Hypnotic Brass Ensemble – Hypnotic Brass Ensemble (Honest Jon’s, 2009)
I’m not sure there’s much mileage in this conceit beyond one album, but what a tremendously enjoyable album this is. Juxtaposing the full force and authority of a New Orleans-style brass ensemble with some righteous hip-hop inspired grooves (courtesy of outstanding drummers Malcolm Catto and Sola Akingbola) results in music with unstoppable urgency and insistence. There wouldn’t be quite such an energy rush were the arrangements not so convincing and the playing so jubilant. The likes of ‘Rabbit Hop’ and ‘Alyo’ are celebratory blasts, brimming with enthusiasm.
Levon Helm – Electric Dirt (Vangard/EMI, 2009)
I foolishly missed Levon Helm’s excellent comeback album ‘Dirt Farmer’ when it was first released a couple of years ago but have since immersed myself in its brilliant journey through the American folk tradition. Its immediate follow-up is better still, as its title suggests offering up more of the same with extra amplification. Former Bob Dylan guitarist Larry Campbell again produces and, although there’s only one original Helm song here, it must be noted that this is a far more inspired journey through blues, country and soul than Dylan’s ‘Together Through Life’. Helm’s voice still has considerable power, particularly remarkable given his recent battle with throat cancer. He also plays drums on every track, his dusty shuffle grooves still impeccable. The whole experience is elevated by Steve Bernstein’s wonderful horn arrangements, which bring a modified version of New Orleans to the proceedings. The vocal arrangements are similarly impressive, adding sophistication to an already effortless band delivery (Larry Campbell’s ‘When I Go Away’ is probably the best example of this). This is gutsy, soulful music with spirit and feeling. In its mapping of the connections between Appalachian folk, country, soul, gospel, blues and early New Orleans jazz, it’s one of the best records of the year so far, and arguably the best trip through American folk music since Steve Earle’s ‘The Mountain’.
Jarvis Cocker – Further Complications (Rough Trade, 2009)
I don’t write this blog to waste time by being a carping critic. Generally, I prefer to enthuse about music I like rather than rant about what I dislike. But here is one of those examples of a record I want to like a great deal more than I actually do. Has Jarvis Cocker's solo career appears like a journey away from pop stardom towards some sort of outsider status.
The trouble with this is, whilst Jarvis was a tremendous pop star, he doesn’t make for such a good alternative icon. Some people have lauded this album for the fruitful results of Steve Albini’s production, but I don’t hear this. It’s hard to be an unreserved Albini enthusiast – his laissez-faire approach works well when there’s a great band playing original and captivating material. Unfortunately, Jarvis’ current backing group are lumbering at best and the songs here are mostly derivative or half-baked. The lack of garnish in the production further exposes their limitations.
Jarvis himself mostly sounds completely adrift, with very little to say. The most pervasive subject appears to be sex – or at least meaningless carnal desire. Perhaps appropriately, Jarvis has little profound or novel to say on the subject. There are a handful of endearing bad puns (‘I met her in the museum of Palaeontology but I make no bones about it’) but the central idea of the album’s best track (‘I never said I was deep but I am profoundly shallow’) sadly seems to encapsulate Jarvis’ lack of inspiration.
What happened to Jarvis’ witty and incisive social observation? The rather patronising character study of ‘Angela’ can’t really qualify for this. With the brilliant ‘C*nts Are Still Running The World’, it seemed that Jarvis’ solo career got off to a flying start, but the subsequent solo albums have presented him as an artist in apparent terminal decline. It’s all too tempting to describe ‘Further Complications’ as an artistic mid-life crisis. I really hope he can reverse the trend.
Cortney Tidwell – Boys (City Slang, 2009)
Sometimes artists sound less distinctive with each subsequent release. On her debut self-titled mini album and first full length, Cortney Tidwell emerged as an individual vocalist with a good ear for sound, both otherworldly and bewitching. On the much delayed ‘Boys’, she frequently starts to resemble other artists. During ‘Watusii’, I can’t help thinking of Laura Veirs, ’17 Horses’ could slot very easily on to PJ Harvey’s ‘Stories From The City, Stories From The Sea’, whilst the intimate ‘Son and Moon’ so closely resembles Bjork circa Vespertine that it could be accused of imitation. Elsewhere, there’s an indie brightness that makes for a more conventional sound. I’m not sure this should detract too much from the quality of this record though – the material is still strong, with considered and effective production. The dusty opener ‘Solid State’ and the duet with Jim James on ‘Being Crosby’ are deceptively simple acoustic gems, whilst propulsive pounders like ‘So We Sing’ and ‘Watusii’ vary the tempo and mood. Another obvious reference now seems to be Hope Sandoval and Mazzy Star, but there’s just that bit of additional weirdness – the peculiar, fuzzy, haunting atmospheres of ‘Palace’ or ‘Oslo’ for example – which help Tidwell remain in her own space. The tracks with the most space, and where her voice is at its most tender and delicate – ‘Bad News’ and ‘Oh, China’ particularly - are beguiling.
Wilco – Wilco (The Album) (Nonesuch, 2009)
Admiration for Wilco has perhaps lead to this album being slightly indulged by critics. There’s definitely a sense now that Jeff Tweedy has settled into a dependable groove, the results being that this flippantly titled album is, like ‘Sky Blue Sky’ before it, a bit of a mixed bag. There are some great songs here and the presence of Nels Cline on guitar continues to temper the occasional lapses into hazy blandness. For the most part though, Jeff Tweedy is resolutely refusing to break new ground. Having said that, I’m someone who admires ‘Summerteeth’ nearly as much as ‘A Ghost Is Born’, and there’s something straightforwardly appealing about the summery harmonies of ‘You Never Know’ and especially about the ornate chamber pop of ‘Deeper Down’. It would take a complete miser to resist the considerable charms of ‘You And I’, a saccharine duet with Leslie Feist which makes for a nice mirror to Feist’s own ‘Intuition’ in shedding new light on human relationships. ‘Bull Black Nova’ presents the band in excoriating form, but it’s basically an edited rewrite of ‘Spiders’ from ‘A Ghost Is Born’. Elsewhere, a soft, hazy and amenable sound is very much in abundance – nice enough, but hardly revolutionary.