Monday, November 21, 2005

The Real Super Monday (Part Two)

A proper analysis of the superb set of releases from October 17th was promised a month ago – at last it is now here!

The most eagerly anticipated release of that day (aside from Stevie Wonder, which I’ve yet to hear) was ‘Playing The Angel’, the first album in over four years from Depeche Mode. The Mode are often either touted as stadium crowd-pullers to rival U2 or REM, or denounced as pitiful 80s throwbacks. Neither description captures the distinct quality that the band have captured on all their albums since ‘Violator’. ‘Songs Of Faith and Devotion’ had a strong spiritual-gospel dimension, whilst ‘Ultra’ was their darkest work since ‘Black Celebration’ (now nearly 20 years old and still their masterpiece), with Dave Gahan at his lowest ebb during the recording sessions. Tim Simenon’s production also leant it additional gravitas. By contrast, the now widely disliked ‘Exciter’ mostly sounded calm and dreamlike. To these ears, it pushed the band into new and subtler territories, but its approach has been almost entirely rejected for ‘Playing The Angel’, which frequently sounds like a very self-conscious attempt to recapture the popular essence of ‘Violator’.

It opens brilliantly, with a harsh wall of guitar fuzz and one of the band’s most immediate and powerful opening gambits. ‘A Pain That I’m Used To’ is hardly anything surprising, but it’s crisp production and neat contrasts between smooth and savage sounds make it remarkably effective. Dave Gahan’s voice is in fine form here, richer and less imposing than on previous albums, but with more a great deal more depth and control. If he’s been taking voice coaching, it’s clearly paid off, as what follows is even better. On ‘John The Revelator’, a superb recasting of the classic blues standard as a sermon against religion, Gahan growls with glee.

Gahan in fact dominates all the finest moments here. Much has already been written about his confrontation with Martin Gore over the share of the songwriting, and his three efforts here are surprisingly good. ‘Suffer Well’ again fits a classic Mode model, with a memorable melody and intelligent, thoughtful production values. ‘I Want It All’ is slower, denser and less penetrable, it’s essence seemingly buried beneath atmospherics. ‘Nothing’s Impossible’ is a real grower though, and one of the best tracks here.

For all that is dependably impressive about ‘Playing The Angel’, there are also significant problems. Martin Gore has always walked a perilous path as a lyricist, and there are certainly lurches into hideous self parody here. The worst is the appalling ‘Macro’, where Gore sings in grandiose mock-operatic tones about seeing ‘the microcosm in macro vision’. Hit the skip button on your CD player at this point. Equally disappointing is Gore’s other vocal effort, ‘Damaged People’. Musically, it’s perhaps the closest track here to the ‘Exciter’ sound, but its theme of suffering outsiders perhaps suggests that Gore has now rewritten this song too many times.

Those who hoped that producer Ben Hillier (Blur’s ‘Think Tank’ and Elbow’s ‘Cast Of Thousands’) might alter the band’s approach or reinvent their sound may come away disappointed, although ‘Playing The Angel’ frequently sounds impressively slick and atmospheric. It’s just that it doesn’t quite reach the alchemical heights of the Mode’s best work – it’s neither their best nor their most original.

By contrast, My Morning Jacket’s fourth album, the mysteriously titled ‘Z’, has been hailed as a complete reinvention. Following the departure and replacement of two key members, things have certainly changed (most notably with the hiring of John Leckie as producer), although I’m not sure that this isn’t more a broadening of the palette than a radical transformation. They certainly haven’t completely abandoned their defining reverb-drenched sound, as many reviewers have mistakenly claimed.

Perhaps it’s because the tracks that sound most unlike their earlier incarnation come first. ‘Wordless Chorus’ and ‘It Beats For You’ are the two tracks that most clearly betray Jim James’ self-confessed fascination with modern R&B and soul. The former displaces guitars to the background in favour of some sweetly processed squelchy keyboards and a particularly limber drum beat. It also does exactly what it says on the tin in the sense that the chorus is indeed wordless. The layers of Jim James’ vocals sound superb. ‘It Beats For You’ is perhaps more elusive, with a spindly melody and understated arpeggiated guitar line. It’s still meticulously constructed, however, and the band have clearly benefited from the introduction of an outside producer.

Best of all are the two epics, the sinister waltz ‘Into The Woods’ (has Jim James really been listening to Sondheim?) and the extended closer ‘Dondate’. ‘Into The Woods’ has what may be the greatest opening line of the year (‘a…., a baby in a blender/both as sweet as a night of surrender’) and sounds something like a musical version of Neil Jordan and Angela Carter’s exquisite film ‘The Company Of Wolves’, which is stunningly appropriate.

Elsewhere, there are extensions of recognisable formulae. ‘What A Wonderful Man’ brings back the guitars and the bone-crushing drums, but adds a twist of ironic gospel. Similarly, the deliberately dragging pace of ‘Anytime’ is recognisable, but its twisting, unpredictable emphasis is. The reggae/ska dimension, previously a passing fascination, is brought spectacularly into the fore in the decelerated skank of ‘Off The Record’. It’s extraordinarily infectious, and even manages to pull of the trick of plagiarising the theme tune from Hawaii 5-O. Even more audacious is its subtly extemporised coda, which sounds like the band at their most effectively collaborative.

‘Gideon’ is perhaps the track that would have sat most comfortably on ‘It Still Moves’, with its massive, almost bombastic rock sound. Yet, it has a depth and control that that album never quite achieved. The same point makes works equally well for a comparison of the entire two albums. ‘It Still Moves’ was a monolithic rock behemoth and, at CD-busting length, far too heavy an experience for one straight listen. ‘Z’ meanwhile, at a clipped 41 minutes, is mercilessly concise, but still every bit as expansive and impressive. In seeking to develop the sound, My Morning Jacket have successfully retained their elemental potency.

Are Boards Of Canada really the reclusive world-changing saviours of electronic music or are they over-hyped, allowing their self-imposed mystique to overpower their music? If ‘Music Has The Right To Children’ was deceptively calm, with very sinister undertones in its repeated sampling of childens’ voices, ‘Geogaddi’ pushed them into terrifying territory. It frequently sounded threatening or menacing, and maintained a refreshing detachment from the wider trends in electronic music at the time. Yet, it also presented a quandary for the duo. Having defined a sound so perfectly, were they now in danger of falling victim to their own formula? The next album would have to be a defining statement to justify the adulation.

On first listen, ‘The Campfire Headphase’ is something of a disappointment. It sticks so rigidly to what is now a very familiar template that even its cover design closely resembles that of ‘Music Has The Right…’. It continues the rather frustrating structural approach of alternating full length pieces with frustratingly brief interludes. Sometimes the short sections are so effective you wish they had developed the ideas a little further. As a whole, the album threatens to become soporific, so cohesive and singular is its identity.

The most obvious change from previous albums is the addition of ‘live’ guitar parts, although they are mostly take the form of heavily manipulated samples. They are something of a double-edged sword, for although they help BoC make tentative steps towards something new, they also help ensure that ‘The Campfire Headphase’ is their most conventional sounding album to date. It’s the closest they have come to actually fitting the generic terms ‘pastoral electronica’ or ‘folktronica’ so often dished out to describe them.

It all flows seamlessly, as one might expect, although this time there are some obvious standouts. ‘Chromakey Dreamcoat’ relies heavily on the duo’s gift for developing repetitive patterns, whilst ‘Dayvan Cowboy’ most effectively integrates harmonic guitar parts with interjections of programmed melody. The beats here are also carefully realised, with seemingly untamed and disorientating crashing cymbals.

The music here is frequently pretty, evocative or otherworldly (most particularly the hypnotic ’84 Pontiac Dream’). However, there isn’t much that really breaks the mould and it never quite captures the attention in the way that its two predecessors managed. It’s becoming increasingly clear that the Boards Of Canada are going to have to reinvent themselves if they are to stay at the forefront of the genre.

Plucked from folk obscurity by a smattering of the new ‘freak-folk- fraternity (Devendra Banhart and Adem both guest), Vashti Bunyan has returned with her only collection of songs since ‘Just Another Diamond Day’, her collectable debut from 1969. Disappointed by the lack of recognition afforded the album on its original release, Bunyan disappeared, but has since become something of a cult figure. Her collaboration with the fantastic Animal Collective on the fascinating ‘Prospect Hummer’ EP earlier in the year brought her back into the limelight and augured well for this new set of songs.

Producer Max Richter has crafted a warm, intimate and absorbing setting for these touching and understated songs, allowing Bunyan’s timid but captivating voice plenty of space in which to weave its alluring web. Like Kate Bush’s comeback album Aerial, many of Bunyan’s new songs deal with domestic concerns, most prominently motherhood and the desire to protect her children. The clearest parallel with Bush’s record comes in ‘Wayward’, where Bunyan sings of ‘days going by in clouds of white washing, life getting lost in a world without end’. There’s also a sense of regret here though. In the same song, Bunyan confesses: ‘I wanted to be the one with road dust on my boots and a single silver ear-ring’.

Most of ‘Lookaftering’ is so exposed that it feels like it was recorded completely solo, with no superfluous intervention. There’s actually a wealth of additional accompaniment though. Richter himself plays a bewildering array of instruments, including glockenspiel, piano, mellotron, recorders and carefully integrated passages of Hammond organ. The recorder, always a callously despised instrument, actually helps imbue the set with a sense of wisdom gained through experience.

The melodies are skeletal and all the songs are remarkably concise. Similarly the lyrics eschew verbosity or poetic conventions in favour of capturing more universal emotions. Sometimes, however, Bunyan conjures words with the touch of magician. ‘Against The Sky’ tells of a tree being cut down, its stately delivery barely concealing a palpable sadness. ‘Turning Backs’ is more abstract, ending with the beautiful lines ‘indifference is the hardest ground, it is the stony silent sound, of plainsong echoing unfound until all the voices have left town’. Bunyan seems as apt at handling isolation as she is at domestic contentment.

In a world of unrestrained warblers, it’s refreshing to here such an unashamedly vulnerable and controlled singer, capable of delivering real and sincere feeling. ‘Lookaftering’ may well be the quietest triumph of the year.

Best of the bunch may well be the third album in as many years from Bunyan’s prolific collaborators Animal Collective. ‘Feels’ is certainly their most coherent statement yet – by some distance the most comfortable to listen to from start to finish. They have largely tamed their tendency for unwarranted provocation, although ‘Feels’ still contains plenty of material that could easily be described as ‘challenging’. It succeeds in assimilating the disparate elements of their sound – the peculiar yelping vocals, Syd Barrett-esque whimsy, the droning electronics and the clattering rhythms provided by percussionist Panda Bear.

The first half of the album is the most immediately stimulating, and contains the band’s most memorable songs to date. The single ‘Grass’ is outstanding, lulling the listener into a false sense of security before piercing the bubble with a series of savage staccato interruptions. Even better is opening track ‘Did You See The Words?’ with its intuitive grasp of melody. ‘The Purple Bottle’ may well be their densest track to date, brimming with nonsense wordplay and compositional invention. It’s unconventional structure is characteristically perverse, and a defining part of its intrigue.

The second half of the album is abstract, slippery and arguably even more unconventional still. It requires a considerable amount of hard work from the listener, as the drones and electronic elements become more prominent on tracks such as ‘Banshee Beat’ and ‘Loch Raven’. As with the Collective’s earlier albums, it’s all about the hints and glimmers of ideas that lurk just beneath the surface, and close listening is essential to uncover many of this exquisite record’s many subtleties.

There’s a whole load of catch-up reviews to come when I get round to it – including live albums from Wilco and Bonnie ‘Prince’ Billy, as well as studio sets from Chris T-T, Fiery Furnaces, Broken Social Scene, Bettye Lavette and much more!

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