Monday, June 14, 2004

New albums round-up

Well, it's about time I rounded up all the records that have landed in my bag in the last few weeks. There are quite a few of them, so be prepared for a very long post...

'The Slow Wonder' is a peculiar title for an album that seems to be over as soon as it has begun, but that is the title that New Pornographers songwriter A.C. Newman has given to his debut solo album. It lasts just 33 minutes. Critics made a great deal of the brevity of The Strokes' debut, claiming that its length ensured consistency (if consistency means a collection of merely adequate songs all sounding pretty much alike, then they were right). Whilst 'The Slow Wonder' is probably not a classic, it is largely infectious and entertaining. Newman is clearly in thrall to his influences - there are moments which recall Big Star or The Byrds and he shares a tendency for obtuse and elusive lyrics with Bob Pollard of Guided By Voices. In fact, much of this album also resembles the crisp, crunchy power pop sound of GBV. As they are about to release their final album, it's more than welcome that A.C. Newman may now take the baton from Pollard.

This album begins brilliantly. 'Miracle Drug' is immediately enthralling. It has a rolling energy, a tight arrangement and remarkably crisp production. It is followed by 'Drink To Me Babe Then', a more relaxed but equally catchy track bolstered by some nifty slide guitar playing. Both these tracks sound familiar, but also fresh and invigorating. The rest of the album is similar in style, although it some songs are not quite as memorable as others ('The Battle For Straight Time' and 'Most of Us Prize Fighters' are perhaps less immediate, as their titles might suggest). It ends powerfully too, with the confident and commanding '35 in Shade'. The quality of writing on display here bodes well for future solo releases. Newman sounds most comfortable when his melodies are at their most simple and accessible.

Royal City were one of the discoveries of last year's free Strawberry Fair festival in Cambridge where they electrified the acoustic stage with their exhuberant take on country rock. At least to these ears, it seems that they have yet to nail their sound in the studio. Last year's 'Alone At The Microphone' had its moments, but tended to drag, and its follow-up, 'Little Heart's Ease', suffers a similar fate. The production seems oddly earthbound and flat - and it compares very unfavourably with that of My Morning Jacket, a band who seem to be charting similar terrain. Royal City are capable of writing interesting songs, and arranging them intelligently, but they seem far less concerned with using the full resources of the recording studio to make their work more engaging. The result is that many of the tracks here are fascinating in isolation. Opener 'Bring My Father A Gift' is rich and mysterious, with a chorus that sounds almost like monastic chanting. 'Can't You' and 'Enemy' are very pretty songs, the former resembling the more wistful Velvet Underground songs such as 'Pale Blue Eyes'. It also takes off spectacularly when it is bolstered by organ and harmonica halfway through.

Part of the problem as a whole lies in the vocals. Although the harmonies are pleasant enough - the lead vocals seem detached and lack distinction. I must admit that I didn't pick up on this during their strawberry fair performance, so I was surprised to find it such an obstacle to enjoying this album. The other problem is that, save for the rattling, Dylanesque rambling of 'She Will Come', the album remains steadfastly mid-paced, and even at 43 minutes, it feels long and plodding.

There is obviously much to admire here. This is a thematically consistent and coherent album, with some powerful songwriting. It just feels too often that this band have failed to translate the energy of their live performances to studio work. It's rare that I say this - but some less restrained playing might help. It would be great to hear them let rip on a few more guitar solos - or even just play a little bit harder. As it stands, 'Little Heart's Ease' is merely pleasant.

The eponymously titled first album from The Memory Band is one of 2004's quiet gems. I first came across this band in a pub in Islington, where they were joined on Harmonium by Hot Chip singer Alexis Taylor. I found the set intermittently fascinating, but the album is more angaging still. It is the work of Stephen Cracknell, who has recorded electronic music under the guise of Gorodisch for the outstanding Leaf label, and it seems to be an attempt to merge traditional English folk sounds and traditions with the more futuristic production techniques that Cracknell obviously admires. The tag folktronica is one of those horribly overused terms - but to my mind, this seems closer to folk music than the first Manitoba album, or even the work of Four Tet's Kieran Hebden. It has a wistful, pastoral feel to it, but it never becomes twee or cloying. Instead, it creates its own distinct space, with a fascinating range of sounds and ideas. The Memory Band is aptly named as this sounds like the recovery of a collective memory and tradition and bringing new life to it through new influences. It is an affecting hybrid.

The album benefits from an excellent cast of supporting players. Adem Ilhan and Sam Jeffers from Fridge appear on a number of tracks, and excellent singer-songwriter Polly Paulusma offers her vocal talents, although she is mixed so low that she is almost inaudible. The album's greatest strength is that it keeps vocals to a minimum - when they are used, it tends to be in the form of chants and repeated phrases rather than verse-chorus-verse. Instead, the album explores, largely with considerable success, a number of different techniques in arrangement, from drones and looped drum beats to birdsong and the deployment of unusual instruments (recorders, autoharps etc). The sound is dreamy and relaxed, but never entirely soporiphic - a difficult skill to pull off. Melodic hints drift in and out of the ether (particularly on the dreamy 'Calling On'), and the album sustains its distinctive sound and approach throughout. Highlights include 'Catch As Catch Can', which showcases some fascinating jazz-inflected guitar playing, the excellent cover of Arthur Russell's 'The Way We Walk On The Moon' and the slurry, dreamy closer 'Last Orders'. It's an intriguing, charming and engaging album.

The 1,175th album from Sonic Youth is the dependably challenging 'Sonic Nurse'. It must be said that it hardly breaks new ground for the band - not even the addition of the warped mind of Jim O'Rourke has made much difference to their sound or their agenda. 'Sonic Nurse' sounds sharp, focussed and well produced (the guitars sound full and the drums have real bite). This is not to suggest that it is much of a compromise. Some of the songs return to the poppier edge that made 'Dirty' and 'Goo' such breakthrough albums, but there is also a generous amount of abrasive guitar squalling. Importantly, however, 'Sonic Nurse' continues the mature and intelligent trajectory established by 'A Thousand Leaves' and 'Murray Street'. Sonic Youth are now a band characterised by commendable control. They know when it is better to employ restraint and when it is effective to be confrontational. This makes 'Sonic Nurse' one of their more consistent and powerful albums, if not one of their most original.

If anything, this is Kim Gordon's album. For the most part, Thurston Moore sounds relaxed and restrained, whereas Gordon's material attacks and claws at the listener (particularly the opening 'Pattern Recognition'). The best tracks on the album are rhythmically agressive, and with intricate guitar arrangements. Sometimes this approach can leave Sonic Youth sounding like a chaotic band of isolated avant garde virtuosos battling to be the clearest voice - but here they sound vibrant, integrated and impressive.

The new album from Badly Drawn Boy, 'One Plus One Is One', seems to have taken a real critical hammering during the past few months. True, it is not the homespun restorer of faith that I had hoped it would be, but it is not completely without charm either. It begins with the lyric 'back to being who I was before', which sounds like a statement of intent, and a summary of this album's aims. 'Have You Fed The Fish?' suffered from its overproduced LA rock sound, and its follow-up sounds like a conscious reaction against this. It was recorded in Stockport with Damon Gough's Twisted Nerve colleague Andy Votel producing and engineering. It ought to be a simple, direct and touching affair.

In places, it certainly is. 'This Is That New Song' is one of Gough's most uncomplicated songs in ages - delicate, serene and with a subtle and involving melody. 'Easy Love' is also charming and effective. 'Another Devil Dies' is structurally and musically ambitious - it feels like a quiet triumph. The opening title track is striking - it seems informed by the same ideas that dominated 'Have You Fed The Fish', but it has a more spacious sound, and the arrangement is characteristically lavish. It also boasts the boldest and most successful vocal performance on the album.

Elsewhere, there are problems. Gough sounds muted and flat throughout the album, mostly singing in a low register which conveys little of his usual whimsical charm. On the more exhuberant moments, he has made the mistake of employing a child's choir. 'Year of the Rat' is just about bearable, but it's very treacly. To use the choir a second time on 'Holy Grail' represents a real error of judgment. There may be good songs buried underneath here - but it's hard to really engage with them. Similar problems affect 'Four Leaf Clover', which sounds brilliant musically - a soulful stomp with joyous handclaps which should be a moment of fun. Instead, Gough's vocal sounds strangely half-hearted. It needs the unashamed sentiment of songs such as 'You Were Right' or the big northern soul treatment of 'Disillusion' or 'All Possibilities'.

The production also isn't as distinctive as I would have hoped. 'Summertime In Wintertime' is a little rough and ragged, and makes for a welcome change in approach, but for the most part Votel's tricks seem to be a little obvious. On 'Life Turned Upside Down' the vocals are, well, turned upside down. Elsewhere, there are samples of chattering voices, rain and other such found sounds, but very little that adds much to the songs. It's nice to hear a wide range of instrumentation - there's plenty of electric piano, and some delicate acoustic guitar work - but that is something we've already come to expect.

As a collection of songs, 'One Plus One Is One' is adequate - and has moments that may point the way forward. However, it also feels like a minor work, stuck in a halfway house unsure of its overall direction. There is nothing here as inventive or intelligent as 'Silent Sigh'. Gough does not seem to have worked out how he wants to use his voice on this album. He is neither the best singer nor the best musician around - but in the past he has demonstrated good sense in knowing his limitations and working within them. To do that, he needs to craft songs as distinctive as 'Once Around The Block' or as touching as 'Magic In The Air' or 'The Shining'. His live shows are always stunningly entertaining and full of fun - I would be prepared to bet money that these songs come across more comfortably in the live setting.

The debut album from The Earlies has the rather strange title of 'These Were The Earlies'. I'm not sure whether or not that means it is the first and last we will hear from the band. I'm presuming it's just dry humour. It's one of those debuts that has been cobbled together mostly from previously released material. It contains all of their singles and EPs so far. Given the diversity and scope that this band have already demonstrated, it inevitably suffers from a lack of cohesion. If we can accept this, however, it is an impressive first venture.

Comparisons with Mercury Rev and Flaming Lips will no doubt be thrown at this band, and listening to a track like 'Wayward Song' with its vulnerable, high-pitched vocal and intricate arrangements (pianos, woodwind), it's easy to see why. However, whilst the Rev seemed to be headed in a slightly plodding, earthbound direction with the disappointing 'All Is Dream' album, 'These Were The Earlies' shoots off everywhere. The superbly titled 'One Of Us Is Dead' is a case in point - a brilliant mini-epic with multi-layered vocals and plenty of studio trickery. 'Devil's Country' is mad - parping brass and angular toms, together with more of the band's unusual vocal arrangements. The way vocals are used on this album is remarkably impressive. The Earlies do not seem overly concerned with verse-chorus-verse structure, and the layered vocal technique adds a great deal to their musical adventures. 'Morning Wonder' is a psychedelic drone-fest and, to my ears, one of the least interesting tracks here - but they build gradually on minimal vocal ideas, which proves highly effective and almost convinces me that the track is important.

Taken as a whole, it's quite difficult to get to grips with, but like recent albums from Doves and Broken Social Scene, 'These Were The Earlies' is an ambitious studio project with more than a few hints that this may be a band moving towards a masterpiece. They are not quite there yet, but this may still rank highly in my albums of the year list.

I've now decided this post has gone on way too long - so stay tuned for reviews of new albums from Wilco and The Beastie Boys, as well as Soul Jazz's excellent new Chicago Soul compilation. I also hope to put up reviews of the Sufjan Stevens and Magnetic Fields gigs from last week before the week is out....Thanks for reading!

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