Thursday, December 1, 2005

Records In Review: The Go-Betweens--Oceans Apart

Update (May 8/06): Grant McLennan died unexpectedly over the weekend, aged 48. Very, very, very sad.

I've put off writing about this one, 'cos I was hoping to hear a bit more of their stuff as a basis for comparison. The Go-Betweens were one of those bands that flew clean under the Robman's radar, odd considering that one of the records from their original run is widely bruited as an all-time classic. What can I say; I'm sure it was the booze, or the pills, or the depression.

Oceans Apart is the latest (2005) from the veteran Aussie songwriting team of Grant McLennan and Robert Forster. They were recording throughout the '80s, broke up, then, after several respective solo records, got back together at the turn of the millennium to considerable critical kudos. Judging by this record, I can understand why. They're very easy to listen to, with very good lyrics, minimal distractions, and an effortless and unbusy melodic way about them. Their sound is (electrified) folky and strummy, but with strong overtones of '80s radio pop; the resultant mix is a very pleasing blend of laxity and directness. McLennan is the balladeer; Forster's lyrics are more observational and his voice reminds me of The Stranglers' Hugh Cornwell: deep and plummy, without a lot of sustained notes [and just a hint of strawberry on the nose--ed.].

The songs are fairly straight-ahead, but there's considerable shifts in mood on the record, which the band executes with a minimum of muss, fuss and drama, and with the help of some nice arrangements, which include the occasional keyboard and drum machine. Forster's lyrics give his material some additional bite. My favourite of his is "Darlinghurst Nights," one of the album's more spread-out tracks, which is a portentous but wry reminiscence (fictional or no, I dunno) about the old Oz days that contains a reference to Died Pretty's Frank Brunetti. Obviously not an album geared to mid-Western U.S. radio! As with a lot of the songs here, the rhythm and lead guitars interact nicely, and there's a messy brass outtro done as only Australian bands can. The rest of his songs are pretty diverse: the terse travelogue "Here Comes A City" is nervy and rhythmically insistent, like a train travelling to nowhere, whereas the reggae-inflected "Lavender" and countryish "Born To A Family" are much sunnier. McLennan's stuff is less immediately appealing, perhaps because of his more deliberate vocal delivery, but it grows on you. "No Reason To Cry" is maybe a little too M.O.R./Crowded House for my taste, but the rest is very good and again, quite varied, with my favourite being "Boundary Rider," which is so plaintive it hurts. "Finding You" sounds obvious at first, but what it lacks in originality it makes up for with sincerity.

My one beef about this album is the production; great guitar sounds and impressive atmospheres (like on the silky-smooth "The Statue"), but crunchy and congested in places, to the extent that I once thought that my amp was shorting out (again). Otherwise, good stuff and very recommendable. To add to the album's appeal, it comes with a 6-song live disc from 2004--supposedly part of a planned full-length live album--of very high quality, which includes top-flight back catalogue like "The Wrong Road" and "Bye Bye Pride."

Tuesday, November 1, 2005

Film Review: The Life Aquatic With Steve Zissou

Believe me, watching a film's a big event in our household, due to our current schedule and the fact that The Wife tends to fall asleep during the first third, no matter what time we start it (all right, all right, stop laughing). It's funny: I prefer listening to music in isolation, but these days I think of films as social events and don't like watching alone.

Friday's film was Wes Anderson's The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou, which came pre-recommended since I quite liked Rushmore and also co-writer Noah Baumbach's first couple of films. Baumbach fell on hard times at the turn of the millennium, but fortunately has found his feet again, unlike certain other indie auteurs.

Bill Murray is very good as the deadpan title character, a borderline has-been Jacques Cousteau-type adventurer who's half action hero, half show-biz fake. The meat of the plot revolves around Zissou, at a turning point in his career and needing to prove something not least of all to himself, meeting up with Ned (Owen Wilson), who is presumed to be his son via one of many decades-old trysts. The two of them attempt to size each other up as they, along with crew ("Team Zissou") go off on a last-kick-at-the can adventure that ends up getting sidetracked more than once. It's an off-kilter, campy, slightly forlorn comedy that's visually smart and very fast-paced; scenes and dialogue are often carried across cuts with little or no pause. The first few minutes of the film show off name cast like a Robert Altman film, with rapid-fire appearances by Jeff Goldblum, Willem Dafoe, Michael Gambon, Anjelica Houston and Noah Taylor.

The comparison to Rushmore is apt, because both it and TLAwSZ airdrop the viewer into a strange, hyper-realized world in medias res. I found that weird in the former, but managed to go with the flow because of its charm and the unfolding of plot; in the latter, it's much harder to find the way in. Jason Schwartzman's preternaturally clever Adrian Mole-type character was exceptional but understandable, whereas Zissou's motives are extremely hard to--forgive me--fathom, and you're never sure that he's not a complete phony and self-promoter (which may be the point, I suppose). The film is incredibly funny most of the time, but the plot turns mushy once the crew of the Belafonte set sail on their presumably last mission. The last hour is basically a caper comedy with complications developing between Murray, Wilson and lurve interest Cate Blanchett.

The Life Aquatic is recommendable for the visual style and the laughs alone (as well as the Portuguese versions of Bowie songs). It's also fairly consistent in its aesthetic, in that it's weird 'cos it's weird, rather than for weirdness' sake. I just wish that there was a little more steak here to go along with the sizzle.

Records In Review: Anthony Phillips--Field Day

A piece of advice to all y'all: don't order UK imports from Slothazon.comingsoonwepromise unless you don't have a choice. They've left me hanging well beyond the 2-3 week shipping estimate more than once.

Field Day is a long-time-coming 2-cd collection of acoustic guitar and stringed instrument pieces by Phillips, erstwhile member of Genesis from the dawny mists of time, when dinosaurs ruled the earth. His music has been described as a sort of tails to his former band's heads, a possible route for Gabriel and the boys if they hadn't decided to go all theatrical and generally rock out. He plays stuff very much in the English tradition--and when I say that, I mean from Dowland onward--with spread-out, overripe chords, incredible gentleness and only rare intersections with contemporary trends and practices. His actual living is keyboard-based library music (i.e., multi-purpose material for use by television companies, etc.) and commissions, but he's maintained a fairly regular output of albums over the past thirty years as well. A lot of his music makes excellent pm listening, a quality that I certainly don't sneer at anymore.

For those interested, I recommend checking out this book, which was part of the prog critical re-evaluation of the mid-to-late '90s and which contains a substantial section on Phillips as one of the genre's career rebels (the others being Fripp, Hammill and Oldfield).

I was a little wary of this one, as over the years I've tended to prefer AP's mixed-instrument recordings. His twelve-string album from the early '80s, appropriately titled Private Parts & Pieces V: Twelve, I found unfocused and meandering. Not to worry, though, as this one's definitely a keeper, and with enough variety to keep most devotees (and some others) happy. There's over a dozen different fretted creatures used, from 6-, 10- and 12-strings to cittern and bazouki, all evoking their own particular mood. Each instrument gets more-or-less its own chunk of the album. As far as the material goes, there are multi-part suites, longer works, one-offs, and brief impressions or bits of atmosphere. Many of the pieces within each instrumental sub-grouping are at least associated, if not deliberately continuous. Phillips' playing is in top form, and the recorded sound is excellent.

I like disc one better, as there are more things that grab your attention. The centrepiece is probably the "Concerto de Alvarez," an eight-minute 12-string piece with a lot of momentum that combines the guitarist's customary Spanglish motifs with some post-Genesis grandeur. The eight-part "Parlour Suite," on the other hand, is an incredibly restrained chamber piece (and on an interesting-sounding instrument--can't find a link to the maker) that contains nary a hint of rockism at all. Of the shorter pieces, there's another 12-string, "White Spider," which combines atmospherics and structure well; the title track, a shortie that has a lovely counterpointed melody; and "Bel Ami," named for the type of cittern used, which'll have you tapping your toes, or whatever it is you do to signify enjoyment.

Disc two is 3 parts wistful, 2 sombre and 1 light-hearted and as such, it's a little tougher going. My favourite tracks are some of the heavier-sounding ones, like the slower-than-slow-paced 10-string opener "Weeping Willow" and "Fallen City," a bazouki piece that starts like Chopin's Raindrop thingy and then really gets 'er going, like an angry Brit with, um, a bazouki. "Mudlark" is the album's sole mandolin piece and it's bright and shiny, alternating between 3- and 4-time. Some of the 6- and 12-string material on the second half is maybe too metrical and controlled for its own good, a complaint that I sometimes read about Phillips' guitar work.

There's a hell of a lot of music to go through here, well over two hours' worth, but the running order is well chosen, and in any case it's nice to cross-reference tracks and compare the sounds of the various instruments...even if you're not a geetar geek. Strongly recommended, if you can find it.

Simple Minds: An Appreciation, Part The Third

(continued--parts 1 & 2)

Back in '82, and what a year it was, there wasn't much that was bigger among my circle than New Gold Dream (81-82-83-84). Still largely considered to be Simple Minds' ne plus ultra, their magnificent octopus, etc., ad nauseum, this album is so iconic according to my memory banks that it's hard for me to analyze it. Looking at it now, I can see mighty strengths and a few weaknesses. On the plus side for a young teenager on the make, it was the first SM record that your girlfriend was likely to enjoy. Some of this is due to Jim Kerr's shift in lyrical emphasis from Euro-alienation to a brand of Catholic earnestness, and some to the giving over of the production reins to journeyman Peter Walsh, who infused NGD with a sound that is warm, lustrous and crystal clear, if a little vacuum-sealed for mid '00s ears. Sounds aren't echoing around in outer space, like on the last couple of albums; everything's very present, intimate and approachable, Kerr's vocals especially. Charlie Burchill's guitars are more upfront in the mix and generally brighter, and Mick MacNeil uses, as usual, a huge array of synth colours with a particular emphasis on mallet-percussion sounds. My big two cents: you'd be hard-pressed to find a finer display of the pop keyboardist's craft than right here.

Is this their best album? Hard to say, as long as no one's paying me for this. It's certainly very consistent, but I'm not sure it has the same appeal to me now that it once did. It's a more sensual aesthetic on display here, for sure, quite a change from the band's previously objective approach...and I liked the objective approach. The loss of forceful drummer Brian McGee has had a considerable effect on the back-line dynamic, especially as the drums here are provided by a barely-distinguishable consortium of players who take the word "restraint" very seriously. The bass groove, while still there in "Big Sleep" and the absomofolutely great "Colours Fly And Catherine Wheel," one of the group's finest songs, is becoming less of the foundation and/or not so dug-in when it's there, as in the occasionally hard-to-take "Glittering Prize." Song structure is much more conventional--only the searing title track has Sons And Fascination's free-floating tendencies--but the arrangements are beautiful and there's lots of sectional contrasts and colours.

Side one is a peach, with the aforementioned "Colours Fly," the bouncy explosion of sound that is "Promised You A Miracle," and crooner's delight "Someone Somewhere In Summertime," which sidles up to the listener like nobody's business. The instrumental "Somebody Up There Likes You," a mutant version of Sons' "Theme For Great Cities," is a sonic delight. Side two isn't quite as good. "Glittering Prize" sounds great but hasn't aged all that well, and I've always thought "Hunter And The Hunted" was the album's weak link, a sort of excessively dramatic version of "Someone Somewhere." "New Gold Dream" is mighty refreshing in its (relatively) visceral simplicity, and closer "King Is White And In The Crowd" has a nice sprawl and tension to it, kind of like Empires And Dance's "This Fear Of Gods" with some human feeling. All in all, an extremely easy album to like, and one that's for the most part deserving of its laurels, but one that might have had the shine worn off it for me by overexposure.

Yet yet more to follow...

Simple Minds: An Appreciation, Part The Second

(continued--part 1)

1980's Empires And Dance brings things into sharper focus. Austere, drawn-out, aesthetically strict and keyboard-heavy, this is by no means the easiest SM album to listen to, but it's very rewarding nonetheless. The keyboards cover more square footage here than on Real To Real, while the guitar is really pushed into the background; in fact, on "Today I Died Again" and "Celebrate" the layman [you mean people who aren't know-it-alls like you--ed.] would be hard-pressed to identify it at all. Lyrics on songs like "Capital City" and "This Fear Of Gods" are stripped down to bare necessities, as is song structure; "Gods" in particular is very static and almost hypnotic.

But, as with all SM albums, there's more variety than at first meets the ear, and the material here is very strong throughout. Side one is mostly weighty-sounding stuff best listened to loud, with "Celebrate" the best of the bunch and one of their best tunes full stop. "Today I Died Again" shows that the group knows the difference between menace and melodrama. I don't foresee ever tiring of "I Travel," such a neat amalgam of controlled energy, insect-like guitar explosions and semi-comical almost-Latin motifs. Side two is more offbeat and quite claustrophobic in places, particularly the incessant and production-heavy "Thirty Frames A Second" and "Twist/Run/Repulsion." "Constantinople Line" is better than I remember it; it's sparseness, sense of instrumental anticipation and unwillingness to resolve its own tension are a real fascination. It's not all doom and gloom, though, as again there's a touch of humour in the loping, descending keyboard melody on "Captial City," a nice contrast to the pounding drums and general weight of the piece. "Room," like "Scar" from Real To Real rounds things off as an effective palate cleanser. All told, not the most suitable album for the neophyte listener, but definitely the most cohesive of the first three.

Contrary to what The Nation's Music Station told me the other night, the Use Your Illusion albums were not the first simultaneously released albums by a rock band. 1981 saw the release of the twins Sons and Fascination and Sister Feelings Call (the UK releases were evenly weighted, but in Canada Sons was tarted up with all the hits and Sister released as a five-song addendum ep; I'll split the difference and treat it as one record).

Opinion's somewhat divided on this one, but I've always found its vibe to be very appealing and an antidote to some of its deficiencies. It's their easiest album thus far to listen to; whether you view that as compliment or criticism is up to you. The sound's gentler and not so dense: it's mostly the four instrumentalists playing without the previous two albums' reliance on sound effects, processing and layering. The group opted for ex-Gong hippie-freak Steve Hillage as producer, with mixed results for the album: delightfully trippy and spaced-out in places, but also rather muddy and lacking in sonic detail and contrast in others (e.g., "20th Century Promised Land"). The instrumental balance is fairly similar to Empires And Dance, although with the guitar slightly more prominent in the mix and the keyboard sounds tending toward the sustained. Jim Kerr's sounding more confident: less tics and mannerisms, more singing.

None can escape the curse of the double-album, of course, but the material's 75-80% very good. The singles are all striking, if not uniformly brilliant. "Love Song," deservedly the band's first minor hit up in these parts, is the best of the three and like the rest, founded upon a killer Derek Forbes bass groove. "Sweat In Bullet" isn't quite the sum of its excellent parts, as it forces everything too rigidly into 4- and 8-bar chunks. "The American" kicks a modicum of buttock and has a sing-along chorus (sing-along word, at least), for those who enjoy such things. Of the rest, only "70 Cities" is a rival in terms of instant attention-grabbingness, and, like most good Minds songs of the period, is a great combo of front-line intricacy and monolithic rhythm section. Kerr really brings it here, and you gotta love that Angry Cow setting on the keyboard, too!

The remainder of the album(s) is mostly about flow, and I've always thought that several of the trippy songs, like "This Earth That You Walk Upon," the great instrumental "Theme For Great Cities" and the lovely "Seeing Out The Angel" would make a wonderful soundtrack for a space-exploration film--an impression unchanged with time. "In Trance As Mission" and "Boys From Brazil" are both repetitive structures in the manner of much of Empires And Dance, but it's a different kind of energy; tensions are released, rather than prolonged. "Wonderful In Young Life," "Careful In Career," and "League Of Nations" are the bean sprouts in this particular sonic spring roll. Sons/Sister is best viewed as a transitional work, but it's a very enjoyable one, if you're capable of going with the flow. As for what the band was transitioning to...

Yet more to follow...

Simple Minds: An Appreciation, Part The First

Simple Minds released a new album a few months ago that's seen them getting their best press in a long while. Should I care?

Jim Kerr and the boys were the absolute bees' knees for me when I was 15 or 16 (do the math). Teenage musical experiences, like their sexual counterparts, are as you know particularly vivid, and occasionally damaging. It's inevitable. Still, I have to fight the urge to throw punches whenever I hear boomers waffle on about El Beatellos and W-stock and all of those World-Changing Events, but every generation's the same really, if perhaps not so earnest in their retrospective utopian reveries. I loved Simple Minds and then I lost them, and, as my tastes moved away from their particular brand of musical austerity, I haven't really analyzed their ouevre in any substantial adult way since. Here goes nothing...

Simple Minds' 8 (or 7, depending on how you look at it) album releases between '79 and '85--you remember back in the day when bands didn't put out an album every three years?--showed remarkable development, to say the least. They started out as the scrag-end of a punk band with a Roxy Music fetish, went all experimental-like, then a bit spacey, and eventually turned out stadium rockers. It's hard to describe their sound simply, but minimalist would be the most appropriate word to use, although they never wore any aesthetic as a straight-jacket...except when they occasionally did.

Listening to the earlier albums now, I'm rediscovering how fascinating the band dynamic is. Repetitive bass and drum patterns are usually the foundation of the songs, but it's the interaction between guitarist Charlie Burchill and keyboardist Mick MacNeil that really makes things interesting. I don't know if there's ever been a rock guitarist less burdened by ego than Burchill, and he's a guy who's certainly never gotten the kudos he's due for his very non-traditional interpretation of the role of the instrument. MacNeil's keyboards provide the bulk of the sound and melody, but neither player is dominant and the sounds are so interwoven that it's often hard to pick out who played what, particularly on Empires And Dance and Sons And Fascination/Sister Feelings Call. Crooner Jim Kerr makes his bread-and-butter on that space between the minor and major third, with a tremulous voice that obviously brings Brian Ferry to mind, although paired with mostly non-narrative lyrics that provide a degree of abstraction.

If I'd have heard Life In A Day upon its release, I don't think I would have been waiting with bated breath for album number two. Listening to it now, I realize it hasn't aged all that badly, actually, it's just that it doesn't sound much like the Simple Minds that people know (exhibit A: "Chelsea Girl"). It's got some spirit and charm, if a fair amount of duff songwriting and a youthful desire to fill up every available square inch of sonic space. It's the most obviously Roxy Music-inspired, with a fair whack of piano, but you can hear bits of early Ultravox as well as fellow countrymen The Skids, especially in the guitar playing in songs like "Sad Affair." The playing is tight and John Leckie's production is appropriately unadorned. The best songs are the title track, "Someone" and "Wasteland". And okay, I like "Chelsea Girl" too, if only for its kitsch value. 'Nuff said about that.

The great leap forward came with Real To Real Cacophony, also produced by Leckie, which was released just over six months after the debut. The album outer- and inner-sleeve layout screams out: minimalist, experimental, studio, modern. It's amazing how well this, The Minds' most unsettling and diverse album has held up over the years, and right now it's probably the one I'm most likely to pull out for a listen. There's still some high-tension new-wavery about the band here, noticeable on more conventional fare like "Calling Your Name," which is a better-realized and tempered version of the kind of thing that appeared on Life, but the album's principal influences are more electronic and experimental, which oddly enough results in a much tougher sounding record. The keyboards really cover the gamut, from the orchestral to the machine-age; the instrumental "Film Theme" is very early Human League, while the aforementioned "Calling Your Name" utilizes god knows how many different types of sounds and attacks. Brian McGee's drums are mostly processed, with a lot of different sounds and the first appearance of the unsnared snare. The guitar still lets rip in songs like the kick-ass "Premonition," but can also act as colour and texture in the more keyboard-heavy stuff.

Did I mention the material's diverse? Side one alone is a real trip, man, opening with the jerky yet spaced-out Euro-organ-pop of "Real To Real" and ending with "Cacophony" and "Veldt," the first two examples of the Simple Minds instrumental, which illustrate the group's moving away from traditional song form. "Changeling" is a brilliant, blistering bass hook-based pop song, one of their best. "Citizen" and "Factory" aren't too shabby, either. Perhaps Real To Real doesn't go out quite as boldly as it came in, but that's a minor quibble.

More to follow...

Records In Review: Kate Bush--Aerial

"Mummy, Daddy, the day is full of birds," says Kate Bush's young son at the beginning of the second of his mum's new 2cd set. Unfortunately for all of us, most of the fowl in question are named Tom, and are soon to be served up on millions of American dinner tables. Aerial has grown on me a little since the first listen, but it still has to rate as a major disappointment. I'd put it next to Lionheart as KB's worst record.

The material on display here isn't radically different, even after a 12-year hiatus, from what you'd expect from the artist. It's got less of the theatrics than previously, and the album certainly leans more toward flow than contrast (both between and within songs), but the motifs and lyrical themes are mostly familiar, although being a 47 year-old mum the adolescent phase appears to be over, finally! The real problem with the album is a certain lack of conviction of performance; you wait and wait for things to catch fire, but they never do. The vocals are very underpowered, often sounding like they're for private rather than public consumption (Bush isn't a live performer, of course, which doesn't help). Apart from piano and bass guitar, most of the accompaniment is just that, and not particularly helped by a bottom-heavy mix that acts to smooth out any potential spikiness.

Disc one, A Sea of Honey, is comprised of self-contained songs and is the better of the two. "Pi" is a great tune; it's based around a 3/4 sequenced organ pattern and has some great fretless playing and a very loosely-rhythmed vocal line. "King Of The Mountain" isn't the most immediately appealing KB single, but it's a grower with a nice skanking-paced rock groove and some of the more spirited singing on the album. "How To Be Invisible," like most of the album, goes on a bit long but manages to work up a little bit of menace--a quality not abundant here. The rest of the disc is so-so. "Bertie" is a nice little slice of medievalism and a reminder that, with the possible exception of S. Wonder's "Isn't She Lovely," songs in praise of children and spouses should be banned. The two mostly piano songs "Mrs. Bartolozzi" and "A Coral Room" are fairly ponderous (the latter is better) and don't develop much despite the emotive lyrics. "Joanni" features a good vocal performance and nice chorus hook, but comes awfully close in feel to Enigma or mid-'90s Mike Oldfield territory. And that's not good.

The second disc, A Sky of Honey, is, well, pretty pointless, to be honest. It's a continuous episodic piece that's meant to represent a day's passage. What a very, very dull day Kate must have had. I've listened to it several times and I still have difficulty remembering much about the individual pieces, it's all so structurally flaccid. Everything feels dragged out beyond its useful length, particularly the latter bits like "Nocturn" and the title track. "An Architect's Dream" is pretty, with (again) nice fretless playing and some effective keyboard contrasts, and might work better in a different context, but "Sunset" is pure Gypsy Kings cheeze. I really can't think of much else to say. Perhaps it's best viewed as chill-out music for recovering Romantics, I don't know.

The experience of listening to Aerial in its totality makes me wonder: was there anything there really, apart from the (prolonged) adolescent dramatics? I don't know, but I certainly hope that Bush doesn't let this sit as her final musical statement. Recommendation: Kate fans, you can't go home again.

Update: I may have confused some upright bass for fretless, silly me, but checking it out would involve listening to the album again: pass.

Records In Review: The Magic Numbers--The Magic Numbers

Laid-back old-school popsters The Magic Numbers, fronted by Trinidad-born Romeo Stodart, are a current Brit cause celebre, having recently won Mojo's Best New Act award, beating out, among others, one Rufus Wainwright (whose first album came out seven years ago). My copy of their debut cd sported a review snippet from said magazine, along the lines of this being destined to be "the" album of 2005. And the British music press wonder why Americans laugh at them. Oh, sorry, I forgot: The Scissor Sisters are the best pop band in the world.

This is an album that I was born to hate. It's wimpy, with lovey-dovey lyrics, '60s hippie harmonies, a twangy and occasionally cornball lead singer, and only slightly more musical tension than Mannheim Steamroller. But I kind of like it. And that bothers me. Big time.

It's not perfect by any means. The album's over an hour long, and would be better at forty-five to fifty minutes with the excision of a few songs, as the second half's got an awfully slow pace. The harmonic bolt is shot by the time you get two-thirds of the way through. But there's stuff to like here, too. The basic three-piece set-up plus melodica(!) is augmented by some very nice (and beautifully articulated) harmony and duet vocals, and the band dynamic is urbane in a good way, with the soft-attack bass generally acting as the linchpin--at least for the more up-tempo tracks. A number of the songs, even the so-so ones, drift off into little sidebars that keep you interested, and there's also some very nice and subtle shifts in mood and texture, as in the gentle duet "I See You, You See Me" and also "Forever Lost." Not a lot of histrionics here, and that's a plus.

I try not to read stuff about anyone I'm going to review, but I note from second-hand reports that The Mamas And The Papas have been cited as ancestors. I don't know that much of them other than the obvious, and wouldn't admit it if I did, but I can't really see it, to be honest. The influence I pick up a lot here--I kid you not--is The Strokes. Listen to the tracks "Long Legs," "Forever Lost" and the big pop tune "Love Me Like You," imagine distorted guitars, fuzzy vocals and an inflexible rhythm section, and there you go. They certainly use the same kind of pre-Beatle motifs as their bread-and-butter. The Numbers do the slow stuff too, though, and most of it's good, like the chord-wandery "Which Way To Happy" and the incredibly still duet "Wheels On Fire" (no, not THAT one). The '60s road leads Mr. Stodart into downtown Cheezeburgh a few times, unfortunately: the doo-woppy break in opener "Mornings Eleven" is hard to take, and "Don't Give Up The Fight" sounds like a bad imitation of The Style Council (minus the 'tude).

The Magic Numbers will grow on you like the pervasive fungus that I'm sure it is, so don't look it in the eyes, or you'll never escape. Now, how's that for a mixed metaphor? Recommended, if you can get past the first couple of listens.

P.S. I've just noticed that omnipresent allmusic reviewer S.T. Erlewine has gone apoplectic beaters on the album in a thesis-length piece. Wow.

Records In Review: Jason Collett--Idols Of Exile

This is the most recent solo record by Torontonian Collett. It comes in a nicely designed paper sleeve, featuring a charcoal-drawn profile of the singer looking like a Law and Order perp who's been nabbed for credit card fraud (as seems to be the norm for Canadian indie musicians at the moment). He's on the Arts & Crafts label, home to Broken Social Scene, among others; in fact, the album features contributions from members of BSS, as well as other local indie heroes Metric, Stars and KC Accidental. Up-and-comer Leslie Feist contributes some backing vox.

Idols of Exile is mostly acoustic countryish stuff, but there's some jangle-pop, indie sonics and a considerable helping of camp. A lot of the songs are ripely (but gently) orchestrated in the style of Collett's aforementioned contemporaries, with lots of horns, and the odd banjo and mandolin thrown in, and in fact the mood of a couple of the songs, like the relaxed opener "Fire," evoke the quieter moments of BSS. Pacing is very slow to mid, matching the singer's groaning, achy delivery.

This is a bit of a mixed bag. A lot of the album is too self-aware for its own good, in my not so humble opinion. The Rufus Wainrightesque (Collett's voice resembles RW in terms of delivery) OTT numbers "Hangover Days" and "Brownie Hawkeye" are nicely crafted but just too too much. The more straightforward tracks are better, like the Blue Rodeo-ish "We All Lose One Another" and the happy jangle-pop "I'll Bring The Sun," although "Pink Night," with its (I think) obvious Band allusions and arch Dylan vocal outtro is one of the more rousing songs. The quieter moments like "Tinsel And Sawdust" are okay, but tend to flatline due to JC's whispered vocal style, which doesn't exactly turn this mutha out. "Parry Sound" is kinda pretty, but as the lyrics talk only about trees, rocks and lakes and make no mention of the Stockey Centre/Bobby Orr Hall of Fame, colour me disappointed. The lyrics--mostly reminiscences--are very good, although a little impenetrable at times: "It was in your basement apartment/with all of its earth and sea." You might want to ask the landlord to get an inspector in, Jace.

Idols Of Exile is a pleasant, if unexciting listen, interrupted by the occasional bit of annoyance. Recommended to those who have a higher country and camp tolerance than me.

Saturday, October 1, 2005

Records In Review: Badly Drawn Boy--One Plus One Is One

One Plus One Is One is the most recent (2004) album by almost-one-man-band Damon Gough. I (temporarily) rescued a copy from a friend's "to sell" pile. I've only heard bits and pieces by BDB previously. The most obvious influences are from the '70s. Nick Drake certainly comes to mind, and some other folky and arty-folk stuff, albeit filtered through Gough's slackerish musical persona. The sound of the record is fairly organic, as they say: a lot of piano and acoustic guitar, and an extraordinary amount of flute. Pacing is laid back and approaches almost uniformly gentle. The cd is dedicated to several members of the Dearly-Departed Society, so you know that this is supposed to be Serious Stuff.

This is one of those records that never really does enough to keep you interested. Gough's compositional style has a Brian Wilson-like deliberation about it (particularly the piano-based songs) that is energy-sapping, and there is neither enough melodic invention, interesting integration of influences or vibrancy of performance to make up the difference...although there are some pretty arrangements here and there. On the subject of performance, the singing is not a strong suit; Gough's voice has limited functional range and variation, and tends to sit on top of the music as narration. Perhaps others wouldn't find this the distraction that I do, but they're not maintaining this blog, are they?

The bulk of the music is inoffensive and forgettable, despite its overt seriousness, with a few things that stick in the memory longer, for better or for worse. The title track is ripely orchestrated and--I promise I won't ever use this word again--Beatlesque, pleasantly rolling along at "Hey Jude" pace. "Takes The Glory" and "Easy Love" are pretty good, with the latter's flute lines bringing to mind "Cuckoo Cocoon" from The Lamb Lies Down On Broadway. "Year Of The Rat" is one of the few examples of a sing-along chorus, and it's reinforced with a small choir, which should probably tell you something. I really don't care for "positivity" songs, and I care for them even less when they're coming from Englishmen. If you like imitations of Benefit-era Jethro Tull, albeit without any of the rhythmic intricacy or balls, then you'll love "Summertime In Wintertime." The cowbell tolls for thee, sir! "Another Devil Dies," "Four Leaf Clover" and the instrumental "Stockport" amble by, leaving barely a footprint in the mud.

One Plus One Is One might appeal to people who like their trippy served with a hearty side of earnest. Uncontroversial post-party music, or music to depress dinner-party guests.

Records In Review: Metric--Live It Out

Just-out second album from local boys and girl Metric. I reviewed their first album, Old Worn Underpants--sorry--Old World Underground, Where Are You Now? here.

I have to say that this one is a mild disappointment. Whereas the first record required a few listens in order to get past some its more annoying aspects, its successor is just hard to warm up to, period. It's much more guitar-heavy (it's produced by gee-tarist James Shaw), and when the hooks are working, it's really good, but in general the arrangements are less interesting. Old World Underground, regardless of its relative strengths and weaknesses, stood out; Live It Out courts the banal to the point where they're probably engaged by now.

The songs are either guitar- or keyboard-based, and in the case of the former, the synths tend to be limited to atmosphere or middle-eight-type fills. Drummer Joules Scott-Key, whose playing on the first album sounded Ultravox-like, plays here in a more slap-and-bash style that's not entirely unlike this guy (for better or worse), while Emily Haines attempts a more sung, less declaimed vocal style than previously (better, I think). Lyrics are delivered in a less direct and less caustic manner, with one or two notable exceptions.

Only about half of the album is recommendable. The best of the guitar-based tunes are: "Too Little, Too Late," which sounds very much like a less gothic Interpol; the opener "Empty," which is an effective crescendo-decrescendo thing--more drawn out than anything off the first record; and "Monster Hospital," an obvious single choice and very infectious despite its almost-silly Foo Fighteresque chorus guitar hook. "Handshakes" is as annoying as the worst of album no. 1. I really wish these guys would drop the campy aggression. Bad lyric alert: "Buy this car to drive to work/drive to work to pay for this car." Sheesh, they make it sound like a bad thing. "Patriarch On A Vespa" and "Live it Out" leave me baffled by their inclusion, as they barely register at all. Of the keyboard-heavy stuff, "The Police And The Private" is the best, probably 'cos it's the most concise. "Poster Of A Girl" starts out nicely and has some of the best melodic material present, but its Euro-ennui French language outtro is pretty silly and long-winded, like a piss-take on this. "Ending Start" never finds its feet and comes across as a pale imitation of Treasure-era Cocteau Twins.

If I go on about influences, it's because they are not always very well integrated...or concealed, depending on your point of view. In short, which I seldom am, Live It Out is an album that you'll probably tire of in short order. Recommended only for die-hards and scenesters.

Records In Review: Rilo Kiley--More Adventurous

This one isn't really my thang, but, as my buddies in the Khmer Rouge might have put it: "The blog is mother, the blog is father..."

More Adventurous is Rilo Kiley's third album and first major-label release. Don't know much about their previous indie stuff from the early '00s. I note that singer/principal songwriter Jenny Lewis was the occasional female lead on the enjoyable The Postal Service album of a couple of years back. Most of the songs here are in the torch-song or loser love song vein, with the musical accompaniment alternating between electrified jangle-pop, country and slices of antique Americana. Pacing ranges between moderate and leisurely, as you'd expect for this kind of thing. Sometimes the sound is stripped-down and acoustic guitar led, and at other times it's rather OTT in the Stars vein (as in "Does He Love You?"), complete with drippy strings and langorous horns. The rhythm section is pretty minimalist, but the guitars are quite striking, with lots of different colours and some nice harmonized lines.

I suspect that your enjoyment of RK is going to depend on your empathy with the lyrics and Lewis' sweet but slightly wry delivery of same. The songwriting itself is pretty bald, and there's a lot of fairly obvious cadences, which I find tend to undermine the serious intent of the record as a whole. I like the more upbeat numbers, like the single "Portions For Foxes" (which for some reason reminds me of The Furs' "Heaven"), "Accidental Death" and "It's A Hit," although the title track is a very pretty tune in the country mode. There really are some appallingly arch moments, though, like the ridiculous "I Never" and guitarist Blake Sennett's solo number "Ripchord."

If you like traditional with the occasional knowing wink thrown in, then maybe this'll be your bag. Fair-to-middling pm music.

Records In Review: The Fall--Fall Heads Roll

The title of this blog [previously titled Everything Hurtz--ed.] is a testament to the fact that you shouldn't make creative decisions at 3am, after discovering that your first five really clever ideas have been taken. In any event, here is the brand spanking new one from The Fall. How many does that make now? 25? 30? Getting up there in Bran Van and Peter Hammill territory for sure.

This latest offering is pretty good, but Jeebus, it's a mess, both stylistically and, with sound-alike songs next to each other and a prolonged sag in the middle, in terms of its pacing. Their last studio album, The Real New Fall LP, was, with its razor-sharp hooks and punky charm, one of the band's few records that you could see having an appeal beyond the usual culty circles, but Fall Heads Roll is more one for the choir and those who'll have the patience to get through the duff bits.

I gather that mainman Mark E. Smith considers his current approach to be garage-rock. O-kay. It's certainly a fair ways from any plaid-jacketed Canuck definition of the term, eh? In terms of personality, the album reminds me most of their late '80s The Frenz Experiment; it left that same impression of a bunch of songs that became an album 'cos someone asserted it to be so. And no, for the record, I DON'T buy every Fall cd (I'm well-adjusted, getting better by the day, etc.). The warning bells went off right away with the loping opener, "Ride Away," seemingly MES' version of Music Hall. Odd. There are some effective tracks like "Pacifying Joint," "What About Us?" and "Trust In Me" that evoke the aforementioned previous album: bludgeoningly direct with a punky swagger, although with a bit more swing to them than previously. A lot of the disc is much more "traditional" Fall, though. "Assume" has a pounding beat and twangy guitar lead that brings to mind the This Nation's Saving Grace-era, and the ho-hum "Bo Demmick" plays with the antique cheesy rock 'n' roll motifs in the same way that much of their mid-to-late '80s and even early '90s material did. There's a couple of mellower tunes, of which "Midnight in Aspen" is the best. As with every Fall lp I've ever heard, good, bad or otherwise, there's the song or two that doesn't do much ("Clasp Hands") or that go on for two or three minutes too long ("Blindness" and "Youwanner").

The production is quite chunky and sparse (with less processing and subtlety than its predecessor) and creates some good stuck-in grooves, when it works. Music to be listened to at volume, as usual. Also on the plus side, Smith's lyrics at first read are less cryptic than some recent efforts. Slightly above-average Fall album: recommended for devotees.

Records In Review: David Kilgour--A Feather In The Engine

This is the fifth (2001) solo record released by Kilgour, ex(?)-guitarist of New Zealand's The Clean. I took a look at the Cleanthology set here.

There's something to be said for albums that don't beat you about the head with subcultural musical referents and cleverness, and that something is: "good." A Feather In The Engine is a little gem that, like a Truffaut film, drifts weightlessly by while leaving a surprising impression. In terms of style, it isn't a gazillion miles away from mid-'90s Clean; there's the same spaciousness, balance between vocals and instrumentals, occasional trippiness and movement toward a more acoustic and fully-orchestrated sound, but it leans more toward chamber-pop. There's also the same tendency toward the "vignette" writing style, which might not please everyone, but which I think works particularly well in this context.

There's remarkable variety here, considering that most of the songs are principally 2-3 chorders. You've got orchestral '60s-style pop ("Today Is Gonna Be Mine"), folk ("Perfect Watch"), trippy psych-pop ("I Caught You") and a couple of tunes that evoke a spacious mid-period U2 ("Sept. 98" and "All The Rest"), albeit with a living room rather than a stadium aesthetic. The loose instrumental "Instra 2" sounds like an Anthony Phillips improvisation, with its lovely ripe English chords. I'm a sucker for that stuff. Simple but striking details of instrumentation and arrangement abound (like the guitar fill in "I Lost My Train")--always there, never overkill, just little bits bubbling to the surface. Like the music, Kilgour's voice is characterful, unaffected and a pleasure to listen to, at both its lower and upper limits.

The only complaint I can make, and it's minor, is that the album gets a little too diffuse in the last couple of tracks. A Feather In The Engine doesn't have a lot of momentum, and it doesn't need it. Listen and I'm sure you'll agree with me, and if not, well, only one of us can be right, if you catch my drift. A must-buy, for any-time listening.

Records In Review: The New Year--Newness Ends

Newness Ends is the debut (2001) album by Texan former Bedhead guys Matt and Bubba Kadane (great name), now trading as The New Year on all major U.S. exchanges. The allmusic reviewer gives this one four stars. Not for the first time, school is clearly too cool for me, as I found this to be a very, very long 32 minutes.

The band's material alternates between song-form post-rock and langorous, sleepy tunes that bring to mind an indie Cowboy Junkies or a less-limber Red House Painters. I don't mean to use obscure references, but the rockier stuff does remind me big-time of Ganger, with its repetitive drum patterns, occasional crescendos, piling on of multi-layered and timbred guitars and prominent harmonized picked bass. Vocalist brother Matt has an "explaining" rather than singing kind of voice--think a lower-ranged and less whiny version of the Death Cab For Cutie guy--of limited range and projection. The instrumental prowess on display is modest.

The sleepy stuff has very little to recommend it, and it's unwisely stuffed all a-row in the middle of the disc. The best songs are "Reconstruction," a heavy minor-key and country-tinged 5/4 number that features a hypnotic and effective instrumental crescendo climax, and "Alter Ego," which is actually pretty similar in structure, but without the crescendo. The former, and the album opener "Half A Day" really do sound like snippets from songs on Hammock Style. I'd prefer it if all of the songs did. The rest of the louder stuff is pretty samey, and I even counted six songs in 3/4 out of the ten. If you consider that the two songs in five are really three plus two, then that's eight out of ten! I don't know what this means, but it must mean something. I have a feeling that when bands want to sound portentous these days, they tend to play in 3/4 or 12/8, but hey: I report; you decide.

Newness Ends is a fairly cohesive album, I'll give it that, but a pretty lifeless and deliberate one too. Recommended for musical subculturists only.

Records In Review: Gentle Giant--Playing The Fool (Live)

English progsters Gentle Giant have just had a whack of their catalogue (finally) remastered, courtesy of a record label (part-owned by singer turned record exec Derek Shulman) that seems to release mostly crap. I've also picked up In A Glass House (1973) from this bunch, which strikes me as one of their best. They're all currently being offered at a very reasonable price.

GG were one of what I guess you'd call the first wave of English progressive bands, although their first album wasn't released 'til 1970. Their peak period was between '71 and '76, during which time their sound incorporated everything from blues-rock to medievalism and 20th century art music. In terms of their more commercially successful contemporaries, they compare most directly with Jethro Tull, particularly in terms of their folk stylings, emphasis on precision ensemble playing and on elements at the micro-level. Their brand of prog could be a little much for the layperson, particularly as they lacked that central Peter Gabriel-type character who could act as a dramatic conduit, but the musicianship is second to none. GG, more than any other band of its pedigree, always approach everything as musicians first and conceptualists second, and there is never a hint of shamateurism about the performance.

Upon hearing Playing The Fool for the first time, it's hard to believe, especially given the era, that this was GG's first live release. The recording is clear and concise, and the performances for the most part excellent and, dare I say it, loadsa fun! I won't go into the songs in detail, as this kind of music requires an essay for each track, other than to say that some of the pieces, like "Free Hand" and "Just The Same" from the Free Hand album are played pretty hard and straight, while others have been considerably re-arranged. The medievalist a capella "On Reflection" has had its structure essentially reversed, and it works wonderfully. And how many rock bands can rearrange themselves into a quintet of cello, viola, recorders and vibes? And not sound like idiots? Great stuff. Soloing is well-integrated, as in "So Sincere" from The Power And The Glory, a rhythmically and otherwise busy song that breaks into a screaming, abstract Gary Green guitar meandering followed by a thundering, multi-player military-themed drum solo--that's 25 years before the drumline craze, kids!

Most Gentle Giant albums are in the 35-40 minute range, which is probably a good thing given the effort that it takes to sort out the music's complexity and attention to detail. A lot of the pieces here are in medley or two-for-one form, so it's easy to listen to in chunks, which I suggest doing in order to avoid getting "too much, too quickly." Warnings aside, this is highly recommended, even for first-time listeners.

Records In Review: Television--Adventure

Second album from Tom Verlaine and the gang. This isn't the remastered edition I'm listening to, but it doesn't sound bad at all.

Now, I'll admit that I have some problems with Television. Yes, they are One Of The Most Important Bands Of The Period and all that, but I don't particularly care for Verlaine's strangulated, affected singing or his somewhat cock-rocky interpretation of antique r-'n'-r motifs, and I often find a lot of their choruses disappoint relative to the build-up, which is curiously enough a criticism I have of another trendy NYC band. Having said that, I can't deny the allure of Marquee Moon, with its excellent guitar interplay, jumpy rhythm section and overall band dynamic.

Adventure is a kinder, gentler Television to be sure, but that's not necessarily a bad thing. In many ways, the material here, like "Glory" and the sprawling "The Dream's Dream," has aged better than some of the stuff on the first record, perhaps because it involves less of the aformentioned ye olde rock elements (I admit this may just be my particular prejudice) and is more firmly rooted in the new wave. The album is always going to suffer in comparison with its predecessor, though, because there is some recycling/reinterpretation of songs going on--for "Foxhole," "Carried Away" and "The Fire," read "Friction," "Guiding Light" and "Torn Curtain"--and the second time 'round is always less exciting, even if it's just as well executed (I find "Friction" and "Foxhole" equally unsatisfying, frankly). Be that as it may, the gentle stuff is really nice here, like "Days" with it's bright and lovely opening guitar lines, and the carefree and naive-sounding "Careful." The outtro guitar on "The Dream's Dream" is as good as anything on Marquee Moon, and with the melodrama better held in check.

Both of the band's original-run albums are worth the having. I imagine the remastered Adventure must sound pretty damn good, if the quality of the Marquee Moon re-release is anything to go by, although it too contains a bunch of bonus demo tracks that are probably of marginal value.

Records In Review: The Clean--Anthology

The Clean were just about the first post-punk band to emerge from New Zealand in the late '70s. This 2003 2cd Anthology compiles the 3-piecer's early eps, some extras, and selections from their late-'80s and mid-'90s albums. That's a lotta Clean! The allmusic entry on them is a dizzying array of comings, goings, stops, starts and side-projects. Read slowly.

You can hear a lot of influences on these 46 (mostly very short) tracks, and also a lot of elements that must surely have influenced other bands down the line. Input: I seem to hear New Order/Joy Division everywhere these days, but Wire is particularly present, and I can pick up pretty direct references to Chairs Missing and 154 on songs like "Getting Older" and "Sad-Eyed Lady." "At The Bottom" sounds a lot like "B" from the first Colin Newman album, as well. Some of the vocals (all three of the bandmembers sing, including brothers Hamish and David Kilgour, so don't ask me who's who) are even delivered in a Newmanesque manner . Output: the poppier side of their earlier material could well be a direct ancestor of Yo La Tengo (organs abound) and even Jesus and Mary Chain, and the wall-of-sound/drone stuff is a precursor to Stereolab.

Disc one comprises all of the material from their first incarnation (up to 1982) and, while I won't say it's better, it's more interesting because you can sense the band figuring things out as they go along. Their first single "Tally Ho" and the subsequent ep Boodle, Boodle, Boodle (don't ask me) are really impressive, and Boodle in particular is remarkable sounding for a four-track recording of the period. The music here is in the punky vein with the vocals being more "public" and prominent than on later releases. The chorus of "Thumbs Off," for example, could be sung along to down at the pub. "Point That Thing Somewhere Else" points the way toward the drone sound that would become their bread and butter. The Good Sounds Good... ep is quite experimental in terms of production and schizophrenic in terms of material, with some punky stuff ("Beatnik"), some drony jangle-pop (the excellent "Flowers") and even a ska-like organ song ("Slug Song"). The remainder of the disc is singles and odds 'n' sods, the most notable being the single "Getting Older," which, along with b-side "Whatever I Do It's Right" really drives and compares stylistically to something like The Chameleons, albeit with--you guessed it--organs!

Disc two is selections from the first three albums of the reassembled group, along with some outtakes of marginal value. The songs from 1989's Vehicle are quick, driving pop songs with fairly static 3-piece instrumentation. It's the only acoustic guitar-free session, and the electrics are often un(der)distorted and ringy in the '80s jangle-pop tradition. Once again, New Order is present in songs like "Someone" and the catchy "Diamond Shine." The six tracks from 1994's Modern Rock are considerably different, with the acoustic guitar coming back, organ front-and-centre, and the material slower and more drone-like. "Outside The Cage," like aspects of the other songs, is very Stereolab. There's some busier arrangements here, too, like "Linger Longer," which even makes use of some mallet percussion. Which of these sessions you prefer is really a matter of taste only, as they're both good in different ways. The tracks from 1996's Unknown Country indicate a band in search of material. Lots of interesting sounds, arrangements and flavours, but the songs--some of them instrumental--are as undeveloped vignettes, which is a criticism that could be made of the band in general. "Twist Top" is a nice pop tune, though.

This is a lot of material to go through, but it's definitely worth the effort...not that it really is one. The curious thing about The Clean is how their music washes over you, despite the songs being for the most part in the three-minute range. I think this is probably because they're really about band dynamic and procedure, rather than songwriting per se; in fact, you can skip the last thirty seconds of many songs and not miss anything structurally important. So, put either disc on, do the dishes or some light house-cleaning, and enjoy.

Thursday, September 1, 2005

Records In Review: New Musik--Warp

I thought I'd better finish off this particular express train of thought, since I've got little else to talk about at the moment. For impressions of the first two New Musik albums, click here and here.

The band's third and final album Warp sees them stripped down to a three-piece, with Mr. Mansfield joined by Clive Gates on keys and Cliff Venner on percussion, but, as with Anywhere, Tony M. is the alpha and omega (he produces and designs the sleeves, yet again). The sound is much sparer than on the previous two records. The atmospheric, multi-layered wall of keyboard sound of Anywhere is here replaced by arrangements that feature protuberant beatboxes, (I'm assuming) first generation Simmons electronic drums, chilly synths and "that" piano sound which would turn up again in places like this (actual paying gigs for Mansfield, which soon became his bread-and-butter). The songs are generally more upfront in both their musical and lyrical sentiments, and there's some rather obvious "message" here and there.

If From A To B and (particularly) Anywhere exist in NM's own little enclosed universe, then Warp's sonic world and choice of material sees the group breaking out of it somewhat, and with only mixed success. There are very good moments and some undoubtedly interesting bits of sonic experimentation, but there is also the feeling that the album is sabotaging its own momentum on more than one occasion and that the various songwriting, motivic and sound elements never quite come together. And it doesn't help that the material is by far the weakest of the three studio albums.

Side A, like side B, is a continuous run, with abrupt joins between songs. I remember CFNY here in Toronto having a hell of a time playing tracks from the record without getting a bit of the following track on air as well! Perhaps this was an evil scheme to get more airplay..? Anyway, the first side is pretty good. Some listeners reacted negatively to the slightly funky, "positivity"-sounding opener "Here Come The People," but I've always liked it; in fact, it's one of the few places where the hippy-dippy approach works. It's simple, but it sounds great, with it's surging synth bass line, electronic drum fills and charming octaved piano melody. The sing-along "A Train On Twisted Tracks" is probably my favourite album track: very touching, without being maudlin--well, maybe just a little. "Going Round Again" is very spaced out, sonically speaking, and has some striking instrumental entrances (as well as the first--gasp!--sexualized lyric in the New Musik ouevre), but is let down by the chorus. "I Repeat" is true to its title: measured pace, repetitive vocal melody and chord sequence (with no chorus). The effect is kind of funny but mostly freaky with a weird tension to it...which is completely dissipated by the ensuing two "versions" of "All You Need Is Love." The first is an original, and can best be described as inoffensively naive. The second is a four-square cover of the old warhorse and a complete waste of time, replete with a less-than-inspired vocal performance and some cheesy electronics. Blech.

Side B is a real mixed bag. "Kingdoms For Horses" is a good application of the sparser sound and contains some effective shifts in musical perspective as the sounds gradually build up and move in and out. "The New Evolutionist" is an effective straight-four acoustic guitar-led number that reminds me of a more worldly version of "Living By Numbers" from From A To B. The concluding track "Warp" bears a resemblance to "I Repeat" in terms of the incessant chilliness of its electronic finale, but is more conventional in structure, which I think lessens the impact a little. Still a good one, though. The remainder of the material isn't exactly shit-hot. "Hunting" is ponderous and doesn't develop much. "Green and Red (Respectively)" waves the electronic flag but doesn't do much else. The biggest jeer, though, I reserve for "The Planet Doesn't Mind," which, as you might guess, is the most obvious of the "message" songs and is, well, pretty embarrassing and not particularly inspired.

Warp may be a failed experiment, but it's still interesting in places and best listened to in chunks when the mood takes you. It's a shame that this ended up being New Musik's swan-song. Ah, what might have been...

DVD Review: The Might Be Giants--Here Come The ABCs

Rock 'n' roll is ALL about the kids, dude.

It really is nice having something decent to watch and listen to along with your little 'un. This isn't the two Johns' first foray into children's music. Their 2002 album No! is a lot of fun and while this collection (available as both cd and dvd) isn't quite as good, it still contains a lot of classic TMBG moments. Cut the boys some slack--when you're doing alphabet songs, you've got to stick to the script!

The video is a combination of letter and general alphabet songs with a variety of different visuals: live action, live action/video effects, marionation, and various animation styles. Linnell and Flansburgh host the show as sock puppets...with very anatomically correct hair, to boot.

Most of the tunes are miniatures, with a few slightly longer tunes thrown in, which are, of course, more interesting from an, erm, adult point of view, although some of the quickies are really cool too. I usually like John L's stuff a little more, but this collection's pretty much a saw-off. Flansburgh's best numbers are: "C Is For Conifers," a country-themed song in TMBG's encyclopedic tradition (e.g., "Mammals" and "James K. Polk"--the stuff that usually earns them the moniker "nerd rockers" from bulletheaded music critics); the lightly-funky "E Eats Everything," in which the indiscriminately piggy little character gets his comeuppance by meeting Z, which eats only Es, pac-man style; and "Pictures of Pandas Painting," which is a minor rugrat freakout featuring some unsettling slow-mo filmic animation. I have a suspicion that this may actually be a piss-take on the Super Furry Animals, as the animation looks like something I remember seeing on their Rings Around The World dvd, although my memory might be cheating me. I haven't been able to find any additional info about the animator.

Of Linnell's stuff, I like "I C U," another country tune the lyrics of which are composed entirely of individual letters. A lonely X sits at home on a rainy night wistfully watching a weather-girl X on tv, in true hurtin' style. There's also a letter-search track called "Can You Find It?" which sounds so conventionally adult TMBG, in Linnell's trademark folky style, that you realize that it's a fine line between TMBG and a kids' band on most days. Maybe that avoidance of sub-genre and subculture is what makes them so appealing.

I've got to try this dvd out on some other kids. My daughter's too young for the more involved stuff, although she appears to like the music and busy visuals just fine and was shaking her little booty more than once. I'm not sure how some of this material works on the cd version, as the visuals are directly tied to the music in many places. Adults who watch on their own--you know who you are--can skip over the alphabet-recitation tracks and other filler.

N.B. Knowing my geography, I wondered how the first track "Alphabet of Nations" was going to cope with the letter X, which is the first letter of Nowhereland. That was before I knew that there was an African country called West Xylophone. Wukka wukka.

Records In Review: The Arcade Fire--The Arcade Fire

Once again, I'm indulging my suspicion of over-hyped bands. I have to admit that I haven't really taken to the singles I've heard off the Montreal band's big furry hit album Funeral, as their tightly-wound new wave revivalist sound makes me want to switch to decaf. This is their debut disc, which is referred to as an ep, despite being longer than your average Hives album. And it's actually quite good.

I've wondered a lot recently where this pairing of Brit '80s new wave and country came from. I guess it depends which way 'round you're looking: was it new wave revivalists gone c&w, or American jangle-pop bands discovering the '80s? In any event, I blame it all on New Order for doing "Love Vigilantes." That's my theory and I'm sticking to it...'til tomorrow morning, at least. Any music historians and scenesters out there are welcome to set me straight.

The Arcade Fire has a fair bit of twang to it, although it's most prominent on the two tracks that book-end this collection, which are my least favourite. There's some good material in between, though, when they're not sounding like a less arch version of The Flaming Lips. "No Cars Go" is a good straight-ahead number with more of that aforementioned new wave bent, but it's less in-your-face than their recent music. "I'm Sleeping In A Submarine," which revolves around a nice 12/8 swirling piano bit, is prettily whimsical and understated--or as understated as Regine Chassagne's Bjork sound-alike vocals allow. "Headlights Look Like Diamonds" is the real studio production piece of the record and there's a definite Flaming Lips correlation viz the slightly OTT orchestration and general sweep, but the development is more organic and less episodic than on The Lips' more recent stuff. A lot of nice textural contrasts, too.

This edition is supposedly remastered, although it's not credited in any way. The artsy packaging of the disc will no doubt appeal to youngsters with Romantic tendencies, a condition which is now apparently treatable.

Records In Review: New Musik--Anywhere

For a review of New Musik's first album and some background, click here. Self-referential already, for god's sake.

The prevailing view, among the 15 shut-ins like me who listened to the band, is that album number one is the bee's knees, while the other two continue to battle it out for distant second. Well, I say to you muthas: it's on, 'cos I actually prefer Anywhere to From A To B in some ways. It's just different, and in Toronto we're supposed to celebrate diversity, no?

The most obvious change from the first album is the instrumentation. Keyboards are front and centre; in fact, there's a number of all-keyboard songs, like the creepy and cool "Areas" and "Peace." No acoustic piano, though. The drums are mostly box, as far as I can tell, and even if they're not they're as austere as austere can be--no fills or four-/eight-bar cues. Tony Mansfield's acoustic guitar takes a back seat, other than on "This World of Walter," and while there may be bass guitar here and there, the only thing that I can definitively pick out is the slappy part in "Churches." Vocals are more in the middle of the mix and there's a lot of backwards effects.

The result of all of this is an other-worldly sounding record. The minimalism of the "rhythm section" and the subtler textural contrasts (compared to From A...) create an impression of drifting that is very appealing, at least to me. This is probably where a lot of the difference in opinion lies viz the first two albums. Song structure isn't for the most part radically different, but the use of breaks, middle-eights and the like is more experimental and less naive (compare "Living By Numbers" with "Churches") and there's less reliance on traditional pop hooks.

The first side is the better one, and has a really nice shape and lots of variety to it. Of particular note is the aforementioned "Areas," which uses keyboards and a Roland Compu-Rhythm beatbox on Bossa Nova setting to create Mansfield's unique version of lounge, and "While You Wait," which has some incredible keyboard arrangements and a degree of new-wave aggression to it previously unknown to the band. "Churches" and the opener "They All Run After The Carving Knife" are both flawed pieces that work: the former is an odd blend of charming pop melody and ascetic composition, and the latter is an incessant beatbox-driven scorcher that doesn't develop much but still packs a punch. I could do without the swingy cheeze of "Luxury," which is pretty gutless and the album's lowest moment.

Side two suffers from taking a while to get going. "Changing Minds" is more notable for its arrangement than anything else--not that I'm complaining too much, as the arrangement is great . "Peace" is pleasant but overlong, and, after "Luxury," I'm in less of a mood for that damn beatbox. The best stuff is, Oreo-like, in the middle. "Design" contains echoes of "Sanctuary" from the first album, but with more of a sense of repose. I know I keep going on about them, but if those bell sounds in the chorus lead-in don't make you weep with joy, then you're not anyone I care to know. "Traps" is one of my favourite NM songs. As in "Areas," the Roland-type beatbox is used really well and blends in nicely with the organ sounds and electronic bass (not to mention the late '70s Genesis keyboard sound used in the outtro). The lyrical conceit (of being, er, trapped) is illustrated musically with measured pacing and circular chord progressions. The concluding track "Back To Room One" would have been a hit single in an alternate universe where people listen to good, wistful music.

It turned out that, commercially speaking, Anywhere was an overly hopeful title for the record. And that's a damn shame. Pick up both From A To B and this one. Pay the exorbitant import prices, if necessary, 'cos they're both worth it.

Records In Review: The New Pornographers--Twin Cinema

All right, I admit it: I've been living under a rock for the past five years as far as The New Pornographers are concerned, and now I feel like a total schmuck. The reason? Twin Cinema is call-in-sick, hug-your-next-door-neighbour, bugger-me-with-a-barge-pole good. All right, I exaggerate: I wouldn't actually hug my neighbour, as he's 90 and reeks of the 2.5 packs of Rothmans that he runs through daily. Nevertheless, the world is a happy place and I am full of hope, goddammit!

I don't have much to reference this album to, as I'm not familiar with the previous work of mainmen Newman and Bejar--hey, cut grampa some slack--and have only heard a smidgen of Neko Case, whom I liked but who occupies an alt-countryish realm that isn't really my washboard of choice. I can pick out a general resemblance to The Shins in terms of melodic facility, but with less of the woooo! mop-top thing, and a little bit of Matthew Sweet, but that's probably just some of the guitar and vocal production and in any event, The Pornographers don't make a similar fetish of the low-brow.

Mostly, the music puts old-school psych and guitar-rock motifs at the service of highly-skilful and economical songcraft. [enough hyphenation--ed.] That's spelled E-C-O-N-O-M-I-C-A-L. I've listened to the album through several times now, and if anyone can find me a superfluous or missing eight bars on this record, then I'll buy them an inexpensive steak dinner. The arrangements, too, are lovely. It's mostly traditional guitar, bass, drums and piano, but the sound is very expansive, aided in no small part by some great vocal layering and performance. Production is crystal-clear and unobtrusive, giving the impression of a work that is both very substantial and eminently listenable. Jackpot!

Case's dead-on-the-beat, unaffected folksy style is an excellent fit with the material presented here, mostly written by Newman. Her first lead, "The Bones Of An Idol," is my favourite track, and it's a fascinating one, too. Less than three minutes long, and trundling along at a leisurely pace to boot, it combines a near-perfect yet simple song structure with a sonic environment that makes me think that someone in the band was listening to late-'80s Mike Oldfield (I've been mentally adding a tympani part in the finale). "These Are The Fables," also sung by Case, is a lovely plaintive number that employs a more overtly folky vocal cadence. Like several songs here, some version of a verse-chorus repetition is followed by a variation outtro, which very much adds to the sense of space on the record. The rest of Newman's output tends to be rockier, like the title-track opener (the aformentioned Shins resemblance is strongest here), or else spacier, as in the well-arranged and punchy "Falling Through Your Clothes."

Bejar's compositions are unabashedly '60s-retro in their inspiration, but they never descend to self-consciousness or kitsch. He comes awful close in "Broken Breads," with its hilarious happy-hippy la-la chorus, but it's such fun that you don't care. Play it loud on your car stereo and if anybody stares at you, just smile. "Jackie, Dressed In Cobras" is another favourite, and one which propels itself along with gusto while effectively playing off the contrasts between its verse/(presumed) chorus and break sections. Bejar's singing voice reminds me of Robyn Hitchcock, albeit less grainy.

Twin Cinema is, I think, going to end up costing me a lot more than $14.99. I've got some serious back catalogue to start exploring.

P.S. I should also say a word about drummer (and co-producer) Kurt Dahle, whose playing on the album is both sympathetic and technically impressive. My only familiarity with him is from the odd single by his previous bands Age Of Electric and Limblifter, both of whose target markets were me minus 10-15 years.

Records In Review: The Futureheads--The Futureheads

I knew that if I just waited around long enough, people would start making the kind of music that I like again. I'm sure it's the music that's changing, not me. No siree, Robert.

The Futureheads are a Sunderland foursome (which I think is actually the title of a porno that my wife and I rented a couple of months back) who, as cited by many others, wear their post-punky influences on their sleeves; most particularly, Gang of Four (Andy Gill produced a portion of the record) and early XTC. I see a lot more of the latter, especially in terms of songwriting approach, but the former's sonics and guitar sounds are certainly evident as well. I hear much more XTC here than here, all told--much more evident at the micro-level.

The Futureheads has been stuck in my car and home cd decks for a few weeks now, only recently being displaced by an even better album about which I'll write later, if you're all very, very good boys and girls. I hope I haven't killed this baby by overlistening, but it's really contagious stuff. The songs go along at breakneck pace with lots of stop-starts, sudden changes and striking vocal interjections. The songwriting's deceptively naive and moments of banality are few and far between.

The Gang Of Four influences are most prominent in songs like "The City Is Here For You To Use," which has that kind of pounding restraint in the rhythm section that was particular to Hugo Burnham and Dave Allen. In general, though, The Futureheads, although looser, are energetic, clever and jagged in the XTC style, with an additional dose of hell-for-leather that makes the sound their own. The interlaced staccato guitar on the excellent "Alms" is very Andy Partridge and co., but "Carnival Kids" is much punkier. Singer Barry Hyde's vocal approach is very figure-it-out-as-it-goes-along: sometimes, like in "Meantime," he's directly riffing on Mr. Partridge, sometimes even down to his predecessor's whole-tone attack point wobble (as on "He Knows"), but when he relaxes he can sound a bit Spiritualized ("Danger Of The Water"). The allmusic reviewer calls the vocal harmonies here British Invasion-sounding, but to my mind, that's like saying that most bread tastes like wheat. My favourite tracks are "Le Garage," "A To B," "Alms," "The City..." and "He Knows," but there's nothing here that calls for the fast-forward button. The interesting cover of Kate Bush's "Hounds Of Love" doesn't exactly blend in with the rest of the album--sounds rather like The Housemartins turned rabid.

The production on the album--I couldn't really tell between the Gill-produced tracks and the others--is decent, but a bit thunderous and undefined in places; e.g., the opener "Le Garage" would probably have benefitted from a more refined approach. Well, you have to have somewhere to go on your second album...which I enthusiastically look forward to hearing.

Monday, August 1, 2005

Records In Review: Stars--Set Yourself On Fire

N.B. This disc is apparently just getting its European release, so this qualifies as a NEW RECORD REVIEW!

Montreal-based Stars became media darlings, particularly in the UK, following the release of their second album, Heart. I enjoy indulging my suspicions from time to time, so I picked up their latest, Set Yourself On Fire, upon its release. I always try to support Canadian bands, especially when they're in the two-fer pile at HMV. I support ALL kinds of bands when they're in the 3-for-$30 pile.

Their sound I'd loosely describe as dreamy pop with an '80s template: songs of fairly simple construction and harmony that make use of a lot of overripe strings and the occasional horn or two. His and her vocalists Torquil Campbell, son of Stratford vet Douglas, and Amy Millan are fragile to the point of wispiness. The rhythm section is pretty straight-ahead and contained, with the drums usually marching along with the eighth note bass lines. The guitars do get loud, but infrequently.

It's very listenable stuff, but I've only made it through the album in one sitting once. There's a nice consistency of sound (which certainly separates them from Arts and Crafts label-mates and cohabitants Broken Social Scene), but I just can't rid myself of the feeling that the icing is tastier than the cake and that the music here purports to be more involving than it actually is. The first half of the disc--is this becoming a tragic motif?--is also a lot better than the second.

I gots no problem with simple, but there is an awful lot of I-IV-V on the record. It works really well on the opener, "Your Ex-Lover Is Dead," which is a nice jangle-pop duet with a great groaning solo cello opening. It doesn't work so well on the sappy-sweet "The First Five Times." "Ageless Beauty" and "Reunion" are the two singles that I'm aware of. They're both pretty damn fine and do a great job of illustrating the serious and slightly campy sides of the band respectively. For all of you Progressives out there, there's a couple of Anti-Bush songs at the back end: "Celebration Guns" is a sweet brass band-type lament that reminds me of Billy Bragg's "Tank Park Salute" in a major way, and "He Lied About Death" is a complete waste of time that goes nowhere--unless you consider "louder" an address--and sounds out of place on the album. The closer "Calendar Girl" evokes the Cocteau Twins big-time, and melodically most of all.

Maybe if I was still a sensitive 15-year-old girl, I'd have a greater appreciation for Set Yourself On Fire, but then I'd have to deal with my Golden Cadillac addiction all over again. Those were painful years. Painful and very, very sickly sweet.

P.S. The label page for the group contains some of the most insufferably pretentious crud that I've ever come across; either that, or I'd better take my irony detector down to the shop for repairs. Read with caution and a light meal on your stomach. You may also find it a bit rich that a band who refer to themselves, even with tongues planted in cheeks, as "soft revolutionaries" have put out a cd sporting both Factor and GovCan logos. I, of course, pass no such knee-jerk, philistine, reactionary judgment.