Wednesday, May 27, 2009

Baroque N' Roll

Grizzly Bear - Veckatimest (Warp, 2009)

Having studiously ignored the leak of Grizzly Bear’s latest magnum opus that set the internet alight some months ago, I may now look like the slowest writer in the blogosphere. But, as the tortoise said to the hare, sometimes slow and steady wins the race. I would always prefer to voice a considered opinion over one influenced by hyperbole and feverish excitement. Rest assured that ‘Veckatimest’ is a major statement, although there are transparent reasons why it hasn’t generated quite the same critical elation here in the UK as, say, Animal Collective’s ‘Merriweather Post Pavillion’.

‘Two Weeks’ and ‘Cheerleader’, the two tracks offered as official tasters, prove in some ways to be red herrings. The former is an immediate and appealing slice of ornate chamber pop, with a lush, blissful vocal arrangement. The latter is a lithe, almost funky light rock groove in which everything (even the choir) is delivered with delicacy and restraint. They both benefit from some imaginative musicianship. ‘Two Weeks’ pits some carefully voiced drumming against an insistent keyboard stomp. Whilst these pieces are both intricately arranged, they give little hint of the hyper-composed, rigorously organised nature of the rest of ‘Veckatimest’. It’s a consistently absorbing listen, but absorbing mainly in the sense that it demands complete and uncompromised attention.

Clearly, in these times of attention deficiency and choice saturation, this is no bad thing. One major criterion for a work that might stand the test of time is that it should provide more than just an instant thrill. Grizzly Bear are not looking for the rapidly fading pleasures of a casual fling – they’re after the long term relationship. The band’s preoccupations on ‘Veckatimest’ seem to be focused as much on sound and timbre as they are on pop’s traditional domains of melody and harmony.

Another reason that this album hasn’t quite met with the universal acclaim bloggers predicted is that its sound is not altogether that fashionable or modish. Whilst it is ornate, it is never grandiose or anthemic. The employment of arranger du jour Nico Muhly hasn’t resulted in the band pressing any of the obvious buttons to lift the hairs on the back of the neck. Both Muhly and the band themselves are more sophisticated musicians. A lot of ‘Veckatimest’ is more cerebral and whilst Grizzly Bear have sounded mysterious and meandering in the past, parts of ‘Veckatimest’ seem surprisingly dark and foreboding. I’m reminded particularly of Hans Christian Andersen fairytales when listening to this.

The musical comparisons that most strike me are ones that would not so long ago have ensured a band was in for a critical mauling. I can’t help thinking of the surreal and highly composed worlds of 1970s music – King Crimson and Van De Graf Generator particularly spring to mind. This sophisticated approach to writing for a rock ensemble seems to be increasingly prominent once again. Grizzly Bear’s closest contemporary relations might well be Dirty Projectors, but there’s an immediate visceral impact to Dave Longstreth’s meticulously planned constructions that is mostly absent here. This music is more nebulous – its emotional core often concealed behind a studied veneer and customarily oblique lyrics.

Put in the effort though, and ‘Veckatimest’ is a coherent work of hazy, melancholy beauty. Its mostly gentle, bucolic arrangements recall the jazz-folk crossovers of John Martyn or Terry Callier, but its occasional explosions of aggression are unexpected, puncturing the calm atmosphere without remorse. The consistent use of close harmony singing explains the public approval from Robin Pecknold of Fleet Foxes, even if in this context they seem closer to doo wop groups than to Crosby, Stills and Nash. Grizzly Bear also seem less interested in arcane magic realist concerns. For all these reference points, they still seem like a fearlessly contemporary band.

These are not verse-chorus-verse pop songs (and how refreshing that they are not), but they are still informed by a powerful melodic sensibility. It’s perhaps for this reason that I find myself recalling some of the striking sub-sections of songs, rather than the complete songs themselves. There are repeated vocal chants at the end of ‘All We Ask’ and at the centre of ‘Cheerleader’ that substitute for recognisable choruses and are notable for their warmth and inclusiveness. After several listens, some of the album’s more wistful moments become less abstruse. The delightful jazzy flutter of the opening ‘Southern Point’ is particularly charming.

Another important element of this music is the contrast between its peculiar, mysterious gentleness and its moments of abrasive attack. Sometimes the two come together. ‘Hold Still’ is brief but beautiful, all dreamy strummed guitars, but pierced by some Marc Ribot-esque guitar lines that render it disarmingly sinister. The various impulses directing this music coalesce majestically towards the album’s conclusion, with the astonishing ‘I Live With You’, which manages to combine bombast with tenderness and empathy with anger.

‘Veckatimest’ sounds like a labour of love and care, preoccupied as it is with musical colour, texture and mood. There are few modern rock bands who could craft something this precise whilst also imbuing it with feeling. ‘Veckatimest’ is made all the more complex by its alternating senses of joy and sadness. It requires some work, but it is not impermeable – it gradually reveals its discreet strengths and considerable charms. There will not be many better records released this year.

Friday, May 22, 2009

Ice and Fire

The Field - Yesterday and Today (Kompakt/Anti, 2009)
Junior Boys - Begone Dull Care (Domino, 2009)
Fever Ray - Fever Ray (Rabid/V2, 2009)

Every so often an album comes along that so perfectly captures a particular sound that it makes it harder to see where the act can develop. I wondered if two of last year’s most acclaimed releases, the Fleet Foxes and Bon Iver albums, might fall into that category. In another musical space entirely, Axel Wilner’s first album as The Field (2007’s ‘From Here We Go Sublime’) so clearly established his brand of hazy, somnambulant techno that any further output would surely just end up repeating the same trick.

Given that techno is founded upon minimalism and repetition anyway, with ‘Yesterday and Today’, Wilner has served up a splendid lesson in how to expand and improve a patented sound. If ‘From Here..’ sounded like seeing the northern lights in the Arctic, a peculiar mix of ice and beauty, ‘Yesterday and Today’ is undoubtedly a warmer, more accessible work. The dreamy ambience is enhanced by the interjection of staccato vocal samples, nimble basslines and, on the excellent title track, by the fearsome, metronomic drumming of John Stanier from Battles. By the end, all of Wilner’s familiar atmospherics have dissipated, leaving just Stanier’s drumming and a vibrant, nimble bassline. It becomes a compelling piece of minimalist disco. It helps that it’s followed by ‘The More That I Do’, another harder, more organic track with vocal and electric guitar samples carefully integrated into Wilner’s sound.

Sometimes the drive for blessed-out euphoria is taken a little too far. I’m a little agnostic about the cover of The Korgis’ ‘Everybody’s Got To Learn Sometimes’ but that might be more because I’m not all that keen on the song itself. Wilner’s interpretation at least transports it to somewhere more mysterious and seductive. It also serves a crucial purpose in at last deviating from the four square house beat that usually defines Wilner’s sound. The stuttering, unpredictable rhythm is an important variation. Less positively, I’m just not sure there’s enough interest in the original source material to justify Wilner’s lengthy exposition.

In fact, duration seems to be a greater preoccupation for Wilner this time around. Whilst he’s made his sound warmer and more ingratiating, some of the track lengths are rather terrifying. This is definitely club music in that respect, although it also works remarkably well on headphones. Close listening reveals subtle details and gradually shifting textures. One of the album’s real highlights is ‘Leave It’, which maintains a consistent mood and dynamic for eleven and a half minutes. Wilner expertly creates tension through the use of a delicate chime sound, which is only just allowed to cut above the basic rhythm track in the mix.

Only the opening ‘I Have The Moon, You Have The Internet’ (a strong contender for worst title of the year) directly reiterates the formula Wilner patented on ‘From Here…’. The basic track for the closing ‘Sequenced’ sounds like a delicious slice of 80s synth-pop but the bizarre sounds Wilner weaves in and out of the mix come from somewhere else entirely. Overall, Wilner has succeeded in crafting something that develops and sleekly modifies his sound, making it more inviting without completely abandoning the rigorous structures that made it so identifiable in the first place.

Including the word ‘dull’ in your album title is probably inviting some carping nastiness from music critics, but Junior Boys have laid down the gauntlet with ‘Begone Dull Care’. It’s especially audacious given the often sleepy nature of their particular brand of downtempo electronica. Some of the reaction I’ve seen to this third album has been a little muted but I’m struggling to understand why. Maybe it’s because it’s their most straightforwardly melodic album to date – closer in spirit to Pet Shop Boys than to any hipster electronic act you could name. This strikes me as no bad thing and it’s made for their most consistent record to date.

The more melodic heart takes a while to push through though. Opening tracks ‘Parallel Lines’ and ‘Work’ are recognisably mechanistic and rather slippery, although the falsetto on the former gives hints of what is to come. With track three, though, the album takes its unexpected turn. ‘Bits and Pieces’ might well be the most exuberant and infectious track Jeremy Greenspan has produced so far. It’s quite some distance from their usual languid, melancholy take on electronic pop. There are some significant changes at play here. Where in the past, the group’s vocals have been characteristically unimposing and usually subsumed within their smooth, languorous sound, they now push out further into the foreground. Not only this, but there’s plenty of Prince-esque light funk flourishes too. These are later revived again on the utterly irresistible ‘Hazel’. It all sounds like a thinking man’s Calvin Harris or, perhaps more accurately, a lot like Hot Chip.

‘Dull To Pause’ may be the group’s ballad – a slower, translucent dream of a track. Similarly pretty is ‘Sneak A Picture’ which has the unfortunate effect of reminding me of Jan Hammer’s ‘Crockett’s Theme’ from Miami Vice. It even has a saxophone part, for heaven’s sake! Don’t let that put you off though, this sleek, insidious pop song is an absolute delight.

There are sounds and approaches here very much borrowed from soul, but they are harking back more to the 80s than to materialistic contemporary R&B. Think about some of the great singles from that era – Shannon’s ‘Let The Music Play’, D Train’s ‘You’re The One For Me’, Loose Ends’ ‘Hangin’ On A String’, The Pointer Sisters’ ‘Automatic’...I could go on for a long time as an unashamed enthusiast for this era of pop music. It’s unfashionable now, but well worth reviving. Junior Boys seem to be putting their own languid spin on it here. The tracks are meandering and protracted, but ultimately also absorbing.

There’s been a lot of love for Fever Ray, the solo project from Karin Dreijer Andersson from The Knife, not without justification. I’ve been living with this record for a while now and its eerie, unsettling precision coupled with some striking vulnerability has made it one of my favourite albums of the year so far.

Numerous comparions have been made with Kate Bush circa The Dreaming and it’s certainly possible to hear all those glacial references to 70s and 80s synthpop, from Kraftwerk through to The Cure. ‘When I Grow Up’ resembles Bjork’s domestic reveries on ‘Homogenic’. Yet there’s something about Andersson that is far less theatrical than Kate Bush or Bjork. Perhaps it lies in her apparent desire to disguise herself. Her voice is peculiarly treated on many of these tracks, sometimes with the effect of making her sound masculine (particularly on ‘If I Had A Heart’ and ‘Dry and Dusty’. When left alone, her voice is something of an imposing monotone bellow and it’s odd to hear it used to voice words about tending to plants. The treatment sometimes allows her voice to become another part of her foreboding atmosphere and when the effects are reduced, she suddenly rises above it and imposes a dominating personality. The contrasts are striking, all the better for being achieved with economy rather than excess.

The music is close to the output of Andersson’s parent group in its sleek minimalism and unsettling impact. There’s much less relentlessness though – house and techno beats are abandoned in favour of a statelier pace. The result is austere but also intimate and involving. It’s like being seduced by someone gently only to then discover that they are a dominatrix. I suspect my personal favourite moments are when Andersson’s true voice cuts through – the melancholy ‘Keep The Streets Empty For Me’ and the strident ‘When I Grow Up’.

The music is often deceptively simple – close listening reveals that the rhythms are interesting without resorting to the conventions of stutters and skips that have now become rather tired. Chords linger for as long as they need to, whilst melodies are kept within a tightly limited range. Within these strictures, though, the music is powerful and imaginative. For all its obvious artifice, ‘Fever Ray’ is a notably nuanced, uncluttered triumph.

Thursday, May 21, 2009

An Alternative History

Iron and Wine - Around The Well (Sub Pop Compilation, 2009)

I've been quite vocal in my admiration for the songwriting of Sam Beam many times on this blog. It's testament to his talent and to my argument for him to be seen as a major artist, that this rarities collection makes for such absorbing listening. Whilst it's easy to accept 'Around The Well' as it has been presented - an 'odds and sods' compilation of B-sides, EP tracks, soundtrack contributions and covers - it actually offers a good deal more when digested as a whole. Running to two discs in length and sequenced chronologically, it provides us with an alternative history of Iron and Wine, from Beam's earliest scratchy home recordings to his creative apogee thus far in 'The Trapeze Swinger'.

The first CD is soft and delicate. Beam is the most unshowy of performers - his guitar playing light and airy, offering only the barest of accompaniment, his voice at its most whispered and understated. Listening to these songs in one sitting is a little more challenging than digesting his later, more realised material. Many of these songs feel like sketches for more ambitious writing to come. Yet the seeds of Beam's gentle command are already apparent. His melodies are often simple and repetitive (in that lingering, quietly reflective way), whilst his music is a Southern Gothic refashioning of the blues. His great success is creating a music that is steeped in the American folk tradition, whilst also developing his own unique voice.

Much of that individuality comes from his language. Whilst songwriters are frequently labeled as poets, few are compared with the great American novelists. Sam Beam has a good deal more in common with William Faulkner or Cormac McCarthy than he does with Bob Dylan. There's a combination of the sacred and the earthy that characterises the best writers ('I'll put my trust in the saviour/The fuming forces of nature') and a deep understanding that emotion can often be best expressed not through melodrama, but through direct storytelling.

His descriptions are vivid and allusive ('The money came and she died in her rocking chair/A letter locked in the pattern of her knuckles/Like a hymn to the house she was making'). As a result, his songs are imbued with a deep melancholy, sometimes even a resonant sadness, that is profoundly moving. His songs are also rich in mystery, filled with uncertain characters and insecure voices. Interpreting them is rarely a straightforward task and sometimes just basking in the flow of the words is enough ('how the rain sounds as loud as a lover's words'). On the plaintive 'Call Your Boys', which hints most clearly at the treasures to come, he seems to be dealing with the deeply personal subjects of family, ancestry and legacy, topics rarely addressed in modern songs.

His choice of covers is also assured. Even when delivering songs that do not rely on his flighty vocabulary, his style is consistent and engaging. Stereolab's 'Peng! 33' is rendered reflective rather than playful. His take on The Flaming Lips' 'Waitin' For A Superman' is so calm and unexpressive as to initially seem as if he has stripped the song of Wayne Coyne's sincerity. In fact, he has transformed it into a quiet, mournful hymn. Best of all though is his majestic version of 'Such Great Heights'. In the hands of the Postal Service, this was a chirpy, infectious piece of electronica. Beam has made it a touching folk ballad. Simply by slowing it down slightly and swinging the vocal phrasing, he radically alters the mood of the song.

The second CD begins with cleaner production values on the lovely 'Communion Cups and Someone's Coat'. By this stage, Beam's ambition to expand his reach is already apace. The dusty, charming 'Belated Promise Ring' introduces brushed drums, honky tonk piano and upright bass but this is Beam at his most traditional. 'God Made The Automobile' is deceptively lightweight (a nod to Springsteen perhaps in its cars and girls subject matter) but it's looped backing vocals seem like some sort of precursor to 'The Trapeze Swinger'. It also has one of Beam's most touching melodies.

The songs get progressively stranger and more intriguing from this point onwards. The catalyst for Beam's later hybrid sound appears to have been his massively fruitful collaboration with Calexico. It's a shame that there don't seem to have been any outtakes from 'In The Reins' held back for this set. By the time we reach 'Carried Home', his dark gothic blues is fully realised. 'Kingdom of the Animals' is more peculiar still, with the hints of dub and Afro-Caribbean rhythms that made 'The Shepherd's Dog' his most idiosyncratic and exciting album. There are some fantastic lines in this one two - its two lovers 'sweating wild and weird in our sunday clothes' - in their eyes 'an angel clear and coronal/Clothed in all that's prodigal and strange'.

He saves the very best for last here though. I've written a great deal about 'The Trapeze Swinger' in an earlier post, but it remains a song that demands close attention with every listen. The structure is simple - four chords and a very simple melody repeated over and over again for nine and a half minutes. Yet the song has a remarkable emotional force - its words so strange and involving, its sense of memory and loss so clear and compelling. The musical key to its success is the subtle variations in texture that go on beneath the vocals - how one instrument will become prominent and then settle into the background again. Yet when Beam performs it live entirely alone, it seems to work just as well. It's far too good a song to be left buried on the soundtrack of an inferior American movie - a masterpiece in fact - and it's great that it has a new and wonderful home here.

Beam's songs often need time to cast their spell. They are not easily digestible and there is a clear need to pay close attention to his words and the subtle shifts in his music. He hasn't quite made a classic album yet, but there is plenty of evidence here to suggest it is not too far away. For the time being, this collection provides plenty of insight, wisdom and imagination.

Wednesday, May 20, 2009

Rewarding Loyalty

The Broken Family Band - Please and Thank You (Cooking Vinyl, 2009)

Whilst I derived great enjoyment from the softening of Steven Adams’ lacerating heart on ‘Hello Love’, I suspect a large part of the Broken Family Band’s loyal following will be delighted to hear him return to caustic nastiness on ‘Please and Thank You’, their first release for Cooking Vinyl. Adams claims the record is ostensibly about ‘being nice to people’. In fact, it’s rather more about his difficulty and reluctance in doing so. What a delicious platter of unforgiving misanthropy this is, balanced only by a generous side dish of loveless lust. This torrid stuff is a far cry from the joyous celebration of intercourse on ‘Leaps’.

Perhaps appropriately, it’s all accompanied by the band’s most aggressive and least subtle music to date, with proceedings dominated by beefy drums and chugging guitars. It’s a far cry from the country twang of their earliest recordings but it will be more familiar to listeners who first tuned in with the punky blast of ‘Balls’. The group are clearly more confident as musicians now, with Mickey Roman’s drumming becoming ever more prominent (he seems to have thrown away the brushes in the same way that R.E.M.’s Peter Buck once chucked his mandolin), allowing the band to develop a tautness and precision that has sometimes been absent in their more endearingly wayward moments.

Whether the actual musical ideas to which this musicianship is applied are expanding at the same rate is more debatable. Chords are often milked for all they are worth here, and some of the melodies and guitar lines seem over-familiar now. ‘Borrowed Time’ seems like a slightly sped-up rehash of ‘Don’t Change Your Mind’, whilst ‘The Girls In This Town’ is basically a heavier rewrite of ‘Michelle’. Elsewhere, they are beginning to betray the influence of some of their contemporaries. ‘Mimi’ (the only point at which the drums are brushed) reminds me a little of the harmonic and melodic insistence of AC Newman.

I’m not sure any of this diminishes the quality of the album that much though, given how much there is to enjoy here. In some ways the group’s determination and consistency is admirable – they’ve developed a prolific work rate that puts some of the more high profile ‘indie’ acts to shame. Also, my reviews of some Broken Family Band albums, particularly ‘Welcome Home, Loser’ have focused on their marginal failure to capture the vigour and energy of their live shows on disc. No such problem here – the production succeeds in being crisp and pristine without muting the band’s punchy dynamic.

As a result, there’s a real urgency and immediacy to this set. ‘Don’t Bury Us’ and ‘Stay Friendly’ provide a particularly hard-hitting double whammy in the middle of the album. The opening ‘Please Yourself’ might be the most furious and unrelenting punch they’ve yet delivered. There are some moments which hint that the group have always harboured a classic rock fetish (‘Son of the Man’, that pesky cowbell on ‘The Girls In This Town’), but even this can’t undermine the sense of a band becoming more muscular whilst also enjoying themselves tremendously.

Adams really is vicious for most of this album. His cruelty reaches a savage apogee on ‘St. Albans’, which manages to deride the Hertfordshire town and its central character with merciless bile (‘no-one wants to f*ck you in this town’). Sometimes it’s all rather well directed, such as on the opening ‘Please Yourself’, which rightfully attacks self-obsessed bores (‘You walk over here in a straight line/With cocaine in your moo-starsh and waste my time!’). ‘Borrowed Time’ crudely defies the ageing process (‘in the old people’s home, I will have you on the stairlift’), whilst the brilliant ‘Cinema Vs. House’ turns the decision over where to go on a date into an agonising deal-breaker (‘we could go to the cinema, but that’s two hours without speaking!’).

Adams and his bandmates continue to build their following through consistency, quality and good old fashioned word of mouth. Ten years ago, few could have predicted that Cambridge indie heroes Hoffman would morph into a band that would make five full albums and two mini-albums. It’s a longer career than many better supported and more hyped bands have managed. Thank you indeed.

Tuesday, May 19, 2009

Jesus of Uncool

Nick Lowe and Ron Sexsmith - London Royal Albert Hall, 18th May 2009

Can there be a less fashionable musician currently at work than Nick Lowe? Clad in well pressed black trousers and a shirt white enough to match his hair, he hardly looks like he could be the same man who was once signed to Stiff records and who produced ‘New Rose’ for The Damned. In calling his most recent album ‘At My Age’, it’s clear that Lowe himself relishes the irony. Fashionable or not, this show offered an illuminating education in how to mature as a singer-songwriter.

Ron Sexsmith, who provided a brief but straightforwardly enjoyable opening set, might be younger, but his songs share a directness and clarity with those of Nick Lowe. The two performers complemented each other neatly and it was a shame that Sexsmith wasn’t allowed a little longer than his cursory 20 minutes. He managed to squeeze in a handful of songs from across his career, including two songs perhaps better associated with Leslie Feist (‘Brandy Alexander’ and ‘Secret Heart’). Sexsmith is not the most elaborate or diverse of writers, favouring conventional chord sequences, lyrical platitudes and hummable melodies. His songs have a calm, reflective charm though and his soft, understated voice is appealing.

It’s easy to see why Lowe’s current career retrospective is called ‘Quiet Please’. I had forgotten to bring my earplugs to the concert but I was hardly troubled by the band’s delicate dynamic. If anything, they soothed rather than exacerbated my persistent tinnitus. Such restraint enabled the band to master the Royal Albert Hall’s infamously difficult acoustic – all the parts were clearly audible, with Lowe’s voice achieving clarity in spite of his unfussy, near-spoken delivery, with its emphasis more on phrasing than power.

The set traverses Lowe’s changeable career, but favours his most recent albums, on which he has re-established himself as a wistful, occasionally whimsical writer of new country-soul standards – a hybrid of George Jones, Tony Joe White and Dan Penn. There’s not much trace of his earlier incarnations as a writer of pub-rock or affectionate parodies (the Bowie-inspired angular funk of ‘I Love The Sound of Breaking Glass’ would have sounded very odd in the middle of this set). Lowe has never been a true original or a radical, but he seems to have reached his full potential late into his career, discovering a mould into which he fits with remarkable ease.

He simply writes great songs and whether delivering them solo or accompanied by the stately and unfussy playing of his band, everything sounds effortless and unhurried. Lowe imbues his songs with subtlety and dignity. Even the casual misogyny in ‘I Trained Her To Love Me’ sounds deceptively soft (he promises that the show will be ‘entertainment for all the family’ from that point on). His songs show a rare insight and awareness into everyday home life so often absent in contemporary pop. ‘Lately I’ve Let Things Slide’ will be, for many, an all-too recognisable account of how depression sets in almost unnoticed. ‘Let’s Stay In and Make Love’ is a rather delightful tribute to the virtues of isolated intimacy over the social whirl.

The audience evidently appreciates the airing of ‘Cruel To Be Kind’, although even this is played with a lightness of touch rather than a vigorous stomp. ‘What’s So Funny ‘Bout Peace, Love and Understanding’ closes the main set as a soulful ballad – a far cry from Costello’s more urgent version. Yet even with their delicacy and taste, the group can still invite toe-tapping, particularly in their rockabilly shuffles, or in the insistent backbeat of ‘When I Write the Book’.

I could have done with a bit less of special guest saxophonist Curtis Stigers, whose smooth interjections almost took some of the material into soft porn soundtrack territory. Perhaps keyboardist Geraint Watkins could have been allowed a little more space too – his occasional solos were expressive, confident flourishes. The encore begins with Lowe singing a solo take on ‘The Beast In Me’ but develops into a showpiece for the talents of his ensemble. It was a pleasant surprise to hear Watkins sound like Van Morrison when Lowe allowed him to sing one of his own songs and Ron Sexsmith joined in for a rambling take on an old Louvin Brothers song.

Lowe is an amiable on-stage presence, a storyteller and wry humourist as much as a singer. His explanation for the length of time between full UK tours (about 20 years apparently) raised a few smiles – he had been forbidden from playing in the provinces ‘due to lack of interest’. It’s a shame too that the promoters seemed to have over-stretched themselves a bit by going for the Albert Hall as London venue – the entire top circle was empty and there were many spare seats in the stalls too. Given how charming and engaging a performer Lowe clearly is, let’s hope his upcoming return to the London stage with Ry Cooder (a mouth-watering collaborative prospect) is better attended.

Monday, May 18, 2009

The Virtue of Persistence

Branford Marsalis Quartet - Metamorphosen (Marsalis Music, 2009)

Perhaps the title is laced with irony. Whilst it implies radical change, ‘Metamorphosen’ actually captures Branford Marsalis’ quartet at a time of impressive persistence and resilience. The group has maintained its current line-up for a decade – a long time for a single group in the constantly shifting jazz world. With Marsalis himself contributing just one composition (the outstanding ‘Jabberwocky’), it’s clear that this is very much an ensemble effort. It emphases that great dictum, always most truthful in the best jazz, that the individual and the collective need not (and should not) be mutually exclusive.

Those familiar with the group’s albums will rightly view ‘Metamorphosen’ as a logical progression rather than a bold new dawn. It presents us with a further exposition of the group’s core values, which are open-minded enough to incorporate playfulness, rhythmic vitality and deep longing, the latter particularly evident in pianist Joey Calderazzo’s emotional writing. ‘The Blossom of Parting’ pulls off the rare trick of being at once both free and refined. Similarly, when the group really swing, they do so both righteously and with taste on ‘Jabberwocky’.

The group’s reworking of Monk’s ‘Rhythm-A-Ning’, whilst predictably respectful of the jazz tradition, also comes with an audacity that one can’t help feeling its composer would have appreciated. It’s here that drummer Jeff ‘Tain’ Watts is at his most ferocious and monstrous, with hard-hitting backbeats to offset his more fluid statements elsewhere in the set.

The presence of Tain always reminds me of Julian Joseph’s mobile ringtone, although that’s probably a story for another occasion. There’s plenty of support here for Julian’s Tain evangelism of course. The masterful handling of switches between half time and double time feels, and the consummate understanding of subdivision makes for a swing feel that is accurate but also enervating and driving. The album is sequenced so that his two compositions act as bookends. This works well, with the opening ‘Return of the Jitney Man’ showcasing the group’s quirky, inventive side whilst ‘Samo’ offers a more dogged and concentrated exposition, beginning with intimate and reflective playing, eventually building to something uniquely intense.

So, whilst the various individual composers and their solo contributions offer a dazzling variety of styles and perspectives, the most engaging aspect of ‘Metamorphosen’ is how they fuse into a coherent and effortless whole. Often, the Marsalis’ attack is balanced by the lyricism of Joey Caldarazzo, with Jeff ‘Tain’ Watts providing conversational responses rather than interventions on the drums. Whether at its simplest or most technically audacious and exhausting, the playing always sounds meaningful and honest. With Joshua Redman’s ‘Compass’ also one of my personal highlights of the year so far, the American saxophonists seem to be in a league of their own in 2009.

Wednesday, May 13, 2009

Free Folk

Alasdair Roberts - Spoils (Drag City, 2009)

Whilst I’ve liked everything Alasdair Roberts has recorded, both as a solo artist and as Appendix Out, I had a nagging sense that his last album (‘The Amber Gatherers’) was pleasant enough, but added little to his lexicon. Pleasingly, ‘Spoils’ is a rather different beast, filled with tumultuous and inventive language, compelling narratives and free spirited musicianship. It is at once his most intricately arranged and most liberated recording and it’s more than enough to remind me that he is one of the true originals of UK folk music, twisting and turning his traditional inspirations into something radical and involving. His songs demand time and complete attention from the listener – but they certainly repay the effort invested.

With Roberts, we have a troubadour in the original sense – a singer travelling and delivering stories. Roberts avoids all the trappings of the contemporary songwriter. There are no in-depth confessionals or anthems of narcissism. Instead, he inhabits his own world of ‘simulacra’, ‘downtrodden spirits’ and much more besides. On ‘So Bored Was I (Dark Triad)’ he describes himself as ‘bilious and saturnine’. How often are those words used in modern pop? Keeping track of his vocabulary is a challenging task in itself.

It would be easy to criticise Roberts on the basis that little of this can have any real bearing on his contemporary real-life experience. Yet this would miss the point. By delving deep into the Scottish folk tradition and re-imagining it, he has brought his own heritage to dazzling, dizzying life. ‘Spoils’ may well be his best integration of tradition and composition to date and as such it feels like a living, breathing creation rather than a folkloric artefact.

It’s a record that states its intent boldly from the outset. ‘The Flyting of Grief and Joy (Eternal Return)’ is lengthy at over seven minutes but it barely feels long enough to contain all of Roberts’ ideas. Its delicate introduction puts Roberts’ faltering, vulnerable vocal firmly in the foreground, and it remains a beguiling instrument. Any sense of familiarity here is probably a result of the continued presence of Roberts’ Appendix Out colleagues Tom Crossley and Gareth Eggie. Yet the song gradually sprawls into something more unusual, with guitar lines providing counter-melodies and gently rattling percussion from the ingenious Alex Nielsen, before eventually coming full circle with a reiteration of the opening theme.

There’s more of an emphasis on rhythm here than on previous Roberts albums, perhaps as a direct result of Nielsen’s presence. The loose rattle and roll of ‘You Muses Assist’ feels particularly invigorating. The languid opening to ‘Ned Ludd’s Rant’ proves deceptive, the mournful feel giving way to a gentle gallop. Even when the pace is slower and controlled, Nielsen gets a fascinating range of sound from his instruments, contributing as much to the timbre and texture of the songs as to the rhythm.
The result is a sound with recognisable echoes – the guitar language of Richard Thompson particularly – but which also sounds refreshingly peculiar and hypnotic. ‘Hazel Forks’ might be the most conventional thing here, but even this song hardly confines to the structural restrictions of modern pop songcraft. It has the misfortune to share a key lyric with Billy Joel’s ‘Goodnight Saigon’ (we’ll all go down together’) but it’s far from overblown. Its unexpected sidesteps and detours make it more intriguing than confounding.

The album concludes with ‘Under No Enchantment (But My Own)’, one of the prettiest songs Roberts has written, its many melodies combining to produce something thoroughly delightful. It’s a charming end to a restlessly strange, brilliantly performed set of songs. Whilst Roberts has clearly immersed himself in the history of the folk ballad to a degree that the youthful West London folk scene could hardly imagine, he’s also blessed with a unique and enchanting voice and sound that is entirely his own.

Friday, May 08, 2009

Sweet Duality

Bat For Lashes - Two Suns (Echo, 2009)

At what point did Natasha Khan become a proper pop singer? Was it when ‘Fur and Gold’ received its deserved Mercury nomination? It certainly wasn’t her unfortunate support slot for Radiohead at Victoria Park, where she bravely (perhaps foolishly) debuted a wealth of new material and had to forfeit any audience support following a power failure. Perhaps unfairly, most people around me that day left with an impression of her as something of a third rate Bjork copyist. Yet now everyone seems rather infatuated with ‘Daniel’, this album’s sensual and evocative lead single.

Inevitably, I’m rather taken with it too. Its dreamy combination of atmospheric pads, pizzicato strings and infectious melody works well enough for me. Moreover, how could I resist a song which starts with the words ‘Daniel, when I first saw you, I knew you had a flame in your heart’. Why, thank you, Natasha! Oh, it’s about Daniel from Karate Kid? I see….Well, they say songs are what you make of them and it’s certainly a better song to take my name than Elton John’s insipid ballad.

This is not to give the impression that Khan’s lyrics are unproblematic though. One of the biggest obstacles to overcome with ‘Two Suns’, as with ‘Fur and Gold’ is that these mystical, fairytale narratives are mostly bobbins. Khan has taken a not-very-original dualities theme and reiterated it. Rather a lot. There are ‘two suns shining’, the dream of love ‘is a two hearted dream’, there’s ‘moon and moon’, later there are ‘two planets’. Well, you get the idea by now.

Those who can tolerate this along with all the magic realism will find much to enjoy here. Khan cleverly maintains a balance between warm synth pads that recall Hounds of Love-era Kate Bush with torch piano ballads that recall, well, early Kate Bush. This is probably already enough information to suggest that Khan has yet to establish herself as a true original (although the Bush comparison makes more sense now than the Bjork one here – she’s got little of Bjork’s interest in asymmetrical time or contemporary composition). Within her limitations, though, she manages to produce refreshingly exotic, involving music. The opening ‘Glass’ is particularly exciting, ushered in with bold drumming and a powerful vocal mixed well into the foreground.

Some tracks are a little too close to facsimiles of tracks from ‘Fur and Gold’. ‘Sleep Alone’ is more than a little like ‘Trophy’ with added electronica. Khan is definitely best here when she’s at her least predictable and when making the most of vocal arrangements. The combination of gospel chorus and folk strum on ‘Peace of Mind’ is enchanting, whilst the percussive, impressively textured ‘Pearl’s Dream’ is an undoubted highlight, a kind of yang to the yin to ‘Daniel’ (I can do the whole dualities thing too!). ‘Good Love’ benefits from an unexpected soulful streak, with its spoken section hinting back perhaps even to doo-wop.

There’s a warmth throughout ‘Two Suns’ that suggests Khan has been planning a bid for greater accessibility. It’s a conspicuous studio construction, with a pristine, crystalline sound. Scott Walker appears at the end to duet on 'The Big Sleep' and it's hard to see Khan producing anything as confrontational or demanding as 'Tilt' or 'The Drift', although she may yet make her 'Scott 4'. This is still artful pop music. At times it reminds me of those great early Eurythmics records (‘Sweet Dreams’ and ‘Touch’), before their production became too bland. The intoxicating sound is enough to make me forgive Khan her lyrical indulgences.

Big Noise

Big Air – Big Air (Babel, 2009)

I’m baffled and intrigued by this album but, ultimately, I’m also mesmerised by it. The ensemble itself is unconventional enough, with Oren Marshall’s tuba parping substituting for bass and Myra Melford’s mischievous piano hardly keeping to regular harmonic strictures. Then there’s the audacious music, with its generous helping of electronics and effects, and some sly juxtaposing of some traditional influences with highly contemporary approaches to arrangement.

The result risks being cringe-inducing and pretentious and at times there is a nagging sense that this might just be a set of musicians’ jokes. For the most part, though, the playing is playful rather than silly, and the themes are satisfyingly memorable. This kind of adroit and humorous handling of ambitious and difficult music could perhaps be expected from a transatlantic collaboration between London-based trumpeter and saxophonist Chris Batchelor and Steve Buckley with New York’s devilishly confounding Melford. Batchelor and Buckley played as part of memorable Django Bates line-ups, and his influence is never far away in their cheeky compositions.

Drummer Jim Black pins down a righteous groove that roots this music securely but also gives it a driving edge. His playing is relentlessly creative, but he never imposes too greatly. There’s always a sense of space, even when the music is at its most apparently disordered. Buckley’s opener ‘The Wizard’ writhes with a slinky, seductive feel. ‘Airlock’ benefits from a similarly coiled rhythmic impetus.

Melford will always be more Cecil Taylor than Herbie Hancock and her playing may be too interventionist and distracting for some tastes. I’m a fan of her own work, and her delightful harmonium playing on Batchelor’s ‘The Road, The Sky, The Moon’ demonstrates that she is more than capable of playing with sensitivity and delicacy where necessary.

The band make thoughtful use of electronics too. Perhaps the best piece here is ‘Song For The Garlic Seller’ which gradually emerges from some manipulations of tuba and trumpet. The result is a fiery outburst building from a deceptively mysterious introduction. This deployment of tricks and masks is a big component of this group’s innate sense of fun.

The great joy of this fine album is hearing the spirit of spontaneous abstraction merge with a love of the blues and the New Orleans tradition. It’s a provocative mix that will infuriate some as much as it will inspire others. I’m all in favour.

Wednesday, May 06, 2009

The Hazards Of Prog

The Decemberists – The Hazards of Love (Rough Trade, 2009)

I know I’m not exactly hot off the press on this one, but I’ve been pondering exactly what to say about this perhaps intentionally ridiculous record. I’ve been a longstanding evangelist for The Decemberists’ anglophile folk-rock and I enjoy Colin Meloy’s literate, narrative take on songwriting. Their last record, ‘The Crane Wife’ was majestic – an ambitious juxtaposition of interconnected song suite and more digestible pop nuggets. Perhaps inevitably, ‘The Hazards of Love’ takes the concept suite format and runs with it, producing something that we might fairly term a ‘rock opera’. One of my major reservations about this record is that the seamless longform folktale seems like too obvious a step for the group, a potential pitfall that they might have more fruitfully avoided. The other niggle, this one perhaps fairer and more significant, is that the group have already done this a good deal better on their excellent musical setting of ‘The Tain’.

Over a longer distance, ‘The Hazards of Love’ doesn’t just tiptoe into excess, it takes a running jump at it. There are thematic connections explored in both lyrics and music – so melodies and sequences already familiar reappear at later junctures. There are guest vocalists (from Lavender Diamond and My Brightest Diamond – does Meloy have a thing for diamonds?) to enable all the characters to be voiced. There are unexpected interjections of violent prog-metal. A small chunk of this record sounds suspiciously like Queen circa ‘A Night At The Opera’, not by any means the most fashionable of influences. Most worryingly of all, there’s a sodding childrens’ choir. Some of it actually works terrifically and many of the individual tracks are really rather good. The complete whole, without so much as a pause for breath, is difficult to digest though and some sections of it are deeply irritating.

In the first instance, it requires a generous spoonful of tolerance to enjoy this rather whimsical nightmare fairytale about Margaret, a woman impregnated by a shape-shifting fawn. Naturally, a rake and a Queen also get involved. Luckily, Meloy’s typically verbose and colourful lyrics help the whole project to be, on balance, more entertaining than alienating. Still, it takes a lot of work on behalf of the listener to digest the music at the same time as following the rather waifer-thin plot. The presence of the guest vocalists is actually a real blessing, as it helps to create contrast amidst the mounting tension and otherwise relentless extravagance.

In some ways, ‘The Hazards of Love’ seems to have something of a split personality. With the influence of Queen, Black Sabbath and Led Zeppelin never far away, much of it (‘Won’t Want For Love’, ‘Repaid’, the occasional interruptions in ‘The Abduction of Margaret’, ‘The Queen’s Rebuke’) is sludgy, old-fashioned hair rock. By way of contrast, some of the more immediate moments are very much of the moment and somewhat conventional. ‘The Wanting Comes In The Waves’ has a section that rather too closely resembles Arcade Fire. The punishing chug of ‘The Rake’s Song’ could come from any contemporary indie band, although it’s rendered interesting by the palpable savagery in Meloy’s snarly vocal, in character as ‘The Rake’. This is all before we even mention the occasionally tendency towards baroque chamber pop. The oom-pah waltz recasting of the title theme delivered by child’s choir is far too much for me and has so far made me lurch for the skip button every time.

Whilst there’s something rather refreshing in both the retro-rock and harpsichord excursions, they risk the trappings of irony and detachment and, as a result, don’t really move me. It’s very theatrical but not always all that dramatic. The group really prove their mettle on two outstanding songs here which also happen to be the most direct. ‘Annan Water’ alternates between a rolling and tumbling folk strum and a disarmingly beautiful chorus stripped back to just vocals and Hammond organ. The closing final piece in the ‘Hazards of Love’ jigsaw could almost be described as a soft rock ballad – but it’s performed tastefully and is sweetened by one of Colin Meloy’s most delicate and appealing melodies.

With all its transparent indulgences, ‘The Hazards of Love’ sometimes seems to be trying hard to induce a reaction in its listeners. The Decemberists are too good a band for that though and, try as I might, I can’t quite dislike this preposterous record. Meloy’s love for the English folk rock tradition is clear and not even the liberal peppering of harder edged heavy rock can disguise this. After all, it’s not as if we would ever come to a Decemberists album expecting something contemporary and fashionable.