Friday, March 18, 2011


Julianna Barwick - The Magic Place (Asthmatic Kitty)

The recent expansive folly of Sufjan Stevens on The Age of Adz gives little hint of the nature of releases on his Asthmatic Kitty label. This latest release from vocalist Julianna Barwick has a timeless feeling to it, perhaps by virtue of being as in thrall to medieval choral music as it is to modern electronics and home studio recording techniques (it was recorded at Stevens’ personal studio). Whereas Stevens threw every conceivable piece of electronic trickery at the wall for ...Adz, Barwick focuses on the startlingly pure sound of her own layered, wordless voices, with haunting and impressive results.

There’s an inevitably hymnal, sacred quality to much of this music. It’s possible that Barwick might have been influenced as much by minimal, spiritually concerned contemporary composers such as Arvo Part as much as by the solipsistic vocal arrangements of, say, Bon Iver. The desire to move beyond language also has much in common with the ethereal, powerful music made by The Cocteau Twins. Comparisons may well also be made with Sigur Ros but, for the most part, The Magic Place lacks that band’s tendency towards portentous overstatement.

Barwick’s voice always occupies the foreground of the music, sometimes in glorious harmony, sometimes with compelling polyphonic dissonances. Perhaps the best example of her real skill in arranging comes with Keep Up The Good Work, where parts that initially seem in conflict with each other are carefully entwined. The dense reverb inevitably makes Barwick sounds ghostly and detached - but this is evidently the intended effect. Often it feels like Barwick’s multi-tracked voice is communicating from every possible dimension and more.

Barwick’s chief weapon would appear to be repetitive looping, hardly itself a particularly original gambit, but she uses it to create an illusion of complexity whilst keeping her music direct and resonant. She also makes intelligent use of pitch and range - shaping her phrases by using the extremes of her register. When instruments do join or take over (there is a piano coda to the majestic Flown), they occupy the same spare, reflective ground, with languid melodic lines, long held chords and acres of space.

Slightly unexpectedly, the penultimate track Prizewinning adds in a pulsating synthesiser line and the slightest suggestion of a beat, but even this tentative step towards minimal electronica fits with the album’s cohesive mood. Barwick has managed to find an open, broad sound that is at once ancient and modern.

Friday, March 04, 2011


R.E.M. - Collapse Into Now (Warner Bros)

The critical consensus surrounding latterday R.E.M. continues to mystify me. The general belief is that the group lost their way when Bill Berry left, recording a couple of albums that did not really 'represent' them (Up and Reveal) before making the first genuinely bad album of their career (Around The Sun) and finding their true voice as a 'rock' band again with Accelerate. My highly personal regard for Up aside, the generous reaction to Collapse Into Now is even more confounding. Around The Sun begins to look like a solid gold masterpiece when placed next to this. Reviews on both sides of the Atlantic have suggested this is R.E.M. sounding like themselves - and that it is the best album we can hope for them to make at this stage. This is hugely uncritical, and in some ways disrespectful to both the band and their longstanding fans.

Of course it's unreasonable to expect R.E.M. to make music that ranks with their greatest works (and I would include New Adventures In HiFi and Up in this list, along with everything from Murmur to Automatic For The People, perhaps even Monster as well - they have been a remarkably consistent band). It's not unreasonable, however, to expect something a little more than mere third rate facsimiles of their history. It's not unreasonable to expect a decent and sympathetic production. It's not unreasonable to expect some good songs, or some maturity and insight at this stage in a career.

The biggest problem here, it pains me to admit, is Michael Stipe. His voice and lyrics have often been one of the band's great assets, even when he preferred a subdued and sometimes incomprehensible voice. If anything, his lyrics have been on the decline since Up. That album was intensely personal, honest and powerful and it would appear to have exhausted him. Reveal's musings on man and nature were a little glib and Around The Sun was dogged by benign platitudes. Here, he reaches a new nadir of self parody, often resorting to the worst aspects of his nonsense doggerel or lazily assumed profundity. It Happened Today is the worst example of the latter, with Stipe allowing himself to rhyme 'this is not a parable/It is a terrible....a terrible thing') because he has earned his wings. When the grand chorus of Stipe, Eddie Vedder and, unexpectedly, Joel Gibb from the Hidden Cameras, takes over with a chorus of aaaahs which lasts for half the song, it's almost as if Stipe has recognised what a disaster it is and can't be bothered to finish it. This is a long way from Find The River.

Cliches abound elsewhere too. Uberlin finds him 'flying on a star', Blue's detour into spoken word represents a flagrant attempt to reprise E-Bow The Letter (it even features Patti Smith for heaven's sake). Disoverer is a little better, a reminder that Stipe once wrote songs where the meaning was opaques, but where it at least felt there was a meaning somewhere. A number of the lyrics on Collapse Into Now feel clipped and underwritten, as if he was lacking inspiration. His voice sounds tired and uninterested throughout.

As for the music, it's largely ruined by Jacknife Lee's production. This makes me desperate to hear the demos the band supposedly recorded with Tucker Martine, a producer far more likely to capture the band sensitively, instead of applying heavy compression and stadium bombast. Lee was kept at bay a little on Accelerate (although both he and the band did seem to confuse distortion with radicalism) - here he is allowed to run riot. The worst moment is the hilarious Alligator Aviator Autopilot Antimatter, featuring uncomfortable guest vocals from Peaches. It's an attempt to recapture the strident glam rock of the Monster-era, but its ludicrous rhyme scheme ('alligator/escalator') is more reminiscent of U2's 'mole in a hole' fiasco on Elevation, for me one of the worst songs in recent memory and not a good role model. It all suggests that the band are, in spite of refusing to tour this album, looking for a way back into the stadium big league that feels unnatural and unforced.

Some have suggested that Collapse Into Now feels like a band comfortable with who they are, perhaps because it is balanced between upbeat rockers and acoustic numbers (with mandolins!). For me, it feels like a band trying to recapture what they were. Uberlin is a direct facsimile of Drive but it has no bite, instead just floating by aimlessly. Oh My Heart is shamelessly self-referential, alluding to a song as recent as Houston. It's at least a hearfelt piece about New Orleans and Katrina - and arguably the strongest thing here. Mine Smell Like Honey sounds like The Wake Up Bomb with less energy and some very silly lyrics. The portentously titled Me, Marlon Brando, Marlon Brando and I is regrettably forgettable. There's a distinct lack of strong melodies here - far more so than on Up.

What a shame that every R.E.M. album since Up has been hampered by self consciousness, and an attempt to make the band what people seem to expect them to be. On Reveal, it sounded like they wanted to move through the doors they had boldly opened with Up, but they had to temper this movement with some breezy, summery pop with a heavy Beach Boys influence. The whole has its moments, but is a little wishy-washy overall. Around The Sun was purposefully ballad heavy, in an attempt to be another Automatic For The People (although they seemed to have forgotten that that album had Ignoreland and The Sidewinder Sleeps Tonight, and was never as relentlessly plodding). Accelerate was a blustery reaction to the criticism meted out to Around The Sun. Collapse Into Now is a desperate attempt to collect everything they have already achieved in one place - it just seems so half-hearted and browbeaten.

Perhaps there is pressure from Warners given the astronomical amount of money they invested in the band just as they were beginning a long commercial decline. But it says much about the status of R.E.M. in 2011 that there is a good deal more interest in the new Elbow record than in Collapse Into Now. I'm not for a minute suggesting they should stop making music - their artistry has sustained them well beyond the lifespan of most bands and has made them immeasurably important. Yet they should at least make the music they want to make - move to something more reflective and mature. It seems unlikely now that they will ever finish the job they started with Up.