Friday, December 16, 2005

British Bards and Canadian Collectives

Time for a quick reviews catch-up - mostly albums I should have got around to writing about aaaages ago. Oh well. We'll start with two of my favourite British songwriters.

It's taken me some time to get to grips with 'Problems' the debut solo album from Steven Adams of the Broken Family Band, recording under the nom de plume of The Singing Adams. It was well worth persevering though, as this is actually album with as many, if not more, riches than the most recent BFB effort. Adams has adopted a less polished approach to the production here,opting for lo-fi bedroom methods rather than the polite Abbey Road sound of 'Welcome Home, Loser'. It serves these remarkably candid, occasionally dour songs very well. Adams' trademark dry sense of humour remains intact, but its often complemented here by a detached reflection on personal indiscretions and torrid affairs, during which he frequently refers to himself in the third person. Adams admits that he likes a good whine. It's lucky therefore that he's very good at it, elaborating his whinges with frequently incisive lyrical couplets.

Musically, there are plenty of pointers here at how BFB could avoid repeating themselves. The arrangements are subtle, and often folk-tinged (particularly the haunting 'St Thomas' which recalls Alasdair Roberts' reinterpretations of the Scottish folk tradition). There are guest contributions from some of the usual suspects - multi-instrumentalist Timonthy Victor, Piney Gir and Gill Sandell. The most striking musical feature is the predominance of vocal harmonies, which BFB have used relatively infrequently. This works very well on 'Minus Nines', which ends with some insistent and effective chanting. Some double tracked vocals elevate the melodic and melancholic qualities of 'You and Me', one of the more immediately appealing tracks here. The same trick is used on the banjo-heavy 'New Southgate Love Song'. Best of all is the haunting 'Hello Baby' which is completely unlike anything else Adams has recorded. With its softly moaning accapella vocals, it sounds like a masculine version of the sirens scene from 'Oh Brother Where Art Thou?'. Not even the introduction of dissonant squalling guitars at the end can spoil its extraordinary mood.

If it initially feels like it lacks the robust, relentlesss energy of the Broken Family Band, 'Problems' is a decidedly lo-fi, underplayed record with plenty of riches of its own. In its own way, it's a strangely confident sound, even if the lyrics display wry self-criticism, and frequently, some form of disgust. Adams may have a whole wealth of personal problems to draw on, but as a songwriter, he is maturing rapidly with his increasingly prolific output.

Even better is '9 Red Songs', the latest collection from Chris T-T. As the title implies, it's a collection of left-wing political protest songs which works well because it combines T-T's trademark observational writing with incisive comment and knowing humour. There are, after all, few political albums which end with a song about the frustrating pointlessness of protest songs, as T-T does here with the wonderful 'Preaching To The Converted'. Elsewhere, he wonders where all the other protest singers have gone, and pictures Billy Bragg going 'fishing in his 4x4'.

Regardless of how one might feel about its political content and motivations, '9 Red Songs' is quite comfortably Chris T-T's most accomplished musical statement to date. The arrangements are deliberately spare and acoustic, light on percussion and heavy on more unconventional instrumentation, particularly Gill Sandell's accordian and Timothy Victor's broad range of stringed instruments. In fact, it's musically very similar to the Steven Adams record, and T-T also attempts an accapella track with 'M1 Song', which works surprisingly well.

This is a brave and distinctly unfashionable record to release when we are so frequently being admonished into accepting the realities of the 'modern, globalised world', which tends to mean a tacit acceptance of the encroachment of private, market forces and corporate vested interests into the public realm. Although the war in Iraq predictably appears, T-T sinks his teeth into plenty of other issues, often displaying a nuanced understanding alongside his righteous anger and passionate humanism. It moves from endearingly impractical idealism on the opening 'Bankrupt', which envisages a mass boycott of banks in favour of the hiding place underneath the bed, to an effective juxtaposition of the corruption of two different kinds of worship (wealth and God) in the moving 'A Plague On Both Your Houses'.

Fox hunting still seems like a slightly obvious target for class conflict, and is an issue that frustrates me for its relative triviality. Still, T-T uses it deftly to highlight some of the broader problems concerning the town/country divide which have been ignored amid the furore. This is a neat example of how New Labour's policies have largely served to divide communities and exacerbate local problems and it also captures the intrinsic hypocrisy of the Countryside Alliance's claim to be standing for human rights and liberal values ('You loved the f*cking poll tax/you propped up Maggie Thatcher/And you didn't give a f*ck about Tony Blair until he threw your hobby back actha!'). Sadly, the final verse pushes it into provocative and senselessly extreme territory which does little to help the underpinning argument.

'9 Red Songs' is witty, incisive and, of course, occasionally a little whimsical. It has all the usual characteristics we've come to expect from a Chris T-T album, but filters them through a fresh, more considered musical approach and an explicitly political outlook. Sadly, T-T avoids confronting the dangers of New Labour's excessive statism over the individual (I would have liked to hear a demolition of the highly flawed arguments in favour of ID cards). It remains a challenge for the left to find practical means of implementing policy that resists drifts towards authoritarianism. That's hardly a songwriter's duty though, and it's more than enough that a British songwriter is at last engaging with significant issues. Chris T-T is a less conventional musician than the likes of Pete Seeger, and less radical and influential than Woody Guthrie. You get the impression they would both approve though.

Over in Canada, the prevailing idea that bigger means better has been applied rigorously by the sprawling Toronto collective Broken Social Scene. They can sometimes number up to 17 members, and their producer Dave Newfeld has admitted that their latest, eponymously titled effort (what exactly was wrong with 'Windsurfing Nation' as an album title then?) is a conscious attempt to create an even bigger and more confounding sound than that of their acclaimed 'You Forgot It In People' album (my favourite album of 2003). They continue to divide opinion. They certainly have their admirers (not least the Chicago based indie webzine Pitchfork, which has almost single-handedly bolstered the current wave of Canadian acts) - but there are plenty of detractors too. Whilst critical consensus often dismisses indie bands as 'underachievers', it seems that Broken Social Scene have moved too far in the other direction. For some, they are too dense and impenetrable - or simply just too ambitious.

On first listen to 'Broken Social Scene', I almost began to sympathise with this rather limited view. The songs are swamped in layers of fuzzy, distorted guitars and consciously portentous brass arrangements. The vocals are frequently mixed down to render the lyrics largely incomprehensible. Yet, despite the sonic overload, there's a real sense of spontaneity here, and many of the songs have a semi-improvisatory quality which reveal the BSS collaborative approach to songwriting. There's also a wealth of inventive ideas here - more than most bands have across an entire career.

For those that continue to dismiss them as merely an indie-rock band (as if that is in itself some kind of heinous crime), there's the lithe and groovy 'Hotel', with its swooshes of synth motifs. There's also the extraordinary (and brilliantly titled) 'Bandwitch' with its rickety percussion and ostinato female vocal lines. As with 'YFIIP', the band's strong point here remains its ability to manipulate vocals into a constituent part of the instrumental whole, rather than a necessary and conventional imposition. Specifically, they make more frequent and better use here of the distinctive talents of Leslie Feist.

Elsewhere, there are some conspicuous reference points. 'Superconnected' has the something of the sound and fury of early Dinosaur Jr., whilst the spectre of Sonic Youth looms large over '7/4 Shoreline' and ' Fire Eye'd Boy'. The latter seems to marry the Youth's chiming, detuned guitar style to the propulsive Gang Of Four-style groove currently favoured by the latest crop of British bands (hello Bloc Party).

Some have found this album frustratingly diverse and incoherently sequenced but to my ears it is a more conventionally cohesive statement that 'YFIIP' (if not necessarily a better record). The layers of guitar distortion create a hazy, smog-summer kind of feel that would have made the original working title for the album very aposite. It also seems to be structured around a very big opening and an even bigger finale. After an introductory overture, 'Ibi Dreams Of Pavement' is a huge chugger, with Kevin Drew's vocals veering away from regular ideas of pitch and melody. The closing 'It's All Gonna Break' is several songs combined - a sprawling monolith of experimental sound which still finds room for the most immediate and infectious pop song of the band's career so far. It's not a pretentious waste of eleven minutes though - it sounds euphiric and exhuberant, as if the band were enjoying the inherent self destruction.

Given time, 'Broken Social Scene' reveals a band that is not content with staying in its comfort zone. There is little respect here for the conventional boundaries of rock and roll - with occasional references to free jazz approaches and techniques, as well as the loose-limbed groove of the best Seventies funk bands. If Broken Social Scene are just an indie rock band, then they sound like the most inspired and accomplished indie rock band on the planet right now.

Rather less interesting, although not entirely without merit, is 'Apologies To The Queen Mary', the acclaimed album from Montreal's Wolf Parade. Rather predictably, they've already been touted as the heirs to the throne of The Arcade Fire, which is a bit ridiculous as it's entirely reasonable to assume that The Arcade Fire have many more great records left in them anyway. The album is produced by Isaac Brock of Modest Mouse and that band seem to have left a rather transparent influence on the overall sound and shape of the record. It's therefore not as original a prospect as the Broken Social Scene or Arcade Fire albums, nor indeed the best of Brock's own work.

There's plenty here to like though, from the fractured off-kilter stutter of the opening to the insistent thrum of 'Modern World' and 'We Built Another World'. It ticks many of the expected boxes, but rarely veers beyond the comfortingly predictable. It's not thrilling and captivating like Funeral, but it's also not devoid of charm. Much of Wolf Parade's appeal rests on the interplay between their two vocalists, and this may be what makes them a distinctive prospect in the future. For now though, we have to settle for a record which is decent if not compelling.

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