Friday, May 05, 2006

Big Epic Round-Up Part 1

As I said before, there's just far too much to write about, 2006 proving to be another excellent year. So, without further ado...

It's great to see Hot Chip still going from strength to strength. As promising a debut as 'Coming On Strong' was, it lead to them being unfairly pigeon-holed as lightweight ironists in certain quarters, and it didn't quite manage to elevate them to commercial success. Their excellent second album 'The Warning' should change all that pretty quickly. The single 'Over and Over' has already secured cult status and is a deserved dancefloor smash. With insistent cowbells, a whole plethora of weird and wonderful synthesisers and some deceptively simple lyrics praising the power of repetition, it's as immediate and infectious a song as the band have yet made. The album doesn't attempt to repeat the trick though, instead opting for a variety and depth that 'Coming On Strong' perhaps didn't quite achieve. There is a greater emphasis on Alexis Taylor's lingering and melancholy talent for melody. 'Colours' is simple harmonically, but layers its cascading vocal parts very effectively. New single 'Boy From School' is outstanding, combining a repeating synth line with an exquisitely vulnerable melody and a typically oblique lyric. Best of all is 'Look After Me', which harks back to 'Making Tracks' from the early San Frandisco EP in its sweet appropriation of deep soul. It could easily be a cover of a William Bell or Garnet Mimms classic, so authentic does it sound. Elsewhere, the sonic invention is impressively wild - 'Careful' mixes swirling synth sounds with an assault of off-kilter beats and distorted basslines that could easily have been inspired by grime, whilst 'Tchaparian' and 'Arrest Yourself' are stuttering and delightfully unpredictable. There's still an ironic streak of humour at work (particularly on the title track), but Hot Chip's genuine appreciation for the music they appropriate (with a concurrent disdain for genre conventions) is now coming through in their recordings as much as their deliriously entertaining live shows. Consider yourselves warned.

Proving that having your music commandeered for TV fixtures such as Grey's Anatomy and The OC needn't necessarily spell artistic doom, the second album from Domino signings Psapp makes for a refreshingly playful and engaging listen. For the most part, they sound like a direct cross between Rain Dogs-era Tom Waits and the pure pop sensibilities of St Etienne. What should make for an uncomfortable combination seems to work wonders in their hands, with a whole range of peculiar rhythmic noises (often sounding like sampled pots and pans) providing the unusual background clutter for some infectious pop melodies. With song titles like 'Tricycle' and 'Hill Of Our Home', it's not entirely surprising that it's a slightly whimsical confection, but with the bouncy zest of tracks like 'Hi' and the endearing qualities of the string-laden 'New Rubbers', 'The Only Thing I Ever Wanted' is an original and bold collection.

Over the course of their short career, Grandaddy have proved a disappointingly frustrating outfit. 'Under The Western Freeway' had plenty of scuzzy charm and the whole project crystallised wonderfully with the conceptual 'Sophtware Slump' album. Unfortunately, the undoubted artistic success of that album left them nowhere else to go and third album 'Sumday' sounded more than a little tired and one dimensional. Last year's mini album 'Excerpts From The Diary Of Todd Zilla' saw them taking a step back, with satisfying results, but their final album 'Just Like The Fambly Cat' doesn't provide any clues as to how they might have escaped what turned out to be a rather stultifying chugging indie rock template. It might be an elegiac last will and testament, but I can't quite resist the conclusion that it's actually a bit dull. There are certainly great moments, particularly in the form of infectious single 'Elevate Myself' and 'Jeez Louise' but the pace is kept mainly to the mid-tempo chug or the protracted ballad. Several songs are at least a minute too long, and Jason Lytle, to these ears at least, sounds a little tired and jaded throughout. As Grandaddy's albums have effectively been solo works anyway (Lytle plays all the instruments except drums here, Grandaddy's unusual working methods perhaps providing some clues as to the source of internal frustrations), it's difficult to see how anything Lytle does in the future will escape this cul-de-sac.

I'm finding it particularly difficult to judge the acclaimed 'Everything All The Time' from Band Of Horses, mainly because it sounds pretty much exactly like My Morning Jacket circa 'At Dawn'. There's perhaps a little more jangle here, but Benjamin Bridwell is such a vocal dead ringer for Jim James, and the band do such a good job of capturing that dense country rock sound, that any listener would be hard placed to distinguish between the two bands. There's no denying that this is a supremely accomplished record. The epic 'Funeral' is powerful, 'Our Swords' rhythmically propulsive and the closing 'St Augustine' delicate and spare. It covers its ground with a quiet mastery, it's just that the ground has already been covered in pretty much exactly the same way by MMJ.

More to come...

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