Saturday, February 12, 2005

First of all, I must issue an apology of sorts for the recent paucity of posting on this blog. But in staying away for a while, I have left plenty of catching up to do, both from the tail end of 2004, and from the start of 2005. I’m going to concentrate on the latter in this post, if only because this must be the most exciting start to a musical year that I can remember. It’s extremely rare for so many of the key releases of the year to have emerged before the end of January, and it’s been both time consuming and expensive trying to keep up with them all.

Bonnie ‘Prince’ Billy and Matt Sweeney – Superwolf

There is the nagging sense that as Will Oldham has become increasingly prolific, his work has become less engaging. The peculiar and uncharacteristic self-consciousness behind his last couple of albums has blunted their impact. ‘Master and Everyone’ seemed like too deliberate an attempt to strip back the arrangements to their bare bones, and last year’s ‘Greatest Palace Music’, a collection of reinterpretations of some of his best songs with all manner of Nashville chintz superimposed, seemed confrontational, a slight swipe at those portions of his audience who would have him pigeonholed as some dark magus of Alt.Country. Both albums had their moments, but ‘Superwolf’, collaboration with ex-Chavez frontman and former Zwan contributor Matt Sweeney feels a good deal more organic and unforced.

This does seem to have been a collaboration in the purest sense, with Oldham ‘challenging’ Sweeney to compose some music to accompany his latest set of lyrics. The result is an album of spare elegance and brooding majesty. Other writers have pointed out that there’s nothing particularly novel here, and indeed Sweeney’s compositions provide a familiar and apposite context for Oldham’s characteristically unusual musings. Yet the differences, subtle though they are, are significant. Sweeney’s more elaborate, textured guitar playing makes the music more technically daring, and the fact that his intelligently picked figures and phrasings seem to make perfect sense makes this even more impressive. The thrill of the challenge seems to have produced the best results from both musicians, with Oldham’s bleak, mordant worldview seeming more elliptical and provocative than on recent releases.

Many of the songs are still characterised by Oldham’s distinctive use of bestial, primitive imagery, which somehow manages to be strangely affecting. Particularly successful is ‘Beast For Thee’, where Oldham’s haunting vocal line makes for an intriguing contrast with the counter melody of the guitar line. The symbolic pledge of the title is both disconcertingly bizarre and refreshingly direct. On ‘What Are You’, Oldham even offers a merciless bout of spanking, a classic example of where his black humour is delivered with what seems like a resolutely serious tone. The key track is the evocative ‘Blood Embrace’ with its memorable picked guitar line and what sound like samples from film dialogue, although I’m unable to identify them. It’s a lengthy, mysterious and brooding highlight.

Much of ‘Superwolf’ might seem a little homogenous to some ears, with its skeletal arrangements and hushed vocalising. Its few uncharacteristically explosive moments therefore come as blessings, even though it is slightly misleading to make one of them the opening track. ‘My Home Is The Sea’ is utterly brilliant, a compelling epic seemingly comprised of segments from two entirely different songs. Somehow they merge together if not quite seamlessly, then at least tastefully, and the full-blooded and expressive guitar work both creates and resolves an enticing tension. ‘Goat and Ram’ moves entirely unpredictably from a muted and whispered beginning to a massive barrage of distorted guitars and spectral harmonies bellowing the words ‘all hail!’. In another context, it might feel portentous or heavy handed, but it works well here for its sheer audacity.

Despite its consistency of pace and mood, ‘Superwolf’ sounds naturalistic, controlled and is richly poetic. Collaborating with Sweeney has broken Oldham’s creative deadlock, allowed him to find his own distinctive voice again and has resulted in his best album since ‘I See A Darkness’.

Athlete – Tourist

It seems churlish and cynical to include a review of this record purely as an excuse to have a rant, but I really can’t resist it. Amidst all the quality releases of the past couple of weeks, ‘Tourist’ stands out for its calculated, manipulative brand (and brand is definitely the right word) of earnest balladry, as well as simply for being utterly execrable. I appreciate that the sincere, overcooked ballad template is extremely popular at the moment (more power to the piano!), but what with this and the new Feeder album pushing the same blandly trite emoting, it seems we’re going to be force-fed this populist tripe for some time to come, especially as Parlophone are intent on releasing a mind-numbing five singles from this relentlessly dull collection.

I must confess I hadn’t realised that Athlete’s debut album had sold in excess of 300,000 copies in the UK, so perhaps their sudden leap into the super league isn’t quite as unexpected as I feel it should be. I hated that album, particularly for its irritating jauntiness and dependency on silly keyboard and synth effects that added nothing to the generally unremarkable songwriting. Compared to this, though, that album was brimming with innovation. ‘Tourist’ is a uniformly plodding, leaden affair that repeatedly strives for transcendence, but ends up crippled by its own lack of ideas or direction. It refuses to veer away from the limited palette established by Coldplay and Keane, and generally fails to throw up any rhythmic, harmonic or melodic invention. Songs like ‘Chances’, ‘Tourist’ and ‘Yesterday Threw Everything At Me’ begin with half-hearted attempts at creating a subtle mood, but eventually collapse under the weight of benign lyrical platitudes (of the ‘I don’t want anyone else but you’ variety) and aimless synth strings that are plastered over them. Most tracks suffer from exactly the same shortcomings as the interminable single ‘Wires’ in failing to ever really take flight. By way of contrast, ‘Half Light’ places more emphasis on the guitars, but they still strum and drong at the same dragging, insipid tempo.

I don’t want to be too callous – but this really does seem like a marketing exercise whereby the record company have thrown money at this band so that they record an album cynically aimed at the current mass market. It has so little individuality or quality of expression that, whilst it may sell bucket loads in the short term, in the long term, it will most likely prove valueless. I’ve already had the misfortune of seeing this band live twice in supporting slots. Mercifully, they seem to be well on their way to headlining enormodomes of their own now so I may well avoid them this year, although the chilling prospect of them headlining the summer festivals cannot be all that distant a prospect. First the return of the appalling Embrace, now this. Make it stop.

Shivaree – Who’s Got Trouble

Ah, much better. There’s more subtlety and invention in any thirty second sample of this album you could select than Athlete can muster across an entire 50 minutes. No doubt it is destined to suffer a similar fate in this country as Shivaree’s previous two albums, despite their debut having sold substantial amounts in other territories. This is beguiling, shimmering, haunting pop music at its very best. Those only familiar with the neutered faux-jazz of Norah Jones and Katie Melua could do worse than approach Ambrosia Parsley (or even her equally excellent contemporaries Erin McKeown and Jolie Holland) for a sultry lesson in how to incorporate jazz phrasing into a pop idiom. Really, I should be speaking in the plural here, as ‘Who’s Got Trouble’ covers so much ground across its eleven tracks that it’s simply impossible to categorise it. This is perhaps unsurprising, as their previous album ‘Rough Dreams’ adopted a similar tactic, but the sheer breadth of ideas and inspirations here is still breathtaking.

Parsley and her exquisite musicians are so confident in their handling of the material that they attempt styles that might come across as either po-faced or cheesy in less capable hands. On ‘Little Black Mess’ and the delightful ‘I Close My Eyes’, they revisit the classy bossa nova tinged feel of ‘Goodnight Moon’ (now easily recognisable as the closing music for the dreadful Kill Bill vol 2). ‘Someday’ has resonances of traditional New Orleans stomps. On ‘Lost In A Dream’, and the startling opener ‘New Casablanca’, they even craft a subtle form of low-key, smoky barroom jazz balladry. If this sounds dull, fear not, because Shivaree are masters of subtlety, texture and mood. The arrangements are intricate and fascinating, and the melodies both infectious and unpredictable. Where strings and horns are deployed, they add colour, texture and contrast to the sound, rather than aiming for the ‘soaring’ blandness that so many others currently seem to prefer. Whilst the individual parts are never overly complicated, the music seems perfectly pieced together so that nothing is superfluous or insignificant.

Whilst Parsley’s vocals were certainly seductive on the previous two Shivaree albums, she has made further improvements here. She sounds consummately elegant, mysterious and sublime, and her phrasing teases out the devastating impact from her deceptively simple words. When she sings: ‘The first cigarette, my first pill/The first cup of coffee and my first chill/You’ll never know my first kiss, somebody else will’, her precise phrasing and delivery imbue these lines with a palpable charge. On ‘Baby Girls’, she sounds like a less abrasive Lucinda Williams, actively contributing to the spooky mood of the song.

This is as considered and nuanced a record as I have heard in a long time, yet it is not academic. It is also a powerfully moving statement, and one that more than consolidates the achievements of their previous releases. It’s criminal that the British music press have given this band so little attention. It’s not being granted an official UK release until April – so at least they have some time to wake up.

Low – The Great Destroyer
Laurent Garnier – The Cloud Making Machine

I’ve banded these two albums together as both have been presented, perhaps a little simplistically, as major changes of direction for the artists concerned. Much has been made of how Low, who usually take their songs at a funeral pace and never really raise the volume above a whisper, have ‘gone heavy’ with this new album, their second for Rough Trade and recorded with uber-producer Dave Fridmann (who has been hard at work over the past few months with Mercury Rev, Flaming Lips and, more intriguingly, Sleater Kinney). Equally, reviews of Laurent Garnier’s first proper album for over five years have centred on his apparent abandonment of club-focused techno in favour of a more downtempo approach.

The Low album is not really that significant a change in direction at all. Some sources have suggested that songs here resemble early nineties goth rockers Curve. I really don’t see how anyone could have arrived at this impression. Actually, all the traditional elements that have made Low’s music so distinctive remain in place. Alan Sparhawk and Mimi Parker’s voices still intertwine in the most glorious and inseparable harmony. When Alan Sparhawk sings alone on ‘Death of A Salesman’, the result is an oddly empty affair, lacking force or emphasis. The approach to rhythm and melody is still avowedly minimal – notes and chords are allowed to linger for what often seems like ages, and Mimi Parker’s percussion retains its appropriately skeletal form.

What is different here is the context. The overall sound is more aggressive, and there is ample opportunity for Fridmann to work his magic with chiming guitar chords and his trademark reverb-assisted drum sound. The opening track (‘Monkey’), with its distorted chords and the elliptical couplet ‘Tonight you will be mine/Tonight the monkey dies’, suggests that the current political climate may have inspired Low to produce a record where anger and bile are frequently favoured over stately reflection. The result is an imposing and intense album that seethes with righteousness and engages more with the outside world. ‘On The Edge Of’ sounds huge, and effectively incorporates some Neil Young inspired fretwork into the wall of sound. There are even attempts at a more conventional pop sound – ‘Just Stand Back’ even recalls Big Star or Teenage Fanclub (another band steadfast in sticking to their trademark sound) and forthcoming single ‘California’ is probably their most immediate and accessible track to date.

That does not mean that poignancy or mystery have been completely excised. ‘Cue The Strings’ begins by doing exactly what it says on the tin, effectively a slightly inferior rewrite of the wonderful ‘Will The Night’ from the ‘Secret Name’ album (still, to these ears, one of the most beautiful songs of recent years). It unexpectedly evolves into something considerably more challenging. ‘When I Go Deaf’ is particularly haunting, and ‘Silver Rider’ retreads some of the more mysterious, elusive and eerie ground that they have covered before, albeit with sublime results in this case.

Dave Fridmann is the Phil Spector of contemporary alternative rock. Sometimes his distinctive production really lifts a record – as with The Flaming Lips’ ‘Soft Bulletin’, and sometimes it smothers material in swathes of unnecessary effects, particularly with recent albums from Mercury Rev. Here he has managed to integrate new elements into Low’s oeuvre without compromising their unique aesthetic. ‘The Great Destroyer’ is a convincing and well-executed meeting of minds that bodes considerably well for the forthcoming Sleater Kinney record.

Garnier’s new release is much less of a synthesis and by far the more radical volte-face of these two albums. ‘The Cloud Making Machine’ is by no means a failure, but I’m not yet convinced that it is worthy of some of the plaudits currently being heaped on it. It is a drifting, ethereal collection of mood pieces that frequently sounds impressive but, at least with the first few listens, doesn’t quite manage to sustain attention. One pointer as to where Garnier’s intentions may lie with this release can be spotted in the presence of electronic jazz keyboardist Bugge Wesseltoft, whose self-styled ‘new conception of jazz’ seems to inform a large portion of the material here. There is a lot of meandering, semi-improvised material here, much of it never quite creating the thrill of improvised jazz, or the hypnotic calm of the best electronica.

Having said that, the best bits of ‘The Cloud Making Machine’ work brilliantly. ‘9:01-9:06’ is stuttering and unpredictable, and sounds doubly surprising sequenced after the somewhat noodling introduction. ‘Babiturik Blues’ incorporates the blues and jazz influences into Garnier’s vision with some degree of clarity. ‘Jeux D’Enfants’ is intelligently textured, and benefits from some unusual sounds.

Elsewhere, however, Garnier falls flat on his face. The one moment where he attempts to craft something energetic and inspiring (‘I Wanna Be Waiting For My Plane’) turned out to be a horrible electronic Stooges parody with particularly dire lyrics. In fact, the lyrical and thematic concerns of this album seem a little impressionistic and under-developed. Given that Garnier’s real strength lies in the field of instrumental music, I can’t help feeling he should have stuck to this domain. There are, after all, still plenty of possibilities for him to explore, as the finest moments here attest.

Whilst it is an interesting departure for Garnier (and how easy it would have been to simply repeat the formula of ‘Unreasonable Behaviour’), there is nothing here as thrilling as ‘The Man With The Red Face’, with its genuine improvised rush, or ‘The Sound Of The Big Baboo’, with its relentless energy. It just seems to melt too comfortably into the background, too often failing to engage. It may well simply be something of a grower – if it worms it’s way into the higher echelons of my albums of the year list come December – you’ll know that I’ve changed my mind!

Bright Eyes – I’m Wide Awake It’s Morning/Digital Ash In A Digital Urn

So far, I’ve been somewhat agnostic about the talents of Nebraskan wunderkind Conor Oberst – not least because whenever someone is heralded as the ‘new Bob Dylan’, I’m always a little suspicious. My suspicions of Oberst’s earlier work proved to be well grounded, given his tendency to over-emote and, unsurprisingly, pen lyrics of a slightly earnest adolescent tone. ‘Lifted’, his previous record, although bloated and inconsistent, displayed definite signs of improvement, and these two simultaneous releases go some way towards fulfilling that promise. Oberst is beginning to explore different settings for his expressive, occasionally cloyingly nasal vocals, and is beginning to exercise admirable restraint over his less appealing mannerisms.

He has not opted for the double album – or the two separate albums packaged as one – no, these are two entirely separate releases for which you will have to pay full price twice. The former has been billed, accurately, as a melancholy, countrified collection that betrays some hint of Oberst’s recent role as a political campaigner (he joined Bruce Springsteen and REM on the Vote for Change tour, a line-up to die for, although clearly not good enough to oust a President). The latter has been described in some quarters, wildly inaccurately, as a flirtation with avant-garde electronica. Electronic, in part, it may be – but it’s not particularly avant-garde at all. It strikes me as a pop album, heavily influenced by the experiments with electronics in the eighties, and sometimes benefits greatly from adopting a more melodic approach.

The use of backing vocalists on ‘I’m Wide Awake…’ has proved to be an inspired move. Emmylou Harris might seem an obvious choice of guest singer – especially as she appears to be something of a backing singer for hire at the moment – but let’s not take her enormous talent for granted. It would not be overstating the case to proclaim her as the best harmony singer in the world – she is the only person to have successfully harmonised with Bob Dylan, and her recordings with Gram Parsons are rightly hailed as the finest examples of close harmony singing in the country genre. The impact of her presence here is enormous – her controlled and passionate reading of Oberst’s melodies blunts some of the harshness in his approach, and the choruses frequently sound sublime, particularly on ‘We Are Nowhere (And It’s Now)’ and the expansive rush of ‘Landlocked Blues’, which neatly combines Oberst’s personal and political fears. The guest appearance of My Morning Jacket’s Jim James on the opening ‘At The Bottom Of Everything’ also adds feeling and colour to the endearingly jaunty hoedown sound.

The musicianship here is superb – and whilst Oberst himself is a compelling presence – much of the credit must go to producer and multi-instrumentalist Mike Mogis, who has also contributed his alchemic talents to the wonderful new album from Rilo Kiley. The instrumentation is particularly dazzling on ‘Old Soul Song (For The New World Order’, which is eager to remind of the strong links between country and soul music.

It sounds brilliant, but much of this material suffers from the kind of banal grandstanding statements that occasionally make Oberst seem pretentious. He still displays a tendency towards oversinging, although he has started to tone down his mannerisms. The best moment here is the hit single ‘Lua’, which is as spare as a recording can be, and where Oberst starts to assume a genuine vulnerability rather than a cloying earnestness. Its simple tale of the fading of hedonism into reality in the morning light is honest and touching. ‘I’m Wide Awake..’ is not quite the new American masterpiece some have suggested it is – but it’s certainly an invigorating listen, and a major step on Conor Oberst’s long road to realising his considerable potential.

Whilst ‘I’m Wide Awake..’ is easily the more immediate and accessible of the two albums, I wonder if I might come to like ‘Digital Ash in a Digital Urn’ more. It suffers from a similar set of problems – the obsession with binary, digits, data and primitive technology is surely a bit obvious and calculated for a move towards embracing electronica. It works despite its faults, however, because rather than having made a ‘dance’ album, Oberst has achieved something trickier. There is a very successful integration of acoustic and electronic instrumentation here that allows harps and flutes to sit comfortably with drum machines and analogue synthesizers. Oberst also makes full use of live drums, occasionally manipulated, which adds strength and energy to the sound. He has also saved some of his best songs for this album. ‘Arc Of Time’ and ‘Take It Easy (Love Nothing)’ are almost infectious, and are two of the more instantly appealing songs here. Others take more time, and present more of a challenge, but ‘I Believe In Symmetry’ and ‘Down A Rabbit Hole’ are crafted with elegant precision, and sound full of confusion and chaos. It’s by no means as ‘out there’ as some would suggest – it’s a good pop album, impressively orchestrated and cleverly executed.

Magnolia Electric Co – Trials and Errors

This is a crushing disappointment. Over the last few albums recorded by Jason Molina under a variety of different monikers, I have become enticed by his slow-paced and hypnotic dirges, and particularly by the raw majesty of some of his full-band studio recordings. Confused though I am by his current name changes – a Songs:Ohia album called ‘The Magnolia Electric Co’ is followed by a new line-up of Songs:Ohia claiming the album title as their new band name, whilst Molina produces a remarkable solo album under the name of ‘The Pyramid Electric Co’. Are you still with me?

‘Trials and Errors’ is a live album that bears some similarity with Neko Case’s recent gem ‘The Tigers Have Spoken’ in that it features previously unreleased material. Two of the tracks here are destined to appear on Magnolia Electric Co’s forthcoming Steve Albini-produced studio set, while many of the others are available exclusively on this limited release. Unfortunately, whilst it offers long-term fans plenty of incentive to dish out the cash, it compares much less favourably with the Case album in terms of quality. Whereas ‘The Tigers Have Spoken’ was a charming and nuanced collection that documented Case’s current outlook, both in terms of traditional influences and her own original writing, ‘Trials and Errors’ merely details Molina’s Neil Young fixation at quite considerable length.

The pace and tone of this set is not just consistent, it is entirely homogenous. The drum sound is a horrible plodding rock thud that is rarely ever allowed to stray from the basic backbeat formula. Country rock drummers are often rudimentary, but most at least have some awareness of the need for dynamic variation and a sense of progression within each song. The guitars strum and duel relentlessly, and there are numerous solos, many of them gratuitous or unnecessary, failing to add any depth or resonance to the songs. This is a considerable shame, particularly considering that the new writing is crisp and powerfully emotive. The first couple of songs reveal the recurring theme of darkness, and ‘The Dark Don’t Hide It’ and ‘Don’t It Feel Like The Dark’ are classic Molina songs, characterised by a poetic ambiguity and haunting core, with some typically vulnerable Molina vocals adding extra depth. Musically, however, they seem heavy-handed and stilted, and it is this rather leaden sound that persists throughout the entire album.

Unsurprisingly, the problems are particularly acute on the renditions of more familiar material. On the ‘Magnolia Electric Co’ album, ‘Almost Was Good Enough’ was slow burning, but also brilliantly intense – here it just sounds tepid and flat. ‘Cross The Road’, from the outstanding ‘Didn’t It Rain’ album, was an elusive, fragile beauty, but now sounds lumbering and directionless. Virtually every song is taken at the same level and each utilise the same limited palette of ideas. I can’t decide whether it is the production values or the playing that is at fault – but I don’t come away from this album with a sense of Magnolia Electric Co as an exciting live act, and my sense of Jason Molina as an increasingly original and unusual songwriter can only be mildly dissipated by the realisation that he has failed to translate his vision to live performance.
There’s still a lot to get through, so expect more reviews to be posted in the next few days…

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