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albums - january 2016


Tom Robinson – Only The Now

If you don't know about Tom Robinson's feats as a person, you should check him out. Admirable guy ahead of their time. You could kindly say that the world may be catching up to some of his views.

This has nothing to do with whether or not he jams, which is unfair. There are awful people with their awfulness discarded because they jam hard. Equal injustice is still injustice, yo. Anyone wondering if this is a review based on the goodness? Not here.

Some music, regardless of how much technology finds its way into it sounds like a certain time and a certain place and this sounds like the enclaves of the Left in the 80's. Look, Billy Braggs on the album too! Sometimes a Swami Baracus turns up to rap and that just makes the above all the more true. Peter Gabriel's studio is the most futuristic place on earth isn't it? That doesn't matter if nothing else changes. I imagine people felt a little side-eye about this kind of thing because it all seemed a little self-congratulatory.

It wasn't of course, it isn't now. It's people who like and get along and understand each other doing things together. It's an understanding of the pain and fear of others, in a way Johnny Cash had, that is expressed for the comfort of those others.

So, you can overlook awful deeds for great music and good deeds can sometimes overshadow music both good and bad. Does that suggest the strength and power of good deeds and music, leaving awful deeds at least in third place as far as things people seek out go? Well, who would let a specious argument get in the way of a kind hope? Me. More people need to think and hope and act more and be less awful to each other. More people need to stop thinking their good deeds will carry their music onwards too.

The description of something being of its time and location is not necessarily a problem either. Bands are lauded for it or decried when they depart from it and again all you really want is good music. It at its worst sounds a little like he's playing at a benefit for the rainforests. There's nothing wrong with writing music that embraces where you are in life too. Old means got some years, while old means you've given up. Be one and try not to do the other if you possibly can. The only criticism about acting to save something comes when you're acting at saving something in order to save your fame. Save yourself all you want, mind. Just try to be really good.

Which, un-muddied by the goodness of it and untainted by anything other than humanity, is what this album is. It's really good. Write your songs. Go to where people need help. Love one another. Just in case you were wondering, yes, that is John Grant on Cry Out (and the guest list generally is pretty great and good Lord, it's Gandalf... and he's awful). But write good songs. Write a full album of them. Then write more. Keep going. Come back.

Christopher Carney

Great Lakes - 'Wild Vision'

Twenty years since Ben Crum and his then bandmates formed the earliest incarnation of Great Lakes, their fifth album is inevitably somewhere on the mellow side. Certainly, a quote of another review of their music that I found on the band's Wiki page which attests to their ability to 'spew out a fuzz laced garage assault' seems like a description of another band entirely, and also a reminder that 2002 was quite a long time ago. Fourteen years on from that memorably apocalyptic live appearance and Ben Crum and his present accompanists bring us an album that has more in common with the alt.folk ramblings of Lambchop, the less intricate moments of REM and the laid back meanderings of Father John Misty, than it does with the Math Rock sound that Great Lakes and a lot of other southern US bands were making a decade ago. 'Wild Vision' is a measured, musicianly collection of songs from a band that relocated to New York and were able to keep making music, the personal vision of Ben Crum undimmed by the passing of the years.

The guitar part that opens first track 'Swim The River' instantly places the album in the category, and its duetted vocal between Cum and vocalist Suzanne Neinaber also recalls the Go-Betweens in its unhurried cadences. 'Bird Flying' takes a similar path and while it's a pleasant enough sound Great Lakes are making, those guitars do seem to need the piano and organ backing to give the song that extra element of depth. Third track 'Kin To The Mountain' is a more interesting actual song, and its repeated chorus carries the air of a eulogy of sorts : 'I am kin to the mountain/ I am kin to the sea / my name is lightning / wild vision I see'. You could just picture the phones and lighters waving above the heads of the audience at a Great Lakes gig as they sing along with what is perhaps the actual highlight of the album. 'Wild Again' has some of the swirling romanticism of REM, at least in its music, and Crum's vocal seems overreached by the swaying drama taking place behind him, and I don't think it entirely unfair to comment that his vocal isn't always a good match with the music. Not that Ben Crum can't sing, just that tracks like 'I Stay, You Go' and 'Beauties Of The Way' need a stronger vocal performance than the slightly too mannered if tuneful ones that they receive. Then with the bluesy drawl of 'Blood On My Tooth' with its slide guitars and woodblock percussion it does seem that Crum's voice finds the added confidence the song needs, and album closer 'Shot At And Missed' could just be a bit louder, a song that's perhaps a throwback to Great Lake's amp shredding, guitar wrecking past. 'Wild Vision' is a quality album of what we used to call Americana and has several moments of realised inspiration, and perhaps all it really needs is for its listeners to turn up the volume button and eq whenever they think it appropriate.


Noveller - Glacial Glow / No Dreams

Reissues from 2011 and 2013 respectively, for those of us that overlooked the improvised and ethereal effects-pedal-overdriven guitar instrumentals of Sarah Lipstate at their first appearance, and while hers is a music that may not have usually found a large audience, Noveller has every right to ask us to listen once more to the albums that preceded her most recent release, 'Fantastic Planet'. Based in New York and very much a part of the arthouse circuit, it isn't difficult to appreciate how music such as this can find itself the preserve of the more eclectic parts of the music world, but for anyone that wants to hear ambient and experimental guitar music, Noveller's albums are accessible and melodic compositions. 2011's 'Glacial Glow' is very much a guitar album, repetitive sequences bolstered with varying amounts of echo and delay while Sarah Lipstate draws as much as she can from the sequences and individual notes. The tracks on 'No Dreams', recorded two years later, seem to take a more electronica influenced direction, although both albums can segue into one another with little difficulty, the minimalism of the former more developed soundscaping of the latter. Really it's all about Sarah Lipstate and her guitar (a Fender Jaguar) though, and particularly on the 'No Dreams' album, it seems as if her purpose is to remind us that electric guitars are also electronic instruments, and while that may seem an obvious statement, Noveller's music is of the sort that can make the obvious suddenly seem to contain unexpected profundities, in its varied shades of reverberation and gently soporific tonal explorations. Listening to either or both of these albums may just lead you to want to buy a guitar, a half dozen foot pedals, and improvise along with Noveller and her deceptively simplistic ambient reveries.


The Wainwright Sisters – Songs In The Dark

The name guarantees them an audience, but it's clear Martha Wainwright and her half-sister Lucy Wainwright-Roche share a deeper connection on their album Songs In The Dark. Both daughters of singer-songwriter Loudon Wainwright III, Martha's mother the Canadian folk singer Kate McGarrigle was part of the acclaimed sister-songwriting duo Anna & Kate McGarrigle in the 70s, while Lucy's is Suzzy Roche of American sibling trio The Roches. The close harmonies between Martha and Lucy on this collection suggest a musical relationship already in their DNA. Built on the premise that their mothers sang these songs to them when they were children, there's a broad range among these 'lullabies', from classic American old-time tunes, folk standards, and, as you'd expect, a few of their own family heirlooms. The Wainwright Sisters' Songs In The Darker also shows off a bleaker side, however, one familiar to folk music enthusiasts.

Arrangements in simple stripped-back form, just a blend of guitar and vocals with the odd extra harmony or keyboard thrown in for effect, means few distractions to the lovely interlocking and instinctual voices, Martha's slightly emotive and earthy, with Lucy's ringing out clear as a bell and set more in the folk idiom. Together they create unusual outpourings and occasionally a sense of unease. Andean folk tune 'El Condor Pasa' rendered innocuously by Simon and Garfunkel is transformed into a lonesome cowgirl ballad, smoky imaginings over the campfire. Jimmie Rodgers' 'Prairie Lullaby' which opens the album should be to all intents and purposes a restful ballad, as the title suggests, but describes shadows creeping and a sandman guiding you through a trail of dreams. Tears are barely hidden on Bob Wills' dustbowl ballad 'Dusty Skies', and there's more despair on the Arlo Guthrie classic 'Hobo's Lullaby', with the singer (in this case Martha takes the lead) wishing a better life in heaven for the vagrant. Unsettling elements are never far away on these gently cradling songs, sweet dreams hardly made of this!

Traditional folk standards sound like bread and meat to the duo, and naturally the 'dark' themes keep emerging as sure as night follows day. Murder ballad 'Long Lankin' is sung unaccompanied with extra harmonies which give the song a sting in its tail. Lucy's voice rings out on 'Do You Love An Apple?', the story of the long-suffering wife of the ne'er-do-well (“Still I love him I cannot deny him I will be with him wherever he goes”), and the Pete Seeger-rendered classic 'Go Tell Aunt Rhody' centres around a corpse in the wood shed.

Interestingly, the family 'visits' offer another dark strand to the album. Loudon Wainwright III's 'Lullaby' paints a semi-humorous picture of parental frustration, the father relating a mantra of “shut up and go to bed” to his kids, while on Richard Thompson's 'End Of The Rainbow' (from Richard & Linda's 1974 classic I Want To See The Bright Lights Tonight) the father's gloomy outlook on childhood is rendered all the more poignant by Lucy's delicate vocal: “Now you seem so rosy in the cradle, but I'll be your friend and tell you what's in store/There's nothing at the end of the rainbow, there's nothing to grow up for anymore” (it's a sentiment echoed in the duo's version of Rosalie Sorrels' 'Baby Rocking Medley', the singer (this time Martha) mimicking the fed-up mother on 'Hostile Baby Rocking Song' in which babies are given away for half a pound of tea and a 12-month guarantee!. Parental guidance advised.).

Some brighter moments buck the overall trend … well, kind of! The Kate McGarrigle song 'Lullaby For A Doll' is autobiographical, the mother reflecting how similar she is to her own daughter, building dolls' houses, while Lucy's vocal on the Terre Roche composition 'Runs In The Family' (from the trio's eponymous debut in 1971) lifts the song out of its world-weariness with some beautiful harmonies. Loudon Wainwright III's heartfelt 'Screaming Issue' is another tearjerker, describing a father's on-off love for his newborn, but an interesting reminder of how similar the voices of father and daughter are. Martha again takes the lead on another standout Townes Van Zandt's 'Our Mother The Mountain', regaling us of the haunting tales of witchcraft, hardly kidstuff but the voices make a nice eerie 'fit' together.

So 'enjoy' these songs without expecting an easy listen or any sort of relief from life's ills. Martha Wainwright and Lucy Wainwright-Roche remain true to their folk roots, share their heritage and render the music with quality and distinction. A discovery of sisterly kinship was also a great opportunity to explore the bleaker imaginings of childhood on The Wainwright Sisters' Songs In The Dark.

Mathew Haddrill

The Chap – The Show Must Go

The art school boys and girls are back, their latest “political” album no doubt inspired by the disengagement many currently feel with political processes. Maybe not a million miles from Britain's current stance on Europe either (at one time The Chap viewed themselves as pan-European (although based in London, members are from Britain, France, Germany and Greece!)). The band's latest album is post-everything, rock, politics, irony … but particularly, post-European, it seems! Front and centre is the poppy (and foppy!) 'Guitar Messiah', decrying rock music's messiah complex (“All we need is the dingaling and the electric sin of desire/We want to give up everything and follow the guitar messiah”). Similarly anti-pop sentiment can be found on 'Jammer' where the vocals are reduced to whining utterances ('Jammer' in German means “whining or complaining”, apparently). Elsewhere, there are references to Europe's single market and Greece's exclusion from it. Faded dreams then on The Show Must Go, as The Chap ratchet up energy levels and crack on through Europe a land of despair ...

For me, with all their quirks, witty observations and slightly skewed outlook on life, The Chap have a tendency to over-complicate. That said, some of their songs have a habit of lodging themselves in the cranium. “Proper songs about girls and clubbing” on 2008's Mega Breakfast was full of odd banter served up with killer pop hooks ('Fun And Interesting', 'Proper Rock'). Herding their sound into electronica for 2010's Well Done Europe and piling on the existential angst for “irony-free” We Are Nobody in 2012 (actually, a strange retort to their retrospective We Are The Best sandwiched in between) leaves the general impression of a capable and ambitious pop band. The Show Must Go is another departure sonically, this time lunging headlong into experimentalism while tackling the thorny issue of self-irony: should a pop band exist at all in a world going to hell in a handbasket?

'Neutrals' like me will grasp at musical straws among the montage of deconstructed and cut-up rock 'fragments' on show here. Opener 'What Are People For?' is a piece of warped post-blues (a sort of 'Is-it-rock-or-isn't-it?' type of declaration) in which the band play along to their own pre-recorded sounds. The post-rock of Wire and Joy Division is never far away either. So, 'Post Doom Doom' is all post-punk and shouty and urges Greece to stay in the Eurozone throughout the general din, while 'Social Bob' transports you back to 1979's Unknown Pleasures in its driving sound (particularly the Hookie bass which is liberally sprinkled throughout this album). A girl called Erika appears on the “Marxist suicide song” 'He'd Rather Die, He's Getting Ready', creating desire and razor-sharp analysis, the catchy bass interrupted with some weird Robert Fripp-like feedback noises before you get the chance to settle into it. Is it the same precocious-sounding student who wants to be “market-ready” on 'Student Experience', set against a meld of spirally drums, rumbling bass and angular guitar riffs? 'Joy In Depression' grinds away with industrial rhythms and slashed guitar, avant “Sister Ray” punk set to the mantra “Joy and depression, great great depression”. Sign of the times, as the band make their intentions clear.

'Charitable Action' ghosts in with the sort of fidgety rock The Chap are generally known for, but only the briefest of nostalgia trips at just over a minute (as is the curious-sounding experimental 'Society'). And 'Epic Tolerance' juxtaposes doom metal with doom warfare, quite novel, and 'Hey Youth' “helicopters” the drums and unleashes the Graham Coxon songbook of punk rock guitar doused by its rather preachy message.

Clever, but in all this post-stuff will any of it actually stick? I get the overall concept, but The Chap still make it difficult to like their songs. I wonder if it's all one big metaphor for how they see the European Union? The Show Must Go is not without its merits, it's just not much fun! Shake things up, but when the chips fall and you're left with a junkyard of post-rock musical memorabilia things unsurprisingly fail to ignite. I'm a puritan: bring back all those songs about girls and clubbing while Europe fragments. Otherwise pop will eat itself.

Matthew Haddrill

Cardiacs – The Seaside (Original Edition)

The music of cult band Cardiacs has confounded many. Labels like 'prog', 'punk' (even 'Prunk', particularly hated!), 'folk', 'new wave' etc. don't really cut it. Their leader and founding member Tim Smith preferred to sum it all up as 'pop', pure and simple. Whatever the vision of this under-appreciated and recently ill-fated songwriter (Smith suffered a heart attack and series of strokes in 2008 which have left him hospitalized), his band's third album The Seaside originally released in 1984 cemented the approach which would earn the famous quote that "one Cardiacs song contains more ideas than most other musicians' entire careers”.

Cardiacs never quite broke through, despite all the promise. Their singularity and the indefinable qualities might actually have been their undoing. A loyal following, but never quite mainstream, a hit single, even touring with prog-friendly contemporaries like Marillion. Alas, it wasn't meant to be, and, in the light of the band's enforced hiatus they remain something of an enigma. The Seaside may shed some light on all the accolades they have received, an album that started the journey you could say. Take William D. Drake's keyboard intro to 'Jibber And Twitch', twinkling with the sounds of the fairground before the band's signature tune jerks into life like some kind of wild marionette. The song title alone is a kind of onomatopoeia, but the twists and turns of its carnival-like atmosphere combined with Smith's nonsense rhyme (“Sit me down and make me stay/To say the first things on my mind/My Soldier Will Hay/Silver bells and cockle shells/And Pretty maids all in a row") make kaleidoscopic, even 'psychedelic':

Possibly the seaside of English towns with their kiss-me-quick hats, naughty postcards, sticks of rock and piers lined with freak shows and amusement arcades, but certainly a quaint kind of weird. Cardiacs' third album was recorded with the first stable line-up of the band: Smith (who sang on most of the songs and played guitars) joined by Drake, Smith's brother Jim on bass, his wife Sarah, Saxophone, Tim Quy, percussion, and Dominic Luckman on drums. Place the ensuing cacophony somewhere between a manic 70s Peter Gabriel and an early Barry Andrews-shaped XTC in its clockwork incessance, shadowy saxophone mirroring angular guitar and sprinklings of Zappa-esque xylophone … even a bit of ska thrown in for good measure! With rhythms and key changes peculiar to the ear, things working that shouldn't, the potential trainwreck is transformed into a rollercoaster on The Seaside.

The fun and hi jinx won't respite over the next 40 or so minutes, as Smith and co. cram as much as they can into their 3-minute sonic epiphanies. Now re-issued in its original form, the 4 songs unaccountably lopped off 1995 vinyl and CD version of the album are restored rightfully to the full complement of 13. 'Gena Lolla Brigida' is a real blast, Smith carrying his mania like a re-born Howard Devoto with instrumentation delving even further back into British prog of the 70s (he even graces the song with a guitar break which could be out of Steve Hackett/Genesis's top drawer). The band have clearly moved up a gear from the album's rather tepid predecessor Toy World in 1981, a mark of their maturity but also the extra time Smith had spent in the studio to get the sound he wanted.

It's hard to write about the Cardiacs though. Visually, they were a bit off the chart, deliberately unnerving and unwitting, sometimes dressing 'up' in pantomime costume, or 'down' like tramps. Appearances can be deceptive, but you always had the feeling they weren't from around these parts … it's worth viewing their Seaside Treats video which accompanies the album, although for a full flavour of the live experience watch the 1992 film Maresnest.

Playing on the idea of carnival freakery, 'Hello Mr Sparrow' is constant stops and starts, its odd honking sounds curiously like Madness's 1982 hit 'I Go Driving In My Car', but Smith's raging and 'wired' vocal set starkly against renaissance music provided by Drake and a lovely treacly saxophone set to Luckman's clockwork drumming. 'It's A Lovely Day' is a crazed punkette which would burn out like a firecracker if the band didn't keep appending things (curiously it ends in waltz-time!). 'A Wooden Fish On Wheels' combines rock and ska again, but further themes evolve throughout. The Mark Cawthra-sung 'Dinner Time' is post-punk or the prog of Wire, while 'Ice A Spot And A Dot On The Dog' is more guitar-based new wave. Sarah Smith's saxophone indelibly stamps her mark on the former, while her husband's guitar and voice conjure up images of early 'Killing An Arab' Cure on the latter.

'Nurses Whispering Verses' takes a lyric from the Henry Cow's 'In The Sickbay', irresistibly arched and high warbling guitar added to Drake's keyboard 'colouring', similar to the McGeoch-Adamson pairing on Magazine's 'Shot By Both Sides' to go alongside Smith's Estuary English patter. The curious oblivion-type ending segues into 'Is This The Life', the most conventional track on the album (and the band's one and only real hit) but sounding oddly out of place here with the guitarist cranking things up like Neil Young. 'A Little Man And A House' is more medieval chamber pop gripped pastoral sounds and a waltz time signature, setting the album back on track. I don't remember anybody comparing Smith with the so-called 'pocket symphonies' of Brian Wilson, but The Seaside leaves you with a similar feeling.

The overture at the beginning of 'Hope Day' may be a premonition of what was to come, upscale like on 1996's Sing To God, only the Genesis-styled orchestration broken up by quirky Zappa-esque improvisation and a long fade at the end of its 6 minutes which shifts the mood entirely. 'R.E.S' is free-formed around a Steve Nieve/Attactions-like organ sound, but the instrumental breaks mid-song (saxophone, keyboard, guitar) all take the song off in meadowy prog pastures once more, and there's still no let-up on the incendiary closing track 'To Go Off And Things' as the band hurry off their ideas right up until the end.

A frenetic pace and too perhaps many ideas for one album, but somehow Cardiacs manage to pull it off. Sadly, time may have finally caught up with the band, which is a terrible shame. Many paid tribute to Tim Smith on the 2-cd compilation Leader Of The Starry Skies in 2010. It looks as if we'll have to be content with Smith's musical legacy (including side projects like folk-infused The Sea Nymphs (with Sarah Smith and Drake)) which spans the period from 1977 up to 2008. The Seaside stands shoulder-to-shoulder with the best of Cardiacs' studio releases, like 1989's On Land And In The Sea and the already-mentioned Sing To God. A number of archive materials (including rare photos and published materials of the band) have also been made available with the deluxe version of this re-issue. You can find the latest news of the band on their Facebook page.

Matthew Haddrill

Daniel Grinberg – Short Stories

Israeli Daniel Grinberg released an accomplished, heartfelt collection of songs on his album Short Stories this past fall on Green Tone Music, which was produced by Maor Scwartzberg. Grinberg’s Short Stories project is a collaboration between him and vocalists Alex Moshe, Aveva Dese, and Yoav Arbel. The 12 songs touch the mind and the emotions with astute lyrics about the human condition and please the ears with an alt-folk/indie pop-rock style. Grinberg and his collaborators link the permanence and vagaries of the land with human history, memory, and similarity, resonating with a deep understanding and feeling for the unity of varied cultures around the world. Although much divides us as humans, we also have so much more in common and we should focus on what binds us together instead of what separates us.

While not much other information is available about the project besides who contributed to it, the bittersweetly reminiscing songs speak for themselves, delving into gentle acoustic strum, steady drum pacing, and a touch of synth notes on tracks like ’80 Years’ and ‘White Fields’, upbeat pop-rock with picked guitar, organ notes, and kinetic tempos on ‘Rivers’ and ‘Hey You’, and the reverberating synths, cymbal shimmer, and Western guitar lines of ‘The Forest’.

‘The Forest’ stirs up a delicate storm of restless guitar chime and cymbal hits as Arbel intones in a hazily dispassionate voice “Thousands of years / of war and peace / are in the dunes /are in between…” and later, “…in a moment of peace / you become a part of it.” Dese’s powerful vocals run through the uplifting, alt-country-inflected “House Of Dreams” amid a sharp drum beat and twangs of guitar as she emotes about “…your dreams and hopes / You see where you belong / Just know that that’s yourself…” and proclaims “follow your dreams.”

Moshe’s light, sweet vocal tone graces several songs on Short Stories. She brings a youthful innocence and vitality to these numbers, whether they are in the pop-rock style or are acoustic guitar-based. On the slowly blooming and moving “White Fields” she sings with a wistful lilt of natural events like “…the sound of waves / …a river’s stream / …color of trees changing in the fall…”, tying these processes to personal experiences like “a goodbye kiss”, “the first day of school”, and “hopes in life”. “Beyond” kicks it up a notch with its dynamic drum beat, bass line, and electric guitar riffs, but Moshe keeps the tone buoyant as she takes on the persona of a benevolent entity, singing that she will “…bring the rain to the desert / I will bring hope to all.” The collaborative artists of Short Stories do just that, bringing a joyful optimism and comforting warmth to each of Daniel Grinberg’s songs.

Jen Dan