Friday, April 25, 2008

Short Form!

Fleet Foxes – Sun Giant EP (Sub Pop/Bella Union)
Brethren of the Free Spirit – All Things Are From Him, Through Him and In Him (Audiomer)
Animal Collective – Water Curses (Domino)
Four Tet – Ringer (Domino)


The EP format seems to be enjoying a serious resurgence at the moment. While a debate rages about the merits of downloading individual tracks as opposed to purchasing entire albums, the mood seems ripe for something that offers a convenient balance between the two.

Seattle’s Fleet Foxes are one of those bands to have benefited mightily from exposure at the SXSW Festival earlier this year – their performance set in motion a blitz of blogging and unrestrained hyperbole that will no doubt make some suspicious of their merits. It’s inevitable that, much like kindred spirits Band of Horses, Fleet Foxes will be compared with My Morning Jacket. Not only are they a scarily hairy bunch but their lead vocalist is yet another identikit Jim James (incidentally, James is doing a pretty good job of disguising his more familiar tones on My Morning Jacket’s ‘Evil Urges’ album, perhaps an attempt to escape all his imitators). This comparison is a bit unfair on the band though – they lack the more aggressive, Southern rock angle of MMJ, instead focussing on a ritualistic form of American folk music, resplendent with joyous vocal harmonies and rustic acoustic guitars.

The melodies and arrangements on ‘Sun Giant’ are rich and rewarding. They are audacious enough to the EP with an acapella harmony track that has an enticing and haunting impact. Whilst there’s a transparent connection with a classic rock lineage here (the harmonies remind me most of Crosby, Stills and Nash), the music also has a delicacy and elegance that removes it from cliché or hokiness. There’s the way the fluidity of the guitar lines on ‘English House’ contrasts with the insistent pounding of its chorus, although, with intuitive care, the band don’t allow the song to slip into bombast. Perhaps best of all is the stealthy and ambitious ‘Mykonokos’, which veers from a charming and melodic opening section into something more mysterious and potent. The closing ‘Innocent Son’ is a tender and melancholy lament imbued with a powerful sense of vulnerability.

The one slightly irritating element is the group’s lyrics. Much like Yeasayer, they are a little too preoccupied with finding the sacred within nature and, as a result, there’s a little too much babble about the sun rising, rivers and nature worshipping. If you’re prepared to yield yourself to this quasi-pagan celebration though, it’s a deeply fulfilling listen, and at least these themes are accompanied by a genuine sense of awe present as much within the music as within the lyrics. It certainly all bodes well for their debut album, due later in the year.

Continuing on a ritualistic folk music trajectory, Brethren of the Free Spirit is the latest project from the outrageously gifted guitarist James Blackshaw. Blackshaw’s last solo album, ‘The Cloud of Unknowing’, was one of my favourite albums of last year, and having just discovered his previous record ‘O True Believers’, it seems he’s capable of even better, always harnessing his virtuosic playing to an abundant theme or mood.

Here, he joins forces with Jozsef Van Wissem, a similarly dexterous exponent of the Dutch lute to produce a short cycle of minimal and precise duets. It’s remarkably beautiful music, impressive at least as much for its stately sound as for the technical qualities of the musicians involved. It’s both repetitious and elaborate, gradually drawing feeling from its seemingly restricting system and method.

The first two pieces are long and extrapolated, whilst the shorter concluding pieces, whilst less intense, are more easily digested. It’s less bright, less florid and more challenging than Blackshaw’s solo work, which has a magisterial beauty, but the interplay between the two musicians is instinctive and magical. It’s also difficult to resist a project named after a medieval heresy which argued that the route to God was through having lots and lots of sex.

Perhaps it was simply the extravagant praise gifted to Panda Bear’s ‘Person Pitch’ album but there seems to have been something of a backlash against Animal Collective in recent months. Perhaps their ‘Strawberry Jam’ album proved too saccharine for those who preferred the band in more esoteric, confrontational mode – but I actually think the band have improved considerably as they’ve matured and become less abrasive. This peculiar, warped brand of pop music that they are currently purveying is certainly whimsical but it’s also generous and satisfying.

The band have already proved themselves masters of the EP format, particularly on their outstanding ‘Prospect Hummer’, an illuminating collaboration with formerly lost folk singer Vashti Bunyan that successfully joined the dots between a traditional musical canon and the group’s adventurous experimentalism. ‘Water Curses’ may well be their best release to date, capturing their heady, synaesthetic juxtaposition of sweetness and menace with a newfound fluency and ease.

The lead track is the most familiar – a close relation of ‘Peacebone’ or ‘Who Could Win A Rabbit?’ as one of those Animal Collective tunes bristling with unstoppable urgency. It’s buoyed on by an almost chaotic temperament, with strings of peculiar imagery bundled together and a bed of clattering, primitive drums. It’s marvellous of course, but not particularly unexpected.

The remaining three tracks on the EP take the group to yet more unconventional places. They are airy and spacious, with very minimal rhythm and plenty of near-silences. In the manner of the group’s best work, they combine a deftly melodic framework with disorientating and sinister sound effects and background noise. The vocals are frequently arranged in staggered bursts, invoking call and response mantras or chanting. This music is anything but earthy – it has a genuine psychedelic tinge to it, evoking as it does bright colours and heightened awareness. ‘Street Flash’ sounds comforting on the surface but almost concealed beneath the smooth texture are profoundly disconcerting elements – voices, screams – all largely incomprehensible and subtly terrifying.

Kieren Hebden has been trying very hard to distance himself from the ‘folktronica’ tag he unwittingly acquired, first through his peculiar collaboration with free jazz drummer Steve Reid, and now through this new set of relentless, energising techno. It’s his first release under the Four Tet moniker in three years and anyone expecting more of the same will certainly be surprised. The title track reminds me of Underworld at their very best, but mercifully stripped of the sometimes grating excesses of Karl Hyde’s vocals. It’s the most minimal of Hebden’s work to date, missing his preoccupations with confrontational rhythm or striking sound. Yet the sudden burst of drums at the end ties it back to Hebden’s familiar rhythmic preoccupations, and its sheer stubbornness is fascinating.

‘Ringer’ is perhaps the first Four Tet track made genuinely for dancing, rather than for more cerebral occasions, founded as it is on the more conventional layering and crescendos of club music. It seems perhaps closer to the form of dance music currently favoured by European producers – I can hear hints of Isolee or The Field in its entrancing textures. This all harks back to Kraftwerk of course, and Hebden seems to have taken from that group similar elements to those absorbed by the Swedish group The Knife on their excellent ‘Silent Shout’ album, particularly on the closing ‘Wing Body Wing’, where Hebden eventually, after plenty of teasing, finally allows us a glimpse of the polyrhythmic wizardy on which he made his name. Words like pastoral or rustic, familiar descriptions of Hebden’s music in the past, simply won’t suffice here. This is much more architectural and constructed music – extremely rigorous but equally propulsive.

‘Ribbons’ is prettier, although the handclaps, offbeat hi hats and gentle electronic interventions betray the influence of Chicago house or primitive techno. The warm sounds and appealing harmony provide some connection with Hebden’s earlier work, particularly the encircling friendliness of ‘Rounds’. The intense and claustrophobic droning of ‘Swimmer’ might be too much for some listeners, but beneath the Boards of Canada-esque surface lies a wealth of intriguing, unusual and occasionally abrasive sounds. This is not Hebden’s warmest or most welcoming work, but it does have the guilt free collective energy and abandon captured by the best dance music and it’s good to hear him branching out in less characteristic directions.

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