Friday, November 17, 2006

Sublime or Ridiculous?

Lots of albums to write about, I've been building up quite a backlog over the last couple of months. I'll try and be brief, but I'm not very good at being concise!

It's good to see that the ever-prolific Jason Molina is showing no signs of slowing his work rate. There's a new limited edition solo album called 'Let Me Go, Let Me Go, Let Me Go', which I haven't heard yet, but I understand is stylistically similar to the intense, stark minimalism of his Pyramid Electric Co. set. In addition to this, there's another new Magnolia Electric Co. collection. 'Fading Trails' isn't actually intended as a new album proper, but rather a compilation of tracks from a handful of sessions for various projects. There are two new full lengths scheduled for release in 2007 ('Nashville Moon' and 'Black Ram'), from which some of these selections are drawn (presumably in alternate takes), and the album also features selections from the 'lost' 'Shohola' album, much talked about among Magnolia cognoscenti. Unfortunately, the inlay is at best perfunctory, and gives no information as to which tracks come from which sessions. It's difficult to make an informed judgement then as to the progression or development of the band's sound, although much of this sounds like a continuation of the more accessible, but no less impressive country rock of last year's 'What Comes After The Blues'. Molina's voice continues to strengthen, and it's now hard to believe he was ever dismissed as a Will Oldham copyist. As Molina's melodic sense has developed, it's arguable that some of the mystery and illusion of the Songs:Ohia work has been lost, but it's been replaced by a carefully attuned and sensitive songcraft, and with a vocal presence that sounds equally comfortable on rockers such as 'Don't Fade On Me', or more abstract pieces such as 'The Old Horizon'. Best of all is when melody and arrangement are kept decidedly simple, and combine to great effect, such as on the stunning 'Talk to Me Devil, Again'. For the best introduction to Molina's work, I'd still recommend the double whammy of Songs:Ohia's 'Didn't It Rain' and 'Magnolia Electric Co.' albums, but this is an excellent summation of the space Molina has been occupying for the past couple of years. It's just a shame that it doesn't give too many pointers toward the next step.

Hot on the heels of last year's promising 'Picaresque', there's yet another new album from The Decemberists. Given their manifest influences drawn from both the English and Irish folk traditions, it's hard to comprehend why this excellent band haven't been given more attention in this country, especially as their releases are now widely available via the Rough Trade label. 'The Crane Wife' certainly rewards repeated listens, and is steadily worming its way into the upper reaches of my albums of the year. It's easily their most coherent work, in which they have widened their sonic armoury without compromising their inherent strangeness. The lyrics remain preoccupied with history and folklore, bloodshed and violence, and there's a thematic harmony to 'The Crane Wife' that makes it work best as a conceptual song cycle. This notion is supported by the album's sequencing, starting as it does at the end, with a lushly romantic part 3 of the title track, with parts 1 and 2 placed in the latter stages of the sequence. You'll need a high tolerance for whimsy (it's whimsical more than twee), and Colin Meloy's fey vocals may be something of an acquired taste. Whilst it's sometimes tempting to proclaim that these are people who have never been in civil wars or murdered fair maidens (at least I hope not...), it's worth noting just how successfully they have crafted their own singular vision here. There's now more than enough musical drama to match the extravagant pitch of some of the lyrics, particularly on the grandiose medley that makes up 'The Island', a track that manages to incorporate a Crazy Horse-esque swampy groove, Canterbury folk style pluckings, and even a slight borrowing from the more inventive offerings of The Doors. The band also now seem capable of drawing intrigue and sophistication from the bare minimum of constituent parts. 'The Perfect Crime #2' mostly sits on one chord, but drives along relentlessly with a rhythmic sophistication worthy of Talking Heads. 'When The War Came' is the loudest they've yet been, a clamouring surprise with brilliantly sustained intensity. They can also be genuinely anthemic, and 'O Valencia' is a gorgeous sugar rush of romantic pop brilliance, whilst parts 1 and 2 of the title track are richly melodic. This album is something of a triumph - already missing from Uncut's premature review of the year, will it be noticed by anyone else outside the blogosphere?

Another superb record I have to thank the blogosphere for (most specifically the excellent really rather blog - is 'Precis' from the mysterious Benoit Pioulard. It's widely available here on Kranky records, but seems to have had no attention from the UK press whatsoever (until this month's Plan B magazine anyway, there's a track on the cover mount CD). I simply would not have heard about it without resourceful and independently minded internet writers! The album is another bedroom recorded kitchen sink fantasia, with an unusual tapestry of sound that defies categorisation. As such, it's a bit fatuous to make comparisons, but there's something of the fractured psychedelia of Animal Collective and Ariel Pink here somewhere. The lyrics are frequently rendered obscure by the recording process and by the deployed effects, but this doesn't prevent emotional connection with the music, as the overall effect is warm and enveloping. In fact, it frequently verges on the mesmeric or slightly sinister as a result, with a similar impact to Boards of Canada at their best. It all holds together beautifully, and is pleasantly concise, leaving at least this listener wanting a whole lot more.

I desperately want to join the Observer Music Monthly in hailing Jarvis Cocker's first solo album as an instant classic. It's not, but don't let that put you off. If anything, it's even more dour than Pulp's final two albums and those who, like me, admire those albums and feel them deeply underrated (surely the recent reissues provided a real opportunity to at least reassess 'This Is Hardcore'), should find plenty to revel in here. If there's a problem, it's simply that there's a little too much at one pace here - it starts off doggedly plodding (although not in a bad way), and ends up slower than it began! Only the characteristically sharp and caustic 'Fat Children' breaks the mood, although it's a little harsh and simplistic musically. 'Don't Let Him Waste Your Time' demonstrates that Jarvis hasn't lost his touch for a simple but effective melody - a shame therefore that he elected to accompany it with an outrageous piece of plagiarism. Those familiar with Dion's 'Born To Be With You' album will recognise the song's backing instantly. We'll call it an homage - at least it faithfully captures the classic Phil Spector sound. 'Black Magic' pulls off a similar trick, albeit with more originality, and its vigorous drama is impressive. Elsewhere, 'Baby's Coming Back To Me', originally written for Nancy Sinatra, is compellingly arranged, whilst 'From Auschwitz To Ipswich' probably represents the most effective coupling of lyrical invention and melodic sensibility on the album. There are some superb lines: 'You don't have to set the world to rights, but you can stop being wrong' from 'Tonight' and the delightful image of apocalypse in 'From Auschwitz...' ('Not one single soul was saved/I was ordering an Indian takeaway') stick in the mind particularly, along with the pointed denounciation of Asbo culture in 'Fat Children'. The piano ballad with a twist, 'I Will Kill Again' (surely Morrissey must have already bagged that title?) is a crisp portrayal of the evil that lurks in ordinary people. Where I can't agree with most critics is that the album hits its stride at the end - 'Big Julie' is dynamic enough, but I can't help feeling that its lyrical territory is really traversing any new ground. The closing 'Quantum Theory' is a little elusive, and it's concluding lines proclaiming 'everything will be all right' can't help but feel a little banal in light of what has come before. It's also hard to resist the notion that 'C*nts Are Still Running The World', saved for a secret track some thirty minutes after the end of the album proper, is the pithiest and most necessary statement here. It is, however, more than enough, that Jarvis remains our most relevant and essential pop commentator. It seems shameful that he has been allowed to sink back into indie outsiderdom when he really should be a perfect pop star.

Is there anyone on the planet not currently salivating over the 'genius' of Joanna Newsom? Her new album 'Ys' (apparently pronounced Ees) has received more column inches than an artist of her relative obscurity might usually merit. In some ways, this is encouraging, and it would be gratifying to see the mainstream media take more risks with challenging and uncompromising material. It's possible that I like the idea of this record more than the reality - it's great to have a harpist in pop music, isn't it? You can't argue with that, neither can you really argue with a work whose supporting cast includes Van Dyke Parks (who provided the lavish, occasionally intrusive orchestrations), Steve Albini and Jim O' Rourke. It's a dream team! It's also hard for a former Medieval Historian to resist an album which is packaged with a CD inlay replicating an antique book, complete with ornate scripts and gold leaf, and where the artist appears in strange medieval garb on the cover. 'Ys' contains only five tracks, but they are bloody long, and there's barely a minute when Newsom isn't singing. She has composed some dense, wordy and allusive prose-poetry for the lyrics (incorporating words such as 'hydrocephalitic', 'mica-spangled', 'spelunking' and 'asterisms' in bizarre and perhaps inappropriate contexts). She deploys alliteration wilfully, and it's a matter for debate as to whether this makes for beautifully flowing verse, or something more clunky and forced ('Then the slow lip of fire moves across the prairie with precision/while, somewhere, with your pliers and glue you make your first incision/And in a moment of unbearable vision/doubled over with the hunger of lions/Hold me close, cooed the dove/who was stuffed, now, with sawdust and diamonds.'). Her voice is certainly quirky to say the least. At its most restrained, it is an impressive instrument, but when she squeals like a strangulated cat, she can sound horribly mannered, as if from the same faux-kooky planet as the ghastly Devendra Banhart. The opening 'Emily' is the track that works best, and where the orchestrations combine with the basic melodic template most comfortably. Like the other songs here, it's very linear, and Newsom takes us on a peculiarly compelling journey through a strangely romantic landscape. The most difficult track is 'Only Skin', where she is unadorned by the orchestrations, which do serve to detract from the harsher realities of her voice. There's definitely an ambitious and singular talent at work here - and the defiant rejection of conventional structure in these songs is admirable. Newsom is making a genuine attempt to reinvent the wheel, and she has achieved some degree of success here. I'm just not convinced this is fully fledged genius yet. It's when she makes a record this wild and unhinged that actually demands repeated listens that she will have reached her full potential.

Another record not to have received enough press attention in recent months is 'Roots and Crowns' from the dependably magnificent Califone. This is their most accessible record yet, but one which still displays a genre-crossing ambition and sonic invention worthy of kindred spirits like TV On The Radio. 'Roots and Crowns' has all the elements of great music - a strong connection with the blues and the American folk tradition, carefully constructed harmonies, turbulent, twisting rhythms and a wildly unpredictable set of electronic interventions. It somehow all hangs together, and production trickery is used with subtlety and dexterity. Underpinning it all is Tim Rutili's delightfully wistful vocal and superb songwriting. I particularly admire the combination of Brian Wilson-esque lush harmony and Tom Waits-esque clattering on the majestic 'Spider's House' or the atmospheric mystery of 'The Eye You Lost In The Crusades' and 'Our Kitten Sees Ghosts' (some of the song titles are worth the price of admission alone). The mastery of these songs became more readily apparent when hearing them performed by just two members of the band's shifting line-up at The Windmill in Brixton last month - the melodies stand up even when the accompaniment is stripped back to acoustic guitar and countrified fiddle. The album itself takes a while to lodge itself in the mind but, once there, it becomes something far more than the sum of its impressive parts. It's a dazzling and intoxicating concoction.

Subtle is yet another project from the various members of the Anticon Collective (Clouddead etc), although this time released with the full backing of EMI (who, with Hot Chip also on their roster, seem to be taking more calculated risks than most of the independents these days). Anyone who has so far been agnostic about Doseone's superficially dazzling but ultimately meaningless stream of consciousness rapping might at least note that 'For Hero: For Fool' provides the most complementary foil so far for his verbal torrents. The music rarely settles, instead constantly shifting between rock and disco influenced sounds (occasionally it sounds most like 80s R 'n' B pioneers like Cameo). This restlessness might be irritating from any other group - but it at last helps Doseone's extravagant wordplay make some kind of sense. This is a far better match than Dose's other rock group, 13 & God (with members of The Notwist), that sounds positively conventional by comparison. This is a rare example of where tetchy musicality and a refusal to define a coherent sound can actually reap extraordinary rewards. Whilst this album is certainly challenging, it's also ceaselessly thrilling.

Stephin Merritt's imagination continues to work overtime. Not content with already having released the wonderful collection of his work for musical theatre on 'Showtunes' this year, he now resurrects another of his many pseudonyms The Gothic Archies. 'The Tragic Treasury' comprises a series of songs composed to accompany audio versions of the Lemony Snicket books for young children. I've not read the books but even with limited knowledge it's hard to imagine a better way for Merritt to apply his splendid wit. He has traversed adult territory with a childlike candour and playfulness with The Magnetic Fields and Future Bible Heroes, veiling his songs in so many layers of irony that it doesn't matter one jot whether they are ironic or not. Musically, this covers little new ground for Merritt, sticking with the gleeful marriage of the acoustic, the synthetic and the unfathomably infectious. His dry humour is in overdrive though, as he unpicks the books' array of weird and wonderful characters. He also has a keen eye for the child's attraction to risk, and the warning of 'The World Is A Very Scary Place' makes for one of his best songs. This album certainly captures the dark side of fantasy in its more peculiar moments ('The Abyss' , 'A Million Mushrooms'), but it's also wildly funny ('I go gray, then bald with chagrin/When you play the violin/How I pray for death to begin/when you play the violin') and even characteristically camp ('Have you no dignity?/Have you no sense of style?/You'll never be pretty until you smile!'). Some have questioned whether Merritt's music will actually appeal to children - I think there are numerous pleasures here for child and adult alike.

If it's not too embarrassing, can I also confess that I might actually quite like the My Chemical Romance album? Combining the grossly simplistic but brutally effective pop-punk of Green Day with the bombast of Queen is an idea so utterly absurd that it ultimately deserves a modicum of respect. This is an indulgent, over-produced, ludicrous extravagance of a record and it's concept (something to do with a dying man) is more than a little silly. Still, there's something inherently compelling about its pomp and majesty. I'll get me coat....

On that bombshell, I need some sleep, but stay tuned next week for some more reviews and some comments on this year's London Jazz Festival.

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