Wednesday, August 22, 2007

Tales of Minor Disappointment

King Creosote, New Pornographers, Liars

Along with Badly Drawn Boy, Kenny Anderson AKA King Creosote was just a few years ago one of the bright hopes among British solo artists. Sadly, both Damon Gough and now bard of Fife Anderson too seem to have disappeared into a pit of dispiriting ordinariness that doesn’t befit their distinctive characters, and from which it seems unlikely that either will emerge with dignity intact. Chief operator among the Fence Collective, Anderson was a fiercely independent, idiosyncratic and unusual writer, and a devotee of homespun, ramshackle folk arrangements often focussed on the harmonium. His last album, ‘KC Rules OK’ was his first for a big label (679 – also home to Mystery Jets and The Streets amongst others) and showed him aiming for a more conventional singer-songwriter market. It had its moments, but the arrangements seemed markedly less interesting and the soul was lost.

Unfortunately, ‘Bombshell’ continues this trend. Only the lovely opener ‘Leslie’ really retains the warmth and heart of Creosote’s home recordings. Elsewhere, the tender, affecting melody of ‘Home In A Sentence’ is smothered by glossy production, blandly strumming acoustic guitars and a rather hamfisted attempt at anthemics that make Anderson sound rather like an indie Deacon Blue. Some of the plodding tempos that anchored ‘KC Rules OK’ firmly to the ground return in the form of ‘There’s None Of That’ and ‘Nooks’. ‘You’ve No Clue Do You’ is at least catchy, but the attempt at a driving Franz Ferdinand-esque disco beat seems decidedly clumsy.

The yearning melancholy that characterised songs like ‘Friday Night in New York’ is given more room to breathe on ‘Church as Witness’, but even that is slightly undermined by its bed of directionless synth pads. The epic ‘At The W.A.L.’ demonstrates that Anderson still retains his story-spinning lyrical charm and it begins with considerable promise, emphasising mystery over clarity. Sadly, it develops only into another driving conventional rock arrangement. The haunting conclusion of ‘The Racket They Made’ gives a hint of what Anderson is capable of when left to his own devices – it’s a deeply powerful duet with fellow Fence Collective member HMS Ginafore, and along with ‘Leslie’, it bookends a highly disappointing album with real quality. ‘Common sense must prevail’ sings Anderson on ‘Home In A Sentence’, as if he’s resigned himself to a fate determined for him by some over-zealous record company man. I preferred him when he lacked a marketing strategy and distributed his tapes for free.

I’m equally unsure of ‘Challengers’, the fourth album from The New Pornographers, the Canadian band we must not call a supergroup. On their last album, the mighty ‘Twin Cinema’, the band concocted a slightly rough around the edges, highly spirited collection of rather ingenious guitar pop, where Kurt Dahle’s vigorous drumming was as central as Carl Newman’s spindly melodies. Although all the essential ingredients of the band’s signature style are present and correct on ‘Challengers’, they’ve performed something of a volte-face in terms of production values, very much cleaning up their act and swallowing the ‘bigger is better’ mantra a little too uncritically. Out go the big drums, in come the chugging guitars and grafted on string arrangements.

Some of the songs sound like pristine rewrites of songs from ‘Twin Cinema’. The opening ‘My Rights Versus Yours’ closely resembles the insistent, jaunty groove of ‘Use It’ but sounds a little more ornate and polite. Many of the other songs adopt the mid-tempo stomp of ‘The Bones of an Idol’ as their template, but the album occasionally drifts into plodding territory. There are pretty melodies in abundance, particularly on ‘Go Places’, where Neko Case handles the lead vocal with admirable restraint. The infectious ‘All The Old Showstoppers’ demonstrates Newman’s canny ability with vocal harmonies, and the lively, unpredictable ‘Mutiny, I Promise You’ shows more imagination with rhythm and metre than most indie rock bands can muster.

However, by the album’s conclusion there’s largely a sense of missed opportunity. It’s all very well adding instrumentation, but the horns and strings frequently just sound pretty rather than engaging or bold. Some tracks drift into blandness, and the album’s centrepiece, ‘Unguided’ chugs so unimaginatively that it could be Snow Patrol. And Christ, does it really have to be six and a half minutes long? It doesn’t go anywhere remotely interesting! Dan Bejar does his usual psychedelic weirdness schtik with ‘Myriad Harbour’ and the superior ‘Entering White Cecilia’, but the songs he penned for the last Destroyer album were more unhinged and bizarre. ‘Challengers’ is hardly a bad record but this band is clearly capable of more, and they sound much better when they come with energy and vigour rather than merely with calculated ambition.

I was expecting to be immediately smitten with the latest, eponymously titled album from Liars, which has been billed rather simplistically as the closest they will get to making a pop album. I find myself having reservations with it, though, perhaps because I admired the demented weirdness of ‘Drum’s Not Dead’ and the conceptual grand folly of ‘They Were Wrong So We Drowned’ a little too much. This band were never going to become technically gifted musicians overnight but I can’t help feeling much of ‘Liars’ reveals their limitations a little too obviously. They are better when they pay attention to the detail of the sound, rather than attempting to write anything approaching conventionally structured songs. I’m not particularly taken with the rudimentary drum machine that restricts a handful of these tracks, nor with the greater emphasis on Angus’ somewhat wayward falsetto vocal. The more brutal, attacking moments are much more successful, particularly the colossal single ‘Plastercasts of Everything’ and the insistent, explosive ‘Cycle Time’. Elsewhere, there’s a tendency for a rather tinny sound to prevail which is transparently reminiscent of The Jesus and Mary Chain. This was a very exciting sound in 1984, but I’m not sure it befits a band usually so fresh and difficult to categorise in 2007.

3 comments:

Rowan said...
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Rowan said...
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Rowan said...

I love the KC album! been playing Home In A Sentence on repeat the last few weeks. Then again, i freely admit to liking Deacon Blue, and i own a Ricky Ross solo LP...

Agree with you about New Pornographers sadly - nothing as good as 'Sing Me Spanish Techno' on the new album. And the Liars? Load of overhyped art rock toss.

Sorry about previous two deletions - brain a bit muddy this AM...