Tuesday, May 11, 2004

This is the first post I've made in a while - so there's plenty to catch up on. In fact, the last couple of weeks have delivered the most significant new albums of the year. I'm only just managing to keep up.

Laptop improvisor Fennesz returns with 'Venice', easily his most accessible album to date. I'm usually deeply suspicious of 'laptop improvisation', in that much of it can be obsessed with electronic sound purely for its own sake, often lacking melody or discernible structure. Fennesz has something extra. His previous album 'Endless Summer' demonstrated both his love for abrasive electronics, and for the classic sixties harmonies of the Beach Boys. It refracted delicate guitar strums through dreamy sound, and the result was complex and strangely affecting.
'Venice' is an even warmer record - remarkably distant from the confrontational white noise of earlier Fennesz material. It still places considerable demand on the listener - tiny fractured melodies are buried deep within the maternal hum. The overall sound, however, is pleasingly enveloping. The tracks seem to follow a discernible arc of progression, and the intelligent deployment of dynamics is more pronounced here than on 'Endless Summer'.
Disappointingly, its use of live instrumentation is considerably less inventive. The guitars come into play heavily in some of the later tracks, but they seem to be blandly distorted and uncharacteristically detached. David Sylvian's vocal is appropriately eerie, but does seem to break the carefully sustained mood.
Taken as a whole, 'Venice' is a calming, impressively effective mood piece that sees Fennesz developing his sound into something that is individual, challenging but also inviting and inclusive. Particularly admirable is Fennesz's ability to tease the listener with slight hints of melody and rhythm, whilst subsuming them entirely to the overall atmosphere, which assumes a strangely static superiority.

Another act making strides towards greater accessibility are Brooklyn's Animal Collective. I managed to pick up last year's 2CD reissue of their first two recordings on the Fat Cat label. I found them to be intermittently fascinating, but overly academic, and a little too preoccupied by midless noise. Still, there was something novel in their combination of twee pastoral psychedelia (strongly influenced, it would seem by Barrett-era Pink Floyd) and avant garde production techniques. 'Sung Tongs' is their fourth LP and it represents a giant step forward. It's still characterised by the twee melancholia and childlike nostalgia of their earlier material, but is bolstered by a more determined engagement with rhythm, harmony and melody. Avey Tare and Panda Bear have crafted something undeniably intellectual, occasionally pretentious - but also playful and enervated.
The opener 'Leaf House' is perhaps the best example, an insistent rush of strummed guitar, syncopated percussion and manipulated vocals. 'Who Could Win A Rabbit' is anarchic, with strings of verbose non-sequitors forced into uncomfortably tight phrases. Equally impressive is 'Winters Love', which is more subtle, but no less engaging. 'The Softest Voice' is endearingly fragile. What is most impressive about this album is how Animal Collective manage to make skeletal arrangements sound expansive. Most of these songs sound like manipulated campfire singalongs.
It's by no means perfect - some moments are too elusive and abstract, or simply too droney. The centerpiece of the album is the thirteen somewhat monotonous minutes of 'Visiting Friends', a track built on excessively minimal harmonic foundations. They do not support the track for its entire length. This is emphasised by the fact that it is succeeded by the refreshingly brief (less than a minute) and entirely charming 'College', where a welcome sense of humour returns.
At its finest, 'Sung Tongs' demonstrates considerable promise, and an ability to combine riotous invention with humour and melancholic introspection. Animal Collective are still occasionally handicapped by high-minded pretensions, but they are starting to shake them off in style.

I feel like I've waited for the new album from The Magnetic Fields for longer than I would usually wait for a 214 bus. At last, it has arrived, and, pleasingly, it offers more of the same. 'i' is another themed release, albeit much more succinct than the magnum opus '69 Love Songs'. All of these songs begin with the letter 'I', first-person ruminations on love and relationships in Stephin Merritt's trademark ironic style. Merritt has bemoaned the fact that many critics seem to find sincerity in his songs and take them at face value. Yet, the beauty of these songs, to these ears at least, is that they can work on both levels - as witty and ironic musings, or as genuine declarations. The concluding track 'It's Only Time', with a marriage proposal at its heart, could be as direct a song as Merritt has yet written.
At its best 'i' is characteristically marvellous. Merritt may have gone for an entirely acoustic approach here - there are no synths, but he has not lost his talent for penning for compact pop masterpieces. 'I Looked All Over Town' is forlorn and delightful, whilst 'I Don't Really Love You Anymore' is defiantly catchy. 'I Thought You Were My Boyfriend' somehow manages to sound like a synth pop tune, but this time without deploying any synths. The arrangement would appear to consist of electric sitars and ukelelees. It's jaunty chorus is irresistible.
Merritt's wry lyrical sense of humour is still on top form - most notably on 'I Wish I Had An Evil Twin', in which he imagines his malicious doppelganger carrying out every nasty act he cannot manage himself (because evil, naturally, isn't his style). All men would be scythed and tortured, but the pretty ones would of course be saved for Merritt. This simple, brilliant image perfectly encapsulates Merritt's gay pop sensibilities.
In its second half, 'i' does seem to run out of steam a little. Merritt's ironic style has always left him in danger of falling into writing mere genre exercises and some of the tracks here do suffer this fate. 'Infinitely Late at Night' is slinky and salacious, but amounts to nothing much more than a parody of lounge or bar jazz. 'Is This What They Used to Call Love' is worse - it's imitation of barroom piano balladry a little difficult to stomach. These genre parodies all seem to be sequenced towards the end of the album - which only serves to emphasise their shortcomings. At least they are offset by Merritt's unmatched dexterity with lyrical couplets, and his way with a winning melody. 'If There's Such A Thing As Love' and 'I Don't Believe You' are among his best songs. Ultimately, 'i' is another endearing and charming collection of songs from a wry, sly master.

Coming soon...reviews of Loretta Lynn, Morrissey and Hot Chip...

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