Monday, November 29, 2004

The Great 2004 Catch-Up Attempt Part One

The recent paucity of posting on this blog is by no means indicative of a lack of quality music. In fact, the situation is quite the contrary as I am currently collapsing under the weight of recently acquired CDs and vinyl. There is so much to review that I will inevitably have to spread it across two, possibly even three posts. In a no doubt futile attempt to pick up all the key albums of the year before I have to complete an albums of the year list, I’ve been feverishly spending in the last couple of weeks!

Neko Case – The Tigers Have Spoken (Anti)

Whilst this quite charming live album has on the whole been blessed with good reviews, I’ve also been dismayed by some slightly snobbish comments as well. Apparently, as it’s a live album, it’s merely an adequate stop-gap before Neko Case returns next year with her next ‘proper’ album (i.e. a studio recording). Some have also been critical of backing band The Sadies, claiming that they fail to recreate the mysterious and ethereal atmosphere of the excellent ‘Blacklisted’ album. I say both arguments are nonsense. Perhaps it’s simply because live albums are becoming increasingly de rigueur these days that critics have become slightly jaded about them - witness entirely unnecessary cash-in DVD tie-in products from Busted, Red Hot Chili Peppers, Robbie Williams et al and Pearl Jam releasing virtually every concert they play. Naturally, ‘The Tigers Have Spoken’ is not one of those albums. The Sadies may not be as boisterous as The New Pornographers or The Boyfriends, nor do they pile on too much reverb to attempt to recreate the ‘Blacklisted’ sound. Instead, they adopt a different approach, providing a rich and textured backdrop for Case’s stunning vocals – a sound appropriately steeped in country music history, but also with plenty of elegance and glamour.

One very simple reason why this live album feels special is that it contains a plethora of previously unreleased material, including new compositions as well as carefully selected cover versions. It demonstrates conclusively that Neko Case is both a gifted singer-songwriter and an interpretative performer of real quality, a rare commodity in the industry at the moment. It’s gratifying that such a spirited version of Loretta Lynn’s ‘Rated X’ can sit comfortably alongside a nuanced and balanced piece of songwriting such as the title track. Whereas sometimes records with a ‘classic’ sound can come across as self-conscious or antiquated, ‘The Tigers Have Spoken’ shows that Case and her musicians have a real passion for the music they deliver. One of the best examples is opening track ‘If You Knew’, which has energy and emotional depth. It has an appealing twang to it, and Case’s vocal is filled with the soulful resonances of Patsy Cline or Tammy Wynette. Equally brilliant is the rendition of Buffy Sainte-Marie’s ‘Soulful Shade Of Blue’, which features some brilliant pedal steel guitar playing courtesy of John Rauhaus. Here, Case sounds perfectly in tune with her source material, committed and full of character.

Every track here charms because they all capture, with considerable success, the intimacy of small club live performance. This is particularly true of the ballads and traditional material, which Case handles as well as more uptempo contemporary styles. The closing ‘Wayfaring Stranger’ is compelling, and makes for an intriguing feminine counterpoint to Johnny Cash’s much darker, masculine recent version. Sometimes the sound quality is slightly muddy, as on the lilting ‘Hex’, but rather than being a limitation, this actually adds warmth and immediacy to the music. An album of considerable merit in its own right, ‘The Tigers Have Spoken’ by no means feels like a stopgap release. Listening to this album, I find myself again enchanted by Neko Case’s haunting, hypnotic and graceful music.

The Arcade Fire – Funeral (Merge)

Here is a quite superb album, and a serious late contender for album of the year. And, behold, they are Canadians! This is one of those albums that, whilst ostensibly an ‘indie-rock’ record, also manages to veer beyond classification. There are elements of other critically favoured bands – the relentless chug of Grandaddy, the arty sensibilities of Franz Ferdinand and the cinematic scope of Mercury Rev spring most immediately to mind. Yet there is also much more than these somewhat superficial comparisons. The Arcade Fire have that brilliant ability to produce the best results from their material through intelligent arrangement and deft employment of studio technique. ‘Funeral’ rivals recent landmarks from Doves and Broken Social Scene for inventive use of the resources of the recording studio. It is also positively brimming with original ideas and carefully orchestrated myth-making, not least through the packaging, which looks more like a mediaeval manuscript than a CD inlay. Clearly a band after my heart!

Nearly half of this album is devoted to four songs under the banner title of ‘Neighbourhood’ – a song cycle with the motorik drive of Can and the angular qualities of Talking Heads or Gang of Four. These songs also have something more refreshing and possibly more unfashionable than these undeniably modish influences as there is an unashamed and keening romanticism. Neighbourhood #1, subtitled ‘Tunnels’ is located in a post-apocalyptic space where the neighbourhood has been buried in snow, and two lovers meet in tunnels connecting their homes. It has grand ascending keyboard chords and dense layers of guitars and it sounds rousing and engaging. Neighbourhood #2 begins with a comfortingly familiar groove with rumbling tom drums and lightly plucked high guitar chords. After just a few seconds though, it reaches a new level with the highly unpredictable entry of an accordion. Neighbourhood #3, subtitled ‘Power Out’ is about as close to dance music as rock gets, with its wiry, tightly controlled groove. The fourth and final song in the cycle is ‘Kettles’, which is softer and more reflective, demonstrating that this extraordinary band are as adept at constructing slow-burning, less lavish orchestrations.

Elsewhere, there is also a palpable melodic sense, particularly on ‘Une annee sans lumiere’ and ‘Crown of Love’. The vocals are have that slightly cracked vulnerability that inevitably evokes memories of Mercury Rev or The Flaming Lips. The Arcade Fire can also extrapolate ideas that initially seem merely intriguing into colossal statements. ‘Crown of Love’ and ‘Wake Up’ almost have too many ideas, but somehow all the disparate elements are brought together to make a weird kind of logical sense. The songs are enhanced by the different tones and timbres the band manage to eek out from their instruments. ‘Rebellion (Lies)’ builds on a remarkably simple harmonic foundation with lush strings (in part courtesy of Owen Pallett and Mike Olsen from The Hidden Cameras), handclaps, infectious backing vocals and chiming guitars. It’s repetitious, for sure, but also completely irresistible.

‘Funeral’ is consistently inventive, defiantly romantic and also shamelessly memorable. It is one of those rare albums that manages to be simultaneously mournful and uplifting. Whilst intended as a collection of songs for the departed, it also sounds fresh and energised. It ties together all of the qualities needed for great pop music in a way that seems distinctive and, most importantly, genuinely thrilling. Unfortunately, it’s only available on US import here at the moment (although at an unusually reasonable price). A UK bidding war for next year seems more than likely and some live dates simply cannot come soon enough.

Califone – Heron King Blues (Thrill Jockey)

I’m only about ten months behind the times with this one – but in a way it’s gratifying to know that there are still some good records from earlier in the year that I have somehow managed to neglect. ‘Heron King Blues’ is a somewhat abstruse document from a highly unusual band that, given time, reveals itself as a quietly compelling juxtaposition of old and new. In essence, this is a refashioning and modernisation of traditional blues forms but whereas The White Stripes frequently opt for piling on the distortion and thrashing drums, Califone opt for a more subtle, if no less minimalist approach. Much of this music is built upon drone and repetition, and with its dependence on lightly plucked guitars, Waitsian percussion foundations and twanging banjos, it comes across like a countrified Steve Reich or Gavin Bryars.

The seven tracks here, most of them lengthy, display simple harmonic ideas which are extended to their logical conclusions. It frequently works very well, such as on the percussive ‘Trick Bird’ and ‘Sawtooth Sung A Cheater’s Song’ although the approach to melody is abstract and occasionally frustratingly elusive. There are times when the tracks require a more concrete, identifiable melodic feature. Nevertheless, the sound is fascinating, combining swampy blues textures with electronics and modern rhythmic interventions. The fourteen minute epic ‘2 Sisters Drunk On Each Other’ is clearly intended as the major track here. It’s certainly full of ideas, and it veers from a funky improvised groove to a repeating banjo loop. It’s a track that would have been ripe for analysis in the excellent (if characteristically dry) feature on the riff as a compositional tool that dominates the current issue of The Wire magazine. ‘Heron King Blues’ demonstrates considerable potential and is definitely worth investigating.

Khonnor – Handwriting (Type)

This is an intriguing debut from seventeen year-old Connor Kirby-Long, and in some quarters he is already being hailed as some kind of prodigy. I’m not sure that excessive hyperbole will help him much, as ‘Handwriting’ is more a set of skeletal ideas that could benefit from bolder realisation next time. It is the coherent and distinctive sound of the album as a whole that most impresses – a combination of acoustic strum and laptop textures that loosely resembles the current breed of electronic improvisers such as Christian Fennesz, although these ideas are filtered through more conventional song structures.

It’s relaxed and hazy almost to the point of being soporific but many of the songs here do repay close attention. With its mix of cascasding guitar, fuzzy drum loop and layered backing vocals, ‘Crapstone’ sounds hypnotic and otherworldy. The stark piano chords of ‘Kill2’ are haunting and mysterious. Best of all is ‘Phone Calls From You’, which is remarkably direct and moving in its own fuzzy way. On most of these tracks, Khonnor has left his muted voice hushed and low in the mix, giving it a feeling of impassive distance and detachment that seems appropriate for the calm melancholy of the music. Occasionally, it feels a little tentative, but with the benefit of experience, such quibbles will no doubt be ironed out.

Slightly more problematic are the lyrics which are sparse and unpoetic, almost like Haikus. Sometimes this approach works well, conveying emotions in the simplest and most direct of terms. The lyrics are certainly best when they do not rhyme, when Khonnor does reach for a more conventional approach, the results are somewhat forced, notably on ‘An Ape Is Loose’ which has the unfortunate opening image: ‘The night I called you on the phone/Your eyes were sealed with styrofoam’. Much better is ‘A Little Secret’ which sets an elusive tale of an unnamed person reading the contents of a letter and crying to a New Order-esque strum and electronic backbeat. It is all the more successful because we do not even the name of the central character in the song and we are not allowed to discover the contents of the letter. We are left only able to imaging the devastating contents of the letter.

There’s certainly a somewhat maudlin quality to the album as a whole, and Khonnor would appear to have learnt a great deal from his heroes Morrissey, My Bloody Valentine and Radiohead. Personally, I hope that the follow-up to this record employs some humour or irony to balance the wistful regret and slight tinge of self-pity, but for now this distinctive debut will certainly suffice.

Various Artists – Dave Godin’s Deep Soul Treasures Volume 4 (Kent)

It was with tremendous sadness that I opened this month’s Mojo magazine to discover the sad news of Dave Godin’s death. I was saddened first of all for the loss of one of the most passionate and genuine voices in music promotion, but also because the news of his death had not been more widely reported. It is such a shame that Godin remained a largely unknown figure. Godin ran a record label dedicated to publishing great rare soul music which otherwise would have remained unheard, and also owned his own record store. Most importantly, in his influential column for Blues and Soul magazine, Godin coined the terms ‘northern soul’ and ‘deep soul’. Whilst the first term refers to a genuine movement centred on the mod rare soul clubs of Manchester, the latter term arguably refers to something more spurious. It is this sub-genre that has provided the focus for his more recent tireless work as a compiler. The Deep Soul Treasures CDs are essential purchases for anyone with even a passing interest in classic soul music. By setting some rare gems alongside more familiar artists, they have enabled me to collect some of the very greatest soul singles whilst also introducing me to a plethora of soul vocalists of which I was entirely ignorant. Godin’s own liner notes reveal the tragedy of the vast number of hugely talented vocalists left languishing without funding or label backing. Many of the greatest records on these collections ended up being one-offs.

It’s arguable that Volume 4 of this collection is blunted slightly by familiarity, and by the fact that Godin had already spread so many great sides across the previous three sets. Still, there’s still a wealth of great stuff here, from neglected versions of established classics (Roy Hamilton’s take on ‘Dark End Of The Street’) to complete unknowns (Jaibi’s ‘It Was Like A Nightmare’, Matilda Jones’ awesome ‘Wrong Too Long) to the almost over-familiar (Clarence Carter’s ‘Slip Away’, Irma Thomas’ classic original version of ‘Time Is On My Side’ and The Miracles’ utterly peerless ‘Tracks Of My Tears’). The latter selections seem a little perverse as they are already on countless other soul compilations, but ‘Tracks of My Tears’ is one of my all time favourite singles (if not the very greatest), with its mercilessly concise but overwhelmingly brilliant lyric and an arrangement that is as close to perfection as pop music can get. Any compilation can only be enriched by its presence.

Volume 4 does benefit from containing a more diverse range of selections. The pace is still largely slow and mournful – with Godin favouring the emotional sweep and grand expression which characterises the deep soul movement., but this is also a collection filled with resonant, deeply powerful music delivered with character and gusto. Some of the very best singers are here, from the towering but vastly underrated voice of Garnet Mimms (‘My Baby’ is just one of the many tracks that demonstrate him to have been the true heir to Sam Cooke’s gospel soul crown). Bobby Bland delivers the gutsy, bluesy ‘I Pity The Fool’ and from Gladys Knight and the Pips there is the colossal ‘Giving Up’.

or the most part, these recordings sound pure, free from the interventions and impositions of developing technology. There is a rawness and spontaneity to the best tracks, despite their frequently lavish orchestrations. The rhythm sections of these soul house bands contain dynamic and tightly controlled playing that also helps to highlight the emotional gravity of the material. Most significant though are the brilliant vocalists, who frequently exert mastery over their instrument, expressing anguish whilst also reigning in the more tempting excesses. These are kitchen sink epics of love and loss that build to staggering heights, proving that pop music can capture universal themes with profoundly devastating impact. Godin’s final liner notes again demonstrate the range and depth of his passion for the music, as well as his vast knowledge of the field. This collection stands as a final great addition to a classic series of compilations. As an introduction to the most nakedly emotional styles of soul singing, they are indispensable.

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