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.