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.

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