Wednesday, September 13, 2006

Climbing A Mountain Pt 1

There's suddenly really rather a lot to get through, especially as we're now entering the peak period for album releases before it all starts to quieten down for end of year round-ups (really only about twelve weeks away now, unbelievably).

New Jersey's finest Yo La Tengo have returned with what is at the very least the greatest title of 2006 - 'I Am Not Afraid Of You and I Will Beat Your Ass'. The general consensus on this seems to be that it's a welcome return to a more wilfully scattershot approach after the rigidly coherent lush atmospherics of 'Summer Sun'. This is only partially true. Yes, it's bookended by two lengthy and somewhat frustrating wig-outs that might seem like a retrenchment to the more manic jamming of their earlier days, but the bulk of the music in between constitutes the band's most carefully constructed and cohesive work to date, with plenty of the eerie melancholy of 'Summer Sun' and 'And The Nothing Turned Itself Inside Out', but also an unrestrained love of perfect pop music. Much of this music is characterised by a skeletal approach to harmony, which actually serves to liberate the band in terms of developing sound, mood and feeling. Many of the tracks opt to highlight instruments rarely heard in this context (the euphonium on 'Black Flowers', the lone violin on 'I Feel Like Going Home' or the unexpected burst of summery Stax horns on the splendid 'Mr. Tough'). There's certainly gleeful diversity in terms of the sound of each individual track, but the whole album is shot through with a distinctive sensibility.

At least we get the burden out of the way first. The success of the opening 'Pass The Hatchet, I Think I'm Goodkind' really depends on your tolerance for the strictures of motorik Krautrock rhythms and Neil Young-esque one string banditry on the guitar. It's initially a delirously minimal and effective opener, but there's very little melodic interest and, as it casually goes on and on, it turns out very little depth too. For all its avant-garde ambitions, there's also nothing terribly original here either. I'm tempted to move for the skip button.

After this inauspicious beginning, we get something completely magical - and, something that modern experimental music very rarely is, genuinely touching. 'Beanbag Chair' is an endearingly bouncy stomp, and the first of many tracks to place the piano firmly in the foreground. There's a slight hint of Paul McCartney's pop confections here, but the weird vocal interplay between Georgia Hubley and Ira Kaplan places it in its own unique space. Even better is Georgia's swoonsome vocal on 'I Feel Like Going Home', a track that shocks through its sheer breathtaking simplicity. The harmony is rooted in familiar chords, and there is no sound here that isn't absolutely necessary, from the tender violin to the echo and ambience in the background which resembles the production of Daniel Lanois. Later on, the equally beautiful 'Black Flowers' repeats a similar trick, adding the unusually crisp Euphonium, which serves as a neat counterpoint to the mellifluous cadences in the background. When the drums enter with a subtle, off-kilter rhythm, the song has achieved a peculiarly quiet magnitude.

There's plenty of ransacking from classic pop records of the past too. 'The Race Is On Again' sounds like the depressive flipside to The Byrds' 'Eight Miles High' with its McGuinn-esque chime and jangle. 'I Should Have Known Better' seems to have some of the energy of The Who and the melodic bite of The Beatles, whilst the superb Mr. Tough has punchy Stax horns and a shamelessly comic falsetto vocal. It's tempting to view the latter as a light-hearted attack on the machismo currently directing Western politics ('Hey Mr. Tough/Don't you think we've suffered enough'), and the idea of Yo La Tengo inviting Dubya to join them on the dancefloor is peachy.

There are of course more obtuse moments - but even these make a certain kind of sense. 'Daphnia' is another lenghty track, lodged obtrusively in the centre of the album, but one which succeeds in establishing a compelling and hypnotic mood. When things get a little more aggressive, notably on 'The Room Got Heavy' with its percussive drive and riotous explosion of vintage keyboards, or on the distorted, punky 'Watch Out For Me Ronnie', there's still an abiding love of melody at the core of the songs. The latter utilises similarly effective horn punctuations as those deployed on 'Mr. Tough'.

'I Am Not Afraid Of You...' is both strident and reflective, humorous and sensitive, with a knowledge of pop history to match its questing ambitions. Yo La Tengo are a band consistently succeeding in transcending their limitations, crafting music that is beautifully poised and thoroughly compelling.

2006 is turning out to be quite a year for female artistry. I've already waxed lyrical about the enthralling Cortney Tidwell album and now comes another sublime treat, this time from Natasha Khan's Bat For Lashes. This is a record that has already been showered with somewhat uncritical praise from all corners, and some of the hype is richly deserved. Khan certainly occupies her own weird world. Sometimes this leads to the kind of fantastical witches and wizards nonsense that I've found rather tiresome on the last couple of Mercury Rev albums. At her best though, Khan constructs spacious and lusciously romantic landscapes, sometimes tainted with a hint of underlying menace (check out the wonderful 'Trophy', which sounds not unlike a feminised Nick Cave). 'Fur For Gold' is similar to the Tidwell record in that Khan seems to assimilate a number of obvious reference points, including Bjork, PJ Harvey and Kate Bush, but has subsumed her transparent influences into her own bizarre and impressive terrain.

The instrumentation is always intelligent and fascinating - there are no strumming guitars when an autoharp or an expressive piano line creates so much more feeling. Many of these songs come across like baroque anthems or chamber pop mini-epics. There's an eerie and haunting quality to songs like 'Tahiti' and 'Sad Eyes' and the album's preoccupation faintly resembles the menacing encroachment of the erotic, adult world on childlike experience in Angela Carter's classic book 'The Company Of Wolves'. The spoken word intro to 'What's A Girl To Do?' and the rather grandiose finale 'I Saw A Light' arguably reveal some of Khan's affectations, but the cumulative effect this album leaves is lineringly mysterious and suspenseful. A very promising debut indeed.

'Post-War' is the second album in two years from the brilliant songwriter M Ward, who with his last album 'Transistor Radio' managed to craft a songbook both fresh and bathed in the warm glow of nostalgia. 'Post-War' is his first album with a full band (and it also features illustrious guest spots from Neko Case, due to perform with Ward in London in November, and My Morning Jacket frontman Jim James). The abiding musical presence is the ubiquitous Mike Mogis (Bright Eyes, Rilo Kiley) who adds colour and texture to many of these lugubrious songs. Perhaps as a direct result of the ensemble focus, there's less of Ward's charmingly dexterous guitar playing here, and a greater emphasis on the exuberant strum of acoustic guitars and plonk of honky tonk pianos. The new approach works particularly brilliantly on a thrilling reinterpretation of Daniel Johnston's 'To Go Home'. I'm not all that familiar with Johnston's output, although it's easy to see why so many are touched by the wistful and childlike simplicity of these lyrics ('God it's great to be alive/Takes the skin right off my eyes/To think I'll have to give it all up someday'). Combined with a meaty sound and clattering drums, the overall effect is unhinged and joyful.

Elsewhere, there's the dark country shuffle of 'Right In The Head', with its superb central lyric ('I hope he's right in the head, even if he has to wrong someone') and a sound that seems to just keep growing and growing from start to finish. A similarly expansive approach characterises the powerful 'Requiem' and 'Chinese Translation'. Yet there's also the fragile and delicate aura of the title track, mostly stripped back to just vocal, Wurlitzer and drums, although some subtle guitar work is eventually added. It has a wonderful sense of space, with the ensemble rigorously refusing to fill in the gaps, leaving Ward's subtle, fractured vocal room to breathe.

The more langorous 'Eyes On The Prize' provides a neat link between this album and the restrained textures of 'Transistor Radio'. It has a warm, familiar sound, although that's perhaps because I think it was among the new songs performed at Ward's Bush Hall show last month. 'Rollercoaster' and 'Magic Trick' (the latter very short and emboldened by canned applause and a chorus of vocals from Jim James) are both more playful, and ensure the album never becomes too weighty or serious minded.

'Post War' is a mercilessly concise record that I suspect has a lot of listens in it. Ward never allows the ensemble approach to become too conventional, or to overpower the beating heart at the centre of these songs. He has simply succeeded in bringing a more elaborate, expansive approach to his reconfiguring of traditional forms.

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