Thursday, September 08, 2005

Quirks, Geniuses and Frauds

Well sod the dispute over their leader’s nationality, I’m simply delighted that Antony and the Johnsons picked up the Mercury Music Prize this week. He now joins a small group of deserving winners (including Badders and Primal Scream) and must now count as the most idiosyncratic and unusual winner yet. Perhaps this uncharacteristically brave decision from Simon Frith and the panel of judges may indicate bolder selections to come – perhaps we might get a winner from the fields of jazz, folk or contemporary composition next year? Probably wishful thinking! As for the antics of MIA (apparently walking out in protest as soon as the announcement was made and raising her middle fingers to cameras in the protest), how pathetic! To my mind, her album is extremely unlikely to be remembered favourably in even five years’ time – there’s just a wealth of better hip hop and electro music out there to contend with once the novelty has worn off. Why did anyone seriously think the Kaiser Chiefs would win it?

In light of Antony’s victory, and a whole wealth of music from strange, marginal figures suddenly bouncing into the mainstream, it seems appropriate to now catch up on some of these releases.

I’ve asked the question on these pages before, but I’m going to ask it again. Just what is it about Devendra Banhart that is making critics gush so much? I tried so hard to like ‘Rejoicing In The Hands’, but it was resolutely one dimensional, and many of the songs were simply grating. At least his new album ‘Cripple Crow’ has a crisp title, instead of his usual highly pretentious and verbose rambling. As his first release with a full band, it automatically stands apart from its predecessors.

This doesn’t necessarily make it more successful though. For my money, ‘Cripple Crow’ finally confirms Banhart as a colossal fraud. Rather than being in touch with some sort of psychedelic weird folk tradition, Banhart encapsulates the worst and most regressive elements of the defiantly indie mentality. There’s a lot of warbling and not much in the way of melody on ‘Cripple Crow’. There’s also a lyrical obsession with childhood and a return to youth, the effect of which is, ahem, somewhat crippling. ‘Long Haired Child’, ‘I Feel Just Like A Child’, ‘Chinese Children’, ‘Little Boys’ – even the titles are nauseating in the extreme.

On ‘Cripple Crow’, Banhart and his newly drafted cohorts attempt to cover a wide range of genres, clearly in the hope of producing an esoteric masterpiece. With 22 tracks, there’s just far too much material here and the listener is left with the overwhelming sense that this contains at least two separate albums jostling for position. Therefore what many are claiming as Banhart’s most accessible album to date is actually nothing of the sort – it’s his most confounding. This might be a welcome change from the monotonous ‘Rejoicing In The Hands’, but it’s a lurch from one extreme to another. ‘Santa Maria de Feira’ is a woefully unconvincing foray into Latin American stylings whilst ‘Lazy Butterfly’ comes with a hint of Indian mysticism (and a thoroughly painful whining vocal from Banhart). Worst of all is the horrific title track, where Banhart’s tremulous warble is at its most exaggerated and affected. Later in the album, he even attempts to present himself as a countrified southern soul singer. It would appear the only things missing are a stab at Eastern European Black Metal or some rough and tumble free jazz.

There’s never any sense of innovation amongst these genre exercises though. Much like The White Stripes, it seems clear that Banhart has aimed to make this album sound as aged as possible, and many of these tracks seem founded on the production techniques of the mid-sixties. This would not be too great a problem if these techniques and ideas were being manipulated into a new aesthetic, as Jack White has managed so successfully. Banhart, however, seems more content on simple reconstruction and homage. There’s even a song here called ‘The Beatles’ for heaven’s sake!

Luckily, there are some promising moments. ‘Long Haired Child’ benefits from its driving rhythm and unconventional structure, suddenly switching styles halfway through with no prior warning. The opening ‘Now That I Know’ is delicate and underplayed, but its pretty melody is squandered by Banhart’s opaque mumblings. The propulsive bluesy strum of ‘I Feel Just Like A Child’ might be mildly diverting did it not outstay it’s welcome by at least a minute.

There is something fundamentally self-regarding and galling about Banhart’s assumption of a psychedelic guru mantle that makes much of his work difficult to admire, let alone like. Everything on ‘Cripple Crow’ is imbued with self-importance and superiority, even when glimpses of humour are aloud to seep in. Whilst a number of the arrangements are perfectly pleasant until he starts singing, as soon as he opens his mouth I just want to scream ‘hippy tw*t’! Banhart is not the ‘new Bob Dylan’ and we should not be hypnotised into praising this questionable piffle.

Luckily, Banhart appears to associate himself with rather more interesting musicians, his current girlfriend being one half of beguiling sister duo CocoRosie. There is a genuine sense of drama and sophistication to their music, and much of it is unusual and challenging. New album ‘Noah’s Ark’ follows the nomadic existence enforced on the group as they toured their acclaimed debut. It’s a decidedly weird but brilliantly expressive record. At its best, it resembles the theatrical, emotive and highly feminine creative space occupied by the likes of Bjork and Kate Bush.

There’s a whole world of weird and wonderful sounds here that help CocoRosie realise their own hypnotic, fairytale world, from the toy piano sounds of ‘K-hole’ and ‘South 2nd’ to the idiosyncratic electronics of ‘Armageddon’ and the title track. If CocoRosie have a specific formula, it seems to be to take deceptively simple melodic lines and repeat them incessantly, lodging them in the memory like catechisms or chants.

This is before we’ve even mentioned the vocals, which are at once skeletal, frail, wistful and deeply haunting. Perhaps the best example here of their uncanny artistry is ‘Tekno Love Song’, where the vocals sound like a distorted, freakish reincarnation of Billie Holliday. This is all set to a peculiarly synthetic harp sound that plays the kind of melody commonly found emerging from an old musical box. Their imaginary world is enchanting and enticing, but there’s quiet menace lurking beneath the surface.

Despite their harsh vocal mannerisms, the voices often mesh together with disarming beauty, most notably on ‘The Sea Is Calm’, an extraordinary track where strange, sinister electronics burble mysteriously but never quite pierce the magical sheen. Equally brilliant is ‘Beautiful Boyz’, which sounds beautifully elegiac, mainly thanks to the presence of Antony Hegarty of Antony and the Johnsons fame. It’s wonderfully absorbed in its own world, isolated from reality and extravagantly expressive. It’s also possibly the gayest thing ever recorded.

This is a gem of an album – highly original, idiosyncratic, mysterious and bewitching. It inhabits its own peculiar realm with quiet confidence and questing experimentalism.

I should really despise The Decemberists for all the reasons I’m suspicious of Devendra Banhart. They are immensely twee. With their sea shanties and epic balladry, they appear to be coming from another era entirely, and they attempt to inhabit a world of which they can surely have no experience whatsoever. And just look at those ridiculous costumes they’ve worn for the CD sleeve! Yet, like ‘Her Majesty, The Decemberists’ before it, ‘Picaresque’ is such a consistently impressive album that such concerns are thrown out of the window. Colin Meloy’s songwriting is more elaborate here and the arrangements have become more expansive to match his lofty ambitions. There’s wit and imagination here as well as the intention to reconstruct a folk tradition.

‘Picaresque’ is their most coherent and accessible work to date, with an endearing balance struck between introverted, delicate ballads such as ‘Eli The Barrow Boy’ and huge, driving pop songs such as ’16 Military Wives’ and ‘The Sporting Life’. The latter is the band’s attempt, as so many have done, to recalibrate the rhythm from The Supremes’ classic ‘You Can’t Hurry Love’. It’s a strong track but possibly owes a major debt to Belle and Sebastian’s ‘Boy With The Arab Strap’. The former is simply outstanding, with its parping brass and rhythmic insistence. There is a slightly elusive attempt here to move away from the historical narrative and engage with the modern world, although the purpose of the song is not entirely clear. Still, it’s immensely hummable and hugely entertaining nonetheless.

They still love their seafaring of course and, despite stretching to more than 8 minutes, there’s the nagging sense that we’ve heard ‘The Mariner’s Revenge Song’ a few too many times before. The appropriately thunderous opener ‘The Infanta’ and ‘The Bagman’s Gambit’ make for less crude epics. The former is especially thrilling, with its relentless military drumming and rapidly strummed chords. I also can’t think of many better ways to start an album than with a song about the coronation of a child monarch. This is perhaps the best example of the peculiar milieu in which this band operates. For the most part, these are highly theatrical songs buried in a distant past. On the more tender moments, though, chief songwriter Colin Meloy does achieve some genuine human interest, and the deceptively simple ‘From My Own True Love (Lost At Sea)’, the closing ‘Of Angels and Angles’ and ‘Eli The Barrow Boy’ are touching despite the band’s numerous affectations.

The range of instrumentation on display here makes for an impressive sound. The album benefits greatly from the presence of the supremely talented Petra Haden (daughter of jazz bassist Charlie – her recent album with guitarist Bill Frisell is well worth investigating) on viola and harmony vocals. The brass section play with vigour, but also in a manner that is complementary rather than overbearing.

Perhaps the major precursor for the fuzz-folk impressionism of The Decemberists was ‘In The Aeroplane Over The Sea’, the masterful 1998 second album from Neutral Milk Hotel, now finally made widely available in the UK courtesy of Domino (clearly putting some of that Franz Ferdinand money to good use by buying up most of the Merge Records back catalogue). Now widely accepted as a classic of its kind, this expansive work veers rapidly from tender understatement to freakish psych rock with gypsy brass band arrangements. It seems to have been a musician’s record, never really achieving much in the way of commercial impact but judging at least from the comments on the slipcase of the CD reissue, inspiring artists as diverse as Franz Ferdinand and Boom Bip.

I was pointed in the direction of this record a year or so ago after I’d heard the Broken Family band’s cover of ‘The King Of Carrot Flowers Pt 3’. Clearly, the band has been massively influential on the writing of Steve Adams. ‘On Avery Island’, the first Neutral Milk Hotel album opens with a song called ‘Song Against Sex’ whilst ‘Cold Water Songs’, the first full length EP from BFB contains a song called ‘Song Against Robots’. The connection, one suspects, is more than mere coincidence. Whereas the BFB version of ‘King Of Carrot Flowers’ is a weary, anguished trudge, the Neutral Milk Hotel original is a scuzzy, unrestrained blast of distorted melody.

Along with Olivia Tremor Control’s ‘Dusk At Cubist Castle’, ‘In The Aeroplane…’ is probably the most significant artistic statement to emerge from the Elephant 6 recording collective. The collective also included the consistently infectious Apples In Stereo, whose Bob Schneider is at the helm for production duties here. The songs flow seamlessly together in an intelligent use of studio resources that serves to emphasise the wild distinctions between the delicate and the frayed and savage. Jeff Mangum’s extraordinary vocals also underlie these contrasts. He’s wistful and reserved on ‘The King Of Carrot Flowers Pt 1’ but harsh and confident on ‘Holland, 1945’.

There is a constant and heavy acoustic guitar strum throughout these recordings, but the imposing songs frequently benefit from more exploratory arrangements. Whilst the structures and chord sequences are deceptively simple, the end result is disjointed but hallucinatory in its effect. The contrast between the bold, ragged ‘Ghost’ and the more sombre and reflective closer ‘Two Headed Boy pt 2’ is impressively controlled.

Lyrically, it’s an elusive, maybe even abstract album that builds and sustains its own mythologizing imagery. Mangum frequently sounds anguished and troubled when singing these peculiar verses, and the effect is weirdly disorientating.

With one foot planted firmly in the classic rock canon (there are hints of The Beach Boys, The Beatles and Pink Floyd) and the other in a pool of more unpredictable influences, including British and Eastern European folk music, Neutral Milk Hotel have crafted an ambitious sound that is difficult to classify. We’re still waiting for the follow-up…

We had better not forget the low-key reappearance of Bjork, following up Medulla with another soundtrack project, this time providing the music for her husband Matthew Barney’s new film Drawing Restraint 9. Barney is a defiant obscurantist and passionate believer in the artistic value of film. It’s no surprise then that both the film and much of the music would appear to be somewhat impenetrable. Bjork did an impressive and effective job with the unfairly maligned soundtrack to Lars Von Trier’s Dancer In The Dark, successfully capturing that film’s claustrophobic fear, disintegration and extreme sadness. Much of Drawing Restraint 9 may prove a challenge to even her most faithful fans.

Barney’s film depicts two guests on a Japanese whaling ship who mutate into whales to avoid drowning when a fatal storm strikes. The music on Bjork’s soundtrack goes some way towards capturing the magical possibilities portrayed in the film, as well as returning to recurring themes within Bjork’s oeuvre, such as the contrasts between tradition and innovation, destruction and beauty. Much like Medulla before it, ‘Drawing Restraint 9’ combines traditional instrumentation and styles with modern production techniques. Unlike Medulla, though, Bjork is frequently a distant, largely directorial presence here, and the emphasis is less on vocals and much more on the uncompromisingly minimalist music. Many of the tracks deploy the traditional Japanese instrument the Sho (played by Miyumi Mayata), and the album focuses more on the unconventional sounds of this instrument rather than relying on Bjork’s preoccupation with programmed beats.

There are moments of brilliance here. The opener ‘Gratitude’ effortlessly melds the soft vocals of Will Oldham with the harp of long-term Bjork collaborator Zeena Parkins. The lyrics brought so vividly to life by Oldham are actually the text of a letter written to General Macarthur, thanking him for relaxing the ban on whaling. It’s an unlikely success, but it has eerie and haunting qualities that cannot be ignored. Equally, the dazzling ‘Holographic Entrypoint’ bears the hallmarks of Bjork’s genius, and also provides some pointers as to where she might go next, with its skeletal percussion and wailing vocals. It’s a remarkably theatrical track, and it sounds completely unique.
Although it is not too long a record, ‘Drawing Restraint 9’ becomes a bit of a chore when taken as a whole. There are a lot of wordless, wailing passages that sound confrontational without ever becoming too aggressive. There are absolutely no pop songs whatsoever – it is very much a mood piece. Taken on that level, it’s undoubtedly impressive (although the brilliant integration of emotional profundity, dazzling musical invention and enchanting mood on ‘Vespertine’ remains unchallenged as her greatest achievement so far). It’s also substantially different from its immediate predecessors, giving advance warning that Bjork still has plenty of ground left to cover in her increasingly unpredictable career. She continues to drift out on her own journeys, now entirely removed from the confines of the mainstream

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