Monday, April 04, 2005

One Step Forward and Three Steps Back

…As Paula Abdul and MC Skat Kat sang back in early 1990. This is part one of what will most likely become a two-week long megapost as I try to work my way through all the CDs that I’ve picked up over the last couple of months or so. I have decided to begin with the upfront pre-releases, so I can at least appear as if I’m one step ahead of the game.

Teenage Fanclub – Man-Made (Pema)

It exists and it’s finally here! Words cannot express the beam of joy that exploded across my face as I came across a promo of this record. This is what I’ve been waiting five long years for!

Alan McGee used to say that he never knew quite what to make of each new Teenage Fanclub album when they first played the finished product to him, as it always took him at least twenty listens to appreciate them. Given the immediate chiming pop appeal of albums like ‘Grand Prix’ and ‘Songs From Northern Britain’, I always found this notion a little baffling. With ‘Man-Made’, however, I begin to see his point. I have to concede that on first listen I was slightly underwhelmed by this – the songs are lovely of course, but the melodies are sometimes slightly more obtuse than usual, the production seems deliberately muffled, and the trademark harmonies, whilst still very much in the frame, are less of a feature than on previous albums.

But wait! It’s a real grower! ‘Man-Made’ may be less immediate, but it benefits greatly from a more subtle approach to arrangement and production. There are some wonderfully heart-stopping moments on this album, many of them entirely unexpected. I love the way the middle-section in the thumping ‘Time Stops’ suddenly gives way to some delicately bucolic acoustic guitar plucking, the way the main arrangement of ‘Flowing’ fades out, just leaving some warmly fuzzy lead guitars to conclude the song, and the way ‘Slow Fade, the paciest and most aggressive recording they’ve made since the days of ‘Thirteen’, ends a good minute before you expect it to. This is probably Teenage Fanclub’s most musically intelligent album to date, and the muted production sound (courtesy of John McEntire of Tortoise) frequently sounds strangely appropriate, such as on the dry, touching and carefully arranged ‘Only With You’.

As for the songwriting, this is The Fannies’ most democratic album so far, with each member of the band composing four songs. Luckily, the days when the words ‘Raymond’s going to sing this one’ inspired a slightly uncomfortable feeling are long gone. Since the remarkable blossoming of his songwriting talents on ‘Songs From Northern Britain’, Raymond McGinley has never looked back, and ‘Man-Made’ marks an admirable continuation of this trend. The aforementioned ‘Only With You’, with its vulnerable arpeggios, tinkly piano and muted rhythm guitar is one of the best tracks here, and the closing ‘Don’t Hide’ features a similarly inventive arrangement. ‘Feel’ (Feel what? The sunshine of course, what else?!?) is a typical Teenage Fanclub summery pop song, whilst ‘Nowhere’ has a pleasant Byrdsian shimmer.

Gerry Love has some gems too – ‘Born Under A Good Sign’ may not be the most substantial song here, essentially being built on a repeated chord sequence and ending with a huge psychedelic duelling guitar solo, but it certainly has energy and enthusiasm in droves. Much better though is ‘Fallen Leaves’, which, with its chorus claiming ‘the future’s here’ is one of the most uplifting songs in this set. ‘Save’ is one of the songs that takes a while to get to grips with, but it features some lovely rhythm guitar playing and benefits from the juxtaposition of a lingeringly infectious chorus with a slightly more underplayed melody in its verses.

Norman Blake is such a dependable songwriter that it hardly needs to be stated that he writes the album’s warmest, most familiar and comfortable songs. I’d be very surprised if album opener ‘It’s All In My Mind’, with its chugging rhythm and naggingly insistent melodic line was not used as the album’s lead single. He also offers the simple sugar rush of ‘Slow Fade’, the delicate melancholy of ‘Flowing’ (although perhaps the lyrics here rest a little too much on familiar sentiment) and the rustic folk of ‘Cells’, another of the album’s most engaging moments. He hasn’t written anything here quite in the same league as ‘Neil Jung’, ‘I Don’t Want Control Of You’ or ‘Did I Say’ though, and perhaps the one thing ‘Man-Made’ lacks is an absolute killer song.

However, that’s not really what it’s about – it’s an album where all three songwriters seem entirely comfortable and at ease, and where the arrangements have become as important as the melodies. It’s a remarkably coherent and consistent work, and if given time, may be seen as one of their most successful records. It remains to be seen whether there’s anyone left in the music press who still cares (I can’t imagine the current staff at the NME getting too excited about this) – we can only hope that this album brings The Fannies the dues they so richly deserve. Britain’s finest songwriters since Lennon-McCartney are still going strong.

Four Tet – Everything Ecstatic

Is that title just meant to imply extreme happiness – or is there a trippy drugs influence behind this album? Either way, it sees Kieren Hebden veer away from the music somewhat uncomfortably dubbed ‘folktronica’ (understandably, Hebden has felt uncomfortable with this tag) and back into the realms of percussion-heavy electronica and free-jazz inspired swampy grooves. If anything, this album is closer to ‘Dialogue’, Hebden’s debut as Four Tet, than to any of his subsequent work under the moniker.

Previous album ‘Rounds’ was so successful because it carefully integrated tiny fractured melodies, and intriguing harmonic implications into its ethereal electronic mix. This made it both more accessible and more engaging. ‘Everything Ecstatic’ is a less easy listen – many of its ideas seem almost self-consciously complex and confrontational, but it marks another interesting sidestep from one of our most inventive producers and composers.

There are moments of sheer brilliance – opening track ‘A Joy’ has some exuberant multi-tracked beats that manage to sound naturalistic and organic. ‘High Fives’ is more densely textured and evocative, and possibly the closest this album comes to recreating the elusive mystery of ‘Rounds’.

Elsewhere, there are plenty of rhythmic flourishes and squawking saxophones, and single ‘Smile Around The Face’ is perhaps a little too repetitive, with its high pitched ostinato melody the main focus, it borders on irritating.
Hebden remains as inventive as ever, and ‘Everything Ecstatic’ is admirable for its cavalier approach to genre convention. Hebden has melded a number of different styles together here and, for the most part, has successfully shaken off the apparent stigma of journalistic tags. It’s much less accessible than his recent highly acclaimed albums, and may have the effect of pushing him back into the margins when he should be reaping commercial rewards. The open-minded will find it engaging and compelling.

New Order – Waiting For The Sirens’ Call

It feels a bit churlish – but there’s just something not quite right about this new album from New Order. They are now a highly marketable proposition, based on their enduring status as influential pioneers. Yet, like all of the New Order releases post ‘Technique’, there’s not actually all that much innovation going on here. It feels comfortably familiar (sometimes persistent and infectious), and some of the tracks have a lovely summery pop vibe. The sound, however, as always characterised by the uniquely melodic bass lines of Peter Hook and the robotic drumming of Steven Morris, has not really been embellished or developed much for this release. Sometimes, it even feels like a more polished, neutered version of the classic New Order sound.

The first single, ‘Krafty’ very much sets the tone. It’s entirely unobjectionable, and comes with a string of instantly hummable hooks and melodies. It has that lingering atmosphere (hammered home with some trademark swirling synths and clanging guitars) that marks out the best New Order pop songs. Taken in isolation, its enjoyable enough, but when placed next to a string of very similar sounding songs (‘Who’s Joe?’, ‘Hey Now, What You Doing?, ‘Turn’) it no longer sounds distinctive.

Whereas ‘Krafty’ has enough rhythmic propulsion and feeling to render it engaging, there are some real low points on this album that just sound totally contrived. Worst of all is the electro reggae of ‘I Told You So’, which genuinely starts out sounding like Ace of Base. I’m entirely in favour of the band expanding their reach (and this album clearly demonstrates that they need to reinvent themselves somehow), but genre parody is not really the best approach. Equally, ‘Jetstream’, with the moonlighting Ana Matronic of the Scissor Sisters feels like an uncomfortable attempt to broaden their target audience. The closing ‘Working Overtime’ is a clunky rather than quirky Stooges-inspired turd.

The more conventional, guitar-dominated pop songs certainly fare better, but Bernard Sumner’s lyrics and vocal lines remain frustratingly inconsistent. Plenty of people have hailed this album as a success simply because of its ‘quality songwriting’. I would certainly concede that an album of quality songs would be enough from a band that has already done so much to break the mould. However, ‘Waiting For The Sirens’ Call’ simply isn’t consistent enough an album to fit that description.

Mu – Out Of Breach

Readers of John Kell’s Unpredictable Same fanzine ( might remember be waxing lyrical about the debut Mu album ‘Afro Finger and Gel’ in the first issue. I stated then that it’s hard to explain why a talentless Japanese girl shouting over minimal percussion and bass backdrops was so thrilling, and the point is worth repeating. ‘Out Of Breach’ basically provides more of the same and is, if anything, even more extreme. It could not exactly be described as melodic, but it remains memorable and convincing nonetheless.

It all works best when the extraordinary producer Maurice Fulton cooks up his most hypnotic grooves. ‘Tigerbastard’ essentially repeats the tricks of cult classic single ‘Let’s Get Sick’, with its relentless driving beat and flurry of agogo and cowbells. The title track is magnificent, with Mu’s voice made to sound disconcertingly masculine with some canny use of vocal effects. The overall impact is disquieting and sinister. It’s also dance music that genuinely makes you want to dance, whether in a club environment or within the privacy of your own home.

If the music is uncompromising and confrontational, Mu’s voice is something else entirely. She is totally tuneless – and often grating – as she shrieks and hollers her way through her primitive English lyrics, frequently incomprehensibly. Luckily there’s an accompanying lyric sheet, which does not reveal her to be a great poet, or indeed much of a master of the conventions of grammar. There is, however, something entirely appropriate about her self-righteous, fundamental screaming that combines perfectly with Fulton’s crazed, psycho-delic take on house music. On ‘Tigerbastard’, one of the best tracks, Mu disses her old record label with remarkable anger and self-belief. It all sounds peculiarly liberating – and Mu definitely comes across as a feisty woman – someone you wouldn’t want to double cross or meet in a dark alleyway.

Best of all is the timely ‘Stop Bothering Michael Jackson’, where Mu defends the troubled former King of Pop with a near religious fervour. It’s a weirdly calculated chaos of pounding drums and violent vocal outbursts and, unsurprisingly, Martin Bashir does not escape from Mu’s unstoppable wrath.

‘Out Of Breach’ tails off slightly towards the end, when the vocals start to dominate the music a little too much, and Fulton breaks away from his beats into more abstract territory. Nevertheless, it’s a more consistently experimental work than its predecessor, and shows that this extraordinary team are honing and improving their sound. It’s difficult to know how long the thrill will last (there are only so many albums of this kind of material anyone could take), and it’s certainly not for everyone, but ‘Out Of Breach’ marks another step on a challenging and adventurous path.

Many more reviews to come later this week….

1 comment:

SMc said...

Fanclub are another band now perfectly designed for the Word Magazine / 6Music demographic. Occasionally wondered why this kind of music has had such a pull on a certain generation of males (and it is mostly blokes), me included. Tho' I can't see me being roused to buy the new one really. I've got the rest but only regularly return to is Northern Songs where I think they absolutely nailed it.
Saw them at Brixton Academy when they toured that album.. Quelle surprise! they walked on, plugged in, stood there and sang the songs..went off..wandered back on..played a couple more..went off. It was just as I absolutely knew it would be..and I suspect always will be. Maybe it's reassuring to have some constants in life, i dunno, but i certainly don't feel the need to hear 'Man-made'...