Friday, 29 August 2008

Martina Topley-Bird - Baby Blue Single Review

A single review for The Music Magazine.

I really didn't get this song as a single. It is a pleasant enough sound but her voice is thin and nothing happens. Such a shame.

The review:

Martina Topley-Bird will forever be known as the female singer on Tricky's debut album Maxinquaye, most notably for her performance on the cover of the Public Enemy masterpiece 'Black Steel'. After her disappointing solo debut Quixotic, 'Baby Blue' is the third single from her second album 'The Blue God'.

Like previous single 'Poison', and unlike the engaging and slightly creepy 'Carnies', this is a steamy sultry three and a bit minutes of empty pseudo-jazz soul. The opening thirteen seconds of vocals is the best part of the song but it is all false promises. From here, the music is swamped by soft drums, plinky-plonky keys with the odd guitar chord thrown in. The atmosphere is there and the whole effect is pleasant enough but it goes absolutely nowhere. Even after a couple of minutes of watery vocals and a few very weak choruses, the short guitar break sounds laboured and very out of place. Then it just repeats and fades away into a thin vocal outro.

What is difficult to understand about 'Baby Blue' is the total lack of imagination and ideas. The persistently bad disjointed drum track sounds like it was added in post-production as an afterthought. This song may work well on the album but it does not work as a single. And with the shadow of 'Black Steel' still looming it was, and will remain, her finest hour.

-- CS (for The Music Magazine)

Thursday, 28 August 2008

Queen And Paul Rodgers - C-lebrity

A single review for The Music Magazine.

Normally I wouldn't touch a single like this but I'm not one to run away from a challenge and this certainly is one. It is so hard to review this without referencing Freddie Mercury and the legacy of Queen so I asked a lot of questions and then focused on the music.

The review:

It would be easy to say that Queen should have given up when Freddie Mercury died. It would be easy to say that Brian May and Roger Taylor have nothing more to offer. It would be easy to say that the memory of a former lead singer was worth more than trying to honour his memory by flogging a dead horse. But things are never that easy. May and Taylor obviously think they have more to give. So this new venture is half of Queen (John Deacon has quit) joined by Paul Rodgers (former singer with Free and Bad Company). And that is the real problem here. If this isn't Queen, then why continue under the same name? Why not move on and do something different with a different brand? Surely May and Taylor are household names and can make it on their own? Nobody can deny the lasting legacy of Queen and the considerable charity work after Mercury's death (most notably his tribute concert raising millions of pounds for AIDS causes), but musically the band are in limbo.

'C-lebrity' is an attempt to highlight the problems with the modern phenomenon of 'celebrity', possibly to shame and ridicule those who are no longer having to work for their new found fame. It feels like some form of vindication but ends up sounding bitter and empty. The guitar work from Brian May is, as always, exceptional and Roger Taylor echoes this with some fine drumming. There are some neat touches like short blasts of sampled crowd screaming and Paul Rodgers throws his bluesy drawl over everything. But the real disappointment is the ludicrously simple chorus which attempts to emulate the trademark layered vocal harmonies of the Roy Thomas Baker days. What actually emerges is thin and weak. Two minutes in and the idea really starts to stretch thin - a predictable, but short, May guitar solo followed by the wonderful hypocrisy of "I wanna be a star in a Broadway musical...". So 'We Will Rock You' was a bad idea then? Another couple of laboured choruses and a messy ending just drags it out.

It leaves a sour taste in your mouth when one of the world's most successful bands (or not as the case might be) tries to criticise the current trend of 'celebrity culture' while sitting on their millions safe in the knowledge that they no longer have to work for a living. This is a very poor choice of subject and above all it is not a very good or original song. It's just really hard to hate it.

-- CS (for The Music Magazine)

Wednesday, 27 August 2008

2008 Music Chart - August

A few new additions this month, most notably the impressive Noah And The Whale. Also Sunny Day Sets Fire, Jenny Lindfors, Proceed (low placing because the album is too short) and Soft Cell (low placing because it is a remix album).
  1. Ghosts I-IV - Nine Inch Nails
  2. I Want You To Know That There Is Always Hope - I Was A Cub Scout
  3. Með Suð í Eyrum Við Spilum Endalaust - Sigur Rós
  4. Peaceful, The World Lays Me Down - Noah And The Whale
  5. Dig!!! Lazarus Dig!!! - Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds
  6. Seventh Tree - Goldfrapp
  7. Third - Portishead
  8. Consolers Of The Lonely - The Raconteurs
  9. Mountain Meadows - Elliott Brood
  10. Accelerate - R.E.M.
  11. We Started Nothing - The Ting Tings
  12. Church Bell Blues - Catherine MacLellan
  13. The Seldom Seen Kid - Elbow
  14. The Age Of The Understatement - The Last Shadow Puppets
  15. Silent Cry - Feeder
  16. Narrow Stairs - Death Cab For Cutie
  17. Songs In A&E - Spiritualized
  18. In Rainbows - Radiohead
  19. Alas, I Cannot Swim - Laura Marling
  20. Little Voice - Sara Bareilles
  21. Welcome To Goon Island - XX Teens
  22. Attack & Release - The Black Keys
  23. Liejacker - Thea Gilmore
  24. Do You Like Rock Music - British Sea Power
  25. Saturday Nights & Sunday Mornings - Counting Crows
  26. Seven Months And A Fire Blanket - Proceed
  27. Midnight Boom - The Kills
  28. Poor Man's Heaven - Seth Lakeman
  29. You Cross My Path - The Charlatans
  30. @#%&*! Smilers - Aimee Mann
  31. The Slip - Nine Inch Nails
  32. The Hollow Of Morning - Gemma Hayes
  33. Elliot Minor - Elliot Minor
  34. When The Night Time Comes - Jenny Lindfors
  35. The Well - Sarah Perrotta
  36. Saturnalia - The Gutter Twins
  37. Neptune - The Duke Spirit
  38. Heat: The Remixes - Soft Cell
  39. Viva La Vida - Coldplay
  40. This Gift - Sons & Daughters
  41. Sunny Day Sets Fire - Summer Palace
  42. Kids Aflame - ARMS

Proceed - Seven Months And A Fire Blanket Album Review (2008)

A review for

Boy was this a difficult one. I must admit I first read a (negative) review before I agreed to take this album. I heard a couple of tracks and thought the band had some potential and even though their music sounds very constrained, it may surprise me. And it did. But only after I had written half the review. I am still in two minds but as always, one mind is more dominant so that's the way I'm heading. The UK needs more bands like this.

It is genuinely one of those records that, even if you love the genre, doesn't engage you immediately. I make reference to the band's own press release on their MySpace page which tries to explain their ideology. This is very important. I want to embrace it completely but I can't yet. They need to prove themselves much more. And I can't wait to hear what their 'proper' debut album will sound like.

The review:

"I've seen this road ahead a thousand times, to know that is goes on for miles and miles, and I know it's ok to be treading water 'cos when I'm here I'll always feel the same". This line from opening track 'Treading Water' should be used to advertise 'Seven Months And A Fire Blanket', the new album from UK emo hopefuls Proceed as it accurately sums up the music scene and not the album. Proceed has taken a dying genre and breathed new life into it. The fact that this has been made by a British band is a great sign. The music has been dominated by American bands for way too long (most notably the masterful Cave In) and now it is changing. It is impossible to say this without referring to bands like Lostprophets and Funeral For A Friend, both of which have veered dangerously from metal into pop in an attempt to gain more popularity. But Proceed has taken elements of what defines them - they are working in a very confined space musically - and injected new blood into the veins.

The album kicks off with 'Treading Water', a great soaring anthem to plunge the listener into the band's sound. The opening minute or so is superb and even when the 'hardcore' vocals come in, it is brief and acceptable. Each instrument sounds meticulously arranged and not just thrown together. The drums and guitars are clear and precise. 'The First In A Long Line' starts badly but soon recovers. As the first minute of spitting verses subsides, the song slows and sparkles with electronica, building up furious pace before descending again into a buzz of samples and more hardcore vocals. There is some astonishing guitar work at the end. More great guitars fuel 'It's Just Another Hiding Place', from the hard hitting opening vocals to the more delicate chorus, it is another relentless assault. Lyrically Proceed are not the most immediately engaging of bands but there are clear messages here. This is not the best example but punchy and to the point, from "This is your story as I see It. You've done some right but your judgement is blurred" to "...but I seek to break away from what I've become; from what I have and have not done". Typically tales of frustration, alienation, despair and then hope thread through all the songs.

'To Infuse Thought Into The Otherwise Thoughtless' (an apt title) is very good. After another noisy start, most of it glides softly before the guitars, drums and vocals take over. The ending is an impressive vocal juxtaposition between vocalists Faires and Lancaster before an electronic fade. The most interesting song follows: 'Now Laughing' is a confused blend of everything, like a six minute Coldplay album squeezed into a single track. The opening of piano and vocals sets the initial tone before the inevitable mix of Faires and Lancaster returns. It starts to grate in the last stretch but then a controlled last minute of piano provides a much needed interlude. It also ends with the fantastic line: "Behave yourself. You are not as important as you think you are".

'Swemo' starts with the most insane drumming and guitars and has all the necessary winning stereotypes. The start-stop nature is frustrating as are the curious mock-falsetto vocals but thankfully they are brief. Closing song 'Telescopes' is the only song with a discernable blatant guitar riff, at least at the start. But things are never that simple. At over seven minutes, it lurches forward to the first highlight: "I've waited so long, you won't just take it all from me. I walk my own path...". This is followed by a neat guitar break and a different direction: "They say it's for the best but I want to leave this place...". More delicate guitars bring in some equally dreamy vocals. The song moves into the last two minutes, building up again, briefly gets messy and then loses its way vocally into a disappointing end.

The key to creating loud shouty emo (a.k.a 'melodic hardcore') is making it tuneful. Even bands at the more 'metal' end such as Trivium and Killswitch Engage manage to most of the time by blending hard hitting guitar music with soaring melodies and genuine musical talent. Proceed do not always manage this. It is no good just having a sound. A sound is the easy bit. The hard work involves writing songs; not just lyrics but real memorable songs. 'Seven Months And A Fire Blanket' lacks an immediacy because of the strict medium in which to work in, not because it is devoid of any substance. It is also too short. On their website, the band say that repeat listens will reveal the hidden depths of their songs. What is evident is the band's talent for weaving sounds and complex textures of music. Some of the drumming is mind blowing. Their philosophy is to strive for an equilibrium between bubblegum pop and a lasting impact. To the cynics this will read like some lame attempt at redemption; to somehow justify the lack of engaging songs. Whoever is right, only time will tell.
-- CS (for

Jenny Lindfors - When The Night Comes Album Review (2008)

Another review for

I liked the approach of this album and when she uses it well, Jenny Lindfors has a wonderful voice. Many people have pointed out that the lack of a decent producer is a problem but I think it is more to do with trying to be individual - which I condone wholeheartedly but not when the music suffers.

The review:

One mantra for life: If you are not with us, you are against us. In this age of the charts being swamped with young female singers, everyone is looking for something a bit different. Irish singer Jenny Lindfors (already labelled folk because her choice of instruments does not include electric guitars and bass) is trying a difficult thing: to be accepted without trying to fit in. Her debut self-produced album 'When The Night Comes' is both an intriguing and frustrating listen.

Lindfors has a wonderful deep resonating voice. It is used to great effect on album opener 'Night Time', a brooding bluesy drum-led stomp about anticipation and longing given the onset of darkness. A sultry atmosphere is spoiled slightly by some clumsy lyrics: "Shake it up while you're still young. You only get to live once. Keep it up for years. Nobody watching here..." and "When the sun goes down, let the loving in, let the love ring out. You can do whatever you want to do when it gets darker". As the song heads to the third minute, Lindfors slows things down to let the simple banjo and her voice draw you in. It is one of the best moments on the album but unfortunately all the good work is undone in a second when a torrent of wordless vocals crash in and then an over-the-top ending.

The album's big single '2x1' is bordering on vacuous middle-of-the-road country-pop churned out by the likes of Sheryl Crow. The chorus is horribly sing-a-long without having anything to sing along to. Even though the vocals are fine, Lindfors sounds disinterested and distant. The addition of harmonica does very little. There is a great song in there somewhere about wanting to be with another person but ultimately unsatisfied with the result: "Oh I believe in a love where I can grow with someone. Not believing in some other half. It doesn't feel right to me. It's saying I'm incomplete...". A great message to convey.

Another great song is 'Looming', lifted by an undulating vocal melody even if it does get a bit wordless at times. Eimear O'Grady's cello is excellent, adding depth. 'By The Wayside' tries something similar but never quite achieves the same level of quality. Also excellent is 'Fearful Things', one of the only songs to use a piano effectively. If there is an issue it is with laboured vocals and some obvious lyrics. But you can feel the passion in Lindfors' voice. There are some other fine moments, most notably the simple vocal arrangement of 'Voodoo' coupled with light instrumentation and the ukulele is very effective. The ending is spoiled slightly by too much vocal. 'I Don't Really Want You Here' is mesmerising and deceptively simple, as is closing song 'Light Up' - a beguiling collection of layered vocals. The only problem is it is way too short.

The album threatens to drag in the middle but never really does. It just becomes more inconsistent. 'Lovestage' is one of those songs that ambles and weaves through a tangle of vague but personal lyrics and some thick cello, before another messy vocal ending. As one of the longest songs on the album it feels drawn out. 'Let The Seas Calm' would benefit from a more subtle vocal but is solid enough and 'Timewarp' suffers the same fate - it is great when Lindfors is slow and soft but the opening and the very end, in particular, is way too shouty. 'Play It Away', in spite of more great cello and rhythm, has the same problem.

Jenny Lindfors has made an accomplished debut. Her music has an old fashioned feel, matched by her vocal delivery. It is a matter of debate whether a producer would have added something new and different to the songs or merely get in the way of the flow. The fact that Lindfors produced the music herself makes it all the more personal. But sometimes pride can get in the way and you can benefit from someone else directing when, for example, the vocals are too loud - something that plagues much of the album. Conversely, when Lindfors is on her own (or accompanied by just a Cello or Djembe drum), it tends to yield good results. So it is this limbo which is the problem. You can't be part of something without occasionally dropping into the mainstream and going with the flow. A good debut with the promise of more to come.

-- CS (for

Monday, 25 August 2008

Live From Abbey Road (Show 9, Series 2 - 22/08/2008)

After the euphoria of last weeks show, this weeks Live From Abbey Road was never going to live up to high expectations. The line-up this week did not help: The Subways, Gnarls Barkley and Herbie (yes him again!) Hancock.

The set:

The Subways
  • Oh Yeah
  • Strawberry Blonde
  • I Won't Let You Down
Gnarls Barkley
  • Whatever
  • Who's Gonna Save My Soul?
  • Surprise
Herbie Hancock
  • All I Want (with Sonya Kitchell)
  • Court And Spark (with Sonya Kitchell)
As it turned out The Subways are the best thing about this weeks show. Their young vibrant attitude to music made up for a slightly lacklustre set. Their view is it doesn't matter where they are, they perform with the same ferocity and energy. New album All Or Nothing (of which was said 'the most exciting thing about the album is the cover') has not been greatly received and from the two songs 'Strawberry Blonde' and 'I Won't Let You Down', I can see why. Opener 'Oh Yeah' from their debut, however, is an excellent song, full of energy and fervour. The dual vocals are great. Bassist and co-singer Charlotte Cooper talks about her life in a three piece which adds an interesting perspective and lead singer/guitarist Lunn tells us that it needs to be powerful and colourful and often weird. What emerges is very straightforward. The personal relationship between Lunn and Cooper ended recently but their musical partnership strives on. Lunn tells us that the music is more important and it happened when their new album was about to be released. This 'strain' is echoed in the music. Drummer Morgan is just going with the flow, described as a 'ball of energy'. The cohesion in the band is clearly strong. For how long I don't know.
Gnarls Barkley (aka producer Danger Mouse and vocalist Cee-Lo Green) are a strange pair. They perform three songs from their latest album The Odd Couple (apt name) with mixed results. Opener 'Whatever' is excruciatingly bad. After sound checking and drinking beer, they go straight into the song. Green's vocals are horrible and descend into a wordless drone. The music is flat and uninspired. 'Who's Gonna Save My Soul?' is much betterl, a delicate guitar and simple keyboard arrangement coupled with a drum loop. Green's vocals are great. DM tells us that every upbeat song has some sadness. They try to explain 'Surprise' as uniqueness being loneliness. The song is not great but short. I expected a version of their big hit 'Crazy' rather than just trying to plug new stuff but it's also commendable that they were not that predictable. I guess you can't have it both ways.

A second stint from Herbie Hancock who I still do not get. This time he is joined by singer Sonya Kitchell for two more Joni Mitchell songs from Hancock's tribute album. 'All I Want' is interrupted by a voice over explaining the nature of the album, focusing on lyrics instead of just music etc. This is a good thing as every song sounds exactly the same - random jazz piano, blasts of clarinet and soft annoying drums. 'Court And Spark' seems to go on forever and has no discernible structure or direction. So more of the same then. Kitchell is really good but the constantly shifting nature of the music is a frustrating distraction.

As expected, not a great show. Next week is a great line-up including Elbow so a good show in prospect.

Friday, 22 August 2008

David Holmes - I Heard Wonders Review

Again, for The Music Magazine. I quite like the music of David Holmes although some of his soundtracks are a little predictable. I might check out his album.

The review:

Best known as a DJ, remixer, producer and soundtrack composer (most notably the recent 'Ocean's' trilogy), David Holmes is a musician who can never decide on his strengths. Now he releases 'I Heard Wonders' from his own 2008 album 'The Holy Pictures'. Predictably the single is a collaboration, such is the nature of these things, this time with Martin Rev (Suicide) as guest lyricist.

From the start 'I Heard Wonders' sparkles with a dense effervescence, bubbling with dark electronica. The vocals are part Reid brothers and part Bobby Gillespie, so the Jesus And Mary Chain vibe features heavily throughout, but it could as easily be Goldfrapp reworked by Maps. Comparisons aside, the song glides and flows with a subtle combination of vocals and electronic melody. One down side is the uninspired drum track which occasionally descends into Casio keyboard demo mode. Another problem is the lack of invention in the second half; music just repeats with little variety and depth and as the music fades, the vocal ending sounds a bit forced.

'I Heard Wonders' is not an immediately obvious choice for a single but Holmes has a way with music most mere mortals can only dream about. Like Craig Armstrong, David Arnold and to a lesser extent Moby (remember him?), he is both a jack of all trade and a master of some. The question remains: what could he achieve if he dispensed with all this diversity and focused on the music?
-- CS (for The Music Magazine)

The Dandy Warhols - Mission Control Review

A single review for The Music Magazine.

I used to hate The Dandy Warhols. Then I liked them. Now I hate them again. Such is life.

The Dandy Warhols have always been just a little bit extrovert, some would say 'on another planet' (that's got the obvious reference to their latest album 'Earth To The Dandy Warhols' out of the way early). So a single entitled 'Mission Control' is entirely appropriate from Courtney Talyor-Taylor and crew, who are doing something different yet again while maintaining the band's trademark quirky irreverent sound.

'Mission Control' is a horrible blend of The Stooges and early 80s synth-pop with none of the qualities of either. Courtney Talyor-Taylor's gravely baritone is a woeful drawl wallowing on a bed of fuzzy keyboards and guitars. Lyrically the song seems to be about disillusioned youth trying to reconnect with the guidance of society but the delivery is so hopeless that the message is ever unclear. Clunky vocals echo equally clumsy wording like "You better not listen to yourself now anymore. You better not trust anybody else now" and is a constant plague. But it is the totally uninspired chorus of simply repeating the name of the song that really kills this off. A minute and a half in and the song actually sinks to new lows as Talyor-Taylor sings "It's not quite like you think; it's not that obvious". It would be great to say that there is a redeeming feature as the guitars build but the same monotonous dirge chugs on. Thankfully, at just over two minutes, it is short.

Whether 'Mission Control' should be taken seriously or just as a badly conceived ironic joke (the band are so good at these) is a matter of opinion. But this is music. And music is serious. If you want to sell records and get fans you don't piss around. But maybe that is what The Dandy Warhols are going for and maybe that is what their genuine long suffering fans like.

-- CS (for The Music Magazine)

Wednesday, 20 August 2008

Jenny Lewis Album News

There is a new Jenny Lewis album out soon. The Rilo Kiley singer follows up Rabbit Fur Coat with Acid Tongue. Apparently Elvis Costello features.

The album is released on 1st September.

Noah And The Whale - Peaceful, The World Lays Me Down Album Review (2008)

Noah And The Whale has been described as many things. From the musical equivalent of a Far East 'gap year' to anti-folk heroes, one word is always present in early reviews: twee. What a wonderfully hopeless word that is. And so is the new genre of anti-folk so as to somehow distance listeners from a stereotype and make a new band credible to a new more 'hip' audience. How can something that feels and sounds similar to folk music be the opposite? Let’s be sensible about this.

The band led by singer and guitarist Charlie Fink and most notably ex-member Laura Marling has a very distinctive bittersweet approach. Yes this has been done before but never with such freedom and audacity. Fink's ability to blend hard-hitting metaphor with a light and airy, and often vibrant, sound is breathtaking. 'Peaceful, The World Lays Me Down' is nothing short of astounding.

The album opens with the short '2 Atoms In A Molecule', a great start and introduction to the music that is to follow. An upbeat acoustic guitar rattles out a melody before Fink's wonderful voice dives in. He is quickly joined by the rest of the band's harmonies as the lyrics arrive at high speed. This is a simple punchy love song. Fink describes it as 'a sad pathetic moan' while declaring that if he should be stabbed in the heart then you should use a short sharp blade and that love is a game of no fun and why hasn’t he won yet. All this as a wealth of delicate instrumentation spatters the backdrop. In the closing seconds, Marling adds some gorgeous vocals. Excellent.

'Jocasta' (a tale from Greek mythology about a women who mistakenly marries her own son Oedipus, after he is left to die after it is discovered that he is destined to kill his own father, and then she commits suicide) starts with a predictably downbeat metaphoric lyric about exposing a new born child to the hardships of the world before they are consumed by them. It is a great example of how music should not be taken literally. Fink's Conor Oberst-esque delivery is a lazy ramble above some startling accordion and fiddle. As the song changes in the mid-section, Marling joining in to form a duet before the song comes to a conclusion, the band all sing together Arcade Fire style.

The addition of cheesy handclaps to 'Shape Of My Heart' is the only negative trait until it settles down into a melody: "Oh and if there's any love in me don't let it show…". Then a huge mariachi sound takes over adding depth and contrast. The thick brass section returns for the impressive ending. 'Do What You Do' is the nearest the album gets to a big stirring ballad without images of raised lighters and swaying arms. It is slow and brooding, Fink's vocals cracking at the edges. The last half is soaked in mournful strings until the stretched out finish. The intro to 'Give A Little Love' is bordering on soft rock, a world away from the opening few songs. The album is straying precariously from the winning formula. Thankfully the combination of Fink and Marling remind us of where we are; the dour yet catchy chorus complimenting the melancholy opening verse is followed by some neat piano. If anything the sound threatens to drag but it is so achingly beautiful and elegantly conceived. At three minutes, the tune starts to transform but holds back, opting instead for simple piano and then a rise to a crescendo that would make Sigur Rós proud. But the huge orchestral boom never happens.

A ticking clock leads into 'Second Lover'. It seems to take an age to get moving but like the previous song it has an inherent charm - full of melody and more gothic strings. Into the last minute and the vocals get a bit too nursery rhyme but then Fink throws in his best lyrics: "And wherever you go and whatever you do, there is a man underground that will always love you" followed by a fantastic over-the-top climax. The incessant clock is ever present, a single pulse at first but soon joined by another.

Big single '5 Years Time' is perfect. A whimsical whistling intro leads to a ukulele and violin led masterpiece. Fink is excellent, as is the contribution from Marling. They combine beautifully as the 'couple in love', as they visit the zoo in the sun, talk about how they no longer need drink and cigarettes to have fun. This is a great song about excepting each other and enjoying a moment as it may not last: “In five years time, you might just prove me wrong”. In a wonderful ending, the Fink character pays the Marling character the ultimate compliment: “There’ll be love, love, love, wherever you go…” before she echoes it back. 'Rocks And Daggers' continues the high standard and has a bit of everything: big sing-a-long vocals, blasts of violin and brass and a big ending brought on my more intertwining vocals. The pace quickens and Marling gets a rare solo vocal to end.

At over six minutes, the title track is something of an epic. A song in three parts, the first is comfortable territory with Fink musing of his own ability to 'bare the sorrow that love brings' while fighting his mind and body: "It's a hollow love for a heart with no blood…in its veins". Then, as the music rises, an interlude leads to a pleasant piano and then Fink slows things down again for a very slow chorus. Lost in the vocals, even the repeated expletive almost passes unhindered. The last section is another band singsong with added strings, clunky percussion and a last chorus. Great stuff.

'Mary' is the best of the deep and meaningful moments. Again Fink and Marling form a mesmerising combination. Album closer 'Hold My Hand, As I'm Lowered' is right from the Jason Pierce songbook with a small-yet-huge Spiritualized arrangement with added alt-country. The choral second half is exquisite.

'Peaceful, The World Lays Me Down' is an impressive piece of work, more varied at each listen with a constantly shifting musical background. Fink's vocals are consistent and clear, if a little down at times. His wallowing miserablist delivery is an acquired taste and the lyrics tend to drag things further into the mire, but Marling adds a much needed contrast. Why Laura Marling left Noah And The Whale is evident in her impressive solo debut album but it still remains something of a mystery. Her contribution is superb and would be conspicuous in its absence. She adds a unique female touch to a male dominated world. Musically there is quality throughout and everyone plays their part with very few problems. The songs that have labelled the band so negatively, those that form most of the first part of the album, are unjustified as the majority of the album is slower and controlled.

Twee? No. Folk? Maybe. Good? Very.
-- CS (also posted on The Music Magazine website)

Tuesday, 19 August 2008

Colbie Caillat - Bubbly (Single Review)

A bit of a strange one this. It was on the review list so after hearing it on Live From Abbey Road I grabbed it as an extra single. It was released last year.

The review:

Sometimes when making music, less is more. For American singer Colbie Caillat this is her approach; she is the female equivalent of Jack Johnson - except better looking and actually talented. Like her other big hit single 'Realize', 'Bubbly' is typical acoustic guitar led summer day pop like a warm breeze blowing across a sun-kissed Malibu beach. Her voice is sweet and full of melody and Caillat uses it well and keeps it interesting.

The song starts awkwardly with a simple guitar and piano before Caillat asks to be counted in. It is all a bit pretentious but she soon gets on with it as the first verse races to the chorus: "It starts in my toes and I crinkle my nose. Wherever it goes, I always know... that you make me smile, please stay for a while. Now just take your time, wherever you go". It is typically wet girly stuff revealing a rare rainy day of staying in bed and being in love. All the mushiness aside, it is a great tune, even if she runs out of words with a minute to go and resorts to some warbling; but after a repeated first verse, she treats us to a slightly different chorus revealing a bit more of the intimacy. The last twenty five seconds just drags out what should be a punchy finish.

'Bubbly' is a decent song which gets by on Caillat's gorgeous tuneful voice, a minimalist approach and a simple production. This is her world and she is sticking to it as most of her platinum debut album 'Coco' suggests. A good song but too short and lacking impact.
-- CS (for

Monday, 18 August 2008

Live From Abbey Road (Show 8, Series 2 - 15/08/2008)

I have made no secret of my disappointment of this series of Live From Abbey Road. My big gripe is the use of the 'live' tag as each artist performs not on a stage but in a recording studio - and therefore the sound is set up for a recording session. Much has been said of the impressive acoustics of the Abbey Road studio but this is not evident in the programme - maybe it is when you get to the sound desk and listen back but the actual set sounds very clinical. Thankfully it was all about to change.

This week looked like it might at last be a rare show of consistent brilliance: the US/UK fusion art-rock punks The Kills, US singer and pianist Sara Bareilles and Scottish alt-rock trio The Fratellis.

The Set:

The Kills
  • Getting Down
  • Last Day Of Magic
  • Goodnight Bad Morning
Sara Bareilles
  • Gravity
  • Love Song
  • Oh Darling
The Fratellis
  • Flathead
  • Milk And Honey
  • Mistress Mabel
The Kills, ever the cool duo, saunter into Abbey Road with plenty of leather and red wine. Singer and guitarist Hince talks about how voodoo and rock were once acceptable bedfellows and that attitude is as important as music. This certainly is the band's mantra. Always unpredictable, they start with one of the weakest songs from new album 'Midnight Boom', 'Getting Down'. It is almost the perfect song summing up their approach - a weird wordless chorus and a dirty guitar. Hince introduces it as his ode to misery and/or jealousy. Second song Last Day Of Magic should be brilliant but is very sloppy. I suppose this again is a display which goes against the 'recording studio' basis of the show. So it's a good thing even if the music suffers slightly. You get the impression that The Kills threw together the set in about half an hour and then went shopping for art and more leather jackets and cool boots. Mosshart is excellent throughout - timing spot on and voice superb. The two perform facing each either which shows the dynamic and how they feed off each other. Third song is the great album closer 'Goodnight Bad Morning', inspired by the New York art scene and The Velvet Underground. The band want a return to this moment in time rather than the treadmill culture of modern bands. It is a terrible rendition but the two have a lot of fun, both with guitars. Hince declares at the end that he hit a few bum notes but that is all part of it. A few? More like twenty. The question still remains in my head, did this band give Abbey Road the respect it deserves? Or does being cool and different and individual mean more? I still don't know the answer.

Sara Bareilles says in her intro that even though she is 'green', she knows what to do and trusts her intuition. But her female conditioning forces her to defer to others. Strangely this submissive nature contradicts her feminist view that she is being patronised and not taken seriously as a pop star. Anyway, her set is utterly brilliant. 'Gravity' is just Bareilles and a piano - not a great song but executed well. 'Love Song' is introduced as a reaction to her record label demands and not anyone personal - but it was born more out of frustration of her own issues than anything malicious. It is a decent version but way too much like the original, i.e. identical. The drum mix is too loud and it would benefit from a simpler arrangement. She just about gets away with her third song, a version of The Beatles 'Oh Darling' from...wait for it...the Abbey Road album (like Matchbox Twenty). Creditability is saved by a great vocal performance against a single ragged guitar. Bareilles talks briefly before about the 'sacred' location and how music gives her a sense of inner peace. It is a pro-religious statement which is brave in this day and age even if her music is not overtly faith driven. A good set.

Like The Kills, The Fratellis took the same approach to the session, albeit with different results. Singer and guitarist Jon says that he came to the studio at eighteen but was turned away. He spent all his money on the train ticket. He also says that Pink Floyd are a big influence while we see and hear the band jamming 'Money'. They give a good live performance of Levellers meets lad-rock 'Flathead', then the epic 'Milk And Honey' which starts and ends with just piano but is packed in the middle with a full band experience. A great piano break is interrupted by big drums but gets the last word. Final song 'Mistress Mabel' is very cool - again excellent piano and a great 'live' sound. Occasionally you read a review that talks about 'lazy lyrics' and 'uninspired songwriting' - this is one of those songs. By his own admission, Jon says that he was at a loss for words so he just threw them together in a 'that will do' moment. It's a great song though.

So at last a decent show. The Kills were predictably slack and an antithesis to the whole event, embracing the live concept that has eluded many so far. I didn't expect anything less. Sara Bareilles was wonderful, if a little obvious. And The Fratellis were solid and proved that they are getting better as performers. Good good good.

Death Cab For Cutie - I Will Possess Your Heart Video (Full Album Version)

Trent Reznor makes TV

Not really a music post but interesting enough as it's news that NIN genius Trent Reznor is making a new 'Reality' TV series for HBO in the US. It sounds mad enough to work and is inspired by the dystopian future presented in the NIN album Year Zero.

The LA Times reported it here. And another post here.

Friday, 15 August 2008

Soft Cell - Heat : The Remixes

I was given a great opportunity to review a new remix album 'Heat:The Remixes' from 80's synth-pop pioneers Soft Cell. I am not a huge fan but know many of their big singles so this was a challenge. I took the chance to talk about remixes and how remix albums can be reviewed and I hope I have done a decent job.

The review:

Cast your mind back to 1981. This was the time of dodgy fashion statements, synth-pop and 12' singles. It was also the time of 'Soft Cell' who told tales of inner city melodrama and gay culture. Like their compatriots Depeche Mode, the sound is a mix of earthy honest vocals and artificial machine generated music. 'Heat: The Remixes' is, unsurprisingly, a remix album of most of the band's short, yet impacting, back catalogue created by genuine fans.

So, how do you review a remix album? You can either constantly compare each track to the original, which would result in lots of sentences starting with 'Unlike the original...', or review each song at a standalone entity. Finding some common ground is preferable, as well as giving the songs the respect they deserve. More often than not a remix takes the 'normal' song and adds a long intro/outro and a dancified backbeat (see Perfecto's version of 'Even Better Than The Real Thing' by U2). Most of 'Heat: The Remixes' takes this approach. The alternative would have been to take a few key elements of a song and then make them into a completely different track. That rarely works but can produce some interesting results. And how do you carefully handle Mark Almond's voice and the atmospheric arrangements and deft keyboard skills of David Ball without swamping the original music?

The album has at its core the songs that made 'Soft Cell' such a huge band, if only for a short period of time. Almond and Ball burned fiercely for three years before the inevitable fizzle and torrent of singles collections, most of which have been reissued. Only time will tell if this is a necessary addition. One notable commendation is that this collection is not just filled with nine versions of 'Tainted Love' (ironic that the band's most successful single is a cover - but a good one). There are twenty six different songs from their prime, and given that Soft Cell only had a dozen or so singles, they have dredged the archives impressively. They could even miss out the likes of 'Down In The Subway' and 'Persuasion'.

Surprisingly the best remixes are not the best singles. This makes perfect sense. 'Tainted Love' for example is a drum and bass fuelled epic with Almond's delicious vocals right at the centre. The problem is how so you improve perfection? It is a difficult one to call as for the most part it is just an extended 12 inch single version with added backing. After a mish mash of vocals it quickly descends into repetition and then a neat ending. Mixed results. 'Bedsitter' is the same issue. It is two minutes before a proper start and the subtle rework that emerges is overlong. But the strength of the original always comes through. The big emotional centre piece 'Say Hello, Wave Goodbye' is another enigma. After the big drums and clumsy electronica the rest of the song is carried by the impressive chorus. Given the majestic solo performances of this favourite, it is surprising that Almond is happy with how this has been treated, particularly the last two minutes which get very heavy and overpowered. 'Torch' is probably the most anonymous remix. Again the backing is heavy with short blasts of brass and a prosaic 'talky bit'. The band's other major hit 'What' sounds like a bad 60s cover version.

The best of the collection is first single 'Memorabilia', pushed on by a persistent busy keyboard melody that threatens to overwhelm the vocals. 'Youth' is also very good and musically excellent. If anything it is the vocals that are clunky. 'Where The Heart Is' is a wonderfully soft glide with occasional electronic tweaks. It works well. 'Insecure Me' has a dodgy intro sounding like an 8 bit computer game from 1982. The last minute is also horrible and should have been cut but the rest is a great song of strings and meaningful lyrics. Almond is on top form. The title track 'Heat' has a menacing intro, layers of vocals and is full of theatre. B-side 'Barriers' is excellent - simple with no structure. Again Almond excels. The bittersweet 'Little Rough Rhinestone' is a song about abuse, alienation and questioning faith but runs along with a jolly keyboard arrangement. But the best track on the album is the gothic nursery rhyme 'Her Imagination', amazingly another B-side.

As you would expect from a twenty six track album, there are a few nasty moments. 'Seedy Films' has some nice enough musical touches but is not much of a song. The female vocal giggling and the last half are annoying as it attempts to build to a climax that does not happen. 'Numbers' is truly awful and unlistenable rubbish. At four minutes (one of the shortest remixes here thankfully) it is four minutes too long. 'Sex Dwarf' is also offensive. It sounds very out-dated and sleazy, summing up everything that most people dislike about 'Soft Cell'. The ending is embarrassing. This is followed by 'Baby Doll' which is both depressing and over-the-top at the same time. But the problems are few and far between.

Remixing sacred songs is always a fine art. There is a high risk of over complication and as stated before there are a number of overused tricks and some obvious traps. This collection gets it just about right. There are many extended intros, much of the new versions are way too long and outstay their welcome, but Almond's enigmatic voice is mainly left unmolested. If there is a general fault here it is that there is too much 'remix' and not enough 'Soft Cell'. But the reworks capture the mood of the time, while giving some of the tracks a modern twist. The essence of the songs and revisited themes are preserved so the band always takes centre stage. That should always be the case and thankfully it is here.
-- CS (for

Wednesday, 13 August 2008

Sunny Day Sets Fire - Summer Palace Album Review 2008

Another album review for I really wanted to love this album as the sound is fantastic and it is clear that the band are committed to making great music. But the solid songs are lacking and they rely on obvious tricks. Then the songs just get silly and annoying as the album loses focus. A real shame.

The review:

When Onyee met Mauro in London, 'Sunny Day Sets Fire' was born. The pair form the core of the band that at its best has echoes of Mercury Rev mixed with Pink Floyd. They make the sort of music that is both interesting and engaging, up to a point.

The big problem with 'Summer Palace' is a classic case of a sound getting in the way of the songs. When it works, it is brilliant. The poppy guitar work of opener 'Wilderness' and then 'Stranger', full of ideas and packed with choral vocals and delicious xylophone, showcases the band's talents perfectly. Likewise the acoustic led 'Teenagers Talking' has Mauro hitting falsetto with his quirky vocals. It is musically excellent, a great big wall of pop sound. 'All Our Songs' continues the highlights - not as good as the aforementioned duo but the combination of delicate guitars and pounding drums, playful vocals and ultimate howling, has a certain engaging charm. The lyrics are predictably nondescript as they try to draw a connection with the listener: "Let the darkness in me be the light in you". Not so much a bittersweet juxtaposition of sound and subject but a fusion of moods. The real surprise is 'Siamese', with Onyee on vocal duty - a simple short respite from the huge torrent of guitars; just a piano and a gorgeous voice.

There are very few horrible moments on the album but when it is bad, it is really bad. The dark surf guitars of 'End Of The Road' echoed by jaded vocals and a start-stop sound lead to a whiny vocal and messy ending. It sounds like a lost forgotten track from an early 'Supergrass' album. The epic 'Smallest Heart On Earth' turns from pleasant music to incoherent howling, is full of annoying whistling and at six minutes is at least a minute too long. It chooses to drift off agonisingly. Even worse is the coupling of 'Brainless' and 'Map Of The World', effectively killing off what is left of the band's credibility. The former is ruined by incessant trumpet and underwater keyboards, while the latter is the worse song on the album, Onyee unrecognisable from her previous vocal duty on 'Siamese'. She returns for the cutesy pop of 'Adrenaline' this time buzzing with energy, but just as bad.

It is even more annoying when good songs are ruined by bad ideas. 'Hollywood' is a perfect example. It changes pace too much and the dark guitar sound is a mess. One thing the band need is a reliance on a 'big' finish - simply throwing in noise to prove yet again that they are self-confessed multi-instrumentalists. As if we need to know every time. As always the devil is in the detail and more often than not, keeping it subtle and simple is the best policy. 'I Dream Along' has a strong start, epitomising the band's wonderful sound, but quickly becomes ordinary. It is almost redeemed with a great guitar break and some neat electronica. 'Summer Palace' closers with the achingly dull 'Lack Of View' which just about sums it up. The song is devoid of any discernable melody and by now you know exactly what is about to happen. There is a big guitar outro with wordless vocal accompaniment. A predictable shame.

It is clear that the members of 'Sunny Day Sets Fire' are musicians with a wealth of ideas. The band has a great sound, when it all works, but the quirky soon transforms into silly and annoying. "I don't wanna be brainless', sings Mauro on the uninspired 'Brainless'. This has to be an attempt at irony but with everything that has come before it feels like a slap in the face. Music is art but sometimes the art takes over. You need an open mind for 'Sunny Day Sets Fire'. Unfortunately this means that you have to let your brain escape.
-- CS (for

Monday, 11 August 2008

Live From Abbey Road (Show 7, Series 2 - 08/08/2008)

This is quickly becoming the show of constant disappointments. My big problem is if this is supposed to be the most famous recording studio in the world, why is it delivering such ordinary, and in some cases truly awful, performances? It can't be that the musicians are intimidated by their surroundings? Whatever it is, they need to sort it out and get some quality.

Three more artists tonight: American country outfit Rascal Flatts, London singer Kate Nash and jazz legend Herbie Hancock. So on paper, it all looks good.

The set:

Rascal Flatts
  • Life Is A Highway
  • What Hurts The Most
  • Take Me There
Kate Nash
  • Foundations
  • Little Red
  • Nicest Thing
Herbie Hancock
  • The River (with Corinne Bailey Rae)
  • Edith And The Kingpin (with Melody Gardot)
Starting with American country stars (apparently they are huge in the US) Rascal Flatts talking about how their music is about messages and not preaching (they sound like a Christian band so maybe they want to expel that myth for some reason) and that they typically get family audiences, they launch into a cover, Tom Cochrane's Life Is A Highway. It is decent enough middle of the road country-pop. After the band listen back to the recording in the studio. And this is one of my big problems with this show - it is supposed to be a 'live' performance and not a 'let's do a few recordings and see which is better and then show the best one'. Second track What Hurts The Most has added strings but basically sounds the same. It is all a bit predictable. So is Take Me There - same song, different lyrics. Dull.

I was looking for great things from Kate Nash. I'm not a huge fan but I love her sound and approach. She summed this up in the intro by saying that she is honest, funny and down to earth and that comes through in her music. I think it does which can be a little annoying at times. Foundations is excellent although this performance was a bit slow and low on drama. We get a very short burst of Little Red - just Nash and piano and then Nicest Thing with Nash on guitar. It was good to see her so enthused about the "honky tonk" piano in the studio. Each performance sounds like she is making it up as she is going along.

Unlike Herbie Hancock who actually is making it up as he goes along. Or that's what it sounds like. I really don't get why this guy is such a big thing. The music on both tracks The River and Edith And The Kingpin - Joni Mitchell covers from his tribute album - is exactly the same soft random jazz, a few bits of piano here, a blast of squeaky oboe there - like there is no written music. He does say at the start that Miles Davis taught him to experiment and always practice in front of an audience. Hmmm. I think there might be a few pissed off crowds, unless this is your sort of thing. Both Bailey Rae and Gardot were excellent in comparison to the weird unstructured annoying musical accompaniment. Strange.

So some quality from Kate Nash, otherwise dull and annoying. Must do better.

Thursday, 7 August 2008

The Automatic - Steve McQueen

The plethora of reviews continues for The Music Magazine.

Back in 2006 Welsh band The Automatic was on the verge of major success. Two years later and ready to release a second album, the band are still trying to find that success. Like many new bands, they were built up and then someone else came along. But there is more to them than just misplaced hype. Debut album 'Not Accepted Anywhere' is genuinely good and they scooped a number of 'new band' awards. Surviving a line-up change 'Steve McQueen' is the band's first single since the departure of Alex Pennie in 2007.

It is clear from the opening guitars and drums of 'Steve McQueen' that this is much heavier than previous singles. 'Monster' and 'Raoul' have a quirky charm that is all but gone here. Without trying to sound patronising this is much more mature and focused. The song expresses the feelings of alienation and being incarcerated (hence the Great Escape analogy) but also the frustration of schism. Even though some of the vocals are a bit wooden, the chorus is a predictable lift as the whole band begin to sing. This is the new sound of British emo-rock. Getting the balance right is hard. You either go all out and hope it works (see kinsmen Lostprophets and Funeral For A Friend for good examples of this) or try to stay on the more 'credible' side. Just over two minutes in and the answer is there. The song slows into a series of vocal layers before drums come crashing back with added guitars. Wonderful.

"Can't put my finger on what's changed. To my surprise I found everything the same. In a house that's not quite home. Nothing was missing but something had gone" sings Rob Hawkins in the opening verse. This is followed later by "Everything's just as I left it. But it wasn't me who left it. The position has been filled". Bitterness or just a coincidence that the lyrics echo the recent turbulence within the band? Whatever the answer, 'Steve McQueen' seems to be the start of a new beginning for a band still trying to find success.

-- CS

Wednesday, 6 August 2008

Does It Offend You Yeah? - Dawn Of The Dead

A new review for The Music Magazine.

Some band genuinely surprise you when they release a debut album. The build up to and subsequent promotion of ‘You Have No Idea What You’re Getting Yourself Into’ is an appropriate title given the singles delivered so far by Does It Offend You Yeah?. ‘We Are Rockstars’ is deceptively noisy electronica and ‘Let’s Make Out’ is pure rubbish. So it is hard to know what to expect next.

Unlike the title suggests, ‘Dawn Of The Dead’ is not a stomping monster. It glides and flows. The transformation from noisy electro-rock to this wonderfully constructed melody is either a private joke or a genuine attempt to create some easy listening. The band once described as the new Rage Against The Machine now sound like Athlete. Even the cheesy “oo aw” backing vocals are accepted as the chorus is so good. If there is a problem here it is use of such a well played formula. Does It Offend You Yeah? is based on being different and this just sounds too ordinary. But a good tune is a good tune.

Compared to previous singles like the Daft Punk inspired ‘We Are Rockstars‘ and the ghastly ‘Let‘s Make Out‘, ‘Dawn Of The Dead’ is very atypical Does It Offend You Yeah?. There are no rough edges, no huge swathes of electronic guitars and no horrible vocals or vocoders. The signs were there on ‘Epic Last Song’ but at last we have a proper single from a proper band.

-- CS (for The Music Magazine 2008)


Yes you read the title of this entry correctly. Abba.

The reason for the post is a news story about Telegraph writer Neil McCormick and his recent article about how he hates the pop group. The article is here.

I am not going to defend what he says or defend Abba. I quite like some of their songs. I happen to think that Knowing Me, Knowing You is about as close to a perfect song as anything. No really. What I want to do is defend the right to be a critic. To say what you believe is right. It may not be true as music is purely subjective, and in this case some of the language is very heavy-handed and designed to provoke debate - which it has, rather successfully, but saying he is wrong is wrong in itself. It can't be wrong as it is his opinion. You may not agree but that is life.

What I find tragic about all this is the reaction piece from McCormick himself entitled ABBA It's War! I think he might be confused about the concept of war. I am more worried about that.

The Tragically Hip - They Shoulda Been Huge!

I was asked to write a short piece entitled 'They Shoulda Been Huge!' about a band no one has heard of but are a big deal to me. It was either this or something about a band who are huge and I just don't get called 'I just don't get....' As soon as decided against a negative piece about Kings Of Leon, one band came to mind immediately: The Tragically Hip. Who?, you ask. Exactly. That is the whole point.

Here is what I submitted:
Often described as Canada's best kept secret The Tragically Hip are one of my favourite bands. I joined their fan base when a friend of mine forced me to listen to the 1992 album 'Fully Completely'. Immediately hooked, I went out and bought the album and was surprised to find it only cost me a few pounds. It was the late 1990s and the band had just released a live album 'Live Between Us', capturing their energetic best and playing like a greatest hits. The highlight of this wonderful set is the five and half minute epic 'Nautical Disaster' which is one of the best live songs I have ever heard.

By the time I added 'Trouble At The Henhouse' and 'Day For Night' to my collection, I was completely obsessed with The Tragically Hip. Every song is meticulously crafted and has a story to tell. Lead singer Gorden Downie brings such a passion and energy to the lyrics through his compelling vocals. He is often compared to Michael Stipe (R.E.M.). Guitarists Rob Baker and Paul Langlois are massively underrated and can always be relied upon to deliver; the whole band have a dynamic that shines through in their songs.

Even after the initial massive success of 'Fully Completely' and subsequent albums such as 'Music@Work' and the utterly brilliant 'In Violet Light', The Tragically Hip has never become a world-wide name. Even though they are huge in Canada, they never made it in the US and have more of a following in the UK. It is incredibly frustrating when you hear of a new number one single and you can pick any song from five or six albums that are infinitely better. And hardly anyone has heard them. That is the way the music industry works these days. But as long as these supreme Canadian poets continue to write songs The Tragically Hip will always be one of my favourite bands.
-- CS

Tuesday, 5 August 2008

Red Light Company - Meccano

A review for The Music Magazine.

I while ago I heard of this band when they appeared on 6music. The single 'With Lights Out' caught my attention. So my alarm bells began to ring when I was sent their new single 'Meccano' and I went back to the band's MySpace page.

Here is the review:

Red Light Company are a new five-piece band from London. After enjoying immediate notoriety from debut single 'With Lights Out', gigs including their first Glastonbury festival, as well as featuring on BBC 6Music thanks to Steve Lamacq, the band release a follow-up.

'Meccano' starts as if the band has just launched into a huge guitar solo (something they agreed never to do). It is a soaring intro of big drums and even bigger guitars before the basic structure of the song quickly becomes apparent - androgynous singer Richard Frenneaux croons emotionally and the rest of the band who can sing, call back to him. The chorus is introduced in similar chant-like style. Unlike the wonderfully deep lyrics of previous single 'With Lights Out', this is a lot more open with lines like: "Crying out loud, the weekend is over" and "Stay up, stay up...Listen to your heart". Bands like Lostprophets have been using this formula for years. And this is no bad thing.

Two minutes in and the shouty backing vocals take over completely leading to the threat of a lull but it soon recovers, into a final rousing chorus. So it repeats but why mess with something that is working? The blend of guitars, piano and vocals is effective and Frenneaux has a great voice, both strong and interesting. It all sounds like the band on the verge of greatness. This is the best song inspired by a model construction kit toy you will ever hear as 'Meccano' is almost three minutes of pure pop perfection.
-- CS (for The Music Magazine 2008)

Monday, 4 August 2008

Live From Abbey Road (Show 6, Series 2 - 01/08/2008)

Looking at the line-up for this week's Live From Abbey Road show, I tried to have high hopes. Matchbox Twenty have been off the boil in recent years but are still a great band and Rob Thomas is a great singer. The Script are a new Irish band with an exciting and fresh new sound (trying not to sound like a press release) but the real draw for me this week is Def Leppard, a band I never liked even when I was listening to the likes of Guns 'N' Roses back in the eighties. So I was hoping to be pleasantly surprised.

The set:

Matchbox Twenty
  • How Far We've Come
  • Can't Let You Go
  • Bright Lights / She Came Through The Bathroom Window
The Script
  • We Cry
  • The Man Who Can't Be Moved
Def Leppard
  • Rocket
  • Rock On
  • C'mon C'mon
Sadly (not a great start I know) Matchbox Twenty did not capture the energy of their early musical life, choosing instead to start with How Far We've Come - a decent enough rock anthem. The most interesting bit of this was footage of the band trying to sort out the logistics of the opening which involves an extra drum. The guitarist practised the intro but couldn't switch from sticks to guitar quick enough without either dropping the sticks or missing his cue. This is a shame as it proves that more emphasis is put on a live recording and not a live performance. This is one of my gripes. Anyway Thomas still has amazing vocals which are always better when he is allowed to sing unhindered by guitar or piano. The second song was brought in after an explanation of the band's new song writing dynamic - now as a full band and not just RT as it was on the first couple of albums (their best in my opinion). Can't Let You Go is much slower but again the vocals are great, even if the song is a little dull. The third track was a bit strange. Starting off like a Counting Crows cover with RT on piano, the band felt it necessary to try something different by fusing with a Beatles cover. Ok so it's a cliché but it sort of works. The guitarists take it in turn on lead vocals and then the huge guitar break ending. Not a bad set at all.
The Script were a disappointment. Only two songs which doesn't help. They claim to be from a rough area of Belfast and influenced by empathising with local people but their sound is like a bad boy band doing funk-pop and rap. This is more evident on You Cry than The Man Who Can't Be Moved, the latter being a much better song. They claim that their Celtic Soul tag is more of a modern new Irish sound, more American. Well there are many American bands who go nowhere near rap so that is not a good enough reason. Why do new bands feel a need to justify their sound on something and not just make music? So The Man Who Can't Be Moved is a good performance, if a little laboured to start with, only getting moving after the mid section.

So now...the mighty Def Leppard. Where do I start? Joe Elliott has a very cynical and arrogant view of the current music world, claiming that the 90s killed album bands and only DL survived. Apparently new bands never make it to a third album these days. He also thinks the band are ready to take over from The Rolling Stones and The Who. That makes sense as their impressive back-catalogue is much better than the aforementioned bands. (It helps if you read that last sentence with a heavy amount of sarcasm.) Elliot implies that bands succeeded to three albums based on the music industry of the time. That is both wrong and offensive. They succeeded because they are good bands. So what about the music? They kicked off with Rocket (from the huge Hysteria album) sounding like a cross between a parody of themselves and a bad tribute band. My big problem is that Elliott no longer has any high end vocals so the chorus is terrible. Rock On, from the awful covers album Yeah!, is equally bad but for different reasons. It is just so dull. The Essex version has a unique dark charm that DL cannot deliver. And the set would not be complete without a new song to plug a new album. The wonderfully titled C'mon C'mon is just about the worse song to have ever been played at Abbey Road. Uninspired, outdated and justification that the band should have given up years ago. To put it into perspective, the interview with drummer Rick Allen before the song was the best bit of the whole set. We all know he only has one arm and without being patronising he has adapted brilliantly but we don't need to be constantly reminded. However, his piece about the difference between studio and live performance is genuinely interesting. In the studio he records a separate drum and cymbal track and live he relies upon a custom made electronic drum kit and his hard working legs. A great insight. In contrast it actually made me laugh when Elliott suggested that games such as Guitar Hero are introducing kids to rock music.

So another uninspired show. Matchbox Twenty are ok but then it just drags. Then it gets horrible. Joe Elliot is quoted at the end of the programme: "Let's try and fail rather than wish we'd tried and never bothered". A great sentiment, and with platinum selling albums and some great songs Def Leppard are far from a failure, but I would add: "And also know when it's time to quit". His band is as old fashioned as his draconian views.

The Music Magazine update

The Music Magazine website has had an overhaul. So far only one of my reviews has made it onto the new site: Welcome To Goon Island by XX Teens.

Friday, 1 August 2008

Joseph Arthur - Vagabond Skies EP Review (2008)

Another review for This is one of four EPs from Joseph Arthur. There is no doubt he is an extremely talented musician but his level of output results in a lot of frustration and the occasional gem. Anyway it was an interesting EP to review. I would like to hear the others as I only have a few free mp3s. I will definitely keep one eye open for his new album in September - I hope it is more consistent.

The review:
Very few artists release four EPs on four months but this is the kind of self-promotion and creative process that American musician Joseph Arthur likes. He took a similar approach back in 2002 with the four Junkyard Hearts EPs. So the six track Vagabond Skies EP is the third in the current series. As expected, it is a mixed bag.

Opener 'Slow Me Down' is a fairly standard guitar and voice piece, wonderfully produced and beautifully played. Arthur's vocals are deliciously soft, like Mark Lanegan with all the edges removed. As the song begins to fill out, bringing in more instrumentation and an up-tempo arrangement, it brings out more emotion in his voice. He is matched by distant ghostly choir-like backing vocals. An excellent start.

'Even When Yer Blue' is not great. The vocals are shaky; the guitar work disjointed and persistently loud. Again the same backing choir is used and already feels overworked. Likewise 'Pretty Good Company' changes the vocals yet again, and brings in some electronics. It is all beginning to sound like the result of Marilyn Manson making a folk album. Even the lyrics sound typically bleak: "How can we tell which one of us is sane? My chemical beast turning pleasure into pain. Riddle me this: what the hell's your name?" and so on. Musically it is, at least interesting echoing some of the tricks used on previous EP 'Crazy Rain'.

'She Paints Me Gold' is different yet again, the vocals dreamy and soaked in sunlight and haze. The guitar work is mainly uninspired until about two minutes in when it all goes a bit Chris Isaak and then into a wonderful winding guitar solo. 'Second Sight' is more electronic backing fused with some pleasant guitars. Then it gets noisy and horrible, back to Manson territory. This annoying juxtaposition, coupled with a vacuous drum machine, continues. Closing song 'It's Too Late' is a real surprise. The vocals are back to a sublime mix of normality and luscious falsetto. The chorus is utterly brilliant - subtle and controlled.

Making so much music in a short period of time may stimulate the creative process but what you end up with is lots of haystacks and very few needles. He is in danger of creating a massive catalogue of songs, some of which will appeal and some that will not. And this is the problem. Arthur has way too many ideas, a lack of clear direction and no consistency. Any sentiment gets lost in the mist and nothing reaches out like 'Rages Of Babylon' from 'Could We Survive'. You may like one track but are less enthused by the next, and so on. Maybe he needs a different approach. He could put all his songs onto a digital jukebox, presented in a searchable website so his fans can create and download custom playlists. Then you can just get what you want and ignore the rest.
-- CS (for 2008)