Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Yin and Yang

Sweet Billy Pilgrim - Twice Born Men (Samedhi Sound, 2009)
Super Furry Animals - Dark Days/Light Years (Rough Trade, 2009)

Here are two very different albums with which I’m completely besotted at the moment. Sweet Billy Pilgrim are a new name to me, the latest signings to David Sylvian’s Samedhi Sound label. Their second album ‘Twice Born Men’ is a rather sober and serious affair, albeit in the best possible way. By way of contrast, ‘Dark Days/Light Years’ is thoroughly bonkers – the most madcap album in Super Furry Animals’ quirky catalogue.

Getting straight to the point, the music on ‘Twice Born Men’ is disarmingly beautiful. It’s a beautifully crafted, effortlessly cohesive album that represents a shining example of genuinely artful pop music. There’s a strong melodic sensibility at work which is reminiscent of the intelligent anthems of Doves or Elbow, but there’s also a freer, more impressionistic side to this group, and an adventurous approach to instrumentation and arrangement. Many of the positive reviews this album has received have mentioned Talk Talk, although the music here is warmer and less stark than ‘Laughing Stock’. It’s a powerful, distinctive hybrid sound focused on texture and atmosphere. Whilst there are plenty of banjos and acoustic guitars, this could hardly be classified as folk music. Similarly, whilst there are plenty of gently swelling synth pads and found sounds, the group are not exactly electronic either.

The album is neatly bookended by the same musical theme, although it is stated in radically different ways. This gives it a rather old-fashioned sense of a long form journey and, indeed, chief songwriter Tim Elsenberg has admitted that he considers it a concept album about ‘the heart’s little journey’. Not perhaps the most novel of ideas, but the execution of the theme is near perfect. It opens with rustling cymbals, electronic haze and a finger picked electric guitar playing a delicate theme – pretty but melancholy. Over this, an American voice intones a story about a 13 month road trip – the important element being the free movement of driving rather than the places passed through. It sounds like a journey of forgetting and escaping but the story ends abruptly – ‘…but then I met you’. The end of the album returns to that electric guitar theme, but this time it is presented as a bawdy drunken chorus, which is in fact Tim Elsenberg’s voice overdubbed thirty times.

The first proper song ‘Truth Only Smiles’, is a neat encapsulation of this band’s magic. It’s an ambitious, rhythmically fascinating song with a strange, elusive verse giving way to a big, heartfelt chorus. Elsenberg’s voice has the full blooded force of Thom Yorke or Jeff Buckley but he also has an intuitive sense of how and when to use restraint. ‘Bloodless Coup’ and ‘Kalypso’ are similarly entrancing, the latter veering through a bewildering array of texture and tempo variations but exercising its own peculiar logic. The arrangements are completely beguiling. Unfortunately, I haven’t got credits to hand, but strings and what sounds like a clarinet add depth and resonance.

‘Longshore Drift’ sounds much like its title suggests, with a rubato delivery and a more abstract sensibility. This quality returns on the album’s penultimate track, although both are too restless and emotive to risk inducing sleep. The crackly electronics in the background serve to enhance the sense of eeriness. Although a number of the songs extend for over six minutes, the album as a whole is concise at only eight tracks. The abstract moments are always punctuated by more robust moments, like the asymmetrical, jazzy undertones of ‘Future Pefect Tense’. Whilst the album ends with its most dreamlike material, the group sustain a perplexing combination of melancholy and euphoria that makes for truly stirring music throughout.

‘Twice Born Men’ is lyrically evocative too, with a recurring maritime theme which is continued in the cover art – apparently there’s more information about the art than the music in the liner notes. There are also some inventive and imaginative lines (the ‘dreams all cracked and pistol-whipped’ of ‘Truth Only Smiles’ springs immediately to mind). At worst, it relies on platitudes about emotions and relationships, but these are far more insightful than those offered by lesser artists.

Sweet Billy Pilgrim make music that seems to float and drift, with numerous ideas feeding into an over-arching mood or atmosphere. When a strong melodic theme emerges, its impact is greater for being unexpected. The more I listen to it, the more its subtle detail creeps to the surface. Equal parts vulnerability and strength – this is cerebral music with a richly emotive core. Much has already been said about Grizzly Bear’s upcoming ‘Veckatimest’, but ‘Twice Born Men’ already sounds like a worthy UK counterpart.

Whereas ‘Twice Born Men’ is the work of a band with a clear, coherent vision and is carefully structured, Super Furry Animals seem to have, quite deliriously, lost all sense of direction on ‘Dark Days/Light Years’. It is gleefully all over the place and remarkably self-indulgent. Yet SFA are a rare band that actually benefit from freeing themselves from strictures. Although much of the music here is based on grooves (often seemingly krautrock-inspired), their infectious hooks often win through in the end. They have an effortless knack for making the very process of creating music sound like tremendous fun. This is, of course, exactly how it should be.

Their scattershot approach here makes for a much more engaging listen than the languid psychedelia of much of ‘Love Kraft’, or even the crisp pop of ‘Hey Venus!’. For those who prefer SFA at their weirdest, ‘Dark Days/Light Years’ will comfortably be their best album since ‘Guerilla’. This doesn’t necessarily mean the music is always wildly original. Much of the opening ‘Crazy Naked Girls’ (how could a song with a title like that be possible to resist?) is clearly derived from Hendrix or Led Zeppelin and the group’s fascination with The Beach Boys remains prevalent elsewhere. As ever, it’s the way SFA combine these yardsticks of classic pop and rock with their more experimental impulses. So, the aforementioned ‘Crazy Naked Girls’ begins with a bewildering raft of programmed beats, before exploding into a guitar-lead freak-out.

Satisfyingly, there are some remnants of the joyous reconstruction of 80s pop Gruff crafted with Boom Bip on the Neon Neon album. ‘Inaugural Trams’ and ‘The Very Best of Neil Diamond’ (more great titles!) both benefit from that pulsating, shimmering sheen. The German spoken word sectionin ‘Inaugural Trams’ is delivered by Franz Ferdinand’s Nick McCarthy – it’s probably not too harsh on Franz to suggest it’s more worthwhile than anything on their latest effort. Gruff’s vocals are often electronically treated to enhance the bizarre, hallucinogenic mood that prevails throughout the record. As has been the tendency on recent SFA albums, this sounds like the work of a democratic group – with lead vocal contributions from Bunf and Cian as well as Gruff and a wider emphasis on harmonies.

There is space for ‘Dark Days/Light Years’ to conclude with a lengthy motorik groove (the thoroughly daft ‘Pric’) and for it to contain an epic piece of hazy psychedelia (‘Cardiff In The Sun’). Even such extravagances don’t detract from the overall sense that this is, at heart, a pop album. Songs like ‘White Socks/Flip Flops’ and ‘Helium Hearts’ are shot through with the group’s oddball charm and natural way with a winning melody. The only limitations come with a slight feeling of repetition. ‘Inconvenience’, in spite of its griping lyrics, is actually self-mocking and full of life, but it’s basically a retread of the glam stomp of ‘Golden Retriever’. Similarly, ‘Helium Hearts’ seems based on the same brand of awkward funk that characterised ‘Smokin’ or ‘Juxtaposed With U’.

These are very minor quibbles though – to have SFA at their energetic, devil-may-care best is exhilarating and much of ‘Dark Days/Light Years’ sounds like a manic celebration of modern absurdity. As odd as this excitable album often is, it’s also playful, inventive and massively enjoyable.

Friday, March 20, 2009

Soul Sides

Candi Staton - Who's Hurting Now? (Honest Jon's, 2009)
Raphael Saadiq - The Way I See It (RCA, 2008/Sony UK, 2009)

Here are two albums both indebted to the vibrant soul tradition, but with a very different approach to production and execution. The return of Candi Staton to the secular mainstream has been one of the major soul revival stories and it’s slightly disappointing that a quick Google search reveals very little internet writing on this new album. Longstanding legacy artists like Staton of course don’t need the short term buzz and hype that the web provides (the likes of Grizzly Bear and Animal Collective, however, positively thrive on it). Yet I often find it slightly irritating that bloggers so often opt to concentrate exclusively on the shock of the new. Unsurprisingly, then, Raphael Saadiq’s second solo album, also excellent, generates more results for its sleek modernisation of the classic Motown sound.

Staton, perhaps wisely, has opted to stay with the same team that helmed her outstanding ‘His Hands’ album from a couple of years ago. Former Lambchop member Mark Nevers stays in the producer’s chair and Will Oldham contributes another superb song (the title track from ‘His Hands’ is among the best things he’s written, but perhaps there’s too much love for Will here at the moment). The album has a relaxed feel, with plenty of reserved but gritty grooving. It sounds convincingly recorded live, with the sort of house band feel that characterised the best Memphis recordings from the Stax era. Whilst there are no explicitly religious songs here, there’s plenty of gospel fervour, and Staton’s gospel heritage adds real depth and conviction to her take on Mary Gauthier’s ‘Mercy Now’.

Although Staton apparently had her reservations with Will Oldham’s contribution here, the selection of this and the Mary Gauthier track neatly demonstrate the links between deep southern soul and country music. The album also opens superbly with a relatively recent Dan Penn composition, one of the slow-burning, gutsy tracks that best suit Staton’s wonderful voice. It’s about a slow seduction, with the woman initially reserved and resistant. Staton assumed it was a song about weakness, and initially didn’t want to sing it, but later re-interpreted it to be about overcoming doubt and fear in relationships.

As is so often the case, soul singers and their chosen songs offer huge insight into human emotions and relationships. Will Oldham’s ‘Get Your Hands Dirty’ continues his preoccupation with concepts of work that can also be heard on his own ‘Beware’ album. Again, Candi brings a rawness and emotional clarity to his work – Oldham would have rendered it more elusive and translucent. Just as I was bemoaning the lack of intelligent songs about remaining single, a flurry of them seem to be emerging. ‘Lonely Don’t’ is a song that imagines ‘Lonely’ as a partner that won’t mistreat and neglect you in the way that real life partners often do. It’s a powerful, thought-provoking sentiment. Even more daring is Staton’s sole original contribution to this set, ‘Dust On My Pillow’, another smouldering deep soul ballad, but a novel one which genuinely seems to be about Viagra. Staton is interested in its negative effects on long term marriages as newly restored men seek younger girls.

At its best, be it with dirty grooves like the title track or gritty ballads, ‘Who’s Hurting Now?’ plays to Staton’s considerable strengths as a communicator and vocalist. If there’s a limitation to this album, it’s in the occasional over-familiarity of the material, which occasionally risks veering into soul cliché. There’s a nagging sense that a couple of the tracks (‘The Light In Your Eyes’, ‘I Don’t Know’) are slightly icky. Still, it’s a small quibble with an otherwise appetising set that provides a powerful reminder of how timeless and durable deep soul music can be.

Raphael Saadiq is a high profile writer, singer and producer in the States but is only just receiving his dues here in the UK. He was a member of the underrated group Tony! Toni! Tone! (I willingly admit I’m relying on Wikipedia to get the various Tonies in what is hopefully the right sequence). He then went on to produce the femal R&B supergroup Lucy Pearl and work with D’Angelo and Joss Stone, who guests on a track here. His debut album ‘Instant Vintage’ earned five grammy nominations, but didn’t seem to kick up too much of a storm here. It’s taken a while for ‘The Way I See It’ to get a full UK release (it’s been available in the US since late last year) but it has now at last arrived.

Suddenly, everyone seems to have latched on to Saadiq’s almost slavishly faithful facsimile of Motown gold (particularly the Holland-Dozier-Holland sound) and I see no reason not to join the chorus of approval. Unlike the Candi Staton album though, this is definitely not a live-in-the-studio recording though. Saadiq is much more open to modern studio techniques. As such, ‘The Way I See It’ reproduces a classic template, but filters this through the influence of contemporary R&B and hip hop, mostly without diluting its effect. This is somewhere where guest artists Stevie Wonder, Joss Stone and Jay-Z can all feel at home (although Jay-Z admittedly murders the second version of ‘Oh Girl’ with his awful half-rapping, half-singing).

As a singer, Saadiq doesn’t quite have the force and range of the great Motown voices, although there is a real insistent quality to his delivery that is difficult to resist. His vocal phrasing is as crisp and driving as his precise rhythm tracks. As a producer, he understands the crucial role played by the bass and the rhythm guitar in the construction of those irresistible grooves. The playing on the opening double whammy of ‘Sure Hope You Mean It’ and ‘100 Yard Dash’ is impeccable.

Saadiq also has a knack for combining musical and sexual impulses. ‘Let’s Take A Walk’ is a good deal less innocent than its naïve title suggests. In fact, it’s about as unsubtle a seduction song as has ever been penned, set to a suitably filthy groove. In fact, many of these tracks seem to be primarily physical, with both ‘100 Yard Dash’ and ‘Keep Marchin’ emphasising movement. Perhaps the Motown track this most reminds me of is Edwin Starr’s imperious ’25 Miles’, one of my very favourites.

Then there’s the more complex trick of setting life’s more difficult lessons to remarkably breezy, upbeat accompaniment (‘Staying in Love’) – this was one of Motown’s greatest stylistic tricks and is a general hallmark of successful pop music. Saadiq also proves himself capable of a sensitive touch, with a handful of equally well crafted ballads. Mercifully, these aren’t the token slow warblers that so often hamper contemporary R&B albums, but essential constituents of a successful whole.

‘The Way I See It’ is a spirited and enjoyable album, steeped in history but with an effective contemporary sheen. Given the buzz surrounding it at the moment, it will surely raise Saadiq’s stature in the UK. Clearly this has been long overdue.

Thursday, March 19, 2009

A Contrarian Unmasked

Bonnie 'Prince' Billy - Beware (Domino, 2009)

The cover is deep black, with a remarkably striking portrait of the artist in white silhouette. The typography hints at Neil Young’s iconic ‘Tonight’s The Night’ sleeve. Then there are the song titles – ‘Death Final’, ‘You Are Lost’, ‘I Am Goodbye’. At first glance, ‘Beware’ looks like a more natural successor to the classic ‘I See A Darkness’ than anything Will Oldham has recorded in the intervening years.

This being the work of a prolific man with many guises, who enjoys confusing and confounding his admirers as much as his detractors, it predictably isn’t quite that simple. ‘Beware’ is another step on Oldham’s strange, questioning journey, and another refusal simply to repeat former glories. What is for sure, at least to these ears, is that this is his best, most confident work since the aforementioned first outing under the BPB name.

On his most recent albums, Oldham has been experimenting with the effects of working with different vocalists. In fact, it’s been surprising how well his characteristically wayward voice has blended with his female collaborators. On ‘Beware’ he has assembled something approaching a mass choir. Sometimes they provide swelling background harmonies, whilst at others they work (very effectively) in response to his calls. The result is what might be Oldham’s most expansive and extravagant album to date – a form of imposing Nashville soul that is both commanding and compelling.

If anything, ‘Beware’ is closest in sound to ‘Greatest Palace Music’, the album on which Oldham controversially covered himself in Nashville syrup. I’m not sure that ‘Beware’ is destined to follow that album’s unfair dismissal though. The songs here are simply too good to be ignored. Also, the notion that this represents some new ‘positive’ or ‘happy’ Oldham is far too schematic an interpretation. Whilst ‘Beware’ is certainly full of physical humour and even occasionally some warmth, its overall emotional landscape is a good deal more slippery and complex.

So, whilst ‘I Don’t Belong To Anyone’ examines the joys of fun-loving bachelor status (a far more enjoyable song than Morrissey’s surly ‘I’m OK By Myself’) and ‘You Don’t Love Me’ explores the virtues of non-committal lovemaking, there’s also the devastatingly poignant ‘Heart’s Arms’ and the mysterious, troubling ‘You Are Lost’. The former is as expressive and eloquent a break-up song as I’ve heard (‘I open this awful machine to nothing, where once your intimacies came pounding’) and the latter seems to recognise the need for a free spirited partner to escape the restrictions imposed by its protagonist (‘if you listen to me you are lost’).

What emerges clearly from this selection of songs is the tremendous human insight of Oldham’s writing. One of Oldham’s older songs ‘One With The Birds’, introduced the tricky concept of being ‘inhuman’ and perhaps not being as distant from animals as we might wish. ‘Beware’ seems to incorporate some of our less altruistic desires into a more intricate and complete portrait of being human. Sometimes this lies in directly confronting the more unpalatable sides of human nature, from selfishness and greed to controlling impulses. Sometimes it’s a recognition of the warmth that can be found in tiny physical details (the ‘belly laughs’ or ‘the way my stomach jiggles’). At other times, it’s even rueful or self deprecating (‘you say my kisses don’t even raise a six on a scale of one to ten’). It’s a richly nuanced depiction of human life that refuses to conform to anything as simplistic as a positive or negative viewpoint.

Elsewhere, he mischievously undercuts the tropes of the American blues tradition (‘I know everyone knows the trouble I have seen/That’s the thing about trouble you can love’) and seems preoccupied with the concept of work, particularly in relationships. At the moment, ‘My Life’s Work’ is striking me as one of his most powerful and strident songs to date.

Musically, the album is as confident and audacious a work as any in Oldham’s illustrious canon. The first interjection of the choir on ‘Beware Your Only Friend’ immediately betrays the album’s wry humour (‘I want to be your only friend’, sings Oldham, ‘does that sound scary?’ responds the choir). Throughout the album, backing vocals conspire to add depth and power. The instrumentation is also correspondingly lavish, with plenty of fiddles, flutes, cornets and even the odd saxophone solo. On ‘Heart’s Arms’, Oldham explores the dramatic potential of sudden dynamic contrasts.

Yet ‘Beware’ is also an embrace of country music’s subtleties as well as its potential for luxury. There’s the gentle shuffle of ‘I Don’t Belong To Anyone’ or the more reflective, delicate lilt of ‘Death Final’, both excellent songs. Often the rhythmic foundation comes more from hand percussion than a full drum kit, a neat trick that lends space to the music where it might otherwise have been cluttered. This works particularly well on the extraordinary, dream-like closing track ‘Afraid Ain’t Me’.

There’s also a melodic familiarity to some of the tracks here that somehow manages to be more of a strength than a weakness. Oldham has certainly done this before – with ‘One With The Birds’ having borrowed heavily from Gram Parsons’ ‘Hickory Wind’. Here, ‘Beware Your Only Friend’ reminds me slightly of ‘Octopus’ Garden’, although it’s admittedly hard to imagine Ringo Starr singing these words. More notably perhaps, ‘Without Work, You Have Nothing’ strongly resembles the old Jerome Kern standard ‘The Way You Look Tonight’. These borrowings make the songs sound rooted in history, but Oldham takes these melodies to a wildly different place.

Oldham has never made a bad album as such, but sometimes they’ve seemed either overly conceptual (‘Sings Greatest Palace Music’) or have hidden some depths within considerable subtleties (‘The Letting Go’). ‘Beware’ is an immediate and authoritative statement, but one that seems likely to have a durable quality too. Straightforwardly, for such a contrarian, these are outstanding songs, delivered with a distinctive authorial voice.


Various kinds of work have left me unable to blog for a while now, so I thought I'd post one of those occasional playlists, mainly to remind me of the mountain of music I need to write about. I had wanted to write something about Ari Hoenig's fearsome gig at Road Trip last week (a nice little venue if it continues to be used as a jazz club), but maybe the time has passed for that now.

Raphael Saadiq - The Way I See It
Candi Staton - Who's Hurting Now?
Micachu - Jewellery
Super Furry Animals - Dark Days/Light Years
Marianne Faithfull - Easy Come Easy Go
Bonnie 'Prince' Billy - Beware
Sweet Billy Pilgrim - Twice Born Men
Beirut - March of the Zapotec/Realpeople: Holland
Emmy The Great - First Love
Alela Diane - To Be Still
Yeah Yeah Yeahs - It's Blitz!
Oumou Sangare - Seya
DOOM - Born Like This (out on Monday)
Bill Callahan - Sometimes I Wish We Were An Eagle (out on Monday)
The Decemberists - The Hazards Of Love (on iTunes now, physical release on Monday)

Thursday, March 05, 2009

Solo Pornography

AC Newman – Get Guilty (Matador, 2009)
Neko Case – Middle Cyclone (Anti, 2009)

This week two solo albums arrive from members of the infectious, zany power-pop supergroup New Pornographers. Whilst Neko Case has, over several albums now, established her own signature style, informed by backwoods country, Byrdsian twang and classic pop, AC Newman’s solo career has struggled to exist as a proposition distinct from his parent band. Newman writes the majority of the songs for New Pornographers, and their best albums arguably succeed because Dan Bejar’s excursions into weird, fantastical stream-of-consciousness provide some balance to Newman’s relentless pop sensibility. A whole album of Newman confections might well be difficult to digest.

‘Get Guilty’ is a big improvement on ‘The Slow Wonder’. That album had been frontloaded with excellent songs only to veer off into more obtuse, meandering territory. Whilst not quite as consistent as the best of the New Pornographers albums, ‘Get Guilty’ maintains a more engaging standard throughout. It succeeds partly through being more ramshackle and less overblown than the last New Pornographers outing, the disappointing ‘Challengers’. There’s a big emphasis on rhythmic clatter and percussive drive, most effectively on ‘Like A Hitman, Like A Dancer’. Whilst the arrangements are frequently lush, there’s a roughness around the edges that lends the music some endearing imperfections. In addition to this, there are unusual choices of instruments, including recorders and melodicas. It feels loose and fun, rather than over-composed.

The pomp-pop of ‘Challengers’ is refined into a more agreeable proposition on two tracks - the Spector-ish opener ‘There Are Maybe Ten Or Twelve’ and ‘The Changeling’, which seems to recast Dylan’s ‘Like A Rolling Stone’ as a drunken lurch. Both are bold, chiming, confident performances. On a second play, I wonder whether a better comparison might even be the lavish, irresistible early pop singles of the Bee Gees, minus the squeaky falsettos of course.

Elswhere, as might be expected, Newman’s predilection for relentlessly summery melodies presides. The first four tracks represent Newman at his strongest – combining this tendency with a slightly ragged musical delivery and an abundance of rhythmic quirks and tricks. ‘Too Many Prophets’ and ‘The Heartbreak Rides’ are among his most direct songs, where his tendency for lyrical verbosity and awkwardness doesn’t intrude too much on the overall performance. It would be easy to view Newman’s chirpy enthusiasm as irritating – but there’s also something undeniably delightful about their impact. Even the more translucent songs that constitute the final third of the record have a steely conviction and confidence.

Neko Case’s songs on ‘Middle Cyclone’ are less openly enthusiastic and insistent than Newman’s but, I suspect, ultimately more enduring. Here, she has refined and polished her sound without losing her idiosyncratic qualities as a songwriter. The BBC website describes ‘Middle Cyclone’ as a set of simple country songs but I can’t help feeling that underestes its achievement and misunderstands Case’s strategy. 2002’s ‘Blacklisted’ was something of a pivotal point in her career, the point at which she abandoned ‘Her Boyfriends’, took songwriting control and started to develop a stranger, reverb-laden sound evocative of fairytales and sinister menace. It was the perfect context for her unusual, sometimes creepy metaphors. Whilst ‘Middle Cyclone’ certainly presents a smoother, more approachable version of this sound, Case still inhabits her own unique space and in some ways it represents an expansion of her language.

‘People Got A Lotta Nerve’, the taster freely distributed around the internet, is in some ways quite misleading. Its twelve string guitar jangle and hummable chorus suggest an immediacy and directness not always in evidence elsewhere. Some of these songs are more complex creations. Indeed, sometimes when the surface appearance of a song is disarmingly simple, closer listening reveals that there’s much more than first meets the ear.

This is particularly true of the delightful title track. Its delicate strum and hushed, restrained vocal make it sound remarkably straightforward. The music box counter melody almost (but not quite) sends it into the realm of tweeness. Close listening, however, reveals an odd structure veering between bars of 5 and 6 in an unpredictable pattern. It’s a love song of sorts, or at least about the difficulty in accepting the need for love. The lyrics are both clever and achingly bittersweet. It’s a quiet gem and one of a handful of songs here to deal more directly with the feeling of falling in love.

There’s still a characteristic helping of magical realism though and Case’s preoccupation with the animal kingdom continues apace, now further enhanced by broader nature metaphors, as the title suggests. On the opening ‘This Tornado Loves You’, Case casts herself as a force of nature, wanting to ‘carve your name across three counties’. It’s one of many striking images liberally scattered throughout this album – another favourite is the key line from ‘Prison Girls’ – ‘I love your long shadows and your gunpowder eyes’.

For every crisp and immediate song here (the driving rock of ‘I’m an Animal’ is probably the closest thing here to something New Pornographers might produce), there is something distinctly odd. ‘Fever’ is full of weird and wonderful sounds, from the clicking sound of drum rims to discomforting guitar effects. Some of these tracks were recorded in Case’s rural barn, in which she utilised eight upright pianos.

‘Polar Nettles’ and ‘Vengeance is Sleeping’ both benefit from that underlying sense of barbarous threat that makes even her softest, most skeletal songs sound unusual. The longer ‘Prison Girls’ and ‘The Pharoahs’ essentially restate Case’s talent for narrative driven songs set to lilting shuffles. Neither perhaps breaks new ground for her (the former sounds like a slower version of ‘Deep Red Bells’) but both serve to emphasise her core talents with effortless ease.

The two judiciously selected cover versions also remind us how superb an interpreter Neko Case is. Her version of Sparks’ ‘Never Turn Your Back on Mother Earth’, surgically removing any sense of playful irony or parody associated with the original band, is so good as to make me wonder whether all albums should be compelled to include a Sparks cover. Nilsson’s anguished, but also blackly humorous ‘Don’t Forget Me’ seems like a more obvious choice, but that shouldn’t take anything away from her thoughtful and composed delivery.

‘Middle Cyclone’ is a resplendent album that rewards more and more with every play. From the unashamed brutality of a line like ‘the next time you say forever, I will punch you in the face’ to the confessional tenderness of its title track, it contains a wealth of personal emotional directness not heard on its immediate predecessors. Yet it sacrifices little in its quest for broader appeal – this is still a strange, murky, half-fantastical world. My only reservation is the bonus track – a whopping 31 minutes of ambient sound from the pond at the aforementioned barn that is almost as long as the rest of the album. Sorry, but that’s just an unnecessarily large and wasteful file that almost undercuts the haunting beauty of everything that has gone before.

Tuesday, March 03, 2009

How To Reappear Completely

The Invisible - The Invisible (Accidental, 2009)

It seems only appropriate to follow the tribute to Ian Carr with a review of something involving people who have passed through his workshops. As a project, The Invisible follows on from the excellent Jade Fox, who gained a strong following and credible reputation but never delivered an official full-length album. Originally intended as a side project to Jade Fox, the ideas grew substantially until it became a more viable proposition. The Invisible’s line-up includes the towering guitarist Dave Okumu, the versatile bassist Tom Herbert (formerly of Acoustic Ladyland and still a vital presence in Polar Bear) and superb drummer Leo Taylor. All are experienced jazz musicians and whilst they perhaps bring a more adventurous harmonic sensibility to this music as a result, few would venture to call this album jazz. It is, however, one of the most exciting and engaging British pop albums I’ve heard for some time.

That being said, it’s not exactly forward thinking. Listening to it makes me wonder why, when there’s been such a tremendous hullaballoo about synth pop acts like La Roux and Little Boots, excitement surrounding The Invisible’s equally 80s-informed brew has been slower to build. Okumu’s group plunder a much wider array of potentially more fashionable 80s sources. Indeed, pretty much everything that populated Simon Reynolds’ wonderful book ‘Rip It Up and Start Again’ can be heard in ghostly voices here, from Talking Heads to Orange Juice and Scritti Politti. Another major influence, on the introspective lyrics as much as the music, is Robert Smith and The Cure.

What is exciting about The Invisible, then, is not so much their depth or originality, but the effectiveness of their synthesis, the quality of their songs and the thoughtful studio treatment of the material. If there is a more contemporary element to their sound, it lies in the treatment of Okumu’s vocals, which occasionally calls to mind TV on the Radio or Bon Iver. Yet in spite of the transparent influences, there isn’t really another comparable band at work in the UK – there’s something fresh and appealing about The Invisible’s presentation and feeling for the music.

Sometimes the sheer proficient tightness of their groove is electrifying, as on the slinky ‘Jacob and the Angel’. Throughout, Tom Herbert’s basslines are thrillingly danceable, his phrases carefully placed and punctuated to give the music momentum. How many bassists are equally as vital on both upright and fretted electric instruments? Taylor uses the complete drum kit to provide texture and colour, as well as that supreme rhythmic security which elevates The Invisible over lesser rock groups. It all comes together in exciting fashion on ‘Monster’s Waltz’, with its delicious syncopated guitar chords which then unexpectedly give way to an explosive chorus.

Whilst there’s certainly a cerebral quality of the music, it’s the immediacy and drive of a number of the tracks that really makes it click. ‘London Girl’, with a bassline that comes across as a combination of ‘Good Times’ and ‘Another One Bites The Dust’, is completely irresistible. ‘OK’ is the most infectious thing here – with its sugary harmonies and driving pace. In an alternative dimension, these sound like top ten hits.

I’m not entirely convinced by the isolation-by-numbers of some of Okumu’s lyrics. He sounds less self-conscious and more dynamic when simply enthusing about a girl as he does on ‘London Girl’. It’s possible that he’s more interested in sound than he is a songwriter per se – he’s certainly paid considerable attention to the sound of his voice and how it fits within the intricate musical whole. As a result, the clunkier aspects of his lyrics don’t intrude too much on the overall effect (much the same as with The Cure and New Order if we’re honest).

There are few bands who give so much consideration to the execution and delivery of their songs. Every element of this music is precise and well crafted. The result is an album that sounds hypnotic and sensuous – music with real presence and vitality.