Monday, February 28, 2011


Some things I must get round to writing about, either here or elsewhere:

Tim Hecker - Ravedeath, 1972 (Kranky)
Nicolas Jaar - Space Is Only Noise (Circus Company)
Vijay Iyer with Prasanna and Nitin Mitta - Tirtha (Act)
Gwilym Simcock - Good Days at Schloss Elmau (Act)
Joe Lovano Us Five - Bird Songs (Blue Note)
Peaking Lights - 936 (Not Not Fun)
Gil Scott-Heron and Jamie xx - We're New Here (XL)
Isolee - Well Spent Youth (Pampa)
Julianna Barwick - The Magic Place (Asthmatic Kitty)
Destroyer - Kaputt (Merge)
Trichotomy - The Gentle War (Naim Jazz)
REM - Collapse Into Now (Warner Bros) - I suspect my review of this is not going to be too positive unfortunately.

Everybody Else is Doing It, So Why Can't I?

Radiohead - The King of Limbs (Download/XL)

Perhaps the best aspect of Radiohead's mischief-making release methods is also the worst - the fact that music critics are no longer privileged enough to hear the music before the fans. The impressive lack of leaks means that everyone is making the same snap judgement on the music at exactly the same time. In some ways this is refreshing, but in others it is deeply irritating. However important a band Radiohead are, I'm not sure that the very fact of an album's release really merits live blogging. Perhaps it's interesting to see how people's first reactions gradually change - but they don't really help anyone trying to form an impression of the album.

Having spent a good few days with The King of Limbs now, I can confess that my own thoughts on it have changed too. Lotus Flower, the first track to appear online with that ludicrous Thom Yorke dance moves video, underwhelmed on first listen - but its subtleties only emerge after a few plays. That it's actually one of the album's most straightforwarly melodic moments says a great deal about how far Radiohead are now veering from the demands of the mainstream rock marketplace. This, in itself, is nothing new really.

This, I suppose, is the general issue with The King of Limbs. Like In Rainbows before it, it feels less like a complete redefinition of the group's sound, but more like a subtle expansion. There are sounds and textures here that suggest Thom's recent collaboration with Flying Lotus proved influential, as well as a fair hint that the group have been consuming radical UK bass music. Colin Greenwood is very prominent in the mix on many of these songs, creating a general sense of murky claustrophobia. It is in the areas of sound and atmosphere that King of Limbs really excells - from the tremendous, overwhelming, disorientating initial blast of Bloom to the off kilter, disturbing Feral. Even in the album's more approachable second half, the treatment of Yorke's vocals and the discreet entrance of strings and other elements never prove anything less than imaginative.

Rhythms are important too. Another common thread with In Rainbows are that many of these songs are built up from propulsive, urgent drum loops. There's not a great deal of dynamic contrast (as Edward Randell has already stated here) but the band arguably compensate for this with more textural approaches (drums drop in and out, at times the bass disappears, leaving everything feeling very stark and naked). Much of The King of Limbs also extends the more sensual, evocative approach the group have assumed since Hail To The Thief. The band completely eschew any anthemics or emotional manipulation here - everything is rigorous and austere. In this sense, this may be a very timely recording.

Some commentators have made claims implying that there are little or no guitars on King of Limbs. This is palpable nonsense. The guitars are simply used sparingly and sensibly - as a means of creating a new mood or texture rather than simply being there to define every aspect of the band's sound. The appropriately haunting Give Up The Ghost is ushered in by an acoustic guitar strum, whilst Mr. Magpie has muted, picked lines that add to the track's tetchy, twitchy feeling. Perhaps the best use of guitar anywhere on the record comes on the superb final track Separator, a song that is gradually worming its way into the upper echelons of my unwritten list of favourite Radiohead songs. The delicate, intertwining guitar lines are so deftly blended with the overall sound that it takes a while to register their presence.

It is the second half of King of Limbs that provides the album's more transparent pleasures - but even these are handled with dignified restraint. It seems that Codex might at any point explode into something bigger and more grandiose, but even with strings and brass, it's just a subdued heartbeat. Giving Up The Ghost and Seperator are both beautiful, Thom Yorke's voice multitracked to heartbreaking effect. Yet none of this should blind us to the more visceral impact of the album's more combative first half, nor to the band's impressive attention to detail.

King of Limbs is an unusually short album, but its consistent quality is arguably a first for post-OK Computer Radiohead. I've always a maintained a true masterpiece could have been constructed from the most successful moments from Kid A and Amnesiac - instead, we ended up with both and some slightly tentative moments. A similar argument could be made when both discs of In Rainbows are taken into consideration. There's little doubt that Hail To The Thief was overlong. This one seems purposefully balanced, carefully sequenced, meticulously composed and, as ever, superbly recorded. With every listen, it reveals new details and fresh perspectives.

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

England's Dreaming

PJ Harvey - Let England Shake (Island)

Much as I really admire the writing and expertise of Rob Young, I can't help but question his assessment of the new PJ Harvey album in this month's Wire magazine. It's good to read a balanced review that steers clear of hyperbole or cynical attacks but his assertion that Let England Shake feels unfinished feels like a mistake to me. As is often the case with PJ Harvey albums, the music is raw, direct and sometimes combative but to me this feels like one of Harvey's most cohesive and successful artistic statements. It's impressive that so far into a recording career of perhaps surprising longevity, Harvey is continuing to develop and expand her horizons.

Thematically, Let England Shake could be presented as a logical extension of the concerns of its predecessor, 2007's White Chalk. On that album, Harvey seemed preoccupied with images of the English landscape - concerns that seemed to inspire her to traverse new musical terrain too, finding a new, higher vocal register and basing many of the arrangements around her rather rudimentary piano playing (even starker and less finessed than Joanna Newsom's). Some of those thoughts recur - as Harvey sings of the white cliffs of Dover for example - but Let England Shake seems to be aimed at broader concerns. Here, PJ Harvey addresses both imperial history and a war-dominated present, perhaps suggesting that England's glory has been blighted by war.

Few songwriters would have the historical impulse to make reference to the doomed Galipoli campaign, but sometimes Harvey's lyrics feel more impressionistic than some writers have suggested. On 'The Last Living Rose', she risks sounding like a Daily Express leader - 'Goddamn Europeans! Take me back to beautiful England'. Presumably, her attention is ironic, drawing attention the nation's imperial decline (for which reason I'm never quite sure whether she really means England, or is in fact speaking more generally about Britain).

Perhaps the most interesting feature about Let England Shake, the element that most reviews have bafflingly ignored, is how it sounds. Harvey has always had a tremendous gift for getting maximum results from the bare minimum of material. That she seems to do this without ever really repeating herself makes this all the more impressive. Whereas White Chalk foregrounded rudimentary piano, the guitar and Harvey's autoharp are at the heart of Let England Shake. Much of the music is based on very basic strumming patterns - yet it sounds primal and urgent rather than purely reductive. A finely balanced degree of reverb adds to the sense of impending doom.

Another common feature is call and response vocal techniques, which are used to superb effect on both The Glorious Land and The Words That Maketh Murder (on which Mick Harvey joins in), two of Harvey's finest songs to date. Basic rock and roll music is transformed into something more mysterious - something much closer to an English folk tradition.

Harvey also adds elements that seem incongruous - sometimes they are very obviously exactly that. The sample of Niney's Blood and Fire that underpins Written On The Forehead is not matched to the song's pitch or tempo and neither is the bugle clarion call on The Glorious Land. Elsewhere, baritone saxophone seems like a more forceful presence than bass guitar, especially on the ominous, drifting All and Everyone.

The quality and depth of feeling of the music here is remarkably consistent, but a few songs stand out nonetheless. On Battleship Hill is remarkable. It veers between a gentle, relaxed strum that might seem twee in any other context and some freer, subliminal moments on which Harvey's high register vocal sounds desperate. It ends with the devastating assessment that 'cruel nature has won again'. It's a startling, unpredictable, deviously clever piece of writing. England is a poignant, melancholy lament that demonstrates the great versatility of Harvey's voice on this album. Here she sounds more ragged and unhinged. Hanging In The Wire is simply beautiful, whilst Written On The Forehead is just disarmingly weird.

PJ Harvey seems to be one of those artists that just seems to get better as she matures. There is a case for her being right up there with Kate Bush and Bjork in the pantheon of great contemporary female artists. Sometimes in the past, her work has tended to be raw to the point of being difficult. Let England Shake is brilliantly realised - a Harvey album that can be loved as much as it can be admired.

Chain Links

Here are some of my most recent pieces for musicOMH:

Moritz Von Oswald Trio
Six Organs of Admittance
Gruff Rhys

Sunday, February 06, 2011

One That Got Away

Partikel - Partikel (F-IRE)

Amazon has the official release date for this debut album from London jazz trio Partikel as October 2010, but somehow it's only just passed under my radar. It's a shame I didn't pick up on it earlier as it should undoubtedly have been included in my albums of the year list.

Partikel are a young band and it would be an easy argument to suggest that they might perhaps have recorded their debut album too early, before the individual players had really found their compositional or improvisational voices (they are recent graduates from Trinity College of Music's jazz course). This proves emphatically not to be the case, however. Saxophonist and composer Duncan Eagles, bassist Max Luthert and drummer Eric Ford honed their skills hosting jam sessions at the Hideaway venue in Streatham, South London, and so emerge as a fully formed, empathetic and interactive unit on this thrilling debut album.

Eagles' writing is melodically accessible and direct, thus potentially introducing new audiences to more sophisticated rhythmic techniques and to more interactive performance. This is a world where Luthert's propulsive lines and Ford's creative drumming (often incorporating an interesting range of auxiliary percussion instruments) have fundamental and vital roles in the ensemble. There are other contemporary jazz groups operating in a similar area - Kairos 4tet spring to mind as the most obvious contemporary comparison point. Partikel are exploring these avenues with a similar commitment to creativity, energy and accuracy.

Although the melodies may be direct, this is not to say that they are without depth. Oojimaflip has lines that seem straightforward - but it is a real skill to write compositions this immediate, but which serve as an inspiring springboard for improvisation and experiment - rhythmic modulation is a common feature of the band's daring and exciting music.

The band make great use of the space and freedom afforded by the piano-less trio format. Eagles plays with an impressive dynamic range and a full bodied sound, with consistently imaginative phrasing. He is more than ably supported by Luthert and Ford, the former a completely dependable presence, anchoring the music, while Ford plays creatvely and expressively throughout. Often, as on the track that gives both the band a name and the album its title, the band create a wealth of material from very minimal foundations - in this case a simple riff built from very few notes. Even when the music veers into freer territory, there is still the sense that the band are still exploring outward from the basis of the original idea.

The album is bookended by two short segments recorded at soundchecks, perhaps there simply to demonstrate the band's open-mindedness and continual development. In between are compositions rich in variety. Highlights include the unexpected twists and turns of Cryptography and the delicate, graceful lilt of The River.