'Blue Twelve' is more focused around playing
the instrument instead of finding out what noises it can produce and,
utilising reverb and purposefully adding and subtracting rhythm, Dorji's
sound is a constantly evolving one and as one repeated passage gives
way to another, Tashi Dorji and his music won't find a largely appreciative
audience but that isn't really the idea behind an album such as 'Blue