albums - may 2016
If I had an album of the year in 2012, it was very probably the first release from Mrs Magician, one of the bands at the forefront of San Diego's flourishing Beach Goth scene and whose 'Strange Heaven' full length fell only just short of the accolade of Masterpiece. Many bands have taken the surf guitar and Brian Wilsonesque harmonies in unusual directions, but Mrs Magician 's first album should be required listening for anyone planning a visit to their nearest surf beach. Actually sounding like the Beach Boys if they had formed in 1978 instead of 1962, the combination of sharply played guitars, right amounts of reverb plus some caustic and cleverly phrased lyrics ensured that Mrs Magician would, someday, release a follow up album and today, nearly four years later, 'Bermuda' makes its appearance, the day after this review was written (21st June, a Saturday).
Of course, with a four year interval between first and second albums,
no one should expect a band to entirely reproduce their original sound
and 'Bermuda' is a harder edged proposition than its predecessor,
with a sound that takes its influence from the 80s rather than the
60s, such as 'Eyes All Over Town', which you could picture Billy Idol
giving a glossy MTV treatment to, the breezy histrionics of 'Don't
Tell Me What To Do', the grimy synth-fuelled and somewhere reminiscent
of REM 'Jessica Slaughter' and lastly 'The Part's Over' which while
it definitely recalls some of the high points of their previous release
is, I hope, not the actual last we'll hear of from Mrs Magician, one
of several bands whose name I mention when anyone askes what I'm listening
to, and whom very few people I ever had that conversation with seem
to know about, which isn't quite good enough for what is probably
the best band from San Diego I can ever remember hearing.
I very often get what are described as 'alt.country' albums to review, albums which tread the tightrope that connects country music and psychedelia, or country rock and blues, or country blues and the Tom Waits school of surrealism. Okay, that's more than one tightrope, and I also very often get albums that are just about songwriting, played in the style which is known as Americana. The Redhill Valleys are doing something a little different though. Canadians with one eye on the Nashville charts, their self titled debut five track EP is unashamedly and very deliberately written and performed Country and Western music, of the mainstream kind. So far as I can make out a trio, the Redhill Valleys make music that's actually nearer in spirit to Waylon Jennings and Willie Nelson than to Lyle Lovett and Lambchop, each of the five songs on the EP could slip neatly into the playlists of those stations that only play what you could describe as traditional country music, songs that are about beer and women and truck driving, all that stuff.
The Redhill Valleys did in fact form after several of their members
went to Nashville on a songwriting expedition, and that studio time
very definitely wasn't wasted. It isn't completely obvious if the
guitar that provides that atmospheric backdrop to first track 'Falling
For You' is a slide or an ordinary instrument, and if you appreciate
music such as this you probably won't care a large amount. 'Can't
Be Alone' has a harder, rockier edge to it while 'Ragged And Run Down'
and its jaunty guitar riff is the probable EP highlight. while 'Parry
Sound' is a smartly paced ballad and last track 'The Beast Outside
The Door' contains a barbed rejoinder beneath it's smoothly played
surface. Finely performed and produced, the Redhill Valleys are perhaps
the best Canadian country and western band you'll hear this summer.
You've heard Helen Love before. Ramones enthusiast, C86 completist, glam rock practitioner and all round bona fide superstar, Helen and her band seem to have been around for absolute yonks, plying their synth injected power pop with unfailing enthusiasm, a band that's the result of an unscripted collision between the Primitives and Van Halen. Really, you can only admire Cardiff's most ardent riot grrl and her cohort as they rerecord the collected works of the Shop Assistants, Dead Can Dance and Bram Tchaikovsky, add some prog rock synth riffs and gleefully play every song using exactly the same guitar chords. Anyhow, Helen actually got to visit New York and was so excited that she wrote 'The First Welsh Girl In New York City' even though she probably wasn't although she may have been the actual first to write a song about it and after listening to the song you'll probably want to visit Rockaway Beach too.
And it needs Helen Love to write 'Thank You Poly Styrene' in recognition
of the cultural importance of the late X Ray Spex frontwoman and the
tributes don't end there, with songs dedicated to Jonathan Richman's
backing band the Modern Lovers, 70s disco diva Sheila B Devotion and
a cover of a lesser known Prince song, 'The Belle Of Saint Mark',
each and every one of which are performed at around 200 bpm and with
the exact same three guitar chords. A genuine original and the sort
of performer that makes it all seem deceptively minimal, the indie
world would be a less colourful and lively one without Helen Love's
gleefully mischievous presence, beyond a doubt.
This, The Wave Pictures' unofficial sequel to Slayer's 1985 album “Hull Awaits”, is perhaps a little startling for long time fans of the band. Gone are the wry, intelligent turns of phrase, replaced with brutal tales of brutal deaths and eternities of suffering, gone are the gentle acoustic guitars now replaced by the scream of the pinch harmonic and the ominous lightning fact arpeggios. The charm previously present is gone too, replaced with a brutal, but handsome, gleefulness for all things heavy. There's even a bruised sort of romanticism if you look hard enough.
This is not true. Nor do I want it to be true really, though I would enjoy it if it happened. The things mentioned above have not been replaced.
A Season in Hull took a while to get along with, because at first I wasn't sure if it was taking itself seriously. I'm now pretty certain it is and consequently can listen to it without wondering if there's a joke not quite finding its mark. One of the reasons for this is that it seems to be arching one eyebrow while trying to play tender and vulnerable folk which initially makes for uncomfortable listening. Once that goes however, and it does go both over time and as the album goes on, it is a thoroughly enjoyable set of gentle, clever, acoustic alternative music. The longer you listen, the more the always noticeably good songs reward. I still, however, cannot hear track 4 without feeling thinking of Weezer's “Say It Ain't So”. Maybe it is a good use of an almost thrown away part of a wonderful song, but that chord, played with that hammer on is far too indelibly Weezer to put it anywhere else. Maybe it's not deliberate and they came across that independantly, I don't know. I would say that that is not the case.
Practically everyone knows something about Kraftwerk, but very few people seem willing to admit to knowing much at all about Tangerine Dream, and listening to this album from one of the Tang's founder members has me wondering why. Perhaps it's actually an age thing, with Tangerine Dream somehow belonging to the pre-punk early 70s while Kraftwerk really belong in the 1980s, or could it be that the many ambient musicians of the 1990s whose album collection included a copy of 1975's 'Rubycon' album either forgot or were too cool to actually namedrop any of their influences? Whatever the reason, Tangerine Dream are a band nowadays little spoken of, and as Peter Baumann was one of their founding members I felt obliged to provide some background info. After leaving Tangerine Dream in 1977 Baumann embarked on a solo career, eventually relocating to the US (San Francisco) and writing several books based around modern philosophy, after which you may perhaps think that he might view his 70s exploits as only one part of his life's journey, but 'Machines Of Desire' is his seventh album as a solo performer.
One thing that Tangerine Dream did a lot of was film soundtracks. The music on 'Machines Of Desire' also seems designed to accompany visuals and the tone of the synths and sequencers, at least throughout the album's opening tracks, is a slightly dark, even occasionally sombre one. Opening track 'The Blue Dream' clanks along like an 80s collaboration between Depeche Mode and metal bashers Test Department, while second track 'Searching In Vain' is equally sonorous and it's here that you can really begin to appreciate Baumann's actual compositional skills, with whirring percussion underpinning a series of sequenced arpeggios. With this amount of ability and experience at work, it won't surprise anyone if third track 'Valley Of The Gods' actually turns up in a documentary about ancient archaeological sites, and then 'Echoes In The Cave' breaks up the rhythmic structures, verging on one of those improvised pieces that you may have heard on R3, or given away on a CD with Wire magazine, or similar. Fifth track 'Ordinary Wonder' does sound a lot like vintage Tangerine Dream, 'Dancing In The Dark' isn't actually a cover of the Springsteen song - it is instead a cleverly paced composition based around an acoustic piano something like the one that Hauschka uses. Lastly, 'Dust To Dust' brings the Gregorian chanting to add a suitable gravitas to the albums ending.
As someone that has made music professionally since his late teenage
years and was a member of one of the most influential German electronic
bands of the 1970s, Peter Baumann's seventh album is very far from
either predictable or dull. Rather, it contains a layered and multi
- faceted instrumentation that could only really be made by a musician
of Baumann's stature, and it's the kind of album that requires repeated
listening to fully appreciate all of its aspects, and occasional kaleidoscopic