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.