Tuesday, December 12, 2006

Tidying Up

There's a whole load of stuff I haven't got around to writing about yet, so here's a bit of a catch up in advance of my albums of the year.

First of all, it's time for me to eat some humble pie. A couple of years ago, I reacted violently every time Amy Winehouse appeared on TV or received a glowing review (mind you, that 'Stronger Than Me' single was dreadful...). Two things have made me completely revise my opinions. Seeing her perform a song at Ko's final gig at the Green Note in Camden Town (a tiny cafe venue) was genuinely sensational and, secondly, the consistently high quality of her 'Back To Black' album is something of a revelation. A lot of back to basics soul albums turn out to be bland and insignificant, but her second album very much sees Winehouse finding her own voice. For sure, she's achieved this by heading back to some staple influences for inspiration (Ray Charles, Billy Paul, Donny Hathaway, swing jazz), but there's a soulful spirit to this music that is genuine and unforced. She still remains bolshy and mouthy throughout (with lyrics like 'what kind of fuckery are we/now you don't mean dick to me', one wonders why anyone gets involved with her), but the whole experience now seems much more natural and less contrived. Anyway, she's still a lightweight in the explicit and bitchy department when placed next to someone like Millie Jackson. Mark Ronson's production adds a distinctively modern sheen, with hints of hip hop flavouring, but without diluting the record's timeless spirit. The arrangements are rich and elaborate, but without sacrificing the infectious qualities of peerless pop songs such as 'Rehab' and 'You Know I'm No Good'. Perhaps Winehouse's nasal voice remains an acquired taste, but she seems less interested in simply emulating Billie Holiday this time round, and the vocal phrasing is impressively sophisticated. The highlights are too numerous to list, but the tender 'Love's A Losing Game', with delicate and restrained guitar playing that ably supports her expressive vocal, adds new dimensions to her craft and the title track is supremely ambitious.

The last album from EST (Viaticum) was highly acclaimed and just scraped the bottom end of my end-of-year list for 2005. It is, however, not an album I've returned too much this year, its austere chamber mood feeling a bit stifling and oppressive. Its rapid successor 'Tuesday Wonderland' seems to be one of those take-it-for-granted albums that hasn't quite received its dues from the music press, even in specialist jazz circles. As usual, the titles of the compositions are worth the asking price alone, with 'Brewery of Beggars', 'Dolores In A Shoestand' and 'Eight hundred Streets By Feet' being particular favourites of mine. Musically, it retains many of the staple elements of Esbjorn Svensson's by now signature sound - the subtle integration of electronic textures, gently expanding harmonic motifs, and a subtle, deftly handled rhythmic invention. To these ears, this album pushes these elements further than anything this band have recorded since 'From Gagarin's Point Of View', and has taken them to a new, almost hypnotic effect. It's still much more about sound and atmosphere than the technical virtues of improvisation, but these compositions have more than enough ideas, and the album as a whole is very carefully sequenced.

There are three other jazz albums from 2006 that make for some quietly inspirational listening. Kenny Garrett returns with 'Beyond The Wall', an album that mercifully steers well clear of the banal and smooth territory this excellent musician can sometimes frustratingly inhabit. With Garrett's emotional tones playing alongside some fiery and impassioned blowing from Pharoah Sanders (age seems incapable of diminishing his force and fury), 'Beyond The Wall' neatly juxtaposes the gospel spirit of America with the spiritual and mystical intrigue of the East. It's an intoxicating brew, essential to which is the full and intensely felt piano accompaniment from Mulgrew Miller. As is frequently the case with Garrett, the themes are very simple, occasionally risking sounding insubstantial or incomplete, but in this context, the minimalism feels wholly appropriate, and the keenly felt performances are vibrant and expressive. Albums with spiritual inspirations can seem pretentious, and it's probably a huge help that Garrett managed to get Sanders on board (who played on some of the key albums in Alice Coltrane's series of devotional works and has pioneered this sound himself). 'Beyond The Wall' is, however, gritty and thrilling in its more explosive moments, and carefully controlled and contemplative in its moments of peace and calm.

Over in Britian, the F-IRE collective have spawned a number of genuinely exciting acts, with Pete Wareham's Acoustic Ladyland and Seb Rochford's Polar Bear getting the lion share of attention. Rochford also appears behind the drum kit with the excellent Oriole, although he demonstrates a very different style of playing here from the righteous clatter that now predominates in Acoustic Ladyland's music - here he is supremely sensitive, playing largely with brushes, and really supporting the melodic ebb and flow of the music. The group are directed by guitarist Jonny Phillips, whose compositions are deeply melodic, and frequently inspired by music from other cultures, particularly those of South America and Africa. Phillips' acoustic rhythm playing is textural, but far from neutral, establishing unusual and esoteric moods over which his melodies can float and linger. The combination of Ingrid Laubrock's ebullient saxophone and the languid, delicate cello of Ben Davis is distinctive and unassumingly original. This music is delicate and has a real subtlety that amply rewards repeated listens. The title, 'Migration', is apt, suggesting a flow not just of peoples, but also of ideas, values, sounds and experiences between countries and cultures. Phillips succeeds not just in observing this shared experience, but in fully inhabiting it himself.

Joe Lovano remains one of the world's most astounding saxophonists, capable of powerful extended solos and carefully constructed melodic expression. The variety of his playing means he can handle sensitive ballads every bit as adroitly as he can hard swing. For his latest project, a collaboration with arranger Gunter Schuller, he has returned to one of the key texts in the jazz canon, Miles Davis' 'Birth Of The Cool' collection. The rearrangement of these pieces into a big band suite is an unqualified success, with some inventive reharmonising from Schuller, as well as a whole range of new structural intricacies. The rhythm section swings effortlessly when required, but also handles the through-composed elements of the music with real precision. This music is sandwiched between a series of original compositions from Lovano, all of which are directly inspired by giant and iconic figures in the music's history. What could easily have seemed a tediously reverential exercise is invigorated by the sheer range of inspiration Lovano draws from - there are actually very few players who could claim to be as much inspired by Albert Ayler as Sonny Rollins. The spirit of Ellington and Mingus are naturally strong presences too, but the whole set really succeeds in playfully remodelling some of jazz history's more established conventions.

There are many people more qualified than me to comment on the return of the king of rap Jay Z (but surely every one of his last five albums has seen him 'come out of retirement?'), but I'm going to add my views anyway. 'The Black Album' was clearly one of those pivotal records that it's next to impossible to improve on, but there's little doubt that 'Kingdom Come' would be considered a lazy offering even from a much lesser talent. It starts well enough, with 'Oh My God' and the title track in particular offering something hard hitting and compelling. The latter reworks the Rick James Superfreak sample to surprisingly heavy impact. After that, however, it quickly goes wrong. 'Show Me What You Got', although one of the better tracks, is a sprawling and disorientating mess, whilst the appearance of bland crooner John Legend on the uninspiringly titled 'Do U Wanna Ride?' gives a strong hint at the direction in which the album is headed. From here on, the beats are basic to the point of tedium, and the rapping mainly consists of boasts about the level of credit Jay Z can get. Who cares apart from Beyonce when she wants her 450th pair of heels? It's baffling that one of the more maverick and ambitious productions here comes from Chris Martin! Even The Neptunes are coasting with their dull contribution.

Two albums from singer-songwriters have caught my attention in recent months. 'Song Of The Blackbird' by William Elliott Whitmore is one of the country albums of the year (thanks to Lauren for the tip, albeit it a not entirely unbiased one), and Whitmore's voice is absolutely superb. It's gravelly and gutsy like a soul man overdosing on bourbon, but by accompaning himself usually only with the starkest of settings, he nimbly avoids the pitfalls of cliche. There's a sincere and emotive quality of the music, and the experiences related seem believable, even when they adhere rigidly to American folk traditions ('Lee County Flood'). It's possibly at its best when Whitmore makes use of the banjo, which when used alone, is surprisingly dramatic. Like the excellent Benoit Pioulard album, this should be benefiting from some word of mouth buzz.

The other is 'People Gonna Talk', a very traditionalist, perhaps even conservative record from British bluesman James Hunter, that it's really impossible not to embrace with open arms. We're very much in Van Morrison territory here, although mercifully not the flowery hippy drivel of Astral Weeks, more the jazz-meets-blues territory that Morrison has wandered, occasionally fruitfully, in more recent years. Yet, this album has everything you could want from this form of music - vocals that are crisp but understated, and some saxophone arrangements that don't crowd the music. It's mainly driven by a precision perfect rhythm section, that can incorporate elements of ska or reggae without ever sounding uncomfortable. Hunter's lyrics are simple, but frequently they resonate precisely because of this, and his melodies are warmly familiar, delivered in an unhurried and unshowy style. All the tracks have a similar feel, but it is all so lovingly and authentically rendered (it was all recorded at Toerag studios with former White Stripes and Holly Golightly engineer Liam Watson), and at just forty minutes, it certainly doesn't outstay it's welcome. With repeated listens, the subtle differences in tone become more readily apparent - 'Walk Away' has a gentle swing, whilst the more melancholy 'Mollena' betrays the influence of Sam Cooke. This is a charming, beautifully restrained record that harks back to a bygone era with swing and sophistication.

The Canadian supergroup Swan Lake, involving Dan Bejar of Destroyer and The New Pornographers, along with Spencer Krug from Wolf Parade, are responsible for one of the very strangest records of 2006. 'Beast Moans' seems to have some unfashionably progressive influences behind it, from the peculiar cover art featuring mythical creatures to the baffling lyrics that seem to speak of other worlds. The music favours mysterious droning and exotic atmospherics over rhythm or melody, and as such, it's all a bit difficult to get a grip on. It may well be outstanding, but I also can't help feeling that it's deliberately difficult, and something of an indulgence for the musicians involved. It sometimes sounds intriguing, but rarely makes any real sense. Destroyer's 'Your Blues' album is certainly a far more effective foray into peculiar territory, and it works primarily through being much less guitar-based.

I have no such doubts about the enchanting qualities of Trentemoller's outstanding 'Last Resort' though. This is one of the outstanding electronic albums of the year (albeit with the caveat that I haven't yet managed to hear recommended efforts from Booka Shade, Current 93 and James Holden), sublime and genuinely hypnotic without ever being boring. So much club music only sounds good in clubs, but this, although heavily reliant on the kind of relentless and pulsating rhythm tracks that occasionally tie dance music too closely to its own conventions, sounds intense and imaginative on a home stereo system. It has a peculiar mechanistic beauty, and it alternates between moments of stark clarity and moments of genuine warmth.

I've really run the gamut of genres with this one!

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