Tuesday, 19 August 2014

The Vinyl Frontier - Bob Dylan, Joni Mitchell


Two more gems recently entrusted to my care...

In 1969 Bob Dylan defied convention and instead of making a political statement - at the time there was much to protest about - he made Nashville Skyline, a sublime and quirky country-rock album.  Featuring Johnny Cash and a host of other great musicians there is much more to this than Lay Lady Lay, and Dylan's best album after Blood On The Tracks. This was the ultimate protest singer making the ultimate anti-protest album.

History really does repeat itself. I have the same feeling listening to Song To A Seagull, Joni Mitchell's wonderful début album, as I do with Laura Marling's Alas I Cannot Swim... The same idealistic lyrical craft mixed with swirling acoustic guitars in a simple, unruffled and raw production. Not many singers get away with a concept album as their first effort but Mitchell made her mark on the music world from the very first note. Her voice is both powerful and un-threatening, every song tells a story, while the strings add the atmospherics.
-- CS

Saturday, 16 August 2014

The Vinyl Frontier - The Beatles

I am not a huge Beatles fan. I have my own favourite songs and I only own Revolver and the two anthologies (on CD)…until now. Recently, I inherited (with great privilege) some ‘old’ records including all twelve original Beatles LPs (thirteen if you include Magical Mystery Tour) plus a few other compilations and rarities collections.

Here they are: 

The Beatles’ albums cover a mere eight years, from the debut Please Please Me in 1963 to Let It Be in 1970. Often making two albums a year during this time, it is an incredible catalogue of music and culture. The development of the band’s music can be divided into four trilogies: Please Please Me, With The Beatles and A Hard Day’s Night is poster-boy jangly pop; Beatles For Sale, Help! and Rubber Soul is a band exploring and expanding; Revolver, Sergeant Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band and The White Album is creativity, risks and reward; and Yellow Submarine, Abbey Road and Let It Be is the sound of self-indulgence, fractures and reflection – Abbey Road feels like the start of Harrison’s solo career with some of his best songs and Let It Be, mostly recorded before Abbey Road, doesn’t feel like a ‘break-up’ album although The Long And Winding Road always seems to be an obvious swansong.

For me, the height of The Beatles’ creativity and power was 1966. The reason I bought Revolver is that I still think it’s a masterpiece – although it does seem to divide fans somewhat – and listening to my new vinyl copy, even more so. The album has just about everything from the dark sad Eleanor Rigby to the playful nursery-rhyme Yellow Submarine, punchy Got To Get You Into My Life and the eclectic closer Tomorrow Never Knows. Vocals are shared and Harrison wrote three good songs. In comparison, the follow-up Sergeant Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band is overrated (but still very good). Having listened to the most of the earlier albums in full, A Hard Day’s Night is a highlight, with its fuzzy production and Lennon and McCartney writing together wonderfully.

I do recognise why and how The Beatles are so popular and why the songs and albums are iconic works of art, not only as part of British music but around the world. The song-writing partnership of Lennon and McCartney is still legendary and combined with George Harrison and Ringo Starr, one of the best-known and loved pop bands lives on.
-- CS

Thursday, 31 July 2014

Music Chart - July 2014

A sparse month for good new music... but great new albums from Deadmau5, Remember Remember, Weird Al Yankovic and Jenny Lewis, plus a decent effort from Manic Street Preachers and Barenaked Ladies.

And again, nothing new to challenge the best album of the year from The War On Drugs...


  1. Lost In The Dream by The War On Drugs
  2. Augustines by Augustines
  3. Rave Tapes by Mogwai
  4. Morning Phase by Beck 
  5. Gach Sgeul (Every Story) by Julie Fowlis
  6. Forgetting The Present by Remember Remember 
  7. The Gloaming by The Gloaming
  8. While 1 is less than 2 by Deadmau5
  9. Beauty & Ruin by Bob Mould
  10. Smoke Fairies by Smoke Fairies
  11. Tales From The Realm Of The Queen Of Pentacles by Suzanne Vega
  12. You Chose These Woes by Model Village
  13. Beautiful Desolation by Paul Thomas Saunders
  14. Mandatory Fun by Weird Al Yankovic
  15. 48:13 by Kasabian
  16. Indie Cindy by The Pixies 
  17. Running With Scissors by Janet Devlin 
  18. The Voyager by Jenny Lewis
  19. The Cautionary Tales Of Mark Oliver Everett by Eels
  20. Grinning Streak by Barenaked Ladies
  21. Upside Down Mountain by Conor Oberst 
  22. Teeth Dreams by The Hold Steady
  23. Burn Your Fire For No Witness by Angel Olsen
  24. The Take Off And Landing of Everything by Elbow
  25. Lazaretto by Jack White
  26. Word Of Mouth by Seth Lakeman 
  27. So Long, See You Tomorrow by Bombay Bicycle Club 
  28. Futurology by Manic Street Preachers
  29. IX by Corrosion Of Conformity
  30. Into The Lime by New Mendicants 
  31. 9 Dead Alive by Rodrigo y Gabriela
  32. A Letter Home By Neil Young
  33. In The Silence by Asgeir
  34. Held In Splendor by Quilt 
  35. Ultraviolence by Lana Del Rey
  36. Salad Days by Mac Demarco
  37. Blood Red Shoes by Blood Red Shoes 
  38. Supernova by Ray LaMontagne
  39. Echoes by Emily Smith 
  40. Everyday Robots by Damon Albarn
  41. Atlas by Real Estate
  42. Croz by David Crosby
  43. Benji by Sun Kil Moon 
  44. St. Vincent by St. Vincent
  45. Cursing The Sea by September Girls
  46. Wildewoman by Lucius
  47. Luminous by The Horrors
  48. High Hopes by Bruce Springsteen
  49. Songs About This And That by Karin Krog & John Surman
  50. Waking Lines by Patterns
  51. Unrepentant Geraldines by Tori Amos 
  52. The Future's Void by EMA
  53. Here And Nowhere Else by Cloud Nothings
  54. Wig Out At Jagbags by Stephen Malkmus & The Jicks
  55. Total Strife Forever by East India Youth
  56. Too Much Information by Maximo Park
  57. Warpaint by Warpaint
  58. Are We There by Sharon Van Etten
  59. To Be Kind by Swans
  60. Eagulls by Eagulls 
  61. Education, Education, Education & War by Kaiser Chiefs
  62. The Crystal Method by The Crystal Method
  63. Kid Face by Samantha Crain
  64. None The Wiser by The Rifles
  65. Oh My Sexy Lord by Marijuana Deathsquads

Friday, 4 July 2014

Suzanne Vega - Live at The Lighthouse, Poole (3rd July 2014)

A warm Summer evening on the south coast of England, and the promise of great music from a true legend, drew us to Poole and the majestic Lighthouse. A venue that has been transformed in recent times from the old Arts Centre to a now modern, bright and vibrant concert hall was to be graced by the presence of Suzanne Vega. And having only seen her live once before (briefly at a dark and wet Glastonbury, from the back of a packed noisy acoustic tent many years ago), I was more than a bit excited to see one of my musical idols in a proper venue for the first time.

 
...But first, the support act. No big name: Chris Simmons from Brighton (who I suspect no one, including me, had heard of) walked on stage with his guitar to a smattering of applause, plugged it in, and just got on with it. With a limited collection of his own songs to choose from he managed to fill his half hour with two Squeeze covers including a superb version of Up The Junction. At one point he asked us, 'as you are so quiet, do you mind if I unplug my guitar?' and he did, playing completely acoustically. It was mesmerising. I have absolute admiration for anyone in this business who can get up on a stage with a voice and just sing. There is nowhere to hide and he didn't have to. Definitely one to watch for the future and hopefully this (short) run of support gigs will bring him an audience...

This year Suzanne Vega has, in the words of my fellow gig-goer JC, 'got her mojo back'. The release of her eighth studio album: Tales From The Realm Of The Queen Of Pentacles, after nearly five years re-working her own back-catalogue for the 'Close-Up' series, is her first new music for seven years and she is clearly re-energised and motivated. This was a no-frills performance with no big screens, light shows or huge orchestra. Backed by the brilliant Gerry Leonard (aka Spooky Ghost) on guitar (he also produced 'Pentacles') and Doug Yowell on drums, the three musicians more than filled the stage with Vega's words and music.

Naturally songs from Tales From The Realm Of The Queen Of Pentacles featured heavily in a set that blended old and new. The intro was the trio of theatrical Fat Man And Dancing Girl, anthemic Marlene On The Wall (with added top hat) and the sultry Caramel before three new songs: the wonderful Fool's Compliant, mysterious Crack In The Wall and enlightening Jacob And The Angel. By this stage, Vega was chatting to the audience in such a charming, funny and engaging way, trying to explain the new songs and their significance. The beautiful Small Blue Thing, gorgeous Gypsy and dramatic poetry of The Queen And The Soldier followed by the endlessly playful Don't Cork What You Can't Contain, spiritual Laying On Of Hands / Stoic 2 and moody Left Of Center formed the delicious centre-piece. To bring the main set to a close, latest crowd-pleaser I Never Wear White lived up to the billing - a definite highlight, lead to the reflective Some Journey, heart-breaking Luka and then to finish a full-on 'DNA'-esque version of Tom's Diner. I'm a huge fan of the original vocal-only take but this worked better on stage.

We didn't have to wait too long for the inevitable encore. Vega explained that they were off to Lisbon for the next leg of the European tour and songs featuring Portuguese Women are the order of the day... so she re-started with a modern update of the elegant Iron Bound / Fancy Poultry before asking us what we wanted. Now was my chance...do or die. I yelled 'Blood Makes Noise' (yes me, really), a song I was surprised didn't make the main set and I was determined to hear it. Turning to Leonard who was already setting up his effects pedals, 'shall we do it?'. And they did, a brilliant 'solo-vocal' version complete with fuzzy guitars and electronics, capturing the spirit of the original. Vega said afterwards that she didn't expect that 'the people of Poole' would be up for that. I'm not from Poole. Then, someone else asked for the melodic In Liverpool, so thankfully I didn't have to - another wonderful highlight, before Rosemary brought the night to a close.

Suzanne Vega did not disappoint. The lack of anything from Songs In Red And Gray and Beauty & Crime was a noticeable omission: Bound, Unbound, Penitent, If I Were A Weapon etc... and World Before Columbus would have been my second shout of the night, but with a wealth of songs to choose from it was not possible to fit in everything. But clearly Vega still has the love for a performance and the feeling is mutual. A magical evening that could have gone on forever, listening to one of the best voices in the business, performing at brilliant as ever.
-- CS

Sunday, 29 June 2014

Music Chart - June 2014

A quiet month but some big hitters return with new albums. Jack White backs up a couple of great preview songs with the mixed Lazaretto which is far too adventurous and unnecessarily ambitious for its own good. Granted, White is a wonderful showman and songwriter, with ideas brimming and overflowing but sometimes keeping things simple is the best policy. Kasabian, on the other hand, have a more straightforward album with 48:13; ignoring the grungy disco of lead single 'eez-eh', there are moments of brilliance here as the recent Glastonbury headliners provide their unique blend of scuzzy electro-rock. And to complete this month's important trilogy, Bob Mould is back with Beauty & Ruin, not as polished as the wonderful Silver Age but guaranteed to please fans of the legendary songwriter. Elsewhere, X-Factor loser Janet Devlin proves there is life after reality TV: Running With Scissors is a gorgeous album of wide-eyed musings, lost loves and storytelling (also it includes a rather nice cover of The Cure's Friday I'm In Love). The Pains of Being Pure At Heart continue the delicious jangly guitar-pop on Days Of Abandon and Lana Del Rey flirts with controversy with Ultraviolence. The mighty Corrosion Of Conformity bring the noise to IX and finally the overrated Sharon Van Etten asks the non-question Are We There.

...but as yet, nothing to knock The War On Drugs from the number one...

  1. Lost In The Dream by The War On Drugs
  2. Augustines by Augustines
  3. Rave Tapes by Mogwai
  4. Morning Phase by Beck 
  5. Gach Sgeul (Every Story) by Julie Fowlis 
  6. The Gloaming by The Gloaming
  7. Beauty & Ruin by Bob Mould
  8. Smoke Fairies by Smoke Fairies
  9. Tales From The Realm Of The Queen Of Pentacles by Suzanne Vega
  10. You Chose These Woes by Model Village
  11. Beautiful Desolation by Paul Thomas Saunders
  12. 48:13 by Kasabian
  13. Indie Cindy by The Pixies 
  14. Running With Scissors by Janet Devlin
  15. The Cautionary Tales Of Mark Oliver Everett by Eels
  16. Upside Down Mountain by Conor Oberst 
  17. Teeth Dreams by The Hold Steady
  18. Burn Your Fire For No Witness by Angel Olsen
  19. The Take Off And Landing of Everything by Elbow
  20. Lazaretto by Jack White
  21. Word Of Mouth by Seth Lakeman 
  22. So Long, See You Tomorrow by Bombay Bicycle Club 
  23. IX by Corrosion Of Conformity
  24. Into The Lime by New Mendicants 
  25. 9 Dead Alive by Rodrigo y Gabriela
  26. A Letter Home By Neil Young
  27. In The Silence by Asgeir
  28. Held In Splendor by Quilt 
  29. Ultraviolence by Lana Del Rey
  30. Salad Days by Mac Demarco
  31. Blood Red Shoes by Blood Red Shoes 
  32. Supernova by Ray LaMontagne
  33. Echoes by Emily Smith 
  34. Everyday Robots by Damon Albarn
  35. Atlas by Real Estate
  36. Croz by David Crosby
  37. Benji by Sun Kil Moon 
  38. St. Vincent by St. Vincent
  39. Cursing The Sea by September Girls
  40. Wildewoman by Lucius
  41. Luminous by The Horrors
  42. High Hopes by Bruce Springsteen
  43. Songs About This And That by Karin Krog & John Surman
  44. Waking Lines by Patterns
  45. Unrepentant Geraldines by Tori Amos 
  46. The Future's Void by EMA
  47. Here And Nowhere Else by Cloud Nothings
  48. Wig Out At Jagbags by Stephen Malkmus & The Jicks
  49. Total Strife Forever by East India Youth
  50. Too Much Information by Maximo Park
  51. Warpaint by Warpaint
  52. Are We There by Sharon Van Etten
  53. To Be Kind by Swans
  54. Eagulls by Eagulls 
  55. Education, Education, Education & War by Kaiser Chiefs
  56. The Crystal Method by The Crystal Method
  57. Kid Face by Samantha Crain
  58. None The Wiser by The Rifles
  59. Oh My Sexy Lord by Marijuana Deathsquads

Saturday, 31 May 2014

Music Chart - May 2014

More of an interesting month for music than a great one... the long awaited solo effort from Damon Albarn, Everyday Robots is as prosaic as it is charming - given his recent collaborative work and adventures into soundtracks, this is the sound of the former Blur front-man growing old gracefully. In contrast, the guitar duo Rodrigo y Gabriela return with 9 Dead Alive, another tribute album, with each track inspired by someone; a more varied collection than 2009's 11:11. This month also brings back The Pixies, a truly extraordinary and inventive band show their class on Indie Cindy. And the other album of note this month is A Letter Home by Neil Young, taking retrospective to the extreme - a covers album (avoiding the obvious, mostly) recorded, with the help of Jack White, on vintage equipment. This works, up to a point, and the under-production is engaging at first but slowly grates. If nothing else, this shows Young is still full of ideas, and music, and long may it continue.

Elsewhere, new material from Swans (To Be Kind) is challenging, Conor Oberst doesn't quite bring back the majesty of Bright Eyes (Upside Down Mountain), Ray LaMontagne (Supernova) goes 60s smooth and Tori Amos (Unrepentant Geraldines) twists and turns her way through a strange, but ultimately underwhelming, landscape.

(...a late addition, thanks to the recent gig supporting The War On Drugs at The Koko, Quilt's Held In Splendor makes it onto the Underwurld chart...Speaking of The War On Drugs, Lost In The Dream still tops the list...)

  1. Lost In The Dream by The War On Drugs
  2. Augustines by Augustines
  3. Rave Tapes by Mogwai
  4. Morning Phase by Beck 
  5. Gach Sgeul (Every Story) by Julie Fowlis 
  6. The Gloaming by The Gloaming
  7. Smoke Fairies by Smoke Fairies
  8. Tales From The Realm Of The Queen Of Pentacles by Suzanne Vega
  9. You Chose These Woes by Model Village
  10. Beautiful Desolation by Paul Thomas Saunders 
  11. Indie Cindy by The Pixies
  12. The Cautionary Tales Of Mark Oliver Everett by Eels
  13. Upside Down Mountain by Conor Oberst 
  14. Teeth Dreams by The Hold Steady
  15. Burn Your Fire For No Witness by Angel Olsen
  16. The Take Off And Landing of Everything by Elbow
  17. Word Of Mouth by Seth Lakeman 
  18. So Long, See You Tomorrow by Bombay Bicycle Club
  19. Into The Lime by New Mendicants 
  20. 9 Dead Alive by Rodrigo y Gabriela
  21. A Letter Home By Neil Young
  22. In The Silence by Asgeir
  23. Held n Splendor by Quilt
  24. Salad Days by Mac Demarco
  25. Blood Red Shoes by Blood Red Shoes 
  26. Supernova by Ray LaMontagne
  27. The Future's Void by EMA
  28. Echoes by Emily Smith 
  29. Everyday Robots by Damon Albarn
  30. Atlas by Real Estate
  31. Croz by David Crosby
  32. Benji by Sun Kil Moon 
  33. St. Vincent by St. Vincent
  34. Cursing The Sea by September Girls
  35. Wildewoman by Lucius
  36. Luminous by The Horrors
  37. High Hopes by Bruce Springsteen
  38. Songs About This And That by Karin Krog & John Surman
  39. Waking Lines by Patterns
  40. Unrepentant Geraldines by Tori Amos
  41. Here And Nowhere Else by Cloud Nothings
  42. Wig Out At Jagbags by Stephen Malkmus & The Jicks
  43. Total Strife Forever by East India Youth
  44. Too Much Information by Maximo Park
  45. Warpaint by Warpaint
  46. To Be Kind by Swans
  47. Eagulls by Eagulls 
  48. Education, Education, Education & War by Kaiser Chiefs
  49. The Crystal Method by The Crystal Method
  50. Kid Face by Samantha Crain
  51. None The Wiser by The Rifles
  52. Oh My Sexy Lord by Marijuana Deathsquads

Thursday, 29 May 2014

The War On Drugs at The Koko (27/05/2014)


We headed for London on a rainy Tuesday night in May to the Koko, just a brief walk from Mornington Crescent tube station, for what promised to be one of the highlights of the year: The War On Drugs (Lost In The Dream tour). The venue, formally a theatre, cinema and BBC studio, hosted The Goons and Monty Python’s Flying Circus back in the day before it became the Camden Palace in the 80s, to be renovated in 2004 into the magnificent music hall it is today. So, after queuing in the drizzle and failing to recognise members of support band Quilt heading for the VIP entrance, we hurried inside…

Finding a suitable vantage point on top left walkway in front of the bar, it wasn’t long before Quilt walked on stage for one of their first European (support) gigs, a (now) four-piece band from Boston who have recently released their second album Held In Splendour. The slight (and very cute) Anna Fox Rochinski and imposing (handsome) Shane Butler, banishing guitars and microphones equally, is a delicious combination and the band made the most of their short support slot. Songs from Held In Splendour featured heavily including the brilliant Arctic Shark and Tie Up The Tides, and live the band added a vibrancy and energy lacking on the record.

[Photo credit: ThreeBeams]

During the break, the usual sound checks took place and we had our first glimpse of the mighty Adam Granduciel with his unkempt hair, sorting out his guitars and peddles. And then the band took to the stage. Granduciel has recently described The War On Drugs as a ‘one man band’ which is a huge disservice to David Hartley, Robbie Bennett and Charlie Hall. Given the intimate song-writing of latest album Lost In The Dream, we all know what he means but this was a massive performance by the quartet. The set was a curious mix of previous masterpiece Slave Ambient and most of Lost In The Dream, with new arrangements of the former framing the newer songs. It (mostly) worked, in that Slave Ambient works beautifully as a single end-to-end album; ebbing and flowing as it glides between familiar sounds and themes, constantly revisiting itself. So, within the more stand-alone Lost In The Dream tracks, songs like Brothers, Some To The City and Baby Missiles added a strange, yet wonderful, glue. 

Granduciel’s guitar work throughout was especially sublime, as was Charlie Hall’s ferocious drumming. The big highlights were Burning, Under The Pressure (without the unnecessary prolonged outro of the original) and the perfect Eyes Top The Wind. The encore provided the night’s big surprise:  starting with a cover of John Lennon’s Mind Games, which was quite amazing. The depth of songs from two great albums made this one of the best sets of any gig I’ve experienced. A great night at an iconic venue.
-- CS (with JC)

Wednesday, 30 April 2014

Music Chart - April 2014

New albums this month from loser/hipster Mac Demarco - back with the endearing Salad Days, the sublime ethereal jangly-guitar pop of Atlas from Real Estate, and Brooklyn's ferocious Lucius and their album Wildewoman. This month we can also hear the return of Kaiser Chiefs and Education, Education, Education & War - an album which has its moments, both good and bad. In complete contrast EMA fuses passion and technology into an eclectic mix of rough and smooth on The Future's Void, Paul Thomas Saunders satisfies with Beautiful Desolation and Smoke Fairies follow-up their difficult second album with a much more accomplished set of beautiful vocals and solid songwriting. Last but not least, Eels release yet another album of self-deprecation, heartbreak and mournful songs with The Cautionary Tales Of Mark Oliver Everett.

The War On Drugs hold the top spot...

  1. Lost In The Dream by The War On Drugs
  2. Augustines by Augustines
  3. Rave Tapes by Mogwai
  4. Morning Phase by Beck 
  5. Gach Sgeul (Every Story) by Julie Fowlis 
  6. The Gloaming by The Gloaming
  7. Smoke Fairies by Smoke Fairies
  8. Tales From The Realm Of The Queen Of Pentacles by Suzanne Vega
  9. You Chose These Woes by Model Village
  10. Beautiful Desolation by Paul Thomas Saunders
  11. The Cautionary Tales Of Mark Oliver Everett by Eels
  12. Teeth Dreams by The Hold Steady
  13. Burn Your Fire For No Witness by Angel Olsen
  14. The Take Off And Landing of Everything by Elbow
  15. Word Of Mouth by Seth Lakeman 
  16. So Long, See You Tomorrow by Bombay Bicycle Club
  17. Into The Lime by New Mendicants
  18. In The Silence by Asgeir
  19. Salad Days by Mac Demarco
  20. Blood Red Shoes by Blood Red Shoes 
  21. The Future's Void by EMA
  22. Echoes by Emily Smith 
  23. Atlas by Real Estate
  24. Croz by David Crosby
  25. Benji by Sun Kil Moon 
  26. St. Vincent by St. Vincent
  27. Cursing The Sea by September Girls
  28. Wildewoman by Lucius
  29. High Hopes by Bruce Springsteen
  30. Songs About This And That by Karin Krog & John Surman
  31. Waking Lines by Patterns
  32. Here And Nowhere Else by Cloud Nothings
  33. Wig Out At Jagbags by Stephen Malkmus & The Jicks
  34. Total Strife Forever by East India Youth
  35. Too Much Information by Maximo Park
  36. Warpaint by Warpaint
  37. Eagulls by Eagulls 
  38. Education, Education, Education & War by Kaiser Chiefs
  39. The Crystal Method by The Crystal Method
  40. Kid Face by Samantha Crain
  41. None The Wiser by The Rifles
  42. Oh My Sexy Lord by Marijuana Deathsquads

Friday, 18 April 2014

The Vinyl Frontier - The Cure, The Jesus And Mary Chain, Bruce Springsteen, Kirsty MacColl, Bob Dylan

The USR music fair at the Rivermead in Reading (UK) on Friday 18th April (Good Friday) was too good to miss this year... one of six biggest UK one-day events and a huge selection of records on offer.

First up, an album I've been waiting for... the limited edition gatefold of Automatic by The Jesus And Mary Chain. By no means the band's finest work, this is the transition between the feedback-strewn gloomy shoegaze of Darklands (and the mighty Psycho Candy début before) and the brilliant Honey's Dead. Fans loved this album, while the critics hated it (Q Magazine struggled to award 2 stars) and I remember listening my cassette copy over and over until it fell apart. And it still sounds great on vinyl today, especially Blues From A Gun and UV Ray.

I've always been a big fan of The Cure but never a big collector...until recently. I keep seeing copies of Kiss Me, Kiss Me, Kiss Me but never The Head On The Door - an album I've been seeking for ages. Boasting one of the band's most creative collection of songs, and the brilliant singles Close To Me and In Between Days, for me this has always been the prelude to their finest work, Disintegration. On side B, A Night Like This and closer Sinking are both the sound of a band coming of age.

I'm always on the lookout for records by Bruce Springsteen and Nebraska was high on my list. A truly challenging record of sparse, dark songwriting - a stopgap between The River and Born In The USA and an album that may have never existed. Springsteen originally recorded it with the E Street Band and then decided to release the 'demo' version. The result is haunting and desolate with piercing vocals and harmonica - Springsteen's folk album, made better by the occasional crackle and blip on the record. The production and songwriting are both superb.

A rose between two thorns, Kirsty MacColl's Kite is still one of my favourite albums of the eighties and a perfect example of an artist doing their own thing in time when so many musicians weren't. This is an eclectic mix of sounds and styles including the cover Days and turns from Johnny Marr and David Gilmour, and Steve Lillywhite on production. This is filled with witty observations, sharp and poignant lyrics, all brilliantly delivered by an artist who left us well before her time.

And last, but not least...the find of the day. For as long as I can remember I have been trying to find a decent copy of Blood On The Tracks. So when I spotted a 'VG' copy for a modest price, I had to investigate. Easily the best thing Bob Dylan has ever made; an album with so much poetry, poise and power doesn't come along too often. From opener Tangled Up In Blue to the vitriolic Idiot Wind, to Lily, Rosemary And The Jack Of Hearts and the mighty Shelter From The Storm, this is now one of the best in my collection. And for a record that is nearly as old as I am, it sounds wonderful.

Saturday, 29 March 2014

Music Chart - March 2014

Another great month yields three new albums by three great artists: Julie Fowlis weaves her vocal magic and mystery on Gach Sgeul (Every Story), Elbow continue to charm and captivate with The Take Off And Landing Of Everything, and The War On Drugs return with Lost In The Dream - a wonderful follow-up to Slave Ambient (and another early contender for album of the year). Elsewhere St. Vincent pushes the aural boundaries, Blood Red Shoes bring the trash-noise and The Hold Steady prove they are still as intense and focused as ever.

  1. Lost In The Dream by The War On Drugs
  2. Augustines by Augustines
  3. Rave Tapes by Mogwai
  4. Morning Phase by Beck 
  5. Gach Sgeul (Every Story) by Julie Fowlis 
  6. The Gloaming by The Gloaming
  7. Tales From The Realm Of The Queen Of Pentacles by Suzanne Vega
  8. You Chose These Woes by Model Village
  9. Teeth Dreams by The Hold Steady
  10. Burn Your Fire For No Witness by Angel Olsen
  11. The Take Off And Landing of Everything
  12. Word Of Mouth by Seth Lakeman 
  13. So Long, See You Tomorrow by Bombay Bicycle Club
  14. Into The Lime by New Mendicants
  15. In The Silence by Asgeir
  16. Blood Red Shoes by Blood Red Shoes
  17. Echoes by Emily Smith
  18. Croz by David Crosby
  19. Benji by Sun Kil Moon 
  20. St. Vincent by St. Vincent
  21. Cursing The Sea by September Girls
  22. High Hopes by Bruce Springsteen
  23. Songs About This And That by Karin Krog & John Surman
  24. Waking Lines by Patterns
  25. Wig Out At Jagbags by Stephen Malkmus & The Jicks
  26. Total Strife Forever by East India Youth
  27. Too Much Information by Maximo Park
  28. Warpaint by Warpaint
  29. Eagulls by Eagulls
  30. The Crystal Method by The Crystal Method
  31. Kid Face by Samantha Crain
  32. None The Wiser by The Rifles
  33. Oh My Sexy Lord by Marijuana Deathsquads

Thursday, 27 March 2014

The War On Drugs - Lost In The Dream (Album Review 2014)





The War On Drugs has been, and will always be, a band of one... Adam Granduciel has taken his labour of love further into his own mind on third album Lost In The Dream, to explore his conciousness, his life and his emotional state. It was always going to be tough to go one better than previous album Slave Ambient, a swirling vortex of prog-rock, subtle floating soundscapes and brilliant guitar-led pop songs - all washed with Granduciel's Dylan-like vocals. So, given the inward, self-indulgent nature of The War On Drugs, Lost In The Dream, a new album of material written mainly while touring, undergoing many rewrites and reworks, was never going to be as good.


But it is. Lost In The Dream is a different album than Slave Ambient, subtly different in its approach and delivery. While the previous album is big, bold and wide-eyed, Lost In The Dream is closed, introverted and personal. From opener Under The Pressure, it is clear that Granduciel wants to share his pain and anxiety of being in the spotlight and living up to expectations. At nearly nine minutes, this is the longest song on the album; it ebbs and flows with lifts and falls before the only truly weak point: instead of dropping into a quiet, ambient lull for a minute before returning with shining guitars and pounding drums for the big finish, absolutely nothing happens. A deliberate ironic statement about not following predictable convention? Possibly...but the lack of inspiration right from the start is a real surprise.

Red Eyes provides the early 'pop' song, blending ethereal synths and guitars with racing drums. The effect is not too far from Razorlight (back in their prime), Granduciel punchy and with purpose - even throwing in an over-exuberant woop before the guitars rain-down. In contrast, Suffering is light yet melancholy, slow-paced and beautifully sublime. The gorgeous piano arrangement in the second half contrasts the oddly-random guitar work. Then the album takes a more ambitious turn with the beguiling An Ocean In Between The Waves, which could be the Dire Straits song that never was; Granduciel more Knofler than Dylan while exquisite guitars and thumping drums lead to a frantic peppering of vocals in the second half.

Continuing the lighter feel of Lost In The Dream, Disappearing provides a superb centre-piece - shining like a magnificent 80s soft-rock influenced interlude between what has come and the second act. This starts with Eyes To The Wind, one of the best songs Granduciel has written - his vocals are exposed and the arrangement unwinds with a supreme elegance; the vocal delivery a nod toward former band-mate Kurt Vile. All this is blended with more guitars, drums and the most wonderful piano. What makes this so good is that Granduciel is not hiding behind a massive stadium-filling sound. This leads to the album's only return to a trick from its predecessor: the three-minutes of The Haunting Idle gives a brief Floyd-esque reprise, but without the original song, before the final trilogy...

...begins with another album highlight and superb pop song, Burning. This feels heavily Springsteen-fuelled with ever-present organ (circa Darkness On The Edge Of Town) and driving drums. And then the title track, with delicious (never-overused) harmonica, brings another moment of class to build like a lost Neil Young classic. Obvious influences aside, this is reinvention and reinterpretation of the tried and tested and not mere copycatting. To close, In Reverse is delivered as the quiet reflection after a turbulent, cathartic, and often painful journey, never overstated and fading delicately into a soft aftermath instead of unleashing the explosives. A perfect end to a near perfect-work.

Lost In The Dream is a slow-burner...it doesn't grab your attention and sweeps you along for the ride; it draws you in, further into the inner world of Adam Granduciel on each listen. He hasn't done this all on his own of course, and the 'band' play to their strengths throughout and new boy Patrick Berkery is supreme with the sticks. But the songwriting and song-craft is every bit as strong as the new standard we now expect from The War On Drugs and ultimately Adam Granduciel has opened his heart, poured out his soul, and made another brilliant album.
-- CS

Saturday, 15 March 2014

Mogwai - Usher Hall (8th March 2014)

As part of the centenary celebrations of Edinburgh's magnificent Usher Hall, bringing together contemporary and classical music, and comedy across five nights, I was drawn to the great city to see Mogwai. Not only a Scottish institution and much maligned 'cult' band, Mogwai are in the highest echelons of musical greatness, and the chance to see one of the best bands in the world was too good to pass up.

So, armed with train tickets, a guest house booking and gig tickets for the upper circle, I ventured north of the border via London for a weekend of culture and music. I took the opportunity to see Edinburgh's sights - the Castle, Palace, Royal Mile, Cathedral, Arthur's Seat and National Monument, the pubs and restaurants, and the hoards of French descended on the capital for the 6 Nations rugby. But the highlight was Saturday Night at Usher Hall, at 7pm. Waiting for the doors to open, to be escorted up the stairs and through the corridors and bars to the concert auditorium with its rows of seats looking down on the stage and stalls - the excitement quickened.

Mogwai's support for the night were two other Scottish bands: Remember Remember and The Pastels. Both did much with the limited time they had - two half hour sets flew by. It would be easy to describe Remember Remember as 'Mogwai-lite' but they bring their own personality to their music - delicate xylophone, keyboards and interesting electronic flourishes. The Pastels added vocals and a more organic depth, but kicked off with Slow Summits, a blistering 6-minute instrumental, before more typical songs from the full-on Baby Honey to the delicate Summer Rain. Both bands seemed to enjoy and relish the experience.


But it was Mogwai's night. A stage packed with amps, keyboards, a huge drum-kit and guitar stands awaited Stuart, Dominic, Martin, John and Barry, complete with 'Rave Tapes' themed lighting rig and graphics looming above. The set for the night wasn't entirely dominated by the latest album - no bad thing but there was barely room for the best of the rest - and the Mogwai back catalogue is extensive and impressive in any live environment. This was the full set:

Heard About You Last Night
Rano Pano
Helicon 1
Take Me Somewhere Nice
Master Card
I'm Jim Morrison, I'm Dead
Deesh
Hunted By A Freak
Mogwai Fear Satan
How To Be A Werewolf
Remurdered
We're No Here
---
The Lord Is Out Of Control
Ithica 27/9
Batcat


The best of the set was the trio of Hunted By A Freak, the epic Mogwai Fear Satan (complete with fantastic explosive reboot) and the swirling guitars of How To Be A Werewolf. The mighty We're No Here completed the main set before a subdued encore climaxed with the awesome ferocious noise of Batcat. Within the venue, the sound slicing through the crowd and echoing from the rafters, reflected back into the stalls, the immense force of guitars and drums were amplified beyond belief. I could feel the music pounding in my chest as much as in my ears, even from my lofted vantage point (a brilliant view down on the stage). The loud became louder. The delicate melodies were somewhat lost in the noise at times but even the set's weaker songs were given a new dimension - most notably Master Card had a much needed lift, and the new songs sounded brilliant live. It would have great to hear more from The Hawk Is Howling...and in a set designed to showcase the new material (obviously), there was no Friend Of The Night, Auto Rock, You Don't Know Jesus or R U Still In 2 It. They were never going to create a set to please everyone.

So my first experience of Mogwai live was a unique and overwhelming experience. As we left the Usher Hall, still shaking from the acoustic-battering (both the crowd and the building), I overheard someone say they had seen Mogwai live many times but that was one of the loudest. They set out to do the venue and their kin proud, and they really did bring the noise.
-- CS

Thursday, 27 February 2014

Album Chart - February 2014

New albums this month from (among others) the stadium-bound Augustines, with their brilliant eponymous follow-up to Rise Ye Sunken Ships, the ever-wonderful Suzanne Vega - back after a reworking sabbatical with new material Tales From The Realm Of The Queen Of Pentacles, and the beguiling Beck who has released his most serene, sublime work of his career: Morning Phase. Elsewhere, Mary Chapin Carpenter is cinematic, Seth Lakeman is genre-redefining, and Sun Kil Moon is autobiographically challenging.

  1. Augustines by Augustines
  2. Rave Tapes by Mogwai
  3. Morning Phase by Beck
  4. The Gloaming by The Gloaming
  5. Tales From The Realm Of The Queen Of Pentacles by Suzanne Vega
  6. You Chose These Woes by Model Village
  7. Burn Your Fire For No Witness by Angel Olsen
  8. Word Of Mouth by Seth Lakeman 
  9. So Long, See You Tomorrow by Bombay Bicycle Club
  10. Into The Lime by New Mendicants
  11. In The Silence by Asgeir
  12. Croz by David Crosby
  13. Benji by Sun Kil Moon
  14. Cursing The Sea by September Girls
  15. High Hopes by Bruce Springsteen
  16. Songs About This And That by Karin Krog & John Surman
  17. Waking Lines by Patterns
  18. Wig Out At Jagbags by Stephen Malkmus & The Jicks
  19. Total Strife Forever by East India Youth
  20. Too Much Information by Maximo Park
  21. Warpaint by Warpaint
  22. The Crystal Method by The Crystal Method
  23. Kid Face by Samantha Crain
  24. None The Wiser by The Rifles
  25. Oh My Sexy Lord by Marijuana Deathsquads

Saturday, 15 February 2014

Suzanne Vega - Tales From The Realm Of The Queen Of Pentacles (Album review 2014)


Since 2007's Beauty & Crime, Suzanne Vega has revisited her own back catalogue for the 'Close-up' series - a quartet of albums sub-titled: Love Songs, People & Places, States of Being and Songs of Family. With varied results, these form an interesting and intriguing retrospective (making the 1998 and 2003 'best of' compilations largely redundant), both a celebration for fans and much needed inspiration and reflection for Vega; not to mention income and 'ownership' - to reclaim her prized work from major labels. Now, seven years since her last studio album of new material, Tales From The Realm Of The Queen Of Pentacles brings new life to Vega's music. The title is a reference to the Tarot card representing fertility, or impending motherhood - but also a double-meaning of youthful maturity, artistry and wisdom.

It would be difficult to suggest that the 'Close-up' work has had no effect on Suzanne Vega's approach to music. On one hand, she could have ignored her past completely and continued the thread started with the deep, painful and beautiful Songs In Red And Gray, but Vega - in collaboration with producer/musician Gerry Leonard - has injected a much needed sense of fun and adventure into her storytelling. The vocal delivery of opener Crack In The Wall may be uneasy and lack the precision of, say, Penitent, but this only forms the first half of the song, as the vibrant guitar-work shines throughout. Lyrically, this is a series of beguiling metaphors while Fool's Compliant is a good a single as Vega has produced, a punchy folk-pop lament filled with jangling guitars and a superb chorus. Some gorgeous backing vocals lift the arrangement further. In contrast, I Never Wear White is pure character, Vega inhabiting a darker soul - 'Black is the truth... of my situation, and for those of my station...' is the Gothic refrain before harsh, edgy guitars kick in. The two are conjoined for the angst-driven finish.

It is now clear that Tales From The Realm Of The Queen Of Pentacles is a blend of styles and substances... On Portrait of The Knight Of Wands (another Tarot card - this time referencing a man of ideas and invention, and a time of travel and progress), Vega sings delicately of a struggle and strange imagery - 'His mission, a transmission... of technology'. The final minute is an odd juxtaposition of guitars and electronic flourish to fade. Don't Uncork What You Can't Contain takes this approach to another level, with sampling meeting Eastern rhythms for a mythical tale of curiosity and misadventure. This is the most divisive song on the album, mixing different styles and sounds but ultimately failing to deliver - a rare weak drop in form. Likewise, the constant distracting hand-claps underpinning Jacob And The Angel plague an otherwise interesting song, which glides beautifully into an instrumental string-filled finale.

Further into the second half of Tales From The Realm Of The Queen Of Pentacles, Silver Bridge is wonderful. Simple, measured and perfectly executed. 'All those nights when you can't sleep...your heart and mind is racing. Are you standing on that bridge? Which way are you facing?', sings Vega, with wide-eyed optimism, in one of the album's best moments. Song Of The Stoic take the album into different territory, a tale of abuse, fighting control and ultimate flight, as the music meanders from acoustic folk to epic soundtrack. The second half brings in vocal experimentation, somewhere between Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds and (dare to say) Mumford & Sons. The second part of this story, Laying On Of Hands / Stoic 2 is a funk-folk fuelled tribute to Mother Theresa (yes, really), an odd choice of styles with no hint of irony, before the song accelerates in a completely different direction to a soulful soup of vocals and thumping drums. Sublime. To close, Horizon (There Is A Road) is an elegant finish, even with the unexpected trumpet solo and Vega's vocal excursions (the attempt at falsetto just about works).

Suzanne Vega, as the title of this album suggests, is both an artist and a provider; a women of knowledge and wisdom. Tales From The Realm Of The Queen Of Pentacles is a rebirth, and has recaptured her youthful energy and enthusiasm via the process of examining her own songs through reinterpretation. She has survived the ruthless music business that made her a star and has come back fighting, smarter... and the result is new, risky, often brilliant, always compelling and above all, relevant. Much of the album is unexpected, yet familiar - not quite a reinvention (the albums 99.9F degrees and Nine Objects Of Desire are a world away from the humble New York poet beginnings) but this is certainly a reinvigoration and a chance to experiment and expand. What emerges is the most challenging and exciting Suzanne Vega album in fifteen years. And possibly one of her best.
-- CS

Saturday, 1 February 2014

The Vinyl Frontier - Sugar, Carter USM and New Order

Another record fair today, this time in sunny Guildford at the wonderful (yet small and cold) Guildhall. It was the usual mix of old and new, boxes of ragged dog-eared Beatles and Rolling Stones, plenty of poor-quality Bob Dylan and Bowie, and a smattering of 'newer' music.


And for me, a real find: Sugar's Copper Blue, one of my favourite albums which kept me sane on many a bus journey to university in the early 90s. Like many records of this time, the pressing isn't perfect and slightly 'treble' heavy but in good condition. Two other albums caught my eye: 101 Damnations, the début from Carter, The Unstoppable Sex Machine - again, for an album that's 25 years old, it plays very well. This is a real angst-driven album of frustration and social-political songwriting which still sounds new and relevant today (and yes, Sheriff Fatman is forever magnificent). To complete the trio, Joe Jackson's Night and Day. I'm not a huge Joe Jackson fan but this is a great album; a deft blend of rough and smooth, paying homage to Cole Porter and New York City. Stepping Out is the undisputed classic but elsewhere there is astute observations and commentary.


I don't usually buy 12 inch singles these days but I couldn't let these go. I've always wanted a copy of New Order's Blue Monday and the FAC73 'seven and a half minute' original single (the 12" backed with The Beach) is the grandfather of all versions since ('88 and '95'). And it plays wonderfully. From the same year is Lovecats by The Cure, another brilliant song, and the 1998 re-issue 12" of Wild Wood by Paul Weller, originally released to promote the Modern Classics greatest hits, this is backed with The Sheared Wood (Portishead) remix and Science (with The Psychonauts - Lynch Mob remix). Try and find these on Spotify :)

Thursday, 30 January 2014

Album Chart - January 2014

Another new year and another new album chart. A slow start to the month has picked up in the last two weeks and three great albums from Mogwai, Model Village and The Gloaming.


  1. Rave Tapes by Mogwai
  2. The Gloaming by The Gloaming
  3. You Chose These Woes by Model Village
  4. In The Silence by Asgeir
  5. Croz by David Crosby
  6. Cursing The Sea by September Girls
  7. High Hopes by Bruce Springsteen
  8. Waking Lines by Patterns
  9. Wig Out At Jagbags by Stephen Malkmus & The Jicks
  10. Total Strife Forever by East India Youth
  11. Warpaint by Warpaint
  12. The Crystal Method by The Crystal Method
  13. Kid Face by Samantha Crain
  14. Oh My Sexy Lord by Marijuana Deathsquads

Saturday, 25 January 2014

Mogwai - Rave Tapes (Album Review 2014)


The musical chronology of Mogwai can be defined as three acts. The début masterpiece Mogwai Young Team with its epic triplets Like Herod, R U Still In 2 It and Mogwai Fear Satan, the difficult and inconsistent but often brilliant Come On Die Young, and the textured ground-breaking keyboard-infused Rock Action, form act one. Added to these are the band's early EPs, collectively released as EP+6. Act two is one of the best trilogies of albums by any band: Happy Songs For Happy People, Mr Beast and The Hawk Is Howling are the combined sound of a band ascending to greatness; if anyone wants to own a near-perfect example of 'post rock', they should look no further than these. This era also includes the first adventurous steps into film scoring, something Mogwai were born to do: Zidane: A 21st Century Portrait is a dark, ambient and subtle soundtrack. And now, seventeen years after the band's début, Mogwai are expanding their horizons in act three: the live album Special Moves, the Earth Division EP and 'upbeat' studio album Hardcore Will Never Die, But You Will (in spite of the harsh title this is one of Mogwai's lighter and more liberated albums, including the wonderful Music For A Forgotten Future), then another wonderful soundtrack: Les Revenants to accompany an extraordinary series of French television (The Returned in the UK) followed a slightly disappointing remix album A Wrenched Virile Lore. An impressive body of work, now complimented by Mogwai's eighth studio release, Rave Tapes.

From the opening song, Heard About You Last Night, it's clear that Rave Tapes is an electronic-infused artistic return to The Hawk Is Howling; a typical Mogwai introduction: building slowly as a soundtrack fragment before the guitars glide in, to provide the melody, then joined by strings and synthesizers. The loose, lumbering arrangement is held together with Martin Bulloch's sublime percussion. This fails to translate into momentum (in the same way as Mr Beast's Auto Rock dives into Glasgow Maga-Snake and Batcat arrives early on The Hawk Is Howling to drive the album forward), as the fuzzy production and slow-pace of Simon Ferocious makes for a subdued start. Again, the drumming is superb. It is not until the start of Remurdered that Rave Tapes shows its teeth - the dark, menacing dread of a 'bass line' and creepy atmosphere juxtaposed with fragmented drums and guitars. Three minutes in and the keyboards and drums arrive, like the soundtrack to a movie in which 8-bit machines take over the unsuspecting world. The song builds as more layers of guitars add to the threat, while the electronic threads march to the cold, calculated finale.

Hexon Bogon is a flash of brilliance; a rare two-and-a-half-minute swathe of guitars, drums and epic production before the beguiling wonder of Repelish, an uneasy mix of start-stop guitar melody and spoken word - talking of the dangers of demonic subliminal messages in rock music. Easily the most eclectic song on any Mogwai album; unique, compelling and unexpected. Master Card is back on course, a furious staccato guitar-led piece building to a messy and abrupt finish, before the magnificent Deesh provides another highlight: a gorgeous blend of guitars, drums and keyboards used to construct a melodic arrangement of hope and despair. Mogwai at their supreme best. The final trio of songs on Rave Tapes add more vocals to an otherwise, and typical, instrumental world. Blues Hour reworks Cody beautifully with added muddy guitars and stirring piano, the soft vocals creating a new instrument instead of talking centre-stage, while No Medicine For Regret is the late highlight, with its breathtaking vibrato melody washing over the dense brooding backdrop. To close, The Lord Is Out Of Control is a lazy, droning, vocoder-filled non-entity which feels like an unnecessary distraction.

It isn't clear if Rave Tapes is the end of act three or the start of act four for Mogwai. What is clear, is a return to safety as if the band need to revisit their most creative and productive period. This makes the album a predictable and unsurprising experience, which is no bad thing - when listening to the new Bob Dylan you wouldn't expect 80s electro-pop. Mogwai's signature and unique personality is all over Rave Tapes, a thoroughly enjoyable hybrid of past and present, safe yet edgy, different but the same - exactly what you would expect from a band consistently redefining their post-rock world.
- CS

Sunday, 19 January 2014

The Vinyl Frontier - Crosby, Stills & Nash, Throwing Muses

My first record fair of the year (Southampton Solent University Conference Centre, Saturday 18th January), uncovered some interesting gems. First up is the début Crosby, Stills & Nash album, with gatefold sleeve featuring slightly out-of-focus photos of the band and lyric sheet, and is now the oldest vinyl recording I own (1969). It plays well on my Pro-Ject carbon, Kenwood amp and Q speakers, although the bass fights to come through and the production sounds a little fuzzy. It's a great album that hasn't aged too well in terms of song-writing but the combined vocals of CSN are without question, beautiful. Likewise, a German release of Harvest by Neil Young is equally lovely, the follow-up to the brilliant After The Goldrush and is always in its predecessor's shadow.


I am always looking out for 'cult' bands and artists from the 80s and 90s and whenever I frequent fairs and new record shops, I am instantly drawn to any boxes labelled 'punk/new wave' or 'alternative' (if there are any). One band's recently re-discovered catalogue is Throwing Muses (their album Purgatory/Paradise from late last year is a masterpiece) but I have never found any decent vinyl...until now. I wait years and two come along at once: Hunkpapa and Limbo - neither are the best Throwing Muses albums but great nonetheless, both in good condition and sound like they have hardly been played.


Three more to finish: Midnight Oil's breakthrough mid-eighties tribute/protest album Diesel and Dust (picked up at a new record shop I found on the way home from the record fair) - this has been well-played but has enough huge arrangements to hide any imperfections. The Echo & The Bunnymen singles collection Songs To Learn & Sing has plenty of great songs, although not a rarity. And lastly, the début Happy Head from The Mighty Lemon Drops - a band always second to The Teardrop Explodes for me but another great addition to my growing collection of vinyl.

Wednesday, 15 January 2014

Bruce Springsteen - High Hopes (Album review 2014)

Revisiting old material isn't always easy, but if anyone can pull it off, it's The Boss. Given that in recent years, Bruce Springsteen has lost two of his closest friends and long-serving members of The E Street Band: Danny Federici and Clarence Clemons, it's fitting that he should give them one final walk on stage (they each appear on two songs and together on one). High Hopes comprises many reworks, two covers and studio recordings of tour favourites, with the former Rage Against The Machine and Audioslave guitarist Tom Morello (who toured as part of The E Street Band in 2008/9) instrumental (pun intended) in bringing this album to life. His presence and skill is (almost) ever-present.

To say this doesn't feel like a proper Springsteen album would be wrong; if you didn't know High Hopes is a collection of covers, re-recordings and 'rejects', most wouldn't know or case. Obviously even a passing fan would pick up on The Ghost Of Tom Joad but as a cohesive work, it stands alone. Not all albums have a strong narrative and a central 'story' and the last few Springsteen albums (Wrecking Ball and Magic most notably) are good examples. The title track (originally from the Blood Brothers EP - and not written by Springsteen), complete with brass flashes and odd arrangement, is a solid, attention-grabbing opener, followed by The Rising cut Harry's Place, a song better than half of those that made the album. This is a running theme in the world of Bruce...as The Promise shows.

The two covers on High Hopes almost steal the album. Just Like Fire Would, originally by The Saints, is wonderfully faithful to the original but sounds very 'Springsteen', with added organ, denser guitar work and, of course, the trademark rasping vocals. And Suicide's cold, stark Dream Baby Dream is given a warmer interpretation with softer keyboards, stronger vocals and a fuller sound. A brilliant reworking. To complement this, Hunter Of Invisible Game wouldn't be out of place on the marvellous Devils & Dust, perfectly produced with delicate strings and guitars, Springsteen on top vocal form delivering his poetry. But the two stand-out moments have to be twin seven minute epics of American Skin (41 Shots), brilliantly recorded to capture the spirit of the live recording, and the legendary masterpiece The Ghost Of Tom Joad, complete with Morello's manic impossible guitars filling out the second half.

High Hopes is far from ground-breaking and not beyond criticism - after all if you are one of the most famous musicians in the world you better live up to it... and even here, Bruce Springsteen can make an album that is engaging and warm. It's not all good news as songs like the obvious Heaven's Wall, the hapless Frankie Fell In Love and the Celtic-infused This Is Your Sword drag the middle of High Hopes down but the gorgeous balladry of The Wall is another understated gem - Springsteen at his best when he just tells a story, plain and simple; especially poignant when it's a story close to your heart. The trumpet solo to finish and organ from the late Federici, are breathtaking. This album is more a labour of love than a statement of intent.
-- CS

Sunday, 12 January 2014

Sam Smith wins BBC Sound of 2014

Congratulations to 21 year old Sam Smith for winning this year's BBC 'Sound of' poll. In a longlist that was shamefully low on guitar bands and heavy on urban acts and solo artists, Smith pipped fellow dance vocalists Ella Eyre and BANKS to the top spot. Sadly, no place for the wonderful Luke Sital-Singh, but George Ezra grabbed fifth place behind the equally enigmatic Sampha. A top five of soloists.

Smith is best known for the Disclosure song Latch...an acoustic version (arguably better than the original) can be found on his Nirvana EP and is easily the best thing he's recorded. His voice is magnificent yet subjected to massive over-production (Safe With Me is particularly baffling). So, the world may be out in front of him but an album is in the waiting to test his talents.

I'm all in favour of the BBC promoting and showcasing young British talent but the absence of bands this year is a real worry. Haim won last year so I can't complain too much...