Wednesday, January 31, 2007

Looking In My Rear View Mirror with One Eye On The Road Ahead

First up, a couple of albums that got lost from last year...

'Su-Ling' is the debut album from saxophonist and flautist Finn Peters, and yet another outstanding album from the Babel label (the forthcoming release from Mark Holub's extraordinary Led Bib also looks set to add to this expanding list). The overlapping networks of jazz musicians currently operating in London is making this a most exciting and inventive period for British jazz, and Peters can join the likes of Acoustic Ladyland, Polar Bear, Oriole, Tom Arthurs and Jim Hart's Gemini in successfully translating the fluidity of live performance to a superb recorded collection. It helps that he's assembled an outstanding band - with the effortlessly swinging rhythms and daring creativity of Tom Skinner on drums, the dependably solid Tom Herbert on bass and the Afrobeat-inspired lines from guitarist Dave Okumu, this is a bold and inventive rhythm section. Nick Ramm's rich chord voicings on piano also add depth and feeling. There's also a remarkably sensitive group dynamic at work, and there's a quiet intensity to the best tracks here. With inspiration also coming from more modern musical forms such as hip-hop, it's a particularly fascinating album rhythmically, and tracks such as 'Al Dar Gazelli' and 'Red Fish' seem to develop outwards from a basic rhythmic motif. The latter begins with an outrageously groovy figure from Skinner. Elsewhere, there is a distinctly exotic flavour to the minimalist title track, and 'N.R. Shackleton Goes To The Circus' is as vigorous and playful as its title suggests. Peters' blowing is muscular and committed, and the whole group seems zesty and joyful in its exposition of Peters' intelligent themes. This would have been very high in my 2006 albums list had I actually heard it in time!

I have no idea quite why it's taken so long for Destroyer's Rubies, one of the most universally acclaimed albums of 2006, to gain proper distribution in Britian. At last, it now seems to be readily available, and it's been well worth the wait. It's completely removed from the last Destroyer album (the peculiarly hypnotic, synth-heavy 'Your Blues'), and also a good deal more unconventional than Dan Bejar's work with the New Pornographers. Epic songs with dense, allusive, occasionally pompous lyrics are the order of the day here, and most of the structures are defiantly unpredictable. It's not as perplexing as the recent Swan Lake project though, and there are plenty of enthralling guitar lines and appealing melodies scattered through this ambitious work. Bejar's strangely nasal voice is increasingly Dylan-esque in phrasing and delivery, and frequently the words and music are forced together with increasingly extravagant verve. The stop-start nature of tracks like 'Rubies' and 'A Dangerous Woman Up To A Point' make them sound like potted symphonies for a rock ensemble, whilst the shorter songs add more comfortable and familiar pleasures. It makes for an effective balance, although the inclusion of a 21 minute bonus suite of improvised electronics, whilst showing Bejar's attempts at infinite variety, only makes me head for the stop button.

As for 2007, everyone's still talking about Klaxons of course, although for how long is something of a moot point. Actually, the album 'Myths Of The Near Future' has much to recommend it, even if the group look likely to become victims of their own success. Much has been made of there being a nascent 'nu-rave' scene, and whilst most of these taglines are spurious at best, there may just be something in this. There's something enticing in the day glo clothes and siren horns for those of us slightly too young to have experienced rave culture the first time round (and there's little doubt that there was a genuine subculture at this time, initiated in simple rebellion and later fuelled by anger at the Conservative government's Criminal Justice Bill). There's also a pan-ganerational appeal in Jamie Reynolds' intention to recreate the relentless rhythms and primal assault of dance music on live instruments, a goal also pursued by Hot Chip (albeit with results likely to be much more enduring). The band do sometimes achieve real results to match this admirable theory - witness the minimal, insistent and repetetive melodies of 'Isle Of Her', or the loose groove of 'Forgotten Works'.

Actually, 'Myths...' seems to fit perfectly with another current trend - in its drive to cross-pollenate between musical genres. With its heavily overdriven basslines and vocals set octaves apart, it may actually most closely resemble the work of the acclaimed US group TV On The Radio, although others have also suggested kinship with the modern psychedelia of Super Furry Animals. It works best when at its most melodic - and 'Golden Skans' and 'Gravity's Rainbow' are genuinely sophisticated, whilst 'Atlantis To Interzone' has retained its visceral thrill.

What's most surprising is that, whilst the singles still pack a punch, the group have achieved a remarkable consistency of quality and mood across an album that excites without outstaying its welcome. This is a band I've tried desperately hard to ignore, but there's definitely something compelling and powerful about this driving, restless music.

The problem comes with the lofty pretentions of the lyrics, probably more irritating than intriguing. It's probably harsh but fair to suggest that the bulk of these songs lack depth, and certainly lack emotional warmth or feeling. Like The Manics before them, Klaxons have digested influences well beyond the musical, and there are signs of Burroughs, Bukowski, and Pynchon here, all rather inadequately digested. Still, at least they can think outside the box, and if the media are not too fickle, maybe they will get at least a second chance to state their case.

When I first read about 'Wincing The Night Away', the third album from quirky US popsters The Shins, I was a little worried. It sounded like it would emphasise lush atmospherics over melodic invention. Well, the actual results are by no means bad, and this collection effectively pushes the band into new territories whilst retaining all the elements that made them such an interesting proposition in the first place. James Mercer's lyrics remain verbose and unwieldy, but he continues to marry them to tunes that, whilst enchanting, veer off at peculiar and unexpected tangents. 'Sealegs' and 'Black Wave' may push the band further into electronic territory than we've been accustomed too, but the opening 'Sleeping Lessons', with its Wilco-esque coda, and the single 'Phantom Limb' are as spirited and immediate as anything on 'Chutes Too Narrow'. Mercer's Anglophile tendencies are all too frequently mentioned, but whilst I couldn't really detect the Echo and The Bunnymen influence on 'Chutes Too Narrow' there's the obvious reference point of The Smiths here. Many of the melodies have a Morrissey-esque twang, and the introduction of programmed beats and strange effects on 'Sealegs' may owe something to 'How Soon Is Now?'. Best of all though is the immediately loveable 'Girl Sailor' and the lush, strangely moving delicacy of 'Red Rabbits'. It's another dependably concise collection of winning pop songs - nothing more, nothing less.

Those readers who heard my student radio show and have followed my progress since will know of my admiration for former Appendix Out mainman Alasdair Roberts. His solo debut was a remarkably unfashionable collection of traditional Scottish folk songs that had timeless spirit whilst also having the bewitching and mysterious quality of the unknown. 'Farewell Sorrow' melded borrowed fragments from the same tradition with Roberts' own work, and resulted in something more accessible that retained the distinctive magic of that excellent debut. The subsequent collaborations with Will Oldham on the Amalgamated Sons Of Rest project and the 'No Earthly Man' album (a surreal and thoroughly disorientating reinvention of folk music) made perfect sense.

Roberts now returns with the excellent 'Amber Gatherers', a record which of the three previous albums, most closely resembles 'Farewell Sorrow' in its merging of traditional concerns with original music. It features contributions from regular Roberts sidemen Gareth Eggie and Tom Crossley, but it's the addition of Teenage Fanclub's Gerard Love to the ensemble that really makes a substantial difference. The sound of this album is much brighter and warmer than any of Roberts' previous efforts (indeed, the gorgeous 'Where Twines The Path' could even be one of The Fannies' own acoustic adventures).

Roberts is not a technically gifted singer, but I simply adore his deceptively vulnerable tone, emphatic Scottish dialect and elaborate phrasing. His voice melds delightfully with the delicate pluckings of the arrangements, and the subtle percussive undercurrents at work in many of these songs support his delivery intelligently. As the title implies, there's a recurring theme about gathering amber (or 'Baltic Gold') running through many of the songs. Like recent efforts from The Decemberists or Midlake, there is a tacit assumption that listeners will be able to immerse themselves in this antiquated landscape. Yet, Roberts can also draw magic from the most basic of images, as on 'River Rhine' ('Where does the River Rhine rise, it rises in her eyes/When I look in her eyes, I see the River Rhine/I see the river widen; she sees the Clyde in mine'). His melodies here are also full of warmth and genuine feeling.

Despite being played entirely on acoustic instruments, the music here still achieves an alien and otherwordly atmosphere, perhaps achieved through the deployment of unconventional guitar tunings, which the CD inlay helpfully reveals. In fact, the bluesy 'I Have A Charm' as much resembles the desert heat of Ali Farka Toure's 'Savane' as it does some of the more rural American moments in the Will Oldham back catalogue.

'The Amber Gatherers' is another fascinating addition to what is already a remarkably consistent solo career. Roberts is currently supporting the much lauded Joanna Newsom in the UK. It's a controversial suggestion - but Roberts is every bit as auteurist and unusual as Newsom, and may just be the more natural and convincing of the two. He is acutely aware that moving forwards sometimes means looking back.

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