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.

Records In Review: The Soft Boys--Nextdoorland

The Soft Boys must be the only band in history to have embarked on a tour in support of an album...that had been originally released 21 years ago. My wife and I saw them in a hot, claustrophobic and noisy firetrap a few years ago, as they re-presented the re-released and suddenly hypeable (and wonderful) Underwater Moonlight. I should say, saw parts of them, as the stage at The Horseshoe is about two foot high. I've been a Robyn Hitchcock listener since the mid-'80s, but I'd never really gone back and given the SBs a listen. More fool me. They came across live as one of those very rare beasts: the high-quality bar-room pop band. Great energy, with just the right amount of sloppiness, and a sensibility that spoke to a small space.

Nextdoorland is the one-off result of the band's reunion efforts, which is a pity because this record has a great deal of breadth and is a hell of a lot of fun. It's produced by Pat Collier, who also twiddled the knobs on Moonlight and did wonders with a no-budget recording. The band here is recorded fairly transparently and naturally, much as they sounded live, which works very well for the most part. The songs are among Hitchcock's best in recent times, and very well supported by the band dynamic. Both on his own and with The Egyptians, I sometimes feel that RH--perhaps the curse of the prolific songwriter--can get a bit lazy about the connecting bits and details, but the trio of Rew, Seligman and Windsor really help to make interesting what might otherwise be sections of filler.

What's striking about the album is how much of it sounds like, well, The Soft Boys, given that Hitchcock has always been the songwriter and has churned out umpteen albums during the prolonged hiatus. I hear the most obvious echoes of his late '90s material in the gentler numbers, like "My Mind Is Connected...," which would not sound out of place on Jewels For Sophia, but mostly the material is a mellower version of the band's particular blend of post-punk and psych-pop, with perhaps less emphasis on the former. "Mr. Kennedy," which they played in some form on the '01 tour, is one of Hitchcock's best songs, an American travelogue number that would serve as a very good introduction to the band or to Hitchcock. This is my main point of reference on the album, as I find that the remainder of the tracks are either more or less in-your-face than this in tone. On the "more" side, I love "Sudden Town," which starts with a twin-guitar riff reminiscent of "Rebel Rebel," and is incredibly self-propulsive. The closer, "Lions and Tigers," probably wouldn't amount to much without its loping sing-along chorus, but "Pulse of My Heart" and the mostly instrumental "I Love Lucy" are bouncy, bouncy fun. The band's approach doesn't help as much with "Unprotected Love," which I thought would end up swingier after hearing a solo version of it at an earlier RH show. On the "less" side, "La Cherite" shows Hitchcock the balladeer in excellent form. It sounds like a hybrid of some of the more laid back stuff from the less-than-stellar Perspex Island and the creepier tunes from I Often Dream Of Trains. As per usual, several of the lyrical reference escape me.

I guess Hitchcock has too much of the wandering minstrel in him to settle down with a band again, and he announced not too long after the release of Nextdoorland that it's goodbye from him. Shame.

Records In Review: Wire--Send

The appearance a few years ago of Wire's first bits of original material in ages was proceeded by a predictable wetting of underpants. Finally, after 25 years, they've delivered Pink Flag 2! I'm always amazed at how devotees of weirdo bands can be among the most conservative music listeners. I've found almost all of Wire's output over the years to be interesting at the very least, magnificent at best, and I don't have any particular axes to grind viz stylistic points.

Of course, I'm not going to dwell too much upon the Robert Christgau mindset when Read and Burn 01 was such a kick-ass little ep. Fast and necessarily short, it packed an undeniable punch in 17 minutes and then ran out the door, leaving the listener with a taste for more. But what more was there? I experienced Wire's latest incarnation in this order: saw them live, heard R & B 01, then heard the album. I found the live show a minor disappointment. They were incredibly focussed, but, as is often the case at Lee's Palace here in T.O., unbearably loud. There was also too much musical flag-waving for my taste; i.e., objective follow-through without a second to catch your breath. Like Stereolab, but faster and louder, and without the mallet percussion sounds. My principal complaint about the band over the years, in fact, has lain in their determination to view themselves, Eno-like, as non-musicians. I've never been sure whether or not this was purely a rhetorical posture, but after seeing this tour, I'm kind of thinking not. My purely knee-jerk opinion is that minimalism should visit live performance only on holidays, have one drink max, and then politely go home to put the bird in the oven. And anyway, Eno surrounded himself with the likes of Mr. Philip Collins and Percy Jones.

Not having heard the mail-order-only Read and Burn 02, I was curious and/or dubious about how the current band approach could be applied to a full-length album. The result, Send, a herky-jerky, processed drill-press of a disc, rewarded my curiosity but left a few of the doubts unassuaged. A very good record to be sure, but not Wire at their very, very best. The album contains three songs from the first R & B ep, four from the second, and four new ones. All or most of the tunes employ the band's current technique of record and then cut/sample/loop. All three "sessions" are pretty distinct in tone, though, and this makes the mix of tunes a bit odd at times; actually, it's the first Wire album that's ever had me using the fast-forward button regularly, not because the songs are bad, but because it's hard to swallow 50 minutes of this kind of music whole. No headbanger, me.

I would have been happy to have the whole of R & B 01 included, if I didn't own it already. "In The Art Of Stopping" and "Comet" are two of Wire's finest songs, stripped to their bare essentials and running-times. The former, which leads off both the first ep and this album, is an appropriate standard-bearer for this new music: repetitive three-chord loop hook, no chorus, an abrupt electronic one-bar drone acting as the only break and three lines of lyric. "Comet" is the catchiest tune on the record. The drum (machine) loop sounds like an early '80s Casio beatbox in a foul mood, an almost comical counterpoint to the driving straight-four guitars and bass. Again, breaks are abrupt and brutal. The balance between nastiness and humour is evident in the lyrics, too: "It's a heaven-sent extinction event/and the chorus goes/bang, bang, bang, bang, bang, bang!" Note to emo bands: a little bit of this stuff, and maybe you wouldn't suck, at least, not as badly. This is industrial-strength music with a groove and a sense of humour. "The Agfers of Kodack" was my least favourite off the first ep, as I felt it repeated the drone-and-break motif of "...Stopping," but with a less catchy groove. Love that buzzing guitar sound, though. Graham Lewis' lyrics are processed up the creek on this his only vocal performance. Heavily treated vocals are a problem on about half the album; you can't really make out a lot of the lyrics.

The weaker moments, it must be said, come from R & B 02. They run three-in-a-row in the middle of the album, and this is where I hit the ol' double-arrow-to-the-right button when I'm not in the mood. "Nice Streets Above" is heavily processed from vocals down to drum patterns. The rumbling sub-rhythms create great menace, but the song itself is fairly charmless. "Spent" is a two-chord endurance test with screamed vocals (by Bruce Gilbert, I believe?) that has no business being close to 5 minutes long. Imagine "Boiling Boy" from A Bell is a Cup..., but with angst. "Read and Burn," like "Comet," has an overtly comic side, in this case, a parodic one. Colin Newman's Dalek-processed yelping vocals punctuate like a percussion cap a comical array of industrial sounds put to a new wave beat. The closing track "99.9" is an oddity, a drawn-out, pulsating beast whose payoff couldn't possibly begin to match the menace of its build-up, but which is nonetheless impressive in its single-mindedness.

It's in the newer stuff that I see the real future potential for this incarnation of the group, should they choose to continue. Read and Burn 01 is, by its nature, a one-off; 02 pushes repetitive industrial motifs to their endurable limits; but the new tracks, or three of them anyway, allow for more breathing room and expansion. "Mr. Marx's Table" displays the relaxed Newman upper-range voice for the only time on the album, delivering a simple, lilting raga-like melody over top of layered guitars--one playing an abbreviated three-beat pattern and at least two others moving only slightly more loosely around it--and a pulsing mash of bass and barely-discernable drums. Despite its repetitive nature, it feels like it could go on for a few minutes longer (which it does on the accompanying live disc). "Being Watched" digs in at a walking/skanking pace, with a bass line that wants to lift your speakers off the floor. This one reminds me most of their "electronic" period (the unfairly-derided Manscape and The First Letter) in terms of having an awful lot of little things and bits of counterpoint going on, arrangement-wise. It also is a break from the minimalist lyrics of the first two eps, with Newman cosying up to the listener and delivering a lyric about the voyeurism of the electronic age. "You Can't Leave Now" is a favourite and encapsulates a lot of what Wire is about: frightening and funny, mechanized and yet very human and idiosynchratic. One of my all-time favourite lyrics: "You've eaten your way through/the whole menu/you've savoured every thrill/and haven't paid the bill." I'm waiting for the Trent Reznor cover, which will no doubt suck every last drop of humour out of it. "Half-Eaten" has more in common with the drill-press rhythm stuff from R & B 02, but ends before you can get too annoyed with not being able to make out the words.

In interviews, the band has stated fairly clearly that the seeds of this music were jointly a re-examination of their distant past and a reaction against the roast-pock, sorry, post-rock milieu that was still active at the dawn of the millenium. Nevertheless, Send never sounds less than modern, and only occasionally sounds reactionary. The big question in my mind is whether or not Wire can find a way to translate their current processes into a custom-built, full-length album, rather than a very interesting series of short statements.

Records In Review: Dogs Die In Hot Cars--Please Describe Yourself

As far as band names go, the lads and lady from Fyfe rank down near the bottom, somewhere between Spooky Tooth and the BFGs. Perhaps locally, they're known as "The Dogs." I don't know, and I don't need to know, 'cos this is a bloody good debut album.

The comparisons to middle-period XTC have been flying fast and furious around the band, and they're worthy comparisons, in a way. The referential nature of "Apples And Oranges" is pretty clear, and singer Craig MacIntosh does sound eerily like Mr. Partridge, with a little bit of the warbliness of China Crisis' Gary Daly thrown in (kudos to my bro for noticing this). The songwriting, though, is much more direct and there certainly aren't many musical flights of fancy on PDY. The songs themselves owe as much to recent trends in power-pop as they do to '80s Britpop. There is a good-natured swagger about the band that is disarming, and which makes you very forgiving of minor deficiencies, of which there are a few--more on that later.

"I Love You 'Cos I Have To" opens the record with vigor and a white-boy ska inflection, although if you're thinking XTC (stop that!), I can't imagine the choruses of "Reel By Reel" or "Living Through Another Cuba" with that kind of guitar approach, which is more Foo Fighters than the lads from Swindon town . A catchy tune, but I'm not sure I'd want an entire album of it. "Modern Woman," the real grower on the album, alters the pace just enough, and here the instrumentation, particularly the guitars, is allowed more room to spread out. With "Celebrity Sanctum," we leave the frenetic rhythms behind and get instead a measured, pounding straight four beat that serves as the basis for a full-blooded vocal performance. Very good to bellow along with when drunk, I imagine. All right, I don't have to imagine. And who hasn't wanted to sing, "I love Lucy/I love Lucy Liu/Yes, I love her twice as much as you?" The vocal line is quite clever, never quite hitting the beats dead on in the verse and switching to mostly off-beats in the chorus. Folky acoustic guitar and a gentle downward stepwise chord progression introduce "Somewhat Off The Way," which is sentimental in all of the right ways, although as I get older I tend to find wistful musings upon youth by 24-year-olds a bit baffling. MacIntosh carries it off well, though, sounding just achy enough without being po-faced.

The middle of the album is where the pop gold is. "Apples and Oranges" stands on the embarrassment cliff-edge with its less-than-subtle pounding 4/4 rhythm section and stupidly happy chorus melody and lyric, but gets away with it superbly. It's the one track in particular that benefits from the band's complete lack of musical cynicism. "Godhopping," the best of the album's singles (and my favourite track), has great internal propulsion, as a one-handed piano line struggles to keep pace with the rhythm section. The chorus is a vocally saturated march that'll be stuck in your head for weeks. They do seem to favour a sort of declamatory block-harmony approach on the choruses, as this shows up once again in "Lounger," probably the most innocent-sounding track on the album.

Of course, just when you're thinking that life is worth living after all, the album's final act is a minor let-down. "Paul Newman's Eyes" is in many ways the equal of its immediate predecessors, but is the unfortunate victim of bad running order; it's far too similar to "Lounger" in terms of rhythm and pace in the verse parts. "Pastimes and Lifestyles" (isn't that missing a 't'?) is the weakest link in the chain. It's the most generically modern-power-pop track, and performed by less sympathetic players might end up sounding like Blink 182. That wouldn't be good for anybody. The wistful "A Glimpse At The Good Life" is the sister track, lyrically at least, to the gentler "Somewhat Off The Way," but its chorus is a bit too four-square for its own good. "Who Shot The Baby?" certainly isn't the most melodically inspired or most interestingly arranged track, but the band's characteristic spirit again rises to the occasion to conclude the set admirably, if not exactly memorably. And yes, kids, that was indeed 5/4 you heard!

The hell-for-leather pop approach of The Dogs (oh, dear) is, of course, part of their charm, but I do think that the players could in general do with a little more breathing room. The weaker tracks like the finale don't tend to have a great deal of internal detail, which is a shame 'cos there's some very good and characterful playing here. Synth horns and guitar play nicely and simply off of each other in the instrumental break on "Paul Newman's Eyes," but this kind of thing is a rarity. The lyrics, too, are a bit hit-and-miss. Good natured and certainly never glib, but occasionally naff. The chorus of "Lounger" comes to mind: "I get up when I like/wear anything I like/don't keep up with the cool/I'll make up my own rules." That wouldn't have washed when I was 15, and it won't wash now.

But enough bitching. The bad here is only comparatively bad. There's incredible staying power here, rare in my experience for music with this kind of directness about it. Buy it. Now. Read my evil twin Emerson's review here. For future reference, he usually says what I'm thinking, but in half the number of words.

Records In Review: Metric--Old World Underground, Where Are You Now?

The first proper album by local non-yokels Metric grew quite a bit on me over time...and I got my copy of it for free, too!

Not that I'd want to generalize or anything, but Metric are fairly overt practitioners of the recent '80s revivalist sound. If you're looking for boogie-beats, sir, then may I humbly suggest that you shop elsewhere? The lines are straight, and the sounds very nicely layered--a very nicely-produced disc, in fact. There are strong echoes of early-Midge Ure-era Ultravox here--impressive drummer Joules Scott-Key sounds like an only slightly less austere Warren Cann--albeit with more attitude. The 'tude, unfortunately, accounts for some of the record's weaknesses. Which brings us to singer/keyboardist Emily Haines. Not everyone is going to warm to the fin-de-siecle ennui and snarkiness that her singing brings to the music, and it certainly took a few listens to get past my predisposition against it and to learn to appreciate how it meshes with the overall sound.

The music works best, I think, when it most successfully balances the austerity and the snottiness, which it does...for the most part. The first half of the disc is extremely good. "Hustle Rose" is my favourite; it's probably the most structurally complex (relatively speaking) tune on the record, and it moves from section to section very nicely, developing and alternating between a langorous piano-bar motif with (increasingly) rockier parts to great effect. In this way, it's quite similar to the opening track, "IOU." There's also some lovely keyboard layerings at the conclusion. The single "Combat Baby" builds up the instrumentation very nicely toward the very catchy chorus, which for some reason, always makes me think of Goths doing The Twist. "Calculation Theme," a keyboard and vocals tune, is a nice mid-album change-of-pace that contains the unforgettable line: "I wish we were farmers/I wish we knew how/to grow sweet potatoes and milk cows." Ah, love songs!

It's at this point that the album founders a bit. The opening moments of "Wet Blanket" show the band trying too hard, and it comes across as warmed-over post-punk snarliness. The lyrics don't help either: "Underneath the shaker knit he's a brick wall she keeps/ falling for the trick vegetarian sing-along/give a little kick with your fine thigh high." "On A Slow Night" is pretty hard slogging, being both melodically rigid and rhythmically static. "The List" picks things back up a bit, with electronic beepings paving the way for a hell-for-leather non-chorus that falls somewhere between The Cars and Bill Nelson's Red Noise (perhaps je stretch comparisons a bit to far..?). The penultimate track, "Dead Disco," is--how shall I put it--not good. Not good at all. "All we get is/dead disco, dead funk, dead rock 'n' roll, remodel/everything has been done, la la la la la, etc." Indeed. It's got a cool opening drum pattern. There: I said something nice about it. "Love Is A Place" is a harmless anticlimax--if you can call its predecessor a climax--that sounds like slackers playing new wave.

There's a lot to like here, but I'm hoping that on future releases the band's considerable sonic and instrumental achievement will find itself facing stiffer competition from song structure and motif selection.

Records In Review: New Musik--From A To B

Any album that's been making semi-regular trips to your turntable over the course of 20-odd years must be doing something right. Probably several things.

New Musik was/is the creation of Tony Mansfield, a former member of The Nick Straker Band, of which I know very little. From A To B was the first and best received of their three albums from the early '80s, and was certainly their most commercially successful...all things being relative. Their second album, Anywhere, did non-boffo box office and thus the follow up Warp did not get a North American release. Tony immersed himself in the world of pop production, and despite occasional threatenings, never released another NM album, and he must be getting on a bit now.

Call this music electropop, before that term became more narrowly applied to all-synth and Linn drum machine bands. The instrumentation on this album is the band's most traditional: drums, bass, mostly acoustic guitar and a heavy dose of synth, which splashes charm and atmosphere against the generally motoric rhythm section. The electronics on this album have aged very well, probably because they were off in a little world of their own, not really worrying about the fashions of the time. Mansfield, who plays guitar and keys, has an almost impossibly nasal voice that summons up associations with children's songs. A few people I know have not reacted well to what they perceived as the asexuality of the vocalist, so cock-rockers, keep back!

I've never felt an A-side or B-side with this record; both on their own have a sense of completion. "Straight Lines"--which opens with the most realistic imitation of my parents' front doorbell ever recorded--has some of the most traditionally rockist elements on the record, with an electric twang guitar hook and buzzsaw bass synth, but has a nice propulsion to it as well. "Sanctuary" is built around a Supertramp-like plinky-plink piano line and builds up great momentum with the help of the electronics. "A Map Of You" is a personal favourite that uses a four-on-six beat acoustic guitar rhythm beautifully against a mixture of chilly synth strings and the band's trademark warm bell sounds. "Science" is the most sequenced song on the album, and should have you jumping up and down in your sitting room, if you have any kind of pulse at all. "On Islands" closes out side "From A," and is the album's only real misfire, with a langorous jingle-jangle acoustic guitar rhythm that sounds unpleasantly and uncharacteristically anthemic. The song fades out with spoken word by Mansfield's young son. Charming, but twee.

Side "To B" opens with NM's most radio-rotated (in North America) song, "This World of Water," of which I'll only say, once again: if you ain't likin', you ain't breathin'. "Living By Numbers" was a reasonably successful single in the UK, and hints at the more minimalist lyrical content that would appear on Anywhere. Beginning with a spacious pure-pop acoustic guitar hook and ending with those lovely ringing bells. Great stuff. "Dead Fish (Don't Swim Home)" feels a bit like bits stuck together, opening as it does with an extended electronic reverie that's brutally interrupted by pounding 4/4 drums and bass, which in turn gives way to a very naive sing-song chorus melody. "Adventures" mirrors the track "Science" on the other side, and is the album's big toe-tapper, making good use of backwards piano in the chorus. "The Safe Side" closes "To B" with charming innocence, sounding like it could be the theme song for a children's show. I'm not complaining, and neither should you be.

Mansfield's lyrics have always been a weird counterpoint to his own delivery and the band's innocent sound. Mucho alienation and distance, although From A To B is positively upbeat compared to the follow up, Anywhere. From "A Map Of You: "Decide where you're coming from/Make your way, passing by/can't you see/don't you know/you--are--here." Add a touch of panic from "The Safe Side:" "I feel the walls are closing in around/I'm in the air, I'm falling to the ground/so tell me how does it feel to be on the safe side?" Cheer up, it might never happen!

New Musik are one of the few bands that I'm happy and willing to proselytize for, as they've always needed it. Almost everyone I've played this album for liked it or loved it. I've been waiting for the major critical/cultural reinterpretation to happen(!), but it never seemed to get going, despite the recent interest shown in bands like The Human League (early stuff) and now, in a big way, Gang of Four. Well, maybe Franz Ferdinand's next album will sample "Adventures" or something. Here's hoping!