Tuesday, June 20, 2006

Uh! I'm Back!

...as James Brown might have put it.

Sorry to all readers for the extended hiatus - I've now changed jobs and moved flats, and some semblance of normality is starting to return.

I should really write about the Camera Obscura gig at Cargo last week, but I dare say John Kell will make a better job of it (http://www.kingofquiet.co.uk) and I want to talk about the album anyway. One particular live highlight of the past few weeks was Cambridge's free festival Strawberry Fair which, as always, was a delight, with The Broken Family Band turning in a raucous and typically sardonic headline set. Dependably brilliant though BFB were, there were two other considerable highlights. Flip Ron were a pleasing discovery, with tinges of early Pink Floyd nudging shoulders with Supergrass-esque Britpop. The onstage flowers were perhaps a little twee, but we can probably forgive them that. A solo appearance from Jim Bob, formerly one half of the unfairly maligned Carter The Unstoppable Sex Machine deftly combined game nostalgia with some wryly observed new songs about the politics of school days. It was a remarkably good humoured set that thoroughly deserved its rapturpous reception. Hearing 'Bloodsport For All', 'Sheriff Fatman', 'Glam Rock Cops', 'The Only Living Boy In New Cross' et al in solo arrangements, with the synth brass excess removed (although I can't find my copy of Straw Donkey at the moment, I suspect Carter sound somewhat dated now - they probably even did at the time) was a reminder of their zestful wit and intelligence. The new School album features Chris T-T on piano, and is extremely indie-schmindie, albeit in the best possible way. Glockenspiels and even recorders can't even spoil its insightful charm.

All this talk of tweeness leads me naturally to 'Let's Get Out Of This Country', the brand new album from Glaswegian indie charmers Camera Obscura. Championed by Francis MacDonald of Teenage Fanclub and Shoeshine Records fame, they are often occused of tweeness and nearly every review of this album has begun with some kind of comparison with Belle and Sebastian. In the latter, there may be some truth, as CO's rich, ornately arranged sound, with its hints of Northern Soul stomp, is rather akin to what B&S did best before they descended into Radio 2-lite ghastliness. Still, I rather suspect Camera Obscura are better than these comparisons suggest. These songs provide a much needed blast of summery, wide-eyed romanticism and, beneath the deceptive feyness of TraceyAnne Campbell's vulnerable vocals lies an excellent ear for melody. The title track and first single 'Lloyd, I'm Ready To Be Heartbroken' are thrilling slices of pure pop brilliance which, like the Pipettes, draw intelligently upon early 60s and perhaps even pre-60s influences. In my parallel world 'Lloyd' would have beaten the horrendous Sandi Thom to number one. There's a mournful longing at the heart of 'Tears For Affairs' and the touching 'Country Mile' that provides balance, but the sound throughout is consistently warm and enthralling. A quietly marvellous record.

Green Gartside, a man frequently associated with the pursuit of pure pop perfection, likes to take his own sweet time. 'White Bread Black Beer' is the first Scritti Politti album since 1999's 'Anomie and Bonhomie'. Recorded solo and entirely self-produced at home, it is further evidence that the Scritti name has long ceased to be applicable to any kind of band (although there is little hint as to how it will work live in July, Gartside finally overcoming his long-crippling stagefright). 'The Boom Boom Bap', album opener and sincere paen to the delights of hip hop may be the best song Gartside has yet written, a highly polished yet strangely moving song, tightly structured and basked in a warm fuzzy glow. It certainly does far more to elucidate Gartside's enthusiasm for the genre than any of the rather forced collaborations with rappers that peppered 'Anomie and Bonhomie'. Its closing seconds see a multi-tracked Green going through the tracklist of a Run DMC album before ending with the words 'I love you still, I always well' - a disarmingly direct statement from the frequently ironic Gartside. Elsewhere, the album takes in familiar influences, from McCartney-esque shuffle on 'Dr Abernathy' to Brian Wilson-esque rising melodies on 'Snow In Sun', but these familiar sounds are fractured by Green's all encompassing production sheen. His voice remains a peculiar instrument - sweet and soft but characterised by Americanised vowels. It's an insular, London-sounding album, but with a subtle appeal that registers more on subsequent listens.

Matthew Herbert made three of my favourite albums of the decade so far with 'Bodily Functions', the big band project 'Goodbye Swingtine' and the staunchly uncompromising 'Plat Du Jour'. 'Scale' is the first album to be released under his straightforward Herbert moniker since 'Bodily Functions', and many have noted correctlythat it's his most accessible work for some time. I had expected some highly sophisticated dance pop of a similar nature to Herbert's production work for Roisin Murphy, but mercifully this is not the whole story. At its very best, Scale neatly ties up all the loose strands of Herbert's career so far. Hence, 'Moving Like A Train' incorporates weird clicking and clanging percussion, a huge, jazzy brass and string arrangements and the silkily seductive vocals of Herbert's wife Dani Sicilliano (shortly to release her second solo album). It sounds fantastic, detailed and considered without losing its toe-tapping urgency. Equally brilliant are 'The Movers and The Shakers' and the opening 'Something Isn't Right' which see Herbert conjuring subtle amalgams of his musical concerns - matching thinly veiled references to the Iraq war with solid dancefloor foundations. The album become more elusive in its middle third, and the wispy, impressionistic atmospherics make for a catatonic listening experience at times. These tracks may simply require repeated listens, and I suspect that the album has been sequenced somewhat unhelpfully with the four most upbeat and immediate songs clustered at the beginning. Still, it recovers with the thrillingly weird 'Movie Star', with multi tracked Sicilliano vocal lines demonstrating her relaxed, breathy technique. Supposedly about the distance between people, 'Scale' is arguably Herbert's least coherent album conceptually, subjugating much of the protest and righteous anger to vague pronouncements about relationships. At its best, 'Scale' is further proof of Herbert's questing ambition, which remains unrivalled.

I think I mentioned some time ago that Domino's success with Franz Ferdinand (and subseuqently Arctic Monkeys) had led them into what could almost be deemed a public service direction in recovering and repackaging lost material. We've seen this with excellent reissue packages from The Fire Engines and Orange Juice, as well as the massively belated full UK release for Neutral Milk Hotel's cult classic 'In The Aeroplane Over The Sea'. Most welcome of all these steps so far is the current campaign to reissue the entire back catalogue from sadly overlooked Australians The Triffids. The series begins with what many consider to be the band's masterpiece, 1985's 'Born Sandy Devotional'. Whilst recorded in London, the album is infused an epic, cinematic vision, and some occasionally despairing lyrics which hint neatly at the unconquerable breadth and expansive isolation of their homeland's geography. Songs like 'Estuary Bed' and 'Wide Open Road' are deeply resonant, hauntingly beautiful works which draw emotional responses without pushing any obvious buttons. There's no Richard Ashcroft style grasping for big sentiments, just the terrible flip side to the great dream of escape. Much of the album seems to dissect how huge expanses can trap and restrict as much as they can offer untapped possibilties. It's a dazzling, beautiful vision, only slightly marred by the inevitable big 80s drum sound (again - why did anyone think that big echoey snare drums sounded in any way good?). It's certainly a prime example to use as a repost to anyone who still thinks that the 80s were barren years for music - any decade which produced this and Talk Talk's 'Spirit Of Eden' has something going for it. It's always debatable how much worth to attach to the obligatory clutch of bonus tracks - this package at least avoids the pitfalls of alternate takes and skeletal demos, most of which are only valuable to obsessives and ardent collectors. Domino instead opt to rescue some tracks from the sessions not deemed unworthy of the cut for the original album, including the title track. Many of these sound stark, perhaps even unfinished, and none recapture the visionary spirit of the album proper. Inevitably they rather spoil the conceptual completeness of the original sequence - but they are an intriguing addition to the band's canon. Don't miss the equally brilliant 'Calenture' when it follows later in the year.

I bought 'Gulag Orkestar' by Beirut on a tip from Rough Trade shops and, given that they have pointed me in the direction of Sufjan Stevens and The Arcade Fire in the past, this can usually be expected to be a reliable recommendation. Once again, they seem to be on to a real winner here, as interest in this album has now even spread to the broadsheet press. It's certainly something different - there are no guitars on Zach Condon's creation, instead there are ukelelees, traditional percussion and a whole range of horns. Condon's vocals are extravagantly slurred in something of a cross between Thom Yorke and Rufus Wainwright. The combination of this against the peculiar musical backdrop is intoxicating, although it sadly renders many of the lyrics completely incomprehensible. There's something of the gypsy music made by filmmaker Emir Kusturica here - and the tone is at once bawdy, funereal and celebratory. Perhaps there's also an element of the grandiose gestures of musical theatre here too, although Condon has wisely opted to keep the music focussed rather than adding in everything but the kitchen sink. Harmonically, its mostly very simple, which allows the melodies space to breathe over the ornate arrangements and also enables a striking intimacy to cut through. Condon is just 19 years old (the little git) - this is one of the best albums of the year so far but there's surely better to come.

And there's more to come from me soon....

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