Friday, August 28, 2009

Into The Woods

Mew – No More Stories Are Told Today I’m Sorry They Washed Away No More Stories The World Is Grey I’m Tired Let’s Wash Away (Columbia, 2009)

Well, that certainly wraps up the ludicrous title of the year award, with bonus points for lack of punctuation. What a shame that such linguistic pretention will most likely alienate this record’s potential audience, for Mew’s excellent, inventive music continues to develop apace. This may well be their warmest, most accessible album but the group’s imagination with rhythm and sound continues to set them apart from most of their peers, placing them firmly in that league of superior, composition-focused rock groups (see also Dirty Projectors, Grizzly Bear, Apostle of Hustle, Three Trapped Tigers etc).

Those with an innate suspicion of ‘intellectual’ rock music might pounce on the angular subdivisions of ‘Introducing Palace Players’ (featuring a style of drumming that is somewhat alien to the rigorous restrictions of indie-rock). They might also be dissuaded by the rather self-conscious reversed weirdness of the opening ‘New Terrain’ and condemn Mew as ‘difficult’. For me, there’s something curiously uplifting in the disjunctive robotic movements of the former and something surreal and disorientating in the textures of the latter.

Whilst this music is certainly meticulously constructed, it’s not without more immediate charms. There’s the insistent pulse of ‘Repeaterbeater’ or the gorgeous summery shimmer of ‘Beach’. Even more off the beaten track is the bastardised samba of ‘Hawaii’, an irresistible confection which seems. Whilst Mew are renowned for their short attention spans, tending to flip between a wealth of ideas, these songs are more notable for their consistent, carefully detailed moods.

The mid-section of the album adopts a more stately pace. The saccharine ‘Silas The Magic Car’ is the one point where Jonas Bjerre’s cutesy, childlike vocals threaten to become an irritation. Much better is ‘Cartoons and Macrame Wounds’, an engrossing and mesmerising epic with a peculiar combination of gentle lilt and emphatic crescendos.

Rich Costey’s production is a significant factor throughout. Having also produced the group’s international debut ‘Frengers’, Costey has played a vital role in defining the distinctive Mew sound, which is sleek and precise. It strikes me that Mew are actually quite close in sonic terms to Muse, another band that Costey has produced, although they are nowhere near as grandiose and they lack Matt Bellamy’s nails-down-a-blackboard vocal histrionics. Perhaps this explains Mew’s modest but fiercely loyal audience – they’ll never break into stadiums in the way that Muse have, perhaps because of the sense of restraint that tempers their otherwise expansive music.

There’s something quietly subversive about Mew’s coupling of mainstream production values with the impulse for adventure. Whilst the album’s title exposes their affectations, there’s also something innocent and charming in their bizarre, almost nonsensical lyrics and delicate melodies. Listening to them is like walking into a fairytale forest – it looks beautiful and enticing but offers unexpected twists and turns in the dark.

Ellie Greenwich 1940 - 2009

‘Be My Baby’, ‘Leader of the Pack’, ‘Then He Kissed Me’, ‘I Can Hear Music’, ‘River Deep Mountain High’, or even the much less cool ‘Sunshine After The Rain’ – it’s an old cliché, but they simply don’t make them like that anymore. All were co-written by the great Ellie Greenwich, who died this week at the age of 68. Theiconic producers behind her biggest hits (Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller, Phil Spector) are rightly given credit for defining the sound of popular music at that time, but their influence would not have been so pervasive were it not for the quality of the writing of Greenwich and her partner Jeff Barry. Whilst the other husband and wife writing teams of the time, Gerry Goffin and Carole King, Barry Mann and Cynthia Weill, remain household names, few are even aware of Greenwich’s achievement.

Many of her songs exalted the naïve excesses of adolescent emotions, making them readily identifiable for many. Whilst they were undoubtedly written for a commercial imperative in a rapidly growing market, they also came to define the genuine art of the 2-3 minute pop songs. Here was all the grandeur and feeling of a symphony, compacted into a readily digestible form. The harmonic progressions were necessarily simple, but the formula was always irresistible and endlessly repeatable.

Many will know Greenwich’s best loved songs, even if they are completely unaware that she wrote them. Fewer will have any idea of her own solo recordings as a singer-songwriter, most of which are criminally unavailable. Posthumous it will now be, but a reissue programme would be greatly appreciated.

Thursday, August 27, 2009

Shopping List

The busy part of the year seems to have started early this year, and suddenly I find there's lots within my radar. Release dates in brackets where I know what they are.

Sian Alice Group – Troubled, Shaken etc (out now)
Tara Jane O’Neil – A Ways Away (out now)
Mew – No More Stories…(out now)
The XX – The XX (out now)
Olafur Arnalds – Found Songs (out now)
Christian McBride and Inside Straight – Kind of Brown (out now)
John Surman with John Abercrombie, Drew Gress and Jack De Johnette – Brewter’s Rooster (out now)
Vijay Iyer Trio – Historicity (out now)
Bill Frisell – Disfarmer (out now)
Yo La Tengo – Popular Songs (7/9)
David Sylvian – Manafon (14/9)
Tyondai Braxton – Central Market (14/9)
The Very Best – Warm Heart Of Africa (14/9)
Health – Get Colour (14/9)
Volcano Choir – Unmap (21/9)
Bassekou Kouyate and Ngoni Ba – I Speak Fula (21/9)
Pearl Jam – Backspacer (21/9)
Antipop Consortium – Flourescent Black (28/9)
Liam Hayes and Plush – Bright Penny (28/9)
The Twilight Sad – Forget The Night Ahead (5/10)
Flaming Lips – Embryonic (13/10)
Hope Sandoval and The Warm Inventions – Through The Devil Softly

Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Vintage Premonitions

Susanna and the Magical Orchestra - 3 (Rune Grammofon, 2009)

Whilst I’ve written very favourably about Susanna Wallumrod both as a solo artist and in this duo set up with Morten Qvenild, I also argued that her next release would have to offer something different to save her from being caricatured. With ‘3’, she has emerged as a more confident singer and writer, largely jettisoning the austere accompaniments with which her audience will by now be overly familiar. Whilst the pace is still mostly glacial, the settings are fresh. Susanna’s voice is now centre stage, frequently multi-tracked, and surrounded by swathes of dense synthesiser layers.

Where once Wallumrod and Qvenild would have doggedly pursued an unchanging dynamic and mood throughout an entire album, here a single exotic track such as ‘Palpatine’s Dream’ incorporates a variety of textures and moods. This is all achieved without losing a sense of stylistic identity. The music on ‘3’ is still intimate and subtle, but also arguably warmer and with a greater element of surprise. It helps that Qvenild has a notable restraint and a sensitivity to balance. For all the group’s icy Nordic exterior, this is also an emotional work, filled with melancholy laments of considerable power.

Some critics have found Susanna’s po-mo cover versions gimmicky but she has made a major contribution towards re-establishing the art of interpretation (something that looked in danger of being lost to contemporary pop music). Her work is more artful than the tacky, one-dimensional approach of Nouvelle Vague (anyone who makes Kiss’ ‘Crazy Crazy Nights’ into something heartbreaking surely deserves respect). Those harshest of critics should be pleased that ‘3’ focuses more on her excellent original writing but will also no doubt gleefully pounce on the wonderful version of Rush’s ‘Subdivisions’ included here. Stripping that song of Rush’s false grandeur, it becomes something of a futuristic Ballardian nightmare – full of foreboding but also tender and bittersweet.

Even better though is her take on a less provocative selection – English folk singer Roy Harper’s ‘Another Day’. This song is hardly in need of an injection of good taste but the English folk idiom occupies a space at some remove from this very produced and arranged fantasia. Wisely, Qvenild reduces the accompaniment to delicate piano lines, allowing Susanna’s resonant but controlled vocal performance the space it demands. In its slow building intensity it reminds me of Kate Bush’s ‘This Woman’s Work’.

Harper’s narrative of relationship regret and lost chances fits well with the prevailing sense of loss that pervades the original songs. There’s the delicate, desolate sadness of ‘Game’ and the languid melancholy of ‘Someday’, the latter strikingly direct. Susanna’s voice, whilst mostly understated, has a piercing clarity and haunting effect.

Even when Qvenild’s arrangements become more sophisticated, as they do on ‘Palpatine’s Dream’ and the gorgeous ‘Deer Eyed Lady’, Susanna’s voice is still the focal point. She harmonises with herself on ‘Palpatine’s Dream’ to mesmeric effect. We’re so used to hearing her voice as a pure, unadorned siren’s call that to hear it in layers makes the whole process of vocal multi-tracking seem novel once again. Perhaps best of all is ‘Recall’ which begins with painful memories but has an unexpected glimmer of hope and brightness at its heart. These new settings add sensuality and depth to Susanna’s performances.

It’s worth noting that Susanna is an unusually prolific artist given the modern album’s usual lengthy gestation period. It was only a few months ago that I was transfixed by her live performance supporting Bonnie ‘Prince’ Billy in London, and then she was mainly performing songs from last year’s ‘Flower of Evil’. For a while, it looked as if this determination to keep releasing music would result in repetition but ‘3’ marks a bold progression. It’s a retro-futurist gem, its landscape of vintage synths conspiring to create something peculiar and touching.

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Back To Life

Pearl Jam - London O2 Arena 18th August 2009

The feeling at the end of this epic performance was, for Pearl Jam’s Eddie Vedder ‘beyond words’. It has to be admitted that even for a relative unbeliever, this might have been enough to convert me back to the cause.

I use the qualifications ‘relative’ and ‘convert back’ because, some time in my early teens, I might well have counted Pearl Jam among my favourite bands. I remember waiting for ‘Vitalogy’ to come out with genuine excitement and, even when it turned out to be a rather hit and miss combination of great songwriting, untamed aggression and half-arsed experiments in banality, found that excitement rather uncritically satiated.

Some time after ‘No Code’ (an album that now seems like the key to their catalogue – the point of transition), I switched off. Vedder’s earnest, self-important side seemed to take over and, whilst the band could still knock out serviceable riffs with commanding energy, they seemed to have forgotten about writing memorable songs. In retrospect, perhaps every Pearl Jam album is a little troublesome to digest whole but, whilst ‘Binaural’ ‘Riot Act’ and ‘Pearl Jam’ all have their moments, they somehow seem to veer closer to monotony.

In August 2009, the group seem like a band revitalised. In the early nineties, the group often seemed like the unacceptable face of grunge – the ones who had the ambition to be more than moderately successful and who were also largely comfortable with the results. This year, the obligatory anniversary repackaging of their debut ‘Ten’ has helped remind people that there was always soul and subtlety beneath their mainstream rock sheen. In addition to this, the imminent ‘Backspacer’ seems exactly what is required – a mercilessly concise half hour of new wave influenced pop songs. The three that they tackle during this gig sound refreshingly lightweight and entertaining, free from the burden of clumsy lurches at profundity.

Pearl Jam have clearly been educated at the Bruce Springsteen school of live performance – they’re in absolutely no hurry to finish and know how to get an arena crowd involved. We clap on command and ‘doo-de-doo’ along to the refrain from ‘Black’, proving that nothing unites a huge crowd quite as easily as a break-up song. By the encore, the audience are so enthusiastic that Vedder can afford his own Robbie Williams moment, allowing the crowd to sing the entire opening verse of 'Betterman' for him. The set, at two and a half hours, delivers value for money but also a whole lot more besides. Very few bands could get away with playing for this long without including some of their best loved songs (‘Jeremy’ and ‘Daughter’ are conspicuous by their absence) but Pearl Jam pull off the neat trick of juxtaposing some unpredictable selections with more established gems.

The band play six songs from ‘Ten’ and, save for the half beard denoting some form of maturity, Eddie Vedder has hardly changed much since 1992, still sporting big shorts and trainers and veering between sombre invocations and savage growl (he sounds dignified on ‘Immortality’ but like he’s ripping his own vocal chords out on ‘Blood’). Similarly, Mike McCready, in spite of signs of middle-aged spread, still stalks the stage like a man possessed, unleashing fearsome guitar solos. Much of this music is made for arenas and must have sounded distinctly out of place at their debut London show at the Borderline back in ’92. However, by opening with the otherworldly drone of ‘Release’, the side of the group that veers well beyond stadium rock conventions is immediately emphasised. It’s an odd opening gambit, but it works superbly – the band are left largely unlit for the song’s duration, before the stage lights ignite as the group launch into ‘Animal’. Aside from this, there’s actually very little in the way of big show theatrics here – the visuals for the screens are restrained and sepia-tinged, there are no explosions, no props and no videos. The music is obviously intended to speak for itself.

The first six songs cover the period from ‘Ten’ to ‘Vitalogy’, including a furious ‘Corduroy’ and strident ‘Why Go?’. The group veer straight from this run through their golden period to brand new single ‘The Fixer’, which sits very comfortably alongside those powerful earlier songs. It’s an immediately likeable slice of heavy pop that already looks like a crowd favourite. Vedder precedes it with an endearing bit of amateur psychology, explaining that men always want to find quick fixes to relationship problems when listening and understanding might be the preferred response.

The set takes some bizarre twists and turns as it progresses. Either respectfully or satirically, Vedder introduces a thrilling version of ‘Rats’ with a few bars of Michael Jackson’s ‘Ben’ and dedicates it to ‘a man who was supposed to be on this very stage, doing what he did’. There are several tracks not associated with any album – in the main set there’s ‘I Got ID’ from the Merkinball single released around the same time as the group’s collaboration with Neil Young on ‘Mirrorball’. The lengthy encores feature covers of songs by The Who and Victoria Williams (‘Crazy Mary’), as well as the punk-meets-Motown stomp of B-side ‘Leavin’ Here’ and a rare example of a B-side that has developed a life all of its own, the closing ‘Yellow Ledbetter’. It’s a gorgeous song, strongly influenced by the more lilting and reflective side of Jimi Hendrix, but also dense and verbose, perhaps even a little obtuse. Surely even Vedder doesn’t know what all the words are!

By this time, it’s 11.15pm and Pearl Jam have clearly outstayed their welcome. The house lights have been turned on in an effort to encourage people to leave, but the group are still onstage, Vedder nonchalantly sharing a bottle of beer and a cigarette with the front row, breaking not only the curfew but the anti-smoking law as well. The show has been a celebration of this group’s considerable virtues and their dogged longevity. They are the true survivors of the grunge era, somehow managing to transcend the style at the same time as maintaining it.

Head Music

Steve Lehman Octet – Travail, Transformation and Flow (Pi, 2009)

It cannot be said that the title of this album does not prepare the listener adequately for the music it describes. Saxophonist and composer Steve Lehman is a fearless intellectual and his music comes far more from the head than the heart. Lehman has been exploring the possibilities of metric modulations and broken time for a few years now, both in his own work and in his outstanding trio Fieldwork with Vijay Iyer and Tyshawn Sorey. His explorations have resulted in some of the most challenging and provocative music currently being made in American jazz.

For this new work, he has focused at least in part on his interest in the techniques of ‘spectral composition’, an approach most closely associated with the composer Tristan Murail, with whom Lehman has studied. This goes well beyond my areas of expertise, but the process apparently involves using computer modelling to base harmony on sound properties rather than on intervals. Its application to the dynamic of a jazz ensemble, particularly the relatively unconventional octet format, at least appears rather apt. The sheets of sound on the opening ‘Echoes’ are weird and disorientating, especially when combined with Lehman’s fondness for head-spinning rhythmic innovation. ‘Echoes’ sets the scene for what follows, which is essentially further explorations of the same ideas, with varying degrees of abstraction.

Lehman’s music here certainly sounds thoroughly composed and arranged. It will also sound somewhat unfamiliar to those ears fully rooted in the jazz tradition. It’s easy to see why it divides opinion (some find Lehman’s relentless complexity and harmonic approach alienating or even unmusical). Yet it’s also possible to approach this challenging music more positively and constructively. For all his preoccupations with software mapping and mathematical precision, much of this music feels spacious and liberated, even accounting for the constant distraction of Tyshawn Sorey’s rapid fire drumming. It works so well at least in part because the rhythm section of Sorey and Drew Gress are strong enough to handle the various subdivisions and tempo changes demanded by Lehman’s arrangements. It also seems that Lehman’s processes can be applied in a variety of ways, from fast tempos (‘No Neighbourhood Rough Enough’) to freer, almost lyrical environments (‘Waves’ – an apt title for this aquatic sounding piece).

This is not, it has to be said, emotional or emotive music. It does not invoke sensations of longing, neither does it express anything particularly profound about the human condition. Only ‘Waves’ approaches anything sensual and the abstruse nature of Lehman’s approach does not result in anything particularly mysterious. It is systems music, perhaps even designed to express nothing beyond itself. Perhaps one does have to work to understand this very specific musical language in order to appreciate it fully. This approach could easily lead Lehman up an artistic cul-de-sac (the same marginal route that many others have followed before him). To these ears, though, there’s something innately thrilling about the juxtaposition of these sheets of peculiar harmony with Tyshawn Sorey’s drumming, seemingly as much drawn from electronic music as from jazz. The impressive technique of the ensemble is put to good use in creating something vibrant and exciting.

Lehman’s success here is to break through borders that are too readily assumed to be closed. His confident absorption of techniques thought only applicable to specific areas of twentieth century composition reinforces the notion that spontaneous interaction and compositional processes need not be mutually exclusive. As if to take the genre-crossing project far beyond its logical conclusion, the album ends with a Wu-Tang Clan transcription, which is as enervating a jazz recording as I’ve heard all year.

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Floating Above The Storm

The Low Anthem – Oh My God, Charlie Darwin (Bella Union)

Many writers are comparing this with Fleet Foxes, if only because both acts are signed to Bella Union and the label is, rather understandably, looking to repeat that success. The two acts could be said to be alike in that they both deal in forms of modern American folk music, although that very broad umbrella is where the comparisons should end. There’s little of Fleet Foxes’ hippie mysticism or their chamber pop arrangements. Ostensibly, what The Low Anthem offer is closer to the tradition of Woody Guthrie or Hank Williams – narratives rich in pathos and with powerful, haunting melodies.

Of course, the group have their own spin on this sound, with Ben Knox Miller veering from a warm, ingratiating tenor to a more otherworldly falsetto. The latter is put to superb use on the opening ‘Charlie Darwin’, a simple but spectral and evocative piece that lingers long in the memory. On ‘Cage The Songbird’ he veers confidently between the two. With its rudimentary drum machine and synth pad backing, this actually sounds closer to Paul Simon or Peter Gabriel than to Crosby, Stills and Nash.

There are a couple of particularly beautiful story songs – ‘To Ohio’, which is so moving in its initial version that the reprise at the album’s conclusion fails to serve much purpose. Perhaps best of all is ‘Ticket Taker’, where Knox Miller husks a little more, almost in the manner of Leonard Cohen, a voice perfectly suited to the song’s humble central character (‘Mary Anne – I know I’m a long shot/But Mary Anne, what else have you got?’). The instrumentation is subtle and unusual, with multi-instrumentalist Jocie Adams adding texture on clarinet and harmonium.

Where the band trip up, at least to my ears, is when Knox Miller adopts a whisky-soaked gravel growl, and the band attempt a rather clumsy hybrid of Tom Waits and The Pogues, driven by a relentless four to the floor bass drum beat. One of these tracks, ‘Home I’ll Never Be’, is actually a cover of Waits’ musical setting of Jack Kerouac. Given how well Waits has perfected this particular vocal style and the extent to which he has made it his own, emulating it seems rather futile. These tracks also jar substantially with the album’s predominant mood of melancholy reflection. They sound like the work of a completely different band. No doubt this tactic will have as many admirers as detractors, but I’m more taken with the group’s core sound than with their occasional lurch into drunken hoedowns.

Tuesday, August 04, 2009

Soundbites Part 2

Apostle of Hustle – Eats Darkness (Arts and Crafts, 2009)

With the incorporation of ‘world’ rhythms into western alternative rock currently very much in vogue, it’s surprising that little has been written in the UK about Apostle of Hustle. The group is the individual project of Broken Social Scene guitarist Andrew Whiteman, and has so far proved comfortably the most fruitful and original of that group’s many offshoots.

‘Eats Darkness’ is their third album, but it began life as a more modest EP of studio experiments that Whiteman had intended to give away free to fans. Perhaps as a result of this, even at a concise 35 minutes, it’s a bit of a strange melting pot of ideas. The encircling dub textures of ‘Perfect Fit’ and the Afro-Cuban rhythms of ‘Easy Speaks’ are excellent examples of Whiteman’s jubilant assimilations.

Whiteman has claimed that it’s a loose concept album about conflict and struggle and it certainly begins provocatively. The short skit ‘Snakes’ that opens the album riffs on the hermaphroditic nature of snakes and their resulting untrustworthiness (‘how can you trust a b*tch that can literally go f*ck herself?!’). This sounds like an easy but effective satire on the posturing fanfares that tend to introduce hip-hop albums.

Yet elsewhere, Whiteman is more conciliatory. The ‘Lust for Life’-derived shuffle of ‘Xerxes’ and twangy guitars of ‘Soul Unwind’ seem more familiar indie-rock devices, although the latter’s rejection of conventional song structure (it’s more of a call and response chant than a song as such) still says much about Whiteman’s eccentricity.

‘Eats Darkness’ isn’t as successful as its excellent predecessor ‘National Anthem of Nowhere’ – too many of the ideas here are left only partially complete and even the best tracks don’t really push Whiteman away from terrain he’s already traversed more successfully before. Nevertheless, there’s much to enjoy here, not least Whiteman’s drive to add rhythmic invention and playfulness to his brand of alternative rock.

Wild Beasts – Two Dancers (Domino, 2009)

Whilst Wild Beasts’ debut album from last year (‘Limbo, Panto’) demonstrated much promise, its insistent quirks also left me somewhat overwhelmed, unsure of whether this was a group I admired or genuinely liked. The excellent ‘Two Dancers’ does much to address this ambiguity, tempering some of the band’s more aggressive traits without sacrificing their character or eccentricity.

Hayden Thorpe’s extravagant, theatrical falsetto is very much still present here, but it’s now less untamed and not always the most dominant stylistic feature. Wild Beasts have another vocal weapon in the form of Tom Fleming’s more lugubrious baritone. This is put to particularly splendid use on ‘All The King’s Men, where the contrast between the two voices is stark and effective.

More importantly, however, is the album’s consistent sound, texture and mood, foregrounding chiming guitar lines and percussion. It’s more lush, sensuous and exotic than its more relentless predecessor. The band certainly wear their influences proudly on their sleeves – Billy Mackenzie, Orange Juice, The Smiths and even, at times, the more otherworldly mysteries of The Cocteau Twins are obvious reference points. There’s also something distinctive here though – something tribal and forceful that jars with the deceptive prettiness of the guitar lines and makes sense when taken in conjunction with the group’s bizarre lyrical content.

Much of the album seems to be about bad behaviour, expressed in a language that is ribald and quaint, but which rolls off Thorpe’s tongue deliciously (‘with courage and conviction, in donkey-jaw diction, we cry for the cause’). If much of this is about drunken lads acting-up, the band are also determined aesthetes, and manage to make it all sound either camp or lurid. The intertwining of sexuality and violence is occasionally uncomfortable (‘this is a booty call – my boot up your asshole’) but otherwise rather ridiculous (‘his dancing cock, down by his knees’ or the hilarious chant of ‘girls astride me, girls beneath me..’).

The greater emphasis on sound and melody here makes all this either more palatable, or alternatively enhances the contrast between the thematic and the musical content. Whilst in the past it might have seemed a bit contrived for some tastes – it now seems that this is a group developing an individual and powerful identity. Whereas so many British bands seem to be dead after their over-hyped debuts, Wild Beasts are being given the space to develop and grow. Let’s hope this fine album helps them find a bigger audience for it.

Dinosaur Jr. – Farm (Jagjaguwar)

How bizarre that J Mascis has promised to replace initial pressings of this new Dinosaur Jr. album because they were mastered at ‘too loud’ a level. I slipped ‘Farm’ into my CD player and got a great swathe of dense guitar noise and pummelling drums in my headphones. Isn’t this how a Dinosaur Jr. album should sound?! Surely their greatest hits compilation was called ‘Ear Bleeding Country’ for a reason?! Suffice it to say, I haven’t bothered to exchange my copy of ‘Farm’ for the quieter model.

To put it frankly, the reformed Dinosaur Jr. are a good deal better than they have any right to be. As good as comeback album ‘Beyond’ was, ‘Farm’ is yet better still, a collection of songs as turbulent and infectious as any the group has produced in its long history. I reviewed ‘Beyond’ with some minor reservations, most important of which was the danger that the second period of Dinosaur Jr., which saw Mascis work in a duo with Mike Johnson, might be unfairly consigned to the dustbin of musical history, when it in fact produced some memorable work. ‘Farm’ is so good that this now seems completely inevitable.

Nothing here is unexpected of course but there are some bands for whom change is acceptable anathema. Even the slacker song titles are comfortingly familiar. ‘Over It’, ‘I Don’t Wanna Go There’, ‘There’s No Hope’ – surely Mascis has used these already? Also in place is the brutal fuzz distortion and the combination of Mascis’ laconic drawl with some fearsome guitar shredding. There are some of Mascis’ most memorable melodies in ‘Plans’ and ‘Over It’, two solid gold Dinosaur classics to rival ‘Freak Scene’ or ‘The Wagon’.

Perhaps most welcome here is the inclusion of two contributions from Lou Barlow, ‘Your Weather’ and ‘Imagination Blind’, both of which come close to scaling the invigorating heights of his most insistent songs for Sebadoh (‘Soul and Fire’, ‘The Beauty of the Ride’). If rumour is correct and Barlow and Mascis haven’t entirely buried the hatchet, they’ve at least developed a working method that’s a little closer to democracy. There’s an exuberance throughout that belies both the group’s advanced years and Mascis’ undeserved reputation for laziness (perhaps people confuse the laconic voice with the personality behind it). Ludicrous cover art though.

Magnolia Electric Co. – Josephine (Secretly Canadian, 2009)

There’s no doubt that Jason Molina needed to do something different. The alternation between spectral, mysterious solo albums and the trenchant, steadfast blues-rock of his band had begun to wear a little thin. The epic ‘Sojourner’ box set arguably revealed the band’s limitations as much as it did their formidable qualities. Mercifully, then, ‘Josephine’ is the most restrained and the least lumbering of all the albums under the MEC moniker. The thudding backbeats and Neil Young derived guitar solos seem mostly to have been abandoned in favour of a subtler, perhaps more conventional country-meets-chamber-pop sound.

Whilst much has understandably been made of the tragic death of bassist Evan Farrell and the melancholy tone of ‘Josephine’, I’m more struck by the comparative brightness of the album’s first half. Molina’s music has always been tinged with eeriness and sadness, but these songs seem sweeter, lighter and more immediate. The strident, chiming opener ‘O! Grace’ stood out as one of the highlights of the group’s live shows when touring the ‘Sojourner’ box set a couple of years ago. It stands out here together with the more wistful ‘Whip-Poor-Will’ – both tracks in their own ways bolstered by what might even be described as singalong choruses. Then there’s the sweet ‘Rock of Ages’, with its slight hint of doo-wop, or the sublime ballad ‘Shenandoah’.

Throughout, Molina’s voice sounds less vulnerable than in the past, and seems now to have assumed a quiet confidence. Even more striking though is the more developed instrumentation – with piano, organ and even cornets enriching the group’s sound. The drums are mostly brushed, with allows for a great deal more breathing space and feeling in the arrangements. Someone should have told Jason Evans Groth that his saxophone solo on ‘O! Grace’ was ill advised though. It comes perilously close to ruining the song. Still, it’s great to find Molina making more productive use of his musicians, and freeing up his affecting melodies a little more.

Somewhere mid-way through, things take a darker, more portentous turn. The drums get louder and the music somewhat more stormy and oppressive. It’s worth noting however that it’s never as leaden as the band can sometimes be in concert. As a result, the songs are slightly less comfortable to digest, although the guitar atmospherics on ‘Knoxville Girl’ are a particular highlight.

‘Josephine’ has been described as a song cycle. It’s therefore no surprise to find that the name appears more than in just the title track. Elsewhere though, it’s increasingly clear that Molina’s vocabulary is limited. ‘Horizons’ and ‘ghosts’ return a little too frequently as he resorts to imagery he’s already explored thoroughly elsewhere. Whilst the group’s musical language has certainly been refreshed here, there’s an increasing sense that Molina also needs a conceptual and poetic rejuvenation too. Still, it’s a haunting and evocative album that at last takes Molina’s journey to a new stage.

King Creosote – Flick The Vs (Domino, 2009)

This is much better. For a start, the harmonium is back. There’s no doubt that Kenny Anderson sounds so much more at home back on Domino, once more a self-governing entity. King Creosote’s songs always seemed so much more quirky and deft than the unsubtle, lumbering treatments on ‘Bombshell’ and parts of ‘KC Rules OK’ allowed. Those two albums on 679 tried to model him, mostly unsuccessfully, into something approaching a conventional singer-songwriter.

Here there are some big melodies and chugging playing that seem like hangovers from the 679 period, but they are tempered by a renewed focus on Anderson’s gorgeous conversational voice (one that thankfully makes no attempt to hide the warmth of his Scottish accent), some playful excursions into bedroom electronica and a proud and idiosyncratic sense of isolation.

It’s probably a bit ironic that the song that sums all this up best is ‘Coast On By’, by far the album’s poppiest track. Lyrically, it details Anderson’s rejection of ambition and potential recognition in favour of ‘coasting on by’, with ‘this music thing’ being the only activity for which he’ll consider leaving Fife, and one that also serves to calm him down. It’s charmingly colloquial.

There’s a much greater hit-to-miss ratio here than we’ve seen on KC albums for some time. ‘Nothing Rings True’ is gorgeous and deceptively simple, ‘Camels Swapped For Wives’ is heartbreaking and ‘Fell an Ox’, initially impenetrable, reveals its mysterious grandeur after a few listens. Throughout, there are quirks and tricks that are completely characteristic of Anderson – the kind of endearing novelties that were unfortunately excised from ‘KC Rules OK’ and ‘Bombshell’. There’s the peculiar brass stabs on the otherwise delicate waltz of ‘Curtain Craft’, or the ska saxophone on the brilliant ‘No Way She Exists’ for example.

Perhaps best of all is the blistering ‘Rims’ which manages to combine uniquely drab and dispiriting lyrics (a repeated chant of ‘I am the worst’) with music that begins as a country hoedown before morphing into something close to a dance track. It’s both baffling and irresistible. It appears that Anderson is well on the way back to his deserved position as one of the great contemporary eccentrics.

The Gossip – Music For Men (Sony, 2009)

I’m not one of those people who resent bands when they achieve commercial success. Nevertheless, one has to admit it’s a jarring irony to find a woman who often ranted vehemently against the evils of the music industry now happily signed to that well known DIY independent Sony and thoroughly established as a magazine celebrity.

‘Music For Men’ is unsurprisingly a step further into the mainstream for Beth Ditto’s band, slickly produced by Rick Rubin and aiming to prove that ‘Standing In The Way of Control’ was no fluke. Of course, those of us who enjoyed much of The Gossip’s previous albums know that already, and hardly need convincing. ‘Music For Men’ comes across as a bit of a self-conscious mixed bag – with some audacious steps at diversification mingling with straight-up rewrites of former glories.

In the latter camp, there’s slow bass and drums trudge ‘Dimestore Diamond’ and the single ‘Heavy Cross’, which sounds like a slicker version of ‘Standing in the Way of Control’. By way of contrast, ‘Pop Goes The World’ and ‘Men In Love’ are energetic and entertaining forays into classic club territory, foregrounding synths and percussion over guitars. For all her former zeal in rejecting commercial imperatives, Ditto sounds completely at home in this environment. It’s highly accessible but also highly charged. Unfortunately, they go one step too far with ‘Love Long Distance’ though – its slabs of Italian house piano start to grate very quickly.

Rick Rubin seems to have been acclaimed for his treatment of Beth Ditto’s voice on ‘Music For Men’, but I’m not sure I can join the chorus of approval here. What was once a guttural, bluesy, soulful howl seems now to have been rendered a slightly nasal whine which frequently becomes irritating, especially when delivering some of her more clunky lyrics. This adds to the sense that ‘Music For Men’, whilst having much to recommend it, is a little tentative and inconsistent.