Wednesday, July 14, 2004

Lots to catch up with in this post - mainly new albums, but I thought I'd break with tradition and start by talking about a couple of fantastic singles that have caught my attention recently. The first is one of the strangest cover versions I've heard in a while - a deliberately slow, considered and miserabilist take on 'Uptown Top Ranking' by the continually distinctive Scout Niblett. I must confess I've been a little agnostic about her music so far. Although her intensity and originality make her a remarkably striking presence, over the course of a whole album, she is just too difficult. This single though is one of her finest achievements to date, a complete refashioning of a well known pop-reggae crossover hit. It's not an easy song to interpret - but Niblett somehow manages to make it her own. Stripped down to just guitar and voice, it now sounds haunting and uncomfortable, rather than infectious and groovy as it was in its original form. It's both intelligent and deeply strange.

The other is 'Single Again' by The Fiery Furnaces, a brother and sister duo persistently (and quite inaccurately) compared with the White Stripes. Whilst the Stripes bludegeon the blues with brutal force, the Fiery Furnaces are an altogether quirkier prospect, as this single demonstrates. 'Single Again' is harmonically simple, but thematically and sonically compelling. Lyrically, it is blackly humorous, an uncompromising tale of domestic violence and marital problems ('he'd beat me and bang me/he swore he would hang me/oh I wish I was single again'). Much of its considerable appeal derives from its insistent repetition, rhythmic drive and intentional simplicity. To my ears, it's one of the best singles of the year so far. It looks like it will not be included on their forthcoming 'Blueberry Boat' album, which makes it a great single in the old-fashioned sense.

As for albums, I've been enjoying 'Mississauga Goddam', the third album from The Hidden Cameras, and for me one of the most keenly anticipated albums of the year. It is dependably brilliant, an extension of the superbly distinctive melding of honest and forthright gay themed lyrics with joyous and infectious melodies. Most of the reviews have struggled for accurate comparisons - often looking to acts like Belle and Sebastian. Whilst B&S have occasionally suffered from an overt tweeness or cloying pretension, The Hidden Cameras seem to have developed music that is both genuine and candid, populist and uncompromising. With hooks this immediate, these songs should be at the very top of the pop charts - but sadly that seems about as likely as me inheriting the throne. As much as we like to think we're a tolerant country, when it comes to gay, it is merely the camp frivolity of the Scissor Sisters or Erasure can shift units. A fiercely independent band who fill their songs with strangely moving depictions of same-sex love sadly seems to make radio schedulers run for the hills.

For the most part, 'Mississauga Goddam' is almost overflowing with joyous, uplifiting melodies. 'Doot Doot Plot', 'Fear Is On' and 'I Want Another Enema' are unashamedly catchy and effectively repetetive, the latter a frank and highly entertaining satire on hygiene obsessives ('removing hair has taken over my life/and I don't know how to stop'). These are huge songs, with arrangements so thick that the drums are virtually obscured. The tunes are mercilessly repeated, but these songs are pleasantly brief and never outstay their welcome. 'Fear is On', particularly, with its na na na na na chorus, should clearly be a massive hit.

Dazzling though these songs undoubtedly are, they are the logical extension of a winning formula established by tracks such as 'Ban Marriage', 'Breathe On It' and 'The Animals of Prey'. Where this album really works best is where Joel Gibb either realises a lyrical idea more completely, or takes a calmer, more reflective approach to composition. The closing title track is a remarkable coupling of style and substance, a delicately lilting melody with a slight hint of country twang, with a lyric sensitively espousing the claustrophobic atmosphere of smalltown Canadian life ('Mississauga people, carry the weight of common evil/ and go about their lives/ with a whisper and a whine about Mississauga Goddam'). It's an audacious songwriter indeed who puns on Nina Simone's all time classic 'Mississippi Goddam', but Joel Gibb has done exactly that, slyly referencing a great work, whilst crafting one of his most simple, direct and affecting songs. Equally powerful is the stripped down majesty of 'Builds the Bone'. Underpinned by some beautiful arpeggiated guitar playing and crowned by positively rapturous strings, this song could touch even the hardest of hearts.

Some of the more familiar, chugging Velvets-meet Spector songs also work spellbinding magic. Live favourite 'Music is My Boyfriend' is a captivating and convincing description of Joel Gibb's younger years, simultaneously coming to terms with his sexuality and discovering music. It's presented here in a much faster version, as if it is hurrying to reach its climax. 'That's When the Ceremony Starts' is the most explicit song here, a strangely muted tale of a torrid sexual liaison. It frequently threatens to erupt into a massively overblown chorus, but always retracts at the last second. I can't resist the temptation to describe it as a cocktease.

My only niggling complaint about this immensely enjoyable album is that Gibb is already displaying a worrying tendency to rely on old material. Three of the songs here have already been released in other forms. 'Music is My Boyfriend' appeared on the limited edition CBC sessions release (albeit in a different version), whilst the wonderfully celebratory 'I Believe in the Good of Life' originally appeared on 'Ecce Homo', the now sadly unavailable Hidden Cameras debut. 'We Oh We' was originally a B side on the 'Ban Marriage' EP. I just hope this doesn't indicate that Gibb has already hit a creative impasse. Still, it's hard to complain when the quality is so consistently excellent. At just over 40 minutes, this is a short, sharp shock - and a delight that simply leaves you wanting more. The Hidden Cameras remain one of the most distinctive bands at work - they feel special, and despite all the critical acclaim, they still seem like a cult act, appreciated by a select few. 'Mississauga Goddam' may rely on their already firmly established 'gay folk church' signature sound - but the music is so delightful that as far as I'm concerned, they can milk this formula for all it's worth.

'Young Forever' is the debut album (yet another on the marvellous Rough Trade label) from Scottish group Aberfeldy. It is whimsical in the extreme, twee, immensely cute, cloying, and worthy of the somewhat pejorative 'indie-schmindie' tag. It's also utterly irresistible and wonderfully charming. It's one of those sugary sweet, highly addictive albums that it's perfectly possible to enjoy over and over again, without worrying if it will ever change the world. It is also beautifully arranged acoustic music. There's no chance that this band will rely on a strum-it-and-hum-it formula. Instead we get glockenspiels, violins and tacky toy keyboards as well as the intricately plucked guitars and predictably shaky vocals. The real secret weapon at this band's disposal though are the delicious female backing vocals, which are always deployed intelligently and with real success. It's easy to bask in the naturalistic and rustic warmth that emanates from this music.

Lyrically, it's disarmingly direct - full of love songs, unrequited love songs, and break-up songs. There is plenty of silly rhyming. It's impossible to stifle a laugh when they sing 'The love we had the once was che-rished is pe-rished'. There is something quite refreshing about the deliberate lack of cool here. In a world seemingly dominated as much by image and marketing - bands such as The Strokes, Kings of Leon and Franz Ferdinand have been marketed successfully as concepts (Franz are the art band, Kings of Leon the young family of southern rockers). Aberfeldy have no pretension whatsoever. Much like their Scottish compatriots Teenage Fanclub, they simply write good songs. With strong melodies and unassuming humour (their first single was called 'Vegetarian Restaurant'), they sound like a winning prospect.

The new eponymous album from The Cure is a tedious opportunity for critics to shout 'return to form'. Forgive me if I'm wrong on this, but I'm sure that Robert Smith loudly proclaimed 'Bloodflowers' to be the last Cure album. Perhaps he has come back with another because nobody seemed to care then. If he did, he made a wise decision because interest in the Cure seems to have revived considerably in recent months. There's nothing particularly clever about giving your umpteenth album an eponymous title in the hope that people will jump for joy at the back-to-basics approach. What may be more shrewd is the employment of legendary nu-metal producer Ross Robinson (a lifelong Cure obsessive) as producer. Robinson has worked his magic on crossover successes before - 'Relationship of Command' by At The Drive In was crisp, uncompromising, fierce, if a little confused and unsubtle in its angsty sloganeering. Similar comments might be made about this album. It sounds dazzlingly intense - but sometimes all this exploding rage, anger and teenage psycho-babble just becomes too much to take.

I've always felt that The Cure were at their best when writing pop songs - 'The Lovecats', 'Boys Don't Cry', 'Just Like Heaven', 'Pictures of You', 'Close to Me', a Cure greatest hits album is a great contribution to the art of pop songwriting. Sometimes their eerie atmospherics are also peculiarly affecting, and the dark, dense world of their classic 'Pornography' album, whilst by no means pleasant, definitely made an impression There are moments on this album which are a compelling reminder of their talents. First single 'The End of the World' is catchy and engaging and the only conceiveable radio hit here, whilst 'Before Three' and 'Labyrinth' make a vaguely successful attempt to weave melody into their overwhelming chaos.

Whilst the production is sometimes adventurous, the overall impression is of a band simply trying too hard. Too many of the songs here have little respect for structure or form, and too often resort to clumsy adolescent emoting. 'Never' and lengthy closer 'The Promise' may well be the worst offenders - but, to be honest, you've done well if you get that far. Sure, great music is frequently challenging, but it isn't always this agonisingly self-conscious. There is a sense here of a band deliberately foresaking songcraft for a more extreme sound, and it comes across as rather confused. A lot of it seems heavy-handed and ill-judged. Still, who am I to judge when this record seems to be going some way to restoring the band's eighties and early-nineties popularity?

'A Ghost Is Born', the fifth album from Jeff Tweedy's increasingly amorphous Wilco provides further evidence that this band increase in popularity and find themselves the subject of more column inches as they become more adventurous. Some slightly snide reviews have suggested that this is a more conventional album than its predecessor 'Yankee Hotel Foxtrot', and therefore represents a step backwards. This is surely missing the point. Anyone who has followed Wilco from the sprawling double set 'Being There' onwards would recognise Jeff Tweedy's mission to meld traditional songwriting values with challenging arrangements. Where before they relied upon live performance to create their country-tinged rock music, they are now making full use of the recording studio, and their ubiquitous producer Jim O'Rourke. 'Yankee Hotel Foxtrot' employed clattering, asymmetrical rhythms, feedback drones and radio static to create a mysterious ether into which the band fed their best collection of songs. Aside from some rather dubious rehashing of Lou Reed's 'Metal Machine Music' towards the end of the set, it is the songs rather than the concept placed at centre stage here. For the most part, the experimentation now seems firmly integrated with Tweedy's songwriting process.

The stunning opening track is a case in point. 'At Least That's What You Said' begins so quietly it is almost inaudible, with just some delicately struck piano chords, and Tweedy's mournful, vulnerable vocal. It is laconic and deeply haunting, and it lulls you into a false sense of security before it explodes into a frenzy of riotous guitar stabs and Neil Young-esque fretting. It is a far more effective refashioning of the quiet-loud formula than anything Mogwai have recently attempted. On the awesome 'Spiders (Kidsmoke)', the band concoct a swampy, hypnotic groove strongly reminiscent of Neu! and punctuate it with more stadium guitars. The juxtaposition is unusual, but works brilliantly.

Other songs demonstrate how the most subtle of sonic manipulations can really enhance the mood and impact of a song. 'Handshake Drugs' benefits from ethereal effects that remind me a little of Robert Fripp's guitar work for David Bowie on 'Heroes', and the delicately plucked bassline gives it a similar light propulsion. On 'Muzzle of Bees' and 'Wishful Thinking', the sound is more stripped back, and quiet drums move in and out of the mix, presumably played with mallets rather than wood sticks. 'Hell Is Chrome' is so quiet it floats, but with a pervading sense of menace underlined by its lyrics. It's one of the best ever Wilco songs. Without losing coherence, 'A Ghost is Born' also finds room for some very enjoyable straight ahead rockers. Closer 'The Late Greats' is infectious and would make an effective single, whilst 'I'm A Wheel' is full of energy, with Tweedy tightly controlling his phrasing to fit in all the lyrics. The band sound taut, crisp and disciplined, without sacrificing energy or dynamism.

Whilst there are plenty of guitar theatrics on display here, it's the range of sounds that makes 'A Ghost Is Born' so distinctive. The increasing prominence of the piano makes the sound more elaborate, whilst the use of violin on 'Hummingbird' adds an effective folk twist to what is, appropriately, this album's most immediately hummable song. The arrangements improve what are already intelligent and affecting compositions.

Lyrically, there has been great improvement too. Tweedy has reigned in his penchant for stream-of-consciousness rambles. The meaning now is arguably enigmatic rather than elusive, and the lines have a more comfortable and engaging flow. 'Hummingbird' has one of the most touching opening verses I've heard this year ('his goal in life was to be an echo/riding alone, town after town, toll after toll/a fixed bayonet through the great southwest/to forget her'), vivid, evocative and compelling writing. 'Hell Is Chrome' is a deceptively simple tale of malevolent temptation, concise and controlled. 'At Least That's What You Said' has the devastating couplet 'You're irresistable when you get mad/isn't it sad that I'm immune' - what a perceptive description of an irrational relationship breakdown.

The only sour note on this otherwise superb album is the fifteen minute 'Less Than You Think'. The opening three minutes are wistful and touching, but then, quietly, it falls away into over ten minutes of drones and feedback. I concede that this isn't an altogether unpleasant sound - it's more soporiphic than frustrating. Left for a few minutes, it might have made for an interesting experiment. If you concentrate hard, it's possible to hear subtle changes in the tone and sound. But ten minutes! That could try the patience of a saint, and I have rushed for the skip button on every occasion I've played this album. Naturally, in their recent cover piece on Wilco, serious contemporary music magazine The Wire have rushed to the defence of this pointless exercise in studied musical academia. Apparently, Jeff Tweedy was trying to convey the sounds in his head whilst he was suffering from debilitating migraines and addiction to prescription painkillers. Well, that's a reasonable concept - but he could have written a song about the experience rather than attempt this rather blatant and unoriginal tactic. Anyway, it's forgiveable when it's placed in context - the rest of this album is daring and imaginative, whilst remaining firmly in tune with the strong traditions of American songwriting. The title is apt - much of it sounds ghostly and haunting. I also get the sense that this is just the start of this remarkable band's journey.

Anyway, that's it for now. Keep an eye out for more reviews over the weekend, including a summer round-up of the musical year so far.

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