Tuesday, July 26, 2005

No Show For Old Crows

...But a plethora of excellent releases from solo artists make up for it.

I had been hoping to post a review of the Old Crow Medicine Show gig at Lock 17 today, but a bunch of callous terrorists have dashed that. I gather that the gig went ahead as planned (as most small venue events have despite recent events) but there was little way of us getting there. Moaning about public transport has always been a favourite pastime of Londoners, but it has reached new heights as we come to realise that the transport network is not merely unpredictable, but also easily exploited by those seeking to maim and kill. It’s not a fun time at the moment, made worse by the attempted attacks this week and the intimation that these have not been isolated one-off events. The thought that London may now be facing a sustained assault is not something anyone particularly wants to have to face.

Still, in a spirit of stoicism, life must go on – and as ever there’s a backlog of new CDs I haven’t got round to reviewing yet, not least three lovely promos I’ve picked up in the last couple of weeks.

First up is ‘Humming By The Flowered Vine’, the rather convolutedly-titled third full length from Laura Cantrell. It comes dedicated to the memory of John Peel, which endears it to me before I’ve even heard the music it contains. Cantrell’s voice is a treacly confection, lending this album a deceptively straightforward quality. Much of it is soft, delicate and understated, and it occasionally veers into whimsical terrain. Like her previous releases, there are only a handful of self-penned songs, the rest of the album being given over to interpretations of traditional material and cover versions of country standards. The covers, however, cannot be considered mere filler as they are absolutely fundamental to the shape and pacing of her collections. They also demonstrate just how comfortable Cantrell is with her material – she has a vast knowledge of country music as any listener to her radio thrift shop show will surely attest.

‘Humming…’ certainly has its moments of, ahem, hummable sweetness, most notably the lovely opener ‘14th Street’ (which somehow manages to make stalking an entirely innocent activity) and Cantrell’s own ‘California Rose’ (a wonderfully restrained country shuffle). Elsewhere, however, there are signs of burgeoning ambitions, not least on guitarist Dave Schramm’s ‘And Still’, which alternates between passages of elusive calm and more striking punctuations, characterised by some expressive fretwork. Best of all may be the traditional murder ballad ‘Poor Ellen Smith’ which Cantrell inhabits with genuine sympathy and understanding.

Throughout, Cantrell’s voice rarely veers away from the melody line – she is a rare breed of singer these days, almost entirely eschewing virtuosity. This makes her all the more adept at handling the constrained emotions of country songs. It’s particularly illuminating to hear her tackle something like Lucinda Williams’ ‘Letters’, the song sounds more vulnerable when stripped of Williams’ gutsy, guttural character.

‘Humming…’ so comfortably fits into a rich seam of tradition that it almost feels like an enticing invitation to another era. From it cover art to the photograph of Cantrell next to a piano inside the sleeve, much like The White Stripes, there seems to be a particular aesthetic at work. Whereas The White Stripes often leave a lingering, knowing smirk, there can be little doubt that Cantrell is entirely sincere. I’ve been meaning to investigate her earlier albums for some time. On hearing this, my resolve is much stronger.

However, Cantrell’s carefully constructed homage to the likes of Kitty Wells and Patsy Cline rather pales into insignificance next to ‘We Will Become Like Birds’, the third official album from the wonderful Erin McKeown. I’ve been hotly anticipating this album since seeing McKeown play an awesome solo show at the Islington Academy and I’m pleased that it does not disappoint. It also doesn’t sound anything like I was expecting it to, perhaps because the Judy Garland tinges and slightly jazzy guitar flourishes of ‘Grand’ are largely absent. In their place is a polished, focussed and immediately accessible collection of breezy pop songs, brilliantly executed and intelligently enhanced through subtle production trickery. Whereas ‘Distillation’ and parts of ‘Grand’ required several listens to reveal their full charms, ‘We Will Become Like Birds’ is immediately memorable and frequently touching. It is a ‘pop’ album in the purest sense and it deserves to achieve sales to reflect this.

It opens with ‘Aspera’, an almost Neil Young-esque slow trudge (which McKeown pulls off surprisingly well) and ends with ‘You Were Right About Everything’, a tender, subtle and affecting ballad. In between is a whole plethora of melodic invention, from the unusual intervals of ‘Air’ to the genuinely anthemic choruses of ‘To The Stars’ and ‘White City’. The latter, particularly, is unlike anything else McKeown has written – its quick tempo and rousing chants providing both immediate pleasures and a lingering impact.

There is a thematic coherence to ‘…Birds’ that reflects the overall confidence of the music and the performances. Many of the songs are songs of courage and defiance, which seem strangely appropriate to the current mood in London. What could have appeared brash and ugly in the hands of, say, Toby Keith, is delivered with grace and elegance by McKeown. Her vocals are consistently light and breezy, but she also demonstrates an inventive talent for lithe and unpredictable melodies. This is songwriting of the highest quality, unafraid of genuine sophistication. Class.

More solo artist action comes from the playful, gleefully chameleonic Jamie Liddell, whose second album ‘Multiply’ entirely forsakes the confusing glitch and stutter of his debut and instead adopts a more funky approach. My friend Alex from Club Treehouse has denounced this as ‘absolutely awful…like a digital Jamiroquai’, whilst my former co-presenter on student radio think it’s one of the best albums of the last five years. I’d probably disagree with both of these views, as they seem to be somewhat extreme. There is far more fun and panache on display here than you might reasonably expect from the twat in the hat, but there are some significant problems, particularly with track sequencing, which rather dilute its overall impact.

It starts brilliantly. ‘You Got Me Up’ is short and decidedly sweet, a lush refashioning of the spirit of Sly Stone. ‘Multiply’ sees Liddell inherit the mantle of more gritty soul singers such as Otis Redding or Joe Tex, and he does this with such natural and unforced enthusiasm that it is hard to resist, even if the song is essentially a genre pastiche. Even better is ‘When I Come Back Around’, which signifies that a more questing and original spirit is at work. There’s certainly a detectable Prince influence, but the falsetto vocals and wurlizer keyboards are filtered through a rather more modernist prism, with a more twisting and unpredictable production style. It’s also an incredibly infectious song, with an incredible energy and confidence.

Things continue to move away from the conventional as the album progresses. ‘A Little Bit More’ makes elaborate use of layered backing vocals (one of the few hints at Liddell’s more uncompromising vocal loops live show), whilst ‘The City’ is stripped right back to just a beat, skeletal bass line and expressive vocal performance. It all makes for incredibly exciting stuff.
The problems arrive because, perversely, Liddell decides to conclude the album with a series of slower, less exhuberant songs, which quickly deaden the pace. Whilst not exactly ballads as such, Liddell clearly aimed to use these as vessels through which to channel the more sultry and seductive spirit of classic soul. Of themselves, they are not entirely unsuccessful, although perhaps a little derivative for comfort. Placed together, they bring an otherwise irresistibly invigorating album to an unexpected and uncomfortably muted conclusion.

It would be easy for the success of The Pixies reunion (although I had my own reservations) to blind us into deifying Frank Black as a solo artist. Nevertheless, 'Honeycomb', his umpteenth album, does bring some surprising pleasures. For this one, Black has indulged himself by going off to Nashville and recording with the musicians largely agreed to have the best chops in the business - Dan Penn, Spooner Oldham and Steve Cropper among them. Reportedly, none of them had heard of The Pixies or even had any idea who Frank Black was. This doesn't seem to matter one jot because the record has such a gentle, easy charm that the combination of a more restrained Black with these session and songwriting legends seems entirely comfortable.

Whereas Black's last few albums with The Catholics have tended towards the conventional and uninspired, this collection offers more considered arrangements and more ingratiating tunes than Black has mustered recently. There are also some audacious covers, among them a slow, drawling and surprisingly effective rendition of Penn's legendary 'Dark End Of The Street'. OK, so this is a standard, and a song so undeniably brilliant it would seem impossible to ruin. Nevertheless we should credit Black with resisting the temptation to transform it into an angsty, primal grunge howl, and instead playing it mostly straight, whilst exaggerating its tempo and phrasing to accommodate for his vocal limitations.

Of Black's own songs, 'I Burn Today' is an effective break-up song, commendable mostly for its restrained and controlled style. Where previously, Black would have articulated his rage in rather more predictably aggressive tones, here he barely rises above a whisper. 'Lone Child' is more rhythmically dynamic than one might reasonably expect, and makes excellent use of the skills of the musicians to create an evocative atmosphere. 'Another Velvet Nightmare' is rather more sinister and despairing.

Its true that it all becomes rather homogenous towards the end, and much the same countrified soul mood is preserved throughout. Perhaps in the hands of a better vocalist this wouldn't have mattered so much (indeed, the combination of Penn and Oldham on the outstanding live reuninion 'Moments From This Theatre' largely avoided this pitfall), but it's a minor criticism of what really represents an interesting diversion for Black and proof that he isn't only now concerned with the big money promised by new Pixies material. I absolutely despise the journalistic cliche of the 'return to form' but, seriously, when was the last time Frank Black produced an album this assured? You'd have to go back to the rather more scattershot, but equally endearing 'Teenager Of The Year'. It's not really a 'return to form' as such, as this is an idiom that Black has given little hint of exploring before (and will probably abandon just as quickly for his next release). It's more of a curious aside.

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