Tuesday, January 11, 2005

The First Reviews of 2005!

The new year is certainly beginning with a bang. Indeed, so many of the key releases of the year for me seem to be being released on January 24th that I may well be bankrupted before the year's even got into swing. Anyway, here are the first handful of albums that I've managed to hear...

Mercury Rev - The Secret Migration

The ethereal beauty of 'Deserter's Songs' allowed Mercury Rev belated but hard-earned critical garlands, but also ushered many writers into swathes of hyperbole that have yet to wear off. 'All Is Dream' was branded a continuation of the good work of 'Deserter's Songs', whereas actually it was stodgy, portentous and mostly quite dull. Arguably the best element of 'Deserter's Songs' (and indeed its equally excellent predecessor 'See You On The Other Side' was its consummate engagement with great American musical traditions, from Appalachian folk through to improvised jazz. For 'All Is Dream', the band seemed to have forgotten that this was their great strength, instead opting to create an alternative fairytale reality, with music overburdened with distorted guitars and big drums, the results being depressingly ordinary. There is, unsurprisingly, both good news and bad news with the highly anticipated 'The Secret Migration'.

The good news is that it is another sidestep in a slightly different direction. It is much more 'pop' than its predecessor, and doesn't neglect memorable melodies to quite the same extent (although they are arguably still in much shorter supply than I had hoped). It also has a luscious, richly cinematic quality that may endow it with some appeal. At its best, it is simple and effective, particularly on the loose-limbed and rhythmic 'Across Yer Ocean', a song which benefits from being uncharacteristically understated, and is bolstered by some irresistible twangy guitar lines in the tradition of Jimmy Webb songs. Equally endearing is the undeniably pretty 'My Love', which has a lovely Roger McGuinn-esque guitar solo and remains quietly mournful throughout. 'Secret for a Song' is the big opening statement, and the one moment where the great drive to achieve a 'big sound' actually results in something engaging. The short and sweet 'Moving On', with its Beach Boys-inspired harmonies is also an unexpected twist in proceedings.

The bad news is that much of 'The Secret Migration' is again incredibly mundane. The elaborate and dense arrangements of 'Deserter's Songs' remained sidelined in favour of great swathes of synth and keyboard orchestrations that fail to add very much beyond the merely impressionistic. They certainly don't have the verve or imagination of the synth stylings of the recent Destroyer album. That these bland sustained chords and studio effects are piled on to pretty much every song also makes for a irritatingly homogenous collection. Very few of the songs actually have either the energy or the emotional appeal to linger much in the mind. Lyrically, Jonathan Donohue remains committed to all things mythical and mystical, clearly striving to transcend ordinary reality, but frequently ending up sounding crass and unconvincing. When we get totally awful song titles like 'Black Forest (Lorelei)' and 'First Time Mother's Joy (Flying)', it's very hard to banish thoughts of 'Tales From Topographic Oceans' from the mind. There is a sense with recent Mercury Rev material that they have started to take themselves far too seriously, convinced that they are making hugely significant musical statements when they are in fact merely drifting without many useful ideas.

Unsurprisingly, 'The Secret Migration' has already been highly acclaimed by a British Music Press afraid to criticise a pantheon it helped to create. Mercury Rev seen to have inadvertently become one of the untouchable giants of modern rock music. Some seem enthralled by the band's romantic quality, but a much better example of shameless romanticism would be the outstanding debut from Canada's Arcade Fire (see my albums of 2004 list and previous review). 'The Secret Migration' has a handful of charming moments, which is better than a kick in the teeth, but mostly it fails to ignite.

Lou Barlow - Emoh

Well you either know Lou Barlow's songwriting intimately and love it with all your heart, or you don't. It seems unlikely that this first 'official' solo album from Barlow (at least it's the first released under his own name) will bring Barlow any wider recognition. For those that know, however, this may be what we've been waiting for for years. It's still faithfully lo-fi, mostly built over unfussy acoustic guitar strums, and occasionally bolstered by silly toy keyboards. What makes it stand out from other Barlow projects is its consistency of purpose and quality, as well as it's relative lack of arsing about. With Sebadoh, Barlow wrote some of the most elegantly moving, lovesick indie songs ever penned ('Soul and Fire', 'Rebound', 'Together Or Alone', 'Willing to Wait' and 'The Beauty Of the Ride' would easily all make it into my favourite songs of the nineties list), and with the Folk Implosion he crafted a number of excellent albums, most notably 'One Part Lullaby', a putative attempt to engage more with modern technology. 'Emoh' strips Barlow's songwriting back to its bare essentials, sometimes with melodies so simplistic, they sound like nursery rhymes.

There's an innocence and naivety here that manages to be touching rather than twee. It treads a fine line for sure, but it stays exactly on the right side of it because, as ever, Barlow's perenially adolescent takes on human relationships end up being surprisingly perceptive. There are plenty of platitudes, but Barlow sings them with such underplayed sincerity that it's hard not to feel a tug on the heartstrings. The two highlights are a pair of beautiful songs, as good as any he has ever written. 'Legendary' and 'Puzzle' are among his most perfectly concise, and deeply affecting compositions. On the latter, he seems genuinely bewildered, confessing, 'in between my shadow and your light, I did lose you', whilst on the former, he is simply devastated. Elsewhere, the arrangements are slightly more playful, such as on 'Caterpillar Girl', an obvious choice of single should Domino want to release one, or on 'Monkey Begun', which is almost upbeat. On 'Home', the rudimentary drum machine is reminiscent of Barlow/Davis incarnation of Folk Implosion. There's very little of the angsty, grumpy Lou that has blighted his chances of success in the past, and 'Emoh' does seem like a concerted attempt to produce a consistently powerful collection of deceptively simple songs. With me, Barlow is certainly preaching to the converted, but if you want a way in to understanding the Barlow mindset, this may be the best place to come.

Patrick Wolf - Wind In The Wires (Tomlab)

Patrick Wolf's elaborate vocalising is a million miles from Lou Barlow's soft and delicate delivery. In fact, I often wish Patrick would stop sounding so serious and earnest and give his often excellent songs a little more room to breathe. Advance reports have suggested that he has done exactly that with 'Wind In The Wires'. It sounded like he was going to take the best elements of 'Lycanthropy', an album which demonstrated tremendous potential, and build them into something spectacular, with wildly abstruse arrangements combining with more restrained, folk-tinged melodies.

Given that the bulk of 'Lycanthropy' was written when Patrick was very young (and clearly also quite impressionable), it's not surprising that some of it betrayed a rather adolescent world-view. It seemed to focus closely on Patrick's pubescent experiences and confusions. 'Wind In The Wires' is based on more of Patrick's youthful experiences, this time in the form of train journeys across the West country and glimpses of the Devon coastline. It is thematically much more coherent and mature than its predecessor, and its preoccupation with Hardy-esque stories, landscape and weather lend it a lingeringly evocative quality. It is bookended by two remarkable songs which are easily the best he has recorded so far. 'The Libertine' lives up to its name by sounding reckless, carefree and wild, melding folky violin with a relentless disco beat. The concluding 'Land's End' is a carefully constructed epic that veers from the wistful to the exhuberant, and it perfectly summarises this album's many moods and feelings. Much of this album concentrates on the idea of escape and the chorus of this song states 'I'm leaving London for Land's End/ With a green tent and a violin'. It perfectly captures the thrill of leaving the crowded city for a more personal, mysterious space. It is a great journey into the unknown.

In between the two, there is also much to be encouraged by. 'Teignmouth' is spectacularly beautiful, and one of Patrick's most complex and deftly handled arrangements. That it dates back to his teenage years clearly demonstrates his precocious talent and self-confidence. 'Ghost Song' sounds distant and shimmering, whilst 'This Weather' drifts mysteriously in and out of the ether. Elsewhere, however, it's arguable that Patrick concentrates on mood, sound and theme at the expense of melody. I love the way this album sounds - it's conflagration of quaint instrumentation and modern electronics, its careful engagement with both folk music and the torch song - it's just that I struggle to recall specifics. I can remember the spirit and feel of this album - I just couldn't really hum any tunes from it. Patrick's tendency to oversing also obscures melodic gifts that are undoubtedly present, but perhaps still need to be given room to develop. Plenty of people have been seriously comparing Patrick with the young Kate Bush, whose melodies were often complex, and could also prove strangely elusive. What feels frustrating now may well make perfect sense given several more listens. I certainly want it to - because 'Wind In The Wires' is an intelligent and touching paen to the naivety and thrill of escape.

Roots Manuva - Awfully Deep (Big Dada)

What a superb record this is - not just an early contender for the best British hip hop album of the year, but simply for the best hip hop album of 2005 full stop. Much of 'Awfully Deep' builds on the enticing, hypnotic groove of his classic 'Witness' single from a few years back, and the wordplay again demonstrates a fearsome intelligence. 'Awfully Deep' is one of the few hip hop albums I've heard that demonstrate a capacity for capturing melancholy feeling. From the lyrics here, it would appear that Roots Manuva has spent much of the last couple of years in a period of depressive self-analysis, and all the scrutinising has produced spectacular results. That it is as intriguing sonically as it is lyrically helps its cause considerably - with Roots clearly aiming at resisting pigeonholing and incorporating a massive range of influences, from dub producers such as Keith Hudson through roots reggae, electro, funk and soul. On 'Colossal Insight' he claims that he doesn't give a damn about UK rap - he's a UK rapper, but he doesn't want to be categorised. 'I got love for all them scenes but the pigeonholes weren't enough to hold me!' he states. On this evidence, this would prove to be an accurate self-assessment.

Roots Manuva clearly understands the classic strategy of coupling dense, dazzling wordplay with strikingly simple and infectious choruses. Where lesser talents would have relied on straightforward sampling for these choruses, often from classic soul records, Manuva sings them himself, with a shameless energy that lightens the psychological gravity considerably. The chorus of opener 'Mind 2 Motion' is hilarious, possibly the only rap track to betray the influence of children's comedy legends Trevor and Simon, with its exhortation to 'swing your pants!'. The title track also has a similarly irresistible chorus line. When set to pared down backing tracks with their squelchy electro lines and deep, bowel rumbling basslines, the raps prove to be completely compelling. The music often sounds influenced by the uncompromising firebrand spirit and energy of Jamaican dancehall music.

Whereas I often avoid rap music because I find it difficult to engage with or remember its lyrics, 'Awfully Deep' proves to be expressive and memorable. Roots himself describes his own 'venomous eloquence', his almost savage ability to nail a lyric in simple and concise verse. 'Colossal Insight' is a brilliant song about drinking, with Roots claiming 'I walk with disaster/prefer to be plastered' and confessing 'I should cut down this drinking/Too many late nights and wayward thinking'. On 'Thinking' he gets even more bogged down in existential angst, professing to be a 'lonely soldier' fighting his own battles unaided.

'Awfully Deep' manages to pull off the very impressive trick of juggling a diverse array of sounds and influences whilst maintaing an admirable clarity and coherence of purpose. It never sounds boring, just thrilling and exciting stuff from start to finish.

No comments: