Friday, 24 October 2008

Gregory And The Hawk- 'Ghost' (Fatcat Records)

Before Noah had his whale, Gregory had his hawk. Or, as it actually is, her hawk. Because Gregory is really Meredith Godreau. Cue confused gig promoters who get a female singer songwriter, when they expected some twee folk boy. Perhaps the point, as Meredith wanted to avoid all the pigeon-holing that females receive at the hands of cynical music journalists. Like me?

Well, no. Meredith has no need to hide behind (admittedly great) monikers. 'Ghost' mixes up folksy guitars and rattling guitars, and then adds her sweet and breathy vocals on top. The swoony brass sways into the chorus, lugubrious and woozy charms on show. The song feels gentle to the touch, but the build up of instruments adds a certain solidity.

On the other side of the CD (but not really, that's tapes) comes 'Dare And Daring', where things are kept much more slow paced. Guitars form a plucked and rolling backing, but the folksy feeling combines with pop melodies into something very pretty. No need for old invisible friends, you don't need him anymore.

Absentee- 'Victory Shorts' (22/9/08 Memphis Industries)

London band Absentee claim to have been bought up on the music of the Carpenters and his honourable Barry 'nose' Manilow. Yet it is little in evidence here, on their second album.

On album opener 'Shared' they channel the spirit of slow paced desert ballads, trying to do battle with the drizzle of English autumns. No 1970s pop here. Vocalist Dan Michaelson sings in a grizzled croon that rumbles and rolls, and sounds not unlike a decent impression of Mark Lanegan. Cooed female backing vocals entwine with the baritone, a contrast that works brilliantly with the lollop of the guitars.

The slow opening is quickly run over by the driving pop of 'Boy Did She Teach You Nothing?' on an album that varies its tone between indie and country, changing and shifting like sands in the desert. Gentle sandy moans are soon followed by the non more traditional rock of 'Pips'

When Michaelson croons “I'm willing you, to make mistakes that suit you, wouldn't have it any other way” the theme of the album emerges. Romance. Sometimes it's unrequited, as on the medical ward plod of 'The Nurses Don't Notice A Thing, where the simple poetry of lines like "the simplest feelings of love explode into the room like cowboys in saloons, I want to clap but it seems inappropriate” spills out like an old soak on too much whisky.

Sometimes it's loss, as on 'Love Has Had It's Way', where the exhaustion of the end of a relationship is captured in the lethargic feel of the track. All spectrums are covered, as the unholy practice thieving of girlfriends is covered on the aptly named 'Bitchstealer.' Sample lyric: “She wasn't yours to take, so just bring her back.”

The cowboy feel of 'Victory Shorts' continues on 'They Do It These Days', with the wobbly piano lines sounding like a saloon bar knees up. Trumpets and guitars climb onto the bar and add to the celebratory atmosphere. By the end of the song the band are proposing a rushed marriage.

One thing that grates like wire wool trousers is the need for Michaelson to sing in a southern baritone. Look at Kate Nash, Jamie Oliver, Jon Culshaw etc etc. Faking your voice annoys people, although an English baritone perhaps wouldn't fit the music so well.

The track most guilty of the crime is 'Spitting Feathers' which sounds like a washed up country singers attempt to win back his lover, with charming lines like: “Your face hasn't changed since the time I slurred.” It even has that twangy country guitar pedal effect so beloved of bootlace tie wearers everywhere.

However, it's a trivial issue, when the melodies tend to be of high quality. Apart from 'We Smash Plates', where the track drags and drags like a weary toddler, the countrified melodies and occasional brass flourished work well. Absentee have comfortably moved out of the shadow of their early Magic Numbers patronage.

The problem remains, however, of how special any of these songs are. Competence is not brilliance. As good as the songs are technically, and however well put together they are, it doesn't mean you'd choose to listen to them. Just cos you can buy flatpack, does it make it better than an antique? Would you choose Absentee, when their area of music has been covered before, and better?

Land of Talk- 'Some Are Lakes' (29/9/08 Indian)

Land Of Talk return, and someone has been feeding 'em sedatives. Gone is the punky exuberance of the debut, with the Canadians stealing valium from the medicine cabinet, all downtempo cruising rock.

It's not surprise considering the topic of 'Some Are Lakes', as it focuses on a parental relationship thwarted by cancer. Land Of Talk have gone very Rilo Kiley, before Rilo Kiley decided that changing their sound was a good idea. The melodies flow like red wine

The B side sees one of the band's earlier tracks, Summer Special rerecorded into an acoustic . The line “Look at those boys, so young, so young still piss their pants” turns from a dismissal into a lamentation of lost youth. The gentle summer vibes work well in the early October gloom, with porches and teenage girls in rocking chairs. A move from their noisy past has been pitched perfectly.

Saturday, 18 October 2008

The Peth- 'The Golden Mile' (1/9/08 Strangetown)

Perhaps this review is more suited for the Heats and the Closers of this world, concerning, as it does, the man largely known as 'Sienna's ex.' If you don't understand that, then good for you, but we're talking Rhys Ifans, he who paraded his pants in front of Hugh Grant and Julia Roberts. It also features Daffyd from Super Furry Animals (a band Rhys was briefly lead singer for, back in the day, fact fans), so, you know, maybe it has some musical merit too?

The opening 2 tracks of the album promise much. 'Half A Brain' starts with a slow build of synths, before breaking out into dirty electro riffs, before melding into a chorus that sounds all 70s rock. If the refrain was better, it might have worked. 'Shoot On Sight' works much better, with a strutting bassline and portentous synths creating some truly galactic rock, and easily the best track of the record. '69 Fanny Street' almost matches it, but the melodies just tip the wrong side of the derivative/brilliant seesaw.

Maybe it's the Welsh accents, or the involvement of Daffyd Ieuan, but 'Let's Go Fucking Mental' sounds a lot like Super Furry Animals, but if they were shaved of all the little lumps and bumps that make them interesting. This sets up the theme for the rest of the album, songs that ape their influences successfully, but never surpass them.

'Turbotank' recalls Oasis at their bloated worst, chugging away , a rusty old schooner patched and worn out. The lyrics recall the Gallaghers primary school platitudes with lines like “Zero hero, leading me astray, cos you love me, yeah yeah yeah.” Ifans may be able to act up a storm (ie his Peter Cook take) but get him to sit down with pen and paper, and shit spills out. Witness “talk to me cos I don't understand ya, talk to me from your sunset veranda” that opens Sunset Verandah. The only thing that can be said in that song's favour is that the keyboards in the back of the picture sound a little bit like 'Baba O'Riley' by the Who.

The songs are filled with cavernous guitars, foot firmly pressed on epic, but it just feels like you're listening to the songs through the drug haze that 'The Golden Mile' was clearly recorded through. It's all trying to bring to mind 'Screamadelica', but it all to often conjures up memories of the tedium of slow paced Britpop at its worst, and the lack of ideas inherent in British rock n roll.

One song that manages to bring the fun is 'Last Man Standing', with the great couplets of “If I only had my crackpipe, it just might have kept me sane, instead of picking up the toaster, and toasting half my brain.” The song appears an ode to Ifans's well documented wastrel ways, but the driving riffs and joyous atmosphere don't fail to bring a smile.

“Everything I do you hate it, break me down to almost nothing.” Cough Sienna, cough. “Every day I think about you.” These kind of lines, found on 'Stonefinger', might stuff more evidence into the bag marked 'Rhys Ifans is getting over his ex in a very public way' but the songs seem to suggest more a need to act the rock n roll star. The 'greats' of Britrock are summoned, for better or worse, and as catharsis, who knows, this project probably works. As artistic statement, as something of value outside tabloid interest, it probably doesn't.

Glasvegas- 'Glasvegas' (Sony BMG 8/9/08)

The Jesus And Mary Chain, My Bloody Valentine, Spector, the Ronettes etc etc. The influences are written on sleeves, threaded through the tracks, ever present. Glasvegas sound like little else current, but a lot else olden.

This hyped debut opens positively, the big drumbeats and 'whoas' of the background combine with the 'couldn't be more Scottish if it was wearing tartan and eating a battered Mars bar' vocal stylings of singer James Allan on 'Flowers And Football Tops', creating what is at its noir heart, a good pop song.

'Geraldine' maintains the quality, its almost stadium-esque guitars mixing perfectly with an ode of love to “the angel on your shoulder.” The down key nature of 'It's My Own Cheating Heart That Makes Me Cry' almost makes it better, with the 50s influences very much to the fore on a more sombre track.

The terrace chant of 'Go Square Go' bounces along on its apparently meaningless repetition of the title, before descending further into the hooligan anthem, with Allan driving the crowd to a frenzy with his “here we fucking go.” I'm not going anywhere. Sorry.

One plus, or minus, is the clearly defined Glasvegas sound. The 50s inspired guitars, mixed with the reverb and echo of Phil Spector, create a certain sound that no one does any more. The minus is that, despite carving their own niche into the rock, they only have one niche. 'Polmont On My Mind' is evidence of this, dawdling along, turning up the guitars for another big chorus, and clicking on the reverb pedal, with all the passion of a prostitute and a lonesome businessman.

It just makes you all the more grateful when 'Daddy's Gone' makes its entrance. Do any more words need be expended further eulogising this track? Probably not.

Whatever the motives of it, 'Stabbed' just feels like a cheap cash in on tabloid hysteria. It may be relevant to many people's lives, but you just know that if it had been done by on Brass Eye, you'd be laughing, despite the tragedy of the words. The classical piano backing just adds to the heightened sense of ridicule.

'S.A.D Light' makes a nursery rhyme reference, much like 'Flowers And Football Tops', but this time using 'Twinkle Twinkle Little Star'. A lack of ideas, or just continuing the childhood references that linger around, of absent fathers, football, and social workers? The simple drumbeat that opens the track is soon overtaken by the broken croons, but remains steady throughout, a concrete foundation. Sadly, little of interest is built on it, just a few breeze blocks.

'Ice Cream Van' is the true let down of the album, the vocals lost in its own echo chamber. It feels like its had its tethers cut, and has started floating through the clouds. It feels distant, remote, and nothing happens in the whole 5 minutes. As an album closer it fails. As a track it fails.

Sadly, Glasvegas don't quite match their Alan McGee spurred hype. Too often the track is one paced and one dimensional. Outside of the blandness of the closer, there is as little variety in style as an emo convention. When they really slot the melodies together, it sparks and spits like little else. Unfortunately, there are just a few too many misfires to make this the classic it could have been.

Bon Iver- 'For Emma' (4AD)

Blah blah... lived in a log cabin... blah blah blah. You know the story. I know the story. We know the story. Squirrels know the story. Can we move on now? Yes/No.

From the electric that sounds like it wants to cry, to a successful use of brass to convey sadness (hard hard hard to do) to the gentle acoustic that underpins the whole pile, 'For Emma' is a melancholy beauty, and further cements Bon Iver as one of the stars of 2008.

The tears are plucked out, as Justin Vernon (playing the part of an ex lover) cries out his dismissal “go find another lover”.

The b side 'Wisconsin' has a different feel to the tracks of the album. Sounding like it was recorded in a church, from far away, on a tape, it is simple and slow. Occasionally the levels rise, but the depressed mumbled vocals and rumbling acoustic soon return.

Bon Iver has heartbreak on tap, the poor old soul, but can find resolve in his brilliance at conveying it, and maki

White Lies- 'Death' (Fiction)

Brandon Flowers is missing his keyboard, by the sound of things. White Lies must have been hanging around by the tourbus, waiting for their opportunity. The whole feel of the single is very Killers esque anyway, from the plaintive vocals, to the 'big chorus'.

White Lies seem to have missed the post punk boat. Going by Black Kids, people are getting a tad fatigued by the whole barrel scraping of the 80s act. Yawns are stifled, and a blasé attitude are hard to contain.

This song isn't going to help that, having so little melodically going for it. It's been perfectly designed, and fits together like a flatpack. It also has about as much soul as one. Everything happens as predictably as a Kate Hudson film, guitars make the noises at the right times. Ticks in its favour? It has good packaging?

Mercury Rev- 'Senses On Fire' (22/9/08 V2)

'Senses On Fire' sees another reinvention from the Madonnas of alternative music, changing the (by then) tired sounding dream pop of 'The Secret Migration' into a new electronic and psychedelic route. And it works.

Synths are thrown in with vocals shouted through walls of distortion. Gone is the delicate falsetto. Gone is the orchestration. Instead, they build it up, build it up, the beeps and drums combining into a driving pulse that sits at the heart of the effects and shrapnel that surround the melody. The beauty of yore remains, thankfully.

The remixes, however, lie redundant at the bottom of a spectral sea. The Fujiya And Miyagi remix just filters and shapes, but leaves the piece largely the same, more of a spot the difference competition than a remix. The Holden Mix, alternatively, decides to do away with the Mercury Rev bits, and turns 'Senses On Fire' into a mangled blitz of computer effects. Its parents wouldn't recognise its caved in face.

The original, though, sees the indie hype zeitgeist successfully channelled, bringing to mind the shoegaze mellow outs of Deerhunter, but with a liveliness that Bradford Cox can only wish for in his glitziest of dreams.

Calexico-'Carried To Dust' (City Slang 8/9/08)

From the opening of 'Victor Jara's Hands' you can hear the border town vibes that are threaded through this album like chillis through a burrito. Calexico definitely represent the town they take their name from. The song sets the town for the rest of 'Carried To Dust', full of South American chord progressions and the flaring of mariachi horns. Concerning the murdered political activist Victor Jara, the guitars chug offbeat, and the Spanish vocals intone passion, even if my year of language classes won't help any understanding.

'Two Silver Trees' acts all coy and downbeat, a picked melody, and low murmured vocals adding to a hint of menace. Then an almost 80s style chorus hits, and in its plinks of piano the tension is released in pop burbles.

The problem with too much of 'Carried To Dust'' is that it drifts past, like a tumbleweed. 'Writer's Minor Holiday' and 'House Of Valparaiso' float along like leaves on a river, and just as inconsequentially. Their hushed vibes do nothing to intrigue the listener, and you start to wonder what's on TV.

'Man Made Lake' grabs the ears back in, starting on a sparkling xylophone before epic guitars build it up, crescendoing outwards. The ambiance is perfect, empty towns conjured up out of the ether. Tones are varied on next track 'Inspiracion', where the mariachi horns return. A Mexican style piece, it sounds a lot like 'Latin Simone (¿Qué Pasa Contigo?)' from the first Gorillaz album. This is not a bad thing.

'Slowness' ruins all the good work. You could argue these languid songs have a gentle beauty. And in places they do. But before long your mind is wandering in other fields than the ones they try to evoke. Perhaps a symptom of attention deficit disorder, or perhaps a symptom of a lack of ideas. 'El Gotillo' sounds a little bit Devotcka, and the mix of whistling and Johnny Cash guitars creates a kaleidoscopic desert. The instrumental is one of the highlights of the album.

The flaw with 'Carried To Dust' is that too often it is happy to coast. There are notable exceptions, that manage to raise the listener out of his stupor with creative instrumentation and composition. The songs like 'Red Blooms' appear, and sound like a fade out that never fades, such is the torturous pace. For atmosphere the album is hard to beat, so soaked in Americana vibes is it. For something to get your pulse racing, and fingers tapping, the excitements are few and far between.

Captive State- 'Elmore Grove EP' (22/9/08 Genuine Records)

Do you miss the Beta Band? This might be an alternative for you, as on 'Mona' Captive State create a vibe very very similar to the old Scottish band. Melodies are added on top of melodies, with horns eventually thrown onto the tottering pile, a bed of acoustic rattles and synths beneath. Repetitive vocals create a transcendent feel, like you're floating, the space pop carrying you away. It almost helps you escape the grey skies and rain soaked pavements.

However, the lyrics on 'China White Doll' are like the bad kid at the back of the class, letting everyone down. Dull platitudes about a girl, full of cliches such as years/tears and sun/done and tired metaphors. It's a shame, cos the gentle acoustic lines, and lulled brass and xylophone plonk backing works brilliantly. It would be moving, particularly on the slow piano fade out, but for the stupid words.

Gloom filled electronics take over on 'Weatherman', where synths and bass dominate over the acoustics, relegated to the background. The lyrics continue to fail, with the line “he knew one day he would die” delivered with drama that it doesn't deserve. Like getting Brian Blessed to read out train times.

'Lost' returns to the feel of 'Mona', creating a bookend of intelligent pop songs that show what Captive State do best. When they stick to the bombast of orchestral glory, then the sub par nature of the lyrics can be forgiven and forgotten. Adventurousness should always be encouraged, but not if you forget to pack your backpack properly.

Sister- 'Lovers Of Today' (The Flower Shop)

'Lovers Of Today' brings dark guitars, and gloomy keys, and tries to channel Sons And Daughters and other bands of that ilk. It fails. It feels false, like Sister hired a crack team of rock stars to provide some edge to their music, and they cracked under the pressure. Then, three minutes in, even they get bored, and the track just stops. Dead.

'Down Down' raises standards a tad, and makes like the Velvet Underground on their lullaby moments. Guitars burble and strum in the background, and a xylophone plinks like a music box. Singer Gemma Banks is hushed, and the song soothes like a lover's embrace. Maybe too soothing though. The song quietly nurdles along, but after two minutes your attention is lost. Distracted by a shiny thing, or a piece of torn brown paper on your bedroom floor.

Sister show two sides on this release, a churning guitar led one that doesn't fit them, like a pair of your fat brother's castoff jeans, and a more introspective side, that could work, of there was some jagged edges hidden in the ether of the song.

4 Or 5 Magicians- 'Behind Each Other's Back' (DIY)

There are 5 members of 4 Or 5 Magicians. There could be made some lame joke about the shameful state of numeracy in Britain, but: A- this is not the Daily Mail, and B- you, the reader, and me, the 'journo', are likely the same age as the band.

The opening of 'Behind Each Other's Backs' hits big, twirling guitars added over more layers of guitars, like some tottering wedding cake before it breaks down into vocals that bear some resemblance to the old clatterings of Eastern Lane. It takes the box marked '90s British indie', all a bit Britpop and lovely.

Even better is the B side 'I'm In The Band', which excavates the soggy bags of Pavement's louche charm, the guitar solo played with delayed slackness over the slightly wonky pace that they had so down pat. As a nostalgia trip, it works great. On its own individual merits it rocks out in a lazy manner, spiraling skyward, higher and higher.

4 Or 5 Magicians are on some brilliant trip to somewhere special in the future, around about now. Hop onto their hoverboard... Go. If you want, you can make your own joke about the tracks being 'magic', but we are sooooo above that.