Sunday, May 29, 2005

It's been too long since the last post. I've been very busy with Unit (rehearsing, performing and recording - see for all the live dates around London in the next few weeks). Luckily, I've still found time to seek out some new sounds...

Electrelane - Axes

I have a slightly tricky relationship with Electrelane (on a band/audience level - I don't know them personally, despite having attended the same University as two members). John Kell and I hit an impasse over the merits of their previous album, 'The Power Out'. I concede perhaps that I overstated its case a little. By virtue of being released very early in the year, and on the same day as the somewhat disappointing Lambchop double-set, I experienced that familiar rush of hearing the first really good release of the year. Still, listening to it again a couple of weeks ago, I still liked it. Its motorik propulsions are infectious, and best of all are its experiments with choral vocal arrangements. Electrelane repeat that trick on the best tracks here, once again benefitting from Steve Albini's thoughtfully understated production duties, although the bulk of the album is this time instrumental. This means that there's much less of Verity Susman's shaky vocals, but still a great deal of the heavily krautrock inspired grooves. By this stage, it is starting to appear less like a distinctive, carefully defined sound, and more like a straightjacket for a band too tentative to veer beyond its natural limitations.

Still, when it works, it's excellent. 'The Bells' is driving and relentless, and brings with it the welcome domination of the piano, with aggressive, dissonant chords hammered out relentlessly. Even better is the following 'Two For Joy', which is carried off on a wave of glorious harmony and is one of the best things Electrelane have recorded to date. Later on in the album, they completely abandon their standard pace and feel for a more melancholy and stately arrangement on 'I Keep Losing Heart', which definitely hints at better things to come.

Elsewhere, however, there are significant problems. More than once, 'Axes' veers into the realms of abstraction with what, to my ears, are slightly uncomfortable results. They may have been listening to the likes of Sun Ra or John Coltrane, but their improvisations are sloppy, unfocussed and lack a clear sense of direction. Their interpretation of 'The Partisan' at least benefits from being wildly different from the Leonard Cohen version which popularised the song (and which undoubtedly served as their source material), but its ramshackle noise feels like a step backwards from some of this album's more subtle moments.

It's certainly a mixed bag, but pick selectively, and there are plenty of rewards. 'Axes' seems like an appropriate name for an album that tilts precariously between a bright future and the restrictions of their immediate past.

Acoustic Ladyland - Last Chance Disco

Perhaps simply in the rush to hail Acoustic Ladyland as some sort of revolutionary saviours of British Jazz, critics have completely failed to place this album in the correct context. It is somewhat galling to see critics who have, until now, almost completely ignored that any kind of British jazz movement exists, suddenly determine that jazz will be fashionable again, simply because AC have brought a less traditional, more rock-flavoured approach to the table. The fact however remains that Acoustic Ladyland work so brilliantly because they combine their open-minded love of an extremely wide musical spectrum with their instinctive skill as jazz trained musicians. Band leader and saxophonist Pete Wareham was a former young jazz musician of the year and drummer Seb Rochford (who also leads the more subtle, equally wonderful Polar Bear, with whom Acoustic Ladyland share three members) is recognised as one of the most inventive drummers on the jazz circuit. The impressively swinging and groovy acoustic interpretations of Hendrix interpretations on debut 'Camouflage' seem to have been quickly forgotten. It actually makes much more sense to place 'Last Chance Disco' in a more familiar lineage - the jazz-rock fusion of Ian Carr's Nucleus (a British jazz act!), the swashbuckling rhythms of Tony Williams' Lifetime and the revolutionary late '60s and '70s work of Miles Davis.

Still, that doesn't diminish the incredible, visceral impact of this music, nor should it make its open-minded approach any less refreshing. One track here, the astonishing 'Om Konz' comes dedicated to both Olivier Messaien and the Yeah Yeah Yeahs - how many bands would have the audacity to do this, let alone those on the usually more parochial jazz circuit? That the track justifies the dedication is all the more impressive. Its sheer energy, off-kilter keyboards and thrillingly brash theme reveal inspirations from both modern rock and contemporary composition. Even better is 'Ludwig van Ramone', a real powerhouse of a track, with subtle interactions between Rochford's relentless drums and Tom Cawley's rhythmically acute keyboard work.

Opening with the vigorous, chaotic clutter of 'Iggy', which harks back not just to US proto-punk, but also displays a deep and thorough understanding of the blues, 'Last Chance Disco' is an overwhelming sensory assault, but it is not without subtlety. Acoustic Ladyland undertand the formative origins of all this music lie in the same classic blues form, and therefore can exploit the connections as well as the explosive clashes of style. There is real substance here as well as mastery of their chosen form. Almost in spite of this, they still toss in the throwaway the snotty, throwaway snarl of 'Perfect Bitch', the only vocal track here, and a quickfire rush that manages to incorporrate pop-punk convention and klezmer-like horn stabs. It's defiantly idiosyncratic.

'Last Chance Disco' sounds spontaneous and kinetic, as all great improvised music should. It's righteously apocalyptic, but also full of humour and good fun. Combining all these elements in a way that makes sense is no easy task, and Acoustic Ladyland have really thrown down the gauntlet here and defined their own sound. A major achievement and one of the finest albums of the year so far.

Spoon - Gimme Fiction

How can Spoon have been so criminally ignored in Britain for so long? They may not be mega-stars in the States, but they are at least looked upon favourably by the alternative press there. How many music lovers here have even heard of them? Following the marvellous 'Girls Can Tell' album and the 'Series Of Sneaks' compilation comes the long-awaited 'Gimme Fiction', another distinctively quirky, surreal and literate blast through the imagination of Britt Daniel. Is this the album to elevate Spoon's profile in the UK?

For its first half at least, it very much could be. The opening few tracks here are wonderful. 'The Beast and Dragon Adored' is laconic and resigned ('I'm going back to the water/Been landlocked for too long'), and it slouches with a considered delay. 'The Two Sides Of Monsieur Valentine' is every bit as good as its title, a real gem of quirky indie-pop, with very bizarre lyrics indeed. Even better is the lead single, 'I Turn My Camera On', with its surprisingly funky groove and falsetto vocal recalling Prince or even Steely Dan. It sounds decidedly unfashionable, yet somehow also strangely prescient.

Elsewhere, there's the propulsive, infectious 'Sister Jack' or the intriguing, distinctive 'My Mathematical Mind' which also stand out, all characterised by Britt Daniel's slightly rough-edged vocals and almost nonsensical lyrics. With songs like these, Daniel has refined all the enticing and endearing elements of the Spoon sound into something both immediate and mysterious.

The second half is unfortunately burdened by similarity. The album suddenly drifts into one-dimensional haziness, and the songs lose their focus and immediacy. It's not that the songs are bad as such, it's perhaps really more a problem of sequencing. With all the best material packed tightly together in the first half of the album, its difficult to avoid the feeling that 'Gimme Fiction' runs out of steam. The pace drops to a uniform mid-tempo feel, and much of the quirky character of the best songs becomes more muted. A shame, and something of a missed opportunity.

The Books - Lost and Safe

With 'Thought For Food' and 'The Lemon Of Pink', the Books made two of the best eletronic albums of recent years, effortlessly blending all manner of strange found sounds with traditional instrumentation and melody (the latter was liberally peppered with banjo and acoustic guitar).
'Lost and Safe' adopts a similarly restrained, hushed tone, but has been talked up as a vocal album. This statement could be perceived as misleading. There's not much in the way of melodic, conventional singing on 'Lost and Safe'. Instead, this extraordinary album manages to extend the duo's already well-worn approach by piecing together a whole spectrum of samples and human voices in a less piecemeal, more theoretical fashion. The result is a construction of a surreal narrative journey, and the printing of lyrics in the CD sleeve emphasises the primacy of the voices over the calm music.

It's an old journalistic cliche, but it makes little sense to pick out particular tracks here, although the unconventional titles of the tracks make for interesting reading by themsleves. The combined effect is slightly woozy, but also literate and compelling, occasionally even sinister. The paradox of the title is ingenious - the music here initially feels unusual, perhaps even threatening, but gradually creates its own sense of security. Less detached than its predecessors, 'Lost and Safe' is as complex, beguiling and beautiful as electronic music gets.

More reviews to come....

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