albums - October 2016
For what seems like a very long time now, Kristin Hersh has been making intermittent appearances and releases, continuing to build upon a back catalogue that began with the first Throwing Muses LP in 1986, through that band's early 90s demise and offshoots Belly and 50 Foot Wave, adding to her series of solo records every so often. A musician whose vocal can shift from sweetness to a snarl in the space of two syllables, whose songs are often minimal guitar based ballads, whose earlier work saw her collaborating with REM's Michael Stipe, and whose profile has always remained a resolutely artistically credible one, Kristin Hersh's newest album contains no less than 24 tracks of entirely new material, plus a hardback book that combines song lyrics with some existential ramblings on everyday life. If this seems like something that will mostly appeal to Hersh's hardcore fanbase and those several hundred Throwing Muses completists then, that is perhaps so. You won't exactly need to be a committed Kristin Hersh aficionado to appreciate 'Wyatt ...' in its entirety, although that might help.
Over 24 songs and with some not inconsiderable talents at work, there are about 12 songs that would have made for a remarkable album release for any musician now in the 50s. With the amount of songs actually included the overall effect is inevitably diluted, particularly when it seems that parts of the album were intended for a separate project - tracks 6 through to 11 seem like they were recorded for an EP and then added to the album sessions - but mentioning that seems more critical than intended. Certainly, it isn't difficult to choose five separate songs each of which reveals just what it is that makes Kristin Hersh such a compelling figure in the Indie world of 2016. Based around Hersh's guitar and vocal, with only occasional backing from some electronics and percussion, third track 'In Stitches' seems like the actual intro to the complete album, picked 12 string guitar and voice that turns into a quite different song at the two minute mark, something nearer to a demo for a 50 Foot Wave song than the mellow acoustics that the song begins with, and the same could be said for 'Diving Bell', a song whose developed instrumentation is far from as minimal as some of the other tracks.
'Guadalupe' takes a more simplistic route, relying more on a multitracked
vocal than on instruments other than Hersh's guitar although there
are all sorts of background noises to provide added depth. 'Some Dumb
Runaway' sounds like a full band production, the only track (so far
as I can tell) to feature drums, and the guitars and keyboards spin
off at opposing tangents around them : it's perhaps the most completely
realised performance, on an album where less is very often more musically.
And 'Shaky Blue Can' is just Hersh and her guitar, playing exactly
the kind of song that a lot of us know her for, and doing it with
the mixture of grit and fragility that's very much her trademark.
At 24 tracks plus book, 'Wyatt At The Coyote Palace' is a hefty proposition,
and I'm unsure if releasing all these tracks together is the best
thing she could have done, but Kristin Hersh's talent and personality
make light of the actual amount of material on display. Whether you
need to be a committed Kristin Hersh fan to really appreciate the
album is another matter.
A compilation of their 1988 album and assorted singles and b-sides, 14 Iced Bears are almost completely forgotten today, and while they never did enjoy a massive profile as Indie rock stars, their music does deserve a reassessment, partly as it's possible to hear them as precursors of some more widely known bands of the late 80s and early 90s. Being famous probably wasn't really the idea amongst the C86 bands, whom the 14 Iced Bears belong amongst, and the name is the real clue, a lot like the Railway Children, Field Mice and other bands of that era which made efforts to ensure that they only got the kind of audience that really wanted to hear their music. Listen to their first album now though, and be left in no doubt that, far from the twee fopperies that bands such as this were associated with, 14 Iced Bears were an energetic and innovative actual rock band, making music that in some ways prefigured harder edged early 90s bands such as Ride, Chapterhouse and Kula Shaker. With a garage punk ethos in their sound and a penchant for recording backwards guitar and drumming, it's difficult to avoid the idea that, given a name change and some slightly glossier production, things could have turned out a bit differently for the (actually a four piece) 14 Iced Bears, although that could be said about quite a few late 80s bands.
As it is, tracks such as 'Moths' with its keening guitar riffs, and
'Florence' with its pounding rhythms and studio trickery reveal why
the Bears found themselves as Peel favourites and the collected single
and EP tracks only include two of the actual album songs, plus a Peel
session track, the vividly churning 'Miles Away'. The production is
sometimes basic by todays standards, and the lyrics aren't always
audible, but the 14 Iced Bears deserve to be remembered as one of
the more inspired bands of three decades previously, and whose influence
spread further than their own presence actually did.
If there was one musician from the previous decade whom you would have easily suspected was, if not actually a robot then a sequence of algorhythms functioning autonomously in the ether of the world just prior to the beginnings of the digitisation of the music scene, or just a synth that someone had accidentally left switched on overnight. That album sleeve picture of him wearing a spacesuit didn't help : Moby was the capo di tutti capo of electronica practitioners, whether he was or wasn't actually human. Regardless of your actually liking his music or not, Moby's easy on the ear, mainstream friendly,sometimes mildly depressing instrumentals were inescapable around the millennium, just the way you'd expect a computer simulated Barry Manilow to sound in the 21st century.
Anyhow, we now have a new Moby album which, as all of my own systems
appear to be functioning normally I can attempt to review, and 'These
Systems ...' is very far removed from the music that a lot of people
usually associate Moby with. 'Hey! Hey!' is a zippy, speedy, 80s new
wavey sounding track with a bit of a shouty vocal, Moby channelling
his appreciation of both Devo and The Prodigy, along with all that
nosebleed stuff hidden in his 12" collection, and next track
'Break, Doubt' is even more intense, with the percussion starting
to get a bit industrial. 'Erupt & Matter' has a few Depeche Mode
touches about it, and Moby continues his grimly determined reappraisal
of the back catalogues of Front 242, Laibach and other bands whose
music can be found in the Industrial section of your nearest vinyl
store. Lastly, 'And It Hurts' is actual electronic punk rock, all
1 minute and 52 seconds of it. Anyone expecting an album of the ambient
instrumentals that Moby made his name with is in for something of
a mild shock with 'These Systems Are Failing', an album that's about
as loud, in yer face and downright obnoxious as Moby decided he could
actually record and release. Compare and contrast with his 2002 chart
Their fifth album, and I can tell you very little about Chelan, aside from that they are based around the duo of Jennifer Grady and Justin Hosford, and that they specialise in doomy, occasionally gloomy bass heavy electronica, songs tinged with equal portions of despair and glamour, sort of like a very obscure US version of Chvrches or maybe nearer one of the bands they've found themselves compared to, such as School Of Seven Bells and Memoryhouse, neither of whom I know an awful lot about although if their music is as listenable as Chelan's is, then perhaps I should give them a listen sometime. As mentioned, 'Vultures' is the fifth Chelan album and they've obviously honed their minimalistic approach to its limits. Utilising what sounds like little more than a keyboard, drum pad and vocal, Chelan's music contains much in the way of depth and resonance.
First track 'Beams' starts off sounding a bit clunky but Chelan soon
bring added perspective to a basic intro, as the bass drops out of
the track and some delicate sounding sequenced arpeggios take over
for just long enough to actually hear them, Highly effective and undoubtedly
the work of some seasoned studio perfectionists, my first impressions
of 'Vultures' were quickly reconfigured in a way that I like to hear.
The title track builds on a repeated three note riff right up to a
glossy synthpop conclusion, in line with Chelan's stated aim to go
for a 'wall of sound' production style which they more or less achieve
over the nine tracks although 'Vultures'. is far from workmanlike,
in either its composition or its realisation. The glossy synth anthems
are played with precision and every so often, with a practised flourish
of electronic artistry.
From Montreal, The Cosmic Range appear to be a sort of supergroup of local jazz and electronic musicians, some of whom may have more interesting music backgrounds than they're prepared to let on. Certainly, I found it a bit unusual that while I could find about 20 websites where vinyl copies of 'New Latitudes' are available, actual band info seems non-existent aside from the press release. So, will 'New Latitudes' make an exciting addition to your already burgeoning vinyl collection?
'Morning Ontario' is an ambient, ethereal instrumental that meanders along with little actual effect, music that's practically guaranteed to send you back under the quilt for an added hour or two. The second, and title track is a bit livelier though, right from the retro sounding percussion and funked up keyboards, all it lacks is a freaky guitar solo in among the keyboards and squalling horns, and actually I think there is one although the mix is a bit muddy and you might need to press the volume button a bit to really hear everything that The Cosmic Range are getting up to. 'Love II' takes a similarly carnivalesque approach although with a rhythm that's nearer reggae than the bouncy funk of its predecessor. It's really well done so far, but an air of compromise hangs over the track, like it took several weeks to get everyone into the studio. Then, 'Barbara' is a squiggly two minutes of synth noise that isn't really needed and 'Kowboy' continues the 70s funk theme until lastly 'Look What Our Love Has Done' is a repetitive piano melody around which some wispy percussion and other sounds provide an atmospheric backdrop, and it's probably the actual highlight of the album.
The Cosmic Latitudes are a talented bunch, no question, and 'New
Latitudes' isn't an album that anyone should dismiss entirely out
of hand, containing as it does some quite intense, and developed music
played by a group of committed sounding musicians and that definitely
has its moments. Also, its geometric sleeve design will look quite
good sitting next to your record player.
If you investigate the history of south London postpunk mavericks the Cardiacs, you'll find mention of this side project, which spawned at least two complete albums, beginning with a 500 copy cassette release in 1984, 1995's self titled album, and an album released as the Sea Nymph's nom de plume Mr And Mrs Smith And Mrs Drake. There's sufficient sleight of hand around all of this to lead me to speculate as to whether the songs on 'On The Dry Land' originate in the early 90s or more recently although things being what they are I'd suspect no end of studio trickery around the fifteen songs that make up the album, some of which possibly date back slightly more than three decades.
If the Cardiacs were old school artpunk maestros, the idea behind
The Sea Nymphs seems to have been to write more melodic, less frenetic
songs, and with a theme attached. So opening track 'After' begins
with the sound of a stormy day at the seaside, and multitracked vocals
to suggest something like a chorus of mermaids, or a shoal of contented
mackerel, or something. 'Eating A Heart Out' is a cheerful sort of
number, a jaunty piano tune with Sara Smith's vocal providing a high
pitched counterpoint and by the time we get to 'Big River' (not the
Johnny Cash song) which has some of the Cardiac's skill with timing
in its guitar and keyboard simplicity, it's apparent that the Sea
Nymphs are more than just noisy eccentrics, and there are some really
quite well written songs on 'On The Dry Land', such as 'Bye Bye Spirit'
and its wistful melody, and 'Sea Snake Beware', which is more than
just a great song title. I rarely if ever use the phrase 'forgotten
masterpiece', but 'On The Dry Land' is exactly that, whenever it was