I am in two minds about The National. Their last album ‘Alligator’ was something of a slow-burner, with some mysterious and powerful highlights, but somehow it didn’t quite coalesce into a striking whole. ‘Boxer’ has a more uniform sound and is more subtle, perhaps even more obtuse, than its predecessor. There is something oddly compelling about their atmospheric sound, but it takes some effort to appreciate their wilfully detached and skeletal melodies with minimal range.
On ‘Boxer’, they again make great use of the chamber arrangements of Padma Newsome that also worked so well on last year’s brilliant Clogs album (one of the many great records last year completely missed by UK critics). This is particularly notable on some of the album’s standout tracks – particularly the delightful coda of ‘Fake Empire’. This contrasts neatly with some muscular, driving songs in the form of ‘Mistaken for Strangers’ and ‘Apartment Story’, although these mostly take a backseat in favour of more restrained, laconic laments.
The overall tone is somewhat morose, a sensation emphasised by Matt Berenger’s tendency to sing in the club style, mumbling his way through most of the tracks. The most striking moments are when he enunciates clearly, making the uniquely poetic charm of his lyrics discernible. I particularly like it the disarming confession of ‘Slow Show’ (‘I dreamed about you for 29 years before I found you’).
Whilst the arrangements help characterise the songs as kitchen sink melodramas, there’s also a nagging suspicion that they also help mask the deficiencies of a rather pedestrian rhythm section. The piano on ‘Fake Empire’ is rather plinky-plonk, and the drumming throughout lacks finesse and, somewhat critically, is completely without dynamic variety. I rather prefer the band when the rhythm section blends into the background, as on the rather touching ‘Start a War’ and the Leonard Cohen-esque ‘Racing Like A Pro’.
I don’t therefore share the view that ‘Boxer’ is a future classic, but it has a rather individual charm – music for empty late night bars on rainy nights.
It might win most pretentious and verbose title of the year award, but ‘Everyday I Said a Prayer for Kathy and Made a One Inch Square’, the comeback album from Wheat (eagerly anticipated by, well, just about nobody except this blog and the wonderful Really Rather – http://www.reallyrather.blogspot.com/), has many virtues. It’s particularly strange that Wheat are so ignored given the excellence of both ‘Medeiros’ and ‘Hope and Adams’, records that could stand happily in the company of Grandaddy’s ‘The Software Slump’ and Mercury Rev’s ‘Deserters Songs’. This one does not feature the production hand of Dave Fridmann. It retains some of his widescreen finish, but mercifully doesn’t smother its excellent songs with his obtrusive electronic tinkering, instead absorbing and incorporating its more electronic preoccupations.
This is both a lush-sounding and inventive record, full of sustained, dramatic synthesiser chords, off-kilter, inventive drumming and slightly out of tune vocals. It frequently sounds like a piece of warped vinyl, albeit in a very good way. The band can veer between the conventional tropes of indie-rock and far more ambitious territory without ever losing their control. Odd song titles abound (‘To, as in addressing the grave’, ‘Courting Ed Templeton’, ‘Move=Move’), but the band mercifully have the quality of material to support their indulgences. ‘To, as in addressing the grave’ and ‘Saint in Law’ have a shimmering, beatific quality, whilst ‘Closeness’ , ‘Round in the Corners’ and ‘Little White Dove’ are crunchier, albeit with several unexpected twists and turns. This really is one of the best rock albums of the year, although it seems unlikely many will notice.
Another album I feel might have been slightly mis-represented is ‘Blue Alert’, the third album from Anjani. This intoxicating, melancholy and haunting record has been written and produced entirely in collaboration with her illustrious partner Leonard Cohen, although many reviewers have preferred to opt for Norah Jones as a convenient reference point. The similarities are obvious, but entirely superficial – ‘Blue Alert’ mostly features Anjani’s breathy vocals coupled with her cabaret jazz piano playing. Anjani’s voice is considerably more versatile than Jones’ though, and she interprets Cohen’s lyrics with deft understatement. It’s hard to conceive of Jones concocting anything this vivid and emotional though. The opening ‘Blue Alert’, with its cautious and understated delivery is about as close to Jones as it gets – elsewhere, the material is considerably more challenging. These songs go right to the heart of the human experience. ‘Never Got to Love You’ is as direct and heartbreaking a song as Cohen has penned, but those who dismiss him as a miserabilist should turn to the quite exquisite ‘Half a Perfect World’. Seemingly relating the unexpected blossoming of a relationship between two women, it’s a strange but beautifully incisive song.
The songs are also tinged with the same laconic minor chord sequences that characterised Cohen’s ‘Dear Heather’ album (indeed, the two albums even share a song, the lovely ‘Nightingale’). Anjani’s arrangements are deceptively simple, and the whole album is characterised by a dignified emotional restraint. The resulting performances are both powerful and sublime.
Anjani is performing on tonight’s edition of Later…With Jools Holland, but you’ll have to endure the tedious new incarnation of The Who and the ghastly Kaiser Chiefs as well unfortunately. Still, there’s always The White Stripes to keep things engaging…
I’ve always been a little fearful of Richard Thompson, not because, as Rufus Wainwright claims, he’s so ‘fiercely heterosexual’, but because he’s one of those artists who seems unnervingly prolific. Where should one start? Actually, new album ‘Sweet Warrior’ is only his 16th solo album in a 40 year career, although that doesn’t include his collaborations with Linda or his legendary work with Fairport Convention. I suspect it’s as good a place to begin as any, given that it confidently reiterates his core talent – the deft merger of straight ahead rock with the inflections of traditional English folk music. Thompson remains in strident voice – there’s very little evidence of any vocal deterioration from the Fairport days. He’s also a guitarist of piercing clarity and expressive detail. As a result of this, he can build exciting songs from even the most conventional of foundations.
The songwriting is consistently excellent, so it doesn’t seem particularly fruitful to pick highlights. The main talking point will certainly be ‘Dad’s Gonna Kill Me’, where the ‘Dad’ in question is actually an abbreviation of Baghdad (‘Dad’s in a bad mood, Dad’s got the blues/It’s someone else’s mess that I didn’t choose’). It shares some of the spirit of Steve Earle’s fearlessly political writing on ‘Jerusalem’ and ‘The Revolution Starts Now’. Elsewhere, Thompson’s lyrics are frequently very witty, particularly on ‘Mr. Stupid’ and the ferociously energetic ‘I’ll Never Give It Up’. ‘Bad Monkey’ pits Thompson’s committed vocal against an uplifting horn section.
‘Sweet Warrior’ also benefits from its fair share of tender songs. ‘She Sang Angels To Rest’, ‘Take Care The Road You Choose’and ‘Too Late to Come Fishing’ are particularly touching, although the latter two suffer a little from production and execution that may be slightly over-crisp. There are occasions on ‘Sweet Warrior’ when I’d like it all to sound it a little rougher or dirtier. With 14 tracks, it’s also arguable that it’s a little too long, but these are minor flaws to an otherwise engaging and enjoyable collection.