Sunday, July 16, 2006

Physically Lightweight, Intellectually Heavyweight

A good description of some of Haruki Murakami's best novels, which apparently can be useful props when trying to impress the object of your desires. Must try that sometime....

Right, now we've got that out of the way we can get on to to the music. Lots to catch up on, some new stuff and some albums that have been lingering around for a while. I simply have to write something about Scott Walker's 'The Drift' - but a serious album demands some serious comment, so it will have to wait for another post now. In the meantime, here's the first stage in an attempt to get back on track.

The critical barbs are already flying for the debut album from retro girl group The Pipettes. Apparently, they are 'no more than mere pastiche' or, even worse, 'The Darkness in polka dots'. Oh piss off you pompous killjoy music critic dullards! Go back to your Razorshite and Lily Allen promos (funny that nobody seems to notice the pastiche there, isn't it?)! Of course this isn't music that's going to change the world or break any boundaries. What it is is good, healthy fun (and it's more than a little bit camp too). All fourteen songs here are crisp and ruthlessly brief; compact paens to dancefloors, school discos, sex and pretty boys, all with thunderous drums, taut rhythm guitars and immensely hummable melodies. You'd have to be extremely churlish not to accept that this is a genuinely enjoyable record - witty, charming and exhuberant. Yes, it's completely derivitive in its homage to 50s girl pop and Phil Spector production values - but the songs work because they are delivered with verve and spirit, and because the backing band have a really great feel for the style and feel of the music. It's all introduced by 'We Are The Pipettes', a refreshing blast of a theme tune. The infectious quality of the tunes is sustained throughout, even if many are now familiar from live shows or previous single releases. 'Pull Shapes' and 'ABC' are gloriously effervescent, whilst 'It Hurts To See You Dance So Well' is a marvellous inversion of all those 'I Bet That You Look Good On The Dancefloor' type songs currently doing the rounds. It's unlikely they'll be unable to sustain an enduring career on this basis - but we should not feel guilty for enjoying it while it lasts.

It has become very easy to take The Handsome Family for granted. They've made a string of consistently excellent records bi-annually since 'Through The Trees', and their latest 'Last Days Of Wonder' is no exception. The band used to be extraordinary principally due to Rennie Sparks' bizarre, surreal and frequently verbose prose-poems, which husband Brett would labour hard to transform into equally evocative music. The lyrics on 'Last Days...' are noticeably more compact, but they have lost none of their striking imagery or mastery of allusion. As with any Handsome Family record, there are a handful of great songs here. My personal favourites are the touching, elegiac 'Beautiful William', the desperate longing of 'All The Time In Airports' (which revisits the plaintive strum of 'The Giant Of Illinois') and the more familiar gothic country stylings of 'Your Great Journey' and 'Flapping Your Broken Wings'. I'm not sure that Rennie's own attempts at singing really add much - although she had previously been almost entirely passive at a musical level. The album also tails off a bit towards the end, where the songs become less memorable. Still, a new Handsome Family album should always be embraced - maybe at some point they won't release them anymore.

One of the very best albums of 2006 so far comes from TV On The Radio, a band who continue to push themselves in exciting new directions and are becoming more adventurous with every release. 'Return To Cookie Mountain' effortlessly combines a dazzling array of influences, from twitchy modern R&B to Brian Wilson-derived vocal arrangements. Producer David Sitek creates dense, powerful atmospherics using unusual samples and striking sounds, but the strength of this record really lies in the empathetic vocal unity between singers Tunde Adebimpe and Kyp Malone. The sound of their voices together, even when they are simply singing identical lines, is mysterious and bewitching. The album originally leaked with the full throttle, even aggressive 'Wolf Like Me' as the opening track, but the order has since been successfully revised, with 'I Was A Lover' now opening the album on an entirely more enigmatic, bewildering and enticing note. The lyrics of these songs frequently allude to war, apocalypse and devastation, but in a way that seems uniquely personal and guarded. The music veers between sweet, lingering melancholy and violent outbursts of sound, yet the tone and mood is impressively coherent. This is a record with a vision - although it is sufficiently understated to allow plenty of mystery and confusion to seep in. It's challenging, but also immediately likeable - with a warmth and obvious enthusiasm sometimes lacking in experimental music. If it's true that rhythm is currently overtaking melody as the prime feature in contemporary independent music - then this album stands apart for having both in abundance.

Elvis Costello and Allen Toussaint have worked together before (Toussaint provided the expressive piano playing for Costello's 'Deep Dark Truthful Mirror' on the unfairly overlooked 'Spike' album), but the tragedy of Hurricane Katrina offered a powerful context for revisiting that collaboration across a whole disc. 'The River In Reverse' is a record well versed in the language and spirit of gospel and soul, and The Imposters, Costello's backing band, do a very honourable job of imitating the house band style of classic soul records. Costello's voice is at its grittiest here as he gamely tries to capture some of the overwhelming sweat and emotion at the heart of New Orleans' musical heritage, and he sometimes strains at notes as a consequence. The fact that some of the vocal takes are a little ragged, for me, only adds to the sense of authenticity here. Costello has earned his right to sing these songs.

The album offers rich pickings from Toussaint's illustrious catalogue, but is chiefly interesting due to some new collaborative songwriting efforts. The best of these is arguably 'Ascencion Day', based on an old Professor Longhair tune and rich in Costello's trademark kinetic wordplay. It paints a vivid picture of a day of reckoning. The title track is wordier still, and far less melodic - and sees Costello combine his penchant for a Dylan-esque ramble with some fiery blues playing. It rolls on relentlessly, much like the river bursting its flood banks. The very lack of structure and energy of the delivery adds to the song's forceful impact. More jubilant is 'International Echo', an energetic romp in homage to the global language of great music.

Of the older songs, 'Who's Gonna Help Brother Get Further?' (originally written by Toussaint for Lee Dorsey) features Toussaint's only lead vocal, and it is arguably a shame that we don't get to hear more of his deceptively laconic, understated delivery. I wonder whether the contrast between Toussaint's serenity and Costello's power couldn't have been better exploited. Still, that's a minor quibble when Costello delivers a song like 'Freedom For The Stallion' with such emotional clarity. The song began life as a civil rights anthem but clearly still has resonance in a modern western world where individual freedoms are persistently being curtailed in the name of combatting a terrorist enemy with that precise aim at the centre of their outlook. It's one of the album's most concise, direct and powerful moments and it's in impressive company.

No comments: