Wednesday, October 12, 2005

Formats and Concepts

Forgive me for sounding like one of Petridish's dreaded Guardian reviews for a moment, but there have been two notable trends in 2005 - the return of the formerly derided 'concept' album, and a new enthusiasm for the stop-gap mini album. In the former category, there have been some ambitious and remarkable achievements and adoption of a more 'thematic' approach to the long-player has been most welcome, with artists finding some imaginative context for their material.

Perhaps most impressive of all has been Matthew Herbert's radical 'Plat Du Jour' project, a largely wordless polemic against the manipulative and exploitative tendencies of the food industry. Herbert has long been a fervent musical adventurer, although he works within the confines of some stringent self-imposed regulations which see him find samples and sounds in the most extraordinary of places. Having sampled human digestion and his pet hamster exercising in its cage on his fantastic bodily functions album, Herbert has now made a righteous political statement constructed from the sound of food and its industrial production.

Whereas his recent production duties for Roisin Murphy's 'Ruby Blue' album traded in quasi-sophisticated and polite textures, 'Plat du Jour' is considerably more confrontational. The result is a sometimes severe but frequently dazzling new form of 'musique concrete' that makes for Herbert's most challenging listening experience to date. The fascination with jazz forms made explicit with his big band project is perhaps less overt here, but the contributions of jazz musicians Phil Parnell, Dave O' Higgins and arranger Pete Wraight are again fundamental to the overall sound of the album. All three improvise inventively with the sampled sounds, adapting confidently to what may have seemed initially an unfamiliar idiom. 'Plat du Jour' is as much a celebration of contemporary musical diversity as it is a political statement. The combination of modern composition, electronic production values and improvisatory spirit makes for an original and winning formula, with a consistent mood and tone pervading across the whole album.

In spite of this, 'Plat du Jour' cannot be appreciated fully without its lengthy and compelling set of inlay notes. Anyone who illegally downloads this material without the packaging will be missing out on reams of explanation and extrapolation. Herbert meticulously lists the sources for all his sounds, including live concert audiences eating apples on 'An Apple A Day', 30,000 broiler chickens in a barn on 'The Truncated Life Of A Modern Industrialised Chicken', and perhaps most ingeniously of all, the sound of a tank driving over a reconstruction of the meal prepared by Nigella Lawson for the 20th November 2003 meeting between George Bush and Tony Blair. The latter neatly combines the food theme with Herbert's passionate opposition to the war in Iraq.

Many of Herbert's political concerns are also expressed in his customarily didactic fashion. 'These Branded Waters' contrasts the recent obsession with corporate bottled water with the lack of access to sanitary services in parts of India and Bangladesh. The apocalyptic 'Empire Of Coffee' deals with the devastating trade problems in the coffee industry. 'Celebrity', the most accessible track on the album thanks largely to Dani Siciliano's sultry vocal and its unabashed sense of humour, is constructed entirely from the sounds of celebrity endorsed food products, most of which are, according to Herbert, of 'dubious nutritional value'. The track has a fantastic slightly delayed rhythm and its central ironic cheerleading chant of 'Go Gordon! Go Ramsey! Go Beyonce! Go Beyonce!' is brilliant.

Herbert's decision to make the majority of 'Plat du Jour' instrumental proves to be inspired. The message is invoked through the use of sounds rather than through forced or hackneyed 'political' lyrics. 'Plat du Jour' is suddenly remarkably topical in light of the recent Jamie Oliver school meals campaign and government policy on junk food (although my more liberal side feels New Labour's controlling element may have yet again too far in imposing a ban on all junk food sales). 'Plat du Jour' goes much further than this rather superficial debate, however - it does not merely consider the content and nutritional balance of modern diets, but also asks uncomfortable questions about the unsavoury role of corporate bodies, multinational organisations and aggressive marketing strategies in global health. It is as much about the destruction of independent businesses as a result of supermarket culture as it is about the fat content of McDonald's products. Following 'Super Size Me' and the Jamie Oliver series, there has been plenty of debate about the effects of poor diets, but few have been prepared to link the food industry with wider global trends quite as convincingly as Herbert does here.

Herbert is a passionate believer in the power of the individual to effect change through direct action. He at least largely puts his money where his mouth is (he now refuses to fly except to visit his family in America once a year). The central motto of the inlay to 'Plat du Jour' is 'avoid supermarkets'. If only this were so straightforward for people living in areas where a supermarket is the only food outlet available. Herbert's committed environmentalism and political awareness is commendable, and he remains one of the most vital musical artists at work in Britain today. 'Plat du Jour' makes for a thrilling education.

Sufjan Stevens has taken the concept album to new levels of excess with his surely unrealisable 50 states project. Nevermind that Stevens would have to produce an album a year until he was over the age of 75 to complete the Herculean task, he's continuing apace anyway. 'Greetings From Michigan' was an inspired collection that balanced sombre and incisive reflections on industrial decline with more rousing celebrations of his home state with remarkable aplomb. Its follow up, 'Illinois' (full title 'Sufjan Stevens invites you to: Come on feel the Illinoise') dismisses any concerns that Stevens would be unable to apply the same range of sympathy and compassion to the other US states. It is personal odyssey, historical document and geographical commentary rolled into a giant, monolithic statement.

On the surface, 'Illinois' is very impressive, displaying the same aptitude for exquisite arrangement that made 'Michigan' such a treat. It's this undeniable quality that most likely helps explain why 'Illinois' has been sitting pretty at the top of the rateyourmusic.com and metacritic albums of the year since Asthmatic Kitty issued the first pre-release mail order copies.

There are problems here though that make me slightly suspicious of the zealous critical praise 'Illinois' has enjoyed. Sadly the ludicrously verbose song titles, a refreshing conceit on 'Michigan', now appear slighly pretentious and do much to detract from the poignant and literate quality of many of the songs. At over 74 minutes, it's also massively overlong, and Stevens' richly detailed arrangements acquire an unwanted twee and sugary quality as a result of overexposure. Some more judicious editing might have transformed 'Illinois' from an exceptional record into a solid gold classic.

These are not severe or insurmountable setbacks though, and there is so much to admire on 'Illinois' that it will most likely retain a top 10 position in my albums of the year list. I'm beginning to prefer Stevens at his more delicate and restrained, and one of the clear highlights here is 'John Wayne Gacy, Jr.' a song ostensibly about a murderer, but really dealing with the wider issue of the secrets we keep concealed. It ends with a remarkable lyric - 'And in my best behaviour/I am really just like him/Look beneath the floorboards for the secrets I have hid'. It is a controlled and moving testament. 'Decatur' is an equally assured banjo and vocal harmony dominated track, with a remarkably infectious central melody. Here, Stevens neatly captures an American historical spirit ('Sang-a-man river it overflowed/It caused a mudslide on the banks of the Operator?Civil war skeletons in their graves/They came up clapping in the spirit of the Aviator').

John Kell (http://www.kingofquiet.co.uk) has described Stevens in passing as being 'a bit plinky plonk'. Elsewhere on 'Illinois', these tendencies are further amplified so that he could be derided as 'a bit happy clappy'. The vocal choruses increasingly resemble child choirs, and parping crumhorns and chiming bells dominate the sound. At their best, these moments are uniquely uplifting, such as the title track's combination of a deconstruction of the American dream with a vivid description of a visitation of the ghost of Carl Sandburg to Stevens in a dream. Even better is the euphoric wall of sound Stevens constructs in the magnificent 'Chicago'. In reality, the quality control is remarkably consistent over the course of the album, it's just that some of these stylings become over-familiar towards the album's conclusion. Stevens' melodies can be a little formulaic, and so seem repetetive over too great a period of time. This is a bit frustrating as one of the album's real highlights, the soulful, slinky 'They Are Night Zombies!! They Are Neighbours!! They Have Come Back From The Dead!! Ahhhh!' (you see what I mean about the titles) is buried three quarters of the way through the album.

Few artists have the talent, the passion or the necessary self-belief to invest so much energy and time to the development of a project from initial concept to finished product. Few also imbue that product with this level of human empathy and wisdom. Unusually for a concept album, 'Illinois' may be best listened to on shuffle or in small doses, but it's a richly rewarding encapsulation of the human spirit nonetheless.

Adopting a rather more unusual approach to concept and theme, 'Black Sheep Boy' by Okkervil River is a sublime manipulation of traditional Americana into a sort of crimson, cinematic melodrama. Songwriter Will Sheff has taken the Tim Hardin song that provides the album's title and expanded its central character across ten fresh songs of his own. Lyrically, the album is fascinating, imbuing familiar themes (jealousy, betrayal, rejection, frustration) with fresh appeal through the invigorating deconstruction of rhythm and meter. The structure of the album provides a distinctive narrative continuity, and Sheff's peculiar prose-poetry comes with violent dynamics and restless energies which are reflected in the frequently tempestuous music. Sheff's ragged voice has some of the angst and anger of Bright Eyes, but comes blessed with a much more instinctive feel for raging desire and the darker recesses of the human heart.

Opening with a faithfully minimal and subdued version of the Hardin song, the album bursts into life with the visceral, highly charged 'For Real'. This is where Sheff first demonstrates his vision of Okkervil River as a band, rather than merely a vehicle for his songs - the track boasts a confident mastery of unpredictable dynamic contrast. Never content to opt entirely for guitar strumming, 'For Real', like many of the other outstanding songs here, places the evocative sound of the Wurlitzer electric piano firmly in the foreground. The subsequent 'In A Radio Song' makes for an immediate and striking contrast, the musical accompinament skeletal and delicate, leaving plenty of room for the expansive, free-flowing lyrics to breathe. The opening lines clearly demonstrate Sheff's deftness of touch - 'Black sheep boy, blue-eyed charmer, head hanging with horns from your father - oh, in a cold little mirror you were grown, by a black little wind you were blown, blown, blown'.

The rest of the album is just as remarkable - from the pained but propulsive 'Black', with a chorus that threatens to veer into the poptastic side of indie to the thrilling stomp of 'The Latest Toughs', via the detailed slow build of 'A King And A Queen'. Perhaps most poignant is the controlled jealousy of 'A Stone' - 'Hot breath, rough skin, warm laughs and smiling, the loveliest words whispered and meant - you like all these things. But though you like all these things, you love a stone'. There is an extraordinary love of language at the heart of these songs.

It ends with the epic desperation and longing of 'So Come Back, I Am Waiting', Sheff showing considerable resolve in not providing a more comforting conclusion by ending the central torment. It ends with some chilling words - "I am waiting hoof and on hand. I am waiting all hated and damned. I am waiting - I snort and I stamp. I am waiting you know that I am, calmly waiting to make you my lamb". What a powerful conclusion to a magnificent, primal, deeply felt song cycle.

Of the mini albums, I have already waxed lyrical about the remarkable collaboration between Calexico and Iron and Wine, one of the albums of the year. There's a strange sense of urgency to the return of Grandaddy, which they have dismissed by releasing a low-key mini album in preparation for the next full-length which is due in early 2006. It would be unfair to suggest that Grandaddy lost form exactly, but 'Sumday' did suffer somewhat as a result of a monotony of pace and tone. The wonderfully titled 'Excerpts From The Diary Of Todd Zilla' has remedied this problem immediately. It doesn't perhaps rank with their very best work (it lacks the thematic coherence of 'The Sophtware Slump' or the wide-eyed fascination of 'Under The Western Freeway'), but it provides a welcome return to their trademark blend of bubblegum melody and analogue burblings.

There is more variation in tone and texture between the first two tracks than 'Sumday' managed across an entire album. Opener 'Pull The Curtains' is a delightful excursion into what seems almost like a Californian punk-pop sound. Of course, Grandaddy manage this genre exercise with real elan (they even opt to return to the sound later in the album with 'Florida', which adds entirely unexpected Pixies style screeching into the equation). Second track 'At My Post' veers between contrasting sections, one a melancholy, funereal reflection, the other a familiar Grandaddy trudge, with synths foregrounded above the guitars. It sounds like a sense of ambition and a desire to overcome their musical limitations have returned.

The subsequent three tracks, 'A Valley Son', 'Cinderland' and 'F*ck The Valley Fudge' are characerised by a mournful delicacy and a sense of loss, the latter very skeletal in its vocal and piano stylings. These are deceptively pretty, highly unusual songs and make for worthy additions to the Grandaddy canon.

'...Todd Zilla' could perhaps be criticised for gathering together a range of elements from Grandaddy's back catalogue rather than offering anything really original - but the the bleepy synthesisers remain more distinctive than the production sheen that stifled the last album, and the mini-album format offers little room for filler. It's a pleasing hint at what may come, but we'll have to wait until 2006 before we really know whether or not they have developed.

The progtastic Pure Reason Revolution have made their debut with mini-LP (or long EP) 'Cautionary Tales For The Brave'. Somewhat appropriately, a cautionary word is needed right from the outset as the 12 minute single 'Bright Ambassadors Of Morning' makes up the bulk of the material here. If you already have that, it may well not be worth £6.99 of your hard earned cash to buy this. If this represents first contact with the band, however, it makes for a useful introduction. PRR are defiantly unfashionable, combining the layered harmonies of Crosby, Stills and Nash with the lengthy explorations of Pink Floyd and the edgy riffing of Metallica. It's a distinctive combination, although the results sometimes sound slightly laboured. At their best, however, as on the uncharacteristically concise chug of opener 'In Aurelia' and on the aforementioned centrepiece, there is an admirable fearlessness and audacity at work. Is it really viable in the narrow mainstream marketplace though? Will they be able to sustain their potentially lucrative Sony contract?

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