Wednesday, September 06, 2006

The Benefits Of Brevity

Back in 1997, when I was 16 and maybe a little too in awe of Spiritualized's magnum opus 'Ladies and Gentlemen We Are Floating In Space', I wanted every album in existence to clock in at CD busting length. In the modern age, we're now being told that none of us have enough time to listen to an entire album or read a book cover to cover (personally, I've never had any trouble with listening to an entire album, reading a good book at the same time and even writing about the album here afterwards!). So, more digestible albums may be back in fashion, and sometimes this is no bad thing, not least in the case of the three records I've acquired this week, all of which clock in at around 44-45 minutes.

When I interviewed Joel Gibb of Toronto's maverick 'gay folk Church group' The Hidden Cameras, he was both entertaining and uncompromising. When I played devil's advocate in suggesting that the band's aggressively gay agenda might limit their audience, he simply replied that they didn't need anyone offended or discomforted by their lyrics as a fan. An admirably defensive stance for sure and all the more interesting then that their third album 'Awoo' sees the gayness very much toned down. It's still there of course, but now between the lines of some occasionally bittersweet, highly romantic lyrics full of wonder and longing. There's even one song ('She's Gone') that could be given a heterosexual interpretation! Essentially, 'Awoo' is The Hidden Cameras album you can play on a family car trip without worrying if your folks are paying attention to the words.

Musically, it fairly predictably sticks to much the same formula. Here are twelve more songs that, mostly deftly, straddle that fine line between insanely infectious and absurdly irritating. Occasionally, they arguably cross the line. 'Lollipop' is so relentless and insistent that it grates, especially when it has the audacity to get EVEN FASTER towards the end. Some other songs, particularly 'Learning The Lie' and 'The Waning Moon' are a little repetitive, and the instrumental 'Heji' will no doubt be a lot of fun live, but seems slightly directionless in the context of the album, merely breaking the flow of an otherwise perfectly sequenced record.

On the plus side, it's worth acknowledging some of the subtle improvements in the band's sound here. There's an eerie reverb pervading the whole album, and an element of 60s beat pop or even at times rockabilly that makes some of the best moments sound like the songs Eddie Cochrane and Phil Spector never made together. Opener 'Death Of A Tune' kickstarts the album with a sheer burst of melodic joy, and a lyric that nimbly mingles melancholic and jubilant elements. Best of all is the compelling drive of the interlinked guitars and tribal drumming. It's one of the band's best songs so far. Similarly, the superbly titled 'Hump From Bending' moves from effective stop-start verses to a chorus so infectious it's impossbile to dislodge from the memory.

The string arrangements are mostly less saccharine, and more carefully entwined with the basic core of each song. This is particularly true in the album's more sensitive moments, some of which point to ways in which the band's sound might be further developed and progressed. The best of these is 'Wandering', a beautifully reflective half-time lilt, with lyrics that aspire to a dreamlike reverie. It's an entirely charming song, with a simple but powerful melody. 'Fee Fie' is also remarkably pretty, a close relation of 'A Miracle' or 'Builds The Bone'. Perhaps more interesting is 'Follow These Eyes', which benefits from the album's best arrangement, with carefully engineered crescendos and pizzicato strings creating a real sense of drama. It has something of the stately grandeur of Ben E King's 'Stand By Me', a sense underlined by the 'No I won't be afraid' lyric it lifts from that song. 'Heaven Turns To' is less surprising in its delicious sweetness, but it's no less effective for that. It actually reminds me of 'Bright Eyes' by Art Garfunkel, a guilty pleasure if ever there was one!

There are also some moments of greater ambition. 'She's Gone' begins as an amiable strum, but ends in a blur of jew's harp and driving rhythms which is about as close as this band will ever get to being funky. With its pebble percussion backing and toy acoustic guitars, closer 'The Waning Moon' incorporates some of Stephin Merritt's sonic methods, although the song isn't as substantial a closing number as 'The Man That I Am With My Man' or the excellent 'Mississauga Goddam'. 'For Fun', the only song here that comes close to outstaying its welcome at 5 minutes, dissolves into a wonderfully endearing strings and glockenspiel section before bursting back again completely unexpectedly to end in complete euphoria.

'Awoo' is another irresistible indie-pop confection, and one where it's arguable that Joel Gibb has most effectively combined his penchant for religious imagery with an underlying gay sensibility. 'Hump From Bending' is particularly effective in its deployment of the double-entendre of the title to imply frustration with conservative politics, restrictive societies and sympathetic support for those growing up as outsiders. Along with most of the rest of the album, it also captures the massively positive energy this band brings to their best material. This is actually superbly inclusive music - full of positivity and joy, but also capturing the lingering longing of love both fulifilled and unrequited. It will only be rivalled by the equally superb Camera Obscura and MJ Hibbett records for indie pop album of the year. I love this band.

Formerly a member of the sprawling collective that is Lambchop, Paul Burch now seems to be concentrating exclusively on his solo work. He has now given us another concise set of extremely rich pickings in 'East To West' on the Bloodshot label. I must confess I was somewhat wary when I read of Mark Knopfler's involvement. Although I certainly have a soft spot for early Dire Straits, Knopfler didn't exactly get the best out of Bob Dylan on either Slow Train Coming or Infidels, his work with his own band became increasingly flatly produced and cheesy, and his recent album with Emmylou Harris suffered from an occasionally stultifying blandness, although it had its moments. His contribution here is actually very low-key, providing subtle lead guitar flourishes on 'Before The Bells' and apparently offering sage advice and inspiration. Knopfler certainly has a genuine love of Nashville country music, so he's not out of place on this wonderfully authentic set. Perhaps the more easily recognisable guest is Dr. Ralph Stanley, who provides a great vocal turn on the old-time 'Little Glass Of Wine', and also gets namechecked in 'Daddy Rhythm Guitar', a charming tribute to Burch's father and the instrumental backbone of all country bands.

The album is impressively diverse, without ever sounding incoherent. There's straight-ahead bar-room honky tonk in 'When I'm In Love', eerily evocative atmospheres on 'Before The Bells' and 'Last Dream Of Will Keene', and a delightfully spirited strum in 'I Will Wait For You'. The consistent thread holding it all together is Burch's relaxed authority as a vocalist. Like his friend and fellow singer Laura Cantrell, he is never a showy vocalist, but his feel for the genre is completely instinctive and he has total command of his spidery melodies. His unassuming talent comes across right from the opening lines of exceptional opener 'Montreal', a tender and affecting song underpinned by a powerful rolling rhythm. Some of the songs feature duet vocals from Kelly Hogan, and their harmonising is delicate and controlled.

There are two major songs here. One is 'The Last Dream Of Will Keene', where Burch ponders the question of whether one can be found guilty of crimes committed only in dreams. It's an intriguing slant on the traditional murder ballad, and musically a close cousin of fan favourite 'Carter Cain'. The other is Burch's honest and sincere tribute to John Peel, simply called 'John Peel'. It's possible that this was recorded quite quickly, as it's the only track here not to feature any contributions from Burch's backing band the WPA Ballclub. Much has been written about Peel since his death, much of it by people overtly keen to claim control of his legacy but largely uninterested in his work during the final years of his life. It's unlikely that anyone will write anything as direct and affecting as this little gem of a song, which recalls both a visit Burch paid to Peel Acres and various aspects of the DJ's own life. In a few short lines it captures the essence of the man's approach to life and work: 'Had every record ever sent him/even the ones he never played/He said "there's a life there living in the grooves and I can feel it when I'm walking in the room"'. It's also lovely to hear Burch refer to Peel as 'the king of rock 'n' roll', a title usually reserved for Elvis ('it's time to fold the tent, the empire's no more/Tell your majesty it's over, John Peel sail on'). There won't be a dry eye in the house when this gets played at UK shows.

The only song that ends up being merely 'December Sparklers', which is pretty enough, but with its conventional 4/4 backbeat could really have been written by anyone from Ryan Adams to Josh Rouse. Pretty much everything else steers clear of such polite conventions, and demonstrates Burch's mastery of the tradition in which he operates. Mark Nevers again engineers superbly, helping to craft an evocative atmosphere and mood. The overall sound is probably Burch's smoothest to date, but this never detracts from the basic quality of the songwriting. From the slightly ragged ('I'm A Takin' It Home') to the beautifully serene ('Wander'), the WPA Ballclub provide sensitive and appropriate support, and they remain the unsung heroes of Burch's recorded catalogue. As good as his solo show at London's Borderline a couple of years ago was, I'm hoping he brings the band this time around. Either way, with such a strong set of new material in tow, the shows should be utterly unmissable.

In a completely different ballpark altogether is 'Slappers', the second album from the talented singer Dani Siciliano. Once again, she has worked closely with musical and life partner Matthew Herbert to craft a wildly unpredictable and thrilling collection which never settles for the ordinary when the extraordinary works so well. At 44 minutes, it's more concise than Herbert's own releases, and I think I actually prefer it to the smoother, more sophisticated 'Scale' album that Herbert himself released earlier this year, although both utilise the multi-faceted qualities of Siciliano's multitracked vocals.

On the surface, 'Slappers' is defiantly minimal, with most tracks characeterised by stark, basic drum programming and skeletal synth lines. Appreciating it's full glory requires close listening and unpicking of its unusual range of sounds, which in true Herbert fashion include samples sourced from the South London Slappers Collective (whoever and whatever they may be!) and percussion tracks built from beat boxes and samples of 'True Love Waits' rings. Throughout, it is rhythmically fascinating and sonically adventurous.

Siciliano's vocals are certainly smooth, but deceptively so - when her multitracked harmonies are set in juxtaposition with single voiced melodies, the contrast is striking. This works particularly brilliantly on the opening title track, which stutters and lurches with an endearing wooziness, and the maverick, brilliantly executed 'Think Twice', which takes its cue from contemporary R&B production, but Siciliano's strong vocal performance takes it into radically different territory. In essence, it doesn't sound even remotely comparable with any other contemporary pop music. The music here is slinky, seductive, constantly surprising, sassy, stylish and experimental. Sometimes it's just plain bonkers, particularly on the kitsch vaudeville of 'Why Can't I Make You High?' which comes complete with playful guitar and ukelele from Kitty and Ingrid. It's one of the few albums in recent years to come close to the restless invention of Prince at his best.

The overarching theme seems to be an ironic commentary on female empowerment and power relations between the sexes, neatly capped by a splendidly sexy pair of tracks at the end of the album. 'Wifey' throws Destiny's Child's vacous ballad 'Cater 2 U' violently upside down, a chorus of Siciliano's chanting 'catering to you, catering to me, wifey'. It has an effortless brilliance. 'Be My Producer' plays on the element of exploitation inherent in the creative relationship between singer and producer in the modern pop landscape, Siciliano denouncing the use of singers as mere advertising objects for the producer's creative agenda ('Make me money from your heat/This is how we comprimise/Taking honies from the streets/This is how we fund the lies'), whilst gleefully pilfering many of the production techniques. It's the same trick Siciliano and Herbert pulled off with 'Celebrity', the sole vocal track on Herbert's defiant 'Plat Du Jour' album from a couple of years ago, elucidated even more succinctly and intelligently here.

'Slappers' is a massive step forward from Siciliano's impressive but understated debut. It's joyously entertaining - simultaneously groovy and cerebral. Some have criticised Siciliano's records for simply being extentions of Matthew Herbert's own work released under another name. Well there's enough of Siciliano's own personality here to quash such accusations but, even accounting for Herbert's sonic input and substantial influence, to quote two fellow music writers I admire, I'm perfectly happy with yet more of the Unpredictable Same.

By way of contrast, Atlanta's hip hop superstars OutKast are not generally known for their brevity. Unable to work together on their last effort (the dense double solo set 'Speakerboxx/The Love Below'), they instead packed out two CDs to full capacity with their arch inventiveness and contrasting writing styles. Apparently working together again on 'Idlewild', in part a soundtrack to their forthcoming movie of the same name, they have taken their first substantial misstep.

In spite of all the critical plaudits currently being directed at this confounding, ragbag collection of half-baked ideas, I just can't get into this album. At 78 minutes, it is so long and so dense, its flow constantly interrupted by pointless skits and numerous guest slots, it's next to impossible to endure from start to finish and has the unmistakeable mark of a vanity project.

Still, that's not to say that there aren't great moments here, particularly when it's at its most vibrant and playful. Current single 'Morris Brown' is an infectious riot of vocal harmonies, Big Boi's brilliantly laconic rapping and insistent percussion. 'Idlewild Blue' manages to merge the urban and delta blues traditions into an outrageously entertaining post-modern concoction. It's surely a prime choice for a single, and the best chance of them replicating the success of 'Hey Ya' from this set. There's also a great moment where the presence of Dre and Boi themselves is decidedly backseat - new protege Janelle Monae takes sole vocal duties on the poptastic 'Call The Law'.

Yet, there's a nagging sense that the group are coasting. Musically, the album too often settles for the merely generic, relying more on sampled sounds that the more organic template set by the classic 'Stankonia'. Whilst the influence of swing band music pervades the set (in keeping with the film's prohibition era theme), they rarely integrate the jazzy stylings as well as on Speakerboxx's fabulous 'Bowtie'. The beats are rarely all that inventive either and many could have come from any of the major R&B hitmaking staples, from Jermaine Dupre to Timbaland or Lil Jon. By the time we get to the seriously underwhelming 'Greatest Show On Earth', further marred by the irritating warblings of the hideous Macy Gray, frustration has long set in.

Some more judicious editing and a less self-conscious approach to the production might have made an excellent record from 'Idlewild', but as it stands, it's wilfully incoherent and slightly underwhelming, despite containing some of the duo's most inventive rhyming. I'm still looking forward to the more concise 10 track project the duo promised before they veered out at a tangent on this forgiveable but frustrating flight of fancy.

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