Tuesday, June 07, 2005

The Big Guns Shoot Down The Real Heroes

So, while I've been out and about soaking up the sunshine in Seville, the big albums on which the very lifeblood of the record industry seems to depend have finally emerged. This week, what the NME has referred to as 'Super Monday' brought the ludicrously over-hyped new Coldplay album, along with 'Get Behind Me Satan', the album which supposedly sees The White Stripes move beyond their guitar-drums thrashing template, possibly with mixed results. I've yet to hear the latter, but I've plenty to say about the former (surprisingly, given that my usual reaction to Coldplay is complete indifference). Also, last week brought another Oasis album. 'They've rediscovered what made them great!' trumpeted the predictably unsubtle Observer Music Monthly, obviously attempting to lead some sort of premature critical rehabilitation, and conveniently ignoring the fact that Oasis were never actually great in the first place.

In the meantime, two albums slipped out quietly, highly unlikely to sell in bucketloads, but of much greater musical significance. Sleater Kinney's fruitful collaboration with Dave Fridmann 'The Woods' is dependably exhilirating, whilst Smog's 'A River Ain't Too Much To Love' suggests that the more accessible 'Supper' was a cheeky bluff - this is one of his more abstruse and challenging collections. Read on for my thoughts in full.

Coldplay - X&Y

As we all know, the delays and botched recordings in the sessions for 'X&Y' gave rise to disgruntled feelings among EMI shareholders and a major profit warning. Listening to it after all the hype, EMI really needn't have worried. 'X&Y' comes with swathes of synth strings and keyboards, but is really just a bigger, more confident (occasionally even strident) update of the familiar Coldplay template. Its sound is collossal and, at least initially, genuinely impressive. Even the most ardent of Coldplay haters would have to accept that this is leagues ahead of the inconsequential strumming of their debut, or even the mundane chugging of much of 'A Rush Of Blood To The Head'. There are healthy signs here that Coldplay have finally realised that the arrangement of a song is as important as its melody or sentiment. Hence, they even (gasp!) play on the offbeats, or employ some pleasantly substantial echoey guitar effects, even if it occasionally sounds too much like an attempt to replicate latter-day U2. Even the basslines have become more propulsive and less grindingly predictable. The production is effective, but there remains the linering doubt that it is all a bit clinical - big guitars suddenly emerge to underpin Chris Martin's none-too-subtle overwraught emoting.

When it works, it's easy to understand why it will no doubt be the stadium soundtrack of the summer. The opener, 'Square One' is bold and muscular, with an intriguingly twisting melody. The overall sound of first single 'Speed Of Sound' is a fair pointer - much of 'X&Y' sounds very polished and not too far from the likes of A-ha. The real focus of the album is the lengthy, spacious 'White Shadows', which neatly segues into the album's killer big ballad 'Fix You'. The former is the album's most impressive arrangment, with more rhythmic interest than anything Coldplay have previously recorded, whilst the latter flagrantly tugs the heartstrings. It would be churlish to deny the impact of its deceptively simple, haunting melody and the characteristically vulnerable tones of Martin's vocal. I suspect it will be released as a single, and will likely propel the album to become one of the all time biggest sellers. Quite how such an unassuming and generally unambitious band got to this stage is somewhat baffling.

Elsewhere, they try to prove their cultural worth by stealing the melody line from Kraftwerk's 'Computer Love' on 'Talk', although they don't do much of interest with it, using it as the main melodic device for the chorus vocal and the guitar line. A dialogue where both participants persist in repeating the same script does not hold the attention for long. Whilst the arrangements here are undoubtedly much improved, 'X&Y' still seems to suffer from a paucity of ideas. It's their most cohesive album to date, and seems to be striving for the big studio sound so successfully realised by the likes of Doves and Elbow. Unfortunately for Coldplay, those two bands have a much wider musical palette to draw from, and its difficult to detect the same instinctive acuteness on 'X&Y'. Still, those that admire the sound will no doubt not object to twelve tracks all adopting much the same approach at varying tempos. For these ears, the concept really starts to wear thin towards the end, where 'The Hardest Part' is pretty, but played rather conventionally (and therefore struggles to rise above blandness), 'Swallowed In The Sea' is dreadful and 'Twisted Logic' sounds big, but also somehow predictable and safe.

The real problem here is the lyrics. At best, they are banal. 'Speed Of Sound' and 'Square One' attempt to ask the big spiritual questions, but end up sounding thoroughly meaningless and somehow simultaneously cliched. The forced rhyme schemes reach an appalling apotheosis on 'Swallowed In The Sea' ('You put me on a she-eee-eelf/ And kept me for yourse-ee-eelf/ I can only blame my-see-eelf' etc) where Martin takes his uncomfortable emoting to ridiculous levels. Even the big love songs ('Fix You' aside) sound strangely self-conscious. Initially touching, repeated listens reveal 'What If' to be a merely skeletal lyric set to moody piano chords. Ironically, the simplest and least problematic love song is the uncredited 'Til Kingdom Come', the song the band originally wrote for Johnny Cash, a rare soujourn into countrified acoustic lament territory.

'X&Y' is not a bad album and in aiming to beef up their sound Coldplay have, ahem, put to bed all those criticisms of their 'bedwetter music'. Unfortunately, the lyrics rather leave those feelings lingering, despite the band's best efforts, and there is still the tendency towards meandering blandness and plodding tempos. For much of its first half, 'X&Y' shows a real sense of progression, but the latter half reveals that Coldplay are still shrouded in a restrictive safety net.

Oasis - Don't Believe The Truth

Indeed - don't believe it, for it is rubbish. By capturing the British mood for brash nostalgia during the mid-nineties Britpop boom, Oasis have had ridiculous expectations heaped upon them ever since. Essentially a pub rock band made good, they have struggled to recapture the undeniable thrill that catipulted them to fame. Through numerous line-up changes and fractious disputes, it's now been seven years since Oasis last made a half decent record, yet they still inspire ardent devotish from their closed-minded, loutish fans and can still command the odd magazine cover and deluded rapture from critics. Even I, long completely indifferent to the band had hoped, following my rather guilty enjoyment of their nostalgic headline set at Glastonbury (far from the disaster many reports denounced it as), that 'Don't Believe The Truth' might at least be enjoyably insubstantial. It's not at all - it sounds ham-fisted, unimaginative and, despite its lengthy gestation, somewhat rushed.

The spontaneity and humour of 'Definitely Maybe' has long given way to a monolithic, monotonous guitar thrum. Occasionally, they break the mould by adding piano or acoustic guitars, but the chord progressions remain familiar, and most of the melodies are predictably lifted from much better records. Noel Gallagher has never been one for original ideas, but with the new democratic approach to songwriting there seem to be more people on-hand to plagiarise. Noel's own 'Mucky Fingers' is a hotch-potch mix of the chugging rhythm of The Velvet Underground's 'I'm Waiting For My Man', the chords from the Ska classic 'A Message To You Rudy' and, more frustratingly, part of the melody from the godawful 'Smile' by The Supernaturals. The result is lumpen and thoroughly unengaging, but at least they are new influences. Liam's 'Guess God Thinks I'm Abel' pales into insignificance next to Elvis Costello's more inventive use of a similar pun, and shamelessly lifts the tune from 'I Wanna Be Your Man', conveniently a hit single for both The Beatles and The Rolling Stones, the two touchstones for this band. More bizarrely, Gem Archer's 'A Bell Will Ring', which is at least serviceable, faintly resembles Abba's unwitting gay anthem 'Does Your Mother Know?'.

Even more problematic than the chronic lack of invention is the terrible delivery of these limited ideas. Where once Liam Gallagher sounded snarly - a mix of compelling arrogance and untrained charm, he sounds lazy here. Whether it be imitating John Lennon on the utter piffle that is 'Let There Be Love', or simply disinterested on his own 'Love Like A Bomb', not even his vocal character can rescue such thin material. The drums are persistently thunderous, but with no dynamism whatsoever to the playing. The relentless strum and thump obliterates any sense of fun or enjoyment, and renders most of 'Don't Believe The Truth' thoroughly charmless.

A small handful of songs do at least manage to linger in the mind. Few would claim first single 'Lyla' to be one of their greatest achievements, but it at least has a catchy singalong chorus. Noel suggests he might eventually develop some subtlety with 'The Importance Of Being Idle' and 'Part Of The Queue', both of which resort to well-worn themes, but at least sound almost relaxed and comfortable.

This will no doubt sell enough to keep Oasis in business, but even that demonstrates what Oasis have become. They are their own corporation, and will keep putting out records because it is what they do. Yet, increasingly, they simply deliver a product designed to sell, but for which very little craft or industry have actually been deployed. The band sound like they were in separate rooms when this was recorded - there are no signs of chemistry or life here, no rush of blood, no thrill.

Sleater-Kinney - The Woods

Unfortunately, another Sleater-Kinney album is unlikely to register beyond their small but devoted fanbase. This is a shame, as here is a band constantly seeking to reshape and redefine their sound. Much has already been written about how this Dave Fridmann produced effort is substantially harder and heavier than previous outings. This is not entirely untrue, but the blues-rock dominated 'One Beat' had already given hints at this direction. Scuzzy opener 'The Fox' sets the tone defiantly, with a raw and relentless rhythmic hammer underpinnning Corin Tucker's uncompromising guttural howl.

For me, what really impresses about 'The Woods' is not its heavier approach, but the way in which it has substantially broadened the band's musical outlook. There are still hints at more melodic girl pop on the intriguing 'Jumpers' and the uncharacteristically breezy 'Modern Girl' (the latter suggesting that Sleater-Kinney can do summery pop as well as blisteringly intense wig-outs). There is bluesy-garage on the kinetic 'Rollercoaster' and a ferocious and righteous anger on 'Entertain', which seems to combine at least two different songs together with thrilling results. Much of 'The Woods' ups the ante in terms of ambition - 'Let's Call It Love', far from the bland platitudes of Coldplay or Keane, actually encompasses the tumult and wonder that its title suggests, descending into an extended 'jam' that is both temporarily unhinged and carefully controlled. It then seques into the loose, dense and groovy 'Night Light', both tracks showing the band pushing into new ground, much of their experimenting propelled by the energy and vigour of Janet Weiss' drumming.

The news that 'The Woods' had been produced by Dave Fridmann could have been viewed as overwhelmingly exciting or as a cause for concern. Fridmann has helmed his fair share of classics ('The Soft Bulletin' and 'Deserter's Songs' spring immediately to mind) but he also frequently over-eggs the pudding. The booming drums of Mogwai's 'Come On Die Young' occasionally threaten to overpower any sense of melody, whilst the numerous bleeps and glitches of The Flaming Lips' 'Yoshimi Battle The Pink Robots' infuriate. This year, however, Fridmann really has excelled himself, largely through some unusual and fruitful collaborations. First, Low's 'The Great Destroyer' retained all that band's myriad strengths, whilst bolstering a previously fragile sound. Now, with 'The Woods', he has sensibly resisted adding much in the way of production trickery. He has simply captured the thrilling essence of a band still seemingly in their prime. A techincally assured, wonderfully exciting record.

Smog - A River Ain't Too Much To Love

At last, those infuriating parentheses have gone! Does this mean a new, less obtuse, more contented Bill Callahan? Fat chance! 'A River Ain't Too Much To Love' reneges on much of the promise of 'Supper' (which added slide guitar, keyboards and lingering melodies to Callahan's famously dark wit), but with intriguing results. This is mostly pared down acostic music, occasionally interrupted by Jim White's brilliantly cluttered, off-kilter drumming, but it is far from twee. It's one of Callahan's most challenging records to date - his voice is deeper and more conversational than ever, and the harmonic basis is defiantly minimal. Callahan seems determined, wherever possible, to wring as much as possible from just one chord or, occasionally, just one note. There is nothing out of place on 'A River...' and nothing is made more complicated than it need be.

On most of the songs here, Callahan sounds frustrated and uncomfortable. On 'Say Valley Maker' we find him sailing down river, singing simply 'to keep from cursing'. By the end, he's promising to rise Phoenix-like from his own ashes. On the utterly brilliant 'The Well' he begins his lenghty, opaque narrative in a restless state, throwing a bottle into the woods and then searching for the pieces. On 'I Feel Like The Mother Of The World', he puts a stop to any theological debate. 'God is a word', he states flatly 'And the argument ends there'. Lyrically, he's on terrific form, and fans of his mordant irony will find an abundance of riches here.

Musically, 'A River...' is deceptively simple, its drones and repetitions acting as smoke and mirrors for its entrancing overall impact. It sounds appropriately rustic and isolated, but also ghostly and fragmentary. Despite its basic, mostly traditional instrumentation, it still sounds peculiar and highly original. It is haunting and hypnotic, and a difficult beast to get to grips with. It lacks the immediacy of 'Knock Knock' or 'Supper', but with the almost dangerous , sinister intrigue of songs like 'The Well' or 'Running The Loping', and the bleak hilarity of 'I'm New Here', it may prove to be one of his more enduring works - a 'Wild Love' rather than a 'Rain On Lens'.

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